Robert Reich's Blog

The appalling reality is what Trump may get away with

Most of the 74,222,957 Americans who voted to reelect Donald Trump – 46.8 percent of the votes cast in the 2020 presidential election – don't hold Trump accountable for what he's done to America.

Their acceptance of Trump's behavior will be his vilest legacy.

Nearly forty years ago, political scientist James Q. Wilson and criminologist George Kelling observed that a broken window left unattended in a community signals that no one cares if windows are broken there. The broken window is thereby an invitation to throw more stones and break more windows. The message: Do whatever you want here because others have done it and got away with it.

The broken window theory has led to picayune and arbitrary law enforcement in poor communities. But America's most privileged and powerful have been breaking big windows with impunity.

In 2008, Wall Street nearly destroyed the economy. The Street got bailed out while millions of Americans lost their jobs, savings, and homes. Yet no major Wall Street executive ever went to jail.

In more recent years, top executives of Purdue Pharmaceuticals, along with the members of the Sackler family who own it, knew the dangers of OxyContin but did nothing. Executives at Wells Fargo Bank pushed bank employees to defraud customers. Executives at Boeing hid the results of tests showing its 737 Max Jetliner was unsafe. Police chiefs across America looked the other way as police under their command repeatedly killed innocent Black Americans.

Here, too, they've got away with it. These windows remain broken.

Trump has brought impunity to the highest office in the land, wielding a wrecking ball to the most precious windowpane of all – American democracy.

The message? A president can obstruct special counsels' investigations of his wrongdoing, push foreign officials to dig up dirt on political rivals, fire inspectors general who find corruption, order the entire executive branch to refuse congressional subpoenas, flood the Internet with fake information about his opponents, refuse to release his tax returns, accuse the press of being "fake media" and "enemies of the people," and make money off his presidency.

And he can get away with it. Almost half of the electorate will even vote for his reelection.

A president can also lie about the results of an election without a shred of evidence – and yet, according to polls, be believed by the vast majority of those who voted for him.

Trump's recent pardons have broken double-paned windows.

Not only has he shattered the norm for presidential pardons – usually granted because of a petitioner's good conduct after conviction and service of sentence – but he's pardoned people who themselves shattered windows. By pardoning them, he has rendered them unaccountable for their acts.

They include aides convicted of lying to the FBI and threatening potential witnesses in order to protect him; his son-in-law's father, who pleaded guilty to tax evasion, witness tampering, illegal campaign contributions, and lying to the Federal Election Commission; Blackwater security guards convicted of murdering Iraqi civilians, including women and children; Border Patrol agents convicted of assaulting or shooting unarmed suspects; and Republican lawmakers and their aides found guilty of fraud, obstruction of justice and campaign finance violations.

It's not simply the size of the broken window that undermines standards, according to Wilson and Kelling. It's the willingness of society to look the other way. If no one is held accountable, norms collapse.

Trump may face a barrage of lawsuits when he leaves office, possibly including criminal charges. But it's unlikely he'll go to jail. Presidential immunity or a self-pardon will protect him. Prosecutorial discretion would almost certainly argue against indictment, in any event. No former president has ever been convicted of a crime. The mere possibility of a criminal trial for Trump would ignite a partisan brawl across the nation.

Congress may try to limit the power of future presidents – strengthening congressional oversight, fortifying the independence of inspectors general, demanding more financial disclosure, increasing penalties on presidential aides who break laws, restricting the pardon process, and so on.

But Congress – a co-equal branch of government under the Constitution – cannot rein in rogue presidents. And the courts don't want to weigh in on political questions.

The appalling reality is that Trump may get away with it. And in getting away with it he will have changed and degraded the norms governing American presidents. The giant windows he's broken are invitations to a future president to break even more.

Nothing will correct this unless or until an overwhelming majority of Americans recognize and condemn what has occurred.

Robert Reich explains Joe Biden's biggest challenge

"Life is going to return to normal," Joe Biden promised in a recent address to the nation. He was talking about life after Covid, but he might as well have been making a promise about life after Trump.

But a return to "normal" would be disastrous. We can't give in to the allure of "normal" – because normal is what got us here. Normal led to Trump.

It's not an exaggeration to say that the last four years have been traumatic for the nation. After Trump's abuses of power, human rights violations, blatant racism, and maliciously incompetent response to the pandemic, people are understandably exhaling a sigh of relief.

But we can't return to "normal" because "normal" was four decades of stagnant wages and widening inequality when almost all economic gains went to the top.

The Republican Party's core response has been stoking division and hate while suppressing the votes of communities of color. And the Democratic Party abandoned the working class.

Another reason we can't go back to normal is that "normal" led to our staggering Covid death toll and devastating economic fallout that have most brutally harmed lower-income Americans, especially communities of color.

That's because normal in this case has been decades of systemic racism as well as shredded safety nets for everyone in need, the most expensive but least adequate healthcare system in the modern world, and a growing climate catastrophe that's steadily undermining public health.

Unless these trends change, the pandemic and economic crisis America is experiencing will be nothing compared to what's to come. And after Biden, we could have Trumps as far as the eye can see.

The only way to avoid this is to fundamentally change course.

It's a mistake to see this task as placating the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Fighting these systemic problems is not a matter of ideology. It's a matter of morality and common sense.

If we don't address them now, they will be even more destructive in the years to come.

In other words – back-to-normal complacency would be deadly. Joe Biden's great challenge is to restore America to sanity after four years of Trumpian chaos while at the same time offering bold solutions to the crises of our time.

Our task must be to ensure he finds the energy and political will to do so.

Joe Biden’s Biggest Challenge www.youtube.com

Trickle-down economics is a cruel hoax. Here's the practical alternative Biden must adopt

How should the huge financial costs of the pandemic be paid for, as well as the other deferred needs of society after this annus horribilis?

Politicians rarely want to raise taxes on the rich. Joe Biden promised to do so but a closely divided Congress is already balking.

That's because they've bought into one of the most dangerous of all economic ideas: that economic growth requires the rich to become even richer. Rubbish.

Economist John Kenneth Galbraith once dubbed it the "horse and sparrow" theory: "If you feed the horse enough oats, some will pass through to the road for the sparrows."

We know it as trickle-down economics.

In a new study, David Hope of the London School of Economics and Julian Limberg of King's College London lay waste to the theory. They reviewed data over the last half-century in advanced economies and found that tax cuts for the rich widened inequality without having any significant effect on jobs or growth. Nothing trickled down.

Meanwhile, the rich have become far richer. Since the start of the pandemic, just 651 American billionaires have gained $1 trillion of wealth. With this windfall they could send a $3,000 check to every person in America and still be as rich as they were before the pandemic. Don't hold your breath.

Stock markets have been hitting record highs. More initial public stock offerings have been launched this year than in over two decades. A wave of hi-tech IPOs has delivered gushers of money to Silicon Valley investors, founders and employees.

Oh, and tax rates are historically low.

Yet at the same time, more than 20 million Americans are jobless, 8 million have fallen into poverty, 19 million are at risk of eviction and 26 million are going hungry. Mainstream economists are already talking about a "K-shaped" recovery – the better-off reaping most gains while the bottom half continue to slide.

You don't need a doctorate in ethical philosophy to think that now might be a good time to tax and redistribute some of the top's riches to the hard-hit below. The UK is already considering an emergency tax on wealth.

Biden has rejected a wealth tax, but maybe he should be even more ambitious and seek to change economic thinking altogether.

The practical alternative to trickle-down economics might be called build-up economics. Not only should the rich pay for today's devastating crisis but they should also invest in the public's long-term well-being. The rich themselves would benefit from doing so, as would everyone else.

At one time, America's major political parties were on the way to embodying these two theories. Speaking to the Democratic National Convention in 1896, populist William Jennings Bryan noted: "There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that, if you will only legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea, however, has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous, their prosperity will find its way up through every class which rests upon them."

Build-up economics reached its zenith in the decades after the second world war, when the richest Americans paid a marginal income tax rate of between 70% and 90%. That revenue helped fund massive investment in infrastructure, education, health and basic research – creating the largest and most productive middle class the world had ever seen.

But starting in the 1980s, America retreated from public investment. The result is crumbling infrastructure, inadequate schools, wildly dysfunctional healthcare and public health systems and a shrinking core of basic research. Productivity has plummeted.

Yet we know public investment pays off. Studies show an average return on infrastructure investment of $1.92 for every public dollar invested, and a return on early childhood education of between 10% and 16% – with 80% of the benefits going to the general public.

The COVID vaccine reveals the importance of investments in public health, and the pandemic shows how everyone's health affects everyone else's. Yet 37 million Americans still have no health insurance. A study in the Lancet estimates Medicare for All would prevent 68,000 unnecessary deaths each year, while saving money.

If we don't launch something as bold as a Green New Deal, we'll spend trillions coping with ever more damaging hurricanes, wildfires, floods and rising sea levels.

The returns from these and other public investments are huge. The costs of not making them are astronomical.

Trickle-down economics is a cruel hoax. The benefits of build-up economics are real. At this juncture, between a global pandemic and the promise of a post-pandemic world, and between the administrations of Trump and Biden, we would be well-served by changing the economic paradigm from trickle down to build up.


Super-spreader COVID workplaces: Amazon reveals the fatuousness of McConnell's corporate 'liability shield'

As a former Secretary of Labor, I often receive mail from workers with job complaints, who apparently believe I still have some authority. But the email I received a few days ago from a worker at Amazon's Whole Foods delivery warehouse in Industry City, Brooklyn, New York, was particularly distressing.

She said that six of her co-workers had tested positive for COVID since October 22, because "safe social distancing is not only being ignored but discouraged," adding that "when we express our discomfort to management, we are yelled at about filling orders faster, or told that we can take a leave of absence without pay."

She ended by noting "we work for a trillionaire."

Well, not quite. Jeff Bezos is worth $180 billion, making him the richest person in the world. And his corporation, Amazon, which also owns Whole Foods, is among the world's richest corporations.

Bezos has accumulated so much added wealth over the last nine months that he could give every Amazon employee $105,000 and still be as rich as he was before the pandemic.

So you'd think he'd be able to afford safer workplaces. Yet as of October, more than 20,000 U.S.-based Amazon employees had been infected by the virus. That estimate comes from Amazon, by the way. There's been no independent verification, nor has Amazon revealed how many of them have died.

Decades ago, employees in most large corporations could remedy unsafe working conditions by complaining to their union, which pressured their employer to fix the problems, or to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (founded in 1970), which levied fines.

Alternatively, they could embarrass their companies by going public with their complaints. As a last resort, they could sue.

None of these routes is readily available to Amazon warehouse workers – nor, for that matter, to warehouse workers at Walmart, or to most workers in other super-spreader COVID workplaces such as meatpacking plants and nursing homes.

Amazon's workers have no union to protect them. (Throughout its 25-year history, the corporation has aggressively fought union organizing.) Nor, for that matter, do 93.8 percent of America's private-sector workers. Fifty years ago, more than a third were unionized.

And OSHA? Since the start of the pandemic, it's been useless. Although receiving more than 10,000 complaints of unsafe conditions, it has issued just two citations.

Amazon employees who go public with their complaints are likely to lose their jobs. The corporation prohibits its workers from commenting publicly on any aspect of its business, without prior approval from executives. So far during the pandemic, it has fired at least two white-collar employees who publicly denounced conditions at its warehouses, as well as several warehouse workers who raised safety concerns to media outlets.

Amazon isn't alone. A survey conducted in May by the National Employment Law Project showed that 1 in 8 American workers "has perceived possible retaliatory actions by employers against workers in their company who have raised health and safety concerns" about COVID.

The final option is to sue the company, but lawsuits against employers over COVID have been rare because of difficulties proving that the employee contracted the virus at work. A Washington Post analysis found that since the pandemic began, just 234 personal injury or wrongful death lawsuits have been filed due to the virus.

All of which reveals the utter fatuousness of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's and his fellow Senate Republicans' demand that any new COVID relief package must include a corporate "liability shield" against COVID cases.

Even if such lawsuits were successful, corporations already have limited liability. That's what it means to be a corporation. In the unlikely event Amazon were sued and plaintiffs won, Jeff Bezos would remain comfortable.

The heinous resurgence of COVID makes clear that corporations need more – not fewer – incentives to protect their workers from the virus.

As millions of Americans lose whatever meager income they had, they should not have to choose between taking a risky job – such as in an Amazon warehouse – or putting food on their family's table.

Bezos, as well as every major employer in America, can easily afford to protect their workers. And as Mitch McConnell and his fellow Senate Republicans should know, the richest nation in the world can easily afford to provide every American adequate income support during this national emergency.

That they're not doing so is disgraceful.

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