Economy

Columnist explains how Republicans' mistake gives Democrats a 'big opening'

Supporters of a $15-per-hour federal minimum wage suffered a disappointment this week when the U.S. Senate's parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, ruled that the policy cannot remain in the Democratic coronavirus relief package as it is currently written. Washington Post opinion writer Paul Waldman discusses the ramifications of this development in his Thursday column, warning that if Democrats don't find a way to be as bold and aggressive as possible with their agenda, it could hurt them in the 2022 midterms.

"Right now," Waldman explains, "Democrats are tying themselves in knots trying to figure out how to increase the minimum wage — something President Biden ran on, their entire party believes in, and which is overwhelmingly popular with the public…. Yet the Senate parliamentarian has ruled that a straight minimum wage increase can't pass via the reconciliation process — the only way to pass a bill with a simple majority vote — the details of which are incomprehensible, or endlessly maddening, or both."

The real problem, though, isn't the parliamentarian herself so much. Democrats can work around her if they want. The problem is that a few key Democrats — most notably, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia — have explicitly prioritized preserving arcane Senate procedure over action. And he's reluctant to raise the minimum wage to $15, anyway.

Waldman continues, "So, Democrats have to find some kind of fiscal somersault to try to get the minimum wage increase into the COVID relief bill. Maybe they could impose a tax on companies that don't increase their wages, or do something else to satisfy the parliamentarian by cloaking a non-budgetary provision in budgetary clothing."

Expressing his frustration, Waldman points out that Democrats have run into this hurdle in the Senate at a time when Republicans "have seldom looked more feckless." And ideally, he says, Democrats should be showing U.S. voters that they are a party of substantial ideas while Republicans are short on them.

"When we're caught in a pandemic and an economic crisis, only so many people will get worked up about whether a transgender girl is allowed to play softball," Waldman explains.

By focusing on the culture war, he argues, Republicans give Democrats a big opportunity to enact a popular economic agenda — if they're all willing to take it.

"That gives Democrats the chance to move forward confidently with their agenda, an agenda that is enormously popular," he said. "Yet some in the party are still in the grip of the insane belief that it's more important to retain a Senate procedure whose purpose is to thwart progress than to pass laws that solve problems."

The Senate procedure that Waldman is referring to is the filibuster, which the columnist fears could hurt Democrats' legislative agenda and cost them control of the U.S. Houses of Representatives and/or the U.S. Senate next year.

"The first weeks of the Biden presidency show the path Democrats can take: Push forward with the popular and consequential parts of your agenda, don't be distracted by bleating from Republicans, act as though the public is behind you — because it is — and you might find that the Republican opposition machine isn't as potent as it used to be," Waldman writes. "But none of that will be possible unless Democrats can deliver on their promises. If they let themselves be handcuffed by the filibuster, the Biden presidency will fail — and Republicans will take control of Congress."

Bernie Sanders's push for a $15 minimum wage stalled — but he has a plan B

The chair of the Senate Budget Committee on Thursday revealed a plan to boost wages after an effort to raise the minimum wage to $15 in the COVID stimulus bill was blocked by Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough.

Following the ruling, Budget Chair Bernie Sanders (I-VT) released a statement.

"I strongly disagree with tonight's decision by the Senate Parliamentarian. The CBO made it absolutely clear that raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour had a substantial budgetary impact and should be allowed under reconciliation. It is hard for me to understand how drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was considered to be consistent with the Byrd Rule, while increasing the minimum wage is not," Sanders wrote. "60 percent of the American people want to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour."

"I'm confident that we have a majority in the United States Senate including the Vice President that would vote to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour as part of President Biden's American Rescue Plan. Yet because of the archaic and undemocratic rules of the Senate we are unable to move forward to end starvation wages in this country and raise the income of 32 million struggling Americans," he wrote.

'There's no excuse for this': The crisis in Texas was a warning of the larger threat looming over America

Patricia McDonald layered on sweaters, socks and mittens and huddled under blankets for 15 hours as the temperature in her Duncanville, Texas, home plunged to 42 degrees in the wake of Winter Storm Uri.

Well after the water in her kitchen froze, McDonald decided she'd had enough and braved a hair-raising ride over snow-covered, ice-slicked roads to get to her daughter's house several miles away.

The Dallas County probation officer was safe and warm there. However, McDonald couldn't establish the computer connection she needed to check in with colleagues, and she worried about clients who had had fewer resources than she did for surviving the state's massive power failure.

This isn't merely a Texas problem. Failing infrastructure—from pothole-scarred roads and run-down bridges to aging utility lines and dilapidated water systems—poses just as big a threat to the rest of the country.

Without a bold rebuilding campaign, Americans will continue to risk their well-being and livelihoods as the nation collapses around them.

McDonald, financial secretary for United Steelworkers (USW) Local 9487, which represents hundreds of city and county workers in Dallas, grew increasingly angry knowing that it took just several inches of snow and frigid temperatures to knock out the Texas power grid and paralyze the state.

Some Texans, confronted with days-long power outages, slept in idling motor coaches that officials turned into makeshift warming centers or drove around seeking hotel rooms that still had light and heat.

Others hunkered down at home, melting snow to flush toilets after frozen pipes burst or heating rooms with generators and charcoal grills despite the danger of carbon monoxide poisoning. A handful of people froze to death, including an 11-year-old boy found lifeless in his bed.

But even as McDonald and other Texans waited for power to be restored, police and firefighters in Philadelphia used rafts to rescue at least 11 people trapped by a torrent of water after a 48-inch main ruptured in the city's Nicetown neighborhood.

On February 5, a utility worker in Oldsmar, Florida, averted disaster when he noticed that a hacker had taken over his computer and increased the amount of lye in the drinking water supply to dangerous levels. The security breach provided a chilling reminder that financially struggling water systems not only contend with lead-tainted pipes and failing dams but also with vulnerable computer systems that require urgent improvements.

America cannot move forward if it continues falling apart. That's why the USW and other labor unions are championing a historic infrastructure program that will modernize the country, improve the nation's competitiveness and create millions of jobs while simultaneously enhancing public safety.

"There needs to be change," said McDonald, one of the millions affected by the blackouts that utilities hurriedly imposed because surging demand and equipment failures put the whole power grid "seconds and minutes away" from a catastrophic failure that could have left the state without electricity for months.

A major infrastructure investment, such as the one President Joe Biden envisioned in his Build Back Better plan, will create jobs not only for the workers who build roads and bridges but also for the Americans who manufacture aluminum, cement, fiberglass, steel and other items essential for construction projects.

Stronger, more resilient infrastructure will help America weather the ever more frequent, increasingly severe storms associated with climate change. That means not only upgrading power grids but also encasing utility poles in concrete or relocating power lines underground. It also requires strengthening coastal barriers to guard against the growing hurricane damage that Texas and other states face.

Expanding broadband and rebuilding schools will ensure that children across the country have equitable access to educational opportunities. Investments in manufacturing facilities will enable the nation to rebuild production capacity decimated by decades of offshoring.

And an infrastructure campaign will ensure local officials have the resources they need to manage growth, such as the huge expansion underway at the Electric Boat submarine shipyard in Groton, Connecticut.

Kevin Ziolkovski welcomes the business that the shipyard brings to his community. But Ziolkovski, who represents dozens of Groton Utilities workers as unit president of USW Local 9411-00, said it makes no sense for the federal government to continue awarding bigger contracts to Electric Boat without providing sufficient funds for related infrastructure.

Ziolkovski says Groton Utilities needs $3.5 million more just to construct a new water tank for the shipyard, one of its biggest customers. He also knows that Groton and other towns need funds to upgrade roads, sewerage systems, public transit and recreational amenities to accommodate the expected influx of workers and their families.

"If you want to see these multibillion-dollar nuclear submarines get built for the defense of the entire nation, you should support everything that goes into that, too," said Ziolkovski, who sees a national infrastructure program as one solution and developed a briefing book on local infrastructure needs for Connecticut's congressional delegation.

McDonald, who returned to her home after three days to find the power back on but her neighborhood under a boil-water advisory, knows that other communities will suffer unless the nation embraces a rebuilding program.

It pains her to know that America fell into such disrepair that it cannot provide basic services, like power and safe roads, at the very time people need them most.

"There's no excuse for this," she said.

Tom Conway is the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW).

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

Here's what's missing in the debate about the minimum wage

The federal minimum wage is in the news, for the most part because United States Senator Bernie Sanders refuses to drop the subject. That's a good thing, I think, but I want to suggest that we're not talking about it in the way we ought to. The debate is unfolding in terms of economics. The debate should be unfolding in terms of freedom.

The framing should be familiar by now, because it's the same framing of the debate we have seen for decades. On the one hand are those who say raising the federal minimum wage, which is now $7.50 an hour, encumbers businesses. Anything encumbering businesses encumbers workers. Ergo, raising the wage is bad for everyone. Don't do it.

On the other hand are those who say raising the minimum wage does not encumber businesses. The more that's in workers' pockets, the more they spend, which increases demand for the goods and services that businesses sell, which in turn increases the demand for labor and so on. Ergo, raising the wage is good for everyone. Just do it.

This is an economic framing of the debate that allows each side to dig in. Businesses, especially the big multinationals like McDonald's, do not want to pay more for labor, and will find any and every economist with a libertarian soul to argue against it. Workers, primarily those represented by service-sector unions, want more money for their labor and will find any and every economist with a working-class soul to argue for it. The arguments from an outsider's perspective are equally good or equally bad, depending, and so each side sees no reason to stop with trench warfare ad nauseam.

Before I go on, let's be clear about the federal minimum wage. It's federal, obviously. States are free to set their own base rates. Cities are free to do the same, as long as state governments allow it. Second, most "unskilled workers" earn more as a result of this patchwork. Third, most people do not care about the economics of the federal minimum wage, because most workers earn more. To the extent that they do care out of preference for the business side or preference for the labor side, it's usually within the economic framing I describe above, which is to say, it's never really resolved.

To break the cycle, and perhaps resolve this debate, I suggest reframing it in terms of freedom—economic freedom as well as political freedom. Economic freedom might sound strange given that that's the status quo, or so we are told. But the status quo is not grounded in economic freedom. It's grounded in established business interests that do not want to compete with each other more than necessary and therefore pay more per hour. The status quo is now grounded in a monopolistic tendency toward paralysis, not freedom. Keeping the minimum wage low, one might argue, is a kind of indirect subsidy of anemic firms that would otherwise go out of business if they had to pay more. Raising the minimum wage, one might argue, is kind of like thinning the herd, allowing stronger firms to proliferate, grow and pay higher hourly wages.

As for political freedom, I have in mind the systemic acceptance of falsehoods preventing people from expressing views and making demands of those in positions of power, whether they are business leaders against raising the minimum wage or elected officials who must weigh the cost-benefit of opposing or supporting its increase. One glaring falsehood, with respect to the federal minimum wage, is "unskilled labor." If a job does not require skills, the current thinking goes, firms aren't obligated to pay more than the minimum. Here's the plain truth: there is no such thing as unskilled labor.

Every job requires learning. Every worker, as a consequence of learning how to do her job, develops skills. Skills have value. Yet nearly every one of us accepts this falsehood as true, thus preemptively surrendering the power to make demands. Worse, outside observers accept it and therefore do not apply pressure to elected officials who, on account of their own acceptance, are complicit in robbing people of wages and freedom. When someone asks, "Why pay teenagers more money for working at McDonald's?" the answer should not be in accordance with falsehoods putting us all in cages. It should be, "We don't rob people of their freedom in these United States."

For all the good he's done keeping our focus on raising the minimum wage, the lone "democratic socialist" in the United States Senate, Bernie Sanders, still talks about it as if he can't quite escape the economic framing conservatives established a long time ago. To be sure, he talks about fairness. He talks about decency. But Sanders seems to me more interested in bringing justice to the oppressors (McDonald's, say) than he is bringing freedom to the people. I'd like the minimum wage debate to be about that.

A new cold war risks a boiling planet

Slowing the pace of climate change and getting "tough" on China, especially over its human-rights abuses and unfair trade practices, are among the top priorities President Biden has announced for his new administration. Evidently, he believes that he can tame a rising China with harsh pressure tactics, while still gaining its cooperation in areas of concern to Washington. As he wrote in Foreign Affairs during the presidential election campaign, "The most effective way to meet that challenge is to build a united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China's abusive behaviors and human rights violations, even as we seek to cooperate with Beijing on issues where our interests converge, such as climate change." If, however, our new president truly believes that he can build an international coalition to gang up on China and secure Beijing's cooperation on climate change, he's seriously deluded. Indeed, though he could succeed in provoking a new cold war, he won't prevent the planet from heating up unbearably in the process.

Biden is certainly aware of the dangers of global warming. In that same Foreign Affairs article, he labeled it nothing short of an "existential threat," one that imperils the survival of human civilization. Acknowledging the importance of relying on scientific expertise (unlike our previous president who repeatedly invented his own version of scientific reality), Biden affirmed the conclusion of the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that warming must be limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels or there will be hell to pay. He then pledged to "rejoin the Paris climate agreement on day one of a Biden administration," which he indeed did, and to "make massive, urgent investments at home that put the United States on track to have a clean energy economy with net-zero [greenhouse gas] emissions by 2050" — the target set by the IPCC.

Even such dramatic actions, he indicated, will not be sufficient. Other countries will have to join America in moving toward a global "net-zero" state in which any carbon emissions would be compensated for by equivalent carbon removals. "Because the United States creates only 15 percent of global emissions," he wrote, "I will leverage our economic and moral authority to push the world to determined action, rallying nations to raise their ambitions and push progress further and faster."

China, the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases right now (although the U.S. remains number one historically), would obviously be Washington's natural partner in this effort. Here, though, Biden's antagonistic stance toward that country is likely to prove a significant impediment. Rather than prioritize collaboration with China on climate action, he chose to castigate Beijing for its continued reliance on coal. The Biden climate plan, he wrote in Foreign Affairs, "includes insisting that China… stop subsidizing coal exports and outsourcing pollution to other countries by financing billions of dollars' worth of dirty fossil-fuel energy projects through its Belt and Road Initiative." Then he went further by portraying the future effort to achieve a green economy as a potentially competitive, not collaborative, struggle with China, saying,

"I will make investment in research and development a cornerstone of my presidency, so that the United States is leading the charge in innovation. There is no reason we should be falling behind China or anyone else when it comes to clean energy."

Unfortunately, though he's not wrong on China's climate change challenges (similar, in many respects, to our own country's), you can't have it both ways. If climate change is an existential threat and international collaboration between the worst greenhouse gas emitters key to overcoming that peril, picking fights with China over its energy behavior is a self-defeating way to start. Whatever obstacles China does pose, its cooperation in achieving that 1.5-degree limit is critical. "If we don't get this right, nothing else will matter," Biden said of global efforts to deal with climate change. Sadly, his insistence on pummeling China on so many fronts (and appointing China hawks to his foreign policy team to do so) will ensure that he gets it wrong. The only way to avert catastrophic climate change is for the United States to avoid a new cold war with China by devising a cooperative set of plans with Beijing to speed the global transition to a green economy.

Why Cooperation Is Essential

With such cooperation in mind, let's review the basics on how those two countries affect world energy consumption and global carbon emissions: the United States and China are the world's two leading consumers of energy and its two main emitters of carbon dioxide, or CO2, the leading greenhouse gas. As a result, they exert an outsized influence on the global climate equation. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), China accounted for approximately 22% of world energy consumption in 2018; the U.S., 16%. And because both countries rely so heavily on fossil fuels for energy generation — China largely on coal, the U.S. more on oil and natural gas — their carbon-dioxide emissions account for an even larger share of the global total: China alone, nearly 29% in 2018; the U.S., 18%; and combined, an astonishing 46%.

It's what will happen in the future, though, that really matters. If the world is to keep global temperatures from rising above that 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold, every major economy should soon be on a downward-trending trajectory in terms of both fossil-fuel consumption and CO2 emissions (along with a compensating increase in renewable energy output). Horrifyingly enough, however, on their current trajectories, over the next two decades the combined fossil-fuel consumption and carbon emissions of China and the United States are still expected to rise, not fall, before stabilizing in the 2040s at a level far above net zero. According to the IEA, if the two countries stick to anything like their current courses, their combined fossil-fuel consumption would be approximately 17% higher in 2040 than in 2018, even if their CO2 emissions would rise by "only" 3%. Any increase of that kind over the next two decades would spell one simple word for humanity: D-O-O-M.

True, both countries are expected to substantially increase their investment in renewable energy during the next 20 years, even as places like India are expected to account for an ever-increasing share of global energy use and CO2 emissions. Still, as long as Beijing and Washington continue to lead the world in both categories, any effort to achieve net-zero and avert an almost unimaginable climate cataclysm will have to fall largely on their shoulders. This would, however, require a colossal reduction in fossil-fuel consumption and the ramping up of renewables on a scale unlike any engineering project this planet has ever seen.

The Institute of Climate Change and Sustainable Development at Tsinghua University, an influential Chinese think tank, has calculated what might be involved in reshaping China's coal-dependent electrical power system to reach the goal of a 1.5-degree limit on global warming. Its researchers believe that, over the next three decades, this would require adding the equivalent of three times current global wind power capacity and four times that of solar power at the cost of approximately $20 trillion.

A similar transformation will be required in the United States, although with some differences: while this country relies far less on coal than China to generate electricity, it relies more on natural gas (a less potent emitter of CO2, but a fossil fuel nonetheless) and its electrical grid — as recent events in Texas have demonstrated — is woefully unprepared for climate change and will have to be substantially rebuilt at enormous cost.

And that represents only part of what needs to be done to avert planetary catastrophe. To eliminate carbon emissions from oil-powered vehicles, both countries will have to replace their entire fleets of cars, vans, trucks, and buses with electric-powered ones and develop alternative fuels for their trains, planes, and ships — an undertaking of equal magnitude and expense.

There are two ways all of this can be done: separately or together. Each country could devise its own blueprint for such a transition, developing its own green technologies and seeking financing wherever it could be found. As in the fight over fifth generation (5G) telecommunications, each could deny scientific knowledge and technical know-how to its rival and insist that allies buy only its equipment, whether or not it best suits their purposes — a stance taken by the Trump administration with respect to the Chinese company Huawei's 5G wireless technology. Alternatively, the U.S. and China could cooperate in developing green technologies, share information and know-how, and work together in disseminating them around the world.

On the question of which approach is more likely to achieve success, the answer is too obvious to belabor. Only those prepared to risk civilization's survival would choose the former — and yet that's the choice that both sides may indeed make.

Why a New Cold War Precludes Climate Salvation

Those in Washington who favor a tougher approach toward China and the bolstering of U.S. military forces in the Pacific claim that, under President Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist regime has become more authoritarian at home and more aggressive abroad, endangering key U.S. allies in the Pacific and threatening our vital interests. Certainly, when it comes to the increasing repression of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang Province or pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, there can be little doubt of Beijing's perfidy, though on other issues, there's room for debate. On another subject, though, there really should be no room for debate at all: the impact of a new cold war between the planet's two great powers on the chances for a successful global response to a rapidly warming planet.

There are several obvious reasons for this. First, increased hostility will ensure a competitive rather than collaborative search for vital solutions, resulting in wasted resources, inadequate financing, duplicative research, and the stalled international dissemination of advanced green technologies. A hint of such a future lies in the competitive rather than collaborative development of vaccines for Covid-19 and their distressingly chaotic distribution to Africa and the rest of the developing world, ensuring that the pandemic will have a life into 2022 or 2023 with an ever-rising death toll.

Second, a new cold war will make international diplomacy more difficult when it comes to ensuring worldwide compliance with the Paris climate agreement. Consider it a key lesson for the future that cooperation between President Barack Obama and Xi Jinping made the agreement possible in the first place, creating pressure on reluctant but vital powers like India and Russia to join as well. Once President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the agreement, that space evaporated and global adherence withered. Only by recreating such a U.S.-China climate alliance will it be possible to corral other key players into full compliance. As suggested recently by Todd Stern, the lead American negotiator at the 2015 Paris climate summit, "There is simply no way to contain climate change worldwide without full-throttle engagement by both countries."

A cold war environment would make such cooperation a fantasy.

Third, such an atmosphere would ensure a massive increase in military expenditures on both sides, sopping up funds needed for the transition to a green-energy economy. In addition, as the pace of militarization accelerated, fossil-fuel use would undoubtedly increase, as the governments of both countries favored the mass production of gas-guzzling tanks, bombers, and warships.

Finally, there is no reason to assume a cold war will always remain cold. The current standoff between the U.S. and China in the Pacific is different from the one that existed between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in Europe during the historic Cold War. There is no longer anything like an "Iron Curtain" to define the boundaries between the two sides or keep their military forces from colliding with each another. While the risk of war in Europe was ever-present back then, each side knew that such a boundary-crossing assault might trigger a nuclear exchange and so prove suicidal. Today, however, the air and naval forces of China and the U.S. are constantly intermingling in the East and South China Seas, making a clash or collision possible at any time. So far, cooler heads have prevailed, preventing such encounters from sparking armed violence, but as tensions mount, a hot war between the U.S. and China cannot be ruled out.

Because American forces are poised to strike at vital targets on the Chinese mainland, it's impossible to preclude China's use of nuclear weapons or, if preparations for such use are detected, a preemptive U.S. nuclear strike. Any full-scale thermonuclear conflagration resulting from that would probably cause a nuclear winter and the death of billions of people, making the climate-change peril moot. But even if nuclear weapons are not employed, a war between the two powers could result in immense destruction in China's industrial heartland and to such key U.S. allies as Japan and South Korea. Fires ignited in the course of battle would, of course, add additional carbon to the atmosphere, while the subsequent breakdown in global economic activity would postpone by years any transition to a green economy.

An Alliance for Global Survival

If Joe Biden genuinely believes that climate change is an "existential threat" and that the United States "must lead the world," it's crucial that he stop the slide toward a new cold war with China and start working with Beijing to speed the transition to a green-energy economy focused on ensuring global compliance with the Paris climate agreement. This would not necessarily mean abandoning all efforts to pressure China on human rights and other contentious issues. It's possible to pursue human rights, trade equity, and planetary survival at the same time. Indeed, as both countries come to share the urgency of addressing the climate crisis, progress on other issues could become easier.

Assuming Biden truly means what he says about overcoming the climate threat and "getting it right," here are some of the steps he could take to achieve meaningful progress:

* Schedule a "climate summit" with Xi Jinping as soon as possible to discuss joint efforts to overcome global warming, including the initiation of bilateral programs to speed advances in areas like the spread of electric vehicles, the improvement of battery-storage capabilities, the creation of enhanced methods of carbon sequestration, and the development of alternative aviation fuels.

* At the conclusion of the summit, joint working groups on these and other matters should be established, made up of senior figures from both sides. Research centers and universities in each country should be designated as lead actors in key areas, with arrangements made for cooperative partnerships and the sharing of climate-related technical data.

* At the same time, presidents Biden and Xi should announce the establishment of an "Alliance for Global Survival," intended to mobilize international support for the Paris climate agreement and strict adherence to its tenets. As part of this effort, the two leaders should plan joint meetings with other world leaders to persuade them to replicate the measures that Biden and Xi have agreed to work on cooperatively. As needed, they could offer to provide financial aid and technical assistance to poorer states to launch the necessary energy transition.

* Presidents Biden and Xi should agree to reconvene annually to review progress in all these areas and designate surrogates to meet on a more regular basis. Both countries should publish an online "dashboard" exhibiting progress in every key area of climate mitigation.

So, Joe, if you really meant what you said about overcoming climate change, these are some of the things you should focus on to get it right. Choose this path and guarantee us all a fighting chance to avert civilizational collapse. Opt for the path of confrontation instead — the one your administration already appears headed down — and that hope is likely to disappear into an unbearable world of burning, flooding, famine, and extreme storms until the end of time. After all, without remarkable effort, a simple formula will rule all our lives: a new cold war = a scalding planet.

Copyright 2021 Michael T. Klare

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Michael T. Klare, a TomDispatch regular, is the five-college professor emeritus of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and a senior visiting fellow at the Arms Control Association. He is the author of 15 books, the latest of which is All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon's Perspective on Climate Change.

This Republican senator accidentally made a great case for raising the minimum wage

A story of the $6 wage he earned working in a restaurant as a kid blew up in the face of Sen. John Thune overnight after economic justice advocates pointed out that the powerful Republican's personal anecdote only goes to show that, adjusted for inflation, that seemingly low wage would now be somewhere north of $24 an hour—helping solidify the case that increasing the minimum wage to $15 by 2025 is the very least Congress should be doing.

"I started working by bussing tables at the Star Family Restaurant for $1/hour and slowly moved up to cook—the big leagues for a kid like me—to earn $6/hour," Thune, who represents South Dakota and is the second-most powerful Republican in the Senate, tweeted Wednesday night. "Businesses in small towns survive on narrow margins. Mandating a $15 minimum wage would put many of them out of business."

Several progressive critics quickly pointed out that, depending on the exact year when Thune, born in 1961, started earning $6 an hour, the seemingly modest wage he pulled in as a teenager would be equivalent to roughly $25 today.

A number of commentators noted that a senator's staff could easily verify the current worth of wages from the 1970s by using the CPI Inflation Calculator, raising questions about why they didn't.

Journalist Matt Novak suggested that Thune and other opponents of minimum wage hikes are well-aware of inflationary pressure on earnings and cost of living. "They just don't think people who make their food and clean their bathrooms deserve the same things they got," argued Novak.

While Republicans have based their opposition to raising wages on the notion that it would negatively affect small businesses, progressive Democrats such as Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) have argued that "we don't want low-wage businesses."

"I think most successful small businesses can pay a fair wage," said Khanna. "I don't want small businesses that are underpaying employees."

Thune wasn't the only GOP lawmaker who failed to acknowledge inflation when objecting to raising the wage floor to $15 per hour. Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) based his argument against increasing the minimum wage on the fact that his job in the late 1970s and early 1980s paid for his entire college tuition.

"When he graduated from Kansas State University," journalist Timothy Burke tweeted, "tuition was $898/year. It is now $10,000/year. The minimum wage was $3.35. It's now $7.25."

New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie provided the inflation-adjusted figures: "His tuition was $3,600/year and the minimum wage was $13.44 an hour."

In another tweet denouncing Thune, Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, an epidemiologist and Medicare for All advocate, drew attention to the fact that Thune "didn't have to keep bussing tables and raise your kids on that wage."

"When you were young," El-Sayed continued, "your elected officials hadn't spent the last 30 years peddling tired 'hard work' arguments just to give handouts to corporations, bust unions, and automate and offshore jobs."

Former labor secretary Robert Reich noted that Thune's comments provided an important lesson about the necessity of ensuring that minimum wage increases are tied to changes in the cost of living.

"Let's raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour," Reich said, "and then peg it to inflation."

Social Security chief canceled telework for staff but refused to return to the office himself

Social Security Administration Commissioner Andrew Saul caused quite an uproar when he announced a new policy that included the cancelation of the agency's work-from-home pilot program. However, the problem lies in the hypocrisy of Saul's request. Although he made in-office attendance mandatory for workers, he failed to adhere to that requirement.

In fact, even before the work-from-home pilot program, Saul reportedly did not work in the agency's main office in Baltimore, Md. According to Huff Post, Ralph de Juliis, president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Council 220 which represents field office and call center employees within the agency, offered details about de Juliis' whereabouts when he is not in the office.

"We were told he's spending his time in New York because that's where he's from," de Juliis said. The AFGE president also noted that "agency workers could see that Saul wasn't logging into his Skype account, either, which employees and managers use for internal communication at the agency."

As of January 2020, agency workers noticed Saul's Skype account had been inactive for more than two months. While the coronavirus pandemic ultimately led to the reversal of Saul's policy, de Juliis is concerned about the possibility of the work-from-home policy being reversed as the virus subsides.

The latest calls for Saul to be replaced come more than a year after he released the controversial statement. At the time, Saul released a statement about the cancelation as he attempted to justify his decision.

"During a time of more constrained resources, the agency closed field offices early on Wednesdays. We are ending that practice to provide you with additional access to our services," Saul wrote. "We are also ending a telework pilot, which was implemented without necessary controls or data collection to evaluate effectiveness or impact on public service."

Saul added, "I support work-life balance for SSA employees consistent with meeting our first obligation: to serve the public. A time of workload crisis is not the time to experiment with working at home, especially for the more than 40,000 employees who staff our public-facing offices."

Although Saul's current term is not set to expire until 2025, de Juliis believes President Joe Biden should consider replacements for the agency. De Juliis said, "We really think Biden should find new people to run the Social Security Administration, who haven't made it a point to be bad and horrible to employees and the union."

Democrats risk making a big mistake that could cost millions of Americans dearly

The House is expected to pass the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill by the end of the week, packed with things to help the nation recover from this pandemic, both literally with a massive vaccine plan and economically with financial support in the form of $1,400 survival checks, larger child tax credits paid monthly, more food assistance, and bumped up enhanced unemployment insurance (UI). But there's something absolutely critical that they've left out related to those unemployment benefits: tax relief for people who've spent the last year out of work and relying on UI to live. That assistance is taxable. According to the IRS, "Taxable benefits include any of the special unemployment compensation authorized under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, enacted this spring."

Many probably weren't aware that they needed to have taxes withheld or make quarterly payments to avoid a penalty, or if they were aware, they decided they needed the benefits more. Trying to plan for this pandemic while not knowing how soon it would end and how soon everyone would get back to work has been impossible—the lack of leadership and clarity from the federal government in the last administration made it so. States are required to let applicants know that UI is taxable and are supposed to offer the option for the benefits offered through CARES Act programs, but not all did, according to a report from The Century Foundation. Congress and the Biden administration have to act now, in this relief bill, to prevent these surprise tax bills.

There were more than 18 million people unemployed and getting UI at the end of 2020, and an additional 5 million who exhausted their benefits before the end of the year. The Century Foundation argues that "there's a strong legal argument that, according to current law these benefit payments should never have been taxed in the first place," and their evidence is pretty damn compelling. "The Tax Code already excludes from income any payment from any 'Federal, State, or local government ... in connection with a qualified disaster in order to promote the general welfare.'" This pandemic has been declared a qualifying disaster and the benefits coming from federal and state governments are clearly the qualified source under the code.

There's legislation from Rep. Cindy Axne and Sen. Dick Durbin, both Democrats, that would exempt the first $10,200 of unemployment benefits in 2020 from taxation. The standard deduction of $12,400 for individuals and $24,800 for couple filing jointly would cover any additional tax liability, protecting people from getting these bills. The American Prospect's David Dayen talked to Axne about the legislation. "We have so many Americans that were on unemployment insurance last year. … I can't imagine the feeling that must give, to get a bill and not be able to pay for it." Dayen points out that Congress did this in the 2009 stimulus package, so it's not an unprecedented action. It could easily—and should—be included in the American Rescue Plan.

The Century Foundation estimates that "that fewer than 40 percent of UI payments in 2020 had taxes withheld," which means "there will be millions of families burdened by federal income tax bills." Those families are the most needy as well. The Census Household Pulse Survey found that around half the people who got UI between March and November of last year made less than $50,000 in 2019. "Due to their over-representation in the hardest hit sectors, stubborn levels of unemployment, and lengthy jobless spells, low-wage workers and workers of color are likely to have received high levels of unemployment insurance income." The legislation already recognizes that this is the population requiring the most economic relief, so it would be counterproductive to then stick these people with a tax bill. That might also have to come with additional funding to the IRS to implement the new policy and communicate the change to taxpayers. It would also have to deal with making adjustments and possible refunds to 2020 returns already filed, and would need the lead time and the resources to get that done.

The other alternative is administrative. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen as the authority to direct the IRS to exempt UI from taxable income for 2020. The last administration had the option as well but decided to tax the benefits anyway, because the only tax breaks the Trump administration was interested in were those going to the very wealthy. It would be the humane—and smart—thing to do for the Biden administration.

It would also make the whole process simpler for Senate Democrats. The House has so far left it out of the package. Under the arcane budget reconciliation rules, Senate Democrats on the Finance Committee would have to find a way to cut some of the funding in its part of the bill as the UI tax is under its jurisdiction, to come up with the estimated $50 billion it would cost to lift this tax burden. But that would be $50 billion not going somewhere else it's needed, like to state, local, or tribal governments.

Yellen making the decision is the clearest, simplest way to do this, and it should be a no-brainer for Biden and for Democrats. A lot of good will and great press created by the economic boost people are going to get could quickly dissipate when the tax bill stories start hitting televisions. Those $1,400 survival checks will look particularly anemic if they're all swallowed up by the IRS.

Paul Krugman explains how Texas exposed the dark side of 'free-market fundamentalism'

The deregulation of Texas' energy market has been a badge of honor among Lone Star Republicans, but with millions of Texans having recently found themselves without electricity, heat and running water during freezing temperatures and blackouts, many liberals are aggressively questioning the wisdom of that deregulation. One of them is economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who slams the "Texas power debacle" as a tragic example of why deregulating the energy market in the way that Republicans did in Texas is a terrible idea.

"The collapse of the Texas power grid didn't just reveal a few shortcomings — it showed that the entire philosophy behind the state's energy policy is wrong," Krugman writes. "And it also showed that the state is run by people who will resort to blatant lies rather than admit their mistakes."

Krugman adds that although Texas "isn't the only state with a largely deregulated electricity market," it has "pushed deregulation further than anyone else."

"There is an upper limit on wholesale electricity prices, but it's stratospherically high," Krugman explains. "And there is essentially no prudential regulation — no requirements that utilities maintain reserve capacity or invest in things like insulation to limit the effects of extreme weather."

To make matters worse, some Texans have been slammed with sky-high energy bills — which, Krugman stresses, shows that electricity should not be regulated the way avocados are regulated.

"Texas energy policy was based on the idea that you can treat electricity like avocados," Krugman observes. "Do people remember the great avocado shortage of 2019? Surging demand and a bad crop in California led to spiking prices, (and) nobody called for a special inquest and new regulations on avocado producers….. But kilowatt-hours aren't avocados…. Having to go without avocado toast won't kill you; having to go without electricity, especially when your house relies on it for heat, can."

Krugman notes how high some recent energy bills have been in Texas. For example, the New York Times reported that Scott Willoughby, who lives in a Dallas suburb, received an electric bill for $16,752.

"At first, those Texans who didn't lose power in the big freeze considered themselves lucky," Krugman notes. "But then the bills arrived — and some families found themselves being charged thousands of dollars for a few days of electricity. Many families probably can't afford to pay those bills; so, we're potentially looking at a wave of personal bankruptcies. And even those who don't face ruin are, predictably, outraged."

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and other Republicans have been insisting that deregulation of Texas' energy market is great for consumers, but reporting by journalists Tom McGinty and Scott Patterson in the Wall Street Journal this week says otherwise. According to McGinty and Patterson, Texans "have paid more for electricity than state residents who are served by traditional utilities, a Wall Street Journal analysis has found."

"Nearly 20 years ago, Texas shifted from using full-service regulated utilities to generate power and deliver it to consumers," McGinty and Patterson report. "The state deregulated power generation, creating the system that failed last week. And it required nearly 60% of consumers to buy their electricity from one of many retail power companies, rather than a local utility. Those deregulated Texas residential consumers paid $28 billion more for their power since 2004 than they would have paid at the rates charged to the customers of the state's traditional utilities, according to the Journal's analysis of data from the federal Energy Information Administration."

McGinty and Patterson explain why electric bills suddenly and dramatically soared during Texas' cold snap in a way that they wouldn't with a strictly regulated public utility.

"Now that power has largely been restored, attention has turned to retail electric companies — a few of which are hitting consumers with steep bills," the WSJ journalists report. "Power prices surged to the market price cap of $9,000 a megawatt hour for several days during the crisis, a feature of the state's system designed to incentivize power plants to supply more juice. Some consumers who chose variable rate power plans from retail power companies are seeing the big bills."

Abbott, Fox News' Tucker Carlson and others on the far right have been falsely blaming green energy for Texas' energy woes, but Krugman, in his column, slams that claim as a "big lie" — arguing that "something like a Green New Deal, that is, public investment in energy infrastructure, is exactly what Texas needs." And he wraps up his column by emphasizing that deregulated energy is not serving Texas well.

"While the right-wing political-media complex can't and won't learn anything from the Texas power debacle, the rest of us can," Krugman explains. "We've just been offered a clear view of the dark — and cold — side of free-market fundamentalism. And that's a lesson we shouldn't forget."

Why Bernie Sanders took a stand against a Biden nominee

Sen. Bernie Sanders on Tuesday was the lone progressive to vote against Tom Vilsack reprising his role as secretary of agriculture, citing concerns that progressive advocacy groups have been raising since even before President Joe Biden officially nominated the former Obama administration appointee.

The Senate voted 92-7 to confirm Vilsack, with Sanders (I-Vt.) and six Republicans opposing his appointment. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) was the only member who did not vote.

In a statement on his decision, Sanders first said that "I have known Tom Vilsack for many years and look forward to working with him as our new secretary of agriculture."

"I opposed his confirmation today because at a time when corporate consolidation of agriculture is rampant and family farms are being decimated, we need a secretary who is prepared to vigorously take on corporate power in the industry," Sanders explained. "I heard from many family farmers in Vermont and around the country who feel that is not what Tom did when he last served in this job."

The Hill reports Sanders made similar remarks about Vilsack to journalists after the vote, saying that "I think he'll be fine, but not as strong as I would like."

The progressive group RootsAction praised Sanders on Twitter for taking a stand against Biden's pick to run the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Fordham University law professor Zephyr Teachout also welcomed Sanders' move.

"This is the correct vote. Vilsack failed farmers, farmworkers, the land, and the public, and Shirley Sherrod," Teachout tweeted, referencing the former Georgia state director of rural development at USDA who was ousted under Vilsack.

Sherrod, who is Black, recently told The 19th that "I have no ill will towards him, none at all," but added that if Vilsack returned as USDA chief, "he should be ready to get on the ground to make real change this time around. And we need to hold him to it. Black people need to see some real change."

As Common Dreams previously reported, Vilsack has faced criticism for the USDA's treatment of Black farmers when he headed the department during the Obama administration—among other critiques.

Center for Food Safety policy director Jaydee Hanson said in December that Biden's potential selection of Vilsack was "a huge step backwards in our urgent need to support agricultural systems that protect public health, the environment, and mitigate the ongoing climate crisis."

Early Tuesday, in anticipation of Vilsack's bipartisan confirmation, Food & Water Watch executive director Wenonah Hauter—whose group has been raising alarm about him for months now—issued a warning about what to expect going forward.

"We can confidently predict what Tom Vilsack's leadership of the Agriculture Department will look like, because he's led it before. And the prediction is grim," she said. "In his previous stint at USDA, Vilsack backed mass corporate consolidation of our food system at the expense of struggling family farmers. Similarly, he readily advanced industry-driven initiatives allowing companies to inspect their own poultry processing plants, dismantling federal oversight of food and worker safety."

"This administration needs to drastically shift course from the Trump era by supporting sustainable, independent farming, halting the toxic expansion of polluting factory farms, and ultimately, prioritizing consumer health and worker safety," Hauter added. "We have little hope that Tom Vilsack cares to undertake this effort, so we will be pressuring him doggedly to see the light."

The fake debate about the minimum wage

Capitalism's "conservative" defenders yet again oppose raising the minimum wage. They fought raising it in the past much as they tried to prevent the Fair Labor Standards Act (1938) that first mandated a U.S. minimum wage. The major argument opponents have used is this: setting or raising a minimum wage threatens small employers. They may collapse or else fire employees; either way, jobs are lost. What is conveniently assumed here is a necessary contradiction between minimum wages and small business jobs. That assumption enables opponents to claim that not setting a legal minimum wage, like not raising it, saves jobs. The system thus presents very poorly paid workers with this choice: low wages or no wages.

"Liberals" in the United States have mostly accepted the assumption of that contradiction, the necessity of that final choice. However, they try to demonstrate that the social gains from a higher minimum wage would exceed the social losses from the reduced employment they admit. Their idea, in effect, is that a higher minimum wage would increase demand for goods and services. Any workers fired because of the minimum wage would be rehired elsewhere to meet the rising demand. Countless empirical studies by conservatives and liberals yield, as usual, correspondingly conflicting conclusions.

In the actual history of U.S. capitalism, the minimum wage has been undercut from the outset. In real terms (what the minimum wage can actually buy), its long-term decline began from a peak in 1968. It was last raised in 2009 (to $7.25 per hour) despite a rising consumer price index every year since then. U.S. business interests plus the "conservative" politicians, media, and academics they support have inundated the public with the idea that raising the minimum wage will hurt poorly paid workers (by losing mostly small business jobs) more than help them. This debate over the minimum wage, intensified whenever proposals to raise it gain public attention, has been "won" chiefly by the conservative/business side.

Despite its political effectiveness for conservatives and big business till now, their argument—like the entire debate—is flawed logically. Its underlying, shared assumption is unnecessary and inaccurate. It serves chiefly to undercut the level, purpose, and social effects of the minimum wage in the United States.

Paying a decent living wage to workers by raising the minimum wage need not threaten the viability of small businesses. The latter need not collapse nor fire workers when minimum wages are raised. Indeed, raising the minimum wage can and should be one basis for a mutually beneficial alliance between wage workers and small businesses.

Few dare quarrel with the notion that in the U.S. today, paying the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour is an outrage against decency. It is among the very lowest minimum wages of industrialized economies: quite the achievement for one of the "richest countries in the world." So the defense of such an outrage has always begun by focusing attention elsewhere. We are asked to sympathize with the small businesses whose profits and thus viability will be undone if they are required to pay a raised minimum wage. We are asked likewise to sympathize with the plight of minimum wage workers who will become jobless when their employer cannot pay a raised minimum wage. Thus the conclusion beloved by opponents of raising the minimum wage: it lies in the interest of low-paid workers and small businesses to join the opposition to raising the minimum wage.

So many flaws attend such logic that it is not easy to decide where to begin its demolition. We might note that it clearly implies that were we to drop the minimum wage even further, below $7.25 per hour, we might achieve lower unemployment rates. But that is so gross an idea that right-wingers rarely go there. They don't dare.

There is a parallel example we can draw from the history of wage workers when they included children as young as five years old. The parallel logic then held that allowing child labor (with the oppression and abuses it entailed) was doing poor families a favor. Were child labor to be outlawed, capitalism's defenders then insisted, two tragedies would necessarily follow. First, poor families would suffer an income loss because they could no longer sell their children's labor power to capitalist employers for a wage. Second, businesses whose profits depended at least partly on low-wage child labor would collapse and render adults jobless too.

It is important to note that after sustained political agitation, child labor was in fact outlawed. The logic of its defenders was rejected and rarely resurfaced afterward even in right-wing and "conservative" literature. Former capitalist employers of children found other means (paying adults more, improving productivity, economizing on other inputs, and so on) to profit and grow. As we know, U.S. capitalism over the last century prospered without child labor. And where U.S. capitalists relocated abroad to employ children, opposition there has replicated what happened in the United States, albeit slowly. What happened to child labor can and likely will happen as well to abysmally low minimum wages.

How then might a civilized society raise its minimum wage to provide a decent livelihood to workers and protect its small businesses? The solution is straightforward. Offset the extra labor costs for small businesses from a higher minimum wage by providing them with some combination of the following: a new and significant share of government orders, tax breaks, and government subsidies. Such supports now overwhelmingly favor big business and thereby facilitate its many efforts to destroy and replace small businesses. Those supports should be reapportioned with special consideration/targeting for small businesses. To be eligible, small businesses would need to show how raising the minimum wage increased their total wage bill. In this way, society can concretely support small business and a decent minimum wage as twin, shared social values.

In effect, this proposal changes the terrain of the minimum wage debate. It brings into stark relief that raising the minimum wage leaves open the question of which part of the employer class will bear the burden of compensating for that in the short run. An effective political coalition of low-wage workers and small businesses could require big business to pay by losing some of its government business, paying higher taxes, or obtaining lower subsidies—all to compensate small businesses for a raised minimum wage. For decades, an alternative political coalition—of big and small business—blocked or delayed minimum wage increases. Nothing requires this latter coalition to always or, indeed, ever prevail over a competing coalition of labor and small business that seeks a higher minimum wage for one plus greater state supports for the other. Likewise, nothing warrants continuing the current debate over raising the minimum wage as if only small business would always have to absorb its possible costs.

The debate over the minimum wage has been lopsided for a very long time. Uncritical media coverage of the debate has allowed big business to evade its proper share of paying to sustain a viable small business sector. Meanwhile, workers and small businesses pay taxes that favor big business. Most Americans want a thriving small business sector. Most also increasingly criticize big business: "antitrust" remains part of government regulation as well as a part of popular ideologies. We can and should correct the old debate now to enable a different political coalition to shape minimum wages in a different way from the past.

Richard D. Wolff is professor of economics emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a visiting professor in the Graduate Program in International Affairs of the New School University, in New York. Wolff's weekly show, "Economic Update," is syndicated by more than 100 radio stations and goes to 55 million TV receivers via Free Speech TV. His three recent books with Democracy at Work are The Sickness Is the System: When Capitalism Fails to Save Us From Pandemics or Itself, Understanding Marxism, and Understanding Socialism.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

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