Warren, Sanders, and Oligarchy

posted on Feb 23rd, 2020

I’m going to take a moment to talk about Elizabeth Warren. This post has been bouncing around my head since the Nevada debate - particularly since Warren started taking real shots at Bernie.

I want to preface this, I’m a huge fan of Warren. I’ve said from the beginning that I would enthusiastically support Warren in the general, if she were to beat Bernie. My dream outcome is Warren as Senate Majority Leader in a Sanders presidency. I want to see Warren in a position of real power in the movement.

But I don’t think Warren is the right person to lead the movement. And the more Warren goes on the attack against Bernie, the more firmly I believe that.

Elizabeth Warren - Attribution: Gabe Skidmore (https://www.flickr.com/photos/gageskidmore)

American Oligarchy

In my last post, I talked about Page and Gilens - the study that showed that America is an oligarchy controlled by the wealthy. Most nationally elected Democrats are wealthy. Most nationally elected Republicans are wealthy. Most national media pundits are wealthy. Most national scale businesses are owned and run by the wealthy.

For the past several decades, these wealthy oligarchs have completely controlled policy in this country - to their own benefit. This is how we’ve wound up with massive income and wealth inequality, with wage stagnation, poor healthcare, student loan crises, mass incarceration, and decaying infrastructure. So many policies that benefit or don’t harm the wealthy oligarchs, while badly harming the rest of us.

When people refer to the “establishment” they’re talking about the oligarchy.

The progressive movement is, and always has been, about overturning the oligarchy and taking power back. It’s about a return to democracy (small “d”), equity, and justice.

In a battle between an oligarchy that has seized power in a democracy, and the people of that democracy who want to take that power back, there is no unity lane. Being willing to work with the oligarchs is not a positive trait, because the oligarchs will not give up power willingly. It has to be taken, by electoral and political force.

Progressive protest - Attribution: Alex Radelich (https://unsplash.com/@alexradelich)

This is what Elizabeth Warren has never seemed to understand, and what Bernie has understood from the beginning. When people say that Bernie doesn’t play well with others, the “others” are the oligarchs.

Carrying the Banner

In 2016, the progressive movement begged Warren to carry the banner. There was a powerful Draft Warren campaign trying to get her to challenge Clinton. I was among those who desperately wanted her to run. Bernie himself begged her to run and offered his full support.

Had Warren chosen to run against Clinton, I believe she would have won. If Bernie came as close as he did, Warren would have clobbered Clinton. The lanes of attack open to Clinton against Bernie were not available to her with Warren. It would have been Warren against Trump and she would have cleaned his clock. (Don’t think so? Did you see her eviscerate Bloomberg?)

It would have been Warren who built the progressive movement instead of Bernie.

But she declined. Instead, she lead her senate colleagues in whipping endorsements for Clinton. In that moment, she showed that she doesn’t understand the battle currently unfolding between oligarchy and democracy.

And so, it was Bernie who challenged Clinton. The progressive movement found its champion for democracy in Bernie.

Bernie rally - Attribution: Gabe Skidmore (https://www.flickr.com/photos/gageskidmore)

That campaign was a tipping point for the movement. A moment when those who recognize the oligarchy for what it is saw that we were not alone. A moment when Occupy went electoral. A moment when the battle for the soul of the democratic party began.

And Warren sat on the sidelines.

In the four years after that campaign, Bernie worked tirelessly to fuel the flames of the movement that had ignited during his presidential campaign. He built Our Revolution to recruit and support pro-democracy, anti-oligarchy candidates. He personally inspired the next generation of progressive candidates to run for office, many under the Democratic Socialist label. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar both credit Bernie with inspiring them.

He endorsed. He spoke. He raised money. He carried the banner.

Warren didn’t.

Defeating Trump and Fascism

Now in 2020, she’s been trying to make the case that she should be leading the movement that Bernie’s efforts helped ignite, empower, and coalesce. But in making the case, she’s arguing that the movement should unify with the oligarchy to defeat Trump and fascism.

Don’t get me wrong, defeating Trump and fascism is of vital import, but if we do not also overturn the oligarchy and reinstate democracy, then we will have failed. And it will only be a matter of time before a new Trump emerges.

When Warren tries to run in that unity lane, she shows she still doesn’t understand this. We cannot unite with the oligarchs, we have to defeat them. It was the desire to overturn them that empowered Trump in the first place. He did the classic thing that oligarchs do when they are trying to undermine nascent movements against them - he redirected the anger and frustration at the oligarchy towards immigrants and people of color. He displaced class anger with racism.

We cannot defeat him with out giving that justified anger at the seizure of our democracy by wealthy oligarchs a true voice. And we can’t do that if we’re trying to unify and work with the oligarchs.

Which is why Warren’s attacks on Bernie for not being willing to work with the oligarchs are frustrating and reinforce my belief that she is not the right person to lead the movement.

It could have been her. It should have been her. But she missed the moment. Now we need the person who did build the movement, who understands what it takes to over turn oligarchy, and has never wavered from that goal. And that’s Bernie.

American Oligarchy

posted on Feb 22nd, 2020

In 2014, Benjamin Page and Martin Gilens reported the results of a multi-year study of American politics, trying to figure out who’s really pulling the levers of power in America.

They tested 4 hypothesis - that it was the broad majority of American voters, that it was issue focused special interest groups, that it was business interests, or that it was the wealthy (defined as the top 10% of the income spectrum).

I voted - Attibution: Element5 Digital (https://unsplash.com/@element5digital)

They looked at polling data from 1981 to 2002 to see which groups wanted what policies, and then looked at which policies actually passed to determine who was calling the shots.

They found that the wealthy were ruling the country.

They found no correlation between the desires of the vast majority of Americans and the policies that got passed. They found no correlation between the desires of special interest groups and what got passed. They found some correlation between the desires of business interests and what policies passed. (As it happens, the wealthy own the businesses.)

They found strong correlation between the desires of the wealthy and the policies that actually became law. The wealthy rule this country.

Most people in political power (in both parties) are well up in the top 10%. Most media commentators are in the top 10%. Most media outlets are owned by stockholders - and 80% of stock is owned by the top 20% of the income spectrum.

When you understand this reality, what is happening with Bernie Sanders’ campaign snaps into clear focus.

The 90% want their power back. They want a true democracy. And the wealthy oligarchy who currently control both political parties and most of the media really don’t want to give that power back.

A Green New Deal for Bloomington

posted on Jan 3rd, 2020

In his inauguration day speech, the Mayor proposed a .5% increase in the LIT to create a climate justice fund. This would generate about $8 million for the city. He didn’t propose how that money would be spent.

Here’s the thing about the LIT - it’s a flat tax, which means it’s regressive. The sting of that tax is going to be felt much more deeply by low income people who can ill afford any tax increase.

That means, if this is truly going to be a climate justice initiative, then the money needs to be spent first and foremost on programs that will help those who are struggling.

Climate justice now - Attribution: Markus Spiske (https://unsplash.com/@markusspiske)

It’s important to know, in this discussion, that a progressive income tax is off the table for us. Like so many things, it’s banned at the state level. The battle for home rule is one we need to fight at some point, but we need climate response now - it cannot wait.

The idea of a 0.25% increase in the LIT to support the public transit system has been on the table since the Spring’s Democratic primary campaign. Everyone in those conversations is very hesitant to propose raising the LIT, because they all recognize its a regressive tax.

With that in mind, I spent all summer desperately trying to find stuff we could cut to create money for climate programs. I came up blank. There just isn’t much in the city budget, at least with the granularity that I’ve got access to, that we can cut with out directly impacting programs people rely on.

We can bond for climate programs, but bonds are not free money. We have to pay them back, with interest, out of the budget. Most of the stuff on the table that we could cut - parking garages, for instance - is bond funded. I believe we should cut those and spend the money on busses and bike lanes, but we would still need annual income to run those busses.

If we’re going to hit the IPCC’s targets for 2030, we need to install $1 billion worth of solar just in Bloomington (or weatherize to cut emissions in half), in the next 10 years. In addition to that $1 billion, we need to cut our transportation emissions by 45%. We need to cut our natural gas use by 45%.

The entire annual city budget is $90 million / year. The whole thing.

Obviously, we’re not going to hit that target on our own. But we also cannot pretend someone else can do this for us.

We’re not going to survive this with out making some sacrifices.

Prior to the Mayor’s proposal, having spent a summer and fall desperately trying to come up with funding for a climate justice program, I had started quietly exploring the idea of using the LIT to fund a wide range climate justice initiatives. Since the Mayor’s kick started the conversation, I’m going to go ahead and put this idea/proposal out there. A counter proposal to the Mayor’s. And where the Mayor didn’t propose a use for that money - I will.

Call it a Green New Deal for Bloomington.

The Proposal

Here’s what I propose, don’t stop at 0.5%, we’ve got a lot to do and we need the money to do it, so max it out. We can go to 2.5% total LIT, we’re at about 1.25%, so raise it the remaining 1.25%. That generates about $20 million /year in revenue for the city.

Here’s how we use it:

Transit: Give $10 million to the transit system. Make transit fare free. That doubles the Bloomington Transit system budget. It allows them to implement full Saturday and Sunday service. It would allow them to massively expand service - more frequent busses, more routes. And it would be free - saving low income people $300 / year (the current cost of an annual bus pass).

Housing: Put $5 million into the city’s affordable housing fund. Require that it be spent on non-profit housing and public housing that helps low income and homeless people. By restricting it to non-profit and public housing, it assures that it’s going to permanently affordable housing and building capacity in organizations that will continue to work towards affordable housing outside of the city government. Eventually, we could build a strong enough cooperative, community land trust, and public housing sector that they could begin to force the overall cost of housing down.

Solar: Put $2.5 million into a zero interest solar loan program that prioritizes low income families. Structure the loans so that they are zero down payment and so that the monthly payment is equal to the average previous electric bill. For those in the lowest income brackets, offer a grant program. Last year, Indiana Solar for All helped install 12 solar systems. This money could fund upwards of 125 per year. Since part of it is structured as a loan program, the amount of new systems installed would increase every year, as the recipients paid back their loans through their utility bills.

Weatherization: Put the remaining $2.5 million into weatherization grants. Prioritize low income and marginalized people. Weatherization can have massive returns in emissions reduction, and poorly insulated housing is a huge cost for a lot of low income people. So give grants to low income home-owners to weatherize and insulate their homes. This will help them cut their utility bills and their emissions.

For someone making $20,000 a year, a 1.25% tax costs them $250 /year. They make that back on the bus fares alone. If we can help reduce the costs of housing, and their utility bills, at the same time, then this tax will be a net benefit to low income people, rather than a burden. And that’s a start for local climate justice.

On Economic Ownership

posted on Dec 1st, 2019

Should the bank be allowed to demand a proportion of my output because they gave me the money to purchase my house? I’m a remote software engineer and my house is my office, I use it to produce quite a bit of value.

If an investor gives me the money I need to buy tools and spend the time necessary to create a business, he’s allowed to demand a share of ownership of my output (of that business), in return.

A house - Attribution: Scott Webb (https://unsplash.com/@scottwebb)

When that business hires someone, it is allowed to demand complete ownership of the output of the person it hires, and return only a portion of it to that person as salary.

We’d all agree that the bank demanding ownership of my output in return for my home mortgage is absurd, but we take the other two relationships for granted.

A free market libertarian would claim that these are all voluntary contracts between free people, and I’d be free to tell any of them to go to hell.

But indentured servitude was a voluntary contract between free people, and we’ve all agreed that it was too abusive, too exploitative to be allowed. We’re not allowed to own people, even temporarily.

So why are we allowed to own their output?

Capitalism doesn’t mean “free markets”. Capitalism is an economic system where we allow investors and banks to buy the output of other people, in return for money.

And there is an alternative. One that doesn’t involve handing over control of the economy to government central planners.

Democratic socialism is an economic system where you own your output, and no one is allowed to buy it from you.

When you grant your output to a business, you gain a share of ownership of that business (for as long as you are a participant in it) and a voice in its governance. If you need money to start a business, you can get a loan and pay it back with (reasonable, regulated) interest. When you go to hire someone, you have to give them a share of ownership and a voice that matches their contributions.

This is Democratic Socialism: a democratic economy, where we’ve overthrown economic tyranny just as we did political tyranny.

What Does a Low Carbon Transporation System Look Like?

posted on Oct 16th, 2019

Last night we learned that transportation emissions actually account for 27% of Bloomington’s emissions, in line with the national averages. It makes it even more stark how our local governments, county and city, are utterly failing to respond to climate change appropriately.

Local government has almost full control of our transportation systems. It can choose what the roads look like, and what modes of transportation they prioritize.

A bus and a bike

If we were actually responding appropriately to climate change and cutting emissions, we’d be aggressively re-engineering our transportation system to put the lowest carbon modes of transportation first.

That means we’d be making it easiest to walk or bike, then take the bus, and only then drive.

What would that look like?

That would look like making sure there was ample space on all of our roads to walk or bike - FIRST. And then finding space for cars.

It would mean making most roads, where we have a neighborhood grid, one way for cars with no street parking and giving the rest of that space to bikes or pedestrians. It would mean protected bike lanes on every road and sidewalks allowing four to eight people to walk side by side (right now they barely allow two). It would mean a bike first zone at every intersection (like the green paint at 7th and Walnut). It would mean a bike cycle at every stop light - 10 to 15 seconds to allow bikes to clear the intersection first before the cars can go.

It would mean a bus system that covers all of the city, runs late enough and runs frequently enough that you can get to your destination in a reasonable time. It would mean all of the major thorough fares get protected bike highways, and bus only lanes. If that means going down to one lane each way for cars and no street parking, so be it.

In this system, you could still access everywhere by car if you needed to, but we’d be making it a lot easier to walk or bike. We’d be showing through the allocation of our space and infrastructure dollars what modes of transportation we’re prioritizing: the ones that don’t emit carbon.

Instead, bikes are an after thought in the vast majority of our transportation system. We have one major thoroughfare for bikes and pedestrians (the b-line) and a couple of other trails here or there. We have unprotected bike lanes that are not continuous on a few roads. We have no bus only lanes.

And we’re spending $50 million on new parking, but only about $7 million on new bike trails. That should be inverted. Or more, we shouldn’t even be building new parking right now. We should be building out the alternative and freeing up existing parking by getting people out of their cars.

We need the city and county to prioritize low carbon forms of transportation. We need them to do it now.