IPS Blog

Obama’s Last Budget Offers Hope. Could it Bring About Change, Too?

(Image: Flickr / frankieleon)

(Image: Flickr / frankieleon)

At its finest, a president’s budget proposal is an expression of values, aspirations, hopes, and dreams for the country. At its most effective, it also offers politically practical mechanisms for achieving some of those aspirations.

President Obama recently released a $4.1 trillion budget proposal for his last year in office. Is it just more “hopey-changey stuff,” as the relentlessly un-hopey-changey Sarah Palin once quipped? Or is Obama’s new budget request something more substantially hopeful, with a real chance at change?

There just may be some of both hope and change to celebrate.

First, Obama deserves praise for taking the problem of economic hardship seriously. His budget includes a strong focus on the people most often left out of consideration — those in deep poverty.  Obama proposes $12 billion over the coming decade to keep hungry kids fed in the summer time when schools are out. He’s requested $11 billion end family homelessness by 2020. He’s also increased funding, previously frozen for 20 years, for the notoriously unresponsive Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program. Medicare is also bolstered with this budget.

The budget offers some hope for both families with and without kids. It increases the effective Earned Income Tax Credit for hard-working Americans without children while also providing $82 billion over 10 years to help working parents secure safe affordable child care. It supports funding for much needed early childhood education programs as well as for raising the minimum wage, even for tipped workers as well as those who rely on federal unemployment insurance. The budget calls for funding to assist states with paid family and medical leave, supports free community college, and strengthens Pell Grants. It also creates and expands supports for Native youth programs.

Second, there’s also some important funding for criminal justice reform in this proposal. Obama’s budget would make a $5 billion, 10-year investment in a new 21st Century Justice Initiative. This would focus on reducing violent crime, reforming harsh prison sentences, and building trust between law enforcement and the communities they’re supposed to protect. This budget would fund state-focused reforms of both the adult and juvenile justice systems and try to reduce obstacles for citizens re-entering society after incarceration.

Third, Obama also calls for a substantial investment — over $300 billion — to fix our crumbling infrastructure.

Fourth, did I mention that this budget would also reduce the deficit by almost $3 trillion over 10 years?

There’s the hope — lots of hope. Now, what about the change?

To understate it, the politically practical mechanisms for securing this funding are more elusive. The conservatives on Capitol Hill have long opposed spending aimed at helping working families and families living in poverty. The current climate is even more polarized than in recent years. Indeed, Congress won’t even be inviting the president’s budget director to discuss the budget resolution, as has been customary.

But there’s one big-haired wild card in the mix this time: Donald Trump and the conservative populist moment.

It seems that more and more conservative voters are so fed up with the GOP establishment that they’re turning in droves to the likes of Donald Trump. Though the Trump faction is in many ways the opposite of the surging Sanders movement for democratic socialism, Trump and his supporters are also anti-Wall Street, opposed to tax breaks for the super-rich, and opposed to further privileging of certain special interests, such as Big Pharma. Unlike many Tea Party voters, Trump’s GOP populist supporters want their Social Security and Medicare protected. They want the jobs that come with fixing our failing infrastructure. (They also want to keep out immigrants and refugees and propel us into violent, endless wars, but that’s a different commentary.)

Finally, criminal justice reform has emerged as a single, shining bipartisan desire. There may just be GOP support for this important piece of Obama’s domestic budget proposal.

Like it or not, Obama’s “hopey-changey” budget proposals stays within the budget caps agreed on by both sides of the aisle last year. And it reduces the deficit while addressing many of the issues that disaffected Trump supporters care about. If the GOP wants to stay relevant, its establishment members of Congress may have to pay more attention to this budget than they wish to.

From Civil Rights to Human Rights, Black Community Control Now!

Image: Malcolm London of Chicago | Al Podgorski/Sun-Times Media

Image: Malcolm London of Chicago | Al Podgorski/Sun-Times Media

A United Nations Working Group preliminary report on human rights violations against Black America advocates Black community control of police. That’s the general position of Pan African Community Action, one of the groups that testified before the UN experts. Community control of police would shift power, enforce democracy and allow folks to re-imagine community security as “a social force to actually protect and serve” Black people.

Now that the fact-finding visit to the U.S. by the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent is over and their preliminary findings seemingly catalog an endless list of racial discriminations and repression by the U.S. state, the struggle of African/Black people must gear up for a next phase. Certainly this UN Working Group (WGEPAD) has been to the U.S. on the same mission before and cited similar issues although but not as extensive and bone chilling.

In 2010 the particular members of this Working Group were different, and as would follow so too were the members of this delegation. Today the WGEPAD is chaired, and this delegation was led, by Mireille Fanon-Mendes-France, daughter of the late revolutionary psychiatrist, philosopher, intellectual Frantz Fanon. Ms. Fanon-Mendes-France is well established in her own right in the fields of international law, conflict resolution, as well as on racism and discrimination. In 2009, she received the Human Rights Award by the Council for Justice, Equality, and Peace.

This time, the WGEPAD’s visit came on the heels of a series of nonindictments following the brutal murder of Black women, men, children, and queer and transgender African/Black people by U.S. police. The visit began January 19, ended the 29th and was to examine the oppressive conditions of Black people living in the U.S. In February 2014, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 2015-24 the International Decade of People of African Descent and this UN presence marks another important step forward to obtaining true independent oversight and justice for many who have lost their families to anti-Black police terrorism and is seen as something more than the ineffective federal investigations.

The WGEPAD included an explicit call for reparations for Black people.”

It is no small victory that this time –unlike in 2010– within their preliminary findings released at a press conference on January 29th, 2016 the WGEPAD included an explicit call for reparations for Black people, alarm at and call for urgent remedy for the rampant killings of Black people by police with impunity. The findings also embraced the radical community call for community control over police saying, “Following the epidemic of racial violence by the police, civil society networks calling for justice together with other activists are strongly advocating for legal and policy reforms and community control over policing and other areas which directly affect African Americans.”

The Working Group recommends that “Community policing strategies should be developed to give the community control of the police which are there to protect and serve them. It is suggested to have a board that would elect police officers they want playing this important role in their communities.”

While WGEPAD appreciated the grassroots community’s push to have control over the police, they are still not as clear on the issue and the particulars as our movement must be. We must be clear that people of African descent in the U.S. are a domestic colony and that the police are NOT here to protect and serve us. That is to say, our treatment in this country reflects the outlook and policies the U.S. government and the Western world practice against all African people globally.  The treatment of African/Black people in the U.S. is a direct extension of a colonial subject status in relation to white society and the police are an occupying force for political control by the capitalist class.

One need only examine the historical development of the modern U.S. police. The earliest form of the modern American police lies in the brutal Southern slave patrols legislated through the slave codes that started in South Carolina in 1712. “The plantation slave patrols, often consisting of three armed men on horseback covering a ‘beat’ of 15 square miles, were charged with maintaining discipline, catching runaway slaves and preventing slave insurrection,” according to The Iron Fist and The Velvet Glove; An Analysis of the U.S. Police.

“People of African descent in the U.S. are a domestic colony and that the police are NOT here to protect and serve us.”

This comprehensive 1975 study by the Center for Research on Criminal Justice goes on to explain that “in the North and West, the police institution evolved in response to a different set of race and class contradictions.”  There they originated as private security to protect the property of capitalist, to break up worker strikes, and prevent worker protest for fair working conditions.

In present day, while their form has been expanded and their image spun by media and public relations departments, the essential function of police remains to enforce the will and protect the power of those in charge.

In practice, this means that police officers’ main priority is to protect the wealthy and their property from oppressed Black communities, the homeless population and anyone that doesn’t conform to the ruling class.

With Community Control Over Police the priority of police becomes protecting all human beings, not just the wealthy and their buildings. This is a call for Community Control Over Police as a means of shifting power, enforcing democracy, deconstructing the historic relationship between the police and the Black Community and reimagining a social force designed to actually protect and serve it’s population as policy, not as a meaningless slogan.

The WGEPAD report must now be seen as a window of opportunity toward intensified grassroots organizing for Community Control Over Police, what this can look like and the steps it will take to win it. Some organizations like the DC-based organization Pan-African Community Action (PACA) have begun to do just that.

“PACA is also calling for a non-elected and randomly selected civilian board from the ranks of the community itself to exercise full community control over police.”

Between now and the September 2016 release by the WGEPAD of their full and final report Black organizations need to intensify the struggle to build a powerful movement led by the most impacted of our communities. The struggle continues. Organizing around the WGEPAD visit wasn’t done because Black liberation rest in the hands of the UN. It was done to expose the domestic contradictions in the U.S. Empire on a world stage. It was done to forge practical relationships between local and national forces. It was done to spread in the Black community the idea that we have an inseparable connection to African people all over the world.

For its Justice 4 Zo campaign PACA is calling for an independent dual track investigation, conducted by the United Nations or the Organization of American States, into both the death of DC resident and 27 year old educator Alonzo Smith by special police and the social and economic conditions that lead to the disproportionate stops, arrests and deaths of Black people at the hands of the police. PACA is also calling for a non-elected and randomly selected civilian board from the ranks of the community itself to exercise full community control over police, including the budget that is allocated, setting priorities, policies and the hiring and firing of individual police officers.

This year’s visit by the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent was historic and empowering. But the struggle to build African/Black power in the U.S. led by the most impacted in our communities continues.

Pan-African Community Action says, “This new 21st century belongs to African/Black people. This decade is the decade of organized African/Black resistance. Forward then to Community Control. Community Control NOW! Tomorrow, the United States of Africa.”

How Will the Candidates Tax the Rich?

(Image: Flickr / Disney | ABC Television Group)

(Image: Flickr / Disney | ABC Television Group)

With the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary right around the corner and the debates finished up, the Democratic primary appears neck and neck as Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton jostle for support in key early states. They have each put forward detailed tax reform plans that give voters the chance to compare their ideas on how to reduce inequality through the tax code.

If you’d like to compare the two plans yourself, see Bernie’s plan here and Hillary’s plan here. For context on the two plans, keep reading.

Comparing the two candidates’ tax reform plans requires the recognition of a bit of history. Bernie Sanders has made reducing inequality the marquee issue of his campaign. He has been calling for changes to the tax code that would raise taxes on the most profitable corporations, the wealthiest households, and the largest Wall Street banks since he first entered Congress in 1991.

Hillary Clinton’s record on tax reform, particularly regarding Wall Street, has been much less consistent in both tone and substance over the course of her career, although she recently has come out with detailed plans reflecting much of what is included in Bernie’s tax reform plans.

A fair comparison also requires an acknowledgement of scale. Clinton’s plans aim to raise about $500 billion over ten years. Bernie’s plans aim to raise over $5 trillion. Put simply, Bernie’s plans rate as 10 times more ambitious than Hillary’s plans.

The two candidates’ plans, seen side by side, do show significant overlap. Both seek to strengthen and expand the federal estate tax, a small levy on the inheritances of the wealthiest households. Both close loopholes that allow the wealthy to avoid paying their fair share, including the carried interest loophole. Both raise taxes on top incomes and put the squeeze on offshore tax havens.

But Bernie’s plans, on nearly every front, go further than Hillary’s do. This difference in scale has major implications for how much revenue would be raised and how much inequality would shrink. Bernie’s plans also come linked to concrete public programs, a crafty political move that builds in a constituency for each tax reform, a constituency that would be directly impacted by each reform and more willing to fight for it.

Bernie’s plans go an additional step further, by including a direct financial transaction tax on Wall Street as well as by lifting the (arbitrary) cap on income subject to the Social Security payroll tax, a move that would ensure the long-term solvency of Social Security. Together, these two plans would raise trillions of dollars in revenue over ten years.

Both candidates’ plans differ fundamentally from any of the plans proposed by candidates in the GOP primary field. Those plans all rely on debunked supply-side theories that treat enriching the already rich as the key to prosperity.

Disclosure: The author worked on Bernie Sanders’ Senate Staff as a Legislative Aide before joining the Institute for Policy Studies.

Affluenza: An Outrage in All Its Forms

(Image: Flickr / Christian Ramiro González Verón)

(Image: Flickr / Christian Ramiro González Verón)

Which is worse, letting a rich kid off easy for a heinous crime or allowing an ultra wealthy adult to drain public coffers through bribery? These two scenarios may seem completely unrelated, but they both illustrate the corrupting influence of modern inequality—treating those at the top differently than the rest of the country.

Consider the case of Ethan Couch. Ethan first made headlines in 2013 when at age 16 he drove his car drunk into a crowd of people in Texas, killing four people and injuring many others. While drunk driving is unfortunately not uncommon in the United States, what made Ethan unique was the defense he used in court to get a dramatically reduced sentence. Ethan, through his lawyers, claimed he suffered from “affluenza”—he didn’t know right from wrong because he grew up rich and thus couldn’t be held responsible for his actions. To the astonishment of just about everyone, that worked.

Ethan was sentenced to mere parole instead of prison. Ethan Couch, whose family is worth a reported $15 million, became the embodiment of our unfair treatment of the rich. He recently re-entered headlines after a jaunt through Mexico in violation of parole left him in federal custody. He may, in the end, face jail time.

The public outrage at Ethan’s legal treatment has been understandably intense. Why should someone get off easy simply because they’re rich?

However, much less public outrage has come from another insidious form of affluenza—the legalized tax evasion by the ultra wealthy. According to a blistering new report from The New York Times, “The very richest are able to quietly shape tax policy that will allow them to shield millions, if not billions, of their income.”

This tax evasion is enabled by the army of lobbyists hired by the ultra-wealthy to buy policies that lower their effective tax rate without actually changing the nominal tax rate. This legal corruption costs the wealthy millions of dollars, but saves them billions.

While tax rates did not change from 2008 to 2012, the effective rate paid by the top 0.01 percent dropped by 15 percent!

The methods they use to accomplish this are complex and the impact can be hard to see as clearly as, say, a manslaughter case. Some may even consider it a victimless crime. What is the result of this unfair tax treatment? As former Supreme Court

What is the result of this unfair tax treatment? As former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Homes put it, “Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.” He might have added were he alive today, that massive tax evasion is the path to the breakdown of civilized society.

By appropriating billions in federal revenue, the wealthy starve important programs of critically important funding. Programs like Head Start, a program that provides early childhood education to low-income children, is consistently underfunded. Put differently, important public programs are starved so the ultra wealthy can become even wealthier.

The public outrage (and mocking) inspired by Ethan Couch is an inspiring sign that Americans are unwilling to accept a two-tiered criminal justice system for the rich and the rest of us. We should extend this outrage to the two-tiered federal tax system that benefits the wealthy at the expense of the rest of us.

Progressives Should Stop Underestimating Trump’s Appeal

Most Democrats think a Donald Trump nomination would be a huge gift for Hillary Clinton (assuming she clinches the Democratic nod). And barring a surge from Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz, it looks like he could be the one to duel her for the presidency.

With a policy slate best encapsulated by his vow to “ban all Muslims” from entering the United Stated, Trump’s critics are quick to write him off as the most extreme and unelectable presidential candidate in decades. But racism has had a longstanding place in the United States during times of terror, and Trump’s embodiment of it appeals to a large constituency that’s historically been disaffected in the race for the presidency. Huge swaths of American voters are unmoored from the issues and disenchanted by politics, but they’re “pulsating with grievance and rage,” as Glenn Greenwald put it.

This — and Trump’s notoriety — should wipe the smirk off of the face of the Democratic Party.

Democrats should be wary of underestimating Trump.  The hotel magnate is clearly tapping into gut-level emotions that are widely held in an era of government dysfunction. Here are a few statements Business Insider collected from his supporters, even before his notorious remarks about Muslims. Each reflects a pattern in the way his supporters have justified their fierce loyalty:

“Whether it’s the truth or not, I think he tells you the way he feels.”

His supporters view Trump as a vivid hero among seedy politicians. His connection to his audience goes straight past policy initiatives and right to his mastery of the emotional narrative of disaffected conservatives.

His offensive outbursts and frequent factual inaccuracies, according to this view, reflect an authentic personality that shines through the stifling social conventions of a presidential campaign. “I’m owned by the people. I’m no angel,” he explains, “but I’m going to do right by them.”

The routine spells out consistency and genuineness, transcending party lines to try to run the country as he sees fit. Trump appeals to conservatives unbound by the issues and sick of out-of-touch politicians who’ve mired us in gridlock. The more Trump blusters, the more human he seems.

“He won’t be bought off.”

Trump’s name isn’t only useful in terms of name recognition in mainstream America (an advantage, say, Bernie Sanders never had before his run).

It’s emblematic of success. His wealth is the outcome of what he portrays as his unparalleled business smarts, negotiating abilities, and — prized above all — entrepreneurship.

Trump’s business background has also allowed him to appear above the partisan fray. He doesn’t fit neatly into the Republican or Democratic camps, follows no script, and is seemingly genuinely unbound by campaign finance and corporate interests. As he bragged at a campaign speech, “I don’t need anybody’s money. I’m using my own money…I’m really rich, I’ll show you that.”

This is a priceless connection between Trump’s success as a businessman and his potential success in the White House. He can clean America up, his supporters believe, whether that means ethnic cleansing or sweeping away of debt.

“He’s like one of us.”

Trump projects himself as an embodiment of the American dream — be smart, get rich (though having a billionaire family doesn’t hurt). Trump’s narrative as a presidential candidate is that if you try hard enough, maybe you can be as successful as he is — and if you’re not, it means he’s smarter than you. That myth about inequality is as alive and well in white, low-income America.

Trump’s “everyman” appeal, such as it is, goes beyond the American dream. It also delves into deep set American racism. A poll taken last month found that 56 percent of Americans believe that Islam is “at odds” with American values — that’s all Americans, not just Republicans.

Trump’s racist comments, which previously focused on immigrants, have now shifted to Islam. He’s said he would “absolutely” implement a database of Muslims in America, a statement that’s been compared to Nazi Germany’s keeping tabs on the Jews during the Holocaust. The other candidates may be pulled towards Trump’s lean on these issues, but will never convey them with the simultaneous conviction and informality, making his tone and his presence relatable.

While Democrats may be cheering Trump’s popularity today — showing, as it does, an angry and “unserious” Republican voter base that shouldn’t hold up against a mainstream Democratic candidate — dismissing his emotional appeal could be a grave mistake. 

Will Any Presidential Candidate Connect Federal Tax Policy and Police Killings?

An 18-year-old Mike Brown was walking to his grandmother’s house one summer afternoon in Ferguson Missouri. An officer stops him for jaywalking. He ends up lying dead in the road for four hours. Walter Scott is  pulled over for a broken taillight in a high poverty area in South Carolina. He flees- presumably out of fear of back child support owed to the state. Minutes later, he is dead on the ground, shot in the back. A 16-year-old girl is thrown across a classroom by a school cop for failing to relinquish her cell phone. A 17-year-old boy with a small knife, walking away from officers, is shot 16 times — 15 of those bullets pumped into his already dead body in the middle of the Chicago road.

 

The list of these tragic deaths is long. Over 1,000 deaths have occurred at the hands of law enforcement so far this year. Black males are 3.5 times more likely to become victims than their white counterparts.

Cell phone videos of police brutality have forced this country to confront the ways poverty and race play out in city after city, school after school, jail after jail.  We know the factors underlying America’s legacy of racism contribute to this crisis. But one factor largely has been overlooked.

When the U.S. Department of Justice investigated the shooting of Mike Brown, it found an excessive pursuit of revenue through over-aggressive policing of minor violations such as traffic and municipal code offenses. Further, it found racial bias on the part of authorities against the majority black population in Ferguson.

The connection between police violence and the reliance on law enforcement to raise revenue, however, is but the last link in a chain of causation that begins with federal tax policy.

Any county, city, or town relies both on funding sources it can control and those it can’t. The first category includes license fees, traffic tickets, and fines for violations of local ordinances, such as jaywalking. The second category consists of tax revenue that each state shares with its various subdivisions.

If revenue from state revenue sharing decreases, a city, town or county faces pressure to increase revenue from sources under local control. Will there be pushback from citizens? Yes, but that pushback will be weakest in poor communities. Increasing the cost of licenses or building permits requires official action by local government leaders. That carries a stiff political cost. But increased code enforcement in poor communities? That just takes a phone call or lunch at a quiet restaurant.

Changes in revenue sharing by the states, then, are the link preceding reliance on law enforcement to raise revenue. There are exceptions, but in order to balance budgets, states typically have squeezed their counties and cities. Arizona, for example, recently balanced its budget on the backs of counties, cities and school districts. Arizona has one of the highest rates per capita of killings by police. Phoenix, its capital and largest city, has been one of the country’s most dangerous cities for police killings.

So, why the shortfall in state tax revenue? Tax cuts. Over the past few decades, the states have engaged in a vicious race to the bottom, trying to lure businesses and wealthy individuals with low tax rates. That race originated with changes in federal tax policy that infected the politics of state tax policy.

Consider the federal estate tax. Prior to 2001, states shared in federal estate tax revenue simply by imposing an estate tax according to a federally established schedule.  The tax cost their residents nothing, since a person’s federal estate tax obligation was reduced, dollar-for-dollar, by the state-level estate tax he paid. Every state participated. Politically, it was free money.

The Bush tax cuts eliminated that revenue sharing structure, replacing it with one far less generous to the states. Consequently, 32 states have abandoned their estate tax – and the revenue derived from it.

The connection between federal and state income tax policy changes is less obvious, but the impact is the same. The federal income tax benefit associated with state income taxes has fallen, thus increasing the real cost of those state income taxes to those who pay them. That opened the door for anti-tax ideologues, most noticeably the American Legislative Exchange Council, to push for reductions in state tax rates, with an associated reduction in revenues.

The bottom line: ill-conceived changes in federal tax policy contributed to local revenue problems and the fraught atmosphere in which a teenager was shot dead over what started as a jaywalking violation. Structural and cultural racism can’t be addressed by tax policy alone. Nonetheless, because federal tax policy contributed to the increase in police violence, it also must play a role in reducing it.

Millionaires and billionaires and the corporations they own must face higher nominal federal tax rates, with an offsetting federal tax reduction for state level taxes they pay. Generous federal subsidies will force the hands of state legislators to impose higher taxes, which in turn could be shared with cities and towns. That can create the space for a reduction in the number of confrontations between poor people and police that end tragically.

Unfortunately, no presidential candidate recognizes the link between federal tax policy and police violence. The tax plans of both Trump and Bush would reduce the portion of state income tax payments offset by a reduction in federal tax liabilities. Marco Rubio’s plan is worse.  It eliminates the federal deduction for state income tax altogether. Don’t expect any better from the Democrats. They tend to treat the federal income tax deduction for state income tax as a loophole, so it’s unlikely they’ll seek to increase the value of that deduction to taxpayers.

Perhaps by 2020 our candidates will focus on this. Or maybe 2024. The question is: how many more Mike Browns who jaywalk on the way to Grandma’s house will be left dead in the street before presidential candidates make addressing this toxic blend of racism and revenue pressures a priority?

U.S. NGO letter to President Obama on Climate Negotiations in Paris

Dear President Obama,

On behalf of our environmental, social justice, faith, consumer and partner organizations who collectively represent millions of Americans, we thank you for taking important steps to keep fossil fuels in the ground by rejecting the Keystone XL Pipeline and cancelling some upcoming Arctic lease sales. We are equally grateful that your administration continues to harness the Clean Air Act’s successful pollution-reduction tools to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through the Clean Power Plan and rules for transportation sources. These are important steps but much more will be necessary if we hope to avert the worst impacts of climate change.

The actions taken in the next decade will either avert the worst harms from climate disruption by limiting warming to below 1.5°C or commit the world to unacceptable harms for billions of people. You have the capability to negotiate a climate agreement in Paris that will mark the turning point in the world’s efforts to avert catastrophic climate damage and thus protect the human rights of present and future generations.

In order to do so, we ask that you:

  • Greatly increase our country’s emissions reduction commitment for Paris—as demanded by both science and justice;
  • Pledge to keep at least 80% of U.S. proven fossil fuels reserves in the ground; and
  • Finance a just transition to 100% renewable energy by 2050 in the U.S. and contribute the U.S.’ fair share of finance for adaptation, mitigation, and loss and damage in developing countries.

President George H.W. Bush signed and the Senate ratified the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992. In so doing, the U.S. agreed to take the actions necessary to avoid dangerous climate change, and also agreed as a matter of fairness that the world’s rich, developed countries, having caused the vast majority of the problem, would take the lead in solving it. Today, the U.S. remains the world’s largest cumulative carbon emitter. Having caused the greatest share of the problem to date, the U.S. must now meet its obligations to respond, and must understand that human rights, equity and fairness matter and are vital to unlocking cooperation in the international negotiations.

Independent scientific analysis demonstrates that our country’s Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) is not yet consistent with keeping warming below even 2°C. A far greater commitment will be necessary to account for our nation’s historic responsibility and serve as the basis of a just international agreement. A recent Civil Society Review concludes that the current U.S. INDC represents only about one-fifth of our country’s fair share of mitigation action. For these reasons, in advance of the Paris talks we urge you to greatly increase the U.S. commitment to reduce emissions at home and finance a just transition abroad, in line with what science and justice demand.

You have stated that the transition to a clean energy economy is going more quickly than anticipated, and that “if we’re going to prevent large parts of this Earth from becoming not only inhospitable but uninhabitable in our lifetimes, we’re going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them and release more dangerous pollution into the sky.” As a fundamental policy to achieving our emissions goals, leaving fossil fuels in the ground is critical to protect people from the ravages of oil, gas, and coal extraction. A major study from Stanford University found that that it is feasible for the U.S. to achieve 100% renewable energy by 2050, and that doing so will generate a net increase of two million American jobs and a reduction of approximately 62,000 air pollution-related deaths per year.

A study by Carbon Tracker has demonstrated that the world needs to keep 80 percent of proven fossil fuel reserves in the ground if we are to keep warming below even 2°C. As the leader of the world’s largest historical emitter, we urge you to exert leadership by pledging to keep at least 80% of U.S. proven fossil fuel reserves in the ground. Two critical first steps are needed in order to implement this pledge: placing a ban on fracking and other dangerous extraction techniques, and ending fossil fuel leasing on public lands and waters to keep these publicly owned resources in the ground where they belong.

Finally, we urge to you commit to financing a just transition to a renewable economy at home and abroad. We request that you exert pressure immediately on Congress to make good on the $3 billion pledge to the Green Climate Fund. In Paris, the U.S. should commit to a clear roadmap for the provision by developed countries of $100 billion in public, grant-based funds for climate actions in developing countries by 2020, as well as a plan to scale up climate finance beyond $100 billion annually after 2020. The U.S. should also commit to targets to significantly increase public finance to meet the cost of mitigation, adaptation, and loss and damage in developing countries, particularly for the most vulnerable communities and nation-states. This includes committing to mechanisms for raising new and additional resources such as a financial transaction tax (as France has committed to), halting subsidies for fossil fuel production immediately and investing those public dollars in clean energy solutions that benefit communities on-the-ground.

You recently proclaimed that “America is now a global leader when it comes to taking action to fight climate change.” On behalf of the millions of Americans that our organizations represent, we urge you to bring reality to your rhetoric—and be the bold climate leader that both the domestic and international communities need.

Respectfully submitted,

ActionAid USA
Center for Biological Diversity
Center for International Environmental Law
Friends of the Earth US
Greenpeace USA
Institute for Policy Studies, Climate Policy Program
Public Citizen
Sustainable Energy & Economy Network

Free Tuition for Donald Trump’s Kids?

Should average taxpayers be paying to send Donald Trump’s children to college? Hillary Clinton doesn’t think so. In last month’s Democratic presidential primary debate, she called the prospect of Trump’s kids getting free tuition the reason she opposes the Bernie Sanders proposal for tuition-free public colleges.

But other analysts see this play of the “Trump card” as a distortion of the real policy issues at stake — and an attack on the “universal benefits” principle so essential to building an egalitarian society.

For starters, these analysts point out, the kids of the really rich don’t go to public colleges. They go to elite private schools. Free tuition at public colleges would hold little interest for them.

The perhaps more important point: Making sure that no kid from an affluent family ever gets tuition benefits at a public college would require an elaborate “means-testing” bureaucracy, with eligibility rules, lots of paperwork, appeals processes, and the like.

The more rigorous the means testing, the greater the burden on applicants. In effect, as one advocate of universal benefits puts it, “denying government benefits to rich people just makes it that much harder for less than rich people to qualify.”

So must we choose between giving the affluent a free ride or burdening less-than-affluent families? No, analysts note, we have an alternative. To prevent any potential for a “free ride,” we simply tax the rich.

In an egalitarian society, basic government programs aim to benefit everyone, and everyone shares the burden for supporting those universal benefits. Truly sharing that burden requires progressive taxation, a higher tax rate on the rich than everyone else. With progressively graduated tax rates, everyone feels a comparable pinch.

So, yes, let Donald Trump’s kids go to a public university tax-free, if they so choose. But make sure that Trump pays his full and fair tax share.

An Open Letter to the Top 1 Percent

Source: Shutterstock

Source: Shutterstock

Dear Top 1 Percenters,

Rampant economic inequality in America today, many of you seem to believe, shouldn’t particularly concern us. America, you insist, has always been about equality of opportunity, not equality of outcomes.

If we understand you correctly, America wouldn’t be America without equality of opportunity. But taking any steps that would make our nation’s actual distribution of income and wealth more equal would essentially be unforgivable socialism.

Have you thought this through? Do you really support true “equality of opportunity” for all children, yours included?

Imagine if we did have that true equality of opportunity. Your children, in such a society, would have the same opportunity to prosper as all other children. They’d have a chance to make it into the top 1 percent, just as you have.

What would that chance be, if we had true equality of opportunity? Each child of yours would have the same likelihood of ending up in the top 1 percent as any other child: 1 percent. And if you have three kids, the odds that all three of them would end up in the top 1 percent would stand at one in a million.

In fact, if we had true equality of opportunity, your kids each would be ten times more likely to end up in our poorest 10 percent than in our richest 1 percent.

You doubt that? Well, consider for a moment what true equal opportunity would mean. Take that exclusive private school your kids attend. If we had true equality of opportunity, only 1 percent of elite private school seats would go to the children of top 1 percenters. The other 99 percent of elite private school spaces would have to go to, well, the other 99 percent.

True equality of opportunity would entail some other inconveniences for your family. If everyone had the exact same opportunity, your children would only have a 1 percent shot at getting to that dear old elite college you attended. You wouldn’t be able to pull strings to get your kids admitted.

Or think about that cushy executive position in the family business that you’re holding for your oldest? To have true equality of opportunity in America, you would have to hire for that position strictly on the merits. Your son or daughter would still, of course, have a chance to win that slot, but so would every other family’s child.

That multi-million-dollar inheritance you’re planning to drop on your kids? You’d have to forget that in an America really about equality of opportunity. In a real equal-opportunity society, your kids would get no more of a financial head start than any other kids.

But none of this should give you any pause, if you truly mean what you say when you pledge your eternal support for “equal opportunity.”

With all respect, we suspect that you don’t really mean what you say. If you really did believe in meaningful equality of opportunity, you would be voluntarily be leaving 100 percent of your estate to charity. But you’re not. Even the most philanthropic of wealthy Americans make a safety net for their children their top priority in estate planning.

And almost all of you top 1 percenters don’t hesitate to use your wealth to give your children a leg up over other people’s children.

So we doubt that you support perfect equality of opportunity, or even something close to that. But you do have an alternative. A modest inequality of opportunity would be perfectly tolerable — to the vast majority of Americans — if we had as a nation more equality of outcomes.

Back a half-century ago, we did have more “equality of outcomes” in the United States than we do now. We had a much narrower gap between rich 1 percenters and everyone else. If you didn’t make it near the top 1 percent in those years, you could still be doing okay. We had a robust and growing middle class.

Contrast that to the situation today. Families that don’t make it close to the top face a life of economic insecurity — and watch the kids from that top start their lives off with a huge head start over everyone else. Do you consider that harsh reality a prescription for a safe, stable, healthy society? We don’t.

So faced with the choice between true equal opportunity and a less extreme inequality of outcome, what would be your pick?

Behind Door Number One, a world of true equality of opportunity and extreme inequality of outcome, sits a private jet for you, with the risk your children might wind up poor.

Behind Door Number Two, a mid-20th century level of inequality of opportunity and outcome, sits no private jet for you. But you do get a seat in first-class, along with the comfort of knowing your children will enjoy financial security even if they don’t have the ability to create it for themselves. Despite your rhetoric, wouldn’t you really prefer Door Number 2?

 

The Harsh Reality of ‘Ban the Box’ Reform Efforts

(Image: Shutterstock)

(Image: Shutterstock)

One in three Americans has a criminal record. Regardless of conviction, circumstances, age, and severity of crime, this record can and does have significant effect on that person’s ability to find housing, employment, education, food assistance and even essential health care.

That’s one hundred million Americans. Stunning. Thanks to cell phone video and social media, more and more of us are witnessing the injustice and brutality of racial profiling and criminalization of low-income, black, Latino, and transgender people nationwide. These realities have given rise to #BlackLivesMatter, investigations into Ferguson-type revenue extortion for minor code violations, moves to end destructive Zero Tolerance policies in poor, majority-black schools, and to reforms of unjust mandatory minimum sentencing laws. There is even a rare bi-partisan recognition that our shocking levels of mass incarceration are in need of reform.

Incremental Reform Underway

In the vein, over 6,000 federal prisoners won early release and streamed home—or to overcrowded halfway houses or immigrant detention centers—this weekend. This is a tiny fraction of the 2.2 million incarcerated people in the US, but it means everything to those released and their loved ones. And it’s arguably very important symbolically.

President Obama travelled to Newark, New Jersey in the wake of the release to highlight some obstacles that returning citizens face after release from prison. One of the most significant barriers is the barrier to employment. Studies show that job applicants who must check the box revealing criminal records are only half as likely to advance past the application process than those without records. It’s even worse for black applicants with record; they are only one-third as likely to advance in the application process.

To begin to address the pervasive problem, President Obama repeated his call to to ‘ban the box‘ for formerly incarcerated people This policy takes several forms, but usually eliminates the box on job applications which someone with a criminal record would otherwise need to check. Employers can still run background checks on the internet of course, and may inquire about criminal records later in the process. Over 100 cities and 19 states have some form of this policy. It may apply to local or state, private or public employers, depending on the legislation. Obama is calling for it at the federal level in some circumstances.

On the face of it, it’s a good first step. However, when you consider that it is black people who disproportionately have criminal records, and that employers will hire white people with criminal records over black applicants with no records, how far does it really go? Indeed, could it even give the formerly incarcerated white applicant an added advantage over the black applicant?

Other Collateral Consequences

This is just one of the many issues we must confront as the political climate has grown more intolerant of over-crowded prisons. What are formerly incarcerated people coming home to? Over-crowded halfway houses? Effectively prolonged sentences because no half-way house is available? Exclusion from over 800 occupations? No access to housing, to food assistance, to health and mental health services? Disenfranchisement? Further indenture through private parole companies? Even an initiative with the good intention of eliminating the barrier of the criminal record box on job applications may turn out to have negative consequences for some black home-comers.

Take the Injustice Out of the Criminal Justice System

Wouldn’t it be better not to lock up so many people in the first place? Mass incarceration and the ‘war on crime’ didn’t decrease the crime rate. Indeed violent crime rate came down aswe started reducing the prison population. Children suspended, expelled and referred to the juvenile justice system haven’t been helped. They’ve been sentenced to a stunning lack of opportunity and a drastically increased possibility of much more time behind bars as adults.

The black unemployment rate still hovers around 10%, nearly double that of whites in October 2015. The poverty rate for black Americans is nearly three times higher than that of whites. Though black children make up only 18% of the preschool population, they are about half of those suspended. We’re talking 3- and 4-year-olds. Black schoolgirls are six times more likely to be suspended than their white peers. And all black students are three times more likely to experience suspensions, expulsions and referrals to the criminal justice system than their white peers for similar offenses. Over 70% of suspensions, expulsions and referrals are of black and Latino students.

And this matters. Just one suspension doubles a child’s chances of never finishing high school. Children with expulsions are three times more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system. Once in the juvenile justice system, that child’s re-incarceration by age 25 is nearly 70%.

It’s madness. It’s racist. It’s unjust. It’s inhumane. Bringing home 6,000 federal prisoners a few months early and delaying disclosure of criminal records for federal job applicants are both better steps to take than no action at all. Indeed it represents a positive change in the way we think about mass-incarceration and obstacles to re-entry. It no doubt will have a trickle-down effect to state prisons and state laws where the vast majority of people are suffering unjustly. But is a “trickle-down” effect enough?

 

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