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Risky War Business

From the Islamic State to the streets of Paris, Americans get bombarded daily with fresh reminders of conflicts around the world.

What’s harder to figure out is what to do about it. What would actually make us safer?

Some politicians urge kneejerk reactions. Spend more on the Pentagon, they say. But one thing’s clear after years of over-relying on military force: It can actually make us less secure.

You don’t have to take my word for it.

When journalist Bob Schieffer asked recently if he had regrets about invading Iraq, former president George W. Bush lamented that “a violent group of people have risen — risen up again.”

Bush can find one of the culprits for this sad development by looking in the mirror. Without that invasion and the sectarian chaos it unleashed, there would be no Islamic State (ISIS). What will it take for the U.S. government to grasp that short-term military solutions create long-term crises?

Sadly, our leaders remain hooked on military “solutions,” which too often make the world more dangerous.

In fact, President Barack Obama’s 2016 funding request for the Pentagon’s base budget is the biggest in U.S. history. Total military expenditures, including nuclear weapons and war spending, gobble up well over half of the nation’s discretionary budget — even as we continue to draw down troops from Afghanistan.

Much of that budget growth funds weapons systems unsuited to today’s battlefields. Washington’s spending billions to pad the pockets of Pentagon industry insiders who reap record profits while doing little to enhance national security.

The American people must demand a new definition of security — both at home and abroad — that means more than new and bigger guns.

In the Middle East, that means diplomatically engaging countries directly threatened by the Islamic State. It also means taking common-sense steps — like providing economic and humanitarian assistance — to address the “ISIS crisis” in a way that creates friends, not enemies.

“What matters more to American security?” Senator Chris Murphy asked when funding for food assistance for Syrian refugees was running out. “One day of missiles being fired at ISIS inside Syria? Or being able to feed hundreds of thousands of hungry refugees, who, if they don’t get a square meal…are going to turn to ISIS?”

Sadly, our leaders are better at finding money for weapons than for food. With budget priorities like that, we’ve got problems back home, too.

Public investment in America’s future — on roads, schools, and scientific research — is at historic lows. And the government has slashed spending on a wide range of vital programs that provide security and opportunity for American families since 2010.

Last year, domestic discretionary spending fell by some $15 billion, while the Pentagon used its massive slush fund — the Overseas Contingency Operations account — to escape any significant cuts at all.

As Congress ponders the federal budget, it must focus on what will really make our families more secure. Reining in wasteful Pentagon spending is one great way to get started.

But cutting the security of Americans at home — including our education, health care, retirement, and child care — hits us where we live.

Richard Kirsch is a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and the author of Fighting for Our Health: The Epic Battle to Make Health Care a Right in the United States. He’s also a senior advisor to USAction. USAction.org

Distributed by OtherWords.org.

Photo: A soldier assigned to the International Security Assistance Force patrols the streets of Mazar-e Sharif. (Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Jonathan Chandler, via Wikimedia Commons)

Obama’s ‘Middle-Class Economics’ Has To Be About Fairness And Prosperity

The fairer “middle-class economics” policies described in the State of the Union are also the right ones to help the economy grow.

In coining the new term “middle-class economics” and linking it to raising wages and taxing the rich and Wall Street to put money in the pockets of working families, President Obama used his State of the Union address to ask the public that most potent of political questions: “Which side are you on?” And as Republicans say no to improving wages and making college more affordable in order to defend the super rich, Americans will get a clear answer. That’s a sure win for Democrats.

But the president’s explanation of middle-class economics downplayed an important part of the story: it’s not just about fairness, it’s about how we create prosperity.

With the term “middle-class economics,” the president is creating a contrast between economic programs aimed at boosting the middle class and the Republican agenda of shrinking government and lowering taxes for corporations. But Obama’s use of the term missed an opportunity to drive home to the American public that middle-class economics is not just about fairness, but also about moving the economy forward.

Obama defined middle-class economics as “the idea that this country does best when everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.” That is one of the president’s favorite phrases. But for all its appeal, it does not explain how middle-class economics drives economic progress and increases wealth. He fails to replace the Republican story that cutting government, taxes, and regulation are the keys to economic growth.

The president actually included such an explanation of what drives the economy in his 2013 State of the Union address, when he said: “It is our generation’s task, then, to reignite the true engine of America’s economic growth: a rising, thriving middle class.”

Democrats need to firmly claim both the grounds of fairness and prosperity. As I recently wrote, “The policies that do the most to bolster fairness are in fact the most powerful policies to move the economy forward and create broadly shared prosperity.”

This is an easy case to make, as it’s true for most of the policies in the president’s middle-class economic agenda.

To take just one example, raising the minimum wage is not just about basic fairness for low-wage workers. Raising wages is about creating economy-boosting jobs instead of economy-busting jobs. When wages are raised, workers have more money to spend—essential when 70 percent of the economy is made up of consumer spending.

The president’s tax proposals are also about more than just the unfairness of a tax code riddled, as he said, “with giveaways the super rich don’t need, denying a break to middle-class families who do.” His proposed taxes on risky bank speculation move that money to invest in vital infrastructure. When he proposes raising taxes on the rich, who already have more money than they can spend, and using those funds to make community colleges more affordable, he’s putting that money into the economy and investing in people’s skills to contribute to economic progress.

Fairness is a very powerful American value. That’s why the most successful Democratic candidates in 2014 made it clear that they were on the side of working families against Wall Street.

But the reason that fairness is so powerful is because of the contrast between the few with vast wealth and what Americans most want, to be able to care for and support their families. We value prosperity and security. That is why it is essential that Democrats can tell a clear story about how we move the economy forward. Middle-class economics is about more than fairness – it’s about how working families and the middle class drive the economy.

Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Advisor to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.

Cross-posted from the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog.

The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Photo: President Barack Obama delivers the State of The Union address on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015, in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

Van Hollen Tax Proposal An Economic And Political Home Run

By forcing Republicans to admit their support for Wall Street over working families, Van Hollen’s proposal opens the economic debate the Democrats need.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen’s (D-MD) proposal to tax Wall Street speculators and CEO millionaires to put money in the pockets of working families and the middle class, the engines of our economy, is a political and economic home run. It allows Democrats to focus on economic growth and fairness at the same time, sharply defining the debate on the key question voters ask: “Which side are you on?”

Leading politicians from both parties are all expressing sympathy for the stagnant prospects of the middle class. If you need evidence, here is Jeb Bush sounding like Elizabeth Warren: “Millions of our fellow citizens across the broad middle class feel as if the American Dream is now out of their reach … that the playing field is no longer fair or level.”

Where the two parties split – and where the core debate that will define the next two years and the 2016 election lies – is on who is to blame and what to do about it.

Americans believe we need economic growth, but they are more likely to place the blame for stagnant wages on the super-rich and powerful who game the system at their expense. That is why they told pollsters they prefer “an economy that works for all of us, not just the wealthy” over “growing the economy” by 22 points.

Van Hollen claims both grounds – growth and fairness. As he says, “What our country needs is a growing economy that works for all Americans, not just the wealthy few.”

The heart of the plan is providing a $1,000 tax credit for workers, phased out as income rises, along with an additional $250 tax credit when workers save. He would pay for that by taxing Wall Street speculation (with a tiny financial transactions tax) and closing loopholes that allow millionaires to pay lower taxes than average people.

It’s clear that this is great politics: taxing Wall Street gambling and the super-rich to put more money in the pockets of working families and the middle class.

Republicans tell another story, placing the blame for middle-class woes on government and focusing on lowering taxes and cutting government regulation to grow the economy. In opposing the Van Hollen proposal, they are forced to defend the wealthy and deny tax breaks to the middle class, as we saw from Speaker John Boehner’s spokesperson’s comment opposing the Van Hollen plan.

This is the economic argument Democrats want to have. Republicans say we grow the economy by taking the side of the Wall Street banks that wrecked the economy and the corporate CEOs who cut our wages and shipped our jobs overseas. Democrats say we move the economy forward by putting more money in the pockets of working families and the middle class.

Van Hollen adds another proposal, which is also brilliant politics and sharp economics. He would not allow corporations to get tax breaks for million-dollar executive pay unless they shared the rewards of soaring corporate profits with their workers. Van Hollen accomplishes this by proposing to end corporate tax deductions for executive compensation of over $1 million, unless the corporation’s wages are raised enough to keep up with worker productivity and the cost of living. Another way that corporations could deduct higher executive pay is by providing employees with ownership and profit-sharing opportunities.

With this proposal, Van Hollen puts the focus squarely on the corporate behavior that has driven down wages and crushed middle-class aspirations. His proposal would boost worker income, which drives the economy forward. When Republicans oppose this, the choice will again be clear to Americans: CEO millionaires or working families.

As Van Hollen recognizes, his proposal is not the complete solution to creating an economy of broadly shared, sustainable prosperity. He recognizes the need to raise wages and job standards, which directly turn today’s low-wage, economy-busting jobs into economy-boosting jobs. He reinforces the necessity of investment in infrastructure, research and education.

It will be important to do all these things. We need to raise wage standards and strengthen the ability of workers to organize, to make sure that every job pays enough to care for and support a family in dignity. It is essential that we make huge investments in transportation, clean energy, communications, and research to build a powerful economic foundation for the future. That investment will take revenues, which can be raised from closing corporate loopholes, raising tax rates on the wealthy, or other progressive tax measures. We can also discuss whether some of the revenues Van Hollen raises would be better spent on infrastructure rather than tax breaks for upper-middle-income people.

Simplicity is key to political communication. In its simplest terms, Van Hollen is saying that we drive the economy forward by putting money in the pockets of working families and the middle class, not Wall Street and the super-wealthy. And then his proposal invites Americans to ask their elected officials: “Which side are you on?”

If Democrats around the country are willing to stand up to their big campaign contributors and ask that question with such a powerful proposal in 2016, they will triumph. And in triumphing, they will move the country toward an America that works for all of us, not just the wealthy.

Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.

Cross-posted from the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog.

The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Photo: Talk Radio News Service via Flickr

Chuck Schumer And The Democrats’ Identity Crisis: Economic Policy Vs. Rhetoric

A populist message won’t be enough to save the Democratic Party if its leaders continue to serve Wall Street.

Two weeks before New York senator Charles Schumer once again delivered for Wall Street with the omnibus budget deal, he gave a major speech in which he sounded like a progressive champion. Schumer offered a stirring defense of government as the only force that can stand up to the private sector’s attack on the middle class, and argued that for Democrats to “roll to victory in 2016… First, we must convince Americans that government can be on their side and is not just a tool of special interests.”

Schumer is not just any Democrat. He led the successful election efforts for Democratic senators in 2006 and 2008, is number three in the Democratic Senate leadership, where he is responsible for policy and communications, and he sits on several of the most powerful Senate committees. His speech at the National Press Club on November 25 was billed as a major analysis of why Democrats did so badly in the midterms and how they should chart a path to victory in 2016.

Unfortunately, Schumer embodies the contradictions that will tear the Democratic Party apart over the next two years. He understands the need to embrace a populist, progressive narrative and program, but his ties to Wall Street and big money lead him to blunt any real moves by Democrats to take a bold stand for working people against corporate power.

The budget proposal to allow more government bailouts of banks that gamble with their depositors’ money was a huge lost opportunity for Democrats to paint Republicans as being on the side of the big banks that wrecked the economy. That opportunity was negated by President Obama’s pushing for the budget and Senator Schumer’s stealth maneuvers (widely known in Congress) to keep the Wall Street deal intact. As a result, the leaders of both parties demonstrated, as they’ve done before, that government is in fact on the side of the rich and powerful.

Schumer knows that this is a problem if Democrats hope to win at the polls. While his speech at the National Press Club got a lot of attention for his negative comments about the president’s strategy on the Affordable Care Act, those remarks were only a small part of a long analysis that has a lot in common with progressive views of the economy and the role of government. Some highlights:

The most salient factor in our political economy is that for the first time in American history, middle-class incomes have been in decline for over a decade… The powerful have much more access and influence over government and specific and strong actions must be taken to curb that influence so government can really represent the average person… We must illustrate that government can provide solutions by delineating specific concrete programs that if enacted would actually improve lives and incomes… We must convince the middle class that the only way out of their morass is by a stronger and effective government, not by demeaning or running from it…

When large forces harness power and push you around, you need a large after force to stand up to — to stand up for you. The only force that can give you the tools to stand up to the large tectonic forces that can mitigate the effects that technology creates on your income is an active and committed government that is on your side.

Schumer highlights the same key economic fact that progressives emphasize: wages have not kept up with productivity. But it is in his explanation of what is behind stagnant wages that he departs from progressives. For Schumer, “it can be described in one word — technology. Technology allows capital to garner [a] far greater share of increases.” He goes on to note globalization as another factor.

Schumer leaves out the powerful political forces that drove down wages. The biggest omission is his total failure to discuss the role of Wall Street in wrecking the economy and, more broadly, in driving down wages at the expense of corporate profits. Schumer, who as much as anyone in government is responsible for unleashing Wall Street, is incapable of making that case. A leading champion of banking deregulation, he has collected more than $20 million in campaign contributions from the financial sector, more than any other senator who hasn’t run for president.

And it’s not just Wall Street that Schumer leaves out of the story. It is also the corporate attack on labor unions and on labor standards.  He makes no mention of the slashing of taxes on unearned income, so that the rich pay lower taxes than the rest of us, or of the gutting of corporate tax collection. Where are the corporate villains – abetted by both political parties – who have enriched themselves at the expense of American families while driving down taxes and government investment in the public structures that are foundations of a powerful economy?

Schumer emphasizes that Democrats need a policy program to go along with their message of being on the side of the middle class, but he punts on what ideas they should propose, saying, “In the coming weeks and months we will have this debate within the Democratic Party.” Still, he declares that the Democratic program must be “attainable and effective, which means they must work politically.” That’s a recipe for more small-bore ideas, which will neither meet the big challenges facing the country nor inspire people.

In his conclusion, Schumer again asserts that what can unite Democrats “from Elizabeth Warren to Hillary Clinton to Joe Manchin” is working to “convince middle-class Americans that we are the party that will put government back on their side… and passing legislation that is effective and acutely focused on reversing the middle class decline.”

Richard Nixon’s attorney general John Mitchell famously said, “Watch what we do, not what we say.” But in today’s world of minute-to-minute coverage and social media, that isn’t so easy to pull off. CREDO Action, one of the big progressive netroots groups, immediately called out Schumer, along with President Obama and other Democrats who enabled the Wall Street budget deal.

Schumer is a brilliant politician and legislative tactician, but the reality of the corporate attack on American workers will overwhelm any messaging gloss that Democrats can put on it. He’s right; Democrats will have to take sides between working families and the middle class or the super-rich and CEO campaign contributors.

Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Advisor to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.

Cross-posted from the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog.

The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Photo: Third Way via Flickr