Friday, April 17, 2015

New Kansas law picks the pockets of the poor while humiliating them in the process

By Marc Jampole

When Republicans support or pass a law to address a non-problem, they usually have an ulterior motive. Take the slew of recent state laws making it harder to vote. The stated rationale behind these laws is to prevent voter fraud, a complete non-problem since there is virtually no voter fraud perpetrated by individual voters anywhere in the country. The ulterior motive is to make it harder for the poor and minorities to vote.

The state of Kansas presents the most recent example of using a non-existent problem to ram through legislation that has as its goal something completely different, and devious. The Republican-dominated state legislature has passed and Republican Governor Sam Brownback has signed a law that limits where people who receive cash assistance can spend their money and also limits how much they can withdraw in any single day.

The new Kansaslaw prevents those receiving state cash assistance from spending it on alcohol, cigarettes, tobacco products, lottery tickets, concert tickets, professional or collegiate sporting events, tickets for entertainment events intended for the general public or sexually oriented adult materials. Among the more than 20 types of retail establishments where poor people can’t spend their public assistance money are bail bond companies, movie theatres, swimming pools, jewelry stores and spas. 

To this progressive, these holier-than-thou Kansas lawmakers are imposing their value system on the poor living in their state in a particularly humiliating way. They are essentially saying that if you’re poor, you don’t deserve to enjoy your life, nor do you have the ability to make wise decisions about how to spend money. The law prevents the poor from using their welfare to take their kids to a public swimming pool or to sit in the “cheap seats” at a baseball game.

Kansas reserves this moral harshness for the poor. There are no restrictions on fast-food franchise owners, whose businesses are subsidized because their employees receive so little in wages they qualify for state benefits. Fast-food franchise owners can spend their state subsidy on anything they like. There are also only loose restrictions on how businesses spend the funds they get from tax rebates and other state government support. No state auditor inspects a business office to make sure the business didn’t buy expensive luxury furniture, pay themselves too much money or subscribe to non-essential magazines.

I know that conservatives will disagree, averring that we need to treat our poor with “tough love,” instead of incentivizing poverty.

But we don’t even have to get into a discussion of the rights of those who receive cash assistance to evaluate the efficacy of this new law. All we have to do is look at the facts to see that Kansas is addressing a non-problem.  A 2014 federal report showed that less than one percent of all cash assistance in eight states it studied was spent at liquor stores, casinos or strip clubs. In other words, it’s not really a problem. In other words, those receiving cash assistance do not spend it frivolously or on goods and services that offend some people’s sense of morality. 

We know what the non-problem is that the new Kansas law is trying to solve. The question is what is the ulterior motive? What are these Republican lawmakers really trying to do?

The answer lies in the payment system, I believe. The poor don’t get a check anymore, they get an ATM/debit card, which is why the state can so confidently ban purchases at particular locations like swimming pools and movie theatres.

It usually costs money to extract cash using an ATM card, an average of $4.35 pertransaction nationally, according to The $25 limit per day means that the poor have to keep coming back to get more money, racking up additional transactional fees. The law prohibits a clever and frugal poor person from getting all her or his money at once to save on fees. 

It’s worse than you think, because, as Elizabeth Lower-Basch, director at Center for Law and Social Policy, an advocacy group for low-income people, notes, virtually no ATM machine gives out $5 bills, so the real limit is $20. At $4.35 a transaction, that’s a more than 20% fee that the poor have to pay to get access to their cash.

What a windfall for financial institutions! 

I think all the other restrictions in the new Kansas law are meant as window-dressing and a diversion from the true purpose of this law—to take from the poor and give to the wealthy, in this case the financial institutions that charge withdrawal fees on those receiving cash assistance. The real reason for the law is not to humiliate the poor, but to divert some of the money earmarked for them to financial institutions.

It’s an interesting twist on the basic Republican economic playbook, which has been to fund massive tax cuts to the wealthy by cutting government spending on everything except the military and the security state apparatus. In this case, the Kansas state government is sanctioning the kind of usury we associate with payday loans and sub-prime used-car loans.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Hillary will win in November unless Americans want to end Social Security, Medicare & aid to public schools

By Marc Jampole

Now the media attacks on Hillary will begin in earnest, if for no other reason than there is nothing much else to say about the campaign to become the 2016 Democratic nominee for President of the United States. Hillary has name recognition, a distinguished record, high scores for likeability and big donors. The current president is on her side. She has no heavyweight competition and a lead in the polls unparalleled for a non-incumbent in the history of American elections. She has pretty much shut down the competition early, just as Bush II did in 2000.

But there are still papers to print, broadcast space to fill, Internet pages to launch. The mainstream media has to pretend that it is covering the Democratic side, even though as in 2010 and 2014—the off-year elections that gave Republicans a gerrymandered dominance in Congressional districts for years—the media will give much wider coverage to the differences between conservative Republicans like Jeb Bush and rightwing loonies like Ted Cruz than they will to the differences between Democratic centrists and progressives. It really shouldn’t surprise anyone that the mainstream media favors coverage of Republicans and twists issues rightward. Their owners, after all, tend to be conservative rich folk.

Early returns suggest the following as the main themes the media will use to cover Hillary Clinton’s inevitable march to the Democratic nomination:
·         Scrounge up old scandals or fabricate new ones.
·         Try to make it appear as if Hillary is a stolid, uninspiring or wonkish speaker, which is a standard accusation that Republicans have made against all of the recent Democratic candidates for president, including Dukakis, Gore, Kerry and even Clinton—everyone but Barack Obama. Him they called a rock star! In retrospect, I wonder if the Republicans were just too racist to admit that an African-American could be smart enough to be boring.
·         Exaggerate the differences between Hillary and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.
·         Focus on the past peccadilloes of Bill Clinton or wonder whether he is being intrusive or a distraction on the campaign trail.
·         Isolate poorly worded statements for signals that Hillary really doesn’t care about the poor, but is just another “rich bitch.”
·         Speculate on whether America is ready for a woman president, and whether Hillary is putting too much or too little emphasis on her gender.

The mainstream media will leave it to Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, the National Rifle Association and the Republican candidates to paint Hillary as an America-hating, male-emasculating atheist socialist who wants to destroy the economy, although the mainstream will cover the Republican candidates smearing Hillary with various crimes and misdemeanors.
Note that none of these story ideas focus on the issues. Focusing on the issues would show the stark differences between Democrats and Republicans and help swing the vote to Hillary Clinton.

Paul Krugman made the case for voting the Democratic party line in The New York Times by listing the various critical issues on which all Democrats and all Republicans seem to disagree: Virtually all Democrats want to maintain and grow Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, preserve the Affordable Care Act (ACA), raise taxes on the wealthy, preserve the 2010 financial reforms and respond to global warming (which Krugman politely calls “climate change”). Virtually all Republicans want to cut social insurance programs, destroy the ACA, lower taxes on the wealthy, deregulate financial markets and block any attempt to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

No progressives in their right mind will make the mistake many made in 2000 and vote for a third-party candidate or stay home from the polls. We see what happened when votes for Ralph Nader allowed Bush II to sneak into office and bring us the botched responses to 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, the Iraq War, a shameful torture gulag, lower taxes on the wealthy, a booming deficit and a financial crisis. The differences between Hillary Clinton and the least rightwing Republican contender Jeb Bush are far greater than the differences between Gore and what Bush II was mouthing in 2000.

Those who follow the news know the stakes are high—a Republican Senate, House and presidency could bring severe cuts to Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, public education and other important programs for the poor and middle class, all to finance more tax breaks for the wealthy. The similarities of the Democrats on these core domestic issues will moderate the tone of any debate between Hillary and other candidates. And even if there is a spirited campaign battle pitting Hillary against an attractive progressive candidate, most Democrats will fall into line and vote for Hillary in the fall.

If they know what’s at stake, they will have no choice. Despite Hillary’s hawkishness on foreign policy and connections to Wall Street money, she still supports traditional Democratic positions on economic and social issues. 

That’s why the key for a Hillary Clinton victory in 2016 is not so much to articulate the centrist Democratic line she espouses but to remind voters of the rightwing economic ideology that drives the current Republican Party.