Month: December 2018

Turning Brexit Into A Celebration Of Democracy

Paradoxically, while the current Brexit impasse is pregnant with risk, the British should welcome it. Their discontent with the choices before them is an opportunity, not a curse, and more democracy is the antidote, not the disease.

Discontent without end looms over Britain. Leavers and Remainers are equally despondent. Her Majesty’s Government and the Labour opposition are equally divided. The United Kingdom is deeply divided between a Europhile Scotland and a Euroskeptic England, between pro-EU English cities (including London) and anti-EU coastal and northern towns. Neither the working nor the ruling class can unite behind any of the Brexit options making the rounds in the House of Commons. Is it any wonder that so many Britons feel anxious and let down by their political system?

And yet, paradoxically, while the current Brexit impasse is pregnant with risk, the British should welcome it. Since 1945, the Europe question has obscured at least eight other questions fundamental to Britain – about itself, its political institutions, and its place in the world. Brexit is now bringing all of them to the fore, and the prevailing discontent is the first condition of addressing them. Indeed, Brexit may empower British democracy to resolve several of the country’s long-standing crises.

First, there is the Irish question. Though partly settled by the Good Friday Agreement a generation ago, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party is re-opening it by insisting that the province, which is part of the UK, must not in any way be distinguished from, say, Wales or the Home Counties.

The Scottish question has been revived as well. Just two years after Scotland’s failed independence referendum in 2014 left nationalists deflated, the 2016 Brexit referendum put wind in their sails again.

There is an English question as well. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s incomplete devolution made the English the UK’s only people not to have their own dedicated assembly or parliament, leaving them dependent on a Westminster parliament that many feel is distant and unrepresentative of their concerns.

Brexit also stress-tested a rigid political party system forged by a first-past-the-post electoral system that limits competition to existing players. As a result, Britain’s parties have come to function like cartels of conflicting agendas.

The 2016 referendum also highlighted the question of direct democracy’s role in British politics. Given growing calls for a second referendum, when and how popular votes should be held must be addressed sooner rather than later.

But the role of representative democracy must be addressed as well. Brexit exposed the myth of the sovereignty of the House of Commons when, in the process of leaving the EU, the government denied Parliament any real say even in how EU legislation should be transcribed into UK law.

Brexit also unleashed pent-up frustration with austerity, which took the form of a moral panic about migration. Free movement of people within the EU obscured the role of domestic budget cuts in curtailing public services and social housing, making an uptick in xenophobia inevitable.

Finally, since the mid-1980s, following Margaret Thatcher’s willful vandalism of British industry, the UK economy has relied on “the kindness of strangers.” No other European economy, except Ireland, has needed such large infusions of foreign capital to make ends meet. This is why Britain relies on cheapness: low taxes, low wages, zero-hour contracts, and unregulated finance. If Britain is to move beyond the troika of low skills, low productivity, and slow growth, its citizens must re-think their place in the global economy. Brexit is a splendid opportunity to do so, while shunning calls for even lower wages, taxes, and regulation.

With weeks left before the UK leaves the EU by default, none of the three main options on offer – a no-deal Brexit, Prime Minister Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement with the EU, and rescinding Article 50 in order to remain in the EU – commands a majority in Parliament or among the population. Each generates maximum discontent: The no-deal scenario strikes most as a dangerous plunge into the unknown. May’s deal appalls Remainers and is seen by most Leavers as the kind of document only a country defeated at war would sign. Lastly, a Brexit reversal would confirm Leavers’ belief that democracy is allowed only when it yields results favored by the London establishment.

The conventional wisdom in Britain is that this impasse is lamentable, and that it proves the failure of British democracy. I disagree on both counts. If any of the three immediately available options were endorsed, say, in a second referendum, discontent would increase and the larger questions plaguing the UK would remain unanswered. Britons’ reluctance to endorse any Brexit option at present is, from this perspective, a sign of collective wisdom and a rare opportunity to come to terms with the country’s great challenges while re-thinking the UK’s relationship with the EU. But to seize it, the UK must invest in a “People’s Debate,” leading, in time, to a “People’s Decision.”

The People’s Debate must address six issues: the British constitution, including the creation of an English parliament or multiple regional English assemblies; the electoral system and the role of referenda; the Irish question, including the possibility of joint UK-Irish sovereignty over Northern Ireland; migration and freedom of movement; Britain’s economic model, particularly the outsize role of finance and the need to boost green investment across the country; and of course the UK-EU relationship.

To be democratic, the People’s Debate must take place in regional assemblies, leading to a national convention, where a menu of options is finalized before the next House of Commons translates them into referendum questions that will enable the People’s Decision by 2022. Thus, the UK government must secure a transition period after the country formally leaves the EU on March 29, lasting at least until the people can decide three years later.

During the transition period, the UK should remain in the EU customs union and the single market, with freedom of movement and full rights for EU nationals in the UK. Then, in 2022, voters can choose whether to stay in the customs union and the single market, exit completely, or apply to re-enter the EU as a full member.

When discontent is as plentiful as in Britain today, abundant democracy is our best bet.

The Shutdown And The Economic Precipice

Trump said Friday “we are totally prepared for a very long shut down.” It was one of his rare uses of the pronoun “we” instead of his preferred—and in this case far more appropriate—“I.”

The shutdown is indubitably his. Congress offered him a way to continue funding the government without the money to build his nonsensical wall along the Mexican border, but Trump caved in to the rabid right-wing media and refused.

I was in Bill Clinton’s cabinet when Newt Gingrich pulled the plug on the federal government in 1996. It wasn’t a pretty picture. A long shutdown hurts millions of people who rely on government for services and paychecks.

Trump’s shutdown also adds to growing worries about the economy. The stock market is on track for the worst December since the Great Depression. World markets have lost nearly $7 trillion in 2018, making it the worst year since the 2008 financial crisis.

The shutdown is stoking fears that Trump could do something even more alarming. He might fail to authorize an increase in government borrowing before the federal debt reaches the current limit, which Congress extended to March 2. A default by the United States on its obligations would be more calamitous than a government shutdown.

All this brings us closer to the economic precipice. It worsens America’s most fundamental economic problem.

Economies depend first and foremost on spending. Otherwise, there’s no reason to produce goods and services. In the United States, consumer spending constitutes about 70 percent of total demand. The rest comes from government and exports.

Export markets are in trouble. Europe’s and China’s economies were already slowing before Trump’s trade wars added to the stresses.

And even before the shutdown, U.S. government spending was hobbled by a large debt, which Trump’s tax cut for big corporations and the wealthy has further enlarged.

Don’t count on American consumers to come to the rescue. Most Americans are still living in the shadow of the Great Recession that started in December 2007 and officially ended in June 2009. More Americans have jobs, to be sure, but their pay has barely risen when adjusted for inflation. Many are worse off due to the escalating costs of housing, healthcare, and education.

Trump has added to their financial burdens by undermining the Affordable Care Act, rolling back overtime pay, restricting labor unions, allowing states to cut Medicaid, and imposing tariffs that increase the prices of many goods.

America’s wealthy, meanwhile, have been taking home a growing portion of the nation’s total income. But the rich spend a small fraction of what they earn. The economy depends on the spending of middle, working-class and poor families.

The only way these Americans have continued to spend is by going deeper into debt. By the third quarter of this year, household debt had reached a record $13.5 trillion. Almost 80 percent of Americans are now living paycheck to paycheck.

This isn’t sustainable. Even if the Fed weren’t raising interest rates—an unwise move under these circumstances—consumers would still be in trouble. Mortgage, auto, and student-debt delinquencies are already mounting.

The last time household debt was nearly this high was in 2007, just before the Great Recession. Similarly, between 1913 and 1928, the ratio of personal debt to the total national economy nearly doubled. Then came the Great Crash

See a pattern?

The Sanders Institute Gathering 2018


Press Release:

The Sanders Institute has announced their inaugural conference, The Sanders Institute Gathering. Scheduled to be held in Burlington Vermont, from Thursday, November 29th through Saturday, December 1st, 2018, the array of speakers comes from both the national and international progressive communities.

Founded in 2017 on the belief that a vital democracy requires an informed electorate, civil discourse and bold ideas, The Sanders Institute focuses on progressive solutions to economic, environmental, racial and social justice issues.

The event will host elected officials, organizers, educators, economists, writers, artists and emerging leaders from a full spectrum of experience and expertise and will be live streamed through The Sanders Institute social media.

Mayors Carmen Yulin Cruz (San Juan, Puerto Rico), Bill deBlasio (New York, NY), Ada Colau (Barcelona, Spain) and Michael Tubbs (Stockton, CA) will be on a Mayor’s Roundtable. Labor leaders such as UE President Peter Knowlton, APWU President Mark Dimondstein, NNU Co-President Jean Ross and former NNU Executive Director RoseAnn Demoro will be speaking. Yanis Varoufakis (former Finance Minister of Greece), Niki Ashton (Member of Canadian Parliament), Bernie Sanders (Vermont Senator), David McWilliams (Irish author/economist) and others will discuss international cooperation and the need for a Progressive International movement. Other speakers include well-known names like Danny Glover, Stephanie Kelton, Shaun King, Naomi Klein, Ben Jealous, Tulsi Gabbard, Winona LaDuke, Bill McKibben, Nina Turner, Simon Sinek, Cenk Uygur and James Zogby. Other exemplary researchers and policy developers like Jane Kim, Robert Pollin, Chirlane McCray, Michael Weinstein, Radhika Balakrishnan, Matt Nelson, Brenda Torpy, Joseph Geevargese, Karin Ryan, Jo Beardsmore, Diane Archer and John Davis and many more will be part of the program – which includes fifteen of the Institute’s eighteen fellows. More information on the conference and speakers can be found at

Jane Sanders, Co-Founder & Fellow, said “the selection of topics and speakers will ensure that the conference is insightful and relevant, as we discuss some of our nation’s most pressing issues and share innovative solutions. Medicare for All, the climate crisis, housing issues, criminal justice, workers’ rights, international cooperation, civil rights and austerity in Puerto Rico are some of the issues that will be addressed.”

“Social justice, economic justice and human dignity will be focuses threaded throughout the conference,” said Driscoll, concluding, “The core intent of The Sanders Institute Gathering is to share replicable policies, develop actionable steps, establish ongoing networks and articulate a progressive vision.”

$3.5 Trillion On Healthcare Each Year And We’re Still Uninsured, Underinsured, And Unhappy

It’s time for a reality check when it comes to universal healthcare. Usually, that means those with an idealistic vision of equity and justice must give it up in favor a more achievable program.  But in this case, the reality of what’s achievable exceeds the low expectations and compromises that have for decades limited the healthcare reform debate.

Providing this reality check on how we turn from our wasteful healthcare industry to a system of guaranteed healthcare is a new study by the PERI at UMass-Amherst whose lead author is noted labor economist Robert Pollin. Through a comprehensive literature review and rigorous empirical work, the study shows the average worker getting a 9% raise, and businesses saving 8% of payroll, as health outcomes improve, costs go lower and the economy benefits.

Through a comprehensive literature review and rigorous empirical work, the study shows the average worker getting a 9% raise, and businesses saving 8% of payroll, as health outcomes improve, costs go lower and the economy benefits.

Contrary to the doom and gloom of the latest healthcare spending numbers for the US—$3.5 Trillion overall annually, $10,739 per person, now exceeding 18% of GDP while providing worse outcomes, lower quality and shorter life expectancy than any other industrialized country—the Pollin study shows we can guarantee healthcare to all US residents by improving Medicare, and expanding it to everybody.

The study answers the proverbial question—“But how do we pay for it?”—by utilizing the existing public sources that account for 60% of current financing, eliminating commercial insurance premiums, co-pays and deductibles, and replacing those with a combination of payroll taxes substantially less than employers are paying now, an upper income tax that makes the wealthy pay their fair share, and a sales tax on non-necessities.

Paying for the new improved healthcare system is easier because of the cost savings achieved by S 1804, Senator Sanders Medicare for All Act of 2017, which the study reviewed. S 1804 eliminates administrative waste and inefficiencies—the claims denial, pre-authorizations, marketing costs, and profits of the insurance companies, and improves service delivery. Through negotiations modeled on other countries and the VA, the bill lowers prescription drug prices by an estimated 40%, and sets rates for providers based on Medicare, saving an additional 3% overall.

The study shows that as we cover everybody with decent benefits, costs will likely rise about 12 percent. This is not surprising. People will seek care once barriers are eliminated since there are 28 million uninsured, and 30 percent of people with insurance coverage find themselves underinsured (nearly half of Americans went without some treatment in the last year because they couldn’t afford it according).  But that cost increase is more than offset by the savings achieved under “single-payer” financing.

It’s important to note that these savings are not available under a multi-payer system, under a system of Medicare buy-in, or via proposals that keep tens of millions of workers in commercial insurance plans.  In such schemes, the administration costs for providers do not substantially decrease; 20% of the tax subsidies to buy insurance are wasted on overhead, marketing and profits; the leverage to set rates is not as strong; and individual purchase (“buy-in”) undermines the social insurance model that spreads costs. Nor can we expect to just cut prescription drug prices and leave insurance company rates and hospital charges untouched.

A key policy issue is the transition to an improved Medicare for All system. For seniors increasingly burdened by co-pays, or restricted access to providers through Medicare Advantage plans, improvement is urgent.  Medicare for All in the first year means the inclusion of dental, vision and hearing, as well as expanded long term care benefits, and no more co-pays. (While Pollin promotes a one year transition, the bill provides for a four year phase-in.)

Most important is to transition those people working in the health insurance industry, and in the administration of health services, out of those jobs in a secure way. The Pollin study addresses the “just transition” for workers through an income guarantee, complete protection of pension benefits, and job training. The estimated cost to the system is $30 billion per year for two years, again reflecting the reality of what it takes to create a restructured health system.

That restructuring cannot happen quickly enough as we head toward a future of fragmented insurance markets, corporate healthcare silos like the CVS-AETNA company, “on your own your own care” via telemedicine, and diminished safety net programs.

Our health is not a commodity to profit from, nor is it a welfare program to be minimized or privatized. The alternative—as the PERI study shows so clearly—is a just, equitable financing system of guaranteed healthcare for all. Yes, we can get more and pay less.

The biggest change that would come is not financial: we can end the anxiety over healthcare. We can win peace of mind!

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz – I Know There’s A Path

The reality of climate change will require leaders like San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz. Hit with Hurricanes Maria and Irma in 2017, Puerto Rico lost at least 2,975 lives and estimates that it will cost $139 billion to fully recover. Since ascending to a national platform for unabashedly calling out President Donald Trump over his disastrous response to this crisis, Cruz has pushed for a transformation of Puerto Rico that returns autonomy to the island’s people.

This approach also clashes with that of Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rosselló, who in classic “Shock Doctrine” style is using the chaos of the aftermath to open the island up to private development for private gain. As she continues to triage a city still on the mend, Cruz took time out to speak with The Progressive about what climate justice can look like.

How is Puerto Rico grappling with the idea of climate change as it recovers from devastation?
Unfortunately, Maria and Irma opened up a new reality, which was there, but that people had refused to see. No longer is climate change something abstract, but it has concrete effects on the lives of the people of Puerto Rico. Words like “resilience” have also taken on a different meaning.

In San Juan, we have changed our perspective on public policy. Number one: Everything has to be energy efficient or solar-powered. Number two: Everything has to have redundancy. We have to plan for the worst-case scenario. We construct resilience into everything that we build now.

What is your climate-resilient vision for Puerto Rico?
Right now we are continuing to fight the selling of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority. Now it’s a public monopoly, but [at least] the resources are in the hands of the Puerto Rican people. When disaster economics comes into play, we have to be very careful and conscious about how the decisions we make today could hinder our ability to provide for a more just and equitable society.

So one of the things we’ve done in San Juan is look for permanent solutions to a recurring problem. And seeing how we can develop, go around, rewrite, and transform all at the same time. We are building what we call Centers for Community Transformation for twenty-one communities that were the most impacted in San Juan by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. One is already complete, and another one is almost ready.

We take an empty building or a municipal building, and we make sure that we have enough solar power, water filtration plants, places for people to keep insulin, places for people to come and have respiratory therapy. We have direct lines to talk to our management information systems and our emergency management systems. The centers have everything needed to open the roads, chainsaws and so forth, and water pumps. We provide them with enough food so that they can have soup kitchens spring up in case of an earthquake, in case of a hurricane, in case of just a regular flood.

It’s available at all times and it’s community run. We empowered the community and trained them so they run it. It also becomes a focal point for community activism. We want to make sure that when I’m not mayor the community knows what their rights are, what their responsibilities are, and that they claim it for themselves. We want to make sure they don’t depend on the government and that the government serves as a structure, a stepping stone if you may, for the community to have their own agenda and not depend on what the mayor wants to do.

Has it been a challenge to convince people that living this way is in their best interest?
Not at all.We pick the communities that are hardest-hit. So people understand. They may not be able to use the word “resilient.” But they know what it means. They don’t want their roof to blow over when the next hurricane comes. We want to make sure that what is happening is community driven, and that there’s a transformation which includes the community. But there hasn’t been any pushback.

Governor Rosselló’s vision for the island is in direct conflict with yours. He has described his post-disaster strategy of encouraging private development as “execution and getting results.” What do you think this means?
Well, there’s an issue of deciding, who is Puerto Rico for? What is the role that communities are going to play in paving the path for a just, fair, equitable, and sustainable agenda? It’s a different ambition: Is Puerto Rico for Puerto Ricans? Or is Puerto Rico for people to come from outside of Puerto Rico to have their own tropical playground? You know, to me, Puerto Rico is for anyone that decides to make Puerto Rico home. It’s first and foremost for the people who live in our communities. And, as a government, we have a responsibility to ensure that the disenfranchised, those that have limited earning capabilities, those that have limited education capabilities, have their capabilities expanded, and have an opportunity to craft their own path.

If we continue to allow strictly market-driven decisions, then we’re condemning our generation and future generations to the lack of upward mobility.

We’ve just been through the midterm elections. What impact do you think Puerto Ricans who have relocated to the U.S. mainland have had or will have on U.S. politics?
I think that as Puerto Ricans, we have to look at ourselves as part of the Latino population. There’s five million Puerto Ricans living in the States and about fifty million Mexicans living in the States. So we need to make sure that as Latinos we all have a shared agenda, a progressive agenda that ensures we are keeping the rights that we have and continuing to expand on those rights.

Was there ever a time that you were afraid to publicly call out the President for fear that aid would be withheld following the hurricane?
No. No. There were people around me who were afraid that would happen. I was cautioned that could be one of the results. But what I was seeing was such a powerful fight of anguish and death and desolation and inhumane treatment to the people of Puerto Rico, that I could not be silenced. I have often said that in a humanitarian crisis, you have two choices: You either speak up, no matter what the consequences are, or you stand down and become an accomplice to a narrative that ends up killing people. You can kill people with neglect or you can kill them with a gun. We were killed with neglect. We were allowed to die. And I have to say that for the most part the political class in Puerto Rico, perhaps because they were scared, allowed President Trump to look the other way.

What do you think is the future for Puerto Rico’s relationship with the States? Are you hopeful?
I’ll continue to fight for the end of colonization. A new partnership, a bold partnership, a progressive partnership, could be the basis of a new relationship between the United States and the people of Puerto Rico.

Those who were supposed to help us did not help. But the American people, the Latino population, the Puerto Rican diaspora, opened their hearts to us. And I don’t have any regrets. I will continue to fight for the rest of my life for the eradication of poverty and ensuring a progressive agenda that creates an equal playing field for all is possible, and that includes Medicare-for-All, and that includes tuition-free college, and that includes Puerto Rico being freed from the shackles of the Jones Act.

Late at night when the bureaucracy and ineffectiveness of government, in all its reality, wear me down, I sit down and I read the postcards, the little pieces of paper, the letters that I got, and I know that there is an opportunity. I know that there’s a path. I don’t know what that path is, completely. But to paraphrase Cesar Chavez, this was never about the grapes, this was always about the people. This was never about politics to me, this was always about saving lives. And in that human solidarity, I saw the present and the present is one.