Monday, June 30, 2014

Chattanooga vs. Kabletown

 "It is necessary that laws should be passed to prohibit the use of corporate funds directly or indirectly for political purposes; it is still more necessary that such laws should be thoroughly enforced. Corporate expenditures for political purposes, and especially such expenditures by public-service corporations, have supplied one of the principal sources of corruption in our political affairs."  Theodore Roosevelt

            I recently read with great interest about the ultra-high-speed Internet service available in Chattanooga, Tenn. Chattanooga, as it turns out, boasts of the fastest Internet speeds in the Western Hemisphere.
            The average Internet speed in the United States is 9.8 megabits per second, according to a study by Akamai Technologies. Chattanooga's service can reach speeds of up to 1,000 megabits - or 1 gigabit - per second. With a typical high-speed broadband connection, it could take nearly a half-hour to download a two-hour movie. In Chattanooga, the same download could take less than a minute.
           Ironically, faster Internet service was just a secondary benefit for the city. Chattanooga's network of fiber-optic cables was built primarily to enable a smart grid to manage electricity more effectively, particularly during inclement weather. So instead of taking days to restore electricity to residents following an outage, it takes Chattanooga only a few seconds.
           You might think such impressive technology was provided by one of the major telecommunications companies. You would be wrong.
           The city of Chattanooga has its own publicly run Internet, cable, and telephone service. This has led Comcast to sue the city-owned utility twice. The company has also spent millions on a public-relations blitz to discredit the city's publicly run service.
           Chattanooga's investment in telecommunications infrastructure, meanwhile, has attracted businesses big and small, from around the nation and the world, to the midsize city.

Subsidized skyscrapers

            That raises a question: Why hasn't Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Reading, Erie, Scranton, or Lancaster followed Chattanooga's lead?
The answer is money and politics.
            Back in 2004, Gov. Ed Rendell signed House Bill 30, which amended the Pennsylvania public utilities code to limit competition from municipalities that wanted to provide telecommunications service to residents. The bill effectively gave companies such as Verizon and Comcast unchallenged authority across the state.
            A year later, construction began on the Comcast Center in downtown Philadelphia. It's important to note that Pennsylvania taxpayers contributed $43 million to building the tower.
            But it's not as if Rendell had close ties to Comcast, right? That would be unethical.
            As it happens, the executive vice president of Comcast, David Cohen, served as Rendell's mayoral chief of staff from 1992 to 1997. Cohen is no partisan, though - at least not when it matters. Last year, he endorsed Gov. Corbett for reelection and hosted an event that raised more than $200,000 for the Republican's campaign.
            Comcast, by the way, is building a second skyscraper in Philadelphia. Not surprisingly, Pennsylvania and Philadelphia taxpayers will once again be subsidizing the construction to the tune of about $40 million.
Why does Comcast's construction need to be subsidized by taxpayers? The company certainly isn't hurting financially. In 2013 alone, it brought in more than $64 billion in revenue.

Illusion of choice

            Don't worry, though. All this is sure to pay off. It's not as if Pennsylvanians are unhappy with the services Comcast provides.
Hold on a second: They are unhappy?
            Of course, whether the issue is customer service, affordability, Internet speeds, or channel customization, you would be hard-pressed to find much love for Comcast in Pennsylvania. But both Democrats and Republicans largely ignore this collective discontent. If elected officials aren't actively working to help Comcast, they're too complacent or too afraid to challenge its dominance. That Pennsylvania ranks fifth among the states in corruption, according to a recent study by researchers at Indiana University and the City University of Hong Kong, suggests it's particularly vulnerable to the influence of powerful special interests.
           Publicly run telecommunications services like those in Chattanooga pose a threat to Comcast's market dominance. But like Chattanooga, I believe Internet service should be a basic public utility, just like water and electricity. Without these things, economic mobility is severely hampered.
I'm a free-market capitalist in the truest sense: I want choices. Choice creates competition, which in turn creates better products for consumers.
           It has become abundantly clear, however, that politicians and corporations have perverted the meaning of free-market capitalism to serve their own interests. They've provided American consumers with the illusion of choice while protecting the wealth and advantages of a select, privileged few. Until that changes, citizens will continue to be cheated.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

FDR's Economic Bill of Rights- "Necessitous Men" Part III

Necessitous men are not free men.”- FDR 

On January 11, 1944, FDR addressed the nation and presented his Economic Bill of Rights. It’s important to note that the Second World War was far from over when the speech was given. Operation Overlord, or D-Day as it’s commonly known, was still about six months away. Yet FDR saw fit to stress the necessity of an Economic Bill of Rights. Why? Because as FDR put it, the original Bill of Rights provided political and social rights yet, “proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.” The economic rights FDR outlined in his speech: full employment, adequate food, clothing and leisure, farmers’ rights to a fair income, freedom from unfair competition and monopolies, proper housing, medical care, social security, and a good education- would be rights that ensured lasting peace. FDR recognized that denying these fundamental rights had caused the needless suffering of millions around the world.       

In a country as wealthy as ours, it’s disheartening to still see a mother who works full time having to stand in line at a food pantry with her two year old daughter or see a homeless person sleeping next to a dumpster behind a business near my home. Yet distressingly, the most extreme Republicans would have us believe the vast majority of welfare recipients are lazy, on drugs, or gaming the system. Essentially, they see only waste in government welfare programs.

Want a real example of waste? According to study reported by CNN in 2012, $165 billion of food (40% of total supply) was wasted in the United States in just one year. To put that in perspective, such an amount could pay for the combined discretionary funding of the Environmental Protection Agency, Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Interior, Justice, Labor, State, Transportation, Treasury and NASA. Simply put, it’s difficult to bash government waste when we as a nation are so ‘efficient’ at it ourselves.
Apparently it’s not enough that we waste billions in food each year. We also consume more calories than any other nation and rank amongst the top in obesity. There you have it- we eat too much and waste a ton of food.   
                Furthermore, there are over 3.5 million homeless Americans spread across the nation. What makes this completely unacceptable is that there are more than enough homes and apartments to shelter the homeless. Census data puts the number of vacant homes across the United States at around 19 million.
In 2006, the state of Utah instituted a program in which every single homeless citizen will have shelter by 2015. Utah chose this path because a study found that providing each homeless person with shelter and social worker was cheaper than E.R. visits and jail stays. As a Democrat, I have to give credit where credit is due. The plan to house the homeless was instituted by ex-Republican Governor of Utah, Jon Huntsman.  
I fully realize that such reforms to welfare will do little good without a focus on jobs. Youth Social Security tied to national service is the kind of pro-growth economic policies sorely needed today. Key investments in education, infrastructure, and housing will reverse the economic stagnation which has brought on a marked decline of the middle class. Workforce participation is at its lowest point in nearly 36 years. Underemployment is becoming the norm not the exception. There are three job seekers for every job opening. This downward trend will continue if bold, aggressive steps aren’t taken immediately.
Even ardent supporters of free market capitalism admit there will be a certain degree of unemployment in the healthiest economic conditions. Many economists agree that to have anything below the natural unemployment rate of 4-6% will most likely trigger a recession. If that’s the case, then government must be prepared to fill the unemployment gap through either welfare programs or public sector jobs modeled after the WPA, PWA and CCC of the New Deal era. I prefer the latter in tackling chronic unemployment.
                I have no allusions that poverty would still remain even if these economic measures were fully adopted. FDR’s Economic Bill of Rights are meant to establish a basic standard of living- a standard of living in which no citizen is fearful of where their next meal will come from or if they’ll be sleeping in the cold.
Tackling these difficult and complex issues demands bold leadership. Unfortunately, over the past few decades there has been a void in leadership coming not just from Republicans but also Democrats within my own party. Time and again, Democrats ask for our vote but not our active participation. If Democrats believe in a government that works they must challenge the American people to serve; the kind of service that restores community values and the dignity of work. Restoring these principles will remind us why we’re proud to be Americans.     
FDR’s Economic Bill of Rights is a call to action to anyone who believes that if we all pitch in the nation grows stronger. And that if you want to work, the government has an obligation to find you a job with livable wages and benefits so that you can provide for your family. Increasing the welfare state cannot be the mission of government. Nor can it be the continued policy of government to protect Wall Street at a time when Main Street is struggling to survive. Continuing such policies only creates more necessitous citizens.   

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

FDR's Economic Bill of Rights- "Full Employment" Part II

President Reagan working at Camp David; which was a WPA project.
"The WPA was one of the most productive elements of FDR's alphabet soup of agencies because it put people to work building roads, bridges, and other projects… It gave men and women a chance to make some money along with the satisfaction of knowing they earned it.
Ronald Reagan

In my last article, I explored the idea of Youth Social Security. Many said it was a good idea in theory but would be difficult to pay for. Sure, it would be difficult for us, the average American, to pay for. It’s well known that nearly 70% of income taxes are paid by the wealthiest Americans (keep in mind their rates have also steadily dropped over several decades); while almost half of those currently working don’t pay any income tax. However, has one ever considered that half of the country is too poor to pay? All the while, the shrinking middle class is wondering whether it will end up richer or poorer. 
                 That being said, Youth Social Security affords more people the opportunity to enter the middle class. But hey, if it doesn’t bother you that the wealthiest eighty five people in the world own more wealth than the bottom 50% (3.5 billion people) then by all means disregard everything I write. As of 2014, the top 1% controls $110 trillion out of $241 trillion of the world’s total wealth. This economic trend isn’t abating.     
Youth Social Security’s primary goal is to address student loan debt ($1 trillion and rising), the depressed purchasing power of millennials due to stagnant wages, and the 11.8% unemployment rate among 18-29 year olds. Simply put, these issues won’t disappear by maintaining the status quo.  
FDR’s 1944 State of the Union address laid out a bold goal- full employment. That may not be possible, but it should be every elected official’s singular obsession. In previous articles, I wrote about FDR’s Works Progress Administration. The WPA alone could never hope to fully employ every American- let alone every millennial. However, to encourage full employment, every 18 year old should be given these options: work, go to college or a trade school, join the military, or sign up for the WPA. Anyone who doesn’t do one of those things wouldn’t be eligible to receive the benefits of Youth Social Security. Any idle American between the ages of 18 and 21 not contributing to the general welfare of the nation is making it weaker as a whole. Such a plan echoes the timeless American motto, “united we stand, divided we fall.” 
One of the strongest supporters of the WPA was conservative icon Ronald Reagan. During the Great Depression, Reagan’s father- Jack Reagan, unemployed and seeking work, became an administrator for the WPA in Dixon, Illinois. President Reagan spoke fondly of the work his father and the WPA did in his childhood town.
Silver Lake Park in Bristol, Pennsylvania is a local example of work done by the WPA. The Pennsylvania Turnpike, famously dubbed, “America’s First Superhighway”, was one of the more prominent accomplishments of the WPA. At one point or another, I’m sure nearly every Pennsylvanian had to use the PA Turnpike. For decades, it has faithfully served the general welfare of the commonwealth and nation.
National service and hard work is crucial to the strength and stability of any nation. Time and again, I’ve stressed the importance of the common defense and general welfare. A more coordinated plan of action tied to national service is the necessary remedy to the nation’s economic woes; as opposed to Herbert Hoover’s well-intended “self-government” volunteerism or Ayn Rand’s idiotic Objectivism.      
Look at it this way- Youth Social Security tries to maximize probabilities. Regardless of the individual outcomes, the key to the nation’s success has always been that we never stop being bold, creative, and innovative. Additionally, what’s more important: how one starts out life or how it ends? I would say the former.     
At the end of the day, Youth Social Security is about investing in the future. It’s the sincere hope of this millennial that Americans of every age recognize that truth and act accordingly. In the final analysis, the nation can choose to lift up the youth of America or leave them behind.

FDR's Economic Bill of Rights- "Youth Social Security" Part I

“It is our duty now to begin to lay the plans and determine the strategy for the winning of a lasting peace and the establishment of an American standard of living higher than ever before known. We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth—is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure.” FDR, January 11, 1944, State of the Union Address

Now more than ever, there is a fear of what the future will bring. Americans of all walks of life are struggling to make ends meet. It has become abundantly clear that “trickle-down” economics bore little fruit. The millennial generation, my generation, is looking for leadership and solutions to guide them through these difficult economic times.
Several economists and policymakers have suggested a minimum income in order to combat rising economic inequality and sluggish economic growth. The idea would be to provide each citizen over the age of 18 with a minimum income of $11,945 each year. Unfortunately, such an idea would cost well over $2 trillion a year to fund. Another, less expensive alternative could serve to reignite the American middle class.   
For example, say the United States instituted a minimum income of $2,500 every year from birth to 18 years of age. Much like Social Security, those children wouldn't see the money until their 18th birthday: which by that point would amount to $45,000(give or take about $200 billion overall for one year of funding). This "trust fund" could then be spent on paying college tuition (student loan debt averaged $29,400 in 2012), buying a car (average cost for a new car was $32,769 in 2013), putting a down payment on a home, or one could defer spending and save for a rainy day. Ultimately, the purchasing power of millennials would increase tenfold; thus bolstering America’s consumer driven economy.
Perhaps the program could start off with a progressive increase in funding. The first year of the program those turning 18 would receive only $2,500, the second year those turning 18 would receive $5,000, and the third year $7,500 and so on. With a gradual increase in funding, the American people could witness the benefits the program had year-to-year on economic growth.
 This “Youth Social Security” would benefit youth, adults, and seniors alike. Parents, instead of having to help their children pay for a new/used car or college tuition, could instead focus on saving for retirement. With parents being able to save more means the burden on traditional Social Security funds would in turn decrease; allowing the retirement age to be pushed back.
How would such a program be paid for? According to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, raising the estate tax by 10% could produce more than $250 billion in added revenue over the next ten years. Closing tax loopholes could be another source of funding. A study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office discovered that in 2011 alone, $181 billion in revenue was lost to tax loopholes that benefited major corporations. Simply put, benefits for Wall Street have only risen the last few decades, while Main Street struggles to pay the bills. Additionally, there is the hope that such a program would lower costs of safety net programs (i.e. food stamps, housing assistance).
With the creation of a Youth Social Security, a new era of prosperity and growth could be ushered in for the middle class. The idea is firmly rooted in both liberalism and libertarianism. Liberalism believes in the collective spirit of the nation, while libertarianism in the strength of the individual to make their own choices in life. For those that say millennials would waste the funds; I would counter that they couldn’t do any worse than the bureaucrats in Washington or the bankers of Wall Street. I have much greater faith in the average American to spend wisely then those currently holding the reins of power and influence. Youth Social Security would promote economic liberty and freedom in a way in which the most positive and liberating aspects of free market capitalism is maintained and strengthened. I hope to expand and refine this idea in future writings.