Bare Minimum Wage: Big business lobbyists work to prevent any rise in workers’ paychecks.

22 Feb

The federal minimum for an hourly wage was $3.35 in 1982 and now it’s $7.25, up 120 percent. Inflation, meanwhile, has climbed during that period by 135 percent. Eight states, including New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey, are considering legislation to boost the base wage. Advocates say that such state measures are fair and make good economic sense: Putting more money in the hands of workers means more demand—good news for small businesses struggling to overcome poor sales. Then there’s politics. More than two-thirds of Americans favor raising the hourly wage to at least $10.

You’d think it would be a win-win for state officials, but it’s not. While truly small businesses like restaurants and retail shops have said in the past that raising the wage will have little or no effect on labor costs, large corporations that pay minimum wage, like fast-food chains, have enormous incentive to propagandize against any increase.

One of the most active in the propaganda industry has been the Employment Policies Institute, a so-called think-tank in Washington that serves as a front for Richard Berman & Co., a lobbying firm for major corporations in the fast-food, alcohol, and tobacco industries. The Employment Policies Institute studies essentially say: Raising the minimum wage hurts minimum-wage earners. We know, we know. That sounds counter-intuitive, but trust us. We’re the experts.

Recently, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver co-authored an op-ed in the New York Daily News making the demand-side case that New York City is expensive to live in and that minimum wage has not kept pace with inflation.

Fortunately for Berman, he has allies among politicians, reporters, and lobbyists to counter arguments favoring an increase in the minimum wage. In New York, State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos warned the bill could be a “job killer rather than a job promoter.” In Connecticut, the National Federation of Independent Business reacted to news that the state’s General Assembly looked to raise the wage from $8.50 to $9.75 over two years, then index it to the rate of inflation. Local Director Andrew Markowski said a wage hike would hurt “the working poor—the people whom the advocates want to help.” The editors of the New York Post allowed a recent report to cite a study by the Employment Policies Institute showing the minimum wage “razes jobs” without revealing the Institute’s corporate ties. The report’s lone qualification came in the form of an opposing claim that the Institute “is a front group for the restaurant and hospitality industry.” Even so, it stated unequivocally later on that studies supporting a wage hike were “union-backed.”

According to watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), Berman opposed the 1996 hike, claiming the legislation would threaten the livelihood of more than 621,000 workers across the country. That never happened, but that hasn’t stopped Berman from making a fortune making the same claim every time lawmakers debate raising the minimum wage. And it doesn’t stop there.

Berman takes millions from his clients and funnels the money through 15 “nonprofits,” according to CREW. They in turn generate reams of misinformation to distract the public from issues like drunk driving, childhood obesity, second-hand smoke and animal rights. The Center for Media and Democracy’s PR Watch says Berman works “in the shadows for decades while pocketing millions from unpopular industries for his work thwarting public interest legislation.” If the Employment Policies Institute were truly a think-tank, truth would matter.

Studies of minimum wage are categorically ambivalent. There is no consensus.

Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute (the real EPI), says there was a consensus for many decades on the minimum wage issue because of an obvious fact: When the cost of something goes up (like labor), the demand for that thing goes down. But in the 1990s, case studies grew more sophisticated and, as a result, that consensus began to crumble, she says. From the vantage point of 2012, raising the minimum wage does not lead to jobs loss. According to a 2006 report by the Fiscal Policy Institute, states that raised the wage saw higher employment rates among businesses with 50 or fewer workers.

The obvious fact is that minimum wage earners care about take-home pay and little else. In fact, raising the minimum wage in Connecticut, to $9.75, is a deal for businesses, because that’s still less in adjusted dollar than what businesses paid in 1968. That’s why Bloomberg and Silver’s demand-side argument is more compelling than any supply-side position, which twists itself into knots rationalizing a corporate-backed agenda.

From The American Prospect.

Campaign against birth control is religious fanaticism

22 Feb

New Haven, CT – It has been weeks since the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops first denounced a federal mandate that required preventative care for female employees in Catholic employers’ insurance plans. They said President Obama’s rule infringed on their religious liberty. In case you missed it, the gist of the allegation was that requiring religiously affiliated hospitals and colleges to pay for birth control violates their conscience and therefore violates their First Amendment rights. So they say.

Much ink has been spilled, but not much has been said about the Catholic Church’s behaviour on this matter. It seems to be the definition of religious fanaticism. This fanaticism, in fact, is being underwritten by US taxpayers of all faiths, who had to stand by while their democratically elected president attempted to appease a theocratic oligarchy. The bishops’ conference, which is the major church authority in the US, is acting politically, not religiously, and its politics are concerned with protecting its authoritarian power, not representing the egalitarian power of the pew. For US citizens, whether they are Catholic or not, this is a troubling double insult.

Progressive US critics have argued that the issue was never about religious freedom but about women’s rights. Now that Obama has tweaked the rule so that insurance companies, not churches, must provide birth control, what was at stake all along has finally been revealed. That seems right – but only half right.

Obama revises birth control policy amid backlash from Church

Protecting religion from religion

No doubt the bishops desired to uphold church doctrine, but this was only means to an end. That church doctrine says something about female reproduction is incidental (and discriminatory and hypocritical, but let’s set that aside for a moment). What’s important about church doctrine, at least to fanatics, is that it gives reason to the existence of church authority. What’s the point of church authority if it allows the forces of modernity to railroad the ancient sacred tenets of the One True Church?

We used to have a different kind of debate on the role of the Catholic Church in US politics. Granted, that debate was bigoted and paranoid about grubby papist hordes from Italy, Ireland and Poland who privileged loyalty to Rome over pledging allegiance to the United States flag. But from that 19th century tension arose a fundamental belief that we now more or less take for granted: the separation between church and state.

Most view the establishment clause as something that keeps government safe from religion, but back then, it was keeping religion safe from the government. Not, however, in the way that Archbishop Timothy Dolan evidently thinks. Church-state separation was a safeguard in case a Catholic rose to power and sought to impose his beliefs on everyone else. It was xenophobic, but in practice, the principle meant that protecting government from religion was an indirect and uniquely American way of protecting a religion from other religions.

Exceptional, not equal

Dolan, who is president of the bishops’ conference and now on his way to Rome to be a cardinal, appealed to the First Amendment and, by implication, the establishment clause when he said that government has no business telling religion what it can and can’t do. But by claiming that Catholic conscience supersedes the rule of law, Dolan and others are in effect imposing their beliefs on the non-Catholic workers, patients and students at hospitals and colleges affiliated with the Church, an outcome that church-state separation sought to prevent.

This is no doubt why the original mandate for providing preventative care for women allowed for an exception respecting religion (an exception, by the way, that was modelled on laws in 28 states). If employers hire mostly Catholics, serve mostly Catholics, and seek to convert those whom they serve to Catholicism, then they qualified for an exception to the rule, because, otherwise, forcing Catholic employers to provide birth control would be a double violation: of employers’ religious convictions and their guaranteed First Amendment rights.

So, you see, the mandate and its exception already had in mind the preservation of the right to religious liberty. But the bishops’ interpretation turned this around to serve their needs, not the needs of lay Catholics and non-Catholics. They can’t follow the law because they’re Catholic, they say, and they can’t be exempted from the law because they’re Catholic. They don’t want equal protection under the law; they want preferential protection. What’s obvious about this “controversy” is that it’s anti-birth control – and hence anti-women. What’s not obvious is that it’s an expression of an authoritarian worldview, one that’s deeply un-American.

Why fanaticism?

Dolan and the bishops planned to take on the Obama administration, even though a variation of Obama’s rule had been on the books since the Bush era. About a decade ago, the law demanded that every employer with more than 15 workers provide equal coverage for men and women (specifically, you can’t pay for Viagra while not paying for the Pill). According to Mother Jones, Obama’s sole contribution was to expand the mandate to all employers and to require no co-pay. This is why major Catholic universities already provide birth control.

[The Catholic Church] is fighting against same-sex marriage, and for the hearts of Catholics disillusioned by dogma and by years of headlines about priests raping boys and girls.

Why are the bishops fighting now that the mandate has been changed so that insurance companies pay for birth control, not churches, thus saving religious employers from the sin of violating their conscience? And why are the bishops rejecting Obama’s “compromise”, when prominent Catholics such as columnist EJ Dionne and the editors of America, a Catholic weekly, are OK with it?

My guess is this is part of the global drift of the Roman Catholic Church to the right, which itself is a reaction to secular currents in Europe and North America. They are fighting against same-sex marriage, and for the hearts of Catholics disillusioned by dogma and by years of headlines about priests raping boys and girls.

But at their core, they are doubling down to protect their power. The Church is not a republican institution. If it were, it would be at odds with its constituents, a majority of whom have used birth control at least once in their lives. And it seems that only fanatics would be impervious to the contradiction between this birth-control crusade and recent allegations that more than 8,000 children were sexually abused by 100 priests in Milwaukee.

We are subsidising their politics

Making the disconnect wider between priests and those they claim to represent is that the bishops are joining evangelical Christians in a campaign to fight any federal measure that they say undermines freedom of religion. Thanks to this campaign, Republicans can score a few points. But more troubling is that the campaign may include TV and radio ads and, according to Reuters, “pastors of every evangelical denomination … [will] read their congregations an open letter protesting the contraception mandate”. Inside and outside church, we are going to see attacks on Obama and others who stand by a woman’s right to birth control, a culmination of years of religious leaders politicising their religions.

Taxpayers of all faiths and persuasions – Protestants, Jews, Muslims, agnostics, atheists, etc – are subsidising those efforts. A church is a tax-exempt entity in the US. By not taxing it, the government is implicitly underwriting it. But a church can only remain tax-exempt by adhering to rules enforced by the Internal Revenue Service. True, the law has wiggle room, but publicly calling on pastors to decry a mandate that does not in fact infringe on religious conscience is a political act that seeks to exert power on those who do not share their faith. To defeat this rightward drift, it’s not enough to defend women’s rights, because that is ultimately a secular case. A religious case must be made against this tide of authoritarianism, which is, of course, a defence of the country’s core values.

From Al Jazeera English.

Santorum wins big. Is it a big nothing for the GOP race?

22 Feb

After victories in Florida and Nevada, it seemed Republicans, even Tea Partiers, Evangelicals and otherwise “very conservative” Republicans, were finally consolidating around Mitt Romney.

That was the narrative on Sunday. By Monday, all that had changed. A new poll released by Public Policy Polling showed that Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania Senator considered the most socially conservative of the candidate, was going to have a very big day, with wins in Missouri and Minnesota, and a strong second-place finish in Colorado.

As of midnight EST, that prediction was about right. Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado all went to Santorum. Romney came in second in Missouri and third in Minnesota (pending final results, he was second in Colorado). Santorum won 55 per cent in Missouri to Romney’s 25, 46 per cent to Romney’s 16 in Minnesota (Ron Paul won 27 per cent). In 2008, Romney won Minnesota.

This is a big win for Santorum or big nothing, depending on how you square it. Tuesday’s victories help revive his campaign, which had been flagging since Iowa. But Minnesota’s and Colorado’s caucus results, like Iowa’s, are non-binding, and Missouri doesn’t pick its party delegates until later in the year.

But in many ways, a win for Santorum is another way of saying a loss for Romney. That’s what Tuesday was about — a warning that the conservative heart of the Republican party is wary of a Mormon millionaire who soaks his opponents in attack ads and whose bleeding-heart liberal health reform law was the model for Obamacare. Newt Gingrich recently compared Romney to Barack Obama and billionaire George Soros and it looks as if those attacks have paid off. For Rick Santorum. The American heartland is the native soil of American conservatism. It’s no surprise voters there went for a devout Catholic who speaks of doomsday and the evils of stem-cell research.

Indeed, while Gingrich and Romney have sparred relentlessly over the past 30 days, Santorum has gone unscathed while benefiting from the fallout. But the honeymoon is over. On Tuesday, the Romney campaign downplayed that day’s vote while turning its attention to Santorum, accusing him of being a “big government conservative” and then cribbing his well-received freedom of religion message (which, in the language of the looking-glass, means anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage).

Romney skipped Missouri because it didn’t have delegates at stake. To Santorum, this is why Missouri was a more honest assessment of who the most viable candidate is. Santorum won every single county in Missouri and Romney didn’t spend a dime. Even so, he has more money, more organization and more experience running for the White House. In Florida, more than 90 per cent of ads were negative and most were from Romney’s camp. The onslaught continued in Nevada, and now that Santorum is surging, he can expect the same treatment through March, the earliest we will know which candidate will be chosen.

Santorum’s win on Tuesday complicated an already complicated GOP nomination process. First, new rules by the Republican party mean that delegates are awarded proportionally to winners, instead of the winner-takes-all approach of the past. That gives every candidate incentive to run longer, even Gingrich, who hasn’t won since South Carolina.

The longer Gingrich stays, the happier Obama is, because Gingrich is tearing Romney apart even as he loses. Romney, meanwhile, is trying to play a short and long game at the same time, with one eye on Gingrich and one eye on Obama. Now he has to watch Santorum, too, and Santorum is now a viable candidate to not only be the not-Romney but perhaps to lead a third party spawned from the cracks long-ago evident in the GOP.

Then again, Gingrich. By March, the earliest we will see a dominant figure arise, the primaries will move back to the American south, where Gingrich is a shoo-in, just as he was in South Carolina, where there was a surge in voter turnout that rivaled every primary since. Even with no delegates at stake, Santorum’s victories, combined with proportional delegates to each winner, mean bigger challenges for Romney and better chances for Gingrich.

From New Statesman.

Al Jazeera: Conservatives don’t like Romney

22 Feb

Conservatives are wary of Romney because they think he will expose what’s wrong with conservatism.

Read story.

Reuters Opinion: Subsidizing people instead of corporations

20 Feb

We live in a society that in many ways believes there is no such thing as society. There are only men, women and families, as Margaret Thatcher put it, who must look to themselves first. Ronald Reagan agreed, as he argued against high marginal tax rates and the then-accepted notion of wealth redistribution.

Self-reliance is the classically American ideology that envisions a world of competing self-interests. States are no exception, and in their haste to offer ever-sweeter deals, they end up racing to the bottom.

Read story.

New Statesmen: Romney wins Florida but the battle is far from over

20 Feb

We may see a winner as late as March if candidates other than Romney don’t run out of money first.

Read story.

American Prospect: Memo to GOP: Cold War’s Over

20 Feb

Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich risk looking out of touch by bringing up long-vanquished foes on the campaign trail.

Read story.