Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Reading the Constitution aloud and the preconceptions of what it says

This week the United States Constitution will be read aloud in its entirety in the U.S. House of Representatives compliments of the new Republican majority leadership. This, of course, is pandering to the so-called “tea party” movement whose members claim the nation has drifted away from the rule of law established by the founding fathers during some mythical golden era. Despite all that, the reading is probably a good idea. Not only would conservative Republicans and tea-partyers learn that the U.S. Constitution is a living/evolving document (it has been amended many times) but that it may say something different from what they believe it to say. Garrett Epps explains:
Conservative Republicans tend to go on and on about how the Constitution puts shackles on Congress. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) recently explained that "although the Constitution does give some defined powers to the federal government, it is overwhelmingly a document of limits, and those limits must be respected."

DeMint has, usually, a very clear view of his own eye. The intention to limit Congress is, to me at least, pretty hard to actually find in the Constitution itself. Article I, which sets up the House and Senate and lays out their powers, is the longest Article in the document. Its 2500 words amount to fully one-third of the Constitution, even today after 27 amendments. In Article I, about 450 words are devoted to specific powers of Congress; about half that many to things Congress can't do. And in case you begin, Ron Paul-style, to claim that Congress can do only what is in Article I § 8, please look carefully at Article I § 8 cl. 18, which gives Congress the power "to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the United States, or in any department or officer thereof." (Italics mine.)

If in fact you are Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), please volunteer to read the specific text that gives Congress the power to conduct the kind of investigation of the Federal Reserve you plan. You can take the day off, Dr. Paul; it isn't there. To most readers, though, it is clearly implied--as are a lot of other powers Rep. Paul claims to find illegitimate, including the power to issue Federal Reserve notes instead of gold or silver certificates.

New members: Please don't leave the floor after George Washington's name is read either, because the Constitution has actually been changed since 1787. The following amendments all add to Congress's power: 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th, 19th, 20th, 23rd, and 24th. To the extent that you really care about the text, it's hard to discern Sen. DeMint's "overwhelming" list of limits.

There really are significant limits in the Constitution, of course--but the majority of them are limits placed on the states. The Constitution's text forbids the states from conducting their own foreign policy, printing their own money, taxing goods shipped in or out of their borders, or engaging in military operations. Many things they can only do by asking Congress's permission; states can't even negotiate among themselves unless Congress consents. In fact, the federal government retains veto power over each state's constitution, which must create a "republican form of government."

The idea that states have "rights," or that they are "sovereign," appears nowhere in the text of the Constitution.

I hope the members will listen carefully when their favorite amendment, the 10th, is read aloud. Conservatives like to sneak the word "expressly" into the amendment's statement that "the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." It's not there. That's not an accident; the Articles of Confederation did have a similar provision including "expressly." Madison, a nationalist in 1789, pointedly omitted the word in his proposal for what became the 10th Amendment. And note that the amendment doesn't even "reserve" anything directly for state governments. The words "or to the people" mean something--they are not just another word for "state governments."

Listen carefully to these words as well, which are in the Constitution: "treaties . . . the law of nations . . . admiralty and maritime jurisdiction." These words refer to something called "international law," which was recently banned in Oklahoma but was a subject of much study for the Framers. Perhaps attempts to interpret the Constitution without it won't be accurate.

If the Members actually listen, they may notice that the document they are hearing is nationalistic, not state-oriented; concerned with giving Congress power, not taking it away; forward-looking, not nostalgic for the past; aimed creating a new government that can solve new problems, not freezing in place an old one that must fold its hands while the nation declines.
You can read Epps' entire piece here.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Threat on debt ceiling to attack Social Security

William K. Black explains the motives of certain congressional Republicans in threatening to refuse to approve raising the government debt ceiling in coming weeks. A significant factor in this bluff is an effort to destroy the American Social Security system.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Don't raise the age for Social Security retirement, lower it

Demographic shifts over the decades have raised concerns about the future viability of the Social Security system in this country. Those who oppose any public retirement insurance program are not bold enough to publicly come out for its outright abolition. Rather, using the cloak of concern about the viability of the program (even when their math doesn’t add up) they argue the retirement age should simply be raised. In other words, put retirement out of reach for many people dependent upon Social Security. The rational is that since we are living longer we should work longer and retire later.

But as James Galbraith argues this logic is misleading and to the contrary, the Social Security retirement age should be lowered:
… in the first place, "we" are not living longer. Wealthier elderly are; the non-wealthy not so much. Raising the retirement age cuts benefits for those who can't wait to retire and who often won't live long. Meanwhile, richer people with soft jobs work on: For them, it's an easy call.

Second, many workers retire because they can't find jobs. They're unemployed -- or expect to become so. Extending the retirement age for them just means a longer job search, a futile waste of time and effort.

Third, we don't need the workers. Productivity gains and cheap imports mean that we can and do enjoy far more farm and factory goods than our forebears, with much less effort. Only a small fraction of today's workers make things. Our problem is finding worthwhile work for people to do, not finding workers to produce the goods we consume.

In the United States, the financial crisis has left the country with 11 million fewer jobs than Americans need now. No matter how aggressive the policy, we are not going to find 11 million new jobs soon. So common sense suggests we should make some decisions about who should have the first crack: older people, who have already worked three or four decades at hard jobs? Or younger people, many just out of school, with fresh skills and ambitions?

The answer is obvious. Older people who would like to retire and would do so if they could afford it should get some help. The right step is to reduce, not increase, the full-benefits retirement age. As a rough cut, why not enact a three-year window during which the age for receiving full Social Security benefits would drop to 62 -- providing a voluntary, one-time, grab-it-now bonus for leaving work? Let them go home! With a secure pension and medical care, they will be happier. Young people who need work will be happier. And there will also be more jobs. With pension security, older people will consume services until the end of their lives. They will become, each and every one, an employer.
And what about any potential shortfall in Social Security funds to pay for retirement benefits? That’s easy – raise or eliminate the cap on annual income taxed for Social Security so those who draw the most on the system pay the most as Gail Collins argues:
The theory behind raising the retirement age is that people are living longer these days. However, the Americans who do all this extra living tend to be wealthier than the ones who expire before they can cash their first pension check. Right now, only the first $106,800 in annual income is taxed for Social Security. Get rid of the cap, and you will be making the folks who are causing most of the problem pay for the solution.
If there is a problem with funding then fix the funding but don’t undermine the program for hard working Americans who have earned retirement and should retire opening up employment opportunities for the next generation.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

The future of Israel and the West Bank: Jewish state or democratic state?

Jeffrey Goldberg, on his blog for The Atlantic, raises a question about the future of Israel:
…. there's very little Israel's right-wing government has done in the past year or so to suggest that it is willing to wean itself from its addiction to West Bank settlements, and the expansion of settlements bodes ill for the creation of a Palestinian state -- and the absence of Palestinian statehood means that Israel will one day soon confront this crucial question concerning its democratic nature: Will it grant West Bank Arabs the right to vote, or will it deny them the vote? If it grants them the vote, this will be the end of Israel as a Jewish state; if it denies them the vote in perpetuity, it will cease to be a democratic state.
The West Bank, the landlocked territory between Israel and the Jordan River, has been under military occupation by the Israeli army since 1967. That military presence was somewhat reduced following the 1993 Oslo Accords. As of 2007 the Palestinian Arab population was 2,345,000. Close to 500,000 Israelis live in the West Bank settlements and annexed East Jerusalem.

An occupation of forty-three years seems hardly temporary but the fate of the West Bank and its inhabitants is still unsettled. Proposals for a two-state solution are not without risk for Israel. A formal Palestinian Arab West Bank state would mean the establishment of a potentially hostile nation on its eastern border with a potentially unstable (given the current state of Palestinian politics) government. However, a one-state solution, whether by formal annexation or by default through unending occupation and expanding Israeli settlements, means a fundamental change in the nature of Israel. The question Goldberg raises above is whether or not West Bank Arabs should be granted the right to vote as Israeli citizens in a single state. A single state solution means Israel will cease to be Jewish or will cease to be democratic.