Bin Laden News Roundup

May 2, 2011 § Leave a comment

It will probably be a few days before it makes sense to do any kind of long form analysis, so in the mean time here are some links from around the internet. I think the most interesting thing right now is the location of the Osama Bin Laden’s mansion: just outside Islamabad. An area so close to Pakistan’s Capitol certainly suggests some amount of Pakistan Intelligence involvement.

The Ability to Kill Osama Bin Laden Does Not Make America Great

The gap between rhetoric and reality has long been a defining trait of American life. Lies about our values have shielded us from the brutal facts of our nation ever since we built it on the back of genocide and slavery. But it is in times like these that the dissonance becomes unbearable.

the forever war

You should be reminded of all the wrong turns we took following 9/11, and you should be worried now. Even if you don’t feel a little discomfort at national glee over human death, you might remember how much these moments have cost us and will continue to cost us. There’s no wondering if this action was legal; nobody cares. That’s the sort of thing successful terrorists do to a free people.

Detective Work on Courier Led to Breakthrough on Bin Laden

A trusted courier of Osama bin Laden’s whom American spies had been hunting for years was finally located in a compound 35 miles north of the Pakistani capital, close to one of the hubs of American counterterrorism operations. The property was so secure, so large, that American officials guessed it was built to hide someone far more important than a mere courier.

What Pakistan Knew About Bin Laden

Now that Osama is dead, the most intriguing question is this: Did any Pakistani officials help hide him?

Detroit-area Arab Americans, Muslims rejoice at death of bin Laden

“The world is definitely a better place without the patron of all terrorists,” said Imam Hassan Al-Qazwini, head of the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, the largest mosque in a city that has the highest concentration of Arab-Americans in the U.S. Qazwini called bin Laden “the world’s most infamous thug.”

Osama is Dead; Photos from a historic party at Ground Zero

Twitter Live Tweets Obama Bin Laden Raid (And Didn’t Know It)

It speaks for itself. A real time twitter event, that just turned out to be one of the most dramatic military event ever conducted. Expect the live footage from the Navy Seals Assault team, shortly. Until then, this is very dramatic by itself.

Yes, Bin Laden’s Death Will Help Obama, but for How Long?

I’m not sure that the magnitude of the bump that Mr. Obama might get in the Gallup tracking poll is going to be especially predictive of how much the residue of this news might produce for him 19 months from now.

Why Bin Laden’s Death No Longer Really Matters

Bin Laden may have desperately sought the mantle of champion of Muslim resistance to the West, and a traumatized American media culture may have briefly granted him that role in the months that followed the horror of 9/11, but where it mattered most, among his own people, Bin Laden was an epic failure.

Hamid Karzai says search inside Afghanistan was wrong

“Again and again, for years and every day we have said that the war on terror is not in Afghan villages, not in Afghan houses of the poor and oppressed,” Mr Karzai said.

“The war against terrorism is in its sources, in its financial sources, its sanctuaries, in its training bases, not in Afghanistan,” Karzai said.

Bin Laden Compound Video


Health Care Reform: Two Visions for the Future

April 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

In my last two posts, I discussed the differences between the deficit reduction plans of Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) and President Obama. I criticized Ryan’s plan for mandating an unsustainable growth rate for Medicare and Medicaid and proposing few measures to restrain the growth in health care costs, thereby pushing costs onto the beneficiaries of these programs. Obama’s plan, in contrast, doubles down on many of the cost containment measures enacted in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) in order to restrain health care spending growth. These two plans offer two competing visions of the health care market of the future: one tightly regulated, with specific government incentives and programs to hold down costs, and the other mostly devoid of government involvement, with Medicare and Medicaid recipients increasingly responsible for rising costs.

To get at the differences between these two visions, it is important to examine the specific provisions of PPACA, as well as how these provisions fit into the broader framework of our health care delivery system. PPACA attempts to change our health care system in three major ways: utilizing the government’s purchasing power to change how medicine is practiced, regulating insurance companies to make it easier to obtain and keep health insurance, and encouraging new methods of health care delivery.

The first of these avenues is illustrated by PPACA’s approach to hospital acquired infections. These infections afflict nearly 2 million patients every year, costing our system an estimated $10 billion dollars, and they are almost entirely preventable. Measures as simple as convincing doctors and nurses to wash their hands enough are effective in controlling the spread of these diseases. To address this problem, PPACA uses incentives in both Medicare and Medicaid payments. For Medicare, PPACA would reduce allpayments to a hospital to 99% of the otherwise applicable rate if they are in the top 25% in hospital acquired infections. For Medicaid, PPACA would simply prohibit reimbursement for treatment related to hospital acquired infections – with the caveat that they would have to review this policy to ensure it does not impede access for Medicaid patients. Together, these two initiatives would exert pressure on hospitals to improve their practices, and the benefits would be reaped by all patients – not just those on Medicare and Medicaid.

PPACA also imposes a raft of new regulations on private insurance. Among them are prohibitions on refusing coverage to those with pre-existing conditions, limitations on the length of the waiting period, and the usage of community rating in determining premium amounts. The last of these would disallow varying premiums based on health factors – ensuring that those with pre-existing conditions can continue to obtain affordable insurance. These factors, together with the creation of health insurance exchanges to bring competition to the insurance market and the provision of subsidies to purchase insurance, will ensure that every American has access to affordable health insurance.

Finally, the bill encourages delivery system reform, demonstrated in its provisions relating to Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs). A major problem with our current system of health care delivery is our fee for service model of care, in which providers are paid for each procedure they perform, giving them no incentive to hold down costs and, in fact, encouraging unnecessary procedures. One way in which PPACA attempts to remedy this is through encouraging the creation of ACOs, organizations which would integrate insurers and providers into one entity. By paying these organizations more when they save money, and less when they do not, PPACA would encourage them to hold down costs and reward well-run organizations with extra profits.

These provisions are, obviously, only a small subset of those contained in the bill, meant to demonstrate its major thrusts: by leveraging the Government’s power over the market, PPACA attempts to change a health care system which has failed for decades to hold down costs, thereby reducing the Government’s own health care obligations; by regulating the insurance market, PPACA attempts to make health care affordable and accessible for all American; and by encouraging new delivery systems, PPACA attempts to change the perverse incentives which contribute to our runaway health care costs.

All of these approaches are conspicuously absent from Rep. Ryan’s plan. By forfeiting the Government’s role in health reform, Ryan sacrifices any ability we have to restrain the growth in health care costs. While relying on market forces alone is the party line for Republicans today, there was a time when their vision of health care reform included a measured role for government. Returning to this vision would allow Republicans to present a credible alternative to PPACA, and allow us to have a debate about how the government can best restrain health care costs and improve access, rather than whether it should do so at all.

This Article was originally posted at

Obama Offers His Alternative

April 15, 2011 § 2 Comments

An abbreviated version of this post originally appeared at

Last week, I wrote about Paul Ryan’s plan – dubbed the “Path to Prosperity” – for reducing and eliminating America’s national debt. I criticized it for doing too little to hold down health care costs, choosing instead to reduce the deficit by placing the burden of increased costs onto Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries. On Tuesday, President Obama delivered a speech outlining his competing vision for eliminating America’s national debt and unveiled a plan which would reduce the debt by $4 trillion over the next 12 years. While Obama’s plan contains fewer changes to the Health Care status quo than Ryan’s, he proposes a few key changes to Medicare and Medicaid which would help to solve the nation’s fiscal crisis by effecting systemic changes to bring down the rate of growth in health care costs as a whole.

Obama’s plan seeks to obtain nearly $500 billion dollars in savings from Medicare and Medicaid reforms. To accomplish this, he first alters the mandate of the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB) created under last year’s health care reform bill (PPACA). This board is tasked with creating proposals to hold down Medicare’s growth rate. These proposals are automatically adopted by the Department of Health and Human Services unless Congress is able to pass an equally effective plan, allowing the board to bypass legislative gridlock. Obama’s plan would change IPAB’s spending target from GDP + 1% to GDP + 0.5% and would give the board new powers to help them achieve this goal.

The most important of these new powers would be the ability to structure Medicare so that it pays differently for treatments of different value – an idea called value based insurance design. This structuring would allow Medicare to pay more for cost-effective treatments, thereby encouraging their use. For example, in the case of a patient with high cholesterol levels, Medicare could reduce the co-payment for cholesterol lowering medicines and thereby obviate the need for a more costly surgical intervention later.

Obama’s plan would also work to slow growth in health care costs by reducing the price of prescription drugs. It does this in two ways: leveraging the Government’s purchasing power to negotiate for lower prices and shortening the patent on new drugs from 12 years to 7. Finally, Obama would implement recommendations from the National Governor’s Association task force for reducing costs in Medicaid.

Perhaps the most important difference between Obama’s plan and Ryan’s, however, is what Obama’s plan would not do: repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Rather than relying on a private insurance market whose costs have consistently increased at a rate faster than Medicare, PPACA seeks to use the Government’s power in the health care market to effect delivery changes which will reduce costs in the system as a whole.

These changes – from incentives for Accountable Care Organizations to penalties for hospitals with too many costly hospital acquired infections – will bring down the government’s spending on Medicare and Medicaid by effecting changes across the health care system. In contrast, Ryan’s plan contains no proposals for reducing health care costs, instead reducing government spending by funding a smaller proportion of these costs over time and thereby pushing costs onto beneficiaries.

However, it is possible that Obama’s target of GDP + 0.5% is also too low. As societies become wealthier, they naturally commit a larger share of their income to health care. Consider the following graph using OECD data:

There are two outliers here – the United States, which spends 16 percent of our GDP on health care, and Luxembourg, which has the second highest GDP per capita in the world. The other countries in the OECD follow a distinct trend: as GDP per capita increases, so too does the portion of GDP committed to health care. On an intuitive level this makes sense – the dead don’t benefit from increased incomes, after all. The United States, as an outlier on this growth curve, could certainly do a lot to restrain costs but it is unlikely that we will see a reduction in the share of our economy committed to health care outside of a radical shift in our system – and certainly not without even the modest reforms in Obama’s plan.

For this reason, Obama’s target for a Medicare growth rate of GDP + 0.5% is a more credible approximation of the actual growth in health care costs than Ryan’s target of inflation + 1% and it is made even more so by the concrete proposals it offers. While Ryan’s plan would cut taxes for the wealthy and pay for them partially through Medicare and Medicaid cuts, Obama’s alternative would allow the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy to expire and use the extra revenue to chart a more sustainable course for health care costs. The health care reform bill passed last year begins the process of managing health care spending in the United States, and Obama’s plan, in giving this process a chance to work, is a reasonable way forward.

The Complications and Benefits of International Criminal Court Prosecution

April 10, 2011 § 1 Comment

Since March there have been rumblings from the International Criminal Court (hereafter ICC) suggesting future prosecution of Qaddafi and his military commanders for actions taken against unarmed Libyans. Additionally, last Wednesday Luis Moreno-Ocampo, a prosecutor at the ICC, announced an investigation of the conflict in Ivory Coast. What seems clear is that crimes against humanity have occurred in both conflicts. For example, a recent New York Times article discusses the discovery of photos found in a Libyan police station that depict images of torture and brutality. The article states:

“Some [photos] depicted corpses bearing the marks of torture. One showed scars down the back of a man dressed only in his underwear, another a naked man face down under a sheet with his hands bound. The faces of the dead bore expressions of horror. Other pictures showed puddles of blood, a table of jars, bottles and powders and, in one, a long saw.”

If civilians have been the target of military attacks and even torture in either Libya or Ivory Coast, then Qaddafi, Gbagbo and their military commanders should be held responsible for those crimes. However, there are significant complications underlying potential ICC prosecution. In Ivory Coast, there are some reports that suggest that Ouattara’s forces are also connected to civilian killings. If both sides of the conflict have committed crimes against humanity, then this significantly complicates conflict resolution. Possible solutions for ending both the conflicts in Ivory Coast and Libya have included the offer of amnesty to Gbagbo and Qaddafi in exchange for the end of conflict and the transfer of power to their political opponents. However, future prosecution by the ICC could override this offer of amnesty, and so threats of prosecution now act as a disincentive  for Gbagbo or Qaddafi to step down.

For those who are not familiar with the ICC, it is an international tribunal to bring individuals accused of genocide, torture, war crimes, the crime of aggression and crimes against humanity to trial. The jurisdiction of the ICC includes all states that are signatories to the Rome Statute (in other words, all states that signed the treaty guaranteeing jurisdiction of the ICC), or referral of a case by the UN Security Council to the ICC. For more information on the ICC, see here.

Despite the possibility that the promise of ICC prosecution now could cause Gbagbo or Qaddafi to stay in power to avoid trial later, I believe the ICC should continue its investigations in both countries for two reasons. First, the threat of prosecution by the ICC has the potential to keep Gbagbo or Qaddafi’s military commanders from committing war crimes or from targeting civilians. While Gbagbo and Qaddafi have been offered amnesty in exchange for relinquishing power, their commanders have not, and so the threat of prosecution offers only positive incentives for these individuals in the short term. Considering that these lower level military commanders are actively involved in the day to day decisions in each conflict, the threat of prosecution has a significant chance of preventing civilian casualties or crimes against humanity.

Second, prosecuting Gbagbo and Qaddafi has two long term benefits that must be considered. Following through on the threat of prosecution for these two leaders has the potential to deter crimes by future leaders. If the ICC develops a reputation for punishing any and all war crimes or crimes against humanity, then eventually it will deter these types of crimes in the same way that American courts deter domestic crimes. Finally, any prosecution by the ICC arguably contributes to the strength of international society. The growth of international institutions like the United Nations or the ICC limits the sovereignty of nations by providing a legal framework for how government leaders can treat their citizens. Critics of international institutions (like former U.S. ambassador to the UN John Bolton, see my previous post for details) argue that the sovereignty of nations is critical to their ability to function independently and with their own interests and ideas at heart. However, in a world where leaders like Gaddafi and Gbagbo have access to military technology of frightening efficiency, the limitation on how that independence can be exercised is essential. Referring the prosecution of war crimes to the ICC is a significant step towards prohibiting future atrocities of the type we are seeing in Libya and Ivory Coast today.

Terrorist trials in military courts

April 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

This week the Obama Administration announced it would back down from its decision to try Guantanamo Bay detainees in civilian courts, and would instead revert to the Bush Administration’s policy of using military trials. Supporters of the Bush Administration’s policy, like Texas Representative and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee Lamar Smith (R), argue that Obama is making the right choice. In Representative Smith’s words, “It’s unfortunate that it took the Obama administration more than two years to figure out what the majority of Americans already know: that 9/11 conspirator Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is not a common criminal, he’s a war criminal.” Alternatively, opponents of military trials are dismayed, arguing that America’s judicial system should be adequate for any crime, and that trying terrorists in military courts undermines the rule of law. The Obama administration’s decision, and the drama unfolding around it, represent the legal ambiguity of not only the detainees at Guantanamo, but of executive powers of war in an era of terrorism and violence sponsored by non-governmental organizations.

In response to the terrorist attacks on September 11th, President Bush not only began a war, but began what would be a decade long (and counting) debate on the legal status of citizen combatants, or terrorists. These individuals, labeled “enemy combatants” by the Bush Administration, have complicated the traditional laws of war. Prior to September 11th, individuals involved in combat would have a clear legal status as the combatants of a nation or state. If those individuals broke the law, they would be in violation of whatever international laws of war their state had agreed to through treaty (such as the Geneva Conventions). In Bush’s War on Terror, however, “enemy combatants”  are members of non-governmental organizations, Al Qaeda or the Taliban primarily, and because neither of these organizations are clearly states it is uncertain as to whether international laws of war apply to them (there is some debate as to the status of the Taliban, see here).

By declaring “war” on terrorism generally speaking, Bush acquired all the traditional executive powers of war, which, it turns out, are quite far-reaching and flexible. However, because “terrorism” is not a state, as would be the typical target in a war, the extent of executive power in this conflict, and the length of time in which it can be used, is uncertain. Because terrorism is more of a tactic or idea than it is a definable entity, it is unclear as to what victory in the War on Terror would be.

All of this uncertainty has fueled executive overreach throughout the War on Terror. Bush, and now by extension Obama, have been able to break the law or exercise power in areas traditionally under the purview of the judiciary or legislature. For example, the Bush Administration’s warrantless surveillance program in 2005 violated the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Additionally,the newly reimplemented military trials constitute a breach of the Geneva Conventions: the Conventions allow for military trials, but also guarantee the right to appeal to a civilian court (Article 106), “essential guarantees of independence and impartiality” (Article 84), the right to call witnesses (Article 105), and the right to confer with an attorney in private (Article 105) (The Geneva Conventions, 1949), none of which are allowed under the current military trials. By violating the Conventions, Bush undermined laws that constitute  basic principles of the rights of the accused in all democracies, and were meant to protect not only America’s enemies in war, but American soldiers in a time of war as well.

Proponents of military trials argue that using civilian courts to bring Guantanamo detainees to trial would risk the potential release of highly dangerous criminals, such as Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who is accused of orchestrating the September 11th attacks. However, what would be the result of using a civilian court in this case? Either Mohammed would be found guilty and given due punishment as accorded by federal law, or he would be found not guilty and would be freed of indefinite detention at Guantanamo. Saying that Mohammed cannot be given legitimate civilian determination of his guilt because he is “too dangerous” is tantamount to declaring his guilt before a trial even occurs. Furthermore, allowing our executive branch to make this decision, even if it is at the insistence of certain members of Congress, is a violation of the balance of powers among the branches of our government. In the War on Terror, we have allowed our executive to declare war on what is essentially a military tactic and to unilaterally prosecute any individual who could be accused of association with that tactic. Obama, by caving in to political pressures and extending the Bush Administration’s legal tactics of the War on Terror, has exacerbated the situation rather than ending a decade of legal ambiguity and executive overreach.

Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity” Falls Short

April 6, 2011 § 4 Comments

This article was originally posted at

On Tuesday, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), Chairman of the House Budget Committee, released his budget proposal for the 2012 fiscal year. Dubbed the “Path to Prosperity”, it is a wide-ranging set of proposals with the objective of reducing and eliminating America’s debt. Ryan’s plan accomplishes this goal, in large part, by privatizing Medicare, shifting Medicaid to a system of block grants to states, and capping federal government expenditures on both. These reforms are problematic, not only because privatization is unlikely to reduce cost absent fundamental delivery system reforms, but also because the caps Ryan puts in place would not keep pace with the growth in health care costs, forcing an ever reducing level of benefits on recipients.

Beginning in 2022, Ryan’s plan would convert Medicare into a system of subsidies which beneficiaries could apply towards purchasing insurance from a list of coverage options. These subsidies would be larger for the poor and smaller for the wealthy, and they would be allowed to grow at a rate no greater than inflation + 1%. Similarly, Medicaid would become a system of block grants for states without the federal coverage requirements in place now, and these grants would be indexed for inflation and population growth.

To be clear, absent these caps, neither of these proposals are necessarily a bad idea. While private insurance has consistently been more costly than public plans, Ryan’s Medicare privatization plan bears a striking resemblance to the system of subsidies and private insurance exchanges contained in the health care reform bill (PPACA) passed last year. By forcing plans to compete in an open marketplace, with transparency about costs and benefits provided, it is possible Ryan’s plan will have some effect on costs. Allowing State’s greater flexibility in Medicaid implementation could have a similar effect.

Ryan’s reforms, however, lack much of what makes PPACA effective: reforming our health care delivery system in order to bend the cost curve. In fact, Ryan’s plan goes further: it proposes repealing PPACA without suggesting new reforms to take their place. This means that, because his plan would allow federal expenditures to increase at a rate of about 3% a year for both programs, and actual health care costs increase at a rate closer to 6%, it would pay for a smaller percentage of beneficiary’s costs over time. What his plan accomplishes, then, is the reduction of the deficit by foisting future increases in health care costs onto the poor, eldery, and disabled who benefit from these programs.

Pushing costs onto beneficiaries isn’t the only problem with Ryan’s capped growth models. Because Medicaid enrollment, along with the associated costs, increases during times of economic downturn, States would be left with more people in need at the same time their revenues plunge. Since States are prohibited from running a deficit, they would be left with a difficult choice: raising taxes during a recession, deep cuts to other services, or letting millions go without health insurance.

For Medicare, Ryan’s plan would bring fundamental changes to the social compact which underlies our country’s safety net. Young people today are paying into a system in order to support the health care of retirees on the premise that when they retire, they will be entitled to a similar level of support. In contrast, Ryan’s cost caps force each generation to accept a drastically lower level of benefits than those they helped provide to the generation preceding them. Additionally, at some point the gap between subsidies and the actual cost of adequate health insurance will become too large for most retirees to afford, forcing them to go without.

Many have lauded the courageousness of Ryan’s proposals. Indeed, his plan contains some of the most expansive attempts to rein in the federal deficit ever proposed by a member of Congress. Courage in support of bad ideas is no asset, however. While it is commendable that Ryan has begun the conversation, his ideas for addressing our social safety net miss the mark. Rather than draconian caps on expenditures, Ryan should be proposing market reforms similar to, but more expansive than, those contained in PPACA so that we can control costs, expand access, and preserve Medicare and Medicaid. Instead, Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity” repeals PPACA and tells the poor, elderly and disabled that rising health care costs are not the government’s problem.

UPDATE: Corrected Medicare growth rate in Ryan’s plan as well as a few other numbers.

Political Power and State Bill 5 in Ohio

April 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

Last week, Ohio Governor John Kasich signed Ohio State Bill 5 into law. The bill, along with similar bills in Indiana and Wisconsin, is part of a recent push by Republicans to strictly limit the collective bargaining rights of public employee unions. These restrictions have been sold by Kasich and other governors as a necessary step to close state budget shortfalls and resolve the state’s long term pension crisis. Despite these claims, the bill is less about fiscal issues than it is about furthering the long term erosion of union political power and, by extension, the power of the lower and middle classes they fight for.

Collective bargaining, the process by which employees band together to negotiate with employers for wages, benefits, and working conditions, is a central component of union power because it allows the union to act as a counterweight to more powerful employers. S.B. 5 weakens public employee unions by significantly eroding collective bargaining: while it would allow them to continue to bargain for wages, it would eliminate their ability to collectively bargain for benefits. Other restrictions in the bill would negate even these limited rights, resulting in the elimination of collective bargaining in practice, if not in fact.

Normally, when contract negotiations stall, the dispute can be referred to a neutral third party who can judge the facts of the case and make a final decision through a process called binding arbitration. S.B. 5 would eliminate this process, replacing it by first referring the case to the legislature – who can impose either side’s last best offer – and subsequently, if the legislature fails to act, simply implementing managements last offer. This change, combined with S.B. 5’s ban on public employee strikes, allows management to impose whatever contract they wish on union members, essentially nullifying the major source of union bargaining power and leaving unfairly treated public employees with no recourse.

Obviously, these changes will save the State of Ohio some money. If S.B. 5 had been in place for 2010, The Dispatch estimates the state would have saved $216.9 million, but $76 million of this is in pay freezes that Unions had already agreed to. Adjusting for these pay freezes, the total savings is closer to $140 million. Additionally, $1.12 billion would be saved by local governments. However, these governments have differing levels of fiscal health and can easily negotiate new contracts without state government interference. In fact, some did so before S.B. 5 ever passed.

State budget shortfalls are largely temporary, having been brought on by an economic downturn following a financial crisis largely caused by wealthy investors on Wall Street. These individuals, far from paying the price for the crisis that they caused are being taxed at the lowest rate in over half a century. Instead of shifting this mostly temporary burden to those most able to bear it, Kasich is closing revenue shortfalls by implementing what will amount to a permanent tax (in the form of reduced wages) on middle class public workers. He has even gone so far as to suggest a tax break for wealthy investors in Ohio. Clearly, Kasich has made a deliberate choice to squeeze the middle class while sparing the wealthy.

The other reason often given to restrict collective bargaining rights is to allow the State to close its pension shortfall. Indeed, Ohio has among the largest pension shortfalls in the country at upwards of sixty billion dollars. However, as Dean Baker demonstrated recently, these shortfalls are almost entirely caused by the financial crisis and the ensuing drop in the stock market. And, given a return to normal rates of return, these shortfalls will be almost entirely solved. It is clear, then, that S.B. 5 would have minimal budgetary impacts and that the strength of its Republican support rests more firmly on the impact it would have on Union political power.

Shifts in political power are a long term phenomenon, made evident by the highest levels of income inequality in decades, with far reaching consequences. As the top income earners take an ever larger share of the national income, they provide a greater share of funding for political campaigns and thereby gain more power over the political process. It is well known, for example, that Unions generally provide financial support for Democratic candidates. Less well known, however, is that in recent years neither party has been terribly receptive to the concerns of the middle and lower classes for which Unions advocate. A recent Larry Bartels study on political representation had the following chart comparing Democrats and Republicans:

So, while Democrats are slightly more responsive to the concerns of the lower class, and slightly less to the middle class, both parties (and Republicans in particular) are incredibly responsive to the upper class. That this group also provides the lion’s share of campaign funds is surely no coincidence.

It wasn’t always this way. Increases in income inequality and disparities in political power have increased at the same time as declining Union membership and influence on the political process. This is not to say that the decline of Unions alone can explain these deep problems, but unions have always served as a center of political power for the middle and lower classes. Unions are an organizing base through which these groups can exert some influence on the political process. They have fought for laws that benefit all workers – the minimum wage, an end to child labor, and innumerable health and safety protections – and their presence in the market alone raises wages for non-Union workers.

That income inequality is rising and taxes on the wealthy are falling amid the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression is no accident.  It is, instead, the result of a long term campaign to crowd out the voices of the middle and lower classes from the political debate, leaving our government responsive only to those with the means to fund multi-million dollar campaigns. Republican attempts to pass anti-Union bills in Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana and other states is best understood as a continuation of this campaign. If our political system is going to address the needs of all Americans, rather than just the few at the very top, nothing less than a systemic reorganization will be required. Repealing S.B. 5 and bills like it would make a good start, but we cannot imagine that the struggle will end there.