Sen. Bernie Sanders formally announced his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination with a rally in his hometown, Burlington, Vt., with Lake Champlain in the background (5/26), but Meteor Blades noted at DailyKos.com (5/27) that the traditional media coverage points out to what we can count on as long as the senator remains in the race.

“Everybody, Sanders included, knows his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination is a long shot. And his self-identification as a socialist makes him a perfect target for marginalization even though that socialism is actually social democratic and not the least bit radical by European standards,” Blades wrote.

“His proposed agenda is really not much more than what might be expected—80 years down the road—in an upgrade and modernization of the New Deal. Why this isn’t worth serious attention from what are supposed to be society’s watchdogs in an age when the right and its enablers are eagerly doing what they can to dismantle or defund New Deal programs says a lot about how concentrated ownership continues to undermine democracy.

“Big media apparently won’t stick with mere marginalization, however. They are determined to give us stuff like this grotesque piece by Jim Tankersley in the Washington Post (5/26)—‘Sorry, Bernie Sanders. Deodorant isn’t starving America’s children’.

“That most television coverage—including MSNBC—couldn’t bear to hang around for [all of] Sanders’s speech Tuesday demonstrates once again one of the reasons it’s so hard to have a real political discussion,” Blades wrote.

Simon Maloy wrote at Salon (5/27), “The Bernie 2016 boomlet is clearly a bit puzzling to reporters, who don’t seem to know what to do with Sanders beyond treating him as a foil to Hillary, and so they default to doing nothing, even as every utterance of GOP candidates who are polling below 2% merits its own headline. There are clear double standards at play, and one of them pertains to how reporters cover a candidate who is unreservedly liberal versus how they cover ‘proudly conservative’ Republicans. This dynamic is sometimes subtle, and it emerged during an interview Sanders gave with CNBC’s John Harwood.”

Income inequality and the distribution of wealth are two topics Sanders hammers away at constantly. During the interview with Harwood Sanders noted sarcastically, “When radical, socialist Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, I think the highest marginal tax rate was something like 90%.” Sanders’ comment took Harwood aback. ‘When you think about something like 90%, you don’t think that’s obviously too high?’ Harwood asked. “No,” Bernie shot back.

Sanders’ endorsement of the Eisenhower-era tax structure also raised eyebrows at the New York Times, which observed that Sanders “doesn’t flinch over returning to the 90% personal income tax rates of the 1950s for top earners.” In these reactions, Maloy noted, “you can easily spy an undercurrent of incredulity that a politician would enthusiastically advocate for rich people to pay more—much, much more—in taxes.”

Bryce Covert noted at ThinkProgress.org (5/26) that the top marginal tax rate paid by the wealthiest Americans was was actually 92% in the 1950s. Today, the top marginal tax rate is 39.6%, although the richest 1% end up paying less than that on average and the average rate actually fell for many years.

Republicans have consistently claimed that higher tax rates on the wealthy will hold back economic growth, while lowering rates further will spur it forward. But that’s not likely the case, Covert noted. Last year, economists Fabian Kindermann and Dirk Krueger found that the point at which the top tax rate is high enough to maximize government revenues but not so high that it discourages the rich from trying to earn more is quite high: about 95% for the 1%. History bears that out, Covert noted. Economists have pointed out that post-war American growth has been higher during periods with much higher top marginal tax rates and lower when tax rates were substantially lower. When the top rate was more than 90% in the ’50s, economic growth averaged more than 4% a year. But recently when the top rate has been closer to 35%, growth has been less than 2% a year on average.

So far, Covert noted, many Republican presidential candidates have proposed a radically different approach: a flat tax. Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas), Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), and Ben Carson have all backed this idea. The details of each proposal differs, but the basic premise is an attempt to simplify the tax code by only having one rate that everyone pays, rather than the current system rates increase as income increases. An analysis of one flat tax plan put forward by former Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) found that it would raise taxes for those at the bottom of the income scale by between $102 and $462, while the tax bill for those making more than $1 mln a year would decrease by about a half million dollars.

It would also lower government revenue by between $500 bln and $1 tln a year. If a candidate wanted to maintain the current level of revenue, it would require taxing everyone, rich or poor, by at least 25%.

HILLARY STUNS JOURNOS BY LISTENING TO PEOPLE. While the political press corps moans about how Hillary Clinton isn’t taking their questions and isn’t talking to regular people, Laura Clawson noted at DailyKos.com (5/27) that Clinton is ... out talking to people, and actually incorporating their top issues and concerns into her campaign. She turned her attention to heroin addiction, for instance, after repeatedly hearing that it was a problem, and that’s not the only issue for which this is true. Clinton is actively relaying what she hears back to her campaign headquarters for staff to study at the policy level, on a range of issues.

Amy Chozick reported in the New York Times (5/27) that Bryce Smith, a 23-year-old owner of a bowling alley near Des Moines, told Mrs. Clinton that his biggest challenge in starting a business was his $40,000 in student loans affecting his access to credit. “I went for education in college so I could teach, but I fell in love with bowling,” Smith said. “So that’s my biggest thing, is the barrier of entry and financing.”

Mrs. Clinton lit up. “We all know about the student loan debt, but I’ve never heard anyone so persuasively link it to the slowdown in business start-ups,” she said. “You’ve given me an insight that nobody else has and I’m grateful to you,” she told Mr. Smith.

Chozik added, “Mrs. Clinton told her campaign team that the separate advisers working on college affordability and small-business policies needed to more closely coordinate, thanks to Mr. Smith, now a minor celebrity who is seeking elected office in Iowa. Mrs. Clinton sent Mr. Smith and other round-table participants handwritten notes thanking them for their insight.”

Clawson noted, “Gosh, it’s almost like answering inane reporter questions about Benghazi and email or taking shouted-out questions at big cattle call events is not the only way to talk about policy, and that having in-depth conversations with people, taking notes, and doing some research into the issues they raise could be good politics and good policy.”

LINES DRAWN ON FAST-TRACK TRADE AUTHORITY. The Senate approved the Trade Promotion Authority, which is designed to make it easier to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other trade deals during the next six years (5/22). The vote was 62-38 on cloture, which required 60 votes to proceed, and 62-37 on final passage. Voting to keep up the filibuster, against President Obama and the Republican majority, were 31 Democrats and two Dem-leaning indies, including Tammy Baldwin (Wis.), Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Cory Booker (N.J.), Barbara Boxer (Calif.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Ben Cardin (Md.), Robert Casey (Pa.), Joe Donnelly (Ind.), Dick Durbin (Ill.), Al Franken (Minn.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Martin Heinrich (N.M.), Mazie Hirono (Hi.), Angus King (I-Maine), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Pat Leahy (Vt.), Joe Manchin (W.V.), Ed Markey (Mass.), Robert Menendez (N.J.), Jeff Merkley (Ore.), Barbara Mikulski (Md.), Chris Murphy (Conn.), Gary Peters (Mich.), Jack Reed (R.I.), Harry Reid (Nev.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Brian Schatz (Hi.), Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), Jon Tester (Mont.), Tom Udall (N.M.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.).

Republicans voting against fast track were Susan Collins (Maine), Mike Lee (Utah), Rand Paul (Ky.), Jeff Sessions (Ala.) and Richard Shelby (Ala.).

The 13 Democrats who sided with 48 Republicans to clear the way for the fast-track bill were Sens. Michael Bennet (Colo.), Tom Carper (Del.), Chris Coons (Del.), Maria Cantwell (Wash.), Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), Tim Kaine (Va.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Patty Murray (Wash.), Bill Nelson (Fla.), Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.), Mark Warner (Va.), and Ron Wyden (Ore.). Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) voted against cloture but ended up voting for the bill, which passed 62-37. (Bennet, Murray and Wyden are up for re-election in 2016, and Leo W. Gerard, president of United Steelworkers, told MSNBC’s Ed Schultz, “Bad votes will be remembered.”)

REPUBS FIND NEW WAY TO ALIENATE LATINOS. The Supreme Court surprised many observers when it agreed to hear an appeal of a lawsuit thrown out by lower courts in which Texas Republicans are seeking to change the doctrine of “one person, one vote” to “one voter, one vote.”

The lawsuit, Evenwell v. Abbott, seeks to increase the representation of areas with a disproportionate number of voting-eligible citizens (i.e., relatively few non-citizens and children). Latino groups see it as a direct threat to their political representation in both Washington and in state capitals, Ed Kilgore noted at WashingtonMonthly.com (5/27). But Paul Waldman points out at the Washington Post’s Plum Line, Republicans will likely see this as yet another way to entrench their control of legislative bodies. Paul considers this a direct analogue to what happened with King v. Burrell’s challenge of at the Affordable Care Act based on clumsy drafting in the bill: yesterday’s fringe legal theory became tomorrow’s party orthodoxy: “[B]efore long, every Republican is going to decide that they firmly believe, as the most fundamental expression of their commitment to democracy and the vision of the Founding Fathers, that only eligible voters should count when tallying population to determine district lines,” Waldman wrote.

“One thing to watch out for as this plays out is the role of the conservative media. If I’m right, very soon you’re going to see Fox News hosts and radio talkers like Rush Limbaugh doing segments on this case, in effect instructing conservatives on what’s at stake and how they should think about the issue. That consistent drumbeat won’t only affect the conservative leaders and rank-and-file, it could even affect the Supreme Court justices, who will hear the arguments being made in the media in support of these plaintiffs. After a while, a legal theory that sounded absurd will begin to seem at the very least to be mainstream. In short order, there will be universal agreement on the right. And it could have a real impact on political power even if the plaintiffs lose.”

Kilgore noted, “To the extent Republicans get excited about this, it will also exacerbate their unhappy relationship with Latinos. In fact, it will mean not one but two major federal cases—the other being the litigation over Obama’s executive actions on immigration—where Republicans are directly aligning themselves against Latino interests. And that doesn’t count King v. Burrell, which would deny a lot of Latinos health coverage.”

FOSSIL FUELS COST $5.3T A YEAR IN SUBSIDIES. The world pays $5.3 tln a year in hidden costs to keep burning fossil fuels, according to a new report from the International Monetary Fund. This is in addition to the $492 bln in direct subsidies offered by governments around the world—write-offs and write-downs and land-use loopholes, Samantha Page noted at ThinkProgress.org (5/22).

The bulk of this money spent to deal fossil fuel damage isn’t even for climate change mitigation, which makes up about 23% of the costs, the IMF found. (Arguably, devastating climate change will cost humanity much, much more than $5.3 tln a year, but how do you put a price on Miami?)

Most of the expenditures calculated by the IMF represent “environmental change.” Specifically, local air pollution makes up 46% of the costs. This makes sense, when you consider that air pollution kills 7 mln people per year, putting a considerable financial burden on worldwide healthcare systems.

The researchers point out that the local impacts means that correctly pricing energy would make financial sense to individual countries, and “therefore is beneficial even in the absence of globally coordinated action.” Correctly pricing energy means that users would have to pay at the pump or in their electricity bill or what their energy use actually costs.

It’s been shown that higher energy costs do change behaviors. For example, Hawaii, which has the highest electricity prices in the nation, is finding ways to go 100% renewable.

The IMF concluded that the best way to correctly price energy is through taxes. A group of business leaders, including many oil and gas interests, have perhaps surprisingly come out in favor of a carbon tax.

“The call for carbon pricing is unanimous,” Gerard Mestrallet, CEO of the French energy company Engie, said at a conference in Paris this week, according to Bloomberg News. “It’s loud and clear. Carbon pricing is the right signal, the right tool.”

The IMF points out that with currently low fuel costs, there is an opportunity to raise taxes without putting economic pressure on consumers. But it’s unlikely that Congress will act on the issue anytime soon. Despite the recent introduction of a bill to create a national renewable portfolio standard, and the upcoming Clean Power Plan which seeks to limit carbon emissions from the electricity sector, there does not seem to be much political appetite to raise taxes on dirty fuels. In fact, Secretary of State John Kerry argued this week that private industry has to move first. One way or another, the need to cut down pollution from energy sources is clear, according to the IMF’s report.

“In summary, environmental damages from energy subsidies are large, and energy subsidy reform through efficient energy pricing is urgently needed,” the report concludes.

TEXAS PAYS FOR LACK OF FLOOD INFRASTRUCTURE. Texas has done little to secure its floodplains against torrential downpours. At the same time, the population in some Texas floodplains has skyrocketed—including Hays County, a stretch of fast-growing cities between Austin and San Antonio, where three people were dead and at least nine people were still missing three days after a major storm caused flooding that damaged more than 1,200 homes over the Memorial Day weekend.

Texas ranks among the worst of any state for flood-control spending, Kriston Capps noted at CityLab.com (5/26). According to the Texas section of the American Society of Civil Engineers, the state is second only to Louisiana in the US in terms of dollars paid out in flood claims. The state does not require communities to enroll in the National Flood Insurance Program (a part of FEMA), even though Texas ranks second only to Florida in its number of total flood insurance policies across its communities.

Wherever possible, the state leaves it to individual cities and counties to protect themselves against flooding. Texas requires cities and counties to meet the eligibility requirements for NFIP, but it does not require cities to enroll, as some states do. More to the point: Texas doesn’t fund flood-control infrastructure directly. And Texas doesn’t have a statewide floodplain management plan.

Three Texas agencies are responsible for flood mitigation across the state: The Governor’s Division of Emergency Management, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and the Texas Water Development Board. But none of these has true authority to devise or implement flood-control policies for the state’s 23 river basins, according to the Texas ASCE.

These oversights led the ASCE to give Texas a “D” on flood control on its latest infrastructure report card. That grade will only drop if Texas continues to forego any and all central planning for natural disasters while the state’s population booms—especially since cities along rivers prone to flooding are growing the most dramatically.

A series of six dams were built by the Lower Colorado River Authority, a state agency, on the Colorado River north of Austin to provide flood protection, water and electricity for the state capital but those dams were built from 1937 to 1951 with federal money.

There is no series of dams on the rivers that run through the Texas Hill Country and flow into the Colorado River, which makes for one of the nation’s most susceptible areas to flooding, and a recent population explosion has made things even worse, with concrete replacing the soil and grass that once absorbed floodwaters. Hays County is the fifth-fastest-growing county in the country, and is home to San Marcos, the nation’s fastest-growing city.

“They call this part of the world ‘flash flood alley,’” Bill West, general manager of the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, said in an interview with Neena Satila of TexasTribune.org (5/26). “And the more rooftops you have on the watershed, the faster that runoff materializes down the river.”

 The river authority is conducting a $3 mln study, paid in part by federal and state governments. But it is focused on predicting what could happen in a flood, not on major flood protection measures such as dams. Such big projects are unlikely in an age of cash-strapped local budgets and dwindling federal funds.

“The cost-benefit ratio associated with a physical structure is so hard to justify” for rare flooding events, West said. 

The name “flash flood alley” was born from the Hill Country’s unique climate and terrain, the combination of which is a magnet for both severe storms and massive floods. The Balcones Escarpment, a geologic fault zone that borders the region, serves as a trap for warm, moist air coming in from the Gulf—or a meeting place for the Gulf air and the dry air from the west—causing some of the highest rainfall totals in the world—when the land isn’t parched by drought, as it has been for the past five years. But when the water comes, it can travel across the terrain at astonishing speed because of the Hill Country’s thin soil and steep slopes. 

While Texas’ bigger population centers tend to be along rivers with massive flood protection systems—Austin along the Colorado, Houston along the Brazos, Dallas and Fort Worth along the Trinity—few dams or lakes to capture floodwaters exist in the Hill Country’s Guadalupe-Blanco river basin. The only one of note is Canyon Lake, which is along the Guadalupe before the Blanco and San Marcos rivers flow into it. 

The lake was above its full capacity as of 5/26, and the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, which operates it, was waiting to open the dam because of the flood conditions that already exist below it.

  This is not the first time the Hill Country has suffered from massive flooding, Satila noted. The 2013 Halloween floods were the worst Austin had ever experienced and also caused significant damage in the surrounding area. And in October 1998, a storm dumped as much as 29 inches of rain in the region, killing 31 people and causing more than $750 million in estimated damages.  Now that the population of Hays County has increased more than 60% since then, West said education is an important tool, too. Many newcomers to the area have no idea of the flood risk to their homes, having only experienced drought for the past several years. “This event’s certainly going to help with that education process,” he said.

HUGE INSURANCE COMPANY DIVESTS FROM COAL. Citing climate change as a major threat, one of the world’s largest insurance companies has pledged to drop its remaining investment in coal assets while tripling its investment in green technologies. At a business and climate change conference in Paris, AXA — France’s largest insurer — announced that it would sell $559 mln in coal assets by the end of 2015, while increasing its “green investments” in things like renewable energy, green infrastructure, and green bonds to $3.3 bln by 2020. During the announcement on 5/22, AXA’s chief executive Henri de Castries spoke about the threat that climate change poses to the environment, and the responsibility of insurance companies to deal with those threats. Last year, AXA paid over $1.1 bln globally in weather-related insurance claims, citing climate change as a “core business issue” already driving an increase in weather-related risks. “The facts are undeniable. If we think we can live in a world where temperatures would have increased by more than 2 degrees [Celsius] we’re just fooling ourselves,” de Castries said. A study published in Nature in January found that in order to limit global warming to 2°C, 80% of the world’s current coal reserves would need to remain unused from 2010 and 2050. (Natasha Geiling, ThinkProgress.org, 5/22)

HILLARY WOULD BE MOST LIBERAL NOMINEE IN 40 YEARS. For Democrats hoping a candidate from the left would enter the field, Hillary Clinton already is there, Michael Tomasky wrote at TheDailyBeast.com (5/20). “If you are a 40-something Democrat who has voted over the years for Bill Clinton and Al Gore and John Kerry and Barack Obama, it’s looking like you are about to cast a vote next year for the most liberal Democratic nominee of your voting lifetime,” he wrote.

Since her announcement video, Tomasky noted, she has presented an immigration position that is considerably more aggressive than Obama’s, expanding his executive actions to allow more people to obtain work permits. Then, on prisons, she famously called for the end of the era of mass incarceration.

The speech was filled with pleas to get low-level and nonviolent offenders out of prison and with sentences like “there is something wrong when a third of all black men face the prospect of prison during their lifetimes.”

Other policy proposals: • She told an audience in Keene, N.H., that the country needs a free and universal pre-kindergarten program.

• At Tina Brown’s Women in the World summit in New York, she called for greatly expanded after-school and child-care programs.

• Also in Keene, she came out for closing the carried-interest loophole for hedge-fund managers, noting “it’s just wrong that a hedge fund manager pays a lower tax rate than a nurse or a trucker or an assembly worker here at Whitney Brothers.”

• She’s been speaking out strongly in favor of paid family and medical leave, telling a questioner at a Norwalk, Iowa, roundtable: “Well, boy, you are right on my wavelength because, look, we are the last developed country in the world that has no national paid leave for parenting, for illness. And what we know from the few states that have done it—California being most notable here—is it builds loyalty. If you really analyzed turnover in a lot of businesses where you have to retrain somebody—well, first you have to find them and then you have to retrain them—making your employees feel that you care about these milestones in their lives and you give them the chance to have a child, adopt a child, recover from a serious illness, take care of a really sick parent and get a period of time that’s paid just cements that relationship.”

“These six positions—along with her support for a much higher minimum wage that’s indexed to inflation—almost by themselves make Clinton the most on-paper progressive candidate (and putative nominee) since who knows when,” Tomasky wrote. “She is saying things that one never thought the Hillary Clinton of 10 or 20 years ago would have said.”

From The Progressive Populist, June 15, 2015


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