Sunday, June 30, 2019

The Democrats Need a Lane Departure Warning: Stay in the Middle.

Yes, I watched enough of the multi-podium press conferences last week to reaffirm my basic belief that this is no way to pick a candidate. For either party. It just so happens that this go-round belongs to the Democrats and they are making good on Will Rogers' observation that this is not an organized political party.

I am heartened by the television ratings--15 million the first night and 18 million the second night--because they are indicators that more Americans are engaged in the electoral process and, I'm guessing, more than a few Trump supporters are looking to the Democrats in 2020. And given that gerrymandering is here to stay, as it always has been, it's imperative that Democrats come out to vote for their local and state races too. That's why it's critical that the party pick a nominee who can excite the broader electorate.

After this past week, though, I didn't see such a candidate.

The newsmakers, Elizabeth Warren, Julian Castro, Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg, helped their causes, and the perceived big loser, Joe Biden will still be leading the polls next week. But the format didn't really allow for any expansive discussion and the sheer number of candidates precluded anyone the public isn't familiar with from breaking out.

The exercise was useful as an introduction to the many candidates. I had not seen Marianne Williamson, Michael Bennet or Mr. Castro speak on the issues, so it was instructive to be able to hear then weigh in. Bernie Sanders didn't disappoint if you're a Bernie Sanders fan, and Bill de Blasio, well, he's not going to be president.

Joe Biden did not do well in his debate. He didn't really finish his thoughts and didn't point to specific legislation that an average voter could point to as one of his major accomplishments. At times, he seemed disengaged, and he set himself up for a television moment when he said that his time had run out. Harris then delivered a not-unfair story of how she was personally affected by busing, but painting Biden as a segregationist-accommodationist because he had to work with southern Democrats in the 1970s defies reality. If you wanted to get anything done in the Senate until the mid-1980s, you had to go through Democratic racists from the south. From that point forward, they became Republican racists.

What any serious student of history will know is that compromise and trading were the orders of the day during that era, and some of the most consequential legislation ever passed by the Congress came out of the 1960s and 70s, including civil rights laws, Medicare and Medicaid, public television, environmental acts, and many anti-poverty bills that have reshaped the country. To get those done, everybody had to give something up, and that's the fatal flaw in the present legislature; compromise is seen as selling out, so very little gets done. Worse, if a politician does dare to attract attention from the other side of the aisle, then they are deemed a heretic to the cause and publicly burned.

Racists voted for civil rights bills. Richard Nixon, an anti-Semite, signed bills to protect Israel. Liberals who would make today's Progressive Caucus seem like Rockefeller Republicans voted to continue the war in Vietnam. And they all did this in the name of compromise. They got something for their constituents out of their deals, whether it was money for farms, mass transit, or social legislation. If Joe Biden had to work with malodorous types, then that's what he had to do. If Kamala Harris is saying that she won't work with people she disagrees with, then she will be another in a long line of ineffective presidents.

The same goes for those who would shut down the private health care system in favor of a government-run program. Slow down. Most Americans do not want that and it's too big a leap to have any success in 2021. Add a public option to the ACA. Allow people to form cooperatives that cross state lines. The key is access. We can do it incrementally, and we should.

The Democrats need to focus on what Americans need to live more productive lives. It includes health care and tuition and economic equality and accepting people of all stripes and giving Dreamers a path to citizenship. It might not include punishing banks and making the 11 million undocumented people in this country citizens. Or even legal. Or providing them with health insurance. The party, and their candidate, needs to run on what the majority of voters see as what we need to solve our most pressing problems. Getting too far ahead of them in the name of making the Democratic base happy will not win the election. In addition, focusing on the young voters is not a winning strategy. Young voters do not come out to vote in the same numbers as other demographic groups, or in the numbers that the media experts think will come out.

Don't let this election become 1964, 1972 or 1984, where the party out-of-power reached too far to the right or left. The president has a minority of the people behind him and he's never been at 50% approval, much less above it. There are reasons for that. Focus on those.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest

Sunday, June 23, 2019

The Future is Now for Social Security

Have you thought about Social Security lately? Perhaps it's time.

I don't know about you, but I'm tired of being told that working, lower and middle class Americans who have worked hard and done right by this country will have to temper their expectations or expect less in Social Security benefits. Or pensions. Or Medicare. This must stop, and we have the power to stop it.

Ever since the Reagan-era adjustment to Social Security, we've seen a long list of proposals that seem to focus on privatizing the system, turning it into a 401(k) retirement program, or simply having it pay out less based on a raised retirement age. Most Americans are living longer, and many are working longer, but the simple truth is that elderly Americans need Social Security to survive, because at some point, you have to stop working, but you still need food and shelter.

What seems to be the main barrier to any meaningful reform is this idea that raising taxes will only hurt the economy. What we've seen over the past 40 years are tax cuts that have blanketed the wealthy with new money and the promise that you too can get wealthy, so why fight against your own self-interest? Usually this is the realm of Republicans, but Democrats too bought into the myth that the stock market and other investments, over time, will enable you to live your golden years in prosperity, and with Social Security as an extra bonus as opposed to a necessity.

This was always a false promise, and those who had the money to support, or run as, politicians who would maintain this dream have done very well for themselves. The result has been an expectation that the middle class will just have to make do with less.

Here in New Jersey, we had Governor Chris Christie tell us that public workers were the actual problem, and that our benefits were too generous, but that raising taxes was a non-starter because that would force wealthier residents to leave the state. We now have a Democratic Senate President, Steve Sweeney, who carried Christie's bucket, refusing to post a millionaire's tax for next year's state budget, insisting instead that public workers need to pay more for their health insurance and pensions.

It's perverse, and it's had a real impact on people's lives. Raises are being wiped away by increasing medical costs, while pensions for both public and private workers are being slashed, cut or canceled.

For Social Security (remember Social Security? This is a post about Social Security), the first action should be for Congress to raise the income limit on the Social Security tax. Right now, all Americans pay Social Security tax up to $132,900 of their income. Obliterate that. Make all Americans pay the tax no matter their income. Why should a high school principal pay the same amount as Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg, especially when Social Security will mean everything to that worker, but bus fare for the titans of industry?

Or there is this proposal that would not only raise the income level, after a doughnut hole between $132,900 and $400,000 (why?), it would also raise the Social Security tax rate. The payoff, though, is it would increase benefits. The problem is that although it has support in Congress, it doesn't have enough support to overcome the structural obstructionism that is currently in vogue in the legislature. This is reason enough to ask candidates who run for office in 2020 their opinion on this particular bill.

And that's exactly what I will be doing this week. I'll be calling my representative, Tom Malinowski, and the offices of Corey Booker and Robert Menendez, to begin putting pressure on them to support a fix that will put the program on a path to sustainability for the long term. Please try to do the same with your federal representatives.

It's our future, right?

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Going the Wrong Way on Cars and Climate

Serves me right for reading. I come across this article on the automobile industry in my favorite rag and it makes me really stop and think. Not that I think about the auto industry on a regular basis, but here we are at a turning point that has both national and global ramifications.

I had no idea that China was so influential when it comes to car sales in the world. From the article:
China increasingly rules the global auto market and determines its course. In recent years, China’s voracious appetite for vehicles has accounted for almost all of the growth in global sales. Chinese consumers bought 24 million cars last year, far more than any other nation. Americans were a distant second with 17 million cars. General Motors sells far more cars in Asia — 947,000 in the first three months of this year — than it does in the United States.
That's impressive. And it also points out the scary math that I'm sure people think about, but that hasn't been given its due. The United States has about 330 million people and Chin has almost two billion. India has another billion plus. Our birthrate has been dropping for a few years and our chief executive is not fond of growth through immigration. How, then, are we to compete? Tariffs will only go so far and, it seems, will do more harm than good for the workers and suppliers that are making the engines go. Tariffs will also raise prices and cut profit margins. Moreover, young people are moving out of rural and suburban areas into more urban settings, where a car is not a necessity and is even seen as a liability that costs too much, pollutes, and makes life more difficult in a city.

And then, of course, there's the environment.

Except for those Know Nothings who are running the government, the general consensus and facts as we know them clearly show that the climate is warming, and that's having a profound effect on our planet. We love our cars in the United States, and they have done a great deal of good for our growth, our economy, and our national pride. Those days, though, are on their way out. Americans are buying fewer cars and auto manufacturing is done mostly in Mexico. Cars pollute. They need parking lots and roads and gas stations and gas and insurance and money to buy all of those extras, and increasingly that money is going to other places in the economy.

It would be nice if our national policy was not moving in the exact opposite direction that it needs to on cars and energy. A push for electric cars would help. A push for more mass transit systems would help even more. China is not going to go away, or even lose, whatever that means, a trade war. They simply have too many people and too much government that is willing to step in and ensure that their key industries have the leverage they need to succeed.

The United States, though, does have strategies it can follow to ensure its continued economic advance, but they should not include more fossil fuels and larger SUVs and trucks. Many businesses are taking it upon themselves to commit to a greener, cleaner future, and perhaps American ingenuity and creativity will enable us to shift away from the old model and into the new one. The rest of the world sees the danger. We seem to see only threats to our way of life, which in many ways needs a serious upgrade.

We need leaders who will realize this and enact policies that will help us get there.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest

Sunday, June 2, 2019

June Is Thank Your Teachers Month

I went to an interesting event yesterday. Some of my high school classmates, and those of other classes, honored a teacher who had dies recently by collecting money and dedicating a bench to his memory and legacy. It was a wonderful affair, attended by about 20 people and followed by some reminiscing at a nearby establishment.

Which led me to thinking that people should do this much more for their teachers, and I am and am not saying this just because I'm a teacher. I am saying it because I know how much time, energy, care, and dedication teachers devote to their craft and their students. I'm not saying it just because I'm a teacher because I think it should be regular practice to thank and to honor anyone who's done something that's impacted your life. We say thank you to service members, and rightly so.

It's time for everyone to thank their teachers. 

You don't have to fund a bench, or anything physical, but it would be a nice gesture. So would establishing a scholarship or naming a room, area or award for them. Be creative and make it a lasting gesture. More than that, though, write your teachers letters or send them private messages on social media. You don't have to make it public, just heartfelt.

I'll let you in on something that's perhaps a secret: Teachers adore, love, and live for hearing from their students. We see you at your most vulnerable ages, and at those times when you might be awkward, unsure of yourself, embarrassed, afraid to speak out or sure that we might not like you. I can say with certainty that we want to see and hear about how much you've grown, how you've overcome that obstacle, how you discovered a truth because of what you did in our class, or just how you're living your life.

Honestly, we do.

And don't fret about that time in class when you, you know, and you think that's how we define you. We don't. We saw you as the future and we ant to hear from you in the present.

Pick one of your teachers. Let them know how you're doing. Thank them for any contribution they made to your life. You will make somebody happy.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest