politics

"Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards."

This is a subject I’ve been wrestling with for some time. Years, in fact. I started writing this post several weeks ago and repeatedly had to set it aside and come back to it as I tried to find the right words and the right conclusion….

The 2020 Hawaii Legislative Session is well under away. Given what is expected to be an utter train wreck for some of the most pressing issues facing the people of Hawaii, I thought now might be a good time to broach the issue.

Collaboration is Central to the Legislative Process

As a bill goes through the tedious and groaning process of drafting, public hearings, and debate, it is often important for parties on all sides to share in the pain of compromise to reach agreement before it becomes law.

This collaboration and give-and-take on important issues facing Hawaii and its residents is part of the democratic process. I am often disappointed and frustrated by this process. Over years of doing this work, I’ve learned to temper that frustration in pursuit of progress. That progress may be slow, small, and not nearly enough for my taste, but progress is progress.

Though its a lesson I have to relearn on a seemingly yearly basis, I always go back to the very first time one of my mentors drove the point home for me. Continue reading Urgency or Incrementalism? Bold or Patient?

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When the working-class thrives we all thrive.

Friends Come in All Shapes, Sizes, and Opposing Political Ideas

Years ago I worked for a small insurance agency. The owner and agent is a long-time capitalist.

This former employer and friend of mine loved to talk politics with me. And I with him. He believes when the government gets too involved, when there are too many regulations, too many taxes, it means less freedom.

I staunchly disagreed with him and there were times when our debates would go on for hours. Much to the chagrin of his wife and business partner, who would often scold both of us, “stop talking politics and get back to work!” I adore both of them.

Entrepreneurs Don’t Necessarily Have More to Gain or Lose

The reason I am starting with this story is because whenever I think about labor issues like a Living Wage, or Paid Family Leave, etc. I am reminded about something he said to me once.

Talking about employees versus business owners, he would say owners always take a lot of risk when starting their own business. His implication was that owners, more than employees, shoulder more risk and so deserve greater reward when the business succeeds. I would ask him how well he thought his business would be doing if he didn’t have me there. Would he be as successful?

And I would ask him what he thought would happen to me if his business closed. Being successful, he’s managed to build up savings and equity over the years so that if the business took a turn and he was forced to close down, he’d have a safety net on which to fall back. I, on the other hand, being both young and not making a lot of money, had no savings. No safety net. I would have to rely on Unemployment Insurance to fill the gap until I found another job.

The Hawaii State Legislature is Business-Focused, Not Worker-Focused

Over many years working on increasing the Minimum Wage, I’ve heard primarily one concern from opponents. One reason to oppose any increase in the Minimum Wage; businesses would suffer. Unemployment would increase.

Despite a preponderance of evidence to the contrary, these talking points persist. When policy-makers worry more about optics and politics than facts and figures, there’s a problem.

Years and years of research tells us increasing the Minimum Wage doesn’t cause an increase in unemployment. And it doesn’t necessarily lead to business closures. Some of this research is beginning to be done on $15 with similar outcomes….

In fact, a higher Minimum Wage can be GOOD for employers (even small businesses). It can increase employee happiness and productivity and reduce employee training and turnover costs for employers. Win-win. And a higher Minimum Wage can help level the playing field against big corporations when trying to recruit new employees.

Despite the high cost of living in Hawaii. Despite the fact that people are moving away from Hawaii for better chances at a good life. Our policymakers have done little-to-nothing to address this. Their solution to these problems is to reduce regulation, lower taxes for businesses, and to try to incentivize new industries.

But none of this addresses the income gap in Hawaii, nor does any of it address the fact that too many minimum wage workers are living in poverty. Literally. No one who works full-time should be in poverty. No one.

Don’t You Know; Trickle-Down Doesn’t Work

The neoliberal democratic majority at the Legislature worries about how businesses are faring. They worry about the burden of GET on businesses. And they worry about regulatory burdens. Regularly they decry the plight of businesses in Hawaii and twist themselves into knots trying to do more.

But where’s the knot-twisting when it comes to the plight of working people?

For the now-defunct Superferry as well as Honolulu’s HART train wreck (pun intended), Legislators went to extraordinary lengths to raise funds and side-step regulatory necessities. It happened so fast you’d think the fate of the State depended on them.

But what about the fate of people who are one bad day, one accident, one missed paycheck away from living on the street? Skyrocketing unemployment, they scream! Small businesses will suffer, they exclaim!

On Minimum Wage, Paid Family Leave, Affordable Housing… the list goes on and on, our neoliberal legislators are convinced, despite mountains of evidence, that businesses are what drive the economy. In fact, consumer spending is one of the biggest economic indicators there is; when workers earn more money, they spend more.

When the working-class thrives, we all thrive. Its long-past time legislators remembered that fact and made working people their priority.

*This piece was previously published by Civil Beat. I also wrote early last year about the minimum wage fight here.

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Sorry for the Inconvenience

On the day before Thanksgiving this year, Civil Beat published a Community Voice piece by Representative Gene Ward (House District 17). The article, entitled “Hawaii’s Status Quo Government Isn’t Cutting It,” takes to task Hawaii’s Democratic Party-dominated political establishment for contributing to voter apathy, for perpetuating wink-and-nod dealmaking, and for not handling the tough issues.

The Democratic Party of Hawaii is Not to Blame. Neither is More Republican Elected Officials the Solution.

As an active member of the Democratic Party of Hawaii who has served on the State Central Committee (SCC) for nearly a decade, I can say with a good deal of confidence that it isn’t the Democratic Party that’s running Hawaii’s state government. Rather, it’s elected officials and appointees who pass themselves off as Democrats.

There are undeniably good politicians who do stand by and up for the Party’s platform and guiding principles. Sadly though, far too many merely drape themselves in the Democratic banner for the purposes of getting (re)elected.

Ask any engaged member about how the Party’s legislative agenda has faired in the last several cycles and you’ll quickly learn that the (Democratic) Majority Caucuses of the House and Senate do not represent the will of the Democratic Party of Hawaii.

(Read: My Speech to the Maui County Convention)

That Hawaii’s Government is dominated by a supermajority of too many who simply call themselves “Democrats” is a problem. But Representative Ward would have you believe that part of the solution to our State’s woes is to elect more Republicans. This wouldn’t solve the problem so much as remove the cloak from some who are not truly Democrats. Hawaii’s Republican Party just clings to life not because the Democratic Party is dominant. But because they have wholly failed to prove themselves a reasonable alternative.

That the Hawaii GOP nominated Trump in their 2016 Presidential Primary should be evidence enough they are out of touch with most voters in Hawaii. There is no easy path for them to regain even some modest power without acknowledging this obvious shortcoming. Blaming Democrats for that won’t solve their problems (just as blaming immigrants for social and economic woes has done nothing to improve the lives of Americans).

But Gene Ward Does Raise Some Points Worthy of a Closer Look

The “Democratic” majorities in the House and Senate believe they have support for their neoliberal and small incremental approach to our most challenging problems because they keep getting reelected. Forget the fact that far too many of them have gone unchallenged for far too many election cycles.

Rep Ward rightly points out that “more than half (56%) of those polled said politicians don’t listen and don’t have high moral standards (51%)”. And why should they listen when they believe they can whatever they want and continue to get reelected?

When push comes to shove, the Hawaii State Legislature will work hard to the benefit of special interests. They bent over backward to support (illegally) the Hawaii Superferry. And they went to extraordinary lengths to see Honolulu’s rail project is sufficiently funded. Or support the illegal taking of water by Alexander & Baldwin.

But when it comes to the highest cost of living, the highest rate of homelessness, the lowest teach pay or helping struggling working-class families, they do nothing. They obfuscate and deflect. They kick the can down the road. Maybe they think if they put off dealing with these problems long enough they’ll solve themselves.

When voters don’t think politicians are responsive to their needs, they do one of two things. Either they disengage (don’t vote, don’t write testimony, etc.) crying, “what’s the point”. Or they go the other direction, as we’ve seen in the case of the TMT, the Kahuku wind farm, or the Sherwoods development. They rise up and fight back in dramatic fashion.

Gene Ward is spot on when he says, “you’re missing the point if you think Mauna Kea is purely about a telescope”. It’s about a people who feel they’ve been ignored, are tired of it, and are taking action.

Turning “Protesting Into Voting” is Part One of the Solution

Voting matters. In state and local elections, it matters even more. Winning margins can be incredibly small; as little as a couple of hundred votes, or less, can be the difference between an incumbent winning re-election or not.

Next year Hawaii will conduct its elections entirely by mail-in ballot. This will make it easier than ever to vote. No requesting an absentee ballot. No having to remember when Election Day is or where you’re supposed to go to vote. Ballots will be delivered by mail directly to voters, who can complete them and simply put them back in the mail. No muss. No Fuss.

Even if you are discouraged by the current state of affairs in Hawaii, you should vote. I’d say this goes double for Native Hawaiians who feel like second-class citizens in their own homeland. Voting won’t magically set right old wrongs. But it will send a strong signal that sitting on the sidelines is no longer a viable strategy. Whether you’re camping on Mauna Kea, or standing in front of trucks in Kahuku, or supportive of those efforts, it’s time to make your voice heard in a meaningful way. Register and vote.

Run For Office Yourself. Or Encourage and Support Others to do so.

Of course, if incumbents have no challengers then there’s no choice to be made. The same-old politician goes back to their cushy seat for another term, comfortable in the knowledge they’ve been given a blank check to do what they like.

What we need in addition to better voter turnout is more candidates. We need more good, smart, passionate, people who care about their communities running for public office. Without a real choice during elections, it’s easy to feel like casting a ballot is a waste of time.

Much to the chagrin of Gene Ward (and many Democratic electeds), there is an ongoing and growing effort to identify, recruit, train, and support progressive candidates to run for public office. These candidates, frankly, align much more closely to the platform of the Democratic Party of Hawaii than many of those currently serving.

It’s not hard to see a political shift is coming. A revolution from the left supported and encouraged by those who are tired of being told: “maybe next year”. Or, “be thankful for what you have.” Cracks are forming in the political establishment’s grasp on our systems of government. Let’s work together to turn those cracks into chasms.

The tide is turning. Come join the effort. If you’re not sure how I’d be happy to talk to you about it. Or if you have friends or family that are engaged reach out and ask them how to get involved.

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The basic concept that no one would want for housing or food despite being unable to find a job that pays enough on which to survive is a worthy one.

Not a Novel Idea

As a concept, I’ve been supportive of Universal Basic Income (UBI), which Presidential hopeful Andrew Yang refers to as the “Freedom Dividend,” for a long time.

There are multiple proposals and approaches to UBI, but if you’re unfamiliar with the concept, it’s pretty straight forward. UBI is a guaranteed minimum income for everyone in the United States or every citizen. The amount may vary from proposal to proposal. As might a maximum income requirement (millionaires and billionaires might not receive UBI in some proposals).

UBI might sound like a unique idea, but it isn’t really. With the wealth disparity in this country growing beyond Depression-era levels. With the increasing threat of automation. The basic concept that no one would want for housing or food despite being unable to find a job or a job that pays enough on which to survive is a worthy one.

Though maybe not exactly a “universal basic income,” the idea of Social Security in the U.S. relies on a lot of the same arguments and it got its start way back in the 20s.

Is UBI an Entitlement for “Lazy People”?

Ultimately, my answer to this is simply “no”. However, given my experience in the last week or so, I’ve been giving this question some thought.

Neoliberals and conservatives in general all oppose UBI because they say that, among other things, it’s a handout to people who don’t otherwise want to work. The same has been said about welfare programs for years.

Are they right? Sure. There are always going to be people who want to try to game the system, want something for nothing. And if given the opportunity they’ll collect a government “hand out” rather than work for a living. But a plethora of data suggests those UBI and welfare opponents simply hate poor people, rather than have a substantive point. Yes, there are outliers, though they are the exception rather than the rule.

Mississippi Complainers

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been working in Moss Point, MS on GOTV efforts for this year’s election. Though my job has been primarily one of facilitation and training, I’ve been interacting daily with our paid canvassers.

“My” team has been tasked with canvassing all, or a major chunk, of Jefferson County, which is largely rural. While the Minimum Wage here is set at the federal $7.25, we’re paying our canvassers $15 an hour. Obviously a coveted wage out here, we’ve had folks from all over knocking down our door for an opportunity to do a little work and make good money.

And the vast majority of my canvassers are fantastic. Really good, hard-working people with good hearts who are just trying to get by. A few, though, would complain. “I don’t want to go out that far.”

“I don’t need to do the role-playing.” Or, “I don’t need anyone checking up on me.” Or, “I’m driving my own car.” And on and on. They’d give me grief over arguably stupid stuff.

In my life, I’ve never had a job where I’d basically refuse to do what my boss asked of me. I showed up, I did the job and at the end of the day, if I was frustrated, I’d complain out loud to myself (or to those willing to listen). Then I’d go back the next day.

So, I wondered to myself (and my teammate) whether that attitude displayed by those few was the reason they couldn’t hold down a job. But I shook my head, grumbled to myself again, then went back to work.

The Welfare Trap

I’ve also been perplexed by and frustrated for a few who said they couldn’t do the work because the relatively high wage would put their welfare and/or section 8 housing in jeopardy. This is the result of income limits on federal poverty programs. Rise above the ceiling just a bit and floating up a smelly creek without a paddle.

The folks in that situation I dealt with here genuinely wanted to work, but were so fearful of losing benefits they counted on to survive, they opted out.

Congress, so bogged down in privileged ignorance and petty political infighting, has utterly and completely failed to address income limits for their poverty programs and the reality of the growing wage gap in the U.S. While these same dynamics make it unlikely we’ll see a Universal Basic Income anytime soon, my experience here in Mississippi have only served to emphasize its urgent necessity.

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FDR for President - socialist government programs

The word “progressive” carries a lot of baggage. On the right, conservatives bandy about the term as an insult, a term of derision meant to signal an opposition to “traditional values,” military weakness or cowardice, or an “Un-American” approach to economics. For many conservatives, “progressives” are really anyone to their left on the political spectrum, which isn’t hard to do these days.

Among Democrats, it is an identity many elected officials and candidates covet. During the primaries, it seems every Democrat is a “progressive.” Whether they really are or not is open to debate. As a self-described progressive myself, I certainly have my own ideas about what the word means and when the title is appropriately employed. But for our immediate purposes here, I will attempt to lay out an objective working definition.

Definitions

Starting with the basics, the Oxford English Dictionary defines progressive in a number of contexts, but for our purposes here’s a couple that are relevant:

(Of a person or idea) favoring social reform ‘a relatively progressive Minister of Education’. Or favouring change or innovation.

Beyond this technical definition which may or may not be applied to current national political dynamics, I went in search of more satisfying definitions that might better inform the underlying point of this post; what does it mean to be “progressive” in today’s political climate.

I came across an article in The New Republic aptly titled, “Are You Progressive?”. The author ultimately provides two definitions that contradict one another:

In a recent issue of the journal Democracy, the historian Sean Wilentz addressed it head-on: Liberals, he argues, recognize the flaws of capitalism, are dedicated to remedying them, and have great achievements to their credit in that regard, notably those of the New Deal, the New Frontier, and the Great Society. Progressives are meanwhile “emphatically anti-liberal”—because they are hostile to capitalism and, “deep down, harbor the hope that one day, perhaps through some catastrophic event, American capitalism will indeed be replaced by socialism.”

He goes on:

In practice, however, Wilentz’s theory doesn’t really apply: Progressive and liberal are precisely synonyms in American political life—and have been since the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan succeeded in making liberals feel ashamed of the word and fearful of associating with it, and they started calling themselves progressives instead. This wasn’t the introduction of a new politics; it was the rebranding of an existing one.

While I tend to agree with the conclusion drawn by McCormack in the New Republic article, I don’t intend to debate here the difference between “liberal” and “progressive,” rather provide some context. Feeling that I’ve done that, I’m moving on.

Recent Uses

I’ve seen articles recently, more than one in fact, that claim the “progressive” agenda isn’t so much “progressive,” but rather a reclaiming of New Deal policies and a “realigning” of the Democratic Party.

As we can begin to see above, this approach does more to muddy the definitional waters than to clarify them. Without delving into the political connections and relationships of these journalists, I believe this is little more than an ongoing and continuous effort by the Democratic Party establishment and its supporters to appropriate the term for their own purposes. As so many Democratic elected officials, both here in the islands and across the country, aim to do.

Yes, I would imagine that most true progressives (I’ll come to my own definition a bit later) support the policies of the New Deal, but its agenda I think falls short of what we should today call “progressive.” For starters, during the era of Roosevelt there was little consciousness or understanding of the impacts human society has on the environment around us. And any “progressive” agenda today should include a strong environmental protection stance.

In addition to a strong stance on environmental protections, defense and support of strong labor organizing components, and social justice as opposition to treating immigrants, people of color, or women as anything less than equal should be at the core of “progressive” values.

Organized Labor

Anyone considering themselves “progressive” should be a staunch and vocal supporter of labor unions and the unfettered right of workers to collectively organize.

During the last 40 years or so, Democratic and Republican politicians alike have worked, actively or otherwise, to chip away at union membership and the influence of organized labor on our political and economic systems. Sure, Republicans have largely led the charge, but sadly far too many Democratic politicians have been complicit.

Organized labor, history shows us, has had substantial impacts on our society and economy by fighting for fairness. Again, not equality, but fairness. Only as the strength and influence of labor unions has wained over the last few decades have wages stagnated, have corporate profits and influence exploded, and the quality of life of the average worker suffered.

Social Justice

In the age of Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movements, any examination of what it means to be progressive must include some consideration of social justice.

Indigenous rights, here in Hawaii, might be the most pronounced example of what I mean. Court rulings and protest movements have shown us that Native Hawaiian rights are given consideration only when it serves the purposes of political politeness, or tourist industry pandering. Government mechanisms constitutionally mandated to benefit Native Hawaiian communities are paid little more than lip service.

Even today, we need look no farther than the stand-off over the TMT on Mauna Kea, or the underfunding of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) or Department of Hawaiian Homelands (DHHL).

Beyond the shores of Hawaii, groups are under assault across the country, from immigrants forced into illegal camps reminiscent of Nazi concentration camps or the Japanese interment camps in the U.S. to a growing violence toward anyone non-white and/or non-American.

For any self-described “progressive,” these developments should enrage and terrify you.

What is a “Progressive” to Me?

What I think drives my progressive-ness more than anything else is a strong sense of fairness. I want to be clear here. Fairness in my mind is not the same as equality, or equality of access.

For example, our criminal justice system is built on the notion of “equal protection” under the law, but that does not mean the system is fair. There are any number of laws and mechanisms within our criminal justice system that are simply unfair. From mandatory minimums that disproportionately impact minority and poor populations, to the ability to hire an experienced attorney, the system is far from fair.

More broadly, the American notion of “pulling yourself up by your boot-straps” is also based on the idea of equal access, but not of fairness. Countless studies have shown us that it matters far less how smart or hard working you are. If your family has money you’re more likely to succeed than those who don’t.

Systems and policies built on fairness, rather than equality of access, are what I’m interested in. If you’re making $500 million a year, you should be required to pay a very high tax rate. Providing public schools (and public school teachers) with virtually unlimited funds to ensure our schools are providing children with anything and everything they need to succeed should be the standard. Not vouchers. And no tax breaks for those who send their kids to private schools (I’m not sure this is a thing now, but it certainly shouldn’t be).

Citizens United has guaranteed those with money have louder voices than those without. A political system driven by the notion that “money is speech” might be perceived to be equal, but it is by no reasonable standard fair. Progressives should support publicly funded elections, stringent reporting laws, and strict spending limits.

Ultimately for me fairness should be the standard applied and not “equal access.”

In terms of environmental justice, fairness might be harder to quantify. And as someone who is not very well versed in the wide range of environmental issues facing humanity, it is trickier for me to cobble together a definition that distinguishes “fairness” from “equality of access.”

In the broadest terms, I’d say it comes down to this: we all have one world. Environmental protections and regulatory mechanisms should, first and foremost, seek to protect our natural environment and the health and safety of humanity. Concerns about impacts on “industry” or economy should rank a distant second.

True Believers & Practical Progressives

Further, I breakdown “progressives” into two groups: True Believers and Practical Progressives.

The first group I call the “true believer progressives.” Young and old, “progressives” in this group are, as the name suggests, those who believe right is right and anything else than that is to compromise their principles. They occupy the high ground and may be inclined to toss overboard anyone who is willing to settle for less rather than get nothing at all.

For these folks, to accept anything less than a truly living wage, for example, rather than any increase to the Minimum Wage is to sell-out to moderates and corporatists. Or those who were unwilling to settle for Civil Unions rather than full Marriage Equality for same-sex couples. Pick any issue of importance facing our country (or the world) today and you’ll find the “true believers” occupying the far-left flank prepared to hurl barbs at those who are willing to compromise to move the needle even a little bit.

This brings me to the second group, which I would call “practical progressives.” I consider myself falling into this group. There was a time, when I was younger, that I was undeniably a “true believer.” But having worked in politics as either an activist or professional operative for more than a decade, I’ve developed an understanding that politics is as much about compromise as it is holding firm to your principles.

Should minimum wage workers who haven’t received a raise in years and years be forced to wait longer while we battle for a living wage? Or should we work to get the biggest raise we can and then keep fighting to push that wage up? Should we have waited for politicians to be “ready” for full Marriage Equality while families needed protections and benefits provided under a Civil Union legal structure?

While “practical progressives” and “true believers” may be, at times, at odds with each other, I believe a necessary partnership exists between these two groups. “True believers” give strength and sense of purpose to us “practical” folks. Conversely, “practical progressives” can lend legitimacy and forward momentum to positions coveted by the “true believers.” In either case, I believe one does not much succeed without the other.

While I hope this has been an interesting and educational read, I expect there will be some who are critical of my analysis and definitions as I’ve laid them out here. That’s ok. A conversation about what it means to be “progressive” could be a useful one.

Some Interesting Reading

While researching this post, I came across a number of interesting articles from various sources which I thought were worth sharing….

McCormack, Win. April 20, 2018. “Are You Progressive?” The New Republic. https://newrepublic.com/article/147825/progressive-vital-term-us-political-life-lost-significance

Wilentz, Sean. Spring 2018. “Fighting Words.” Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. https://democracyjournal.org/magazine/48/fighting-words/

Saval, Nikil. July 5, 2017. “Hated by the Right. Mocked by the Left. Who Wants to be ‘Liberal’ Anymore?” The New York Times Magazine. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/05/magazine/hated-by-the-right-mocked-by-the-left-who-wants-to-be-liberal-anymore.html

Wenar, Leif and Hong, Chong-Min. 1996. “On Republicanism and Liberalism.” The Harvard Review of Philosophy. http://www.harvardphilosophy.com/issues/1996/Sandel.pdf

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