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Saturday, December 8, 2012

Shame, Shame, Shame!

On Tuesday, December 4, 2012, something happened in the United States Senate that can only be described as shameful.  By a vote of 61-38, ratification of a U.N. treaty protecting certain universal rights of disabled people -- titled the “UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities” -- was defeated.  Six Republicans voted with Democrats in favor of ratifying, but 61-38 in favor was five votes short of the constitutionally required two- thirds necessary to join more than 120 other countries that have already ratified the treaty. 

Not only is it shameful that the Senate could not come up with a two-thirds majority to ratify, it is even more shameful that they chose to place us in the regrettable position of being one of only 28 out of 156 signatories that has not yet ratified the treaty.  And the shame doesn’t end there.  This treaty was supported by a bi-partisan group, including the US Chamber of Commerce, George W. Bush who signed the original treaty, former Senator Bob Dole (a disabled war veteran) who showed up on the Senate floor to encourage passage, and the following Republican Senators who risked their seats by joining Senate Democrats in voting Yea, thereby repudiating the right-wing nuts who opposed this treaty:

Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire
John Barrasso of Wyoming,
Scott Brown of Massachusetts,
Susan Collins of Maine,
Dick Lugar of Indiana,
John McCain of Arizona 
Lisa Murkowski of Alaska

First, let’s take a look at what this bi-partisan group was supporting.  Essentially, they were supporting the extension to other nations of the gold standard established in this country by the Americans with Disabilities Act, as to the rights of persons with disabilities.  Having read the Convention in its entirety (available at www.un.org), I find it to be a comprehensive enumeration of the rights of persons with disabilities which every Member State is strongly encouraged to address.  Notwithstanding, the right-wing nuts, like James Inhofe of Oklahoma, have found therein frightening threats to our sovereignty which just simply do not exist.  We shall address opposing views forthwith.  First, let’s be clear on what is at the heart of this Treaty.  Here are the basic areas being addressed:

Article 3 - General principles
The principles of the present Convention shall be:
Respect for inherent dignity, individual autonomy including the freedom to make one’s own choices, and independence of persons;
Non-discrimination;
Full and effective participation and inclusion in society;
Respect for difference and acceptance of persons with disabilities as part of human diversity and humanity;
Equality of opportunity;
Accessibility;
Equality between men and women;
Respect for the evolving capacities of children with disabilities and respect for the right of children with disabilities to preserve their identities.
 
Article 4 - General obligations
1. States Parties undertake to ensure and promote the full realization of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all persons with disabilities without discrimination of any kind on the basis of disability. To this end, States Parties undertake:
To adopt all appropriate legislative, administrative and other measures for the implementation of the rights recognized in the present Convention;
To take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to modify or abolish existing laws, regulations, customs and practices that constitute discrimination against persons with disabilities;
To take into account the protection and promotion of the human rights of persons with disabilities in all policies and programs;
To refrain from engaging in any act or practice that is inconsistent with the present Convention and to ensure that public authorities and institutions act in conformity with the present Convention;
To take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination on the basis of disability by any person, organization or private enterprise;
To undertake or promote research and development of universally designed goods, services, equipment and facilities, as defined in article 2 of the present Convention, which should require the minimum possible adaptation and the least cost to meet the specific needs of a person with disabilities, to promote their availability and use, and to promote universal design in the development of standards and guidelines;
To undertake or promote research and development of, and to promote the availability and use of new technologies, including information and communications technologies, mobility aids, devices and assistive technologies, suitable for persons with disabilities, giving priority to technologies at an affordable cost;
To provide accessible information to persons with disabilities about mobility aids, devices and assistive technologies, including new technologies, as well as other forms of assistance, support services and facilities;
To promote the training of professionals and staff working with persons with disabilities in the rights recognized in this Convention so as to better provide the assistance and services guaranteed by those rights.
2. With regard to economic, social and cultural rights, each State Party undertakes to take measures to the maximum of its available resources.
3. In the development and implementation of legislation and policies to implement the present Convention, and in other decision-making processes concerning issues relating to persons with disabilities, States Parties shall closely consult with and actively involve persons with disabilities, including children with disabilities, through their representative organizations.
4. Nothing in the present Convention shall affect any provisions which are more conducive to the realization of the rights of persons with disabilities and which may be contained in the law of a State Party or international law in force for that State. There shall be no restriction upon or derogation from any of the human rights and fundamental freedoms recognized or existing in any State Party to the present Convention. (emphasis is added to bring attention to the fact that this Convention does not seek to overturn the laws or rules of a member nation that already protect the rights of persons with disabilities).
5. The provisions of the present Convention shall extend to all parts of federal states without any limitations or exceptions.

What was it then that evoked such criticism of this treaty that doomed it to rejection in the U.S. Senate?  Once again, right-wing nuts managed to find threats and problems that really do not exist in this treaty, unless you read it through the lens of an ideologue who sees the UN as a threat to national sovereignty generally.  Here’s what the nuts have said:

Republican lawmakers spoke out against the treaty, suggesting it would infringe on US sovereignty or allow the state to dictate the actions of families with children with disabilities.  A comprehensive reading of this treaty produces just the opposite effect; that nowhere are there any mechanisms for enforcing or forcing compliance by member countries.  In fact, the treaty indicates what the member countries themselves need to do to enforce the standards, but there are no UN personnel with blue helmets that are going to come to someone’s home or school or other public institution or private association and force them to do something that is in the treaty.  It is pure fantasy that the U.S.A. is giving up any sovereignty to the UN. 

However, this Convention will definitely create obligations for member states who ratify.  States will be obligated to introduce measures that promote the human rights of persons with disabilities without discrimination. These measures would include anti-discrimination legislation, eliminate laws and practices that discriminate against persons with disabilities, and consider persons with disabilities when adopting new policies and programs. Other measures include making services, goods, and facilities accessible to persons with disabilities.
 
Oh yes, there is a section in the treaty that requires an initial two-year report to the UN through its Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to indicate what progress has been made on the standards.  Thereafter, the report will be made every four years.  And there is a provision for sharing those reports with the UN Committee, with members states, and with the agencies, funds and programs of the General Assembly, not to “embarrass” member states, but to enable signers of the treaty to make use of best practices and positive outcomes to move forward on their own progress toward meeting the standards.  In other words, there is more emphasis on cooperation, consultation and internal improvement than on embarrassment, competition or enforcement.  Reports are shared “in order to address a request or indication of a need for technical advice or assistance contained therein, along with the Committee’s observations and recommendations, if any, on these requests or indications.”

Senator Jon Kyl, a retiring Republican, objected to what he called the "disability diplomacy" on show with the treaty, saying there was no need for the country with the world's best record on disability rights to sign a pact that made no changes to US law and was "not enforceable."  How strange that a usual proponent of US exceptionalism would simply dismiss the great importance of  signing a treaty that touts the achievements of this country as regards the treatment and rights of persons with disabilities.  What a missed opportunity; indeed an opportunity turned into a liability.
 
Democratic Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Republican John McCain, sought to convince wavering Republicans that the treaty would have no legal effect on the United States.  Kerry said: "This has no tying of the hands of America, there isn't one law of the United States that would be negatively affected."
Instead, he added, "it will push, it will leverage, it will require other countries by their commitments to be held accountable to the standards that we have set, and take our gold standard and extend it to the rest of the world."

"It is a sad day when we cannot pass a treaty that simply brings the world up to the American standard for protecting people with disabilities because the Republican party is in thrall to extremists and ideologues," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, adding that he would plan to bring the treaty to a vote during the next Congress.

Another objection was raised by the junior Senator from Utah, Mike Lee, who is to the right of Utah’s former Republican junior senator.  He said that the home-schooled would be told by a foreign body what was in the best interest of a disabled child schooled at home.  No such problem exists anywhere in the Convention, but Sen. Lee somehow managed to find something that he could use to fit his preconceived notion of UN programs.

Further speculation and fantasy produced the specter that the CRPD would have created a new layer of bureaucracy on the international level to take care of disability issues. Supposedly, new regulations, ordinances, social services would have been created over those of the US government without the consent of the American people.  Accordingly, such a massive change could have threatened America's sovereignty, by having to listen to unelected foreign technocrats without popular consent.  Certainly an objection that might need serious consideration, except that there are no provisions calling for the UN to establish  regulations, ordinances or social services to take care of disability issues.  Instead, there are suggestions made to member states to do this within their internal structures and institutions, but not for the UN to create and impose. 

The States Parties will meet regularly in a Conference of States Parties in order to consider any matter with regard to the implementation of the present Convention.
And, no later than six months after the entry into force of the present Convention, the Conference of the States Parties would be convened by the Secretary-General of the United Nations.  Subsequent meetings would  be convened by the Secretary-General biennially or upon the decision of the Conference of States Parties.  One objection to the Treaty centered around these meetings, which were characterized as opportunities for other nations to criticize and belittle the United States; and, to display before the world any delays or failures the USA might demonstrate.  This objection obviously comes from an international paranoia that afflicts certain right-wingers. They cannot admit that any other nation might have something to teach us; nor can they admit that the USA might be lagging behind in any way.  What they miss, as always, is that consultation with other nations, sharing information and practices in an equitable way, is what will blunt unwarranted negative criticisms of certain nations directed at us. 

Therein lies the basic issue with this kind of fantasy and ideology:  it creates untruths which become the basis for undermining consultation and agreement with other countries in many areas, but especially in this case, to work toward standards and rights that will enhance the lives of millions of persons who happen to be disabled.  And, to be very practical, it undermines opportunities for U.S. businesses to grow and thrive as they meet needs in other countries for the equipment and devices that we have developed.  The Chamber of Commerce will not be happy with that oversight!

According to Senator Reid, this is not going away just because certain Right-wing nuts made a poor showing and a poor decision.  The new Senate, with 55 members who will caucus as Democrats, will not only have the opportunity to approve the treaty, but will also have the opportunity to undo the shame brought upon this country by the actions of 38 of the current batch of Senate Republicans.  For your information, and to focus your long-term enmity for the shame they have perpetrated on us all, they include:

Lamar Alexander (R-TN)
Roy Blunt (R-MO)
John Boozman (R-AR)
Richard Burr (R-NC)
Saxby Chambliss (R-GA)
Dan Coats (R-IN)
Tom Coburn (R-OK)
Thad Cochran (R-MS)
Bob Corker (R-TN)
John Cornyn (R-TX)
Mike Crapo (R-ID)
Jim DeMint (R-SC)
Mike Enzi (R-WY)
Lindsey Graham (R-SC)
Chuck Grassley (R-IA)
Orrin Hatch (R-UT)
Dean Heller (R-NV)
John Hoeven (R-ND)
Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX)
James Inhofe (R-OK)
Johnny Isakson (R-GA)
Mike Johanns (R-NE)
Ron Johnson (R-WI)
Jon Kyl (R-AZ)
Mike Lee (R-UT)
Mitch McConnell (R-KY)
Jerry Moran (R-KS)
Rand Paul (R-KY)
Rob Portman (R-OH)
Jim Risch (R-ID)
Pat Roberts (R-KS)
Marco Rubio (R-FL)
Jeff Sessions (R-AL)
Richard Shelby (R-AL)
John Thune (R-SD)
Pat Toomey (R-PA)
David Vitter (R-LA)
Roger Wicker (R-MS)

SHAME ON THEM ALL!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The “Fiscal Cliff”

Some Politicians are very adept at inventing phrases to describe particular issues or situations, especially when they prefer not to deal directly with those issues.   Unfortunately, those phrases often do more to hide the real issues than they do to describe them.  Take the phrase “fiscal cliff”, for instance.  While it clearly portrays an approaching crisis and an extreme solution for that crisis, it hides more than it reveals.  For instance, while it illustrates a steep fall we face if we do nothing about fiscal matters like taxes, tax reform, over-spending and on-going issues of government insurance for the elderly and the disabled (misnamed “entitlements”), it clearly does not illustrate the steep climb we face to get back into a balance of disciplined spending, effective regulation of business and labor, and adequate revenue to accomplish what must be accomplished.

Secondly, as is true of our two-party system, the phrase serves to narrow options to too few rather than too many.  Sequestration is certainly a great narrower of options; rigid ideology is a second culprit, and partisanship is a third culprit.  These narrow approaches lead us to fewer and fewer options for acting in a manner that will facilitate a balanced and effective approach to fiscal crisis and help us to climb that steep slope that exists even after a fall over the fiscal cliff. 

One example of a narrow option, that is really not an option, is GOP reluctance to cut the military budget.  Instead, Republicans want to raise it.  Some option!  Not a very smart approach to cutting government spending in a time of “fiscal crisis.”

Some of the narrow choices being ballyhooed include: raising effective or actual tax rates on the rich or cutting deductions for the rich; closing tax “loopholes” (no one has suggested which ones!); cutting or reforming “entitlements“; cutting many governmental “social” programs like food stamps, and returning several programs to the states (like Medicaid).  In addition, there are some who want a “balanced budget” amendment to the constitution to enforce fiscal discipline for all time.  Others talk of certain caps, one on annual spending, another on spending in relation to GDP. 

Of course, there are those who say: just let us all go over the fiscal cliff and then we will be forced to solve our “spending crisis.”  In the meantime, the recession will grow, unemployment will rise, austerity measures will be put in place, and the crisis will have metastasized beyond our ability to resolve it in reasonable ways.

What we need at this juncture is not a phrase that illustrates narrowed options and hidden agendas.  What we need is a vision of where we want to go in terms of principles and goals.  I have some thoughts and suggestions for such an approach, although I must admit that I do not have, nor ever expect to have, all the answers.  I simply want to suggest by this that there is another way to act than by narrowing options.  We must attempt to broaden perspectives and options for action.

1)   Revenue must be increased, not just from taxes, but from closing of tax loopholes: such as hedge fund tax breaks; tax incentives for certain depreciations claimed by businesses; tax breaks and subsidies for big business such as Oil companies. 
2)    No corporation should be able to get away with paying $0 in taxes; there must be a minimum corporate tax and a minimum tax for the richest individuals among us, unless we can actually do away with the very tax breaks that allow corporations and rich individuals not to have to pay at a rate that is reasonable.
3)   All entitlements and tax subsidies must be examined, and reformed or eliminated, depending on their demonstrated outcomes.  According to Sen. Bernie Sanders, the federal treasury is losing over $100 billion annually because the wealthy and large corporations are stashing their money in tax havens in the Cayman Islands and elsewhere.  We must pass real tax reform that ends this outrage. 
4)   The military cannot be exempted from budget cuts, but must find ways to eliminate outmoded weapons systems, close unneeded bases, and streamline private contracts based on demonstrated outcomes that are tied to money provided
5)    All three branches of government must be the first to reform, reduce and re-invent before any cuts are made to programs that benefit the middle class.  
Congress, in particular, must eliminate all entitlements that have been granted it through the years such as: special transport and free parking, extra health care by the military that is not available to other citizens, and the automatic cost-of-living increase in their pay, which is now about 3.4 times as much as the average worker earns. Members of Congress are also eligible for two types of retirement plans and a retirement health care plan, all of which are far more generous than benefits typically offered to private-sector workers (one research group estimates that fringe benefits alone are worth about $82,000 per year to a federal legislator).  Finally, Congress must permanently ban legislative earmarks when their temporary ban expires in 2013.  The Executive must consolidate departments and agencies that essentially accomplish similar objectives; the Judiciary must remove special privileges that accrue to them and no one else such as their own police force.  They must also give up lifetime tenure, a luxury at best.
6)    All grants and contracts, including foreign aid, must be based on demonstrated outcomes with monies assigned based on a goal plan to achieve those outcomes; an evaluation and assessment of every grant or contract plan by outside citizens or citizen-based groups could determine whether continued funding is warranted
7)    Citizen audit groups must be assigned to every inspector general’s office, to all congressional offices, to oversee all contracts with outside agencies; charged with reducing costs, assessing outcomes and recommending needed changes to  operations.
8)    All budgets must be based each year on zero-based funding and not on prior year funding.  An inflation rate shall not be included in any budget automatically, but must be justified with corresponding outcomes expected.
9)   Lobbying and lobbyists must face strong restrictions on their activities, and the sooner the better if we are to see needed reductions in the budget.According to USA Today, for every member of Congress, there are about 22 registered lobbyists who donate money, throw fundraisers and manipulate legislation to the benefit of corporations and interest groups.  Some of the most powerful lobbyists are former members of Congress, who form a "shadow Congress" that has more influence over current lawmakers than pressure from voters does.  
10) So-called “entitlements” must be dealt with, but not in the manner that conservatives favor, such as cutting them, privatizing them, or pushing them off to the states.  Government insurance programs are what entitlements happen to be  (rates or premiums are paid in by workers with the expectation that certain benefits and protections will accrue to them, such as social security as retirement insurance; Medicare as health insurance, Medicaid as long term care and disability insurance).  Essentially, the principle that should hold sway here is that these insurances must not be treated as something one must qualify for (entitlement), but as basic governmental insurance against the exigencies of age and disability and long-term care, and the losses that result.  Rather than always discussing means-testing, or age changes or arbitrary taxing rates, perhaps it makes sense to pay more attention to benefits, coverage and life expectancy (actuarial) tables. 

Thus, we have proposed ten principles.  Why must politicians continually narrow options to a few talking points or tired phrases rather than establish overall principles that need to be maintained and honored so that change is not unprincipled, and undisciplined?  Why can’t we solve problems within a framework of principles, goals, and standards that make sense?

After all, budgeting is not simply a matter of crunching numbers.  Too many in Congress believe that “across-the-board” cuts are inevitable, but they are also nonsensical because they don’t deal forthrightly with endemic problems.  Too many in Congress also believe that we can simply impose caps on spending; others believe that we can set an arbitrary cap related to something like the GDP.  Then, of course, there are those who truly believe that a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution will resolve all of our fiscal problems.  It will not; and in fact will create other problems: emergencies will not be able to be met quickly; some programs, such as food stamps, will have to be cut to keep the military budget bloated beyond its capacity.  In fact, a balanced budget amendment can be seen as nothing more than an austerity measure meant to reduce social programs in lieu of  reductions in other areas such as the military.  Crunching numbers - or simple mathematics - is not the best approach to a balanced budget, or to a humane and effective budget, for that matter.

And there’s the rub.  Budgeting is people-enabling; it is institution-supporting; it is problem-solving and need-meeting; it is patriotism personified and made real; it is democracy and representation indemnified.  It is much more than simply putting together pages of numbers that will add up. That is our main problem: that we allow the bamboozlers in Congress and in the media and elsewhere to lead us astray as to what we are talking about when we debate fiscal responsibilities. 

In his message attached to his 2013 Budget proposal, President Obama made clear that it is much more than numbers that he is presenting.  He declared:

“This Budget reflects my deep belief that we must rise to meet this moment--both for our economy and for the millions of Americans who have worked so hard to get ahead.
“We built this Budget around the idea that our country has always done best when everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules.  It rejects the “you’re on your own” economics that have led to a widening gap between the richest and poorest Americans that undermines both our belief in equal opportunity and the engine of our economic growth.  When the middle class is shrinking and families can no longer afford to buy the goods and services that businesses are selling, it drags down our entire economy. 
“The way to rebuild our economy and strengthen the middle class is to make sure that everyone in America gets a fair shot at success.”

Now we have heard similar words from our President in other contexts, but in this context, they matter even more than in a political campaign, for instance.  Why?  Because establishing a budget based on principles is much more important than political rhetoric.  It is “putting our money where our mouth is”; it is the equivalent to “walking the walk, not just “talking the talk.”  When money is put behind principle, it changes the dynamic immediately.  For instance, had the Peace Corps not been adequately funded, it would have remained just a seminal and principled idea.

Likewise, when we fail to fund something adequately, such as inspectors of food, or border patrol agents, or regulators of wall street firms or big banks, we reap negative consequences in real time and in real life.  Take the recent example of complaints from Republicans about adequate intelligence being unavailable to us when our embassy in Libya was attacked and four US citizens were killed, including the Ambassador.  It came to light that the people who were criticizing our Intelligence agencies were the very same people who had cut their budgets leading to fewer agents in the field!  You simply can’t have it both ways: you can’t expect adequacy in any area if you are not willing to pay adequately for it!

The same people who rail against entitlements and “welfare programs” (the “welfare state”) are those who support the rich in not having to pay their fair share and who provide welfare to the rich in the form of tax breaks, loopholes and subsidies.  In my opinion, they are the very same ones who reject the idea of budgeting based on positive principles, goals and outcomes.  So let us not be drawn into the narrow categories and rhetoric of the radical Right.  Instead, let us stand where we have always stood:  dedicated to the proposition, paraphrasing Lincoln’s words, that all people are created equal, that they are endowed with certain inalienable rights, and that government of the people, by the people and for the people is that which must not be allowed to perish from the earth.

Translated to today’s budgetary debates, it means using government policies, programs and budgets to enable all people to advance, not just in terms of income, but in terms of opportunity.  It means supporting and lifting up those who are beaten down by life’s exigencies, whether they be physically or mentally disabled or challenged.  It means establishing programs that address the needs of people so that they can not only advance their own cause, but can contribute to the welfare of the nation and of other persons. It means acting as though we are interdependent and mutually responsible for one another; as though we have a contract with each other to enhance other lives as we enhance our own; and not to think of ourselves as somehow more deserving or privileged, or independent from others because we have achieved success.  Success is not just an individual achievement, but an achievement contributed to by many helpful and caring people along the path to that success, even if they are merely clients or customers. 

Elitism is the bane of democracy.  Acquired special privileges are equal to rewards stolen from all those who contributed to success and who remain unrewarded.  Not paying one’s fair share of taxes is equivalent to robbing the poor to compensate the rich.  Castigating union laborers is equivalent to cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.  Our Commonweal cannot be sustained if we continue the principle of protecting the rich and successful despite all the obligations that riches place upon them:  “of him to whom much is given, much will be required”. 

Let the principles of shared responsibility prevail; and let the elitism of those who believe in special privileges for the successful be undone.  The “fiscal cliff” is the rhetoric of nay-sayers, the privileged and the uninspired.  It is the invention of the few to bamboozle and frighten the many.  It is a device for holding hostage and subduing government programs for the poor and middle class.  And “Sequestration” is the facile way out of a fiscal responsibility that demands evidence-gathering, reasoning, scientific method and principled planning, as well as some common sense!   It is time to approach budgeting from a new perspective, and that is the perspective of meeting the needs of 98% of the people, rather than accepting the narrow dictates of an elite 2% of the country whose primary concern is their success and their rewards.