Righting our Upside Down government

Down is the new up. This was honed in last Saturday when the U.S. Senate voted in Brett Kavanaugh as our newest justice, despite multiple credible allegations of sexual assault against him.

The vote was perhaps not surprising as Republicans always put party before country. Had Kavanaugh been defeated or withdrawn, someone of similar far right inclinations would have been voted in instead. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has now realized his dream of a reliably conservative court, which would have happened anyhow.

We are living in the Upside Down. If you are not familiar with the term, you haven’t seen the Netflix series Stranger Things (terrific series you really should watch anyhow). We have probably been in the Upside Down for a while, but Saturday’s vote literally confirmed it. Republicans have seized the Supreme Court. It is now an officially political wing of the Republican Party.

If there was any doubt, now-Justice Kavanaugh’s most recent testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee proves it. In short, our democracy has been formally hijacked. Our government is no longer credibly run for the benefit of the people. It is now run for the sponsors of the Republican Party, principally corporatists, which amounts to groups of well-moneyed white men, but also a lot of white people feeding on their anxiety about losing privilege. You can see it in the tax cuts they passed which directly passes wealth to their class. The Republican Party is rife with racism and misogyny; indeed these things control it.

Which raises the question: how to we right our Upside Down government? Is it even possible? We’ll have an inkling a month from now after the midterms because right now Republicans control all three branches of government. They have as close to a vice grip on all of them as possible. It will take a mighty wave of Democratic votes to begin to make our government representative of the people again. It’s unclear given the many obstacles put in the way (gerrymandering, voter purges, voter disenfranchisement, voter suppression and special interest money) whether it is possible.

Even if Democrats regain Congress, it’s but the first of many very hard steps that must occur to return to something like normal. It’s increasingly clear to me that for it to happen at all, Democrats must fight dirty like Republicans. And by fighting dirty it’s unclear if they won’t become as corrupt as Republicans in the process.

Unfortunately, there are no fast solutions to this problem. It took nearly forty years of persistence plus huge amounts of money for Republicans to wholly own government. Some biases are inherently baked into our system and are virtually impossible to change. The biggest problem is the U.S. Senate, which is not weighted according to population. Rural states have a disproportionate advantage in the Senate. As long as these states promote conservative values, at best the Senate will always swing between Republican and Democratic control.

So a combination of long-term and short-term strategies is needed. The bottom line is that we must fight like hell for democracy. It is not something we can fix in one, five or even ten years. It’s likely a generational problem. Much of the problem can go away with time as conservative voters literally die out. This is premised though on having a voting system that is fair, and Republicans have done everything possible to tilt it to their advantage.

If you read this blog regularly, some of these suggestions will seem familiar. But it’s quite clear that what we’ve done before simply doesn’t work. We need new tactics:

  • Pack the court. When Democrats control Congress and the presidency again, pack the Supreme Court. There is no constitutional requirement to have only nine justices. It just takes a law. It’s been done before. Given that Republicans would not even consider Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland, at a minimum if Democrats control the Senate they should not allow any subsequent Supreme Court vacancy to be filled until Merrick Garland’s nomination is first considered. I’d add two more justices to the court, conveniently to be nominated by a Democratic president.
  • Call a constitutional convention to reverse Citizens United v. Republicans probably won the trifecta because of this 2010 landmark Supreme Court ruling. It allowed corporations and rich people to make unlimited contributions to political campaigns, and to hide their advocacy under shadowy political action committees. We can count on Congress not to pass such an amendment, since it would not get past a Senate filibuster. A state-driven constitutional convention is scary to many Democrats. It should not be. In this case, 80% of Americans favor overturning this ruling, and that includes a majority of Republicans. A constitutional convention by the states does not enact such an amendment. Rather, if passed at a convention it requires state legislatures to consider it, same as an amendment passed by Congress. It would pass the ¾ threshold easily. This would effectively take corporate money out of the election system (at least at the federal level), promoting a government by the people, instead of corporations. Don’t expect a 5-4 conservative majority Supreme Court to overturn their previous decision. We need a permanent fix and a constitutional amendment is the only remedy.
  • Candidates should run on not accepting corporate and PAC money. Candidates that have done this have enjoyed great success. You would think it would put them at a financial disadvantage, but for most candidates it spurs small dollar donations instead. I live in Massachusetts. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D) has never accepted these donations. Neither has Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Both vote in the people’s interest because they cannot be bribed. If you want to support this cause, an easy way to do it is to join Wolf-PAC, ironically a PAC that exists specifically to help elect candidates who don’t accept corporate and special interest money.
  • Build from the bottom up, as Republican did. Democrats seem to be getting this message. Gerrymandering is done at the state level. So the more Democrats that control state houses and governorships, the more Democrats can either end gerrymandering in their state, or if they must gerrymander, do it for Democratic advantage. Redistricting will occur after the 2020 census. Assuming that census is not biased (which of course Republicans are trying to bias), if Democratic governors and legislators are in place by 2020, those states can affect composition of the U.S. house in the 2020s and beyond.
  • Rebuild the Democratic Party. This is probably the hardest thing to do, as special interests and their money still largely control the party. A party that authentically represents the will of the people should be successful. Progressives must take over the party, hopefully as benignly as possible. Doing so though may be so divisive that it fractures the party, which Republicans would obviously favor. For example, the Democratic Party could have a position that its candidates and the party should not accept PAC and corporate money. Do this and voters will have a clear understanding that the Democratic Party works for them, not the elite.

Letting freedom (and common sense) reign

It was just a year ago that I blogged about the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius decision. While not entirely unexpected due to its earlier disastrous Citizens United decision, this decision, which let a “closely held corporation” opt out of the birth control provisions of the Affordable Care Act, still felt like a kick in the groin to us progressives. June can be a very frightening month in the United States since it’s when the court’s most controversial opinions get released.

For 2015 though progressives have much to cheer about, and it’s the conservatives that are furious. This is principally because of two cases decided in the last two days that had seismic impact.

In case you just climbed out of a cave, these were King v. Burwell and Obergefell v. Hobson. In the former, a majority of the court said the Affordable Care Act could not be gutted because of the ambiguity of one section of the law that talked about state health care exchanges. In the latter, a closely divided court decided that no state could prohibit two people of any sex or gender from marrying, and that every state had to recognize same sex marriages issued in other states. In short, gay marriage was instantly legal everywhere in the United States.

If you are a progressive, this makes for a very good week indeed, but it gets even better. Almost ignored was Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project, Inc. The ruling said that even if a housing developer did not knowingly engage in housing bias, it could still be subject to a civil suit for such bias. Apparently, ignorance of the law by housing developers is no get out of a civil suit free card, even though the plaintiffs were hoping it was.

So while the court’s decisions last June were mostly a fright show for us progressives, this year it is mostly a fright show for conservatives. It caps an excellent week for President Obama, who also resurrected his Trans-Pacific Partnership proposal by getting Congress to agree to special rules to enact it with an up or down vote with no amendments by either chamber. For progressives though this was the sour political note of the week. The TPP, or actually the TPA, sort of rose from the dead after we thought we had put a stake through its heart two weeks ago in the House.

Include into the melee the nine people brutally murdered by Dylann Roof last Wednesday at Charleston, South Carolina’s historically black Emanuel AME church in what but only a few of the craziest conservatives agree was a racist act of domestic terrorism. The tragic and horrifying event though had a special power in a way that its perpetrator did not intend. Just a few months after the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, the South seems to suddenly want to actually end it, just in spirit this time. The Confederate flag, even in the South, is no longer cool. Once South Carolina governor Nikki Haley spoke in favor of the removal of the Confederate flag from its special flag post at the state’s capitol, Republican politicians were practically jumping on top of each other trying to agree that Confederate flags everywhere needed to go to museums and stay there. States across the South are anxiously revisiting their previous pride about the Confederate States of America.

Despite Republicans controlling a majority of the state houses and governorships and the U.S. congress, their agenda is being beaten back. It’s not supposed to be this way and in fact in many ways it’s not happening. It’s largely not happening with their increasingly onerous restrictions on abortion rights, or voting rights, or on many other issues. But on some of the issues that animate them the most, like gay marriage and Obamacare, they got bitch-slapped something bad this week. They are furious but largely impotent. If you see someone foaming at the mouth these last few days, it’s probably a Republican.

Whereas progressives like me are kind of stunned by it all, but particularly on the court’s ruling on gay marriage. It’s not its decision that surprised me, but I am stunned by how quickly the nation and the courts evolved on the issue. I wrote in this post back in 2008 that I expected it would take a few more decades for gay marriage to be legal in all fifty states. In the court’s 5-4 decision today, it’s now legal in every state, just seven years later! To put this in perspective, it was just 11 years ago that Massachusetts became the first state to legalize gay marriage. This is a stunningly fast change. Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority in Obergefell v. Hobson, was almost poetic in his writing:

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.

The 14th amendment to the U.S. constitution was the legal rationalization for the decision. It is also known as the “equal protection” amendment. Its citing was not a surprise, but using it as a justification was poetic as well. Here’s why: the 14th amendment was passed after the Civil War to protect the rights of blacks who were no longer slaves. The amendment can be thought of as the “equal means equal” amendment. The Supreme Court simply stated that its ruling was constitutional because otherwise gay, lesbian and transgendered individuals would be denied privileges available to others, which is both the intent and spirit of the 14th amendment. Progressives can feel giddy because had there been no Civil War it’s unlikely that this amendment would have been introduced at all, so it’s quite possible this ruling would never have been enacted. There probably would have been no constitutional rationalization for this decision otherwise, and conservatives would have won the day. In short, you can tie the court’s ruling on gay marriage as a very belated response to the insurrection of the southern states and the apartheid principles that Dylann Roof perpetrated last week.

In the case of King v. Burwell, the Supremes essentially undercut the premise of the self-proclaimed constitutional conservatives on the court. Constitutional conservatives believe that every law must be judged against the original intent of the constitution and it means exactly what it says and nothing more. No less that Chief Justice Roberts, who wrote the majority opinion, explicitly undercut that rationalization. He wrote:

The combination of no tax credits and an ineffective coverage requirement could well push a State’s individual insurance market into a death spiral. It is implausible that Congress meant the Act to operate in this manner. Congress made the guaranteed issue and community rating requirements applicable in every State in the Nation, but those requirements only work when combined with the coverage requirement and tax credits. It thus stands to reason that Congress meant for those provisions to apply in every State as well.

Roberts and a majority of the court affirmed, as it has hundreds of times throughout its history, that when a portion of a law erroneously works against its clear intent, then the intent of law is what prevails. It was a ruling that faithfully reflected the will of Congress when the ACA was written, and a majority of the court thus held to the fidelity of the law.

For us progressives, this has been a week of largely good news. It is good news that gays, lesbians and the transgendered have the same marriage rights as heterosexuals. Equal now really means equal. We see it as an expansion of freedom. Strangely, conservatives only want to expand freedoms for those who look and act a lot like they do. Anything else is the overreaching hand of big government at work. Similarly, in the case of the interpretation of the Affordable Care Act, conservatives think that every law should be interpreted literally, whereas the Supreme Court reaffirmed that its rulings should be faithful to the law’s clear intent. These rulings were victories for common sense and for the spirit of the law and constitution.

What goes around though will come around. These court decisions seem to ping between favoring liberal and conservative wings, usually based on Justice Kennedy’s interpretations of the law and the constitution. So it wouldn’t surprise me if in a year from now I will be railing against the court again for their ill-informed judgments. For now though it’s pop the champagne time. Obergefell v. Hobson in particular is a landmark opinion of a scope and breadth rarely seen these days, and whose impact will be strongly felt for decades to come.

Can I kick the DailyKos habit?

Some habits are hard to break. Smoking. Drinking. Whoring. Eating dark chocolate. (Okay, I don’t know about the first three.) Another bad habit I have developed is going to snarky political web sites. While there are plenty of them out there, arguably DailyKos.com is the snarkiest of them. I wish I could break my addiction to DailyKos but there I am many times a day, obsessively reading the site.

Giving up DailyKos is much easier said than done. I go to it all the time, not so much to read comments (who has time for that, although plenty of people do) but to get the political news I care about. Only it’s always delivered in the most ultra-sarcastic of tones. For a site that supposedly celebrates the diversity of people and values skills like critical thinking, it sure paints all Republicans with the same whitewash. Granted that as a class Republicans seem to be all cut from the same cloth. And yet there is variety among Republicans and conservatives. What is almost universal about Republicans in office is they are almost all intensely weird. But arguably they are no weirder than the denizens on DailyKos. Like, um, me? Am I one of the damned?

You have your socially conservative Republicans. You have your fiscally conservative Republicans. You also have your libertarian-leaning Republicans. Of course, most lately you also have your Tea Party Republicans. They are quite a bit different. On DailyKos though they might as well all be wearing identical Ku Klux Klan robes and burning crosses. They are all portrayed as bizarre, which is obvious from the way they are characterized in posts and captions. They are objects for derision and for our entertainment, so weirdly and objectively wrong that they occupy a unique zone of utter wrongness, not even fit for scorn although of course the scorn is ladled out in extremely generous portions.

Birds of a feather, perhaps? DailyKos’s dirty secret is that its denizens are objectively just as weird and bizarrely opinionated, just in the other direction. I don’t hang out much on conservative websites like redstate.org. I doubt though that their arguments get as heated as they do on DailyKos. Few posters will be taking socially conservative positions on DailyKos, mainly because they are not suicidal, but boy they sure do a lot of arguing about nuances on stuff that just does not matter. The really egregious flamers eventually get banned. Arguments can be both enlightening and disagreeable at the same time. Overall they are a passionate bunch, but they can often take great offense over differences in opinion that really are quite minor. So mostly I read the articles and skip the comments. Who needs all that indigestion?

So why do I bother? I bother simply because the site has political news that is very topical. I bother because they raise a ton of money for progressive candidates, and were instrumental in getting candidates like new Senator Elizabeth Warren elected. I visit because they may be super snarky, but they are endlessly reading polls, assessing candidates and digging into dry facts about various politicians’ political war chests. These things matter in the long run. If you are trying to field better progressive candidates you have to know a ton about your candidate, the competition, and the state or district’s demographics. They have done the research, they have some top notch analysts and they endlessly comb the political news of the day for the nuggets that really matter.

Too bad there is so much chaff in the wheat. Today Marco Rubio’s “water” incident is all over DailyKos. In his response to President Obama’s State of the Union speech last night, this rising star of the right drank from a bottle of Poland Springs while water on camera, without using glass and subsequently grimaced. There is today endless hilarity and comments about this on DailyKos, as if it mattered. I guess it gives them something to talk about, even though Obama’s speech was far more relevant and interesting than a minor imaging mistake by a rising Republican star. Yeah, I watched the clip, and then I tuned out the subsequent discussion. It doesn’t matter at all, except to the super politically charged progressives on DailyKos.

I also look and read most of the recommended diaries. Some of them turn out to be piffle, but about fifty percent of the time they are topical and contain relevant news I generally haven’t seen elsewhere first.

For the most part though, DailyKos is a 24 hour a day carnival show for hypercharged progressives that is chock full of snark and antipathy. Yet, I haven’t found a satisfactory alternative. What I want is a site without the snark but with similar content. I need a site like this where Republicans don’t need to be endlessly lampooned and skewered. Most Republicans simply have to open their mouth. It’s usually the same as putting their foot into it anyhow. However, Republicans are not stupid. They just have wildly different opinions and ways of seeing the world than I do. They may be declining as a political party at the moment, but they are generally astute at where they place their time and money. They know how to gerrymander with the best of them. Like it or not many of our most successful people are hard core Republicans. They may have flunked the course on empathy but they have figured out how to succeed financially and professionally. Their perspective is one that I largely don’t share, but it is one worthy of tolerance, especially from a community that calls itself progressive. (I make exceptions for the Todd Akins among them.) It’s not necessary to say they are wrong about something. Usually it’s simply a matter of documenting what they say and do and let the record speak for itself.

Clearly I haven’t found the site I am looking for, although I like sites like ThinkProgress.org somewhat better when it comes to the tone of their material, but not as much when it comes to variety and depth. At some point though I need to go cold turkey and quit DailyKos. Maybe I just need to read real news sites again, like CNN. Too much partisanship and analysis is probably not a good thing. Preaching to the choir can be fun, but like smoking, drinking, whoring and dark chocolate it’s probably not too healthy.

Wait a minute. Dark chocolate is healthy. Pass me another bag of dark chocolate M&Ms.

The wrath of Kos

Four years ago, I warned about The Power of Kos. Most people who pay attention to politics know who Kos is. Kos (pronounced “Kohs”) is a nickname for Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, the original creator of the phenomenally successful political blog site, Daily Kos. While many were responsible for the rise of the political blogosphere, arguably Kos is its chief spokesman and ringmaster. In fact, I expect that on November 5th, the Washington establishment will wake up to realize that Markos Moulitsas Zúniga is the new Karl Rove. President Obama will be one of a host of politicians that will be anxious to stay in Kos’s favor.

Election Day is still three days away but from all the early voting going on it doesn’t take a political scientist to figure out which way this election is going to go. Democrats are going to win and win big. It will resemble the 1974 election, in which Democrats benefited disproportionately by voters in a sour mood over Watergate. In that election, Democrats picked up 49 house seats and 3 senate seats. This time Democrats are unlikely to pick up 49 seats. Most political experts expect a 20-25 seat gain. My intuition tells me it will be thirty or more House and 8-9 Senate seats. On the other hand, in the 1972 election, Democrats lost 13 House seats, while in the 2006 election Democrats picked up 31 House seats. The impact of the 2006 and 2008 elections combined is likely to be much larger than the impact of the 1972 and 1974 elections combined.

There is a difference though between winning and winning big. Winning big reflects two factors. The first factor is a generally high disgruntlement with the ruling party. While Democrats currently control the House, in effect no one controls the Senate, which has had the predictable effect of gridlock. The second factor is focus and organization. While certainly the Democratic congressional and senatorial campaign committees have had more money than usual this cycle, the progressive blogosphere, overseen by ringmaster Kos, will in hindsight be seen as instrumental in the upcoming Democratic surge.

Kos is one of the founding members of ActBlue, a grassroots Internet-driven fundraising organization that focuses on progressive candidates. ActBlue is proof that the Netroots have real power. Since 2004, ActBlue has raised over $81 million dollars for progressive candidates. More recently, Kos created Orange to Blue, which allows the Daily Kos community to give directly to candidates that Kos recommends. Currently Kos’s Orange to Blue initiative has raised $2.3 million dollars from about 24,000 individual donors.

What Kos and his community do is help tip the balance in close races. They pay special attention to lowly House races that rarely get the attention they should from the DCCC. Orange to Blue acts like a shot of adrenaline to a lackluster progressive campaign that nonetheless has a compelling candidate. The funds that it provides allow the candidate to get its message out in a larger way. In 2006, the blogosphere was arguably instrumental in the election of Senators Webb and Tester to the Senate. Arguably, without its support the Senate would not have turned blue in 2006.

2006 was just a warm up for 2008. It is hard to say exactly which candidates will win this time around because of fundraising through the progressive blogosphere. If Al Franken wins the Minnesota Senate seat, Orange to Blue can take at least partial credit for the victory. If you want to see how much power Kos actually leverages Tuesday night, check out whether Ronnie Musgrove wins the Senate race in deep red Mississippi. Also, check the results in House races where Republican incumbents are favored but their Democratic challengers are within the realm of possibly defeating them. These include Bob Lord, running against John Shadegg in AZ-03, Gary Trauner who is trying to win Dick Cheney’s old house seat in very conservative Wyoming, and Darcy Burner in WA-08. If these seats flip to the Democrats, the extra fundraising push from ActBlue and Orange to Blue are probably responsible.

Kos is of course an unusually politically savvy individual. What makes him especially valuable is that he is ruthlessly pragmatic. Senator Jim Webb of Virginia, for example, is hardly the sort of liberal senator that many progressives would have preferred. Nevertheless, he was right on enough issues and more importantly electable to the voters of Virginia for the blogosphere to help fund his campaign. Kos is also a very high energy individual, fast on his feet, focused and relentless. He knows how to get his readers to open their wallets.

The liberal blogosphere wants to donate to worthwhile candidates. Most of us though do not have time to independently examine all the potential candidates and their positions. However, we do trust Kos’s judgment, particularly since he demonstrated his instincts were sound in the 2006 election. This makes giving to Kos’s preferred candidates a good bet.

I think it is interesting that Karl Rove and Kos have dueling columns in Newsweek. The choices are quite appropriate. For many years, Rove has been the Republican’s ringmaster. Kos (whom many in the Democratic Party still look down on as a lowly blogger) is now arguably the Democrats’ ringmaster. Both are the brains behind their party’s successes. Rove’s star is fading and is likely to diminish altogether after this election. As for Kos, his star is likely to soar into the stratosphere.

I have been known to be unduly optimistic, yet I expect the Republican Party is going to wake up on November 5th and realize they have been run over by a truck. The size of the early voting going on in so many states indicates unusual interest in this election. The only question is which way the election will tip. On the House and Senate side, unquestionably it will tip toward the Democrats. On the presidential side, barring some last minute news event that is hard to fathom, I do not see how Obama can possibly lose. I expect he will get at least 350 electoral votes and a majority of the popular vote.

Voters are screwed and angry. An extraordinary vengeance against those whose monumental misjudgments caused so many calamities these last eight years is about to be unleashed. Whipped up in part by ringmasters like Kos, my feeling is that this election will be a blowout for progressives. It will leave the bean counters wondering how they missed the size of this surge. If it happens as I expect, I will give most of the credit to the brilliant Markos Moulitsas Zúniga.

Give a little love and simplify your life

My Dad has simplified his life to fit into a two-bedroom apartment. At age 81 and a widower this all for the best. Even so, his two-bedroom apartment is more than he needs. The spare bedroom is great for guests, but he does not get many of them. Since my mother passed away three years ago, he has been reducing his life even more. Her clothes were donated shortly after she died. Her plants proved too burdensome for him to care for, so they are gone. Also gone are any sign of holiday decorations, except for the smattering of Christmas cards that he places in a basket.

I hope long before I turn 81, assuming I make it to that ripe age, I have simplified my life too. My wife and I make periodic attempts. When they succeed, they amount to de-cluttering us to where we were a few years ago.

There is a burden to possessions, but its burden was not clear to me until this weekend. I helped my friend Renee sort through the property that her mother had left. Renee’s mother died unexpectedly last month at age 68. Both Renee and her mother could be forgiven for thinking that her mother would live longer than she did. I am sure though that if Renee’s mother had any inkling that she would not have survived to age seventy, she would have dramatically simplified her life. For in dying unexpectedly she left Renee with both a staggering amount of grief and a staggering amount of possessions. I did not realize just how much stuff this was until this weekend when a host of her friends and I went through the arduous process of helping her try to sort it all out.

Somehow, in spite of her grief, she and her son James managed to have a memorial service for her mother in South Carolina, empty her condominium and move her possessions to two storage units at a new ezStorage in nearby Reston, Virginia, all within the space of less than two weeks. We spent today simply trying to inventory their contents in order to identify any damaged items. There were close to ten of us going at it all afternoon, and we only made a modest dent in the pile. Her mother apparently was not afraid of living large, and seemed to have plenty of money. Her career took her to over eighty countries. Seemingly, in each, she found some exquisite piece of furniture or artwork to send home. I never met her mother, but clearly, she was no K-Mart shopper. I was just stunned by both the volume and the quality of her furnishings. She had a vase that was made in 600 A.D. She kept exquisite hardwood furniture handed down for generations that looked nearly new. Her art collection included dozens of truly stunning paintings from all over the world.

Nor was she afraid of the 21st century. She had a large high definition television, computers and all sorts of electronic gizmos. She also had many books. She also owned lots of other amazing stuff I cannot mention because my mind could not embrace its vastness. Her mother’s belongings filled up one of their biggest storage units, floor to ceiling, packed tight, as well as a smaller unit that was similarly packed so tightly it was hard to imagine where they could add a deck of cards.

No wonder Renee looked frazzled. It is not easy being the only surviving child when your last parent dies. The challenge becomes particularly large when your parent is also well moneyed and likes to buy things. Simply sorting through all of her stuff will take years. There are literally thousands of items, all of which need to be categorized and appraised. Most of it will end up sold at an estate sale. Once the estate sale is complete, Renee will never have to worry about money in her retirement.

Also left behind: a year old purebred Rag Doll feline, a sort of final living link to her mother. The cat is now living in Renee’s house, which is also full of birds. The cat needs a new home but the birds need to be protected from the cat’s predatory instincts. For now, the cat lives in her bedroom while she tries to find it a home. She would prefer to give it to someone she knows, so she can check up on it from time to time.

I do not expect to meet my maker at age 68 like Renee’s mother, but I do hope that by age 68 I will have gotten rid of most of my junk. Since that is only 17 years away, I had better start soon. We have walls full of books that we will never read again. We have dozens of cans of paint we will never reopen. I have warranties going back to the Reagan administration. We have three bikes, only one of which is ever used. We have three DVD players, all in perfectly good condition. We have seven computers but only three people actually living in the house.

All these possessions should feel liberating but increasingly they feel like a ball and chain, making my life overly crowded and confusing. Judging from my neighbors, my life is relatively de-cluttered. At least my garage actually has a car in it. Many of my neighbors leave their cars in their driveways and use their garage for storage.

Ideally I would leave this life about the way I entered it: naked and without a possession to my name. That seems unlikely, but what I can do is give my daughter (who like my friend Renee will someday be sifting through my effects) more time to grieve for my parting, and less time having to deal with my possessions. I think my father understands this, and I now realize that by simplifying his life, he is actually showing us great love.

Thanks, Dad.

MoveOn.org is betraying the progressive cause

Back in July 2004, I took MoveOn.org to task for what I thought was a serious lapse in judgment: pressing the Federal Trade Commission to go after Fox News for promoting itself as “fair and balanced”.

I agreed with MoveOn that Fox News was neither fair nor balanced. What disturbed me was the group’s attempt to use the power of the government against Fox News. Frankly, its attempt gave me the willies and was very Big Brother-ish. Had they succeeded what ghoulish precedent would this have set? Would some future FTC go after the New York Times for, in its judgment, not serving all the news that it thought was fit to print? Would the government assume it was now permitted to decide whether any media outlet was covered by freedom of the press? I thought MoveOn “got” liberal values. We liberals welcome a diversity of opinions and perspectives, even when they do not agree with us. The last thing we want is the government mucking up our freedom to hear different points of view.

Somehow, Eli Pariser, the current executive director for MoveOn, read my little blog entry and left this pithy little comment:

Liberals like to think that ABC, NBC, etc. are in fact ‘fair and balanced’ while citing Fox as the source of distortions. Emphasis on one bit of information while ignoring other salient bits is the hallmark of the liberal media and something you are obviously unable to admit. Pundit my ass!

More recently, MoveOn published its now infamous “General Petraeus or General Betray Us?” ad in the New York Times. The good news is that the ad succeeding in garnering a lot of attention. The bad news is that the ad was very counterproductive. It was like waving a red flag in front of a bull. No less than the Senate of the United States, when it could have been doing things like ending the war in Iraq, instead overwhelmingly passed a resolution condemning the advertisement. Rather than helping to facilitate an end to the war, it caused Republicans to circle the wagons. It also gave moderate Democrats a reason to be very wary of embracing change.

It did not have to be this way. The ad could have been just as effective without being inflammatory. For example, it would have shown President Bush next to General Petraeus and asked, “President Bush: Why are you making this patriot a scapegoat for your failed policy?” The ad was factually correct. Unfortunately, it pinned the tail on the wrong donkey. MoveOn does not appear to have anyone in charge with sufficient political shrewdness to know when they it has stepped over the bounds of good taste and decency. In doing so, it undercuts both our desire to end the war and gives pause to moderates who might be leaning toward progressive causes.

Has anyone on the MoveOn staff actually served in the military? I have not, but I have spent nine years in the Pentagon working with soldiers from airmen to four star generals. One thing I know without a doubt: while the military is overall a conservative group of folks, they faithfully and slavishly follow orders. As much as MoveOn would like to paint him as such, General Petraeus is not a politician. He is a military officer. He was directed by his chain of command to implement a policy. His job is to salute and do the very best he can to make the policy work. One can quarrel with his methods, but not his patriotism. Policymakers should be taking the rap for a failed policy. Generals can and should be held accountable for failing to properly execute their mission. They should not be tarred for the policy itself. Failure for the policy belongs squarely on President Bush, not General Petraeus.

At the time, I said:

This campaign with the FTC is just mean spirited harassment and worthy of Bill O’Reilly at his worst. MoveOn.org in this case should just shut up. In fact, it should do more than that. It should admit this campaign was a mistake and a serious lapse in its judgment. And then it should, well, move on.

MoveOn did not take me up on my suggestion. This latest ad three years later shows they have learned nothing in the intervening years.

Since I wrote that first blog entry, I have given an additional $350 to MoveOn and its political action committee on the hope that cooler heads were prevailing. No more. If MoveOn is still not savvy enough to know when certain lines should not be transgressed they deserve neither my money nor my support.

Instead, I will give my money to organizations that, in my judgment, have the maturity of vision to know how to promote solid progressive candidates and causes and know how to persuade people rather than inflame or antagonize them. If I have any spare cash left over, I will be giving it to organizations like Progressive Majority and Emily’s List rather than MoveOn. Perhaps some day saner heads will prevail at MoveOn and I can give money to them again. Right now, that day appears to be far off.

The Return of Government of, by and for the People

Today marks the welcome and long delayed return of sane government.

Admittedly, it is just one branch of government that has regained its sanity, but it is a start. For many of us the end of our long, national nightmare did not occur when President Nixon resigned. It happened on November 8th when voters threw the Republicans out of both houses of Congress. Today, as a new Congress was sworn in, government of, by, and for the corporation and special interests came to an abrupt end.

While I felt the political earthquake coming before the election, I was still nervous whether its size would not be enough to dislodge Republicans from both houses of Congress. It was, but just barely. The Senate, where Democrats are in control by a single vote, still does not quite feel like it is in Democratic hands. This is because Democratic Senator Tim Johnson of South Dakota remains in the hospital, after brain surgery. While his recovery appears to be proceeding normally, he has a long way to go before he can actively participate in the Senate. If he cannot serve, you can bet that South Dakota’s Republican governor will appoint a Republican to his seat. In this event, the Senate would split 50-50, effectively putting Republicans in charge since Darth Vader, a.k.a. Dick Cheney would become its deciding vote. Due to Senate rules, it takes 60 votes to pass any controversial bill. However, by being in the majority the Democrats will be able control the chamber’s business.

This afternoon found us with a new Speaker of the House who was, for the first time, a woman. Nancy Pelosi is going to surprise many people. Republicans will be the most surprised. They see her as a far left liberal. While that may be true, that does not mean that she will govern as one. She understands that if Democrats want to retain power their impact must be broad and mainstream, rather than serving a narrow constituency of supporters. This is a lesson the Republicans never quite grasped.

It has been a while since government truly worked on behalf of the average Joe. Except for a brief period when Democrats captured control of the Senate, it has been twelve years with a Republicans Congress. Until 2001, we had President Clinton to reign them in. Not that it has been easy. In 1995, Republicans interpreted their majority status as a reason to close the federal government. Over time, their Contract with America became inconvenient to their true mission: maintaining power for themselves and their friends. Term limit promises and rules about not accepting gifts from lobbyists went by the wayside. During this decade all pretenses were dropped. Time after time legislation was passed that gave great benefits to fellow Republicans, and screwed the rest of us.

The Republican Congress and President Bush gave new meaning to the word “chutzpah”. In the House of Representatives, Democrats were effectively locked out of legislative process. All sorts of tactics were used to diminish their power, including enacting rules that excluded them from bill markup sessions. Over in the White House, President Bush signed bills into law with accompanying signing statements. In many cases, these statements explicitly contradicted the purpose of these laws in the first place. He is still at it. On December 20th upon signing the Postal Reform Bill, he said he would interpret the law as giving him the power to open people’s mail without a warrant, even though it gave him no such power. I hope that one of the new Congress’ first acts will be to bring a case to the Supreme Court to test their constitutionality. It is hard to imagine anything more unconstitutional than the president refusing to abide by the law of the land. At least when President Nixon broke the law, he knew he was doing wrong.

What were Americans smoking during the last twelve years? Virtually everything that came through Congress was framed this way: if it was good for Republican interests, let’s do it, and the fiscal consequences did not matter. Consequently, we got obscene tax cuts for the rich and favors for corporations and special interests of all kinds. We got faith-based initiatives on the taxpayer’s dime. We got politicians more concerned about the feelings of fertilized blastocytes than people who lost everything in New Orleans. The most progressive thing Congress did was pass a Medicare prescription drug bill. However, it did not do it until it made it easy for drug manufacturers to keep their profits high. Instead of carbon caps, we had meaningless voluntary quotas on carbon emissions. Throughout these years, while Congress kept increasing its salary it could not find a way to raise the minimum wage from $5.15 an hour. This is a wage so niggardly that you can earn it and be well below the national poverty line. It was selfishness run amok.

Today meant a fundamental change in this sort of wrong and selfish thinking. It may be that after a long spell in power the Democrats may go back to the kind of corruption that deservedly got them thrown out of office in 1994. On the other hand, perhaps Democrats have learned a lesson. A hopeful sign is that the House Democrats, as their first act, will prohibit representatives from accepting gifts from lobbyists.

Granted, after twelve years of Republican rule there is so much fundamentally messed up with the country that all the needed changes cannot occur overnight. The Republican Congress’ contempt for the American people, if it needed any more proof, was evident in their lame duck session. They left town without even bothering to complete passing fiscal year 2007 appropriation bills. However, a new day is dawning in Washington. Congress appears to be ready to be a government of, by, and for the people again. It may be that in 2009, a Democrat will be in the Oval Office too. In that case something quite remarkable will have occurred: two branches of government will have changed hands in just two years. Looking toward the 2008 elections, it is hard to see how President Bush can fail to be a drag on any Republican nominee. In the Senate, the number of Republicans up for reelection is much higher than the number of Democrats, which suggests that Democrats will build on their majority. In the House, it is unlikely that Republicans will be able to chip away at the Democratic majority in only two years. Most likely Democrats will increase their majority.

The fact is that the country is changing right under the Republicans’ noses. Unless Republicans reinvent themselves as a kinder, gentler and more moderate party, they are likely to keep losing seats. The 2006 election proved that the times are a changing. The Midwest is turning blue. Even the Rocky Mountain States are turning a shade of purple. As Generations X and Y age and discover their political power, they are unlikely to model the Republican Party’s values of narrow mindedness, xenophobia and a cultural monotheism. They are growing up in a different America, which is culturally diverse, and where Caucasians will no longer be in the majority.

I believe that history will show that in the first half of this decade that the Republican Party reached its political zenith. Its hold on the majority has always been tenuous because it so steadfastly worked against the people’s interests. Despite Tom Delay’s attempts at gerrymandering, the demographics no longer favor the Republican Party. America’s future is colored blue.

The chickens have come home to roost, at last

Occam’s Razor likes to peer into the future. Sometimes I get it right, and sometimes I get it wrong. Overall though my ability to prognosticate is good. After all not many like me were predicting prior to our war in Iraq that it would turn into the insurgency that it did.

My timing can be off though. Perhaps I see trends too early. Clearly, after reelecting Bush a year ago Americans are now having buyer’s remorse. Had the election been held even a month later the presidency might well have flipped. However, shortly after last year’s election, I pointed out that Bush had set in motion events that could not be stopped. His comeuppance could not be forever postponed.

Events in 2005 have cascaded into a crescendo of bad news not just for Bush, but also for Republican rule. Bush’s approval ratings have tumbled even further, averaging recently at around 37%. While we will have to wait a year to find out the damage done to the Republican’s hold on Congress, we might get a hint from scattered elections this month that another political earthquake is coming.

One sign that should be very worrisome to Republicans is that Tim Kaine (a Democrat) won the governorship here in reliably red state of Virginia. It took a lot for Democrat Mark Warner to win the governorship in state four years ago. To win he had to convince Virginia voters that he was both a good ol’ boy and was not a liberal.

As governor Warner defied conventional logic and proved that even in a red state voters will support pragmatic taxes increases. Working with minority Democrats in the state assembly and a handful of moderate Republicans he was able to pass a modest half-cent increase in the state sales tax. As a result serious money started flowing into urgently needed transportation projects. In addition Virginia schools were able to receive desperately needed additional aid to keep up with growing population and testing demands. His pragmatic approach found wide support across the state. Arguably Tim Kaine, the former Lieutenant Governor, rode on Warner’s coattails. He won the gubernatorial election by more than five percent against his Republican opponent, Jerry Kilgore. More astonishingly, solidly reliably counties like nearby Loudoun County voted solidly for Kaine. Kilgore’s antitax message rang hollow and seemed shrill. Virginians are returning toward embracing pragmatic government again. Apparently good schools and roads are more important than paying a half a cent more in sales taxes.

Kilgore found that being a Republican was no longer much of a selling card, even in Virginia. He avoided President Bush, who wanted to campaign with him in the state, until the very end. His one campaign appearance with Bush shortly before the election seemed to seal his defeat. Yes, even here in the reliably red state of Virginia, more people disapprove of Bush than approve of him. The result of these elections suggests Bush is now toxic. In addition Republicans are being viewed by voters with jaundiced eyes. Apparently even Republicans can interpret poll number and are sobering up. They realize they may be out of office next year if things don’t change. Consequently we are witnessing serious fractures of the Republican machine in Washington. Despite all the odds, the budget cuts proposed by fiscal conservatives, which targeted the poor by cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, could not win over moderate Republicans. The bill could not even pass by removing the requirement for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This is an amazing denouement for a party that just a couple months ago believed it could ram through congress pretty much anything its leadership wanted.

I do not need to spend much time restating Bush’s problems because most of you keep up on current events. Bush has been carpet bombed since his reelection. From the deepening quagmire in Iraq (for which we have no realistic exit strategy), to his surreal and deadly mishandling of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, to skyrocketing gas prices, to fumbled Supreme Court nominations, to indictment against Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scotter” Libby, Bush is more than wounded. He has had limbs blown off.

Americans are in a surly mood. The economy is doing okay, but the benefits are not trickling down to them. For the average American, expenses keep exceeding income. The new expenses are costs we can do little to trim back. As a result the middle class continues to shrink. Many, like my wife who managed to find a new job recently, will work for much less than they made in their last job. While many find their income is down, necessary expenses like health care, gasoline and home heating oil keep skyrocketing. We wonder how much longer the American Dream will be available. And we wonder why we are allowing the dream to slip away. Why did we elect people who did not serve our interests, but instead slavishly served only the interests of those that funded their campaigns? This anxiety is reflected in rather disturbing consumer confidence statistics.

The voters are sobering up. Over the last five years our country has been raped and pillaged by Republicans. What we are witnessing is the intense anger, and even hatred, of those who were disenfranchised. We no longer have a government that even makes a pretense about serving the common good. It serves those who support Bush and the Republican Party and gleefully shafts the rest. Both the president and the Congress are drunk on power. More tax cuts for the rich in a time of soaring budget deficits? Until recently, this was not a problem. Weaken air pollution laws as a response to hurricane relief? Sure, why not? Cry over Terri Schiavo’s brain dead body, but let senior citizens drown to death in New Orleans’ nursing home? Not a problem either. After all, they couldn’t vote and beside they were not one of their kind.

I do not think this situation will improve. I think it will continue to get worse. I hear people say that at 37% approval ratings, Bush has reached his floor. I don’t think so. I think it will go even lower in the months ahead. Bush is now in the rapids and he is losing control of the ship of state. The time is ripe for a change in congressional power, and we should see it in the 2006 elections. It remains to be seen though whether Democrats are savvy enough to fully capitalize on the moment. As I suggested Democrats need a new Contract with America. It is painfully clear at this point what one party Republican rule has delivered misery for the average American. A clear vision for the future should turn the House of Representatives back to its traditional Democratic Majority. With only a third of the seats up for grabs in the Senate in 2006, it is less likely that Democrats can take that chamber too, but it is not outside the bounds of possibility. Bereft of the public trust, Americans have little choice but to embrace an alterative or to suffer through even more disastrous mismanagement of their government.

A stiff wind of pragmatism is beginning to sweep across America again. It will be good to feel it again. It has been sorely missed.

Government is the price of progress

Some years back I read a review of the book Children of the Depression. I purchased the book, which is full of glossy black and white pictures documenting ordinary life for children in America during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The pictures were found in the archives of the now defunct Farm Security Administration. In their raw and unvarnished form, they detail the heartbreaking daily poverty of ordinary Americans living through those times, with an emphasis on how the lives of children were affected.

Both my parents lived through the Great Depression. My paternal grandfather was a civil servant, so my father was only tangentially affected by it. My mother, born in 1920, had her entire life view shaped by being young and in a desperately poor family during the Great Depression. Looking through Children of the Depression, I can see that world through my mother’s eyes.

Here are a few snippets from my mother’s autobiography that gives you some inkling of just how awful and life was for her during this time:

When Dad lost his job, that was the end of meat in our diet every day. Now it was depression soup (a mixture of oatmeal, onions, water, salt and pepper).

How did we keep warm? I’m hazy here but I do believe welfare gave use some coal, but not enough to keep our drafty house warm. We are not proud of this, but we stole some from the trains that would pass near us. A few blocks to the east of us the train had to slow down to make a turn and the older boys would hop atop the coal cars and when they would get within blocks of our house, they would toss coal off as fast as they could. When the train would slow down they hopped off and gathered their booty in burlap bags and carried them home. Things got so bad at times the boys would hop a night train and go out early to pick it up.

There is much more to her story. Her family depended on sporadically available charity clothing and food. She routinely missed the first few weeks of school because she had to earn migrant labor wages in the fields harvesting the crops like sugar beets. Holes in her shoes were left unfixed, and she used cardboard insets instead. Naturally, there was no money for doctor visits, drugs, dental care or therapy. She was just one daughter in a family of twelve supported by an immigrant father. Her father, who emigrated from Poland, dropped out of school after the third grade. During better days, he was employed as a butcher.

Leafing through Children of the Depression, you can see that my mother’s tale was wholly ordinary and one of millions. Many people dealt with much worse than she experienced. While her family’s house was sold at auction, they managed to evade being thrown into the streets. They were eventually able to pay off the back taxes and reclaim their house. Therefore, unlike many in America during the Depression, they did not have to live the vagabond life. Such was life in Bay City, Michigan and much of America in the 1930s.

As bad as the Great Depression was, it could have been much worse. While modern welfare benefits were unknown, there were surplus food and goods that the government sporadically made available for the poor. My grandfather eventually found employment as a laborer helping to construct a bridge over the Saginaw River. This was just one of the many projects funded by President Roosevelt and the Democratic Congress during this period that succeeded in putting many chronically unemployed people to work. The government did not choose to stand on the sidelines while so many Americans suffered so deeply.

A couple days ago, I learned about the Otto Bettmann book The Good Old Days – They Were Terrible! It describes life in the 1880s. By comparison, the Great Depression seems wonderful. A diarist on DailyKos summed up some of the key findings, which include:

FOOD: Adulteration of foodstuffs was problem and conventional practice in the 1880’s. Alum, copper, and sulphur were often added to bread flour for preservatives. Coloring for candy was often toxic, sickening children and adults alike. “Bogus butter,” a mixture of animal fats, calcium, or potatoes (whatever was on hand) was bleached and processed in disgusting conditions and repackaged by merchants and labeled as butter. Canneries operated under filthy conditions, and the process itself often was proven detrimental, through the use of chemicals added to preserve. Slop fed to cows often made the children sick

SANITATION: Cities such as Chicago, Pittsburgh, New York, Helena Montana, Leadville Colorado, generally suffered from putrid conditions. The air stank, refuse filled the streets, garbage and food refuse was dumped everywhere, the waste of humans and animals alike trickled through crowded streets. Unhygienic conditions on the streets were matched by interior conditions in workhouses, orphanages, factories, asylums, hospitals, and farmhouses. Life in the country did not proved an escape from unsanitary conditions; private wells were often contaminated by close proximity to barns, privies, and household refuse. Many homesteaders lived with farm animals in their homes during winter months.

Yes, this was just a bit of the way things were actually like during those glorious, wonderful days of laissez faire capitalism. They must have been wonderful, because I hear modern current conservatives brandishing obsolete slogans like Thoreau’s “the government that governs best governs least”. I have to wonder: we are aspiring to return to days like this?

While that is unlikely, we do see more and more steps in this direction. We saw it emerge in recent times with the election of Ronald Reagan, who appointed people with open contempt for the general welfare. Of course, we also find ample examples of it in our current administration. We see it in its hostility to raises in the minimum wage. We see it in its refusal to create meaningful increases in vehicle fuel economy. We also see it in its inability to acknowledge honestly that global warming is largely a result of human activity. While our president makes inane statements about prosperity like “We’ve got to make the pie higher”, in actuality he is very deliberately making the rich richer and the poor poorer. Because of his tax cuts that disproportionately benefited the rich, when necessary commodities like gasoline rise in sharply price, those of lower incomes bear most of the pain.

Economic conservatives these days seem very much out of touch with reality. For one they seem to assume that liberals and progressives are against capitalism. They think that we embrace unbridled socialism as utopia here on earth. Except for a few liberals on the fringes, this is just plain wrong. Progressives like me understand that capitalism is a vital ingredient in social progress. However, capitalism is just one force that enables the promotion of the general welfare. The other part is government, which has the duty to promote the general welfare.

Centuries of unbridled capitalism have demonstrated beyond argument that by itself capitalism does not lift all boats. Instead, unbridled capitalism gives power to the wealthy. Moreover, by restraining government so that it does not do much to help the general welfare, it perpetuates the class system. Our social security system was created by the government because the private sector could not provide it and it was needed. Nor would free markets ensure that all laborers could earn a living wages. Capitalism does not care a whit if human beings are forced to live in tarpaper shacks or whether communities have modern sewage systems. Capitalism is simply a means that helps to maximize profits for the owners of the company. As is amply evidenced in the hallways of Congress and state legislatures across our country, businesses will petition endlessly to shift the costs, risks and burdens of industry off them and onto anyone else. They call it “being more competitive”. When you hear those words, beware!

Just as unbridled capitalism is not ideal, neither is unbridled socialism. Capitalism is a necessary engine for progress, but it must be constrained so it becomes win-win. Companies need to make profits, but also need to be constrained to ensure some of the profits indirectly improve life for all Americans. In addition, the government needs to give capitalists the maximum freedom to earn those profits consistent with allowing its benefits to affect the commonweal. This is, at its heart, what the economic aspects of the progressive movement are all about. It should not be the least bit controversial. It should be “No duh!”

Economic conservatives need to sober up. Libertarianism is simply not a workable philosophy in our modern world. We need agencies like the Food and Drug Administration, otherwise we are back to snake oil salesmen and unsafe food. We need the EPA, if for no other reason than capitalists need consumers around to buy their products. While there are perhaps some agencies whose missions are of dubious value, the vast majority have survived because they are involved in vital regulation and monitoring. This enables both the general welfare and provides a platform so that entrepreneurial behavior can continue to flourish.

Those who pine for the 1880s are sadly misguided and recklessly foolish. Except for the J. P. Morgans of the world, most of humanity lived short, sad and miserable lives. Ironically, China is becoming a case for why progressive government is needed. While some income levels in China may be creeping up due to largely unchecked capitalism, lifespan is decreasing from the resulting unchecked pollution.

Like it or not we now live in a far more complex world. Unless we all become like the Amish, the combination of increasing populations and quickly evolving technologies will make it inevitable that government will need to expand. If you object then to be consistent, you should give up your computer, cell phones and automobiles, none of which would be as cheap, safe or work as well without necessary and relatively benign government regulation. Like it or not, our complex and modern world and growing government is here to stay.

Needed: A Leave Sharing Law for All

When it comes to giving employees time off, American employers are way behind the rest of the industrial world. American employers are not required to give employees any vacation. When I worked for Montgomery Ward I was entitled to a week of vacation a year. Considering how little they paid me I was amazed they gave me any time off with pay at all. At least it didn’t cost them much.

The de facto minimum vacation for full time salaried workers in the United States these days is two weeks. Some employers force employees to draw from a block of leave to be used for both sickness and vacation. Longer-term employees usually get three weeks of vacation a year. But from inquiring my friends I have found that it is pretty unusual for any private sector employee to accrue much more than three weeks of vacation a year these days. Non-profit and educational organizations are often the exception.

Other countries are much more progressive than the United States. Argentina, hardly one of the top industrial economies, mandates a minimum of two weeks of vacation for each employee. The European Union requires at least four weeks of vacation, but it is often more depending on the country. For example, France requires at minimum of five weeks of vacation. Spain requires at least thirty calendar days of vacation a year.

Federal employees like myself have what now seems to be very generous leave policies. During the first three years of employment you earn four hours of leave every two weeks, which translates to about two and a half weeks of vacation a year. From years four through fifteen you earn six hours a pay period, or close to four weeks a year. If you hang in beyond fifteen years you earn European levels of vacation: eight hours a pay period. This is a bit over five weeks of vacation a year. But federal employees also earn sick leave: four hours every two weeks. Unused sick leave accrues from year to year. Because of my accrued sick leave from over twenty years in the civil service I am well prepared financially for a long-term medical problem.

However not all civil servants are so fortunate. I have an employee who is dealing with major medical issues in his family. The situation is unlikely to improve in the short term. Not surprisingly he has exhausted all of his sick and annual leave, yet still he has to provide care to his very sick wife and manage his children. Fortunately the Family and Medical Leave Act allows him to keep his job while he take care of his family. But for most employees this would also mean his income would also stop.

Fortunately the federal government goes the extra mile and offers civil servants leave sharing. Basically it allows employees who are dealing with major life crises and have exhausted all of their leave to petition their colleagues for help. Those coworkers who choose can give the employee some of their leave.

This is one of those progressive and painless ideas that should be law. In our increasingly expensive world many people are living closer to the margins. Such is the case with my employee who bought his first house only a few years ago. He has just started building assets. I encouraged him to apply for leave sharing and he eventually agreed. While there is no guarantee that other employees will donate their leave, he is well known and respected so he is already getting significant donations. And unfortunately he will need it and more. I am hopeful that the many generous employees where I work will keep contributing their leave to him until his crisis has finally passed.

Leave sharing in the federal government is not automatic. A physician must document the need. The employee must apply for it. And the employee’s supervisor has the right to reject his request. Of course few supervisors are so heartless. The leave can only be used to deal with the care he needs for himself or his family.

What leave sharing amounts to is a fairly painless way for someone dealing with major family problems to keep their financial head above water. Even with leave sharing financial solvency is no guarantee. Major medical issues often bring hospitalization and other costs that can leave an employee deeply in debt or even in bankruptcy. But having a steady income coming in during the emergency and the promise of a job when the crisis is over can be a godsend.

I had one coworker who donated his leave to my employee immediately. He told me that a few years ago he had major back problems. They had him immobilized for many months. He burned through all his leave too, even though he had plenty of it. He too had the leave sharing option and fortunately his coworkers came through for him too. He told me he would have become bankrupt now without it. Now that he is in a position to return the favor and he does so gladly. “I donated some of my hours,” he told me. “And I will give him more leave if he needs it.” I agree. And so will I.

Not surprisingly, leave sharing was not an idea that came out of a Republican administration. Rather it was an initiative of President Clinton. It was an outgrowth of the Family and Medical Leave Act, passed into law by a Democratic Congress back in 1993. The following year Clinton issued regulations that created the federal leave sharing program. At the time of course there were the usual blathering that the FMLA would leave the United States less competitive. Happily twelve years later the skeptics have been proven wrong. The public has warmly embraced FMLA. Those employees who work for progressive employers that offer leave sharing have even more for which to be grateful.

I hope some future (and doubtless more progressive) Congress passes a universal leave sharing law. It is really a no-brainer. By keeping many people out of bankruptcy, it is good for the nation’s creditors. It saves the government money by keeping many of these people off welfare roles or from drawing food stamps. And in fact it really doesn’t cost employers anything. Leave costs just shuffle from one employee to another. It usually saves employees money because long term employees are more likely to have leave to donate, and they tend to cost employers more money. But most importantly leave sharing can be an enormous source of comfort for people who already have their hands full dealing with tremendously challenging personal problems.