102 Days….

Tonight the democrats conclude their convention. After two weeks of sometimes carefully orchestrated events, other times not so carefully orchestrated events, it all comes to an end.

Beginning Friday, July 29, there are 102 days until the election. We have already seen numerous twists and turns in this year’s election process. On the republican side, we saw the most unlikely candidate, a “businessman,” devour sixteen other candidates, many of whom had previously been successful and experienced politicians. On the democratic side, an “independent socialist” nearly wrested the nomination from the odds on favorite. Both the businessman and the socialist tapped into the broad unease of many voters.

But now it’s done. The businessman won the republican nomination, the socialist lost in the democratic primaries. On to the election…

On the republican side we have Donald J. Trump; leading the charge for the democrats is Hillary Clinton. With respect to Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, Trump/Clinton is the main event; Johnson/Stein are at best the under-card, the warm up as it were. So I’d like to take a minute to recap where we are.

Clinton is a flawed candidate. She is guarded and calculating in public, lest she again become a target of baseless accusations from those who hate her, or who hate her husband and take it out on Ms. Clinton. Over the years she’s been accused of everything from fraud to murder. Her opponents become increasingly and relentlessly more shrill in their hate with each passing week. But she keeps coming, no doubt in pursuit of what she sees (and rightly so) as her historic mission, and in some measure fulfill her desire to serve. She’s served most of her adult life, often in anonymity and sometimes publicly, to try to make life a little more gentle for those with the least among us.

Is Clinton calculating? Sure. Does she have an out-sized ego? Absolutely. All politicians are. Even President Obama. You have to be that way in order to even think about running for the presidency. Running for office, any office anywhere, in 2016 is tough business. It’s expensive, exhausting, and a daily struggle to fend off opponents and gain supporters. It is the ultimate personal exposure – all a candidate’s warts and flaws exposed for all to see and jeer. Because in modern America, we love to jeer.

So here’s my message to those who sit back in the cheap seats and jeer and ridicule those in the arena – put your names on a ballot; hold yourselves open to the often brutal inspection of your personal, family, and business histories; formulate and communicate coherent positions on often complicated and nuanced public issues; and be prepared for the election to become your life at your families’ expense.

And be negatively portrayed as a person unrecognizable to family and friends. Be prepared to be the target of the scurrilous lies about your character. I don’t care how thick your skin is, these things hurt, as too often the cut runs deep.

As the saying goes, it’s easier to destroy than it is to build. This is as true in politics, both the electoral and governing politics, as it is in anything else. Those who stand in the arena pay to cost for that destruction. So give these folks a little credit – it takes guts to open yourself up for brutal personal inspection by the public.  My hat is off to three out of the four candidates with any shot at making the presidential debate stage. I’ll deal with the fourth guy another time.

First, a message to the Bernie or Bust brigade, and to all the other Sanders’ supporters. Congratulations – you won. You pulled your candidate, a virtually unknown senator, and almost knocked off a colossus of the Democratic party. You got  most of your policy proposals incorporated into the party’s platform. Due to your efforts, the character and culture of the party will change going forward, unless….

… you sit on your hands and pout until November 9, the day after the election. As Sarah Silverman  said at the convention, “you’re being ridiculous.”  I say this as a friend but let me give you some of my bona fides:

In 1964, I participated in a debate with my best high school friend about who would make the better president, Lyndon Johnson or Barry Goldwater. I took Johnson’s side. In 1968, I worked on Bobby’s campaign and after the events in Los Angeles, McCarthy’s campaign. Over the years I worked on campaigns and supported McGovern, Pell, Udall, Mondale, just to name a few, along with several candidates on the state and local levels.

In 1980 I ran for the democratic nomination for Congress from my congressional district. Central to my “platform” was public financing of campaigns, for it was evident then that increasing amounts of large sums of money, cleverly targeted, could irreversibly damage policy outcomes and as a result, the country. I also advocated for the expansion of Medicare benefits to include prescription medicines because it was evident in 1980 how difficult paying for life sustaining medicines was to those on modest fixed incomes.

In 2006, I ran for the state senate in large measure because of the tax structure implemented that year favoring high income earners at the expense of middle and low-income Rhode Islanders.

In 2008 I formed a legal services organization dedicated to serving poor and near poor Rhode Island individuals, families and seniors. In 2016 we had to shut down for lack of funding.

I go through this brief resume merely to point out that I’m well aware of losing, or coming short of your goal. Losing is painful, it sucks, and it stays with you for a long time. And there are some other things I’ve learned over the years, chief among them is that change is hard, if not impossible.

At its essence, change is really about a power shift from those who have it to those who don’t. As Saul Alinsky once said in an interview, “power is never given, it must be taken.” Those with the power will never relinquish their power – you must be willing to change the power paradigm in order to effect the change you advocate.

That struggle in a democracy is a daily struggle. You can anticipate, if not expect, major push back from those who seek to defend the status quo. At this juncture you have several choices: one is to continue to adopt an “all or nothing” strategy, which almost ensures that you will lose; you can go home and sulk; or, you can strategize by building support and finding common ground with others in order to move your agenda forward.

This last choice is the one that works. It’s tough, largely unsatisfying to those who seek the all or nothing outcome. Even when you come away with something, anything, there will be those who will second guess the outcome and argue that you should have gotten more. You may even be accused of “selling out” and get booed like Warren and Sanders were by their own supporters and friends.

Welcome to the arena where the first truths are that while your goals may and should be comprehensive, implementation of those goals is always incremental; and where in a democracy the struggle always continues, no matter the outcome of the previous struggle. Change is hard – you really gotta want it. For 240 years, the story of America is a story of progress. I’m not going to sugar coat our history and tell you that the virtual genocide of native Americans was progress, or that the internment of American citizens solely based on their heritage and ethnicity was noble. They were neither progressive nor noble and remain a stain on our history.

But we cannot ignore that due to the ceaseless efforts of reformers along with the expense of blood and treasure, millions of people were freed from bondage; one-half of our population were finally permitted to vote; and recently the law recognized that we are free to marry whomever we love, irrespective of gender or orientation. Until recently we had the most vibrant middle-class, which was the envy of the world. And throughout our history, America has been the beacon of hope and the melting pot for millions who come from elsewhere to make this country, our imperfect country, their homes.

Yes, America is a flawed country. We have many things to do and much to accomplish. Individually and collectively, we are all flawed and can all do better. That’s why Hillary Clinton is the perfect candidate for these times. Like us, she is flawed. And like us, she seeks to do better, and seeks to make this country a better place to live for all of us. If elected, she won’t get to where she and all of us might want to get to, but she’ll move us forward, closer to our goal. I do not base this conclusion on her past public record, but rather on her prior history before the bright lights of scrutiny and fame were directed toward her.

So the question to the Bernie of Bust brigade is simple: what do you do? Do you continue to engage in the fight, not only up to November 8 but thereafter? Or do you continue on well after election day? Do you take the easy way and jeer at those in the arena or do you climb in and engage in the struggle?

Theodore Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” quote has been bandied about several times over the week and is worth repeating here:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

So it comes down to this, are we to be the critic, the cold and timid soul who points out failings of others, who “neither know[s] victory nor defeat”? Or are you, we, to be the strong man, the doer of deeds, who while daring greatly sometimes falls short of the goal? For as true as it was in 1910 when Roosevelt in delivered his speech “Citizenship in a Republic,” participation in this election season is a worthy cause. 

For all of her faults, Hillary Clinton at least gets that there are millions of people ignored, marginalized and forgotten. She has at least acknowledged that income inequality not only exists but is a social evil. And she has more than an appreciation for the complexities and nuances of the world and is unlikely to recklessly engage in armed conflicts. The reality of her career is more important than the comic caricature that becomes the object of her opponents.

And what’s at stake here? Who is her chief opponent? I’ll have more to say in a future post, but at this point suffice it to say that he is the embodiment of existential evil. I promise all of you who will either sit out this election or participate in campaigns of fringe candidates that you will not want to live in a country with Donald J. Trump as your President, along with Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell leading the legislative branch.

This isn’t a partisan piece. This is a simple explanation of our civic duty to preserve at minimum a semblance of the societal and cultural values that have moved many of us to engage in the work of improving our communities. This is a close race, with the outcome in doubt. So the final question is, do you want to sit on the sidelines, or do you want to get in the game? I hope you join all of us who care about the outcome in this election and get in the game.

There are always simple answers…

… but never any easy questions to complex problems. I recalled that bit of wisdom when I read today’s news that Rhode Island evidently has won the economic race to the bottom. Rhode Island, it is reported, has a worst in the nation business climate.

To those who read from the gospels of Hayek and Friedman, the answer is simple. In the Field of Dreams school of economics, all we need do is lower taxes on corporations and “job creators” (e.g. the upper 1 percent), reduce those pesky government regulations, and all will fall into place. The sun will shine, birds will sing, children will laugh, and all will be right with the world. Except…it won’t work. How do we know? Because it never has.

Now I know that I’m opening myself up to an attack on this last point but that’s an issue for another day. What’s important is that our business and governmental “leaders,” along with those groups and advocates with vested interests in promoting this policy of trickle-down voodoo economics are advancing a single variable approach to a multi-variable problem.  As anyone who has made an even passing study of public policy design knows, this approach leads to disaster. Ignoring this simple truth has led to some of this country’s epic policy disasters such as Viet Nam, our current policy in the middle east, and the economic decisions that led to the financial meltdown that resulted in the Great Recession to name only a few.

So let’s take a look at some facts: income inequality in Rhode Island is a fact. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the average annual income for those in the top 1% is $884,609, or 18.6 times the average annual income of the remaining 99 percent. If this appalls you, then a little good news – Rhode Island is not as bad as the rest of the country as a whole, although that is a small consolation.

Add to this imbalance is the fact that in 2015 CEO compensation was 276 times the compensation of the average worker. Put into another context, from 1978-2015, CEO compensation grew by 940.9 percent, adjusted for inflation. This growth rate is 76 times more than the growth rate of the stock market (think about that when you get your next 401k statement) and dwarfs the 10.3% growth rate of the average worker’s income over the same time frame.

You don’t need an advanced degree in economics or study at the feet of Thomas Piketty to know that there’s something wrong here. That said, it certainly begs the question about why we feel the need to lavish scarce public financial resources, at the expense of vital public goods (you know, those roads and schools and public parks that we used to care about) that we once valued and all supported, on those who don’t need the enticement to relocate in our state. It would seem that the upper 1% and their supporters have forgotten, or are just ignoring, the old adage, “pigs eat, hogs get slaughtered.”

And we haven’t even mentioned wealth inequality. This is the part of Jeopardy where the scores can really double. But I digress…

Compare that to the rate of poverty in Rhode Island, which sat at 14.3% in 2014. There’s always a dispute about the accuracy of that number derived from census data, and in full disclosure I’m one who thinks the number is too low, but let’s assume that it’s dead on accurate. This number means that there are 143,000 Rhode Islanders living at or below 100% of the federal poverty level (FPL). Additionally, again according to the same census data, there are 60,000 Rhode Islanders living at or below 50% FPL, in “extreme” poverty.

These numbers don’t reflect the number of “near” poor who live between 100% and 200% of FPL, for if we did include this group, the number of Rhode Islanders living at or below 200% FPL would number somewhere around 280,000 people. Anyway you slice it, this is a significant drag on economic activity, and is something that needs to be factored into any economic development effort in Rhode Island.

There is no question that we didn’t get into this fix overnight, and that we won’t get out of it in a day, or a year, or one or two terms, or one or two decades. But that is a political truth that our elected “leaders” don’t want to speak, and one that most of us don’t want to hear. However, elected officials need to speak truth to us and we, as a body politic, need to respond. Happy political talk and pie-in-the-sky discredited economic fantasies will no longer suffice. We must recall the rule that when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.

The policies proposed by the governor, with the complicit support of the legislature, will ensure that we will continue digging. Blithely ignored are the realities of economically distressed communities, poor public schools, the fact that too many people still do not have easy access to even modest health care, insanely expensive housing, low unmarketable job skills in the new global “knowledge” economy, and the one economic development principle that is ignored by all who formulate our policies and impact our futures – economic development must first focus on those who live in the community and not on those who are targeted by enticements to relocate to our state.

If we are to right this ship of State, we will need to make focused and sustained investments in areas that need to be strengthened. But this will call for a comprehensive approach to deal with the multi-variable problem that threatens to take many of us down. Such an approach will make for boring and risky politics for those who seek office. But on the plus side, such a long overdue comprehensive approach may just ensure a better life for our children and grandchildren.

I have a few suggestions if anyone’s interested….

Zen Question of the day….

Zen question: why does it take the Rhode Island Supreme Court 15 months to grant an LSO certification under Art. II, Rule 11, to an already existing legal services organization when others take less than four months to receive their certificates? And then, because of the delay/non-response to repeated communications about its application for certification, the agency ends up going out of business?

If anyone has a good answer, I’d love to hear it.

My Valedictory…

As RICLAPP ends its run, I thought it might be useful to share what I’ve learned over the past decade.  Some of this came as no surprise, some was very surprising But what’s clear is that you never really know what’s going on in your community until you’re actively engaged with people on the streets, in their homes, or even in a courtroom.

A little under a decade ago, when I first conceived of what eventually became RICLAPP, I operated on the assumption that if we were to wait for government to address the problems of nearly 30% of its underserved populations, we would wait forever.  I’m sorry to say I was correct in that assumption.

If, as the old saying goes, history is written by winners, then policies are enacted by elites for elites. This has been true since, to varying degrees, since the founding of our republic. Nowhere is this more evident than here in Rhode Island. In this past legislative session, look at the winners and losers – GE Digital getting over $5 million in tax “incentives” for creating 100 high paying jobs; nearly $2 million dollars to keep a company in Rhode Island; another $3.5 million to help those with science, math, technology and math with their student loans; tax incentives can be used twice if two applicants from the same project apply.

On the other hand, where are the tax incentives for helping the poor? Where are the investments in the expansion of programs to provide direct help to the poor, near poor, and working poor?  For an interesting read on this topic, I invite you to read Nicholas Stephanopoulos’ article here:

http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2583495 (just click download)

All of these policy decisions sound good but to my thinking, this is nothing more than traditional trickle-down economics that would make Hayek and Friedman proud. And even assuming that these policies would work, it will take a generation for them to do so. People in need don’t have that kind of time.

Related to the above, another thing I’ve learned is that underserved people living at the margins view each day as a struggle for survival.  Each day presents possible threats to their housing, economic, food, employment and health security.  Without direct, comprehensive and sustained intervention the poor, near poor and working poor will never have the resources and focus to break the cycle of their lives.

I wrote about nearly 30% of the state’s population being at or below 200% of the Federal Poverty Level. We know from Census data that nearly 15% live at or below 100% FPL. That’s nearly 150,000 Rhode Islanders; 60,000 live in extreme poverty defined as 50% FPL. Another 150,000 Rhode Islanders live between 100% and 200% FPL. Where did these people factor in during the recent legislative session? Sure they had a right to rally under the dome, but they also had the right to be ignored by those who work in that building.

We stood with these people, providing legal counsel and assistance along with other supports. For many, we were the first people to listen to them, and to stand along side of them as they fought to fend off threats to their security. We did this in the areas of housing, public benefits, and a whole host of other issues.

We invested our time and careers in this endeavor; some of us invested large sums of money to keep RICLAPP financially afloat. Some of us never got paid; others of us worked for a pittance. We relied on law-students and volunteer lawyers to meet the expanding needs of the underserved clients residing in distressed, and thus ignored by policy-makers, communities.  Everyone who worked at RICLAPP had the commitment to serve those in overlooked communities and did so with distinction. I am proud to call them my friends and family.

When all was said and done, there is not a lot of foundation money available to invest in direct legal services. There is virtually none in Rhode Island. Nor was there any financial help, no matter how successful and efficient we were, and no matter how budget neutral it was, from the state legislature and judiciary.  We attempted to partner with various institutions, some of whom we already partnered, only to be told that there was no money in the till to financially sustain our program.

It’s not that there was no money, it was that funding legal services for poor people was never a priority with public and private decision-makers. As a friend of mine once commented about the inability to gain traction with local funders, “poor people aren’t sexy.”  Too true my friend, too true.

Make no mistake, I don’t lament the lack of funding for RICLAPP for our sake; I lament it for the impact on those who relied on us.  It was the people we served, the communities in which we engaged, that mattered. As for those of us who served, we’ll be fine and, indeed, are.

Finally, in 1968 Robert Kennedy spoke about the violence of institutions. This is the violence of institutions that do not meet the needs of people; institutions that don’t work; institutions that cater to the needs of the few, at the expense of the many. Fifty years ago President Lyndon Johnson declared his War on Poverty. About forty-five years ago, opponents of that War subtly and silently declared a war on poor people.

That war on the poor rages to this day; programs starved, dollars diverted away from poor people to the favored few; needs ignored in the name of austerity; and, the demonization of those in need in the name of “self-reliance.” There is a false dichotomy between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. People are victims of random events. Nobody aspires to be “poor,” “near poor,” or “working poor.” If the past decade shows anything, it’s how good people, hard working sober people, can get caught up in events beyond their control or understanding.

Government is the only institution charged with assuring the security of us all, not merely a select few. It is the only institution charged with making and enacting policies for the benefit of all of us, not selecting who wins and who loses. Many of us feel that government has failed in its essential and underlying mission.

We can change that by changing part of the language that we use. My humble suggestion is that we replace “benefit” with “investment.” One implies the conferring of something to the detriment of others, with no expectation of a return; the other is given with an expectation of a return. One implies little to no accountability; the other is laden with expectations of accountability. This simple change in verbiage might just result in a change of program design and focus, a change that might eventually help people. At least we can hope.

To make these and other changes, each of us has to meet our responsibilities as citizens. Being a citizen is not merely synonymous with “voter,” but requires that we’re active and engaged in the affairs of our community. It means engaging with those whose views we abhor and working to find common ground in order to address the needs of our communities. And it means that each of us has a duty to hold those who act in our name accountable for those actions. It requires that we no longer accept soothing words that result in our being “low-information” citizens, but instead that we do the hard work to become “high-information” citizens. It demands that we ask the hard questions  and insist on complete answers, transparency and accountability. In a democracy, the people we elect work for all of us, not just a select few of the elites.

In closing, the final thing I learned, which I think I always knew, is that change is hard. You have to want it, sacrifice for it, never leave the field of political battle. You need to accept that even though you might not see the fruits of your efforts, those who come after you will.  For my part, after a brief hiatus, I intend to find a way to get back into the fray.

Until then, my thanks for my family and my many friends, colleagues and collaborators who sustained me and RICLAPP far more than they ever knew. I am confident that as Tennyson once wrote, “‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.”