On November 8, Californians may abolish the state’s death penalty. Proposition 62 would ban capital punishment outright, including retroactively by converting all 746 prisoners on death row to life in prison without the possibility of parole. If Prop. 62 passes, we would become the 21th state to ban capital punishment outright. Four other states have governor-issued moratoria on executions.
But, it’s not a done deal in CA. I have not checked how 62 is polling yet. But, a similar proposition failed in 2012, although by just a 52-48 margin. Also, death penalty proponents thought of a clever tactic this time around. They qualified a rival proposition, Prop. 66, to address the worst procedural problems in our state’s death penalty process. By increasing the number of defense lawyers eligible to represent death row inmates and reducing the number of permissible appeals to help speed up the decades-long (and thus arguably cruel and unusual) process, Prop. 66’s backers hope to split the queasy-about-it-all vote and stop repeal.
How big a deal would death penalty abolition be in California? Yeah, it’s the Left Coast. But, some serious people are starting to argue that the USA is near a tipping point on the death penalty. The number of U.S. executions has been declining for years (only 28 in 2015). Botched ones keep making big news. The 2016 national Democratic Party platform called for outright abolition for the first time. Nebraska just became the first red state in modern times to end the death penalty. One major recent poll showed nationwide public support for the death penalty has fallen below 50% for the first time.
On the other hand, 51% does not magically change policy (okay, except on the ballot in CA). I’ve read that the Supreme Court has never had more than two justices willing to declare that capital punishment inherently violates the 8th Amendment’s cruel and unusual standard. Absent such a ruling, abolition will remain a state-by-state issue, guaranteeing the death penalty’s survival for a long, long time, at least in deep red states.
So, what will happen? Here are some questions we might want to get into on Monday evening, plus some background readings that focus on the chances of abolition. (We did a meeting on whether capital punishment should be abolished in 2014.)
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- Props: Discuss merits of Propositions 62 and 66.
- Arguments: Why do people support death penalty (e.g., vengeance, deterrence, religious belief, inertia)? Why oppose it (morality/religious, cruel/unusual, racial disparity, cost…)? Is there a difference between the reasons people cite and their real reasons? What would it take to change people’s minds? Your mind?
- Public & politicians: Why has public opinion changed? Will it keep moving against the death penalty? What might it take to reverse or accelerate that trend? What incentives do lawmakers have to take risks versus avoid this issue?
- Courts: Will SCOTUS ever ban the death penalty outright? On what basis? Or, will it keep slowly restricting its use (minors, intellectually-disabled, murders only, etc.)?
- Alternatives: Can the “machinery of death” (Justice Blackman’s phrase) ever be reformed enough to eliminate its inequities? Regardless, would either side ever be satisfied?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Prop. 62 and 66: Good summary here. In bullet format with links to op-eds here. Recommended.
- Poll: Support is at a 40-year low, but still a plurality. Men still support it and Republicans strongly support it.
- Nine reasons why support is declining. Or, four reasons. Both.
- Wrong. Public opinion is changing glacially, so capital punishment will be around for a long time.
- How Hillary’s election could speed abolition. Recommended
- Pros/Cons: A (meh) basic discussion of pro/con arguments on capital punishment, if you want it.
Next Week (Oct 24): The other 15 ballot propositions, or maybe we’ll just read War and Peace instead.
I had this idea for us to do a series of meetings in the run-up to November that highlighted the starkest policy differences between the two presidential candidates. Oops. Donald Trump’s candidacy and Media’s obsession with horserace trivia make that pretty hard to do. Trump’s policy platform involves him basically riffing a stream of consciousness on whatever topic an interviewer brings up, hoping to run out the clock before anyone notices he has no policy ideas at all nor a rudimentary grasp of the issue. No one seems to know exactly what Trump’s position on the minimum wage is, much less what it might be tomorrow or in a face-to-face debate with Clinton.
But, I’m not sure it really matters. As I keep hammering away at week after week, we are electing a political party to govern us more than an individual. And, the Dems and GOP at all levels hold irreconcilably-opposite views on the minimum wage. The Republican Party is wholly opposed to raising the minimum wage at all. Period. Many conservatives would prefer it be abolished or reduced, although I doubt they would take the political risk of trying it at the federal level. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz oppose any federal minimum wage.
In stark contrast, Democrats really, really want to raise the minimum wage, either nationally or in as many states as possible. Hillary Clinton campaigned on raising it by 60%, from $7.25 to $12 per hour, to be phased in over several years. This would be the largest such increase in history. Under pressure from Bernie Sanders, Clinton stated she would sign a $15 minimum wage bill if a Democratic Congress sent one to her. This would double it. This November 8, minimum wage increases are on the ballot in five states. Democrats want to make this a wedge issue – one that motivates base voters to turn out – like Republicans did with same sex marriage bans in 2004.
Luckily for us, the debate over what would happen if the minimum wage were raised significantly is not all theoretical. The current federal minimum wage is just $7.25 per hour, one-third lower in inflation-adjusted terms than it was in the late 1960s. However, 29 states have a higher minimum wage, 12 of which are over $9.00 per hour. California’s is $10 – the nation’s second-highest –and Brown just signed a law to raise it to $15 in 2022. This means that lots of studies have been done comparing places that have raised the minimum wage to those that have not raised it. The results are generally encouraging to the liberal economic case for raising the wage. Yet, as I will explain, it’s not quite that simple.
On Monday I will open with a brief tutorial on the minimum wage and the types of questions we should be asking about what might happen if we raised it to various levels. I don’t think lowering the minimum wage is really on the table right now as a viable policy option, although if Trump wins, all bets are off.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- Current policy:
- How high are U.S. minimum wages now and how high are they due to rise in some states?
- What else does govt do to support working poor? How important a policy tool is the minimum wage in comparison?
- Arguments: What arguments are used to support and oppose raising/lowering/ending the minimum wage
- Evidence: Based on history what affects would raising min. wage have on:
- Helping people: Raising incomes of the working poor, reducing poverty and reliance on govt transfer programs.
- Hurting business: Killing jobs, raising prices, other business decisions (like replacing workers with machines).
- Would more spending on other govt programs (EITC, etc.) do more to help the working poor than raising the min. wage?
- Can we predict what would happen if we abolished the min. wage?
- Will raising min. wage really put a dent in inequality?
- Will it make low-wage pay more “fair?” What’s fair?
- Does the minimum wage subsidize big corporations more than it helps the poor (they can keep paying low wages)?
- Politics: Is this a winning issue for Democrats or Republicans? How big a winning issue?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- ABCs of the issue:
- Raising the min. wage probably won’t do much good. Recommended and balanced.
- No, the economic case for a big raise is pretty simple:
- Would fast food workers just get replaced by robots?
- Do NOT raise the minimum wage:
Next Week (Sept 26): Progressives’ Constitutional Philosophy.
We last talked about the Affordable Care Act/Obamacare in July 2013 (great links!), as parts of it were still being rolled out. Three years later all of its major provisions have begun to operate and experts are starting to get an idea of where the law has been successful at achieving its goals and where results have been disappointing and why.
Non-experts like us have a hard time getting any sense of it at all. Obamacare is only dimly-understood by most Americans. The law had to be grafted onto the existing, highly-complex American health care system, so it is very complex. The law’s affects also are nearly invisible to most Americans, largely by design. Complexity and invisibility left a huge opening for clever propagandists to trash the law and attribute every negative development as the beginning of Obamacare’s imminent collapse.
This is a bummer for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is it makes it hard for us to see through the complexity and opacity to draw our own conclusions about the law’s good parts and bad parts (both exist). To help us out a bit, I will start our meeting on Monday evening by reviewing two key contextual points:
- The major problems/shortcomings of the status quo ante health care system that Obamacare was designed to fix; and
- How the ACA was supposed to do that.
Then, we can go one of several ways. We could discuss each major part of Obamacare in turn, such as the state insurance exchanges, the law’s many new consumer protections, and Medicaid expansion. As we talk I can sketch out some of the latest good news/bad news in each area. Or, we could go big picture and explore whether the ACA has succeeded so far at its three big, broad goals: Achieving near-universal health insurance coverage, controlling health care costs, and improving the quality of medical care. Very ambitious goals.
As we talk, I think it is very important for us to do two things that news stories on Obamacare implementation almost never do.
- Look at the entire law – not just some piece of it that has experienced recent good or bad developments; and
- Compare its results to a realistic alternative – either one based on where our health care system was heading before Obamacare or to Republican alternatives (to the extent they even exist – see links).
If you want we can get into GOP alternatives and Hillary’s plans to protect Obamacare’s gains and fix its flaws or expand it. And, yes, there is yet another lawsuit probably heading to the Supreme Court that is aimed at one of the ACA’s major provisions and bringing the whole thing crashing down.
There’s one more thing. The ACA’s shortcomings are particularly tragic, and not just because health care matters so much. Unlike other laws Obamacare cannot be amended at all because Republican lawmakers will not allow it. They want the ACA to collapse so they can “repeal and replace it.” To my knowledge, no major law has ever been held to this standard, expected to work perfectly in its first iteration. Major laws are amended all the time to correct mistakes and adapt to new conditions and unanticipated or even unanticipatable problems. For example, Medicare’s basic fee structure was completely overhauled less than 10 years after its 1965 passage because it wasn’t controlling costs very well, and the program has been modified thousands of times since then.
So, however brilliant or dumb the Affordable Care Act is, we are stuck with it as is. Any insufficiencies in the law (or unexpected adaptation by consumes and businesses) must either be addressed administratively or left to fester, or, if a GOP-controlled Congress is elected, solved or ignored their way.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- Review: How was Obamacare supposed to solve the major problems in our health care system?
- The Parts: How has implementation of each major moving part of Obamacare gone? What caused any failures and how was implementation of the law adjusted to compensate?
- The Whole: Can we declare overall success or failure (or making good/bad progress) on the 3 major goals of ACA: Helping the uninsured, making HC more affordable, improving quality of care?
- The Divide: Do liberals and conservatives define “success” differently?
- The Future: What’s next in U.S. HC reform?
- Latest GOP lawsuit.
- Dem/HRC plans to fix/expand?
- GOP plans to repeal/replace?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- A tutorial on ABCs of Obamacare.
- NYT in 2014: Yes ACA is working, but with some caveats. Recommended.
- The ACA is succeeding. The evidence keeps piling up. Either.
- It’s doing way more for the poor than expected.
It’s a mixed bag or it’s failing:
- Progress has been mixed. Recommended. The state exchanges are worryingly fragile.
- It has failed (Conservative POV):
The Future –
- Your must-read! In this month’s JAMA Obama himself outlines progress made to date and next steps in HC reform. (I’m sure Donald Trump’s journal of the AMA article will be published shortly.)
- Key point: Liberal and conservative goals for HC reform are fundamentally different (click thru here to access recommended WSJ article).
- GOP alternatives:
NEXT WEEK: Does the “historical Jesus” matter?
Did you know that October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month and that 2015 is the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act? Me neither, when I chose this topic. I picked it, with its specific focus on government spending on the disabled, because the rapid rise in the number of Americans on disability in the last 25 years has made the disabled into another political football to be kicked around. Conservatives point to the increase in spending as evidence of widespread fraud and/or some sort of runaway “entitlement society” mentality. As Paul Krugman said, the disabled have become the new welfare queens. Progressives are outraged, etc.
Yet, it’s a complicated issues. The sharp rise in the number of Americans on federal disability income supports is mostly explainable by benign demographic factors, like an aging population. A lot of the money state and local governments spending on the disabled is intended specifically to reduce society’s burden of caring for them by helping them get an education and a place to live so they can find work and stay employed. But, when you add up all of these costs it is fairly expensive for our society to provide the full range of services that allows disabled Americans to survive and thrive. There may be legitimate issues here.
Which ones should we discuss Monday night? Like last week’s meeting on the transgendered, my first goal is a little education. I’d like us to learn some basic facts on who in America is disabled, why, and what is done for them at public expense. We could then get into how well these programs work and whether more should be done or less. Also, last week’s big budget deal that prevents national debt default (but not, BTW, a govt shutdown, which is still likely) included some reforms to Social Security Disability Insurance. I will briefly explain those changes in my opening.
As always, I expect (and encourage!) us to debate the core philosophical concern at issue: What is our moral responsibility to act as a community to care for the least fortunate among us.
Discussion Questions –
- WHAT: What does it mean to be “disabled?” How do the govt and others define the term? How many Americans are disabled and how and why? What are the trends here?
- GOVT: What assistance with living do disabled Americans need? What government programs exist to provide it? How much does it all cost and who pays for it?
- EFFECTIVENESS: Do these programs/services “work?” Big gaps, wrong focus, vary by state, etc.?
- TOO MUCH? Why have the disabled rolls grown sharply in the last 25 years? Are the reasons innocuous or have these programs turned into a de facto safety net?
- TOO LITTLE? Alternatively, do we spend too little helping the disabled and/or should more be done to support their ability to work?
- ADA: How effective has the Americans with Disabilities Act been? At what cost?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Basic facts about disabled-Americans. (Note: 1 in 5 have a disability, but most are elderly or working. Only 1 in 20 Americans age 25-64 are too disabled to work.)
- ABCs of the two main federal disability programs: SSDI + SSI. Recommended skim.
- These programs are abused and overused. Conservative news media are really, really outraged about it. Recommended.
- No, they are NOT being abused:
- UPDATE Sunday: I did not mean to imply there are no problems in disability programs. Here is one: Lack of work incentives.
- Are disability programs responsible for the shrinking U.S. labor force?
- Optional since I’ll explain: The big budget deal tweaks SSDI to lower its costs a bit without cutting benefits.
- The ADA at 25:
Next Week: Do we need more or less government regulation of business?
This will be a meeting of transitions for Civilized Conversation. We start a new life at a new location – The Village Café, 10415-B Mission San Diego Road. (Coco’s closed suddenly, as have dozens of their locations around the country.) Also, this will be Zelekha’s last CivCon meeting! She’s off to NYC to seek her fortune and/or get involved in some of the issues that we just sit around talking about. Good luck, Z. Thanks for the venue, Filip.
It is Z.’s topic idea on Monday, too. We have discussed the problem of low wages in the United States several times. See here, for example. We’ll do so again on May 18, when we ponder the effects technological change might have on the future world of work (I’m calling it our robots meeting).
Zelekha wants us to focus Monday on a specific type of poorly-paid work and its seeming paradox. Why do so many of our society’s most rhetorically-valued jobs pay so little? For example, a lot of jobs that involve taking care of the sick or the very old or the very young pay dirt wages: Home health care workers, nursing home staff, day care center and in-home child care workers. (Of course, some such jobs pay better, like police officer, firefighter, and soldier. But, why) Some other jobs may not exactly be respected, but we all recognize their importance to the public good: Food handlers, cyber security types, security guards, etc., and some of them certainly pay poorly. Why is this, Zelekha asks?
The usual answers get at a part of the truth, in my opinion, but are not the whole answer. Based on my experience, conservatives tend to cite these three factors:
- Low productivity: Low wage jobs – even some we admire – add little monetary value to an employer so they pay little;
- Supply and demand: Wage rates are determined by employers’ demand for labor and the number of qualified applicants, and by nothing more; and
- Immigration: Allowing in so many low-skill immigrants puts downward pressure on wages in those jobs. (not all conservatives cite immigration)
Liberals, IMO, tend to cite these three:
- Power disparities: Many low-wage workers are worth more than they get paid but lack the bargaining power to demand what they deserve; and
- Power similarities: Low-wage workers often are employed by other people of modest means, especially in child and elder care;
- Social value: there is a lot of social value-added in rhetorically-high-valued jobs which is not captured by labor markets, and it should be (or at least, government should compensate the workers for that social benefit if businesse can’t/won’t).
I’m no expert, but I know a bit about such things, especially the ways that people over simplify the above arguments. So, I will open with a brief overview of these points-of-view. Then, the usual: We’ll have a nice 2-hour debate and then trash the place. (Kidding, Filip.)
- Which jobs are “rhetorically-valued but low-paid?” Jobs helping the elderly or children? Jobs protecting the public? Dangerous/unpleasant but someone’s got to do them jobs? What do these jobs pay? Do some pay reasonably well (e.g., police/firefighters)?
- In general, what factors determine how well jobs pay? In theory? In real life? Are the factors different for the low-wage jobs we’re talking about here?
- Do some of these jobs have social value beyond their market value? How do we know that and who should determine the value-added?
- What do governments in the USA currently do to assist low-paid workers; e.g., minimum wage, earned income tax credit?
- Could/should more be done to either (a) raise these wages or (2) support these people’s incomes? In general v. sector-specific? Pros v. cons.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING – (I went a little crazy. So prioritize.)
In general –
- Joan Walsh on our low-wage economy. Recommended.
- It’s not the low-wage jobs that have changed, it’s whose doing them –breadwinners, not kids.
- Long, highly optional study on the future of low-wage work in America: Problem causes, solutions. (from a liberal think tank)
- Conservative POV. (Natl Review) Recommended.
Specific jobs that we rhetorically value –
- Childcare workers are horribly-paid. Recommended
- Disabled workers can be paid pennies an hour in some job programs!
- Teachers are not paid all that well. College professors, too now, believe it or not.
- Restaurant workers are badly paid and few get benefits. (Just read the bulleted pts up front) Fast food workers: The franchise model is a big reason for their terrible pay.
Causes and Solutions –
- Bargaining power: Low-wage workers don’t have any. Most recommended.
- The disappearance of regular, full-time work. Recommended
- Corporate culture: Companies don’t have to pay low wages; they choose to because of a corrupted corporate culture.
- Faster economic growth: Some low-wage workers have seen pay rises lately.
- Personal service jobs: Progressive ideas for improving pay for people who help other people. (AP) Most recommended.
- Local and state governments can do a lot to help raise l ow wages. (AP)
- Yet government wage subsidies encourage low private sector wages.
Next Week: How Did the Founding Fathers Envision Government’s Powers? (Bruce’s idea)
Racial profiling is one of those issues that most members of our discussion group probably have very little feel for. Most of us, I’ll bet, have never lived in a neighborhood where young people are routinely stopped and scrutinized by the police, or in one with the crime levels that are used to justify the practice. Racial profiling has been illegal since 1968, when SCOTUS ruled that police cannot legally search someone solely on the grounds that their race or ethnicity makes them “suspicious.” But, the police still have enormous discretion in who they can stop and search and how, and young men/women in many poor communities of color are subject to interrogation and search by law enforcement whenever they leave the house.
Allegations of racial profiling and debates about its effectiveness have been in the news a lot the past few years. In 2013, a court struck down NYC’s controversial “stop and frisk” program, wherein law enforcement made it a deliberate practice to stop lots and lots of people on the street and search them for weapons and contraband. Mayor Giuliani and others argued that it lowered crime in the city and that the inconvenience to law-abiding citizens was worth it. Opponents said stop and frisk violated the rights of tens of thousands of innocent people, did not cause NYC’s drop in crime, and amounted to a kind of tax on poor people of color. Racial profiling also has been a huge issue in immigration, via Arizona’s A.B. 1070 “papers please” law, and in the anti- terrorism realm since 9/11.
We have a special guest Monday night, via Carl, who will talk about another topic and answer questions for the first 20 minutes. Then, I’ll give a very brief issue intro on our main topic and open it up. Let’s all stretch ourselves a little on this one and try to imagine how other people’s experiences might lead them to see the world differently than we do.
Discussion Questions –
- What is “racial profiling?” Why is it outlawed and what discretion do the police still have to search someone based partially on their appearance?
- Stop and frisk: Does it work? How high are the costs to poor communities of color and how do they compare to the benefits of falling crime (if it does that)? Also, who should get to decide what to do?
- Read the articles below on what it feels like to be racially profiled. Does this move you to think differently about our topic?
- Immigration: Any unique issues that make racial profiling more or less permissible?
- Terrorism: Same question.
- Basics: A short debate (transcript) over the pros and cons of stop and frisk.
- Better and more detailed. Read the first one plus the one you disagree with.
- The basics explained .
- Con: Stop/frisk does not cut crime and therefore is not worth it.
- Pro: Yes it does, and abandoning it abandons crime-ridden communities.
- What it feels like to be profiled: Read. Them.
- Profiling, Schmofiling:Ten things the police still can do to you on the street, despite stop and frisk being struck down..
- Theory: Stop/frisk is based on the “broken windows” theory of crime control. Is this theory valid or does it just sound valid?
Next Week: How to handle territorial disputes in the 21st century. (Iraq and Israel/Palestinians, anybody?)