Stepping up on middle out: From rhetoric to reality

President Obama’s latest effort to portray himself as the champion of the middle class has so far been long on rhetoric and painfully short of real proposals.

The problem is that if smooth rhetoric alone could do the job, the economy would be humming along right now, not sputtering.

To get this done, the president is going to have to harness all of our fabled American know-how . He’s also going to have to adopt a quality that’s been too rare in our politics: the ability to admit mistakes and abandon failed policies. Tweaking the status quo is not going to get us anywhere. This is not the job for a temp.

I know it’s not just up to the president. We’re all going to have get involved. So here are my seven suggestions to help the president start to fill in the details that could take “middle out” into the realm of reality.

Some of them should be easy: the president already said he’d do them, like create a robust jobs program raise the minimum wage. Some of these proposals are bound to get the president out of his corporate-friendly comfort zone. But we need to get real - and so does the president. We should demand that the president stop pursuing policies that will further erode what’s left of the middle-class. Here’s my summons to President Obama:

  1. Repudiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership: Take your pick: it’s either a “Free Trade Frankenstein,” as I described it previously, or “NAFTA on Steroids,” as it’s been labeled elsewhere. Either way it’s not free and has little to do with trade and everything to do with strengthening corporate rights around the globe and weakening protections for labor, the environment, local agriculture and generic drugs. We know from NAFTA that these phony deals kill jobs, not promote them. It’s the 2013 version of the Big Lie. You can’t be both for the middle class and the TPP. (If we let the president get away with this, our bad.)
  2. Do something about African-American unemployment: The rate is 13.6, twice the national rate. For African-American youth, the rate is an unbelievable 42.6 percent, and worse this year than last. This is a national disgrace. Mr. President, you can’t advocate middle out economics and tolerate 42 percent unemployment for African-American youth – and we shouldn’t let you. Yes, Republicans will stand in your way. It’s your job to develop a strategy that doesn’t allow them to stop you from taking action.
  3. Drop the loony “bipartisan” agreement that will allow student loan rates to float upward to an exorbitant beyond the usurious 8 percent range. Go back to the drawing board and lead an effort to reduce the cost of higher education, not just the relatively small portion that goes to paying the cost of a student loan.  In the meantime, put a moratorium on student loan payments until the unemployment rate has stabilized at 5 percent. (Hat tip to investigative journalist Dave Lindhorff for that one.)
  4. Push for your own American Jobs Act, the legislation you proposed in 2011 that would cut payroll taxes for businesses, double the size of the payroll tax cut for individuals, give aid to states to prevent public sector layoffs, and increase infrastructure spending. All together, the Jobs Act would create 1.9 million jobs. You haven’t mentioned it lately, but an updated version was recently reintroduced in Congress.
  5. Make raising the minimum wage a top priority. It was a good idea when you proposed it back when you ran for president in 2008 and it’s a better idea now that you’re president in full control of your bully pulpit.
  6. Dump Larry Summers as a candidate to run the Federal Reserve: You have a clear choice to make here. Summers is the Robert Rubin protégé who, under Bill Clinton, pushed the deregulation of high finance that led to the crash of 2008, and then helped craft the policies in your administration that propped up banks and bankers with unlimited amounts of nearly free cash but offered only the most tepid support to homeowners facing foreclosure and the unemployed.  As far as the middle class goes, Summers has never missed a chance to get it wrong. Since he left your administration, he’s taken a job with too-big-to-fail Citibank. Your other choice is the current No. 2 at the Fed, Janet Yellen, who was one of those ignored voices expressing concerns about the banks before the crash, and continued to push the Fed toward fulfilling its obligations towards those in the country who aren’t wealthy bankers. Americans know the difference between these two. You can’t be both for Larry Summers and the survival of the middle class.
  7. Don’t abandon Detroit: By standing aside, you are conceding the city’s future to the state’s right-wing governor, Rick Snyder, the banks and their lawyers to dictate the future of the city’s 700,000 residents. Snyder is downright hostile to the traditionally Democratic city and he’d like nothing better than to build his reputation with his conservative backers as the man who finally broke Detroit. The bankers have already done their best to pick the city clean. Detroiters would stand a much better chance with the resources and creativity of your administration on their side. You’ve shown that you know how to use federal authority to keep bankers afloat, now use it to help one of the nation’s great cities.

Six reasons Republicans should get over it – and vote to raise the minimum wage

Just this once, Republicans should make an exception to their policy of opposing everything President Obama proposes and support an increase in the minimum wage.

There are many good reasons why a wide majority of Americans consistently support it. According to a 2012 poll, 73 percent of likely voters supported increasing the minimum wage to $10 an hour (the president is proposing $9 and then indexing it to the consumer price index for the first time). That’s not actually much of an increase: if the minimum wage kept pace with productivity gains it would be $16.50 an hour!

A minimum wage hike is that rare political issue which appeals across gender, age, race, education level, region and party, the poll showed.

But here are six other decent reasons for Republicans to abandon their opposition and support raising the minimum wage:

  • Before it was President Obama’s idea, many of them supported an increase. Six years ago, when George Bush was president, at least 67 Republicans still in Congress, including Rep. Paul Ryan, backed an increase from $5.75 to $7.25 an hour. Sen. Mitch McConnell, then Senate majority leader, said, “We're going to pass a good minimum wage increase bill because of Republican support and because Republicans insisted on a bipartisan package, not a partisan fight.”  The 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, also supported an increase – before conservatives pummeled him for his position and he flip-flopped.
  • It doesn’t place an undue burden on small business. It’s a myth that small business is the primary employer of low-wage workers. Sixty-six percent of low-wage workers work for major corporations like Wal-Mart and McDonalds – and they’re doing better than ever.  According to a report from the National Employment Law Project, of the top 50 companies employing low-wage workers, 75 percent have higher revenues than before the recession and 73 percent are sitting on more cash. They paid their top executives an average of $9.4 million last year.
  • Several topnotch companies already pay more than minimum wage voluntarily – and they’re doing fine. Among them are two of the top fast-food companies in the country. The wildly popular In’n’Out Burger in California and Arizona pays its part-time workers $10 an hour to start and its full-time workers get health benefits. The 31-year old woman who now runs the family-owned chain is the country’s youngest female billionaire. In’n’Out’s newest California competitor, Five Guys Burgers and Fries, also pays above the minimum wage: $8 an hour plus incentives shared among shift teams.
  • It could help them with the illegal immigration issue. Back in September, 2011, Ron Unz,missing American Conservative commentator proposed that Republicans support an increase in the minimum wage as part of a comprehensive rethinking of the party’s immigration stance and broadening its base. A higher minimum wage, Unz suggested, might actually reduce illegal immigration.
  • If Republicans oppose a minimum wage hike, Democrats will clobber them with it in the 2014 election to help them take back the House of Representatives. “Dems believe that this battle goes directly to fundamental and deeply held voter beliefs  about which party is really on the side of economically struggling Americans,” the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent reported. “Having just lost an election in which they were perceived as prioritizing the interests of the rich over everyone else, Republicans understand this, which is why they wrap their opposition to the minimum wage increase in a veil of concern for low wage workers.”
  • Rep. Paul Ryan, the unsuccessful Republican vice-presidential nominee and a 2016 presidential contender said his party must do a better job convincing people it has better ideas on “fighting poverty and helping people move up the `ladder of life.’” If he’s serious about that, helping people on the lowest rung with a pay hike would be a good start.