Defending the Constitution for Workers and Not Elites

New Orleans    Hidden in the New York Times the day after the July 4th holiday was a fascinating op-ed piece entitled Workingman’s Constitution, by William E. Forbath, a professor of law and history at the University of Texas in Austin.  Forbath was writing in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on the Affordable Health Care Act, so that gave him his hook, but his real theme was that “liberals” were dropping the ball in not fully understanding and appreciating that the design and updates of the Constitution were meant to guarantee what we might call “distributive justice,” and the opportunity – and right – for average American citizens rather than just elites to live happily and well in economic terms.

It seems to me that Forbath makes a number of strong points here that are worth note and discussion.  One that underlies all of this arguments is that in the hue and cry by conservatives to “follow the Constitution,” too many of us are ceding the Constitution to the rightwing without hesitating long enough to make a fight for its strengths for our positions as well, which undermines our own programs and policies.

Liberals have too often been complacent and purely defensive. The Constitution, they often declare, does not speak to the rights and wrongs of economic life; it leaves that to politics. Laissez-faire doctrines were buried by the New Deal.  Until last week, this response may have been understandable. But it was always misleading as history, and wrong in principle, as well. And it was bad politics, providing no clear counter-narrative to support the powers of government now under attack from the right.

Pulling examples from James Madison to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Forbath makes a persuasive case that the enduring constitution is interlaced with a “distributive tradition” and that “you can’t have a republican government, and certainly not a constitutional democracy amid gross material inequality…because gross inequality …destroys the material independence and security that democratic citizens require to participate on a roughly equal footing in political and social life.”

This is profound and powerful stuff, and there may not be enough students matriculating from UT Law School ready to take pen an voice to join this army, so the rest of us need to take careful note if we are able to wrest the Constitution out of the grimy, greedy hands of the Koch Brothers and their Justices on the Court and their tribunes in politics.

The Constitution on this account promises real equality of opportunity; it calls on all three branches of government to ensure that all Americans enjoy a decent education and livelihood and a measure of security against the hazards of illness, old age and unemployment — all so they have a chance to do something that has value in their own eyes and a chance to engage in the affairs of their communities and the larger society. Government has not only the authority but also the duty to underwrite these promises.


Cultural Shift: The Media Suddenly Rediscovers Poverty

New Orleans  I swear there’s a shift suddenly in the recognition that poverty is a big freaking problem.  Everywhere I turn in recent days commentators, columnists and reporters feel obligated to at least mention poverty and the poor either directly or euphemistically.    In a cultural shift from recent decades, folks feel they should at least pretend to be grossed out by ostentatious and disgusting displays of wealth and inequity.  Although there is no indication that this will do one scintilla of good for lower income families or citizen wealth in the short term, it speaks to at least a heartbeat of hope for the future perhaps.

The evidence is everywhere:

  • A Times tech columnist writing about how grand it is to live and work in California’s Silicon Valley starts out by detailing the intense economic pressure of living there and details the million dollar parties, fake snow drifts, and other excesses of wealth abounding in the area.
  • Another Times columnist, Gina Bellafante, in her “Big City” report the day before starts out her story on low wage workers who can’t make it in New York City’s economy by pointing out the paradoxes of rich kids of the 1% and their gold tinted bubbles.
  • The AP garnered headlines with a tragic story that poverty will hit levels we have not seen since the 1960’s, more than 50 years ago before the Great Society and the War on Poverty because of the Great Recession.  Furthermore, all indications are that this level of poverty will be pronounced and enduring as low wage jobs proliferate, unions have become sclerotic, toothless, and ineffective, and corporations ascendant with the social safety net in tatters and any hope of mending it lost in the ideological polarization of politics.
  • Increasing realizations that the devastation of the economy is such that single-parent families have created a new dimension of the class divide essentially because you just can’t make it any more with only one income.
  • Stories proliferate on the enduring consequences of a “lost” generation between 18-35 in this economy that parallels the impacts and lasting effect of the Great Depression.  You don’t easily get over long term unemployment.  Similar stories are now abounding about the death sentences of older workers past 50 who can never dream of recovery, even if they were to win the lottery of fate and be able to find a job, any kind of job.

I could go on and on and on….

Don’t get me wrong.  The gilded grossness of Wall Street and Silicon Valley should go underground.  Recognizing and naming the persistence impact of low wages and the life sentences of the service economy is vitally important.

Unfortunately this ray of hope is far from a plan, and though we start by naming the evils of the economy and the victim filled crimes around us, there still seems to be no one talking about the ways and means of solving any of this or a real program that might gain traction to relieve the pain and once again build citizen wealth.