Panic

Election 2012: Don't let the banks off easy

First published in Newsday.

“Can Obama lose this election?" a friend asked the other day. It's something supporters of the president are well within reason to ask these days, given the widespread economic misery that has opened a big double doorway to that possibility. According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll released last week, 54 percent see the current troubles as the beginning of a long-term national decline, not simply a trough for the U.S. economy that will give way to prosperity soon.

And so with a race that could tilt either way, Americans are obsessed with who's ahead in the Republican pack, and President Barack Obama's sympathizers gleefully chalk up the gaffes: restaurant executive Herman Cain's groping allegations, Texas Gov. Rick Perry's forgotten list of federal agencies to shutter, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's shifting stance on health care.

But the president will be missing a crucial responsibility over the next 11-plus months if he allows the Democratic Party's message to center on the horrors of the Republican roster. That responsibility is this: to reassure Americans that there's a candidate in the race who can't be bought and sold on Wall Street.

According to that same Journal/NBC poll, three out of four people say the nation's economic structure favors a very small proportion of the rich over the rest of us. That's an incredibly skewed perception of the basic fairness and merit-based achievement that are supposed to underlie our democracy. We aren't Dubai or Panama, are we?

No wonder half of those responding to the poll say they identify with one of this country's polar extremes: the tea party or Occupy Wall Street.

But beyond a broad disaffection fueled by high unemployment and underwater mortgages, the perceptions of poll respondents were specific to Obama as well: About three-quarters said the president has fallen short of his promises to improve oversight of the banks and Wall Street.

That's why the Obama administration's position is confounding on a proposed national settlement between big banks and federal and state officials over mortgage abuses. Attorneys general around the country are examining foreclosures made, perhaps illegally, through a hasty process known as "robo-signing." The president's people are said to be pushing for a $28-billion agreement - while a few outlier attorneys general are resisting: Eric Schneiderman here in New York, Kamala Harris in California and Beau Biden in Delaware.

Let's face it: $28 billion is a puny sum compared with the harm caused. To put it in perspective, negative equity in the housing market tops $700 billion. The government shouldn't give bankers immunity from legal liability - perhaps for any sum - but certainly not for so little, and not before a thorough investigation of banks' role in the near-meltdown of the global financial system.

In the past, a little salve on the wound - $28 billion in mortgage forgiveness, refinancing, credit counseling and legal services - might have been a very smart election-year gambit. But the economic pain and resentment of the last three years is too deep, and the Internet has made the public better informed. Reacting to news about the possible bank settlement, the Occupy Wall Street folks hoisted a sign reading, "Obama, don't be Wall Street's puppet."

Perhaps the president has good reasons for urging this settlement with the banks. If he does, he should take his case to the public. Because there's a lot more at stake than which party takes the White House. We could lose our faith that our government works for most of the people, most of the time.

Time for a 'living wage' for the middle class?

First published in Newsday.

With millions out of work, complaints about the decline in middle-class wages may seem misplaced. But without some shoring up, the middle class will remain dispirited -- and our economy, which is 70 percent dependent on consumer spending, will remain in the dumper.

It may be that there's a role for government to play in buttressing these eroding wages, which result not only in a declining standard of living, but also in a family life so pressure-filled that it leads to its own problems: angry homes, fast-food diets, dependence on alcohol and drugs.

Calling for any sort of government role during these tea party times can raise charges of socialism. But the idea of a wage that supports some minimum standard of living -- shelter, clothing, food -- has been broached on and off for more than a century.

In the late 1800s, social activists began protesting wages earned by a working-class man that were not sufficient to sustain his family, without the additional wages of working children and mothers. The Catholic Church published a fundamental social teaching, "Rerum Novarum" (on capital and labor), that read, "Wealthy owners of the means of production and employers must never forget that both divine and human law forbid them to squeeze the poor and wretched for the sake of gain or to profit from the helplessness of others."

Shortly afterward, Australia's courts ruled that an employer must pay a wage that guaranteed a standard of living that was reasonable for "a human being in a civilized community" for a family of four to live in "frugal comfort."

In the United States, these ideas led to laws forbidding child labor, making education compulsory and protecting women from exploitive labor conditions. The campaign to establish a "family wage" was defeated, but in 1938, a lower standard, the federal minimum wage, was passed.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Daniel Patrick Moynihan and in 1968, a group of 1,200 economists including Paul Samuelson and John Kenneth Galbraith, have all supported some kind of minium income guarantee.

Echoes of this debate are being heard now, in the Vatican's critique last week of the global financial system, and in places where labor unions still have some sway: In the New York City Council, which at the urging of retail workers may require employers in commercial developments built with public subsidies to pay at least $10 an hour, a "living wage" higher than the minimum wage of $7.25; and in Albany, where the State Legislature in April passed an increase to $9 an hour for home health aides, who are represented by the influential 1199 SEIU United Health Care Workers East. That increase takes effect on Long Island in 2013.

It's easy to see why the lowest-paid workers would need a boost from someone powerful enough to argue on their behalf. But to make the argument for the middle class, one has to believe that this great swath of America, nearly half the country, has special value. And it does: The stability and upward mobility of the middle class not only underpin the U.S. economy but give America its famously optimistic and innovative spirit.

That spirit is on display as the middle class makes the best of things today: The average American has added around a month's worth of work, 164 hours per year, in the last two decades. One-third of American families have reduced their savings for college, according to a 2010 Sallie Mae/Gallup poll, and another 15 percent are not saving at all. Retirement savings are in similar decline.

How much more can the middle class cinch in its belt, before we lose what's precious about this way of life?