The 200k Challenge Live Webcast
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Paul Jay in Washington. And now joining the Real News Webathon is Tom Ferguson. He joins us from Massachusetts, where he’s a professor at the University of Mass in Boston. He’s also a senior fellow of the Roosevelt Institute. Thanks for joining us, Tom.
TOM FERGUSON, PROF. POLITICAL SCIENCE, UMASS BOSTON: Hi, there.
JAY: So let’s talk a little bit about some work you’ve done recently. This country’s being described over and over again, on the Sunday morning shows and elsewhere, this is a right-of-center country, this is a center-right country, the country is moving right. But if I understand it correctly, there may be some tendency amongst people who actually vote, perhaps, to move right, if that’s even what they really did, ’cause that’s still a question [inaudible]
FERGUSON: Yeah, I wouldn’t rush to conclude that they were moving any clear direction except for jobs and employment.
JAY: –can you talk about that whole issue? Okay. We have a–. Okay, we have a problem here. Tom, try it again.
FERGUSON: I think–this echoes in my ear when I–.
JAY: I’m not hearing Tom. Are you out there?
FERGUSON: Can you hear me?
JAY: Okay. Please be patient with us. This is–oh, there’s Tom. There we are. Thanks for joining us, Tom.
FERGUSON: Hi, there.
JAY: Did you hear my question? Or should I pose it again?
FERGUSON: I heard it. I mean, look, the–first of all, I wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that everybody–large blocks of people moved to either the right or the left. Mostly what they did is they voted against the regime in power because they blamed the Obama administration and the Democrats for having been in power for two years and done us relatively little that anybody could perceive to get out of this great recession. [inaudible] now, it did result in the election of the Republicans, but, frankly, this is just like the early Great Depression. The rule there was: in, out; out, in. And, you know, that’s, I think, basically the dialectic you’ve got going on right now. It’s not at the moment right-left, left-right, with this major qualification, that the idea of having the government do things has become a much harder sell since the government just spent two years doing anything but things, to put it somewhat hyperbolically but, in the eyes of most voters, I think, basically correctly. I mean, we’ve been over some of this ground in other interviews, but–. Now, you’re not looking at a giant movement to the right. What people want are jobs, and they haven’t got them, and the unemployment rate is rising.
JAY: Okay, let’s talk about this issue, because when they–whatever the opinion is, based on that vote, they are only talking about people who actually went out to vote. Now, a lot of people who were registered to vote just chose not to, and that’s not uncommon in these midterms. But also talk about people who are more or less disenfranchised, like, in terms of how difficult it is to get registered. Like, what are the actual numbers of people who in theory are eligible to vote but simply don’t get registered and are out of the whole process?
FERGUSON: Well, luckily, I happened to just check on this fact just before the program. Look, we–the turnout rate in this election, my colleague Walter Dean Burnham, who, you know, I’ve known for a million–.
JAY: Tom, I’m going to interrupt you for just a sec. You want to look up at the lens there on these Skype interviews. There you go.
FERGUSON: Okay. My colleague Walter Dean Burnham has been doing turnout studies for almost half a century, and I rely on Burnham for my numbers ’cause I think he’s the best source on the planet. He says that the turnout was something like about 39 percent in this off-year election. It was around 63 in the presidential election in, you know, 2008. That was actually a relative rise from recent, you know, years, if you sort of average them. So, typically in a presidential election you’ll see about 40 percent or more of the population sit out, and in the off-year election anywhere from 60 to 65 percent of the population will sit out. That’s how you get–. And in a situation like–place like Boston, you poll–you–those are–you know, what we’ve been just talking about here are presidential and congressional turnouts. That’s a sort of big deal–some publicity, people roughly know the date, etc. An awful lot of cities in this country have deliberately moved their elections, so that they don’t get caught in sort of the–what might be called the upload of participation, so they can have a lower electorate. And [inaudible] the city of Boston, it’s not at all uncommon to have, you know, city council and even mayoral elections with 15 or 20 or 25 percent of the population voting.
JAY: So the point here is that the political elites and some of the elites behind the political elites actually rather people don’t vote.
FERGUSON: Yeah. Look, there’s not much mystery about how you do this, even though, I mean, most of the time people think it’s–you know, somehow everybody doesn’t care, or something like that, or they think that voting turnout is something like the tides that you can’t do anything about. Actually, the American electoral system’s an achievement of many generations of guys that worked real hard for a long time. They put in–the old story was registration requirements and poll taxes and literacy tests. Now, the literary tests have gone by the board, pretty much, although we’re getting a new form of those [inaudible] drivers license and things like that which isn’t technically literacy. But the–.
JAY: Okay, just–some of our viewers aren’t from the US. So just to be clear, the point here is sometimes to vote you have to come with a driver’s license, and even if you’ve been registered. And a lot of people just don’t have–.
FERGUSON: Yeah [if] the drivers license were the only problem, that might be almost nothing. What you have to have done in most states is register to vote a lot earlier, sometimes ridiculously earlier, so that–before you even barely know there’s an election. I mean, the registration requirements are certainly a major problem that sort of pushes down American voter turnout. Moreover, a lot of folks, when they try to go do that registration, they discover they’re actually in a multistage process. I’ll tell you a true story. I mean, this actually happened to me. When I came back into the city of Boston back in the late ’80s for the first time in a while, I had to go register to vote. I go down to City Hall to register, and the guy says to me, well, that’s interesting. You know. Have you got a piece of mail? And I said, huh? And he said, no, no, I’ve got to see a piece of mail. And I said, okay, I’ve had it. You know, I’m a political scientist. I pay attention to voting. I said, I’m going to call The Boston Herald, you know, huffing and puffing, real Wizard of Oz fashion here. And the guy says to me, okay, well, we’ll let you do this. And then all that meant was they mailed me yet another postcard, which I had to return all fully filled out. Now, you know, when you get a three-stage process like that, guess what? People drop away like summer tourists trying to climb, you know, something in Yosemite–they just can’t make it all the way. That’s the point of that process. And so registration requirements have been, for a long time, a mainstay of keeping down voting. In recent years, you’re exactly right. The people are asking for–a lot of–some states have started asking for photo IDs or driver’s licenses–or I guess they have to legally take your passport. You know, not everybody carries all that stuff around. And, you know, if–there’s not much doubt about why this is done, although people are claiming it’s to block fraud. There’s precious little fraud in American elections, and there are almost no convictions for it. It’s plainly and obviously to push down voter turnout. In recent years another sort of very powerful thing has been to sort of push laws that say, effectively, if you’ve ever been in prison, you’ve lost your right to vote, so-called felon voter stuff. When I first heard complaints about this, I was a little skeptical. I thought people must be hyperbolizing. No. Actually, you know, the cumulative sort of number of felons that sort of lose their rights, and this is pretty large, and I have to say it’s–pretty obviously the racial disparities here are enormous. Lots– Southern states which have had, you know, let’s say, a long history of problems with efforts to sort of block African-American voters or Hispanics from voting, they do this local crazy quote stuff a lot, and it’s a pretty potent way of pushing down voter turnout. The voter turnout in America [is] very unlike most other countries just has the state prepares the voting rolls. You know, they–in like the census, for instance. Even the city of Boston has a census. People used to come by when I lived there and would ask me, you know, questions–who lives here and all that stuff. They didn’t use that census to prepare the voting rolls. That is no accident.
JAY: Now, this issue of registration I think’s really a critical one. Now I get to vote in Canada and the United States ’cause I’m a dual citizen. And if my memory serves me correctly, in Toronto I can do same-day registration.
FERGUSON: Yeah. You can do it in one or two American states, too.
JAY: Yeah, I think there’s half a dozen states in the US where you can do same-day registration. And I don’t know of–I don’t know if you do–of any scandals or any great problems with same-day registration.
FERGUSON: No, no. The short answer is no. This stuff isn’t–scandals are not to be found in this stuff.
JAY: So what do you think is the–or is there any research on this? Why do they want to lower voters, the number of voters?
FERGUSON: Well, my colleague, Burnham, my old colleague from MIT, he wrote, actually, an excellent working paper on this for the Roosevelt Institute. You can find it really easily. It’s just out. Let’s see, the title is something like Democracy in Peril: The American Turnout Problem and the path to Plutocracy, which sort of states the whole thing very nicely. I mean, Burnham’s the best scholar in the world on this. He’s done the most and the best work on it. And you can just pull it right off if you go to new deal 2.0, at–which is the website, the main website at the Roosevelt Institute, look on the right-hand side, go over to working papers, you’ll find Burnham’s paper. And its a really nice job.
JAY: Tom, just for one second, just hold your thought. If you want to ask Tom a question, let me give you the phone number. Call 1-888-816-8867. One more time, 888-816-8867. And [when] you phone, tell our colleague, who will take your call, what your question is, and then they will call you back and link you in. So please do get involved if you like. Okay. Sorry, Tom. Go ahead.
FERGUSON: No problem. I mean, just–I think we’re pretty much–I might be wrong, but I think we pretty well concluded the vote–people work hard to block voters. Now, this is bipartisan, but for sure the main efforts in recent years have been mostly the Republicans trying to block out relatively poor voters. I mean, the class skew in American voting turnout is so obvious that you have to be almost an orthodox American political scientist not to make a big deal out of it.
JAY: Well, now, the Democrats in power, whether it’s nationally or at the state level, how much have they done to actually change this? Like, one of the things I’ve been saying in some of the interviews about this issue is Obama seems so concerned about that 10, 15 percent, whatever it is, the supposed independents that could go one way or the other, instead of focusing on the poor, where there’s so many people either are registered but don’t come out to vote and/or are not registered at all. I guess if you want–the problem with trying to get–appealing to that section of the society is maybe you’d actually have to do something for them.
FERGUSON: Well, yes. Look, there’s absolutely no doubt, I think, that the Obama administration, like other presidential administrations, has been in some sense trying to invent an electorate that would give it what it wanted. And yeah, the business about appealing to independents is precisely a kind of dodge. And the really interesting thing to me [inaudible] everybody knew as Obama came into power that there were serious problems with American electoral practices. I mean, the local [inaudible] for you got butterfly ballots and everything else that, you know, people–ballots that change from county to county, and accounting problems, and the voting machine problems, where, you know, one year you’ve got 20 machines and then another year you’ve got 2, which is almost actual examples from places like Ohio. Everybody knew there were serious problems here, and as far as I can tell, apart from a note they sent around to the states to remind people that they have to, I think, tell them to enforce the provisions of a lot of [inaudible] voter legislation, they haven’t done anything at all about it, and they had two years in which they could really do something constructive. And it’s perfectly obvious to me that in 2012 we’re going to see a lot of the same ballot problems that we saw, you know, repeatedly, right up to and including 2000. And, you know, what are these guys doing in the Justice Department?
JAY: We have a question from Ken, whose emailed a question in, which is–he asks if you can talk about the whole issue of gerrymandering, particularly in Florida I guess this is– you could probably talk about Floridan elections for a whole day. But go ahead.
FERGUSON: Well, I–okay. The gerrymandering is–hey, you know that was actually invented in my state, right? I live in Massachusetts, where they cut the district, as it were, to sort of get the outcome they want. There’s a lot of discussion of gerrymandering ’cause there’s not much doubt that various states do some very strange things when they do these districts. Sometimes you get cases where the Republicans and Democrats in effect joint-maximize [sic] to protect incumbent representatives. In other cases you get one-party dominance. And there are cases well attested to early in this century where, for instance, the White House was willing to let California do some strange things in order to–they thought sort of come out ahead and hold other–some advantages they had. So gerrymandering’s a big problem. And, moreover, people are now sort of completely crass about it. I mean, they used to kind of hide it, though they did it. But my sense is is that in the last 30 or 40 years everybody acts like it’s–. You know, it’s like, one is tempted to say, steroids in baseball; that is to say, a lot of folks just want to just think, oh, it’s all part of the game. And, you know, we’ve clearly got a major problem here. You know, it’s just–.
JAY: Okay. Tom, before–I know you have to leave soon, but I don’t want to-
FERGUSON: No, that’s okay. I can hang around a little bit. But you–you know, just you tell me–.
JAY: Okay. Well, I want to–another topic you work on–and you’ve done some work recently with Rob Johnson. Of course, the big battle taking place in Washington right now is this whole debate about what to do about the debt–deficit-mania some people call it, or deficit crisis other people call it.
FERGUSON: It has the look of the buildup to the invasion of Iraq, doesn’t it? That is to say, you get almost only one interpretation in the newspapers, no acknowledgment that there might even be a different point of view. I mean, when you look at somebody like Matt Bai in The New York Times, you can only ask–you know, this is the sort of thing that’s an embarrassment to defenders of the free press.
JAY: Alright. So talk about this. As you say, the whole media is just buying into the assumption that the only issue is how to fight the debt, how to bring down the deficit, and that–and clearly the media has bought the idea that we’re more worried about debt than we are about depression.
FERGUSON: Well, you know, that’s–look, yes, that’s what they think or would have everybody think, and they’re continuing to sort of put on guys like Alan Greenspan, then treat them with seriousness, like it was 2005, on this topic. You know, this is almost–you can wonder just how can this be. You know. And the answer is: if you didn’t have a semi-monopolistic situation in the US press–which is what you guys are all about trying to break, and which, frankly, is the reason I’m willing to sort of sit here at, you know, 10 o’clock in the evening and talk to you. It’s not–. You got a problem here. Alright, just very briefly, Rob Johnson and I– we looked at this, and we said, we’d better study this. First we’d better try to find out–. There are all these claims in the media–well, you know, there’s these magic numbers, you know, where the debt-to-GDP ratio might be 90 percent or something, which just means you’ve accumulated a lot of debt, you know, and that’ll stop growth. Well, when we looked at this, there’s nothing to that, no matter how often it’s repeated in there. I mean, the whole business is a lot more complex, and indeed, you know, people like Spain are getting into serious trouble with much lower debt-to-GDP ratios, and countries like Great Britain–. One of the nice graphs in our paper, which is also on the Roosevelt Institute website, same place as Burnham’s, you know, the new deal 2.0, we show you that the British industrialized with debt-to-GDP ratios way higher than the US government has now, or indeed most modern Western states have. It’s really quite incredible. Anyway, there’s no magic ceiling story there, and thus it’s a little hard to swallow claims that we’ve really got to, for instance, push down the debt-to-GDP ratio. There are good reasons, maybe, not to just keep rolling it up forever, if only because at some point your interest charges would get large. But, you know, you’re not in any imminent danger of a crisis. And, you know, if the bond markets think they see a crisis coming in even 30 years, the 30-year debt price rises at once. You know, you’ve got to pay a lot more to raise that. That’s not what you see in current bond markets. And so Johnson and I sort of looked through that stuff, and we rehashed the sort of basics of this sort of thing, and then we walked through, okay, what actually–if you had a deficit problem in the United States, what does it consist of? And our basic answer to that is it’s not about rising entitlements. It is certainly not about Social Security, which is just, I mean, a ridiculously small chunk of all this. When you look–let me just say a word about Social Security, and we’ll go back to the–where you have problems. The Social Security story is really kind of outrageous. I mean, if you look, the folks who claim to be wanting to protect that program through changes, like Peter Orszag, who just left the White House as, you know, the head of the Office of Management and Budget, Orszag’s walking around saying we’ve got to fix Social Security. And it turns out when he actually–when you’re reading closely, what he is actually saying is, well, you know, yeah, in 30 or 40 years it might rise 1 percent more of GDP. I mean, you know, come on, guys. I mean, these are folks who could not see the 2008 financial crisis coming, and they want us to believe that we are going to have a 1 percent extra problem, you know, down in 30 years or something. When you look at the trustees report on Social Security, what you discover is, under, you know, a relatively pessimistic–not the most pessimistic, but a relatively pessimistic economic forecast, there’s no problem in that trust fund until 2037, at which point they still have the money for 75 percent of the claims. Now, you know, that’s a fairly easy fix: you could just pay it out of general revenues. But since that puts pressure to raise taxes, our upper income folks really hate that. So if you want to do–the alternative is you could simply raise the Social Security tax by lifting the ceiling on wages that are subject to that tax. You know, right now it’s pretty low. It’s $106,800, which means if you make more than that, you don’t have to pay anything on the–above that on the money you make. So if you make $1 million bucks, the other, you know, almost $900,000 you get you don’t have to pay anything on. You know, that’s absurd. You could raise the ceiling. Indeed, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to raise the ceiling right now and cut the rate on everybody. But, you know, there’s just no [inaudible] about Social Security. It’s ridiculous to see the–and when Alan Simpson starts talking about–I mean, who is the co-chair of the Deficit Commission, when he starts talking about we’ve got to tell the whales and the minnows–we harpoon the whales and the minnows, Social Security’s a minnow. So, you know, there are some whales out there, and Rob Johnson and I looked at–the obvious one is medical costs. But the problem there is not anything that you can obviously fix by just announcing we’re not going to pay more. The fundamental problem–you know, this–I know you’re from Canada, so, you know, try to keep from fainting when I say this, we don’t have single-payer in the United States. So the insurers waste maybe 20 percent of the total bill every year noncompeting with each other on administrative charges. You could get a lot out of that just by getting rid of that. And the other–if you did something like let the government bargain with the pharmaceutical producers over the cost of drugs, you could save well over $1 trillion over a long period of time. I pull that number from Joe Stiglitz’s paper, which is also out there at the Roosevelt Institute, where we’re–basically, the health-care thing in the United States is a private oligopoly with a sort of ridiculously noncompetitive insurance system. You’ve got to bust up the oligopoly one way or the other. You know, the public option that was effectively written out of the Obama legislation would begin to do that. And, of course, they just never should have done the compromise that basically blocks the government from bartering down pharmaceuticals. But, you know, Simpson doesn’t talk about that stuff. I mean, there’s no doubt [inaudible] over the long run, if you did nothing, the medical care thing would sort of be like Pac-Man and eat everything. Now it’s going to get resisted. You’ve got to block just stupid, absolute [inaudible] we will not just allow, for instance, all open-heart operations or things like that. You need to go after the oligopolies. You’ve got another problem with defense. I mean, a point we make in our paper–it’s not new; Chalmers Johnson and Robert Higgs made it before us–is that the actual defense budget, just people quote as the defense budget substantially understates total spending in defense. And when you put some better numbers in there, you might get maybe 39 percent of the total budget that high. We obviously need to do some strategic reassessment. I mean, when I look at sort of, like, the way–when I see, for instance, Tomahawk missiles flying off a US cruiser somewhere, and I tend to think [of] dealer display floors full of Mercedes-Benzes being shot at the enemy, whoever the enemy is. And, you know, we’re getting something like–about what, half the total defense spending in all the world’s ours? Something like that.
JAY: Tom, I think one of the points you made, too, and I heard you talk recently, that a lot of the military budget’s actually really stimulus spending, and state-by-state they make sure they spend money in every state. It’s just not the most effective kind of stimulus funding. But let me–we’re going to have to wrap things up for now. But let me say, I know our viewers–and a lot of our viewers want to disagree with you on certain parts of your thesis. And we’re going to do this again. We’ll do a special live broadcast or webcast with Tom Ferguson and we’ll make sure everybody knows. And everybody who wants to have an argument with Tom, we hope you’ll show up. Thanks–.
FERGUSON: They may have to stand in line, but sure, okay, that’s not a problem.
JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Tom.
FERGUSON: Okay. Bye-bye.
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End of Transcript
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