A Moral and Political Critique of Democratic Primary Debate Arguments of 2015, Part 2

This is the fourth installment of my examination of the arguments presented by presidential primary candidates of both major parties.

As with the previous posts, the debate transcript selections are in red, and my own remarks in black. I leave out introductions, banter, moderator comments, lines which indicate audience response, some purely empirical claims, and other parts that don’t directly pertain to the political and moral ideas considered here. The parts I leave out are indicated, as usual, by ellipses.

From the CNN Democratic presidential primary debate, October 14th 2015 (continued)

The source of the debate transcript which follows is the New York Times, at nytimes.com
Participants: former Governor Lincoln Chafee, former Governor Martin O’Malley, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Senator Bernie Sanders, and former Senator Jim Webb
Moderators: Anderson Cooper, Dana Bash, Juan Carlos Lopez, and Don Lemon

COOPER: …And welcome back. …I want to talk about issues of race in America…

WILKINS [guest]: …My question for the candidates is, do black lives matter, or do all lives matter?

SANDERS: Black lives matter. And the reason — the reason those words matter is the African American community knows that on any given day some innocent person like Sandra Bland can get into a car, and then three days later she’s going to end up dead in jail, or their kids are going to get shot. We need to combat institutional racism from top to bottom, and we need major, major reforms in a broken criminal justice system in which we have more people in jail than China. And, I intended to tackle that issue. To make sure that our people have education and jobs rather than jail cells…

O’MALLEY: Anderson, the …Black Lives Matter movement is making is a very, very legitimate and serious point, and that is that as a nation we have undervalued the lives of black lives, people of color. When …we we burying over 350 young men every single year, mostly young, and poor, and black, and I said to our legislature …that if we were burying white, young, poor men in these number we would be marching in the streets and there would be a different reaction.

I’ve seen many people respond to the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement’s motto with a sign, or Twitter post, or internet meme reading ‘All Lives Matter’. It seems clear that those offering these responses are taking advantage of an easily derived self-righteous-sounding motto to skirt the issue while making it clear where their sympathies lie …not with the black lives lost and ruined by failed policies and cultural attitudes left over from our slave-owning past. Of course all lives matter, and I would add to those who use the latter slogan, please don’t insult the intelligence of your fellow citizens by pretending they don’t believe that too. The whole point is that our practices and policies have indicated that for far too many Americans, black lives don’t appear to matter enough, and this movement’s slogan is meant to point out that ugly fact. The ‘Black Lives Matter’ motto is powerful because of how simply and directly it highlights the often stark difference between how black people often fare than other people in so many spheres of American life.

A couple of years or so ago, conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly spent a lot of time talking about the issue of black Americans and crime, since the media debate was raging especially hotly around stop-and-frisk policies, black-on-black violence, mass incarceration of black people, violent confrontations between police officers and black people, and so on. O’Reilly placed the blame solely on culture: in his view, it could all be blamed entirely, or at least mostly, on violent rap lyrics, baggy clothes and hoodies, drugs, and other… ahem, peculiarities of black culture, with which he seems very uncomfortable.

I’ll give O’Reilly the benefit of the doubt a little here: culture could have something to do with it. It probably, actually, does. But it has nothing to do with the fashion choices of young black men, which is no more or less anti-authoritarian than those of other youth subcultures, and it doesn’t let our society off the hook, far from it. And it doesn’t at all justify his implication that the flawed policies of our police and justice systems aren’t to blame.

You see, if you don’t want kids to be brought up in a culture where they think going to jail is normal, practically even a rite of passage, than don’t institute policies that make it more likely they’ll grow up in families and neighborhoods where so many are incarcerated. For decade after decade, as demonstrated by masses of data we’ve collected on the subject, black people have been subject to a different kind and degree of law enforcement than white people, over our entire history. (Same goes for many other groups, but not for as long and to the same extent overall.) Black people are pulled over for minor infractions (real or invented) more often than white people, stopped and frisked more often, are directed to prison rather than treatment more often, receive tougher sentences, and so on and so forth.

The drug war has been especially hard on black citizens: while drugs are used at about the same rates in every racial and economic group, the laws are enforced far more rigorously against black people. I wish, for instance, police officers would prowl the frat rows of every wealthy college town in America and throw those drug offenders in prison at least as assiduously as they do in predominantly black and / or poorer neighborhoods, if they must do it at all. If they stopped and frisked there, image what a haul they’d get every weekend night! But of course they don’t. They don’t want to ruin those bright young lives for mistakes they made while in their foolish youth and throw them in jail for every little minor infraction, lowing their chances of getting a decent job, ever. But black youth must live to a higher standard. Whether or not they had the advantages of security or wealth when young, whether or not the fathers, mothers, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters, or neighbors in their lives were wealthy, middle class, poor, or ever had been in prison, they must never make the same mistakes as those frat kids, or in fact most ordinary people who live it up and do illegal things from time to time, or else.

There are black criminals who are just as bad as any other criminals, who injure or kill police officers unjustly, for just doing their job protecting all those in their care. That’s true of people of all races, in any population. But in a society that incarcerates people to an obscene degree, even for minor infractions that arguably shouldn’t be illegal in the first place, and enforces the law disproportionately and often more harshly against black people, it shouldn’t be a shock or surprise that so many run-ins between police officers and black people turn violent.  I just hope that one day it will be a matter of shock and surprise that we kept going about it all wrong, in the same way, for so long.

COOPER: …Secretary Clinton, …Senator Sanders wants to break up the big Wall Street banks. You don’t. You say charge the banks more, continue to monitor them. Why is your plan better?

CLINTON: Well, my plan is more comprehensive. And frankly, it’s tougher because of course we have to deal with the problem that the banks are still too big to fail. We can never let the American taxpayer and middle class families ever have to bail out the kind of speculative behavior that we saw…. So I’m with both Senator Sanders and Governor O’Malley in putting a lot of attention onto the banks….

SANDERS: Let us be clear that the greed and recklessness and illegal behavior of Wall Street, where fraud is a business model, helped to destroy this economy and the lives of millions of people…. Check the record. In the 1990’s …when I had the Republican leadership and Wall Street spending billions of dollars in lobbying, when the Clinton administration, when Alan Greenspan said, “what a great idea it would be to allow these huge banks to merge,” Bernie Sanders fought them, and helped lead the opposition to deregulation….

CLINTON: …I have thought deeply and long about what we’re gonna do to do exactly what I think both the senator and the governor want, which is to rein in and stop this risk. And my plan would have the potential of actually sending the executives to jail. Nobody went to jail after $100 billion in fines were paid…

The Clinton administration seemed to buy into the same optimism that had fueled the Reagan years and the Golden Age: let the market run free, there’s lots of money to be made with the new kinds of financial market tools we have, knock down those pesky regulations and let the market regulate itself with consumer choice, and the bad products and practices will weed themselves out through self-destruction.

Well, we’ve learned that while all too many don’t regulate their own greed, the bad practices do self-destruct sometimes… the problem is, we can’t let them, because when and if they do, they can also sometimes take everyone else down with them. So, we bail out the bad actors to protect the innocent. Out of caution, or out of our almost cringing deference to Business, they mostly go unpunished, and so it goes, boom and bust, the good years awash with raging confidence, the bad with consternation, blame-slinging, and assurances that ‘this time, we’ve learned our lesson!’ And none of the worst offenders, those whose behavior did most to destroy the livelihoods of those who did not behave irresponsibly, seldom go to jail, or even forfeit enough money to stop being wealthier than most. Woody Guthrie sang: ‘Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen.’ If you want to steal from people, even to the point of destroying them, just don’t do it with a gun (or while black, for that matter). You might get off scot-free.

COOPER: Senator Sanders… congressional leaders were told, without the 2008 bailout, the U.S. was possibly days away from a complete meltdown. Despite that, you still voted against it. As president, would you stand by your principles if it risked the country’s financial stability?

SANDERS: Well, I remember that meeting very well. …Hank Paulson, Bernanke came in, and they say, “guys, the economy is going to collapse because Wall Street is going under. It’s gonna take the economy with them.” And you know what I said to Hank Paulson? I said, “Hank, your guys — you come from Goldman Sachs. Your millionaire and billionaire friends caused this problem. How about your millionaire and billionaire friends paying for the bailout, not working families in this country?”

I understand the practical need for corporate protection, which allows a business to work on a bigger scale while shielding the business owner from personal financial liability. It allows the business to take more risks, which can lead to much more innovation than if they were forced to be cautious out of self-preservation. But here’s the thing: it can, and does, undermine the sense of personal responsibility in relation to doing business. For many, business is an honest endeavor, even, as a good friend of mine pointed out recently, almost altruistic: you listen to what the people care about, what they want and need, and you spend your day doing your best to make sure they get it. But for others, they’ve come to take it for granted that doing Business means that you have to take risks but that you shouldn’t personally have to pay for doing do. We need to keep this in mind, and tailor our policies accordingly: anytime someone ask society to let them to avoid being held financially responsible for the results of their choices, be wary. The motives may be benign, but the incentive to cheat, avoid regulation, exploit others, and gamble is a significant one, so we must be ready to shut down these attempts to game the system. Perhaps we should set a financial cap on financial immunity, or determine a level or quality of harm that’s too egregious for the protections of incorporation to remain in place.

BASH: …Senator Sanders, you’ve mentioned a couple of times you do have a plan to make public colleges free for everyone. Secretary Clinton has criticized that in saying she’s not in favor of making a college free for Donald Trump’s kids. Do you think taxpayers should pick up the tab for wealthy children?

I’m with Sanders on making college free for everyone, regardless of income, because Thomas Paine convinced me. I recently wrote a piece examining Paine’s ideas for a sort of basic income, a certain dollar amount that everyone receives early in life as seed money for their life’s work, and a stipend for old age. Paine thought everyone should receive it equally, rich and poor, not only because everyone would pay into it with taxes, but more importantly, it would avoid the deep sense of unfairness that so often fuels class division. Sanders’ plan for equally free college for everyone is great for these two reasons and for a third: it would promote an excellent cultural value, that we value education so much for its own sake, that we want everyone, equally, to have free and equal access to it, regardless of background or perceived need.

*Listen to the podcast version here or on iTunes

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