It is quite a feeling to wake up with a full day ahead of you in Washington D.C. Excited to hear the antipode of the liberal argument on income inequality, which we had heard at United for a Fair Economy in Boston, we made a bee-line off the bus and went straight for the big glass doors of the Heritage Foundation. This organization is a 501C3 think tank that promotes a conservative approach to all types of public policy issues, including income inequality.
Adam Brinkley taught us about the organization and its mission before economist Dr. Salim Furth began his discussion on income inequality. Dr. Furth quickly pointed out that income inequality has been decreasing globally, despite the fact that it is currently rising in the United States and has been for 35 years. He attributed this idea to a growing global middle class, particularly in China. Many Americans are nostalgic for the economy of the Fifties and Sixties. Dr. Furth told us that this was a weird moment in economic history because we did not have such a global economy at the time, investment stayed in the U.S. and Western Europe, and if you were lucky enough to live there, you could have “a good job with relatively no skill.” Dr. Furth explained that his grandparents emigrated from Lebanon to work in a Massachusetts factory. “Everyone we know as wealthy [had a family] that went through that transition at some point,” he said. That transition is one in which a generation of the family spends the majority of their lifetime struggling to give upward social mobility to the younger generations of the family; however, we cannot dismiss the millions of Americans whose families have been suffering for generations as simply making a healthy transition to wealth.
Dr. Furth acknowledged the increase in economic inequality from 1973-1990, but claimed that this might be true from 1990 to the present, but economists are not entirely sure. Meanwhile, in 1990, CEO pay was on average, roughly 100 times average worker pay – a rate that is now approximately 340 times average worker compensation. Furth maintained that we should not be focusing on the top one percent, but instead, the top 0.1 percent of income earners. These individuals are owners and managers of large capital. Globalization has created an unprecedented abundance of opportunities for this sector because they can now invest with ease all over the world. At the same time that owners and managers are experiencing growth, half of the bottom thirty percent of income-earning households are being left behind by our economic system, according to Furth. He contends that this problem has arisen amongst this demographic due to a low working rate (half a worker per household), the school system failing or people failing the school system, and “poor life choices” such as having children out of wedlock or fathers deciding to leave their children. Although he told us earlier that we should be looking at the top 0.1 percent of income earners, Dr. Furth said he is not worried about the economic impact of this demographic because its profits from new opportunity. However, he denounced the practices of cronyism and the execution of “sweetheart deals” with friends and politicians. Dr. Furth alleged that entropy will naturally spread the wealth and that it always has. He also made clear that entropy is not an economic solution; rather, we must fix our education system and take care of the bottom third of household income-earners.
I agree that social ills contribute significantly to our domestic struggle with rising income inequality but do not attribute this problem primarily to “poor life decisions.” In my eyes, our problem starts with attitude. Many have forgotten that their fellow Americans are their brothers and sisters. They have lost sight of the connectedness between all Americans, between all humans, and between all monetary transactions. They have forgotten that every dollar spent has an impact, and is essentially a “vote,” as we learned earlier on our journey when we met with Ten Thousand Villages. Our economic institution is failing millions of Americans. This is a reality to which we cannot respond, “you poor people should have made better choices.” Dr. Furth criticized an education system that graduates students to the next grade simply because they had another birthday. Yet, when asked how to handle the group of eighteen year-olds that enter adulthood lacking necessary skills, he said, “the older somebody gets, the less comfortable I am with telling them what to do. I’m not ok with coercion.” He also suggested that allowing struggling Americans to make their own decisions is a sufficient solution to the problem. We need to stop using the false pretense of Paternalism to excuse us from helping our fellow Americans. Instead, we must embrace fraternalism and invest more thought, time, and capital in the United States of America, starting with our fledgling education system. Changing attitudes and using effective public policy are the only ways to increase domestic investment and reduce income inequality.
Next, we met with NARAL Pro-Choice America to hear the pro-choice argument about abortion. Our speaker, Travis Ballie, started off by informing us that the organization’s goals are to support the best policy on reproductive health and support likeminded politicians. Through its commitment to reproductive health, NARAL promotes comprehensive sex education, access to contraception, access to safe and affordable abortion, affordable daycare, access to quality schools, and access to prenatal care. NARAL differs from Planned Parenthood in that it does not provide direct services to families. Seven out of ten Americans support pro-choice policies, according to Mr. Ballie. Therefore, congress has a disproportionate number of pro-life/anti-choice representatives. He added that forty percent of congressmen, thirty percent of governors, and ten percent of state legislators are pro-choice. Pro-life politicians have been pushing bans on abortion throughout pregnancy, targeted regulation of abortion providers, bans on insurance coverage of abortion, ultrasounds for prospective mothers, the de-funding of family planning centers, biased counseling, and mandatory delays – according to Mr. Ballie. Although 87 percent of current insurance plans cover abortions, he expects this number to decline. Just last year, California passed a plan to expand and support affordable abortions. He recognized California as a role model state in this regard because it cracked down on fake clinics and crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), which often disguise themselves as abortion clinics and make invalid medical claims. Such reported claims include linking abortion to breast cancer, an idea denounced by the medical community.
I cannot believe that forty-one years after the Roe v. Wade ruling, the federal government is allowing states to ban and impede abortion. I support a woman’s right to abortion. Despite the progress we have made on gender equality, we still live in a “man’s world,” and the government should not be controlling women’s reproductive health. I have yet to determine when I think life truly begins, but within the first trimester of pregnancy and at later stages, if the mother’s or fetus’ health is deemed in danger by a medical professional – abortion should be completely up to the pregnant woman, for it is a private matter and her right under federal law to make that decision. There are many people in this country who are not comfortable with abortion, but they have the right to make that decision for themselves as well. Through conversation, lobbying, and improved policy, we should be able to resolve the discrepancy between constituents’ stances on abortion and representatives’ stance with it.
After the NARAL meeting we traveled to an office on the infamous K Street to have a talk with Keith Stroup, Esq., the legal counsel for NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws). Before Mr. Stroup arrived, Billy’s friend, who was nice enough to lend us the office space and works for a lobby for disability rights, taught us about the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the fight to protect the civil rights of the disabled. Another topic of conversation was an international piece of legislation she is working on that aims to do this, but has not yet received the super-majority support required for it to pass the senate.
Mr. Stroup soon came through the glass doors, and we immediately began listening to his history of lobbying for reformed marijuana laws, as well as the government’s acceptance, or lack thereof, of marijuana during the past 45 years. In the seventies, marijuana lobbyists convinced eleven states to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana. However, any semblance of acceptance vanished during the Reagan presidency. Mr. Stroup explained that NORML is a lobby for responsible marijuana smokers. Responsibility is a must for proponents of the legalization movement. Minimizing the risk to young, developing minds is a critical component of NORML’s legalization strategy. Marijuana is certainly prevalent in society, even in young age groups. According to Stroup, roughly fifty percent of recent high school graduates have smoked marijuana. However, only fourteen percent of the country smokes marijuana, leaving 86 percent of the population to decide whether or not prohibition should be ended. Experts who have been studying prohibition have concluded that the approach causes more damage than the substance itself would. He informed us that the federal government arrests nearly 750,000 people per year on marijuana charges. We have had 26 million total marijuana arrests since 1973, ninety percent of which have been related to small, personal use. Many of these individuals lose jobs and obtain a criminal record for possession. We learned that when a marijuana smoker is arrested, on average, two police officers are taken off the street for four hours. Just this week, the New York Times editorial board released a piece announcing the paper’s endorsement of full marijuana legalization. The Times also released several follow-up editorials with similar endorsements. The unprecedented endorsement gives cover to elected officials and figures who might agree privately, but felt they could not voice their opinion publicly. Stroup made it clear that if adolescent smoking or DUIDs (driving under the influence of drugs) spike, the pro-legalization community will begin to lose the support of the 86 percent.
Another core argument is that legal marijuana would be (and already is in Colorado and Washington) regulated and tested in a laboratory. Legal marijuana would have no pesticides or moles, and it would be a requirement that containers show the THC and CBD content. These stipulations create an environment of transparency for recreational smokers; no longer would they have to put blind faith in black market marijuana that has not been tested in a lab and very well could contain pesticides. Additionally, much of America’s black market marijuana consumption directly profits Mexican drug cartels and affiliated crime syndicates. NORML promotes a discouragement policy for marijuana before the age of twenty-one and affirms that there should never be an encouragement policy for it or any other drug. They also acknowledge that is can be used in a destructive fashion. “We’re not trying to say it’s harmless,” Stroup said. He also warned us never to smoke and drive, and especially not to smoke, drink, and drive. Here lies a challenge for the legalization movement: there currently is no test that can determine when a person ingested THC, so it would be very difficult to distinguish between those who are intoxicated and those who are not but have high levels of THC in their bloodstream due to medicinal or frequent recreational use. I want to make it clear that my opinions on marijuana legalization conveyed in this entry are solely mine and not affiliated with my synagogue, school, or Etgar 36.
Mr. Stroup stressed the fact that Colorado will pick up $100,000,000+ in tax revenue this year due to recreational marijuana sales, which are projected to exceed $1,000,000,000. The marijuana industry in Colorado and Washington has created tens of thousands of new jobs and new companies, according to NORML. Also, Stroup added, smoking marijuana has been linked to regenerating damaged nerve endings from MS and Parkinson’s disease, as well as slowing the growth of certain cancerous tumors. Pharmaceutical giants lobby against it because it is an effective and natural alternative to addictive prescription drugs, such as oxycodone. Stroup stated that no one has ever died from marijuana overdose. At the very least, marijuana does not pose the respiratory risks that tobacco and alcohol do, and it may even yield health benefits to patients of debilitating diseases. It certainly would be healthier than pain killers, and NORML adds that in the medical community, it is widely accepted that it is far less dangerous than alcohol or tobacco.
Economically, legalization makes perfect sense to me: it would be a new frontier for private industry. It would generate billions annually in tax revenue, it would drastically reduce money spent on incarceration marijuana offenders, and hemp products alone could generate billions of dollars in revenue for American enterprise. Additionally, without having to arrest those in possession of marijuana, police could pursue more serious crimes and would be out in greater numbers to do so. Another point is that legalization would benefit public safety because it would free up law enforcement and it would reverse the growth of Mexican drug cartels. Marijuana is currently classified as a Schedule I substance by the federal government. This means that is has “no accepted medical value” and therefore is not exactly tested and researched by the government. I view removing marijuana from the schedule system as a crucial step to ensuring that proper government research or government-assisted research can be conducted to determine the long term cognitive and physical effects, as well as the potential health benefits of marijuana. I am not endorsing the drug itself, but I wholeheartedly stand behind common sense marijuana legalization that would give those of age the freedom to choose to smoke or not smoke marijuana.
Following our discussion with NORML, we ate an early dinner and attended a lovely Orthodox Shabbat service at Kesher Israel in Georgetown. The service inspired me to learn more prayers and sharpen my Hebrew skills. I was also moved by the spirituality of the congregants who prayed with passion in their voices and bodies.
When we walked out of the congregation, the staff informed us that we had one more quick meeting, which turned out to be a trip to Thomas Sweet’s Ice Cream Shop. What a pleasant surprise! There is no better way to end a summer day than having an ice cream cone.