Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Rangel & Robin Hood

I had a fascinating opportunity to see the old Harlem war-horse Charlie Rangel in action yesterday (Tuesday, 4/22) when a group of us met with him to press for an endorsement of the so-called Robin Hood Tax, a.k.a, the Tobin tax, on financial transactions. Unions and health advocacy groups have been behind this idea for years, and despite the automatic hostility toward anything with the word “tax” in it, this one makes a lot of sense no matter where you locate yourself on the ideological spectrum.

The idea that all financial transactions should be subject to a tiny charge is one way to respond to the pyramid of derivatives and high-frequency stock trades that present lucrative opportunities to the financier octopi to siphon untold quantities of wealth from our productive economy. It has gotten so bad that even some conservative figures in the miniscule 0.01% are getting nervous about the potential destabilizing impact of these completely useless casino games being played with the nation’s assets. (If you read the economic news, you can’t have missed the buzz surrounding Michael Lewis’s new book, Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt, which describes the free money the guys in this wacko-world scoop up.)

Generally speaking, no New York politician will be caught dead endorsing a tax on Wall Street because, all their pious liberalism aside, that is where the money is, and politics requires ever huger quantities of it. So it might have seemed like a quixotic pursuit to try to get Rangel’s endorsement.

On the other hand, the guy represents Harlem and certainly wants to be seen as a reliable liberal supporting all the right & worthy causes represented by our delegation, health care, AIDS services, benefits for veterans. And there is one more highly salient fact: he’s facing a tough re-election primary battle against a brash Dominican candidate who almost beat him two years in a newly-redrawn and increasingly Hispanic-heavy district, namely, my Inwood neighbor Adriano Espaillat.

Rangel was pretty rude at the start of our meeting—I guess you get used to throwing your weight around after 40 years in Congress with people falling silent in your presence. But our delegation was no pushover, and the woman from Health Gap (the Global Access Project) didn’t let him bully her. So once the heated intros were over, we watched the opposing views play out.

Rangel’s argument to us was that we had our collective heads up our butts because the government isn’t lacking in money, it’s got its priorities screwed up. You want a new tax that will create revenue? But even if you do, these Republican geezers won’t spend it on what you want! So the whole Robin Hood Tax campaign is apples-and-oranges, said Rangel. You should be demanding what you need and forgetting about revenue. It’s there.

That’s easy for a politician to say who doesn’t want to antagonize his donor base by calling for them to pay more, but our group didn’t belabor the point. We didn’t really get a chance to—Rangel took a call in the middle of our meeting and then promptly said he’d sign on to the bill. So we got what we went for, whether or not it was a political decision phoned in by his advisors.

But Rangel’s condescension to his constituents aside (guess what? we do know the difference between a revenue bill and an authorization), it’s by no means an accepted fact of national life that governments have enough money to do what they should. The Republican cynics howl about it day and night—despite their hypocrisy in pushing for more tax cuts to make things worse—and the Dems pander to that line of thinking by trying to make new programs “revenue-neutral.” Deficit spending would suit many of us just fine, but you rarely hear any Democrat try to defend that in public these days.

But beyond that obvious response, Rangel’s still wrong on the politics of the Robin Hood Tax because it focuses a very useful spotlight on the parasitic nature of finance and its vast power over everything, including members of Congress. That’s why the immediate likelihood of success on the campaign isn’t the whole story. Whether we actually see a tax on financial manipulation or not, the idea that people are pushing for one is a healthy corrective to the free ride these Wall Street wolves are getting and a reminder that the people’s voice, while weakened, has not yet been silenced.

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