Recent editorials of statewide and national interest from New York’s newspapers:

Biden’s Stimulus Plan Will Bring Relief, but There’s One Flaw

The New York Times

Jan. 19

Joe Biden will take the oath of office as the 46th president of the United States on Wednesday in the center of a city fortified against some of his own countrymen, and in the midst of a pandemic that is killing several thousand Americans every day and that has pushed millions more into poverty. He faces a momentous and urgent set of challenges: leading the nation up from the pandemic, reviving the economy, repairing America’s tarnished reputation on the global stage.

Mr. Biden’s first step, a fiscal plan that he introduced last week to address the pandemic and its economic consequences, shows that the incoming president and his advisers have taken some valuable lessons from recent history.

The federal government’s response to the 2008 financial crisis was too small and ended too soon, in part because policymakers worried too much about the long-term consequences of borrowing and not enough about the immediate needs of suffering Americans.

Mr. Biden, by contrast, is proposing to deliver a whopping $1.9 trillion in borrowed money, much of it aimed at the areas of greatest need, including the public health response to the coronavirus, workers who have lost their jobs and public schools that need help to reopen.

The economy is faltering, and although vaccinations have begun, the nation is likely to remain in the grip of Covid-19 for some time. Federal aid is a necessary palliative.

But there is one lesson that apparently still needs to be learned. Mr. Biden is proposing to repeat a mistake made by the last two administrations by setting an arbitrary end date for economic aid programs rather than tying the benefits to the duration of need.

Under the Biden plan, some aid programs would run through September. That might be more help than is needed. It might be just the right amount. Or it might be not enough.

Consider the example of unemployment benefits. Last year, in the opening weeks of the pandemic, Congress approved a plan to send $600 a week to unemployed workers on top of state unemployment benefits. The money kept millions of Americans from poverty and hunger, but the program included an arbitrary expiration date at the end of July. The benefit was not extended, even though the need for it was essentially unchanged. In December, Congress approved a new $300 supplemental weekly benefit, this time with a March expiration date. Mr. Biden wants to increase the benefit to $400 and extend the aid to September.

This is no way to fight a fire. Emergency aid should last as long as the emergency.

Unemployment benefits are, by nature, tied to economic conditions. The number of people getting benefits rises as economic growth declines. Unfortunately, unemployment benefits are calibrated for good times: The government intentionally limits payments to encourage people to look for work. That doesn’t make much sense during an economic downturn, let alone during a pandemic when many people are being asked to stay home. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, the incoming chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, proposed in December to let economic conditions determine the duration of the supplemental federal benefits. Under his plan, payments would have continued nationwide until the jobless rate fell below 5.5 percent, measured as a moving three-month average. The government then would have continued making the payments in states with high unemployment rates.

Mr. Biden’s economic team has said it’s open to tying benefits to conditions. The exact details are less important than the concept, but Mr. Wyden’s plan is a good starting point.

Much of Mr. Biden’s plan is aimed carefully at the pandemic and its economic effects. Getting vaccines into arms is the single most important step to revive the economy. Providing money to schools is necessary both to get kids back into classrooms and to get parents back to work.

But the Biden plan also includes a pair of big spending proposals that are not aimed specifically at those suffering economically because of the pandemic. The first, with a price tag of roughly $464 billion, would send $1,400 to most Americans, on top of the $600 federal payments approved in December. The idea is politically popular, and Democrats have tied their own hands by campaigning on the issue in the Senate runoff elections in Georgia. The broad reach of the program would help some people who do not qualify for targeted aid programs, like people who have not lost their jobs but are working fewer hours. Still, it’s not the best use of money. The economic damage caused by the pandemic is intense but quite concentrated. Most workers are still getting paid. Some of the stimulus money could be better used to increase the proposed weekly supplemental unemployment benefits in Mr. Biden’s plan from $400 a week back to $600 a week, as in the early months of the pandemic.

The second program is a one-year expansion of the child tax credit. Families could get a tax credit of up to $3,600 for children under age 6 and $3,000 for older children. Importantly, the credit would also be refundable, an odd Washington term of art that means families who don’t pay enough in taxes to get the full benefit of the credit would get it as a cash payment. Analysts estimate this could cut the number of children living in poverty roughly in half. While this, too, is not aimed precisely at those in greatest need because of the pandemic, it’s a change in policy that ought to become permanent. The persistence of child poverty in America is a national disgrace, and reworking the tax credit is an effective remedy. There’s no reason to wait for another piece of legislation to address what should have been done long ago.

Congress, in sum, can and should improve on the details of the new president’s plan. What ought not to be causing hesitation is fearmongering about federal borrowing.

The federal debt swelled under President Trump, even before the pandemic necessitated deficit spending to limit the economic damage. Those concerned about additional borrowing tend to emphasize that the debt is now about the same size as the nation’s annual economic output. Mr. Biden’s fiscal plan would further increase that measure to a level last seen in the 1940s, in the aftermath of the huge federal borrowing that funded World War II.

But the burden of the debt is best measured by the cost of the government’s annual interest payments to its lenders. The global decline in interest rates in recent decades has allowed the United States to borrow money at very low cost. Despite the increase in the size of the federal debt, the amount of the government’s annual interest payments has barely budged.

Future economic growth could further reduce the burden of those interest payments.

This is not a license for profligacy. Borrowing has a real cost. But there’s simply no basis for policymakers to behave as if the government is approaching the limits of its resources. The bottom line is that the United States has ample capacity to respond to the pandemic.



Nassau should heed Martin Luther King Jr.’s words


Jan. 17

In his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote: “In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action.”

That’s the process Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo spurred in June with an executive order, issued after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis led to protests nationally and demands to reform policing in New York. It’s a process that the Nassau County Police Department must now undergo.

But the county is not yet fulfilling even the first two steps of King’s directive. Local activists brought into the process have been denied the information they need to assess to what extent racially biased policing is a problem, and the opportunity to have a voice in how those changes should come about.

King’s quotes can present a tug-of-war. Conservatives who deny the existence of systemic racism like to cite King’s most pacifist sayings to delegitimize protest. In response, advocates who know systemic racism is a plague hurl King’s most militant comments.

King was equally comfortable extolling the desirability of peace and explaining the necessity of protest, but his goal was justice via change, and his method was to take those four steps.

In that vein, Cuomo and state legislators passed laws last year reforming policing and adding transparency to police conduct complaints. The governor’s executive order, issued in conjunction with those reforms, required that the heads of local police agencies and stakeholders in the community together develop plans to eliminate racial inequities in policing, modernize policing strategies and better address the needs of communities of color.

Municipalities that don’t do so by April 1 risk losing state and federal funding. But the Nassau County process is flailing because police department leaders refuse to acknowledge any problem, and dismiss the pleas of community members trying to tell them racial profiling and biased policing happen in Nassau. They have also refused to let community activists like attorney Fred Brewington and Tracey Edwards, the Long Island regional director of the NAACP, and other members of two community advisory committees contribute to or even see an early draft of the plan.

Brewington says the data he has show Blacks are arrested in Nassau at a rate 5.3 times that of whites. He needs more information, but the department has provided little of what he has requested. Now, he and his allies, shut out from directly contributing to and commenting on the county’s unimpressive first draft before it was presented to the county legislature last week, are working on a “People’s Plan.”

The politics of the Police Benevolent Association collective bargaining agreement, recently rejected by the union, are a further complication. And elections this fall for every county office and the clout of law enforcement union support and spending are also factors.

But with 10 weeks left until the state deadline, the county must work to include the perspective and recommendations of the activists to create a policing model for the future.



Use Independence Model When Redistricting In New York State

The Post-Journal

Jan. 19

Make no mistake about it, the allegedly Independent Redistricting Commission approved by state voters back in 2014 is far from perfect.

Republicans’ in that nearly decade-old negotiation wrote supermajority voting rules into the redistricting process that would give them the ability to stonewall a plan the GOP didn’t agree to. Democrats are three-quarters of the way through a process to put the issue back on a ballot for the November election, proposing to relax the supermajority requirement so Democrats can control the process of drawing legislative district boundaries.

The Democrats’ move shouldn’t be surprising. To the victors go the spoils, and in this case the Democratic victors are going to find a way to draw legislative district boundaries in a way that benefits them. Republicans did it for decades when they controlled the state Senate. Democrats now want to take their turn.

This change reeks, though, in part because the Independent Redistricting Commission was never given a chance to work. It was created after the last set of district boundaries were drawn, and this year was to be its trial run. Here in New York state, the appearance of independent redistricting never even got off the ground.

That’s unfortunate. Just because it’s the way it’s always been done doesn’t mean it’s the way it should be. While the idea of a non-partisan commission overseeing a purely partisan activity like redistricting seems ridiculous, it is a worthy goal. Rather than reintroduce partisan politics into redistricting, the state should devise a redistricting system that is truly independent.

At a time when Americans are asking politicians in Washington, D.C., to tone down their partisan attacks, here in New York we politely continue beating the partisan drums. One-party rule is a bad idea. At least when Republicans were gerrymandering protected districts in the state Senate, Democrats knew they had the upper hand in the Assembly and for statewide office. Further shutting Republicans out of state Senate races only further marginalizes the voices of many in upstate New York and makes it more difficult to adequately question the Democratic majority.

An independent redistricting process is a worthy ideal. If Democrats in the state Legislature want to change the process, let’s use independence as our model rather than the tired old model that we’ve tried in the past.



Don’t let good pandemic news lead to complacency

The Auburn Citizen

Jan. 17

For the first time in what felt like forever, there was some encouraging news to report regarding the COVID-19 pandemic in Cayuga County.

After weeks of surge that started in the fall, new coronavirus cases began to trend downward, along with the test positive rate. With that trend emerging, the Cayuga County Health Department told public schools they could safely bring in-person classes back starting the third week in January.

And the health department announced Friday that it has administered 2,400 first doses of the Moderna vaccine, a total that doesn’t include the hundreds of front-line health care workers and nursing home residents who have also been vaccinated.

It all adds up to some badly needed hope in the long pandemic battle.

But hope alone will not get us where we ultimately need to be. The sobering reality is that we still have a high level of COVID-19 spread in Cayuga County. The county’s seven-day test positivity rate has been steadily decreasing since a peak of 13% on Jan. 1, according to the state Department of Health, but it was still at 8.2% on Thursday. For perspective on how high that is, consider that as recently as Nov. 21, it was at 1.9%.

So there’s still a concerning level of COVID-19 to be mindful of, and getting that back down to pre-surge levels will require everyone in the community following the best practices that health care professionals are advising.

Wear masks, maintain physical distance from people when you’re outside your home, avoid large indoor gatherings, keep your social circles small, wash hands or use sanitizer frequently, stay home when not feeling well. And don’t forget to get tested when appropriate and stay on top of vaccination efforts so you can get yourself and your loved ones in for their first shots when their time in the prioritization schedule arrives.



Norms and traditions can be broken; the Constitution endures

Syracuse Post Standard

Jan. 19

For all of our reverence for the Constitution, the past four years have taught Americans that a great deal of our political stability depends on traditions, precedents and norms reaching back to our fledgling republic.

George Washington’s decision to step away from the presidency after two terms became the unwritten rule for every subsequent president until FDR. After losing the bitter election of 1800, John Adams left Washington before dawn to ensure a peaceful transfer of power to Thomas Jefferson, setting the precedent for a handoff from one political party to another. Richard Nixon (in 1960) and Al Gore (in 2000) conceded defeat in razor-close elections to protect the institution and preserve national unity.

Inaugurations have gone forward in times of peace and war, prosperity and strife. But there is no precedent for an inauguration conducted after a violent insurrection incited by the outgoing president against the Congress certifying the election of the incoming one. One has to reach back to Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration in 1861 for a swearing-in guarded by the military against a domestic threat.

And yet, here we are.

Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. will take the oath of office at noon Wednesday at the U.S. Capitol, with Washington in lockdown, no spectators allowed and 25,000 National Guard soldiers standing guard at a security perimeter called, unironically, the Green Zone.

President Donald Trump will not attend his successor’s inauguration, the last in the long list of norms he shattered over the past four tumultuous years. He plans a grand military sendoff before boarding Air Force One for the last time as president and flying to Florida. An impeachment trial on a charge of inciting his supporters to storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 guarantees the former president will still loom large in the public discourse. But we are ready to turn the page.

The task ahead of Biden is enormous. The coronavirus pandemic is growing worse. The vaccine rollout is a mess. Americans are suffering economically. The nation is deeply divided. And then there is the rest of the world to worry about.

Biden’s inaugural address will set Americans’ expectations for his presidency. Presidential historian Jon Meacham, a friend of Biden who had a hand in drafting his victory speech, is likely to lend his writerly touch to this one. Meacham, a biographer of Jefferson, might well reach back to the third president’s conciliatory tone after a divisive election that eventually was settled by a vote of the House of Representatives:

“… every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle,” Jefferson said in his first inaugural address. “We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all republicans. We are all federalists.”

Such a call for unity sounds naïve in light of the events of Jan. 6. But whatever else may happen tomorrow, one thing is for sure. The transfer of power will happen, like clockwork. The term of the old president will end at noon, and the new president will assume the office. How do we know? The Constitution says so. No norms required.