Leveling the playing field on Social Security

Not that long ago, being ‘conservative’ meant avoiding unnecessary risk, being frugal, putting things aside in the present in order to reduce your vulnerability later on in life.  Conservative political figures railed against short term fixes that they believed would only cost more or put us at risk in the long run.  My oh my, how times have changed.

Representative Tom Garrett (R, Virginia) has introduced the Student Security Act as his contribution to ‘fixing’ Social Security’s problems, while providing debt relief for young people burdened with student loans.  The legislation provides for a voluntary opportunity for people with student loans to get debt relief, by agreeing to delay their eligibility for starting Social Security, many years in the future.  It even has a formula:  For every $550 in debt relief, your eligible age is bumped back one month.  That means $6600 dollars in debt forgiveness will cost you one full year of delayed Social Security.  For those with $31,000 in student loan debt – the national average – complete debt relief today would mean delaying your Social Security eligibility by nearly five years.  How’s that for preparing for your retirement?

 This is a bad idea.  Though it’s voluntary, think of the pressure so many people would feel to get debt forgiveness today, compared with the far-off consequences of delayed retirement.   There are much better ways to deal with the $1.2 trillion dollars in student loan debt – which we’ll be discussing at our Millennial/Youth Summit on March 17th, and there are real fixes for Social Security’s pending problems, like the one we highlight here:

In the wake of Florida school shooting

Yet another mass shooting yesterday in Florida – the 18th school shooting in less than two months of the new year – claimed at least seventeen lives.  We don’t yet know much about the 19 yr old who committed this crime, nor the exact circumstances of how he got the weapon, an AR-15.

What we do know it this:  Our national policy on gun violence is to do nothing.  Nothing.

Mass killings happen in schools, in public spaces, in homes.  The causes and circumstances are varied and complex:  Domestic violence.  Mental illness.  Rage and retribution.  Terrorism.  Drugs and gangs.  And easy availability of weapons with massive firepower.  Together these factors account for most of our gun violence. 

Here are a few thoughts that guide me as I think of what to do:

  • There are many causes of gun violence - including mass shootings - making it clear that our solutions need to be comprehensive rather than simplistic.  Unfortunately, we’ve used the complexity of the issue as an excuse to do nothing.  The fact that the young man who committed the crime in Florida had passed a background check does not mean that background checks are pointless.  In fact we know that in other mass shootings, a comprehensive, interconnected background check system would have prevented the purchase of the weapon.
  • It’s also not the case, as many advocates of inaction claim, that this violence is the result of “evil in men’s hearts”.  With rare exceptions, the issue is not evil, it’s anger; or what was called, in the case of the Columbine shooters, “disproportionate rage”.   There’s not much we can do about ‘evil’, but there are steps we can take to either help people overcome their rage, or at least keep those filled with it from accessing weapons.  This is particularly pertinent when it comes to domestic violence.
  • The argument that we need more ‘good guys with guns to stop the bad guys with guns’ has at least two major flaws with it:  First, in spite of so many of us having and carrying guns, it is extraordinarily rare that someone has succeeded in stopping a mass shooting because they had a gun.  Secondly, the plain fact is that by most accounts, many of the people who commit crimes with guns would have been considered “good guys” right up until the day they started shooting.  It’s less about bad guys committing these crimes than it is about angry or disturbed people committing the crimes.  Again, there are steps we can take to treat people with these problems, and to keep guns out of their hands in the meantime.
  • Lastly, the argument that “this is the price we must pay to live in a free society” is a total cop out.  Just because mass shootings have become a feature of American life does not mean that we accept it.  Terrorism, or the threats of it, are also now a feature of modern life.  But we spend hundreds of billions of dollars to fight it, and we forsake a number of freedoms, including portions of our privacy, in that fight.  I’m not arguing that everything we’re doing in the ‘war on terror’ is effective or appropriate.  I’m just saying that we’ve decided to fight back against that new reality, to invest in steps to make it less likely.  Far more people die in mass shootings each year than are killed by foreign or foreign-born terrorists, yet most Republicans and a few Democrats argue that there’s nothing to be done.

       I’m a gun owner who will fight to protect the basic gun ownership rights, whether for hunting, for recreations, for self-protection, or in my case, to keep the groundhog population under control.  But a full commitment to protecting fundamental gun rights is not in conflict with taking serious steps to reduce gun violence, steps that encompass improved mental health treatment, greater protection for domestic violence and reasonable steps that keep guns out of the hands of people who should not have them and limits on the excess power of some modern weapons.


What kind of name is 'Flaccavento' anyway?!

You guessed right folks, it’s Italian. My ancestors came over on the boat around the turn of the 20th century from Sicily, which you may know is an island off of Southern Italy in the Mediterranean Sea.  So in way, I’ve always been from the south!

I was born in New York, NY, the youngest of four. Both of my parents were born in the U.S.; it was their parents who immigrated here: my mom’s family to West Virginia, where my granddad set up a barber shop, while my father’s folks landed in the tenements of New York City, where lots of poor immigrants started their new lives.

My father, George, fought in World War II, briefly taught school and then went on to work for the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.  My mother, Anne, was a classical musician who taught piano, violin (which she called her ‘fiddle’) and voice out of our home. They raised my brother, sisters and me just outside of Baltimore Maryland, in a little house with a big yard out back. My brother and I used to play tackle football back there, but mostly what I remember about the back yard is the garden.

My dad always kept a garden, ever since I can remember.  I vividly recall holding the flashlight while he planted tomato plants at dusk, after work.  Every time I let the flashlight wander off-target, he was not a happy man.  When I was ten, I planted some corn seeds under a swing set, in ground so hard I had to break it with a chisel to get the seeds in.  When some plants actually emerged and grew a bit, my dad decided I had earned a plot in his garden.  The rest, as they say, is history. From a successful watermelon crop that next summer, to big gardens through college, to our small produce farm on old tobacco ground, I’ve been pretty much hooked ever since.

It was there in the garden where I learned that if you plant a seed, and you tend your land, something grows. That’s true of farming, and it’s true of people, communities and economies. And it’s a big part of why I’m running for Congress – to plant some new seeds, to tend them through hard work with all of you, and hopefully, to see great new things grow.

I’ve been in southwest Virginia for 32 years now, and in the Appalachian region for almost 40.  It’s home, it’s where Laurie and I met, and where we raised our kids.  And it’s the place where I’ve learned so much from neighbors, co-workers and colleagues.  I hope to take that experience to Congress.

My day in Drug Court

I’ve been talking with people around the district about “Drug Court”, the system that provides a hard-earned alternative to jail time for people who’ve been charged with non-violent crimes related to drug problems.  Drug courts have emerged in communities around the 9th district as an alternative means to help people with opioid or other addictions get off of drugs, find and keep a job and become productive members of their communities.

This past week I had the privilege of actually sitting in on the proceedings at the Giles County Courthouse.  It was incredible, at once both very practical and yet uplifting.

The Giles County Courthouse

The Giles County Courthouse

In order to avoid incarceration, an individual must agree to a rigorous, four-stage process that takes place over 18 months to two years.  Led by Circuit Court Judge, Lee Harrell, a team of people that includes attorneys, mental health and rehab specialists, law enforcement and accountability officers, comes together to evaluate how each drug court participant is doing:  Are they staying clean?  Keeping or finding a job?  Showing up to work on time?  Doing their community service?  Fulfilling the other requirements set out by the court?  The participants must meet these objectives in order to remain in the program and avoid incarceration.  And for most, it isn’t easy.

What impressed me is that everyone on the team works to enable each participant to succeed, not to fail.  They do this by balancing strong expectations with the support services needed to meet them.  After the proceedings, the judge (a former prosecutor) said to me, “For the most part In the court system, our currency is misery.  But this is different.  It’s wonderful to be part of something that actually helps people get to a better life.”  I couldn’t agree more.

This holiday season, give more

When the kids were little and growing up, we did a Christmas tithing for the holidays. All year long we’d keep a big mason jar in the house, to which the kids would contribute a portion of their weekly allowance. I’d contribute to it too, and when Christmas rolled around we’d all sit down at the kitchen table, count the money we’d accumulated, and each choose a charitable organization to donate to. I remember Maria would often choose Hope House, a shelter for women and children in Scott County; Josh liked Oxfam and Doctors Without Borders. We’d pick a small mix of local and (inter)national charities, and then we’d match the amount given with the amount we were planning to spend on gifts for friends and family.

What charities do you hold close to your heart? What areas of the world or populations are you thinking about this holiday season? Below is a very short list of local and global charities. Please comment or email/message us with some that you’d like to see added to the list.

Even at times when we feel like we have so little, there’s always someone who has much less. From our family to yours, we invite you to press pause on your shopping list and extend the spirit of giving this Christmas.





GOP Tax plan does little for Southwest Virginia

I recently completed my 2018 health insurance application to Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield, a miserable plan with high deductibles and monthly premiums of nearly $900.  Paying so much for insurance I almost never use, I got to wondering:  How will Joseph Swedish, the CEO of Anthem, benefit from the GOP tax plan that Morgan Griffith and the GOP Congress just passed?  The answer is that his after-tax income will increase by about $429,000.  That’s based just on the drop in the top marginal income tax rate from 39.6% to 37%, and does not count other things in the bill that will help the rich.  He’ll be at least $429,000 richer, every year.  Of course, he’s not alone.  The richest Americans all get huge tax breaks from this bill.

My wife having taught in Washington County, Virginia schools for 31 years, I also got to wondering how teachers will fair under the Republican bill.   Just under one thousand people work for our local school system, mostly teachers, but also teaching assistants, guidance counselors, administrators and support staff.  Their total benefit, based on average salaries and the projected impact of the tax plan will be, at best, around $307,000.  For all one thousand of them.  So, one guy, who sits atop a huge company that’s making a fortune from everyday people who can barely afford health insurance, will get far more money from this plan than every Washington County public school employee combined.  

There are many more teachers and working folks than multi-millionaires in southwest Virginia, but Morgan Griffith voted for this giveaway to the rich anyway.  Does that seem right to you?

It’s true: Some folks will be getting a “giant tax cut”

Republicans in the Senate and the House have reached a compromise on their tax overhaul, one that’s almost certain to be supported by 9th District Congressman, Morgan Griffith.  There’s a lot to it, but for most working and middle-class folks in our region, the most important takeaway is probably this:

A school teacher, at best, might see an increase in her income (after taxes) of about $350 per year.  For a worker at the Volvo plant in Dublin, about $300.   A sheriff’s deputy, less than $250. 

The tax cut for Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield CEO, Joseph Swedish?  About $429,000 per year. 

Let that sink in: A deputy, a factory worker or a school teacher might see a bump in their annual wages equivalent to one car payment.  The increase going to the top dog at Anthem, on the other hand, will be more than most of us earn in a decade.

That gain for the very wealthy comes solely from the drop in the top marginal income tax rate from 39.6% to 37%.  It doesn’t include many other giveaways to the rich, including the ability to hide some income through ‘pass through’ businesses, or the huge drop in corporate tax rates that will dramatically increase before-tax income for many of the same people.

The GOP argues, of course, that corporate tax cuts will give workers a huge pay raise.  But as we show in our video, forty years of real world experience totally disproves this trickle down fantasy.  Besides, the actual tax rate that big companies pay has averaged less than 20% since 2000, enabling them to amass two trillion dollars in cash already.  But instead of investing that or passing along some of the profits to their workers, they’ve kept more and more of their profits to themselves, and wages for most of us have been stuck in the toilet.

President Trump promised a “giant tax cut for Christmas” for middle income people.  Instead, the very rich, like the CEO of Anthem--the guy who’s hiking our insurance premiums--are the only ones who’ll be getting that big Christmas gift.


From Roy Moore to Charlie Rose, an Epidemic of Disrespect

The flood of revelations of sexual harassment, abuse and sometimes assault perpetrated by powerful men against women, often in their employ, has been horrifying.  Disheartening too, given that we’re more than 40 years beyond our nation’s first public grappling with the idea that women were equal in capability to men and deserving of the same opportunities and respect.  In fact, what we seem to have is an epidemic of disrespect of the most fundamental kind, in which women, whatever their skills and intellect, are still valued for their bodies, still presumed to be sexually available whenever and wherever a man chooses.

It’s made far worse by the fact that in the workplace, most women remain subordinate to men, dependent upon a power structure that dismisses or minimizes complaints of sexual harassment or abuse.   From Hollywood to Congress to the media, not only is sexual harassment commonplace, but so too is a culture that sweeps it under the rug, that defers to men in powerful positions.  This was the case with Roy Moore, Charlie Rose and Harvey Weinstein, among others.  Violations followed by intimidation are enabled by a ‘boys will be boys’ culture.  That’s the same attitude that dismissed candidate Trump’s bragging about grabbing women’s genitals as ‘just locker room talk’.

That major media and political figures are now garnering our attention, should not distract us from the uglier fact that sexual harassment and abuse permeate the wider workplace culture.  A 2016 study by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission estimated that at least one in four women experience sexual harassment at work, with that figure possibly two to three times higher.  What’s more, reporting this harassment comes at a price:  three fourths of women report some form of retaliation when they speak out, according to a 2003 study.

So, what’s to be done?  The recent bipartisan legislation mandating training for all Congressional offices is a small but positive first step.  Let me suggest a few more:

  • Equal pay for equal work, along with more consistent promotion of women to top leadership positions. Women remain subordinate to men in most occupations, including in how much they earn, now roughly 80% of their male colleagues with the same credentials and experience.  While this may seem unrelated to sexual harassment, it’s not.  So long as women occupy the lower rungs of professions and receive less pay, they remain less than equal, with less prestige and power.  That surely contributes to the notion that they can be exploited in other ways.
  • Ending the increasingly widespread use of so-called non-disclosure clauses. These corporate-friendly employment agreements enable companies to take advantage of their workers in all kinds of ways, providing a generic CYA for many forms of bad behavior.  That includes sexual misconduct, and as we know from cases against Bill O’Reilly and others, it allows such behavior to continue in secret for years.
  • End the gross disparities in sentencing. When Marissa Alexander fired a warning shot to ward off her estranged husband, she received a twenty-year prison sentence.  Efforts to evoke Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ law in her defense were tossed out by the judge.  This, in spite of the fact that she had a restraining order against him because of prior abuse, that he’d been threatening her, and that no one was shot or injured in any way.  It’s shameful that this kind of double standard for women who stand up to domestic or sexual violence is not uncommon.
  • A new approach to ‘family life’ education for boys and young men, based not on denying our masculinity, but focused on empathy and respect for others, particularly girls and women. Can we imagine a culture where being “manly” does not include being dominating, violent or overpowering?  I think so.

We have a moment for a cultural and political course correction here, one in which men and women, for all our differences, really do end up on a level playing field.  But that can’t happen until we acknowledge that disrespect of girls and women permeates our culture and economy; that misogyny – hatred of or contempt for women – is more than a problem of personal prejudice.  Let’s keep talking about this problem, and more importantly, take bold steps that lead to real change.


Originally published on Blue Virginia, November 24, 2017.

Off to a great start!

With enthusiastic crowds in St Paul in the morning and Christiansburg in the afternoon, Flaccavento for Congress had an energizing first day of our campaign.  And proving that he does indeed have a sense of humor, Morgan Griffith stated that Flaccavento is “out of touch with the voters” of the 9th District.  Wait, the lawyer and career politician who rarely ventures beyond his office in Salem, who has done so little for the people of the 9th during his four terms in office says that Flacc is out of touch?  That’s an interesting take on reality, Congressman.  I guess all of that time spent with farmers, local economic developers, small business men and women and community leaders around the region has led Flaccavento to be out of touch…

Read the Roanoke Times article here.