"Banker," "revolutionary," and "visionary" are not words often associated with each other. Yet all apply to Dr. Muhammad Yunus, who this week was honored with our nation's highest civilian honor, the Congressional Gold Medal, under legislation that I wrote and helped pass with help from many New Jerseyans.
Born and educated in what is today Bangladesh, Dr. Yunus discovered that impoverished people could not get ahead because of the predatory lending practices of money-lenders. Starting with just $27 of his own money, Dr. Yunus showed that, contrary to the old, cynical saying than bankers "loan money only to people who don't need it," it could be profitable to loan money to poor people who had not shown marketable skills or facility in handling money. In the face of skepticism and opposition, he built a microcredit banking business that thrived, lifted millions of people out of poverty, and provided a model for similar work around the world.
In 2006, New Jerseyans who were inspired by Dr. Yunus's work -- organized through RESULTS NJ -- urged me to help honor his contributions and raise awareness of microcredit by working to award him a Congressional Gold Medal. Awarding the medal was not easy; we had to work for four years and talk one by one to hundreds of lawmakers. I feel certain that the effort has generated awareness and durable support in Congress for anti-poverty microfinance programs.
Now Dr. Yunus is developing his model for eliminating poverty -- not simply alleviating poverty, but eliminating poverty. Does this sound preposterously idealistic? To many it does. However, we would do well to listen to someone who has such a clear, remarkable record of exploding long-cherished myths about business, money, and poverty.
A Receipt for Your Taxes
As you know, Monday was the deadline to file your 2012 income taxes with the Internal Revenue Service. I encourage you to take a few moments to visit the White House's 2012 Federal Taxpayer Receipt, which will show you how your tax dollars are being spent.
You may be surprised to learn, for instance, that the clear majority of tax dollars go to support just three programs: Social Security, Medicare, and the Department of Defense. As the economist and Central New Jersey resident Paul Krugman has often commented, the United States government is, from a budgetary perspective, "an insurance company with an army" -- an insight that we would all do well to bear in mind when considering the anti-government rhetoric so prevalent in Washington today and when considering possible changes in the federal budget.
"Precious -- Almost Sacred"
The history of American elections is a story of an expanding right to vote. The franchise was once extended only to land-owning whites, but over centuries, America has expanded it far more broadly: to non-landowners, to women, and to minorities. Over the years, through various laws we have made it more difficult to exclude people from registering and voting.
One of the heroes in that long story is my friend John Lewis, the Georgia congressman who suffered grave injuries during his nonviolent protests that helped inspire the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This week he joined me and other New Jersey officials to call on Gov. Christie to take the next step in expanding the franchise: bringing early voting to New Jersey.
The flaws of a one-day-only voting system were all too obvious last November. Many voters across the nation had to wait in long lines on Election Day, and many New Jersey voters affected by Hurricane Sandy could not make it to the polls at all.
The rational, simple solution to this problem -- already embraced by more than 30 states -- is to allow voters to cast their ballots any time during a period of days or weeks leading up to Election Day. The state legislature has already passed a bill to give New Jerseyans 15 days to vote early. Now, we just need Gov. Christie to sign it into law.
As Rep. Lewis said, "The vote is precious -- almost sacred. It is the most powerful nonviolent tool that we have in a democratic society to bring about change. It is my hope that the governor of the state of New Jersey will do what is right, what is fair and what is just, and sign this piece of legislation."
Member of Congress