“On Democracy” is a collection of essays co-written by Bill Moyers and Michael Winship that address issues integral to American life, politics, and culture. They’ll be focusing much of their attention on money’s corrosive influence on government and politics: who’s spending big bucks on contributions and lobbying — and to whom it’s going, as well as the monster impact of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that unleashed vast — and often anonymous — corporate and special interest dollars.
A construction worker silhouetted against the morning sky builds a planned shopping center in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
And you thought the government didn’t have a jobs program. It does. The problem is that the pay and benefits are lousy, and in many cases the working conditions ain’t so great either.
We’re not talking about the civil service. No, as one of two recent reports notes, “Hundreds of billions of dollars in federal contracts, grants, loans, concession agreements and property leases go to private companies that pay low wages, provide few benefits, and offer employees little opportunity to work their way into the middle class. At the same time, many of these companies are providing their executives with exorbitant compensation.”
That’s from “Underwriting Bad Jobs,” an analysis written by Amy Traub and Robert Hiltonsmith at the public policy and advocacy group Demos. “Our tax dollars are fueling the low-wage economy and exacerbating inequality,” they note, whether it’s food vendors peddling hot dogs at the National Zoo in Washington, security guards at federal buildings or men and women sewing military uniforms in Kentucky. Those impacted include healthcare, daycare and construction workers, armored car drivers, janitors and cleaners, prison guards at privately run jails and gift shop cashiers at national parks, museums and monuments.
A young man sizes-up an assault style rifle during the National Rifle Association's annual convention Friday, May 3, 2013 in Houston. (AP Photo/Steve Ueckert)
Back in January, a month after the Newtown school slayings and just a few days before his second inauguration, Barack Obama announced he would “put everything I’ve got” into the fight against gun violence.
Part of his effort — and an end run around a Congress reluctant to make any move that might rile the National Rifle Association — was a group of 23 executive actions that, according to The New York Times, “he initiated on his own authority to bolster enforcement of existing laws, improve the nation’s database used for background checks and otherwise make it harder for criminals and people with mental illness to get guns.”
The report combines data from the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) and information obtained by the ATF from gun dealers, known as Federal Firearms Licensees (FFLs). It makes for fascinating, disturbing reading:
“In 2012, NCIC received reports reflecting 190,342 lost and stolen firearms nationwide. Of those 190,342 lost and stolen firearms reported, 16,667 (9% of the total reported) were the result of thefts/losses from FFLs. Of the 16,667 firearms reported as lost or stolen from a FFL, a total of 10,915 firearms were reported as lost. The remaining 5,762 were reported as stolen.”
Vying for the honor of #1:
“Texas was the top state for total firearms reported lost and stolen in 2012, with 18,874 firearms, which was 10% of all firearms reported lost or stolen in the country. Pennsylvania was the top state for firearms reported lost or stolen from a FFL in 2012 with 1,502 firearms, which was 9% of all firearms reported lost or stolen from a FFL in that year. Pistols were the most common type of firearm reported stolen from a FFL in 2012 with 3,322 reported, while rifles were the most common type of firearm reported lost from a FFL in 2012 with 4,068 reported.”
I’ve just flown back from Vegas, and boy, are my arms tired. And brain boggled. After all these years, it was my first visit, and although I’ve been to Reno and Tahoe and even the casinos of Winnemucca, Nevada — “The Crossroads of the West” — nothing prepared me for the splendor, squalor, sleaze and squander of the ultimate American pleasure dome.
“This is where feminism came to die,” my girlfriend Pat sardonically joked as weary, bikinied women danced on bars and we walked through the heat past the umpteenth sidewalk vendor handing out escort fliers and wearing a neon-colored “Las Vegas Girls Direct to You in 20 Minutes” tee-shirt, a piece of apparel so ubiquitous the casino gift shops now sell them as souvenirs.
Then there was the pop-up “Hitched in a Hurry” wedding chapel along the Strip where too-young, too-inebriated couples dressed in shorts and flip-flops were exchanging vows as passers-by watched through the windows. We fought the urge to build pop-up intervention centers a hundred feet on either side.
None of which is to say we didn’t have a good time, although in some ways it was more a replica of enjoyment, like the fake Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty, Venetian canals and other reproductions that dot the Vegas landscape. This is America through the distorting, funhouse looking glass, whether it’s the 32-ounce, frozen cocktails in adult sippy cups or (I’m not making this up) the Kardashian Khaos boutique in the Mirage Hotel. MORE
Pregame festivities are shown at AT&T Park before the final game of the World Baseball Classic between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic in San Francisco, Tuesday, March 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
It was in The San Francisco Examiner on June 3, 1888, 125 years ago this month, that there first appeared a poem titled, “Casey at the Bat, a Ballad of the Republic.” In the decades since, “Casey” has become the classic ode to baseball as the all-American pastime; its stanzas once memorized by school kids, its lines recited and recorded by everyone from James Earl Jones to Garrison Keillor. So poignant and evocative is its tale that Albert Goodwill Spalding, 19th century professional pitcher, team owner and co-founder of the sporting goods company that still bears his name, wrote, “Love has its sonnets galore. War has its epics in heroic verse. Tragedy its somber story in measured lines. Baseball has ‘Casey at the Bat.’”
The melancholy account of the vainglorious power hitter Casey stepping to the plate, his Mudville team down 4-2 at the bottom of the ninth with two men on base and two outs, epitomizes baseball as the game that will break your heart, especially in its immortal final lines:
Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright, The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light; And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout, But there is no joy in Mudville — mighty Casey has struck out.
The poem was written by Ernest Thayer, a college friend of media magnate William Randolph Hearst, the Rupert Murdoch of his day who owned the Examiner and the man on whom Orson Welles based Citizen Kane. Thayer used the pen name “Phin,” and was paid five dollars for his masterpiece, or around $125 at today’s prices.
I know of some baseball employees who can relate to that kind of bargain basement salary, and they’re in San Francisco, too. They’re not the A-Rods, Riveras and Pujols who pull down ten million and more. The people I mean are the 800 concession workers who sell hot dogs and beer, serve and clean the restaurants, and cater to the luxury skyboxes at AT&T Park, home of the 2012 World Series champion San Francisco Giants. Employed by a South Carolina-based company called Centerplate, their jobs only last the six months of the season and they make but $11,000 a year, right at the poverty line for a single individual in the United States. Their situation is yet another flagrant example of the vast and widening gap created by income inequality in America.
“Concession workers at the park earn their $11,000 in a city where a one-bedroom apartment runs $3,000 a month and people are spending near that much to live in laundry rooms and unventilated basements. These same workers, who commute as much as two hours each way to get to the park, have now gone three years without a pay increase. This despite the fact that the value of the team, according to Forbes, has increased 40 percent, ticket prices have spiked and the cost of a cup of beer has climbed to $10.25. This also despite the fact that, as packed sellouts become the norm, the stress and toil of the job has never been greater.”
The first caller was indignant. “This bill is anti-consumer!” he bellowed because, he insisted, it would raise prices. I thought, no, this bill is pro-citizen, helping out people, many of them in extremis — and just when did we stop being citizens and become merely consumers? When did access to material goods and low prices become a right more important than public health and welfare? When did our celebration of profit take precedence over fundamental fairness and justice?
I thought of this again the other night while attending the ceremony for the Hillman Prizes in Journalism, named after the late union leader Sidney Hillman, once the influential president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. One of the awards went to ABC News for its coverage of a deadly fire at a garment factory in Bangladesh where Tommy Hilfiger clothing was being manufactured. Deliberately locked in and unable to escape, 29 died. MORE
At the end of a week that reminds us to be ever vigilant about the dangers of government overreaching its authority, whether by the long arm of the IRS or the Justice Department, we should pause to think about another threat — from too much private power obnoxiously intruding into public life.
All too often, instead of acting as a brake on runaway corporate power and greed, government becomes their enabler, undermining the very rules and regulations intended to keep us safe.
Think of inadequate inspections of food and the food-related infections which kill 3,000 Americans each year and make 48 million sick. A new study from Johns Hopkins shows elevated levels of arsenic — known to increase a person’s risk of cancer — in chicken meat. According to the university’s Center for a Livable Future, “Arsenic-based drugs have been used for decades to make poultry grow faster and improve the pigmentation of the meat. The drugs are also approved to treat and prevent parasites in poultry… Currently in the U.S., there is no federal law prohibiting the sale or use of arsenic-based drugs in poultry feed.”
And here’s a story in The Washington Post about toxic, bacteria-killing chemicals used in poultry plants to clean more chickens more quickly to meet increased demand and make more money. According to Amanda Hitt, director of the Government Accountability Project’s Food Integrity Campaign, “They are mixing chemicals together in these plants, and it’s making people sick. Does it work better at killing off pathogens? Yes, but it also can send someone into respiratory arrest.”
As long as there are insufficient checks and balances on big business and its powerful lobbies, we are at their mercy.
So far, the government has done next to nothing. No research into the possible side effects, no comprehensive record-keeping on illnesses. “Instead,” the Post reports, “they review data provided by chemical manufacturers.” What’s more, the Department of Agriculture is about to allow the production lines to move even faster, by as much as 25 percent, which means more chemicals, more exposure, more sickness. MORE
Author Francis Scott Fitzgerald in an undated photo. (AP Photo, File)
With all the fanfare around the new movie version of The Great Gatsby, directed by Baz Luhrmann with a screenplay by Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, it’s a great time to go back to the book and be reminded of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s elegant, graceful writing; so fragile and yes, unique, that it may never really be brought successfully to the screen.
A good time, too, to be reminded of how the book’s depiction of conspicuous consumption during the Jazz Age of the 1920s — and the stark contrast between rich and poor — so parallel life in New York today, where, as The New York Times reported last year, “The poverty rate reached its highest point in more than a decade, and the income gap in Manhattan, already wider than almost anywhere else in the country, rivaled disparities in sub-Saharan Africa.”
Daisy Buchanan, the object of Gatsby’s desire, and her husband Tom would feel at home in the 1% world of overindulgence and profligacy. As Fitzgerald famously described them:
“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
The hype around the new movie also reminded me of an unusual invitation that led to my own brush with the legend of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda. It was in the fall of 1975, an odd, homely and poignant coda to their years of celebrity and luminescence, years that slipped too quickly into the wreckage of alcoholism and mental illness. MORE
A gun-rights activist carries his rifle during a "National Day of Resistance" rally in Salt Lake City, Utah on Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
We were struck this week by one response to our broadcast last week on gun violence and the Newtown school killings. A visitor to the website wrote, “It is interesting to me that Bill Moyers, who every week describes the massive levels of corruption in our government… [and] the advocates for gun control don’t understand that we who own guns in part own them to be sure that when our government becomes so corrupt we have guns to do something about it.”
About the same time that man’s post showed up on the web, we saw the startling survey from Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind polling organization, the one finding that nearly three in ten registered voters agree with the statement: “In the next few years, an armed revolution might be necessary in order to protect our liberties.” Three out of ten! That includes 44 percent of Republicans, 27 percent of independents and 18 percent of Democrats.
That poll also noted that a quarter of Americans think that facts about the Newtown shootings “are being hidden,” and an additional 11 percent “are unsure.” As Sahil Kapur wrote at Talking Points Memo:
“The eye-opening findings serve as a reminder that Americans’ deeply held beliefs about gun rights have a tendency to cross over into outright conspiracy theories about a nefarious government seeking to trample their constitutional rights — paranoia that pro-gun groups like the National Rifle Association have at times helped stoke.”
Paranoia and just plain meanness. On May 8, Christina Wilkie reported in The Huffington Post that Connecticut Carry, a pro-gun lobbying group, had issued a press release detailing the arrest record and financial difficulties of Neil Heslin, father of one of the children murdered at Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School. Connecticut Carry accused him of “profiting off of the tragedy.” Their release read, in part, “Mr. Heslin has found the employment he has needed for so long lobbying against the rights of the citizens of Connecticut and the rest of the country,” and the group implied that Heslin had received payment from Mike Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which adamantly denies anything of the sort. Similar smears have been attempted against other Newtown parents.
There is an alternative to force, blood, and suffering. It’s called democracy.
This hate in our country — egged on by fervid ideologues and profiteering fearmongers — is palpable, stirred by years of irresponsible invective against public officials and agencies. Gun sales are going through the roof. In a sense, so much anger and so much disillusionment are understandable in a country where the gap between rich and poor is so vast that an environment is created in which brooding resentment is easily hatched. Sure, there is corruption in government and business — crony capitalism is the offspring of it — and when the public sees plutocrats who regard politicians as the hired help, and Washington as the feeding trough, it’s natural to fear that we are becoming vassals; subjects rather than citizens.
But a violent uprising, with all the bloodshed and chaos that would follow? Armed revolt is when people are so desperate they kill and are killed. Who would wash the blood from the streets, restore order after the chaos and bury the dead? Have we lost our minds?
There is an alternative to force, blood, and suffering. It’s called democracy. Yes, there is plenty of injustice, greed and sheer wickedness. But don’t mourn the fact — organize. Stop wringing your hands and berating real and imaginary foes. Join up with others, stand up to the exploiters, throw the rascals out. If Congress and the White House are crooked and out of touch, come Election Day, you make sure they lose. And on all the other days, when you can, you work for change and demand a say.
It’s not easy, but slow, hard and demanding – it takes long and patient activism to make democracy work. But with committed people organized and united toward common goals of social justice and accountability, victories are possible. Drop your weapons and celebrate that we live in a country where peaceful change is still possible. Make democracy work.
Francine and David Wheeler and their sons, Nate and Ben, in 2012; Courtesy of the Wheeler Family
This week, we spent time with Francine and David Wheeler, parents of six-year-old Ben Wheeler, one of the 20 children and six educators shot and killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Francine and David moved from New York City to Newtown to raise a family somewhere safe. They could never have imagined that in that quiet place on a Friday morning, just days before Christmas, gunfire would take their younger son’s life.
The Wheelers’ courage and commitment deeply touched us. Since their son’s death, they have managed to cope with memory and hold together their lives — and the life of their surviving son, Nate — with uncommon grace. Along with other Newtown families, they lobbied the Connecticut state legislature — which now has the toughest gun law in America — and in Washington, they walked the halls of Capitol Hill, urging senators to vote yes for the amendment that would expand the use of background checks for people buying guns.
Although a majority favored the legislation, they fell six votes short of the 60 votes necessary for passage, but the Newtown families, friends and neighbors do not intend to quit. They are part of a growing nationwide movement committed to changing our gun culture. They call it Sandy Hook Promise. “America is in desperate need of a new path forward to address our epidemic of gun violence,” they write. And then comes the promise: “THIS TIME THERE WILL BE CHANGE.” MORE
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky. listens during a news conference on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, April 23. At left is Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn of Texas. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
If you want to see why the public approval rating of Congress is down in the sub-arctic range — an icy 15 percent by last count — all you have to do is take a quick look at how the House and Senate pay worship at the altar of corporations, banks and other special interests at the expense of public aspirations and need.
Traditionally, political scientists have taught their students that there are two schools of thought about how a legislator should get the job done. One is to vote yay or nay on a bill by following the will of his or her constituency, doing what they say they want. The other is to represent them as that legislator sees fit, acting in the best interest of the voters — whether they like it or not.
But our current Congress — as cranky and inert as an obnoxious old uncle who refuses to move from his easy chair — never went to either of those schools. Its members rarely have the voter in mind at all, unless, of course, that voter’s a cash-laden heavy hitter with the clout to keep an incumbent on the leash and comfortably in office.
How else to explain a Congress that still adamantly refuses to do anything, despite some 90 percent of the American public being in favor of background checks for gun purchases and a healthy majority favoring other gun control measures? Last week, they ignored the pleas of Newtown families and the siege of violence in Boston and yielded once again to the fanatical rants of Wayne LaPierre and the National Rifle Association. In just the first three months of this year, as it shoved back against the renewed push for controls, the NRA spent a record $800,000 keeping congressional members in line. MORE
Rev. Andrew Young with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Feb. 7, 1968 (AP Photo)
You may think you know about Martin Luther King, Jr., but there is much about the man and his message we have conveniently forgotten. He was a prophet, like Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah of old, calling kings and plutocrats to account — speaking truth to power.
King was only 39 when he was murdered in Memphis 45 years ago, on April 4th, 1968. The 1963 March on Washington and the 1965 March from Selma to Montgomery were behind him. So was the successful passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. In the last year of his life, as he moved toward Memphis and his death, he announced what he called the Poor People’s Campaign, a “multi-racial army” that would come to Washington, build an encampment and demand from Congress an “Economic Bill of Rights” for all Americans — black, white, or brown. He had long known that the fight for racial equality could not be separated from the need for economic equity — fairness for all, including working people and the poor.
Martin Luther King, Jr., had more than a dream — he envisioned what America could be, if only it lived up to its promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for each and every citizen. That’s what we have conveniently forgotten as the years have passed and his reality has slowly been shrouded in the marble monuments of sainthood. MORE
In this Aug. 3, 2012 photo, the Ugland House, the registered office for thousands of global companies, stands in George Town on Grand Cayman Island. (AP Photo/David McFadden)
Along with its sandy beaches and quality snorkeling, the Cayman Islands’ reputation as an offshore tax haven for corporations, banks and hedge funds has become so well-known its financial institutions now are featured in travel brochures as yet another tourist attraction.
So as we traveled across the Caribbean this week — including a stretch paralleling the south coast of Cuba past Guantanamo Bay and the Sierra Maestra mountains, where Castro and his revolutionaries once hid out — we made a stop in George Town on Grand Cayman Island. A short walk along the shore took us to 335 South Church Street, a location made famous by Barack Obama a few years ago and more recently, Jack Lew, during his confirmation hearings to become Secretary of the Treasury.
There you’ll find Ugland House, a five-story office building that, according to a 2008 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), houses 18,857 corporations, about half of which have billing addresses back in the States. It’s the business world equivalent of one of those circus cars that’s packed with more clowns than you thought possible. In 2009, Obama said of Ugland House, “either this is the largest building in the world or the largest tax scam in the world.” MORE
To those who would argue that the notion of a perpetual motion machine is impossible, we give you the revolving door — that ever-spinning entrance and exit between public service in government and the hugely profitable private sector. It never stops.
Yes, we’ve talked about the revolving door until we’re red or blue in the face (the door is bipartisan and spins across party lines) but this mantra bears its own perpetual repetition, a powerful reason for our distrust of the people who make and enforce our laws and regulations.
Cathy Koch poses in the Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill on April 3, 2009. (Photo By Bill Clark/Roll Call/Getty Images)
Jesse Eisinger, writing at The New York Times, reports that on January 25, Senate Majority leader Harry Reid announced the appointment of Cathy Koch as his chief advisor on tax and economic policy. According to the Times, “The news release lists Ms. Koch’s admirable and formidable experience in the public sector. ‘Prior to joining Senator Reid’s office,’ the release says, ‘Koch served as tax chief at the Senate Finance Committee.’”
But, Eisinger notes, the press statement fails to mention Ms. Koch’s actual last job — as a registered lobbyist for GE. “Yes, General Electric,” he writes, “the company that paid almost no taxes in 2010. Just as the tax reform debate is heating up, Mr. Reid has put in place a person who is extraordinarily positioned to torpedo any tax reform that might draw a dollar out of GE — and, by extension, any big corporation.” MORE
In our last episode of that ongoing Washington soap opera, “As the Door Revolves,” we introduced you to former federal prosecutor Mary Jo White, pursuer of drug lords and terrorists, who left government to become a hot shot Wall Street lawyer defending such corporate giants as JPMorgan Chase, UBS, General Electric and Microsoft. Oh yes — and former Goldman Sachs board member Rajat Gupta, currently appealing his insider trading conviction.
But as they say on late night TV, wait — there’s more! Join us for our latest episode of “As the Door Revolves” in which the door spins even faster between the SEC and big business. According to a major new report from the nonpartisan watchdog POGO – the Project on Government Oversight — hundreds of the agency’s former employees have done or are doing business with the SEC on behalf of the corporations the agency is supposed to regulate. MORE
Supporters of Pakistani religious party Jamat-i-Islami listen to their leaders during a rally to condemn U.S. drone attacks, April 24, 2009. (AP Photo/Mohammad Sajjad)
Last week, The New York Times published a chilling account of how indiscriminate killing in war remains bad policy even today. This time, it’s done not by young GIs in the field but by anonymous puppeteers guiding drones that hover and attack by remote control against targets thousands of miles away, often killing the innocent and driving their enraged and grieving families and friends straight into the arms of the very terrorists we’re trying to eradicate.
The Times told of a Muslim cleric in Yemen named Salem Ahmed bin Ali Jaber, standing in a village mosque denouncing al Qaeda. It was a brave thing to do — a respected tribal figure, arguing against terrorism. But two days later, when he and a police officer cousin agreed to meet with three al Qaeda members to continue the argument, all five men — friend and foe — were incinerated by an American drone attack. The killings infuriated the village and prompted rumors of an upwelling of support in the town for al Qaeda, because, the Times reported, “such a move is seen as the only way to retaliate against the United States.”
Our blind faith in technology combined with a false sense of infallible righteousness continues unabated. Reuters correspondent David Rohde recently wrote:
“The Obama administration’s covert drone program is on the wrong side of history. With each strike, Washington presents itself as an opponent of the rule of law, not a supporter. Not surprisingly, a foreign power killing people with no public discussion, or review of who died and why, promotes anger among Pakistanis, Yemenis and many others.”