Q&A features interviews with writers, economists, social scientists, activists and other big thinkers with important perspectives on issues affecting our democracy.

Going to Bed Hungry

The United States is the world’s wealthiest nation, yet we still have families and children who don’t have enough to eat. We caught up with Joel Berg of NYC’s Coalition Against Hunger to learn what it means to be food insecure and what we can do to ensure that no child goes to bed hungry.

Theresa Riley: What does it mean to be “food insecure”? How many American children now live in “food insecure” households?

Joel Berg

Joel Berg: Food insecure means families don’t have enough money to regularly obtain all the food they need. It means they are rationing food and skipping meals. It means parents are going without food to feed their children. It means kids are missing breakfasts. And, ironically, because healthy food is usually more expensive than junk food, and because healthier options often don’t even exist in low-income neighborhoods, it means that food insecurity and obesity are flip sides of the same malnutrition coin, so food insecurity may actually increase a family’s chance of facing obesity and diabetes. Fifty million Americans, including nearly 17 million children, now live in food insecure homes. MORE

How Worker-Owned Companies Work

Economist Richard Wolff is a proponent of democracy at work: an alternative capitalism that thrives on workers directing their own workplaces. In the documentary film Shift Change, producers Mark Dworkin and Melissa Young tell the stories of successful cooperative businesses from Spain to San Francisco. We caught up with Dworkin and Young to find out what makes cooperative businesses work.

Theresa Riley: What drew you to this topic as filmmakers? Why did you want to make this film?

Mark Dworkin and Melissa Young

Mark Dworkin and Melissa Young

Mark Dworkin and Melissa Young: As filmmakers we don’t just expose problems. We want to help people find solutions. In 2002 we were in Argentina at the height of their economic crisis, and in hundreds of workplaces which had closed, workers took over the company, went back to work, and made a go of it. These examples made quite an impression on us, and we featured their stories in two films: Argentina — Hope in Hard Times and Argentina Turning Around. A friend who saw the Argentina documentaries suggested that we learn more about the Mondragon cooperatives in the Basque Country of Spain. When we did, we were moved and inspired by this successful model of worker ownership and its potential to change the culture of work — not just in Spain but around the world. Our investigations revealed that there are hundreds of thriving worker cooperatives that promote economic democracy right here in North America, but they are little known.

Riley: How many businesses in America are worker-owned?

Dworkin and Young: Employee ownership in the U.S. is much more widespread than usually understood, with at least 11,000 such businesses in operation. Many are Employee Stock Ownership Plans or ESOPs, where employees own part or all of the company. Introduced under President Nixon, this is one way for private companies to transition to employee ownership. ESOPs may or may not be democratic and participatory places to work. Worker cooperatives are both owned and managed by their workers — one worker, one vote. According to the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives, currently there are about 400 worker cooperatives in the U.S. They operate many types of businesses, mainly services, and are growing especially among Latino immigrants and in working class communities. MORE

Don’t Count on Dodd-Frank… Yet

Almost three years after President Obama signed the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act into law, few of its provisions have actually come into effect. Thanks in part to the banking lobby, the process is stuck in what The Washington Monthly calls “the seventh circle of bureaucratic hell.” We checked in with Economist Simon Johnson to find out where things stand and whether we should be worried.

Simon Johnson. Photo credit: Robin Holland

Lauren Feeney: What’s the current status of the Dodd-Frank Act?

Simon Johnson: Implementation of the Dodd-Frank act has been painfully slow – and much slower than anyone imagined when the legislation passed in the summer of 2010.

The good news is that efforts to repeal Dodd-Frank have largely, although not completely, run out of steam.

Feeney: Why is progress so slow?

Johnson: The financial sector is a very powerful lobby. They have many friends on Capitol Hill and some parts of our country’s regulatory apparatus remained unduly captivated, if not captured, by the mystique of mathematical finance.

Feeney: The Volcker Rule, one of the key components of Dodd Frank, was supposed to go into effect in July 2012. It’s still not in place. What’s the holdup?

Johnson: The lobby.

Feeney: What are some of the regulatory tools that are already available under Dodd Frank, and how have they been used so far?

Johnson: The Federal Reserve acquired considerable powers under Dodd-Frank, particularly to change practices that it regards as dangerous to the system as a whole. There is now a healthy debate within the Fed about whether and when it can use these powers. Unfortunately, the most powerful officials are – so far – reluctant to act.

Feeney: What important tools are we still waiting for?

Johnson: How much time do you have?

Detailed rules for derivatives, sensible thinking on bank capital, rules for measuring risk, meaningful living wills, a resolution procedure for megabanks that would work across borders, clarity on how foreign subsidiaries will be regulated.

Dodd-Frank stipulates that the Board of Governors should have a new vice-chairman for supervision. It is shocking that, nearly three years after Dodd-Frank, no one has even been nominated. I strongly recommend that the president ask Sheila Bair, former chair of the FDIC, to fill this position.

And while you are waiting for officials to act, I strongly recommend that you read The Bankers’ New Clothes by Anat Admati and Martin Hellwig. The bankers are naked, intellectually speaking. Admati and Hellwig lay out a compelling agenda. Read the book and send a copy to your senator.

Feeney: Is our financial system still at risk as we wait for these rules to be put into place?

Johnson: Yes, our financial system – and the global financial system – remains vulnerable. This is not to say that another crisis is imminent, but rather that many of our weaknesses have not been addressed. As the credit cycle develops and investors again become optimistic, we should expect trouble.

The most glaring example is that we have not ended the “too big to fail” problem. Our largest financial institutions receive implicit government subsidies in the form of downside protection. When things go well, their executives and traders get the upside. When things go badly… of course, you know who pays that cost.

Simon Johnson is a former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund and now a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. His most recent book is White House Burning: The Founding Fathers, Our National Debt, and Why It Matters to You. Johnson spoke with Bill Moyers in May about JP Morgan’s multi-billion dollar loss . 

Alex Steffen on Carbon-Zero Cities

In 2003, environmental journalist Alex Steffen and Jamais Cascio started a blog called Worldchanging that focused on innovative solutions to the planet’s problems. The blog attracted a global audience and became one of the most trafficked sustainability sites on the Internet. Wired columnist Bruce Sterling called it “the most important website on the planet” and it won numerous awards, including two Webbys, before shutting down in 2010 due to lack of funding. Since then, the site has merged with Architecture for Humanity and will re-launch in October of this year.

Alex Steffen recently published an ebook, Carbon Zero: Imagining Cities That Can Save the Planet, that explores the technology and design innovations that could “transform our cities into low-carbon engines of prosperity.” Earth Day founder Denis Hayes says that Steffen “may be the world’s boldest, most innovative thinker about future cities.” We caught up with him to talk about some of the ideas in his book. This is an edited version of our conversation.

Theresa Riley: What inspired you to write Carbon Zero?

Alex Steffen

Alex Steffen: Having paid attention to the debate about climate change as it’s emerged over the last two decades, it’s felt to me that we are approaching the problem of climate change with unclear eyes. Because much, though not all, of climate change is caused by the burning of fossil fuels, we have this tendency to think that the solution is to replace fossil fuels. And certainly fossil fuels are bad. They’re things we should be moving away from as quickly as possible. But the idea that we are going to be able to take our entire society as it currently works and simply change the source of energy and make it sustainable is not actually congruent with reality.

What I wanted to do was to take a different approach than the normal climate change approach of, “Let’s talk about solar, wind and wave,” and instead talk about how we use energy. Because the reality is that how we use energy is not a given. There are a lot of different ways of building a prosperous society and some of them use much less energy than others. And it is possible and more practical to talk about rebuilding systems to use much less energy than it is to think about trying to meet greater demands of energy through clean energy alone.

Riley: Why the focus on cities?

Steffen: There are three reasons. We are already an overwhelmingly urban species. The percentage of humanity that’s predicted to live within one day’s travel of a city rises up to 95 percent by 2050, which means that almost everybody will be living either in a city or within urban systems. If you’re going to solve a problem, you might as well solve the problem that most of humanity is having, right?

Secondly, cities are themselves the center point around which all of these systems turn. Cities are responsible for the vast majority of the creation of the economy. They’re also places into which we pour the vast majority of resources, the vast majority of energy and the places where a huge percentage of the decisions about how systems are built and how products designed, etc., happen. So if you change cities, you actually change all of those other systems as well.

And on top of that, cities are this weird creature: they’re big enough to be very important but they’re also small enough for little groups of people to make a difference. MORE

Transparency in Government: Let the Sun Shine In

Last year, The Sunlight Foundation’s Executive Director Ellen Miller shared her insights on campaign finance transparency and the value of data journalism in our democracy. This week is Sunshine Week, an annual national initiative that promotes open government and the public’s right to know what our government is doing, and why. We checked in with Miller to find out what her team is prioritizing in the year ahead. This is an edited version of that conversation.

BillMoyers.com: What are your biggest transparency concerns for 2013?

Ellen Miller

Ellen Miller: Moving forward to fulfill the promises that the Obama Administration has made with respect to transparency for open data. We want to see the agencies putting out more data that citizens can use, and we want to see that initiative spread to state capitals and to cities all around the country.

This is the age of transparency, and there’s no better time than Sunshine Week to remember that, to figure out what kind of data we want, how citizens will use it and make sure that it’s in their hands. Sunlight’s core interest is to use this data to hold government at all levels accountable, to enable citizens to ask the kinds of questions they want to ask about why a legislator did this or why they voted that way or why they took political money from that interest. Without access to data, they can’t possibly ask these kinds of questions. Transparency is a key ingredient of what our founders intended when they talked about a free and open and democratic society.

Are there particular sets of data that you’re hoping the Administration will make public in the coming year/years?

Miller: We asked the Administration four years ago to give us an audit of the data that’s collected by each government agency. And we never got that. So we’re in a situation where we don’t know what we don’t know. There has been some great investigative journalism that uses government data, so we know there could be public access to so much more. For example, data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration details employer-specific information about occupational fatalities. This data, intended to help employers identify dangerous conditions and ‘take steps to improve safety and prevent future accidents,’ has also allowed investigative journalists to expose unsafe conditions and tell heartbreaking stories. The Center for Public Integrity and Huffington Post took advantage of the OSHA data in a series of articles that expose unsafe working conditions.

This is the kind of data we told the Administration we’re interested in because it can be used to hold those who report to government accountable. But without having an actual list of what corporations have to report to the federal agencies that regulate them, it’s pretty hard to establish a firm list.

A lot of that information would be available via a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request now, but you want it to be available in a more accessible form, is that right?

Miller: This Administration does not have a very good record when it comes to granting FOIA requests. And relying on FOIA to make public information accessible is just wrong. FOIA puts the burden on citizens to ask for the information, and that’s the wrong approach for a democracy. It’s also outdated. In the times in which we live, it needs to be online.

Transparency is a key ingredient of what our founders intended when they talked about a free and open and democratic society.
Furthermore, we want to see that data available in as real time as possible, so when the information is reported to any agency or department, it ought to be turned around and made accessible to the public very, very quickly — within 24 hours.

Senator Jon Tester is introducing a bill this week called the Public Online Information Act. Sunlight helped inform the content of this bill. It would require government to make any information that is required to be made public to be publicly available online. We couldn’t be more pleased that Senator Tester has reintroduced this during Sunshine Week, because it really is a statement about how important it is to have public information publicly accessible.

Can you tell us about the transparency report card released on Monday that assesses government disclosure at the state level. How did the states do?

Miller: It was not a pretty picture. There were eight [states] that got an A and six that got Fs, including my home state of Kentucky. (Read the report.) Evaluated across six criteria, the Sunlight Foundation developed a scorecard and letter grades for all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The Transparency Report Card judges legislative websites in relation to how government information is publicly available. Factors include: completeness, timeliness, ease of electronic access, machine readability, use of commonly owned standards and permanence. Most state legislatures are generally behind the technological curve, and that has negative implications for government oversight. However, our experience working with many in government shows there is an appetite to modernize disclosure practices, and fortunately, cash-strapped state legislatures do not have to employ expensive services to follow these open data principles.

If you were to give the Obama Administration a letter grade for transparency, perhaps based on similar standards, could you say what it would be?

Miller: We can’t. The situation is so complex and it varies so much from agency to agency, much less department to department, that there would be no way to develop even a simple schema to evaluate how well they are doing. We have always said that the promises made by the Administration four years ago were quite extraordinary, and we have been very clear that we have been quite disappointed in their implementation. So across the federal side of things, there’s no question that there’s a lot to be done.

One of the concerns that we have about the president specifically is the lack of real-time transparency for his c4, Organizing for Action (OFA). The fact that, for example, the president spoke to an unknown number of people who gave $50,000 [to OFA] on Wednesday night is concerning to us. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t know who those people are in real time as they make these contributions. There was a lot of pressure put in the last month or so on OFA to make this information available. Initially they said they would not make any of the donors available. They will now, but only on a quarterly basis, which is too late for understanding how influence might be applied in a meeting tomorrow.

What campaign finance reform policy changes are you hoping for in time for the 2014 elections?

Miller: The two most important things for us are to get real-time disclosure of the super PAC money and the dark money, the c4 money. To us, that’s what the Supreme Court said should be done in 2010, and it still hasn’t been done and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of political will on behalf of either the Republicans or the Democrats to do it. But we think that’s critically important.

And the second piece is to get real-time disclosure of lobbyist information — who are they visiting and what are they discussing. Those are the two most critical pieces of information that impact the influence industry in Washington.

Your organization is always coming out with amazing new tools and new sites and apps to help citizens and journalists understand what our government is up to. Can you give us a preview of wthe new tools, apps and websites you have in the works for the next year?

Miller: We’re going to start improving and expanding some of what we already have that we know is working quite well, like Influence Explorer: the data actually creates a narrative, looking at the state and federal contributions and the federal lobbying, and the grants and contracts that a particular corporation might get.

Another one of these sites is called Scout, which is a legislative alert system. If you’re following the issue of immigration, you can get an alert about every bill that’s introduced at the state level or at the federal level, or every regulation that is pending or issued that has the word ‘immigration’ in it. So this is an unbelievable resource tool for journalists and for issue activists.

We’ll also be continuing to improve this site called Docket Wrench, that lets you look at the provenance of federal regulations. You can see how many comments there have been on a particular regulation and you can compare them and figure out whether there’s actually one comment or whether there’s 60 of the same comment. It shows you visually who’s influencing the rulemaking that happens after a law is passed.

Behind the SEC’s Revolving Door


(AP File Photo)

The Project on Government Oversight (POGO), a government accountability watchdog group, published a report this week on the so-called “revolving door” at the Securities and Exchange Commission. Authored by POGO Investigator Michael Smallberg, the report highlights numerous examples of how the back and forth of SEC regulators between jobs in Washington and on Wall Street blunts the agency’s effectiveness.

Smallberg includes recommendations for how the SEC and other parts of the government could take action to limit the negative effects of the revolving door. We spoke with Smallberg about his report and the corrosive effect of what he calls “regulatory capture” — what happens when an agency is “captured” by the industry it regulates.

Michael Smallberg

Michael Smallberg(Credit: Pam Rutter)

John Light: Why is the revolving door a potential problem for regulatory bodies in general, and specifically for the SEC?

Michael Smallberg: When you have so many people going back and forth from a regulatory agency to the regulated industry, it can shape the mindset of people throughout the agency and make them more sympathetic to the viewpoints of industry groups, sometimes at the expense of people with a stake in the agency’s mission, like consumers, investors or shareholders. In some cases, people who used to work at the agency have connections to people who are still there. They can take advantage of that access to obtain favors for their clients, who, in many cases tend to be large institutions that have the resources to hire these alumni.

The revolving door creates a risk of what we call “regulatory capture” — when companies are able to sway the policies of the agency in their favor. Many of these agencies are supposed to be independent regulatory agencies — independent not only from political pressure that might be applied by Congress, but also from large industry groups. The revolving door between a regulator and a regulated industry creates at least a heightened danger of regulatory capture.

Then there’s a question of optics: The appearance that a regulatory agency is cozying up to the companies it’s supposed to regulate can undermine the public’s confidence in the regulatory system, which in turn can make the regulatory agencies less effective. And on another level, the revolving door can devalue the notion of public service. When you have so many people who are looking at their government position as a stepping stone to going into the private sector and making much larger salaries working for the big companies, we worry that will demoralize other civil servants who are looking at their government service as more of a life calling.


Breaking Down the DOJ Drone Memo

In this image taken from video and released by SITE Intelligence Group on Monday, Nov. 8, 2010, Anwar al-Awlaki speaks in a video message posted on radical websites. Al-Awlaki is one of three U.S. citizens known to have been killed by American drone strikes.

Justice Department white paper leaked to NBC News and reported on Monday sets out what administration attorneys believe is the legal case for drone strikes targeting American citizens — arguments that until now have not been fully revealed to the public.

In a New York Times op-ed piece last month, Vicki Divoll, a former general counsel for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and a recent guest on Moyers & Company, demanded that President Obama release documents detailing his legal argument for targeting and killing American citizens. We checked in with Divoll for some analysis of the newly leaked Justice memo.

Lauren Feeney: What are your initial thoughts after reading through the 16-page document?

Vicki Divoll: It’s going to take some time to sort through it. We need to step back and read the Supreme Court decisions referred to in the memo more carefully. But the thing that I found new and interesting is the discussion of the constitutional questions — the Fifth and Fourth Amendment questions.

Vicki Divoll

Their Fifth Amendment due process argument relies heavily on a 2004 Supreme Court case known as Hamdi v. Rumsfeld. Mr. Hamdi was a United States citizen picked up on the battlefield in Afghanistan who ended up in a military prison in Virginia. He filed a habeas petition that made it all the way to the Supreme Court arguing that he was entitled to some due process rights. The government argued that Hamdi did not have rights in this situation, as a detained enemy combatant, but the Court disagreed and concluded that he did have some level of due process rights. He was detained by his government and he had the right to be heard before an impartial factfinder. Shortly after the decision Mr. Hamdi was released. So the administration is now making the same argument again against due process rights for the individual, and relying on a 2004 case in which the court ruled against them the last time around. MORE

The Morality of Drone Strikes

An unmanned U.S. Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field, southern Afghanistan, on a moon-lit night, Jan. 31, 2010. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, File)

In his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize speech, President Obama defended the right to engage in “just wars,” evoking a theory of ethical warfare that can be traced back to Saint Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and even Cicero. Is the administration’s use of unmanned drone strikes compatible with the traditional principles of just war? We asked Daniel Brunstetter, a professor of political science at the University of California, Irvine, who has written about drones and just war theory for The Atlantic and the journal Ethics & International Affairs.

Lauren Feeney: What is “just war theory?”

Daniel Brunstetter

Daniel Brunstetter: Just war theory is a shared moral language that helps us facilitate our evaluation of the way in which statesmen can use force. I’ve heard it said that President Obama has been an avid reader of Augustine or Aquinas and that gives him the necessary knowledge of what just war theory is. One of the misconceptions about just war theory is that there is some book or checklist that you can turn to and say, “Do I satisfy this, do I satisfy that? Okay, great, I can go and wage war.” It’s more of a tradition in which there has been a long conversation dating from the times of Augustine, and it gives us a moral vocabulary that both structures and informs how we think about war and how we legitimize or don’t legitimize the use of force.

Citizens, Not Consumers, Are Key to Solving Climate Crisis

Annie Leonard spent 20 years working for environmental organizations, studying where our stuff comes from and where it goes. She followed waste from industrialized countries to apartheid-era South Africa, where it was dumped in black townships, to Haiti, where it was disguised as fertilizer and dumped on a beach, to Pakistan, Indonesia and the Philippines where we sent everything from e-waste to used car batteries for recycling in a process too dirty for our own backyard.

Then, in 2007, she made a short animated film about our consumer culture and the damage it does to the environment. The Story of Stuff went viral (chances are you’ve seen it — more than 15 million people have) and spawned a whole series of videos that explain complicated environmental and political concepts in an irresistibly simple and engaging way. We reached Annie via email to talk about the latest installment, The Story of Change. This one’s a bit of a departure — instead of looking at the problem, it proposes a solution.

Lauren Feeney: I’ve often heard that one of the reasons we as a society have been so slow to act on climate change is that it’s kind of a boring subject, so it doesn’t get nearly the press coverage it deserves. How do we make it interesting? 

Annie Leonard: We can communicate about climate change in a way that is abstract, technical and alienating – maybe even boring. Or we can communicate with stories, images and examples that are relevant and accessible to our daily reality. Melting ice caps and polar bears might not evoke immediate concern from today’s urban communities, but increasing food prices, health impacts and extreme weather do. Environmental researchers and scientists tend to lead with the data, which is understandable considering how terrifying and compelling the climate data is. It’s hard not to want to share it with everyone we pass on the street. But we’re learning that data alone doesn’t inspire people to act at the level needed. Heck, data alone doesn’t even inspire people to do simple things, like improve our diets or exercise more. When we’re communicating about climate change, it serves us to keep the data and technical jargon on tap, not on top. We need to understand the science for ourselves and for those who want to know more, but not lead with it. Lead with our hearts, our humanity, our empathy, our stories and we’ll see greater results. MORE

Decoding the Political Buzzwords of 2012

Geoffrey Nunberg

As the year draws to a close, we checked in with linguist Geoffrey Nunberg to get his analysis of the top political buzzwords of 2012.

Lauren Feeney: What political words struck you as particularly interesting this year? 

Geoffrey Nunberg: Like all campaigns, this one generated a bunch of nine-day wonders — words of the week or month like “Romnesia,” “Etch-a-Sketch,” “self-deportation,” “unskew,” and so forth. Others were more insistent — “dark money,” “SuperPAC.” When I was trying to pick a word of the year for my Fresh Air language feature, I was tempted by Romney’s “47 percent.” I think it stands for a shift in the language of class in American politics, as a kind of bookend to last year’s “one percent.” The right used to insist that there were no classes in America — even to mention the word was class warfare. Now they’ve drawn up their own battle lines in the middle.

But it’s a little misleading to focus on that one item — words really fly in flocks, and this one comes with “moochers,” “takers,” and “lucky duckies,” the repellent term coined by The Wall Street Journal about a decade ago, not to mention “gifts” and “goodies.” And in particular there’s “entitlement”— not a recent word, of course, but it figured a lot in the election, particularly after Ryan’s nomination, and it has been shifting its meaning in what I’ve described as a kind of semantic sleight-of-hand. Time was that “entitlement” was a positive word which implied that people had a moral right to certain government benefits. Bill Moyers recalls what LBJ said to the Republicans about Medicare: “By God, you can’t treat Grandma this way. She’s entitled to it.” Then the word got colored by the psychological meaning it has in “sense of entitlement,” where it implies an unwarranted claim to something. When people on the right talk about the “entitlement society” nowadays, there’s an unspoken “unearned” in the background; it evokes the “culture of dependency” narrative — “entitlement” has become just another word in that “47 percent” and “moocher” lexicon.


The FCC, the Public Interest and the Blue Book

When former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps stopped by our offices a couple of weeks ago to talk about possible FCC plans to further relax media ownership rules in major media markets, we got to talking about the broadcast media’s responsibility to the American public. The people own the airways, after all, and we wondered whether there had ever been a “golden age” at the FCC when the public’s interests were truly championed.

Copps mentioned the Blue Book, a set of guidelines the FCC released – and later disavowed – during the 1940s, when the commission experienced a short-lived period of progressive activism. Victor Pickard, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, has researched and written about the battle over the Blue Book, when broadcasters used red-baiting scare tactics to prejudice the public against the report’s proposed guidelines.

Theresa Riley: Most people have never heard of the Blue Book. What was it and why should we care about it today?

Victor Pickard

Victor Pickard: The Blue Book (so named because of its blue cover) was a controversial report published by the FCC in 1946. Officially titled the “Public Service Responsibility of Broadcast Licensees,” it defined substantive programming guidelines for judging radio broadcasters’ performance at renewal time and was the FCC’s first significant effort to clarify its public interest standard.

This history is significant because, despite narratives to the contrary, the term “public interest” hasn’t been left undefined by a lack of effort or because it’s inherently indefinable; it has remained ambiguous because media industries, particularly commercial broadcasters, have fought aggressively to keep standards — and methods to enforce them — vague and ineffectual.


How Activists Helped Turn the Tide on Childhood Obesity

Yael Lehmann

Childhood obesity has long been considered one of the nation’s most intractable problems, complicated by issues like race, poverty and a culture that to many seems more concerned with corporate profits than children’s health. About 17 percent of American children are obese; among low-income children, the rate rises to 20 percent. But a recent report shows that the tide may finally be turning, with childhood obesity rates declining by 3 -5 percentage points in cities like New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia.

The reasons for the reversal are still unclear, but it would be hard for anyone familiar with the work of Philadelphia’s Food Trust to discount the impact of that organization and others like it. We called Food Trust Executive Director Yael Lehmann to learn more about the new report and the role of activists in reversing the trend.

Lauren Feeney: Several U.S. cities saw childhood obesity rates drop for the first time in decades, with your city, Philadelphia, seeing some of the most dramatic improvement. To what do you attribute this turn-around?

Yael Lehmann: This is an extraordinary moment where we’re finally seeing these glimmers of hope. It’s hard to know what to attribute it to, but I believe it’s this comprehensive approach, combining education with access to healthy foods; policy makers and people in the trenches.

Feeney: Philadelphia, the poorest of America’s ten largest cities, saw the greatest decline in obesity among minority children. Why do you think that is?

Lehmann: In most cities, the improvement was mostly among white kids, but among minority kids you just weren’t seeing it. Philly is the only city that didn’t have those same racial disparities. We saw a seven percent decline for African-American boys and an eight percent decline for Hispanic girls.

It takes an army, you know. It takes everyone from the mayor on down. We work in every part of the city; there’s no stone left unturned. We work in the lowest income areas, the most distressed neighborhoods, in every school. I think that’s at least part of the reason why we didn’t have the same racial disparities in our results. MORE

Former FCC Commissioner: Big Media Dumbs Down Democracy

Former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps discusses the upcoming FCC vote to relax media consolidation laws with Bill Moyers. (photo credit: Dale Robbins)

This week, we’re focusing on the Federal Communications Commission’s proposal to relax the rules that prevent one company from owning radio stations, television stations and newspapers all in the same city — a move activists say would hurt diversity and be a boon for the Rupert Murdochs of the world.

It’s déjà vu for Michael Copps, who served on the commission from 2001-2011 and was acting chairman from January to June 2009 — a tenure marked by his concern for diversity and opposition to media consolidation. Copps is now the senior advisor for media and democracy reform at Common Cause. He stopped by our office Monday to share his concerns about the FCC’s latest proposal.

Bill Moyers: After all the conversations we’ve had over the years, why are we still talking about media concentration today?

Former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps. (Photo credit: Robin Holland)

Michael Copps: Because media concentration is still very much a reality today. If you opened up the papers last week, you’ll see Rupert Murdoch is maybe thinking about buying the Los Angeles Times or the Chicago Tribune. Every time you have one of these consolidation transactions, they look around for all of these wonderful economies and efficiencies that they’re supposed to harvest from becoming big conglomerates. The first thing they think is, “How do we impress Wall Street now? Where do we cut?” And the first place they cut is the newsroom. We’ve had, across this country, hundreds of newsrooms shuttered, thousands of reporters who are walking the streets in search of a job, rather than walking the beats in search of stories. And the consequence of that is, I think, a dramatically dumbed down civic dialogue that is probably — and I don’t think I’m exaggerating — insufficient to sustain self-government as we would like to have it.

There’s this wonderful story about Bill Paley, who I never knew, but —


Craig Aaron on the FCC and Big Media’s Big Plans

The Federal Communications Commission is set to vote to relax a longstanding ban that prevents one company from owning radio and television stations and newspapers in the same city — a move that activists are calling a giant Christmas present to Rupert Murdoch. The media titan has floated the idea of buying The Chicago Tribune and The Los Angeles Times, the dominant papers in cities where he already owns TV stations. What’s worse, the FCC is operating behind closed doors, rather than inviting public comment on the issue.

Craig Aaron, Free Press

So Craig Aaron, president and CEO of Free Press, is asking people to speak out — by signing a petition, writing an editorial and calling congressmen. Aaron and his organization have been among those leading the charge against increased media monopolization. Similar attempts to change ownership rules were thwarted in 2003 and 2007. Earlier today, Bill Moyers caught up with Aaron via Skype to learn more about the current proposal and what viewers can do to help stop it.

Bill Moyers: Craig Aaron, tell us what you know about this FCC ruling that’s under consideration?

Craig Aaron: Well, what I know is that, according to all trade reports, the Federal Communications Commission is considering moving very quickly to get rid of longstanding limits on how much media one company can own in a town. And if they go with the plan that they’re currently considering, it would open the door to one company owning the daily newspaper, two television stations, eight radio stations, possibly even your internet service provider — all in one community. These are the exact same rules that are preventing someone like Rupert Murdoch of Fox News from owning The Chicago Tribune or owning The Los Angeles Times. If these rules go away, suddenly deals like that become possible.


Inside the Invisible World of Domestic Work: An Interview with Ai-jen Poo

Ai-jen Poo

Ai-jen Poo

Domestic workers — the nannies, housekeepers, and home health aides who care for our young children and elderly parents — have traditionally been excluded from the most basic protections, like minimum wage. Their jobs are inherently insecure, ending abruptly when the child goes off to school or the patient passes on, yet few collect Social Security or are eligible for unemployment benefits. Working behind closed doors in private homes, they are vulnerable to abuse and unable to organize.

Enter Ai-jen Poo. The community organizer has been advocating for domestic workers’ rights for over a decade, and in 2010, led the campaign for the nation’s first Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which theoretically guarantees overtime pay, paid vacation, and basic human and civil rights protections for over 200,000 workers in the state of New York. Now she’s working to bring the same rights to domestic workers nationwide.

This week, Poo’s organization, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, together with the University of Illinois at Chicago and the DataCenter, released the first-ever national survey of domestic workers, Home Economics: The Invisible and Unregulated World of Domestic Work.  Poo sees it as a call-to-action for the nation to tackle the problems of this unregulated sphere, problems that in a Venn diagram would overlap with race, immigration, gender, and the modern, middle-class dual-income family.

Lauren Feeney: What are some of the most important findings in your report?

Ai-jen Poo: The fact that the report exists at all is important because for so long there hasn’t been any real data on domestic work, and that’s contributed to the invisibility of these workers and the Wild West nature of this industry. Now we have data from surveys of 2,086 domestic workers in 14 different cities from 71 different countries of origin.

What we found is that the people, mostly women, who we count on to take care of the most precious elements of our lives — our homes and our families — do not earn enough to take care of their own families or themselves. Twenty-three percent of domestic workers earn below minimum wage. That’s not counting live-in domestic workers. Among live-ins, sixty-one percent earn below minimum wage. And I think all of us know that even minimum wage is impossible to survive on.

Feeney: How is it that in 21st century America — after all the successes of the labor movement, the women’s movement, the civil rights movement — there is still this segment of the population that lacks even the most basic protections under the law? Why were these people left behind?

Poo: One reason is the legacy of racism in this country. In the 1930s, Southern members of Congress refused to support the labor laws within the New Deal if farm workers and domestic workers, who were largely African-American at the time, were included under those protections — protections like the Fair Labor Standards Act and the National Labor Relations Act.

The people who have done this work have historically been poor, working poor women — immigrant women, African-American women, white poor and working class women — socially disadvantaged people. Then there’s the fact that this work has been seen as women’s work and has never really been valued or recognized as real work — it’s a battle to even get recognition as work and as workers versus just help or companionship.

All of those factors connected have meant that this work is done in the shadows. Now, with the need for this work just growing exponentially and becoming so much a part of the lifeblood of this country and the economy, we have an opportunity to really turn the tide on that.

Feeney: What makes domestic work so important to the economy?

Poo: The economist Jared Bernstein calls it a “critical input.” We call it the work that makes all other work possible. It’s this invisible layer of work — raising families and taking care of homes — that allows other people to go into their public lives and work, achieve, build.

Feeney: You call for a living wage, paid sick days, paid vacation and health insurance for domestic workers, and I don’t think anyone would argue that these women don’t deserve these basic protections. And of course, it’s easy to point a finger at wealthy executives and politicians who don’t treat their nannies well. But what about middle-class working women with limited options for child and elder care who really can’t afford any more than they’re already paying?

Poo: We need to take a holistic approach that’s not just about workers’ rights but about a whole set of policies that will make it more possible for all of us to take care of the people that we love. So we also promote tax credits and paid family leave policies and all kinds of workplace flexibility policies for working parents.

We’re living in a 21st century economy where the majority of paid workers are women, yet they’re still responsible for the vast majority of caregiving responsibilities. Our society, in the rules and structures that currently exist, has not accounted for that whole arena of work. And the manifestation of that is the low wages and invisibility and abuse of domestic workers. But really every single family is impacted by the fact that we haven’t adequately accounted for the work that goes into caring for families. Families need help, they need childcare, they need eldercare, and they don’t always have the resources to afford it. Why don’t we have universal childcare?  Why don’t we have workplace flexibility policies that account for the fact that people get sick and family members have to take care of them? It just seems very basic and it can absolutely be done. We really need to rethink the whole way we account for work and structure the economy in a way that works for everyone.

Feeney: In the meantime, what would you suggest concerned employers do to make sure that they’re treating their caregivers fairly, and what can domestic workers and their allies do to get involved in your campaign?

Poo: If you’re an employer, I would really encourage you to go to the Hand-in-Hand Domestic Employers Association website and sign up for their list. And for domestic workers, I would say join one of our affiliate organizations or the national alliance. We’re doing work in twenty-four cities in fourteen states and the District of Columbia, so we have affiliates all over the place, and if people want to form an organization in their town, we’ll support it. We’ve got big campaigns moving forward in California, Massachusetts and Illinois in 2013, so people can get involved in changing the policies and laws that will affect their lives in the future. That’s a call for employers too — we need employers to support our standards and guidelines, and their voices will be really important in that cause. Finally, there’s a measure that’s waiting in the wings at the Department of Labor that would bring 1.8 million home care workers under federal minimum wage and overtime protection, and we need people to write letters to their local Congress members and to the president himself saying that they want to see homecare workers included under basic protections. We’ve got to take care of our caregivers.

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