Q&A

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

Do You Know Where Your Tomatoes Come From?

Farmworkers pick tomatoes at Taylor & Fulton Tomatoes in Immokalee, Fla. (AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez)

“Harvesting tomatoes and other produce from the nation’s agricultural fields is arguably the worst job in the country,” journalist Chris Hedges writes in his book Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt.

For workers in Immokalee, Florida, where nearly all of America’s winter tomatoes are grown, backbreaking labor under the heat of the Florida sun is only part of the drudgery. There’s often also toxic pesticides, sexual harassment, verbal and physical abuse — all for an average income of  less than $12,000 a year.

Nely Rodriguez is a 46-year-old mother of three who’s been working in the Immokalee fields since she came here from Mexico in 2000. But she’s not suffering silently under these unjust conditions. Nely is a member of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a community organization that has taken on the corporate giants at the top of the food chain — with some remarkable victories. MORE

Climate Change’s Catastrophic New Math

In a not-to-miss article in this week’s Rolling Stone, environmental author and activist Bill McKibben explains some new math that adds up to a terrifying trajectory for the planet. Shaken by the piece, we called McKibben to learn more.

Lauren Feeney: It’s been a really hot summer. Just how hot, in relative terms?

Wildfires destroying homes in Colorado Springs, Colo., on June 26, 2012. (AP Photo/Gaylon Wampler)

Bill McKibben: It’s been an almost unbelievably hot summer. We’re living through epic droughts. We’ve seen the biggest wildfires in New Mexico and Colorado in our history. We’ve seen temperature records fall one after another — more than 3,200 new high temperature records set in June alone. And that’s not just here — this past June was the warmest ever measured across the northern hemisphere. There are crop-withering droughts in much of eastern Europe right now, epic flooding in India. What we’re seeing is a perfect distillation of what climate change looks like in its early phases. MORE

Bryan Stevenson on the True Costs of Mass Incarceration

One of the Supreme Court rulings you may have missed in the din of its Affordable Care Act decision considered the constitutionality of mandatory sentencing to life in prison without parole for minors. Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the majority, determined that “requiring that all children convicted of homicide receive lifetime incarceration without possibility of parole, regardless of their age and age-related characteristics and the nature of their crimes” is a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The lawyer who argued the winning side of that case was Alabama lawyer Bryan Stevenson. For over 25 years, Stevenson has been an advocate for death row inmates in the Deep South. As the director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), Stevenson works with clients who have been wrongly accused or denied proper legal representation, as well as those whose prosecutions and trials have been influenced by racial bias. A memorable guest of Bill Moyers Journal, Stevenson talked with us about issues of age and race in our justice system.

Riley: When did the trend toward mandatory sentencing begin, and what has it meant for juveniles?

Bryan Stevenson: There has been a general overall trend toward harsher sentencing in the United States and it’s one of the reasons why prison population has grown from about 300,000 in 1972 to 2.3 million people in prison today. The US now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Sadly, the people most directly impacted by the developments have been the vulnerable: poor people, people of color, the mentally disabled and children. In the late 1980s, a small number of criminologists began talking about juvenile crime and characterizing many of the youngest offenders as not really children but as this new word, “super-predators.” MORE

Organizing Workers in the Freelance Economy

Friday’s disappointing job numbers featured one glimmer of positivity: USA Today reports that the number of temporary employees rose by 25,000. This may indicate that employers are getting ready to bring on new permanent staff because the “ranks of such contingent workers” often grow before that happens. On the other hand, it could just be part of a continuing trend of relying on freelancers over permanent staff. The New York City-based Freelancers Union estimates that nearly a third of American workers are freelancers — about 42 million people. One of the common drawbacks of freelance work is the inability to organize for benefits like health insurance, retirement funds, overtime and sick days. In 2005, the Freelancers Union began offering health insurance to independent workers such as nannies, graphic designers, journalists and artists. They now have over 165,000 members across all 50 states. We asked Sara Horowitz, who founded the Freelancers Union in 1995, to talk about this new model for organizing workers and what it means for organized labor in general.

Theresa Riley: You’re the daughter of a labor lawyer and the granddaughter of the vice president of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union. What were you taught about unions growing up?

Sara Horowitz, Founder and director of Freelancer's Union.

Sara Horowitz

Sara Horowitz: My parents taught by example. In just talking about the topics of the day, it became clear to me that unions are a bedrock to make sure people have economic security – for individuals and for the larger economy. Having these family members showed me the union movement was something that could be your life’s work.

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Still Waging a War on Poverty

It’s been 50 years since Michael Harrington’s The Other America shook the public with its depiction of poverty in America, inspiring the 1960s “War on Poverty.” To mark this anniversary, Kit Rachlis, editor-in-chief of The American Prospect, devoted his July/August issue to investigating just how far we’ve come.

Lauren Feeney: For those of us perhaps too young to remember, can you tell us about Michael Harrington’s book, The Other America, and the impact that it had?

Kit Rachlis: The Other America came out in 1962, to almost deafening silence. It got a handful of modest and praising reviews, but sank without a trace, and Harrington himself went off to Paris to take a kind of leave. Before that, Harrington had been a socialist activist living a bohemian life in New York’s Greenwich Village, where he was a regular at the White Horse Tavern, and, I believe, was present the night Dylan Thomas drank himself to death there. He was asked to do one article, which morphed into two, for a magazine called Commentary (which at the time was a liberal left magazine; it would later become a symbol of neo-conservatism), on poverty. MORE

Dark Money in State and Local Elections

In the wake of Wisconsin’s $63.5 million recall election, we caught up with Mother Jones reporter Andy Kroll to discuss the role of dark money in state and local elections.

Lauren Feeney: Big national organizations like American Crossroads and Club for Growth Action are pouring money not just into the presidential election, but also into state and local races. Why?

Andy Kroll: Three words: Return on investment.

You can turn an election a lot easier at the congressional level than you can at the presidential level. People talk about buying a presidential election. Pro-Romney groups are projected to spend possibly $1 billion dollars in this election and the Obama camp nearly $750 million. So buying a presidential race is incredibly difficult. But you can significantly influence if not turn the tide in a congressional election with a lot less money.

There’s a great example — in 2010, you had Congressman Dan Maffei who was in New York’s 25th district. Two weeks away from the election, Maffei had a 12-point lead over his opponent, Ann Marie Buerkle. American Crossroads — Karl Rove’s super PAC — sweeps in and drops $400,000 in attack ads against Maffei in the final stretch. Buerkle squeaks out a win by 648 votes.

In the Ohio senate race right now, you have Senator Sherrod Brown running against the state treasurer, Josh Mandel. Sherrod Brown has already had about $7 million dollars spent against him, and he expects a whole lot more before the November election. Seven million dollars is frankly not all that much for Crossroads GPS, American Crossroads, American Action Network. But knocking off Sherrod Brown is knocking off a progressive champion, a member of the senate willing to take on Wall Street, willing to take on student lenders, willing to take on Republicans. And defeating Sherrod Brown puts Republicans one closer to Republican control of the Senate. We all know how much influence you can have if you control the chamber. Democratic control of the senate is the only thing standing in between Republicans pushing through all these hardline policies that have come out of the house since 2010.

It’s also true at the state level — state legislatures, state houses, state senates, gubernatorial races. If you can turn an entire state’s legislature red, as we saw Wisconsin in 2010, the sky is the limit. You can curb the collective bargaining rights of public employees, slash public education, jam through a voter ID bill that some say is discriminatory, redistrict your state in favor of your own party. MORE

The Internet v. Citizens United

Micah Sifry and Andrew Rasiej

Micah Sifry and Andrew Rasiej are co-founders of Personal Democracy Media, an organization working at the intersection of technology, politics, government and civic life. Their ninth annual Personal Democracy Forum convenes next week in New York City. We caught up with them on the eve of the forum to talk about two new factors that could help shape the 2012 elections — the growing power of social media and the Internet and the explosive influence of corporate money post-Citizens United.

Lauren Feeney: Can the democratizing power of the Internet counteract the corrosive power of money in politics?

Micah Sifry: I think in the long run the answer is yes, but in the short run — meaning the next six months — probably not. More and more people are discovering that they can participate in the daily conversation through which politics is influenced. It’s no longer just a spectator sport. In the age of television, all you could do was watch; you couldn’t talk back. In the age of the Internet, you can talk back, you can talk with each other, and millions of people are starting to do that. But many millions more are not. That’s why money is still such a powerful force in driving politics. There’s a spectrum of voters; from low information to high information. The high-information voters are the people who wake up every day and think: I’m not just going to read the news, I’m going to help shape other people’s opinions — I’m uploading, I’m sharing, I’m rating, I’m commenting. They are the online participatory class. But we live in a country with 300 million-plus people, and a lot of them are very turned off from politics. They don’t pay a lot of attention; they don’t think it matters. Those low information voters are very susceptible to the type of messaging that you can still buy with money. MORE

Still Fighting the Power

Jeff Chang is the author of Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. His 2005 book chronicled the post-civil rights era showing how hip hop “crystallized a multiracial, polycultural generation’s worldview, and transformed American politics and culture.” He is the executive director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts + Committee on Black Performing Arts at Stanford University. Named by Utne Reader as “one of the 50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World,” Chang has been a USA Ford fellow in literature and a winner of the North Star News Prize.

We talked with Chang earlier this week about the history of hip hop music and culture in the United States, and the way in which it has become a force for protest — and revolution — on the worldwide stage.

[Parental Advisory: Some embedded music videos contain profanity.]

Riley: You have proclaimed that hip hop is the most socially important music of our time.

Jeff ChangJeff Chang: I think hip hop tells the hidden story of the latter part of the twentieth century and the beginning of this century in terms of the underside of the American dream and, by extension, what has happened in and amongst youth all around the world. Although not all hip hop is exclusively political, a good amount of it speaks to the kinds of pressures that young people have been facing because of globalization, changes in policing and the incarceration of youth and oftentimes, the breakdown of institutions and structures in the communities that hip hop comes from. I’ve always listened to hip hop with that kind of an ear, listening for the seams and where the seams start coming apart, in terms of what it seems to be as popular music, as a critique of society and the economy, and the larger context of the right now.

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Are JPMorgan’s Losses A Canary in a Coal Mine?

That sound of shattered glass you’ve been hearing is the iconic portrait of Jamie Dimon splintering as it hits the floor of JPMorgan Chase. As the Good Book says, “Pride goeth before a fall,” and the sleek silver-haired, too-smart-for-his-own-good CEO of America’s largest bank has been turning every television show within reach into a confessional booth. Barack Obama’s favorite banker faces losses of $2 billion and possibly more – all because of the complex, now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t trading in exotic financial instruments that he has so ardently lobbied Congress not to regulate.

Once again, doing God’s work — that is, betting huge sums of money with depositor funds knowing that you are too big to fail and can count on taxpayers riding to your rescue if your avarice threatens to take the country down — has lost some of its luster. The jewels in Dimon’s crown sparkle with a little less grandiosity than a few days ago, when he ridiculed Paul Volcker’s ideas for keeping Wall Street honest as “infantile.” MORE

The Social Consequences of Inequality

Richard Wilkinson is an epidemiologist and a leader in international research of inequality. He is also the co-author of The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger with Kate Pickett. Their book has been described by The Sunday Times of London as having “a big idea big enough to change political thinking. In half a page,” the Times says, “it tells you more about the pain of inequality than any play or novel could.”

His TED talk — “How economic inequality harms societies” — has garnered over 1 million views on the TED website since October 2011.


We caught up with him to talk about how inequality can be dangerous to our health. MORE

A History of Campaign Advertising

David Schwartz is the chief curator of the Museum of the Moving Image and curator of The Living Room Candidate: Presidential Campaign Commercials 1952-2008, an online exhibition featuring more than 300 television commercials dating back to 1952, when the first campaign ads appeared on TV. We caught up with Schwartz to learn more about the history and art of the campaign ad.

Lauren Feeney: Was there ever a “good old days” of campaign advertising? A time when they were fair, honest and substantive?

David Schwartz: From the very beginning, campaign ads were not substantive. The first televised campaign ads were the Eisenhower Answers America ads, which were 20 seconds long. They identified key issues and made very simple statements. The message was: Washington’s a mess, it’s filled with corruption, we’re stuck in the war in Korea, prices are too high, and Eisenhower is the outsider who’s going to come in and fix that. The ads repeated those points over and over again. They weren’t filled with lies, I guess, but they were quite simplistic.

If you look at some of the Kennedy-Nixon ads from 1960, there is a fair amount of substance in them compared to what you see today. There’s one Kennedy ad about religion where he outlines his feeling about whether he can be an effective president and a Catholic, and it actually goes on for almost two minutes and shows a real train of thought and an argument being made. You don’t really see that today. You tend to see 30-second ads with sound bites and quickly edited images.

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Jose Antonio Vargas on Coming Out as an Undocumented Immigrant

Jose Antonio Vargas at a Romney campaign event in Iowa in December 2011. Vargas, who had reported on Romney's 2008 campaign for the Washington Post, was asked to leave the event. (Brendan Hoffman/Prime)

Jose Antonio Vargas didn’t know he was an undocumented immigrant until, at 16, he tried to obtain a drivers license and was told by a D.M.V. clerk his green card was a fake. He kept his secret through high school, college, and several part time jobs. Soon after graduating, Vargas was hired by The Washington Post, where he contributed to the paper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings. In many ways, the young Filipino immigrant had already achieved the American Dream — but he was still undocumented, and still felt like he was hiding.

In 2011, Vargas chose to speak out, sharing the story of his life as an undocumented immigrant in The New York Times — including details of using a fake passport to apply for a Social Security card and claiming full citizenship on his 1-9 employment eligibility forms. His “coming out” was inspired by a group of students who walked from Miami to Washington, D.C. to lobby for the Dream Act. The act would provide a path to permanent residency for young people like Vargas, who were brought to this country by their parents as children, were educated here, and, in many cases, know no other home.

We spoke to Vargas about the Dream Act, Arizona’s controversial immigration law, and his own personal status a year after his daring admission.

Lauren Feeney: Why do you think the Dream Act — which was introduced in 2001 and had widespread bipartisan support — been stalled for over a decade now?

Jose Antonio Vargas: The Dream Act was introduced in August 2001 and then the next month, the September 11th attacks hit. After that, Americans started to rethink the idea of strangers and foreigners — and rightfully so; we were just attacked. Everything immigration reform–related just got put by the wayside. George W. Bush — who was a border president — understood immigration and understood the importance of Latino voters and wanted some sort of reform. But in the politics of the post–September 11th world, it just became impossible. I read George W. Bush’s memoir a few months ago, and he says in the book that not passing immigration reform was one of the biggest regrets of his presidency. MORE

Oran Hesterman on Reforming the American Food System

Some of you may remember the 2008 interview Bill did with author and food activist Michael Pollan on Bill Moyers Journal. It’s still one of the most popular videos on the website. Pollan’s movie, Food, Inc., had premiered at the Toronto Film Festival a few months earlier, and he had just published an open letter to the newly elected president in The New York Times magazine – “Farmer in Chief” – asking that food be made a priority. The problems plaguing America’s food system were beginning to gain national attention.

Oran Hesterman was watching that Journal broadcast with great interest. Hesterman is the director of the Fair Food Network, a nonprofit headquartered in Southeast Michigan whose mission is to make healthy, fresh and sustainably-grown food accessible to everyone.

Riley: You write in your book, Fair Food, that you found Pollan’s response to Bill’s question about what people can do to make a difference — Pollan said “plant a garden” — a missed opportunity. The food movement has made some progress since then. What you would say now in answer to the question: “What can non-farmers do to help reform the nation’s food system?”
Oran Hesterman
Hesterman: I wrote the book because I’m convinced it’s time for us to elevate the conversation about the food system to solutions; we understand that the food system is broken in ways that are creating food deserts and diet-related illness and environmental problems, and farm workers and food workers who are living in deplorable conditions. We don’t need to spend a lot more time detailing all the problems.

So if I was asked by Bill Moyers today what’s the one thing that people can do to make a difference, I would say the most important action is to make the shift from conscious consumer to engaged citizen. And what I mean by that is for us to stop thinking that by simply eating local and organic and focusing on our own diet that we’re going to change the system, but instead to expand that and realize that no matter where we live, work, play or worship, we have opportunities to shift the system on a larger scale. MORE

Is the ‘War on Mothers’ Really A War on Working-Class America?

From the battle over birth control to Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s repeal of the state’s Equal Pay law, conservatives have been seen as assailing women’s hard-won rights this campaign season. Then, last week, Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen said Mitt Romney’s wife Ann, a mother of five, had “never worked a day in her life.” The statement was seen as an attack on traditional stay-at-home moms, and war was officially declared.

We reached out to Stephanie Coontz, Director of Research and Public Education for the Council on Contemporary Families, to learn more about the realities behind the rhetoric of American women balancing work and life.

Lauren Feeney: Is there a “war on women” being waged this campaign season? A “war on mothers”? Both?

Stephanie Coontz: I try to avoid hyperbole, so I would say it’s more like guerilla campaign of harassment and attrition, conducted on two fronts.

One, the attack on contraception, is a classical guerilla sniping attack, because it is picking off the most vulnerable people. Most of us who are professionals, who are employed, who have some resources, are going to be able to find contraception. But unemployed women, women who are impoverished, with less education, are really vulnerable to attacks on reproductive rights. MORE

Van Jones on Being a ‘Post-Hope Democrat’

Van Jones

Photo Credit: Zach Gross

Van Jones is perhaps best known as the former green jobs adviser to President Obama who was accused by Glenn Beck of signing a petition saying President Bush was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Although Jones said he wouldn’t knowingly have signed it, he wasn’t sure whether or not he had by mistake. Jones resigned his position at the White House after six months, giving up, he writes in his new book, “the best job I ever had.”

We caught up with Jones over the phone to talk about Rebuild the Dream, the organization he started in June 2011 to advocate for economic justice; his new book (with the same title) which hit shelves this month; and the strategy he hopes will help progressives win in Washington this winter.

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