The Long View

A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Civil Rights Act of 1964

This week, three former presidents — Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush — and current President Barack Obama are gathering in Austin, Texas, to remember the legacy of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who signed the Civil Rights Act into law 50 years ago this July. The LBJ Presidential Library is hosting a three-day Civil Rights Summit (you can watch the live stream here) to commemorate the Act and LBJ’s role in getting it passed.

Bill Moyers was a young special assistant to Johnson at the time, and witnessed first-hand his aggressive approach, utilizing both arm-twisting and charm, to getting legislation through Congress. In this 2008 essay from Bill Moyers Journal, Bill remembers Martin Luther King Jr.’s push for civil rights legislation and the behind-the-scenes cooperation between King and Johnson that led to the passage of the 1964 Act.

Bill recalls Johnson facing down a Congress controlled by Southern Democrats who were “die-hard racists—all of them, including some of his old mentors, white supremacists who threatened to bring the government, if not the country, to its knees before they would see blacks eat at the same restaurants, go to the same schools, drink from the same fountains, and live in the same neighborhoods as whites.”

Despite those convictions and other challenges, such as an unpopular war and growing unrest at home, Johnson was able to pass an impressive number of initiatives on his “Great Society” agenda, more than any president since. As The New York Times noted in an article about this week’s summit, Johnson’s presidency “represented the high-water mark for American presidents pushing through sweeping legislation — not just the Civil Rights Act, but the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, the Fair Housing Act and major measures on immigration, education, gun control and clean air and water.”

Have We Forgotten the Lessons of the Triangle Fire?

This post first appeared at The Huffington Post.

Tuesday is the 103rd anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, a major turning point in American labor history. On March 25, 1911, 146 garment workers, most of them Jewish and Italian immigrant girls in their teens and twenties, perished after a fire broke out at the Triangle factory in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Even after the fire, the city’s businesses continued to insist they could regulate themselves, but the deaths clearly demonstrated that companies like Triangle, if left to their own devices, would not concern themselves with their workers’ safety. Despite this business opposition, the public’s response to the fire and to the 146 deaths led to landmark state regulations.

Businesses today, and their allies in Congress and the statehouses, are making the same arguments against government regulation that New York’s business leaders made a century ago. The current hue and cry about “burdensome government regulations” that stifle job growth shows that the lesson of the Triangle fire has been forgotten — at least by those who have a stake in historical amnesia. Here, to refresh our fading memories, is what happened.

At the funeral procession for the unidentified Triangle fire victims, union members carry banners proclaiming "We Mourn Our Loss."

A century ago, New York was a city of enormous wealth and wide disparities between rich and poor. New industries were booming — none more so than women’s and men’s clothing. The new age had created a demand for off-the-rack, mass-produced clothing that could be sold in department stores. The Triangle Company made blouses, which were called shirtwaists.

Few of those who bought the new ready-to-wear clothing gave much thought to the people who made them. The blouses, skirts and sweaters were sewn in miserable factories, often by girls as young as 15 who worked seven days a week, from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. with a half-hour lunch break, and often longer during the busy season. They were paid about $6 per week, and were often required to use their own needles, thread, irons and even sewing machines. The factories were overcrowded (they often occupied a room in a tenement apartment) and lacked ventilation. Many were poorly lit firetraps without sprinklers or fire escapes.

In November 1909, over 20,000 shirtwaist makers from more than 500 factories, led by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), walked off their jobs. They demanded a 20 percent pay raise, a 52-hour workweek and extra pay for overtime. They also called for adequate fire escapes and open doors from the factories to the street. Within 48 hours, more than 70 of the smaller factories agreed to the union’s demands, but many of the largest manufacturers refused to compromise. The New York City police soon began arresting strikers — labeling some of them “street walkers,” which was literally true, since they were carrying picket signs up and down the sidewalks. Judges fined them and sentenced some of the activists to labor camps.

But the strikers held out and by February 1910, most of the small and midsized factories, and some of the larger employers, had negotiated a settlement for higher pay and shorter hours. One of the companies that refused to settle was the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, one of New York’s largest garment makers.

That July, another group of garment workers — over 60,000 cloakmakers, mostly men this time — went on strike. As the tensions escalated, both union and business leaders invited prominent Boston attorney (and later Supreme Court Justice) Louis Brandeis to New York to help mediate the conflict. With Brandeis’s nudging, the two sides signed the “Protocol of Peace” agreement that set minimum industry standards on wages, hours, piece-rates, and workplace safety and health. But the Protocol’s weakness was that it was a voluntary agreement, not a government regulation, and not all manufacturers signed on. Once again, one of the holdouts was the Triangle Shirtwaist Company.

Owned by Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, who were known as the “the shirtwaist kings,” Triangle was one of the most rabidly anti-union firms. On March 25, 1911, a Saturday, at 4:45 p.m., close to quitting time, a fire broke out on the eighth and ninth floors of its ten-story building. Factory foremen had locked the exit doors to keep out union organizers and to keep workers from taking breaks and stealing scraps of fabric. Other doors only opened inward and were blocked by the stampede of workers struggling to escape. The ladders of the city’s fire engines could not reach high enough to save the employees. As a result, workers burned or they jumped to their deaths. Experts later concluded that the fire was likely caused by a cigarette dropped on a pile of “cut aways” or scraps of cloth that had been accumulating for almost three months.

News of the fire spread quickly, catalyzing public opinion and energizing a broad coalition of unlikely allies. It included immigrants, muckraking journalists, clergy, unionists, socialites and socialists. Rose Schneiderman, an immigrant worker, socialist and fiery union organizer, found common cause with Anne Morgan, the daughter of Wall Street chieftain J.P. Morgan. Frances Perkins, a former settlement house worker who was at the time a researcher and lobbyist for the Consumers League (and who later became Franklin Roosevelt’s trailblazing secretary of labor) joined hands with Rabbi Stephen S. Wise to demand reform.

On April 6, 30,000 New Yorkers marched — and hundreds of thousands more lined the march’s route — behind empty hearses to memorialize the fire’s victims. Numerous rallies, broadsides and editorials called for legislative action — ranging from fire safety codes to restrictions on child labor. In response to the outcry, New York Governor John Alden Dix created the Factory Investigating Commission, a pioneering body with broad subpoena powers and teams of investigators, led by two savvy Democratic politicians, state Assemblyman Al Smith and state Senator Robert F. Wagner.

Smith, Wagner and the Commission members traveled up and down the state holding hearings and visiting factories. Over two years, the commissioners interviewed almost 500 witnesses and visited over 3,000 factories in 20 industries. They found buildings without fire escapes, and bakeries in poorly ventilated cellars with rat droppings. Only 21 percent of the bakeries even had bathrooms, and most of them were unsanitary. Children — some as young as five years old — were toiling in dangerous canning factories. Women and girls were working 18-hour days.

After the fire, many city officials acknowledged there was a problem. Edward F. Croker, New York City’s retired fire chief, told the Commission that employers “pay absolutely no attention to the fire hazard or to the protection of the employees in these buildings. That is their last consideration.” His department had cited the Triangle building for lack of fire escapes just one week before the fire.

But the garment manufacturers, the Real Estate Board and the bakery and cannery industry groups sought to stymie the Commission. The real-estate interests opposed city fire codes. After the Fire Department ordered warehouses to install sprinklers, the Protective League of Property Owners held a meeting to denounce the mandate, angrily charging the city with forcing owners to use “cumbersome and costly” equipment.

As representative of the Associated Industries of New York insisted that regulations would mean “the wiping out of industry in this state.” Mabel Clark, vice president of the W.N. Clark Company, a canning corporation, opposed any restrictions on child labor. “I have seen children working in factories, and I have seen them working at home, and they were perfectly happy,” she declared.

Terence McGuire, president of the Real Estate Board, summed up the business argument against regulation. “To my mind this is all wrong,” he declared. “The experience of the past proves conclusively that the best government is the least possible government.” The board warned that new laws would drive “manufacturers out of the City and State of New York.”

Smith, Wagner and the political leaders of the time, fortified by a vibrant progressive movement, ignored these opponents of business regulation. In the first year, the Commission proposed and the legislature quickly passed a package of laws requiring mandatory fire drills, automatic sprinklers and unlocked doors during work hours that were required to swing outward. They also created rules on the storage and disposal of flammable waste, and they banned smoking from the shop floor.

In the second year, the legislature passed additional reforms. They set the maximum numbers of workers per floor. They established codes requiring new buildings to include fireproof stairways and fire escapes. They required employers to provide clean drinking water, washrooms and toilets for their employees. They gave labor commission inspectors the power to shut down unsanitary tenement sweatshops. And they ruled that women could work no more than 54 hours a week and that children under 18 could not work in dangerous situations.

These pathbreaking state regulations, provoked by the Triangle fire, proved that government could play a powerful role in the lives of ordinary people. Other states followed suit, and ultimately President Franklin Roosevelt, prodded by Perkins, Wagner and other veterans of New York’s progressive movement, introduced New Deal reforms ending child labor, establishing a federal minimum wage and a 40-hour week and creating a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that would establish the right of workers to form a union that would bargain collectively with employers.

The Triangle Company’s owners were indicted and went on trial for manslaughter, but they were found innocent when the judge told the jury that in order to return a guilty verdict, they had to find that the two defendants knew or should have known that the doors were locked. Harris and Blanck also continued to refuse to recognize the union. But the company never recovered from the fire and the controversy surrounding it, and in 1918, it closed its doors.

That didn’t happen to other city businesses. Contrary to the business leaders’ dire predictions, they did not suffer from the new regulations. The New York Times reported in July 1914, that, “[n]otwithstanding all the talk of a probable exodus of manufacturing interests, the commission has not found a single case of a manufacturer intending to leave the State because of the enforcement of the factory laws.” New York’s Seventh Avenue remained the headquarters of the nation’s garment industry for decades until production gradually moved south and overseas after World War II.

Ironically, more than a century after the Triangle fire, we still hear much of the same rhetoric whenever reformers seek to use government to make businesses act more responsibly and protect consumers, workers and the environment. For example, the disasters that killed 29 miners at Upper Big Branch and eleven oil rig workers in the Gulf several years ago could have been avoided had lawmakers resisted lobbying by mine owners and BP to weaken safety regulations. Wal-Mart could possibly have prevented the disastrous deaths of over a thousand garment workers in last year’s collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building in Savar, Bangladesh, if it had been willing to insist that its subcontractors meet basic safety standards.

Today, the leading foe of reform is the United States Chamber of Commerce, which has been on a crusade against the Obama administration’s plans to set new rules on unsafe workplaces, industrial hazards and threats to public health. The Chamber labels every effort at reform a “job killer.” The Chamber and other business lobby groups constantly push to cut Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s budget and weaken its regulations. They want to cripple an agency that has been effective at significantly reducing workplace injuries and deaths. They lobby to weaken rules to control “combustible dust” that has resulted in explosions killing workers, rules to track musculoskeletal disorders, such as tendonitis, carpal tunnel or back injuries, that impact millions of workers at keyboards, in construction or in meat processing and rules to address workplace noise that leads to hearing loss.

The Chamber’s most vocal ally in Congress is Darrell Issa, the conservative California Republican who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. But many of his GOP colleagues — including House Speaker John Boehner — instinctively parrot the Chamber’s mantra that “excessive regulation costs jobs” and that the “path to prosperity” is by “getting government out of the way.”

Americans of earlier generations — who enjoyed the benefits of the Progressive Era and the New Deal reforms, and the political clout of a vibrant labor movement — understood this was nonsense, but it seems like the lessons of the past have to be relearned again. That’s why it is important to recall the sordid circumstances in which 146 young women lost their lives at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company 103 years ago.

In The Public Interest
Donald Cohen is the chair of In the Public Interest, a national resource center on privatization and responsible contracting.

A Lesson From Chattanooga

“…we’re outraged by politicians and outside special interest groups interfering…” – UAW Secretary-Treasurer Dennis Williams

Many factors led to the United Auto Workers’ (UAW’s) loss in the recent union election at the Volkswagen (VW) factory in Tennessee. Likewise many lessons can be learned. One especially important lesson concerns how one factor – “outside influence” – works so one-sidedly in the United States.

Several UAW spokespersons and supporters bemoaned “outside interference” in this election. It was chiefly Republican politicians and activists and business groups that tried actively to persuade VW workers to vote against unionizing the factory, while the VW management remained neutral. Yet outside interference always influences union elections. Outcomes are never results merely of what employers and employees say and do in election campaigns.

Workers assemble Volkswagen Passat sedans at the German automaker's plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig, file)

Workers assemble Volkswagen Passat sedans at the German automaker's plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig, file)

Just as important is the way workers see the larger world and their places within it. That emerges from the workers’ families and households, the education they received, the mass media they engage, and from political parties and government. All their life experiences shape how they think about everything including voting in union elections.

Organizations of business, the wealthy and the conservatives (think tanks, foundations, hired public relations firms, advertising enterprises, major newspapers, mass radio and TV stations, internet outlets and social media) work constantly to shape workers’ life experiences and thus how they see the world. Because of their dependence on financing from businesses and the wealthy, most Republicans and Democrats avoid conflicts with their campaigns to shape public opinion. Conservatives pander to them.

No alternative, different way to see the world similarly surrounds workers in their daily lives. Workers’ organizations (unions, think tanks, independent media) are many fewer, poorer and much weaker. “Outside influences” shape workers’ consciousness one-sidedly because of the gross disparity of resources available to those exerting that influence. What made local Republicans and conservatives’ billboards persuasive was public opinion; the shape of that opinion defeated unionization in Tennessee. How differently “outside influences” work in other countries is suggested by this simple fact: virtually all of VW’s 105 factories elsewhere are unionized.

During the middle 1930s, millions joined unions for the first time: the greatest unionization drive in history.
The history of unionization in the US reinforces the point. During the middle 1930s, millions joined unions for the first time: the greatest unionization drive in history. We had never seen anything like it before, nor have we since. Unionization then was achieved by a remarkable alliance: unions (allied in the Congress of Industrial Organizations or CIO) plus large, active socialist and communist parties. Those parties widely and effectively contested the “outside influences” stemming from business, the wealthy and conservatives. Socialists and communists mobilized their own media, writers, artists and academics into play. Their demonstrations on many social issues made news and their organizations disseminated a distinctive interpretation of that news. They contradicted what business, the wealthy and conservatives asserted and not only around particular issues. Many among them also contested the economic system arguing that the US could and should do better than capitalism. Interested teachers, clergy, students, immigrant and racial minorities and the general public thus continuously encountered perspectives other than those of business, the wealthy and conservatives.

How workers thought about and responded to union activists in the 1930s reflected the “outside influences” stemming from their socialist and communist allies. Those influences helped to make unionization so stunningly successful then.

Consider the claim – evidently somewhat effective in Chattanooga – that high wages won by the UAW caused Detroit’s economic collapse. That the UAW’s enemies would make that claim is not remarkable; that some workers took it seriously is. Every significant decision at Ford, General Motors and Chrysler since their beginnings was made exclusively by their major shareholders and boards of directors, all small handfuls of individuals. They alone decided what vehicles and fuel efficiencies to produce, what technologies to use, how many workers to hire, and where to locate or relocate factories (north, south, at home, or abroad). They always excluded workers from participation in those decisions (and opposed the UAW’s participation in wage decisions). They insisted on management prerogatives and expertise and corporate responsibilities.

While Detroit’s auto industry was booming, those decision-makers took full credit; it was all about their entrepreneurial geniuses. Then, their many bad corporate decisions (on auto design, technical composition, fuel efficiency, marketing and much else) badly weakened the industry. That plus far better decisions among European, Japanese and Korean auto producers reduced US firms’ profits and market shares. US firms’ major shareholders and boards of directors then decided to leave Detroit, ignoring their decision’s disastrous effects. In contrast, while German manufacturers pay their unionized workers much more than their US counterparts, they have not abandoned their workers or their cities. Germany has no equivalent of Detroit.

As Detroit declined, auto-company decision-makers conveniently reversed themselves and asserted their non-responsibility. They were suddenly not the powerful “captains of industry” they once called themselves. Instead they want folks to believe that the UAW forced high wages on them and that they left Detroit because the UAW victimized them. Some Tennessee workers found such assertions plausible and voted accordingly. By contrast, the profound impact of German unions and their socialist and communist allies on public opinion there helps explain why this year VW’s unionized German workers are enjoying a 5.6 percent wage increase at a time of 1.2 percent inflation.

Only a sustained counterprogram of mass education could at least partly shift “public opinion” so that it functions less as an anti-union “outside interference.” The construction today of an alliance parallel to the one that proved successful in the 1930s might accomplish that counterprogram. Labor needs to rebuild collaborations with academics – students as well as teachers – and political activists who understand past and present contrary to the claims promoted by business, the wealthy and conservatives. In short, a besieged labor movement needs again to become part of a much broader social movement. This time the urgency is less to grow (as in the 1930s) and more a matter of organized labor’s survival.

Credit: Dale Robbins
Richard D. Wolff is a professor of economics emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst where he taught economics from 1973 to 2008. He is currently a visiting professor in the graduate program in international affairs of the New School University and also teaches classes regularly at the Brecht Forum in Manhattan. Wolff has taught economics at Yale University, the City College of the City University of New York and the Sorbonne in Paris. His work is available at rdwolff.com and at democracyatwork.info.

Pete Seeger: Beating Flagpoles into Ploughshares

Pete Seeger in 1955 (Photo: Frank Palumbo/Library of Congress)

Pete Seeger in 1955 (Photo: Frank Palumbo/Library of Congress)

Not only was it sad to hear the news this morning of Pete Seeger’s passing but startling to realize that it was 45 long years ago that we first met. It was in 1969, at Georgetown University, when I was a callow college freshman and he already was a legend among folk music lovers and political activists.

I knew his songs, had many of his records and played them all the time, especially a concert album with the great Bernice Johnson Reagon, founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock, and the Rev. Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick, the Baptist minister in charge of folk culture for Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

There was another album I loved called “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy and Other Love Songs.” It wasn’t so much the folk music revival of the fifties and sixties that first drew me to Seeger, but that title song. “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” told the story of a captain ordering a platoon to cross a river despite his sergeant’s warning that the water was too deep and treacherous. MORE

The Two Faces of Empire: Melville Knew Them, We Still Live With Them

This post first appeared on TomDispatch.

A captain ready to drive himself and all around him to ruin in the hunt for a white whale. It’s a well-known story, and over the years, mad Ahab in Herman Melville’s most famous novel, Moby-Dick, has been used as an exemplar of unhinged American power, most recently of George W. Bush’s disastrous invasion of Iraq.

But what’s really frightening isn’t our Ahabs, the hawks who periodically want to bomb some poor country, be it Vietnam or Afghanistan, back to the Stone Age. The respectable types are the true “terror of our age,” as Noam Chomsky called them collectively nearly 50 years ago. The really scary characters are our soberest politiciansscholarsjournalistsprofessionals and managers, men and women (though mostly men) who imagine themselves as morally serious, and then enable the wars, devastate the planet and rationalize the atrocities. They are a type that has been with us for a long time. More than a century and a half ago, Melville, who had a captain for every face of empire, found their perfect expression — for his moment and ours.

Illustration from 1902 Scribner edition of Mody Dick. (Image: I. W. Taber)

Illustration from 1902 Scribner edition of Mody Dick. (Image: I. W. Taber)

For the last six years, I’ve been researching the life of an American seal killer, a ship captain named Amasa Delano who, in the 1790s, was among the earliest New Englanders to sail into the South Pacific. Money was flush, seals were many and Delano and his fellow ship captains established the first unofficial US colonies on islands off the coast of Chile. They operated under an informal council of captains, divvied up territory, enforced debt contracts, celebrated the Fourth of July and set up ad hoc courts of law. When no bible was available, the collected works of William Shakespeare, found in the libraries of most ships, were used to swear oaths.

From his first expedition, Delano took hundreds of thousands of sealskins to China, where he traded them for spices, ceramics and tea to bring back to Boston. During a second, failed voyage, however, an event took place that would make Amasa notorious — at least among the readers of the fiction of Herman Melville.

Here’s what happened: One day in February 1805 in the South Pacific, Amasa Delano spent nearly a full day on board a battered Spanish slave ship, conversing with its captain, helping with repairs and distributing food and water to its thirsty and starving voyagers, a handful of Spaniards and about 70 West African men and women he thought were slaves. They weren’t. MORE

Peter Edelman on Waging Another War on Poverty

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, declared by President Lyndon Johnson in his 1964 State of the Union Address. Last year, Bill spoke with Peter Edelman, one of our nation’s foremost experts on poverty. During the mid-1960s, the two men worked in Washington for the Johnson administration — Edelman as an aide to Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and Bill as a special assistant to the president. In their conversation, they looked back at the forces that came together during that time to face down poverty in America.

Enthusiasm for LBJ’s War on Poverty lost steam as the ’70s progressed. “I thought onward and upward… [but] there are so many things that happened that we didn’t foresee,” Edelman told Bill. “The economy caught up with us.” Edelman explained that the manufacturing jobs that had supported much of the middle class disappeared and were replaced with jobs that paid much less, if they were replaced at all. And with LBJ’s other war — Vietnam — raging abroad and Watergate unfolding at home, the country began to lose faith in government as a force to solve problems. MORE

Five Reasons Why 2013 Was the Best Year in Human History

This post originally appeared at ThinkProgress.

Between the brutal civil war in Syria, the government shutdown and all of the deadly dysfunction it represents, the NSA spying revelations, and massive inequality, it’d be easy to for you to enter 2014 thinking the last year has been an awful one.

But you’d be wrong. We have every reason to believe that 2013 was, in fact, the best year on the planet for humankind.

Contrary to what you might have heard, virtually all of the most important forces that determine what make people’s lives good — the things that determine how long they live, and whether they live happily and freely — are trending in an extremely happy direction. While it’s possible that this progress could be reversed by something like runaway climate change, the effects will have to be dramatic to overcome the extraordinary and growing progress we’ve made in making the world a better place.

Here are the five big reasons why. MORE

This Town Just Keeps Getting Worse…

Washington Daily Life
The sun rises behind the Washington Monument on a cloudy day in Washington, Friday Sep 13, 2013. (AP Photo/J. David Ake)

Not long after the release of This Town last summer people started asking me about writing a sequel: This Town: Continued or This Town: It’s Even Worse Now, or some such. It was of course gratifying to hear this from people, or at least be humored by them, but the reality was more depressing. This Town was pretty much updating itself every week, the modern story of our gilded capital unfurling in a mania of self-parody and soul-crushing sameness. The book writes itself, in other words.

In late 2012, after I had finished most of the This Town manuscript, I was interviewing Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the Connecticut Democrat, for a brief Q and A that would appear in the front of The New York Times Magazine. Feeling a bit jaded — maybe more than usual after three years’ immersion in the Washington political class — my sarcasm flowed:

“You’re retiring after serving 24 years in the Senate,” I asked Lieberman. “What lobbying firm are you going to join now? MORE

Honor JFK By Renewing His Constitutional Commitment to Extend Voting Rights

The post first appeared in The Nation.


A tour group walks past a memorial wreath displayed next to the bronze memorial bust, by Robert Berks, of President John F. Kennedy in the grand foyer of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, Friday, Nov. 22, 2013, on the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's death. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
A tour group walks past a memorial wreath displayed next to the bronze memorial bust, by Robert Berks, of President John F. Kennedy in the grand foyer of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, Friday, Nov. 22, 2013, on the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's death. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

The right to vote in a free American election is the most powerful and precious right in the world — and it must not be denied on the grounds of race or color. It is a potent key to achieving other rights of citizenship. For American history — both recent and past — clearly reveals that the power of the ballot has enabled those who achieve it to win other achievements as well, to gain a full voice in the affairs of their state and nation and to see their interests represented in the governmental bodies which affect their future. In a free society, those with the power to govern are necessarily responsive to those with the right to vote.

–John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Special Message to the Congress on Civil Rights, 1963

There has been much honoring of the memory of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy this week, and rightly so. He was dynamic figure who preached a “new generation of leadership” vision that still serves as an antithesis to the listless, austerity-burdened rhetoric of so many of today’s political figures — including some in Kennedy’s own Democratic Party.
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Four Remarkable Films About Kennedy You May Have Missed

Tonight on the Turner Classic Movies channel there’s a rare opportunity to see four remarkable early vérité documentary films. Filmmaker Robert Drew and his associates — a team that included the Maysles Brothers, Richard Leacock and DA Pennebaker — were given extraordinary access to John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign and the Kennedy White House using the first, lightweight film equipment with synchronized sound.

The films air tonight starting at 8 p.m. First up is Primary, the 1960 film about Kennedy’s run for president in the Wisconsin primary which is, according to Drew, “regarded as the beginning of American cinéma vérité.”

In this YouTube clip from Primary, The New Yorker’s Front Row film blogger Richard Brody reviews the film.


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Reflections of a Citizen Soldier After Veterans Day

Ever since Veterans Day, I have been re-reading and pondering President Obama’s remarks at the customary official celebration of the occasion in Arlington Cemetery. Something about the familiar words reminded me uncomfortably of remarks by past presidents that have now become virtually standard every year. Obama sounded the opening theme:

“Today we gather once more to honor patriots who have rendered the highest service any American can offer this nation — those who fought for our freedom and stood sentry for our security. In the life of our nation, across every generation, there are those who… put on the uniform and …put their lives on the line. They do this so that the rest of us might live in a country and a world that is safer, freer and more just.”

Then, after invoking the magic place names — Lexington Green, Gettysburg, the beaches of Europe and the islands of the Pacific, with a nod to Korea — he got to recent history. “From the jungles of Vietnam to Desert Storm to the mountains of the Balkans, they have answered America’s call. And since America was attacked on that clear September morning, millions more have assumed that mantle, defining one of the greatest generations of military service this country has ever produced.”

A military honor guard holds the Medal of Honor before President Barack Obama awards it to former Army Capt. William D. Swenson of Seattle, Wash., during a ceremony in the East Room at the White House. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

A military honor guard holds the Medal of Honor before President Barack Obama awards it to former Army Capt. William D. Swenson of Seattle, Wash., during a ceremony in the East Room at the White House. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

It was the old refrain: Veterans of all our wars have been “heroes,” and all the wars have been in defense of our liberty. My first reaction could be summed up in an eight-letter barnyard epithet, but I believe that the subject deserves a more nuanced and developed afterthought. I’ll begin with the part I played in the war of 1939-45. MORE

Will We Ever be Prepared for Climate Change?

A tourist sits outside a coffee in flooded St. Mark square as high tides reached 1.05 meters above sea level, partly flooding the city of Venice, Italy, Monday, Oct. 15, 2012. (AP Photo/Luigi Costantini)
A tourist sits outside a coffee shop in flooded St. Mark square as high tides reached 1.05 meters above sea level, partly flooding the city of Venice, Italy, Monday, Oct. 15, 2012. (AP Photo/Luigi Costantini)

Last week, an early draft of an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report was leaked to bloggers and picked up in the mainstream press. The first installment of that report, released in September, stated that human activity “has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.” This leaked second installment shows the severity and breadth of the climate change impacts for which we’ll need to prepare. On the New Yorker’s Daily Comment blog, Elizabeth Kolbert asks whether the “Boy Scout-ish” notion of preparedness is even possible, given what the IPCC report reveals.

The I.P.C.C. doesn’t conduct any research of its own—its conclusions are based entirely on already-published scientific papers—so it could be argued that there was no real news in the latest document. The force of the report comes simply from assembling all the data in one place; the summary reads like a laundry list of the apocalypse—flood, drought, disease, starvation. Climate change, the group noted, will reduce yields of major crops by up to two per cent each decade for the remainder of this century. (One of the reasons for this is that heat waves, which will become more common as the world warms, depress the yields of staple crops like corn.)
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The Aftermath: A Problematic ‘Victory’

Lynn Bergman, of Bismarck, N.D., listens to a speech at a "tea party" rally of Republicans and conservatives at a Bismarck motel on Friday, Feb. 12, 2010. Bergman dressed as Revolutionary War author Thomas Paine for the occasion. (AP Photo/Dale Wetzel)

Lynn Bergman, of Bismarck, N.D., listens to a speech at a "tea party" rally of Republicans and conservatives. Bergman dressed as Revolutionary War author Thomas Paine for the occasion. (AP Photo/Dale Wetzel)

“These are the times that try men’s souls.” So begins Tom Paine’s pamphlet, The American Crisis, written in possibly the darkest moment of the Revolutionary War, the winter of 1776-77, with George Washington’s little army in flight from the British and steadily being whittled away by desertion, discouragement and disease.

We Americans of today have just gotten through a soul-trying experience of our own — 16 days of shuttered, helpless government, and worse, around-the-clock TV drama, with graphics of clocks ticking away the dwindling hours as we hurtled towards the unbelievable moment when the mighty United States of America would be unable to pay its bills, an outcome that would have had disastrous results for our own and the whole world’s economies.

But supposedly we have escaped fiscal doomsday thanks to the an eleventh-hour settlement and the president’s resolve in refusing to negotiate with Republicans until the government was up and running once more, and the debt ceiling extended. Not so, in my view. What we got last week was simply a stay of execution of some 120 days at most. By mid-December, Congressional Republicans and Democrats are supposed to come up with a “compromise” budget that must be accepted by early January to keep the restarted machinery of government operating. The debt ceiling extension expires just one month later. Nothing guarantees there won’t be a replay of the sordid scenario just enacted.

Remember the past year’s cliffhanger. The center did not hold. We were warned that the failure to reach a budget agreement by Thanksgiving would trigger the sequester, a result supposedly so scary that Congress would simply have to come to a budget agreement.

It did not. The sequester took effect in March of this year and ever since has been gouging away at the viscera of responsible government of, by and for the people. That result delights the billionaires who may not have created the tea party but whose money gives it the resources to pursue and destroy any Republicans not wedded to the dream of an eventual dictatorship of the plutocracy. MORE

The Robot Invasion

This post first appeared in The American Prospect.

Workers are photographed on a flywheel assembly line at the Ford Motor Company's Highland Park, Mi., plant in 1913. The use of a moving line reduced a car's assembly time from 12 hours to 93 minutes. The world's first automatic conveyor belt escalated the Industrial Age inspiring Henry Ford toward an unprecedented $5 per day minimum wage and an eight-hour day when auto industry workers were making $2.34 for a nine-hour shift. Faster assemblage meant quicker availability, giving impetus to America's car culture and an ever-increasing mobile society. (AP Photo/Ford Motor Company)

Workers are photographed on a flywheel assembly line at the Ford Motor Company's Highland Park, Mi., plant in 1913. The use of a moving line reduced a car's assembly time from 12 hours to 93 minutes. (AP Photo/Ford Motor Company)

If you want a sense of where the nation’s job market is headed, a good place to stand is inside the half-mile-long Skechers warehouse in Moreno Valley, California, where box after box of shoes is stacked upon row after row of shelving, which soars some 40 feet in the air. Physically, the place is a wonder — quiet, sleek, and environmentally friendly (at 1.8 million square feet, it’s the largest officially certified “LEED Gold” building in the country). But what’s most remarkable about the $250 million structure, which opened in 2011, is how few people work there.

The day I visited, a clump of men and women toiled away near a series of conveyor belts, filling small specialty orders. But machines — not human beings — were handling the bulk of the chores. “As you can see, there are no more people doing the retrieving,” Iddo Benzeevi, the chief executive of Highland Fairview, the firm that developed the site, told me. “It’s the computer doing it all by itself.”

A driverless crane swung into motion nearby, delivering a box of shoes to its appointed spot in the stacks. A moment later, guided by a web of sensors and software, the mammoth contraption plucked another box and shuttled it in a different direction. Then it zipped back, red lights flashing. In this immense section of the facility, nobody lays a finger on any of the goods, all stamped “Made in China.”

About 700 people work in the Skechers warehouse, according to Benzeevi, and as many as 300 more could be added in the next few years as business expands. That, however, is about 30 percent fewer jobs than one would expect at a more traditional logistics operation of the same size. A local newspaper, The Press-Enterprise, reported last year that because Skechers transferred work to Moreno Valley from a handful of less-automated warehouses, it has meant a net loss of as many as 400 jobs across the area. (Skechers officials declined to comment.)

Benzeevi is unapologetic about any such casualties and points to a growing logistics industry, the fierce nature of global competition, the unrelenting march of technology, and the quality of jobs that are found at his cutting-edge distribution center — relatively high-skilled, high-paying ones (such as programming computers and repairing sophisticated pieces of equipment) versus the more menial variety that have been wiped out (like hauling around pallets with a forklift). “They are better jobs, which is where America should be,” he says. MORE

The Income Tax Turns 100 — Who Pays What?

A man picks up federal tax form 1040 at a post office in Palo Alto, Calif. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

Thursday marks the 100th anniversary of the federal income tax. That is, the income tax that we have today – the first US tax raised on earned incomes was a temporary one imposed to help pay for the War of 1812. Another helped pay for the Civil War, but was allowed to expire in 1872.

One of the most simplistic statements one can utter is, “taxes are too damn high.” The US has a complex tax system — there are many, many different taxes — so a more salient question than whether taxes are “too high” or “too low” is: who pays what?

The reality is that, overall, the US has one of the lowest tax burdens in the industrial world. If someone’s tax burden is too great to bear, that probably means that someone else isn’t paying a fair share of the cost of maintaining the public services that a modern nation-state requires. MORE

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