Tue, 21 Oct 2014 21:28:45 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Moyers & Company is a weekly hour of compelling and vital conversation about life and the state of American democracy, featuring some of the best thinkers of our time. A range of scholars, artists, activists, scientists, philosophers and newsmakers bring context, insight and meaning to important topics. The series occasionally includes Bill Moyers' own timely and penetrating essays on society and government. Subscribe to the podcast for an audio version of the weekly program. Public Affairs Television, Inc. no Public Affairs Television, Inc. (Public Affairs Television, Inc.) Moyers & Company is a weekly hour of compelling and vital conversation about life and the state of American democracy, featuring some of the best thinkers of our time. Moyers,Bill,Moyers,Bill,Moyers,Journal,Company,Public,Affairs,PBS Live Chat With Bill Moyers on Thursday at 1 PM ET Tue, 21 Oct 2014 21:02:38 +0000 Join Bill on Thursday, October 23, at 1 pm ET for an online chat answering your questions. Please feel free to submit questions here in advance. Continue reading

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After hitting 500,000 likes on Facebook, Bill wanted to do another live chat to answer your questions and discuss the ways in which we can make our democracy better.

Please join us on Thursday, October 23, at 1 pm ET for a 45-minute live chat. We encourage you to send your questions to Bill in advance by entering them in the comments section below or on our Facebook Event page.

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Edward Snowden and the Golden Age of Spying: An Interview with Laura Poitras Tue, 21 Oct 2014 19:01:46 +0000 An interview with Laura Potrais on her latest film, Citizenfour, a journey to the revelation of government mass surveillance and the Snowden era. Continue reading

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This post first appeared at TomDispatch.

Laura Poitras at PopTech 2010 conference in Camden, Maine. (Photo: PopTech /flickr CC 2.0)
Laura Poitras at PopTech 2010 conference in Camden, Maine. (Photo: PopTech /flickr CC 2.0)

Here’s a Ripley’s Believe It or Not! stat from our new age of national security. How many Americans have security clearances? The answer: 5.1 million, a figure that reflects the explosive growth of the national security state in the post-9/11 era. Imagine the kind of system needed just to vet that many people for access to our secret world (to the tune of billions of dollars). We’re talking here about the total population of Norway and significantly more people than you can find in Costa Rica, Ireland or New Zealand. And yet it’s only about 1.6 percent of the American population, while on ever more matters, the unvetted 98.4 percent of us are meant to be left in the dark.

For our own safety, of course. That goes without saying.

All of this offers a new definition of democracy in which we, the people, are to know only what the national security state cares to tell us. Under this system, ignorance is the necessary, legally enforced prerequisite for feeling protected. In this sense, it is telling that the only crime for which those inside the national security state can be held accountable in post-9/11 Washington is not potential perjury before Congress, or the destruction of evidence of a crime, or torture, or kidnapping, or assassination, or the deaths of prisoners in an extralegal prison system, but whistleblowing; that is, telling the American people something about what their government is actually doing. And that crime, and only that crime, has been prosecuted to the full extent of the law (and beyond) with a vigor unmatched in American history. To offer a single example, the only American to go to jail for the CIA’s Bush-era torture program was John Kiriakou, a CIA whistleblower who revealed the name of an agent involved in the program to a reporter.

In these years, as power drained from Congress, an increasingly imperial White House has launched various wars (redefined by its lawyers as anything but), as well as a global assassination campaign in which the White House has its own “kill list” and the president himself decides on global hits. Then, without regard for national sovereignty or the fact that someone is an American citizen (and upon the secret invocation of legal mumbo-jumbo), the drones are sent off to do the necessary killing.

And yet that doesn’t mean that we, the people, know nothing. Against increasing odds, there has been some fine reporting in the mainstream media by the likes of James Risen and Barton Gellman on the security state’s post-legal activities and above all, despite the Obama administration’s regular use of the World War I era Espionage Act, whistleblowers have stepped forward from within the government to offer us sometimes staggering amounts of information about the system that has been set up in our name but without our knowledge.

Among them, one young man, whose name is now known worldwide, stands out. In June of last year, thanks to journalist Glenn Greenwald and filmmaker Laura Poitras, Edward Snowden, a contractor for the NSA and previously the CIA, stepped into our lives from a hotel room in Hong Kong. With a treasure trove of documents that are still being released, he changed the way just about all of us view our world. He has been charged under the Espionage Act. If indeed he was a “spy,” then the spying he did was for us, for the American people and for the world. What he revealed to a stunned planet was a global surveillance state whose reach and ambitions were unique, a system based on a single premise: that privacy was no more and that no one was, in theory (and to a remarkable extent in practice), unsurveillable.

Its builders imagined only one exemption: themselves. This was undoubtedly at least part of the reason why, when Snowden let us peek in on them, they reacted with such over-the-top venom. Whatever they felt at a policy level, it’s clear that they also felt violated, something that, as far as we can tell, left them with no empathy whatsoever for the rest of us. One thing that Snowden proved, however, was that the system they built was ready-made for blowback.

Sixteen months after his NSA documents began to be released by the Guardian and the Washington Post, I think it may be possible to speak of the Snowden Era. And now, a remarkable new film, Citizenfour, which had its premiere at the New York Film Festival on October 10th and will open in select theaters nationwide on October 24th, offers us a window into just how it all happened. It is already being mentioned as a possible Oscar winner.

Director Laura Poitras, like reporter Glenn Greenwald, is now known almost as widely as Snowden himself, for helping facilitate his entry into the world. Her new film, the last in a trilogy she’s completed (the previous two being My Country, My Country on the Iraq War and The Oath on Guantanamo), takes you back to June 2013 and locks you in that Hong Kong hotel room with Snowden, Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill of the Guardian and Poitras herself for eight days that changed the world. It’s a riveting, surprisingly unclaustrophobic and unforgettable experience.

Before that moment, we were quite literally in the dark. After it, we have a better sense, at least, of the nature of the darkness that envelops us. Having seen her film in a packed house at the New York Film Festival, I sat down with Poitras in a tiny conference room at the Loews Regency Hotel in New York City to discuss just how our world has changed and her part in it.

Tom Engelhardt: Could you start by laying out briefly what you think we’ve learned from Edward Snowden about how our world really works?

Laura Poitras: The most striking thing Snowden has revealed is the depth of what the NSA and the Five Eyes countries [Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Great Britain and the US] are doing, their hunger for all data, for total bulk dragnet surveillance where they try to collect all communications and do it all sorts of different ways. Their ethos is “collect it all.” I worked on a story with Jim Risen of the New York Times about a document — a four-year plan for signals intelligence — in which they describe the era as being “the golden age of signals intelligence.” For them, that’s what the Internet is: the basis for a golden age to spy on everyone.

This focus on bulk, dragnet, suspicionless surveillance of the planet is certainly what’s most staggering. There were many programs that did that. In addition, you have both the NSA and the GCHQ [British intelligence] doing things like targeting engineers at telecoms. There was an article published at The Intercept that cited an NSA document Snowden provided, part of which was titled “I Hunt Sysadmins” [systems administrators]. They try to find the custodians of information, the people who are the gateway to customer data, and target them. So there’s this passive collection of everything, and then things that they can’t get that way, they go after in other ways.

The most striking thing Snowden has revealed is the depth of what the NSA and the Five Eyes countries [Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Great Britain and the US] are doing… Their ethos is “collect it all.”

I think one of the most shocking things is how little our elected officials knew about what the NSA was doing. Congress is learning from the reporting and that’s staggering. Snowden and [former NSA employee] William Binney, who’s also in the film as a whistleblower from a different generation, are technical people who understand the dangers. We laypeople may have some understanding of these technologies, but they really grasp the dangers of how they can be used. One of the most frightening things, I think, is the capacity for retroactive searching, so you can go back in time and trace who someone is in contact with and where they’ve been. Certainly, when it comes to my profession as a journalist, that allows the government to trace what you’re reporting, who you’re talking to, and where you’ve been. So no matter whether or not I have a commitment to protect my sources, the government may still have information that might allow them to identify whom I’m talking to.

Engelhardt: To ask the same question another way, what would the world be like without Edward Snowden? After all, it seems to me that, in some sense, we are now in the Snowden era.

Poitras: I agree that Snowden has presented us with choices on how we want to move forward into the future. We’re at a crossroads and we still don’t quite know which path we’re going to take. Without Snowden, just about everyone would still be in the dark about the amount of information the government is collecting. I think that Snowden has changed consciousness about the dangers of surveillance. We see lawyers who take their phones out of meetings now. People are starting to understand that the devices we carry with us reveal our location, who we’re talking to and all kinds of other information. So you have a genuine shift of consciousness post the Snowden revelations.

Engelhardt: There’s clearly been no evidence of a shift in governmental consciousness, though.

Without Snowden, just about everyone would still be in the dark about the amount of information the government is collecting.

Poitras: Those who are experts in the fields of surveillance, privacy and technology say that there need to be two tracks: a policy track and a technology track. The technology track is encryption. It works and if you want privacy, then you should use it. We’ve already seen shifts happening in some of the big companies — Google, Apple — that now understand how vulnerable their customer data is, and that if it’s vulnerable, then their business is, too, and so you see a beefing up of encryption technologies. At the same time, no programs have been dismantled at the governmental level, despite international pressure.

Engelhardt: In Citizenfour, we spend what must be an hour essentially locked in a room in a Hong Kong hotel with Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, Ewan MacAskill and you, and it’s riveting. Snowden is almost preternaturally prepossessing and self-possessed. I think of a novelist whose dream character just walks into his or her head. It must have been like that with you and Snowden. But what if he’d been a graying guy with the same documents and far less intelligent things to say about them? In other words, how exactly did who he was make your movie and remake our world?

Poitras: Those are two questions. One is: What was my initial experience? The other: How do I think it impacted the movie? We’ve been editing it and showing it to small groups, and I had no doubt that he’s articulate and genuine on screen. But to see him in a full room [at the New York Film Festival premiere on the night of October 10th], I’m like, wow! He really commands the screen! And I experienced the film in a new way with a packed house.

Engelhardt: But how did you experience him the first time yourself? I mean you didn’t know who you were going to meet, right?

He was so at peace with the choice he had made and knowing that the consequences could mean the end of his life and that this was still the right decision.

Poitras: So I was in correspondence with an anonymous source for about five months and in the process of developing a dialogue you build ideas, of course, about who that person might be. My idea was that he was in his late forties, early fifties. I figured he must be Internet generation because he was super tech-savvy, but I thought that, given the level of access and information he was able to discuss, he had to be older. And so my first experience was that I had to do a reboot of my expectations. Like fantastic, great, he’s young and charismatic and I was like wow, this is so disorienting, I have to reboot. In retrospect, I can see that it’s really powerful that somebody so smart, so young and with so much to lose risked so much.

He was so at peace with the choice he had made and knowing that the consequences could mean the end of his life and that this was still the right decision. He believed in it, and whatever the consequences, he was willing to accept them. To meet somebody who has made those kinds of decisions is extraordinary. And to be able to document that and also how Glenn [Greenwald] stepped in and pushed for this reporting to happen in an aggressive way changed the narrative. Because Glenn and I come at it from an outsider’s perspective, the narrative unfolded in a way that nobody quite knew how to respond to. That’s why I think the government was initially on its heels. You know, it’s not everyday that a whistleblower is actually willing to be identified.

Engelhardt: My guess is that Snowden has given us the feeling that we now grasp the nature of the global surveillance state that is watching us, but I always think to myself, well, he was just one guy coming out of one of 17 interlocked intelligence outfits. Given the remarkable way your film ends — the punch line, you might say — with another source or sources coming forward from somewhere inside that world to reveal, among other things, information about the enormous watch list that you yourself are on, I’m curious: What do you think is still to be known? I suspect that if whistleblowers were to emerge from the top five or six agencies, the CIA, the DIA, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency and so on, with similar documentation to Snowden’s, we would simply be staggered by the system that’s been created in our name.

Poitras: I can’t speculate on what we don’t know, but I think you’re right in terms of the scale and scope of things and the need for that information to be made public. I mean, just consider the CIA and its effort to suppress the Senate’s review of its torture program. Take in the fact that we live in a country that a) legalized torture and b) where no one was ever held to account for it, and now the government’s internal look at what happened is being suppressed by the CIA. That’s a frightening landscape to be in.

I was put on a watch list in 2006. I was detained and questioned at the border returning to the US probably around 40 times.

In terms of sources coming forward, I really reject this idea of talking about one, two, three sources. There are many sources that have informed the reporting we’ve done and I think that Americans owe them a debt of gratitude for taking the risk they do. From a personal perspective, because I’m on a watch list and went through years of trying to find out why, of having the government refuse to confirm or deny the very existence of such a list, it’s so meaningful to have its existence brought into the open so that the public knows there is a watch list, and so that the courts can now address the legality of it. I mean, the person who revealed this has done a huge public service and I’m personally thankful.

Engelhardt: You’re referring to the unknown leaker who’s mentioned visually and elliptically at the end of your movie and who revealed that the major watch list you’re on has more than 1.2 million names on it. In that context, what’s it like to travel as Laura Poitras today? How do you embody the new national security state?

Poitras: In 2012, I was ready to edit and I chose to leave the US because I didn’t feel I could protect my source footage when I crossed the US border. The decision was based on six years of being stopped and questioned every time I returned to the United States. And I just did the math and realized that the risks were too high to edit in the US, so I started working in Berlin in 2012. And then, in January 2013, I got the first email from Snowden.

Engelhardt: So you were protecting…

Poitras: …other footage. I had been filming with NSA whistleblower William Binney, with Julian Assange, with Jacob Appelbaum of the Tor Project, people who have also been targeted by the US, and I felt that this material I had was not safe. I was put on a watch list in 2006. I was detained and questioned at the border returning to the US probably around 40 times. If I counted domestic stops and every time I was stopped at European transit points, you’re probably getting closer to 80 to 100 times. It became a regular thing, being asked where I’d been and who I’d met with. I found myself caught up in a system you can’t ever seem to get out of, this Kafkaesque watch list that the US doesn’t even acknowledge.

Engelhardt: Were you stopped this time coming in?

Poitras: I was not. The detentions stopped in 2012 after a pretty extraordinary incident.

I was coming back in through Newark Airport and I was stopped. I took out my notebook because I always take notes on what time I’m stopped and who the agents are and stuff like that. This time, they threatened to handcuff me for taking notes. They said, “Put the pen down!” They claimed my pen could be a weapon and hurt someone.

“Put the pen down! The pen is dangerous!” And I’m like, you’re not… you’ve got to be crazy. Several people yelled at me every time I moved my pen down to take notes as if it were a knife. After that, I decided this has gotten crazy, I’d better do something and I called Glenn. He wrote a piece about my experiences. In response to his article, they actually backed off.

Engelhardt: Snowden has told us a lot about the global surveillance structure that’s been built. We know a lot less about what they are doing with all this information. I’m struck at how poorly they’ve been able to use such information in, for example, their war on terror. I mean, they always seem to be a step behind in the Middle East — not just behind events but behind what I think someone using purely open source information could tell them. This I find startling. What sense do you have of what they’re doing with the reams, the yottabytes, of data they’re pulling in?

PoitrasSnowden and many other people, including Bill Binney, have said that this mentality — of trying to suck up everything they can — has left them drowning in information and so they miss what would be considered more obvious leads. In the end, the system they’ve created doesn’t lead to what they describe as their goal, which is security, because they have too much information to process.

I don’t quite know how to fully understand it. I think about this a lot because I made a film about the Iraq War and one about Guantanamo. From my perspective, in response to the 9/11 attacks, the US took a small, very radical group of terrorists and engaged in activities that have created two generations of anti-American sentiment motivated by things like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. Instead of figuring out a way to respond to a small group of people, we’ve created generations of people who are really angry and hate us. And then I think, if the goal is security, how do these two things align, because there are more people who hate the United States right now, more people intent on doing us harm? So either the goal that they proclaim is not the goal or they’re just unable to come to terms with the fact that we’ve made huge mistakes in how we’ve responded.

Engelhardt: I’m struck by the fact that failure has, in its own way, been a launching pad for success. I mean, the building of an unparalleled intelligence apparatus and the greatest explosion of intelligence gathering in history came out of the 9/11 failure. Nobody was held accountable, nobody was punished, nobody was demoted or anything and every similar failure, including the one on the White House lawn recently, simply leads to the bolstering of the system.

Poitras: So how do you understand that?

Engelhardt: I don’t think that these are people who are thinking: we need to fail to succeed. I’m not conspiratorial in that way, but I do think that, strangely, failure has built the system and I find that odd. More than that I don’t know.

Poitras: I don’t disagree. The fact that the CIA knew that two of the 9/11 hijackers were entering the United States and didn’t notify the FBI and that nobody lost their job is shocking. Instead, we occupied Iraq, which had nothing to do with 9/11. I mean, how did those choices get made?

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Chevron Greases Local Election With Gusher of Cash Tue, 21 Oct 2014 16:21:05 +0000 The corporate giant is pouring money into a city council race in Richmond, California, site of one of the state's two largest oil refineries – both owned by Chevron. Continue reading

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**FILE** Smoke billows from a ChevronTexaco refinery in Richmond, Calif. in this file photo from Tuesday, July 26, 2005. Chevron Corp. shares fell after the company cautioned its fourth-quarter profit will be hurt by lower crude oil prices, declining production and weaker margins in its refining business. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
In July 26, 2005, smoke billows from a ChevronTexaco refinery in Richmond, California. (AP Photo/Noah Berger, File)

When the Citizens United decision came down in 2010, many feared the Supreme Court had unleashed vast and unfettered campaign contributions from corporations bent on tightening their hammerlock on government and politics.

That hasn’t happen as much as anticipated – yet. Individual billionaires and millionaires have dominated the scene instead. Perhaps it’s in part because some corporations dipping their toes into new modes of campaign funding have been rebuffed by hostile consumer and stockholder reaction: witness the backlash in 2010 when Target contributed $150,000 to a 501(c)(4) supporting anti-gay rights gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer in Minnesota.

But other corporate giants seem to have no such qualms about negative public feedback. Chevron, for example. Based in California, the multinational energy company is the third largest producer of crude in the world and greedily grateful for ongoing, generous subsidies from Congress.

According to the Los Angeles Times, “In 2013, its revenue topped those of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., Apple Inc. and General Motors Co., trailing only retailer Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and rival Exxon Mobil Corp… In August, Chevron reported $57.9 billion in revenue for the second quarter, which ended June 30.”

Yes, Chevron has money to burn – look at the millions and millions the company has spent fighting the $9.5 billion in damages they were ordered to pay by the Ecuadorian Supreme Court for pollution of part of the Amazon rainforest. That extravagance extends to electioneering as well, and not only to federal races but right down to a local city council election.

Chevron has made big contributions this campaign cycle to the National Republican Senatorial and Congressional Committees, US Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Texas Senator John Cornyn, Senate minority whip as well as an influential member of the Senate Finance Committee.

What’s more, the Center for Responsive Politics’ reports that Chevron recently donated $1 million to the Congressional Leadership Fund, “a conservative super PAC with ties to Karl Rove’s dark money network in early July, a rare instance of a prominent publicly traded company taking advantage of the post-Citizens United rules on corporate involvement in politics. It’s not the first time Chevron has made such a donation — in the 2012 cycle, it gave $2.5 million to the same group…” At the time, the Public Campaign Action Fund noted, “The donation appears to be the largest from a publicly-traded corporation in the post-Citizens United era.”

In the midterms so far, OpenSecrets says “the super PAC has spent just $504,000 on ads, mounting attacks on three Democrats — particularly Rep. Pete Gallego (D-Texas). But CLF has already paid out close to $2.2 million to a media buying firm for ‘pre-payment’ of ads that have yet to run; that money almost certainly will be spent, it’s just a question of when and where.”

One other place we know that Chevron has targeted for its electoral cash largesse is the city of Richmond, California (population 107,571), site of one of the state’s two largest oil refineries – both owned by Chevron.

In August 2012, toxic smoke from a fire at the Richmond refinery (there had been other serious fires in 1989 and 1999) sent 15,000 residents to local hospitals seeking treatment, many of them for respiratory problems. A year later, Chevron paid $2 million in fines and restitution and pled no contest to six charges that included, the Associated Press reported, “failing to correct deficiencies in equipment and failing to require the use of certain equipment to protect employees from potential harm.”

Around the same time as the settlement, Richmond’s City Council decided to file its own suit, accusing Chevron of “a continuation of years of neglect, lax oversight and corporate indifference to necessary safety inspection and repairs.” Fourteen other incidents of toxic gas releases from the refinery since 1989 were cited in the filing.

Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin told Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman, “We owe it to our community to totally ensure their safety and to bring forward and safeguard the rights of our community to live, play and work without the threat of injury because of Chevron and with the threat of Chevron bringing forward yet another incident… due to the lack of safety in their facilities. We really feel strongly. This is serious in Richmond, and we’re not backing down.”

On top of all this, Chevron has long sought approval of a billion-dollar modernization plan for its refinery but had to deal with pressure from local officials for additional air pollution restrictions and other safety requirements. This summer, the city council finally approved the plan when improvements were promised as well as $90 million in “community benefits.”

Presumably, Chevron, vexed by such governmental interference, decided enough was enough. Cue the campaign cash machine. Turn on the pumps.

Harriet Rowan, a first-year student at the University of California at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, is an intrepid reporter at the website Richmond Confidential, created by UC/Berkeley to train its journalism students and offer in-depth coverage of Richmond not provided by Bay Area mainstream media. On October 10, Rowan reported, “Chevron has funneled $3 million into a trio of campaign committees to influence the Nov. 4 Richmond city election, including a nearly $1.3 million contribution on Aug. 8, according to newly-filed campaign documents.”

The committees, each a variation of Chevron’s “Moving Forward” campaign, spent about $1.3 million on the Richmond mayoral and city council races as of the end of September, much of it on attack ads targeting local officials who are critical of Chevron’s massive local refinery.

“Moving Forward” describes itself as “a coalition of labor unions, small businesses, public safety and firefighters associations. Major funding by Chevron” – “Major,” as in 99.7 percent of the money, according to Harriet Rowan. Moving Forward was created after the 2012 fire to advance the oil company’s political interests in Richmond and this year has especially targeted for attack three city council candidates, including Gayle McLaughlin, who cannot run for re-election as mayor but is seeking a council seat.

The assault also has come from a Chevron-funded website called the Richmond Standard, described by Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik as “purporting to be a news portal for residents of Richmond,” but in reality run by “an employee of Chevron’s PR firm named Mike Aldax.” What’s more, voters allegedly have been subjected to massive “push polling” – that is, telephoned attacks on candidates thinly disguised as opinion surveys. Author, activist and Richmond resident Steve Early writes that one such pollster told him — among other slurs posed as survey questions — that Gayle McLaughlin and fellow council candidate Eduardo Martinez were part of “a group of radicals out of touch with Richmond voters.”

The Los Angeles Times’ Hiltzik estimates that given the dollars being spread around, “Chevron is preparing to spend at least $33 for the vote of every resident of the city 18 or older.” He writes:

For a corporation to manipulate a municipal election on this scale should be illegal. Chevron may pose as a company enjoying its free speech rights, as secured through the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, but a pincer movement employing pantsfuls of money and misleading, manipulative “news” demonstrates the potential of a big company’s speech to drown out every other voice.

His words were echoed by independent US Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who visited Richmond last week and said, “We are not living in a democracy when giant corporations like Chevron can buy local governments. That’s called oligarchy, not democracy. We have got to fight back.”

Meanwhile, second graders at Peres Elementary School in Richmond were delighted by the appearance of the Oakland A’s “loveable elephant” Stomper. The mascot arrived in a Chevron car, delivering iPads and other Apple products worth a little under a thousand dollars, courtesy of Chevron’s Fuel Your School program. “The kids were extremely excited,” their teacher said. “There was a lot of laughing.”

At least they can’t vote — yet.

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Morning Reads: Corruption in AL; The Most Expensive Senate Race Tue, 21 Oct 2014 13:57:22 +0000 A roundup of some of the stories we're reading at Moyers & Company HQ... Continue reading

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Good morning! Today is the International Day of the Nacho — you know what you have to do.

Hey, are you registered to vote? Do you know where your polling place is located, and what you need to bring with you? If you’ve got questions, check out, a project of the non-partisan League of Women Voters.

Corrupt –> Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard, a powerhouse in the state’s Republican Party, was arrested Monday on felony ethics charges after his indictment by a grand jury “on 23 charges accusing him of misusing his office as speaker and his previous post as chairman of the Alabama Republican Party,” according to the AP (Via: Politico). (For background, see our August 8 post, “Another Conservative Group Gets Entangled in an Indian Casino Money-Laundering Scandal.”)

The most expensive Senate race ever? –> Jim Morrill at The Charlotte Observer: “From the Koch brothers and Art Pope to George Soros and Michael Bloomberg, wealthy donors are making North Carolina’s U.S. Senate race one of America’s first $100 million contests.”

Early predictions of dismally low turnout might be too pessimistic” –> Reid Wilson reports for the WaPo that “early voting has become the latest partisan battleground in state legislatures nationwide.” Both parties have poured millions into getting their voters to cast early ballots, and it’s still unclear which one has the edge. AND Bill Scher writes at Real Clear Politics that the GOP could blow an election in which they enjoy significant advantages by not playing hard defense in three normally reliable red states — Georgia, Kansas and South Dakota.

The Empire Strikes Back –> Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig’s Mayday PAC — the “Super PAC to end all Super PACs” — has targeted Rep. Fred Upton, the Michigan Republican who chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over Silicon Valley. Now Ryan Grim reports for HuffPo that tech donors to Lessig’s PAC are getting “angry calls from a top aide” to Upton, as well as from Upton himself.

The Wall Street Journal urges inaction on climate –> Five heavy-hitting climatologists write a letter debunking the conservative newspaper’s latest misleading op-ed. Via: Ecowatch. ALSO: A new study finds that replacing coal with natural gas may be a “revolution” in some respects, but it won’t decrease greenhouse gas emissions and is not a “substitute for climate change mitigation policy.” Via: Nature.

Wrong address –> Jamie Dettmer reports for The Daily Beast that US humanitarian aid — mostly food and medical supplies — is falling into the hands of Islamic State fighters, but officials fear that cutting off the flow of aid will help the group’s propaganda efforts. ALSO: At the Brookings Institution’s Tech Tank, Joshua Bleiberg and Darrell West look at the US government’s efforts to fight a propaganda war with IS using Twitter and other social media platforms. Perhaps the most interesting revelation: the militant group employs cute cat videos to advance its cause. We’re not making this up.

Compassionate conservatism –> Maureen Groppe reports for The Indianapolis Star that “Indiana will begin cutting off food stamp benefits next year to tens of thousands of people who fail to get a job or train for work.” (See our recent piece on the challenges long-term unemployed face trying to re-enter the workforce.) AND: Laura Gottesdiener reports for AJA that UN officials were “shocked” to learn of mass water shutoffs in poor Detroit neighborhoods.

Man with a fake mustache –> Democratic campaign officials in Colorado say that agitprop filmmaker James O’Keefe disguised himself as a college professor and tried to get several staffers to sign off on his plan to submit fraudulent absentee ballots. The campaign workers told him that it was illegal to do so, according to MoJo’s Andy Kroll.

The case against Hillary –> Doug Henwood’s lengthy case against Hillary Clinton’s nomination in 2016 is behind a pay-wall at Harpers, but at HuffPo, Sam Levine offers “five take-aways” from the magazine’s November cover story.

The Worst Campaign Ad That Human Beings Actually Paid for This Year” — It’s the silly season, and the title of Dave Weigel’s latest for Bloomberg says it all.

But will it continue to grow? –> Harvard entomologist Piotr Naskrecki “recently recounted coming across a puppy-sized, foot-long” tarantula, which would be the biggest spider ever recorded. But there’s no reason to call Ed KemmerNatGeo’s Christine Dell’Amore says Theraphosa blondi‘s bite rarely requires medical attention.

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America’s Schools: Still Separate and Very Much Unequal Mon, 20 Oct 2014 23:12:31 +0000 A teacher argues that America's schools have not “abandoned” the mission of Brown v. Board of Education, they never fully committed to it. Continue reading

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Renee Moore teaches English at Mississippi Delta Community College. Elaine Weiss, the national coordinator for the Broader Bolder Approach to Education, contributed to this post.

I have taught in two different Mississippi Delta high schools, and now work in a community college.

Clarksdale High School students delve into the complexities of chemistry equations, in Clarksdale, Miss. Community leaders hope improved education will help stanch a hemorrhaging population. The city's nine public schools may also be the crossroads of Mississippi's education system as state lawmakers are considering a new route, one characterized by charter schools, teacher merit pay, a tougher statewide curriculum, state-paid preschool classes and an intensive focus on reading for young students. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Clarksdale High School students delve into the complexities of chemistry equations, in Clarksdale, Miss. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

From the 30,000 foot level, at the federal Department of Education, and even in the Mississippi statehouse, we are told that the problem with our schools is low standards and lack of accountability for teachers. From the ground, it looks quite different. Schools that serve the highest-poverty students like the one where I teach are consistently and intentionally under-resourced, exacerbating the dire circumstances in which many of them live.

I once visited the three-room trailer home of one of my high-school students near the town of Alligator, Mississippi, which was housing 10 people — six of them young children. There were only two light fixtures: one in the kitchen, one in the bathroom. No tables, so they ate meals and did their homework on the kitchen floor.

Schools do not operate in a vacuum. Family circumstances that accompany students when they walk through the classroom door every day have a big impact on those students’ success.
Many Delta children are technically homeless. They “float around” from house to house, relying on strangers or relatives in very unstable living situations. And because there are not enough health providers, just getting to see a doctor can be an all-day event.

In 1954, the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision identified segregation as the shameful and harmful toxin that it is. We have failed for 60 years to eradicate that toxin, with dire consequences for our schools.

Schools do not operate in a vacuum. Family circumstances that accompany students when they walk through the classroom door every day have a big impact on those students’ success. We all know this. But less often do we acknowledge that those students do not operate in a vacuum either; the communities in which they live have as big an impact on students’ learning as do their family circumstances. And when those communities are economically and racially isolated and segregated, schools face much larger challenges.

Even at the community college level, poverty’s effects sharply challenge the pursuit of education. Lack of transportation is a huge obstacle in this rural area. Students may walk four miles to get to school. I have seen kids walk in all kinds of weather. It’s heart wrenching to hear that they can’t make it to class or to lab or to get extra help because they have kids, or jobs they are trying to get to, or “my ride is leaving.”

Some reformers dismiss these as isolated issues, but when you see it over and over, you realize that it’s pervasive, and that people don’t know how to fight it or change it.

From the moment the Brown decision was delivered, political, civic, business and religious leaders across the Deep South adopted what became known as the “massive resistance” strategy. They refused to integrate schools, and did everything they could to stall the inevitable federal imposition of it. Local officials used all manner of diversions, impediments and excuses to either prevent desegregation or to sabotage its implementation so it could be deemed a “failure.” Indeed, most schools in the Mississippi Delta did not begin to desegregate until the late 1960s, and tens of thousands of black teachers and administrators across the South lost their jobs in retaliation.

We have not “abandoned” the mission, we never fully committed to it.

In 1995, 40 years after Brown, I was teaching at the black high school where my own children were enrolled. A colleague and I went dumpster diving at the other high school for the English textbooks they were throwing away, to get enough just for classroom sets for our students. The white high school had a fully equipped science lab; ours had no lab equipment or supplies. Decades of such inequities laid the foundation for today’s “failing schools.” They were designed to fail.

We can ratchet up accountability all we want, test students more often, and fire more teachers. That will likely cause more children to feel like failures, more dedicated and exhausted teachers to leave our schools, if not our profession, and fewer of our students to graduate from high school and become engaged, employed, productive citizens.

Fixing the complex, longstanding problems holding back our communities, however, will require acknowledging some harsh realities. Starting with the reality that we treat some children as if they are worth more and mine as if they are worth less, and that growing up and going to school in segregated, isolated communities makes success elusive. We must ensure that money – to pay teachers (and parents) well, to make classrooms engaging, and to ensure that all children are fed, housed and healthy – is available to all. We must stop advancing policies that promote individual “choice” at the expense of developing good, equitable public schools, that treat public schools like market commodities, and that reward outcomes like increased segregation.

Shifting to policies that incentivize integrated, diverse schools and neighborhoods and community-level investment in our most precious public good are critical steps toward fulfilling Brown’s mission. It’s not too late.

Renee Moore, Mississippi teacher Renee Moore, Mississippi teacher[/caption]
Renee Moore, NBCT, teaches English at Mississippi Delta Community College. A director of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards; she blogs at TeachMoore.
Elaine Weiss, Economic Policy Institute
Elaine Weiss is the national coordinator for the Broader Bolder Approach to Education, where she works with a high-level task force and coalition partners to promote a comprehensive, evidence-based set of policies to allow all children to thrive.

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]]> 2 Highlights From Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Passionate Dissent on TX Voter ID Law Mon, 20 Oct 2014 18:44:57 +0000 "The greatest threat to public confidence in elections," Ginsburg concluded, would result from "enforcing a purposefully discriminatory law." Continue reading

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In this Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014 photo, a voter shows his photo identification to an election official at an early voting polling site, in Austin, Texas.  (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

In this Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014 photo, a voter shows his photo identification to an election official at an early voting polling site, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Legal observers have suffered whiplash watching various courts go back and forth on whether Texas can enforce its new, highly restrictive voter ID law in this year’s midterm elections.

On October 9, a federal district court ruled that the law, SB 14, had been passed with “discriminatory intent” — that Republican lawmakers had crafted it to disenfranchise minority voters — and struck it down as unconstitutional.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott — leading candidate in the state’s gubernatorial race — appealed the decision, and asked the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals for a stay of the lower court’s ruling. Two Bush appointees ruled in the state’s favor, allowing Texas to enforce the law until the case’s ultimate resolution.

Civil rights advocates then submitted an emergency petition asking the Supreme Court to overturn the Fifth Circuit’s decision and put the new voter ID law on hold for the midterms. Early Saturday morning, the Court’s conservative majority denied the request.

The result is that on November 4, Texas elections officials will accept a gun permit as proper identification, but not a college ID. An estimated 600,000 Texans will lack the documents required to cast their ballots, and a disproportionate number of them will be members of traditionally Democratic constituencies.

Just as she did following the majority’s decision in McCutcheon v. FEC earlier this year, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg issued a passionate dissent, charging that the Fifth Circuit had applied bad law to the decision that her conservative colleagues upheld. (Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined her dissent.)

Ginsburg argued that the decision “showed little respect for this Court’s established stay standards.”

And she dismissed the substance of the argument:

In any event, there is little risk that the District Court’s injunction will in fact disrupt Texas’ electoral processes. Texas need only reinstate the voter identification procedures it employed for ten years (from 2003 to 2013) and in five federal general elections. To date, the new regime, Senate Bill 14, has been applied in only three low-participation elections—namely, two statewide primaries and one statewide constitutional referendum, in which voter turnout ranged from 1.48% to 9.98%. The November 2014 election would be the very first federal general election conducted under Senate Bill 14’s regime. In all likelihood, then, Texas’ poll workers are at least as familiar with Texas’ pre-Senate Bill 14 procedures as they are with the new law’s requirements.

Ginsburg also noted that since last November, “Texas knew full well that the court would issue its ruling only weeks away from the election. The State thus had time to prepare for the prospect of an order barring the enforcement” of the new voter ID requirements.

She also pointed out that even with the new voter ID law in effect, Texas officials might have blunted the burden it put on voters had they chosen to do so. Instead, Ginsburg charged that they did the exact opposite:

…the District Court found “woefully lacking” and “grossly” underfunded the State’s efforts to familiarize the public and poll workers regarding the new identification requirements. Furthermore, after the District Court’s injunction issued and despite the State’s application to the Court of Appeals for a stay, Texas stopped issuing alternative “election identification certificates” and completely removed mention of Senate Bill 14’s requirements from government Web sites.

“In short,” she concluded, “any voter confusion or lack of public confidence in Texas’ electoral processes is in this case largely attributable to the State itself.”

Ginsburg then explained why the Texas ID law will be “the strictest regime in the country.”

Texas will not accept several forms of photo ID permitted under the Wisconsin law the Court considered last week. For example, Wisconsin’s law permits a photo ID from an in- state four-year college and one from a federally recognized Indian tribe. Texas, under Senate Bill 14, accepts neither. Nor will Texas accept photo ID cards issued by the U. S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs. Those who lack the approved forms of identification may obtain an “election identification certificate” from the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), but more than 400,000 eligible voters face round-trip travel times of three hours or more to the nearest DPS office.Moreover, applicants for an election identification certificate ordinarily must present a certified birth certificate… [which] can be obtained only at significant cost—at least $22 for a standard certificate sent by mail.

After detailing the District Court’s findings that the “Texas Legislature acted with a ‘troubling blend of politics and race’ in response to ‘growing’ minority participation,” Ginsburg then shot down the state’s justification for enacting the law, writing that there is only “a tenuous connection between the harms Senate Bill 14 aimed to ward off, and the means adopted by the State to that end.”

Between 2002 and 2011, there were only two in-person voter fraud cases prosecuted to conviction in Texas. Despite awareness of the Bill’s adverse effect on eligible-to-vote minorities, the Texas Legislature rejected a “litany of ameliorative amendments” designed to lessen the Bill’s impact on minority voters—for example, amendments permitting additional forms of identification, eliminating fees, providing indigence exceptions, and increasing voter education and funding—without undermining the Bill’s purported policy justifications.

Ginsburg wrote that, at the end of the day, “Texas did not begin to demonstrate that the Bill’s discriminatory features were necessary to prevent fraud or to increase public confidence in the electoral process.”

Ginsburg put the decision in the context of Texas’ “long history of official discrimination in voting, the statewide existence of racially polarized voting, the incidence of overtly racial political campaigns, the disproportionate lack of minority elected officials, and the failure of elected officials to respond to the concerns of minority voters.”

“The greatest threat to public confidence in elections,” she concluded, would result from “enforcing a purposefully discriminatory law, one that likely imposes an unconstitutional poll tax and risks denying the right to vote to hundreds of thousands of eligible voters.”

For more on Texas’ voter ID law, and the Supreme Court’s decision, see The Brennan Center for Justice’s fact-sheet.

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How to Revive the Labor Movement Mon, 20 Oct 2014 17:56:44 +0000 An expert on organized labor talks about the problems facing many unions and how they might become a powerful force once again. Continue reading

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This post first appeared at In These Times.

Stanley Aronowitz argues in a new book that unions can't survive without reversing decades of timidity and bureaucratization. (Photo:In These Times)
Stanley Aronowitz argues in a new book that unions can't survive without reversing decades of timidity and bureaucratization. (Photo:In These Times)

‘By still relying on elections and on contracts and grievance procedures rather than engaging in direct action, unions are on the road to doom.’
After the Brooklyn College administration temporarily suspended Stanley Aronowitz from school in 1950 for taking part in a protest, he dropped out to follow a much more unorthodox route to an academic career. From the 1950s through the 1970s, Aronowitz — a lifetime New Yorker in spirit even when temporarily absent — was a factory worker, union organizer, civil rights advocate, influential contributor to New Left organizations and a vivid, often flamboyant debater in a tumultuous political period.

Since 1983, however, he has been a prolific sociology professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, writing or editing 25 books. His latest, The Death and Life of American Labor: Toward a New Workers’ Movementout from Verso this fall, expands his decades-long argument that unions need bigger goals and more direct action to succeed, or even survive. Aronowitz spoke with In These Times Senior Editor David Moberg about his strategies for reviving the labor movement.

You say in your book that the labor movement has become part of the establishment. In what way?

In the 2012 presidential election, unions contributed $141 million to the Democratic Party, one of the two establishment parties. Their main strategy for moving labor forward is electoral politics, yet they have not formed a labor party. Meanwhile, they have virtually given up the strike and any kind of harsh criticism of the capitalist system.

There is almost no organized anti-capitalist political movement in the United States. Can we expect the labor movement to be anti-capitalist?

We can’t, under the current circumstances. But agitation for an anti-capitalist politics can’t wait for some kind of apocalypse. With the living standards of the American people stagnating as tremendous riches accumulate at the top, this is the time that anti-capitalist politics can resonate with the larger public. I call for another political formation linked to the labor movement, like the Trade Union Education League (the Communist organization of the 1920s) and for a party outside of the two major parties.

You criticize union contracts because they hamper direct action and channel discontent into bureaucratic grievance procedures. Is the contract itself a bad goal, or is the problem that most contracts preclude strikes and guarantee management broad power?

The big issue is the long-term contract, because that prevents workers from taking direct action as problems arise in the workplace or the economy changes. I don’t think that powerful unions need contracts. I would settle for a one-year contract that did not have the strike prohibition and did not include management prerogatives.

You write that the biggest problem the labor movement faces is not declining numbers but declining power. But don’t numbers contribute to power?

The numbers are important, especially for workers who need organizations to be able to fight their battles [with employers]. But unions in the United States do not recognize that a militant minority can have a tremendous effect if it engages in direct action — as unions do in France, and as the Service Employees [International Union] (SEIU) has done with fast-food workers and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) has at Wal-Mart, in conducting elective one-day strikes in several cities.

You advocate a labor movement that is “post-political.” What do you mean by that?

Post-political means that the union movement may endorse candidates or run its own, but essentially does not rely on electoral politics and public officials — that is, the state — to fulfill its goals. Instead, unions should rely on their own resources, on their own members and on their own imaginations to create conditions to make their members’ lives better, in the way that unions, especially in the early-to-mid-20th century, once established and ran very good, moderate-cost cooperative housing.

We’ve been relying for so long on politicians to solve problems that the union membership no longer really relies on its own power. The proper word is really “post-electoral” or “post-state,” and it once had a tremendous resonance among large numbers of workers. Are electoral politics no longer important?

No, unfortunately, they still are. But I do think they have been horrendously over-emphasized at the expense of organizing and issues such as education, housing and public transportation. Unions have become supplicants of the Democratic Party and depend on the electoral system to resolve workers’ problems.

You mention Occupy as a model. But its main achievement was making common political currency out of the clash between the 99% and the 1%.

Occupy refused to be programmatic, and it has virtually disappeared. But Occupy revived the old tactics of civil disobedience and direct action. And by still relying on elections and on contracts and grievance procedures rather than engaging in direct action, unions are on the road to doom.

You write that much of the problem of the American labor movement stems from weak leaders. What led to that situation? Do conservative memberships elect conservative leaders?

I don’t think that union leadership actually reflects the views of the members. Many of these unions have become general workers’ unions. They do not organize in one specific industry. And it’s very difficult for that diverse membership to create an internal democratic opposition that can win. There is no democratic education program to expose them to new ideas and information. So members are voting for leaders to be custodians of an insurance company that provides benefits. But workers don’t really expect them to be seriously involved in their day-to-day struggles, which are often led by the shop steward system — if the shop stewards are still there — and not by the national leaders.

You see some hope in movements on the outskirts of the labor movement and strategies such as minority unionism, which the United Auto Workers pursued after its organizing loss at Volkswagen.

I was very surprised and pleased by that. The only mistake is that the UAW is not going to charge dues until they have a contract. I think workers who join unions should pay their own way.

Do you see encouraging signs in unions working with community groups on housing and banking issues, or of AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka recently speaking out strongly on racism?

It’s a great sign, but Trumka does not have much influence over the international unions that really have the power. It will take much more than the statements by Trumka to get the labor movement to become a labor movement again. The impetus to change is going to have to come from both inside and outside of the union movement.

Some of what SEIU and UFCW have done to organize low-wage workers is very important. Unions have also reached out to many of the more than 200 worker centers, even though the amount of assistance that centers get from unions is still sparse. Also, many unions showed up at the climate change demonstration in September in New York City (though the AFL-CIO support for the Keystone pipeline is regressive). They see the need to form alliances with other social movements, as they have done with the Black Freedom Movement and the feminist movement.

You acknowledge that a major problem facing workers and the labor movement is insecurity created by globalization and new technology. What is the best way to respond to that?

Two things need to happen, or I don’t see much hope. First, there have to be actions, even if they’re inconclusive, like the fast food and Wal-Mart demonstrations — actions that give people some sense of power and of hope. Second, inside and outside of the unions, people need to be educated about their own history and the degree to which the system is no longer working for them. And they have to begin to think about a different way of life.

david moberg
David Moberg, senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Prior to that, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

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SCOTUS to Texas: Go Forth and Discriminate Against Your Citizens Starting Monday Mon, 20 Oct 2014 15:44:12 +0000 When the Supreme Court fails to protect our elections from partisan and racially motivated manipulation, the burden may fall disproportionately on some, but we will all pay. Continue reading

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This post first appeared at Demos.

FILE - In this Feb. 26, 2014 file photo, an election official checks a voter's photo identification at an early voting polling site in Austin, Texas. A majority of the nation's highest court on Saturday Oct. 18, 2014 rejected an emergency request from the Justice Department and civil rights groups to prohibit the state from requiring voters to produce certain forms of photo identification in order to cast ballots. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)
A majority of the nation's highest court on Saturday October 18, 2014 rejected an emergency request from the Justice Department and civil rights groups to prohibit the state from requiring voters to produce certain forms of photo identification in order to cast ballots. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

The Supreme Court said Saturday that, for the first time, it is allowing a voting law to be used for an election even though a federal judge, after conducting a trial, found the law is racially discriminatory in both its intent and its impact, and is an unconstitutional poll tax. It is not only not a good look for the court, it is an abdication of the federal responsibility to protect every American voter from racially discriminatory voter suppression.

These continuing voter restrictions are the worst attack on Americans’ voting rights since Reconstruction led to the Jim Crow era. We are in the middle of the storm that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg described in her Shelby County dissent. Studies show that recent restrictions on voting were more likely to be introduced and adopted in places that saw increased political participation from lower-income people and people of color.

Voting in Texas starts Monday, and the new law only allows seven forms of acceptable identification, including a gun permit or a military ID but not a student ID from a state institution. The federal district court found that African-American registered voters are 305 percent, and Hispanic registered voters 195 percent, less likely to have one of these seven forms of ID. In the words of Attorney General Holder, these voter ID restrictions are “inconsistent with our ideals as a nation… founded on the principle that all citizens are entitled to equal opportunity, equal representation and equal rights.”

Justice Ginsburg dissented from the Court’s decision to allow Texas’ restrictive voter ID law to go into effect for this election because “the greatest threat to public confidence in elections in this case is the prospect of enforcing a purposefully discriminatory law, one that likely imposes an unconstitutional poll tax and risks denying the right to vote to hundreds of thousands of eligible voters.” 

Ginsburg’s dissent explained that the law “may prevent more than 600,000 registered Texas voters (about 4.5 percent of all registered voters) from voting in person for lack of compliant identification. A sharply disproportionate percentage of those voters are African-American or Hispanic.” At trial, experts testified that as many as 1.2 million Texas voters didn’t have the required ID, which would mean Texas is about to start their voting even though almost one in 10 voters may be barred from casting a ballot.

It is particularly galling that the court relies on the principle that voting rules shouldn’t be changed close to an election to allow Texas’ new voting restrictions when the law wouldn’t even be in place had it not been for the Supreme Court’s decision to remove the federal protection that had previously prevented racially discriminatory changes to voting laws from going into effect. That mistaken decision allowed for the creation of the new “status quo” which the court now refuses to disturb.

Before the court’s Shelby County decision in June 2013, the Voting Rights Act required that certain jurisdictions — mostly former slave states, but other places too — with a history and continued instances of discrimination “pre-clear” changes to voting rules that would impact voting rights for people of color. This put the appropriate burden on these states to show their changes wouldn’t have a racially discriminatory impact on voting, instead of putting the burden on people of color to wait until the law was in place and then show the racially discriminatory impact of the new voting restrictions while their voting rights were being burdened.

For nearly 50 years this system worked. The new Texas voter ID requirements were blocked by the Justice Department from going into effect when they were passed because it was clear that they would have a disproportionately negative impact on voters of color. But Texas moved to implement its new ID requirements the day after the Supreme Court’s Shelby County decision got rid of that system. This is exactly what Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg warned of in her dissent in that case: that getting rid of pre-clearance when it was continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes was like throwing out your umbrella in a rainstorm because you weren’t getting wet.

While the general principle of not changing voting rules close to an election makes sense, Texas’ restrictive identification law has only been used for a few small elections, and never a high turnout federal election, whereas Texas’ previous set of voter identification had been in place since 2003. As Ginsburg argued, poll watchers and voters are likely to be more familiar with the previous standards in place for the prior decade, so allowing the law to be in place now will likely cause more confusion.

As an additional affront, this court’s conservative majority is now notorious for having more solicitude for the concerns of the country’s wealthiest donors — who earlier this year were given the right to spend even more money to impact the political system in McCutcheon v FEC — than they have for the hundreds of thousands of Americans whose most fundamental right of political participation, the right to vote, is being unconstitutionally burdened. Add that to Citizens United, which unleashed direct corporate spending in federal elections for the first time in a century — and it’s clear that the court is simultaneously making it easier to buy an election and harder to vote in an election.

One reason why elections are so important is because Americans feel differently about important issues (with notable divided views on economic issues between the 10 percent of the richest Americans that make up the donor class and the majority, and between African-Americans and Caucasians on racial issues.) The court has allowed voting rules to be manipulated in ways designed to make the electorate whiter, wealthier and older, at the same time the court’s decisions strengthen the political power of the donor class which is also whiter, wealthier and older than America. This has a tremendously distorting effect on our democratic decision making.

The Supreme Court has failed to protect voting rights not just in Texas, but recently in Ohio and North Carolina as well.

The court denied recent requests from plaintiffs seeking to stop restrictions on voting in Ohio (limiting early voting and doing away with the “golden week” when people could register and vote at the same time) and North Carolina (ending same day registration which allowed people to register and vote at the same time, and making it harder to count provisional ballots). The one ray of light on voting rights at the federal level was the Supreme Court’s decision to stay the 7th Circuit’s decision which would have reversed the lower court and allowed Wisconsin to implement its strict voter ID law. By Wisconsin’s own admission the law could have disenfranchised up to 10 percent of the state’s voters, since 300,000 registered Wisconsin voters do not have the required ID; they are disproportionately African-American and Latino.

While the US Supreme Court fails to provide adequate federal protections for voting rights, this week the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled that their state’s photo ID violated their state constitution, writing that “the legislature cannot, under color of regulating the manner of holding elections, which to some extent that body has a right to do, impose such restrictions as will have the effect to take away the right to vote as secured by the constitution.” That court examined what it means to be a qualified voter, and found that the only allowable requirements were that an individual be an American citizen, resident of the state, at least 18-years-old and registered to vote. The Arkansas Supreme Court held that state shouldn’t also be able to set an additional bar for voting by requiring certain specific kinds of photo identification, writing that “to hold otherwise would disenfranchise Arkansas voters and would negate ‘the object sought to be accomplished’ by the framers of the Arkansas Constitution.”

It took the hard fought victories of the Civil Rights era to stop the abuses of power by those in control who sought to maintain their power by excluding people of color from the country’s political system. Remember, the Supreme Court didn’t strike down the poll tax until 1966 in Harper v Virginia. Fifty-one million eligible Americans still aren’t registered to vote, and are therefore invisible to the political system. This is a disservice to all of us, as it means our government does not truly reflect all of our people. We need to focus on how to facilitate registration and increase participation to strengthen our democracy through common sense improvements such as same-day registration (shown to increase participation by 10 points), and Congress must act to restore the Voting Rights Act.

When the Supreme Court fails to protect our elections from partisan and racially motivated manipulation, the burden may fall disproportionately on some, but we will all pay the cost.

Liz Kennedy is Counsel at Demos working on voting rights, money in politics and corporate accountability. Prior to joining Demos, Liz was an attorney in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, working on issues of money in politics and democratic accountability.

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Morning Reads: SCOTUS OKs TX Voter ID; Possible Ebola Vaccine? Mon, 20 Oct 2014 14:11:07 +0000 A roundup of some of the stories we're reading at Moyers & Company HQ... Continue reading

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Good morning — and Happy World Statistics Day! It’s probably celebrated by .000012 of the population.

The “Saturday Night Massacre” took place on this date in 1973. Then-Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus resigned in protest of Richard Nixon’s decision to fire special Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox.

Stat of the day: 84.8 percent — the share of Russia’s wealth held by the top 10 percent of households, giving the country the largest wealth gap in the world, according to Credit Suisse’s Global Wealth Report. The US ranked seventh, with 74.6 percent of its wealth held by the top 10 percent.

Modern poll-tax –> You’ve probably heard by now that the Supreme Court ruled early Saturday morning that Texas could enforce its voter ID law despite a previous judicial finding that it was “enacted with a racially discriminatory purpose.” HuffPo’s Braden Goyette looks at Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s blistering dissent.

Related –> Sheryl Gay Stolberg reports for the NYT that Democrats are desperately trying to get African-American voters to turn out for the midterms. They think that control of the Senate depends on it but “the one politician guaranteed to generate enthusiasm among African-Americans is the same man many Democratic candidates want to avoid: Mr. Obama.”

Potential good news –> Public Health Agency of Canada scientists donated an experimental Ebola vaccine to the World Health Organization, which will begin clinical trials with the drug later this month. Hannah Thibedeau has the story for CBC News. AND: The University of Chicago’s Harold Pollack writes in Politico that despite some early missteps, the US public health system is working pretty well. BUT: The NYT’s Kevin Sack, Jack Healey and Frances Robles look at the “21 days of fear and loathing” those suspected of having Ebola face in quarantine. ALSO: pediatrician Russell Saunders writes at The Daily Beast that groundless Ebola panic has taken over his small clinic.

Big case –> At Salon, Heather “Digby” Parton looks at the ramifications of a key case that the Supreme Court will hear this term: Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project could effectively gut the Fair Housing Act’s already limited powers. AND: At The New Yorker, Jeffrey Toobin speaks with Barack Obama about his judicial legacy.

White-on-white violence –> Melanie Plenda reports for The Daily Beast that rioters in New Hampshire clashed with police on Saturday night and Sunday morning as “parties celebrating the annual Keene Pumpkin Festival turned into violent chaos.” On Twitter, activists used the incident to highlight issues with the media’s coverage of protests in Ferguson, Missouri.

Very, very strange –> Oakley, Michigan, is a tiny town of 290 people with a 100-strong “reserve police force” that’s partly funded by anonymous donors. For 10 years, the village council has ignored FOIA requests to release the names of the officers, and when they finally voted to comply, “a high profile Detroit lawyer” sent the council letters warning that doing so would risk bringing attacks on the officers by the Islamic State. Jason Ditz has the details of the story — first reported by the Saginaw News – for

The game is rigged!” –> During her first stop in a three-state tour to get out the vote for her fellow Dems, Elizabeth Warren delivered what WaPo’s Paul Kane described as “a speech that was a mix of professorial lecture and progressive call to arms.”

Fiercest fighting in days” –> Took place in the besieged Syrian town of Kobani over the weekend, according to The Irish Times, as IS militants re-entered the city despite stepped up US airstrikes. AND: The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that 10 civilians were killed in airstrikes on Saturday. Via: Reuters. AND: At The American Interest, Henri Barkey writes that what has become an epic defense by outgunned Kurdish forces may become “a defining moment of nationhood and identity” for Kurds living in Syria, Turkey and elsewhere.

Sixty-four years and counting –> Troops from North and South Korea exchanged gunfire across their border for 10 minutes over the weekend, according to the BBC. It was the latest in a series of skirmishes over the past month, but “it is not clear if the increasingly frequent clashes are the actions of local soldiers in a tense situation, or part of a wider provocation by either side.”

A mobilization of Swedish ships, troops and helicopters unseen since the Cold War” –> Tensions between Moscow and the EU over the former’s intervention in Ukraine continue to rise, and the Swedish military “hunted suspected Soviet submarines along its coast with depth charges” over the weekend. Niklas Pollard has the story at Ha’aretz.

Their struggles” –> Jezebel’s Nell Scovell compares the memoirs of 17-year-old Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel Peace Prize recipient who was shot by the Taliban for advocating that girls attend school — and Bristol Palin.

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Marilynne Robinson: When I Was a Child I Read Books Mon, 20 Oct 2014 01:24:58 +0000 Read an excerpt from Marilynne Robinson's award-winning book of essays. Continue reading

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The following is Freedom of Thought, Chapter 2 of Marilynne Robinson’s book When I Was a Child I Read Books.

Over the years of writing and teaching, I have tried to free myself of constraints I felt, limits to the range of exploration I could make, to the kind of intuition I could credit. I realized gradually that my own religion, and religion in general, could and should disrupt these constraints, which amount to a small and narrow definition of what human beings are and how human life is to be understood. And I have often wished my students would find religious standards present in the culture that would express a real love for human life and encourage them also to break out of these same constraints. For the educated among us, moldy theories we learned as sophomores, memorized for the test and never consciously thought of again, exert an authority that would embarrass us if we stopped to consider them. I was educated at a center of BookcoverCROPPED behaviorist psychology and spent a certain amount of time pestering rats. There was some sort of maze-learning experiment involved in my final grade, and since I remember the rat who was my colleague as uncooperative, or perhaps merely incompetent at being a rat, or tired of the whole thing, I don’t remember how I passed. I’m sure coercion was not involved, since this rodent and I avoided contact. Bribery was, of course, central to the experiment and no black mark against either of us, though I must say, mine was an Eliot Ness among rats for its resistance to the lure of, say, Cheerios. I should probably have tried raising the stakes. The idea was, in any case, that behavior was conditioned by reward or its absence, and that one could extrapolate meaningfully from the straightforward demonstration of rattish self-interest promised in the literature, to the admittedly more complex question of human motivation. I have read subsequently that a female rat is so gratified at having an infant rat come down the reward chute that she will do what ever is demanded of her until she has filled her cage with them. This seems to me to complicate the definition of self-interest considerably, but complexity was not a concern of the behaviorism of my youth, which was reductionist in every sense of the word.

It wasn’t all behaviorism. We also pondered Freud’s argument that primordial persons, male, internalized the father as superego by actually eating the poor fellow. Since then we have all felt bad — well, the male among us, at least. Whence human complexity, whence civilization. I did better on that exam. The plot was catchy.

The situation of the undergraduate rarely encourages systematic doubt. What Freud thought was important because it was Freud who thought it, and so with B. F. Skinner and whomever else the curriculum held up for our admiration. There must be something to all this, even if it has only opened the door a degree or two on a fuller understanding. So I thought at the time. And I also thought it was a very bleak light that shone through that door, and I shouldered my share of the supposedly inevitable gloom that came with being a modern. In English class we studied a poem by Robert Frost, The Oven Bird. The poem asks “what to make of a diminished thing.” That diminished thing, said the teacher, was human experience in the modern world. Oh dear. Modern aesthetics. We must learn from this poem “in singing not to sing.” To my undergraduate self I thought, “But what if I like to sing?” And then my philosophy professor assigned us Jonathan Edwards’s Doctrine of Original Sin Defended, in which Edwards argues for “the arbitrary constitution of the universe,” illustrating his point with a gorgeous footnote about moonlight that even then began to dispel the dreary determinisms I was learning elsewhere. Improbable as that may sound to those who have not read the footnote.

Marilynne Wilson Talks to Bill About Her New Book, Lila

At a certain point I decided that everything I took from studying and reading anthropology, psychology, economics, cultural history and so on did not square at all with my sense of things, and that the tendency of much of it was to posit or assume a human simplicity within a simple reality and to marginalize the sense of the sacred, the beautiful, everything in any way lofty. I do not mean to suggest, and I underline this, that there was any sort of plot against religion, since religion in many instances abetted these tendencies and does still, not least by retreating from the cultivation and celebration of learning and of beauty, by dumbing down, as if people were less than God made them and in need of nothing so much as condescension. Who among us wishes the songs we sing, the sermons we hear, were just a little dumber? People today — television — video games — diminished things. This is always the pretext.

Simultaneously, and in a time of supposed religious revival, and among those especially inclined to feel religiously revived, we have a society increasingly defined by economics and an economics increasingly reminiscent of my experience with that rat, so-called rational-choice economics, which assumes that we will all find the shortest way to the reward, and that this is basically what we should ask of ourselves and — this is at the center of it all — of one another. After all these years of rational choice, brother rat might like to take a look at the packaging just to see if there might be a little melamine in the inducements he was being offered, hoping, of course, that the vendor considered it rational to provide that kind of information. We do not deal with one another as soul to soul, and the churches are as answerable for this as anyone.

If we think we have done this voiding of content for the sake of other people, those to whom we suspect God may have given a somewhat lesser brilliance than our own, we are presumptuous and also irreverent. William Tyndale, who was
burned at the stake for his translation of the Bible, who provided much of the most beautiful language in what is called by us the King James Bible, wrote, he said, in the language a plowboy could understand. He wrote to the comprehension of the profoundly poor, those who would be, and would have lived among, the utterly unlettered. And he created one of the undoubted masterpieces of the English language. Now we seem to feel beauty is an affectation of some sort. And this notion is as influential in the churches as it is anywhere. The Bible, Christianity, should have inoculated us against this kind of disrespect for ourselves and one another. Clearly it has not.

For me, at least, writing consists very largely of exploring intuition. A character is really the sense of a character, embodied, attired and given voice as he or she seems to require. Where does this creature come from? From watching, I suppose. From reading emotional significance in gestures and inflections, as we all do all the time. These moments of intuitive recognition float free from their particular occasions and recombine themselves into non-existent people the writer and, if all goes well, the reader feel they know.

Words like “sympathy,” “empathy” and “compassion” are overworked and overcharged — there is no word for the experience of seeing an embrace at a subway stop or hearing an argument at the next table in a restaurant.

There is a great difference, in fiction and in life, between knowing someone and knowing about someone. When a writer knows about his character he is writing for plot. When he knows his character he is writing to explore, to feel reality on a set of nerves somehow not quite his own. Words like “sympathy,” “empathy” and “compassion” are overworked and overcharged—there is no word for the experience of seeing an embrace at a subway stop or hearing an argument at the next table in a restaurant. Every such instant has its own emotional coloration, which memory retains or heightens, and so the most sidelong, unintended moment becomes a part of what we have seen of the world. Then, I suppose, these moments, as they have seemed to us, constellate themselves into something a little like a spirit, a little like a human presence in its mystery and distinctiveness.

Two questions I can’t really answer about fiction are (1) where it comes from, and (2) why we need it. But that we do create it and also crave it is beyond dispute. There is a tendency, considered highly rational, to reason from a narrow set of interests, say survival and procreation, which are supposed to govern our lives, and then to treat everything that does not fit this model as anomalous clutter, extraneous to what we are and probably best done without. But all we really know about what we are is what we do. There is a tendency to fit a tight and awkward carapace of definition over humankind, and to try to trim the living creature to fit the dead shell. The advice I give my students is the same advice I give myself — forget definition, forget assumption, watch. We inhabit, we are part of, a reality for which explanation is much too poor and small. No physicist would dispute this, though he or she might be less ready than I am to have recourse to the old language and call reality miraculous. By my lights, fiction that does not acknowledge this at least tacitly is not true. Why is it possible to speak of fiction as true or false? I have no idea. But if a time comes when I seem not to be making the distinction with some degree of reliability in my own work, I hope someone will be kind enough to let me know. When I write fiction, I suppose my attempt is to simulate the integrative work of a mind perceiving and reflecting, drawing upon culture, memory, conscience, belief or assumption, circumstance, fear and desire — a mind shaping the moment of experience and response and then reshaping them both as narrative, holding one thought against another for the effect of affinity or contrast, evaluating and rationalizing, feeling compassion, taking offense. These things do happen simultaneously, after all. None of them is active by itself, and none of them is determinative, because there is that mysterious thing the cognitive scientists call self-awareness, the human ability to consider and appraise one’s own thoughts. I suspect this self-awareness is what people used to call the soul.

Modern discourse is not really comfortable with the word “soul,” and in my opinion the loss of the word has been disabling, not only to religion but to literature and political thought and to every humane pursuit.

Modern discourse is not really comfortable with the word “soul,” and in my opinion the loss of the word has been disabling, not only to religion but to literature and political thought and to every humane pursuit. In contemporary religious circles, souls, if they are mentioned at all, tend to be spoken of as saved or lost, having answered some set of divine expectations or failed to answer them, having arrived at some crucial realization or failed to arrive at it. So the soul, the masterpiece of creation, is more or less reduced to a token signifying cosmic acceptance or rejection, having little or nothing to do with that miraculous thing, the felt experience of life, except insofar as life offers distractions or temptations.

Having read recently that there are more neurons in the human brain than there are stars in the Milky Way, and having read any number of times that the human brain is the most complex object known to exist in the universe, and that the mind is not identical with the brain but is more mysterious still, it seems to me this astonishing nexus of the self, so uniquely elegant and capable, merits a name that would indicate a difference in kind from the ontological run of things, and for my purposes “soul” would do nicely. Perhaps I should pause here to clarify my meaning, since there are those who feel that the spiritual is diminished or denied when it is associated with the physical. I am not among them. In his Letter to the Romans, Paul says, “Ever since the creation of the world [God’s] invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.” If we are to consider the heavens, how much more are we to consider the magnificent energies of consciousness that make whomever we pass on the street a far grander marvel than our galaxy? At this point of dynamic convergence, call it self or call it soul, questions of right and wrong are weighed, love is felt, guilt and loss are suffered. And, over time, formation occurs, for weal or woe, governed in large part by that unaccountable capacity for selfawareness.

The locus of the human mystery is perception of this world. From it proceeds every thought, every art. I like Calvin’s metaphor — nature is a shining garment in which God is revealed and concealed. As we perceive we interpret, and we make hypotheses. Something is happening, it has a certain character or meaning which we usually feel we understand at least tentatively, though experience is almost always available to reinterpretations based on subsequent experience or reflection. Here occurs the weighing of moral and ethical choice. Behavior proceeds from all this, and is interesting, to my mind, in the degree that it can be understood to proceed from it. We are much afflicted now by tedious, fruitless controversy. Very often, perhaps typically, the most important aspect of a controversy is not the area of disagreement but the hardening of agreement, the tacit granting on all sides of assumptions that ought not to be granted on any side. The treatment of the physical as a distinct category antithetical to the spiritual is one example. There is a deeply rooted notion that the material exists in opposition to the spiritual, precludes or repels or trumps the sacred as an idea. This dichotomy goes back at least to the dualism of the Manichees, who believed the physical world was the creation of an evil god in perpetual conflict with a good god, and to related teachings within Christianity that encouraged mortification of the flesh, renunciation of the world and so on.

The assumption persists among us still, vigorous as ever, that if a thing can be “explained,” associated with a physical process, it has been excluded from the category of the spiritual.

For almost as long as there has been science in the West there has been a significant strain in scientific thought which assumed that the physical and material preclude the spiritual. The assumption persists among us still, vigorous as ever, that if a thing can be “explained,” associated with a physical process, it has been excluded from the category of the spiritual. But the “physical” in this sense is only a disappearingly thin slice of being, selected, for our purposes, out of the totality of being by the fact that we perceive it as solid, substantial. We all know that if we were the size of atoms, chairs and tables would appear to us as loose clouds of energy. It seems to me very amazing that the arbitrarily selected “physical” world we inhabit is coherent and lawful. An older vocabulary would offer the word “miraculous.” Knowing what we know now, an earlier generation might see divine providence in the fact of a world coherent enough to be experienced by us as complete in itself, and as a basis upon which all claims to reality can be tested. A truly theological age would see in this divine Providence intent on making a human habitation within the wild roar of the cosmos.

But almost everyone, for generations now, has insisted on a sharp distinction between the physical and the spiritual. So we have had theologies that really proposed a “God of the gaps,” as if God were not manifest in the creation, as the Bible is so inclined to insist, but instead survives in those dark places, those black boxes, where the light of science has not yet shone. And we have atheisms and agnosticisms that make precisely the same argument, only assuming that at some time the light of science will indeed dispel the last shadow in which the holy might have been thought to linger. Religious experience is said to be associated with activity in a particular part of the brain. For some reason this is supposed to imply that it is delusional. But all thought and experience can be located in some part of the brain, that brain more replete than the starry heaven God showed to Abraham, and we are not in the habit of assuming that it is all delusional on these grounds. Nothing could justify this reasoning, which many religious people take as seriously as any atheist could do, except the idea that the physical and the spiritual cannot abide together, that they cannot be one dispensation. We live in a time when many religious people feel fiercely threatened by science. O ye of little faith. Let them subscribe to Scientific American for a year and then tell me if their sense of the grandeur of God is not greatly enlarged by what they have learned from it. Of course many of the articles reflect the assumption at the root of many problems, that an account, however tentative, of some structure of the cosmos or some transaction of the nervous system successfully claims that part of reality for secularism. Those who encourage a fear of science are actually saying the same thing. If the old, untenable dualism is put aside, we are instructed in the endless brilliance of creation. Surely to do this is a privilege of modern life for which we should all be grateful.

For years I have been interested in ancient literature and religion. If they are not one and the same, certainly neither is imaginable without the other. Indeed, literature and religion seem to have come into being together, if by literature I can be understood to include pre-literature, narrative whose purpose is to put human life, causality and meaning in relation, to make each of them in some degree intelligible in terms of the other two. I was taught, more or less, that we moderns had discovered other religions with narratives resembling our own, and that this discovery had brought all religion down to the level of anthropology. Sky gods and earth gods presiding over survival and procreation. Humankind pushing a lever in the hope of aperiodic reward in the form of rain or victory in the next tribal skirmish. From a very simple understanding of what religion has been we can extrapolate to what religion is now and is intrinsically, so the theory goes. This pattern, of proceeding from presumed simplicity to a degree of elaboration that never loses the primary character of simplicity, is strongly recurrent in modern thought.

I think much religious thought has also been intimidated by this supposed discovery, which is odd, since it certainly was not news to Paul, or Augustine, or Thomas Aquinas or Calvin. All of them quote the pagans with admiration. Perhaps only in Europe was one form of religion ever so dominant that the fact of other forms could constitute any sort of problem. There has been an influential modern tendency to make a sort of slurry of religious narratives, asserting the discovery of universals that don’t actually exist among them. Mircea Eliade is a prominent example. And there is Joseph Campbell. My primary criticism of this kind of scholarship is that it does not bear scrutiny. A secondary criticism I would offer is that it erases all evidence that religion has, anywhere and in any form, expressed or stimulated thought. In any case, the anthropological bias among these writers, which may make it seem free of all parochialism, is in fact absolutely Western, since it regards all religion as human beings acting out their nature and no more than that, though I admit there is a gauziness about this worldview to which I will not attempt to do justice here.

This is the anthropologists’ answer to the question, why are people almost always, almost everywhere, religious. Another answer, favored by those who claim to be defenders of science, is that religion formed around the desire to explain what prescientific humankind could not account for. Again, this notion does not bear scrutiny. The literatures of antiquity are clearly about other business.

Some of these narratives are so ancient that they clearly existed before writing, though no doubt in the forms we have them they were modifi ed in being written down. Their importance in the development of human culture cannot be overstated. In antiquity people lived in complex city- states, carried out the work and planning required by primitive agriculture, built ships and navigated at great distances, traded, made law, waged war and kept the records of their dynasties. But the one thing that seems to have predominated, to have laid out their cities and filled them with temples and monuments, to have established their identities and their cultural boundaries, to have governed their calendars and enthroned their kings, were the vivid, atemporal stories they told themselves about the gods, the gods in relation to humankind, to their city, to themselves.

I suppose it was in the 18th century of our era that the notion became solidly fixed in the Western mind that all this narrative was an attempt at explaining what science would one day explain truly and finally. Phoebus drives his chariot across the sky, and so the sun rises and sets. Marduk slays the sea monster Tiamat, who weeps, whence the Tigris and the Euphrates. It is true that in some cases physical reality is accounted for, or at least described, in the terms of these myths. But the beauty of the myths is not accounted for by this theory, nor is the fact that, in literary forms, they had a hold on the imaginations of the populations that embraced them which expressed itself again as beauty. Over time these narratives had at least as profound an effect on architecture and the visual arts as they did on literature. Anecdotes from them were painted and sculpted everywhere, even on house hold goods, vases and drinking cups.

This kind of imaginative engagement bears no resemblance what ever to an assimilation of explanatory models by these civilizations. Perhaps the tendency to think of classical religion as an effort at explaining a world otherwise incomprehensible to them encourages us to forget how sophisticated ancient people really were. They were inevitably as immersed in the realm of the practical as we are. It is strangely easy to forget that they were capable of complex engineering, though so many of their monuments still stand. The Babylonians used quadratic equations.

Yet in many instances ancient people seem to have obscured highly available real- world accounts of things. A sculptor would take an oath that the gods had made an idol, after he himself had made it. The gods were credited with walls and ziggurats, when cities themselves built them. Structures of enormous shaped stones went up in broad daylight in ancient cities, the walls built around the Temple by Herod in Roman-occupied Jerusalem being one example. The ancients knew, though we don’t know, how this was done, obviously. But they left no account of it. This very remarkable evasion of the law of gravity was seemingly not of great interest to them. It was the gods themselves who walled in Troy.

In Virgil’s Aeneid, in which the poet in effect interprets the ancient Greek epic tradition by attempting to renew it in the Latin language and for Roman purposes, there is one especially famous moment. The hero, Aeneas, a Trojan who has escaped the destruction of his city, sees a painting in Carthage of the war at Troy and is deeply moved by it and by what it evokes, the lacrimae rerum, the tears in things. This moment certainly refers to the place in classical civilization of art that pondered and interpreted the Homeric narratives, which were the basis of Greek and Roman religion. My point here is simply that pagan myth, which the Bible in various ways acknowledges as analogous to biblical narrative despite grave defects, is not a naive attempt at science.

It is true that almost a millennium separated Homer and Virgil. It is also true that through those centuries the classical civilizations had explored and interpreted their myths continuously. Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides would surely have agreed with Virgil’s Aeneas that the epics and the stories that surround them and flow from them are indeed about lacrimae rerum, about a great sadness that pervades human life. The Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh is about the inevitability of death and loss. This is not the kind of language, nor is it the kind of preoccupation, one would find in a tradition of narrative that had any significant interest in explaining how the leopard got his spots.

The notion that religion is intrinsically a crude explanatory strategy that should be dispelled and supplanted by science is based on a highly selective or tendentious reading of the literatures of religion.

The notion that religion is intrinsically a crude explanatory strategy that should be dispelled and supplanted by science is based on a highly selective or tendentious reading of the literatures of religion. In some cases it is certainly fair to conclude that it is based on no reading of them at all. Be that as it may, the effect of this idea, which is very broadly assumed to be true, is again to reinforce the notion that science and religion are struggling for possession of a single piece of turf, and science holds the high ground and gets to choose the weapons. In fact there is no moment in which, no perspective from which, science as science can regard human life and say that there is a beautiful, terrible mystery in it all, a great pathos. Art, music and religion tell us that. And what they tell us is true, not after the fashion of a magisterium that is legitimate only so long as it does not overlap the autonomous republic of science. It is true because it takes account of the universal variable, human nature, which shapes everything it touches, science as surely and profoundly as anything else. And it is true in the tentative, suggestive, ambivalent, self-contradictory style of the testimony of a hundred thousand witnesses, who might, taken all together, agree on no more than the shared sense that something of great moment has happened, is happening, will happen, here and among us.

I hasten to add that science is a great contributor to what is beautiful and also terrible in human existence. For example, I am deeply grateful to have lived in the era of cosmic exploration. I am thrilled by those photographs of deep space, as many of us are. Still, if it is true, as they are saying now, that bacteria return from space a great deal more virulent than they were when they entered it, it is not difficult to imagine that some regrettable consequence might follow our sending people to tinker around up there. One article noted that a human being is full of bacteria, and there is nothing to be done about it.

Science might note with great care and precision how a new pathology emerged through this wholly unforeseen impact of space on our biosphere, but it could not, scientifically, absorb the fact of it and the origin of it into any larger frame of meaning. Scientists might mention the law of unintended consequences — mention it softly, because that would sound a little flippant in the circumstances. But religion would recognize in it what religion has always known, that there is a mystery in human nature and in human assertions of brilliance and intention, a recoil the Greeks would have called irony and attributed to some angry whim of the gods, to be interpreted as a rebuke of human pride if it could be interpreted at all. Christian theology has spoken of human limitation, fallen-ness, an individually and collectively disastrous bias toward error. I think we all know that the earth might be reaching the end of its tolerance for our presumptions. We all know we might at any time feel the force of unintended consequences, many times compounded. Science has no language to account for the fact that it may well overwhelm itself, and more and more stand helpless before its own effects.

Of course science must not be judged by the claims certain of its proponents have made for it. It is not in fact a standard of reasonableness or truth or objectivity. It is human, and has always been one strategy among others in the more general project of human self-awareness and self-assertion. Our problem with ourselves, which is much larger and vastly older than science, has by no means gone into abeyance since we learned to make penicillin or to split the atom. If antibiotics have been used without sufficient care and have pushed the evolution of bacteria beyond the reach of their own effectiveness, if nuclear fission has become a threat to us all in the insidious form of a disgruntled stranger with a suitcase, a rebuke to every illusion of safety we entertained under fine names like Strategic Defense Initiative, old Homer might say, “the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.” Shakespeare might say, “There is a destiny that shapes our ends, rough- hew them how we will.”

The tendency of the schools of thought that have claimed to be most impressed by science has been to deny the legitimacy of the kind of statement it cannot make, the kind of exploration it cannot make. And yet science itself has been profoundly shaped by that larger bias toward irony, toward error, which has been the subject of religious thought since the emergence of the stories in Genesis that tell us we were given a lavishly beautiful world and are somehow, by our nature, complicit in its decline, its ruin. Science cannot think analogically, though this kind of thinking is very useful for making sense and meaning out of the tumult of human affairs.

We have given ourselves many lessons in the perils of being half right, yet I doubt we have learned a thing. Sophocles could tell us about this, or the Book of Job. We all know about hubris. We know that pride goeth before a fall. The problem is that we don’t recognize pride or hubris in ourselves, any more than Oedipus did, any more than Job’s so- called comforters. It can be so innocuous- seeming a thing as confidence that one is right, is competent, is clear-sighted, or confidence that one is pious or pure in one’s motives. As the disciples said, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus replied, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible,” in this case speaking of the salvation of the pious rich. It is his consistent teaching that the comfortable, the confident, the pious stand in special need of the intervention of grace. Perhaps this is true because they are most vulnerable to error — like the young rich man who makes the astonishing decision to turn his back on Jesus’s invitation to follow him, therefore on the salvation he sought — although there is another turn in the story, and we learn that Jesus will not condemn him. I suspect Jesus should be thought of as smiling at the irony of the young man’s self-defeat — from which, since he is Jesus, he is also ready to rescue him ultimately. The Christian narrative tells us that we individually and we as a world turn our backs on what is true, essential, wholly to be desired. And it tells us that we can both know this about ourselves and forgive it in ourselves and one another, within the limits of our mortal capacities. To recognize our bias toward error should teach us modesty and reflection, and to forgive it should help us avoid the inhumanity of thinking we ourselves are not as fallible as those who, in any instance, seem most at fault. Science can give us knowledge, but it cannot give us wisdom. Nor can religion, until it puts aside nonsense and distraction and becomes itself again.

Excerpted from When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson, published in 2012 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright (c) 2012 by Marilynne Robinson. All rights reserved.

Marilynne Robinson
Marilynne Robinson is the author of the novels Home, Gilead — for which she won a Pulitzer-prize — Housekeeping and Lila, as well as four books of nonfiction, including her most recent, When I Was a Child I Read Books. She teaches at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

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Low-Wage Employers Are the Real ‘Welfare Queens’ Sun, 19 Oct 2014 13:35:12 +0000 Raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour wouldn't only lift millions out of poverty. Continue reading

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The federal minimum wage of $7.25 is now worth 30 percent less than it was in the 1960s, after adjusting for inflation. It is quite literally a poverty wage — if you support a child, working full-time at the federal minimum will land you $650 below the federal poverty line; supporting two kids will put you more than $4,000 beneath it.

We’ve noted before that low-wage employers shift some of their labor costs onto the backs of taxpayers by encouraging their workers to apply for public benefits. These employers are the true “welfare queens,” their profits indirectly subsidized by the public, which allows them to keep prices artificially low. We’ve argued in the past that this is one of several reasons why conservatives who oppose spending on the social safety net should favor raising the minimum to a point where workers can get by on their own labor.

A report released this week by the Economic Policy Institute quantifies just how much taxpayers would save by raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, as Barack Obama has proposed. The full report can be downloaded at the Economic Policy Institute’s website. Here’s an infographic that summarizes its findings..


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“Voter Fraud Vigilantes” Sat, 18 Oct 2014 12:49:40 +0000 What better way to eliminate the infinitesimal amount of voter fraud in the United States than by disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of people? Continue reading

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What better way to eliminate the infinitesimal amount of voter fraud in the United States than by disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of people? That is basically what the Republican craze of “voter ID” laws will do. These laws will overwhelmingly impact students, minorities and the poor — interestingly-enough, all reliable Democratic voters.

Funny how the statehouses and governors who back voter ID laws are all Republican. Go figure. They just want to save our Democracy and increase turnout, right? Never mind that a Reagan-appointed judge slammed voter ID laws and made Swiss cheese of the whole charade.

Courts, supporters and opponents of voter ID will be wrestling over these laws right up until the election, now just weeks away. It’s a game of musical chairs, and depending on where you are when the music stops, you may or may not have the right to vote. In the words of Judge Richard Posner of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals:

“There is only one motivation for imposing burdens on voting that are ostensibly designed to discourage voter-impersonation fraud, if there is no actual danger of such fraud, and that is to discourage voting by persons likely to vote against the party responsible for imposing the burdens.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

The views expressed in this post are the author’s alone, and presented here to offer a variety of perspectives to our readers.

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“More Money Than I Could Count”: Mitch McConnell’s Very Special Relationship With Lobbyists Sat, 18 Oct 2014 12:37:16 +0000 There may be no Washington lawmaker cozier with K Street than Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Continue reading

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This post first appeared at Mother Jones.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., gives a thumbs-up as he finishes his address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference opening plenary session in Washington, Monday, March 5, 2012. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) gives a thumbs-up as he finishes his address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference opening plenary session in Washington, Monday, March 5, 2012. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

There may be no Washington lawmaker cozier with K Street than Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). DC law firms and lobbying shops are stuffed with ex-McConnell staffers and pals. And he uses them well to preserve his power and position. As the conservative National Review reported, “McConnell has often exercised power in DC by pressuring major donors to withhold donations from a given lawmaker or organization. His allies on K Street are often the people who deliver this message and ‘enforce’ it.” The stats below show just how close McConnell is with the well-heeled lobbyists of Washington, DC — a relationship that no doubt will serve both sides well, should the GOP win the Senate and McConnell become its majority leader.











Mitch McConnell: J. Scott Applewhite/AP; Oil rig: Christopher Classens/Noun Project; Mitch McConnell: Miranda Pederson/AP; Arrow: P.J. Onori/ Noun Project; Money: Atelier Iceberg/Noun Project

Katie Rose Quandt is a reporter for Mother Jones. She was a grant writer for a homeless services nonprofit in Chicago. She has written for America, In These Times and Solitary Watch. You can follow her @katierosequandt.

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Ebola Fearmongering: The Right’s New Dog Whistle Fri, 17 Oct 2014 23:46:43 +0000 Why are so few decrying the racial elements in today’s scare tactics? Continue reading

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A screenshot from MSNBC coverage of a House hearing on Ebola in which CDC director Tom Frieden expressed concern about "porous borders" in Africa.

A still from MSNBC coverage of Thursday’s House hearing on Ebola in which Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) asked whether our southern border needs to be secured after CDC director Tom Frieden expressed concern about “porous borders” in his testimony. He explained that he was talking about porous borders in Africa. (MSNBC screenshot via Daily Caller)

With revelations of contagion among health care workers in Dallas, including one who traveled cross country by plane after being infected, Ebola panic is rising. While the chance of a significant domestic outbreak remains virtually nil, the round-the-clock media frenzy is nevertheless contributing to surging anxiety. So too is the rhetoric coming from the right.

In the immediate run-up to the midterm elections, we’re witnessing fear mongering about Ebola on the southern border from across the conservative spectrum, from fringe figures to relatively moderate Republicans. It should be obvious — though it is not, for reasons I will explore — that once again we are confronting an election conducted largely in dog whistle terms, with pundits and candidates hoping to use racially coded appeals to drive anxious white voters to the polls.

Former Arkansas governor and Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee offers this: “When the government says it can’t keep people out of the US, what it means is that it won’t keep people out. And why should we be surprised? We’ve seen our borders routinely ignored. So if someone with Ebola really wants to come to the US, just get to Mexico and walk right in.”

North Carolina Republican Senate candidate Thom Tillis makes a comment during a live televised debate with Sen. Kay Hagan, D-NC, at UNC-TV studios in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2014. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, Pool)

North Carolina Republican Senate candidate Thom Tillis makes a comment during a live televised debate with Sen. Kay Hagan, D-NC, at UNC-TV studios in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2014. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, Pool)

Thom Tillis, the Republican candidate for Senate in North Carolina, used a recent debate to claim that his opponent “failed the people of North Carolina and the nation by not securing our border.” Tillis continued, “Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve got an Ebola outbreak, we have bad actors that can come across the border. We need to seal the border and secure it.”

The preposterous idea of an Ebola victim swimming the Rio Grande fits within a larger pattern of conservatives placing dire threats at the southern border. A few weeks ago, it was ISIS terrorists who were supposedly on the border, for instance with Scott Brown, another Republican Senate candidate, who warned that “[r]adical Islamic terrorists are threatening to cause the collapse of our country,” and then assuring voters, “I want to secure the border, keep out the people who would do us harm.” Adapting to recent events, last week Brown switched out Ebola for ISIS: “people with Ebola and other infectious diseases can enter the country without being challenged,” he claimed.

The “border” is key to decoding these remarks as dog whistles. Clearly Ebola deserves attention and immediate response as a humanitarian crisis of calamitous proportions in three West African countries. The warnings we’re hearing, however, have nothing to do with helping Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, and everything to do with a supposed infection crossing our border — with fingers almost always pointing south rather than north, eliciting fear of surging Latino numbers and the rapid demographic browning of America.

“You take the most extreme examples of xenophobic hysteria — Mexicans, terrorists, ISIS, the border crisis and Ebola — and mash them all together to create a new narrative of craziness.” — Julio Varela
“Disease” is also a core dog whistle. Even before Ebola, disease was imputed to undocumented immigrants, reviving the racial calumny that some races spread pestilence, like rats or roaches. Speaking of the undocumented children who fled here this summer, long-time conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly recently opined, “out of all the things [Obama’s] done, I think this thing of letting these diseased people into this country to infect our own people is just the most outrageous of all.”

Then, adding Ebola to the mix, Schlafly continued that Obama might secretly hope that Ebola becomes widespread here. “Obama doesn’t want America to believe that we’re exceptional,” she contends. “He wants us to be just like everybody else, and if Africa is suffering from Ebola, we ought to join the group and be suffering from it, too. That’s his attitude.”

This stew of disparate elements and outlandish claims verges on self-parody. As the founder of a Latino-issues website, Julio Varela, remarks, “you take the most extreme examples of xenophobic hysteria — Mexicans, terrorists, ISIS, the border crisis and Ebola — and mash them all together to create a new narrative of craziness.”

Yet “crazy” doesn’t mean ineffectual. A survey from this week shows that 57 percent of tea party supporters believe the federal government is not prepared to prevent a major Ebola outbreak domestically, and another survey shows that 71 percent of Republicans are very worried about Islamic extremism in the US. Again, the actual risks here are virtually nonexistent. Meanwhile, another report shows that 56 percent of Republicans are mad at their own party about immigration, overwhelmingly because they feel that the GOP is not taking a hard-enough stand against undocumented immigrants.

It seems that those spreading panic about Ebola, ISIS and the southern border hope that their new rhetoric will reinvigorate an old tactic: racial dog whistling. It has never been bigotry amid politicians that drives this, so much as the cold calculation that stimulating racial panic can win votes. And as they have before, many within the GOP seem to be banking that it will work again.

But for all the evidence that conservatives are whipping up their base with racially-charged narratives, there has very little criticism of this racial pandering. Why not?

It’s not as if the scare rhetoric has gone unnoticed; on the contrary, The New York Times recently put it on the front page, The Washington Post criticized the Republicans’ “doom-and-disease chorus,” and “Meet the Press” as well as ABC’s “This Week” dedicated panel discussions to fear mongering — yet these venues made no mention of race.

And it’s not as if progressives are timid about indicting dog whistling when they recognize it. Just last spring, when Paul Ryan blamed poverty on a “tailspin of culture in our inner cities,” he was sharply rebuked by figures ranging from Democratic Representative Barbara Lee to Times columnist Paul Krugman. Regarding Ebola, MSNBC’s Alex Wagner did chastise what she called the right-wing media’s “thinly veiled, racially charged questions,” but a Google search doesn’t turn up much else on the topic.

So why are so few decrying the racial elements in today’s scare tactics? A recent primer on coded racial terms provides a clue, for the short glossary focused only on blacks, listing these words: thug, inner city, ghetto, uppity, Oreo, shady and sketchy. In short, we’re increasingly sophisticated in our ability to recognize surreptitious references to African-Americans, but not others.

That blacks should be the quintessential reference in racial politics is no surprise. Dog whistling arose in the South as a replacement language for more open endorsements of segregation rendered unacceptable by the civil rights movement, and as it spread to the rest of the country beginning in the 1970s, African-Americans remained the principal boogeyman. Obama’s election has only added to this potency.

But since 9/11, there have been sonorous new barrages in dog whistle politics emphasizing the threat to national security from brown in addition to black. Whether its “Muslim terrorists” or “illegal aliens” — or, most recently of all, “Ebola!” — the drums of racial threat are also pounding out warnings of extremist elements and diseased hordes at the gates.

The coded terms used in dog whistle politics constantly evolve, partly to fit the times, partly to avoid censure. After a decade and more, we’re long past due to recognize that dog whistling has moved beyond African-Americans, and now also targets Latinos, Muslims and — as of a few weeks ago — African immigrants and Ebola.

This is the fifth in a series of posts that Ian Haney López, the author of Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, will be writing in the weeks leading up to the November election.

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Clip: Marilynne Robinson — We’re Acting Beneath Our Dignity and the Media Is Making it Worse Fri, 17 Oct 2014 21:51:08 +0000 In this clip, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author tells Bill that as a society -- and that includes politicians -- we are stooping way too low in the way we treat and speak to one another. Continue reading

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In this clip, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson tells Bill that as a society — and that includes politicians — we are stooping way too low in the way we treat and speak to one another. Watch:

Robinson says: “[W]e’ve gotten into the habit of condescending to one another so that we’re trying to get little cheers from the audience rather than actually dealing with people in good faith, telling them what they need to know, acknowledging the complexity of incredibly complex problems that we have… I think that a lot of people use this tribal language and so on to enflame other people and get little groups to give donations, whatever. But basically, it is beneath their dignity.”

And the media’s appetite for sensationalism, Robinson says, “reinforces the tendency toward meanness and public discourse.”

Watch Bill’s full conversation with Robinson »

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The Latest in Dark Money: Oligarchs Form Their Own Shadow Parties Fri, 17 Oct 2014 21:50:29 +0000 A roundup of this week's news from our Wild West campaign finance system. Continue reading

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With three weeks of spending left to go, 2014 is already the most expensive midterm election cycle in history. The Wesleyan Media Project reported this week that spending on advertising alone is poised to break the $1 billion mark. Some of that money is being raised through traditional channels — by candidates and party committees — but in the Citizens United era, an increasing share is being funneled through outside groups, many of which don’t disclose their donors.

To keep you up to date with the latest, we’ve rounded up some key campaign finance stories from the past week.

Dark Money Explained

Last Friday, Nicholas Confessore reported for the The New York Times that more than half of all ad spending this cycle — 55 percent — has come through dark money groups.

Accompanying the article was this brief video explaining what dark money is and detailing its rise to prominence. It’s a good video to share with people who aren’t yet familiar with the ins and outs of campaign financing.

Dark Money and the Fight for the Senate

Those opposed to bringing greater transparency to our campaign finance system argue that dark money’s impact is exaggerated because it represents only a fraction of overall spending. But the raw numbers understate the importance of those dollars as their impact is tightly focused on specific  pieces of contested terrain. As Paul Blumenthal reported this week for The Huffington Post, “it is increasingly evident that this spending is meant to influence only a handful of races.”

According to a review by The Huffington Post of campaign finance records collected by the Federal Election Commission, the Center for Responsive Politics and press releases and news reports regarding spending by these groups, the Senate races in Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Kentucky and North Carolina account for nearly half of all dark money spent to target 2014 candidates.

Overall, expenditures by groups not disclosing their donors has soared to at least $190 million in the 2014 campaign. The five Senate races with the most dark money have attracted $92.8 million of this total, while the top 10 Senate races account for $130 million.

Shadow Parties

Writing in The New York Times Magazine, Jim Rutenberg offers a big-picture view of how virtually unlimited campaign cash has changed the very nature of our political process. Wealthy donors effectively create their own shadow parties to advance personal agendas. The result of Citizens United was “a massive power shift, from the party bosses to the rich individuals who ran the super PACs.

Almost overnight, traditional party functions — running TV commercials, setting up field operations, maintaining voter databases, even recruiting candidates — were being supplanted by outside groups. And the shift was partly because of one element of McCain-Feingold that remains: the ban on giving unlimited soft money to parties. In the party universe, rich players like the Wylys, Tom Steyer or the Kochs were but single planets among many. The party bosses had to balance their interests against those who brought just as much to the table in the form of money or votes. A party platform has to account for both the interests of the oil industry and those of the ethanol industry; those of the casino industry and those of the anti-gambling religious right; those of Wall Street and those of labor.

With the advent of Citizens United, any players with the wherewithal, and there are surprisingly many of them, can start what are in essence their own political parties, built around pet causes or industries and backing politicians uniquely answerable to them.

Dark Money Works In Mysterious Ways

Democrat Al Franken seems to hold a commanding lead over his Republican challenger in Minnesota’s US Senate Race. He’s ahead by 18 points according to the most recent poll, and by 11.5 points in Real Clear Politics’ polling average.

Given that advantage, political observers are unsure why an Ohio-based dark money group called the Hometown Freedom Action Network recently dropped $340,000 into the campaign, so far the largest media buy in the race by an outside group. As Minnesota Public Radio’s Catharine Richert put it, “with far more competitive Senate races around the country, it is not clear why the group has decided to spend here.”

Who's Buying our Midterm Elections?

A Tangled Web

The Hometown Freedom Action Network is just one front group in a tangled web of Ohio-based PACs and nonprofits tied to a handful of veteran Republican operatives and tea party activists, according to a report by Stephen Koff in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. They include A Public Voice, which operated as Protect Your Vote Ohio in 2012, and the Concrete and Portland Cement Political Action Network, which “so far appears to have received no money from the concrete industry.” This story is impossible to summarize — read the whole thing for a sense of just how interconnected these shadowy groups can be.

Big Donor Cash Floods Party Committees

Among other outcomes, last year’s Supreme Court ruling in McCutcheon v FEC struck down individual limits on donations to party committees. As Paul Blumenthal reported this week for The Huffington Post, “this opened the door to the creation of super-sized joint fundraising committees linking multiple candidates and party committees and allowing a single donor to cut one large check to be divided among participants.” He adds that “these super-joint committees are just now beginning to raise these huge checks,” and that both parties are taking advantage by “raising historic sums from single donors for the 2014 midterm elections”

Are The Wall Street Journal and Fox News Aiding GOP Fundraising?

At The New Republic, Alec MacGillis notes that the conservative opinion page of The Wall Street Journal has been “full of praise for Harry Reid and the Democrats’ 2014 campaign operation. One after another Journal opinion writer marveled at the Democrats’ fundraising and compared them favorably to their lackluster Republican counterparts.”

MacGillis argues that this was an intentional ploy to stimulate conservative fundraising:

The Journal is the newspaper of the country’s business elite, which in most industries still leans Republican. These pieces were landing on C-suite desks with a message that had all the subtlety of a public-radio fundraising-drive. Guys, the message read, we are to our surprise not as far ahead in the money game as we expected to be for the midterms. Please send checks, pronto.

It appears that the WSJ pundits focused only on disclosed donations — where Democrats are ahead this cycle — and ignored outside spending, where the GOP enjoys a significant advantage.

Media Matters researcher Meagan Hatcher-Mays noticed a similar dynamic in Fox News’ coverage of this cycle’s campaign spending. She wrote this week: “Fox News is claiming that Democratic campaigns and supporters are vastly outspending their Republican counterparts during this election cycle, a suggestion that appears to… ignore the influence of ‘dark money’ spending that favors the GOP.”

Singing Out Against Dark Money doesn’t endorse candidates for public office, but we can report that this campaign ad, by candidate Rick Weiland — a singing cowboy running for South Dakota’s US Senate seat on a shoestring budget — has become something of a viral sensation on the Internet. And it’s kind of catchy…

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Mental Illness, Homelessness, Drug Addiction: Do These Sound Like Crimes? Fri, 17 Oct 2014 20:19:41 +0000 Why are we letting these serious social problems be handled by the criminal justice system? Continue reading

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This post first appeared at The Nation.

Rikers Island in New York  (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
Rikers Island in New York (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

overcriminalized_logo_with_alpha_imgKajieme Powell told the St. Louis police to shoot him. He told them repeatedly to shoot him, and the two police officers who were called to the scene quickly obliged. But they didn’t shoot him because he told them to. The official reason St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson gave for why the officers shot Powell — which they did at least nine times, including several shots fired after Powell had already fallen to the ground — was that Powell was carrying a knife and charged toward the two officers holding that knife with an overhand grip.

Cellphone video captured by a witness standing nearby throws this official account of events into question, including the overhand grip, whether Powell “charged” at the officers and even the distance Powell was from the officers. But what does seem clear is that Powell was not well. In the video, he paces back and forth outside the store speaking incoherently, the two stolen energy drinks sitting on the sidewalk. The first thing he says that makes any sense is when the police arrive and he yells, “Shoot me!” The police do nothing to de-escalate the situation, hopping out of their car with guns drawn. Perhaps this is protocol, but at no point, after recognizing that Powell is only holding a knife and is not threatening the lives of anyone around him, do they attempt any non-lethal means of subduing him. They do not recognize his barking “Shoot me! Kill me now!” as suicidal. They ended the ordeal, and Powell’s life, without much consideration of any alternatives.

But this is to be expected when far too many police officers aren’t being trained to handle suspects with mental illness, but are increasingly called to do so. As mental-health services disappear across the country, it is the police departments, the court system and the prisons that, more and more, are charged with care for those with mental illnesses. But that care often takes the form of what happened in St. Louis to Powell, or of incarceration without treatment.

This is true for a number of social problems that America would rather not deal with. It’s a system that’s not only unsustainable, financially and morally, but does little to ameliorate these issues. Fortunately, there are alternatives, and in the absence of any national policy shift, America’s cities have been on the front lines of implementing new and better programs that get people the help they need without sending them through the criminal justice system. Still, more can be done.

At any given moment in the United States, there are some 2.3 million people who are incarcerated. This country has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. And this persists even as the crime rate has dropped. The main driver of the explosion in prison population (in the 1970s it was somewhere around 300,000 — a number that prison activists said was too high even then) has been the War on Drugs, which in addition to locking more people up for nonviolent offenses, has led to mandatory minimums and longer prison sentences across the board. While we may lag behind in math and science, we lead the world in innovating new ways to maintain our prison system.

Last year, Brave New Films, the ACLU and The Nation teamed up to bring you a video series about the corporations and industries profiting off our massive prison population. In her introductory essay, Liliana Segura wrote that “when corporations seek to profit from prisons, it creates a powerful financial incentive, not just to push for policies that fuel mass incarceration but to cut corners in the services they’ve been hired to provide.”

This year, we’re launching a new video series, OverCriminalized, that focuses on the people who find themselves being trafficked through this nation’s prisons and police precincts with little regard for their humanity and zero prospects for actual justice. They are victims of an unwillingness to invest in solving major social problems, and the consequent handing off of that responsibility to the police, the courts and the prisons. They are the mentally ill, the homeless and the drug addicted. Sometimes they are all three.

Instead of treatment, those living with severe mental illness are often subject to arrest and police violence. It’s estimated that half of the people shot and killed by a police officer have some type of mental-health problem. James Boyd was killed in Albuquerque, New Mexico, after a five-hour negotiation with police, who were trying to get the homeless man to leave an illegal campsite he had set up. Boyd only had two small camping knives, but he was shot in the back after the officers set off a stun grenade.

When they aren’t killing people with mental-health issues, the police are arresting them, a harrowing and harmful experience in its own right. “Jails are the number-one mental-health facilities across the country,” San Antonio Police Officer Joe Smarro explains in this video series. And that’s no surprise, considering that from 2009 to 2012, $4.35 billion in public mental health spending was cut from state budgets. According to Leon Evans, president of the Center for Health Care Services in San Antonio, nonviolent mentally ill persons are on average incarcerated for three to four times longer than violent offenders without mental illness. And the type of treatment they receive when they are imprisoned is no less violent than what they experience on the street.

A four-month investigation by The New York Times found that brutal attacks on inmates, especially those with mental-health issues, are routine at the nation’s second-largest prison facility, Rikers Island. They found that over an 11-month period in 2013, there were 129 incidents where inmates suffered “serious injuries” caused by jail employees, and that 77 percent of those who experienced “fractures, wounds requiring stitches, head injuries” had also been diagnosed with a mental illness. According to the Times, “Rikers now has about as many people with mental illnesses — roughly 4,000 of the 11,000 inmates — as all 24 psychiatric hospitals in New York State combined. They make up nearly 40 percent of the jail population, up from about 20 percent eight years ago.”

At the same time mental illness is being criminalized, so too is a related public health problem: drug abuse. The War on Drugs was sold to the American people as targeting drug kingpins, but in actuality it has resulted in the arrest and incarceration of mostly low-level dealers and addicts. The criminalization of drug use has also disproportionately affected black people. An ACLU report from 2013 found that, even with similar rates of usage, black people are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. The report also said: “The findings show that while there were pronounced racial disparities in marijuana arrests 10 years ago, they have grown significantly worse. In counties with the worst disparities, Blacks were as much as 30 times more likely to be arrested. The racial disparities exist in all regions of the US, as well as in both large and small counties, cities and rural areas and in both high- and low-income communities. Disparities are also consistently high whether Blacks make up a small or a large percentage of a county’s overall population.”

Ultimately, we are locking people up for either recreational drug use that is harming no one, or for self-medicating an undiagnosed mental illness. In the same way people become addicted to drugs, we have become addicted to using incarceration to treat problems without addressing the underlying causes.

The same holds true for homelessness. In New York City, arrests of peddlers and panhandlers — crimes associated with homelessness — are triple what they were only a year ago. Earlier this year, the NYPD came under fire for raiding a homeless shelter, Freedom House, and arresting 22 people. In Fort Lauderdale, Florida, city commissioners recently passed an ordinance that prohibits “camping” — or sleeping outside — and carries with it the potential penalty of a $500 fine and 60 days in jail.

There is a longstanding history in this country of imprisoning the most vulnerable populations. The criminalizing of homelessness harkens back to the days of post-Reconstruction, when vagrancy laws that had not been enforced for decades were suddenly being applied to the newly freed black populations. The “black codes” targeted the formerly enslaved and arrested them for violations such as not being able to produce paperwork showing employment. The result was their being arrested and shuffled off to prisons that had sprung up on former plantations, effectively re-enslaving them.

This legacy has continued in our era through broken windows policing, stop-and-frisk policies and discriminatory immigration enforcement measures such as Secure Communities. All of these have the potential to criminalize everyday behaviors (often based on race) and maintain police officers’ role as the preferred tool to address too many of society’s problems.

What the homeless need is housing, first and foremost, and prison is not an adequate substitute. “So many major social problems come to the criminal-justice system to be fixed because there isn’t something else out there. But don’t ask the criminal justice system to do it all, because the only thing we really know how to do is send people to prison,” prosecutor Dan Satterberg told our film crew.

That’s why this video series is not just about presenting the problem, but about how you can take action. The criminal-justice system is racist and corrupt. Mass incarceration creates more problems than it solves. Prisons are more violent and expensive than the alternatives. The entire system is less humane than it should be.

These videos focus on solutions that are not only cost effective but actually work in bettering people’s lives and making us less dependent on prisons. These programs could certainly go further, by more effectively keeping these social problems out of the criminal-justice system. But they go a long way toward rethinking the efficacy of treating homelessness, drug addiction and mental illness as nails that can be hammered down simply with more arrests.

Visit Brave new Films to learn more about this video series, and ways that you might take action on this issue.

Watch all of the videos in this series:




Mychal Denzel Smith is a blogger for The Nation and a Knobler Fellow at the Nation Institute. He is also a freelance writer and social commentator. His work on race, politics, social justice, pop culture, hip hop, mental health, feminism and black male identity has appeared in various publications, including The Guardian, Ebony, theGrio, The Root, The Huffington Post, and GOOD. You can follow him on Twitter @mychalsmith.

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The Waltons Keep Getting Richer While Wal-Mart Workers Barely Scrape By Fri, 17 Oct 2014 17:56:29 +0000 Wal-Mart workers held a protest in New York and Washington DC on Thursday to call on the Walton family to commit to raise their pay to $15 an hour and provide consistent full-time work. Continue reading

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In New York City, 26 low-wage workers were arrested Thursday on charges of civil disobedience for protesting in front of the Park Avenue building where Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton owns a $25 million penthouse.


“We are here to protest because she is a [Wal-Mart] board member and she is a shareholder in the company so it’s very important that she hears our message because she has the ability to really fix things for Wal-Mart workers,” said Colby Harris, a United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) organizer from Dallas, Texas. Approximately 300 people participated in the protest, including workers from Zara, McDonald’s and other restaurants and clothing chain stores.


The recent issue of Forbes magazine ranked Alice Walton in eighth place on their annual “Richest People in America” list with a staggering net worth of $34.2 billion. Wal-Mart workers, on the other hand, “make an average of less than $20,000 a year,” explained Harris. That’s less than the poverty line for a family of four, which is $23,000 a year.


In addition to the protest in New York, a group of workers in Washington, DC, delivered a petition signed by workers from more than 1,750 Wal-Mart stores across the country (and other supporters), asking the Walton family “to publicly commit to raise their pay to $15 an hour and provide consistent full-time work.”


If the Waltons fail to respond to the petition by Black Friday, workers said they will hold a massive nationwide protest.


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Update: This post should have mentioned that on Wednesday, Oct. 15, Wal-Mart CEO Douglas McMillon announced that the company plans to upgrade hourly wages for their part-time workers until they are “in a situation where we don’t pay minimum wage at all.” Reuters reported that McMillon didn’t tell reporters the timeline or the amount he plans to offer employees.

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Why Government Spends More Per Pupil at Elite Private Universities Than at Public Universities Fri, 17 Oct 2014 15:41:08 +0000 Private Universities with huge endowments get more benefits from the government and our tax dollars, while the rest of the students at public schools struggle to pay their education. Continue reading

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This post first appeared at Robert Reich’s blog.

Statue of John Harvard at Harvard University (Photo: InSapphoWeTrust/flickr CC 2.0)
Statue of John Harvard at Harvard University (Photo: InSapphoWeTrust/flickr CC 2.0)

Imagine a system of college education supported by high and growing government spending on elite private universities that mainly educate children of the wealthy and upper-middle class, and low and declining government spending on public universities that educate large numbers of children from the working class and the poor.

You can stop imagining. That’s the American system right now.

Government subsidies to elite private universities take the form of tax deductions for people who make charitable contributions to them. In economic terms a tax deduction is the same as government spending. It has to be made up by other taxpayers.

These tax subsidies are on the rise because in recent years a relatively few very rich people have had far more money than they can possibly spend or even give away to their children. So they’re donating it to causes they believe in, such as the elite private universities that educated them or that they want their children to attend.

Private university endowments are now around $550 billion, centered in a handful of prestigious institutions. Harvard’s endowment is over $32 billion, followed by Yale at $20.8 billion, Stanford at $18.6 billion and Princeton at $18.2 billion.

Each of these endowments increased last year by more than $1 billion, and these universities are actively seeking additional support. Last year Harvard launched a capital campaign for another $6.5 billion.

Because of the charitable tax deduction, the amount of government subsidy to these institutions in the form of tax deductions is about one out of every three dollars contributed.

A few years back, Meg Whitman, now CEO of Hewlett-Packard, contributed $30 million to Princeton. In return she received a tax break estimated to be around $10 million.

In effect, Princeton received $20 million from Whitman and $10 million from the U.S. Treasury – that is, from you and me and other taxpayers who made up the difference.

Add in these endowments’ exemptions from taxes on capital gains and on income they earn, and the total government expenditures is even larger.

Divide by the relatively small number of students attending these institutions, and the amount of subsidy per student is huge.

The annual government subsidy to Princeton University, for example, is about $54,000 per student, according to an estimate by economist Richard Vedder. Other elite privates aren’t far behind.

Public universities, by contrast, have little or no endowment income. They get almost all their funding from state governments. But these subsidies have been shrinking.

State and local financing for public higher education came to about $76 billion last year, nearly 10 percent less than a decade before.

Since more students attend public universities now than 10 years ago, that decline represents a 30 percent drop per student.

That means the average annual government subsidy per student at a public university comes to less than $4,000, about one-tenth the per student government subsidy at the elite privates.

What justifies so much government spending per student in private elite universities relative to public ones?

It’s not that the private elites educate more children from poor families. One way to know is to look at the percentage of their students receiving Pell Grants, which are available only to children from poor families. (The grants themselves are relatively modest, paying a maximum of $5,645.)

In fact, the elite privates with large endowments educate a smaller percentage of poor students than universities with little or no endowment income.

According to a survey by the National Association of College and University Business Officers, only 16 percent of students in highly-endowed private universities receive Pell Grants, on average, compared with 59 percent at the lowest-endowed institutions.

At Harvard, 11 percent of students receive Pell Grants; at Yale, it’s 14 percent; Princeton, 12 percent; Stanford, 17 percent.

By contrast, 59 percent of students at the University of Texas in El Paso receive Pell grants, 53 percent at the University of California at Riverside, and 33 percent at the University of California at Berkeley.

Moreover, because public universities have many more students than elite private universities, their larger percentages of Pell students represent far greater numbers of students from poor families.

For example, the University of California at Berkeley has more Pell eligible students than the entire Ivy League put together.

But perhaps the far higher per-student subsidies received by elite private universities are justified because they’re training more future leaders who will be in a position to reduce the nation’s widening inequality.

Unfortunately, there’s not much evidence for that proposition. According to a study by sociologist Lauren Rivera, 70 percent of Harvard’s senior class submits résumés to Wall Street and consulting firms. In 2007, before the global financial meltdown, almost 50 percent of Harvard seniors (58 percent of the men, 43 percent of the women) took jobs on Wall Street.

Among Harvard seniors who got jobs last spring, 3.5 percent were headed to government and politics, 5 percent to health-related fields, and 8.8 percent to any form of public service. The percentages at the other Ivies are not much larger.

So what justifies the high per-student government subsidies at the elite private universities, and the low per-student subsidies in public universities?

There is no justification.

The views expressed in this post are the author’s alone, and presented here to offer a variety of perspectives to our readers.

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Morning Reads: Jon Stewart Schools Bill O’Reilly Fri, 17 Oct 2014 14:09:58 +0000 A roundup of some of the stories we're reading at Moyers & Company HQ... Continue reading

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Good morning — and happy Friday! On this date in 1931, Al Capone was convicted of tax evasion, and in 1973 the OPEC oil embargo began, setting off a fuel shortage crisis and long lines at gas stations in several Western countries, including the US.

Is the tide turning? –>According to the BBC, “the Islamic State (IS) militant group has been driven out of most of the northern Syrian town of Kobane.” AND: Reuters reports that former Iraqi air force pilots who have joined the Islamic State are training fellow militants to fly three captured Syrian jet fighters.

Six out of seven –> MoJo’s Andy Kroll and Katie Rose Quandt report that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell may be the lawmaker whose relationships with DC lobbyists are the coziest, noting that six of his seven former chiefs of staff have gone on to make fortunes in the influence peddling biz.

Panic –> The media’s sensational Ebola reporting is causing people to panic needlessly. At TNR, Claire Groden looks at a few of the more “absurd overreactions.” AND: At The New Yorker, Amy Davidson writes that it’s wrong to blame the nurses who contracted the virus at a Dallas hospital.

Whiplash” –> Karen Weise at Bloomberg Businessweek writes that a deluge of late-in-the-game judicial rulings over various states’ voting restrictions is sowing confusion just as early voting begins.

Insiders blame Rove –> Earlier this week, the NYT had a blockbuster report that from 2004-2011, the government covered up the fact that US soldiers in Iraq were being wounded by old, discarded chemical weapons. At The Daily Beast, Eli Lake follows up and reports that former White House insiders say Bush political advisor Karl Rove was instrumental in the effort to “let these sleeping dogs lie.”

Work ahead –> At Grist, John Light looks at the White House’s developing strategy to get a global climate deal in place before the end of Obama’s final term.

A record number of eligible voters –> Pew’s Hispanic Trends Project takes an in-depth look at the growing Latino vote.

Bad news for the news” –> Robert Kaiser sees gloomy days ahead for the news media in a Brookings Institution #longread.

Western drought to intensify” –> At EcoWatch, Anastasia Pantsios looks at NOAA’s winter forecast, which anticipates no relief for bone-dry Western states. The good news is that another icy “polar vortex” is unlikely.

Not the way it happens in the movies –> In the movies, a young man racing to the hospital with his wife in labor gets an impromptu police escort. In real-world Iowa, they get their tires blown out and are forced to the ground at gunpoint. The NY Daily News has the story.

Insert Wall Street joke here –> Austrian artist Michael Marcovici says that the rats he trained with food pellets to predict foreign currency futures have outperformed their human counterparts. Joe Pinsker has more at The Atlantic.

Good luck with that –> Jon Stewart tries to explain white privilege to Bill O’Reilly — hilarity ensues?

You can get our Morning Reads delivered to your inbox every weekday! Just enter your email address below…

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Full Show: Keeping Faith in Democracy Fri, 17 Oct 2014 14:02:14 +0000 Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson talks to Bill about what the title character of her new book Lila, says about the state of democracy in America. Continue reading

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Marilynne Robinson’s new book, Lila, has been acclaimed by critics as “unflinching,” “an exquisite novel of spiritual redemption and love,” and “a book whose grandeur is found in its humility.”

This week, it was nominated for the National Book Award, the latest of a series of books she set in a fictional Iowa town that began with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead, published in 2004. In addition to her fiction, Robinson is also an accomplished essayist, and on this week’s show, Bill talks with her about her fervent belief in the power of grace and faith and her devotion to democracy, which she fears “we are gravely in danger of losing.”

She tells Moyers, “Democracy has been meant to remove the artificial constraints, poverty is the huge artificial constraint on human thought and action. In this country, there have been attempts to moderate that entrapment and we’ve abandoned that.”

Producer: Candace White. Segment Producer: Robert Booth. Editor: Rob Kuhns. Intro Editor: Sikay Tang.

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]]> 16 lila,marilynne robinson,national book award Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson talks to Bill about what the title character of her new book Lila, says about the state of democracy in America. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson talks to Bill about what the title character of her new book Lila, says about the state of democracy in America. Public Affairs Television, Inc. no 22:50
Marilynne Robinson Thu, 16 Oct 2014 20:47:39 +0000 Marilynne Robinson is the author of the novels Home, Gilead, Housekeeping and Lila, as well as four books of nonfiction, When I Was a Child I Read Books, Mother Country, The Death of Adam and Absence of Mind. She teaches … Continue reading

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Marilynne Robinson is the author of the novels Home, Gilead, Housekeeping and Lila, as well as four books of nonfiction, When I Was a Child I Read Books, Mother Country, The Death of Adam and Absence of Mind. She teaches at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Housekeeping (1981), which won the PEN/Hemingway award for best first novel, is a coming of age story of two girls growing up in Idaho in the middle of the 20th century. After its success, Robinson focused on essay-writing for a variety of publications including Harper’s, The Paris Review and The New York Times Book Review. Many of these essays were later collected in the critically acclaimed anthology called The Death of Adam (1998).

Her second novel, Gilead (2004), won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Ambassador Book Award. Gilead takes the form of a letter from an aging preacher in Gilead, Iowa to his seven-year-old son. Written in simple and sparse prose, it is an uplifting meditation on life.

Robinson’s third novel, Home (2008), is a follow-up to Gilead. The book, a National Book Award finalist, focuses on ordinary Midwestern characters.

Some of those same characters appear in the newly published Lila (2014), which also has been nominated for a National Book Award. In it, Robinson tells the unforgettable story of a girlhood lived on the fringes of society in fear, awe and wonder.

(Bio excerpted from The Writing University).

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Charter School Power Broker Turns Public Education Into Private Profits Thu, 16 Oct 2014 18:02:59 +0000 Every year millions of public education dollars flow through a North Carolina businessman's chain of nonprofit charters to his for-profit companies. Continue reading

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Columbus Charter School in Whiteville, North Carolina, uses a rigid instructional approach in which teachers stick to a script and drill students, like the kindergarteners above, through call and response. (Travis Dove for ProPublica)

This post first appeared at ProPublica and versions of this story were co-published with The Daily Beast and the Raleigh News & Observer.

In late February, the North Carolina chapter of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation — a group co-founded by the libertarian billionaire Koch brothers — embarked on what it billed as a statewide tour of charter schools, a cornerstone of the group’s education agenda. The first — and it turns out, only — stop was Douglass Academy, a new charter school in downtown Wilmington.

Douglass Academy was an unusual choice. A few weeks before, the school had been warned by the state about low enrollment. It had just 35 students, roughly half the state’s minimum. And a month earlier, a local newspaper had reported that federal regulators were investigating the school’s operations.

But the school has other attributes that may have appealed to the Koch group. The school’s founder, a politically active North Carolina businessman named Baker Mitchell, shares the Kochs’ free-market ideals. His model for success embraces decreased government regulation, increased privatization and, if all goes well, healthy corporate profits.

In that regard, Mitchell, 74, appears to be thriving. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four nonprofit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


The schools buy or lease nearly everything from companies owned by Mitchell. Their desks. Their computers. The training they provide to teachers. Most of the land and buildings. Unlike with traditional school districts, at Mitchell’s charter schools there’s no competitive bidding. No evidence of haggling over rent or contracts.

The schools have all hired the same for-profit management company to run their day-to-day operations. The company, Roger Bacon Academy, is owned by Mitchell. It functions as the schools’ administrative arm, taking the lead in hiring and firing school staff. It handles most of the bookkeeping. The treasurer of the nonprofit that controls the four schools is also the chief financial officer of Mitchell’s management company. The two organizations even share a bank account.

Mitchell’s management company was chosen by the schools’ nonprofit board, which Mitchell was on at the time — an arrangement that is illegal in many other states.

Charters are privately run but government-funded schools that are supposed to be open to all. Policymakers and many parents have embraced charters as an alternative to poorly performing and underfunded traditional public schools. As charters have grown in popularity, an industry of management companies like Mitchell’s has sprung up to assist them.

Many of these companies are becoming political players in their states, working to shape the still-emerging set of rules charters must play by. A few, including Mitchell’s company, have aligned themselves with influential conservative groups, such as Americans for Prosperity and the Koch-supported American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC.

This new reality — in which businesses can run chains of public schools — has spurred questions about the role of profit in public education and whether more safeguards are needed to prevent corruption. The U.S. Department of Education has declared the relationships between charter schools and their management companies, both for-profit and nonprofit, a “current and emerging risk” for misuse of federal dollars. It is conducting a wide-ranging look at such relationships. In the last year alone, the FBI sent out subpoenas as part of an investigation into a Connecticut-based charter-management company and raided schools that are part of a New Mexico chain and a large network of charter schools spanning Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.

Two of Mitchell’s former employees told ProPublica they have been interviewed by federal investigators. Mitchell says he does not know if his schools are part of any inquiry and has not been contacted by any investigators.

To Mitchell, his schools are simply an example of the triumph of the free market. “People here think it’s unholy if you make a profit” from schools, he said in July, while attending a country-club luncheon to celebrate the legacy of free-market sage Milton Friedman.

It’s impossible to know how much Mitchell is taking home in profits from his companies. He’s fought to keep most of the financial details secret. Still, audited financial statements show that over six years, companies owned by Mitchell took in close to $20 million in revenue from his first two schools. Those records go through the middle of 2013. Mitchell has since opened two more schools.

Many in the charter-school industry say that charter schools are more accountable than traditional public schools because, as Mitchell is fond of saying, “parents can shut us down overnight. They stop bringing their kids here? We don’t get any money.”

Moreover, Mitchell said, students at his two more established schools have produced higher test scores at lower costs than those in traditional public schools: “Maybe Baker Mitchell gets a huge profit. Maybe he doesn’t get any profit. Who cares?”

But many charter supporters question that perspective. The National Association of Charter School Authorizers, a group that promotes best practices for overseeing charter schools, says schools should be independent from their contractors. Mitchell’s dual roles as both a charter-school board member and a vendor, for instance, were a blatant violation of those standards.

“This kind of conflict of interest is what I would consider shocking,” said Parker Baxter, a program director for the group.

“This isn’t as if one of the board members happens to own a chalk company where they buy chalk from, and he recused himself from buying chalk,” he said. “This is the entire management and operation of the school.”

Mitchell was pushed by North Carolina regulators to step down from his schools’ board last fall, a move he derides as unnecessary. “It’s so silly,” he told ProPublica. “Undue influence, blah blah blah.”

But concerns about his influence continued even after he stepped down. One board member resigned in frustration over the role of Mitchell’s company. Two others also quit around the same time. Mitchell still serves as secretary for the board, taking notes and doing the meeting minutes. Asked about frustrations among board members over his involvement, Mitchell said, “Everybody’s free to their own opinion.”

When charter schools were first established in the early 1990s, supporters sought flexibility and freedom from the bureaucratic rules they believed hamstrung traditional schools. Charter schools have leeway over their calendar, curriculum and who they hire and fire. In most states, they do not have to follow many of the processes meant to prevent corruption and misspending of public dollars, such as putting contracts out for competitive bidding.

Mitchell moved to North Carolina in 1997, a year after the state passed a law allowing charter schools. He said he dreamed of starting a school after selling his computer business in Houston in 1989. He had planned on a private school, but when he moved to North Carolina and read about charters, he said he figured that was his chance. He applied to open his first school in 1999, laying out his plans to teach what his company website describes as a “classical curriculum espousing the values of traditional western civilization.” He opened Charter Day School the following year.

Sixth-grade students conduct a mock job interview at Columbus Charter School. (Travis Dove for ProPublica)

People here think it’s unholy if you make a profit from schools, Mitchell said. Above, sixth-grade students conduct a mock job interview at Columbus Charter School. (Travis Dove for ProPublica)

Settled into the southeastern part of the state, Mitchell quickly connected with the state’s big political players, including conservative kingmaker Art Pope. By 2002, he was sitting alongside Pope on the board of the John Locke Foundation. The foundation is part of the State Policy Network, a Koch-supported group of think tanks whose agenda includes steering public funds away from traditional schools and toward charters, vouchers and tax credits for homeschoolers.

From the beginning, concerns about excessive profits and Mitchell’s conflicts of interest dogged the new school. In 2001, the Internal Revenue Service rejected the group’s application for tax-exempt status, noting Mitchell’s dual roles as both a board member and head of a company doing business with the board. The IRS also noted the bank account shared by the schools’ nonprofit and Mitchell’s for-profit company, and that the school was leasing space from another company owned by Mitchell.

“Mr. Mitchell thus controls both your management company and your lessor,” the IRS wrote in a denial letter. “He has dual loyalties to you and his private, for-profit companies. This is a clear conflict of interest for him.”

The school’s board — with Mitchell as a member — protested. It went back and forth with the IRS and eventually made some concessions. For example, it set a limit on the management company’s fees and required board members to recuse themselves from votes in which they had financial interests. It also sent along a letter from an independent real-estate professional who evaluated the school’s lease and offered assurances that it was at market rate. (The real-estate professional, as it happens, worked at the same firm as the board chair’s husband.)

Many of the things flagged by the IRS were left unchanged. Mitchell and an employee of his remained on the board. The joint bank account and the leasing arrangement also stayed the same. But having reached something of a compromise, the IRS approved the school as a tax-exempt nonprofit in March 2002.

Mitchell’s second school, Columbus Charter School, opened in 2007, in rural Columbus County. That school and Mitchell’s first, Charter Day School, have won recognition several years in a row for their performance on state tests.

But comparing the performance of these two schools to their traditional-school counterparts is complicated by the fact that they have comparatively low percentages of needy students, who tend to score lower on standardized tests. For instance, 37 percent of test-takers at Columbus Charter School earlier this year were “economically disadvantaged,” compared to the county’s 74 percent. The two schools do not provide busing or participate in the federal free and reduced-price lunch program — services that are considered key to ensuring broad access.

Mitchell says his third school, Douglass Academy – whose diversity was celebrated by a visit from the Koch group – is the only one that provides transportation and food for students. Its target population is children in several Wilmington housing projects. Students at the school, which opened in 2013, haven’t yet taken state tests so there’s no data to show how they’re faring.

Mitchell’s schools are also distinguished from public schools by their different tone. Staff and students pledge to avoid errors that arise from “the comfort of popular opinion and custom,” “compromise” and “over-reliance on rational argument.” Students must vow “to be obedient and loyal to those in authority, in my family, in my school, and in my community and country, So long as I shall live.”

The schools also use a rigid instructional approach in which teachers stick to a script and drill students repeatedly through call and response. Latin is taught as early as elementary school.

Mitchell’s company has managed the schools’ staffs with similar rigor. A strong sense of hierarchy took root as the schools expanded. When a new corporate office was built to house the management company, teachers jokingly began calling it the “White House.”

From the “White House,” Mitchell and other top administrators could watch teachers in their classrooms via surveillance cameras installed in every classroom, in every school. During a tour of school grounds with this reporter, Mitchell and the school’s IT director discussed surveillance software called iSpy. “We need to call it something else,” Mitchell offered with a chuckle. “Call it iHelp or something.” Mitchell said the cameras give administrators the ability to observe teachers in action and offer them tips and coaching.

As Mitchell was looking to expand his enterprise in the mid-2000s, he ran into a roadblock. North Carolina, like many states, had been cautious when it first allowed charter schools and had placed a cap on their growth.

By the time Mitchell applied in 2007 to open a charter school in Duplin County, the state was nearing that cap — and his plans fell through when the State Board of Education, deciding among three charter applicants, chose the other two schools to fill the spots remaining that year.

Columbus Charter School uses surveillance software in classrooms, which Mitchell said gives administrators the ability to offer teachers tips and coaching. (Travis Dove for ProPublica)

Columbus Charter School uses surveillance software in classrooms, which Mitchell said gives administrators the ability to offer teachers tips and coaching. (Travis Dove for ProPublica)

Mitchell wanted to get rid of the cap. Restrictions were being lifted or eliminated in many states, thanks to lobbying from the charter sector and to federal incentives set up by the Obama administration, which awarded states money based in part on their openness to charter schools. Mitchell and others favoring charters pushed for North Carolina lawmakers to follow suit.

In 2011, they got what he wanted.

Republicans took control of the state legislature and swiftly eliminated the cap on charter schools. Mitchell was also given a coveted position on the state’s new Charter School Advisory Council, an influential committee tasked with reviewing charter applications and making recommendations to the State Board of Education.

It was a turning point for Mitchell. Over the next two years, he got the go-ahead to open two more schools. With both, he appeared to benefit from unusual exceptions or political intervention.

One of them was Douglass Academy, Mitchell’s school for needier students in downtown Wilmington. Under state law, charter schools must have at least 65 students enrolled, but Douglass Academy was well below that. Mitchell’s colleagues on the advisory council gave him a temporary waiver that allowed the school to avoid closure while it tried to boost enrollment.

“I would say it was unusual,” Joel Medley, head of the state’s Office of Charter Schools, said of the temporary waiver. According to Medley, the only other charter schools in the state that received such waivers got them on a permanent basis because of geographic isolation or because they had set out to serve special student populations deemed ill-suited to large-school settings. Neither condition was true of Douglass Academy, whose leadership blamed the enrollment troubles on difficulties securing a facility. The school has since cleared the state’s minimum, though enrollment is still far below the school’s own projections.

Mitchell’s fourth school, South Brunswick Charter School, also lucked out. In 2013, the school’s application failed an initial screening and was put in a stack of applications excluded from further consideration. But then the president of the state Senate, Sen. Phil Berger — the same Republican lawmaker who appointed Mitchell to the Charter School Advisory Council — intervened on behalf of frustrated applicants. The whole stack was re-evaluated — a “one-time decision,” said a memo from the advisory council, due to “extraneous circumstances.” Berger did not respond to a request for comment.

Even upon re-evaluation, a subcommittee of the council voiced unease about aspects of South Brunswick’s application, including “concern that two of seven board members are active employees” of its management company.

But Mitchell’s fourth school was nevertheless approved, with the stipulation that members of the management company, including Mitchell, step down from the board. South Brunswick Charter School opened its doors this summer at a temporary site. A permanent spot is in the works — on land purchased by another one of Mitchell’s for-profit companies with plans to lease it back to the school.

Mitchell’s influence has also reverberated beyond his four schools.

In 2013, the state legislature passed a sweeping charter school bill pushed by Mitchell that loosened oversight and regulation. The law relaxed requirements on how many of each charter school’s teachers had to be certified, giving schools more flexibility and potential savings on labor costs. It also included a perk — a tax exemption — for landlords who, like Mitchell, rent property to charter schools.

Parts of the bill echo legislation pushed forward in other states. ALEC, for example, has promoted legislation across the country to make it easier for non-teachers to start teaching, sidestepping what it sees as cumbersome licensing requirements. Parts of the North Carolina bill have the same wording as ALEC model legislation.

Headmaster Steve Smith interacts with fourth-grade students at Columbus Charter School. (Travis Dove for ProPublica)

Headmaster Steve Smith interacts with fourth-grade students at Columbus Charter School. (Travis Dove for ProPublica)

Mitchell was intimately involved in seeing the bill through as chair of a pro-charter lobbying group, the NC Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Asked about the tax break and whether he had pushed for provisions that would directly benefit him, Mitchell told ProPublica, “There was another group that pushed that through. I didn’t have anything to do with it.”

But a lobbyist for Mitchell’s group, Debbie Clary, said, “It was our bill. I was the only lobbyist working on it.” Clary added: “The person most engaged was Baker [Mitchell].”

Mitchell’s group also posted a note on Facebook after the bill was signed, calling the new law the culmination of two years of work by the Alliance. “The Alliance was able to gain an exemption from county or city property tax, no matter who owns the property, if it is used exclusively for a Charter School,” the note read.

Mitchell has close ties with Sen. Jerry Tillman (R-NC), the lawmaker who sponsored the bill. “We’re good friends,” Mitchell said. “We talk.” Records show that Mitchell wrote Tillman’s campaign a $4,000 check a month after the bill was signed — the maximum that state law at the time allowed an individual to give directly to a candidate each year. Tillman did not respond to requests for comment.

Mitchell and the Alliance didn’t get everything they wanted.

Over the years Mitchell had pressed lawmakers to move charter schools largely out from under the authority of the State Board of Education. Mitchell said he views the state board as a force restricting the free market through overregulation and protecting “the monopoly of the government-run schools.”

Parents at Mitchell’s schools were urged to press their elected officials to remove charter schools from the purview of the State Board of Education: “Your legislators need to hear from you and know of your support for an independent Office of Charter Schools,” said a school newsletter. “Let them know you do not want the State Board of Education controlling charter schools.”

The 2013 bill introduced by Tillman spelled out much of what Mitchell wanted. It proposed the formation of a Charter School Advisory Board that would make all the major decisions about approving new schools and renewing or revoking existing charters without having to answer to the State Board of Education.

But the state’s other main pro-charter group deemed the proposal too extreme and came out strongly against it. An amended bill eventually passed that created a new board without all the power Mitchell and the Alliance had sought. And while Mitchell was appointed to the board, he resigned earlier this year while under pressure over conflicts of interest. He told ProPublica he stepped down because it became a lot of work.

Mitchell has also expressed frustration with a state law passed this summer that requires charter schools to comply with public records laws. Still, the new law does not apply to charter management companies such as Mitchell’s.

The board of Mitchell’s charter schools has repeatedly tangled with local news outlets that have made public records requests seeking salaries and other financial details from the schools. Last month the StarNews of Wilmington filed a lawsuit against the schools’ nonprofit board, alleging that it has violated the state public records law. (The board chair for Charter Day School, Inc., John Ferrante, did not respond to requests for comment.)

Mitchell himself has taken a hard line against disclosures of financial information concerning his for-profit companies. For private corporations, he wrote on his blog in July, “the need for transparency is superfluous” and is simply a mechanism for the media to “intrude and spin their agenda.”

In North Carolina and many other states, the battle over charters is no longer about whether to have them. Instead, it’s largely between those who believe in regulating them and creating mechanisms for public accountability and those, like Mitchell, who believe that’s the job of the free market.

“That’s the fight in North Carolina,” said Damon Circosta, executive director of the A.J. Fletcher Foundation, which sees charter schools as a way to improve public education. “That free-market ideology has taken hold with this newer legislature.”

Large national for-profit charter management companies have joined regional powers like Mitchell to lead the charge. They’ve found allies in local lawmakers. Tillman, the co-chair of North Carolina’s Senate education committee, for instance, recently berated state regulators because he was upset more schools were not being approved.

In many states, the battle over charters is largely between those who believe in regulating them and those who believe that’s the job of the free market. An eighth-grade class at Columbus Charter School is above. (Travis Dove for ProPublica)

In many states, the battle over charters is largely between those who believe in regulating them and those who believe that’s the job of the free market. An eighth-grade class at Columbus Charter School is above. (Travis Dove for ProPublica)

North Carolina is at a crossroads when it comes to charters, said Eric Guckian, the top education adviser to Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican.

Two kinds of people get in the charter-school business, said Guckian: “Group one, they’re looking for entrepreneurial opportunities. Group two, they’re looking to run high-quality schools. My bias is toward the latter. That’s not to say I have anything against entrepreneurship, but I don’t think that’s a reason for getting into the education space.”

Gov. McCrory has tried to step in where the legislature has not. At his urging, the State Board of Education has gone beyond what the law requires and is requiring schools to submit salary information for employees of charter-management companies — numbers that Mitchell believes should be private.

“There’s no statutory basis for it,” Mitchell said of the new requirements. His schools’ board submitted basic budget documents in response to the agency’s order, but it withheld information on management-company finances, stating that the board “does not possess individual salaries paid by any private corporation that furnishes services.” Asked what he’ll do if the agency objects, Mitchell said, “We’ll see what they say and deal with it when it comes.”

He views these new requirements as a sign that North Carolina is moving in the wrong direction, toward an overregulation of charter schools. “I see the banks of the river narrowing,” he said. “In a few more years, there will just be a very narrow channel to navigate in. A lot of the freedoms will be regulated out.”

Heather Vogell contributed to this story.

marian wang
Marian Wang is a reporter for ProPublica, covering education and college debt. Prior to coming to ProPublica, she worked at Mother Jones magazine in San Francisco and freelanced for a number of Chicago-based publications, including The Chicago Reporter, an investigative magazine focused on issues of race and poverty. You can follow her on Twitter @mariancw.

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Does Rising Inequality Make a Democracy More Warlike? Thu, 16 Oct 2014 17:42:37 +0000 An MIT political scientist turns the conventional wisdom about warfare on its head. Continue reading

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President George W. Bush on the Abraham Lincoln being saluted by the flight deck crew. (Image: US Navy/ Photographer's Mate 3rd Class Tyler J. Clements.)

President George W. Bush on USS Abraham Lincoln being saluted by the flight deck crew. (Image: US Navy/ Photographer’s Mate 3rd Class Tyler J. Clements.)

Some folks inherit star spangled eyes
Ooh, they send you down to war, Lord
And when you ask ‘em, “How much should we give?”
Ooh, they only answer “More! More! More!”, y’all
It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no military son, son
It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no fortunate one, one

-Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Fortunate Son”

War has long been seen as an endeavor urged on by the elites who stood the most to gain from conflict – whether to protect overseas assets, create more favorable conditions for international trade or by selling materiel for the conflict – and paid for with the blood of the poor, the cannon fodder who serve their country but have little direct stake in the outcome.

That was certainly the perception of the Vietnam War when Creedence Clearwater Revival hit the charts with “Fortunate Son” in 1969. Millions of poor kids were drafted and sent overseas to fight and die in the jungle while children of the affluent got deferments to attend college. (Dick Cheney famously said of the five deferments he received during that time, “I had other priorities in the 60′s than military service.”)

Much has changed since then in terms of how and when wealthy democracies like the US make war. MIT political scientist Jonathan Caverley, author of Democratic Militarism: Voting, Wealth, and War, and himself a US Navy veteran, argues that increasingly high-tech militaries, with all-volunteer armies that sustain fewer casualties in smaller conflicts, combine with rising economic inequality to create perverse incentives that turn the conventional view of war on its head. His research looks at public opinion and military aggressiveness, and concludes that it’s the working class and poor who are more likely to favor military action today. And that bottom-up pressure makes wealthy democracies more aggressive. spoke with Caverley about his research. The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity.

Joshua Holland: Your research leads to a somewhat counterintuitive conclusion. Can you give me your thesis in a nutshell?

Jonathan Caverley: My argument is that in a heavily industrialized democracy like the United States, we have developed a very capital intensive form of warfare. We no longer send millions of combat troops overseas – or see massive numbers of casualties coming home. Once you start going to war with lots of airplanes, satellites, communications – and a few very highly trained special operations forces — going to war becomes an exercise in check-writing rather than social mobilization. And once you turn war into check-writing, the incentives for and against going to war change.

You can think of it as a redistribution exercise, where people who have less income generally pay a smaller share of the cost of war. This is especially important at the federal level. In the United States, the federal government tends to be funded largely from the top 20 percent. Most of the federal government, I’d say 60 percent, maybe even 65 percent, is financed by the wealthy.

For most people, war now costs very little in terms of both blood and treasure. And it has a redistributive effect.

So my methodology is pretty simple. If you think that your contribution to conflict will be minimal, and see potential benefits, then you should see an increased demand for defense spending and increased hawkishness in your foreign policy views, based on your income. And my study of American and Israeli public opinion found that the less wealthy a person was, the more aggressive they were in using the military.

Holland: You looked specifically at public opinion in Israel, which is the most militarized state in the world, as far as per capita military spending. Why did you choose to study Israel?

Caverley: Well, Israel’s a really interesting case because I study democracies and war, and Israel is a democracy that’s almost always fighting a war, or at least preparing for one. And in some ways, it’s the toughest case for my thesis because they have mandatory military service, and who serves can often be an important cost mechanism to prevent people from engaging in war.

But Israel’s going through a very interesting phase of its history right now. It’s becoming very high tech. Economic inequality’s skyrocketing. The IDF is becoming very professionalized. And in some ways, the threat is changing — they’re much less worried about large, tank-based invasions along their borders than they are about terrorism and the threat of missile strikes. So all of these shifts coming together means that I should probably see the effect in Israel if I see it anywhere. And sure enough, I do.

Holland: The bumper sticker finding here is that your model predicts that as inequality increases, average citizens will be more supportive of military adventurism, and ultimately in democracies, this may lead to more aggressive foreign policies. How does this jibe with what’s known as “democratic peace theory” — the idea that democracies have a lower tolerance for conflict and are less likely to go to war than more authoritarian systems?

Caverley: Well, it depends on what you think is driving democratic peace. If you think it’s a cost-avoidance mechanism, then this doesn’t bode well for the democratic peace. I’d say most people I talk to in my business, we’re pretty sure democracies like to fight lots of wars. They just tend not to fight with each other. And probably the better explanations for that are more normative. The public is just not willing to support a war against another public, so to speak.

To put it more simply, when a democracy has the choice between diplomacy and violence to solve its foreign policy problems, if the cost of one of these goes down, it’s going to put more of that thing in its portfolio.

Holland: Let me ask you about a rival explanation for why poor people might be more supportive of military action. In the paper, you mention the idea that less wealthy citizens may be more prone to buy into what you call the “myths of empire.” Can you unpack that?

Caverley: In order for us to go to war, we have to demonize the other side. It’s not a trivial thing for one group of people to advocate killing another group of people, no matter how callous you think humanity might be. So there is typically a lot of threat inflation and threat construction, and that just goes with the territory of war.

So in my business, some people think that the problem is that elites get together and, for selfish reasons, they want to go to war. That’s true whether it’s to preserve their banana plantations in Central America or sell weapons or what have you.

And they create these myths of empire — these inflated threats, these paper tigers, whatever you want to call it — and try to mobilize the rest of the country to fight a conflict that may not necessarily be in their interest.

If they were right, then you would actually see that people’s foreign policy views – their idea of how great a threat is — would correlate with income. But once you control for education, I didn’t find that these views differed according to what your wealth or income is.

Holland: In the study you point out that most social scientists don’t see military spending as having a redistributive effect. I didn’t understand that. What some call “military Keynesianism” is a concept that’s been around for a long time. We located a ton of military investments in the Southern states, not only for defense purposes, but also as a means of regional economic development. Why don’t people see this as a massive redistribution program?

Caverley: Well, I agree with that construction. If you watch any congressional campaign or you look at any representative’s communication with his or her constituents, you will see that they talk about getting their fair share of defense spending.

But the larger point is that even if you don’t think about defense spending as a redistributive process, it is a classic example of the kind of public goods that a state provides. Everyone benefits from defense of the state – it’s not just rich people. And so national defense is probably one of the places you’re most likely to see redistributive politics, because if you’re not paying too much for it, you’re going to ask for more of it.

Holland: Increasing inequality and poverty is the context here. People are vaguely aware, or should be—that this spending can confer a material benefit on them. And that is reflected in the public opinion polling you looked at. But those polls didn’t ask, “Would you prefer to spend that money on butter rather than guns?”

Caverley: What was interesting to me is that one of the best predictors of your desire to spend money on defense was your desire to spend money on education, your desire to spend money on healthcare, your desire to spend money on roads. I was really shocked by the fact that there is not much of a ‘guns and butter’ tradeoff in the minds of most respondents in these public opinion polls.

Holland: I guess that kind of comports with the very long history of polling on spending priorities, where people always say, “Yes, we want tax cuts, but we don’t want you to touch Social Security or education or any of these other things.”

Caverley: Yes, and we’ve known about this problem for decades, but it’s just very hard, in terms of public opinion, to get people to choose one priority over another. We’ve been trying to do it for a long time now.

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When the Workday Never Really Ends Thu, 16 Oct 2014 15:13:33 +0000 The "new economy" has created a demand for "flexible" workers, but it's creating a new social order that brings chaos to the workplace and the home. Continue reading

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Grace Tan, right, bags up a grocery purchases for Angela Coffer and her daughters at a Gladstone, Missouri, Walmart. (Photo: Walmart/flickr CC 2.0)
A Wal-Mart employee bags up groceries at a Gladstone, Missouri, store. (Photo: Wal-Mart/flickr CC 2.0)

This post first appeared at The Nation.

Sometimes it feels like there aren’t enough hours in the day. And for working people who have to juggle family and work, locked into a rough schedule and the stress of poverty — there really aren’t enough.

The “new economy” of 24-hour online shopping, global markets and just-in-time inventory churning, have created a demand for “flexible” labor — rapid-fire changes in schedules, shift-swapping, on-call staff. In a new book, Unequal Time, sociologists Dan Clawson and Naomi Gerstel survey how time is distributed across this new economic landscape, and finds that flexibility — and its evil twin, unpredictability — is creating a new social order that brings chaos to the workplace and the home.

Take for example a retail sales worker’s typical day: waiting all morning for the boss to call her about her shift time, learning when she’s due at work an hour before her kid gets off school, a frenzied search for a last-minute babysitter, arriving late and getting demerited by the boss, returning home exhausted only to realize she hasn’t seen her child all day and half the day’s earnings are already spent on the nanny.

This constant shuffling between impossible choices grows into a bleak routine — what the researchers call “normal unpredictability,” which is becoming the status quo in many industries. The “pervasiveness of routine disruptions,” Clawson and Gerstel write, wreaks “havoc in people’s jobs and families” in historically unprecedented ways.

Employers can capitalize on the system by “staffing lean,” hiring fewer workers on the cheap at part-time or just-short-of-full-time hours. Then overtime work practically becomes a de facto mandatory extra shift, even as workers’ schedules remain chaotic. The expanding temp work industry represents an entire labor force founded on this economy of instability and contingent labor: short-term hiring with erratic hours lets employers “outsource” precarity to the most vulnerable and impoverished workers.

Though all workers are exposed to scheduling volatility, how a worker copes with the burden of precarious work — a job specifically structured to be unstable — depends on the workplace power structure. Your ability to achieve a decent “work-life balance” may hinge on whether you’re a single parent, how accommodating your boss is about allowing time off for family or school commitments, or whether your workplace is unionized. The poorer you are, the less control you have over these factors on and off the job.

At home, workplace instability aggravates the chaos endemic to poor workers’ family lives — manifested in unstable housing, family stress and conflict and chronic health problems — leaving parents constantly seesawing between workplace misery and domestic crisis.

In what the researchers call a constantly fluctuating “web of time,” jostling of priorities can destabilize relationships, but also “leads to cooperation and accommodation, struggle and conflict — between employees and supervisors, among coworkers, between regular workers and per diems, among different organizations, between spouses, parents and children, and with other kin.”

The relationships are mediated by structural inequalities of gender, class and race. Among the workers surveyed, women, especially women of color, were siphoned into the lowest-wage jobs with the least control over schedules. This reflects economic gender and racial gaps across the workforce, as well as the tracking of marginalized groups into segregated sectors — such as poor women disproportionately working in homecare jobs or immigrants working as day laborers.

In the study, “All groups faced routine unpredictability. But the low wage women workers — far more likely than any other group to be women of color — not only faced unpredictability but had far less more control over it,” Gerstel tells The Nation via email. In the specific case study of the hospital, the researchers found that “the nursing assistants — often women of color (black and Latina) not only earned the least, but were also more likely to be single mothers (as is true of the less advantaged more generally in the US today) who then turned to their kin to cope with the difficulties created by unpredictability that came to be normal.” Such patterns of instability tie into community-wide problems of generational poverty and systemic barriers to employment, housing and education.

But the study also revealed how even poorer workers manage to negotiate for power in their workplaces. The nurses they studied, for instance, were burdened with harsh schedules, but had some leeway to negotiate their hours through networks of co-workers and supervisors, and had some protection from labor laws and union contracts — hard-fought achievements that have been championed by a strong nurse labor movement. Workers shared a general understanding that everyone had caregiving responsibilities outside of work, which provided a more favorable environment for dealing with unfair schedules by, for example, negotiating with a supervisor for a schedule change, or leaning on a co-worker to cover their shift. This rapport in the workforce bred a collective resilience that helped “replace the rigid gendered-male schedule practices with flexible organizational practices that are, in many ways, gendered-female.”

While gender inequality compounds social hardship for many women, it can also disrupt traditional hierarchies. Despite low wages and long hours, nursing assistants sometimes described work as a sort of “escape” from domestic pressures, which might reflect how labor can empower women in unexpected ways — by allowing them some measure of personal autonomy, in spite of the harsh working conditions.

The researchers lay out central points that should help workers and organized labor frame demands for more equitable and family-conscious labor protections: The right to paid sick days and vacation time, and access to overtime pay for both full and part-time workers.

Workers also need “participatory scheduling” so that they can negotiate the timing and distribution of their hours. The recently introduced Schedules That Work legislation could move workplaces in this direction by ensuring workers have at least a process for challenging unfair schedules imposed by employers.

Although wages and hours are generally a major collective bargaining issue, Gerstel says that unions typically “have not put the broad issue of time, schedules and unpredictability center stage.” The study argues, “the labor movement needs to see time issues as more central to its policy agenda,” not only by incorporating them into contract talks but also developing a political platform that “wins policy changes and builds a movement that sees time issues as central to the policy agenda.”

Paid vacation time, paid family medical leave, access to daycare and flexibility for workers to control their schedules according to their needs — these are not simply labor costs, but critical provisions that people need to maintain a whole, dignified life — as caregivers, community members and citizens. Occupying all these roles together lets us live as full-time members of society, and a full-time job shouldn’t rob us of that.

Michelle Chen
Michelle Chen is a writer for The Nation. You can follow her on Twitter @meeshellchen.

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Morning Reads: Big Mistakes Led to Ebola Transmission in US Thu, 16 Oct 2014 14:30:53 +0000 A roundup of some of the stories we're reading at Moyers & Company HQ... Continue reading

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Good morning — and Happy Boss’s Day! Fun fact: Patricia Bays Haroski was working for her father when she registered the date with the US Chamber of Commerce in 1958.

Boneheaded moves –> The CBS Dallas affiliate reports that the second nurse to have a confirmed case of Ebola was cleared to fly across the country despite having a low fever. AND: Dianna Hunt reports for the Dallas Morning News that health care workers didn’t wear protective suits for two days before the confirmation of Thomas Eric Duncan’s diagnosis. ALSO: A community college in Texas is refusing to admit students from any country where there has been a confirmed case of Ebola, even those that have the disease well under control. Perhaps they haven’t heard that one of those countries is the United States. At The Daily Beast, Abby Haglage calls it a “new low” in “Ebola racism.”

Unconstitutional –> Arkansas’ highest court struck down the state’s voter ID law on Wednesday. According to the AP’s Andrew DeMillo, the ruling was based on language in the state’s constitution. ALSO: Ed Kilgore writes at TPM about how Republicans justify their “voter fraud crusade” despite a mountain of solid evidence that in-person voter fraud is essentially a non-issue.

Beyond the raw numbers –> HuffPo’s Paul Blumenthal says that huge amounts of dark money are flowing into a small handful of pivotal Senate races.

“Fantrum” –> Florida Gov. Rick Scott refused to take the stage for a debate with former Gov. Charlie Crist because he was outraged that Crist had a small fan beneath the podium. After several awkward minutes, Scott relented. Aviva Shen has more at ThinkProgress.

Gloomy –> A new WaPo/ ABC News poll finds a pessimistic electorate, with Democrats getting their lowest favorable marks in 30 years, and Republicans  even less popular. But the good news for the GOP is that their base still appears more likely to vote on November 4.

Doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results –> Mark Mazzetti reports for the NYT that while the CIA “has run guns to insurgencies across the world during its 67-year history — from Angola to Nicaragua to Cuba” — an internal agency study “found that it rarely works.” The study led to the Obama administration’s hesitation to arm Syrian rebels.

Into the arms of the cartels” –> Kate Kilpatrick reports for AJA that our streamlined deportation policy for undocumented immigrants apprehended near the border “increasingly places desperate and penniless deportees into the hands of ruthless criminal organizations eager to prey on them.”

Game-changer? –> Lockheed Martin revealed the details of the world’s first compact fusion reactor, a potential revolution in energy production. Guy Norris has (lots of) details at Aviation Week.

Droned –> A Yemeni man whose nephew and brother-in-law were killed in a US drone strike is suing the German government for “complicity” by allowing US forces to launch drone strikes from an air base in Germany. Frank Jordans reports for the AP.

Viral –> The entire Internet was amused by a viral video of Michelle Obama rocking out with a turnip. Thankfully, a few weeks ago, the good folks at Vox explained the cultural reference for those not hip to the latest musical trends.

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Preview: Keeping Faith in Democracy Wed, 15 Oct 2014 22:30:08 +0000 Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson talks to Bill about what the title character of her new book Lila, says about the state of democracy in America. Watch the full show » Continue reading

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Marilynne Robinson’s new book, Lila, has been acclaimed by critics as “unflinching,” “an exquisite novel of spiritual redemption and love,” and “a book whose grandeur is found in its humility.”

This week, it was nominated for the National Book Award, the latest of a series of books she set in a fictional Iowa town that began with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead, published in 2004. In addition to her fiction, Robinson is also an accomplished essayist, and on this week’s show, Bill talks with her about her fervent belief in the power of grace and faith and her devotion to democracy, which she fears “we are gravely in danger of losing.”

She tells Moyers, “There’s something very excessive about human beings. They are brilliant beyond any imaginable use, you know? And who knows if we live another hundred years what we will have done. If we just can refrain from violence a little bit. It’s amazing.”

Marilynne Robinson received the 2012 National Humanities Medal from President Obama for the “moral strength and lyrical clarity” of her work. In addition to her books, she has written for a variety of publications, including Harper’s, The Paris Review, and The New York Times Book Review. She teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Iowa’s renowned Writers’ Workshop.

Learn more about the production team behind Moyers & Company.

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How America Punishes People for Being Poor Wed, 15 Oct 2014 17:57:28 +0000 If we are truly interested in building an America that is defined by opportunity, we must commit to policies that support rather than impede upward mobility. Continue reading

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A homeless man in Wall Street area with a cup in front of him asking for donations from people passing by. (Credit: Charina Nadura)
A homeless man in Wall Street area with a cup in front of him asking for donations from people passing by. (Credit: Charina Nadura/Moyers & Company)

This post first appeared at

This past weekend, I was part of a panel discussion on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris Perry with New York Times reporter Michael Corkery, whose reporting on the rise in subprime auto loans is as horrifying as it is important.

In what seems a reprisal of the predatory practices that led up to the subprime mortgage crisis, low-income individuals are being sold auto loans at twice the actual value of the car, with interest rates as high as 29 percent. They can end up with monthly payments of $500 — more than most of the borrowers spend on food in a month, and certainly more than most can realistically afford. Many dealers appear in essence to be setting up low-income borrowers to fail.

Dealers are also making use of a new collection tool called a “starter-interrupter device” that allows them not only to track a borrower’s movements through GPS, but to shut off a car with the tap of a smartphone — which many dealers do even just one or two days after a borrower misses a payment. One Nevada woman describes the terrifying experience of having her car shut off while driving on the freeway. And repossession of their cars is far from the end of the line for many borrowers; they can be chased for months and even years afterward to pay down the remainder of the loan.

Predatory subprime auto loans are just the latest in a long line of policies and practices that make it expensive to be poor — something I saw every day representing low-income clients as a legal aid attorney.

Low-income individuals are much more likely to be hit by bank fees, such as monthly maintenance fees if their checking account falls below a required minimum balance — balances as high as $1,500 at leading banks such as Bank of America and Wells Fargo — not to mention steep overdraft fees. For the more than 10 million US households who lack a bank account, check cashers charge fees as high as 5 percent. This may not sound like much, but consider a low-income worker who takes home around $1,500 per month: She’d pay $75 just to cash her paychecks. Add in the cost of money orders — which she’ll need to pay her rent and other bills — and we’re talking about $1,000 per year just for financial services.

Whether or not they have a bank account, very few low-income families have emergency savings, and more than two-thirds report that they’d be unable to come up with $2,000 in 30 days in the event of an emergency expense such as a broken water heater or unexpected medical bill. Out of options, many turn to payday loans for needed cash. Jon Oliver, host of Last Week Tonight, gave this important issue perhaps the best treatment I’ve seen in some time, detailing how families who turn to predatory payday loans can end up trapped in an inescapable cycle of debt at 400 percent annual interest.

Then there’s the rent-to-own industry. Through weekly installments, low-income families with bad credit or no credit can end up paying as much as two and a half times the actual cost of household basics like a washer and dryer set, or a laptop for their teen to do his homework.

Grocery shopping can bring added costs too. For families who can’t afford to buy in bulk, the savings Costco offers are out of reach. And for those without a car, living in low-income neighborhoods without a convenient supermarket, it’s either cab or bus fare to haul groceries back, or swallowing the markup at the neighborhood corner store.

And then there’s the issue of time. Something I heard about frequently from my clients when I was in legal aid was how much extra time everything takes when you’re poor. Many told of taking three buses to work and back, and spending as many as five hours in transit to get to and from their jobs every day. Those who needed to turn to public assistance to make ends meet would describe waiting at the welfare office all day long simply to report a change in their income.

Also worth noting is the criminalization of poverty and the high costs that result. In a nationwide trend documented by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, a growing number of states and cities have laws on the books that may seem neutral — prohibiting activities such as sidewalk-sitting, public urination and “aggressive panhandling” — but which really target the homeless. (The classic Anatole France quote comes to mind: “The law in its majestic equality forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”)

Arresting a homeless person for public urination when there are no public bathroom facilities is not only a poor use of law enforcement resources, it also sets in motion a vicious cycle: The arrested individual will be unable to afford bail, as well as any fees levied as punishment and non-payment of those fees may then land him back in jail.

In an extreme example, in the state of Arkansas, missing a rent payment is a criminal offense. If a tenant is even one day late with the rent, his landlord can legally evict him — and if the tenant isn’t out in 10 days, he can wind up in jail.

In yet another penny-wise and pound-foolish trend, states and localities are increasingly relying on enforcement of traffic violations — as well as fines and fees levied on individuals involved with the criminal justice system — as sources of revenue. In Ferguson, Missouri, the city relied on rising municipal court fines to make up a whopping 20 percent of its $12.75 million budget in 2013. Ability to pay is often ignored when it comes to these types of fines and fees, leaving individuals stuck in a cycle of debt long after they’ve paid their debt to society. While debtor’s prison was long ago declared unconstitutional, failure to pay can be a path back to jail in many states.

It’s good to see the New York Times, Melissa Harris-Perry, and others paying attention to these injustices. But that’s just the first step. If we are truly interested in building an America that is defined by opportunity, we must commit to enacting public policies that support rather than impede upward mobility.

The views expressed in this post are the author’s alone, and presented here to offer a variety of perspectives to our readers.

Rebecca Vallas is the Associate Director of the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress. You can follow her on Twitter @rebeccavallas.

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Red Dawn: The GOP’s Growing Monopoly on State Government Wed, 15 Oct 2014 15:57:08 +0000 Republicans have single-party control of 23 states. Arkansas and Iowa could be next. Continue reading

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(Graphic: DonkeyHotey/flickr CC 2.0)
(Graphic: DonkeyHotey/flickr CC 2.0)

This post first appeared at Mother Jones.

There’s never been a worse time to be a Democrat in a red state. Republicans now hold all the reins of power — the governorship and both houses of the state legislature — in 23 states. That’s up from just nine before the 2010 elections. There are now more states under single-party control than at any time since 1944. And without even token Democratic opposition, Republicans have busted unions in Michigan and Wisconsin, passed draconian tax cuts in Kansas and enacted sweeping new abortion restrictions across the nation.

This November, more Americans could find themselves living under single-party GOP rule. There won’t be nearly as many states flipping to single-party rule as in 2010′s GOP romp, but Republicans are hoping to add Arkansas and Iowa to the list of states where they can implement their agenda free of Democratic resistance. In Arkansas, Republicans won the state House and Senate in 2012 and hope to add the governorship this year. And in Iowa, a razor-thin two-seat Democratic Senate majority is all that has held back a wave of conservative legislation.

“We are on offense this year,” says Jill Bader, communications director for the Republican State Leadership Conference (RSLC), which works to elect Republican state legislators. “We’re building these new majorities in some states that have been traditionally Democratic.”

Midterm elections present problems for Democrats. The party’s most loyal voting blocs — young voters and minorities, in particular — tend to vote at lower rates than in presidential years. This year, President Barack Obama’s falling approval rating could drag down Democratic candidates for state legislative seats. And thanks to the GOP’s widespread success in 2010, Republicans were able to redraw many states’ legislative maps after that year’s census, gerrymandering themselves into solid and consistent majorities.

Arkansas had long been one of the last Democratic redoubts in the South, but in 2012 Republicans won majorities in both chambers for the first time since Reconstruction. The GOP is expected to easily hold on to those majorities again this year and will likely gain the governor’s office, too. Mike Beebe, the popular Democratic incumbent, is prohibited by term limits from running for office again this year, and Republican ex-congressman Asa Hutchinson has led in most polls since this summer. Thanks to their ability to override Beebe’s vetoes with simple majority votes, Republicans are already dominant in the state, passing some of the most extreme anti-abortion laws and instituting a strict new voter ID law.

A Republican takeover in Iowa, on the other hand, would likely lead to a cascade of new conservative legislation. Iowa Republicans, who gained control of the state House in the 2010 elections, have tried to replicate the conservative policies that have been approved in Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio, which are all under full Republican control. Iowa GOPers tried to roll back the collective bargaining rights of public employees, tried to outlaw abortions after 18 weeks (and completely ban telemedicine abortions), and looked at ways to weaken gun laws. Each time, Democrats in the state Senate stopped them.

“Republicans in the state would desperately like to take control of the Senate, but it’s not just a matter of picking up one seat,” says Tim Hagle, a political scientist at the University of Iowa. “In particular, they would like to get the seat that Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal holds. He’s had a very good ability to control his caucus to keep a lot of things from coming to votes, not unlike Harry Reid at the national level.” If Iowa Republicans manage to wipe away the Dems’ Senate edge (and Republican Gov. Terry Branstad wins reelection as expected), the state could soon enact the same conservative policies that have shifted the political landscape in other Midwestern states.

It’s not all doom and gloom for Democrats this fall. The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which works to elect state-level Dems, is hoping to cut into Republican majorities in several states, though it’s unlikely they’ll bust up any of the GOP’s legislative monopolies. Instead, Democrats will have to hope they can pick up governorships in Pennsylvania (a pretty sure bet at this point), Kansas, Wisconsin, Florida, Michigan or Georgia. Meanwhile, the DLCC is thinking long-term. Earlier this year, the group launched a project it’s calling Advantage 2020, a push to slowly build to Democratic majorities in the states by 2020, when the next census will trigger a new round of redistricting — one Democrats hope to control.

Unlike the Republicans, Democrats don’t have good opportunities to expand the list of states where they hold single-party control — currently down to just 15. Their best hope is in Maine, where Democrats currently have majorities in both the House and Senate but lack the governorship. Incumbent Gov. Paul LePage isn’t particularly popular among voters, but he may hold on thanks to a crowded three-way race in which independent Eliot Cutler could win 10 to 20 percent of the vote. If LePage does keep his seat, he could become the first governor in history to win election twice with less than 40 percent of the vote — and the Democrats will have to look to 2016 for their next chance to cut into GOP dominance.

Patrick Caldwell is a reporter in Mother Jones’ DC bureau. You can follow him on Twitter @patcaldwell.

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Plastic Junk Litters our Oceans, Killing Sea Life — And it’s Getting Worse Wed, 15 Oct 2014 14:38:11 +0000 A research team recently returned from a visit to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and were “utterly shocked” by how it had grown since their last trip in 2009. Continue reading

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(Photo: Algalita)

(Photo: Algalita)

The ocean may conjure up images of coral islands, gray whales and deep blue seas, but plastic junk?

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a collection of debris in the North Pacific ocean – is one of five major garbage patches drifting in the oceans.

Captain Charles J. Moore recently returned from a six-week research trip to the patch and was “utterly shocked” by how the quantity of plastic debris – everything from hard hats to fishing nets to tires to tooth brushes — had grown since his last trip there in 2009.

“It has gotten so thick with trash that where we could formerly tow our trawl net for hours, now our collection tows have to be limited to one hour,” Moore, founder of Algalita Marine Research and Education, told

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch actually has two parts — the Western Garbage Patch, near Japan and the Eastern Garbage Patch, located between Hawaii and California.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a collection of marine debris in the North Pacific Ocean. It is actually two distinct collections of debris bounded by the massive North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. (Image: National Geographic)

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a collection of marine debris in the North Pacific Ocean. It is actually two distinct collections of debris bounded by the massive North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. (Image: National Geographic)

“It is the concentration of debris that is growing,” says Moore, who has been studying the patch for 15 years. Moore used aerial drones on his latest expedition to assess the amount of garbage in the eastern patch – which he said is about twice the size of Texas – and found that there is 100 times more plastic by weight than previously measured.

While you might think of a garbage patch as some large congealed mass whose borders are easily definable, it doesn’t quite work like that. Most of the garbage patch is made up of tiny fragments of plastic – notorious for being exceptionally slow to break down – and virtually invisible to the eye.

Scooping up trash at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Much of the debris, about 80%, comes from land-based activities in Asia and North America, according to National Geographic, the remainder comes from debris that has been dumped or lost at sea. It takes about six years for the trash from the coast of North America to reach the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and about one year from Japan.

“The larger objects come mostly from Asia because they arrive there sooner before they can become embrittled and break into bits, which is what happens to North American debris,” Moore says.

These plastics can make the water look like a giant murky soup, intermixed with larger items such as fishing nets and buoys. On his latest trip, Moore said he came upon a floating island of such debris used in oyster aquaculture that had solid areas you could walk on.

Sea creatures get trapped in the larger pieces of debris and die. They also eat the smaller plastic bits, which is problematic because “plastic releases estrogenic compounds to everything it comes in contact with,” Moore says. As he wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed: “Hundreds of species mistake plastics for their natural food, ingesting toxicants that cause liver and stomach abnormalities in fish and birds, often chocking them to death.”

(Photo: Algalita)

Items collected from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The surfboard was not retrieved however. (Photo: Algalita)

Scientists have collected up to 750,000 bits of microplastic in a square kilometer (or 1.9 million bits per square mile) of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Most of the debris comes from plastic bags, caps, water bottles and Styrofoam cups.

Many in the scientific community agree that the best way to deal with these patches is to limit or eliminate our use of disposable plastics entirely. Moore encourages consumers to “refuse plastics whenever possible,” adding: “Until we shut off the flow of plastics to the sea, the newest global threat to our Antrhopocene age will only get worse.”

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]]> 11 Morning Reads: Second TX Nurse Tests Positive for Ebola; Whither Coal Country? Wed, 15 Oct 2014 13:44:25 +0000 A roundup of some of the stories we're reading at Moyers & Company HQ... Continue reading

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Good morning!

On this date in 1965, David Miller became the first antiwar protester to burn his draft card in defiance of a new law prohibiting the destruction of Selective Service documents. He was arrested days later by the FBI, and sentenced to 30 months in prison. Miller appealed, arguing that his “expressive conduct” was protected by the First Amendment, but his conviction was upheld.

The final stretch…

In other news…

Ebola –> A second health care provider in Texas has tested positive for the disease, according to the Texas Dept. of Health. (The first says she’s ‘doing well.’) AND: The World Health Organization’s forecast for the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has darkened as the mortality rate for those infected is on the rise. The agency says that despite wealthy countries’ pledges of assistance, the international community’s effort has been woefully inadequate to the task at hand. Rick Gladstone and Nick Cumming-Bruce report for the NYT. AND: Here at home, Tara Culp-Ressler reports for ThinkProgress that the fact that we don’t currently have a Surgeon General may be hurting the coordination of federal agencies’ response to the situation. Senate Republicans blocked Obama’s nominee to fill the position over her view — shared by the medical community — that gun violence is a public health issue.

Blocked, for now –> The Supreme Court ruled that Texas could not enforce parts of its regulatory “backdoor abortion ban,” at least for the moment. Mark Sherman reports for the AP.

Back-to-back El Niño? –> At Slate, Eric Holthaus looks at the possibility of having back-to-back El Niño years, as the oceans may unleash an unusually intense burst of heat.

The terrorists won –> Officials at Utah State University received letters threatening a shooting rampage against women if a talk by feminist Anita Sarkeesian wasn’t cancelled. Sarkeesian was ready to go ahead with the event, but withdrew after campus officials said that the state’s open carry law prohibited them from keeping guns out of the venue. Adi Robertson reports for The Verge.

Coal country is dying –> At Grist, David Roberts considers whether the federal government should provide some form of transitional assistance to coal-producing regions hurt by the natural gas boom.

Police behaving badly –> Gawker’s Hudson Hongo writes that the NYPD has paid out $428 million to settle more than 10,000 complaints over the last five years. AND: At the HuffPo, Christopher Mathias rounds up a series of recent videos that appear to show NYPD officers using excessive force on suspects.

US troops out now” –> Protesters in the Philippines are outraged that a US soldier who allegedly murdered a transgender woman is being held aboard an American ship rather than being detained by local authorities. Andrea Germanos reports for Common Dreams.

A message problem” –> Stephen Colbert finally figures out how to win unmarried women over to the GOP…

You can get our Morning Reads delivered to your inbox every weekday! Just enter your email address below…

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Your Thoughts on Tiny Houses Tue, 14 Oct 2014 21:28:12 +0000 Readers respond to our report on micro-living. Continue reading

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A micro-home manufactured by the Tumbleweed Tiny House company. (Photo: courtesy Tumbleweed Tiny House)
A micro-home manufactured by the Tumbleweed Tiny House company. (Photo: courtesy Tumbleweed Tiny House)

Last week, published a report on micro-houses (or, more popularly, “tiny houses”). These ultra-compact homes of 1,000 square feet or less are appealing to those who want to make their lives more sustainable, and, increasingly, are being looked at by some as a model for affordable housing.

On Facebook, we asked: “Do you think you could live in a tiny house?” We got some great responses — here are some of our favorites.

Experience with micro-living

First of all, many in our audience had lived in a micro-house. “I lived in a 920-square-foot passive solar house and was very happy. My heating bill for the entire winter: $98,” said Gordon Billingsley. And even though our piece looked at micro-homes for individuals, some of our audience said that they work for families, too.

“I know we could live in a tiny house, because we do — 336 square feet, plus a sleeping loft with sleeping cubbies. We raised two kids here. Having no mortgage, minimal heating costs, minimal electricity use and very low property taxes made it possible to weather the layoffs that have hit us over the last 15 years, otherwise, we’d have lost everything,” said Liane Allen. “I know it’s unheard of for a lot of people, but try spending time in the same room with your family members. You’ll find you need a lot less house than you think you do,” said Kathy Copeland Padden.

Fighting the trend toward “McMansions”

Others noted that in the past, America favored much smaller homes than what has become popular in recent years. Between 1973 and 2007, the average size of a single family home increased from 1,660 square feet to 2,521 square feet, even though family size decreased during the same period. As Henry Graber notes at Salon, that 2007 high was “more than three times the size of the ‘little boxes’ of Levittown, New York, the 1947 Long Island development that marked the dawn of the suburban era.” The “McMansion” is a relatively recent phenomenon.

A necessary model in an increasingly unequal America?

But as homes have grown, incomes have shrank. The bottom 90 percent of income-earners has seen its wages drop slightly over the last 40 years. Some of those who responded on Facebook worried that tiny houses were a response to, or the inevitable result of, our country’s increasingly hard-to-find middle class and our growing inequality. “If the middle class keeps shrinking the way it has for the past 30 years it [micro-living] may be the only option for millions,” said Rodger Flemming.

Housing and homelessness

Our piece last week looked at micro-living as a model being put into practice to help with homelessness. Some on Facebook suggested that this was less practical than putting the homeless in the vacant homes that dot America, many of which are the result of the foreclosure crisis. “There are six to seven empty homes in the US for every homeless person,” said Harold Jennings. “Shortage of housing is NOT the problem.” Amnesty International noted in 2011 that there were 3.5 million homeless people in America, and about 18.5 million vacant homes.

Vacant and abandoned homes are a serious problem — just a handful of empty single family residencies can lower the value of nearby homes that are occupied and cause blight to spread through an entire neighborhood. Putting the homeless in these homes could, in some cases, help. But, like tiny houses, this too is not a one-size-fits-all solution. In many of the communities with recently abandoned neighborhoods a building that has gone even a few years without maintenance — and, in some cases, may have been stripped by looters — is unlivable. In many cases, it is cheaper for a revenue-starved city to demolish these buildings rather than renovate. In places like Cleveland, Ohio, where the housing crisis struck first and the housing market remains relatively weak, efforts are underway to replace blighted homes with shared land like community parks and gardens. But perhaps these homes could also be replaced with more environmentally sustainable forms of affordable housing — like micro-houses.

“A beautiful trailer park”

Many of those who responded noted that they were living in a mobile home, which was its own form of micro-house. This parallel is not a coincidence — in fact, one of the tiny home designers we spoke with drew inspiration for a tiny house community from trailer parks.

“Quote-unquote trailer parks — they’re really called manufactured housing communities — are fantastic in a lot of ways,” said Brian Levy, who designed a micro-home called Minim House. “They’re affordable, they’re relatively green… there’s a great sense of parity — everyone kind of has more or less the same size structure and a nice sense of community, from what I’ve found.” The problem, Levy found, was that, despite their sustainability, “trailer parks” have a negative connotation. One thought that guided Levy’s tiny house project was, “‘How can you have a cool, kind of ennobling place that also happens to be full of micro-dwellings?’ Kind of a beautiful trailer park, if you will.”

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Rising Inequality Means More Volatility for State Budgets Tue, 14 Oct 2014 18:26:39 +0000 One state budget director says he "tracks 20 or so" multi-millionaires' fortunes to inform his own budget planning. Continue reading

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Marie Mulder holds her son, Jonah Spoelma, 6, while protesting in front of the Grand Rapids Public Library Tuesday, May 20, 2014 in Grand Rapids, Mich. Library workers in Grand Rapids say plans to cut 18 jobs this summer will mean less service for area residents.  (AP Photo/The Grand Rapids Press, Cory Morse)

Marie Mulder holds her son, Jonah Spoelma, 6, while protesting in front of the Grand Rapids Public Library Tuesday, May 20, 2014. Library workers say plans to cut 18 jobs this summer will mean less service for area residents. (AP Photo/The Grand Rapids Press, Cory Morse)

In September, we highlighted a report by The Washington Post’s Josh Boak which found that rising income inequality was causing a “vicious cycle” for state budgets: The ability of the wealthiest one percent of households to shield much of their incomes from the tax man led to reduced tax revenues, which caused states to cut spending at the worst possible time — when consumer spending was down. The shrinking public sector’s drag on the economy has kept unemployment high, which in turn helped keep working people’s wages down and ultimately led to even greater income inequality.

On Monday, Elaine Povich reported another issue for state budget directors: volatility. It turns out the incomes of the one percent are “disproportionately affected by economic booms and busts” and for those states most dependent on income taxes, keeping track of the Jones’ income is a full-time job. As one Connecticut official told Povich, “we literally track 20 or so multi-millionaires. Any one of those people, depending on whether it’s a good year or a bad year, can have a noticeable impact on the revenue stream.” Povich explains

The problem for states trying to predict revenues is that stock market fluctuations and other cyclical events have a larger impact on incomes at the top, causing revenues from income taxes and capital gains taxes to vary widely from year to year, according to a new report by Standard & Poor’s Rating Services. In most states, however, demands on the money keep accelerating….

The problem with tax stream volatility, according to Don Boyd, analyst with the Rockefeller Institute of Government, is that “it’s no way to run a government.”

“What does state and local government spend money on? K-12 education and health care for the elderly and very disabled,” he said. “When the revenue goes down, you don’t have a drop of kids in school and you don’t have a drop in elderly health treatment. You have to provide those services even when revenue falls off dramatically….”

Read the entire report at Stateline.

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In Wisconsin, Dark Money Got a Mining Company What It Wanted Tue, 14 Oct 2014 18:17:29 +0000 An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a nonprofit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed. Continue reading

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After Democratic State Sen. Jessica King voted against a mining bill, two dark money groups poured money into ads attacking her. (Darren Hauck/AP Photo for ProPublica)
After Democratic State Sen. Jessica King voted against a mining bill, two dark money groups poured money into ads attacking her. (Darren Hauck/AP Photo for ProPublica)

This story first appeared at ProPublica and was co-published with The Daily Beast.

When billionaire Chris Cline’s company bought an option to mine a swath of northern Wisconsin in 2010, the company touted the project’s potential to bring up to 700 well-paid jobs to a hard-pressed part of the state.

But the Florida-based company wanted something in return for its estimated $1.5 billion investment — a change to Wisconsin law to speed up the iron mining permit process.

So, Cline officials courted state legislators and hired lobbyists. And, unbeknownst to Wisconsin voters and lawmakers, the company waged a more covert campaign, secretly funding a nonprofit advocacy group that battered opponents of the legislation online and on the airwaves.

Since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, which allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts on politics, hundreds of millions of dollars have flooded into the political system — much of it through nonprofit groups that have no legal obligation to identify their donors.

Usually such efforts remain hidden from view, leaving voters unaware of who’s paying for the gush of campaign calls, flyers and attack ads. But a court filing recently made public by a federal appeals court in Chicago provides a rare look at how so-called “dark money” groups helped one company get what it wanted.

The document shows how, in its push for a new state law, a Cline Group subsidiary gave $700,000 to a conservative nonprofit in 2011 and 2012. That group, in turn, donated almost $3 million in 2012 to a second, like-minded nonprofit that also campaigned to change the mine permit process, tax filings show.

Both nonprofits worked to pass the mining bill. One helped to write the measure and launched a radio campaign even before it was introduced. The other tried to pressure a Republican holdout. Together, the two groups played a critical role in defeating a freshman Democratic state senator who’d voted against the bill, paving the way for its passage months later.

After the 2012 elections, some observers downplayed the impact of dark money groups after most of the candidates supported by the largest one, Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS, lost. As this year’s elections approach, the Cline Group’s strategy in Wisconsin reveals the much bigger impact such groups can have in state races. Here their money goes much further, in some cases dwarfing the amount candidates themselves spend on their campaigns.

The nonprofits that pushed for the mining law — the Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce Issues Mobilization Council (WMC), an arm of the state’s largest business lobby, and the Wisconsin Club for Growth — declined to comment for this story. On its website, the WMC states ”we have never disclosed our donors, and never will.”

Neither nonprofit reported spending any money on politics on their 2012 tax returns, potentially violating Internal Revenue Service rules, experts said.

In an interview, James Buchen, a former WMC vice president, said the group’s efforts on behalf of the mining bill were no different from its support of other pro-business legislation. “Our interest in this was trying to create an environment where someone was interested in coming and mining in the state,” said Buchen, who left in 2012 to start a lobbying practice.

A spokesman for Gogebic Taconite, Cline’s Wisconsin subsidiary, did not respond to requests for comment.

Still, documents and interviews show that Gogebic’s money secretly made its way into the political battle over the mining law — and that the efforts of the WMC and the Wisconsin Club for Growth significantly swayed the results.

With the help of ads funded by the two groups, the GOP retook the state senate in 2012 and passed mining legislation similar to what the company had wanted.

Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, the veteran legislator targeted by one of the groups, said Gogebic’s efforts to hide its influence went beyond anything he’d witnessed since his election to the state assembly. “I’ve never seen anything like this done by special interests in Wisconsin in 32 years,” he said.

The battle over the mining bill began in 2011, months after the Cline Group announced plans to apply for a permit to build an iron mine in the Penokee Hills of northern Wisconsin, not far from the Lake Superior shoreline. Gogebic began working with two Republican state legislators on a bill to speed up the process of securing a permit, the Wisconsin State Journal reported. Without the legislation, a Gogebic official told the paper, the company “would have to re-evaluate” whether it wanted to build the mine.

Wisconsin State Sen. Dale Schultz, a Republican, voted against a bill in 2012 championed by Gogebic Taconite, a mining company. A court filing made public in August revealed that the company had helped fund a nonprofit tha robocalled voters, urging them to call Schultz and tell him to support the bill. (Mark Hirsch/AP Photo for ProPublica)

Wisconsin State Sen. Dale Schultz, a Republican, voted against a bill in 2012 championed by Gogebic Taconite, a mining company. A court filing made public in August revealed that the company had helped fund a nonprofit that robocalled voters, urging them to call Schultz and tell him to support the bill. (Mark Hirsch/AP Photo for ProPublica)

Changing the law was an easy sell for many Republican lawmakers. Gov. Scott Walker, a recently elected Republican, had pledged to create 250,000 jobs in his first term, and attracting a mining company to the state would be a step toward that goal.

The WMC, which lobbies for pro-business legislation, was a natural partner for Gogebic.

With a coordination that one lawmaker found suspect, the WMC had glossy brochures supporting a draft of the bill ready to distribute almost immediately after it became public in May 2011.

“I wonder how they did that so quickly when this is a bill that I just saw for the first time,” said Rep. Janet Bewley, D-Ashland, in an interview with Wisconsin Public Radio at the time. Bewley represents the area where the mine would be built and later voted against the legislation.

Weeks later, the WMC started running radio ads touting the bill, even though it still hadn’t been formally introduced.

Gogebic and the WMC, according to media reports and interviews, played a key role in shaping the language of the bill. Shortly after it was introduced in late 2011, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported it had been written by five Republicans in close consultation with Gogebic and the WMC. In an interview, Buchen said several groups, including Cline and the WMC, gave input on the bill. But one Republican lawmaker, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, acknowledged that “the initial bill that came out was for the most part written by” the mining company.

The bill sailed through the Republican-dominated state assembly in January 2012, but lobbyists for Cline and the WMC knew the senate would be a tougher sell. So, they turned their focus on the GOP senator who seemed most likely to vote against it: Dale Schultz.

A former University of Wisconsin rower, with thinning hair and a mustache, Schultz, 61, represents an independent-minded district west of Madison. He’d endorsed Walker early in his run for governor in 2010, and maintained a conservative voting record. The WMC had even given him one of its “Working for Wisconsin” awards, honoring him for his “pro-jobs voting record” in the 2011-2012 legislative session. But by the time Schultz won, one staffer said, the WMC was so displeased he wasn’t supporting the mining bill that it skipped the usual photo-op and dropped off the plaque in a plastic bag.

Schultz agreed that mining regulations should be streamlined. But he’d seen how lead mining had so polluted Brewery Creek in his district that it ran red for decades after the mines had shut down.

“I understood the consequences of mining done poorly,” Schultz said.

Gogebic officials had emphasized that they wanted a quicker permit process, but the bill they helped write also rolled back environmental protections, such as allowing the company to dump mining waste in wetlands and streams, as long as it created new wetlands elsewhere.

With Schultz’s vote in doubt, two lobbyists — Bob Seitz, who worked for Gogebic, and Scott Manley, who worked for the WMC — visited him on several occasions. But that wasn’t all. The Wisconsin Club for Growth launched a robocalling campaign, urging voters statewide to call his office and tell him to vote for the bill. And it used its blog to smear his record, with a post titled “Used by the media, respected by no one” and calling him a RINO, or Republican In Name Only.

After several constituents called Schultz’s office to complain, Schultz confronted the lobbyists about the calls. “You can tell your buddies, if they’re making those calls in my district, they can keep doing them, because they’re making me a folk hero!” Schultz told them, according to a staffer who witnessed the conversation.

On March 6, Schultz cast the deciding vote against the mining bill, the only Republican to oppose it. Hours after the vote, Gogebic’s president said in a statement that the company was scrapping plans to build the mine. ”We get the message,” he said.

Despite Gogebic’s public proclamation, the WMC remained committed to new mining legislation. But its tactics changed.

Buchen, the WMC vice president, sent a letter to the Wisconsin Mining Association in July 2012, urging the group not to discuss a potential compromise. “We need to take our cues from the company on the substance of any legislation and the strategy to get it enacted,” Buchen wrote, noting the only reason for any bill was getting Gogebic to build a mine. “Pursuing legislation that does not work for them is a waste of time.”

As Election Day drew closer, the WMC and the Wisconsin Club for Growth poured money into attacking Sen. Jessica King, D-Oshkosh, a freshman running for re-election.

King, then 37 and a bankruptcy lawyer, had spent part of her childhood in Wisconsin’s foster care system and worked in a juice box factory after high school before going to college and getting a law degree. She’d been elected by a slim margin in 2011, and her race was widely seen as the closest senate contest in the state.

Weeks before the election, TV stations in Green Bay started airing an ad paid for by the WMC.

“State Senator Jessica King promised to create jobs, then cast the deciding vote to kill a mine and 3,000 high-paying jobs,” the ad’s narrator said. “Wisconsin workers are angry.”

The ad segued to grainy footage of Lyle Balistreri, a white-haired union leader, denouncing state politicians’ “partisan games.” “The working people of the state of Wisconsin are taking a beating,” he shouted, “and this sort of thing has to stop.”

Estimates compiled by a King campaign consultant show the WMC spent a total of $965,000 on TV ads in the race, with the Wisconsin Club for Growth shelling out another $919,000 — extraordinary amounts for a state senate race, according to Kenneth Mayer, a University of Wisconsin political science professor who has studied campaign finance.

(Darren Hauck/AP Photo for ProPublica)

(Darren Hauck/AP Photo for ProPublica)

King and her Republican opponent, by comparison, each spent less than $320,000 on their entire campaigns, according to state campaign finance filings. (Balistreri, for his part, wasn’t actually angry with King. He told a local newspaper that the footage of him had been taken out of context. “I support Jessica King and know she will put working Wisconsinites first,” he told the paper.)

More than 85,000 people voted in King’s race. She lost by 600 votes.

Without the dark money ads targeting her, King said recently, “I believe I would have won that election.”

In a blog post two days after the election, the Wisconsin Club for Growth bragged that it had played a “pivotal role” in the results, airing more than $1.5 million worth of ads in Green Bay “to educate voters on the records” of King and another Democrat who had voted against the bill.

“The mining law we have today would never have happened if Jessica King had won re-election,” said Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, who helped craft an alternative mining bill.

When King first saw the WMC and Wisconsin Club for Growth ads on TV, she said, she suspected that Cline might have funded them.

But she had no way to know for sure until August, when a legal filing was inadvertently made public by a federal court. The filing was part of a lawsuit contesting an investigation launched by the Milwaukee County district attorney into whether Walker’s gubernatorial campaign illegally coordinated with several nonprofits, including the Wisconsin Club for Growth. The document was supposed to be under seal, but it was mistakenly posted on the court’s website for several hours before being taken down.

paragraph deep in the 24-page filing states that Gogebic gave the group a total of $700,000 in 2011 and 2012, according to bank records. The document doesn’t say whether Gogebic also gave money directly to the WMC.

For Wisconsin voters, the revelation came two years after the election, when Gogebic had already secured the mining law it wanted. The amount Gogebic had been willing to spend surprised even some lawmakers.

“The Gogebic spending — I don’t think anybody was aware of the amount or the degree until after the legislation was signed into law,” said a GOP legislator who supported the bill.

Such spending has skyrocketed since Citizens United. In the 2012 election cycle alone, social welfare nonprofits spent more than $257 million on federal elections and untold millions more in state races.

Unlike traditional political action committees and their turbo-charged cousins, super PACs — which have no limits on who can contribute and how much they can give — social welfare nonprofits are not required to reveal their donors.

“We know very little,” said Sheila Krumholz, the executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit that tracks money in politics. “At some point the trail almost always goes cold, because these groups never need to reveal the original source of the funds.”

Social welfare nonprofits are required to devote the majority of their efforts to “the promotion of social welfare,” not political activity, but the IRS has never specifically defined what that means and seldom challenges what groups report they spend on politics.

The 2012 tax returns of the WMC and the Wisconsin Club for Growth show that both told the IRS, under penalty of perjury, that they spent no money on politics. But three law professors who specialize in nonprofits and political activity reviewed one of the WMC’s ads in the King race and said it definitely qualified as an election ad under IRS rules. “This is campaign activity,” said Lloyd Hitoshi Mayer, a law professor and associate dean at the University of Notre Dame. “It’s clear that the point is to convince people not to vote for her.”

The Gogebic case illustrates the challenge voters across the country face in parsing who’s funding the election ads they see, and to what end. Some Wisconsin lawmakers suspect the full amount the mining company poured into such groups may never be known.

Sen. Robert Jauch, D-Poplar, who represents the northern Wisconsin district in which the mine would be built, said he believes Gogebic has given directly to the WMC.

Shortly before the 2010 elections, he said, the WMC spent about $110,000 on TV ads and direct mail attacking him — almost double what he spent on his entire campaign. Jauch won with 51 percent of the vote.

After the election, Jauch tried to find out who’d been responsible for the last-minute ad blitz against him. Eventually, he said, he spoke with a former official who had worked on a contract for the mining company. The official confirmed that the company had given money to the WMC to pay for the ads. “That’s the closest connection I can make,” Jauch said.

Theodoric Meyer is ProPublica’s reporting fellow. He started at ProPublica as a reporting intern in 2012 and previously worked as a reporting intern at The New York Times and The Seattle Times. He was a lead reporter for ProPublica’s “After the Flood” series, which won the Deadline Club Award for Local Reporting in 2014. You can follow him on Twitter @theodoricmeyer.

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Can Climate Change Unite the Left? Tue, 14 Oct 2014 16:26:28 +0000 To avoid catastrophe, we must seize corporate polluters’ wealth. And to do that, we must change everything. Continue reading

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People's Climate March, September 2014 in NYC. (Photo: South Bend Voice/flickr CC 2.0)

This essay first appeared at In These Times, and was adapted from This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate by Naomi Klein.

In December 2012, Brad Werner — a complex systems researcher with pink hair and a serious expression — made his way through the throng of 24,000 earth and space scientists at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. But it was Werner’s session that was attracting much of the buzz. It was titled “Is Earth F**ked?” (Full title: “Is Earth F**ked? Dynamical Futility of Global Environmental Management and Possibilities for Sustainability via Direct Action Activism”).

Standing at the front of the conference room, the University of California, San Diego professor took the crowd through the advanced computer model he was using to answer that rather direct question. He talked about a whole bunch of other stuff largely incomprehensible to those of us uninitiated in complex systems theory. But the bottom line was clear enough: Global capitalism has made the depletion of resources so rapid, convenient and barrier-free that “earth-human systems” are becoming dangerously unstable in response. When a journalist pressed Werner for a clear answer on the “Is earth f**ked?” question, he set the jargon aside and replied, “More or less.”

There was one dynamic in the model, however, that offered some hope. Werner described it as “resistance” — movements of “people or groups of people” who “adopt a certain set of dynamics that does not fit within the capitalist culture.” According to the abstract for his presentation, this includes “environmental direct action, resistance taken from outside the dominant culture, as in protests, blockades and sabotage by Indigenous peoples, workers, anarchists and other activist groups.” Such mass uprisings of people — along the lines of the abolition movement and the Civil Rights Movement — represent the likeliest source of “friction” to slow down an economic machine that is careening out of control.

Naomi Klein on the Links Between Capitalism and Climate Change

This, he argued, is clear from history, which tells us that past social movements have “had tremendous influence on … how the dominant culture evolved.” It stands to reason, therefore, that “if we’re thinking about the future of the earth, and the future of our coupling to the environment, we have to include resistance as part of that dynamic.” And that, Werner said, is not a matter of opinion, but “really a geophysics problem.” Put another way, only mass social movements can save us now. Because we know where the current system, left unchecked, is headed. We also know, I would add, how that system will deal with the reality of serial climate-related disasters: with profiteering, and escalating barbarism to segregate the losers from the winners. To arrive at that dystopia, all we need to do is keep barreling down the road we are on. The only remaining variable is whether some countervailing power will emerge to block the road, and simultaneously clear some alternate pathways to destinations that are safer. If that happens, well, it changes everything.

Social movements, such as the fossil fuel divestment/reinvestment movement, local laws barring high-risk extraction, bold court challenges by Indigenous groups and others, are early manifestations of this resistance. They have not only located various choke points to slow the expansion plans of the fossil fuel companies, but the economic alternatives these movements are proposing and building are mapping ways of living within planetary boundaries, ones based on intricate reciprocal relationships rather than brute extraction. This is the “friction” to which Werner referred, the kind that is needed to put the brakes on the forces of destruction and destabilization.

Just as many climate change deniers I met fear, making swift progress on climate change requires breaking fossilized free market rules. That is why, if we are to collectively meet the enormous challenges of this crisis, a robust social movement will need to demand (and create) political leadership that is not only committed to making polluters pay for a climate-ready public sphere, but willing to revive two lost arts: longterm public planning, and saying no to powerful corporations.

There are many important debates to be had about the best way to respond to climate change — stormwalls or ecosystem restoration? Decentralized renewables, industrial scale wind power combined with natural gas, or nuclear power? Small-scale organic farms or industrial food systems? There is, however, no scenario in which we can avoid wartime levels of spending in the public sector — not if we are serious about preventing catastrophic levels of warming, and minimizing the destructive potential of the coming storms.

Public money needs to be spent on ambitious emission-reducing projects — the smart grids, the light rail, the citywide composting systems, the building retrofits, the visionary transit systems, the urban redesigns to keep us from spending half our lives in traffic jams. The private sector is ill-suited to taking on most of these large infrastructure investments. If the services are to be accessible, which they must be in order to be effective, the profit margins that attract private players simply aren’t there.

The polluter pays

So how on earth are we going to pay for all this? In North America and Europe, the economic crisis that began in 2008 is still being used as a pretext to slash aid abroad and cut climate programs at home. All over Southern Europe, environmental policies and regulations have been clawed back, most tragically in Spain, which, facing fierce austerity pressure, drastically cut subsidies for renewables projects, sending solar projects and wind farms spiraling toward default and closure. The UK under David Cameron has also cut supports for renewable energy.

If we accept that governments are broke, and they’re not likely to introduce “quantitative easing” (aka printing money) for the climate system as they have for the banks, where is the money supposed to come from? Since we have only a few short years to dramatically lower our emissions, the only rational way forward is to fully embrace the principle already well established in Western law: the polluter pays.

Oil and gas companies remain some of the most profitable corporations in history, with the top five oil companies pulling in $900 billion in profits from 2001 to 2010. These companies are rich, quite simply, because they have dumped the cost of cleaning up their mess onto regular people around the world. It is this situation that, most fundamentally, needs to change.

And it will not change without strong action. For well over a decade, several of the oil majors have claimed to be voluntarily using their profits to invest in a shift to renewable energy. But according to a study by the Center for American Progress, just 4 percent of the Big Five’s $100 billion in combined profits in 2008 went to “renewable and alternative energy ventures.” Instead, they continue to pour their profits into shareholder pockets, outrageous executive pay (Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson makes more than $100,000 a day), and new technologies designed to extract even dirtier and more dangerous fossil fuels. As oil industry watcher Antonia Juhasz has observed, “You wouldn’t know it from their advertising, but the world’s major oil companies have either entirely divested from alternative energy or significantly reduced their investments in favor of doubling down on ever-more risky and destructive sources of oil and natural gas.”

Given this track record, it’s safe to assume that if fossil fuel companies are going to help pay for the shift to renewable energy, and for the broader costs of a climate destabilized by their pollution, it will be because they are forced to do so by law.

It is high time for the industry to at least split the bill for the climate crisis. And there is mounting evidence that the financial world understands that this is coming. In its 2013 annual report on “Global Risks,” the World Economic Forum (host of the annual super-elite gathering in Davos, Switzerland), stated plainly, “Although the Alaskan village of Kivalina — which faces being ‘wiped out’ by the changing climate — was unsuccessful in its attempts to file a $400 million lawsuit against oil and coal companies, future plaintiffs may be more successful.”

The question is: How do we stop fossil fuel profits from continuing to hemorrhage into executive paychecks and shareholder pockets — and how do we do it soon, before the companies are significantly less profitable or out of business because we have moved to a new energy system? A steep carbon tax would be a straightforward way to get a piece of the profits, as long as it contained a generous redistributive mechanism — a tax cut or income credit — that compensated poor and middle-class consumers for increased fuel and heating prices. As Canadian economist Marc Lee points out, designed properly, “It is possible to have a progressive carbon tax system that reduces inequality as it raises the price of emitting greenhouse gases.” An even more direct route to getting a piece of those pollution profits would be for governments to negotiate much higher royalty rates on oil, gas and coal extraction, with the revenues going to “heritage trust funds” that would be dedicated to building the post–fossil fuel future, as well as to helping communities and workers adapt to these new realities.

Fossil fuel corporations can be counted on to resist any new rules that cut into their profits, so harsh penalties, including revoking corporate charters, would need to be on the table. But the extractive industries shouldn’t be the only targets of the “polluter pays” principle. The car companies have plenty to answer for, too, as do the shipping industry and the airlines.

Moreover, there is a simple, direct correlation between wealth and emissions — more money generally means more flying, driving, boating and powering of multiple homes. One case study of German consumers indicates that the travel habits of the most affluent class have an impact on climate 250 percent greater than that of their lowest-earning neighbors.

That means any attempt to tax the extraordinary concentration of wealth at the very top of the economic pyramid would — if partially channeled into climate financing — effectively make the polluters pay. Journalist and climate and energy policy expert Gar Lipow puts it this way: “We should tax the rich more because it is the fair thing to do, and because it will provide a better life for most of us, and a more prosperous economy. However, providing money to save civilization and reduce the risk of human extinction is another good reason to bill the rich for their fair share of taxes.”

There is no shortage of options for equitably coming up with the cash to prepare for the coming storms while radically lowering our emissions to prevent catastrophic warming. Consider the following:

  • A “low-rate” financial transaction tax — which would hit trades of stocks, derivatives and other financial instruments — could bring in nearly $650 billion at the global level each year, according to a 2011 resolution of the European Parliament (and it might have the added bonus of slowing down financial speculation).
  • Closing tax havens would yield another windfall. The UK-based Tax Justice Network estimates that in 2010, the private financial wealth of individuals stowed unreported in tax havens around the globe was somewhere between $21 trillion and $32 trillion. If that money were brought into the light and its earnings taxed at a 30 percent rate, it would yield at least $190 billion in income tax revenue each year.
  • A 1 percent “billionaire’s tax,” floated by the UN, could raise $46 billion annually.
  • A $50 tax per metric ton of CO2 emitted in developed countries would raise an estimated $450 billion annually, while a more modest $25 carbon tax would still yield $250 billion per year, according to a 2011 report by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), among others.
  • Phasing out fossil fuel subsidies globally would conservatively save governments a total $775 billion in a single year, according to a 2012 estimate by Oil Change International and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

These various measures, taken together, would certainly raise enough for a very healthy start to finance a Great Transition (and avoid a Great Depression). Of course, for any of these tax crackdowns to work, key governments would have to coordinate their responses so that corporations had nowhere to hide — a difficult task, though far from impossible, and one frequently bandied about at G20 summits.

We should be clear about the nature of the challenge: It is not that “we” are broke or that we lack options. It is that our political class is utterly unwilling to go where the money is.

To state the obvious: it would be incredibly difficult to persuade governments in almost every country in the world to implement the kinds of redistributive climate mechanisms I have outlined. But we should be clear about the nature of the challenge: It is not that “we” are broke or that we lack options. It is that our political class is utterly unwilling to go where the money is (unless it’s for a campaign contribution), and the corporate class is dead set against paying its fair share.

Battle for the planet

Seen in this light, it’s hardly surprising that our leaders have so far failed to act to avert climate chaos. Indeed, even if aggressive “polluter pays” measures were introduced, it isn’t at all clear that the current political class would know what to do with the money. After all, changing the building blocks of our societies — the energy that powers our economies, how we move around, the designs of our major cities — is not about writing a few checks. It requires bold long-term planning at every level of government, and a willingness to stand up to polluters whose actions put us all in danger. And that won’t happen until the corporate liberation project that has shaped our political culture for three and a half decades is buried for good.

All of this is why any attempt to rise to the climate challenge will be fruitless unless it is understood as part of a much broader battle of worldviews, a process of rebuilding and reinventing the very idea of the collective, the communal, the commons, the civil, and the civic after so many decades of attack and neglect. Because what is overwhelming about the climate challenge is that it requires breaking so many rules at once — rules that emerged out of the same, coherent worldview. If that worldview is delegitimized, then all of the rules within it become much weaker and more vulnerable. This is another lesson from social movement history across the political spectrum: When fundamental change does come, it’s generally not in legislative dribs and drabs spread out evenly over decades. Rather it comes in spasms of rapid-fire lawmaking, with one breakthrough after another. The Right calls this “shock therapy”; the Left calls it “populism” because it requires so much popular support and mobilization to occur.

So how do you change a worldview, an unquestioned ideology? Part of it involves choosing the right early policy battles—game-changing ones that don’t merely aim to change laws but change patterns of thought. That means that a fight for a minimal carbon tax might do a lot less good than, for instance, forming a grand coalition to demand a guaranteed minimum income. That’s not only because a minimum income, as discussed, makes it possible for workers to say no to dirty energy jobs but also because the very process of arguing for a universal social safety net opens up a space for a full-throated debate about values — about what we owe to one another based on our shared humanity, and what it is that we collectively value more than economic growth and corporate profits.

Indeed, a great deal of the work of deep social change involves having debates during which new stories can be told to replace the ones that have failed us. Because if we are to have any hope of making the kind of civilizational leap required of this fateful decade, we will need to start believing, once again, that humanity is not hopelessly selfish and greedy — the image ceaselessly sold to us by everything from reality shows to neoclassical economics.

Fundamentally, the task is to articulate not just an alternative set of policy proposals but an alternative worldview to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis. A worldview embedded in interdependence rather than hyperindividualism, reciprocity rather than dominance, and cooperation rather than hierarchy. This is required not only to create a political context to dramatically lower emissions, but also to help us cope with the disasters we can no longer afford to avoid. Because in the hot and stormy future we have already made inevitable through our past emissions, an unshakable belief in the equal rights of all people and a capacity for deep compassion will be the only things standing between civilization and barbarism.

Copyright © 2014 by Naomi Klein. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Naomi Klein (Photo: Dale Robbins)
Naomi Klein is an award-winning journalist and author of two international bestsellers. She’s received widespread acclaim for her writing on climate change, the destructive nature of capitalism in times of crisis, and anti-corporate globalization. Her latest book is, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. You can follow her on Twitter @NaomiAKlein.

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Morning Reads: Clergy, Cornel West and 50 Others Arrested in Ferguson Tue, 14 Oct 2014 14:08:52 +0000 A roundup of some of the stories we're reading at Moyers & Company HQ... Continue reading

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Good morning — and a Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms in Belarus!

The Cuban Missile Crisis began on this date in 1962, when a U-2 spy plane spotted Soviet missiles being installed in Cuba. Martin Luther King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, and in 1982 Ronald Reagan announced that he was launching a “war on drugs.”

Stat of the Day: $10 million — the estimated daily cost of US operations against the Islamic State (IS), according to the Pentagon. As Linda Bilmes reports for the Boston Globe, that doesn’t include “veterans’ benefits, depreciation of equipment, humanitarian aid, covert action, and paying (as the US frequently does) for the military efforts of our coalition ‘partners.’”

Getting what they paid for –> At ProPublica, Theodoric Meyer reports that a document accidentally made public reveals how dark money secretly funneled through a nonprofit “helped get favorable mining legislation passed” in Wisconsin.

Generations clash –> In Ferguson, Missouri, veterans of the civil rights movement called for “healing,” but that message wasn’t well received by younger activists who accused them of offering nice words but no concrete plan to bring about change. Chris McGreal reports for The Guardian. AND: Over the long weekend, more than 50 people were arrested in renewed protests in Ferguson, including Cornel West and several members of the clergy. Matt Pearce reports for the LAT.

Call off the anti-voting crusade –> At TNR, Alec MacGillis offers the GOP four good reasons why.

Will policymakers listen? –> The Pentagon issued a report on Monday concluding that global warming poses “immediate risks” to US national security. According to NBC News, the military sees climate change as a “threat multiplier,” as “rising seas and increasing numbers of severe weather events could exacerbate the dangers posed by threats ranging from infectious disease to terrorism.”

Fearmongering works –> Another poll, this one by ABC News and the WaPo, finds that two-thirds of Americans are worried about a widespread Ebola epidemic in the US “despite repeated assurances from public officials that the country’s modern health-care and disease-surveillance systems will prevent the type of outbreak ravaging West Africa.” AND: At Yahoo News, Chris Moody writes that two members of Congress who visited Liberia before the first deaths were reported have a view of the outbreak starkly different from that of their colleagues.

Islamic State –> Loveday Morris reports for the WaPo that the militants seized the third Iraqi army base in Anbar Province in as many weeks “as Iraqi forces in the region appeared close to collapse despite US-led airstrikes.” AND: After a brief lull, heavy fighting in Kobani, Syria, resumed on Monday, as two suicide bombers detonated explosives in the city. CBS and the AP have the latest. ALSO: At FP, Gopal Ratnam and John Hudson report that some of the countries included on the US list of coalition partners aren’t happy to be named as such. ALSO, TOO: Reuters reports that the Turkish Air Force has bombed Kurdish militants within its borders who are “furious at Ankara’s refusal to help protect their kin in Syria.”

The likeliest explanation is access to firearms” –> Real Clear Science headlines a report from Alex Berezow that to “end the suicide epidemic,” we have to “make guns harder to get.”

Home again –> The US military has had a “secretive robotic spacecraft” in Earth orbit for the past 22 months, and Irene Klotz reports for Reuters that they plan on landing it at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California today.

Your childhood nightmares realized –> Time reports that “creepy clowns brandishing weapons are taking to the street late at night” in several California towns.

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Morning Reads: Midterm Battle Could Continue Into January Mon, 13 Oct 2014 14:26:59 +0000 A roundup of some of the stories we're reading at Moyers & Company HQ... Continue reading

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Good morning — Happy Indigenous Peoples’ Day to our friends in Seattle, and Happy Columbus Day to everyone else! The holiday was established in 1906, 54 years before the discovery of archeological evidence proving that he was only the second (or third) European explorer to “discover” the Americas. It’s a wonder we still celebrate his accomplishment: he lost two of the three ships he set sail with in 1492, was later arrested for gross mismanagement of the Spanish settlement on Hispaniola, and insisted until his death that he’d actually landed in East Asia.

Long haul –> TPM’s Josh Marshall notes there’s an increasing likelihood we won’t know which party will control the Senate next year until December — or even January —  due to close races that could lead to runoffs in two states and a couple of possible independent winners who could caucus with either party. ALSO: While it looked like Republican Joni Ernst was pulling away from Democrat Bruce Braley in Iowa, according to the latest Des Moines Register pollthat race has now become a toss-up.

Deadly budget cuts –> Sam Stein reports for HuffPo that Francis Collins, the head of the National Institutes of Health, says we would have a vaccine for Ebola by now if not for a series of cuts to the agency’s research budget. AND: The CDC confirmed a second case of Ebola: a health care worker who treated patient zero at a Dallas hospital. Reportedly, the nurse was wearing protective gear, but a so-far-unexplained “breach of protocol” occurred. Via: MoJo. AND: Laurie Garrett, author of a seminal book on public health systems, Betrayal of Trust, dissects “five myths” about Ebola in WaPo. ALSO: Michael Specter writes about Ebola’s “fear factor” in The New Yorker, noting that just “a few irrational decisions and some irresponsible statements” can have a major impact on a society.

Follow the money –> NYT reporter James Risen reports on the years-long effort to trace billions of dollars of missing cash sent from the US to Iraq in the early stages of the American occupation, a trail that led ultimately to a mysterious bunker in Lebanon.

Deadly force, in black and white” –> An analysis by ProPublica‘s Ryan Gabrielson, Ryann Grochowski Jones and Eric Sagara finds that “young black males in recent years were at a far greater risk of being shot dead by police than their white counterparts – 21 times greater.”

How’s that supposed to work? –> Texas Attorney General (and leading gubernatorial candidate) Greg Abbott filed a brief claiming that his state’s ban on same-sex marriage reduces out-of-wedlock births, according to Lauren McGaughy of The Houston Chronicle. AND: Alaska will put that… theory to the test after becoming the latest state to see its marriage discrimination law declared unconstitutional. Steve Quinn reports for Reuters.

You get what you pay for –> CNET reports that a comedy club in Barcelona, Spain, is experimenting with the use of facial recognition software to charge patrons on a per-laugh basis.

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Courts, Politicians Sowing Voter Confusion for Election Day Sun, 12 Oct 2014 13:41:27 +0000 As we approach the midterms, here's a roundup of some of the the latest developments. Continue reading

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A woman votes at Woodridge Elementary School in Stone Mountain, Ga., on Tuesday, May 20, 2014. Five major GOP candidates will square off to represent their party this fall in the election to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss. Meanwhile, Michelle Nunn, daughter of former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn is a heavy favorite to win the Democratic nomination. (AP Photo/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Kent D. Johnson)

A woman votes at Woodridge Elementary School in Stone Mountain, Ga., on Tuesday, May 20, 2014. (AP Photo/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Kent D. Johnson)

Less than four weeks away from a crucial election that may see control of the Senate shift to the GOP, there’s a bitter fight underway. Activists are battling a wave of restrictive new voting laws passed over the past few years by Republican-controlled legislatures. In recent weeks, the courts have handed down a flurry of decisions, changing or upholding the new rules just ahead of November’s vote.

As The New York Times reported this week, these decisions, “issued by judges with an increasingly partisan edge, are sowing confusion… with the potential to affect outcomes in some states.” Nina Turner, the Democratic candidate for Ohio secretary of state, told The Times, “The new voter suppression in the 21st century is all this voter confusion.”

To help you stay on top of what’s happening, we’ve rounded up some of the latest developments:

Voter ID Laws Blocked, Struck Down

At The Huffington Post, Ryan Reilly reports, “A federal judge in Texas struck down the state’s voter ID law on Thursday, calling it a ‘poll tax’ intended to discriminate against Hispanic and African-American citizens that creates ‘an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote.’”

UPDATE: On October 14, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the decision, allowing the state to enforce the law. Lawrence Hurley reports for Reuters that a coalition of civil rights lawyers submitted a petition to the Supreme Court the following day, asking it to reinstate the lower court’s ruling pending an appeal. If the Supreme Court does not intervene, Texas’ voter ID law will be in effect on November 4.

[T]he Texas and Wisconsin rulings combined could help as many as one million Americans cast their votes in November.
There’s a reason voter ID laws are compared to Jim Crow-era poll taxes. On Wednesday, National Journal reported that in some states, proper identification can cost almost $60. In Texas, a regular driver’s license costs $25, and a non-driver ID runs $16. Yet cost is only one of a number of reasons why voter ID laws can be a huge burden for people of color, as well as older and younger voters (See “Another Elderly Woman Gets Caught in the GOP’s War On Voting.”)

In addition to the Texas ruling, on Thursday, “a divided US Supreme Court blocked Wisconsin’s voter ID law… issuing a terse yet dramatic one-page ruling less than four weeks before the Nov. 4 election,” according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

The 6-3 vote means in all likelihood the requirement to show ID at the polls will not be in effect for the election. But Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen said he would seek ways to reinstate the law within the month… “I believe the voter ID law is constitutional, and nothing in the court’s order suggests otherwise,” the second-term Republican said in his statement.

The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University reports that the Texas and Wisconsin rulings combined could help as many as one million Americans cast their votes in November.

GAO: Voter ID Depresses Black, Youth Votes

The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office offered a study comparing revised voter ID laws in two states against existing rules in others. Associated Press reported the results:

States that toughened their voter identification laws saw steeper drops in election turnout than those that did not, with disproportionate falloffs among black and younger voters, a nonpartisan congressional study released Wednesday concluded.

As of June, 33 states have enacted laws obligating voters to show a photo ID at the polls, the study said. Republicans who have pushed the legislation say the requirement will reduce fraud, but Democrats insist the laws are a GOP effort to reduce Democratic turnout on Election Day. …

The office compared election turnout in Kansas and Tennessee — which tightened voter ID requirements between the 2008 and 2012 elections — to voting in four states that didn’t change their identification requirements.

It estimated that reductions in voter turnout were about 2 percent greater in Kansas and from 2 percent to 3 percent steeper in Tennessee than they were in the other states examined. The four other states, which did not make their voter ID laws stricter, were Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, and Maine.

“GAO’s analysis suggests that the turnout decreases in Kansas and Tennessee beyond decreases in the comparison states were attributable to changes in those two states’ voter ID requirements,” the report said.

Supreme Court Upholds Country’s “Worst Voting Restrictions”

On October 1, a federal appeals court issued a mixed decision for voting rights advocates in North Carolina, where in 2013, the legislature passed what are arguably the most restrictive voting rules in the US. The Nation’s Ari Berman reported the good news: that the court ruled that North Carolina had to restore same-day registration and that ballots cast in the wrong precinct would have to be counted in 2014.

But there was bad news as well:

The appeals court also upheld: “(i) the reduction of early-voting days; (ii) the expansion of allowable voter challengers; (iii) the elimination of the discretion of county boards of elections to keep the polls open an additional hour on Election Day in ‘extraordinary circumstances’; (iv) the elimination of pre-registration of sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds who will not be eighteen years old by the next general election; and (v) the soft roll-out of voter identification requirements to go into effect in 2016.”

On Wednesday evening, the US Supreme Court’s conservative majority overruled the appeals court’s decision.

Ari Berman explained:

Because this was an order to stay the injunction, not a decision on the full merits of the law, the Court’s majority did not explain its reasoning. Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor dissented…

The Supreme Court’s decision could have a very negative impact on the election. Nearly 100,000 voters used same-day registration during the early voting period in 2012, including twice as many blacks as whites. Roughly 7,500 voters cast their ballots in the right county but wrong precinct in 2012.

States with same-day registration, like North Carolina, have the highest voter turnout in the country. “Average voter turnout was over 10 percentage points higher in SDR states than in other states,” Demos reported for 2012. North Carolinians now have only two more days to register to vote before the October 10 deadline.

In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote, “The Court of Appeals determined that at least two of the measures—elimination of same-day registration and termination of out-of-precinct voting—risked significantly reducing opportunities for black voters to exercise the franchise in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. I would not displace that record-based reasoned judgment.”

The court’s ruling came less than two weeks after it upheld an Ohio law limiting early voting.

Unfounded Accusations in Georgia

A group called the New Georgia Project (NGP) was enjoying significant success registering people of color to vote. In early September, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a Republican, charged that the group was engaging in voter fraud, and opened an investigation that included an expansive subpoena that disrupted NGP’s operations for weeks.

Two weeks later, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that “investigators [had] backed away… from allegations a Democratic-backed group may have organized voter registration fraud” after they found only 25 bad applications — and 26 more “suspect” documents — out of 85,000 the group had submitted. Any canvassing operation will produce some forgeries, and that number is quite low.

Kemp insisted that he wasn’t engaged in a partisan witch-hunt. He said that he was simply following up on complaints made by six different local election officials, and implied that there had been numerous problems. But an open records request revealed that there had in fact been only a single complaint about the group’s canvassing efforts, and that had been submitted four months prior to Kemp’s crusade.

Nonetheless, some 40,000 registrations are in limbo, as Georgia State Rep. Stacey Abrams, the state’s House Minority Leader and NGP founder, explained to Rachel Maddow Thursday night.


Virginia’s Gerrymandered Districts

On Tuesday, the Fourth District Court of Appeals ordered Virginia lawmakers to redraw the state’s congressional district maps, which Republicans aggressively gerrymandered under former Governor Bob McDonnell.

ThinkProgress’ legal analyst Ian Millhiser reported:

One of the most aggressive gerrymanders in the country is unconstitutional, according to a divided three-judge panel in Virginia. In 2012, President Barack Obama defeated Republican Mitt Romney by three points in the state of Virginia. Nevertheless, Republicans control eight of the state’s eleven congressional districts. Yet, according to an opinion by Judge Allyson Duncan, a George W. Bush appointee, the maps that produced this result are unconstitutional and the legislature must “act within the next legislative session to draw a new congressional district plan.”

The flaw in the current maps arises from the state’s Third Congressional District, currently represented by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA). In a professed effort to comply with the Voting Rights Act… the new maps packed an additional 44,711 African American voters into Rep. Scott’s district — thus preventing these black voters from influencing elections in other districts. This decision, according to the court, was not allowed.

The decision won’t impact next month’s vote, but should lead to a more favorable map for Democrats in 2016.

For much more on the battle for voting rights in the states, see the Brennan Center for Justice’s Election 2014 midterm resources page.

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The Truth Laid Bare Sun, 12 Oct 2014 13:11:12 +0000 The sagas of Dinesh D’Souza and Bob McDonnell laid bare some of the most basic dynamics of money in politics. Continue reading

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This post first appeared at the Brennan Center for Justice.

Former Governor of Virginia Bob McDonnell speaking at CPAC in 2010. (Photo: Gage Skidmore/flickr CC 2.0)

Former Governor of Virginia Bob McDonnell speaking at CPAC in 2010. (Photo: Gage Skidmore/flickr CC 2.0)

Quick: You are most likely

A. A Florida drug dealer;

B. Ron Popeil;

C. The governor or first lady of Virginia; or

D. A public intellectual and best-selling author.

If you …

Dress head to toe (shoes, coat, purse) in Louis Vuitton.

Cruise around in a Ferrari and flash your Rolex.

Take your married (not to you) fiancé on out of town trips while your own wife (still married to you) stays at home minding the kids.

Star in an infomercial pitching a flip-up Christmas tree.

If you answered Miami drug dealer or Ron Popeil to any of these questions, you are wrong.

Ah. September. A heavenly month. It brings us cooler nights, the last of the tomato harvest, and fall TV premieres. (NCIS: New Orleans – who knew?)

This year it also brought a bumper crop of dysfunctional personalities at play in campaign finance land as the sagas of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and public intellectual Dinesh D’Souza came to a close. McDonnell was found guilty of defrauding Virginians of his honest services. He awaits sentencing. D’Souza was spared a stint in the big house and sentenced to eight months confinement in a halfway house plus a fine for his illegal donations to a Senate candidate.

It would be easy to dismiss their stories as extreme, featuring a set of actors whose cluster of personality traits warrant a special page in the DSM.

Their trials and tribulations were mostly played out as soap operas in the press. After all D’Souza and McDonnell’s behavior bordered on farcically corrupt. Their crimes read as ones of personality rather than ones that truly injured the body politic.

But D’Souza and McDonnell — a money giver and a money taker — laid bare some of the most basic dynamics of money in politics.

Dinesh D'Souza speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Photo: Gage Skidmore/flickr CC 2.0)

Dinesh D’Souza speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Photo: Gage Skidmore/flickr CC 2.0)

D’Souza was indicted at the beginning of this year for making use of straw donors to illegally funnel $20,000 to Wendy Long, a Senate candidate from New York running against incumbent Kirsten Gillibrand. D’Souza’s scheme was straightforward as these things go. He recruited his fiancé-mistress and her husband each to give Long $10,000. Then he reimbursed them.

Straw donor cases are not unusual. In recent years, the Department of Justice has prosecuted everyone from lawyers, hotel magnates, real estate developers and liquor distributors in venues from California to Florida, Delaware to New York.

Almost all reveal two major themes. First, the donor is convinced that the only way to get a politician to listen is to give them money. Without campaign contributions, “nobody will even talk to you…. That’s the only way to buy them, get into the system…. What, what else is there? That’s the only thing” hotel magnate Sant Singh Chatwal told an associate of his. Chatwal pled guilty to using straw donors in April of this year.

Second, these donors are convinced that the campaign laws and limits are annoyances, mere paperwork requirements. D’Souza seems to have viewed the law as an obstacle course. “I could have given to a PAC — there are 10 ways to do it. But I took a shortcut,” he told a New Republic reporter.

Why did D’Souza take this detour into felony-land? “I said, look, I need to help this woman.” And there’s the rub. Donors and politicians enter into a symbiotic and often desperate relationship. There’s a dysfunctional push-pull between the two. Candidate Long needed more money badly and let D’Souza know. (By the way, candidates always need more money). He felt obliged, compelled to help her. To be sure, his motives seem to have been more in personal friendship than quid pro quo. But, then, imagine how strong the appeal must seem when the political candidate has a measure of power over your ability to make a living.

And that’s something ex-governor McDonnell seems to have toyed with in his quest for money from Virginia businessman Jonnie R. Williams, Sr. McDonnell and his wife were convicted of, in effect, selling his services as governor to Williams for more than $150,000 in loans and goods. The fancy dinners, the golf trips, the shopping sprees at Bergdorfs, the vacations on Cape Cod.

If donors believe that money is the only way to obtain influence and are desperate to prove to politicians that they can run the donor obstacle course, then many politicians are just as eager to suggest how much they can help or hurt.

They dangle the quo.

McDonnell and his wife tried to suggest their power without exercising it. They seemed to know that if they went too far it really would be a blatant quid pro quo. So they never arranged for state money to go to Williams’ company. They didn’t appoint people to posts for him. They made some inquiring phone calls, included Williams in some events, helped arrange meetings, lent their prestige to Williams.

How many politicians dance this dance? Some commentators seem to think all of them do it all of the time. A Washington Post columnist called what the McDonnell’s did “politics as usual… minimal personal favors and courtesies.” A leading campaign finance attorney noted that the McDonnell case implicates “all the informal things” a politician does.

A jury thought the McDonnell’s behavior went over the edge. We’ll see how their appeal plays out in any event.

Both D’Souza and McDonnell demonstrated only the barest measure of control over their towering egos and not even a passing acquaintance with the law. But sometimes even the most extreme personalities pull aside the curtain on very human truths.

The views expressed in this post are the author’s alone, and presented here to offer a variety of perspectives to our readers.

victoria bassetti
Victoria Bassetti is a Brennan Center contributor. She is the author of “Electoral Dysfunction: A Survival Manual for American Voters,” published by The New Press in 2012.

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]]> 10 Feel Like You’re Earning Less? There’s a Good Chance You Are Fri, 10 Oct 2014 21:08:14 +0000 The middle class squeeze continues, and you may find yourself wishing it was 1999. Continue reading

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Do you ever wish it were 1999? A new century to look forward to, lots of fun Y2K speculation and perhaps most importantly — more money.

Today, the typical American family makes less than it did in 1999, significantly less in fact. Real median household income — adjusted for inflation — was $51,939 in 2013; but in 1999 it was $56,895! That’s almost $5,000 more for a family to spend on food, housing, education, healthcare and other expenses. It’s perhaps not surprising that the poverty rate has risen, for the most part, as incomes have declined. Today, over 45 million Americans or 14.5 percent of our population live in poverty.

On Tuesday, The New York Times’ David Leonhardt covered the problem of shrinking paychecks in “The Great Wage Slowdown of the 21st Century.”

Leonhardt pointed out that even though the unemployment rate has fallen in the last few years, wages have barely budged. And the jobs report out last week found that while the unemployment rate fell below six percent in the past year, which is good news, hourly pay has risen just over two percent, and inflation eats away at most of that increase.

Last week in a speech at Northwestern University, President Obama said he believes “over the next 10 years we’ll build an economy where wage growth is stronger than it was in the past three decades.” Here’s what Leonhardt had to say about Obama’s prediction:

He may or may not be right about that. But the speech laid out the issues in unusually clear terms. And by any definition, the great wage slowdown – or its end – is one of the most important subjects in the country today.

You can think of Mr. Obama’s argument as falling into two categories (even if he didn’t say so): the reasons that overall economic growth may accelerate, and the reasons that middle- and low-income workers may benefit more from that growth than they have lately. Both factors have contributed to the wage slowdown. The size of the pie hasn’t been growing very fast, and most of the increases have gone to a small share of already well-fed families.

On the growth side of the ledger, both energy and education have been problems. The cost of energy, after temporarily falling in the 1990s, returned to its post-1970s norm in recent years and acted like a tax on the rest of the economy. Education, meanwhile, is the lifeblood of economic growth, allowing people to do entirely new tasks (cure a disease, invent the Internet) or to do old ones with less time and expense. Yet educational attainment has slowed so much that the United States has lost its once-enormous global lead.

And the number of high-school and college graduates is rising. The financial crisis deserves some perverse credit, because it sent people fleeing back to school, much as the Great Depression did. But some of the efforts to improve school performance – by raising standards and accountability – are also playing a role.

Read the complete article at The New York Times »

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Critics to Obama: ‘Draconian Cuts’ Have Been to US Public Services, Not War Budget Fri, 10 Oct 2014 17:49:46 +0000 The president slams cuts to military spending, which could be a signal of further escalation in the Middle East. Continue reading

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President Obama pictured during his first visit to the Pentagon since becoming President January 28, 2009. (Photo: DoD/Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley/flickr CC 2.0))
President Obama pictured during his first visit to the Pentagon since becoming president, on January 28, 2009. (Photo: DoD/Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley/Flickr CC 2.0)

This post first appeared at Common Dreams.

President Obama’s comments on Wednesday that US military spending is under threat of “draconian” cuts were met with immediate rebuke from analysts, who say the poor are bearing the brunt of austerity while the war budget remains largely untouched. That the president’s comments came in the midst of the expansion of the costly US-led war against Iraq and Syria sparked concern that the president could be signaling further escalation to come.

“The fact that President Obama is talking about military cuts right now, just as he is escalating the war in Syria and Iraq, is a very dangerous sign that he might be anticipating escalations that would be even more costly than the current round of bombings, drone strikes, special operations and relatively small numbers of boots on the ground,” said Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, in an interview with Common Dreams.

Addressing the Pentagon leadership Wednesday, Obama stated, “We have done some enormous work, and I want to thank everybody sitting around this table to continue to make our forces leaner, meaner, more effective, more tailored to the particular challenges that we’re going to face in the 21st century. But we also have to make sure that Congress is working with us to avoid, for example, some of the draconian cuts that are called for in sequestration.”

His statements echo those of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who argued in March that that military sequestration jeopardizes “America’s traditional role as a guarantor of global security, and ultimately our own security.”

Hawkish lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have been using the expanding US war on Iraq and Syria to argue against US military spending cuts. “If we don’t replace the cuts in sequestration, we’re going to compromise our ability to be successful against ISIL and other emerging threats,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham.

“The supposed slashing leaves the military budget higher than all but a couple of years of the budget since World War II.”— Miriam Pemberton, Institute for Policy Studies

Raed Jarrar, policy impact coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee, told Common Dreams, “The crisis within Iraq and Syria is being used to promote the vision that the world is a scary place, we need more weapons to protect ourselves, and the military is facing these crazy cuts. But the premise that we have military cuts is not accurate. Obama’s remarks signal there will not be any push-back from the White House.”

Mattea Kramer, research director at National Priorities Project, argues in a March article that the Pentagon, in fact, is “crying wolf.” When it went into effect in March 2013, sequestration was supposed to cut $54.6 billion from the $550 billion Pentagon budget. But thanks to intervention from Congress, as well as the Pentagon’s manipulation of budgeting rules, the Pentagon only ended up cutting $31 billion from its 2013 budget, explains Kramer.

The 2014 budget tells a similar story. Sequestration was supposed to slash $54.6 billion from the military budget in 2014, but thanks to a deal between lawmakers, and war funding from other stashes — including extra congressional funds and the “Overseas Contingency Operations” budget — the 2014 budget was only cut by $3.4 billion, less than one percent. “After two years of uproar over mostly phantom cuts, 2015 isn’t likely to bring austerity to the Pentagon either,” Kramer writes.

Miriam Pemberton, research fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, told Common Dreams that “the supposed slashing leaves the military budget higher than all but a couple of years of the budget since World War II.”

The US continues to spend more on the military than the next 11 countries combined, and for the year 2015, 45 percent of US income tax money is slated to go to current and past military spending. Meanwhile, domestic public services — from cancer research to the Head Start program to domestic violence shelters — face real austerity. Furthermore, as Pemberton and Ellen Powell point out in an Institute for Policy Studies report released last month, US spending to address the climate crisis lags far behind military spending: between 2008 to 2013, climate change spending grew from 1 percent of military spending to 4 percent.

“The Pentagon’s budget remains bloated, and it gets much too big a chunk out of our tax dollars,” said Bennis. “The really draconian impact of sequestration cuts have been felt by working people and poor people across the United States far more than it has by the Pentagon.”

sarah lazare
Sarah Lazare is a staff writer for Common Dreams. You can follow her on Twitter @sarahlazare.

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]]> 7 Why Have a Record Number of Westerners Joined the Islamic State? Fri, 10 Oct 2014 17:22:18 +0000 A noted expert on terrorism explains what's attracting thousands of foreign fighters from the US, Europe and Australia. Continue reading

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Andre Poulin from Ontario, Canada, died fighting for the Islamic State in Syria in 2013. (Image: Youtube)

Andre Poulin, 24, of Ontario, Canada, died last year while fighting for the Islamic State in Syria. (Image: Youtube)

American intelligence agencies say there is no evidence that the Islamic State – which has yet to attack targets outside the Middle East – is plotting to hit the US, yet 71 percent of those polled by CNN last month said they believed the militant group had active terror cells within our borders. That disconnect results from the threat inflation that’s so deeply embedded in our discourse about terrorism.

So we should take sensational media reports and the dire warnings of fear-mongering politicians with a hefty grain of salt. At the same time, an unusually large number of Westerners have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join the militants’ campaign, and more level-headed analysts say that in the future, these fighters could return to their native countries and use what they’ve learned to mount attacks at home.

In order to get a handle on how serious that threat may be – and to evaluate the US strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the group — spoke with Thomas Hegghammer, director of terrorism research at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, by phone from Oslo. Below is a transcript of our discussion that’s been edited for length and clarity.

Joshua Holland: You’ve researched the issue of Westerners heading overseas to join the Islamic State. Can you give us a sense of how many people we’re talking about?

Thomas Hegghammer: We’re probably talking about around 3,000 people from North America, Europe and Australia. There have been Western foreign fighters in other conflicts as well, but in much smaller numbers. In fact, there are more foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq today than the combined number in all previous conflicts combined. So it’s a really extraordinary situation.

Holland: You recently wrote in The Washington Post that not all foreign fighters are radicalized Muslims. Do you have a sense of what is motivating these people to join a group as violent and extreme as the Islamic State?

Hegghammer: First of all, people go for different reasons. Some are purely motivated by ideology or religion and are interested in joining a religious fundamentalist project, a kind of new Sharia-based state.

Others are more politically motivated. They want to fight the Assad regime, or they want to help what they see as the oppressed Sunni populations in Syria and Iraq.

And I think many are also pushed into this by various social factors. They’re intrigued by the adventure. This is a chance to go out and be part of what some might think is an exciting project. You can fire guns and be part of something unusual.

But the motivations for joining have evolved over time. In the beginning of the Syrian civil war, I think we saw more altruistic motivations – people wanting to go and help the Syrian opposition. Nowadays, we see more religious motivations — wanting to help build this Islamic State. And I think that not everyone who is there now signed up for what they’re into now. They went there at an earlier stage, when the Islamic State wasn’t as prominent and as brutal as it is today. So we shouldn’t assume that every one of these 3,000 people are hardcore Islamic State sympathizers.

Holland: Peter Neumann, the director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College in London, told the Financial Times, “In a context like ISIS in Syria, you have all these battle-hardy Chechens and then you have some fat guy from Luton turning up.” How effective do you think these foreign fighters are going to be in the conflict over there?

Hegghammer: Well, I don’t think they’re hugely important, militarily speaking. But they have another effect. For example, they can help raise funds for the Islamic State. They extend the international network of the Islamic State and put it on the map as the leader of the international jihadi movement.

The Islamic State can also use some of these people for particularly controversial tactics, like suicide bombings or decapitations. Foreign fighters are overrepresented, it seems, among the perpetrators of the Islamic State’s worst acts. So they help kind of radicalize the conflict – make it more brutal.

They probably also make the conflict more intractable, because the people who come as foreign fighters are, on average, more ideological than the typical Syrian rebel. So they’re less likely to compromise and to agree to ceasefires and that kind of thing.

Holland: I would imagine that intelligence services would be all over these people if and when they return. So while one can imagine a few slipping through and perhaps staging lone wolf attacks, it seems that a major, coordinated operation would be difficult. Your view?

Hegghammer: The dilemma here of course is that not every single foreign fighter will become an international terrorist, but some will. So how do we stop the dangerous minority without taking counterproductive measures against the majority? We can’t treat all foreign fighters as international terrorists. It can have a huge political backlash among them and their supporters. And in any case, what would we do with them? Europe already has a prison radicalization program. Putting another 3,000 semi-radicalized people in there could make that problem a lot worse.

So the question on every serious analyst’s mind is who among them is dangerous? What proportion of them poses a threat and how do we deal with that? And so far, the proportion is very small. So far we have somewhere between five and 10 plots in the West that are linked to foreign fighters in some way. We’re talking about maybe five or 10 individuals in total, out of an outgoing population of 3,000. So the proportion is still low, but it’s early in the conflict and people haven’t started coming back in large numbers yet. So a lot of people, including me, are worried about the long-term ramifications of this. Because we know from historical experience that foreign fighters are overrepresented in terrorist plots in the West, and they often make for more effective operatives. Plots that include foreign fighters have been more successful and deadlier on average than plots without them.

Holland: I want to shift gears and discuss the US-led intervention in Iraq and Syria. The US enjoyed early success using air strikes against Islamic State positions in Iraq. And I think our current strategy is based on expanding on those early successes. But won’t the Islamic State adapt its tactics to dilute the power of the coalition’s air strikes?

Hegghammer: Yes, I think that the enemy that we’re going to war against now is not the same that we’ll be fighting in a year’s time. We know from historical experience that rebel groups like this adapt to our offensives, and we’re already seeing signs that the Islamic State is lowering its signature, as we call it. That means blending in with the population, moving people and vehicles more discreetly, and basically being harder to spot and harder to target. So they’re gradually turning into a little bit less of a conventional army and a little bit more of an urban terrorist group.

And of course, therein lies the problem. While a lot of these Humvees and tanks that the Islamic State have will be scrap metal in the desert, the problem will be to defeat the kind of urban terrorist group that the Islamic State will revert to in a year or two. And that’s why I’ve argued that, yes, degrading the Islamic State is certainly possible, but destroying them is going to be a very difficult task, and I think it’s probably not a good idea for politicians to declare that as the objective. If that is the objective, then it’s going to be a very long and very costly war.

Holland: You have argued that this campaign may increase anti-Western terrorism. Why do you think that?

Hegghammer: The Islamic State and its sympathizers haven’t systematically targeted the West so far. There have been a few plots here and there, but they seem to have come from free agents — people who are just vaguely affiliated with the group. But the group isn’t maxed out on the capability side in the way that Al Qaeda has been. Now that we’re attacking them, it’s quite likely that both sympathizers and the Islamic State itself might want to carry out attacks to avenge the offensive. So I’ve called the air raids in Syria “kicking the hornet’s nest,” because by doing that, we make them very angry and more likely to attack us. And if they do, there will be intense pressure to deepen our involvement in the conflict.

Holland: You’ve argued that the US has had an unspoken, yet in your view, effective policy of deterrence against Islamic terror groups, and that this campaign is getting away from that policy of deterrence. Can you explain that?

Hegghammer: For the past seven or eight years the US has had a counterterrorism strategy based on deterrence. The idea is to only really go after those groups that attack the homeland, and use less force against those groups that don’t attack the homeland, those who operate only in the Middle East, for example. And this strategy stems from the fact that you just cannot fight all the groups at the same time. It’s simply impossible. So to maximize domestic security at minimum cost, the US has sent a message to jihadi groups around the world that if you come here, if you attack the homeland, then we will come after you. If you don’t, the pressure will be lighter. That’s why the heaviest repression has been in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where Al Qaeda Central is based, and in Yemen, where Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula is based. These are the groups that have systematically tried to attack the West.

So by attacking the Islamic State before it has started to systematically attack the West, we’re diverging from that strategic principle and I think that’s problematic in the long term.

Holland: What kind of alternative policies do you think we might have adopted that wouldn’t include these risks?

Hegghammer: I think one alternative would be something more like containment, which basically means you encircle the enemy and cut off its sources of funds and weapons and hope that internal tensions will make it sort of rot from within. That seems like an unattractive option with the Islamic State given all the terrible things it does in the areas it controls. But I think it could be the least bad option. Use military force, for example, to stop the Islamic State near Kurdistan or keep it from expanding, and then target its financial operations — its oil sales, etc. — more systematically, and then use other, more subtle means to make it more difficult for the Islamic State to govern its territories, in the hope that the population eventually turns against them.

But it may be too late for that now that we’ve started bombing its headquarters. I think the important thing now is to create what I call “offramps” — to define circumstances in which the mission can be ended. If we proceed with the Islamic State’s complete destruction as our only goal, then I think it could be a very long war. We need a range of more limited objectives that we can actually reach.

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America’s Ridiculously Rich: the 2014 Edition Fri, 10 Oct 2014 14:40:25 +0000 Forbes has just released its latest list of America’s wealthiest 400. The new numbers on these grand fortunes don’t just stagger the imagination. They stagger common sense. Continue reading

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This post first appeared Too Much.


Imagine yourself part of the typical American family. Your household would have, the Federal Reserve reported last month, a net worth of $81,200.

Not much. But 50 percent of America’s households would actually have less wealth than you do. The other half would have more.

Now imagine that your net worth suddenly quadrupled to about $325,000. That sum would place you within the ranks of America’s most affluent 20 percent of income earners. You would be “typical” no more. On the other hand, you still wouldn’t be rich, or even close to grand fortune.

So suppose we quadrupled your wealth still again, enough to get your net worth — your assets minus your debts — all the way up to $1.3 million.

Congratulations. You now hold 16 times more wealth than the typical American. You probably have paid off your mortgage. You have a healthy balance in your 401(k). You have investment income. You have it made.

But not really. You still have to worry financially, about everything from losing your job to helping your kids with their college tuition.

So let’s quadruple your net worth once again — to $5.2 million.

With a mere $5.2 million fortune, you can afford, well, just about anything you want.

You now sit comfortably within the ranks of America’s richest 1 percent. You can afford, well, just about anything you want. A getaway in the mountains, another getaway on the shore. Two beamers in the driveway. Impressive philanthropic gestures. Direct access to your US senators.

Enough already? Actually, no. With a fortune of just $5.2 million, you still have to put up with the inconveniences of mere mortal existence. Yes, you can fly first class anywhere you want. But you have to fly with the great unwashed back in coach — and they take forever getting their carry-ons up in those overhead bins.

You need relief. We’re going to give it to you. We’re going to multiply your $5.2 million fortune 1,000 times over — to $5.2 billion. Now you can buy your own private jet.

Even better, now you get your name printed in the annual Forbes magazine list of America’s 400 richest. At $5.2 billion, your fortune would nearly rate as an average Forbes 400 stash. America’s top 400, Forbes revealed last month, now hold a combined net worth of $2.29 trillion. That places the average Forbes 400 fortune at $5.7 billion, an all-time record high.

Remember back when you held that median American nest-egg of $81,200? The average member of the Forbes 400 holds a fortune over 70,000 times that size.

The average member of the Forbes 400 holds a fortune over 1,000 times the wealth of someone with a $5.2 million fortune.

And the richest of these 400 hold far more than that average. Take Larry Ellison, the third-ranking deep pocket on this year’s Forbes list. Ellison just stepped down as the CEO of the Oracle business software colossus. His net worth: $50 billion.

What does Ellison do with all those billions? He collects homes and estates, for starters, with 15 or so scattered all around the world. Ellison likes yachts, too. He currently has two extremely big ones, each over half as long as a football field.

Ellison also likes to play basketball, even on his yachts. If a ball bounces over the railing, no problem. Ellison has a powerboat following his yacht, the Wall Street Journal noted this past spring, “to retrieve balls that go overboard.”

Hiring that ball-retriever qualifies Ellison as a “job creator,” right? Maybe not. Ellison has regularly destroyed jobs on his way to grand fortune. He has become, over the years, a master of the merge-and-purge two-step: First you snatch your rival’s customers, then you fire its workers.

In 2005, for instance, Ellison shelled out $10.6 billion to buy out PeopleSoft, an 11,000-employee competitor. He then proceeded to put the ax to 5,000 jobs .

Five years later, Ellison bought out Sun Microsystems and indignantly denied that any “massive layoff” would be in the offing. Five months later, Ellison’s Oracle quietly acknowledged a major downsizing in an official federal regulatory filing.

Our ultra rich have ‘self-made’ a mess.

Job massacres like these have been hollowing out America’s middle class ever since Forbes started annually identifying the nation’s richest 400 back in the 1980s. Since 1989, Federal Reserve figures show, the median net worth of families in America’s statistical middle class — the middle 20 percent of income earners — has dropped from $75,300 to $61,700, after taking inflation into account.

This year, for the first time ever, Forbes has assigned a “self-made score” to every one of America’s richest 400. More than two-thirds of this year’s 400, Forbes claims, rate as “self-made,” Ellison among them.

Forbes doesn’t bother asking how those rich went about self-making their fortunes. We should. Our top 400, after all, haven’t just made monstrously large fortunes. They’ve made a monstrously large mess. To unmake it, we need to unmake them.

Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, the Institute for Policy Studies online weekly on excess and inequality. His latest book: The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class (Seven Stories Press).

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]]> 173 Morning Reads: Two Voter ID Laws Blocked by Courts Fri, 10 Oct 2014 14:21:37 +0000 A roundup of some of the stories we're reading at Moyers & Company HQ... Continue reading

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Good morning — and happy Friday! It’s also International Mental Health Day, but that doesn’t mean the whole world is taking a much-needed day off — it’s just one of those awareness campaigns.

Election news…

Ebola –> TNR’s Jonathan Cohn is exactly right: “Stop Freaking Out About America’s Single Ebola Death, and Start Worrying About West Africa.” BUT: One group that has some reason for concern are the workers who clean up airplanes. They say they haven’t been provided with adequate training or safety gear and are striking, according to the WSJ. AND: A British man has died at a hotel in Macedonia. Ebola is suspected, but hasn’t been confirmed, according to The Telegraph.

Speaking of airplanes –> Vanity Fair’s William Langeweische writes that today’s pilots enjoy so much automation that they may not be getting enough experience to handle situations when their systems fail them.

Solar –> At MoJo, Tim McDonnell notes that Walmart is the biggest corporate user of solar panels, and wonders why the company is funding groups that are working to undermine state-level clean energy policies.

IS –> The Daily Beast headlines that US warplanes are “blowing the Hell” out of Islamic State fighters near the besieged Syrian town of Kobani. But despite the airstrikes, Jamie Dettmer writes, Kobani is likely to fall to the militants. AND: At New York magazine, Sulome Anderson writes about a reporter and Iraq vet who has been captured by the Islamic State, and who happens to be a friend.

Mysterious death –> A popular, seemingly happy black teenager was found hanging from a swing set near his home in Bladenboro, North Carolina. Police quickly concluded that there was no evidence of foul-play, but the boy’s family and the broader community aren’t satisfied with the investigation. Ed Pilkington reports for The Guardian.

Lego distances itself from Big Oil –> A Greenpeace campaign has successfully pressured the Danish toymaker to end its co-promotion deal with Shell Oil. Robert Eshelman has the story at Vice.

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ISIS in Washington: America’s Soundtrack of Hysteria Thu, 09 Oct 2014 19:29:59 +0000 Amid continual headlines of terror plots, we have been relegated to the role of so many frightened spectators when it comes to our government and its actions. Continue reading

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FILE In this Oct. 6, 2014 file photo, shot with an extreme telephoto lens and through haze from the outskirts of Suruc at the Turkey-Syria border, militants with the Islamic State group are seen after placing their group's flag on a hilltop at the eastern side of the town of Kobani, Syria. After two months, the U.S.-led aerial campaign in Iraq has so far hardly dented the core of the Islamic State group’s territory. The extremists’ grip on major cities across Iraq and neighboring Syria remains unquestioned. The campaign has brought some gains, with Kurdish fighters taking back towns on the fringes of the Islamic State group’s territory. But those successes only underline a major weakness: Besides the Iraqi Kurds, there are no forces on the ground ready to capitalize on the airstrikes. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
Shot with an extreme telephoto lens and through haze from the outskirts of Suruc at the Turkey-Syria border, militants with the Islamic State group are seen after placing their group's flag on a hilltop at the eastern side of Kobani, Syria on October 6, 2014.(AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

This post first appeared at TomDispatch.

It happened so fast that, at first, I didn’t even take it in.

Two Saturdays ago, a friend and I were heading into the Phillips Museum in Washington, DC, to catch a show of neo-Impressionist art when we ran into someone he knew, heading out. I was introduced and the usual chitchat ensued. At some point, she asked me, “Do you live here?”

“No,” I replied, “I’m from New York.”

She smiled, responded that it, too, was a fine place to live, then hesitated just a beat before adding in a quiet, friendly voice: “Given ISIS, maybe neither city is such a great place to be right now.” Goodbyes were promptly said and we entered the museum.

All of this passed so quickly that I didn’t begin rolling her comment around in my head until we were looking at the sublime pointillist paintings of Georges Seurat and his associates. Only then did I think: ISIS, a danger in New York? ISIS, a danger in Washington? And I had the urge to bolt down the stairs, catch up to her, and say: whatever you do, don’t step off the curb. That’s where danger lies in American life. ISIS, not so much.

The Terrorists Have Our Number

I have no idea what provoked her comment. Maybe she was thinking about a story that had broken just two days earlier, topping the primetime TV news and hitting the front pages of newspapers. On a visit to the Big Apple, the new Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, claimed that his intelligence services had uncovered a plot by militants of the Islamic State (IS, aka ISIS or ISIL), the extremists of the new caliphate that had gobbled up part of his country, against the subway systems of Paris, New York and possibly other US cities.

I had watched Brian Williams report that story on NBC in the usual breathless fashion, along with denials from American intelligence that there was any evidence of such a plot. I had noted as well that police patrols on my hometown’s subways were nonetheless quickly reinforced, with extra contingents of bomb-sniffing dogs and surveillance teams. Within a day, the leading officials of my state, Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, were denying that they had any information on such a plot, but also taking very public rides on the city’s subways to “reassure” us all. The threat didn’t exist, but was also well in hand! I have to admit that, to me, it all seemed almost comic.

In the meantime, the background noise of the last 13 years played on. Inside the American Terrordome, the chorus of hysteria-purveyors, Republican and Democrat alike, nattered on, as had been true for weeks, about the “direct,” not to say apocalyptic, threat the Islamic State and its caliph posed to the American way of life. These included Senator Lindsey Graham (“This president needs to rise to the occasion before we all get killed here at home”); Majority Leader John Boehner, who insisted that we should consider putting American boots on Iraqi and perhaps even Syrian ground soon, since “they intend to kill us”; Senator Dianne Feinstein, who swore that “the threat ISIS poses cannot be overstated”; Senator Bill Nelson, who commented that “it ought to be pretty clear when they… say they’re going to fly the black flag of ISIS over the White House that ISIS is a clear and present danger.” And a chorus of officials, named and anonymous, warning that the terror danger to the country was “imminent,” while the usual set of pundits chirped away about the potential destruction of our way of life.

The media, of course, continued to report it all with a kind of eyeball-gluing glee. The result by the time I met that woman: 71 percent of Americans believed ISIS had nothing short of sleeper cells in the US (shades of “Homeland”!) and at least the same percentage, if not more (depending on which poll you read), were ready to back a full-scale bombing campaign, promptly launched by the Obama administration, against the group.

If, however, you took a step out of the overwrought American universe of terror threats for 30 seconds, it couldn’t have been clearer that everyone in the grim netherworld of the Middle East now seemed to have our number. The beheading videos of the Islamic State had clearly been meant to cause hysteria on the cheap in this country — and they worked. Those first two videos somehow committed us to a war now predicted to last for years, and a never-ending bombing campaign that we know perfectly well will establish the global credentials of the Islamic State and its mad caliph in jihadist circles. (In fact, the evidence is already in. From North Africa to Afghanistan to Pakistan, the group is suddenly a brand name, its black flag something to hoist, and its style of beheading something to be imitated.)

Now, the Shia opponent of those jihadists had taken the hint and, not surprisingly, the very same path. The Iraqi prime minister, whose intelligence services had only recently been blindsided when IS militants captured huge swaths of his country, claimed to have evidence that was guaranteed to set loose the professional terror-mongers and hysterics in this country and so, assumedly, increase much-needed support for his government.

Or perhaps that woman I met had instead been struck by the news, only days earlier, that in launching a bombing campaign against the militants of the Islamic state in Syria, the Obama administration had also hit another outfit. It was called — so we were told — the Khorasan Group and, unlike the IS, it had the United States of America, the “homeland,” right in its bombsites. As became clear after the initial wave of hysteria swiftly passed, no one in our world or theirs had previously heard of such a group, which may have been a set of individuals in a larger Al Qaeda-linked Syrian rebel outfit called the al-Nusra Front who had no such name for themselves.

Whatever the case, it seemed that the Obama administration and connected intelligence outfits had our number, too. Although Khorasan was reputedly plotting against airplanes, not subways, transportation systems were evidently our jugular when it came to such outfits. This group, we were told in leaks by unnamed American intelligence officials, was made up of a “cadre” or “collection” of hardened, “senior” Al Qaeda types from Afghanistan, who had settled in Syria not to overthrow Bashir al-Assad or create a caliphate, but to prepare the way for devastating attacks on the American “homeland” and possibly Western Europe as well. It was, as Director of National Intelligence James Clapper put it, “potentially yet another threat to the homeland,” and it was “imminent.” As US Central Command insisted in announcing the bombing strikes against the group, it involved “imminent attack planning.” The Khorasan Group was, said Lieutenant General William Mayville, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “in the final stages of plans to execute major attacks against Western targets and potentially the US homeland.”

Had we not hit them hard, they would be — so American intelligence officials assured us — on the verge (or at least the verge of the verge) of developing bombs so advanced that, using toothpaste tubes, rigged electronic devices or possibly clothes soaked in explosives, their agents would be able to pass through airport security undetected and knock plane after plane out of the sky. Civilization was in peril, which meant that blazing headlines about the plot and the group mixed with shots of actual bombs (ours) exploding in Syria, and a sense of crisis that was, as ever, taken up with gusto by the media.

As Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain pointed out in a devastating report at the Intercept, the whole Khorasan story began to disassemble within a day or so of the initial announcement and the bombing strikes in Syria. It took next to no time at all for that “imminent threat” to morph into “aspirational” planning; for reporters to check with their Syrian sources and find that no one knew a thing about the so-called Khorasan Group; for the taking down of those airliners to gain an ever more distant (and possibly even fictional) look. As ever, however, pointing out the real dangers in our world was left largely to non-mainstream sources, while the threat to our way of life, to Washington and New York, lingered in the air.

Terror-Phobia and a Demobilized Citizenry

This sort of soundtrack has been the background noise in our lives for the last 13 years. And like familiar music (or Muzak), it evokes a response that’s almost beyond our control. The terror about terror, sometimes quite professionally managed (as in the case of the Khorasan Group), has flooded through our world year after year after year. ISIS is just a recent example of the way the interests of a group of extremists in making themselves larger than life and the interests of groups in this country in building up or maintaining their institutional power have meshed. Terror as the preeminent danger to our American world now courses through the societal bloodstream, helped along by regular infusions of fear from the usual panic-meisters.

On that set of emotions, an unparalleled global security state has been built (and funded), as well as a military that, in terms of its destructive power, leaves the rest of the world in the dust. In the process, and in the name of protecting Americans from the supposedly near-apocalyptic dangers posed by the original Al Qaeda and its various wannabe successors, a new version of America has come into being — one increasingly willing to bulldoze the most basic liberties, invested in the spread of blanket secrecy over government actions, committed to wholesale surveillance and dedicated to a full-scale loss of privacy.

America’s New War in the Middle East

You can repeat until you’re blue in the face that the dangers of scattered terror outfits are vanishingly small in the “homeland,” when compared to almost any other danger in American life. It won’t matter, not once the terror-mongers go to work. So, in a sense, that woman was right. For all intents and purposes, without ever leaving Iraq and Syria, ISIS is in Washington — and New York, and Topeka and El Paso (or, as local fear-mongers in Texas suggest, ready to cross the Rio Grande at any moment), and Salt Lake City and Sacramento. ISIS has, by now, wormed its way inside our heads. So perhaps she was right as well to suggest that Washington and New York (not to speak of wherever you happen to live) are not great places to be right now.

Let’s be honest. Post-9/11, when it comes to our own safety (and so where our tax dollars go), we’ve become as mad as loons. Worse yet, the panic, fear and hysteria over the dangers of terrorism may be the only thing left that ties us as a citizenry to a world in which so many acts of a destructive nature are being carried out in our name.

The history of the demobilization of the American people as a true force in their own country’s actions abroad could be said to have begun in 1973, when a draft army was officially put into the history books. In the years before that, in Vietnam and at home, the evidence of how such an army could vote with its feet and through its activism had been too much for the top brass, and so the citizen army, that creation of the French Revolution, was ended with a stroke of the presidential pen. The next time around, the ranks were to be filled with “volunteers,” thanks in part to millions of dollars sunk into Mad Men-style advertising.

In the meantime, those in charge wanted to make sure that the citizenry was thoroughly demobilized and sent home. In the wake of 9/11, this desire was expressed particularly vividly when President George W. Bush urged Americans to show their patriotism (and restore the fortunes of the airlines) by visiting Disney World, vacationing and going about their business, while his administration took care of Al Qaeda (and of course, invaded Afghanistan and Iraq).

In the ensuing years, propaganda for and an insistence that we “support,” “thank” and adulate our “warriors” (in ways that would have been inconceivable with a citizen’s army) became the order of the day. At the same time, that force morphed into an ever more “professional,” “expeditionary” and “foreign” (as in Foreign Legion-style) outfit. When it came to the US military, adulation was the only relationship that all but a tiny percentage of Americans were to be allowed. For those in the ever-expanding US military-industrial-homeland-security-intelligence-corporate complex, terror was the gift that just kept giving, the excuse for any institution-building action and career enhancement, no matter how it might contravene previous American traditions.

In this context, perhaps we should think of the puffing up of an ugly but limited reality into an all-encompassing, eternally “imminent” threat to our way of life as the final chapter in the demobilization of the American people. Terror-phobia, after all, leaves you feeling helpless and in need of protection. The only reasonable response to it is support for whatever actions your government takes to keep you “safe.”

Amid the waves of fear and continual headlines about terror plots, we, the people, have now largely been relegated to the role of so many frightened spectators when it comes to our government and its actions. Welcome to the Terrordome.

The views expressed in this post are the author’s alone, and presented here to offer a variety of perspectives to our readers.

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]]> 6 Warsaw Has Lots of Apples – and Candles Thu, 09 Oct 2014 18:45:28 +0000 Eating apples is a sign of defiance in Warsaw these days. Moscow has banned the importing of fruits and vegetables to Russia, in retaliation for the West’s sanctions against the country for supporting the separatists in Ukraine -- and that includes Polish apples. Lots of apples. Continue reading

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A woman is holding apples she received for free from fruit farmers who marched in Warsaw, Poland, Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014, intending to encourage Poles to eat more apples and this way offset the expected negative effects of a ban that Russia imposed last week on Polish fruit, a move seen as retaliation for European Union sanctions on Moscow over Ukraine. Poland is among Russia’s largest suppliers of apples. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)
Poles are encouraged to eat more apples to offset the negative effects of the ban Russia imposed on Polish fruit, a move seen as retaliation for European Union sanctions on Moscow over Ukraine. Poland is among Russia’s largest suppliers of apples. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski). (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

WARSAW — People in Poland are eating apples these days. Lots of apples. Here in Warsaw, they’re pressed into your hands at a street festival, or baked into piles of pies and cakes. You see them everywhere.

It’s an act of defiance. Moscow has banned the importing of fruits and vegetables to Russia, in retaliation for the West’s sanctions against the country for supporting the separatists in Ukraine. Last year, Poland sold more than $400 million worth of produce to Russia, 90 percent of it apples. Now that market has disappeared.

So Poles are being urged to eat apples and then eat some more. It’s their patriotic duty. Cider sales have skyrocketed. Janusz Palikot, a controversial Polish businessman and politician declared to a local magazine, “Russia doesn’t want our apples? Then let’s make jam and booze!” The Polish ambassador to the US has even pronounced them “Freedom Apples,” in the dubious tradition of “Freedom Fries,” urging Yanks to take up the slack and buy more from Poland.

We were in Warsaw for the International Affiliation of Writers Guilds and the third World Conference of Screenwriters, part of the group representing the United States at several days of panels, meetings and receptions. Throughout, the conversation was lively and informative. Andrzej Wajda was there, the grand old man of Polish cinema. So was Andrew Davies, creator of the original TV version of “House of Cards” and countless other British adaptations; and so were several Scandinavian writers, flush with the success of such innovative television series as “The Killing,” “The Bridge,” and “Borgen,” the story of a woman Danish prime minister.

What almost never came up, even with the many Poles in attendance, was the 500-pound-gorilla that wasn’t precisely in the room, but just 700 or so miles away. A couple of weeks before, a German newspaper reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin allegedly had told Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, “If I wanted, in two days I could have Russian troops not only in Kiev, but also in Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn, Warsaw and Bucharest.”

It’s a sobering thought but not likely, most of those with whom we spoke claimed. Maybe their optimism is partly the ongoing euphoria of a nation that has largely escaped the economic meltdown of 2008 and that seems for the most part to have embraced democracy – Poland just celebrated the 25th anniversary of its first post-World War II, non-Communist government, not to mention the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Poland is now a member of NATO and the European Union – in fact, the new president of the European Council is Donald Tusk, the Polish prime minister whose successor in Warsaw is Ewa Kopacz, a chain-smoking physician who used to carry a stethoscope in her purse and wrote prescriptions for fellow members of parliament. She recently took some heat when she told a press conference that “Poland should act like a reasonable Polish woman,” protecting her children first instead of heedlessly jumping into a fight – like a man.

Nonetheless, in some places, there is definitely a low hum of anxiety. But Article V of NATO’s founding treaty says that “an attack on one is an attack of all,” meaning, in theory at least, that the armed forces of Britain, France, Germany and the US, among others, would come to Poland’s defense. And a new NATO rapid response force is being headquartered here. Vladimir Putin may be boastful, many Poles think, but not foolhardy. Besides, he has his hands full with Ukraine, not to mention Chechnya and a host of other problems within. Then again, given Putin’s past actions in Georgia and Crimea, would Poland’s allies stand strong in the face of further, greater aggression?

Over the centuries, after all, Poland has experienced otherwise. For one, after Neville Chamberlain’s “peace in our time” deal with Hitler collapsed in 1939, Britain and France pledged to protect the integrity of the Polish state but the promise evaporated when Germany invaded on September 1 of that year. World War II began. And the Holocaust exploded, especially here in Poland, where virulent anti-Semitism already ran deep. We spent a dark and rainy day walking through the mud of the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps, the rows of barracks, cells, gas chambers and crematoria where 1.1 million Jews were exterminated as well as thousands of Polish political prisoners, Soviet POW’s, Romani, homosexuals and even Jehovah’s Witnesses.

“Death, death, death,” a survivor recalled. “Death at night, death in the morning, death in the afternoon. Death. We lived with death. How could a human feel?”

In 1943, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began, Polish Jews fighting back against their forced removal to the death camps. Several hundred held off the Germans for a month but their resistance was crushed. A new Jewish museum, opening in Warsaw at the end of the month and located in what once was the ghetto’s center, tells that story and chronicles 1000 years of Jewish history in Poland. But today the government estimates there are only 15,000 Jews in the country. Before the war, there were as many as 3.5 million.

A year after the ghetto battles, another Warsaw uprising, led by the Polish Home Army in 1944, hoping to take the city from the Nazis as the Soviet army approached from the east. Two months of fierce fighting were futile. Another defeat and 200,000 more were killed.

By the time World War II ended, 85 percent of Warsaw was in rubble. That so much of it has been restored so magnificently is a miracle, especially in the Old Town where we stayed and where so much of the street-to-street fighting during the 1944 uprising took place. Plaques and monuments are everywhere.

The last night we were in Warsaw was the 70th anniversary of the end of the ’44 uprising. Boy Scouts – who all those decades before had risked their lives as a sort of postal service for the resistance, stealthily delivering messages around the city – lit thousands of candles. They were carefully placed all along streets that paralleled from above the routes of the underground sewers through which soldiers and citizens had been forced to flee.

The candles, like the apples, are symbols of resilience in the face of adversity. The tenacity and desire for freedom they represent are why so many of the Poles, despite their history of enmity from within and without, and the fear of future conflict, seem determined to live in hope.

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Full Show: Restoring an America That Has Lost Its Way Thu, 09 Oct 2014 17:19:28 +0000 Reporter Bob Herbert on his new book, Losing Our Way, an intimate and heartrending portrait of America in economic despair. Continue reading

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Three years ago, reporter and former New York Times columnist Bob Herbert took to the road and traveled across the United States to gather research for his new book, Losing Our Way. In it, Herbert tells the stories of the brave, hard-working men and women he met who have been battered by the economic downturn. He found an America in which jobs have disappeared, infrastructure is falling apart and the “virtuous cycle” of well-paid workers spending their wages to power the economy has been broken by greed and the gap between the very rich and everyone else.

He tells Bill: “[W]e’ve established a power structure in which the great corporations and the big banks have allied themselves with the national government and, in many cases, local government to pursue corporate interests and financial interests as opposed to those things that would be in the best interests of ordinary working people… Once you do that, you lose the dynamic that America is supposed to be. It’s supposed to be an egalitarian society, a society of rising standards of living, a society of a vast and thriving middle class. And we are getting farther and farther away from that ideal.”

As for solutions, Herbert says, “People need to start voting against the excessive power of the great moneyed interests. But more than that, we need a movement, a grass-roots movement that will fight for the interests of ordinary men and women…”

Herbert is a senior distinguished fellow at the public policy and analysis think tank, Demos. He is also a board member of the Schumann Media Center, from which he is presently on leave working on a major documentary.

Producer: Gina Kim. Segment Producer: Lena Shemel. Editor: Sikay Tang.

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]]> 71 1%,99%,bob herbert,citizens united,dark money,economic inequality,income inequality,labor,losing our way,middle class,widget Reporter Bob Herbert on his new book, Losing Our Way, an intimate and heartrending portrait of America in economic despair. Reporter Bob Herbert on his new book, Losing Our Way, an intimate and heartrending portrait of America in economic despair. Public Affairs Television, Inc. no 22:48
The Three Million Forgotten Victims of the Great Recession Thu, 09 Oct 2014 16:29:07 +0000 The long-term unemployed face unique barriers when they try to return to the workforce. Continue reading

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a man who did not wish to be identified, who lost his job two months ago after being hurt on the job, works to collect money for his family on a Miami street corner. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter, File)

(AP Photo/J Pat Carter, File)

Washington greeted the latest jobs numbers with enthusiasm. In September, the unemployment rate fell below six percent for the first time since July, 2008. We’ve netted 2.64 million jobs over the past 12 months, and are on pace to add more jobs in 2014 than in any year since 1999.

But today, five years after the economy officially went into “recovery,” three million people remain among the ranks of the long-term unemployed — jobless for 27 weeks or more. That number is down from its 2010 peak, but as the Economic Policy Institute’s David Cooper noted earlier this year, it still “far exceeds pre-Great Recession levels in virtually every state.”

About a million Americans have been unemployed for two years or longer, and approximately 100,000 have been jobless for at least five years.

These are the forgotten victims of the economic meltdown triggered by the crash of Wall Street’s grand casino.

Their unemployment benefits exhausted, they live for as long as possible on whatever savings they may have accumulated. And then they turn to the underground economy, which Edgar Feige, an economist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, estimated to have grown to $2 trillion by 2012. They scrounge and scrape to get by. Some turn to crime.

Los Angeles Times reporter Don Lee recently profiled one of these abandoned workers — a man whose story is typical of many of the long-term unemployed:

It has come down to this for Brian Perry: an apple or banana for lunch, Red Sox ballgames on an old Zenith TV and long walks to shake off the blues.

At 57, Perry has been unemployed and looking for work for nearly seven years, ever since that winter when the Great Recession hit and he was laid off from his job as a law firm clerk.

By his count, Perry has applied for more than 1,300 openings and has had some 30 interviews, the last one a good two years ago. With his savings running dry, this summer he put up for sale his one asset — a three-bedroom house his parents used to own in this suburb of Providence.

“I’m not looking for pity, just one last opportunity,” said Perry, a boyish-looking man with bright blue eyes and a nasal New England brogue…

Perry said his long unemployment continues to be seen by some employers as a big black mark on his forehead.

Perry became depressed. He started eating tons of junk food and stopped going to the gym. He put on weight, and eventually developed a heart condition that required surgery.

His experience isn’t unique. As The Fiscal Times reported earlier this year, a 2011 study of the long-term unemployed by Rutgers University’s John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development “found that the vast majority of unemployed workers experienced stress in their relationships with family and friends and that at least 11 percent reported seeking professional help for their depression within the previous 12 months.” Half of them reported that “they began avoiding friends and associates out of a sense of shame and embarrassment — a self-imposed isolation that hurt their ability to network to find work.” One researcher told The Fiscal Times that the effects of long-term unemployment represent “a silent mental health epidemic.”

Even with the falling jobless rate, there are still two people seeking work for every open position. And while finding a job can be hard for everyone, Mark Price, a labor economist at the Pennsylvania-based Keystone Research Center, tells that those who have been out of the labor market for long periods of time face unique challenges getting back in. “The biggest is bias on the part of employers against workers with long gaps in their work history,” says Price. “In the inevitable sorting that employers do of job applications, a worker with a long spell of unemployment is frequently excluded from further consideration regardless of their skill and work experience.”

It’s an observation that’s borne out by empirical studies. And that discrimination creates a vicious cycle, causing job seekers to give up hope and drop out of the labor market entirely.

Tragically, many of those who do manage to return to the workforce don’t remain in it for long. Their skills are rusty, or they may have grown unaccustomed to working within a hierarchical organization. A study released earlier this year by Princeton University economists Alan Krueger, Judd Cramer and David Cho found that 15 months after returning to work, the number of long-term unemployed who left the workforce again was twice as high as those who had settled into full-time employment.

And for those fortunate enough to find work and keep it, many have taken a huge financial hit — losing 40 percent or more of their pre-recession incomes, according to The Urban Institute.

It doesn’t have to be this way. An innovative program in Connecticut called Platform to Employment takes a multi-pronged approach to helping these workers ease back into the groove. The program offers intensive training, with mock job interviews, mental health services to combat depression and anxiety, and then places them in eight-week internships — with the first four weeks paid in full by Platform to Employment, and the last four weeks split 50/50 between the employer and the nonprofit. The program boasts a 90 percent success rate, but so far has received only a few million in state funding.

And while three million people face the intense pain of long-term joblessness, the issue doesn’t even appear to be on Congress’s radar.

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Fracking: The Media’s New Climate Denial Thu, 09 Oct 2014 14:55:54 +0000 We can’t tackle climate change while fracking and burning more oil and gas. Big media outlets that refuse to make this simple connection are the new climate denialists. Continue reading

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This post first appeared at OtherWords.

What planet does Big Media think it’s living on?

Over 300,000 people filled the streets of New York City in September as part of the worldwide People’s Climate March, a stirring call for action on global warming.

But if you watched TV news that day, you may not have known it happened at all.

Head in the Tar Sands (Cartoon: Khalil Bendib/OtherWords)

Head in the Tar Sands (Cartoon: Khalil Bendib/OtherWords)

The Sunday chat shows totally skipped the historic climate march. Instead, one program on the supposedly liberal MSNBC produced a sad segment about how voters are loyal to either Starbucks or Chick-fil-A. Who cares about a dynamic and broad-based social movement when you can reduce the country’s population to two corporate chains?

Sensible people know there’s no more arguing about climate change: The planet is warming due to human activity. The only important question now is whether we plan to do anything about it. It will require, among other things, a massive shift away from burning oil, gas and coal, as Naomi Klein argues in her brilliant new book, This Changes Everything.

But it’s hard to build that kind of political momentum when the most important platform for discussing politics — the mass media — doesn’t think the future of the planet is a big story.

It’s a good bet that many reporters who cover politics or the energy industry know that we have to stop burning fossil fuels. Yet they often don’t let that fact intrude upon the stories they’re reporting.

For example, the front page of The New York Times — still the country’s most important newspaper — told readers last month, “Boom in Energy Spurs Industry in the Rust Belt.” This was a “good news” story about a Youngstown, Ohio steel plant that’s hiring workers again.

What’s the cause of the turnaround? Well, the plant is taking orders for fracking equipment. Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a highly controversial oil and gas drilling process that pollutes the air, poisons groundwater and can leak methane, a gas that’s far more heat-trapping than carbon dioxide.

But the Times report never mentioned the impact drilling for more fossil fuels will have on climate change. And they’re not the only ones: When PBS recently gave viewers a long look at the controversies over fracking in Colorado, it failed to mention the climate implications.

This refusal to look at the big picture is a new form of climate change denial. It’s logically impossible for journalists to say they believe that we must take action to save the planet — as The New York Times editorial board has claimed again and again — and then trumpet the latest fossil fuel-burning project in Ohio because it might create a few dozen jobs.

“One of the economy’s good-news stories is the oil boom,” Robert J. Samuelson wrote recently in a Washington Post column endorsing a massive expansion of the US oil industry. He never mentioned climate change, even though he writes for a newspaper whose editorial board has dedicated a new series to taking the climate crisis seriously.

It’s pretty simple: We can’t tackle climate change while fracking and burning more oil and gas. Big media outlets that refuse to make this simple connection are the new climate denialists.

Peter Hart is the activism director of Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), distributed via OtherWords. You can follow him on Twitter @peterfhart.

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Morning Reads: Protests Follow Police Shooting of St. Louis Teen Thu, 09 Oct 2014 14:14:05 +0000 A roundup of some of the stories we're reading at Moyers & Company HQ... Continue reading

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Good morning — and happy Leif Erikson Day!

In 1001, almost 500 years before Christopher Columbus’ journey, Erikson established a short-lived settlement in Canada (his people didn’t get along with the natives after killing a few of them for no apparent reason). But he probably wasn’t the first Viking to “discover” the Americas. That honor goes to Bjarni Herjólfsson, who is believed to have spied the New World in 986 but didn’t stop to check it out.

He said, she said –> Spontaneous protests broke out overnight after an off-duty police officer working a private security job shot and killed a black teenager in South St. Louis. Police say the 18-year-old shot first, but some residents of the community insist that he was unarmed and carrying only a sandwich. Margaret Gillerman reports for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Tuned out –> According to Gallup, “Turnout in the midterm elections this fall could be lower than in the past two midterm elections, based on current voter engagement.”

A mess –> Islamic State fighters once again pushed into the Syrian town of Kobani. Meanwhile, Daren Butler and Jonny Hogg report for Reuters that in Turkey, “street battles raged between Kurdish protesters and police across the mainly Kurdish southeast, in Istanbul and in Ankara, as fallout from war in Syria and Iraq threatened to unravel the NATO member’s own delicate Kurdish peace process.” Twenty-one were killed.

On the bubble –> Alexander Bolton reports for The Hill that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell could be replaced if Republicans fail to take control of the chamber in November. Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight model gives the Republicans a 56 percent likelihood of accomplishing the feat, while Sam Wang’s Princeton Election Consortium gives them a 44 percent chance.

Ebola –> The NYT report that the US will begin screening passengers from West Africa for Ebola symptoms at five international airports. AND: A Texas sheriff’s deputy who entered the apartment where the now deceased, first Ebola patient diagnosed in the US was staying is under observation in a Dallas hospital after showing possible symptoms of the disease.

Can Karl Rove stay legal? –> Paul Blumenthal writes for HuffPo that Rove’s Crossroads GPS may have problems meeting its spending goals while staying within the law. ALSO: Larry Lessig’s Mayday Super PAC and the DSCC are “flooding South Dakota airwaves” with ads highlighting Republican nominee and former Governor Mike Rounds’ role in a scandal involving the state’s sale of visas to wealthy foreigners who never got their papers. Mark Halperin and Michael Bender report for Bloomberg Politics.

Silver lining –> At Vox, Sarah Kliff argues that Wal-Mart’s decision to deny health insurance to 26,000 part-time workers will likely be a good thing because they will become eligible for Obamacare’s subsidies.

Scary legends –> Media Matters: “The Department of Homeland Security definitively debunked the persistent right-wing media conspiracy theory that Islamic State fighters have attempted to cross the US-Mexico border, saying… knocking the claim that the terrorists have been apprehended at the border as ‘categorically false.’”

Pinkwashing –> Headline in Salon: “Fracking company teams up with Susan G. Komen, introduces pink drill bits ‘for the cure.’” Lindsay Abrams reports.

Good guy with a gun –> An Oregon “open-carry enthusiast” was robbed of his gun at gunpoint on Saturday, according to David Ferguson at The Raw Story.

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The Hidden History of Prosperity Wed, 08 Oct 2014 19:43:40 +0000 In the crisis of World War II, the nation made the political choices that created the robust egalitarian economy of the next 30 years. How can we recreate it now? Continue reading

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(Illustration: Victor Juhasz)
(Illustration: By Victor Juhasz)

This post first appeared at The American Prospect.

For most Americans, the central economic fact of the past four decades is the stagnation and decline of earnings. Yet this shift is not the central political fact. Why hasn’t the system’s brutal turn against the working and middle class risen to a first-tier public issue?

The raw material is surely there. Americans are far from satisfied with the deal they are getting. Polls show that large majorities believe that the top 1 percent takes too much, that the income distribution is too unequal, that their children are likely to be worse off than they are, that job security is precarious and that the middle class is at risk.

Two big factors prevent these issues from assuming center stage. First, the public is increasingly skeptical that government can do much to change things for the better. The sense of resignation and cynicism plays to the ideology of Republicans — the claim that government doesn’t have a big part to play in the economy and that we’re all on our own. Conversely, resignation harms Democrats, whose core ideology is that government exists to help ordinary people. Republicans have done their best to prevent Democrats from delivering on the vision of activist government.

Second, persistent divisions of race as well as a nativist backlash against immigrants undermine a common politics of uplift for working Americans generally. The New Deal/Great Society formula of tax, spend, benefit and elect has been sundered by stagnation of working-class earnings and fears that government aid would only go to “them” — the undeserving poor. That fear explains much of the opposition to the Affordable Care Act. It sheds light on why victims of the subprime bust were not the objects of broad public sympathy. Racial division has been the standard Republican playbook since Nixon’s Southern Strategy, intensified by Ronald Reagan and redoubled by the tea party. The more that working families are economically stressed, the less help that government delivers, and the more the tax burden tilts away from the top, the more credibility the right has.

In recent years, with Republicans intensifying their strategy of total blockade, the Obama administration’s economic policies have been reduced mostly to a politics of gesture. Increases in the minimum wage, modest educational reforms, orders for the Labor Department to crack down on overtime abuses, tweaks to the tax structure — such policies will help around the edges but not transform the structure of an economy that delivers increasing inequality and insecurity. The Affordable Care Act, a legislative success that was more than a gesture, was so bungled in its execution that, on balance, it raised more doubts about the place of affirmative government and its steward, the Democrats. The 2009 stimulus was a limited success, but it was too small to alter the deeper dynamics of the economy.

The obstacles to reclaiming a fairer society have little to do with immutable characteristics of the new, global, digital economy. They are mainly political.

How to break out of this vicious circle? How to make the economic plight of working families the core concern that it ought to be? How to restore constructive government to a leading role in that project? The obstacles to reclaiming a fairer society have little to do with immutable characteristics of the new, global, digital economy. They are mainly political.

Learning from the Good War

One vivid, positive experience in our collective memory suggests how the economy could be drastically different. World War II, even more than the New Deal, profoundly altered the economy in ways that generated a more equal society, with more opportunity and security, than the one we have today. These structural changes reinforced one another and affirmed government as friend of the common person.

The war was, first, a massive macroeconomic stimulus. Unemployment was still more than 14 percent in 1940. Thanks to more than $100 billion of war-production orders in the first six months of 1942 — more than the entire gross domestic product of 1939 — joblessness vanished. The war also recapitalized industry that had languished during the Great Depression, and it gave government a central place in developing science and technology. The war was not just a huge jobs program but an unprecedented job-training program. President Franklin Roosevelt also chose to use war production to increase the power of unions as full social partners. A company that wanted defense contracts had to recognize its unions. So the war transformed labor markets.

Second, the war altered incomes. Steeply progressive income taxes with marginal rates as high as 94 percent, limits on executive compensation and strict controls on the bond market led to a compression of the income distribution that lasted more than a quarter-century. The need to finance the war led to emergency measures pegging the rate on government bonds at a maximum of 2.5 percent. The Federal Reserve simply bought whatever quantity of bonds the war effort required. This meant that a major category of financial industry profit — buying, selling and speculating in Treasury bonds — was eliminated, at the expense of the rentier class. Economists even have a name for this process: repression of finance. We could use some of that today.

A side effect of the Good War was enhanced social solidarity, which in turn reinforced political support for egalitarian policies. On the home front, people from diverse walks of life joined in scrap drives, served together as civil defense wardens and waited in line together for ration coupons. A famous survey showed that white soldiers who served together in units with blacks came out less prejudiced than ones who had not. Much of the enhanced propensity for civic action that social scientists such as Robert Putnam and Theda Skocpol have found in the generation born in the 1920s and 1930s was the result of their wartime experience.

All of these structural and attitudinal shifts did not abruptly end in 1945 with V-E and V-J day. They had a long half-life and continued to contour the American economy for at least another generation. To a far greater degree than is understood, the broadly shared prosperity of the postwar boom was a child of the war. It’s also important to appreciate that many of these shifts reflected not fortuitous side effects but deliberate political choices. Franklin Roosevelt could have made war-production planning mainly a business responsibility as Woodrow Wilson had in World War I, but he chose to make it a substantially public affair. He did not have to use defense contracting to strengthen the labor movement, but he chose to. Wilson, in World War I, did nothing to help organized labor.

Thanks for the history lesson, you might say, but what does all this have to do with the present-day economy? Thomas Piketty, in one of the year’s most celebrated economics books, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, demonstrates that the tendency of wealth to concentrate is an inherent characteristic of a capitalist economy. But, Piketty adds in passing, the exception is national emergencies such as wars.

A program of public investment aimed at resilience as well as a green transition could produce many of the same distributive benefits as the Good War. It could restore a sense of our common fate as Americans and reclaim faith in democratic government.

Today, we do not have a war, but we do have an existential emergency of climate change. The risks of disastrous floods, droughts, extreme weather and new forms of pestilence are compounded by the dismal condition of our infrastructure. A program of public investment aimed at resilience as well as a green transition could produce many of the same distributive benefits as the Good War. It could restore a sense of our common fate as Americans and reclaim faith in democratic government. That, of course, will take far more political leadership than we’ve seen lately.

(Illustration By Victor Juhasz)

(Illustration: Victor Juhasz)

Bad Advice from Economists

Much of the sense of mass resignation is reinforced by the mainstream of the economics profession. It was Lawrence Summers, then President Barack Obama’s chief economic adviser, who called for a smaller rather than larger economic stimulus in early 2009, urged a bailout rather than a restructuring of Wall Street, and then promoted the president’s disastrous turn to austerity economics in 2010.

We also hear from many leading economists and pundits that today’s widening extremes reflect irrevocable trends in capitalism and that the best we can do is strive for a better-educated population. Thomas Friedman famously wrote in The World Is Flat that when he was a child, his parents used to tell him to finish his dinner and to think of the hungry children in China, adding, “I am now telling my own daughters, ‘Girls, finish your homework — people in China and India are starving for your jobs.’” Friedman did not explain how his daughters, even if they received straight “A”s for their homework, might compete with Chinese wages.

Mainstream economists offer a few basic stories about what accounts for the failure of the economy to generate broadly shared prosperity. The leading candidates include technology, increasing rewards to skills not possessed by ordinary workers; a long-term shift in the share of income going to capital as opposed to labor; “winner take all” effects that deliver super-rewards to entrepreneurial and entertainment superstars; and the inevitable consequences of a globalization that otherwise adds to the economy’s efficiency. The subtext of all of these overlapping accounts is that there’s not much we can do other than improve our schools.

One of the most persistent claims is that the economy is rewarding skills more intensively now than in years past. This is espoused by such prestigious economists as Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s David Autor, who also call for more education as the remedy. The trouble with this view is that there is no good evidence that the economy is demanding skills at a rate above historic trends. Other moderately liberal economists, such as Harvard’s Lawrence Katz and Claudia Goldin, in their book The Race between Education and Technology, contend that we can solve much of the income-distribution problem with enough education. Lawrence Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute counters that the timing of recent trends contradicts the education and technology account. The very period of most intensified growth of the digital economy, the middle and late 1990s, was one of increasing equality, because it was also a period of full employment. Macroeconomic factors turn out to be more important in raising earnings, as they were during World War II. If jobs exist, people will be trained to take them.

As Paul Krugman has pointed out, a true skills shortage describes only a small fraction of the labor market. There are good reasons to have a better-educated and -trained citizenry and to turn out more graduates in math and the sciences. But that remedy by itself will not solve the problem of inequality or stagnant wages for the vast majority. Some of our most highly skilled citizens were the Wall Street fraudsters who crashed the economy. Many highly skilled professionals have difficulty finding decent employment, and increasing numbers of college students are performing jobs that only require a high-school diploma.

Summers gave an influential presentation late last year in which he suggested that the economy is vulnerable to financial bubbles and excessive consumer borrowing to sustain demand because it is not structurally capable of growing fast enough to generate adequate jobs. The economist’s term for this disease is secular stagnation. That was the sort of argument made in the late 1930s, until the wartime spending demonstrated otherwise.

A number of influential economists blame machines. In their recent and well-reviewed book, The Second Machine Age, MIT economists Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee describe how digital machines are displacing people at an accelerating rate. But machines have displaced people throughout the history of industrial capitalism. The practical policy question is how the fruits of all that new productivity are to be distributed. Like others, these authors call mainly for more and better education, but they do suggest some useful redistributive mechanisms such as a national mutual fund, more investment in infrastructure, government jobs programs and vouchers for basic necessities.

A far more plausible account, told by such economists as David Weil of Brown University, David Howell of The New School and legal scholar Katherine V. Stone of the University of California, Los Angeles, law school is that the labor-market institutions of the postwar era, which defended the labor share of the total national income, have been drastically weakened, with predictable results. A companion trend is the liberation of financial capital from the salutary shackles of the war and postwar period, giving super-elites the ability to capture far more of the social product than they in any sense earn.

It’s true that the globalization of manufacturing and the use of far-flung supply chains reaching into low-wage countries widen income inequality at home. But there is more than one brand of globalization. We could just as well have a version with decent labor and social standards. One of the effects of World War II was that America was able to emphasize domestic production and rebuilding without being charged with the sin of protectionism.

The current failure to spread productivity gains has little to do with technology, skills or even globalization — and everything to do with our failure to constrain great private wealth, empower labor and creatively use democratic government for national purposes.

Tinkering with education and training or even a higher minimum wage will not restore good earnings for the working and middle class. But the wartime experience demonstrates that a different structure of a capitalist economy, rooted in public investment and full employment, is possible. The current failure to spread productivity gains has little to do with technology, skills or even globalization — and everything to do with our failure to constrain great private wealth, empower labor and creatively use democratic government for national purposes.

(Illustration: Victor Juhasz)

(Illustration: Victor Juhasz)

Leadership Lessons from the Roosevelts

For many of us, the history of modern liberalism begins with Franklin Roosevelt. In fact, it begins with his Republican fifth cousin, Teddy. As Doris Kearns Goodwin points out in her recent book, The Bully Pulpit, Theodore Roosevelt was the first president to use activist government as a vigorous instrument of the collective good and a counterforce to constrain the power of financial elites.

Several aspects of TR’s presidency illuminate our current situation. Significantly, there was no deep economic crisis, and no war. There was, however, a set of robber barons with unprecedented concentrations of wealth. With indignation and passion, Teddy rallied his countrymen to right the imbalance. He did not fully succeed — that was left to his cousin. But he made a good start.

Interestingly, too, the reforms of the first President Roosevelt were aimed mainly at abuses at the top, not conditions at the bottom. His prime targets were “malefactors of great wealth” in his superb phrase — railroads, banks, the Standard Oil trust — and other economic concentrations whose price-gouging harmed the middle class and led to excessive political power. TR supported a progressive income tax more to break up the malign influence of wealth than for its revenue potential.

Only around the edges did the era of Teddy Roosevelt address the working class. For example, Upton Sinclair’s exposé of the meatpacking industry, The Jungle, led to the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, a cause that TR enthusiastically championed. But even this crusade, which Sinclair intended as a battle against wretched working conditions, ended up gaining middle-class support mostly out of concern for tainted meat. “I aimed at the public’s heart,” Sinclair later wrote, “and by accident, I hit it in the stomach.”

TR was a middle-class reformer. Except for a handful of formative experiences, such as his visit to a wretched tenement cigar factory that won him over to the cause of better labor standards, the plight of the working class did not figure much in his program. He had little use for trade unions, much less for socialists. Yet Teddy Roosevelt did put the federal government squarely on the side of the common people against what today would be called the 1 percent.

The first Roosevelt shared with the second a jauntiness, a joy in struggle, a delight in naming his enemies and a capacity for rallying the people.

In a sense, this emphasis was not surprising, because the first decade of the 20th century was not a period of especially high unemployment (though late in his presidency the panic of 1907 did produce a short and sharp depression leading to the creation of the Federal Reserve). Nonetheless, despite the absence of war or broad economic crisis, TR’s two terms marked the most activist period of government until Franklin’s presidency. The first Roosevelt shared with the second a jauntiness, a joy in struggle, a delight in naming his enemies and a capacity for rallying the people.

The partial reforms of TR and later Woodrow Wilson laid the groundwork for the New Deal. Many of the middle–aged officials of FDR’s administration had been young activists during the Progressive Era. There was an agenda of unfinished business, as well as a large cast of competent reformers, to draw on. They included not only people in the governments of TR and Wilson but activists of the settlement-house movement, the labor movement and other causes outside government. When FDR staged his signing ceremony for the Social Security Act in 1935, he gave a prominent part to the aged Jane Addams, feminist, pacifist, labor activist and leader of Chicago’s Hull House, which she founded in 1889 when Teddy Roosevelt was a young civil-service commissioner in Washington, DC. The half-century marshaling of support for public purposes gave government the credibility for its greatest achievement in World War II.

Public Purpose and the Climate Emergency

The reformism of the Progressive Era and the solidarity of World War II may seem like ancient history. But it is becoming ever harder to deny the climate emergency, and its twin, the infrastructure shortfall. A recent estimate of the American Society of Civil Engineers is that the United States has a backlog of deferred basic infrastructure spending of $3.6 trillion. The Civil Engineers’ report card doesn’t even include the urgent need to provide a 21st century “smart grid” or world-class Internet service.

America’s fastest and cheapest Internet system happens to be offered by a municipally owned utility in Chattanooga, the descendant of public power courtesy of Franklin Roosevelt’s Tennessee Valley Authority. For $70 a month, a resident receives service 50 times faster than in most of the US, comparable to that of the world’s fastest system in Hong Kong. The local public power company used a grant from the 2009 Recovery Act to build its fiber-optic system. The city uses its ultra high-speed Internet as an economic-development tool to attract technology companies.

The Chattanooga achievement suggests the broader potential of massive infrastructure investment. It could provide macroeconomic stimulus, good middle-class jobs and employment in design and engineering and make America more productive and friendly to development. The strategy could also accelerate the transition to a sustainable, resilient economy and moderate climate change.

Suppose we had an infrastructure program of $500 billion a year for 10 years, or $5 trillion. That’s just over three percent of GDP. It would cover the deferred maintenance bill for basic infrastructure for such uses as water and sewer systems, roads, bridges, rail, public buildings and the like, as well as state-of-the-art public Internet systems. The investment could be financed two-thirds with bonds and one-third with surtaxes on the wealthy. As during and after World War II, the higher growth rate would retire the debt.

A social-investment strategy also addresses the downward pressure of globalization without resorting to protectionism. The wartime economy required us to set national goals, limit private finance and use national investment and production for America’s purposes. The climate crisis exists on a global scale, and there will need to be treaties to reduce carbon; but a strategy linking repair of climate damage to a commitment to full employment, public investment and good jobs must be achieved nationally and will produce mainly domestic production and employment.

The stakes of this struggle go well beyond the income distribution and the health of the middle class. At issue is what kind of democracy we have. In recent years, concentrated economic power has led to concentrated political power.

The stakes of this struggle go well beyond the income distribution and the health of the middle class. At issue is what kind of democracy we have. In recent years, concentrated economic power has led to concentrated political power.

The alternative is a broadly based and broadly legitimate government, where the challenges of climate change become the basis for restoring shared prosperity and more democratically accountable government. Belatedly, Americans will surely demand that government protect them from rising seas, parched farmland and weird storms. If the government that provides that protection is a narrow, corporate–dominated elite, then we will go even further in the direction of an authoritarian state.

A Rendezvous with Politics

The practical question becomes how on earth to make this vision of a World War II – scale transition into plausible politics. Reform eras are always a dance of social movements and inspired presidents. Movements can push for frame-breaking ideas, but only a president can make them mainstream. As Doris Kearns Goodwin points out, great presidents are always pushing out the boundaries of the political agenda. Both Roosevelts surely did that, with social movements prodding them. “Teddy loved to be in the middle of a fight,” Goodwin says. “Not every president does. It’s partly a temperamental thing.”

As the history of the two Roosevelts suggests, today’s missing ingredient is leadership. In the fall of 2008, when I was harboring hopes of a transformational Obama presidency, I happened to be on a panel with Cass Sunstein, who described his friend and former University of Chicago colleague as a “visionary minimalist,” by which Sunstein meant that Obama liked highly ingenious but modest approaches to public problems. This turned out to describe Obama’s presidency all too well — and it turned out to be too weak a politics or a set of policies for a crisis that required more.

In a country in which voters reject even token increases in the tax on gasoline, coal remains king and hydrofracking is widely held to be energy salvation, it takes political nerve to lead on climate change. Yet, as weather weirding ceases to be an abstraction, the opportunity arises for profound shifts in public sentiment.

Historians may well look back at the past decade as a series of false starts.

Historians may well look back at the past decade as a series of false starts.Under a different president than George W. Bush, the attacks of September 11 might have produced a resurgent sense of shared destiny and reliance on democratic government. Instead, they produced an obsessively secret government and a deeply divided polity. Under a bolder progressive than Barack Obama, public investment might have been sold as something more momentous than a “timely, targeted, and temporary” fiscal stimulus, the slogan of the 2009 Recovery Act. As consciousness of climate change has increased, there have been several missed moments, such as Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, where more inspired leadership might have defined the common threat and the need for public remedy.

For many young Americans, today’s urgent issues are the twin risks of global climate change and depressed economic horizons. For some in the green movement, reduced material consumption is salutary — because it is necessary to reduce the environmental toll. But after six years of belt-tightening, more austerity for the young is no rallying cry. A more stirring prospect is the use of public investment in technology to allow good living standards at a much lower cost to the planet.

Sooner or later, the existential threat that we all face will require a vast mobilization of public resources and a restoration of public purposes. A rendezvous is waiting to happen between the climate emergency and the need for good jobs and careers. Perhaps new social movements will make this dream a mainstream cause. Possibly the next president will.

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Americans Should Embrace Their Radical History Wed, 08 Oct 2014 15:56:24 +0000 Both right and left too often ignore, if not deny, that Americans are radicals at heart. Continue reading

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(Photo: Lauren Feeney/Moyers & Company)
(Photo: Lauren Feeney/Moyers & Company)

This post first appeared at Campaign for America’s Future Blog.

American history education is once again a political and cultural battleground. Dominated by conservatives, the Jefferson County Colorado School Board decided to revise the teaching of Advanced Placement US History to not only “promote patriotism and … the benefits of the free-enterprise system,” but also to discourage “civil disorder.” Meanwhile, liberals have insisted that we must teach both the good and the bad in America’s past. And any good historian must agree.

Nevertheless, both right and left too often ignore, if not deny, that Americans are radicals at heart – that the American experience represents a Grand Experiment in democracy, an experiment that requires us to continually challenge exploitation, oppression and inequality – and that at our best we have struggled to promote justice and advance freedom, equality and democracy. Indeed, very much expressing what it means to be American, Jefferson County high school students have rebelled against the School Board’s dictates in favor of a fuller telling of the nation’s past – and the Board has decided to revisit the question.

Recent events in Colorado led me to recall the following resolution and argument that I prepared for delivery at the invitation of the Yale Political Union (YPU). An organization composed of Yale student political groups from across the political spectrum, the YPU is the oldest collegiate debating society in America. Presented on February 25, 2009, the resolution passed by a margin of two to one. My arguments, which follow, originally appeared on-line at soon after.

In his 1939 book – It Is Later Than You Think: The Need for a Militant Democracy – progressive writer Max Lerner proffered: “The basic story in the American past, the only story ultimately worth the telling, is the story of the struggle between the creative and the frustrating elements in the American democratic adventure.”

With those words in mind, I move that: “Americans Should Embrace their Radical History.” And to second the resolution, I call upon a voice from 1930, one of America’s finest voices, the voice of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a man destined to become the greatest president of the twentieth century.

Looking back on 10 years of conservative-Republican presidential administration and what they had wrought – an intensifying economic crisis and spreading human misery that would come to be known as the Great Depression – FDR, who was then the Governor of New York State, said: “There is no question in my mind that it is time for the country to become fairly radical for a generation.”

And do we not see what Roosevelt saw then?

We have experienced three decades of conservative ascendance and power. Three decades, in which well-funded conservative movements, and ambitious and determined political and economic elites, secured power and subordinated the public good to corporate priorities, enriched the rich at the expense of working people, hollowed out the nation’s economy and public infrastructure, and harnessed religion and patriotism to the pursuit of power and wealth. In short, we have endured thirty years of right-wing political reaction and class war from above intended to undo or undermine the progressive advances of the 1930s and 1960s.

Plus, if all that were not enough, we have suffered eight years of a presidency – the presidency of George W. Bush – marked not only by the tragedies of 9/11, war in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina and the collapse of an interstate highway bridge in Minnesota, but also by assaults on our civil liberties, the denigration of human rights, breaches in the wall separating church and state, tax cuts for the wealthy, a campaign to privatize Social Security, continued corporate attacks on labor unions and the pursuit of a politics of fear and loathing – all of which has not only led us to the brink of economic and social catastrophe, but also effectively placed the American dream and the nation’s exceptional purpose and promise under siege.

We clearly see the consequences of conservative rule or, more accurately, misrule – not to mention, liberal deference to it.

I therefore urge this assembly to resolve that, “We Americans should embrace our radical history” – and as FDR himself averred – “make the nation radical for a generation.”

I do so not only because the circumstances we confront demand a radical response, but also because to do otherwise would be to deny who we are. Our shared past calls on us to do so. Our own historical longings urge us to do so. And Americans yet to be await our determination in doing so.

Let us start by recalling our history and reminding ourselves who we are – a by no means simple or easy task. For as ruling classes have been ever want to do, America’s own powers that be have regularly sought to control the telling of the past in favor of controlling the present and the future.

I could take you through a long list of New Right initiatives – from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush – intended to determine the shape and content of American memory, consciousness and imagination. But let’s just consider the popular little volume and video – Rediscovering God in America – authored and produced by one of America’s smartest and most prominent conservatives, former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich. Therein, Gingrich, a PhD in History, takes us on a walking tour of Washington DC – a walking tour in which he guides us around the Mall to discuss both the monuments and the figures they memorialize.

Sounds nice, right? But there’s more to it. Along the way Gingrich presents a narrative of US history that attributes America’s founding, survival and progress to Divine will, to our unceasing faith in and devotion to God, and to our having sustained God’s and religion’s presence in the public square.

Fair enough, you might say. However, after bizarrely and vehemently warning that “There is no attack on American culture more destructive and more historically dishonest than the secular left’s relentless effort to drive God out of the public square,” Gingrich not only discounts or ignores the fact that most of the leading Founders were deists not Christians and that – in one of the most revolutionary acts of the age – they wrote a “Godless Constitution” which provided for the separation of church and state. He also somehow neglects to mention that those originally most determined to assure that separation included not just the usual suspects, but also Christian evangelicals.

Nevertheless – with all due respect to God and the faithful among us – we must remember who we are, for as Wilson Carey McWilliams proffered 25 years ago: “A people’s memory sets the measure of its political freedom. The old times give us models and standards by which to judge our time; what has been suggests what might have been and may yet be. Remembering lifts us out of bondage to the present, and political recollection calls us back from the specialization of everyday existence, allowing us to see ourselves as a people sharing a heritage and a public life.”

So let us not forget that we are the descendants of Revolutionaries – of men and women who, inspired by an immigrant working-class pamphleteer, Thomas Paine, through words such as “The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth,” “We have it in our power to begin the world over again,” and “These are the times that try men’s souls,” not only turned their colonial rebellion into a war for independence, but also transformed themselves into a nation of citizens, not subjects; endowed their new nation with exceptional purpose and promise; and launched a world-historic experiment in extending and deepening freedom, equality and democracy.

Let us not forget that we are the descendants of generations of radicals – of men and women, native-born and immigrant, who, struggled not only to realize the American dream, but also to expand the “We” in “We the People.” Recognizing the contradictions between the nation’s ideals and realities – and rejecting the notion that the American experiment had reached its limits – evangelicals, workingmen’s advocates, freethinkers, slaves and abolitionists, suffragists, populists, labor unionists, socialists, anarchists and progressives, respectively, dissented from their established churches; pressed for the rights of workingmen; insisted on the separation of church and state; resisted their masters; demanded an end to slavery; campaigned for the equality of women; challenged the power of property and officialdom; and together made the nineteenth century an age not only of growth, expansion, conflict and the accumulation of capital, but also of militant democracy.

And let us not forget that we are the children and grandchildren of America’s most progressive generation, the men and women who confronted the Great Depression and the Second World War – the men and women who not only made the “We” in “We the People” all the more inclusive, but also subjected big business to public account and regulation; empowered government to address the needs of working people; organized labor unions; fought for their rights; established Social Security; expanded the nation’s public infrastructure; refurbished its physical environment; and defeated the tyrannies of German fascism and Japanese imperialism.

And you yourselves are the children of a generation who – for all of our many faults and failings – marched for civil rights, pursued the vision of a Great Society, challenged cultural prohibitions and inhibitions, pushed open institutional doors for women and people of color and protested an imperial war in Southeast Asia. Admittedly, we made mistakes, regrettable mistakes. But we also made America better and more promising in the process.

Finally, let us never forget that we are the descendants of Americans who – confronting seemingly overwhelming crises in the 1770s, 1860s and 1930s and 1940s – not only rescued the United States from division, defeat and devastation, but also succeeded, against great odds and expectations, in extending and deepening freedom, equality and democracy further than they had ever reached before.

Still, I do not argue that we “should embrace our radical history” merely because we owe it to past generations to do so – though that in itself is a good, strong and compelling reason to do so.

I further contend that we should embrace our radical history, because we owe it to ourselves – and, ultimately, to Americans yet to come – to do so.

As our greatest democratic poet Walt Whitman rightly saw it: “There must be continual additions to our great experiment of how much liberty society will bear.”

Or, even better, as the progressive journalist Henry Demarest Lloyd put it a century ago – in words that I believe you will immediately grasp: “The price of liberty is something more than eternal vigilance. There must also be eternal advance. We can save the rights we have inherited from our fathers only by winning new ones to bequeath our children.”

Those words do speak to you – don’t they? You know why? Because you are Americans – and no less so than any previous generation of Americans, you – all of us – remain radicals at heart.

Yes, the likes of Newsweek editor Jon Meacham tell us that “America remains a center-right nation.” And yes, former Reagan speechwriter and now Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan has very graciously reminded us that our newly-inaugurated President Obama “would be most unwise to rouse the sleeping giant that is conservatism.” But such talk ignores or denies what we ourselves feel and have been feeling for some time….

While we may not yet fully recognize it, we ourselves continue to feel the radical impulse and democratic imperative that generations of Americans, through their struggles, passed on to us – or better said, endowed or imbued us with. Truly, we never stopped feeling them.

Ask yourselves this: Why was it that in the midst of the seemingly most conservative political era since the 1920s, Americans passionately sought to recall, honor, celebrate and engage, America’s most revolutionary and progressive generations – the nation’s Founders and the so-called Greatest Generation and its greatest leader, FDR?

Most of you are probably too young to remember the mid 1990s explosion of interest in the likes of Washington, Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton and, yes, Paine – an explosion of interest that editors and academics alike somewhat dismissively referred to as “Founders’ Chic.”

And you may also be too young to remember the even grander explosion of interest in FDR and the young men and women of the Great Depression who went on to fight the Second World War – an explosion of interest that turned books like Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation into bestsellers and films like Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan into blockbuster hits; that made television series such as HBO’s Band of Brothers and Ken Burns’ The War major events; and that instigated innumerable popular gatherings around the country. Indeed, an explosion of interest that led us to erect two new grand monuments in the very heart of the nation’s capital: one to Franklin Roosevelt and the other to the 16,000,000 veterans of World War II.

But even if you do remember those developments, you may not have critically considered what they represented. And you would not have been alone in not doing so.

Consider the phenomenal interest in the Greatest Generation and its greatest leader. While commentators marveled at its scale and intensity, they never seemed to grasp the most profound meaning of it all. Discussing the New Deal as merely a massive program of economic recovery and the Second World War as just a series of vast military struggles – and describing Americans’ expressions of admiration and affection as if it were all one big farewell party – mainstream media folk never really appreciated or acknowledged either the radical-democratic achievements of the men and women of the 1930s and 1940s or the radical-democratic anxieties and yearnings that motivated the popular desire to thank, honor and celebrate the generation that was passing away.

In fact, many conservative – after decrying that FDR didn’t even deserve a monument – used the interest in and admiration for the Greatest Generation as an opportunity to attack the Sixties Generation for challenging the nation’s political and cultural order and opposing the war in Vietnam. And sadly enough, leftists did little better. They either belittled the attention to the wartime generation as nothing more than nostalgia, media hype and the commercialization of the past or – in a somewhat paranoid fashion – charged that government and media were orchestrating a campaign to eradicate the nation’s “Vietnam syndrome” in favor of new “imperial adventures.”

Such critics – right and left – never really considered the connection between what Americans were experiencing and what they might actually have been trying to say and do. We, however, should not fail to consider it.

Recall that in November 1992, Americans – despite the nation’s victories in the very long Cold War and the very brief Gulf War – turned out the Republican incumbent George H.W. Bush in favor of Democrat Bill Clinton, the presidential candidate who not only emphasized “change,” but also promised to address the needs of middle- and working-class families by, among other things, investing in the nation’s already crumbling public infrastructure, protecting the environment and establishing a system of universal national health care.

Of course, if Americans truly were expecting renewed liberalism, they were to be sadly disappointed, for Clinton quickly betrayed those who had worked to place him in office by making his first priority the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, an initiative proposed by Republicans and promoted by big corporations.

And we know what happened next. In the wake of NAFTA’s passage and the death of the promised progressive endeavors, Republicans, led by Newt Gingrich, took control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years.

Change and growth ensued, but not always or exactly the sort hoped for in 1992. In addition to learning of “ethnic cleansing” in the Balkans and genocidal civil wars in Africa, Americans witnessed accelerating globalization, persistent corporate “downsizing,” the further deregulation of capital and privatization of public goods and services, the steady erosion of the nation’s industrial base and decay of its public infrastructure, continuing assaults on labor, increasing concentration of wealth, intensifying material insecurities, the termination of Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the growth of illegal immigration, virulent “culture wars,” the emergence of right-wing militias, foreign and domestic terrorist attacks, burnings of black churches, killings at family-planning clinics, the impeachment of a president and a quite possibly stolen presidential election in 2000.

Never get nostalgic about the 1990s!

Politicians and pundits of every sort described Americans as deeply divided, angry and cynical, and Americans surely had substantial cause to feel that way. And yet they did not – at least not in the fashion asserted by all the media talk and images.

More serious studies showed that while Americans felt anxious, resentful and even pessimistic, they not only continued to subscribe to both the “American creed of liberty, equality and democracy” and the “melting pot theory of national identity.” They also continued to believe – even while recognizing that Americans had far from always lived up to them – that those very ideals and aspirations defined what it meant to be an American.

In other words, Americans still possessed a shared understanding of and commitment to the nation’s historic purpose and promise – though they did wonder seriously about its prospects and possibilities

What politicians and pundits missed – or tried to obscure – about the popular desire and effort to reconnect with the Founders and the Greatest Generation was that Americans were doing exactly what Americans have always done when they sense that the American dream and the nation’s historic purpose and promise are in jeopardy.

Almost, instinctively, they were looking back – back to those who originally and most powerfully expressed what it meant to be an American – most particularly to those who, facing crises themselves, made the United States radically freer, more equal and more democratic in the process.

Even after 30 years of conservative and corporate rule – even after concerted efforts to make us forget, or at least confuse us about our history and what it has to say to us – we, too, not only yearn to redeem America’s purpose and promise. We also find ourselves looking back and reaching out to America’s Revolutionary and radical pasts. The task however – a task made all the more urgent by the crisis we face – is to embrace it. And perhaps we are not so far from doing just that…

In fact, maybe the resolution before us is not as fantastic as it seems… For if we look closely, we might well see that Americans are already reaching out to grab hold of and embrace their radical history. We might well see that instead of simply saying “We Americans should embrace our radical history,” we should actually be leaning into it and saying: “YES, We Americans should embrace our radical history.” Or – to quote a recently popular refrain – “Yes, we can.”

Now don’t get me wrong. I am not calling Barack Obama a radical. I’ll leave that to Rush Limbaugh or Sarah Palin (or to her smarter body-double, Tina Fey). Nevertheless, something critical, something progressive – and possibly even radical – seems to be happening.

Think back – to January 20th – to the inauguration of our new president. Inaugurations are always historic occasions, especially when one party replaces another. But this time it was historic in an even grander sense, for Americans had elected a black man to their nation’s highest office.

Of course, racism persists. But the day that Barack Obama took the oath of office was not simply a break with the past. It was truly a day of transcendence.

Looking from the Mall up to the Capitol – either standing there in the cold or watching on television – Americans, not only African-Americans, but all Americans, had reason to take pride and even shed tears of joy.

And yet, perhaps there was even more going on than that – that is, more than the talking-head politicians, pundits and presidential scholars pointed out to us.

Here’s what I mean…

Shift the vantage point and look out on the Mall from the Capitol as our new president did. Now if Newt Gingrich – or the Reverend Rick Warren – were talking to us, they would tell us that we were witnessing the American people assembled together in the presence of the Almighty.

But I saw something else that day – and maybe many of you did, too. I saw something that made me think that as much as Obama’s ascendance to the presidency represented a radical break with the past, it also represented something oh-so-very American, and yet again, in that very way, something also truly radical and truly promising.

I saw two million Americans gathered together amidst monuments and memorials that testify not so much to God’s beneficence – or, at least, not to that alone – but all the more to our persistent aspirations and perennial efforts to extend and deepen freedom, equality and democracy.

I saw two million Americans – in all their wonderful diversity – celebrating their democratic lives, peering into the future with hope and expectation and pressing up against monuments and memorials that render nothing less than a grand narrative of revolution and radicalism.

There they were – there we were – standing beneath a monument to a man who led a revolutionary army; chaired a constitutional convention that announced to the world that here in the United States “We the People” rule; and served as the first president of a pioneering democratic republic.

There they were, standing before a memorial to the man who wrote the words declaring “all men are created equal.”

There they were, standing in front of a monument to the man who – leading the Union through a bloody Civil War – proclaimed a “new birth of freedom” and called on his fellow citizens to devote themselves to assuring that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

There they were, standing by a memorial to the man who – in the very toughest of times – articulated our grandest and most radical aspirations in terms of four essential freedoms: “Freedom of speech and expression… Freedom of worship… Freedom from want… Freedom from Fear…”

And closer in, there they were at a memorial to our parents and grandparents, Americans who, in their many millions, fought and labored for those Four Freedoms.

One could almost hear Marian Anderson singing God Bless America and Martin Luther King Jr., pronouncing “I Have a Dream,” from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

And if that were not enough, we actually heard our new president essentially calling them all forth to stand with us. He spoke of our revolutionary and radical pasts. He spoke of America’s continuing purpose and promise. And he spoke of what we needed to do by reciting the words that Washington ordered read to his troops on that cold and fateful Christmas eve in 1776 – words of Thomas Paine from his revolutionary pamphlet, The Crisis: “Let it be told to the future world… that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive … that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it].”

Again, I am not saying that Obama himself is a radical – Hell, he used Paine’s words, but never mentioned Paine’s name!

But really, the point isn’t whether Obama is or isn’t a radical. It’s that we ourselves need to be.

Only then might we make him the great democratic president that we require. And even more crucially, only then – in the best of our traditions – might we redeem America’s purpose and promise and make an even greater nation for ourselves and for those who follow us.

We have much to do. In addition to repairing the damage to the Constitution of the past eight years, we must enact the Employee Free Choice Act, establish universal health care, re-appropriate the wealth appropriated from working people, invest in new technologies, refurbish our public spaces and national infrastructure, democratize corporations and pursue a New Deal on immigration.

Propelled by the memory and legacy of those who came before us, the yearnings and aspirations we ourselves feel, and the responsibility we have to those yet to come, we can pursue not only recovery and reconstruction, but also the making of a freer, more equal, and more democratic America.

So – leaning into it, and saying it as I should have said it to begin with – I call on this House to join me in resolving that “We Americans SHOULD EMBRACE our radical history.”

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How Does Your State Rank on Greenhouse Gas Emissions? Wed, 08 Oct 2014 15:53:10 +0000 EPA data shows that some states create far more emissions than others, and a handful of energy-generating states bear the negative effects of our fossil fuel-dependent economy. Continue reading

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In this Thursday, April 29, 2010 photo, a pair of coal trains idle on the tracks near Dry Fork Station, a coal-fired power plant. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown)

In this Thursday, April 29, 2010 photo, a pair of coal trains idle on the tracks near Dry Fork Station, a coal-fired power plant. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown)

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently released a breakdown of who in the US contributes the most to global warming — by state, by sector and even by individual business.

Two massive coal-fired power plants in the southeast came in first and second place for generating the most greenhouse gases in America, clearing the competition by more than five million metric tons of emissions per year. The Scherer Steam Generating Plant, 20 miles northeast of Macon, Georgia, was responsible for 22.3 million tons of emissions in 2013, and the James H. Miller, Jr. power plant, 20 miles northeast of Birmingham, Alabama, generated 21.9 million tons. Coming in as a distant third was the Navajo Generating Station, in northern Arizona, with roughly 16 million tons of emissions. Overall, power plants are responsible for about one third of all of the country’s emissions.

At the state level, the top greenhouse gas producer was Texas, with more than double the output of Indiana, the second-largest producer. Texas also produces and consumes more energy than any state in the union. The energy Texas creates comes largely, but not entirely, from its oil and natural gas reserves. And the state’s biggest consumers of energy are the refining and chemical industries, which, in many cases, support the state’s fossil fuel extraction efforts and have some of the most energy-intensive operations in the US.

But if you look at greenhouse gas emissions per capita, Wyoming and a handful of other relatively unpopulated states far surpass Texas. Wyoming, like runners-up North Dakota and West Virginia, generates a huge amount of energy, mostly from fossil fuels. But these states send much of the energy they produce to other states. Wyoming sends 326 trillion BTUs elsewhere, North Dakota exports 231 trillion BTUs, and West Virginia sends 412 trillion BTUs to other states.

Producing all that dirty energy takes a toll on residents. “When coal is burning at Wyoming power plants, nearby states get electricity and we get the pollution,” Shannon Anderson, a representative of the Powder River Basin Resource Council, a Wyoming citizens’ organization suing to improve air quality in the state, said in March.

Hand covered with wet coal ash from the Dan River swirling in the background as state and federal environmental officials continued their investigations of a spill. Duke Energy estimates that up to 82,000 tons of ash has been released from a break in a 48-inch storm water pipe at the Dan River Power Plant in Eden NC. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

A hand covered with wet coal ash from the Dan River, seen swirling in the background, Feb. 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Though carbon dioxide, one of the chief drivers of global warming, does not significantly affect people’s health, other gases and the particulate matter emitted by coal plants — which includes lead and mercury — have considerable negative health effects. When the Obama administration released its state-by-state plan to curtail emissions in June, many public health advocates expressed support. “Power plant pollution makes people sick and cuts short lives,” the American Lung Association said in a statement at the time, noting that the EPA’s proposed limits on carbon pollution from power plants “would reduce the burden of air pollution in America, prevent up to 4,000 premature deaths and 100,000 asthma attacks in the first year they are in place, and prevent up to 6,600 premature deaths and 150,000 asthma attacks in 2030.”

But the risks to the residents of high emission states aren’t limited to air quality concerns. The Freedom Industries spill in West Virginia last January and the coal ash spill in North Carolina last February are just the latest incidents which show that the health risks of living near coal-fired power plants aren’t always tied to what comes out of smokestacks. The Freedom Industries spill of a chemical used to process coal — the health effects of which are still unclear — contaminated 300,000 West Virginian’s drinking water. And the North Carolina spill, which Duke Energy has only cleaned up 10 percent of so far, poured 39,000 tons of coal ash containing toxins such as arsenic, chromium, mercury and lead into the Dan River, coating the river bottom for 70 miles.

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Morning Reads: Ebola Sensationalism Causing Outbreak of Fear Wed, 08 Oct 2014 13:48:40 +0000 A roundup of some of the stories we're reading at Moyers & Company HQ... Continue reading

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Good morning! 

On October 8, 1956, New York Yankees hurler Don Larsen pitched the only perfect game in World Series history. And on this date in 1967, Che Guevara was captured by 1,800 Bolivian troops. He was executed the following day. 

Stat of the day: 55 percent — the share of ads for Senate candidates in late August and early September that researchers at the Wesleyan Media Project scored as negative. The WSJ reports that the data reveal a nastier election than either 2010 or 2012.

The new voter suppression is all this voter confusion” –> The NYT reports that a patchwork of court decisions on Republican voting restrictions has left many voters with no idea what they need to do to cast their ballots.

One big gun battle” –> That’s how the BBC describes the eastern half of the besieged Syrian town of Kobane, where Kurdish militias have been struggling to hold off an advance by Islamic State fighters. The latest US airstrikes against IS have been “effective,” according to the report. AND: Jake Hess reports for Foreign Policy that the US has both coordinated with, and undercut Kobane’s defenders — a rocky relationship stemming from the latter’s affinity with the PKK, a designated terror group.

Final stretch –> A group of political scientists say that “the fundamentals” bode well for the GOP in November. They forecast that “the GOP could gain a median of 5 or 6 Senate seats and about 14 in the House.” Republicans need six Senate seats to take control of the chamber. Daniel Strauss reports for TPM.

Not all campaign dollars are equal –> At the NYT, Lynn Vavreck looks at some long-established poli-science research that shows “on average, the more challengers spend, the more they win,” but “the more incumbents spend, the more likely they are to lose.”

Fearmongering is working –> A Pew study this week finds that a third of respondents say they’re “worried” or “very worried” that they or a family member will contract Ebola. Media sensationalism has likely played a role. The good news is that most people are confident in the government’s ability to contain the virus. ALSO: According to the Dallas CBS station, residents of the neighborhood where “Patient Zero” was staying say they’re being denied jobs and turned away from retail stores.

The nation’s shame” –> Andrea Jones at Rolling Stone  writes: “For decades, lawyers, scholars and judges have criticized mandatory drug sentencing as oppressive and ineffective. Yet tens of thousands of nonviolent offenders continue to languish behind bars.”

#Lawsuit –> Twitter is suing the government, claiming that its “ability to speak has been restricted by laws that prohibit and even criminalize a service provider like us from disclosing the exact number of national security letters and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court orders received.”

Post-racial –> Some St. Louis Cardinals fans chanted “Africa! Africa!” — among other nasty things — at US citizens from Ferguson, Missouri, who were protesting the shooting death of unarmed teen Michael Brown. Tom Ley has the lowlights at Deadspin. AND: A federal judge ruled on Monday that police in Ferguson had violated the Constitution when they told protesters that they couldn’t stand still and had to continue marching — or face arrest. ALSO: Reuters has an exclusive report on the preparations local law enforcement, working with the FBI, are making for potential riots if Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson is exonerated by a grand jury.

Related –>  Two NYPD officers may face criminal charges for beating a suspected small-time marijuana dealer after he put his hands up in an attempt to surrender. One officer allegedly smashed the suspect in the face with his gun. The incident was captured by a surveillance camera, and the footage was obtained by DNAInfo. 

School for chimps? –> While scientists have long understood that chimpanzees learn by observing other chimps’ behaviors, the process of inventing a new tool and spreading that knowledge to others in the group had never been directly observed until researchers in Uganda caught it happening on tape. Sindya Bhanoo reports for the NYT.

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Tragedy, Privation and Hope: Joy Boothe’s Inspiring Journey to Moral Mondays Tue, 07 Oct 2014 22:20:42 +0000 Horrifically orphaned as a child, Joy Boothe built a house and a new life with her own hands. Now hers are among many building a movement for justice. Continue reading

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Joy Boothe (in black pants) at a sit-in outside the office North Carolina Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger in June 2014, protesting Republican education cuts. (Photo: Jenny Warburg/The American Prospect)
Joy Boothe (in black pants) at a sit-in outside the office of North Carolina Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger in June 2014, protesting Republican education cuts. (Photo: Jenny Warburg/The American Prospect)

This post first appeared at The American Prospect.

When Joy Boothe showed up at last week’s Moral Monday rally in her hometown of Burnsville, North Carolina, she was fighting both sleep- and sun-deprivation. Boothe had just driven in from Asheville, 35 miles away, where her husband was recovering from a double knee replacement.

“Despite my fears of leaving my husband’s hospital room for the first time in four days,” she told the small crowd gathered in the town square, “I’ve come to stand with you today. It’s that important. It’s that important.

Boothe, a vice president of the local NAACP branch, was referring to the ongoing political upheaval in Raleigh, the state capital, four hours east of this small mountain town. There, an emboldened Republican legislative majority had cut unemployment benefits, turned away federal Medicaid funds, slashed education budgets and rolled back voting reforms. In response, the state NAACP launched the Moral Monday movement, a faith-based pushback that has gained traction among a broad array of religious and political organizations.

The most visible protests have happened at the state legislature, where about 1,000 people have been arrested for civil disobedience since 2013. (All but a handful of cases were dismissed last month.) But the movement has also spread to unlikely corners of North Carolina. Boothe’s NAACP chapter, composed almost entirely of white members like herself, covers Yancey and Mitchell counties, which are less than 1 percent African American. The two counties combined gave Republican Mitt Romney 64 percent of their votes in the 2012 presidential race.

While the Moral Monday events here have been dwarfed by the mass protests in larger cities — last week’s Burnsville rally attracted 175 people — they nonetheless signal a progressive awakening in some of the state’s most remote and conservative Blue Ridge mountain hollows. In Burnsville, population 1,700, that turnout is equivalent to more than 10 percent of the town’s residents, although some came from the surrounding area.

Community ties are strong in Burnsville, the Yancey County seat, and challenging authority takes considerable more courage than in a larger city. Activists like Boothe, a 62-year-old former Chamber of Commerce president and “recovering people-pleaser,” say the decisions to raise their voices have come at the cost of alienating neighbors and loved ones. Those decisions have also been the product of some deeply personal journeys.

Boothe is not a North Carolina native. She was born into a South Alabama farming and sharecropping family that, during her childhood, still plowed behind mules. One grandmother died of an infection at the age of 17, six weeks after childbirth, for lack of medical care. Her parents, teens when she was born, were the first in their families to graduate from high school. When Alabama’s changing farm economy drove her family off the land during the 1950s, her father’s side of the family packed their hoes, shovels and home-stuffed cotton mattresses into a farm truck and crossed the border into Florida.

He shot her mother fatally in the heart, asked his daughter if she loved him, then turned the rifle on himself.

Boothe’s father found work as the glue foreman at a plywood mill. It was a big metal building with a concrete floor and a predominantly black work force. “There was no ventilation, no safety, no mask,” she recalls. Perhaps because of the chemical fumes, her father started to hallucinate, she says, and his behavior grew erratic. In 1963, when Boothe was 11, the family was getting ready for Wednesday evening prayer services when her father snapped. He shot her mother fatally in the heart, asked his daughter if she loved him, then turned the rifle on himself.

“My dad was the most gentle of his brothers,” Boothe says. “He didn’t like to hunt. He was a song leader and deacon at the church.” After the crushing grief came an epiphany for the orphaned daughter: “When terrible things happen, it isn’t always just the perpetrator that’s responsible. There’s a whole societal, economic underpinning. While I hold my daddy accountable for what he did when he picked up the rifle, I’ve come to believe that there were many fingers pulling the trigger.”

Returning to the care of her grandparents, Boothe was taught never to touch a dark-skinned hand. Relatives used racial epithets and blamed African-Americans who worked at nearby farms for their own poverty. Boothe had picked butter beans and crowder peas herself and knew how low the wages were — even for white workers, but especially for blacks. An “electrifying jolt” of insight, she says, had come when Boothe worked alongside an African-American woman who carried a baby on her back and kept another child under a nearby shade tree, sedated with opium tincture. With a 10-year-old’s simplicity, Boothe realized that another childhood message — that blacks don’t feel pain — was simply untrue. “I know how hot the sun is, how hard this is for me,” she remembers thinking. “It’s just as hard for her.”

Imbued with that nascent political understanding, Boothe graduated high school in 1970. She moved to North Carolina two years later, lured by a newspaper ad for an abandoned farm in Yancey County. She planned to spend only a year in the mountains. Instead she settled down and continued the journey that would eventually lead her to Moral Monday.

“I was so determined to create what I had lost,” she says.

Boothe cleaned houses, cleared brush, taught outdoor skills like hiking. She sewed belt loops at a jeans factory and transcribed notes for an author. She met her husband and they built a home from salvaged lumber, including the wood from three military barracks they had torn down themselves. Building the house, sometimes during frigid weather, was a slog: Boothe was sanding floors and hauling roof shingles when she was pregnant with her oldest son. “I was so determined to create what I had lost,” she says. She became an active community member, working to establish safe homes for domestic-violence victims and even housing some of them herself. She spent the last 14 years of her career as a supervisor at a hospital fitness and rehabilitation center.

After the 2010 elections flipped control of the state legislature to the GOP — and particularly after the 2012 election of Republican Governor Pat McCrory — Boothe read about the gutting of the state’s safety net. Her own county had long suffered from factory closures, along with the disappearance of family farms, and she knew the cuts would directly harm her neighbors. “With all the resources we have, people should be able to live their lives with dignity: to have work, to have food, to have health care,” she says. She also began reading about the Moral Monday movement and its magnetic leader, the Rev. William Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP.

State of Conflict: North Carolina

In August 2013, Barber spoke at an Episcopal church in Spruce Pine, just down the road in Mitchell County, the most Republican of all North Carolina’s counties. Boothe attended his talk, which was characteristically filled with Biblical references. “Isaiah 58 says if you want to be a repairer of the breach, you have to care for the hurting and the poor and loose the bands of wickedness,” Barber told the packed room. “And in Hebrew, the phrase ‘loose the bands of wickedness’ actually means pay people what they deserve for a day’s work.”

Boothe was impressed by Barber’s “deep listening” skills and his abilities to educate and to inspire hope. “I never see anyone as a guru — ever,” she says. “But that sealed the deal for me.” As a mother of a gay man, she was also moved by how the movement, with its religious undertones, still included LGBT rights in its mission. “If he wasn’t included in this movement,” she says of her son, “I wouldn’t be working for it.”

Two documentary filmmakers she met at the Episcopal church invited her to travel to Selma, Alabama, with some other Moral Monday activists. There they met with survivors of 1965’s Bloody Sunday, when police used whips, billy clubs and tear gas to attack civil rights marchers trying to cross Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Since then, Boothe has left her job, in part to spend more time working on Moral Monday actions and establishing the local chapter. In June she joined 14 other activists who sat outside the Raleigh office of Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger to protest education cuts made and proposed by the Republican majority, refusing to leave until the lawmaker had met with them. Back at home, building support in the mountains has been slow and frustrating. But Boothe, who built her house by hand, says she understands the value of the slog, even as she sometimes grows impatient. Change is slow but it happens: Many of her own relatives have moved beyond the venal racial attitudes of her childhood. That gives her hope.

“Whether the Moral Monday movement is successful, I have no choice but to keep going,” she says. She thinks about the tragedies and privations of her childhood — and how epiphanies after her parents’ death inspired her to fight for justice at a structural level. “Honestly,” she says, “a lot of what we do in our life journey is to heal ourselves.”

Barry Yeoman is a writer and radio documentarian based in Durham, North Carolina. He contributes to On Earth, The Saturday Evening Post, Audubon and Parade. Follow him on Twitter @Barry_Yeoman.

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The Wal-Mart Heirs Are Worth More Than Everyone in Your City Combined Tue, 07 Oct 2014 20:12:41 +0000 Back in the '80s, the Walton family's wealth was the equivalent of a small town. Now it's an entire state. Continue reading

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This post first appeared at Mother Jones.

Everybody knows that middle-class incomes have stagnated while those of the richest Americans have skyrocketed, but the trend is even more pronounced when you look at the relative fortunes of the super-duper rich. Consider the Wal-Mart heirs: Since 1983, their net worth has increased a staggering 6,700 percent. According to a report released last week by the union-backed Economic Policy Institute, here’s how many American families earning the median income it would have taken to match the Waltons’ wealth in a given year:

(Photo: Joe Wolf/ flickr CC 2.0)

(Photo: Joe Wolf/ flickr CC 2.0)

In 1983, the Walton family’s net worth was $2.15 billion, equivalent to the net worth of 61,992 average American families, about the population of…[1]

Peoria, Arizona

Peoria, Arizona (Photo:  Hanroanu/flickr CC 2.0)

(Photo: Hanroanu/flickr CC 2.0)

In 1989, the Walton family’s net worth was $9.42 billion, equivalent to the net worth of 200,434 average American families, about the population of…

Albuquerque, New Mexico

(Photo: Len "Doc" Radin/ flickr CC 2.0)

(Photo: Len ‘Doc’ Radin/ flickr CC 2.0)

In 1992, the Walton family’s net worth was $23.8 billion, equivalent to the net worth of 536,631 average American families, about the population of…

San Antonio, Texas

(Photo: Wells Dunbar/flickr CC 2.0)

(Photo: Wells Dunbar/flickr CC 2.0)

In 1998, the Walton family’s net worth was $48 billion, equivalent to the net worth of 796,089 average American families, about the population of…

The State of New Mexico

(Photo: Shoshanah/flickr CC 2.0)

(Photo: Shoshanah/flickr CC 2.0)

In 2001, the Walton family’s net worth was $92.8 billion, equivalent to the net worth of 1,077,761 average American families, about the population of…

Chicago, Illinois

(Photo: Conway Yao/flickr CC 2.0)

(Photo: Conway Yao/flickr CC 2.0)

In 2010, the Walton family’s net worth was $89.5 billion, equivalent to the net worth of 1,157,827 average American families, about the population of…

The State of Arkansas

Walmart visitors center in Bentonville (Photo: WaL-Mart/flickr CC 2.0)

Wal-Mart visitors center in Bentonville (Photo: Wal-Mart/flickr CC 2.0)

In 2013, the Walton family’s net worth was $144.7 billion, equivalent to the net worth of 1,782,020 average American families, about the population of…

The State of Louisiana

(Photo: Jim Hobbs/ flickr CC 2.0)

(Photo: Jim Hobbs/ flickr CC 2.0)

1 Correction: An earlier version of this article confused families with individuals, causing an under-estimate of how many individuals’ net worth would equal that of the Waltons. Population equivalents in this story are based on the size of the average American family: 2.55 individuals.

Josh Harkinson, Mother Jones
Josh Harkinson is a staff reporter at Mother Jones magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @JoshHarkinson.

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Restoring an America That Has Lost its Way Tue, 07 Oct 2014 18:21:04 +0000 Reporter Bob Herbert on his new book, Losing Our Way, an intimate and heartrending portrait of America in economic despair. Watch the full show » Continue reading

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Three years ago, reporter and former New York Times columnist Bob Herbert took to the road and traveled across the United States, chronicling in his new book, Losing Our Way, the stories of brave, hard-working men and women battered by the economic downturn. He found an America in which jobs have disappeared, infrastructure is falling apart and the “virtuous cycle” of well-paid workers spending their wages to power the economy has been broken by greed and the gap between the very rich and everyone else.

He tells Bill: “[W]e’ve established a power structure in which the great corporations and the big banks have allied themselves with the national government and, in many cases, local government to pursue corporate interests and financial interests as opposed to those things that would be in the best interests of ordinary working people… Once you do that, you lose the dynamic that America is supposed to be. It’s supposed to be an egalitarian society, a society of rising standards of living, a society of a vast and thriving middle class. And we are getting farther and farther away from that ideal.”

As for solutions, Herbert says, “People need to start voting against the excessive power of the great moneyed interests. But more than that, we need a movement, a grass-roots movement that will fight for the interests of ordinary men and women…”

Herbert is a senior distinguished fellow at the public policy and analysis think tank, Demos. He is also a board member of the Schumann Media Center, from which he is presently on leave working on a major documentary.

Learn more about the production team behind Moyers & Company.

Watch the full show »

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Bob Herbert: Losing Our Way Tue, 07 Oct 2014 18:03:03 +0000 In this book excerpt, the reporter and former New York Times columnist writes about his cross-country trip investigating the lives of the 99 percent. Continue reading

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The following excerpt is the introduction to Bob Herbert’s new book, entitled Losing Our Way: An Intimate Portrait of a Troubled America.

The moment came unexpectedly, which is how denial is often pierced. Guntars Lakis, an architect in Bridgeport, Connecticut, had been watching his small kids at soccer practice. They came running toward him when practice was over, sweating, giggling and clamoring for Italian ices. That was when he realized how far he had fallen. In a lush, beautifully-landscaped suburban park, on a late afternoon in summer, he felt ashamed. “They wanted an Italian ice after practice,” he told me, “and I didn’t have four dollars in my wallet to buy it for them. I didn’t have any money at all.”

The 21st century has not been kind to the middle class in America. The economic nightmare that descended on the Lakis family was part of an epic change in the lives of individuals and families across the country. Millions of hard-working men and women who had believed they were solidly anchored economically found themselves cast into a financial abyss, struggling with joblessness, home foreclosures and personal bankruptcy. Some were astonished to find themselves turning to food banks and homeless shelters. The hard times would eventually spread like a blight across the country, wiping out savings, crushing home values and upending carefully-nurtured career plans. For much of the population, the very notion of economic security evaporated.

losing our way

Spirits sank along with bank balances. The Great Recession and its dismal aftermath showed unmistakably that a great change had come over the country. The years that had been unkind to the middle class were positively brutal to the working class and the poor. The United States was no longer a place of widely-shared prosperity and limitless optimism. It was a country that had lost its way. By 2012 the net worth of American families had fallen back to the levels of the early-1990s. Poverty was expanding and the middle class had entered a protracted period of decline. Signs of distress were everywhere. There were not nearly enough jobs for all who wanted and needed to work. Middle-aged professionals were being forced into early, unwanted retirement. Low-wage, contingent work – without benefits and with no retirement security – was becoming increasingly the norm. Even young graduates with impressive credentials from world-class colleges and universities were finding it difficult to put together a decent standard of living. For millions of Americans, there was no work at all.

As I traveled the country doing research for this book, I couldn’t help but notice that something fundamental in the very character of the US had shifted. There was a sense of powerlessness and resignation among ordinary people that I hadn’t been used to seeing. The country seemed demoralized. I remembered the United States a far more confident and boisterous place in the days when I was growing up in suburban New Jersey in the 1950s and ’60s. Kids, grownups, everybody had their dreams and were unabashedly flexing their muscles, ready to make them come true. The bigger the dream the better. Each day was the dawn of new possibilities. All you needed was energy and a willingness to work hard.

That bold confidence in the future now seemed as old-fashioned as typewriters and telephone booths. There was still plenty to admire about the US, and crowds could be heard from time to time chanting “USA! USA!” at rallies and ballgames. But what I was seeing in my travels was a deeply wounded society, with a majority of respondents in poll after poll saying the US was in a state of decline. The symptoms were numerous, varied and scary. The economy seemed to work only for the very wealthy. By 2013 the richest one percent in America was hauling in nearly a quarter of the nation’s entire annual income and owned 40 percent of its wealth. The bottom 80 percent of Americans, 250 million people, were struggling to hold onto just seven percent of the nation’s wealth. No wonder people were demoralized.

Lloyd Blankfein attended the 2012 Fortune Most Powerful Women  to honor global women leaders. (Photograph: Stuart Isett/Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit/flickr CC 2.0)

The head of Goldman Sachs Lloyd Blankfein at the 2012 Fortune Most Powerful Women conference to honor global women leaders. (Photograph: Stuart Isett/Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit/flickr CC 2.0)

The high rollers continued to thrive despite the recession and its widespread suffering. The head of Goldman Sachs, Lloyd Blankfein, was compensated to the tune of $13.2 million in 2010 as salaries and bonuses on Wall Street roared back from the economic debacle set in motion by the recklessness of those very same Wall Street bankers and their acolytes in government. By 2013 the stock markets were setting record highs and banks that were once thought too big to fail were growing bigger still.

The incomes of the uber-rich came to mind one winter morning as I was reading a desperate letter written by a woman in her mid-50s to Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. The woman and her husband were unemployed and about to lose their home to foreclosure. “I pray to God,” she wrote, “that we do not have to resort to living in the car which is unimaginable in the middle of January in zero degree temperatures with no gas money to run the engine to keep warm.”

For ordinary Americans, the story of the past several years has too often been about job cuts, falling wages, vanishing pensions and diminished expectations. Birth rates plummeted in the wake of the recession as couples put off having children for financial reasons. The lowest birth rates ever recorded in the US were in 2011 and 2012. By then, nearly one in every four American children was poor. For black children, it was one in three. The decline in births came as studies were showing alarming increases in mortality rates for some segments of the population. From 1990 to 2008 the life expectancy for the poorest, least well educated white Americans fell by a stunning four years. For white women without a high school diploma, it fell by five years.

One night, after I’d moderated a program on Afghanistan at the Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, a World War II veteran came up to me and asked plaintively, “What happened to us?” His tone and weathered face conveyed a sense of real loss. He’d known a different America, having worked as an engineer and raised a family in the Midwest in the post-World War II period when the United States showed every sign that it was really getting its act together, becoming in actual fact a more perfect union. As we talked, I thought back to that era, which in many ways was a golden time. By the mid-1960s the warm glow of success was spreading like the summer sun to most of the country. The first of the baby boomers had put aside their Davy Crockett hats and Mickey Mouse Club ears and were entering college. Television was moving from black and white to color. Unemployment was low, wages and profits were high, and the nation’s wealth, compared to today, was distributed in a much more equitable fashion.

America was on a roll during those Eisenhower-Kennedy-Johnson years. Economic, social and cultural doors were being flung open one after another. There was a buoyancy to the American experience that was extraordinary.

The nation was far from perfect and I would be the last person to suggest otherwise. There was plenty of conflict, small-mindedness and bigotry. Vietnam would prove an unmitigated disaster. Blacks and women had to mobilize to fend off treatment that was hideously and often criminally unjust. But there was also an openness to new ideas and a willingness to extend a collective hand to those who were struggling. It was a time in which the Supreme Court struck down one racist statute after another; a time that gave us Medicare and Medicaid, the Peace Corps and the space program. The middle class, America’s proudest creation, was thriving, and it was not yet a mortal sin for someone running for public office to mention the poor.

In those heady, sunwashed days, described by the writer Nelson Lichtenstein as “the high noon of American capitalism,” everything embodied in the great promise of the United States – freedom, equality, opportunity and widely-shared prosperity – appeared to be coming to fruition. Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote of the mid-1960s that “steadily increasing affluence seemed an enduring and irreversible reality of American life.” The Temptations of Motown, who helped power the era’s soundtrack, sang of momentary setbacks in love but felt compelled to add the sociological aside, “There’s plenty of work and the bosses are paying.”

Half a century later the plaintive question of the elderly World War II veteran hung in the air: “What happened?” How did this proud and triumphant nation, a dynamic and robust country that served as the economic and cultural model for much of the world, end up in such deep trouble, so deeply wounded? How did we reach a state of affairs in which the outlook had grown so dim? Why was there so much suffering in the United States – families crushed in the economic downturn, thousands upon thousands of GIs struggling with terrible physical and psychic wounds inflicted in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and millions of children whose futures were being foreclosed by poverty and shrinking opportunities?

The City of North Charleston hosted its annual Veterans Day event, Tribute to our Veterans, at Park Circle on November 12, 2012. (Photo: Ryan Johnson/flickr CC 2.0)

The City of North Charleston, South Carolina hosted its annual Veterans Day tribute at Park Circle on November 12, 2012. (Photo: Ryan Johnson/flickr CC 2.0)

The most direct answer to the veteran’s question was that as a society we had behaved irresponsibly, self-destructively, for decades. We lost sight of the effort and sacrifice required to build and maintain a great nation. We refused to fend off the destructive excesses of free market zealots and casino capitalists. Greed was not only tolerated, but encouraged, and that led to catastrophic imbalances in wealth, income and political power. Over time the great American ideals of fairness and justice for all, and the great American values of thrift and civic engagement, began to lose their hold on us. We embraced shopping. We behaved as if the acquisition of material goods, from sneakers and gold chains to vast seaside estates, was the greatest good of all.

The devastating wounds that have caused Americans such pain were self-inflicted. We fought wars that should never have been fought. We allowed giant banks and predatory corporations to plunder the nation’s wealth and resources without regard for the damage done to the economy, the environment or the people. We neglected the nation’s physical infrastructure to the point where bridges were collapsing, water systems were failing, and the historic city of New Orleans was submerged in a catastrophic flood that shocked not just the nation but the world.

National Guard trucks haul residents through flood waters to the Superdome, a shelter of last resort,  after their neighborhoods were flooded after Hurricane Katrina hit  New Orleans, Louisiana Tuesday, August 30,  2005.  (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

National Guard trucks haul residents through flood waters to the Superdome after their neighborhoods were flooded when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Louisiana in the summer of 2005. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

After so much neglect and so many bad policy decisions, we ended up with a government and an economy incapable of meeting the human needs of a complex and diverse nation of more than 300 million people.

The abiding premise of this book is that things do not have to be this way. There is no reason to sit still for an intolerable status quo. Democracy is still alive, if not particularly healthy, in America. Ordinary citizens can still roll up their sleeves and – with enough effort, commitment and willingness to sacrifice – reclaim their nation’s lost promise. The dream can still be revived. Wounds can heal. A fresh start can be made. But only if citizens overcome their reluctance to engage in collective civic action on an organized and sustained basis. In other words, only if ordinary citizens choose to intervene aggressively and courageously in their own fate.

My goal in this book is to get beyond the din of clueless politicians and nonstop talking heads and show what really happened, how we got into such a deep fix and how we can get out of it. Like a print in an old-fashioned darkroom, a clearer portrait of America will emerge. We’ll see the great challenges facing the nation from the perspective of the ordinary individuals and families who are directly affected by them – a young Army captain who was badly wounded in Afghanistan, a woman who was driving across the Interstate-35 Bridge in Minneapolis when it collapsed into the Mississippi River, young people trying to cope with staggering amounts of student debt in the worst economic environment since the Great Depression. I’ve focused most intently on four specific areas: the employment crisis, which was badly underestimated and poorly understood; the need to rebuild and modernize the nation’s infrastructure and the relationship of that vast project to employment; the critical task of revitalizing the public schools in a way that meets the profound educational imperatives of the 21st century; and the essential obligation that we have as rational and civilized beings to stop fighting pointless and profoundly debilitating wars.

There will be subtexts that weave their way through these interrelated themes, especially the poisonous effects of wealth and income inequality. And I’ll trace the relevant history that brought us to the present troubled moment. But there won’t be any suggestion that there are neat and tidy solutions to the crises facing America. We don’t need another ten or twelve-point plan. There are good ideas all over the place, even great ideas. But none of them have a prayer of working if the citizenry is not somehow aroused to reclaim America from the powerful moneyed interests – the “malefactors of great wealth,” as Teddy Roosevelt so memorably called them – who have been the ones most responsible for driving the nation into such a wretched state of affairs. The historian Howard Zinn once told me, “If there is going to be change, real change, it will have to work its way from the bottom up, from the people themselves. That’s how change happens.”

All of the great movements in America – from abolition and civil rights, to the labor and women’s movements and the fight for gay rights – all were led by citizens fed up with an intolerable status quo. That is how societies change. That is how America can, should, and – with the proper commitment and cooperative spirit – will change.

Excerpted from Losing Our Way by Bob Herbert. © 2014 by Bob Herbert. By permission of Doubleday, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Bob Herbert is a distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos and a former New York Times columnist. You can follow him on Twitter at @BobHerbert.

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Groups Call on eBay to Quit ALEC Tue, 07 Oct 2014 16:37:17 +0000 Now that numerous tech companies — such as Microsoft, Google and Facebook — have cut ties to the lobbying group, the pressure is on those that remain. Continue reading

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In this June 5, 2014 photo, people walk in front of an eBay Inc. sign at the company's headquarters in San Jose, Calif. EBay Inc. reports quarterly financial results on Wednesday, July 16, 2014. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
In this June 5, 2014, photo, people walk in front of an eBay Inc. sign at the company's headquarters in San Jose, California. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

First it was Microsoft, then Google. Then a cascade of tech companies — Facebook, Yahoo, Yelp — announced they would, or had, divested from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a business lobbying group, citing the organization’s lack of transparency and efforts to thwart government action on climate change.

Now the pressure is on large tech companies that remain ALEC members. A coalition of 80 organizations — including advocacy groups, investors, unions and religious councils — wrote to eBay founder Pierre Omidyar today asking him to break the company’s ties to ALEC. A similar letter last month preceded Google’s announcement that it would divest.

The letter’s authors write: “The public knows that the ALEC operation — which brings state legislators and corporate lobbyists behind closed doors to discuss proposed legislation and share lavish dinners — threatens our democracy. The public is asking eBay to stop participating in this scheme.”

Reporting on the letter today, The National Journal’s Dustin Volz writes:

The letter to eBay’s top brass boasts about 30 more signatures than the one issued to Google last month.

In a statement responding to the eBay letter, an ALEC spokesman accused its critics of confusing “free-market policy for climate-change denial.”

“These groups refuse to acknowledge ALEC has no position on climate change, but does question government mandates and subsidies that empower the government to pick winners and losers and artificially inflate certain industry sectors,” the spokesman said. “ALEC is for an ‘all of the above’ approach whereby renewable energy expands according to consumer demand.”

Though ALEC maintains it does not deny climate change, the group sponsors model legislation for state lawmakers that declares that it remains unclear whether human emissions are changing global temperatures, a view that runs counter to the scientific consensus on climate change.

ALEC CEO Lisa Nelson told National Journal last week “I don’t know the science on that,” when pressed whether human emissions drive climate change.

We noted last month that at ALEC’s recent meeting in Dallas, the Heartland Institute presented a slideshow to its membership arguing that “there is no scientific consensus on the human role in climate change,” and “no need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and no point in attempting to do so.” ALEC also claims an ambivalent outlook about the disastrous effects of climate change, stating in its model legislation that it could lead to “deleterious, neutral, or possibly beneficial climatic changes.”

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William Black Tue, 07 Oct 2014 16:05:00 +0000 William K. Black, author of The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One, was formerly the litigation director of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, deputy director of the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation (FSLIC), senior … Continue reading

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William K. Black, author of The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One, was formerly the litigation director of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, deputy director of the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation (FSLIC), senior vice president and general counsel of the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco, and senior deputy chief counsel of the Office of Thrift Supervision. Black was also deputy director of the National Commission on Financial Institution Reform, Recovery and Enforcement.

He developed the concept of “control fraud”—frauds in which the CEO or head of state uses the entity as a “weapon,” and which cause greater financial losses than all other forms of property crime combined.

He recently helped the World Bank develop anti-corruption initiatives and served as an expert for the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight in its enforcement action against Fannie Mae’s former senior management. He also testified before the Senate Agricultural Committee on the regulation of financial derivatives and the House Governance Committee on the regulation of executive compensation.

Currently a professor of law and economics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, he was the executive director of the Institute for Fraud Prevention from 2005-2007. He has taught previously at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and at Santa Clara University, where he was also the distinguished scholar in residence for insurance law and a visiting scholar at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

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How the Politics of Immigration is Driving Mass Deportation Tue, 07 Oct 2014 15:48:50 +0000 We lose something important when we think about mass deportation simply as an electoral strategy. Continue reading

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Deportations reached another record high last year. This is a striking development in light of the fact that illegal immigration and Border Patrol apprehensions have been falling for over a decade, and when — despite intransigence among some House Republicans — for several years there has been broad support for a fundamental restructuring of deportation policies, .

In June, President Obama promised to move forward, alone if necessary, by the end of the summer. Rather than doing so, however, he recently announced more delay. Mass deportation seems to be the Democratic response to right-wing dog whistling around Latino immigrants.

Since 2005 deportations have been rising precipitously (see chart), with removals under Obama consistently exceeding those under George W. Bush. The total number of deportations under the Obama administration now exceeds 2 million persons — this is, truly, “mass deportation,” by far the highest sustained rate of removals this country has ever seen.

Mass deportation might suggest surging numbers of persons crossing the border illegally, an impression no doubt strengthened by this summer’s arrival of women and children fleeing violence in Central America. However, as numbers from Princeton’s Mexican Migration Project show, “the rate of undocumented emigration is nearing zero. It peaked at about 55 of every 1,000 Mexican men in 1999; by 2010 it had fallen to 9 per 1,000, a rate not seen since the 1960s.”

This dramatic fall-off in the numbers of undocumented immigrants entering the country is corroborated by the government’s statistics on Border Patrol apprehensions. From roughly 1.6 million arrests a year at the start of the new millennium, they’ve now fallen to about one-quarter that level. Indeed, last year the Obama administration deported almost 18,000 more persons than the Border Patrol detained.

It’s not immigration itself driving mass deportation; rather, it’s the politics of immigration. But this isn’t a simple Democrat/GOP split, for there are many Republicans who support immigration reform, from George Bush to John McCain, and major conservative idea-shapers do so as well, from David Brooks to Rupert Murdoch. Witness the comprehensive immigration reform bill the Senate passed with bipartisan support in the summer of 2013.

Rather, as research by political scientist Christopher Parker shows, there’s a split on the right, with those associated with the tea party significantly more likely than other conservatives to take a hard line on immigration. Summarizing his research, Parker found that while half of non-tea party conservatives support the DREAM Act, creating a limited path to citizenship for stellar young immigrants, less than a third of those who identify with the tea party do so. Conversely, less than half of non-tea party conservatives support changing our constitutional citizenship law, in which someone born here is automatically a US citizen; in contrast, two-thirds of tea party-identified conservatives support upending the Constitution to eliminate birthright citizenship. Most telling of all, Parker reports, fully four out of five conservatives who identified with the tea party reported being either anxious or fearful of “illegal immigrants.”

The GOP base is composed in significant part by an element that is racially fearful, and those House Republicans who most closely ally themselves with a tea party identity seem disposed to appeal to this faction by opposing immigration reform. But if racial pandering by some GOP House members helps explain why no immigration reform will come from Congress, what is holding Obama back from acting unilaterally?

In June, making the case for acting expeditiously, Obama catalogued the harms of continued conservative obstructionism:

It’s meant more businesses free to game the system by hiring undocumented workers, which punishes businesses that play by the rules, and drives down wages for hardworking Americans. It’s meant lost talent when the best and brightest from around the world come to study here but are forced to leave and then compete against our businesses and our workers. It’s meant no chance for 11 million immigrants to come out of the shadows and earn their citizenship if they pay a penalty and pass a background check, pay their fair share of taxes, learn English, and go to the back of the line. It’s meant the heartbreak of separated families.

With these costs in mind, Obama stressed the urgency of reform, and promised that by the end of summer his administration would act on its own, if need be, “to do what Congress refuses to do and fix as much of our immigration system as we can. If Congress will not do their job, at least we can do ours.”

But it turns out that the job will have to wait some more, because, Obama explained earlier this month, “I want to spend some time, even as we’re getting all our ducks in a row for the executive action, I also want to make sure that the public understands why we’re doing this, why it’s the right thing for the American people, why it’s the right thing for the American economy.”

Not to disparage the importance of ducks, but administration insiders made clear there was another reason for the delay: the calculation that acting unilaterally on immigration might further imperil the ability of Democrats to hold onto the Senate in November. The New York Times editorial board distilled Obama’s ulterior motive: “The real reason, Mr. Obama’s aides have acknowledged, is that the midterm elections are upon us, and Mr. Obama believes the issue is politically too hot. He listened to political operatives who didn’t want to jeopardize Democratic control of the Senate.”

Obama recognized that continued mass deportation has “meant the heartbreak of separated families.” Dog whistling on the right is responsible for much of this heartbreak. But fault also lies with the Obama administration.
The electoral calculus is pretty clear, and was laid out in early August by Brendan Nyhan in The New York Times and Aaron Blake in The Washington Post: In the states with the most hotly contested Senate races, Latino voters are few and unlikely to sway the election, whereas unilateral immigration reform could substantially drive up GOP voter turnout in those critical races.

This sort of cold strategizing invites responses couched in similar terms. For instance, two political scientists with deep knowledge of the Hispanic community, Matt Barreto and Gary Segura, stress the potential of even small numbers of Latino voters to swing tightly contested races. And they emphasize the power of immigration reform to motivate, or demobilize, Latino voters: in a summertime poll, 87 percent of Latinos said that administration-led immigration reform would make them more enthusiastic about voting for Democrats in the 2014 midterms; whereas 57 percent said a failure to act would make them less enthusiastic.

The hard reality of winning or losing elections demands attention to these sorts of gimlet-eyed calculations. But we also lose something important when we think about mass deportation simply as an electoral strategy. By one estimate, Obama’s decision to again delay reform will result in the deportation of another 60,000 persons. Not all would have qualified to stay under any reform he might have promulgated, but its reasonable to assume tens of thousands might have. Moreover, the background anxiety caused by the ever-present threat of removal will continue to dangle like a sword over millions.

In June, Obama recognized that continued mass deportation has “meant the heartbreak of separated families.” Dog whistling on the right is responsible for much of this heartbreak. But fault also lies with the Obama administration’s repeated decisions to defer and delay acting unilaterally, for the last six years, and now for a few more months, at least.

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Morning Reads: Prosecutors Target New Wall Street Ripoff Tue, 07 Oct 2014 14:20:53 +0000 A roundup of some of the stories we're reading at Moyers & Company HQ... Continue reading

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Good morning! Today is Vladimir Putin’s 62nd birthday, and the 13th anniversary of the beginning of our war in Afghanistan. It’s the longest conflict in American history, and on September 30, the Obama administration signed an agreement with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani that will allow around 10,000 US troops to remain in the country through 2023.

On the doorstep of Europe” –> Islamic State fighters have entered the strategically important town of Kobani in Syria. Lizzie Dearden reports for The Independent that Kurdish sources say that there was heavy fighting there yesterday, and the town “will certainly fall soon.”  ALSO: A Chicago-area teenager was arrested at O’Hare airport on Saturday while allegedly in transit to Syria to join IS. Ben Mathis-Lilley has that story at Slate.

Marriage –> The Supreme Court declined to review challenges to gay marriage bans in five states, allowing a series of lower court rulings striking them down to stand, and nuptials to proceed. At The New Yorker, Amy Davidson argues that the decision means that marriage equality will eventually be the law of the land in all 50 states.  AND: Catherine Thompson reports for TPM that opponents of marriage equality apparently agree, condemning the court in no uncertain terms and vowing to fight on.

Charges for Wall Street banks? –> Ben Protess and Jessica Silver-Greenberg report for the NYT that federal prosecutors are aiming to bring charges against some of the biggest banks for colluding to manipulate foreign currency prices.

Care is something that is not particularly valued in the United States” –> At Salon, Sarah Jaffe writes that Ebola has emerged in our “blind spot” — a threat that we can’t just bomb away.

The plot against public education” –> Bob Herbert writes in Politico Mag that “millionaires and billionaires are ruining our schools.”

The next Hobby Lobby –> The University of Notre Dame has asked SCOTUS to “intervene in its case against the Obama administration over the coverage – or non-coverage – of contraception.” The administration gave religiously-affiliated nonprofits that object to contraception the option to write a letter or fill out a form, after which their insurer will cover the contraception directly. But Notre Dame is arguing that filling out the form represents a “substantial burden.”

Methane –> At The Hill, Robert Howarth writes that Obama’s approach to reducing our global warming emissions “largely ignores the low-hanging fruit to slow the rate of global warming: reducing emissions of methane.” While there has long been a focus on carbon, scientists have developed a better understanding of methane’s significant role in climate change.

Bad shepherds” –> At Religion Dispatches, Patricia Miller reports that Pope Francis opened the Catholic church’s Extraordinary Synod on the Family with a condemnation of religious leaders who seek money and power and “lay intolerable burdens on the shoulders of others, which they themselves do not lift a finger to move.” Conservatives within the church are looking to fight any changes in doctrine related to divorce, homosexuality, etc.

Street preacher –> With help from the ACLU, an Indiana woman is suing an Evangelical Christian highway patrol officer for aggressively proselytizing her during a routine traffic stop. Jill Disis reports for The Indiana Star. 

The horror –> An anti-immigrant group has unearthed a terrible “threat” to the nation: More Americans are becoming bilingual. Lynn Tramonte has the details at the America’s Voice blog.

Big money –> USA Today: “With Senate control in view, some GOP donors boost giving.” AND: the 92nd Street Y produced this short video with Leah McGrath Goodman, Newsweek’s finance editor, discussing the threat dark money poses to America’s democracy…

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Another Study Finds Unaccountable Charter Schools Dogged by Corruption Mon, 06 Oct 2014 21:41:01 +0000 “Where there is little oversight, and lots of public dollars available, there are incentives for ethically challenged charter operators to charge for services that were never provided.” Continue reading

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Students line up to be served lunch at the Thatcher Brook Elementary School in Waterbury, Vt. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)

Students line up to be served lunch at the Thatcher Brook Elementary School in Waterbury, Vt. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)

In today’s Washington Post, Jeff Bryant, director of the Education Opportunity Network, writes about the promises that were first offered by advocates of the charter school industry:

When former President Bill Clinton recently meandered onto the topic of charter schools, he mentioned something about an “original bargain” that charters were, according to the reporter for The Huffington Post, “supposed to do a better job of educating students.”

A writer at Salon called the remark “stunning” because it brought to light the fact that the overwhelming majority of charter schools do no better than traditional public schools. Yet… charter schools are rarely shuttered for low academic performance….

In a real “bargaining process,” those who bear the consequences of the deal have some say-so on the terms, the deal-makers have to represent themselves honestly (or the deal is off and the negotiating ends), and there are measures in place to ensure everyone involved is held accountable after the deal has been struck.

But that’s not what’s happening in the great charter industry rollout transpiring across the country. Rather than a negotiation over terms, charters are being imposed on communities – either by legislative fiat or well-engineered public policy campaigns. Many charter school operators keep their practices hidden or have been found to be blatantly corrupt. And no one seems to be doing anything to ensure real accountability for these rapidly expanding school operations.

But in May, looked at a report issued by Integrity in Education and the Center for Popular Democracy — two groups that oppose school privatization. The study examined charter schools’ performance in 15 states, and revealed $136 million in fraud, waste and abuse in those states. The authors of that study wrote that, “where there is little oversight, and lots of public dollars available, there are incentives for ethically challenged charter operators to charge for services that were never provided.”

Last week, they released a follow-up study of charter schools in Pennsylvania. It found that “charter school officials have defrauded at least $30 million intended for Pennsylvania school children since 1997.”

Yet every year virtually all of the state’s charter schools are found to be financially sound. While the state has complex, multi-layered systems of oversight of the charter system, this history of financial fraud makes it clear that these systems are not effectively detecting or preventing fraud. Indeed, the vast majority of fraud was uncovered by whistleblowers and media exposés, not by the state’s oversight agencies.

The authors found that while the auditing techniques used by Pennsylvania regulators could identify inefficiencies, oversight agencies don’t use tools “specifically designed to uncover fraud.” It also found that oversight agencies were understaffed and underfunded. “With too few qualified people on staff, and too little training, agencies are unable to uncover clues that might lead to fuller investigations and the discovery of fraud,” write the report’s authors.

They also noted that their findings weren’t unique:

Numerous government entities have raised the flag about the risk of fraud nationally and in Pennsylvania. Reporting in 2010 on the lack of charter-school oversight in states throughout the
country, the Office of the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Education raised concerns that state-level education departments were failing “to provide adequate oversight needed to ensure that Federal funds [were] properly used and accounted for.” Also in 2010 in Philadelphia (which educates 50 percent of all Pennsylvania charter-school students), the Office of the Controller performed a “fraud vulnerability assessment” of the city’s oversight of charter schools and reported that the Charter School Office… made the city’s more than $290 million paid to charter schools “extremely vulnerable to fraud, waste, and abuse.” A 2014 follow-up report found that the School District of Philadelphia continues to provide “minimal oversight over charter schools except during the charter renewal process.”

You can download the entire report on Pennsylvania charter schools at The Center for Popular Democracy.

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]]> 4 Michael Dunn Was Found Guilty — But That’s Not Enough to Ensure Justice in an Unjust World Mon, 06 Oct 2014 20:23:18 +0000 Justice, real justice, is not impossible. It’s elusive. It hides from us because our current definition is oriented toward revenge. Continue reading

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Defendant Michael Dunn re-enters the courtroom as the jury had a question shortly after deliberations began during his retrial on Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014 in Jacksonville, Fla. Dunn is being retried on murder charges for the shooting death of 17-year old Jordan Davis in a dispute over loud music at a Jacksonville gas station in November of 2012. Dunn was found guilty of three counts of attempted murder and one count of shooting or throwing a deadly missile during his previous trial, but the jury was deadlocked on the murder charge. (AP Photo/The Florida Times-Union, Bob Mack, Pool)
Defendant Michael Dunn re-enters the courtroom as the jury had a question shortly after deliberations began during his retrial on Wednesday, October 1, 2014 in Jacksonville, Florida. Dunn is being retried on murder charges for the shooting death of 17-year-old Jordan Davis in a dispute over loud music at a Jacksonville gas station in November of 2012. (AP Photo/The Florida Times-Union, Bob Mack, Pool)

This post first appeared at The Nation.

Last week, Michael Dunn was found guilty of first-degree murder for the 2012 killing of 17-year-old Jordan Davis. It was the second time Dunn was tried with murder, after a jury in February of this year was unable to rule unanimously for conviction or acquittal. Dunn was already going to spend the rest of his life in jail, having been convicted of three counts of attempted second-degree murder for the other passengers in the car with Davis; each count carried with it a 20-year minimum prison sentence. The first-degree murder conviction for killing Davis will add a life sentence to Dunn’s punishment.

Meanwhile, in Ferguson, Missouri, Officer Darren Wilson still has not been arrested for shooting and killing 18-year-old Michael Brown. It has been almost two months since the incident, and a grand jury (which is now under investigation for misconduct) has until January to decide whether to charge Wilson with anything.

I return to the question that plagues me every time we reach a resolution in these cases, be it a guilty verdict of (Dunn) or a not-guilty verdict (George Zimmerman), and as we await action in another case that involves the killing of a young black person: What is justice?

Because if the definition of justice is confined to the meting out of punishment for individual acts of wrongdoing, more young black people will be killed. Punishment alone is not enough of a deterrent, particularly where black bodies are concerned. Murder convictions, as we see in the case of Michael Dunn, and Theodore Wafer, who was convicted of murder for killing Renisha McBride, are rare. In America, almost always, you’re allowed to kill black kids with impunity.

If justice is merely an arrest, a trial, a conviction and a prison sentence, then there is no reason to contest the ways in which the criminal “justice” system operates. The goal, in this system, is not to build the type of society where murder (and other serious offenses) does not occur, but to catch, trap and do harm to the perpetrators. There’s no need to concern ourselves with the factors that led to those actions, about the emotional well-being of the victimized, or the mental well-being of the offender. We’re allowed to wash our hands of the entire affair because we can simply remove them from polite society and hope they learn their lesson on their own.

But if that is the basis of our understanding of justice, it’s no wonder Michael Brown was killed. And it won’t be surprising when the next young black person is shot and killed by a police officer or vigilante. We think justice is a matter of individual accountability. We, at our best, think the injustice lies in a not-guilty verdict.

But a “not guilty” in a courtroom trial is the least of our concerns when black children are born with the presumption of guilt. If they exist in a world where blackness marks them as targets, where racism defines their experience and where white supremacy is the law of the land, what good is a jury saying “guilty” when they die?

Justice, real justice, is not impossible. It’s elusive. It hides from us because our current definition is oriented toward revenge. But a real justice system, one that would have protected Michael Brown and Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin and every black child waiting to have their name added to the roll call, is not outside of our reach. It is, at the time, outside of our collective will and imagination. And we’re too afraid of upsetting the unjust order of our world to grasp for it. Capitalism, white supremacy and retributive “justice” provide comfort for those who will never experience the sting of their lash. Justice would be divesting from these systems and investing building supportive communities focused on access to stable home lives, education and recreation.

For Ron Davis and Lucia McBath, Jordan Davis’s parents, I hope this guilty verdict brings some peace to their lives. For Michael Brown Sr. and Lesely McSpadden, Michael Brown’s parents, I hope an arrest of Darren Wilson could help them sleep a little better at night. But none of it is justice. Justice would ensure their pain is never felt by any other parents.

But I know we’ll be back here again.

Mychal Denzel Smith is a blogger for The Nation and a Knobler Fellow at the Nation Institute. He is also a freelance writer and social commentator. His work on race, politics, social justice, pop culture, hip hop, mental health, feminism and black male identity has appeared in various publications, including The Guardian, Ebony, theGrio, The Root, The Huffington Post and GOOD. You can follow him on Twitter @mychalsmith.

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]]> 5 Are Tiny Houses a Viable Affordable Housing Solution? Mon, 06 Oct 2014 18:58:04 +0000 Micro-homes could provide a place for those experiencing homelessness to find stability and, perhaps, to live permanently. Continue reading

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Last month’s well attended climate march in New York City showed that we are finally recognizing the harmful effects of our fossil-fuel driven economy on the planet. Some Americans looking to shrink their carbon footprint are doing so by shrinking their homes, opting to live in ultra-compact houses, often referred to as “tiny houses.”

Increasingly, these small homes are also being considered as models for affordable housing that could serve as a place for the homeless to find some stability and, perhaps, live permanently. In such varied locations as Portland, Oregon, upstate New York, Austin, Texas and Madison, Wisconsin, local advocates for the homeless have constructed communities of tiny houses.

One of the chief benefits of living in a small space (referred to by some who practice it as “micro-living”) is that it’s cheap. An added bonus — and the reason for its initial appeal — is that it’s environmentally sustainable.

Modeling sustainability

The growing popularity of very small houses among the environmentally-minded set is now being called a movement. There are numerous blogs devoted to them. There’s a company that builds and sells them. There’s even a show about them — Tiny House Nation — for those with access to the triple-digit television channels.

But the movement began as an effort by a small group of individuals to shrink their carbon footprint. “The size of your house probably has more to do with how eco-friendly the house is than anything, because you have to heat and cool that space and heating and cooling is what uses most of the energy. So having a small space automatically makes you more eco-friendly,” says Brian Levy, an expert in implementing sustainable energy who has worked with the Department of Energy and has built a model tiny home, called Minim House.

Minim House was started as part of Boneyard Studios, a model tiny house community that existed on a small lot next to a graveyard in Washington, DC, from 2012 until August 2014. (Some of the houses that were part of the community are on wheels and are in the process of being relocated elsewhere, but Levy’s Minim House will stay put.) Even though the land on which they built and gardened was not zoned for residential living (and they could not actually live in the homes they built), Levy and Boneyard Studio’s co-founders hoped a model community would inspire others to take up micro-living, and start a discussion about new forms of affordable housing in DC.

Minim House, center, at Boneyard Studios. (Photo: John Light/Moyers & Company)

Minim House, center, at Boneyard Studios. (Photo: John Light/Moyers & Company)

“It was important in terms of addressing bigger issues — trying to showcase these small homes as a sustainable, affordable option for housing,” says Levy. “We have lost half our affordable housing in DC in the last 10 years, so the idea was to propose these micro-houses as one potential solution.”

When Levy finished building his model tiny house, he had spent $65,000. But he estimates that without the cost of labor and some of the more advanced sustainable systems — such as solar panels and rainwater collection and filtration — the home could be built for $30,000.

Brian Levy, the designer of Minim House, in his garden. (Photo: John Light/Moyers & Company)

Brian Levy, the designer of Minim House, in his garden. (Photo: John Light/Moyers & Company)

“If you look at the total costs of a tiny house — $30,000 to $50,000 — and if you look at the financing options for that house, that turns into a monthly payment of maybe $300, $400, $500 dollars a month, which is certainly fairly affordable compared to what a lot of housing is going for in a lot of areas these days,” says Levy.

Housing the homeless

Beyond DC, a number of communities are exploring the viability of tiny houses for the homeless. Carmen Guidi is spearheading one such project in Newfield, New York, a 15-minute drive southeast from Ithaca, in a community called Second Wind Cottages.

Second Wind’s story began a few years ago, when Guidi, an auto mechanic and devout Christian, returned from a trip building homes in Haiti hoping to help those who were living in poverty in his own community.

“I just started to ask around,” he says. “‘Where can I help, what can I do?’ And some people said, ‘Why don’t you go help feed the homeless in Ithaca.’”

At first, he wasn’t even aware that Ithaca had a homeless population, but Guidi soon sought out and befriended the residents of a tent city called “the Jungle.” He brought them food and batteries and helped them find jobs and housing. But when one Jungle resident with whom Guidi had become particularly close committed suicide, he felt he had to do more to help the Jungle residents whom local landlords had refused to house.

Second Wind Cottages founder Carmen Guidi discusses the blueprints for the cottages he built. (Photo: John Light/Moyers & Company)

Second Wind Cottages founder Carmen Guidi discusses the blueprints for the cottages he built. (Photo: John Light/Moyers & Company)

Guidi initially invited some men to come live in trailers on his property. But he learned during a frigid Finger Lakes winter that the cost of keeping the trailers heated was unrealistic. So he turned to another solution: small, properly insulated houses.

Through word of mouth and crowd-funding initiatives, Guidi was able to raise $150,000 from local businesses, church groups and strangers and gather a large group of volunteers to build the first six cottages, which he says cost between $12,000 to $15,000 each. The homes sit on a hill behind Guidi’s autobody shop overlooking one of the area’s famous gorges. Eventually, Guidi hopes to build 18 cottages for the homeless men with a community center, then begin work on a second village for homeless women.

A model to replicate?

The six houses that Guidi and his team of volunteers have constructed already have residents. Dave Reed is one, and he says the community is helping him beat his alcoholism, which for years kept him from holding onto an apartment. Reed — who says that, before becoming homeless, he worked as a chef at Cornell University — held a series of jobs even while homeless to fund his addiction.

Second Wind Cottages resident Dave Reed. (Photo: John Light/Moyers & Company)

Second Wind Cottages resident Dave Reed enjoys a pizza in his micro-house. (Photo: John Light/Moyers & Company)

“I was working to drink, yes,” he says. “Drinking to work and working to drink.” But it was not sustainable. “I can’t drink without losing my job. I’m like a country song when I drink, you know?” he says with laugh. “When I drink, I lose things. And usually it’s my place to live, my job, self-esteem, my health. This time it was going to be my dog.”

Moving into one of the Second Wind cottages, where volunteers could drive him to work and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, helped him to face the demons that kept him drinking. “You’re independent here,” says Reed. “It’s your cottage. It’s got running water, it’s got electricity and it’s got a stove to cook on. You get a sense like you’re living, you’re really living.”

“And they are my friends,” he adds. “Every one of these people here are my friends.”

Second Wind Cottages, a community of formerly homeless men near Ithaca, New York. (Photo: John Light/Moyers & Company)

Second Wind Cottages, a community of formerly homeless men near Ithaca, New York. (Photo: John Light/Moyers & Company)

Many in the region are watching Second Wind cottages closely. Svante Myrick, the mayor of Ithaca, is a supporter and says that if the project succeeds, he’ll seek to replicate aspects of it with public financing.

“If we can take the model and replicate what we can — that is, small stand-alone shelters, instead of mass sheltering where it’s hard to keep folks safe and in some cases it’s hard to keep them sober, giving them units where they can actually have a space of their own, that’s warm and secure — I think that’s a model that certainly can be replicated,” he says.

Not a one-size-fits-all solution

Homeless advocates point out that for many homeless people, small homes are not a silver bullet. “The faster you get people into regular, normal housing, the better off you are,” says Nan Roman, the president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, a DC-based nonprofit. “Having said that, there’s no reason that [the] regular normal housing they move into couldn’t be tiny. The size is not the issue: It’s really where it is and if it’s integrated into the community and people have adequate support from the community.

“You want housing that is the same as housing other people live in. It needs to meet code and zoning requirements. You need to have a regularized relationship with your landlord and the same protections that other tenants have and those sorts of things. If you’re disabled and you need services, you need access to services, and you certainly don’t want to create substandard communities where people have to go live in order to get assistance.”

Roman says she’d worry if a micro-house community for the homeless were to be isolated from the community at large, without access to the support networks that many need to avoid falling back into homelessness.

Proponents of tiny houses, like Brian Levy, also note that micro-living will not meet every community’s needs for affordable housing. Current models for micro-living wouldn’t make sense for large homeless families, for instance. And large apartment complexes are often more appropriate in cities.

“A lot of folks rightfully say we need more dense multi-family housing, and we agree, absolutely. That needs to be the priority, because it’s cheaper and more efficient from a space perspective,” says Levy. “That said, there’s a lot of empty lots… where you simply can’t do multi-family housing.”

Starting a conversation

Micro-living does provide one compelling new answer to a daunting problem, and communities around the country are giving it some thought.

“It’s a conversation started around the idea of how do we have more affordable housing in this country?” says Levy. “There’s a lot of different ways, we’re only offering one suggestion — one voice in that conversation.”

Dave Reed, of Second Wind Cottages, is one proponent. “It gives you a sense of dignity,” he says. “It’s a sense of freedom that I haven’t felt before, and I hope a lot of people are able to experience this, not just me.”

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The Housing Crisis: How the Fed Turned a Blind Eye Mon, 06 Oct 2014 16:57:12 +0000 The Fed's role as fraud denier was fatal to America's ability to stop the mortgage fraud epidemic. Continue reading

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The following is adapted from the recently published afterword in William K. Black’s The Best Way to Rob a Bank Is to Own One: How Corporate Executives and Politicians Looted the S&L Industry, first published in 2005.

The change since the time I wrote this book is that officers controlling a bank now possess a vastly superior means of looting the bank because they can now do so with near-immunity from prosecution.

Policy makers have not simply failed to learn from experience and been condemned to repeat financial crises. They aggressively did the opposite of what experience suggested. They made the financial world far more criminogenic. The incentives they created through the three D’s (deregulation, desupervision, and de facto decriminalization) proved so perverse that they increased the epidemic of accounting control fraud that drives our recurrent, intensifying financial crises.

black book

The recurrent theme of the mortgage fraud crisis is that it is a tragedy because it would have been so easy to prevent. The hard work done developing effective research methodologies, theories and practical policies to prevent regulatory environments from becoming criminogenic and to contain control frauds (that occur when the persons controlling a seemingly legitimate entity use it as a “weapon” of fraud. In finance, accounting fraud is the weapon of choice.) had proven effective during the S&L debacle. Literally everything successful the regulators did was undone. The policies we had found during the debacle to be most criminogenic and destructive of regulatory effectiveness were increased substantially by the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.

Consider the role of Alan Greenspan, the most famous and damaging denier of control fraud. He confirmed this in his well-known encounter with Commodities Futures Trading Commission Chair Brooksley Born.

The influential Greenspan was an ardent proponent of unfettered markets. Born was a powerful Washington lawyer with a track record for activist causes. Over lunch, in his private dining room at the stately headquarters of the Fed in Washington, Greenspan probed their differences.

“Well, Brooksley, I guess you and I will never agree about fraud,” Born, in a recent interview, remembers Greenspan saying.

“What is there not to agree on?” Born says she replied.

“Well, you probably will always believe there should be laws against fraud, and I don’t think there is any need for a law against fraud,” she recalls. Greenspan, Born says, believed the market would take care of itself.

For the incoming regulator, the meeting was a wake-up call. “That underscored to me how absolutist Alan was in his opposition to any regulation,” she said in the interview.

dward Gramlich, a member of the Federal Reserve Board,  speaks during a luncheon at Cleveland State University in this Sept. 24, 1999 file photo.

Edward Gramlich, a member of the Federal Reserve Board, in 1999. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan, file)

If markets are efficient and prevent control fraud, then regulation is at best unnecessary and expensive and likely to be harmful because markets are “self-correcting.” Fraud denial, therefore, translates into disdain for regulation. The antiregulatory bias of Federal Reserve regulators was visceral. Governor Gramlich described the approach as “no cops on the beat.” (FCIC 2011)

Looking back, Fed General Counsel Alvarez said his institution succumbed to the climate of the times. He told the FCIC, “The mind-set was that there should be no regulation….” (FCIC 2011)

Federal Reserve supervisors, despite Greenspan and Ben Bernanke’s fierce opposition to regulation, twice sought to bring evidence to the board that would have revealed that many of the nation’s elite banks were engaged in accounting control fraud.

The Wall Street banks’ pivotal role in the Enron debacle did not seem to trouble senior Fed officials. In a memorandum to the FCIC, Richard Spillenkothen described a presentation to the Board of Governors in which some Fed governors received details of the banks’ complicity “coolly” and were “clearly unimpressed” by analysts’ findings. “The message to some supervisory staff was neither ambiguous nor subtle,” Spillenkothen wrote. Earlier in the decade, he remembered, senior economists at the Fed had called Enron an example of a derivatives market participant successfully regulated by market discipline without government oversight. (FCIC 2011)

Let me make the context clear. Many of the world’s elite banks eagerly aided and abetted Enron’s frauds. The Fed’s supervisors received permission to brief the Fed’s top leadership on the frauds. The Fed’s top leadership was enraged by what they heard — they were enraged at their supervisors for pointing out the banks’ frauds.

Alan Greenspan, President George W. Bush and Ben Bernanke.  (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

President Bush names his top economic adviser, Ben Bernanke, right, to become the new chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, replacing the near-legendary Alan Greenspan, left, in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, Monday, Oct. 24, 2005. It was the third time the president has turned to the 51-year-old Bernanke for a sensitive post. Bush named him to the Fed board in 2002, and later made him chairman of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Greenspan blocked Fed examiners from getting the most reliable data on nonprime loans through the examination process. Federal Reserve supervisors resorted to writing letters in 2005 to the largest banks asking them to voluntarily provide information on their nonprime exposures. This kind of inquiry will typically lead to a substantial understatement of risk exposure by the industry. Nevertheless, the results were remarkable and should have led Greenspan (and later) Bernanke to make the detection, prevention and sanction of mortgage fraud a top priority addressed on an emergency basis.

Sabeth Siddique, the assistant director for credit risk in the Division of Banking Supervision and Regulation at the Federal Reserve Board, was charged with investigating how broadly loan patterns were changing. He took the questions directly to large banks in 2005 and asked them how many of which kinds of loans they were making. Siddique found the information he received “very alarming,” he told the Commission. In fact, nontraditional loans made up 59% of originations at Countrywide, 58% at Wells Fargo, 51% at National City, 31% at Washington Mutual, 26.5% at CitiFinancial and 18.3% at Bank of America. Moreover, the banks expected that their originations of nontraditional loans would rise by 17% in 2005 to $608.5 billion. The review also noted the “slowly deteriorating quality of loans due to loosening underwriting standards.” In addition, it found that two-thirds of the nontraditional loans made by the banks in 2003 had been of the stated-income, minimal documentation variety known as liar’s loans, which had a particularly great likelihood of going sour.

The reaction to Siddique’s briefing was mixed. Federal Reserve Governor Bies recalled the response by the Fed governors and regional board directors as divided from the beginning. “Some people on the board and regional presidents…just wanted to come to a different answer. So they did ignore it, or the full thrust of it,” she told the Commission.

Within the Fed, the debate grew heated and emotional, Siddique recalled. “It got very personal,” he told the Commission. The ideological turf war lasted more than a year, while the number of nontraditional loans kept growing. (FCIC 2011: 20–21)

A 1,000-pound brass and glass chandelier festooned with eagles hangs from the 23-foot-high ceiling above the table in the meeting room of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, usually known as the Fed, in this Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2005 photo. (AP Photo/Lawrence Jackson)

A 1,000-pound brass and glass chandelier festooned with eagles hangs from the 23-foot-high ceiling above the table in the meeting room of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, usually known as the Fed, in this Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2005 photo. (AP Photo/Lawrence Jackson)

Again, the Fed’s response was to shoot the messenger who dared warn that the nation’s largest banks were making, and selling, pervasively fraudulent loans. Once a loan starts out fraudulent it is nearly always the case that all subsequent sales of the loan will be fraudulent.

The Fed’s role as a fraud denier was fatal to our nation’s ability to stop the mortgage fraud epidemics because most fraudulent loans were made by lenders not subject to normal federal banking regulations. The Fed had unique statutory authority under the Home Ownership and Equity Protection Act of 1994 (HOEPA) to regulate any mortgage lender. The Fed, under Chairman Bernanke, finally succumbed to Congressional pressure and used its HOEPA authority to essentially ban liar’s loans on July 14, 2008 (by which point such lending had virtually ceased). Even then, Bernanke delayed the effective date of the rule for fifteen months to avoid inconveniencing any fraudulent lenders who were still operating.

Excerpt from William K. Black’s The Best Way to Rob a Bank Is to Own One: How Corporate Executives and Politicians Looted the S&L Industry (© 2013 The University of Texas Press).

Bill Black
William K. Black was formerly the litigation director of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, deputy director of the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation (FSLIC), senior vice president and general counsel of the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco, and senior deputy chief counsel of the Office of Thrift Supervision. Black was also deputy director of the National Commission on Financial Institution Reform, Recovery and Enforcement.

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Why We Allow Big Pharma to Rip Us Off Mon, 06 Oct 2014 15:36:27 +0000 Here are the some of the unsavory tactics drug companies are using to pocket more of your money. Continue reading

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Medicine shelf in a Duane Reade store. (Credit: Charina Nadura/Moyers & Company)
Medicine shelf at a Duane Reade store. (Credit: Charina Nadura/Moyers & Company)

This post first appeared at Robert Reich’s blog.

According to a new federal database put online last week, pharmaceutical companies and device makers paid doctors some $380 million in speaking and consulting fees over a five-month period in 2013.

Some doctors received over half a million dollars each, and others got millions of dollars in royalties from products they helped develop.

Doctors claim these payments have no effect on what they prescribe. But why would drug companies shell out all this money if it didn’t provide them a healthy return on their investment?

America spends a fortune on drugs, more per person than any other nation on earth, even though Americans are no healthier than the citizens of other advanced nations.

Of the estimated $2.7 trillion America spends annually on health care, drugs account for 10 percent of the total.

Government pays some of this tab through Medicare, Medicaid and subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.  But we pick up the tab indirectly through our taxes.

We pay the rest of it directly, through higher co-payments, deductibles and premiums.

Drug company payments to doctors are a small part of a much larger strategy by Big Pharma to clean our pockets.

Another technique is called “product hopping” — making small and insignificant changes in a drug whose patent is about to expire, so it’s technically new.

For example, last February, before its patent expired on Namenda, its widely used drug to treat Alzheimer’s, Forest Laboratories announced it would stop selling the existing tablet form in favor of new extended-release capsules called Namenda XR.

The capsules were just a reformulated version of the tablet. But even the minor change prevented pharmacists from substituting generic versions of the tablet.

Result: Higher profits for Forest Labs and higher costs for you and me.

Another technique is for drug companies to continue to aggressively advertise prescription brands long after their 20 year patents have expired, so patients ask their doctors for them. Many doctors will comply.

America is one of few advanced nations that allow direct advertising of prescription drugs.

A fourth tactic is for drug companies to pay the makers of generic drugs to delay their cheaper versions. These so-called “pay-for-delay” agreements generate big profits for both the proprietary manufacturers and the generics. But here again, you and I pay. The tactic costs us an estimated $3.5 billion a year.

Europe doesn’t allow these sorts of payoffs, but they’re legal in the United States because the major drug makers and generics have fought off any legislative attempts to stop them.

Finally, while other nations set wholesale drug prices, the law prohibits the US government from using its considerable bargaining power under Medicare and Medicaid to negotiate lower drug prices. This was part of the deal Big Pharma extracted for its support of the Affordable Care Act of 2010.

The drug companies say they need the additional profits to pay for researching and developing new drugs.

But the government supplies much of the research Big Pharma relies on, through the National Institutes of Health.

Meanwhile, Big Pharma is spending more on advertising and marketing than on research and development – often tens of millions to promote a single drug.

And it’s spending hundreds of millions more every year on lobbying. Last year alone, the lobbying tab came to $225 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

That’s more than the formidable lobbying expenditures of America’s military contractors.

In addition, Big Pharma is spending heavily on political campaigns. In 2012, it shelled out over $36 million, making it the biggest political contributor of all American industries.

Why do we put up with this? It’s too facile to say we have no choice given how much the industry is spending on politics. If the public were sufficiently outraged, politicians and regulatory agencies wouldn’t allow this giant ripoff.

But the public isn’t outraged. That’s partly because much of this strategy is hidden from public view.

But I think it’s also because we’ve bought the ideological claptrap of the “free market” being separate from and superior to government.

And since private property and freedom of contract are the core of the free market, we assume drug companies have every right to charge what they want for the property they sell.

Yet in reality the “free market” can’t be separated from government because government determines the rules of the game.

It determines, for example, what can be patented and for how long, what side payoffs create unlawful conflicts of interest, what basic research should be subsidized, and when government can negotiate low prices.

The critical question is not whether government should play a role in the market. Without such government decisions there would be no market, and no new drugs.

The issue is how government organizes the market. So long as big drug makers have a disproportionate say in these decisions, the rest of us pay through the nose.

The views expressed in this post are the author’s alone, and presented here to offer a variety of perspectives to our readers.

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Morning Reads: Fox News Spreads Ebola Panic Mon, 06 Oct 2014 13:49:07 +0000 A roundup of some of the stories we're reading at Moyers & Company HQ... Continue reading

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Good morning! Sorry it’s Monday.

On this date in 1979, two bombs blew up a Cubana Airways jet, killing all 78 aboard. Several of those suspected of carrying out the terror attack had ties to the CIA. Two — Luis Posada Carriles and Orlando Bosch (who later received a pardon for other crimes from George HW Bush) — lived out their remaining years in the US.

Kobani –> Along Syria’s border with Turkey, the Islamic State’s three-week siege of the Kurdish town of Kobani continues. According to Bloomberg’s Glen Carey, Selcan Hacaoglu and Benjamin Harvey, local leaders say the US and Turkey haven’t done enough to assist the outgunned Kurdish forces. AND: Eli Lake reports for The Daily Beast that in Iraq, the elite Iranian troops that have backed the country’s Shi’ite militias have been ordered not to target US forces. Lake says it’s a sign that Tehran wants to strike a deal with the West over its nuclear enrichment program.

In session –> This first Monday in October marks the beginning of a new term at the Supreme Court. At Buzzfeed, Chris Geidner offers up a preview of some of the key cases the justices will consider.

Still tense –> Yamiche Alcindor reports for USA Today that tensions remain high in Ferguson, Missouri: “The question of what might happen if there is no indictment [of officer Darren Wilson] dominates conversations at coffee shops, on street corners and at church services.” Last week, the Ferguson police department asked St. Louis County police to take over security for the town. AND: The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that “protesters interrupted the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s concert on Saturday night, causing a brief delay in the performance.”

Major fraud and mismanagement” –> Jeff Bryant writes in WaPo that charter schools “are being imposed on communities – either by legislative fiat or well-engineered public policy campaigns,” and while “many charter school operators keep their practices hidden or have been found to be blatantly corrupt,” no one is “doing anything to ensure real accountability for these rapidly expanding school operations.”

A level of ignorance we should not allow” –> The PBS Newshour’s science reporter Miles O’Brien ripped Fox News’ racially-tinged and sensational Ebola coverage on Sunday. David Edwards has the details at The Raw Story. AND: Perhaps they were watching Fox in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where The Advocate reports that a police station was evacuated and sterilized after a mentally ill man came in complaining that he felt ill. Seven firefighters were briefly quarantined in a nearby station, “though the man had never set foot on the building’s grounds.”

How does somebody go into a Walmart and not come out alive?” –> Buzzfeed’s Mike Hayes and Alison Vingiano take a deep dive into the brief life and violent death of John Crawford, the young man gunned down by police in an Ohio Wal-Mart while holding a toy gun.

How to lie with data” –> Slate’s Phil Plait takes on yet another myth embraced by climate change deniers: that Arctic sea ice isn’t melting.

Also works in economics –> Dean Baker eviscerates WaPo editorial page editor Fred Hiatt’s latest panic over “entitlements” and the projected budget deficit 25 years from now.

Bit cooler than a Prius –> At the Paris Motor Show, Lamborghini previewed its new 910-horsepower plugin hybrid that goes from zero to 60 mph in just three seconds and has a top speed of 200 mph.

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Moyers on Big Banks, Ethics and Washington, DC Sun, 05 Oct 2014 13:57:11 +0000 Watch Bill's interviews with experts on the financial crisis and the current state of the banking industry. Continue reading

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Bill’s been talking with lawyers, journalists, politicians, former bank executives and veteran regulators to better understand what happened before, during and after the financial crisis. While the Great Recession may be behind us, Americans are still struggling, and many questions remain about the ethical behavior of big banks, the executives who run them and their ties to Washington. Watch the videos below for more and visit our work and economy spotlight page for our latest blogs and videos.

William K. Black on the Washington/Wall St. Alliance
Former bank regulator William K. Black, who exposed the so-called Keating Five, lays bare how Washington and Wall Street are joined in a culture of corruption. (Aired on October 3, 2014)

Sen. Elizabeth Warren on Fighting Back Against Wall St. Giants
The Massachusetts senator talks about taking on the entrenched political and Wall Street interests that have rigged the game against the rest of us. (Aired on September 5, 2014)

Too Big to Fail and Getting Bigger
Our banks are larger than before the 2008 crash and they’re still living dangerously, economist Anat Admati tells Bill. (Aired on June 13, 2014)

Gretchen Morgenson on Why Banks Are Still Too Big To Fail
Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Gretchen Morgenson tells Bill that, five years after the country’s economic near-collapse, banks are still too big to fail, too big to manage and too big to trust. (Aired on May 24, 2013)

Neil Barofsky on the Need to Tackle Banking Reform
Neil Barofsky, who held the thankless job of special inspector general in charge of policing TARP, the bailout’s Troubled Asset Relief Program, joins Bill to discuss the critical yet unmet need to tackle banking reform and avoid another financial meltdown. (Aired on October 26, 2012)

Matt Taibbi and Chrystia Freeland on the 1%’s Power and Privilege
Journalists Matt Taibbi and Chrystia Freeland discuss how far America’s super-rich will go to keep the 1% in charge. (Aired on October 9, 2012)

Sheila Bair on Keeping Banks Honest
Bill talks with financial expert Sheila Bair about the lawlessness of our banking system and the prognosis for meaningful reform. Bair was appointed in 2006 by President George W. Bush to chair the FDIC. During the 2008 meltdown, she argued that in some cases banks were NOT too big to fail — that instead of bailouts, they should be sold off to healthier competitors. (Aired on July 13, 2012)

Gretchen Morgenson on Corporate Clout in Washington
Moyers talks with Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter and columnist Gretchen Morgenson on how money and political clout enable industries to escape regulation and ensure high compensation for executives at the top. (Aired on March 9, 2012)

Matt Taibbi and Yves Smith on the Follies of Big Banks and Government
Former Rolling Stone editor Matt Taibbi and Yves Smith, creator of the finance and economics blog Naked Capitalism, join Bill to discuss the folly and corruption of both banks and government, and how that tag-team leaves deep wounds in our democracy. (Aired on June 22, 2012)

John Reed on Big Banks’ Power and Influence

Bill Moyers talks with former Citigroup Chairman John Reed to explore how the mid-1990’s merger of Citicorp and Travelers Group – and a friendly presidential pen — brought down the Glass-Steagall Act, a crucial firewall between banks and investment firms that had protected consumers from financial calamity in the aftermath of the Great Depression. (Aired on March 16, 2012)

Byron Dorgan on Making Banks Play by the Rules
Bill talks with former Senator Byron Dorgan about making sure that big banks play by rules protecting consumers from financial calamity, and how those big banks continue to leverage power and influence to avoid responsibility while maximizing profits. (Aired on March 16, 2012)

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We Should Be Protesting, Too Sat, 04 Oct 2014 13:51:11 +0000 Americans should take to the streets en masse as protesters have in Hong Kong -- and march us back to democracy. Continue reading

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Hong Kong's Umbrella Revolution (Photo: Pasu Au Yeung/flickr CC 2.0)
Hong Kong's Umbrella Revolution (Photo: Pasu Au Yeung/flickr CC 2.0)

This post first appeared on the Huffington Post.

This week, tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents turned out to protest China’s plan for bringing democracy to that city. Rather than letting voters pick the candidates that get to run for chief executive, Beijing wants the candidates selected by a 1,200 person “nominating committee.” Critics charge the committee will be “dominated by a pro-Beijing business and political elite.” “We want genuine universal suffrage,” Martin Lee, founding chairman of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party demanded, “not democracy with Chinese characteristics.”

But there’s not much particularly Chinese in the Hong Kong design, unless Boss Tweed was an ancient Chinese prophet. Tweed famously quipped, “I don’t care who does the electing, so long as I get to do the nominating.” Beijing’s proposal is just Tweedism updated: a multi-stage election, with a biased filter at the first stage.

The pattern has been common in America’s democracy too. Across the Old South, the Democratic Primary was limited to “whites only.” That bias produced a democracy responsive to whites — only. The battle for equal rights was a fight to remove that illegitimate bias, and give African-Americans an equal say in their government.

Today there’s no “white primary.” Today, there’s a “green primary.” To run in any election, primary or general, candidates must raise extraordinary sums, privately. Yet they raise that money not from all of us. They raise it from a tiny, tiny few. In the last non-presidential election, only about .05 percent of America gave the maximum contribution to even one congressional candidate in either the primary or general election; .01 percent gave $10,000 or more; and in 2012, 132 Americans gave 60 percent of the superPAC money spent. This is the biased filter in the first stage of our American democracy.

This bias has consequences. Of course, we don’t have a democracy “dominated by a pro-Beijing business and political elite.” But as a massive empirical study by Princeton’s Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page published just last month shows, remove the word “pro-Beijing,” and the charge translates pretty well.

America’s government is demonstrably responsive to the “economic elite and organized business interests,” Gilens and Page found, while “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.” Boss Tweed would have been impressed.

Lawrence Lessig’s March to End Corruption

The “green primary” isn’t a formal bar to election. But it is certainly an effective bar. There isn’t a single political analyst in America today who doesn’t look first to whether a candidate for Congress has the necessary financial support of the relevant funders. That money isn’t enough, and it certainly doesn’t guarantee victory. (Only 94 percent of candidates with more money win.) But no candidate ignores the money, or is ignorant of the views of the tiny fraction of the 1 percent that provides it. That’s not perfect control, but it turns out to be control enough to weaken the ability of ordinary Americans to have something other than a “non-significant impact upon public policy.”

The surprise in the Hong Kong plan is not that it fits Boss Tweed’s mold. The surprise is the reaction of her students, and now people. To imagine a proportionate number of Americans — 5 million — striking against our own version of Tweedism is to imagine the first steps of a revolution. But in America, we don’t protest our “democracy with Chinese characteristics.” In America, we have accepted it as as American as apple pie.

At least for now. There is no doubt that because of the way we fund campaigns, the “economic elite” — what conservatives call “the cronies” and progressives “corporate power” — have hijacked American democracy. And as frustration and anger about that truth grows, that elite will become as the whites of an apartheid regime: identified as the cause of a dying democracy, and the target of angry demands for reform.

It is hard to see this just now, since so much of popular culture idolizes extraordinary wealth. But as economic growth in the middle class stalls, and as inequality soars, an enemy will be found. At least unless the more enlightened of that elite, from both the Left and the Right, stop screaming at voters through their superPACs and step up to support the change that might weaken their power, but walk us back to a democracy.

Hong Kong’s students have started that struggle — for them, there. But their ideals are ours too, as is the flaw in the system they attack. We should be demanding the reform for which they are now fighting: an unbiased election, at every important stage. Or more simply: #EndTweedismEverywhere.

The views expressed in this post are the author’s alone, and presented here to offer a variety of perspectives to our readers.

Dale Robbins
Lawrence Lessig is the Roy L. Furman Professor of Law and Leadership at Harvard Law School, and serves as director of the Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics at Harvard University. Follow him on Twitter @Lessig.

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The Koch Brothers’ War on Transit Fri, 03 Oct 2014 21:43:14 +0000 Through their vast network of political nonprofits, the billionaire brothers are attacking infrastructure projects across the nation. Continue reading

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The Koch Brothers (Photo: Screenshot from The Koch Brothers Exposed film)
David and Charles Koch (Photo: Screenshot from The Koch Brothers Exposed film).

This post first appeared at StreetsBlog USA.

Transit advocates around the country were transfixed by a story in Tennessee this April, when the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity made a bid to pre-emptively kill Nashville bus rapid transit. It was an especially brazen attempt by Charles and David Koch’s political network to strong-arm local transportation policy makers. But it was far from the only time the Kochs and their surrogates have taken aim at transit.

The Koch brothers, who owe their fortune to fossil fuels, are best known for funding global warming deniers and Republican insurgents aligned with the Tea Party. With their political influence under greater scrutiny during election season, now’s a good time to pull together the various strands of Koch anti-transit activism.

The Kochs fund a wide-ranging network of “think tanks,” nonprofits and political organizations. Their best-known political arm is Americans for Prosperity and its various offshoots and subsidiaries. David Koch was founding chairman of Americans for Prosperity, and both brothers provided funding for its launch. Among other activities, the group does plenty to manufacture Agenda 21 paranoia, which has cable subscribers around the country convinced that smart growth is a United Nations conspiracy that will lead to one-world government.

The Kochs also have plenty of ties to widely quoted, transit-bashing pundits like Randall O’Toole, Wendell Cox and Stanley Kurtz — people employed by organizations that receive Koch funding, like the Cato Institute and the Reason Foundation, and who spout the same talking points against walkability and smart growth.

Fake experts like O’Toole and Cox have been making the rounds for ages, but the Nashville BRT story raised new questions. How many local transit projects are drawing fire from the Koch political network? And what impact is it having?

Who’s afraid of a bus lane? Rendering of Nashville BRT station. (Photo: Nashville Public Radio)

Who’s afraid of a bus lane? Rendering of Nashville BRT station. (Photo: Nashville Public Radio)

Ashley Robbins, policy manager at the Center for Transportation Excellence, which supports transit ballot measures around the country, said the Nashville case was an eye-opener. “We’re definitely going to be watching it as we see more conservative efforts pop up in Milwaukee and Oregon as well,” she said. “We’re starting to keep an eye out to see if it’s going to be a trend.”

In Tennessee, the local Americans for Prosperity chapter failed to enact the transit lane ban, but it did undermine and weaken the Nashville BRT project, which won’t be as robust as first planned. The Nashville example got us wondering where else Koch-backed groups are attacking local transit projects.

Here are a few more examples we turned up:


Americans for Prosperity Indiana was a leading opponent of efforts to expand transit in the Indianapolis region. The group lobbied state officials to kill legislation that allows Indianapolis to hold a tax referendum to expand its transit network.

Americans for Prosperity was unsuccessful in completely stopping the Indiana legislation, but it made its mark. The language of the bill that eventually passed was amended to forbid the Indianapolis region from pursuing light rail with any funds raised from the tax. Americans for Prosperity has been especially critical of rail, citing a Cato Institute study [PDF] that says rail projects are likely to run over budget (which road projects never do, of course).


Americans for Prosperity Virginia fought a new tax in Loudoun County to pay for Metro’s Silver Line extension. The organization issued robo-calls calling the extension a “bail-out to rail-station developers,’’ according to the Washington Post. The county Board of Supervisors voted to proceed with the project anyway.


A report by the Pioneer Institute created a “manufactured controversy” over the costs of service at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, Ellen Dannin wrote in Truthout earlier this year.

The Pioneer Institute is part of the State Policy Network, a group of think tanks with “deep ties to the Koch brothers” according to the Center for Media and Democracy [PDF]. According to one of the institute’s studies, maintenance costs at the MBTA are “out-of-control,” but Dannin, an author of two books on labor issues, wrote in Truthout that Pioneer relied on metrics that were bound to arrive at a predetermined outcome. For example, it chose to compare bus maintenance costs on a per-mile basis, a standard that puts a dense, crowded city like Boston at a disadvantage.

“Pioneer must have been aware that choosing a cost-per-mile standard would put the worst face on the MBTA’s performance and that neither a bus driver nor a mechanic could do anything to change that situation,” wrote Dannin.

The report also relied on some suspect comparisons. As the basis for its claims that MBTA’s pay was “out of control,” Pioneer compared costs with less expensive cities like Spokane, Washington, where the cost of living is about 22 percent lower than Boston’s.


Koch-backed organizations were instrumental in sinking Florida’s high-speed rail plans. In 2000, Sunshine State voters passed an amendment to the state’s constitution requiring the state to establish high-speed rail exceeding 120 mph linking its five major cities.

But when Governor Rick Scott was elected in 2010 in a wave of Tea Party governors, he fell in line with fellow members of the Republican Governors Association who were killing rail projects on Ohio, Wisconsin and New Jersey.

Scott hired the Reason Foundation — where David Koch is a trustee — to write a report about the proposal. To the surprise of no one, the foundation’s Wendell Cox found the project would cost way more than projected [PDF]. Scott used Cox’s dubious claims as the basis for killing the project.

Since that time, private investors have taken up the project, which is, in itself, pretty compelling evidence of the financial feasibility of the concept.

Los Angeles

The same week the first phase opened, Reason concluded Los Angeles’s Expo Line ridership projections were greatly exaggerated. One year later, the line had already surpassed projections for 2020. (Photo:

The same week the first phase opened, Reason concluded Los Angeles’s Expo Line ridership projections were greatly exaggerated. One year later, the line had already surpassed projections for 2020. (Photo:

The Reason Foundation was also critical of the Los Angeles Exposition Line extension, a $2.5 billion, 15-mile light rail line that will connect Santa Monica to downtown. In May 2012, the week the first phase opened, Reason conducted a “study” in which staff went to Expo Line stations and counted passengers. Researchers counted 13,000 passengers, short of the 27,000 daily ridership forecast for 2020. The organization concluded that even by “the most optimistic figure Reason can come up with,” ridership projections had been “vastly inflated.”

Proponents of the line argued that counting passengers during the first week of service wasn’t a fair way to measure its long term success. And they were right. The following year, the Expo Line exceeded anticipated 2020 daily ridership, seven years sooner than expected.

A study by the University of Southern California reinforced the success of the project, finding that those living within a half mile of the station had reduced their driving by 40 percent. A little bit less of their paychecks will end up in the Kochs’ pockets.

angie schmitt
Angie Schmitt is a newspaper reporter-turned planner/advocate who manages the Streetsblog Network from glamorous Cleveland, Ohio. She also writes about urban issues particular to the industrial Midwest at You can follow her on Twitter @schmangee.

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Smart Chart: The Typical White Family Is 20 Times Wealthier Than the Typical Black Family Fri, 03 Oct 2014 20:00:44 +0000 The median white family holds nearly 20 times more assets than he median black family and 74 times more assets than the median Hispanic family. Continue reading

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This post first appeared at Mother Jones.

We’re still posting a new chart on the current state of income inequality every day over the next week. Yesterday’s looked at how top tax rates dropped as top incomes rose.

Today, a closer look at how income inequality splits along racial lines. Whites’ average household income is 56 percent larger than that of African-Americans and 39 percent larger than that of Hispanics. But the discrepancy is even greater when it comes to wealth: The median white family holds nearly 20 times more assets than he median black family and 74 times more assets than the median Hispanic family.

(Illustrations and infographic design: Mattias Mackler​)

(Illustrations and infographic design: Mattias Mackler​)

Source: Income by race: US Census; wealth by race: Edward N. Wolff

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The Top Five Bank Bailouts We Never Heard About Fri, 03 Oct 2014 17:24:57 +0000 Taxpayers not only kept Wall Street afloat, we also subsidized their fines. Continue reading

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JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, head of the largest bank in the United States, prepares to testify before the Senate Banking Committee about how his company recently lost more than $2 billion on risky trades. June 2012. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)

JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, head of the largest bank in the United States, prepares to testify before the Senate Banking Committee about how his company recently lost more than $2 billion on risky trades. June 2012. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)

Gallons of ink have been devoted to Wall Street executives’ lack of accountability for a global financial meltdown that was built on top of a mountain of fraud.

Nobody at the top has faced criminal prosecution. Executive compensation and bonuses have rebounded nicely. And while taxpayers committed trillions to keeping those “too-big-to-fail” institutions afloat, the foreclosure crisis persists six years after the crash.

And while the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) sparked outrage, it wasn’t the only bailout Wall Street bankers have enjoyed since their casino came crashing down around them.

Elizabeth Warren flagged a special ruling by the Treasury Department that allowed AIG to carry over losses it incurred before the bailout for tax purposes. In 2012, she and several colleagues wrote in The Washington Post that the insurance giant’s “profits increased a staggering $17.7 billion — from a loss of $2.2 billion a year earlier — because of [the] special tax breaks.”

In 2010, economist Dean Baker and others argued that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s continuing losses were in fact a matter of intentional policy — that the government-owned lenders were acting as a conduit to take bad securities off of the big banks’ balance sheets without raising the public’s ire by creating another TARP-style pot of cash.

And that same year, Newsweek’s Stefan Theil reported that the Fed’s “near-zero interest rates are shifting hundreds of billions from the pockets of savers — including millions of pensioners now earning next to no interest on their investments — into the coffers of banks and their investors.” Theil described it as a “stealth bailout…worth nearly $1 trillion in the US alone.”

But what may be the most egregious of these behind-the-scenes bailouts have been a series of settlements with the big banks for blatant wrongdoing that were structured in such a way that they could write the penalties off of their tax bills.

The dollar figures may not be as large as the $700 billion TARP program, but TARP was ostensibly an effort to pull the global economy back from the brink of another Great Depression. These settlements are about financial institutions’ wrongdoing — and compensating their victims. There’s no economic rationale for taxpayers to pick up a share of the tab. The opposite is true: by subsidizing the banks’ settlements, we’re only encouraging them to commit more fraud in the future.

Here’s a little bit of background: Under the law, punitive fines for criminal or civil wrongdoing aren’t tax deductible, but fees and compensation to victims are.

Settlements can be negotiated to stipulate that a bad actor can’t write any part of a settlement off of its tax bill — earlier this year, for example, the DoJ refused to let Credit Suisse deduct its $2.6 billion settlement for helping Americans evade US taxes. But as Gretchen Morgenson reported for The New York Times, “the government rarely specifies what the tax treatment of a settlement should be, leaving enforcement to the Internal Revenue Service.” And when left up to their legions of tax lawyers, financial corporations take an expansive view of what’s deductble.

In order to bring these stealthy bailouts into the sunlight, we take a look below at five of the biggest taxpayer-subsidized settlements reached with financial institutions as a result of the financial crisis — and what they did to earn their sanctions.

1. The 2012 National Mortgage Settlement (NMS)

The NMS was announced with great fanfare. Billed by the Justice Department as “the largest consumer financial protection settlement in United States history,” five of the country’s largest lenders reached a deal with 49 states and the federal government to compensate borrowers to the tune of $26 billion for “mortgage servicing, foreclosure, and bankruptcy abuses.” They included the widespread practice of “robo-signing” — the practice of falsifying documents when a bank couldn’t prove that it actually owned the loan on a property. Two million homeowners were promised relief.

Earlier this year, the banks completed their obligations, and it didn’t work out quite as expected. According to the government, 600,000 homeowners got help from the settlement, but as Alan Pyke reported for ThinkProgress, “that official figure falls apart under scrutiny, and in fact fewer than 85,000 homeowners got the kind of mortgage modifications that actually help keep people in their homes.”

A good chunk of the “damages” were just an accounting gimmick: The banks were already writing down principle on some loans — with the collapse of the housing market, they often had no choice — and some of these write-downs that they had to do anyway were counted as homeowner assistance under the settlement.

We don’t know exactly how much those five giant banks wrote off of their tax bills, but we do know that a majority of the settlement was in the form of direct compensation to homeowners and the states, and we can therefore assume that they wrote off the lion’s share. At the 35 percent corporate tax rate, that’s a subsidy of around $8.4 billion, courtesy of Joe and Jane taxpayer.

2. BofA’s $17 billion 2014 settlement

You may have heard of this one — it created outrage when it was announced in August.

Bank of America, and companies it had purchased, including Countrywide Financial, knew that they were selling a lot of garbage loans that would go belly up if the housing bubble didn’t continue to expand. Rather than disclose what they knew to investors, as they were required to do by law, they kept the good loans on their books and sold off the junk to investors. It was a massive case of fraud, and the DoJ had internal memos and emails to prove it — certainly enough evidence to bring criminal charges.

Instead, they agreed to a settlement of $16.65 billion — the largest amount paid by a single institution in the aftermath of the financial crisis.

As The New York Times reported, “the actual financial burden for Bank of America, however, may not exceed $12 billion.”

At issue is how much of the cost of the $7 billion in “soft dollars,” or help for borrowers, the bank will bear under the settlement. Some of the relief the bank will provide involves cutting the principal of a loan to make it easier for the borrower to pay. The dollar amount of that reduction gets credited toward what it needs to fulfill the settlement. But Bank of America wrote down many of its troubled mortgages years ago. And investment firms, not Bank of America, may now own some of the loans that get written down, potentially shielding the bank from a financial hit.

But even if BofA ends up on the hook for all $16.65 billion, they’ll get help from you and me and other taxpayers: The Justice Department allowed BofA to write $12 billion of it off the bank’s taxes, according to tax attorney Robert Wood. That amounts to around $4 billion that we may end up paying for their fraud.

3. JPMorgan Chase’s $13 billion 2013 settlement

The facts of this case were similar to that of the one above. According to Reuters, the Justice Department concluded that JPMorgan Chase “had regularly and knowingly sold mortgages to investors that should have never been sold.” Again, the bank admitted that it had defrauded investors by telling them that “the loans it was selling them met particular standards.”

But in this case, the Justice Department allowed the mega-bank to write $11 billion in penalties — 85 percent of the total settlement — off of its tax bill. At the 35 percent corporate tax rate, that’s a subsidy of around $3.9 billion.

4. BofA’s $10 billion settlement with Fannie Mae

As Chris Isadore reported for CNN, “the purchase of bad home loans by Fannie Mae led to massive losses, a government takeover in 2008 and a $116 billion bailout to keep it functioning as a major source of home loans.” The loans were originated by the notorious predatory lender, Countrywide Financial.

But the $10.3 billion value of the settlement is an overstatement. BofA paid Fannie Mae $3.55 billion in cash, and then it repurchased 30,000 shaky mortgages for $6.75 billion. It is expected to take losses on the loans it repurchased, but it won’t lose every dollar. Nobody knows how much they’ll ultimately recoup on those loans, but we do know that despite the fact that Fannie Mae is owned by the government, the settlement is considered to be one between two private parties, so the whole enchilada will be tax-deductible.

5. BofA/ Countrywide’s 2008 predatory lending settlement with 11 states

Countrywide’s lending practices were frequently compared to the hustles featured in the 2000 crime movie, “Boiler Room.” In 2007, Gretchen Morgenson reported that “Countrywide’s entire operation, from its computer system to its incentive pay structure and financing arrangements, is intended to wring maximum profits out of the mortgage lending boom no matter what it costs borrowers.” They used heavy-handed sales pitches, routinely steered customers into higher cost loans when they were eligible for cheaper ones and wildly misrepresented the terms of the mortgages they were peddling.

In 2008, then-Attorney General of California Jerry Brown announced that he and top law enforcement officials from 10 other states had reached an $8.68 settlement with Countrywide, which had already been acquired by BofA at that point.

The settlement didn’t require Countrywide/BofA to admit any wrongdoing, and didn’t include any punitive fines. It was all tax deductible. Had Countrywide completed the settlement before being taken over by BofA, the latter wouldn’t have been able to carry those losses over to its own books (and wouldn’t be able to deduct them from its taxes). But BofA completed the purchase three months before the settlement was reached and took an active role in the negotiations.

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Full Show: Too Big to Jail? Fri, 03 Oct 2014 17:01:43 +0000 A veteran bank regulator lays bare how Washington and Wall Street are joined in a culture of corruption. Continue reading

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Attorney General Eric Holder’s resignation last week reminds us of an infuriating fact: No banking executives have been criminally prosecuted for their role in causing the biggest financial disaster since the Great Depression.

“I blame Holder. I blame Timothy Geithner,” veteran bank regulator William K. Black tells Bill this week. “But they are fulfilling administration policies. The problem definitely comes from the top. And remember, Obama wouldn’t have been president but for the financial contribution of bankers.”

And the rub? While large banks have been penalized for their role in the housing meltdown, the costs of those fines will be largely borne by shareholders and taxpayers as the banks write off the fines as the cost of doing business. And by and large these top executives got to keep their massive bonuses and compensation, despite the fallout.

But the story gets even more infuriating, the more Black lays bare the culture of corruption that led to the meltdown.

“The Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations all could have prevented [the financial meltdown],” Black tells Moyers. And what’s worse, Black — who exposed the so-called Keating Five — believes the next crisis is coming: “We have created the incentive structures that [are] going to produce a much larger disaster.”

Producer: Candace White. Segment Producer: Rob Booth. Editor: Rob Kuhns. Intro Editor: Sikay Tang.

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]]> 158 financial crisis,great recession,mortgage crisis,mortgage fraud,too big to fail,wall street,widget,william black A veteran bank regulator lays bare how Washington and Wall Street are joined in a culture of corruption. A veteran bank regulator lays bare how Washington and Wall Street are joined in a culture of corruption. Public Affairs Television, Inc. no 22:47
Watch Frontline’s ‘The Untouchables’ Fri, 03 Oct 2014 16:27:54 +0000 A Frontline documentary explores why investigators "refuse" to bring cases against the elites who engineered the financial meltdown. Continue reading

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During Bill Moyers’ conversation with former bank regulator William K. Black, the two discussed the 2013 Frontline documentary “The Untouchables.” In the program, producer/correspondent Martin Smith, through interviews with Wall Street insiders, would-be whistleblowers and regulators, examines why those responsible for the financial crisis were never charged with fraud.

In the documentary, both former Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer and FBI Associate Deputy Director Kevin Perkins tell Smith that they were unable to make a case against any financial executives that would stand up “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

“Disingenuous would be the kindest word” for these statements, Black told Moyers. “[I]n baseball terms they’re batting 0.000. But they’re not just batting 0.000, they took called strikes. They never got the bat off their shoulder and even swung. They didn’t even try.”

Watch chapter one of “The Untouchables.”

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Top 10 Solutions to Cut Poverty and Grow the Middle Class Fri, 03 Oct 2014 15:00:07 +0000 It is not only possible for America to cut poverty, it is possible for us to cut poverty dramatically. Continue reading

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A homeless man standing outside of McDonald's in Wall St.(Credit: Charina Nadura/Moyers & Company)
A homeless man stands outside of McDonald's near Wall Street to ask for help from passersby. (Credit: Charina Nadura/Moyers & Company)

This post first appeared at TalkPoverty.

Last month, the US Census Bureau released its annual figures on income, poverty and health insurance. It revealed that four years into the economic recovery, economic insecurity remains widespread, and low — and middle — income workers have seen no significant wage growth over the past decade.

With the poverty rate at an unacceptable 14.5 percent and economic inequality stuck at historically high levels, one might assume that chronic economic insecurity and an off-kilter economy are the “new normal” — that nothing can be done to fix it.

But there is nothing “normal” or inevitable about more than 45 million Americans living in poverty. It is the direct result of policy choices. With different policy choices, we will see a more equitable economy — it’s as simple as that.

Here are 10 steps Congress can take to cut poverty, boost economic security and expand the middle class.

1) Create jobs.

The best pathway out of poverty is a well-paying job. To get back to prerecession employment levels, we must create 5.6 million new jobs. To kick-start job growth now, the federal government should invest in our infrastructure by rebuilding our bridges, railways, roads, ports, schools and libraries, neighborhood parks and abandoned housing; expanding broadband; develop renewable energy sources; and make other commonsense investments that create jobs and boost our national economy. For example, extending federal unemployment insurance would have created 200,000 new jobs in 2014. But Congress failed to act, leaving 1.3 million Americans and their families without this vital economic lifeline. We should renew federal unemployment insurance, and also build on proven models of subsidized employment to help the long-term unemployed and other disadvantaged workers re-enter the labor force.

2) Raise the minimum wage.

In the late 1960s, the minimum wage was enough to lift a family of three out of poverty. Not so anymore. The current federal minimum wage of $7.25 is a poverty wage, and had it been indexed to inflation it would be $10.86 per hour today. Raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour and indexing it to inflation would lift more than four million Americans out of poverty. Nearly one in five children would see their parent get a raise. Recent action by states and cities shows that boosting the minimum wage reduces poverty and increases wages.

3) Increase the EITC for childless workers.

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) lifted more than 6.5 million Americans — including 3.3 million children — above the poverty line in 2012. Kids who receive the EITC are also more likely to graduate from high school and have higher earnings in adulthood. Yet childless workers largely miss out on the benefit — their maximum credit is less than one-tenth that awarded to a worker with two children. Policymakers across the political spectrum have called for boosting the EITC. Importantly, this policy change should be combined with a raise in the minimum wage — one is not a substitute for the other.

4) Support pay equity.

With female full-time workers earning just 78 cents for every dollar earned by men, we must take action to ensure equal pay for equal work. Closing the gender pay gap would cut poverty in half for working women and their families and add nearly half a trillion dollars to the nation’s gross domestic product. Passing the Paycheck Fairness Act to hold employers accountable for discriminatory salary practices would be a key first step.

5) Provide paid leave and paid sick days.

The United States is the only developed country without paid family leave and paid sick days, making it exceedingly difficult for millions of American workers to care for their families without having to sacrifice needed income. Paid leave is an important anti-poverty policy — having a child is one of the leading causes of economic hardship. Additionally, nearly four in 10 private sector workers — and seven in 10 low-wage workers — do not have a single paid sick day, so they must forgo needed income in order to care for a sick child or loved one. The Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, or FAMILY Act, would provide paid leave protection to workers who need to take time off due to their own illness or that of a family member, or after the birth of a child. And the Healthy Families Act would enable workers to earn up to seven job-protected sick days a year.

6) Establish work schedules that work.

Low-wage and hourly jobs increasingly come with unpredictable and constantly shifting work schedules. These erratic schedules make accessing child care even more difficult and leave workers uncertain about their monthly income. Further, things many of us take for granted — such as scheduling a doctor’s appointment or even a parent-teacher conference at school — become herculean tasks. The Schedules That Work Act would require that workers receive two weeks advance notice of their schedules, create and protect an employee’s right to request needed schedule changes, and provide guaranteed pay for cancelled or shortened shifts — important first steps towards making work-family balance possible for all workers.

7) Invest in affordable, high-quality child care and early education.

The lack of affordable, high-quality child care serves as a major barrier to reaching the middle class. Federal child care assistance reaches only one in six eligible children. One year of child care for an infant costs more than a year of tuition at most states’ four-year public colleges. Poor families who pay out of pocket for child care spend an average of one-third of their incomes. Boosting investments in Head Start and the Child Care and Development Block Grant, as well as passing the Strong Start for America’s Children Act — which would invest in preschool, high-quality child care for infants and toddlers and home visiting services for pregnant women and mothers with infants — will help families obtain the child care they need in order to work, and improve the future economic mobility of America’s children.

8) Expand Medicaid.

Since it was signed into law in 2010, the Affordable Care Act has expanded access to high-quality, affordable health coverage for millions of Americans. However, 23 states refuse to expand their Medicaid programs to cover adults up to 138 percent of the federal poverty line, which makes the struggle for many families on the brink much harder. Expanding Medicaid means more than just access to healthcare — it frees up limited household income for other basic needs, like paying rent and putting food on the table. Having health coverage is also an important buffer against the economic consequences of illness or injury — unpaid medical bills are the leading cause of bankruptcy. Studies link Medicaid coverage not only to improved health, improved access to healthcare services and lower mortality rates, but also to reduced financial strain. It’s time for all states to expand Medicaid.

9) Reform the criminal justice system and enact policies that support successful re-entry.

The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country in the world. Today, more than 1.5 million Americans are behind bars in state and federal prisons, a figure that has increased five fold since 1980. The impact on communities of color is particularly staggering: One in four African-American children who grew up during this time period have had a parent incarcerated.

Mass incarceration is a key driver of poverty. When a parent is incarcerated, his or her family must find a way to make ends meet without a necessary source of income. Additionally, even a minor criminal record can result in lifelong barriers to climbing out of poverty. For example, people with criminal records face substantial barriers to employment, housing, education, public assistance and building good credit. More than 90 percent of employers now use background checks in hiring, and even an arrest without a conviction can prevent an individual from getting a job. The “one strike and you’re out” policy used by public housing authorities makes it difficult for individuals with even decades-old criminal records to obtain housing, and can obstruct family reunification. And in more than half of US states, individuals with felony drug convictions are burdened with a lifetime ban on receiving certain types of public assistance.

In addition to common-sense sentencing reform to ensure that we no longer fill our nation’s prisons with non-violent, low-level offenders, policymakers should explore alternatives to incarceration, such as diversion programs for individuals with mental health and substance abuse challenges. We must also remove barriers to employment, housing, education and public assistance. A decades-old criminal record should not consign an individual to a life of poverty.

10) Do no harm.

The across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration — which took effect in 2013 — slashed funding for programs and services that provide vital support to low-income families. Sequestration also cost the American economy as many as 1.6 million jobs between mid-2013 and 2014. As Congress considers a continuing resolution to fund the federal government past October 1 and avoid another government shutdown, it should reject further cuts to vital programs and services which would once again take us in the wrong direction. Thereafter, Congress should make permanent the improvements made to the EITC and the Child Tax Credit as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which are set to expire in 2017. And it should protect and strengthen vital programs such as Section 8 housing, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, which suffered two rounds of deep cuts in 2013 and 2014.


It is not only possible for America to cut poverty, it is possible for us to cut poverty dramatically. Between 1959 and 1973, a strong economy, investments in family economic security, and new civil rights protections helped cut the US poverty rate in half. Investments in nutrition assistance have improved educational attainment, earnings, health and income among our nation’s children when they reach adulthood. Expansions of public health insurance have lowered infant mortality rates. And, in more recent history, states that have raised the minimum wage have shown the important role that policy plays in reversing wage stagnation.

There is nothing inevitable about poverty, and there is nothing inevitable about the lack of political will to dramatically reduce it. Share this article with your friends, and get involved.

The views expressed in this post are the authors’ alone, and presented here to offer a variety of perspectives to our readers.

Rebecca Vallas is the Associate Director of the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress. You can follow her on Twitter @rebeccavallas.
Melissa Boteach is the Vice President of Half in Ten at the Center for American Progress Action Fund and the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress. You can follow her on Twitter @mboteach.

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Morning Reads: Austerity, Budget Cuts Hamper US Ebola Response Fri, 03 Oct 2014 13:49:08 +0000 A roundup of some of the stories we're reading at Moyers & Company HQ... Continue reading

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Good morning — and happy Friday! Given the current chaos, it seems almost tragic to mention that today is Iraq Day, commemorating its liberation from the UK in 1932. It’s also German Unity Day — celebrating the 24th anniversary of German reunification at the end of the Cold War. 

Chronic, insidious” –> Gabrielle Canon reports for MoJo that the agencies tasked with helping West African countries combat Ebola have seen their “ability to respond” significantly degraded due to budget cuts and the 2013 sequester. ALSO: An NBC cameraman working in Liberia has contracted Ebola and is being transported back to the states for treatment. The whole crew will be quarantined, according to Llloyd Grove at The Daily Beast.

Hack –> The NYT reports: “A cyberattack this summer on JPMorgan Chase compromised the accounts of 76 million households and seven million small businesses, a tally that dwarfs previous estimates by the bank and puts the intrusion among the largest ever.”

War –> The Islamic State’s advance on Kobane, a town on the Syrian border with Turkey, has continued “despite US-led air strikes seeking to halt its two-week offensive,” according to the BBC.  Turkey has pledged to do whatever is necessary to counter the threat. Around 160,000 refugees, mostly Kurds, have already fled over its border. AND: Agence France Presse reports that the friends of a French man wanted for terrorism after joining IS are shocked, remembering him as a happy, easy-going person who smoked marijuana and went out to nightclubs.

No-bid contracts –> The Center for Public Integrity has Daniel Wagner’s second piece on how Wall Street gouges the families of prison inmates. This time, Wagner looks at how megabanks like JPMorgan Chase and BofA have “locked up” the market for prisoners’ financial services with no-bid contracts from the federal government.

Extreme –> Tara Culp-Ressler reports for ThinkProgress that Alabama’s “radical” new abortion law will put “minors on trial and give their fetuses a lawyer.” AND: Two-thirds of Texas’ abortion clinics will likely close after a federal appeals court ruled that the state can enforce its back-door regulatory ban. Maria La Ganga has the details at the LAT.

Anti-Occupy mob…” –> Liam Fitzpatrick reports for Time that “a progovernment mob, hundreds strong, destroyed one of Hong Kong’s democracy-protest sites Friday afternoon local time, attacking students, trashing student tents and hurling obscenities.”

Good question –> At Slate, Seeta Peña Gangadharan asks, “will the FCC actually pay attention to the three million public comments on Net neutrality?”

Not so fast –> Yesterday, we shared Jesse Singal’s piece in NY Mag’s “The Science of Us” about how researchers are finding ways to communicate the threat of global warming that seem to be effective with some conservative “skeptics.” At Grist, David Roberts disagrees, writing that experimental results don’t hold up “in a blooming, buzzing real-world context, surrounded by an ideologically supportive set of peers and influencers, exposed to multiple media streams intent on delivering opposing messages.”

Ferguson –> Four  more people who claim to have been brutalized by Ferguson police during recent protests have joined a lawsuit seeking damages for “illegal and excessive use of force.” Reuters has the story (via The Raw Story). ALSO: Voter registrations in Ferguson have “surged” since the shooting of Michael Brown. At USA Today, Yamiche Alcindor writes that it “may mean the city of 21,000 people is ready for a change.”

PANIC!!!!! –> Stephen Colbert looks at the Ebola “deathpocalypse” as it’s now being portrayed by the hysterical cable news nets…

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At Last: Jury Blames Bank Execs for Mortgage Fraud Fri, 03 Oct 2014 13:45:22 +0000 In a recent trial, a jury in Sacramento was convinced that “executives intended to make fraudulent loans.” Continue reading

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Benjamin Wagner
Benjamin Wagner, the United States Attorney for Sacramento, points towards a chart showing how home mortgages were bundled as defective mortgage-backed securities during a news conference to discuss the $13 billion settlement with JPMorgan Chase & Co., in Sacramento, Calif., on Nov. 19, 2013. No criminal charges were brought against banking executives (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

While the Justice Department has not criminally prosecuted any senior banking executives for their role in the housing crisis, they’ve had no problem going after the small-timers.

On this week’s show, Bill spoke to veteran bank regulator William K. Black about the significance of a recent ruling handed down by a federal jury in Sacramento acquitting four allegedly fraudulent mortgage borrowers of criminal charges.

Their ruling came after testimony from Black that the executives at their banks knowingly made fraudulent loans for their own personal, financial benefit.

“This is the first that a jury has ever got to hear what actually caused the crisis,” Black, who testified for the defense in the case, told Moyers. “And the jury was horrified, because it was the lenders who deliberately made massive amounts of fraudulent loans and then sold these massive amounts of fraudulent loans through additional frauds to the secondary market and eventually brought down the global financial system.”

Salon’s Thomas Frank writes that the case appeared to be a routine one, but the defendants’ strategy turned it into something else.

The case started as a routine mortgage-fraud prosecution, brought by none other than the aforementioned U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner. A group of eastern European immigrants had bought houses in California in 2006, in a real-estate market that was in the early stages of collapse. According to the indictment, filed in 2012, these people’s mortgage applications contained blank spots and wrong information; they were accused of getting the mortgages in order to sell the houses to one another at pumped-up prices in what is called a “straw buyer” scheme. Also, they defaulted on the loans.

However, members of the immigrants’ legal defense team — several of them appointed by the state — had read the newspapers over the years and were aware of the kinds of things that had gone on in real estate during the bubble. They knew, for example, that in the go-go days of the last decade, the mortgage origination industry routinely cranked out “stated income” loans — also known as “liar’s loans” — to people who were obviously unable to make the payments. The bankers back then almost never checked on whether the borrower was telling the truth about their income; they just wanted to make the loan. So the defense team in Sacramento came up with a novel strategy: How can the borrower have committed fraud on a mortgage application if the lender didn’t care whether their answers were truthful?

And lenders so didn’t care back in the bubble days. They invented liar’s loans and blanketed the country with them during the Oughts not because the poors talked them into doing it, or because the liberals in the Bush Administration forced them to do it — on the contrary, the government warned them against issuing these things, just as the government warns us against swallowing arsenic. The reason bankers did it was because liar’s loans were making bankers rich.

This is a difficult thing to understand—indeed, not understanding it is the stated reason Obama Administration officials have made no effort to send financiers to jail — so let us take this slowly. Executives at the mortgage origination companies got huge bonuses in those days for writing lots of loans. OK? They wanted to write more of them, and the only way to really crank out mortgages on a vast scale was by giving one to anyone who wanted one, regardless of their ability to pay, a feat that is only possible by means of the “liar’s loan.” So: Liar’s loans = rich bankers.

Read more at Salon »

Also don’t miss: Michael Hiltzik’s summary of the case in The Los Angeles Times »

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Here’s the Latest in the GOP’s Push to Restrict Voting Thu, 02 Oct 2014 19:27:02 +0000 The same voter ID laws and limits on early voting that debuted in 2012 are back. Continue reading

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A steady stream of voters fill the voting booths at Ronald Reagan Lodge, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012, in West Chester, Ohio. (AP Photo/Al Behrman)

A steady stream of voters fill the voting booths at Ronald Reagan Lodge, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012, in West Chester, Ohio. (AP Photo/Al Behrman)

With more than a month to go until Election Day, the record for most money spent by outside groups to influence a midterm has already been broken. Meanwhile, Republicans in a number of states continue their relentless push to restrict access to the polls via reduced early voting and voter ID laws.

And earlier this week, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 (along the usual ideological lines) to cut Ohio’s early voting days just 16 hours before it was set to begin. During the 2012 election, some Ohioans who would not be able to cast a ballot on Election Day waited in line for hours to vote after Ohio’s Secretary of State, Jon Husted, cut early voting down from five weekends to one.

The Court’s decision is not in itself cause for alarm, but has worrying implications, writes UC-Irvine law professor and voting law expert Rick Hasen. The cutbacks are comparatively minor: Ohio still has 28 days of early voting, though the Court’s decision will eliminate at least one Sunday, when black churches often organize “Souls to the Polls” campaigns.

The problem, Hasen writes, is that the Ohio decision could be “bad news… [for] cases where the changes matter more” — namely, in North Carolina, Wisconsin and Texas. Challengers to Wisconsin’s voter ID law — which stands to disenfranchise 10 percent of the state’s voters — will be taking it to the Supreme Court, they announced today, with hopes that the Court will delay the implementation of the law before November’s gubernatorial election. And supporters of restrictive voting laws in North Carolina and Texas will likely push those cases to the high court as well. Today, the Supreme Court announced that it will also weigh in on an Arizona redistricting case.

Just yesterday in the North Carolina case, a federal appeals court blocked two measures enacted by the state’s GOP-majority legislature, saying there “can be no doubt” that they would “disproportionately impact minority voters.” North Carolina will have to count ballots cast in the wrong precinct and reinstate same-day voter registration in 2014 — unless the Supreme Court overturns yesterday’s decision. At The Nation, Ari Berman notes that “100,000 North Carolinians used same-day registration in 2012, including twice as many blacks as whites. Roughly 7,500 voters also cast their ballots in the wrong precinct but right county in 2012.”

Restrictive voting laws take many forms, but some are more transparent than others. Consider the Texas law that allows voters to present a concealed-carry license when casting their ballot, but not a student ID, making it more difficult for students, who traditionally lean Democrat, to vote while keeping access open for gun aficionados, a solid Republican constituency.

FILE - In this Nov. 5, 2012, file photo, voters wait in line outside the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections in Cleveland on the final day of early voting. Early voting won't be starting in Ohio on Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014, following an order from a divided U.S. Supreme Court that delayed it until next week. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan, File)

In this Nov. 5, 2012, photo, voters wait in line outside the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections in Cleveland on the final day of early voting. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)

Cutting back on early voting hours — as is happening in Ohio — also disproportionately impacts Democratic voters, such as African-Americans and single mothers — who because of work or other responsibilities find it difficult to stand in long lines on Election Day. Fran Millar, the senior deputy whip for Georgia state Republicans, wrote an op-ed in his local paper explaining why he didn’t want to see more early voting days in his county, in which he said:

“Now we are to have Sunday voting at South DeKalb Mall just prior to the election. … this location is dominated by African American shoppers and it is near several large African American mega churches such as New Birth Missionary Baptist.” — Fran Millar, Georgia Senator, Sept. 2014

Millar later clarified that comment: “I would prefer more educated voters than a greater increase in the number of voters. If you don’t believe this is an efort [sic] to maximize Democratic votes pure and simple, then you are not a realist. This is a partisan stunt and I hope it can be stopped.”

But conservative attacks on voters’ access to the polls may be taking even more creative forms. The Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity (AFP) recently sent out hundreds of mailers to North Carolina voters (and at least one North Carolina cat) with grossly inaccurate and contradictory information on how to vote. The Raleigh News & Observer has a log of the many misleading statements on the mailers, which AFP presented as an “official application form” for voting. If it turns out that AFP intentionally sought to mislead voters on how to register, it would be a felony.

In the south, lawmakers moved rapidly to restrict voting (see, for example: Texas) after the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision striking down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), which required states with a history of racially based voter discrimination to clear any changes to voting law with the federal government. In striking down parts of the VRA, the Court effectively passed the half century-old law back to Congress to restructure. A bipartisan coalition introduced a fix to the Act last January, but that legislation has since stalled.

New polling commissioned by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights found that Americans, given a description of the Voting Rights Act’s history, overwhelmingly opposed the Supreme Court’s decision to gut it. And majorities of Democrats and Republicans in every region of the country supported the initiative to fix the VRA.

“It vexes us that Republican leadership is opting to be on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of the law and — as we can confirm today — the wrong side of the American people,” Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said in a call with reporters this week.

So, without congressional direction on the issue, the battle over voting rights will be fought in state legislatures and then challenged in the courts, in some cases advancing to the Supreme Court. If recent rulings are any indication, it seems voting rights advocates are unlikely to find relief there. As Rick Hasen writes in Slate this week, “We ignore what’s coming in our peril.”

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Resignation Letter from US Foreign Service Officer Matthew P. Hoh Thu, 02 Oct 2014 16:31:36 +0000 "I fail to see the value or the worth in continued US casualties or expenditures of resources in support of the Afghan government in what is, truly, a 35-year old civil war." Continue reading

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Below is the resignation letter from US Foreign Service Officer Matthew P. Hoh.

US Foreign Service Officer Matthew P. Hoh,
Senior Civilian Representative, Afghanistan

September 10, 2009

Ambassador Nancy J. Powell
Director General of the Foreign Service and Director of Human Resources
U.S. Department of State
2201 C Street NW
Washington, D.C. 20520

Dear Ambassador Powell,

It is with great regret and disappointment I submit my resignation from my appointment as a Political Officer in the Foreign Service and my post as the Senior Civilian Representative for the US Government in Zabul Province. I have served six of the previous ten years in service to our country overseas, to include deployment as a US Marine office and Department of Defense civilian in the Euphrates and Tigris River Valleys of Iraq in 2004-2005 and 2006-2007. I did not enter into this position lightly or with any undue expectations nor did I believe my assignment would be without sacrifice, hardship or difficulty. However, in the course of my five months of service in Afghanistan, in both Regional Commands East and South, I have lost understanding of and confidence in the strategic purposes of the United States’ presence in Afghanistan. I have doubts and reservations about our current strategy and planned future strategy, but my resignation is based not upon how we are pursuing this war, but why and to what end. To put simply: I fail to see the value or the worth in continued US casualties or expenditures of resources in support of the Afghan government in what is, truly, a 35-year old civil war.

This fall will mark the eighth year of US combat, governance and development operations within Afghanistan. Next fall, the United States’ occupation will equal in length the Soviet Union’s own physical involvement in Afghanistan. Like the Soviets, we continue to secure and bolster a failing state, while encouraging an ideology and system of government unknown and unwanted by its people.

If the history of Afghanistan is one great stage play, the United States is no more than a supporting actor, among several previously, in a tragedy that not only pits tribes, valleys, clans, villages and families against one another, but, from at least the end of King Zahir Shah’s reign, has violently and savagely pitted the urban, secular, educated and modern of Afghanistan against the rural, religious, illiterate and traditional. It is this latter group that composes and supports the Pashtun insurgency. The Pashtun insurgency, which is composed of multiple, seemingly infinite, local groups, is fed by what is perceived by the Pashtun people as a continued and sustained assault, going back centuries, on Pashtun land, culture, traditions and religion by internal and external enemies. The US and NATO presence and operations in Pashtun valleys and villages, as well as Afghan army and police units that are led and composed of non- Pashtun soldiers and police, provide an occupation force against which the insurgency is justified. In both RC East and South, I have observed that the bulk of the insurgency fights not for the white banner of the Taliban, but rather against the presence of foreign soldiers and taxes imposed by an unrepresentative government in Kabul.

The United States military presence in Afghanistan greatly contributes to the legitimacy and strategic message of the Pashtun insurgency. In a like manner our backing of the Afghan government in its current form continues to distance the government from the people. The Afghan government’s failings, particularly when weighed against the sacrifice of American lives and dollars, appear legion and metastatic:

  • Glaring corruption and unabashed graft;
  • A President whose confidants and chief advisors comprise drug lords and war crimes villains, who mock our own rule of law and counternarcotics efforts;
  • A system of provincial and district leaders constituted of local power brokers, opportunists and strongmen allied to the United States solely for, and limited by, the value of our USAID and CERP contracts and for whose own political and economic interests stand nothing to gain from any positive or genuine attempts at reconciliation; and
  • The recent election process dominated by fraud and discredited by low voter turnout, which has created an enormous victory for our enemy who now claims a popular boycott and will call into question worldwide our government’s military, economic and diplomatic support for an invalid and illegitimate Afghan government.

Our support for this kind of government, coupled with a misunderstanding of the insurgency’s true nature, reminds me horribly of our involvement with South Vietnam; an unpopular and corrupt government we backed at the expense of our Nation’s own internal peace, against an insurgency whose nationalism we arrogantly and ignorantly mistook as a rival to our own Cold War ideology.

I find specious the reasons we ask for bloodshed and sacrifice from our young men and women in Afghanistan. If honest, our stated strategy of securing Afghanistan to prevent al-Qaeda resurgence or regrouping would require us to additionally invade and occupy western Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, etc. Our presence in Afghanistan has only increased destabilization and insurgency in Pakistan where we rightly fear a toppled or weakened Pakistani government may lose control of its nuclear weapons. However, again, to follow the logic of our stated goals we should garrison Pakistan, not Afghanistan. More so, the September 11th attacks, as well as the Madrid and London bombings, were primarily planned and organized in Western Europe; a point that highlights the threat is not one tied to traditional geographic or political boundaries. Finally, if our concern is for a failed state crippled by corruption and poverty and under assault from criminal and drug lords, then if we bear our military and financial contributions to Afghanistan, we must reevaluate and increase our commitment to and involvement in Mexico.

Eight years into war, no nation has ever known a more dedicated, well trained, experienced and disciplined military as the US Armed Forces. I do not believe any military force has ever been tasked with such a complex, opaque and Sisyphean mission as the US military has received in Afghanistan. The tactical proficiency and performance of our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines is unmatched and unquestioned. However, this is not the European or Pacific theaters of World War II, but rather is a war for which our leaders, uniformed, civilian and elected, have inadequately prepared and resourced our men and women. Our forces, devoted and faithful, have been committed to conflict in an indefinite and unplanned manner that has become a cavalier, politically expedient and Pollyannaish misadventure. Similarly, the United States has a dedicated and talented cadre of civilians, both US government employees and contractors, who believe in and sacrifice for their mission, but they have been ineffectually trained and led with guidance and intent shaped more by the political climate in Washington, DC than in Afghan cities, villages, mountains and valleys.

“We are spending ourselves into oblivion” a very talented and intelligent commander, one of America’s best, briefs every visitor, staff delegation and senior officer. We are mortgaging our Nation’s economy on a war, which, even with increased commitment, will remain a draw for years to come. Success and victory, whatever they may be, will be realized not in years, after billions more spent, but in decades and generations. The United States does not enjoy a national treasury for such success and victory.

I realize the emotion and tone of my letter and ask that you excuse any ill temper. I trust you understand the nature of this war and the sacrifices made by so many thousands of families who have been separated from loved ones deployed in defense of our Nation and whose homes bear the fractures, upheavals and scars of multiple and compounded deployments. Thousands of our men and women have returned home with physical and mental wounds, some that will never heal or will only worsen with time. The dead return only in bodily form to be received by families who must be reassured their dead have sacrificed for a purpose worthy of futures lost, loved vanished and promised dreams unkept. I have lost confidence such assurances can anymore be made. As such, I submit my resignation.


Matthew P. Hoh
Senior Civilian Representative
Zabul Province, Afghanistan

Cc: Mr. Frank Ruggiero
Ms. Dawn Liberi
Ambassador Anthony Wayne
Ambassador Karl Eikenberry

Matthew Hoh
Matthew P. Hoh is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and is the former director of the Afghanistan Study Group, a network of foreign and public policy experts and professionals advocating for a change in US strategy in Afghanistan. A former State Department official, Matthew resigned in protest from his post in Afghanistan over US strategic policy and goals there in September 2009.

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Police Want to Get Rid of Their Pentagon-Issued Combat Gear. Here’s Why They Can’t Thu, 02 Oct 2014 16:05:06 +0000 After Ferguson, many towns are trying to return military gear supplied by the Defense Department -- and finding it impossible. Continue reading

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A member of the Missouri Highway Patrol is seen atop an armored personnel carrier Monday, Aug. 18, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. The Aug. 9 shooting of Michael Brown by police has touched off rancorous protests in Ferguson, a St. Louis suburb where police have used riot gear and tear gas. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
A member of the Missouri Highway Patrol is seen on top of an armored personnel carrier in August. The police department in Ferguson, Missouri sparked a national conversation for their highly militarized response to demonstrators protesting the death of Michael Brown - an unarmed African-American teenager killed by a police officer. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

This post first appeared at Mother Jones.

An officer with the Chelan County Sheriff’s Department in central Washington is offering me a tank. Three of them, actually.

“We really want to get rid of these,” Undersheriff John Wisemore says. “We’ve been trying to get the military to take them back since 2004.”

The tanks came from a vast Defense Department program that has furnished American police arsenals, at no charge, with $4.3 billion worth of combat equipment leftover from two foreign wars. The tanks are amphibious, capable of firing 107-mm mortars — and not remotely useful to Wisemore’s rural police department. But the county can’t seem to unload them. Back in June, Wisemore got an email from a Defense Department liaison promising to explain how Chelan County can get rid of the tanks. Then, nothing. Until further notice, Wisemore says, “they’re just going to sit there.”

In the past eight years, the Pentagon program has loaned local law enforcement some 200,000 ammunition magazines, 94,000 machine guns, and thousands of armored vehicles, rifles, aircraft, land mine detectors, silencers and grenade launchers — all at the request of the local agencies themselves. But images of the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, of police in military gear cracking down on peaceful protesters, have turned many communities against a program critics say has eroded the line between police officers and soldiers. Recently, in response to the local outcry over aggressive policing tactics, San Jose, California’s police department announced plans to return its mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle (MRAP), and the Los Angeles school system police department has agreed to return its three grenade launchers.

Law enforcement agencies across the country have quietly returned more than 6,000 unwanted or unusable items to the Pentagon.

Even before police militarization made the news, hundreds of police departments were finding that grenade launchers, military firearms and armored vehicles aren’t very useful to community policing. When Chelan County police officers requested one armored car in 2000 — the request that landed them three tanks — they pictured a vehicle that could withstand bullets, not land mines. Law enforcement agencies across the country have quietly returned more than 6,000 unwanted or unusable items to the Pentagon in the last 10 years, according to Defense Department data provided to Mother Jones by a spokeswoman for Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), who has spearheaded a Senate investigation of the Pentagon program that is arming local police. Thousands more unwanted items have been transferred to other police departments.

But some agencies have found the process of getting rid of unwanted military gear next to impossible. Agencies can’t return or trade large pieces of tactical equipment without Defense Department approval, and because the Pentagon technically still owns that equipment, they can’t sell it.

According to interviews with state officials running point between the Pentagon and police, the Defense Department prefers to leave equipment in circulation whenever possible. “It’s a low-cost storage method for them,” says Robb Davis, the mayor pro tem of Davis. His town is trying to shake its MRAP. “They’re dumping these vehicles on us and saying, ‘Hey, these are still ours, but you have to maintain them for us.’”

Police departments, in most cases, bear the costs of shipping the equipment to its new home. Ursula Kroener, a police spokeswoman for the San Diego school district police department, says she was told by the office in California that facilitates the military transfer program that San Diego would have to wait to begin the process of returning its 18-ton MRAP because the Defense Department had closed the portion of its website that allows police departments to request returns until yesterday, October 1. Kroener adds that she was told that the Pentagon halted returns partly because so many law enforcement agencies are clamoring to return their equipment. The California liaison for the Defense Department transfer program did not reply to requests for comment. A spokesman with the Defense Logistics Agency, the division within the Pentagon that oversees the surplus program, says that none of the division’s websites have been down for more than a few hours for updates.

A Defense Logistics Agency spokeswoman says that law enforcement agencies are free to return equipment as long as they complete the right paperwork. She adds that certain pieces of equipment, such as night vision goggles, require extra certification to return. As examples of what might cause the Defense Department to reject a return, she lists only two: incorrect paperwork, and lack of that extra certification.

In reality, however, police departments may find the returns process slow, mystifying or nonfunctional. Online law enforcement message boards brim with complaints that the Pentagon refuses to take back unwanted guns and vehicles — like this one, about a pair of M14 rifles that have survived attempts by two sheriffs to get rid of them.

“The federal government is just not interested in getting this stuff back,” says Davis Trimmer, a lieutenant with the Hillsborough, North Carolina, police department. Local law enforcement officials and Pentagon liaisons interviewed by Mother Jones all agree that the Defense Department always prefers to keep working equipment in circulation over warehousing it. Trimmer has twice requested permission to return three M14 rifles that are too heavy for practical use. But the North Carolina point person for the Pentagon insists that Hillsborough can’t get rid of the firearms until another police department volunteers to take them. Police in Woodfin, North Carolina, are facing the same problem as they try to return the town’s grenade launcher.

“The federal government is just not interested in getting this stuff back.”

In fact, the first move for state liaisons when a police department wants to dump its military equipment is to alert the rest of the state’s police force that the item is up for grabs. This poses a moral dilemma for communities that are getting rid of their weapons and armored vehicle out of protest: ditching your MRAP just makes it another town’s problem.

“I have a lot of discomfort about that,” Davis says. “A lot.” Jarred by the clashes in Ferguson, the Davis city council voted in late August to come up with plans for getting rid of the city’s newly acquired MRAP — which arrived with the machine gun turret still attached.

But officials in Davis are finding that the cheapest way to unload the armored vehicle may be to ship it to a police department in a neighboring town. At best, says Davis, the Defense Department will ask the city to ship the vehicle to a police department out of state. “The bottom line is, if we send it back, we know what will happen to it. It will go on to be used in another community,” Davis says. “In the broader scheme of things, we will not have done anything but make a symbolic gesture.” At least two law enforcement agencies, both located in Northern California, have already expressed interest in the MRAP.

“The bottom line is…it will go on to be used in another community.”

The Pentagon’s policy, of keeping military surplus equipment in circulation, is how Saginaw County, Michigan’s mine-resistant vehicle became Lapeer County’s mine-resistant vehicle — that’s the county right next door. In fact, when word got out that Saginaw County wanted to get rid of its MRAP — after John Oliver made fun of Saginaw on his HBO show, Last Week Tonight — Sheriff William Federspiel received a flood of calls from other police departments, asking, “Hey, can we have it?”

The spokeswoman for the San Diego school district doesn’t know who previously possessed its MRAP, but she says the vehicle arrived from Texas stripped of its gun turrets and interior instruments — signs that it had been modified for police use by the last owner. When Steuben County, in rural New York, no longer wanted two armored vehicles, it sent one to the nearby Broome County Sheriff’s Department and one to the village of Endicott. And the tanks that Chelan County, Washington, wants so badly to get rid of came from the police department in Vancouver.

Where the tanks will go next is anyone’s guess.

“We’ve put it out there that we don’t want these anymore,” says Wisemore, the undersheriff. “But I don’t think any other agency is interested in them.” He pauses. “Are you?”

molly redden
Molly Redden is a reporter in Mother Jones’ Washington bureau. Previously, she worked for The New Republic, covering energy and the environment and politics and The Chronicle of Higher Education. Her work has also appeared in Salon, Washington City Paper and Slate. In her free time, she enjoys cooking and watching too much television. She tweets at @mtredden.

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Tip Till It Hurts – Just Don’t Feel Smug About It Thu, 02 Oct 2014 15:00:52 +0000 The tipping initiative by Maria Shriver sidesteps Marriott's responsibility to pay its housekeepers a living wage. Continue reading

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Marriott Hotel in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo: m01229/flickr CC 2.0)
Marriott Hotel in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo: m01229/flickr CC 2.0)

This post first appeared at Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

Anything that brings attention to hotel housekeepers is probably a good thing. Not only are they notoriously underpaid and overworked, but they can do very little to bring attention to themselves. The 2011 case in which a Manhattan Sofitel housekeeper accused a guest of sexual assault in his $3,000-per-night suite was the rarest of exceptions, and attracted the media only because the alleged assailant happened to be a former director of the International Monetary Fund. The housekeeper’s job is to clean, change sheets, restock amenities and exit the room without leaving any personal traces behind. They are paid to be invisible and usually are.

Maria Shriver, however, is sharp-eyed enough to have noticed them. Last year, she spear-headed the effort that led to January’s The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink, which highlighted the struggles of low-income, working class women. I contributed to it, and was impressed by her energy and dedication. So I wasn’t surprised that Shriver struck up conversations with hotel housekeepers, and reported that “Their stories of hard work and perseverance inspired and informed me.” Unlike the 32 percent of hotel guests, who never even bother to leave tips for their housekeepers, she decided to do something.

But she chose to take a strangely sideways, almost timid, approach. Instead of getting the hotel’s CEO on the phone and inquiring politely why housekeepers aren’t paid a living wage – which is something that I imagine a centi-millionaire world-class celebrity could easily do – she launched a campaign to get hotels to encourage their guests to leave tips in their rooms. All the hotel has to do is place an appropriately labeled “gratitude envelope” on the bedside table. The initiative, called “The Envelope Please,” drew immediate support from the Marriott hotel chain, which employs about 20,000 housekeepers in North America.

The response from hotel guests was less enthusiastic. Already faced with proliferating surcharges for hotel services that used to be free – the in-room safe, a fold-out bed, baggage checking fees – consumers gagged on the assumption that they should now contribute to the housekeepers’ pay. September 2014 was probably not a tactful moment to introduce The Envelope Please: In August, hotels had just achieved a $2.25 billion high-water mark in their income from surcharges, double the amount they got in 2003.

Less churlishly, critics of the initiative wanted to know why the hotels don’t just pay higher wages. As one wrote to The Boston Globe, “All Marriott guests should then write ‘PAY YOUR EMPLOYEES A LIVING WAGE’ on the empty envelope and hand it to hotel management.” The median pay for a hotel housekeeper is $9.51 an hour – far less than a living wage in most cities – and an unseemly amount of this often goes for over-the-counter pain medications. Hotel housekeepers, who often work under extreme time pressure, are 40 percent more likely to incur injuries than other service workers — back injuries from lifting mattresses, knee and elbow injuries from scrubbing. Next time you stay in a hotel, take a look at a housekeeper pushing her cart through the corridor: You’ll see a tired woman, very often an immigrant, ill-shod and probably in need of dental work.

Let’s put this in perspective. Marriott International reported $192 million in profits for the second quarter of this year, up 7.3 percent from a year ago, and the company can be generous to employees when it wants to. Arne Sorenson, the CEO of Marriott International, got a raise in total compensation in 2013, bringing in $9.2 million, up from $8.6 million in 2012. That would be about $3,800 an hour.

Unless they wait tables in high-end restaurants, most people prefer to get their compensation in wages rather than tips. Wages are steady; tips are erratic and at the customer’s whim. And, although I’ve happily pocketed many tips myself, there’s something a little icky about the process. Everyone knows that “real” professionals — doctors, lawyers, electricians — don’t get tips, and to offer one would be a grave insult. Reporting from Barcelona in the 1930s, George Orwell noted that since the revolutionary government had outlawed tipping, waiters “looked you in the face and treated you as an equal.”

My advice, as someone who has both stayed in hotel rooms and cleaned them, is this: Tip till it hurts. And for many of us that means a lot more than $1 to $5 a night recommended by “The Envelope Please.” You will be helping someone feed her children and pay the electric bill. You will be gaining karma points.

Just don’t feel too smug about it. By tipping, you are acceding to an economic arrangement based on severe inequality. In fact, you are inadvertently subsidizing a company that profits from and perpetuates this inequality. Tipping may generate a tiny flare of human warmth in an otherwise cold corporate world, but “gratitude” is not an answer to exploitation.

The views expressed in this post are the author’s alone, and presented here to offer a variety of perspectives to our readers.

Barbara Ehrenreich is Founding Editor of EHRP. She is the author of several books, including Living with a Wild God: A Nonbelievers Search for the Truth About Everything; Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America and many more. You can follow her on Twitter @B_Ehrenreich.

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Smart Chart: As Top Tax Rates Dropped, Top Incomes Soared Thu, 02 Oct 2014 14:20:40 +0000 All that talk of "overtaxed job creators" is curious. Continue reading

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This post first appeared at Mother Jones.

We’re still posting a new chart on the current state of income inequality every day over the next week. Yesterday’s looked at how the top 1 percent of Americans have captured half of all income.

Today, let’s talk taxes. In the past few years, we’ve heard a lot about overtaxed “job creators” and freeloading “takers.” But consider this: As the income rates for the wealthiest have plunged, their incomes have shot up.

(Illustrations and infographic design: Mattias Mackler​)

(Illustrations and infographic design: Mattias Mackler​)

Sources: Tax rates: The Tax Foundation; top incomes: Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty (Excel)

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Morning Reads: Recent Grads Are Facing a Great Depression Thu, 02 Oct 2014 14:09:24 +0000 A roundup of some of the stories we're reading at Moyers & Company HQ... Continue reading

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Good morning!

Today is the 145th anniversary of the birth of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in Porbandar, India. In his honor, today is Gandhi Day in India and the International Day of Nonviolence everywhere else. (Arun Gandhi, Mahatma’s grandson, wrote a Gandhi Day message at the Gandhi Worldwide Education Institute’s website.)

Here are some climate stories …

Remain calm –> Public health officials are using an “abundance of caution” with the Dallas Ebola case. Reuters reports that as many as 80 people may have been exposed to the patient, who has now been identified as Thomas Duncan of Liberia — far more than the 18 people officials had previously announced.

Taking one for the team –> After yet another revelation of apparent incompetence by the Secret Service — in this case, news that an armed security contractor with a criminal record rode an elevator with President Obama — the agency’s director, Julia Pierson, offered her resignation on Wednesday. CNN’s Elizabeth Hartfield, Eric Bradner and Z. Byron Wolf report.

Victory, for now –> HuffPo’s Ryan Reilly reports that a federal appeals court “ordered a lower court to block two new voting restrictions in North Carolina, saying there was ‘no doubt’ the measures would disenfranchise minorities.” North Carolina Republicans promised to appeal the case to the Supreme Court.

Guilty –> Michael Dunn, the man who shot and killed an unarmed black teen at a Florida gas station after complaining that his music was too loud, was found guilty and faces life in prison. An earlier jury had deadlocked on the murder charge but convicted Dunn of three counts of attempted murder in the incident.

Inmates’ families gouged by fees” –> At The Center for Public Integrity, Daniel Wagner reports that big financial institutions are ripping off the families of federal prisoners with outrageous financial transaction fees.

Your tax dollars at work –> Nicole Flatow reports for ThinkProgress that a Minnesota prosecutor is intent on sending a mother to prison for years for giving her son, who “suffers severe pain and spasms from a traumatic brain injury,” marijuana to treat his chronic pain. The state passed a medical marijuana law, but it won’t go into effect until next year.

No journalism exemption –> Andrew March writes at The Atlantic that the law barring Americans from providing “material support” to terrorists is so broad that Vice could potentially be prosecuted for producing its acclaimed documentary on the Islamic State.

Defiant –> Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lashed out at the White House for criticizing his government’s decision to move ahead with a plan to build 2,600 new housing units in the Occupied Territories. The administration has consistently said that settlement expansion is an obstacle to peace. Via: Ha’aretz.

The kids are not alright –> A new study finds that two years after graduating from college, 74 percent of young adults “are receiving financial support from their families,” 24 percent have moved back home and, among those in the labor market, 23 percent are unemployed or underemployed. Thomas Lindsay has more at The Hill.

A fool such as… us? –> Two Swedish scientists made a wager on which one could sneak the most Bob Dylan lyrics into the academic papers he published over the course of his career. The loser will buy the winner lunch. According to The Guardian, the academics have published papers with titles like, “Nitric Oxide and Inflammation: The Answer is Blowing in the Wind.”

You can get our Morning Reads delivered to your inbox every weekday! Just enter your email address below…

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Preview: Too Big to Jail? Thu, 02 Oct 2014 12:07:41 +0000 A veteran bank regulator lays bare how Washington and Wall Street are joined in a culture of corruption. Watch the full show » Continue reading

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Attorney General Eric Holder’s resignation last week reminds us of an infuriating fact: Not a single senior Wall Street executive has been criminally prosecuted for their role in causing the biggest financial disaster since the Great Depression.

“I blame Holder. I blame Timothy Geithner,” veteran bank regulator William K. Black tells Bill this week. “But they are fulfilling administration policies. The problem definitely comes from the top. And remember, Obama wouldn’t have been president but for the financial contribution of bankers.”

And the rub? While large banks have been penalized for their role in the housing meltdown, the costs of those fines will be largely borne by shareholders and taxpayers as the banks write off the fines as the cost of doing business. And by and large these top executives got to keep their massive bonuses and compensation, despite the fallout.

But the story gets even more infuriating, the more Black lays bare the culture of corruption that led to the meltdown.

“The Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations all could have prevented [the financial meltdown],” Black tells Moyers. And what’s worse, Black believes the next crisis is coming: “We have created the incentive structures that [are] going to produce a much larger disaster.”

Learn more about the production team behind Moyers & Company.

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Smart Chart: Half of All Income Goes to the Top 10 Percent Wed, 01 Oct 2014 20:00:43 +0000 For the first time in a century, the top 10 percent of Americans control more than half of all income. Continue reading

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This post first appeared at Mother Jones.

We’ll be posting a new chart on the current state of income inequality every day for the next couple of weeks. Our last installment looked at stagnating middle-class incomes.

Today, we look at both sides of the income split and how they’ve traded places. For the first time in a century, the top 10 percent of Americans control more than half of all income. If this trend persists, predicts economist Thomas Piketty, their share will rise to 60 percent by 2030.

(Illustrations and infographic design: Mattias Mackler​)

(Illustrations and infographic design: Mattias Mackler​)

SourcesEmmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty (Excel)

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Failure Is Success: How American Intelligence Works in the 21st Century Wed, 01 Oct 2014 19:43:45 +0000 Having a labyrinth of 17 overlapping, paramilitarized, deeply secretive agencies doing versions of the same thing is the definition of counterproductive madness. Continue reading

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This undated photo made available by Google shows the Internet wiring at Google's data center in Berkley County, S.C. The fiber optic networks connecting the company's sites can run at speeds that are more than 200,000 times faster than a typical home Internet connection. (AP Photo/Google, Connie Zhou)
This undated photo made available by Google shows the Internet wiring at Google's data center in Berkley County, South Carolina. (AP Photo/Google, Connie Zhou)

This post first appeared at TomDispatch.

What are the odds? You put about $68 billion annually into a maze of 17 major intelligence outfits. You build them glorious headquarters. You create a global surveillance state for the ages. You listen in on your citizenry and gather their communications in staggering quantities. Your employees even morph into avatars and enter video-game landscapes, lest any Americans betray a penchant for evil deeds while in entertainment mode. You collect information on visits to porn sites just in case, one day, blackmail might be useful. You pass around naked photos of them just for… well, the salacious hell of it. Your employees even use aspects of the system you’ve created to stalk former lovers and, within your arcane world, that act of “spycraft” gains its own name: LOVEINT.

You listen in on foreign leaders and politicians across the planet. You bring on board hundreds of thousands of crony corporate employees, creating the sinews of an intelligence-corporate complex of the first order. You break into the “backdoors” of the data centers of major Internet outfits to collect user accounts. You create new outfits within outfits, including an ever-expanding secret military and intelligence crew embedded inside the military itself (and not counted among those 17 agencies). Your leaders lie to Congress and the American people without, as far as we can tell, a flicker of self-doubt. Your acts are subject to secret courts, which only hear your versions of events and regularly rubberstamp them — and whose judgments and substantial body of lawmaking are far too secret for Americans to know about.

You have put extraordinary effort into ensuring that information about your world and the millions of documents you produce doesn’t make it into our world. You even have the legal ability to gag American organizations and citizens who might speak out on subjects that would displease you (and they can’t say that their mouths have been shut). You undoubtedly spy on Congress. You hack into congressional computer systems. And if whistleblowers inside your world try to tell the American public anything unauthorized about what you’re doing, you prosecute them under the Espionage Act, as if they were spies for a foreign power (which, in a sense, they are, since you treat the American people as if they were a foreign population). You do everything to wreck their lives and — should one escape your grasp — you hunt him implacably to the ends of the Earth.

As for your top officials, when their moment is past, the revolving door is theirs to spin through into a lucrative mirror life in the intelligence-corporate complex.

What They Didn’t Know

Think of the world of the “US Intelligence Community,” or IC, as a near-perfect closed system and rare success story in 21st century Washington. In a capital riven by fierce political disagreements, just about everyone agrees on the absolute, total, and ultimate importance of that “community” and whatever its top officials might decide in order to keep this country safe and secure.

Yes, everything you’ve done has been in the name of national security and the safety of Americans. And as we’ve discovered, there is never enough security, not at least when it comes to one thing: the fiendish ability of “terrorists” to threaten this country. Admittedly, terrorist attacks would rank above shark attacks, but not much else on a list of post-9/11 American dangers. And for this, you take profuse credit — for, that is, the fact that there has never been a “second 9/11.” In addition, you take credit for breaking up all sorts of terror plans and plots aimed at this country, including an amazing 54 of them reportedly foiled using the phone and email “metadata” of Americans gathered by the NSA. As it happens, a distinguished panel appointed by President Obama, with security clearances that allowed them to examine these spectacular claims in detail, found that not a single one had merit.

Whatever the case, while taxpayer dollars flowed into your coffers, no one considered it a problem that the country lacked 17 overlapping outfits bent on preventing approximately 400,000 deaths by firearms in the same years; nor 17 interlocked agencies dedicated to safety on our roads, where more than 450,000 Americans have died since 9/11. (An American, it has been calculated, is 1,904 times more likely to die in a car accident than in a terrorist attack.) Almost all the money and effort have instead been focused on the microscopic number of terrorist plots — some spurred on by FBI plants – that have occurred on American soil in that period. On the conviction that Americans must be shielded from them above all else and on the fear that 9/11 bred in this country, you’ve built an intelligence structure unlike any other on the planet when it comes to size, reach and labyrinthine complexity.

It’s quite an achievement, especially when you consider its one downside: it has a terrible record of getting anything right in a timely way. Never have so many had access to so much information about our world and yet been so unprepared for whatever happens in it.

When it comes to getting ahead of the latest developments on the planet, the ones that might really mean something to the government it theoretically serves, the IC is — as best we can tell from the record it largely prefers to hide — almost always behind the 8-ball. It seems to have been caught off guard regularly enough to defy any imaginable odds.

Think about it, and think hard. Since 9/11 (which might be considered the intelligence equivalent of original sin when it comes to missing the mark), what exactly are the triumphs of a system the likes of which the world has never seen before? One and only one event is sure to come immediately to mind: the tracking down and killing of Osama bin Laden. (Hey, Hollywood promptly made a movie out of it!) Though he was by then essentially a toothless figurehead, an icon of jihadism and little else, the raid that killed him is the single obvious triumph of these years.

Otherwise, globally from the Egyptian spring and the Syrian disaster to the crisis in Ukraine, American intelligence has, as far as we can tell, regularly been one step late and one assessment short, when not simply blindsided by events. As a result, the Obama administration often seems in a state of eternal surprise at developments across the globe. Leaving aside the issue of intelligence failures in the death of an American ambassador in Benghazi, for instance, is there any indication that the IC offered President Obama a warning on Libya before he decided to intervene and topple that country’s autocrat, Muammar Gaddafi, in 2011? What we know is that he was told, incorrectly it seems, that there would be a “bloodbath,” possibly amounting to a genocidal act, if Gaddafi’s troops reached the city of Benghazi.

Might an agency briefer have suggested what any reading of the results of America’s 21st century military actions across the Greater Middle East would have taught an observant analyst with no access to inside information: that the fragmentation of Libyan society, the growth of Islamic militancy (as elsewhere in the region) and chaos would likely follow? We have to assume not, though today the catastrophe of Libya and the destabilization of a far wider region of Africa is obvious.

Let’s focus for a moment, however, on a case where more is known. I’m thinking of the development that only recently riveted the Obama administration and sent it tumbling into America’s third Iraq war, causing literal hysteria in Washington. Since June, the most successful terror group in history has emerged full blown in Syria and Iraq, amid a surge in jihadi recruitment across the Greater Middle East and Africa. The Islamic State (IS), an offshoot of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which sprang to life during the US occupation of that country, has set up a mini-state, a “caliphate,” in the heart of the Middle East. Part of the territory it captured was, of course, in the very country the US garrisoned and occupied for eight years, in which it had assumedly developed countless sources of information and recruited agents of all sorts. And yet, by all accounts, when IS’s militants suddenly swept across northern Iraq, the CIA in particular found itself high and dry.

The IC seems not to have predicted the group’s rapid growth or spread; nor, though there was at least some prior knowledge of the decline of the Iraqi army, did anyone imagine that such an American created, trained and armed force would so summarily collapse. Unforeseen was the way its officers would desert their troops who would, in turn, shed their uniforms and flee Iraq’s major northern cities, abandoning all their American equipment to Islamic State militants.

Nor could the intelligence community even settle on a basic figure for how many of those militants there were. In fact, in part because IS assiduously uses couriers for its messaging instead of cell phones and emails, until a chance arrest of a key militant in June, the CIA and the rest of the IC evidently knew next to nothing about the group or its leadership, had no serious assessment of its strength and goals, nor any expectation that it would sweep through and take most of Sunni Iraq. And that should be passing strange. After all, it now turns out that much of the future leadership of IS had spent time together in the US military’s Camp Bucca prison just years earlier.

All you have to do is follow the surprised comments of various top administration officials, including the president, as ISIS made its mark and declared its caliphate, to grasp just how ill-prepared 17 agencies and $68 billion can leave you when your world turns upside down.

Producing Subprime Intelligence as a Way of Life

In some way, the remarkable NSA revelations of Edward Snowden may have skewed our view of American intelligence. The question, after all, isn’t simple: Who did they listen in on or surveil or gather communications from? It’s also: What did they find out? What did they draw from the mountains of information, the billions of bits of intelligence data that they were collecting from individual countries monthly (Iran, 14 billion; Pakistan, 13.5 billion; Jordan, 12.7 billion, etc.)? What was their “intelligence”? And the answer seems to be that, thanks to the mind-boggling number of outfits doing America’s intelligence work and the yottabytes of data they sweep up, the IC is a morass of information overload, data flooding and collective blindness as to how our world works.

You might say that the American intelligence services encourage the idea that the world is only knowable in an atmosphere of big data and a penumbra of secrecy. As it happens, an open and open-minded assessment of the planet and its dangers would undoubtedly tell any government so much more. In that sense, the system bolstered and elaborated since 9/11 seems as close to worthless in terms of bang for the buck as any you could imagine. Which means, in turn, that we outsiders should view with a jaundiced eye the latest fear-filled estimates and overblown “predictions” from the IC that, as now with the tiny (possibly fictionalterror group Khorasan, regularly fill our media with nightmarish images of American destruction.

If the IC’s post-9/11 effectiveness were being assessed on a corporate model, it’s hard not to believe that at least 15 of the agencies and outfits in its “community” would simply be axed and the other two downsized. (If the Republicans in Congress came across this kind of institutional tangle and record of failure in domestic civilian agencies, they would go after it with a meat cleaver.) I suspect that the government could learn far more about this planet by anteing up some modest sum to hire a group of savvy observers using only open-source information. For an absolute pittance, they would undoubtedly get a distinctly more actionable vision of how our world functions and its possible dangers to Americans. But of course we’ll never know. Instead, whatever clever analysts, spooks and operatives exist in the maze of America’s spy and surveillance networks will surely remain buried there, while the overall system produces vast reams of subprime intelligence.

Clearly, having a labyrinth of 17 overlapping, paramilitarized, deeply secretive agencies doing versions of the same thing is the definition of counterproductive madness. Not surprisingly, the one thing the US intelligence community has resembled in these years is the US military, which since 9/11 has failed to win a war or accomplish more or less anything it set out to do.

On the other hand, all of the above assumes that the purpose of the IC is primarily to produce successful “intelligence” that leaves the White House a step ahead of the rest of the world. What if, however, it’s actually a system organized on the basis of failure? What if any work-product disaster is for the IC another kind of win.

Perhaps it’s worth thinking of those overlapping agencies as a fiendishly clever Rube Goldberg-style machine organized around the principle that failure is the greatest success of all. After all, in the system as it presently exists, every failure of intelligence is just another indication that more security, more secrecy, more surveillance, more spies, more drones are needed; only when you fail, that is, do you get more money for further expansion.

Keep in mind that the 21st century version of intelligence began amid a catastrophic failure: much crucial information about the 9/11 hijackers and hijackings was ignored or simply lost in the labyrinth. That failure, of course, led to one of the great intelligence expansions, or even explosions, in history. (And mind you, no figure in authority in the national security world was axed, demoted or penalized in any way for 9/11 and a number of them were later given awards and promoted.) However they may fail, when it comes to their budgets, their power, their reach, their secrecy, their careers and their staying power, they have succeeded impressively.

You could, of course, say that the world is simply a hard place to know and the future, with its eternal surprises, is one territory that no country, no military, no set of intelligence agencies can occupy, no matter how much they invest in doing so. An inability to predict the lay of tomorrow’s land may, in a way, be par for the course. If so, however, remind me: Why exactly are we supporting 17 versions of intelligence gathering to the tune of at least $68 billion a year?

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Is Uber’s Business Model Screwing Its Workers? Wed, 01 Oct 2014 18:09:24 +0000 Under the guise of innovation and progress, companies like Uber are stripping away worker protections, pushing down wages and flouting government regulations. Continue reading

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(Photo: Daniel Horacio Agostini/flickr CC 2.0)
(Photo: Flickr/Daniel Horacio Agostini)

This post first appeared at Jacobin, a print quarterly that offers socialist perspectives on politics and economics.

Kazi drives a Toyota Prius for Uber in Los Angeles. He hates it. He barely makes minimum wage, and his back hurts after long shifts. But every time a passenger asks what it’s like working for Uber, he lies: “It’s like owning my own business; I love it.”

Kazi lies because his job depends on it. After passengers finish a ride, Uber asks them to rate their driver on a scale from one to five stars. Drivers with an average below 4.7 can be deactivated — tech-speak for fired.

Gabriele Lopez, an LA Uber driver, also lies. “We just sit there and smile, and tell everyone that the job’s awesome, because that’s what they want to hear,” said Lopez, who’s been driving for UberX, the company’s low-end car service, since it launched last summer.

In fact, if you ask Uber drivers off the clock what they think of the company, it often gets ugly fast. “Uber’s like an exploiting pimp,” said Arman, an Uber driver in LA who asked me to withhold his last name out of fear of retribution. “Uber takes 20 percent of my earnings, and they treat me like s*** — they cut prices whenever they want. They can deactivate me whenever they feel like it, and if I complain, they tell me to f*** off.”

In LA, San Francisco, Seattle and New York, tension between drivers and management has bubbled over in recent months. And even though Uber’s business model discourages collective action (each worker is technically in competition with each other), some drivers are banding together.

Uber drivers in LA, the largest ride-sharing market in the country, held dozens of protests over the summer to oppose rate cuts. Late last month, drivers working with Teamsters Local 986 launched the California App-based Drivers Association (CADA), a sort of Uber drivers union. Uber workers in Seattle have staged their own protests and have formed the Seattle Ride-Share Drivers Association. Just last week in New York City, drivers for the luxury UberBlack service threatened to strike and successfully reversed a company decision that would have forced them to pick up cheaper and less lucrative UberX rides. On Monday, drivers protested again.

“We want the company to understand that we are not just ants,” Joseph DeWolf, a member of CADA’s leadership council, told me at the Teamsters Union hall in El Monte, California. “What we want is a living wage, an open channel of communication with the company and basic respect.” DeWolf said CADA is signing up members, collecting dues and plans to strike in LA if Uber refuses to come to the negotiating table.

It won’t be easy. Drivers are going up against a burgeoning Goliath valued at around $18 billion. The company just hired David Plouffe, who managed Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns; it’s active in 130 cities; and if company executives are to be believed, it doubles its revenue every six months.

Uber makes that money by relying on a network of thousands of drivers who are not technically employees of the company, but rather independent contractors — the company calls them “driver-partners” — who receive a percentage of its fares.

From the very beginning, Uber attracted drivers with a bait-and-switch. Take the company’s launch in LA: In May 2013, Uber charged customers a fare of $2.75 per mile (with an additional 60¢ per minute under eleven mph). Drivers got to keep 80 percent of the fare. Working full time, drivers could make a living wage: between 15 and $20 an hour.

Drivers rushed to sign up, and thousands leased and bought cars just to work for Uber — especially immigrants and low-income people desperate for a well-paying job in a terrible economy. But over the last year, the company has faced stiff competition from its arch-rival, Lyft. To raise demand and push Lyft out of the LA market, Uber has cut UberX fares nearly in half: to $1.10 per mile, plus 21¢ a minute.

Uber drivers have no say in the pricing, yet they must carry their own insurance and foot the bill for gas and repairs — a cost of 56¢ per mile, according to IRS estimates. With Uber’s new pricing model, drivers are forced to work under razor-thin margins. Arman, for instance, made about $20 an hour just a year ago. And now? Some days he doesn’t even break minimum wage.

His experience is quite common among LA Uber drivers I spoke to. For many, driving for Uber has become a nightmare. Arman often works up to 17 hours a day to bring home what he used to make in an eight-hour shift. When he emailed Uber to complain about his plummeting pay, he said the company blew him off. Uber’s attitude is that drivers are free to stop working if they are dissatisfied, but for drivers like Arman who’ve invested serious money in their cars, quitting isn’t an option.

“These drivers are very vulnerable if they do not band together,” Dan McKibbin, the Teamsters’ West Coast organizer, told me. “Right now they have no one to protect them.”

The company wouldn’t speak to me about CADA, the Teamsters, or how it deals with driver grievances. But it seems to brush off everyone else too. Earlier this summer, when CADA leader DeWolf met with William Barnes, Uber’s LA director, Barnes allegedly laughed in his face.

As DeWolf recounted, when he told Barnes that drivers planned to organize with the Teamsters, Barnes responded, “Uber would never negotiate with any group that claims to represent drivers.”

Uber repeatedly ignored my request for comment on this exchange. Instead, the company issued a statement accusing the Teamsters of trying to “line their coffers” with new Uber-driving members.

Uber claims there’s no need for a union; it instead asks drivers to trust that the company acts in their best interest. Uber refused to show me complete data detailing average hourly compensation for drivers. It does claim, however, that UberX drivers are making more money now than before this summer’s price cuts.

“The average fares per hour for a Los Angeles UberX driver-partner in the last four weeks were 21.4% higher than the December 2013 weekly average,” Uber spokesperson Eva Behrend told me. “And drivers on average have seen fares per hour increase 28% from where they were in May of this year.”

I couldn’t find a single driver who is making more money with the lower rates.

What’s clear is that for Uber drivers to get by, they’re going to have to take on more rides per shift. Uber implicitly concedes as much: “With price cuts, trips per hour for partner-drivers have increased with higher demand,” Behrend said.

So while drivers make less per fare, Uber suggests they recoup losses by just driving more miles. That may make sense for an Uber analyst crunching the numbers in Silicon Valley, but for drivers, more miles means hustling to cram as many runs into a shift as possible to make the small margins worthwhile.

“These days, I won’t even stop to take a s***, I just drive — sometimes for up to 15 hours a day,” a driver named Dan told me after pulling an all-nighter bringing drunk people home from bars. “It’s humiliating.”

Lower rates also means they pay more out of their own pockets for gas, and their cars depreciate in value faster because they’re driving extra miles.

Meanwhile, Uber acts as if it’s doing drivers a favor by offering them work in the first place. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, who loves giving inspirational talks about innovation, often claims that Uber helps people “become small business owners.” But working long shifts and forking over 20 percent of fares to a group of Silicon Valley app-engineers doesn’t really count as owning a small business.

“They think we are a bunch of losers who can’t find better jobs,” DeWolf said. “That’s why they treat us like robots — like we are replaceable.”

Uber, of course, disputes this characterization. “Uber succeeds when our partner-drivers succeed,” Behrend said.

But that is just empty spin: drivers aren’t partners — they are laborers exploited by their company. They have no say in business decisions and can be fired at any time. Instead of paying its employees a wage, Uber just pockets a portion of their earnings. Drivers take all the risks and front all the costs — the car, the gas, the insurance — yet it is executives and investors who get rich.

Uber is part of a new wave of corporations that make up what’s called the “sharing economy.” The premise is seductive in its simplicity: people have skills, and customers want services. Silicon Valley plays matchmaker, churning out apps that pair workers with work. Now, anyone can rent out an apartment with AirBnB, become a cabbie through Uber, or clean houses using Homejoy.

But under the guise of innovation and progress, companies are stripping away worker protections, pushing down wages and flouting government regulations. At its core, the sharing economy is a scheme to shift risk from companies to workers, discourage labor organizing and ensure that capitalists can reap huge profits with low fixed costs.

There’s nothing innovative or new about this business model. Uber is just capitalism, in its most naked form.

Avi Asher-Schapiro is a freelance writer in New York. You can follow him on Twitter @AASchapiro.

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Going Easy on Eric Holder’s Wall Street Inaction Wed, 01 Oct 2014 15:02:46 +0000 There's been scant press coverage of the attorney general’s failure to prosecute fraud. Continue reading

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Attorney General Eric Holder, left, gestures to the media with Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer during a news conference at the Department of Justice in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2009. Credit Suisse Group has agreed to pay $536 million to settle a Justice Department probe and admit to violating U.S. economic sanctions by hiding the booming illegal business it was doing for Iranian banks. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Attorney General Eric Holder, left, with Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer during a news conference at the Department of Justice in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2009. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

This post first appeared at Columbia Journalism Review.

There’s one word missing in too many major press accounts of Eric Holder’s tenure as Obama’s only attorney general: bankers.

It’s a baffling lapse for outlets like the Washington PostBloombergNPR, the Los Angeles TimesCNN and ABC News, none of which, in their main stories on the resignation, mentions Holder’s dismal record prosecuting Wall Street fraud in the wake of the biggest financial disaster since the Great Depression. The New York Times drops one line toward the bottom of its front-page story on the news, inaccurately calling it a “liberal” notion that the AG “should have used his power to prosecute those responsible for the financial crisis in 2008.”

Holder leaves office having been far outclassed by the Bush administration even in prosecuting corporate criminals, despite overseeing the aftermath of one of the biggest orgies of financial corruption in history.

In March 2009, a month after Holder was sworn in as attorney general, The New York Times reported that “federal and state investigators are preparing for a surge of prosecutions of financial fraud” and that the DOJ considered it a “a top priority.”

Holder came from the white-shoe DC law firm Covington & Burling, which represented half of the top 10 mortgage servicers, along with MERS, the mortgage records system that played a big role in the foreclosure fraud scandal (the firm and the Justice Department declined to tell Reuters in 2012 whether Holder worked on any of those cases). He brought along his Covington colleague Lanny Breuer as enforcement chief, and Breuer would play a key role in the lack of indictments of major executives.

By the end of 2010, it was clear the financial prosecution surge hadn’t happened, and the media began making noise about it. Holder announced the results of a financial fraud task force, claiming more than 300 scalps.

The press quickly exposed Holder’s campaign as a public relations stunt, reporting that many cases were started years earlier by the Bush administration, other were double-counted, and that almost all of the rest were small fry. Even The New York Times’s Andrew Ross Sorkin, who’s no anti-bank populist, mocked Holder’s financial fraud task force as an exercise in missing the point.

Two years later, Holder did it again, announcing a mortgage fraud sweep had resulted in 530 prosecutions and a billion dollars in fines. Bloomberg immediately noticed that the DOJ had again included Bush-era cases in its tally. Several months later, the administration quietly admitted it had inflated the real numbers, which were 107 prosecutions and $95 million in fines — almost all from small-time criminals.

Then there’s the Holder Doctrine, set forth in a 1999 memo when he was Clinton’s deputy attorney general. It says that prosecutors should take “collateral consequences” into account when “conducting an investigation, determining whether to bring charges and negotiating plea agreements.”

By 2012, Breuer all but admitted that the administration didn’t criminally charge banks because it worried about the collateral consequences. “In my conference room, over the years, I have heard sober predictions that a company or bank might fail if we indict, that innocent employees could lose their jobs, that entire industries may be affected and even that global markets will feel the effects,” he said.

“Those are the kinds of considerations in white-collar crime cases that literally keep me up at night, and which must play a role in responsible enforcement.”

We know now — too late to do anything about it — that Holder never even really tried to investigate the banks. By early last year, 60 Minutes was confronting Breuer with reporting that sources inside the DOJ’s criminal division who said, “There were no subpoenas, no document reviews, no wiretaps” of Wall Street for the financial crisis. Eventually, after the political pressure grew intolerable, Holder squeezed billions of dollars in civil penalties from Wall Street without forcing a single individual to face trial. Contrast that with the Holder DOJ’s aggressive criminal prosecution of insider trading, which is basically a Wall Street-on-Wall Street crime.

Holder and Breuer were part of a pattern within the Obama administration of weak Wall Street enforcement — one that leads right back to the president himself. The tally of top officials who were close to Wall Street and have since left for finance or finance-related jobs includes former Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, former SEC chairwoman Mary Schapiro, Breuer, former SEC enforcement chief Robert Khuzami, and, soon, you can bet, Eric Holder.

Here’s Holder’s legacy on the financial fraud front, which was one of the biggest issues he faced when taking office:


ryan chittum
Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR’s business section. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.

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Morning Reads: Ebola in US; Are Syrian Civilians Expendable? Wed, 01 Oct 2014 13:55:11 +0000 A roundup of some of the stories we're reading at Moyers & Company HQ... Continue reading

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Good morning! On this date in 1957, “In God We Trust” first appeared on American currency. In a Cold War-inspired effort to differentiate the US from its “Godless” Soviet rival, Congress had made the phrase the official motto of the United States the previous year.

Stat of the day: 96 percent — A new study from the Department of Veterans Affairs’ brain repository in Bedford, Massachusetts, found that 76 of 79 deceased NFL players showed signs of degenerative brain disease.

Don’t panic –> The CDC confirmed the first case of Ebola in the US. Elahe Izadi, Mark Berman and J. Freedom du Lac report for WaPo that the unidentified victim developed symptoms four days after traveling from Liberia to Dallas. Ebola has spread rapidly in Africa after overwhelming under-resourced health care systems, and doesn’t pose a major threat in the US.

New war is already awful –> Michael Isikoff reports for Yahoo News that the White House has acknowledged that the “strict standards President Obama imposed last year to prevent civilian deaths from U.S. drone strikes will not apply” in Syria and Iraq. As many as a dozen civilians, including women and children, were killed when an “errant cruise missile destroyed a home for displaced civilians.” AND: The Turkish military is ramping up its defensive positions as Islamic State fighters approach its border. Justin Sink also reports for The Hill that British forces launched their first airstrikes in Iraq on Tuesday. ALSO: An analysis by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments estimates that the campaign has cost the US between $780 and $930 million through September 24. Their conservative estimate is that it will likely run between $200 and $320 million per month for the duration.

…Relies heavily on analysis from a very ideological law professor” –> A third Republican-appointed federal judge ruled that people in the ACA exchanges run by the feds aren’t eligible for Obamacare’s subsidies. Ian Millhiser reports for ThinkProgress that the judge’s legal reasoning was full of holes. Six federal judges have so far seen it differently, and the case will likely be decided by the Supreme Court.

Mother Earth’s children –> A report released on Tuesday by the World Wide Fund for Nature finds that “wildlife numbers have plunged by more than half in just 40 years as Earth’s human population has nearly doubled.” (AFP, via The Raw Story)

How about a little good news? –> NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio is fulfilling a campaign promise by raising the city’s “living wage” from $11.90 to $13.13 per hour, and expanding the (limited) number of workers who are covered by the ordinance. Erin Durkin has details at the NY Daily News. 

AWOL –> A drug case may be dismissed after Darren Wilson, the Ferguson police officer who shot Michael Brown, failed to show up in court for a hearing. According to Robert Patrick at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Wilson’s lawyers say he won’t attend any court proceedings this year, and a half dozen other cases may be jeopardized by his absence.

High cost of cheap bigotry –> A new study finds that LGBT-Americans have lower incomes and face more financial stress and poverty in states with anti-gay laws than in more tolerant ones. NBC News’ Miranda Leitsinger reports.

A Supreme Court for the “powerful and privileged” –> Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick speaks to Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California–Irvine School of Law, about his new book, The Case Against the Supreme Court. He argues that SCOTUS has consistently “failed, throughout American history, at its most important tasks, at its most important moments.”

A contrarian view –> At Politico Magazine, Bill Scher argues that if Republicans win control of the Senate in next month’s elections, their internal conflicts will play out in the glare of a presidential campaign with disastrous results for the party. AND: FiveThirtyEight’s forecast model gives the GOP a 58.3 percent chance taking control of the chamber.

Always read the fine print –> AFP reports that several Londoners agreed to terms and conditions for the use of free Wi-Fi that included handing over their first-born children. The “stunt” was actually an experiment designed to reveal “the total disregard for computer security by people when they are mobile.”

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Dog Whistling About ISIS — and Latinos Too Tue, 30 Sep 2014 19:15:22 +0000 This is the third in a series of posts that Ian Haney López, the author of Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, will be writing in the weeks leading up to … Continue reading

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This is the third in a series of posts that Ian Haney López, the author of Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, will be writing in the weeks leading up to the November election.

Using severe orthodoxy to justify barbarous violence, the Islamic State in Syria is a major destructive force in the Middle East that demands the attention of the United States, prompting political leaders from President Obama on down to warn the American polity of the danger posed by ISIS.

Strikingly, though, many Republicans have been depicting ISIS not primarily as a foreign concern, but as a domestic threat that may portend the invasion, and even the potential collapse, of our country. Especially in the repeated linkage of ISIS to security on the Mexican border, conservative warnings on ISIS seem to constitute a new form of dog whistle politics, the dark art of using coded terms to stir racial anxiety among voters.

First, the claims:

Representative Trent Franks, a Republican from Arizona, warned earlier this month: “It is true, that we know that ISIS is present in Ciudad Juarez or they were within the last few weeks.” He continued: “So there’s no question that they have designs on trying to come into Arizona… If unaccompanied minors can cross the border then certainly trained terrorists probably can to. It is something that is real.”

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas speaks at the 2014 Values Voter Summit in Washington, Friday, Sept. 26, 2014. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas speaks at the 2014 Values Voter Summit in Washington, Friday, Sept. 26, 2014. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas in a CNN opinion piece published on September 10, explained how the nation must prepare to confront ISIS: “First and foremost, Washington should resolve to make border security a top priority finally, rather than an afterthought . . . in light of concerns about potential ISIS activities on our southern border.” First and foremost, we should combat ISIS by focusing on our southern border? Yes, Cruz explained, for “[a]s long as our border isn’t secure, the government is making it far too easy for terrorists to infiltrate our nation.”

Many other Republicans have pounded out the same dire warnings about ISIS on the Mexican border, including conservative luminaries such as Texas governor Rick Perry, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, and Florida Senator Marco Rubio.

But perhaps the clearest evidence that stoking fear about ISIS in Mexico is now standard Republican fare comes from a just-released television ad entitled “Protecting America’s Freedom” by moderate GOP politician Scott Brown, running for office in New Hampshire, far from the southern border.

“Radical Islamic terrorists are threatening to cause the collapse of our country,” Brown intones, with steely gaze fixed on the camera. “President Obama,” he warns, seems “confused about the nature of the threat,” but, he assures voters, “[n]ot me. I want to secure the border, keep out the people who would do us harm and restore America’s leadership in the world.”

These claims about a domestic threat from ISIS are not merely “overblown” — for that term suggests exaggeration of some appreciable level of danger, when instead, as Politifact shows in parsing these claims, there are no credible sources for the allegation that ISIS stands poised to strike from the south.

Similarly refuting such scare-mongering, The New York Times quoted Daniel Benjamin, the State Department’s top counterterrorism adviser during Obama’s first term and now a scholar at Dartmouth: “It’s hard to imagine a better indication of the ability of elected officials and TV talking heads to spin the public into a panic, with claims that the nation is honeycombed with sleeper cells, that operatives are streaming across the border into Texas or that the group will soon be spraying Ebola virus on mass transit systems — all on the basis of no corroborated information.”

But if these warnings are baseless, they are nevertheless stirring panic in voters — as Newsweek recently bannered, “ISIS Paranoia Reaches America.” Partly as a result, The Washington Post reports, “The President’s approval on terrorism has plummeted and the GOP now holds a huge advantage on foreign policy.”

Why do these absurd claims sway large swaths of voters? To understand, we must go back in history — past 2011, when then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney claimed that Hezbollah was working in Mexico; further back even than the mid-1980s, when Ronald Reagan raised a cry against “terrorists and subversives [in Nicaragua] just two days’ driving time from Harlingen, Texas.” Those episodes help pedigree the current GOP incitements about terrorists on the southern border, but we need to go deeper to understand the source of this trope’s power, back to the origins of US immigration law.

The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882. Photo Credit: British Columbia Archives

The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882. Photo Credit: British Columbia Archives

Beginning in the late 1870s, responding to rising xenophobia against Chinese immigrants, Congress enacted its first laws restricting immigration, passing a series of ever-more draconian exclusion laws targeting that group. When it first considered these statutes, the Supreme Court faced two questions: why should Congress — as opposed to the states, as previously thought — have the power to control immigration; and how did the racial targeting of Chinese immigrants square with the recently enacted 14th Amendment, guaranteeing “equal protection of the laws”?

In Chae Chan Ping (1889), also known as the Chinese Exclusion Case, the Court subsumed the second question under the first, reasoning that Congress must be able to regulate immigration to protect national security — and, because the nation’s fate was at stake, implicit authority over immigration could not be constrained by other constitutional niceties, like the command of racial equality. This case remains good law today: in guarding the nation through its immigration powers, Congress may discriminate on racial grounds.

But in what sense does power over immigration implicate national security? The Chinese Exclusion Case reasoned as follows:

It seemed impossible for [Chinese immigrants] to assimilate with our people, or to make any change in their habits or modes of living. As they grew in numbers each year the people of the coast saw, or believed they saw, in the facility of immigration, and in the crowded millions of China, where population presses upon the means of subsistence, great danger that at no distant day that portion of our country would be overrun by them, unless prompt action was taken to restrict their immigration.

Chinese immigration, the Court concluded, “was in numbers approaching the character of an Oriental invasion, and was a menace to our civilization.”

The Court did not talk of national security in military terms, but rather, as a racial clash. At stake was the security of the United States as a white nation. In the 19th century, the notion of a white America was commonplace — indeed, as the historian Reginald Horsman masterfully demonstrated, it’s the foundation of Manifest Destiny, which depicted Anglo-Saxons as rightfully taking possession of North America from coast to coast, justly displacing racially inferior Indians and Mexicans. Chinese immigration did not threaten United States sovereignty so much as it risked eroding America’s putative whiteness.

Today, of course, frank pronouncements that this is a white country are far more rare in mainstream discourse — though not entirely absent, as the late Harvard professor Samuel Huntington demonstrated a decade ago in an article titled “The Hispanic Challenge” that appeared in the pages of the establishment journal Foreign Policy. “America was created by 17th- and 18th-century settlers who were overwhelmingly white, British, and Protestant,” Huntington argued, and their “values, institutions, and culture provided the foundation for and shaped the development of the United States in the following centuries.” In allegedly refusing to adopt “the distinct Anglo-Protestant culture of the founding settlers,” Huntington warned, Hispanics threaten to sunder the country.

Though Huntington was a throwback in his frankness, he put into words a gut feeling shared by some whites — that white enterprise and values made this country; that this is and should remain a white nation. This pervasive sentiment is contested by many, including many whites, of course, who point out the contributions in labor, politics and culture made by nonwhite groups across American history. Nevertheless, the intuitive certainty that this is a white country endures, forming a powerful undercurrent that conservatives seek to convert into Republican votes.

To be clear, those who respond to this sort of dog whistling are not closet Klan members; quite the contrary, they are decent folks who oppose racism, people who would be quick to repudiate any politician who openly asked them to support continued white dominance. Nevertheless, many whites see the world in racially inflected ways, and sympathize with warnings that subliminally trigger fears of an America in racial transition.

This is the import of “the southern border” as a core feature of the GOP’s current terrorist meme. There’s relatively little discussion of ISIS agents entering the country through airports, visa in hand, as the 9/11 attackers did, and as government officials warn is a more realistic scenario (though still one which remains highly unlikely). And there’s almost no talk of that other porous border to the north — not even from Scott Brown, campaigning in New Hampshire.

Instead, the spotlight is on the border with Mexico, in a way that combines fear of terrorism in the Middle East with metastasized anxiety over Latino newcomers. Just as with the Chinese more than a century ago, Hispanic immigration is often decried in the rhetoric of a flood, an invasion, a threat to our way of life.

ISIS on the southern border is a dog whistle. Decoded, it’s a warning not of any actual military threat, but of accelerating demographic change.
Delving into this negative framing of Hispanics, anthropologist Leo Chavez writes in The Latino Threat: “But if there has been one constant in both pre- and post-9/11 public discourse on national security, it has been the alleged threat to the nation posed by Mexican and other Latin American immigration and the growing number of Americans of Mexican descent in the United States.” As in the era of the Chinese Exclusion Case, so too with Hispanics today: “national security” has nothing to do with military danger; rather, it implicates the security of the United States as a white nation.

It’s easy to shrug off as farcical the warnings of Cruz, Brown and other GOP figures about an ISIS invasion from the south — and then to look askance at those voters who credit such evident absurdities. But this misses the point. ISIS on the southern border is a dog whistle. Decoded, it’s a warning not of any actual military threat, but of accelerating demographic change. This is the real panic that the GOP seeks to harness in the voting booth.

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Eric Holder’s Voting Rights Legacy Tue, 30 Sep 2014 15:53:21 +0000 Holder generated a lot of controversy, but his defense of voting rights deserves to be remembered as one of the most consequential aspects of his tenure as the nation’s top law enforcement official. Continue reading

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This post first appeared at The Nation.

United States Attorney General Eric Holder, left, with Congressman John Lewis, (D-GA) attended the 44th anniversary of the Voting Rights March at the Brown AME Chapel in Selma, Alabama in 2009. (AP Photo/ Kevin Glackmeyer)
US Attorney General Eric Holder, left, with Congressman John Lewis, (D-GA) attended the 44th anniversary of the Voting Rights March in Selma, Alabama in 2009. (AP Photo/ Kevin Glackmeyer)

When Eric Holder took over the Department of Justice, the Civil Rights Division, known as the crown jewel of the agency, was in shambles. Conservative political appointees in the Bush administration had forced out well-respected section chiefs. Longtime career lawyers left in droves, replaced by partisan hacks. Civil rights enforcement was virtually non-existent.

Holder made restoring the credibility of the Civil Rights Division a leading cause. “In the last eight years, vital federal laws designed to protect rights in the workplace, the housing market and the voting booth have languished,” he said at his confirmation hearing. “Improper political hiring has undermined this important mission. That must change. And I intend to make this a priority as attorney general.”

Enforcing the Voting Rights Act became a key priority for Holder’s Justice Department. In 2012, it successfully challenged Texas’s voter ID law, South Carolina’s voter ID law and Florida’s cutbacks to early voting under the VRA.

When the Supreme Court gutted the VRA last June, Holder vowed an aggressive response. “We will not hesitate to take swift enforcement action — using every legal tool that remains available to us — against any jurisdiction that seeks to take advantage of the Supreme Court’s ruling by hindering eligible citizens’ full and free exercise of the franchise,” Holder said at a press conference afterward.

Since the Shelby County decision, the Justice Department has filed suit against restrictive voting laws in Texas and North Carolina and joined lawsuits challenging new voting restrictions in Ohio and Wisconsin.

This cause was personal to Holder. His sister-in-law, Vivian Malone Jones, was one of two African-American students to integrate the University of Alabama in 1963. “I so wish Vivian had lived to see this moment,” Holder said in Selma after Obama’s election.

As a sign of that commitment to civil rights and voting rights, Holder called Representative John Lewis and Ethel Kennedy to personally tell them he was stepping down. Since there’s no sign that the current attack on voting rights is abating, hopefully it is a commitment that his successor will share.

Holder generated a lot of controversy in many areas — some of it justified, much of it not. His defense of voting rights deserves to be remembered as one of the most consequential aspects of his tenure as the nation’s top law enforcement official.

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Google Leads a Corporate Exodus From Lobbying Group ALEC Tue, 30 Sep 2014 15:01:07 +0000 Some Silicon Valley companies are taking issue with the conservative group's policy positions on climate change. Continue reading

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FILE- In this April 17, 2007 file photo, exhibitors of the Google company work on laptop computers in front of an illuminated sign of the Google logo at the industrial fair Hannover Messe in Hanover, Germany. Google’s removal of search results in Europe is drawing accusations of press censorship, as stories from some of the continent’s most prominent news outlets begin vanishing. The U.S. Internet giant said Thursday it is getting 1,000 requests a day to scrub results. The U.S. firm must comply with a May ruling from the European Union’s top court that enables citizens to ask for the removal of embarrassing personal information that pops up on a search of their names. Among links to vanish were stories on a soccer referee who resigned after a scandal in 2010, French office workers making post-it art, a couple having sex on a train and a lawyer facing a fraud trial. At least three British media, including the Guardian newspaper and public broadcaster BBC, said Google notified them search results in Europe would not contain some links to their publications.(AP Photo/Jens Meyer, File)
Google exhibitors work on laptop computers in front of an illuminated sign at the industrial fair Hannover Messe in Hannover, Germany, 2007. (AP Photo/Jens Meyer, File)

Google Chairman Eric Schmidt attracted some attention last week when he announced that his company would no longer be funding the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative think tank that pushes a big-business agenda at statehouses across the country. Schmidt’s complaint? The group had been inhibiting action on global warming.

Now, a handful of companies from across the tech sector, and beyond, are following suit. Facebook announced that it is unlikely to renew its membership in ALEC next year, and Yelp and Yahoo told Common Cause, a good-government group that tracks ALEC’s notoriously secretive agenda, that they have already parted ways with the organization.

“Because Google is such a giant, we’ve seen a domino effect,” said Jay Riestenberg, a research analyst for Common Cause, in a call with reporters.

Microsoft also announced last month that it would be leaving ALEC. On top of the recent wave of tech departures, International Paper — the owner of HammerMill — confirmed to Common Cause that it too had left, and the National Journal reported on Monday that Occidental Petroleum, a major oil company, was cutting ties. ExxonMobil also recently