As George W. Bush so fuzzily put it, "The California crunch really is the result of not enough power-generating plants and then not enough power to power the power of generating plants." Whatever that means, his main responses to California's deregulation crisis have been to tout drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and to bar federal intervention that would curb the profiteering by big generating companies.
Since a tiny percent of the nation's electricity is produced by burning oil, drilling in the refuge is irrelevant to the problem. But, of course, it's quite relevant to the big oil and gas companies' expectations of a payoff from this Administration, in which they had invested millions in campaign contributions. They're salivating for exploration on hitherto off-limits federal lands with ANWR as the opening wedge. Bush plays along by fanning fears of power crises nationwide to overcome the pro-environment sentiment among voters. (Recent polls show that two-thirds of Americans favor a ban on drilling in the wildlife refuge.)
As for withholding federal intervention, that's simply the old-time deregulation religion preached by conservative pundits who blame the failure to deregulate fully for the California crunch. Actually, California's deregulation bill was drafted by the power companies, which made hefty contributions to grease its way through the legislature. Seeking to recapture from consumers the costs of their bad investments in nuclear plants, the utilities devised the very freeze on consumer rates on which they now blame the current crisis, and which they are trying to overturn in the courts. They also agreed to divest themselves of much of their generating capacity, leaving them vulnerable to the market manipulations of independent power producers--including their own parent companies, which are reaping huge profits from this contrived crisis. Those same parent companies are using their "near bankrupt" utilities to launder more than $20 billion in the stranded-cost bailouts that prompted the crisis in the first place.
Clearly, more bailouts for utilities and unleashing Big Oil to ravage the wilds are not the solutions to California's--or the nation's--power problems, especially when there is a native California solution at hand: municipal ownership and conservation. The model is the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, which, after closing down its one nuclear reactor in 1989, held prices steady, invested heavily in wind and solar power and promoted energy efficiency through programs like subsidized buyouts of old, energy-guzzling home refrigerators.
Unfortunately, Governor Gray Davis and the California legislature have chosen to ignore the lesson of Sacramento and to "solve" the crisis by throwing more billions in public money at the utilities. Davis should be using public money and eminent domain to buy the assets of these rogue utilities out of bankruptcy and turn them over to direct public control. A statewide network of public-owned, democratically run municipal utilities would work just fine.
Municipal ownership like Sacramento's is now being urgently considered by San Francisco and other beleaguered California cities. Rather than catering to his energy "adviser" Ken Lay of Enron (who injected $500,000 into Bush campaign coffers, making him the largest single contributor in the last election cycle) and the rest of the oil and gas companies, Bush should recognize that the wind and sun provide more than enough "power to power the power of generating plants" and that power is rightfully owned and most efficiently operated by the public itself.
NAME THE PRESIDENT UPDATE
Our contest to pick a title for George W. Bush, the present occupant of the White House, has evidently touched a nerve. Hundreds of cards, letters and e-mails have poured in from those who can't bear to utter the words "President Bush." For the winner or winners: the glittering prize of a Bush-as-Alfred-E.-Neumann T-shirt. Judging from your letters, the contest has been therapeutic, a chance to vent the steam that's been building ever since the Supreme Court handed down the presidency. Final date for entries is February 19--Presidents' Day!
When the Washington Post (or any other big newspaper or magazine that's part of a media conglomerate) speaks on communications policy, readers should listen with skepticism. For example, in its February 12 issue, the Post weighed in on "The New Communications Boss." That would be Michael Powell, head of the FCC and also, to keep it in the family, son of Secretary of State Colin Powell. The Post gave an approving nod to the younger Powell's remarks at a press conference outlining his views on his new responsibilities. The editors applauded what he said about instant messaging--that AOL deserves to keep its present monopoly on this technology, rather than share it with competitors. It also approved of Powell's go-slow policy on regulating interactive television, which AOL-Time Warner threatens to dominate. The Post discreetly averted its eyes to Powell's lack of diplomacy in saying that the concerns about poor people's lack of access to computers (the so-called digital divide) were misplaced--like wanting to buy everyone a Mercedes-Benz. Never once in the editorial did the Post disclose its own broadband of interests in new technologies. Its parent company owns TV stations and cable properties. It owns Kaplan Inc., an online tutoring service, which now has AOL as a partner. It also owns Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, an online information service. When it comes to media matters the Post should either disclose its interests or shut up--sorry, recuse itself.
BUSH'S TAX CUT/DEFENSE STRATEGY
George W. Bush's recent staged tour of several military bases was heralded by a pledge to shift $5.7 billion in the current defense budget to higher pay, better housing and more healthcare for the troops. Conservatives had been expecting something splashier in the way of defense spending. Instead, Bush called for a review of the overall mission of US military forces. This meshes nicely with the primacy on his agenda of his $1.6 trillion tax cut. Campaign promises about big bucks for high-tech weapons are put on hold. Peace activists, however, weren't putting the nuclear threat on hold. On February 5-6, movie stars Martin Sheen, Michael Douglas and Paul Newman led a phone blitz of the White House, part of the Back from the Brink Campaign (www.backfromthebrink.policy.net)--a nationwide call for taking US and Russian nukes off hairtrigger alert. And on Valentine's Day several Congress members joined a Washington rally protesting Star Wars outside the Ronald Reagan Building, where former TRW board member Dick Cheney held a love fest with defense contractors.
For the second year in a row, The Nation has been nominated for a GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) Media Award for "Outstanding Magazine Overall Coverage." Nation contributor Robert Scheer was also nominated in the "Outstanding Newspaper Columnist" slot for his writings in the Los Angeles Times.
NEWS OF THE WEAK IN REVIEW
Morgan Stanley invested more than $100,000 to hire Bill Clinton for a speech to a convention in Florida. After all, he presided over the longest stock market uptick in history, and the brokerage snagged him for his first postpresidential speech. Then came the Rich pardon, etc. Morgan Stanley was hit by complaints from its customers. Chairman Philip Purcell dispatched a sanctimonious e-mail to clients saying the invitation had "clearly been a mistake" given Clinton's "personal behavior as President."
Political cross-dressing by the Democrats ended on January 25 in Washington when their erstwhile conservative patron, Alan Greenspan, abruptly jilted them. Under Bill Clinton's tutelage, the party of working people held the hem of the Federal Reserve chairman's dark robes and pretended to be fiscal conservatives, just like him. We must not cut taxes, they insisted piously, we must instead use the burgeoning federal surpluses to pay off the national debt. Greenspan would solemnly bless these expressions of Hooverite restraint.
Then he blew them off. The Fed chairman announced his support for George W. Bush's broad agenda of major tax cuts and, for good measure, the dismantling of Social Security as we know it. He is, as ever, an astute opportunist. During the Clinton years, Greenspan did his own turn at cross-dressing, making chummy with a Democratic President who followed his directions. Now that a new President from the Party of Money is in power, Greenspan returns to the one true faith--rescuing business and the wealthy from the clutches of government. His pronouncements will inspire a lobbying contest among the upscale interests to see who can extract the most boodle from the Treasury.
Democrats are feeling hurt and disoriented. They fully deserve their embarrassment. Their embrace of conservative fiscal orthodoxy seemed clever at the time--a stalling tactic to hold off more GOP tax cuts for the wealthy--but like so many of Clinton's too-cute tactics, it was always a dead-end strategy for liberals. An activist party committed to addressing major public problems was, in effect, promising to do little or nothing of significance while massive surpluses accumulated for the next ten or fifteen years. The GOP could say, and did: If the government is collecting so much extra tax revenue, why not give some of it back to the people? Alternatively, Democrats might have proposed a major down payment on healthcare and other neglected social problems. Instead, we got Al Gore's "lockbox"--much ridiculed because it was always a ridiculous gimmick. Bookkeepers, it turns out, do not make very compelling presidential candidates.
Now, as the economy weakens so quickly that the Fed has moved twice to lower interest rates, Democrats are scrambling to be pro-tax cuts and belatedly trying to figure out what that means. This is the minority party's first great post-Clinton opportunity to restore its progressive reputation and show that it still has some fight. We have suggestions. First, Democratic leaders in the House and Senate should draw a bright line of principled resistance to yet another regressive tax package (never mind that some in their ranks are already defecting). For two decades, Democrats have collaborated in the Republicans' hog-feeding splurges, joining in the bidding wars to reward contributors and favored interests. This time, even if the prospects look doubtful, the party must oppose the giveaways--estate tax repeal, another capital gains tax cut, the phony tax incentive for corporate R&D, and other goodies Republicans are putting on the table. If income tax rates are to be reduced, don't acquiesce again in the Reaganite sleight of hand that cuts the top and bottom rates across the board as though the wealthiest are getting equal treatment with the least fortunate.
The positive principle, in addition to providing emergency stimulus for the economy, should be: Heal the wounded, the people whose incomes and family conditions have been squeezed for a generation, even during boom times. That means delivering the bulk of tax relief, whether the package is $800 billion or twice that much, to those on the bottom half or bottom two-thirds of the income ladder. Don't try to do this with lots of fanciful conditions that pretend to target particular social problems--just send them the money, as promptly as possible. There are many different ways to accomplish this: For example, suspend a point or two on the payroll tax paid by workers (but not employers) for a specified period of one or two years; or enact a bigger child deduction, progressively larger for families at or below the median household income level; or simply cut the lower-bracket marginal rates (while leaving the top rate alone), with an immediate cut in withholding. The important thing is not to let the principle get lost in tricky details. The principle is: The Democratic Party fights on behalf of the working middle class and poor (even if it disappoints some of its major contributors in the process). When and if the vast public hears this message from Democrats, most of them will probably not believe it. Democrats will not persuade until they learn to make the fight for real.
As for the Federal Reserve, our advice to Alan Greenspan is: Butt out. Greenspan, remember, is the wizard who supposedly "saved" Social Security back in 1983 when his blue-ribbon commission initiated the massive payroll tax increases on working people. Now he wants to save it again by destroying it. If the central bank wishes to preserve its protected status "independent" of politics, the chairman had better confine his Republican ideological preachments to dinners at the club.
NAME THE PRESIDENT CONTEST
Face it: Just saying the words President Bush causes many of our readers to gag. Typical is Lois Phillips Hudson, who writes: "Though I might mumble them in a nightmare, never in any waking moment will the words 'President Bush' pass my lips." She suggests his title be "President," forever in quotes. Out of respect for Lois and millions like her, we are launching a Name the President Contest. Send us your suggestions for an appropriate title for George W. Bush. The last President to steal the office, Rutherford B. Hayes, was forever after known as "His Fraudulency" or "Old 8-7" (referring to the margin by which a special commission wedged him in). His example suggests other dishonorifics, e.g., "His Illegitimacy" or "Old 5-4." Jack Cousineau offers "pResident," in print, to denote that Bush merely happens to be the current White House occupant. (Bill Hoover, and Gar Smith, editor of Earth Island Journal--which is changing its style sheet--suggest just plain "Resident.") Send your suggestions to "In Fact," The Nation, 33 Irving Place, New York, NY 10003 or (firstname.lastname@example.org). The prize: a T-shirt displaying the Bush-as-Alfred E. Neuman Nation cover to the top five.
When Republicans, conservatives, even some right-of-center Democrats want to bait a liberal, they often hurl the phrase "McGovern Democrat" at him or her, as if that's the ultimate in political insults. But the original McGovern Democrat--former Senator George McGovern--has been embraced by the Bush Administration. In December McGovern, who was appointed by President Clinton to be US ambassador to the UN agencies for food and agriculture, submitted his resignation, as is customary for a political appointee. Once the Bushies moved in, Secretary of State Colin Powell phoned McGovern, whose new book--The Third Freedom: Ending Hunger in Our Time--calls for a US-led global initiative to eradicate hunger, and asked him to continue in the Rome-based post, where McGovern has been pressing for a global school lunch program that would cover 300 million children. (McGovern persuaded Clinton to allocate $300 million to kick off this project.) McGovern didn't lobby to stay on, but he's pleased he was asked. "I've brought Bob Dole into the school lunch idea," he told us. "Maybe that helped." Is he going soft on Republicans? "Well, I do have to be more kindly now." McGovern and the Republicans--now that's bipartisanship. What next? A job for Jesse Jackson?
STUDENTS TO NIKE: 'JUST DO IT'
Liza Featherstone writes: On January 9 more than 850 workers went on strike at Kukdong International Mexico, a Korean-owned factory in Atlixco that contracts with Nike to make sweatshirts bearing the logos of the universities of Michigan and Oregon and many other schools. Kukdong workers demanded that management recognize their union and reinstate employees who had been fired for organizing the work stoppage and other protests. This was the highest-profile test yet for the Worker Rights Consortium, the antisweatshop organization founded this past April by US students with labor and human rights activists. After interviewing some thirty workers in Atlixco, the WRC's investigative team reported "strong grounds for concern" that management had violated the child labor, physical abuse, minimum wage and freedom of association provisions in many universities' codes of conduct. Nike denounced the WRC investigation, claiming that the group is not "objective," but student agitation forced the sneaker giant to appoint a mediator, pressure the factory to rehire some of the workers and call for an independent monitor to investigate Kukdong. And also not to cut its ties to the factory afterward. Says Eric Brakken of United Students Against Sweatshops, "I think we've scared the fuck out of them."
Throughout the last campaign, while liberal Democrats warned that Bush was much more reactionary than he pretended to be, Naderites argued that Democrats were much less progressive than their rhetoric. From the evidence of the first days of the Bush Administration, it turns out both were right.
For all the dulcet compassion written into his inaugural address, Bush turned right even before entering the White House. His nomination of John Ashcroft as Attorney General showed contempt, not compassion, for the broad center of American politics. His environmental troika--Norton, Abraham and Whitman--are an affront even to Republican environmentalists. While professing her love for nature Norton preposterously invoked the California power crisis as a reason to start drilling in the Arctic wildlife preserve. The troika also threatened a review of the environmental regulations Clinton issued in his last weeks in power.
On his first day in office Bush targeted women's right to choose by reinstating the odious gag rule defunding any international organization that counsels women abroad on family planning and abortion. He also opened fire on women's rights at home, announcing that "it is my conviction that taxpayer funds should not be used to pay for abortions or advocate or actively promote abortions either here or abroad." He hailed those gathered at the annual national protest against Roe v. Wade, saying that "we share a great goal" in overturning the constitutional protection of a woman's right to seek an abortion. And Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson announced that he would review RU-486, which anti-choicers want banned, fearful that it will make abortion more accessible. So much for compassion.
Bush launched his push for an education plan that will demand lots of testing in exchange for a little new funding for beleaguered urban and rural schools. The $5 billion annual price tag for his education bill is mocked by the $68 billion annual tax cut he wants to give to the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans--to say nothing of the tens of billions about to be thrown at the Pentagon. But Bush knows what he calls "my base." The lily-white, mink-draped crowd at his inauguration broke into loud applause only twice: when Bush promised to reduce taxes and when Chief Justice Rehnquist was introduced. So much for bipartisanship.
Yet, despite the stolen election, the wolf politics after a sheep's campaign and a furious and frightened constituency, many Democrats in the Senate seem content with getting rolled. Conservatives in the party didn't pause before trampling their leaders to embrace the tainted President. While Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle was urging his troops to hold off on any announcements about Ashcroft, the opportunistic Robert Torricelli and dubious Democrat Zell Miller of Georgia were hailing the Missouri tribune of the Confederacy as Attorney General. Despite a furious reaction by Democrats across the country, opponents like Ted Kennedy are struggling to summon even forty votes against a zealot whose career has been marked by his willingness to abuse his office for political gain. While Daschle was trying to get some agreement on a smaller tax-cut package from Democrats, Miller leapt in to co-sponsor the equivalent of the Bush plan with Texas Senator Phil Gramm.
Dick Cheney's former opponent, Joe Lieberman, didn't even thank African-Americans and the unions for their remarkable support this past fall before kicking them in the teeth in January. He joined nine other New Democrats in an unctuous letter to "President-Elect Bush" indicating their willingness to work with him on an education bill and urging him to make a top priority of the fight for "Fast Track trading authority" for "expansion of trade in the Americas." Lieberman et al. begged to meet with Bush as early as possible. So much for Democratic unity.
But the Democratic collaborators are likely misjudging the temper of the country. What the inaugural also revealed was the depth of voter anger nationwide. Demonstrators often outnumbered celebrators along the parade route. And from San Francisco to Kansas City to Tallahassee, citizens turned out to express their dismay at the installation of the illegitimate President. Bush seems committed to refighting old battles against choice, affirmative action and environmental and consumer protection, as well as to waging a new offensive in the continuing class warfare of the privileged against the poor. But citizens are showing that they are ready to resist. Some Democrats--Maxine Waters, Dennis Kucinich, Jan Schakowsky, Barney Frank, George Miller and others in the House, as well as Kennedy and Richard Durbin in the Senate--are already engaged. The day before Bush was sworn in, the Progressive Caucus led a daylong conference on political reform that featured a bold agenda and a promise to push for change at the state and national levels. In the coming fray, Democrats who decide to cozy up to the new Administration are likely to find themselves caught in the crossfire.
TAKING BACK DEMOCRACY On the day before the inaugural, voting rights activists from across the country gathered in Washington to plot a legislative and political crusade to reform the political system. "The Bush people, the Republicans, the Supreme Court--they do not yet fully understand the mistake they made when they decided to steal the election," declared Representative Cynthia McKinney of Georgia. Members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, including Senator Paul Wellstone and Representatives Dennis Kucinich, Bernie Sanders, Jan Schakowsky, Barbara Lee, Eleanor Holmes Norton and McKinney, joined academics and activists for seminars, workshops and discussions organized by the Institute for Policy Studies, the Progressive Challenge network, the Nation Institute and the Center for Voting and Democracy. The forum was the first of several planned to link grassroots activists with members of the 107th Congress who are pushing reform legislation on issues ranging from the healthcare crisis to the wealth gap. McKinney said the Florida election dispute and anticipated fights over Congressional redistricting created a rare opening for reform. "In 1965, civil rights activism that seemed undoable suddenly became doable after Bloody Sunday," she said. "After Florida 2000, voting reforms that seemed undoable suddenly seem doable. Voting rights is an issue--not just a civil rights issue, but an American issue."
NOT A FAVORITE SON The grilling of Attorney General-designate John Ashcroft by Senators Ted Kennedy and Joe Biden during the Senate Judiciary Committee's confirmation hearings benefited substantially from information provided by one of the nation's most ambitious grassroots organizations, Missouri Pro-Vote, a coalition of labor, pro-choice, gay and lesbian, and community activist groups. Soon after Ashcroft's nomination was announced, Pro-Vote officials began working with Pacifica's Democracy Now! radio program, the Institute for Public Accuracy and USAction--the national network of state-based progressive groups with which Pro-Vote is affiliated--to spread the word about Ashcroft's extremist views and his record of racial insensitivity. Much of the information had been gathered as part of a five-year monitoring project of the Pro-Vote-linked Missouri Citizen Education Fund. Pro-Vote's work to expand African-American voter registration in St. Louis last year--when Ashcroft was narrowly defeated for re-election to the Senate--was honored by the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists as part of that city's Martin Luther King Day festivities.
MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRIC "You can't always get what you want," crooned activist-musician Doug Hartnett, as his band the Oxymorons ripped into the Rolling Stones classic and a set of equally appropriate tunes for dissenters on the first night of the George W. Bush Administration. Rocking a crowd of more than 800 at the Americans for Democratic Action Counter-Inaugural Gala, Hartnett, who works by day as a lawyer for the whistleblowing Government Accountability Project, and the Oxymorons had no trouble filling the dance floor at Washington's Mayflower hotel with a multigenerational crowd that answered the call to "party liberally." Grand Old Partyers arriving to celebrate in another wing of the hotel did double takes when they encountered revelers like Baltimore's Sarah McClintock, whose green brocade gown was accented with gold glitter slogans that read, "Reject the Republicans" and "Jail to the Thief." "I wanted to make a fashion statement that no one would misinterpret," announced a grinning McClintock.