I'm just back from Chicago, where The Nation staged a couple of days of student-related events at the University of Chicago and Northwestern in nearby Evanston; the highlight was an evening debate on January 19 in which Katrina vanden Heuvel and John Nichols took on the Chicago Tribune's publisher, David Hiller and deputy managing editor, Jim Warren, in a feisty, standing-room only conversation on the role of the press in a democracy at the University's historic Oriental Institute.
It was fun, as the first paragraph of the front-page account in the University of Chicago's student paper The Maroon, makes clear: "Loud heckling punctuated an already impassioned debate of the current media's timidity regarding government last night, with one delegate even discussing journalists' fears of being labeled un-American."
After the debate, we were hosted at a late-night reception by an organization with which every Nation reader in the Windy City should be familiar: The Public Square. Recognizing that the bedrock of democracy is an informed citizenry passionately involved in spirited debate, Public Square tries to create the conditions within which this sort of debate can flower. Or as its website explains, "Knowledge is power, yet much crucial knowledge still circulates only in small, isolated communities. We build bridges between theory and practice in order to empower individuals to use ideas as tools to improve their lives."
What this means is a regular series of small, intimate conversations with and among visiting activists, policy-makers and citizens from virtually all walks of life as well as "Café Society," which tries to foster a more robust civil society through weekly coffee shop conversations about contemporary social issues. The idea seeks to tap into the growing coffee culture in Chicago as a vehicle to promote conversations between strangers (a cornerstone of democratic practice) about politics and the lives we lead.
I counted nine different weekly meetings taking place in and around Chicago currently, all of which are supplemented by visits from members of Public Square's advisory board and other visiting experts. Click here for more info on Public Square, and here's to someone figuring out how to export this great concept to other cities!
On the flight back from O'Hare (Long wait of course--our plane was twentieth in line on the runway for take-off), I read what seemed to be a very important article in the Wall Street Journal by a very good reporter named Ellen Schultz. As she writes, "Pending federal legislation aimed at pushing companies to shore up underfunded pension plans also eliminates some longstanding retirement protections and gives employers new powers to reduce some workers' pensions." Lawmakers and lobbyists have publicy emphasized how the legislation is intended to toughen employer obligations to contribute to pension plans. "But several little-noticed provisons appear to let employers bolster their pension plans at the expense of employees."
Even more alarming, the new law, if passed, would seem to reward companies that allowed their plans to become underfunded by requiring the worker pensions to be frozen because of mangement malfeasance--even if the benefits were subject to a union contract.
With the recent spate of corporate looting of employee pension funds--think IBM and Enron--you'd think it would take great nerve for politicians of any stripe to push a bill making it easier for corporations to evade their pension obligations. Or that such brazenness would at least cause some outrage. But no. A Google search turned up very little reporting or editorializing on the bill at all, much less the semi-hidden aspects of it which Schultz has revealed. So read and circulate this article and click here to tell your elected rep that you expect them to vote against the pension bill if its anti-worker provisions aren't stripped out.