Liz Cheney, running for Senate in Wyoming to oust incumbent Republican Senator Mike Enzi, champions her role in conservative media as a political asset. On her campaign website, she touts her experience in the media bringing “attention to the threats to liberty posed by the Obama administration.”
For a part-time position, Cheney has been paid handsomely: her recently filed candidate disclosure form shows that she received $281,587 from Fox News. In July of this year, Fox ended the contract given Cheney’s bid for office.
Her other sources of income also stem from communications. Assorted speaking fees honoraria and a book advance associated with the book she wrote with her father, former vice president Dick Cheney, resulted in an additional $640,950 in income.
While Liz Cheney has been in the news this week after being rebuked by her sister, Mary Cheney, over her opposition to gay marriage, the disclosure also shows that Liz has been associated with Mary’s consulting firm, Yellowstone Associates, through 2011.
Cheney is not the only candidate to pass through the revolving door between the Republican Party and well-paid positions with Fox News. Disclosures show Rick Santorum was paid $239,153 as a part-time contributor before he ran for president in 2011. Mark Sanford, before he won his special election for a House seat in South Carolina, was paid $130,000 by the network.
Cheney’s campaign had asked for an extension earlier this year for the disclosure that appeared today through the Senate ethics office. The extension was granted, but was due on November 14. Records show the mailing was received on November 19. Her attorney comes from Holtzman Vogel, a law firm that has represented a number of GOP campaigns and secret-money groups, including Americans for Prosperity.
Zoë Carpenter reports from inequality’s frontline.
Tuesday afternoon, the Department of Justice announced a final $13 billion agreement with JPMorgan Chase over the risky mortgage practices and financial securitization practices that lead up to the 2008 financial collapse.
So what’s in the settlement, and how far does it go in truly making the financial sector accountable for the widespread economic misery it caused five years ago?
What wrongdoing is JPMorgan paying for?
This goes to the heart of what caused the financial crisis. The settlement is resolving claims that JPMorgan Chase (and two firms it later purchased, Washington Mutual and Bear Stearns) sold Residential Mortgage-Backed Securities when it knew the underlying mortgages were troubled.
It was these toxic securities that infiltrated the global economy and then turned sour, taking the financial system with them. JPMorgan Chase did not formally admit to guilt (which would have placed the bank in even more serious regulatory and legal jeopardy) but did agree to a statement of facts outlining severe malfeasance in the run-up to the crisis. Specifically, the statement of facts outlines how, on multiple occasions, bank employees knew that the underlying mortgages were not appropriate for securitization but allowed it anyway and never told the investors who were making the purchase.
Getting at this misconduct was the reason the Residential Mortgage-Backed Securities task force was formed. “Since my first day in office, I have insisted that there must be accountability for the misconduct that led to the crash of the housing market and the collapse of the American economy,” said Attorney General Schneiderman, co-chair of the RMBS group. “We won a major victory today in the fight to hold those who caused the financial crisis accountable.”
How much is JPMorgan Chase paying, and where does the money go?
The settlement is for $13 billion—the largest sum a single company has ever paid the US government, more than tripling the previous mark, which was the $4 billion BP paid the government for the Deepwater Horizon spill. Thirteen billion dollars also represents half of JPMorgan Chase’s annual profits.
Nine billion of that goes to settle claims brought by various regulatory agencies and states over claims related to RMBS. Specifically, JPMorgan will pay $2 billion as a civil penalty to settle the Justice Department claims under the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act; $1.4 billion to settle federal and state securities claims by the National Credit Union Administration; $515.4 million to settle federal and state securities claims by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation; $4 billion to settle federal and state claims by the Federal Housing Finance Agency; $298.9 million to settle claims by the State of California; $19.7 million to settle claims by the State of Delaware; $100 million to settle claims by the State of Illinois; $34.4 million to settle claims by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts; and $613.8 million to settle claims by the State of New York.
The remaining $4 billion must go to distressed homeowners. Half of it will come in the form of principal reduction—where the amount owed on distressed mortgages is reduced—and the rest will go towards refinancing mortgages at better rates, donation of bank-owned properties to nonprofits or Land Banks, new mortgages to low- and moderate-income families hurt by the financial crisis, and below-market loans to some people who had their homes destroyed by Hurricane Sandy.
Why is the deal important?
In January 2011, this deal didn’t seem possible. The looming National Mortgage Settlement was heavily rumored to include immunity and indemnification to all involved banks for all conduct related to the crisis. But a strong progressive pushback led to immunity’s being stripped from the deal and to the creation of the RMBS task force, which brokered this settlement.
And more prosecutions are possible—Attorney General Eric Holder was explicit on that point Tuesday. “Without a doubt, the conduct uncovered in this investigation helped sow the seeds of the mortgage meltdown,” he said. “JPMorgan was not the only financial institution during this period to knowingly bundle toxic loans and sell them to unsuspecting investors, but that is no excuse for the firm’s behavior. The size and scope of this resolution should send a clear signal that the Justice Department’s financial fraud investigations are far from over. No firm, no matter how profitable, is above the law, and the passage of time is no shield from accountability.”
While there is plenty to criticize in this settlement (more on this next), it’s important to note some ways in which the federal government refused to be pushed around by JPMorgan. As The New York Times reports today, CEO Jamie Dimon tried to settle for just $3 billion, but DoJ officials refused to even meet with him. Only when the amount was dramatically raised did a meeting occur.
JPMorgan also wanted the FDIC to indemnify it for misconduct related to Washington Mutual, and that request was denied. It also wanted immunity from an ongoing criminal investigation in California related to RMBS—that was also denied. These sticking points delayed finalization of the deal for weeks, but JPMorgan ultimately had to relent.
What are critics saying?
There are many strong criticisms of this settlement, however. The central one is that no actual bank executives were charged—despite the fact that the Justice Department clearly established a pattern of misconduct at many different levels of the bank. “The bottom line is that there’s continued reliance on the immaculate conception theory—that no people were actually involved,” Bartlett Naylor, a financial policy advocate with Public Citizen, told The Nation.
Naylor, who served as chief of investigations for the Senate Banking Committee during the Savings & Loan crisis—where more than 800 bank officials went to jail—said such prosecutions are crucial because they create a true disincentive to bad behavior on Wall Street, as opposed to a fine, even a substantial one, that will essentially be paid by investors.
“Now, the price [for malfeasance] is you have negotiations with the government and you suffer some embarrassment, some negative press, but it’s the price of business,” Naylor said. “This shouldn’t be the price of business—this is something beyond just present value of future earnings. This is about morality. This is about the fabric of our society. We’re financializing our economy. We’re becoming increasingly an economy about banking. And lawlessness.”
Last week, US District Judge Jed S. Rakoff penned an op-ed excoriating the Justice Department for failing to charge a single high-level bank executive in relation to the crash, despite ample evidence of wrongdoing. This isn’t some random activist, but rather a senior judge in the Southern District of New York who is intimately familiar with prosecutions of the financial industry. When he’s concerned, everyone should be.
The other main criticism is that JPMorgan Chase will end up paying much less than $13 billion in the end. Only $2 billion applies to after-tax profits, meaning the rest can be accounted as a loss—so after taxes, it will cost the bank less than $9 billion. Many people have noted that the homeowner relief “penalties” in the settlement are for things the bank is already doing anyway, like extending payment schedules for troubled mortgages, extinguishing badly troubled second-tier loans and donating distressed properties to nonprofits.
Lee Fang investigates the invisible hand of business in the 2012 election.
Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.
In the richest country in the world, the poorest among us are children.
16 million children living in poverty suffer worse education, health and job outcomes, making it even harder for them and their families to break out of their circumstances.
In New York City, where nearly one-third of children live below the poverty line, Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio has pledged to tackle the pernicious problems of poverty and income inequality, and the centerpiece of his plan—to expand preschool to more low-income four-year-olds—is just plain common sense.
Studies demonstrate that kids who attend high-quality preschool achieve higher test scores, are less likely to go to jail and are more likely to secure good jobs with higher wages. Low-income kids of color, who are the least likely to have access to great preschools, benefit the most.
To stand idle in the face of these facts is to allow millions of children to fall behind in school before they even start. We can do better—and Oklahoma can show us how.
Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.
A Facebook friend writes: “To what extent did Dallas factor into LBJ’s agenda getting through?”
That’s an easy one: quite nearly one hundred precent. There’s no question that Kennedy was an utter failure as a passer of laws during his proverbial thousand days. I wrote about that in Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus: “His only real legislative victory had come in the second week of his term, when the House voted to enlarge the size of the Rules Committee to dilute the power its reactionary majority of Northern Republican and Southern Democrats had used to bog down…social legislation. But he won the victory by only a single vote.” (Those interested in more detail should seek out a 1968 book by Tom Wicker, JFK and LBJ: The Influence of Personality upon Politics.) And that victory, I wrote, “availed him nothing.” His bill to commit major federal funds to education for the first time failed; a bill for aid to depressed areas was watered down; a minimum wage increase was tiny, the number of workers it covered decreased. As for his heroic introduction of the sweeping civil rights bill, Robert Caro suggests that at the time of his death he was apparently ready to trade away its signature provision, the ban on discrimination in public accommodations. A housing bill and what would become Medicare were on the verge of failure—all this despite an approval ratings in the 70s during the spring before his death.
Then, the assassination. Then, Teddy White’s proclamation that America had just been deprived of “Camelot” (more on that later!). Lyndon Johnson stood before a joint session of Congress and said, in words scripted by Kennedy’s great speechwriter Ted Sorensen, “All that I have I would have gladly given not to be standing here today…. On the 20th day of January, in 1961, John F. Kennedy told his countrymen that our national work would not be finished ‘in the first thousand days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetimes on this planet. But,’ he said, ‘let it begin.’ Today, in this moment of new resolve, I would say to all my fellow Americans, let us continue!’ ”
Then came the legislative deluge. Same Congress; the only difference was the blatant and skilled manipulation of the memory of the fallen martyr by LBJ. Medicare. Medicaid. Civil Rights, without a single serious change from draft to passage. Federal aid to education. The tax cut I wrote about yesterday (he threatened to keep legislators in Washington through Christmas unless they passed it). Authorizing legislation for an “all-out war on human poverty,” claimed as an inheritance from Kennedy, though it had been Kennedy’s chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers’ idea to divert money to merely eliminating “pockets of party,” an idea tabled because Kennedy decided reaching out to suburban voters for 1964 was the more important priority.
Part 1 of Kennedy Week focuses on JFK’s legacy as a nuclear strategist and symbol of liberalism.
Tuesday afternoon, news broke that the United States and the Afghan government were on the verge of a new security deal that could potentially create an indefinite US military presence in the country. NBC News obtained a draft of the agreement, which extends until “2024 and beyond” and allows for the United States to operate military bases in Afghanistan and maintain combat operations against who it deems Al Qaeda operatives.
The draft agreement didn’t specify troop levels, but Afghan officials told NBC News they hoped 10,000 to 15,000 American troops would remain in the country for at least the next decade, though American officials said it would be closer to 7,000 or 8,000. In either case, if signed, the United States would be agreeing to at least a decade-long military commitment in Afghanistan—meaning a twenty-three-year war, at the very least.
But a bipartisan group of senators—led by Jeff Merkley of Oregon—is trying to pump the brakes. They have a simple principle: before President Obama agrees to another decade of war, he should consult Congress and the American people.
The Nation has learned that Merkley, along with original co-sponsors Rand Paul, Joe Manchin, Mike Lee and Ron Wyden, will introduce an amendment to the upcoming National Defense Authorization Act that expresses a sense of the Senate that Obama should seek congressional approval no later than June 1, 2014, for any extended presence in Afghanistan.
This is how the relevant part of the amendment, which was provided to The Nation, reads:
A Senate leadership aide, however, told The Nation that Merkley’s amendment was unlikely to receive a vote before the Senate breaks for Thanksgiving recess, and that once the Senate returns, “there will be a priority to wrap up NDAA and vote on a final bill.” The aide did not rule out, however, that a vote on the amendment could still occur after the holiday.
A similar measure asking Obama to seek congressional approval for an extended war in Afghanistan passed the House earlier this year by a 305-121 vote, also as an amendment to the lower chamber’s version of the NDAA. It also had bipartisan sponsorship.
While neither amendment is binding, both clearly put the White House in a difficult position. Polls show the grinding war in Afghanistan is highly unpopular, with 67 percent of Americans believing the war was not worth it. A debate over authorization to continue a seemingly endless war in Afghanistan might mirror the debate over intervention in Syria earlier this year—where congressional support never materialized.
Check out The Nation’s interactive database compiling civilian casualties in Afghanistan since the US-led invasion in 2001.
Last week, Alex Gibney, the tireless Academy Award–winning director of more than a dozen important documentaries (from Taxi to the Dark Side to the current film about Lance Armstrong) came to my town with his recent film about WikiLeaks, We Steal Secrets. You may recall that Julian Assange strongly and repeatedly slammed the film—even last week the WikiLeaks official Twitter feed had urged people to stay away from this single screening in Nyack.
Onstage after the screening Gibney revealed that his team was finally going to respond to WikiLeaks‘s famous “annotation” of his film last May with their own “annotation of their annotation.” As he has charged before, Gibney said that WikiLeaks had not received a “leaked script” back then but rather someone had taped the audio of his film at a festival screening and transcribed it later. So it was missing a major part of the film, he said—the many moments where the words of Bradley/Chelsea Manning from the Lamo chat logs are typed on the screen, without narration.
Now his team has come out with its full “annotation.” The entire document can be found here. It’s massive and color-coded. WikiLeaks has responded quickly on Twitter by calling the document “dishonest” and “not only citationless, but 6 months out of date.”
Since the Assange-annotated version of the screenplay first appeared, it has been updated, and it now refers to sections of the film that were missing when it was first posted. In creating his own annotation, though, Gibney decided to use Assange’s original post, since that original version had been widely circulated.
Gibney admits that the WikiLeaks critique no doubt played a strong role in contributing to his heavily promoted film’s disappointing showing at the box office.
While Gibney first dismissed Assange and WikiLeaks’ attacks on his film, he now believes it did have an affect on the film’s box-office performance. Released by Focus Features in May, it grossed just $166,243, never playing in more than 24 theaters. “It was more effective than I thought,” Gibney said. “He caused preemptively a lot of people not to see it, which when you think about it is kind of ironic. Instead of saying, ‘Go see this film and then read my commentary,’ it was, ‘Don’t see this film.’ Not exactly the transparency agenda.”
Greg Mitchell on WikiLeaks’s broadsides against Alex Gibney’s film.
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
W.H. Auden wrote that, sitting in a dive on 52nd Street nearly three-quarters of a century ago, as the world plunged into darkness on September 1, 1939. I’ve been thinking of those words a lot lately. Because it feels to me, and many others I know, like we’re poised at the edge of another darkness.
It’s a darkness already visible, right now, in the Philippines, where thousands are dead and many hundreds of thousands made refugees by the force of a storm like none had ever seen.
And it’s a darkness visible in the bright corporate halls of a conference center in Warsaw, where delegates to the nineteenth annual U.N. negotiations on climate change are divided and dithering, even as the window to prevent civilizational catastrophe rapidly closes.
In those same bright halls last Monday, during the opening session, the Philippines’ lead negotiator, Naderev Yeb Saño, announced in a powerful and emotional speech that he would eat no food for the duration of the twelve-day conference, or until meaningful action was taken to address the global crisis, and sparked an international outpouring of solidarity.
It so happens that two young friends of mine, Adam Greenberg and Collin Rees, recent Boston-area college grads, are in Warsaw as youth delegates to the U.N. conference with SustainUS, and they and other young people there immediately joined Saño in his hunger strike—and have now been fasting for more than a week. (Adam and Collin are allowing themselves some liquid nutrients so they can keep up the grueling conference schedule.)
By coincidence, it also happens that I spent this past weekend with a core group of about fifty committed student climate organizers from Students For a Just and Stable Future (SJSF) at their fall convergence in Worcester, Massachusetts, as they spent two full days in trainings and strategy meetings to strengthen their network and support the fast-growing grassroots climate movement in New England and beyond. And yesterday, the SJSF groups at Tufts and Brandeis launched a weeklong fast in solidarity with Saño and the people of the Philippines (as well as their friends Adam and Collin), and held a candlelight vigil in Cambridge. (Update: See their "Open Letter: Why We Are Fasting This Week," signed by students at 74 campuses.) They’re joined by people throughout Boston and the region, and coordinated fasts and vigils are being planned around the U.S. and the world for Thursday and Friday, the final days of the Warsaw conference.
These students (many of whom I’ve come to know personally as we’ve worked side by side in the 350 Massachusetts network) understand full well what’s happening to the climate, and are acutely conscious of the fact that time is running out for their generation—and, especially, those that will follow. They know that we simply cannot wait until 2020, or even 2015, to turn things around decisively. It has to be now. And they’re prepared to engage in the kind of hard work and struggle that building their movement will require.
In an email last week, Adam Greenberg told me:
I’m fasting because we need to, as Yeb said, stop this madness. I refuse to accept that we can’t. I refuse to accept that we won’t. I refuse to let the fossil fuel companies win. This is about justice, this is about taking action, and this is about preventing harm both now and in the future. We know what needs to happen. The science and the deadly simple math could not be more clear. Walking away from these talks each year without making progress is morally unacceptable.
I followed up with some questions for the two of them, and Collin Rees was able to respond last night. Noting that expectations for what the UN process can achieve are exceedingly low, I asked if he could describe what the atmosphere at the Warsaw conference was like coming in, and how the devastation in the Philippines and the action by Yeb Saño has changed it.
Collin Rees: Expectations from the UNFCCC are traditionally very low; this has been even more true in Warsaw. There was not a lot of hope for real action coming into the talks; there was some fairly vague talk about a loss and damage mechanism and some small hopes for moving on finance. Ever since Copenhagen expectations have been kept exceedingly low to avoid disappointment—I think they’ve actually been kept artificially low through this method, and this week has shown us there’s still a lot of hope.
People are now talking about real advances in the loss and damage arena, and tangible movement on finance. Discussions on REDD+ has been surprisingly hopeful, and sessions have run late into the night as countries continue debate. It hasn’t changed everything and expectations are still low, but I think we’re seeing real movement and that’s something we can continue to push for as we move into the second week.
I also asked what the goals of SustainUS were for Warsaw, and whether they had changed, and what the US delegation’s reaction has been, if any.
CR: SustainUS’s goals for Warsaw were largely related to two campaigns—inserting intergenerational equity into the negotiating text for 2015’s agreement and sparking a climate conversation in the U.S. about this June’s upcoming Clean Air Act Section 111(d) EPA standards for existing-source power plants. Both campaigns have been going well, but the domestic efforts especially have been augmented by Haiyan’s devastation and Sano’s courageous stand. The media is connecting climate change to real impacts, and the need for climate action is clear. The upcoming EPA regulations are a simple, easy way the U.S. can instantly become a leader on climate action, by implementing aggressive standards that force the worst energy sources out of the equation. These regs will be issued; the only question is how much of an impact they will have. They’re a chance to avoid a completely dysfunctional Congress and take real action with immediate impacts.
The large majority of the U.S. delegation didn’t show up until this week, so they’ve been largely absent from the dialogue thus far. We’re planning to bring it to their attention, but we’re also cognizant of the fact that they’ve essentially been given their marching orders from Washington and have very little flexibility in their actions here in Warsaw. What we need in the U.S. is aggressive domestic action, so that in the next two years we can come to these negotiations and be a real leader in the international sphere. This fast is about solidarity with climate change victims worldwide, but it’s also about getting action back at home (in every country, not just the U.S.).
I asked Collin, as someone in his early twenties, what he wanted people to understand about what’s happening there in Warsaw right now—not just in terms of the negotiations, but in terms of what’s truly at stake.
CR: We want people to understand that negotiators are coming to the table with full knowledge of the science of climate change and its devastating impacts. They’re coming with knowledge of what needs to be done, and the steps that need to occur to get to that point.
They’re coming with all of this knowledge, they’re waving their arms and giving windy, empty speeches for two weeks, and they’re walking away WITHOUT DOING ANYTHING. This is not a process that’s subtly flawed, it’s a process that’s being hijacked by a small group of countries who refuse to commit to action. That’s morally unacceptable.
If we don’t take action on climate change, we’re condemning the entire world to an unlivable future. We’re condemning those currently living in vulnerable regions disproportionately affected by the ravages of climate change, and we’re condemning all future generations to a world incompatible with life. That’s what’s at stake here, and that’s why inaction is so unacceptable.
[Update, 11/20/13: The Guardian reports that a bloc of 132 poor and developing countries (the G77 and China) have walked out of the Warsaw negotiations in an "orchestrated move," protesting wealthy nations' refusal to discuss "loss and damage" compensation until after 2015.]
* * *
A personal note: As I post this, I’m nearing twenty-four hours without food myself, as I fast in solidarity with Yeb Saño, the people of the Philippines, people suffering the effects of climate change everywhere—and with these young friends of mine in Warsaw and at home. It’s a small thing, not eating for a day or two, by choice. A very small thing. And yet, fasting last week and again now, it has been a profound reminder of my physical connection to, well, everyone and everything.
“No one exists alone,” Auden wrote in that same poem, “September 1, 1939,” just before the lines about hunger and love I quoted at the outset. It’s also worth noting how Auden ended that poem. After telling us that “we must love one another or die,” he leaves us in the final stanza with an image that, the more I repeat it to myself, retains an uncanny staying power:
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
“Poetry makes nothing happen,” Auden wrote in another famous poem (his elegy for Yeats) earlier that same year, 1939. And yes, I know, my temporary self-imposed hunger doesn’t either.
But as all those fasting this week must feel in their guts and bones, it’s not really about the fast itself. It’s about the flame that started it—and keeps us going.
Aura Bogado explores the terrible truth behind climate debt.
On October 30 director Robert Greenwald released his eighth full-length feature documentary Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars. Through never-before-seen footage and more than seventy separate interviews, including one with a former American drone operator sharing what he has witnessed, Pakistani families mourning loved ones and seeking legal redress, investigative journalists pursuing the truth, and top military officials warning against blowback from the loss of innocent life—Unmanned investigates the impact of the US drone wars at home and abroad.
The film highlights the stories of 16-year-old Tariq Aziz, killed by a drone a mere week after he participated in a public conference in Islamabad in 2011; and a school teacher, Rafiq ur Rahman, grappling with the loss of his elderly mother and the hospitalization of his children due to a drone strike last year, showing how delicate life can be in this virtual war where no one is accepting responsibility for the casualties.
Unmanned offers a clear-cut case that drones are not making us safer, and the filmmakers, hoping to help spark a dialogue, are offering free copies of the documentary to any students who want to stage screenings on campus on the many issues surrounding the increasing use of drones by the United States at home and abroad.
Help end the US drone wars and sign up to host your own screening at your college this semester.
This week I threw it to the friends in my Facebook community (join us!) for requests about what I should write about for the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s death, which falls this Friday. I got a massive response—scores of questions. All this week I’ll be addressing the most popular and interesting ones.
The very first reply that came in was this: “I can never hear enough about how a liberal Massachusetts Democrat used intelligence and creative intelligence and creative diplomacy to defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis and saved us all from nuclear annihilation.” With all due respect to the questioner, a smart and experienced liberal activist, plus the five folks who gave the question a thumbs-up on Facebook, I wondered initially whether his question wasn’t meant as snark—that he might be referring to Garry Wills’s very convincing argument that the Cuban Missile Crisis was all Kennedy’s fault. As it happens, I agree with Wills: I don’t think Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis is something we should celebrate at all.
Wills made the case in the final section of his 1982 book The Kennedy Imprisonment: A Meditation on Power. Early in his term Kennedy fell in love with a plan, left over from Eisenhower’s administration, to send exiles to invade and overthrow Castro via a landing at the Bahía de Cochinos—the Bay of Pigs. He liked it so much because it was Kennedyesque: “A James Bond exploit blessed by Yale, a PT raid run by PhDs.” A failed invasion, his fault; then, despite the conventional wisdom that he learned from the failure, rather than leave well enough alone, Kennedy’s CIA kept on proliferating increasingly knuckle-headed schemes (exploding cigars!) to assassinate Castro, some using Mafia operatives. One set of plans on the drawing boards: “Operation Northwoods,” which proposed, among other ideas, creating the pretext for another American invasion. James Bamford wrote that the goal of the project was “for innocent people to be shot on American streets; for boats carrying refugees fleeing Cuba to be sunk on the high seas; for a wave of violent terrorism to be launched in Washington, D.C., Miami, and elsewhere. People would be framed for bombings they did not commit; planes would be hijacked. Using phony evidence, all of it would be blamed on Castro.”
We sometimes hear the argument that Kennedy never knew how about the depths to which such madcap plotting sunk, which were indeed always devised to protect the president via maximal “plausible deniability”—but what is undeniable is that the ultimate aim, overthrowing Castro, came straight from the top. The American people didn’t know about any of this, but the Cuban government did. So no wonder they wanted nukes. But there are also outstanding arguments that JFK’s admittedly outstanding and mature diplomacy once the missiles were placed in Cuba did not save us from nuclear annihilation at all. The logic of deterrence rendered those missiles virtually useless. For if a Communist first strike was launched from the Soviet Union, America could destroy the Cuban missiles before they could be used during this long time window; if the missiles from Cuba struck first, the president would have time to push the proverbial button and annihilate the Soviet Union. The only thing those Cuban missiles were useful for, in fact, was preventing America from illegally overthrowing the Castro government. So if you think that’s a splendid thing, yes, celebrate Kennedy for the Cuban Missile Crisis. Otherwise: not so impressive.
* * *
Next up! “I’d love to read your take on Ira Stoll’s book arguing that JFK was actually a conservative.”
The book is JFK, Conservative. Here’s the blurb: “[B]y the standards of both his time and our own, John F. Kennedy was a conservative. His two great causes were anticommunism and economic growth. His tax cuts, which spurred one of the greatest economic booms in our history, were fiercely opposed by his more liberal advisers. He fought against unions. He pushed for free trade and a strong dollar. And above all, he pushed for a military buildup and an aggressive anticommunism around the world…. Not every Republican is a true heir to Kennedy, but hardly any Democrats deserve that mantle.”
I have, of course, heard such claims for ages. What to make of them? Granted, I haven’t read the book, and maybe Stoll’s supporting arguments are so subtly brilliant that he’s suddenly rendered them convincing. But he’d have to be smarter than Einstein to do so. It’s not a great start that the blurb advertising his book contains a basic logical error. One can’t be a conservative “by the standards of both his time and our own,” the space in between being some fifty years filled with massive social changes on virtually every front, any more than something can be simultaneously matter and anti-matter. What is considered “conservative,” and what is considered “liberal,” changes in any given era. Calling tax cuts “conservative,” as such, is shockingly historically ignorant: the idea of tax-cutting as a signature conservative gesture dates only to the late 1970s and the arguments of supply-siders like Jude Wanniski. When Wanniski made his arguments to Ronald Reagan’s very conservative adviser Peter Hannaford in 1976, Hannaford looked at Wanniski like he was crazy and walked away; the previous year, liberal Democrats were the ones pushing a $29.2 billion permanent tax cut as against President Ford’s wish for $16 billion in temporary tax cuts.
As for Kennedy’s tax cut specifically (which was actually Johnson’s tax cut: it went through early in 1964, and are conservatives now claiming Johnson as one of their own?), the historian David Greenberg niftily put paid to that in a piece Stoll must have missed when it came out ten years ago. Yes, the law that passed ended up lowering the top marginal tax rate from 91 to 70 percent, and if Stoll is willing to join the Kennedy-Johnson bandwagon by bringing back that top rate, I’m glad to join him. But the blunt fact of the matter was that the tax cut was designed to create a deficit, and designed to mostly put money into poorer consumers’ pockets: it was explicitly Kenyesian, through and through—the opposite of Reaganite “supply-side” thinking. Businessmen—conservatives—mostly hated it. Because, back then, it was “conservative” to favor fiscal probity even if it took higher taxes to do it.
OK: “He fought against unions.” Um, he fought against union corruption. If Stoll thinks liberals prefer corrupt unions, I don’t know what to say to him. That’s generally the conservative line. As Barry Goldwater said during the hearings Kennedy helped run in the late 1950s that took on Jimmy Hoffa’s Teamsters, “I’d rather have Jimmy Hoffa stealing my money than Walter Reuther stealing my freedom.”
What about Kennedy’s anticommunism? Was that “conservative”? Sure, if you’re stupid beyond stupid. Anticommunism in its modern form was invented by liberals like Harry Truman, the architect of the national security state. The proportion of the voting population that was not anticommunist in 1961 was miniscule. Here’s another, related, question from one of my Facebook friends, another five-thumbs-up popular favorite: “I’d love a perspective on his brand of liberal anticommunism and how it fit in to the era.” What did it mean to be a conservative anticommunist during that time? Mostly, it meant being idiotic. Barry Goldwater’s 1962 book on the subject, Why Not Victory?, built on the argument in the last chapter of Conscience of a Conservative that it should be America’s foreign policy to blithely welcome nuclear war if that was what it took to “advance the cause of freedom.” Yes, literally.
Conservatives like Goldwater (not to mention conservatives in the John Birch Society, who believed the most important thing to know about Communism was that its denizens had infiltrated the federal government all the way to the top, but maybe Ira Stoll agrees?) also believed it was futile to negotiate with the Soviet Union about anything. Why was this especially idiotic? Because historically, relaxation in tensions between the US and the USSR had always been the variable most likely to weaken the hold of totalitarianism with the Soviet Union, opening space for the dissidents whose courage eventually brought down the system. (Conservatives habitually travesty both historical fact and the courageous legacy of these dissidents when they argue otherwise.)
Now, as I noted above, Kennedy’s anticommunism could be stupid, too. But it was most stupid when it was most conservative—see above.
So why is it accurate to say that Kennedy was affirmatively liberal—if too often, as we’ll examine next time, a timid one? For one, because he said he was, out and proud, for instance in this most useful of utterances: “If by a ‘liberal’ they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people—their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights and their civil liberties—someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad—if that is what they mean by a ‘liberal’ then I’m proud to say I’m a liberal.”
The proof was in the pudding. His first debate with Richard Nixon in 1960, remembered now because Kennedy looked hale and ruddy and Nixon looked sweaty and haggard, should also be remembered for Kennedy’s central policy argument: free medical care for the aged, what would later come to pass as Medicare, as an affirmation and extension of the New Deal legacy:
“I want the individuals to meet their responsibilities. And I want the states to meet their responsibilities. But I think there is also a national responsibility. The argument has been used against every piece of social legislation in the last twenty-five years. The people of the United States individually could not have developed the Tennessee Valley; collectively they could have. A cotton farmer in Georgia or a peanut farmer or a dairy farmer in Wisconsin and Minnesota, he cannot protect himself against the forces of supply and demand in the market place; but working together in effective governmental programs he can do so. Seventeen million Americans, who live over sixty-five on an average Social Security check of about seventy-eight dollars a month, they’re not able to sustain themselves individually, but they can sustain themselves through the social security system.”
Kennedy went on, slapping Ira Stoll down from beyond the grave:
“[W]hat is the party record that we lead? I come out of the Democratic party, which in this century has produced Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, and which supported and sustained these programs which I’ve discussed tonight. Mr. Nixon comes out of the Republican party. He was nominated by it. And it is a fact that through most of these last twenty-five years the Republican leadership has opposed federal aid for education, medical care for the aged, development of the Tennessee Valley, development of our natural resources. I think Mr. Nixon is an effective leader of his party. I hope he would grant me the same. The question before us is: which point of view and which party do we want to lead the United States?”
That’s why John F. Kennedy was a liberal, which happens to be why I am a liberal too.
Wendell Berry commemorates the assassination of JFK in his poem “The Light of all His Last Days.”
With budget negotiations on the horizon, a buzz is building around Social Security, from Elizabeth Warren and other Democrats calling for an expansion of benefits to The Washington Post arguing that seniors must be sacrificed for the good of the “poor young.”
Two of the biggest players in the debate are largely behind the scenes: Business Roundtable and Fix the Debt, corporate lobbies that use deficit fear-mongering to sell benefit cuts. These groups are made up of CEOs of America’s largest corporations—people with retirement accounts that are more than 1,000 times as large as those of the average Social Security beneficiary.
Each of the 200 executives of Business Roundtable has retirement savings averaging $14.5 million, according to a new report from the Institute for Policy Studies and the Center for Effective Government. That’s compared to the $12,000 that the median US worker near retirement age has managed to put away. Once Business Roundtable CEOs start drawing Social Security themselves, they’ll be cashing a monthly check that is sixty-eight times larger than an ordinary retiree’s, ensuring that they’ll never bear the burden of the cuts they’re advocating.
“I find it hypocritical to see CEOs sitting on massive retirement fortunes of their own saying that the solution to the country’s fiscal challenge is to put an even greater burden on retirees, many of whom already struggling,” said Sarah Anderson, director of the Global Economy Project at IPS and one of the report’s authors.
One of those CEOs is David Cote, the vice-chair of Business Roundtable and a member of the steering committee for Fix the Debt. After eleven years at Honeywell where he’s now the chief executive, his retirement assets are worth $134.5 million. That means that as a retiree he’ll draw a monthly pension of nearly $800,000.
Cote is a deficit hawk, and claims to be worried about the long-term stability of Social Security. A member of the Bowles-Simpson commission and President Obama’s debt committee, Cote has called for $3 to $4 trillion in spending cuts over the next decade, “especially when it comes to entitlements.”
To make some of those reductions via cuts to Social Security, Business Roundtable has proposed raising the retirement age to 70, restricting benefit growth and changing the way inflation is calculated in a way that amounts to a benefit cut for seniors. (Read George Zornick on why this change, called Chained CPI, is a bad deal.) At the same time, Business Roundtable and Fix the Debt are calling for more corporate tax breaks.
“If Congress approves of proposals like ones that Business Roundtable are pushing, we could see severe cuts that could mean the difference between any kind of dignified retirement and absolute poverty,” Anderson said. Two-thirds of retired Americans rely on Social Security for the majority of their income, and more than 40 percent would be in poverty without those benefits.
These CEOs aren’t just trying to short the average American retiree; they’re throwing their own under the bus. While raising alarm about the federal debt, Business Roundtable CEOs have run up massive deficits in their employees’ pension funds. According to the report, ten companies led by members of Business Roundtable have shortfalls in their employee pension funds of between $4.9 and $22.6 billion. The largest of those belongs to General Electric, run by Business Roundtable and Fix the Debt member Jeffrey Immelt, the prospective beneficiary of a $59.3 million retirement fund.
GE stopped offering traditional pension plans for new employees in 2011, forcing workers to switch to 401(k) plans. Many other companies have shifted the burden of retirement savings to their employees in this way in recent years, and that’s been a significant driver of the retirement crisis. Just 18 percent of workers can expect traditional pensions today, compared with 38 percent in 1985. Instead of getting a fixed check, retirees are at the mercy of the market—making the assurance of Social Security benefits even more essential. But Business Roundtable continues to put the responsibility for the retirement crisis on retirees themselves. “[T]rue retirement security will be achieved only if Americans save more,” reads the group’s 2013 CEO Growth Agenda.
Saving more is an increasingly unworkable solution for the millions of workers whose wages and benefits are being undercut by some of the same CEOs directing them to do so. As the report lays out, many of the most effective ways to strengthen Social Security involve asking more of executives, not employees. Eliminating the cap on wages subject to Social Security taxes (currently set at $113,700) would eliminate 95 percent of the projected shortfall for seventy-five years, according to the Congressional Research Service. That’s three times the deficit reduction achieved by raising the retirement age to 70. Subjecting stock-based compensation to Social Security taxes would raise billions more.
Don’t expect to hear about those proposals from Business Roundtable, however. “I do think that it is a real weakness of these corporate lobby groups, that they’re making the public face of the agenda to cut Social Security these CEOs that are sitting on massive nest eggs of their own,” said Anderson. “It undercuts their credibility and influence in these debates, and I’m hoping it will make it difficult to achieve the cuts they’re proposing.”
Allison Kilkenny on how Walmart is holding a food drive for the employees it refuses to pay a living wage.