Russia scholar and longtime Nation contributor Stephen Cohen joins John Batchelor to discuss the deepening crisis in Ukraine. He says that as the conflict escalates, so too does the possibility of a military confrontation between the United States–NATO and Russia: “It’s hard to imagine a civil war in Ukraine without the United States and NATO intervening on one side [and] Russia [intervening] on the other.” Cohen considers what it will take to avoid this worst-case scenario.
This post was originally published at RepublicReport.org
Only one day after the Center for Public Integrity’s reporting series on denials of black lung benefits to coal miners was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) defended the controversial law firm at the center of the investigation.
As he stepped to the podium of the National Western Mining Convention in Denver on Tuesday, Manchin heaped praise upon Jackson Kelly, a sponsor of the event and the law firm implicated in unethically concealing medical evidence of miners dying of black lung.
“I want to thank my dear friends at Jackson Kelly,” exclaimed the senator. In his remarks, Manchin also noted that his former staffer, Kelly Goes, is now an employee of the firm.
In a brief interview with Republic Report after his speech, Manchin was asked about Jackson Kelly’s conduct regarding black lung cases. He brushed aside criticism of the firm.
The Center for Public Integrity story revealed that Jackson Kelly has systemically denied coal miners black lung benefit claims by withholding unfavorable evidence and shaping the opinions of doctors called upon in court. CFPI Reporter Chris Hamby’s investigation “suggests that there has been a pattern and practice by lawyers at the Jackson Kelly law firm which has compromised the integrity of the black lung benefits program and potentially tainted numerous decisions adversely affecting coal miners and their survivors,” wrote Representatives George Miller (D-California) and Joe Courtney (D-Connecticut) in a letter to the Department of Labor last year.
“If the law firm is doing their job and we don’t like it, we’ve got to look at the rules and laws we have on the books,” said Manchin, after being asked by Republic Report about his praise of Jackson Kelly. “They’ve been a prestigious law firm for a long time in West Virginia. There’s good people that I know that work there and if there’s something that’s wrong and needs to be fixed or changed, it will be,” he continued.
A Jackson Kelly attorney named Douglas Smoot had his law license suspended in 2011 for one year after being accused of hiding evidence in a black lung case. Other Jackson Kelly attorneys have faced investigations over their conduct in regards to black lung cases. One retired judge who handled black lung cases reviewed documents obtained by the Center for Public Integrity investigation and said the firm had been “really misleading the court.”
Manchin is a close ally to the coal industry. At the conference, he touted his new legislation that would block the EPA from implementing new regulations on coal power plants. Jackson Kelly, according to its website, has represented the coal industry since the mid-19th century.
As Public Campaign noted, Manchin has “received $50,825 from Jackson Kelly employees during his time in Congress, his seventh-largest donor.”
Manchin did not sign on to the letter from other congressional Democrats asking the Labor Department to investigate claims that Jackson Kelly improperly concealed medical evidence of black lung claims.
Yet Manchin told us that he is confident that any potential wrongdoing will be worked out.
“You can’t find people guilty before they go through the process. Are you accusing them of being guilty?” said Manchin. Asked again about the Center for Public Integrity report, Manchin replied, “I’m just saying, let’s see where it unfolds.”
Watch the interview below:
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Unless you’re deaf, dumb and blind, it’s obvious that Vladimir Putin, Russia’s obstreperous president, is running a major covert operation in eastern Ukraine, including the dispatch of a limited number of Russian special forces and support for pro-Russian militias there. It isn’t quite clear yet whether Putin is (a) preparing the ground for a Crimea-style takeover of part or all of Ukraine (unlikely), (b) trying to destabilize Ukraine so that it, and its Western allies, agree to the radical decentralization and federalization plan that Russia has demanded, or (c) making it clear that Ukraine ought not to link its political and economic future with the West, or else. But whichever it is, it’s a dangerous game. So how should President Obama respond?
There is, of course, a diplomatic solution—and within Ukraine itself, that means some sort of decentralization that allows eastern Ukraine some form of very limited autonomy. That would be a compromise between a strong central state in Kiev, in which the president appoints governors of regions, and the sort of neat-total autonomy that Russia favors.
The United States is very limited in its options. Militarily, there’s no real response that makes any sense whatsoever, and it appears that Obama gets that. Ukraine’s utterly disorganized armed forces are no match for the Russian army in any conceivable context, so the idea of sending either significant arms or even nonlethal military aid—“like body armor, night-vision goggles, communications gear and aviation fuel,” as proposed by Gen. Wesley K. Clark and Philip A. Karber—to Ukraine can’t possibly bolster Ukraine’s forces enough even to slow down either a Russian action to seize eastern Ukraine or a blitzkrieg into Kiev, if that’s what Putin is planning. Similarly, the idea—from a neocon-linked former American ambassador to Iraq, James Jeffrey—to deploy ground troops to Poland, the Baltic states and Romania would escalate the confrontation to no good end, since none of those nations are directly threatened by the Ukraine crisis and it would probably force Putin to escalate further.
So far, Obama has reportedly rejected both Gen. Clark’s recommendations and isn’t considering Jeffrey’s idea, but a further escalation by Putin would certainly force Obama to respond far more harshly than the limited array of sanctions announced so far. According to The Wall Street Journal, Obama is reviewing a range of responses, including greatly expanded economic sanctions and even the sort of military deployment that Ambassador Jeffrey calls for.
It should be pointed out that Ukraine is a sovereign country, and that whatever it does to protect its security and national integrity is its own business. In that context, the fact that CIA Director John Brennan paid a visit to Kiev—to howls of outrage from Moscow—or that Ukraine has decided to hire private contractors, including the former Blackwater, to help Kiev reassert control of cities in eastern Ukraine where pro-Russian militants are acting up, isn’t ground for Russian complaints. The White House has properly endorsed Ukraine’s attempts to suppress the pro-Russian gangs in cities along the Russia-Ukraine border, although those efforts are weak and badly managed, given Ukraine’s overall chaotic state and limited resources. Still, so far it appears that Ukraine isn’t willing to shed a lot of blood in suppressing the pro-Russian actions, since that would only increase the enmity toward Kiev in eastern Ukraine and inflame things further—besides giving Russia a pretext to intervene further because of Putin’s flimsy and unsubstantiated claim that Kiev “fascists” are threatening ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians.
According to Josh Rogin and Eli Lake at The Daily Beast, the purpose of Brennan’s Kiev visit was to begin the process of sharing “real-time intelligence” with Kiev, though for what reason isn’t clear, since Ukraine can’t possibly withstand Russian military pressure. It’s possible that the United States will work more closely with Ukraine on deployments of Ukrainian forces in cities to the east affected by Russian covert ops.
But the Ukraine crisis faces Obama with an exceedingly difficult challenge. He can’t afford to issue any red lines, such as the one he issued vis-à-vis Syria, since the United States simply does not have the wherewithal to confront Russian militarily in what is essentially Russia’s backyard, nor is the American interest in Ukraine significant enough to warrant a showdown. Critics of Obama, however, are pointing to Syria—where Obama has so far opted against war—as a sign of the president’s alleged weakness, adding that the Ukraine crisis is a Russian test of Obama’s will. However, as David Ignatius puts it in The Washington Post:
As President Obama looks at the Ukraine crisis, he sees an asymmetry of interests: Simply put, the future of Ukraine means more to Vladimir Putin’s Russia than it does to the United States or Europe. For Putin, this is an existential crisis; for the West, so far, it isn’t—as the limited U.S. and European response has demonstrated.
And Ignatius adds:
Obama doesn’t want to turn Ukraine into a proxy war with Russia. For this reason, he is resisting proposals to arm the Ukrainians. The White House thinks arming Kiev at this late stage would invite Russian intervention without affecting the outcome. The United States is providing limited intelligence support for Kiev, but nothing that would tilt the balance.
But the real meaning of the Ukraine crisis is that, unless the ongoing diplomacy resolves it in a compromise between Russia and the West, US-Russia relations will be in a deep freeze for many years to come, and that could affect a host of regional wars and crises, from Syria and Iraq to Iran and Afghanistan and beyond.
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If you follow the wave of anti-choice laws restricting abortion at the state level, you know things look bleak in Texas. Last month, the last two clinics in the Rio Grande Valley closed, leaving women in rural South Texas without access to services. Because of the hurdles providers now have to clear as a result of House Bill 2, which passed in July, the number of clinics in the state has dropped by nearly half—from 44 in 2011 to 24 today. By the fall, just six facilities providing abortion are expected to remain.
Legal challenges are in the works, but for now anti-choice advocates there are winning. So my ears perked up last week at a talk at UC Berkeley on the past, present and future of reproductive justice when I heard these words from someone considered one of the movement’s top tacticians:
"If you lead with immigration reform, you might actually get abortion access in Texas."
Heads nodded and tweets were fired off as Sujatha Jesudason, who directs CoreAlign, an organization supporting new leaders in the fight for sexual and reproductive health, offered this take on how to best achieve policy change. But the room was mostly filled with activists and academics who are already acquainted with reproductive justice, a 20-year-old framework for advocacy and organizing that links abortion to other social and economic issues. Reproductive justice gives a more inclusive set of rights—the right to have children, not have children, and to parent with dignity—equal weight with the right to safely and legally terminate a pregnancy. For anyone not already familiar with the concept, the idea that you vote for one issue and somehow end up with a victory elsewhere may feel like a leap of logic, if not a bait and switch.
Not if you understand the barriers a woman in the Rio Grande Valley or California’s Central Valley faces when she has an unplanned pregnancy, said Samara Azam-Yu, when I asked her perspective. Azam-Yu directs ACCESS, an Oakland, CA-based hotline that offers reproductive health information to callers statewide. “Abortion is a priority issue for a lot of our callers but it’s not the most pressing issue that they’re facing in their lives,” she said. “When we make strides on the other broader issues, it improves abortion access.”
Here’s how, she said: An undocumented woman in the Central Valley has a good chance of having a high-risk pregnancy, given high rates of asthma and obesity and other health disparities associated with poverty and inability to access healthcare. She may need to travel to see an abortion provider, but that means taking a bus or a train and chancing a run-in with ICE. A victory on immigration reform would mean removing the fear of deportation that keeps women immobilized, isolated and away from the services they need. Talking about health access as it relates to reform could be a way to motivate voters who care about immigrant rights but don’t feel connected to the abortion rights movement.
A bill introduced in the US House last month – the Health Equity and Access Under the Law for Immigrant Women & Families Act—is trying to do just that by making insurance available to more than 600,000 people who are in the US lawfully but face a five-year wait in some states before they can access benefits such as Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program. Connecting the dots in new ways was also an important component of last year’s victory over an Albuquerque ballot initiative that would have banned abortion in the city—and effectively the region—after 20 weeks.
In Albuquerque, the goal wasn’t to advance immigrant rights while defeating the bill, but to use language that would resonate with Latino voters—typically considered too conservative to be reliable on abortion rights issues—and get them to come to the polls during the November special election.
“We brought the issue out of the ivory towers of reproductive rights conversations and made it about real people experiencing barriers to access health,” Tannia Esparza, who directs Young Women United (YWU), told me. “There’s a whole generation of young people, people of color who haven’t been included in those conversations in the same way.”
YWU, a local organization led by women of color, was part of the coalition that opposed the initiative and pushed for a new approach to talking about abortion that would reach beyond the middle class white voters who could be counted on to reject the proposal. The group used language that they knew from anecdotal evidence and from research would mobilize a broader base, language that focused on the importance of women and families making decisions for themselves. One piece of campaign literature read, "We are parents, tías, ninos, brothers and sisters. We are neighbors, friends, people of faith—We are New Mexican families... Our New Mexican families do not need government interference in our private decisions." It turned out to be key to avoid labels like “pro-choice” and “pro-life,” which Esparza calls polarizing. It worked: More than 80,000 Albuquerque voters went to the polls, more than had turned out for the mayoral race six weeks prior. Ten percent more Democrats weighed in on the ban than had chosen the city's mayor, compared to 4 percent more Republicans and 7 percent more Independents. YWU's research and polling showed that their work in Latino communities paid off at the polls. According to Micaela Cadena, the group's policy director: "We won over Latino Democrats. Those who were Independent or Republican, we held their vote to where it was in the beginning [of the campaign]."
It’s a strategy that could be useful to abortion rights proponents in nearby Arizona, where legislators passed a law last week allowing health inspectors to make surprise visits to abortion clinics without first getting a warrant, and where a temporary court order is the only thing keeping a new restriction on medication abortion from going into effect.
Moving away from a singular focus on abortion isn’t about aligning with one particular movement, it’s about creating a big tent that’s appealing to progressive Millennials, according to Jesudason.
"How can we bring a gender perspective to discussions around minimum wage or immigration reform, knowing that they're all the same voters?” she said when we spoke after last week’s talk. “If people are going to vote progressively on minimum wage or marriage equality, they're just as likely to vote progressively on choice issues."
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There are two parallel paths to justice that activists in China are pursuing right now: one in the streets, and one in the courts, and on both, workers are blazing a fresh trail of labor militancy.
China’s court system, famous for its show trials of rogue party operatives, may seem a bit too Kafkaesque as a venue for real civic change. But the trial of labor activist Wu Guijun offers a window into how the justice system is morphing from an instrument of the authoritarian state to a contested political terrain.
The government has charged him with “gathering a crowd and disturbing the order of public transportation” (a k a trouble-making) during a protest last May in the southern city of Shenzhen, led by hundreds of workers of the Hong Kong–owned furniture maker Diweixin.
Wu’s supporters argue that as the designated worker leader he actually tried to dissuade coworkers from engaging in more drastic actions. He had been facilitating negotiations with management over demands for compensation for the workers who would be affected by the planned closure of the plant (following the widespread trend of Chinese firms moving to poorer regions or countries to chase lower labor costs). In addition, advocates argue, the legal process has been marred by a biased investigation and dubious evidence.
Wu, who has been detained for about 300 days already, faces grim odds in the dock, like so many activists before him. But his case marks a different kind of turning point; his fellow activists see a chance to put the entire Chinese justice system on trial.
At an earlier hearing for the trial in February, CLB reported, Wu’s supporters made it clear that if the courts fail them, they would respond with direct action. When the judge, after a haphazard delay, insisted on only meeting with Wu's wife Zhou Yuzhi privately:
the crowd became furious and stormed into the court’s petitioning office. “It is a hoax! Why do they have to make us wait for more than one hour? We demand an explanation!” one worker shouted…. “We—the taxpayers—are paying their salaries to work, not to be absent!” another said.
A statement from his lawyer warned, “If there is any trace of justice then Wu Guijun cannot be found guilty.”
While Wu’s supporters agitated for due process, a dozen hospital security guards were on trial for similar transgressions—daring to demand fair treatment from their bosses. After staging a protest on the roof of the Guangzhou Chinese Medicine University Hospital, they were charged with “gathering a crowd to disturb social order” and detained for about fifty days, and then remained imprisoned. The workers say they sought the compensation the management owed after it had repeatedly failed to pay insurance payments and backwages, and that they took direct action only after their efforts to petition through their official union had been stonewalled for months. This week, all were convicted, with most sentenced to eight- or nine-month jail terms (including time served); several plan to appeal.
CLB described the trial as a political overreaction and “an exercise in damage control,” which aimed to “serve as a warning to others that those who escalate labour disputes into public protest could face jail time.”
Western media outlets have lately focused on the crackdown on liberal, educated reformers and human rights activists. The New Citizens movement, a loose network of high-profile anti-corruption activists, have made global headlines in recent weeks, as several leading activists have faced public-disorder charges for staging nonviolent demonstrations in 2012 and 2013. The gritty labor struggles at play in the trials of Wu and the security guards are less sexy for Western media, but nonetheless represent a social movement that resonates with an arguably much greater swath of the populace. They reflect rising tensions across China’s workforce as people grow more conscious of their collective rights, anxious about China’s economic volatility and the rising cost of living and aware that the legal system is structured to systematically disenfranchise the public and protect the elite. Disillusioned by endemic official corruption, many see no path to change other than direct action from the ground up.
This week, workers pushed the outer edge of that radicalism in the southern manufacturing hub of Dongguan. Tens of thousands have gone on strike at the Taiwanese-owned Yue Yuen Industrial shoe manufacturer, protesting the company’s alleged underpayments to the social insurance scheme and the workers’ housing fund. According to the US-based NGO China Labor Watch (CLW), the industrial action involved about 30,000 employees, despite a fierce crackdown on protests by riot police and several arrests.
Social insurance is a raw nerve for China’s factory workers. Along with China’s aggressive economic liberalization, the government recently consolidated social welfare programs such as pensions and healthcare. Employers, however, routinely fail to keep up with their financial obligations under this emergent social contract, while low-wage workers’ social needs have intensified.
In turn, Kevin Slaten of CLW noted via e-mail, while mass uprisings over insurance like the the Yue Yuen strike were rare a few years ago, “in the past year, we’ve seen an uptick in strikes in which workers are demanding arrears.” The trend, he adds, reflects not only “workers realizing their rights under the law,” but also a new policy enabling workers to transfer insurance payments to their home communities when they leave a job. This effectively decoupled workers’ entitlements from their workplace, giving them more autonomy as well as a greater stake in making sure their bosses pay their dues—which for Yue Yuen’s workforce, could total millions of dollars in arrears.
The failed promise of social insurance may be feeding into growing militancy among Chinese workers, with industrial actions nationwide reaching a three-year high in March, according to CLB’s real-time strike tracker.
But if labor unrest is approaching a critical mass, how might that energy be channeled in the absence of an independent labor movement or electoral democracy? Beyond street demonstrations—which generally end with violence, arrest or firing—some activists are trying to carve out a space for dissent within the legal system by strengthening safeguards for labor rights.
For example, last month a group of labor scholars and legal advocates published a proposal for a major overhaul of China’s trade union law. Ideally, the law would strengthen protections against retaliatory firings of union organizers based on their collective bargaining and organizing activities. The bill would essentially expand the law’s protections for individuals to a broader principle of defending the right to organize and agitate collectively.
So will the legal system continue to be an instrument for enforcing silence, or will the activism in the streets begin filtering into China’s legal infrastructure? Though they had run afoul of authority in different ways, Wu Gujin, the security guards and the New Citizens movement have all been pulled into the courts because they wanted their own government to follow the law. That they have all been criminalized for seeking justice attests to the critical link between economic justice and political justice.
Workers are increasingly willing to fight out their labor battles in the streets, but victory will ultimately be measured by whether they can reclaim the edifice of the state—and force the justice system to work for, instead of against them.
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This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
The recent shootings of soldiers at Fort Hood and other US military bases have once again brought to public attention the challenge of making sure that soldiers returning from war zones find security and support at home. The Washington Post calls the pressures on veterans “the next war.” But whatever war comes next, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and their consequences continue.
The exploding rates of suicide among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, the escalating numbers of soldiers turning their weapons on each other as well as themselves, and the spread of PTSD all are linked to the wars themselves. Wars of aggression and occupation have an enormous, terrible effect on the young women and men ordered to fight them.
And that’s just on the US side. We also have a moral and legal responsibility to respond to the wars’ even more devastating impact on millions of Afghans and Iraqis.
Last March, a hundred or so people filled a Washington, DC, church, reprising a scene more common several years ago—an examination of the impact of the US war in Iraq. That night, the young soldiers of Iraq Veterans Against the War (and some of their parents) joined Iraqi women’s rights and labor leaders, along with US-based lawyers, epidemiologists and activists, to build a campaign demanding what they call the Right to Heal. The veterans’ demands begin with the urgent need to end the military’s practice of sending soldiers diagnosed with PTSD, traumatic brain injury and other related wounds back into battle. That need is linked directly to dealing with the suicides, homicides, domestic violence and other problems facing the high numbers of veterans returning from the post-9/11 wars with serious mental injuries.
But IVAW linked its demand for better care for US veterans to the need to respond to the deep destruction left in Iraq and Afghanistan—social, environmental and medical—that continues to plague those violence-riven countries.
American troops were withdrawn from Iraq two and a half years ago. But the nearly decade-long US occupation—which followed not only the 2003 invasion, but also the Pentagon’s 1991 war and twelve years of crippling US-led sanctions—destroyed Iraq’s infrastructure, despoiled the country’s environment and shredded its social fabric. The consequences of the US war are embedded in the shattered cities, polluted rivers, carcinogenic military burn pits and the bodies of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Iraqis, as well as of tens of thousands of US soldiers.
Meanwhile, in an all-too-rare front-page feature documenting the Afghanistan War’s ongoing impact on Afghans, The Washington Post recently dissected the consequences for the “rising number of children…dying from U.S. explosives littering Afghan land.” The Post set a scene similar to post-occupation Iraq: “As the U.S. military withdraws from Afghanistan,” it reported, “it is leaving behind a deadly legacy: about 800 square miles of land littered with undetonated grenades, rockets and mortar shells. The military has vacated scores of firing ranges pocked with the explosives. Dozens of children have been killed or wounded as they have stumbled upon the ordnance at the sites, which are often poorly marked.” Ominously, it adds, “Casualties are likely to increase sharply; the U.S. military has removed the munitions from only 3 percent of the territory covered by its sprawling ranges, officials said.”
Back at the Washington church, with film producer and longtime television host Phil Donahue moderating, IVAW members detailed their experiences. The mother of Joshua Casteel, an army interrogator at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison who died of a rare cancer in August 2012, described the toxic nature of the military’s burn pits—which are filled with plastics and other chemical materials—100 yards from where Joshua lived, worked and breathed thick black smoke for seven months in 2004.
American environmental toxicologist Mozhgan Savabieasfahani documented the cancers, birth defects and other health crises among Iraqis, particularly in areas where “the Iraqi public has been exposed to toxic compounds, such as lead and mercury.” She noted, “I would like to see large-scale environmental testing in Iraq.”
Iraqi women’s rights advocate Yanar Mohammed called for “reparations for families facing birth defects, areas that have been contaminated. There needs to be cleanup…. The US has to be held to account for this.”
Such accountability—to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan and to the US forces returning from years of war and occupation—would go much further to protect US troops and veterans than better gun control at Fort Hood.
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The best sports biography of the last several years was, for my money, The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron, by Howard Bryant. The book makes the case that, in an age of cynicism, we need to study what exactly makes someone heroic, with Henry Aaron being Bryant’s particular profile in courage. What makes The Last Hero particularly compelling is that Bryant doesn’t quantify Aaron’s heroism as being measured by his 755 homeruns but by his ability to keep moving forward while resisting concentrated, poisonous doses of racist invective the likes of which few have ever had to endure. Aaron’s great crime, of course, was challenging the most hallowed record in sports, Babe Ruth’s 714 home runs, while black. (The racists of 1974 were untroubled by the widespread belief in the baseball world of the 1920s that Babe Ruth, an orphan, was a black man “passing” as white.)
Aaron, as Bryant reveals, was always silent until he wasn’t. This man born in the Deep South from a family of sharecroppers, would on occasion uncork a smackdown to the collective racists in this country, like it was an 88 mph fastball over the middle of the plate. He was, pardon the cliché but it fits, a still water that ran deep.
Aaron, now 80 years old, was in the news again this week. We just passed the fortieth anniversary of his famous home run number 715 off of Al Downing and reporters readied the puff pieces, but Aaron was not in a puffy mood. In an interview with USA Today, Aaron spoke about why he still holds onto all of the hate mail and death threats he received while chasing down Ruth’s mark. He said he keeps them to remind himself “that we are not that far removed from when I was chasing the record. If you think that, you are fooling yourself. A lot of things have happened in this country, but we have so far to go. There’s not a whole lot that has changed.”
Then Aaron, just like in his playing career, transgressed his image as a stoic who did not encroach on the world outside the diamond and spoke his mind.
“We can talk about baseball. Talk about politics. Sure, this country has a black president, but when you look at a black president, President Obama is left with his foot stuck in the mud from all of the Republicans with the way he’s treated. We have moved in the right direction, and there have been improvements, but we still have a long ways to go in the country. The bigger difference is that back then they had hoods. Now they have neckties and starched shirts.”
Mr. Henry Aaron, a man on a US postage stamp, just said that the children of the old school racists he tangled with, now have a home in the Republican Party. It is basically 1991 and it is Chuck D saying, “These days you can’t see who’s in cahoots, cause now the KKK wears three-piece suits.”
Forget for a moment the fact that I believe many of us are past the image of President Obama as someone who would be doing the right thing if only it weren’t for these Republicans. From immigration deportation to the drone war, the list of complaints against this administration on social justice grounds is very real. But consider the reality that a White House occupied by an African-American family has provoked a level of bigotry from the right that, no matter what Bill Kristol says, is undeniable. Consider how seeing that family subject to reservoirs of racism would resonate with someone of Aaron’s life experience. Yet above all, consider that Aaron’s main point was that much of the progress on racial issues since 1974 is illusory, and after he said so has been deluged with racist letters and phone calls. The Atlanta Braves organization reports that it has received “hundreds” of threats levied against Aaron. The only difference between 2014 and 1974 is that many of these threats are coming in e-mail form.
One of these lovely notes came from a person named “David” who vowed to burn his copy of Howard Bryant’s The Last Hero. (Given the content of The Last Hero, which discusses the history of racism in the United States for several chapters before even getting to Aaron, I wonder if “David” ever cracked the spine.) It seemed appropriate for me to actually reach out to Bryant and ask why it is that this 80-year-old, soft-spoken man, someone who never joined the Black Panthers or burned a flag, has been able to produce what can only be described as an Aaron Derangement Syndrome in the darkest corners of this country?
Bryant e-mailed me the following, and his observations bear repeated reading.
“When Henry was playing, there were other people who said what he felt. Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali were more charismatic, better quotes than Henry on civil rights,” Bryant wrote. “But the reason he keeps getting all this mail and taking this abuse is because he’s unflinching. He sees the game better than the rest of us because he’s lived it long enough to know that once you get past the smiles and the handshakes, very little has really changed. Henry knows that if you wait long enough and say a little of the truth, the face behind the mask will reveal itself, just as it did Tuesday night. He’s not going to accommodate you. He’s going to stay quiet and let the silence speak for itself until the words can say it better.”
I do not personally believe that in the world of sports Henry Aaron really is “the last hero.” People from Richard Sherman to Britney Griner to Kain Colter are showing that heroism—as something more than a brand—can still exist in a cynical age. But I do believe that if this new generation of athletes is going to “advance the ball” of social justice, they should learn the manifest lessons from the life of this extraordinary individual. The bigots should also know, as if the last sixty years weren’t proof enough, you are simply not going to scare Henry Aaron.
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A sentence I thought I’d never write: Comedian at National Press Club this week explains why he’s a socialist.
Yes, it happened on Monday, when Lewis Black, of stand-up notoriety and Daily Show sit-down “Back in Black” fame, appeared at the venerable DC venue, and offered this testimonial.
Yes, it was witty—he blamed his parents, for one thing (something I can’t do)—but also right on the mark in describing how fringe this is in America (he offers a shout-out to Bernie Sanders) and why it is should be regarded in a positive light as “enforced Christianity.” (My own socialist hero, of course, is Upton Sinclair.) Here’s a clip:
But it’s a good day for fun vids on the inter-tubes. Here’s the latest from Funny or Die, purporting to be the “equal time” episode for Cosmos demanded by creationists, and starring the wonderfully apt Timothy Simon—you know him as Jonah from Veep.
Of course, everything can be explained in the Bible. And God made everything—except for gays (who made that choice themselves). His vehicle of choice for navigating the stars? A church mini-van.
Finally, just for laughs: The Amy Schumer show this week offers a send-up of Aaron Sorkin (and his Newsroom series) with Sorkin veteran Josh Charles.
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ExxonMobil, the world’s largest oil company, hauled in a $32.6 billion profit last year. Chief executive Rex Tillerson got a 3 percent bump in his pay package, sending it above $28 million. And today the company gets its annual boost from the federal government: an estimated $600 million in tax breaks.
All told, the government gifts as much as $4.8 billion to the oil industry each year, more than any other country. Much of that comes not as direct handouts but instead via loopholes in the tax code; deductions for depleting oil reserves, for example, and write-offs for the expense of drilling a new well. These reflect a long-past era in which oil exploration was financially risky, and prices were low. Now oil prices and profits are high, and the government is losing revenue while promoting the continued exploitation of carbon-intensive fuels. In the face of a changing climate and a constrained domestic budget, the lunacy of such preferential treatment is hard to overstate.
“Perverse” is the word the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found for such policies in its latest report, which was released in full on Tuesday. Globally, subsidies for fossil fuel production—amounting to $1.9 trillion in 2011, or 8 percent of government revenues, according to the International Monetary Fund—“prove to increase emissions and put heavy burdens on public budgets,” reads the report.
On the other hand, rolling them back could be a key part of a serious climate agenda. The IMF estimates that eliminating fossil fuel subsidies could lower emissions by 13 percent. That general principle, if not the exact figure, is supported by the IPCC, which wrote, “Lowering or removing such subsidies would contribute to global mitigation, but this has proved difficult.”
“Difficult” may be an understatement in the United States. As a recent article at Mother Jones lays out, the energy industry wields considerable influence in Washington. In the last fifteen years oil and gas companies spent more than $1.4 billion on lobbying, employing nearly 800 lobbyists, many of them culled from congressional offices. That expense is actually a shrewd investment: every dollar the five largest oil companies spend on lobbying reflects $53 in tax breaks. The industry also leverages millions in donations to candidates and political ads during each election cycle, discouraging politicians from taking a hard line on tax breaks.
Government support for fossil fuels goes beyond the tax code. Another de facto subsidy comes from the Interior Department’s failure to collect proper royalties on domestic oil and coal. The government has lost as much as $14.7 million because royalties are not collected on offshore leases in the Gulf of Mexico. In Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, below-market sale prices and an uncompetitive bidding process for coal reserves has cost taxpayers as much as $30 billion over the past two decades, while helping to prop up a collapsing industry. There’s also evidence that the federal coal program is failing to properly collect royalties on coal sold overseas. While President Obama may not be able to do much about the tax code unilaterally, his Interior Department certainly has the authority—in fact, the obligation—to reform its coal-leasing program.
Finally, there is a more deeply hidden giveaway to the fossil fuel industry, the most critical of oversights: the fact that companies don’t pay for the damages caused by their products—their external costs. While every citizen will pay for climate change, as those living near extraction and refining sites have long borne the burden of local pollution, companies get a free pass on their carbon emissions. This imbalance is what a carbon tax is designed to remedy.
Closing loopholes in the tax code would be only a small part of an aggressive climate agenda—particularly since it’s unlikely that eliminating those subsidies would affect global oil prices significantly. Still, those tax breaks represent billions that could be spent elsewhere, such as investment in renewables. The IPCC report concluded that subsidies, directed properly, can be an effective tool for slowing down global warming by helping low-carbon technologies and products overcome their competitive disadvantage in relationship to fossil fuels. Federal support for renewables now outstrips benefits for fossil fuels, but it’s still not comparable to the help that the government gave the oil industry in its early days. Important incentives, like the wind energy tax credit, have been allowed to expire. Furthermore, our national infrastructure is designed for the age of cheap fossil fuels, making it even more difficult for alternative energy to compete.
The best chance for closing the loopholes—and, perhaps, for imposing a carbon tax—is if Congress overhauls the tax code, something both parties have indicated an interest in. But even the best chance is a slim one given the cabal of climate deniers in the House, and a broader reluctance to challenge energy interests. If climate change seems like a problem too big to to approach, perhaps start here: elections matter.
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April 8 was Equal Pay Day, the day by which women will have theoretically worked enough to catch up to what men made the year before. In honor of that, the Senate voted on the Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill aimed at giving women a little more power to fight wage discrimination, which Republicans unanimously blocked. While some Republicans claim they care about the wage gap and just object to what they see as burdensome regulation, other conservatives have been calling the idea of the gender wage gap itself into question.
It is a fair question to ask what causes the gap. While it’s true that women make seventy-seven cents for every dollar a man makes when they work full-time, year-round, it’s also true that this figure can obscure various factors that aren’t purely discriminatory. Work experience plays a role. Industry and occupation play a role. Education can play a role.
In trying to figure out how much of the wage gap is discrimination and how much can be explained by other factors, nearly every statistician conducts regression studies that take measurable factors into consideration by holding them constant and seeing what’s left over. From government agencies like the Office of Personnel Management and the Government Accountability Office to women’s advocacy groups like AAUW to economists like Francine D. Blau and Lawrence M. Kahn, a similar group of factors are held constant to find the “unexplained” gap, or the murk where bias would rear its head if it does exist. One of those constant factors is race.
At first blush, this makes sense. All of these researchers are striving to compare the most apple-like of apples to apples—a woman and a man who look as identical as possible and therefore should be paid the same. Therefore, they compare a woman to a man with the same job tenure, seniority, occupation, marital status and race, or in other words, measurable differences. Discrimination will crop up when everything they can measure is stripped out but a gap remains.
But that means that race gets removed from the conversation about discrimination. It’s ends up in the “explained” category. In the study by Blau and Kahn, for example, they list their six controlled factors and note that 2.4 percent of the gap is explained by race. On the other hand, 41.1 percent of the gap remains unexplained, the part that is “potentially due to discrimination,” according to their paper, but not a part that includes racial disparities.
We know that race dramatically shapes wages—that’s part of why it gets lumped into the explained category. Using Census information, the National Women’s Law Center found that African-American men make 73 percent of what white men make, on average, and African-American women make 64 percent. The numbers are even lower for Hispanics: men make 61 percent of white men’s earnings and women make just 54 percent. Men of color even make less than white women.
So, yes, taking this measurable difference into account will surely help explain some of the wage gap. But does that mean we should remove it from the conversation about discrimination? Do we have a good explanation for why people of color of both genders make less than white people? There may be some mitigating factors shaping the racial wage gap as well, but there’s plenty of research indicating that our labor market still discriminates against people of color. Race may be factored into calculating the wage gap, but it’s pushed aside in the discussion about whether women are up against real life wage discrimination. It’s treated as a given.
Even some of the factors that sound objective and explainable could conceal discrimination. In economists Blau and Kahn’s study, the most recent to focus on measuring discrimination, occupation or the jobs women end up in, accounts for more than a quarter of the wage gap. One could see this as a choice, and some women may gravitate more toward teaching elementary school instead of college students. But there are plenty of barriers that keep women from top-earning occupations. And even when women do similar work compared to men, they often make less. Maids are paid less than $10 an hour at the median, but janitors are paid more than $12 on average. Low-skill women’s jobs pay nearly $150 less a week than men’s, on average, while high-skill women’s jobs pay $471 less. It may be hard to determine how much this determines the wage gap, but clearly it’s biased that society values work less when women perform it.
For their part, Blau and Kahn realize that some factors they hold constant may mask discrimination. They write that “if some of the factors controlled for in such regressions—like occupation and tenure with the employer—themselves reflect the impact of discrimination, then discrimination will be underestimated” in their study. Race isn’t terribly murky, though. There’s no objective explanation for why black women make less than white women. And when we divorce that fact from the larger conversation about the wage gap, we fail to challenge the fact that women of color are experiencing multiple forms of bias.
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