A sign announcing the acceptance of electronic Benefit Transfer cards at a farmers market in Roseville, California. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
To follow the congressional debate about food stamp (SNAP) funding in the Farm Bill—and media coverage of that debate—you would think that the relevant issues are the deficit, rapists on food stamps, waste and abuse and defining our biblical obligation to the poor.
The only thing missing from that conversation is the state of hunger in America today and how we should respond to it.
“A good part of the food stamp debate in Congress and the media is not an evidence-based conversation, it’s fantasy-based,” says Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), a nonprofit organization working to improve public policies to eradicate hunger in the United States.
Weill insists that there is plenty that we know about food stamps that Congress and the media are busy ignoring, including from the government’s own data: a January 2013 Institute of Medicine (IOM)/National Research Council (NRC) report clearly described the inadequacy of SNAP benefits for most people struggling with hunger.
“The whole thrust of the report is that this is not a benefit allotment that’s adequate for people in most real world circumstances,” says Weill.
Since the average benefit for a SNAP recipient is just $4.50 per day, this conclusion shouldn’t come as much of a shock. But the authors—who comprised a blue-ribbon panel charged with conducting a scientific analysis of benefit levels—did a good job breaking down exactly why the benefit allotment might come up so short.
For starters, there is the “Thrifty Food Plan” (TFP) itself—a theoretical “market basket of food” that is supposed to represent “a nutritious diet at minimal cost.” The plan assumes that a consumer is able to mostly “purchase less expensive, unprocessed ingredients—such as vegetables and meat to make a stew.” It points out, however, that these ingredients require “substantial investment of the participants’ time to produce nutritious meals…inconsistent with the time available for most households at all income levels.”
But even if one did have time to shop and then slow-cook that family recipe for Granny’s Goodness Stew handed down through the generations—and not many low-wage workers or workers period do—the Thrifty Food Plan also assumes the availability of an assortment of “supermarkets and other food stores that offer a variety of healthy foods at a lower cost.” The authors note that “low-income and minority populations are more likely than other groups to experience limited access to supermarkets and other large retail outlets…that offer a broad range of healthy foods at reasonable cost.… In addition, a lack of transportation infrastructure commonly leads to limited food access in small towns and rural areas.”
There is also a bizarre assumption in the SNAP program that food prices are consistent across the nation—from Snohomish County, Washington, to Neodesha, Kansas, to New York City. Benefits are adjusted only for Hawaii and Alaska.
“SNAP participants who live in locales with higher food prices find it difficult to meet their needs with the current benefit,” reads the report. (I would argue that SNAP participants who live anywhere in America find it difficult to meet their needs with a benefit of $4.50 a day.)
This problem of an unrealistic measure of food prices is compounded by the fact that the inflation cost adjustment for food stamps has a lag time of sixteen months. As the report notes, “Because of the impact of inflation and other factors on food prices, this lag in the benefit adjustment can significantly reduce the purchasing power of SNAP allotments.”
Any one of these factors would be sufficient reason to revise upward the amount of assistance offered to hungry families, but there is more.
Even the way a family’s monthly net income is calculated is flawed. For families with earnings, Social Security or other income, there is a shelter deduction capped at $469 (unless there is an elderly or disabled member of the household). The report notes “considerable evidence that [SNAP] households face housing costs in excess of the current cap on the shelter deduction, which results in overestimation of the net income participants have available to purchase food.” Translated, SNAP families are paying more for housing—and have less income available for food—than the government is assuming; the SNAP benefit is lower for many families than it should be due to flawed assumptions about their net income.
In calculating net income there are also no deductions permitted for out-of-pocket medical costs for nonelderly, nondisabled SNAP participants.
“The fact that these out-of-pocket healthcare costs are not considered particularly concerns me as a pediatrician,” says Dr. Deborah Frank, founder and principal investigator of Children’s HealthWatch, a research organization analyzing the effects of economic conditions and public policy on young children seeking care in emergency rooms and clinics around the country. “Parents with children with special healthcare needs are less able to work many hours and have higher out-of-pocket healthcare related expenses. That means they are at particularly high risk of food, energy and housing insecurity, so there is a reciprocal relationship between children’s poor health and poor nutrition.”
Weill sees a willful ignorance at play “in some corners of Congress” when it comes to examining current benefit levels.
“It’s possible that the inadequacy of SNAP benefits might have better come to Congress’ attention if the House of Representatives—among its numerous hearings on the Farm Bill—had held a single hearing on the food stamp program, which it didn’t,” he says.
Also, for all of the GOP’s talk about designing welfare programs that move people towards self-sufficiency, it is completely ignoring (as are too many Democrats) new research showing that SNAP does exactly that.
University of California at Davis economist Hilary Hoynes and her colleagues looked at adults born between 1956 and 1981 “who grew up in disadvantaged families (their parents had less than a high school education)”, and the impact of access to food stamps early in life. The authors find that “access to food stamps in utero and in early childhood leads to significant reductions in metabolic syndrome conditions (obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes) in adulthood and, for women, increases in economic self-sufficiency (increases in educational attainment, earnings, and income, and decreases in welfare participation).”
“The power of this study is that it goes all the way back to when the program was first being rolled out, county by county, and it looks all the way forward, to see how children’s decades-long trajectories changed as a result,” says Arloc Sherman, senior researcher, at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “A baby girl fortunate enough to be born after food stamps had arrived in her particular county was doing significantly better, years later, in terms of health, education and all around self-sufficiency. Some in Congress may not realize it, but this program hasn’t been stifling long-term self-sufficiency, it’s been building it.”
And yet here we are, teetering on the edge of cutting $21 billion from a SNAP program that is assisting one in seven Americans; it’s a cut that would remove 2 million people from the program and cause more than 200,000 low-income children to lose access to school meals. Even the Democratic-led Senate is proposing a $4 billion cut, which the Congressional Budget Office estimates will result in 500,000 households losing $90 per month in SNAP benefits.
“More than two-thirds of SNAP benefits go to families with children,” says Frank. “This is trying to balance the budget with the bodies and brains of babies.”
“This farm bill is going to hurt poor people as one of the last sacrifices to the short-term deficit hysteria gods,” says Weill. “It reminds me of the famous line from John Kerry, ‘How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?’ Well, not atypically, members of Congress are offering up poor people.”
You can let Congress know that current proposals to cut the SNAP program ignore all of the evidence—that we need to protect and strengthen the program. Participate in today’s National Call-In Day to Protect SNAP.
Workers at Guitar Center’s Manhattan location are unionizing. Read Allison Kilkenny’s report here.
Protesters in Brazil. (Wikimedia Commons/Agencia Brasil)
I traveled to Brazil last September to investigate preparations for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. It was painfully evident that the social disruption of hosting two mega-events in rapid succession would be profound. Everyone with whom I spoke in the community of social movements agreed that these sports extravaganzas were going to leave major collateral damage. Everyone agreed that the spending priorities for stadiums, security and all attendant infrastructure were monstrous given the health and education needs of the Brazilian people. Everyone agreed that the deficits incurred would be balanced on the backs of workers and the poor. What people disagreed upon was whether anybody would do anything about it.
Most argued that the country had become too apathetic. After six years of economic growth, which followed thirty years of stagnation, people were too content to protest. The ruling Worker’s Party was generally popular and as soon as the countdown to the World Cup actually began, all anger would be washed away in a sea of green, yellow and blue flags bearing the country’s slogan, “Order and progress.” Others argued that statistics showing rising wealth and general quiescence actually masked a much deeper discontent. As Professor Marcos Alvido said to me, “Statistics are like a mankini [a Brazilian speedo that men wear]. They show so much but they hide the most important part.” That “most important part” was the analysis that Brazil was simmering and the lid could stay on the pot for only so long.
The pot has officially boiled over as hundreds of thousands of people marched in at least ten cities this week. The financial capital of São Paolo was brought to a standstill. The political capital, Brasilia, saw protesters climb onto the roof of the National Congress building. In Rio, several thousand marched on legendary Maracana Stadium, the epicenter of the 2016 Summer Olympics, at the start of the Confederations Cup. As fans cheered inside, there were gassings and beatings on the outside. While sports journalists recorded the action on the field, reporters in the streets were shot with rubber bullets, and are now alleging that they were targeted. This protest eruption has been referred to as the “salad uprising” after a journalist was arrested for having vinegar in his backpack (vinegar is a way to ward off the worst effects of tear gas.) Now vinegar is carried openly and in solidarity. It’s also, given the expansive use of tear gas, quite useful.
There are numerous factors driving people into the streets, but the back-breaking piece of straw that crystallized all discontent was a twenty-cent fare hike for public transportation. The country is investing billions in tourist-centric infrastructure and paying for it by bleeding out workers on their daily commute. It was too much.
As Chris Gaffney, who runs the Geostadia blog and is a visiting professor of architecture and urbanism at Rio´s Federal Fluminense University said to me, “Big shit happening downtown Rio tonight, with cars set on fire around the state legislature and attempted invasions of the building that were repelled from inside. News of police using live ammunition as well. It is of course linked to the spending for the mega-events, but also reflects a larger dissatisfaction with the state of the country. The government is corrupt, the police incompetent, the roads and services and schools and healthcare atrocious… and this [is the state of services] for the middle class!… People are realizing that the 50 billion spent on the mega events is going into the pockets of FIFA the IOC and the corrupt construction firms, etc. This latest little insult, hiking the fares by twenty cents, was just enough to get people out on the streets during the Copa. This is truly historical and inspiring. I didn`t think the Brazilians had it in them, and I don’t think they did either. But they do and it`s massive.”
The Movimento Passe Livre (Free Fare Movement), after protesting fare hikes for a decade, and winning concessions with little publicity, all of a sudden found itself with a mass audience. But moving comfortably among its throngs are signs and slogans in protest of the mega-events. The international media are reporting that demonstrators are holding up posters that read, “We don’t need the World Cup” and “We need money for hospitals and education”. People have gathered outside a luxury hotel in Fortaleza where the Brazilian national soccer team is staying with signs that read, “FIFA give us our money back” and “We want health and education. World Cup out!” A protester in Sao Paolo named Camila, has been quoted in the international press as saying, “We shouldn’t be spending public money on stadiums. We don’t want the Cup. We want education, hospitals, a better life for our children.”
The right wing in Brazil, as Yuseph Katiya who lives in the conservative city of Curitiba, points out, is also present in the streets. One of the loosely organized groups in the steets is a formation called “Acorda Brasil” (Wake up Brazil). As Katiya wrote on his extremely informative Facebook wall, “This is a mixed-bag and difficult to describe, and I think is potentially dangerous. These are middle-class people that share some of the concerns of the World Cup/Olympic protesters and the Free Fare Movement people, but their beef is mainly with government corruption. Suddenly, the right-wing press here is supporting the protests but they are more likely to blame politician salaries on the country’s problems. I don’t think they care about rising transportation costs, let alone how it might impact low-income Brazilians.”
Nevertheless, the protests are gaining energy and are finding voice among the Brazilian diaspora throughout the world. Over 300 people marched in New York City on Monday with signs that read, “Olympics: $33 billion. World Cup: $26 billion. Minimum Wage: $674 [about $320 a month in US dollars]. Do you still think it’s about 20 cents?” There have also been reported protests in France, Ireland, and Canada. This isn’t a movement against sports. It’s against the use of sports as a neoliberal Trojan horse. It’s a movement against sports as a cudgel of austerity. It’s a movement that demands our support. Until there is justice, we are all salad revolutionaries.
Dave Zirin writes about the unprecendented corruption that is fueling development for Putin’s Winter Olympics.
Guitars on display at Guitar Center. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user Stephen Cummings. Licensed under Creative Commons.)
At the end of May, employees at Guitar Center’s flagship store in Manhattan overwhelmingly voted to form a union of its fifty-seven retail workers. The national Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) organized the win, marking what the union hoped would be the first of many such votes around New York City and the rest of the country.
Brendon Clark, 28, was one of the workers who voted to unionize. Clark has been working at Guitar Center for four years.
“It’s been a long time coming,” said Clark. “Our grievances have been at play for at least six or seven years, the main thing being how we’re paid and our compensation. No one ever considered a union, and a lot of that is because of how the company has not necessarily blocked unions, but just kind of blocked any way for employees to maybe press on the issue.”
Clark was hired about a year after Bain Capital bought Guitar Center in 2007, and he says a regular sales person at the store used to have a lot of autonomy, but things started to go awry when Internet sales for guitars and other equipment boosted and workers suddenly had to compete with giant online retailers like Amazon.com. Guitar Center tailored its marketing and discounting to represent the way the market was turning, and workers like Clark say their hourly wage and commission structure have been slashed since the investment firm took over.
“What they started to do was offer sale prices all the time, price-matching Amazon, and basically doing whatever they can to make sure the customer leaves satisfied at the lowest price possible, but with the company doing that, in order for that demand to be met, they have to cut away at pricing, which cuts away at profit, which ultimately cuts away at our pay check because we’re 100 percent commission employees,” he says.
“We’re paid on a pay structure that existed before the Internet existed. The company has modified their strategy in marketing and their web presence, and just about every way they do business, except for how they pay their employees,” said Clark.
Within the past three years, Guitar Center has rapidly expanded. Four years ago, the chain had 200 stores and it was very rare for the company to open another one. Within the past six months alone, it has opened ten stores.
“We’ve seen more stores open, we’ve seen more emphasis on dot com sales, and they were neglecting existing stores and existing markets that were profitable, and the number-one profiting store is Manhattan, and it was falling by the wayside,” Clark says.
Guitar Center management was less enthusiastic about the vote.
“We always want to have a working environment that our folks love, and it’s unfortunate that we now have a third party involved,” says Dennis Haffeman, executive vice president of human resources for Guitar Center, a $2.1 billion retail chain owned by Bain Capital. “We’re constantly listening to our employees’ needs so that Guitar Center can be the best work environment in the music industry and, quite frankly, the best in retail.”
But workers don’t seem to love the working environment at all, which is why they called for the vote. RWDSU started working with workers in late 2012 after workers approached the union complaining of worsening compensation.
Clark describes a payment system called “fading,” which he calls “a way for the company to get away with paying us less without it making it seem like they do.”
Workers at Guitar Center make the legal minimum wage plus commission, but they aren’t paid that commission until they sell a certain amount of product against their base pay.
“Where that becomes an issue is during slower months, like this month for example, or if a sales person has a bad month, which everyone eventually does. Sometimes you don’t sell enough product and you ultimately don’t make enough money for the company to cover minimum wage, even though you’ve worked full-time and you’ve showed up to work on time and did your job to its fullest, you’re making minimum wage that month,” he says.
That’s problematic for a number of reasons. All the money workers make in heavily trafficked months, they hang on to in preparation for months ahead. There’s never a consistent pay check. They’re never fully sure if what they receive in pay is going to cover their bills, because minimum wage in New York City is extremely low.
“We’re in this gray area where we have solid jobs, which are hard to get in New York, and we have benefits, but at the same time, we’re not making enough money to survive, and a lot of us end up selling our instruments to make rent and living off of credit cards.”
And the problem isn’t just in New York.
“There were many weeks where I only ate one meal a day, sometimes none, due to low wages,” said another Guitar Center employee in a Southern state who asked to remain anonymous out of concern for their job. “Some brands pay more than others. Successful sales people sell what makes money, not what is truly needed.”
“It’s a mistake to just focus on Amazon. It’s also Sweetwater, Musician’s Friend, owned by Guitar Center, Direct Factory Sales, and now even Best Buy is selling gear. There is no Internet tax either, so sometimes you have to reduce the price of the product by the tax rate to match your own website. This can often be the entire commission,” the employee added, saying Guitar Center staff are increasingly treated like free consultants.
“Sometimes people buy products on Ebay and then pose as potential buyers, just to get educated.”
The customers come in, ask about a mixer they bought online, get advice from staff, and then leave.
“It’s a dying art and the business is cut-throat.”
“The commission-only model has been a struggle for many of the workers. Some workers make as little as $800 a month while living in New York City, one the most expensive cities to live in,” says RWDSU’s Janna Pea. “Also, with the commission-only model, it creates loopholes for the company. If you have an eight-hour shift, but you spend three of those hours teaching a class, you’re losing money because you’re not on the floor selling products. It’s a tough situation for someone to have to depend on a commission-only wage.”
Despite the successful vote at the Manhattan store, it’s difficult to get Guitar Center workers to go on-record about the unionization effort. Clark explained there have been rumors of retribution by management at a Guitar Center in San Francisco where workers voted to unionize.
“It didn’t go through successfully for a number of reasons, but a number of sales staff that were vocal during that vote, about five or six months afterwards, they no longer worked there. The company tells us they weren’t fired for supporting the union, but they were fired for other tedious things,” he says.
In Manhattan, workers are protected now because they have unionized and they’re in the midst of formulating a contract, so Guitar Center wouldn’t be able to edge out employees without there being some kind of legal repercussions.
But before the vote, Clark said people were scared.
“[Workers] are afraid to be vocal about their concerns in wanting to unionize because they’re afraid that if they were to do that, management would start looking at them for every possible thing that they could do wrong and fire them for those reasons.”
Clark thought it was worth the risk.
“A lot of people have lost sight of the good unions do, mainly building what is now the middle class today,” he says.
Clark did everything he was supposed to do. He graduated college even though it buried him debt. He immediately looked for a job, but couldn’t find a high-paying one in the terrible market that is oversaturated with college graduates.
“Hard-working, educated people have nothing coming their way because capitalism has driven things into either the high end or the low end. When it all comes down to maximizing profit and the bottom line, there’s no protection for the employee at that point. It’s all focused on the company and how much profit they’re drawing. The less they have to pay someone, the more profit they’re going to make, and the more they can grow their business,” he says.
Clark describes an environment at Guitar Center where there is a hard divide between upper management and Bain Capital, where, he says, “my word means nothing at the end of the day.”
“I feel like the only way to be heard is to have an actual support where we can all collectively sit down and talk things out and I have federal protection. Otherwise, there’s nothing for me. There’s nothing that will make my voice heard.”
Mass protests are erupting in Brazil. Read Dave Zirin’s analysis here.
The California state capitol in Sacramento. (Flickr/Rafał Próchniak)
This article originally appeared at Waging Nonviolence and is reposted with permission.
After the Newtown shootings, the urgency to secure schools shot up. California Senator Barbara Boxer floated legislation to deploy the National Guard in districts nationwide; President Obama included grants for “school resource officers” in his since-mothballed gun control proposals; and districts, including Los Angeles, which already has the largest school police force in the country, called for more police or stronger partnerships with local law enforcement.
Across the country, students of color braced for the aftershock. School police are the bedrock of the school-to-prison pipeline, a system that levies harsh punishments for nonviolent behavior and, despite scant evidence of greater infraction, funnels disproportionate numbers of black and Latino students out of school and into court. This system of racialized discipline and punishment feeds off moments of fear like Newtown—from the Reagan-era war on drugs, when zero tolerance discipline was born, to the Columbine shootings, which led schools in Denver to increase student referrals to law enforcement by 71 percent over the next four years.
The most recent police surge is, however, only one part of the story. The commotion over school safety has also opened space for youth organizers to push the conversation in the opposite direction.
On May 29, the California state assembly passed AB 549 by a vote of 71-0. The bill is a sweeping attempt to clarify the role of school police, limit their involvement in student discipline and prioritize the use of restorative justice training, school counselors and related support in school violence prevention. In its current wording, it encourages schools to articulate the role of all school staff—from police officers to mental health workers—in state-mandated school safety plans. As it moves to the state Senate, activists are pushing to make that encouragement a requirement, while also requiring schools to emphasize practices like counseling and conflict resolution training. They also seek an explicit definition of school police as overseers of physical safety rather than student discipline.
AB 549 follows on the heels of related efforts in Texas and Connecticut—and a handful of laws passed in the state’s previous legislative session focused on rolling back zero tolerance discipline. The current bill, like the ones before it, builds on the coalition work of large advocacy organizations and organizing-based community groups across California. Some of these groups are affiliated with the national Dignity in Schools Campaign, which published a comprehensive set of policy recommendations authored by youth of color after the Newtown shootings.
For students, having a voice in school policy is a goal unto itself. “We were always told, when the cops pulled us over, and even with teachers sometimes, that this is who you are, and this is where you’re going to end up,” said Carlo Elmo Gomez, a 22-year-old organizer for Los Angeles’s Community Rights Campaign who was once shot at as a high schooler. “The reconstitution of schools, the constant attack on black and brown schools—how can you address this without addressing the conditions the youth are going through?”
The language of AB 549 has been watered down and tossed around by lobbies like the Association of California School Administrators, which has argued that the bill is “very prescriptive for a school safety plan” and would impose onerous legwork. No matter the linguistic turns of this bill, though, it’s only one plank of an escalating statewide strategy—and a lever for building power locally.
In Los Angeles, students and allies have a long history of resistance to the city’s deeply racialized disciplinary practices. In 2007, after years of pushing from CADRE, a South LA–based community group, the district ordered schools to adopt proactive mediation practices and decrease reliance on exclusionary punishment like out-of-school suspensions (though reports show schools have been slow to implement them). In 2011, the city agreed to back down on ticketing students hundreds of dollars for being late to school. In May, the school board passed a student bill of rights, which bans expulsions and out-of-school suspensions for “willful defiance,” a judgment-heavy category that includes fighting, walking out and talking back.
“When we were first writing the bill of rights, it was going over things, perfecting the wording, going over what discipline and punishment really look like—and what willful defiance really is, because it means so many things,” said Michael Davis, a sophomore at Manuel Arts High School in South LA. and an organizer with the Community Rights Campaign.
Students have yet to succeed at downgrading willful defiance on the state level, as Governor Jerry Brown vetoed a related bill, AB 420, last session. It remains on the legislative agenda for many of the groups backing AB 549.
Meanwhile, in Oakland, another hotbed of youth organizing, students won a process for filing complaints over school police misconduct. Now, in addition to advocating for AB 549, Oakland’s Black Organizing Project is in the process of setting up an area chapter of the Dignity in Schools Campaign, which groups in Los Angeles helped launch.
“I don’t think it’s been a huge shift in terms of our constituency,” said Black Organizing Project executive director Jackie Byers, describing the post-Newtown political climate. “The issues that have been affecting Oakland have been ongoing.” Still, regarding state-level advocacy, she noted, “It would be helpful to have policy to leverage districts to have these conversations.”
Similar bases of organizing are growing in California’s vast Central Valley. Along with students from Fresno, members of the Stockton-based Fathers and Families of San Joaquin have gone on two trips to Sacramento to meet with legislators and give testimony in favor of limiting police in schools.
“It was very powerful to see these kids saying that these people, who are supposed to protect them, are suspending them,” said Raerae Colden, an 18-year-old organizer and youth mentor. “How is that supposed to make us feel?”
Organizers from Stockton, a longtime bastion of farmworker organizing and more recently infamous for going bankrupt in the wake of the recent housing crash, won a four-year fight last month to prevent a new prison from opening in the city. Fathers and Families runs a youth empowerment summer academy, programming for formerly incarcerated people and conferences for boys and men of color.
“If we don’t have that strong foundation locally, we don’t have this larger strength,” said Alejandra Gutierrez, Fathers and Families’ executive director. “When we see young people coming in every day, that’s how we measure success.”
It’s this landscape of community organizing, youth training and action research that grounds sweeping legislation like AB 549. Building youth power in Sacramento requires slow, intergenerational, often unsexy organizing focused on leadership development and targeted at local actors. The attention span of this organizing is longer than the post-Newtown scramble. The current bill—which organizers say would have waited until next year without the political climate shift of the Newtown shootings—is only one node in a larger, increasingly networked terrain of struggle.
California is at the forefront of a national movement that is slowly reaching higher stages. Just two days before the Newtown shootings, students and community activists descended on Washington, DC, for the first ever Senate hearing on ending the school-to-prison pipeline—the outgrowth of years of organizing leading up to and around the Dignity in Schools Campaign.
“In some ways, yes, Newtown, it presented a big challenge for us,” said Manuel Criollo, organizing director for the Community Rights Campaign. “At the same time, we’ve reached a majority where we have been much more engaged with each other. We were already in motion.”
Election judge watches a voter cast their ballot. (Reuters)
As part of what advocates call the “next step” of the Affordable Care Act, California voters will consider an initiative next year that will empower regulators and consumer advocates to challenge health insurance premium rate hikes.
Though healthcare reform, better known these days as Obamacare, gives the government the ability to shine a spotlight onto insurance rates, it does not in itself enable regulators to block them. That power resides with the states. Currently, about thirty-four states have some laws on the books to give regulators the authority to block unjustified rate hikes; California is not one of them. And while advocates in California are optimistic about the prospects of reform, the health insurance lobby has wasted no time in preparing to defeat the measure.
Californians Against Higher Healthcare Costs, a political group created to defeat the rate review initiative, describes itself as a “coalition of doctors, hospitals, health insurers, and California employers.” Though the group bills itself as a diverse coalition, our review of disclosures with the California secretary of state’s office show that, since last year, the organization has received 99.27 percent of its funds from health insurance companies and health insurance political action committees. Health insurance interests such as UnitedHealth, Anthem Blue Cross, HealthNet and Kaiser Health Plans have raised $1,366,120 to fight the rate review. In addition, the California Hospital Committee on Issues has donated a mere $10,000.
The group has retained a number of consultants to help defeat rate review, including Thomas W. Hiltachk, a Sacramento attorney known for creating deceptive corporate campaigns for oil and tobacco companies. The media company retained by the insurers, Goddard Claussen (now known as Redwood Pacific Public Affairs), gained infamy for helping insurance companies block health insurance reforms in the past, including the advertising campaign known as “Harry and Louise” that many believe helped sink President Clinton’s attempt to overhaul the health care system.
In previous years, thousands of Californians have faced yearly premium hikes as high as 59 percent.
Topher Spiro, the vice president for health policy at the Center for American Progress, told The Nation that “every insurance commissioner should have the authority to reject premium rates that are excessive. If insurance companies can publicly justify their proposed rates with an actuarial analysis that stands up to independent scrutiny, they should have nothing to hide or fear.”
Carmen Balber, the executive director of Consumer Watchdog, the leading supporter of the rate review initiative, says the health insurance companies will spent “tens of millions” to defeat the 2014 measure “because their profits are at stake.” Balber points out that last year, Mercury General Corp. chief executive George Joseph spent $16 million on an initiative to unravel car insurance regulations, outspending opponents some 65 to 1, but was defeated.
“California voters are smarter than the insurance industry gives them credit for,” says Balber, arguing that no matter how much insurers spend, the public will see through the insurers’ “smoke screen” of advertisements.
Representatives for Californians Against Higher Healthcare Costs did not respond to a request for comment.
The initiative is designed to create an intervener process to allow the public, including advocates like Consumer Watchdog, to challenge insurer rate hikes. When a similar measure to empower the California insurance commissioner to review and regulate rate hikes was proposed in the legislature, insurers and their allies, including several dark money organizations, spent millions of dollars on lobbying and campaign contributions to prevent it from passing. Even with Democrats in control of the legislature and the governor’s office, the bill failed. Now, the voters will have a chance to rein in health insurance companies.
Lee Fang writes about the hypocrisy of GOP lawmakers on Obamacare.
In a 7-2 decision today, the Supreme Court found that Arizona’s proof of citizenship law for voter registration violated the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). Somewhat surprisingly, Justice Scalia—who in February called the Voting Rights Act “a perpetuation of racial entitlement”—wrote the opinion for the majority, finding that federal law preempted state law in this case. “We conclude that the fairest reading of the statute is that a state-imposed requirement of evidence of citizenship not required by the Federal Form is ‘inconsistent with’ the NVRA’s mandate that States ‘accept and use’ the Federal Form,” wrote Scalia. “If this reading prevails, the Elections Clause requires that Arizona’s rule give way.” The ruling is a major victory for voting rights and an affirmation of the NVRA, which has helped 141 million Americans register to vote and turned twenty last month.
Justices Thomas and Alito dissented. Wrote Thomas: “The States, not the Federal Government, have the exclusive right to define the ‘Qualifications requisite for Electors,’ which includes the corresponding power to verify that those qualifications have been met.”
Here’s the background on Arizona v. The Inter Tribal Council of Arizona:
In 2004, Arizona voters approved Proposition 200, a stringent anti-immigration law that included provisions requiring proof of citizenship to register to vote and government-issued photo ID to cast a ballot. Last year, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit blocked the proof of citizenship requirement, which it said violated the 1993 National Voter Registration Act. Under the NVRA, those using a federal form to register to vote must affirm, under penalty of perjury, that they are US citizens. Twenty-eight million people used that federal form to register to vote in 2008. Arizona’s law, the court concluded, violated the NVRA by requiring additional documentation, such as a driver’s license, birth certificate, passport or tribal forms. According to a 2006 study by the Brennan Center for Justice, at least 7 percent of eligible voters “do not have ready access to the documents needed to prove citizenship.”
Prop 200 has had a chilling effect on voter registration in Arizona. “Following enactment of Proposition 200, over 31,000 individuals were rejected for voter registration in Arizona,” according to a brief by the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF). “Less than one-third of the rejected registrants subsequently successfully registered to vote.” The law has needlessly prevented eligible voters from registering and has made voter registration work more difficult. “The proportion of all voter registrations in [Phoenix’s] Maricopa County attributable to community-based drives decreased from 24% in 2004 to 7% in 2005, 5% in 2006 and 6% in 2007,” found MALDEF.
Prop 200 was aimed at curtailing illegal immigration but has harmed many legal Arizonians. Of the 31,500 citizens who were prevented from registering to vote, MALDEF found, “the record in the case demonstrates that the rejected…registrants were Democrats and Republicans in equal numbers, almost one-half were under the age of 30, and a majority of those who indicated a race said they were white.”
Supporters of Prop 200 claim the proof of citizenship requirement is needed to stop voter registration fraud. But as the appeals court found, “Arizona has not provided persuasive evidence that voter fraud in registration procedures is a significant problem in Arizona; moreover, the NVRA includes safeguards addressing voter fraud.” Adds Nina Perales, vice president of litigation at MALDEF: “Nobody has ever been prosecuted for using the federal form to register to vote as a non-citizen.”
The decision has broader significance for two reasons. Number one, Arizona had been the model for proof of citizenship laws more recently adopted in states like Alabama, Kansas and Tennessee. Today’s ruling could serve as a deterrent for states that are considering making it harder to register to vote.
Secondly, Scalia, who has often been skeptical of Congressional precedent, affirmed that Congress does, indeed, play an important role in determining the rules for federal elections. Does that mean the Supreme Court will uphold Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in a decision this week or next? No. But it’s not a stretch to conclude that if the justices affirmed the power of the federal government with regards to Arizona, they should also pay great deference to a landmark civil rights law that has been overwhelmingly reauthorized four times by Congress and upheld by the Supreme Court every time it’s been challenged.
UPDATE: Rick Hasen, an election law expert at UC-Irvine, cautions against viewing the Arizona case as a clear victory for voting rights. “What the Supreme Court gave the federal government with one hand, it suggested could soon be taken away with the other,” he writes. “Justice Scalia drew a distinction between Congress’s broad power to set the manner of elections and its lack of power to set voter qualifications (such as residency requirements), which is an issue left to the states. The Court’s view of the ‘qualifications’ clause may give states new powers to resist federal government control over elections.”
But Jon Greenbaum, legal director for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, an intervener in the case, strongly disagreed with that interpretation. “We knew before this decision that states set qualifications,” he says. “Arizona tried to make the argument that [the proof of citizenship law] was a qualification and a majority of the court rejected that argument…The case limits what states can do.”
Ari Berman writes about John Lewis and the long fight for voting rights.
Supporters of Hassan Rohani hold a picture of him as they celebrate his victory in Iran's presidential election. (Reuters/Fars News/)
Here’s a question for the White House: Do you think it’s a good idea to greet the new president of Iran, who might be willing to seek a long-lasting accord with the United States, with a head-on confrontation with Iran and Russia in Syria?
Hint: the answer is no.
Hassan Rouhani, who’ll take over as president of Iran in August, stunned the world with an outright, 50-percent-plus victory in the June 14 election. By all accounts, he’s a thoughtful, centrist cleric with a moderate outlook. As president, Rouhani will have a lot of power, but he will still have to operate within Iran’s very intricate political system—just as, say, President Obama has to do in dealing with Congress, the courts, his own fractious Democrats, the Pentagon and public opinion. In Rouhani’s case, he has to maneuver around Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, Iran’s own conservative-dominated parliament, Iran’s judiciary (and the Guardian Council), the entrenched power of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and other centers of power.
Thus, Rouhani will need all the help he can get. Some of that help will have to come from the United States, including positive signals that Washington is ready to deal. But an American-backed war in Syria, aimed at forcible regime change against Iran’s chief regional ally, can only weaken Rouhani and stiffen the opposition of Iranian hardliners, including the IRGC. And, of course, the best way for the United States to aid Rouhani in his internal battles will be do sweeten the offer in the now-stalled nuclear negotiations, finally making it clear that Washington is ready to endorse Iran’s enrichment program under proper international safeguards.
In his first post-election news conference on Sunday, Rouhani couldn’t have been more explicit. “This victory is the victory of wisdom, moderation and awareness over fanaticism and bad behavior.” And, in a televised debate just before the election, Rouhani explicitly addressed the nuclear issue. “We have to calculate our national interests. It’s nice for the centrifuges to run but people’s livelihoods have to also run, our factories have to also run.” That doesn’t mean that Rouhani is ready to give away the store on the nuclear issue. He won’t. Not only that, he can’t. But it does mean that—like his chief patron, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the billionaire businessman who’s been chafing under economic sanctions—he recognizes that Iran’s hard line on enrichment has led to the country’s political and economic isolation from the West. Unlike Saeed Jalili, the current nuclear negotiator and ultra hardliner—who, in his own, failed presidential campaign, called for Iran to live under a “resistance economy”—Rouhani and Rafsanjani realize that the nuclear program isn’t Iran’s number-one priority, especially when a workable deal can be so easily reached.
The initial response by the United States to Rouhani’s surprise win was mixed. Naturally, in the United States the right, the neoconservatives and the Israel lobby—and Israel itself—are going out of their way to say Never mind the Iran election! Move on—there’s nothing to see here! But the White House reaction has nevertheless been welcoming—in words, at least. Dennis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, said:
“I see it as a potentially hopeful sign. I think the question for us now is: If he is interested in, as he has said in his campaign events, mending his relations—Iran’s relations with the rest of the world—there’s an opportunity to do that.”
Not that the United States was exactly gracious in greeting Rouhani. As Jonathan Steele, writing in The Guardian, notes:
The Obama administration needs to take stock and think hard after this surprise result, especially as its first reaction was full of hasty blunders. It patronised Iranian voters by saying they showed “courage in making their voices heard” and was rude in urging Rouhani to “heed the will of the Iranian people”. If the White House is really “ready to engage the Iranian government directly”, as it said on Saturday, why did it not have the courtesy to send Rouhani a message of congratulations?
In any case, nice words won’t help Rouhani get the upper hand at home. If the war in Syria escalates, the United States—by arming the rebels, authorizing a covert operations project by the CIA, building up US forces in Jordan—could push Iran and Russia to meet the United States on the Syrian battlefield. And unless the United States offers Iran an explicit deal to eliminate sanctions in exchange for a nuclear deal, Rouhani may not have the leverage that he’ll need at home.
The Wall Street Journal, in an important news analysis, says that the United States and Europe are ready to test Rouhani in future negotiations:
The Obama administration and its European allies—surprised and encouraged by Hassan Rouhani’s election as Iran’s next president—intend to aggressively push to resume negotiations with Tehran on its nuclear program by August to test his new government’s positions, U.S. and European diplomats say.
But it’s a one-way test, according to the Journal:
Washington and Brussels are eager to quickly test whether Mr. Rohani’s unexpected victory could pressure Mr. Khamenei into softening his position on the nuclear issue or scaling back Tehran’s broader rift with the West, these officials said.
Nothing, you’ll notice, about whether the United States will itself make a more palatable offer to Iran in the hope that its new leader will respond in kind.
Rouhani, who was Iran’s negotiator under President Mohammad Khatami—the godfather of the reformist movement who, like Rafsanjani, endorsed Rouhani just says before the election—is a shrewd negotiator himself. In his campaign, defending himself against the hardliners (including Jalili), Rouhani often made the point that when, under his watch, Iran suspended its enrichment program, that allowed Iran to forge ahead by quietly building facilities to advance the program later on. Now, Rouhani skeptics in the West are using those statements against him, trying to portray his as sneaky or duplicitous. But the fact is, no deal was reached in 2003–05, and no deal has been struck since. It’s time for a deal.
Vali Nasr, a former Obama administration insider who’s been critical of the White House, says that now the United States has to negotiate with far more flexibility than its shown so far:
To take advantage of Rouhani’s victory and break the logjam over nuclear negotiations, Washington has to put on the table incentives it has thus far been unwilling to contemplate. It will have to offer Iran sanctions relief in exchange for agreeing to Western demands. At a minimum, the United States would like Iran to accept IAEA demands for intrusive inspection of its nuclear facilities; cap its uranium enrichment at 5 percent, and ship out of the country its stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent. Iran in turn wants a formal recognition of its right to enrich uranium and, more immediately, the lifting of crippling sanctions on its financial institutions and oil exports. Ahmadinejad is faulted in Iran for wrecking the country’s economy. Populism, mismanagement, and international isolation have combined to put Iran’s economy into a downward spiral. Between 2009 and 2013, real GDP growth has fallen from 4 percent to 0.4 percent, unemployment has risen to 17 percent, and inflation has grown to 22 percent—and those are official numbers, which tend to downplay the gravity of the economic crisis. It is estimated that 40 percent of Iranians live below the poverty line. Reformists will grow in strength if they are able to show that they can reverse that trend by at least getting the West for the first time to offer negotiating away specific sanctions.
James Harkin chronicles the battle for Aleppo from behind rebel lines.
Bill Keller. (Reuters)
The former top New York Times editor Bill Keller continues his embarrassing run as a weekly pundit today, fully endorsing the laughable column by colleague Thomas Friedman last week, which I critiqued at the time. You remember the Friedman opus—quoting at length TV series creator David Simon’s rant (which Simon had partly retracted already).
A desperate Keller cites the popularlty of Friedman at the Times site as evidence that the columnist’s view was popular—even though, I’d bet (thanks to links from Matt Taibbi and others) most who visited came to laugh and mock.
Keller shows his hand when he declares at the outset he only respects the “vigilant attention to real dangers answering overblown rhetoric about theoretical ones.” Of course, all dangers are only theoretical when we don’t know about them, because of undue secrecy. When that emerges, they become all too “real.” This reflects his beloved Friedman/Simon column, which claimed no known abuses of the NSA surveillance. Again: How would we know (until, maybe, now)?
His piece does go on to raise demands for a “well-regulated” surveillance state—but a surveillance state nonetheless. Of course, it’s good that he’s not turning a blind eye—but from his Friedman endorsement, you know where his real sympathies lie. With the state. And let’s not forget his attacks on Julian Assange and criticism of Bradley Manning (not to mention long support for Judy Miller and lampooning of her critics). Keller has learned so little from the Iraq debacle—which he supported—that he now urges Obama to “get over” that and take strong action vs. Syria.
This comes a day after Margaret Sulllivan, the Times public editor, produced a column revisting the famous incident from 2004 when Keller held, for a year, the first major scoop on NSA spying, by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, at the behest of the Bush administration. Some have held that this cost John Kerry the presidency in 2004, but putting that aside, the real losers were the American people, the press in the US—and the reputaiton of the Times, and Keller. All you have to do is consider this:
In a 2008 article for Slate, Mr. Lichtblau, who had chafed at the delay, described the surreal scene “as my editors and I waited anxiously in an elegantly appointed sitting room at the White House” to be greeted by officials including the secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, and the White House counsel, Harriet Miers.
Sullivan wasn’t the only one who recalled this embarrassment from years back. Edward Snowden revealed two weeks ago that he didn’t take his NSA leak to the Times specifically because of what happened to Risen and Lichtblau. Instead he went to The Guardian—and the Times’s prime rival, The Washington Post. Now the Times managing editor admits he is sorely disappointed he didn’t get the Snowden leak.
He can thank Keller for that. Bill ought to title his next column on Snowden, “The Spy Who Loathed Me.”
Tom Engelhardt lays out the five uncontrollable urges of today's surveillance state.
A Syrian soldier, who has defected to join the Free Syrian Army, holds up his rifle and waves a Syrian independence flag in the Damascus suburb of Saqba January 27, 2012. (REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah)
The US House of Representatives took an important step last week toward the restoration of the separation of powers that was established so that Congress would check and balance presidential war-making.
But Congress has not hit its stride.
The House voted overwhelming for a measure supporting a full and accelerated end to the war in Afghanistan and expressing the sense of Congress that any post-2014 US military force in Afghanistan requires new and explicit authorization.
After twelve years of failing to check and balance the war-making of successive administrations, the House voted 305-121 for an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014, which
[requires] the President to complete the accelerated transition of combat operations from U.S. Armed Forces to the Government of Afghanistan no later than by the end of 2013; the accelerated transition of military and security operations by the end of 2014, including the redeployment of U.S. troops; and to pursue robust negotiations to address Afghanistan’s and the region’s security and stability.
“Today is the first time in twelve years of war that a majority of the House of Representatives has voted to end the war in Afghanistan,” Stephen Miles of the Win Without War coalition said after last Thursday’s vote.
Because the Senate endorsed a similar measure in 2012—by a 62-33 vote—veteran antiwar activist Tom Hayden notes that “politically, the development means that the Obama administration effectively lacks any congressional authorization for a permanent military occupation of Afghanistan.”
The amendment, sponsored by Congressman Jim McGovern, the Massachusetts Democrat who has long been allied with antiwar groups such as Progressive Democrats of America, also “establishes the sense of Congress that should the President determine the necessity for post 2014 deployment of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the Congress should vote to authorize such a presence and mission by no later than June 2014.”
In urging his colleagues to support the amendment, McGovern (who worked on the measure with Representatives Walter Jones, R-North Carolina; Barbara Lee, D-California, and John Garamendi, D-California) explained before the vote: “It is time to end the war in Afghanistan, bring our troops home and take seriously our duty as a Congress.”
That stance, which once would have been considered radical, drew broad bipartisan support.
The amendment secured widespread backing from Democrats: 185 were in favor of the proposal (including Democratic leaders such as Nancy Pelosi of California, and Steny Hoyer of Maryland) while just nine Democrats opposed it.
The amendment also won among Republicans, with 120 in favor to 112 opposed. But the Republican support came with a caveat: Speaker John Boehner, of Ohio, did not vote. Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-California, voted “no,” as did many prominent Republicans who chair House committees, including Oversight and Government Reform’s Darrell Issa, R-California, and Homeland Security’s Michael McCaul, R-Texas.
The position of the Republican leaders does not bode well for a broad shift in the approach of Congress to questions about military adventures abroad. That’s especially unfortunate at a time when the Obama administration is ramping up US support for Syrian rebels—a move that should be checked and balanced by Congress.
And its not just a leadership challenge.
When two members of the House—New York Republican Chris Gibson and California Democrat John Garamendi—submitted a bipartisan amendment that would have eliminated Sense of Congress language calling for a US military intervention in Syria, it failed with just 123 “yes” votes to 301 “no” votes.
So where does this leave us?
It is significant that the House has laid a marker down with regard to the Afghanistan occupation—with an appropriate signal about the need for the president to seek congressional approval for further action in the country.
Congresswoman Barbara Lee, the California Democrat who cast the lone vote in opposition to the 2001 resolution that the Bush and Obama administrations cited as justification for an open-ended “war of terror” that has sent tens of thousands of US troops to Afghanistan, was pleased by the show of backbone.
“I have long called for a responsible and immediate end to the war in Afghanistan and [last week’s] congressional action is long overdue,” said Lee. “With the passage of this amendment, it’s clear that we are turning a corner on the war in Afghanistan. It’s long past time for the longest war in America’s history to come to an end.”
But that should not be the end of it.
It is long past time for Congress to fully and unapologetically reassert its role as the branch of the federal government that is supposed to declare wars and to check and balance the administrations that pursue them.
That’s true with regard to Afghanistan. But it is equally true with regard to conflicts that are now drawing more and more US attention, including the Syria imbroglio.
So while Congress may be starting to “get it” with regard to Afghanistan, Congress does not yet “get it” with regard to its broader constitutional mandate to declare wars and check and balance all military endeavors.
The new book by John Nichols and Robert McChesney, Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books), is out this week—with an introduction by Senator Bernie Sanders.
The Supreme Court struck down Arizona's voter suppression law. Read Ari Berman's analysis here.
Vladimir Putin. (Reuters)
Josef Stalin famously uttered the demonically cynical maxim that “the death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.” In other words, he believed that when faced with the choice of focusing on horrors small and tangible or vast and incomprehensible, humanity goes small. It is the political spawn of Stalin’s feared security apparatus, Vladimir Putin, who is proving that this applies to scandals in the world of sport. One small theft is the sports story of the moment in the United States, while a heist of epic proportions, is emitting nary a peep.
The sports press is agog this weekend with the revelation by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft that in 2005, Putin stole his Super Bowl ring. At the time, Putin’s sticky fingers were caught on camera and the scene generated some laughs. There was the leader of Russia trying it on at a press event and then walking out of the room, as a bovine, slack-jawed Kraft looked on. The Patriots organization played it off as an intentional gift. But Kraft revealed this week that it was more of a mugging with the parodically alpha-male Putin icily looking at Kraft and saying, ‘I can kill someone with this ring,’” Then in Kraft’s words, “I put my hand out and he put it in his pocket, and three KGB guys got around him and walked out.”
It’s a pulpy, punchy story and it’s understandable why sports reporters are flocking to it like a seagull to carrion. It also fits a narrative that has served Vladimir Putin well. He’s the Tony Soprano of world leaders: the man who gets what he wants and wants what he gets.
But Putin—not unlike the decaying Mafia itself—isn’t nearly as ruthlessly efficient as his legend suggests. For evidence of this, we don’t even have to leave the world of sports. I’m referring to the billions in disappeared “spending” for the 2014 Winter Olympics, to be held—for reasons that boggle the mind—in the humid, subtropical Russian resort city of Sochi.
Putin has staked his reputation on the smooth hosting of the winter games. Based on the planning, it either speaks to how little he values his reputation, or more likely, that beneath the steely glare and martial arts muscles, he’s being exposed as little more than a thuggish front man for a kleptocracy.
According to a detailed report issued by Russian opposition leaders in May, businessmen and various consiglieres of Putin have stolen up to $30 billion from funds intended for Olympic preparations. This has pushed the cost of the winter games, historically far less expensive than their summer counterpart to over $50 billion, more than four times the original estimate. That $50 billion price tag would make them the most expensive games in history, more costly than the previous twenty-one winter games combined. It’s a price tag higher than even than the 2008 pre–global recession summer spectacle in Beijing.
As Andrew Jennings, author of Lords of the Rings and the most important Olympic investigative reporter we have, said to me, “The games have always been a money-spinner for the cheerleaders in the shadows. Beijing remains impenetrable but is likely to have been little less corrupt than Putin’s mafia state.”
“Mafia state” may sound extreme, but these winter games will go down in history as perhaps the most audacious act of embezzlement in human history. As Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov and Leonid Martynyuk wrote, “Only oligarchs and companies close to Putin got rich. The absence of fair competition, cronyism… have led to a sharp increase in the costs and to the poor quality of the work to prepare for the Games.… The fact is that almost everything that is related to the cost problems and abuses in preparation for the Olympic Games was carefully concealed and continues to be covered up by the authorities.”
One of those officials was Akhmed Bilalov, who was forced to flee Russia, fearing for his life, after Putin blamed him for the ballooning costs. Now Bilalov has gone public with news that he is undergoing medical treatment for being poisoned, allegedly by agents of the Russian state.
Even more nauseating, if not surprising, than the alleged theft/attempted murder is the shrug of the shoulders from the International Olympic Committee. Jean-Claude Killy, the French skiing superstar from the 1970s, is now in charge of the International Olympic Committee’s coordination commission for the Sochi games.
“I don’t recall an Olympics without corruption,” Killy said. “It’s not an excuse, obviously, and I’m very sorry about it, but there might be corruption in this country, there was corruption before. I hope we find ways around that.”
If $30 billion is too much of an incomprehensible “statistic” to get our heads around, even in a country with poverty and hunger rates that spiked dramatically in the wake of the 2008 global economic crisis, consider the people who actually have to live in Sochi. Thousands of families have been forcibly displaced by construction projects that will have no use once the cameras have cleared. The local environment has strip-mined and polluted the ecosystem. According to Human Rights Watch, one village, Akhshtyr, which has forty-nine homes and a population of 102 people, has been without water for a year because of Olympic construction without end. Sochi is basically being treated like Henry Hill’s bar in Goodfellas: to be discarded by the Russian state once the Olympics are over and it has nothing left to give.
The 2014 Winter Games are nothing any sports fan with a conscience should support. Putin should be protested at every turn for allowing his cronies to loot his country and immiserate the people of Sochi. If there is any justice, these games will mark the beginning of his end, as the veil is lifted and the cost of his rule is revealed in stark relief for all to see. Putin’s got to go. If it makes it easier, he can keep the damn ring.
Dave Zirin urges baseball to rethink its approach to steroids.