The trouble with making "functional" government the great aspiration of the American experiment -- as so many pundits and politicians now do -- is that a smoothly operating Congress is not necessarily moral, humane or even economically smart.
It is important to remember this disconnect as we consider the budget deal announced late Tuesday by House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, and Senate Budget Committee chairman Patty Murray, D-Washington.
“This agreement breaks through the recent dysfunction to prevent another government shutdown and roll back sequestration’s cuts to defense and domestic investments in a balanced way,” said Murray. “It’s a good step in the right direction that can hopefully rebuild some trust and serve as a foundation for continued bipartisan work.”
Ryan was equally self-congratulatory, declaring that -- after a fall the saw a government shutdown, nasty wrangling over the historically uncontroversial task of raising the debt ceiling and general congressional dysfunction – he and Murray had achieved “a clear improvement on the status quo.”
“This agreement makes sure that we don't have a government shutdown scenario in January,” he added. “It makes sure we don't have another government shutdown scenario in October. It makes sure that we don't lurch from crisis to crisis."
Murray and Ryan are excited that they had stopped fighting for long enough to agree to $63 billion in “sequester relief” -- as opposed to an actual end to sequestration -- and $23 billion in net deficit reduction. They also glad that they have set the discretionary spending level for fiscal year 2014 at $1.012 trillion, while setting the level at $1.014 trillion for fiscal year 2015. That apparently qualifies – in the eyes of the budget negotiators -- as a sufficient alternative to lurching from crisis to crisis.
But there are still plenty of problems to go around. "This plan won't create jobs, get the economy back on track, or meaningfully cut the deficit," explains Congressman Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon.
And that's not the worst of it.
What of the 1.3 million jobless Americans who now stand to lose Federal unemployment benefits on December 28?
The budget agreement does not look like a “step in the right direction” for them. And unless Democrats succeed in renewing benefits in a distinct piece of legislation that apparently must pass this week -- as Congress is moving rapidly toward recess -- many of the most economically-vulnerable Americans will be “lurching from crisis to crisis” very soon.
And their crisis is our crisis. According to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, extending benefits for the long-term unemployed would boost a still slow economy by two-tenths of a percent in the coming year -- creating 200,000 needed jobs.
And what of the federal workers and members of the military who will be required to take what is effectively a pay cut in order to pay more for their retirement benefits?
"Federal workers have sacrificed over $113 billion for deficit reduction since 2011, including a three-year pay freeze and increased pension contributions for newly hired employees. This figure does not include the up to eight furlough days caused by sequestration this summer and a 16-day shutdown in October which resulted in financial hardship and profound anxiety for half the government’s workforce and their families," noted unions that represent federal employees. "Given these contributions, we are dismayed to learn that increasing the pension contributions and/or changing the retirement formula for current federal employees is on the table. This is simply unacceptable."
This is, also, absurd.
Ryan and Murray did not close a single tax loophole. But they did come up with a scheme to take money away from public employees and people serving in the military -- effectively reducing what millions of Americans have to spend on Main Street.
Members of House and Senate who are paid $174,000 annually, enjoy generous benefits and -- thanks to redistricting -- no small measure of job security, can pat themselves on the back for breaking through “the recent dysfunction.” But forcing others to lurch from crisis to crisis so that you can tell yourself you have taken “a step in the right direction” is definitively dysfunctional. Not to mention cruel, and irresponsible.
Last month, we noted that a bipartisan group of senators, lead by Jeff Merkley of Oregon, introduced an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that asked President Obama to seek a vote in Congress over whether to extend the war in Afghanistan through “2024 and beyond,” as the potential security pact with the Afghan government proposes.
Monday, the contours of a Senate deal to advance the NDAA were announced—and Merkley’s amendment will not be receiving a vote.
This is despite the amendment gaining even more support among powerful Democrats, including one—Alaska Senator Mark Begich—who is up for re-election in 2014, a possible barometer of how politically toxic the war has become (67 percent of Americans don’t think the war was worth it, according to a recent poll).
The amendment now counts Senators Rand Paul (R-KY), Mike Lee (R-UT), Ron Wyden (D-OR) Joe Manchin (D-WV), Tom Harkin (D-IA), Jon Tester (D-MT), Chris Murphy (D-CT), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Patty Murray (D-WA) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT), along with Merkley and Begich as co-sponsors.
Senator Tom Coburn is threatening to dramatically slow down the NDAA if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid doesn’t allow Senators to propose amendments, but that gambit is unlikely to work.
But Merkley isn’t giving up—his office pledged to bring a similar bill back for consideration before the security pact is finalized, and expressed dismay that the measure likely won’t be considered this year.
“Senator Merkley is disappointed that his amendment will not get a vote during the Defense Authorization debate,” said Jamal Raad, Merkley’s press secretary. “He still thinks it is important that before we commit massive resources and thousands of troops to another decade in Afghanistan, Congress should vote, and he will continue pushing for a vote.”
Meanwhile, the seemingly smooth negotiations between the United States and Afghanistan seem to have hit a snag, with Afghan President Hamid Karzai calling for delays and protesting several provisions. That may yet scuttle another decade of war. But Merkley and his colleagues are pressing on, holding to the notion that Congress ought to have a say on another decade of war with an essentially new mission.
Read Next: The Nation's interactive database of civilian casaulties in Afghanistan.
This is part one of a series on the perils of privatization. Check back soon for the next installment.
Riding the buses in Chicago has been awfully fun this busy Christmas Season. Half the time, it’s been free.
This fall, you see, after a series of delays, the city brought online a new fare payment system called “Ventra” in which customers tap “smart cards” against electronic readers at bus entrances and train station turnstiles. Only it turns out these cards are not so smart. Half the time, tap after tap after tap, the damned things don’t work, and the bus driver just exasperatedly waves you through. Although it hasn’t been as much fun for the passengers who exited the bus through the front door and discovered that, if their purses or backpacks brushed too close to the reader, they were charged twice. Or for a guy named Al Stern who became a local celebrity after receiving an e-mail on Friday, September 6, informing him he’d be receiving a Ventra card in the mail soon to replace his “Chicago Card,” which was the previous prepayment system (which worked fine). Four minutes later he got the same e-mail, then four minutes after that, then four minutes again after that, and so on and so forth all the way until the next morning. Twenty-four days later he arrived home to a pile of 91 envelopes shoved through his mail slot, each holding a Ventra card; the next day, 176 more arrived, each one, he later discovered, canceling the last. “You have to call and activate it,” he told Crain’s Chicago Business, “but I’ve been afraid to do that.”
The goofs accelerated, like Lucille Ball working at the assembly line, or Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times. At the end of November federal workers discovered they could “pay” fares by scanning their employee IDs. (“Please be advised that intentional misuse of federal credentials is prohibited,” the local EPA office wrote employees.) Other customers reported being double-, triple- or even quadruple-billed. At the end of October the Chicago Tribune reported, “CTA employees are being ‘verbally attacked daily by angry riders’ who are blaming them for problems with the new transit-fare payment system”; their union called on the Chicago Transit Authority to scrap Ventra until the bugs were worked out. The city started charging the vendor for the proliferating lost revenue, while that vendor kept promising serial “software fixes” that never seemed to do anything but introduce novel problems. At the end of November came news that when people tapped their wallets, like they used to do without problem with their old Chicago Cards, random credit or debit cards were charged. Then, last week, the “CTA: Ventra Glitches Mostly Gone But Delays Remain.”
rush-hour outages began, and some buses stopping accepting fares altogether. That came two days after the headline
It’s been our own municipal version of the Obamacare rollout—which means everyone should pay attention. For the root problem is exactly the same. Congressman Henry Waxman argued about glitches in the ACA, “if anybody’s head should roll, it should be the contractors who didn’t live up to their contractual responsibility.” But that’s only half right. Consider the sign Harry Truman used to keep on his Oval Office desk: “The buck stops here.” The problem is not just the profusion of private contractors who do the public’s business so poorly; it’s the fact that the public’s business is being so relentlessly privatized by the government executives in charge. Slowly, the perceived imperative to privatize has become the political tail that wags the policy dog. The results are before us.
Why, indeed, was this massive change in how Chicagoans pay for their bus and train fares initiated in the first place? “What was wrong with the old system? It worked fine,” ran the first comment on the Chicago Tribune’s article on all the abuse the poor bus drivers are facing from frustrated customers. Ran the second, “I have never even heard a compelling argument as to WHY we needed a new system to begin with.”
Well, my friends, here’s your compelling argument: under the old system, rich investors didn’t get a piece of the action. Under this one, they most decidedly do.
The contract to replace Chicago’s fare payment system was awarded to the publicly traded corporation Cubic in 2011 by the previous mayor, Richard M. Daley, for $454 million, and implemented with alacrity by the current mayor Rahm Emanuel. I’ll have much more to say about this company and its many dubious works in the next part of this series. For now, consider this. In a separate part of the project, Chicagoans are offered the following opportunity, as advertised on the back of their Ventra cards: “Go beyond transit. Call or go online to activate your Money Network® MasterCard® Prepaid Debit Account and use your Ventra Card for purchases, direct deposit, bill pay, and at ATMs.” This is how the City of Chicago intended to turn its millions of captive citizens over to the commercial banking industry: hoovering spare change from the pockets of Chicago’s marginal communities into corporate America’s overstuffed coffers.
Chicagoans who choose to turn bus cards into bank cards will be socked with hidden fees: $1.50 every time they withdraw cash using your bus-card-cum-bank-card from an ATM,$2.95 every time they add money using a personal credit card. Two dollars for every phone call with a service representative (or, oops, each “Operator Assisted Telephone Inquiry”). Two bucks for a paper copy of their account. An “account research fee” of $10 an hour.
At which point, learning about all that, they might cry, Help! Let me out of this “deal”! Well, that’ll cost them $6—a “balance refund fee.”
Now, turning your bus card into a bank card is optional—a program supposedly intended to help Chicago’s underbanked poor. I liked this observation, however, from a Tribune article last March: “It may be a tough sell, some experts said. Many low-income individuals are cash-centric in their spending habits because they are wise to the way of credit-card charges.” But not to fear, if you’re a Master of the Universe investing in one of the participating multinational banking concerns—Mastercard, First Data, or MetaBank—backing the play. Even though Chicago’s impoverished might not make ready marks for the scam, Chicagoans who don’t choose the banking option will suffer hidden charges. There is, for instance, a $7 “dormancy” fee if you don’t use your transit card for eighteen months, with another $5 charge tacked on for every dormant month after that.
Note that I said hidden fees. How hidden? Well, the only reasons Chicagoans learned about them was that the Chicago Tribune pored through over 1,000 pages of legal boilerplate (for more on how impossibly complex user contracts rip off consumers generally see my reporting here) and discovered them.
The reporters at the local CBS affiliate, meanwhile, reported that First Data got an “F” rating from the Better Business Bureau, with ninety-seven complaints filed against it over the past three years. MetaBank was recently ordered to pay $5.2 million by federal regulators for another public/private hustle, a now-discontinued program of issuing debit cards funded by tax refund loans at interest rates between 120 and 650 percent with a fee of $2.50 per $20 loaned.
The Trib noted, “Neither the CTA nor Cubic…nor MasterCard; nor MetaBank; nor First Data, which will issue the prepaid debit accounts, have disclosed the extra charges or how consumers can avoid them.” The city promised, though, that a “CTA public education campaign on all aspects of the Ventra card, including the fees, will start soon.” I must have missed it. Another fee which all transit users will have to bend over backward to dodge is the $5 it costs to get a transit card in the first place. That $5 is supposed to be refunded if you register your card online or by phone. I didn’t learn about that until I began researching this piece, though I was unable to make the site work on my decrepit old computer. Then they decided to waive the $5 fee, but only if you buy your card via phone or online, not at vending machines—which sort of compounds the insult against less-savvy customers or those with decrepit computers, doesn’t it?
Now, you might think poorer Chicagoans without even decrepit old computers should be able to hobble along paying for their fares like they always have, in cash. But single-ride tickets are going to be $3, instead of the normal $2.25—with what the CTA calls a seventy-five-cent “convenience fee” tacked on.
Chicagoans, these are the business partners your city has chosen. And this is the man in charge of protecting you from them: Forest Claypool, president of the Chicago Transit Authority. Some protector. Claypool wrote that “the ‘convenience fee’ covers the cost of producing the disposable tickets and is ‘entirely avoidable to any and every customer’ so long as they purchase and register Ventra cards.’” But as I noted above, poor people tend to use cash because they don’t trust cards—reasonably enough. But the black-hearted bureaucrat “bristled at the characterization by many critics that cash-payers are being penalized…’There is no $3 cash fare,’ he said. ‘The $3 is if a person chooses a disposable, one-ride ticket. It has nothing to do with cash.’ ”
The editors of Crain’s Chicago Business, no Bolsheviks they, disagree with his blithe assessment. They say “the embedded fees could prey upon the least financially savvy among us, those for whom a $5 charge here and a $7 fee there add up to real money… They rely on people’s ignorance to take in money. And that’s not the kind of business our public servants ought to be in.”
So, so naïve, Crain’s Chicago Business. That’s precisely the business our public servants want to be in—“public” servants like Mayor Emanuel. As Chicago anti-privatization activist Tom Tresser explained to me last summer, “We have a massive global movement of capital which, because they’ve burned their own fucking houses down through their own greed, don’t have the gilt returns that they’re used to receiving…. So the new guaranteed annual returns that big business and big capital are looking for is our assets.”
Next time, I’ll focus on the particular big business behind the fare collection system in Chicago—and in Sydney, Vancouver and London, too. I guarantee it will be eye-opening.
Read Next: Greg Kauffman on a Senate plan to cut food stamps.
Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.
Leaders from across the world will gather in South Africa this week to pay tribute to the most extraordinary leader of our lifetime, Nelson Mandela. The chorus of tributes, from across the globe and across the political spectrum, cannot hope to do justice to this remarkable man, who emerged from twenty-seven years in prison with a grace, dignity and will sufficient to transform the brutal apartheid system peacefully and spread hope across the world.
But Mandela was not always universally praised. In fact, US administrations of both parties were far from ardent opponents of South Africa’s apartheid regime or supporters of Mandela and his organization, the African National Congress (ANC). Conservatives in particular long saw the apartheid regime as an anti-communist bulwark in the Cold War. After Mandela was sentenced to life in prison, the conservative National Review magazine defended South African courts for sending up “a batch of admitted terrorists to life in the penitentiary.” Conservative Russell Kirk opined that democratic rule in South Africa would bring “the collapse of civilization,” and the resulting government would be “domination by witch doctors…and reckless demagogues.”
President Richard Nixon and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, believed the apartheid regime was an essential ally that was here to stay, arguing in a secret National Security Council policy study—dubbed the “Tar Baby” report—that the United States shouldn’t risk getting stuck in support of the oppressed majority.
Ronald Reagan branded the ANC a terrorist organization while dismissing apartheid as more of a “tribal policy than a racial policy.” He advocated “constructive engagement” with the regime, calling for closer trade relations while opposing economic sanctions. The emerging new right gleefully joined in labeling the ANC and other African liberation movements communist, while promoting their own “freedom movements,” largely tribal and racialist alternatives. Jack Abramoff, later infamously indicted for illegal lobbying and financial frauds, became president of the International Freedom Foundation, later exposed as a front group for the South African Army, established to discredit the ANC as communists and terrorists. Grover Norquist and others mobilized to counter the divestment movement. (Norquist sported a bumper sticker saying “I’d rather be killing commies.”) In 1990, when Mandela was released from prison and traveled to the United States, the Heritage Foundation called him a terrorist.
Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.
1. In DC, DREAMers Join the Fast
On December 1, I traveled to DC with other leaders from United We Dream–Tampa Bay. We met with our members of Congress, demanding that they lead on immigration reform for our families. We also joined the #Fast4Families. Our movement is proud to stand with Eliseo Medina, a labor leader and voice in this movement for decades, and the other leaders for a moral awakening and to send a message to Speaker Boehner to stop delaying immigration reform. As a citizen from a mixed status family, I’m fighting for my sister, who is undocumented, and my parents, who remain undocumented and haven’t seen my 24-year-old brother since they left Mexico twenty years ago.
2. In El Paso, Dream 30 Meet New Asylum-Seekers
While the Dream 30 were detained at El Paso Processing center in Texas this past October, the cases of many immigrants who had passed their credible fear interview, the first step for asylum, but still had not been released was brought to our attention. The failure to release them flies in the face of a 2009 ICE memorandum establishing that those “found to have credible fear” and who present “neither a flight risk nor danger to the community” qualify for parole. So far, the National Immigrant Youth Alliance has found more than 100 cases where detainees are being held despite meeting criteria for parole, including three cases of pregnant women detained in conditions detrimental to the health of their unborn babies and several instances of harassment based on religious or sexual identity. We are asking for a full congressional review of the facility and of local ICE officials who are not releasing detainees under the memo.
—National Immigrant Youth Alliance
3. In California, Activists Disrupt Obama, U-Lock to ICE
On November 25, Ju Hong, a University of California student and member of Asian Students Promoting Immigrant Rights and Education, or ASPIRE, intervened in President Obama’s immigration reform speech in San Francisco. Hong pleaded with Obama to stop the deportations, a message that ASPIRE has echoed. That same day, three young women u-locked their necks to the front gates of a detention center in the city of Adelanto. And then, on December 2, Orange County organizers held an action in front of a detention center, insisting ICE be shut down and reiterating the national call for administrative relief for all and an end to deportations.
4. Mandatory Minimums Get Tabled, for Now
The Chicago Chapter of Black Youth Project 100 is organizing to stop SB 1342 from becoming law in the State of Illinois. SB 1342 would require anyone caught with an illegal firearm to receive mandatory one-year sentencing and a felony charge. Decades of research demonstrate that laws like SB 1342 do not actually decrease gun violence or make our communities safer. This law will put more black bodies in prison at the expense of unaccountability for illicit gun sellers; our communities need good schools and good jobs, not more incarceration. On December 2, BYP 100 members joined Project NIA in an action outside Chicago’s City Hall to send a message that young black people are invested in making sure SB 1342 does not become law. SB 1342 was expected to be voted on during the December special session, but has been delayed until the upcoming spring session. BYP 100 Chicago will continue gathering petition signatures and phone-banking, focusing on key members in the Illinois State Legislature. For us, this is personal.
5. Stand Your Ground Inches Forward, Opposition Grows
In November, the Ohio House of Representatives voted to bring Stand Your Ground to Ohio. In spite of ten city council resolutions against the shoot-first law, opposition from police associations, prosecutors and legal professionals and sustained outcry from faith groups and youth, state representatives are still pushing forward with the bill. After the Ohio Student Association delivered 10,000 petition signatures with the Ohio Organizing Collaborative and the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus and died-in outside the statehouse, our representatives continued to ignore the voices of Ohioans opposed to the bill. So we disrupted the vote, and are getting ready to turn up the pressure as it moves to the Senate, #unafraidtogether.
6. Youth Services International Meets a Youth Groundswell
In Florida, Dream Defenders are preparing for a long battle against a huge corporation profiting off youth incarceration: Youth Services International. In recent years, Florida has privatized the entirety of its $183 million juvenile commitment system—the country’s third largest, after only California and Texas. This means more young people in YSI prisons, boot camps and detention centers, which have a long history of abuse and negligence. Two lawsuits have just been filed against YSI, CEO James Slattery and staff at its Broward and Pembroke Pines facilities, accusing staff of physical and emotional abuse and the corporation of negligence. Despite its history, the Department of Juvenile Justice and Secretary Wansley Walters are still in the process of granting the company another contract for a facility in Miami, the third contract since a Huffington Post investigation brought the facility to light. Dream Defenders have been visiting the members of the Senate Criminal Justice and Civil Rights Subcommittee to demand that YSI be granted #NoMoreContracts in the state.
7. At GWU, the Minimum Wage Moves
With skyrocketing housing costs, too many DC residents cannot find the money to continue calling the city home on the current minimum wage, $8.25 an hour. On December 3, the DC City Council passed both the Minimum Wage Amendment Act and Earned Sick and Safe Leave Amendment Act. The legislation brings DC’s minimum wage to $11.50 by 2016, incrementally increasing every year, and ties it to the Consumer Price Index. Students from the George Washington University Roosevelt Institute have joined a coalition of community organizations, including the DC Jobs with Justice, RESPECT DC and multiple local unions, to put grassroots pressure on the council. Activists have visited council offices, filled up the hearing room meetings and organized numerous rallies. Leading up to a follow-up vote on December 17, students will continue applying pressure to the council.
—Yasemin Ayarci and Joelle Gamble
8. At Alvarez High School, Students Get a Rare Win
On November 25, the Providence Student Union’s “No More School Closings!” campaign culminated in a big win. Back in October, the Providence School Department announced a plan to close Providence’s Alvarez High School, where the Providence Student Union has a youth-led chapter. Less than an hour after we got the news, a large group of PSU members were standing together in the Providence School Board’s chambers, ready to speak out against the department’s proposal. After a month of organizing, from rallying the community, to successfully pushing the city council to pass a resolution against the closure, to packing school board meetings and more, the school board voted to keep Alvarez High School open.
—Providence Student Union
9. Free Speech at UC?
Students at the University of California–San Diego are being charged with violating the student conduct code after disrupting Chancellor Khosla’s speech at the annual Founders’ Day event. On November 15, in the lead-up to a one-day student strike in solidarity with striking campus workers, students read demands and grievances to the chancellor involving the conditions of workers, grad students and undergrads in the University of California amid growing privatization. Though this was the third consecutive Founders’ Day disruption, it was the first year with charges. In response, students have started a petition and a letter writing campaign and have planned several demonstrations, including a mock checkpoint where students are to cross the line and shut up as they symbolically have their freedom of speech taken away.
10. A Union at NYU?
After an eight-year struggle, the Graduate Student Organizing Committee/UAW and Scientists and Engineers Together/UAW reached a historic agreement with New York University in which the administration will remain neutral and respect our right to vote on union representation on December 10 and 11. A majority vote by more than 1,200 GAs, TAs and RAs would restore collective bargaining—once again making NYU the only private institution with a graduate employee union—and put us in position to have a new contract in place by the end of the academic year. Looking forward to voting “yes” to win back the Union, a group of more than 100 graduate employees from every major department across NYU and the Polytechnic Institute of NYU has endorsed the agreement, which expands the number of eligible graduate employees beyond the previous contract and includes a joint statement affirming that collective bargaining will “improve the graduate student experience” and “sustain and enhance NYU’s academic competitiveness.”
If you don’t live or work in Washington, a chronicle of staffing changes on the Beltway is about as interesting as faraway mild weather or a stranger’s dreams. In other words: not very. But Representative John Boehner announced a new hire last week whose presence in the Speaker’s office implies that immigration reform is still a viable possibility, or at least that Boehner would like it to be. That hire’s name is Becky Tallent and until last week she was the director of immigration policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center. Before that, she was an aide to two Arizonan Republicans who advocated for immigration reform—Senator John McCain and Representative Jim Kolbe. Immigration reform is a notoriously stagnant area of policy—Congress has been trying to get a bill passed since 1996 —and Tallent seems to have a reputation for getting things done. “You don’t hire Becky Tallent if what you want is someone to twiddle her thumbs and just buy you time. You hire Becky to help craft solutions and turn them into law,” Anna Navarro, a former aide to McCain, told MSNBC.
Tallent’s approach, based on an op-ed she published in The Christian Science Monitor last month, will likely be piecemeal; she’ll separately tackle border security, new visa requirements, and the status of undocumented residents already living here. “For the House to pass immigration reform, it needs an opportunity to work through its own process, moving smaller, piecemeal bills that members feel they have the opportunity to review and allow their constituents to vet,” Tallent wrote. What she does not say, of course, is that a comprehensive bill would be a political coup for Obama and that is a legacy Republican congressmen do not want to grant him. The Bipartisan Policy Center published a report in August that called for increased border security, a “rigorous” path to citizenship accessible to all undocumented immigrants, more employment-based immigration, and a regulated temporary worker program. But to advocate for these reforms separately is to risk that one or more of them not be passed at all.
A multi-step approach to immigration reform has become more widely accepted in Washington. President Obama has said that he would gladly approve of a series of smaller bills rather than a single comprehensive one. “If they want to chop that thing up into five pieces, as long as all five pieces get done, I don’t care what it looks like, as long as it’s actually delivering on those core values that we talk about,” the President has said.
A piecemeal approach will invite a dozen different proposals on who can stay and who must go, dictating which families can be spliced across international borders and how. Currently, Representative Eric Cantor and Representative Bob Goodlatte, both Republicans from Virginia, would like to only offer a path to citizenship to young, undocumented immigrants—so-called “Dreamers.” Representative Mike Coffman, a Republican from Colorado, would only offer it to those who enlist in the military. Late last month, President Obama quietly issued a memo allowing for undocumented family members of some military personnel to remain in the country. The President appears to be more frequently exercising his right to make relatively minor administrative adjustments to immigration laws, approaching reform in bits.
Yesterday, a group of protesters from the organization We Belong Together gathered on the Hill. Many of the protesters were children who had been separated from parents because of immigration issues. In 2012 alone, the group says, 152,000 children in the US had a parent deported. Two of the protesters, Javier and Angel, are 16-year-old twins and US citizens. They live in Oakland with their father and 9-year-old brother, who are also citizens, while their mother lives in Oaxaca because she’s unable to get a visa. She was detained at the border in 2011 when their family returned to California after a visit to Mexico and she’s had to stay there since. “It’s been hard on my dad,” Angel told me. He and Javier take care of their younger brother; they drop him off and pick him up from school. “He looks at us like parents,” Angel said.
There’s also Fast for Families, a coordinated hunger strike to demand a path to citizenship for all undocumented residents. (The Obamas paid hunger strikers a visit over Thanksgiving.) This morning, eight New Jersey activists lay in the snow outside the ICE detention center in Elizabeth blocking all outgoing traffic. “Don’t deport my mama,” they yelled. “Not one more.” (By 9 this morning, all protesters appear to have been arrested.) The surge of activism comes just after the release of new data from the Justice Department showing that immigration prosecutions reached an all-time high in 2013, with new cases being filed against 97,384 defendants.
Polls show that a majority of Americans want a comprehensive immigration reform bill that includes all the tenets outlined by Tallent’s former employer, more border security and a path to citizenship. Advocates include business leaders (see Mark Zuckerberg’s recent immigration hackathon), who believe such a bill would be economically advantageous, and religious organizations. Perhaps a piecemeal approach will appeal to Republicans in the House, but can Tallent make it appeal to voters?
Read Next: David Mizner on why hunger strikes are erupting around the world.
The South African Constitution minces no words regarding access to medical care.
“Everyone has the right to have access to health care services, including reproductive health care,” the document declares, adding that: “The state must take reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to achieve the progressive realization of each of these rights.”
At a time when the United States is engaged in an archaic debate over whether to even try and provide universal access to health care, most other countries well understand the absurdity of conditioning access to basic human needs—including access to healthcare, housing and education—on the ability to pay.
That understanding was championed by Nelson Mandela, whose life and legacy is being honored this week by President Obama, members of Congress and leaders from around the world. Fittingly, the memorials for Mandela will coincide with this week’s sixty-fifth anniversary of the adoption (on December 10, 1948) by the United Nations General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—a document that the former South African president revered as a touchstone for nation building and governing.
Mandela, a lawyer by training and a student of constitutions, steered South Africa toward a broad understanding of human rights. When his country adopted its Constitution in 1996, he announced that “the new constitution obliges us to strive to improve the quality of life of the people. In this sense, our national consensus recognizes that there is nothing else that can justify the existence of government but to redress the centuries of unspeakable privations, by striving to eliminate poverty, illiteracy, homelessness and disease. It obliges us, too, to promote the development of independent civil society structures.”
There are many reasons to honor Mandela. And there is much to be borrowed from his legacy.
But it is absolutely vital, as we focus on this man, to recall his wise words with regard to human rights—and the role that government had in assuring access to those rights.
Mandela embraced the great vision of the twentieth-century idealists who, at the end of World War II, recognized a responsibility to address the inequality that fostered fear, hatred and totalitarianism. It was an American, Eleanor Roosevelt, who reminded Americans seventy years ago that “at all times, day by day, we have to continue fighting for freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom from fear, and freedom from want—for these are things that must be gained in peace as well as in war.”
President Franklin Roosevelt, with his 1941 “Four Freedoms” speech, had begun to scope out the broader definition of human rights, speaking not just of First Amendment liberties but also of a “freedom from want – which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world.”
After her husband’s death in 1945, Eleanor Roosevelt carried the vision forward in her dynamic role as the first chairperson of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. She oversaw the development of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document that affirmed: “Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.”
The declaration also held out this promise: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”
When the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was celebrated in 1998, Mandela addressed the UN General Assembly.
“Born in the aftermath of the defeat of the Nazi and fascist crime against humanity, this Declaration held high the hope that all our societies would, in future, be built on the foundations of the glorious vision spelt out in each of its clauses,” said Mandela, who had in the preceding decade made the transition from prisoner to president of South Africa. “For those who had to fight for their emancipation, such as ourselves who, with your help, had to free ourselves from the criminal apartheid system, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights served as the vindication of the justice of our cause. At the same time, it constituted a challenge to us that our freedom, once achieved, should be dedicated to the implementation of the perspectives contained in the Declaration.”
Mandela accepted that challenge, and explained that it remained unmet in much of the world.
“The very right to be human is denied everyday to hundreds of millions of people as a result of poverty, the unavailability of basic necessities such as food, jobs, water and shelter, education, health care and a healthy environment,” he said. “The failure to achieve the vision contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights finds dramatic expression in the contrast between wealth and poverty which characterizes the divide between the countries of the North and the countries of the South and within individual countries in all hemispheres.”
The president of South Africa was explicit in his criticism of leaders who failed—by “acts of commission and omission”—to address civil and economic injustice.
“What I am trying to say is that all these social ills which constitute an offence against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are not a pre-ordained result of the forces of nature or the product of a curse of the deities. They are the consequence of decisions which men and women take or refuse to take, all of whom will not hesitate to pledge their devoted support for the vision conveyed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” he explained.
Looking to the future, Mandela concluded, “The challenge posed by the next 50 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by the next century whose character it must help to fashion, consists in whether humanity, and especially those who will occupy positions of leadership, will have the courage to ensure that, at last, we build a human world consistent with the provisions of that historic Declaration and other human rights instruments that have been adopted since 1948.”
Douglas Foster on the meaning of Mandela.
As most of you probably know by now, Seymour Hersh has written a major piece on the claims by the US (and others) that the pro-Assad forces used Sarin gas in Syria, and President Obama’s eventual response. This came after the article was turned down both by The Washington Post (which planned to publish it) and Hersh’s frequent home, The New Yorker.
Months ago I was among those strongly criticizing media coverage of what I saw as hyped, unproven (if not necessarily false) claims that nearly took us to war. After much protest from the left, and some on right (plus many MPs in the UK), Obama pulled back, somewhat mysteriously—and Assad then agreed to dismantle his arsenal. Soon Iran’s leaders were also responding favorably on nuclear inspections.
In Hersh’s view, those second thoughts by Obama were likely sparked not so much by antiwar protest, but the president realizing that he was being rolled with false or unproven intelligence by those those wanting us to bomb-bomb-bomb Syria. Hersh’s edgy investigative reporting is usually proven right, of course, but in recent years, one must admit, sometimes wrong. For myself, I’ve never claimed a belief that rebels, not the Assad forces, launched the attacks, but at a minimum the doubts about the whole tragedy—and the further deaths from our bombing and hardening of Assad and Iranian attitudes—should have precluded war.
Today, Hersh explained his findings and sourcing—and the turndowns from the Post and New Yorker—on Democracy Now! He admitted it was foolish to believe that The Washington Post would publish his piece. He stood by his reporting after Amy Goodman read the firm denials from a National Intelligence spokesman. See clips below. Hersh referred to himself as a “creepy troublemaker.”
The White House rejects the Hersh claims. Several news outlets have questioned Hersh’s (largely anonymous) sourcing and claimed that he ignores much fresh evidence. A nicely-balanced critique here from Ryan Goodman. The longest take I’ve seen is in Foreign Policy. Eliot Higgins concludes:
While Hersh rightly expresses concern about the way in which the U.S. government’s narrative of the Aug. 21 was built, significant information can be gathered from open sources about this conflict—information that he appears to be lacking. In the future, open-source information may become even more important for understanding hard-to-access conflict zones, and learning how to use it effectively should become a key skill for any investigative journalist.
Hersh later appeared on CNN with Jake Tapper.
Bob Dreyfuss explores the effects on Syrian diplomacy of the US-Iran accords.
Last week, five days after Black Friday’s Walmart strike and the day before a nationwide fast-food workers strike, President Obama delivered a speech at the Center for American Progress about economic disparity and low wages. The president didn’t mention the strikers, but his talking points weren’t so different from their rallying cries—he called for a higher minimum wage and supported the right to organize. His speech was too sweeping, too ambitious to focus on the week’s news. He spoke about Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, education and the tax code; he provided statistic after statistic about the severity of inequality in the United States. The thread that tied all these points together was “economic mobility.” (“President Speaks on Economic Mobility,” the banner of the White House website read.) The president may have been speaking to a room full of liberals, but his focus on mobility rather than inequality seemed especially marketed to conservatives. It was Obama at his campaign finest, recasting himself as the great uniter between the two parties. “The idea that so many children are born into poverty in the wealthiest nation on Earth is heartbreaking enough,” the president said, “But the idea that a child may never be able to escape that poverty because she lacks a decent education or healt care, or a community that views her future as their own, that should offend all of us and it should compel us to action.” Poverty, in other words, is a sad but inevitable consequence of a competitive economy—it’s “heartbreaking,” but so it goes—while mobility is essential to the American mission. Children, we can all agree, should at least be given the bootstraps by which they can pull themselves up.
The word “inequality” makes conservatives uncomfortable, as if it invokes class struggle, the 99 percent versus the 1. They much prefer “mobility,” which connotes a purely aspirational relationship to wealth and the wealthy. As Representative Paul Ryan writes on the Budget Committee’s website, “The question for policymakers is not how best to redistribute a shrinking economic pie. The focus ought to be on increasing living standards, expanding the pie of economic opportunity, and promoting upward mobility for all.” (Italics his) “Our job here is not to divide the American people,” Speaker John Boehner has said. “It’s to help every American have a fair shot at the American dream.”
The day of the president’s speech, Pew released a study, “Mobility and the Metropolis,” comparing rates of social mobility in different cities. New York City fared terribly, with a social mobility rate below that of Chicago, Los Angeles and even Newark. New York was also found to be the most economically segregated of the thirty-four cities studied (a dynamic illustrated by this map). The authors of the study argue that geographically concentrated poverty is more likely to reproduce itself and that heightened segregation is preventing upward mobility for most urban residents.
Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio has promised to reverse economic segregation by requiring developers to create below-market housing. When de Blasio talks about mandatory inclusionary zoning, or any of the tenets of his “tale of two cities” campaign, he talks about poverty reduction rather than “mobility” and it’s this minor rhetorical difference that renders Obama a friend and de Blasio a foe in the eyes of some conservatives. In his speech last week, President Obama expressed his support for early childhood education. “I’ve also embraced an idea that I know all of you at the Center for American Progress have championed—and, by the way, Republican governors in a couple of states have championed—and that’s making high-quality preschool available to every child in America,” he said. De Blasio has promised to create an early childhood education program and to fund it by raising the income tax on families making more than $500,000 by one half of one percent. In President Obama’s telling, such programs have bipartisan appeal, but de Blasio is said to be driving wealthy New Yorkers to leave the city. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie recently invited the wealthiest New Yorkers to move south and evade de Blasio’s tax hikes; Tom Foley, the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Connecticut, invited them north.
This is silly. Wealthy New Yorkers are not going anywhere. Stanford sociologist Cristobal Young and Princeton sociology student Charles Varner have shown that there was not a millionaire migration out of New Jersey or California after higher taxes were implemented; in both cases, taxes were higher than what de Blasio has proposed, as The Atlantic Cities recently reported.
The American narrative of immigration, hard work, and achievement is perhaps more quintessential to New York than anywhere else in the country. It’s this story that attracts strivers to “the city” even if the rents are too high. It’s this story that allows the wealthiest New Yorkers to hire ballerinas, opera singers, and professional artists as babysitters. And it’s this story that may have gotten the wealthiest New Yorkers where they are.
But the story pervading New York, as well as the rest of the country, is that of inequality. It might not be as politically expedient, but it deserves telling, too.