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What Do the Recent Supreme Court Decisions Mean for Women’s Economic Security?

Supreme Court

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

In the final days of its 2013–14 term, the Supreme Court handed down three rulings of major consequence for women. In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, a 5-4 majority held that requiring some for-profit employers to pay for insurance that covers contraception was a violation of religious freedom. In McCullen v. Coakley, the Court unanimously found that a Massachusetts law creating a thirty-five-foot “buffer zone” around abortion clinics violated protesters’ free speech guarantees. In Harris v. Quinn, the Court ruled 5 to 4 that it was unconstitutional to require homecare workers to pay fees to the unions representing them.

While the McCullen and Harris decisions were adjudicated primarily on First Amendment grounds, and while the Hobby Lobby and McCullen cases, in particular, have often been framed as “culture war” issues, all three rulings have profoundly important implications for women’s economic rights. What does it mean when an employer is able to paternalistically restrict how a worker chooses to use her own health benefits? How does restricted access to abortion and contraception affect women economically? How does the setback the Court dealt to homecare workers—a workforce composed overwhelmingly of women of color—affect their decades-long fight better pay and working conditions, and the feminist project to revalue care work? We explore these issues and more in this week’s roundtable. —Kathleen Geier

Sarah Jaffe: When SCOTUS handed down its decisions, a handful of journalists discussed Hobby Lobby and Harris together—they came out on the last day of the Court’s session, they were written by the same justice (George W. Bush appointee Samuel Alito, certainly no friend of women, workers or women as workers), both split 5-4, and both clearly issues of rights in the workplace. McCullen was discussed separately: the abortion clinic buffer zone ruling came out on a different day, was unanimous, and was written by a different justice (Chief Justice Roberts). But McCullen too is a decision that will affect women (and men) in the workplace.

How many other people go to work each day being accosted, called murderers, and violently threatened as they attempt to cross the parking lot?

An abortion clinic is a fraught location, a front in the so-called culture wars, and an institution with which even some pro-choice people have an ambivalent relationship. Decades of legal and legislative attempts to chip away at Roe v. Wade have isolated abortion clinics and the doctors, nurses and other workers there from other, less controversial medical establishments. Decades of anti-abortion rhetoric that calls doctors murderers has painted targets on the backs of physicians who perform abortions. We understand the need for a buffer zone in order to help the patients reach the clinic in safety, but we should also understand it as a way to keep the workers safe on the job. How many other people go to work each day being accosted, called murderers and violently threatened as they attempt to cross the parking lot?

The attempts by lawmakers to make abortion more difficult, more arduous, more expensive to access have a disproportionate effect on lower-income people. Waiting period? Try taking several days off of work, and in a post–Hobby Lobby world, do you really want to explain to your boss why you need that time? For the 40 million workers in this country who have no access to paid sick time, it means losing several days’ pay for an expensive procedure not covered by insurance if you’re lucky, and added travel costs if you aren’t. Add to that the prospect of having to run a gauntlet of people trying to shame you, harangue you, and yes, possibly out you.


Image created by NARAL Pro-Choice America

It should go without saying that the decision to have a child or not is one of the most profound economic decisions most of us will make in our lifetimes. The Supreme Court this week made it harder for lower-income women to be able to make that choice for themselves. While I support those who argue for the right of all people to enjoy sex on their own terms, we have spent far too little time elaborating the ways in which the “culture war” is a class war.

Take Hobby Lobby. The hashtag #NotMyBossBusiness gave me some hope that the discussion of this case would turn not on religion, hypocrisy or even just on corporate personhood but on the place where Americans’ freedoms are most curtailed: work. It is, after all, the boss, not the government, who has the most say over what we do and say, whether we can pay the rent or feed the kids, the boss who has increasingly sought the right to influence our political choices and what we wear and track our every move and keystroke.

Instead, I have watched photos of people going into Hobby Lobby stores to rearrange letter-blocks to read “pro-choice” flit across the Internet as if the workers who will have to put those blocks back away are unaware of their boss’s power over them. If we were more aware of this decision as one that will affect women not simply as women but as workers, we might stop and ask ourselves what it would mean to actually be in solidarity with the people who work at those stores, to help them get what they need.

The separation between abortion care and other healthcare that I commented on above plays out in Hobby Lobby, which attempts to paint birth control not as a legally required part of a worker’s compensation package, one that allows women to work on an equal footing with the men, but as something outside, different and worse. Or, in the voices of some dismissive commentators, simply less important, not a big deal, something easy enough for women to buy on their own.

If we recognized Hobby Lobby as a workplace issue, we might reply that the people who work at Hobby Lobby stores make between $9.50 and $14 an hour (and those are actually fairly good wages when it comes to retail work) and that $25 a month (if it’s actually that cheap; that depends on which form of contraceptive you’re using) is a significant extra expense if one is, say, raising children on the wages from that job.

Which brings me to Harris, also a decision about mostly women in the workplace and about healthcare. Even more so than the retail service work Hobby Lobby employees do, home healthcare work is gendered labor that women are expected to do for love, not money. The age-old expectation that women are natural carers, that their highest calling is to care for a family—that very same sexist expectation is at the core of McCullen and Hobby Lobby. It’s an expectation that both denies women’s opportunities to work outside the home, and devalues the caring work they do, waged or unwaged.

Kathleen Geier: There is much to be said about the Supreme Court’s deeply disturbing Harris decision. But as Sarah points out, one important aspect of the ruling has gotten buried in the avalanche of more general commentary: its blatant sexism. Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito invented a new, separate-but-unequal category of worker known as the “partial public” employee. Alito’s rationale is that because partial public employees perform care work in the home, they should be treated differently from other employees who work directly for the government. The most significant conclusion of this line of argument is that, unlike public employees proper, partial public workers are not required to pay union contributions. The economic threat this poses to their unions is clear: if enough workers choose to opt out of such contributions, the unions could be bankrupted.

In granting a second-class legal status to labor that is performed in the home, the Supreme Court reinforced patriarchal norms that devalue domestic work and care work.

The ruling is a devastating setback for hundreds of thousands of organized homecare workers nationwide. These workers, who are overwhelmingly women of color, have fought back against the economic exploitation they suffer by joining labor unions. With its decision in Harris v. Quinn, not only did the Court target this largely female workforce, but it also undermined broader feminist goals. In granting a second-class legal status to labor that is performed in the home, the Court reinforced patriarchal norms that devalue domestic work and care work. It attacked the larger feminist project of advancing women’s economic equality by recognizing care as work and insisting that our society compensate female workers fairly.

Domestic workers, including homecare workers, have long struggled to gain the legal benefits and protections that other workers in our society enjoy. It wasn’t until the 1970s that most domestic workers were finally covered under the Fair Labor Standards Act, which offers overtime protections and a minimum wage. Even so, one category of domestic worker was exempted from the FLSA: workers who provide “companionship services,” a group that includes homecare workers. Precisely because the traditional New Deal–era legislation offered no remedies to this group of workers, they need unions to fight for their rights. According to the Economic Policy Institute’s Ross Eisenbrey, because of union contracts, “this almost entirely female workforce has made huge improvements in wages and benefits, in training, and in respect in the states that provide for collective bargaining.” But those gains are seriously threatened by the actions the court took in Harris.

Low-wage homecare workers illustrate a larger problem, which is the role that women’s care work plays in maintaining their deep and persistent economic inequality. Directly, there is the opportunity cost that comes when women cut back hours or drop out of the paid labor force to provide care; economist Nancy Folbre has referred to this cost as the “care penalty.” Unpaid care work also affects women’s compensation in the paid labor market in ways that are less direct. Research has shown that a portion of the gender pay gap is attributable to the fact that women with children are, on average, paid less than their otherwise identical counterparts, regardless of whether they’ve ever taken time out of the work force to devote themselves to full-time motherhood. The disrespect associated with care is so strong that working in a caregiving occupation is associated with a 5 to 10 percent wage penalty, even when skill levels, education, industry and other observable factors are controlled for. Clearly, feminists have a powerful interest in revaluing care, a cause that has suffered a serious setback with Harris.

Why do we devalue care work in the first place? Eileen Boris and Jennifer Klein point out in their excellent history, Caring for America: Home Health Workers in the Shadow of the Welfare State, that intimate care work is associated with the stigma of handling dirt, bodily fluids, mess. Additionally, in a society based on the myth of individual autonomy, care work provides an uncomfortable reminder of how profoundly the condition of dependency structures human existence. Boris and Klein also argue that the “devaluation thesis assumes the unworthiness of the labor because of the race, class, and gender of the workers.” But more than anything else, they say, what ensures the continuing devaluation of this type of labor is “the way the state chooses to structure it.” With the Harris decision, the state has elected, as it has so often in the past, to structure care work in a way that ensures the continuing economic inequality of those who perform it.

Already, Harris is having an effect. Observers believe that the gains of recently organized home-based Connecticut childcare workers are threatened, because the Harris decision would likely apply to them. In addition, in one of a series of end-of-term orders, the Court sent back a Michigan case to the lower courts “for further consideration in light of Harris v. Quinn.” In These Times’s Moshe Marvit argues that since the legal issues in the Michigan case were somewhat different from those in Harris, the Court’s move “may be a quiet expansion of the Harris decision.”

It would hardly come as a shock if the Roberts Court built on the relatively narrow Harris decision to issue far more expansive rulings against labor unions. According to The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin, “in confronting a politically charged issue, the court first decides a case in a ‘narrow’ way, but then uses that decision as a precedent to move in a more dramatic, conservative direction in a subsequent case.” Toobin believes that the Court may eventually use Harris as a precedent for a more radical move against public sector sector unions generally. If they do so, it would be a serious blow to women’s economic equality. As a recent study documents, women in labor unions earn significantly highly wages than their non-union counterparts, and this finding holds for every educational level, from women who dropped out of high school to those with graduate degrees. Unionized workers are also significantly more likely to receive employer-sponsored health insurance, retirement benefits and paid family and medical leave. To the extent that the Court weakens unions, it also undermines women’s economic power in our society.

For now, however, the Court has carefully and cleverly restricted its ruling to one vulnerable group: the overwhelmingly female, nonwhite, low-income group of workers who labor in private homes and receive their wages from the state. The Court’s decision rests on the dubious contention that homecare workers are not public employees. But these workers are paid by the government and the vital work they do, which serves broader public goals of improving public health and enabling families to balance work and care responsibilities, is anything but private. By weakening their right to economic redress through unions, the Court increased the state’s—and by extension the taxpayer’s—complicity in maintaining low-wage markets. We are low-wage employers now, and it is women, and most especially immigrant women, women of color and poor women, who continue to pay the price.

Sheila Bapat: As analyses of the Supreme Court’s June 30 ruling in Harris v. Quinn continue to swirl, the potential of this decision to weaken public sector unions becomes more and more clear. The “right to work” movement is exploiting domestic workers’ uncertain status and, as Kathleen notes, the bias against women performing care work, to begin dismantling public sector unions. After the ruling, Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander weighed in to support the Supreme Court’s ruling, stating that that Illinois’s collective bargaining program is a “disturbing union scheme to turn private homes into unionized workplaces.”

As a result of this ruling, funding for collective bargaining efforts—efforts that can help raise domestic workers’ wages and improve their overall working conditions—will likely dwindle. Yet there are policy changes we can make to lessen the blow.

How can domestic workers seek higher wages and improved benefits, given the Harris decision setback?

Raise the federal minimum wage, for all workers. A wage hike for all workers would improve earnings for domestic workers, too. Unfortunately, in April the US Senate failed to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour. While states and localities have been succeeding in raising wages, disparities in wages across states have been found to hurt domestic workers. Some states that did raise minimum wages are still excluding domestic workers from that guarantee—this includes Rhode Island, West Virginia and Delaware. An across-the-board wage increase for all workers—which is what a federal wage hike can accomplish—helps avoid this disparity.

Create a federal program that pays and advocates for domestic workers. It is primarily Medicaid dollars that pay domestic workers in state programs. We could envision a more robust federal program— as part of Medicaid or outside of it—to support domestic workers’ wages and working conditions. We could envision a federal “association” of such workers that solicits comments from fellow workers, holds public meetings, makes recommendations to the state and speaks on behalf of domestic workers. Given the rising demand for care workers in the United States, it makes sense to develop a federal program that ensures the protection of this crucial workforce.

Support state domestic workers’ bills of rights. The domestic workers’ movement secured domestic workers’ bill of rights in New York in 2010, which expands overtime protections for workers, provides a day of rest and disability benefits. Similar legislation has emerged in California, Hawaii and, most recently, Massachusetts. Most of these bills expand overtime protections for workers. The Massachusetts legislation may be particularly important to look at, as it includes model provisions for workers who are not unionized such as a worker’s right to a contract with their employer that spells out wages, hours and expectations.

Support worker centers who advocate for domestic workers. Non-union actors like 501(c)3 worker centers have been crucial to advocating for domestic workers already. Worker centers may become more important given this ruling. The domestic workers’ movement comprises many of these centers and has achieved success by appealing to the public and to state legislators directly. The legislation these worker centers advocate for can ensure that workers are entitled to the state’s minimum wage so that exclusions like those found in Delaware, Rhode Island and West Virginia are eliminated. The local and national campaigns undertaken by worker centers also keep domestic workers’ rights on our local and national radar; they help us remember why domestic work is so crucial and why domestic workers should have better working conditions.

Federal legislation may not be politically plausible right now given that Congress cannot even raise the minimum wage. State-focused campaigns aimed at addressing the effects of Harris v. Quinn may have more success. Regardless, in light of the ruling in Harris v. Quinn, we should begin to explore creative solutions to improving wages for domestic workers and other public sector employees—solutions that can improve conditions both for workers and for those who need care.

Writing a Letter

When writing clues, we often need to refer to a single letter as part of the wordplay. Unfortunately, English only has two one-letter words.

Cluing “I” is awkward for a two-person team, so we sometimes use the word right there in the clue:
   IAGO I back the man who plays Othello (4)

The other one-letter word, “a,” can conceivably be clued as “article”, but “an article” would be weird. So we sometimes use it as is:
   ACROSS  A hybrid alternative to down (6)

However, this in turn raises its own issues, bnecause there is a certain amount of looseness around the question of whether clues need articles for smooth surface or can use “headlinese.” So a solver can often be uncertain about whether “a” is contributing to the wordplay or merely the surface.

Another way to get single letters into a clue is by referring to their position in a word. “Fourth of July” is a classic way to indicate Y, and “fifth of whiskey” can be K.
   BEETHOVEN’S THIRD  E is for “Eroica” (10,5)

Since there are only so many natural-sounding phrases in that format, the references are usually to first or last letters of words:
   SPINAL  Originally, Sarah Palin edited a certain column (6)
   BERET  Hat wearer finally cuts into vegetable (5)

That trick can be pretty transparent when it uses standbys like “originally” or “finally.” So we often strive to find indicators for first or last letters that sound more natural in context:
   PRESIDIO  Fort Pulaski’s chief dies, or I fail (8)
   IMAX  I can take in premiere of Moonraker in huge movie format (4)

Goofiness can also put solvers off the scent:
   UNEARTHED  Vishnu’s foot—where the E might be dug up? (9)

One last technique for this post: a well-established cryptic convention is to refer to a letter by its shape. Here are a couple of examples using O:
   AVOCADO  Fruit and eggs returned by rotter along with bagel (7)
   GORILLA  Having eaten a donut, interrogate a thug (7)

In our next post, we’ll discuss abbreviations.

This week’s cluing challenge: HORSESHOE. To comment (and see other readers’ comments), please click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen.

And now, four links:
* The current puzzle
* Our puzzle-solving guidelines | PDF
* Our e-books (solve past puzzles on your iOS device—many hints provided by the software!)
* A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where every one of our clues is explained in detail. This is also where you can post quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle, as well as ask for hints.

Democrats Embrace the Good Kind of ‘Entitlement Reform’

Social Security Check

A Social Security check (AP Photo/Bradley C Bower)

For many years, the smug elites of Wall Street have peddled “entitlement reform” as a sly euphemism for cutting Social Security. And Washington’s political elites, including President Obama, bought into the propaganda. Social Security, not to mention Medicare and Medicaid, was driving the nation into ruinous debt if government did not act to curb this venerable New Deal program. Think tanks and editorial writers, political reporters and TV talkers, witlessly embraced the big lie and promoted it as indisputable truth.

Except this self-righteous crusade for fiscal discipline failed to persuade the American people—the wage earners who pay the FICA deductions on every weekly paycheck and expect to get their money back as the retirement benefits promised by law. For many folks, the deal smelled like another Washington swindle. The people had it right, the experts were wrong. This time, the people are going to prevail.

This summer, though virtually ignored by the news media, the Democratic Party in Congress has launched a smart, spirited counter-offensive on behalf of Social Security. In the House and Senate, eight differing measures have been introduced by various Democrats to expand Social Security benefits to correct injustices for women and low-wage workers and to increase FICA payments for the wealthiest wage earners who make more than $400,000 a year. Instead of attacking Social Security, “entitlement reform” now takes on an opposite meaning—improving workplace fairness in this much-loved federal program and insuring its solvency for the next seventy-five years.

This may sound like a minor event, since none of these measures will be enacted anytime soon. But it reflects a major political shift underway in the reigning values of Democrats—a reawakening of the reform spirit that used to be the mainstream party’s identity, and another important way of confronting the society’s scandalous inequalities of income and wealth.

The Democratic president, one observes, is significantly absent and silent. Obama has made fine speeches about inequality, but he actually stood on the wrong side of the Social Security debate. Back in 2010, he made common cause with the anti-entitlement case of billionaire Pete Peterson, who recruited scores of influential policy types by dispensing generous grants. Obama opted for “austerity” economics and actively sought a bipartisan deal on trimming Social Security.

Some progressive voices in Congress, like Senator Bernie Sanders, Representatives Raul Grijalva, Keith Ellison and John Conyers said, No, this is wrong. But a lot of Democrats were silent. They may not have been for cutting Social Security, but they also didn’t oppose it. Back home, however, they encountered fierce resistance from their constituents. Ironically, Pete Peterson’s millions probably helped awaken the people to the threat. The more Peterson’s wealth financed noisy lobbying of the governing elites, the more he mobilized the anger of common folks.

It now appears that reforming Social Security in positive ways has once again become a mainstream idea of the Democratic Party, aligned with the party’s own base and public opinion regardless of party. Roughly half of the House Democratic Caucus has signed as co-sponsors of the strongest and most generous legislation, introduced by Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa and Representative Linda Sanchez of California. Their measure would gradually eliminate the cap on Social Security deductions now at $117,000 incomes. The bill would boost benefits for all Social Security recipients by approximately $70 a month, targeted especially to help low- and middle-income families.

In the Senate, Patty Murray of Washington, a member of Senate leadership, is co-sponsoring with Mark Begich of Alaska the Retirement and Income Security Enhancements (RAISE) bill, which proposes a more modest financing goal—a 2 percent FICA increase for incomes above $400,000, but no change for lesser incomes. Representative John Larsen of Connecticut would bump up benefits modestly for all recipients and guarantee a minimum benefit 25 percent above the poverty level. “No one who paid in the system over a lifetime should come out poor,” Larson explained.

The RAISE bill co-sponsored by Murray and Begich focuses on correcting many longstanding inequities that penalize women because of the changed nature of the workforce. Social Security was originally designed for the era of single-income families, when American companies typically provided generous retirement benefits. Now women are nearly 50 percent of the workforce but are especially vulnerable to hardship in retirement, particularly if divorced or never married.

Under current law, a widow or widower of a dual-income family gets a significantly smaller survivor benefit than a survivor in a single-earner family. Because women earn significantly less than men on average, they retire with significantly less in savings or pensions. Three of every ten women over 65 depend solely on Social Security in their later years.

These long-neglected social realities are at last coming back for honest political debate, and Democrats will doubtless argue many questions among themselves. Groups like Social Society Works, co-chaired by genuine authorities like Nancy Altman and Eric Kingson, have marshalled the facts and ideas that helped inspire the revival. Above all, they steadily refuted the Wall Street scare talk distributed by allegedly objective news media.

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The basic distortion is the hysterical claim that the US economy faces a demographic calamity when the Baby Boomers retire. The sky is not falling, and it is not going to fall. The long-term actuarial forecast is that Social Security will absorb a little more than 6 percent of GDP in 2035—6.23 percent—and in 2085 it will amount to 6.17 percent and 6.23 percent in 2090. In other words, it’s a pretty flat line, not an explosion.

Perhaps the most pernicious lie told by Pete Peterson’s anti-entitlement crusade has been his crude effort to pit the young against the old. Peterson’s assorted front groups claim the old folks are robbing from the children by insisting on overly generous benefits. This demonstrates Wall Street’s utter ignorance of American family life. In reality, it is often Grandma’s Social Security check that holds the family together and keeps the grandchildren in hearth and home. Anyone who doubts the importance of these social relationships should consult the voluminous polling on how people feel about Social Security and why they stubbornly support it despite the so-called experts.

Or ask young adults, the millennial generation that faces bleaker prospects for jobs and incomes, savings and retirement. The leaders of Social Security Works feel their ultimate purpose is protecting Social Security from Wall Street, so it will still be around seventy-five years from now when the millennial generation needs it.

 

Read Next: If Congress won’t raise the minimum wage, these cities will.

Why Is Giving Birth in Detroit So Dangerous?

Detroit Hospital

Patient Room in the Henry Ford Hospital System (Ted Eytan/AP)

As progressives descend on Detroit this week for the ninth annual Netroots Nation, those who want to tune into local issues can learn about the mass shutoff of water to thousands of local residents or about how the city’s bankruptcy is leaving retirees without their hard-earned pensions. Another good way visitors can orient themselves to this post-industrial city of 700,000 people is to read a recent Detroit News article reporting that women there die from pregnancy-related causes at three times the national average.

The numbers make sense given the racial disparity in maternal mortality. Black women nationwide are at three to four times greater risk than white women. And since Detroit’s population is 83 percent African-American and more than four in ten of its residents live under the poverty line, it’s no wonder that the chance that pregnancy or childbirth will result in death is so high—higher than in Libya, Uruguay or Vietnam, the article reports.

Blame it on the prevalence of chronic health issues likely to put a new or birthing mother’s life at risk, namely diabetes, hypertension, obesity and heart disease. Black women are also twice as likely as white women to receive no prenatal care, or to receive it only in the third trimester.

According to the Detroit News:

Experts attribute increased maternal death rates to uncontrolled chronic health conditions, which are more common in African-Americans, and to poverty that deprives low-income women of health insurance and access to health care.…

Health care professionals are hopeful that maternal and infant death rates will decline as more women gain health care options through the federal Affordable Care Act or expanded Medicaid, and become more educated about their bodies.

Kanitra Patterson, 27, almost became a statistic, but is learning from her first pregnancy to take better care of herself. She developed pregnancy-induced cardiomyopathy—weakening of the heart muscle—about 24 hours before the birth of her son, Robert, six years ago. Patterson was admitted to DMC Hutzel Women’s Hospital for dangerously high blood pressure when suddenly, she couldn’t breathe. Doctors placed Patterson on oxygen and induced labor, and she and her baby survived.

Patterson is again at risk of the potentially fatal heart condition, now that she’s pregnant with her second child, daughter Kahlia, due Aug. 7. Patterson is watching her diet more carefully this time to control her blood pressure.…

“I went (for prenatal care) a little earlier. And I’m up to the doctor’s office every two weeks since I was five months pregnant.”

The article also touches briefly on health outcomes for Detroit’s infants, noting that the city has the highest infant mortality rate when compared to other major US cities. The number-one cause of death for babies there is preterm delivery—birth prior to thirty-seven weeks of pregnancy. Again, the racial disparity is clear. According to the CDC, black infants die of causes related to premature delivery at a rate three times higher than white infants.

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There will be plenty of ideas to hash over in Motor City this week, and national conferences are rarely any more about the city that hosts them than they are about what happens inside the convention hall. But here’s hoping that some Netroots Nation attendees connect with Detroit health practitioners and organizers who are responding to this challenge faced by the city’s black families. With any luck, innovators there are developing solutions that we can learn from and apply elsewhere.

 

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Is ‘Reform Conservatism’ Anything New? Or Just More of W.’s ‘Compassionate Conservatism’?

Republican National Convention

The 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The following is the first of a three-part piece by Christie Watch on the debate over “reform conservatism” and the so-called “reformicons.” Part II will appear Thursday, July 17, and Part III on Friday, July 18.

Amid the tumultuous debate, in advance of 2016, between “Tea Party Republicans” and “establishment Republicans,” it’s fair to ask: What does either side believe? Generally speaking, it’s easy to categorize this or that potential 2016 challenger as belonging to the “Tea Party wing” or the “establishment,” with Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio lumped among the Tea Partiers and Chris Christie and Jeb Bush firmly ensconced among the establishmentarians. But when it comes to policy and ideas, how different are they, really? Do they have any ideas? And if so, who shapes those ideas, beyond rote beliefs: low taxes, less regulation, small government? Which brings us to the latest buzz, namely, “reform conservatism.”

In 1999–2000, Texas Governor George W. Bush put himself forward as what he called a “compassionate conservative.” The term fooled a lot of people, including many independents and some liberals, who overlooked Bush’s Texas record, which focused on cutting regulations, enacting tort reform and tax cuts. Is today’s reform conservatism an updated version of compassionate conservatism? Or is it something else? Back in 2000, “compassionate conservatism” managed to mobilize a phalanx of neoconservative ideologues, who took up dozens of key posts in the Bush administration, under the leadership of Vice President Dick Cheney, resulting in both the war in Iraq and massive, unsustainable tax cuts. At the very least, as we shall see, the reform conservatives include quite a number of unrepentant neoconservatives among their ranks, and their thinktanks and their flagship publication, National Affairs, is lavishly funded by old-fashioned, Wall Street– and hedge fund–backed neocons and American Enterprise Institute–like conservative crusaders.

The current fuss over reform conservatives (“reformicons”) was kicked off on July 2 by a fairly credulous article in The New York Times by Sam Tanenhaus, titled “Can the G.O.P. Be the Party of Ideas?” The article leads with a story about a gathering of the Republican faithful at AEI, in which Eric Cantor—the soon-to-exit House majority leader, just defeated in his central Virginia primary—as the standard-bearer for the reformicons’ notion that the GOP has to recast its appeal with outreach to, as Cantor puts it (somewhat reminiscently of the walrus in Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter”) “the working family or maybe the single mom who at the end of a hard day has put her kids to bed and then has to face how she is going to make ends meet and pay the bills at the end of the month.”

The idea-generating folks behind Cantor’s newfound belief that the GOP has to broaden its appeal beyond Chamber of Commerce entrepreneurs and the Christian right to include the middle and working classes writ large include two reformicons highlighted in Tanenhaus’ story: Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review and, especially, Yuval Levin of National Affairs. Says Tanenhaus:

Together they have become the leaders of a small band of reform conservatives, sometimes called reformicons, who believe the health of the G.O.P. hinges on jettisoning its age-old doctrine—orgiastic tax-cutting, the slashing of government programs, the championing of Wall Street— and using an altogether different vocabulary, backed by specific proposals, that will reconnect the party to middle-class and low-income voters.

As Tanenhaus notes, since that AEI gathering the reformicons have been praised and/or taken seriously by The Wall Street Journal, The New Republic, and Politico. But should they be? Or are they, to use some much-overused metaphors, old wine in new bottles or Wall Street pigs wearing lipstick?

Not all reformicons agree with one another, of course, and no doubt they’re all struggling with the idea of how to rebuild the badly tarnished Republican (and “conservative”) brand, now that the country has skewed ethnically diverse, younger, less religious and more populated with empowered women. But the fact is that reform conservatism is really just a repackaging of old-fashioned GOP ideas masquerading as somehow being in sympathy with the plight of struggling workers and single moms. For example, writing in National Affairs, in a piece called “The Trouble with Public Sector Unions,” Daniel DiSalvo lavishly praises Christie’s attempt to eviscerate teachers and other public-sector unions, without much seeming regard for the working-class and single-mom members of those unions. In the piece, DiSalvo writes:

The firestorm that these proposals have sparked demonstrates the political clout of state-workers’ unions. … Yet confront them policymakers must. As Christie said about the duel with the [New Jersey Education Association[, “If we don’t win this fight, there’s no other fight left.” Melodramatic as this may sound, for many states, it is simply reality.

Well. If that’s reform conservatism, not too many workers and single moms will be buying into it.

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So who’s backing the reformicons? As one might expect, National Affairs was set up by the same billionaires and conservative foundations who’ve been funding conservative think tanks and media outlets for decades in an effort to shape popular thinking and economic policies, and the current team includes financiers and wheeler-dealers such as Roger Hertog, Paul Singer and Bruce Kovner. And as expected, the movement is run by the intellectual heirs of the key “original” neocons including Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, the folks who founded National Affairs’s godfather magazine, The Public Interest. Today, the wealthy backers of the reformicons are single-mindedly promoting their iconic belief in the need to eliminate government programs and encourage the spread of unfettered free enterprise. They founded National Affairs for the same reason that The Public Interest was founded in 1965, by Irving Kristol and his collaborators, namely, to counter progressive thinking. In the earlier period it had led to the Great Society and its social programs and in 2009, when National Affairs was launched, there was strong support for more government regulation of Wall Street and healthcare reform.

To be continued. Part II will appear tomorrow.

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Is Canada’s New Anti–Sex Work Bill Unconstitutional?

Toronto Sex Worker's Action Project

(Courtesy: Maggie’s: The Toronto Sex Workers Action Project)

If Canada’s Conservative government gets its way, the country could soon get slapped with a new anti-prostitution bill that—while promising to rescue sex workers from harm—might end up hurting far more than it would help.

In a landmark decision last year, the Canadian Supreme Court struck down many of the country’s major statutes against prostitution—a ruling that could have effectively decriminalized sex work. In response, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government is now pushing C-36, a bill that would once again broadly criminalize the buying of sex, largely restoring a regime of anti-prostitution enforcement that the high court already deemed unconstitutional.

The bill purports to target only those who purchase sex and not the selling of sex, per se. But it threatens to indirectly criminalize many of the services, spaces and personal interactions that would make it possible for sex workers to openly do business.

Strictures against “Advertising sexual services” in the bill appear to be so broad, they might in many cases ban any collective enterprise related to sale of sexual services, from running a “bawdy house” in one's home, to using an online classifieds site.

The bill attempts to comply with the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling—which found the earlier restrictions on prostitution overly broad and punitive. The draft legislation contains a refined ban on “Communicating for the purpose of selling sexual services in public places.” The latest version limits enforcement to explicitly child-oriented places, like schools, daycare providers and playgrounds. Though “communicating” could be interpreted as just discussing the potential sale of sex.

The law stops short of completely outlawing the exchange of sex for money, but instead hopes to kill the trade by a thousand cuts, through convoluted commercial and legal barriers.

Nonetheless, advocates for decriminalization of consensual sex work say this new bill, far from eradicating the world’s oldest profession, would erode sex workers’ ability to assert their rights: they will find it harder to congregate in public, or even communicate privately. And with their client base depleted, they will suffer economically, and ultimately lose leverage to negotiate their pay and working conditions.

Robyn Maynard of Stella, a Montréal-based social service provider for sex workers, recalls that after the Supreme Court decision was issued, people were “feeling like, finally, the courts were recognizing their [need for the] ability to work safely.” But now “people feel really betrayed that suddenly this new law...has just come down that would again endanger them and their ability to protect themselves while working.” Street-based sex workers in particular, she says, “are terrified of being recriminalized under this new legislation,” and she notes that among the community she works with, “one of the most stressful things that sex workers have to deal with is always hiding from the police. And this is something that really clearly under the new law is still going to be carried out."

Katrina Pacey, litigation director of the advocacy group Pivot, says that the crackdown will disproportionately affect sex workers who do business on the street. (Advocates say that enforcement against indoor sex work activities is often less severe, since they are allowed to operate clandestinely as “escort services” or ads for “massage parlors.”)

To avoid being caught “communicating” about their services, Pacey says, sex workers who sell outdoors will be pushed "into more dark and isolated areas of cities.” Under the new restriction on soliciting in the vicinity of child-oriented places, people might try to avoid any street near a playground or school. And on a cultural level, such laws send the message that conservative mores about “protecting” children require shaming and ostracizing sex workers.

For indoor sex workers, the restrictions on advertising could lead to miscommunication about the nature of the work. For example, a transgender sex worker could find herself in danger if she cannot openly communicate about her gender identity before she receives a client. “Not being able to advertise, not being able to just speak to clients honestly about it, is really depriving them of a lot of opportunity just to protect themselves and run the business in the way that's best for them,” Pacey says.

The bill follows the so-called “Swedish model”—a framework for regulating and restricting prostitution, which has been promulgated in Nordic countries, that purports to target consumers of sex work but not sex workers themselves, so as to limit the “demand” for sexual services. But studies on the model's effectiveness show that imposing barriers on “the market” simply makes workers’ lives harder. It might even, ironically, constrain their ability to exercise choice in their work, by destabilizing and impoverishing them. It’s hard to transition to a better labor situation when you’re poor, near homeless, socially isolated and under police surveillance.

This precariousness may impact public health as well. Groups like Stella emerged in part to fill gaps in the social service system, since wary sex workers often conceal their work from health providers, which in turn limits their access to services like reproductive care or HIV/AIDS testing.

From a public safety standpoint, though the bill does not center on directly arresting sex workers, advocates fear it will nonetheless end up diverting police resources to pursuing clients and surveilling the sex industry. This, Maynard says, could come at the expense of tackling the much more immediate issues of violence against sex workers, often done by predators who believe they can get away with targeting stigmatized individuals.

“If a sex worker experiences violence while working,” Maynard says, “she's worried that she won't be taken seriously because she is a sex worker”—reflecting the victim-blaming stereotype that “'she knew that she was in a dangerous situation.'"

The bill’s preamble proclaims that the government seeks to "protect human dignity and the equality of all Canadians by discouraging prostitution.” But to rights advocates, the law perpetuates, even enhances, many underlying forms of structural inequality reflected in, but not exclusively the product of, the sex trade, including gender oppression, racism and poverty. Overpolicing, even in the name of salvation, hits people of color, women and LGBTQ workers the hardest.

Naomi Sayers, an indigenous sex-worker rights activist, criticized the government's framing of sex workers as victims only in the narrowest sense: “The alienation, isolation, and denial of services from the policing agencies and domestic violence organizations are re-traumatizing in itself.”

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Ultimately, sex workers worry the bill would create a new class of victims—those who are victimized by the law itself. Amy Lebovitch, an activist with Sex Professionals of Canada and a litigant in the Supreme Court case, recalls a recent incident in which she says her colleagues were lured to a hotel by a business call and then targeted by a police sting operation. Though they were not arrested, the harassment they experienced left them frightened and disrupted their business, apparently in order to just locate and expose sex workers in an "anti-trafficking" aid campaign. This, Lebovitch laments, was their way of community outreach.

Looking ahead to a new era of anti–sex work law, Lebovitch says, “I can see more things like that happening. I can see police being given much more power to find us and to ‘save us’ from our clients and from ourselves.”

 

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The Cheney Family Gets the Soprano Family Fade-to-Black Treatment

Cheneys

Waving handcuffs in the air and shouting that the former vice president is a “war criminal,” a Code Pink protester yesterday rose from the audience to disrupt a public Politico interview of the Cheney family. That sort of thing isn't unusual for Pink. But just as security was escorting the woman out, C-SPAN’s live feed of the event went dead. An announcer said they were having technical difficulties, and C-SPAN eventually switched to another program, leaving the ongoing heckling of the Cheneys out of its live feed.

Was the transmission fail deliberate sabotage or simply an exquisitely timed accident? C-SPAN certainly didn't cut the feed on purpose, a spokesman says, adding, "It was technical, not editorial." And Politico, which sponsored the event with Mike Allen running the interview, wasn't trying to block out the protest--nothing was cut from its own online feed, a spokeswoman says..

But whatever the cause, the fade-to-black was briefly reminiscent of the final episode of The Sopranos, when the crime boss’s family (minus the daughter, Meadow, who was running late) gathered at a diner, under the gaze of ominous-looking characters, and the screen suddenly went blank. Yesterday, the Cheney family—minus one daughter, Mary, who’s been supremely pissed at Liz for opposing same-sex marriages like Mary’s own—gathered at the Politico Playbook luncheon, under the gaze of protesters (and undoubtedly others who can’t stand them), when the screen went mysteriously dark.

The Cheney sit-down started out normally enough, with Dick Cheney chuckling about how “when the family is alone—Liz and Mary and Lynne and I—we usually end up telling war stories about campaigns we were involved in. It’s always funny, it always involves train wrecks. The funniest political stories are the train wrecks, and we had a lot train wrecks along the way.”

Note how the war stories were about campaigns, not about the actual war that was the largest political train wreck in modern history.

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Lynne cracked that she and Dick weren’t “dead broke” when he became veep, and Mike Allen had barely begun plugging Lynne’s latest book when the protester began shouting them down. Lynne responded by laughing heartily and Liz, more embarrassingly, by clapping her hands and chanting, “Four more years! Four more years! Four more years!”

As you can see in the full, uncut video that C-SPAN ran later yesterday and today, the protest went on for quite a while, as a second woman from Code Pink nearly drowned out the Cheneys, shouting, “You destroyed Iraq and you’re destroying this country!” Security also removed her from the room (neither woman was arrested or fined, according to the New York Daily News).

With the danger soon gone, the Cheneys blabbed on about the grandeur that was Iraq when Cheney left office, the evils of Obama, and everything they’ve been blabbing about for their years-long restoration tour.

Unlike the Sopranos, the Cheneys were able to return.

 

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This Bill Could End State Abortion Restrictions

Pro-Choice Protest

(AP Photo/David Goldman)

For years the pro-choice movement has had to battle a wide array of restrictions passed on the state level, from onerous regulations on abortion clinics to “fetal pain” bills that deliberately give women bad information about abortion procedures. In fact, from 2011 through 2013, more than 200 state laws were passed that make it harder for women to access abortion services.

But the Senate Judiciary Committee held an important hearing Tuesday on a bill that could, in one swoop, clear out most of those laws. The Women’s Health Protection Act, introduced last year by Senators Richard Blumenthal and Tammy Baldwin, enumerates many of these laws that would be expressly prohibited and keeps abortion providers from being singled out by legislation that doesn’t apply broadly to most other medical services in the state.

Republican Senators and witnesses at the hearing, as one would expect, objected strenuously to the legislation. They relentlessly brought up the case of Dr. Kermit Gosnell, a Philadelphia-area abortion doctor who repeatedly broke the law and carried out gruesome, illegal abortions. Their message was that these state laws just aim to make abortion safer and avoid more cases like Gosnell’s.

In reality, Gosnell was already operating well outside the bounds of the law and is actually a better example of what would happen were abortion to be outlawed entirely. As Nancy Northrup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, testified at the hearing, that is the real and often stated goal of these laws:

[O]pponents of women’s reproductive rights, seeking to make an end run around public opinion and the Constitution itself, have shifted their strategy. They have resorted to obfuscating their true agenda by pushing laws that pretend to be about one thing but are actually about another. They claim these laws are about defending women’s health and well-being, and improving the safety of abortion care—but they most assuredly are not. They are wolves in sheep’s clothing. They are advanced by politicians, not by doctors, often based on model legislation written by explicitly anti-abortion groups.

When Mississippi enacted such a law in 2012, a state senator put it quite plainly: “There’s only one abortion clinic in Mississippi. I hope this measure shuts that down.” Others showed their hands as well. Lt. Governor Tate Reeves stated that the measure “should effectively close the only abortion clinic in Mississippi” and “end abortion in Mississippi” when the bill passed the state Senate. Governor Phil Bryant, in vowing to sign the bill, said that he would “continue to work to make Mississippi abortion-free.” When he actually signed it, he said, “If it closes that clinic, then so be it.” Right now, Mississippi’s sole clinic is holding on by virtue of a temporary court order.

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The legislation has essentially no chance of passing this Congress, but for pro-choice advocates, presents a chance to at least go on the offensive. It also may be needed in coming months as a backstop to a potential Supreme Court decision that could severely restrict abortion access.

Many federal courts have blocked this sort of state legislation as de facto abortion bans, as Northrup noted. But legal experts are increasingly convinced the Court may take up one of these cases in the next term—and that five conservative justices could move to affirm these abortion-restricting laws and effectively hollow out Roe v. Wade. The Women’s Health Protection Act would be a simple way to neutralize that decision, should it come.

 

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Martin O’Malley’s Right: The Immigration Debate Must Respect ‘Essential Human Dignity’

(Reuters/Eric Gay/Pool)

Martin O’Malley is speaking about immigration policy in smart, reasonable and moral terms. This distinguishes the two-term governor of Maryland and potential 2016 presidential contender from most politicians these days.

O’Malley’s approach is not a radical one. But his emphasis on fairness and human dignity, as opposed to predictable political positioning, is refreshing. And the governor’s fellow Democrats would be wise to consider the wisdom not just of his words but of the tone in which he is speaking.

O’Malley does not deny the serious practical and political challenges that have arisen as thousands of children from Central America have crossed into the United States in recent months. He know that there are a lot of issues to be resolved with regard to the particular circumstances of these children—and with regard to broader need to reform an ill-defined and frequently dysfunctional approach by the United States to immigration policy. But the children who have entered the United States are children. They come, in many instances, as desperate refugees fleeing extreme violence, poverty and dislocation in countries where the social fabric is rapidly fraying because of destructive globalization schemes, corruption and a horrific maldistribution of wealth.

The reality of why immigrants flee their own lands must, by legal and ethical standards, be taken into consideration.

So O’Malley has broken with prominent members of his own party—and with Republicans who, like Arizona Senator John McCain, propose to deport “planeloads of these young people”—to say that the response to the plight of the children must be a humane and knowing one.

“We are not a country that should send children away and send them back to certain death,” O’Malley told reporters at last week’s National Governors Association meeting in Nashville. “I believe that we should be guided by the greatest power we have as a people, and that is the power of our principles. Through all of our great world religions, we are told that hospitality to strangers is an essential human dignity.”

The governor remarks drew immediate criticism from conservatives who make little secret of their determination to politicize border issues. The Republican-linked group America Rising portrayed O’Malley’s position as a left-wing stance—a “hit from the left” at former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the leader in 2016 Democratic presidential polls.

But O’Malley’s response is grounded not in the language of left or right, or even of predictable political positioning. Instead, he is placing the debate in a moral, and American historical, context. In media interviews over the weekend, the governor calmly explained, “I believe that it is contrary to everything that we stand for as a people to try to summarily send [refugees] back to death, whether it’s in famine; death whether it’s in the middle of the ocean; death whether it’s in a war torn area or death in a place where gangs are the greatest threat to stability and the rule of law and democratic institutions in this hemisphere."

Media outlets were quick to suggest that O’Malley’s position places him at odds with the Obama administration—which is seeking $3.7 billion in funding to respond to the challenges posed by the arrival of tens of thousands of children in the region along the United States border with Mexico. The Huffington Post noted that “much of that money will be spent on carrying out deportations.”

O’Malley argues that legal representatives of the children and family members should be afforded an opportunity to challenge the threat of deportation. “They should have their ability to make their case for protection and asylum in the United States,” explains the governor.

O’Malley’s remarks provoked a response from White House press secretary Josh Earnest, who on Monday told reporters that, under the president’s plan, children facing credible threats would likely be “granted humanitarian relief.”

The back-and-forth provided a reminder that any serious immigration debate is more nuanced than the headlines suggest. But the broader point ought not be missed. By speaking in humanitarian terms, O’Malley is helping to reframe the discussion, and forcing fellow Democrats to clarify their positions.

The governor’s focus and tone is significant. And it is distinct from that of his potential 2016 rival, Hillary Clinton, who in a recent interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour said the United States must “send a clear message: just because your child gets across the border doesn’t mean your child gets to stay.”

“They should be sent back as soon as it can be determined who responsible adults in their families are,” added the woman who leads in polls that ask Democrats who they would like to have as their next presidential nominee. While she acknowledged that “there are concerns whether all of them should be sent back,” Clinton added, “I think all of them who can be should be reunited with their families.”

The problem with Clinton’s calculus, of course, is that many of the children were sent to the United States from countries such as Guatemala and Honduras, by families that have legitimate fears for the safety of the youngsters. That’s what O’Malley means when he expresses concern about a policy that would “send children away [from safety in the States] and send them back to certain death.”

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This is not the first time that O’Malley has spoken up for immigrants. Indeed, his record provides an indication that when a Democrat offers a humane and thoughtful response to immigration issues, voters respond positively.

When he was running for re-election in 2010, O’Malley defended immigrants as “new Americans”—a reference that was seized on by his Republican opponent. But even in that “Republican wave” year, the governor was easily re-elected. Against a popular and well-financed Republican, former Governor Robert Ehrlich, the Democrat won 56 percent of the vote.

In 2011, O’Malley signed state “DREAM Act” legislation, opening access to in-state tuition at state colleges for many children of immigrants who has arrived in the United States without documentation. That created an outcry and a Republican legislator led a drive to force a statewide referendum vote on the issue in 2012.

O’Malley campaigned for the DREAM Act, raising money for an Educating Maryland Kids coalition that supported the legislation. “The DREAM Act says that students can be eligible for in-state tuition, regardless of their parents’ immigration status, provided they pay state taxes, graduate from a Maryland high school and commit to legalizing their status as soon as they are eligible,” the governor declared. “This issue is about fairness and basic human dignity for all.”

The emphasis on “fairness and basic human dignity” was spot on. The pro–DREAM Act campaign adopted the slogan “It’s Right and It’s Fair.” Maryland voters agreed. On November 6, 2012, they decided by a 59-41 margin to keep the DREAM Act that O’Malley and the coalition had championed.

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