On American politics and policy.
In this installment of The Curve, we asked our contributors to examine Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. If economic inequality continues to soar, as Piketty says it will, and inherited wealth plays a growing role in our economy, in what ways does that affect women specifically? And what weaknesses arise in Piketty’s own analysis due to the absence of gender and race from his book? Where can we, as feminists, build on Piketty’s analysis?
Our participants are Kate Bahn, a PhD candidate in economics at the New School for Social Research and co-founder of LadyEconomists.com, with a forthcoming review of Capital in the Twenty-First Century in the Women’s Review of Books; Joelle Gamble, national director of the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network, a nationwide student policy organization; Zillah Eisenstein, an internationally renowned writer and activist and Distinguished Scholar of Anti-Racist Feminist Political Theory at Ithaca College, Ithaca, New York; and Heather Boushey, executive director and chief economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. –Kathleen Geier
Kathleen Geier: Does Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century have anything useful to say about feminism? Thus far, discourse about this watershed book has been overwhelmingly male-dominated (the only feminist critique that I am aware of, before this round table, has been Zillah Eisenstein’s). Though Capital has many virtues, attention to gender, alas, is not one of them. Like most mainstream economists, Piketty does not deploy gender as a category of analysis, nor does he engage with the work of feminist economists. Nevertheless, he offers insights about the nature of economic inequality that feminists can build on to advance both gender and economic justice.
As the historian Stephanie Coontz recently observed, during the past forty years our economy has been shaped by two overwhelmingly important trends: the rise of gender equity on the one hand, and the decline of economic equality on the other. These phenomena may appear to be unrelated, but in fact they are linked. During the 1970s and ’80s, women’s labor force participation soared, driven in part by families’ needs for additional income as economic inequality began to spiral and most men’s wages declined. As women’s average educational attainment and years in the workforce increased, so did their wages. Even so, economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn argue that during this period, women were “swimming upstream” in a context of rising wage inequality.
During the 1990s and 2000s, economic inequality continued to skyrocket, but gender equity began to stall. As leading feminist intellectuals such as Coontz, Arlie Hochschild and Paula England have noted, during this period the growth in American women’s labor force participation began to fall off, and so did their advancement in managerial and professional occupations. Low-income women also fared poorly, as they lost the right to welfare as an entitlement, and extreme poverty among female-headed households tripled. For a while, the gender pay gap continued to narrow, until progress there began to slow as well.
How can Piketty help us understand these important developments? Piketty’s argument is that absent extraordinary government intervention, economic inequality will continue to soar, because the return on capital is likely to outpace the rate of economic growth. In short, economic inequality is a feature of capitalism, not a bug.
If, as Piketty predicts, economic inequality continues to grow, this bodes ill for women. Evidence that suggests that there is a strong link between gender equity and economic equality, and that women are more likely to prosper in more egalitarian economies. As Blau and Kahn have shown, in countries with more equitable wage structures, women enjoy a narrower gender pay gap. Blau and Kahn have also found that women’s labor force participation in the United States is slowing relative to other economically advanced countries, and they identify our lack of family-friendly work policies as the chief culprit.
Blau and Kahn don’t directly link the decline in American women’s labor participation to rising economic inequality, but their findings suggest a possible pathway. A number of researchers, most notably political scientist Martin Gilens, have found that in America today the preferences of the rich overwhelmingly drive policy outcomes and that economic elites are disproportionately likely to oppose egalitarian, pro-worker economic reform. This suggests that as that the increasing concentration of wealth in our society is a major threat to feminist work and family policies. Growing economic inequality may well be the powerful obstacle blocking women’s economic advancement in our society.
Piketty suggests that to curb economic inequality, we need to reduce the rate of return on capital. He argues that the best way to do so would be via a tax on global capital, an idea that he admits is “utopian.” The other major remedy he advocates is a steeply progressive income tax. He doesn’t explicitly analyze other anti-inequality policies, but he suggests that they would not be nearly nearly as effective. Why not? This brings us to a fascinating question, which he doesn’t fully answer: What causes the rate of return on capital to be so high in the first place?
As economist Suresh Naidu has noted, there are, broadly speaking, two possible answers to this question. The neoclassical interpretation would be that the rate of return is mechanistically determined by the market: by the forces of supply and demand. If this is the case, then tax policy is the only effective remedy. According to Piketty, the elasticity of substitution between labor and capital is high; this theory, if true, implies that labor market reforms would have little impact on inequality. The enactment of a policy such as a high minimum wage would merely give the capitalist an incentive to replace workers with technology in order to maintain high profits.
But elsewhere, Piketty argues that the return on capital “is always in part a social and political construct” that “depends on national rules and institutions.” As he notes, in Germany, where worker representatives sit on corporate boards, the market value of firms’ capital is lower than in other advanced economies. If capital is indeed primarily a social and political construct, then consequently a much broader array of anti-inequality policies would be effective. On the whole, Piketty’s institutionalist analysis is more persuasive than the neoclassicist version, because it is a better fit for his evidence. He shows, for example, that war and progressive taxes weren’t the only factors that caused economic inequality to decline after World War I; political transformations such as the rise of labor unions also played a major role.
An institutionalist perspective suggests that one promising approach to fighting economic inequality would be labor policies targeted at women. A large body of research (including this study) shows that increasing female employment and earnings would reduce household income inequality. This suggests that anti-inequality advocates should champion policies that improve women’s labor force participation, such as paid family leave and other flexible work arrangements.
Increasing economic growth would also, as per Piketty’s analysis, reduce economic inequality. Economic growth, as he defines it, consists of two important factors: productivity growth and population growth. In economically advanced countries, the fertility rate is positively correlated with the female labor force participation rate. This suggests that besides increasing women’s employment, flexible workplace policies would offer the additional advantage of boosting economic growth by increasing the birth rate. There is also evidence that family-friendly policies enhance productivity, which is another way they could increase economic growth.
Capital in the Twenty-First Century is an exciting and groundbreaking book that forces us to look at economic inequality in a new way. Unfortunately, it is seriously flawed by Piketty’s policy imagination, which is confined by the neoclassical straightjacket. Moving beyond the neoclassical framework suggests a richer array of anti-inequality policy alternatives, of which the feminist response I’ve described is just one subset. Opening up Capital to heterodox analyses such as those provided by feminist and institutional economics allows us to imagine a pro-equality political program that is a better match for the book’s bold vision.
Kate Bahn: One of Piketty’s subtle successes in Capital in the Twenty-First Century is his sensitivity to the limits of economics theory and the imperfection of the economic data. He gains credibility by admitting the shortcomings of his calculations, and perhaps this rhetorical style contributes to the popularity of Capital in comparison to efforts by other renowned economists, like Joseph Stiglitz’s 2012 book, The Price of Inequality, and Robert Reich’s 2013 documentary, Inequality For All. Throughout the book, Piketty cautions that his data is the best available (and it really is impressive), but that it should not be judged complete. He tells us that income tax returns are conservative low estimates of income because of tax evasion, offshoring and tax exemptions that obscure the earnings of those at the top. Economic theory, he says, may provide a general story, and economic models can be useful metaphors, but there are many ways that economic theory does not describe the real world.
Piketty’s subtlety does not extend to the gender biases (as well as racial biases and ethnocentric biases) underlying economic theory and data collection. Piketty points out that certain data, particularly measures of capital income, are incomplete because it can be hard to measure things that are purposefully obscured to the benefit of those in power. Similarly, data collection organized and carried out by male-dominated institutions has a long history of devaluing women’s economic contributions and economic lives.
One simple example of the gender bias in data collection comes from the findings of a 1983 economics dissertation by Penelope Ciancanelli at the New School for Social Research. Ciancanelli describes how the US Census has historically undercounted women’s work in the labor market. Early census takers at the turn of the twentieth century were instructed not to consider women as employed if they were not earning at least a majority of the family’s income. Men were not subject to the same strict definition of employment. Because a lot of the work women did to earn money was done within their homes, it was not considered actual work unless it brought in money above a certain threshold. Its value to the economy was disregarded. With data collection like this, it is no wonder that women’s labor force participation measurements were so low.
Women’s work continues to be undercounted. The 2012 World Development Report on Gender and Development demonstrated that women are more likely than men to work in informal sectors of the labor market, meaning their income from labor cannot be counted using tax data like that on which Piketty relies. While Piketty notes that tax data is insufficient for describing economies in the developing world, where all people are more likely to work in the informal sector, he ignores that women’s informal or uncounted work is important throughout the global economy. In the United States, women are 70 percent of the workers in tipped industries like restaurants, making their earnings from labor difficult to measure. Piketty would remind us again that his calculations highlight relative measures of magnitude between different periods in history rather than precise descriptions. He might argue that informal work is not a big enough piece of economic activity to skew relative magnitudes. However, if what isn’t counted is gender-biased, then the relative magnitudes between genders does shift and presents a more complicated story about inequality.
This is important because income from capital (the interest that one receives from assets) has become even more unequal between classes than income from labor. Piketty argues that this schism follows the simple law of r>g: a higher rate of return on capital than the rate of economic growth leads to widening inequality as the wealthy watch their savings expand. One interesting effect of the growing importance of capital that Piketty does not explicitly acknowledge is that it may exacerbate wealth inequality between genders, too.
The US Small Business Administration, in discussing access to financial planning resources, has noted that women have lower access to these tools. Piketty demonstrates that access to different types of financial investment sources has huge implications for the rate of return, which in turn affects growing inequality. Not only are women likely to have less wealth to invest, but at any given level of wealth, they are less likely than men to have access to financial instruments, exacerbating capital inequality because of gender discrimination.
This criticism of Piketty should not demean his work but rather indicate where the discussion can go deeper. His assessment of the changing nature of inequality is quite alarming. The next step is to understand what exists beyond these broad contours. What things are not being counted. His analysis provides a basis to continue the discourse of inequality and looking at other factors that influence where a person falls in the distribution.
Joelle Gamble: It’s easy to write off a 700-page economics book as an impenetrable tome destined to litter the shelves of prestigious institutions or serve as a conversation piece on the coffee tables of educated elites. However, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-first Century presents an analysis of power and wealth that, despite little mention of marginalized groups in the text, shines light on the urgent concerns of women and people of color in the United States.
Consider the main takeaway of Piketty’s work: capitalism will not solve wealth inequality on its own. His now-famous equation r>g asserts that during times of slow economic growth, the rate of the return on capital (r) will exceed the rate of economic growth (g). This process leads to a booming wealth stock that will be increasingly concentrated in the hands of capital owners.
Since the 1970s, the United States has experienced less-than-stellar economic growth. Wealth inequality has also increased steadily after a brief and anomalous respite in the 1950s. This matters because the people who benefit from the accumulating returns on capital in this country represent a small and homogeneous portion of society. (I’m talking about the truly wealthy, not just rich people. As Chris Rock put it: Shaquille O’Neil is rich; the guy who signs his paycheck is wealthy.)
To make matters worse, the wealth gap between black and white America has increased over the past few decades. For proof, just look at the Unbearable Whiteness of Being that is the Forbes list of the top 400 wealthiest people in the United States.
One could argue that the United States isn’t a rentier society like eighteenth-century France, and that the solution to getting too small a piece of the economic pie is to work harder and earn a higher wage. But there are some problems with that suggestion. We distribute wages in this economy based on the productivity of workers, or at least that’s the theory. In reality, wage inequality has remained relatively stagnant through much of US history, even as American workers have become increasingly productive.
Raising the minimum wage and investing in education are important policies that, if robustly developed, can support women and people of color in the workforce. But these efforts would not be enough. In Capital, Piketty discusses the “super-manager” bracket (think CEOs and others in top decile of earners). These super-managers earn exorbitant wages compared to the rest of the population, and even to other top earners with similar skills and education, yet there is no strong correlation between their performance and their pay.
It is at this point that the labor market reveals itself to be a system shaped by social norms and biases rather than objective criteria alone, like marginal productivity. We’ve developed social markers for what makes a “high-tier” worker. For example, big financial firms tend to hire and reward predominantly white men from a small slice of the economic strata. Earners assigned arbitrary value by wealthy institutions benefit from the productivity of the larger workforce.
Wealth distribution and high-tier wage distribution in the United States can be attributed, essentially, to discrimination. This misleading valuation of worker productivity and the resulting wealth inequality create a pressing need for political action. Whether that means raising the minimum wage, correcting gender imbalances in wages and fields of employment, investing in education, or directly redistributing wealth, there is a clear need for policy to step in where the market has failed.
On the question of redistribution, we have solutions. In Capital, Piketty proposes a global wealth tax to spread the economic benefits of returns on capital more equitably, which, theoretically, would close the wealth gap between classes. But there are also ways to target the wealth and wage gaps amongst women and people of color specifically. As Dean Starkman notes in The New Republic, targeted redistribution can close the white-black wealth gap and a wide set of solutions already exist that target equal pay and equal opportunity for women.
With these solutions and others, we can begin to correct the widening inequalities that are pushing out women and people of color. And, the effects of wealth and wage inequalities on marginalized groups is multiplied many times over. Exercising the political will to correct inequalities is not just a matter of economics; it’s a matter of social justice.
Zillah Eisenstein: It is disappointing in 2014 to once again have to return to decades-old arguments about the relationships between capitalism and patriarchy and racism. All the celebration of Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century reminds me of what has not changed when it comes to understanding how women’s many forms of labor are not recognized as integral to the patriarchal structuring of the economy. And, sadly, Piketty is not alone in this.
I begrudgingly have more to say about what Piketty, and Pope Francis and even Barack Obama do not say, than what they do say. Their silences and omissions weigh heavily on me. And although I promised myself many years ago that I would no longer dialogue with progressives who ignored issues of race and gender, here I am again, doing just that.
Each of these men denounces excessive inequality, but without recognizing the way that structural racism and patriarchy intimately define economic injustice. They act as though capitalism is a singular system—rather than an overlapping and multiple structural nexus of power. And even when Obama articulates his My Brother’s Keeper initiative designed to offer “opportunity” to black boys and young men, there is no recognition of how racism is implanted in patriarchy. His signature program on race does not recognize the inequality that affects girls and women of color. Instead, Obama fractures the connection between patriarchy and racism to capitalism.
Piketty is deeply critical of the distribution of wealth and its concentration. Maybe if he focused more on the production of wealth—via its many routes—domestic unpaid and underpaid labor, consumer labor especially in its invisible digitized forms, the sexual and racial ghettoes of the working poor, and so on, he would realize that income distribution emanates from at least a tripartite structuring of labor and capital—by race, gender and class.
Girls and women do the majority of the labor across the globe of every sort—domestic, peasant, migrant, farming, reproductive, consumer, affective, slave and waged. Birthing is done exclusively by women. Most of this labor goes unrecognized, and is poorly paid, if paid at all. This sexual class of diverse women remains an open secret.
Piketty worries about the concentration of wealth. I worry about how and why wealth is so particularly concentrated across the globe in terms of people’s color and sex, with the attendant levels of poverty. He writes that his analysis is “imperfect and incomplete.” He also wonders what we can know “about how wealth and income have evolved since the eighteenth century, and what lessons can be derived from that knowledge for the century under way.” But one cannot do this without fully recognizing the particular role of chattel slave trade and its continuing remnants in the structural racism and sexism that has become a problematic system of wealth inheritance. Black enslaved women as a group added more (unrecognized) wealth to the economy than anyone, and had the least recompense to show for it. Proof of this labor-plunder remain today.
Piketty says that wealth disparity will continue to increase because of patterns of inheritance vs. merit. For women of all colors and men of most colors their inheritance is defined by structures of power not recognized in the mainstreamed notion of capital, or labor or the economy itself. So why start with such a partial and incomplete approach to capital accumulation to begin with?
Of course, Piketty is not alone here. Pope Francis has gained enormous popularity by focusing on the excesses of capitalism, the horrors of poverty etc. while fully endorsing patriarchal choices for girls and women in terms of their reproductive lives and health. The very person promising to limit inequality cocoons them into misogyny. It is a well-known and documented fact that the world the pope condones, one without contraception or abortion is a world with more poverty.
Pope Francis criticizes unbridled capitalism much like Piketty, for its injustice. But a critique of unbridled patriarchy and misogyny is needed as well. It is common knowledge that the majority of the poor across the globe, including 70 percent of the world’s refugees, are women and children. Yet, Pope Francis stays far from these realities. Women remain hidden for him while in plain sight.
The newest fashions of unfettered capitalism have their own new unfettered racialized patriarchy. The tyranny is male-centric and heterosexist. It breeds a culture of exclusion that Piketty, maybe unwittingly, and the pope openly endorses. It is significant that Piketty denies being a Marxist throughout the book. He instead embraces J.J.Rousseau’s critique of excessive accumulation. I want to remind the reader that Rousseau’s so-called radical egalitarianism explicitly endorsed traditional patriarchy—women were not citizens, nor should be given their uncontrolled sexual passion. He lumped women with children and “cripples.”
Piketty, as well as Pope Francis, perpetuates the notion that the political economy is not sexual, that personal life is not intimately connected to the public “market” and its many forms of labor. They bifurcate the locations of capital that privatize and depoliticize women’s bodies in their non-laboring forms—unpaid labor, domestic labor, consumer labor, affective/caring labor. This viewing of capital as both contained and singular leaves us with an inadequate rendering of the present crisis of racialized capitalist patriarchy.
Injustice is defined by more than economic suffering. People—men, women and trans—of all colors suffer from the particular structural identities that intersect with and in the economy. The male-centric heterosexist racialized viewings from Piketty and the pope are disguised in anti-capitalist rhetoric, but they remain intact.
I want new kinds of Marxists who are also anti-racist feminists. Marx de-normalized, denaturalized and historicized class, but did not do so for gender, sex or race. We need to do this: de-naturalize and historically contextualize gender and race and sex intertwined with capital. This contextualization expands and enlarges the meanings of labor and capital beyond production. It begins a historical materialism of racialized capitalist patriarchy so that an inclusive critique of excessive inequality can be crafted.
Piketty says “capital is not an immutable concept,” that it reflects prevailing social relations. This is why patriarchy and racism are key to this understanding. The inequality is particularly excessive according to color and sex. Great wealth alongside grinding poverty colludes with a horrific misogyny that defines girls as part of the trafficking of sexual labor and their bodies.
We are witnessing the chaos and cruelty of capital(ism) with its new excesses of the 1 percent. It is now past due to connect the parts—between global capitalism, gross inequality and sexual/gendered and racial oppression. Singularly, they remain piecemeal and protected.
There will be no cure for (economic) inequality as long as capital is severed from its origins in race and sex and gender. All one needs to do is look at the punishing globe to know this.
Heather Boushey: One of my colleagues has Business Week’s Teen Beat–esque profile of Thomas Piketty on the wall of his cubicle. The cover portrays Piketty as a teen heartthrob, complete with a lipstick kiss.
Ironically, very few women seem to have caught “Pikettymania.” While there have been dozens of reviews of Piketty’s book, I have found only a few that have been written by women. Is Piketty relevant for women? For feminists? Yes! Capital in the Twenty-First Century is a book that every feminist should read.
Anyone who has read about Piketty is familiar with his equation r > g. Piketty’s analysis leads him to conclude that unless the rate of return (r) on capital is brought down, below or at least closer to the rate of growth (g), inequality will continue to rise. In other words, so long as profits are greater than wages, inequality will continue to rise.
Piketty comes to this conclusion by analyzing a treasure trove of data that he, along with his colleagues, pulled together, creating the World’s Top Incomes Database. What we learn from this data is that income inequality is now at the same level as it was at the dawn of the twentieth century. His data shows how today’s high income inequality becomes tomorrow’s greater wealth inequality. An individual who earns a lot of money today may spend it all on yachts or diamond-studded watches, but to the extent they save some of that income or invest it, they will, over time, accumulate a larger and larger stock of wealth. Greater stocks of wealth give those at the top a larger pile of money to pass on to their children. As Piketty says, “The past devours the future.”
In order to illustrate how inheritance affects the economy, Piketty points the reader to the novels of Austen, James and Honoré de Balzac, noting that “for Jane Austen’s heroes, the question of work did not arise: all that mattered was the size of one’s fortune, whether acquired through inheritance or marriage.” For one example, he points to the Henry James novel Washington Square, where Catherine Sloper’s fiancé flees after is learning that her dowry is a third of what he thought and tells her, quoting her rich father, “You are too ugly.”
Now, I like Jane Austen (less so Henry James), but I’m certainly glad to have been born in 1970, not 1800. These novels are a testament to the limited choices that women had. The rules over inheritances will again make all the difference for women’s equality. Do inheritances go to the eldest child or to the eldest male child? What happens upon the death of a spouse—does the wife or the child inherit? We already know that women are far behind men in their wealth holdings: in 2014, only one in ten US billionaires were women, but of those, women were more likely than men to inherit that wealth, as one-third of billionaires who inherited their wealth are women (34.1 percent). The female share of self-made billionaires is only 3.1 percent.
The answers to these questions may not be good for women. And if they are not good for women, they are not likely to be good for our economy. Over the past century, and especially past half-century, we have seen greater gender equality, and our economy has benefitted enormously. In the United States, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it illegal to discriminate against someone based on the color of their skin or their sex. As women and minorities broke down the barriers to entering professions, this has boosted the United States economy, accounting for up to a fifth of all productivity gains between 1960 and 2008, according to one study.
Women have a lot to gain from an economy that rewards individuals based on what they do with their life, not who they marry or who their parents are. I hope that feminists catch a little Pikettymania.
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The release of a long-delayed investigation into the Central Intelligence Agency’s post-9/11 interrogation methods was held up yet again on Tuesday after the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee objected to the amount of information that had been censored by the Obama administration.
“I have concluded that the redactions eliminate or obscure key facts that support the report’s findings and conclusions,” Dianne Feinstein said Tuesday in a statement announcing her decision to delay publication of portions of the report, which was assembled by her committee. Feinstein said she had written a letter to the White House detailing which redactions she felt were heavy handed.
The administration blacklined 15 percent of the executive summary, and went so far as to redact pseudonyms that the committee had created specifically to protect the names of CIA officers involved in interrogations. The administration also reportedly redacted crucial information that refutes claims about the value of information obtained through brutal interrogations, which the CIA has made to justify its tactics.
“Try reading a novel with fifteen percent of the words blacked out. It can’t be done properly,” Intelligence Committee member Martin Heinrich explained in his own statement.
Other members of the committee were swift to condemn the redactions. Carl Levin called them “totally unacceptable” and said that in reviewing the document he “saw multiple instances where CIA proposes to redact information that has already been publicly disclosed.” Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat, decried the CIA’s redactions as “excessive” and suggested they were intended “to cover up acts that could embarrass the agency.”
The censorship is the latest in a series of inappropriate attempts by the CIA to smother the report, which is expected to show that torture was more prevalent and cruel than previously acknowledged, and much less effective at gathering intelligence than proponents of so-called enhanced interrogation claim. CIA officers not only hacked into Senate computers and spied on committee staffers preparing the report; they also filed a criminal report with the Justice Department on the staffers that had no factual basis. (Keep in mind that it’s the Intelligence Committee that oversees the CIA, according to the Constitution, not the other way around.) Then, after the committee voted to declassify the report—on a bipartisan basis—CIA director John Brennan began working with the very same people who oversaw the torture program during the George W. Bush administration to craft the agency’s response.
Even more egregious than the CIA’s attempts to keep its recent history in the shadows is the Obama administration’s complicity. The White House allowed the CIA to wield the black pen on a report that exposes its own misconduct and falsehoods. Obama has so far defended Brennan, who presided over the CIA’s unconstitutional attempts to thwart the Intelligence Committee’s work and yet denied outright that any such activity was taking place until an inspector general report forced him to apologize. Brennan is either an incompetent director or a liar; yet Obama claimed on Friday to have “full confidence” in him.
The administration has reacted coolly to the most recent accusations of censorship. Spokesman Josh Earnest assured reporters that the CIA left 85 percent of the executive summary legible—a numerical contortion that glosses over the fact that the 480-page executive summary is already a very small portion of the 6,600-page report, which will remain classified.
“We tortured some folks,” Obama acknowledged on Friday. “And we have to, as a country, take responsibility for that so that, hopefully, we don’t do it again in the future.” The CIA’s conduct in response to the Senate report is a crystal clear indicator that hoping for the agency to do the right thing is not simply naïve but flagrantly irresponsible. If the president is content to grant the CIA immunity for its current flouting of the law and the separation of powers, as well as for the torture it meted out in the recent past, there’s nothing to keep an executive with fewer scruples from reopening a chapter that the public hasn’t even been allowed to read.
Read Next: Eric Alterman reports on the high price of surveillance
After the swirl of poison dust settled, the factory grounds resembled a battlefield, strewn with charred bodies and rubble. The explosion, which left about seventy-five workers dead and 185 injured, wasn’t the scene of an attack, really—just another one of the countless industrial accidents that befall China’s factories each year. But in light of the manufacturing sector’s record of killing, maiming and sickening its workers, some have deemed the blast a form of industrial homicide.
The massive explosion at Zhongrong Metal Products in Kunshan, Jiangsu Province—a subcontracted auto-parts supplier for General Motors and other multinationals—was sparked by a build-up of combustible dust, a byproduct of the metal polishing process used to produce impeccably shiny hubcaps. According to the journal Caixin, the disaster was preceded by a slew of safety lapses. Although the plant was equipped with dust-removal gear, “workers who escaped the blast said the production lines were always enveloped in metallic dust so thick that visibility was severely impaired.” In addition to shoddy facilities, workers reportedly lacked appropriate safety training and had inadequate gear—just ”goggles and a cotton face mask, which could not prevent exposure to dust particles.”
One worker quoted on China.com, Liu Fu Wen, recalled, “Before work every day, no one provided training on safety issues, no one said that dust might explode.” Not only were workers not aware that they were stuck in a virtual powder keg, as Caixin reports, the physical labor was brutally strenuous, with workdays of up to twelve hours.
Though a thorough investigation has been promised, activists see another shameful failure in both government regulation and workplace safety culture. Labor scholar Wang Jiangsong commented on social media (via China Labour Bulletin) that the disaster “exposes a huge black hole in work safety,” and “the safety inspectors were idle on the job and the local trade unions likewise turned a deaf ear.”
Kunshan’s indirect ties to global auto giants underscores how China’s neoliberal explosion allows luxurious consumer products to be sourced from primitive working conditions.
Garrett Brown, a California-based occupational health specialist, tells The Nation via e-mail that from an industrial safety perspective, “aluminum dust is very explosive and any major manufacturer—such as GM—knows this well and knows the control measures to take (ventilation, enclosures, training).” Based on the facts reported so far, he adds, “I would say that these 75 deaths and 185 injuries should never have happened, that the employer(s) involved, from GM down the line, knew better and could have easily prevented this incident. This incident is nothing less than industrial homicide and all the employers involved bear the responsibility.”
The government has launched a major investigation, President Xi Jinping has vowed to crack down on the culprits, and a few company representatives have been detained. But these efforts may yield few results in the end, as both regulatory authorities and corporate officialdom are rife with corruption and opacity.
General Motors says via e-mail it will seek another supplier to replace Zhongrong while the investigation is pending. It has not announced plans to reform its safety practices—in contrast to the contrition the company has shown in its product recalls for unsafe cars.
Labor rights advocates see oppressive labor conditions and occupational hazards as twin scourges undermining workers’ security.
Noting the irony that GM recently won praise as a leading “Fortune 500 company in the area of corporate social responsibility,” US-based watchdog China Labor Watch stated that the company “has a duty to ensure safe production in its supply chain, and it shares responsibility for this deadly explosion.”
The Hong Kong–based advocacy group SACOM has called on all companies involved (including GM contractor CITIC Dicastal, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Honda) to provide for victims’ compensation and healthcare, noting that in the “complicated web of [a] globalised supply chain,” responsibility for safety issues is “outsourced to developing countries.” As multinationals like GM are “holding the biggest power in the supply chain, while locating themselves the [farthest] from their suppliers,” SACOM activist Pui Kwan Liang says via email that they have an obligation to “take concrete action to provide adequate resources to support their downstream suppliers,” to maintain the best safety protections and standards.
Factories are churning out new crises on a daily basis. In recent days, chemical-related disasters have erupted at a Gansu petrochemical plant and at another Jiangsu chemicals factory that caught fire. Back in 2011, Apple was scandalized by two aluminum dust explosions at factories in Chengdu and Shanghai run by the Taiwanese-owned supplier Foxconn (also known for its pattern of worker suicides), which killed several workers. Still, Apple’s consumer reputation, polished by its heavy campaigning around its self-regulating factory audit program, was barely dented.
Even when workers are not getting blown up, day-to-day contact with toxins at manufacturing plants take a slower, but equally lethal toll on workers’ bodies. The Hong Kong–based China Labour Bulletin points out that Kunshan’s dust-laden factory air also exposed workers to the lung disease pneumoconiosis. The disease has become a nationwide epidemic affecting millions of workers, but employers and officials responsible for providing healthcare have yet to effectively address its causes.
The Zhongrong incident is rooted in systematic regulatory failures, and the responsible corporations may never truly be held to account for the tragedy. But the explosion has cleared new space in the social media sphere, for a civil society dialogue on worker protection amid China’s capitalist transformation. Shortly after the Kunshan disaster, a coalition of leading labor scholars and activists penned an open letter calling for a paradigm shift on labor practices—through the empowerment of workers as their own safety advocates. Poor working conditions, the group argued, reflected “the lack of workers’ right to organize and the absence of trade unions. There are no smooth channels for workers to express their interests or speak in a collective voice for labor.… They are alienated as a part of the production line.”
To address occupational safety issues in the long term, they argued, Chinese manufacturing industries need not just tighter regulation, but the direct engagement of employees in workplace oversight. In other words, a more democratic workplace is a safer one.
Yet activists often dismiss China’s labor unions for being self-servingly aligned with management or with government interests. In a 2013 analysis on occupational safety in Chinese manufacturing, Yiu Por Chen and Anita Chan acknowledge that state-run unions often provide little meaningful protection for workers. The scholars did however point to a historical example that could potentially inform workers’ response to the next tragedy: the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire of 1911, the deadly industrial disaster that galvanized the American labor movement and spurred critical reforms.
The carnage at Zhongrong evokes the Triangle Fire in some ways. But China’s workers must confront broader, more global economic forces when they challenge corporate impunity today. Nonetheless, by agitating locally, on the shop floor, for their right to work without having to risk their lives, they might just wield the most powerful protective gear of all: their collective voice.
A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll reports—perhaps unsurprisingly—that President Obama’s approval numbers are at an all-time low. With 60 percent of Americans polled disapproving of Obama’s foreign policy and another 71 percent believing America is “on the wrong track,” The Nation’s editor and publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel appeared on Morning Joe to discuss “how we got here and how we can fix it” with political commentator Nicole Wallace, former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, and political strategist Anita Dunn. Vanden Heuvel notes that this is not the first time Americans have lost faith in political institutions, especially when engaging in foreign affiars: “Americans want to engage with the world but they don’t want to listen to the armchair warriors.”
Never mind the stalemated Congress, demonstrators for immigration reform showed up again at the White House on Monday—Barack Obama’s birthday—to make more speeches and deliver fresh petitions urging the president to take unilateral action on their issue. To the astonishment of veteran activists, Obama has already assured them he intends to do so. According to movement leaders who met with the president at the White House on June 30, a bombshell announcement is planned for right after Labor Day—an executive order that could liberate millions of undocumented workers from the threat of deportation. Republicans are sure to go bat guano.
Of course, Obama could always change his mind and back off his promise, as he has certainly done before with Latinos and allied groups campaigning for immigration reform. But this time the reform leaders sound quite confident of his word. “I’m shocked,” one leader admitted to me. “It seems totally out of character for Obama. But it appears the White House’s resolve has not been totally demolished by the kids on the border crisis. In fact, they seem determined to do what they can on undocumented workers and deportations as a giant ‘screw you’ to the Republicans.”
Political reporters have already written off the Obama presidency and moved on to hyper-speculate about the horse race for 2016. The plot twist on immigration reform could jerk their chain if it succeeds. It might even refresh Obama’s presidential persona if the public reacts favorably to aggressive action. When Obama took a gutsy initiative in 2012 on behalf of immigrant children, it turned out to be quite popular. Like this new move, it also revealed the shrewd politics of the Latino-led immigration reform movement. It turns out that making life difficult for a leader who disappoints and doesn’t keep his word can produce dividends.
“The good news of this story,” the anonymous leader explained, “is that after two or three or four years of confrontations with the White House about deportations, the movement will get a victory. And I think that’s a very big deal.”
With Obama in office, other Democratic constituencies tended to be more deferential and accepting. But Latinos repeatedly confronted Obama at the White House with in-your-face complaints about his failures to follow through. His desire to find common ground with Republicans, they warned, was futile. Republicans had no intention of finding a legislative compromise. The White House pleaded for patience, but the reformers only turned up the heat. Obama expressed his resentment after all he had done for them. They dismissed his efforts as unsatisfactory.
But in the last four or five months, the White House tone softened. At the meeting in late June, the president told immigration reform leaders he had a change of heart. I agree, he said, the Republicans are not going to move on legislation. So Obama said he is now preparing to use his executive authority to immunize more immigrants from deportation. He couldn’t cover 11 million of them, he said, but he would go as far as the law allows.
Someone asked at that June meeting about the children flooding the border, but Obama ruled out any unilateral policy changes as unrealistic. It would open US borders to the world, he said. That touched off a tense exchange, but the president stood his ground. Reformers fear that in coming weeks a lot of children are going to be flown home to the dangerous circumstances they had fled.
The exact actions that could help millions more of other undocumented migrants are still being developed at the White House and the Department of Homeland Security. The options include granting immunity to parents of the children already exempted from deportation under the DACA—Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Obama could, for example, broaden the categories of immigrations afforded this immunity to include people with long-established records of US employment or long-term residency in the country.
Democrats are hoping that Republicans will react to Obama’s daring intervention by doing something stupid, like impeaching or threatening to impeach the president. Otherwise, Dems are fearful of a disaster in this fall’s midterms. If impeachment becomes the issue, that can fire up the Democratic base: not just Latino voters, but also other core constituencies.
This is high-risk politics but, given his declining popularity, Obama has decided to double down. What does he have to lose? It will inflame Obama haters of course, but it may also persuade voters to take another look at the president. In recent months, his administration has taken a series of actions that are not hot political topics, but still speak directly to segments of working people. And Obama’s style has become more flavorful in the process. He is taunting the Republicans in an amused manner, teasing them for their obvious contradictions. One day they accuse him of acting like a monarch, the next day they complain he hasn’t acted strongly enough.
Whether or not Obama wins his political gamble, it seems the Latino dreamers are already winning theirs.
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The Electoral College rules that govern our presidential elections are the political equivalent of education’s standardized test. Just as high school classes devolve into test preparation, not learning, presidential elections descend into swing-state appeal, not national leadership. Campaigns don’t lift a finger in some thirty or forty states locked up for one party. As the 2016 campaign comes into focus, it’s a welcome reminder that it may well be the last one in which every vote in every state is not equally important.
In April, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation that brings New York into the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. Under the National Popular Vote plan, states work together to guarantee election of the candidate who wins the most popular votes in all fifty states and the District of Columbia. Once enough states that represent a majority of electoral votes (270 out of 538) have entered the compact, a participating state will award all its electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote rather than to the winner of its statewide popular vote.
In 1992, for example, a participating red state would have had to throw its electoral votes to backers of Bill Clinton and his 43 percent plurality; in 2004, a participating blue state would have sided with George W. Bush (50.7 percent). Importantly, this is completely within the legal parameters of the Constitution, which grants state legislatures the power to award electoral votes in whichever manner they so choose. The Constitution also protects the right of states to enter into interstate compacts, as is frequently done (for example, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey).
The NPVIC is about common sense and fairness, about upholding the principle of one person, one vote, how the U.S. conducts presidential elections. Voters in Springfield, Ohio, should not matter more than voters in Springfield, Massachusetts. Yet one of the more depressing aspects of our presidential elections is how regional they’ve become. In the 2012 election, more than 99 percent of major-party television ad expenditures and post-convention campaign rallies was targeted at voters in just ten states. And indeed, the 2012 turnout in swing states was 8.8 percent higher than in less hotly contested states. If a voter feels as if his or her vote counts, he or she is more willing to make an effort to cast it.
Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.
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It’s not scientific—well, it’s the opposite of scientific—but it is at least instructive to see whom the people with money think might win the Republican nomination for president in 2016. No, not the big money on Wall Street and the hedge funds, but the odds-makers who work for the gambling industry. In a sense, gambling odds might be a better indicator of political fortunes than opinion polls, since there’s real money at stake—and right now the odds favor Chris Christie and Marco Rubio, according to Ladbrokes, a popular betting site. Christie and Rubio are both at five-to-one odds, with Jeb Bush at 6/1 and Paul Ryan and Rand Paul at 8/1. The rest of the GOP field is way down, facing long, long odds, including Mitt Romney, who’s at 25/1. If you think Romney has a shot, you could make a lot of money.
Despite the odds makers, in New Hampshire, the state that holds the key to Christie’s presidential run, polls show that nostalgia and name recognition trump good sense among Republican voters there, with Romney far ahead of the rest of the GOP pack, according to The Star-Ledger:
The last poll of likely Republican voters in New Hampshire showed Christie, who has been hurt by the fallout from the George Washington Bridge controversy, as a leading GOP choice for a presidential run—unless Romney mounted another presidential run. Romney was the favorite among 24 percent of GOP voters here and Christie came in at a distant second at 9 percent, according to the July survey. But when Romney—who has repeatedly denied any interest in running a 2016 race—was taken out of the mix, Christie tied with U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) at 11 percent. They were followed by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) at 8 percent, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman at 7 percent and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) at 5 percent.
As Christie Watch has reported all along, Romney and Christie have been engaged in a political waltz together for the past year or so, and Romney was one of the first national Republicans to come to Christie’s defense when the Bridgegate emerged in late 2013, and earlier this year Christie was a star invitee at a Utah meeting of former top political and fundraising aides to Romney 2012 campaign. (In 2012, of course, Romney considered Christie as a potential running mate.) For 2016, it’s very unlikely that Romney will be a candidate, but he’s a popular party leader and GOP fundraiser, and next month Romney will make a high-profile visit to New Jersey on Christie’s behalf, attending a $150-a-plate dinner in honor of the New Jersey governor’s fifty-second birthday, at which more affluent celebrants can fork over $5,000 each for a private reception.
Pat Buchanan, whose political instincts aren’t always stellar, is touting a new book on Richard Nixon and “the greatest comeback,” and in a recent appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Buchanan too waxed nostalgic about Romney:
I think the establishment of the Republican Party is seeing that Chris Christie may not be able to do it and that Jeb Bush does not look like he’s in fit running condition. And I think they’re looking to Romney because they’re looking for a candidate they think can move outside the red state base and win blue states possibly. The polls are showing Romney running ten points or so ahead of Obama. But he’s running behind—he’s running behind Hillary [Clinton]. My view, though, is that Romney is sort of the Nixon in the sense that he’s a candidate who’s lost two times or three times, whatever. And he’s considered a loser. However, he’s considered presidential material. And I think a lot of people are looking at him because they think that maybe he’s the only guy that can really go the distance.
At the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in March, however, lots of hard-core conservatives told Christie Watch that in 2012 Romney was “too nice” and that the New Jersey governor would be a lot tougher as a candidate than Romney was, more willing to push back hard against the Democrats (read: Hillary Clinton) than Romney did against Barack Obama.
According to The Star-Ledger’s Matt Arco, Christie—who’s already made two visits to New Hampshire in 2014, and six all together—will be back in New Hampshire in September. Ostensibly, Christie is doing all this in his capacity as chairman of the Republican Governors Conference to campaign for the long-shot GOP gubernatorial candidate in the Granite State. And that’s odd, since Christie has refused to spend any of the RGA’s time or money in support of Rob Astorino, the Republican running for governor in New York—but, of course, New York doesn’t figure in the presidential primary race for 2016.
Christie, of course, is still plagued by scandal at home—there’s no telling when or if the US attorney or other investigators will take action—at he’s dealing with a lagging New Jersey economy made worse by a budget crisis and Christie’s war on New Jersey state workers’ pensions. But he’s still a formidable candidate, especially in one-on-one formats and in town hall meetings, where his combination of seeming empathy and tough-guy bluster has proved popular. According to David Plouffe, Obama’s former political adviser, Christie has raw political talent that surpasses that of his rivals, according The Wall Street Journal:
The New Jersey governor’s biggest problem isn’t the bridge scandal—it’s his temperament, Mr. Plouffe said. “He’s very thin-skinned,” the longtime Obama adviser said. Still, Mr. Plouffe said Mr. Christie has “the rawest political skill” among potential candidates. That can also be a liability, Mr. Plouffe said, but the governor has great appeal.
And The Star-Ledger quotes Neil Levesque, executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics and Political Library at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, praising Christie’s town-hall skills:
New Hampshire is the perfect state for him, he’s a born town hall meeting person. If you want to just do campaigning from a podium this is not the state do it. This is a very different state because the voters of New Hampshire almost expect hat you’re going to get right in and tell them who you are…(and Christie) commands attention and he’s good in these town hall type of one-on-one engagements.
New Hampshire is crucial for Christie because he’s likely to lose big in Christian fundamentalist Iowa’s caucuses, whereas New Hampshire Republicans are less-religious—plus, in New Hampshire, independent voters can cast their ballots in the GOP primary, and Christie is crafting an appeal to centrist, independent-minded conservatives.
CNN, Fox News and MSNBC all treated the return of Kent Brantly, the American doctor who contracted Ebola in Liberia, as if he were riding to the hospital in a white Ford Bronco. Chopper cams and speculative commentary trailed his ambulance Saturday through the streets of Atlanta with the kind of excited intensity usually reserved for police car chases and killers on the lam.
In the end, the breathless live coverage was revealed to be embarrassingly over-the-top: Brantly didn’t even need a stretcher; he climbed out of the parked ambulance in a hazmat suit and walked, with the support of just one person, into a back door of Emory University Hospital. That was the tip-off that giving a disease the O.J. treatment is a symptom of a media sickness for which there appears to be no cure.
Ebola is a terrible hemorrhagic fever that can kill from 50 percent to 90 percent of those who contract it. It’s also a symbol to the political right of all the Third World horrors that liberals are inviting past the walls of our City on the Hill. But now that two American aid workers—Nancy Writebol has just arrived at Emory, on a stretcher but, so far, with less fanfare—have brought it directly to our shores, it’s a Clear and Present Danger.
Georgia congressman Phil Gingrey went so far last month as to warn that the Central American children who’ve been turning up at border stations around the country might be smuggling Ebola in with them, like so many contagious Trojan horses (even though Ebola fever has never been detected in a patient outside of Africa). Howlers like Gingrey’s—echoed Monday by Representative Todd Rokita (R-IN)—work because Ebola, “diseased” immigrants, and “blood pollution” of all sorts fit neatly into the racist subtext of the radical right’s opposition to Obama. After all, our “lawless,” African-born POTUS, whose parents faked a birth certificate fifty-three years ago this week in order to infect America with socialism today, just happens to be hosting fifty-one African nations at a summit in Washington. How much proof do you need?
Various studies have shown that conservatives have a lower threshold for disgust than liberals do, and Ebola, which is spread through direct contact with bodily fluids (like vomit, feces and blood, but not through sneezing or coughing) certainly crosses that low bar. Nor is it lost on wingers that AIDS originated in Africa, too.
But many of the diseases that humans are heir to are pretty damn disgusting, no matter where they originate. There aren’t two tiers of diseases any more than there are two tiers of humanity.
There is, however, Donald Trump, who tends to elevate fear of cooties into a political philosophy. He sent out a series of tweets—including “Ebola patient will be brought to the U.S. in a few days—now I know for sure that our leaders are incompetent. KEEP THEM OUT OF HERE!”—that exhibit the germ phobia we’ve come to expect from isolated billionaire crackpots (Trump will be wearing Kleenex boxes for shoes any day now). Unusually for a Republican, though, the magnate’s fears aren’t overcome by the fact that the two infected Americans are Christian missionaries. “The U.S. cannot allow EBOLA infected people back,” he also tweeted. “People that go to far away places to help out are great—but must suffer the consequences!”
And never mind that fighting such viruses at their place of origin is far more effective than pretending there’s a disinfectant force-field around the Homeland. Brantly is reported to have been suffering the consequences of doing good with a vengeance until he received two emergency treatments: an experimental serum developed by a San Diego pharmaceutical company, and, according to Samaritan’s Purse, the relief organization working with Brantly, a blood transfusion from a 14-year-old boy who survived the disease after Brantly cared for him in Liberia. Guess which treatment gets more coverage on American TV?
Which brings us back to the fever the media has been suffering ever since the ascent of the Tea Party. Rather than dispel unscientific and political myths, the instinct at many news outlets has been to promote them. The scientific truth the media should have been promoting all along isn’t that Ebola is a Holy Terror emerging from “other” races and immune to Western treatment; rather, it’s a horrible illness with a terrifically high kill rate because up to now it has appeared only in Africa, where clean water, enforced quarantines and disposable medical supplies are hard to come by. That first take played on cable news channels, regardless of their political leanings, is a measure of just how deeply the right-wing anti-science message has taken hold on TV.
But by sheer accident, the car-chase media did the public a service, demonstrating, as Brantly walked into the hospital, that the existential danger over Ebola is being oversold. MSNBC anchor Alex Witt asked on-air physicians, including NBC in-house doctor Nancy Snyderman, if they would be afraid to treat Brantly. No, said Snyderman. Any doctor would be “excited” by the opportunity to use the medical precautions and equipment available in America to find effective treatments for the disease without spreading it.
And maybe, once again, The Onion said it best: “Experts: Ebola Vaccine at Least 50 White People Away.”
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To read contemporaneous accounts of the beginning of World War I is to witness the disintegration of a world. The July 23 issue of The Nation doesn’t mention the European situation at all. The July 30 issue, apparently published just after the Austrian declaration of war against Serbia on July 28, observed that the entire continent seemed to be going mad all at once. Then a week later, Nation readers picking up the August 6 issue would have noticed a surprising bulge in the middle of the magazine: a massive four-page fold-out map of Europe in the first week of the Great War.
The first item in the Summary of the News in the issue expressed hope “for a speedy termination of the conflict and for a final settlement that may make it impossible for those few men who have brought about this calamity ever again to decide for nations the issues of life and death.” The magazine wished, that is, that if there had to be a war, it should be a war to end all wars.
After relating the timeline of the July crisis in all its unfortunate details, the editors reflected on the implications for the United States. Most remarkable is the complete absence of any suggestion that there would even become a debate about whether the Americans should get involved; the world of August 1914 was such that that contingency wasn’t even worth entertaining. In an item about the financial consequences, American isolation was taken for granted:
The part which the people at large will be called upon to play is to accept philosophically such temporary inconvenience as Europe’s troubles may occasion in their banking arrangements, and to recognize the great underlying strength and soundness of the American position. We shall presently learn what it really means to be a self-supporting industrial, agricultural, and commercial state, at a time when the rest of the world is going to war, and when the fighting nations must depend for their subsistence on the supplies of foodstuff which we are better able than ever before in our history to spare for them.
In its editorials section, the magazine laid the blame for war squarely upon Germany. “Her entrance into Luxembourg, her invasion of Belgium,” Rollo Ogden, editor of The Nation’s parent publication, The New York Evening-Post, wrote, “were the directest kind of challenge to England, and there was never any doubt as to how it would be answered. By this action Germany has shown herself ready to lift an outlaw hand against the whole of Western Europe…. By the light we have at present, this at least is clear, that if Emperor Willliam did not directly cause and desire the war, he at least failed to prevent it when it would have been easy for him to do so.”
That choice, Ogden continued, “was a decision big with fate.” His concluding paragraph is remarkably prescient:
The human mind cannot yet begin to grasp the consequences. One of them, however, seems plainly written in the book of the future. It is that, after this most awful and most wicked of all wars is over, the power of life and death over millions of men, the right to decree the ruin of industry and commerce and finance, with untold human misery stalking through the land like a plague, will be taken away from three men. No safe prediction of actual results of battle can be made. Dynasties may crumble before all is done; empires change their form of government. But whatever happens, Europe—humanity—will not settle back again into a position enabling three Emperors—one of them senile, another subject to melancholia, and the third often showing signs of disturbed mental balance—to give, on their individual choice or whim, the signal for destruction and massacre.
The senile monarch Ogden refers to is clearly the aged Franz Josef of Austria-Hungary, for whose health The Nation had already expressed concern after the assassinate of his nephew, Franz Ferdinand. As far as I know, Wilhelm of Germany was alternately melancholic and erratic. I do not know enough about the Tsar to confirm which epithet referred to him—knowledgeable readers please inform us in the comments below. More importantly, though, Ogden was correct in predicting the three would lose their power to wage war: their empires, not only their dynasties, lay crumpled and discarded by the end of the war.
The next article was by Oswald Garrison Villard, the pacifist owner of both The Nation and the Post, who began his career as a military journalist. “Forecasts as to what may happen,” Villard wrote, “now that all Europe has decided to halt the progress of civilization by going in for wholesale murder on a more terrible scale than the world has yet witnessed, would be utterly futile. The magnitude of the forces involved staggers the imagination.” The entry of Britain, he concluded with a somewhat histrionic, if appropriate, air, “makes inevitable the greatest battles the world has yet seen, to make a mock of our Christianity, 1,900 years after the coming of the Prince of Peace.”
Back Issues is following this magazine’s coverage of the “Great War”—in real time, a century later.
Curious about how we covered something? E-mail me at email@example.com. Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.
The US House of Representatives voted 225-201 last week for a measure “providing for authority to initiate litigation for actions by the President or other executive branch officials inconsistent with their duties under the Constitution of the United States.”
Translation: House Republicans approved the use of public time and resources to support Speaker John Boehner’s strategy to stir up the conservative base with a lawsuit challenging President Obama’s authority to do what previous presidents have done.
So, despite the fact that a majority of Americans see the lawsuit as a “political stunt,” it will be pursued because, as House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan says, “We want to show that we’re not going to take this lying down.”
The timing of the vote—just before the August congressional break in a critical election year—certainly suggests that this lawsuit is more about politics than the Constitution. But political moves matter, especially at the presidential level. They matter electorally. And they matter from a policy standpoint.
So what’s significant here is the question of whether Obama will be intimidated by Boehner’s initiative.
The immediate answer would appear to be “no.”
Though they have many complaints—topped by the usual objections to implementation of the Affordable Care Act—Boehner’s minions have repeatedly raised particularly loud objections regarding the issuance of executive orders that that they see as too ambitious in their intention to protect the environment, aid vulnerable children and better the condition of workers. Yet, after the House voted to back Boehner, Obama issed another order.
In fact, he issued one of the most important orders of his presidency. The Fair and Safe Workplaces Order outlines a set of requirements that are designed to steer federal contracts toward companies that respect labor and civil rights laws.
The president’s order is important. “Currently, there are about 24,000 contractors doing business with the federal government, employing about 28 million workers,” explains Communications Workers of America president Larry Cohen. “By requiring prospective federal contractors to disclose labor law violations, including illegal discrimination and firing of workers who want to exercise their right to organize, more companies may decide that obeying the law and respecting workers’ rights is the smart move after all.”
While Obama’s order is significant, it is not radical—in practice or in the context of past presidential orders.
The order uses transparency (disclosure and reporting requirements for companies) to assure that agencies awarding federal contracts can take into consideration whether bidders for federal contracts have complied with health and safety requirements, wage and hours protections, collective bargaining rules and civil rights laws.
“Requiring companies to disclose their recent compliance with labor and employment laws and allowing agencies to consider those records in the bid process will better ensure that companies receiving taxpayer-funded contracts actually satisfy our nation’s basic wage and workplace standards,” explains National Employment Law Project executive director Christine Owens. “Formal consideration of compliance records in the bidding process will also level the playing field between bidders, reducing the ability of bottom-feeders to shortchange their employees in order to gain an unfair advantage over law-abiding competitors. And incentivizing federal contractors to obey the law protects taxpayers’ interest in ensuring that their tax dollars do not underwrite illegal conduct such as wage theft, health and safety violations, and other unlawful practices that are not only inconsistent with our values but ultimately shift greater costs onto the American public.”
The executive order creates new avenues for encouraging companies to respect protections for minorities and women in the workplace. In particular, notes National Women’s Law Center co-president Marcia D. Greenberger, Obama’s order “will prohibit companies with contracts of more than $1 million from forcing their employees to arbitrate violations of federal law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, sex, national origin, or religion or tort claims arising out of sexual harassment or sexual assault.”
The notion that this is overreach, worthy of a legal action by Congress, is a stretch. After all, while Obama is doing something important here, he is not blazing a new trail as regards protection of the civil rights of federal contract workers.
Consider the record:
§ In 1941, under pressure from Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union president A. Philip Randolph and a burgeoning civil rights movement, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, which required that defense contracts include provisions to bar private contractors from discriminating on the basis of race, creed, color or national origin. The order also established the President’s Committee on Fair Employment Practice, which was empowered to investigate discrimination cases and “to take appropriate steps to redress grievances which it finds to be valid.”
§ In 1943, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9346, which applied the anti-discrimination requirement to all government contractors.
§ In 1948, again under pressure from Randolph and his allies, President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9981, which banned discrimination in the US military. “It is hereby declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin,” read the order, which established a high-level committee to investigate instances of bias and to make recommendations for how to eliminate it.
§ In 1951, President Truman issued Executive Order 10308, which created the federal Committee on Government Contract Compliance, which was charged with assuring that federal contractors continued, in the post–World War II era, to comply with the non-discrimination provisions of Executive Order 8802
§ In 1953, President Dwight David Eisenhower issued Executive Order 10479, which established the President’s Advisory Committee on Government Organization (an expansion of the Government Contract Committee) to assure that federal contractors respected all anti-discrimination orders and initiatives. Eisenhower’s order declared, “It is the obligation of the contracting agencies of the United States Government and government contractors to ensure compliance with, and successful execution of, the equal employment opportunity program of the United States Government.”
§ In 1961, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy issued Executive Order 10925, which required government contractors to “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color or national origin.” Kennedy’s order also created the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity, which was to work with federal agencies to advance the initiative. It was chaired by Vice President Lyndon Johnson.
§ In 1965, President Johnson issued Executive Order 11246, which expanded federal programs to combat discrimination and implement affirmative action programs. The order specifically prohibited “federal contractors and federally assisted construction contractors and subcontractors, who do over $10,000 in Government business in one year from discriminating in employment decisions on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” And it gave the secretary of Labor the job of administering the order’s anti-discrimination protections and initiatives. “Today,” according to the Department of Labor, “Executive Order 11246, as amended and further strengthened over the years, remains a major safeguard, protecting the rights of workers employed by federal contractors—approximately one-fifth of the entire US labor force—to remain free from discrimination on the basis of their gender, race, religion, color or national origin…and opening the doors of opportunity through its affirmative action provisions.”
Presidents, from George Washington on, have issued executive orders. And in the last century, executive orders have been closely—and consistently—tied to the improvement of the circumstance of workers employed by federal contractors.
In issuing executive orders that respect workers and advance civil rights, President Obama is doing what past presidents have done. The only difference is that he faces a lawsuit from a Congress that, in addition to failing to act on its own, wants to prevent the president from acting to get things done.
Reasonable people can and should debate the limits of presidential power, particularly when it comes to issues of war and peace, and questions about spying on Americans or politicizing positions of public trust. Any serious discourse on executive overreach would find plenty to criticize in the approaches of all recent presidents—including President Obama.
But “reasonable” and “serious” are not the words that come to mind as the most powerful and prominent Republicans in Congress attack their president’s executive orders with regard to federal contracts and contractors. The word that comes to mind is “obstruction.” Presidents have often faced obstruction when it comes to protecting workers. And from FDR’s day to today, the response has been to issue executive orders.
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