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Cuomo Went Along with Christie’s Port Authority Money Grab

Andrew Cuomo

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

When, in 2011, Governor Chris Christie did an end-run around Port Authority rules to siphon $1.8 billion in PA funds for pet projects in New Jersey, the New York side of the PA, including Governor Andrew Cuomo, went along. Why? As Christie Watch has learned, the New York PA officials had their own concerns—namely, getting the new World Trade Center built—and, worse, in the words of one former PA official, they didn’t want “to go to war with Christie.”

Christie may have hoped that last week’s resignation of Port Authority chairman David Samson, a Christie political mentor, would end the headlines linking his administration to unethical and possibly illegal activity at the Port Authority. But new revelations are already coming out about how he pressured legal staff at the PA to find ways to justify a money grab that they warned he couldn’t do.

As Christie Watch has reported, in October, 2010 Christie suddenly cancelled the $8.6 billion ARC tunnel, which had been in the planning stages for more than a decade and half and for which more than $400 million had already been spent on engineering, property acquisition and other expenses. He wanted to use the $1.8 billion that had been allocated to New Jersey from the Port Authority for the tunnel to bail out the Transportation Trust Fund, which pays for rebuilding and fixing New Jersey bridges and roads.

The fund was bankrupt. Christie, holding fiercely to his image as a non-tax Republican, was determined not to raise New Jersey’s gas tax, one of the lowest in the country.

At that time, one of the major state projects that needed funding was rebuilding the Pulaski Skyway and related roadways, a key link between New Jersey’s largest city, Newark, and the Holland Tunnel that goes to New York City. The only problem was that for historical reasons, the Holland Tunnel and its road and bridge links were outside the jurisdiction of the Port Authority.

No PA money can be used for such projects unless okayed by the legislatures of both states. PA lawyers warned Christie’s political operatives at the agency, Bill Baroni and David Wildstein, that they had grave concerns about the legality of using the money for the Pulaski Skyway. They feared it would open the agency up to lawsuits, according to investigative reporter Shawn Boburg in the Bergen Record.

Soon after the ARC tunnel was killed, New Jersey officials started thinking about using the money for the Pulaski Skyway, and the PA legal staff recommended the proper way would be to go to both state legislatures for approval. According to the Record, without clearance from either lawyers or state legislators, Christie announced he would move forward:

But two months later, on Jan. 6, 2011, without going to state lawmakers or getting sign-off from the Port Authority’s legal team, Christie announced that the Port Authority would provide the money to the state Department of Transportation for the Pulaski Skyway, the Wittpenn Bridge on Route 7, Route 139 and Portway New Road.

A memo later on from Carlene McIntyre, assistant general counsel of the PA warned:

As we have previously advised, in order to receive Port Authority funding, projects are required to fall within the scope of statutory authority and comply with the contractual requirements under which the Port Authority operates.

Just as the Port Authority cannot give money to a municipal government to plug a hole in their municipal budget (a structural deficit like the city of Newark’s), neither can the Port Authority expend Port Authority funds to plug a hole in the TTF’s operational expense budget.

Other members of the legal team agreed. But one former official told Christie Watch that there was an implicit message sent from Christie to the staff from his political operatives at the PA: “I’m the governor, this is the number one thing I want and it’s my money and you have to find a way to get it done.”

Since the money could be used for access to the Lincoln Tunnel, the staff found a way to link it to the Pulaski Skyway project according to the Record.

Instead, through a quietly orchestrated series of moves following the announcement, the Port Authority approved the payment by eventually saying the improvements would enhance access to the Lincoln Tunnel, even though all four stretches of road were miles from the crossing into Manhattan.

PA lawyers warned that the justification was questionable and might open the agency up to a challenge by bondholders. Despite these warnings the Port Authority Commissioners voted unanimously to allow it.

As Christie Watch has reported, the New Jersey legislative committee investigating Bridgegate has also been looking into why and how Christie cancelled the ARC tunnel and has subpoenaed documents on this issue.

One question that comes up in this is where were the New York Commissioners, the New York governors and other officials when New Jersey was making its power grab for almost $2 billion? Several former Port Authority officials explained to Christie Watch how the dynamics worked at the agency.

“The veto power of New Jersey was far stronger at that time than the balance of opposition by New York,” said one former official. It was the very end of David Paterson’s term as New York Governor and the start of Andrew Cuomo’s term and both men were concerned primarily with the rebuilding of the World Trade Center. Billions of dollars had already been spent on it and they worried that New Jersey officials might argue it was not really the Port Authority’s responsibility to rebuild it all because although the PA owns most of the land, it had leased out the buildings.

At the time Christie cancelled the ARC tunnel at the end of 2010, the World Trade Center had all the attention of New York officials, especially with the tenth anniversary of 9/11 looming. Building office space on the site was critical to bringing in revenue, to reviving the area. And restoring the Port Authority-run PATH complex along with subway service into that part of lower Manhattan was central to revitalizing it too.

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New York officials were concerned that if they nixed Christie’s plan for the ARC money, it would trigger another fight over the World Trade Center and it “would have paralyzed downtown for another few years.” The World Trade Center needed another $1 billion in funding and there were other issues with office builders as well.

Neither Paterson nor Cuomo wanted to “go to war against Christie,” said a former official. Paterson was soon out of office and Cuomo was not focused on urban issues, except for the World Trade Center. The ARC money had been slated to help out New Jersey and so the New York side still considered that money allocated to them, as did Christie.

Said one former official, “It was a Hobbesian choice. We could have fought it tooth and nail, but it wouldn’t have gone to a good place. We believed we needed to make sure, from a New York perspective, that the things we needed got done at the World Trade Center.”

So with New York officials acquiescent, and the New Jersey governor determined to grab the ARC money to avoid tax increases, the use of the money for the Pulaski Skyway and related building went through. “The governors of either side don’t seem to have any qualms about committing Port Authority funds for their own purposes even though they may be non-Port Authority related,” says David Gallagher, a former executive at the PA. “But it’s not a regional piggy bank. It was intended to provide the transportation, business and commercial infrastructure to make the bi-state region grow.”

 

Read Next: Lee Fang looks into the massive pension contracts offered to Christie campaign donors.

Why Does ‘Morning Joe’ Throw Mika Into the Toilet?

Mika and Joe

Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough (Flickr/US Department of Labor)

I’ve tried to avoid posting yet again on Morning Joe, but the strained psychodynamics of the show have bumped it into the faux news again. And it’s just so irresistible.

On The Daily Show last week, Samantha Bee did a nearly seven-minute bit on MJ, portraying Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski and supporting players as a sicko family. It was painfully unfunny, but it did get in some jabs about how the “boy pundits” are “always completely agreeing with their dad.”

The more amusing and yet more damning parody of the show, however, came in the form of “Morning Jolt,” a 4:23-minute video from Morning Joe itself. Launched last week, with clips from it now running as MSNBC promos, “Morning Jolt” (see it below) inadvertently reveals why the relationship between Joe and Mika, and between Joe and the boy pundits, is getting increasingly hard to watch.

Starting with a gospel singer belting “Jesus get me through this day,” “Morning Jolt” is intended to be a self-deprecating and obviously exaggerated look at what the MJ crew goes through to get to work in the still dark hours of the morning. They did something similar in 2011, in a bit panned as “icky” and sexist—Joe and the boys carouse all night while Mika jogs before dawn in a skin-tight dress. But this newest video moves beyond sexism: the real jolt is the smell of a little S&M in the morning.

Mika portrays herself (as she often does on the show) as an overly diligent but discombobulated dame. She drops her coffee and her many newspapers; she trips and breaks a stiletto heel; driving herself to work (what, no limo?), she nearly runs over a construction worker and parks her SUV right on a Rockefeller Center sidewalk.

Joe is the laid-back screw-up, a guy’s guy who oversleeps and casually rebels—when the alarm clock rings at an ungodly hour, he throws it onto a pile of other clocks.

It’s then that the promo starts to edge into Republican war-on-women territory. When Mika calls and Joe sees her photo on his smart phone, he hurls it too, but this time into the toilet. Other cell phones marinating there indicate that she bothers him daily. So, hmmm… maybe she’s a little unstable, stalkerish even—the next time we see Mika’s picture on a cell, she's bugging sex symbol Bradley Cooper, who tosses his phone into the trash. The camera catches Brzezinski’s face landing on a paper plate smeared with leftovers.

When Joe and Mika eventually meet in the corridor leading to their studio, they become the normals, braving a gauntlet of stereotyped New York weirdos—a juggler, a mariachi band, a half-naked guy throwing glitter at them, two hot babes fighting. At the end, in the video’s only dialogue, Mika tells Joe, “I tried to call you.” “Yeah,” he says, “I, um, dropped my phone.”

Even if Mika and Joe’s bickering has become their trademark shtick, what goes down in “Morning Jolt” is different. It’s not about politics or even who interrupts whom. Putting her face in the toilet and then the trash is simply demeaning. It’s odd that Mika (not to mention the show’s producers) would want to blare that to a national audience.

And you might think that Joe himself wouldn’t want to go there. After all, he was pretty humiliated last year when, after Mika called him a chauvinist, he angrily snapped his fingers at her, as if to make her come to heel. (They later apologized to each other.) And the same day that “Morning Jolt” debuted, Mika and Joe both railed against the report that “exonerated” Chris Christie for branding Bridget Kelly as an emotionally unstable wreck after she was dumped by a guy she worked with, Bill Stepien. The report’s sexist, gratuitous attack, Joe later said, was “shameful.”

But Joe and Mika are going there because they’ve apparently convinced themselves it’s all a joke. Last week Joe had to fend off people who didn’t get how funny it was when, after Mika told him to stop obsessing over the missing Malaysian jet, he told her to lower her voice. “For humorless liberals who thought I was being rude to Mika today,” he tweeted, “my sincere apologies that you are too thick to get the joke.”

Ok, let’s say it was a joke. But the lameness of such jokes and his thick sarcasm often make it hard to see the humor. It’s not like Scarborough is Colbert, comedically playing the role of a guy who condescends toward women. With the possible exception of his #CancelColbert fracas, it’s usually crystal clear where Stephen stands.

Joe, however, operates from a more passive-aggressive place. There’s an anger in him that he denies but can’t quite hide from view. For her part, Mika swings between vigorously defending herself and willingly making herself the butt of a joke gone ugly.

As Samantha Bee points out, you tune into Morning Joe to see Joe and Mika squabble and wonder how far they’ll go. But the dramatic tension only works if you think they have a real reason to stay together, like Archie and Edith or Ralph and Alice.

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Joe, of course, wants us to believe he’s just horsing around, and the video’s fantastical morning commutes are supposed to clue us in: Scarborough stands in the prow of a small boat crossing the Hudson, à la Washington crossing the Delaware, as if he’s invading New York to bring some red-state virtue to Sin City. The guys—Mike Barnicle, Willie Geist, Mark Halperin, John Heilemann, Donnie Deutsch, Steve Rattner, Dan Senor, et al. (Tina Brown is one of only two women; Al Sharpton’s the sole black person)—arrive together on the subway, like working-class stiffs, setting them apart and below the more individualistic Joe.

Mika and the boys humor Joe, and themselves, that he’s only kidding. But hoping you’re not going to be flushed down the can isn’t the same thing as love.

 

Read Next: Bryce Covert on progressives, racism and sexism.

On Universal Pre-K, de Blasio Shows Democrats How to Lead From the Left

Bill de Blasio

(AP Photo/New York Daily News, Enid Alvarez/Pool)

With Albany’s passage of the state’s 2014–15 budget, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio will see his plans for universal pre-K education and an expansion of after-school middle school implemented in the five boroughs. But with significant concessions made for the accommodation of charter schools, as well as a rejection of the mayor’s preferred source of funding for the programs, the victory is qualified, and the outlook for pushing more progressive reforms in the state seems murky.

It shouldn’t be. Educational inequality in New York City runs rampant. My Nation colleague Betsy Reed has written here: “There are currently only 20,000 full-day [pre-K] spots for 68,000 eligible children. Everyone else has to either cobble together informal care or pony up for daycare, which costs an average of $13,000 per year—a sum barely manageable for most two-income households, let alone single parents. In affluent neighborhoods, the annual bill runs anywhere from $20,000 to $40,000 per child, a burden even for some families making more than $100,000 a year.” Given the near-universally acknowledged benefits of pre-K education, we should be, like Mayor de Blasio, deeply invested in providing it to NYC families.

Fortunately, some activists are. UPKNYC was launched in December 2013, and universal pre-K supporters rallied in New York and Albany in favor of de Blasio’s plan—and against Gov. Cuomo’s competing program. And while the city isn’t exactly experiencing a post-Bloomberg hangover, people are clearing the dust from their eyes to see some of the glaring deficiencies of the old regime. Reed writes, “[P]eople appear to be waking up to the fact that Bloomberg’s gilded city neglected to provide basic social services alongside the refurbished parks and gleaming condo towers, giving New York more the appearance than the reality of ‘livability.’”

It’s time to work on behalf of all New Yorkers, and we need more campaigns (and more successes) like UPKNYC to remind us that a great city needs to serve all its people, not just the few.  

Still, while successful, the fight over UPK is a cautionary tale, and as the New Yorker’s John Cassidy points out, the deck is stacked against anyone who wants to make similar progressive reforms in the city. “If you want to get anything done,” he writes in an analysis of the pre-K battle, “you have to look responsible, reassure independents that you’re no dangerous radical, and cozy up to business and financial interests.” When de Blasio decided not to follow the script, he got smacked down: The mayor’s original plan of funding his pre-K and after-school programs via a temporary Personal Income Tax on the city’s top 1.4 percent of wage-earners was rejected, a victim of well-funded rage (and of future fundraising concerns for Gov. Cuomo’s reelection campaign this fall).

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Furthermore, allowances made to charter schools, including a mandate that requires the city to find and allocate space for charter schools on existing public-school turf, might end up further weakening New York’s public schools. And don't think it won't be a turf war. Diane Ravitch writes, “While it is true that [charter schools] enroll only 3 percent of New York state's children and only 6 percent of New York City's children, their boards contain the city's financial elite. They can pay millions for a media campaign; they can make $800,000 in campaign contributions to Governor Cuomo….” There’s that well-funded rage.

Nevertheless, at end of the day, despite the concessions made to charter schools (which are legion and problematic), the less-than-optimal source of funding, and the chilling notice given to anyone who might deign to ask the one-percent to pay full freight, New York’s new program still represents a strong expansion of the education system. Essentially, a new grade of school has been carved out in New York City, one that will eventually reduce the segment of the population that will in the long run be poor and boost college graduation rates for children. Ultimately, the city should win with this one.

And beyond education, universal pre-K is encouraging as a sign that Mayor de Blasio can deliver on his biggest commitment of last year’s campaign. Albany will deliver real money for a real program.

In de Blasio, New York has a mayor who’s willing to lead from the left, even in the face of mounting, and moneyed, opposition. He has installed as parks commissioner someone whose goal is “a more equitable approach to our parks,” and he has repudiated some of Bloomberg’s more aggressive policing tactics. There’s an opportunity here to deliver the city back to its perch at the forefront of progressive and social reform in America. Let’s not waste it.   

 

Read Next: Jarrett Murphy: De Blasio Wins and Loses in Albany Budget Battle.

Deval Patrick, These Student Climate Activists Are Your Political Future

Deval Patrick

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick (AP Photo/Josh Reynolds)

“Hey, Barack, it’s Deval. You know those 400 kids who got themselves arrested outside your place last month, protesting Keystone and ‘all of the above’? Well, a whole bunch of them just showed up at my office and want me to ban new fossil-fuel infrastructure in the state. And they’re quoting the goddam IEA!”

OK, I made that up. But it’s a conversation I couldn’t help imagining between Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts and his personal/political friend Barack Obama on Monday morning. That’s when a couple hundred young people representing the statewide network Students for a Just and Stable Future, most of them engaged in the fossil-fuel divestment campaigns on their campuses, walked out of their classes and gathered in sleet and rain on the steps of the State House in Boston.

Calling their action the Youth Walkout for Climate Justice (in alliance with the Climate Legacy Campaign coordinated by Cambridge-based Better Future Project and its grassroots network 350 Massachusetts), they insisted that Patrick “draw a hard line against new fossil fuel infrastructure,” and that he meet with them to answer their demands. A distinct possibility of civil disobedience hung in the air. (Trust me, I watched the organizers run through their action contingency plans the night before. This is also a good place to mention that I helped launch 350MA two years ago and serve as a volunteer on the Better Future Project board, though I’m currently on leave while writing a book.)

The “kids” cited the International Energy Agency’s 2011 World Energy Outlook, which reported that the world must shift decisively away from new long-term investments in fossil-fuel infrastructure by 2017 or risk “locking in” decades of carbon emissions that would all but guarantee catastrophic warming within this century—that is, quite possibly their lifetime. That’s the same reasoning behind the effort to stop Keystone XL—and to stop new natural gas plants in Massachusetts (and gas and coal export facilities everywhere).

“The energy infrastructure built today will affect our entire lives, and we insist that these decisions not be made without our involvement,” the students wrote in an open letter to Patrick posted weeks ahead of the walkout and demonstration. “We are driven to this action by the desperation we feel as we see the impacts of political inaction on the climate crisis…. Your legacy is our future, Governor Patrick.”

What to do if you’re Deval Patrick? Arguably the best governor in the country on climate change—the state’s Global Warming Solutions Act, the strongest climate law in the nation, as well as Green Jobs and Green Communities legislation, were all passed in his first term—he now finds himself confronted by a fast-growing state and national youth climate movement (i.e., voters representing his political future) telling him that his signature accomplishment, and key to his legacy, is simply insufficient. “Your climate initiatives, while stronger than those of most politicians,” the students wrote, “are not enough.”

Well, if you’re Deval Patrick, here’s one thing you do: You tell the students that you’d be happy to meet with them, and you direct your office to schedule the meeting. That is in fact what happened, so that when a delegation of students on Monday marched up to the governor’s office on Beacon Hill and met with Patrick’s deputy chief of staff, they were able to come back out and report to the cheering rally (and the media) that Patrick agreed to sit down with them in the near future.

Of course, that decision wasn’t made on the spot Monday morning. When the students signalled their intentions in the weeks prior, the administration was quick to respond. Last week the students and their Better Future Project partners sat down with David Cash, one of Patrick’s key advisors on energy policy and newly appointed head of the Department of Environmental Protection.

Cash asked the students for a date by which they’d want to see the ban take effect, which the students took as an encouraging sign. But Cash ultimately explained that with the state’s remaining coal plants coming offline by 2017, as well as regional nuclear plants, there is a serious concern that without new natural gas capacity, renewables alone won’t fill the gap, and that blackouts in eastern Massachusetts—and the ensuing political fallout—would become a real possibility. (Better Future Project’s Climate Legacy white paper argues that an urgent effort to scale up renewables and speed efficiency and conservation measures, commensurate with the urgency of the climate crisis, could meet the challenge.)

With the door to any further discussion of the matter seemingly closed, it was only after a last-ditch appeal directly to Patrick (through a friendly back channel) that the offer of a meeting came—the night before the walkout.

David Cash is a very smart and congenial guy, and he and the students appear to share a mutual respect. But when I talked with him before the student action, he sounded genuinely perplexed, perhaps even a tad frustrated, that he was now being forced to defend Deval Patrick’s climate legacy to young climate activists. What the students should be doing, he told me, is “holding up what Patrick has done as a model for other governors who are nervous, and say, here’s how you do it.”

In a follow-up email, he described the administration’s record: “GHG emissions have decreased by 11% since 2007, solar capacity has increased from 3MW to over 450MW, wind has increased from about 3MW to over 100MW, Massachusetts has become number one in the country in energy efficiency while saving customers billions of dollars, and clean energy jobs have grown between 6% and 12% per year for the last several years.” (The emissions reductions are smaller than needed to meet the 2050 goal, and the Patrick administration has yet to set the crucial interim targets for 2030 and 2040.)

And yet, what about the IEA’s warning of a catastrophic emissions “lock-in” if we don’t stop building new carbon infrastructure now? Cash never directly answered that one. And what about recent warnings from top scientists that even the internationally agreed-upon goal of a 2-degree Celsius warming limit may well bring disastrous effects, and that we simply have to move faster to address the crisis?

“Governor Patrick has not shied away from saying that this is a huge problem that we have to address now,” Cash said. But, he insisted, to say “we’re just going to have to suck it up and have some blackouts, and prices are going to be really high for the next ten years until we can get all of this stuff online—that’s not going to sell. Massachusetts is going as fast as possible.” Cash’s biggest worry is that the resulting political backlash would set back the national climate agenda (and, though he didn’t say this explicitly, Deval Patrick’s political prospects).

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So there you have the stark dilemma, and brutal reality, of progressive climate politics circa 2014. On the one hand, a rising generation of young people who feel trapped in an impossible situation that they didn’t make or choose. On the other, a generation of progressive politicians caught between an apocalyptic scientific reality and a political and economic status quo that is driving us off the cliff—a status quo they apparently cannot imagine ever changing, even in the face of increasingly visible climate impacts and ever more alarming warnings from scientists.

These students, and the larger climate movement of which they’re a part, are desperately trying to change that political reality. And if they can’t move the most sympathetic politicians to show the kind of leadership that could break the status quo—if even Deval Patrick can’t do what the crisis really demands, even in a state like Massachusetts, and if his friend Barack Obama can’t stand up to the carbon lobby and reject the Keystone XL, sending an unmistakable and unprecedented message to the world—then this generation of young leaders, who increasingly grasp the scale and urgency of the climate crisis, may well begin to lose hope.

And when that happens, all political bets are off. Because then you have a generation of young people who feel they have nothing to lose. Nothing to lose by laying everything on the line. Nothing to lose by taking their future into their own hands.

 

Read Next: Michael T. Klare on our global fossil fuel addiction

The Function of Black Rage

Malcolm X

Malcolm X holds during a Black Muslim rally in New York City on Aug. 6, 1963. (AP Photo)

“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time. ” – James Baldwin

When the tête-à-tête between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jonathan Chait over black culture, the “culture of poverty,” President Obama, Paul Ryan and American racism started, it was somewhat fascinating, but has become what Tressie McMillan Cottom described as “a nasty piece of cornbread.” It has left a rotten taste in my mouth. That’s mostly because, as congenial as the two have been toward one another, I detect in Chait’s argument one of my greatest pet peeves: a white person attempting to talk a black person down from their justifiable rage.

One of the issues that has come up in this debate is the way these two men view American history. Chait writes:

Coates and I disagree about racial progress in America. Coates sees the Americas' racial history as a story of continuity of white supremacy. I see the sequence (I’d call it a progression, but that term would load the argument in my favor) that began with chattel slavery and has led to the Obama administration as a story of halting, painful, non-continuous, but clear improvement.

What a luxury it must be to define the history of racism in America through the lens of progress.

He goes on:

Coates associates himself with a quote from Malcolm X: "You don't stick a knife in a man's back nine inches, and then pull it out six inches and say you're making progress." The analogy defines out of existence the very possibility of steady progress. People who subscribe to this way of thinking won’t agree with measures that reduce but fail to eliminate racial discrimination, or those that reduce but fail to eliminate poverty, or reduce but fail to eliminate medical deprivation. I have written before, for instance, about how slavery continues to poison white minds in ways white people are often unaware of. One can believe in the continued existence of racism and still think that the scale of the evil has fallen enormously since the 19th century.

You don't get to define progress in a struggle that is not your own. It’s really that simple. You inevitably bring to that analysis an outsider’s perspective, and from that vantage point, progress of any measure looks astounding. It’s particularly awe-inspiring if it allows you to feel less implicated in the reason for that struggle. But that’s what we call privilege: the ability to observe "improvement" because you're not experiencing the ever present oppression. It clouds your judgment. It deludes you into believing you have the authority of objectivity. It breeds self-righteousness. It impedes true progress.

This doesn't preclude Chait, or other white people, from having an opinion on the state of racism in America. But it must be understood that their whiteness, and therefore distance from the lived experience of racism, affords them much rosier view of what constitutes progress.

Chait previously wrote, with a note of disappointment, “I have never previously detected this level of pessimism in Coates’s thinking before.” He isn’t alone. Andrew Sullivan and quite a few of his readers detect a “profound gloom” in Coates’s writing as of late, a change, they say, from just a few years ago.

Where they see pessimism and gloom, I see anger, an anger I wish we saw more of. Anger helps build movements. Of course, anger alone isn't sufficient, but it has a galvanizing effect. There's an anger unique to experiencing America through blackness that has pushed this country to react. Chait, Sullivan and some anonymous emailers appear to want Coates to feel happier about the progress America has made in eliminating racism. Sure, there are still a few things left to hammer out, but c’mon, you’ve got to admit we’ve gotten better, right? Right?

Here I find it instructive to revisit this passage from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”:

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness"--then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

That is an impatience born of rage. We don’t associate King with anger, as we’ve whitewashed his image to that of a peaceful dreamer, but you can not read or hear him without feeling that palpable sense of frustration, fury and anger. Or perhaps you can, which simply means, to me, you have no way to relate.

And it’s easy to say, “Of course King was angry, this is a different time. This shouldn’t apply now. We’re not dealing with the same things as back then.” But we are. We are dealing with the persistence of white supremacy as an ideology and the practice of racism as a determinant of black humanity. That the degree has lessened and the tactics changed does not make that any less true. Additionally, what King was responding to is the same type of white liberal malaise on display now. There remains an uneasiness with discussing American racism alongside the myth of American exceptionalism, because the myth is easier to digest. We continue to be asked to stop. We continue to be told we’ve won enough.

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Emancipation was supposed to be enough. “Separate but equal” was supposed to be enough. Brown v. Board of Education was supposed to be enough. The Civil Rights/Voting Acts were supposed to be enough. Affirmative action was supposed to be enough. A black president is supposed to be enough. Yet, here we are, facing mass incarceration, food insecurity, chronic unemployment, the erosion of the social safety net, income inequality, housing discrimination, police brutality and the seemingly unending deaths of our young people at the hands of police and armed vigilantes. Pardon the “profound gloom.”

What some call depression or pessimism, I would call impatience and rage. Our impatience and rage is what has produced progress. That we are still impatient and angry reflects not black people’s failing but how far America still has to go.

My question/challenge to white people who claim to be on the side of equality and justice: when will you get just as angry that these things have been done in your name?

 

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On Racism and Sexism, Don’t Let Progress Be the Enemy of More Progress

"Justice for Trayvon" rally

"Justice for Trayvon" rally in downtown Chicago, July 20, 2013 (AP Photo/Scott Eisen)

If you read blogs, then you have almost certainly seen the back and forth between two sharp writers, Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic and Jonathan Chait at New York Magazine. Their conversation began in reaction to comments made by Representative Paul Ryan, in which he said, “We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.” Coates’s initial response was to point out that Paul Ryan is not alone in these views: President Obama, too, exhorts young black men to pull up their pants and put their noses to the grindstone. Chait countered that "centuries of slavery, followed by systematic terrorism, segregation, discrimination, a legacy wealth gap, and so on" has in fact left "a cultural residue" on the black community. The conversation has turned into a provocative conversation about the nature of racism and its role in shaping culture. You should read all of the back and forths—Chait’s response, Coates’s rebuttal, Chait’s rebuttal to the rebuttal, and Coates’s (so far) final word. I won’t do either of them justice by summarizing.

In his most recent response, Chait chides Coates for being “profoundly pessimistic” about the persistence of racism in America. Of black Americans, Coates writes, “America has rarely been our ally. Very often it has been our nemesis.” Coates argues that white supremacy was not some brief nightmare that we have since woken up from, but “one of the central organizing forces in American life,” past and present. Chait labels Coates’s outlook “grim fatalism," and argues that our history is one “mainly of progress,” pointing out that slavery was ended, lynching was ended, legal segregation was ended, and then we elected an African-American president. Since the end of segregation, he writes, “most social metrics relevant to black prosperity have turned sharply upward,” such as the closing of the achievement gap, lower black poverty rates, falling rates of homicide against black people and more black police officers. The implication is that the progress made disproves that the situation is still grim.

Andrew Sullivan has also joined in, first calling out Coates for his “profound gloom” and then writing of his “concern that [Coates’s] depression about the state of America was weakening his usual strengths.” That gloom, he writes, “seems—no, is—out of place.”

Both (white) writers are sending the same message to Coates: Buck up! Look at all the progress that has been made! That must mean that white supremacy is no longer an invisible hand guiding all interactions in our society—or at least, not such a powerful one.

I’ve often been put in the same position. Obviously, racism and sexism function differently—but people have used many of the same tactics to argue that racist and sexist systems no longer exist. Patriarchy, or the system in which men receive an unequal share of power and acclaim by default, has been pronounced dead. In that particular piece, Hanna Rosin argued that feminists are “cling[ing] to the dreaded patriarchy” and that we are irrationally attached to “the concept of unfair.” In previous work, Rosin has marshaled as evidence not just an end to the patriarchy, but a beginning of a matriarchy, the fact that for a while during the crisis more men were unemployed than women and that, in her view, women are more suited to the new economy. She also sees women making “every important decision—whether to have a baby, how to raise it, where to live.”

Other data has excited the patriarchy coroners, such as the fact that women are getting more college degrees than men, women dominate the job categories projected to grow fastest over the next decade, and one 2010 study found that single, childless urban women between 22 and 30 earned more than their male counterparts. Never mind that women make less than men at every degree level, on the whole not only make 77 cents for every dollar men make when working full time but have stalled out in gaining on them, those jobs they dominate pay terribly, and they make less than men even in female-dominated occupations.

Chait similarly marshalls data to argue that African-Americans are better off now than they have been at any previous time in history. And indeed, the challenge today for people fighting old systems of oppression is that the very obvious forms they used to take have mostly been done away with. Slavery was ended. Women were allowed to vote and own property. Segregation was outlawed. Companies are no longer allowed to fire women because they get married. It is hard to overstate the importance of each of these milestones and the changes they brought to oppressed people’s lives and our society as a whole.

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But the progress gets some people so excited that they think we’ve sprinted past the finish line when we’ve simply advanced a few miles in a very, very long race. Redlining, the way white supremacy kept black Americans from accumulating housing wealth that Coates has documented so well, is no longer legal, but housing discrimination still exists, just in a more subtle form. Similarly it is ostensibly illegal to pay women less than men for the same work but they continue to make less in every job and industry. These systems are no longer on the surface, but they still lurk just below, molding the geography of our economy and systems of power.

Things have certainly gotten better, and many people have become more accepting of, say, black and white people marrying or women leaving the home (and children) and joining the workforce. But the wound of past prejudice, rather than being cleanly sutured, still oozes and festers. And the problem with declaring it fully healed is that the work needed to keep making improvements won’t get done. Wiping our hands and walking away from white supremacy or the patriarchy as problems we have solved means that they are enabled to continue operating with greater freedom. None of these problems will be easily fixed, but I can guarantee we won’t even start if we think they’re in the past.

 

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Q&A with Ryan Branagan of Northeastern's Students for Justice in Palestine

SJP Northeastern

Northeastern chapter of SJP (Photo courtesy of Northeastern SJP)

Northeastern University in Boston recently sparked controversy when it suspended a pro-Palestinian student group, Students for Justice in Palestine. A Northeastern spokeswoman told the Boston Globe that the group was suspended because it flouted university rules, vandalized school property and failed to deliver a “civility statement” outlining rules for future conduct, required after the group was placed on probation last year for a walkout at a campus presentation by Israeli soldiers. “They are not being singled out,” said Renata Nyul. “There is no pressure coming from anywhere. This is simply the result of violating a series of policies and procedures that every single student organization needs to adhere to.” Student activists counter that the group was singled out because its views are unpopular and that the administration was bowing to pressure from alumni and donors. In this interview, StudentNation writer Keegan O'Brien talks to Ryan Branagan, an executive board member of Northeastern University's Students for Justice in Palestine, to get his side of the story.

* * *

Keegan O'Brien: Before we get into the details of this story, could you start off by describing the mission of Students for Justice in Palestine?

Ryan Branagan: Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) is a grassroots solidarity organization with the Palestinian struggle for liberation with hundreds of autonomous chapters in North America and thousands of student members and community supporters. It is committed to ending Israel’s occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the separation wall. It recognizes the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality. It calls for respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return. The first chapter was founded in 2001 at UC Berkeley during the Second Palestinian Intifada (2000-2005), but since Israel's criminal 2008-09 assault on the people of Gaza in Operation Cast Lead, SJP chapters have really mobilized and increased our membership and influence exponentially.

The focus of many SJP chapters has been responding to the 2005 call of Palestinian civil society for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel, on the model of the international campaign against Apartheid South Africa, which assisted the ANC's defeat of the white supremacist government in 1994. By boycotting Israeli goods, divesting our universities from companies that directly assist the colonization of Palestine and pushing for an arms sanction against Israel—à la South Africa—until it complies with international law and discontinues its war crimes and crimes against humanity, we hope to join with Palestinians and people of conscience internationally to bring down another apartheid state.

Can you tell me what happened at Northeastern University with your campus' SJP chapter? Why has the university revoked your club status? What are the charges students are facing?

Northeastern SJP's suspension comes at the end of a long line of differential treatment, academic sanctioning and censorship of our student organization on campus. After SJP organized a silent walkout of an event featuring representatives of the Israeli Defense Force in April 2013, we were put on probation, pressured to sign a "civility statement," and required to attend "leadership trainings." Despite the fact that we completed all of these and were officially removed from probationary status in the beginning of this semester, we were suspended on March 7, 2014 without a hearing. The suspension—which is in place until 2015 unless the university considers our appeal, which it has yet to do—charged us with violations that we were not responsible for or in any way connected to (such as the "vandalism" of a statue on campus of prominent Zionist Robert Shillman), old violations from our probation that we had already been cleared of or found not responsible, and new charges that had to do with a mock eviction flyering campaign we did on campus.

In conjunction with the last charges against our organization, two women of color who partook in the direct action were visited in their dorms by Northeastern police and individually charged with alleged violations that initially could have resulted in their expulsion or suspension. These attacks on our members, however, prompted widespread condemnation and we successfully forstalled administration efforts to expell these students. However, they still face the threat of "deferred suspension" and SJP remains suspended.

Can you tell me more about the mock eviction action? Why did you do it and what was its purpose?

In tandem with Palestine solidarity organizations worldwide, Northeastern SJP participated in the 10th annual Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) here in Boston. IAW is a week-long chorus of dissent against Israel's racist and colonial policies against the indigenous Palestinians and seeks to raise awareness for the ongoing injustices they face.

Here at Northeastern SJP, we seized upon one recent campaign that is common practice for numerous SJPs throughout North America—namely, posting mock eviction notices on students' dormitories. We feel this campaign is effective and timely reminding us of the more than 26,000 Palestinian homes that have been demolished by Israel since 1967 using American-made D-9 bulldozers, while Jewish-only illegal settlements continue to be built in ever greater frequency.

SJP distributed over 600 flyers to the Northeastern community, which clearly stated these were false eviction notices but reflected real, horrific realities for the people of Palestine. Our aim was to peacefully, legally raise awareness of the plight of Palestinians and the university's complicity in Israel's apartheid system. However, due to pressure from outside Zionist organizations and Northeastern administration's ignominious history of viewpoint discrimination against SJP, this act of civil discourse was criminalized by the university.

What influence—if any, have outside, pro-Israel organizations had on the Northeastern Administration's actions?

The direct influence outside Zionist organizations have on the administration is clear. As I wrote in an article for the pro-Palestinian blog Electronic Intifada, anti-Palestinian groups like the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) and Anti-Defamation League (ADL) have been threatening the Northeastern administration with legal complaints under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ostensibly to review the federal funding of the university in light of alleged "anti-Israelism" and "anti-Semitism" of SJP. These accusations and legal complaints have been waged before—from Berkeley to Columbia University—and every single time the case has been thrown out as illegitimate. In fact, I'd say it's near slander—and that's the point. The ADL and ZOA know that this legal strategy is a losing one, but pursue it anyway to pressure administrators to suppress voices for Palestinian liberation on campus.

Moreover, there is a fundamental conflict of interest when it comes to the donors of Northeastern University. For example, multimillionaire Robert Shillman, CEO of the Cognex Corporation, is also a major donor to the ZOA, and was cc-ed in its letter to the Northeastern administration threatening legal action. On campus we also have Raytheon Amphitheater and a partnership with that corporate war profiteer, which not only manufactures the Tomahawk cruise missiles that the American military uses to kill innocent civilians in Iraq and Libya, but also sells AGM-65 missiles to Israel, which it uses against Palestinians in Gaza.

The Ruderman Foundation is also a major donor to the university, and is colluding with the administration on April 1, 2014 to bring six members of the Israeli Knesset to campus, including members of far-right racist parties like Dr. Shimon Ohayaon of Yisrael Beitenu. Yisrael Beitenu was foundered by former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who has been described as Israel's Jean-Marie Le Pen and a neo-fascist, and is known for threatening Palestinian MKs with physical violence.

How has your organization responded to the university's actions? What are your plans for moving forward? And what has the response been like from other students and organizations on campus, the larger Boston community or even nationally and internationally?

Despite the numerous hurdles and acts of suppression the administration has attempted to leverage against SJP, our campaign to fight their attack on free speech has so far been remarkably successful. This is due not only to the incredibly brave and determined activists I have the honor of working with, but also the international outpouring of support we've received from people as far away as Mexico, Australia, Palestine and Italy. Within three days of our suspension, over 6,000 people signed our petition in support. When we called for a march on campus to deliver the petition to President Aoun's office, over thirty student and community organizations ranging from Jewish Voice for Peace to Youth Against Mass Incarceration to Women's Fight Back Network came out en masse; between 250-300 people assembled at 10:00 am on a cold Tuesday morning. Moreover, our student allies have been gracious enough to help us remain a force on campus, reserving rooms and hosting teach-ins in solidarity.

We're most excited about prolific Palestinian-American author, journalist and activist Ali Abunimah's visit to Northeastern University on April 1, which our comrades at the Progressive Student Alliance are hosting. All of this has been incredibly humbling and inspiring, and I think there's a clear message being sent to the administration: SJP is not alone in caring about justice in Palestine, free speech on campus or social movements. Singling us out is not only wrong, but futile. The administration will not stop our organizing, nor will it stop free speech. We fight this unjust attack with every fiber of our being until victory, and we're never going to stop until our university completely divests from Israeli apartheid.

As you know, Northeastern's SJP is not the only SJP to experience harassment and repression from campus administrators in recent months. Why do you think we are seeing campus administrations work so hard to disrupt SJPs work at Northeastern and at other universities?

While campus suppression of pro-Palestine speech is hardly unprecedented in the United States, I think the most recent wave of attacks—from the unprincipled assault on the American Studies Association by hundreds of campus presidents (including Northeastern President Aoun), to the censorship of Columbia SJP at Barnard, to the attack on Professor Iymen Chehade's academic freedom—is a testament to our growing strength. With divestment resolutions passing at Loyola, narrowly losing at UCLA and mobilizing hundreds at the University of Michigan despite defeat, it's becoming increasingly clear that Zionist attempts to stamp us out are failing. The fires of rebellion are spreading, and they're scared.

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What do you want other students and activists to learn from your struggle?

Hopefully, this shows to the disempowered and the pessimistic a basic truth: struggle works. Social movements can influence social change, and we all have a role to play. However, especially with the diverse group of supporters who have joined us in the trenches, I think it's time to start making the connections. These neo-liberal universities are built on stolen indigenous land and profited from the holocaust of enslavement—America, like Israel, Australia and Northern Ireland, is a settler state. Were we to move against only Zionist settler colonialism or only American patriarchy, we'd be missing a crucial chance. This movement for BDS against Israel should lead to a wider movement against all settler colonial states, all forms of oppression, against capitalism itself. We have a chance right now, but it's on all of us to start using our university educations to think critically about our society and fight for real emancipatory change.

To sign the petition for Northeastern SJP, please go here.

Click here for more information about Ali Abunimah’s “The Battle for Justice in Palestine” book tour stop at Northeastern.

 

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Good News! Janet Yellen Speaks English, Not Fedspeak

Janet Yellen

Federal Reserve Board Chair Janet Yellen (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Good news! Janet Yellen, the new chair of the Federal Reserve, speaks English. This is most irregular, even unprecedented in modern times. I’ve been following Fed pronouncements for more than thirty years and cannot remember a time when Volcker-Greenspan-Bernanke ever departed from the dry-as-dust abstractions of monetary economics. Some called it double-talk. But these Fed chairmen were really only talking to a very narrow audience of bankers, financiers and learned economists. The rest of America either wasn’t listening or was unable to translate Fedspeak.

Yellen broke the mold this week with her very first speech to a public audience in Chicago, a national conference on community reinvestment. She talked about the people who don’t have jobs and with a rare sense of human empathy. She even named several whom she had talked with.

Dorine Poole lost her job processing medial insurance claims when the recession hit. Jermaine Brownlee, an apprentice plumber and skilled construction worker, had to scramble for odd jobs with lower pay. Vicki Lira lost the full-time job she had for twenty years when the printing plant closed, then she lost another job processing mortgages when the housing market crashed.

“Vicki faced some very difficult years,” Yellen said. “At times she was homeless. Today she enjoys her part-time job serving food samples to customers at a grocery store but wishes she could get more hours.”

The Fed chair (the title Yellen prefers to chairwoman) declared her solidarity with these “brave men and women.” She explicitly promised the central bank would not abandon their cause, though the economy is again attempting a sputtering recovery. This is a foundational speech for Yellen’s tenure and she will doubtless get brickbats from the usual conservative bean counters. She deserves to get far more energetic support from other political quarters, including the White House.

“The hardships faced by some have shattered lives and families,” Yellen explained. “Too many people know firsthand how devastating it is to lose a job at which you had succeeded and be unable to find another, to run through your savings and even lose your home, as months and sometimes years pass trying to find work, to feel your marriage and other relationships strained and broken by financial difficulties. And yet many of those who have suffered the most find the will to keep tryng.”

Of course she was trying to show that, despite its austere reputation, the Federal Reserve does have a heart. But, more to the point, she asserted explicitly that Fed policy will continue to support economic growth with low interest rates intended to encourage job creation. “The recovery still feels like a recession to many Americans and it also looks that way in some economic statistics,” she warned.

Her declaration is especially impressive because she did not “dumb down” the economic argument for people who are not versed in the indicators. Yellen walked though the evidence that demonstrates why the economy remains feeble—too slack to generate either vigorous job creation or rising wages. Clarity of expression was never one of the Fed’s strong traits. Indeed, Fed officials often seemed to enjoy befuddling members of Congress, most of whom are no more sophisticated than their constituents.

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I do not doubt her sincerity, but I expect Yellen to be tested on this commitment. The Federal Reserve’s efforts to stimulate or provoke stronger growth have not succeeded to date and deflationary forces are still present worldwide. At some point rather soon, progressive forces should start asking Yellen what else the Fed can do and demand some answers. As I have been writing for the last few years, the central bank has great untapped lending powers that could cooperate in supporting new job-creating programs like infrastructure spending—if the president and White House take the lead.

Yellen, so far as I know, has never expressed herself on this possibility nor has Barack Obama. But if the misery and loss continue to tear up the lives of millions of families, as Yellen described, then the people deserve a straight answer from her and the president. To make such a deal, the Federal Reserve will need political cover to protect it from right-wing howlers. The President can provide this leadership if he has the nerve. Maybe the gutsy new Fed chair can encourage him to explore possibilities with her.

 

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Ralph Nader on the GM Scandal: ‘Detroit has Washington Pretty Greased’

Young Ralph Nader

Ralph Nader standing on on an overpass above Interstate 495, a beltway circling Washington, DC, in 1967. (AP Photo)

In the April 11, 1959 issue of The Nation, a young attorney named Ralph Nader took auto manufacturers to task for “glacier-like movement” in availing themselves of engineering solutions to minimize the deadly effects of car crashes.  “Automobiles are so designed as to be dangerous at any speed,” he warned, testing out the line that evolved into the title of his groundbreaking 1965 book, Unsafe at Any Speed.

Fifty-five years later, Congress is investigating a new car safety scandal involving corporate malfeasance, regulatory ineptitude, and at least thirteen deaths. For more than a decade, General Motors was aware of an ignition switch defect that caused some cars to shut off, seemingly at random, disabling the power steering, the airbags, and other safety features. Not until February did GM begin to recall the affected models. The company has recalled more than 2.6 million vehicles so far, and is facing a congressional inquiry and a criminal probe. For it’s part, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, one of the most significant legacies of Nader’s campaign for consumer safety, appears to have failed to perform its oversight and enforcement duties, twice declining to investigate reports of the defects.

As GM CEO Mary Barra and NHTSA acting administrator David Friedman prepare to testify before Congress on Wednesday and Thursday, I spoke with Nader about the scandal, regulatory lapses, and the relationship between lawmakers and the auto industry. 

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

* * *

Zoë Carpenter: What do you think the GM scandal says about how far we’ve come to balance corporate power and consumer rights?

Ralph Nader: GM has done a lot of worse things and got away with it over the years. They blocked fuel efficiency standards with Michigan Representative John Dingell and others, they've blocked safety standards from NHTSA. However, this one has all the elements of a criminal cover-up. Criminal negligence at least, if not a pure criminal cover-up. As a result there is great potential for legislative reform to strengthen the antiquated motor vehicle and highways safety laws, bring them up to date, improve the recall authority, enlarge the fines, and increase the budget of NHTSA, which is absurdly low—deliberately low.

That's the problem with all of these regulatory agencies: almost nobody pays attention in the press to the tiny budgets. It's like having a street crime spree in New York City--arsons, burglary, assaults, and there's one hundred police. People would say, "You need more police!" Well, you need more federal cops in the corporate crime beat and that's true for all agencies. The corporate lawyers are very good about going up on Capitol Hill and making sure those budgets do not increase, even though they pay for themselves many times over with fines and penalties.

Is part of the problem the relationship between lawmakers and the auto industry?

Yeah! It's always been that way, and Dingell of course has undermined the Democrats. So you take the Republicans and John Dingell, you can't beat 'em. Dingell will bring in the United Auto Workers on fuel efficiency, for example. You can't beat a combination of GM, UAW, and John Dingell. He blocked the air bag for years. He was on the back of NHTSA all the time!

One problem is the trivial budgets [for regulatory agencies]. If you don't have investigators, prosecutors, other lawyers, engineers, you can't do justice to the safety laws. You just cannot keep up. Especially when the auto companies are expert at stonewalling you, giving money to lawmakers on the hill, hiring corporate law firms.

NHTSA is culpable in this GM ignition switch problem, for sure. They weren't alert enough, and there's a culture of timidity. It's a product of being browbeaten by Dingell, by the White House, by the lobbyists day after day, year after year, decade after decade. They get very squeamish about ordering recalls. Detroit has Washington pretty greased. They pick timid regulators who are engaged in on-the-job training and represent the auto industry after they leave the agencies.

Is this part of a larger problem with the revolving door in Washington?

Yeah, it's part of a larger problem.

You mentioned earlier that the GM case has the elements of a cover-up. What are some of the signs indicating that?

The first is they knew years ago about a deadly defect that could cause death and injury. Then they got reports of the deaths and injuries, and did nothing. Under law  they were supposed to inform the government about it, and they did not do so. Then more deaths and injuries occurred, and they still did nothing. [General Motors CEO] Mary Barra says that she didn't learn about it until January 31! And she's the CEO. So the best view of what happened inside GM is bureaucracy—committees passing the buck to one another, nobody responsible, stifling whistleblowers.

This may well lead to an reorganization internally within GM. GM should put an independent ombudsman in place who can receive complaints from conscientious engineers early on, protect the anonymity of the engineer, and have direct access to the top executives of GM.

It's a great opportunity, actually. The only time the traffic and auto safety laws are strengthened is when there's a scandal. You've got the big enchilada here with GM.

And there's another thing: that GM might have released false information during this bankruptcy. They may unravel the bankruptcy again, and what we're pushing for is to reinstate all those liability suits by injured and dead people in GM cars. The bankruptcy created a new GM and an old GM. Old GM had no assets. New GM was filled with billions in taxpayer dollars and they immunized it from dozens and dozens of product liability lawsuits by families, which is really gross and unprecedented. And now that could be re-opened.

Here's what I think is going to happen: no auto company can continually be exposed day after day in the newspapers, because they're going to start losing credibility and start losing sales. So GM may enter into a grand settlement: they pay a huge fine to get the Justice Department and the Department of Transportation off their back, they recall all the cars, they allow the reinstatement of the liability suits, and they pledge that they'll reorganize inside GM, so that it doesn't happen again.

GM doesn’t want a criminal investigation. That would be devastating. Companies will do anything to avoid a trial. There are very few trials in the corporate crime area—shockingly few trials.

Notice that the auto safety law itself has no criminal penalty. We lost that battle in a huge struggle in the Senate back in 1966. Even for willful violation of NHTSA regulations, there is no criminal penalty. Where the criminal penalty comes in is in Title 18; if you lie to the government or do not report information as required to the government. So in one sense, GM is shielded by the absence of a criminal penalty under NHTSA. On the other hand, they are vulnerable under Title 18, because they didn’t report to NHTSA as they were required to, and they misled the agency.

A grand settlement along the lines you described, would that solve the problems with the regulatory agencies?

That’s a bigger challenge and that’s very important. It’s one thing to strengthen NHTSA, but if NHTSA is under a lot of political pressure from Dingell types and White House types it’s not going to mean that much. But it will mean something. No matter who’s president, no matter who’s on the Hill, if you doubled the recall authority of NHTSA, you’d get more recalls. You’ll still have political influence, but you’ll get more recalls, because there’d be more engineers and scientists.

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Why all the attention now?

I think Mary Barra is a factor. They’re fascinated by this new woman, and how she’s going to handle it. That’s part of it. The second is that it’s such a simple thing to understand: don’t put anything on your keychain, otherwise you may lose your engine and your airbag will not deploy when you crash. It isn’t like it’s a complex handling problem or an engine problem or something like that. 

The reason Congress is so interested in this is because of the media. Did you see The New York Times article saying the Cobalt was a “lemon?” GM can’t take that. It’s like a spilling sewer pipe. Once all this is in the press, other whistleblowers might start to emerge because they can get protective cover.

The media is racing on this. It’s just marvelous, after ten years of a news desert. Those of us in auto safety advocacy, we have to take advantage of this for reform—reform in NHTSA, and reform in the auto companies.

 

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