A job fair in Washington, DC. (Reuters/Jason Reed)
The US economy is suffering from a nasty case of austerity.
More than 11.7 million active job seekers cannot find work. And that figure does not include millions of Americans who have given up on looking for work, or who are severely under-employed. Add them in and the real unemployment’s at 13.9 percent.
Even the jobs that are being created tend to be in sectors of the economy where wages tend to low and benefits often nonexistent. For instance, the latest report notes growth in the “temporary services” sector. But there’s zero job growth in manufacturing.
“This is a classic ‘hold-steady’ report—enough job growth to keep the unemployment rate stable but not much more,” Heidi Shierholz, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute, says of the latest news from the US Department of Labor. “In good times, this would be fine, but at a time like this, it represents an ongoing disaster.”
Why are things so slow?
In a word: austerity.
“This month’s abysmal jobs number—165,000 new jobs in April, barely enough to cover new people coming into workforce—is a self-inflicted wound. Government austerity—[misguided tax policies] and spending cuts—is suffocating the economy, just when it needs air,” explains Robert Borosage, the co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future. “And the perversity will get worse. The sequester cuts are only now beginning to hit. Austerity is driving Europe deeper into recession. China is slowing. US exports will suffer. And Washington is about to descend into new self-manufactured crises around next year’s budget and the debt ceiling. The positive signs in housing, the extraordinary measures taken by the Federal Reserve, the soaring stock market are undermined by Washington’s failure.”
Congress cannot even agree on the problem. Despite the fact that their approach has been discredited—academically and practically—there are still members of the House and Senate who buy into the fantasy that what’s holding the economy back is government spending. Typical is Senator Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, who says, “To get the economy moving and generate real, self-sustaining job creation, we need to limit spending and reject more tax increases.”
In fact, the government should be targeting investments to spur job growth. As Dean Baker, the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, says, “Unless the government takes steps to boost growth, we will be seeing millions of people needlessly denied employment for over a decade. That should be the central focus of everyone in Washington.”
The immediate threat is posed by sequester cuts—following a classic austerity model. As they are implemented, the Congressional Budget Office projects, growth will be reduced by 0.5 percent, costing as many as 700,000 jobs. Congressman Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat who has emerged as a key player in the Congressional Progressive Caucus, says the House and Senate need to “pass a budget that ends the job-killing sequester cuts for everyone—not just the well-connected—and makes investments in job-creating programs such as infrastructure, education, and research and development.”
Pocan’s got the right answers. Unfortunately, there are too many politicians in Washington who have yet to start asking the right questions about how austerity is strangling economic recovery.
The entire austerity enterprise is based on faulty math. Listen to John Nichols's take.
This week, Silicon Valley is poaching talent from Wall Street—and trying to import it, on the cheap, from abroad. Meanwhile, Canada's crown corporations are undergoing a Tory-style makeover, Texas is killing its own children (that is, its ideas for testing them) and Seattle May Dayers are on the loose. How much does your Yelp vote count?
— Alleen Brown focuses on education.
“Crash Test,” by Nate Blakeslee. Texas Monthly, May 2013.
Followers of the "education reform" movement's twists and turns would be wise to turn their attention to Texas, the state where George W. Bush's brand of ed reform was born, and the state where it is now being dismantled. Nate Blakeslee lays it all out in long piece for the Texas Monthly: from the rise of Bush advisor Sandy Kress and the "Texas Miracle" to today's uprising of Texas parents and Republican politicians' 180 degree turn against testing.
— James Cersonsky focuses on labor and education.
“Mark Zuckerberg's Self-Serving Immigration Crusade,” by Adrian Chen. Gawker, April 30, 2013.
The same Mark Zuckerberg who screwed over upstartish Ivy League comrades, and who oversees the largest extra-state fiefdom in the world, is now leading the charge to exploit the global techno-proletariat. That's the upshot of his push for streamlined Silicon Valley visas, which, wrought large, promise to make high tech labor much cheaper. Adrian Chen's gloves-off polemic makes this worth a read—but the sliminess of Zuckerberg's new lobbying group, FWD.us, speaks for itself. In one letter to supporters, they write, "We control massive distribution channels, both as companies and individuals. We saw the tip of the iceberg with SOPA/PIPA." Paging the robber barons of an earlier era.
— Catherine Defontaine focuses on war, security and peace-related issues, African and French politics, peacekeeping and the link between conflicts and natural resources.
“France's Forgotten War,” by Robert Zaretsky. Foreign Policy, April 30, 2013.
Three months after the French government launched a military intervention in Mali, it seems that the French population has all but forgotten about France’s presence in Africa—despite the death of six French soldiers in Mali and the recent attack on the French embassy in Libya. The French are more worried about France’s internal situation—rising unemployment and a stalling economy. Only one quarter of the French population is satisfied with President Hollande, who appears helpless and unable to find solutions, and nearly 90 percent of the French told pollsters that France “needed a true leader to reestablish order.” Meanwhile, though the intervention in Mali has succeeded in dispersing the Islamists, it has failed to achieve a clear victory and put an end to the rebellion. The UN and the local population fear that if French troops leave the country, it will create a political and security vacuum in Mali, destabilizing an already fragile region.
— Andrew Epstein focuses on social history, colonialism and indigenous rights.
“Wounded Knee Sale Deadline Looms,” by Vincent Schilling. Indian Country Today, April 30, 2013.
In 1890, the US military murdered between 150 and 300 Lakota men, women and children at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, the final massacre in what's euphemistically known as the "Indian Wars." (The government awarded 20 medals of honor for the "battle.") Forty years later, a white trader acquired a 40-acre parcel of land that included the massacre site as part of the government's "allotment" program. Abolishing collective land tenure, the government "granted" individual Indian men their own small plots, which they could now sell to eager and cajoling settlers; the resulting land loss was staggering. In 1968, James Czywczynski acquired the Wounded Knee parcel. Now he's hoping to cash in, putting the plot on sale this week and refusing any offer less than $5 million. “What makes them think that I should give it to them? Everything is given to the Indians anyway,” Czywczynski said.
— Luis Feliz focuses on ideas and debates within the left, social movements and culture.
“Sam Gindin on the crisis in labor,” by Doug Henwood. LBO News from Doug Henwood, June 18, 2012.
Doug Henwood interviews Sam Gindin on the crisis in labor.
— Elana Leopold focuses on the Middle East, its relations with the US and Islam.
“The 'S-Word': Egyptian Movement Takes On Islamic Rule,” by Ahmed Ateyya. Al-Monitor, April 27, 2013.
A small youth movement, representing a coalition of across-the-spectrum secular political beliefs, organizes and protests against national identity cards that legally must include religion and, more broadly, a religious state in Egypt.
— Alec Luhn focuses on East European and Eurasian affairs, especially issues of good governance, human rights and activism.
“'The Law of Politics' According to Sergei Lavrov,” interview by Susan Glasser. Foreign Policy, May/June 2013.
In this comprehensive interview, Russia's foreign minister explains why his country opposes the United States in everything from delivering arms to the Syrian government to missile defense in Europe to the Magnitsky Act and the tit-for-tat ban on American adoptions from Russia. Although he is a diplomat and carefully toes a dogmatic line, there are moments of candor and detail that provide more insight than your standard obligatory quotes in news stories.
— Leticia Miranda focuses on race, gender, telecommunications and media reform.
“Tech Poaches Wall Street Talent,” by Jessica Lessin. The Wall Street Journal, May 1, 2013.
Jessica Lessin at The Wall Street Journal unearths another kind of revolving door that is quickly accelerating as tech beats Wall Street at its own game.
— Brendan O’Connor focuses on media criticism and pop culture.
“Star Wars,” by Tom Vanderbilt. The Wilson Quarterly, Spring 2013.
"A one-star uptick in a Yelp review can lead to a nine percent improvement in revenues for independently owned restaurants." That is an incredible statistic. Vanderbilt considers how those upticks happen (or don't) and why, worrying that as websites like Yelp and Amazon democratize criticism they may also dilute it.
— Anna Simonton focuses on issues of systemic oppression perpetuated by the military and prison industrial complexes.
“Freedom Is Frustrating,” by Brendan Kiley. The Stranger, April 3, 2013.
During Seattle's May Day rally last year, some protestors smashed some windows. (Surprise!) This is supposedly why a federal grand jury subpoenaed several of my friends to answer questions about specific individuals' political beliefs and social networks. My friends, who were not present at the May Day rally, refused to cooperate. They were charged with civil contempt and incarcerated for several months, including extended periods in solitary confinement. FOIA requests have since revealed that the grand jury actually convened prior to May Day, indicating that social-mapping of activist communities, not finding out who broke some windows, was the real motivation behind the investigation. Now, thankfully, my friends are out of prison, and I recently got to hang out with two of them in DC, where they spoke about their experiences at George Washington University Law School. So I'm thinking about them this week and re-reading the articles Brendan Kiley wrote about them for The Stranger. The Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers recently announced they have chosen Kiley to receive their annual Champion of Justice Award for his coverage of the grand jury resisters.
— Cos Tollerson focuses on Latin American politics and society, and United States imperialism.
“Cuba Policy: Fruitless, Mean and Cruel,” by Saul Landau And Nelson Valdés. CounterPunch, April 26-28, 2013.
Saul Landau and Nelson Valdés tell the sad story of five Cuban intelligence officers who have spent the last 15 years unnecessarily imprisoned in the United States. In the late 90s, the agents were in Miami to monitor extremist Cuban exile groups and had developed an informal working relationship with the US government, providing the FBI and Justice department with counterterrorism intelligence. But soon the powerful Cuban exile community wielded its political capital in Florida to have the agents arrested.
— Sarah Woolf focuses on what’s happening north of the US border.
“Harper tightening the reins on CBC, Via Rail and Canada Post,” by Bill Curry and John Ibbitson. The Globe and Mail, May 1, 2013.
Happy May Day! Stephen Harper's Tories are implementing massive changes to crown corporations, including the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), Canada Post and Via Rail. The proposed changes—detailed at the end of a 111-page budget bill—will allow the government to participate in collective bargaining and to direct negotiations with unionized and non-unionized employees. Says a CBC union rep: "I don’t know how anybody looking at [the new powers] cannot see this as turning the public broadcaster into a state broadcaster."
On May 1, the Obama administration’s Justice Department appealed a court ruling directing the Food and Drug Administration to listen to the recommendations of its own scientists and make emergency contraception—otherwise known as Plan B or the morning after pill—available over-the-counter for all women and girls with no age restrictions. The science on emergency contraception is clear. It is safer than many painkillers and cough medicine already sold over the counter and there is ample evidence that young women are capable of taking it safely. While President Obama has spoken eloquently about the right to reproductive healthcare, his administration refuses to lift this clearly political impediment on the health and bodily autonomy of women and girls.
Sign our open letter to President Obama and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius imploring them to abide by the federal court ruling and to make emergency contraception available over the counter to women and girls of all ages with no restrictions.
In this post, Jessica Valenti cautions against letting our discomfort with teen sex trump young people’s right to reproductive health.
The politics of expanding access to ec are complicated by the many misconceptions people have about the drug. This video breaks it down.
I’ve got a new Think Again: A Realistic Approach to Syria. Read it.
(I wrote this earlier): Here’s an idea for Tina Brown: Fire the clownish, incompetent Howard Kurtz, replace him with Conor Simpson or Jamison Foer.
A “Howard Kurtz is a clown” sampler:
Kurtz suggests Fox News is balanced, WaPo editorial page is liberal
Howard Kurtz's double standard on double standards
Howard Kurtz's bogus conflict-of-interest defense
Howard Kurtz's wasted opportunity
or Alex Pareene here too, or one of the anchors on that website where they strip when they read the news. Really, who could be worse?
This just in. Apparently I telepathized my idea to Tina and Kurtz is “resigned” in the ignominy he has been so richly earning for the past two decades.
Isn’t this a funny comment? I read it in Tablet:
“In a characteristically candid interview, he said that, despite his patronage of arts institutions from the Metropolitan to the Israel Museum, he never thought about donating the collection.
“There’s a virtue in these things being in homes rather than on some museum shelf,” he said. By many accounts, Steinhardt’s collection, focusing on ceremonial objects for home and synagogue, is the most significant of its kind to come to market in the half century since the 1964 Sotheby’s auction of Judaica amassed by Polish émigré Michael Zagayski.”
What a humanitarian, making millions so that people can keep this stuff to themselves rather than share it with the wider world. Oh and the Met and the Israel Museum did team up to buy an illuminated Torah for over $4 million. Too bad that won’t get to be held privately so only rich folk could see it like the great humanitarian whom Tablet quotes so crazily sympathetically would have liked.
Does Steinhardt fund Tablet? I dunno...But if he does, it would esplain the above.
Alter-reviews: Catherine Russell and the Jazz@Lincoln Center Orchestra does Duke
I went to Jazz@Lincoln Center on consecutive evenings last weekend. Friday night, at the club, Dizzy’s, I caught one of my favorite female singers, Catherine Russell, with her band, doing a jazz and blues set. (Catherine is also top-tier backup singer for bands like Bowie’s and Steely Dan.) The daughter of Luis Russell, was Louis Armstrong's long-time musical director, she sure is schooled in the history of the music, and picks out chestnuts from the past which you can’t believe you’ve not heard before. She makes them her own, at least as far as I can tell, being unfamiliar with the originals, but they sure do sound great with her band (and of course, against the background of Columbus Circle at Dizzy’s). I first discovered her because Terry Gross is a big fan and then I caught her singing with the Donald Fagen/Boz Scaggs/Michael MacDonald band, where she pretty much stole the show. See the woman if you can, or at least check out her cds. I think there are two of them.
The following night, however was one for the ages. The full Jazz@LC orchestra—which strikes me as a pretty difficult get, of late, playing an all Ellington night. There’s no question that Wynton Marsalis has always modeled his adult self on Duke, but there are many other influences fighting for pride of place there as well (Miles, Louis, his dad, etc.) Bak in 1988, Wynton Marsalis put together members of his (then) septet which included Ellington alumni Jimmy Hamilton, Willie Cook, Jimmy Woode, Norris Turney, Britt Woodman, and Joe Temperley to create the first iteration of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, he and the players have always demonstrated a special relationship to the enormous Ellington oeuvre and it’s hard to imagine a group of musicians alive today who could do this body of work greater justice than this band did the night I saw them. Joe Temperley is still in the band and he played masterfully. Ditto Walter Blanding on sax and Wynton himself, letting go on solos that were written as if for him to play that way on that night. The two versions of “Mood Indigo” were the highlights, together with “Do Nothing ‘till You Hear from Me,” at least from my seat, but I can tell you, everyone in that full hall (and there were four shows) felt him or herself lucky to be there.
The Jazz@LC calendar is here. Sorry if you don’t live in New York.
Though, come to think of it., it’s the second weekend of Jazzfest in New Orleans. Teaching commitments kept from going to what I insist is the Western world’s best party, but The Nation’s Katelyn Belyus is there and has volunteered for the role of Altercation Roving Reporter. Here is her first filing (Reed appears below):
Wed night arrival: It began at the Howlin' Wolf's Megalomaniacs Ball. I rolled into a gnarly, open space filled with a mixed crowd spilling out of the open bar into the street. Not a surprise, since every place down here spills onto the street at some point or another. Marco Benevento, the brilliant indie pianist from Brooklyn, was just finishing his set. I'd had the pleasure of catching Benevento a couple of years ago at the House of Blues' Piano Night, and I marveled at his performance then-- using a guitar pick on the piano strings while he accompanied himself on the keys; the covers of Amy Winehouse and Cee Lo Green. He is a true experimentalist.
Benevento made way for the Mike Dillon Band, and Dillon's lunatic artistry crept over every inch of the stage with tentacle-like majesty. The band is a collaborative effort that sounds like a combination of punk and ska, Zappa and Sublime, with a touch of marching band and hardcore. I know that sounds crazy, but the really crazy part, is that it actually succeeds. Dillon's work on the vibes is enthralling, but perfectly in sync with Carly Meyers on trombone. A tour de force, Meyers fronts that stage with frenetic energy that lends a new interpretation of the trombone-- and of the police whistle, which she also aptly “plays.” This was not the first I'd seen her, but it was the first I'd seen her so completely absorbed with the music. Where I had detected shyness now held court for a fierce vitality and abundant energy. She practically galloped around stage before diving off into a crowd of devotees and then finishing the set. “That was intense,” breathed a lady behind me.
Dillon's band left the stage to the Stanton Moore Trio, always odd to me that the band is named for the drummer, until you watch the drummer drum. Stanton Moore shows up to the kit looking like a kid fresh out of Sunday School. Skerik on sax and Charlie Hunter on the eight-string round out the trio, and their synergy is tight. Everyone knows their place at any given moment, even if that place is to repeat a riff forty or fifty times to keep the others on track. Mike D and Benevento dropped back in, and the crowd relived their favorite Garage A Trois days. They are so striking in their shared smiles and laughs onstage. Skerik's gotta take a leak? Moore and Hunter have him covered. And though all are remarkably talented, Hunter remains my personal favorite. Eight-String Guitar: that means he's playing bass, rhythm, and his solos simultaneously, and though he's certainly not the only person to do it, he's the only one I've ever seen do it so with such grace and with seemingly little effort. I wanted to write that his fingers flow like water over the strings, but it wouldn't be accurate. They move more like gears, like watch gears, touching and pressing in on themselves to make the thing work, to give it purpose. His fingers give that guitar purpose and to elevate Moore, Skerik, and the rest of their buddies-- indeed, they act like buddies-- to a place of eclectic soul.
Thursday—I arrived at the Fair Grounds for the first day of the final weekend after multiple rainstorms had passed through. The grounds themselves function as a horse racing track for most of the year, and the place was ripe with mud, hay, and the smell of manure. In some places, the mud was four inches deep, and people were digging out their flip flops like amateur archaeologists. But no one seemed to mind, and though folks were clad in rain boots and ponchos, they could still be found dancing near the stages. There are ten music stages, and the smaller ones each feature a different genre like blues, brass band, contemporary jazz, zydeco, and gospel.
After an oyster po' boy doused in hot sauce, I got comfortable next a lady wearing full-on waders. We were checking out the Forgotten Souls Brass Band, a classic jazz brass band with over nine members. They were a solid group and gave Charlie Parker a shout-out, but once they slowed down their set, I moved on to something more upbeat.
The Hot 8 Brass Band were up on the Congo Square Stage, a traditional brass with a little more soul and funk. Like most of the New Orleans-based groups, they wore matching tee shirts and strutted with confidence. There was the obligatory roll call for members, and Big Peter matched the crowd's cheers with some riffs of his own-- on sousaphone.
I moved to higher, slightly drier grounds for Henry Butler, and was immediately sucked in. Butler is a legendary New Orleans pianist who was blinded at birth. He doesn't just know his way around the keys: he gives direction around the keys (he is also an avid photographer and has been taking pictures for nearly thirty years). Butler plays in a variety of different styles of jazz piano, but with a nod to the blues, and his voice-- equal parts soul, blues, butter, and grit-- complements the music perfectly. The thunderclouds rolled in, everyone's phones flickered Flash Flood Warnings via emergency texts, but Henry Butler and his Friends paid no heed. And towards the end, in the middle of “Big Chief,” a classic Professor Longhair piece that I'm sure to hear at least three more times before the end of the weekend, I was stunned yet pleased to hear Butler's guitarist launch into what could only be Slash's final solo in “November Rain.” “That,” I said, “was freakin' awesome.”
The flash floods had me worried, and I made my way for the exit, but not before stopping off at the gospel tent to check out the Bolton Brothers in their flashy vests singing in smooth harmony. Of all the music I don't listen to regularly, gospel is the most accessible. Even though for me it's ideologically problematic, there's something very universal about gospel's message of hope that appeals to me. The four brothers (of twenty total siblings) gave a stand-out (and stand-up) performance, and during their cover of “We are the World,” even the out-of-sync arm-waving felt right. The brothers dropped down to the audience and invited random people to sing the verses, and when a person stumbled over the lyric or skipped a line, the backing band skillfully brought them back into the fold. In the middle of the flash flood warnings and downpours, the Bolton Brothers were a fun, shining moment.
Now here’s Reed:
Why Won’t Congress Follow?
by Reed Richardson
“Why won’t Obama lead?” Posed as an innocent question, variations of this disingenuous critique can be found lurking all across op-ed pages, political blogs, and cable news shows of late. To be sure, this caricature of a cold, aloof, and distant Obama, who is uninterested in the nitty-gritty of political back-scratching, is not a new one. During the past few weeks, however, this idea that Obama is almost spitefully refusing to steer our ship of state has now achieved critical mass, becoming the leitmotif through which, many pundits believe, all of Washington’s political paralysis can be traced. But to lay the blame for the acrimony and gridlock on Capitol Hill at the feet of Obama is be guilty of intellectual malpractice. For, if all of Obama’s commonsense efforts at compromise—everything short of full capitulation—still come up empty, it’s time for the media to start honestly scrutinizing the flip side of the coin and ask the next question: “Why won’t Congress follow?”
That these pundits will likely resist any such re-orienting of their rhetorical slings and arrows is no surprise. In their estimation, the President, as the country’s chief executive, enjoys an almost superhero-level of influence over events—a viewpoint sometimes jokingly referred to as “Green Lantern Theory”—and so if he doesn’t get his way in Congress, it’s indicative that he just didn’t try hard enough. But, to be fair, the Beltway media is not alone in routinely misunderstanding the dynamics between the leader-follower relationship.
“There is no leader without at least one follower—that’s obvious,” notes author and Harvard lecturer Barbara Kellerman in this Harvard Business Review article. “Yet the modern leadership industry, now a quarter-century old, is built on the proposition that leaders matter a great deal and followers hardly at all.” In fact, Kellerman argues this kind of apportioning of power is exactly backwards. “Followers are more important to leaders than leaders are to followers,” she writes in her 2008 book, Followership. “Leaders are often incidental to the action.”
To proclaim the president as “incidental” to a legislative debate, of course, doesn’t exactly suit a pundit class that needs to cast a dramatis personae of heroes and foils in a column twice a week. But to ignore the critical role followership plays in how our government functions is to continually engage in facile, one-sided analysis. It unfairly denies the followers, in this case Congress, any agency in the decision-making process, while it conveniently relieves them of all accountability should things go wrong.
Just listen to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, ranting about Obama’s helpless attitude after his press conference this past Tuesday. “Actually, it is his job to get them to behave,” she cavils. “The job of the former community organizer and self-styled uniter is to somehow get this dunderheaded Congress, which is mind-bendingly awful, to do the stuff he wants them to do. It’s called leadership.”
The concept that Congress has as much, if not more, of a democratic responsibility to follow as the President does to lead is anathema to the self-defeating Beltway logic on display here. Dowd’s condescending and infantilizing tone (“dunderheaded,” “behave”) effectively lets Congress off the hook while demeaning Obama, a typical Dowd two-fer. And then she, like so many other pundits, lets herself off the hook as well, by never offering up a single specific example of what this magical leadership might look like or why a Congress hell-bent on undermining the President would ever respond to it.
Indeed, if you needed any further proof that Republicans in the House and Senate will sacrifice any good idea and absorb any indignity as long as Obama does too, GOP Senator Pat Toomey from Pennsylvania offered up yet another smoking gun this past week. While revisiting the filibuster that killed an expanded gun background checks amendment he and Democratic Senator Joe Manchin had hammered out, Toomey admitted: “In the end it didn’t pass because we're so politicized. There were some on my side who did not want to be seen helping the president do something he wanted to get done, just because the president wanted to do it.” It’s no surprise then, that some pundits even counseled Obama to “lead from behind” on immigration reform, warning that it he became personally involved “that is the surest way to piss off Congress, especially congressional Republicans, just as it is children and bosses.”
Put simply, this is anti-followership—whatever you’re for, I’m against, precisely and only because you’re for it. Who cares if nine out of 10 Americans support expanding gun background checks or eight out of 10 Americans want a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants? According to this zero-sum thinking, if Obama wins, then Republicans in Congress see themselves as having failed. And a myopic media plays along, never quite comfortable enough to state the obvious—that the modern day GOP’s goal is not good governance, it’s defeating the president, as it has been, literally, since his first day in the White House. Needless to say, one cannot lead followers who don’t operate in good faith and who only see incentives in opposing rather than cooperating.
And let’s be clear, this wholesale embrace of, well, not following is by no means an exaggeration. Extreme conservatives in the House and Senate are further polarizing Congress and wresting ideological control of their party away from their own caucus leaders (as we saw again this week). As a result, Congressional Republicans are increasingly drawing power from an energized base of extremists who are more than willing to engage in electoral self-immolation and punish those who dare to negotiate. For instance, when a study of Tea Partiers finds an overwhelming majority want no compromise with political opponents and, likewise, care more about their chosen candidate winning a party primary than a general election, the foundation for legitimate cross-party followership can never exist.
Nevertheless, this idea, that the President and the Republicans in Congress are not cooperating but competing, just will not compute in many pundits’ minds. Thus, we get an entire column from the National Journal’s Ron Fournier torturing an old sports canard about great players and leaders always overcoming bad breaks to win. Remarkably, in Fournier’s analogy, he acknowledges the President and Republicans in Congress are not on the same team, yet in a somewhat incredible twist of reason he still expects the latter to follow the former. You know, because whenever the Red Sox come to New York, they look to Joe Girardi for guidance on how to beat the Yankees.
Ironically, within Fournier’s hackneyed, nonpartisan critique of Obama is the real, uncomfortable truth about what it will take to break the logjam in Washington. “Mr. President, I’m not excusing the other team," he writes. "They suck. But you need to beat them, sir. That’s your job, because if you can’t stop them, we lose. And there’s no excuse to losing to such a lousy-bleeping team.”
Fournier’s right in one respect, when one party all but gives up on governing, all that’s left is lousy politics. But what he and his pundit brethren will never admit is that the most effective way to fight lousy politics in Washington right now is with more, better politics. In fact, the best thing the president could probably do for his country is spend the next 18 months campaigning for a Democratic majority in the House. Of course, the Beltway conventional wisdom would roast him alive for such a transparently partisan strategy. But at least it would be an honest attempt at creating the conditions for a functioning democracy. The fundamental problem plaguing our country isn't a shortage of leadership from Obama, in other words, it's a shortage of his followers in Congress.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com. Also, I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
Las Vegas, NV
Dr. A., many thanks for a solid piece on the fraud that is MoDo (and the fraud that is Politico, while we're at it). If you read the columns for which Dowd won her Pulitzer, once you get beyond the fact that she could not even carry one of the keys from Russell Baker's typewriter, you notice that they are all about the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and all reflect a sense of proportionality about the Republicans involved and, indeed, Clinton's failings—in other words, while they could be called well written (they certainly are more readable than whatever it is she is submitting and calling a column nowadays), they also have a serious undertone and deal with broader issues.
It also strikes me that while she may have influenced today's alleged reporters in the tendency to focus on the trivial, we also can credit or blame that on news magazines and perhaps even on Theodore H. White. The difference is, those writers at least thought about it before they wrote it.
Dear Mr. Alterman:
You are my favorite journalist. I look forward each Friday to read your (and Reed's) column. I also enjoy your Center for American Progress articles.
I must take issue, though, with your list of the worst mistakes of the 20th Century. I believe the worst mistake committed in the prior century was when Archduke Ferdinand's driver took a wrong turn down a street in Sarajevo back in June, 1914.
Eric replies: Ok, Ok. It was just the last 98 years....
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
Scene from The Office episode “Promos.” (Tyler Golden/NBC)
The Office, which ends May 16, will take with it one of a precious few vaguely realistic depictions of working life off the air. Granted, the people who write about television haven’t been watching The Office for some time now. Partly that’s because Steve Carell left and partly because, I think, the longer we were in a recession, the less appealing an extended workday got. Either you’d lost your job, and the show reminded you, in slightly funnier form, of the life you’d once been leading. Or else, at a certain point, the drudgeries of the workplace had quit seeming all that funny.
Some of you will object that your workplaces were never anywhere near as full of character as the Dunder Mifflin paper company. Or, for that matter, the Wernham Hogg paper company that preceded it in the United Kingdom. To this contention I must present this story from my own experience: I once worked with a man who, apropos of absolutely nothing, purchased a lazy-boy chair and had it put in his midtown Manhattan office. At the time of this purchase, he was at best a rather junior employee. Everyone in the office began to wonder why he had purchased this chair, which suffice to say did not match the prevailing décor. In fact, we all referred to said employee as “The Chair,” basically forever after. It used to be a kind of sport to watch people walk down the hallway, glance casually into the door of his office, and come up short, realizing that yes, that was a recliner in that tiny office.
Then there was the employee with a slightly mysterious personal life who, when asked by the firm newsletter what his favorite place was, offered this reply: “Somewhere warm and deep.” We parsed that for weeks. It passed the time.
My point is that the The Office understood this sort of everyday absurdity. Sure, sometimes the storylines got a little wacky. But I was recently rewatching an episode in which Michael Scott (Carell) is explaining that he has brought everyone on a booze cruise because the office is just like a ship, and he is the captain, and it’s all a bit like Titanic (“No, I’m Leo DiCaprio, come on!”), and the sales department is the furnace, etc. And it dawned on me, watching it, how perilously close this is to a lot of the corporate pablum that is peddled, often enough, as “training exercises” in companies across America. The humor cut rather close to the bone. You don’t need to have your boss actually getting to the point where he screams “I’m the King of the World!” from a ship’s prow to see that.
It hasn’t been news, in America, that the conditions of modern work are unfulfilling, for a good half-century now. It’s a theme of the novels of Richard Yates, the classics like Revolutionary Road and Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. The deadening forces of advanced capitalism have been studied just as long, in books like The Organization Man. But the upshot tended to be doom and depression. This might explain why other classic workplace sitcoms—The Mary Tyler Moore Show, M*A*S*H, Night Court—usually had some kind of meaningful work as the backdrop, accomplishing something important on the side of all their jokes. Or else, as in sitcoms like Designing Women or Newhart, the main characters were at the very least all really good friends, engaged in some kind of collective endeavor.
This is not true of Dunder Mifflin, where the co-workers were assembled more or less only for reasons of common employment. Nor is it really altogether clear what this company does within the context of the sitcom, though NBC’s marketing people created a whole website to describe the business. Instead, the entire appeal of the show was predicated on the sharpness of the satire.
At first, in The Office’s American life, the show was rather too cutting for audience’s taste. But by the second season it was somehow managing to mix the satire with affection. It wasn’t so much that unlikable characters became likable; it was that they became recognizably human in their unlikableness. They began to look, in short, like people trying to make the best of a bad situation.
Which only amplified their resemblance to the real world of American workers. Out here no one is under the illusion that the bulk of the work they have to do to make a living is meaningful. And you have to laugh, sometimes, because you’d cry otherwise. That’s the ray of hope, the laughing. The thing that keeps you going to work, and also helps you keep a critical consciousness about the whole enterprise of paying the bills in America. In that sense, you could even say that Kelly’s doing a cheer routine about “B-A-N-A-N-A-S” or Dwight Schrute’s informing the office that he is “capable of physically dominating [it],” are small but crucial acts of rebellion. The only way you’ll ever want to change things is if you are high up enough to see the absurdity of them.
The Bangladeshi factory floor is a world apart from Dunder Mifflin. Read Elizabeth Cline’s take on last week’s disaster.
Workers march in front of a Miami-Dade courthouse under construction to protest stolen pay. (AP Photo/J. Pat Carter)
If the Florida House Republicans have their way, here is what the state’s workers would stand to lose: paid sick leave, a living wage, wage theft protections and equal opportunity benefits (for same sex couples, for example).
That’s because an assortment of bills—including one introduced by House Majority Leader Stephen Precourt that would nullify nearly all of these pro-worker policies—would pre-empt local ordinances and leave it up to the state to implement (or not) any of these measures. Miami Herald columnist Fred Grimm writes that these bills were “ghost written by special-interest lobbyists.”
It would mean the end of the fourteen-year-old Miami-Dade County living wage ordinance. A new anti-wage theft law that passed just last month in Alachua County would be nixed. The paid sick leave initiative that 52,000 Orange County residents got onto the ballot for 2014—gone.
“What makes it all even more ridiculous is that we have no state-level Department of Labor,” said Jeanette Smith, director of South Florida Interfaith Worker Justice (SFIWJ). “So even if the legislature did pass any worker protection laws—which they aren’t—who is going to enforce them? All they are doing is lessening the rights that are currently there for workers.”
The timing of this smackdown on working Floridians couldn’t be worse. A new report from the Research Institute on Social and Economic Policy at Florida International University indicates that more than 23 percent of the state’s residents live in poverty, with children 1.5 times more likely than adults to live below the poverty line of approximately $23,000 for a family of four.
How this all plays out in the legislature is still up in the air and might be determined today—the last day of the session. Bill authors have carved out exceptions to the wage theft pre-emption for Miami-Dade (which has recovered $600,000 in lost pay since 2010) and Broward counties, but not for Alachua County. This is especially strange since the companion bill in the Senate was introduced by freshman Senator Rob Bradley, who represents Alachua. Smith said that the Alachua County Commissioners and their staff have spoken out against the pre-emption—even in Senate hearings—but Bradley hasn’t backed down.
“I’m sure he’s representing someone in Alachua but it’s apparently not the county or the workers,” said Smith.
If Bradley’s bill clears the Senate, the pre-emption of local wage theft laws is a done deal—and that’s a big deal, because prior to the county ordinances, workers effectively had no place to turn for help.
“If the bill passes, we have to flood the small claims court system which would now be responsible for addressing this, and let them see the depth of the wage theft problem,” said Smith.
Majority Leader Precourt’s anti-worker bill was made a tad (but just a tad) less anti-worker in the Senate—with local ordinances for a living wage, paid sick leave and equal opportunity benefits permitted for government employees and contractors (tough luck for all other workers). Initially, Precourt insisted that the House wouldn’t pass the bill if it included the exceptions for these workers. According to Smith, the hope was that Precourt’s determination to keep the state from joining the twenty-first century might be Floridian workers’ best hope, as a number of Senate Republicans would be reluctant to follow his totally regressive path.
But late yesterday, the House passed the Senate’s version of the bill. That means, as of today, there is no possibility of local pro-worker laws for wages, paid leave and equal benefits except for government employees and contractors.
“This is a huge undermining of local control,” said Smith. “The House wanted to make it so local governments couldn’t even set standards for their own [employees and contractors], but at least we beat that. Now local governments just can’t say anything regarding the private companies in their areas—which is bad enough.”
The verdict is still out on the legislation pre-empting local wage theft laws. There is hope that the bill might be dead, but advocates won’t know for sure until the session ends today.
“No matter which way this goes, we need to band together and recognize that this is all about a voting process, and getting people in there who represent our interests,” said Smith. “Too many people still don’t recognize that, and they don’t know until the deed is done what’s been taken away from us.”
California’s Homeless Bill of Rights
Last week the California Assembly’s Judiciary Committee passed AB 5, The Homeless Bill of Rights, by a vote of 7 to 2. At a time when homelessness is increasingly criminalized, this is an important step towards helping people instead of punishing them for not having a home. Advocates overcame strong opposition to the bill, in part through a grassroots movement of homeless and poor people that mobilized hundreds of people to rally and lobby the Democratic members of the committee.
There are now approximately 160,000 men, women and children who experience homelessness in California on a daily basis, about 20 percent of the nation’s total homeless population. The state ranks second worst in the number of homeless children, and third worst in the percentage of children who are homeless, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness. A 2011 US Conference of Mayors report attributed the rise in homelessness across the nation—despite the recovering economy—primarily to unemployment and a lack of affordable housing, in that order.
Yet the response by political leaders in California and other states hasn’t been a sympathetic one—it’s largely been to prosecute those who are struggling.
A report by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty notes that criminalization of homelessness has taken many forms, including: enactment of laws that make it illegal to sleep, sit or store personal belongings in public spaces of cities without sufficient shelter or affordable housing; selective enforcement against homeless people for violating seemingly neutral laws like loitering, jaywalking or open container ordinances; sweeps to drive homeless people out of areas—which often results in the destruction of their personal property, including medications and personal documents; punishing people for begging or panhandling; and restricting groups from sharing food with homeless people in public areas.
“What cities and counties are doing right now to respond to homelessness isn’t helping, it’s making the problem worse,” said Jessica Bartholow, legislative advocate for the Western Center on Law and Poverty, another cosponsor of the legislation.
In contrast, some of the measures proposed in the Homeless Bill of Rights include the creation of hygiene centers with bathrooms and showers; allowing people to rest, sit or sleep in public spaces; access to counsel during civil prosecutions; and protecting people who offer food in public places. It would also instruct local governments to track laws and arrests that target homeless people and report them to the district attorney.
“This bill is really about basic justice,” said Assemblymember Tom Ammiano, who authored the bill. “People who are homeless not only have to struggle with life on the street, [but] the indignity of being treated like criminals because they have nowhere to eat, sit or sleep except in public.”
Bartholow was particularly moved by testimony from homeless people from Los Angeles who were woken up and arrested at 6:02 am due to a law against sleeping in public past 6. Another disabled woman in a wheelchair had lived on the same street corner for many years and been arrested more than a hundred times.
“Not for committing a crime, not for blocking a street or sidewalk—just for sitting there in her wheelchair,” said Bartholow.
Bartholow said that too many homeless people also end up in jail because they can’t pay the citations they receive for sitting in a public space. “So they have to spend time behind bars, because they sat peaceably in a public space, because they have no private space to sit in,” she said.
The bill now goes to the Appropriations Committee, where costs will be considered for measures such as the hygiene centers, legal representation and reporting requirements of local jurisdictions. Bartholow said that advocates will look for ways to “ameliorate costs,” but that this bill is a critical step in changing how we address homelessness and poverty as a society.
“The greatest misconception about this bill is that it somehow makes things more dangerous by allowing people to rest in public places,” she said. “But the bill in no way protects malicious or antagonistic behavior, or blocking doorways or pathways. It protects people’s right to rest—which is a human need. People who don’t have a private space to do that need to be able to do that somewhere. And sometimes the only place available is a public space.”
You can follow the campaign to pass this bill here.
Child Care and No-Win Decisions
Guest post by Carol Burnett
In a recent article in The New Republic (“The Hell of American Day Care”), reporter Jonathan Cohn investigates what he describes as the “barely regulated, unsafe business of looking after our children.” Lax regulation leading to unsafe child care is indeed a critical issue that needs to be addressed; and so is the huge unmet need for affordable child care options for low-wage working parents.
Cohn acknowledges that the tragic example used as the frame for his article—a child care fatality—is relatively rare. But what is not at all rare—and what really gets to the root of the problem—is the heartbreaking, no-win choice the mother was faced with in trying to find child care that she could afford on her low wage.
Mothers across the country face this dilemma constantly. They too often work in jobs that don’t pay enough to meet a family’s basic needs. Or they want to work, or go to college for a shot at a better career, but can’t afford child care. Or the welfare work requirement forces them into low-wage jobs where they can’t afford child care.
Mothers with young children make up our nation’s poorest families. If they earn the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, that’s roughly $15,080 per year (though minimum wage jobs rarely provide full-time work because employers restrict hours to avoid paying benefits).
Wider Opportunities for Women developed the Self-Sufficiency Standard to calculate the wage a worker would need to earn in order to afford a family’s basic needs, based on the family’s size and geographic location. The tool shows that parents need to earn far more than a minimum wage, and if the family includes a young child or infant, the wage required is significantly higher due to the high cost of child care.
Our nation does have a child care assistance program that is supposed to help low-income working parents afford child care—the federal Child Care Development Fund (CCDF) block grant to states. This program is hugely helpful for the families it serves. Unfortunately, it only serves about 18 percent of eligible children, which means that 82 percent of eligible children do not receive the subsidy. Eligibility requires a parent to be both working and low-income. Waiting lists are swelling in every state—millions of parents wait for the child care they need in order to continue working.
What makes our lack of commitment to providing affordable quality child care for all families even more frustrating is that we know what children need for successful outcomes later in life. In fact, we know more than ever before about the kind of environment, interactions and experiences children need to support their cognitive, physical, social and emotional development.
We also know what working parents need. Other countries such as France provide examples of systems that provide quality care for children so their parents can work. And we have an example in our own country: the Military Child Care Act that transformed an abysmal child care system into a system that is the best in the nation.
If the need is so great, we know what to do, and the consequences of failing are so dire as illustrated by The New Republic article, then why haven’t we created a national system of quality child care for all working parents?
Polls show that Americans believe that child care is a parent’s personal responsibility and that there is no social obligation to help parents pay for it. The result of this prevailing opinion is that mothers buy the child care that they can afford: wealthier mothers are able to buy high quality care; poor mothers—mostly single mothers and women of color—usually cannot. Thus, a vicious cycle of inequity and inequitable outcomes continues.
In this country where all child care is financed with parent fees, child care providers struggle to cobble together resources to pay for their services. Where the ability of parents to pay is limited, providers barter with them, or serve families for free, or reduce rates. For the few families lucky enough to receive subsidies, the reimbursement rate to providers is low—four-fifths of states reimburse below the 75th percentile of the current market rate. Reimbursement is also unreliable—parents have to apply and re-apply frequently through an often cumbersome process. Even worse, states are whittling away at this already inadequate assistance. Erosions in payment are occurring at the same time that quality requirements are being ramped up, which might lead to even fewer affordable options for low-income families.
The child care subsidy program that is so critical to affordable services for working parents is bemoaned as lacking quality standards. But a system starved for revenue cannot enact quality improvements without more resources: increasing staff education levels requires increasing child care wages; enhancing the learning environment means buying more books and learning materials. Some states have initiated quality-rating systems, but in doing so they are often reducing the supply of direct child care services for low-income working parents in order to fund these efforts.
President Obama is proposing significant additional investments in our nation’s early childhood system: pre-k, Early Head Start, Head Start, the federal child care block grant to states, home visiting, 21st Century Learning Centers, etc. But these pieces of our system are like pieces of a puzzle: some parents qualify for some of these services, and some of these services are only available to serve some children some of the time. Parents and providers have to navigate all these fragments and try to piece them together into a seamless system of service.
While all of these investments are sorely needed—and President Obama should be commended for his proposal—if we truly want to solve the problems faced by low-income working parents, then we need a seamless system: one that provides the secure, quality care children need for good outcomes, at an affordable cost that allows parents to remain employed.
Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund, has said, “No parent should have to choose between the child they love and the job they need.”
I couldn’t agree more. Until we build a system of affordable, quality child care for all families, we will continue to force parents into making no-win decisions.
Carol Burnett is the executive director of the Mississippi Low Income Child Care Initiative, a statewide organization of parents, providers and community leaders working together to improve the quality of child care for all of Mississippi’s low-income children.
Clips and other resources (compiled with James Cersonsky)
“What Can Poverty Fighters Learn from Immigration Reform?” Deepak Bhagarva
“Rural Unemployment Surpasses Urban Rate,” Bill Bishop
“Farmworkers Dig Into the New ‘Blue Card’ Plan,” Michelle Chen
“Sequester Impact: April 26-May 2,” Coalition on Human Needs
“The Sequestration Myth,” Daily Show with Jon Stewart [VIDEO]
“Courts’ Campaign to Squeeze Poor Debtors Goes Awry,” Daniel Denvir
“Fast food walkout… in Chicago,” Josh Eidelson
“Homeless advocates seek restoration of funding,” Kate Giammarise
“The Bangladeshi Blood on America’s Hands,” William Greider
“Small donors could change imbalance of power,” Bob Herbert
“The Consequences of Long-term Unemployment for 4.6 Million Americans,” Richard Johnson
“How Pay Inequity Hurts Women of Color,” Sophia Kerby
“Hope, Love and Strategy in the Time of the Zombie Apocalypse,” Stephen Lerner
“Top 6 Policies to Help the Middle Class that Won’t Cost Taxpayers a Penny,” David Madland and Karla Walter
“Criminalization of homelessness—local impact, global issue,” National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty
“Losing Ground: A Profile of Florida’s Families in Poverty,” Research Institute on Social & Economic Policy
“City Report Shows More Were Near Poverty in 2011,” Sam Roberts
“All Work, No Pay,” Joseph Sorrentino
“The California Secure Choice Retirement Savings Program,” Aleta Sprague
“Ohio and Macalester Sit-In, Chicago and Wittenberg Walk Out,” StudentNation
“A California Town Bleeds From Sequestration’s Cuts,” Gabriel Thompson
“The Coming Revolution in Public Education,” John Tierney
“Retail and Fast Food Workers Strike in Chicago’s Magnificent Mile,” Micah Uetricht
“Governor Cuomo and the Working Families Party: Eve of Destruction?” Katrina vanden Heuvel
“School closings traumatize vulnerable children,” Julie Woestehoff
“Building Health Communities With Fresh Produce,” Brad Wong
“House GOP Plans Even Deeper Food Stamp Cuts,” George Zornick
Studies/Briefs (summaries written by James Cersonsky)
“Less Than Equal: Racial Disparities in Wealth Accumulation,” Signe-Mary McKernan, Caroline Ratcliffe, Eugene Steuerle and Sisi Zhang, Urban Institute. Just how much has the racial wealth gap grown? For one, more than race-based income inequality. In 2010, the average income for whites was twice that of blacks and Latinos—roughly the same multiple as in 1983. Over that same period, the wealth gap has gone from five to six times more for whites than blacks and Latinos. One fault line in the persistent—and growing—wealth gap is age: in their early 30s, white families have 3.5 to 4 times the wealth of black families at the same age. In addition, the recession took an uneven toll: while white wealth declined by 11 percent from 2007 to 2010, it went down 31 percent for blacks and 40 percent for Latinos. For Latinos, this loss came largely from lower home values; for blacks, from shrinking retirement accounts.
“An Uneven Recovery, 2009-2011,” Pew Research Center. Between 2009 and 2011, US Census data reveals, the mean net worth of the top 7 percent of households increased by 28 percent—while dropping 4 percent for the rest of the population. While the total sum of household wealth increased a whopping $5 trillion over this period, the entirety of that gain went to the top 7 percent. The imbalanced recovery is due, in part, to class-based differences in asset-holdings: wealthier households often have their assets concentrated in stocks and other financial holdings—which have rebounded handsomely—while others’ assets are more concentrated in their homes. To make matters worse for less wealthy households, the first two recovery years saw a drop in ownership of stocks and mutual fund shares from 16 percent to 13 percent.
“Stuck: Young America’s Persistent Jobs Crisis,” Catherine Ruetschlin and Tamara Draut, Demos. For the younger population, the economic recovery has yet to arrive. Not only are 10.3 million 18 to 34-year olds currently unemployed or underemployed, but the economy would have to add 4.1 million jobs for young adults to return to pre-recession levels of employment. Youth unemployment is even more severe for people of color: 25 percent higher for Latino workers compared to white workers, and double for blacks compared to whites. Moreover, labor force participation for young workers was at its lowest point in 2012 in more than four decades. And 18- to 24-year olds who do have work languish in some of the lowest-paying industries: retail (20 percent of this population) and food service (also 20 percent). How even to begin remedying the youth jobs crisis? The report offers four proposals: a youth jobs corps; higher minimum wages; expansion of unionization and collective bargaining rights; and investment in community college and vocational training.
“Sequestering Meals on Wheels Could Cost the Nation $489 Million per Year,” Jessica Schieder and Patrick Lester, Center for Effective Government. Under sequestration, the Meals on Wheels program is expected to lose an estimated $10 million this year. However, the net loss of this cut could be much greater. One reason is that the program allows seniors to stay at home rather than moving to nursing homes, which require greater funding from Medicaid per person. (Care funded through Medicaid is nearly three times greater for people in nursing homes than for those who stay in their own homes.) In total, the authors calculate, cutting $10 million in Meals on Wheels would hit taxpayers on the order of $479 million for the duration of this fiscal year.
“Mandatory Drug Testing of Work First Applicants and Recipients Would Be Costly, Likely Illegal, and Ineffective at Identifying and Treating Drug Abuse,” Sabine Schoenbach and Tazra Mitchell, North Carolina Justice Center. North Carolina’s Work First program was started in 1996 to provide basic services, short-term training and small cash grants to low-income families. Not only is the program falling short on enrollment—between December 2007 and March 2013, state unemployment went up 4.2 percentage point, but Work First enrollment decreased by 17 percent—it’s now under attack from a new state bill that would require recipients to pass (and pay for) drug tests as a condition of applying. This brief details the policy’s wrongheadedness: the testing could cost the state upwards of $2.3 million; it likely violates the Fourth Amendment; and limitations common to blanket drug-testing mechanisms could render it ineffectual for its intended purpose.
“Expect More: How Target Chooses to Shortchange Minnesota’s Communities of Color,” TakeAction Minnesota, Centro de Trabajadores en Lucha-CTUL, SEIU Local 26, ISAIAH and Minnesotans for a Fair Economy. Target is the fourth largest employer in Minnesota—and proud of its Minnesotan roots. As these groups argue, though, “There is a tremendous opportunity for Target to have a more diverse workforce—one that is paid a living wage with safe working conditions which would more honestly align with the company’s carefully crafted public image of giving back to the communities it serves.” Target’s problems are many: contracting abusive janitorial companies that have stolen workers’ wages; hiring discrimination; and actively shirking promises of job creation, in exchange for millions in public subsidies in the Twin Cities alone—and exemptions from Minneapolis’s municipal living wage. The report calls on Target to hire responsible, law-abiding contractors; adopt fair hiring practices; and deliver on its promises to create jobs in the metro-area Brooklyn Park, where it has fallen notably short.
“Market-oriented education reforms’ rhetoric trumps reality,” Elaine Weiss and Don Long, Broader, Bolder Approach to Education. There’s great promise for students in rating teachers according to student tests, expanding charter schools (and therefore parental “choice”) and closing “failing” or under-enrolled schools—if you believe the billionaires, politicians and so-called reformers who will booster these policies at all costs (often, to their own financial benefit). The authors of this report rip the prevailing reform logic to shreds. Analyzing reams of quantitative and qualitative data from New York, Chicago and Washington, DC, they find the following: despite reports of success, test scores have increased less in these “reform” cities than in other districts; school closures don’t funnel students to better schools—or bolster student outcomes; and the majority of students who leave district schools for charter schools land in lower-performing environments. Instead, the authors argue, school reform should revolve around initiatives that tackle poverty and inequality of opportunity head on—for example, comprehensive childhood education in DC, college financial aid counseling in Chicago, school-based health clinics in Cincinnati, and Montgomery County’s (MD) range of holistic approaches to rating teachers and developing student programs and coursework.
US poverty (less than $17,916 for a family of three): 46.2 million people, 15.1 percent.
Children in poverty: 16.1 million, 22 percent of all children, including 39 percent of African-American children and 34 percent of Latino children. Poorest age group in country.
Deep poverty (less than $11,510 for a family of four): 20.4 million people, 1 in 15 Americans, including more than 15 million women and children.
People who would have been in poverty if not for Social Security, 2011: 67.6 million (program kept 21.4 million people out of poverty).
People in the US experiencing poverty by age 65: roughly half.
Gender gap, 2011: Women 34 percent more likely to be poor than men.
Gender gap, 2010: Women 29 percent more likely to be poor than men.
Twice the poverty level (less than $46,042 for a family of four): 106 million people, more than 1 in 3 Americans.
Jobs in the US paying less than $34,000 a year: 50 percent.
Jobs in the US paying below the poverty line for a family of four, less than $23,000 annually: 25 percent.
Poverty-level wages, 2011: 28 percent of workers.
Low-income families that were working in 2011: more than 70 percent.
Families receiving cash assistance, 1996: 68 for every 100 families living in poverty.
Families receiving cash assistance, 2010: 27 for every 100 families living in poverty.
Impact of public policy, 2010: without government assistance, poverty would have been twice as high—nearly 30 percent of population.
Percentage of entitlement benefits going to elderly, disabled or working households: over 90 percent.
Food stamp recipients with no other cash income: 6.5 million people.
Number of homeless children in US public schools: 1,065,794.
Annual cost of child poverty nationwide: $550 billion.
Mothers who are homeless as a direct result of domestic violence: 1 in 4.
Homeless mothers who will experience domestic violence at some point: over 90 percent.
Federal expenditures on home ownership mortgage deductions, 2012: $131 billion.
Federal funding for low-income housing assistance programs, 2012: less than $50 billion.
James Cersonsky wrote the “Studies/Briefs” and co-wrote the “Clips and other resources” sections in this blog.
Harvard economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff once concluded that economies stall when debt reaches 90 percent of GDP. A recent paper from Amherst College points out important holes in the Harvard paper's conclusions—and, in turn, the austerity playbook. "This study, on which so much of the austerity agenda, so much of our actual politics...so much of what they've based their argument on," Nation writer John Nichols says, "as the Harvard economists acknowledge, contains significant mistakes." Nichols joins KPFA radio (about 7 minutes into the show) to discuss the nuts, bolts and implications of the new findings.
What does American trade policy have to do with the ongoing Bangladeshi factory fires? Read William Greider's analysis.
In a previous blog post, we floated some unorthodox suggestions about ways to construct a cryptic clue, playing off ideas from Peter Biddlecombe, the cryptic crossword editor at the Sunday Times (in London). One of those involved using a clue’s syntax to soften up the common requirement that the definition appear at the beginning or the end of the clue.
To clue INSANE, for instance, instead of the traditional:
Mix sienna to get mad (6)
we could just as easily write:
One can get mad when mixing sienna (6)
The underlying structure of the clue is nearly identical in both versions. The first is an instruction to the solver and the second a quasi-hypothetical statement about how a solver could go about solving, but the difference is minor. The key point is that, without going very far from traditional syntax, the second clue commits the near-heresy of placing the definition in the middle of the clue.
One correspondent raised an objection. “The clue is supposed to be a definition,” he wrote, “or, in cryptic puzzles, a mashup of direct and encrypted definitions. This sentence would seem to define ‘one.’ Grammatically, it is not asking for any other def.”
Well, yes and no. If you accept the premise that a clue is “supposed to be” a definition, then he’s right that the second version of the clue is unsound. But that’s a little like saying that a poem is “supposed to be” a series of rhyming lines in a regularly recurring meter. Where does that “supposed to be” come from?
Just like a poem, a cryptic crossword is built in accordance with a system of generally accepted conventions, which lend it structure and coherence. Those conventions are strong enough to make it possible to teach beginners how to solve cryptics, just as it’s possible to teach first-year literature students how to read and understand a Shakespearean sonnet. But writing sonnets isn’t the only way to write a poem.
We’d propose a broader definition of what a crossword clue is “supposed to be”: a path by which a solver is led to the answer. That doesn’t mean that conventions—the duality of definition and wordplay, the use of standard tools like anagrams and reversals, and so on—aren’t important. On the contrary, those are the conventions that make a cryptic crossword a cryptic crossword rather than something else.
They are the guidelines for making sure that the path to the solution is clear and unambiguous, but they are no more than guidelines. Puzzle constructors can be true to the spirit of cryptic clueing while remaining open to unorthodox or innovative interpretations. A path to the answer, possibly including unexpected twists and turns—surely that’s what a clue is “supposed to be.”
What are your thoughts about the conventions of clueing? Please share here, along with any quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle or any previous puzzle. To comment (and see other readers’ comments), please click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen.
And here are three links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines
• A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where you can ask for and offer hints, and where every one of our clues is explained in detail.
Bernie Madoff, pictured here after being placed under house arrest in 2008, is not the only one in the business of building pyramids. (Reuters/Shannon Stapleton)
Last year I published an article in The Baffler called “The Long Con” that demonstrated how practices we associate with snake-oil salesmen saturate the American right—not just in its ideological appeals but in the way right-wing politics corrals a fleecable multitude all in one place, which conservative publications literally rent out as a source of handy marks for con men. A lot of folks found this to be a revelation, a bittersweet pleasure for me. On the one hand, it’s a blessing to me to be able to teach people new things about the world around us. But on the other hand, it’s frustrating; I wish people already knew about this stuff. It reinforces a fact: America truly does harbor two separate and nearly incommensurate tribes, “Red” and “Blue,” if you will; how many of us Blue folks know that getting roped into coughing up hard-earned money you’ll never see again to Republican-affiliated “multilevel marketing” (MLM) companies—in hustles formerly known as “pyramid schemes”—is as common in Evangelical and Mormon culture as going to yoga class in our own?
Robert Fitzpatrick, the author of False Profits: Seeking Financial and Spiritual Deliverence in Multi-Level Marketing and Pyramid Schemes and an expert witness or consultant in more MLM cases than any other private citizen, estimates that the industry Hoovers $10 to $20 billion out of the pockets of Main Street Americans every year. And hardly any of us know anything about it. As he explained to me in an e-mail, “Just as the Tea Party exists as a kind of phantom, funded quietly and invisibly from on high, with amorphous, uncounted members, the MLM industry has permeated Main Street without media recognition of its scale or force and largely in disguise as ‘direct selling.’ ” But “the Tea Party is at least beginning to be studied, its funding traced, its leaders examined.” MLM? Not so much. His book, published in 1997, was the first on the subject, though the industry has been rampant since the 1970s—and, save for a notable exception two years later from the heroic folks at tiny South End Press, there have hardly been any others since. That’s why I’m beginning a series on the subject today—in the hope that people will spread the word as widely as possible, and start learning more, and even organizing, on their own.
Let’s start with some basics—with some key regulatory questions. Fitzpatrick wrote a report called “The Main Street Bubble” that he hopes members of Congress will use to enhance FTC oversight, and to persuade the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to put MSM scams under its umbrella. It notes, “When they began to appear in the mid 1960s, pyramid selling schemes were widely understood to be classic frauds and were widely prosecuted.” The model statute came from California, which in 1968 banned “endless chains”—in which a franchisee only or mostly makes money from recruiting further franchisees, not from selling actual retail products. (In the most extreme variety of pyramid scheme, there is no actual product.) Another, softer practice, “referral-based discounting,” was widely outlawed: that means franchisees had to recruit new customers if they wanted to buy the material they were supposed to be selling at the advertised price. “By design,” Fitzpatrick explains, both practices “doomed most consumers to losses.”
The marquee outfit practicing such hustles, of course, was Amway—short for “American Way”—founded by the DeVos family of Michigan in 1964. In the 1970s, the FTC lost a court effort to close down Amway as an inherent fraud. A 1979 administrative law decision, however, did limit the conditions under which it could operate. Via clever lawyering, Amway adjusted—which it found easy to do under the relaxed regulatory regime of the Reagan years. Endless chains could be successfully reframed as a legitimate “business opportunity” called “direct selling,” in which, Fitzpatrick writes, “Each new distributor was induced to purchase goods each month as part of the ‘investment’”—only at staggeringly inflated prices, with the profit designed to flow up the chain to fewer and fewer parties, ultimately to the company itself. In short, “without sustainable and profitable retail sales opportunity for the distributors, the reward can come only from one place: the investments of later recruits.”
Such companies “churn through 50–80 percent of victims annually, replacing them with new ones,” which proliferate like kudzu. They have to, in order for their sponsors to survive: without new marks, the base of the pyramid disintegrates. Their failure is the company’s success. According to the declaration of expert witness Peter J. Vander Nat in the case of Federal Trade Commission v. Trek Alliance, who studied a database of 22,281 distributors for a company that “sold” (not many) water filters, cleaning products, nutritional supplements and beauty aids, “Under several optimal scenarios in which the distributors do exactly what is needed to obtain the rewards proposed by the Pay Plan, approximately 98.8 to 99.6 percent fail to achieve any earnings,” and “in all likelihood more than 96% of Trek distributors experienced business failure.”
Under the Clinton administration, regulatory efforts were stepped up. Vander Nat became the FTC’s senior economist, expert at teasing out the fraud behind “direct selling,” devising a test that determined what percentage of purchases by “distributors” would have to be resold to actual retail customers (instead of future “distributors” down the chain) for the “distributor” to actually make money without recruiting further marks. That number, he learned, was typically 70 percent, which virtually no one ever achieved. His schema made it easier to prosecute and protect the victims under Section 5 of the FTC Act, which regulates business fraud. Prosecutions began, gathered steam.
And what happened next? Tune in next time, when, likes the sands in an hourglass, a new presidential administration turns—a Republican administration. We’ll learn what conservative elites think about such sorts of business practices: that they judge them, well, as the American Way. Why not? They’re often the very same people.
Fracking is a public health disaster for those who live near it. Read Ellen Cantarow's story.
Arizona Governor Jan Brewer meets with President Obama in 2010. (White House Photo/Pete Souza.)
Editor's Note: With this post we welcome Mychal Denzel Smith, who has already been a guest-blogger and contributor to TheNation.com, back to our site as a regular blogger! You'll find Mychal's work, focusing on racial justice, criminal justice, and more, here at least once per week.
The United States Senate, as it is wont to do, failed to find enough votes to pass legislation that a majority of Americans support. In this instance, it was for expanded background checks, the one gun control measure that, since the tragic shooting in Newtown, seemed likely to become law. But where there’s a will there’s a way, and our Congress, if nothing is else, wills its way into ineffectiveness with ease.
Thus far, it has been left up to individual states to craft their own gun control legislation, and a few have stepped up to the plate. Colorado, New York, Maryland and Connecticut have all passed new gun control laws, including bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
Arizona has also taken up the issue of gun control. On Monday (April 29), Governor Jan Brewer, of SB1070 and finger-wagging fame, signed a bill that prevents cities and counties conducting gun-buyback events from destroying the weapons they obtain and forces them to sell the guns to licensed firearm dealers, to then be resold to the public. According to state Representative Brenda Barton, the Republican author of the measure, the bill is meant to “clarify” already existing laws that require the government to sell weapons that they have seized. According to the Arizona Daily Sun, the “law also covers ‘found property’ which is defined as anything recovered, lost or abandoned that is not needed as evidence,” and by “adding the word ‘surrendered’ to what is considered found property” it now covers even those guns.
“Any chance of cities or counties conducting future gun-buyback programs is about to evaporate,” says the Sun—and they’re exactly right. This bill has the effect of turning Arizona’s gun-buyback program, aimed at getting guns off the street, into a recycling initiative. Additionally, Brewer signed a separate bill prohibiting local governments from keeping lists of people who own firearms, though no evidence exists that any city was keeping this type of record.
As someone who is firmly anti-gun/anti–Second Amendment, background checks are not all that satisfying, but this Arizona law is an affront to progress of any kind. But there are two lessons to be learned here. One is that gun control—meaningful gun control—legislation has to be a federal priority. This isn’t an issue where we can afford to have fifty different states going about their business in fifty completely different ways, when the ability to obtain a gun through one state’s lax laws renders a nearby state’s stricter gun laws moot. Federalism is not our friend on gun control.
And second, even as public opinion shifts toward “common sense” gun laws, the energy and organization still lies on the pro-gun side. The governor’s office in Arizona claims they received more than 1900 pleas for Brewer to sign this new measure, an effort organized by the Arizona Citizens Defense League. On the other hand, they only received twenty-five messages in favor of a veto. The poll numbers are one thing, but political movement requires actual movement.
If we’re truly exhausted by seeing headlines such as this one, where 2-year-olds are the victims of gun violence, those of us on the side of restricting access to guns have to become just as vigilant in our cause as those who would interpret the Second Amendment to essentially mean “a chicken in every pot and a gun in every hand.”
For more on another pressing reform issue—immigration—read Allison Kilkenny on May Day rallies in New York City.