This week I threw it to the friends in my Facebook community (join us!) for requests about what I should write about for the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s death, which falls this Friday. I got a massive response—scores of questions. All this week I’ll be addressing the most popular and interesting ones.
The very first reply that came in was this: “I can never hear enough about how a liberal Massachusetts Democrat used intelligence and creative intelligence and creative diplomacy to defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis and saved us all from nuclear annihilation.” With all due respect to the questioner, a smart and experienced liberal activist, plus the five folks who gave the question a thumbs-up on Facebook, I wondered initially whether his question wasn’t meant as snark—that he might be referring to Garry Wills’s very convincing argument that the Cuban Missile Crisis was all Kennedy’s fault. As it happens, I agree with Wills: I don’t think Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis is something we should celebrate at all.
Wills made the case in the final section of his 1982 book The Kennedy Imprisonment: A Meditation on Power. Early in his term Kennedy fell in love with a plan, left over from Eisenhower’s administration, to send exiles to invade and overthrow Castro via a landing at the Bahía de Cochinos—the Bay of Pigs. He liked it so much because it was Kennedyesque: “A James Bond exploit blessed by Yale, a PT raid run by PhDs.” A failed invasion, his fault; then, despite the conventional wisdom that he learned from the failure, rather than leave well enough alone, Kennedy’s CIA kept on proliferating increasingly knuckle-headed schemes (exploding cigars!) to assassinate Castro, some using Mafia operatives. One set of plans on the drawing boards: “Operation Northwoods,” which proposed, among other ideas, creating the pretext for another American invasion. James Bamford wrote that the goal of the project was “for innocent people to be shot on American streets; for boats carrying refugees fleeing Cuba to be sunk on the high seas; for a wave of violent terrorism to be launched in Washington, D.C., Miami, and elsewhere. People would be framed for bombings they did not commit; planes would be hijacked. Using phony evidence, all of it would be blamed on Castro.”
We sometimes hear the argument that Kennedy never knew how about the depths to which such madcap plotting sunk, which were indeed always devised to protect the president via maximal “plausible deniability”—but what is undeniable is that the ultimate aim, overthrowing Castro, came straight from the top. The American people didn’t know about any of this, but the Cuban government did. So no wonder they wanted nukes. But there are also outstanding arguments that JFK’s admittedly outstanding and mature diplomacy once the missiles were placed in Cuba did not save us from nuclear annihilation at all. The logic of deterrence rendered those missiles virtually useless. For if a Communist first strike was launched from the Soviet Union, America could destroy the Cuban missiles before they could be used during this long time window; if the missiles from Cuba struck first, the president would have time to push the proverbial button and annihilate the Soviet Union. The only thing those Cuban missiles were useful for, in fact, was preventing America from illegally overthrowing the Castro government. So if you think that’s a splendid thing, yes, celebrate Kennedy for the Cuban Missile Crisis. Otherwise: not so impressive.
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Next up! “I’d love to read your take on Ira Stoll’s book arguing that JFK was actually a conservative.”
The book is JFK, Conservative. Here’s the blurb: “[B]y the standards of both his time and our own, John F. Kennedy was a conservative. His two great causes were anticommunism and economic growth. His tax cuts, which spurred one of the greatest economic booms in our history, were fiercely opposed by his more liberal advisers. He fought against unions. He pushed for free trade and a strong dollar. And above all, he pushed for a military buildup and an aggressive anticommunism around the world…. Not every Republican is a true heir to Kennedy, but hardly any Democrats deserve that mantle.”
I have, of course, heard such claims for ages. What to make of them? Granted, I haven’t read the book, and maybe Stoll’s supporting arguments are so subtly brilliant that he’s suddenly rendered them convincing. But he’d have to be smarter than Einstein to do so. It’s not a great start that the blurb advertising his book contains a basic logical error. One can’t be a conservative “by the standards of both his time and our own,” the space in between being some fifty years filled with massive social changes on virtually every front, any more than something can be simultaneously matter and anti-matter. What is considered “conservative,” and what is considered “liberal,” changes in any given era. Calling tax cuts “conservative,” as such, is shockingly historically ignorant: the idea of tax-cutting as a signature conservative gesture dates only to the late 1970s and the arguments of supply-siders like Jude Wanniski. When Wanniski made his arguments to Ronald Reagan’s very conservative adviser Peter Hannaford in 1976, Hannaford looked at Wanniski like he was crazy and walked away; the previous year, liberal Democrats were the ones pushing a $29.2 billion permanent tax cut as against President Ford’s wish for $16 billion in temporary tax cuts.
As for Kennedy’s tax cut specifically (which was actually Johnson’s tax cut: it went through early in 1964, and are conservatives now claiming Johnson as one of their own?), the historian David Greenberg niftily put paid to that in a piece Stoll must have missed when it came out ten years ago. Yes, the law that passed ended up lowering the top marginal tax rate from 91 to 70 percent, and if Stoll is willing to join the Kennedy-Johnson bandwagon by bringing back that top rate, I’m glad to join him. But the blunt fact of the matter was that the tax cut was designed to create a deficit, and designed to mostly put money into poorer consumers’ pockets: it was explicitly Kenyesian, through and through—the opposite of Reaganite “supply-side” thinking. Businessmen—conservatives—mostly hated it. Because, back then, it was “conservative” to favor fiscal probity even if it took higher taxes to do it.
OK: “He fought against unions.” Um, he fought against union corruption. If Stoll thinks liberals prefer corrupt unions, I don’t know what to say to him. That’s generally the conservative line. As Barry Goldwater said during the hearings Kennedy helped run in the late 1950s that took on Jimmy Hoffa’s Teamsters, “I’d rather have Jimmy Hoffa stealing my money than Walter Reuther stealing my freedom.”
What about Kennedy’s anticommunism? Was that “conservative”? Sure, if you’re stupid beyond stupid. Anticommunism in its modern form was invented by liberals like Harry Truman, the architect of the national security state. The proportion of the voting population that was not anticommunist in 1961 was miniscule. Here’s another, related, question from one of my Facebook friends, another five-thumbs-up popular favorite: “I’d love a perspective on his brand of liberal anticommunism and how it fit in to the era.” What did it mean to be a conservative anticommunist during that time? Mostly, it meant being idiotic. Barry Goldwater’s 1962 book on the subject, Why Not Victory?, built on the argument in the last chapter of Conscience of a Conservative that it should be America’s foreign policy to blithely welcome nuclear war if that was what it took to “advance the cause of freedom.” Yes, literally.
Conservatives like Goldwater (not to mention conservatives in the John Birch Society, who believed the most important thing to know about Communism was that its denizens had infiltrated the federal government all the way to the top, but maybe Ira Stoll agrees?) also believed it was futile to negotiate with the Soviet Union about anything. Why was this especially idiotic? Because historically, relaxation in tensions between the US and the USSR had always been the variable most likely to weaken the hold of totalitarianism with the Soviet Union, opening space for the dissidents whose courage eventually brought down the system. (Conservatives habitually travesty both historical fact and the courageous legacy of these dissidents when they argue otherwise.)
Now, as I noted above, Kennedy’s anticommunism could be stupid, too. But it was most stupid when it was most conservative—see above.
So why is it accurate to say that Kennedy was affirmatively liberal—if too often, as we’ll examine next time, a timid one? For one, because he said he was, out and proud, for instance in this most useful of utterances: “If by a ‘liberal’ they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people—their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights and their civil liberties—someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad—if that is what they mean by a ‘liberal’ then I’m proud to say I’m a liberal.”
The proof was in the pudding. His first debate with Richard Nixon in 1960, remembered now because Kennedy looked hale and ruddy and Nixon looked sweaty and haggard, should also be remembered for Kennedy’s central policy argument: free medical care for the aged, what would later come to pass as Medicare, as an affirmation and extension of the New Deal legacy:
“I want the individuals to meet their responsibilities. And I want the states to meet their responsibilities. But I think there is also a national responsibility. The argument has been used against every piece of social legislation in the last twenty-five years. The people of the United States individually could not have developed the Tennessee Valley; collectively they could have. A cotton farmer in Georgia or a peanut farmer or a dairy farmer in Wisconsin and Minnesota, he cannot protect himself against the forces of supply and demand in the market place; but working together in effective governmental programs he can do so. Seventeen million Americans, who live over sixty-five on an average Social Security check of about seventy-eight dollars a month, they’re not able to sustain themselves individually, but they can sustain themselves through the social security system.”
Kennedy went on, slapping Ira Stoll down from beyond the grave:
“[W]hat is the party record that we lead? I come out of the Democratic party, which in this century has produced Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, and which supported and sustained these programs which I’ve discussed tonight. Mr. Nixon comes out of the Republican party. He was nominated by it. And it is a fact that through most of these last twenty-five years the Republican leadership has opposed federal aid for education, medical care for the aged, development of the Tennessee Valley, development of our natural resources. I think Mr. Nixon is an effective leader of his party. I hope he would grant me the same. The question before us is: which point of view and which party do we want to lead the United States?”
That’s why John F. Kennedy was a liberal, which happens to be why I am a liberal too.
Wendell Berry commemorates the assassination of JFK in his poem “The Light of all His Last Days.”
With budget negotiations on the horizon, a buzz is building around Social Security, from Elizabeth Warren and other Democrats calling for an expansion of benefits to The Washington Post arguing that seniors must be sacrificed for the good of the “poor young.”
Two of the biggest players in the debate are largely behind the scenes: Business Roundtable and Fix the Debt, corporate lobbies that use deficit fear-mongering to sell benefit cuts. These groups are made up of CEOs of America’s largest corporations—people with retirement accounts that are more than 1,000 times as large as those of the average Social Security beneficiary.
Each of the 200 executives of Business Roundtable has retirement savings averaging $14.5 million, according to a new report from the Institute for Policy Studies and the Center for Effective Government. That’s compared to the $12,000 that the median US worker near retirement age has managed to put away. Once Business Roundtable CEOs start drawing Social Security themselves, they’ll be cashing a monthly check that is sixty-eight times larger than an ordinary retiree’s, ensuring that they’ll never bear the burden of the cuts they’re advocating.
“I find it hypocritical to see CEOs sitting on massive retirement fortunes of their own saying that the solution to the country’s fiscal challenge is to put an even greater burden on retirees, many of whom already struggling,” said Sarah Anderson, director of the Global Economy Project at IPS and one of the report’s authors.
One of those CEOs is David Cote, the vice-chair of Business Roundtable and a member of the steering committee for Fix the Debt. After eleven years at Honeywell where he’s now the chief executive, his retirement assets are worth $134.5 million. That means that as a retiree he’ll draw a monthly pension of nearly $800,000.
Cote is a deficit hawk, and claims to be worried about the long-term stability of Social Security. A member of the Bowles-Simpson commission and President Obama’s debt committee, Cote has called for $3 to $4 trillion in spending cuts over the next decade, “especially when it comes to entitlements.”
To make some of those reductions via cuts to Social Security, Business Roundtable has proposed raising the retirement age to 70, restricting benefit growth and changing the way inflation is calculated in a way that amounts to a benefit cut for seniors. (Read George Zornick on why this change, called Chained CPI, is a bad deal.) At the same time, Business Roundtable and Fix the Debt are calling for more corporate tax breaks.
“If Congress approves of proposals like ones that Business Roundtable are pushing, we could see severe cuts that could mean the difference between any kind of dignified retirement and absolute poverty,” Anderson said. Two-thirds of retired Americans rely on Social Security for the majority of their income, and more than 40 percent would be in poverty without those benefits.
These CEOs aren’t just trying to short the average American retiree; they’re throwing their own under the bus. While raising alarm about the federal debt, Business Roundtable CEOs have run up massive deficits in their employees’ pension funds. According to the report, ten companies led by members of Business Roundtable have shortfalls in their employee pension funds of between $4.9 and $22.6 billion. The largest of those belongs to General Electric, run by Business Roundtable and Fix the Debt member Jeffrey Immelt, the prospective beneficiary of a $59.3 million retirement fund.
GE stopped offering traditional pension plans for new employees in 2011, forcing workers to switch to 401(k) plans. Many other companies have shifted the burden of retirement savings to their employees in this way in recent years, and that’s been a significant driver of the retirement crisis. Just 18 percent of workers can expect traditional pensions today, compared with 38 percent in 1985. Instead of getting a fixed check, retirees are at the mercy of the market—making the assurance of Social Security benefits even more essential. But Business Roundtable continues to put the responsibility for the retirement crisis on retirees themselves. “[T]rue retirement security will be achieved only if Americans save more,” reads the group’s 2013 CEO Growth Agenda.
Saving more is an increasingly unworkable solution for the millions of workers whose wages and benefits are being undercut by some of the same CEOs directing them to do so. As the report lays out, many of the most effective ways to strengthen Social Security involve asking more of executives, not employees. Eliminating the cap on wages subject to Social Security taxes (currently set at $113,700) would eliminate 95 percent of the projected shortfall for seventy-five years, according to the Congressional Research Service. That’s three times the deficit reduction achieved by raising the retirement age to 70. Subjecting stock-based compensation to Social Security taxes would raise billions more.
Don’t expect to hear about those proposals from Business Roundtable, however. “I do think that it is a real weakness of these corporate lobby groups, that they’re making the public face of the agenda to cut Social Security these CEOs that are sitting on massive nest eggs of their own,” said Anderson. “It undercuts their credibility and influence in these debates, and I’m hoping it will make it difficult to achieve the cuts they’re proposing.”
Allison Kilkenny on how Walmart is holding a food drive for the employees it refuses to pay a living wage.
There’s a crisis brewing in US-Israel relations, and it’s about time.
For four years, President Obama has put up with the shenanigans of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. Among Netanyahu’s offenses: openly defying Obama in 2009, when the president called for Israel to halt its illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank, and overt supporting Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election. But, in issuing a stream of political invective aimed at capsizing the emerging deal with Iran, Netanyahu is making a catastrophic miscalculation that could isolate Israel and weaken its support among the American public.
Fact is, Netanyahu can’t stop the coming deal with Iran. And despite his bluster, he can’t bomb Iran, either. Furthermore, Israel—which vastly depends on American good will, American aid and American arms—doesn’t have many friends outside the United States. Despite Netanyahu’s warm embrace of visiting French President FrançHollande this week, and despite Netanyahu’s upcoming visit to Moscow to talk turkey with Vladimir Putin, really and truly Israel has nowhere else to go except Washington.
All the vaunted power of the Israel lobby, which Netanyahu has tried to mobilize against Obama this month, won’t save Israel if the United States abandons it. Not that the United States is abandoning Israel anytime soon, of course, but even a sharp look of disapproval from Washington can cause serious problems in Israel, and in Israeli politics. So Netanyahu had better be careful.
The Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), the pro-Israel think tank allied to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), issued a dire warning about the developing rupture in US-Israeli relations this week. Wrote Rob Satloff, WINEP’s executive director, in Politico, in regard to the potential US-Iran entente:
Not since Menachem Begin trashed Ronald Reagan’s 1982 peace plan has Israel so publicly criticized a major U.S. diplomatic initiative. In a rousing speech in Jerusalem on Nov. 10, Netanyahu even called on leaders of American Jewry to use their influence to stop what he called a “bad” Iran deal.
Never has a U.S. secretary of state taken to a podium in an Arab capital, proclaimed his pro-Israel bona fides and then specifically cautioned the prime minister of Israel to butt out of ongoing U.S. diplomatic efforts and save his critique for after a deal is inked. That is what John Kerry did in a remarkable Nov. 11 news conference in Abu Dhabi, standing next to the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates.
Netanyahu, in his hysterical speech at the United Nations in September, and his apoplectic responses to the diplomacy with Iran ever since, has brought this on himself. As The New York Times reports today:
Every time Mr. Obama and his secretary of state, John Kerry, ask for a little time and space to test the new Iranian leadership’s claims that it is ready for a new approach, and for compromise, Mr. Netanyahu responds that the proposed agreement is “a very bad deal,” “extremely dangerous,” “a mistake of historic proportions” or, as he said in an interview with CNN on Sunday, “an exceedingly bad deal.” And he has often raised the specter of an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities even if a deal is signed, something the Obama administration believes would split apart the global coalition it has built to squeeze Iran.
With such absurdly exaggerated rhetoric, Netanyahu has created a crisis for himself. What happens when Iran and the P5+1 sign the deal, which could happen as early as this week? Where does Netanyahu go then? His bluster about striking Iran unilaterally is just that: bluster. Were Israel to attack Iran, either the United States would condemn it and allow Israel to suffer the world’s opprobrium all alone, or the United States would find itself (and Israel) utterly isolated as the rest of the world strikes its own deal with Iran, causing the economic sanctions to collapse.
Make no mistake: there’s more at stake here than just the talks with Iran. Israel’s entire relationship with the United States is on the line.
Dave Zirin looks back at the untimely death of basketball star Len Bias.
Bernie Sanders is not burning with presidential ambition. He doubts that he would consider bidding for the nation’s top job if another prominent progressive was gearing up for a 2016 run that would provide a seriously-focused and seriously competitive populist alternative to politics as usual.
But if the fundamental issues that are of concern to the great mass of Americans—“the collapse of the middle class, growing wealth and income inequality, growth in poverty, global warming”—are not being discussed by the 2016 candidates, Sanders says, “Well, then maybe I have to do it.”
This calculation brings the independent senator from Vermont a step closer to presidential politics than he has ever been before. With a larger social-media following than most members of Congress, a regular presence on left-leaning television and talk radio programs—syndicated radio host Bill Press greeted the Sanders speculation with a Tuesday morning “Go, Bernie, Go!” cheer—and a new “Progressive Voters of America” political action committee, Sanders has many of the elements of an insurgent candidacy in place.
But the senator is still a long way from running.
In interviews over the past several days, Sanders has argued with increasing force that the times demand that there be a progressive contender in 2016.
“Under normal times, it’s fine, if you have a moderate Democrat running, a moderate Republican running,” the senator told his hometown paper, the Burlington Free Press. “These are not normal times. The United States right now is in the middle of a severe crisis and you have to call it what it is.”
So, says Sanders, there must be a progressive alternative to the conservative Republican politics of cruelty and cuts and the centrist Democratic politics of compromise with the conservatives.
“[The] major issues of this country that impact millions of people cannot continue to be swept under the rug,” Sanders told Politico on Monday. “And if nobody else is talking about it, well, then maybe I have to do it. But I do not believe that I am the only person that is capable of doing this.”
The independent senator has high praise for Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has recently been talked up by some progressives as a prospective primary challenger to the front-runner for the party’s 2016 presidential nomination, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Unlike Clinton, Warren has a reputation for taking on Wall Street, big banks and corporate CEOs, and Sanders hails the Massachusetts senator as a “real progressive.” But Warren says she is not running.
So what happens if Warren stands down? And what if other liberal and populist presidential prospects, such as Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley and former Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, fail to gain traction?
Then, says Sanders, he’d consider a run.
That sounds casual. But it isn’t. Sanders has stipulations regarding a candidacy.
Though he is a proud independent, he would not run as a November “spoiler” who might take away just enough votes to throw the presidential election to a right-wing Republican.
And he has little taste for “educational” campaigns that seek to raise issues—either on an independent line or in a Democratic primary dominated by a Clinton juggernaut—but do not seriously compete for power.
If Sanders were to run—and that remains a very big “if”—he says he would do so with a strategy for winning.
That strategy, whether the senator were to mount a presidential bid as an independent or as a Democrat, would not be built around insider ties or connections; Clinton already has much of the party establishment locked down. And it certainly would not rely on raising the most money, explains the sponsor of a constitutional amendment to overturn the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling and get big money out of politics.
When we spoke recently about the challenges facing progressive candidates, Sanders said what most politicians will not:
“This small handful of multi-billionaires control the economics of this country. They determine whether jobs stay in the United States or whether they go to China. They determine how much we’re going to BE paying for a gallon of gas. They determine whether we’re going to transform our economic system away from fossil fuel. Economically, they clearly have an enormous amount of power. And, now, especially with Citizens United, these very same people are now investing in politics. That’s what oligarchy is. Oligarchy is when a small number of people control the economic and political life of the country—certainly including the media—and we are rapidly moving toward an oligarchic form of society.”
Sanders actually likes the prospects of taking on the oligarchs, saying: “And I think you can bring people together to say: Look, we may have our disagreements, but we don’t want billionaires deciding who the next governor is going to be, the next senator, the next president of the United States. As someone who believes in that type of grassroots organizing, I think it’s a great opportunity.”
So any presidential run by Sanders would rely on small contributions and grassroots support. But the core of the strategy would be that challenge to oligarchy, with its focus on values and ideas that have been too long dismissed by prominent presidential contenders and the media that covers them.
In effect, say Sanders, he would run only if he thought that he could fill the great void in the American political discourse, and in so doing inspire voters to reject old orthodoxies in favor of a new populist politics that would have as its core theme economic justice.
When we spoke about what is missing from American politics, Sanders told me that the president America needs would begin the discussion, as Franklin Roosevelt did, by calling out the plutocrats and their political and media minions.
Imagine, explains Sanders, if Americans had a president who said to them: “I am going to stand with you. And I am going to take these guys on. And I understand that they’re going to be throwing thirty-second ads at me every minute. They’re going to do everything they can to undermine my agenda. But I believe that if we stand together, we can defeat them.”
The senator explained the concept that would, necessarily, underpin a presidential bid:
“If you had a President who said: ‘Nobody in America is going to make less than $12 or $14 an hour,’ what do you think that would do? If you had a President who said: ‘You know what, everybody in this country is going to get free primary health care within a year,’ what do you think that would do? If you had a President say, ‘Every kid in this country is going to go to college regardless of their income,’ what do you think that would do? If you had a President say, ‘I stand here today and guarantee you that we are not going to cut a nickel in Social Security; in fact we’re going to improve the Social Security program,’ what do you think that would do? If you had a president who said, ‘Global warming is the great planetary crisis of our time, I’m going to create millions jobs as we transform our energy system. I know the oil companies don’t like it. I know the coal companies don’t like it. But that is what this planet needs: we’re going to lead the world in that direction. We’re going to transform the energy system across this planet—and create millions of jobs while we do that.’ If you had a President say that, what kind of excitement would you generate from young people all over this world?”
Whether Sanders runs or not, the prospect of such a speak-truth-to-power presidency is an appealing one. And the senator from Vermont is right: Americans do not just deserve such an option. In these times, they need a serious progressive alternative the ugly politics of austerity -- and the empty politics of compromise.
John Nichols discusses another candidate of progressives’ dreams: Elizabeth Warren.
Nia Timmons was stressed.
A mother of three, she works full-time as an assistant teacher at a pre-K program in Camden, New Jersey where she earns $12 per hour. By the second week of November, she still hadn’t received her family’s food stamp (SNAP) benefits and she didn’t know why. She thought it might be due to the SNAP cut on November 1 that hit 48 million people, including 22 million children, but she couldn’t get any answers from the Camden Board of Social Services.
“I’ve not heard from anyone there, and I can’t reach anyone either,” said Timmons.
She told me her story in a coffee shop in the basement of the Russell Senate Office Building last week. She had traveled to Capitol Hill along with four of her “Witnesses to Hunger sisters” from Camden, Philadelphia and Boston to speak with Members of Congress about the impact their policy decisions are having on people who live in poverty. Witnesses to Hunger is a project of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities at the Drexel University School of Public Health. Participants are mothers and caregivers of young children who use photography and testimonials to document their experiences and advocate for change at the local, state, and federal levels. There are more than eighty Witnesses in various cities on the East Coast.
Timmons and Anisa Davis—also from Camden—shared their experiences with staffers for their representatives, Democratic Senator Robert Menendez and Democratic Congressman Robert Andrews. The other Witnesses met with legislative aides for their respective Senators and Representatives too. They also stopped by the offices of Republicans on the Farm Bill conference committee, including House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas and Florida Congressman Steve Southerland. All of the Witnesses met directly with Democratic Congressmen Chaka Fattah of Pennsylvania and Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, and with Kellie Adesina, legislative director for Ohio Representative Marcia Fudge.
I was invited to sit in on the meeting with Adesina.
Quanda Burrell, a mother of two from Boston, told her story of being just one semester shy of her teacher’s assistant degree when she was informed that her Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) cash assistance would run out in two weeks. Her caseworker said she needed to drop out of school and enter a “career readiness program” in order to continue to receive assistance. The Witnesses say these programs often lead to no jobs, or dead-end jobs, and are frequently run by for-profit companies.
Burrell felt she was forced to choose between feeding her family in the immediate term or staying in school so she could attain a stable income in the very near future. She dropped out. But the extension of TANF assistance turned out to be just for two months, and so her only current income is a small stipend she receives for work for Thrive in Five, which promotes early childhood education in Boston. She can’t afford to re-enroll in school and now her rent is due.
“It affects you mentally, emotionally, physically—it drains you,” said Burrell. “You have to hide it from your children. You gotta pretend like you’re not struggling with this, but you really are. You don’t want your kids to feel that stress. But it does trickle down.”
Philadelphia Witness Emily Edwards works part-time as a home healthcare aide earning $9 per hour. Like many Witnesses, she checks in frequently with her neighbors about how they are getting along. She said that in West Philadelphia she is constantly asked two questions: “Why were there SNAP cuts on November 1? And why didn’t anyone tell us?”
“Instead of a notification, what they get is this answering machine, once they call to check on their benefits, that says ‘due to government cuts you might not receive the same benefits,’” said Edwards, who is 29 and has a 5-year-old son.
She suggested that if Members of Congress had “pictures” to go with the numbers and statistics that usually dominate budget discussions, maybe that would help broaden some minds about what programs like SNAP mean to people.
“Give them a face with that number, and make it feel real,” Edwards told Adesina.
Adesina said that some Members who voted for cuts might be affected by stories of veterans or elderly people on SNAP, but not necessarily by stories about children.
“With children they’re not as moved,” said Adesina.
“Unbelievable,” said Boston Witness Juell Frazier, incredulous. “Unbelievable!”
A mother of two daughters, ages 4 and 8, Frazier was also forced to drop out of college in order to continue receiving TANF cash assistance. She had made the Dean’s List at Springfield College and only had two semesters remaining to obtain her Bachelors Degree in Human Services.
After the meeting with Adesina, we returned to the coffee shop and Edwards told me more about how she and her son are faring. She started her job two weeks ago and knows that she will soon face what is known as “the cliff effect”: when an increase in income triggers a sudden loss of federal assistance, leaving a person economically worse off just as they are trying to get ahead.
Edwards has been through this before, and said that when she shares her first pay stub with her caseworker she will lose her TANF cash assistance and child care assistance, and her food stamps will be cut by “more than half.”
“If I can’t afford to pay someone to watch my child, then I can’t go to work,” said Edwards. “I’ll end up losing work, and go back to having to depend on this system that’s not really helping me get ahead in life, it’s helping me stay stagnated, and it starts to become a cycle.”
Edwards shared her experiences with Representatives Fattah and McGovern.
“They just don’t give us enough time once we get that job to make the transition,” she told them.
Dr. Mariana Chilton, director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities, pointed to research showing that families who have a modest increase in income, and therefore lose their SNAP benefits, are more likely to experience hunger than are families who remain on SNAP.
“Just when the families are doing what they’re supposed to do, and want to do—right here we’ve got a teacher and a home health aide—they get cut off at the knees,” said Chilton. “And that’s over and above the SNAP cuts on November 1 and whatever else might happen with SNAP next.”
The conversation then turned to just that—what might happen with SNAP next.
You could feel the tension in the room about the prospect of more—and deeper—cuts, and what that would mean for the Witnesses’ families and their communities. They are already feeling the effects of the November 1 SNAP cut, which reduced the average individual benefit from $1.50 per meal to $1.40 per meal. It adds up to a reduction of $29 per month in food assistance for a family of three.
Already, the Witnesses say they are all purchasing fewer fresh fruits and vegetables. Frazier struggles to buy the higher-priced, gluten-free foods that her 4-year-old daughter needs due to food allergies. Edwards—who cut sugars out of her son’s diet when he was diagnosed with ADHD—now has to purchase more affordable processed foods and worries about how that will affect her son’s progress. And Davis—who is out of work and about to have reconstructive foot surgery—is already relying on food banks and friends more than ever before.
Now the House and Senate are negotiating over further proposed SNAP cuts of $40 billion and $4 billion, respectively. McGovern pointed out that the November 1 cuts will total $5 billion over the next year, and $11 billion through 2016.
“There should be no more cuts. My line in the sand is that we pass a Farm Bill that does not make hunger worse in this country,” said Representative McGovern. “We might have to swallow a lot of stuff we don’t like to get a good [SNAP outcome]. But do no harm is a big accomplishment here.”
He told the Witnesses that they could be “the wind at our backs, the hurricane at our backs” during these negotiations, and that over the next few months people need to be speaking out loudly and clearly for “no more cuts in SNAP.” He also said there should be protests in front of the offices of House Republicans who voted for $40 billion in SNAP cuts even though their constituents currently need food assistance.
When the Witnesses wrapped up their final meeting it was after 6 pm. They had started the day in the early morning hours to travel to Capitol Hill, and they now had to hurry to catch a train home. They felt a sense of accomplishment.
“I think our presence was powerful today because they got to hear our stories firsthand,” said Davis. “That’s what [Camden Witnesses] was basically about—ten women with ten cameras—taking pictures about anything that needs to be improved.”
“Anything we want to see a change in,” said Timmons.
The women and men of Witnesses to Hunger will surely continue to advocate for themselves, their families, each other and their communities. But if they are to succeed in their efforts, they will just as surely need millions of people to join them—people who are currently silent, or quiet, or taking action only when it’s convenient, like by clicking a mouse.
We will only turn the tide when we value the well being of Nia, Anisa, Emily, Quanda and Juell as much as we value our own—and we’re willing to fight for it, and make that fight visible.
You can learn more about Witnesses to Hunger by attending their fifth-anniversary celebration here.
A Walmart in Ohio held a food drive for its own employees, inadvertently admitting the company doesn’t pay its workers enough for them to afford food.
Unlike some of my commentariat peers, I do not have a particularly interesting John F. Kennedy assassination story to relate as the fiftieth anniversary approaches. I was in seventh grade at the time and experienced the immediate aftermath on TV, like so many others, and watched Jack Ruby slay Oswald live as it happened.
A few years later, in high school, I became an early “JFK conspiracy buff,” then outgrew it, although I’ve always enjoyed following the rise and fall of various theories. I’ve never met a Kennedy but I did have one remarkable second-hand experience involving John F. Kennedy, Jr.
You may recall his short-lived magazine George—an attempt at drawing more youngish people to politics and social issues via a glossy magazine with plenty of celebs and pizzazz. It died pretty much when he did, in that plane crash. But in one issue he accepted for publication—which I found surprising—an excerpt from my new book, Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady, on the notorious 1950 Senate contest in California between Representative Richard M. Nixon and Representative Helen Gahagan Douglas. Surprising, because his father played a minor but disreputable role in that race, which I outlined in the excerpt. Here’s the gist of it.
One summer day in 1950 a young congressman, who needed no introduction or invitation, visited the Capitol Hill office of another young representative in Washington, DC. Like Richard Nixon of California, John F. Kennedy had come to Congress three and a half years earlier and had served on the Education and Labor Committee. Their offices were not far apart in the back of the House Office Building, an area known as the attic, and they maintained cordial relations.
Each recognized that the other was a hot prospect in his party. Though both were ex-Navy men (the sinking of Kennedy’s PT boat in 1943 had occurred not far from where Nixon was stationed in the South Pacific), the two had little of substance in common socially or culturally. Nixon both envied and resented Kennedy’s wealth and connections.
Politically, however, they were not continents apart. They agreed, for example, on the threat of communism. Kennedy had voted to continue funding the House Un-American Activities Committee and favored the latest version of the Mundt-Nixon internal-security bill. Like Nixon, he strongly hinted that Truman’s policy of vacillation had led to “losing” China and inviting Communist advances in Korea. He favored aid to Franco’s Spain and vast increases in the Pentagon budget.
Both congressmen felt that organized labor had grown too powerful. Earlier that year, upon receiving an honorary degree at Notre Dame, Kennedy had warned of the “ever-expanding power of the federal government” and “putting all major problems” into the all-absorbing hands of the great Leviathan the state. Each man craved higher office, but Nixon’s ambition burned even brighter than Kennedy’s, if that was possible.
Like Nixon, Kennedy had ambivalent feelings about Joseph McCarthy. His father, Joseph P. Kennedy, the former ambassador to Great Britain, had placed him in a difficult position by striking up a close relationship with the Roman Catholic senator from Wisconsin. Always more conservative than his son, Joe Kennedy had turned rabidly anti-Communist, donating money to McCarthy for his investigations and introducing the senator to such friends as Francis Cardinal Spellman. Shortly after the California primary, McCarthy flew to Cape Cod for a weekend at the Kennedy compound. Jack Kennedy knew McCarthy well; his sister Pat even dated him. Jack liked Joe personally but distrusted him politically.
On his visit to Nixon’s office, Kennedy presented his colleague with a personal check from his father for $1,000. It was for Nixon’s campaign to defeat Kennedy’s fellow Democratic congressmember Helen Gahagan Douglas of Los Angeles (a former stage and film actress, now strong liberal activist and pioneering woman in Congress), in a closely watched US Senate contest in California. Nixon and Douglas had recently easily won their June primaries out there and the race was then considered a toss-up.
A former movie executive, Joseph Kennedy was no stranger to California politics, and despised the brand of liberal activism embraced by Hollywood actors and writers. He had no use for Helen Douglas and a great deal of admiration for Richard Nixon. “Dick, I know you’re in for a pretty rough campaign,” Kennedy observed, “and my father wanted to help out.” But what did the young Kennedy think? “I obviously can’t endorse you,” he explained, “but it isn’t going to break my heart if you can turn the Senate’s loss [that is, Helen Douglas] into Hollywood’s gain.”
Describing the visit to friend and aide Pat Hillings, Nixon exclaimed, “Isn’t this something?” Of course, in that era, many men in Congress simply had a problem dealing with, even accepting, any female colleague, especially a crusading liberal like Helen Douglas. The far-left Democrat, Representative Vito Marcantonio, also backed Nixon over Douglas.
It is uncertain whether this gift marked the elder Kennedy’s only contribution to the Nixon cause. Nixon aide Bill Arnold deposited the thousand-dollar check into the campaign account, but neither it nor any further Joseph P. Kennedy donation would be listed in financial records of the campaign. These records show, however—as I discovered in researching my book—that another of Joe’s sons, Robert F. Kennedy, then attending law school at the University of Virginia, contributed an unspecified sum.
Decades later, in his memoirs, longtime Massachusetts congressman Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill claimed that Joe Kennedy once told him that he had contributed $150,000 to Nixon’s campaign in 1950, “because he believed she [Douglas] was a Communist.” In the same conversation, Kennedy reportedly said he donated nearly the same amount not much earlier to George Smathers’ crusade to defeat Claude Pepper in a notorious Florida race for the Senate.
Speaking to a group of students at Harvard three days after the election that autumn, Congressman Kennedy remarked that he was “personally very happy” that Nixon had defeated Helen Douglas. He reportedly explained that Douglas was “not the sort of person I like working with on committees,” but he did not make clear whether this was because of her manner, her politics, or her gender. On November 14, Kennedy wrote his friend Paul Fay, “I was glad to…see Nixon win by a big vote,” and he predicted that the winner would go far in national GOP politics, for he was “an outstanding guy.”
In 1956, on a visit to California—and looking ahead to a presidential race—Senator John F. Kennedy admitted to Paul Ziffren, now one of the state’s Democratic leaders, that he had supported Nixon in the 1950 race. He apparently wanted to “come clean” and “clear the decks,” according to Ziffren’s wife, Mickey.
Then, in 1960, Helen Douglas went to Wisconsin to campaign in the presidential primary on behalf of Hubert Humphrey (who had stumped for her in 1950). He was facing John F. Kennedy. That fall, Kennedy’s opponent was Richard Nixon, and Douglas felt compelled to endorse the Democrat. Kennedy again admitted that he had supported Nixon against Douglas, calling it “the biggest damnfool mistake I ever made.”
Greg Mitchell’s Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady was recently published in a new print edition and for the first time as an ebook. His other books on great American campaigns include ebooks on the 2008 and 2012 campaigns for president and The Campaign of the Century (Upton Sinclair’s epic race in 1934).
Senator Elizabeth Warren added her name to the growing list of legislators who want to expand—not cut—Social Security benefits during a Monday afternoon speech on the Senate floor.
Warren began by outlining the increasing financial strain faced by elderly Americans, and built towards a call for expanded benefits:
Among working families on the verge of retirement, about a third have no retirement savings of any kind, and another third have total savings that are less than their annual income. Many seniors have seen their housing wealth shrink as well. According to AARP, in 2012, one out of every seven older homeowners was paying down a mortgage that was higher than the value of their house.
And just as they need to rely more than ever on pensions, employers are withdrawing from their traditional role in helping provide a secure retirement. Two decades ago, more than a third of all private sector workers—35 percent—had traditional, defined benefit pensions—pensions that guaranteed a certain monthly payment that retirees knew they could depend on. Today, that number has been cut in half—only 18 percent of private sector workers have defined benefit pensions. Employers have replaced guaranteed retirement income with savings plans, like 401(k) plans, that leave the retiree at the mercy of a market that rises and falls, and, sometimes, at the mercy of dangerous investment products. These plans often fall short of what retirees need, and nearly half of all American workers don’t even have access to those limited plans. This leaves more than 44 million workers without any retirement assistance from their employer.
Add all of this up—the dramatic decline in individual savings and the dramatic decline of guaranteed retirement benefits and employer support in return for a lifetime of work—and we’re left with a retirement crisis—a crisis that is as real and as frightening as any policy problem facing the United States today.
I hold deep values, and I look at basic facts. Today, Social Security has a $2.7 trillion surplus. If we do nothing, Social Security will be safe for the next twenty years and even after that will continue to pay most benefits. With some modest adjustments, we can keep the system solvent for many more years—and could even increase benefits. The tools to help us build a future are available to us now. We don’t start the debate by deciding who gets kicked to the curb. We are Americans.
The context of Warren’s remarks is crucial Social Security benefits are under unique threat, given dramatic and seemingly endless crisis negotiating over the federal budget and a Democratic president is prepared (and some might say eager) to enact Chained-CPI, which would, even under the most generous formula, take $15,615 in cumulative benefits from the average senior who lived to 95.
Warren not only rebuffed that idea in her speech but provided a critical boost to the emerging campaign to expand Social Security. Almost everything Warren has done in recent weeks has been closely watched by 2016 hobbyists (not a trivial constituency among Beltway journalists), and she used that attention to juice the emerging pro-expansion movement. The Washington Post published an editorial Monday morning criticizing the campaign to expand Social Security—as sure a sign as any that it has arrived on the Washington scene—and Warren mentioned the editorial in her remarks and pushed back on the writers for, among other things, putting scare quotes around “retirement crisis.”
While naturally there will be many people left unpersuaded by Warren’s pitch, the point is that she’s thrusting the debate forward and helping to entrench the pro-expansion movement deeper into the political conversation. It was a significant moment.
Zoë Carpenter reports on Elizabeth Warren’s campaign to end ‘too big to fail.’
The Brower Youth Awards annually highlight the top environmental youth leaders from across North America. Award recipients undergo a rigorous application review process and represent the best, most creative, young environmental leaders of today.
Chloe Maxmin, 21, of Nobleboro, Maine, a regular writer for StudentNation and an undergraduate at Harvard University, was one of this year’s Brower Youth Award winners for her long history of environmental activism. Maxmin has a history of starting movements—she founded the first environmental club at her high school and built a student sustainability movement that continues to this day. At Harvard, she’s keeping up the momentum as co-founder and coordinator of Divest Harvard. She researched Harvard’s endowment and past divestment campaigns, and led the first campus vote on fossil fuel divestment in the world. She is also the founder and sole contributor of the online youth environmental network, First Here, Then Everywhere, which she hopes to build into a thriving hub of discussion and support for young environmentalists.
Maxmin sent us her acceptance speech, given in San Francisco on October 18 in which she outlined three new institutional responses to climate change and divestment.
Combating Climate Change
On October 1, another Divest Harvard activist and I sat in the office of Harvard’s President, Drew Faust. It had been over a year since we launched our movement. We had the support of over 3,000 students, over 170 faculty, almost 600 alumni and countless community members.
The frustration in the room was palpable. As I continued to press our arguments, President Faust interrupted me and asked: “Chloe, if you were president, what would you do?”
Two days later, I checked my e-mail and learned that President Faust had released a statement opposing fossil fuel divestment. I wasn’t surprised. It repeated the same arguments that we had been hearing for a year. It reiterated the notion that Harvard is an academic, not a political, actor—which is to say that it somehow stands outside the realm of action.
My aim tonight is not to repeat these discussions. Instead, I want to take seriously President Faust’s question…Chloe, what would you do?
I’d like to suggest the first three principles of a new institutional response to divestment and the climate crisis.
Vaclav Havel, poet, playwright, dissident and former president of Czechoslovakia,was a man whose life combined scholarship, art and politics because he knew that that all derive from the same source: a love of the world. He insisted that we need to reawaken in ourselves what was once known and then forgotten: that the only real hope for us lies in “a renewal of our certainty that we are rooted in the earth…”
The farm in Maine where I grew up, the meadows, lake, and trees…these are the roots that have filled me with an inexpressible love for this world, my family, my home, my community, friends, the people I will never know, the people I have yet to know.
Not all of us have grown up in Maine, but we all have places and people that we love.
The climate movement often seems like it’s fighting “against something”—against indifference and political gridlock. But this is a struggle “for everything” that we care about.
This is the first principle of a new response: That our actions as individuals and institutions can be re-founded on love for one another, for all that is alive, and especially for the systems and creatures of this earth who have no voice.
Two years ago, I learned that tar sands could come through Maine and that Exxon owns 76 percent of the pipeline.
Citizens in South Portland Maine recently campaigned to block the flow of tar sands through Maine by passing the Waterfront Protection Ordinance. The ordinance failed to pass by 200 votes. The opposition (pro–tar sands interests) were out in full force. But I didn’t anticipate the audaciousness of their effort. While the Protect South Portland coalition put $42,000 into the election, the Maine Energy Marketers Association poured almost $600,000 into stopping the ordinance.
This is exactly why I am involved with the fossil fuel divestment movement. The only way to diminish the hegemony and influence of this industry is to draw a moral line in the sand that rebrands it as anti-social.
This is the second principle of my response: Freedom depends on politics. It is up to us to take back “the political” and re-establish it as it was meant to be: a commitment to freedom through action.
So when President Faust says that Harvard is not a “political actor,” I say: By supporting an industry that corrupts elections and coerces society, are you not being political?
But instead of this politics of silence, we seek the politics of courage.
Our society’s institutions and leaders have been complacent in the face of climate change. We have stood by as our government has failed to act, as the fossil fuel industry has lobbied its way to riches, as the Arctic melts, sea levels rise, fires spread, droughts consume and floods erase.
Divestment says: enough is enough. Take a stand. Recognize that our system is broken, and take a step to fix it.
This is my third principle of a new response: People can summon the courage to work miracles.
When we take the first steps towards a better world, we don’t know what will happen. But we can’t be too scared to find out, and we can never be too scared to fight for what we love.
Hannah Arendt, a great philosopher who knew that politics could never be separated from life, wrote that every time an action disrupts the status quo, it’s a miracle.
People can author such miracles because we have the freedom and courage to establish a reality of our own.
With these three principles—love, politics and courage—I say that we are the miracle workers. And we are the miracles.
To echo the words of, Bruce Springsteen, “It takes a leap of faith to get things going. In your heart, baby, you must trust.”
The break-out success of GasLand and GasLand 2, documentaries by Josh Fox about the dangers of largely unregulated hydraulic fracturing, has prompted the natural gas and drilling industry to adopt an aggressive public relations strategy to combat critics. Last year, at the Warner Theater in Washington, DC, a group of high-profile lobbyists and communications staffers celebrated the development of a pro-fracking movie designed to rebut Fox's documentaries called TruthLand, which premiered in January.
Recently filed tax documents show the link between industry and TruthLand is much stronger than previously reported. The movie was funded with a $1 million grant from a DC-based trade group called America's Natural Gas Alliance, a consortium of fracking firms including Devon Energy, Apache, Noble Energy, Range Resources, XTO Energy, Southwestern Energy and Pioneer Natural Resources, among others.
Notably, the tax form shows the million-dollar grant for the film was given to Chesapeake Energy Corporation, an ANGA member company and prominent fracking corporation. TruthLand has gone to some lengths to conceal its ties to business interests. As Ben Nelson of LittleSis reported, the TruthLand website domain was briefly registered to a Chesapeake's Oklahoma office. Shortly after, TruthLand changed the website address to hide it behind a proxy. Nelson also obtained documents relating to the production of the film, which was led by Republican advertising consultant Fred Davis.
The TruthLand movie has been panned by environmentalists for downplaying the risks of methane leaks and groundwater pollution. But it has been widely distributed thanks to the promotional efforts of several oil companies and Americans for Prosperity, whose founders, David and Charles Koch, are deeply entwined with the fracking industry.
The America's Natural Gas Alliance 990 form also shows the industry has increased spending on media and public relations efforts. Other grants include:
§ $864,673 to Edventures Partners, an education curriculum company that has partnered with ANGA to produce classroom materials that promote the use of natural gas;
§ $25,000 to ASGK Strategies, a political consulting firm founded by White House advisor David Axelrod;
§ $25,000 to Environmental Media Association, "a nonprofit organization dedicated to harnessing the power of the entertainment industry and the media to educate the global public on environmental issues and motivate sustainable lifestyles";
§ $25,000 to Third Way, a centrist Democratic research think tank;
§ $8,500 to America's Promise Alliance, an education nonprofit founded by Colin Powell;
§ $250,000 to IHS Global, a research company that produced a report last year claiming that the fracking industry will support 1.7 million new jobs.
Another interesting discovery from the disclosure relates to how much America's Natural Gas Alliance has contracted with Democratic political consulting firms to build support for their policies. The 990 shows that ANGA paid the Glover Park Group over $2.9 million for "research/advertising" and Dewey Square Group $738,957 for "grassroots communications." Both firms are run by mostly former Clinton administration officials. Though Glover Park Group is well-known as a lobbying firm, the company did not register for its work for ANGA last year.
Michelle Goldberg on why Alec Baldwin is a national embarrassment.