The Nation

Has Wal-Mart Jumped the Shark?

Always a rollicking affair, with the feel of a pep rally or revival meeting, by all accounts, the Wal-Mart shareholder's meeting on Friday was over the top. According to Michael Barbaro, Wal-Mart correspondent for the New York Times, a cast of Broadway actors sang numbers like "Walk Across the Aisle," "The Day That I Met Sam," and "It's About the Customer." Has Wal-Mart jumped the shark?

For those of you that don't watch -- or talk about -- television, "jumping the shark" is a term TV fans have long used to refer to the point at which a show goes downhill. It originates, of course, in that moment on "Happy Days" when Fonzie, water-skiing, jumps over a shark. Usually referring to a preposterous new plot twist, shark-jumping suggests some desperation on the part of the creators. Wal-Mart: The Musical certainly has that feel. Wal-Mart's sales growth has been slow recently, lagging below Wall Street's expectations.

One thing that hasn't jumped the shark is anti-Wal-Mart resistance. In a national "Quarantine Wal-Mart" day of action Friday, thousands around the country, organized by Jobs With Justice and the Ruckus Society, donned hazmat suits and, armed with yellow caution tape, surgical gloves and face shields, had some fun at their local Wal-Marts. Why a quarantine? Because by not providing adequate health care coverage to its workers, the mega-retailer is hazardous to the health of our nation. Actions took place in Wheat Ridge, Colorado, Urbana, Illinois and even outside the Wal-Mart meeting itself, in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Also notable at the meeting, Martha Burk, the feminist activist who made the Augusta National Golf Club synonymous with discrimination a couple years ago, presented a shareholder proposal on pay equity, particularly relevant in light of the ongoing class action suit Betty Dukes vs. Wal-Mart Stores. Wal-Mart refused to talk about these issues with groups like the National Organization for Women for years, but times are changing: Burk had a meeting with CEO Lee Scott Thursday, the day before the shareholder's meeting.

AIDS Groups Call UN Meeting a "Failure"

As UNGASS +5 winds down, a coalition of over 70 civil society organizations from around the world are denouncing the meeting as a significant step back in the global fight against AIDS. The 2006 Declaration, which will be ratified by the General Assembly this afternoon, "recognizes" that $20-23 billion are needed per year, but fails to set hard targets for funding, treatment, care or prevention. Moreover, the document euphemistically refers to "vulnerable groups" but refuses to name them.

"Vulnerable groups such as intravenous drug users, sex workers and men who have sex with men have been made invisible in this document," said Aditi Sharma of ActionAid International.

African activists in particular are irate that their governments retreated from specific targets on treatment (reaching 80% by 2010) that were agreed to at the Abuja Summit in Nigeria just three weeks ago. South Africa and Egypt are both signatories to the Abuja Declaration, but they -- along with the U.S. -- worked behind the scenes to eliminate funding and treatment targets. "The final outcome document is pathetically weak. It is remarkable at this stage in the global epidemic that governments cannot set the much needed targets," said Sisonke Msimang of the African Civil Society Coalition.

The 2006 declaration does, however, note the "feminisation of the pandemic," promotes the "empowerment of women," and mentions "male and female condoms" and "harm-reduction efforts related to drug use" -- all points of contention in earlier drafts.

Earlier in the day First Lady Laura Bush addressed the UN briefly. Bush said that "more people need to know how AIDS is transmitted, and every country has an obligation to educate its citizens." Bush then praised her husband's PEPFAR program for providing treatment and prevention to developing nations. But several activists I spoke to bristled at what they see as "hypocrisy" from the First Lady. For example, the U.S. requires a "loyalty oath" from AIDS grantees opposing prostitution -- thus making it effectively impossible to educate sex workers on HIV transmission. Today's NYT editorial rightly praised two recent court decisions that struck down this requirement for U.S.-based groups, but failed to note that this global gag rule on prostitution still applies to subgrantees in other countries.

Senator Sellout

If left-liberal bloggers have any influence on the Democraticparty, they should use their muscle right now to block a grotesquesellout--handing Republicans an odious victory on the inheritance tax.

Giving the GOP its way would hand a fabulous reward to thecountry's wealthiest families but, worse than that, create a $1trillion hole in future federal revenue. If this happens, forgetabout universal health care or other major social reforms andpublic investment that Democrats are promising to pursue.

Yet leading the rush to appeasement is Senator Max Baucus ofMontana, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee andthe party's number-one Quisling. Baucus tips over easily tooutrageous deals with Republican tax-cutters. Back in 2001, hesold out on Bush's reactionary tax reduction package. Now he isworking to organize a rump group of Democratic senators for"compromise" on the estate tax. That is, give the Republicansponsors most of what they seek and, in the process, cripplepossibilities for the future.

Democrats do not need do anything about the estate tax at thispoint since the Bush version expires automatically in 2011. Let thenext president decide what to recommend. For now, Dems merely needto hold the 40 votes to sustain a filibuster. The caucusoverwhelmingly supports that position. The problem is the handfulof potential deserters.

The first chore for activists is to bang on Baucus--quickly andmercilessly--because a Senate vote is expected next week. More tothe point, grassroots Democrats need to bang on the handful ofwobbly Democratic senators disposed to go along with SenatorSellout or flirting with the idea. These include the two Nelsons(Bill of Florida, Ben of Nebraska), Salazar of Colorado, Lincolnand Pryor of Arkansas and--most shocking--Washington's twousually progressive senators, Cantwell and Murray. Their stateincludes a bunch of techie billionaires and the family-ownedSeattle Times that hammers them on the supposed injustice of theestate tax. They need to know a price will be paid for defection.

The second great task for grassroots Dems is to confront the party leaders on their own cowardly acquiescence. Why do they allow this one disloyal rogue to undercut the party's position and yet escape any punitive consequences? If Democrats should win backSenate control this year, Baucus will become Finance Committee Chairman again--free do more outrageous tax favors for his wealthy pals.

The Democratic caucus and minority leader Harry Reid ought to informBaucus--right now--that, if he proceeds with this sellout, he canforget about ever being chairman again. The legislative fight maysound like inside baseball and it is, but this is a central test ofcharacter for the party. If incumbent Democrats are unwilling to upsettheir "club" by punishing this wayward jerk on such a decisive matter,then maybe the "club" deserves to retain its minority status.

Gonzales on Steroids

When the former chief spokesman for Attorney General John Ashcroft says that Alberto Gonzales' subpoenaing of reporters is "… the most reckless abuse of power I have seen in years," it should make us all snap to attention.

This isn't exactly coming from a standard-bearer for the civil libertarians.

And yet, Mark Corallo, whose public relations firm currently represents Karl Rove (also striking that the top Presidential advisor should now need a PR agent), made this and similar statements in an interview with the New York Times and in an affidavit filed on behalf of two San Francisco Chronicle reporters.

Gonzales subpoenaed the reporters last month in order to force them to reveal their sources on--I kid you not--steroid use in baseball.

Mr Corallo offered this take on the action, "You just don't ride roughshod over the rights of reporters to gather information from confidential sources."

And if you didn't think this administration was waging war on the press before, here are the facts as presented by James Goodale in a recent article for The New York Law Journal:

• The Chronicle reporters face jail time for not revealing sources on the baseball story
• Gonzales is considering an indictment of the New York Times
• The FBI is reportedly tapping reporters phones
• The FBI is seeking 20 year-old classified documents from the estate of Jack Anderson
• The government is attempting to circumvent the First Amendment through an 89 year-old law, The Espionage Act

As Goodale writes, "It is hard to believe it is coincidental."

Because it isn't. Gonzales intends to shut up reporters by any means necessary. So much so that even conservatives like Corallo are finally speaking out.

Raising Their Wages Could Save Your Life

There's been a media frenzy lately on the shortage of nurses in this country. It's justified; this is a serious public health problem. If you've ever been hospitalized, you've probably noticed that nurses work harder and are often more involved in your care and more knowledgeable than doctors. Seven years ago my father fell into a coma after getting a bone marrow transplant in a fancy research hospital. The doctors gave up on him, and told us we should pull the plug "when we felt ready"; luckily we didn't feel ready, because an enterprising nurse fiddled with the machines a bit, and saved his life. (We still don't know exactly what she did!) Now his health is excellent. He rides his bike every day, enjoys his grandchildren, writes poetry and just retired from his day job. If that nurse hadn't been there --or had been too busy and over-worked to pay attention to him --he'd probably be dead.

Our federal law-makers, in their wisdom, have devised a cheap solution to the nursing shortage: import nurses from other countries. There are serious drawbacks to this strategy. For one, the problem is global. Some of the countries exporting nurses to the U.S. -- India, for example -- are themselves experiencing a nursing shortage. Luring nurses here is just going to worsen the problem for those countries, weakening already-fragile Third World health infrastructures. Secondly, importing new workers won't improve the work conditions in the health care industry. If nurses aren't treated with the respect they deserve, the hard-working, talented folks from India will eventually burn out, too. A study released in March by the Institute for Women's Policy Research (IWPR) found that increasing nurses' pay was "the most direct way" to solve the nursing shortage. IWPR also found that unionization helped to raise the nurses wages, and to improve nurse/patient ratios. Granted, the study was funded by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which organizes health care workers, but I've found IWPR reports to be rigorous regardless of funding.

Another clear solution is to improve education opportunities for young working-class women. Reporting an article on vocational education in New York City in the late 1990s, I met girls who were training to be beauticians because they'd dreamed of becoming nurses, but the nursing classes had been cut. As beauticians, they'll be lucky to earn salaries above the poverty line, and will likely take home less than a third of what they'd make as nurses. I love getting my nails done as much as the next person, but we do need nurses more than we need manicurists.

On another note, thanks very much to the reader who points out that the Center for Selective Facts is run by Rick Berman, who heads the Employment Policy Institute, a right-wing group that seeks to keep the minimum wage low (not to be confused, with the Economic Policy Institute, a lefty think tank advocating quite opposite strategies). I was aware of this connection but should have included it in my post. I don't think we can say for certain that the funders for the two groups are the same, though -- Berman is a consultant and lobbyist, so he could be serving any number of masters -- but our reader is right to suspect a close fraternal relationship.

Dixie Chicks are No. 1

Cultural conservatives, who have been busy of late trying to claim that the rebellious songs of The Who are other rock groups are really right-wing anthems, have misread America's tastes in a major way when it comes to the Dixie Chicks.

Conservative politicians, pundits and political writers -- from Georgia Congressman Jack Kingston to Media Research Council president L. Brent Bozell and bloggers by the dozen -- couldn't wait to trash Natalie Maines, Martie Maguire and Emily Robison for releasing a new album that refused to make nice with President Bush and the thought police who screech "shut up and sing" every time a musician expresses an opinion.

The Dixie Chicks have for the past three years taken more hits than any other musicians because, ten days before Bush ordered the invasion and occupation of Iraq, Maines told a cheering crowd at London's Shepherd's Bush Empire theater: "Just so you know, we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas."

For the "crime" of prematurely voicing a sentiment that is now close to universal in the US--with more than two-thirds of Americans expressing disapproval of Bush--the Dixie Chicks were hit with a full-frontal assault by right-wing media. Talk radio and television labeled them the Ditzy Chicks and their popular songs suddenly were yanked from country-music playlists. Boycotts were announced.

The word "traitor" was tossed around as if Maines and her mates had been conspiring with Osama bin Laden -- as opposed to expressing appropriate concern about a president who was about to take actions that would significantly increase the appeal of al-Qaeda internationally. Bush even weighed in, declaring that, "I ... don't really care what the Dixie Chicks said." That was mild compared with the nightly blisterings from Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly.

It was clear that a neoconservative blood oath had been sworn against the most successful female group not just in the history of country music, but of all musical genres--having sold more than 30 million albums and CDs prior at the time the assault began.

Conservatives may not keep all their promises, but they kept this one. With the approach of the late May release date for Taking The Long Way, the group's first album since Maines spoke up in London, the trashing began. At an Academy of Country Music awards ceremony in March, singer Reba McEntire read a scripted line about how she could host the event because, "[If] the Dixie Chicks can sing with their foot in their mouth, then I can do anything!" Rush Limbaugh, Hannity and the rest of the right-wing ranters picked up the chorus and, by the time of the CDs finally hit the stores the official line was that the Chicks were finished as major stars. Country fans would abandon them. Country radio would not play unapologetic tracks such as the single "Not Ready to Make Nice." Congressman Kingston --who, it should be said, maintains the most entertaining offical blog of anyone in Washington--used his "Jack's Blog" to muse that Maines and her compatriots made a big mistake when they started talking politics.

Er, maybe not...

Taking the Long Way has shot to Number 1 on Billboard's country music chart and the overall Billboard 200 chart. In its first full week of availability, the latest release from the Dixie Chicks sold 526, 000 units. That's a way better entry into the charts than the latest release from Toby Keith, the country star who has been lionized by conservatives for his bombastic songs and his rhetoric cheapshots at the Chicks. Keith's White Trash With Money mustered sales of 330,000 in its first week.

Indeed, Taking the Long Way had the second-best first-week sales of any album on the country charts this year.

In the autobiographical single that references the controversy, "Not Ready to Make Nice," Maines in unapologetic. "I'm not ready to make nice," she sings. "I'm not ready to back down."

The Dixie Chicks answer the cultural conservatives on "Not Ready to Make Nice," when Maines sings that she: "Can't bring myself to do what it is you think I should." America is echoing that sentiment, rejecting the right's "shut-up-and-sing" assault with a warm embrace of an album that has them singing and speaking up.

Occupation Unhinged

The US occupation of Iraq is spiraling out of control.

Just when it seems like America couldn't be any more unpopular in Iraq, and around the world, comes the word Haditha. A horrific massacre, and an even more despicable cover-up.

The new Iraqi ambassador to the US, Samir Al-Sumaidaie, claims Marines killed his cousin, a second year engineering university student, in a separate incident in Haditha, his hometown. "I believe he was killed intentionally," Al-Sumaidaie told CNN on Sunday. "I believe that he was killed unnecessarily. And unfortunately, the investigations that took place after that sort of took a different course and concluded that there was no unlawful killing."

Yesterday, the Associated Press reported that US troops shot to death a pregnant woman rushing to the hospital to give birth.

The US Army long ago lost control of Iraq's security. Now it's losing a grip on its own soldiers, who are exhausted and demoralized by everything they've seen. According to a study at the Army's own Walter Reed Hospital, nearly twenty percent of soldiers returning from Iraq screened positive for potential mental health disorders, including post-traumatic stress syndrome. In a break with past policy, some of these troops are being sent back into combat.

Haditha probably would've remained a secret, to Americans at least, if it wasn't for the repeated warnings of Rep. John Murtha, who's been called a coward, a traitor and worse by right-wing chickenhawks. This week Senator Barbara Boxer joined Murtha's call for a swift redeployment of troops out of Iraq.

We've been told over and over by mindless pundits that the next six months will be "make or break" in Iraq. If ever there was a question of whether the US occupation was doing more harm than good, this week provided a heartbreaking answer. Iraq is brutally broken, and the US is incapable of handling the repairs.

In the next six months, it's time to give Iraq back to the Iraqis.

'The Republic's Most Valuable Subversive'

It seemed right that John Kenneth Galbraith had the last word at his memorial service.

"My father's last book was devoted to the destructiveness of war, the unimaginable cruelty of war" Peter Galbraith told the 1000 friends, colleagues, family members who gathered in Harvard University's Memorial Church on a warm Wednesday afternoon to remember the life of a great public intellectual, economist, thinker who was also a man of generous heart and exceptionally independent mind and spirit. "'War remains the decisive human failure," Galbraith wrote. As his biographer Richard Parker said, "He knew when to fight and what he would fight for, but hated war and the men who sought or encouraged it, whether in Vietnam forty years ago or the middle East today."

He was a man who despised how the military-industrial complex had so terribly skewed America's priorities. Words he wrote for John F. Kennedy's first Inaugural address, at a time when Cold War orthodoxies rode high, resonate today. "We must never negotiate out of fear, but we must never fear to negotiate."

It was a gathering rich in imagery and recollection, with a modicum of sadness. "In another age, " Senator Edward Kennedy said of Galbraith " He would have been a Founding Father." Former Senator and Presidential candidate George McGovern described him as the tallest economist in the world--physically, morally, intellectually. His son Jamie, also an economist, remembered that he and his father ( "my mentor, my coach, my critic and my friend") were always on the same side of history-in 1968, 1972, up until today, He described his father as having "the thinking man's suspicion that the emperor had no clothes." And "in an age of naked emperors, " Jamie observed, "there's a use for that."

The historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. sent words which were read by his son Stephen--he was in New York recovering from an illness. He described his closest friend as "the Republic's most valuable subversive." Pointing out their 13 inch height difference, Arthur argued playfully that being the tallest economist in the world, at 6'8", reinforced Galbraith's boldness with which he confronted the status quo. "Salvation," Schlesinger said, " lies in the subversion of conventional wisdom."

Galbraith's brilliant deployment of irony, satire, laughter--one of his favorite phrases, repeated by several speakers was "Modesty is a vastly overrated virtue"--reconnected academic economics with human and social reality.

Longtime friend Gloria Steinem, who offered an exquisitely humane tribute, said, "I believe he was the only person I know kept honest by ego." She spoke of her belief that his generosity of spirit, his love of good conversation showed in his work." His public and private selves were never dissonant."

Galbraith's whiplash wit never faltered, but in the Bush years -- as he grew discouraged by the lethal failures of American leadership--Galbraith told friends that developments made him think thoughts he had never thought himself capable of thinking. "I asked such as? ," Schlesinger remembered. "I begin to long for Reagan," Galbraith replied.

The former President of Harvard Derek Bok described Galbraith's quiet acts of kindnesses--a side not often seen amidst the glitter and celebrity of his life. He assigned some of his royalties to the economics department, he asked to retire at age 65 to pave the way for young professors, he and his wife Kitty housed an undergraduate student each year. Bok recalled a letter Galbraith had sent him in the early 1970s, in which he predicted (accurately) that the university would face tough financial times. (He reviewed the university's stock portfolio.) Galbraith asked that he no receive further salary increases. "You may laugh," Bok said as laughter erupted in the church, "but I assure you that letter has never been duplicated since."

There was talk of the books which changed not only the way the country viewed itself, and gave new phrases to the language ("conventional wisdom," private opulence and public squalor," the bland leading the bland"), and there were also amusing anecdotes about Galbraith's celebrity. Bok recounted a story Former Harvard Dean Henry Rosovsky told him many years ago. Rosovsky had stopped at a garage in Hoboken where the local mechanic asked him, "what do you do?" "I teach at Harvard, "Rosovsky replied. "Do you know Professor Galbraith?" asked the mechanic.

In these times when staged foodfights pass for debate, Galbraith's life is a model of how a man can take sides--with intelligence, passion, and wit--while eschewing mean and and petty partisanship.The ecumenical nature of Galbraith's friendships was clear as conservative intellectual William Buckley Jr. delivered a spirited and warmly acerbic tribute to his old friend. (In the local bookstore in Gstaad, Switzerland, where they both went skiing, they would do battle to get their books the best spot in the shop's window.)

"Denounce the Iraq war and your influence as a conservative will soar, " Buckley remembered Galbraith advising him. (Steinem remembered that on one of her last visits to see Galbraith, he announced almost gleefully: "There's still time for Buckley's redemption.")

With Harvard's ex-President Larry Summers sitting in the front pews, Steinem spoke of Galbraith's support--in word and deed--of women economists. He always challenged "the conventional wisdom that women aren't good at math."

In many eyes, Galbraith was America's Great Liberal Economist. But, surprisingly,only George McGovern spoke explicitly of Galbraith's contribution to the creed of liberalism, "the most creative and most uplifting spirit in the American political tradition, though now assailed." (In these times, McGovern added mordantly, "I'd settle for some old fashioned conservatism.")

Instead it was Galbraith's exceptional and reasoned independence that so many spoke of. "To the very end," Parker said, "he was never a synecdoche of a time gone by--but of immense relevance today, a figure or exceptional and independent mind and spirit, a skeptic always of power and privilege." As Richard Parker observed, " I believe that ...what Ken most wanted us to learn... and lived in his life in testimony to it: that we must use--and sometimes oppose--power in order that power not use us."

Galbraith's role as Ambassador to India was remembered by many--but it was the Indian economist Amartya Sen who spoke eloquently of how his longtime colleague and friend "captured the hearts and minds of Indians." Over the years, Sen recounted, many Indians lamented the hostility between the US and India, and spoke of how Americans didn't understand their country. However, Sen noted, they would always add, "with the exception of John Kenneth Galbraith." The Nobel-Prize winning economist's tribute was a polite rebuke to those (economists and others) who never forgave Galbraith for being too readable. Some fifty years ago, Sen said, "I remember reading this captivating book [American Capitalism] in one gulp in a Calcutta coffee house, while a student at the university there, and I had a determination to seek out the wisdom from this John Kenneth Galbraith wherever he might be."

One of the final tributes of the afternoon came from Senator Kennedy, who spoke on behalf of his brothers and his family. "If there were any justice in the world," Kennedy said, "he'd have won the Nobel Prize."

"There might not have been a New Frontier without him."

Kennedy recalled how Galbraith, while Ambassador, routinely bypassed the traditional State Department route when sending missives to the White House. "Going through the State Department," he liked to say, " is like making love through a mattress."

"His words and wisdom resonate today, even as the gap between private opulence and public squalor continues to widen under our misguided leadership." With voice cracking, Kennedy ended, "We love you Ken. We miss you very much."

Before Galbraith's son Peter gave his father the last words, he took a moment to reflect on his father's kindness, the lives he changed through his generosity of spirit and humanity.

Although he was "discouraged by developments in America in these last 25 years," Peter said, "there is a Galbraithian legacy..." Scores of people have worked to make America a less bigoted country, a more just country, and though "we do not have the Good Society my father wanted, he helped bring us closer to one."

A video of the Memorial Service will be available online in June.

In honor of Galbraith's memory, donations may be sent to: Economists for Peace and Security, P.O, Box 5000, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY 12504

McCain Dumps Duke's GOP Successor

There's some ugly trouble for Republicans out here in Southern California. Just days before the June 6 special election to replace jailed former Congressman Duke Cunningham, Senator John McCain has dumped the GOP candidate trying to succeed him.

McCain was slated to host a fundraising event on Wednesday for Brian Bilbray, the Republican candidate in the San Diego-area 50th Congressional District, left vacant after The Duke was hauled off to jail for accepting bribes.

But at the last minute, McCain pulled out citing differences with Bilbray over the immigration issue. Bilbray has dissed McCain's immigration reform proposals as an unacceptable "amnesty." Bilbray's Democratic opponent by the way, Francine Busby, supports McCain's plan.

"Senator McCain has canceled his appearance on behalf of Brian Bilbray to avoid distracting from the overall message of the Bilbray campaign," Craig Goldman, executive director of McCain's political action committee, said in a statement.

Right. McCain, who is a possible 2008 presidential contender, might also just want to keep his distance from the whole Duke stench. Latest polls show Bilbray in a very and unpredictable race. McCain's withdrawl can't be considered much of a boost, can it?