Capital Games | The Nation


Capital Games

 Washington: a city of denials, spin, and political calculations. The Nation's former DC editor David Corn spent 2002-2007 blogging on the policies, personalities and lies that spew out of the nation's capital. The complete archive appears below. Corn is now the DC editor at Mother Jones.

After Fearmongering Kills the NSA Reform Bill, What’s Next?

NSA Director Keith Alexander

A reporter takes a smartphone picture of NSA Director Keith Alexander at a House hearing on surveillance programs, in Washington, June 18, 2013. (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

For a few hours on Tuesday, the Islamic State looked like the best thing that ever happened to the National Security Agency. The USA Freedom Act, a modest bill seen as the best chance for reforming one of the NSA’s dragnet surveillance programs, failed to clear a procedural hurdle in the Senate by two votes after Republicans insisted that it would precipitate a terrorist attack.

“This is the worst possible time to be tying our hands behind our back,” Mitch McConnell said. “We live in a dangerous world, and the threat by ISIL only makes it more so.” Marco Rubio chimed in with his own warning: “God forbid that tomorrow we wake up to the news that a member of ISIL is in the United States,” he said. Former CIA director Michael Hayden penned a Wall Street Journal op-ed under the headline, “NSA Reform That Only ISIS Could Love.”

Really, the USA Freedom Act was NSA reform that no one really loved, except maybe the Obama administration. The bill had “strong support” from the White House and the intelligence agencies, from most of the reform-minded lawmakers and from the tech companies and many civil-liberties groups. And it did contain several provisions lauded by privacy advocates, such as placing special advocates on the secret court that authorizes surveillance requests to argue against the government, and forbidding the government itself from holding phone records.

But groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which deemed the legislation an “important step forward,” were also clear that it addressed only a very small part of the government’s dragnet surveillance activities. Others thought the bill was so imprecise that it might have sanctioned, rather than ended, certain surveillance practices. Libertarian NSA critic Rand Paul objected because it didn’t go far enough—though before giving him too much credit for his principled stand note that he could have voted to move the bill forward and then offered amendments to address his concerns before a final vote. Ultimately, as Glenn Greenwald wrote at The Intercept, “There is a real question about whether the defeat of this bill is good, bad, or irrelevant.”

In any case, that particular doorway to reform is closed for now. So what’s next? The next opportunity for lawmakers to curb the intelligence agencies will come in mid-2015, when the section of the Patriot Act that the government leans on for legal justification of the phone records program is set to expire. NSA critics and supporters alike have warned that failing to pass the USA Freedom Act would mean that the administration “will end up getting nothing” in the reauthorization fight, as Patriot Act author James Sensenbrenner warned earlier this year. Even some supporters of the USA Freedom Act like Dianne Feinstein will fight tooth and nail to keep the provision from expiring completely, and the threat of expiration means privacy advocates will have at least some leverage to limit its authority. Some parts of the USA Freedom Act, like installing special advocates on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, cannot be addressed in the reauthorization process however. Nor can other authorities that the government uses to spy, like Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act and Executive Order 12333.

The Senate’s failure to bring even a narrow, watered-down reform to a final vote underscores that Congress is for the most part disinterested and/or incapable in exercising its constitutional duty to oversee the intelligence community. (There are individual exceptions, of course; for example Colorado Senator Mark Udall could front an immediate challenge to the CIA over its use of torture, as John Nichols explains.) Things aren’t going to get any better next year: the Republicans likely to chair the House and Senate intelligence committees, Devin Nunes and Richard Burr, are both hostile to reform. Nevertheless, privacy advocates vowed to continue to press for changes, and not only to the phone-records program.

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Off the Hill, the government’s surveillance tactics are being confronted in a number of ways. Fearful for their bottom line, tech companies are taking a serious interest in encryption, and foreign governments are searching for ways to circumvent the United States when it comes to the Internet. Multiple challenges to the telephone-records dragnet are pending in federal courts. One judge, who called the NSA’s activities “almost Orwellian,” has already ruled that bulk collection likely violates the Fourth Amendment. But whether the pending cases will lead to meaningful constraints on the NSA isn’t clear. Greenwald, for one, has as little faith in the judiciary as he has in Congress, writing that it’s the institution “most consistently subservient to the National Security State” in the post-9/11 era. But absent the emergence of a spine in Congress with regards to the incessant fearmongering that serves as a shield for government spying, a patchwork of court rulings and the power of consumer choice looks increasingly like the only viable defense.


Read Next: NSA reform is blocked by constitutionally disinclined Senate Republicans.

Failing to Indict Darren Wilson Won’t End the Movement Against Police Violence

Protest in Ferguson

Ferguson, Missouri (AP Photo/Sid Hastings)

Not for a second have I believed that Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson would be indicted for killing 18-year-old Michael Brown. Not in the moments after hearing about the shooting, not during the four hours Brown’s body lay in the streets, not when the police attacked protesters in the first few weeks of demonstration, and not during the subsequent three months of organizing and rebellion. And with Missouri Governor Jay Nixon’s recent declaration of a state of emergency ahead of the imminent grand jury decision, I have even less reason to believe charges will be brought against Wilson, as the local governments and police forces appear to readying themselves for a strong reaction from activists. But I have every reason to believe this movement will not die.

People are scared. Residents of Ferguson are boarding up their businesses and stockpiling weapons, under the assumption that a non-indictment will lead to rioting and property destruction, on a level that surpasses the initial reaction to Brown’s killing back in August. The tension is thick enough to choke on, but it still pales in comparison to the looming threat of police violence faced by black people everyday across this country. This is why the protesters, activists and organizers who have emerged from this moment will not go away. They know they are disrupting the lives of citizens who never gave thought to the institutionalized violence young black people navigate, but that’s the point. And it will remain the point until something is done.

Indicting Darren Wilson is a start, but it is not the movement. There is the possibility that some who have been involved in these protests would move on in the (unlikely) event of an indictment, seeing that as the ultimate victory. Chicago-based prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba warns against this in a piece for In These Times:

To the young people who have taken to the streets across the country and are agitating for some ‘justice’ in this moment, I hope that you don’t invest too deeply in the Ferguson indictment decision. Don’t let a nonindictment crush your spirit and steal your hope. Hope is a discipline. And frankly, the actions you have and are taking inspire so many daily. On the other hand, a decision to indict Darren Wilson isn’t a victory for ‘justice’ or an end. As I’ve already said, an indictment won’t end police violence or prevent the death of another Mike Brown or Rekia Boyd or Dominique Franklin. We must organize with those most impacted by oppression while also making room for others who want to join the struggle too as comrades.

It’s certainly something these young people have come to understand, and they have used their newfound platforms to speak not just about the killing of Michael Brown but the daily atrocities of police harassment, sexual assault/rape, economic violence and political disenfranchisement.

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That’s what Governor Nixon, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay (who is calling for 400 National Guard troops to be posted throughout St. Louis), Ferguson Mayor James Knowles, Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson, the Ku Klux Klan and so many others don’t understand. You can potentially squash an uprising in this moment, through intimidation and bloodshed. But the resolve of the people has held steady for three months, and these young people are becoming more aware of their history, just how long these battles must be fought, and are willing to risk their lives for their liberation.

Just last week, a group of eight young activists from the group We Charge Genocide traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, to testify before the United Nations’ Committee Against Torture about police violence in Chicago. During that same time, 37-year-old Tanesha Anderson of Cleveland, Ohio, was slammed to the ground and killed by police officers. As the movement grows, the police continue to provide reasons for why. It was never just about Michael Brown or Darren Wilson, Trayvon Martin on George Zimmerman. This has been, and will continue to be, about the protection of black life and the end of the police state. It is about the ability of young black people to move through the world unmolested by a repressive government. It is about bringing to fruition the promise of freedom that our ancestors fought for. It’s about America paying its debts.


Read Next: “Police Are the Problem”

Why Gruber’s ‘Stupid’ Comment Has Become a Dog Whistle for the GOP


(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Finally, the right wing has found what Susan Rice was to Benghazi and Lois Lerner was to the IRS, but better—a human face to represent all that they believe is deceitful, illegitimate and downright evil about Obamacare and, indeed, about the entire last six years.

That face belongs to MIT economist Jonathan Gruber who, after helping to write Romneycare in Massachusetts, moved to advise the Obama administration on the design the Affordable Care Act. Lately, Gruber has been popping up in video clips telling gathered academics that the bill was written to obscure its redistribution of costs from healthy enrollees to sick ones. He somehow managed to call all the American people “stupid,” which is considered far worse than accusing a mere 47 percent of the population of being dead weight on the rest. In his most infamous clip (watch it below), Gruber says:

This bill was written in a tortured way to make sure CBO [Congressional Budget Office] did not score the mandate as taxes. If CBO scored the mandate as taxes, the bill dies. Okay? So it’s written to do that.

In terms of risk-rated subsidies, if you had a law which said healthy people are gonna pay in—if it made explicit that healthy people are gonna pay in and sick people get money, it would not have passed. Okay—just like the—people—transparen—lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. And basically, call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever, but basically that was really, really critical to get anything to pass.

“What happens to Obamacare now that we’ve all been called stupid?” Fox News’s Bill Hemmer asked this morning, practically licking his chops. In case there’s any doubt that Gruber is Fox’s most useful villain since the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Politifact found that Fox mentioned Gruber at least 779 times between November 10 and November 18 (MSNBC clocked in seventy-nine instances and CNN just twenty-seven in the same period).

Democrats like Nancy Pelosi have only made things worse by trying to distance themselves from Gruber, even though tapes show they knew and respected his work in the past.

And it doesn’t help that in the various tapes, Gruber seems to always be boasting, looking a little too full of himself and his clever tricks. To some, his apparent sneakiness has undercurrents of “shyster.” And they’re not always undercurrents. This disgusting headline from a racist, neo-Nazi website references Rich Weinstein, the man who unearthed some of the Gruber tapes: “Jew Mad About Getting Jewed By Obamacare Finds Clip Of Jew Jonathan Gruber Bragging About [How] He Helped Jew America With Obamacare.”

Surely for most of the Republican base, the stereotype Gruber evokes is more benign. Gruber, says Jon Stewart, is a “super egghead” nerd, what with the academic background, the eyeglasses, and, in Stewart’s estimation, the “pinched nasal tone.” He ran a clip of Eddie Deezen, the actor specializing in nerds, and discovered that his voice is uncannily like Gruber’s.

That’s funny, but Gruber-as-nerd is only an introduction to the essential GOP complaint about Gruber, Obama, scientists and, really, anyone suspected of being less than all-American: the elitist. “It’s the smug, arrogant, elitist attitude heard around the world,” Tea Party radio host Tammy Bruce writes in The Washington Times. “In MIT professor and Obamacare architect Jonathan Gruber’s case, you can hear his attitude even before he enters a room.”

However you brand Gruber, he has become, for Obama, an Other from another mother. The professor now so personifies the interloper taking advantage of innocent Americans that he’s become a word onto himself. “On issue after issue,” Kyle Wingfield writes in an Atlanta Journal Constitution blog, “the Obama administration has gone Gruber.”

To Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL), who’s expected to chair the Senate Budget Committee next year, this “strategy…to hide the truth from the American people” is nothing less than “a threat to the American republic.”

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Republicans are calling for, what else, congressional hearings. But like the IRS and Benghazi “scandals” and most things the GOP deems hearings-worthy, “Grubergate” is mostly hot air and bubbles.

If you look behind his braggadocio and the media’s outrage, Gruber wasn’t really saying anything we didn’t already know about how health insurance works (healthy people subsidize sick people; that’s the nature of insurance) or how legislation is written (it ain’t pretty, and never was).

Jonathan Chait did one of the best jobs unpacking this nothingness, and it’s worth repeating. On Gruber’s statement that “lack of transparency is a huge political advantage,” for instance, Chait writes:

Here is where media reports have most badly bungled Gruber’s point. They have treated his line about transparency as if he were describing the entire process of writing and passing the law.

….But Gruber was not talking about passing the law in a non-transparent fashion. Conservatives believe the law was passed non-transparently, but nobody who supported it considers this anything but a bizarre description of one of the most drawn-out public and legislative debates in the history of Congress. Gruber was surely referring to the non-transparent mechanism of regulating insurance companies, causing them to charge less to the sick and more to the healthy, without Congress having to carry out those transfers through direct taxes….

The Washington Post reports that Gruber was caught admitting Obamacare “was crafted in a deliberately deceptive way in order to pass Congress.” That is not what Gruber said in the video. He was trying to explain how the law’s architects had to compromise the simple technocratic purity they might use to design the law in an academic setting to account for an irrational political system in which tiny bits of fact can be decontextualized and manipulated by demagogues. The reaction to Gruber’s comments this week is fitting punishment for his obnoxious phrasing, but only serves to vindicate his underlying beliefs. [Emphasis mine]

Some of those 779 Gruber mentions on Fox News were neither decontextualized nor demagogic, particularly those by Juan Williams on Fox News Sunday:

It’s a feast for critics of Obamacare who suddenly are saying, you know, “Oh, this is why we are upset.” Look, are you kidding me? In Washington, we package, we merchandise just like Procter & Gamble and anybody else that’s selling soap….

In fact, I would say it’s much ado about nothing with Gruber except that the critics of Obamacare are having a field day. The act is working. The uninsured rate in the country has dropped by 25 percent. This is something that Republicans should be celebrating. We have more competition. We’ve done away with the Medicare doughnut hole. We have no lifetime caps and limits, we have no conditions about preexisting illnesses, we have preventative medicine. It’s just incredible to me, though, Republicans persist.

There is, however, one thing Gruber said that could have real consequences. In another video, he seems to say the ACA subsidies are meant only for people enrolled in state exchanges, not for those in the thirty-six states that allow only the federal exchange. But, as Sarah Kliff at Vox explains, “Gruber has since said he spoke “off-the-cuff” and made a mistake. And there’s reason to believe him: Gruber spoke regularly to dozens of reporters during this period, and never mentioned this idea to any of them, and his modeling software always assumed that federal exchanges could use subsidies.” In what amounts to a typo, one clause in the ACA itself also seems to make this mistake, in contradiction to the rest of the entire bill. But it was enough for the Roberts Supreme Court to take up the case, King v. Burwell, which could destroy Obamacare, with or without help from Gruber’s misspeaking tongue.

As usual, the GOP’s persistence is paying off. Gallup released a poll on Monday showing that approval of Obamacare hit a “new numerical low,” of 37 percent.

But another Gallup poll, released last Friday, shows something different and far more important: among people who are actually enrolled in Obamacare, 74 percent rate it as “excellent” or “good.” Joe Scarborough said that poll “took me by surprise.”

Makes sense. With all the bad press over Obamacare since 2009, and now with Grubergate, reality—you know, real people’s real experiences—is often surprising.

Read Next: “Frantic to Help Mary Landrieu, Democrats Betray Their Base on Keystone”

Want a Living Wage? Work at McDonald’s… in Denmark

Philippines fast-food worker protest

Fast-food workers display signs during a protest to demand regular hiring in Quezon City, Philippines. (AP Photo/Pat Roque)

The fast-food workers’ movement has exploded in size and reach over the past year with strikes and protests in dozens of cities. The movement seems to encapsulate rising public disgust not just with the workers’ low wages but with the entire fast-food industry, which runs on an ugly feedback loop of poverty wages, junk diets and commercial exploitation for both consumers and workers. But now the fast-food workers’ campaign has “gone global,” spreading to parts of the world where fast-food logos project a different image, one that ranges from an imperialist corporate hegemony (Manila) to a respectable career (Copenhagen). Now the “Fight for 15” activists are touring different cities to explore how fast food goes down around the world.

In recent days, American fast-food worker activists have embarked on a tour spanning eight countries to share their stories with fellow workers and exchange ideas on organizing locally and globally—mounting a populist challenge to an industry that generates hundreds of billions of dollars worldwide.

Fight for 15 workers from Los Angeles, Albina Ardon and Moses Brooks, have met activists with the SENTRO union in Manila. The union is organizing a youth-led fast-food worker movement targeting McDonald’s, KFC, and the leading Filipino fast-food chain, Jollibee. The group has called out the “short-term and unprotected work arrangements” prevalent in the industry, particularly the so-called “5-5-5” temp-job system (a model familiar to many American workers), in which “workers are endlessly hired and fired every five months to prevent them from becoming permanent or regular workers.” Aiming to build a national fast-food labor organization, the workers counter the narrative that Westernization via fast-food brands marks a step up for a developing nation. They point instead to the unsavory reality of the global food system, which markets cheap treats to a poor country, to keep their workforce even cheaper.

One worker in Quezon City described an experience as a low-wage worker that paralleled the plight of her US counterparts. But she earns less than $1.50 an hour—that amounts to a fraction of the average monthly wage in the Philippines—struggling to support an eight-person household.

“I remembered when I started working, my salary was for my tuition fee, but now I cannot afford to save because even my salary cannot meet the daily expenditures of my family,” she said in a testimony to SENTRO.

In a comment to The Nation recorded by SENTRO, a young Quezon City Jollibee worker says, “Prices of electricity, water, food, transportation are rising. Our salary is not really enough to sustain our needs in the family. There were times that our salary was delayed for four to five days, and that was agonizing.” Inspired by the stories of the US activists, he adds, “The government should create pro-worker policies, not policies just for the benefit of company owners. But of course, it will [only] happen if we are able to strengthen our ranks as fast-food workers together and in solidarity among workers from different industries in the country and even the workers’ movement around the world.”

Globally, the labor struggles are as universal as the Golden Arches. Fast-food worker activists have also visited with workers in the UK, who have campaigned against a similar pattern of precarious contract work and erratic schedules.

They’ve reached out to young workers in Tokyo who are fighting to improve conditions at fast-food outlets. Japanese workers have targeted the local chain Sukiya, which reportedly follows the American recipe for McJobs by undermining the union rights of part-time workers. That labor conflict dates back several years—a sign that global labor struggles have been roiling in this industry since well before US workers launched their campaign.

And in many ways, the US fast-food initiative lags behind service-worker labor movements in other countries: here McDonald’s workers are waging a legal battle merely for recognition as full employees of the company. And despite the backing of SEIU, the movement still faces a Sisyphean struggle ahead before even approaching the scale needed for mass unionization.

Francis Cabrera, a McDonald’s worker from Buenos Aires, came to a Chicago protest in September to represent a swath of the fast-food workforce that already has solid union rights. “I’m here to support my brothers and sisters in the United States,” she told People’s World, “and to say that if we can have a union in Argentina they should be able to have one here in the U.S. If you work for McDonald’s in my country you are also in the union and you get paid sick days, vacation, holidays, maternity and paternity leave and profit sharing. Why not the same for my brothers and sisters here?”

Danish workers also puzzle over the paradox of McPoverty in one of the world’s richest nations. Serving Happy Meals can be a solid career in Copenhagen, with a living wage and full benefits. Of course, none of their compensation comes simply from corporate noblesse oblige: it’s the product of a multi-year labor struggle led by a strong union.

After hearing New York City workers Alvin Major and Flavia Cabral speak of their struggle to get by on poverty wages, Danish McDonald’s worker Louise Marie Rantzau remarked to MetroExpress, “It’s crazy to see how people struggle to cover the general cost of living. Suddenly, I’m very happy with my job.”

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Now workers like Rantzau are lending solidarity to the global movement. Last May, ahead of the first international day of action for fast-food workers, she reminded her fellow activists in a Reuters commentary, “McDonald’s didn’t give us our union. We had to fight for it.”

The Danish workers’ global demand—“the right of employees in all countries to organize and speak for themselves”—attests to a basic principle of labor organizing: real advancement for workers comes only through collective action, and solidarity builds only by lifting everyone together.

Massimo Frattini of the IUF (International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering and Allied Workers’ Associations), which is helping coordinate the tour, said in a statement announcing the US fast-food workers’ program, “we need to have a strong, global movement of workers pushing for better wages, better treatment and better rights… Their mobilization offers an opportunity to transform the industry in many parts of the world.”

US workers face a long road ahead before they win a living wage and a union, but they’ve already managed to combat the popular stereotype that fast-food jobs don’t count as serious long-term work and low-wage workers just aren’t worthy of a good job. Activists overseas have shown that a different kind workplace is possible, and that American fast-food workers deserve jobs that are worthy of them.

Read Next: Michelle Chen on whether you really want that manicure

This Is the First Article We Ever Published About the Internet

Network Traffic

A visualization of incoming traffic on a network run by the National Science Foundation, for the month of September 1991. Image by Donna Cox and Robert Patterson of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, from data collected by the Merit Network. (Wikimedia Commons)

President Obama’s brief statement last week in support of net neutrality may or may not be enough to sway the Federal Communications Commission, expected to “hand down—spooky phrase—”new rules early in the New Year.“ The Internet has been one of the greatest gifts our economy—and our society—has ever known,” the president said, before “respectfully” asking the FCC “to preserve this technology’s promise for today and future generations to come.”

The Nation has been watching how new technologies interact with politics for almost 150 years. In September of 1866, the editors imagined a future thoroughly altered by the telegraph:

Where it is all going to end, and what kind of life the “merchant of the future” will lead, nobody knows, or pretends to know. From present appearances it would seem as if the commerce of the world would pass into the hands of a few great houses; that all the small dealers would be converted into clerks on salaries, and everything be done by a few vast combinations conceived by half-a-dozen heads, the details being worked out by subordinates, possessing only a limited responsibility, and, therefore, suffering little from wear and tear.

Sounds about right.

While not exactly at the vanguard of the technological revolution of the second half of the twentieth century—the political implications of computers largely (though not entirely) evaded our attention—The Nation’s very first article about the Internet is a fascinating read. It is in some places hopelessly (and hilariously) dated, but in others quite timeless.

Published in our issue dated July 12, 1993, “The Whole World Is Talking” was written by Kevin Cooke and Dan Lehrer, graduate journalism students at the University of California, Berkeley. (The author note at the bottom of the piece said “they claim they are not computer weenies,” and then printed their e-mail addresses. Tim Ziegler, now editor of Austin Post, also contributed.)

It began with a set piece about a man named Wam Kat, who “files daily reports on life in Zagreb, Croatia.” The catch?

Kat’s bulletins, which he calls “Zagreb Diary,” don’t appear in Yugoslav papers or on television. They exist in cyberspace. Kat types them on his own computer in Zagreb and sends them by modem to an electronic bulletin board in Germany. From there, his stories are relayed to computers around the world via the global mega-information stream called the Internet.

So the guy had a blog.

Cooke and Lehrer’s article is full of delicious little items like that: barely more than twenty years old, it already feels like an artifact from another era, one as inaccessible to us now as the early days of the telegraph. Even so, as with the 1866 article, it is fun (and genuinely informative) to read now not because of its irrelevance to the current debate about information and society, but because of its surprising relevance.

“The Net is changing more than just the flow of information,” Cooke and Lehrer wrote. “It’s changing the way we relate to one another. The advent of global networking is fragmenting and re-sorting society into what one author calls ‘virtual communities.’ Instead of being bound by location, groups of people can now meet in cyberspace, the noncorporeal world, existing between two linked computers. There they can look for colleagues, friends, romance or sex.”

There are some passages that, through no fault of the writers, come off a little goofy today:

While Internet experts deride the term “information superhighway” as an empty soundbite, the concept works as an analogy to understand how the Internet functions. Think of its as a massive road system, complete with freeways, feeders and local routes. At every intersection sits a computer, which has to be passed through to get to the next computer until you’ve reached your destination. Any computer on the Internet system can connect with any other computer through the road system. And if the route to your destination is closed, you will automatically take a detour to get there.

The difference between the Internet and the Interstate is that you can go to Finland as quickly as you can go down the block. Once there, you can remotely manipulate the computer to do anything your own can do. You can retrieve a file from it in the blink of an eye.

And the milkman came around three times a week.

* * *

But Cooke and Lehrer also noted that potential that the Internet could be used for activism, organizing and political discussion unavailable in the mainstream press. “You’re not going to find anything to the left of the Democratic Party on TV or in newspapers,” they quoted one Harel Barzilai, a Cornell graduate student, saying. “And for those of us who have access to the Internet, it’s free to use it and post information. This is our chance to be heard.” The authors also quoted the writer Howard Rheingold saying that “the direct access to information the Internet provides is ‘inherently subversive.’”

The article then launches into a discussion about the privatization and profitization of the early Internet, which, in some ways, anticipates the one going on today. “Internet activists,” Cooke and Lehrer wrote, “want to make sure that this power stays with individuals.”

The primary threat was then, as it is today, plans to charge different prices for access to different content—precisely the kind of arrangement President Obama said last week must not be allowed. In 1993, Cooke and Lehrer saw that danger remarkably clearly:

By giving the private sector unregulated and monopolistic control over the Net’s electronic connections, the government would in effect allow megacorporations like AT&T and Time Warner, who own the cable lines and manage what flows through them, to call the shots in the future. They could determine how much anyone, from a single individual to a university, will have to pay for access. Some phone companies, for example, are already discussing charging users either by the amount of time they log on to the Internet or by the amount of data they send over it—despite the fact that their network operating costs are fixed no matter how many people us it or how much data flows through it. Changing the funding structure means the eventual extinction of the small, mom-and-pop computer networks, which could find themselves victims of predictable market forces. And that means that isolated users and cash-strapped colleges could be cut off from their virtual communities.

Some of the details of the problem, of course, have changed in ways we don’t have time or space to go into. But the principle at stake, and the threats to it, remain astonishingly identical to those Cooke and Lehrer wrote about in 1993:

In a worst-case scenario, Rheingold says, corporations would not only monitor what’s on the Internet, they would monitor you. If, as some predict, the information superhighway becomes primarily a conduit for watching movies, banking at home and shopping, the same computers that we use to lessen the burden of our daily errands could also be used by the corporations that provide those services to destroy our personal privacy. The Net could be used by marketing wizards—the same ones who flood us with annoying junk mail—to keep tabs on us all in Orwellian fashion, automatically recording our interests and habits.

Hackers have already developed a few defenses, which could be the seeds for preserving the right to free communication. Free software to encode all electronic transmissions is now widely available, with codes that even the fastest super-computers would have a tough-time cracking. This means that nobody but the person you send something to—whether an e-mail note or a piece of software—can read it.

The conclusion to the article, twenty-one years later, is fairly chilling:

Internet activists are also not happy with the Clinton Administration’s effort to impose a standard encoding scheme for data, whether e-mail or a movie, that only the government can break. “The machinery of oppression has weak spots,” Rheingold says, noting the spread of encryption techniques that even the National Security Agency may not be able to crack. “But the powers that be in the N.S.A. have convinced Clinton that they have to closet he doors before all the cows get out.”

Whether it’s the government or private corporations, what everyone wants is control of a new form of communication, one that currently cannot be controlled. Given the stakes and the power of the interests now seeking to shape and profit from this new technology, the end result may not be a happy one for the average citizen-user. “The key questions of access, pricing, censorship and redress of grievances will be answered in practice, in law, in executive order or legislative action, over the next five years,” Rheingold writes, “and will thus determine the political and economic structure of the Net for decades to come.”

But for the time being, the activities of people like Wam Kat seem to prove an old hacker adage: “All information wants to be free.”

* * *

I e-mailed both Cooke and Lehrer, asking them to reread the 1993 article send me their reflections. Cooke wrote back first:

In the twenty-one years since this article was published, the Internet has become both more magical and more invasive than I expected. I have worked all that time as an Internet technologist for media companies, so I should probably not be as awed by the Internet as I am. I think the Internet ranks as one of the most important human-created things. Information does want to be free, as we continue to learn from people like Edward Snowden. Governments tremble before its power, and do whatever they can to control the cord, if they can’t cut it (see the Great Firewall of China for a very crazy example of this tendency.)

The uses we find for these technologies are beyond any one person’s comprehension, and were of course well beyond my imagination, when I pitched the idea for the article to Victor Navasky in a dark bar near the UC-Berkeley campus in the Spring of 1993. For most users, the Internet and smartphones are indistinguishable from magic. Count me among that number.

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Dan Lehrer had this to say:

I remember that at the time, the “information superhighway” (and thank goodness that term has retired) was a hot topic in newspapers, but it was still a vague concept to most people. This story was really one of the first to explain to non-computer-friendly people what the Internet actually was and what it did.

A couple of things jumped out at me when rereading the article that Kevin, Tim and I wrote in the Pleistocene. The biggest is that we were even called upon to explain what the Internet was in the first place. We now take the Internet for granted—we expect to be able to scroll through epic cat fail videos, make free overseas video calls, and get free shipping. The Internet is seamlessly integrated into our daily lives. That’s why it should be a public utility, right? But except for college students and early adopters who joined private virtual communities like Marin County’s the WELL (which stood for Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link) the promise of the Internet bordered on science fiction at that time. Indeed, in the article, we briefly mention that the Internet may become “primarily a conduit for watching movies, banking at home and shopping” but downplayed this aspect of the piece—it was kind of like a flying car.

The other major thing about the story is that the issues are the same now—completely, exactly the same—as they were back when Mosaic was the best browser around (and it was slow and crashed a lot). Marketing companies using browsing habits to invade privacy? Monopolistic megacorporations limiting access to competitors? Encryption as a way of protecting privacy? Check, check and check. The forms of communication that we use on the Internet have changed—newsgroups to Facebook—but the implications of what we do online and how we do it remain.

* * *

Curious about how we covered something? E-mail me at rkreitner@thenation.com. Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

Read Next: Obama tells the FCC to ‘implement the strongest possible rules to protect net neutrality.’

NSA Reform Is Blocked by Constitutionally Disinclined Senate Republicans

National Security Agency

National Security Agency headquarters (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

The vital cause of NSA reform—which seemed to be gaining strength as not just citizens but their elected representatives came to recognize the consequences of the issues raised by Edward Snowden’s leaks—has hit a rough spot in recent weeks. Allies of the cause are being defeated or abandoning their principles and major initiatives are failing.

The first bad news came November 4, when Colorado Senator Mark Udall lost his campaign for a second term. In his first term, the Democrat had emerged as one of the steadiest, and frequently most aggressive, critics of National Security Agency abuses. Arguing that there was “a groundswell of public support for reform,” and that such reform had to “reject half-measures that could still allow the government to collect millions of Americans’ records without any individual suspicion or evidence of wrongdoing,” Udall worked with Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden and Kentucky Republican Rand Paul to get Congress to crack down on the NSA.

Udall is still in the Senate until January, and he moved in the immediate aftermath of his defeat to gain Senate support for at least a small measure of NSA reform. But even that initiative fell short Tuesday night, as Udall and his allies could muster only fifty-eight of the sixty needed votes to prohibit the NSA from holding the phone records of Americans and to establish better procedures for challenging the claims and initiatives of government agencies that overreach.

Though the measure fell far short of what was needed, the American Civil Liberties Union argued that the so-called “USA Freedom Act,” which was introduced by outgoing Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, “is our chance to turn the tide on suspicionless mass surveillance, restoring some of the crucial privacy protections lost with passage of the Patriot Act in 2001.”

The ACLU advocated aggressively for the measure on the grounds that it send the right signal with regard to legislative oversight and that it would begin to establish better frameworks for protecting liberties by

*Ending nationwide bulk surveillance and limiting the government’s ability to engage in broad surveillance that inappropriately sweeps up the communications of thousands of people under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, national security letters, and pen register authorities.

*Increasing transparency by requiring declassification of relevant intelligence court decisions or the release of summaries containing critical information about these decisions.

*Creating a public advocate that can be appointed to participate in significant intelligence court proceedings to represent our privacy interests.

*Providing judicial review of gag orders that accompany national security information requests.

*Permitting companies to disclose more information about how often the government asks them to hand over data and requiring the government to disclose more information about its surveillance activities.

Udall, Leahy and every other Senate Democrat—with the exception of Florida’s Bill Nelson—voted to bring the measure up for debate. They were joined by independents Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine, as well as four Republicans: Ted Cruz of Texas, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Dean Heller of Nevada and Mike Lee of Utah.

That got the potential reform caucus to 58, and suggested that, were the measure to have come up for a vote, it would have passed. But that was two votes short of the number needed to gain consideration. When forty-one Republicans voted no—many of them making absurd doomsday claims about the danger of protecting privacy rights—that consideration was blocked.

Strikingly, one of the Republican “no” votes came from Rand Paul, who claimed he voted “no” because the measure did not go far enough—while at the same time admitting that reformers “probably needed my vote.”

The problem with Paul’s position is that the next Senate, led by his partisan allies, is far less likely to support reform than the current one.

That’s the frustrating part about what played out Tuesday. As Leahy, who will surrender his Judiciary Committee chairmanship when Mitch McConnell’s Republicans take charge in January, said Tuesday night, “Senate Republicans have failed to answer the call of the American people who elected them, and all of us, to stand up and to work across the aisle. Once again, they reverted to scare tactics rather than to working productively to protect Americans’ basic privacy rights and our national security.” (Emphasis in original)

Udall mustered a measure of optimism.

“While our effort to rein in overbroad government surveillance did not move forward today, this is not the end of the fight to protect Americans’ privacy rights,” the senator said. “Our constitutional liberties are simply too important to be cast aside, and I won’t stop working to make sure we keep faith with our founding values.”

Udall has indicated that, though his remaining time in the Senate is short, he wants to continue to keep the faith. How far he will go remains in question. But the Coloradoan has been urged by civil libertarians and transparency advocates to take advantage of his privilege as a senator—under the Constitution’s “Speech and Debate Clause”—to read into the record details from the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence review of the use of so-called “harsh interrogation” techniques and allegations of torture by CIA operatives.

That could shake up the whole debate about how US intelligence agencies operate—and about the secrecy surrounding those operations.

Udall was asked by The Denver Post about the issue and replied, “Transparency and disclosure are critical to the work of the Senate intelligence committee and our democracy, so I’m going to keep all options on the table to ensure the truth comes out.”

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Asked specifically about taking advantage of the “Speech and Debate Clause” —as former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel did during the Pentagon Papers fight of the early 1970s—Udall said, “I mean, I’m going to keep all options on the table.”

At a frustrating moment for those who believe that the American people need to know what is done in their name but without their informed consent, it may be that Mark Udall—even in defeat—retains the ability to open up the debate that the Senate on Tuesday was unwilling to entertain.

John Nichols is the co-author with Robert W. McChesney of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America, just out in paperback from Nation Books.

Take Action: Tell Senator Udall: Release the Torture Report Now

Read Next: Edward Snowden: A Nation interview

The Moral and Political Case for Reforming the Criminal Justice System

criminal justice

(Reuters/Joshua Lott)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

There isn’t much room for optimism among progressives these days. The president’s avenues to legislative achievement in his final two years are narrow and seem mostly to lead to the right — toward a corporate tax reform in one instance, and a NAFTA-style trade deal with the Asia-Pacific region in another.

But in these dark days, there is, as we are already witnessing, reason for hope — in the form of a landmark climate change deal with China last week and an expected executive action on deportations very soon. And today, increasingly, there are signs that the United States could make greater strides on criminal justice reform than at any time in a generation or more.

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From a moral standpoint, the need to reform the justice system is clear. During the past four decades, the U.S. prison population has quadrupled even as the crime rate has dropped. We have some 2.4 million people behind bars, far more than any other country, costing about $80 billion a year to maintain. Worse yet, as result of racial disparities in sentencing, more than half of U.S. prisoners are minorities. These staggering statistics stem from the failure of the “war on drugs,” the true impact of which can only be measured in destroyed lives and devastated communities, especially among the most marginalized segments of society.

Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

Should We Impeach Chief Justice John Roberts?

Chief Justice John Roberts

Chief Justice John Roberts (AP Photo)

Republicans like to talk about impeaching President Obama, but there is a far more deserving candidate for impeachment—Chief Justice John Roberts of the Supreme Court. While the Republicans in Congress have blocked Democrats from enacting much of substance, the GOP majority in control of the Court has been effectively legislating on its own, following an agenda neatly aligned with their conservative party. Step by step, the five right-wing justices are transforming the terms of the American political system—including the Constitution.

They empowered “dark money” in politics and produced the $4 billion by-election of 2014. They assigned spiritual values to soulless corporations who thus gained First Amendment protection of free speech and religion. The justices effectively gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, even as they allowed state governments to create new obstacles for minority voting. The High Court made it okay to take guns to church and more difficult to keep guns from dangerous people. It rendered a series of decisions that collectively shifted political power from the many to the few.

This power grab by the unelected—and supposedly non-partisan—justices has already produced a historic rewrite of America democracy. But it was done by blatantly usurping the decision-making authority that belongs to the elected government in Congress and the executive branch. The Republican justices are not finished with their undeclared revolution. They will continue unless and until people rise up and stop them.

The Roberts Court’s latest target is once again President Obama’s singular achievement, the Affordable Care Act. Under peculiar circumstances just three days after the midterm elections, the Court announced it will hear another legal challenge that threatens to disable and perhaps destroy the new healthcare system.

The timing of this new intervention has a distinct odor of political collusion. The Republican takeover of the Senate is already invoked by Court allies to suggest the justices are merely responding to the will of the people. Some conservative Court watchers tout the new case as a chance for the chief justice to make amends and get with the program. The latest challenge was fashioned in Washington by the same club of right-wing legal foundations and pricey corporate lawyers who have been attacking affirmative action and other liberal reforms since the Reagan administration.

Michael Carvin of the Jones Day law firm is a cocky veteran of the right’s long crusade and the lead lawyer for the new case. He is already boasting of the outcome, even though the intermediate DC Circuit Court of Appeals has not yet ruled up or down as would normally occur before the Supreme Court agreed to consider it. Carvin dismissed the DC Circuit Court, now dominated by Democratic appointees, as a meaningless anomaly. He told a Talking Points Memo reporter he doubts that Supreme Court conservatives “are going to give much of a damn about what a bunch of Obama appointees on the DC Circuit think.” Goodbye to deference and regular order.

But might Carvin’s case still lose at the Supreme Court? “Oh, I don’t think so,” he said. That was his cute way of saying this time Chief Justice Roberts will be on board with the other four conservative justices. Carvin didn’t say why he is so confident, but he and Roberts seem to be old chums. At a Federalist Society event last year, Michael Carvin indulged in a bit of classy namedropping. The admiring conservative society reported that Carvin “told an anecdote in which Chief Justice Roberts approached him and jokingly chided him for having favored appointing Samuel Alito before Roberts.” What does this say about their relationship? Maybe nothing, but one would like to ask a few follow-up questions.

Roberts himself takes offense at accusations that the Roberts Court renders politicized decisions. He has frequently denied the charge. “We’re not Republicans or Democrats,” Roberts told students at the University of Nebraska law school. Unlike some of his right-wing colleagues, Roberts wants to have it both ways. He’s not an ideologue, just an earnest umpire calling balls and strikes.

Baloney. If Carvin and other conservative legal eagles are correct that this time the Chief Justice will rule against the healthcare law, that should give people a prima facie case for considering impeachment. At a minimum, people should demand a thorough public investigation into whether surreptitious political interference occurred (who said what to whom offstage?). If politicians are reluctant to go down that road, people can start their own inquiries. The chief justice should be forewarned what will likely happen if he does scuttle the ACA. I expect “Impeach John Roberts” signs and billboards to start popping up all over America as people finally figure out who did this to them. Hint: it was not Barack Obama.

A prime witness should be Linda Greenhouse, who for decades was the influential New York Times correspondent covering the Supreme Court (now at Yale law school). Greenhouse was admired for her fair-minded analysis and great clarity in explaining esoteric legal arguments, She finds the current state of affairs “profoundly depressing.”

Greenhouse explained in her blog posted at NYTimes.com: “In decades of court-watching, I have struggled—sometimes it seems against all odds—to maintain the belief that the Supreme Court really is a court and not just a collection of politicians in robes. This past week I found myself struggling against the impulse to say two words: I surrender.” (Linda Greenhouse has not herself called for impeachment.)

The new case against Obamacare reads like “a politically manufactured argument,” Greenhouse wrote. She called the maneuvering “a naked power grab by conservative justices who two years ago just missed killing the ACA in its cradle.” As evidence, she cited the unusual twists in Supreme Court behavior. Normally it waits to see if there are conflicting views among circuit courts of appeal before taking a case for consideration. This time, the Fourth Circuit based in Richmond, Virginia, upheld the law. The DC Circuit in Washington has all twelve judges reviewing and seems very likely to uphold the law, since that court is now top-heavy with Democratic appointees. The Supremes went ahead regardless.

Greenhouse cited Michael Carvin’s confident boasting as suggesting the political flavor. She also invoked remarks by Professor John Yoo of UC Berkeley—famous in Bush years as the “torture lawyer” who defended brutal interrogations and a former clerk for Justice Clarence Thomas. On National Review Online, Yoo felt sure Roberts will now support the ACA challenge because the case “gives him the chance to atone for his error upholding Obamacare.” Yoo wrote: “What judge can resist the chance to reach the right legal result, fix mistakes from the past and act with popular support? It’s a Supreme Court trifecta.”

Over-confident Republicans naturally assume the public will be grateful if the Supreme Court rescues them from Obama’s healthcare system. But the first result is bound to be utter chaos and confusion and millions of people—mostly in red states—who discover they are the losers. If the GOP legal challenge succeeds, the High Court will rule that the federal exchanges—created for states that declined to create their own state exchanges—operate illegally because the ACA does not give them explicit authority to dispense the tax credits that subsidize health insurance.

A blizzard of low- and moderate-income buyers of insurance would be suddenly stripped of government assistance—around 5.2 million of them. But there is a cruel twist Republican leaders fail to acknowledge: their own red-state constituents will be the most victimized. Leading right-wing politicians have endorsed the very lawsuit that will punish the Southern and Western states if it prevails, while blue states and northern cities that are operating their own state exchanges may not suffer at all.

The lawsuit now before the Supreme Court, for example, has been formally joined by Senators Cornyn and Cruz of Texas, Hatch and Lee of Utah, Portman of Ohio, Rubio of Florida, Representative Darrell Issa of California and the state governments of Oklahoma, Alabama, Georgia, West Virginia, Nebraska, South Carolina and Kansas. If these politicians win, their states are the big losers.

But of course the citizens who will be screwed in the red states are mostly working poor or moderate-income families. Republicans are okay with that. They ostensibly believe that belt-tightening helps build character. The GOP may have a time with blowback from the insurance industry and other providers in the healthcare system. While it’s not widely understood, many billions in federal subsidies help people of limited means buy health insurance but they never actually see the dollars themselves. The money flows directly from the Treasury to the private enterprises. Insurance lobbyists are already on the case, explaining real life to clueless conservatives.

Up to this point, I have barely mentioned the logic of the conservative assault on Affordable Care. Because there isn’t much logic to it. It depends entirely on a narrow-minded reading of the original legislation—so ridiculously literal that only gnomes in a medieval castle could take it seriously. In a nutshell, the right-wing lawyers claim that the law describes how state-run exchanges will be able to dispense federal subsidies to people in need, but the law fails to say explicitly that federal exchanges have the same powers.

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Okay, the drafters could have repeated the requisite language to reassure fly-specking lawyers, but really there was never any doubt about the congressional intent. As the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has ruled, the logic of the entire system over-rules any blurred language. The law says explicitly that the secretary of Health and Human Services has the authority to create federal exchanges when and where states don’t want to do it. In other times, any such ambiguity would have been quickly eliminated with a technical fix, routinely adopted by mutual consent.

But the new Republican Party refuses to go along with anything that resembles cooperation and might shine a good light on Democrats. What the right-wingers really hope to achieve is a total breakdown of the ACA’s complex architecture. Throw sticks in the spokes. Force the Obama administration to open the legislation for Republican tinkering. The Supreme Court appears to be pursuing a similar strategy In other words, right-wing senators want Supreme Court right-wingers to accomplish by edict what GOP legislators could not accomplish for themselves.

Barack Obama can win this fight by not giving in to the Supreme Court, even if he temporarily loses there. The president has to call out his opponents and tell the hard truth about their illegitimate abuse of power. People may listen if he genuinely fights for them.

People may recall the last time Americans wanted to impeach a Chief Justice was in the 1950s, when Earl Warren—a liberal Republican from California—championed Brown v. Board of Education in the long legal battle to defeat Jim Crow segregation. Chief Justice Roberts has been leading in the Court in the opposite direction. Instead of comforting the afflicted, he is comforting the comfortable.

Read Next: Thanks to the Roberts Court, corporations have more constitutional rights than actual people

Beyond the Drug Raids: Why the Feds Are Fed Up With the NFL


(Reuters/Mike Segar)

Let’s be clear: the recent raid on five NFL teams by the Drug Enforcement Agency to see if teams were doubling as illegal painkiller dispensaries has little to do with concerns about how our nation’s Sunday heroes Novocain themselves for gridiron glory. The fact that the NFL and their teams of doctors and nurses give out prescription pills like Halloween candy and break out syringes to top off sessions of physical therapy has been public knowledge for over forty years. Player memoirs like the 1970s Out of their League, by Cardinal linebacker Dave Meggyesy, and Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Peter Gent’s semi-autobiographical bestseller North Dallas Forty, addressed such things with a nonchalant frankness bordering on the blasé. These practices are also discussed by former players with a shrug as just the price they pay for keeping the trains—those same trains carrying billions of dollars in revenue—running on schedule. Players tend to come from poverty and play an average of just three and a half years on largely non-guaranteed contracts. They will do what they have to do to get out there on Sunday, and teams will be only too happy to oblige.

The real story here is that these raids happened at all. The NFL employs twenty-six full-time lobbyists and spends about $1.5 million per election cycle to make sure that the feds leave the league alone and no one looks too closely at how the sausages are made. Pro football is supposed to be an entity that operates in a magical constitution-free zone of antitrust exemptions and tax breaks, with numbing opiates in every locker. But those days appear to be as dead as playoff hopes in Oakland.

A combination of the bumbling Clouseau-esque stewardship of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, public pressure and a never-ending cascade of scandals has created a relationship between the NFL and the federal government described to me by a hill lobbyist as “something south of toxic.” In September they hired democratic operative Cynthia Hogan to head their lobbying operation in an effort at making their relationship with this administration at least better than poisonous, but this is beyond Cynthia Hogan. Hell, this is beyond Olivia Pope. The federal government is out for a chunk of Roger Goodell’s flesh and the evidence of this is there for anyone who cares to look.

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Over the last three months, we have seen the Federal Communications Commission—a body appointed by the Obama administration—both rescind the decades-old NFL blackout rule and threaten to ban the dictionary-defined slur that brands the Washington football team from being uttered over broadcast television. We have seen rage by public officials over how the NFL and especially Roger Goodell has ignored or even covered up issues of violence against women. We have seen Goodell again and again, whether in the Ray Rice domestic violence case or in his recent ruling on Adrian Peterson’s season-long suspension for hitting his child with a stick, careening from one crisis to the next, absent of a moral compass while thumbing his nose at the Players Association, public pressure or common sense. We have seen the open questioning on Capitol Hill of the NFL corporate office’s tax-free status, something estimated to save the league $10 million dollars a year—a move championed by now-retired Republican senator from Oklahoma Tom Coburn. We have also seen the unthinkable: senators asking the “Emperor has no clothes” question of why the NFL gets any special treatment at all.

When politicians see the once bullet-proof NFL shield, with all of its cultural capital, as a target for scoring easy political points, it speaks volumes all by itself. This humiliating DEA raid is really just a dash a salt on an already simmering stew. Goodell’s league has long carried itself like the sporting equivalent of Goldman-Sachs; simply too big to fail. Those days of anti-accountability are over. Roger Goodell and the collection of owners that pull his string are failing at the most fundamental task of a league built on the broken bodies of its players: keeping people’s attention firmly focused on the field. Now people—and politicians—are looking at what is behind the curtain and scrutiny does them no favors. It is perfectly understandable why many would see conflict between the federal government and the powers that be in the world of football as the Kang vs. Kodos of political battles. But this is a sport that is being victimized less by big government than by their own arrogance and negligence. Whether we are talking about the covered-up dangers of youth football, the plantation economy of the NCAA, or the corporate culture of the NFL, the feds are not done with the people who run this sport. Not by a longshot.

Read Next: “New NBA Union Chief Michele Roberts Slams the League’s Old Labor Practices”

When Mega Corporations Get Mega Tax Breaks, We All Pay


(Reuters/Robert Sorbo)

Is corporate CEO pay really out of control? Well, consider Fleecing Uncle Sam, a new report from the Institute for Policy Studies and the Center for Effective Government. Of the 100 highest-paid CEOs in the US, the study finds, twenty-nine of them received more compensation than their companies paid in federal income tax.

Take American Airlines, for example. CEO W. Douglas Parker took home $17.7 million in total compensation in 2013, while his company received a $22 million tax refund. It makes you wonder. After all, American didn’t have a lot of income on which to pay taxes—the company’s pre-tax income in 2013 was negative $2 billion—so is AA sending us a message that tax avoidance, and not air transport, is their real business? Parker certainly piloted his company to be more success at the former than he did the latter.

Scott Klinger, Director of Revenue and Spending Policies at the Center for Effective Government, co-authored of the report. “Our corporate tax system is so broken,” he says, “that large, profitable firms can get away without paying their fair share and instead funnel massive funds into the pockets of top executives.”

But the heavyweight champion of corporate tax refunds is JPMorgan Chase, which earned more than $17 billion in 2013 in pre-tax income. Their tax “payment” took the form of a $1.3 billion refund. How did this happen? How can this all be above-board tax avoidance, not unlawful tax evasion? When it comes to avoiding taxes, American corporations have a veritable salad bar of helpful (and legal) techniques, including inversions and tax havens. But perhaps most galling are “extenders,” subsidies and tax-breaks handed to them by Congress. Every year or two, with little or no debate, Congress votes to extend fifty-five of these tax breaks, with 80 percent of them benefitting corporations.

“Rather than handing out more perks through the ‘tax extenders,’ Congress should focus on cracking down on tax havens, eliminating wasteful corporate subsidies, and closing loopholes that encourage excessive CEO pay,” says Sarah Anderson, IPS Global Economy director and another report co-author.

And then there’s Boeing. CEO W. James McNerney Jr. took home $23.3 million last year—well deserved, if the standard was wrapping Uncle Sam around his finger. Boeing received a tax refund of $82 million in 2013, while at the same time winning $20 billion in government contracts. Between 2008 and 2012, the company received $603 million in research-and-development subsidies. This largesse is outrageous, perhaps only ending when Boeing and its corporate brethren pay so little in taxes that Uncle Sam doesn’t have enough cash to allot their customary refunds, subsidies, and contracts.

When the federal government pays, we all pay. This is, of course, a government of the people, and these are our elected officials; when Congress engages in such epic bootlicking, we all get stuck with the bad taste in our mouth.

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We’re also stuck with the opportunity costs. The study reports that if seven giant corporations—Boeing, Chevron, Citigroup, Ford, General Motors, JPMorgan Chase and Verizon—had paid the statutory corporate tax rate of 35 percent, they would have owed $25.9 billion. Instead, the seven companies received a combined $1.9 billion in tax refunds, a difference of $27.8 billion. What might have been? What could we do with that lost tax income? How about running the VA for two entire months, the study asks. Or resurfacing 22,240 miles of four-lane roads. Or Universal pre-K for every four-year-old in the country. Three hundred and seventy-seven thousand more public school teachers. The list goes on and on.

Congress can fix this. A handful reform bills have been introduced, including Sen. Carl Levin’s (D-MI) Cut Unjustified Tax (CUT) Loopholes Act, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Representative Jan Schakowsky’s Corporate Tax Fairness Act, as well as several bills to stop corporate inversions. As the report says, “The American people increasingly understand that what’s good for General Motors and its CEO is not necessarily best for them.” We need to convince Congress that it's not best for them either.

Read Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel on the Republicans' reckoning

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