Media, politics and culture.
This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
Once again, Washington claims Bolivia has not met its obligations under international narcotics agreements. For the seventh year in a row, the US president has notified Congress that the Andean country “failed demonstrably” in its counter-narcotics efforts over the past twelve months. Blacklisting Bolivia means Washington will withhold aid to one of South America’s poorest countries.
The story has hardly made the news in the United States, and that is worrisome. While many countries in the hemisphere call for drug policy reform and are willing to entertain new strategies in that vein, it remains business as usual in the United States.
The UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), meanwhile, seems to think that Bolivia is doing a great job, lauding the government’s efforts to tackle coca production and cocaine processing for the past three years. The Organization of American States (OAS) is also heaping praise on Bolivia, calling its innovative new approach to coca control an example of a “best practice” in drug policy.
According to the UNODC, Bolivia decreased the amount of land dedicated to coca plants by about 26 percent from 2010 to 2013. Approximately 56,800 acres are currently under production.
Bolivia has achieved demonstrable successes despite—and perhaps because of—a complete lack of support from the United States: the US Drug Enforcement Administration left in 2009 and all US aid for drug-control efforts ended in 2013. Bearing in mind that US drug policy in the Andes has always emphasized “supply side” reduction like coca crop eradication, the decision is of course a political one. It reflects the US frustration that Bolivia isn’t bending to Washington’s will. Interestingly, most Bolivian-made cocaine ends up in Europe and Brazil—not the United States.
At the same time, Peru and Colombia, both US favorites given their willingness to fall in line with US drug policy mandates, were not included in the list of failures. To be sure, those countries have recently decreased coca crop acreage as well, in some years by a lot more than Bolivia has. Still, they had respectively about 66,200 and 61,700 acres more coca under cultivation than Bolivia in 2013, according to the UNODC’s June 2014 findings. Peru currently produces the most cocaine of any country in the world.
Bolivians have been consuming the coca plant for over 4,000 years as tea, food and medicine, and for religious and cultural practices. Coca, the cheapest input in the cocaine commodity chain, cannot be considered equivalent to cocaine, since more than twenty chemicals are needed to convert the harmless leaf into the powdery party drug and its less glamorous cousin, crack. Still, coca is listed as a Schedule 1 narcotic under the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (the defining piece of international drug-control legislation).
When Evo Morales became president of Bolivia he worked to modify the Convention, and in 2013 eventually wrested from the UN the right to allow limited coca production and traditional consumption within Bolivia’s borders. In the process, all Latin American countries except Mexico (which supported the US-led objection) supported Morales’s mission.
The Bolivian Model
The basics of Bolivia’s approach to reining in coca cultivation are fairly simple. Licensed growers can legally cultivate a limited amount of coca (1,600 square meters) to ensure some basic income, and they police their neighbors to ensure that fellow growers stay within the legal limits. Government forces step in to eradicate coca onluy when a grower or coca grower’s union refuses to cooperate.
This grassroots control is possible because of the strength of agricultural unions in Bolivia’s coca-growing regions and because of growers’ solidarity with President Morales, himself a coca grower.
Another incentive is that reducing supply drives up coca leaf prices, which means that producers can earn more money for their families. As one longtime grower and coca union leader from the Chapare growing region put it, “It’s less work and I make more money.” This income stability, combined with targeted aid from the Bolivian government, means that many coca growers are able to make a living wage and diversify their livelihood strategies—investing in shops, other legal crops and education.
It also helps that the violence and intimidation at the hands of the previously US-backed Bolivian military has come to an end. People remember what is was like, and many still suffer from injuries sustained during different eradication campaigns. One coca grower, for example, had her jaw broken so badly by a soldier as she marched for the right to grow coca that she cannot be fitted for dentures to replace her missing teeth. She emphasized that life is so much better now because it’s less stressful. People do not want to see a return to forced eradication campaigns.
No one is pretending that Bolivia’s coca control approach means the end of cocaine production. Some portion of coca leaf production—by some estimates, about 22,200-plus acres’ worth—is still ending up in clandestine, rudimentary labs where it is processed into cocaine paste.
Furthermore, because it is squeezed between Peru, a major cocaine exporter, and Brazil, a growing importer, Bolivia has found it increasingly difficult to control cocaine flows. As a result, despite increased narcotics seizures by Bolivian security forces under Morales’s government, drug trade activities within Bolivia’s borders by some accounts have actually increased over the past few years.
Nevertheless, and for better or worse, the country’s new method of coca control yields results and undeniably satisfies the US supply-side approach, yet Washington maintains its hardline stance against the county. In the present geopolitical context, when even US drug-war allies Colombia and Mexico are calling for new approaches to controlling narcotics, the US rejection of the Bolivian model further undermines Washington’s waning legitimacy in the hemisphere.
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Karl Rove has committed felonies—uh, not felonies, I mean smears. To avoid any confusion, I’ll repeat: Karl Rove has not been convicted of committing felonies. But he has committed smears (not unlike the one I just committed on him). And, virtually unnoticed by the media, he has smeared again, yesterday on Fox News Sunday.
It was recently revealed that Paul Davis, the Democratic candidate for governor of Kansas, had a most awkward moment sixteen years ago. Police raided a strip club near Coffeyville for drugs and found Davis, then 26 and unmarried, getting a lap dance. He wasn’t accused of any wrongdoing, no charges were brought against him, and even in Kansas, lap-dancing isn’t illegal.
Still, the lap-dance story is fair game for supporters of Sam Brownback, the embattled Republican governor who’s running for re-election. On Meet the Press yesterday, Grover Norquist, for example, interrupted his anti-tax talk to relate the lap-dance incident (“with the naked lady”), which Thomas Frank later shot down as ancient small fry.
But over at Fox, Rove dramatically raised the stakes for Davis, saying that Kansas’s possible future governor had been “arrested”:
The governor’s race in Kansas is close. However, late last week, it was revealed that the Democratic candidate for governor had been arrested—or not arrested, he’d been detained briefly a number of years ago when he was an attorney for a strip joint and the police found him getting a lap dance.
Fox News Sunday anchor Chris Wallace let it slide, presumably because Rove corrected himself. But the “correction” allowed Rove to repeat the word “arrested,” a word that, even when used in the negative, Fox viewers can now associate with Davis and repeat until it seems true. No small thing when many diehard Republicans in Kansas are so disgusted with the devastation wreaked by Brownback’s tax cuts, that they’re actually considering a vote for Davis.
Of course, Rove may have simply made an honest slip of the tongue. But “Bush’s Brain” has a long list of such ambiguous slips.
Most recently, he suggested that Hillary Clinton had suffered a “traumatic brain injury.” Several months after her December 2012 fall, which caused a blood clot, Rove said, “Thirty days in the hospital? And when she reappears, she’s wearing glasses that are only for people who have traumatic brain injury? We need to know what’s up with that.” She was hospitalized for three days, not thirty, and later that day Rove tried to deny (while simultaneously reinforcing) his innuendo, saying, "Of course she doesn’t have brain damage.”
“You could believe Rove’s denial—but you would have to ignore virtually his entire political career,” as George Zornick wrote in The Nation. “For decades Rove has been circulating nasty, personal rumors about political opponents and placing them in the public conversation, all while obscuring his fingerprints, making the rumors become the opponent’s problem, not his. It’s page one of his playbook.”
A protégé of the late Lee Atwater, the GOP dirty trickster who once boasted that “states’ rights” and “tax cuts” could be used as code words for “nigger,” Rove has been associated with whisper campaigns suggesting that his clients’ opponents were homosexual (Texas governor Ann Richards in 1994), pedophiles (a Democratic candidate for Alabama Supreme Court, also in ’94), or mentally impaired (John McCain in 2000). “Other rumors tied to the Rove-led campaign” in 2000, writes Think Progress, “included allegations that McCain’s wife had a drug problem and that his adopted Bangladesh-born daughter was an ‘illegitimate black child.’”
Rove is sparing Davis the “mental” and “homo” tags, but having him “arrested” just might do the dirty trick. (And it might help obscure reports, cited by Davis, that the FBI is investigating the fund-raising and lobbying practices of Brownback associates. Brownback has denied any wrongdoing.)
As for Davis, a Kansas state representative, he released a statement to Politico on Saturday. “When I was 26 years old, I was taken to a club by my boss—the club owner was one of our legal clients,” he said in the statement. “While we were in the building, the police showed up. I was never accused of having done anything wrong, but rather I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
On Fox, Rove was, once again, in the right place at the right time to say the wrong thing.
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On Sunday, Katrina vanden Heuvel joined ABC’s This Week for a roundtable discussion on President Obama’s plan to use air strikes against ISIS and whether he even has the authority to unilaterally make that decision. “I think the president has surrendered to the war party, in both parties, to a media that has lathered up hysteria about a threat that is not an immediate threat to this country,” vanden Heuvel said. She praised Obama’s previous declaration that our foreign policy should be “don’t do stupid stuff,” but also observed that “too often in this country we equate doing something with doing something militarily.”
Jazz is cool. Retirement is not. In a subculture built on improvisation and fierce individualism, how do aging artists settle down? Defying the genre’s reputation for freewheeling lifestyles and entertainment-industry exploitation, the elders of New York’s vaunted jazz scene are partnering with the city’s labor groups to shine a spotlight on their struggle for economic security.
Justice for Jazz Artists, a campaign led by local musicians and American Federation of Musicians (AFM) Local 802, aims to create a pioneering pension system for jazz musicians—similar to the plan many Broadway and session musicians already use. But unlike some of the city’s more stably employed artists, in orchestra pits or recording studios, many jazz artists are non-union and spend decades living from gig to gig, playing for just a cut at the door or a wad of cash. Reflecting a deep history of jazz musicians struggling to live off their talent and getting preyed upon by commercial forces, their pay rates often barely cover rent, much less a retirement nest egg.
The proposed fund would allow a musician to be vested within a few years of regular contributions, and upon retirement, start collecting monthly payments, which could range from a few hundred to about $2,400, depending on their current salary.
The benefit would be financed through the savings that clubs have accrued from a sales tax repeal on their admission fees. The program would mirror AFM’s existing multi-employer pension plan, which collects contributions from concert halls and other established venues to support participating musicians, ranging from orchestra players to radio jingle singers.
Now hoping to organize in the relatively small jazz clubs, musicians and activists are now publicly campaigning for a comprehensive collective bargaining arrangement that would include “fair pay, adequate pension contributions, protection of recording rights,” and a grievance process. Musicians and activists testified at a City Hall committee hearing last week, and while hearing their pleas, lawmakers weighed a non-binding resolution supporting their demand for a pension and collective bargaining rights.
Local jazz legend Jimmy Owens, with more than sixty years of playing trumpet and flugelhorn under his belt, told Council members that many local artists “don’t, or will not have large Social Security contributions. They will not have a pension, unless they started one themselves.… We find that jazz artists, as they get into their older age, get called less for work. At the same time, they work less, maybe…than before, because of health.” But with the financial security of stable pension payments, he said, “This money not only helps musicians, it helps to keep the music alive.”
The retirement plan has been in an impasse since 2005, when labor activists negotiated a deal with owners of clubs like Birdland and Iridiuim to lobby for a state sales tax break, on the condition (what the union calls a “handshake agreement”) that, in tandem with saving on taxes, the clubs would pay into the pension fund. The club owners’ trade association, Manhattan Association of Cabarets & Clubs, at the time endorsed the proposal to then-Governor George Pataki, in a letter stating, “A number of major clubs have agreed to direct the savings from the admission tax exemption to performers’ health and pension benefit funds.” But by the time the proposal worked its way through Albany’s sausage-maker, the most important aspect was missing—a direct mechanism for actually collecting the contributions and investing clubs’ revenues in pensions. The clubs never established a collective agreement on making direct payments into a pension plan. And now, the union argues, the clubs are benefitting from the tax savings without following through on their earlier commitment to artists. Club managers have countered that they had simply served as a “pass-through” for the sales tax, so no money is being hoarded, and the plan would be financially unworkable anyway.
Club owners did not comment publicly to The Nation, but in past media reports, and speaking on background last week, managers expressed skepticism about the union’s organizing efforts and the financial and logistical burdens of a formal collective bargaining agreement.
The campaign says it has not been able to revive formal talks with the clubs, so it is driving forward with raucous demonstrations, including musical protests outside top clubs and public appeals to both fellow musicians and policymakers.
John O’Connor, Local 802 AFM Recording vice president stated, “Though we must acknowledge the important role the clubs have made in advancing the art of jazz, we must also recognize that it is the responsibility of those who employ these musicians to help correct the injustice. Local 802 is eager to work with any nightclub willing to do the right thing.”
The pension dilemma reflects a broader problem of precarity besetting the city’s creative workers. Far from the stereotype of the elite “creative class,” today’s “starving artists” get all the hardship and little of the romance of urban legend, wrestling with unstable, low-paying jobs and a soaring cost of living. A typical club musician in New York might earn just $75 to $125 per gig. This chronic impoverishment in turn saps the talent of local art, music and theater scenes.
Building a career in jazz has always hinged on a combination of pluck and luck, but now new institutions have emerged to fill a need for sustained care for older artists. Owens praised the work of the Jazz Foundation, for example, which has aided musicians facing economic hardship with charity funds for housing, food and other emergency needs. But too many artists are struggling to survive, he said, “because the places they work don’t pay into the pension fund…. You need to help us now, in some way.”
Owens counts himself as “one of the lucky ones” because he has managed to build his own retirement fund as a self-employed artist, which allows him to help support pensions for his accompanying musicians as well, but at a price. “In 1972,” he said, “I pretty much gave up playing in the clubs” in order to do more jobs that allowed him to shore up his finances.
For musicians who spend their lives enduring such hard compromises for a labor of love, a pension would be a modest payment on the debt the city’s jazz culture owes to its most faithful talents. As Owens performed a mournful solo rendition of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See” before his City Hall audience, the tune expressed the bittersweet undertone of the artist’s plight: however many accolades they win, the struggle for creative fulfillment too often costs them their dignity; the codas of their careers, at least, deserve to go out on a high note.
Editor’s note: the post was updated to show that the resolution has not yet passed the City Council.
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Click here to jump directly to Reed Richardson.
My new Nation column is called “Bloomberg Beyond the Billions.” It’s about the mayor and the mogul.
The Eagles (with JD & The Straight Shot) at Madison Square Garden
Steely Dan at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester
The Tedeschi Trucks Band at the Beacon
Last Thursday night, James Dolan, CEO of Cablevision, which owns Madison Square Garden, booked his own band into the opener’s slot. This was a pretty crazy thing to do except that:
A. He matched it with a gimmick to set the Guinness Book of World Records record for most kazoos ever played at one time, which he appeared to accomplish, giving everyone a kazoo who came to the concert and then leading a group of celebrities and the early arrivers during the song “Governor’s Blues,” which includes a kazoo solo and then “Happy Birthday to make sure. As a result of making it into the record books, he promised to give “$100,000 for ALS research, so OK on that.
B. The Times Sunday sports section the week before indicated that the more interest Dolan takes in his band, the less he is likely to take in the Knicks, which is something almost all New Yorkers can agree would be a good thing.
C. Perhaps he will also take less of an interest in this, which would also be a good thing.
D. Truth is, the band wasn’t bad at all, especially in its taste of obscure but deserves-to-be-revived material. Apparently the Eagles made Dolan read a long list of rules afterward to ensure that nobody played their kazoos once they came onstage, and since the opening act was actually booked for 7, rather than 8, there was no real harm done.
So how were the Eagles? Well, with Hell having frozen over twenty years ago, they manage to get along just fine and recreate those gorgeous harmonies and unbeatable hooks like nobody’s business. Don Henley’s voice is just slightly huskier but it is still a thing of beauty. And with all that money coming in, the production values are first rate so it’s pretty hard to have a bad time with them.
This tour is built around “The Story of the Eagles” documentary and this was kind of a live documentary, with lots of explanation from Don and Glenn about how everything came together (and them came apart, and then together, and then apart, etc).
It was nice to have Bernie Leadon in the band, at least for part of the show, even though he left the band under really unhappy circumstances. And unlike the last time I saw them, when they wore suits, they were dressed in casual Eagles-type flannel, which reduced the cognitive dissonance on songs like “Doolin-Dalton” and particularly “Take it Easy.”
Anyway, Frey and Henley began the show alone together with “Saturday Night,” and were then joined by Leadon for the Dillard & Clark cover “Train Leaves Here This Morning.” Timothy B. Schmit shows up next for “Peaceful Easy Feeling.” Followed by Joe Walsh for a re-arranged “Witchy Woman,” followed by “Tequila Sunrise,” and they were off: “Already Gone,” “Best of My Love,” “Lyin' Eyes,” “One of These Nights,” “Take it to the Limit,” some other stuff, then “New Kid in Town,” “Heartache Tonight,” “Life's Been Good,” “Life in the Fast Lane,” “Hotel California,” “Take it Easy,” “Rocky Mountain High,” and “Desperado.” Their Greatest Hits was the best-selling album of all time for quite a few good reasons. What kind of person would you have to be to have a bad time at that show?
A few nights earlier, actual Altercation friend, Robert Redford, accepted the 2014 Global Environmental Leadership Award from the Walden Woods Project, and the band played to raise money for the cause, which was founded Henley nearly 25 years ago and has done great things ever since. All of the following, which was part of Henley’s introduction, happen to be true, a real rarity at such events:
“Bob Redford was an environmentalist long before the well-being of our natural resources became an international concern. Throughout his extraordinary career as an acclaimed actor, director and producer, he has devoted himself to myriad environmental initiatives too lengthy to enumerate. Redford has stated, ‘I think the environment should be put in the category of our national security. Defense of our resources is just as important as defense abroad. Otherwise what is there to defend?’ I can’t agree more. Whether he is defending the integrity of the public lands we leave as our legacy to future generations; whether he is lobbying Congress for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, fighting for the protection of the dwindling herds of America’s iconic wild mustangs or advocating for measures to curb climate change, he puts the full measure of his time and talent, and the force of his convictions, behind all the compelling environmental causes he supports.” You can go to walden.org for further information on the Walden Woods Project.
Steely Dan have been around even longer than the Eagles. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker began collaborating on music at Bard College in late 1967 before deciding that it would be a cool idea to name a band after a dildo in William Burroughs Naked Lunch. This did not happen until around 1972 when they released “Can't Buy A Thrill.” Back then, the band had right-wing lunatic, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter on guitar, but thankfully by 1975, he was already gone. They toured with Michael McDonald in the band for a while, and released great album after great album, but gave it rest in 1980, not unlike the Eagles, They did not put out another studio album for 20 years. But they’ve been back ever since, between solo projects, projecting contempt for nearly everyone and everything but the music they (and those musicians they admire) create. (Read Fagen’s recent book, Eminent Hipsters, if you think I overstate.
Anyway, Sunday night they played their last show of their “Jamalot Ever After” tour with a three-night stand at the at the beautifully remade Capitol Theatre out somewhere in Westchester, which is actually a good place to see them because:
A. the sound in the place is terrific;
B. they are sort-of from Westchester and sort-of live there, or at least Fagen lives, or so his friends tell me
C. people actually got out seats and were dancing in the aisles and how often do you see that for a band whose audience no longer even has to bother with babysitters?
Walter Becker insisted that this was the best Steely Dan band they ever had and who I am to argue with that? I’ve seen them five or six times (plus the Dukes of September), and I never heard these songs sound so powerful. The three back-up singers were a vision and the four-man horn section was pretty awesome too. Song-selection was right on the mark and Fagen sounded pretty excellent. He was awfully mean to the guy who showed too much excitement in the front row, though, and while I sympathized with him—the guy was awfully annoying—I ended up feeling the guy’s pain at the pain and humiliation he experienced at being yelled at in front of the entire audience.
At both the Eagles and Steely Dan, nobody was allowed to take out their cell phones and the staffs were all over them as if they had a weapon in their hands. It was weird. This was not the case at the Beacon where Butch Trucks, one of the two or three greatest guitarists alive, played one of four shows he and his wife Susan Tedeschi were doing. Derek is awesome, but the material is only so-so. “Midnight in Harlem” is a great song. Their version of Derek and the Dominos’ “Keep on Growing” was pretty fine too—with Jimmy Herring joining on guitar. But I still don’t see the point of breaking up the mighty Allman Brothers Band for this. They’re good, for sure, but a long way from great, much less the greatness that is the ABB....
Their Brand Is Crisis: For Austerity Hawks, Good News Must Still Be Bad News
by Reed Richardson
There’s a key scene early on in Rachel Boynton’s fantastic documentary about the 2002 Bolivian presidential election that sets up the movie’s premise (and title). In it, Tad Devine, a smooth-talking advertising guru with the Democratic political consulting firm Greenberg Carville Shrum, lays out the overarching theme his group has developed for “Goni,” the wealthy, globalization-loving mining magnate who has hired them to save his struggling campaign. In the face of the country’s ongoing economic upheaval, Devine urges Goni to embrace the uncertainty and use it as a weapon against his rivals. (Go to 10:30 mark.)
“I think the most important thing we can do is to be dedicated to this message and to figure out how we can get all this paid media, TV advertising to fit the frame.…And the frame for us is crisis. That’s our brand.”
In the end, this carefully crafted trusted-leader shtick worked. Barely. Goni won by a whisker over the democratic socialist candidate Evo Morales. But, as the documentary makes clear, this victory left Bolivia no better, if not worse off. (Goni resigned and fled the country barely a year later, after several violent crackdowns on anti-government protestors eventually stoked widespread outrage. Morales went on to win the presidency in 2006.) This “brand of crisis,” it turns out, was little more than a clever campaign ploy manufactured by the powerful to push unpopular economic policies that benefit the rich at the expense of the poor.
If this framing sounds familiar, it should, because it sounds a lot like the lopsided debate in this country about how to fix the federal debt. Indeed, pretty much since the day President Obama took office, the “very serious” establishment in Washington has been up in arms about the federal debt “crisis.” (A conveniently timed epiphany, to be sure, since a vast majority of our current debt was caused by Obama’s predecessor.) Mesmerized by the cranky “bipartisan” stylings of Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles—who never met a social insurance program they didn’t want to cut—and propelled along by “nonpartisan” advocacy groups like Fix the Debt—which boasts of its ties to CEOs and gets its funding from the debt fear-mongering billionaire Pete Peterson—the centrism-loving Beltway media has fully absorbed the notion that our debt problem must be in “crisis” and that entitlement cuts must be the solution.
During the depths of the Great Recession, theirs was an easy argument to make. Thanks to the financial crisis, the budget deficit was exploding with and an actuarial surge of aging, retiring Baby Boomers loomed. Even President Obama bought into the rhetoric (if not all the policy prescriptions) of the debt Cassandras. He was the one who appointed Simpson and Bowles as co-chairs of the fundamentally flawed National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, lending legitimacy to the dreadfully misguided idea that we could nurture a struggling economic recovery while starving it at the same time.
Buying into this brand of crisis was a big strategic mistake, however, because it led to his strategic bumbling of the 2011 debt ceiling fight. For his troubles, Obama got a Budget Control Act that unnecessarily prolonged the misery of poor and middle-class Americans and yet it won him little acclaim among the debt hawks in Washington and the media elite. All pain, no gain, in other words. This shouldn’t have come as a great shock, though, since this Beltway species is always on the lookout for a chimerical “grand bargain,” one where the rich (maybe) take a haircut on their last few dollars earned and the rest of us take a bath on things like healthcare and retirement savings. Until that kind of deal, there’s only one kind of news about the debt: bad.
Obama, at least, seems to have learned this lesson, albeit belatedly. When he finally said last year “there is no debt crisis,” it felt like a direct rebuke of the Washington establishment. They deserve to be called out, because theirs is the rigid, unthinking perspective. Over the past 18 months, numerous economic indicators have delivered surprisingly good news. But good luck hearing about it from the debt hawks in Washington.
Last fall, for example, during the government shutdown Niall Ferguson took to the friendly confines of the Wall Street Journal editorial page to instead agitate for the real problem with our federal government: debt. And while he begrudgingly acknowledged our rapidly shrinking deficit, he dismissed it with a quick “True…” formulation that is a favorite way to prevent inconvenient facts from tripping up one’s argument. Instead, he boldly claimed: “Only a fantasist can seriously believe ‘this is not a crisis.’” But in a telltale sign of letting his beliefs get the better of his arguments, Ferguson mistakenly said net interest payments on the federal debt were roughly 8 percent of GDP annually. It’s an egregious error, one that you would’ve thought he would’ve caught since elsewhere in his column Ferguson noted that the 2013 annual budget deficit was only 4 percent of GDP.
Brad DeLong did catch it, however. But unlike Ferguson, DeLong noted that the real fantasy is to believe in this crisis rhetoric. Instead, he calmly made the case that, thanks to low inflation and interest rates, the nation’s debt-to-GDP ratio is quite stable right now. What’s more the debt is actually a profit center rather than a drag on our economy, helping it recover from a still-lingering actual fiscal crisis.
Make no mistake, the economy is healing slowly, and, with it, our budgetary red ink. Take, for example, the rapidly shrinking deficit. The budget sequestration, for all its many ills, has significantly reeled back the deficit in the past few years. So much so, that our spending-to-revenue gap is now a third of what it was when Obama took office. Last month, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that the annual budget shortfall will be $400 billion smaller through the next decade than its previous estimate just four months earlier.
But in the world of folks like Alan Simpson, these positive developments don’t matter, even when they put the lie to their own overblown hysteria. Consider Simpson’s utter incoherence when Salon confronted him earlier this year with his 2011 prediction that an economic debt crisis would happen “within two years.”
“Oh, sure. You know, I’ve made a lot of wrong predictions in my life – I don’t suppose you have. I said I don’t know when the tipping point will come. But it will come. And somebody said: Well, what is the tipping point?
“And the tipping point is very clear. Forget the deficit — that’s going down. We should all be pleased with that. None of us are; I’m not going to lose any sleep about the deficit going down. But when the deficit is going down and the debt is continuing to go up automatically, where we borrow money every day … And that’s going up. It’s now 17.3 trillion …”
It’s hard to even count the number of logical contradictions in these two paragraphs. Facts that don’t fit his crisis narrative simply don’t compute to Simpson. Good news, the kind that might necessitate a careful, nuanced rethinking of debt policy alternatives, just doesn’t register, though it should. But don’t just take my word for it. If you’re looking for a genuine nonpartisan expert to rebut to Simpsons’s scare tactics, check out what William Gale of the Tax Policy Center had to say earlier this month:
“Long-term fiscal policy is not a crisis. It is not even the most important issue facing the economy this moment—strengthening the recovery is—and the fiscal situation should not stand in the way of changes along those lines.”
Of course, it’s no secret which brand—Simpson's hyperventilation or Gale's sobriety—attracts more attention from op-ed pages and cable talk shows. Prominent National Journal columnist Ron Fournier has certainly cast his lot with the former. In fact, Fournier has become such a Chicken Little on the issue that he has bizarrely equated debt crisis denial with climate change denial, ignoring the many economists who publicly disagree with him in the process.
So, when the latest CBO report came out this summer, he naturally penned a column with the not-so-subtle headline: “Fiscal Doom: What You Weren't Told About the Latest Budget News.” Blasting the “sugar high of good news,” he made a point of also dishing out the “scary news”—that this year’s CBO projection estimated our debt would roughly equal the size of our GDP in 25 years. Why is this scary? Fournier doesn’t really say; he just leaves it to the reader to guess.
One explanation involves the now infamous Reinhart-Rogoff paper that purported to show that a country whose debt surpasses 90 percent of GDP experiences sharply lower growth rates. But that paper’s errors have now been thoroughly documented.
Maybe it’s just the big number that scares Fournier. Fortunately, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman—not someone whose intellectual rigor reminds me of a climate change denier—addressed this point in a column over a year ago. (Its not-so-subtle headline: “This is Not a Crisis.”) As Krugman pointed out, Britain has average a debt-to-GDP ratio of more than 100 percent for most of its modern history. “The point is not that we should completely ignore issues of fiscal responsibility,” Krugman explained. “It is that we are nowhere near fiscal crisis…So budget deficits, entitlement reform, and all that simply don’t deserve to be policy priorities, let alone dominate the national discussion the way they did for the past few years.”
Eh, never mind all those wonky details. Or the fact that the CBO’s projections change all the time (and, as we’ve seen, lately they’ve been changing for the better). To Fournier, this debt crisis fixation remains his lodestar. It has already pre-determined our future, as well as our policy response. “Higher taxes, fewer entitlements,” Fournier wrote. “It's going to happen sooner or later, painfully or more painfully, and nobody in charge in Washington seems to care.”
This obsession with “pain” is a common tic among the debt crisis brethren. The zeal with which they describe the necessity for rolling back Medicare benefits and pushing back the Social Security retirement age often feels almost sadistic. It's also increasingly misplaced, because with Medicare too—one of the biggest boogeymen of the debt hawks—the news just keeps getting better. In fact, the latest Trustee report estimated that the Medicare hospital fund is now solvent through 2030, a date four years later than last year’s estimate. What’s more, this is a 13-year improvement over the projection in 2009, before the passage of the Affordable Care Act.
What’s fueling this? Even more good news. Medicare spending keeps slowing down. As a result, The New York Times recently noted that the 10-year budget projections for Medicare costs have been reduced downward for six consecutive years. (To see this trend in action, check out the Times’ interactive graphic here.) In fact, the CBO’s 2006 Medicare cost estimate for 2016, which was projected to be roughly $15,300 per person annually, is now expected to be $4,000 less based on this year’s projections. As the Times points out, if that savings is extrapolated out to 2020, it totals $700 billion, which would do more to cut the debt than several other ambitious policy proposals (that have little chance of passing Congress).
You’ll hear no cheers from Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson about this, though. Last week, he warned everyone to “curb your enthusiasm” on the Medicare cost reductions. Ostensibly a liberal, Samuelson has an uncanny knack for siding against left-wing policy prescriptions, especially when it comes to entitlements. He looks hard to find the grey lining and, true to form, he sandwiched the recent good news on Medicare between two slices of doubt in an almost comical manner:
“Let’s not get carried away.
“True, the savings are significant. Still, they don’t alter the nation’s central budget problem…”
This literal framing of the debt crisis message around evidence to the contrary speaks volumes. Perhaps that’s why Samuelson goes on to suggest a number of different theories of why these encouraging healthcare spending numbers may not last. Surely something else—something bad—is going on here is the unmistakable subtext.
But as the CBO has already pointed out, this trend began before the Great Recession and has continued well into the recovery. And while it’s too soon to definitively attribute much of the Medicare savings to the effects of Obamacare, it’s notable that the law includes several incentives and programs to bend the cost curve further downward.
All good reasons, in other words, to think these positive trends are more permanent and could even accelerate future deficit reduction. Which is even more of rationale to avoid adopting radical policies that unnecessarily damage our fragile economy and sacrifice our nation’s social safety net just to satisfy an austerity campaign driven by the media and political elite. Much like Bolivia found out the hard way, that brand of crisis only sells more misery.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form
There is an unspoken question lurking behind the NFL domestic violence cover-up saga that has emerged over the last month. It is whether the brutality of the game, particularly head injuries, plays a role in the prevalence of players committing acts of violence against women. The NFL has a vested interest in not having this discussion. On head injuries, as the title of the award-winning book said so clearly, it remains “a league of denial.” If, in the name of public relations, the owners won’t have a discussion about the connection between their sport and horrific post-concussive syndromes like ALS and early-onset dementia, are they really going to talk about links between head injuries and domestic violence? The sports media are largely in denial about this topic as well, as there was not one question in Roger Goodell’s instantly infamous Friday press conference about whether the league would investigate whether brain injuries could be the bridge between the violence at work and the violence at home.
Yet many domestic violence advocates are also—understandably—not thrilled with this line of discussion. Partner abuse occurs in all walks of life, all professions and among all income groups, and post-concussive syndromes are almost always not a part of those stories. Additionally, to blame it on concussions seems to be excusing domestic violence and denying the fact that NFL players have agency and choice before becoming abusers. This resistance is very understandable. But attempting to explore and explain the shockingly high rates of domestic violence in the NFL is not the same as excusing it.
So is there a connection? As my friend Ruth, who is a DV counselor, says, “When it comes to domestic violence, it is extremely difficult to generalize across the board, in the NFL or otherwise.” In other words, every case is distinct, reflecting the interpersonal relationships of the parties involved. But there are factors that appear to show themselves in the football cases with alarming regularity. Some of these factors are high rates of stress, a culture of entitlement for sports stars that predates their life in the NFL, and an inability to turn off the violence of the game once the pads are off. This is when we see the most toxic part of the sport’s hyper-masculinist culture poison the relationships between the men who play the game—as well as the men who own teams—and the women in their lives. But among many players, this question of the role of head injuries still lingers in the background.
Dan Diamond over at Forbes is one of the few journalists I have seen explore these links in detail. In one piece, he cites a “disturbing new report” that shows “3 in 10 NFL players suffer from at least moderate brain disease.” Diamond then details many examples of former players who were found in their autopsies to have the repetitive post-concussive syndromes known as CTE, and were also arrested at some point or another for domestic violence. He writes:
The key issue is whether suffering repeated head trauma lowers a person’s self-control. And while many pro football players haven’t been diagnosed with concussions in the NFL, nearly all of them have been playing football since they were young and suffered repetitive, frequent blows that can add up over time. And researchers know that those concussions can change a person. Even a pillar of the community.
This connects anecdotally with much of my own research. Over the last two months, I have spoken with three different women whose husbands are or were NFL players. All three are domestic violence survivors. In one case, the marriage was mended and endures to this day. In one case, it ended in divorce. In one case it ended with the suicide of the player in question. Yet that is where the differences ended. The similarities were stunning. In all three cases, the violence was precipitated either by migraine headaches or self-medicating—drugs or alcohol—to manage migraines. In all three cases, the survivors spoke about their NFL husbands becoming disoriented or light-sensitive, easily frustrated and quick to anger in ways that did not exist earlier in the relationship. In all three cases, they spoke about bizarre looks on their husbands’ faces when they committed the abuse, from a chillingly peaceful calm to quizzical smiles. Whatever the look, they spoke of being in the presence of someone they “did not recognize.”
I also spoke with Matt Chaney, a former college football player and author of the book Spiral of Denial: Muscle Doping in American Football, about whether he believed there was a causal link between concussions and domestic violencw. He e-mailed me back the following. “I can’t speak as medical authority on any link but as a journalist and academic who’s read and filed tens of thousand documents on football hazards from violence to drugs, and one who’s interviewed a thousand people, along with being a former college player who has knowledge of countless athletes and their relationships, I believe football brain injuries lead many players to violence they wouldn’t otherwise have committed, ranging from domestic cases to random acts.… I think brain injuries, after studying the topic as we all have in recent years, now explains much about the perplexing cases of violence and other irrational behavior among football players I’ve known. And while I thought I abhorred street fighting, before college football, I found myself nearly involved with or nearly instigating such trouble on more than one occasion while I was in full-contact activity, fall and spring practices, banging my head. If I didn’t have headache after a college contact session, I didn’t think I’d done anything.”
This question, of course, has profound implications well beyond the sport. It is about the choice families make whether to let their children play tackle football. It is about the health and safety of women in relationships with NFL players, and whether recognizing warning signs of CTE can create opportunities for intervention before abuse takes place. It is about the degree to which the league’s very violence bears some complicity in their abuse. This is a difficult question, one Roger Goodell is loathe to discuss. That is exactly why we need to keep asking it.
Edinburgh—On Thursday night this old grimy stone city felt like a carnival. The leafy streets of Morningside kept their counsel behind drawn curtains, but in the working-class “schemes”—as the Scots call their public housing—of Leith and in the tattered, fly-posted area around George Square there were bright blue balloons and painted faces and Yes buttons in blue (Nationalist), red (Radical Independence Campaign), pink (LGBT supporters) and green (Greens). Knots of excited young people caromed through the Grassmarket while high up the hill, under the brow of the Castle, someone had hung a washing line with three white shirts bearing the letters Y, E and S next to a sheet urging “Vote With Clean Pants”—a puzzling message until I realized the reference was to underwear (and the need to maintain intestinal fortitude). Or as one of the swarm of visiting Catalans, here for a taste of the debate the Spanish government has so far refused to allow, might put it: Coratge!
By Friday morning, when Alex Salmond’s government had scheduled a post-referendum rally outside the Scottish Parliament, the birth of a nation had become a wake, attended only by an Indian television crew and a few sodden tourists. Edinburgh rejected independence by a wide margin—61 percent to 39 percent—but either the dreich (local weather somewhere between rain and fog) or good manners had kept the No camp indoors. In the end only four of the country’s thirty-rwo councils voted Yes. Overall the vote split 55/45 against independence and in favor of…. what?
The final two weeks of the campaign had seen Yes supporters subject to a continuous barrage of threats. There would be a run on the banks, a collapse in house prices (and the pound), employers and jobs would leave the country, while prices on everything from petrol to peanut butter would skyrocket. The former head of the army, Gen. Sir Richard Dannatt, even wrote an article in the Sunday Telegraph saying a Yes vote would be letting down the families of soldiers who died in British uniforms. It was an ugly tactic, but it worked.
“Just too risky,” said Tim, a singer-songwriter from Elgin who came up from London to vote. “Can’t take the chance,” said a woman I met under a bus shelter in Cowgate. “My heart said Yes but my head said No, and I voted with my head,” the twentysomething desk clerk of my hotel told me.
Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s pledge, signed by all three pro-union party leaders, that a No vote would trigger a tight timetable for new legislation granting Scotland expansive new powers over taxes and welfare spending—the same “devo-max” option an overconfident David Cameron had ruled off the ballot—also probably helped. Yet it is Cameron who benefits the most from Friday’s result.
He has to keep his promise, of course. But his remark on Friday that it was also only fair that in future “English legislators should vote on English laws” put the so-called “West Lothian question”—a poison pill for the Labour party—firmly on the agenda. At the moment MPs from Scottish and Welsh constituencies vote on all laws passed at Westminster, even when—as in the case of charging tuition fees at English universities—their own constituents aren’t affected. One way to change this would be for England to have its own devolved legislature, like the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly. There are plenty of Tories who favor such an approach—which also happens to be the policy of the far-right UK Independence Party—though some object to the cost of an extra layer of government. Ed Miliband, knowing that Labour would likely be a permanent minority in such a body, has never been enthusiastic.
But the alternative, which is for non-English MPs to abstain from votes on English matters, is even messier. Under such an arrangement if Labour win the next election it might still lose its majority every time Scots and Welsh MPs have to abstain. And since England has 84 percent of the UK’s population, and an even greater share of the economy—and the bureaucracy—such abstentions could be frequent enough to paralyse any Labour administration. Miliband’s call on Friday for a “Constitutional Convention” after the next election to consider changes outside Scotland was an attempt to decouple the promise made to Scots from the far more contentious question of how to rebalance British democracy. But it was also an attempt to stall for time.
The referendum result may have settled the question of Scottish independence—at least, as an optimistic writer I know put it, for a wee while. The cost of winning it, however, was to release forces that, though they may not mean the end of the United Kingdom, have exposed the ramshackle nature of the whole country’s constitutional arrangements.
Which comes as some consolation to Yes campaigners otherwise too stunned by sorrow to think about the road ahead. “We’ve forced constitutional change for the whole of the UK,” Brian, who described himself as a “gutted” Yes voter, told me over breakfast on Friday.
Within hours of the votes being counted Alex Salmond announced his resignation. So is that the end of the story? Wandering back from the Parliament on Friday, I found myself standing outside the Scottish Storytelling Center, a sleek modern building down the street from the statue of Adam Smith. Carved into the stone façade is a quote, attributed to the writer Alasdair Gray: “Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.”
Inside I asked Donald Smith, the center’s director, what he thought the next chapter might be. Smith, a Yes voter whose own baptism in Scottish politics came in the failed 1979 referendum on devolution, said he was “disappointed, but not surprised” by the result. “This isn’t going to go away because of the balance of the vote at this juncture,” he said. “Now we’ll see what the Westminster system will deliver. Meanwhile the cultural, social and political work goes on.” Or as somebody else once said, “Don’t mourn. Organize.”
Read Next: Andrew Ross explains why the UK lives—for now.
Every good movement needs its music. This weekend, in New York City and around the world, environmental activists are making their voices heard days before President Obama and world leaders attend a Climate Summit at the United Nations. This playlist is presented in tribute. The list is highly debatable—songs about ecology, nature and the environment cut across musical genres and generations—and the category is a bit reductive, if not trite. But there’s nothing trite about the people in the streets this weekend. These songs are for them.
1. Marvin Gaye, Mercy Mercy Me
2. Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi
3. Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, This Land is Your Land
4. John Prine, Paradise (Muhlenberg County)
5. Mos Def, New World Water
6. Malvina Reynolds, What Have They Done to the Rain?
7. Ziggy Marley, Dragonfly
8. Eliza Gilkyson, Before the Deluge
9. REM, Fall on Me
10. Lou Reed, Last Great American Whale
Bonus Track: Stevie Ray Vaughan, Texas Flood
Ken Burns’s fourteen-hour series The Roosevelts is giving a big ratings boost to PBS. And even with George Will rather gently criticizing FDR, the show makes a persuasive argument for more government involvement in the lives of the nation’s citizens.
But PBS is not so sympathetic to New Deal policies that it would ever welcome the hatred of malefactors of great wealth. In fact, it has often caved to the wishes of rich conservatives, most notoriously when it pulled Citizen Koch, a public television documentary that took on the Koch brothers. David Koch sits on the board and helps fund PBS flagship station WGBH in Boston; last year, he noisily resigned from another flagship, WNET in New York, after a different Koch documentary squeaked through and aired.
In her fascinating piece, “PBS Self-Destructs: And what it means for viewers like you” in this month’s Harper’s (subscription required), Eugenia Williamson finds that PBS has been kowtowing to the right and the powers that be long before Nixon or Newt tried to defund it, or David Koch silenced it by funding it:
In the end, though, it doesn’t matter that the Republicans couldn’t defund PBS—they didn’t really need to. Twenty years on, the liberal bias they bemoaned has evaporated, if it ever existed to begin with. Today, the only special-interest group the network clearly favors is the aging upper class: their tastes, their pet agendas, their centrist politics. This should surprise nobody who has taken a long, hard look at PBS’s institutional history. Yes, it’s tempting to view the last couple of decades as a discrete epoch of decline, with the network increasingly menaced by a cartoonish G.O.P. hit squad, helmed by Newt Gingrich as Snidely Whiplash. But the present state of PBS was almost an inevitability, the result of structural deficiencies and ideological conflicts built in from the very start.
Much of it started with LBJ, who signed the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) into being, but then punted:
Yet this spirit-enriching initiative hit some immediate procedural potholes. Johnson, responsible for choosing the corporation’s board members, neglected his task for months. Ostensibly this was due to some unfortunate developments in Vietnam—indeed, it was the height of the Tet Offensive. But John W. Macy Jr., whom Johnson appointed as CPB president, suspected other reasons for LBJ’s dithering. “The media and the academic community had increased the volume of their protest against the conduct of the war,” he wrote. “Would this extension of the media with federal backing add new sights and sounds of opposition?”
As it happened, it did.
Williamson follows up on the Citizen Koch incident with the grassroots climate-change group Forecast the Facts, which unsuccessfully tried to expel David Koch from the WGBH board:
Refusing to give up, they started a social-media campaign, chipping away at WGBH’s Facebook rating. They rented a billboard directly across from the WGBH complex in Boston to denounce David Koch, and projected KOCH FREE on various Boston landmark buildings. When the station hosted a climate-change panel in March, Forecast the Facts submitted questions about Koch’s presence on the board; a video of the event shows WGBH’s frantic efforts to keep the scientists from answering.
Then came the PBS annual meeting in May. The organization sent several operatives to try to deliver another 300,000 signatures at a WGBH breakfast. Southard was confident that such an enormous number would finally force the station’s hand. “They’d be ignoring the people who’d signed the petition,” she said. “PBS has a sterling reputation, and that should be important to them.”
But when [Forecast the Facts campaign director Brant] Olson got up onstage to deliver the signatures, wave a banner, and yell into the microphone, the sound was immediately cut. Security chased him down and handcuffed him, even as a PBS staffer held up a notebook to block any photography.
Read Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel on how we’ve been fighting to get money out of politics since FDR
On Tuesday, San Francisco became the first US city to go on record in opposition to bans on sex-selective abortion, when its board of supervisors approved a measure urging the state legislature not to pass such a law. The measure also “calls upon other cities, states and the federal government to likewise reject these discriminatory measures.”
Critics say sex-selective abortion bans, which have passed in eight states and been introduced in twenty-one states and Congress in recent years, are a solution in search of a problem—that they rely on unfounded assumptions that Asian-American families have a preference for boys and so will disproportionately choose to terminate pregnancies that will result in the birth of a girl. In reality, these bans—like those on laws dictating the amount of time a woman must wait before she can obtain an abortion, and other sneaky attempts to chip away at access—are yet another effort to undo Roe.
San Francisco Supervisor David Chiu introduced the proposal and said Tuesday that his efforts were supported by a coalition of two dozen organizations from around the country, including the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum. Shivana Jorawar directs the reproductive justice program at NAPAWF and hailed the proposal’s approval as a victory.
“For women in my community, it gives us an opportunity to talk about this issue on our own terms and to say that we are the ones who know what’s best for us and our own families,” Jorawar said via e-mail. “It helps us have a conversation that exposes these deceptive abortion bans to lawmakers across the country and shows them that when this crosses their desk, they need to see it for what it really is and vote ‘no.’”
This summer, Jorawar’s organization was involved in the release of a report on these bans, which found:
Immigrant communities in the United States are not disproportionately terminating pregnancies based on expected gender. According to the report, “The key empirical support for sex-selective abortion bans in the United States comes from a study of census data that is now almost 15 years old… In analyzing more recent data from the 2007 to 2011 American Community Survey (ACS), we found that the sex ratios at birth of foreign-born Chinese, Indians and Koreans are not male-biased when all their births are taken into account. In fact, foreign-born Chinese, Indians and Koreans have proportionally more girls than white Americans.” The report argues that sex-selective abortion bans don’t take into account other ways families can select the sex of a child, such as preconception and preimplantation techniques.
Where these bans have gone into effect, there’s been no change in sex ratios. According to the report, “Two states passed laws banning sex-selective abortion over 15 years ago: Illinois in 1984 and Pennsylvania in 1989… Our empirical analysis of sex ratios at birth five years before and after sex selective abortion bans were enacted in Illinois and Pennsylvania indicates that the bans were not associated with changes in sex ratios at birth.”
Legislators who support these bans often talk about rampant gender preference within Asian immigrant communities and practices in these communities’ countries of origin. But some European countries rank higher in terms of abnormal sex ratios. According to the report, “Thirteen countries have sex ratios at birth that are skewed in favor of males above the standard range. Six of these countries with higher than normal sex ratios at birth are in Europe… The countries with the highest male-biased sex ratios in the world are Liechtenstein and Armenia. Both countries have higher sex ratios than India and China.”
So if this is a really a conversation better suited for the international reproductive health community, why is San Francisco weighing in? A Republican legislator introduced a ban on sex-selective abortion in California’s assembly earlier this year that never made it out of committee. Despite the lack of political urgency in the city or state, Chiu’s proposal was approved without much debate Tuesday. More than one supporter argued during public comment that the enforcement of such bans rely on “racial profiling in the doctor’s office,” where a health provider might become suspicious of the motives behind a patient’s decision. The proposal did cause some controversy on the San Francisco Chronicle’s op-ed pages. That’s where columnist Debra J. Saunders advanced the kind of rhetoric used by the bans’ proponents, who expect that some observers will view these laws as fighting anti-girl bias and thus inherently feminist.
Jorawar says she expects to see a new wave of bans introduced in state legislatures after the midterm elections and points out that conservative strategist Ralph Reed has been reported as urging anti-choice candidates to talk about the prevalence of sex-selective abortion.
“This is not going away any time soon,” she said via email. Perhaps the organizing behind the introduction and approval of the San Francisco proposal sets a precedent for how to push back.