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Ilyse Hogue | The Nation

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Ilyse Hogue

Ilyse Hogue

Good politics through strong collaborative movements, reproductive freedom and justice for all.

Lessons in Disloyalty: Eduardo Saverin and the Facebook IPO


A flag announcing the IPO of Facebook flies next to the American flag outside the offices of J.P. Morgan in New York City, New York, May 4, 2012. REUTERS/Lee Celano

When it was revealed last week that Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin renounced his US citizenship, even notorious bad-boy billionaire Mark Cuban took to Twitter to express his disgust. The move allows the 30-year old Saverin to avoid paying a significant chunk of the taxes he will owe on the windfall coming his way with the impending Facebook IPO. In making this decision, the Brazilian native did more than expose his blind disregard for all that his adopted country has done for him. He has made himself the poster child for the callous class of 1 percenters who are all too happy to use national resources to enrich themselves, and then skate, or cry foul, when asked to pay their fair share. The story evokes the image of the marauding aliens from the movie Independence Day, who come to Earth to take what they can get before moving on to another planet.

Saverin, who stands to make billions from his 4 percent share in Facebook, hastily moved here at the age of 13 when his name turned up on a list of potential kidnap victims targeted by criminal gangs in Brazil. His father was a wealthy businessman, with a high profile in their home country, and so his family relocated to Miami to protect the youngster. Eduardo thrived in his new country, eventually attending Harvard University, where he had a stroke of life-changing luck when he was assigned future Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg as a roommate. Their subsequent struggle over the company has been immortalized in the blockbuster Academy Award–winning film, The Social Network, which portrayed Eduardo as an outsider within the close-knit circle of friends, who eventually only won his stake in the company through a lawsuit based on an early investment in the company.

Writer Farhad Manjoo does an excellent job at pandodaily identifying all the ways that young Eduardo’s years in the United States played a role in the financial bonanza he’s about to experience. Starting with the obvious protection from kidnapping that wealthy people generally enjoy here in the United States all the way through the reasonably functional US court system that awarded him the shares that are about to make him a billionarie, this country played a critical role in this young man’s life. In return, Saverin has decided to relocate to Singapore, where he’ll pay no capital gains taxes on any Facebook shares he sells in the future. In fact, he’ll only pay an “exit tax,” which will be determined by his own team’s estimated value of his net worth at the time he renounced his citizenship. This little move could cost the US Treasury as much as $600 million dollars. That’s a novel way to thank your adopted country.

Saverin exemplifies the spoiled 1 percenter who erodes the fabric of the country that afforded such opportunity by not paying back the investment America made in him. His decisions are a slap in the face of every person who recognizes that, to be a place that can facilitate the birth of new innovations like Facebook, the United States needs resources. Doubt that? Remember what government funded the research that created the Internet and the web? Harvard University, where the Facebook plot was hatched, took in almost $700 million in federal grant support for tuition and research last year alone. But Saverin’s decision is even more insulting to the millions of his less wealthy fellow immigrants who work hard to gain the privilege of giving back to the country that affords them opportunity to pursue their dreams in relative safety. Not to mention the DREAMers who offer to fight and possibly die for the country that they yearn to make their own.

Saverin aside, immigrants add an enormous amount to our economy every year. Despite right-wing rhetoric, even undocumented workers pay plenty of taxes too, including not only sales taxes but often payroll taxes. A study from the Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy showed that undocumented immigrants paid over $11.2 billion in taxes in 2010, including income, property and sales taxes. Immigrants are also disproportionately entrepreneurial. A long-term study in 2008 showed that immigrants are almost 30 percent more likely to launch a small business than their non-immigrant counter parts. Their aggregate total contribution to the business income of the US economy is over 10 percent. In some places like Long Island, they account for upwards of 16 percent of small-business profits. Most of these immigrants see paying taxes and generating income as an opportunity to reinvest in the country that extended a hand to them and their families. Not so Saverin.

This week we’re going to be overrun with stories about the Facebook IPO and the instant billionaires that it creates. It is the kind of economic fairy tale we love to pore over, with the enigmatic Zuckerberg ready to pay over $1 billion in taxes while asking the board to slash his salary to $1 annually. In the midst of this, Saverin’s craven selfishness will help us rethink not only enforcement of our tax code but also how we recognize and define loyalty and patriotism for all of us, immigrant and native-born, who call America home.

An Unlikely Coalition in New York Pushes Cuomo on Public Finance

“We must reconnect the people to the political process and their government.… Let’s pass campaign finance reform and let’s do it this year.”

 

These words, uttered by Governor Andrew Cuomo at his State of the State address in January, could have been discounted as a rhetorical nod to a base issue by a Democratic governor a year into his four-year term. That’s the risk of a system where money in politics feels as pervasive as sand on the beach: its ubiquity creates a dangerous inertia that prevents citizens from seizing real opportunities for change. But thanks to a coalition of New Yorkers dedicated to elevating and actualizing Governor Cuomo’s pledge, this year could not only rewrite the rules in New York but also change the risk calculation on engagement for the entire country.

As the Supreme Court has chipped away at the protections in McCain-Feingold (a k a the Bi-Partisan Campaign Reform Act) and Citizens United has opened the flood gates to corporate money in the political system, the collective frustration has risen to an astonishing 83 percent of Americans who believe that there’s too much money in politics. But despite the rare across-the-board consensus, federal policy solutions have been at a standstill. The vicious cycle that gives rise to big-money candidates has produced overwhelmingly negative incentives to stepping out on government accountability. That gives wealthy and corporate interests a virtual lock on the status quo.

New York’s public finance legislation, if it comes to a vote in June, could be the beginning of the end of that dynamic, which is why it’s worth exploring the key elements that make this issue viable again.

First off, the people: grassroots groups in New York have joined with two key constituencies to force a new equation on legislators—high donors and business interests. On the forefront is the New York Leadership for Accountable Government (NY LEAD), a coalition of philanthropic luminaries and high-dollar contributors. With marquee names like media-mogul Barry Diller and Facebook founder Chris Hughes as the face of the effort, this is the first credible wedge of political donors on the issue of campaign finance reform. NY LEAD brings much-needed resources to the fight, but its real value is in breaking the psychological paralysis of politicians convinced that action equals electoral death. Real money backing reform candidates forces a new position on the issue.

Similarly, the early endorsement of the Committee on Economic Development (CED) was a key win for the fledgling campaign. The CED is a policy think tank backed by senior executives at a number of Fortune 500 companies. The group is actively encouraging business leaders to join the coalition, proactively blunting the hollow cries of the right that an accountable government is anathema to business interests.

The ground troops include MoveOn.org, Public Campaign, New York Citizen Action and some of the state labor unions. An organizer I spoke with said that’s been the key to getting traction on the ground—an unprecedented partnership between good-government groups and constituency-backed organizations. Together, they are singularly focused on getting their elected officials on the needs of New Yorkers over the needs of their campaign coffers. Theirs is a high-risk, high-reward strategy: double down on the systemic overhaul and getting other vital issues addressed will be vastly easier.

One of our best hopes to nationalize this effort is the presence of progressive hero and reform champion Senator Russ Feingold, who is engaged individually and through his new group Progressives United. Senator Feingold’s strict adherence to his principles in 2010 by not allowing outside money in his race may have cost him an election, but it won him the undying gratitude of a movement starved for leaders. He laid out the opportunity at hand in New York Daily News op-ed last week.

If played well, the New York campaign offers three huge advantages to the 83 percent of Americans desiring more democratic elections.

Modeling of solutions. A successful campaign needs a proof of concept to garner resources and interest. If the public funding legislation passes in New York, we’ll have a legislative blueprint in place for the rest of the country. A victory in New York also begins dismantling psychological and cultural obstacles to action nationwide. New York ranks among the loosest states in the nation when it comes to campaign finance laws. Individual donors can give more than $60,000 to candidates in state-wide races. That’s more than twelve times the median cap of $5,000 by other states with limits! In 2011, just 127 individuals gave more than a third of all money collected by in state candidates and political parties. New York is awash in money, and Albany has sometimes made Washington look like a paragon of virtue. Successfully implementing a democratic election program in New York would effectively topple the excuse for not doing so anywhere else in the country.

State strategies. The effort in New York is part of a growing trend of savvy progressives treating state and local fights as part of our overall battlefield. With the federal Congress at a virtual standstill and confidence in their ability to move legislation at an all-time low, litigating this issue at the state level is not only a smart way to move towards a more democratic system, it may be the only way for now. The right wing has been adept at exploiting this tactic: look at how the Mississippi personhood initiative or the Alabama hate laws have catapulted fringe positions to the national spotlight. Because the desire to end pay-to-play politics is as mainstream as those are marginal, advances in New York could spread virally to other states and force federal movement more quickly.

National momentum. One of the toughest challenges to mounting a real campaign around money in politics is a common sense of futility about the closed-loop relationship between large donors and elected officials. Inertia is the enemy of reform, but a visible campaign in New York will provide new hope and opportunities for engagement. The campaign builds on the fall success of Occupy Wall Street that both revved up a dispirited electorate and irretrievably linked economic inequality to political inequality. Citizens United made the corporate co-option of our democracy impossible to ignore, and frustration and discontent are a tinderbox waiting to explode. When asked by e-mail why Americans should tune into what’s happening in the Liberty State, Senator Feingold said this: “New York can ignite a movement. A victory there will set a nationwide example for how public financing can combat the corrupting influence of corporate money.” In other words, the next couple months in one state could determine whether there’s sufficient momentum to keep this issue in the spotlight through 2012 and lay the groundwork for a concerted push towards federal reform in 2013.

The stakes are high. In that very same State of the State address, Governor Cuomo noted that New York’s voter turnout in the 2010 midterms was the lowest in the nation. It is possible that as the chief executive of his state, he has realized that his government is on the brink of crisis due to collapse of participation. Or maybe he thinks like many Democratic leaders that the system is so out of whack, he doesn’t stand a chance at re-election without substantial reform. Either way, Cuomo is poised to step into the leadership vacuum and provide a rare glimpse of hope on a mission-critical progressive priority. Let’s all pay attention.

In Search of the Missing Task Force

As someone lucky enough not to have an underwater home, I have had the luxury of not needing to learn the all the gory details of our broken housing finance system—full of undecipherable acronyms and the minutiae of regulation and arcane policy. So, I admit that I have only loosely been following the situation since the $25 billion fraud settlement between the big banks and the state attorney generals was announced.

But my curiosity was piqued again this week when I got an e-mail from CREDO Action protesting new information that the task force established to investigate what went wrong never received the staff that it was promised. And while the source of the hold up is unclear as is exactly how many staffers have been assigned, what is becoming clear is that even the promised fifty-five investigators would be ill-equipped to achieve its goals. That news got me wondering where things stand more generally with task force, lauded by progressives and homeowners alike when it was announced back in January.

In a recent NPR interview, William Black—the former litigation director for the Federal Home Loan Bank Board—pointed out that a hundred investigators were employed to get to the bottom of the Enron scandal ten years ago. That was a single company, and now we’re talking about delving into multiple business sectors to determine accountability and criminal wrongdoing in this crisis. For a more apples-to-apples comparison, the thousand-strong force investigating the Savings and Loans crisis in the 1980s returned a thousand felony convictions. The economic impact of the mortgage crisis is estimated to be forty times worse than the S&L debacle, and yet this under-staffed investigation has only been able to uncover enough evidence for ten convictions.

CREDO’s petition asking President Obama to staff up the task force well beyond the original promise has already yielded over 100,000 signers and over 1,100 calls to Obama For America headquarters, and I’m told CREDO has not even contacted all their members yet. This level of engagement is an indication that others like me who tune back in to find expectations unmet will have a strong response. Notably, a response that has the potential to trump queasiness progressives have about criticizing a Democratic president in an election year. But also a responding audience that clearly wants to use the instruments at hand to create a win for all involved.

One unintended consequence of the establishment of the task force is that many Americans felt like they could rest easy that justice was underway. Part of this feeling stemmed from the clear engagement of President Obama in his State of the Union address and part stemmed from the reputation of strength and integrity of the chair of the body, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. Given the massive entrenched interests of the banks and the hyper-partisan political landscape, though, it appears that allies in government will need a strong outside consituency to make progress on this issue. Not doing so would be a huge missed opportunity for our economy and millions of Americans still waiting for relief.

The Campaign for Fair Settlement, of which CREDO is a part, was formed to do just that—keep pressure on the various enforcement mechanisms for resolution and to make sure this issue doesn’t fade from view. The loose coalition is showing signs of ramping up activities in the coming weeks, including planned direct actions at bank shareholder meetings. It appears that the CREDO petition was just a shot across the bow.

The reasons for acting with speed and strength are clear and compelling:

1. The Moral Imperative: Americans are sick of seeing bankers go free while they foot the bill. The underwater mortgage holders are the living example of a values system out of whack. They live in limbo, or worse, while the banks that partnered with them on these mortgages and then forged documents to illegally foreclose get bailed out with homeowners’ tax money and let off with a small fine. And justice is an hourglass with the sand running out. The statute of limitations on most of these cases is up soon, so swift action is required if criminal penalties are forthcoming. Claims that the taskforce is itself running out the clock will certainly have more resonance as time goes on.

2. The Economic Imperative: Unresolved mortgages are a huge drag on economic recovery. The International Monetary Fund, hardly a bastion of progressive economic policy, just released a report demonstrating the positive economic benefits of mortgage write-downs. Simply put, when American homeowners are not trapped in debt, they buy more things from American businesses, who then hire more American workers. In the 1930’s the Roosevelt Administration faced a similar crisis. It formed the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation (HOLC) to buy distressed mortgages from banks and then worked with homeowners to prevent default and eviction. The report cites this move as contributing to getting the economy back on track, not to mention keeping people in their homes. In the end, the HOLC even turned a profit. We still have time to learn from the successful models of history. If even just Fannie and Freddie committed to real principal reduction, some experts say this would be enough to tip the entire housing market towards recovery and have a positive domino effect on the economy at large.

3. The Political Imperative: If none of those reasons are enough, a glance at the politics of the situation should motivate even the most hard-hearted political operative to action. As Mike Lux put it in his excellent Daily Kos piece last week, there are 11 million underwater homeowners. This is an important constituency in a close election. Many of these folks were already among the swing voters hungrily pursued by each campaign, and if they were not before, they are now mad as hell and looking for some answers from their elected officials. If the situation remains stagnant, some of these homeowners will certainly vote for the other guy, desperately hoping for anything but the status quo. Some disillusioned Democrats may just not vote. Add to this the clear signs that the base is deeply invested this issue, and you can see how effective action could be a political game changer.

It’s not accurate to say that nothing has happened. Right after the task force was formed, Eric Schneidermann unleashed a flurry of subpoenas, and shortly thereafter, the small initial settlement was announced. Last month, I attended a press conference on the Hill as a representative for Rebuild The Dream, on whose board I serve. The event brought together advocacy groups and members of Congress to ask that Ed DeMarco be removed as head of FHFA, where he continues to block settlements and write downs for mortgages held by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The administration has not moved to replace him, but has shown signs of pressuring DeMarco to take action. This is good and should be lauded.

Actions to date still fall short of the huge opportunity to do right by homeowners, help the economy and win the hearts and minds of a depressed electorate in a critical year. Many Americans felt like the formation of the task force was a genuine beginning of a new era of much-needed accountability in this country, not a one-off gesture to quell frustration. I believe that there are people inside the administration and the task force that really want to fight this fight. Let’s hope that the Campaign for a Fair Settlement gives them the fire they need to make the task force’s investigation, and principal reduction, the priority it should be. The political and economic alternative is unacceptable.

Why Bill Maher Is Wrong About Rush Limbaugh

Bill Maher spent a significant portion of last Friday’s Real Time defending Rush Limbaugh. Well, not defending the man, whom he calls repulsive. And not defending Rush’s statements over the last few weeks, which he vehemently objected to on both political and rhetorical grounds. But Maher defended Rush’s right to say those things, invoking free speech and the ACLU, and in the process missed the point completely.

Maher proclaimed that efforts to pressure Rush Limbaugh’s sponsors amounted to an illegitimate attack on his freedom of speech, and that the advertiser campaign is an example of “the system being manipulated.”

 

Unsurprisingly, the right-wing press wasted no time in broadcasting triumphantly that even lefty pundits recognized that the real victim here was Rush.

Let’s get this clear: Rush is not a martyr for the cause of free speech. Nor have his First Amendment rights been violated in any way since the day he chose to call a Georgetown law student a “slut” for arguing that contraception should be covered by health insurance. For starters, violating Rush’s First Amendment rights would require state action. Rush has not been jailed for his views, nor has anyone even whispered a suggestion to that effect. There have been no calls for his radio transmitter to be jammed. No one is even demanding he be fined, which might be possible under the FCC’s arcane and arbitrary decency laws.

Instead, what his critics are doing is exercising one of their own fundamental American rights, their right as consumers to frequent the businesses they choose. This is not actually a constitutional right, but for Americans who may feel their right to vote doesn’t amount to much, our right to spend our money as we see fit affords us some additional measure of self-determination.

In the modern world of consumer defined identity, we use this power of the pocketbook for far more than satisfying visceral needs. Our shopping preferences have become clear signifiers of our values and our character. Any Branding 101 class teaches that values alignment is a key driver of consumer loyalty. Many companies have spent millions of dollars winning and retaining customers through value-based brand strategies. Shop at Whole Foods? Might as well scream “I care about the Earth!” (Or just carry your recycled Whole Foods shopping bag to scream it for you.) Apple user? Obviously hip, tech-savvy and cutting edge. Munching on some Newman’s Own cereal? Clearly someone who cares about philanthropy and your health. It’s a perfectly reasonable way to build a customer base. But it makes these companies responsible for upholding their end of the bargain.

In response to Rush’s ranting, no one has called for our government censorship. People have merely vocalized their desire not to be associated with companies that associate with Rush. Those associations risk reflecting on our values, which—in this case—so drastically diverge from his that we care enough to change our choices over it. There are no issues of law or free speech here. This is simply the marketplace doing its thing, shaping both our commerce and our culture by reflecting shared agreement on conduct and conscience.

By conflating this economic feedback loop with Rush’s right to free speech, Bill Maher played into a right-wing canard, misinterpreted the protections guaranteed by the First Amendment, and did himself and his viewers a disservice. In order to uphold the First Amendment, which is very important, it helps to know what it means. It does mean that Rush should not be censored for his views by the government apparatus. His opinions should not be criminalized, nor should his business be shut down by an arbitrary panel of judges empowered by the State. But nowhere in the Constitution is Rush, or anyone else, guaranteed the right to be shielded from popular outrage if he chooses to engage in hate speech, misogyny or slander. Advertisers who exercise their preference to support Rush do not have a right to retain customers angered by this decision. Above all, Rush is not guaranteed an enshrined right for the private sector to pay him for his outrageous behavior even if it costs them customers. His hate cannot and should not be forcibly subsidized.

Advertiser campaigns are hard to run and hard to win. I wrote about this when Lowe’s dropped the show All American Muslim. Companies weigh vocal customer concern against the backlash of a decision that could be perceived as political. At the end of the day, successfully attracting the attention of a business and changing their position on an ad buy carries a high threshold for action. Rush Limbaugh’s three-day tirade against an innocent woman expressing her own political views met and surpassed that threshold. His language made business leaders uncomfortable and supporting him risked their market share. That’s why the show has lost forty-six advertisers.

These kinds of consumer campaigns have become the embodiment of democratic principles in a country where consumer choices matter and the government is more and more influenced by corporations, rather than the other way around. The power of the pocketbook has the wonderful potential to crowd-source our cultural norms. The last two weeks have shown just how far outside of our cultural norms Rush resides.

That does not mean he should shut up. He should keep on speaking his beliefs. The First Amendment guarantees him the right to say whatever he likes. It does not guarantee him the right to be paid to say it. And the sooner Bill Maher and others get this right, the stronger our democracy will be.

An Open Letter to Chellie Pingree on International Women's Day

Representative Pingree,

Your announcement yesterday that you will not seek the open Senate seat in Maine made my heart sink. My emotional reaction to your well-reasoned decision surprised me. After all, as someone who has operated in the political arena for quite a while now, I’m accustomed to the pragmatic decisions and political calculations that are the bread and butter of incremental progress. Still, there are moments where outrageous circumstances should trump reasonable decision making, and recent events in the world of US women have been outrageous enough to warrant one of those moments.

The reasons for your decision are apparent and undeniable: early polling shows a nearly impossible pathway to victory in a three-way race; former governor and independent candidate Angus King has established himself as the presumed front-runner and your constituencies overlap; absent one of you dropping out, the race will likely be won by the Republican candidate. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee lauded your decision as the right one for the people of Maine and progressive causes, since neither will benefit from adding another Conservative Republican to the Senate. I am quite certain that party operatives and others are lining up to thank you for “taking one for the team.” But, me? I just wonder when it will be someone else’s turn to step aside for our team.

The number of women representing Americans fell in 112th Congress for the first time in thirty years. In the November 2010 elections, women went from ninety-three seats in the House and the Senate to ninety combined, making the overall percentage of women leadership at the federal level just under 17 percent. That numbers qualifies the United States for a spot at seventy-third place in the world for female representation in government leadership. We are tied with Turkmenistan.

Your announcement comes on the heels of a week dominated by Rush Limbaugh’s series of tirades against Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke. Rush has lost close to forty-six advertisers for his rant calling Ms. Fluke a slut for testifying about the need for contraception to be included in healthcare. Yet, the comments from Republican leadership have been milquetoast at best, with majority leader John Boehner seeming to blame both sides equally. Representative Darrell Issa blamed the Democrats for the tone of the contraception debate.

Just before “slut week,” the Senate debated a measure introduced by Missouri Senator Roy Blunt, who believes decisions about contraception coverage should be left to a woman’s employer. In fact, Blunt’s amendment would have allowed employers to withhold payment for other types of health service if the treatment conflicts with their conscience. In the world of the GOP, healthcare should not be between a woman and her doctor but between a woman and her employer, with her employer having final say. The amendment was barely defeated, with three Democrats breaking party to lines to narrow the margin.

This is the same body that in November of 2010 voted against the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would have ensured fair pay for women. According to the US Bureau of Labor 2011 Statistics, women earned almost 18 percent less than men last year for a week of full time work. This wage gap has proven disastrous for women on the economic edge in America. Despite the economy showing marginal signs of improvement, more and more women are living in poverty. According to the 2010 Census, four million more women than men face poverty in the United States. Mothers get special punishment in this economy. 34 percent of families with a single mother as head of household are poor and 17 percent live in deep poverty. The same is only true of 17.3 percent of families headed by a single father, with only 8 percent living in deep poverty.

This disparity isn’t only present at the bottom end of the economic spectrum either. In a culture that places a premium on innovation, male-founded startups receive venture capital funding by a margin of four to one over women-founded startups. Women-led companies are twice as likely to get debt capital versus equity capital, requiring that women shoulder more of the risk on their own. These facts are true in spite of research that shows that gender diversity within senior ranks of organizations translates into financial value, especially where innovation is part of the equation.

The issues outlined above have been marginalized as “women’s issues,” despite the fact that they are issues of family, issues of economic competitiveness and issues of national public health. But as Senator Bernie Sanders tweeted after the Blunt Amendment vote: "If the Senate was 83 women and 17 men instead of the other way around, #BluntAmendment would never have made it to the Senate floor."

I hope you understand, Representative Pingree, I respect your choice. It is you who must bear the burden of running—and potentially losing—on your professional future, on your family life, and on your personal health and psyche. You have earned, and will get, my support no matter what path you choose.

But I could not let your decision become a footnote of history without registering protest. As a champion of all of the issues above and of equality for all Americans, you should not have to step aside in this critical year. Since women’s destinies are inextricably tied to the nation’s destiny, we cannot move into a new era of peace and prosperity without addressing them. Yet, forcing these issues out of the women’s ghetto into the light of priority evidently requires more female leadership, which means that maybe it is someone else’s turn to step aside. 

In Defense Of 'The Help'


IMAGE COURTESY: © 2011 DREAMWORKS II DISTRIBUTION CO, LLC

Standing at the center of a circle of women, a housekeeper tells of finally fixing herself a meal after working seven straight hours, only to have the mistress of the house storm into the kitchen and throw the pan of food into the sink, banning “that ethnic food” from her home. Next up, a nanny recounts the most recent day when after working eleven hours straight, her employers requested that she stay late into the night to care for the children. Unable to jeopardize her job, she stayed, going one more night without seeing her own children. The other women in the circle nod in weary recognition and, in turn, tell their own stories.

These are not scenes from the popular and controversial movie, The Help. These are twenty-first-century experiences being shared at the Los Angeles gathering of the National Domestic Worker’s Alliance (NDWA) this past weekend. The women present call themselves “the real-life help,” and the meeting was held in conjunction with the Oscars to remind Americans enamored with the Hollywood vision of civil rights era maids asserting their dignity that things have not changed as much as we might think.

Linking their campaign to the Oscar buzz of The Help is a savvy move for one of the only organizations dedicated to protecting the rights of our country’s 2.5 million domestic workers. In doing so, NDWA is trying to jump start a conversation about an insidious and largely invisible problem in our culture. They are having some success. NDWA co-founder and director Ai-Jen Poo recently spoke on a widely reviewed panel at USC on the power of film to create social change with writer and director of The Help, Tate Taylor. Students, professors, and press were introduced to the idea that this work of fiction has disturbingly real life parallels we have yet to confront as a society. In her acceptance of the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress, The Help star Octavia Spencer praised the work of real life domestic workers. And the campaign twitter hashtag #BeTheHelp that launched during the Golden Globe Awards gained traction during last night’s airing of the Oscars.

On the USC panel, Poo explained, “Change has to happen on many levels: on the level of policy, on the level of behavior, but also very importantly on the level of hearts and minds. And what this film did was open up the space and the hearts and minds of this country to actually imagine a day when this work would be respected and valued and protected and that’s just meant so much to the workforce especially as we continue to fight for recognition and protections.”

After spending the weekend with thirty domestic workers, I find it undeniable that the power of the movie runs far deeper than the tactical campaign connection. The Help offers validation to millions of unseen workers and a way in to the national conversation for women who are struggling to change their working conditions. In facilitated sessions over the two-day gathering, the domestic workers without fail used the movie as a narrative springboard, comparing and contrasting their experiences with those of Minny and Aibileen, who have come to feel like personal friends to these domestic workers.

 

One of the workers explained to me that she had never seen stories like theirs told before The Help. The simple fact that they now have an acknowledged presence in popular culture has given power and momentum to their organizing for basic legal protections. In response to an NDWA call, thousands of domestic workers turned out to see the movie together on opening night. Afterwards, leaders were able to organize discussions about how to push their own fight forward. First-time attendees, fired up by what they saw in the movie, responded enthusiastically.

Prominent thinkers and writers have blasted the movie for its failure to adhere accurately to the comprehensive experience of domestic workers in the civil rights era. The Nation contributor and MSNBC host Melissa Harris Perry called the movie a Disney-fication of the civil rights struggle. And there is undeniably irony in the fact that the movie’s African-American stars were nominated for Oscars for playing roles so similar to Hattie McDaniel’s Mammy in Gone with the Wind, for which she won 1939’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar. All of these points are critical and worthy of consideration and debate. The more things change, the more they stay the same as my grandfather used to say.

Getting a critical mass of domestic workers together is still no small feat. These women are largely invisible precisely because they are isolated in their own workplaces; there’s no lunchroom to pass out union cards, no company picnic where people can speak to each other in a relaxed setting. Many of these workers are undocumented and all are lacking economic security. This combination leaves them almost completely at the mercy of their employers, setting up the perfect conditions for abuse or neglect.

New York became the first state in 2010 to formally recognize the rights of these women when it passed the first Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. A similar bill is now working its way through the state house in Sacramento. That’s 2.5 million workers in America, and so far only one and a half states offering them any protection. While such advances seem tiny, The Help has provided invaluable assistance to organizing workers and getting momentum for this breakthrough legislation.

Hollywood may have sanitized the past, but it has also given a voice to the present. When Octavia Spencer was awarded the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress last night, our room erupted in cheers and tears. Each domestic worker felt like the victory was their own. In this puzzling cultural conundrum, we find opportunities for change.

As the party was winding down and The Help had lost out both for Best Actress and Best Movie, New York domestic worker Barbara Young put it this way: “This movie put us in the public domain. Many millions of people know about domestic workers right now. Viola may not have won, but she was very positive in telling her story and telling our story. We came here to celebrate this movie, and we did.”

The Evil Brilliance of Komen's Karen Handel


Karen Handel in a Tuesday, August 10, 2010 file photo. (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)

This morning, Karen Handel resigned as the vice president of public policy of the Susan G. Komen foundation. Handel had spent the last week at the epicenter of the controversy around Komen’s decision to withdraw support for Planned Parenthood and several progressive groups were circulating petitions to call for her dismissal. Handel’s very public resignation letter shows a political acumen and sophisticated grasp of cultural narrative that seems to have eluded Komen generally and their CEO, Nancy Brinker, through this entire debacle.

Here’s an excerpt from the beautifully crafted letter:

What was a thoughtful and thoroughly reviewed decision—one that would have indeed enabled Komen to deliver even greater community impact—has unfortunately been turned into something about politics.This is entirely untrue. This development should sadden us all greatly.

Handel, with an expert turn of word, moves to recast the characters in this ongoing saga that is helping to set the stage for a showdown over women’s choice in the 2012 election.

Handel is well-documented as a leader in pushing for Komen defunding of Planned Parenthood. According to internal e-mails obtained by the Huffington Post, Handel was constantly hyping the threat of a right-wing backlash against the breast cancer foundation for their grant to Planned Parenthood, even though—at best—those threats were sporadic and low level. The Komen funding to Planned Parenthood was restricted and could be used only for breast cancer screening in the clinics. Since most women who can afford to do that screening at their private doctor’s office do, this policy by definition disproportionately affects low-income and young women.

Handel won her crusade to score political points and impose her radical ideology on the organization, and certainly Nancy Brinker deserves blame both for allowing this to happen and for lying about it later on Andrea Mitchell’s show on MSNBC, when she claimed that Handel had no part in the decision. What Handel failed to do, despite her obvious PR prowess, was prepare her sponsoring organization to withstand the ensuing maelstrom. Her letter today—both in the content and her choice to release it—shows that helping Komen through this tough time might not have been her first priority.

Handel has a long-established political trajectory. She was the deputy chief of staff for Marilyn Quayle when her husband, Dan, served as vice president under George H.W. Bush, and she became the deputy chief of staff for Georgia Governor Sonny Purdue, after she opportunistically switched parties to run as a Republican in 1998. Handel went on to hold political office herself as Georgia’s secretary of state, where she enacted regressive voter ID laws that inspired lawsuits from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF). She resigned from this post to run for governor of Georgia in 2010 in a bitterly fought contest that earned her endorsements from choice flip-flopper Mitt Romney and the staunchly anti-choice Sarah Palin. She lost to Congressman Nathan Deal, who used her earlier affiliation with the Log Cabin Republicans against her. When he did, she denied ever being a member, a claim that caused PolitiFact to give her a “pants on fire” rating. She then went to Komen, presumably to regroup and plan next steps.

The last paragraph of her letter includes the following line:

While I appreciate your raising a possible severance package, I respectfully decline.

Severance packages routinely come with gag orders—stipulations on what the person leaving the organization can and cannot say about the conditions under which they left. While no one outside of Komen, Handel and their lawyers are privy to the conditions under which this offer was made, if the norm prevails, accepting it would prevent Handel from leveraging her new role as the darling of the culture war crowd. This entire subtext of the letter screams that Handel feels sacrificed at the altar of political correctness, but that she refused to sacrifice her own integrity in the process. In an election year already about bishops and birth control, being a spokesperson for the radical anti-woman, anti-choice, anti-equality movement probably plays more to her political nature than going quietly into the night.

The way that this entire saga unfolded points to the work of a political master. While I have no love lost for the Susan G. Komen foundation, if I were their board, I would be angry and sheepish about having my organization used as a political stepping stone and then left as collateral damage for an ambitious self-serving culture crusader. Make no mistake: we’ve not heard the last of Karen Handel. And when she surfaces to tell her story, people should remember: she’s not the victim, she’s a sophisticated political operator who may have gotten exactly what she wants.

What if 'Citizens United' Actually United the Citizens?


Still from a Newt Gingrich campaign ad attacking Mitt Romney.

After a long, dark period of stagnant progressive momentum and pay-to-play politics, this week saw a flurry of progressive victories that could upset the conventional wisdom about a post–Citizens United world.

This morning’s announcement by Harry Reid that the Senate is postponing the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) vote would have been almost unimaginable as recently as a week ago, when PIPA and its House counterpart, SOPA (the Stop On-line Piracy Act), were considered done deals. Only a handful of disgruntled geeks stood in the way of an industry power grab that would have blessed online censorship and stifled innovation. But the bills’ promoters failed to anticipate the power of “Blackout Wednesday” to popularize the outrage. Suddenly, it wasn’t just geeks. Congress started fielding calls from people unable to sell couches on Craigslist and harried parents of students desperate to consult Wikipedia for school papers. Thus sounded the death knell for the bills.

While the tactical decision to pull down popular sites in protest of these bills were tailored to the Internet blackout bills, the other two major victories this week—the rejection of the massive Keystone oil pipeline and the submission of 1.9 million signatures to recall union-busting Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker—were also made possible by fusing old-school community organizing with innovative netroots strategies.

Going into the week, news was dominated by the proliferation of political ads in early primary states, many of which would have been illegal prior to Citizens United. There is no denying that decision’s impact, on almost every issue: spending legalized by the Citizens United decision was partly responsible for the Walker victory in 2010, and moving forward Citizens United–enabled ads will be full of messages about Obama’s rejection of Keystone. Progressives have continually highlighted the ruling as a low point in a campaign world that comes with a multimillion-dollar entry fee. It’s true that experts warn that the proliferation of ads could result in voter disengagement.

But what if the net result of Citizens United is a realization by progressive groups that financial competition is futile, one that prompts altered strategies that play to progressive strengths? In the two years after the Citizens United decision, we've seen a renewed commitment to deep organizing and innovative rapid response that is threatening corporate-backed electeds and industry-promoted legislation alike.

Take the Internet censorship bills: the smug overreach of these industry-backed bills united both poles of the political spectrum and new media companies in an unprecedented wave of online activism that turned the tide and left both bills gasping for life on the eve of their vote. Google, a leading industry opponent, launched its first ever online petition, a move that netted it a staggering 7 million signatures. Websites as far-ranging as Wikipedia and I Can Haz Cheezburger? went dark on Wednesday to protest the infringement on their rights. Users expecting to laugh at cats instead learned of the imminent threat, and these collective actions popularized the outrage.

The same day, the president announced his decision to comply with a State Department recommendation to reject the Keystone Pipeline. The pipeline—replete with catastrophic climate impacts and powerless to deliver the jobs its promoters promised—was all but signed when a small band of committed climate activists mounted a week of direct action at the White House last summer. As the civil disobedience peaked, groups quickly followed up with sustained organizing of Obama volunteers and donors, who publicly committed to withhold re-election support if the pipeline was approved. In the final tally, there were over 1000 arrests, more than one million petition signatures and public statements flooded the White House, and close to 40,000 calls were made to Congress opposing the pipeline in one day.

And finally, on Tuesday of this week, a Wisconsin effort announced it had submitted over 1 million signatures to recall corporate darling Governor Scott Walker—almost twice times the number required to get the recall on the ballot. The Wisconsin recall effort is a similar story of block-by-block organizing coordinated with savvy online work that solidified new alliances and resulted in close to half of eligible Wisconsin voters asking for the chance to recall the Walker administration. Walker won just over a year ago with 52.3 percent of the vote in the most expensive race in the state’s history. A whopping $37.4 million dollars were spent in that election on television advertising. And yet a committed grassroots operation not only could reverse that decision but has a nervous state government so committed to accountability in the recall proceedings, they are using a webcam to give voters access to every move they make in counting the signatures.

Now, no one is arguing money doesn’t matter and political ads are on their way out. Already, $12 million have been spent on ads in the lead up to the South Carolina primary. That's an estimated 25,000 ads in the span of a few weeks for a state with a total population of 4.5 million. This mirrors the Iowa caucus, where people complained of being hit from every angle with political ads. These primaries follow a 2010 election cycle that tested the new Citizens United ruling allowing unlimited spending by outside parties on behalf of a candidate in political races. The undeniable result of Citizens United has been more ads, by less identifiable players, with a much uglier tone. It should be overturned.

What we do know, though, is that the ads make most Americans crave more limits on election spending. A new CBS poll out yesterday showed majority of Republicans, Democrats and Independents favor limits on how much both how much individuals can give to candidates and how much outside groups can spend on ads. A total of 67 percent of respondents said outside spending should be limited, while less than a third favored the current system. A different poll shows that two-thirds of small-business owners believe the Citizens United decision hurts their interests.

What’s now also coming into focus is that the influx of such huge sums of money has forced smaller groups to re-evaluate their own reliance on a saturated media market to deliver a message, and catalyzed new investment in breakthrough organizing. The popular momentum we saw this week behind such campaigns may well be evidence that instead of disengaging in a post–Citizens United world, voters jump at concrete opportunities to flex their power. While I won't claim a triumph for people-powered movements quite yet, the last week has been a great indicator that frustration is turning to action in ways that could yet prove game-changing.

Author's note: A previous version of this column erroneously stated that the Walker recall effort had 1.9 million signatures to recall the government. This is the total number of signatures collected to recall the Governor, Lt. Governor, and four state senators. The number of signatures to recall Governor Walker was over one million. The above version has been corrected. 

You can access all of The Nation's coverage of Citizens United by clicking here.

Why the Obamas Should Embrace 'The Obamas'

New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor released a new book yesterday about the Obamas titled, appropriately, The Obamas. It’s clear from promotional materials and Kantor’s own interviews that what’s different about this book is its positioning of first lady Michelle Obama as the pivotal character in the unfolding drama of this presidency. In doing so, The Obamas takes a hard look at the adaptations and transitions required when a partnership of equals suddenly becomes a scrutinized hierarchy. Kantor also offers a glimpse into the tensions of a culture that expects our women to achieve as highly as our men but our first ladies to take a back seat to their presidents. The result is a sympathetic portrait of both Obamas that could help to humanize an administration criticized as being aloof and inaccessible.

Political book sales rise and fall on the same sensational rhythms as our political media, so it’s not surprising that the marketing buzz leads with a handful of dramatic anecdotes about friction between the new first couple—especially Michelle—and their staff. Even Kantor’s own chosen excerpt in the Times hypes the most incendiary and oft-repeated story: one where press secretary Robert Gibbs blows up after being admonished by Valerie Jarrett for being slow to respond to a leaked conversation in the French press in which Michelle Obama confides to Carla Bruni-Sarkozy that living in the White House is “hell.”

The result is preliminary reporting full of predictable media Sturm und Drang about unrest and hurt feelings in the East and West wings. In reaction mode, the White House press shop sent Politico’s Mike Allen the requisite push-back memo listing nit-picky inaccuracies in an attempt to undermine the core charge. The list includes quibbles about a particular outfit choice by Michelle Obama and the nationality of a family visiting the White House. (If you enjoy media one-upmanship, here’s Ben Smith from his new perch at Buzzfeed finding the inaccuracies in the White House list of inaccuracies.)

Still, by centralizing the marriage as core to the narrative of the Obama presidency, Kantor is on to something important. Alongside policy concerns, people are hungry to understand the character of the people in charge of our country. Voters don’t expect calmness to prevail in the pressure cooker of politics, and it’s not news to anyone that staffers sometimes lose their tempers or use foul language in the West Wing. But in voters’ never-ending quest to discern the substance and values in a political world littered with gossip and posturing, insight into family relationships provides a critical indicator of integrity, of authenticity, of that intangible quality of character that matters to three of four voters.

The way a candidate approaches marriage serves as one window into the equation of shared values. It’s no accident that GOP opponents have focused as much time attacking Newt Gingrich for his string of divorces and for his decision to leave his second wife while she was hospitalized for cancer as they have on his toxic political record as Speaker of the House. Most Americans cannot picture themselves doing anything similar. Nor is it surprising that Americans have been fascinated by the union between Michele Bachmann and her enigmatic husband, Marcus. From her pronouncement of her own submissiveness in their marriage to his decision to spend the day before the Iowa caucus shopping for dog glasses, the bizarre story of their marriage added to a series of stumbles that ultimately sank her.

In contrast, Kantor portrays the Obamas’ marriage as not only filled with mutual respect and joy but also as reflective of the modern complications and challenges that many Americans face juggling two careers and family concerns. Covering the 2008 election made Kantor aware of how hungry voters—especially coveted women voters—were for this kind of story.

“I was inspired in part to write this book when talking to women voters on the trail in 2008," she told me in a phone conversation. "I would try to ask them questions about candidates, and they would want to talk about the media. They felt Hillary Clinton was being treated in a very sexist way, and I wasn’t sure that I agreed with that. There’s a kind of nastiness to politics and they were seeing a woman subjected to it for the first time. Still, I could tell there was not enough out there to speak to them and their needs and lives. There was a huge underserved market of readers out there who were perhaps looking for different kind of story [about our leaders].” 

Kantor answered these concerns with The Obamas, an honest portrayal of people who are put under unprecedented scrutiny with unusual rapidity. Neither of them had the experience of being from political and wealthy families, like the Kennedys who shared their youth as first couple. Nor had they the practice of presenting their modern marriage to the public like the Clintons had from living in the Arkansas governor’s mansion. The added strain of being the groundbreaking African-American first family would take most people—and marriages—to the breaking point. Instead, Kantor’s story is one of balance and grace, a couple who navigates an almost impossible situation with not only their relationship but their noble aspirations intact.

For a president who has been criticized for holding the public at arm’s length, the portrayal of him in the book can add texture to his humanity at a time voters are looking to reconnect to the incumbent. And while pundits speak of a potential enthusiasm gap among women voters, the story of the First Lady’s influence over her devoted husband’s agenda can help give confidence to a coveted demographic that can secure margins of victory in tight races.

Ms. Kantor writes in the book, “Every day, he met with advisers who emphasized the practical realities of Washington, who reminded him of poll numbers; he spent his nights with Michelle, who talked about moral imperatives, aides said, who reminded him again and again that they were there to do good, to avoid being distracted by political noise, to be bold.”

Rather than protesting, the White House should embrace the book as one that admirably depicts the first couple as thriving partners, even as they struggle against the constraints of antiquated roles in leading the country into a new millennium.

2011: Upending The Conversational Patterns That Will Matter in 2012

I was recently asked whether I’m optimistic or pessimistic about the coming year, and my mind drifted to a talk I heard just before the new year by the author Deborah Tannen. An expert in cross-gender and family communication, Tannen focuses on “conversation rituals—automatic ways of speaking that affect the responses we get when we talk to others:" basically, how individual perceptions of joint interactions silently give shape to collective reality. Husband and wife fight because she thinks he wants genuine feedback on work, rather than the positive reinforcement he’s craving. Guy at work is perceived as a bully by his team, when really, as one of six siblings, he learned young to yell loud if he wanted to be heard. Tannen argues that differences in these rituals are often at the center of most dysfunction in relationships, professional or personal. Changing up the conversational rituals breaks up the pattern and catalyzes progress.

Listening to her got me thinking about broader conversational rituals, and the way our politics, culture and economy have long been defined by a predictable equation of who says what when. Elected officials posture largely for the political elite, pundits have focused on small insider-y details that feel irrelevant to the masses, corporate titans repeat economic myths with little review and people increasingly gravitate towards media outlets that reinforce their own existing belief system.

But 2011 showed evidence of a complete rewire of the conversational rituals that got us in our current stagnant state. People spoke out of turn, people spoke who didn’t have proper credentials, people spoke unmediated to each other, people spoke. Period. The net effect was a leap forward a system reboot in how we experience, and thus shape, our worlds. Consider:

Cultural: #IranElection—OK, I know the Green Revolution was in 2009, but those days in June broke ground for new patterns of information sharing and solidarity tactics that were pervasive through the Arab Spring and forever changed our conversational rituals around global events. Within hours, it was clear that traditional systems used to interpret and compartmentalize events within our dominant foreign policy lens were dissolving in the face of the individual accounts endlessly streaming on Twitter. Primary accounts and unfiltered images passed from virtual hand to virtual hand in seconds, and they not only expanded the content that defined our opinions, but they forced us to reconsider our own role in the unfolding events. In the face of immediate heroism and graphic brutality, the divisions between actor and witness became blurred. In our simple choices of whom to follow, what to re-tweet and whether to color our avatars green, we immediately and publicly defined our own relationship to events unfolding across the globe. The ripple effects quickly reached unprepared pundits and statesmen who were no longer asked to explain events to a passive audience but were forced to respond to active participants in a vibrant global experience.  

Economic: #Sharable—Despite being in its infancy, the rise of the sharable economy and what its aficionados call “collaborative consumption” is already changing our conversational rituals around consumerism and ownership. Why go to a hotel when you can get a more intimate and less expensive experience from booking a room in someone’s house on airbnb? Why go to a bank if you can have a more direct a personal relationship with your investor on Prosper.com? Direct lending even extended to #OWS when MoveOn.org set up Occupy Wish List which allowed different encampments around the country to post needs and individuals to provide for them. Taking a centralized middleman out of economic exchange changes the equation on everything from employment to profit models. But it gets really interesting when we realize that the byproduct of peer-to-peer models is the inherent shift from the central organizing principle for consumers from “ownership” to “access.” If I only use my power drill two hours a week, why am I paying for it full time, when I can have one for a fraction of the cost at SwapTool.com? There are very few bad actors on these sites, because the networked community outs them quickly and they are marginalized by the group. The result is a level of confidence among members that allows goods and services to flow freely with promise of payment. In addition to fundamentally changing the conversational rituals around consumerism, the peer-to-peer service platforms—with their horizontal trust-based relationships—should serve as a beacon for every political organizer who could never seem to crack the coveted “Organizing 2.0” code.

Political: #OWS—From the moment it became a story, Occupy Wall Street scuttled entrenched political conversation rituals and has continued to do so with remarkable durability. Elected officials bobbed and swayed before questions about the protests, trying to decide which side was the most politically rewarding. Pundits rushed, and failed, to compartmentalize the flocks of occupiers within an existing familiar context. The notoriously silent 1 percent have gone public in an unprecedented defense of their right to be rich. The December 17 protests did not merit much air time in traditional outlets, but the Ustream feed had tens of thousands of viewers consistently throughout the day. Even when the media finally settled on a familiar theme of “police versus protesters,” occupiers spoke directly to one another and a sympathetic public to invert the normal stereotyped roles. The most searing and lasting image of the protests came not from a cable news crew or a New York Times photographer. The cell phone video of protesters being tear-gassed at point-blank range passed like wildfire via every medium possible and spawned a generation of pepper-spray art.

The unfamiliarity of the brand, the contagious nature of the tactic and the lack of recognizable figures speaking for the movement created the perfect storm to shatter the political conversational rituals. While others lament the lack of #OWS demands, organizational infrastructure or political plan, I applaud their most significant contribution of disrupting that conversational norms and throwing entrenched power off their talking points.

In 1994, when the concept of conversational ritual was new, Tannen wrote an OpEd for USAToday titled, “You Can Talk Your Way Through The Glass Ceiling.” The piece explains her focus by stating, “I want to give everyone more control through awareness of how ways of speaking affect getting credit, getting heard and getting promoted—right up through the glass ceiling.” I’m not sure that the democratic glass ceiling will be shattered in 2012, but the conversations in all the areas that matter this past year make me hopeful we’re getting closer.

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