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John Nichols

John Nichols

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How Ivy League Universities Are Failing Us on Climate Change

Tufts divestment campaign (Courtesy of James Ennis)

The planet is getting hotter, and sooner or later world governments are going to be forced to take action. Regulation may not be happening fast enough to stop the irreversible damage predicted from a two-degree (Celsius) rise in global temperature, but action will happen eventually and some investors are beginning to show concern. Just last week, Bloomberg LP released a “Carbon Risk Valuation Tool “intended to help its high-end portfolio managers assess the risk ofso called ‘stranded assets’ . The tool estimates that BP stands to lose 43 percent of its stock value if governments ever get serious about regulating emissions. To understand “stranding” better, I talked earlier this month with John Fullerton, a former oil and gas investor for JP Morgan:

“The reality is that climate change and finance are still viewed as separate worlds…. Mainstream investors still dismiss it as “not our issue,”” said Fullerton, President and Founder of The Capital Institute.

Continued investment in fossil fuels is creating what is called a “carbon bubble,” he explained. A bigger, more malignant financial dilemma than its predecessor, the housing bubble; in order for the world to reduce emissions, climate scientists estimate that two-thirds of today’s fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground. The UN Climate Chief Christiana Figueres told energy executives as much, when she addressed a coal industry conference last month. “It’s time to honestly assess the financial risks of business as usual,” said Figueres.

But “stranding” enough fossil fuel to head off climate catastrophe will be costly for the countries with publicly held reserves, for the energy companies and the people whose pension funds are currently invested in them. Energy companies, Fullerton estimates, would need to take a $20 trillion write-off, way more than the estimated $2 trillion lost in the subprime mortgage meltdown.

How likely are companies to take action themselves? “Not likely” says Fullerton. A better bet is that investors, out of self-interest, will wise up. If not self-interest, then public pressure. A campaigns has been growing across college campuses demanding that universities divest from fossil fuels, as they once campaigned for divestment from apartheid South Africa.

So far the results have not been encouraging. Says Fullerton of Brown and Harvard’s decision not to divest:

“The president of [Brown] issued a long and thoughtful statement on their decision on why they should not divest, and to be honest, I fully sympathize with all of the economic arguments…but I do think if we look back at that letter, maybe even only five years from now, and substitute the word fossil fuel perhaps with the word slavery we will be aghast at how we thought about this issue. Our leading public institutions are letting us down”

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The pressure on college boards is rising—in the US and abroad thanks to campaigns like 350.0rg’s “Fossil Free.” For more on this, check out my interview with Fullerton in full, or this commentary, Climate Catastrophe or Crash?

Lee Fang reports on the fracking industry’s response to environmentalist Josh Fox’s ‘Gasland’ films.

GOP Donors and K Street Fuel Third Way’s Advice for the Democratic Party

Third Way criticized New York Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio.

Third Way criticized New York Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio's universal pre-K education policy today. (AP Photo / Seth Wenig)

Third Way, a centrist think tank that portrays itself as a Democratic group, has some advice for the party: avoid economic populism at all costs. In a column for The Wall Street Journal today, the group argues that the party should steer clear of creating a strong safety net, and criticizes Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio’s call for universal pre-K funded through an upper-income tax increase as a foolhardy idea for national Democrats.

As many have noted today, in reaction to the column, Third Way’s attacks on Social Security and Medicare fail on the merits. It’s bad policy, and it’s equally bad politics.

But for Third Way, a group founded in 2005 that is highly active on Capitol Hill, the think tank is merely defending the special interest groups that allow it to exist.

Buried inside the annual report for Third Way is a revelation that the group relies on a peculiar DC consulting firm to raise half a million a year: Peck, Madigan, Jones & Stewart. Peck Madigan is no ordinary nonprofit buckraiser. The group is, in fact, a corporate lobbying firm that represents Deutsche Bank, Intel, the Business Roundtable, Amgen, AT&T, the International Swaps & Derivatives Association, MasterCard, New York Life Insurance, PhRMA and the US Chamber of Commerce, among others.

The two organizations complement each other well. Peck Madigan signs as a lobbyist for the government of New Zealand on the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal; Third Way aggressively promotes the deal. Peck Madigan clients push for entitlement cuts, and so does Third Way.

Notice that Humana, a major health insurance company, lists its $50,000 donation to Third Way not as a donation to a think tank but as part of its yearly budget spent on lobbying activity, up there with the Florida Chamber and other trade associations. The company views financial gifts to Third Way as part of its strategy for increasing its profit-making political influence.

What’s more, Third Way’s leadership has tenuous connections to the Democratic Party it hopes to shape. Daniel Loeb, a hedge fund manager listed as a trustee on Third Way’s 2012 annual disclosure, bundled $556,031 for Mitt Romney last year. Third Way board member Derek Kaufman, another hedge fund executive, also gave to Romney.

There is a long and storied tradition of corporate, right-wing interests seeking to shape the economic policies of the Democratic Party. The DLC, another Third Way–style group that folded in 2011, was funded by none other than Koch Industries. Richard Fink, a strategist to the Koch brothers who helped found what is now known as Americans for Prosperity, was on the DLC’s board.

Washington’s Big Business–friendly press has greeted the Third Way column as a “game changer.” But these arguments aren’t new, and neither are the strategies. Large corporations have many ways of finding useful surrogates, and Third Way is a prime example.

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UPDATE: Daily Kos’s Hunter has a nice post noting how Third Way’s hatred of Senator Elizabeth Warren may relate to the fact that Third Way’s board is made up almost entirely of investment bankers and other Wall Street executives. Also worth considering, the anti-privatization drive of those “economic populism” types might rub some Third Way board leaders the wrong way—especially the one who sits on Correction Corporation of America’s board.

More Lee Fang: how the Turkey Lobby blocked child-labor regulations.

The End of Dark Money?

Dark money

A new proposal from the IRS aims to limit the political activities of 501(c)(4) nonprofits. (Reuters/Mark Blinch)

Last spring, news that the Internal Revenue Service used keywords like “Tea Party” and “Occupy” to select groups applying for nonprofit status for extra scrutiny prompted media outrage, resignations, internal investigations and a series of congressional hearings. There was comparatively little fury about the fact that many of these “social welfare” organizations were getting tax breaks in exchange for flooding elections with anonymous cash.

The power these dark money groups wield in future elections could be undercut by a new proposal from the IRS, which would put clearer boundaries around the political activities of 501(c)(4) nonprofits. Released just before Thanksgiving, the guidelines lay out some specific definitions of “political activity,” that social welfare groups would have to limit in order to retain their tax-exempt status, such as expressing an opinion about a particular candidate.

Watchdogs are encouraged that the Obama administration has affirmed the need for clarity on the laws governing social welfare groups and their influence in elections. But the rules as written are broad, limiting activities like voter registration drives, get out the vote campaigns and candidate debates. Many groups see these as critical civic engagement programs, and essentially nonpartisan.

“Though the new definitions attempt to clarify existing rules, they also create a danger to citizen participation in our democracy,” a progressive coalition called Alliance for Justice warned in a statement. “These regulations will not run 501(c)(4)s out of politics. Rather, the big players will hire lawyers and accountants to help them avoid the rules. Small players can’t afford this kind of assistance.”

Dark money groups are the legacy of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United, which permitted unlimited campaign spending by corporations and nonprofits. The latter may advertise for or against candidates without disclosing their donors, making them perfect fronts for individuals wanting to peddle influence anonymously. Crossroads GPS, a 501(c)4 founded by conservative Karl Rove, spent more than $74 million in 2012, exceeding all but two Super PACs.

To keep its tax-exempt status, a group like Crossroads GPS has to prove that “it is primarily engaged in promoting in some way the common good and general welfare of the people of the community.” Lacking firm criteria, tax lawyers have interpreted that to mean that no more than 49 percent of their budget can support political activities.

The problem is, until now the IRS hasn’t defined political activity, leaving agency employees to evaluate “all the facts and circumstance” of an organization’s actions to determine which are political or for the social good. The murkiness of facts and circumstances has made it easier for groups whose main purpose is really to influence elections to get tax exemptions, and the cover of anonymity for their donors. With so many loopholes, it’s no wonder a flood of applications for 501(c)(4) status followed Citizens United.

“What this [rule] is attempting to do is to say, ‘if you see this type of activity it’s political, or it’s not,’ ” said Public Citizen’s Lisa Gilbert. However, the IRS’s proposal doesn’t lay out a new benchmark for how much of a nonprofit’s activities can be political. The agency asked for suggestions on that point during the public comment period. “It’s hard to talk about how much you can do of anything, if you don’t know what that anything is,” Gilbert explained. In her opinion, a nonprofit’s political activities should be closer to 5 or 10 percent of its operations than to 49 percent.

The key to a successful final rule from the IRS will be in balancing competing objectives: promoting participation in the political system in general, while stamping out abuses of “social welfare” status for the purpose of manipulating elections. “We certainly welcome this as an important first step,” said Gilbert. “We just have a series of concerns about how to do this in such a way that it doesn’t cut off legitimate, nonpartisan nonprofit activity.” The rules would also create different standards for 501(c)(4)’s and other nonprofits, particularly trade organizations, which are also allowed to spend money in elections. How well the IRS will enforce the final rules is another significant question.

A project called Bright Lines, which is sponsored by Public Citizen and staffed by nine tax lawyers, has laid out a proposal for defining nonprofit political activity that is more nuanced than the IRS’s initial guidelines. Under the Bright Lines proposal, social welfare groups would be limited in their ability to endorse or contribute to a candidate, party or PAC, while education campaigns around specific policy positions held by candidates would not count as political activity.

Conservative organizations accounted for 85 percent of the spending by social welfare groups in 2012, so it’s no surprise that they objected most strongly to the IRS’s proposal. “We are all going to spend a tremendous amount of time and energy fighting back against this,” Dan Backer, a lawyer who represents several conservative nonprofits, told The Washington Post. “These proposed new regulations put the First Amendment rights of Americans at even greater risk,” said Jay Sekulow, a lawyer with the right-wing American Center for Law and Justice and one of the authors of the Defense of Marriage Act.

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It’s important to note that new rules won’t ban social welfare groups from doing any of the political activities defined by the IRS. They will simply add clarity to limits on political activity that already exist in theory but are poorly understood, unevenly applied and much abused.

They also won’t do anything about the “dark” part of dark money—the fact that groups engaged in political spending are not required to reveal the source of their funds. The Securities and Exchange Commission was expected to consider a proposal that would expose some of that secret cash at its source, by requiring corporations to disclose political donations to their stockholders. But the agency recently decided to remove the item from its agenda, putting its prospects in limbo.

Lee Fang obtained tax returns that shed light on the role of dark money in the 2012 election.

The Enduring Cult of the Vietnam ‘Missing in Action’

Vietnam POWs

32 U.S. Prisoners of War held by the North Vietnamese are released at Hanoi's Gia Lam Airfield on March 16, 1973. (AP Photo/Horst Faas)

Yesterday came news that my home state, Illinois, is preparing for its twenty-sixth annual ceremony this Saturday to honor the “66 Illinoisans listed as MIA or POW in Southeast Asia.” I absorbed this development the same week I had occasion to attend an internment at a military cemetery in Washington State, over which flew, alongside the banners of all of America’s military service branches, the familiar “POW/MIA” flag with the forlorn, hangdog prisoner silhouetted in the foreground and guard tower and barbed wire in the back. Given the scale of national problems we’re facing these days, this one hardly registers a dent. But it creeps me out all the same. And if you deplore jingoistic, racist propaganda, it should creep you out, too—so, this afternoon, let me unburden myself.

When downed American pilots were first taken prisoner in North Vietnam in 1964, US policy became pretty much to ignore them―part and parcel of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s determination to keep the costs of his increasingly futile military escalation in Southeast Asia from the public. Then, one day in the first spring of Richard Nixon’s presidency, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird announced the existence of from 500 to 1,300 of what he termed “POW/MIA’s.” Those three letters—“MIA”—are familiar to us now. The term, however, was a new, Nixonian invention. It had used to be that downed fliers not confirmed as actual prisoners used to be classified not as “Missing in Action” but “Killed in Action/Body Unrecovered.” The new designation was a propaganda scam. It let the Pentagon and State Department and White House refer to these 1,300 (later “1,400”) as if they were, every one of them, actual prisoners, even though every one of them was almost certainly dead. “Hundreds of American wives, children, and parents continue to live in a tragic state of uncertainty caused by the lack of information concerning the fate of their loved ones,” Secretary Laird said. That was part of an attempt to manipulate international opinion to frame the North Vietnamese Communists (against whom, of course, America was prosecuting an illegal and undeclared air war against civilians) as uniquely cruel, even though fewer men were taken prisoner or went missing in Vietnam than in any previous American war. (From 1965 through 1969, they were tortured, at least if you believe American prisoners at Guantánamo Bay were tortured; the techniques were essentially the same.)

During the Johnson years, Sybil Stockdale, whose husband James (Ross Perot’s unfortunate running mate in 1992) was the highest-ranking and one of the earliest POWs, had organized a “League of Wives of American Prisoners of War” (later the National League of Families of Prisoners of War, then the League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia) which agitated for attention to the prisoners’ plight—against the Pentagon’s wishes. Under Nixon, the Pentagon co-opted it, sometimes inventing chapters outright, as useful to their propaganda barrage. Their families showed up on newsmagazines and TV; “POW bracelets,” invented by the future wingnut congressman “B-1 Bob” Dornan, then a local Limbaugh on Orange County radio, were unveiled in the spring of 1970 at an annual “Salute to the Military” ball in Los Angeles. (Governor Ronald Wilson Reagan presided, and Hollywood choreographer Leroy Prinz, who had worked with Reagan on the 1942 film Hollywood Canteen, choreographed a splendid pageant.) Bracelets soon sold at a rate of 10,000 a day; Sonny & Cher wore them on TV; some people, the The New York Times reported, believed them to “possess medicinal powers”―and not just the children who displayed them two, ten, a dozen to an arm. A Wimbledon champ said one cured his tennis elbow. Lee Trevino said his saved his golf game. Matchbooks, lapel pins, billboards, T-shirts and bumper stickers (POWs never have a nice day!) proliferated, fighter jets made thunderous football stadium fly-bys, full page ads blossomed in every newspaper urging Hanoi to have a heart and release the prisoners for the sake of the children.

Jonathan Schell, then of The New Yorker, observed that the American people were acting “as though the North Vietnamese had kidnapped…Americans and the United States had gone to war to retrieve them”—martyrs to an enemy so devious, as the Armed Forces Journal put it, that they denied hundreds of little boys and girls “a right to know if their fathers were dead or alive.” Ross Perot testified to Congress that when he visited North Vietnam to plead for their release they were incredulous at all this concern over “just 1,400 men.” Americans were plainly more morally sensitive than Communists. Though in fact our South Vietnamese allies held some 100,000 prisoners, many of them Buddhists monks guilty of nothing except pacifism, in a prison complex of American design that was so inhumane that Time’s correspondent described the captives as “grotesque sculptures of scarred flesh and gnarled limbs. They move like crabs, skittering across the floor on buttocks and palms.”

Already, the issue made for “a lunatic semiology,” as the historian Richard Slotkin later described it, where “sign and referent have scarcely any proportionate relation at all.” But it sure was heartily useful to the national security state. When America’s involvement in the war ended in January, 1973, Nixon told his secretary of defense that the military-orchestrated celebration of their return, dubbed “Operation Homecoming,” was "an invaluable opportunity to revise the history of this war.”

This is when the story got even nuttier—when the propaganda slipped the bounds intended by its authors, and became more like the brooms in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. The scholar H. Bruce Franklin of Rutgers tells the story with elegant economy in the book M.I.A., Or Mythmaking in America; Northwestern’s Michael Allen tells the story in more detail in Until the Last Man Comes Home: POWs, MIAs, and America’s Unending Vietnam War.

Operation Homecoming returned 587 American prisoners of war—but Nixon had by then settled on the number “1,600” as the number of Americans as “POW/MIA.” So where were the other 1,013? The brigadier general who supervised the repatriation announced that he “did not rule out the possibility that some Americans may still be held in Laos.” The secretary of defense promised, “We will not rest until all those still known captive are safe and until we have achieved the best possible accounting for those missing in action.” Holding the government to that pledge had now become the raison d’être of the League of Families—an organization now all the stronger, thanks to its recent history as a veritable White House front group. Bracelets continued to be sold, now with the names of MIA on them. Next came that flag—pow-mia: you are not forgotten—soon flying over VWF and American Legion posts across the fruited plain. And barely months after the Operation Homecoming propaganda triumph, Chicago MIA families declared that the administration was “abandoning” men “seen in photos coming out of Indochina or who have been reported alive by returning POWs.”

The issue came to define the diplomatic relationship between the United States and Vietnam, a subject of considerable exasperation for Vietnamese officials now being called on to “prove” they held no more prisoners. As one of them reasonably exclaimed, “We have not come this far to hold onto a handful of Americans.” A congressman from Milwaukee, Clem Zablocki, opened hearings that fall to debunk the spreading absurdity. He assured concerned families, referring to the testimony both of American returnees and the North Vietnamese, “There are no missing in action or prisoners of war in Southeast Asia at this time that they believe are alive.” Which only meant, to many POW-MIA families, that Congress was just part of the cover-up. “Why are you willing to believe the enemy on this subject when they do not tell the truth on any other subject?” the Corpus Christi chapter of the National League of Families soon raged in a letter to the Pentagon. “The fact is, you have no proof our men are dead.” (Her emphasis.)

But how could there be proof that men shot down over jungles or the Gulf of Tonkin or the South China Sea were “really” dead? And so the “issue” endured. Governor Ronald Reagan, in Singapore as a special presidential representative for a trade deal, said that if North Vietnam didn’t return the POWs and MIAs supposedly still being held, “bombing should be resumed.” He accused liberals in Congress seeking to ban further military action in Southeast Asia of taking away “the power to sway those monkeys over there to straighten up and follow through on the deal.”

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Here was the right-wing variant of the Watergate-induced dread about whether anyone in Washington could be trusted. It took on a life of its own. In 1975 a conservative Democratic congressman from Mississippi, Gillespie “Sonny” Montgomery, empaneled a House Select Committee on Missing Persons in Southeast Asia. He was initially sympathetic to the families’ claims of Communist perfidy. Then he led a delegation there which found their hosts warm, accommodating—and, once more, befuddled at what it was they were being asked to account for. (Just about every Vietnamese family had relatives who had disappeared in the war or whose remains could not be returned to the ancestral village—a sacred duty in Vietnamese culture.) Montgomery concluded that the existence of American prisoners in Vietnam was almost certainly a myth. As a CIA pilot captured there in 1965 testified at one of the subcommittee hearings, “If you take a walletful of money over there, you can buy all the information you want on POWs on the streets” but “when you try to run them down they fizzle out somewhere down the line.” They also turned up evidence that China had manufactured stories of MIA’s still in prison camps in order to keep the US from normalizing relations with their Asian rival. Reagan, however, remained adamant: “If there is to be any recognition,” he boomed on the campaign trail in the spring of 1976, “let it be discussed only after they have kept their pledge to give a full accounting of our men still listed as missing in action.”

Henceforth paying ritual obeisance, hat in hand, at meetings of the League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia became presidents’ annual ordeal. Read the section in Allen’s book about George H.W. Bush’s manhandling at the 1992 conclave. Read here about how Nixon’s long-lived propaganda goof delayed normalization of relations with Vietnam until 1995. And click here to see how this absurd cult still endures. The 9/11 Truthers don’t enjoy official government sanction. But if you happen to live in Illinois, you can roll with your very own “POW/MIA Illinois Remembers” license plate for your car. The “66 Illinoisans” apparently still imprisoned in Southeast Asia hardly deserve less.

Rick Perlstein questions whether John F. Kennedy would have ended the Vietnam War. 

Detroit Bankruptcy Bankrupts Democracy

Detroit facing bankruptcy

A man rides his bike past graffiti in Detroit after the last hurdle to municipal bankruptcy was cleared on December 3, 2013. (Reuters/Joshua Lott)

Detroit elected a new mayor November 5 and he will take office in less than a month. But the future of this great American city and its citizens isn’t being defined by decisions made by voters on Election Day. It is being defined in federal bankruptcy court—and by an “emergency manager” who has no democratic legitimacy.

With a ruling Tuesday by US Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, Detroit officially becomes the largest US city ever to enter Chapter 9 bankruptcy. Despite a determination that negotiations with creditors outside of bankruptcy court had not satisfied good-faith requirements, the judge cleared the way for the emergency manager and his law firm to advance a “plan of adjustment” that is likely to include deep cuts in pension guarantees for retired city employees and a “fire sale” of city assets that could result in public utilities and the Detroit Institute of Arts collection being bartered off to private bidders.

What Judge Rhodes has done is not the end of the bankruptcy process. It is merely the beginning. But the process has been framed in a manner that runs the risk of undermining the city’s long-term recovery by taking money away from the most vulnerable residents of Detroit. As Jordan Marks, executive director of the National Public Pension Coalition notes, “In the bankruptcy, the modest pensions of Detroit’s firefighters, police officers, and other city employees could be all but wiped out, even as Wall Street banks continue to extract hundreds millions of dollars from the city’s economy. This is a dark day for people of Detroit who worked hard, played by the rules, and are now at risk of losing everything.”

By Tuesday afternoon, according to Reuters, the emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, had "called on unions to help bridge gaps with the city on planned pension cuts." And he has commissioned the auction house Christie's to assess the value of the art institute's collection -- which traces its roots to the 1880s and includes works by Bruegel, Cézanne, van Gogh and murals by Diego Rivera -- for possible sale.

There is no question that Detroit, like many American cities, faces fiscal challenges. But instead of assuring that those challenges are met in the most humane and functional manner, the city is being steered into a wrenching process of restructuring that—by all appearances—will be based on flawed math, flawed priorities and an exceptionally flawed understanding of how democracy is supposed to work.

In a groundbreaking new study of Detroit’s finances, the think tank Demos explains that claims regarding Detroit’s debts have been dramatically inflated to make a case that the city must go bankrupt. According to Demos, proponents of the bankruptcy move have manipulated the numbers by combining statewide and city debts. “Detroit’s emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, asserts that the city is bankrupt because it has $18 billion in long-term debt. However, that figure is irrelevant to analysis of Detroit’s insolvency and bankruptcy filing, highly inflated and, in large part, simply inaccurate,” argues the Demos analysis, which was prepared former investment banker Wallace C. Turbeville. “In reality, the city needs to address its cash flow shortfall, which the emergency manager pegs at only $198 million, although that number too may be inflated because it is based on extraordinarily aggressive assumptions of the contributions the city needs to make to its pension funds.”

By relying on what the Demos study identifies as “extraordinarily aggressive assumptions”—and by accepting premises advanced by the same financial institutions that urged Detroit officials to make unwise financial choices—the judge has shaped a bankruptcy process that errs on the side of helping Wall Street rather than the citizens of Detroit.

At the same time, the judge has empowered an emergency manager who has a track record of acting on those “simply inaccurate” premises, rather than the officials just chosen by Detroit voters to guide their city toward fiscal and social stability.

The judge’s decision gives the essential authority to guide the city’s affairs to Orr, the “emergency manager” selected by Republican Governor Rick Snyder, who in 2010 lost the city of Detroit by a 20-1 margin. Though barely 5 percent of Detroit voters thought Snyder should be calling any of the shots regarding their state and city, he is now—via his emergency manager, with the approval of the bankruptcy judge he asked to intervene—calling the shots.

And what of the new mayor, Mike Duggan, a veteran county official and highly regarded manager who won 55 percent of the vote in last month’s election?

“The only authority I’m going to have is the authority I can convince the governor and emergency manager to assign me,” Duggan, a Democrat, told reporters in November. “I’m attempting to persuade them. We’ll see.”

Duggan says he’s “going to do everything I can to advocate on behalf of Detroit’s future in this process. We need to make sure the retirees are treated fairly on the pensions they earned.” But, despite the fact that he will be the city’s mayor, he does not have the final say even on questions of whether the city will keep commitments to retired firefighters and police officers.

This is not what democracy looks like.

This is not the will of the people of Detroit.

We know that because the emergency manager power that Snyder has used to steer the city into bankruptcy, and that the governor and his appointee will now use to guide the city’s affairs, was rejected by the city’s voters in 2012.

Snyder had to develop the new emergency manager law after a previous version of the legislation—which he had used to take over smaller cities—was overturned by Michigan voters in a statewide referendum. In Detroit, 82 percent of voters said they did not want the emergency manager law. But they got it anyway. So it is that, while Mayor Duggan may be assigned some responsibilities, he will not have the clearly defined authority that an elected mayor should have to protect pensions, preserve labor agreements and set priorities when it comes to the delivery of basic services.

This is a vital distinction to recognize as media outlets report on the judge’s decision and the bankruptcy process.

As retiring Detroit City Council member JoAnn Watson reminds us: The city of Detroit did not file for municipal bankruptcy.

“The emergency manager (EM) filed the bankruptcy petition, and he is an appointee of the governor of the state of Michigan based on Act 436—a law formerly known as PA 4—which was repealed by 2.3 million Michigan citizens statewide on Nov. 6, 2012,” explains Watson. “The EM is only accountable to the governor, the EM only answers to the governor, and the EM can only be ‘checked and balanced’ by the governor.”

The new mayor and the new city council will not have the essential democratic authority to “check and balance” the emergency manager—or to guide the process that Watson argues “has clearly been crafted in a right-wing playbook to seize assets, dismember electorate voting powers, dismantle unions and the families/neighborhoods supported by union jobs, disable local elected officials, smear and tarnish the image and viability of Black elected leadership, and broadly claim that the legacy costs related to retiree pensions are largely to blame for the city’s debt crisis.”

Watson’s frustration is real. And appropriate.

Detroit’s greatest challenge has not been municipal governance. It has been deindustrialization, which has shuttered hundreds of factories and left hundreds of thousands of city residents unemployed or underemployed. And that great challenge extends beyond Detroit.

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Too many American cities face financial challenges similar to those that have destabilized Detroit. Snyder’s anti-democratic “answer” could well become the model for a response to those challenges that begins by blaming the victims and ultimately denies them a full and effective franchise.

“I believe Detroit and Michigan are ‘test cases’ for certain right-wing agents who want to do all they can to control future elections for this nation’s highest office and other posts,” says Watson. “Voter suppression, including the Supreme Court’s role in gutting the Voting Rights Act of 1965, are not incidental to the myriad of malevolence in Michigan.”

There is a lot more at stake in Detroit, and in Michigan, than one city’s balance sheet.

Our understanding of democracy, itself, is being subverted.

The voters of Michigan sent a clear signal last fall. They rejected emergency-manager authoritarianism.

Unfortunately, a federal bankruptcy judge has sided with a governor who could not win an election in Detroit and an approach that Detroit voters rejected.

This has nothing to do with budgeting, debt or broader fiscal matters. Those issues could, and should, be addressed by an elected mayor and city council.

This has everything to do with allowing unelectable and unelected officials—and the interests they serve—to achieve political results that could not be secured at the ballot box.

Chris Hayes ponders the constitutionality of Detroit's bankruptcy filing.

Eradicating AIDS

A sex worker demonstrates the use of a female condom.

A sex worker demonstrates the use of a female condom during an Indian HIV/AIDS awareness campaign in 2010. (Reuters / Rupak De Chowdhuri)

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

On March 24, 1987, the activist group AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) gathered in front of Trinity Church on Wall Street in New York City for its first ever demonstration. The flyer advertising the event was crammed with damning facts (“AIDS is the biggest killer in New York City of young men and women”), indictments (“President Reagan, nobody is in charge!”) and the desperate rage of people who were done being ignored (“AIDS is everybody’s business now”).

Of course, ACT UP took to the streets precisely because, in the 1980s, AIDS wasn’t seen as everybody’s business. Before it was a global epidemic, many thought of AIDS as the problem of—and even (capital) punishment for—the already marginalized gay communities living in cities such as New York and San Francisco. As movingly chronicled in last year’s Oscar-nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague, it wasn’t until sick and dying activists, with literally nothing left to lose, raised hell that intransigent government agencies and drug companies were finally forced to act.

Thirty years later, as another World AIDS Day passes, there’s been an enormous amount of progress. According to UNAIDS, the number of new HIV infections has declined by one-third in the last 12 years. Since 2005, there’s been an almost 30 percent drop in AIDS-related deaths, and since 2001, new infections in children have fallen 52 percent, thanks to treatments that prevent mother-to-child transmission. Access to antiretroviral treatment around the world has increased exponentially.

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Yet, sadly, as musician and activist Elton John reminds us in his book Love Is the Cure: On Life, Loss and the End of AIDS, the AIDS epidemic is far from over. As John persuasively argues, the same inequalities and stigmas that spread the disease in the 1980s prevent its eradication today.

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

The US and Canada Are Failing Asylum Seekers

US-Canadian Border

The US border station along the Canadian-US border in Franklin, Vermont (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)

We may think of Canada as our kinder, more generous neighbor, but a new study by the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic indicates that the country’s has adapted a decidedly un-Canadian approach to refugees. The authors of the study write that Canada is “systematically closing its borders to asylum seekers and avoiding its refugee protection obligations under domestic and international law.” Canada’s policies are driving migrants and refugees to the United States, where they may encounter a detention system that “falls far below international law requirements.” According to UN standards, asylum seekers should not be detained at all, but the authors write that the United States repeatedly holds refugee applicants in custody for months, and even years, at a time.

It’s hard to say which country comes across better—or worse—in the study. Since last year, when Canada passed a series of reforms to its refugee system, it has implemented various bulwarks to deter refugees from even arriving at the Canadian border. The Safe Third Country Agreement makes it almost impossible to enter Canada by land, as it prohibits asylum seekers who first set foot in the States to then apply for refugee claims in Canada (the agreement also applies to those who first arrive in Canada and then apply for US residency, but for geographic reasons, that scenario is far less frequent). Canadian Liaison Officers are now able enforce border laws from foreign posts—they’re stationed in forty-nine different locations—and intercept more than 4,000 people from boarding a plane or a boat to Canada each year. (As a point of comparison, US Customs and Border Patrol officers with a similar set of responsibilities can be found in just eight countries.) Canada has also been found, per the report, to outsource immigration enforcement to airlines and various private transport companies, meaning that asylum seekers don’t even have the opportunity to discuss their case with an immigration agent who may be more empathetic when, say, a passport is missing or a visa has been denied. Private companies, meanwhile, have been found to treat passengers inappropriately and to deny entry based on minor inconsistencies or gaps in identification papers. Canada’s approach is referred to as “pushing the border out”—or creating physical barriers far away from state lines, making the border more ephemeral yet more exclusive.

The problems described with the US refugee system have little to do with admission and more to do with the system asylum seekers must navigate after they arrive. Many refugees to the United States come from countries that have been granted Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, which means that their citizens are able to live and work in the United States for a limited amount of time. Haiti, Somalia, and Syria have all recently been granted TPS; last week, twenty-nine congressmen sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security recommending that the Philippines receive TPS following the devastation caused by the typhoon. All other asylum seekers are unable to seek employment or apply for government benefits until their application is approved; while you wait, you have no other choice but to scramble, a dynamic recently investigated by Human Rights Watch. The US immigration detention system frequently holds asylum seekers in inhumane conditions for lengthy amounts of time. Last week, the organization Detention Watch Network released a report showing that immigrants in detention lack access to medical care, are served maggot-infested food and are not infrequently held in solitary confinement. (In September, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, issued a statement calling for more limited and more monitored use of solitary confinement in immigration detention centers, but it’s unclear how the new policy has been implemented as ICE, citing “privacy standards,” makes very little information available.)

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Canada and the United States aren’t the only countries with a less-than-inviting policy for refugees. Last week, the government of Israel voted to give $3,500 to any African migrant who elected to leave the country and to build a new detention facility for those who chose to stay. “We are determined to remove the tens of thousands of infiltrators who are here,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But what of the so-called “infiltrators” unable to return to the countries where they were born?

Absolutely, Second Amendment

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Crisis in Ukraine: Satellite of Moscow or Squeeze by the IMF?

Kiev protests

People supporting EU integration attend a rally in Kiev, December 2, 2013. (Reuters/Gleb Garanich)

It’s really no contest: for Ukrainians, choosing between an economic association with the European Union, on one hand, or aligning themselves economically with Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus is a no-brainer. Not that linking up with the EU is a bed of roses, since what’s likely to follow as things progress is pressure to impose austerity on an already weakened economy (see: Greece). But the hundreds of thousands in the streets of Kiev—according to one report, more than a million people—have created a crisis that isn’t likely to end soon. Let’s hope that the Obama administration stays out of it, that it doesn’t accelerate its push to jam Ukraine into NATO and that Secretary of State John Kerry keeps his eye on the ball, namely, working with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov of Russia on the interrelated issues of the Iran nuclear program and Syria’s civil war.

On both Iran and Syria, the United States and Russia seem to be working well together, and it would be a shame if the unrest in Ukraine becomes a major irritant in Washington-Moscow relations.

In an eruption that echoes the 2004 Orange Revolution, hundreds of thousands of people have filled the main square in Kiev and blockaded the government’s buildings there, demanding the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovich and the resignation of the government of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov. What sparked the outbreak, which is turning into general strikes across western Ukraine (which is generally pro-European, and anti-Russian), is the sudden decision of the government to reject an “associate agreement” with the EU, a decision apparently taken under pressure from Russia. The pact was under negotiation for 5 years, but it was abandoned after Yanukovich with the President Vladimir Putin of Russia.

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Attached umbilically to stronger ties with the West come unfortunate demands from the International Monetary Fund for more austerity, and Yanukovich has highlighted such issues in rejecting the EU agreement, while also demanding hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies from the EU to finance the switch. Still, most Ukrainians aren’t happy to sit still under Russia’s influence, despite Moscow’s power in eastern Ukraine. There’s politics galore in this struggle, especially inside Ukraine’s thoroughly corrupt establishment. But even big players in Ukraine’s oligarchy are moving away from Russia toward the EU.

The current crisis began on November 21, when, under threats of a trade embargo from Russia, Yanukovich suspended movement toward the EU agreement. Within days, there were tens of thousands in the streets of Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, and sporadic clashes with the police. At a meeting of EU heads of state in Vilnius, Lithuania, last week, Yanukovich was the odd man out, and there is widespread skepticism that he can rescue the accord with the EU now. So, either he drifts solidly into Russia’s camp, or he is ousted by the revolt that’s brewing. Or both.

So far, Kerry and President Obama have stayed out of the tug-of-war over Ukraine, and European leaders are privately complaining about the lack of attention that Ukraine and the EU are getting from the State Department. Let’s hope it stays that way.

Read about Russia's leading opposition newspaper here

#RacismEndedWhen: College Football in Alabama?

Auburn fans react to the definitive win over rivals at Alabama on Saturday

Auburn University fans react at the end of a win over Alabama University during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Auburn, Alabama, last Saturday, when Auburn beat Alabama 34-28. (AP Photo/Jay Sailors)

The main difference between a big-time Division I college football game and an NFL contest—other than the unpaid labor on the field—is the crowds. Aesthetically, side-by-side, they are like one of those before-and-after pictures. The crowd at the college games tends to be young and fresh-faced: the people who show up early to the club ready to rage. People at NFL games look like those same people at the party, except it’s 4 am and in those last six hours they’ve been living hard.

I get why the young people at the college games look as caffeinated as they do. The adrenaline, the excitement, the lunacy and the wide-open nature of it all produces a narcotic that few sporting events can match. This is not an activity that promotes introspection. But lasts weekend’s Iron Bowl demands it. For the uninitiated, the Iron Bowl is the annual game between two of college football’s most intense interstate rivals, Auburn and Alabama. This past year’s game was like nothing we have ever seen, arguably the most exciting college football game ever played, as Auburn withstood a ninety-nine-yard touchdown pass and came away with a 34-28 victory. Auburn beat the number-one team in the country and did so on a 108-yard missed field-goal return for a touchdown with no time left.

But this was more than just a football game. The broadcast registered an 82 share in Birmingham, Alabama. That means 82 percent of all of Birmingham’s televisions that were in use were watching this game. That is bonkers. This is not 1960. We have more than two channels now. In our divided entertainment culture with 500 options, video games that are realer than real life, and all kinds of diversions on social media, the idea that 82 percent of any city was doing anything is, frankly, mind-boggling. Introspection is necessary because this national gravitational pull toward football in Alabama took place fifty-eight years to the day (give or take a day) that Rosa Parks entered history and would not be moved from her bus seat in nearby Montgomery. Fifty-eight years ago in the storied Southeastern Conference, the only way an African-American player could get on the field would be to tend to the grounds. Yet on Saturday millions of Alabama viewers and an overwhelmingly white crowd of damn near 100,000 people crowded the stands shouting themselves hoarse for two teams that are overwhelmingly African-American.

The other titanic story in college football is also taking place in the Southeastern United States, albeit not the Southeastern Conference. African-American football star, quarterback Jameis Winston at Florida State, could lose both the Heisman Trophy and a shot at leading his team to a national championship because of rape allegations that could turn into formal charges any day. I am not commenting on the guilt or innocence of Mr. Winston, but I am going to comment on what we do know: he is being vociferously, even violently defended by the Florida State faithful. His accuser has been pilloried over social media by Winston’s fans in Tallahassee, with ESPN’s Jemele Hill reporting that she had already “been sent several photos that are reportedly of the accuser, in addition to screen grabs of her Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts. All this information is being circulated rapidly and thus becoming the Internet version of flogging someone in the town square.”

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The young woman was also allegedly warned off of pressing charges by a Tallahassee police detective who was also a Florida State booster. This is sick and if found to be true, this detective should be run out of town on a rail. Once again I have to take a step back and ask, What would Rosa Parks say? This is a woman who started her activist career and first traveled to Montgomery as an organizer against rape and sexual violence visited upon African-American women by white men. (Read the book At the Dark End of the Street to hear this story in full.) In Rosa Parks’s day it was not uncommon for African-American men to be lynched on accusations of sexual violence if they were found in any sort of relationship with a white woman. I do not know the race of the Jameis Winston’s accuser, but to see the police and a college town in Tallahassee rally to protect their African-American quarterback from rape charges to save their championship season is like entering Dixie through the looking glass. What would Ms. Parks say? What would she say about a world where just the act of playing football has turned so many of these historical racial tropes upside down?

No matter what the Republican National Committee tweets, racism is not over, nor did Ms. Parks end it. (Their tweet led to the #RacismEndedWhen hashtag on Twitter.) On every conceivable level, from life expectancy, to prison sentencing, to hiring practices, racism still plagues this country. Yet does the iconography of black college athletes actually make racism less pernicious? It would be easy to understand why people would mark the spectacles in football in the Southeast as some kind of progress. I think they would be wrong. In fact, it is far more likely that seeing African-American athletes on the field allows people to turn a blind eye toward the very real effects of racism in society. This is not in any way exlusive to the South, and it is not unlike the argument against using Native American icons as mascots. Celebrating teams like the Redskins allows the dominant culture to turn a blind eye to very real conditions on Native American communities. It doesn’t push for engagement and actually creates disassociation. Look at the 1980s when a national embrace of Michael Jordan, The Cosby Show and Oprah calmed white America into thinking we had reached some sort of civil rights finish line. The 2008 election of Barack Obama created a similar dynamic. I will never forget hearing comedian turned right-wing-pundit Dennis Miller say after the 2008 election, “If nothing else, we don’t have to talk about [racism] anymore.” The RNC tweet about Rosa Parks ending racism was not a slip of the computer keys but a slip of the mask. As for the rest of us, confusing iconography for progress will just leave us confused.

Patricia J. Williams gives a new perspective on the NFL racist bullying scandal.

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