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The trouble with making “functional” government the great aspiration of the American experiment – as so many pundits and politicians now do – is that a smoothly operating Congress is not necessarily moral, humane or even economically smart.
It is important to remember this disconnect as we consider the budget deal announced late Tuesday by House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, and Senate Budget Committee chairman Patty Murray, D-Washington.
“This agreement breaks through the recent dysfunction to prevent another government shutdown and roll back sequestration’s cuts to defense and domestic investments in a balanced way,” said Murray. “It’s a good step in the right direction that can hopefully rebuild some trust and serve as a foundation for continued bipartisan work.”
Ryan was equally self-congratulatory, declaring that – after a fall the saw a government shutdown, nasty wrangling over the historically uncontroversial task of raising the debt ceiling and general congressional dysfunction – he and Murray had achieved “a clear improvement on the status quo.”
“This agreement makes sure that we don't have a government shutdown scenario in January,” he added. “It makes sure we don't have another government shutdown scenario in October. It makes sure that we don't lurch from crisis to crisis."
Murray and Ryan are excited that they had stopped fighting for long enough to agree to $63 billion in “sequester relief” – as opposed to an actual end to sequestration – and $23 billion in net deficit reduction. They're also glad that they have set the discretionary spending level for fiscal year 2014 at $1.012 trillion, while setting the level at $1.014 trillion for fiscal year 2015. That apparently qualifies – in the eyes of the budget negotiators – as a sufficient alternative to lurching from crisis to crisis.
But the agreement does not address the crises that matter. “This plan won't create jobs, get the economy back on track, or meaningfully cut the deficit,” explains Congressman Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon.
And that's not the worst of it.
What of the 1.3 million jobless Americans who – with a fully Dickensian twist – now stand to lose Federal unemployment benefits three days after Christmas?
The budget agreement does not look like a “step in the right direction” for them. And unless Democrats succeed in renewing benefits in a distinct piece of legislation that apparently must pass this week – as Congress is moving rapidly toward recess – many of the most economically vulnerable Americans will be “lurching from crisis to crisis” very soon.
Their crisis is our crisis. According to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, extending benefits for the long-term unemployed would boost a still slow economy by two-tenths of a percent in the coming year – creating 200,000 needed jobs. As the CBO explains: “Recipients of the additional benefits would increase their spending on consumer goods and services. That increase in aggregate demand would encourage businesses to boost production and hire more workers than they otherwise would, particularly given the expected slack in the capital and labor markets.”
Without providing for the extension, something that easily and appropriately could have been done in the budget agreement, Ryan and Murray failed in their most basic humanitarian and economic duties.
And what of the federal workers and members of the military who will be required to take what is effectively a pay cut in order to pay more for their retirement benefits?
“Federal workers have sacrificed over $113 billion for deficit reduction since 2011, including a three-year pay freeze and increased pension contributions for newly hired employees. This figure does not include the up to eight furlough days caused by sequestration this summer and a 16-day shutdown in October which resulted in financial hardship and profound anxiety for half the government’s workforce and their families,” noted unions that represent federal employees. “Given these contributions, we are dismayed to learn that increasing the pension contributions and/or changing the retirement formula for current federal employees is on the table. This is simply unacceptable.”
This is, also, absurd.
Despite Murray's prodding, the House and Senate budget chairs did not close a single tax loophole. But they did come up with a scheme to take money away from public employees and people serving in the military – effectively reducing what millions of Americans will have to spend on Main Street.
Members of House and Senate who are paid $174,000 annually, collect generous benefits and – thanks to redistricting and an incumbent-rewarding campaign finance system – enjoy no small measure of job security, can pat themselves on the back for breaking through “the recent dysfunction.” But forcing others to lurch from crisis to crisis so that you can tell yourself you have taken “a step in the right direction” is socially and economically dysfunctional. Not to mention cruel, and irresponsible.
Read Next: Jessica Weisberg explains how inequality has been woven into the fabric of American society.
The South African Constitution minces no words regarding access to medical care.
“Everyone has the right to have access to health care services, including reproductive health care,” the document declares, adding that: “The state must take reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to achieve the progressive realization of each of these rights.”
At a time when the United States is engaged in an archaic debate over whether to even try and provide universal access to health care, most other countries well understand the absurdity of conditioning access to basic human needs—including access to healthcare, housing and education—on the ability to pay.
That understanding was championed by Nelson Mandela, whose life and legacy is being honored this week by President Obama, members of Congress and leaders from around the world. Fittingly, the memorials for Mandela will coincide with this week’s sixty-fifth anniversary of the adoption (on December 10, 1948) by the United Nations General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—a document that the former South African president revered as a touchstone for nation building and governing.
Mandela, a lawyer by training and a student of constitutions, steered South Africa toward a broad understanding of human rights. When his country adopted its Constitution in 1996, he announced that “the new constitution obliges us to strive to improve the quality of life of the people. In this sense, our national consensus recognizes that there is nothing else that can justify the existence of government but to redress the centuries of unspeakable privations, by striving to eliminate poverty, illiteracy, homelessness and disease. It obliges us, too, to promote the development of independent civil society structures.”
There are many reasons to honor Mandela. And there is much to be borrowed from his legacy.
But it is absolutely vital, as we focus on this man, to recall his wise words with regard to human rights—and the role that government had in assuring access to those rights.
Mandela embraced the great vision of the twentieth-century idealists who, at the end of World War II, recognized a responsibility to address the inequality that fostered fear, hatred and totalitarianism. It was an American, Eleanor Roosevelt, who reminded Americans seventy years ago that “at all times, day by day, we have to continue fighting for freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom from fear, and freedom from want—for these are things that must be gained in peace as well as in war.”
President Franklin Roosevelt, with his 1941 “Four Freedoms” speech, had begun to scope out the broader definition of human rights, speaking not just of First Amendment liberties but also of a “freedom from want – which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world.”
After her husband’s death in 1945, Eleanor Roosevelt carried the vision forward in her dynamic role as the first chairperson of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. She oversaw the development of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document that affirmed: “Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.”
The declaration also held out this promise: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”
When the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was celebrated in 1998, Mandela addressed the UN General Assembly.
“Born in the aftermath of the defeat of the Nazi and fascist crime against humanity, this Declaration held high the hope that all our societies would, in future, be built on the foundations of the glorious vision spelt out in each of its clauses,” said Mandela, who had in the preceding decade made the transition from prisoner to president of South Africa. “For those who had to fight for their emancipation, such as ourselves who, with your help, had to free ourselves from the criminal apartheid system, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights served as the vindication of the justice of our cause. At the same time, it constituted a challenge to us that our freedom, once achieved, should be dedicated to the implementation of the perspectives contained in the Declaration.”
Mandela accepted that challenge, and explained that it remained unmet in much of the world.
“The very right to be human is denied everyday to hundreds of millions of people as a result of poverty, the unavailability of basic necessities such as food, jobs, water and shelter, education, health care and a healthy environment,” he said. “The failure to achieve the vision contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights finds dramatic expression in the contrast between wealth and poverty which characterizes the divide between the countries of the North and the countries of the South and within individual countries in all hemispheres.”
The president of South Africa was explicit in his criticism of leaders who failed—by “acts of commission and omission”—to address civil and economic injustice.
“What I am trying to say is that all these social ills which constitute an offence against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are not a pre-ordained result of the forces of nature or the product of a curse of the deities. They are the consequence of decisions which men and women take or refuse to take, all of whom will not hesitate to pledge their devoted support for the vision conveyed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” he explained.
Looking to the future, Mandela concluded, “The challenge posed by the next 50 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by the next century whose character it must help to fashion, consists in whether humanity, and especially those who will occupy positions of leadership, will have the courage to ensure that, at last, we build a human world consistent with the provisions of that historic Declaration and other human rights instruments that have been adopted since 1948.”
Douglas Foster on the meaning of Mandela.
Nelson Mandela was a union man.
Long aligned with the Congress of South African Trade Unionists, Mandela framed his presidency with a declaration that: “The kind of democracy that we all seek to build demands that we deepen and broaden the rights of all citizens. This includes a culture of workers’ rights.”
In South Africa, as a young campaigner for racial justice, Mandela was profoundly influenced by the 1946 African Mine Workers Union strike. He learned organizing skills from AMWU activists and would become a champion of the miners, telling workers, “It is your sweat and blood that has created the vast wealth that white South Africa enjoys.”
Mandela, the African National Congress leader, Nobel Prize winner and first president of the new South Africa, who died Thursday at age 95, recognized the organization of workers as a part of the freedom struggle and of the formation of a just society.
Unlike so many leaders who rise of power with the support of organized labor but then distance themselves from the movement, Mandela never broke the bond. He proudly served to the end of his days as the honorary president of South Africa’s National Union of Mineworkers. He declared himself to be “fully committed to the protection of the integrity of the collective bargaining system.” And he spoke movingly about how the “international solidarity of workers of the world enables us to learn from each other, to support each other and strengthen our ties in the face of multinational strategies for profit maximization and exploitation.”
For generations to come, there will wide-ranging and appropriate discussion of Mandela’s remarkable contributions to our understanding of freedom, democracy, tolerance and basic human relations.
Yet, it is that understanding of international solidarity that comes to mind when people ask me about the years when I covered Mandela in South Africa and on his global travels. I saw it most powerfully during his remarkable twelve-day visit to the United States in 1990, which came just four months after his release from the Victor Verster Prison. Mandela addressed the Congress and the United Nations and visited with the president of the New York Stock Exchange. And he went to Detroit, where he was determined to thank members of United Auto Workers Local 600 for their early and militant opposition to apartheid.
The machines stopped at the Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge plant in Dearborn in June 1990. Workers held aloft unfurled “Local 600” banners to welcome the South African leader on what was dubbed his “Freedom Tour.” When Mandela finally appeared, he was greeted by United Auto Workers president Owen Bieber and vice president Ernie Lofton. Mandela recalled the struggle to organize the plant in the 1930s and told the assembled workers: “It is you who have made the United States of America a superpower, a leader of the world.”
Bieber produced a UAW lifetime membership card and Mandela held it aloft, displaying it to the cheering crowd of autoworkers. Then, wearing a UAW jacket and hat, a beaming Mandela stepped to the microphone and declared, “Sisters and brothers, friends and comrades, the man who is speaking is not a stranger here. The man who is speaking is a member of the UAW. I am your flesh and blood.”
Douglas Foster discusses the meaning of Mandela.
It is time for a great big increase in the minimum wage.
The American people.
It is not just the thousands of fast-food restaurant workers and their allies who rallied Thursday in 130 cities across the country, although the “strike against poverty wages” puts a human face on the data charting a dramatric increase in enthusiasm for this fight.
It is vital for supporters of wage increases to recognize—as everyone from Pope Francis to President Obama is talking about income inequality—that few proposals attract such broad support as the idea of raising hourly pay so that people who work forty hours a week can support their families.
A Hart Research Associates poll conducted last summer for the National Employment Law Project Action Fund found that 80 percent of Americans surveyed favor a $10.10-an-hour wage floor. And the support cuts across lines of partisanship, ideology, race and region.
Ninety-two percent of Democrats favor the increase, as do 80 percent of independents and 62 percent of Republicans.
Support from Americans who earn over $100,000 a year (79 percent) is roughly the same as from Americans who earn under $40,000 a year (83 percent). Southerners are almost as supportive (81 percent) as Northeasterners (86 percent).
This enthusiasm is not just theoretical. It is immediate. Seventy-four percent of Americans say that Congress should make it a priority to significantly increase the minimum wage.
Where they can, voters are getting ahead of Congress. In New Jersey, voters just raised the state’s minimum wage by a dollar and cleared the way for additional hikes by indexing increases to inflation.
In the Seattle area last month, voters backed a $15-an-hour minimum wage for the airport city of SeaTac, and elected a $15-an-hour advocate, Kshama Sawant to the city council. Even before Sawant’s swearing in, newly-elected Mayor Ed Murray has announced that a city will study hiking wages. And Sawant says, “If corporate resistance results in the ordinance getting watered down or not passing in 2014, then we will need to place an initiative on the 2014 ballot…. Workers simply can’t afford to wait any longer for $15 an hour.”
Something real is happening across the country. And it is about time. When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. marched on Washington for jobs and freedom fifty years ago, the federal minimum wage was $1.25 an hour. In today’s dollars, that guaranteed base wage would be $9.54 an hour.
But the federal minimum wage today is just $7.25 an hour.
So low-wage workers are more than $2 behind where they were when King declared: “We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we’ve come to cash this check—a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”
As Congressman Keith Ellison, D-MN, said at a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, “Income inequality threatens our democracy as Jim Crow segregation did in 1963. Families are working harder than ever and are still struggling to put food on the table. A full day’s work doesn’t mean a full day’s pay.”
And that is especially true for fast-food workers.
Most Americans are aware that, especially in a weak economy, fast-food restaurant jobs are no longer “entry-level” positions. In chain restaurants across the country, most workers are adults. And substantial numbers of them are trying to support families.
But if they are paid the minimum wage, or even a bit more, they live in poverty.
“Almost one-quarter of all jobs in the United States pay wages below the poverty line for a family of four. CEO compensation, meanwhile, continues to climb. It would take a full-time, minimum-wage worker more than 930 years to earn as much as the chief executive officer of Yum! Brands, which operates Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC, made in 2012,” explains Christine Owens, the executive director of the National Employment Law Project. “Fast-food workers are in the lowest paid occupational category. The median hourly wage for front-line fast-food workers is $8.94 nationally. Many don’t even earn that. A shortage of hours further limits income. Fast-food workers work only 24 hours a week on average—at $8.94 an hour, this adds up to barely $11,000 a year.”
Organizing for better pay for fast-food and retail workers does not just benefit those workers and their families. “We can’t build a strong economy on jobs that pay so little that families can’t live on them,” notes Service Employees International Union President Mary Kay Henry. “Raising the wage floor will make the economy stronger for all of us.”
Indeed, argues California Congressman George Miller, the senior Democratic member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, “Low pay…holds back our recovery from the Great Recession.”
Miller is the House author of the Fair Minimum Wage Act (HR 1010), which would increase the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour. The rate would then be indexed to inflation, so that pay increases come when prices rise. Additionally, Miller’s bill would increase the required cash wage for tipped workers.
Ultimately, increases must go even higher to achieve a living-wage standard. But what Miller proposes is a meaningful step in the right direction.
“Better pay will put more money into local businesses and spur economic growth,” says the California congressman. “That’s why a living wage is not about asking for a handout. Rather, it’s about valuing work. And it’s about growing the economy from the bottom up by increasing working families’ purchasing power. Americans on today’s picket lines aren’t just standing up for themselves—they are standing up for a stronger America.”
Allison Kilkenny on the fast food workers striking for living wages nationwide.
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.
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.
Remember when the Occupy movement demanded that issues like income inequality, race-to-the-bottom globalization and the failures of the free market be placed on the agenda?
Remember the silly critique of Occupy that said the movement’s necessary challenge to austerity lacked specifics?
The pope has gotten specific.
Condemning the “new tyranny” of unfettered capitalism and the “idolatry of money,” Pope Francis argues in a newly circulated apostolic exhortation that “as long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems.”
The pope has taken a side, not just in his manifesto but in interviews, warning: “Today we are living in an unjust international system in which ‘King Money’ is at the center.”
He is encouraging resistance to “the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation” that creates “a throwaway culture that discards young people as well as its older people.”
“What I would tell the youth is to worry about looking after one another and to be conscious of this and to not allow themselves to be thrown away,” he told a television audience in his native Argentina. “So that throwaway culture does not continue, so that a culture of inclusion is achieved.”
The reference to a “culture of exclusion” is not casual.
In his manifesto, the pope decries the current “economy of exclusion and inequality.”
“Such an economy kills,” he explains. “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.”
What makes the contribution from Pope Francis to the emerging global dialogue about the next economy so significant is his explicit rejection of the basic underpinnings of the broken economic models that have created the current crisis—of the failed ideas that, remarkably, continue to be promoted by fiscal fabulists like House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan.
“Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world,” writes the new pope in his manifesto. “This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed.”
As a global figure with a significant following and an ability to speak to the political and corporate elites, Pope Francis’ voice may be heard where others are dismissed. And the fact that he is embracing a critique of capitalism that has come from the streets—rather than the apologias issued from the suites—has the potential to move the debate. The point here is not to suggest that the dictates of any religious leader will be followed by Wall Street or Washington—nor that pronouncements from the Vatican are going to guide the economic and social discourse of secular society.
The point is to recognize that an alternative argument has taken shape. And new voices are being added to the chorus of complaint about an austerity agenda that would undermine universal guarantees such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, cut food stamps, and barter off basic services such as the Post Office, while at the same time restructuring tax and regulatory policies in order to redistribute wealth upward.
The world is in the midst of a rapidly evolving—and absolutely vital—debate about “the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose.”
On one side are the billionaires and their political pawns, angling for more of the income inequality that has so benefited them.
George Zornick reflects on the challenges of a food stamp Thanksgiving.
It is no secret that Republicans in Washington and the conservative commentators who form their national echo chamber cut Barack Obama no slack—even when it comes to the issuance of Thanksgiving Proclamations.
No sooner had Obama issued this year’s proclamation than he was taking hits for “using the opportunity to bring out his favorite hobby horse, homosexuality.” The complaint was with the opening lines of the proclamation, in which Obama declares:
Thanksgiving offers each of us the chance to count our many blessings—the freedoms we enjoy, the time we spend with loved ones, the brave men and women who defend our Nation at home and abroad. This tradition reminds us that no matter what our background or beliefs, no matter who we are or who we love, at our core we are first and foremost Americans.
But, of course, there is always a complaint. The right’s stance with regard to the current president is one of perpetual offense, even when he is at his most mild. Indeed, by comparison with past presidents—especially Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who used Thanksgiving proclamations to chart and encourage the progress of the nation—the current president has been remarkably restrained in his remarks.
But that hasn’t earned Obama any sympathy from the conservative intelligentsia.
Last year, after the president was re-elected with a 5-million popular vote margin, an Electoral College supermajority and a higher percentage of the popular vote than John Kennedy in 1960, Richard Nixon in 1968, Jimmy Carter in 1976, Ronald Reagan in 1980, Bill Clinton in 1992 or 1996 or George Bush in 2000 or 2004, Obama put a modestly enlightened spin on his recognition of the 391st Thanksgiving.
His 2012 proclamation recalls that “the Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony…enjoyed the fruits of their labor with the Wampanoag tribe—a people who had shared vital knowledge of the land in the difficult months before” and notes “the contributions that generations of Native Americans have made to our country.” He even celebrates community organizers, whose “actions reflect our age-old belief that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, and they affirm once more that we are a people who draw our deepest strength not from might or wealth, but from our bonds to each other.”
The president’s words did not sit well with our friends on the right.
Conservative commentators grumbled that Obama’s proclamations—not just his holiday statements but, presumably, his proclamations in general—were insufficiently religious in tone.
“Thanksgiving Dumbed Down,” growled the National Review headline.
“God is lucky to get a mention or two,” National Review editor Rich Lowry objected. “What God has lost in prominence in Obama’s statements has been gained by the American Indians, in a bow to multicultural pieties.” Oh those First Americans, always elbowing their way into our history!
Perhaps conservatives are worried that Obama’s modest “multicultural pieties” serve as a holiday manifestation of the demographic turning that handed the president an overwhelming mandate last year, and that provided the underpinning for breakthrough wins by Democrats in 2012 elections that saw the party’s candidates win the mayoralty of New York for the first time in twenty years and secure an apparent sweep of statewide offices in Virginia for the first time in decades.
While right-wing partisans may have reason to worry about their long-term political prospects, they needn’t worry about the president’s seasonal pronouncements. Obama is safely within the bounds of Thanksgiving promulgation. Indeed, it has been the better part of seventy years since a president made serious use of “multicultural pieties” in his Thanksgiving proclamations.
Americans have to look back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt for a thoroughly multicultural call to “let every man of every creed go to his own version of the Scriptures for a renewed and strengthening contact with those eternal truths and majestic principles which have inspired such measure of true greatness as this nation has achieved.”
FDR’s Thanksgiving proclamations were bold and politically adventurous statements. He constantly flavored his proclamations with advocacy for action and challenges to the economic and political elites with which the nation was wrestling during the Great Depression. “May we ask guidance in more surely learning the ancient truth that greed and selfishness and striving for undue riches can never bring lasting happiness or good to the individual or to his neighbors,” read Roosevelt’s first proclamation in 1933. A year later, he declared:
Our sense of social justice has deepened. We have been given vision to make new provisions for human welfare and happiness, and in a spirit of mutual helpfulness we have cooperated to translate vision into reality.
More greatly have we turned our hearts and minds to things spiritual. We can truly say, “What profiteth it a nation if it gain the whole world and lose its own soul.”
By 1935, as Roosevelt’s New Deal was fully engaging, he wrote: “We can well be grateful that more and more of our people understand and seek the greater good of the greater number. We can be grateful that selfish purpose of personal gain, at our neighbor’s loss, less strongly asserts itself.”
After his landslide re-election in 1936, FDR would encourage Americans “to fulfill our obligation to use our national heritage by common effort for the common good.” He found cause for thanksgiving in the fact of laws and labor organizing that guaranteed “the toiler in shop and mill receives a more just return for his labor.”
To a far greater extent than the presidents who succeeded him, including Obama, Roosevelt used his Thanksgiving proclamations to speak, in moral and spiritual terms, about the ills afflicting the republic—and about the radical remedies he had initiated in response to them.
“Our Nation has gone steadily forward in the application of democratic processes to economic and social problems,” wrote Roosevelt in 1939. “We have faced the specters of business depression, of unemployment, and of widespread agricultural distress, and our positive efforts to alleviate these conditions have met with heartening results. We have also been permitted to see the fruition of measures which we have undertaken in the realms of health, social welfare, and the conservation of resources.”
For Roosevelt, every opportunity to speak of a New Deal was taken. Every teachable moment was utilized. Thanksgiving proclamations were not merely pious repetitions of past histories. They were statements of principle, and celebrations of that deepening sense of social justice.
Obama’s critics are inclined, always, to find something unsettling in his official words and deeds. But by comparison with Roosevelt, the current president’s Thanksgiving proclamations are modest, in their moral messaging and in their “multicultural pieties.”
Could there be irony greater than that of a career politician appearing before a gathering of political donors in a city far from his home state to declare that he is an outsider and a “reformer”?
Indeed, it would take a mighty tone-deaf politician to miss the surreal moment in which he found himself.
Meet Scott Walker.
The Wisconsin governor has spent much of the month of November scrambling around the television studios, luxury hotel suites and corporate-funded “think tanks” of Washington and New York, desperately attempting to position himself as a Republican presidential prospect. And he has done so without any sense of irony.
And an expectation that the national media will be gullible enough to believe that the most divisive governor in the modern history of Wisconsin—polls show that his classic swing state is almost evenly divided between those who approve and disapprove of the governor—can somehow run for the presidency as a consensus builder. Walker is now being pitched by the co-writer of the governor’s 2016 campaign book—Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge—as the ideal GOP candidate for the presidency.
Of all the “compelling potential standard-bearers” for the party, argues Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen, “none is better positioned to energize the conservative grassroots while winning the center than Scott Walker.”
Thiessen imagines Walker “as an across-the-board, unflinching, full-spectrum conservative” with an ability to appeal “to persuadable, reform-minded, results-oriented independents.”
That may be what Walker says. But that’s not the assessment of state Senator Dale Schultz, a Republican who has worked with Walker for two decades and who enthusiastically backed Walker in 2010.
This year, Schultz opposed Walker’s approach to a state budget process that the senator said veered—on everything from school funding to academic freedom to tax policy to local control—into territory that was “way too extreme.”
Schultz, a veteran legislator from rural western Wisconsin, criticized Walker for “passing up an opportunity to show independent leadership.”
“No amount of rhetoric or sloganeering will cover up the influence of an out of state billionaire funded and driven agenda,” declared Schultz. “This is not the Wisconsin agenda I’ve fought for over 30 years, and it’s not the Wisconsin agenda I hear from people as I travel around my district and across the state.”
Walker and his allies are doing everything they can to foster the fantasy that the governor as an outsider, a reformer, the antithesis of poilitics as usual. That was certainly the agenda last week, when Walker appeared in New York City before a November 18 gathering of top check writers for Republican candidates, Walker ripped the Democrat he hopes to run against in 2016—Hillary Clinton—for her long record of public service. Hillary Clinton “wasn’t just secretary of state, wasn’t just a U.S. senator, wasn’t just the first lady. She’s been a product of Washington for decades.”
Always at the ready for some self-promotion, Walker told the Republican crowd in New York that “if we’re going to beat somebody like Hillary Clinton, we’ve got to have somebody from outside of Washington, who’s got a proven record of reform.”
So, let’s review: Clinton’s the insider and Walker’s the outsider, right?
Not so fast.
Though she spent many years in Arkansas, Clinton has certainly done her time in Washington. And she is certainly no innocent when it comes to the maneuverings and manipulations that take place in the capitals of states and nations. So even if she is not a “product” of Washington, she is certainly no newcomer to the political game.
And what of Walker?
The governor conveniently forgot to mention that he began his own political career at age 22 and has, since then, run twenty-three years primary and general election campaigns in twenty-three years—making him one of the most determined careerists in American politics. And even before he finishes his first term as one of the nation’s most embattled governors, Walker is bidding for the presidency—so much so that he did not bother to correct a questioner in New York who began: “Since you’re clearly running for president…”
The problem with careerists is that they are often more interested in their careers than in challenging power.
In a word, they are: intimidated.
But Walker says that’s not him.
The governor’s new book seeks to portray this would-be presidential contender as an fearless political warrior, ever at the ready to advance his ideals.
That, like Walker’s suggestion that his austerity agenda has been successful, is a fantasy grounded in his ambition rather than reality.
In fact, Walker is one of the most intimidated politicians in America.
When Walker ran for governor in 2006, he framed a reform message that talked about ending crony capitalism and addressing the influence of special-interest campaign money and lobbying on the state budget process. In meetings with the state’s newspaper editorial boards, he pitched himself as a different kind of Republican who would not play insider political games. Walker earned some high marks when he “vowed to run as an underdog battling party insiders”—except from party insiders, who were unimpressed with his campaign.
In March 2006, just days after Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman visited Wisconsin, and barely a week after a visit to the state by Vice President Dick Cheney, Walker folded his gubernatorial campaign.
No “unintimidated” stand against the Washington power brokers. No fight to the end on behalf of his ideals. No faith that a grass-roots campaign could beat the money power.
Four years later Walker was back, with a better fundraising operation. This time, he had all the right connections. National donors, like Charles and David Koch, made maximum contributions to his campaign, and then gave even more money to groups making “independent” expenditures on Walker’s behalf.
He won, and in February 2011, when he got a call from someone he thought was David Koch, Walker played along with the caller’s talk about “planting some troublemakers” to disrupt peaceful protests against the governor’s anti-labor policies. Walker writes in his book that “we never—never—considered putting ‘troublemakers’ in the crowd to discredit the protesters.” Yet, when he was talking to someone he thought was a billionaire campaign donor, the governor said: “We thought about that.” If we take Walker at his word—that he never considered using agents provocateurs—then why didn’t he say so at the time? Was he intimidated by someone he thought was a major campaign donor?
The same question arises regarding Walker’s conversation with Beloit billionaire Diane Hendricks, who gave $500,000 to his 2012 campaign. Walker has said he has “no interest in pursuing right-to-work legislation” to weaken private-sector unions. Yet, when Hendricks asked him about right-to-work legislation, Walker did not say, “We’re not going to do that.” Rather, he told Hendricks his “first step” would be to attack public-sector unions as part of a “divide-and-conquer” strategy.
Walker wants a frequently obtuse national media and grassroots Republicans to imagine that he is “unintimidated.” And perhaps that is the case when he is picking on teachers and nurses and anyone who might dare to join a public-employee union. But when the party bosses and billionaire donors come calling, he’s just another politician telling the money power what it wants to hear.
John Nichols catalogues how Scott Walker’s memories of his years as governor diverge from reality.
Susan Collins is supposed to be the last reasonable Republican in the Senate.
The pair of New England Republicans with whom she had aligned in something of a regional caucus—fellow Mainer Olympia Snowe and Scott Brown of Massachusetts—are gone. So, elite media outlets frequently remind us, it’s up to Collins.
But on a fundamental question of democratic governance—accounting for civilians killed by US drone strikes—Collins does not appear to be up for it.
The Senate Intelligence Committee, on which Collins sits, voted this month to require the government to report on the number of civilians who have been being killed by drone strikes, as part of a broader effort to bring the Congress into a proper advise-and-consent role when it comes to killings that are committed in the name of the American people but without their informed consent.
The legislation is a big deal: “Because the U.S. government number is secret, we can’t have a normal democratic debate about the policy,” explains the group Just Foreign Policy. “Government officials anonymously tell the press that civilian deaths from drone strikes have been rare. Independent reporting says otherwise. Government officials anonymously tell the press that the independent reporting isn’t accurate, but they won’t say why it isn’t accurate and they won’t say what is accurate. So the broad public is left with ‘he said, she said.’ Media that reach the broad public won’t challenge the government’s claims about civilian casualties until we can force the government onto the public record to defend its claims.”
Unfortunately, notes Robert Naiman, the policy director for Just Foriegn Policy, Collins voted “no.”
“Because of the way the Senate works, Susan Collins’s opposition could keep this crucial reform of the drone strike policy from becoming law,” Naiman and his Just Foreign Policy colleagues argue.
This is how Collins fits into the equation: “Senator Collins’s support for this provision is crucial because it’s not likely that the Senate will pass it into law unless it attracts some Republican support. Republicans outside the committee tend to defer to Republicans on the committee. But no Republican supported the amendment in committee. Susan Collins is the Republican member of the committee considered most likely to change her position.”
Which takes this debate out of the Intelligence Committee, out of the Capitol and out of Washington.
Drone policy is unlikely to change unless Collins changes her position. But that is not likely to happen, Naiman suggests, “unless there’s some public agitation for it.”
To get that, there has to be a real debate about drone policy—nationally, but especially in Maine.
Nationally, there’s a MoveOn petition campaign urging Collins “to reverse her opposition to telling the public about civilian deaths from US drone strikes.” It has already attracted roughly 15,000 signatures, with thousands of new names being added daily.
But what about Maine?
The longtime executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, recently announced that she would challenge Collins in 2014 as a “Democrat. Libertarian. Progressive.”
Bellows is serious about all three words. And she has a record of taking on both parties on issues ranging from the Patriot Act to freedom of information to drone policy. In fact, she has been a national leader on the final issue, having organized a left-right coalition that got the Maine legislature to pass legislation requiring police agencies to obtain a probable cause warrant before using drones for surveillance. (Governor Paul LePage vetoed the bill but then issued an executive order directing the state’s commissioner of public safety to issue a policy governing law enforcement use and operation of drones.
We need to repeal the Patriot Act and REAL ID.
We need to stop the NSA and the FBI from wasting their time and taxpayer dollars spying on ordinary Americans through our cell phones and email.
We need to place limits on drones.
Bellows argues that Congress has created a constitutional crisis by failing to defend basic liberties, and by failing to serve as a check and balance on executive overreach.
She is right.
And her candidacy highlights a vital constitutional question—that of the right of Congress and the people to information about military missions—on which Collins is wrong.
Political campaigns, by their nature, are competitions for power. But they are also competitions of ideas. They can put issues into play. And they can force entrenched politicians to think anew about stances they have taken. Even those who might not back Shenna Bellows must recognize the value of a candidacy that demands Collins think more deeply about the essential role of the legislative branch in checking and balancing the executive.
Robert Greewald’s film Unmanned adds fuel to the drone debate.
“The right to vote in a free American election is the most powerful and precious right in the world—and it must not be denied on the grounds of race or color. It is a potent key to achieving other rights of citizenship. For American history—both recent and past—clearly reveals that the power of the ballot has enabled those who achieve it to win other achievements as well, to gain a full voice in the affairs of their state and nation, and to see their interests represented in the governmental bodies which affect their future. In a free society, those with the power to govern are necessarily responsive to those with the right to vote.”
—John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Special Message to the Congress on Civil Rights, 1963
There has been much honoring of the memory of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy this week, and rightly so. He was dynamic figure who preached a “new generation of leadership” vision that still serves as an antithesis to the listless, austerity-burdened rhetoric of so many of today’s political figures—including some in Kennedy’s own Democratic party.
Kennedy saw himself as a liberal reformer, declaring in 1960: “If by a ‘Liberal’ they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people—their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties—someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a ‘Liberal,’ then I’m proud to say I’m a ‘Liberal.’ ”
Kennedy was ardently in favor of religious tolerance, respect for immigrants and labor rights (in 1962 he signed Executive Order 10988, which established the right of most federal workers to bargain collectively). Yes, in his service as a senator from Massachusetts and later as the nation’s thirty-fifth president, Kennedy was a politician of his times, which meant that he could disappoint; surely, he was slower than need be when it came to challenging Cold War dogmas and in calling out Southern resistance to social and economic justice. But Kennedy evolved, as did the nation he led, during the course of his short but transformational presidency.
Kennedy devoted much of the last year of his life to advocacy on behalf of voting rights. His great civil rights address—delivered in the last year of his presidency from the Oval Office to a national television and radio audience—argued that “it ought to be possible for American citizens of any color to register and to vote in a free election without interference or fear of reprisal.”
Fifty years after his assassination, Kennedy can be honored in many ways. But a renewal of his liberal commitment to voting rights would surely be a fine place to begin. The Twenty-fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which eliminated the poll tax, was placed on the national agenda by Kennedy, who made it his personal mission to eliminate the wealth barrier to voting.
Politically savvy, the president knew that enacting a constitutional amendment would be difficult, but he argued for going “the hard way” because of an understanding of the need to go around Southern resistance in the Senate and because of a determination on lock in voting-rights gains.
Kennedy promoted the amendment in speeches and letters to the Congress, and then in a steady stream of telegrams and phone calls that prodded governors and legislators across the country to get their states on board.
In the last months before his death, Kennedy was in the thick of the struggle for voting rights, telling Americans: “Finally, the 87th Congress—after 20 years of effort—passed and referred to the states for ratification a Constitutional Amendment to prohibit the levying of poll taxes as a condition to voting. I urge every state legislature to take prompt action on this matter and to outlaw the poll tax—which has too long been an outmoded and arbitrary bar to voting participation by minority groups and others—as the 24th Amendment to the Constitution.”
Beyond the bully pulpit, the president exchanged notes with governors such as Wisconsin’s John Reynolds regarding the details of legislative debates and votes. To a far greater extent than was known at the time, Kennedy personally managed the ratification process.
Thirty-six states ratified the amendment before Kennedy’s assassination—two short of the needed total. Kennedy and others hoped that Texas might break with other states and support the amendment. A statewide referendum on November 9, 1963, proposed to repeal that state’s poll tax and the campaign was intense. Opponents of repeal argued that people of color would “flood the polls” if the economic barrier to voting was removed. Supporters distributed literature that declared: “President Kennedy Wants You to Vote Saturday, November 9, to Repeal the Poll Tax.”
A special message from Kennedy read: “I share the conviction that the right to vote should not be denied or abridged because of the failure to pay a poll tax.”
The literature made the connection to the civil rights movement, urging a “yes” vote: “For Better Job Opportunities, For Better Housing, For Equality and Dignity, For Freedom.”
Unfortunately, a majority of Texas voters saw the change as a threat. The rejected repeal less that two weeks before Kennedy made his trip to Dallas. Yet the president continued his advocacy, getting prominent Texans such as Vice President Lyndon Johnson and US Senator Ralph Yarborough to lend their names to the effort.
Kennedy died without seeing his amendment added to the Constitution.
But his labors were not in vain.
The final states, Maine and South Dakota, signaled their approval in the weeks after the president’s death
When the Twenty-fourth Amendment was added to the Constitution in January 1964, the change in the founding document was heralded with front-page headlines in newspapers and broadcast reports from coast to coast—except, notably, in Southern states where too many media outlets had aligned themselves with the massive resistance to civil-rights legislation, even when that legislation took the form of a constitutional amendment.
The constitutional elimination of the barrier Kennedy derided as “the property qualification” for voting signaled the arrival of what the late president had hoped for: “another turning point in the history of the great Republic.” With the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, it seemed, finally, that the nation might move “beyond the new frontiers” of which Kennedy had spoken.
Unfortunately, as the historian Eric Foner reminds us, the history of the right to vote in America is one of expansion and contraction. And the rights Kennedy and so many others fought to expand have been contracting with the passage of restrictive “Voter ID” laws, attacks on early voting and same-day registration, and a US Supreme Court move to gut the Voting Rights Act. Responding to the legislative and judicial assaults on the voting rights, Wisconsin Congressman Mark Pocan and Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison have returned to the constitutional route that John Kennedy charted when he set out to end polls taxes and property qualifications as a barrier to voting.
With support from groups such as FairVote and Color of Change, the struggle for a constitutional guarantee of voting rights has gone national. Communities across the country are passing resolutions urging Congress to approve the amendment and send it to the states. As in the period before Kennedy embraced the campaign for an amendment banning the poll tax, there is a burgeoning grassroots campaign for constitutional intervention on behalf of voting rights.
The Pocan-Ellison proposal states in simple language the values that voting-rights campaigners have championed for decades: “Every citizen of the United States, who is of legal voting age, shall have the fundamental right to vote in any public election held in the jurisdiction in which the citizen resides,” and “Congress shall have the power to enforce and implement this article by appropriate legislation.”
Or as John Fitzgerald Kennedy put it in 1963: “It is necessary [to] free the forces of our democratic system…promptly insuring the franchise to all citizens, making it possible for their elected officials to be truly responsive to all their constituents.”
Ari Berman describes the contemporary resurgence of Jim Crow throughout the United States.