Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.
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.
Like a caveman frozen in a glacier, Mitt Romney is a man trapped in time—from his archaic stance on women’s rights to his belief in Herbert Hoover economics.
And now it appears his foreign policy is stuck in the past, as well.
What does Romney’s American century look like? His speech and his itinerary tell us volumes.
Romney’s world is one of special relationships, particularly with Britain, Israel and Poland—the three nations he’s visiting. It’s also a world of special enmities—against Iran—and unending suspicions—about China and Russia. For Romney, there are three types of countries: countries that are with us; countries that are against us; and countries that will be against us, sooner or later.
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.
WELCOME: LEE FANG. The Nation announced this week that Lee Fang, formerly an investigative blogger at ThinkProgress.org, will join The Nation as a contributing writer, where he’ll focus on major investigations at the intersection of politics, lobbying and public policy. Fang will be blogging at TheNation.com and contribute long-form investigative features for the magazine. Fang has covered money in politics, conservative movements and lobbying for over four years. He has broken stories that include the US Chamber of Commerce’s foreign funding, the Koch brothers’ covert funding of the Tea Party, and insider trading by Congressman Darrell Issa. Fang’s arrival to The Nation comes on the heels of his appearance on HBO’s The Newsroom last Sunday, which featured a 2011 ThinkProgress.org interview Fang conducted with David Koch on the his involvement with Citizens United. You can watch the clip here.
WIKILEAKS: THE LATIN AMERICA FILES. The Nation’s new issue this week shines a light on the impact of Wikileaks in Latin America, featuring a special package of articles by investigative reporters who covered WikiLeaks in their respective countries. In the introductory piece, issue guest-editor Peter Kornbluh—a senior analyst on Latin America at the National Security Archive—examines what a decade of WikiLeaks cables (2000-2010) reveals about the major changes in the region and in US-Latin American relations, including the rise of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Brazil’s emergence as a world power; the disputed 2006 election in Mexico and much more. Also in the issue, Natalia Viana, a member of the team carefully assembled by WikiLeaks in the weeks before initial publication of the cables, reflects on how Wikileaks led to a new culture of investigative journalism in Brazil. Kornbluh also moderates a special forum with veteran WikiLeaks reporters from Peru, Argentina and Chile, discussing their experiences covering Cablegate. The entire package is available here.
IN TRIBUTE TO ALEX COCKBURN. The outpouring of remembrances for Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn—who passed away last week at the age of 71 after a two-year battle with cancer—is testament to his enduring impact as an elegant, polemical and tough-minded journalist who inspired as much as he provoked. In this week’s issue, publisher emeritus Victory Navasky, who brought Cockburn on as a columnist in 1984, reflects on the writer’s voracious, if not occasionally obstreperous writing style. “Alex served,” writes Navasky, “among other things, as a corrective to the magazine’s liberal pieties.” In another profound and moving tribute, Nation columnist JoAnn Wypijewski reflects on “Alex,” as she called him, his life and work, and “how much more he was the sum of all he loved.” “There is an ocean of grief to swim,” she writes, “before the memory can even try to match the man.”
Here at TheNation.com, other friends, colleagues and former interns share their memories, including his niece Laura Flanders, Robert Pollin, John Nichols, Peter Rothberg, as well as Corey Robin and Michael Tomasky. Read those here.
WELCOME: CORD JEFFERSON. We’re also delighted to welcome to Cord Jefferson, whose work has appeared in The American Prospect, National Geographic, the Daily Beast, The Root, among others. Jefferson will be blogging at TheNation.com on the intersection of race, politics and culture. His recent posts include a look at the politicization of the Aurora, Colorado, shootings by the media, and the juxtaposition of sophomoric humor in graffiti found in Pompeii with the assertions of moral decline in America today. His blog is available here.
NATION IN THE NEWS. Over at Talking Points Memo, Nation editor-at-large Chris Hayes reflects on the success of his weekend MSNBC show, Up with Chris Hayes; his experience writing Twilight of the Elites; and how he views the current cable news landscape. Asked about whether MSNBC is moving closer to mirroring Fox News on the opposite side of the ideological scale, Hayes tells TPM’s David Taintor that “[what] we have to realize is that there is an impossibility of any symmetry between Fox and MSNBC.” For more on that, read the entire interview here. And another Nation-turned-MSNBC talent, Melissa Harris-Perry, talks to NPR’s All Thing’s Considered about being both an academic and a cable news talk show host. That interview is available here.
Some policy questions are difficult. Here are a few easy ones: Should people who handle food for a living have to work while contagious? Should sick kids be stuck at school because their parents are stuck at work? Should coming down with something cost you your job?
Most Americans say: No, no and no. Politicians are catching up with them, but not fast enough.
As I noted last winter, 2011 was the biggest year yet for paid sick leave, a common sense reform requiring employers to provide a minimum number of sick days, so low-wage workers can stay home sick without losing their pay or their jobs. After years of savvy, tenacious organizing, last year Seattle joined San Francisco and DC to become the nation’s third paid sick leave city, and Connecticut’s became the nation’s first statewide law (Milwaukee passed a bill in 2009 but Scott Walker has overridden it).
Paid sick leave is the kind of pro-family policy that we should be able to take for granted in a civilized democracy. By averting senseless firings, it reduces unemployment. By letting sick people stay home, it advances public health. In San Francisco, which in 2006 became the first city to mandate paid leave, even critics have changed their tune. In 2010, the executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, which had decried the bill as a job killer, told Bloomberg Businessweek that it had turned out to be “the best public policy for the least cost. Do you want your server coughing over your food?”
And yet as advocates in other cities push for their own paid sick laws, the cry wolf anti-regulation crowd is going to bat to defend the status quo. What they lack in evidence, they try to make up for with corporate cash. This year’s marquee showdown is in New York City, where a veto-proof majority of the City Council backs paid sick leave. Democratic Council Speaker Christine Quinn prevented a previous bill from coming to a vote in 2010, and the big business lobby is counting on her to do it again.
Quinn is favored to become the first woman mayor of the nation’s largest city in next year’s election. This month, she’s hearing from women who expect her to do the right thing first. Last week, the New York Times reported on a letter to Quinn headlined by Gloria Steinem, the feminist giant. “I’ve seen women lose their jobs, lose their apartments, and spend two years getting their kids back from foster care—all starting with a sick child,” Steinem told the Times. The letter was signed by 200 other prominent women, from American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten to novelist Jhumpa Lahiri.
Some of those women were in attendance last Wednesday, at a City Hall rally launching the Women for Paid Sick Days Initiative. Author and activist Deanna Zandt reminded the crowd that paid sick leave is just the latest in a long line of reforms that supposedly “would have destroyed business as we knew it…Abolition of slavery. Women voting. Child labor laws. The forty-hour work week. Birth control pills. Marriage equality, for race and for sexuality. You get my point. It’s time to be on the side of history and the side of women’s rights.”
Indeed. At a moment when too many low-wage and unemployed Americans are struggling—like the three New Yorkers profiled by the Times on Saturday—it’s frankly shameful to see politicians drag their feet on such a common sense reform.
Of course, popular measures like paid sick days would be harder to stonewall if the media paid more attention to them. Last week, Yahoo made news by naming Marissa Mayer as its first pregnant CEO. Legitimate news, and a sign of progress to be sure. But as Bryce Covert argued, “it’s far from the change we need for women’s workplace equality.” And media coverage of Mayer’s ascension—like the debate surrounding Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic story on “having it all”—seemed almost willfully blind to the challenges facing the millions of working women without a day of paid leave. While Mayer says she’ll choose to take a very short maternity leave (and to keep working throughout), millions of working moms have no choice but to rush back to work to pay the bills, and have no easy access to childcare when they do. Amid the talk about whether women at the top can have it all, what about the women who fear losing everything?
It’s great that pregnancy didn’t prevent Mayer from getting her historic promotion. But it’s absurd that sickness still costs other women their jobs. That’s a story that deserves more attention, and a cause that deserves more support—and more urgency.
ALEXANDER COCKBURN: 1941–2012. We’re deeply saddened by the loss of longtime Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn—who passed away Friday night at age of 71 after a lengthy battle with cancer. Alexander’s last column—on the machinations of Libor and bankers—was as elegant, polemical, provocative and tough-minded as the hundreds he’d written since joining The Nation some three decades ago. He inspired a generation of journalists in this country—including the many Nation interns who served as his research assistants. Our thoughts are with the Cockburn family, and especially with his daughter, Daisy. “Alex shared Tom Paine’s faith in the necessity of information and insight, of speaking truth to power, as an essential element to the activism that would behind the world over again,” writes John Nichols. Read Nichols’s tribute to Alexander, here.
TRAGEDY IN COLORADO. Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and families of Thursday night’s tragic shooting in Aurora, Colorado—where twelve are dead and fifty-nine are injured after a gunman opened fire on a crowd at a midnight screening of the latest Batman movie. Although we don’t yet know the full details of what led 24-year-old James Holmes to commit such a heinous crime, nor how when and how he obtained the means to do so, Nation columnist Gary Younge was right to tweet Friday that “there’s no plausible conversation about the shootings in Colorado that does not engage with gun control.” Here’s what we do know: existing gun control laws in Colorado are inadequate and likely led to Holmes obtaining an assault weapon with relative ease, reports George Zornick. Thanks to years of successful lobbying, the NRA and other gun groups have led a rollback of gun control regulation in the state. Zornick has more.
THE BIG LIE ABOUT MEDICAID EXPANSION. Though the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, it let states decide whether to enroll in one of the ACA’s key provisions—the expansion of Medicaid coverage. No fewer than six Republican governors have already refused to implement the expansion citing soaring costs and state deficit woes. But as Nation.com executive editor Richard Kim points out this week in a detailed analysis of six state tax policies where governors irresponsibly exaggerate costs and deficits, simply closing a single tax loophole or giveaways would more than cover the costs of the expansion. “What the false debate over the cost of Medicaid expansion obscures,” writes Kim, “is the real choice the GOP refusniks are making—to insure millions of Americans or to preserve tax cuts for the wealthy and cheer while those around us just die.” The following infographics offer a closer look at what these six states can and cannot afford.
THE ANATOMY OF A SUCCESSFUL RAPE JOKE. Last week, comedian Daniel Tosh found himself embroiled in a firestorm of criticism after making a female audience member the target of an inappropriate rape joke. Nation blogger Jessica Valenti was out front of the story with a post arguing that jokes about rape can actually be funny—when executed correctly. “Jokes about rape that work,” writes Valenti, “subvert rather than terrify.” Comedians like Wanda Sykes and George Carlin made jokes that “…shed light on what’s wrong with rape—what they don’t do is threaten.” Valenti went on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris Perry to discuss the anatomy of the controversy. Watch the video here.
A LETTER FROM THE NEXT GENERATION OF NATION READERS. I was delighted and moved to receive a letter from ten fifth-grade students from Reservoir Avenue Elementary School in Providence, Rhode Island. They shared their experiences reading The Nation, and in particular an editorial I wrote from the May 23, 2011, issue. These bright, young students sat down with Principal Socorro Gomez-Potter to discuss what they had learned. In the letter, they wrote reading the editorial “was challenging, but it made us feel powerful.” For more on their reaction, and to glimpse inside the budding minds of the next generation of Nation readers, read the letter here.
AN INTERVIEW WITH THE NATION’S DYNAMIC CROSSWORD DUO. The Guardian talks to Joshua Kosman (Trazom) and Henri Picciotto (Hot), the dynamic duo behind The Nation’s cryptic crossword puzzle. After the death of Frank W. Lewis, who for nearly sixty years vexed puzzlers around with world with his cryptic crosswords in the pages of The Nation, Kosman and Picciotto competed in and won The Nation’s second historic cryptic crossword contest last year. The two discuss how they came to The Nation, as well as how to establish a revival of cryptic crosswords here in the United States and around the world.
It would be easy to miss. Midway through an otherwise worthy report on debates over manufacturing within the White House, a brief but troubling blemish: unexamined, un-rebutted spin. “Romney and Republicans,” wrote the Washington Post, “say there is already an example of Obama’s manufacturing program at work—the ‘green jobs’ program that benefited political donors and lobbyists, such as the backers of the failed solar energy company Solyndra.” A Martian reading the article would come away imagining that Solyndra was a Grade A scandal, and “green jobs” itself was a discredited hoax. Unfortunately, by now the average US news consumer may have that impression too. And Republicans are counting on it.
Reeling from the controversy over his “retroactive” Bain resignation, this week Mitt Romney is mounting a counter-attack. Rather than his own vulture capitalist credentials, Romney wants to talk about the supposed “crony capitalism” of the president, with Solyndra as Exhibit A. Yesterday, the campaign debuted a new ad warning that, “Obama is giving taxpayer dollars to big donors and then watching them lose it.” GOP Senator Ron Johnson went further, comparing green energy investment to Soviet communism, “the lessons of the Soviet Union.” In December, the conservative writer Conn Carroll posited that this election will be about “Bain vs Solyndra.” Wishful thinking? Too soon to tell.
In the right-wing telling—shamefully reinforced by much of the mainstream reporting—Solyndra is the perfect scandal: tree-hugging environmentalists, liberal millionaire hypocrites and big government central planning. If it didn’t exist, they’d have to invent it. In fact, they basically did.
Some facts are in order. As the indispensable David Roberts noted last fall at Grist, “One sign of Republicans’ success in hyping the Solyndra scandal is that they’ve got everybody calling it a scandal. Despite the turgid atmospherics, though, there still hasn’t been any official wrongdoing established or even charged.” Continuing a process begun under President Bush, the Obama Energy Department guaranteed a $535 million loan to Solyndra; the solar start-up failed. That loan was 3 percent of the loan guarantee program. Congress budgeted more than enough money for some of the start-ups to fail, as some start-ups do. Republican outrage rides on the insistence that Solyndra got the loan as political payback. But after a year of hearings, twenty-six witnesses and 187,000 documents from the White House, all Republicans have to show for it are some context-less quotes and a lot of baseless assertions.
By March, Congressman and Solyndra Grand Inquisitor Darrell Issa, was reduced to telling <, “Was there criminal activity? Perhaps not. Is there policial influence and connections? Perhaps not. Did they bend the rules for an agenda not covered within the statute? Absolutely.”
As a Bloomberg Government analysis found, “The focus on Solyndra is not proportional to its impact.” Meanwhile, truly disturbing stories—from the rampant corruption at the Bush Minerals Management Service to Keystone XL’s coziness with the Obama State Department—drew comparatively paltry attention. Chalk up another win for the Republican outrage machine.
Despite the evidence, Romney wants to convince Americans that a bad bet on Solyndra is more significant than decades of outsourcing and downsizing. There’s a real risk that reporters—hungry for scandal and hypnotized by false equivalence—will let him get away with it. At stake is more than an electoral football. Like Reagan’s fabled Cadillac-driving “welfare queen” or much-hyped claims of voter fraud or food stamp abuse, this right-wing myth-making has dire policy consequences. As Solyndra becomes shorthand for scandal, the well gets poisoned for future progress.
We can’t afford for that to happen. As former Green Jobs Czar Van Jones—no stranger to right-wing faux outrage machine—reminds us, green jobs are at the hearts of some of our deepest challenges: Building a better, broader politics. Forging a true industrial policy and an economy that works for the 99 percent. Averting environmental calamity.
The attacks on Solyndra are more than just attacks on Obama—they’re attacks on the notion of government as a place where we can come together to take on big challenges, drive economic innovation and advance our common interests while securing a sustainable future. The Solyndra scolds don’t just want to take down Obama—they want to hold back our politics. Let’s not let them.
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.
In a 1993 article published in the media watch group FAIR’s Extra! magazine, 17-year-old intern Kimberly Phillips criticized Seventeen magazine’s preoccupation with fashion and beauty, and its failure to encourage young women to think about important issues. Balking at the criticism, Seventeen’s managing editor responded with a defensive letter to the editor, insisting that the magazine’s focus on appearance was consistent with the interests of its adolescent readers.
Nearly twenty years later, almost nothing had changed—until now. Within the span of two months, a 14-year-old Maine girl named Julia Bluhm mobilized more than 80,000 supporters to lobby Seventeen to commit to a more modest goal: printing one photo spread per issue without an altered image. Bluhm’s efforts are part of Sexualization Protest: Action, Resistance, Knowledge or SPARK, a girl-fueled activist movement that is demanding an end to the sexualization of women and girls in media.
This time, the editors had a different response. In the magazine’s August issue, Seventeen editor Ann Shoket responded to the campaign with a carefully worded statement that vowed that the magazine will “never change girls’ body or face shapes” and will publish only images of “real girls and models who are healthy.”
WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE HEALTHCARE BATTLE? This week’s issue of The Nation looks at the battle over healthcare in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling to uphold the Affordable Care Act (ACA). As we argue in the lead editorial, the fight is only just beginning. As many as eight Republican governors are already refusing to implement the law’s expansion of Medicaid that would help cover America’s poorest. In Texas, where 25 percent of the population is uninsured—the highest in the nation—Governor Rick Perry’s refusal leaves the 1.8 million living below the poverty line without coverage. Nation legal affairs correspondent David Cole hails the Supreme Court’s decision as a near total victory for liberals, but expresses concern over the fact that five justices were nearly willing to strike it down. Former healthcare industry whistleblower Wendell Potter warns of the health insurance industry’s propaganda campaign to convince us that the new law will actually increase the cost of healthcare, while they continue to insist that the Affordable Care Act is just another example of a government takeover by the Obama administration. And Nation columnist Katha Pollitt applauds President Obama for successfully standing up to America’s loudest religious institutions—admittedly a huge political risk—for women’s health and rights. She looks at nine ways the ACA will help women. Read that here.
THE GOP’S 2012 TWIN PILLAR STRATEGY. “Voters out, money in,” writes Nation columnist Ilyse Hogue of the GOP’s 2012 election strategy. While Republicans already enjoy a clear fundraising advantage with Super-PAC funneled money from casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, the Koch brothers and others, “victory requires dominating the system at both ends,” she explains. Poisoning the election process with money and influence is not enough—Republicans are waging a war on voting through voter roll purges, hyping negligible threats of voter fraud and pushing voter ID laws in over two dozen states—all of which disproportionately impact Democratic leaning voters: low-income citizens, college students, women, the elderly and people of color. “While it’s the money they flaunt, it’s the people they fear,” concludes Hogue. The people may very well be our own “not-so-secret weapon.”
ROMNEY DONORS SHARE LOVE OF OFFSHORE TAX HAVENS. Mitt Romney may not be forthcoming about the money he may be hiding in offshore tax havens, but it’s no secret that his top donors share his love of using tax loopholes to shelter earnings overseas. A Nation analysis by Washington reporter George Zornick revealed this week that of the top eleven contributors to the Romney campaign, seven are financial firms with significant offshore tax haven activity. Of the four that do not have havens themselves, two are accounting firms that do prolific business in helping set them up. The following info-graphic offers a look at Romney’s donors and their offshore tax haven activities. Zornick joined the MSNBC’s The Ed Show Wednesday night to discuss these findings and more. Watch that here.
THE GOP WAR ON VOTING. Nation contributing writer Ari Berman has been front and center on the GOP’s efforts to undermine voting rights across the country. As he reported this week, the Justice Department is fighting the state of Texas in federal court over its voter ID law—one of the strictest in the country—which could effectively disenfranchise nearly 1.4 million black and Hispanic voters in the state. Ari joined MSNBC’s NOW with Alex Wagner this week to explain why neither the facts nor the arguments are on Texas’s side. And on Monday, Berman joined Democracy Now! to explain how the Republicans are pursuing voter ID laws as a way to disenfranchise minority voters and effectively tip the election in their favor. In the case of Pennsylvania’s voter ID law, reports Berman, the number of people without proper IDs needed to vote will exceed Obama’s margin of victory in 2008.
GEORGE LOIS IN THE NATION. We’re proud to welcome one of the advertising industry’s original ‘Mad Men’ to the pages of The Nation. George Lois, the creative force behind a lengthy series of provocative Esquire covers and notable ad campaigns, says of The Nation, “I haven’t missed reading an issue of The Nation since I came home from the Korean War in 1952. The Nation is about the only reading that has kept me sane through the continuing disastrous Republican attacks on a humanistic, civilized democracy.” Look for Lois in the upcoming issue.
BEST REPORTING ON DETENTION AND RENDITION. Head over to ProPublica.com where Cora Currier and Suevon Lee have compiled a must-read list of “The Best Reporting on Detention and Rendition Under Obama.” National security correspondent Jeremy Scahill’s investigative report on “The CIA’s Secret Sites in Somalia” and Anna Louie Sussman’s 2010 Nation report, “Naji Hamdan’s Nightmare” are among the list of some of the most groundbreaking investigative reporting on the topic.
What were some of your favorite stories from the week?
The 1 percent have no shame. At a Hamptons fundraiser, donors proclaim their VIP cred and mourn that the masses get to vote. At the Supreme Court, justices reject Montana’s century-old election regulation with nary a hearing. And in Congress, the same Republicans who hailed Citizens United race to erase its promise of disclosure. These can be discouraging times for those who still believe in “one person, one vote.”
But there are reasons for hope. Voters across the political spectrum remain angry about money in politics and unswayed by the claim that cash equals speech. And they’re turning those gut intuitions into actions: cities and states—California included—have passed resolutions calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United—a heavy lift, but a necessary one. A proposal to require publicly traded companies to disclose political spending to shareholders has received the greatest number of comments in the Securities and Exchange Commission’s history. And now the sanity has spread to our nation’s capital (though not to Capitol Hill): on July 9, activists submitted over 30,000 signatures to put a much-needed campaign finance reform on the local ballot.
The measure would ban any direct contributions from corporations to DC candidates. It was backed by local organizations, including the volunteer-led DC Public Trust, and by Public Citizen.
Direct donations from corporations to candidates are still illegal at the federal level (although, as Andy Kroll notes in a must-read Mother Jones cover story, even that protection is in the right’s cross-hairs)—hence the rise of Super PACs. But only twenty-one states ban corporations from directly funding state-level politicians. DC isn’t among them.
Aquene Freechild, a Senior Organizer with Public Citizen’s Democracy Is For People Campaign, says the District’s referendum was spurred by both local corruption scandals and national politics. DC has offered an object lesson in the dangers of direct donations. A December review of campaign finance records by KUOW radio uncovered at least seventy-five examples of multiple companies, registered to the same address, donating (almost always the maximum contribution) to the same candidate. An “LLC loophole” lets companies breeze past the contribution limits by making separate donations through their subsidiaries. After Council member Tommy Wells failed to get other members’ support for a proposal designed to take on the loophole, he told KUOW, “I really don’t believe the majority of my colleagues realize there is a crisis in confidence and I think they are doing their best to not change the political world for themselves.”
So it falls to citizens to change the District’s political world, and the country’s. Good thing that, according to Freechild, many of the activists mobilized by the DC fight “are interested in engaging on the national level too, given the opportunity.”
Expect a fight. Opponents could still challenge the signatures, though Freechild says supporters submitted about 25 percent more than required. But the real struggle will be winning a majority for the measure on election day. Freechild notes that to avoid creating their own loopholes, proponents had to write a lengthy measure, whose many provisions could be distorted to confuse district voters. “We’re going to have to do some education,” she says. The main opposition message she hears is the one facing “any kind of campaign finance controls”: “that money is speech and corporations are people. While majorities disagree, Freechild says that “because we’re in Washington, DC, a lot of the people believe those messages or distribute them are here, so I have heard them more than in other places.”
Freechild notes that each avenue for reform has a role to play, and they reinforce each other. “Corporations would be less willing to give from corporate treasuries if they had to disclose it,” and so corporate cash would be both more visible and less prevalent under the new SEC rule. Getting state legislatures on the record in favor of a constitutional amendment shows a “willingness to ratify,” and “puts a lot of pressure on the Congressional delegation to also be in favor.” Even the amendment won’t be enough: “We also want to see public financing and full transparency.” But Freechild calls the chance to reform local campaign finance in the nation’s capital one component of “people taking their power, in democracy, to say we want big money out of our elections.”
Politicians often pride themselves on drawing their values from their home districts, and eschewing the culture of the District of Columbia. But when it comes to campaign finance, here’s hoping Washington, DC, sends a wake-up call to Capitol Hill.
“Banksters,” the cover of The Economist magazine charges, depicting a gaggle of bankers dressed as extras off the “Goodfellas” lot. The editors were reacting to Libor-gate, the collusion among traders of major banks to fix the London interbank offered lending rate, the most recent, most obscure and the most explosive revelation from what seems a bottomless pit of corruption in global banks.
Once more the big banks are exposed in systematic fraudulent activity. When Barclays agreed to a $450 million fine for trying to rig the Libor, its CEO offered the classic excuse: Everyone does it. Once more the question remains: Will CEOs and CFOs, as well as traders, be prosecuted? Or will they depart with their multimillion-dollar rewards intact, leaving shareholders to pay the tab for the hundreds of millions in fines?
The Barclays settlement exposed that traders colluded to try to fix the Libor rate. This is the rate used as the basis for exotic derivatives as well as mortgages, credit card and personal loan rates. Almost everyone is affected. Fixing the rate even a few hundreds of a percentage point could make Barclays millions on any single day—money taken out of the pockets of consumers and investors. Once more the banks were rigging the rules; once more their customers were their mark.
Paul Krugman sounds frustrated. “You tend to think,” he told last month’s Netroots Nation conference, “that people who are demanding that we solve this [depression] quickly must be crazy idealists who are defying the wisdom of economic knowledge. But it’s actually the other way around. It’s actually the people in charge, who are refusing to end this thing quickly, who are ignoring the lessons of history and rejecting economic knowledge.”
Krugman’s consternation is easy to understand. While mainstream reporters rank gaffes and mainstream politicians demagogue the deficit, hard realities loom, against which elite discourse seems almost innocent. A rolling world economic crisis could easily lead to a Second Great Depression. The ongoing decline of middle-class wealth and income is steadily transforming the United States. The euro project and the European social welfare state both face collapse. Disorder spreads in the Middle East. China’s high-savings economic model breeds twin political and economic crises that could shake geo-economics for decades. And the thirty-year build-up of private-public debt in the Western world will require extraordinary measures to keep it from bringing down the global economy.
But as our political system (bailouts for bankers aside) proves congenitally resistant to extraordinary measures, our elites (right-wing revolutionaries aside) shrink from even proposing them. Nowhere is elite failure clearer than in economics, a profession whose rightward drift proceeded undisturbed even after a toxic mix of neoclassical and neoliberal models crashed economies and dashed hopes for millions.
Once upon a time, Richard Nixon declared himself a Keynesian. But these days, Mitt Romney can make news just by momentarily acknowledging that deep cuts slow growth—common sense that even our Democratic president often seems loathe to utter. It too often seems, to quote Yeats, that “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
That’s what makes a new document, from Krugman and fellow economist Richard Layard, such a welcome and urgent breath of fresh air (Layard is the founder of the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics). Their work—“A manifesto for economic sense”—is by no means radical. But it’s rational, which these days is saying a lot.
Krugman’s credentials are second to none, and need no repetition. And yet he and fellow Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz may be, as Robert Kuttner argued recently at The American Prospect, “our most widely ignored public intellectuals.” I’d add former Labor Secretary Robert Reich to that list as well. Krugman recounted to the Netroots crowd how he, Stiglitz, and Reich pushed for more aggressive action early in the Obama presidency, but “we lost those arguments. Maybe it was the beards.” More seriously, Krugman said that “the ‘Very Serious People,’ the ones who must know what they’re doing because they’re so rich, even in an Obama White House came across as having the answers.” Since then, Krugman believes Obama has shifted, but with a GOP set on sabotage and a Federal Reserve fixated on phantom inflation, it may be too little, too late.
And so the New York Times columnist has found a new way to take his case to the public. Published as an op-ed in the Financial Times, Krugman and Layard’s manifesto offers both diagnosis and prognosis for what ails us. “Today’s government deficits are a consequence of the crisis, not a cause,” they write. The real culprits: a private sector property bubble followed by a collapse in spending. Government policy should be “a stabilizing force, attempting to sustain spending.” Instead, it’s “reinforced the damping effects of private-sector spending cuts.” Rather than obsessing over short-term deficits, “a key priority is to reduce unemployment, before it becomes endemic, making recovery and future deficit reduction even more difficult.”
Krugman and Layard acknowledge the common counterarguments, and they don’t mince words about them. Critics say austerity is necessary to keep interest rates down. “But there is no evidence in favor of this argument.” Ditto for the claim that structural imbalances prevent expanding demand. “As a result of their mistaken ideas,” they write, “many western policy makers are inflicting massive suffering on their peoples.” Sad but true.
It’s a must-read op-ed, but the authors intend it to be much more. They’ve launched a website, www.manifestoforeconomicsense.org, where economists and others can register their agreement with the thesis. They’re also urging supporters to gather neighbors, organize meetings and speak out for of economic sanity. I hope many will.
Almost a decade ago, a few months into the Iraq War, I called for a new alignment in US politics: a Coalition of the Rational. Members would come from different backgrounds and varied ideologies, but they’d be driven by an evidence-based common sense that made a sharp contrast to the collective madness of our war-crazed elite. I hoped then that such a coalition could force the Bush administration to change course. It didn’t.
These days, we need a Coalition of the Rational more than ever—and bigger than ever before. As we’ve seen over and over, it’s not enough just to have common sense and history on your side—we need to organize. The Coalition of the Rational will need to draw in previously apolitical parents, old-school Keynesian conservatives, and advocates of common sense across borders and parties. The Manifesto for Economic Common Sense offers an excellent place to start.