Katrina vanden Heuvel | The Nation

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

Crying Wolf

Social Security is in danger. We must take preventive action: Baathist dead-enders have targeted the Social Security lockbox with Saddam's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. Our only hope is to adopt private accounts so the trust fund can be spread to multiple locations, before the smoking gun turns out to be a mushroom cloud.

Sound silly? No sillier than the Administration's full-court press to scare the retirement checks out of seniors' hands. A propaganda push so vile, it's a wonder Armstrong Williams isn't part of it. (But Dick Cheney is.)

Americans need to take a deep breath and repeat: There is no crisis in Social Security. There is no crisis in Social Security. Feel better? If absolutely no reforms are made, Social Security will not start running out of money until 2042! That's four decades away, and that is the pessimistic scenario. According to the optimistic projections, the danger of doing nothing is...nothing.

We've been down this road before, and we all know the result. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

Babushkas Versus Putin

In February 1917, bread riots took place in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg), and spread quickly to working-class quarters where the violence increased. Women, many of them elderly, led the protests that led to the collapse of the czarist regime and eventually to the Bolshevik revolution.

In January 2005, few anticipate genuine revolution--or even a change in government. But, in one of the most interesting developments in Russia since 1998, when disgruntled coal miners went on strike and blocked railway tracks in protest of unpaid wages, thousands of pensioners are demonstrating across the country--protesting the abolition of a wide range of social benefits. (Unlike 1998, however, what makes these protests potentially more powerful is that every family in Russia has a pensioner--often a beloved babushka caring for the grandchildren.)

The source of the pensioners' anger is a law that came into force on January 1, replacing longstanding social benefits--free public transportation, and subsidies for medicine, rent, utilities and other basic services--with inadequate, monthly cash payments. The new legislation affects the most vulnerable in Russia--the country's 34 million pensioners, veterans and people with disabilities. (They make up just over one quarter of the population.)

The spreading protests, which are the largest, angriest and most passionate since Putin came to power in 2000, began quietly on January 9 and now stretch from Russia's Far East to Moscow itself. Most important, at times they've brought vital transport arteries to a halt.

Last Monday, a crowd of elderly pensioners blocked the highway from Moscow's city center to one of its main international airports. The newspaper Russki Kurier reported, "The angered old people had to be dispersed with the help of the paramilitary forces." This past weekend, an estimated 10,000 pensioners and veterans jammed the streets in Putin's hometown of St Petersburg. In a sign of the radicalization of these pensioneer-protesters, many are now linking political demands to their calls that benefits be restored. Thousands in St. Petersburg shouted, "Putin--resign!" they also called for the regional governor's resignation. Pensioners have also staged protests in Khimki, outside Moscow, and in towns such as Samara, Ufa, Izhevsk, Tula, Penza, Kursk, Barnaul and Podolsk. In the main square of Almetyevsk last week, 5,000 people massed with placards, shouting slogans, "Down With Putin."

In Khimki, World War II veterans may face trial as a result of skirmishes during the protests.(In a sign of the government's hypocrisy, Putin used his televised New Year's greeting to the nation to mark the sixtieth anniversary of World War II this May, and honor its veterans--the very ones his "reforms" will now impoverish. As a 78-year old veteran told the New York Times, " The fascists took away my youth. And now these people are taking away my old age." )

There have also been outbreaks of violence. In Nizhnii Novgorod, two pensioners beat up a female trolley-bus conductor. According to Channel 3, dozens of trolley conductors across the country were assaulted last week. And the newspaper Moskovskii Komsomolets reported that, on January 11, a car trying to get through a cordon hit four elderly women during a demonstration in the Moscow suburb of Khimki.

Perhaps because large-scale protests in Moscow's center are difficult to hide, the usually tightly controlled Russian television has broadcast striking images of crowds of angry elderly women squaring off against policemen.

The conventional view is that these spontaneous and somewhat chaotic protests will not pose a serious challenge to the stability of Putin's regime--unless, through strategic leadership and ties to opposition parties, pensioners are able to mobilize and organize a nation-wide general strike.Yet, that view ignores the fact that few anticipated the ferocity of these protests. As late as a month ago, a respected Russian analyst argued that "the Russian masses, even the most destitute, have not sent any signal of their determination to confront the regime."

On the other hand, for months leading opposition commentators and politicians have talked about "the despair syndrome," suggesting that the situation in Russia is on the verge of an explosion. In December, rabid nationalist Alexander Prokhanov characterized the situation as "pre-revolutionary." Writing in Zavtra ("Tomorrow") , the newspaper he has edited for the last decade, Prokhanov declared that Putin's head will be "cut off," and asserted that everyone is against Putin in Russia, including "the humiliated governors, the oligarchs, his liberal intelligentsia, the nationalists, the West and the Russian people as a whole."

While Russia's newspapers are now filled with debates about the meaning of Ukraine's "Orange Revolution" for Russia, few believe that country will see a change in government. What is clear, however, is that the current political and economic crisis threatens Putin's personal standing. In a poll taken at the end of last week, 97 percent of people blamed Putin for the crisis. And a poll released Saturday shows that trust in Putin's leadership has plummeted. The wildfire demonstrations have also contributed to a decline in the public's mood about the country's direction.

The central question today is, Will pensioners be joined by younger protesters--students, unpaid school teachers, miners, doctors? Will there be a pensioners' general strike? Will demands escalate--as they already seem to be--and include widespread calls for the resignation of key ministers, the Parliament and Putin? If so, what will be the Kremlin's reaction? It's already clear that the regime--from the parliament to the ministries--is in a panic.

For now, however, the government is not backing down. Last week, the Putin -controlled parliament refused to approve a motion by the Communist and the Motherland parties to review and amend the benefits legislation.Instead, the Kremlin is blaming the regional authorities for poor implementation of the changes.

Several leading political opposition leaders are calling on the regime to use its budget surplus--or what is called the "stabilization fund"--of some $25 billion (largely a result of soaring oil prices) to increase pensions, restore benefits and subsidies and, more generally, develop a comprehensive economic development program. (Sergei Glaziev, a leading parliamentary deputy who challenged Putin in last year's presidential election, has also argued that these billions shouldn't be parked in Western banks, where the money does nothing for Russia's economy.)

What will the next days bring? A leading parliamentary deputy told a Moscow radio station last weekend, "The demonstrations will reach their peak in February when people will have to pay their utility bills for the very first time."

Babushkas of Russia--Unite!

Partying While Baghdad Burns

While death benefits for troops in Iraq remain at $12,000, George W. Bush is throwing himself a $40 million party to celebrate the first time in his life he out-achieved his father. But the dynastic dysfunction continues into the next generation.

The Bush twins wanted to book Kid Rock to headline the inauguration youth concert they are hosting. But the White House was forced to disinvite him after family values groups complained about his vulgar, sex-soaked lyrics, including these lines from "Pimp of the Nation":

Pimp of the Nation, I could be it
As a matter of a fact, I foresee it
But only pimpin' hoes with the big tush
While you be left pimpin' Barbara Bush

This leaves the Bush daughters with a problem: What star from the thin ranks of white male rappers can replace Kid Rock? It seems unlikely to be fellow Detroit native Eminem, who sang in his explosive pre-election release "Mosh":

Let the president answer our high anarchy
Strap him with an AK-47, let him go fight his own war
Let him impress daddy that way

As for the Beastie Boys, they rapped in "It Takes Time to Build":

Maybe it's time that we impeach Tex
And the military muscle that he wants to flex
By the time Bush is done, what will be left
Selling votes like E-pills at the discotheque
Environmental destruction and the national debt
But plenty of dollars left in the fat war chest

Of course, they can't invite any of the musicians from the pro-Kerry, Vote for Change concerts: Bruce Springsteen; Pearl Jam; R.E.M.; Jackson Brown; Bonnie Raitt; Ben Harper; Crosby, Stills, & Nash; Sheryl Crow; Dave Matthews; the Dixie Chicks; Foo Fighters; Tracy Chapman; or Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds.

Is anyone left?

There are always the Republican stalwarts Ted Nugent and Brooks & Dunn. But here's to hoping the Bush twins invite the Olsen Twins. It would be one wild and crazy after-party: "Double, double the trouble, double, double the fun."

The Real Moral Fight

On January 20, hundreds of Republicans will descend on Washington, DC, wearing furs, boots and Stetsons, and partying like the Hollywood stars (they love to loathe) at festivities that will cost some $40 million to host--or $25 million more than the first pledge of US assistance to victims of the tsunami. These high-end Bush donors will be paying to play in our nation's capital.

Their high-flying parties come after a holiday season of little sacrifice for those in the top one percent. At a time when growing numbers of Americans cannot afford essentials like rent, health care and retirement security, the Bentley car dealership in Bethesda, Maryland, registered a 700 percent increase in sales last year. (One popular seller this season is the new Continental GT, which goes for $165K.)

A few days before the release of a report showing that New Yorkers needed to make $18.18 an hour (three times more than the federal minimum wage) to afford a one- or two-bedroom apartment, the media titan Rupert Murdoch agreed to pay $44 million for a Manhattan penthouse on Fifth Avenue. (That's $29 million more than the first pledge the Bush Administration offered to tsunami victims.)

While Murdoch lives high, the working poor in the same city can't make ends meet. Playing by the rules hasn't done them much good. Thanks to a series of recent reports that I'd call required reading for journalists, policymakers and concerned citiizens, we now have more than enough evidence (even for the faith-based members of this Administration) showing that the working poor cannot afford basics for survival including, in some cases, food.

In late December, the National Low Income Housing Coalition concluded in a landmark report that full-time workers making the federal minimum wage (an appalling $5.15 an hour) can't pay rent or utilities on the vast majority of one-bedroom apartments.

Last November, the Community Service Society and United Way of New York City reported that about one in three low-wage, full-time workers in New York City used a food bank, or couldn't afford their utilities, or their rent, or to fill a prescription. A different report completed by the Women's Center for Education and Career Advancement reinforced the grim picture for families citywide: Almost half of the city's households can't pay the cost of food, housing, child care or other necessities.

Last October, the Economic Policy Institute issued a briefing paper driving home what US policymakers know is another new reality: Health care is increasingly unaffordable and out of reach for middle-income families. Between 2000 and 2003, married couples with children saw health care spending outpace income by a factor of three, EPI reported. About one-fifth of the full-time workforce now lacks health insurance and almost 50 percent of lower-income New Yorkers don't have health insurance.

Job security is also becoming a thing of the past. Those who lose their jobs in this economy, reports the Washington Post, need "some combination of specialized skills, higher education and professional status that can be constantly adapted [or they] will be in danger of sliding down the economic ladder to low-paying service jobs, usually without benefits." Anthony Carnevale, senior fellow at the National Center on Education and the Economy, warned that unless a comprehensive industrial policy is adopted soon, "we could have a permanent working poor. They don't live in America; they kind of live under it," he told the Post.

What's the Republican response? Give more tax breaks to corporate America and give billions to Wall Street by privatizing Social Security. Talk about distorted priorities.

Now is the time to enact a new industrial policy--and raising the minimum wage is an essential first step.

Progressives have already achieved living wage victories in Florida and New York (Floridians, for example, voted on November 2 to raise the minimum wage to $1 above the federal level, although the mainstream media has ignored the living wage momentum that's occurring in at least fourteen states and 123 cities and counties nationwide). Moreover, until we get to a universal health care system so desperately needed, policymakers should pass laws that will control rising health care costs and expand our employer-based health insurance system. The government should invest in worker retraining so people who get outsourced or downsized can find high paying jobs elsewhere.

Economist Jamie Galbraith, in his smart book Created Unequal: The Crisis in American Pay, argues that by encouraging full employment and taking other steps, the US can close the wage gap that threatens to undermine our social fabric. Another vital step is correcting the tax imbalance by raising corporate taxes, closing tax loopholes for corporations relocating overseas and increasing funding for low-income housing because the funding "hasn't kept up with demand," says the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Finally, progressive religious activists believe this is a moment to push poverty and economic justice into the "moral values" debate. As Kim Bobo, director of the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, a Chicago-based advocacy group, and other religious leaders say, "Shame on us--those of us who work with the religious community have not adequately made the connection between economic disparity and moral values."

These religious activists hope to move beyond issues of sexual morality and bring attention to the Administration's new efforts to increase inequality by privatizing Social Security and overhauling the tax code. Or, as Bob Edgar, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, said in a recent open letter, "Allowing 45 million Americans to go without health insurance, permitting 35 million Americans to live with incomes below the official poverty line and standing by while millions of children attend decrepit schools violates our faith, assaults our sense of justice and condemns us all to generations of poverty, violence and injustice."

With the Republicans in control of all three federal branches, building a new consensus for sane economic policies that give more opportunity to more Americans will take time, organizing and savvy political and policy skills. But, it's an urgent project, and it's never too late to begin setting out the alternatives. Americans should not be required to work eighty-hour weeks just to pay the rent, eat, and live in a decent neighborhood.

Privatizing the Public Good

Honest economists will tell you that the financial solvency of Social Security can be guaranteed well into the next century. So why does the President insist on adding private retirement accounts into the reform mix? Because their purpose is not to save Social Security but, like a Trojan horse, to destroy it. Personal accounts are part and parcel of Bush's domestic policy agenda: an assault on the very concept of The Public--its goods, services and trust.

Social Security, which provides a public good: the minimum financial security of retirees, is only the latest example. Faith-based initiatives were the privatization of government social welfare programs to religious institutions. Vouchers were the privatization of public education to religious schools. Drilling in the Artic National Preserve is the privatization of public lands for corporate profit. Even national security, the ultimate public good, has been partially privatized: "Security contractors" (mercenaries in the old parlance) were interrogating prisoners at Abu Ghraib, before the scandal broke.

Privatization shouldn't be confused with free enterprise. It is not capitalism; it is crony capitalism--the diversion of tax-dollars from the government to private individuals and institutions. Faith-based initiatives divert tax revenues to private religious institutions. Personal retirement accounts will divert a significant portion of payroll taxes to Wall Street in the form of management fees.

It should be no surprise that Bush and Cheney are proponents of privatization, because they--just like the oligarchs of Russia--have been its beneficiaries. Cheney's fortune was made at Halliburton, which profits handsomely from the outsourcing of Defense Department functions. Bush's fortune was made from the sale of the Texas Rangers, whose value was significantly enhanced by Arlington city taxpayers.

In this light, the Armstrong Williams scandal is not an aberration: It represents the partial privatization of White House public relations. The victim in this case is the public's trust in the independence of the press. But the public shouldn't expect an apology from the Bush Administration. Hate means never having to say you're sorry.

Rev. Dyson's Organizing Wisdom

Reverend David Dyson has been doing God's work for decades. Pastor of the landmark Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, Dyson worked with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, toiled as an organizer in the labor movement for years, and later co-founded the National Labor Committee in Support of Democracy and Human Rights in Central America, a group of 20 national unions working for peace and trade union rights in war-torn Central America.

Dyson argues that if we are going to build a progressive religious base, we need to organize at the congregational (grassroots) level instead of adopting a top-heavy, celebrity clergy model. He knows, as he told me, that "this is hard old-fashioned work...But if the work continues the way it is going, we will once again cede the field to the right...Sorry to be so ornery about this but as a pastor, and a former organizer, I feel rather passionate" about the changes progressives need to make.

His words are worth heeding.

Playing Catch-Up With the Evangelicals

Playing Catch-Up With the Evangelicals

A speech by Rev. David Dyson: December 2, 2004

The evangelical movement so widely reported on after November 2nd is not the monolithic monster of the post-election reports. It is a broad and amorphous movement with a complex and often contradictory set of beliefs. A large number of evangelicals went for Carter in 1976 and for Clinton in 1992. They should no more be ceded to the Republicans than should the South.

Evangelicals are descended from the great outdoor revival movements of the 18th and 19th centuries. For reasons of either geography or lack of education, early evangelicals felt alienated from the mainline religious traditions of the day and crafted their own model in the nation's heartland. They were also influenced by the Puritan movement which placed a heavy emphasis on personal rather than social morality. This was brilliantly portrayed by Alex Haley in Roots in the character of the slave ship captain who trafficked in human lives for a living but would not let alcohol touch his lips.

Religious progressives, in the wake of the election, are scrambling to play catch-up with their better organized evangelical brethren. They have a long way to go. Several attempts to organize a progressive alternative to the religious right before the election either sputtered or failed. Most of these attempts were based on a leadership model which was both top heavy and ego driven. Religious progressives must now learn the lesson evangelicals learned long ago: the key to organizing people of faith is not through celebrity clergy but through congregations. Congregations are where the rubber hits the road. This is where the faithful meet, greet, eat and mobilize. E-mail lists are great and an important tool, but congregations are the long established historical and spiritual bases of operation. Congregations are the very definition of grassroots. The right knows this and the left does not.

Organized congregations provided much of the punch for the anti-sweatshop movement in the 1990's. Here was an issue which united Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, evangelical and progressive congregations. Regional lists of prospective congregations were compiled by painstaking and usually anecdotal work. Key contacts were established in each congregation, sometimes the clergy, sometimes a lay activist. Organizing packets were sent out including reliable research on the campaign target, written in congregation friendly language. Each packet contained background material, names of other friendly congregations in the area and a concise, doable action program. Many congregations are looking for something meaningful to do, but do not have time to research and develop their own campaigns. If and when the campaign clicks, people line up after services to write letters, sign postcards, or sign up for a delegation. Once a congregation member gets a surly response from an apparel company executive or is treated rudely at a retail store, they are hooked for life. They are now part of the struggle.

One problem for religious progressives today is a lack of trained organizers in their midst. The religious right has been training organizers for years. Religious progressives, with some heroic exceptions, have not. Progressives need to enlist the help of professional organizers from the likes of the labor movement and community organizations to fill in the gaps and train a new generation of activists. Otherwise there will be lots of message, lots of talk, lots of spin, but it will not filter down to the congregations with sufficient force to mobilize significant numbers.

Clearly there is much work to do around message, language and even vision. I have confidence that a new generation of energized religious progressives will create a compassionate, inclusive and intelligible call to faithfulness. What is not in place is the delivery system to inspire, activate, mobilize and deliver our base. Not yet.

Progressive people of faith in the US may never have the numbers or the money of the evangelical movement, but they nevertheless comprise thousands of mainline, middle-sized, middle class congregations who were not sufficiently engaged in 2004. Progressives possess the message if not the means to cut into the Republican stranglehold on the evangelical vote. When elections are as close as they were in 2000 and 2004, can we really afford to ignore any sizeable constituency?

In the Book of Proverbs it reads, "Without a vision the people perish." (Proverbs 28:19) True enough, but without a vehicle, the vision has no wheels. What is needed now is a campaign to identify, quantify, organize and mobilize congregations who are waiting for the call.

Rev. David Dyson is the pastor of the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn, NY. He is a former staffer with the United Farm Workers and the Amalgamated Clothing & Textile Workers Union.

Lunch With Michael (Moore)

The man who centrist Dems love to blame for November's defeat (and everything else) held court at a lunch in New York City today. Organized by the inimitable publicist Peggy Siegal to celebrate Fahrenheit 9/11 receiving the New York Film Critics Award, the lunch featured placecards with sparkly flags and a "God Bless America" invocation. At the private event Moore offered his spirited two cents on, well, almost everything.

(And by the way, buzz at the lunch had it that if Mel Gibson had agreed to pose with Moore, Time magazine would have ditched Bush as Person of the Year.)

"I'm heading to LA this weekend for the Peoples' Choice Award for Best Picture. We're up against 'Shrek,' 'Spiderman.' and 'The Incredibles.' I love that the people voted for these films. So, maybe you'll see me on CBS this Sunday. I haven't been allowed live on an award ceremony for a while. Maybe I'll get to finish my last speech. And this time I'll thank my wardrobe person and my Pilates instructor. Hated to forget them last time.

Some of you asked me 'Where do we go from here? What should the Dems do? How do we survive whatever mayhem these people are going to bring down on us? Well, everyone who voted for Kerry should feel good about what you did...Lots of young people came out. Lot of good work was done to get more young people to vote--MoveOn, ACT, Springsteen. Don't let the pundits get away with saying more young people didn't vote.

Okay, here's one thing we need to do now: Find our Arnold. Who is our Arnold? Yes. The Dems need to embrace Hollywood because they don't know how to tell a compelling story that people connect toin a visceral way. The Republicans love Hollywood. They run to it (and they run it). The Republicans discovered that America loves Hollywood, loves actors, and when given a chance they vote foractors. Reagan, Arnold, that guy from the Love Boat, Sonny Bono.

The Republicans run professional actors and really good amateur ones, like the one in the White House. That bumbling Gilligan, the genius at his craft.

If I hear the word Evan Bayh one more time (and, hey, I don't have anything personal against the guy)--or anyone from that pool...well, we're not going to win with that kind of candidate.

I'm not saying we need an actor from Hollywood, but someone who connects with people.

How about Caroline Kennedy?

Or Obama? What got me thinking about Obama was at one of my holiday gatherings, a relative who's never said the words civil rights, if you know what I mean, suddenly said 'I liked the story Obama told.'

Obama knows how to tell a story.

The irony is that most of creative people, the writers, are on our side. But then the Republicans seem to know how to tell better stories. Listen to Bush's story: 'out of the ashes of 9/11, astride the rubble, stood one man and he said, I will protect you, and the people were never attacked again and they lived happily ever after.'

What was Kerry's story? (Several people shout from various tables--"I'm better than a Bush, I'm not an asshole.') Yea, that was about it. So we got 57 million votes on a tagline--and not a very good one. Amazing we did as well as we did. We shouldn't feel defeated. Bush doesn't have a mandate. Seventy million people didn't even vote and they're the poor and the working class and we should spend the next four years giving them reason to vote next time. The majority of Americans are not with Bush. On virtually every issue, with the exception of the death penalty and gay marriage, Americans take liberal positions--though they may not call themselves liberals--because their heart is a good one, open, liberal.

Think back to Roosevelt. He had the Capras, Sturges, Steinbecks and they moved millions, the nation, with their art. That brought popular support to a radical agenda. Don't need to make polemical documentaries.

There's nothing wrong with running someone who is our Arnold. It doesn't need to be a professional actor. Let's start looking for our Arnold, and stop listening to pundits who say Americans hate Hollywood.

And let's move on and figure out how to connect with 70 million. Those are our people.

Moore then took some questions from assembled lunchers.

Q: Who's our Arnold?

MM: Well, ask Caroline Kennedy. And who wouldn't vote for Tom Hanks? We need someone who's beloved and trusted by American people. May seem facetious but it's true.

Q: What about Hillary? John Edwards?

MM: Well, she's a star. Edwards is not a star. And nothing wrong with discussing Obama. Sure, they're people who say 'well, he can't win.' I'm not so sure. Americans are not so closeminded. Give Americans some credit for rising above their own personal prejudice and bigotry. Democrats become weak-kneed so easily. Be proud of who you are---have the courage of your convictions. Why are we still listening to 200 members of the DLC. They're Republicans posing as Democrats.

Q: What do you think of those who say Americans don't trust Democrats on national security?

MM: Think it's a problem. The country was brutally attacked. People were afraid. In those conditions, understandable that people want a crazy motherfucker on their side, the guy who will kick ass. Americans need to believe that person in that chair will kick some ass. Dems should have been asking, right away, where's Osama bin laden, where are the special forces to track him down. Not waiting for Richard Clarke to write a book.

Q: What's the one-liner for Dems?

MM: Hmmm. Maybe, 'We're Going to Kick some Ass."

Q: What's next?

MM: May make a sequel to Fahrenheit. Gathering footage. But my next film is about the health care industry, the HMOs, the pharmaceuticals. The shared American horror story. Don't want to say more. The drug industry is already aware of me. Pfizer sent out some memo warning their people about me showing up. They're even running training sessions on how to deal with me. Pfizer even sent out a Michael Moore hotline number to call if I show up. But there are good people, pissed off employees sending me memos. I actually had a fantasy. What if we just put out that we're making this film and then sit back. Might just change the behaviour of these companies, and then we can watch football.

Q: Tomorrow, the vote will be certified. You had that extraordinary scene in Fahrenheit from 2001 showing members of the House being gaveled down, out of order, with not a single Senator rising in support. What do you expect tomorrow?

MM: I'm hoping that one Senator will join with John Conyers--just to investigate the vote so we stop this from ever happening again and send a strong message to some of these hack Secretaries of State.

Ken Lay Would Love SS Privatization

A New Year's Day story in the Washington Post reported that President Bush's allies in corporate trade associations, the financial and securities industries and Fortune 500 companies are raising millions of dollars for an election-style campaign to convince Americans--and skeptical lawmakers--that social security is in crisis, and that the proper remedy is to establish private social security accounts.

Bush's privatization scheme--he calls it his #1 domestic priority--has clear winners and losers. The winners: the financial industry which is lusting after the hundreds of billions in fees and commissions it stands to earn if it can hold Social Security funds in individual accounts. The losers: tens of millions of retirees and surviving spouses and children, plus some ten million disabled workers and their families, who will lose the dignity of a guaranteed income and the financial security that the system currently provides.

Bush's scam is clear: sell out to Wall Street and destroy America's most successful social insurance and anti-poverty program. (Social Security is the difference between a decent life and poverty for half of all Americans over 65.)

In the coming months, we're going to hear a lot of flimflam about how social security is in crisis and privatization is, as Bush has said, a "plan for the people." Don't believe a word of it. Check out the expert testimony of America's most eminent economists (including Nobel laureates) who gathered at the end of 2004 to rigorously debunk the Administration's fear-mongering. (Click here to go to the Campaign for America's Future website to read their full statements.)

"In reality," as Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research Dean Baker wrote in the pages of The Nation last month, "For more than two decades, [the Right has]spread stories about the baby boomers bankrupting the system and multi-trillion debts left to our children and grandchildren. In reality, the program can pay all scheduled benefits long past the boomers' retirement. According to the Social Security trustees report, it can payfull benefits through the year 2042 with no changes whatsoever. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office puts the date at 2052. And even after those dates, Social Security will always be able to pay a higher benefit (adjusted for inflation) that what retirees receive today. Those scary multi-trillion dollar debts translate into a deficit equal to 0.7percent of future income--presented in very precise form in the Social Security trustees report for those who care to look."

If you need more evidence that privatizing Social Security is a lousy idea, think back to the Enron scandal. Remember what we learned: Greedy Enron executives sold stock for millions while the company was still riding high and then gave themselves big bonuses as bankruptcy loomed. Meanwhile, they lied to employees and stockholders about the company's finances and then didn't allow workers to bail out of 401(k) retirement plans that held Enron stock. Thousands of people not only lost their jobs but their lifetime savings.

After Enron's collapse, the largest corporate bankruptcy in US history, you'd have to be pretty dense to fall for the Bush Administration's callous scheme to encourage workers to take risks with their pension and retirement benefits.

Bush and his cronies have worked hard to ignore the lessons of Enron--continuing to fight against serious regulation of corporate misbehaviour and abuses. Don't let them ignore Enron's lessons when it comes to replacing a successful government guaranteed program for a greed-ridden privatization scam.

Maybe we need a new slogan: Ken Lay would love social security privatization.

(ACTIVIST LINK: Click here to send a letter to your elected reps urging them to oppose the President's plan for privatization.)

Martha Stewart's Christmas Message

Looking for some good news this holiday season? Check out Martha Stewart's Christmas 2004 message. The old Martha would have been instructing America's women how to wrap those presents, trim their trees and bake those holiday cookies. The new Martha has issued a different tip: a smart call for sentencing reform.

A realist might say that battlefield conversions don't last once the war is over. But Martha is no fool and her eyes seem to have been opened to the reality of how our society has come to use prisons.

Millions have followed Martha's advice when it comes to recipes. I hope some of them will listen to her call for a makeover of the criminal justice system.

Her statement, which deserves at least as wide a circulation as her recipes, is posted below.

An Open Letter From Martha Stewart

Dear Friends,

When one is incarcerated with 1,200 other inmates, it is hard to be selfish at Christmas--hard to think of Christmases past and Christmases future--that I know will be as they always were for me--beautiful! So many of the women here in Alderson will never have the joy and well-being that you and I experience. Many of them have been here for years--devoid of care, devoid of love, devoid of family.

I beseech you all to think about these women--to encourage the American people to ask for reforms, both in sentencing guidelines, in length of incarceration for nonviolent first-time offenders, and for those involved in drug-taking. They would be much better served in a true rehabilitation center than in prison where there is no real help, no real programs to rehabilitate, no programs to educate, no way to be prepared for life "out there" where each person will ultimately find herself, many with no skills and no preparation for living.

I am fine, really. I look forward to being home, to getting back to my valuable work, to creating, cooking, and making television. I have had time to think, time to write, time to exercise, time to not eat the bad food, and time to walk and contemplate the future. I've had my work here too. Cleaning has been my job--washing, scrubbing, sweeping, vacuuming, raking leaves, and much more. But like everyone else here, I would rather be doing all of this in my own home, and not here--away from family and friends.

I want to thank you again, and again, for your support and encouragement. You have been so terrific to me and to everyone who stood by me. I appreciate everything you have done, your emails, your letters, and your kind, kind words.

Happy holidays,

Martha Stewart

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