Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.
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
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.
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.
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.)
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
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.
This past November, I wrote about the right's semantic trickery and proposed an idea for how we could debunk and decode the conservative's Orwellian Code of encrypted language: A Republican Dictionary.
I put together a small list and asked readers to send me their own entries. Response has been overwhelming--more than 375 people have sent definitions.
I published a small sample of the entries I've received in this space earlier this month. Below I'm publishing a second batch of reader submissions to this on-going project. We're going to continue posting additional entries in the weeks ahead, so click here to suggest your contributions.
ALARMIST, n. Any respected scientist who understands the threat of global warming. (Dave Nold, Berkely, California)
ALLIES, n. Foreigners who do what Republicans tell them to do. (Gary Schroller, Bellaire, Texas)
BALANCED, adj. 1. favoring corporations (a more balanced approach to the environment.); 2. favoring conservatives (fair and balanced reporting). (Scott Davis, Grand Prairie, Texas)
CLASS WARFARE, n. Any attempt to raise the minimum wage. (Don Zwier, Grayslake, Illinois)
COALITION, n. One or more nations whose leaders have been duped, pressured or bribed into supporting ill-conceived, unnecessary, under-planned and/or illegal US military operations. (Michael Shapiro, Honolulu, Hawaii)
CONVICTION, n. Making decisions before getting the facts, and refusing to change your mind afterward. (Paul Ruschmann, Canton, Michigan)
CULTURE OF LIFE, n. A reduction of reproductive freedoms. (Sean Sturgeon, Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada)
DEMOCRACY, n. My way or the highway. (Daniel Quinn, London, UK)
ECONOMIC RECOVERY, n. When three out of five software engineers who lost their jobs to outsourcing are able to find part-time work at Wal-Mart. (Rob Hotman, Houston, Texas)
ELECTION FRAUD, n. Counting every vote. (Sean O'Brien, Chicago, Illinois)
GIRLY MEN, n. Those who do not grope women. (Nick Gill, Newton, MA)
HARD WORK, n. What Republicans say when they can't think of anything better. (Brian McDowell)
HEALTHY FORESTS, n. No tree left behind. (Ron Russell, San Francisco, California)
JOB GROWTH, n. Increased number of jobs an individual has to take after losing earlier high-paying job. (John E. Tarin, Arlington, Virginia)
JUNK SCIENCE, n. Sound science. (Geoffrey King, Austin, TX)
OFFICE OF FAITH-BASED INITIATIVES, n. Christian Right payoff. (Michael Gendelman, Fair Haven, New Jersey)
OWNERSHIP SOCIETY, n. A society in which no one ever needs to own up to their mistakes or the consequences of their actions. (Sharon Gallagher, New York, New York)
PARTIAL BIRTH ABORTION, n. A non-medical term invented by anti-choice zealots that refers to a broad class of abortion procedures; employed as a first step in reversing Roe v. Wade. (David McNeely, Lutz, Florida)
POLITICAL CAPITAL, n. What a Republican president receives as a result of a razor-thin margin of victory in an election. (Joy Losee, Gainesville, Georgia)
PRESS CONFERENCE, n. A rare event designed for the President to brag about his prowess as a leader while simultaneously dodging difficult questions. (Jim Nidositko, Westfield, New Jersey)
REFORM, n. Rollback of New Deal reforms, laws, standards and social protections. (Nick Gill, Newton, MA)
RESOLUTE, adj. Pig-headed. (Paul Ruschmann, Carlton, MI)
SMALL BUSINESS OWNER, n. rich person (Michael Mannella, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
SOCIAL SECURITY REFORM, n. Leave no Wall Street broker behind. (Ann Klopp, Princeton, NJ)
STAYING THE COURSE, v., The act of being stubborn and unable to admit glaring policy mistakes; being wrong and sticking with the wrong idea regardless of the consequences. (Jillian Jorgensen, Staten Island, New York)
TAX SIMPLIFICATION, n. A way to make it simpler for large US corporations to export American jobs to avoid paying US taxes. (Seth Hammond, Goodwell, Oklahoma)
VERY CLEAR, adj. Modifier used immediately before any preposterous explanation or rationale. (Lance L. Prata, Eastlake Weir, Florida)
What do the CIA, the Pentagon and the UN have in common? They share a prescient view of the world's greatest dangers and their unheralded agreement on key issues facing the planet has received far too little attention in the media.
Since 2000, all three institutions have produced a number of valuable reports arguing that so-called soft issues like poverty, disease and climate change are endangering global stability and the future of the United States.
This rising consensus should compel US policy-makers to concede a most basic point--we need a global development agenda. It isn't a soft-headed, idealistic thing either. Unless we confront issues like poverty and gender inequality, the world will become more destabilized, increasingly violent and less secure.
In December 2000, the CIA's Global Trends 2015 report warned of instability brought on by a shortage of drinking water--"the single most contested resource on the planet," as Time.com described the CIA's findings. The report also warned that nation-states would soon disintegrate, "non-state actors" like Osama bin Laden would emerge as greater threats, that populations would increase by one billion people by 2015, and that HIV/AIDS would represent a major security issue in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and the former Soviet Republics. (Another CIA report issued that same year, "Global Infectious Disease Threat," estimated that by 2020 over half of all deaths from infectious disease in the developing world will be caused by AIDS, imperiling government stability, food production, health services, and even nuclear/weapons security in places.)
Some cities in the Arab world would become "impossibly overpopulated hubs of discontent, dramatically under-serviced by such basic infrastructure as drinking water and sewage," as Time.com described the CIA's Global Trends 2015 report's conclusions. "Their population is likely to be young, hungry, sick, disillusioned and very, very angry."
The CIA's report argued that we should increase foreign aid and investment, along the lines of the Marshall Plan, to close a growing divide between rich and poor, which would, in turn, reduce threats to the United States.
The CIA's findings, which remarkably dovetail with the United Nation's Millenium Development Goals, ought to be heard as a rousing call to fund the UN's development agenda--the only truly global Marshall Plan of our time. The UN's Millenium agenda--adopted in 2000--includes reducing by half those suffering from hunger; reducing child mortality for children under five by two-thirds; cutting in half the number of those without access to safe drinking water and establishing universal primary education and halting the spread of HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases by 2015.
The statistics don't lie: UNICEF reports that one billion children are living in poverty (or every second child); more than 121 million primary school age children are out of school--the majority of them are girls; and that 10.6 million children died in 2003 before they were five of largely preventable deaths.
The global community knows how to deal with these catastrophes. By spending $150 billion dollars worldwide each year, the UN could actually meet its Millennium Goals over the next decade. (UNICEF puts the figure somewhere between $40 and $70 billion--either way, it's a paltry sum in contrast to the $956 billion spent annually worldwide on military items.)
Indeed, while the CIA and the UN may diverge on rationale and policy implications, the underlying issues in the decade ahead give credibility to the much-derided "soft" side of the global agenda. Supported by Gordon Brown, Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer, the UN Global Millennium Agenda offers an agenda that do-gooders as well as economists, national security strategists and CIA agents can (and should) love.
Meanwhile, earlier this year, the Pentagon tasked two futurologists with assessing long-term threats to the United States--their report, "Imagining the Unthinkable," focused on "worst-case" scenarios and actually cited climate change as a major long-term threat to US national security.
The report's co-author, Peter Schwartz, told NPR's Living on Earth that the "most extreme case would be a scenario of fairly rapid warming in the near future--the next, say, decade or so--that would in turn trigger rapid cooling. "Ultimately, we'd see 'warming' [in] Europe, parts of the northeastern United States and Canada.You'd see severe storms--more torrential rainfall--very short winters, a shift in the location of tornadoes--and 'mega-droughts.'" Conflicts over water and fishing rights would emerge, and refugees would flock to the US in greater numbers.
An even more recent report issued last fall--and authored by the Defense Science Board Task Force, an organization that advises the Secretary of Defense--raised crucial issues. The report, virtually ignored by the mainstream media, found that: "Muslims do not 'hate our freedom,' but rather they hate our policies" and "American direct intervention in the Muslim world has paradoxically elevated the stature of and support for radical Islamists..." The study also concluded that US public diplomacy faces "a fundamental problem of credibility" and that US support for authoritarian regimes in the region has undermined the so-called war on terror by turning ordinary Muslims against the West.
Back in Dec. 2000, John Gannon--Chairman of the National Intelligence Council and one of the authors of the CIA Global Trends 2015 report--urged America to deal with countries that "feel they're being left behind"--thereby confronting the downside of globalization. Yet, four years have passed, and America's political leadership is doing quite the opposite: neglecting the global South and attacking the UN as outdated and useless.
While our mangled Iraq war policy is sowing hatred for America in the Middle East, American policy-makers have failed to heed the rising global consensus that poverty, climate change and the global HIV/AIDS pandemic demand intelligent and collective response and funding.
How many more reports (and threats) must appear before attacking the world's most glaring problems becomes priority number one?
In a decision that was as unsurprising as it was shallow, Time magazine picked George W. Bush as its Person of the Year for the amazing feat of winning reelection as an incumbent president. Leaving aside the fact that since WWII only two incumbent presidents have lost reelection bids, Time is rewarding process over content, style over substance.
The fact is that, with the exception of one day (November 2nd), Bush has had a terrible year. The budget deficit is the highest in our history. The dollar is in free fall. Gas prices have shot through the roof. Job creation is at a post WWII low. The tepid economic recovery has stalled. More and more children are being left behind. The country is bitterly divided. The rest of the world loathes us. Afghanistan is once again the world's leading exporter of heroin. The Iraq war, which was supposed to be a cakewalk, has turned into a quagmire. The American military is stretched to the breaking point as the casualty rate rises and recruitment falls. The Abu Ghraib torture photos are being used by al Qaeda as recruitment posters.
But Bush won, so Time magazine gave him the prize, because: "the president has reshaped the rules of politics to fit his 10-gallon-hat leadership style." It sounds like a polite way of saying, Bush proved you can be a really rotten president and still get reelected. As Texans say, the man is "all hat, no cattle." And Time fell for it hook, line and sinker.
Is America better off now than it was a year ago? I'm sure everyone has a quick answer, but the Drum Major Institute's Year in Review provides you with the hard facts, evidence, and analysis to back it up.
From changes in rules governing overtime to the proposed gutting of the Community Reinvestment Act, the DMI Review offers a scathing indictment of the national Administration.
In fact, with top-level support for the outsourcing of jobs and federal inaction on the skyrocketing costs of health care and higher education, this Administration showed a staggering disinterest in reversing the squeeze on America's middle class, content to allow our nation to be divided into those with vast wealth and then everyone else.
At the same time, the Year in Review highlights the success of local organizations and policymakers from both parties to expand access to affordable prescription drugs, stall the steady encroachment of big-box mega-stores into middle-class communities, raise the minimum wage, and provide entry for immigrant children to attain a higher education--all of which the President would not do.
The DMI 2004 Year in Review also offers its take on the best and worst in public policy, a recap of the 2004 national election (how divided are we, really?), a 2004 Injustice Index (the real state of the union, by the numbers), report recommendations, a highlight of efforts on the frontlines in five states (from California's struggle against Wal-Mart to Washington, DC's struggle for taxation with representation), and more. Click here to download and circulate the full report.
When I read last month that James Rowse--the chairman of Veryfine Products Inc., the juice bottling concern, had died, I thought of how this man's life embodied a much more enlightened era in the history of American business.
When Kraft purchased Rowse's company in early 2004, Rowse set aside $15 million in proceeds that he then distributed to his company's workers. He ensured that all of Veryfine's 400 employees would keep their jobs, and that those with a minimum of 20 years experience would receive an extra year's pay.
In a recent email, Scott Klinger, co-director of the Responsible Wealth project at United for a Fair Economy in Boston, cited other examples of enlightened business leadership. One of his favorites, he said, is Bob Kierlin, founder and recently retired CEO of Fastenal, an Ohio-based public company.
As Klinger wrote, Kierlin took justifiable pride in the fact "that many other employees made more than he did, but he paid employees' stock options personally out of his founder's stock. Kierlin also eschewed the palatial lifestyle...preferring to drive a few hours to visit customers, stay at budget motels, and, much to the chagrin of many colleagues, share a room with associates."
Rowse and Kierlin are exceptions to the rule. We live in times when morality is disdained in corporate boardrooms. The social compact that rested on the idea that honest labor deserves a living wage has all but disappeared.
The Bush Administration and Republicans in Congress have formed an alliance with rapacious CEOs to foster an anything-goes atmosphere. Labor is devalued, fair play is dishonored and greed and corporate ethics have become synonymous. (Is it any surprise that in the 2004 elections, the largest corporate PACs favored Republicans over Democrats by a ten to one margin?)
It was recently disclosed that pharmaceutical giant Merck established a golden parachute for its 230 senior executives so if the company is bought, managers would be able to walk away with three years in salary and bonuses. And three years after the Enron debacle, business groups are fighting a pitched battle with state employee pension funds against reforms which would make future corporate looting of employee pensions much more difficult.
Part of "the problem," as Klinger sees it, "is the stories that corporate executives tell themselves about their worth, relative to the rest of their colleagues. The ‘star culture' has invaded many large company cultures. Executives are convinced that their work is what creates shareholder value and other employees are commodities to be acquired at the lowest possible cost."
Klinger and Responsible Wealth co-director Mike Lapham "lay responsibility for the growing divide between workers and executives largely at the feet of Congress." Congress has refused "to require stock options to be counted as expenses in corporate earnings reports." It has "allowed lavish executive pay in the hundreds of millions per CEO to be deducted as a ‘reasonable' business expense from companies' taxes."
Meanwhile, Congress hasn't even held a vote to raise the minimum wage--stuck at a mere $5.15 per hour since 1996. "Since that time, they've raised their own salaries seven times and doubled the pay of the President," Klinger pointed out.
Moreover, between 1970 and 2001, the top 100 executives' median income increased from 35 times the average worker's salary to 500 times what the average worker makes. In 2003, Bank of America cut 5,000 jobs from its payroll, while its CEO Kenneth Lewis took home $37.9 million.
Things are likely to get worse before they improve. The Bush Administration recently floated a proposal that would cut taxes on interest, dividends and capital gains and give additional tax breaks to big business. At the same time, the White House wants to eliminate federal tax deductions of state and local income taxes and to forbid businesses to deduct the value of health coverage from their tax bills. (Enacting the last change will be "the quickest way to create millions of uninsured people," John Irons, a tax and budget analyst at the Center for American Progress, says.)
Changing the culture of greed and re-establishing a social compact that values work will require serious changes in key policy areas. First, Klinger says, "We need different people on corporate boards. The people responsible for overseeing executive pay are the very same people who themselves are receiving excessive pay."
Second, the SEC should follow through on what it "proposed a year ago, opening up the corporate director election process by allowing shareholders to put forth competitive slates." The idea became "the most commented-on proposal in the history of the SEC, receiving more than 10,000 public comments, over 90 percent of which were in favor. But, "the SEC has yet to issue a final rule because of behind-the-scenes belly-aching from corporate lobbyists," who are threatening to sue the Commission. ("The Soviet Union," Klinger adds, "used to put up one candidate for each elected office and it was thoroughly excoriated for it. Today's corporate elections are no different, and yet we are told this is good governance.")
Third, "the public should no longer subsidize unlimited executive pay." Our laws state that corporations are allowed to "deduct ‘reasonable business expenses,' so let's define what that means," says Klinger. "The Income Equity Act, introduced in the last several sessions of Congress, would allow corporations to deduct for tax purposes corporate pay up to 25 times the pay of the lowest-paid workers. Corporations could continue to pay whatever they wished, but shareholders would have to pay the full cost of huge pay packages."
It's also important, Lapham argues, to understand--and change--the fact that "we live in a winner-takes all society, where individual achievement is honored and concepts like teamwork and community are generally ignored. There is a myth in our society that certain individuals are smarter, more motivated, get up earlier, work harder, take risks…and thereby create wealth all by themselves…We often come across successful individuals saying with a straight face ‘I never got any help from anybody.'"
Such an idea, he says, is absurd. "This attitude discounts the role of society in helping create wealth." It discounts "the role of public education" and "public infrastructure - roads, bridges, airports, etc...What about the role of government in maintaining a legal system and a system of contracts that makes business possible?" If America can form a different answer to the wealth-creation question, it "would lead to radical changes in pay structure, tax policy and health care policy."
It would also go a long way to reclaiming the ideals of hard work and fair play that James Rowse fought to make into reality.