Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.
When Netroots Nation convenes its 9th annual conference in Detroit this month, I hope that attendees arrive pre-hydrated. Because despite living at the hub of the largest group of freshwater lakes on the planet—taken together, the Great Lakes represent more than one-fifth of the world’s surface freshwater—Detroit residents are running out of running water. They’re also running into city and state bureaucracies that, alarmingly, don’t seem to care.
In March, when the winter freeze finally began to thaw, Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD), the city’s public utility, announced that it would resume shutting off water to delinquent customers, at a rate of 1,500 to 3,000 per week. As a result, some 40 percent of DWSD customers will lose their water supply by the end of the summer; 70,000 of these customers are residential, which means that 200,000 to 300,000 Detroiters could be directly affected. This is, to be sure, a public health crisis.
The city would have an easier time explaining itself if it were being at all consistent in its treatment of delinquent customers. In a New York Times op-ed, journalist Anna Clark noted that Joe Louis Arena, home of the National Hockey League’s Red Wings, was $82,255 in arrears on its water bill as of last April; Ford Field, where the NFL’s Detroit Lions play, owes more than $55,000; and city-owned golf courses owe more than $400,000. No date has been set to give these commercial customers their shut-off notices. Meanwhile, Clark writes, “the city is going after any customers who are more than sixty days late and owe at least $150.”
In a Los Angeles Times op-ed that (sadly) compares Detroit to Donetsk, Michael Hiltzik writes bitterly that in Ukraine, “[W]arring pro- and anti-Russian forces are using basic necessities of life, such as water, as weapons against the civilian population….The same thing is happening in Detroit, where city officials have subjected the civilian population to mass shutoffs of water for past-due bills, then placed bureaucratic obstacles in the way getting service restored.” And it’s service, mind you, that’s seen a 119 percent rate increase over the last ten years, including an 8.7 percent uptick approved by the city council just last month.
The average monthly water bill for a family of four in Detroit is nearly double the national average. Chris Hayes reported on MSNBC that, though the E.P.A. recommends that families spend no more than 2.5 percent of their pretax income on water and sewage, some residents of Detroit pay 20 percent of their pretax income for these services. Those who can’t pay face a shutoff—and a stigmatizing blue slash of paint in front of their houses, signifying that they are, in fact, waterless.
On June 18, four advocacy groups—Detroit People’s Water Board, the Blue Planet Project, Food & Water Watch, and the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization—submitted to the United Nations a report documenting the situation. In response this week, UN experts condemned DWSD, noting, “Disconnection of water services because of failure to pay due to lack of means constitutes a violation of the human right to water and other international human rights.” Catarina de Albuquerque, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation and Senior Legal Adviser at the Prosecutor General’s Office, continued, “Disconnections due to non-payment are only permissible if it can be shown that the resident is able to pay but is not paying. In other words, when there is genuine inability to pay, human rights simply forbids disconnections.”
And as if depriving people of a basic human right isn’t outrageous enough, the byzantine legal and financial machinations behind the city’s actions are truly galling. The details, as described in Counterpunch by Detroit lawyer Tom Stephens, are dizzying—even the oversimplified Godfather analogy that he uses to analogize the city’s shady dealings requires a careful parsing—but they boil down to the simple premise that Motown values its financial-institution creditors more than its own citizens. It’s but another example of the 1 Percent’s preferences taking precedence over the Ninety-nine’s necessities. Indeed, many believe that DWSD’s strong-arm tactics are part of a larger plan to make the utility more attractive to private investors.
One of emergency city manager Kevyn Orr’s first acts was to sign off on the hiring of his former employer, Jones Day, as the law firm supervising the city’s bankruptcy—”despite the fact,” Mark Binelli wrote in The New York Times last year, “that Jones Day already represents some of the very banks holding said debt, including JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America.” (Experts estimate that Detroit’s bill for Jones Day’s services will be around $100 million.) None of this is, of course, evidence of cronyism, but if it walks like a duck…
As part of the Netroots Nation conference, National Nurses United (The union is also active in the Robin Hood Tax movement) is holding a march and rally on Friday, July 18, to condemn Detroit’s shut-off program as a violation of human rights. If you’re attending Netroots Nation, I encourage you to participate in the action, which begins at 12:30 pm outside the Cobo Center in Downtown Detroit.
“There is,” writes author and activist Jane Jacobs in the introduction to The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), “a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder, and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served.” She could have been describing the Chapter 9 bankruptcy restructuring of Detroit. As Michigan’s brahmins work to appropriate and repurpose every last penny, they’re strangling and humiliating Detroit’s most valuable asset—that is, Detroiters themselves.
Read Next: John Nichols against austerity in Detroit—“Water Is a Basic Human Right.”
Last Monday, President Obama defied Republican threats to file suit against him for his use of executive orders. “If House Republicans are really concerned about me taking too many executive actions,” the president said, “the best solution to that is passing bills. Pass a bill, solve a problem.”
Republican obstruction is so extreme that House Speaker John Boehner can’t even get what he wants done, much less what the country needs. House Republicans have blocked countless jobs plans, stonewalled immigration reform, stopped a hike in the minimum wage and prevented emergency unemployment benefits from even getting a vote.
So Obama has begun to act—often belatedly and timidly in his supporters’ view. He has tempered deportation of the “dreamers,” kids born in the United States to undocumented immigrants, and promises more action on immigration. He has ordered that the unconstitutional Defense of Marriage Act not be enforced against gay couples. He has issued a bevy of minor common sense measures on gun control (like making it harder for the mentally ill to get a permit). His push for executive action on climate change will have real impact. And recently, he lifted the minimum wage for federal contract workers to $10.10 an hour, shaming Republican obstruction of this long overdue measure.
Republicans are simply drinking the Kool-Aid if they think they can make Obama’s initiatives an issue in the fall elections. Americans want action, not more dysfunction.
Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.
Read Next: Dear Democrats, economic inequality is not an act of God.
“Inequality” is out as a White House talking point, The Washington Post reported on July 4. “Opportunity” is in. This is a problem. It’s just wrongheaded to believe that we face a binary choice: reform an unequal system or help the middle class.
By implying that there is a disconnect between inequality and opportunity, (many, not all) Democrats ignore the fact that opportunity cannot be provided as long as the economic and financial system is so unequal. Some, like Senator Elizabeth Warren, intuitively understand this. After all, she first came to Washington to battle a system that has long been rigged against the middle class, where working families’ voices get overpowered by well-funded lobbyists who hold elected officials by the pocket. By creating an artificial division between inequality and opportunity, we turn a blind eye to this rampant unfairness that helped the 1 percent ascend to their economic perches in the first place.
We also accept the built-in unfairness of the system as, simply, the way things are. Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, labels this flawed way of thinking “passive-voice populism.” We assume that the ups and downs of the American middle class are as natural and as out-of-our-hands as the ebb and flow of the tides: economic inequality as an act of god. But, Borosage writes, “inequality didn’t just happen to us. It wasn’t inevitable. Just as the broad middle class was constructed brick by brick after World War II, the decline of that middle class was constructed policy-by-policy, step-by-step over the last three decades.” Or, as Warren Buffett famously said in 2011, “[T]here’s been class warfare going on for the last twenty years, and my class has won. We’re the ones that have gotten our tax rates reduced dramatically.”
If we want to really create “opportunity” within our system, then we need to change the system. We need more than, as Borosage wrote today, “rhetorical pablum about lifting the middle class.” A solution, he continues, “will involve taking on the rigged game and changing the rules. And that inevitably will require curbing Wall Street, taxing the wealthy and making vital public investments, closing the tax havens and dodges of the multinationals, requiring the Federal Reserve to favor a full employment economy for workers rather than an austerity regime for bankers, and much more.”
On May 1, Senator Warren (D-MA) wrote in a prescriptive CNN op-ed, “We can repair the cracks in the middle class. We can strengthen our foundations and make sure that all of our children have a fighting chance. But it means changing who Washington works for—and doesn’t.”
It means providing opportunity by addressing inequality—at the same time.
Read Next: On this Fourth of July, meet your unpatriotic corporations
Years ago, I noticed that America’s major drugstore chains tend to utilize the same corporate color scheme. Walgreens, CVS, Rite Aid—all patriotic in red, white, and blue. Even regional chains take their identity cues from Old Glory. But this July 4, American corporations—including one drugstore chain, in one recent example—are using tax loopholes to act in the most unpatriotic of ways.
Walgreens, The New York Times reported, is looking to relocate from Illinois to Switzerland, in the process merging with a Swiss corporation and reincorporating itself as a foreign entity. It is, bluntly, an old-fashioned tax dodge, aimed at trimming eleven percentage points off the company’s corporate tax rate. Americans for Tax Fairness estimates that the move will cost US taxpayers more than $4 billion over the next five years. Using a procedure called “inversion,” an American company can reincorporate itself overseas as long as its domestic (US) owners retain no more than 80 percent of its stock. Walgreens, after merging with European drugstore chain Alliance Boots (itself a loophole-exploiter, having moved from the UK to Switzerland itself in order to lower its tax bill), will meet the criteria and legally become a Swiss corporation.
As the Times reported last fall, inversion is increasingly popular among American corporations. California chip maker Applied Materials merged with a Japanese competitor, Tokyo Electron, and the New York advertising group Omnicom merged with the French Publicis Groupe, to name two of the 20 inversions completed since April 2012. Applied Materials will save about $100 million in taxes each year, Omnicom $80 million.
There are few acts more unpatriotic than siphoning your tax dollars away from Uncle Sam and into your own pocket. Decreased tax revenue leads to yet more cuts in our social safety net, which is already ragged enough to begin with. According to Americans for Tax Fairness, Walgreens $4 billion-plus dodge could be used to fund 1.5 years of prescriptions for the entire VA veterans population; 639,000 people covered under Medicaid; or 3.5 million children under the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Perhaps Walgreens corporate greed isn’t surprising, as recent events have shown just how little America’s corporate class actually cares about veterans, Medicaid, and the uninsured
But it’s still enraging. Walgreens earns nearly one-quarter of its $72 billion in annual revenue from…Medicaid and Medicare disbursements; that is, directly from the government—or taxpayers like you and me. Though his eye was more on outsourcing labor than on tax-dodging, Ralph Nader in 2012 wrote of the blatant anti-American practices of US corporations, “The bosses of these companies believe they can have it both ways—getting all the benefits of their native country while shipping whole industries and jobs to communist and fascist regimes abroad that keep their workers in serf-like conditions.”
With inversion, companies like Walgreens are also trying to have it both ways: reap the revenue from America’s enormous consumer base and public-health moneys, then save a bundle by stiffing the government on their fair share of the bill. This Fourth of July, remember that patriotism means more than red, white, and blue, more than the flag. It means taking responsibility for and stewardship over our shared home.
Read Next: How New York real estate became a dumping ground for the world’s dirty money
Shortly after 11 pm on June 24, the media declared six-term Republican Senator Thad Cochran the winner of Mississippi’s hard-fought Republican runoff primary. The reason, the pundits quickly concluded, was an unprecedented surge in black Democrats—some 13,000 or more—crossing over to support Cochran over his virulently anti-government Tea Party opponent, Chris McDaniel. “It should send a message,” retired school principal Ned Tolliver said. “It shows that we have the power to elect who we want to elect when the time is right.”
Around the time the polls closed, a very different view of Mississippi was playing out on PBS, in the form of a documentary called Freedom Summer. Grippingly recounting the 1964 effort that brought more than 700 college students—primarily white Northerners—to register black voters in Mississippi, the film is part of a flood of fiftieth-anniversary commemorations, from conferences to children’s books. In grim and grainy black-and-white footage, interspersed with interviews from the heroic Americans who risked beatings and firebombings and even death, these tributes remind us of the long road to African-Americans having the power to elect who they want to elect and celebrate those who made it possible.
And there is much to celebrate. Mississippi—where only 28,000 blacks were registered to vote in 1963—now boasts more black elected officials than any other state, including the recently reelected first black mayor of Philadelphia, the site of the brutal murders of three civil rights workers. The “WHITES” and “COLORED” signs have long since come down. A black man sits in the Oval Office.
Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.
Read Next: Why the Mississippi Republican winner should thank Freedom Summer fifty years later.
This Sunday, Katrina vanden Heuvel appeared on ABC’s This Week and challenged Bill Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, on Iraq and American foreign policy. Vanden Heuvel called Kristol one of the “architects of catastrophe that have cost this country trillions of dollars, thousands of lives.” She added, “This country should not go back to war. We don’t need armchair warriors, and if you feel so strongly, you should, with all due respect, enlist in the Iraqi Army.”
As Iraq blows up (again) and tensions rise in the Ukraine and in the South China Sea, the United States’ debate is focused on military intervention. Neoconservatives, having learned nothing from the debacle they caused in Iraq, indict the president for not intervening in Syria and for leaving Iraq. Liberal interventionists, having learned nothing from the calamities now visited on Libya, call for modulated bombing in both. The beleaguered administration sends planes to the Baltic states and Poland, ships to Asia, token troops to Baghdad, sustains hundreds of bases around the globe and is accused of withdrawing from the world. Commentators fret over whether the war-weariness of the American people will keep the “indispensable nation” from doing what must be done.
When you have a hammer, as the adage goes, everything looks like a nail. The United States’ hammer is the most sophisticated military in the world—and nails appear in infinite variety across the globe.
Virtually absent from the debate is any awareness of how much the United States’ commitment to police the world detracts from dealing with the real security needs of its people and the globe. Last week, Richard Trumka, president of the AFLCIO, delivered a short address that reminded us of what is being lost in the muscle flexing.
Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.
Read Next: How many times do neocons get to be wrong about Iraq before we stop listening?
In President Obama’s own words, too many American workplaces resemble scenes from Mad Men. Many employers’ attitudes toward family-friendly reforms seem to stem from the same unenlightened era—that is, at least, until they see the bottom-line results that these reforms can inspire. For a nation that claims to value family, the United States has an abysmal record on family-friendly workplace policies. Without access to maternity and paternity leave, affordable childcare and paid sick leave, working parents have almost no flexibility to balance the needs of their families with the requirements of their jobs. In short, when it comes to family-friendly labor policies, America is, indeed, exceptional—exceptionally backward.
Take paid sick days. As I’ve written previously, more than 40 million Americans, mostly low-income workers, lack access to paid sick leave. No matter how ill they are, they must clock in—and they could lose their jobs if they stay home to care for a sick child or aging parent. Meanwhile, childcare remains prohibitively expensive, and the United States has yet to enact universal pre-K, all of which leave even middle-class working parents with few affordable options for their little ones.
Paid sick days are overwhelmingly popular across ideological lines. Ninety-six percent of Democrats, 87 percent of independents and 73 percent of Republicans support the policy. Moreover, this popularity is supported by the data. Five years after the 2004 implementation of California’s Paid Family Leave program, for example, employers reported a neutral or positive affect on employee productivity, profitability and turnover. New Jersey’s program saved businesses money by improving employee retention, decreasing turnover and boosting productivity. Also, it’s simply common sense. The chief lobbyist against the paid sick leave bill in San Francisco told Businessweek that, among various workplace reforms, paid sick leave offers “the best public policy for the least cost. Do you want your server coughing over your food?”
Then there’s maternity and paternity leave. Today, around 2 million men stay at home to raise their children. Beyond that, even the masses of men who aren’t primary caregivers are increasingly involved in the details of childrearing. But while men are more hands-on than ever before, they are nevertheless experiencing more conflict between their work and family roles than they did thirty years ago.
Under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, many, but not all, employees are allowed to take up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave for things like illness and the birth of a child, without the risk of losing their jobs. However, up to 40 percent of workers do not meet the law’s strict eligibility requirements. The United States is the only Western country that does not mandate paid maternity leave—and just 14 percent of employers offer paid leave for new fathers. Moreover, while new mothers physically have no choice but to take at least some time off—even at the risk of losing pay or even their jobs—one study found that 86 percent of working fathers would not use paternity leave unless they were paid at least 70 percent of their salaries. The same study revealed that fathers generally take a meager two weeks off from work after the birth of a new child.
Many business groups complain that offering flexibility to their employees will hurt the bottom line, but this is short-sighted. As the data in California and New Jersey show, workplace flexibility makes economic sense, and it allows companies to attract and retain talent. In fact, cities that have implemented paid leave have seen improved worker morale, increased productivity, and small and large business growth.
But businesses can’t act alone. That’s why on June 9, the White House convened a group of fathers, researchers and business leaders—including New York Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy, who missed Opening Day this season to be present for the birth of his son—to discuss the challenges working dads face. The event was a precursor to the White House Working Families Summit on June 23, which is bringing together parents, employers and elected officials to discuss how to make the workplace more fair for working families. While Murphy, who is taking paternity leave, may be the exception to the rule, high-profile fathers like him can help elevate the issue and generate support for smart, sane policies.
There’s no shortage of ideas. Cities and states across the country—Mayor Bill de Blasio’s New York City, in particular—are enacting laws like paid sick leave and universal pre-K. Several bills are in fact circulating at the federal level, including the FAMILY Act, sponsored by Democrats Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (NY) and Representative Rosa DeLauro (CT). The bill would provide partial income for up to twelve weeks of leave for new parents and to care for a sick family member or a worker’s own medical condition. And research from Demos shows that President Obama could help 8 million workers—70 percent of whom are women—by issuing an executive order to raise the minimum wage for employees working for federal contractors. It’s a good start, but it’s still a long way from where we need to go.
While Republicans traffic in the self-righteous language of family values, they have, without a hint of irony, long opposed pro-family policies like paid maternity leave and affordable childcare. And as long as workplace flexibility is seen as a women’s issue, it will continue to be easy for them to obstruct progress. But now, as more fathers—including those, like MLB’s Daniel Murphy, engaged in those most American of pursuits—struggle to balance the competing demands of work and family, the political winds may shift in favor of humane, commonsense workplace flexibility laws for all Americans. That’s how we can really translate “family values” into valuing families.
Read Next: When will we stop asking neocons what to do in Iraq?
Can someone explain to me why the media still solicit advice about the crisis in Iraq from Senator John McCain (R-AZ)? Or Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SS)? How many times does the Beltway hawk caucus get to be wrong before we recognize that maybe, just maybe, its members don’t know what they’re talking about?
Certainly Politico could have found someone with more credibility than Douglas Feith, former undersecretary of defense for policy in the George W. Bush administration and one of the architects of the Iraq War, to comment on how the White House might react to the rapidly deteriorating political situation in Iraq today. Certainly New York Times columnist David Brooks knows what folly it is to equate President Obama’s 2011 troop removal with Bush’s 2003 invasion, as he did during a discussion with me last Friday on NPR?
Just a reminder of what that 2003 invasion led to: Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes authoritatively priced Bush’s war at more than $3 trillion. About 320,000 US veterans suffer from brain injury as a result of their service. Between 500,000 and 655,000 Iraqis died, as well as more than 4,000 US military members.
Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.
Read Next: "Time For Evolution in US Cuba Policy"
The sad irony of US-Cuban relations is that Cuba, under the leadership of 83-year-old Raúl Castro, is changing rapidly, and the United States, despite President Obama’s promises of a “new beginning,” remains largely frozen in a self-destructive Cold War policy.
The fifty-plus-year-old embargo of Cuba continues. The administration still lists Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism.” The United States continues to sponsor covert activities—this time a US Agency for International Development attempt to generate “smart mobs” through a secret text-messaging program—to help destabilize the regime. Ten presidents after the embargo began, US policy remains dedicated to folly.
Meanwhile the world, the hemisphere and Cuba have changed. If anything, the embargo isolates the United States, not Cuba. Washington’s relationship with the region is deteriorating, corroded by its policy toward Cuba. With few exceptions, the left-leaning governments that govern across Latin America have normal relations with Cuba and scorn the US attempt to isolate the little island. At the last Summit of the Americas in 2012, the presidents of Brazil and of Colombia, one of the few remaining US allies, joined several other countries in announcing they would skip the next summit in 2015 if Cuba is not invited. And well they should, as the summits become increasingly irrelevant, with regional trading and political ties developing with the United States, not Cuba, on the sidelines.
Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.
Read Next: Why American warfare has yielded few results.