Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.
Dropping “a bomb on our country’s disastrous war on marijuana with unprecedented force,” The New York Times launched last month High Time: An Editorial Series on Marijuana Legalization, a seven-parter that puts the paper squarely—I believe—on the right side of history on this issue. (Happily, with the exception of its title, “High Time” is refreshingly free of bad puns and Cheetos jokes.) Citing “vast social costs,” “racist results,” and “overwhelming evidence that addiction and dependence are relatively minor problems,” the Timeseditorial board advocated a repeal of the nation’s cannabis prohibition.
Last November, of course, The Nation went all-in on marijuana-law reform with our “Dope and Change” issue, and I wrote, “If Congress—with its dismal 8 percent approval rating—wants to enjoy a popularity as high as marijuana’s, it might consider revisiting pot’s federal prohibition.” The blanket federal ban is unworkable on many levels, not least of which is the capriciousness of its enforcement: Given the crazy-quilt of state and local medicinal and decriminalization laws, the actual prohibition of marijuana in this country comes down to, as the Times puts it, “the whims of whoever happens to be in the White House and chooses to enforce or not enforce the federal law.” Needless to say, this type of jurisprudence is neither fair nor just; Harry Levine reported in “Dope and Change” that since 1997 in New York City, 87 percent of NYPD’s 600,000 marijuana-possession arrests were of blacks and Latinos.
The data-driven, nuts-and-bolts reasons for legalization are legion, and—to an unbiased eye—overwhelmingly convincing. But the bias behind prohibition, born out of 1920s- and ’30s-era xenophobia and racism, continues to impress itself on the minds of pundits and policymakers across the political spectrum. “The problem that prohibition advocates have,” writes Paul Waldman at The American Prospect, “is that so much of their rhetoric hasn’t changed in decades, steeped in culture war resentments and reliant on fear-mongering.” A 2008 article on AlterNet illustrates that twentieth-century drug prohibition was born in places where white minorities ruled over non-white majorities—South Africa and Jamaica, for example—before becoming a xenophobic tool of law enforcement (against Latinos in California and Texas, Middle Eastern immigrants in New York, Asians on the Pacific Coast) in places with white majorities.
An examination into the whys and wherefores of our broken cannabis policy is well overdue. After all, this story can and should be about more than just marijuana. American pot prohibition ought to be seen as a cautionary tale of what happens when we create policy based not on appropriately reasoned ideas, but rather on fear, racism and the sensational-but-unfounded caterwauling of policymakers and think-tankers who should know better.
If American drug prohibition laws were enacted, as is convincingly argued, in the service of furthering discrimination, then you’d have to say—based on the arrest and incarceration numbers—that they’ve been a smashing success. But as far as advancing public health goes… well, they’re a disaster. This discrepancy is worth noting. At a time when governmental dysfunction is so prevalent and the demand for congressional action—any action—is high, we need to be aware of the real motives we’re asking our elected officials to promote (For example, how much of our “homeland security” policy is actually driven by xenophobia and racism? How much resistance to the Affordable Care Act?). With marijuana, bigotry-based policy has delivered a nearly 100-year-long quagmire from which we’re only now beginning to extricate ourselves with fact-based debate and informed dissent.
Read Next: Lee Fang on the real reason pot is still illegal
When it comes to moments in history, 1973 was not exactly a banner year for the Republican Party. The Senate Watergate Committee began its televised hearings in May. Spiro Agnew resigned in October. And President Nixon used a pre-Thanksgiving news conference at Disney World to unconvincingly assure the country that he was not, in fact, a crook. A tough year, indeed, for the grand old party.
But if you were a corporate conglomerate who dreamed of lower taxes and lax regulations and lesser rights for workers, 1973 was, ironically enough, a well-spring of new opportunity. That’s when a group of conservative activists joined together to engineer a different kind of burglary—one that involved forcibly entering cities and states with the intent to loot their working and middle classes.
The mechanism? A new organization dubbed the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. The idea? Don’t just lobby state and city governments; write the actual laws you want them to pass and then hand it out as model legislation. In the decades since its inception, ALEC has dismantled environmental regulations, pushed for school vouchers, compromised public safety by backing “stand your ground” laws and crippled unions with right-to-work legislation.
ALEC remains the ubiquitous conservative puppet-master; its fingerprints and that of its most well-known supporters (the Koch brothers, Exxon Mobil, Pfizer, AT&T, etc.) can be found all over right-wing legislation that has made its way through the state and local legislative process. To understand the magnitude of its influence, consider that of the more than 100 bills introduced between 2011 and 2013 to repeal or weaken minimum wage laws, sixty-seven of them related back to ALEC. And in 2009, 115 of ALEC’s 826 model bills were enacted into law.
Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.
Read Next: The downing of Flight 17 should trigger talks, not more violence.
The recent downing of flight MH17 over Ukraine has received a huge amount of attention from the press, but, according to Nation editor and publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel, neither the mainstream media nor our government are adequately acknowledging the already violent atmosphere that surrounded the crash. On Democracy Now! this morning, vanden Heuvel explained that the tragedy should have presented an opportunity to end violence that she says has already escalated into civil war: “There should be a renewed effort, not to trigger more violence, but to trigger cease-fire, to trigger talks that could end the humanitarian catastrophe in the southeast of Ukraine.”
—Hannah Harris Green
The violence in eastern Ukraine has now claimed more innocent victims, with 298 dead in the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Children, scientists headed to an AIDS conference, families on vacation—their deaths add to the hundreds of civilian casualties and tens of thousands of refugees victimized by the spreading conflict, which the Kiev government is now escalating.
The shooting of a civilian airliner is clearly a tragic mistake that no one wants to own, but that comes all too often in war zones. Currently, the Dutch government—193 of its citizens perished in the crash—said it “would hold off assigning blame as it pursues its top priorities of recovering the victims’ bodies and conducting an independent investigation of the crash site in eastern Ukraine.”
However, in the United States, the tragedy has triggered a ferocious chorus of media and political condemnation of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. Putin is called the “puppet master” or worse, with commentators asserting that he can end the war at will. The separatist militias in the east are scorned as Moscow’s pawns. The Kiev government’s bombing of its own cities and people is treated as a necessary response to Russian provocation.
All this ignores the context of this crisis and worse seems designed to fan the flames of the conflict. Already the United States has imposed new sanctions on Russia and is pushing its reluctant European allies to join. The Russians have responded with sanctions of their own. The Ukrainian government’s attacks in the eastern regions continue, with US aid and involvement certain to increase.
Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.
Read Next: Scientist and activist committed to ending AIDS perishes on MH17
“The Nation for decades has covered Cuba in a way that few publications have done or dared,” I told The New York Times in June, ahead of the magazine’s first-ever educational trip to the island. Even as Washington’s position on the embargo remains frozen in time, remarkable changes are taking place in Cuba, from a new law that opens the country up to foreign investment to the paladares—private, in-home restaurants that are catering to increasing numbers of tourists and an emerging Cuban middle class. Behind the work of Cuban National Center for Sex Education Director Mariela Castro—President Raúl Castro’s daughter—Cuba is considering legalizing same-sex marriage, subsidizing sex-change operations and banning discrimination based on sexuality at the workplace.
The US embargo against Cuba has been in place for more than fifty years, and it remains in place thanks in large part to anti-Castro reactionaries in Congress, most notably Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL). But as the right-leaning US Chamber of Commerce continues to oppose the embargo, and as “people-to-people” trips (like The Nation’s) facilitate cultural exchange by bringing in Americans on education-based excursions and facilitating more informed dialogue about policy, it is increasingly apparent that our Cold War policy is leaving us—and not the Cubans—out in the cold.
In the report that follows, Anna Theofilopoulou—who participated in The Nation’s first-ever people-to-people education trip—describes what she discovered. Though the island is saddled with “dire economic problems,” Theofilopoulou nevertheless found encouraging developments in healthcare and in the economy. Cuba’s infant-mortality rate is lower than ours, for example, and in indicators like Uneven Economic Development, Poverty, and Economic Decline, the separation between Cuba and the United States is narrower than you might imagine. Theofilopoulou also debunks some of the worn-out fallacies about Cuba that many Americans still believe in (including the notion that democratization of the island is impossible as long as Castro remains in power).
Meanwhile, at The Nation, we plan to continue these educational trips in to 2015 and beyond.
* * *
The Nation Magazine had its first ever educational exchange trip to Cuba, under the people-to-people educational outreach program allowed by the State Department. The program has been expanded by President Obama. I was fortunate to participate in the trip which included meeting with individuals representing the government, the media, non-governmental organizations, the Catholic Church and some private citizens. We also enjoyed some of Cuba’s amazing culture.
In the US, Cuba is mostly known for the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power, the break of relations with the US and subsequent embargo, the disastrous Bay of Pigs operation, the Cuba missile crisis, the Mariel refugees and Brothers to the Rescue debacles, the Elián González incident and Fidel Castro’s relationship with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. Also that Fidel Castro, after running Cuba for fifty years, appointed his brother Raúl initially to replace him temporarily and eventually to become president of Cuba.
One of our interlocutors, Rafael Hernandez, publisher of the political quarterly Temas, enumerated thirteen erroneous assumptions in the US about Cuba.
1. Since Raúl Castro became president, there has been no political change.
2. Raúl is the end of the line; once he goes, there will be no succession.
3. The military is the key institution in Cuba.
4. Dissent is prohibited and punished.
5. Political opposition groups are the democratic alternative in Cuba.
6. National political mediation is led by the Catholic Church.
7. As long as one party remains in power, no democratization is possible.
8. Cubans know nothing about the rest of the world.
9. Most youth want to leave Cuba.
10. Average monthly income in Cuba is $20.00
11. Cuban émigrés are exiles.
12. US-Cuban policy is driven by the Cuban-American lobby.
13. The Cuban-American political elite is changing as the second generation comes of age.
It is hard to say how much such assumptions contribute to the embargo which continues. There has been some tweaking here and there to deal with humanitarian issues after Cuba faced a food crisis when the former Soviet Union stopped subsidizing its economy two decades ago; also, after lobbying by Cuban Americans, remittances to relatives in Cuba and exchange of family visits are now allowed.
While aware that Fidel Castro overthrew a particularly corrupt and noxious regime and installed a socialist system which, for all its limitations, provided all Cubans with education, and medical health and covered everybody’s basic needs, I have been skeptical of a system that allows somebody to stay in power for fifty years and then pass the presidency to his brother.
But, having heard and read the impressions of friends and professional colleagues who had traveled and lived there, I wanted to see Cuba for myself and meet Cubans in their own country. I was also curious to see a country that has remained in a sort of time capsule because of the embargo.
After a week in Havana, with an one-day excursion to the Bay of Pigs and visits to Ernest Hemingway’s house and to an urban farm in the outskirts of Havana, I found Cuba an intriguing and fascinating country which I want to understand better. I left it with two over-riding thoughts.
One is a desire to return and see more of Cuba, visit its cities and country side, and meet and talk to more of its people. The second is wondering what is the US hoping to accomplish with the continuation of the fifty-year-old embargo?
What is the purpose of continuing with this futile exercise, the main contribution of which seems to be keeping 11 million people financially miserable? Does anybody in the US government, other than the most ardent ideologues, really believe that through the embargo the US will achieve “regime change” in Cuba or that the political system will change into a neo-liberal democracy?
FIRSTHAND IMPRESSIONS OF CUBA
Politics and the society
Like other interlocutors, Rafael Hernandez refuted the above-mentioned assumptions held in the United States. He pointed to the shrinking of the public sector under Raúl Castro, the growth of the private sector and downsizing of the military. Specifically, small private business are spreading, government employment has been reduced and continues to decrease, the food distribution system is being restructured. This process started in the ’90s, has accelerated since 2007.
He pointed out that Miguel Diaz-Canel, the vice president who will replace Raúl Castro, is a reformer, planning to continue with the changes. Despite what is believed in the United States, his views on key issues are known in Cuba.
Cubans are encouraged to express their views and even their complaints, they are polled regularly about what needs to improve and they are not hesitant to express their opinions. They are encouraged to participate in the policy making process and they are listened to. He claimed that Cuba has democracy and freedom but they are defined differently.
The Catholic Church, is one voice among many and stressed that propaganda that Cuba is a communist godless society, is completely unfounded. Through their education system, and the support that Cuba enjoys by just about every country, except the US, Cubans are among the most knowledgeable people about the rest of the world.
With the exception of some professions deemed essential for the country, young Cubans can and many of them have left. In fact, brain drain is a serious issue for Cuba as young people who never knew the previous system do not have the same commitment to the revolution as the previous generations and are not content with Cuba’s isolation by the US. He called the assumption that the average Cuban income is $20 per month absurd. Cuban émigrés are welcome to return, as long as they do not try to overturn the government.
Mr. Hernandez was also critical of policies in Cuba and identified seven key challenges for the Cuban socialist system with suggestions how to deal with them. (1) There has been a four-fold increase in inequality and poverty after the start of the crisis in the early ’90s; currently, 20 percent of Cubans live in poverty and 53 percent of houses are bad or very bad; (2) The hyper-centralization and weak rule of law result in low political participation. (3) The state and bureaucracy are over-extended; (4) There is corruption; (5) Demographic imbalance is a problem; Cubans over 60 comprise 26 percent of the population while the birth rate is the lowest in Latin America; the annual migration to the US is 35,000; (6) the media are controlled by the government, he called the syndrome “officialism”; (7) last but not least, the US embargo perpetuates the seize mentality.
He proposed to deal with the challenges as follows: decentralize the government, give more power to local authorities and more autonomy to state enterprises, expand the non-state sector, encourage self-employment, shrink the size and power of the bureaucracy and enforce the rule of law.
At the Center for the Study of the Cuban Economy at Havana University we heard about the opening of the economy and the movement toward rationalizing it, the acceptance of foreign direct investment and joint ventures mainly in tourism, the permission and encouragement of small private enterprise in some 150 sectors and the coming monetary reform.
Cuba was forced to re-evaluate and rationalize its economic model when the Soviet Union collapsed and Soviet subsidies ended. There was a 33 percent contraction of the economy; Cuba lost close to 50 percent of its fuel; the average weight of Cubans went down by at least one kilo; the low birth rate increased, (although later reversed). This economic restructuring continues gaining force under Raúl Castro. It includes laying off state workers; expanding the non-state workforce; allowing Cubans to buy and sell homes and vehicles; distributing land that was previously idle; empowering firms and local governments; experimenting with business models such as co-ops. Wondering around Havana, one sees examples of these changes.
Most significant, the government decided to change their approach and are moving towards decreased social spending, which includes decreasing the number of items that Cubans buy with their ratio book with the intent of eventually eliminating it. Key to all this, is the plan to abolish the dual currency (the convertible peso and the regular Cuban peso) which makes life unaffordable for the average Cuban. However, the government knows that this will cause inflation to rise at first. It will make life even harder for the 20 percent of Cubans living in poverty, especially elderly without families to provide for them although there are programs mainly by non-governmental organizations helping them.
Cuba still faces dire economic problems. With the opening of the tourist sector, the one booming part of the economy, large discrepancies in income and standards of living are being created. Cubans who work in tourism or have relatives in Miami sending money, are better off than the average professional working for the government. Our guide had studied law, had worked in the Foreign Service but became a tourist guide in order to make a reasonable living. A doorman in a restaurant who was a child psychologist by day, was forced into a night job to supplement his income. A young veterinarian taxi driver had abandoned her profession because the money that she was earning in a government run clinic was so little she and her colleagues had to depend on gifts by those bringing their animals.
While Cuba seems a natural place for agriculture to provide for its own people and even export, problems persist. There was destruction of arable land due to large scale farming during the time of the Soviet subsidies, although this land is slowly being reclaimed, as told by the Antonio Nunez Jimenez Foundation for Sustainable Development and the Environment. Citrus fruit, a natural for the climate as Florida demonstrates, is not cultivated in large scare because it is not deemed profitable for foreign exchange. In fact, cultivation of vegetable and fruit is still very small and in the one local fresh food market in Havana that we visited, we saw prices almost comparable to those in New York’s Union Square market. Meat or even chicken are rare and expensive for the average Cuban, although provided in excessive and wasteful quantities for tourists. Killing one’s own domestic cattle, is not allowed and permits are required to do so. This results in people finding ways to go over the system, as recounted anecdotally by our guide. Cuba imports 80 percent of its food and even more absurdly, the US accounts for 60 percent of it, paid in cash dollars, ostensibly for humanitarian reasons.
Havana is one of the most beautiful historical cities in this hemisphere, with magnificent old (and for the most part dilapidated) colonial buildings that seem to be reaching the end of their life simultaneously. Seeing the city upon arrival and walking around old Havana, I was struck by its beauty.
A meeting and exchange with the renown architect and urban planner Miguel Coyula about the city of Havana, its history, the reasons about its current sad state and what is required to maintain and renovate its buildings, was telling. Follow-up meetings with representatives of the City Historian and at the Center for the Study of the Cuban Economy clarified the combination of internal policies and financial constraints that have contributed to the deterioration of the majority of buildings.
While home ownership is high, thanks to housing subsidies, laws requiring apartment owners to maintain their own apartments but absolving them of responsibility from maintenance of common areas, have resulted in the buildings’ overall deterioration. The average house is seventy-five years old, maintenance subsidies are non-existent, therefore even working professionals find home repair simply too costly. Residents have been very innovative to meet basic housing needs and one sees shanty towns built at the top of buildings or the courtyards of colonial houses and balconies used for different purposes to the original ones. A program of renovation started in the eighties has been proceeding slowly.
More worrisome are the consequences of recently enacted laws allowing Cubans to buy their own houses, which they do for the most part with remittances from relatives in Florida. This is resulting in many of the historical buildings to be purchased by Cuban Americans who will quite likely demolish them, due to their state of disrepair, and will replace them with large glass towers as has been the case in many cities the world over.
The meeting with Gail Reed, founder and executive director of the Medical Educational Cooperation with Cuba, (MEDDIC), was instructive. MEDDIC is a nonprofit organization created in 1997 to enhance cooperation among the United States, Cuba and international health communities aiming at better health outcomes and equity.
With emphasis on medical training and healthcare for everybody, Cuba is among the countries with the best healthcare indicators in the world. It has one of the highest doctor-patient ratios in the world at 6·7 doctors per 1000 people. Life expectancy is 78 years, just behind the USA. The infant mortality rate is 4·7 per 1000 livebirths, lower than in the US at 5·9.
The priority of access to healthcare for all was spearheaded by young doctors and medical school students and put into practice by the government. Before entering into any other specialty, every medical school graduate does family medicine which is at the core of community based primary healthcare, key to the overall improvement in healthcare. The program of doctor and nurse for each community was started in the 1980s and helped the country deal with the “special period” after the break with the Soviet Union. A disruption at that time was resolved by giving a bigger role to nurses.
The investment in biotech continues, Cuba has meningitis B vaccine since 1989 and has developed a treatment for advanced diabetic foot ulcers. Developed by Cuba and registered in more than fifteen other countries, it has reduced relative risk of amputation in Cuba by 69 percent. According to Reed, who has written a comprehensive study of the embargo’s effect on Cuban health, the US has rejected Cuba’s offer of this treatment ignoring the mutual benefits.
Currently there are 6,000 doctors in the pipeline. Cuba provides scholarships to doctors from Latin American countries such as Honduras, Haiti. One of Cuba’s key exports are doctors sent free to poor countries around the world in the past. This was changed under Raúl Castro, with countries that can afford it paying Cuba and the money channeled into the health system.
The meeting with Josefina Vidal, the Director of North American Department, at the Foreign Ministry, focused exclusively on US-Cuba relations, the impact of the embargo on the economy and even other sectors of the society and the current state of affairs between the two countries. The importance of the relations with the US has resulted in a restructuring in the Foreign Ministry to have the department focus exclusively on US-Cuban relations. The impasse with the US currently concerns the detention on lengthy prison terms by the US of the Cuban Five (currently three) on espionage charges and by Cuba of Alan Gross, a sub-contractor of the USAID serving a fifteen-year prison term on accusations that he secretly imported banned electronic equipment to Cuba. The impasse remains even though there are discussions and cooperation with the US on technical issues such as drug trafficking, immigration and oil spill response.
The absurdity of the US insistence on maintaining the embargo and having only an Interest Section office in Havana, became more obvious when we were told that there are 140 embassies of states and international organizations in Havana. There are 64,000 Cubans working in ninety-four countries and 13,000 foreign students studying in Cuba (mainly medicine). Cuba together with Norway have been assisting and hosting the talks of the Colombian government with the rebels. Countries such as Brazil, and some members of the EU, are assisting Cuba to restructure its economy. China and South Korea are taking early advantage of economic opportunities.
Josephina Vidal pointed to two Cuban American politicians who are the most implacable enemies of the Cuban government and strong supporters of the embargo; House member Ileana Ross-Rehtigen of Florida and Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, currently chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Despite the commonly held views about Cuba by most politicians and the media, in the US, Cuba is changing although not fast enough for some. While continuing with the socialist model, it is reforming its economy, expanding its burgeoning private sector and somewhat opening its political system, although so far there has been no attempt to change the one-party system. Travel restrictions on ordinary citizens have been eased but political opponents are still monitored and harassed by the government which uses the embargo as a pretext claiming (sometimes correctly) that US intelligence agencies are trying to undermine the state.
And despite continuous US effort to destabilize Cuba (see recent efforts by USAID to generate mobs through Twitter) impressively Cuba ranks 107 to the US 159 in theFragile States Index created by the Fund for Peace and published by Foreign Policy for the past ten years. Finland ranks the highest at 178 and South Sudan the lowest at 1.
The index puts countries into perspective by providing an annual snapshot of their vitality and stability and ranking them accordingly, using certain ;indicators[i] which it computes to a total. Based on this index, the United States ranks a total of 35.4 to Cuba’s 70.8 with Finland the most stable with a total of 18.7 and South Sudan the most fragile with a total of 112.9.
Not surprisingly, some indicators for Cuba and the US show wide differences, with the US scoring better on Human Flight & Brain Drain, State Legitimacy, Human Rights, Security Apparatus and External Intervention. However in three other key indicators, such as Group Grievances, Uneven Economic Development, Poverty and Economic Decline, the ranking is very close.
For Cuba, some of these rankings, such as state legitimacy, human rights, and security apparatus are clearly due to the heavy handedness of the Cuban political system; while those for human flight and external intervention can only be attributed to the US embargo. On the other hand, seeing Cuba’s relative good rankings and relative progress in group grievances, uneven development and poverty and economic decline, an unbiased observer would only attribute those to its political model.
Looking at these and other indicators, after having experienced Cuba first hand, I have been wondering why Washington refuses to engage with Cuba and work together to mutual benefit. Because of the embargo, the United States remains uninvolved in the opening of its economy that Cuba has put into play in recent years and misses out on mutual business and other opportunities in a society which is overall positively disposed toward the States, just ninety miles off its shores.
Do US policy makers understand or care to understand that by continuing the embargo they provide an easy excuse to the Cuban government to hide its own mistakes and inefficiencies? Isn’t it time for the US to engage in some self-examination regarding this particular policy and change it?
Anna Theofilopoulou specialized on political and economic development issues—including the Middle East, the conflict over Western Sahara, Decolonization and the impact of trade and foreign investment on developing countries—while working in the United Nations. Currently, she works as a political analyst/writer covering North Africa and asylum policy in the US.
Read Next: Time for evolution in US Cuba policy
False equivalence in the media—giving equal weight to unsupported or even discredited claims for the sake of appearing impartial—is not unusual. But a major media organization taking meaningful steps to do something about it is.
Earlier this month, the BBC’s governing body issued a report assessing the BBC’s impartiality in covering scientific topics. When it comes to an issue like climate change, the report concluded, not all viewpoints share the same amount of scientific substance. Giving equal time and weight to a wide range of arguments without regard to their credibility risks creating a “false balance” in the public debate.
This is a lesson for all media on both sides of the Atlantic—and not just when it comes to science coverage. There are many sides to almost every story, but that doesn’t mean they are automatically equal.
Unfortunately, too much of the media has become increasingly fixated on finding “balance,” even if it means presenting fiction on par with fact. If media outlets wanted to present an accurate account of the climate change “debate,” for instance, they would have to follow comedian John Oliver’s lead and host a “statistically representative” face-off with three climate change deniers up against ninety-seven scientists armed with proof. Instead, they contort themselves to find “balance,” and we’re left with segments like “Is the climate change threat exaggerated?”—presented on the always reliable Fox News—which promised to “weigh the evidence on both sides of the divisive topic.” It’s no wonder that only 60 percent of Americans know that most scientists agree that global warming is occurring—and almost 30 percent aren’t sure if there is any scientific consensus.
Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.
Read Next: No water for Motown—why Detroit is denying its citizens this basic human right.
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