Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.
They say truth is the first casualty of war. In the escalating conflict in Ukraine, we’ve seen nuance and complexity—the stuff of which real history is made—ignored, marginalized in favor of us-versus-them bluster and nationalistic posturing. This is a dangerous sort of “dialogue” to witness. As each side continues to willfully misinterpret the other, a vacuum is forming in the diplomatic space where reality, comprehension and cooperation ought to be, and as tension continues to mount, so too does the risk of war. Make no mistake about it, we are on the verge of civil war in Ukraine, and possibly the start of an even larger conflagration—perhaps even a proxy war between the United States and Russia.
“Misinformation, propaganda and incitement to hatred need to be urgently countered,” urges a UN human rights report. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights elaborates, “Facts on the ground need to be established to help reduce the risk of radically different narratives being exploited for political ends. People need a reliable point of view to counter what has been widespread misinformation and also speech that aims to incite hatred on national, religious or racial grounds.”
And what might that “reliable point of view” convey to us? What might we learn from a sober reflection on recent and not-so-recent history? First, that every actor bears some responsibility for today’s crisis. Starting with the Clinton administration in the nineties, Stephen F. Cohen has written here, “the US-led West has unrelentingly moved its military, political and economic power ever closer to post-Soviet Russia.” Since 1999, NATO has expanded eastwards to include much of the former Warsaw Pact, including the three former Baltic Republics that directly border Russia. Given that, we shouldn’t be surprised when Putin reads recent history as two decades in which the US has been “trying to drive us into some kind of corner.” And for its part, the EU has been unable to imagine an independent, nonaligned Ukraine, rejecting Putin’s “tripartite” arrangement offered to Ukraine last November and demanding that a junior-partner Kiev look to either Brussels or Moscow for stability—but not neither and not both.
Sadly, too much of the US media has decided to push the Cold War Redux angle of the story, trotting out hawkish analysts and using the time-honored tradition of invoking the A-word (“appeasement”) to stigmatize anyone who sees things slightly more sanely. As a result, American viewers and readers are not only getting but one side of the story, they’re also getting the most extreme and least nuanced version of that side. This is dangerous. History tells us Ukraine is a deeply divided country. The West cannot shut Russia out via escalating, “crippling” sanctions, even as the White House and a cross-partisan coalition of hawks call for such. (It is reckless folly that hawks like John McCain call for the West to arm Ukrainians.)
A political, economic or cultural severance between Ukraine and Russia would be devastating, especially for the Ukrainian working class. More than one-quarter of Ukrainian exports head to Russia, and more than one-quarter of Ukrainian imports come from Russia. To use this relationship as a political football is to risk plunging the Ukrainian economy into crisis, with most of the effects of that crisis then falling on working Ukrainians.
As four-party talks begin on Thursday in Geneva, it is to be hoped that the emphasis is on diplomacy and cooperation; the drumbeat of war will only make it more difficult for a territorially unified, viable Ukraine to emerge. Nor can we accept a “solution” that is imposed upon Ukrainians by Europeans or Americans. The $27 billion lifeline given to Ukraine by the IMF, for example, comes with the attached strings of onerous austerity measures. (It is ordinary Ukrainians, for example, who will suffer the most under the new austerity measures as the floating national currency is likely to push up inflation, while spike in domestic gas prices will impact every household. Under the IMF conditions Kiev has to cut the budget deficit, increase retail energy tariffs and shift to a flexible exchange rate.) Amid the bluffing, pandering and posturing, it’s easy to forget that the lives, and livelihoods, of some forty million Ukrainians are at stake—and that these are the people in whose interests the US, EU and Russia are obliged to act.
It would be in the security interests of all if the four-party talks proceeded with negotiation roughly along lines of a stripped-down version of what Russia proposed a month ago: an end to NATO expansion to Ukraine and former Soviet republics; an agreement for a new federal constitution, agreed to by both East and West and with Ukraine remaining one state; and maintenance of the trading-partner relationship between Ukraine and Russia, regardless of which way—if any—Ukrainians decide to “lean.” And one proposal is also worth considering: bringing in UN peacekeepers during Ukraine’s next election (in which Ukrainians vote for Parliament and president, not just president as is currently planned).
These are times when we need fewer assertions, fewer definitive answers. We need more diplomacy, not less. The opportunity costs we’d pay for an armed Ukrainian adventure—failure to stem the arms race, failure to resolve the crisis in Syria, failure to engage Iran on nuclear issues—are too great. It’s important to recognize that the future of nations is rarely, if ever, determined by the intervention of outside actors. It’s not necessary for the US/NATO/EU to line up Ukraine as “one of us”; the same goes for Russia. Ukraine should be an independent player, nonaligned and not burdened by onerous conditions or threats made by outsiders who’ve chosen Ukraine as the place to wage an East-versus-West proxy battle.
Read Next: Stephen Cohen considers the worst-case scenario in Ukraine.
More disturbing than any horror movie, Showtime’s Years of Living Dangerously, a nine-part series about climate change that premiered last night, is essential viewing. The series documents the far-reaching consequences of climate change, and nothing, we’re shown—no person, no industry, no institution; no job, no religion, no nation—is exempt from the effects of climate change.
Living Dangerously is the latest environmental klaxon, bringing together star power (The premiere episode opens with Harrison Ford flying a reconfigured-for-science fighter plane to gather pollution data), money (James Cameron, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Weintraub are executive producers), and smarts (The Guardian calls the series’s experts “the best science team you could imagine”). Like Showtime’s last serial documentary, Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States, in which historical revelations practically guaranteed that viewers would emerge boiling mad about how the twentieth century unfolded, Living Dangerously will make you boiling mad about the climate calamity that awaits us in the twenty-first.
But that’s sort of the point. This is must-see TV, and in just the first ten minutes, you’ll hear enough pessimistic quotables to fill this entire post. It’s hard to ignore that pessimism. “The world is going to be suffering in a lot of ways from this physical reality for a long time to come,” NASA scientist Laura Iraci tells Ford. Note that there’s no conditional in her warning. Our environmental crisis has progressed beyond “might” and “probably” to “is” and “will.” Dahr Jamail outlined this awful inevitability here in December. Ford, while looking at frightening data and satellite imagery at a NASA lab in Northern California, asks, “This is actual data, not a projection?” The devastating answer, courtesy of Dr. Rama Nemani, is a simple “Yes.”
As Don Cheadle, another participant, points out in the episode, climate change is engendering yet another “Two Americas” situation—namely, those (primarily coastal) who are genuinely concerned about the crisis, and those who aren’t, despite the very real effects climate change is having on their communities (representatives of whom Cheadle finds in Texas). Living Dangerously is a necessary tool to address this disconnect, to make plain the connections between deforestation in Indonesia and job losses in American agriculture, between record heat and mothballed factories. The days of resignation, of chalking things up to acts of god, to “how it’s always been,” are over, the series explains; we, as citizens of the planet, need to act.
Yet despite the doomsday scenarios described, the series is itself an article of hope. It’s easy to look at the numbers, read the analyses and draw the conclusion that, in fact, all is lost, that there’s no point in even making an effort. (“Imagine, Harrison, that Fargo, North Dakota, is like Phoenix,” says Google Earth’s Rebecca Moore while looking at a map of projected high temperatures in the United States in 2100.) But there’s Ford, headed to Indonesia to investigate the palm oil industry; there’s Cheadle, investigating parched ranches in New Mexico and a company town in Texas that’s lost its company. Thomas Friedman appears to connect the dots between the worst drought in modern Syrian history and the nation’s descent into civil war.
As the series progresses, a team of actors, activists and journalists will lead viewers through a series of reports and dispatches from around the world. In two episodes, for example, Nation contributing editor and former Washington editor Chris Hayes files reports about Superstorm Sandy and rising ocean levels. On his show on MSNBC, Hayes noted the necessary immediacy of the series: climate change, he says, “is not some future thing. This is it 2014. It is here now. You can go to these places and see it.”
We need this kind of visible activism. Denial, resignation and despair are not options. By bringing together actors, scientists, journalists and philanthropists, Living Dangerously provides a necessary spark, not just to get a conversation going, but also to put a fire underneath those who have it in their power to make changes commensurate to the scale of the crisis.
Read Next: Brentin Mock: “Who’s Really to Blame for the Ravages of Climate Change?”
Thankfully, US-Russia cooperation on nuclear security will continue—for now. Since 1993, the United States has spent $1.6 billion on Cooperative Threat Reduction (known as the Nunn-Lugar pact), a program designed to increase safety and security at nuclear and chemical-weapons facilities of former Cold War antagonists. But last June, the pact expired after twenty years, and despite pledges from the Obama administration that work would continue “unfettered,” recent events in Ukraine have introduced enough friction into the relationship to cause alarm.
Cooperative Threat Reduction includes treatment of nuclear and radiological material and facilities, as well as efforts to destroy chemical weapons and keep smugglers from secreting weaponry across the Russian border. The necessity to stay on top of this delicate—in every sense of the word—work cannot be understated. Paul Walker, international program director of the environmental security and sustainability program of Green Cross and Global Green, expressed concern about Russia’s ability to safely deal with its chemical and nuclear arsenals without US assistance quite bluntly. “I worry about the Russians going off on their own and making some unintentional mistakes, having some accidents,” he said. Unfortunately, unintentional mistakes and accidents have been part of both the Soviet and American nuclear programs since the Manhattan Project.
Though unrecognized as such, one of our most critical human resources—if not the most critical—is the carefully maintained control of the world’s nuclear arsenal. The idea that “control” is a resource, and not a state of being, is born out in Eric Schlosser’s magnificent Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident, and the Illusion of Safety, a comprehensive chronicle of American atomic weapons since 1945. Control, Schlosser demonstrates, proves to be a fleeting concept, something that can be reached for, and sometimes temporarily harnessed (in a treaty, for example), but never fully realized. Indeed, “The search for stability was inherently destabilizing,” summarizes The New Yorker in a review, with each advance in safety matched—and more often than not superseded—by a corresponding development in technology or strategy that rendered the safety benefit moot.
So we should be alarmed to discover that nuclear safety has become a bargaining chip in the ongoing US-Russia-Ukraine situation. Amidst hawkish bluster from House Republicans, some of our lawmakers seem hellbent on ensuring that suspicion and instability—along with unintentional mistakes and accidents—remain an integral part of the nuclear age.
On April 8, Representatives Michael Turner (R-OH) and Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Buck McKeon (R-CA) introduced a bill that, among other things, prohibits “the contact, cooperation or transfer of technology between the National Nuclear Security Administration [NNSA] and the Russian Federation until the Secretary of Energy certifies the Russian military is no longer illegally occupying Crimea, no longer violating the INF treaty, and in compliance with the CFE treaty.”
Engendering nuclear instability by using safety as a stick is an incredibly reckless way to approach global security, and the difference between congressional GOP chest-thumping and the precious-bodily-fluids paranoia of Dr. Strangelove’s Gen. Jack D. Ripper is one of degree, not kind. As Schlosser and Strangelove director Stanley Kubrick make clear, when it comes to atomic weapons, no state with nuclear capability will ever cower and retreat to a more cooperative position when threatened with nuclear attack. Intimidation and braggadocio yield only more intimidation and braggadocio, which in turn yields recklessness, instability and, ultimately, catastrophe. To make the NNSA’s work subject to the political ebb and flow of an immediate crisis such as that in Ukraine is utter folly. We cannot afford to relive the last seventy years of our nuclear history.
Read Next: Nation in the News: A Diplomatic Resolution to the Crisis Over Ukraine Is Still Possible.
Every once in a while, the CIA’s “Because I said so” club lets loose with a bit of preposterous condescension that reminds us why, along with extraordinary rendition and drone strikes, we’re also a nation of transparency and checks and balances. In this case, the crowing comes from Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., former head of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service and the administrator of that agency’s post-9/11 enhanced interrogation (i.e., torture) program. We shouldn’t believe the “shocking” results of Senator Dianne Feinstein’s (D-CA) Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation, Rodriguez says, especially those that lay bare the lies and exaggerations promulgated by the CIA and the ineffectiveness of the program itself.
Why not? Because Rodriguez was there, and you weren’t. Never mind that Rodriguez hasn’t actually read the report, or the fact that CIA-sponsored torture isn’t a yoga class, so “being present” doesn’t really count as the endeavor’s ultimate objective. And never mind the findings of the “Internal Panetta Review,” conducted by the CIA, that, according to Senator Feinstein, “documented at least some of the very same troubling matters already uncovered by the committee staff—which is not surprising, in that they were looking at the same information.”
If we ever want to know the truth about what atrocities were committed by our government in our name under the umbrella of the “Global War on Terror,” then we need to not only conduct investigations into them but also release the results—however sickening they might be—with as little redaction as possible. We need to re-establish the precedent (exemplified by the Church Committee of the 1970s) that accountability matters. Not only will we as a nation not abide torture, but we won’t stomach erstwhile torturers, either.
On April 2, Representatives Adam Schiff (D-CA) and Walter Jones (R-NC) introduced the bipartisan Targeted Lethal Force Transparency Act ,which would “require an annual report on the number of combatants and civilians killed or injured annually by strikes from remotely piloted aircraft, also known as drones.” The bill allows for an investigation into US drone strikes since 2008, building on a similar provision that had been included by Feinstein’s committee in last year’s (unpassed) Intelligence Authorization Act for 2014. Numerous human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have issued a joint statement in support of the bill.
But if the CIA succeeds in squelching—or at least significantly redacting—the Intelligence Committee’s enhanced-interrogation report, it will cast an opaque pall on the Schiff-Jones bill in particular and on transparency in general. Indeed, what is the point of congressional oversight if the committee charged with it allows itself to be pushed around by the agency it oversees? Last month, Frederick A.O. Schwartz Jr., chief counsel for the Church Committee, wrote here, “Executive agencies and the White House—whichever party is in power—will always resist such efforts. They will stall, they will rely on secrecy, and—if Feinstein is right—they may even spy on Congress and illegally impede its lawful investigations. These obstructions must be overcome.”
And as The New Yorker’s Steve Coll has written, “Can the C.I.A., after a decade of fat budgets and swaggering prerogative, adjust to emboldened congressional oversight? Can Congress provide such oversight? And can the American people at last have the facts about the Bush Administration’s embrace of torture as national policy, carried out in their name?” Let’s hope so. If we refuse to admit, let alone acknowledge, what we’ve done, what’s to stop us from doing it again? Speaking to the Senate in a closed session in 1975, Sen. Church said, “We must remain a people who confront our mistakes and resolve not to repeat them. If we do not, we will decline. But if we do, our future will be worthy of the best of our past.”
Read Next: Rebecca Solnit pays tribute to Jonathan Schell.
The Supreme Court’s decision last week in McCutcheon v. FEC is only the latest in a long line of setbacks for the cause of campaign finance reform. The robust, if insufficient, state and federal regulations which took decades to establish are being rapidly dismantled by what Bill Moyers and Bernard A. Weisberger dubbed “the 1 percent court” in our October 2012 special issue of that name. But the darkness of the present situation only throws into starker relief the need for genuine, radical reform—specifically, a mechanism for publicly financing political campaigns and a constitutional amendment ending the truly inane notion of corporate personhood.
As we wrote in our editorial after the disastrous Citizens United decision of 2010, “The Nation is committed to the struggle as one that is in the noblest traditions of this magazine.” Indeed, as early as 1936, our Washington Weekly columnist Paul W. Ward wrote in “Can the Presidency Be Bought?” that American politics was dangerously close to being entirely controlled by the richest people in the country.
Enormous sums are spent on printing or broadcasting the output of the campaign committees’ research and publicity divisions, and most of it is stupid, ineffectual stuff. At best the output of one division tends to do nothing more than cancel out that of its rival…The money that counts, the money spent on getting out the vote, goes for hiring cars to take voters to the polls and for hiring runners to see that the cars are kept busy and filled.
The big money comes of course form the only possible source—the men and corporations that have it to give.
Thirty years later, former Nation managing editor Victor H. Bernstein wrote in “Private Wealth and Public Office: The High Cost of Campaigning” (June 27, 1966), that only a public-subsidy system for financing campaigns could ensure the absence of purchased influence and outright corruption:
Aside from affirming the logical principle that running for public office is properly a public enterprise, and therefore should be publicly financed, the subsidy system offers certain specific advantages. It involves every taxpayer in every election, at least financially; it makes the legislator more (or entirely) independent of private interests, and it increases the political opportunity of men without access to wealth.
Two months after President Nixon signed the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 and two months before Nixon-aligned burglars broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel and Office Building, Richard Max McCarthy, a former congressman from upstate New York, wrote an article for The Nation titled “A Little Law for a Big Job” (April 3, 1972). McCarthy argued that the new bill—the first substantive campaign finance reform in American history—“continues to allow millions of dollars to flow into campaign chests from wealthy individuals and special interest groups, who expect and usually receive favors in return,” whereas a true genuine reform “would provide for the public financing of campaigns for all federal offices and thus rid politics of the corrupting influence of private-interest money.”
Soon enough, the Watergate break-in—financed by Nixon campaign funds—demonstrated conclusively that radical changes were needed to restore integrity to the democratic process.
In “How to Cure the Corruption” (September 17, 1973), Senator Alan Cranston of California wrote candidly about the need for candidates to accept large campaign donations and the influence donors inevitably then have on the crafting of national policy and law:
The effect of large contributions on the victorious candidate is sometimes blatant, but usually subtle. He knows his victory was won in part by the generosity of those individuals who made large donations. He knows who they are; he remembers their names and the names of their companies.
If he is an honest man, he will not let big contributors determine how he is going to vote. But even the honest public official finds that he must give to the big donor’s concerns his time and attention, his sympathetic ear, his willingness to intervene when he can do so legitimately.
The officeholder recognizes that while some big givers contribute solely for the sake of good government and a belief in the candidate and his principles, they are a minority. He knows that the majority expect their contributions will at least give them access to him. And access, at the least, means the ability to drop in anytime for an informal visit or to present their views before the officeholder acts on an issue.
Cranston argued that the only solution was publicly financed campaigns, which would enable candidates to spend more time winning votes from ordinary Americans than soliciting checks from powerful corporate interests. He also noted that the minor surtax rendered on citizens to pay for campaigns was actually much less than they were already paying when their tax dollars are used to pay back the corporations to whom elected officials owe their electoral victories:
The fact is that big campaign contributions buy economic privileges of various kinds, like tax breaks, exceptions to the law, special subsidies or careless law enforcement. Every one of these economic privileges takes money out of the pockets of the average American taxpayer. By spending $1 to $2 a year the average citizen could get back literally hundreds of dollars in the form of fairer taxes, more competitive prices and better quality consumer products…. Ending our electoral system’s dependence on large private donations may be the most crucial issue of our time. It goes to the very heart of our democratic process. How we resolve it will in turn determine how we resolve every other problem our nation faces.
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On May 5, 1997, The Nation published a special issue on campaign finance: “Dollar Democracy: Can We Stop It?” featuring an investigation by Ken Silverstein, “My Life as an Undercover PAC.” Silverstein, posing as a moneyman for the fictional United Broadcasting Corporation, gained access to powerful officials and their aides of which ordinary Americans can only dream. He reflected on what he had learned:
As my brief career as a Beltway power broker indicates, Washington remains supremely unmoved by the public’s growing contempt for business as usual in the capital. Indeed, no one here believes that Congress will approve serious campaign finance reform anytime soon. “Everybody’s wringing their hands and calling for change,” says Kenneth Gross, the former F.E.C. enforcer, “but there’s nothing in the cards beyond reform around the edges.” He foresees no more than a crackdown on foreign contributions and some limits on soft money.
The wild card is public opinion, which is sufficiently inflamed could force more dramatic action. Thus far, however, the public appears to be angry but apathetic. “Most Americans believe Congress is a cesspool but people are very cynical,” says Bill Hogan of the Center for Public Integrity, a D.C. watchdog group. “They don’t believe that anything is going to be changed by Congress, which created the current system and all of the loopholes in it.”
Meanwhile, for corporate America and other high-rollers, democracy remains a commodity. A Democratic Party official once summed up the situation perfectly in explaining to me why offering perks to big donors didn’t result in unwarranted access for private interests. “It’s like flying,” she said. “Some sit in first class and some sit in coach.”
In the same issue, Dan Hamburg, a former congressman from California, took readers “Inside the Money Chase,” where the need for raising money—as Cranston and McCarthy had previously argued—undermined the very legitimacy of the United States government.
The issue of campaign finance points to a deeper problem in U.S. politics: the subservience of the political system to the economic system. The real government of our country is economic, dominated by large corporations that charter the state to do their bidding. Fostering a secure environment in which corporations and their investors can flourish is the paramount objective of both parties. Campaign finance works to place and keep in office those who willingly reproduce this culture. The covenant between the citizen and the law, as recapitulated through the electoral process, has lost its meaning. Campaign finance is a useful way of looking into a larger question: In an era of increasing economic globalism, when the state itself is fast becoming a subordinate entity, what is the relevance of being an American citizen?
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In “Democracy Inc.” (February 15, 2010), our lead editorial after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision opened the floodgates to independent political expenditures by corporations, unions and business associations, The Nation called the case “a dramatic assault on American democracy, overturning more than a century of precedent in order to give corporations the ultimate authority over elections and governing. This decision tips the balance against active citizenship and the rule of law by making it possible for the nation’s most powerful economic interests to manipulate not just individual politicians and electoral contests but political discourse itself.”
As we had for decades, The Nation reiterated that public financing of public campaigns—and the ejection of private wealth from the public sphere—was the only way to reclaim American democracy for ordinary people.
We will do everything in our power to further it, with no quarter for cynicism or compromise. We will encourage the development of a transformational movement to protect free elections and free government, and will do so with the understanding that the cause is not a narrowly partisan one, or a project merely of progressives, but of all who want democracy to flourish.
Committed to open dialogue, at the one-year anniversary of Citizens United we opened our pages to a debate between the constitutional lawyer Floyd Abrams, who supported the court’s decision, and the former ACLU director (and Nation contributor since 1984) Burt Neuborne, who opposed it.
Abrams wrote that Justice Kennedy’s decision was rightly based in “two well-established legal propositions”: first, that political speech is protected by the First Amendment, and second, that corporations are entitled to protection under the First Amendment. “The notion that no serious First Amendment challenge was raised in Citizens United is itself a myth,” Abrams argued.
For the nays, Burt Neuborne wrote:
Thanks to the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in Citizens United granting corporations a First Amendment right to spend unlimited sums to win an election, we are facing a second Gilded Age where American democracy is for sale to the highest corporate bidder. Justice Kennedy’s opinion, touted by some as a great victory for free speech, begins with a glaring First Amendment mistake. Kennedy claims that the case is about the constitutionality of discriminating between two categories of First Amendment speakers—corporations and human beings. But that just begs the question. The real issue in Citizens United was whether corporations should be viewed as First Amendment speakers in the first place. The business corporation is an artificial state-created entity with unlimited life; highly favorable techniques for acquiring, accumulating and retaining vast wealth through economic transactions having nothing to do with politics; and only one purpose—making money. Human beings, on the other hand, die, do not enjoy economic advantages like limited liability and, most important, have a conscience that sometimes transcends crude economic self-interest. Those dramatic differences raise a threshold question, ignored by Justice Kennedy, about whether corporations are even in the First Amendment ballpark.
McCutcheon shows that this Supreme Court—as currently constituted—will stop at nothing less than a complete rollback of all the hard-won campaign-finance protections which, despite their limitations, at least acted as a counterforce to the tidal waves of money in politics that the court’s recent decisions have allowed to flow unimpeded. If there is any silver lining to McCutcheon, it is that this new reality lays bare for all to see that the only truly democratic solution, the only genuine reform, is the same as it has always been, the one The Nation has advocated for decades: take the money out of electoral politics and return democracy to the people.
Read Next: David Halperin: The Perfect Lobby: How One Industry Captured Washington, DC.
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Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.
Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.
As the United States marks the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the civil rights revolution he helped spur is in peril. The progress African Americans forged has stalled. Will the United States once more turn its back on civil rights?
It has happened before. The first Reconstruction began with the Civil War and ended with the passage of the civil rights amendments ending slavery and guaranteeing equal protection under the law. Newly freed slaves pushed to exercise their rights. They won local elections and served on juries. They helped create what were the first public school systems in the South.
The reaction was brutal. The Ku Klux Klan terrorized African Americans across the South. Democrats became the party of the Confederacy. Barely 15 years later, Reconstruction was abandoned. In the Compromise of 1877, Republicans got Democratic support for ratifying the election of Rutherford B. Hayes to the presidency in exchange for removing federal troops from the South, betraying the newly freed African Americans. As W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, “The slave went free, stood a brief moment in the sun; and then moved back again towards slavery.”
Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.
With Albany’s passage of the state’s 2014–15 budget, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio will see his plans for universal pre-K education and an expansion of after-school middle school implemented in the five boroughs. But with significant concessions made for the accommodation of charter schools, as well as a rejection of the mayor’s preferred source of funding for the programs, the victory is qualified, and the outlook for pushing more progressive reforms in the state seems murky.
It shouldn’t be. Educational inequality in New York City runs rampant. My Nation colleague Betsy Reed has written here: “There are currently only 20,000 full-day [pre-K] spots for 68,000 eligible children. Everyone else has to either cobble together informal care or pony up for daycare, which costs an average of $13,000 per year—a sum barely manageable for most two-income households, let alone single parents. In affluent neighborhoods, the annual bill runs anywhere from $20,000 to $40,000 per child, a burden even for some families making more than $100,000 a year.” Given the near-universally acknowledged benefits of pre-K education, we should be, like Mayor de Blasio, deeply invested in providing it to NYC families.
Fortunately, some activists are. UPKNYC was launched in December 2013, and universal pre-K supporters rallied in New York and Albany in favor of de Blasio’s plan—and against Gov. Cuomo’s competing program. And while the city isn’t exactly experiencing a post-Bloomberg hangover, people are clearing the dust from their eyes to see some of the glaring deficiencies of the old regime. Reed writes, “[P]eople appear to be waking up to the fact that Bloomberg’s gilded city neglected to provide basic social services alongside the refurbished parks and gleaming condo towers, giving New York more the appearance than the reality of ‘livability.’”
It’s time to work on behalf of all New Yorkers, and we need more campaigns (and more successes) like UPKNYC to remind us that a great city needs to serve all its people, not just the few.
Still, while successful, the fight over UPK is a cautionary tale, and as the New Yorker’s John Cassidy points out, the deck is stacked against anyone who wants to make similar progressive reforms in the city. “If you want to get anything done,” he writes in an analysis of the pre-K battle, “you have to look responsible, reassure independents that you’re no dangerous radical, and cozy up to business and financial interests.” When de Blasio decided not to follow the script, he got smacked down: The mayor’s original plan of funding his pre-K and after-school programs via a temporary Personal Income Tax on the city’s top 1.4 percent of wage-earners was rejected, a victim of well-funded rage (and of future fundraising concerns for Gov. Cuomo’s reelection campaign this fall).
Furthermore, allowances made to charter schools, including a mandate that requires the city to find and allocate space for charter schools on existing public-school turf, might end up further weakening New York’s public schools. And don't think it won't be a turf war. Diane Ravitch writes, “While it is true that [charter schools] enroll only 3 percent of New York state's children and only 6 percent of New York City's children, their boards contain the city's financial elite. They can pay millions for a media campaign; they can make $800,000 in campaign contributions to Governor Cuomo….” There’s that well-funded rage.
Nevertheless, at end of the day, despite the concessions made to charter schools (which are legion and problematic), the less-than-optimal source of funding, and the chilling notice given to anyone who might deign to ask the one-percent to pay full freight, New York’s new program still represents a strong expansion of the education system. Essentially, a new grade of school has been carved out in New York City, one that will eventually reduce the segment of the population that will in the long run be poor and boost college graduation rates for children. Ultimately, the city should win with this one.
And beyond education, universal pre-K is encouraging as a sign that Mayor de Blasio can deliver on his biggest commitment of last year’s campaign. Albany will deliver real money for a real program.
In de Blasio, New York has a mayor who’s willing to lead from the left, even in the face of mounting, and moneyed, opposition. He has installed as parks commissioner someone whose goal is “a more equitable approach to our parks,” and he has repudiated some of Bloomberg’s more aggressive policing tactics. There’s an opportunity here to deliver the city back to its perch at the forefront of progressive and social reform in America. Let’s not waste it.
Read Next: Jarrett Murphy: De Blasio Wins and Loses in Albany Budget Battle.
How will you honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. this April 4, the anniversary of his assassination? How about by demanding that Congress get out of Wall Street’s pocket? How about by letting your representative know that you support economic equality and a just distribution of wealth in America? As Dr. King himself said, “This is America’s opportunity to help bridge the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. The question is whether America will do it. There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.”
Still, forty-six years after Dr. King’s murder, the gulf between haves and have-nots is wider than ever. During the 2009–10 recovery, for example, incomes for one-percenters rose by 11.6 percent, while everyone else saw theirs grow by 0.2 percent. Worse still, too many in Congress are colluding with the haves to make sure things stay that way. Our nation’s capital, both political and monetary is moving in the wrong direction.
On April 4, 2014, you can make your voice be heard by participating in a nationwide series of demonstrations in favor of HR 1579, Rep. Keith Ellison’s (D-MN) Inclusive Prosperity Act, a financial transaction—or Robin Hood—tax. Organized in part by National Nurses United, the nation’s largest union and professional organization for registered nurses, the April 4th action will target twenty-five members of Congress in eleven states by staging vigils at the legislators’ home offices in their districts. The message of the vigils is simple: Pass the Robin Hood Tax. After all, Ellison asks, “Didn’t America step up to the plate when Wall Street needed help?” And as I wrote two years ago, “Wall Street owes us.”
“We need to have real revenue, not just have one austerity measure after another,” says Charles Idelson, Communications Director for National Nurses United. “The last thing the American people need is more austerity. Much of the country is still in a recession.” That revenue might be found in a Robin Hood Tax.
Idelson points out that while you and I pay a sales tax on our daily transactions (AK, DE, MT, NH, and OR excepted), Wall Street pays nothing on speculative transactions (some of which can take as little as 3 milliseconds to complete). Robin Hood taxes those trades, to the tune of as much as $350 billion per year. Why Wall Street? Idelson invokes bank robber Willie Sutton: “A truly equitable society is the burning issue of our time. If we’re ever going to tackle this, we’ve got to have additional revenue. We should go where the money is. Wall Street was rewarded for trashing our economy with bailouts and bonuses. The Robin Hood Tax puts a requirement on them to put a little bit back into society.”
Your voice matters, and your participation can be powerful. It’s high time to question the inevitability of Wall Street and Congress’s friends-with-benefits relationship.
And there is cause for cautious optimism. Recently, Robin Hood Tax proponents found some ammunition in an unlikely place: Dave Camp (R-MI), Chairman of House Ways and Means Committee. Within his larger tax-reform plan, Camp has proposed a 0.035 percent quarterly tax on bank assets for institutions with assets in excess of $500 billion (i.e., the too-big-to-fail fraternity).
The takeaway here is not so much the tax itself (which is part of a generally undesirable slate of proposals), but the fact that it derives from a GOP congressman. “For FTT supporters,” says Sarah Anderson of the Institute for Policy Studies, “this creates an opportunity to say that there is bipartisan support for taxing the financial sector.” Unlike the Robin Hood Tax, Camp’s proposal taxes assets, not transactions, but still, Anderson points out, “[I]t’s the first time we’ve had Republican support for increasing financial sector taxation.” That Wall Street hates it is a good sign: Goldman Sachs even canceled a GOP fundraiser in protest.
So this April 4, join the nation’s nurses and demand that America commit to Dr. King’s ideals. Petition your representative to support HR 1579. We can achieve economic justice in this country, but only if we put forth the same broad, sustained effort that Wall Street uses to get its way. It doesn’t have to be just the banks that are too big to fail.
Read Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel: This Week in ‘Nation’ History: The Fearless Idealism of Jonathan Schell.
The passing of our friend Jonathan Schell last week is a profound loss for journalism and for the international peace movement. In twenty years at The New Yorker and sixteen at The Nation, Jonathan’s work insisted on seeing through the headlines to the deeper currents of history swirling below. His great theme was the survival of humanity, both as a species and as a general principle of common decency and purpose. In addition to his incredible early reportage, works like The Fate of the Earth (1982), The Gift of Time (1998), and The Unconquerable World (2003) conveyed in bracing prose Jonathan’s fearless idealism, his unique combination of justified alarm and unbridled optimism which forever changed the way the United States understands itself and the way the entire world understands matters of war and peace.
As our peace and disarmament correspondent and a fellow at The Nation Institute, Jonathan filed for The Nation well over one hundred eloquent, elegant, passionate and forcefully argued essays on topics ranging from nuclear abolitionism to the Iraq war, from the Clinton impeachment proceedings to the fallout from September 11th, from the disclosures of illegal NSA spying in 2005 to the even more alarming Snowden files of 2013. To read through those essays now—especially his special series, “The Republic on Trial” and “Letter from Ground Zero”—is to watch one of the most important journalists this country has ever produced grapple with unfolding trends and historical themes he had been tracking for decades—and at a prolific, often weekly pace—about which he always had original and clarifying things to say. It is also to discover once again that Jonathan, as he once wrote in The Nation of history itself, was “no respecter of conventional wisdom”—that being among the loftiest legacies a journalist can leave behind.
“The Gift of Time” (February 2, 1998):
“To succeed in the task would, by securing human survival through human resolve and action, go far toward restoring our faith, so badly shaken in the century, in our capacity to make use of the amazing products of our hands and minds for our benefit rather than our destruction. It would bring undying honor to those who carried it to fulfillment and to their generation. It would have the character not of a desperate expedient resorted to under pressure of terror but of a tremendous free act, following upon calm public deliberation in every nation—among all humankind. In a way, it would be the foundation of humankind.”
“The Republic on Trial: What Works: The Constitution” (February 15, 1999):
“In most respects, the impeachment of President Bill Clinton—now destined to go on for yet more weeks—is different from the proceedings against President Richard Nixon a quarter-century ago. Nixon was accused of abuses of the power of his office. You had to be President to bomb Cambodia secretly, to use the IRS to harass your political enemies or to ask the CIA to squelch an investigation by the FBI. Clinton, on the other hand, is accused of violations of law in his individual capacity. It is within the power of almost anyone to fool around at the office, to invite a colleague to dissemble about the affair in court or to ask a friend to do the lover in question a favor.
“The historical circumstances were different, too. In the immediate background was the cold war, in whose name the presidency had accumulated powers that Nixon used to break the law. The question before the country was whether to embrace this ‘imperial’ presidency or to restore the constitutional balance, and it chose the latter. Today, by contrast, one would be hard put to name and large public controversy that is going to be settled one way or another by the impeachment trial. If anything, the trial has created fresh issues (mostly regarding abuse of the impeachment power itself) rather than resolved existing ones.”
“Letter from Ground Zero: The Power of the Powerful” (October 15, 2001):
“Vaclav Havel once invoked the ‘power of the powerless,’ by which he meant the power of the nonviolent weak to defy and defeat totalitarian regimes through unarmed acts of non-cooperation and defiance. But the powerful have some power, too. Terrorism is jujitsu, by which the violent weak use the power of the powerful to overthrow them…But the powerful can refuse to cooperate. Tom Friedman of the Times advised that the United States, like the Taliban, should act ‘a little bit crazy.’ But the Taliban are a poor model. That way lies our undoing. When all is said and done, it is not in the power of America’s enemies to defeat us. Only we can do that. We should refrain.”
“The Growing Nuclear Peril” (June 24, 2002):
“The goal of nuclear abolition, it is true, is ambitious, and the difficulties are mountainous. Many will say, as they have throughout the nuclear age, that it is unrealistic. They would perhaps be right if we lived in a static world. But events—in South Asia, in Central Asia, in the Middle East, in New York—are moving at breakneck pace, and the avenues to disaster are multiplying. A nuclear revival is under way. A revival of nuclear protest is needed to stop it.”
“Letter from Ground Zero: The Path to Point B” (September 23, 2002):
“A year that began (if we count by the new calendar whose Day One is September 11, 2001) with an attack on the United States by a terrorist group consisting mostly of Saudi Arabians headquartered in Afghanistan has ended with preparations for an attack by the United States on Iraq, a country that had not demonstrated involvement in September 11. The path from point A a year ago to point B now has been lengthy and circuitous, Along the way, a radically new conception of America’s role in the world has been advanced by the Bush Administration. It has claimed nothing less than a right and a duty of the United States to assert military dominance—a Pax Americana—over the entire earth. Discussion along the way has been muted, but now a debate has begun. Its subject, however, has been not so much whether the United States should first meet certain conditions (find allies, explain itself to Congress, win the support of the American public, make plans for Iraq’s political future) and only then wage the war. The debate proceeds backward from the conclusion to the arguments for it….
“There is no assurance so far that the public will be told whether or when the Administration has decided to attack Iraq before the bombs begin to fall. At an appearance before a gathering of troops at Fort Hood, Texas, Rumsfeld said, ‘The President has made no such decision that we should go into a war with Iraq.’ According to the Times, Rumsfeld added with a characteristic coy chuckle, ‘He’s thinking about it.’
“A debate about the war, if the nation decides to have one, will be in vain if it does not address the wider revolution in policy of which the war is an expression. Will other nations claim for themselves the right of pre-emptive overthrow of hostile regimes? Can the proliferation of nuclear weapons actually be prevented by military force? Are negotiations and treaties worthless for this purpose? Will American superiority be so great that other arms races fade away? Will such action provoke the very military challenges, from terrorists and others, that it is meant to prevent? Should the United States aim at preserving military dominance over the earth for the indefinite future? Is such dominance possible? If it is possible, do the people of the United States want it? If the attempt is made, can the United States remain a democracy? Can the United States act as military guarantor of a world that rejects and hates its protector? George Bush is thinking about it. Are we?”
“The Case Against the War” (March 3, 2003):
“A revival of worldwide disarmament negotiations must be the means, the abolition of all weapons of mass destruction the end. That idea has long been in eclipse, and today it lies outside the mainstream of political opinion. Unfortunately, historical reality is no respecter of conventional wisdom and often requires it to change course if calamity is to be avoided. But fortunately it is one element of the genius of democracy—and of US democracy in particular—that encrusted orthodoxy can be challenged and overthrown by popular pressure. The movement against the war in Iraq should also become a movement for something, and that something should be a return to the long-neglected path to abolition of all weapons of mass destruction. Only by offering a solution to the problem that the war claims to solve but does not can this war and others be stopped….
“Let us try to imagine it: one human species on its one earth exercising one will to defeat forever a threat to its one collective existence. Could any nation stand against it? Without this commitment, the international community—if I may express it thus—is like a nuclear reactor from which the fuel rods have been withdrawn. Making the commitment would be to insert the rods, to start up the chain reaction. The chain reaction would be the democratic activity of peoples demanding action from the governments to secure their survival. True democracy is indispensable to disarmament, and vice versa. This is the power—not the power of cruise missiles and B-52s—that can release humanity from its peril. The price demanded of us for freedom from the danger of weapons of mass destruction is to relinquish our own.”
“Letter from Ground Zero: Accountability” (October 27, 2003):
“Of all the responsibilities of government, the decision to go to war is the most grave. Can an Administration take the country to war on false pretexts and get away with it? A year ago, the issue was war and peace. Now the issue is the integrity of the American political system. Not democracy in Iraq or even the entire Middle East—that fading mirage—but democracy in the United States is now at stake.”
“The Empire Backfires” (March 29, 2004):
“The reliance on force over cooperation that was writ large in the imperial plan was also writ small in the occupation of Iraq. How else to understand the astonishing failure to make any preparation for the political, military, policing and even technical challenges that would face American forces? If a problem, large or small, had no military solution, this Administration seemed incapable of even seeing it. The United States was as blind to the politics of Iraq as it was to the politics of the world….
“The same pattern is manifest on an even larger scale. Just now, the peoples of the world have embarked, some willingly and some not, on an arduous, wrenching, perilous, mind-exhaustingly complicated process of learning how to live as one indivisibly connected species on our one small, endangered planet. Seen in a certain light, the Administration's imperial bid, if successful, would amount to a kind of planetary coup d'état, in which the world's dominant power takes charge of this process by virtue of its almost freakishly superior military strength. Seen in another, less dramatic light, the American imperial solution has interposed a huge, unnecessary roadblock between the world and the Himalayan mountain range of urgent tasks that it must accomplish no matter who is in charge: saving the planet from overheating; inventing a humane, just, orderly, democratic, accountable global economy; redressing mounting global inequality and poverty; responding to human rights emergencies, including genocide; and, of course, stopping proliferation as well as rolling back the existing arsenals of nuclear arms. None of these exigencies can be met as long as the world and its greatest power are engaged in a wrestling match over how to proceed….
“If the engine of a train suddenly goes off the rails, a wreck ensues. Such is the war in Iraq, now one year old. At the same time, the train's journey forward is canceled. Such is the current paralysis of the international community. Only when the engine is back on the tracks and starts in the right direction can either disaster be overcome. Only then will everyone be able to even begin the return to the world's unfinished business.”
“The Hidden State Steps Forward” (January 9, 2006):
“There is a name for a system of government that wages aggressive war, deceives its citizens, violates their rights, abuses power and breaks the law, rejects judicial and legislative checks on itself, claims power without limit, tortures prisoners and acts in secret. It is dictatorship.
“The Administration of George W. Bush is not a dictatorship, but it does manifest the characteristics of one in embryonic form.”
“Obama and the Return of the Real” (February 9, 2009):
“One day someone will undertake a comprehensive study of how all these bubbles grew and why they were inflated at the same time. It will be a story of a crisis of integrity of the institutions at the apex of American life. It will recount how the largest government, business, military and media organizations, as if obedient to a single command, began to tell lies to themselves and others in pursuit of or subservience to wealth and power. Individual deceivers must arrange their untruths by themselves, by flat-out conscious lying, self-deception or a combination of the two. Huge bureaucracies have wider options. Banks, hedge funds, ratings agencies, regulatory agencies, intelligence services, the White House, the Pentagon and mainstream news organizations can grind inconvenient truths to dust, layer by bureaucratic layer, until the convenient lies that had been wanted all along are presented to the satisfied money- or war-hungry decision-makers at the top. The study of these operations will be a story of groupthink; of basic facts relegated to footnotes; of wishes tweaked into facts; of deepening secrecy; of complex models, mathematical or ideological, used to supplant, not illumine, reality; of new offices created to draw false new conclusions from old facts; of threat inflation; of the sinking careers of truth-tellers and the rising careers of truth-twisters. It would be interesting, for instance, to compare the creation of the illusions of the real estate bubble with the creation of the claim that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. In both cases contrary facts were readily available at the base of the system but were filtered out as the reports went up the chain. For a somewhat contrasting, top-down model, the White House method for suppressing the truth about global warming within government agencies is instructive. In that case, the science was duly gathered but often squelched at the last minute by political appointees editing the reports…
“In short, the relationship between observation and action had been reversed. Reality was not the field of operation in which you acted, and whose limits you must respect; it was, like a play or movie, a scenario to be penned by human authors. Fact had to adjust to ideology, not the other way around.”
“Torture and Truth” (June 15, 2009):
“It has fallen to President Obama to deal with the policies and practices of torture inaugurated by the Bush administration. He started boldly, ordering an end to the abuses, announcing the closing in one year of the detention camp at Guantánamo and releasing the Bush-era Justice Department memos authorizing torture. Subsequently, he seemed to grow cautious. He discouraged formation of an independent commission to investigate the torture and reversed a previous position in favor of releasing Pentagon photos of abuses and instead opposed release. In his May 21 speech at the National Archives, he seemed to try to create a framework for understanding his policies, but they remained very much a work in progress. He surprisingly embraced a number of Bush policies, including military commissions for trying detainees, the use of the State Secrets privilege to protect information in court and the indefinite use of preventive detention--all to be revised in ways that were left vague or unspecified. Yet among these reversals and improvisations, one very general preference has remained steady. Throughout, Obama has expressed a desire to concentrate on the ‘future’ rather than the ‘past.’ As he put it a while back, he is bent on ‘getting things right in the future, as opposed [to] looking at what we got wrong in the past.’ Or as he said in the National Archives speech, ‘We need to focus on the future’ while resisting those ‘with a strong desire to focus on the past.’
“But can the United States really get things right in the future by turning away from the past? For one thing, the factual record is still incomplete. For another, the reasons for what went wrong aren't as clear as they might at first seem. Why did the United States make the decision for torture? What changes does it portend for American life? It seems likely that getting things right will depend on having answers to these questions.”
“Occupy Wall Street: The Beginning Is Here” November 7, 2011:
“The power of the movement does not lie in the mite that it can add to or withdraw from some existing grouping through such traditional means as alliances and endorsements. Rather, its power lies in its direct appeal to the hearts and minds of the population at large—to the 99 percent that the movement so audaciously and promisingly claims to represent. By this process, the mite becomes mighty. It was surely such a felt tremor in the hidden recesses of hearts and minds—in short, in public opinion and, even more, in public will—that alone can explain the established expressions of support as well as the wildfire spread of the protest.
“When such sea changes in opinion and will are under way, entrenched institutions start to tremble and shake, and political miracles become possible. If the scale of the national and international response to Occupy Wall Street is any measure, they have begun.
“The exceptional creativity in the movement has been evident in countless handwritten signs. For example: I Lost My Job but Found an Occupation. And, Love Is the New Fear. But perhaps the loveliest, appearing in the demonstration’s early days and cited in these pages, was The Beginning Is Near. To this we can now gratefully add, The Beginning Is Here.”
“America’s Surveillance Net” July 8-15, 2013:
“What should Americans do when all official channels are unresponsive or dysfunctional? Are we, as people used to say, in a revolutionary situation? Shall we man the barricades? The situation is a little more peculiar than that. There is a revolution afoot, but it is not one in the streets; it is one that is being carried out by the government against the fundamental law of the land. That this insurrection against the constitutional order by officials sworn to uphold it includes legal opinions and legislation only makes it the more radical and dangerous. In other words, the government is in stealthy insurrection against the letter and the spirit of the law.
“What’s needed is counterrevolution—an American restoration, returning to and reaffirming the principles on which the Republic was founded. Edward Snowden, for one, knew what to do. He saw that when government as a whole goes rogue, the only force with a chance of bringing it back into line is the public. He has helped make this possible by letting the public know the abuses that are being carried out in its name. Civil disobedients are of two kinds: those inspired by universal principles, and those inspired by national traditions. Each has its strengths. Julian Assange of WikiLeaks is the first kind; Snowden, the second. Asked why he had done what he did, Snowden replied, ‘I am neither traitor nor hero. I am an American.’ He based his actions on the finest traditions of this country, which its current leaders have abandoned but which, he hopes, the current generation of Americans still share. In the weeks and months ahead, we’ll find out whether he was right.”
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According to the American Public Transportation Association, Americans are using public transportation more today than at any other time since 1956. Public transit provided 10.7 billion individual rides last year, a 1.1 percent increase over 2012 and the latest uptick for an industry that has seen a 37.2 percent increase in ridership since 1995. This is something to crow about.
More than most places—the grocery store, shopping center, basketball arena—public transit has long provided an arena for social change in the United States. Last year, on the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx reflected,
“I can’t help but think of the historic connection between transportation and the civil rights movement. Literally or figuratively, transportation has played a role throughout the history of our nation’s progress toward civil rights. And it still does.
“When escaped slaves sought their freedom, they traveled on the Underground Railroad.
“In the mid-1950s, a young woman who sat down and refused to get up—she did it on a transit bus. And the boycott of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus system resulted in changes that spread across the South.
“The Civil Rights Movement was about all Americans having access to the same opportunities. And our transportation system connects people to those opportunities.”
Remarkable words from a cabinet member who recognizes that his purview extends far beyond roads, rails, and runways. Secretary Foxx gets that how we move—the mode of transportation we choose, the route we take, and the fellow travelers we encounter along the way—carries far-reaching implications, especially for our economy, environment, and foreign policy. Here are three:
Public transportation helps combat climate change. A private auto produces 0.96 pounds of carbon dioxide per passenger-mile, while public transit (averaged out among bus, heavy rail, light rail, commuter rail, and van pools) yields 0.45 pounds per passenger-mile. The EPA estimates that public transport saves America 37 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year—this is equivalent to the emissions resulting from the electricity generated from 4.9 million households, or every household in Washington, D.C., New York City, Atlanta, Denver, and Los Angeles combined. And public transportation saves the U.S. 4.2 billion gallons of gasoline every year, more than triple the amount of gas we refine from oil imported from Kuwait.
Public transportation creates jobs and promotes economic growth. Every $1 billion invested in the U.S. transportation infrastructure supports and creates some 47,500 jobs. That billion-dollar investment also leads to a net gain in GDP of $3.5 billion. Businesses located near public transportation services see improved productivity through better employee reliability and less absenteeism and turnover. Since public transport allows more people more access to more jobs, employers have larger, more diverse labor pools from which to draw workers, which leads to yet another improvement in community efficiency and prosperity.
Public transportation is healthier. Long, traffic-choked commutes are linked to obesity and chronic pain, to divorce and depression. Interestingly, adopting a public-transportation habit also spurs other healthy lifestyle choices, such as increased exercise and improved diet.
Yet somehow, despite its proven promises of a cleaner environment, a more robust economy, a healthier populace, etc., support for public transportation remains anything but a no-brainer. Last December, Congress declined to renew the public-transit tax credit, which had allowed Americans to set aside $245, pre-tax, for use on public transit. This year, the credit dropped to just $130—while the tax credit that commuters can set aside to pay for parking actually increased.
Last month, President Obama proposed a $302 billion Four-Year Transportation Reauthorization Bill, which earmarks $72 billion for public transportation. Also included is a $2.6 billion allocation for bus rapid transit systems in rapidly growing regions across the country, as well as an additional $400 million to be used to “enhance the size, diversity, and skills of our nation’s construction workforce, while providing support for local hiring efforts and encouraging States to use their On-the-Job training funds more effectively.”
We need to continue to fund and promote public transportation. As Secretary Foxx pointed out in his March on Washington reflection, “[U]nfortunately, transportation also has a history of dividing us. In many places, railroads have served to identify people who were living on ‘the wrong side of the tracks.’ And rarely in the last century did an urban interstate highway plow through a neighborhood that wasn’t characterized as poor.”
We can use public transportation to mitigate inequality, to improve the environment, to develop technologically and economically; it puts more of us on the right side of the tracks. Let’s keep this trend going.
Read Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel and The Editors remember Jonathan Schell.