In the last few weeks, the New York Times has devoted at least four articles to extolling the opulence of the"new" Russia --especially the orgy of conspicious consumption in today's Moscow. It's as if the NYT decided to morph into US Weekly covering the lifestyles of Russia's rich and greedy. Each article exudes a kind of breathless excitement. "Moscow is renewing itself with a vigor and opulence seen in few other places on the planet....Few cities have sloughed off as much leaden history to reinvent themselves."
There's the endless and excited recitation of the fact that Russia now has 53 billionaires (aka oligarchs) worth a total of $282 billion.
A recent article, "Not Down and Out in Moscow," devoted some several thousands of words to the city's annual Millionaire Fair--designed to introduce wealthy Muscovites to foreign luxury brands (Gulfstream jets, diamond-encrusted car grilles, resembling interlinked chain bracelets, for Rolls-Royce Phantoms at $55,000 each) that they may not have encountered on their travel to popular watering holes like Cap Ferrat, Gstaad and Courchevel. This year's show is estimated to generate about $745 million. (Did the two page coverage of this crass greed-fest have anything to do with the fact that the conference,as disclosed in the article, was sponsored by the International Herald Tribune, which is owned by the New York Times Company?)
Today's (December 9th) New York Times outdoes itself as the lifestyle paper for the rich. "From Russia With Luxe" offers a guided tour to Moscow's most obscenely expensive hotels and restaurants. Turandot, the Times tells us, is a lavishly recreated 18th century European gilt palace, complete with servers in period dress--expect a meal for two to cost you over $1000 a head; the new Ritz-Carlton has rooms starting at about $700 a night. Another article, "Rubles, A Girl's Best Friend," features Russia's new socialistas....many of whom are the oligarchettes--designer-outfitted wives of the billionaires who benefited from the looting of the country's assets in the greatest firesale of the 20th century. All of this may be fascinating for the one percent of Russians and Americans who can afford to think about such trips or such social silliness.
Might it not be time for the Times to do a series about how Russia's middle class, working class or poor are faring? Russia's inequality has reached staggering heights --and while the Times loves to report about how the country is booming, the paper ignores the many people who still barely get by. The latest Russian government estimates show that as many as 5 million of its people are homeless. The Russian National Center for Living Standards reveals that about 23 million-- or 16% of the population-- live below the poverty level. (And independent surveys here and in Russia put that number far higher.) Roughly 33% of the country could not afford necessary medical care in 2007, according to the Center for the Study of Public Opinion. And with the scores of opeds and articles about Putin's assault on democracy, maybe a few of them could have noted that inflation and poverty, according to a recent Russian independent poll, were problems most on voters' minds in the runup to the December 2 parliamentary elections.
And with all the hyped coverage of the oil and gas boom fueling Russia's economy, and its fantastically expensive nightclubs, restaurants, hotels and designer clothes stores, maybe one, just one, story about how in a country which controls more than a quarter of the world's natural gas reserves, could report on how many people still use firewood to heat their homes? Here's a plea for a few articles in 2008 about the lifestyles of the poor, the near poor, the middle class...others.. besides the richest of the rich?
Remember when feminist bookstores dotted the land? In l993 there were 124. A woman writer could give readings in women's bookstores from Los Angeles to Baltimore. But 1993 was the high point. Ever since, like other independent bookstores--I'm still mourning the death of Ivy's Books at 92nd Street and Broadway, which closed a year ago--ones catering to feminists have been closing, felled by economic forces with which we are all familiar: chain stores and online sellers who offer big discounts, skyrocketing rents, changing neighborhoods and, arguably, declining interest in reading. True, every Barnes & Noble now has a women's section, but feminist bookstores, even more than most independents, are not just places where books are sold They are places where small-press, new, local and midlist writers are cherished and hand-sold by staffers who actually care about books, where there's room to stock offbeat items, pamphlets and magazines, and where literary and political communities are shaped through events, readings, book groups, talks, and parties. It can't be good, for either books or feminism, that there are only around 15 women's bookstores left in the United States.
That number will get even smaller if BookWoman, in Austin, Texas, goes under. For over thirty years, BookWoman has anchored the local feminist community: now it's been priced out of its home at 12th and Lamar, once a funky area of independent shops, now increasingly posh. Owner Susan Post is trying to raise $50,000 by mid-December. It's what she needs in order to keep the business open and negotiate a new lease at a new address. Kind donors have raised about half that amount. Can you help take it over the top? You can make a quick donation at www.savebookwoman.com.
If you're within striking distance of Austin, drop by and browse. If you can't make it to the bricks and mortar, shop online at www.ebookwoman.com. Why not help the store and make life easy for yourself at the same time, by doing your holiday shopping there?
And don't forget that quiet evening curled up with a book you've been promising yourself as a reward for having your whole family over for Chanukah latkes, Christmas turkey or, I dunno, atheistical baba ganoush. Let Bookwoman send you Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, or Mary Gordon's fabulous memoir Circling My Mother. Or any other book that takes your fancy. They have cool t-shirts too. Just in case you have all the books your shelves can hold for now.
Read more about BookWoman here.
Need mortage relief fast? Well, the White House is there for you...no wait, they're not there after all, but now I think they finally are.
At a press conference this afternoon announcing mortgage relief for victims of subprime lending, President Bush said that the White House had come up with an administration hotline so frightened homeowners could work with a "certified financial counselor."
Well, the number, 1-888-995-HOPE, first didn't work. But after a few minutes of waiting to speak with a "specially trained professional," I can report that I finally just spoke to someone who said he could direct me to such a professional.
So, don't worry, the hotline is up and running and our country's foreclosure crisis could be over by the end of the business day.
The popular social networking websiteFacebook just backed down from a controversial new advertisingprogram after a revolt by thousands of members.
Facebook had launchedBeacon, which was using "social advertising" technology to broadcastinformation about online purchases without many users' consent. The ideawas to convert private commerce into public endorsements: "Ben Bloom ateat the restaurant Junnoon," read one ad, with a prominent head shot of Bendisplayed next to the company logo. But what if Ben didn't want hislunch date to be an ad? Beacon enrolled people automatically, offeringusers a choice to "opt out" of each ad on an individual basis.
Many people didn't like that, so they protested, naturally, onFacebook. MoveOn started a group demanding that Beacon switch to"opt in"--a default to protect uninformed users--and allow people toreject the program completely in one click.
A new group, Facebook: StopInvading My Privacy!, quickly swelled to more than 50,000 members. Itwas a hub for activism, news and stories about Beacon snafus, includingChristmas surprises spoiled by posted ads.
Students from across the country signed up to lead the group as self-declared "privacy avengers,"and its message board drew more than 1,000 posts in less than two weeks.Then Facebook conceded to the first demand, scaling back Beacon so usersmust choose to participate.
MoveOn declared victory, crediting "everydayInternet users." The partial retreat was especially striking becauselast year, a much larger protest group of 700,000 users did not compelFacebook to abandon the "feed," a new feature that blasts updates aboutpeople to their personal networks.
This time, however, the activism wasnot limited to decentralized complaints. MoveOn added criticalleadership and a practical reform agenda, while users spread the wordabout Facebook on Facebook.
Henry Kravis, founding partner in the private equity company KKR, made$450 million last year--that's $1.3 million per day, or $51,369 perhour. He did it largely by borrowing money to take over publiccompanies, then selling off the company's assets to pay the debt, layingoff thousands of workers, and slashing benefits for those who remained. (If you've seen Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, you knowthe drill.)
And for his efforts to move us closer to Gilded Age-like inequality, the government rewards Kravis by taxing most of his income at the 15 percentcapital gains rate--one-half the rate paid by secretaries, teachers,firemen, and cops among others--instead of a 35 percent ordinary income rate. A gift from Congress to the private equity and hedge-funders who linetheir campaign coffers and pay lobbyists millions to maintain an unjuststatus quo.
I've written previously about this tax loophole travesty, and the factthat Democrats have taken a pass on rectifying it. Today, Robert Greenwald premiers the first in his War on Greed series of short films that will take on this outrage. He hopes to build momentum and pressure for change and, with that in mind, he's holdingthe film premiere outside of Kravis' 29-room penthouse on Park Avenue. (One of Kravis'five homes, this one features a wood-burning fireplace in every roombut the kitchen.)
Take a look:
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Greenwald does a terrific and spirited job shining a light on thisissue. As Andrew Ross Sorkin reportsin the New York Times today, "The War on Greed, Starring the Homes ofHenry Kravis, is a tongue-in-cheek story--think "Lifestyles of theRich and Famous" meets "Roger & Me"--detailing Mr. Kravis's homes andlifestyle, juxtaposed against the homes and incomes of workingfamilies." An engineer interviewed in the film cuts to the heart of thefairness issue: "When I borrow money on a credit card, I'm rewarded withhigh interest payments, hidden fees, annual charges that could put meover the limit. It affects my credit negatively. When Henry Kravisborrows money, he gets rewarded with millions of dollars in tax breaks. And he ends up paying less in taxes percentage-wise than his maid. That's just not fair."
Greenwald is aiming to create an environment which mobilizes outrage inpopulist and intelligent ways, and makes these titans of greed and theirmoney toxic. Look for the next three in this series of short films tofeature interviews with workers around Martin Luther King, Jr.'sBirthday; workers screwed by Kravis on Valentine's Day; and promotingactions to take around legislation to close the loophole, culminatingwith an April 15 demand to make the richest among us pay their fairshare.
There was irony in the fact that George Herbert Walker Bush introduced former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney's much-anticipated speech on religion and politics.
Almost four decades ago, the elder Bush's long, slow trudge to the White House was interrupted by his defeat in a U.S. Senate race by a straighter-talking Texan named Lloyd Bentsen.
Bentsen is not well remembered for what he said in that 1970 campaign. But he added a memorable line to the American political lexicon 18 years later when, in another campaign against Bush, he debated his fellow Texan's vice presidential running-mate.
Indiana Senator Dan Quayle's attempt to compare himself with another youthful contender for national office, John Kennedy, brought a stinging rebuke from Bentsen: "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy: I knew Jack Kennedy; Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy. "
A demoralized Quayle whined, "That was really uncalled for, Senator."
But Bentsen stood his ground. " You are the one that was making the comparison, Senator -- and I'm the one who knew him well," he told Quayle. "And frankly I think you are so far apart in the objectives you choose for your country that I did not think the comparison was well-taken."
After listening to Romney's passable address at the George Bush Library Thursday, and to the overwrought comparison's of the governor's speech with Kennedy's historic September 12, 1960, address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, it was impossible not to wish that Bentsen were still alive to answer the Republican presidential candidate.
Because, as his speech Thursday confirmed, Mitt Romney does not share Jack Kennedy's courage or the former president's view of the Constitution.
Kennedy told the ministers in Houston, "'I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute."
Romney tried to say something like that, but he didn't dare speak so bluntly. Too concerned about offending evangelical conservative voters – who don't believe that separation of church and state is absolute and are abandoning his campaign for cynical crusade of wily Southern Baptist preacher Mike Huckabee – the former governor could only muster a self-serving pledge not to offend those who do not share his Mormon faith. "If I am fortunate to become your president, I will serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause and no one interest," Romney squeaked.
Instead of promising the "absolute" separation that Kennedy pledged, Romney attacked those who would follow the lead of the 35th president and, for that matter, of the third president, Thomas Jefferson, who argued that the purpose of the Constitutional reference to freedom of religion had been to build " a wall of separation between Church and State."
Romney told his friendly audience at the presidential library in College Station, Texas, that, "No religion should dictate to the state nor should the state interfere with the free practice of religion. But in recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God."
Where Kennedy spoke frankly and in great detail about his Catholicism and about Catholics in politics, Romney eschewed a deep discussion of Mormonism or of his family's historic leadership role in the Church of the Latter Day Saints.
Kennedy delivered the "profile-in-courage" speech of a statesman back in 1960, and he did so in state where prejudices against Catholicism were barely cloaked. But his comments were addressed as much to Catholics as to Baptists. "I do not speak for my church on public matters--and the church does not speak for me," he declared. "Whatever issue may come before me as President--on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject--I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise."
In stark contrast, Romney gave a political speech that will do little to reassure evangelicals who distrust Mormons or Americans who want their presidents to act in the national interest rather than in response to their religious impulses. "I believe in my Mormon faith and I endeavor to live by it," Romney said. "My faith is the faith of my fathers. I will be true to them and to my beliefs."
To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen: "Governor, you're no Jack Kennedy."
Whatever else the release of the 16-agency National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the Iranian bomb may be, it is certainly a reasonable measure of inside-the-Beltway Bush administration decline. Whether that release represented "a pre-emptive strike against the White House by intelligence agencies and military chiefs," an intelligence "mini-coup" against the administration, part of a longer-term set of moves meant to undermine plans for air strikes against Iran that involved a potential resignation threat from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and a "near mutiny" by the Joint Chiefs, or an attempt by the administration itself to "salvage negotiations with Iran" or shift its own Iran policy, or none of -- or some combination of -- the above, one thing can be said: Such an NIE would not have been written, no less released, at almost any previous moment in the last seven years. (Witness the 2005 version of the same that opted for an active Iranian program to produce nuclear weapons.)
Imagine an NIE back in 2005 that, as Dilip Hiro wrote recently, "contradicts the image of an inward-looking, irrational, theocratic leadership ruling Iran oppressively that Washington has been projecting for a long time. It says: 'Our assessment that Iran halted the program in 2003 primarily in response to international pressure indicates Teheran's decisions are judged by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs.'"
The Iranians as rational, cost-benefit calculators? Only the near collapse of presidential and vice-presidential polling figures, and the endless policy failures that proceeded and accompanied those numbers; only the arrival of Robert Gates as secretary of defense and a representative of the "reality-based community," only the weakening of the neocons and their purge inside the Pentagon, only the increasing isolation of the Vice President's "office"--only, that is, decline inside the Beltway--could account for such a conclusion or such a release.
Whatever the realities of the Iranian nuclear program, this NIE certainly reflected the shifting realities of power in Washington in the winter of 2007. In a zero-sum game in the capital's corridors in which, for years, every other power center was the loser, the hardliners suddenly find themselves with their backs to the wall when it comes to the most compelling of their dreams of global domination. (Never forget the pre-invasion neocon quip: "Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran.")
Now, as Jim Lobe points out, we probably know why the Vice President and others suddenly began to change the subject last summer from the Iranian nuclear program to Iranian IEDs being smuggled into Iraq for use against American forces. And why, in August, according to the Washington Post's Dan Froomkin, the President "stopped making explicit assertions about the existence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program... and started more vaguely accusing them of seeking the knowledge necessary to make such a weapon." They knew what was coming.
Enough power evidently remained in the hands of Vice President Cheney and associates that the final NIE was delayed at least three times, according to Congressional sources speaking to the Los Angeles Times. The New Yorker's Seymour Hersh claims that "the vice-president has kept his foot on the neck of that report... The intelligence we learned about yesterday has been circulating inside this government at the highest levels for the last year -- and probably longer." Still, it's now out and that is a yardstick of something.
In a recent essay at Tomdispatch.com, Dilip Hiro offers a striking way of measuring a more significant decline--not of the Bush moment in Washington, but of imperial America which, not so long ago, was engaged in a planetary superpower zero-sum game with the Soviet Union, but now finds itself on the losing end of an ever more humiliating zero-sum game with Iran, a relatively minor regional power. If you needed the slightest proof of this, just consider how, on Wednesday, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad termed the release of the NIE a "declaration of victory" for Iran's nuclear program. And he has reason to crow. After all, as the headline of the latest Robert Scheer column at Truthdig.org indicates, when it came to the latest stare-down at the nuclear OK Corral between the President of the planetary "hyperpower" and the president of a relatively weak regional power: "It Turns Out Ahmadinejad Was the Truthful One."
Yesterday the Supreme Court heard arguments in what may be the most important constitutional case of the decade: whether the men detained at Guantanamo have a right to a fair trial before a real court. I spoke with Erwin Chemerinsky about the case – he's professor of law at Duke, and Dean of the new UC Irvine law school; and he represents one of the Gitmo detainees whose case is before the court, Salem Gherebi.
At issue is the Military Commissions Act, passed by Congress in 2006. Chemerinsky called it "one of the worst laws in all of American history with regard to civil liberties." The provision before the court yesterday says that no non-citizen held as an enemy combatant shall have any access to federal courts, including by writ of habeas corpus. They can go through a military proceeding--if one is convened by the government – and then they can get reviewed by the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia circuit.
The key issue, Chemerinsky said, "is there's nothing in the Military Commissions Act that requires that a military proceeding be convened. The government can hold all of these people for the rest of their lives without ever bringing them before a military tribunal. Then the have no ability ever to go before a federal court." And no matter how long they are held, they can't come to federal court with a writ of habeas corpus.
The Constitution says the right of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, "except in cases of rebellion or invasion." "I don't think there's a rebellion or an invasion," Chemerinsky said, "and I don't think it matters whether a person is a citizen or noncitizen. The government can't keep a person locked up forever without due process."
John Yoo, former deputy assistant attorney general for George W. Bush, now professor of law at UC Berkeley, defends the Military Commissions Act. On NPR recently he argued that granting terrorists the right to a regular trial in a regular court would hamper the war on terror and give aid and comfort to the enemy.
"He's assuming they ARE terrorists," Chemerinsky replied. "The whole point is that we don't know. My client has been in Guantanamo for more than five years, and I still have no idea why he's there. Maybe he's a dangerous person, or maybe he's there because the US paid a warlord who picked him out because they wanted to get the bounty. The only way we can know if somebody is a terrorist or a criminal is to have due process of law."
Yoo argues that we should trust the military when they say that only the most important and threatening of our enemies have been detained at Guantanamo.
Chemerinsky replied, "Here I say let's trust the Constitution. The Constitution expresses a great distrust of executive power. The Constitution is clear that nobody should be able to be held just on the say-so of the executive, without due process."
Court-watchers agree that the vote will be 5-4, with Justice Anthony M. Kennedy holding the swing vote. If Kennedy votes for the plaintiffs, what happens then? Do they actually get a real trial in a real court with real lawyers?
"Not for years to come," Chemerinsky replied. "Then what will happen is that we'll go back to federal district court, where they can present their habeas petitions. Then the issue is going to be what does due process and international law require for these detainees. And my guess is that's going to be fought over for a long time, then appealed to the DC Circuit, then it will go to the Supreme Court.
"The sad reality is that, even if my client wins today at the Supreme Court, what my client wins is the prospect of going to court for years to come. The problem is that if my client loses today, he loses his lawyer and he can be held forever without ever getting his day in court."
John McCain recently commented, "it's not about who they are, it's about who we are." Chemerinsky agreed: "That about sums it up," he said.
Senators Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Joe Biden and Chris Dodd are all running around Iowa telling farmers how much they care about them.
But do the Democratic presidential contenders care enough about farmers to take a break from the campaign trail to fight for farmers on the floor of the Senate?
On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid filed for cloture in order to force action on the Farm Bill, consideration of which has been delayed for months by senators who are playing politics with policy debates that will decide whether family farms and rural communities survive or struggle -- and perhaps even fail -- in 2008 and beyond.
"The farm bill has been deadlocked in the Senate for nearly a month, despite the bill's unanimous, bipartisan support in the Senate Agriculture Committee and broad support from the countryside," says National Farmers Union President Tom Buis, a progressive farm leader who has been arguing for some time that the delay in Senate action on the Farm Bill makes it difficult for working farmers to make critical decisions about how to run their operations.
"There has been plenty of time to move forward and it is disappointing that the Senate hasn't passed a farm bill, adds Buis. "It is time for Senators to stand up in support of rural America, our producers, consumers and their families, and vote to proceed on this important bill."
As fall gives way to winter, the NFU president has been reminding senators that, "The winter wheat crop is already in the ground and producers are beginning to make decisions for the upcoming planting season. Producers need to know what kind of farm programs they will be operating under next year"
Pressure from the NFU and other farm groups has finally gotten Reid to move.
A vote on cloture is expected Friday.
It's going to be a critical test.
"With the end of the year fast approaching, Congressional work days are few and time is running out," says Buis. "The Senate needs to act quickly to pass a farm bill so a House-Senate conference committee can be appointed, members can approve a conference report and the President can sign a farm bill into law."
To assure that the Senate gets serious about farm and food issues, Reid will need as much unity as he can muster from Senate Democrats.
Will Clinton, Obama, Biden and Dodd show up? Will they put policymaking ahead of politics, at least for one day?
Or will they decide that it is more important to run around Iowa spouting rhetoric about farm policy rather than to get a real debate on the Farm Bill started in Washington.
If the Democratic contenders need something more to chew on, they might consider this fact: The Farm Bill debate has meaning in states throughout the Midwest -- including Wisconsin, Minnesota and Missouri -- which will be the critical electoral battlegrounds next November.
If the eventual Democratic nominee wants to get an upper hand going into a race against New York Republican Rudy Giuliani or Massachusetts Republican Mitt Romney, the single best way to do so is by establishing credibility with rural voters. And the single best way to do that is by exiting Iowa and going to where the farm policy debate needs to play out: on the floor of the Senate in which Clinton, Obama, Biden and Dodd are supposed to be serving.
Rutgers University recently hosted the latest in a series of town hall forums being conducted by the two members of the five-person Federal Communications Commissions (FCC) who are opposed to increasing media concentration. The tireless Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps have been criss-crossing the country involving the public in a conversation that FCC Commission Chairman Kevin Martin as well as Big Media would rather the citizenry stay out of.
At Rutgers, students and community members joined together in a large lecture hall to explore specifically to what degree the local, Fox-owned TV station, which has its license up for renewal, has observed its FCC mandate to serve the local community with news coverage of relevance to residents of Northern New Jersey. The short answer, according to virtually the entire audience including US Senator Frank Lautenberg, is not very well at all.
Chairman Martin tries to avoid talking to the public, but he couldn't avoid Congress today as he was grilled by lawmakers this afternoon. All five members of the FCC panel appeared before a hearing of the House Telecommunications Subcommittee convened by Rep. John Dingell. The questioning focused on Martin's efforts to ram through changes in the agency's media-ownership rules--changes that were widely unpopular when proposed by previous FCC Chairman Michael Powell in 2003. Martin was urged repeatedly by Democratic lawmakers not to expedite the rule changes, to allow sufficient time for the public to be consulted and to drop his plans to hold a vote at an FCC meeting on December 18 -- a vote he knows he's likely to win.
Last week, our friends at the media reform group Free Press released two reports criticizing Martin's rush for more media consolidation. Devil in the Details exposed how the loose and ambiguous "waiver" standard proposed by Martin creates a giant loophole for big media companies to exploit. Out of the Picture 2007 found minority-owned commercial TV stations decreased by 8.5 percent last year on Martin's watch -- with the number of black-owned stations falling 60 percent.
And the proposed rule changes will make all these problems worse! "What the FCC is proposing would result in sweeping changes to the American media landscape that would leave us with fewer competing voices and less diversity on the public airwaves," said S. Derek Turner, research director of Free Press.
After reading the reports check out this video to see why the stakes are so high.
Then, go to the Free Press Action Center for info on ways you can join the movement for a diverse, pluralistic and democratic media.