The Nation

How to Restore Habeas Corpus

The American Civil Liberties Union is right when it says that last week's Senate Judiciary Committee vote in favor of the restoration of habeas corpus protections "signals to the White House and the Republican minority in Congress that this is a real issue."

But that does not mean that renewal of the most basic of our Constitutional guarantees is just around the corner.

The frustrating fight to restore habeas corpus has reached an important milestone. Democrats appear to have signed on for the struggle. But Republicans, for the most part, remain wrong or silent.

That creates a calculus that must be understood by serious constitutionalists. This fight is about more than gaining partisan advantage or "sending a message." A fundamental of the republic is at stake. Thus, it is essential to recognize that, even though Democrats control the Congress, GOP control of the White House means that this constitutional restoration project must now focus attention and energy on those congressional Republicans who call themselves "strict constructionists." Only if the Senate votes overwhelmingly for the restoration of habeas corpus will there be any chance of forcing the hand of a president who has not distinguished himself as an enthusiast for the Bill of Rights.

Is it reasonable to think that grass-roots activists might succeed in forcing a significant number of Republicans to do the right thing?

Absolutely, especially when we recognize the progress that has been made thus far. And even more so when we consider that this progress is a direct reflection of the fact that the passion for restoring habeas corpus has always been greater at the grass roots than in Washington. People were shocked when a Republican-controlled Congress moved to undermine an essential check in the American Constitution -- a protection the U.S. Supreme Court has described as "the fundamental instrument for safeguarding individual freedom against lawless state action."

After Democrats won control of the U.S. House and Senate last November, the popular Internet site www.democrats.com asked people to identify the first action the new Congress should take. The online survey listed 140 possible changes. The top response? "Restore habeas corpus."

Of course, it was not just Democrats who were worried about the kick in the teeth that the Constitution had taken. Earlier this year, the conservatives and libertarians associated with the Liberty Coalition and the right-wing legal scholars at the Rutherford Institute signed onto a letter outlining 10 steps the new Congress could take to restore U.S. moral authority in the world. The first step was: Restore habeas corpus.

The messages from the grassroots were heard in Washington.

The new Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., took the lead in declaring that the hasty approval prior to the 2006 election of the Military Commissions Act -- the measure that attacked habeas corpus -- represented a dark moment in our history. "The passage of this bill was a profound mistake, and its elimination of habeas corpus review was its worst error. Righting this wrong is one of my top priorities," explained Leahy, who with the ranking Republican on the committee, Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, introduced the Habeas Corpus Restoration Act on the first day of the new Congress.

Leahy and Specter were quickly joined in their initiative by the Senate's chief defender of constitutional protections, Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold.

Over time, all four Democratic senators who are seeking their party's presidential nomination -- first New York's Hillary Clinton, then Connecticut's Chris Dodd, then Illinois' Barack Obama and finally Delaware's Joe Biden -- became co-sponsors.

The signs of Democratic solidarity on the issue are good.

Unfortunately, with the exception of Specter, Republicans have failed to come on board for restoring the traditional reading of the founding document. Going into the Judiciary Committee vote on the act, Specter's was the only Republican name on the list of 20 co-sponsors.

The pattern held when the committee voted 10-8 to send the Habeas Corpus Restoration Act to the full Senate with no amendments. It was frustrating, indeed, that all but one Republican on the committee that is should take the lead in upholding the Constitution voted against it.

As the measure moves to the full Senate -- for a vote that could take place in a matter of weeks -- the challenge will be to build Republican support. It can be done. Republicans, especially those in the party's "old-right" wing, have broken with the White House on the Patriot Act, warrantless wiretapping and other Bill of Rights issues. The list starts with New Hampshire's John Sununu, Alaska's Lisa Murkowski, Idaho's Larry Craig and Nebraska's Chuck Hagel, all of whom have, like Specter, gotten into dust ups with the administration over civil liberties. But its should not stop there; every Republican who claims to favor a literal -- "strict constructionist" -- reading of the Constitution ought to be targeted for intensive lobbying. These Republicans must be convinced, as Specter has been, that the essential fight to restore habeas corpus is about more than party or ideology.

It is about respecting the most basic premises of the American experiment.


John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

Idiot Liberals Strike Again

When will Democratic leaders stop dissing their base? David Obey is making a habit of it.

Earlier this year, the Wisconsin veteran, who heads up the House Appropriations Committee called anti-war workers, "idiot liberals" for calling for a cut off in funds for Bush's Iraq disaster. This week, Obey told advocates for youth to grow up and stop complaining about the millions of dollars his committee intends to shovel to deadly, discredited abstinence-only programs.

House Democrats will likely vote today to increase abstinence-only miseducation programs to $140 million, a larger increase than any put forward in the last three years of the Republican Congress. Obey told NPR it's all about pragmatism: the Appropriations Bill faces a veto threat from the President, and House Democrats need all the support they can get from Republicans. And there are quid pro quos: to secure a proposed $27 million increase for the family planning program Title X anti-choicers need to be bought off with $27 million for deadly abstinence.

"It's about people acting like adults and realizing that you can't just hold your breath until you get your own way," Obey told Morning Edition June 14th.

But that $27 million increase represents just a ten percent growth in the budget for Title X; it's a 30 percent increase for abstinence only. Besides, most sane Americans were expecting the purportedly pro-choice Democratic majority to cut off funding for this boondoggle not increase it.

Anyone who read Michael Reynolds' excellent piece on the Abstinence Gluttons knows the myriad ways in which these censorship programs stink. As a congressionally mandated report recently concluded, they're bad health policy, bad fiscal policy, and should be ended. As Reynolds' documented in depth, federal funding of "abstinence" also gifts billions of dollars to GOP partisans who not only mess with young minds but also campaign against Democrats and progressive priorities.

As James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth told the Air Americans last week, the GOP gravy train was bad enough. "Now it's switched tracks and became a Democratic train. Obey can now stand tall and say that he is now one of the biggest funders of the Radical Right in America."

It'd be bad enough if it were just Obey, but progressive caucus members including Nita Lowey and Barbara Lee who sit on both the Appropriations and the Health and Human Services subcommittee (also chaired by Obey) that put forward this proposal are complicit. Democrats enjoy a 37:29 majority on Appropriations. What they push moves. The battle goes to the Senate next, where the 15:14 split on appropriations is much tighter. Speaking of senators, Hillary Clinton is talking up a storm on the campaign trail about her support for Title X. So far she's remained mum about millions more for sex-miseducation.

"We are not your pawns," youth activists told House Democrats on the eve of the Committee's vote. Wagoner has some glum young progressive organizers in his office to explain the Democratic majority to. Said Wagoner "as an activist you expect to fight this in a conservative republican Congress, but I can't tell you how infuriated, how angry I feel, having witnessed Democratic allies sell us out."

Thus Wagoner and his team join the anti-war activists. Bravo Democrats you're swelling the ranks of pissed-off, enraged, "liberal idiots."

Laura Flanders is the author of Blue Grit: True Democrats Take Back Politics from the Politicians, from The Penguin Press. Buy the book.

It's Not About Dan and Katie

When asked about his view of CBS Evening News during a radio interview with MSNBC's Joe Scarborough on Monday, Dan Rather said network execs had tried to boost ratings by "dumbing it down and tarting it up."

The media firestorm that's followed illustrates the very point--the larger point--Rather has consistently tried to make about the degradation of the mainstream, corporate news biz and the obliteration of the line between news and entertainment.

Watch as CBS dances, deflects and dodges the valid and valuable criticism levied by Rather and plenty of other media watchdogs. Les Moonves, CBS CEO, called Rather's remark "sexist" and said, "Let's give [Katie] a break."

But it's got nothing to do with Katie Couric. Nor does it really have anything to do with the messenger, Rather (whose colorful, native Texanspeak has gotten him into hot water in the past--much as it did for the late former Governor Anne Richards). It's about the message.

Rather's predecessor at CBS, Walter Cronkite--no fan of Rather himself--offered a similar take in a recent keynote address. According to the Associated Press, Cronkite suggested that the pressure for profits is "threatening the very freedom the nation was built upon."

"It's not just the journalist's job at risk here," Cronkite said. "It's American democracy. It is freedom."

And in a recent New York Times op-ed, FCC Commissioner Michael Copps warned of "pressure from media conglomerates" that has made licensing renewals for the free use of the public airwaves a virtual "rubber-stamp" every eight years. He contrasts this with a past when every three years the requirement that networks serve the public interest was given "a hard look" – prior to "deregulatory mania in the 1980's."

As for Rather, in these last four years he's been a consistent critic of the corporate media and his own role in it. He's self-critical enough--unlike so many others – to know that he weaved and wavered in the run-up to the Iraq War. As he told Bill Moyers, "I don't think there is any excuse for, you know, my performance and the performance of the press in general in the roll up to the war. There were exceptions. There were some people, who, I think, did a better job than others. But overall and in the main there's no question that we didn't do a good job…. We weren't smart enough, we weren't alert enough, we didn't dig enough. And we shouldn't have been fooled in this way…."

Rather has also described a culture of fear that permeates the newsroom. In an interview with BBC he said, "It is an obscene comparison--you know I am not sure I like it--but you know there was a time in South Africa that people would put flaming tyres around people's necks if they dissented. And in some ways the fear is that you will be necklaced here, you will have a flaming tyre of lack of patriotism put around your neck. Now it is that fear that keeps journalists from asking the toughest of the tough questions, and to continue to bore in on the tough questions so often. And again, I am humbled to say, I do not except myself from this criticism."

And, speaking to Moyers: "Fear is in every newsroom in the country. And fear of what? Well… a combination of: if you don't go along to get along, you're going to get the reputation of being a troublemaker. There's also the fear...particularly in networks, they've become huge, international conglomerates. They have big needs, legislative needs, repertory needs in Washington. Nobody has to send you a memo to tell you that that's the case…. And that puts a seed in your mind of, well, if you stick your neck out, if you take the risk of going against the grain with your reporting, is anybody going to back you up?"

Recently, NBC News led its evening news program with two-and-a-half minutes on Paris Hilton. Coverage of Anna Nicole Smith topped Iraq War coverage on the networks night after night. There is no question that the network news programs have become cogs in the conglomerate machine where news is a profit center.

We desperately need a news media that raises the tough questions, acts as watchdogs of the public interest, questions authority--performs the basic duties required of a free press in a democracy. A flawed media leads to a flawed democracy. And in these past six or so years, with some notable exceptions, the media has been too easily intimidated by an administration that used fear to make its case for war, labeled its critics un-American, quashed dissent, perverted the meaning of patriotism and brazenly--on all fronts--subverted the Constitution. As longtime White House correspondent Helen Thomas wrote in The Nation,"[Reporters] lapped up everything the Pentagon and White House could dish out--no questions asked."

So, now, when Dan Rather talks about dumbing down news in order to tart it up--it ain't about Dan, and it ain't about Katie. It's about consolidation, conglomeration, and the impact on the Fourth Estate and our democracy.

Justice Department Scandals Draw Subpoenas

The most amusing spin following the vote by a majority of US senators to prepare a "no-confidence" vote against Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was the suggestion that the scandal-plagued Cabinet member had earned something of a reprieve.

Because the Senate did not muster the super-majority of 60 votes needed to schedule the "no-confidence" vote on Monday, the White House and its media acolytes suggested, the tide had turned in favor of Gonzales.

In fact, the decision of seven Republican senators to join their Democratic colleagues in taking steps to signal that the Attorney General did nothing to dampen enthusiasm for holding Gonzales to account.

In fact, it certainly looks as if congressional investigators are feeling emboldened.

How much?

On Wednesday, long-delayed subpoenas were issued to former White House aides who were intimately involved in efforts to remove US attorneys who were deemed to be insufficiently partisan in their investigations and prosecutions.

Senate Judiciary Committee chair Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, issued a subpoena to former White House political director Sara Taylor. Leahy left no doubt about what the line of questioning would be, saying that, "White House officials like former Political Director Sara Taylor were deeply involved in the mass firings of well-performing prosecutors..."

Another of those White House officials, former counsel Harriet Miers, is set to receive a subpoena from House Judiciary Committee chair John Conyers, D-Michigan.

The dispatching of subpoenas to key players in the Bush White House -- both of whom left their jobs only this year: Miers in January, Taylor in late May -- opens an important new front in the inquiry into the firings of the US attorneys and the broader issue of the politicization of the Justice Department. It also takes the investigation closer to the president, whose closeness to Miers was highlighted to his ill-fated attempt to place her on the Supreme Court.

But this is only the beginning of the next stage.

Leahy has been authorized to subpoena a number of current and former White House aides, most notably political czar Karl Rove. That makes the call for Taylor to testify especially significant, as she worked with Rove on a daily basis.

Does this mean Rove will be getting a subpoena soon? Bet on it.

Testimony by Taylor and Miers, which should come in July if the White House decides not to fight the demands from the House and Senate, will help to set the stage for a grilling of Rove. And once Rove is under oath, the discussion will turn to the meetings where outgoing White House counselor Dan Bartlett has confirmed that Bush discussed firing the prosecutors with his chief political adviser and Gonzales.

White House spokesperson Dana Perino grumbles Leahy and Conyers are issuing the subpoenas because they are interested in "drama."

The always unwitting Perino is, on this particular point, correct.

What could be more dramatic than a summer of testimony about how White House legal and political aides conspired with the Attorney General and the president himself to hire and fire U.S. Attorneys as part of scheme to use law enforcement agencies of the federal government to achieve political ends?


John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

Breastfeeding and Blow Jobs

Yesterday was one of those days when, having read the paper you are quite certain it is full of misprints and mistakes--either that or you've slipped down Alice's rabbit hole into a logic-free world.

Are Muslim clerics really issuing salacious fatwas by ordering Egyptian working women to breast-feed their male colleagues five times in order to "establish family ties" and to enable unmarried men and women to work together without the usual Koranic restrictions?

Are young people in this country really serving 10-year prison sentences for consensual oral sex?

I'm referring, of course, to the highly-publicized case of Genarlow Wilson who is in his second year of prison in Georgia for having received oral sex at a high school New Year's Eve party from a 15-year-old girl when he was 17. While it is true that drugs and alcohol were being used. (What?! You're kidding! At a high school party!?) It is also true that the girl never contended that it was anything but consensual.

Four others at the 2003 party, which was videotaped, pled guilty in order to serve less time. But in the 2005 trial, Wilson stated that he did not want to enter a guilty plea and spend his life registered as a sex offender--precluding him from living in the same home as his 8-year-old sister, among other things--and successfully fought a sexual assault charge. But he was found guilty of aggravated child molestation for the oral sex. This carried a 10-year-minimum sentence in Georgia.

The Georgia law originally included an exception. Dubbed "The Romeo & Juliet" clause, it clarified that teens who engaged in consensual intercourse would be excluded from the 10-year-minimum sentencing requirement. Instead, these offenders would be guilty of a lesser misdemeanor charge. But they forgot to include language about oral sex.

In 2006, state legislators amended the law so that teens engaging in intercourse and/or oral sex could only be charged with a misdemeanor--and serve up to 12 months in jail for the "crime."

When I read about this case, I have an evil fantasy.

I envision a slew of creative activists spreading out across the state of Georgia--with a special emphasis on the home districts of this law's proponents and hey, maybe even the lawmakers' own teens--and collecting the tens (no, wait a minute) hundreds (no wait a minute) thousands (no, wait a minute) tens of thousands (no, wait a minute) hundreds of thousands of teens who have broken the law by having oral sex or intercourse in their "tender years" and flooding the courts with their cases. (Remember, according to the Centers for Disease Control, 70 percent of teens are sexually active by the time they reach 19; the average age of first intercourse is 17; 59 percent of sexually experienced female teens had first sex with a partner who was 1 to 3 years their senior; 13 percent of all 15-year-olds have had intercourse.) I would like to see all these cases stacked on the desk of the over-eager district attorney who has so vigorously pursued this absurd case. And I would like to see state legislators buckling under the cost of these investigations, trials, and long prison sentences.

Some residents in the state have worried that African-American Genarlow Wilson was selectively prosecuted because of his race. I believe the state of Georgia would do well to allay these concerns by pursuing, in a fair and equitable manner, each and every case involving sex among consenting minors. After all, it's a crime, right?

Or have I fallen down some rabbit hole?

Bernie Sanders Fights for Green Collar Jobs

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont is excited. And when Sanders - longtime maverick populist - is in that frame of mind, you know something right and smart is in the works.

In this case it's the Energy Savings Act of 2007, which the Senate is now debating. Sanders is so keen on this legislation because of the opportunity not only to address global warming and energy needs, but also to create millions of new jobs and make sure our workforce has the skills needed to fill them.

Yesterday afternoon, the Senate adopted the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Workforce Development Amendment sponsored by Sanders and recent cosponsor, Senator Hillary Clinton. The amendment allots $100 million to train workers in "green collar jobs" – jobs that involve the design, manufacture, installation, operation, and maintenance of clean, efficient energy technologies.

"Congress obviously needs to move aggressively to address the crisis of global warming," Sanders told me, "and there are signs that we are going to succeed in doing that. The good news is that as we move forward with renewable energy and energy efficiency industries – although there will be some job dislocation – we can create millions of new jobs."

The amendment calls for up to $40 million in grants awarded on a competitive basis for a national training partnerships program, $40 million towards state training partnership programs, and additional funding for "national and state industry-wide research, labor market information, and labor exchange programs" that would "help develop standards and curricula needed for effective training…."

These training programs – according to government, industry, labor and community activists – are desperately needed. As Sanders put it, "The problem is right now if a person wants to retrofit their home to make it more energy efficient – and there are studies that indicate an average homeowner can reduce energy costs by 40% by doing this – you would have a hard time finding trained workers to do that. If you wanted to install solar panels, you would have a hard time finding trained workers to do that. The same for a wind turbine, etc."

In a letter supporting the "Sanders-Clinton amendment," the National Association of Energy Service Companies, American Solar Energy Society, American Wind Energy Association, Renewable Fuels Association, and Solar Energy Industries Association – representing hundreds of companies in domestic biomass, wind, solar energy, geothermal power, fuel cells and more – wrote, "Across the country, our companies experience workforce shortages as one of the key barriers to growth." The letter cited a 2006 study by the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) identifying "the shortage of training and skills as a leading non-technical barrier to renewable energy and energy efficiency growth."

These groups suggest that by 2025 alternative, clean energy technologies could provide electric power equal to half of the amount our nation currently uses. And by 2030, these industries could replace 30 to 40% of the amount of petroleum currently imported. In the process, "our industries could make a significant contribution to curbing global warming, enhancing our nation's energy security, and creating up to 5 million new jobs by 2025." But all of this assumes that "we… find enough qualified, trained people… By establishing a pilot program specifically geared toward the renewable energy and efficiency industries, the Sanders-Clinton Amendment would enable us to build the workforce our industries need to achieve their maximum potential."

While progress has been made in recent years in building coalitions to promote a clean energy economy – and no organization has done more on this front than the Apollo Alliance – there has still been too much foot-dragging by guardians of Old Energy such as Representative John Dingell. So it's important that environmentalists have supported this amendment as "signaling that America is, at last ready to replace the old debate of ‘jobs vs. the environment' by investing in ‘jobs for the environment.'" (The AFL-CIO is also a strong supporter of the bill and the Apollo Alliance credits it "as the primary lead on the Sanders-Clinton workforce bill.") Clean Water Action, Earthjustice, Public Citizen, Sierra Club, Union of Concerned Scientists and others wrote that "investments in [the] training of building maintenance workers, superintendents, and engineers could improve the operations of sophisticated heating and cooling systems by as much as 10 percent, saving millions in energy costs each year in large public, industrial, or commercial buildings."

Apollo Alliance President Jeremy Ringo points out that the American Public Power Association estimates "half of current utility workers will retire within the next decade… [and] our nation is not training enough new workers to fill their places… Using the average costs of attending a community college, we estimate that [the Sanders-Clinton] funding would be sufficient to train between 20,000 and 30,000 workers per year. These numbers represent just a small fraction of the 3 million workers that would be needed… if the country launched an ambitious ten-year Apollo-like effort to build a new energy future. However, we believe it is prudent to begin with a pilot program on the scale proposed by Sen. Sanders to ensure we fully understand the kinds of training needed and future workforce trends before investing in a larger effort."

This amendment also targets important populations for training such as veterans, workers displaced by a new energy economy and globalization, individuals seeking a pathway out of poverty, formerly incarcerated, non-violent offenders, and workers in the energy field needing to update their skills.

Van Jones, Executive Director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, wrote of the Sanders amendment – and a similar effort in the House by Representatives Hilda Solis, John Tierney and others – that Congress is finally "connect[ing] the dots on ways to solve two of the nation's biggest problems: failing American job security and global climate security…. [these] proposals are not only good for low-income workers. [They] will greatly aid green industries and businesses themselves."

"As we move forward to reduce greenhouse gasses and build a clean energy economy," Sanders said, "we need to prepare a well-trained workforce to help us do that. This amendment is one way to help achieve that."

The larger Energy Bill that emerges may well not live up to the hope, hype, and promise signaled by Democratic leadership, instead drowning in too many lobbyists' demands. But the Sanders-Clinton amendment is truly progressive, and in promoting green collar job training it could have a real and lasting impact. It's worth contacting your Representative today and urging support for a similar effort in the House Energy Bill today.

Shawskank Redemption

First she name-dropped "the men and women serving our country in Iraq," and then moved on to God. With that kind of rhetoric, you'd think Ms. Hilton was running for office. Too bad the Beltway PR strategy isn't working out for her. If you have any doubts about the kind of vitriol Paris inspires, check out ParisHiltonAutopsy.com. And Republicans say class warfare is passe.

There's been a lot of media hand-wringing over the media's own coverage of the Hilton travails, aptly titled by Jon Stewart as "The Shawskank Redemption." All of us -- including Paris herself-- agree, there are more important issues to cover than this made-for-tabloids saga. But note that no one -- especially the average media egghead -- is making the same argument about the wall-to-wall Sopranos coverage. Endlessly analyzing the metaphysical and cultural significance of the ending of an HBO mob series is A-okay even when there are folks dying on the streets of Baghdad. But it's a crime against humanity to waste so much ink on the antics of some blonde bimbette. Hmm, the right priorities or just pop culture snobbery? Not that there is anything wrong with the latter, but in the midst of all this self-righteous indignation, it's good to remind ourselves that pop culture is still just pop culture, even when it involves eight-letter words.

And when it comes to cultural significance, Paris trumps any fictional angst-ridden suburban mob boss, however well-written. No one better represents the fervid obsession with wealth, warped notions of beauty and female sexuality, and impoverished criteria for fame that is 21st century America. Sure we think Tony is cool -- and he's not exactly a role model either -- but the sad fact is that her vapid, party-hopping, pill-popping celebrity existence is what passes for the American Dream these days.

Where Is the Love?

None of us will soon forget that terrible Tuesday in November 2004 when the exit polling said one thing and Ohio said another, when values was the thing, Karl Rove was a genius, and a permanent Republican majority loomed large. What a difference two years makes.

Republicans have lost both houses of Congress and their sense of unity. Libertarians are at war with social conservatives. Neocons are on the run. Senate Republicans have set an informal timetable for the war (September). And their leading Presidential candidate is a pro-choice former mayor of New York City, a candidate and position that George Will has called conservative.

The White House has infuriated its base on immigration and global warming. And not only can't they pass any items on their agenda, it's not clear they even have one. George Bush is so personally unpopular at home that he had to go to Albania to find the love.

It's been a long struggle for the progressive movement, and it's not over. But it is perhaps worth taking a moment, and only just a moment before resuming battle, to celebrate how far the tide has turned.


Of Groceries, Abortions, and Nice, Classic Handbags

I was planning to start this blog by writing about The New York Times Sunday Magazine's special issue on income inequality -- Larry Summers (him again!), John Edwards, class conflict on Fisher Island and much more. But a practical instance of what true poverty means was waiting for me in my inbox this morning, in the form of an email from Heather Robertson of the Equal Access Fund of Tennessee, which helps poor women pay for their abortions. Heather writes:

"I just received a very desperate plea from a local clinic for funding for a patient that I will be unable to help. Our fund has assisted 5 women this month and after giving this woman $200, we have depleted our funds without completely helping her at all. Please read further:

"We need $400 more in order to pay the fee $850 fee of a 2nd trimester patient who HAS to be seen tomorrow, or she'll be too far along to be seen in the state of Tennessee. In that case, her fee will increase even more and have to pay the traveling expenses, as well.

"She's raised $250 and we have given the clinic $200 on her behalf thus far.

"She's a single mom with a 19 month old; co-conceiver skipped town; no child support because that dude skipped town; she is clinically very depressed and extremely desperate. She makes less than $800 a month working fulltime. She makes too much to get any state aid and definitely not covered by TNCare. She becamse pregnant after her birth control failed to prevent her pregnancy. Can you help by sending a paypal donation to equalaccessfund@gmail.com asap?

" "She has an appointment at 7:30 a.m. tomorrow morning. "

What a world of hurt is packed into this brief communication! And what a lesson in practical economics. This woman's wages of around $800 a month after taxes put her over the limit for TennCare, the state's medical program-- while leaving her not even close to being able to pay for her abortion herself. (Tenncare doesn't pay for abortion, but it would pay for some of the associated costs included in the fee.) Yet this same $800-- a month's expenses for this woman and her child, or the price of her reproductive freedom -- is less than the amount Gabby, one of the Los Angeles teenagers whose views on money are featured in the Times, thinks is reasonable to spend on a purse (‘If you want a really nice, classic bag, it's definitely appropriate to spend, like, four digits, because that's something that's really nice").

$800 is also about what the Equal Access Fund has to give out each month to women in need-- money raised dollar by dollar through donations, eBay garage sales and fundraisers. Fortunately, as I've been writing this, Heather e mailed me to say that the $400 this woman still needs has been raised thanks to donations that came in through her e mail. But what about the next woman and the ones after that? $800 doesn't go very far -- it won't even let Gabby accessorize her outfit.

How wonderful it would be if everyone reading this story sent the Fund a donation. Just go to Paypal, and send equalaccessfund@gmail.com whatever you can spare: the price of a latte or a copy of the Sunday Times or a (big) bag of chips or a beer or a movie ticket (Or, of course, for you lucky loaded few, a handbag!). I should mention that the Fund is an all-volunteer organization, so every dollar you send will go to patient care. And it's affiliated with the National Network of Abortion Funds, so it's tax-deductible and you know it's well-run.

You can write Heather Robinson at equalaccessfund@gmail.com.

Check out the fund at its myspace page

Find out more at their NNAF member page

And while you're there, browse the NNAF site and see if there's a local fund in your area. Chances are, they definitely could use your help.