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The Notion

Unfiltered takes on politics, ideas and culture from Nation editors and contributors.

A Report From The Frontlines Of American Poverty

In these last couple days, I've been blogging about the shameful fact that America's minimum wage hasn't risen since 1997 and, adjusted for inflation, is at its lowest since 1956. That means millions of Americans cannot meet their bills even working 2-3 jobs.

If you want to read a gut-wrenching, heartbreaking article about the human face of growing poverty in this rich country, read Paul Harris's dispatch in The Guardian. Harris reports from the hills of Kentucky, Detroit's streets, the Deep South of Louisiana and the heartland of Oklahoma. What he finds is not the failure of the poor, but the failure of our system.

The next time some morally obtuse politician starts talking YOYO language--"You're On Your Own"--or preaches the need to take personal responsibility and pulls out that bootstrap stuff, make them read this article. It is a stark reminder that, as Harris reports, "even families with two working parents are often one slice of good luck--a medical bill or a factory closure--away from disaster."

These are times when the gap between the haves and have-nots in America has widened, when 37 million of our fellow citizens live in poverty (that's 12.7% of population--the highest percentage in the developed world), and each year more are added to the poverty rolls. (Under Bush, an additional 5.4 million have slipped below the poverty line.)

Yet, poverty is, for all essential purposes, off the radar of America's political landscape. Maybe it's because there are too many outrages to wake up to every morning? Maybe it's because the poor have no lobbyists and don't have the money to make campaign donations?

During the 2004 elections, as The Guardian article reminds, John Edwards raised poverty to a presidential-level conversation for the first time in forty years. And even then, he had to mute his passion and words once he became the vice-presidential candidate. So it's heartening that Edwards, in these last months, has retrieved his focus and passion and launched a campaign to "eradicate poverty in America." (For more, check out Bob Moser's fine Nation profile) He's created a think tank at the University of North Carolina, The Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity," designed to tackle the nation's deep and abiding economic and racial inequities, and taken his antipoverty crusade to more than thirty states.

Edwards isn't alone. There are movements which continue to work hard, with too little support or attention; there are also less prominent political figures. But what we need is a critical mass of elected representatives, at all levels. Make this issue a campaign. Don't just talk the talk, but really work to fulfill the oft-proclaimed promise of America as a land of opportunity for all. Begin by fighting tooth and nail to increase the minimum wage. Shame on those who refuse to pass it. And then let's support the successful living wage movement, and the anti-poverty movements and coalitions working in our communities and nation-wide.

These are just a few things that could be done. I am sure others have better ideas and a clearer understanding of political strategy. What is clear is that addressing the deep and growing poverty in this nation may be the greatest moral-values issue of our time.

The Worst President Ever?

In commemoration of President's Day, I dug up a December column by noted presidential biographer Richard Reeves entitled, "Is George Bush the Worst President--Ever?"

Turns out 415 historians were recently asked by George Mason University to answer that question. And 50 replied that yes, Bush was, while over 80 percent said that W was failing at his job.

Generally speaking, Reeves says James Buchanan, our 15th president, usually earns the worst ever distinction, as "a confused, indecisive president, who may have made the Civil War inevitable by trying to appease or negotiate with the South."

Taking a more modern view, The Nation wrote following Ronald Reagan's death:

 

Until the current occupant side-stepped into the White House, Reagan was the worst American leader since Herbert Hoover.

 

This debate, however, will likely not be settled for quite some time. As Reeves notes, there are other figures in the White House who deserve equal blame:

 

Many of the historians note that however bad Bush seems, they have indeed seen worse men around the White House. Some say Buchanan. Many say Vice President Dick Cheney.

 

And that was before he shot a man in the face.

Happiness Means... Being At That Stones Concert In Rio

There's this Pew report out about happiness. (Don't you think that the very idea of quantifying happiness threatens it?) The report explains how happiness correlates with religiosity, marriage and wealth. My definition of happiness, as of midnight Sunday, in arctic New York City: On the beach in Rio, one of thousands, listening to Mick in that extraordinary, free Stones concert.

California Going Indie?

"California voters are shedding their identification with the two major political parties so rapidly that if current trends continue, independent voters could outnumber Democrats and Republicans in the Golden State by 2025."

That's a pretty bold statement coming from David Lesher and Mark Baldassare writing in this past Sunday's L.A. Times.

Whether or not they're over-stating a trend, these two guys are definitely onto something here. The drift away from partisan party-identified politics can go a long way to explain what some think the inscrutable quirkiness of Kahllyfornia voters (as a certain Governor would say).

The independent trend noted in the Times piece has been underway for more than a decade. Today almost 20% -- about 3 million registered California voters--have categorized themselves as "independent" or "decline to state." And these are, by far, the fastest growing sectors of the state electorate. Almost 80% of new registration falls into these categories. Nor does this burgeoning group fit neatly into a liberal or conservative box. Lesher and Baldassare write:

Polls show that about 60% of California independents favor tougher environmental regulations over economic growth, support a ban on offshore oil drilling and believe that global warming is a serious problem. Independent voters are also among the strongest supporters of such social innovations as medical marijuana use, assisted suicide for the terminally ill, the morning-after pill and hybrid automobiles. They back gay and lesbian marriage by a 20-point margin and a woman's right to abortion by 3 to 1.

At the same time, independents are largely responsible for keeping Proposition 13's anti-tax feelings alive. Most say they believe that government "wastes a lot of taxpayer money" and that Proposition 13 was a "good thing," according to the institute's surveys. Philosophically, independents split from Democrats by favoring smaller government with fewer services and lower taxes. Still, an institute poll in January found independents supporting more money for education and health programs as well as proposed ballot measures to generate funds for healthcare and preschool.

Kinda complex, eh? One thing we know for certain from this info – as well as from recent election cycles – Republicans can't win statewide in California if they run too far to the right and alienate this vast swing constituency. But what is the lesson here for progressives? Is running as the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party" the way to fire up these voters? Or are they looking for something new that transcends the current paradigm?

Listen to Fritz

Former South Carolina Senator Ernest Frederick "Fritz" Hollings came to the Senate in 1966 and retired in 2004, at the age of 82. Still sharp and spirited, he knows better than most what ails our politics today.

 

There is a cancer on the body politic: money.

 

Those words come from a lucid and must-read op-ed published today in the Washington Post.

The Senate used to be in session from Monday morning until Friday afternoon, working on the people's business. Today the average Senator spends nearly one-third of their time raising money.

 

The late senator Richard Russell of Georgia said a senator was given a six-year term -- two years to be a statesman, two to be a politician and two to demagogue. Now we take all six years to raise money.

 

Hollings's solution to this monstrous problem couldn't be more straight forward:

 

What is needed is a simple one-line amendment to the Constitution. It would authorize Congress to regulate or control spending in federal elections.

 

Because, as he notes:

 

The money crowd has the money, and representatives and senators need the money. But no one wants to touch the reason for the ethical misconduct. Excise the cancer of money, and most of the misconduct will disappear.

 

Amen.

By the Numbers

After I blogged yesterday about the shameful fact that the richest country in the world has a minimum wage that 1) hasn't budged since 1997 and 2) leaves hardworking people and families living in poverty, I came across this fact: 11,600 minimum-wage workers could be paid for an entire year from the Yahoo CEO's 2004 compensation.

Just think about that for a while. These numbers come from "By the Numbers"--a list put together by Representative Martin Olav Sabo, a Democrat from Minnesota. Sabo's Income Equity Act of 2005 would limit the tax-deductible salary of a corporation's CEO to twenty-five times the annual salary of its lowest-paid worker. Currently, that limit is set at $1 million, regardless of the salaries of the workers. There's a lot more to be done to achieve true economic justice and fairness in this country, but I say this is a proposal that Dems should fight for.

For more on how to make America help the working poor, read this powerful op-ed by former vice presidential candidate John Edwards and John Wilhelm, president of UNITE HERE hotel workers union.

More Support for Impeachment Inquiry

The list of House members who have signed on as cosponsors of U.S. Representative John Conyers' resolution calling for the establishment of select committee that would examine whether President Bush and Vice President Cheney should face impeachment continues to grow. Four more members of the House have added their names to the resolution, bringing to 27 the total number of representatives, including Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, who are calling for the creation of "a select committee to investigate the administration's intent to go to war before congressional authorization, manipulation of pre-war intelligence, encouraging and countenancing torture, retaliating against critics, and to make recommendations regarding grounds for possible impeachment."

The new cosponsors, all Democrats, are Wisconsin's Gwen Moore, New York's Nydia Velasquez, and John Olver and John Tierney of Massachusetts Wisconsin's Gwen Moore. Olver made his decision to sign on after meeting with Massachusetts members of the national group Progressive Democrats of America, which has been spearheading the drive to attract cosponsors.

Another cosponsor, California Democrat Barbara Lee, put the effort to hold the president and vice president to account in perspective Friday with a powerful critique of the administration's attempts to justify warrantless spying on Americans and other assaults on civil liberties and the rule of law.

"What separates us from terrorists is not simply that our principles are deeply offended by the idea of torture or the murdering of innocents, but that we are a nation of laws. Our principles are enshrined in our Constitution and a system of duly enacted laws, and in a government where all are accountable and no one is above the law," explained Lee, a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

"Our Constitution gives us a system of checks and balances and divided powers because our founders were bitterly familiar with dealing with an unaccountable executive and were determined that our nation should not have a king, nor any office like it," Lee added. "The president and his advisers have tried to make this a question of whether we will defend our nation. This is misleading. Democrats and Republicans alike are committed to vigorously defending our nation. The real question is whether we will just as fiercely defend those principles that define our nation and separate us from terrorists, namely our commitment to constitutional government and our respect for the rule of law."

The Shame of The Nation

The shame of the nation is revealed in this week's NewsFlash from the Economic Policy Institute. "Without a wage hike," EPI reports, "this year will usher in the greatest inequality between minimum-wage and average-wage workers since the end of World War II."

The minimum wage hasn't increased since 1997, and its real value has fallen drastically--with workers earning only 32 percent of the average hourly wage in 2005.

The United States is the richest nation. It is also the most unequal society in the industrialized world. How we change that immoral condition, and ensure shared prosperity for all citizens, may be our most important task in the years ahead.

Dick Should've Enlisted

The best zinger of the week on Dick Cheney's now infamous hunting accident came not from Jon Stewart or any of the late night comics but courtesy of Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel:

If he'd been in the military, he would have learned gun safety.

That wasn't all. In an interview with thirty national security journalists on Thursday, Hagel provided a much needed dose of sanity on Iran:

I think one thing we ought to be doing is engaging the Iranians. Why aren't we talking to them? That's the essence of good foreign policy.

For more on Hagel, read Joe Lelyveld's impressive profile in last week's New York Times Magazine.

I have my doubts about how far Hagel will go in challenging the Republican establishment, but as John McCain makes nice with right-wingers, Hagel is emerging as the GOP maverick to watch.

Iranian Teenager to Hang for Self-Defense

Just relax and take it if a rapist attacks you in Iran. If you fight back, you may find yourself sentenced to death, like 18-year-old Nazanin. Oh, but wait, I forgot, if you do get raped and don't have four male witnesses to the actual physical act, you can be imprisoned, flogged or stoned for having sex outside of marriage. Here's the shocking story, from Iran Focus via Feministing:

Tehran, Iran, Jan. 07 – An Iranian court has sentenced a teenage rape victim to death by hanging after she weepingly confessed that she had unintentionally killed a man who had tried to rape both her and her niece.

The state-run daily Etemaad reported on Saturday that 18-year-old Nazanin confessed to stabbing one of three men who had attacked the pair along with their boyfriends while they were spending some time in a park west of the Iranian capital in March 2005.

Nazanin, who was 17 years old at the time of the incident, said that after the three men started to throw stones at them, the two girls' boyfriends quickly escaped on their motorbikes leaving the pair helpless.

She described how the three men pushed her and her 16-year-old niece Somayeh onto the ground and tried to rape them, and said that she took out a knife from her pocket and stabbed one of the men in the hand.

As the girls tried to escape, the men once again attacked them, and at this point, Nazanin said, she stabbed one of the men in the chest. The teenage girl, however, broke down in tears in court as she explained that she had no intention of killing the man but was merely defending herself and her younger niece from rape, the report said.

The court, however, issued on Tuesday a sentence for Nazanin to be hanged to death.

I'm trying to get an update on the case, and will report back if I find out more, but meanwhile, take action.

Write the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights, Louise Arbour and ask for the UN to raise the case of Nazanin with Iran.

Sign the petition to Kofi Annan and Arbour.

And check out Amnesty International's page on underage executions in Iran-- Nazarin is far from alone. (I know this is just their bureaucratic language, but it bothered me that AI refers to Nazarin as a "child offender," when, in fact, she not only committed no crime in protecting herself and her niece but behaved with great courage.)

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