The Notion | The Nation


The Notion

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

GQ's '25 Coolest Athletes of All Time' has a Slight Omission: An Entire Gender

I know it’s GQ. I know it’s a magazine written for barbershops, cigar bars and massage parlors. I know it assumes that men are men and women are scenery. But the magazine’s list of “The Coolest Athletes of All Time” truly sets a new standard for phallocentric panic. Gentleman’s Quarterly has given us twenty-five athletes they see as the coolest of cool, and not a single woman makes the cut.

This isn’t about feminism, tokenism, or quotas. It is about ignorance and a national magazine not having an even basic knowledge of sports history. “Cool” should mean grace under pressure with a soupçon of style. By that definition, here are the first six women who come to mind when summoning my inner-CM Punk and pondering true transgressive coolness.

How could there be any list without Billie Jean King? In addition to her twelve Grand Slam singles and sixteen doubles titles, Billie Jean beat Bobby Riggs in the 1973 Battle of the Sexes match in front of a packed house at the Houston Astrodome and one of the largest national television audiences in history. As she said years later, “I thought it would set us back fifty years if I didn’t win that match. It would ruin the women’s tour and affect all women’s self-esteem.” She had the weight of the women’s movement on her shoulders and still dispatched Riggs in three straight sets. Her signature early-’70s mullet and Gloria Steinem glasses were part of the deal.

Or what about Cheryl Miller? Miller dragged women’s basketball into the spotlight by virtue of her own brilliance at USC in the 1980s. She was college player of the year three times and a two-time champion. Miller also did it with a style and attitude that forced people to reconsider their own ideas of what women could do on the court. I remember playing ball in NYC growing up and if a woman shook you on the blacktop, you were “Cheryl Millered.” She made women’s hoops appointment television.

If Cheryl Miller brought true swagger to the women’s game, Diana Taurasi took that swagger and used it as a club. The Phoenix Mercury WNBA MVP was a two-time player of the year at UConn but also played with a smack-talking sneer backed by the sweetest jump-shot in the game. Before the 2004 finals, her coach Geno Auriemma predicted victory with a simple theory: “We have Diana, and you don’t.” That’s more than cool. It’s Jordan-esque.

But cool should also mean possessing the power of reinvention, and no one has ever represented that in sport quite like tennis great Martina Navratilova. Martina started her career as a profoundly talented but poorly conditioned and painfully shy Czech teenager. In the span of a decade she defected to the United States, came out of the closet, had her lover Judy Nelson sitting courtside in the family section, dyed her hair blond and transformed her body into a new standard for women athletes: all corded muscle wrapped with pulsing veins. And all with Reagan in the White House.

Martina’s musculature was reflected in her play: a fast, powerful serve-and-volley game that she rode to six straight Grand Slam victories. She also found her political voice in this time, and has been a consistent and public presence against homophobia and intolerance. Martina once said, “The most absurd part of my escape from the unjust system is that I have exchanged one system that suppresses free opinion for another. The Republicans in the US manipulate public opinion and sweep controversial issues under the table. It’s depressing. Decisions in America are based solely on the question of how much money will come out of it and not on the questions of how much health, morals or environment suffer as a result.”

Connie Chung challenged Martina’s statement on CNN, saying to her, “Go back to Czechoslovakia…if you don’t like it here. This a country that gave you so much, gave you the freedom to do what you want.” Navratilova responded, “And I’m giving it back. This is why I speak out. When I see something that I don’t like, I’m going to speak out because you can do that here. And again, I feel there are too many things happening that are taking our rights away.”

Martina is so cool, she is known by just one name. So is the tennis player who plays the most like her: Serena. Serena and her sister Venus Williams have both dominated tennis for the last fifteen years. But only Serena has done it with a style that matches or even exceeds her substance. That’s quite a statement considering that Serena has won more Grand Slam titles than any active player, male or female. But we’re talking about cool, and only Serena has ever warmed up at Wimbledon in a white trench coat. Only Serena showed up to play at the US Open in a denim skirt and knee-high boots. (Officials intervened to prevent playing in the boots.) Only Serena is a certified nail technician. Only Serena wore “the cat suit.”

This is just a taste of some of the cool that GQ left off their list. I could go on about Florence Griffith-Joyner with the speed and the fingernails, or Oksana Baiul, winning the 1994 figure skating gold under the weight of the Kerrigan/Harding drama. But if there is one other name I’d leave you with, it’s Wyomia Tyus. Tyus became the first person to retain the Olympic title in the 100-meter dash, winning in 1964 and 1968. But her cools came in 1968, after winning another gold by running anchor in the 4x100 dash relay. That was the year John Carlos and Tommie Smith electrified the Olympics with their black-gloved salute. Their movement, with its emphasis on “reclaiming manhood”, didn’t involve women athletes. Wyomia Tyus recalled many years later. “It appalled me that the men simply took us for granted. They assumed we had no minds of our own and that we’d do whatever we were told.” But Carlos and Smith had been expelled from Olympic Village and were being torn to shreds across the media and Tyus saw that there was a bigger principle at play. In front of the press, and standing with her team, Tyus said, “I’d like to say that we dedicate our relay win to John Carlos and Tommie Smith.” That took guts. That took cools. That took the kind of grace under pressure the listmakers at GQ chose to ignore.

I hope people read the GQ piece. But read it as a statement of the kind of narrow, myopic gender segregation best located in a museum. In other words, GQ might be slickly produced. It might have Mark Sanchez on the cover. It might have ads that smell like the latest cologne. But one thing it’s absolutely not, is cool.

Like this blog post? Read it on The Nation’s free iPhone App, NationNow.


Boycott Campaign Contributions? That's a Terrible Idea

Between Citizens United and the upcoming billion dollar presidential campaign, it’s sometimes hard to see the connection between fundraising and democratic participation. But it’s there. Not only is fundraising a tangible way for candidates to demonstrate their political viability, but the process of fundraising—holding events, making phone calls, shaking hands—can engage interested citizens in ways that go beyond voting. If excess money is a problem in politics, it has everything to do with the narrow source of funds—we need to make the pot larger, not put a lid on it.

At the New York Times, Joe Nocera misses it. After quoting from and praising an e-mail from Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, Nocera presses for a boycott of campaign contributions:

Schultz thinks the country should go on strike against its politicians. “The fundamental problem,” he said, “is that the lens through which Congress approaches issues is re-election. The lifeblood of their re-election campaigns is political contributions.” Schultz wants his countrymen—big donors and small; corporations and unions—to stop making political contributions in presidential and Congressional campaigns. Simple as that. Economists like to talk about how incentives change behavior. Schultz is proposing that Americans give Washington an incentive to begin acting responsibly on their behalf. It’s a beautiful idea.

I disagree. Schultz’s idea is deeply wrongheaded, for a whole host of reasons. As a democratically elected body whose aim is to represent the interests of its constituents, re-election campaigns are integral to making Congress work. Far from being a “fundamental problem,” if the re-election incentive were removed, then lawmakers would have few constraints on unilateral actions, as citizens lost the means by which to hold them accountable. Schultz’s suggestion sounds hard-nosed and forward-thinking, but in reality, it’s profoundly anti-democratic.

The same goes for his (and Nocera’s) proposal to stop campaign donations. Leaving aside the huge collective action problem—if CEOs stop donating, for instance, this enhances the influence of non-CEOs—it’s simply the case that Schultz and Nocera are demanding less participation in the political process. In essence, they’re endorsing apathy. If your goal is to make the public less interested in lawmaking, then this is fine. But if the goal is to make politicians more responsive to public needs—and voters more attuned to the failings of their leaders—then both ideas (no re-election incentive and no donations) are at best counterproductive and, at worse, actively harmful.

Like this blog post? Read it on The Nation’s free iPhone App, NationNow.

A Handful of Rural Right-Wing Extremists Chase Tim Pawlenty Out of the Race

A day after Saturday’s Iowa Straw Poll results came in—Michele Bachmann edged out Ron Paul, with Tim Pawlenty a distant third, just ahead of Rick Santorum and Herman Cain—Pawlenty pulled the plug on his flagging presidential campaign. What does this tell us? That our system of nominating presidential candidates is badly broken, beholden to a small number of extremist party activists in a couple of arbitrarily chosen small, rural states and an unthinking media echo chamber.

The Iowa Straw Poll is not a nominating contest. No convention delegates are assigned there. It is a fundraiser for the Iowa state Republican Party. It is presumed to be significant because, according to campaign reporters like the New York Times’s Jeff Zeleny, it is “a test of organizing strength.” And organizing strength is considered an important capability in Iowa, where the anti-democratic caucus system depresses turnout relative to a normal primary. Since only hardcore activists will participate in the caucuses and they must be cajoled to the polls, the mind-numbing process of identifying and turning out every last supporter in Ottumwa County is a crucial component of campaigns to lead the free world. What this skill has to do with, say, balancing the federal budget is unclear. The mainstream media, meanwhile, report on this ludicrous state of affairs as if it were an objective fact rather than a product of their own unhealthy obsession with Iowa. (After all, Iowa still assigns only a small number of delegates. If the media treated it like comparably sized Mississippi, the importance of who wins there would vanish.)

The straw poll, since it does not even count and it costs money to participate, has even lower turnout than the caucuses. So only the most partisan, ideological Republicans attend. That skews the results wildly to the far right, as demonstrated by Rev. Pat Robertson’s victory at the 1988 straw poll. The results should be taken with an enormous grain of salt.

Bachmann and Paul are members of the House of Representatives, a position from which no one has ascended directly to the presidency in well over a century. Bachmann, with her fervent religiosity, vicious homophobia and penchant for ludicrous right-wing stances such as refusing to raise the debt ceiling and abolishing the Environmental Protection Agency, is a favorite of both the economic and religious far right. Although her winning the Iowa caucuses, or even the Republican nomination, is not considered impossible, it would be nearly unprecedented. One would have to go back to Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater to find a comparably controversial candidate receiving a major party nomination. Paul, whose eccentric passions include abolishing the Federal Reserve and returning to the gold standard, has an ardent following but no appeal among mainstream Republicans. Everyone knows he is extremely unlikely to win any primaries or caucuses, and he will not win his party’s nomination.

A healthy approach for the political and media class would be to treat the straw poll as a curiosity. It’s a chance to see what the most extreme Republican base thinks, but it doesn’t tell you that Bachmann and Paul will come in first and second in Iowa, much less in the Republican primary race. Instead the media creates an elaborate expectations game. While national front-runner Mitt Romney is given an excuse for finishing seventh—behind Rick Perry, who did not even appear on the ballot—because he did not seriously contest the Iowa Straw Poll, campaign reporters repeat ad nauseam that the event constitutes, in Zeleny’s words, “an important test” for Pawlenty. And so the Washington Post dutifully told us on Sunday morning that “Pawlenty’s disappointing finish threatens to end a candidacy that once held great promise…. He will have to reevaluate in light [of] the tallies.”

And re-evaluate he did, announcing Sunday morning that he “cannot envision a path forward to victory.” Why is that the case, as opposed to Pawlenty’s initial, equally plausible, claim that he “moved from the back of the pack into a competitive position for the caucuses”? There are five months left until the caucuses, and the electorate at them will be saner than at the straw poll.

The answer is the tautology of the chattering classes. Political insiders and campaign reporters viewed the straw poll as the last chance for a campaign suffering from lackluster fundraising and polling numbers to build momentum. By setting it up as Pawlenty’s last stand, anything less than a victory would be seen as a failure to prove viability, thus making it harder to win more donations.

This is all silliness. And it’s a silliness predicated on the importance of Iowa, a state with 1 percent of the country’s population that gets to exercise outsized influence over the nominating process. The result of this exaltation of Iowa and every early clue as to its leanings is that manifestly unqualified candidates such Cain, who as of May did not know what the Palestinian “right of return” was, and theocrats such as Santorum, who lost his 2006 re-election campaign by eighteen points, are kept in the race, while a relatively sane person like Pawlenty is drummed out of it.

Like this blog post? Read it on The Nation’s free iPhone App, NationNow.

HBO's Gloria Steinem Doc Glosses over Race, and Fails to Assess the Second Wave's Legacy

On Monday evening, HBO will debut Gloria: In Her Own Words, a documentary about iconic feminist leader Gloria Steinem. I caught a sneak peak of the film at the Time Warner Center Tuesday, and while it’s an interesting, often moving look at Steinem’s life, it has very little to tell us about her actual legacy: about how issues ranging from reproductive rights to the pay gap have evolved over the past forty years, or about what kind of women’s movement Steinem has helped build and argue for.

Though there are interviews in Gloria about how upper-middle-class, straight feminists came to embrace lesbian rights and economic justice for poor women, there is no explicit discussion of an equally enduring and arguably more fraught issue: the relationship between feminism and struggles for racial equality. The film does feature archival footage showing 1970s white feminists arguing that men’s only bars are the equivalent of Jim Crow lunch counters. Doesn’t that contention cry out for debate, for analysis—for something? We see Steinem appear alongside her 1970s “speaking partners,” the black feminists Flo Kennedy and Dorothy Pitman Hughes, but we don’t hear much about how these women (who were so often overshadowed by the more famous Steinem) navigated their dual identies as women of color within the feminist movement.

Steinem notes that her own brand of feminism was more radical than that of her elders, women like Betty Friedan, who were concerned mostly with the plight of white, college-educated housewives. Yet there are no interviews with either Steinem or other movement veterans that reflect explicitly on the relationship between feminism and civil rights. We hear about how Steinem’s sexy good looks helped propel her to prominence, but not about how her whiteness helped make feminism seem less threatening. We also learn nothing about the sophisticated set of critiques women-of-color, such as Angela Davis and bell hooks, have long made regarding mainstream feminism: that its focus on abortion detracted from their own struggle for maternal rights and that the assumption that women represent a united interest group often downplayed the struggles of non-white women in overcoming racism.

Gloria’s lack of an open dialogue on race is especially regrettable given the role Steinem played in the 2008 Democratic primary, a subject that, surprisingly, never even comes up in the film. A Clinton supporter, Steinem declared in a New York Times op-ed, “Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life, whether the question is who must be in the kitchen or who could be in the White House.” Such claims became known as engaging in Oppression Olympics: counterproductive argument over whether racism, classism, or sexism is more pernicious.

During a discussion with Candy Crowley following the film Tuesday, Steinem repeated her condescending claim that many young women supported Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton not because they were inspired by Obama’s rhetoric against the Iraq war and in favor of racial healing but because their boyfriends told them to. I myself was very sympathetic to Hillary, but this argument always struck me as absurdly offensive, especially given what we know about Generation Y’s policy preferences, and the fact that we are the most racially diverse cohort ever to reach voting age.

The best parts of Gloria tell the story of Steinem’s transition from glossy magazine journalist to committed feminist activist: she’d had an abortion after college and nearly a decade later, was activated by the New York City legalization movement. The segments on Steinem’s parents are also especially poignant. Her mother was an Ohio newspaper reporter who had a breakdown after leaving her job to become a stay-at-home mom, and suffered from mental illness for the rest of her life. Her father was a traveling salesman who divorced his wife. Steinem has deep regrets about letting her relationships with both parents falter in the face of her overwhelming role as a movement spokesperson and organizer.

Gloria is an enjoyable gloss on the life of a feminist heroine—but it’s not the sophisticated and critical film retrospective that Steinem, and the Second Wave feminist movement, really deserve.

Five Questions for Rick Perry

Texas Governor Rick Perry has joined the presidential race. His spokesman affirmed on Thursday that he plans to run and will make a formal announcement in his speech to the Red State convention in Charleston, South Carolina, on Saturday. Perry has become a rock star in many conservative circles. Leading conservative pundits such as Rush Limabugh and William Kristol publicly asked him to run. Despite his mediocre approval ratings, national conservatives credit Perry with governing Texas as a right-wing mecca: low taxes, few regulations to protect the environment, no mass transit, a bare bones social safety net, with guns and executions aplenty. (They also wrongly believe, a misconception Perry actively encourages, that Texas has experienced unusually strong economic growth and that this is attributable to Perry’s policies. As Brad Plumer demonstrated in The New Republic, neither claim withstands scrutiny.)

With his timely jump on the Tea Party bandwagon, his ostentatious religiosity and his ability to draw upon his state’s plenitude of wealthy Republican donors, Perry will instantly join Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann in the top tier of GOP contenders. Poll already show him among the front runners; a CNN/ORC poll released Thursday has him in second, two points behind Romney.

To help introduce Perry and his record to our readers, we hereby inaugurate “Five Questions for,” with questions for the other major candidates to follow. These are questions we would like to ask the candidate, if we had an expectation that he would respond, and that we would like to see reporters pose them on the campaign trail.

Governor Perry:

In April you proclaimed three days of prayer in Texas to ask God to bring rain and end the drought. It hasn’t worked. Do you think God is punishing Texas with drought? Or could it possibly have something to do with climate change?

As Governor you’ve presided over 230 executions. Of the thirty death row inmates whose sentences you commuted, twenty-seven were juveniles after the Supreme Court outlawed executing juveniles in 2005, and two were developmentally disabled adults after the Supreme Court outlawed executing that group. Do you think executing juveniles and the developmentally disabled should be legal? Is there anyone who you think should not be executed? Do you think it’s possible Texas has executed anyone who was innocent?

At a Tea Party rally in 2009 you said that Texas has the right to secede from the Union, saying, “When we came in the Union in 1845 one of the issues was that we’d be able to leave if we decided to do that.” You added that the right might be exercised in the future. “If Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that.” You reiterated these views two days later. This leads some non-Texans to question your commitment to the country you now wish to lead. How do you respond to that concern?

You’re fond of bragging about Texas’s economic performance. Are you equally of proud of Texas’s poverty rate, which is the eighth highest of any state? How about the fact that—according to the Census—Texas ranks fifth highest in energy use per capita and fourteenth highest in violent crime per capita? How would you say your policies have contributed to those statistical outcomes?

Your forthcoming budget will cut billions of dollars from Medicaid and education. Why do you think this is a good idea, in light of the fact that Texas has the most non-elderly women without health insurance of any state, has the sixth highest percentage of women in poverty and the highest rate of children without health insurance?

Who's Paying the Super-Committee?

The Congressional “super-committee” finally has a roster: we now know the twelve men and women tasked with cutting as much as $1.5 trillion from the federal budget, and quite possibly restructuring entitlements and rewriting the federal tax code.

Unlike any other Congressional committee in recent memory, this “super-committee” will wield enormous legislative power. Their recommendations will be fast-tracked in Congress, meaning they cannot be amended and are guaranteed a simple-majority vote in the Senate. If the super-committee does not produce recommendations, or if Congress does not approve them, massive triggers will be activated: $1.5 trillion will be cut from the budget, drawing equally from defense and domestic spending.

With this much power concentrated among twelve people, K Street is revving up the money machine to help influence the decisions. “Every lobbyist is going to go through their Rolodex to try and figure out all the connections to the twelve members of the ‘super committee,’ ” Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, told Bloomberg. One Democratic lobbyist quipped to Politico that he was preparing for the super-committee “by writing twelve really large checks.”

Legislators on both sides of the aisle are already concerned about the cannons of cash now aimed directly at the super-committee members. Republican Senators David Vitter and Dean Heller have both introduced legislation to impose transparency requirements and additional financial disclosure from members of the super-committee; in the House, Democratic Representative Mike Quigley and Republican Representative Jim Renacci are circulating a letter calling for, among other things, weekly disclosures from super-committee members campaign contributions and meetings with lobbyists.

Super-committee members, who were selected to represent their party, not strictly their own interests, will no doubt act for a wide variety of strategic and political reasons. And as The Nation's Ari Berman has written, there are much larger problems with the scope of the committee regardless of who is on it, because it will choose between a variety of bad options, and cannot act on job creation. But it’s still important to understand what industries are lobbying them—and which industries already have the inside track.

To that end, The Nation looked at campaign finance data from the Center for Responsive Politics for each member—Democratic Senators John Kerry, Patty Murray, Max Baucus and Democratic Representatives Xavier Becerra, James Clyburn and Chris Van Hollen; and Republican Senators Jon Kyl, Rob Portman, Pat Toomey and Republican Representatives Fred Upton, Dave Camp and Jeb Hensarling.

Two areas were examined: donations from Political Action Committees, and industry donations—money from industry PACs and individuals associated with that industry. The totals are since 1998, when the data becomes available, or over the member’s career since then (in their current seat). When the dollars are tallied, it's clear that the committee's Republicans have filled their campaign coffers with Wall Street money--that's their largest contributor. Democrats have substantial backing from labor groups that could serve as a counterweight, but they take in quite a bit of Wall Street cash themselves. 

Political Action Committees

Democrats on the super-committee have taken over $30.6 million from PACs since 1998, and unsurprisingly the largest amount comes from labor PACs, with over $5.3 million in donations (click charts to see full size):

Representatives Clyburn and Becerra, along with Senator Murray, have the largest labor donations, each topping $1 million. Senator Kerry has the lowest from that group, with $267,861. The high totals for labor are typical for Democratic politicians, but may be a good sign for progressives hopeful the Democrats will stand strong against entitlement cuts, which unions strongly oppose.

The health industry is next, followed by the finance, insurance, and real estate sector—these are non-health insurance companies, commercial banks, finance and credit companies, securities and investment firms, and other big corporations typically found on Wall Street. Senator Baucus is the heavy hitter in this category—as chair of the Senate Finance Committee, he’s raked in $1.6 million from this sector. The only other member over $1 million is Representative Clyburn.

Note that for Democrats, both defense and agribusiness are fairly low on the list. Democrats might be more tempted to look toward farm subsidies and defense cuts when the red pens come out. Also, “ideological/single-issue” groups are fifth on the list, but a vast majority of that money was given to Senator Murray, and primarily by women’s groups. This money probably won’t have much bearing on the super-committee.

The Republicans on the super-committee have taken well over $24 million from just the ten largest PAC categories since 1998. By far, the largest contributor is the financial, insurance and real estate sector—also known as Wall Street:

Representative Jeb Hensarling has the biggest career haul from that sector, with $1,732,922 since 1998. This is not surprising, considering he has openly said that bank profits should trump consumer protection, and that recessions are “a part of freedom.”

Health is the next category, representing largely the for-profit health industry—medical professionals, HMOs, and pharmaceutical companies. “Ideological/single issue” PACs place fifth, with just under $2 million in contributions. That money is spread very evenly across the six members, suggesting they each are beholden to active, wealthy conservative groups. Naturally, labor is last on this list, but note that defense is second-last. The defense industry doesn’t have much money invested in this group, and none are prominent hawks.

Industry Money

The other category we examined was donations from industries. This includes both industry PACs and contributions from individual donors affiliated with a particular industry.

From their fourteen largest industry contributors, Democrats have taken in $118.4 million since 1998. Lawyers and law firms, which traditionally support Democrats, place first with over $33.5 million in donations. People who are retired are next, and of the next six categories, four represent the financial sector:

Interestingly, people who mark “retired” on their donations are by far the largest group donating to super-committee Republicans, who collected $29.7 million from their top fourteen industries since 1998. (Like the PAC money, this is much lower than the Democratic total. But it’s important to note that Senators Toomey and Portman are new to the Senate, while the Democrats have all been in Congress since at least 2004, most since before 1998. The data represents the money each industry has invested in the super-commmittee).

The high amount of money from the retired is not totally surprising, given that Republicans are generally an older party, but the super-committee Republicans do indeed have a large number of donors who could be harmed by cuts to Medicare or Social Security.

Again, this data doesn’t provide a unifying theory of how each member will act. There are certainly larger political calculations at play. But when they start getting deep into the federal budget, removing or reducing potentially hundreds of lines, or when they attack the vastly complex tax code, there’s no doubt that special interests will come calling.

Additional research provided by Zachary Newkirk

The London Olympics and the London Riots

And so they played beach volleyball in small bikinis; on imported sand; while the world burned.

It aint exactly Shakespeare, but it is actually what happened earlier this week as the London Olympic Committee staged a beach volleyball exhibition as fires engulfed the city.

Opening Ceremonies for the London Olympics are in less than a year and this week’s explosion of bottled fury has the International Olympic Committee on edge.  Even worse for Tory Prime Minister David Cameron, the riots took place as representatives from 200 Olympic Committees across the globe visited the city, just in time for the days of rage. Can you imagine the scene? It would be like Michele Bachmann and her 197 children visiting New York City and walking straight into the Gay Pride Parade.

As Tony Travers, a professor at the London School of Economics said, “There’s no doubt that this is a very bad day, a worrying day…. Olympic organizers in London planned to protect London from conventional terrorism. But of all the things they might have thought might happen, I’d be surprised if civil insurrections was high up on their list of expected risk factors.”

The knotty problem however is that the Olympics—courtesy of Tony Blair’s Labour Party—aren’t a parallel operation to the mass civic unrest but an aggravator. As social services wither, the Olympics will cost upwards of 20 billion pounds and the Olympic torch has acted as an instrument of arson. Ask the residents of Clays Lane Estate, in East London. Clay’s Lane Estate was the largest housing cooperative in the UK, and the second largest in all of Europe. Over protests, Clay’s Lane was demolished to make way for Olympic Facilities. The protests haven’t been heard, and we get riots, or, as Dr. King put it, “the language of the unheard.

But much of the political class choose to hear nothing. London Mayor Boris Johnson rushed back from holiday to say, “In less than 12 months we will welcome the world to a great summer Games in the greatest city on earth—and by then we must all hope that we will look back on these events as a bad dream.”

Tom Jenkins, the European Tour Operators Association executive director, sniffed, “I don’t think the rioting will impact the Olympics. The Olympics is, overwhelmingly, a domestic event. British people won’t be put off from visiting the Olympics in Stratford because a year earlier shop windows were broken in Hackney.”

Former Olympic great, and current Olympic flack Lord Sebastian Coe even called everything this past week, “Business as usual.”

But the many others are far less confident. Paula Radcliffe, the world record holder in the marathon said, “In less than one year we welcome the world, and right now they don’t want to come.”

The question now is whether the IOC will demand an even more severe police crackdown to ensure that the games will be run according to plan.

The IOC told us at The Nation that they will keep completely out of any security arrangements. Andrew Mitchell, media relations manager of the IOC emailed, “Security at the Olympic Games is a top priority for the IOC. It is, however, directly handled by the local authorities, as they know best what is appropriate and proportionate. We are confident they will do a good job in this domain.”

This assertion has left many rolling their eyes. Bob Quellos, an organizer for No Games Chicago, which helped keep the Olympics out of the Windy City for 2016, said to me, “Simply, what the IOC wants, it gets.  In London next summer, the IOC will be dictating the level of police repression. Billions of dollars have been spent on the security. London’s Olympic Park is already a highly militarized zone protected by barbed wire, dogs, and armed patrols.”

Chris Shaw, the author of the book Five Ring Circus: Myths and Realities of the Olympic Games, points out, based on his experience in Vancouver during the 2010 Winter Games, that the harassment would only get worse. “[As the games approached] the Charter [their Constitution] went out the window for the duration of the games; People were followed and harassed. Reporters were deported and cops were acting like reporters.”

This has certainly been the case for previous Olympic festivals as well. In other words, every historical precedent points to an increased crackdown in the months ahead, which will only further fan tomorrow’s flames. We have a collision coming between the Olympic Monolith and the poor, angry youth of Great Britain. Conflict is ensured if David Cameron’s ultimate response continues to be, “Let them eat beach volleyball.”

Republican Debate Offers No Policy Solutions

“Who wouldn’t take that deal, 10 dollars in spending cuts for every one in tax increases?” asked Fox News moderator Bret Baier, at the Republican presidential primary debate Thursday night in Ames, Iowa. Every single one of the candidates raised their hands, to loud applause.

It was, as Jonathan Alter later noted on MSNBC, an “iconic” moment. The GOP field is in total agreement that compromise with Democrats and the majority of Americans who agree with them that deficit reduction must happen and must be done fairly is unacceptable.

In general the debate featured unanimity despite the loud, petty arguments about who supported raising cigarette taxes in Minnesota (Tim Pawlenty versus Michelle Bachmann), and who said what about who (Pawlenty versus Mitt Romney). There was plenty of sniping, but no meaningful disagreement, except for Ron Paul versus Rick Santorum on Iran.

There were pledges of undying fealty to extremist ideology, but no practical explanations of how change would be achieved, other than Representative Michele Bachmann’s promise not to rest until Republicans win a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

Of course, who doesn’t want to vanquish your ideological opponents? But when it comes to how you govern in a country where certain realities, among them the existence of Democrats, apply, the Republican contenders didn’t offer answers. Take Bachmann’s and Herman Cain’s insistence towards the end of the evening that we should not have raised the debt ceiling. Bachmann perversely claims Standard & Poor’s recent downgrade of the US’s credit rating as proof that we “don’t have the money to pay off our debt,” and therefore should not have raised the debt ceiling.

The reason S&P downgraded our credit rating—other than the explicit demand by congressmembers like Bachmann that we ought not to pay our debts—is because Republicans refuse to raise any tax revenue. And there they all were on Thursday, saying they would not raise revenue no matter how sweet the deal.

But solving problems with actual solutions was not on the agenda. Got a problem with healthcare reform? Repeal it, said Bachmann, Romney et al. What to do about the conundrum the Affordable Care Act was designed to solve, which is that we spend more on healthcare while covering a lower proportion of our population than any other developed country? No one said, because no one has answer.

Even Jon Huntsman, the former ambassador to China who shows flashes of sanity, such as his (faint-hearted) reiteration at the debate that he supports civil unions for gay couples, was equally unhelpful on most issues. Take education: the pendulum has swung in the GOP, away from George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” back to believing that the federal government should not guide local schools to better results. So Huntsman said we should repeal No Child Left Behind, but he has no coherent alternative national strategy to address our ongoing educational challenges.

The best articulation of how to solve problems pragmatically came from Romney, but in defense of a policy he has repudiated at the federal level. Romney explained that rather than letting freeloaders obtain healthcare at emergency rooms and pass the cost on to the rest of society he preferred to require Massachusetts citizens to take personal responsibility and buy health insurance. It was, in other words, a good explanation of the rationale for the individual mandate, a sensible conservative answer to the problem of adverse selection in insurance pools. Unfortunately, that’s the kind of position that is verboten in the GOP primary.

Congressional Democrats Call for Jobs 'Super Committee'

An increasing number of Democrats in the House and Senate are calling on Washington to address the immediate jobs crisis at a time when much of the Beltway is gripped by austerity fever.

Representative John Larson, the number four Democrat in the House of Representatives, has called for the creation of a Joint Select Committee on Job Creation, modeled after the newly created debt-focused “super committee.”

“High unemployment poses a very real short-term fiscal crisis, because it drains the federal coffers through increased government spending and reduced tax revenues,” Larson wrote in a letter to his colleagues on August 8. “This [jobs committee] would allow the Congress to simultaneously consider both our near-term (high unemployment) and our long-term (growing debt) challenges later this year.”

The jobs super committee would be set up exactly like the deficit committee, with the same time-frame for recommendations and the requirement that its proposals be given an up or down majority vote not subject to a filibuster. The legislation is being finalized now, a Larson aide told me, and will likely be introduced next week. 

No Senate Democrat has yet echoed Larson’s exact proposal but 23 Senate Democrats recently asked the debt super committee to prioritize job creation alongside its debt focus. “For families across the country, the biggest economic problem is high unemployment,” they wrote. “Our fiscal challenge is directly linked to the jobs crisis and we cannot solve the former without tackling the latter.”

None of the three Senate Democrats (Baucus, Kerry and Murray) on the debt super committee signed the letter but two members of the “Gang of Six” (Dick Durbin and Mark Warner) did, indicating that even the most vociferous austerity hawks within the Democratic caucus now realize the unemployment crisis must be a top priority for the Congress. Better late than never, I suppose.

In his speech on Monday, Obama mentioned a few ideas for boosting the economy: extending the payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance benefits when they expire this year and creating an “infrastructure bank” to spur new construction jobs. That’s a start, but many economists believe the president needs to go further to jumpstart the stalled recovery. There’s already some good ideas out there that the president could draw on.

Representative Jan Schakowsky, a member of the Bowles-Simpson deficit commission, has announced a plan to create 2.2 million “emergency jobs,” financed through higher tax rates on the wealthiest Americans.

Former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich has been pushing for a number of significant job-creation measures for months. They include:

Eliminate payroll taxes on the first $20,000 of income for two years. Recreate the WPA and the Civilian Conservation Corps. The federal government should lend money to cash-strapped states and local governments. Give employers tax credits for net new jobs. Amend the bankruptcy laws to allow distressed homeowners to declare bankruptcy on their primary residence. Extend unemployment insurance. Provide partial unemployment benefits to people who have lost part-time jobs. Start an infrastructure bank.

Last night on the “NewsHour,” former Obama economic adviser Christina Romer advocated a major tax cut for companies that hire new workers.

These are all ideas Obama could draw on. The creation of a jobs super committee could help get some of these measures through Congress. And if Obama can’t pass a jobs plan through Congress now, he can still build public support for it and draw a sharp and favorable contrast between his job-creation ideas and the job-killing austerity agenda of the GOP. If he fails to do so, the president and his party are just as culpable as the GOP for prolonging the current economic morass. As Reich puts it, “the magnitude of the current jobs and growth crisis demands a boldness and urgency that's utterly lacking.”

—Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics. Follow him on Twitter at @AriBerman.

The Real Problem with the Congressional 'Super-Committee'

Yesterday Harry Reid announced his picks for the Congressional debt-reduction “super-committee”: Senators Max Baucus, John Kerry and Patty Murray.

Most notable was who Reid didn’t pick—the three austerity hawk members of the “Gang of Six”—Kent Conrad, Dick Durbin and Mark Warner. Reid’s selections have a natural logic to them. Murray is a member of the Appropriations Committee, the fourth-ranking Senate Democrat and chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which makes her one of the most powerful Democrats in the caucus. Kerry is a respected senior statesman in the party who’s become increasingly vocal on economic policy of late, “delivering ‘some powerful speeches’…in defense of Democratic Party priorities,” according to the Huffington Post. And Baucus, as we all know, is chair of the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and tax revenue.

At first glance, Kerry and Murray have been reliably liberal votes within the Democratic caucus, while Baucus is viewed with grave suspicion by progressive Democrats. He’s been dubbed “K Street’s Favorite Democrat” by yours truly, enabled much of the Bush administration’s agenda, and notoriously bungled the handling of the healthcare reform, watering down the bill and stalling the process in favor of GOP votes that never materialized. More than anyone else, Baucus is responsible for the continued unpopularity of the healthcare bill today.

Yet, paradoxically, Kerry and Murray could be more problematic than Baucus on the super-committee. Both Kerry and Murray signed a letter in March calling for a “grand bargain” deal, modeled after the Bowles-Simpson Commission, that would include “discretionary spending cuts, entitlement changes and tax reform.” Kerry has continued to advocate for such a grand bargain, most recently on Meet the Press, and both he and Murray represent states with major defense interests, which makes it unlikely they’ll vote to significantly curb defense spending. As chair of the DSCC, Murray is also responsible for raising buckets of money from corporate America and embarrassingly solicited campaign cash in June from the Koch brothers.

Baucus, on the other hand, voted against the Bowles-Simpson plan, saying “we cannot cut the deficit at the expense of veterans, seniors, ranchers, farmers and hard-working families.” Specifically, Baucus said he opposed the commission’s recommendations to turn Medicare into a voucher program, raise the retirement age of Social Security and cut healthcare benefits for veterans. It’s hard to believe, but today Baucus might be to the left of Kerry and Murray on economic policy.

The super-committee itself is a profoundly conservative and anti-Democratic entity, immune from public pressure and tasked with deciding between two bad choices—a so-called grand bargain that would significantly reduce the social safety net vs. deep across the board cuts at a time of economic peril. The idea of doing anything to stimulate the economy is totally absent from its purview. The scope of the committee itself, rather than who’s on it, is the real problem.

UPDATE: Republicans have announced their own picks my the committee. They are Senators Jon Kyl, Rob Portman and Pat Toomey, and Representatives Dave Camp, Jeb Hensarling and Fred Upton, all relative hardliners who are unlikely to agree to any deal that will include new tax revenues. Kyl is the number two Senate Republican and a close ally of Mitch McConnell, Portman is George W. Bush’s former budget director and Toomey is the former president of the militantly anti-tax Club for Growth. Camp is the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, Upton is chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee, and Hensarling is a past chair of the far-right Republican Study Committee. All six have signed Grover Norquist’s “no new taxes” pledge.

—Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics. Follow him on Twitter at @AriBerman.

Like this blog post? Read it on The Nation’s free iPhone App, NationNow.
Syndicate content