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On Day 100, de Blasio Defines What His Mayoralty Is About

Bill de Blasio

NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks at Cooper Union on his 100th day in office. April 10, 2014. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

It says something about our politics that today—more than a year after he announced his run for mayor, almost seven months since he won the Democratic primary and 100 days into his term as mayor—Bill de Blasio gave a speech laying out his philosophy of government.

He’s spoken often about inequality, of course, but that’s an issue, not an ideal. He talked much about universal pre-kindergarten, but that’s a policy, not a way of thinking. Today, in a speech to a friendly audience of pols and advocates at the Great Hall at Cooper Union, de Blasio talked about what it really means to run a progressive government.

The speech was retrospective in content, reviewing the many accomplishments of his first three months in office (stop-and-frisk, vision zero, snowstorms, UPK, a dance-free budget, paid sick-leave and so on), and some will spin it as an attempt to hit the reset button after the “stumbles” of the mayor’s “rocky” run so far.

Clearly, however, there was more to it than that. “We have to think about what animates us to keep this work moving forward,” de Blasio said at one point.

Indeed, the speech was meant to establish a superstructure on which the administration will layer the stuff it does from Day 101 to Day 1,460 and maybe even Day 2,920.

The need for the framework was obvious. “We’re getting beyond the immediate campaign promises now,” as one progressive political operator recently said when I asked him what de Blasio’s agenda would look like from here on out.

During the campaign de Blasio talked a great deal about a small number of big ideas—policing reform and UPK chief among them—and those policies are now in place. So the administration will shift to smaller targets, pursuing each policy with an eye toward reducing inequality. Zoning changes and workforce development and post-Sandy rebuilding might not have the simple appeal of, say, a tax hike on the rich, but they can have a powerful cumulative effect on inequality. And many of them don’t require Albany’s approval.

But in order to harness the political power of the progressive movement behind those smaller-bore changes, they need to be cast as part of a broader movement. As the mayor put it, “This administration is a product of movement politics. It is a movement of people who share a vision, people …who believe in our city’s progressive traditions.”

That product, the mayor said, is a government run efficiently that “respects everyone’s dignity” and aims to maximize inclusion. “We believe we are at our best when everyone gets a shot,” the mayor added, noting further, “We believe in grassroots, people-powered government.”

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Teacher retention, community hospitals, faster repairs to public housing and municipal ID cards were among the policy ideas the mayor touched on. Those seeking details—and many are—will have to wait for another day. (The mayor did provide new clarity on affordable housing, saying that it ought to reach “across the income spectrum” to include the “middle class,” which, depending on how that gets defined, could rehash one of the arguments of the Bloomberg era, when some advocates protested that scarce affordable housing dollars were subsidizing apartments for families with six-figure incomes.)

A year ago, I wrote a story for The Nation about the tentative hope that the city would elect a progressive mayor. A thread in that piece was the very question of what it meant to be progressive, a question de Blasio was trying to answer today, and will continue to try to answer over the next four or eight years. This blog said early on that de Blasio’s mayoralty would be a test of whether progressive values work—but it will also define, in nitty-gritty policy terms, what those values look like, at least as interpreted by the mayor of America’s global city.

On the hardwood floor of the stage in the Great Hall today, just next to de Blasio’s feet, an arrow had been marked in white masking tape, presumably indicating which way he was to exit the stage. It led left, pointing him down the stairs and out the door toward the sun-bathed sidewalk where his gleaming black SUV waited. The rest of his journey he’ll chart himself.

Read Next: Laura Gottesdiener on why Wall Street firms make terrible landlords.

Can We Trust What Israeli Leaders Say on Iran?

Benjamin Netanyahu

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Reuters/Gali Tibbon)

Israeli President Shimon Peres visited Vienna ahead of the latest round of nuclear talks between Iran and world powers there this week. Peres stopped by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). And he brought a warning. "The implementation of the agreement between the agency and Iran is proceeding, unfortunately, at a slow pace. Iran is buying time, but not answering the call," he said in remarks made available to the press. "Iran does not uphold its commitment to cooperate with the Agency's investigation and does not provide full transparency."

If true, the revelations could be momentous. Iran and world powers, including the United States, known collectively as the P5+1, signed an interim nuclear accord in November that laid the groundwork for the ongoing talks toward a comprehensive agreement. As part of the November deal, Iran agreed to limit its nuclear activities and acceded to tougher inspections. The task of monitoring implementation fell to the IAEA. With Iran backsliding, as Peres claimed, months of negotiations—not to mention prospects for a final deal—could all be for naught.

But how much stock to put in "if true"? Peres, since assuming the presidency in 2007, has played the elder statesman, often working to smooth the rough edges of Israel's notoriously brash diplomacy. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet, in contrast, have raised issues about Iran in more stark, bellicose terms. And those terms are often wanting when it comes to getting the facts right.

Peres's allegations spurred me to call the IAEA to ask if the agency agreed. A representative declined to comment beyond pointing to IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano's remarks at the joint press conference. But Amano had only issued vague pleasantries, without ever addressing the substance of Peres's claims.

On Wednesday, however, Amano spoke up. Asked about implementing the deal by reporters, he replied, "We are working on it and they are cooperative." Was the deal with Iran going forward "at a slow pace," as Peres had alleged? "I can tell you, these measures are being implemented as planned," Amano said.

Those descriptions of progress—not Peres's allegations about its absence—reflect the on-the-record views of the agency up until now: the latest quarterly report on Iran's nuclear program, released in February, indicated that the Iranians were holding up their end of the bargain.

"Iranian implementation of the November 24 agreement is on track," said Kelsey Davenport, an analyst with the Arms Control Association who closely follows Iran's nuclear program. Davenport noted that one of the steps expected to be completed in May even includes Iran providing information about what the IAEA calls "possible military dimensions" of its program: access to details about alleged work on nuclear detonators.

So according to the IAEA itself and leading experts, Iran is on schedule, and even tackling difficult issues. That tracks with the buzz leaking from negotiation tables in Vienna this week, too: after the latest round of talks ended on Wednesday, Iran and the P5+1 released a joint statement noting that big differences remained, but that the talks were proceeding smoothly. "Substantive and detailed discussions covering all the issues" had been held, the statement said. A US official at the negotiations told reporters the sides would begin drafting a final agreement next month.

It's still, of course, possible that Israel has intelligence contradicting the apparent views of the IAEA and the experts. If that's so, Israeli officials should either pass it to those responsible for doing diplomacy, the IAEA, the United States or other P5+1 countries or make the public case themselves. For the moment, the once respected words of Shimon Peres appear to be little more than the sort of nay-saying on diplomacy we've come to expect from less reliable Israelis, those who seem most bent attacking Iran.

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On these matters, Peres ought to tread lightly, not only because his carefully maintained reputation is at stake but also because of his own history. In another press conference, Peres once said, "This is a campaign to stop one of the greatest dangers of our time—a combination of nuclear bombs and cruel dictators that no one can trust, and no one can believe a word that they are saying." At the time, in 2002, Peres was foreign minister. The comments were about Iraq.

 

Read Next: Greg Mitchell on the eleven-year anniversary of "mission accomplished."

This Sham Report Is What the Climate Movement Is Up Against?

glacier melt

An iceberg melts in Kulusuk Bay, eastern Greenland, in 2007. (AP Photo/John McConnico)

On Wednesday morning, in a small room at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, the climate change skeptic Craig Idso pointed to a PowerPoint slide showing three young pea plants, each grown under varying levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. The plant that experienced the lowest concentration of carbon dioxide looked shriveled and sickly; the most robust-looking plant grew under the highest test concentration. “Now,” Idso said, “you could put on your Sigmund Freud hat, and you could ask yourself in a psychiatric manner, which plant would you rather be?”

Idso is one of the lead authors of a new report from the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC), a project of the right-wing think tank the Heartland Institute that essentially serves to rebut the United Nations–sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). On Wednesday, NIPCC authors along with Heartland president Joseph Bast did their best to convince a room of less than ten people that scientific consensus on the human role in climate change does not exist, and that carbon emissions and rising global temperatures will have a net positive effect on the world. In other words, we are all pea shoots.

There were other absurdities at the press conference, including Idso’s prophecies of “vegetative prowess.” There were repeated references to the “scores” of scientists who contributed to the report, when in fact the total number of authors, editors and reviewers amounts to thirty-seven. Many of the people behind the NIPCC, including Bast and Fred Singer of the Science and Environmental Policy Project, have built careers around undercutting scientific research that threatens corporate profits, most notably the tobacco industry. Unlike the hundreds of scientists who contribute to IPCC reports voluntarily, the “independent” authors and editors involved with the NIPCC are paid; how much and by whom Heartland refused to say, although a staffer cited three family foundations as the source of funds for the study.

The most interesting part of the event was that the scientists and Bast couldn’t seem to decide whether man-made climate change is a hoax, or whether it’s something to embrace. Bast offered a painful display of rhetorical acrobatics when asked to clarify. He agreed there has been a gradual warming trend as well as a corresponding increase in carbon emissions. Bast declared, “The human presence is responsible for rising carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere,” but then clarified that in regards to temperature, “the human impact is very small, probably less than natural variability…the bigger impact is the increase in carbon dioxide, which Doctor Idso shows is positive, unambiguously positive.” If the increase in carbon dioxide is the “bigger impact” and it’s due to “the human presence,” that seems to be tacit endorsement of the link between human activity and climate change.

This is what the climate movement is up against—plant analogies, thirty-seven scientists and an all-but-empty pressroom? (There was a similar briefing earlier in the morning, reportedly with comparable attendance.) The event only emphasized what a lonely occupation climate skepticism in the Heartland model has become, as even Exxon Mobil says “the risk of climate change is clear and the risk warrants action.”

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But the dwindling community of skeptics has a disproportionately large audience thanks to Fox News, which featured the NIPCC report several times in the past week on air and online. “Deepening divide over climate change sparks fierce debate,” reads the headline of a story by correspondent Doug McKelway, who told viewers of the Fox Special Report with Bret Baier on Wednesday night that the NIPCC authors “point to observable data, not computer modeling, to prove their point.” McKelway concluded, “All of this is leading congressional doubters to further question an array of EPA regulations the president has unleashed to maneuver around congressional resistance to cap and trade and other carbon-mitigating legislation.”

Fox’s treatment of the NIPCC report isn’t surprising, considering that 72 percent of its climate change coverage last year was misleading, according to a new study by the Union of Concerned Scientists. Fox pulls in some 1.76 million viewers, compared with the 640,000 who watch MSNBC, which covered climate accurately 92 percent of the time. The NIPCC may be speaking into an echo chamber, but it’s one that surrounds a sizable chunk of America and the majority of lawmakers in the House, who are well protected by rigged districts and corporate patrons. There’s no excusing the special interests, politicians and journalists who deliberately promote shoddy science to justify environmental destruction. At the same time, one can understand the popular appeal of the NIPCC, as a comforting alternative the desperate scenario portrayed by the IPCC. Things would be so much simpler, if only we were pea shoots.

 

Read Next: Reed Richardson on whether Al Jazeera America can save America’s cable news.

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Thanks to Republicans, the World Just Got a Little More Dangerous

Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin

Barack Obama meets with Vladimir Putin during the June 2013 G8 Summit in Northern Ireland. (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

Thankfully, US-Russia cooperation on nuclear security will continue—for now. Since 1993, the United States has spent $1.6 billion on Cooperative Threat Reduction (known as the Nunn-Lugar pact), a program designed to increase safety and security at nuclear and chemical-weapons facilities of former Cold War antagonists. But last June, the pact expired after twenty years, and despite pledges from the Obama administration that work would continue “unfettered,” recent events in Ukraine have introduced enough friction into the relationship to cause alarm.

Cooperative Threat Reduction includes treatment of nuclear and radiological material and facilities, as well as efforts to destroy chemical weapons and keep smugglers from secreting weaponry across the Russian border. The necessity to stay on top of this delicate—in every sense of the word—work cannot be understated. Paul Walker, international program director of the environmental security and sustainability program of Green Cross and Global Green, expressed concern about Russia’s ability to safely deal with its chemical and nuclear arsenals without US assistance quite bluntly. “I worry about the Russians going off on their own and making some unintentional mistakes, having some accidents,” he said. Unfortunately, unintentional mistakes and accidents have been part of both the Soviet and American nuclear programs since the Manhattan Project.

Though unrecognized as such, one of our most critical human resources—if not the most critical—is the carefully maintained control of the world’s nuclear arsenal. The idea that “control” is a resource, and not a state of being, is born out in Eric Schlosser’s magnificent Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident, and the Illusion of Safety, a comprehensive chronicle of American atomic weapons since 1945. Control, Schlosser demonstrates, proves to be a fleeting concept, something that can be reached for, and sometimes temporarily harnessed (in a treaty, for example), but never fully realized. Indeed, “The search for stability was inherently destabilizing,” summarizes The New Yorker in a review, with each advance in safety matched—and more often than not superseded—by a corresponding development in technology or strategy that rendered the safety benefit moot.

So we should be alarmed to discover that nuclear safety has become a bargaining chip in the ongoing US-Russia-Ukraine situation. Amidst hawkish bluster from House Republicans, some of our lawmakers seem hellbent on ensuring that suspicion and instability—along with unintentional mistakes and accidents—remain an integral part of the nuclear age.

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On April 8, Representatives Michael Turner (R-OH) and Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Buck McKeon (R-CA) introduced a bill that, among other things, prohibits “the contact, cooperation or transfer of technology between the National Nuclear Security Administration [NNSA] and the Russian Federation until the Secretary of Energy certifies the Russian military is no longer illegally occupying Crimea, no longer violating the INF treaty, and in compliance with the CFE treaty.”

Engendering nuclear instability by using safety as a stick is an incredibly reckless way to approach global security, and the difference between congressional GOP chest-thumping and the precious-bodily-fluids paranoia of Dr. Strangelove’s Gen. Jack D. Ripper is one of degree, not kind. As Schlosser and Strangelove director Stanley Kubrick make clear, when it comes to atomic weapons, no state with nuclear capability will ever cower and retreat to a more cooperative position when threatened with nuclear attack. Intimidation and braggadocio yield only more intimidation and braggadocio, which in turn yields recklessness, instability and, ultimately, catastrophe. To make the NNSA’s work subject to the political ebb and flow of an immediate crisis such as that in Ukraine is utter folly. We cannot afford to relive the last seventy years of our nuclear history.

Read Next: Nation in the News: A Diplomatic Resolution to the Crisis Over Ukraine Is Still Possible.

Talking Sports Mascots With Members of Idle No More

Idle No More

Members of Idle No More march during an indigenous rights protest in Victoria, British Columbia, December 21, 2012. (Courtesy of rpaterso, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Idle No More is an indigenous persons– or First Nations–led movement that has had an electric effect on indigenous activism throughout North America. Emerging into public consciousness in Canada in December 2012, Idle No More has become a touchstone for a host of indigenous-led movements ranging from economic and ecological justice to the battle to stop the mascoting of First Nation’s people. I interviewed Idle No More members Alexandria Wilson and Erica Lee about their thoughts on mascoting and why they see it as a connected part of their struggle. Dr. Alexandria Wilson is a Cree and the professor and director of the Aboriginal Education Research Center at the University of Saskatchewan. Erica Lee, who is also Cree, is an undergraduate philosophy student at the University of Saskatchewan. Ms. Lee recently led a successful movement to change the name and logo of her high school team, the Bedford Road Redmen, in Saskatoon, Canada.

Dave Zirin: Alex, people who want to keep names like Redmen, Redskins, Indians, Braves—like Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington football team—often say, “There are bigger problems in indigenous communities than mascoting. Focus on the real problems and not on sporting events.” How do you respond to that?

Dr. Alexandria Wilson: My response is that all of these things are connected, so when people try to minimize the overall impact of racist caricatures and mascots, what they’re doing is erasing the true history of what happened to indigenous people—not just in North America, but elsewhere in the world as well.

Erica, can you talk about the movement to get the Bedford Road Redmen to change their name?

Erica Lee: I’ve been working on this for the past two and a half to three years now. And before that, when I was a student at Bedford Road, in high school, I was working on it. But I definitely didn’t have the courage or the support structure to be able to change it at that point. We had a good foundation, because back in the 1990s there was a group of First Nations people who tried to change the logo but they felt overwhelmed and couldn’t continue the fight. So, what it is about to me is just continuing, being persistent, showing that we’re not going to go away on this, that we’re not going to forget, that we’ll still stand. I think the folks who are fighting the Washington team name are doing a great job on that.

Erica, What’s the connection between Idle No More—and perhaps you can tell us a bit about what Idle No More is—and what you were able to do at Bedford Road?

EL: Sure, Idle No More is a movement that started here in Canada. And it’s about a fight that started against a few bills that were laid down by the Canadian government which limit the rights and the sovereignty of First Nation’s people in Canada, and do a lot of environmental damage as well. So we started Idle No More to get discussion going and to get resistance going on issues that effect indigenous people. Mascots—like Redmen, like the Washington team—are issues that effect indigenous people. Like [Alex] said, it’s not just a small thing on the side, it’s all part of a bigger narrative.

Alex, let’s bring it back to DC. The latest gambit by the owner of the team, Dan Snyder, was to start something called the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation, a charitable foundation. I was just curious, what was your reaction when you heard that this was going to be his response to all of the criticism that he’s been receiving?

AW: I thought that it was kind of juvenile, and once again a way to commercialize our identities. And, honestly, it’s quite ridiculous. And so, rather than making a change that would have some sort of social impact, he’s trying to buy people’s votes, buy people’s public opinion. I think, from a marketing perspective, if he really wants to make money out of this, he could merchandise a new logo and there would be a whole new commercialized aspect. But I think that this is all in line with people who want to erase our stories, and actually just want to erase the visibility of indigenous people in North America.

Erica, you also hear people unfamiliar with the issue ask, “Why are we talking about this Washington football team issue now? Why not five years ago, why not ten years ago?”

EL: I think people forget too is that it’s just recently that this issue has received prominence, but the reality is that we’ve been fighting these things for decades, so it’s not something new. The resistance has always been around, and it’s powerful to know that we now can finally start to make a difference with our voices.

AW: I’d like to add to that too. Suzan Shown Harjo was in a class action suit against the team back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, so like Erica said, there’s been resistance going not for just five, ten, twenty years, but hundreds of years on addressing racism towards indigenous peoples. And so, I think one of the significant things that has happened lately is the Idle No More movement, but also its connection to social media. So now we’re able to share information quickly—articles, teach-ins, educational materials that help people understand to put the mascot issue into the larger context of racism. Not only racism, but also sexism and misogyny and hypermasculinity and homophobia and how those are linked too. And I think that’s a really important issue for sports fans, commentators and cultural critics to take into consideration.

Alex, You mentioned misogyny and hypermasculinity. When you speak to indigenous people and you speak about issues of mascoting, do you find it to break on gender lines at all?

AW: I do find in our own indigenous communities, of course the impact of colonization has been internalized, so there is sexism throughout our whole community. That is something that we have to address.

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And Erica, when you were working around the high school name, who were the people who sided with you and who didn’t side with you? What alliances were there?

EL: I remember the first time I ever started complaining about this mascot or raising the issue was in high school, grade eleven. And there wasn’t too much backlash from my peers at the time, but actually teachers who really defended the logo and said, “It’s an honor. You should be honored, this is your culture.” And that’s why I backed off, I thought, “Oh, this is an authority figure telling me, then I must be wrong.” And that’s why it’s so frustrating to see so many teachers and educators reinforcing these stereotypes in the minds of young First Nations kids, and students in general at that school and all around the city. It’s the job of educators to encourage critical thought, not to tell them to blindly follow stereotypes of First Nations people. These have real consequences and effects on our everyday lives.

Last question. How can people find out more about Idle No More?

AW: Well we have a website, idlenomore.com or idlenomore.ca. And people can visit that website, and then there are about four hundred and some Facebook pages… So if people just Google ‘Idle No More,’ and there are different regional groups as well. That’s probably the best way to find out information.

 

Read Next: The UConn Huskies win “NCAA Hunger Games Bingo.”

Feds, State Legislative Committee Accelerate Inquiries Into Bridgegate

George Washington Bridge

The tollbooth lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee, New Jersey. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Just two weeks after Chris Christie’s lawyer, Randy Mastro of Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher, released a report with great fanfare allegedly clearing the governor of involvement with the George Washington Bridge scandal, new revelations are calling into question the “evidence” used by Mastro’s team of former prosecutors who authored it. At the same time, federal investigations into the activities of the New Jersey governor’s office and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey are heating up, and it’s possible that some of the people at the center of the lane-closing investigation may be ready to make a deal to tell what they know.

Mastro argued that his comprehensive report, based on interviews with more than seventy people and the review of 250,000 pages of documents, showed Christie knew nothing about the bridge lane closures in advance. Now it turns out that Mastro’s elite investigators, former prosecutors with lots of investigative experience, forgot or didn’t see the need to either videotape or audiotape the interviews with witnesses or have a stenographer record them.

According to Assemblyman John Wisniewski who chairs the New Jersey legislative committee investigating the bridge scandal, Mastro’s prosecutors may have only their own notes to back up their conclusions. Wisniewski yesterday characterized Mastro’s findings as now little more than just hearsay, according to a report by NJ Spotlight:

“If this was supposed to be a transparent 360-degree examination of what happened, the lack of any hard evidence of what people said and how they responded to questions means that this report is based upon nothing more than the [Mastro team’s] mental impressions of what people said,” Wisniewski noted. “That’s the classic definition of hearsay,” he said, dismissing the conclusions of the $1 million taxpayer-funded study.

The legislative committee has demanded that Mastro turn over to them all their documents and notes, but they have not received anything. Wisniewski said that the committee, which met yesterday for the first time in two months, decided to give Christie’s lawyer until the end of this week to get them the material or they will start issuing subpoenas.

Wisniewski also said that the committee, which is investigating how the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has been used as a slush fund by the New Jersey governor’s office, has not received documents they subpoenaed from the recently resigned chairman of the PA, Christie’s close associate, David Samson.

In brief remarks before the committee went into closed session with their lawyer about the investigation, the committee co-chairmen Wisniewski and state Senator Loretta Weinberg pushed back against various moves to delay or hinder their work. The investigation, said Wisniewski, is the only way to insure that the people of northern New Jersey “never again become a pawn in a vindictive power play.”

He reacted angrily to efforts by some of the committee’s Republican members to stampede legislation to reform the PA, especially since Christie vetoed such legislation passed by the legislature last year that was authored by Weinberg. Wisniewski made clear the committee will move ahead on its investigation into the PA because they were not happy “with the way the governor treats the PA as just another desk in the governor’s office.”

The committee is awaiting a ruling expected soon by a state court judge on whether two key people who oversaw the closing of bridge lanes, former deputy chief of staff to Christie, Bridget Anne Kelly and one of his top PA appointees, David Wildstein, can withhold documents from the committee. They argued to the court that turning over the material will violate their Fifth Amendment rights, since there is a criminal investigation into the issue.

And that investigation is escalating with a report that the US Attorney for New Jersey, Paul Fishman has expanded the team of people involved with the investigation. According to a report by Main Justice, which covers the Department of Justice:

Fishman’s team of investigators has swelled beyond its original three. He assigned as line lawyers senior litigator J. Fortier Imbert and AUSAs Lee Cortes and Vikas Khanna, leaving for himself the job of ultimate decision-maker in consultation with top staffers Thomas Eicher, head of the Criminal Division; First Assistant William Fitzpatrick; executive assistant Sabrina Comizzoli and counsel John Fietkiewicz.

At the same time three people told Main Justice that the New Jersey prosecutor’s office is not the only one investigating the mounting scandals.

The US Attorney’s office in New York is also looking into whether David Samson misused his Port Authority position to help his law firm and its clients. The two US Attorneys are cooperating on their separate investigations.

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The New Jersey prosecutor has subpoenaed witnesses to testify before a grand jury, as reported last week by Christie Watch, and the US attorney may be close to working out a deal with the man at the heart of Bridgegate, David Wildstein. Main Justice eports that Wildstein “was camped at the US Attorney’s office in Newark,” last week, spending several days there. Wildstein’s lawyer, Alan Zegas, has indicated several times since January that his client would tell all if he gets immunity from prosecution.

In addition to the recent discussions with Wildstein, Fishman’s office met with Christie’s former chief counsel, Charles McKenna, back in January. That’s important because McKenna, who moved out of the governor’s office about that time to head the New Jersey Schools Development Authority, had been asked by Christie to look into the lane closing in early October. That’s when the PA’s executive director’s memo surfaced saying that the lane closures may have violated state and federal laws. And it was McKenna who, according to a text from Wildstein, said that the PA’s deputy executive director and Christie’s top PA appointee Bill Baroni did “great” when he testified to the NJ legislative investigations committee that the lane closures were all part of a traffic study, which it clearly wasn’t.

 

Read Next: Christie Watch looks into the expanding investigations of key Christie allies.

How Ethnic Tensions and Economic Crisis Have Strengthened Europe’s Secession Movements

Catalan independence

Marchers wave Catalonian nationalist flags as they demonstrate during Catalan National Day in Barcelona. (Reuters/Albert Gea)

This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.

Happy families are all alike: every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

The opening to Tolstoy’s great novel of love and tragedy could be a metaphor for Europe today, where “unhappy families” of Catalans, Scots, Belgians, Ukrainians and Italians contemplate divorcing the countries they are currently a part of. And in a case where reality mirrors fiction, they are each unhappy in their own way.

While the United States and its allies may rail against the recent referendum in Crimea that broke the peninsula free of Ukraine, Scots will consider a very similar one on September 18, and Catalans would very much like to do the same. So would residents of South Tyrol, and Flemish speakers in northern Belgium.

On the surface, many of these secession movements look like rich regions trying to free themselves from poor ones, but while there is some truth in that, it is overly simplistic. Wealthier Flemish speakers in northern Belgium would indeed like to separate from the distressed, French-speaking south, just as Tyroleans would like to free themselves of poverty-racked southern Italy. But in Scotland, much of the fight is over preserving the social contract that conservative Labour and right-wing Tory governments have systematically dismantled. As for Catalonia—well, it’s complicated.

Borders in Europe may appear immutable, but of course they are not. Sometimes they are changed by war, economic necessity or because the powerful draw capricious lines that ignore history and ethnicity. Crimea, conquered by Catherine the Great in 1783, was arbitrarily given to Ukraine in 1954. Belgium was the outcome of a congress of European powers in 1830. Impoverished Scotland tied itself to wealthy England in 1707. Catalonia fell to Spanish and French armies in 1714. And South Tyrol was a spoil of World War I.

In all of them, historical grievance, uneven development and ethnic tensions have been exacerbated by a long-running economic crisis. There is nothing like unemployment and austerity to fuel the fires of secession.

The two most pressing secessionist movements—and the ones most likely to have a profound impact on the rest of Europe—are in Scotland and Catalonia.

Both are unhappy in different ways.

Scotland

Scotland always had a vocal, albeit marginal, nationalist party, but was traditionally dominated by the British Labour Party. The Conservatives hardly exist north of the Tweed. But Tony Blair’s “New Labour” record of spending cuts and privatization alienated many Scots, who spend more on their education and health services than the rest of Britain. University tuition, for instance, is still free in Scotland, as are prescription drugs and home healthcare.

When Conservatives won the British election in 2010, their austerity budget savaged education, healthcare, housing subsidies and transportation. Scots, angered at the cuts, voted for the Scottish National Party in the 2011 elections for the Scottish parliament. The SNP immediately proposed a referendum that will ask Scots if they want to dissolve the 1707 Act of Union and once again be an independent country. If passed, the Scottish government proposes re-nationalizing the postal service and throwing Britain's nuclear-armed Trident submarines out of Scotland.

If one takes into account its North Sea oil resources, there is little doubt that an independent Scotland would be viable. Scotland has a larger GDP per capita than France and, in addition to oil, exports manufactured goods and whiskey. Scotland would become one of the world’s top thirty-five exporting countries.

The Conservative government says that if the Scots vote for independence, they will have to give up the pound as a currency. The Scots respond that if the British follow through on their currency threat, Scotland will wash its hands of its portion of the British national debt. At this point, there is a standoff.

According to the British—and some leading officials in the European Union—an independent Scotland will lose its EU membership, but that may be bluster. For one, it would violate past practice. When East and West Germany were united in 1990, some 20 million residents of the former German Democratic Republic were automatically given EU citizenship. If 5.3 million Scots are excluded, it will be the result of pique, not policy. In any case, with the Conservatives planning a referendum in 2017 that might pull Britain out of the EU, London is not exactly holding the high ground on this issue.

If the vote were taken today, the Scots would probably vote to remain in Britain, but sentiment is shifting. The most recent poll indicates that 40 percent will vote for independence, a 3 percentage-point increase from the previous poll. The “no” votes have declined by 2 percentage points, to 45 percent, with 15 percent undecided. All Scottish residents over the age of 16 can vote. Given the formidable campaigning skills of Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister and leader of the SNP, those are chilling odds for the London government.

Catalonia

Catalonia, wedged up against France in Spain’s northeast, has long been a powerful engine for the Spanish economy, and a region steeped in historical grievance. Conquered by the combined armies of France and the Spain in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714), it was also on the losing side of the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War. In 1940, triumphant fascists suppressed the Catalan language and culture and executed Catalonia’s president, Lluis Companys—an act no Madrid government has ever made amends for.

Following Franco’s death in 1975, Spain began its transformation to democracy, a road constructed by burying the deep animosities engendered by the Civil War. But the dead stay buried only so long, and a movement for Catalan independence began to grow.

In 2006 Catalonia won considerable autonomy, which was overturned by Spain's Supreme Tribunal in 2010 at the behest of the current ruling conservative People’s Party (PP). That 2010 decision fueled the growth of the Catalan independence movement, and in 2012 separatist parties in the province were swept into power.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s PP is pretty much an afterthought in Catalonia, where several independence parties dominate the Catalan legislature. The largest of these is Province President Artur Mas’s Convergencia i Unio (CiU), but the Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC) recently doubled its representation in the legislature.

That doesn’t mean they agree with one another. Mas’s party tends to be centrist to conservative, while the ERC is leftist and opposed to the austerity program of the PP, some of which Mas has gone along with. The CiU’s centrism is one of the reasons that Mas’s party went from sixty-two seats to fifty in the 2012 election, while the ERC jumped from ten to twenty-one.

Unemployment in Spain is officially at 25 percent—but far higher among youth and in the country's southern provinces—and the left has thrown down the gauntlet. Over 100,000 people marched on Madrid last month demanding an end to austerity.

Rajoy—citing the 1976 Constitution—refuses to allow an independence referendum, a stubbornness that has only fueled separatist strength. This past January the Catalan parliament voted 87 to 43 to hold a referendum, and polls show a majority in the province will support it. Six months ago, a million and a half Catalans marched in Barcelona for independence.

The PP has been altogether ham-fisted about Catalonia and seems to delight in finding things to provoke Catalans: Catalonia bans bull fighting, so Madrid passes a law making it a national cultural heritage. The Basques get to collect their own taxes, Catalans cannot.

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How would the EU react to an independent Catalonia? And would the central government in Madrid do anything about it? It is hard to imagine the Spanish army getting involved, although a former minister in the Franco government started Rajoy’s party, and the dislike between Madrid and Barcelona is palpable.

Other Fault Lines

There are other fault lines on the continent.

Will Belgium split up? The fissure between the Flemish-speaking north and the French-speaking south is so deep it took eighteen months to form a government after the last election. And if Belgium shatters, does it become two countries or get swallowed by France and the Netherlands?

In Italy, the South Tyrol Freedom Party (STFP) is gearing up for an independence referendum and pressing for a merger with Austria, although the tiny province—called Alto Adige in Italy—has little to complain about. It keeps 90 percent of its taxes, and its economy has dodged the worst of the 2008 meltdown. But some of its German-Austrian residents are resentful of any money going to Rome, and there is a deep prejudice against Italians—who make up 25 percent of South Tyrol—particularly among those in the south. In this way, the STFP is not very different from the racist, elitist Northern League, centered in Italy’s Po Valley.

It is instructive to watch the YouTube video on how borders in Europe have changed from 1519 to 2006, a period of less than 500 years. What we think of as eternal is ephemeral. The European continent is once again adrift, pulling apart along fault lines both ancient and modern. How nations like Spain and Britain, and organizations like the EU, react to this process will determine if it will be civilized or painful. But trying to stop it will most certainly cause pain.

 

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The Politics Around Welfare Show Why the Poor Need a Real Break, Not Just a Tax Break

A mother on welfare looks at job postings with her son

A mother on welfare looks at job postings with her son at the Virginia Employment Commission. (Reuters/Molly Riley)

The Earned Income Tax Credit occupies a curious space in Washington’s budget wars: it’s the rare welfare program conservatives can embrace, because it can be presented as a tax rebate, rather than a benefits check. A brainchild of the Nixon administration, the EITC has long been held up as an “incentive to work,” presumably in contrast to public assistance programs that support the unemployed.

And so the EITC, along with the parallel Child Tax Credit (CTC) aimed directly at supporting children within a household, are key pillars of both the White House budget proposal as well as the far-right counter-proposal of Representative Paul Ryan. While he rails against public assistance in general for supposedly destroying a “culture of work,” Ryan has praised the EITC as part of a conservative anti-poverty agenda, in which “federal assistance should not be a way station [but] an onramp—a quick drive back into the hustle and bustle of life.”

However, Ryan’s budget would revamp the EITC in a way that steepens the onramp out of poverty. Back in 2009, Congress expanded the tax break for lower-income families, helping to lift 1.5 million people above the poverty line. But Ryan is proposing to let this measure expire, along with other draconian welfare cuts and, in addition, to make “massive unspecified cuts amounting to hundreds of billions of dollars” from the section of the budget containing the tax credits.

Some conservatives do wish to expand low-income tax credits, but with certain revealing political caveats. For instance, one idea circulating on the right is to boost poor families with children by funding extra tax rebates for them with higher taxes on childless single people. Reihan Salam recently argued in Slate that the government should tax childless households extra in order to provide subsidies directly to parents who are raising the next generation (presumably while their child-free counterparts can live relatively carefree, unencumbered lives).

In reality, poor single, childless adults can hardly be considered freeloaders; and this is in part because the current tax code discriminates against them and favors households with kids. Childless adults under age 25 are automatically disqualified from the EITC. And those who do qualify receive little assistance.

Under the current system, according to the think tank Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a single adult working full time at a minimum-wage job (about $14,500 per year) “will have a federal income and payroll tax burden of $2,617 in 2015—a large tax burden for someone with income this low—after receiving an EITC of just $22.”

The White House budget would specifically expand the EITC for childless workers, which would, according to CBPP, provide a much-needed boost in income stability and workforce participation among the poorest childless adults.

On the flipside, if you parse that demographic of “childless adults” more closely, you realize who is disproportionately helped by the GOP’s favored income subsidy.

As Suzy Khimm explains at MSNBC.com:

Single working adults with two children who earn less than $43,756 can claim a $5,460 maximum credit in 2014. By contrast, adults without qualifying children can’t receive the credit unless they earn less than $14,590, and the maximum benefit is only $496. (Only custodial parents claim tax credits for a qualifying child, even if the non-custodial parents pay child support).

A 2006 Brookings Institution analysis revealed that that the people who are eligible for the EITC but did not file were more likely to be male, single and childless, or have less education or English speaking ability.

The current EITC system’s skewed distribution of benefits reflects a categorical neglect of single men, non-custodial parents and childless working women, which in turn speaks volumes about the history and politics of welfare in a neoliberal era. Since the advent of the US welfare state, the government has defined the “deserving” and the “undeserving” poor along racial and gender lines.

After all, as Politico explains, the idea was originally championed by Milton Friedman as the right’s answer to the welfare state—a “negative income tax” for working families. Meanwhile, welfare policies since the 1970s have been colored by grossly distorted stereotypes of “welfare dependent” black single mothers, in contrast to the hardworking nuclear families who deserved a tax break.

Over time, the role of the EITC has grown massively, and other forms of public assistance, such as direct cash benefits, Medicaid and food stamps, have withered. The shrinking of welfare has hurt all low-income households, but the pain is compounded for many childless workers who face longstanding restrictions on these critical supports. For example, childless adults facing unemployment are generally eligible for just three months of food stamps every three years or are subject to strict work requirements. Ryan and other conservatives also seek to repeal the Affordable Health Act and to undermine Medicaid, another program that largely leaves out many poor, childless men. (As for promoting a so-called “culture of work,” CBPP points out that a large portion of the tens of millions of people affected by these cuts actually already have jobs; they’d just have a harder time supporting themselves with those wages.) Not exactly an “onramp”—more like a social engineering project draped in a tattered safety net.

Beyond the Tax Credit

Progressive economists say the EITC alone cannot serve as a substitute for the immediate supports for the very poor—such as the long-term unemployed or people who can’t secure steady work over the course of the year. Sharon Parrott, Vice President for Budget Policy and Economic Opportunity with the CBPP, explains that the EITC alone cannot stabilize people struggling with structural hardships:

It is not designed to help people who are out of work or can’t work; it provides assistance in a single lump sum at the end of the year, so it doesn’t provide timely assistance when someone loses a job or gets sick and can’t work; and it isn’t large enough to help with certain kinds of very large expenses, such as Medicaid.

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Progressive economists contend that the EITC, while a vital income support, should be coupled with a higher minimum wage, which is a direct income boost that comes not in the form of an occasional credit from Uncle Sam but as the wages that your boss owes you for your labor—in other words, getting them to take responsibility as employers. The EITC would be one essential facet of a comprehensive welfare infrastructure—one that covers the whole spectrum of economic precarity—whether you just lost your job, or just lost your health insurance or lost your house to foreclosure.

Whatever setback they’ve encountered, poor people don’t need more “incentives” to lift themselves out of poverty, they need an opportunity to not be poor. And a boost from Uncle Sam once a year, while certainly welcome, isn’t enough to overcome the institutional social forces that weigh them down year round.

 

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Allies and Skeptics Alike Want Details From de Blasio

NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

This morning the New York Post carried a tough op-ed by Mona Davids, the president of the New York City Parents Union, calling on Mayor Bill de Blasio to put a fully fleshed education plan on the table. It read, in part:

Pre-K may be important, Mayor de Blasio, but then what? Too many elementary and middle schools are performing at a low level. It follows, therefore, that any gains that may result from the pre-K experience are likely to be lost by the third grade—and certainly by middle school. So, the question must be reiterated: Where’s the plan, Mr. Bill?

Davids is not the first to suggest that de Blasio would do well to talk more extensively about his vision for schools and detail the policies he will implement to reach it.

In last month’s damaging fight over charter relocations, de Blasio’s enemies capitalized on the fact that while the mayor, as a candidate, had made clear his skepticism about charters, he had not explained whether he wanted to phase them out altogether, change the role they played in the system, or what. De Blasio staunched the bleeding over charter schools with his speech at Riverside Church in late March, where he clarified his concerns and cooled the rhetoric about charters. But that talk still left a lot of policy questions open.

Don’t get me wrong: progressive advocates I’ve talked with are very pleased at the dramatic change in tone, approach and priority from the Bloomberg years. “Low-income people with HIV who got sick in city shelters are meeting with Lilliam,” says VOCAL-NY’s Sean Barry, referring to Deputy Mayor Lilliam Barrios-Paoli. Barry, whose organization claimed a huge victory in the city-state deal over HIV/AIDS housing, isn’t the only advocate who is still enjoying the novelty of having—at least for now—a consultive rather than combative relationship with City Hall.

Zakiyah Ansari, the advocacy director at the Alliance for Quality Education (AQE), says her group actually was able, at times, to work with rather than against the Bloomberg team. But de Blasio has still been a breath of fresh air: the mayor’s prioritizing pre-K and advocating vocally for the state to make good on the fiscal obligations it accepted under the Campaign for Fiscal Equity settlement were, Ansari says, “historic moments.” But it’d be good to hear more. “What we need him to do is put out a clear, robust and progressive vision for education and really articulate that,” she says. (Update: Mere hours after this post went up, the city school department made a major announcement about promotion policy that AQE’s Biull Easton hailed: “Mayor de Blasio’s administration is setting the right approach in motion by prioritizing real improvements in teaching and learning.”)

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Nor is education the only issue where people want to learn more. “He has to stop saying he’s going to build 200,000 units and start saying how he’s going to do it,” says one community organizer of the mayor’s housing plan.

Some of this impatience has nothing to do with de Blasio. Mayors don’t typically reveal all the details of all of their policies in their first 100 days in power, because they need to stagger the publicity, politicking and actual governing behind each initiative in order to avoid overloading the system. And mayoral campaigns, despite their exhausting length and enormous expense, do a poor job of teasing fine-grained details out of candidates—in part because of the fixation with sound-bites, and in part because most candidates are running with incomplete information and only grasp the fiscal and legal constraints on policymaking when they are behind the big desk.

However, some of the thirst for details has everything to do with de Blasio, or at least with what he represents. De Blasio’s slowness to make appointments means the administration simply hasn’t had the people in the room to make big policy decisions. His decision to make pre-K his absolute top priority over the first three months, while successful, naturally meant other topics got less attention.

Beyond that, de Blasio’s election encompassed a deep yearning for real change and his inauguration triggered a shift in the governing approach that has dominated the city for (depending on how you look at it) twelve to twenty years. That means there are very steep expectations and a long, long to-do list. De Blasio has made real progress in fulfilling promises—ending the FDNY suit, getting paid sick-leave expanded, achieving UPK funding. Now the targets get tougher.

Read Next: Poll finds most New Yorkers still undecided about de Blasio.