Dorry Clay is used to going it alone. She lost her job in the recession, then bounced back by starting her own graphic design business, and even soldiered through cancer treatment. But now that she’s saddled with debt and faces a shaky economy as a self-employed worker, she worries that her biggest struggle will come after she stops working—in retirement. “Financial pressures and growing debt have made retirement savings more a pipe dream than American dream,” Clay recently said in testimony at a Connecticut legislative hearing. “I shouldn’t have to work until I am 70 because I can’t afford to retire.”
Some Connecticut lawmakers have woken up to the issue; the state just passed a law to begin creating a public retirement system for private-sector workers. It would offer a novel statewide retirement benefit, funded through employer and employee contributions, that would be managed by the state and cover workers universally, regardless of whether they work for a big corporation or for themselves.
At a time when some state governments are panicking over public-pension crises, the idea of the government starting up a new retirement fund for private-sector workers may seem reckless. But actually, it’s a remarkably prudent investment—because it costs society less in the long run to help young workers save up today for a dignified life in retirement than to deal with their potential destitution in old age.
Faced with alarming rates of elderly poverty, New York City is also exploring ways to build a public nest egg for private-sector workers, with a new advisory panel on retirement security just launched by City Comptroller Scott Stringer. According to research by the New School’s Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis (SCEPA), many workers in the city are retiring to a precarious life just scraping by on social security and meager personal savings. Just 12 percent of New York metro area workers have a traditional pension plan (and those more generous benefits are far more prevalent among public-sector workers compared to private firms), 38 percent have a 401(k)-type savings scheme, and half have no work-based retirement plan at all.
Declining retirement-benefits coverage reflects overarching structural inequalities: black, Latino and Asian workers in New York City have lower retirement coverage rates compared to whites.
This trend portends massive economic deprivation for the aging population. While traditional pensions allow retirees to attain an income that’s about equivalent to their past earnings, non-pension workers, such as those with 401(k)s, generally see their income drop to about half of what they earned pre-retirement. Even those with hefty 401(k) accounts tend to contribute to inequality, wealthier people benefit more because they can save more, and in turn, get bigger tax breaks.
And the taxes rich people don’t pay aggravate the misery of poor retirees and the aging unemployed who have zero economic security after they stop working.
According to a SCEPA study on poverty among the aging unemployed, the portion of older jobless people living in extreme poverty climbed from 41 percent in mid-2009 to 54 percent in mid-2012, and about two-thirds of the older unemployed had no retirement savings.
The steady decay of retirement security reflects the erosion of labor’s economic and political clout. Historically, retirement, healthcare and other benefits were leveraged in labor negotiations, often in lieu of wage increases (a phenomenon dubbed as “wage deferral”). Now that the old-school pensions are going extinct, workers are left unprotected as the economy undermines their long-term and short-term financial security. And low-wage workers as a whole become increasingly desperate and lose even more leverage to negotiate for better benefits.
Meanwhile, the weakening of unions leaves future generations of workers even less secure, with less collective solidarity.
To deal with this downward spiral, SCEPA Director Teresa Ghilarducci explains via e-mail that in light of the structural burdens facing labor today ” all retirement policies should be aware of fundamental social deficits and distribution inequalities that frame people’s working lives…. Pension reform can’t raise pay, it must be a system that operates within the realities of the labor market.”
That’s where the state can intervene to protect the aging poor—with a publicly administered retirement benefit that builds on Social Security and isn’t tied to freewheeling markets. Under the Guaranteed Retirement Account model proposed by SCEPA, workers and employers both make regular contributions, with a government-guaranteed rate of return. As workers save incrementally, their contribution is offset partially by a tax credit, and after they retire, they receive a stable benefit at 3 percent rate of return, which supplements their Social Security income. The state saves money in administrative overhead because there are no heavy management fees such as often come with Wall Street–oriented 401(k) plans.
When this model is applied to a city like New York, SCEPA projects that a low-wage female worker, contributing 5 percent payments from her $25,000 annual income, would get a financial boost that would bring her income to roughly 63 percent of her pre-retirement earnings—a modest resource, but a major improvement on the 41 percent rate she would otherwise get from social security alone.
As a “public option” in retirement security, SCEPA’s plan has set a framework that California, Massachusetts and now Connecticut have used to design state-level retirement plans. It is much bolder than the White House’s newly proposed savings plan, MyRA, which basically offers a small-scale savings plan for non-covered workers. The problem with that plan, Ghilarducci says, is that it does not actively challenge the existing structure that relies on the often-predatory financial services industry, lacks the economies of scale of a truly universal plan and does not enlist the government as a manager and protector of the most precarious retirees.
And it turns out that this is better for everyone. Secure retirement for seniors helps stabilize the economy as a whole, because, as Economic Policy Institute explains, it gives workers a safe pathway out of the workforce, so they can “retire when jobs are scarce and shore up consumer demand during recessions.” Plus, the government will not have spend as much later on to shore up impoverished seniors, as retirees will be less likely to be driven into financial ruin, eviction or hunger.
The autumn years present a golden opportunity for lawmakers to revise the government’s social contract with its aging citizens. And it may be the state’s last chance to give the working poor something to look forward to, as they retire in an era of decline.
Last night, Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran narrowly defeated Tea Party challenger Chris McDaniel, in part by courting black voters. “Voting rights has been an issue of great importance in Mississippi,” Cochran said yesterday.
Black turnout increased significantly in yesterday’s runoff election, which helped Cochran win by 6,000 votes. “In Mississippi’s twenty-four counties with a majority black population, turnout increased an average of 40 percent over the primary,” reported The Washington Post.
In 2006, Cochran was one of ninety-eight Senators who voted unanimously to reauthorize the temporary provisions of the Voting Rights Act for another twenty-five years. But last year, Cochran applauded the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder invalidating Section 4 of the VRA, which freed states like Mississippi, with the worst history of voting discrimination, from having to approve their voting changes with the federal government under Section 5 of the act.
“I think our state can move forward and continue to ensure that our democratic processes are open and fair for all without being subject to excessive scrutiny by the Justice Department,” Cochran said.
Cochran was, in effect, celebrating a decision gutting a law that he supported just a few years earlier.
Today, on the first anniversary of the Shelby decision, the Senate Judiciary Committee held the first congressional hearing on the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014. Six months after its introduction in January, the new legislation to update the VRA has garnered modest bipartisan support in the House, thanks to former House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), but no GOP co-sponsors in the Senate. There are nineteen Republican Senators still serving who voted for the VRA in 2006, but none have stepped forward to sponsor the new bill.
Today’s hearing illustrated the new partisan divide when it comes to voting rights. Democrats on the Judiciary Committee and three civil rights advocates who testified—Texas State Senator Sylvia Garcia, Georgia NAACP president Francys Johnson and NAACP Legal Defense Fund President Sherrilyn Ifill—unanimously supported the modest VRA fix. “If the Voting Rights Act is not modernized, you are effectively ending the Second Reconstruction of the United States,” Johnson said.
Republicans on the Judiciary Committee and two critics of the VRA who testified—GOP lawyer Michael Carvin and Abigail Thernstrom of the American Enterprise Institute—unanimously opposed the legislation. “The decision in Shelby County was absolutely right,” Thernstrom said. “The statute had become a period piece.”
GOP senators and conservative witnesses maintained that Section 2 of the VRA is an adequate replacement for Section 5. Section 2, unlike Section 5, applies nationwide, but puts the burden of proof on plaintiffs to challenge a voting change, usually requiring lengthy litigation. Wisconsin’s voter ID law was blocked under Section 2, but the statute hasn’t been used much to challenge these new types of voting restrictions.
Civil rights advocates argued that Section 2 is no substitute for Section 5. “We reject the notion that the right to vote should be premised on a voter’s ability to find a lawyer and file a lawsuit,” Ifill said.
North Carolina, which two months after the Shelby decision passed the country’s toughest package of voting restrictions, is a good case study for the difference between Sections 2 and 5. As I explained last year:
Under Section 5 of the VRA—which SCOTUS paralyzed by invalidating the states covered under Section 4—North Carolina would have had to prove to the Justice Department or a three-judge court in Washington that its new law was not discriminatory. The burden of proof would have been on the state and the law would have been frozen until DOJ or the courts weighed in. Given the clear evidence of disparate racial impact in this case—African-Americans are 23 percent of registered voters in the state, but made up 29 percent of early voters in 2012, 34 percent of those without state-issued ID and 41 percent of those who used same-day registration—the law would have almost certainly been rejected.
Instead, voting rights groups had to sue North Carolina under Section 2 of the VRA, which applies nationwide but is much more cumbersome than Section 5. Now the burden of proof is on the plaintiffs to show evidence of discrimination and the law is in effect until the courts block it. Unless a federal judge in Winston-Salem grants a preliminary injunction in the summer of 2014, the new restrictions will be in place during the 2014 midterm elections (except for voter ID, which goes into effect in 2016). Those who have been discriminated against will have no recourse until after the election has been decided, when there’s a full trial in 2015, on the fiftieth anniversary of the VRA.
Texas, which has implemented a voter ID law found to be discriminatory by the federal courts under Section 5, is another glaring example of modern-day voting discrimination. Texas State Senator Garcia testified about Pasadena, Texas, which she represents.
In November 2013, voters in Pasadena—a city of 150,000 near Houston where Hispanics make up a third of the vote— narrowly backed a referendum changing how districts are drawn in the city. As SCOTUSblog reported, there were previously eight city council districts in Pasadena. But the amendment shrunk the number of districts to six, eliminating two predominantly Hispanic districts, while creating two citywide “at-large” seats that will be decided by the town’s white majority. It’s an example of the type of discriminatory voting change that would’ve likely been blocked by Section 5 of the VRA, but is now in effect as a result of the Shelby decision. “The Justice Department can no longer tell us what to do,” said Pasadena Mayor Johnny Isbell.
The Voting Rights Act has always enjoyed strong bipartisan support. But since Barack Obama’s election, GOP-controlled states have embarked on the most significant effort to restrict access to the ballot since Reconstruction—passing new voting restrictions in twenty-two states since 2010—and the bipartisan consensus for the VRA in Congress has collapsed.
As long as support for the VRA remains divided along partisan lines, there’s no chance that a new fix for the law will pass. As Rick Hasen first suggested, Senator Cochran would be a good candidate to step up and break the congressional logjam. Wrote The New Republic’s Alec MacGillis: “Is there any more fitting way for Thad Cochran to express recognition of the role that African-American voters played in his survival—in the face of threats of voter intimidation from his Republican opponent—than to guarantee that black voters in Mississippi and elsewhere are unencumbered in their access to the polls?”
Thad Cochran just did Democrats a favor.
Yes, yes, of course, the veteran Republican senator’s comeback win in Tuesday’s Mississippi Republican primary runoff made it a lot less likely that the Magnolia State will join Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana and North Carolina on the list of Southern states where Democrats could win Senate seats this fall. And, yes, that will make it harder for Democrats to hold their majority in the chamber.
But Cochran’s win taught a pair of lessons that Democrats must learn -- not as talking points but as a core concepts -- if they hope to secure positive results in November.
Lesson One: Turnout is definitional.
Lesson Two: Turnout can be substantially increased, even in the most difficult of circumstances, with focused energy, resources and messaging.
In the initial Mississippi Republican Senate primary, Cochran’s Tea Party–backed challenger, Chris McDaniel, narrowly led the conservative—yet relatively genteel—incumbent. McDaniel fell just short of winning 50 percent, however, and under Mississippi law a runoff was required between the top two finishers.
By most measures, that should have been the end of it for Cochran.
Runoffs usually attract lower voter turnout than initial primaries, and Tea Party candidates thrive in low-turnout contests—when the most extreme voters are the most likely to show up.
Cochran was advised to give up.
The strategy worked.
Instead of declining, turnout for the runoff increased. A lot.
Much of that spike came in counties with substantial African-American populations. Mississippi’s African-American population provides much of the base vote for the Democratic Party in the state. But under Mississippi law, Democrats can “cross over” and vote in Republican primaries and runoffs—just as Republicans can, and often have, voted in Democratic primaries and runoffs.
The crossover vote appears to have helped Cochran a good deal. As veteran political scientist Larry Sabato points out, “The Mississippi counties with a black population higher than the state’s county median saw turnout increase by 27 percent over the runoff, and Cochran won these counties by about 25,000 votes. Meanwhile, the counties with a black population lower than the median had a turnout increase of 13 percent, and McDaniel won these counties by about 19,000 votes. Cochran’s overall victory margin of nearly 6,400 votes is about the difference between those two numbers.”
In the first primary, Cochran battled McDaniel for right-wing votes, emphasizing his pro-gun record and social consevatism. In the runoff, however, Cochran switched to a more mainstream message that emphasized his support for federal programs that aid Mississippi and especially for education.
The senior senator also, as The New York Times reported, “attacked Mr. McDaniel for his vows of austerity.”
“Those attacks seemed to work with voters—at least enough to spook Democrats, and even some Republicans, who are accustomed to the protection and seniority of a long line of Congress members going back almost 100 years, including Senators John C. Stennis, James Eastland and Trent Lott and Representatives Sonny Montgomery and Jamie L. Whitten,” explained the Times.
Voters like Jeanie Munn, of Hattiesburg, came to the conclusion that—whatever they might think of Cochran—they needed to get to the polls to stop McDaniel and what they saw as “a threat to the state.”
Of course, McDaniel and his “Tea Party” allies cried foul—refusing even to concede the close race. Sarah Palin objected to the turnout "shenanigans" that saved Cochran. Their griping was rooted in the fact that their faction lost a “sure thing” election because the electorate grew.
The growth in voter turnout on Tuesday helped a mainstream conservative Republican win on Tuesday. But similar growth could help Democrats win in November.
By most measures, 2014 is going to be a tough year for Democrats. They are defending a lot more competitive Senate seats than the Republicans, as this is the election when senators elected on the Barack Obama wave of 2008 are up for re-election. They also face the daunting task of trying to win House seats that were redrawn to favor GOP candidates after the “Republican wave” election of 2010.
If turnout levels remain the same in 2014 as they were in 2010—roughly 38 percent of the voting age population cast ballots that year, according to the United States Election Project at George Mason University—this could be another “Republican wave” year.
No one expects that 2014 turnout will rival that of 2012.
But Thad Cochran has proven that focusing on turnout—with resources, organizing and a targeted message that highlights the threat posed by austerity-prone Republicans—can significantly increase voter participation in critical races. And that participation can change the electoral calculus.
If Democrats learn that lesson, they could rewrite the rules of the 2014 general election— just as Cochran rewrote the rules of the Mississippi runoff race.
Read Next: Zoë Carpenter on the US Supreme Court’s latest ruling on privacy
How weird, weird, weird is the Iraq-Syria civil war? Well, consider this: not only is the United States increasingly involved in military support to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Shiite-sectarian government, but it finds itself in direct military alliance not only with Iran but with Syria, too.
Unlike the United States, which supports the Baghdad government against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in Iraq but supports ISIS’ allies in the rebellion against Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Iran strongly backs both Maliki and Assad. Now Syria, which is battling not only ISIS but other Islamist fanatics in Syria who have US and Saudi support, is intervening militarily in Iraq in support of Maliki! According to the Associated Press:
A US official says there are indications Syria launched airstrikes into western Iraq yesterday to slow the al-Qaida-inspired insurgency fighting both the Syrian and Iraqi governments.… The US official said the strikes appear to be the work of the Assad government but offered no other details.
Meanwhile, The New York Times today carries an extensive account of Iran’s military support for the government of Iraq, including massive arms shipments, surveillance drones and military advisers:
Iran is directing surveillance drones over Iraq from an airfield in Baghdad and is secretly supplying Iraq with tons of military equipment, supplies and other assistance, American officials said. Tehran has also deployed an intelligence unit there to intercept communications, the officials said.
Rather hilariously, the Times quotes that noted geopolitical strategist, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) saying, “The Iranians are playing in a big way in Iraq.” Well, duh, senator: Iran has been active in Iraqi politics, military affairs, economics and intelligence since long before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, when the United States topped Iran’s chief enemy and handed Iraq over to the control of Shiite groups closely affiliated with Iran since the 1980s.
Running the show in Iraq for Iran is General Qassem Soleimani, who leads the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, its foreign intelligence arm. Soleimani is the coordinator of Iranian support for both Syria and Iraq against ISIS as well as against other Sunni-led forces supported by Saudi Arabia. And, according to the Times, Soleimani is less willing than some of Iran’s political leaders to cooperate with the United States. Indeed, those who believe that the United States can work with Iran in Iraq while opposing Iran in Syria ought to have their heads examined. The Iraq-Syria crisis is now a single war, and one can’t end without the other. That means that Washington has to sit down with Tehran to discuss Iraq and Syria simultaneously. And since the United States isn’t part of the neighborhood, Iran’s interests in the region—in having a nonthreatening, Iran-leaning government in Iraq and an ally in Syria that can work with the pro-Iranian Hezbollah in Lebanon—are paramount. Long distance, there’s not a lot that the United States can do about any of this, other than to seek a diplomatic accord among Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey that takes into account all three countries’ strategic needs.
Inside Iraq, a new political coalition could conceivably emerge to replace Maliki with a broader, more unifying government that could appeal to Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. But it’s hard to see that happening until the various parties test the limits of what they can win on the ground. The ISIS forces are every day getting more support from Sunni tribal military councils and the Baath party, especially in the battle for control of Iraq’s main oil refinery/power plant complex, while Maliki is falling back on Iranian support and on uncontrollable Shiite militias, including forces led by firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Meanwhile, the greedy Kurds—taking advantage of Baghdad’s weakness—have seized control of Kirkuk and no doubt plan further expansionism on the way to their imagined, but impossible, “independent Kurdistan.” (It’s sad to see The Nation publishing outright Kurdish propaganda, too.)
As long as Iraqi factions believe that they can win by fighting, the war will go on. In the end, perhaps some accord can be reached by which Iraq holds together, but that will depend on serious outreach by Baghdad to Sunnis (including the Baath party) and Kurds.
Read Next: Bob Dreyfuss, on the folly of helping Iraq’s shattered army.
In a broad, unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that police must have a warrant before searching a cellphone belonging to a person who’s been arrested.The ruling was particularly striking for the extent to which the Court went in affirming the idea that technological change demands a reconsideration of privacy protections—an assertion that could have big implications in the debate about the government’s data collection programs.
“Modern cellphones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans ‘the privacies of life,’” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts. “The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought. Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple—get a warrant.”
The ruling covered two cases in which police used information found on arrestees’ cellphones to tie them to a crime. In the first, David Riley was pulled over for driving with expired registration tags, and was subsequently found to have a suspended license and concealed handguns under the hood of his car. When officers searched the smart phone in his back pocket they discovered photos and other information tying him to the Bloods gang. Police traced the guns to an earlier shooting, for which Riley was later convicted; his prison sentence was “enhanced” because of his gang connection.
In the second case, police officers searched a regular flip phone belonging to a man named Brima Wurie, who’d been observed making a drug deal. Officers traced a number listed in Wurie’s phone as “my house” to an apartment complex, which they obtained a warrant to search, finding crack cocaine, weapons and cash.
Both plaintiffs argued that the warrantless phone searches violated their Fourth Amendment rights to be “secure in their persons, houses, papers or effects.” Legal precedent has granted police some leeway for searching an arrestee and the area within his reach, primarily to check for weapons and to keep evidence from being destroyed. But privacy advocates argued that because cellphones now contain vast troves of personal data—“well over a football field’s length of books” in some cases, according to one brief—searching them constitutes a breach of privacy serious enough to demand a warrant.
The Court concurred. “The sum of an individual’s private life can be reconstructed through a thousand photographs labeled with dates, locations, and descriptions; the same cannot be said of a photograph or two of loved ones tucked into a wallet,” Roberts wrote. “Indeed, a cell phone search would typically expose to the government far more than the most exhaustive search of a house.”
According to the ruling, police may inspect a phone to make sure it’s not concealing a weapon, but generally they may not look through its contents without a warrant.
The fact that the Court passed over several suggested rulings that were much more limited in their defense of civil liberties is particularly striking. There was some speculation that the Court might make a distinction between the two cases based on the type of phone, and create separate rules for searches of smart phones and conventional phones. The Court rejected such a distinction, as well as the government’s suggestion that officers be allowed to search phones in cases where they believe it contains evidence of the crime for which its owner was arrested, or that they only be allowed to search areas of the phone which they “reasonably” believe to have information about a crime. In a blunt rebuke, Roberts argued that those standards “would prove no practical limit at all when it comes to cellphone searches.”
Beyond criminal justice, the ruling may have significant implications for the government’s surveillance activities. A thirty-five-year old Supreme Court ruling known as Smith v. Maryland, which found that records held by a third party (like a phone company) are not protected by the Fourth Amendment, has been used to justify many forms of surveillance, including tracking a cellphone’s location and the National Security Agency’s dragnet phone records program. In recent years, several judges have argued that the precedent set by Smith does not make sense in the digital age.
The Supreme Court’s ruling on cellphone searches casts yet more doubt on Smith’s role in the age of big data. Based on the Smith ruling, the government had argued that officers should always be able to search a phone’s call log, just as they searched Wurie’s. The Court resoundingly rejected that suggestion: “There is no dispute here that the officers engaged in a search of Wurie’s cell phone. Moreover, call logs typically contain more than just phone numbers; they include any identifying information that an individual might add, such as the label ‘my house’ in Wurie’s case.”
Critics of government surveillance were quick to note the ruling could be significant in the debate over data collection. “The next step, in my view, is to treat GPS information the same way,” Senator Ron Wyden said in a statement. “I aim to use this decision as a springboard to secure greater privacy rights in the days ahead.”
Read Next: Zoe Carpenter on Bowe Bergdahl and conscientious objection.
The real bridge scandal that may lose Christie the chance to be a GOP contender in 2016—not the G.W. Bridge lane closure fiasco of last September but an earlier one related to a different span, the Pulaski Skyway—just isn’t news, according to MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough. The TV motormouth, who rose to prominence in 1994 as part of Newt Gingrich’s Contract-on-America right-wing revolt that took control of the US House of Representatives, is annoyed over the fact that the media are paying attention to the panoply of scandals surrounding Christie, including the GWB; the tangle of conflict-of-interest scandals around the Port Authority and its disgraced chairman, David Samson; and a series of Christie money grabs that looted the PA to pay for New Jersey road projects.
But Scarborough’s annoyance is misplaced. In his MSNBC rant, Scarborough called The New York Times’ coverage of the Pulaski Skyway a “scam” and something that “outrages conservatives.” In fact, however, the Times, which reported yesterday on its front page about the Pulaski Skyway story, is late to the party, since that story has been reported extensively by investigations from the Bergen Record and by Main Justice, and, earlier this month and, back in May, by Christie Watch, too.
So Scarborough ought to be criticizing the Times for being slow to report what is, in fact, the issue that might bring Christie down: namely, that both the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Manhattan district attorney are investigating the legality of Christie’s apparently illegal diversion of Port Authority funds to rebuild the Pulaski.
Back in 2011 Christie cancelled a long-planned tunnel project linking New York and New Jersey, and he was determined to use the $1.8 billion that the PA had allocated for the tunnel to pay for internal New Jersey road and bridge projects, including the Pulaski Skyway. The alternative was a gas tax increase—and raising taxes, any taxes, is the kiss of death for a Republican presidential hopeful.
But, as the Times notes, Christie ran into opposition from PA lawyers:
Again and again, Port Authority lawyers warned against the move: The Pulaski Skyway, they noted, is owned and operated by the state, putting it outside the agency’s purview, according to dozens of memos and emails reviewed by investigators and obtained by The New York Times. But the Christie administration relentlessly lobbied to use the money for the Skyway, with Mr. Christie announcing publicly that the state planned to rely on Port Authority funds even before an agreement was reached. Eventually, the authority justified the Skyway repairs by casting the bridge as an access road to the Lincoln Tunnel, even though they are not directly connected…The accuracy of this characterization is now a major focus of the investigations, according to several people briefed on the matter.
As already noted, much of what the Times reported—the objections by PA lawyers, the pressure from Christie administration officials on them to find some basis to approve the funding, the decision of the SEC and the Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance to investigate—has already been reported by the Bergen Record, Main Justice, and Christie Watch.
The Bergen Record, in March, first printed excerpts of numerous memos and emails between PA lawyers and Christie administration officials in which PA lawyers warned that the Pulaski Skyway was not part of the PA’s jurisdiction. It was in fact an access roadway for the Holland Tunnel, which was built before the PA and roads leading to it are not entitled to PA repair funds. Christie’s point man at the PA, deputy executive director Bill Baroni, put the screws to PA lawyers, as the Record noted:
Chris Hartwyk, former deputy general counsel at the Port Authority, wrote that justifying the projects by claiming the roadways were connections to the Holland Tunnel, as the governor previously stated, would be “difficult if not impossible” because of the wording of existing laws. The Holland Tunnel was already built when the Port Authority inherited it in 1931, so the law didn’t permit the Port Authority to build approaches. “It’s evident to say, but we gotta figure this out,” Baroni, who was looped into the discussion, wrote the same day.”
So, as the Record noted, PA lawyers christened the Pulaski Skyway and related roads as access highways to the Lincoln Tunnel, which was entitled to PA funds, even though that tunnel is miles from the Skyway. In an editorial on the subject yesterday, the Newark Star-Ledger notes that one of its reporters asked cab drivers at Newark’s airport if they’d use the Skyway to get to the Lincoln Tunnel, with hilarious results.)
The Times article does expand on the quotes and excerpts from e-mails between PA lawyers and Christie administration officials showing the pressure exerted to get the PA to provide a justification for the funding, adding new details on the role of two other officials:
In meetings, emails and letters between November 2010 and February 2011, administration officials including James Simpson, the New Jersey transportation commissioner, and Richard Bagger, the governor’s chief of staff, continued to press the Port Authority for funding. Mr. Baroni wrote that Port Authority lawyers could find “absolutely no support” for repairing the Skyway.
The Times reports that among those subpoenaed by Vance was Jeffrey Chiesa, who was Christie’s chief counsel, when the PA lawyers were being pressed to find a legal reason to fund the Skyway. But the Times doesn’t mention that later as Attorney General he signed off on other papers making clear that the PA was the sole funder of the Pulaski repairs.
And while the Times notes that the PA memos questioning the legality of the PA-Pulaski deal were given to Deborah Gramiccioni, then the director of the governor’s authorities unit, they didn’t report that she too has been subpoenaed. Gramiccioni is now deputy executive director of the PA, picked by Christie to replace Bill Baroni, after he was forced to resign for his role in the GW Bridge lane closures. She told the Times that “the administration ‘did everything in our power’ to avoid placing pressure on the Port Authority by asking the attorney general’s office to work directly with agency lawyers.”
However, as Christie Watch detailed earlier, the Authorities Unit she headed operated as the governor’s eyes and ears at the various independent agencies, implementing his agenda, and we noted that “a feature on Gramiccioni in The Philadelphia Inquirer when she headed the Authorities Unit made clear she was an enforcer for the governor.” Said the Inquirer:
“We’re asking more questions than ever before, and that is taking a number of these authorities by surprise,” said Gramiccioni, who talks in rapid-fire bursts punctuated by wide smiles. The result? “Angry defiance has become the norm in my world…” Gramiccioni is most like her boss in one way: She relishes a good rumble. “I have very thick skin, I’m prepared for a fight, and I know how to go on offense when necessary,” she said. “I go to sleep at night knowing the next day is going to be another battle. And I look forward to it.”
In its editorial, the Star-Ledger concludes:
But Christie was following his own road map. This was all part of a grand plan to make him into a major player in Republican politics. Yet once again, his big ambition may have led to a big mistake.
Read Next: Christie panders to the Christian right at “Faith and Freedom” event.
As Iraq blows up (again) and tensions rise in the Ukraine and in the South China Sea, the United States’ debate is focused on military intervention. Neoconservatives, having learned nothing from the debacle they caused in Iraq, indict the president for not intervening in Syria and for leaving Iraq. Liberal interventionists, having learned nothing from the calamities now visited on Libya, call for modulated bombing in both. The beleaguered administration sends planes to the Baltic states and Poland, ships to Asia, token troops to Baghdad, sustains hundreds of bases around the globe and is accused of withdrawing from the world. Commentators fret over whether the war-weariness of the American people will keep the “indispensable nation” from doing what must be done.
When you have a hammer, as the adage goes, everything looks like a nail. The United States’ hammer is the most sophisticated military in the world—and nails appear in infinite variety across the globe.
Virtually absent from the debate is any awareness of how much the United States’ commitment to police the world detracts from dealing with the real security needs of its people and the globe. Last week, Richard Trumka, president of the AFLCIO, delivered a short address that reminded us of what is being lost in the muscle flexing.
Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.
Read Next: How many times do neocons get to be wrong about Iraq before we stop listening?
This is not a pro–Luis Suárez column. This is not an article in defense of his taking a chomp out of Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini during Uruguay’s 1-0 World Cup victory. This is not a piece that will make apologies for Mr. Suárez, who has some longstanding issues when it comes to getting peckish with opponents, so much so, it was reported that 167 people won a “prop bet” that he would bite someone during the World Cup.
Suárez should be suspended because what he did should not be a part of the sport and is, frankly, kind of gross. But for the sports media to climb their branded pulpits and say that Suárez demands suspension precisely because young, impressionable, wide-eyed youngsters the world over would emulate him and start adopting a particular kind of paleo diet on the pitch, is absurd.
Hopefully, it goes without saying that if your kid is biting people, they probably have issues that need addressing above and beyond just their affection for Luis Suárez. But all that aside, there is something so profoundly noxious about the thought of Boss Sepp Blatter and FIFA doing anything for anyone’s children, and being permitted to bathe themselves in that particular kind of sanctimonious light.
This is an organization that loves children when they are needed for commercials or to release “doves of peace” before an international audience. But when the cameras are away, its record is less dovish and more akin to vultures. FIFA has long cared for children only insofar as they show up to work on time to stitch the very balls kicked around the pitch. The organization, which is a stakeholder in soccer equipment produced the world over, has held a public opposition to child labor since 1997. Yet even its own commitment to “raising awareness of and attempting to curb child labour” has left a great deal to be desired.
In 2010, right before the World Cup in South Africa, the International Labor Rights Forum released a report titled “Missed the Goal for Workers: the Reality of Soccer Ball Stitchers.” The study outlined how child labor in sweat shop conditions was still a part of the FIFA production line in Pakistan, India, China and Thailand, concluding, “The existence of child labour and other labour abusive practices were found to varying degrees in all four FIFA licensed supply chains.”
Ineke Zeldenrust from the Clean Clothes Campaign said in the report, “As fans worldwide get excited about the games, the public expects FIFA and the soccer ball industry to finally live up to its promises.”
But at least FIFA gives lip service and even throws some money at organizations that aim to curb the use of child labor. It says and does nothing about the children of Brazil getting removed from their homes or having them occupied militarily in the name of World Cup security. These children are the invisible casualties of the World Cup, victimized by FIFA’s security and stadium demands as well as the Brazilian government’s efforts to use these mega-events as a way to displace impoverished communities that sit upon valuable land. In one destroyed favela I visited, the wreckage of a child’s toys was all that was identifiable amidst the rubble. As families are compelled to move with little time and preparation, it was stunning to see what was left behind. Then there are the favelas that are still standing but are occupied by the police and military for the duration of the World Cup. A 14-year-old boy suspected of robbery was reported to have been shot and killed by Brazil’s military police after being taken into custody.
The Suárez incident for me highlights less that a player has a biting problem than the fact that international soccer is run by vampires. It highlights the need for a body that oversees international soccer that doesn’t do symbolic acts “for the children,” while aiding and abetting the robbery of their childhoods. It showcases the need for new leadership and new principles to guide the beautiful game. Sepp Blatter and company may lower the boom on Luis Suárez’s biting, but it will only serve to highlight the fact that they are all bark. On issues that require real leadership, FIFA is actually part of the problem.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on the invisibility of indigenous people in sports
Click here to jump directly to Reed Richardson.
My most recent Nation column is about punditry and Bill de Blasio’s fiscal stewardship of the city and is called “Can a Liberal Mayor Be Financially Responsible?”
I also did a piece about the current (horrific) state of Iraq punditry for Billmoyers.com and it’s called “Eric Alterman Warns: Pundits and Partisans Are Up to Old Tricks in Iraq.”
And I wrote a letter to the NYTBR about the Allman Brothers Band, no really, I did.
Also, there were three letters about me in The Nation this week. I suck according to one of them, but am cool according to the other two. They are printed below.
1) Carlene Carter live at the Cutting Room and on cd
2) Hot Tuna and Leon Russell at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester
3) Elvis Costello at Carnegie Hall
4) Led Zeppelin I-III remastered.
* Carlene Carter has had quite the life. Daughter of Carl Smith and June Carter, step-daughter to the Man in Black and a singer with The Carter Family, while at the same time, becoming pregnant and married at 15 (and now boasting seven grandchildren), she’s kind of a country song without even opening up her mouth.
I saw her sing in Montreux with her then-husband Nick Lowe and Rockpile (in a bill with Mink Deville and Elvis Costello) and she was quite something back then and her mouth made her persona non-grata in Nashville. Today she is quite something else (as is Nashville, come to think of it). A pretty orthodox country singer, she is embracing her heritage and her extended family’s honored place in the music. Supported by her husband Joe Breen on vocals and another guy who she said was also her roadie, she gave a charming performance at the Cutting Room, a short while back in support of her fine album, “Carter Girl,” which naturally features her stepdad’s old friends, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, and the excellent Elizabeth Cook, produced by Don Was. It’s old and new at the same time and almost always in good ways. (And I got to go with the beautiful and talented Tammy Faye Starlite [playing her charming self].)
* I also made it out to Port Chester, where promoter Peter Shapiro has remade (and re-imagined) the rock hall of my misspent youth, the Capitol Theater. It’s gorgeous now and the sound is spectacular. Leon Russell did a decent set of mostly rock standards with a few Leon Russell songs thrown in, before Jack and Jorma came on just before ten. Barry Mitterhoff was oddly absent—to me he has been just as much a part of the band as those guys for the past decade (at least)—but Larry Clark and his wife Teresa were on hand and the band sounded nice and full on the pretty songs like “I See the Light,” and “Sugaree,” which is becoming a standard among jam bands. They sounded noisy as hell on their power trio stuff like “Rock Me, Baby.” (I lack the words to say how much I prefer former, but I appear to be in a minority of Tuna fans in that regard.) They did not do any Airplane songs, but it’s a marvelous thing if you live in the burbs, to be able to drop by so beautiful a hall and see a show like that. I’m not sure they deserve it. But anyway, Jack and Jorma have a new website with lots of HD recordings for sale, among other things, and you can find that here. If you want to see the impressive schedule a the Capitol, or just ogle the hall, you can do that here.
* Elvis Costello played Carnegie Hall debut as a headliner for the first time this week. I saw him Tuesday night. (I say “as a headliner” because he did join Spinal Tap there in 2001, "Gimme Some Money.”)
It was, in many respects, a pretty remarkable performance. Elvis surrounded on the big, formal stage by six guitars and a keyboard, Elvis played song after song after song, alone on stage for over two hours. He ran the gamut of his forty-or-so year songwriting career and the audience proved enormously appreciative even from way up in the cheap seats. Dressed in a black suit and black shirt with a white fedora, Elvis told stories and sang his heart out (so to speak) and you wouldn’t think his voice has the range it does--at least emotionally, but he certainly took his material seriously. Old fart that I am, I enjoyed the oldest material the best--scorching versions of “Watching the Detectives” and “I Want You” and a lovely “Allison.” The only cover—“You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”—sounded like old, angry Elvis rather than avuncular, dad-of-twins Elvis of today.
* What is there to be said about Led Zep after all this time. They invented a genre, revolutionized stadium shows, sold 300 million records, behaved really badly especially with fish and groupies around if legend is to be believed. My friends at Rhino have just released deluxe editions of their first three albums remastered by Jimmy Page in various versions that include:
-Single CD - Remastered album packaged in a gatefold card wallet.
-Deluxe Edition (2CD) - Remastered album, plus a second disc of unreleased companion audio.
-Single LP - Remastered album on 180-gram vinyl, packaged in a sleeve that replicates the LP's first pressing in exacting detail. (For example, III will feature the original wheel and die cut holes.)
-Deluxe Edition Vinyl - Remastered album and unreleased companion audio on 180-gram vinyl.
-Digital Download - Remastered album and companion audio will both be available.
-Super Deluxe Boxed Set - This collection includes:
—Remastered album on CD in vinyl replica sleeve.
—Companion audio on CD in card wallet.
—Remastered album on 180-gram vinyl in a sleeve replicating first pressing.
—Companion audio on 180-gram vinyl.
—High-def audio download card of all content at 96kHz/24 bit. (Live tracks are 48kHz/24 bit).
—Hard bound, 70+ page book filled with rare and previously unseen photos and memorabilia.
—High quality print of the original album cover, the first 30,000 of which will be individually numbered.
—Led Zeppelin will also include a replica of the band's original Atlantic press kit.
I got the deluxe cd versions. How do they sound today? Well, pretty great, though I did not a/b them with the old versions, and anyway, I imagine it’s impossible to recreate the shock of 1969 when they were blowing up speakers in everybody’s basement rec room. The first album comes with a hitherto unreleased 1969 show from Paris with a15-minute version of "Dazed And Confused,” and a much too long “Moby Dick.” (Though to be fair, all versions of “Moby Dick” are much too long.)
The other two cds have alternate mixes and backing tracks but just a smidgen of unreleased songs and no new live performances. Even so, if you’re a fan of the band, you’ll find these irresistible and if you’re not, well, it’s right place to start and see if you still feel that way. For my money “Immigrant Song” is one of the half dozen great riffs of all time, just a notch below “Layla,” “Satisfaction,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” and “Born to Run,” (and I also love “Drive My Car,” but that may be a bit more subjective). Anyway, you get two versions here.
Here are those Nation letters I mentioned above:
Thank you for this outstanding issue, featuring Edward Snowden, Elizabeth Warren, Robert Reich and Eric Alterman. Yes, “there’s no place like Washington,” as Alterman says in “Obama’s Pundit Problem”; but there is, thankfully, also no publication like The Nation—and no one like Alterman to speak truth to power and to those of us without power who long for the truth. He’s the only journalist I trust; he takes up and articulates my causes—always something I believe in, know to be true, and care about, but am too… impotent to take on. I depend on him and on The Nation.
Kudos to Eric Alterman for speaking truth to pundits like Maureen Dowd. Her use of the president’s first name from his youth, as in the cited headline (Is Barry Whiffing?), has always struck me as belittling, meanspirited and unbecoming in a supposedly serious writer. It was overdue that Alterman, a professional colleague, spoke out. He reminded us as well about how complex a president’s tasks are, carried out in the face of unending Republican recalcitrance (and/or racism). Thank you, Mr. Alterman.
CHARLES B. GREENBERG, MURRYSVILLE, PA.
Too bad that the writings of Eric Alterman on the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement [“Letters,” May 26] and the FLAME ads that often appear in the magazine are nearly indistinguishable. Eric has been so helpful on so many other subjects; it is a real pity to see him so wrong on BDS. It reminds me of the defenders of South Africa and the “constructive engagement” of Reagan.
MICHAEL KOIVULA, SPRINGFIELD, ORE.
The Media’s Disappearing of Syria’s Chemical Weapons Program and Why It Matters
by Reed Richardson
In Syria, the Obama administration just achieved an unprecedented foreign policy success in WMD nonproliferation, but you likely didn't hear about it. Nine months after entering into joint negotiation with the Russians and Syria’s tyrannical President Bashar al-Assad, the last of that country’s 1,300 tons of declared chemical weapons began a journey to a chemical weapons-eating ship in the Mediterranean for destruction by the US. This follows the rapid destruction of all of Syria’s chemical munitions last fall. And while a dozen chemical weapon facilities inside Syria still remain to be destroyed, Ahmet Üzümcü, Director-General of teh Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), was uncharacteristically upbeat about what the US-brokered deal had just accomplished in the middle of the Syrian civil war:
The mission to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons programme has been a major undertaking marked by an extraordinary international cooperation. Never before has an entire arsenal of a category of weapons of mass destruction been removed from a country experiencing a state of internal armed conflict. And this has been accomplished within very demanding and tight timeframes.
This successful dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons program by the US has been matched by an almost as successful disappearing of the news of it by the Beltway media, however. What there was of so-called straight news coverage felt strangely perfunctory. While the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and New York Times did run their own articles about the final handoff of Syrian chemical weapons, they hardly gave it front-page treatment. The LA Times’ story ran on page A3 on Tuesday; the Post and the NY Times stories ran on Monday, on pages A6 and A8, respectively. But that looked like flooding the zone compared to cable news coverage. A search of Fox News and CNN archives turns up no on-air discussion of the news and only a single online story each (Fox News merely ran the AP wire story). MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow did do a short, smart segment on the implications of this diplomatic triumph on Monday, but, notably, all three nightly news broadcasts simply ignored the news that same evening.
To be fair, foreign bureaus of U.S. news organizations are routinely stretched thin, especially right now thanks to the concurrent rise of the violent ISIS uprising in Iraq, which has consumed most of the overseas media oxygen. But there’s little doubt that this disinterest is also fueled by a broader narrative bias that has captured the DC conventional wisdom of late—the portrayal of the Obama foreign policy as weak and incompetent. Indeed, it’s telling that the Obama administration’s striking, nonproliferation success in Syria has been met with such a deafening silence by so many of the same Beltway pundits and politicians who loudly scoffed at Obama’s plan last September.
Case in point: Senate Republican hawks like Bob Corker, John McCain, and Lindsey Graham. The ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Corker called the deal a “complete failure” as recently as three months ago. As for the Bomb-sey twins McCain and Graham, in their never-ending pursuit of applying US military materiel to every problem overseas, they blasted the administration’s chemical weapons deal as “provocative weakness” and a “diplomatic blind alley” before the ink was dry. “We cannot imagine a worse signal to send to Iran as it continues its push for a nuclear weapon,” the pair boldly declared in a press release last September. Now that Assad has signed onto the Chemical Weapons Convention and handed over his chemical weapons to a strong multi-lateral alliance, has anyone from the press bothered to ask McCain or Graham if they still feel the deal sends the wrong message to Iran? But you know the answer to this already.
Linking Iran to Syria has been a frequent tactic among opponents of the deal, and no one has done so with quite the white-hot vigor as the Washington Post’s resident Iranophobe, Jennifer Rubin. “Gone is the demonstration of resolve meant to signal seriousness about chemical weapons,” Rubin wrote at the time of the deal. “Gone is any deterrent effect to Iran.” In May, when the removal of Syria’s chemical weapons hit a temporary snag, she leapt to the conclusion that: “Assad has demonstrated for the world, and especially for his overlords in Tehran, that you can use WMDs, stay in power, promise to give them up and then keep some.”
So what, pray tell, was Rubin’s response to the good news from this past weekend? Close to panic, especially since Syria’s WMD capitulation inconveniently arrived just weeks before the final deadline of the P5+1 negotiations over Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. In a ridiculous column titled “Who is the Nonproliferation President?”, Rubin skates right by the success in Syria, instead making the Orwellian claim that Obama has actually “lost ground” when it comes to nonproliferation and that Iran will benefit from his supposed callousness.
Incredibly, she chooses to do this by contrasting Obama’s record with that of his predecessor, in a ham-fisted attempt to rehabilitate President George W. Bush’s foreign policy reputation. You remember Bush, the guy who helped ignite a Sunni-Shia sectarian civil war and introduce the precursor of ISIS into Iraq when he invaded it based on phony intelligence about anon-existent WMD program. As opposed to the current president, who wisely did not insert US troops into the midst of a Sunni-Shia sectarian civil war in Syria and yet who still managed to end that country’s very real WMD program.
This is patently silly, which is why Rubin must resort to some breathtaking leaps in logic. First and foremost, she commits a giant sin of omission, having the gall to tout Bush’s nonproliferation record without ever mentioning a little country called North Korea, the negligent handling of which ranks as perhaps the biggest nonproliferation foreign policy mistake in a generation. (Even neocon Fred Kaplan called Bush’s failed North Korea policy “Rolling Blunder.”) Then there’s her consistent ability to obfuscate historical facts to misinform her readers. For example, she characterizes Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s decision to voluntarily give up WMDs as vindication of Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. In truth, the real trigger behind Gadhafi’s decision was the seizure of physical evidence of his WMD program by British and US intelligence as part of an international nonproliferation initiative. One not dissimilar to the cooperative effort that just got Syria to give up their WMD program as well. Funny, that.
This deception matters because Rubin, along with most of the other Beltway critics of Obama’s Mideast foreign policy, have always hedged their bets on the Syria deal, never doubting it would not work, but dismissing it as pointless, just in case. This group, I’d note, does not include Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom Rubin typically defends against all comers. On Meet the Press this past Sunday, Netanyahu said Obama struck a “good deal” in negotiating the demise of Syria’s chemical weapons. (I’d love to read Rubin’s denunciation of Bibi’s dangerous naiveté, but I’m not holding my breath.) Instead, she and others argue that the deal does little to achieve the ouster of Assad and ameliorate the humanitarian crisis of the war. Furthermore, they note that, as an alternative, the regime has simply turned to weaponizing industrial chemicals like chlorine gas—which are not banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention—in “barrel bomb” attacks on rebels and civilians. These are valid points, but here too, they demonstrate a startling narrow view of foreign policy strategy.
For one, these critics never acknowledge that Assad’s use of chlorine gas in this crude manner, while horrible, is much less effective than deploying military-grade chemical weapons and, as defense experts have noted, smacks of desperation. Nor do these same hawks consider the potential value of OPCW inspectors—who are still on the ground in Syria—collecting contemporaneous proof of Assad’s war crimes. Gathering this kind of evidence could present an opportunity to charge Assad in international court and/or exert further diplomatic pressure on Russia and Iran to push their client-state into a ceasefire.
The preferred neoconservative alternative of US-led airstrikes, though satisfying the Beltway’s empty, knee-jerk need for “leadership,” would have been no guarantee of success, either. In fact, that was a point repeatedly made by the U.S. military’s top officer last summer. Indeed, it likely would have only hardened the resolve of Russia and Iran, exacerbated the potential for collateral carnage by the US, and no doubt slammed shut the chance for an orderly removal of WMDs. Why is this last point particularly important? Because the successful removal of all of Syria’s chemical weapons stores and munitions has now eliminated a nightmare scenario where extremist groups like ISIS capture them, either by chance or through a full-on successful coup of Assad.
If that seems unlikely, consider that the former scenario almost happened last week, when ISIS insurgents gained control over one of Saddam Hussein’s old chemical weapons complexes at Muthanna in southern Iraq. Fortunately, post-Desert Storm inspections carried out by UNSCOM—a kind of prototype for the OPCW—had rendered all of these weapons useless years ago, long before Bush invaded. (Of course, this story still led some of the dimmer bulbs among the right-wing media to mistakenly declare that ISIS had just proved Bush’s claims about Iraqi WMDs were right all along.)
Tragically, this powerful lesson from Iraq, and now from Syria—that diplomatic efforts can often accomplish what a military attack never could—still hasn't sunk in among the armchair generals of the Beltway. Thanks to an admixture of institutional and ideological biases, our foreign policy debate remains dangerously out of whack in the press. Diplomatic triumphs rarely make the front page or get discussed on air, yet war cheerleaders can write endless op-eds and enjoy a lifetime pass to cable news green rooms. It’s no great shock, then, that many of the same pundits who disastrously predicted an easy triumph in Iraq more than a decade ago are still around. Even less surprising, that they were once again proven wrong by Obama’s chemical weapons triumph in Syria this past week.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com. I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
Democrats have made women’s issues—specifically, women’s kitchen-table economic issues—a centerpiece of their stump speeches heading into the 2014 midterm elections. In the wake of the last election, when unmarried women comprised an unprecedented quarter of the electorate, this emphasis reflects a hard political calculus. But can women translate their newfound electoral clout into concrete policy gains? Do the Democratic Party’s ties to corporate America hamper its ability to deliver on feminist goals (such as paid family leave) that the business community has historically resisted? What about the limits imposed on the Democrats by the intransigent opposition of the increasingly radicalized Republicans? What legislative goals can feminists conceivably achieve in Washington in the foreseeable future? To what extent, in other words, can capitalism accommodate equality for women, in the present political configuration? And how can this knowledge of the “limits of the possible” inform feminist activism?
Our participants are Bryce Covert, Nation blogger and economic policy editor for ThinkProgress; Liza Featherstone, a journalist based in New York City and contributing editor to The Nation; Zerlina Maxwell a political analyst and contributing editor to Ebony.com, Feministing.com and more; Deirdre McCloskey, Distinguished Professor of Economics, History, English and Communication at University of Illinois at Chicago and libertarian feminist; and me, Kathleen Geier, your host at The Curve. This time we asked our participants to exchange e-mails, producing the conversation below.
Bryce Covert: Hi, everyone! Excited to talk with all of you.
There are workplace issues that affect women that Democrats could solve without incurring costs or the wrath of the business community. National paid family leave could be instituted as a social insurance program that wouldn’t cost businesses anything and would cost the government just what it takes to administrate the program. Paid sick leave has come with little business cost in the cities and states that have implemented it and brings some financial benefits. Republicans, nonetheless, have stood staunchly in the way of both, proving that it’s not just businesses or a limited deficit that they’re protecting but something else—“free markets,” perhaps, and a workplace out of the 1960s.
But some much-needed policies have to cost money. Raising the minimum wage won’t be free of costs for businesses: research differs on how much and what it would mean, but we know it won’t be totally free. We desperately need universal, high-quality childcare and preschool, but that’s very costly. Some Democrats are willing to pony up the money, and President Obama has proposed paying for universal preschool with tobacco taxes. But fiscal hawks or anti-tax Democrats will wither at the challenge. Other policies would require handing businesses mandates: quotas for diversity among top leadership, regular reviews of pay scales to make sure women and people of color aren’t being unfairly paid less.
In the end, what stands in the way of even incremental progress is a Republican party uninterested in legislating. But even if they came on board, some of the policies that require spending money or ordering businesses to change their practices might not get any traction from our Democratic allies.
If feminists want to make significant gains for women, we will need to support political alternatives to the mainstream of either party.
Liza Featherstone: The Democrats are like pickup artists at a bar—women only give them the time of day when the other guys are even more pathetic. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is typical, making cynical use of the abortion issue (“Hey, baby, at least I’m pro-choice.”), while supporting education policies that amount to a full-on attack on a mostly-female workforce (teachers), and opposing just about any policy that the business community doesn’t like. If feminists want to make significant gains for women, we will need to support political alternatives to the mainstream of either party, and to build institutions that are independent of corporate America.
This approach already looks promising in some cities and states. Pressure from the Working Families Party—which briefly flirted with a primary challenge to Cuomo– seems to have forced the governor to support raising the statewide minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, and to allow local governments to set their minimum wages higher than that. (We’ll see if he sticks to this.) Even better, Seattle, due to the work of newly elected Socialist City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant, has raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour. And because Sawant and her party are independent of the business community, they’re fighting to close the many loopholes that Democrats have permitted in the new law. Reforms like childcare and paid family leave—and labor law reform making it easier to organize the low-wage sectors in which so many women work—will also require this kind of thinking and organizing beyond the Democratic Party.
Sure, some Democratic politicians will get on board—and many more will loudly remind us that they’re better than Republicans—but to get what we want, we have to be willing to kick the party and its leaders to the curb.
Zerlina Maxwell: One of the preliminary steps we should take in framing this discussion is to break down what we mean by “women voters.” The gender gap does not affect all women equally; those most affected by the gender gap are women of color and single women. With this breakdown in mind, it becomes very clear that not every economic issue for women is created equal. If Democrats, really want to shape policy and messaging that addresses key concerns of women of color, they need to first acknowledge that all women don’t have the same concerns and “a rising tide lifts all boats” isn’t persuasive.
There are Democratic leaders in the White House, like Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett, and in Congress, namely House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, who are already sounding the alarm on work-life balance issues that affect everyday women. They’re working now to get women’s concerns on the immediate legislative agenda for 2014. The upcoming White House Summit on Working Families is perhaps the perfect forum to set an agenda that will get out the women vote in November around a core of economic messaging.
I also think our conversation needs to acknowledge the structural obstacles that Democrats face due to the dismantling of the traditional labor movement.
I also think our conversation needs to acknowledge the structural obstacles that Democrats face due to the dismantling of the traditional labor movement. While this puts us at a disadvantage, women of color labor leaders, including Ai-jen Poo and Sarita Gupta, have won recent legislative victories. They should serve as guides to building a movement and a message that attracts women of color by championing the issues that directly affect them (i.e., minimum wage, affordable childcare, equal pay, zero tolerance policies in schools that put young women of color into the criminal justice system for minor infractions, and paid leave). While it’s true that ties to corporate interests, Big Oil and Wall Street hamper the ability of Democrats to challenge the status quo for working women, that doesn’t mean Democratic leaders cannot work in tandem with the women of color already organizing around these issues to set the path for legislative change.
Kathleen Geier: So far, we seem to agree on some broad points of emphasis: we agree that women need paid leave, childcare, a higher minimum wage, universal pre-K and policies to close gender and racial pay gaps. But there’s considerable disagreement about how we get there. Bryce points out that businesses, Republicans and some Democrats will offer strong resistance to this agenda. Liza emphasizes change through institutions that are independent from the mainstream political parties, while Zerlina highlights efforts by women of color organizers who have worked with Democrats to enact reforms. What’s notable is that the successes that both Liza and Zerlina point to—such as the $15 minimum wage Seattle recently enacted and the landmark Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights in New York State—were state and local initiatives. Getting legislation like that passed on the national level right now would be impossible, because Congress is far more divided along partisan lines than is any state or local government.
Is there a prayer that Democrats could win over intransigent Republicans to support aspects of its feminist economic agenda? Recent European history offers a faint glimmer of hope. As political scientist Kimberly Morgan argued in a 2013 paper, in recent years European conservatives in Germany, the UK, and other countries, faced with the need to win more votes in the context of women’s growing workforce participation, abandoned their long-standing opposition to family-friendly policies and began to embrace them. But the European right is a very different animal from its American counterpart and it’s hard to see that happening here—the GOP is becoming more, not less, ideologically extreme.
Also, even though the Democrats’ economic agenda for women has virtually no chance of passing, it’s a tepid document nevertheless. Recent research such as Claudia Goldin’s new economic study and a paper by sociologists Youngjoo Cha and Kim A. Weeden shows that the gender pay gap is associated with long working hours and lack of workplace flexibility, but the Democrats’ plan doesn’t address those issues—though it does promise regular reviews of pay scales! The Democrats’ proposal to fund childcare is also weak. Why not quit fiddling at the margins and propose something visionary like a universal childcare system? Given the weakness of the Democrats and our divided political system with its multiple veto points, getting a work-and-family agenda through Congress is going to be a very hard sell indeed. Passage of such legislation will require the talents of a strong, highly organized political movement. Feminists would be well-advised to pour their political energies into building and strengthening such a movement rather than becoming overly invested in the ever-popular quadrennial presidential election soap opera.
Why not quit fiddling at the margins and propose something visionary like a universal child care system?
Bryce Covert: Everyone has highlighted the need to build a movement outside of the two political parties, and I think that this is the key to enacting any family-friendly policy agenda. And it’s important to take stock of how much feminists have influenced the political climate already. Hillary Clinton’s response to whether the United States should have paid family leave came off incredibly tepid, but her tepid answer used to be the political norm. Talking about issues like childcare or paid family leave used to be off-limits. Michelle Obama had been rumored to be adopting these issues when she moved into the White House, but back then they were seen as too hot-button.
Now many national Democrats—Nancy Pelosi, Kirsten Gillibrand and President Obama himself—talk about them without hesitation. This conversation has become so mainstream, the needs of women voters so important for winning elections, that Republicans felt compelled to offer a package of bills aimed at working families, flex scheduling and equal pay, even if they are predictably bad policies. These political shifts can be chalked up to movement building and organizing—and I would argue feminists have been deeply involved in that work, from the National Domestic Workers Alliance to A Better Balance to the National Women’s Law Center and lots of other feminist organizations and organizers at the national and local level.
Still, we all seem to recognize that a full-scale, federal policy agenda won’t be enacted any time soon. That’s why state-level policy change has become so important, as Kathleen points out. Three states now have paid family leave, and others are working on similar programs. Seven cities and one state have paid sick days. Nine states have raised their minimum wages this year. This doesn’t just help the people who live there, but offers a chance to prove that these things can help workers without hurting economies. They can keep pushing on the national conversation to move it further toward women’s economic needs.
Liza Featherstone: I agree with our emerging consensus that the momentum for state and local policy change—and organizing—is much greater right now at the state and local level than at the federal level. That’s a good place to focus our energies. I also heartily second Kathleen’s suggestion that feminists eschew the sideshow of the presidential election, as it is likely to divert energy and money from the grassroots movement building, and to yield little substantive change.
It’s going to be hard for feminists to resist the drama, especially if Hillary is in the race. The possibility of the first woman president has a certain storybook appeal. There will be harshly misogynist right-wing attacks on her, and her abilities will be unfairly questioned by sexist Republicans, probably in ways that will make invigoratingly outrageous cable TV and social media entertainment. All of this will draw feminists to her cause. But ultimately, she’s a waste of our time. The lives of few women will be improved by electing this particular woman president. As Bryce has noted, her policy ideas about paid family leave are tepid even at the rhetorical level. She is a former member of the board of directors of Walmart—a company that has been the target of the largest sex discrimination class action suit in history. Any movement aimed at helping the majority of working women would have to regard her, like most mainstream Democrats, as more of an obstacle than an ally.
Zerlina Maxwell: First, we would need to establish that Democrats are not trying to win over Republicans, the third of the American voting population that is getting more and more extreme everyday. This incarnation of the American GOP is at war with itself, with the Tea Party emerging as the controlling force in the caucus and the catalyst for obstruction in the House. We aren’t going to be able to win over the types who tweet incessantly about #Benghazi, but there are so many disengaged people, near the center, that can be energized.
If Hillary Clinton runs, as expected, then feminists have a unique opportunity, even more so than in 2008, to rally young women and allies around a more ambitious economic agenda.
While I do think Democrats need to focus their attention on local, congressional and state races in order to frame a women’s economic agenda, I don’t think the best strategy is to ignore Hillary Clinton and national Democratic leaders. Instead of ignoring the media spectacle that is presidential horserace coverage, we as a diverse and modern feminist movement need to use the media spectacle to our advantage. If Hillary Clinton runs, as expected, then feminists have a unique opportunity, even more so than in 2008, to rally young women and allies around a more ambitious economic agenda.
I’m also hopeful that through the 2014 and 2016 election cycles, Hillary Clinton or Senator Elizabeth Warren can become leading voices for this women’s economic agenda—pay equity, minimum wage, paid leave—and set the stage for a new era of feminist progress. We must ride the Hillary Clinton wave for the benefit of the down-ticket races that could win back the House. We shouldn’t ignore it.
Deirdre McCloskey: The “ties to corporate America” do not, pace Liza Featherstone and Zerlina Maxwell, necessarily “hamper [women’s] ability to deliver on feminist goals.” Corporate America is ahead of the political curve on many matters of human rights—look for example at the stance of the Fortune 500 companies on gay rights. And capitalism has regularly “accommodated equality for women,” giving opportunities, such as employment for married women, that governments or traditional society regularly opposed. Bryce Covert is correct to suggest focusing on programs that business would not oppose, though she’s also correct that the congressional GOP as presently aligned is unlikely to agree to anything agreeable to the president. Kathleen Geier’s call to arms is a call to defeat for feminist projects if we don’t choose them carefully. Universal childcare framed as an investment in the future, and backed by notionally conservative figures such as they economists James Heckman and Claudia Goldin, is worth pushing hard, if only for the next Democratic administration.
What is not a feminist issue is raising the minimum wage to, say, Seattle’s $15.00, since it is women, and especially women of color, who will be first to be shown the door—or, silently, not hired in the first place. And I don’t see dumping on Hillary Clinton as a good idea. She is at present likely to become president. Do we really want to be seen as opposed to the first woman president on account of her imperfect feminist purity?
Kathleen Geier: I believe electing a Democratic president is important, because the Democrats are dramatically better than the Republicans on every issue. But I also think that any generic Democrat will do and feminist energies would be better invested in movement-building activism as opposed to presidential political campaigning. I don’t oppose Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, but like Liza, I worry about feminists getting caught up in the Hillary drama. Perhaps Zerlina is correct and feminists use the Hillary media spectacle to promote a feminist economic agenda, but I’m doubtful. This week, the White House hosted a Working Families Summit. Who wants to bet that an initiative like that will get drowned out amid the latest speculation about how Hillary handled a rape case in 1975 (or whatever the next ginned-up Hillary “controversy” is)? It’s a sign of progress that the Democrats are finally addressing feminist economic issues—remember how, a decade ago, they were running away from feminism and recruiting a bunch of macho candidates like Jim Webb? What they are finally doing this year is a step in the right direction, and I hope feminists can build on the most important parts of the message, instead of getting sidetracked.
As for Deirdre’s comments about the minimum wage, there is no question that Seattle’s newly enacted $15 minimum is a bold experiment. But the consensus in the academic research is that the minimum wage has little disemployment effect. Deirdre calls for framing childcare as an investment in the future, and at times in my writing, I have argued for it in those terms as well. But though I’ve been gratified to see some conservative and libertarian intellectuals such as James Heckman and the Cato Institute’s Brink Lindsey support early childhood education, elected Republicans who advocate for these policies are all too rare. The biggest problem with the Democrats’ economic agenda for women is that the chances of enacting it at this time on the national level are remote. The last time the GOP supported women’s rights in any significant numbers, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, earth shoes and fondues were all the rage.
European countries won their feminist-friendly economic policies through powerful labor unions, and perhaps a revitalized labor movement is our best chance of achieving similar goals in this country. Because of deindustrialization, the old industrial labor unions are a thing of the past, but teachers’ unions and health care workers hold some promise, particularly for feminists, since they represent female-dominated professions. Organizing workers is a huge challenge in today’s economy, but over the long term, it remains the best hope for women’s economic empowerment.
The Editors: Thank you for joining us at The Curve, and please join us in two weeks, when Kathleen will convene a discussion of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century.