Anyone who opposes the draconian anti-Gay laws in Russia, and supports the emerging movement of LGBT athletes in the sports world, should take serious note of the latest news out of Washington DC. President Barack Obama’s White House has chosen their official delegation for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi. For the first time since 2000, this group will not include a current or former President or Vice President. Instead, the faces representing of the United States will include out-and-proud tennis legend Billie Jean King and out-and-proud two-time Olympic hockey player Caitlin Cahow.
Both King and Cahow are far more than just people who happen to be “part of the LGBT community.” King has been a fearless activist over the course of decades on a host of issues from labor rights to women’s reproductive freedom. On the issue of making sure Sochi is a platform of LGBT resistance she is as unafraid as one would expect, saying that she is not only "deeply honored" to be part of the delegation but is also "equally proud to stand with the members of the LGBT community in support of all athletes who will be competing in Sochi… I hope these Olympic games will indeed be a watershed moment for the universal acceptance of all people."
King was chosen even though she made an explicit plea for athletes to defy the International Olympic Committee’s decree against political statements in Sochi, saying in September, "Sometimes I think we need a John Carlos moment.” This was a reference to the great 1968 Olympian who along with Tommie Smith raised his fist for civil rights on the 200 meter medal stand.
Caitlin Cahow’s story is far less known than “the legend of Billie Jean” but she is also more than an athlete. Cahow is an activist who is part of what is known as the Principle 6 Campaign. This is a movement that aims to pressure the craven International Olympic Committee to actually enforce Principle 6 of its own charter which states, "Sports does not discriminate on grounds of race, religion, gender, politics or otherwise." Their work has already pushed the IOC to state that “otherwise” includes sexual orientation.
As Cahow has said, "The Olympics is a global celebration that belongs to all of us. Principle 6 is a way for everyone everywhere to celebrate the values that inspire the Olympic Games while showing their support for Russians suffering under Putin’s human rights crackdown.”
The appointing of King and Cahow is in so many respects a tribute to the movement over the past year of LGBT athletes to make sure the locker room no longer continues to be the last closet. It is also, let's be clear, a diplomatic power play by the Obama administration. The White House just delivered a thumb to the eye of a country that has challenged US hegemony in Syria and East Asia, and provided safe haven to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. There is a strong element here of the administration using LGBT rights like a pawn on a chessboard against a country that is more adversary than ally. It is hard to see it as anything else considering the lack of commentary from the Obama administration on ally India’s recent anti-LGBT legislation. In addition, this White House’s own piss-poor record in pushing The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and the attendant fact that it is still legal in 29 US states to fire people on the basis of their sexuality, should be mentioned every time this administration speaks out for LGBT rights internationally.
The most important question however is whether this move by the Obama administration to send the "Billie Jean Delegation" will serve to make the situation on the ground better for LGBT people in Russia or will it just serve to open the door for more repression? Will this provide a pretext for Putin to maliciously say that LGBT activists inside Russia are just tools of the United States? Does the intervention in a grass roots movement by the world's number one super power create more or less oxygen for the brave people fighting for their freedom inside Russia? After the smoke has cleared and all the delegations have gone home from Sochi it is the only question that really matters.
There’s a certain buzz in Washington that correcting income inequality is back on the agenda—big speeches are made, think tanks launched, strenuously worded columns published. But in practice, this means exactly nothing (yet) for economically challenged Americans.
In fact, this year has seen Washington actively make the fortunes of many middle- and low-income Americans worse: federal pensions will get slashed, food stamps have been cut (and will be cut again) and vital long-term unemployment insurance will expire. And forget about anything proactive like raising the minimum wage.
Tuesday afternoon, Senator Tom Harkin took to the Senate floor and gave one of the more bracing speeches of the year, in which he called out the “benign neglect” of Congress towards Americans with “tough lives.”
I would encourage you to read or watch the entire speech (especially if you, say, work in the office of a Republican House member) but allow me to quote from it at length here first. It’s a message that essentially escaped notice this week, but if historians are looking back on this awful gilded period in American history, they would likely identify a voice of sanity amidst all the madness.
“We used to agree that if you worked hard and played by the rules, you should be able to earn enough to support your family and keep a roof over your head, put some money away for a rainy day, and have a secure retirement.
“We used to agree that if you lose your job through no fault of your own, especially at a time of chronic unemployment, you should have some support while you’re looking for new work. We used to agree—on both sides of the aisle—that no child in this country should go to bed hungry at night.
“But in recent years, it has been alarming to see how these fundamental principles and values are being attacked in our public discourse. For many, the new attitude is ‘you’re on your own.’ And if you struggle, even if you face insurmountable challenges, it’s probably your own fault.
“There is a harshness, born of a benign neglect, toward those Americans who have tough lives, are ill-educated, marginally employed, or just down on their luck.
“It used to be that we only heard such harsh rhetoric from talk radio partisans trying to attract ratings. Sadly, now it has become part of our everyday conversation here in the United States Congress. We hear how minimum wage workers don’t deserve a fair wage because they are not worth $10.10 an hour. We hear that unemployed workers should be cut off from unemployment insurance because they are becoming ‘dependent.’ But they are trying to support their families on $310 a week on average—and that ranges from $193 on average in Mississippi to $490 on average in Massachusetts.
“At a time when there are three job seekers for every job, we hear that it’s critical to take away food assistance from millions of individuals so that, supposedly, they will learn the redemptive power of work—as if young mothers working service jobs, laid off factory workers delivering newspapers, and unemployed families receiving SNAP benefits need to be lectured by members of the House of Representatives about work.
“What has happened to respect for the people who do the work and want to work in our country? What happened to our values—the basic moral truth—that people shouldn’t go hungry in the richest country in the world?
“And how did we get to the point where many of us value the work of day-traders pushing paper on Wall Street, but ignore the contributions of the people who work in day care centers, educate our children, and care for our elderly in the twilight of life? What about their value?
Harkin is right in this last bit—just looking at the record shows Congress clearly does value the work of the financial sector over most everyone else. For just one small example, consider the budget bill slated to pass only hours after Harkin spoke. While it cuts the pensions of federal workers and doesn’t include any extension of long-term unemployment benefits, it did manage to exclude a non-binding measure simply expressing a sense of Congress that maybe big banks shouldn’t be so big that their failure endangers the economy.
On this and so many other examples (think the airport waiting line carve-out from sequestration), the policy priorities of the wealthy tend to win out in Washington, as Marty Gilens, a professor of politics at Princeton, has demonstrated convincingly:
But that wasn’t the thrust of Harkin’s speech. Time and again he went after the ideology that those relying on government benefits are in the wrong, and unworthy of help—at times targeting his colleagues by name.
“Senator Paul, for example, said last week that he didn’t support an extension of the federal unemployment program. He said: ‘When you allow people to be on unemployment insurance for 99 weeks, you’re causing them to become part of this perpetual unemployed…group in our…economy, and…while it seems good, it actually does a disservice to the people you’re trying to help.’
“A ‘disservice?’ Frankly, I don’t understand at all this kind of myopia, this harshness.”
Almost to reinforce Harkin’s point, less than twenty-four hours later a Republican House member suggested that poor children should sweep the floor in exchange for their subsidized lunch.
It’s this attitude Harkin condemned, and ended with words from a woman in Colorado and a plea for compassion:
“Let me close with one more statement from a real worker whose life will be improved if we here in Congress will step up and support the people who do the work in our country. She has a lesson for us here in Washington. Jackie Perkins works at a restaurant in Denver, CO, and she says:
‘You’re talking about real people.… You can sit in your ivory tower in the legislature and talk about economics and numbers and…jobs, but what you don’t understand is…there are real jobs…and real workers who have families that they need to support, and raising the minimum wage helps me support myself and my family and to advance…and to achieve the American dream.’
I believe in Jackie’s dreams and those of all hard-working Americans. As we look ahead to Christmas and the New Year, I hope that all my colleagues here will take time over the holiday to think about all the blessings we have been given, all we should be thankful for. And I hope we put ourselves in the shoes of those working people, who just want to build a better life for themselves and their children. Think about the minimum-wage retail worker who works hard running the cash register, standing all day, but can’t afford to shop in her own store. Think of the unemployed worker who must go to the local food bank because he can’t find a job and can’t afford Christmas dinner.
We have a duty to make sure the people who do the work in this country get a fair chance to aspire to the American Dream. When we return from the holidays I urge all of my colleagues to support a strong food assistance program, a richly deserved and long-overdue increase in the minimum wage, and an extension of federal unemployment insurance. And let’s have a new year that’s filled with less harshness and a little bit more compassion and understanding for our fellow Americans.
Read next: Katrina vanden Heuvel on the budget deal.
Here’s the bottom line on the American drone strike that slaughtered as many as seventeen people in a wedding party in Yemen last week: the CIA, which carried out the attack, had no comment. The State Department didn’t say anything. And the White House, ignoring outcries in Yemen, says merely, “We obviously cooperate closely with the government of Yemen on counterterrorism, have in the past and will continue in the future to do that.”
Way back in May 2013, President Obama delivered a major speech on counterterrorism policy and drones, in which he said that the use of drones “raises profound questions—about who is targeted, and why; about civilian casualties, and the risk of creating new enemies; about the legality of such strikes under U.S. and international law; about accountability and morality.”
But in that same speech, Obama essentially said “too bad” when it comes to civilian casualties caused by drone strikes. “I must weigh these heartbreaking tragedies against the alternatives.” So I wonder, now, if Obama is weighing the heartbreaking tragedy that he ordered last week against the “alternative,” namely, putting an end to these assassinations by remote control.
What does it say about America’s $80 billion-plus intelligence system, including the all-powerful National Security Agency, if it can’t distinguish between a terrorist and a wedding party? Who, indeed, was the supposed target of this drone strike, and what exactly was he planning to do, that made it so important to try to assassinate him? Was he some kingpin plotting another 9/11, or just some mid-level bad guy like the dozens upon dozens of others that the United States has blown to pieces after the killing of Osama bin Laden made Al Qaeda a nearly destroyed entity? If US intelligence is so poor, it’s way past time to stop these attacks.
In his May speech, Obama said,
Yes, the conflict with al Qaeda, like all armed conflict, invites tragedy. But by narrowly targeting our action against those who want to kill us and not the people they hide among, we are choosing the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent life.
And he said that each and every strike would involve extensive review, and that information would be provided to Congress. “Let me repeat that: Not only did Congress authorize the use of force, it is briefed on every strike that America takes. Every strike.” And this one?
Some of the people involved may have been members of tribes in Yemen linked to Al Qaeda, according to The New York Times. (According to the Los Angeles Times, which reported that seventeen died, “Five of those killed were suspected of involvement with Al Qaeda, but the remainder were unconnected with the militancy, Yemeni security officials said.”) But in Yemen’s chaotic, tumultuous tribal politics, there are countless violent actors and many who’ve identified with Al Qaeda simply because it’s the biggest, baddest gang in the area. (It’s not unlike the way many youth, in inner cities, become gang members for reasons of status, self-protection or self-respect.) But I don’t believe for one second that American intelligence is anywhere good enough to determine whether or not some people thousands of feet below a hovering drone are really worth targeting them for assassination—even leaving aside the constitutional, legal, moral and international-law aspects of the whole drone program.
More than a dozen dead, many more injured, and an unknown number of survivors whose lives have suddenly taken a nightmarish turn the likes of which we cannot imagine, and all for the sake of five people suspected of ties to al-Qaeda. How many actual al-Qaeda terrorists would we have to kill with drones in Yemen to make the benefits of our drone war there outweigh the costs of this single catastrophic strike? If U.S. drone strikes put American wedding parties similarly at risk would we tolerate our targeted-killing program for a single day more? Our policy persists because we put little value on the lives of foreign innocents. Even putting them through the most horrific scene imaginable on their wedding day is but a blip on our media radar, easily eclipsed by a new Beyonce album.
There’s new turmoil in Yemen, which has a fragile, barely functioning government. Yemen’s government defends the drone strikes and cooperation with the United States, but Yemen’s parliament is in an uproar, and voted to ban future drone attacks. But The Wall Street Journal reminds us that, for Yemen’s president and his circle, it’s all about the Benjamins:
Yemen’s parliament has stepped up pressure on the government to immediately end American drone strikes amid furor over an attack that officials said mistakenly killed 15 people in a wedding convoy.
However, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who has the final say, isn’t likely to tell the U.S. to shut down the drone program because his impoverished government needs the American funding attached to it. … Last year, the U.S. provided nearly $350 million to Yemen’s government, split between military and civilian aid, U.S. officials said. That was up from $28 million in 2008, before the U.S. drone program resumed after a six-year hiatus.
So the going price for a poor country to allow the United States to blow its citizens to smithereens is, apparently, $350 million.
Read Next: John Nichols on Willy Brandt.
This week marks the 100th anniversary of Willy Brandt’s birth.
Born December 18, 1913, on the cusp of World War I, Brandt lived to see the fall of the Berlin Wall before his death in 1992. He left a legacy of seeking to steer his twentieth century world away from war and division and that still has the potential—as was his ardent hope—to define the twenty-first century as a time of response to global poverty and injustice.
In Germany, Brandt continues to be celebrated as the Social Democratic battler against Nazi totalitarianism, the courageous mayor of a divided Berlin, the chancellor who began a process of East-West reconciliation that anticipated the day when “what belongs together will grow together” and the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for dialing down the tensions of the Cold War.
But another lasting legacy of Willy Brandt that must never be forgotten—in Europe or internationally—is that of the Brandt Reports. The product of an Independent Commission on International Development initially chaired by Brandt in the late 1970s and early 1980s, those reports challenged world leaders to think anew about the underdevelopment and neglect of the global South.
The Brandt Reports considered inequality on a global scale, and argued that it threatened the future stability of the planet. Radical in their analysis and vision, the pair of reports—North-South (1980) and Common Crisis (1983)—sought to address the long-term challenges of what Brandt described as “a world in which poverty and hunger still prevail in many huge regions; in which resources are squandered without consideration of their renewal; in which more armaments are made and sold than ever before; and where a destructive capacity has been accumulated to blow up our planet several times over.”
A 2002 report from the Brandt 21 Forum noted, “The Brandt Commission made a set of bold recommendations to change all that. In a sweeping series of measures addressed to the global public, governments, and international agencies, the Brandt Reports called for a full-scale restructuring of the global economy, along with a new approach to the problems of development, including an emergency program to end poverty in developing nations.”
The grand vision, celebrated and embraced by some but certainly not all countries, remains unrealized.
The grip of poverty and hunger has not been released. The chasm of inequality is still exceptionally wide. Economic and environmental injustice continue to create crises.
Yet, the understandings that Brandt and his colleagues helped to develop remain influential.
And a new generation of leaders seeks to open a serious discussion about global poverty—and the possible responses to it.
Congressman Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, has for many years urged the United States to embrace the concept of a “Global Marshall Plan”—based on the principles of post–World War II international development programs. Earlier this month, Ellison asked Congress to resolve that:
1. The elimination of poverty and hunger should remain key foreign and domestic policy goals for the United States;
2. A Global Marshall Plan holds the potential to transform development assistance in a manner that would significantly reduce poverty; and
3. The President should implement a Global Marshall Plan to increase United States assistance towards the elimination of poverty.
That’s a proposal that is equal in its ambition and optimism—especially in a time of divided government that has tended towards austerity economics.
A new century nears, and with it the prospects of a new civilization.
Could we not begin to lay the basis for that new community with reasonable relations among all people and nations, and to build a world in which sharing, justice, freedom and peace might prevail?
Read Next: Mychal Denzel Smith on Santa Claus and white racial panic.
The most important election that the voters don’t get to vote on—the selection of New York’s next City Council Speaker—is the consuming buzz in New York’s political world on Wednesday.
Politicker reported yesterday that Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio has been making calls to returning and incoming councilmembers lobbying for Manhattan-Bronx Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, who has the support of the Progressive Caucus—which, according to the same report, claimed to have the 26 votes necessary to elect her head of the fifty-one-member council.
Politicker also quoted unnamed insiders saying that de Blasio’s overt advocacy for Mark-Viverito had infuriated some of the county Democratic chairmen, who have traditionally held sway over the picks for Council leadership.
City & State reported today that those county chairman have coalesced around Manhattan Councilmember Daniel Garodnick to be the next speaker—and that they claim to have enough votes.
To most members of my huge national audience, and even among some of my millions or dozens of readers in the city, all this gamesmanship over a legislative post may seem like a distraction (if a welcome one; how else are we to pass the time before we can get to Anchorman 2?).
But it’s vital to de Blasio’s agenda that he get a speaker he can work with. He saw evidence of this during his own time in the Council. In de Blasio’s first term, from 2002 to 2005, Speaker Gifford Miller often resisted Bloomberg, irritating the easily irritated billionaire. In de Blasio’s second Council stint, from 2006 to 2009, the more accommodating Quinn made life easier for the mayor—no more so than when Bloomberg asked to overturn the term limits law.
While New York has a strong mayor system, the Council has a huge role to play on the budget and decisions about zoning and other land-use policies. The speaker has the ability to tightly control that role, by naming committee chairs, deciding which bills get hearings and which can come up for votes and apportioning discretionary funding for the members to spend, with favored colleagues getting lots of dough and squeaky wheels getting little. In fact, one of the top items on the Progressive Caucus wish list is to reform the Council rules and reduce the power of the speaker—but that probably won’t happen unless one of their own gets the chair.
Because the speaker can dish out goodies and discipline and set the agenda, almost all Council measures pass unanimously. Even notable gadflies vote with the speaker 90 percent of the time, simply because the speaker rarely brings a bill to a vote if passage is not assured. What’s more, the last three speakers have run, albeit unsuccessfully, for mayor, so whoever gets the post is by default the person best positioned to succeed or even challenge de Blasio.
Everyone thought de Blasio’s big problem was going to be Albany, because the state legislature has to approve changes to the income tax like the one de Blasio wants to use to fund his signature initiative, which couples early childhood education and middle-school after-school programs. Republican control of the state Senate is an obstacle to that idea, and the cagey governor-who-might-run-for-president may not be an ally either.
All that gets much more complicated if the city’s own legislature hamstrings the new mayor. Plus, it kinda looks bad if de Blasio loses his first big fight. But be careful about overstating the scope of it.
Mark-Viverito, who represents a district including East Harlem and parts of the South Bronx, is generally well regarded by the left in the city, making headlines last year for clashing with Ray Kelly over aggressive police tactics. Her liberal credentials are such that some observers thought de Blasio would prefer someone more centrist as his partner across City Hall. When I recently asked a room of anti-poverty advocates what they thought of her front-runner status, they were all smiles and thumbs up.
Garodnick is no right-winger (those are hard to find on the City Council), though he is not a member of the Progressive Caucus. His district includes a long slab of the Upper East Side—the only large section of Manhattan that chose Republican Joe Lhota over de Blasio in November. According to Politicker, he’s passed more legislation than his rivals for the council.
Just because the mayor-elect doesn’t get his top pick doesn’t mean his mayoralty is over. There are battles and there are wars. Eight years ago Christine Quinn famously outmaneuvered Bill de Blasio for the City Council speakership. That seemed to work out alright for him.
Read next: Mychal Denzel Smith on Bill de Blasio’s unprogressive choice for police commissioner
This fall, in the first installment of our Prison Profiteers video series with the ACLU and Beyond Bars, Nation readers were introduced to Kenny, a 9-year-old boy and one of 2.7 million children across the country with a parent behind bars. In the video, Kenny’s mother explains the difficulty of keeping in touch with her son’s father; his prison is a four-hour drive away and phone calls are expensive. Global Tel* Link, the phone company the family must work with if they want to keep in touch, charges up to $1.13 cents per minute—that’s $17 for a fifteen minute phone call.
In response to the video, Nation readers joined us to demand action. The Federal Communications Commission had already capped the amount of money prison phone companies could charge for state-to-state calls in August but, since most prisoners serve time in their home state, the decision left many behind. Along with our partners on Prison Profiteers, we created a petition to demand that the FCC finish the job and end this predatory practice for all prison phone calls. Over 28,000 people have joined the campaign so far. We hope to reach at least 30,000 by this Thursday, when we deliver our petition to the FCC.
There’s a real chance we could win this fight. When the FCC capped rates for state-to-state phone calls, they asked specifically for comments on whether they should do the same for in-state calls. Plus, we’re not the only people passionate about reining in this abuse. The delivery this Thursday follows a similar petition by the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, a coalition of groups dedicated to fighting the profitable prison phone industry.
If you haven’t already, take a minute to watch the video and join our campaign. Together we can put an end to this unjust and exploitative practice.
It is not a question even of the ignorance of white people. It is a question of the fears of white people.
Perhaps the most trivial news story, in recent memory, to make the rounds of the twenty-four-hour news cycle is most certainly the “debate” over whether or not Santa Claus is white. It started with a seemingly benign request from Slate’s Aisha Harris that Santa be de-racialized. Harris had a modest proposal: rather than a jolly old white man, how about turning our image of Santa into a penguin? No race, they’re cute and he’d still live in a snowy place. This deeply offended FOX News’s Megyn Kelly, whose unwavering belief that Santa—and Jesus—are white set off Twitter, the blogosphere and would-be pundits everywhere.
I honestly do not care about Santa’s racial identity. He’s a mythical figure with flying reindeer and elves. To the point of Harris’s original article, he can literally be whatever we decide. Growing up, my mother did all the Christmas shopping in my household, so for me Santa has always been a black woman. It’s not a big deal.
But what this whole controversy has revealed is another instance of white racial panic. For the entirety of the United States’s history, white people have had the advantage of defining themselves—and their mythical gift-giving icons—in a white supremacist state. Politically, culturally, economically, socially, everything has been tailored to privilege whiteness. But things change. Whiteness as the default identity to which everything else is derived or compared gets challenged. And the pushback is fierce.
We are living in an age of paradox. The old system of white racial supremacy is very much still alive and strong, but the advancements of other racial groups are undeniable. That means the government, the culture, the economy and the social order, while not even close to anything equitable, are changing and shifting towards something that’s at least more inclusive. Most of these changes are superficial and have no material benefit for the people on the bottom rungs of society. (As I wrote in June, when it was reported that there had been more white deaths than births in 2012, it’s not about demographics, it’s a matter of resources/wealth/power.) But they can give us hope that we’re moving in the right direction.
The result is fear. Fear that too much change coming too fast will change the current system in a way that will no longer privilege whiteness. Being white will no longer be special. It will not allow you to define yourself against the other. There will be no power or privilege. You will just be.
We saw it in immediate aftermath of the election of Barack Obama as the first black president. It animates our debate around immigration reform. It drives our fear of China emerging as a superpower. And yes, it’s even in the desire to affirm Santa’s white identity. The visual markers of white supremacy appear to be eroding, and for certain segments of the population, that’s a frightening prospect.
Of course, white people have nothing to fear. Not in the immediate future, at least. Just as the rich have nothing to fear, men have nothing to fear and heterosexuals have nothing to fear. The system of white supremacist capitalist heterosexist patriarchy isn’t going anywhere for a while. It is so entrenched in our way of thinking that even those who don’t benefit from it work towards its maintenance. We still have a long way to go.
Santa Claus is merely a symbol. We project upon him what we wish to see. So don’t worry, white people. With the political and economic advantages still heavily weighted in your favor, Santa will still bring you your gifts. He’s still on your side. In the foreseeable future, Santa is still a white man.
(But it won’t always be that way.)
Read Next: Jessica Valenti on Beyoncé’s feminism.
The serial failures of Chicago’s new “smart card” public transportation fare collection system isn’t really a Chicago story—any more than the dark, satanic mills of nineteenth-century England were a Manchester story, or impoverished temp workers risking life and limb packaging iPads is a story about California’s Inland Empire. This is a tale about the world taking shape before us now, everywhere: public provision being turned over to private interests, subverting democracy and all economic good sense in the (terrible) bargain.
RFID fare-collection systems implemented by the San Diego–based defense contractor Cubic have caused public outcry wherever they’ve been introduced, across all four corners of the globe. London is Cubic’s biggest customer, accounting for 33 percent of their transportation business. There, “Oyster” smart cards were introduced in 2003 via what is known in England as a Private Finance Initiative. The parties were a consortium including Cubic and EDS (formerly Electronic Data Systems, a subsidiary of Hewlett-Packard), and London’s transport agency TfL; the seventeen-year contract, signed in 1998, was worth £1.1 billion. The system began with a modest range of features and slowly expanded; but according to Wikipedia, in “August 2008, TfL decided to exercise a break option in the contract to terminate it in 2010, five years early, this followed a number of technical failures.” And yet a subsequent contract with Cubic lasting through 2015 was inked nonetheless.
And the failures went on.
There were 190,0000 complaints about overcharging in 2008 (only 46 percent of complainants had their money refunded)—with the pace accelerating month by month. In 2010, with Londoners still baffled by a confusing system that required them to “tap out” their cards upon leaving a station lest they get hit by the maximum fare, TfL responded by blaming the customers. The next year, the maximum fare was increased; overcharges thus added £61.8 million to the consortium’s coffers. This year, a transportation watchdog group reported that of the Oyster machines “almost no one they interviewed understood how they worked.” The Guardian reported that authorities knew the system was overcharging some users. The paper continued, “Transport for London (TfL) has been made aware of the glitch but is not going to fix it until September at the earliest—because it only updates the Oyster system three times a year.” One of the most embarrassing problems in Chicago—machines charging the wrong customer card—is rampant in London, according to a report in the excellent local Chicago news site Gapers Block. Another system glitch reported by Gapers Block was that vendors were able to receive money from customers, then void the transaction and still keep the cash. Meanwhile customers are owed some £53 million in unclaimed refunds; but there is “no easy way to reclaim the funds.”
The system is up for rebid in 2015. Trouble for Cubic stockholders, right? Not so much. Observed a Credit Suisse equity report, “it is a longstanding relationship that is likely to be renewed.” Nice work if you can get it.
You could enjoy a nice around-the-world tour just traveling to cities where Cubic has screwed up fare collection. Gapers Block documented them: double-charging in Atlanta. Twenty-fold charging in Brisbane, Australia. Miami-Dade’s “Easy Card” system was dubbed “Easy Fraud”: this fall, “a 22-year-old man has stood trial over a a glitch allowing him (and members of a WSVN Channel 7 News team) to load money onto Easy Cards for free.” In San Francisco, “Cubic disclosed it received 38,000 customer service phone calls in August 2011.”
And then Los Angeles: in spite of “nearly consistent one-star reviews on Yelp, Cubic still got a six-year, $545 million contract extension.”
None of this bothered the city fathers of Vancouver, British Columbia, apparently. Their Cubic-built system “Compass” comes fully online this January. A large-scale Beta test, though, has already enraged citizens who realized that buying a fare through the traditional system, which will continue on buses, forced you to pay twice when transferring to trains, which only accept the new cards.
And so Cubic continues to thrive and grow, much to Wall Street’s delight. Wrote security analysts of Cubic’s military subsidiary, “2013 is likely to be a year of flattish revenue and lower earnings owing to tight defense budgets.” But “[t]here is no pure-play publicly traded fare-collection competitors,” so “[w]e see a solid growth story/existing backlog in Transportation,and believe that CUB’s efforts to expand its addressable market…. Scope for smart card penetration in existing U.S. transit systems is another growth lever.”
Let’s pause and reflect on what’s going on here.
“Privatization” isn’t new in Chicago’s fare-collection system; indeed the two components of the system being replaced, semi-smart preloaded “Chicago Cards” and dumb old magnetic-strip cards, were also devised under contract to Cubic. What we now see in Chicago, however, is an intensification of the logic of privatization. A publicly traded company succeeds—attracts more investors—only if it grows. The equity reports from the investment banks are telling in their ruthless focus on this fact: “flattish” grown is veritable death. It is not enough to “saturate” an old market. It is instead crucial to devise new ones—even if the old products don’t need fixing.
That is one of the reasons turning over public municipal services to private interests is so dangerous: the exploitative logic of planned obsolescence. The watchword: If it’s not broke—fix it! Or, as we’ve seen, don’t fix it. Just change it, even if what replaces it is worse.
What does it mean when a new product that fails and fails and fails, frustrating customers everywhere, continues to enjoy sales growth? It means that the customer isn’t actually the customer. The politicians are the customers. And they’re plainly getting something out of the deal whether Joe Public gets double-charged for a ride downtown on the No. 6 route or not. Consider: one of Cubic’s biggest institutional owners is Blackrock, the biggest investment fund in the world; and Blackrock’s CEO gave $25,000 to Rahm Emanuel’s mayoral campaign, then enjoyed a rare half-hour sit-down with him. Was transit fares one of the things they talked about? Wouldn’t it be nice to know.
Another danger is that private companies see the Internal Revenue System as a machine to repurpose our cash into their pockets. Reported Cubic to investors after the 2012 transportation bill was signed into law, “of significance to Cubic Transportation Systems in that all of our transit agency customers in the United States currently receive federal funding, and this bill will continue to provide them with the funding that they need to start new projects themselves as well as any prospective clients who may have needed funding.” Tellingly, you see no talk here of efficiency, or cost-savings, or market-enforced accountability, all those boons privatization is supposed to deliver to citizens. It’s just—here’s a new revenue stream. It’s just—time to call up “prospective clients.”
There is no market-enforced accountability here. How could there be, when the contracts last ten years and are all-but-automatically renewed, due to (telling language!) “longstanding relationship[s]”? How could there be “competition” when the assets in question are natural monopolies? (What’s a competitor supposed to do, build their own subway routes?) And yet, maddeningly, the fallacy of the “efficient” private sector endures—helped along by those who ought to know better. Like when President Obama promised to bring healthcare.gov up to the standard of “private sector velocity and effectiveness.”
Somehow, failures in the public sector are always judged as systematic. The private sector thus exists to ride to the rescue—and their failures are only judged anomalies. A pretty nice arrangement for investors. The only people who suffer are the citizens. As Credit Suisse reports, “90%+ off Cubic’s cash on the balance sheet is held offshore.”
So that’s how it works: we shovel them boatloads of money. They stick us with substandard products. We fuss and holler, to no avail. Then they shelter the money they’ve just Hoovered from our pockets in offshore accounts. Maybe it’s time for activists in Chicago, Vancouver, Atlanta, Miami, Brisbane and London to get together, raise their collective voices and demand some of that money back.
Read next: Rick Perlstein on this phenomenon in Chicago
It’s been another wild twenty-four hours in the NSA/Snowden epic story-of-the-year.
Just hours after 60 Minutes aired its whitewash of the NSA—Valentine’s Day coming early for the snoopers—a federal district judge ruled that the massive (and purportedly harmless) data collection on Americans by the NSA is probably unconstitutional. This inspired another CNN debate last night about what Edward Snowden has wrought between Glenn Greenwald and Jeffrey Toobin, this time on Anderson Cooper’s show.
Toobin, the CNN legal analyst, still thinks Snowden should be arrested and should have gone through channels. Toobin contends that the judge’s ruling doesn’t “vindicate” Snowden, since it’s just one judge. And the whistleblower “should have gone through” Congress or something—it was “untenable” to leak to a Greenwald etc. (Senator Ron Wyden backs the judge here.)
This morning, seemingly unrelated to that, Snowden posted an open letter to Brazilians, offering to help them expose wrongful spying within their borders. Some took this to be plea for asylum, which Greenwald denies. When CNN posted a story about the open letter it tweeted the link with this message: “Edward Snowden offers to spy on the US & help Brazil investigate NSA surveillance.”
After criticism from others on Twitter—Greenwald wrote, “Dear CNN: even for you, this is so remarkably reckless and false that it’s shocking”—CNN quickly deleted the tweet and changed it to: “
#NSA leaker Edward Snowden is offering to help investigate U.S. surveillance of Brazilian citizens.”
Naturally, a screen grab of the original was uncovered and posted. So I guess I should close with: watch this space for updates.
Read next: Zoë Carpenter on Internet surveillance and the government.
Thanks to Congress, it’s shaping up to be a bleak holiday season for at least one group of Americans. Because the House of Representatives failed to extend the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program before they left for vacation, 1.3 million long-term unemployed Americans stand to lose their unemployment benefits just three days after Christmas.
Advocates for the unemployed are calling on Congress to extend the EUC when they return from holiday break, and to make the extension retroactive. In the meantime, states have told recipients to continue to file claims after benefits are cut off on December 28, in case Congress does pass the extension.
Join The Nation and Daily Kos in calling on Congress to salvage the benefits of those who need them the most. Contact your representative now and tell them to extend the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program.
The House Ways and Means Committee published an interactive map that breaks down the number of unemployed Americans affected in each state.
At MSNBC, Craig Melvin spoke with LaShean Daniels-Palmer, a mother of four who relies on unemployment benefits.