After several months of preparing and brainstorming names, we're pleased to introduce our new blog from the nation's capital: J Street.
What's the name mean? Well, if you walk north from the Mall, Washington DC's streets ascend in alphabetical order. That is, until you get to I street, which is followed somewhat mysteriously by K Street, the (in)famous address of Washington's ruling lobbyist class. Legend has it that District planner Pierre-Charles L'enfant omitted J Street out of contempt for Supreme Court Justice and proto-abolitionist John Jay.
The real reason probably had more to do with typography than ideology, but the missing J street is a fitting metaphor for all the things that should be in the nation's capital but aren't: voices that are marginalized or ignored, ideas deemed too radical or politically unpopular to garner note, movements that are elided or dismissed.
That's what we cover here in the magazine's Washington bureau. I'll be posting here regularly along with my Washington-based colleague Te-Ping Chen. We'll be adding more contributors in the future, so add us to your RSS reader or just check back often.
Ralph Nader is running again for president.
After four previous bids, mounted in varying forums and with varying goals, Nader is used to the slings and arrows that will be tossed his way. He is conscious and committed. He will not back off.
He knows how to campaign in the face of a firestorm of criticism.
Above all, he knows how to make himself heard -- even when almost everyone who guides the political processes of the nation wants to shut him up.
The latter knowledge will serve him well in a 2008 contest where the man who is either a national treasure or a national frustration, or perhaps both, may find himself more marginalized than ever before.
Nader is running for the same reason he has run in the past: Because the likely nominees of the two major parties do not begin to meet the standards that might reasonably be asked of progressive contenders in 21st-century America.
Fundamental issues -- Wall Street-defined globalization, rampant and frequently deadly corporate crime, out-of-control military spending and an imperial foreign policy -- are not going to be addressed in a realistic let alone definitional manner by the Democratic nominee (be he Barack Obama or be she Hillary Clinton) or by Republican John McCain. And that, says Nader, will leave millions of Americans feeling frustrated and disenfranchised.
"You take that framework of people feeling locked out, shut out, marginalized and disrespected," he explained on NBC's "Meet the Press," the same forum where he announced his 2004 presidential run. "You go from Iraq, to Palestine to Israel, from Enron to Wall Street, from Katrina to the bumbling of the Bush administration, to the complicity of the Democrats in not stopping him on the war, stopping him on the tax cuts."
Nader's points are all well taken.
And they come from a man who is quite rational in his awareness that he will not be sworn in as president on January 20, 2009.
While Nader has yet to determine whether he will run as the Green Party candidate, a Green-backed independent or a genuinely unaffiliated independent, he is clear about his chances.
The arc of history bends toward Obama and the Democrats, not his candidacy, acknowledges Nader.
After eight years of George Bush and Dick Cheney, he said, "If the Democrats can't landslide the Republicans this year, they ought to just wrap up, close down, emerge in a different form. You think the American people are going to vote for a pro-war John McCain who almost gives an indication he's the candidate for perpetual war?"
Presumably, the Democratic landslide that buries McCain will also sweep away various and sundry third-party and independent candidacies, including Nader's.
If that is the case, it will not be a new phenomenon.
Nader has bid for the presidency in different ways in every election since 1992 -- as a write-in candidate in the New Hampshire and Massachusetts primaries of that year, as a Green contender in 1996 and 2000 and as an independent with support from some of what remained of Ross Perot's Reform Party in 2004. His most notable run, in 2000, won 2.7 percent of the national vote, along with anger from Democrats who thought he "spoiled" their chances by tipping Florida -- and the presidency -- from Al Gore to George Bush. In fact, Gore won Florida, only to have the results manipulated into Bush's column by the Republican nominee's many allies in state government, with an assist from the Supreme Court.
In the intense 2004 competition between Bush and Democratic John Kerry, Nader's run won just 0.3 percent on 34 state ballot lines.
This year, Nader could have a harder time of it even than he did in 2000 or 2004.
Unlike Gore and Kerry, Obama -- now the likely Democratic nominee -- has taken savvier stands on a number of issues close to Nader's heart, such as trade policy. This is not to say that Obama is as good as Nader on the issues. Far from it. But Obama's more nuanced platform, as well as the movement character of the Illinois senator's campaign, is likely to leave even less space for Nader to deliver a message.
That said, Nader is a determined, sometimes unrelenting, truth teller.
He notes that Obama is something less than a pristine progressive.
Obama may be "the first liberal evangelist in a long time," says Nader, but the senator's "better instincts and knowledge have been censored" since he hit the nation stage.
"(Obama's) leaned, if anything, toward the pro-corporate side of policy-making," Nader said of the senator from Illinois. The consumer activist also scored Obama on on foreign policy, noting that, "He was pro-Palestinian when he was in Illinois... Now he's supporting (right-wing Israeli policies that thwart progress toward peace in the Middle East)."
Such blunt statements may not win Nader many friends among Obama's enthusiastic backers, and Obama did not exactly welcome his new rival to the race. "Ralph Nader deserves enormous credit for the work he did as a consumer advocate," Mr. Obama said while campaigning in Ohio "But his function as a perennial candidate is not putting food on the table of workers."
But Nader's not looking for Valentines from the Democrats.
Frankly, he's not even all that interested in popular approval.
The public-interest crusader worries far less about poll numbers and even vote totals than about saying what he feels needs to be said -- and using the forum of the electoral process to say it. And he is certainly not the first progressive -- inside the Democratic Party or out -- to suggest that Obama needs to be prodded on issues ranging from labor law to corporate regulation to single-payer health care and Middle East policy.
Nader's greatest value in any race is -- like Socialist Norman Thomas in his races against Democratic Franklin Roosevelt -- as a source of pressure on the Democratic nominee to address fundamental questions and perhaps to take more progressive stands on a few issues. As in 2000 and 2004, Nader's appeal will be determined in large part by the extent to which the Democratic candidate is willing to be bold.
Obama seems to understands this. Unlike Gore or Kerry, who never quite "got" the point of Nader's runs in 2000 and 2004, the Illinois senator appears to recognize that it is pointless to grumble about Ralph Nader as a "spoiler." Rather, the point is to be more appealing to progressive voters who might consider voting Green or independent.
"I think the job of the Democratic Party is to be so compelling that a few percentage [points] of the vote going to another candidate is not going to make any difference," says Obama.
That is the bottom line with regard to Nader's latest bid.
If Obama runs as a progressive, Nader will have little room to maneuver. If Obama runs to the center, Nader's space will open up -- a bit.
Liberal smarties and sophisticates are having fun mocking John McCain , but assuming he gets the nomination, he will a formidable candidate. He may look like a grumpy old man -- specifically, as my friend Kathleen Geier joked, the grumpy old man who yells at kids to get off his lawn -- or the nutty old uncle who rags on everyone at Thanksgiving before passing out in front of the football game. But that's another way of saying McCain is a familiar, indeed family, character. It does not require an imaginative stretch to get John McCain. How many voters know someone like Barack Obama?
McCain is white, male, patriarchal, a war hero with decades in the Senate. So what if he's old? In politics old can be good ( for men), especially to the older voters -- older white voters -- who dominate the polls. Besides, McCain's not so old that he couldn't get himself a much younger trophy wife, and even if Cindy McCain looks brittle and unhappy and like she hasn't eaten in a decade, she is always there by his side, a visual reminder of his manly prowess. McCain is brash and sly and seemingly unguarded, unlike the famously self-protective Hillary Clinton, and he loves to schmooze with reporters, who adore him and like most of the rest of America, refuse to see how conservative he is. It's like they're saying, Oh go on, Uncle John! you're just saying you love Sam Alito to get me riled up!
Obama v. McCain could be change/youth/black/exciting/internationalist against experience/maturity/white/steady/superpatriot. Put that way, it could come down to how many white male Democrats, who might vote for Hillary, won't vote for a black man, let alone one whose middle name is Hussein. They won't care about McCain's favors for business --too complicated, and anyway everyone does it -- and they certainly won't care if he had an affair with lovely lobbyist Vicki Iseman, as the New York Times sorta-kinda suggested. They might like him even better for that.
We've been patting ourselves on the back a lot for having a black and a woman vying for top spot on the ticket of one of the two major parties. November will tell us whether or not we have really come all that far.
Hillary Clinton has staked her campaign on winning the Democratic primaries in Texas on March 4. But there's even more at stake in the Lone Star State than the fate of her historic candidacy. In Travis County, a heavily Democratic patch of blue in a state that has most liberals seeing red, voters will choose a new district attorney for the first time in more than three decades.
Current DA Ronnie Earle is leaving office after thirty-one years. In an unusual race four Democratic members of his staff are vying to replace him. Because no Republican has filed for the election, the Democratic primary will determine the next Travis County DA.
Among the field of former colleagues, one candidate, Rick Reed, stands out as "the most progressive candidate in a race with three other candidates who all support the death penalty" according to the Texas Moratorium Network in its endorsement of Reed, who has come out against capital punishment. He also calls for a moratorium on current death sentences.
Beyond Reed's brave disavowal of capital punishment in Texas, which leads the nation in state executions, the longtime criminal prosecutor supports the increased use of drug courts and an increased diversion of drug possession cases into treatment programs rather than incarceration; he has vowed to continue with the prosecution of former House Majority Leader TomDeLay, whom Reed had a major role in building a case against, and he has committed to working with the Innocence Project to exonerate wrongfully convicted prisoners.
Reed first worked at the Dallas County District Attorney's office. For twelve years, he assisted legendary District Attorneys Henry Wade and John Vance. In 1999, his career brought him to Travis County, where Ronnie Earle quickly assigned him to the office's Public Integrity Unit, in which capacity Reed had the responsibility of investigating and prosecuting public officials statewide. This is where Tom DeLay met the man determined to hold him accountable.
Co-written by Dinelle Lucchesi.
The Change to Win coalition of unions has decided to endorse Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination, a move that will give the senator from Illinois another big boost at a point where his campaign seems to be going from strength to strength.
"Change to Win is excited to announce the endorsement of Barack Obama for President," Change to Win chair Anna Burger said today. "We are the unions that organize and mobilize working people and believe that we can make a huge difference on the ground in the upcoming primaries. Change To Win is the new labor movement, the labor movement of the 21st century and we are excited about our ability to make a difference."
Coming on the heels of endorsements of Obama's candidacy in recent weeks by key players in the Change to Win coalition -- the Service Employees International Union, UNITE HERE, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters -- the endorsement essentially signals that Obama will have the labor support he needs in states with primaries scheduled for March and April, such as Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania.
He will not, however, have all the labor support he wants.
Key unions, including the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the International Association of Machinists, are working hard for Hillary Clinton. Indeed, some of Clinton's union backers are developing quite an edge, as anyone who heard Machinists union president Tom Buffenbarger introduce the New York senator at a recent Ohio rally knows.
Buffenbarger tore into Obama, referring to the senator as a "thespian," and "the man in love with the microphone." And he bluntly dismissed the movement that backs Obama as the antithesis of a working-people's campaign. "Give me a break!" growled Buffenbarger in Youngstown. "I've got news for all the latte-drinking, Prius- driving, Birkenstock-wearing, trust-fund babies crowding in to hear him speak! This guy won't last a round against the Republican attack machine. He's a poet, not a fighter."
The Change to Win coalition thinks differently, although it should be noted that the coalition is not reading precisely from the same page. One Change to Win union, the United Farm Workers, backs Clinton, a not inconsequential fact with voting coming in Texas, where the union has been an influential player in Latino politics. Additionally, the powerful Laborers' International Union of North America abstained from the endorsement because it is in the midst of a membership survey on whether to back Obama or Clinton.
That said, the Change to Win endorsement is significant.
CTW refers to Obama as "the American Dream candidate," and the coalition and its Obama-backing affiliates plan a major push on the senator's behalf among union members in upcoming primary and caucus states.
Still in play? Two of the most important industrial unions in Ohio and Pennsylvania, the United Auto Workers and the United Steelworkers. Both were friendly to the John Edwards campaign. That's another reason why Obama and Clinton continue to court not just particular unions but former candidate Edwards.
More than 1,000 feminists have signed a statement criticizing Hillary Clinton and supporting Obama for president - evidence that Clinton's support among women activists continues to decline. The group, "Feminists for Peace," started out with 100 signers before the super-Tuesday primaries, and has 1,200 signers two weeks later.
Clinton's support for the war in Iraq was the leading reason she lost the support of the feminists, along with the fact that "until quite recently [she] opposed all legislative efforts to bring the war and occupation to an end." The group added, "We urgently need a presidential candidate whose first priority is to address domestic needs."
Those endorsing Obama include writer Barbara Ehrenreich; longtime peace activist Cora Weiss; Katha Pollitt, columnist for The Nation; Pulitzer-prize winning New York Times writer Margo Jefferson; women's rights historians Alice Kessler Harris and Linda Gordon; political scientist Frances Fox Piven and actor/activist Susan Sarandon.
"Choosing to support Senator Obama was not an easy decision for us," the group stated, "because electing a woman president would be a cause for celebration in itself." They "deplored" the "sexist attacks against Senator Clinton that have circulated in the media." But, they stated, they nevertheless supported Obama because his election "would be another historic achievement" and because "his support for gender equality has been unwavering."
This group joins other prominent feminists who have turned against Hillary and endorsed Obama, including Kate Michelman, president for 20 years of NARAL Pro-Choice America, the country's leading reproductive rights group, and Ellen Bravo, former director of 9to5, the National Association of Working Women.
Meanwhile an opposing group of 250 feminists has responded with a statement supporting Clinton. Led by historians Ellen Carol DuBois from UCLA and Christine Stansell from the University of Chicago, the group includes writers Gloria Steinem and Robin Morgan, CUNY Women's Studies professor Michele Wallace, Blanche Wiesen Cook, biographer of Eleanor Roosevelt, and Peg Yorkin of the Feminist Majority Foundation.
Their statement says that, in supporting the war, Clinton "made a major mistake." While acknowledging that Obama opposed the war from the start, the group declared that his opposition "carried no risks and indeed, promised to pay big dividends in his liberal Democratic district."
Obama, they wrote, "has no monopoly on inspiration." They praised Clinton's "brains, grace under pressure, ideas, and the skill to make them real: we call that inspiring," they said.
A third feminist statement blasted the Clinton supporters as "'either/or' feminists determined to see to it that a woman occupies the Oval Office." Eve Ensler, author of "The Vagina Monologues," and Kimberlé Crenshaw, professor of law at UCLA and Columbia, declared that the pro-Clinton feminists "interrogate, chastise, second-guess and even denounce those who escape their encampment and find themselves on Obama terrain. In their hands feminism, like patriotism, is the all-encompassing prism that eliminates discussion, doubt and difference about whom to vote for and why."
Reverend Jesse Jackson was in New Delhi to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the martyrdom of Mahatma Gandhi but the subprime crisis back home was also on his mind. He phoned and said, "If you look at the analysis on TV, everybody is discussing macroeconomics. CNN, CNBC, MSNBC, none of them go deep in their analysis as to what really happened. The lack of enforcement of civil rights laws, of fair lending laws, drives this economic tsunami. This is not an economic miscalculation – this is the price we pay for not enforcing the law."
Jackson points to the targeting and steering of African-Americans and Latinos who were qualified for prime loans into risky subprime mortgages (defined as 3 percentage points higher than the prevailing rate for long-term Treasury bonds). "Redlining was to not loan to certain areas," he said. "This is what amounts to reverse-redlining – steering black and brown borrowers into subprime who were eligible for prime. That's out and out breaking discrimination laws."
In 2005 and 2006, over 50% of all loans made to African-Americans, and over 40% to Latinos, were subprime – compared to only 19% of white borrowers. Martin Gruenberg, vice chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), said at the Rainbow PUSH Coalition's Wall Street Economic Summit in January, "Only one-sixth of this differential could be accounted for by the ability of the borrower." Analysis of Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA) data shows that African-Americans and Latinos in New York City, Boston, Washington, Philadelphia and other cities were two to three times more likely to have subprime, high-cost loans than white borrowers with similar incomes and loan amounts.
The New York Times has reported on two neighborhoods in the Detroit area – one 97 percent white with a median income of $51,000, another 97 percent African-American with a median income of $49,000. In 2006, 17 percent of the loans made in the white neighborhood were subprime, compared to 70 percent of the loans in the predominately African-American neighborhood. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan recently pointed out on National Public Radio, "…An African-American earning more than $100,000 was more likely than a white person who earned less than $35,000 to be put in a high-cost, [subprime] loan…. Clearly there is discrimination going on." The Times also reported that "… around 90 percent of subprime loans originated between 2004 and 2006 carried exploding adjustable rates. Some 70 percent of subprime loans have prepayment penalties, versus 2 percent of prime loans…. " Those pre-payment penalties made refinancing impossible for hundreds of thousands of people. "Yield-spread premiums" also paid kick-backs to brokers for steering borrowers into high-priced loans.
Officials at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) point out that there is no uniformity in how loan documents spell out the terms of loans, and some are woefully inadequate. The Times also reported that "many lenders peddled the most abusive and costly loans to unsophisticated, first-time home buyers. Known as ‘affordability products,' the mortgages generated big commissions up front and were designed to require refinancing later on – which included yet another round of luscious fees for lenders. With refinancing no longer an option, it is becoming obvious that these loans were designed to fail." Madigan told NPR, "I have had hundreds of people come to our office once they realized that they were in one of these high-cost subprime loans… telling us that they did, in fact, ask ‘Is this a fixed-rate loan?' They were told yes, only to find out two or three years later it was an adjustable rate loan. I've had people tell us, you know, ‘we told them that our income was only $2,000 a month…' [But] we find when we look at the documents it was written down [by the lender] as $7,000, $9,000 a month. So people were being put into loans in spite of the fact that they were… giving the correct information. And it is all because of the fact that the brokers and the lenders were receiving incentives, in large part because there was just this demand on Wall Street for these mortgage-backed securities."
"Nobody seemed to care because of who was profiting, on the one hand, and who was being exploited on the other," Jackson said. "But now the water is – like the Titanic – the water is up around the deck where the big people hang out. But where did the water come in? The water came in at the bottom of the ship. The poor always pay more for less – for cars, goods and services, insurance, food, banking money. This time, however, it's affecting the whole economy, that's what is different about this. Again, if the government had not allowed the rich to get richer at the expense of the vulnerable you wouldn't have this crisis."
It is now estimated that 2.2 million subprime home loans have already failed or will end in foreclosure – the highest foreclosure rate since the Depression – with a total equity loss of $164 billion. Moreover, neighboring homesto foreclosed properties will see a decline in value of $200 billion. A US Conference of Mayors Report estimates that the foreclosure crisis will reduce home values by an additional $519 billion in 2008, bringing the total forecast of lost equity for the nation's homeowners to $1.2 trillion.
A Democratic Congress hasn't turned a blind eye to these accounts of predatory lending and the lack of regulation that invited it. In the House, both the Subcommittee on Financial Institutions and Credit and the Domestic Policy Subcommittee (chaired by Congressman Dennis Kucinich) have held hearings on predatory lending in the past year. Both Sandra Braunstein, Director of Consumer and Community Affairs at the Federal Reserve, and Chairman Sheila Bair of the FDIC, said on the record that their institutions have used HMDA data to discover patterns of discrimination and passed it along to the Department of Justice for prosecution.
But when Congressman Al Green of Texas asked how many cases had been prosecuted by the Justice Department in the last five years, no one knew the answer. A call to the Justice Department brought this e-mail response, "The Department has used its authority to enforce the Fair Housing Act and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act to bring cases against lenders that targeted certain protected classes of borrowers with predatory or abusive loans: United States v. Delta Funding (2000); United States v. Long Beach Mortgage (1996); Hargraves v. Capital City Mortgage Corp. (2000).
You read that correctly – three cases, the most recent eight years ago. (In contrast, HUD reports that it investigates approximately 480 lending discrimination complaints each year and obtains settlements in nearly 30% of them.) Jackson pointed out, "One of the things that happens when people are against civil rights law, Dr. King would often say, is they either resist it and not pass it… or if they cannot stop it, they pass it but don't enforce it…. When we called Attorney General Mukasey to discuss this matter he said, ‘Well, if you get us some information.' The information is out there! You know, I mean he knows what's happening there."
Mayors, State Attorney Generals, and the US Attorney General should sue lenders for predatory practices and to recover lost revenues stemming from a real estate market undermined by subprime mortgages designed to fail. Baltimore is suing, Cleveland and Illinois – led by Illinois Attorney General Madigan – are all pursuing these kinds of lawsuits. (The FBI has also begun investigating the subprime market – but thus far, no mention of any focus on predatory lending.) Jackson believes it is time for a Marshall-like Plan on Mortgages. He pointed to the need for federal intervention and significant restructuring in the Great Depression with the Reconstruction Finance Corporation; and in the 1990's with the Reconstruction Trust Corporation rescuing failing savings and loans. "This crisis is bigger than those," Jackson said. "It's much bigger." He called the recent stimulus package "almost like medical malpractice. If you go into the doctor's office with your right arm broken and you need it reset, but they do surgery on the left arm– you'd call that malpractice!" he laughed. "You ignore the crisis! This stimulus package does not address the impact of these multibillion dollar losses of tax revenues in American cities and suburbs. It completely ignores the source of the crisis. Because if they focus on that area they've got to deal with what happened."
This metastasizing crisis, Jackson argues, needs to be seen as part of the continuing struggle for racial equality. But both journalists and economists have been slow to admit that lack of civil rights enforcement plays a major role in this financial collapse. "That's the whole problem with the popular idea that we're going to ‘transcend race," he said. "You can't transcend race, you've got to remedy the race…. Transcendentalism does not lend itself to racial remedy. We all want to get beyond a sore, but you must take the glass out and the inflammation out, and let it heal. Then you get beyond it. The Great Society sought not to transcend it, but to address it, through a plan to lift up the bottom. After slavery, it was Reconstruction. We seek to heal this, not to transcend it."
A few times Jackson mentioned the first chapter of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s book published a year before his death: Where Do We Go From Here – Chaos or Community? It addresses the unfinished business of the civil rights movement, closing the gaps created by structural inequalities – leveling the playingfield. "The first phase… had been a struggle to treat the Negro with a degree of decency, not of equality," King writes. "White America was ready to demand that the Negro should be spared the lash of brutality and coarse degradation, but it had never been truly committed to helping him out of poverty, exploitation or all forms of discrimination…. As the nation passes from opposing extremist behavior to the deeper and more pervasive elements of equality, white America reaffirms its bonds to the status quo…. The practical cost of change for the nation up to this point has been cheap…. The real cost lies ahead."
Jackson sees these same dynamics at play in the subprime crisis. "We do not have the dogs – that symbolism as a war state – but we do have what we call structural inequality. We're free but unequal, free and unequally protected by law. If freedom is the absence of barbarianism, and the absence of indecency, then equality is the presence of justice."
As more and more studies, statistics, shattered lives and shuttered communities are visible, an unavoidable question arises: where is justice?
This article was co-authored by Greg Kaufmann, a freelance writer residing in his disenfranchised hometown of Washington, DC.
Thanks to my colleague Scott Klein for telling me that the Peace Sign, one of the most widely known symbols in the world, turns fifty this week. It was first displayed on home-made banners and badges in London on February 21, 1958, to mark the launching of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).
The sign was later appropriated by scores of disparate protest movements, the US counter culture (which made it truly famous) and, because the designer has refused to copyright the symbol, by scores of marketers and advertisers. For reasons unknown the peace sign has resonated like no other and it's now, at fifty, one of the most widely recognized symbols in the world.
Ironically the symbol itself is a mix of the military semaphore signals N -- representing nuclear -- and D -- representing disarmament (semaphore alphabet). However, Gerald Holtom, a professional artist and conscientious objector during the Second World War who designed the symbol, subverted this use of semaphores by placing the D over the N, the "upside down logo" signifying his anti-military principles.
Watch the video below to see a dramatic, human-lettered peace symbol spelled out in Prague last year. Then, click here to check out a gallery of contemporary versions of the symbol and here for ways you can help wage peace.
If the 2008 Wisconsin Democratic primary contest is remembered for anything it will be as the place where an unfocused debate on economics began to get serious about the issue of global trade.
In a state where there is a general sense that the North American Free Trade Agreement and the extension of permanent most-favored-nation trading status to China have done severe harm to Wisconsin workers, communities and industries, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton realized quickly that they were not going to get away with vague statements about globalization.
Obama began his Wisconsin campaign a week ago with a speech to almost 20,000 people in Madison that featured several references to the need to change this country's approach to trade deals. And the next morning, at the behest of U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat who has not endorsed in the presidential race, Obama went to Feingold's hometown of Janeville to deliver a major address on economic policy at the General Motors plant there.
"(When) I am president, I will not sign another trade agreement unless it has protections for our environment and protections for American workers," he told the United Auto Workers union members. "And I'll pass the Patriot Employer Act that I've been fighting for ever since I ran for the Senate--we will end the tax breaks for companies who ship our jobs overseas, and we will give those breaks to companies who create good jobs with decent wages right here in America."
Not to be outdone, Clinton told workers in DePere -- in the paper mill region of the Fox River Valley -- that she would institute a "time out" on all new trade agreements and institute a review of existing agreements with an eye toward addressing flaws that have saddled the United States with huge trade deficits. She, too, called for ending all tax incentives for companies that shutter U.S. factories and move jobs overseas.
"We have to take back every single tax break that companies get for exporting jobs out of Wisconsin," said Clinton, whose husband Bill led the fight for the NAFTA and China trade deals and bent tax policies to satisfy the demands of business interests.
The tough language on trade represented a rhetorical shift for both Obama and Clinton, who before reaching Wisconsin had been far more cautious about breaking with the "new Democrat" mantra that free-trade benefits U.S. workers and consumers.
Many critics of current trade policies, including key unions such as the United Steelworkers, had backed a third candidate, former North Carolina Senator John Edwards, who emerged as a far stronger critic of free-trade deals and corporate excesses than Obama or Clinton during the early stages of the campaign.
After Edwards left the race, both Obama and Clinton sought the 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee's support, and that of his supporters. In pursuing this backing, they muscled up some of their rhetoric on trade.
But things really changed when the remaining contenders got to Wisconsin, where factory towns such as Beloit, Janesville, Kenosha, Manitowoc and LaCrosse have all seen the factories of major employers shuttered in recent years.
Both candidates came to understand that, in Wisconsin, feel-good rhetoric about "the new global economy" was not going to sell. And they recognized that after today's Wisconsin primary, they would be headed for Ohio for the March 4 primary in a state where trade issues are, if anything, a bigger deal.
As the Wisconsin campaign wound down, both Clinton and Obama provided the most detailed responses yet to questions about precisely where they stand on the federal government's approach to trade.
The questions came from Wisconsin Fair Trade Coalition, a network of labor, farm and environmental groups that pressured the candidates to get specific about how they would change trade policies that even Republicans who are associated with President Bush -- an ardent backer of free trade -- now criticize as threats to U.S. industries and, ultimately, to national security.
In response to the coalition's inquiries, the candidates have now renewed their opposition to the planned Colombia Free Trade Agreement, and expressed opposition to proposed Panama and South Korea agreements
Both Obama and Clinton also called for changes in how NAFTA has been implemented and indicated support for a review of how trade deals are negotiated and enacted.
"If a campaign is going to run hundreds of thousands of dollars on ads about outsourcing or taxes, they should also indicate support or opposition to the trade agreements currently on the table", said Wisconsin AFL-CIO President David Newby, who chairs the Wisconsin Fair Trade Coalition. "We're glad that both Senators Clinton and Obama have indicated the NAFTA model of trade agreement is dead."
The answers from Obama and Clinton, while groundbreaking in their detail and depth, did not address every concern of the Wisconsin Fair Trade Coalition, which is affiliated with the national Citizen Trade Coalition. For instance, many members of the coalition would like to see candidates specifically commit to abandoning the fast-track model for negotiating trade agreements with other nations and regions -- a model that gives the executive branch the authority to shape deals with little in the way of thoughtful input from Congress.
But the responses of the two Democratic candidates to the coalition's questionnaire distinguished them from the three Republicans running in today's GOP primary. Arizona Senator John McCain, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and Texas Congressman Ron Paul all failed to respond to the coalition's inquiries.
"It's disappointing to see candidates spend millions on a campaign, and highlight economic issues, and yet never take a real position," complained Don Collins, a lead organizer with United Steelworkers District 2, and a Wisconsin Fair Trade Coalition board member. "Primary voters in Wisconsin are smart. Photo shoots and sound bites are not going to cut it."
Facebook is still feeling the heat over its Hotel California data policy, which hordes users' private information even after they try to desert the site. The Times' Maria Aspan has been all over this story, and her latest article reports that media and user pressure is forcing Facebook to finally let people completely extract themselves from the site. The company says this is a "technical" challenge, talking up codes and glitches. But the real motivator is money, of course, since social networking sites are in the business of monetizing the social graph. That means people are traffic and personal information is content. As Adam Cohen explains in The Times editorial section, Facebook has not exactly friended "privacy rights":
It's no secret why Web sites like to spread information of this sort: they are looking for more ways to make more money. Users' privacy is giving way to Web sites' desire to market to their friends and family. Technology companies are also stockpiling personal information. Google has fought hard for its right to hold on to users' searches in a personally identifiable way. What Web sites need to do -- and what the government should require them to do -- is give users as much control over their identities online as they have offline. […] Protests forced Facebook to modify Beacon and to ease its policies on deleting information. Push-back of this sort is becoming more common. No one should have personal data stored or shared without their informed, active consent.
Amen. I advocated a similar proposal in my recent feature on Facebook:
A simple way to address one of Facebook's privacy problems is to ensure that users can make informed choices. Taking a page from the consumer protection movement, Congress could simply require social networking sites to display their broadcasting reach prominently when new users post information. Just as the government requires standardized nutrition labels on packaged food, a privacy label would reveal the "ingredients" of social networking. For example, the label might tell users: "The photos you are about to post will become Facebook's property and be visible to 150,000 people--click here to control your privacy settings." This disclosure requirement would push Facebook to catch up with its customers. After all, users disclose tons of information about themselves. Why shouldn't the company open up a bit, too?
Debates over privacy and social networking often slip into variations of "blame the victim," especially when older luddites scorn young users for abdicating privacy and responsibility online. But these ongoing Facebook disputes reveal how companies can use technology to mislead users and preempt people from making responsible choices. And even with good information, it's still complicated. While Facebook is fighting to prevent users from fully removing their information from the site, other digital rights can run in the opposite direction. Web expert Danah Boyd recently stressed how millions of people trust companies like Google to store tons of vital information, but what happens if your digital identity is "disappeared"? She recounts how a friend lost his entire Google account and was told he had no recourse by customer service. After all, there may be no contract or back up files available:
When companies host all of your data and have the ability to delete you and it at-will, all sorts of nightmarish science fiction futures are possible. This is the other side of the "identity theft" nightmare where the companies thieve and destroy individuals' identities. What are these companies' responsibilities? Who is overseeing them? What kind of regulation is necessary?
Photo of campus poster: Inju Flickr