First, Internet fame brought Linda Tirado a miraculous windfall. Then it put her reputation through a meat grinder. She’s been saved and she’s been savaged. She has emotional whiplash.
Last month, Tirado’s essay about poverty, “Why I Make Terrible Decisions, or, poverty thoughts”—originally written as a comment on a Gawker thread—went viral, and she was able to raise over $60,000 on GoFundMe to turn it into a book. On the cusp of a publishing deal, she’s been able to quit her job as a night cook at a cheap chain restaurant.
At the same time, though, there’s been a tidal backlash against her, replete with online death threats and media denunciations. If the initial narrative about her was that she was, as The Huffington Post dubbed her, the “woman who accidentally explained poverty to the nation,” the new story is that she’s nothing but a middle-class fabulist preying on naïve and guilty liberals. Much of this story is false, but it has legs. Earlier this month, Tirado was included in a CNN piece headlined, “2013: The Web’s year of the hoax.” This week, the backlash reached The New York Times, which included her in an article headlined, “If a Story Is Viral, Truth May Be Taking a Beating.”
Given that the Times piece was about fact-checking, it’s ironic that it got its facts wrong. Listing viral stories that later turned out to be “fake or embellished,” reporters Ravi Somaiya and Leslie Kaufman described Tirado’s piece as “an essay on poverty that prompted $60,000 in donations until it was revealed by its author to be impressionistic rather than strictly factual.” This is, at best, highly misleading. Somaiya and Kaufman’s passive construction—“was revealed”—elides the fact that the person doing the revealing was Tirado herself. She filled in her backstory in a post on her fundraising page dated November 14—well before most of her donations came in. It was almost a week later that The Huffington Post published her original essay, which gave her visibility a huge boost.
In other words, she was not hiding anything from most of the people who contributed to her book project. And what we know about the nuances of her story—particularly her middle-class upbringing—we know because she put it out there.
As Tirado explained in her November 14 post, as well as when she spoke to me ten days later, she’d had many privileges as well as many bad breaks. Her grandparents, who raised her, sent her to private school during part of her childhood—though not, as some have reported, to the fancy Cranbrook boarding school that Mitt Romney attended. The confusion about this is partly Tirado’s fault. In her essay, she wrote of receiving a partial scholarship to Cranbrook but being unable to afford the rest, but said her family “knew damn well what Cranbrook was and they were determined that I would have a chance at it.” Her point was that they had ambition and social capital, which is why they tried for the scholarship in the first place. Critics interpreted it as an admission that she is a Cranbrook alumna.
From there, the idea that she was a rich boarding school kid who has never known hard times took on a life of its own. A piece in a Houston alternative weekly, posing as an investigation, claimed that Tirado “has never experienced true poverty,” apparently because she hasn’t always been poor. “Her LinkedIn profile states she’s been a freelance writer and political consultant since 2010, and has worked in politics since 2004, a claim backed by 27 decent political connections,” wrote reporter Angelica Leicht, noting that Tirado had met President Obama while interning for a politician “who obviously wasn’t disgusted by those rotten teeth.” CNN, in turn, cited Leicht’s piece as revealing that “Tirado…has worked as a political consultant, attended a private boarding school and is married to a US Marine.”
As it happens, Tirado has been upfront about the fact that she dropped out of college to bounce around the country working on political campaigns. (When I first wrote about her, I spoke to one of her former bosses, who confirmed to me that her teeth held her back.) She’s written about marrying an Iraq veteran, and only fell into severe poverty during her first pregnancy. Ohio’s Hamilton County Court has records of an eviction case against her from this time, and she sent me documentation of her enrollment in Medicaid [PDF] and the Women, Infants and Children supplemental nutrition program for poor pregnant women, new mothers and their kids [PDF].
This was the period Tirado was writing about in her essay. It ended when her grandparents, from whom she’d become estranged, came to her and her husband’s rescue when they were living in a squalid motel, moving them to Utah and setting them up in a trailer. They went on food stamps—she sent me a screenshot of their computerized records—got restaurant jobs, climbed into the working class, and eventually bought a foreclosed house with her grandparents’ help. This is the story that Tirado has been telling ever since she became famous, and none of her detractors have found anything to contradict it.
To be clear, it would be easy, reading the essay that initially catapulted Tirado into the limelight, to get the impression that her current situation was more dire than it actually was. “Cooking attracts roaches,” she wrote. “Nobody realizes that. I’ve spent a lot of hours impaling roach bodies and leaving them out on toothpick pikes to discourage others from entering. It doesn’t work, but is amusing.” You would have thought that she was still spearing roaches, instead of describing something she’d done a few years ago. Those who gave her money before she clarified things might be entitled to feel misled. But she’s tried, since becoming famous, to be as straightforward as possible. The idea that she’s been running a scam that others have uncovered is absurd.
Underlying that idea is a set of assumptions about what a real poor person looks like. Leicht, for example, dwells on Tirado’s “past as a person from a much different background” as if it proves that she’s never known desperation. “The idea that class mobility only goes one way is incredibly harmful to American society,” Tirado said when I spoke to her on Tuesday. She’s right. Further, it’s bizarre to slam someone whose essay was called “Why I Make Terrible Decisions” as a person who isn’t really poor because she’s had opportunities that she squandered. Tirado never tried to depict herself as a perfectly deserving victim. Her essay was meant to push back against the idea that only those who’ve never made mistakes deserve help. “Nobody gets to where I am without a mix of bad luck and bad calls,” she says.
It is not easy to see oneself vilified in the media, to be the subject of a great outpouring of sneering Internet rage. Tirado has written about suffering from depression; even if she was perfectly stable, having her entire digital existence combed through by hostile strangers searching for inconsistencies would not be easy.
Still, even with all the anger directed at her, Tirado’s life is undeniably much better than it was before she wrote her fateful piece. There is her new writing career—she is, she says, in the initial stages of a book deal—and, thrillingly, the chance the to spread some of her bizarre good fortune around. A widow and mother of six in Washington State wrote to her after reading her story; like Tirado, she had dental problems and was inspired to set up her own crowd-funding page, though it didn’t seem to be going anywhere. “I know that I may never have work because of my teeth…and I am not pretty. Poor, almost toothless, and older,” she wrote. In response, Tirado offered to pay her dental bills. “This is not charity,” Tirado wrote. “This is one struggling mom to another, because I have it to pass on.”
Women, Infants and Children supplemental nutrition program enrollment, 7/2/2010
Central Clinic financial agreement, 10/21/2010
Medicaid enrollment, 7/27/2010
Read Next: Jessica Weisberg on how inequality reproduces itself in America’s cities.
Columbia University professor and Nation columnist Patricia Williams joined Tom Brokaw and Ari Melber on MSNBC to remember the late Nelson Mandela. Williams said one of Mandela’s defining legacies was signing South Africa’s constitution, “one of the most progressive in the world.” She also compared and contrasted the South African leader to Barack Obama, saying the American president invokes some of the hope and inspiration of Mandela, but “the question of Guantánamo and certain foreign policies makes his situation a more complex one.”
On Tuesday, five federal agencies approved a key financial reform intended to keep banks from making risky bets for their own profit. Known as the Volcker rule, the regulation took three years to finalize and withstood a concentrated lobbying front from Wall Street and business groups.
As recently as last month financial reformers expressed concern that the final rule would leave critical loopholes open and fail to stop banks from engaging in speculative trading, with taxpayers vulnerable to big losses. But after seventy-one pages of official guidelines were unveiled yesterday, reform advocates appear to have won their campaign for a stronger law. But because of critical gray areas in the rule, how much stability it restores to the financial system depends on implementation and enforcement. (For a deeper dive into the specifics of the final rule, read Alexis Goldstein on wins, losses, and toss-ups.)
“Today’s finalization of the Volcker Rule ban on proprietary trading is a major defeat for Wall Street and a direct attack on the high-risk ‘quick-buck’ culture of Wall Street,” said Dennis Kelleher, the president of the advocacy group Better Markets, in a statement. “Regulators have resisted much of the heavy Wall Street pressure to weaken an earlier proposal. In fact, they seem to have strengthened the rule in several significant ways,” wrote Americans for Financial Reform, another advocacy coalition.
The ultimate goal of the Volcker rule is to make banking boring again by rebuilding a wall between commercial banking activity and the kind of risky trading done by investment firms. The rule bans commercial banks from making bets for their own profit rather than for their customers, a practice known as “proprietary trading.” Banks suffered about $230 billion in proprietary trading losses during the first year of the financial crisis, and taxpayers were on the hook for the massive bailouts required to keep the banks afloat. More recently, proprietary trading disguised as risk hedging caused JP Morgan’s “London Whale” scandal, a loss of $6.2 billion in 2012.
Whether the Volcker rule will truly stop proprietary trading depends in large part how strictly regulators enforce it. Under the rule, banks will establish their own compliance programs, and officials from several agencies will be responsible for policing their activity. There’s plenty of gray areas in the rules, and supervisors from agencies with different perspectives will have to decide when banks are engaged in allowed activities, like risk-hedging and market making, and when they’re cheating.
“Given the absence of a lot of ‘bright-line’ distinctions, I think supervisors are going to bear going forward an important responsibility to make sure that this rule really works as intended,” said Janet Yellen, vice chair of the Federal Reserve board of governors and Obama’s nominee to head the agency. The board voted unanimously to approve the final rule, with several other board members noting that the real strength of the rule depends on implementation.
Sarah Bloom Raskin, long an advocate for a strong Volcker rule, said one of the priorities should be setting guidelines for the examiners who will evaluate banks’ compliance with the rule. “This emphasis on compliance within firm-chosen limits rather than absolute thresholds means that the role of supervisors and examiners…becomes critical,” she said.
Raskin also argued for a deeper consideration of pay schemes at financial institutions, in light of a compensation provision in the Volcker rule that forbids banks from rewarding proprietary trading. “It seems to me that if we’re serious about minimizing financial instability in the context of the Volcker Rule, then we have to engage in some scrutiny of the design of compensation plans and ask ourselves if various pay arrangements are thwarting the rule’s goals,” Raskin said. “As long as compensation arrangements are unconstrained, the Volcker Rule would need to be more restrictive. We need to stay vigilant to the possibility that the compensation arrangements at particular institutions will not be conducive to the minimizing of the potential for financial instability.”
Raskin will soon leave the Fed to serve as the deputy Treasury secretary. In that position she is likely to play key watchdog role in the enforcement of the Volcker rule and other financial reforms.
Members of Congress will scrutinize how the rule is implemented, too. Senators Carl Levin and Jeff Merkley, who amended Dodd-Frank to include the Volcker rule, called its finalization “a big step” toward the goal of separating banks and high-risk trading. “No regulation is ever perfect, and we will carefully monitor implementation and hold regulators and firms accountable,” they said in a statement.
Banks could lose billions if the Volcker rule is strictly enforced, and financial reformers don’t expect Wall Street to stop trying to weaken it now that it’s final. “Public engagement was crucial in pushing the rulemaking process, and it will need to be sustained in the implementation process,” said Americans for Financial Reform, which also warned that more transparency is needed. “The Volcker rule cannot be allowed to disappear into a private conversation between Wall Street and its supervisors.”
Wall Street is also weighing legal challenges to the law. If they proceed, a business group like the Chamber of Commerce or the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association is likely to front the lawsuit, with funds donated by some of the largest banks and legal representation from Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s son Eugene Scalia. “We will now have to carefully examine the final rule to consider the impact on liquidity and market-making, and take all options into account as we decide how best to proceed,” the Chamber of Commerce said in a statement. Opponents could challenge the rule on procedural grounds, or argue that it improperly considers costs and benefits or contradicts other directives in Dodd-Frank.
The Volcker rule is not the final act of financial reform, as Erika Eichelberger notes at Mother Jones. Federal agencies still have to write or complete hundreds of rules mandated by the Dodd-Frank Act, including requirements for how much capital banks have to hold in reserve and regulations governing credit-rating firms and derivatives trading.
Read Next: Gary Rivlin on the army of Wall Street lobbyists working to weaken the Dodd-Frank finance reform act.
I turned 18 just months before the 2008 presidential election, making me eligible to participate in one of the most historic races our country has ever seen. Casting my ballot for Barack Obama was anti-climatic—I was away at college, so I filled out an absentee ballot. The act of voting didn’t feel all that monumental. But election night did.
As soon as the major networks had determined that Obama would be the next president of the United States, I ran outside with the rest of my freshman dorm and celebrated on the quad. It was like a scene from a cheesy movie: hundreds of students congregated in the center of campus, cheering and commemorating the moment we had all been hoping for. It’s an image I often conjure up when older generations call us apathetic.
I voted for Obama in 2008 because I was enchanted by his rhetoric. I wanted a president who believed in the same issues that I did, who thought LGBT rights and racial equality weren’t just important but essential. I was tired of old white men making decisions for millions of people who didn’t have their same privileges. I wanted a president who was the polar opposite of George W. Bush, someone who would get us out of imperialist conflicts in the Middle East masquerading as war.
I wanted Barack Obama to be my president. I knocked on doors with a friend on Super Tuesday, and handed out pamphlets about the former senator from Illinois in a predominantly conservative neighborhood. I read his memoir on my spring break in high school. I devoured all his speeches on television and YouTube. Then, I voted accordingly. Obama’s campaign didn’t just inspire me to want change: he made me want to be a part of that change.
A recent survey from Harvard’s Institute of Politics finds that 54 percent of millennials now disapprove of Obama’s job performance. (Compare that to a 2009 poll that showed a 58 percent approval rating among young people.) America’s youth has changed its tune, and for good reason.
For many of us, what came after Obama’s campaign was disappointment after disappointment. Sure, the first bill signed into law under his presidency was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, a piece of legislation aimed at leveling the gender pay gap. But these kind of symbolic measures weren’t representative of the more radical ideologies Obama had, to me, once exhibited.
President Obama campaigned, and sold me, on an antiwar platform. Nearly five years later, my friends and family are still being deployed to Afghanistan. Guantanamo Bay is still up and running, and the president has supported torture tactics despite backlash and resistance. His lack of comprehensive immigration reform continues to hurt our nation: by the end of 2013, almost 2 million people will have been deported under President Obama’s watch. (To compare, the same amount of people were deported in total between 1892 and 1997.) The Obama administration has been accused of being “the most hostile” administration toward the press in history. Not to mention that little NSA spying issue.
With every day spent in the White House, the president’s bright-eyed idealism seemed to shift toward the same old politics of every man who came before him. In turn, my idealism shifted right along with his. Am I disappointed? Of course. Would I vote for him again? Absolutely.
I’m not the only millennial living with this contradiction. Harvard’s new study also showed that46 percent of millennials surveyed would vote for Obama again. Of course we would—because the alternative is way scarier. As long as the US has to operate and govern within the democratic two-party system, these are the choices we have to make.
When November 6, 2012 came around, I was in my last semester of college. I felt like my political consciousness had come full circle. This time, I was little older, and a little more sober to the fact that the president is limited to the political systems currently in place. I knew what Obama had done, and the promises he hadn’t fulfilled.
I cast another absentee ballot for Obama. And this time, when he won, I felt my hope a little more absent as well.
On the John Batchelor Show, Russian studies professor and Nation contributor Stephen Cohen criticizes the American media’s coverage of ongoing protests in Ukraine. Expanding on a letter he wrote to The New York Times, published on this site, Cohen disputes the narrative that Vladimir Putin bullied President Viktor Yanukovych into rejecting a EU-deal. Hear why EU-integration might not be such a great idea for Ukraine in the first place and how the American press has failed to report “the true story” of what’s really going on in Kiev.
It’s been another great year for hard-hitting or wonderfully creative documentary films, from Sarah Polley on her family to Jeremy Scahill on targeted killing abroad (and need I mention my own on Beethoven’s Ninth?).
Last night I watched another film on the just-announced shortlist of finalists for this year’s Academy Award for the genre: Blackfish.
As you may have heard, it takes a deep (so to speak) look at the practice, over the past four decades, of capturing orcas in the wild and hauling them to the Sea Worlds of the world. The film raises alarms not just about these magnificent creatures but the danger to trainers and performers at the water expos. We see shocking footage of numerous deaths or near-death experiences of humans leading to a current legal action that has, for now, curtailed the man-to-whale contact in the shows.
But at the heart of it, and I do mean heart, is the foul practice of capturing the orcas at sea and breaking up their families (among the tightest in creation). Who knew that, like Indian tribes of yore, each grouping of orcas has their own “language”? That they can live for 100 years? That the mothers and kids stay together their entire lives (yes, as often the case, the dads are around but not central). And so on.
You may shake with anger and sadness on viewing this film, or at least give your cat or dog an extra hug.
Here’s the trailer:
Time magazine has named Pope Francis as its Person of the Year. It is hard to quarrel with their choice of a pope who attacks the “idolatry of money,” not to mention a pope who when asked about gay members of the clergy said, “Who am I to judge?” Oh, and the fact that he makes Rush Limbaugh burst a vein is just a bonus.
That said, Pope Francis would not have been my choice. For me, a “Person of the Year” is someone who is the personification of the issue that has shaped society most decisively in the previous calendar year. My choice would have been either the late Trayvon Martin, murdered in 2012 yet immortalized in 2013, or national security state whistleblowers Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. These are three people whose legacy will extend far beyond 2013.
In considering my Sportsperson of the Year, I apply the same lens: who best represents what I believe to be the most important narrative in the sports world from 2013? The story of the year in sports is, for me, a no-brainer. This has been the year when the “last closet” has been breeched with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender athletes, as well as their allies, finally being heard. To see athletes like Jason Collins and Brittney Griner come out of the closet; to see LGBT athletes and allies from around the globe pledge to use the platform of the 2014 Sochi Olympics to stand up to Russia’s draconian anti-gay laws; to see organizations like the You Can Play project and Athlete Ally take center state; to see NFL players like Chris Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbadejo helping to lead victorious fights for marriage equality; to see the NFL Players Association sell t-shirts of NFL player/allies, is to indeed see the walls of the “last closet” begin to start tumbling down.
My Sportsperson of the Year, however, is none of these people. I was tempted to choose Jason Collins, but the inability of even one NBA general manager to sign Collins to a contract makes his narrative incomplete, not reflecting the hope and possibility that this past year represents.
The story that best demonstrates the distance traveled in 2013 is the story of Robbie Rogers, and he is my Sportsperson of the Year. Robbie Rogers is a professional soccer player who in incredibly dispiriting fashion both came out of the closet and retired in February at age 25. Rogers told the world that he could not imagine being both a pro athlete and openly gay. “I wouldn’t want to deal with the circus,” he said. “Are people coming to see you because you’re gay? Would I want to do interviews every day, where people are asking: ‘So you’re taking showers with guys—how’s that?… Fuck it. I don’t want to mess with that.”
It was tragic. Yet then two events took place that changed Rogers’s life. One was seeing Collins come out and get a powerfully positive response from the sports world. The other was speaking to 500 LGBT teenagers and not being able to explain to them why he had retired. “I seriously felt like a coward,” he told USA Today. “These kids are standing up for themselves and changing the world, and I’m 25, I have a platform and a voice to be a role model. How much of a coward was I to not step up to the plate?”
Rogers then the day after Collins came out, signed with the Los Angeles Galaxy. On May 26, Rogers became the first openly gay male athlete to take the field in North America.
Afterward, Rogers had a remarkable life lesson to share. ”I don’t know what I was so afraid of,” he said. “It’s been such a positive experience for me. The one thing I’ve learned from all of this is being gay is not that big of a deal to people…. I think as the younger get older and the generations come and go, I think times are just becoming more accepting.”
Oh, one last note: Robbie Rogers considers himself a devout Catholic and said, “Being Catholic—and people may disagree—but we are called to love everyone. Be honest. Be true in your relationship with God. I’ve always lived that way.”
With that line comes clarity about the people who have truly shaped our world in 2013. Pope Francis is the reflection of changes taking place in our society. Robbie Rogers is that change personified. Rogers said, “It is awesome to be part of a movement that his changing society.” He needed that movement to step forward, but because he was brave enough to not only come out but come back, he is also expanding that movement to empower countless others. He is my Sportsperson of the Year.
The last thing that President Obama needs right now, as he struggles to finalize an accord with Iran and get the peace conference on Syria up and running next month, is a showdown over Ukraine. But he might just get one. The three-week-old crisis there is teetering on the brink of something far worse, as protesters vow to expand their demonstrations and security forces threaten a general, violent crackdown. Despite signs that the government in Kiev may be trying to negotiate a resolution to the standoff, and despite nationally televised talks between Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovich and his three predecessors, there’s enormous potential for uncontrolled violence.
The right in the United States, especially the neoconservative anti-Russia lobby, is in a lather, perhaps intoxicated by the toppling of a statue of V.I. Lenin in Kiev by anti-government protesters. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Edward Lucas, author of The New Cold War: Putin’s Russia and the Threat to the West, urges the United States and the Europeans to expand the confrontation from Ukraine to Russia itself. If Ukraine “falls into Russia’s grip,” he warns, “Europe’s own security will also be endangered.” Complaining angrily that the West has allowed Russia to threaten Ukraine, Lucas says:
The best way Europe or America can help Ukraine—and Georgia and Moldova—is to take a much tougher stance with Russia. The EU may not want to play geopolitics. But geopolitics is being played in Europe, and EU interests and members are at stake.
The EU should freeze Russia’s request for visa-free travel for holders of “official” passports. America and EU countries should also freeze Russia’s application to join the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Paris-based good-governance club. The EU should intensify its scrutiny of Gazprom’s behavior in the European gas market, and pursue its upcoming antitrust “complaint” (in effect a prosecution) against the Russian state-owned giant with the greatest vigor possible.
It is time to show Mr. Putin that his hunting license in Russia’s neighborhood is now canceled.
But Lucas isn’t confident that anything like that will happen. “Don’t hold your breath,” he concludes.
But everyone ought to be holding their breath—and avoiding sharp public comments such as Secretary of State John Kerry’s unfortunate remark that he was “disgusted” by the Ukraine government’s decision to clear part of Independence Square, where the protests are centered, by force yesterday. (This is the same Kerry who seem quite solicitous of Egypt’s military, which has used vastly stronger violence, killing hundreds, in suppressing protests there since the July coup d’état.) Said Kerry:
“The United States expresses its disgust with the decision of Ukrainian authorities to meet the peaceful protest in Kyiv’s Maidan Square with riot police, bulldozers, and batons, rather than with respect for democratic rights and human dignity. This response is neither acceptable nor does it befit a democracy.”
And Kerry couldn’t resist getting in a plug for Ukraine’s Orthodox Church, which is rallying the protesters: “As church bells ring tonight amidst the smoke in the streets of Kyiv, the United States stands with the people of Ukraine.”
After days of playing down the crisis in Ukraine, the United States has lately upped its involvement, with Vice President Biden calling Yanukovich and Victoria Nuland, a quasi-neocon who serves as assistant secretary of state, dropping in on Kiev to contribute her two cents.
The crisis began when Yanukovich, under severe pressure from Russia, opted not to sign an agreement with the European Union and instead signaled his decision to join an economic pact linking Russia and a handful of former Soviet states. Earlier this year, Russia threatened to bring Ukraine to its knees via a trade embargo and other measures, taking advantage of the fact that Ukraine is heavily dependent on Russia economically, and it is near bankruptcy, needing an infusion of something like $18 billion to stabilize itself. The accord with the EU, accompanied by the usual demands from the International Monetary Fund, would force Ukraine to accept stringent economic austerity measures to qualify for aid, and the EU also wants Yanukovich to free political prisoners, including an imprisoned former prime minister, Yulia Timoshenko. Russia, on the other hand, won’t come to Ukraine’s aid until and unless it gets assurances that Ukraine won’t become part of an EU-NATO alliance against Moscow. So, as long as Ukraine is caught between east and west, Cold War–style, it’s unlikely that either side will come to Ukraine’s aid economically.
Maybe Yanukovich can play both sides against each other. As The New York Times reports:
Russia has indicated some willingness to help, potentially with a combination of lower gas prices, the refinancing of existing debt and, perhaps, a small bridge loan, but not until the political turmoil has been resolved. … The possibility that Ukraine could be tipped back into Russia’s orbit has set Western officials scrambling, in part to put together a more palatable aid package that perhaps would persuade Mr. Yanukovich to reconsider signing the accords.
President Obama and Kerry ought to urge the EU to rejigger the offer to Ukraine, tell Russia that they are willing to meet them halfway, and work out a Solomon-like solution that gives everyone a win-win.
But, on the right, there is strong pressure on Obama to turn this into a good-vs.-evil struggle of titanic, Manichean proportions. Take, for example, the near-hysterical words of George Wiegel, writing in National Review:
For while there are many factors impelling Ukrainians into the streets these days, the most basic question at issue in the confrontation between the protesters and the government of Viktor Yanukovych is this: Will conscience, tethered to moral truth and ordered to the common good, be permitted a place in the Ukraine of the 21st century? Or is Ukraine condemned by history, by geography, and by the toxic aftereffects on its culture of seven decades of Communism to be an outlier or exile in the contemporary drama of freedom, governed by brute force detached from any notion of moral responsibility?
Before this becomes Axis of Evil Revisited, Obama needs to reign in Kerry and Nuland and calm things down.
Read next: Stephen F. Cohen’s thoughts on the New York Times coverage of the protests in the Ukraine.
The trouble with making “functional” government the great aspiration of the American experiment – as so many pundits and politicians now do – is that a smoothly operating Congress is not necessarily moral, humane or even economically smart.
It is important to remember this disconnect as we consider the budget deal announced late Tuesday by House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, and Senate Budget Committee chairman Patty Murray, D-Washington.
“This agreement breaks through the recent dysfunction to prevent another government shutdown and roll back sequestration’s cuts to defense and domestic investments in a balanced way,” said Murray. “It’s a good step in the right direction that can hopefully rebuild some trust and serve as a foundation for continued bipartisan work.”
Ryan was equally self-congratulatory, declaring that – after a fall the saw a government shutdown, nasty wrangling over the historically uncontroversial task of raising the debt ceiling and general congressional dysfunction – he and Murray had achieved “a clear improvement on the status quo.”
“This agreement makes sure that we don't have a government shutdown scenario in January,” he added. “It makes sure we don't have another government shutdown scenario in October. It makes sure that we don't lurch from crisis to crisis."
Murray and Ryan are excited that they had stopped fighting for long enough to agree to $63 billion in “sequester relief” – as opposed to an actual end to sequestration – and $23 billion in net deficit reduction. They're also glad that they have set the discretionary spending level for fiscal year 2014 at $1.012 trillion, while setting the level at $1.014 trillion for fiscal year 2015. That apparently qualifies – in the eyes of the budget negotiators – as a sufficient alternative to lurching from crisis to crisis.
But the agreement does not address the crises that matter. “This plan won't create jobs, get the economy back on track, or meaningfully cut the deficit,” explains Congressman Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon.
And that's not the worst of it.
What of the 1.3 million jobless Americans who – with a fully Dickensian twist – now stand to lose Federal unemployment benefits three days after Christmas?
The budget agreement does not look like a “step in the right direction” for them. And unless Democrats succeed in renewing benefits in a distinct piece of legislation that apparently must pass this week – as Congress is moving rapidly toward recess – many of the most economically vulnerable Americans will be “lurching from crisis to crisis” very soon.
Their crisis is our crisis. According to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, extending benefits for the long-term unemployed would boost a still slow economy by two-tenths of a percent in the coming year – creating 200,000 needed jobs. As the CBO explains: “Recipients of the additional benefits would increase their spending on consumer goods and services. That increase in aggregate demand would encourage businesses to boost production and hire more workers than they otherwise would, particularly given the expected slack in the capital and labor markets.”
Without providing for the extension, something that easily and appropriately could have been done in the budget agreement, Ryan and Murray failed in their most basic humanitarian and economic duties.
And what of the federal workers and members of the military who will be required to take what is effectively a pay cut in order to pay more for their retirement benefits?
“Federal workers have sacrificed over $113 billion for deficit reduction since 2011, including a three-year pay freeze and increased pension contributions for newly hired employees. This figure does not include the up to eight furlough days caused by sequestration this summer and a 16-day shutdown in October which resulted in financial hardship and profound anxiety for half the government’s workforce and their families,” noted unions that represent federal employees. “Given these contributions, we are dismayed to learn that increasing the pension contributions and/or changing the retirement formula for current federal employees is on the table. This is simply unacceptable.”
This is, also, absurd.
Despite Murray's prodding, the House and Senate budget chairs did not close a single tax loophole. But they did come up with a scheme to take money away from public employees and people serving in the military – effectively reducing what millions of Americans will have to spend on Main Street.
Members of House and Senate who are paid $174,000 annually, collect generous benefits and – thanks to redistricting and an incumbent-rewarding campaign finance system – enjoy no small measure of job security, can pat themselves on the back for breaking through “the recent dysfunction.” But forcing others to lurch from crisis to crisis so that you can tell yourself you have taken “a step in the right direction” is socially and economically dysfunctional. Not to mention cruel, and irresponsible.
Read Next: Jessica Weisberg explains how inequality has been woven into the fabric of American society.
Last month, we noted that a bipartisan group of senators, lead by Jeff Merkley of Oregon, introduced an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that asked President Obama to seek a vote in Congress over whether to extend the war in Afghanistan through “2024 and beyond,” as the potential security pact with the Afghan government proposes.
Monday, the contours of a Senate deal to advance the NDAA were announced—and Merkley’s amendment will not be receiving a vote.
This is despite the amendment gaining even more support among powerful Democrats, including one—Alaska Senator Mark Begich—who is up for re-election in 2014, a possible barometer of how politically toxic the war has become (67 percent of Americans don’t think the war was worth it, according to a recent poll).
The amendment now counts Senators Rand Paul (R-KY), Mike Lee (R-UT), Ron Wyden (D-OR) Joe Manchin (D-WV), Tom Harkin (D-IA), Jon Tester (D-MT), Chris Murphy (D-CT), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Patty Murray (D-WA) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT), along with Merkley and Begich as co-sponsors.
Senator Tom Coburn is threatening to dramatically slow down the NDAA if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid doesn’t allow Senators to propose amendments, but that gambit is unlikely to work.
But Merkley isn’t giving up—his office pledged to bring a similar bill back for consideration before the security pact is finalized, and expressed dismay that the measure likely won’t be considered this year.
“Senator Merkley is disappointed that his amendment will not get a vote during the Defense Authorization debate,” said Jamal Raad, Merkley’s press secretary. “He still thinks it is important that before we commit massive resources and thousands of troops to another decade in Afghanistan, Congress should vote, and he will continue pushing for a vote.”
Meanwhile, the seemingly smooth negotiations between the United States and Afghanistan seem to have hit a snag, with Afghan President Hamid Karzai calling for delays and protesting several provisions. That may yet scuttle another decade of war. But Merkley and his colleagues are pressing on, holding to the notion that Congress ought to have a say on another decade of war with an essentially new mission.
Read Next: The Nation's interactive database of civilian casaulties in Afghanistan.