The Nation

Vanden Heuvel Tells Kristol That if He Wants War, He Should Join the Iraqi Army

Katrina Kristol ABC

Katrina vanden Heuvel and Bill Kristol face off 

After carpeting their green rooms with neocon artists for weeks, the network Sunday shows have finally had someone on who’s saying what everyone else has been thinking. On ABC’s This Week With George Stephanopoulos yesterday, Katrina vanden Heuvel told Bill Kristol to his face that if he wants the United States to intervene in Iraq so much, “you should, with all due respect, enlist in the Iraqi Army.”

Rarely, if at all, has someone put it so directly to Kristol on one of the Sunday talk shows, where the Weekly Standard editor has made quite a successful career for himself. But The Nation’s vanden Heuvel punctured the Sunday-show gentleman’s agreement that we’re all in this TV pundit business together—so, while you don’t have to be polite to one another exactly, if you want to speak truth to a bully’s blather, it’s best to do so indirectly and on tiptoes.

Instead, sitting just a foot from him, vanden Heuvel told Kristol what we’ve all been thinking, especially of leading chickenhawks like him: that he’s one of “architects of catastrophe” who deserves “accountability,” and that what America—and by implication him and the neocons—has done to Iraq is “a crime.”

The panel, including Matthew Dowd and Donna Brazile, was talking about presidential powers when Katrina bent the discussion:

For example, the president should go to Congress if he’s going to take military action in Iraq…. There’s no military solution to Iraq, and I have to say, sitting next to Bill Kristol, man—I mean, the architects of catastrophe that have cost this country trillions of dollars, thousands of lives—there should be accountability.

If there are no regrets for the failed assumptions that have grievously wounded this nation—I don’t know what happened to our politics and media accountability, but we need it, Bill, because this country should not go back to war. We don’t need armchair warriors, and if you feel so strongly, you should, with all due respect, enlist in the Iraqi Army.

Kristol, his smirk fading, shot back, “That’s a very cute line.” (Would he have said that to a man?)

“But it’s real,” vanden Heuvel said. “Millions of Iraqis have been displaced…. What we have done to that country is a crime.”

“What we have done to that country?” Kristol said. “President Bush made mistakes, he was punished for those mistakes electorally as he should have been in 2006, and perhaps in 2008. He also had the courage to order the surge in 2007, which made up for those mistakes, and left things peaceful.”

It’s not clear if Kristol was trying to pin all the “mistakes” on Bush and thereby pretend that vanden Heuvel wasn’t talking about him at all.

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After more back and forth, Matthew Dowd, who worked for George Bush and has a son who served two tours in Iraq, in effect seconded Katrina and obliquely slammed Kristol, “We all know, everybody—most everybody knows—that this has been a colossal waste of money…and the blood of men and women of our country,” he said.

“We don’t fix the first mistake by continuing to make a second mistake." Anyone who’s an enlisted person, he continued, “will tell you that the only way this can be solved is you have commit troops there for 100 years. …I, for one, don’t think we should send another man or another woman, over there in a mistake that was made in the first place.”

Watch it here:


Read Next: The Editors against intervention in Iraq 

Katrina vanden Heuvel to Bill Kristol: If You Want War So Badly, Join the Iraqi Army

Katrina vanden Heuvel on Iraq

This Sunday, Katrina vanden Heuvel appeared on ABC’s This Week and challenged Bill Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, on Iraq and American foreign policy. Vanden Heuvel called Kristol one of the “architects of catastrophe that have cost this country trillions of dollars, thousands of lives.” She added, “This country should not go back to war. We don’t need armchair warriors, and if you feel so strongly, you should, with all due respect, enlist in the Iraqi Army.”
Victoria Ford

Supreme Court Ruling in ‘Harris v. Quinn’ Will Undermine Gains Made by Low-Wage Home Healthcare Workers

Supreme Court

(AP Images)

The Supreme Court reached into the living rooms of homebound people with disabilities today and weakened the institutional backbone of public sector unions. At the intersection of public service and private capital, the case Harris v. Quinn was ostensibly about the cost of union dues, but hinged on a legal theory that could ultimately cost the labor movement far more.

Today’s five-four decision pushed public sector unions a step closer toward death by attrition, by eroding their ability to finance themselves. The ruling specifically blocks unions from collecting mandatory dues from Medicaid-funded personal health aides in Illinois.

Though the decision was not as broad as labor groups had feared, it strikes hard at the concept of “fair share”—the idea that workers in a union shop should be expected to contribute to the running of the union. The Court has previously upheld this concept on the premise that because everyone in the workplace benefits from the collectively bargained contract—including negotiated wages, work rules, safety standards and benefits—financially supporting that representation should be mandatory.

The workers in Harris aren’t typical government bureaucrats; they are homecare assistants with Illiinois’s Medicaid-funded in-homecare program, serving thousands of people with disabilities. After being authorized to vote to unionize with SEIU years ago, this workforce became a relatively recent addition to Illinois’s public sector. In many other states, home health attendants not only lack union coverage; their jobs are precarious, low-paid and disproportionately done by women and people of color.

The plaintiffs represent a group of workers involved in a later vote that ultimately rejected the union. They brought the suit on the principle that fair share, or what conservatives call “forced unionism,” when imposed on workers regardless of whether they personally favor a union, violates their free speech rights. This argument folds into a broader assault on public sector unions led by the group backing the plaintiffs, National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation (NRTWLDF). The group advocates for “right to work” laws (already in place in twenty-four states) that undermine labor by barring “closed shop” unions that provide blanket union representation. In its sweeping focus on public-sector unionism (specifically targeting SEIU and AFSCME), the Harris plaintiffs aimed to overturn Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977), which upheld collective bargaining rights and dues collection for public-sector unions.

In oral arguments, the NRTWLDF argued that by forcing workers to pay dues, public sector unions were effectively forcing them to engage in political activity, and, as SCOTUS Blog explains, that collective bargaining over wages and benefits is tantamount to endorsing “the union’s public policy ambitions.” (Critics point out that collective bargaining is standard procedure for a large, organized workforce, and besides, political union activity is governed and funded separately.)

The decision, penned by Justice Alito and generally reflective of his anti-labor views, could have gone broader by invalidating fair share for all public sector workers. Today’s ruling, as Tom Goldstein of SCOTUSblog summarizes, was not that extreme and did not completely overturn Abood, though it left the door open to do so in a future case: “today it has refused to go that far. The unions have lost a tool to expand their reach. But they have dodged a major challenge to their very existence.”

Ultimately the court ruled more specifically against fair share for what it oddly termed “partial public employees,” pointing out that the homecare workers were unique because their public service job provides personal care under a federal program, and “are almost entirely answerable to the customers and not to the State.” In contrast to other civil servants, “the customer has virtually complete control over a personal assistant’s work,” so the union’s power is limited. But in a portent of future anti-union rulings, the majority outlined what it saw as outstanding constitutional problems in Abood, contending that the earlier precedent “failed to appreciate the conceptual difficulty of distinguishing in public-sector cases between union expenditures that are made for collective-bargaining purposes and those that are made to achieve political ends.”

In her dissent, Justice Kagan argued sharply that the mixed ruling created an unnecessarily complex new category and weakened the ability of a program to manage its labor relations rationally. “The Court did not, as the petitioners wanted, deprive every state and local government, in the management of their employees and programs, of the tool that many have thought necessary and appropriate to make collective bargaining work,” Kagan wrote. But at the same time, “the majority robbed Illinois of that choice in administering its in-homecare program.” Abood had provided “a stable balance—consistent with this Court’s general framework for assessing public employees’ First Amendment claims—between those employees’ rights and government entities’ interests in managing their workforces.”

The ruling claws back on the real material gains that collective bargaining won for homecare workers. Outside of Illinois’s state program, workers in the sector typically earn around $20,000 per year and suffer tremendously stressful, often exploitative working conditions. Only last year did they officially become eligible for federal minimum wage and overtime rules, following a hard-fought campaign by domestic workers’ advocates to end the Labor Department’s longstanding exemption for homecare providers.

Illinois health aides, by contrast, made real progress after joining SEIU as direct employees of the state. Part of a national campaign to unionize the sector, the workers collectively bargained for higher wages and labor protections typical of union workers but long denied to other health aides, including health benefits and training.

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The Harris ruling has troubling parallels with today’s other bombshell decision in the Hobby Lobby case, in which the religious right attacked contraceptive coverage under the healthcare reform law. Both cases misleadingly pit collective rights against a reactionary concept of private liberty. Intriguingly, both today’s decisions relate to the rights of women at work. And both relate to public health for the most vulnerable. Sarita Gupta, executive director of Jobs with Justice, said in a statement that the Harris decision “serves the interests of anti-worker extremists at the expense of these invaluable workers who care for our families and our children.”

Though the ruling was not as extreme as right-wing activists had hoped, the right-to-work movement successfully used private rights as a legal cudgel against core public institutions. The court has stepped on the rights of women, workers, the poor and people of color, to hand more of the public trust over to corporate hands.


Read Next: Rhode Island workers fight for a living wage

Syria’s Chemical Weapons Removed in Major Success for US-Russia-Iran Cooperation

Syria missile

(Reuters/Nour Fourat)

It’s ugly in Syria and Iraq (and, as we shall see, the Obama administration seems to want to make the war in Syria worse), but there’s been some good news out of Syria this week: the joint US-Russian plan to remove and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile has worked—to the chagrin, no doubt, of the hawks and neoconservatives who said it wouldn’t. We’ll wait for their apology, right after they apologize for the war in Iraq.

Here’s an excerpt of the press release from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which was charged with the task:

A major landmark in this mission has been reached today. The last of the remaining chemicals identified for removal from Syria were loaded this afternoon aboard the Danish ship Ark Futura. The ship made its last call at the port of Latakia in what has been a long and patient campaign in support of this international endeavour. … The mission to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons programme has been a major undertaking marked by an extraordinary international cooperation. Never before has an entire arsenal of a category of weapons of mass destruction been removed from a country experiencing a state of internal armed conflict. And this has been accomplished within very demanding and tight timeframes.

In an editorial titled “They Said It Couldn’t Be Done,” The New York Times says:

Less than a year ago, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and his forces were sporadically using chemical weapons on rebels and civilians in the civil war. Today, the stockpile that he grudgingly admitted to under international pressure is gone. … President Obama’s critics excoriated the deal, but they have been proved wrong. The chemical weapons are now out of the hands of a brutal dictator—and all without firing a shot.

A feature article in The Washington Post makes it clear that the incredibly difficult logistics of locating, packing up, transporting (through a war zone) and loading onto ships of all XXX was done with the cooperation of not only the United States and Russia, plus the Syrian government, but Iran, too:

The Iranians, [Sigrid Kaag, who heads the joint mission of the United Nations and the OPCW] said, provided technical advice. “They obviously lived through a terrible chemical weapons experience themselves,” when the Iraqi forces of Saddam Hussein made liberal use of chemicals during the 1980s Iran-Iraq war. “They see themselves as quite committed to eliminating the use of chemical weapons anywhere. “They’ve also been helpful to us in contacts with Syrian authorities . . . in amplifying our messages, validating our approach,” Kaag said.

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Some of the idiots who said it “couldn’t be done” include Yochi Dreazen of Foreign Policy, former Senator Jim Talent of the Heritage Foundation, neocon scribbler Peter Feaver, right-wing Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, the reliable neoconservative skeptics at the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, Iraq war architect Douglas Feith, the usual suspects at the “thinktank” called the Foreign Policy Initiative (Bill Kristol, Robert Kagan, Dan Senor, Eric Edelman) and, well, you get the idea.

Meanwhile, weirdly, Secretary of State John Kerry seems intent to sending more aid to the supposed moderates of the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad. The right strategy, given that the anti-Assad Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is gobbling up territory in both countries, would be halt aid to the anti-Assad forces, since that would free up Assad’s military to go after ISIS in northern and eastern Syria. But, as the Associated Press reports, the Syrian “moderates” are hopelessly disorganized and outgunned. The Los Angeles Times reports “deep divisions, clashing rivalries and considerable disarray within the Syrian National Coalition.” Are you listening, Mr. Kerry? It’s time to surrender in the Syrian war.


Read Next: Bob Dreyfuss on Syria joining war in Iraq on the US side.

Great War: The Immediate Response to Franz Ferdinand’s Assassination, 100 Years Ago Today

Archduke Franz Ferdinand

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie depart from the City Hall, Sarajevo, shortly before they were assassinated by Gavrilo Princip, June 28, 1914. (Public Domain)

One century ago, at approximately 11 am local time, Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip in the streets of Sarajevo. Tensions in the Balkans had been high since Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908, and Nation writer Simeon Strunsky had observed earlier in June that pressure from Slav nationalists was “bound to increase.”

But having predicted the event, albeit in very vague outline, did not make The Nation any more capable of perceiving its cataclysmic consequences. In the first Nation issue to be published after the assassination, dated July 2, 1914, it took the editors until the fifteenth item in the news-summary section to even mention what had happened in Sarajevo. “The crime is considered to have been the result of a plot by a section of the Serb inhabitants of Bosnia,” they noted.

In a longer consideration a few pages later—in an editorial titled “The Austrian Tragedy”—the editor Rollo Ogden tried to tease out some broader meaning from the archduke’s death. If The Nation at all dimly perceived how the assassination might upend European politics and, within a matter of four weeks, mobilize armies of a size never before seen in the world, this would have been the place to mention it. This is how the editorial begins:

Ogden notes that an emperor in poor health might prove disadvantageous in what were sure to be unsettling days ahead: “The old Emperor will doubtless make an effort to keep the reins in his hands as long and as firmly as possible, but it is evident that Austria will have to face trials of a sort to test her strength and her international policy.”

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As for the assassination, The Nation disapproved—and in terms quite familiar to us today:

* * *

Back Issues will be following this magazine’s coverage of the “Great War”—in real time, a century later.

Curious about how we covered something? E-mail me at rkreitner@thenation.com. Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.


Read Next: From the Great War series, “The Climate of June 1914

What are ‘Nation’ Interns Reading the Week of 06/27/14?

Books College

(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

—Hélène Barthélemy focuses on the criminal justice system, activism and culture.

The Weak State: The Dissolution of Constitutional Iraq,” by Michael Youhana. Full Stop, June 17, 2014.

This article (by a former Nation intern!) provides an excellent examination of the Iraqi political context by analyzing three seminal books on the topic. It serves as a powerful corrective to many pieces approaching Iraq in a political vacuum. Beyond the focus on ‘sectarianism,’ which depoliticizes and dehistoricizes current developments, Youhana reminds us that there is nothing inherent in sectarian identities, which are formed, transformed and abandoned like any sense of belonging to a group, according to the political context. The article also analyzes the consequences of the American invasion on oil production and its strategic importance for pressuring Iran. Most crucially, it lays bare the undemocratic, dysfunctional, US-influenced constitution that followed American occupation but was in line with it. It laid the ground for current lawlessness.

—Summer Concepcion focuses on race, gender and criminal justice.

5 Links Between Higher Education and the Prison Industry,” by Hannah K. Gold. Rolling Stone, June 18, 2014.

The irony of the relationship between higher education and the prison industry is quite frustrating, especially for a current college student like myself. One of the biggest takeaways from my college experience thus far has been gaining awareness of the problems within the prison industrial complex. It’s quite easy to ignore how universities operate on a corporate level when it’s often the place where students confront many political and social issues for the first time. Reading this article makes me question how much of higher education’s “mission” is a PR stunt after all.

—Erin Corbett focuses on national security and reproductive rights.

Jane Doe, Trans Women, and the Myth of the Perfect Victim,” by Katherine Cross. RH Reality Check, June 23, 2014.

This article tackles the unlawful incarceration of Jane Doe, a 16-year-old trans girl who is being held in solitary confinement (without charge or trial) in the Connecticut State Prison after allegedly attacking Department of Children and Families staff. Katherine Cross begins this piece with the assertion that “[v]ery few of us are ‘perfect victims,’” a powerful statement, which she then uses to address the dehumanization and stripping of personhood of specific types of bodies. Jane Doe’s story is one of an individual existing outside of the legal system, described as a violent threat—someone to fear. This case is unfortunately not an exception to the rule that some human beings are treated as disposable on the basis of their difference. As Cross explains, “[t]he trick is that trans women and women of color are forever regarded as inherently imperfect.”

—Victoria Ford focuses on African-American identity, feminism/womanism and the arts.

How to encounter a black woman’s body: The politics of Mammy Sphinx,” by Brittney Cooper. Salon, June 24, 2014.

With Kara Walker’s A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby: An Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant closing in little more than a week on July 6, it is more than refreshing to read this piece from Dr. Brittney Cooper. By encountering the black woman’s body both as problem and as relic, Cooper asks readers to toil with place, gentrification and eviction—the literal and disproportionate “locking out” of black women which occurs today at epidemic levels. “This history of imminent displacement seems incredibly difficult for black women to shake,” Cooper writes, “especially when our bodies remain tethered to controlling images that will not turn us loose.”

—Douglas Grant focuses on labor and income inequality, gender politics and American politics.

How College Is Like Sunscreen,” by Derek Thompson. The Atlantic, June 24, 2014.

In the face of a weak imitation of a recovery, with wages stagnant and student debt rising, the notion of whether higher education is worth it is often thrown into doubt. But as Derek Thompson explains, it’s only when comparing college graduates’ wages to those who never completed their degrees that college’s value shows (like sunscreen, he says, it takes seeing a bad burn before the wisdom of applying it is reinforced). When the press is deluged with stories of mushrooming student loan debt, tuition that rises at many times the rate of inflation and ever dimmer employment prospects, it’s a hard sale to make (pithy, oversimplified statements like “BA is the new SPF” don’t exactly help). As a graduate that’s had my share of curt phone conversations from collectors at Sallie Mae (hey, guys! I’ll call you back), such statements can come off more as than a little tone-deaf, as they do not take into account the perspectives of plenty of others who get left behind in the global economy (those who never attended college, those who didn’t finish and are left saddled with huge bills or those who didn’t complete high school). The upside of attending college that Thompson offers his perspective on is, in the face of panicked, provocative pieces that college “isn’t worth it,” still couched in bleak terms. After rising in the Eighties through the mid-2000s, the wages of graduates are falling—just not as fast as everyone else’s. It shows us that our work is cut out for us.

—Hannah Harris Green focuses on South Asian Culture and Politics, and Sexual Assault.

Women in India Aren’t Safe on Twitter Either,” by Sonia Faleiro. Medium, June 19, 2014.

Over the past year, we’ve seen many examples of men using Twitter to intimidate women who they disagree with, combating their words not with counter-arguments but with threats of sexual violence. In her recent article for Medium, Sonia Faleiro discusses how this trend has picked up in India, which, with the Election of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister, is now dominated by the right wing Hindu party, the BJP. In conjunction with this political change, privileged, conservative Hindu men have felt compelled to use Twitter as a platform to threaten women who belong to oppressed castes and minority religions, and women who they perceive as threatening in their modernity. Such women are typical targets for the Indian right wing, but now men may harass them from the safety of their computer desks as well as in the streets.

—Alana de Hinojosa focuses on immigration, race and racism, Latin@ identity and feminism.

Univision’s World Cup Spanish commentary has surprised some Latinos,” by Nina Porzucki. Public Radio International, June 20, 2014.

Felix Sanchez, co-founder of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, recently went on Public Radio International to discuss what he found to be a disconcerting facet to Univison’s World Cup broadcast. The issue? Univison broadcasters were referring to Afro-Costa Rican players not by their names or jersey numbers, but by the color of their skin (“moreno”) and the texture of their hair (“greña”). Though “moreno,” which means “dark skin,” is not concerned offensive in Latin America and can actually have endearing connotations, the term can without a doubt have negative, racialized connotations when used in the US. The same goes for “greña,” which means “messy hair,” or more colloquially, “nappy hair.” While Sanchez acknowledged that Latin@ culture and the Spanish language affords certain deviances from American, English language broadcasting norms, he was firm to remind Univision that they are still a US broadcaster. “Therein lies part of the issue, which is regardless of the fact that it’s being broadcast in Spanish, it’s still by a US broadcaster that needs to abide by American standards and American sensibilities,” Sanchez said on the show. Granted it’s important that Univision uphold its Latin@ character, but it’s equally important that Univision (and Latin@s as a whole) remember that Latin@s living in the US don’t live in the same worlds as US and Latin American television shows. “We have one foot in each world,” Sanchez said.

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—Crystal Kayiza focuses on the African diaspora,immigration, Black Feminist thought, and police brutality.

Modern-Day Slavery in America’s Prison Workforce,” by Beth Schwartzapfel. The American Prospect, May 28, 2014.

With the highest incarceration rate in the world, the United States relies on the exploitation of inmates to sustain the prison system. In her article, Beth Schwartzapfel calls into question the labor policies that allowed for the creation of “modern day slavery.” Schwartzapfel describes how the absence of fair wages, lack of education behind bars and exclusion from employment after prison all contribute to recidivism. Not only bringing to light the political decisions that sustain the prison industrial complex, Schwartzapfel states “in America, breaking the law has become more than just an occasion to be punished or even rehabilitated. It has become a permanent mark of who you are and what our country thinks you’re entitled to earn.”

—Agnes Radomski focuses on labor, mass incarceration, the war on drugs and the military industrial complex.

The youth heroin epidemic that wasn’t,” by Michael Tracey. Al Jazeera America, June 23, 2014.

Earlier this month, Governor Andrew Cuomo declared that statewide abuse of heroin had reached “epidemic proportions,” especially among young people. He announced a plan to double down on law enforcement by adding an additional 100 investigators to the State Police Community Narcotics Enforcement Team. In his opinion piece, Michael Tracey points to a lack of evidence among not only law enforcement and politicians but the media as well. He notes use of heroin has actually decreased from 2011 to 2013, according to government data. (Tracey points out that New Jersey and New York officials have attributed overdose deaths to the unsanctioned use of prescription opiates.) Nevertheless, youth-oriented governmental efforts focused on heroin are being introduced, like the “multijurisdictional drug task force” in New Jersey. Tracey argues that programs like these suggest “that authorities are prioritizing criminal punishment, rather than enacting prudent measures such as genuine public health services that would reduce heroin use.” Across counties in New Jersey and New York, hundreds of arrests have been made leading to possible terms of at least five years in prison for simple possession. Heroin related bills have passed New York state’s Senate in an effort to redouble criminalization efforts. Tracey reminds us of the consequences of such wrong-headed policies prevalent during the span of the failed war on drugs: “Like the drugs they plan to banish, these laws come with their own adverse effects: over-crowding prisons with nonviolent offenders, breaking up families, authorizing overzealous policing tactics, and breeding undue fear.”


Read Next: What are Nation interns reading the week of 06/20/2014?

Moral Mondays Has Managed to Go Beyond the Color Line—but Is That So Unprecedented?

Melissa Harris-Perry and Chris Hayes

Yesterday, Melissa Harris-Perry appeared on All In with Chris Hayes to discuss the birth of the interracial Moral Mondays movement. She told Hayes that this initiative goes against many Northern liberals’ perception of the South, which they see as “so utterly backward and so utterly racially divided.” The reality is more complicated, she explains: “There is a level of intimacy, interracially in the US South that hasn’t always led to equality but has meant that there have been moments when interracial political movements could emerge.” This history of fusion movments since the aboliton of slavery should keep us from seeing Moral Mondays as game-changing, says Harris-Perry,”there are strategic partnerships, but we probably should not expect enduring, long-term coalitional change.”
Hannah Harris Green

Will the Government Finally Regulate the Most Predatory Industry in America?

Payday Loans

Payday loan business in Phoenix, Arizona (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

When Dana Jones first heard about payday loans, she was struggling to pay for prescriptions for her mother, who had been struck suddenly with mental illness. She borrowed a small amount that first time—just $50, she remembers—and paid it back when she got her next paycheck. It seemed simple enough, so she began drawing regularly on short-term credit. “I really thought it was a loan that worked like any other loan I had gotten from finance companies,” said Jones, who lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. “I just didn’t know.”

What Jones didn’t know is that the triple-digit interest rates charged by many short-term lenders would soon push her into a spiral of debt. “You have one loan, and you end up going to another payday lending company to pay for it, and then you have another one,” she explained. At the low point of a debt trap that lasted for more than a decade, Jones owed money to twelve different creditors. She had no trouble finding new lenders; there are more than twenty on just one street in Baton Rouge, sometimes several on the same block. “I was just drowning in this, and I didn’t see my way out,” Jones remembered.

Jones was almost lucky compared to Thelma Fleming, another Baton Rouge resident who pawned her jewelry, had her checking account shut down and lost her car trying to keep up with a string of loans she took in order to make ends meet after she lost one of her two jobs. “For me, it was devastating,” she said. “It got the best of me to the point where I considered suicide.”

Some 200,000 households in Louisiana borrow from short-term lenders every year, as do roughly 12 million people in the United States. There are about as many payday loan stores in the United States as there are McDonald’s and Starbucks. Typically under $500, the loans are intended to provide small amounts of cash to tide borrowers over until their next paycheck. With interest rates as high as 700 percent, many borrowers end up under a mountain of unpayable debt instead. In Baton Rouge, 20 percent of bankruptcy cases involve payday loans.

“It’s a huge issue, and not one people wanted to talk about,” said Broderick Bagert, an organizer with Together Louisiana, a coalition of religious and civic groups that launched a campaign for stricter rules for payday lenders during the last legislative session. Their push “scared the hell out of the industry,” Bagert said wryly, noting that the number of lobbyists working on its behalf jumped from a handful at the beginning of the legislative session to more than fifty by its end. In late April, the state Senate rejected the bill.

“There is no doubt in anybody’s mind about where the people were, but the lobby this time around had the resources to buy the vote,” said Bagert.

Louisiana has become one of the fiercest battlegrounds in a protracted fight between consumer advocates and the payday lending industry, which exploded during the early 2000s after decades of deregulation and an influx of easy money from Wall Street. The difficulty of establishing state-level protections for borrowers is not unique to Louisiana, and consumer advocates have for years called on the federal government to cap astronomical interest rates.

Finally, action is on the horizon. In a hearing last week, the director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—the watchdog agency established in the wake of the financial crisis—told members of the Senate Banking Committee that new rules for payday lenders would come out sometime in the fall.

“[The CFTC] is very open and very clear that they want to address this problem,” said Bagert, whose group brought their concerns about payday lending directly to Cordray in a field hearing in New Orleans on June 12. “The question is, will they propose regulations that are strong enough?”

Beyond an outright cap on interest rates, consumer advocates have suggested other rules that prevent long-term indebtedness, such a mandatory waiting period between loans, or limiting the number of loans someone can take out in a year or the amount of time a borrower can be in debt and still be eligible for a new loan. Other measures could include requiring lenders to determine whether a loan is actually affordable for a borrower, and stricter reporting standards.

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The most critical test will be whether the new rule is expansive enough to keep payday lenders from concealing predatory practices by packaging them as other types of loan products, a tactic the industry has used to thwart several states’ attempts to regulate it. In Ohio, for example, a recent court decision allows payday lenders to evade a 2008 law intended to cap interest rates at 28 percent by offering cash under a mortgage-lending license. A loophole-laden rule similarly undercut the Defense Department’s attempt to crack down on small-dollar lenders that target members of the military.

Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown has been particularly vocal about the danger of a law written too narrowly. “Because most small-dollar, short-term loans possess three of the ‘Four Ds’ that negatively affect consumers—deception, debt traps, and dead ends—the CFPB must address the full spectrum of products being offered to consumers,” Brown wrote in a letter sent to Cordray on Monday. He encouraged Cordray to extend the new rules to auto title, online and installment loans.

In the June 18 hearing, Cordray assured Brown that the CFPB was working “to make sure that what we do won’t be made a mockery of by people circumventing [the new rules] through just transforming their product slightly.”

Dana Jones and Thelma Fleming will be watching from Louisiana. Both were active in the legislative campaign last session, and plan to advocate again this year for bolder action from the state. “I don’t want it to happen to anyone else the way it happened to me,” Fleming said. “I made a very bad choice, but sometimes it’s because we think we’re helping ourselves.”

Both women have finally paid off their debts, but Jones has several relatives trying to untangle themselves from what they also thought would be a short-term relationship with payday lenders. Those businesses claim they won’t survive interest rate caps or other regulations, and that as a result, people who are down on their luck will be cut off from short-term credit. Jones, however, sees the $30 billion-a-year industry’s motives as less than altruistic.

“What they’re doing—they’re robbing people,” she said. “This is America; everybody has a right to have their own business. What people do not have a right to do is make a profit that is demoralizing.”


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The Ugly Truth About Your Shrimp Cocktail

migrant workers from Myanmar

A Thai employer monitors migrant workers from Myanmar working on his fishing boat at a port in the town of Mahachai near Bangkok. (Reuters/Damir Sagolj)

The ocean’s culinary delights look pristine on our tables: peeled, processed and sterile. Now Western consumers are getting a taste of the human drudgery in the dregs of the supply chain.

News reports have surfaced of enslavement in the fisheries of Thailand. Men have reportedly been forced to work at boats for as many as twenty hours a day; disciplined with beatings, sometimes murders; often physically held captive on boats and at ports; and further preyed upon by usurious debts. The industry employs an estimated 650,000, with roughly 270,000 migrants on Thai fishing boats. Many have been trafficked from two poorer, less stable neighbors, Myanmar and Cambodia. Despite widespread reports of abuse and forced labor, regulatory bodies are weak and riddled with corruption, and we may never know how many have been subjected to this ferocious exploitation in order to keep our freezers stocked.

In a study by the UK-based Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), which documented extraordinary brutality on the fishing vessels, a trafficking survivor described the mechanics of modern-day captivity at sea:

“We had no choice. There was nowhere to flee; we were surrounded by the sea. After we arrived back to the shore, we were locked inside the room guarded by their men; there were too many of them. So the workers had to take one trip after another, without having a choice.”

The processing of human beings begins on shore with debt bondage, as EJF explains, “Many migrant fishers are sold to boat owners for what is known as ka hua, the price paid which the worker must pay off before receiving any wages. This can leave many fishers working for months or even years without pay.”

Their status as a commodity in a complex global trade leaves them variously disenfranchised: they’re simultaneously trapped in primitive conditions, yet their labor is governed by a fast-moving, technology-driven market run by “first world” monopolies.

Thailand’s $7.3 billion fishing-export industry is major international market, yielding hundreds of thousands of tonnes of seafood each year. But it’s also rife with illegal and environmentally destructive fishing practices, which have severely depleted fish stocks and undermined the oceanic ecosystem as well as the fishing economy. The whole regional industry embodies the kind of neoliberal profiteering embedded in the global seafood industry (one study estimates that 20 to 32 percent of wild-caught seafood imports to the United States is illegally traded).

Migrant workers from Myanmar work on a fishing boat before sailing out of the port of Mahachai. (Reuters/Damir Sagolj)

A large portion of Thailand’s catch is considered “trash fish” which also enters the supply chain after being processed into fishmeal and then indirectly fed to other fish stocks. The Guardian recently traced this fishmeal to the prawns sold in “leading supermarkets around the world, including the top four global retailers: Walmart, Carrefour, Costco and Tesco.” The main purveyor of fishmeal from slave-staffed boats, Thailand-based Charoen Pokphand (CP) Foods, has also directly sourced ready-to-eat prawn to UK outlets.

Meanwhile, investigators with the US State Department and various watchdog groups have criticized the Thai government’s deeply inadequate enforcement; prosecutions for labor trafficking on fish boats are extremely rare, with just a handful of formal investigations in 2010 and 2011. Even the workers who are “rescued” must endure a gauntlet of legal bureaucracy and in many cases, indefinite detention, which can drag on for weeks or months and often fails to protect the impoverished and isolated workers from their former captors.

Following the reports of labor abuses, the industry issued boilerplate expressions of concern. Several multinationals vowed to work harder to follow ethical sourcing guidelines and improve supply-chain monitoring.

At the same time, Thai officials continue to crack down on the migrants, rather than their captors, targeting undocumented Burmese and Cambodians and spurring an exodus back across the porous border.

So far, these political responses sidestep, or potentially impede, the prospect of workers themselves—that is, those most impacted by these mass human rights violations—to change the industry. Deeming them “slaves” helps convey the gravity of the exploitation, but it also has the effect of dehumanizing or compartmentalizing the issue, rather than locating the structural inequalities and gradients of exploitation throughout the industry.

However, there are worker-led structures in place that can wage a meaningful challenge against both the criminal trafficking underground and the legal plunder of the ocean economy. In fact, there is a long tradition of radical maritime unionism. In the early twentieth century, dock and ship workers were at the helm of militant internationalist labor campaigns, organizing at key trade chokepoints across global ports. But in Thailand today, less than 5 percent of the workforce is unionized, and many, particularly undocumented migrants, lack real collective bargaining rights. In the fisheries, EJF Executive Director Steve Trent tells The Nation via e-mail, “the prospect of meaningful workplace representation is even more remote…. Workers on piers and fishing boats complain that grievances have to be channeled through gangmasters—the same individuals often responsible for their abuse and exploitation in the first place—who are typically bi-lingual and free to mediate between the management and workers according to their own interests.”

Though lax regulation and huge consumer demand help Western retailers to prosper while suppressing labor costs, conversely, empowering workers would not only help remedy the gravest abuses but also ensure the industry’s sustainability in the long term.

Migrant workers from Myanmar clean a fishing net as they sail out of the port of Mahacha. (Reuters/Damir Sagolj)

Trent says policymakers need to understand “the clear link between illegal fishing, declining fish stocks and human rights abuses.” Environmental stewardship can provide a more sustainable economic balance in the ecosystem. Better management of catch rates would mean less pressure for long, arduous and high-risk forays into foreign waters. So by restoring some ecological balance, the ocean economy becomes more sustainable, less risky and less prone to labor exploitation.

Liz Blackshaw, leader of the ITF-IUF (International Transport Workers’ Federation–International Union of Food Workers) Catcher to Counter program), says that so far efforts to regulate the fishing industry haven’t linked sustainability measures with corporate accountability. “If you look at the policy framework in this industry, the majority of it is in place to safeguard the catch not the catchers,” she explains via e-mail. Effective international labor accords or trade regulations would trace the product and the labor to corporate actors.

In ITF-IUF campaigns in the Asia Pacific region, Blackshaw says, “the challenge is to find a way to organize that incorporates different facets” of a fractured contract-based production system. For example, one approach might be to start with organizing cannery workers, using their demands to anchor a baseline for working conditions, and then “work backwards along the supply chain to the fishing fleet.” A pilot project based on this model has made some inroads in Papua New Guinea’s embattled maritime sector, where the union says that incremental organizing around wages and infrastructure have helped advance labor reforms, including measures to raise the minimum wage.

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In addition to strengthening international monitoring of the industry, workers can organize at the grassroots on multiple fronts—consolidating consumer support for human rights, environmentalists’ focus on sustainability, and cross-sector labor organizing.

In Blackshaw’s view, “we are now at a point where we could start calling for consumer boycotts, revocation of fishing licenses for breaches of fundamental rights; demanding safety inspections for trade purposes, etc. We cannot organize this industry vessel by vessel; plant by plant, we have a sophisticated and systematic model for organizing which is already introducing a labour narrative into what has historically been a sustainability-only debate.”

Until the seafood business starts valuing workers lives as much as it does the size of the catch, the precarious labor system on Thailand’s waters is destined to sink under its own weight.


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