Seventy-five percent of the world’s population owns a cell phone, billions of which are made in China. As the demand for cheaper consumer electronics grows, workers are paying the price.
There are hundreds of chemicals that are routinely used in electronics manufacturing processes in China—some are known carcinogens and reproductive toxins, and others are largely untested. Manufacturers do not readily disclose the chemicals they use and factories do not typically provide adequate training or protective gear. Workers exposed to these dangerous chemicals can develop cancer, leukemia, nerve damage, liver and kidney failure, and reproductive health issues, depending on the chemical and level of exposure.
Join The Nation and Green America in calling on industry leader Apple to commit to eliminating benzene, n-hexane and other harmful chemicals from its supply chain. With millions of people working in its supplier factories in China, Apple’s leadership on this issue could make a big difference.
Head to Green America's "Bad Apple" campaign site to learn more about the use of toxic chemicals in the electronics industry.
In the short film "Who Pays the Price? The Human Cost of Electronics," documentary filmmaker Heather White tells the stories of workers in China who struggle for recognition and compensation after discovering that they have been poisoned by toxic chemicals at their jobs.
A subject I've been writing about for, oh, the past decade or so--the media's sad, tragic performance during the run-up to the U.S. attack on Iraq--never gets old, at least for me. It provides such a revealing glimpse of, and warning about, how leading media outlets usually cave to the "offiical narrative" from the "serious" policymakers and pundits. Howard Kurtz, now at Fox, calls it, aptly, the media's "biggest failure of modern times."
Obviously this is relevant in today's world where the U.S. is pushed to intervene abroad by many of the same macho crew from 2002-2003, who have no shame, from Sen. John McCain to "liberal hawks" such as Bill Keller. Consider how close we came to going to war in Syria a few months ago, when much of the media again fell short again.
The New York Times and Judith Miller get much of the blame for the media failures in the run-up to the Iraq invasion, so let me shine a light here on the Washington Post. My book So Wrong for So Long reviews the article Kurtz wrote for the Post in 2004, taking the newspaper to task for some of its misconduct (the paper itself did not assign is own probe).
Because of the notoriety surrounding Judith Miller, the Post’s almost equally poor coveage and opinion pieces drew too little attention after WMD were not discovered. The Post ran Kurtz’s critical August 12, 2004, piece on the front page, something it inevitably failed to do with stories skeptical of the march to war.
By the Post’s own admission, in the months before the war, it ran more than 140 stories on its front page promoting the war, while contrary information “got lost,” as one Post staffer told Kurtz. So allow me to pursue a few points (see my book for much more on media misconduct in war coverage). First, two quotes (beyond the Woodward gem) from Post staffers that speak for themselves:
• “There was an attitude among editors: Look, we’re going to war, why do we even worry about all the contrary stuff?”—Pentagon correspondent Thomas Ricks.
• “We are inevitably the mouthpiece for whatever administration is in power.“—Reporter Karen DeYoung.
* “[Bob] Woodward, for his part, said it was risky for journalists to write anything that might look silly if weapons were ultimately found in Iraq.”
Next, consider the highly revealing excuses, offered by Post editors:
• Executive Editor Downie said experts who questioned the war wouldn’t go on record often enough. But his paper, and others, quoted unnamed pro-war sources willy-nilly.
• Downie also asserted that “voices raising questions about the war were lonely ones.” This is simply rewriting history. On the eve of the invasion, polls showed that half the public wanted to delay the invasion to give the United Nations inspectors more time to do their duty, and millions had already marched in the streets. Many of the editorial pages of major US newspapers (though, crucially, not the Post’s) were expressing their own doubts about the need for war. Key intelligence experts questioned the administration’s evidence but were given little play, on or off the record, at the Post.
• Liz Spayd, assistant managing editor for news, offered another weak defense in explaining why a key article questioning the existence of WMD by thirty-two-year Post veteran Walter Pincus was finally published on Page A17. Pincus’s stories are “difficult to edit,” as she put it. Matthew Vita, then national security editor and now deputy assistant managing editor, offered another defense for the Pincus miscue: “We were dealing with an awful lot of stories, and that was one of the ones that slipped through the cracks.”
• That rationale also applied to another sad case. In the days before the war, Dana Priest and Karen DeYoung finished a piece that said CIA officials had communicated significant doubts to the administration about evidence linking Iraq to an attempted uranium purchase. The story was held until March 22, three days after the war began. “Editors blamed a flood of copy about the impending invasion,” Kurtz explained.
• Vita had a different excuse on another missed opportunity. One of the fresh revelations in the Kurtz piece was how, in October 2002, Thomas Ricks (who has covered national security issues for fifteen years) turned in a piece titled “Doubts,” indicating that Pentagon officials were worried that the risks of an invasion of Iraq were being underestimated. It was killed by Vita. He told Kurtz that a problem with the piece was that many of the quotes with names attached came from “retired guys.” But the Post (and much of the rest of the media) rarely shied away from “retired guys” who promoted the war.
• Other excuses rippled through the Kurtz piece, featuring phrases like “always easy in hindsight,” “editing difficulties,” “communication problems” and “there is limited space on Page 1.” One editor explained, “You couldn’t get beyond the veneer and hurdle of what this groupthink had already established,” even though the British press somehow managed to overcome that. Amid all the excuses, Post staffers denied that the paper was under any pressure from the White House.
• At the end of the Kurtz piece, Downie offered his ultimate defense. “People who were opposed to the war from the beginning and have been critical of the media’s coverage in the period before the war have this belief that somehow the media should have crusaded against the war,” Downie said. “They have the mistaken impression that somehow if the media’s coverage had been different, there wouldn’t have been a war.”
Two responses to that final excuse come quickly to mind.
Most of those against the war did not ask for a media “crusade” against invasion, merely that the press stick to the facts and provide a balanced assessment: in other words, that the Post do its minimum journalistic duty. If anything, the Post, and some other major news outlets, came closer to crusading for the war.
And did Downie honestly believe that nothing the media might have done could have possibly stopped the war? Especially when, as noted, public and editorial opinion on the eve of war was divided? Does he take issue with Walter Lippmann’s notion that the press plays a vital role in “manufacturing consent”? And does he really believe his must-read newspaper lacks any clout? If so, what does that say about the state of modern newspapering?
Greg Mitchell’s So Wrong for So Long, on the media and the Iraq war--with a preface by Bruce Springsteen--has been published in an expanded edition for the first time as an e-book.
For a little while – a very, very little while – it looked like Paul Ryan was going to lead the GOP away from the reflexive demonization of the poor.
Last November, his office put out word that he intended to essentially revive compassionate conservatism. “Paul Ryan, GOP’s budget architect, sets his sights on fighting poverty and winning minds,” read the headline of a long Washington Post piece. It described Ryan’s “ambitious new project: Steering Republicans away from the angry, nativist inclinations of the tea party movement and toward the more inclusive vision of his mentor, the late Jack Kemp.”
Now, this softening was never more than rhetorical: He still sought to slash food stamps and other benefits. Nevertheless, it was an improvement on the Republican tendency to openly scorn struggling people as lazy, entitled moochers. As Paul Krugman wrote last week, “Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue. So when you see something like the current scramble by Republicans to declare their deep concern for America’s poor, it’s a good sign, indicating a positive change in social norms. Goodbye, sneering at the 47 percent; hello, fake compassion.”
Well, it looks like Krugman’s adieu was premature. Today, Ryan went on Bill Bennett’s Morning in America radio show to preview his legislative proposals for reforming the safety net. There, as Think Progress first reported, he cited Charles Murray to argue that entrenched poverty derives from a culture of indolence among the poor.
“We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working, just generations of men not even thinking of working, or learning the value and the culture of work,” said Ryan. “So there’s a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.” Part of the way Ryan intends to deal with this culture problem is by tightening work requirements. As he wrote in The Wall Street Journal in January, “In 1996, Congress required people on welfare to work, and the results were encouraging. Child-poverty rates fell by double digits. The trouble is, we haven't applied this principle far enough.”
The culture-of-poverty thesis is like a horror movie villain – it will probably never stop coming back. But it’s particularly perverse to invoke it at a time when welfare been virtually eliminated and huge numbers of those receiving benefits are already working.
“The overwhelming majority of SNAP recipients who can work do so,” says a Center On Budget and Policy Priorities report on the relationship between food stamps and work. “Among SNAP households with at least one working age, non-disabled adult, more than half work while receiving SNAP — and more than 80 percent work in the year prior to or the year after receiving SNAP.” Meanwhile, the black unemployment rate – which counts only those who are actively looking for work – is consistently twice that of whites. We’re in the middle of a jobs crisis and it’s not going to be cured by Calvinist exhortation. If there’s a cultural problem here, it lies in the culture of callousness among conservatives. They might want to move beyond blaming the poor, but they just can’t help themselves.
Read Next: Michelle Goldberg writes on how "Paul Ryan’s CPAC Speech Was Based on a Lie"
Yesterday was sunny and warm in New York, and Mayor Bill de Blasio was announcing his appointment of an impressive group of people to criminal justice posts. After weeks of tough headlines, "Today is a good news day," the mayor declared, in part because of some cheery crime statistics. As the mayor explained:
During the first 10 weeks of 2014, the NYPD has driven down already historically low levels of crime. Overall, major crime has gone down 2 percent in the first 10 weeks of 2014 compared to where the levels stood a year ago. That’s overall – that’s all major crime categories – a 2 percent decline. But let’s talk about homicides. Homicides are down nearly 21 percent from this time a year ago. Shooting incidents down more than 14 percent from this time a year ago. This is extraordinary progress. It is not surprising to me, given that we have the finest police force in the world, that this progress is made. It’s not surprising to me, given that we have the finest police leader in the world, that this progress has been made. Some naysayers suggested that you couldn’t bring down crime while bringing police and community back together. I think these last 10 weeks show – yes, you can and yes, we will. And I just want to thank Commissioner Bratton and all the men and women of the NYPD for their extraordinary efforts. This is real evidence of what they can achieve and will continue to achieve.
Given the way de Blasio's opponents in the fall predicted bloodshed and mayhem upon his taking office, the mayor deserves a little room to crow. And he was quick to give street cops the credit they deserve rather than claiming all of it for his polices.
But regardless of who gets credit or blame, it's unwise to put too much weight on small changes in the crime rate, or on trends over a short period of time—because when the numbers turn in the other direction, the cheering will turn to panic. Time and again in recent years, the city's tabloid press has reacted to mini-spurts of crime as if they augured a return to the "bad old days." In the end, the trends never last, and the overall crime rate keeps falling. In fact, just about a month ago, the Post was screaming about the 33 percent increase in murders during the first month of the de Blasio administration.
The very lowness of the key crime statistic—the murder rate—only enhances the danger of playing the stats game. If I went out and killed 15 people in 1990, it would have increased the murder count by about six-tenths of one percent. If I go out and do that today (which is extremely unlikely, but can never be totally discounted), the murder rate this year might go up 5 percent as a result. When the base number is low, small changes look very large.
That's not to say something very cool isn't happening: Over the past year, even before the federal court ruling, even before de Blasio took office, the number of stop-and-frisk encounters was collapsing but—contrary to those naysayers—crime kept falling. The 10 weeks the mayor points to are part of that longer trend.
And that trend, in turn, is part of something even larger: For two decades, under four different mayors, through economic booms and busts, violence and lawlessness have been decreasing in New York and throughout most of the country.
Focusing on short-term peaks and valleys misses that broader landscape of policy success. Beyond that, the stats obsession feeds back unhelpfully into politics and, then, into policy. When the Giuliani administration, began its intense focus on crime statistics, with Bill Bratton and Jack Maple taking the lead, the numbers were intended to serve as a tactical guide for police commanders. But they became a politically charged barometer for mayoral performance. It's hard to see how that eventually led to situations like the scandal in the 81st Precinct, where a cop recorded his commanders ordering officers to take steps to discourage the reporting of crime.
This is the dark side of the ascendance in the past decade of the use of metrics in government. It's great to hold government accountable, and the numbers can help with that—I use them ad nauseam in my reporting. But when they become the lone, nearly instantaneous indicator of whether a government is succeeding or failing, they're dangerous. Numbers can be manipulated, and can be understood to say more than they really say. And they can go from being a tool to being a master.
Read Next: Why are subway arrests up 300 percent under de Blasio?
Though Chris Christie had a relatively successful appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) last week—despite his mediocre results in CPAC’s straw poll, won by Rand Paul—back home in New Jersey it looks like the noose is tightening.
The twin inquiries into the various scandals surrounding the governor—one by a joint committee of the state legislature and another by the US Attorney’s office for the District of New Jersey—have both expanded in recent weeks. And now, there’s a third, related investigation just underway, looking into the conflict-of-interest problems surrounding David Samson, the chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and a key Christie ally. The legislative committee, which began with the lane-closing scandal at the George Washington Bridge, has broadened its inquiry to include the charges by Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer that the Christie administration threatened to withhold Superstorm Sandy recovery aid unless Zimmer threw her support behind a $1 billion development project in the town, whose lawyers just happened to be David Samson’s law firm, Wolff & Samson. And US Attorney Paul Fishman, who at first seemed to concentrate on the Hoboken story, has recently refocused on Bridgegate, too. (Back in January, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer, Fishman already had issued subpoenas to Governor Christie’s reelection unit and to the New Jersey state Republican party.)
And yesterday, in a New Jersey courtroom, lawyers for two former Christie aides, Bridget Anne Kelly and Bill Stepien, both ousted in the Bridgegate scandal, pleaded with a judge to quash subpoenas demanding their emails and other records.
Over the past several days, various newspapers—including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Newark Star-Ledger, and the Bergen Record—have each reported that the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, issued and then withdrew a subpoena asking the Port Authority to hand over records, including emails, pertaining to Samson’s conflict-of-interest problems. Since the start of Bridgegate, there has been a deluge of reports that Samson, who had power over the awarding of huge construction and development contracts by the PA, apparently used that power to benefit his law firm, Wolff & Samson, which represented many of the developers and construction firms. A very detailed accounting of Samson’s political influence was published this week by The Asbury Park Press, and Christie Watch has reported on the Samson story here, here, and here.
There are questions about why Bharara issued the subpoenas and then withdrew them. Apparently, he withdrew them in order to clear the way for Fishman, in New Jersey, to reissue them and look into Samson’s activities as part of his broader investigation. But why did Bharara issue them in the first place? To prod Fishman? More likely it was to provide political cover to Fishman, since he can assert that the inquiry into Samson began in New York and that he is just following up.
Last month, the Star-Ledger called on Samson to quit. This week, several other papers have penned similar calls on their editorial pages, including The Asbury Park Press, The New York Observer, and The New York Times. In its editorial, the Times noted the long list of self-dealing actions by Samson, concluding:
Underneath these and other seamy details lies a fundamental truth: the Port Authority needs fundamental reforms. And it should be run by professionals, not political hacks like the 50 or so political associates Mr. Christie has put into jobs at the authority. Mr. Christie owes it to the millions of people who use and pay for the Port Authority’s facilities to find professionals to do these jobs. And he can begin by telling Mr. Samson it is time to retire.
Oddly enough, one person who hasn’t weighed in on whether or not Samson ought to quit—or be fired—is New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo. A few weeks ago, the PA executive director, Patrick Foye, who was appointed by Cuomo, declared that Samson no longer has the “moral authority” to run the PA. But Cuomo has been silent on the matter. Last week, two New Jersey newspapers, the Record and the Star-Ledger, ran major investigative pieces describing how Christie and Cuomo ran a scam to create political cover for toll hikes on the bridges and tunnels across the Hudson River two years ago. The two governors allowed aides to float a proposal for a much higher toll increase, after which the governors stepped in like knights on white horses to propose a smaller increase—even though that had been the original level they wanted all along. And, though it was Christie’s aides who orchestrated the subterfuge, especially Bill Baroni and David Wildstein—both now fired over the lane-closing fiasco—it appears that Cuomo enthusiastically supported the idea. In the end, much of the cash generated by the toll hikes was used to fund PA projects involving Wolff & Samson clients. Now, all Cuomo will say is that whether or not Samson goes or stays ought to be up to Christie. Cuomo told WNYC:
The chairman of the Port Authority is an appointee of the governor of New Jersey and I will leave it to the governor of New Jersey to make that decision.
Several former PA officials who spoke to Christie Watch on background said that ever since taking office Governor Cuomo and his appointees at the PA, including Foye and half a dozen PA commissioners, seemed willing to play ball with the Christie-Baroni-Wildstein machine at the agency. Though it appears, so far at least, that Cuomo and his allies didn’t used the PA as a patronage machine the way Christie and Samson did, the New York governor and his team traded favors with the New Jersey team. When New York wanted something from PA, such as money for the rebuilding of the World Trade Center, Baroni and Wildstein said in exchange that they wanted the PA to hire a list of Christie appointees.
Here’s the way it worked, according to Port Authority insiders: Baroni would say that New Jersey’s PA officials would support projects that New York wanted. They’d say, ”I think we’ll get all of NJ’s votes for this.” But then they’d add that Governor Christie “has a few people, here are their resumes, we’d like to bring on board.” (Indeed, Christie appointed more than fifty patronage employees at the PA.) And, according to the former officials, Baroni and Wildstein made it clear that New Jersey’s votes on those projects were “contingent on hiring these particular people.”
The New York Times and other papers have called for sweeping reforms at the PA. According to several accounts, when Baroni and Wildstein were at the agency, they ran a two-fisted political campaign to get done what Christie and Samson wanted. It was outright political patronage, and it helped Christie build his political machine in New Jersey, winning the support of mayors, local officials and construction unions. (That’s why the Newark Star-Ledger called it a “slush fund.”) But it isn’t known exactly when Governor Cuomo realized the extent of the Port Authority shenanigans. Certainly, he knows now. But what did the New York governor know and when did he know it? And what is he going to do about it?
Read Next: How Christie built the Port Authority 'slush fund.'
When offensive lineman Jonathan Martin did the unthinkable and walked away from the Miami Dolphins in the middle of the 2013 season, some said he would never play in the NFL again. Never mind the fact that he was suffering from severe depression, with ideas of self-harm on his mind. Never mind the revelations that he was dealing with the hazing, bullying and even assault perpetrated by teammates, led by his “friend” Richie Incognito. Never mind that there were coaches complicit in this scenario. His pro football days were done, not only because he left the team, but also because of what his decision to leave supposedly revealed about his character. As Reggie Rivers, a former NFL player, wrote in The Denver Post in a column titled, Is Jonathan Martin in the Wrong Career?, “Martin may be too quiet, too unwilling to speak up for himself and too emotionally fragile to handle the vicissitudes of the NFL. It was bad enough when Incognito was bullying him, but now that a national scandal has erupted, the situation is far worse for Martin. He may feel too humiliated to ever play in the NFL again.”
At his sports blog, Jake Elman also wrote last November, “Jonathan Martin, despite seeming to be the victim of bullying, death threats, and racism, will not play again in the National Football League. Martin has entered a list of players who teams won't want on their rosters simply by leaving the Dolphins, exposing things that are supposed to stay in the locker room, and hiring a lawyer to investigate allegations of workplace abuse…. Martin, has one of the worst qualities you want from a player…. he's become a distraction.”
Neither of the above pieces was unsympathetic to Martin and the two writers should not be singled out as outliers. To the contrary, both reflected a common sentiment repeated often on sports radio: Martin was too “soft,” too “vulnerable” and too much of a “distraction” to get another chance in the National Football League. Now we know that Martin’s NFL career is not over, and this is cause for relief. The 24-year-old second round draft pick and two-time All-American is now a member of the San Francisco 49ers, traded by the Dolphins for a song—a seventh round draft pick that Miami only receives if Martin makes the team. It is difficult to think of a better landing place than the 49ers. They have a strong foundation, veteran leadership, a solid offensive line and most importantly, are coached by Martin’s Stanford University coach Jim Harbaugh.
Martin thrived under Harbaugh’s tutelage at Stanford. His old college coach also gave him a major boost, as Deadspin noted, when NFL investigator Ted Wells was assembling his report on Incognito and the Dolphins locker room culture. One of the contentions of Incognito and his defenders was that Martin had no business in an NFL locker room and they should not be faulted just because he lacked the mental fortitude to handle the pressure. Ted Wells wrote in his assessment:
Jim Harbaugh, Martin's former head coach at Stanford and the current head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, told us that he had never doubted Martin's tenacity, work ethic and dedication to the game, and that he had never seen Martin exhibit problems with social adjustment. Coach Harbaugh told us he believed that Martin likely could continue to have a successful career in the NFL. It appears that Martin was up to the challenge of dealing with physical or verbal intimidation by opposing players during NFL games, but fell victim, at least in part, to persistent taunting from his own teammates.
It matters that Martin is getting this second chance. The idea that having mental health issues makes a person a “distraction” is not something that should be accepted with a shrug of the shoulders, but needs to be challenged. The idea that having the courage to blow the whistle on an abusive situation makes a person “emotionally fragile” is so backward, one does not even know where to begin. The idea that the victim of hardcore bullying could then become further victimized by being denied a future at the age of 24 should be seen as manifestly unacceptable. This has always been about not just the NFL but about the messages the NFL sends. Mental health issues are not impermeable “handicaps” but a part of life, and admitting that you need help should never be, as Mr. Rivers wrote, “humiliating.”
This entire situation has been a stench-producing view into the reality of one NFL locker room. Jonathan Martin getting a second chance is a sign that something productive could emerge from the toxic landfill in Miami. Another positive sign was news that after trashing his own car with a bat, Richie Incognito admitted himself into a mental health facility. There is no shame in needing help. Degradation is only assured if someone pretends all is well, thinking that they are going to “man up,” when in reality they are just biding time to a greater fall. It is hard to find someone who does not hope Jonathan Martin makes it all the way back from whatever depths of depression he found himself in last year. We should hope Richie Incognito makes it back as well, whether or not that means finding a place on an NFL team.
Read Next: After Darren Sharper, the NFL must address violence against women.
My new Nation column is called "The Right Loses It Over Russia—Again" and it notes that "Conservative hysteria over Putin's aggression in 2014 is eerily reminiscent of right-wing reaction to a previous Crimean adventure, at the dawn of the Cold War.
Spring Quartet at Rose Hall
Reed and I did not post last week so I have a number of shows to discuss. Two of them took place at Jazz@Lincoln Center. The first was a show of the Spring Quartet at Rose Hall featuring drummer and composer Jack DeJohnette, saxophonist Joe Lovano, pianist Leo Genovese and bassist/vocalist, Esperanza Spalding. The warm-up was Cecile McLorin Salvant and she was wonderful. It’s the second time I’ve seen here at Rose Hall and each time, her goofy sartorial style threatens to overwhelm one’s impression of her but then she starts to sing and the beauty, self-discipline and intelligence of her delivery causes a feeling of near-hypnosis. This was completely uncaptured on the one CD she put out but the way she re-interprets songs you thought you never needed to hear again is awe-inspiring. And in such a large hall at such a young age, well, wow.
As for the headliners, they were a real band despite the generational divide separating the veterans DeJohnette and Lovano from the youngsters, Genovese and Spalding. They communicated wordlessly and mostly effortlessly, switching around on instruments on occasion. It required one to pay really close attention to appreciate this communcation and catch the threads that connected the musicians and the throughts they were articulating—a big risk in such a big hall. This is not a criticism but it is a contrast however, with the alleged opener, who simply commanded that attention.
Jim Caruso's Cast Party
A week later, I returned to Jazz@Lincoln Center, this time to the beautiful Appel Room, which is the Allen Room renamed in honor of a multi-million dollar gift, and for a show called "Jim Caruso’s Cast Party." Apparently, this show has been running for ten years at Birdland where it is more of a spontaneous thing and probably benefits from the alcohol being served, but boy was it fun the night I saw it.
Caruso is an old-fashioned, old-New York cabaret entertainer and, together with the pianist Billy Stritch, they hosted a truly wonderful set of singers on songs from old movies as part of Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series. They were joined by dancer Jeffry Denman, singers Natalie Douglas, Clarke Thorell, Jane Monheit, the wonderfully funny and evocative impressionist Christina Bianco, and the legend, Marilyn Maye.
There were too many highlights to even begin to do justice to them. Bianco’s vocal parodies of divas from Shirley Bassey to Ethel Merman to Babs to Adele were hysterical and powerful at the same time. And what a thrill it was to hear Maye, at 85, at the top of her game showing everybody else how it’s done but with a generosity of spirit and power in her voice.
The next American Songbook show will be Mark Mulcahy on March 19 at the Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse. I learned about him on a really fascinating Terry Gross interview and I plan to try to check him out as well.
I also made two trips to City Winery last week. The first was a small show to celebrate the release of the Drive-By Truckers twelfth album, “English Oceans” on ATO. I don’t know why it’s called that. It’s a pretty silly name for an album from a band from Alabama, if you ask me. It’s the first one that’s come out since ex-DBT Jason Isbell put out his terrific album and if I were in the DBTs, I might consider it a challenge. If so, it was met in “English Oceans” in which dreamboat hillbilly Mike Cooley steps up and writes half the album with Patterson Hood, on whose shoulders one would have expected the band to rest.
Hood and Patterson did this show on their own for an WFUV broadcast, though at one point they thanked WFMU. It was especially intimate because you had to skip the Oscars to see it. And after they played the album, they came back for a few DBT classics and a splendid time was had by all. The album, as always, is pretty great too.
A few days later, I got to see the Cowboy Junkies again. What a combination of depression and exhilaration this band is. Margo Timmons can turn any room into her living room and share stuff with the audience as if we were really friends. I’ve been seeing this band for nearly thirty-years and they have grown so mature and knowing it’s kind of wonderful and kind of weird. Their music is hypnotic and works best when it’s familiar—which is part of the reason their covers are almost always so great. The shows were divided between their recent “Nomad Series” along with their excellent rock opera, “The Kennedy Suite,” about the JFK assassination. It’s an odd, impressive piece of work, odder still when you consider how Canadian the musicians all are. The second set featured Margo talking about Bruce and growing up with him and then singing “Thunder Road”—which I was ready to never hear again as long as I live but which made me tear up the way she sang it.
Allman Brothers Band
Last and definitely not least, you may have heard that the mighty, mighty, but about to be deceased Allman Brothers Band have begun their final fourteen shows at the Beacon Theater last weekend. I saw Saturday night’s show and plan to see the next three Saturday nights as well. Come say hello if you’re there. If you’re not there—or when it’s finally, tragically, over, you can watch a new release of the September, 1991, Japanese TV show, “Live At Great Woods” show from the relatively brief Dickie Betts/Warren Haynes/Allen Woody era with a nice acoustic set in the middle. It’s much better than the crappy version I’ve been watching before this one came out, but unfortunately there’s no Blu-ray. The band has also released a two-CD set “Play All Night: Live At The Beacon Theatre 1992.” This is the same band as above, and I found it weird that they would pick this show since the Warren Haynes/Derek Trucks version of the band is not only the present (about to end) one but also one of the greatest musical ensembles since the great Miles Davis bands and given the fact that they record every show, and are so frequently joined by special guests—the two Clapton Beacon shows are as good as blues guitar ever gets—going back to Dickie’s era is weird especially since Greg gives every impression of hating the guy.
Two possible explanations: 1992 was the beginning of their extended run of shows, now topping off at 234. Second, some of this stuff is really standout, even compared to the zillions of version you’ve already heard. I was actually taken aback upon hearing it for the first time. Finally, Alan Paul has just published an oral history of the band called One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band. These guys play a hell of a lot better than they talk, and so I would have thought it was only of interest to obsessives likes yours truly but lo and behold, it’s number ten on the NYTBR best seller’s list, so that shows you how wrong you can be.
Rhino's Little Feat Box Set
Finally, finally, the box set of the week is Rhino’s Little Feat extravaganza:
"Rad Gumbo: The Complete Warner Bros. Years 1971-1990," which is thirteen CDs, including nine studio albums between 1971 and 1990 plus “Waiting for Columbus” and two CDs of outtakes that appeared on the previous box set and pretty reasonably priced for all that. The last box set—"Hotcakes & Outtakes: 30 Years of Little Feat,” which was four CDs released by Rhino in 2000—was pretty great but it spent a little too much time on the post Lowell George period, which is fine if you just want to go “join” the band live but can not stand up to the genius of the period that made the band a staple of pretty much every intelligent record collector’s collection throughout the seventies. George had a fatal heart attack in 1979, so as good as Hotcakes was, it’s good to have everything in one place. Little Feat was to the seventies as The Band or the Birds were to the sixties—an influence that helped to define an entire genre, and what a fun genre it was.
The box includes:
Little Feat (1971)
Sailin' Shoes (1972)
Dixie Chicken (1973)
Feats Don't Fail Me Now (1974)
The Last Record Album (1975),
Time Loves a Hero (1977)
Waiting For Columbus - Live (1978)
Bonus Disc from Waiting for Columbus: Expanded Edition
Down On the Farm (1979)
Let It Roll (1988)
Representing the Mambo (1990)
Outtakes from Hotcakes and Outtakes (2000)
Rendez-Vous with French Cinema
And finally, finally, finally, the reason March in the city has been great in the past is not only the Allmans at the Beacon but also the annual “Rendez-Vous with French Cinema” festival at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. I did not make it to any of the press screenings this year and so have only had the chance to see three films so far: Sébastien Betbeder’s clever debut, “Nights With Theodore,” Nicole Garcia’s “Going Away” and Katell Quillévéré’s haunting and painful “Suzanne.” All were worthwhile in particular ways, but I mention them, not only because if you’re in town, you should check out the schedule, but because after “Suzanne,” which ends with a Nina Simone version of the song, Quillévéré explained that she was inspired to write the story after seeing Leonard in concert three years ago and it was so powerful an experience she took it with her and made a movie out of it. The movie is not the song, of course, but I’ve felt similarly rapturous about the three LC shows I’ve seen since the great man returned to performing, and I find it kind of wonderful that seeing him perform—just about the most religious experience I’ve ever had—inspires others to create art in their own lives and work.
Nuclear-Option Fallout: Better Democracy, Same Old Media
by Reed Richardson
When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid exercised the “nuclear option” last November, there arose a chorus of howls from the DC establishment. By daring to allow executive branch appointments and judicial nominees—but not for the Supreme Court—to be advanced with a bare majority rather than a 60-vote threshold, Reid was accused of no less than coarsening American democracy. Weighing in on Fox News, the Beltway’s Archbishop of High Dudgeon, George Will, minced no words:
“‘The founders knew that democracy had to be more than counting noses, more than simply adding up majorities. They had to come up with a way to measure intensity, which the filibuster does,’ Will said. ‘It's a sad day for what used to be a great deliberative body.’”
Not surprisingly, the same people who poured out their collective outrage at Reid’s alleged transgression were also conveniently uninterested in explaining how the world’s greatest deliberative body had been reduced to farce thanks to unprecedented Republican obstruction. This “intensity” that filibusters supposedly measured, which Will and other pundits championed, had long since been perverted into an anti-democratic cudgel deployed at the whim of individual Senators. Since the GOP couldn’t defeat President Obama at the ballot box, they instead chose to wage a guerrilla war of attrition on his choices to run our government. And aiding and abetting these efforts has been an establishment media that routinely disappearsthe word “filibuster” from its news reports.
Four months later, the impact of invoking the nuclear option is becoming clear, although you don’t hear much about it in the press—possibly because it’s proving to be a boon for our government. After years of unnecessary brinksmanship, the Senate is finally starting to consistently address the dangerous backlog of judicial vacancies, having approved 16 federal judges since November. Nevertheless, the number of nationwide vacancies still stands at 89. (Of note: 35 of those vacancies are classified as “judicial emergencies,” 32 of which arose since Obama took office in 2009.) Seemingly buoyed by this potential for progress, the White House—which, to be fair, has been dreadfully slow in identifying nominees—has put forward a record-high 64 nominations since the beginning of the year.
But at what cost to the Senate’s storied tradition is this post-nuclear option efficiency? One example of what we’ve “lost”: Last week 41 Republican Senators opposed the nomination of Pedro Delgado Hernandez, Obama’s judicial nominee to the federal district court of Puerto Rico, in what would have been a successful filibuster last October. Instead, the Democrats easily invoked cloture and his nomination moved ahead to a final vote. There, Hernandez narrowly won approval, squeaking by in a vote of 98–0. That’s right, a judge that just passed with unanimous Senate approval would have been filibustered without the nuclear option.
In a nutshell, this episode captures how broken the Senate had become and how worthwhile the nuclear option has proven to be. In short, it has rekindled the promise of responsible Senate governance. Hernandez’s case is not isolated either, as more than half of the 13 District Court nominations approved since December have garnered 90-plus votes, and all but one of those has passed with filibuster-proof margins. Who knows how many of these clearly qualified candidates would have been otherwise held up simply because of Republican spite? Just a hunch, but I think I know which interpretation of the Senate's rules the Founders would find objectionable. (This is, of course, after someone explained to them what a filibuster is in the first place, since it’s not to be found in the Constitution.)
The risks of a short-staffing the upper echelons of our executive branch also came to the fore last week as the situation in Ukraine reached crisis level. At a moment when the international community confronted a cross-border incursion by a nuclear state, it was notable that, after more than 500 days, the Senate still hadn’t approved the White House’s permanent pick for Undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security. As this Carnegie Endowment analysis found, the primary objection—from Sen. Marco Rubio—to Rose Gottemoeller’s nomination had all the shameless hallmarks of “extreme partisanship.” Tired of the GOP’s endless stonewalling and prompted by the pressing need to fill a key diplomatic post, last week the Senate finally approved Gottemoeller 58-42, thanks, again, to the nuclear option.
These long overdue exercises in government functionality don’t mean the Senate is merely a rubber stamp on everything Obama wants, however. Despite the histrionic posturing of the all-access-filibuster crowd, the unfortunate tradition of keeping qualified executive branch candidates languishing in the Senate nonetheless continues by other means. In fact, more than 50 ambassadorial nominees—including those for nations like Canada and Saudi Arabia—are now stuck in the Senate awaiting confirmation votes. The reason? Brazen GOP payback for Reid’s nuclear option. Or, as Republican Senator Lamar Alexander whined to the Washington Post, much like a bully trying to justify his misbehavior after the victim finally retaliates:
“If Senator Reid hadn’t manufactured a crisis and changed the rules, this wouldn’t have happened…He brought this all on himself, and it’s all his fault.”
One might think the DC press corps would see right through such a childish, transparently false excuse. No such luck. Indeed, last Thursday, Politico penned what might be an instant classic in their missing-the-damn-point oeuvre, entitled: “Harry Reid has no apologies.” Though it sounds like it might engage in a sober examination of what the nuclear option has wrought in terms of improved governance, instead this “analysis” mostly offers Republicans a platform to bash Reid as dictatorial and Putin-like as well as lacking in leadership. (Which is it, fellas? I thought Putin was your party’s idea of a strong leader?) And you know the game is fixed when the authors trot out GOP claims like this with nary a hint of irony or pushback:
“Reid’s hardball tactics and coarse rhetoric have quickly made him perhaps the most reviled politician among conservatives. And in Washington, Republican senators say it has only helped tear down an institytion meant to foster bipartisanship. McConnell and the GOP are vowing to return order to the Senate if they regain the majority this fall.” [emphasis mine]
“Foster bipartisanship,” of course, being a favorite term in the DC vernacular, akin to “compromise,” which means “doing whatever Republicans want, all of the time.” But most outrageous about what Politico does here is the naïve narrative it pushes about the GOP’s disingenuous plans for the Senate if it were to take back the chamber in this year’s mid-term elections. In fact, just three days before this story came out, the New York Times talked to none other than Mitch McConnell about this very topic:
“As he looks ahead to the possibility of leading the Senate, Mr. McConnell is promising a more open floor, with senators from both parties able to offer amendments. He says committees would be given more independence and authority to advance legislation. While he would not commit to reversing the limit Democrats put on filibustering White House nominees last November, he said the idea would be on the table if Republicans took charge. [emphasis mine]
"On the table," LOL, as the kids say. Yep, Mitch McConnell is “vowing” to stand up and, well…kinda, sorta, possibly consider reversing the nuclear option. Maybe. Who can say? Certainly not Mitch, even though it would likely be up to him and him alone. No matter, I’m quite sure that when the Republicans do eventually retake the Senate and, predictably, choose not to undo the nuclear option, the press will readily accept whatever explanation given without any uncomfortable questions about legislative tyranny or party hypocrisy. Who knows, maybe that’s what it will take for our media to finally figure out that the nuclear option was good for our democracy after all.
Good morning, Dr. Richardson!
I enjoyed your article about big media falling for hoaxes over and over again (man, that is some toilet!!). As far as I have been able to tell, even the major TV news stations and papers no longer fact check. That went the way of copy editing and simple spelchek. [Edit: I see what you did there.]
But seriously, while you are justifiably concerned about the impact of easy foolability on journalism and journalists, the impact on the public is also unfortunate. With our news being wrong on so many things, big and small, it becomes easy to justify selecting only the factoids that you WANT to believe, and disregarding the rest as "probably wrong again."
Or tuning out the news entirely and navigating purely by your gut and coffeeshop conversations with the like-minded.
Reed replies: I’m often tempted by your suggestion, but as a media critic, tuning out the news entirely presents something of a professional hazard. And I’m taking it as a compliment, but, for the record, I don’t have a PhD.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
Read Next: Nation in the News: Katrina vanden Heuvel discuss the crisis in Ukraine on MSNBC.
Republicans who want to imagine that they can campaign against Obamacare and win every swing seat that is in the offering in 2014 will try to suggest that GOP nominee David Jolly’s win in Florida’s 13th Congressional District proves their point.
But that’s a stretch.
Jolly did campaign as a critic of the Affordable Care Act. And his Democratic foe, cautiously centrist former Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, did offer a nuanced defense of the reform initiative—along with a more robust argument on behalf of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
But Jolly did not take a Democratic seat.
He kept a Republican seat.
And just barely.
Jolly’s winning percentage of 48.5 in a low-turnout election—where it is generally thought that the voting patterns favor Republicans—was almost ten points below the 2012 number for the Republican he was running to replace, veteran Congressman Bill Young, who passed away last October. It was more than fifteen points below Young’s finish in the Republican wave year of 2010.
And Jolly’s victory did not come cheap.
Jolly’s campaign raised and spent $1.3 million—barely half the total for Sink, whose background in the financial sector and in politics, as a former gubernatorial candidate, gave her some early advantages. As the campaign played out in February and early March, the polls suggested that Sink might secure an upset. Sink had the money advantage, which in a traditional campaign might well have been maintained. But we are now in a new political era when outside groups—with very nearly unlimited resources—can sweep in to fill political voids.
That’s what happend in Florida, where Republican-allied national groups with very deep pockets rushed in to rescue Jolly’s candidacy.
According to an analysis by Center for Public Integrity:
• The National Republican Congressional Committee poured $2.2 million into the district.
• The US Chamber of Commerce came through with $1.2 million.
• The American Action Network, a group with close ties to the national GOP establishment, ponied up $470,000.
• Karl Rove’s American Crossroads project was good for $470,000.
The Florida Republican Party and other Republican-allied and conservative groups pumped hundreds of thousands of additional dollars into the district.
To be sure, outside groups that favored Sink spent heavily on the race. But, while Sink’s campaign had the direct-donation advantage, Jolly got the outside advantage. Roughly $5 million in outside money aided the Republican’s cause, as compared with roughly $3.7 million from groups that were friendly to the Democrat, according to the Center for Public Integrity. That allowed the Republican to come on strong at the close. And the pro-Jolly and anti-Sink messaging by the outside groups was not just well-funded. It was aggressive, targeted and effective. This is something that Democrats need to understand before they make the wrong excuses for losing a race they had desperately hoped to win—because the pattern that played out in Florida’s special election is not unique to one race or one moment; it will be seen throughout this critical election year.
In Florida, the outside spending spree helped to bring Jolly across the line by 3,456 votes Tuesday night. That’s hardly a dramatic accomplishment, considering that the Republican nominee ran as a fifth-generation Floridian with deep roots in the district and a claim on Young’s legacy—as the former general counsel for the congressman.
Jolly was also running in a swing district where, while it had grown more Democratic, Republicans remained highly viable—especially in non-presidential elections. Much is made of the fact that the 13th backed Barack Obama over Mitt Romney in 2012. But Obama ran behind his national percentage in the Florida district and Romney ran ahead of his. By the presidential measure, the district is more Republican than the country. And, while Bill Young was personally popular, his long winning streak served as a reminder of the district’s historic Republican lean in congressional elections.
In the best of circumstances, Sink might well have won. But few seriously suggest that 2014 is a “best of circumstances” year for Democrats.
So Jolly was set up for a win Tuesday night. And he closed the deal.
National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Greg Walden was quick to peddle the predictable talking point, arguing within minutes of the completion of the count that Sink was “ultimately brought down because of her unwavering support for Obamacare, and that should be a loud warning for other Democrats running coast to coast.”
That’s a tortured conclusion given Jolly’s far-worse-than-usual finish for a Republican.
The Florida result was not a sweeping “referendum on Obamacare” win. If anything, the closeness of the finish to a race where the choice was clearly defined calls into question the power of opposition to the Affordable Care Act as a definitional issue for the Republicans.
Does that mean that the Democrats should see some kind of silver lining in the results? No.
Democrats need to recognize some hard realities that the Florida race illustrate—and that they might yet be able to counter.
Off-year elections, particularly in the second term of a presidency, don’t often go well for the party of the president. Franklin Roosevelt’s Democrats took a pounding in 1938, Dwight Eisenhower’s Republicans took a pounding in 1958, Ronald Republicans lost the Senate in 1986, George Bush’s Republicans lost the House and Senate in 2006.
Democrats remain vulnerable in Senate races, as Democratic incumbents who were elected with Barack Obama in 2008 are up for re-election this year and they won’t enjoy the benefits of presidential-level turnout. Democratic House candidates will be similarly disadvantaged, meaning that what seemed like swing districts in 2012 could be much tougher turf in 2014.
To get a sense of how much the ground can shift in a non-presidential year, consider this: In 2012, 329,347 votes were cast in the 13th district. In yesterday’s election, around 182,000 votes were cast—way less even than the 267,000 that were cast in the 2010 midterm election
Which brings us back to the money issue.
Sink raised a lot of money early, and she got substantial support from national Democrats and their allies. That’s the nature of special elections. And Sink, with her centrist politics, her background in the financial-services industry and as the 2010 Democratic nominee for governor of Florida, was especially well-positioned to raise the funds that were available for her campaign. This allowed the Democrat to hold her own through the race.
But it will be hard for Democrats to recreate this combination in every other swing district and every other swing state. There are no guarantees that they will have the money that is necessary to maintain sufficient volume for their message in the cacophony that is coming. In an exceptionally expensive special election race—where spending by all sides topped $12 million—Democrats could not match the outside spending of the Republicans. And it won’t get any easier this fall. Multiply that $12 million spent in one Florida race times the number of House districts where Democrat incumbents and challengers could be in close contests, and then add in the massively more expensive Senate races, and every indication is that this will be the most expensive non-presidential election cycle in American history.
The Florida result won’t lead to a dialing down of the spending by either side. If anything, it makes an intense election cycle even more intense. The Republicans and their allies know they just scraped by in Florida. But they also know that money made the win possible. That’s going to inspire more fund-raising, and more spending by the national groups that swooped into Florida in the last weeks before the special election. And there’s a lot more money to be collected from the billionaires and millionaires who are the source for so many of the outside groups.
Democrats are not going to be beat by Obamacare this year. But they could well be beat by money—especially the sort of outside money that flows so freely in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling. And they are certainly threatened by patterns of depressed turnout.
That’s not an argument for some new fund-raising strategy. That’s an argument for some new thinking.
What Florida should tell Democrats is that they must worry less about Obamacare (unless they are proposing a “Medicare-for-All” fix”) and more about the issues on which they might generate increased turnout among their base voters—especially young people. Sink did not, in any sense, run a populist campaign; indeed, her final message was a soft appeal for bipartisanship that sounded nice enough but that had the feel of a candidate trying to appeal to a small number of swing voters rather than a candidate trying to expand the electorate. That’s an insufficient approach. Democrats are going to need an edge this fall, a base-building appeal that excites unlikely voters, if they hope to tip the balance in swing districts—let alone dislodge Republican incumbents in districts gerrymandered to their advantage.
In other words, Democrats must bring more issues to the forefront in order to heighten the level of contradiction. They need an even more intense emphasis on protecting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. But House Democrats, in particular, should keep picking new fights on unemployment benefits, living wages and income inequality. And they should start talking a lot more about student-loan debt, access to higher education and youth unemployment and under-employment. That’s the right thing to do. It’s also necessary—because Democrats are going to need an issue advantage and some populist power if they hope to counter the kind of money that secured Tuesday’s victory for David Jolly.
Read Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel on the next Citizens United?
This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
On October 16, 1993, Alerte Belance was abducted from her home and taken to Titanyen, a small seaside village used by Haiti’s rulers as a mass grave for political opponents. There she received machete chops to her face, neck and extremities. Despite her grave injuries, Belance was able to save herself by dragging her mutilated body onto the street and asking for help.
Belance’s survival was extraordinary, but not all were so lucky.
On January 18, 1994, Wilner Elie, a member of the Papaye Peasant Movement, was knifed to death by a group of masked men in his own home. His twelve children were handcuffed by the assailants and forced to watch helplessly as their father was brutally murdered.
Elie and Belance’s tragic stories were not anomalies. Not long ago in Port-au-Prince, decapitated bodies littered the streets, warnings to would-be dissidents. Violent men sexually abused young women seemingly for sport. People were ambushed in their homes and shot to death for attempting to escape. Thousands of Haitians fled in shoddy boats through treacherous waters to the United States, only to be sent back despite outcries from human rights groups.
Though it reads like a horror script or dystopian novel, this is not fiction. This was reality for millions of Haitians living under military rule. And now, as the Haitian government moves to rebuild its once-banished army, some Haitians are wondering whether a sequel is in the works.
A Dark Legacy
Haiti has a lengthy history of military and state-sanctioned violence. Shortly after coming to power in 1957, the infamous dictator Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, feeling threatened by the regular armed forces, created a paramilitary force to protect himself. Nicknamed the Tonton Macoutes (Uncle Gunnysacks) after an old tale about a bogeyman who abducted unruly children and placed them in gunnysacks to be eaten at breakfast, these men carried out unimaginable murders and sent tremors of fear throughout the nation. Accountable to virtually no one, they continued their reign of terror after Papa Doc’s death and through the rule of his successor and son, Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. After Baby Doc was forced to flee in 1986, theTonton Macoutes were officially disbanded, but other paramilitaries continued in their footsteps.
Meanwhile, the military itself continued to interfere in Haiti’s politics. On September 29, 1991, Jean-Betrand Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically elected president, was ousted by a military coup just eight months into his presidency. The coup, led by Lieutenant General Raoul Cedras, plunged the nation into a particularly violent and turbulent period. For three years the Haitian military and its paramilitary arm, the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti, ran an exceptionally brutal regime, kidnapping, torturing and murdering supporters of the ousted Aristide. By 1994 the death toll had reached an estimated 5,000.
Following an intervention by the United States, Aristide was restored to power in late 1994 on condition that he implement economic reforms favored by Washington. He dismantled the military the following year. The disbandment of the military did not cure Haiti of all its ills, but the dissolution was followed by two successful transitions of presidential power, in 1996 and 2000.
In 2004, however, a paramilitary force consisting of former soldiers with help from United States, France and Canada organized a second successful coup against Aristide, who had been elected to a second term in 2000 after serving out his first in 1996. Although another successful transition between presidents began in 2010, the 2004 coup showed that even after their official disbandment, former soldiers were still able to influence political outcomes in Haiti.
A Return to Form
And now, after two decades in the shadows, the military is back: Haitian President Michel Martelly has followed through on a campaign promise to reconstitute the Haitian military. The new force launched its first operations this February.
This has left many Haitians wondering why a country with no external threats, a history of violent, military-led repression against its own citizens and an abundance of more pressing problems would need—or even want—a new military. “Given the history of Haiti’s military,” warned Mark Weisbrot, its “existence alone could be considered a threat to security.”
Martelly’s personal history provides some clues about his sympathies. Before he began his political career, Michel Martelly was a provocative konpa singer who went by the name Sweet Micky. During the Duvalier era, he ran a nightclub named Garage that was frequented by military officials and other members of Haiti’s tiny elite.
Around this time Martelly befriended Lieutenant Colonel Michel Francois, the man who would later become chief of the secret police under Raoul Cedras. Martelly remained a “favorite” of the thugs who worked for the Duvalier regime and, after its collapse, would even accompany the death squads organized by Francois to murder Aristide supporters.
While death squads hunted dissidents by night, Martelly taunted them by day. Lavalas, the massive pro-democracy movement launched by Aristide after Baby Doc was ousted, quickly became the target of Martelly’s biting lyrics. Throughout Aristide’s presidency, Martelly remained an outspoken critic of the president and his supporters, eventually emerging as a politician in his own right.
After a hotly contested and controversial election in 2011, Martelly was elected president of Haiti. Later that year, an anonymous Haitian official leaked a document to the Associated Press outlining a plan for the revival of the Haitian military.
Solving the Wrong Problems
The document cited several reasons why Haiti supposedly needs to spend $95 million building up a new military force: to provide opportunities for young people, to rebuild Haiti’s infrastructure, to patrol its border with the Dominican Republic and—perhaps most ominous—to “keep order” during times of chaos.
Although Haiti is well within its rights to establish an army, the purpose of a military is not to provide internal security, but to combat external threats. A Haitian official claims that it’s embarrassing to have the United Nations providing security in Haiti. But although its mission has been marred by scandal, the UN is training a national police force to provide security and keep order once the peacekeepers finally leave. It’s unclear why a military would be preferable in this regard to a civilian security force.
And it’s similarly unclear why Martelly thinks he needs a military to create jobs or invest in infrastructure. Haiti is in desperate need of construction workers—the country's infrastructure was already in a precarious position even before the 2010 earthquake leveled buildings and destroyed homes. If Martelly truly wanted to provide opportunities for young people, he could initiate a program that would train men and women in construction and create jobs for the multitudes of unemployed Haitians. Instead, the new military will supposedly be rebuilding the country while millions of Haitians continue to languish in poverty.
In a country with a sparse amount of cash and a government unable to provide even the most basic necessities to its own population, it seems fiscally irresponsible and morally bankrupt to spend $95 million on rebuilding an army that has such an atrocious record of human rights abuses. The cholera outbreak, food insecurity and the 500,000 squatters lacking permanent homes are just a few of the litany of problems facing Haiti today. The lack of a military force is not high on that list of priorities.
Although Haiti’s elite and powerful seem to support the new military, a poll conducted over five years found that fully 96 percent of Haitians oppose its recreation. Defying this widespread opposition and the pressing need for other development projects, Michel Martelly’s plan has finally come to fruition.
Despite assurances from officials that this military force will not have the means to imitate its predecessors, the horrors of the recent past still linger in the minds of many. Haiti is now in danger of reverting back to the days when standing on the wrong side of the ideological fence meant certain death.
Read Next: Michelle Chen argues that Haiti's women need more than a trickle of aid money.
Eric Schmidt is the chairman of Google. Last year, he raked in compensation totaling over $100 million from the company, adding to his net worth of over $8 billion. According to The New York Times, Schmidt owns “a Gulfstream V, a 195-foot yacht and multiple homes across the country including a new $22 million Hollywood mansion.”
One is strengthening the safety net for the less well-off. I am definitely with him there. The United States is one of the richest societies the world has ever known, but it has a remarkably ungenerous welfare state. So, so far we’re good. The war on poverty worked, and it would work even better if programs like food stamps, Medicaid and the EITC were expanded.
Schmidt’s second idea involves devoting more resources to education in the science and technology fields. This may be a good idea, but there is no evidence that it will decrease inequality. The education policies that would probably do the most to fight inequality would be enacting universal pre-K and making college more affordable by making public colleges tuition-free and increasing financial aid for students. Studies have found that early childhood education programs lead to greatly enhanced employment and education outcomes for poor children. The high cost of college is putting the brakes on social mobility by preventing many talented students from acquiring an education. Research shows that low-income students with high test scores are less likely to graduate from college than low-scoring rich kids.
Finally, we come to Schmidt’s third recommendation, which is for the government to give more support to start-ups. As Slate’s Jordan Weissmann’s notes, part of what he means by this “support” is more deregulation in areas like energy and telecommunications. But as scholars of deregulation such as Thomas O. McGarity have pointed out, the deregulatory mania we’ve seen since the 1970s has been one of the engines of inequality in the US economy. It’s led to rent-seeking bonanzas that have vastly enriched and empowered the one percent at the expense of everyone else.
Indeed, when his interlocutor pressed him on this third point, Schmidt could hardly be any clearer about his ideological bent:
The solution to this displacement, according to Schmidt, is to foster conditions that encourage the creation of fast-growing startups that generate lots of jobs, or “gazelles.” Those conditions include better education, looser immigration laws, and deregulation in strictly-controlled areas like energy and telecommunications. When Levy noted that fast-growing “gazelles” seem to lead to more inequality, at least in the case of the 50-employee WhatsApp which was acquired by Facebook for a reported $19 billion, Schmidt brushed aside the apparent contradiction. “Let us celebrate capitalism,” he said, opening his arms. “$19 billion for 50 people? Good for them.”
Touting $19 billion for fifty people as a cure-all for inequality? I thought Tom Perkins’s “Kristallnact” letter was the ultimate in 1 percenter absurdity this year, but really, that comment is the one that has earned the billionaire chutzpah prize.
And of course, as is often the case, what’s most revealing of all are the things Schmidt is not saying. He breathed not a word, for example, about increasing the minimum wage, building stronger labor unions, or enacting macroeconomic policies that promote a full employment economy.
The most telling silence, however, involved policies that require that anything in the way of sacrifice from Schmidt and his 1 percenter buddies. As researchers such as Thomas Piketty have documented, economic inequality is a phenomenon being driven largely by the top 1 percent of the income distribution. As such, policies designed to control it need to be targeted at the rich. Piketty suggests a wealth tax and a return to top marginal tax rates of 80 percent or more. Other economists advocate restricting 1 percenters’ rent-seeking opportunities by re-regulating the financial sector and reforming intellectual property laws and corporate governance.
You won’t hear any of those kinds of proposals coming out of Schmidt’s mouth, though. Instead, he’s asking for additional giveaways to the tech sector from Uncle Sam. Indeed, he’s even publicly boasted that he is “very proud” of Google’s massive tax avoidance schemes. Google funneled about 80 percent of its pre-tax profits to an off-shore bank account in 2011.
Eric Schmidt may sound like just another variation of a “greed is good” Republican. But here’s the depressing thing: the dude is a major Democratic donor who’s been an adviser to President Obama. Obama even considered him for commerce secretary.
Schmidt’s politics seem very much akin to Robert Rubin’s: leaving the economic privileges of the powerful unchecked, while penciling in a little welfare capitalism for the poor. Yes, this is preferable than the likes of Tom Perkins. But is a party dominated by the “cool billionaires” like Schmidt and Rubin the best the Democrats can offer?
Read Next: Kathy Geier explains how income inequality kills.