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Zoë Carpenter | The Nation

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Zoe Carpenter

Zoë Carpenter

DC dispatches. E-mail tips to zoe@thenation.com.

Fast-Food CEOs Make 1,200 Times as Much as One of Their Workers—and They Want to Keep it That Way

Fast-food workers' strike

Demonstrators hold signs and chant slogans outside of a Wendy's fast-food restaurant, April 4, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

David Novak is the chief executive of Yum! Brands, the parent company that runs Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and KFC. Last year, while Yum! Brands and other restaurant companies lobbied against raising the minimum wage, Novak made at least $22 million—more than 1,000 times what the average fast-food worker makes in a year. In return for paying him so much, Yum! got a tax break.

The National Restaurant Association, which represents Yum! and other restaurant companies, is expected to launch a lobbying blitz in Washington next week against a minimum wage increase. For years the restaurant industry has fought to keep the wage floor low, all while rewarding its CEOs with increasingly large pay packages. As a result, the food industry is now the most unequal sector in the American economy. Thanks to a tax loophole that encourages companies to raise “performance pay” for executives, taxpayers are effectively subsidizing the imbalance.

While inequality between low-level workers and CEOs manifests in all areas of the economy, a new report from Demos concludes that the gap within the food industry is exceptional. Between 2009 and 2012 the CEO-to-worker pay ratio in food services and accommodation was about twice as large as most other sectors. In 2012, fast-food CEOs earned 1,200 times as much as the average employee.


The CEO to worker compensation ratio in the fast food industry reached 1,200 to 1 in 2012, dwarfing other sectors.(Demos)

Why is the gulf between executive compensation and average earnings colossal in the restaurant industry, in particular? One explanation is stagnation of wages at the bottom, abetted by low minimum wage standards. Fast-food workers are paid less than any other employees in the country, and that low floor has barely moved in a decade. The industry’s average hourly wage of $9.19 puts the salary for a fulltime worker below $19,000—poverty wages if she’s supporting a family of three. Most fast-food jobs aren’t even full-time; the average salary for average hours is under $12,000. Last year, fast-food wages fell to levels not seen since 2006.

Meanwhile, compensation for fast-food executives has more than quadrupled since 2000. Those CEOs pocketed an average $23.8 million in 2013, making them among the highest paid people in America.

From 2000 to 2012, the CEO to worker compensation ratio in the fast food industry grew 470 percent. (Demos)

A sizable chunk of their compensation comes in the form of stock options and other forms of “performance pay,” which the IRS allows companies to deduct from their taxes. That loophole “serves as a critical subsidy for excessive compensation,” according to a new report from the Institute for Policy Studies. “The larger the executive payout, the less the corporation pays in taxes. And average taxpayers wind up footing the bill.”

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In the past two years alone, executives from the twenty largest corporate members of the National Restaurant Association took in more than $662 million in deductible compensation. That cost the government some $232 million, according to IPS—the price of a year’s worth of food stamps for 145,000 households. In the case David Novack, IPS reports that Yum! was able to deduct a combined $23 million from its tax bills in 2012 and 2013 on account of his “performance pay.”

Beyond the obvious hypocrisy of companies who throw millions at their CEOs while saying they can’t afford to pay their workers a living wage, the level of inequality within the food services industry has troubling implications for the whole economy. The jobs created in the wake of the recession have largely been in low-wage industries like food service. In other words, the jobs being added are the most unequal. Economists have pointed out again and again that inequality undermines economic growth, and there are more immediate costs as well, like the nearly $7 billion in public assistance that fast-food workers rely on to make up the gap between rock-bottom wages and the cost of living.

According to Demos the pay gap could hurt fast-food companies themselves, with bad publicity affecting their reputation and low wages encouraging poor customer service. “Consumer are increasingly dissatisfied with their experiences at the biggest fast food companies,” the Demos report found. “In addition to operational issues, the low pay practices of fast food employers have opened the companies to expensive legal risks.” A McDonald’s franchise, for example, settled a lawsuit with employees over uncompensated work, wage deductions and other infractions for $500,000 in March, while class-action suits are pending in at least two states over alleged wage theft.

Read Next: Eric Alterman examines Thomas Piketty’s new book Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

Why the Campaign Against Keystone XL Still Matters

Keystone XL Earth Day protest

Riders on horseback in front of the Capitol building on April 22, 2014. A coalition of Native Americans and ranchers launched a five-day protest against the Keystone XL pipeline on Tuesday. (Zoë Carpenter)

A few years ago, it would have seemed implausible that a group of Midwestern ranchers and Native Americans would gather on the National Mall in opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, as they did on Tuesday. Not because the union is so unlikely, but because the pipeline’s approval seemed all but certain.

“We bring you pickles from the heartland,” said a farmer in a red baseball cap, extending a jar to a Native American elder. At his feet lay other gifts—jewelry, blankets and more homemade preserves—exchanged between members of the Cowboy and Indian Alliance, a coalition of ranchers, farmers and Native American tribes leading a weeklong protest against the Keystone pipeline.

“All farmers and ranchers and Native Americans are environmentalists, because without the water and the land we have nothing. It’s our livelihood,” said Mike Blocher, who raises Quarter horses in Antelope County, Nebraska, on land TransCanada has claimed for the pipeline route. “If that oil runs out on my land, my grass is gone. My water’s gone. My farm ground is gone. My livelihood is gone. And what will they do? Say, ‘Here’s a few bucks.’”

Later, riders on horseback made their way down the National Mall towards a cluster of teepees, which will be the hub for other action throughout the week: traditional water ceremonies to highlight the threat the pipeline poses to water resources like the Ogallala aquifer; an undisclosed “bold and creative action” at the White House on Thursday; and a rally on Saturday that organizers expect to draw several thousand people.

Earth Day may be a shadow of its initial self, but there is still something vital in the anti-Keystone campaign, the most significant environmental movement in the United States today. No other campaign has drawn as much attention to the issue of climate change. Few environmental causes include such diverse stakeholders, from major green groups to ranchers concerned about property rights, to indigenous leaders to urban residents worried about pollution from refineries at the pipeline’s end point. Still, there is a growing tendency to trivialize the decision about the pipeline, as The New York Times did in an article on Tuesday that pointed out that the greenhouse gas emissions from KXL would amount to “an infinitesimal slice of the global total.”

The campaign against Keystone isn’t ultimately about the impact of a single infrastructure project. The link between the pipeline and the future climate is indirect—the real point is the campaign itself. While the outcome of the Environmental Protection Agency’s rule-making process for carbon emissions from power plants may make a bigger contribution to the climate fight in absolute terms, there is no single law or decision that can “solve” the present crisis. Besides, it’s hard to imagine people chaining themselves to the White House fence while advocating for stricter bureaucratic standards.

The first Earth Day illustrated how popular movement precedes political action. The 1970 demonstrations brought out some 20 million Americans, seemingly spontaneously. Within four year the agencies and legislation that undergird all of the environmental protections that matter today became law: the EPA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act, to name a few.

Now, one of the most needed regulations is a tax on carbon—a way of making fossil fuel companies pay for damage caused by their product. Such a tax could provide funds for badly needed investment in renewable energy and sustainable infrastructure while creating some incentive to keep fossil fuels in the ground. We know 80 percent of discovered reserves need to stay there if we want a chance to keep warming below the two degree Celsius threshold scientists say is critical. As Chris Hayes writes, this is essentially asking energy companies to give up at least $10 trillion in wealth.

Currently the path to regulation of this sort is politically impassable. But the anti-KXL campaign, with its ability to stoke energy and build diverse coalitions, right now looks like one of our our best chances to provoke the political shift necessary for more radical change.

The decision about the pipeline does itself matter, however. Given the overwhelming sense of paralysis, it’s easy to forget that inaction is a choice. We are electing a future of massive suffering. What Keystone illustrates so well is that we—the public and policymakers—make decisions about our climate future in any number of ways, both large and small, every day. Whether we drive or bike; whether we seek out modest ways to live or consume as much as we can afford; whether we drill deeper in search of profits or walk away from them. Many of these actions don’t feel like choices, and all of them are trivial in isolation. Together, however, they are the sum of our fate.

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The scale of climate change is such that all “solutions” will be inadequate and imperfect. Rejecting Keystone isn’t a solution, but it would be a signal that the easy cycle of business as usual can be disrupted. That radical choices can be made, the kind that have nothing to do with buying a Prius instead of an SUV. That even as the avenues to democratic participation are closed off, there is still power in popular protest.

It was the idea that Keystone XL was inevitable that seemed most to bother Mike Blocher, the Quarter horse rancher. “They are just saying ‘this is the way it’s gonna be,” he said. “People say, ‘Why don’t you just take the money and run?’ Well, Nebraskans don’t take the money and run. We stay put.”

Read more of The Nation’s special #MyClimateToo coverage:
Mark Hertsgaard: Why TheNation.com Today Is All About Climate
Naomi Klein: The Change Within: The Obstacles We Face Are Not Just External
George Zornick: We’re the Fossil Fuel Industry’s Cheap Date
Dani McClain: The ‘Environmentalists’ Who Scapegoat Immigrants and Women on Climate Change
Jeremy Brecher: ‘Jobs vs. the Environment’: How to Counter the Divisive Big Lie
Jon Wiener: Elizabeth Kolbert on Species Extinction and Climate Change
Dave Zirin: Brazil’s World Cup Will Kick the Environment in the Teeth
Steven Hsieh: People of Color Are Already Getting Hit the Hardest by Climate Change
Michelle Chen: Where Have All the Green Jobs Gone?
Peter Rothberg: Why I’m Not Totally Bummed Out This Earth Day
Leslie Savan: This Is My Brain on Paper Towels
Katrina vanden Heuvel: Earth Day’s Founding Father
Wen Stephenson: Let This Earth Day Be The Last
Katha Pollitt: Climate Change is the Tragedy of the Global Commons
Michelle Goldberg: Fighting Despair to Fight Climate Change

Take Action: Stop Cove Point

Not One More: Can These Hunger Strikers Stop Obama’s Deportations?

White House Deportation Protest

Ernestina Hernandez (second from left), Cynthia Diaz (center), José Valdez (far right), and other members of the Not1More Deportation campaign, who are on hunger strike near the White House in Washington, DC (Zoë Carpenter).

When José Valdez talks about his son Jaime, his eyes shine.

“He is one of the sweetest young men you’ll ever meet,” José said on Wednesday through an interpreter. “I don’t say that just because I’m his father. He’s a young man who likes to help people. He thinks about humanity. Anytime he sees something that’s uncomfortable he sees a way to try to help. He’s dedicated to study.”

It was a frigid morning in Washington, and José was shivering. He looked across Lafayette Park towards the White House. “I came to DC to ask that my son be let go from detention,” he said. For five days José fasted on President Obama’s doorstep, protesting his son’s treatment and the deportation of millions of other undocumented immigrants under Obama’s tenure.

With House Republicans refusing to move on immigration reform, activists have asked the president to use his executive authority to change the country’s deportation procedures. Of all the effects the broken immigration system on families, deportation gauges the deepest wounds, taking husbands from wives, sons from fathers, and often without due process. It’s also the area over which the president has the most power. But Obama has been reluctant to move before Congress, despite mounting pressure not only from activists but also from prominent members of his own party. On Tuesday, religious leaders who’d met with the Obama at the White House reported that he made it clear to them that he was still not planning executive action.

Though small, the ongoing hunger strike in front of the White House—part of the Not1More Deportation campaign organized by the National Day Laborer Organizing Network—reflects a swell of frustration within the immigrant community at the administration’s apparent unwillingness to act. It also illustrates the desperate stakes for the thousands of families at the mercy of Washington.

This hunger strike was not José’s first. In February he refused to eat for fifteen days in solidarity with Jaime, who had been detained during a traffic stop in Maricopa County and held for months at the Eloy Detention Center after his lawyer told him to plead guilty to a DUI charge he has said was inaccurate. Jaime was in the midst of his own hunger strike when, in the middle of the night on February 25, he was deported to Mexico. On April 1 he returned through the legal port at Nogales, Arizona, and asked for humanitarian parole; now he’s once again in limbo, at the Florence Correctional Facility. “It makes us sad, but it gives us the will to fight,” José said.

Jaime is not José’s only son. His two older brothers were deported, and one of them still lives in Mexico. When I asked José about the other, the light in his eyes spilled over. “The other is also in Mexico,” he said. “But he is not with us.” This middle son was murdered shortly after returning to Michoacán, a state on Mexico’s west coast wrecked by the drug wars.

“My first two sons, there was nothing I could do for them,” said José. “But my third, I’m going to make sure that he’s not deported again, and that he gets to come home.”

* * *

Ernestina Hernadez describes her husband as “a normal man,” committed to his tech work for General Plastics in Houston, Texas, where he worked for eighteen years. He rode bicycles and shared a sense of humor with their 13-year-old daughter, Melanny. In May of 2013, Manuel was asked for his ID after being pulled over. He was deported on his 50th birthday and now lives in Durango, not far from a tree where recently, he told Ernestina, the body of an 8-year-old boy was found hanging, his organs removed.

“That’s the country President Obama wants me to take my daughter to,” said Ernestina, referring to the impossible choice that deportation leaves with families: separate indefinitely, or reassemble a life together in country made bloody in no small part by America’s appetite for illegal drugs. “I would ask him, do I keep fighting? Or do I stop?”

Like Jaime, Ernestina’s husband was in the midst of a hunger strike when he was deported from the Joe Corley Detention Center in Conroe, Texas. Ernestina and José Valdez both believe the sudden deportations of their husband and son, respectively, were retaliation for their civil disobedience within the detention centers. Across the country in recent months hundreds of detainees have refused meals to protest their treatment within the detention facilities— many of them operated by private contractors like GEO Group, which runs Joe Corley— as well as within the immigration system more broadly. Hundreds of detainees on hunger strike in a GEO Group facility in Washington State were threatened with force-feeding last month. More than twenty were then moved into solitary confinement. Five busloads of detainees, including several of the strikers, left the center early Monday morning, activists say.

Ernestina said that Melanny’s schoolwork, her social life and her emotional health all suffered after her father was deported. “She gets really sad, and tells me that she wants to see him,” Ernestina said. “The day that my husband was deported she was shaking. She cried a lot. I was worried that she would get sick.” She continued, “When it happened, everything stopped. There isn’t anything left—it doesn’t seem like we have a future.”

But not having anything to lose has also emboldened Ernestina. Normally a quiet person, she says that by fighting for her husband and others like him, she’s “learned to talk. Staying quiet, nothing is going to be fixed.” She was one day into her fast in front of the White House when we spoke, and seemed calm and determined. She’d originally planned to leave on Saturday, but news of Obama’s comments to religious leaders had so angered her that she now planned to remain indefinitely, until she receives a response from the White House.

“Breaking up a family isn’t going to stop us from fighting. It’s going to make us stronger, and we’re not going to stop until the president takes action,” she said.

* * *

On a Saturday morning in May 2011, Immigration and Customs Enforcement raided Cynthia Diaz’s home in Phoenix and arrested her mother, Maria. Maria, who’d immigrated to the United States at 14, graduated from high school and community college and then started a small tailoring business, called the following afternoon from Mexico to tell her family she’d been deported.

Cynthia was 15. She learned how to cook and to clean, and took on her mother’s role for her younger brother while keeping up with schoolwork at an honors high school. Now she’s a student at the University of Arizona. The hole left by her mother lingers at the house where her father and her brother still live; when Cynthia goes home, she finds the kitchen littered with pizza boxes, the fridge empty. “We’ve been really unhealthy,” she said. Cynthia became active with immigration rights groups at the end of high school, and has been fighting for her mother ever since.

In March, Maria crossed back into the US as part of a campaign called “Bring Them Home,” in which several immigrants who’d been deported returned to request asylum. Two weeks ago she had her eligibility interview. With her mother’s fate uncertain, Cynthia came to Washington for the strike, against the wishes of her father who worried that her petite body couldn’t handle the stress. She hoped that somehow her mother might make it home in time for Mother’s Day.

The hunger strike was hard, Cynthia admitted. The spring weather swung between hot, sunny days and frigid nights. She was fatigued and had headaches. Speaking to her mother on the phone helped.

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On Tuesday, after Cynthia had ended her strike, she received a call from her mother. She’d gotten the results of her interview.

“She passed,” Cynthia told me, as if she could not yet allow herself to believe it.

Take Action: Tell President Obama: Deportations Are Tearing Families Apart. We Need You to Act

Read Next: Obama’s falling approval rating among Latinos

The Tax Breaks That Are Killing the Planet

Smokestack

(Reuters/Sukree Sukplang)

ExxonMobil, the world’s largest oil company, hauled in a $32.6 billion profit last year. Chief executive Rex Tillerson got a 3 percent bump in his pay package, sending it above $28 million. And today the company gets its annual boost from the federal government: an estimated $600 million in tax breaks.

All told, the government gifts as much as $4.8 billion to the oil industry each year, more than any other country. Much of that comes not as direct handouts but instead via loopholes in the tax code; deductions for depleting oil reserves, for example, and write-offs for the expense of drilling a new well. These reflect a long-past era in which oil exploration was financially risky, and prices were low. Now oil prices and profits are high, and the government is losing revenue while promoting the continued exploitation of carbon-intensive fuels. In the face of a changing climate and a constrained domestic budget, the lunacy of such preferential treatment is hard to overstate.

“Perverse” is the word the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found for such policies in its latest report, which was released in full on Tuesday. Globally, subsidies for fossil fuel production—amounting to $1.9 trillion in 2011, or 8 percent of government revenues, according to the International Monetary Fund—“prove to increase emissions and put heavy burdens on public budgets,” reads the report.

On the other hand, rolling them back could be a key part of a serious climate agenda. The IMF estimates that eliminating fossil fuel subsidies could lower emissions by 13 percent. That general principle, if not the exact figure, is supported by the IPCC, which wrote, “Lowering or removing such subsidies would contribute to global mitigation, but this has proved difficult.”

“Difficult” may be an understatement in the United States. As a recent article at Mother Jones lays out, the energy industry wields considerable influence in Washington. In the last fifteen years oil and gas companies spent more than $1.4 billion on lobbying, employing nearly 800 lobbyists, many of them culled from congressional offices. That expense is actually a shrewd investment: every dollar the five largest oil companies spend on lobbying reflects $53 in tax breaks. The industry also leverages millions in donations to candidates and political ads during each election cycle, discouraging politicians from taking a hard line on tax breaks.

Government support for fossil fuels goes beyond the tax code. Another de facto subsidy comes from the Interior Department’s failure to collect proper royalties on domestic oil and coal. The government has lost as much as $14.7 million because royalties are not collected on offshore leases in the Gulf of Mexico. In Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, below-market sale prices and an uncompetitive bidding process for coal reserves has cost taxpayers as much as $30 billion over the past two decades, while helping to prop up a collapsing industry. There’s also evidence that the federal coal program is failing to properly collect royalties on coal sold overseas. While President Obama may not be able to do much about the tax code unilaterally, his Interior Department certainly has the authority—in fact, the obligation—to reform its coal-leasing program.

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Finally, there is a more deeply hidden giveaway to the fossil fuel industry, the most critical of oversights: the fact that companies don’t pay for the damages caused by their products—their external costs. While every citizen will pay for climate change, as those living near extraction and refining sites have long borne the burden of local pollution, companies get a free pass on their carbon emissions. This imbalance is what a carbon tax is designed to remedy.

Closing loopholes in the tax code would be only a small part of an aggressive climate agenda—particularly since it’s unlikely that eliminating those subsidies would affect global oil prices significantly. Still, those tax breaks represent billions that could be spent elsewhere, such as investment in renewables. The IPCC report concluded that subsidies, directed properly, can be an effective tool for slowing down global warming by helping low-carbon technologies and products overcome their competitive disadvantage in relationship to fossil fuels. Federal support for renewables now outstrips benefits for fossil fuels, but it’s still not comparable to the help that the government gave the oil industry in its early days. Important incentives, like the wind energy tax credit, have been allowed to expire. Furthermore, our national infrastructure is designed for the age of cheap fossil fuels, making it even more difficult for alternative energy to compete.

The best chance for closing the loopholes—and, perhaps, for imposing a carbon tax—is if Congress overhauls the tax code, something both parties have indicated an interest in. But even the best chance is a slim one given the cabal of climate deniers in the House, and a broader reluctance to challenge energy interests. If climate change seems like a problem too big to to approach, perhaps start here: elections matter.

Read Next: Katrina vanden Huevel on the new Showtime series Years of Living Dangerously”

Could Working on Keystone XL Give You Cancer, Asthma?

Keystone XL protest

Demonstrators march at a Washington, DC, protest against Keystone XL in 2011 (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Two prominent public health organizations are pressing the State Department to study the public health implications of the Keystone XL pipeline before reaching a decision on its approval.

“There is an increasing recognition that the environments in which people live, work, learn and play have a tremendous impact on their health,” reads a letter sent Friday to Secretary of State John Kerry by the American Public Health Association (APHA) and the National Association of County and City Health (NACCHO). “The administration will certainly benefit by having a clear understanding of how the proposed Keystone XL pipeline could impact the public’s health, including the health of our most vulnerable citizens.”

The letter asks for a “comprehensive” assessment to include a review of scientific studies regarding the health effects of processing tar sands. Those could include increases in respiratory conditions like asthma, exposure to heavy metals, cancer and occupational health and safety risks affecting workers involved in tar sands production, said Georges Benjamin, the executive director of APHA. APHA is the oldest organization of health professionals in the country, representing providers, officials, educators and policy makers. NACCHO represents 2,700 local health departments.

“It raised our concern,” Benjamin said of the pipeline proposal. “We’re not saying don’t build it, and we’re not saying do build it. We want to make sure the decision is data-driven and has a health component to it. At the end of the day, they’re going to make a decision based on a complicated set of metrics, but we think health ought to be one.”

Whom the pipeline might put at greatest risk is a question that “absolutely needs to be though about,” Benjamin added. “If they put it through communities already economically and physically, from a health perspective, devastated, there is going to be a disparate impact when something bad happens, like a pipeline leak.”

NACCHO’s associate executive director David Dyjack said health risks could arise at each step of production, from extraction to transportation to consumer use, but that how the local effects of tar sands differed from other fossil fuels production cycles is not well understood. “We are advocating for smart and informed decision making,” Dyjack said. “The uncertainty around the tar sands led us to submit the letter—why don’t we get some clarity?”

The letter from APHA and NACCH follows a similar one sent in March by National Nurses United, and a February letter from Democratic Senators Barbara Boxer and Sheldon Whitehouse.

“Everybody’s looking at every other issue but public health,” Boxer said on a conference call with reporters on Friday . “It’s crucial that these groups be listened to.”

Supporters of the pipeline have criticized Boxer and Whitehouse’s calls for a public health study as a delay tactic. Boxer said she wasn’t sure how long an assessment would take, but that a review of existing peer-reviewed research should be relatively simple. Whitehouse argued there is “no urgency” to bring Alberta’s tar sands oil through the United States. “The tar sands are not going anywhere,” he said. “We don’t want to be in situation where we rush now in order to regret later.”

Meanwhile, KXL’s proponent are asking the administration to speed up its decision making process. Eleven Democratic Senators sent a letter to the White House on Thursday asking the administration to approve the pipeline by May 31. The signees include Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, John Walsh of Montana and Kay Hagan of North Carolina, all facing challenging re-election races in conservative states with significant fossil fuel interests.

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Asked about the political implications of the pipeline decision, Boxer said her colleagues will “do what they have to do to represent their states well and follow their conscience. What we’re doing is just saying that, when it comes to public health and the survival of the planet, you need to pay attention to that, whether it’s an election year or an off-election year.”

“We’re already seeing misery,” Boxer said, referring to reports of high rates of cancer near production regions in Alberta, Canada, and pollution from the piles of petroleum coke, a tar sands byproduct, in several cities in the American Midwest. “There’s a lot of money and a lot of power behind [the pipeline], but I do believe at end of day people want to make sure that their kids are healthy.”

Read Next: Harvard’s fight over the university’s potential fossil fuel divestment

This Sham Report Is What the Climate Movement Is Up Against?

glacier melt

An iceberg melts in Kulusuk Bay, eastern Greenland, in 2007. (AP Photo/John McConnico)

On Wednesday morning, in a small room at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, the climate change skeptic Craig Idso pointed to a PowerPoint slide showing three young pea plants, each grown under varying levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. The plant that experienced the lowest concentration of carbon dioxide looked shriveled and sickly; the most robust-looking plant grew under the highest test concentration. “Now,” Idso said, “you could put on your Sigmund Freud hat, and you could ask yourself in a psychiatric manner, which plant would you rather be?”

Idso is one of the lead authors of a new report from the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC), a project of the right-wing think tank the Heartland Institute that essentially serves to rebut the United Nations–sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). On Wednesday, NIPCC authors along with Heartland president Joseph Bast did their best to convince a room of less than ten people that scientific consensus on the human role in climate change does not exist, and that carbon emissions and rising global temperatures will have a net positive effect on the world. In other words, we are all pea shoots.

There were other absurdities at the press conference, including Idso’s prophecies of “vegetative prowess.” There were repeated references to the “scores” of scientists who contributed to the report, when in fact the total number of authors, editors and reviewers amounts to thirty-seven. Many of the people behind the NIPCC, including Bast and Fred Singer of the Science and Environmental Policy Project, have built careers around undercutting scientific research that threatens corporate profits, most notably the tobacco industry. Unlike the hundreds of scientists who contribute to IPCC reports voluntarily, the “independent” authors and editors involved with the NIPCC are paid; how much and by whom Heartland refused to say, although a staffer cited three family foundations as the source of funds for the study.

The most interesting part of the event was that the scientists and Bast couldn’t seem to decide whether man-made climate change is a hoax, or whether it’s something to embrace. Bast offered a painful display of rhetorical acrobatics when asked to clarify. He agreed there has been a gradual warming trend as well as a corresponding increase in carbon emissions. Bast declared, “The human presence is responsible for rising carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere,” but then clarified that in regards to temperature, “the human impact is very small, probably less than natural variability…the bigger impact is the increase in carbon dioxide, which Doctor Idso shows is positive, unambiguously positive.” If the increase in carbon dioxide is the “bigger impact” and it’s due to “the human presence,” that seems to be tacit endorsement of the link between human activity and climate change.

This is what the climate movement is up against—plant analogies, thirty-seven scientists and an all-but-empty pressroom? (There was a similar briefing earlier in the morning, reportedly with comparable attendance.) The event only emphasized what a lonely occupation climate skepticism in the Heartland model has become, as even Exxon Mobil says “the risk of climate change is clear and the risk warrants action.”

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But the dwindling community of skeptics has a disproportionately large audience thanks to Fox News, which featured the NIPCC report several times in the past week on air and online. “Deepening divide over climate change sparks fierce debate,” reads the headline of a story by correspondent Doug McKelway, who told viewers of the Fox Special Report with Bret Baier on Wednesday night that the NIPCC authors “point to observable data, not computer modeling, to prove their point.” McKelway concluded, “All of this is leading congressional doubters to further question an array of EPA regulations the president has unleashed to maneuver around congressional resistance to cap and trade and other carbon-mitigating legislation.”

Fox’s treatment of the NIPCC report isn’t surprising, considering that 72 percent of its climate change coverage last year was misleading, according to a new study by the Union of Concerned Scientists. Fox pulls in some 1.76 million viewers, compared with the 640,000 who watch MSNBC, which covered climate accurately 92 percent of the time. The NIPCC may be speaking into an echo chamber, but it’s one that surrounds a sizable chunk of America and the majority of lawmakers in the House, who are well protected by rigged districts and corporate patrons. There’s no excusing the special interests, politicians and journalists who deliberately promote shoddy science to justify environmental destruction. At the same time, one can understand the popular appeal of the NIPCC, as a comforting alternative the desperate scenario portrayed by the IPCC. Things would be so much simpler, if only we were pea shoots.

 

Read Next: Reed Richardson on whether Al Jazeera America can save America’s cable news.

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What’s the GOP’s Excuse for Opposing Equal Pay This Time?

Rosie the Riveter

(Courtesy Wikipedia, CC 2.0)

When Congress considered the Equal Pay Act in the spring of 1963, few objected to the values motivating the legislation. “The principle of equal pay for equal work is one which almost any citizen would strongly support,” wrote the National Retail Merchant Association in prepared testimony for the US Senate that April. Nevertheless, the NRMA opposed the bill “on the grounds that Federal legislation is not needed, that the added cost to administer such a law is unnecessary, and that an equitable law would be complex, confusing and difficult to enforce.”

Fifty-one years later, the conservative, anti-feminist Independent Women’s Forum has this to say about the Paycheck Fairness Act, which expands on the 1963 legislation and will likely succumb this week to a Republican filibuster in the Senate: “Clearly, sex-based wage discrimination is wrong. Furthermore, it’s already illegal…This latest legislation—the Paycheck Fairness Act—won’t lead to more fairness or better pay. It will lead to more lawsuits, more red tape and fewer job opportunities for women and men.”

Not as much has changed since 1963 as one might have hoped, either in the workplace or in politics. Back then opponents of the Equal Pay Act said states were adequately addressing the issue of of equal pay. Others made excuses for the fact that women made fifty-nine cents for every dollar their male colleagues earned, arguing, as Council of Economic Advisers chair Walter Heller did, that the “added costs” of hiring women were to blame. Skepticism about labor protection for women wasn’t strictly partisan; the Democratic chairman of the House subcommittee on labor reportedly kept documents related to the Equal Pay Act filed under B, for “Broads.”

No one says now that the 1963 law was unnecessary or insignificant, though as its supporters acknowledged at the time of its passage, it was only a first step. Today, women make seventy-seven cents to a man’s dollar—or just sixty-four cents and fifty-five cents for black and Hispanic women, respectively—and Republicans are dusting off arguments from last century to block updated legislation, claiming that while they still support its underlying principles, today’s pay really is equal, or else the work is not. (Whether filing methods have changed in the new millennium is unclear.)

Fox News’s Megyn Kelly, for example, called the concern about equal pay a “meme,” and Texas governor Rick Perry dismissed it as “nonsense.” Conservatives who do acknowledge the existence of a gender gap often attribute it to the concentration of women in lower-wage jobs. Two-thirds of minimum-wage workers are women, and traditionally female industries—like education, nursing and domestic work—usually pay less than industries dominated by men, like engineering and IT. The fact that women are funneled into lower-paying fields is certainly a problem. But it’s also true that in almost every single occupation for which data is available, women earn less than male co-workers. That’s true within low-wage industries and in those traditionally dominated by women. For example, women make up nearly 90 percent of the nursing workforce, and they collect $1,086 in median weekly earnings. Male nurses take home an extra $150 each week, according to Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Although the Paycheck Fairness Act is unlikely to pass the Senate, President Obama will sign two executive orders today regarding fair pay for women. One prevents federal contractors from retaliating against employees who discuss their wages; the other requires contractors to share information about compensation, broken down by race and gender, with the government. The orders won’t accomplish as much as the PFA, which extends those two provisions to private employers, as well as putting the burden on employers to prove that unequal pay is job-related and allowing workers to sue for damages based on gender discrimination, as they can for racial, disability and age discrimination. Still, joint White House and Senate campaigns on equal pay could have symbolic power as Democrats leverage the GOP’s resistance to bread and butter economic measures to spur turnout in the midterms, particularly among women.

Smartly, the GOP has given opposition to the PFA a new face—a female one, telling women to use their own bootstraps to scale the pay gap. “I would encourage women, instead of pursuing the courts for action, to become better negotiators,” said Texas GOP Beth Cubriel, explaining her party’s opposition to fair pay legislation. Targeting legislation at working women is “making us look like whiners,” Minnesota state Represenative Andrea Kieffer said in March. “All Republicans support equal pay for equal work,” wrote Republican National Committee press secretary Kirsten Kukowski, communications director Andrea Bozek and NRSC press secretary Brook Hougesen in a memo. “And while we all know workplace discrimination still exists, we need real solutions that focus on job creation and opportunity for women.”

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Conservatives have been pushing back against claims that the GOP is anti-women with the argument that it’s Democrats who demean women by focusing on structural disadvantages. The Independent Women’s Forum, for example, says the PFA “perpetuates the myth that all women are workplace victims.” The idea that government action turns women into victims, or makes them dependent, flows through conservative messaging around the Affordable Care Act, the social safety net, really any program that would help the people whose bootstraps have been stolen. “The fact is the Republicans don’t have a war on women, they have a war for women, to empower them to be something other than victims of their gender,” Mike Huckabee said at the Republican National Committee winter meeting in January.

The basic point here is that government can’t do anything good for women, or for people in general. Only individuals themselves, and an unfettered private sector, can. “Not every problem in America can be fixed by Washington,” Katie Packer Gage, Mitt Romney’s deputy campaign manager, wrote in opposition to the PFA. This anti-government agenda has nothing to do with women’s equality. It is, however, one of the oldest lines in the book.

Read Next: Katha Pollitt asks why leftists are pushing for sex work to be the “new normal.”

Fort Hood: A Tragic Reminder of the Military’s Mental Health Crisis

Fort Hood

Sergeant First Class Erick Rodriguez stands guard before a news conference at Fort Hood, Texas April 2, 2014. (Reuters/Erich Schlegel)

Ivan Lopez, the man military officials say opened fire yesterday at Fort Hood, Texas, killing three and wounding sixteen, reportedly suffered from depression and anxiety, and had trouble sleeping. Doctors prescribed him a number of drugs, and evaluated him for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. According to Secretary of the Army John McHugh, who spoke to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday, nothing on his record or in a psychiatric evaluation last month indicated he would harm himself or others.

If the shooting shocks and discomforts, the fact that more than half of all service members who served in Iraq and Afghanistan say their mental or physical health is worse after their deployment should, too. Lopez’s act of mass violence distinguishes him from his fellow service members; still, he appears to have shared with many others the experience of coming home to a country unprepared to meet his needs. Of the 2.6 million men and women sent to Iraq and Afghanistan or to supporting operations overseas, more than half report that the government is failing to meet theirs. Nearly 60 percent say the Department of Veterans Affairs is doing only a fair or poor job. And one in two know another service member who, like Lopez, committed or attempted suicide.

Since at least 2008, more American soldiers have killed themselves at home than have died abroad. The VA has responded by expanding its mental health funding and adding thousands of people to its mental health staff. But less than a quarter of veterans are enrolled in the agency’s healthcare system, and more than a third of enrolled veterans who sought psychiatric appointments in 2013 faced at least a two-week wait.

“Frankly, we have got to do more,” Vermont Senator and Veterans Affairs committee chair Bernie Sanders said Thursday on MSNBC. “We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of men and women. So if we’re serious about reaching out and helping those people, we’ve got to provide the resources to do that.”

Doing “more” doesn’t only mean boosting the VA budget. Veterans experience poverty, homelessness, unemployment and improper foreclosures more acutely than Americans overall, meaning that slashing the safety net, failing to extend unemployment insurance and other moves towards austerity create extra challenges for veterans grappling with the aftershocks of service and navigating re-entry to civilian life.

Congress had an opportunity in February to act on one of the largest legislative packages for veterans in decades, which Sanders sponsored. But Senate Republicans killed the measure, saying it was too expensive, never mind that the $21 billion price tag would have been paid for largely by the drawdown in Iraq and Afghanistan. For perspective, $21 billion represents about .6 percent of government spending in 2013.

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Montana Senator John Walsh, a Democrat and combat Veteran, introduced legislation last week with a variety of measures directed at preventing veteran suicide. The bill would give service members leaving active duty fifteen years to receive care from the VA, significantly extending the current window that, at five years, is sometimes shorter than the onset of PTSD or other mental illnesses. The legislation also creates incentives for mental health care professionals to work within the VA system, streamlines electronic health records and prescription protocols, and requires the Defense Department and VA to review mental health care programs annually. When asked about the cost of his legislation, as Republicans surely will, Walsh told CNN, “That is the cost of war.”

Lopez’s mental health issues may have had nothing to do with his military service, and it would be a mistake to project his crimes onto other soldiers seeking treatment. The point remains that lawmakers spent trillions taking violence abroad. It’s hard to deny that some of it is coming home again, in the form of suicide and domestic abuse, and in the daily violence of homelessness and unemployment. It’s simple enough to tally what price Congress thought worthy for the armored vehicles and the aircraft carriers and the missiles used for our recent wars. What about the people?

Read Next: Bob Dreyfuss on why we keep hearing about Benghazi

Lawmakers Ask Obama for a Tally of People Killed by Drones

Drone

US drone in Afghanistan (AP Photo/Lt. Col.. Leslie Pratt, US Air Force)

While questions about transparency have of late focused on the government’s surveillance programs, some members of Congress would like to direct some of that scrutiny towards another aspect of the national security state: the targeted killing program.

On Wednesday, Democratic Representative Adam Schiff and Republican Walter Jones introduced a bill that would compel the Obama administration to report annually how many people are killed or injured in US drone strikes—and, critically, to make a clearer distinction between combatants and civilians.

How many people the US is killing via drones, and who those people are, has been difficult to determine because of official secrecy. Last year, facing criticism for a lack of transparency and accountability, President Obama announced new guidelines for strikes designed to minimize casualties. The question the reporting requirements seek to answer is whether the government really is “meeting the standard that we’ve set of not striking unless to a near certainty we’re sure that there are going to be no civilian casualties,” Schiff told The Nation.

Administration officials and lawmakers sympathetic to the intelligence agencies have argued that drone strikes result in a low number of civilian casualties— “typically…in the single digits,” Dianne Feinstein claimed in 2013. It’s fair to ask whether we can really draw a meaningful line between nine dead innocents and ten. There’s also evidence that the administration has crafted a definition of civilian so as to artificially lower the casualty count. Reportedly, the administration considers all adult males within the strike zone as combatants—effectively, assuming guilt by location.

“It’s important that we understand how the administration will be defining ‘combatants’ to be able to evaluate the numbers that we ultimately get,” Schiff said. Are we defining combatants in a way that we clearly know who they are, that they’re fighting against us? Or do we have a more amorphous definition where it’s difficult to tell?”

The requirement would cover all strikes outside “theatres of conflict,” which at the moment refers only to Afghanistan. Schiff emphasized that the public report would not provide any information that would be damaging to national security and thus worthy of classification; it would be a bulk annual tally, with no information about particular strikes, their location or the department involved.  Significantly, the legislation compels the administration to provide a count for the deaths and injuries from drone strikes dating back to 2008. That would open the door for critical evaluation of claims made by officials and lawmakers like Feinstein about the number of civilians killed.

A coalition of human rights organizations including Amnesty International and the Center for Constitutional Rights hailed the bill as a “modest yet crucial step toward ending excessive secrecy about US drone strikes.” Their statement went further in probing the civilian-military distinction, arguing that pre-emptive, targeted killing in the absence of a direct threat is unlawful regardless of how one defines militant. “Outside the narrow and exceptional circumstances of armed conflict, where international human rights law applies, the United States can only target an individual if he poses an imminent threat to life and lethal force is the last resort. For this and other reasons, we do not necessarily agree that the terms ‘combatant’ and ‘civilian’ apply,” reads the statement.

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Schiff said the greatest challenge is getting the bill out of the House intelligence committee, which last year rejected a similar measure, rather than passing it through the full chamber. Still, he judged it “likely” that a coalition of liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans similar to the one that drove congressional opposition to the NSA’s surveillance programs will unite to call for transparency in the drone program.

“We’re taking a very small step here because even small steps, in this area, are difficult,” Schiff said. He was clear, however, about its implications. “It’s a way of building support for, ultimately, a change in policy.” Reporting the dead as a statistic may be only a first step, but it’s a necessary one on the way to a conversation about the very real people killed in our name.

Read Next: Bob Dreyfuss on the most recent breakdown in Israel-Palestine peace talks.

Ralph Nader on the GM Scandal: ‘Detroit has Washington Pretty Greased’

Young Ralph Nader

Ralph Nader standing on on an overpass above Interstate 495, a beltway circling Washington, DC, in 1967. (AP Photo)

In the April 11, 1959 issue of The Nation, a young attorney named Ralph Nader took auto manufacturers to task for “glacier-like movement” in availing themselves of engineering solutions to minimize the deadly effects of car crashes.  “Automobiles are so designed as to be dangerous at any speed,” he warned, testing out the line that evolved into the title of his groundbreaking 1965 book, Unsafe at Any Speed.

Fifty-five years later, Congress is investigating a new car safety scandal involving corporate malfeasance, regulatory ineptitude, and at least thirteen deaths. For more than a decade, General Motors was aware of an ignition switch defect that caused some cars to shut off, seemingly at random, disabling the power steering, the airbags, and other safety features. Not until February did GM begin to recall the affected models. The company has recalled more than 2.6 million vehicles so far, and is facing a congressional inquiry and a criminal probe. For it’s part, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, one of the most significant legacies of Nader’s campaign for consumer safety, appears to have failed to perform its oversight and enforcement duties, twice declining to investigate reports of the defects.

As GM CEO Mary Barra and NHTSA acting administrator David Friedman prepare to testify before Congress on Wednesday and Thursday, I spoke with Nader about the scandal, regulatory lapses, and the relationship between lawmakers and the auto industry. 

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

* * *

Zoë Carpenter: What do you think the GM scandal says about how far we’ve come to balance corporate power and consumer rights?

Ralph Nader: GM has done a lot of worse things and got away with it over the years. They blocked fuel efficiency standards with Michigan Representative John Dingell and others, they've blocked safety standards from NHTSA. However, this one has all the elements of a criminal cover-up. Criminal negligence at least, if not a pure criminal cover-up. As a result there is great potential for legislative reform to strengthen the antiquated motor vehicle and highways safety laws, bring them up to date, improve the recall authority, enlarge the fines, and increase the budget of NHTSA, which is absurdly low—deliberately low.

That's the problem with all of these regulatory agencies: almost nobody pays attention in the press to the tiny budgets. It's like having a street crime spree in New York City--arsons, burglary, assaults, and there's one hundred police. People would say, "You need more police!" Well, you need more federal cops in the corporate crime beat and that's true for all agencies. The corporate lawyers are very good about going up on Capitol Hill and making sure those budgets do not increase, even though they pay for themselves many times over with fines and penalties.

Is part of the problem the relationship between lawmakers and the auto industry?

Yeah! It's always been that way, and Dingell of course has undermined the Democrats. So you take the Republicans and John Dingell, you can't beat 'em. Dingell will bring in the United Auto Workers on fuel efficiency, for example. You can't beat a combination of GM, UAW, and John Dingell. He blocked the air bag for years. He was on the back of NHTSA all the time!

One problem is the trivial budgets [for regulatory agencies]. If you don't have investigators, prosecutors, other lawyers, engineers, you can't do justice to the safety laws. You just cannot keep up. Especially when the auto companies are expert at stonewalling you, giving money to lawmakers on the hill, hiring corporate law firms.

NHTSA is culpable in this GM ignition switch problem, for sure. They weren't alert enough, and there's a culture of timidity. It's a product of being browbeaten by Dingell, by the White House, by the lobbyists day after day, year after year, decade after decade. They get very squeamish about ordering recalls. Detroit has Washington pretty greased. They pick timid regulators who are engaged in on-the-job training and represent the auto industry after they leave the agencies.

Is this part of a larger problem with the revolving door in Washington?

Yeah, it's part of a larger problem.

You mentioned earlier that the GM case has the elements of a cover-up. What are some of the signs indicating that?

The first is they knew years ago about a deadly defect that could cause death and injury. Then they got reports of the deaths and injuries, and did nothing. Under law  they were supposed to inform the government about it, and they did not do so. Then more deaths and injuries occurred, and they still did nothing. [General Motors CEO] Mary Barra says that she didn't learn about it until January 31! And she's the CEO. So the best view of what happened inside GM is bureaucracy—committees passing the buck to one another, nobody responsible, stifling whistleblowers.

This may well lead to an reorganization internally within GM. GM should put an independent ombudsman in place who can receive complaints from conscientious engineers early on, protect the anonymity of the engineer, and have direct access to the top executives of GM.

It's a great opportunity, actually. The only time the traffic and auto safety laws are strengthened is when there's a scandal. You've got the big enchilada here with GM.

And there's another thing: that GM might have released false information during this bankruptcy. They may unravel the bankruptcy again, and what we're pushing for is to reinstate all those liability suits by injured and dead people in GM cars. The bankruptcy created a new GM and an old GM. Old GM had no assets. New GM was filled with billions in taxpayer dollars and they immunized it from dozens and dozens of product liability lawsuits by families, which is really gross and unprecedented. And now that could be re-opened.

Here's what I think is going to happen: no auto company can continually be exposed day after day in the newspapers, because they're going to start losing credibility and start losing sales. So GM may enter into a grand settlement: they pay a huge fine to get the Justice Department and the Department of Transportation off their back, they recall all the cars, they allow the reinstatement of the liability suits, and they pledge that they'll reorganize inside GM, so that it doesn't happen again.

GM doesn’t want a criminal investigation. That would be devastating. Companies will do anything to avoid a trial. There are very few trials in the corporate crime area—shockingly few trials.

Notice that the auto safety law itself has no criminal penalty. We lost that battle in a huge struggle in the Senate back in 1966. Even for willful violation of NHTSA regulations, there is no criminal penalty. Where the criminal penalty comes in is in Title 18; if you lie to the government or do not report information as required to the government. So in one sense, GM is shielded by the absence of a criminal penalty under NHTSA. On the other hand, they are vulnerable under Title 18, because they didn’t report to NHTSA as they were required to, and they misled the agency.

A grand settlement along the lines you described, would that solve the problems with the regulatory agencies?

That’s a bigger challenge and that’s very important. It’s one thing to strengthen NHTSA, but if NHTSA is under a lot of political pressure from Dingell types and White House types it’s not going to mean that much. But it will mean something. No matter who’s president, no matter who’s on the Hill, if you doubled the recall authority of NHTSA, you’d get more recalls. You’ll still have political influence, but you’ll get more recalls, because there’d be more engineers and scientists.

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Why all the attention now?

I think Mary Barra is a factor. They’re fascinated by this new woman, and how she’s going to handle it. That’s part of it. The second is that it’s such a simple thing to understand: don’t put anything on your keychain, otherwise you may lose your engine and your airbag will not deploy when you crash. It isn’t like it’s a complex handling problem or an engine problem or something like that. 

The reason Congress is so interested in this is because of the media. Did you see The New York Times article saying the Cobalt was a “lemon?” GM can’t take that. It’s like a spilling sewer pipe. Once all this is in the press, other whistleblowers might start to emerge because they can get protective cover.

The media is racing on this. It’s just marvelous, after ten years of a news desert. Those of us in auto safety advocacy, we have to take advantage of this for reform—reform in NHTSA, and reform in the auto companies.

 

Read Next: Take action against corporate irresponsibility by calling Apple about working conditions in their factories. 

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