Thirty-six years ago today the nuclear plant at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania suffered one of the worst nuclear meltdowns in history. McKinley Olson, who had written a 1974 special issue of The Nation about nuclear plants in Pennsylvania, “The Hot River Valley,” returned with an article titled “The Unacceptable Risk” (April 14, 1979).
It should have been clear that one self-serving segment of our society was pushing the rest of us into the arms of a technology that could not tolerate, nor contain, a major accident. And major accidents in this world of human error, faulty products, war, revolution, terrorism, earthquake and flood, are bound to happen, especially when we continue to increase the probability that a major nuclear accident will occur by increasing the number of nuclear power plants in our society and, with them, the consequent increase in radioactive shipments, storage facilities and the like....
Instead of pursuing all the logical options that have been available to us for years, among them conservation, energy efficiency, solar power, wind power, geothermal power, oceanic heat, the use of coal, the tides, grain and wood alcohol, wood itself, garbage, lumber and agricultural wastes, algae and the process of photosynthesis, most of which we have largely ignored in spite of the fact that their development would have been a boon to the economy in terms of new jobs and industrial growth, we have allowed our Federal Government—including the Congress and the courts, and a consortium of powerful public utilities and giant private corporations—to squander precious years and billions of dollars in the pursuit of a technology that, at best, will lay a 100,000-year curse in the form of plutonium waste upon this earth.
To mark The Nation’s 150th anniversary, every morning this year The Almanac will highlight something that happened that day in history and how The Nation covered it. Get The Almanac every day (or every week) by signing up to the e-mail newsletter.
When Latavia Johnson discovered she was expecting, she didn’t know she was in for an unpleasant surprise at work. Newly hired at a Granite City, Illinois, Walmart, she tried to follow medical advice and ask her managers for a job that didn’t involve heavy lifting—it seemed a simple enough request, since her job was decorating cakes.
But instead of getting light duty, she recalls, she got less work. The management decided that rather than accommodating her with an adjusted workload, Walmart would simply stop giving her shifts. Yet they kept her on the on-call schedule, so she sometimes reported to work as ordered, only to be told by her supervisor, “If I see you here, I’m going to send you home.”
But Johnson didn’t need bed rest, she needed hours, and even after she pushed to be allowed back to work, her schedule was severely reduced. “I just wanted to work and be able to support myself, but I didn’t want to injure myself working,” she recalls. “I didn’t want to lose my baby working.”
This week, the Supreme Court got Johnson’s back. They ruled 6-3 in favor of Peggy Young, a UPS worker who was instead forced onto unpaid leave when she was pregnant. Young, at the time, said she was willing and able to keep working as a letter carrier. But despite UPS’s willingness to make adjustments for male co-workers with disabilities, she was pushed off the job because she was advised to avoid lifting parcels heavier than twenty pounds.
The Supreme Court decided Young should have been able to keep working for UPS and the company was required by law to accommodate her, clarifying the protections of the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act. That law sought to expand sex discrimination protections by mandating that employers accommodate pregnant workers in a way that was comparable to other workers with similar impairments. Under a narrow reading of the law, the process of proving discrimination “on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions” requires the worker to show that a non-pregnant worker who faced a “similar” disability would receive more favorable accommodation. This business-friendly reading currently gives employers room to wriggle out of the mandate by contending that pregnancy is a special category of impairment, and thus isn’t exactly comparable to other temporary disabilities that employers cover under disability policies.
But activists have long criticized this interpretation for placing the burden of proof on the worker to show that her circumstances are technically analogous to the needs of a non-pregnant co-worker “similar in their ability or inability to work.” In contrast, under the more stringent Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), to be exempt from “reasonable accommodation” standards, an employer must demonstrate that the accommodation would cause “undue hardship” for the business.
The Supreme Court ruled that if a workplace was already accommodating other, basically analogous forms of disability, it was up to the employer to justify the refusal to accommodate a pregnant woman—rather than force the pregnant woman to prove she deserved equal treatment. So a pregnant worker should be able to demand a reasonable accommodation at work, like being able to sit on a stool instead of standing at a counter all day. The ethical logic here is a feminist concept: a woman shouldn’t have to prove to her boss why she deserves the same rights at work as a male coworker.
Pregnancy discrimination is an issue not just of labor rights but of reproductive justice, since the kind of flexibility that pregnant workers require is often denied to women in more low-paying, physically demanding work, which, according to a National Women’s Law Center’s analysis, disproportionately affects low-income women, “women of color and immigrant women.” Since the majority of women entering the workforce are projected to be pregnant on the job at some point, employers who ignore all their needs are both eroding the principle of gender equality and foreclosing the economic potential of a huge swath of the population.
Several states, including California and Illinois, have already enacted additional anti-discrimination protections for pregnant workers, folding into a broader push to strengthen safeguards for workers in precarious jobs, who are burdened by a combination of low wages, unstable schedules and no paid leave time.
Recognizing that pregnancy requires both the right to workplace accommodation and the right to negotiate for fair working conditions, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently affirmed that pregnant workers were generally entitled to accommodations comparable to those offered to workers with temporary disabilities.
Advocates are now urging Congress to pass the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which would bring the 1978 protections into line with the standards of the ADA. A clear nationwide standard, according to Vicki Shabo of the National Partnership for Women and Families, would protect all women at work, “eliminating the need for workers to go to court to determine whether an employer must provide accommodations for pregnancy,” thus ensuring their rights at work aren’t dependent on an employer’s whim. UPS and Walmart, for example, have reformed their pregnancy policies, but only after facing legal and political pressure—though Walmart insists its pregnancy policy well exceeds federal standards.
Today, labor advocates say pregnancy regularly forces women to either needlessly stop working or expose themselves to unnecessary workplace risks: they might be fired just for asking for a water bottle at work or extra bathroom breaks, for example—even when their male coworker gets light duty when he pulls a muscle.
Betzaida Cruz Cardona recently complained to the EEOC about being deemed unfit for work because her doctor advised her not to lift more than twenty-five pounds during her pregnancy. Her boss decided to let her “stay home and take care of my pregnancy,” by forcing her off the job, which left her penniless and homeless. Similarly, Walmart worker Candis Riggins complained to the EEOC that her supervisors ignored her pleas to switch to job duties that didn’t expose her to hazardous cleaning chemicals, until one day she collapsed.
The struggle continues after pregnancy too, as unstable low-wage jobs often end up costing families more than they pay. Like many Walmart part-timers, Latavia says she’s ready to return to work after childbirth, but can’t afford childcare. “If I went back to work,” she explains, “I would actually be paying the babysitter what I’m going to basically make at Walmart.”
While these hardships weigh on workers at any stage in life, pregnancy is the most vulnerable, and pivotal, point in a woman’s life. Whatever injustice she suffers when she’s expecting will hurt the next generation before it even begins.
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Fifty years ago, when Democrats were beginning finally to break the grip of Southern segregationists on their party, the way in which key congressional positions were filled was a major issue for the party. Southern members of the House and Senate tended to serve forever. As such, they took advantage of an archaic seniority system to secure committee chairmanships and even leadership posts—making a slowly progressing party seem still to be as reactionary as it once was.
A new generation of congressional Democrats, including Phil Burton of California in the House and Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts in the Senate, sought to shake things up. Unfortunately, Burton lost a key race for House majority leader in 1976, as Kennedy had lost an equally important race for Senate majority whip in 1971.
The Democratic Party opted against more aggressively progressive leadership, weakening its message for years to come. Indeed, as David Broder would write late in Ronald Reagan presidency, when Wright had been designated as Speaker of the House and Byrd was in position to become Senate majority leader: “It may turn out that the luckiest break President Reagan has in his current time of trouble lies in the character of the Democratic leaders of the 100th Congress.”
As Senate Democrats consider replacements for minority leader Harry Reid, who announced Friday that he would not seek a new term in 2016, they should remember the mistakes of the past. This, in turn, should get them thinking in bigger and bolder ways about their available options for filling a position with enormous potential to define the party’s image and direction.
Reid has been a more progressive majority leader than his predecessor, former South Dakota senator Tom Daschle. Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who caucuses with the Democrats, was right when he observed Friday that on a host of critical issues Reid has been “a fighter for the low- and moderate-income people of this country.
But Reid has not always been effective as a communicator of progressive positions or strategies.
What Democrats should be looking for now is a Senate leader who will be absolutely progressive and absolutely effective.
The immediate speculation about replacing Reid followed conventional wisdom, with the top prospects identified as New York Senator Charles Schumer and Illinois Senator Dick Durbin. But, within hours, there were reports that Durbin was taking himself out of contention. Thus, any challenge to Schumer was likely to come from a “dark horse” contender—with prominent initial mentions going to Patty Murray of Washington and Michael Bennet of Colorado.
That sound you are hearing is the air going out of the party balloon.
That list is not the right place of beginning for Democrats who understand, now more than ever, that the party’s Senate leader is going to be ideologically and tactically strong. This is especially true if Republicans take the White House in 2016, in which case the leader of the Senate Democratic Caucus could well be the party’s most prominent national spokesperson. But the fact is that, even if Democrats retain control of the White House (as polls currently suggest is likely), the congressional party needs to step up.
There’s not much question that Schumer, a prodigious fundraiser with famously close ties to Wall Street interests, has the upper hand. That provides some explanation for why Durbin quickly sent signals about standing down. Durbin’s exit is unfortunate because, on some key issues, the Illinoisan has a more progressive record than Schumer. For instance, Durbin voted against authorizing George W. Bush to wage a war of whim in Iraq, while Schumer backed Bush’s agenda.
It is not just on foreign policy that Schumer has been disappointing. The New Yorker has cast some lousy votes on trade policy For instance, he supported permanent normalization of trade relations with China, when responsible senators such as Minnesota’s Paul Wellstone and Wisconsin’s Russ Feingold were voting “no.”
Murray’s record is even worse on trade, and it is hard to forget the compromises she made when “negotiating” with then House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan on the “Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013.” Besides, most of the talk Friday was not of a run for the top job by Murray but of the prospect that she might challenge Durbin for the caucus whip post that the Illinoisan now holds. As for Bennet, he’s been on the wrong side of a lot of education debates; and he’s the guy who, when asked whether he would back the removal of barriers to labor organizing with an Employee Free Choice Act proclaimed, “I would not support the language in that bill.”
The records of the mentioned prospects ought to be taken seriously. But the other measure that should be applied, in what for better or worse is a media age, ought to be the ability of potential leaders to communicate progressive ideas with passion and a clear sense of commitment.
For that reason, Democrats who want their next Senate leader to be an actual leader ought to cast a wider net.
Should they consider the “star” of the moment: Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren? Of course. But don’t assume that Warren—whose office says she is not seeking the leadership post—is the only progressive prospect.
Warren’s name was floated Friday as a potential leader for a good reason: she is seen by a lot of Democrats as a leader.
As soon as Reid made his announcement, there was immediate advocacy for Warren to consider a leadership leap. “If Elizabeth Warren doesn’t run for president, she should definitely run for leader of the Senate,” says Neil Sroka, of Democracy for America, which has been part of the move to draft Warren as a 2016 Democratic presidential contender. “The election for Senate leader is not going to be a slam dunk for any early front-runner, especially someone like Senator Schumer. He’s closer to Wall Street while the Wall Street wing of the party is dying and the Elizabeth Warren wing is rising. It only makes sense that the next leader of the US Senate is either from that wing or deeply understands how to work with that wing.”
“There will likely not be a coronation to replace Harry Reid, and Elizabeth Warren is right up there with others as someone who would be taken very seriously,” the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has worked closely with Warren, declared. “Warren’s lifetime of fighting for the little guy against Wall Street power—including her upset victory on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—shows she can think big, wage tough fights against powerful interests, and win key votes in the Senate. She’s the definition of a leader, and that’s why her colleagues and millions of Americans respect her and are inspired by her rise.”
Warren’s strengths are well known: the base loves her, the media pay attention to her and the party needs her ideas. Reid, Durbin and Schumer have acknowledged the importance of what Warren has to offer the caucus—fashioning a position on the leadership team for her after Democrats lost control of the chamber in 2014. But even some of Warren’s most ardent enthusiasts argue that her talents might be better utilized in the White House, or as an outspoken rank-and-file senator. (Remember that Ted Kennedy survived his leadership defeat to become a definitional legislator.)
The best argument for putting Warren at the head of Senate Democrats is that—if she is not going to seek the presidency, as she says she won’t—then she ought to seek the best platform that is available for advancing an agenda.
The simple reality is that Democrats need national leadership with more than bully pulpits. The party needs national leadership that can move from a position of strength at the legislative level. That does not necessarily mean that Warren is the right candidate to lead Senate Democrats. But it definitely means that Democrats who are serious about the party’s future have every right, and every reason, to suggest her for the post.
There are other prospects who should be on the list, as well.
Consider Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, who is every bit as populist as Warren and has a particularly strong record as a leader in fights for breaking up big banks and against failed trade policies. On top of that, Brown voted (as a House member) against going to war in Iraq and against the Patriot Act.
Brown has won two tough elections in the ultimate swing state of Ohio. And he has done so by figuring out how to be very progressive and very appealing to a broad cross-section of voters. He’s close to labor, but he is also close to farm and rural groups. He has never had it easy politically, and this has made him a unique senator—with strong skills when it comes to effectively communicating a progressive vision on complex economic and political issues. That’s something Senate Democrats could use.
Consider, also, Jeff Merkley, the progressive Democrat from Oregon who, with Tom Udall of New Mexico (another appealing leadership prospect), has been in the forefront of working to reform both the Senate and a broken political process. Merkley is especially well qualified for leadership of a party caucus and a legislative chamber, as the former Speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives.
The bottom line is that the selection of a new Senate Democratic leader need not be a contest among senators who simply happen to be senior, predictable choices or compromise candidates. It’s an opportunity for Democrats to think bigger, and better, about leadership. And if ever the party needed to do that, it’s now.
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Harry Reid announced Friday that he won’t seek re-election in 2016, bringing a fascinating three-decade political career into its final chapter. Reid has been a unique Senate leader who, contrary to the old Lincoln maxim, actually kept most Democrats happy most of the time. While Reid often (though not always) maintained the trust and support of conservative Democrats all the way back to Joe Lieberman, liberals remember his heroic stance against Social Security cuts and outright privatization, his elimination of the filibuster on nominations, the gun-control battle of early 2013, and a variety of other skirmishes over the years where Reid demonstrated a willingness to fight for progressive causes—and a refusal to cave to the vocal minority of conservative Democratic Senators.
Already, the horse race to replace Reid in 2017 is on—whether it’s as majority or minority leader, though the electoral map and 2016 presidential election make the former more likely.
Liberals are sure to be skeptical of the heavy favorite to win the job, Senator Chuck Schumer, who has represented Wall Street literally as New York’s senior senator and figuratively in a variety of ways over the years. Reid has also already endorsed Schumer for the job, which comes off as heavy-handed.
Two progressive groups, Democracy for America and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, are stoking the idea that Senator Elizabeth Warren should become the new leader. Neil Sroka, Democracy for America spokesman, said the position “shouldn’t be a slam dunk for any early front-runner, especially someone closer to Wall Street while the Wall Street wing of the party is dying and the Elizabeth Warren wing is rising.”
This is a tempting idea for progressives. It replicates the logic of the movement to draft Warren for president: by advancing the prospects of a populist crusader, it puts the more moderate sector of the party on notice that things are changing.
Greg Sargent makes a persuasive case that it’s great to start that debate now, even if it’s a steep uphill climb for Warren, as the Senate prepares to take up crucial debates on things like the Trans-Pacific Partnership; it’s good for progressives if Schumer and other moderate Democrats hear Warren’s footsteps when they are deciding whether to support Obama’s plea for a fast-tracked proposal.
There are other attractive things about Senate majority leader Warren, too—she is a prodigious fund-raiser for other Democrats, which is a crucial job requirement for Senate leader, and during the midterms she drew large crowds even in red states like West Virginia. The Senate leader also exercises a unique power to bless (or kill) potential Senate candidacies; in this role, Warren could help ensure strong progressive candidates emerged as the Democratic candidates in Senate races across the country.
So what’s not to like? I’m not sure the Warren push is a bad idea, but I have some serious concerns.
There are a few smaller-bore worries that could possibly be overcome, but are worth thinking about. For one, Warren’s office already said she doesn’t want the job. That’s a pretty big roadblock.
As leader of the Senate Democrats, Warren would necessarily lose the consistency of her positions. Her job every day would be to bring Democrats—all of them—into line to either support or oppose a particular provision. There would be messy compromises, especially when dealing with a House that’s likely to be Republican for the foreseeable future. One wonders if Warren would actually better serve progressive causes using her popularity as a normal senator, giving floor speeches and rallying Democrats away from some bad position the leadership wanted, instead of trying to herd all the cats herself.
Senate majority leader Warren also wouldn’t sit on any committees, meaning the senator who subjects the administration’s economic team or Wall Street executives to granular, probing questions on the Senate Banking Committee would be gone. Warren’s direct oversight power over Wall Street—gone.
Maybe that’s all worth it in the end. But the main reason this seems like a bad battle for progressives: it’s one they just can’t win. It’s definitely possible someone other than Schumer could be elected leader, but Warren is way too heavy of a lift.
There is a plausible argument, I think, that Warren could actually be elected president. At the end of the day, all she needs is for people to come out and vote—and give her a donation or two. But Senate leadership elections aren’t purely democratic exercises like a presidential election.
All that matters are the votes of around fifty Democratic senators, give or take a few, which are cast in a secret ballot. Nobody else gets a say, making it a pretty bad target for an organizing campaign. Sure, progressives could theoretically extract pledges from Democratic candidates or incumbents in the 2016 elections to support Warren, but there probably aren’t enough open, competitive seats to get a Warren majority that way.
The leadership election also comes at a uniquely bad time—right after the general election, and as far as possible from the next one. In other words, it happens when activists have the least amount of leverage.
Moreover, seniority is the lifeblood of the Senate. It’s the system by which senators know their service and time served will hold greater benefits down the line. It might not be pretty, nor fair, but any Senate observer will tell you it’s how the institution works. Even a theoretical senator who really wanted Warren to lead the party over Schumer would still really worry about overthrowing the seniority system that has, or would, benefit them.
That doesn’t mean Schumer should get the job automatically, but the idea that senators would elevate a first-term member to the top seat borders on laughable. It won’t happen.
The danger in pushing a hopeless mission is that it weakens your stature. Earlier Friday, an anonymous Democratic aide in the Senate told TPM’s Sahil Kapur that the idea of Warren for leader is “absurd” and claimed the groups pushing it have little sway. I think there’s plenty of evidence of their influence—but it would be a shame if they helped prove that aide right.
Moreover, this all gets away from the task at hand: making Schumer scared of, and thus responsive to, the progressive wing of the party. Schumer almost surely isn’t worried about Warren.
My advice would be to pick a much more viable, veteran non-Schumer option like Dick Durbin, Patty Murray or even Sherrod Brown, and to throw the weight of progressives behind that person. Some of the those senators might make imperfect messengers, but the point is that they would be progressive-backed candidates who could actually win.
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Under its new king, Salman, Saudi Arabia is fighting four major struggles to reshape the Middle East. The common denominator is a quest for neighbors that will not challenge the Saudi monarchy or make alternative claims on religious and temporal authority, especially on a populist basis. The Saudi government is more pragmatic than usually recognized, and it can abide left-of-center nationalist regimes as long as they do not denounce Riyadh. But political Islam scares the geriatric royal family to no end if it is not under their control.
The Saudi intervention in Yemen, and its organization of key members of the Arab League into a coalition to support that military move, is unusually adventurous for the royal family, which likes to work behind the scenes and more subtly. The muscular character of the intervention is a sign of how frightened Riyadh is of the instability in Yemen. There, the tribal Houthi movement of Zaidi Shiites has allied with military units loyal to deposed president Ali Abdullah Saleh to topple the government of Saleh’s successor, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
The Houthis have pledged to topple the Saudi throne; they chant “death to America” and have friendly relations with Iran. Nothing could be more threatening to the Saudis than a grassroots populist movement of this militant sort, and that it springs from a Shiite population makes it worse. The Saud dynasty is allied at home with the Wahhabi movement, which typically views Shiite Muslims as worse idolators than Hindus. Still, the late King Abdullah appointed two Shiites to his national Advisory Council, the embryonic Saudi parliament, and deployed the Ismaili Shiites of Najran against Yemen. It is not Shiite Islam that is the red line for the kingdom, but populist movements that talk dirty about the Saudi monarchy.
Another worry for King Salman, as for the United States, is that the Houthis’ attempt to rule all of Yemen despite being from a minority community (Zaidis are about a third of Yemen’s population) will create a power vacuum in the Sunni south of the country. There, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has long been active, with between 400 and 2,000 fighters. In 2011–12, AQAP attempted to take territory in Abyan province, but was defeated by the Yemeni army.
The real day-to-day ruler of Saudi Arabia may be the second deputy prime minister, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. Son of a long-serving minister of intelligence, Prince Mohammed was targeted by an AQAP suicide bomber in 2009. The Saudis not only want to force the Houthis into political negotiations and restore national consensus; they want to make sure that AQAP, a threat to the royal family, is defeated. The Houthi takeover of much of the country has impelled the United States to pull out its remaining Special Forces personnel and to mothball for now the drone program it was running against the AQAP leadership. The Saudi royal family could not have been pleased.
The aged billionaires of the Saud dynasty have been buffeted by potentially destabilizing gales since 2011. They depended on the relatively secular-minded, nationalist Egyptian officer corps for their security, to some extent (Pakistan and the United States also offered the kingdom security umbrellas). The overthrow of Hosni Mubarak and the rise to power in Egypt of the populist Muslim Brotherhood posed an existential crisis for the kingdom. The Muslim Brotherhood was seen by the Saudi royal family as rooted in the people and as disrespectful of the religious charisma of the king in Riyadh. Saudi Arabia thus colluded with the Egyptian officer corps in the July 2013 coup against then-President Mohamed Morsi. The Saudis have long memories. They remember that in 1815 Egypt invaded Arabia on behalf of the Ottoman sultan to crush the Wahhabis. They were worried that the Muslim Brotherhood, if it were able to consolidate its control in Egypt, could carry out or encourage similar attempts to undermine their power in the Arabian Peninsula.
In Syria, the Saudis backed the more fundamentalist factions of the Free Syrian Army, called Salafis, which have now organized themselves as the Islamic Front. The Islamic Front has not done very well in the fighting, though it controls some territory near the northern city of Aleppo. The Islamic Front differs from other Syrian rebel groups such as the Al Qaeda affiliate known as the Support Front (Jabhat al-Nusra) and Daesh (ISIS or ISIL) not ideologically but simply because Nusra and Daesh are not loyal to King Salman. The Saudis fear the latter two and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, and still hope their Islamic Front clients will prosper and turn Syria into a Salafi paradise that is firmly subordinate to the Saud dynasty. Riyadh also fears victory by the Damascus government of Bashar al-Assad, which is disproportionately drawn from Alawi Shiites and which is allied with Shiite Iran and with Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
In Bahrain, the Saudis sent in some 1,000 troops to support the Sunni monarchy of the al-Khalifa in the face of protests by the island’s Shiite majority against their marginalization. Riyadh then prevailed on the United Arab Emirates to match that military commitment. That the masses demonstrating in the streets were Shiite no doubt annoyed the Saudis, but that they were a popular crowd drawn from the people, with no loyalty to Sunni monarchs, is what really frightened them.
The Houthis, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Alawite Baathists, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and the Shiite Wifaq Party in Bahrain have all felt the Saudi lash. Yet they bear little resemblance to one another ideologically or theologically. Two of them, the Brotherhood and AQAP, are strongly Sunni, though the Brotherhood is nowadays largely nonviolent. The Alawites are gnostics who are not usually recognized as Muslims, even by other sects of Shiism. The Zaidi Shiites of Yemen had been known for being close to the Sunnis and having good relations with them. The Bahrain Shiites belong to the conservative Akhbari school and hold that lay people can interpret religious texts for themselves—many have only pastors, rather than ayatollahs. What four of the five have in common is that they are populist movements of political Islam that challenge the status quo and challenge the Saudi monarchy and its claims of religious charisma deriving from support for Wahhabism and its rule over the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. In the case of Syria, the Alawites are the establishment, not rebels. But by allying with Iran, the Syrian Alawites have become associated in the eyes of some powerful Wahhabis with populist Shiite challenges to the regional status quo.
Saudi Arabia appears to have had its way in Egypt, where the officer corps is resurgent and the Muslim Brotherhood has been crushed, along with the progressive youth of the Tahrir movement. Likewise, the protest movement of the marginalized Shiite majority of Bahrain has been dealt with brutally by the Sunni monarchy, with Saudi help. But in Syria, the Saudi-backed faction has had no real success. And Yemen, rugged and inhospitable to outsiders, poses the greatest challenge of all. When the nationalist Egypt of Gamal Abdel Nasser intervened in another Yemeni civil war, in the 1960s, it became a quagmire for him and tied down his best troops, leading in part to his humiliating defeat in the 1967 war with Israel. If Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires, Yemen is the booby trap for foreign incursions. Will the geriatric billionaires of the Saudi royal family be able to avoid Nasser’s fate?
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There was an awkward moment midway through Thursday’s Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform, out in the hall of a vast Washington hotel. Van Jones, the liberal activist and former Obama adviser, stood shoulder to shoulder with Mark Holden, the general council for Koch Industries; Matt Kibbe, CEO of aTea Party–aligned FreedomWorks; and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who is now part of the Right on Crime campaign. They were discussing the rare left-right coalition that has assembled around the problem of mass incarceration, and whether it might spark congressional action.
“This is fundamentally different than immigration reform,” Gingrich said, after a reporter brought up the failure of that recent, briefly bipartisan effort. “There’s a much, much bigger consensus—more like welfare reform.”
It was a bracing reminder that cooperation across the aisle is only as good as the policies it produces. Mass incarceration, after all, was a thoroughly bipartisan project. Richard Nixon started the War on Drugs, but the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act—“one of the broadest expansions of the criminal-justice system in national history,” as Michael Ames describes it—was written by Joe Biden, then the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and signed by Bill Clinton.
Many reformers on the left are optimistic that this time the bipartisan consensus will tilt in a progressive direction. “Obviously I was not in favor of welfare reform…but I think [Gingrich] is right in terms of it having hit a tipping point,” Van Jones told me later. “Not the substance, but the dynamics are very similar. You have an idea that started out only on the right and eventually won over a critical majority on the left with welfare reform. Here you have an idea that really started out as a concern of the left and it’s now got a critical mass on the right, and because of that, you can probably pass something this year.”
That seems to be the most specific goal shared by the various factions assembled at the summit: to pass some kind of reform legislation in the small window before the 2016 elections. There are a number of piecemeal bills on the table, including the Smarter Sentencing Act to reduce mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenders; the REDEEM Act, which would give people with criminal records an avenue to sealing those records and lift the ban on public assistance for people with felony drug convictions; a proposal to provide resources and alternatives to incarceration for mentally ill offenders; and a more moderate sentencing-reduction proposal that would allow some prisoners to get time off for participating in job training, drug counseling and other “recidivism reduction” programs.
“There’s a lot of good legislation and a lot of good energy,” Democratic Senator Cory Booker told the audience at the summit. “But I’m telling you there’s tremendous work to do to get those bills through the committee and onto the floor.” Cracking old-school, tough on crime lawmakers like Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican who chairs of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is the most immediate challenge to passing legislation this year. Still, there was plenty of optimism that the dinosaurs would lose eventually. “Everyone is going to be in favor of some kind of criminal justice reform” in 2016, Gingrich told a group of reporters. “When it comes up in the debates, it’ll be variations on the theme, and the general theme will be ‘yes, that’s right.’”
The summit was designed to be a show of strength and unity. Accordingly, it did not much address those potential “variations,” or the serious question of how far the disparate and in some cases conflicting ideologies of the groups backing reform can carry it. For instance, it’s hard to know what to make of the contribution of Bernie Kerik, former commissioner of the New York City police and the city’s Department of Corrections. Kerik was convicted of tax fraud and corruption in 2009 and spent three years in a minimum-security prison in Maryland, an experience he described at the summit as “dying with your eyes open.” Now Kerik is launching a 501(c)4 nonprofit (also known as a dark-money group) called American Coalition on Criminal Justice Reform. But then here’s Kerik in Time magazine just a few months ago, waving away the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of the police, and warning readers about a “war…as dangerous as any global enemy we face,” by which he means a war on cops. Is there a road to reform that skirts racial justice?
Despite Gingrich’s insistence at the summit that there’s “no question” that the primary motivation for conservative supporters of prison reform is moral, what they’re mainly selling is smaller government. As then–Texas governor Rick Perry said succinctly at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference, “Shut prisons down. Save that money.” There are reasons to be concerned that framing the problem as a budgetary rather than a social one will only perpetuate the system of punitive justice. Privatized alternatives to incarceration—probation, parole, drug testing services, specialized courts—have been criticized as extensions of state surveillance and for giving corporations yet another way to prey financially on the poor.
University of Pennsylvania political scientist Marie Gottschalk discussed this push “to expand the ‘prison beyond the prison’” recently in a long and worthwhile interview with Jacobin. Gottschalk, the author of Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics, doesn’t take very seriously right-wing prison reformers like Perry who say they want to help the poor and save the state money yet refuse millions of federal dollars to expand Medicaid. She’s also critical of the focus on the War on Drugs, and makes the case that to really dent prison populations, lawmakers will have to look beyond nonviolent offenders to the kind of cases bound to make politicians squirm: child pornography, homicide. (Cory Booker brought up the classification of violent offenders at the summit, to his credit.)
More broadly, does it matter that the right is using criminal-justice reform to legitimize its broader anti-government ideology? Gottschalk seems to think so. “Today’s left/right kumbaya moment on criminal justice reform rests partly on what I call the pathologies of deficit politics,” she says. “Hitching the movement against mass incarceration to the purported fiscal burden of the carceral state helps reinforce the premise that eliminating government deficits and government debt should be the top national priority.”
I asked Gingrich whether he thought that any savings from shrinking prisons should be reinvested in education and other policies to reduce poverty. “A certain amount of this money has to be re-allocated particularly in the mental-health area, but also, frankly, in the retraining of people who were first time offenders,” he said. “If there’s surplus after that, I think it’ll go to reduce the deficit or to reduce debt.”
For now, many reformers on the left are ignoring the contradictions and limitations of their partners on the right in order to get the ball rolling. “The vote total is what I care about. There’s no asterisk on the vote total if some of these people are opportunists,” Van Jones said when I asked whether there is any danger that politicians jumping on the reform bandwagon to troll for minority votes might lead to weaker reforms. “If somebody’s sitting in a prison cell someplace doing thirty years for a nonviolent drug offense, are they going to care why somebody voted to shorten their sentence? They probably aren’t…. It’s a sign of a certain kind of comfort or almost, what do you call it—‘affluenza’ on the left to be primarily concerned with the motivations of the people who could actually vote this year.”
Jones is right: it would be petty to ignore that the coalition pushing for change in the criminal-justice system has the potential to impact real lives for the better. It would also be easy, amidst all the excitement, to overestimate what’s on the table. I asked Gingrich whether he would support any form of reparations to individuals or communities who’ve suffered on account of the War on Drugs and harsh sentencing. “No, I’m against trying to get involved in that kind of complex redistribution,” he replied, looking somewhat befuddled. “It teaches very bad habits.”
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On Thursday I spoke to Andy Schwarz, a leading anti-trust economist, for some straight common sense about about the NCAA, college sports and paying athletes. His words should be CliffsNotes for everyone watching March Madness.
On why NCAA athletes should receive some sort of monetary compensation:
I always say the question of whether they should get paid is the wrong one. I think the question is, “If the NCAA weren’t colluding against them, would they get paid?” And the answer is, “Yes, they would.” We all should have the right to earn what we’re worth, to go in and ask for it, and if we’re not worth much, we won’t get much. The fact that the NCAA is so adamantly insisting on enforcing a rule to prevent anyone from getting paid I think is a good sign that if the rule weren’t there, they would.
On what kind of system would make the most sense:
I think the simplest system is almost no system at all. Or if you insist on having some rules, have them at the conference level.
The best system is one where teams make their own decisions. In college, if you had each of the ten football conferences or thirty-two basketball conferences competing, they could make their own rules. They could set a level of parity among the schools within the conference and then go off and compete for talent in such a way that if a school up in Minnesota or Maine or Massachusetts thinks hockey players are worth something, then they would get paid. In most places, football and basketball players would get paid. I went to Stanford. Women’s basketball players would be in demand there. Probably at Connecticut as well.
On whether paying athletes would be either a legal violation of Title IX, or wreck women’s sports:
Both of those things are 180 degrees wrong. Title IX is really specific to what it does and doesn’t require. People probably think that Title IX requires that men’s sports and women’s sports get equally funded and it doesn’t say that at all. In 2009–10, Alabama spent $43 million on men’s sports and $13 million on women’s sports, and they weren’t in violation of Title IX because all Title IX says with respect to money is that, however many men you have playing sports, the money they get has to be proportional to the ratio. So if you’ve got 60 percent male and 40 percent female athletes, then the money that they specifically get in scholarships has to be 60:40, plus or minus a tiny margin for error. Now you have a system where the player “pay” is capped and the way that schools compete for talent is to pay coaches more and more to get them to recruit, This shifts money away from areas where Title IX does apply—the money that goes to players—to areas where it doesn’t apply. So if we change the system and we allow schools to compete for talent with pay, you’d see coaches’ pay go down, you’d see male athletes’ pay go up. But every time you increase the male athletes’ pay by a dollar, and it’s not quite a dollar in matching, but there would need to be, under the law, a matching payment to women.
On how paying players would control obscene college coaching salaries:
To be clear, tomorrow they won’t rip up a contract that’s in place. This is a five-to-ten-year transition. And if the NCAA were being proactive about it instead of scorched earth, they’d be planning for it. Effectively, when firms—and these schools when they’re out there hiring coaches and when they’re hiring athletes like a normal business—figure out what they want to pay a person and the benefits they get from increased quality, that sort of sets a market rate. But in the current system, players can’t be lured with pay, so a school comes up with a secondary means of payment: a nicer locker room, a waterfall in my hydrotherapy room, a promise of winning, a greater chance of playing pro. And good coaching is also a perk. But coaching is a relatively scarce resource, and the best coaches take advantage of that because they are in a free labor market. There was an attempt in the 1990s to cap coaches’ pay too. The coaches took them to court and the court slapped it down really, really fast. That’s called price-fixing. As a result, when you want to spend more dollars on talent and you can’t, you spend it on more facilities and you spend it on more coaches. In contrast, growth in revenue in the NBA and in the NFL mostly flows to the players. Coaches make about 5 percent of total payroll in those leagues and—even if you count the value of a scholarship as a fixed salary—coaches can make twice as much in football and seven times as much in basketball, as their team. [Editor’s note: Schwarz clarified that by this he meant that coaches can get 200 percent (in FB) or 700 percent (in BB) of what their athletes’ scholarships are priced at, in total across the whole team.]
On whether paying college athletes would increase a culture of entitlement:
I think the people who are most entitled are athletic directors who were born rounding third base and think they hit a triple. They are being paid for effectively expropriating what the athletes would get in a market. When I hear coaches talking about this too, it’s like, well, the real market rate for all your talent has been doubled by the fact that you’re sucking money away from people from who, if they were allowed to earn based on their skill and hard work, would be making the most money, so that your salary can go up. I read yesterday that Michigan sent a letter to the girlfriend of a player to try to convince her to try to convince him to come to Michigan. Those are the sorts of crazy, indirect things you have to do when you can’t say we want you so much that we’ll up our offer by $10,000.
On the odd political alignments around the issue of paying athletes:
There is a strain of people on the left who see the whole process of rewarding people within a college structure for something that’s not academic to just be fundamentally wrong. So the idea that they have a market value in a system like that, it’s strikes them as being wrong and they might go to the point of saying it’s immoral. These people ought to be more interested in school. Your values should be the same as my values.
On the right wing—some of it is because unions have gotten involved and they’re just knee-jerk anti-union—people are conservative and change is hard. So the idea that this might change the nature of football, it might change the strict hierarchy as coach as father and players as children to something more like a partnership. That’s also threatening.
I wish we could see it as something along the lines of: let these people be. Young men, a lot of times, come from backgrounds of poverty. Let them use their entrepreneurial spirit to earn their keep. And to the left, I think we should say, “Isn’t this a great way to end what’s really a regressive tax, where the earnings of young black men are basically taxed at 100 percent to pay for the salaries of largely middle-class, middle-aged white men?”
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On some dates in history, we confess, not much of excitement or lasting interest has ever occured. On those days we need to go fishing for something to plug the gap, because when you’re committed to bringing the people interesting stories from history and how The Nation covered them, every single day of the year, well, you’ve got to follow through on that commitment.
March 27 is not one of those days. Today Quentin Tarantino turns 52 years old. When Pulp Fiction was screened at Cannes in 1994, Stuart Klawans wrote the following review in The Nation:
Pulp Fiction hits you like a jolt of adrenaline; at the climax of one of its three episodes it’s literally about a jolt of adrenaline. Soon enough you come down off its high, with that druggie feeling of your bones being hollow and your skin encrusted with dirt; but you can’t deny that the movie delivers what you paid for, or that it somehow elevates craft and cleverness to the level of art.
To mark The Nation’s 150th anniversary, every morning this year The Almanac will highlight something that happened that day in history and how The Nation covered it. Get The Almanac every day (or every week) by signing up to the e-mail newsletter.
A proper budget is a moral document, which well expresses the values and aspirations of a civil society.
As such, the measure of any budget is its combination of fiscal and social responsibility.
By this measure, there was only one proper budget proposal floated in the current Congress. And it did not get very far.
Only ninety-six House Democrats voted Wednesday for the People’s Budget, as it was proposed by the Congressional Progressive Caucus. The budget was opposed by 330 House members, including eighty-six shame-on-them Democrats and 244 Republicans.
The record of Wednesday’s roll call is worth reviewing, especially because it identifies the Democrats who got this most important vote wrong.
Of course, no one expected the People’s Budget to be enacted. But that is not a poor reflection on the CPC plan, which better met the tests of fiscal and social responsible than any of the other official or alternative proposals that are currently in play. It is a reflection on this Congress, which cannot get anything right, and on a political process that is now so flawed—because of gerrymandering, big money and failed media—that the United States ends up with, well, this Congress.
Despite the fact that if it was not expected to prevail, the People’s Budget was serious.
Congressman Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat who serves on the House Budget Committee and as vice chair of the CPC noted, it sought to address the fundamental issue of our time—inequality—with a focus on “leveling the economic playing field by increasing wages for middle- and low-income workers.”
The People’s Budget proposed the only approach that can work: Start by first asking the wealthy to pay their fair share and making smart cuts to the bloated Pentagon budget, and then use the money to invest in repairing infrastructure repair and expansion, in upgrading energy systems to address climate and providing for debt-free college, workforce training and small businesses expansion. This is a job-creation, investment and growth agenda, as opposed to the austerity and stagnation budgets of Paul Ryan, the former House Budget Committee chairman who now chairs the House Ways and Means Committee.
Above all, the People’s Budget recognized that, as CPC co-chair Keith Ellison explained, “Too many working Americans open their paychecks each week and ask themselves how they will make ends meet by [with a plan to] fully fund childhood health, education and affordable housing to help working families stretch their paychecks [and] a blueprint of proven investments to end grinding poverty, promote economic mobility and enable shared prosperity.”
That prospect is what was lost when the House rejected the People’s Budget.
Susan Harley of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch Division was right when she said after the House vote that “Congress should have passed the People’s Budget.”
“The People’s Budget proposed by the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) was a better alternative to the budget resolution approved today by the U.S. House of Representatives and should have received a majority vote,” she explained. “By focusing on policies like fairer corporate taxation as a way to pay for spending on essential government services such as improved health care and public financing of elections, the People’s Budget would have put America on a clearer path to a more just and democratic society.”
The People’s Budget also would have instituted a tax on Wall Street trades, known as a financial transaction tax, which is a commonsense way to both increase revenue and calm markets now plagued with volatile high-frequency trading.
The People’s Budget also called for important changes to our tax code, such as ending deferral on foreign-made profits of U.S. companies and limiting the ability of companies to invert and reincorporate in a foreign jurisdiction to avoid their fair share of taxes.
Though it did not garner majority support in the McConnell-Boehner, corporate-controlled 114th Congress, it surely would win majority support from the American people.
And, of course, in a democracy that is the final measure of a proper budget.
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The news that the most powerful organization in the known universe, the United States military, intends to focus its coercive mechanisms on a frightened, sensitive, traumatized young man, Bowe Bergdahl, has elicited howls of delight from that section of our public arena leased at below-market prices by the guild of belligerent cowards.
Back Issues is a blog about The Nation’s archives, but one would need a magazine much older than 150 years to find archival evidence of a time when such views had the merest claim to morality, not to mention, as the guild so often and so tediously does, piety.
“I am shocked at the concerted effort led by pro-war elements to pillory this guy, rather than offer serious compassion,” Robert Musil, who wrote an article on Vietnam deserters for The Nation in 1973, told me last year. “Where is all that rhetoric about ‘we support our troops’? He has suffered a lot, as have others. Where is the understanding, the compassion, the humanity? I frankly think that’s the proper response to an American kid stranded in the middle of Afghanistan who feels he has no choice but to go away from his unit.”
After I wrote that post, I was contacted by Rory Fanning, a former US Army Ranger in Afghanistan who served in the same unit as Pat Tillman. Fanning kindly sent me a copy of his book, Worth Fighting For, published last November by Haymarket. It is a profoundly moving memoir about his trek across the United States to raise money for the Pat Tillman Foundation, but more importantly it is a thoughtful, historically literate and often hilarious account of Fanning’s effort to forge a new relationship with a country he worried he had betrayed and had been betrayed by: disturbed by what he saw in Afghanistan, Fanning briefly went AWOL. He likely would have suffered the same fate that Bergdahl faces had not imperial stupidity, incompetence and lying saved him at the last moment. Preoccupied by the fallout from Tillman’s death and the attempted cover-up to prevent disclosure that it was caused by friendly fire, military authorities allowed Fanning to leave their custody without charges.
Fanning returned home and a few years later embarked on his transcontinental walk, seeking (and ultimately finding) a more profound connection to the American people, past and land than he had thought possible when he was growing up.
(I cannot recommend the book highly enough.)
My first reaction upon hearing the news that Bergdahl would be charged with desertion was to unfurl a string of expletives. My second was to get Fanning on the phone.
“Clearly,” he began, “the main reason they’re going after him is because they don’t want to be responsible for the hundreds of thousands of dollars in back pay that they owe him. I find that ironic, as they’ve been giving millions to warlords, throwing away trillions since 2001.”
Indeed, The New York Times’s otherwise somewhat mysterious suggestion that “there appears to be little desire to see him serve time” makes a lot more sense if you reason, as Fanning does, that they are only charging him to avoid having to cough up the back pay.
“The evidence against him that he’s responsible for the deaths of six soldiers is tenuous at best,” Fanning continued. “But the bigger point is the fact that the entity to blame for these deaths is the US military, for sending these soldiers into a war that should never have happened. The Taliban surrendered months after the initial invasion. But our politicians wanted blood.”
Fanning feels for Bergdahl. “Anyone who has been in Afghanistan could clearly see that the US had nothing to do in that country,” he told me. “We were little more than pawns in village disputes most of the time.”
“To be honest with you,” Fanning said, “we need a million more Bowe Bergdahls. Anybody who has any degree of common sense or moral fortitude would say, ‘This is ridiculous. I’m not gonna fight this war.’”
Fanning told me, as Musil had last year, that it is not at all easy or in some cases possible to declare yourself a conscientious objector once you are in war.
“I could totally relate to this guy,” he said. “I consider him a hero. To kill somebody for a cause you don’t believe in is potentially worse than being killed yourself, because those scars last forever. Just walking off the battlefield as Bergdahl did seems like an easier route than seeking conscientious-objector status.”
Why the wingnut feeding frenzy?
“It’s a lot of fear-mongering to prop up this state of perpetual war,” Fanning concluded. “Recruitment is down. People are realizing we’re not fighting for freedom or democracy, but for empire. They have to make an example out of someone like Bowe Bergdahl.”
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