If a mass killing perpetrated by a deeply disturbed misogynist does not make us look at how our society promotes and perpetuates violence against women, I am not sure what will. Our culture has always looked the other way or even validated gendered violence, particularly against African-American women. Yet in an era of lightning-fast cultural transmission, this historic violence seems to be both mutating and becoming more perniciously commodified before our eyes. It’s a violence that seems to exist in its own cultural category, where it is not only excused but also treated as deeply humorous—and woe to anyone who says otherwise. It’s a violence that has become so normalized, so all encompassing, that it often feels that saying or doing nothing becomes an act of complicity.
It does not take any sort of genius to draw a line in between the weekend’s shooting, the torments faced by Marissa Alexander or other women who defend themselves, and the fact that the quickest way to invite a barrage of social media hate is to say something as simple as, “I don’t think rape jokes are funny.” These dots connect to create a gun pointed at the ability of women to possess the most elemental human right in what is supposed to be a free society: the right to be left alone.
As a sportswriter, I try to look at the ways in which violence against women is excused and glossed over in professional sports, sending messages to their young, male audiences that this is somehow just part of being like their game-time heroes. This weekend, the day before the shooting, saw yet another one of those moments that should make the National Football League burn with shame, and take account for the role they play in creating this culture.
Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice and his wife Janay Rice held a press conference to apologize and explain why Rice was caught on camera dragging his wife by the hair from a casino elevator after punching her into unconsciousness. The Rices were basically throwing themselves on the mercy of the court of public opinion. That is nothing new, and we have seen male athletes and their wives do this in the past. What was different, at first bizarre and then obscene, was when it became clear that whoever controlling the Ravens official twitter account was live-tweeting the press conference. What they chose to tweet speaks volumes. After sending out a series of 140-character banalities to their half-million followers about how sorry Ray Rice was that he let down the organization and how he was going to come back better than ever, the Ravens official twitter account sent out the following: “@Ravens Janay Rice says she deeply regrets the role that she played the night of the incident.”
Yes, she really did communicate this and, yes, it is tragic that a woman knocked unconscious and dragged by her hair by a heavily muscled pro athlete felt compelled to effectively say that she was in any way at fault. It is even worse that the team live-tweeted such a comment, attempting to do its part to shape public opinion and encourage “Ravens Nation” to welcome Ray Rice back into the fold. This is the Ravens not seeing that maybe there are things more important than defending their product. This is also of course, as I’ve written, far more than a Ravens issue but symptomatic of a league-wide problem in the way the NFL disregards violence against women. Or, as Tomas Rios wrote for Sports on Earth, “A woman has publicly sided with her abuser before, but the collusion between athlete and team to impose a feel-good narrative of personal redemption on the public sends a horrifying message. “
That tweet, and the NFL's entire approach to this question, demonstrates the difference between violence against women and what it means to have a culture of violence against women. The violence is what Ray Rice did to Janay Rice. The culture is a team—and a league—that thinks rehabbing the images of players who project the violence of their game onto women is no more than a public relations problem. This is no different than the connective tissue between the act of rape and rape culture. Just as "rape" is a crime and "rape culture" is when the crime is disregarded and mocked, violence against women excused is ensuring that violence will occur again. This is also why people who say “not all men” commit rape or violence against women don’t understand what it will actually take to resign these pathologies to the dustbin of history. It is a collective responsibility that men either take seriously, or risk becoming part of the problem.
The high rates of violence against the wives and girlfriends of pro athletes have a multiplicity of causes, but when the league institutionally either ignores it or provides set pieces to somehow justify it, this ceases to be an individual or athletic problem and becomes one that seeps into our pores and poisons every part of our culture. We saw what happened over the weekend, when that poison is weaponized.
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During a weekend of media tributes to US military men and women, dead and still serving, I tried to inject the reality of the still-shocking rate of suicides among our troops on active duty and after they return home, despite fewer of them facing combat in recent months. I’ve covered this issue for more than ten years now in dozens of articles (just one example) and a book, going back to when hardly anyone wanted to hear it.
Now a new documentary aims to attract and keep a steady focus.
One of its producers, Claire Ratinon, tells me in an e-mail that Almost Sunrise, directed by Michael Collins (Give Up Tomorrow), “tells the story of two ex-soldiers, Tom Voss and Anthony Anderson, who walk across the country in a bid to heal from their time on the battlefield. The film deals with the challenges that face returning military and their families explored through their experiences and the people they meet on their 2700 mile journey, walking from Milwaukee to LA.”
The filmmakers have forged a new partnership with Stop Soldier Suicide, and Claire explains, “This film is being made to call attention to the suicide crisis and ignite the much-needed dialogue around this difficult subject—and partnering with Stop Soldier Suicide will allow us to develop a powerful outreach campaign with the film as a central tool—that will bring real, meaningful change to the lives of active military, veterans and their families.”
Here’s a link to their Kickstarter campaign which includes extensive details and a message from the director and a video, and more. On the film:
Homelessness, unemployment, PTSD, traumatic brain injury and the suicide epidemic that sees 22 veterans a day take their own life, are some of the many issues that ravage the veterans community. In fact, more soldiers have died from suicide since the war in Afghanistan began than have died in combat there.
Through Tom and Anthony’s cross-country journey, ALMOST SUNRISE meets veterans who battle these issues every day, issues that experts say will continue to grow as vets of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq come home and grapple with a return to daily life.
ALMOST SUNRISE also frames the compelling issue of moral injury, an emerging term in the mental health field identified by professionals frustrated with the failure of traditional institutional efforts to make a dent in the suicide rate. Moral injury is used to describe the psychological damage service members face when their experiences on the battlefield challenge their moral beliefs.
Read Next: Greg Mitchell: Guest column: Cooperstown’s mayor on Obama’s visit (and that anti-fracking protest).
On Saturday at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, bustling crowds streamed in to see the exhibition on Italian Futurism—a motlier crowd than usual perhaps, thanks to the discounted admission. And then things got unruly. In a satirical spin on the Futurist aesthetic, a mini mob of renegade artists plastered the pristine walls with modular machine-age icons displaying kinetic slogans: “Gulf Justice Now!” and “Into the Future with Worker Dignity!”
After a brief confrontation with stern security personnel, the agitprop was removed, but the rogue art show left a lingering impression on the space. The protesters were calling out the Guggenheim’s trustees, demanding that they confront a labor crisis at the site of its far-flung construction project in Abu Dhabi. There, at Saadiyat or “Happiness” Island, legions of migrant workers labor under brutal conditions to construct an opulent oasis for the gulf’s emerging cultural elite.
For now, the paradise island is ringed by a fortress of labor camps. Since Human Rights Watch exposed egregious labor conditions at Saadiyat in 2009, investigative missions to the United Arab Emirates have revealed widespread evidence of systematic violations at the site, including predatory recruitment schemes, wage theft, substandard housing and even deportation as punishment for protesting against labor violations.
Saturday’s action was one of a series of spectacular protests staged by GULF (Global Ultra Luxury Faction) to raise awareness of labor issues at the Abu Dhabi site. As a network of artists and writers affiliated with the labor-activist coalition Gulf Labor (GLC), the group previously caused a stir with a vicious satire site and an Occupy-inspired “guerrilla projection” on the building’s facade. The GLC has targeted both the Guggenheim project and a similar project for a Louvre Abu Dhabi branch. Meanwhile, Gulf Labor and activists in the New York University community are campaigning against a parallel project for a gleaming new NYU Abu Dhabi campus, soon to open next door to Saadiyat.
The activists called on Guggenheim to press for reforms to improve working conditions and open a conversation within an increasingly insular cultural elite about the role of art in social movements. In a public statement that accompanied Saturday’s action, the group suggested a potential cultural boycott and a radical reorientation of the artistic sphere:
No artist should be asked to exhibit their work in a museum built on the backs of abused workers demanding dignity and reform. Nor should visitors be invited to step foot in such a building. The Futurists saw their art as a high-speed link to a more efficient, orderly, and hierarchical society. In contrast to the Futurists’ elitist anti-democratic sympathies, GULF looks forward to an open and engaged artworld where large institutions like the Guggenheim set a high standard for ethical practice.
In addition to urging Guggenheim trustees to lead the art world “in broadening the mission of museums everywhere,” the group specifically called for the institution of basic labor rights at Saadiyat, such as freedom of organization, an effective labor grievance process and a site-wide living wage.
Andrew Ross, a member of GULF and the GLC, and professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at NYU, sees the Guggenheim stunts in the historical context of the political foment that erupted in the 1960s and 1970s with the Art Workers’ Coalition, activist-artists who mobilized against the museum establishment. “This, you could say, is a new form of institutional critique,” Ross tells The Nation. But he adds that it is up to NYU and the Guggenheim to take the initiative to turn the museum space into a platform for political engagement. “We’re really just here to be midwives of this process and a reminder that they could turn this story around, and they could come out being ethical champions of a new era of museum making.”
Academic and arts community activists have directly approached the NYU and Guggenheim administrations, and the institutions have promised improvements in labor conditions and protections for the thousands of workers linked to its projects (NYU has issued a Statement of Labor Values for its campus and recently apologized for and vowed to investigate reported abuses).
Overall, however, the institutions and the UAE authorities have fallen far short on calls for a total overhaul of labor practices. And amid the media scrutiny, the Guggenheim and NYU can distance themselves from liability by pointing out that the construction is managed not by the institutions but by third-party contractors, through partnerships with the Gulf Emirate of Abu Dhabi and the state-affiliated development corporation, the Tourism Development and Investment Company of Abu Dhabi (for the Guggenheim and Louvre) and Abu Dhabi’s Executive Affairs Authority (for NYU).
In this socially insular, yet economically globalized petrocapital, the slickly marketed Abu Dhabi developments serve as a laboratory for experimentation with the fusion of art and capital. In contrast to the harsh conditions at the worksite, the finished product of Happiness Island will offer golf courses and luxury hotels along with branches of the Guggenheim and the Louvre. NYU’s campus will add the brand value of serving as a cultural and intellectual bridge between the UAE and the American academic scene.
But that bridge will be built by an army of migrants from the Global South—poorer countries that routinely feed labor to the gulf, primarily Bangladesh and Pakistan.
On top of receiving extremely low wages, researchers and reporters have found that many of the workers fall into virtual debt bondage after paying exorbitant fees to transnational labor recruiters. Under the Kafala system, a centuries-old scheme of indentured servitude, workers are effectively tethered to their boss and unable to leave an abusive workplace. While the UAE has regulations to prevent worker exploitation, practices such as Kafala remain structurally ingrained, abetted by the country’s legal disenfranchisement of migrants and structural economic and ethnic segregation.
According to reports by human rights advocates and news outlets, last October, after construction workers of the UK-owned BK Gulf Corporation staged a strike to protest poor wages, they were reportedly beaten and deported en masse as retaliation.
Gulf Labor knows that the Guggenheim and NYU cannot directly change the UAE’s policies. But they are pushing the institutions to leverage their cultural capital by demanding that authorities in the country allow independent oversight by the International Labour Organization. The NYU academic community can also aid the effort, Ross says, through “policy-oriented research” in the region, to generate public discussion on questions of human rights and economic globalization.
And locally, here in New York, the museum actions present a striking juxtaposition, exposing how the rarefied worlds of the arts and intelligentsia are fueled by a regressive economic policy regime stretching from the US to the UAE. Indeed, GULF’s aesthetic insurgency draws from the Occupy Museums movement, which seeks to “to connect cultural institutions to spreading economic inequality” (harkening back to leftist movements throughout the 20th century that synergized the left and artistic vanguards).
The disruption at the Guggenheim was just a visual articulation of global, grassroots demands rising outside the museum walls. Stuck between a dehumanizing labor structure and a hyper-modern development scheme, Abu Dhabi’s workers stand at a fulcrum in the culture industry. By downing their tools last October, they did more than halt construction; they put a crack in the edifice of a global labor hierarchy.
Read next: NYU students report on worker abuses on their Abu Dhabi campus
Dire reports about the failure of the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide adequate care for those who served in this country’s military forces are not just a serious issue for veterans. They are a serious issue for every American who believes the federal government can and must meet the basic commitments necessary to maintain a civil society.
Unfortunately, that seriousness is not reflected in the frenzy of finger-pointing that has developed as a response to “the public’s outrage over excessive wait times and rigged record-keeping at Veterans Affairs hospitals”—an outrage that the president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the union that represents caregivers for vets, refers to as “more than justified.”
There is no question that the VA has a problem that must be addressed.
The question is whether the politicians in Washington are ready to address it.
The most predictable of the political careerists, Republican and Democrat, seem to think that firing VA Secretary Eric Shinseki will somehow “fix” things, or that the removal of a few failed managers will suddenly create a functional VA. But that is an absurdly insufficient response.
Depending on what reports regarding the agency reveal, there may well be a place for new leadership and a management shakeup. And those changes might briefly produce a fantasy of action and improvement. But that is all it could be: a fantasy. And a cruel fantasy, at that.
Neither the immediate crisis, nor serious issues relating to the long-term future of the VA, will be settled with a mere reorganization of upper management. The real issues are closer to the ground. The VA needs to have enough doctors, nurses and aides to provide the care that is needed—and the doctors, nurses and aides who are now on duty must have the resources and the flexibility to assure that this care is delivered in a timely and responsible manner.
That is not now the case.
“When we look deeper into this issue of extended wait times for veterans to receive an appointment, we have to recognize that understaffing is a major culprit,” explains AFGE president J. David Cox Sr. “All around the country, medical facilities are understaffed, with numerous frontline care positions going unfilled. How can the VA expect to keep up with the growing needs of our nation’s heroes if it doesn’t properly staff its facilities?”
“According to the Independent Budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs, developed each year by leading veterans groups, funding levels will remain an estimated $2 billion short in FY 2015 and approximately $500 million short for FY 2016,” the AFGE notes.
Members of Congress—at least those who pay minimal attention to veterans issues—have for some time been aware of the funding shortfall. Yet too many of them have resisted calls for action.
The reason is that the current Congress is packed with partisans who are more concerned with maintaining an austerity agenda than with caring for Americans who are in need.
Too many members of Congress continue to prattle on about how government is the problem, about how spending must be cut to meet their imagined bottom lines, about how the resources are not there to keep promises to vulnerable Americans—even if the resources are always there for wars of whim and a military-industrial complex that provides daily evidence of the extremes to which waste, fraud and abuse can be taken.
The current Congress includes a striking number of members who express open antipathy to meeting the guarantees that have been made to all Americans, including veterans. These members of Congress are so unthinking in their approach, so cruel in their budgetary calculus, that they casually, in some cases gleefully, presided over a government shutdown last fall.
Republicans get blamed for advancing the austerity agenda, but it is important to remember that more than a few Democrats have compromised with it. And the difference between those who promote austerity and those who make the compromises that allow for austerity means very little to Americans who are stuck on the waiting lists that are created by budgeting that owes more to Ayn Rand tomes than accounting textbooks.
The VA crisis is a wake-up call.
It is time to get serious. It is time to abandon austerity, and to recognize that core commitments cannot be compromised in order to maintain ideological fantasies.
Senate Veteran Affairs Committee chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, tried to get ahead of a host of issues concerning veterans in February, when he proposed comprehensive legislation to improve VA healthcare, education and job-training. Though it was strongly backed by the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and other organizations representing vets, the measure was blocked when most Senate Republicans opposed it. To Republicans who suggested the measure was too expensive, Sanders said, “If you think it’s too expensive (to fund veterans programs), then don’t send them off to war.”
Last week, Sanders announced that he would reintroduce his plan to allocate $21 billion more for veterans initiatives over the coming decade. He is, as well, proposing a new VA accountability measure. The latter legislation removes bureaucratic barriers and makes it easier for the secretary of veterans affairs to make management changes that are necessary to protect those who have served in the military.
The Sanders approach recognizes the need to move beyond the failed responses of America’s austerity-minded politicians while at the same time increasing accountability. It’s a smart long-term fix that eschews the easy sloganeering and empty promises of those who would politicize the VA crisis.
Conscious of the urgency of that crisis, the senator plans to move quickly to get both measures to the Senate floor. “In recent years, as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, 1.5 million more veterans have entered the VA health care system,” says Sanders. “Congress must do everything possible to make certain that the VA has the financial resources and administrative accountability to provide the high-quality health care and timely access to care that our veterans earned and deserve.”
Read Next: George Zornick explains why politicizing the VA is not the answer.
Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam signed a bill Thursday permitting prison officials to use the electric chair to execute death row inmates in the event that lethal injection drugs are unavailable.
The bill makes Tennessee the only state authorizing electrocution as a potential default method of execution. Eight other states allow the use of the electric chair, but only if inmates choose it over another method, usually lethal injection.
We spoke with Dr. Austin Sarat, professor of jurisprudence and political science at Amherst University, about what this means for Tennessee and capital punishment in the United States. Sarat is the author of Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty.
Steven Hsieh: What happens when an electrocution goes awry?
Austin Sarat: The problems with the electric chair run from merely technical problems to problems with gruesome results. One problem with the electric chair is, on occasion, the voltage of the electricity isn’t sufficient to kill the condemned. A classic example happened in Louisiana in the 1940s when a condemned man named Willie Francis was to be put to death by electrocution. The voltage of electricity administered was not enough to kill him, and after passage of some time, he was removed from the chair, brought back to the jail and a second effort to execute him was scheduled. He contested that second execution attempt, but the US Supreme Court allowed it to go forward. On the other end of the continuum, the electric chair has resulted in people catching on fire. That became a particular problem in Florida in the 1970s and early 1980s. Indeed the first electrocution in the United States, carried out in New York, the execution of someone named William Kemmler, was also botched in a rather gruesome way.
What is the more humane execution method: electrocution or lethal injection?
That is the wrong question. It assumes that it is possible to ensure that an execution will not be botched. I’ve studied every execution between 1890 and 2010 to determine how reliable, safe and humane the methods have been. If you look at every execution over that period of time, approximately 3 percent of executions were botched. If you look at just lethal injection, slightly more than 7 percent in the United States has been botched. In every turn, as we’ve thought about the methods by which we put people to death, the same promises have been made. Go back to the nineteenth century and you look at what proponents of the electric chair said. They said it’d be safe, reliable and humane. If you move forward in the early twentieth century when the gas chamber was authorized and first used in Nevada, proponents of the gas chamber said it would be safe, reliable and humane. If you fast forward to the late 1970s, when Oklahoma became the first state to authorize death by lethal injection, the proponents of lethal injection said it would be safe, reliable and humane. So, I don’t think we’ve found, or are likely to find, a method of execution in which the technology will ensure us that things won’t go wrong. We know that failures will happen. We don’t know when. We can’t predict them, necessarily. What has happened is botched executions are regarded as mere accidents. But if we look at a broader picture of these “mere accidents,” we see that they happen with unnerving frequency.
Tennessee’s effort to bring back the electric chair seems like an act of desperation. What’s going on here?
What’s happening in Tennessee has to be seen in the broad context of what’s happening with the death penalty in the United States. We’re in a period of national reconsideration of capital punishment in this country. We’re in a period where proponents of capital punishment are on the defensive. If you go back to the late ’90s, about 300 people a year were being sentenced to death. That number has been cut by almost two-thirds. Increasingly, Americans look at the death penalty not as an abstract moral question but as a question about whether the death penalty system actually works. We’re increasing our doubts about the capacity to differentiate the guilty from the innocent, our capacity to determine who among the guilty actually deserves the death penalty, and now our capacity to execute those who we determine to die in a way that is compatible with the Eighth Amendment’s commitment that punishment should not be cruel.
What Tennessee is doing is a further symptom of a death penalty system in disarray. After all, the legitimacy of the death penalty in the United States has, over the course of the last century, depended on the promise of scientific progress, such that we could find a method of execution that would be safe, reliable and humane. Going backwards, it seems to me, will further unravel and discredit the system of capital punishment in the United States. Were Tennessee carry out an electrocution, they would be running the risk that execution would be botched in ways that are even more gruesome than what happened in Oklahoma.
This bill would allow the corrections department to force electrocution on the condemned. Do you think this would fly legally?
More than twenty years ago, in the face of a series of botched executions in Florida, a constitutional challenge was brought to the US Supreme Court alleging that electrocution should be declared unconstitutional. So concerned were public officials in Florida that the Supreme Court would strike down the electric chair, that the state enacted a bill to change its primary method of execution to lethal injection. I think that if the state of Tennessee went forward with a series of electrocutions, there would be a series of legal challenges, which would have a very substantial prospect of prevailing. Nebraska’s Supreme Court, some years ago, declared electrocution to be unconstitutional. If electrocution were to be used, it would actually damage the prospect of survival in the United States.
Will America ever abolish the death penalty?
We’re already on the road to abolition. This period of national reconsideration has refocused the attention of Americans on the death penalty. It’s changed the question. The question used to be focused on the condemned, those we punish. Today, the question is, “Can we impose death penalty in a way that doesn’t damage central American values?” After all, you can be favor of the death penalty in the abstract, but be reluctant to execute the innocent. You can be in favor of the death penalty in the abstract, but be reluctant to impose it because of the race of the offender or race of the victim. You can be in favor of the death penalty in the abstract, but appalled at how costly it is to carry it out. You can be in favor of the death penalty in the abstract, and be repulsed by the idea that when we put someone to death, we can’t do it in a way that is humane. I think abolition will happen in the United States. It will happen slowly, and not without some reversals—a kind of two-steps-forward-and-one-step-back process.
This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
At the beginning of last summer’s blockbuster film Elysium, three rogue shuttles from Earth approach a space station that houses a super-rich enclave. It’s the ultimate offshore gated community, where the inhabitants possess magical machines that rid them of disease so that they can live practically forever. The shuttles, meanwhile, contain the poor, the sick, “the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” In this science-fiction scenario, the Earth has been become little more than a Third World outpost of hovels, prisons and unregulated factories.
Two of the shuttles containing illegal border-crossers are immediately shot down. One of them, however, manages to land on Elysium. A mother and her disabled child break into a sparkling clean house and locate the magic machine. The child lies on the flat surface, the machine hums and her handicap disappears. It’s a short-lived triumph, as armed guards seize the intruders and repair the security breach.
The future, as Hollywood imagines it, rarely looks good. We’ve either bombed ourselves back into barbarism (Mad Max, The Road), trashed the environment (Soylent Green, Wall-E) or somehow eliminated our ability to procreate (The Children of Men). In Total Recall, the horrors of unregulated capitalism have been outsourced to Mars, where an autocrat runs a mining operation designed by Hieronymus Bosch.
If in the past we imagined a future of distant penal colonies for the criminal 1 percent, we now are projecting a penal Earth for the outcast 99 percent. Elysium is almost a parody of this 99-to-1 dichotomy, for the space station is home to only a tiny handful of people, while Earth looks like the crack-ravaged South Bronx of the 1980s. In this scenario, the wolves of Wall Street have siphoned up as much wealth as they can before departing, not for some exclusive Caribbean island—rising waters have presumably eliminated those tax havens—but for the insulated comforts of outer space.
Hollywood projects our dreams and fears. In the past our cinematic apocalypses have reflected our obsessions with nuclear holocaust and environmental degradation. We’re certainly still worried about those fates—along with pandemics and zombies—but gross inequality now competes for our attention. The Occupy movement no longer squats in our squares, and the indignados have faded into the European woodwork. But the analysis and demands of the 99 percent have managed to trickle up.
Consider the new book by Thomas Piketty, the French economist. In his analysis of tax records in France, the United Kingdom and the United States, Piketty shows how capitalists have run away with capitalism and left the workers behind. In more formal terms, when the rate of return on capital outstrips the growth rate of the economy, inequality rises. Moreover, Piketty shows how public policy has had a profound impact on wealth and poverty in society. The trends associated with the rise of finance capitalism and the spread of globalization have certainly encouraged the consolidation of a class of super-rich and the erosion of wages for the middle and working classes. But certain governments—France, Germany, Japan—have used tax and welfare policies to redistribute the wealth without any appreciable impact on growth.
Not that I’ve read Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Piketty’s book has become virtually impossible to obtain. I recently walked into the country’s largest independent bookstore—Powell’s in Portland—and asked for the bestseller. The clerk explained that every copy had been eagerly snatched up and that I should come back in a couple weeks.
What explains Piketty’s extraordinary success? His book is certainly not the first study of economic inequality. My colleagues at the Institute for Policy Studies have been hammering at this issue for more than a decade. Chuck Collins published 99 to 1: How Wealth Inequality is Wrecking the World and What We Can Do About It a couple years ago. The most recent version of our CEO pay report, which has documented the outrageous compensation packages for our titans of finance and business, focuses on the growing divide in the restaurant industry between the richly compensated (Howard Schultz of Starbucks) and the barely hanging on (the toilers in the fields of fast food). “CEO Howard Schultz pocketed $236 million in exercised stock options and other ‘performance pay’ over the 2012-2013 period,” the report explains. “That translates into an $82 million taxpayer subsidy for Starbucks—enough to raise the pay for 30,507 baristas to $10.10 per hour for a year of full-time work.”
And even before Piketty became a surprise bestseller, we were awash in statistical evidence. “In the United States, according to the economist Emanuel Saez of the University of California, Berkeley, the richest 10 percent increased their share of total pretax income from about 33 percent in the late 1970s to 50 percent by 2012,” Paul Starr writes in The New York Review of Books. “The top one percent alone now capture more than 20 percent of total income, double the share they received before the Reagan years.”
Piketty, however, provides the kind of continental, academic imprimatur that mere number crunchers in the United States lack. His use of an extensive data set appeals to the empirically-minded, his prescriptions satisfy the policy-minded and his references to Austen and Balzac impress Paul Krugman. And he offers the long view, situating today’s inequality in the much larger historical context of oscillations in income distribution. Finally, his book has put the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute on the defensive, as they dust off their usual arguments about the dangers of taxation.
But perhaps the most important reason for Piketty’s success here in the United States is a latent outrage at the deal that the Obama administration made down at the crossroads at midnight in the wake of the financial crisis. As we all know, the US economy did not collapse in 2009, though it came close. Many people continue to suffer from the financial follies of the 2000s, their homes foreclosed on, their jobs gone, their pension funds looted. But the Obama administration can point to larger, statistical successes: much lower unemployment rates (6.3 percent today compared to 10 percent in October 2009) and some modest growth (close to 3 percent last year). More critically, for all the high rollers on Wall Street who supported Obama’s campaign, the stock market has gone steadily upward, with the Dow Jones now cresting above 16,000 (a 94 percent increase over the last five years).
The deal with the Devil, however, was an ugly one. Only one person is going to jail as a result of the widespread malfeasance connected to the financial crisis—Kareem Serageldin of Credit Suisse. His story reads like one of those cautionary Mafia narratives in which one of the mobsters takes the rap for the entire gang, keeps his mouth shut, does his time and returns for his payout when his time is up.
For despite a very brief period of self-imposed austerity at the depths of the crisis, the financial world has continued to enjoy extraordinary success. Just take a look at how our oligarchs—oops, I’m sorry—our “wealth generators” have benefited. The top twenty-five hedge fund managers took in an average $134 million in 2002. By 2009, their earnings went up to a billion dollars (that’s right: they each made a billion dollars a year!). The market “correction” didn’t send them back to zero or to Sing Sing. Rather, by 2012, they were still making tons more than in 2002: $537 million. In fact, in 2010, these top twenty-five managers together made four times as much as the CEOs of the top 500 Standard and Poor companies—combined. These numbers make space station Elysium look more and more plausible.
As for the Obama administration’s effort to regulate Wall Street, it has been frankly half-hearted. The business world tried to upend Dodd-Frank and largely failed, but implementation of the reforms remains sketchy. Even that notoriously risky financial instrument, the commercial mortgage-backed security, is staging a comeback.
The 2016 presidential elections will address a range of issues, many of them entirely irrelevant. Foreign policy will inevitably surface as candidates debate the pros and cons of the Obama doctrine. But unless a major war has broken out by that point, Americans will focus as they usually do on their own wallets. As such, the wisest candidates will focus on gross inequality. Piketty’s book, whether it’s read or not, should be a wake-up call for politicians. If inequality sells in the stores, it will sell at the polls as well.
At the end of Elysium—spoiler alert!—the 99 percent have given up their strategy of trying to break into the ranks of the super-wealthy on a case-by-case basis. It just wasn’t working. Instead, thanks to the Christ-like sacrifice of the Matt Damon character, they transform the entire system so that the healthcare benefits of the magic machines are available to all. It’s a powerful promo for universal healthcare, even it doesn’t address the tough questions of how the limited resources of a heavily slanted economy can be shared fairly among all. But where Hollywood films end is where US politics must begin.
With tuition costs more than doubling over the past generation, and student debt now exceeding $1 trillion, everyone knows the cost of college is too damn high. About 40 million people nationwide are weighed down by education debts that often reach into the tens of thousands. But those numbers are just a sliver of the bleak shadow that Wall Street casts over higher education.
A new study on debt across the higher education system reveals that the massive debts borne by both students and their institutions has climbed to about $45 billion per year. So the debt-related payments to the financial sector—including Wall Street investors, institutional lenders and the mammoth federal student loan system—drive about one tenth of all spending on higher education nationwide. These debt-servicing costs are tied to tuition lending as well as financial debts accrued by schools themselves, which finance investments of all kinds, from professors’ salaries to libraries to indulgences like sports teams and administrators’ bonuses.
According to researchers with University of California–Berkeley’s Debt & Society Project, a project of the Center for Culture, Organizations, and Politics with research support from the American Federation of Teachers, the a key factor in the rising cost of college is driven by expenditures largely unrelated to either the quality of the education, teaching or maintaining campus facilities. Rather, college is getting unimaginably expensive for both institutions and students because it costs so much to finance the business of education, thanks to Wall Street lenders. While there are many controversial budget items in higher education—critics lament bloated administrations and the cost of sports teams and flashy amenities—the report focuses on debt itself, and the massive volume of borrowing, as a major overlooked burden on institutions.
Even among graduates of public colleges, the average debt burden has more than doubled between 2001 and 2009, from about $9,440 to $21,100, mirroring the debt trendlines for graduates of private non-profit institutions. That means that for a typical poor single parent, the projected cost of her student loans may well have doubled in the years it takes to earn her degree as she juggles a job and night classes. And she’s likely facing other crushing debts on top of that: a recent Pew study links high student debt burdens among households of adults younger than 40 with higher total debt, including mortgage and credit card costs, which in turn aggravates the lifelong wealth gaps that higher education was supposed to help alleviate.
But the more shocking findings of the study are on the institutional side, where “colleges and universities also have a debt problem,” the researchers say. Since 2002, both public and private nonprofit colleges and universities have seen their debts soar, in large part through municipal bonds, and interest payments on those debts nearly doubled to $11 billion in 2012.
So the rising total cost of higher education stems not only from massive borrowing by low and middle-income students, who are largely doing so out of economic necessity, but from the heavy borrowing of colleges, often for questionable purposes.
Should we care that our college experiences are being funded by borrowed money? Here’s why: in recent years, the machinations of financial markets have become increasingly entangled in budget decisions, and often those decisions have little to do with educating students. The spike in borrowing costs isn’t just reflecting trends in interest rates, enrollment or the cost of professors’ salaries—the study found neither the interest rate per se nor instructional costs alone to be the primary factor. In many cases, schools are just borrowing for huge capital investments that help the college market itself, such as gleaming new football stadiums and shiny dorm buildings.
Researchers found that “at both public and private four-year institutions, the largest share of their borrowing costs were for investments in amenities like recreations centers, dining halls, and athletics.” The focus on prettying and branding the campus reflects the commodification of the “college experience.” Over the past two decades, the report says, “colleges have expanded amenities…to attract more students willing to pay higher tuition and fees.”
In the long run, however, these amenities often don’t pay off in terms of revenue for the schools, which grow increasingly beholden to bond investors. Those financiers, in turn, often favor not the highest-quality schools but rather “the safest prospects for investment.” Because of market pressures, the researchers warn, “bond markets can reward behaviors that generate greater revenue but are at odds with the goals of public higher education.” In other words, do you want your university’s future budget projections dictated by a Moody’s rating?
Charlie Eaton, one of the co-authors of the report, explains via e-mail that at all levels, the financing of higher ed—both for student borrowers and schools themselves—is increasingly involved in private markets:
The increasing finance costs are because increased tuition, room, and board costs have left households with no alternative but increased borrowing, and colleges have used debt and equity capital in ways that drive up costs for students even as state funding has been cut.
In the long term, Eaton says, “further research is needed to assess whether current borrowing rates are sustainable.” But demand for enrollment and academic needs is rising, and while debt will continue to swell, eventually, “colleges may need to reduce borrowing for amenities like luxury dorms and recreation centers and prioritize borrowing for instructional investments.”
The Wall Street influence in higher education is most acute in the for-profit college industry. These schools, which tend to take the form of sketchy diploma mills and lavishly marketed distance-learning schemes, operate primarily as educational storefronts for private equity firms. According to the report, “this finance-driven model is very efficient at increasing enrollment and generating profits. It has a poor track record, however, when it comes to helping students successfully graduate and preparing them for a competitive labor market.”
Many for-profit institutions have come under fire from Congress recently for their notoriously shoddy graduation rates, and those who do obtain degrees often struggle with poor job prospects, while saddled with loads of debt.
Whether a school is operating as a nonprofit or for-profit, the debt cycle pushes students to rack up unaffordable federal loans and drags students, families and schools into long-term economic insecurity. And ultimately, when an educational structure premised on borrowed resources starts to implode, taxpayers are robbed of the social promise of government-subsidized schooling.
Congress is now debating policies to help alleviate college debt, including reforming bankruptcy rules. But the Berkeley report places the debt crisis in the context of the overarching financialization of higher education. As Wall Street and the federal student loan system lord over the country’s campuses and tie education, society’s supposed great leveler, to volatile financial markets, we ought to ask not just whether getting a college degree these days is “worth it,” but who gets to determine how much it costs.
Check out Dog Park Media’s video about the Debt & Society report!
The ongoing scandal into extensive problems at Veterans Affairs hospitals erupted briefly on the Senate floor Thursday, when Senator Marco Rubio asked for unanimous consent to pass a VA “accountability” bill that cleared the House by a wide margin a day earlier. Senator Bernie Sanders blocked the request, and it’s worth unpacking why.
At first blush Sanders’ objection seems unreasonable—the bill is not opposed by the White House, and got 390 votes in the House from legislators on both sides of the aisle. Only thirty-three members voted against it. So why did Sanders, with the implicit backing of Senate Democrats, object to quick passage?
The legislation, which is only three pages long, is straightforward: it gives the VA secretary the power to fire anyone in senior executive service at the department. These are the highest-ranking civilian federal employees, who normally enjoy a great deal of job protection under federal civil service rules. But this bill would give the VA secretary the power to dismiss them hastily, as the Defense secretary can do with generals, or as a CEO in the private sector could do to his or her employees.
A report on what went wrong at the department is due within a month. Rubio explained on the Senate floor the bill is supposed to empower Obama “so that when the results of this investigation come to him, they can discipline or fire the people who have not done their jobs and have put our veterans in harm’s way with regard to the services the VA is supposed to be offering.”
But Sanders raised several concerns worth considering. The first is the prospect of hasty politicization of the VA in the future.
“It is one thing to say—which I agree with—that if a hospital administrator is incompetent, the secretary should be able to get rid of that administrator without a whole lot of paperwork. I agree with that,” said Sanders. “It is another thing to say that if a new administration comes in, whether it is a Democratic or Republican [administration], that somebody sitting in the secretary’s office can say, ‘I want to get rid of twenty or thirty or fifty hospital administrators because we have other people that we have in there, and we can just get rid of them,’ and they don’t have a right to defend themselves. I worry about that.”
Sanders added that he feared the bill could prevent the VA from hiring and retaining top-level talent. “It is vital to ensure that we are fostering an environment at VA where individuals feel as if they are protected from the political whims of their leaders,” he said. He also suggested the simple bill had elements of grandstanding, by quoting a Washington Post editorial that said “America’s veterans…deserve not to be treated as so many pawns in election-year gamesmanship.”
The normal process for legislation coming into the Senate is for it to first receive a committee hearing, and Sanders stressed that he favored the basic idea of accountability for those who have allowed abuses at the VA, and that once some of his concerns about the legislation’s long-term effects are addressed, it could and should pass in that process.
Then Sanders noted that Republicans filibustered his comprehensive legislation earlier the spring, which would have extended healthcare, education and job training to hundreds of thousands of veterans, and improved both the care offered at the VA and the oversight of that process.
In a bit of legislative turnabout, he asked unanimous consent to attach his failed bill as an amendment to the VA accountability act. Rubio objected, citing the cost.
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Memorial Day, first known as Decoration Day, originated in the North after the Civil War to commemorate fallen Union soldiers. By the twentieth century the holiday had been extended to honor all Americans who have died in all wars. I’ve always thought that the best way to honor the fallen is to make every effort to prevent needless deaths in the future by avoiding unnecessary wars and engaging in combat only as a true last resort.
In this vein, here are my Top Ten Memorial Day Songs. The list is highly debatable; songs about war and attendant suffering cut across musical genres. Though I proudly claim some hippie roots I’ve omitted played-out classics like “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,“ “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Imagine” and “Give Peace A Chance.” I’ve also given short shrift to an important sub-genre of heavy metal antiwar anthems like Motorhead’s “1916” and Metallica’s 1989 classic, “One,” and ignored the rich history of punk rock odes to the insanity of war. Please use the comments field below to tell me what else I’ve missed.
1. Loretta Lynn, Dear Uncle Sam
2. Bill Withers, I Can’t Write Left-Handed
3. Bob Dylan, Masters of War
4. Curtis Mayfield, We Gotta Have Peace
5. Joni Mitchell, The Fiddle and the Drum
6. The Jam, Little Boy Soldiers
7. Freda Payne, Bring the Boys Home
8. Bob Marley, War/No More Trouble
9. Eric Bogle, The Green Fields of France
10. Paper Lace, Billy Don’t Be a Hero
Bonus Track: Nick Lowe, What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and Understanding