Saturday, April 30, 2011

Obama's Real Foreign Policy Achievement

The hunting down, and killing of Osama bin Laden looks to most Americans like President Obama's signature foreign policy success. But, while revenge may be sweet, ultimately celebration of the destruction of an adversary will prove to be short-lived as there are bound to be more adversaries to follow.

Instead, historians will mark a move that Mr. Obama made, in April, in which he announced guidelines for new regulations instituted last January, which now allow for "purposeful travel" to Cuba, as well as for non-family remittances, as one with far-reaching, and lasting consequences..

To some, this may seem like a baby step towards reconciliation between the two countries, but enabling college students, educators, religious groups, and tourists to go to a nation that has long been on our proverbial "least favored nations" list is a seismic shift in direction from that of his immediate predecessor. And, at a time when accolades for Mr. Obama are in short supply, this move deserves more attention than it's getting.

As the White House press release in January says, Mr. Obama directed the State Department and other agencies to open up travel to Cuba in the hopes that it will "increase people-to-people contact, support civil society in Cuba, enhance the free flow of information to, from, and among the Cuban people," as well as help bring about the independence of the Cuban people from their authorities.

The lifting of the travel ban to enable "people-to-people" contact, which allows for a wide variety of non-tourist travel, was something that was first instituted by President Clinton in response to the draconian Cuban policies of his predecessor, President George H.W. Bush.

But, the Obama freedom to travel to Cuba policy is more expansive than that of Mr. Clinton's, and might hopefully be the prelude to a trip to Havana in 2012, 40 years after Richard Nixon's historic trip to China. Nixon's trip was the catalyst for ending 25 years of isolation from that country.

Should a newly re-elected president decide to visit Raul Castro, it might prove to be the defining moment of his foreign policy legacy, which wouldn't erase the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Libya any more than Nixon's trip to China erased his military adventurism in Vietnam. That said, this trip would serve to restore credibility to the executive branch as a vehicle not solely for the commander-in-chief, but the statesman-in-chief, something Mr. Obama pledged to do in his first term.

It's fair to say, since the Bay of Pigs when the total trade embargo against Cuba started under President Kennedy, there has been a shift of attitude towards Cuba that breaks down pretty much along party lines.

There is compelling evidence, too, that while it was JFK who first banned travel to Cuba, and rendered commercial transactions illegal for U.S. citizens, JFK was seriously considering dropping the embargo, as well as normalizing relations. On November 17, 1963, only days before his assassination in Dallas, Kennedy arranged for a meeting between French journalist, Jean Daniel, and Cuba's Fidel Castro. JFK reportedly asked Daniel to tell the Cuban leader he was ready to talk.

If Kennedy had survived, there is good reason to believe that he would have ended the trade embargo with Cuba, and opened up travel to and from Cuba. Upon his demise, everything reverted to the default position of treating Cuba as an enemy.

In December, 1963, less than a month after his brother's murder, then-Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy, sought to end the travel ban in a memo that was classified until 2005. In the memo, Robert F. Kennedy called the travel ban with Cuba "inconsistent with traditional American liberties." The memo evidently got misplaced in the Johnson chain of command.

But, it wasn't until 1977 that President Carter was to pick up where Robert F. Kennedy left off when he ended the ban on travel to Cuba, allowing U.S. citizens to spend money in that country, but concern for Cuban presence in Africa, and human rights abuses, precluded the Carter administration from ending the trade embargo altogether.

After Carter, Ronald Reagan wasted no time in inaugurating one of the most hostile policies towards Cuba since the Bay of Pigs. Reagan tightened the embargo, and barred travel to Cuba altogether. He also prohibited American citizens from spending money in Cuba, and forbid travel to the U.S. by Cuban officials, students, and scholars.

In the early 1990's, the U.N. General Assembly was not pleased with American policy, and the U.S. embargo. The General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to end the embargo in 1994. During his administration, President Clinton announced his people-to-people plan and, at one point, he also imposed penalties on any foreign companies doing business in Cuba. Clinton later allowed direct passenger flights, and let people send money to family members. President Obama appears to be following in Mr. Clinton's footsteps on this one, though he can certainly blaze a new trail of his own..

While news outlets from the BBC to CNN have acknowledged the important step the Obama administration took last January, there is little talk of the guidelines that were announced on April 18th. Few are speaking up about a major policy shift that the BBC has called a "new beginning" in the troubled relations between the two countries.

Like Bill Clinton, Barack Obama is reacting to his predecessor's Cuban policy. George W. Bush's objective was regime change in Cuba, as evidenced by his appointment of a Commission for Assistance to Free Cuba, which was essentially a blueprint for Cuba after Castro..

President Obama's policy shift may not go far enough for many on the left, though it allows universities, scholars, and religious organizations to freely travel to Cuba, it doesn't end the embargo. The new regulations won't please those on the right because it enables people to send money to Cubans who are not family members. But, no matter how you slice it, what will someday be viewed as a landmark decision, and major turning point, will be completely wiped out by a Republican victory in the 2012 presidential election.

One wonders how any rational candidates of either party can justify the U.S. misguided practice of continuing to isolate itself from one Communist country, Cuba, while lifting an embargo on China? What's more, how can any reasonable candidate for elected office talk credibly about national security while, at the same time, insisting on maintaining a belligerent attitude towards one of its closest neighbors?

The Obama administration must now choose whether to be reactionary, and respond to measures of previous administrations, or to be progressive, and take a bold leadership initiative by restoring economic relations with a neighbor. It would be a dramatic, courageous shift for this administration to continue the thread that was dropped when President Kennedy's life was cut short.

As President Kennedy once said, a return to normalized relations with Cuba is the only practical thing to do. A global economy requires partnerships that are ideology-free. Peace demands peaceful coexistence with our neighbors. The total U.S. embargo on Cuba in 1961 was an act of war... We are not now at war with Cuba. A genuinely "new beginning" would be to end the U.S. embargo on Cuba once and for all.

Should the president choose to do so in his second term, it will someday be seen as be his signature foreign policy achievement.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

From Michael Winship

Congress: Teaching New Dogs Old Tricks
By Michael Winship

Remember that scene in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" when Jimmy Stewart arrives in the capital for the first time? The freshman senator shakes off his handlers in Union Station and jumps onto a sightseeing bus, eager to see all the statues and monuments honoring the greats of American history.

"I don't think I've ever been so thrilled in my life," he says afterwards. "And that Lincoln Memorial -- gee whiz! Mr. Lincoln, there he is. Just looking straight at you as you come up those steps. Just sitting there like he was waiting for somebody to come along."

For all their talk of the Founding Fathers, the Constitution and core principles, you’d have thought that the current freshman class of Congress, the sprouted seed of Tea Partiers and the 2010 midterms, would have made a similar tour their first priority on arrival.

And for all I know, many of them did just that. But for some, the siren song of cash and influence has proven stronger, already luring them onto the rocks of privilege and corruption that lurk just inside the Beltway. They’ve made a beeline not for the hallowed shrines of patriots’ pride but the elegant suites of K Street lobbyists, where the closest its residents have been to Lincoln is the bearded face peering from the five-dollar bill -- chump change.

So much for fiercely resisting the wicked, wicked ways of Washington. These new members were seduced faster than Dustin Hoffman in "The Graduate."

In an April 2 editorial, The New York Times reported, "Since last year’s Republican victories, nearly 100 lawmakers have hired former lobbyists as their chiefs of staff or legislative directors, according to data compiled by two watchdog groups, the Center for Responsive Politics and Remapping Debate. That is more than twice as many as in the previous two years.

"In that same period, 40 lobbyists have been hired as staff members of Congressional committees and subcommittees, the boiler rooms where legislation is drafted. That again dwarfs the number from the previous two years. While some of those lobbyist-staffers were hired by Democrats, the vast majority are working for Republicans... In many cases, those hiring lobbyists were Tea Party candidates who vowed to end business as usual in Washington."

The revolving door between government and lobbyists has never spun faster. Then there’s this, from Wednesday’s Washington Post: "Many of the Republican freshmen in the House won election vowing to shake up Washington, so it’s a little surprising that many of them seem to be playing an old Washington game: raising much of their campaign money from corporate political action committees.

"More than 50 members of the class of 87 GOP freshmen took in more than $50,000 from PACs during the first quarter of 2011, according to new campaign disclosure reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. Eighteen of the lawmakers took in more than $100,000."

For example, freshman star Kristi Noem of South Dakota – one of the two newbies anointed as liaison to the Republican House leadership – raised $169,000 in PAC money, including cash from General Electric, Boeing, Raytheon, Wells Fargo, Fedex, AFLAC, Altria (the parent company of Philip Morris and Kraft Foods) and pharmaceutical giants Bayer and GlaxoSmithKline.

According to the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation, Rep. Noem, who pledged to voters not to make Washington her home, held at least 10 fundraisers in DC during that first quarter, her first months as a member of Congress. They included two dinners at the Capital Grille, at which attendees donated between $1500 and $2000 apiece, and lunch at We, the Pizza on Pennsylvania Avenue.

A CQ MoneyLine study reports that during the first three months of the year the 87 Republican freshmen pulled in a total of $14.7 million from individuals as well as PACs. Leading the crowd was Diane Black of Tennessee with $926,000, but more than two-thirds of it was her own money. In second place was West Virginia’s David B. McKinley, with $540,000.

Rep. McKinley was one of nine new GOP members spotlighted this week by the website Politico as members who have done things "the Washington way, using a legislative process they once railed against to try to assist donors, protect favored industries or settle scores with their political enemies."

Three weeks after his swearing in, McKinley introduced a bill to overturn an Environmental Protection Agency ruling that vetoed an Army Corps of Engineers water permit for mountaintop mining, the practice that blasts the tops off mountains and sends debris raining down on communities, streams and rivers. The bill has ramifications for the entire mining industry, but the specific mine in question is owned by Arch Coal. Its PAC contributed $2500 to McKinley’s 2010 election campaign and another thousand so far this year.

The mining industry was McKinley’s largest corporate campaign contributor --$51,751. And a month after he took office, Politico reported, he introduced another bill "that would block a proposed EPA regulation against coal-ash bricks and drywall, materials architectural and engineering firms -- such as one founded by McKinley -- routinely recommend in construction project bids."

Others cited by the Politico investigation include freshmen Bill Johnson of Ohio and Morgan Griffith of Virginia. They, too, have been going to bat for mine executives. The mining sector was Johnson’s biggest corporate donor at $25,146; same with Griffith, who received $40,450.

Texas freshman Bill Flores has been going after the Interior Department’s procedures for offshore oil drilling permits, trying get the department to impose tighter deadlines and pay back billions in leasing rights to oil companies whose permits are denied. He’s the former president and CEO of an exploratory oil firm. Its employees were his second largest campaign contributor and the oil and gas industry threw in more than $200,000.

In rebuttal, the office of each congressman has generated the appropriate, high-minded spin. "West Virginia is coal, and coal is West Virginia," said McKinley’s spokeswoman. "He’s doing what he said he would -- fighting tooth and nail to stop the EPA’s war on coal..." Rep. Flores told Politico, "This is an issue that is very important to me as I have been involved in finding solutions to America’s long-term energy independence for the last thirty years."

And so it goes. At this rate, if the Abraham Lincoln so venerated by the idealistic Mr. Smith is still at his memorial hoping for someone to come along, someone with integrity and dedication to the people and not the almighty dollar, he’s going to have a long wait.

The new dogs have learned the old tricks of Capitol Hill with remarkable speed, and their big business masters, armed with their Supreme Court-sanctioned ability to throw bottomless bags of money around, have more control of the leash than ever.


Michael Winship, senior writing fellow at Demos and president of the Writers Guild of America, East, is former senior writer of Bill Moyers Journal on PBS.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Poop Squad

Maybe it's his hair, but now that Donald Trump has muscled his way into the upcoming presidential race, I can't help thinking about a popular television show from 40 years ago, "The Mod Squad," a show that was billed as "three young outsiders who fight crime as undercover agents of the police."

We've come a long way, baby! Trump, Palin, and party are, of course, the complete antithesis of the "Mod Squad."

There are, of course, several important differences. For openers, among the candidates currently vying for first place on the Republican ticket, there are no people of color. There was a person of color, Michael Steele, who was chair of the Republican party, but he got bumped. Oh, and also, Michele Bachmann isn't a blonde, or if she is, her hairdresser isn't talking.

But, alas, there is one similarity. Homeland Security, and high tech policing, are every bit as omnipresent in this administration as they were in the Bush years, and there is no pretention of dismantling the highly developed infrastructure of electronic surveillance, so in effect, government officials of both parties, may be seen as working undercover for enforcement of a new kind of "law and order" ushered in by the so-called Patriot Act.

One thing should be crystal clear after weeks of nonstop media coverage of Paul Ryan lipsynching Ronald Reagan, about the only thing we can expect from the Republican party in the coming years is skillful recycling of an economic policy that served as fertilizer for the economic collapse from which it's taking so long to recover.

So, a modern day version of the 1973 TV show might instead be called "The Poop Squad" as the neo-conservative agenda radical right wing agenda ushered in by tea party favorites like Rand Paul, Sarah Palin, Sharron Angle, Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey, is nothing more than a political form of the Herpes virus which both appears and disappears without rhyme or reason.

All the emphasis on the authenticity of Mr. Obama's birth certificate is, after all, only so much manure thrown in the path of an oncoming train to deflect attention away from the dubious legitimacy of a message that can only deflate day by day. The only thing the birther movement has been able to establish is just how irrelevant their message is to all the many who are hurting in this country.

Witness, for instance, their outdated, and wildly disproven, claim that raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans will be bad for job creation. After George W. Bush cut taxes dramatically on the upper 2% of the population, how much job creation did we see in this country? Zip.

More importantly, virtually every national poll conducted since the president made his state of the budget speech about a week ago shows that just about the only folks who don't want to raise taxes on the rich happen to work in Congress, and almost 100% of them are of Palin's party. MSNBC reported last night that something like two-thirds of independents, more than 90% of Democrats, and more than half of Republicans want to raise taxes on the wealthy as a way to trim the deficit.

Oh, and make no mistake, while Sarah Palin may not be running for president in 2012, or at any other time, she is now the face of the Republican Party.
Whatever else on might say about House speaker John Boehner, he sure knows how to stick to the script, a script that Sarah Palin, Dick Armey, and the born again Birchers wrote.

Savor the irony, too, when a congressman from Wisconsin, Paul Ryan, in a state that has now become synonymous with attempted union busting, has the temerity to look to trickle-down Reaganomics as a paradigm for deficit reduction, and lowering taxes on the upper 2% as a stimulus for business, per the George W. Bush model, two presidents who ran record deficits.
Surely, Rep. Ryan remembers how Reagan crushed the air traffic controller's union. We are now living with the consequences of that kind of union busting. Every time an air traffic controller falls asleep on the job, think of it as a tip of the hat to Ronald Reagan.

What's even more scary is the underlying thought processes of someone like Ryan that all we need to do is reverse the New Deal, rein in spending on social programs, "privatize" which is essentially code for a return to complete deregulation, and the economy will stabilize.

And, while Trump made millions saying "You're fired," it is doubtful that we'd hear a chorus of "You're hired" should he to take the wheel at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

As for Ms. Bachmann, the national debt would probably diminish rapidly by reason of a simple misplacement of decimals. The Pentagon budget would increase exponentially by a simple misplacement of decimals, and the commander-in-chief would soon be able to see Beijing from the White House lawn.

So that leaves Pawlenty and Romney. Pawlenty might have a chance, but he doesn't go to the same hairdresser as Mr. Trump. As for Mitt Romney, by the time the "mad squad" gets done, he'll look like the only rational voice in the race, and with Romney the Supreme Court's recent ruling, Citizens United, which effectively officially corporatizes the U.S. will be a done deal.

During the upcoming presidential campaign season, we may then see not only the Ryans, Trumps, Pauls and Bachmanns out with their pooper scoopers at those Sunday morning press conferences, but those blue dog Democrats who secretly line up behind them by failing to speak out strongly enough for those values that have emboldened The Poop Squad to try to strip what remains of the New Deal.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Michael Winship on Net Neutrality

Harry Potter and the Network of Neutrality
By Michael Winship

Who knew Harry Potter’s magic powers were for real? Okay, excuse my Muggle-like ignorance, but I didn’t believe it until I attended a session at the recent National Conference on Media Reform in Boston, organized by the non-profit organization Free Press. This particular panel was headlined "Pop Culture Warriors: How Online Fan Communities Are Organizing to Save the World."

The Harry Potter Alliance is a group of devotees worldwide who have hocus-pocused their shared love of the Potter books and movies into genuine social activism. As their website declares, they use the power of the Internet to "work with partner NGOs [non-profit, non-governmental organizations] in alerting the world to the dangers of global warming, poverty, and genocide. Work with our partners for equal rights regardless of race, gender, and sexuality. Encourage our members to hone the magic of their creativity in endeavoring to make the world a better place."

The Alliance mobilized its fanbase to win a $250,000 grant from Chase Community Giving, beating out more than 10,000 other charities in a Facebook competition. They’ve donated more than 55,000 books to school libraries around the world, including the Mississippi Delta and Rwanda, and are helping to build a school library in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Five planeloads of supplies were sent to Haiti after last year’s earthquake. They’ve registered first-time voters and even petitioned Time Warner to make Harry Potter chocolates Fair Trade: that is, chocolate not made -- or cocoa beans harvested -- under inhumane conditions, such as starvation wages or child slavery.

All of these efforts have been endorsed by Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling herself, who once upon a time worked in the London offices of Amnesty International and told Time magazine, "It’s incredible, it’s humbling, and it’s uplifting to see people going out there and doing that in the name of your character... What did my books preach against throughout? Bigotry, violence, struggles for power, no matter what... So they really couldn’t have chosen a better cause."

The Harry Potter Alliance was represented on the Media Reform panel by its creator and co-founder Andrew Slack (it was moderated by my colleague Elana Levin, communications director of the Writers Guild, East). Others discussed how online communities have affected off-line change through petitions, contests, fundraising drives, even video games that entertain while informing players on matters of public policy. Sounds deadly but it doesn’t have to be, as demonstrated by the human rights media organization Breakthrough’s new Facebook game, "America 2049," in which participants become agents for a fictional Council on American Heritage, hunting down alleged terrorists.

Erik Martin, of the wildly popular, social-voting news website Reddit, told the now infamous and hilarious story of how a Greenpeace campaign to name a humpback whale in the South Pacific was hijacked by an IP address in Arizona that found its way around the contest’s rule of one vote per person and began generating thousands of tallies for the name "Mr. Splashypants."

Horrified, Greenpeace at first tried to remove the extra votes, hoping the winner would be something more politically correct and delicate, like "Aiko," the Japanese word for "Love" or “"Shanti," Sanskrit for "Peace." But when Reddit and other websites embraced the rogue candidate, the environmental organization gave in. "Mr. Splashypants" won with more than 78 percent of the vote and all the publicity generated unexpectedly gave Greenpeace sufficient leverage to help convince the Japanese Fisheries Agency to suspend -- temporarily, at least -- that nation’ slaughter of humpbacks.

None of these efforts would have been possible without a thriving networked culture and a free and open Internet. But it’s not for nothing that while the National Conference on Media Reform was just getting underway in Boston, the Republican House of Representatives, in the midst of all the government shutdown melodrama, voted 240-179 (six Democrats voted with the GOP) to nullify the FCC’s net neutrality rules protecting access to the Internet. As USA Today columnist Rhonda Abrams wrote on Friday, "It was a pure 'David versus Goliath' bill, and the House voted to protect Goliath.

Granted, the FCC rules as currently written are nowhere near as protective of the public’s right to free speech and Internet access as they should be. In many ways they’re a second-rate compromise, especially in their exemptions for mobile broadband carriers, but as Abrams notes, at least for now they require Internet companies – the telecom and cable companies – to treat all Internet traffic the same. "Of course, they can charge more for greater usage, but they can’t prioritize some customers, creating fast lanes and slow lanes," she writes. “Because the Internet was -- and currently still is -- an open and equal playing field, scrappy startups like Google, Facebook, Twitter and tens of thousands more – could flourish...

"Without net neutrality, telecommunication and cable companies can tilt the playing field. And it won’t be in small businesses and start-ups favor." Or yours as a private citizen, especially when companies like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon are pouring millions and millions into lobbying and campaign contributions.

The House bill probably won’t get past the Senate and President Obama has said he would veto it but all of us have to mobilize and stay on our toes if we’re to continue to have the Internet as a potent pop culture force for social change. Otherwise it’s going to be a lot harder to save the whales – including Mr. Splashypants.

Would that Harry Potter could thrust his wand and holler "Petrificus Totalus," immobilizing those who would see the Internet taken over by corporate greed and censorship. This time, the magic is going to have to come from us.


Michael Winship, senior writing fellow at Demos and president of the Writers Guild of America, East, is the former senior writer of Bill Moyers Journal on PBS.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Help Wanted: Exorcist

On a day traditionally associated with paying taxes, the House passed a draconian budget plan that Congress has been tossing back and forth for weeks.

And, thanks to last year's midterm election, 83 new Republican members of Congress were able to get this budget bill through despite the absence of a single Democrat vote in favor of it. This must be what House speaker John Boehner thinks is a mandate.

As the Associated Press reports, this "nonbinding plan" sets the table for more than $6 trillion in cuts over the next decade, and ones that the House majority party likes to think of as cuts to entitlements. Importantly, not one single corporate entitlement, or subsidy, that would fall under the umbrella of "tax expenditures" in the budget is on the table. Everything else including Medicare, Education, and Social Security is. House Republicans shouted down Mr. Obama's proposal to cut $77 billion from the defense budget.

As the president indicated in his budget speech on Wednesday, it should be clear to everyone by now that the plan proposed by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, is not about reducing the deficit, but finalizing not just tax cuts for the rich, but taking from the poor to get them. For Paul Ryan's circle of followers, the Pentagon and federal subsidies to the nuclear power industry, the oil companies, and Walmart are non-negotiable.

The devil is indeed in the details. The House spending plan to cut "entitlements" targets the poor in ways that would make even Machiavelli blush. According to the AP , spending cuts are in store for other social safety net programs like food stamps.

Don't be deceived. The so-called voucher-system for Medicare is code for privatizing Medicare. Essentially, vouchers are the equivalent of store coupons. The federal government would get to choose where they're redeemable, so it means another big payday for insurance companies, and yet bigger bonuses for chief executives of health management organizations.

What's more, the Ryan plan is just a warm-up for privatizing social security which is the only pet project George W. Bush didn't complete in his eight year reign.

Given that even the U.S. dollar isn't stable, it's fair to say that the vouchers won't be worth the paper they're printed on in a decade from now which is when the plan takes effect. More importantly, this approach would force people to invest in private insurance companies which have been, as the president suggests, the root of the problem in the first place. Turning this country's financially disenfranchised over to usurers is like asking them to turn over their meager savings to the local pawn shop.

Mr. Ryan's plan would not only finalize Bush era tax cuts to the rich, but institutionalize poverty by radically curtailing access to those programs that ensure equal opportunity for quality health care and education.

About the only good thing to come of Paul Ryan's ascent to the control room of the Republican Party is that he virtually guarantees a Democratic victory in 2012. Appointing Mr. Ryan to the House budget committee was such a stellar move for the Democrats I'm beginning to think Mr. Obama found a Democratic clone for Karl Rove. If his speech on Wednesday night is any indication, the president sure found a good pair of boxing gloves which he'll need when his opposition squeals about rescinding the Bush tax cuts on those who earn $200,000 and up.

Bottom line: without increasing taxes, there is no way the budget deficit can be resolved. Mr. Ryan knows this. His concern, and that of his party, is not raising taxes, but not raising taxes on those who go to his country club. Sadly, even the president is kowtowing to the interests of the corporations, the same corporations the Supreme Court ruled for in Citizens United, when he goes along with lowering the corporate tax rate from 35% to 28%. Aren't corporations already making too much, Mr. President?

This nonsense about making the U.S. more competitive to business is just that nonsense. How much more attractive to business can we get when we let companies like GE off the hook without paying taxes at a loss to Uncle Sam of billions of dollars a year at a time when the federal deficit has reached record levels.

Why not start collecting taxes on all those corporations that have sheltered billions of dollars in overseas operations thereby skirting the IRS, and have essentially turned the IRS into a legal money laundering operation. Instead of lowering the corporate tax rate from 35% to 25% or 28% (as Mr. Obama suggests), how about closing the tax loophole that allows some of America's biggest corporations to get out of past taxes? How about restoring the IRS to its default position of tax collector instead of tax collector for the poor and working class only?

And, instead of going along with yet another Bush era plan, amnesty for corporations who come forward voluntarily to pay back taxes, how about requiring that all corporations pay taxes regardless of whether they have subsidiaries overseas, and then seizing the assets of those that won't comply with the new federal requirement. The result would come a lot closer to addressing the $1.6 trillion budget deficit this year than cutting off federal funding for food stamps, Medicare, Planned Parenthood, and NPR combined.

2012 is promising to be a boon year for exorcists if these federal budget plans are any indication. This government had better get ready to take out some full page ads "exorcists needed" if Mr. Ryan and his crowd are allowed to make it any further out the gate without those same pesky redactions that characterized the previous administration.

The one four letter word one can hope to hear over and over this year from the White House is "veto." Otherwise, entitlements like food for hungry families will be withheld while billions in subsidies are given to the oil barons and their siblings in the nuclear power industry.

Ultimately, Ryanomics is code for legal usury. Mr. Ryan's plan turns the federal government into a pawnbroker to which business behemoths bring their toxic assets in exchange for taxpayers' pension funds.

It's not bad enough that the haves are growing more corpulent on the labor of the have-nots, the haves want to legalize what amounts to armed robbery.

If Congress and the president stand by and allow usury to become not merely legitimized, but institutionalized, they will be sanctioning what, generations hence, can only be viewed as contempt of Congress, as well as the Bill of Rights.

In the end, there is no greater risk to "free markets" than to allow an Ayn Rand devotee like Paul Ryan to railroad what's left of the American dream in the name of deficit reduction.

Free markets can be very costly. Just ask 98% of Americans, and they will tell you. We have served as life rafts for the rich for too long.

The budget plan the House passed on April 15th is the blueprint for an aristocracy not seen since feudal times. While highly unlikely, if Mr. Ryan's budget should pass the Senate, the president must exercise his veto power as chief executive before 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is put up on the auction block, too.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

"America and The Great Disappointment"

America and The Great Disappointment
By Michael Winship

I was considering having myself dusted with ash and measured for sackcloth last week, so many are the current predictions of impending apocalypse.

There’s the contingent that follows the ancient Mayan calendar and predicts the end of the world on December 21, 2012, some of whom have made bad movies about it. Others believe the Rapture arrives even earlier -- next month, in fact, on May 21. You can see their billboards announcing Judgment Day along major US highways and their squadrons of RV’s making the rounds of American cities, spreading the news.

Of course, this isn’t the first time the planet’s End of Days has been anticipated. You’ll remember the Y2K hysteria in the months before the year 2000 arrived. An even greater panic – albeit without the stockpiling of batteries and freeze-dried pizza -- allegedly consumed Europe prior to the first millennium, in 1000. (One story claims that at the stroke of midnight the entire terrified population of Iceland converted to Christianity. That’s what I call a baptism by fire.)

Here at home, in the 19th century, Baptist preacher William Miller said our collective tickets would be punched on October 22, 1844. Earth’s failure to oblige that day became known as The Great Disappointment.

"A lot of times these prophecies gain traction when difficulties are happening in society," Loyola University in New Orleans Professor Catherine Wessinger told the Associated Press. "Right now, there’s a lot of insecurity, and this is a promise that says it’s not all random, it’s part of God’s plan."

So if God’s plan calls for the Rapture on May 21, how come the Republicans moved the date of their first presidential candidates’ debate from May 2 to September 14? Do they know something we don’t know? Because otherwise, it sure seems they’re doing their best to speed us on our way to the eve of destruction.

Last week’s government shutdown threat was just their latest attempt to send us spiraling further into a morass of inchoate discontent and outright hostility to the plight of those in need, not to mention endangering an economy in fragile recovery. Attaining $38 billion in budget cuts at the expense of the poor and no cost to corporate America, it is, as President Obama himself said, "The biggest annual spending cut in history."

At the same time we were inflicted with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s "Path to Prosperity," a long-term budget proposal that would slash $6.2 trillion over the next decade, take money away from education and alternative energy investments, privatize Medicare, cut health care services for seniors and the disabled, radically alter Medicaid, but keep funding a bloated defense industry, subsidies for oil companies and tax breaks for the nation’s richest.

Just to rub it in, the cover of the April 7 edition of Bloomberg Businessweek touts "The Billionaire’s Guide to Paying No Taxes" and announces, "The More You Make, the Less You Pay." Reporter Jesse Drucker writes, "For the 400 U.S. taxpayers with the highest adjusted gross income, the effective federal income tax rate fell from almost 30 percent in 1995 to just under 17 percent in 2007, according to the IRS. And for the approximately 1.4 million people who make up the top 1 percent of taxpayers, the effective federal income tax rate dropped from 29 percent to 23 percent in 2008. It may seem too fantastic to be true, but the top 400 end up paying a lower rate than the next 1,399,600 or so."

Rep. Ryan’s proposal is magical thinking at its worst, a hocus pocus of numbers adrift from reality. In its initial analysis the Congressional Budget Office found that after ten years, increases in the deficit because of tax cuts would exceed the savings from Ryan’s spending reductions. At that point the debt predictions improve, but only because if his Medicare privatization becomes reality "most elderly people would pay more for their health care than they would pay under the current Medicare system."

It ignores the fact that millions of Americans can’t find jobs, that hunger is mounting and foreclosures are rising; that we’re engaged in three overseas combat operations (wars!) at the same time, and our national infrastructure is crumbling.

And yet, the Democrats go into battle against all of this armed with feather dusters, barely putting up a fight. We’ll see what happens when President Obama addresses the nation Wednesday night, but note that all of this takes place as Obama sets out to procure a billion dollars for his reelection campaign. According to The Wall Street Journal, at a meeting in Washington last month, his campaign manager "asked 450 donors to raise $350,000 each by the end of 2011." That money ain’t coming from car washes and bake sales.

Several Democratic and progressive organizations have announced their intention to take advantage of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision allowing massive and frequently anonymous corporate campaign contributions – the decision those same folks attacked so vehemently during the midterm elections and ensuing Republican victories. The Los Angeles Times reminded us of what the president said just last October: "The American people deserve to know who’s trying to sway their elections, and you can’t stand by and let the special interests drown out the voices of the American people."

Why is there no general outcry, no outrage beyond that of the committed few? That’s the real Great Disappointment. Are we just too busy struggling with our individual lives or have we been lulled into anesthetized, otiose complacency by an overload of Internet stimulus, reality television and the pursuit of happiness via Facebook and consumer goods? Have our shortened attention spans dulled our willingness to engage in any kind of debate?

Meanwhile, a new CNN poll has blow-dried bloviator Donald Trump tied for first place among potential Republican presidential candidates. And The New York Times says Arizonans are painting their front lawns green rather than be fined by homeowner associations for unsightly brown grass. The trend began when realtors sought to enhance the curb appeal of foreclosed-upon and abandoned properties.

Good grief. Maybe it’s the End of Days after all.


Michael Winship is senior writing fellow at Demos, former senior writer at Bill Moyers Journal on PBS and current president of the Writers Guild of America, East.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Concede what?

Republicans and Democrats have agreed to make concessions to keep the government up and running temporarily until a more permanent resolution can be reached, but the stopgap measure approved will expire on Thursday.

While we're in for a long round of negotiations before both parties can agree on passing a budget through the end of this fiscal year let alone through 2012, it might be helpful to look at how spending has changed over the past 50 years, and then ask: concede what?

At a time when community colleges, and K-12 public schools around the country are being forced to cut programs, as well as endure teacher layoffs and, in some cases even close, let's look at two parts of the federal budget that often get drowned out in the talk about social security and medicare; defense and education.

Half a century ago, in the face of rising tensions in Southeast Asia, President John F. Kennedy allocated nearly $52 billion for defense in his 1962 federal budget which represented only a marginal increase over that of his predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower, you'll recall, is the president who warned about the U.S. turning into a "military industrial complex."

To put things in perspective, President Obama has now appropriated ten times the amount JFK did, or $553 billion, in his 2011 budget, an increase of $22 billion over 2010.

Yes, it's also true that in his 1962 budget, then-President Kennedy opted for only slightly more than $1 billion for education, and the Obama administration now allots $77 billion. Yet, while he has increased funding for education by nearly $30 billion since 2010, Mr. Obama has also increased spending on defense almost as much. Is America now in the business of preparing our youngsters to be career soldiers? If so, we're on the right track.

If not, then just how much will Mr. Boehner and his party want to cut from education to preserve the astronomical acceleration of defense spending?

The average annual defense budget for the decade before Bill Clinton took office, a decade that includes Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, was $453 billion. President Clinton is the only commander-in-chief in the past 50 years to reduce defense spending. He did so by more than 15% to $377 billion, per Truth & then along came George W. Bush, and 9/ll.

In George W. Bush's administration, national defense spending rose by a whopping 31% to nearly $500 billion from where it was when Clinton left the White House. And, Mr. Obama has now outdone Mr. Bush. In his 2011 budget, Obama sees Mr. Bush's $500 billion, and raises it by another 10% to $553 billion.

Lest you think that it's mostly Republicans who beef up national defense spending, remember another Democrat who came to the Oval Office by way of the Senate; yes, that Great Society fellow: Lyndon B. Johnson. He increased the defense budget by nearly 10% from where it was under JFK. LBJ was widely reputed to be a consummate deal maker which may be the way he managed to get more funding for the poor, and for medicare by capitulating to the war cartel.

When another friend to the defense lobby, Richard Nixon, came to town, the defense budget rose to $76 billion, but Nixon also increased funding for education to $12 billion from about $1.5 billion under Johnson. In 1984, Ronald Reagan directed that more than $227 billion go for national defense, four times what it was under Johnson.

Interestingly, while Johnson, a Democrat, increased the defense budget by nearly 10%, he only added another $300 million for education, about a 3% increase, so this clearly doesn't play out along party lines. If it did, Mr. Obama would follow Mr. Clinton's lead, and keep defense spending in check, or lower it rather than raise it as he has consistently done.

Historians may someday see Barack Obama as the same kind of deal maker LBJ was. Obama, too, may be acquiescing to the desires of the militaristic wings of both parties as a trade-off to enhance spending on health care legislation, and education. So far, though, we see no evidence of the kind of Great Society reform, and war on poverty, ushered in by the Johnson cum Kennedy administrations. Instead, we see only capitulation to those special interests this president came into office vowing to oppose.

This is not to denigrate Mr. Obama who was the first president to get major health care reform passed; no small accomplishment. He is also the president who reduced taxes for 98% of working Americans, but he's far from waging a war on poverty. One doesn't wage a war on poverty by renewing tax breaks to the upper 2% of the population, even temporarily. One doesn't open the door to higher education by relegating hundreds of billions of dollars to future warriors while, at the same time, turning future students away from our nation's community colleges.

We went from LBJ's war on poverty to just plain war.

If those who want to lower the deficit, and those who tout "fiscal responsibility," think that the national debt is this country's biggest liability and the gravest threat to future generations, they're wrong. The worst thing we can leave behind future Americans is a world constantly at war, and one in which the benefits of the few come at the expense of the many.

Again, over the past 50 years, defense spending has steadily skyrocketed. Instead of making concessions, maybe we should start asking not where social security will be by 2076, but where defense will be by 2076.

The president's opponents in Congress have worked sedulously to discredit him from the start which represents a seismic shift from the treatment Lyndon Johnson got. Remember, Johnson was a white southerner.

Mr. Obama instead has been forced to resort to tactics one would mostly expect from a used car salesman who mark up the price of the vehicle knowing full well that it will only depreciate during the course of the transaction. This is not a paradigm that works for our educational system.

Even with the $76 billion or more this administration has slated for the Department of Education, public schools in our inner cities don't come close to offering the same kind of access to state of the art technology, and quality educators, that one typically associates with middle class suburban schools.

Before agreeing to any more concessions, the president and Congress must ask, concede what? .

Rest assured, when Congress finds itself up against the wall in another eleventh hour negotiation, they will want to keep their hands off the political third rail of social security and medicare and instead opt to take another bite out of education. This is what states like California have done in a pinch, so it would come as no surprise if the feds do it.

But, remember, not only is the president up for reelection, but many members of Congress will be campaigning for reelection in 2012, too. We must not stand by and allow a trend to continue about which Dwight Eisenhower warned more than half a century ago. We must not allow war to become this country's main export.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Exit Strategy

The U.S. now has an exit strategy for every country in the Middle East except the U.S.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Labor Pains

Labor Pains and the GOP
By Michael Winship

There’s a joke making the rounds and it goes like this: Big Business, a Tea Partier and Organized Labor are sitting around a table. A dozen cookies arrive on a plate. Big Business takes eleven of them and says to the Tea Partier, "Pssst! That union guy is trying to steal your cookie!"

Radical Islam and global terrorism may have replaced World Communism and the Cold War as the threats lurking under every bed and behind each closet door but organized labor is the conservative bugbear that keeps on giving, no matter which international conspiracy is busily undermining the republic. (Although if the right and the corporate interests behind it could somehow link unions to creeping sharia law, Christmas would come early for those guys -- on several different levels of metaphor.)

The fact remains that labor is nowhere near the nefarious force of iniquity they would have you think it is. And I say this not only as the mild-mannered president of an AFL-CIO affiliated union but also as someone who regularly attends labor-management negotiations that by comparison would make the deliberations of the Bureau of Weights and Measures seem like Chicago in the Roaring Twenties.

Nonetheless, Republican governors, state legislatures and members of Congress are applying the screws, screaming bloody murder at unions -- especially public employee unions -- while continuing to tout bigger corporate tax breaks and looking the other way as Wall Street profiteers rake it in, stealing our collective cookies.

When Barack Obama became president and with Democrats in the majority in Congress, union leaders thought that if nothing else, passage of their long-dreamed of EFCA -- the Employee Free Choice Act, easing the way forward for workers’ unionization -- was pretty much a sure thing, the quid pro quo for labor’s massive electoral support. Instead, not only have EFCA’s chances -- for the immediate future at least -- vanished, but labor has become the GOP’s most prominent target -- especially when noisome Muslim clerics aren’t readily at hand.

The progressive website ThinkProgress declared, "The defining political story three months into 2011 is the spread of anti-union legislation in the states" and last month reported that "pivoting off the myth that public employees are getting paid more than their private sector counterparts, governors and state legislatures are scapegoating public workers for their states’ respective budget woes.” We’ve seen it across the country, from Alaska, Wisconsin and Ohio -- where Governor John Kasich signed anti-union legislation Thursday night -- to New Jersey and Maine.

The website notes that on the federal level at least, according to data from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, public employees "actually earn 22 percent less than comparable private sector workers. Research by Harvard economist George Borjas shows that, at the top-end, private sector pay is so much better that the public sector has 'found it increasingly more difficult to attract and retain high-skill workers.'"

Yet Republican Jim DeMint of South Carolina, the C. Montgomery Burns of the United States Senate, told ThinkProgress that he "doesn’t believe collective bargaining has any place in government... including at the federal level." And on Friday, the House passed an amendment to the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill that would reverse an earlier National Mediation Board (NMB) decision allowing majority rule when aviation and railway workers vote on union representation.

The amendment would count workers who choose not to vote as a "no" against the union. In the words of Washington Monthly’s Steve Benen, "This may sound complicated, but it's pretty straightforward -- under the status quo, the workers would get together and hold a vote. The majority wins. Under the Republican idea, workers who don't participate in the vote would be counted as 'no' votes."

The White House is threatening a veto of this blatant union-busting and the Communications Workers of America (CWA) issued a report noting that, "If congressional elections proceeded under the proposed rules for the NMB elections, in which non-participants were counted as votes for the opponent, then none of the current Members of Congress would have won election in 2010" (emphasis mine).

Further, not content with roiling the legislative waters, Republicans have extended their attacks on labor into the groves of academe and even decorative art. In Wisconsin, where Governor Scott Walker finally obeyed judicial demands that he suspend that state’s controversial new law undermining public employee unions, the Republican Party has demanded to see the university e-mail records of University of Wisconsin Professor William Cronon, the incoming president of the American Historical Association who just happened to write blog entries and a New York Times op-ed piece critical of Walker’s anti-union tactics.

In Michigan, a conservative think tank, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, funded in part by the Walton Family (as in Wal-Mart) and the ubiquitous Koch brothers, is seeking from the labor relations departments at three in-state universities any and all e-mails that mention anything having to do with the union fight in neighboring Wisconsin, Governor Walker or – wait for it – Rachel Maddow.

Meanwhile, in the great state of Maine, Tea Party Governor Paul LePage is taking heat for removing an eleven-panel mural depicting labor history from the walls at, of all places, the state’s Department of Labor. His office said it had received a complaint comparing the work to North Korean propaganda. LePage also said he wants to change the titles of conference rooms there named after Cesar Chavez and New Deal Labor Secretary Frances Perkins. A spokesman told a local paper that "the message from state agencies needs to be balanced" and that the rooms could be renamed "after mountains... or something."

Hey, in that case, if not mountains, how about "Joe Hill?"

So none of this is truly about slashing deficits and balancing budgets. We know it’s really about smashing labor and its protections, undermining the Democratic Party further and trying to torpedo Obama’s reelection. In a fundraising letter Wisconsin State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald bragged that their goal had been not budget repairs but "to break the power of unions... once and for all." And in an interview with the effervescent Megyn Kelly of Fox News, Fitzgerald said, "If we win this battle, and the money is not there under the auspices of the unions, certainly what you’re going to find is President Obama is going to have a much more difficult time getting elected and winning the state of Wisconsin."

It’s also about ignoring the advances labor has brought the middle class and using charges of union corruption and financial excess to divert attention from the real culprits. According to Friday’s edition ofUSA Today, "The heads of the nation’s top companies got the biggest raises in recent memory last year after taking a hiatus during the recession" -- a catastrophe many of them helped create.

"At a time most employees can barely remember their last substantial raise, median CEO pay jumped 27% in 2010 as the executives’ compensation started working its way back to prerecession levels, a USA TODAY analysis of data from GovernanceMetrics International found...

"The sizable pay hikes came even though the economy’s recovery remains frail, unemployment is high and corporate profits last year were roughly flat, up 1.5%, from where they were in 2007 when the stock market peaked."

The raises are based not on growth or the creation of business but on money saved from cutbacks and layoffs. And, as the economist John Kenneth Galbraith wrote in 1980, "The salary of the chief executive of the large corporation is not a market award for achievement. It is frequently in the nature of a warm personal gesture by the individual to himself."

Luckily, such news combined with pushback from labor and the public’s angry reaction to Republican overreaching could boomerang.

The next sound you hear may be all their cookies crumbling.


Michael Winship, former senior writer of Bill Moyers Journal on PBS, is president of the Writers Guild of America, East.