Obama, Hillary, and Imperialism: Drones, Coups, Arms Deals, and Human Rights

In this post, Part 3 in a series on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Emilio da Costa describes actions taken by President Barack Obama and Clinton (in her roles as Secretary of State and Senator) in the realms of civil liberties and foreign policy. Emilio, who holds a master’s degree in City and Regional Planning from Berkeley and a bachelor’s degree in Urban Studies from Stanford, argues that the two of them embraced many of the very same policies Democrats decried under George W. Bush.  In fact, the State Department under Obama and Clinton has in some cases been more hawkish than its Republican predecessor.

Part 2 of the series, which focused on the likelihood that Clinton would meaningfully regulate Wall Street, can be found here.

Emilio da Costa

Emilio da Costa

Obama, Guantánamo, and Indefinite Preventive Detention

Obama’s most egregious hypocrisy has to be his 2007 campaign promise and subsequent 2009 executive order to close the Guantánamo Bay detention camp within a year. While expecting a politician in our country to deliver on a campaign promise may in some ways be the paragon of naivete, the disconnect between Obama’s statements and his actions relating to Guantánamo and related human rights issues is absurd. Obama and his defenders claim that Congress blocked the portion of Obama’s budget proposal intended to close Guantánamo, and this is accurate. Similarly, it is true that Obama verbally renewed his commitment to closing Guantánamo in both the 2014 and the 2015 State of the Union addresses. Yet, it is all too easy to fall into the trap of allowing these events to absolve him. Obama’s proposal to close Guantánamo that was blocked by Congress was predicated upon his plan not to, for example, finally give the prisoners fair trials, but instead to just transfer them to a different prison in Thomson, Illinois. Essentially, as Conor Friedersdorf wrote for The Atlantic, “Yes, he wants to close Guantánamo Bay, in the sense that he wants to shutter the island facility in Cuba. But he wants to continue indefinitely detaining people without charges or trial.” Writing for Salon, Glenn Greenwald reminded us that it was not the location of Guantánamo that made it controversial:

What made Guantánamo such a travesty — and what still makes it such — is that it is a system of indefinite detention whereby human beings are put in cages for years and years without ever being charged with a crime. President Obama’s so-called “plan to close Guantánamo” — even if it had been approved in full by Congress — did not seek to end that core injustice. It sought to do the opposite: Obama’s plan would have continued the system of indefinite detention, but simply re-located it from Guantánamo Bay onto American soil.

Considering the details of Obama’s proposal along with the 2013 closure of the State Department office tasked with closing Guantánamo, Obama’s vows to close Guantánamo, like most of his populist presidential rhetoric, were empty political gestures.

But, even though Obama has not been able to close Guantánamo, the notoriously obstructionist Congress cannot take credit for blocking all of his venerable policy goals. For example, Obama has successfully managed to codify legislation permitting indefinite detention without trial. Section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012 directly violates the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, according to the ACLU. It nullifies the right to be informed of criminal charges, the right to a speedy and public trial, and the right to trial by an impartial jury. Obama’s assurances that “[his] administration will not authorize the indefinite military detention without trial of American citizens” are not particularly comforting.

Whether or not Obama sticks to his word, the provisions remain for future administrations to take full advantage of, and each of the three NDAAs passed since 2012 have continued to authorize indefinite detention. Highlighting the absurdity of the sweeping authority granted by 2014’s NDAA in a piece for Salon, Natasha Lennard wrote: “we can all be concerned when it is Tea Party blowhard Sen. Ted Cruz who best expresses civil liberties concerns on an issue.” As one of fifteen senators who voted against the Fiscal Year 2014 version of the NDAA, Cruz stated:

I am deeply concerned that Congress still has not prohibited President Obama’s ability to indefinitely detain U.S. citizens arrested on American soil without trial or due process… Although this legislation does contain several positive provisions that I support, it does not ensure our most basic rights as American citizens are protected…I hope that next year the Senate and the House can come together in a bipartisan way to recognize the importance of our constitutional rights even in the face of ongoing terrorist threats and national security challenges.

Among his peers in the Senate, presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders also voted against the NDAA in 2014, but Sanders was one of only three members of the Democratic caucus that did so. The other two were Oregon’s Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden whereas, conspicuously, progressives such as Elizabeth Warren and Al Franken voted to pass the legislation.

To fully appreciate just how ludicrous this legislation is, it helps to look at the way preventive detention is applied in other places. In a 2009 article entitled “Facts and Myths about Obama’s Preventive Detention Proposal,” Glenn Greenwald touched on the political climate surrounding prevention detention and the limits that are applied to this authority in some of our peer countries:

In the era of IRA bombings, the British Parliament passed a law allowing the Government to preventively detain terrorist suspects for 14 days — and then either have to charge them or release them.  In 2006, Prime Minister Tony Blair — citing the London subway attacks and the need to “intervene early before a terrorist cell has the opportunity to achieve its goals” — wanted to increase the prevention detention period to 90 days, but MPs from his own party and across the political spectrum overwhelmingly opposed this, and ultimately increased it only to 28 days.

In June of last year, Prime Minister Gordon Brown sought an expansion of this preventive detention authority to 42 days — a mere two weeks more.  Reacting to that extremely modest increase, a major political rebellion erupted, with large numbers of Brown’s own Labour Party joining with Tories to vehemently oppose it as a major threat to liberty.  Ultimately, Brown’s 42-day scheme barely passed the House of Commons. As former Prime Minister John Major put it in opposing the expansion to 42 days:

It is hard to justify: pre-charge detention in Canada is 24 hours; South Africa, Germany, New Zealand and America 48 hours; Russia 5 days; and Turkey 7½ days.

By rather stark and extreme contrast, Obama is seeking preventive detention powers that are indefinite — meaning without any end, potentially permanent.

I won’t delve into a critical history of Tony Blair, but it should come as no surprise that he was a proponent for preventive detention. On the other hand, it should be eye-opening that Russia, a country that the American media is constantly criticizing for its human rights record, limits its preventive detention power to a period of 5 days.

That Obama initiated indefinite preventive detention while acting as though he wanted to close Guantánamo so as to give its detainees fair trials is one of many reasons why Glen Ford, executive editor of the Black Agenda Report, refers to Obama as “not the lesser of evils, but the more effective evil.” In a 2012 interview with Amy Goodman for Democracy Now, Ford said:

He’s, first of all, created a model for austerity, a veritable model, with his deficit reduction commission. He’s introduced preventive detention, a law for preventive detention. He’s expanded the theaters of war in drone wars, and he’s made an unremitting assault on international law. And I think that possibly the biggest impact, his presidency—and I’m not talking about his—all this light and airy stuff from the convention, but actual deeds—I think probably what will go down as his biggest contribution to history is a kind of merging of the banks and the state, with $16 trillion being infused into these banks, into Wall Street, under his watch, and the line between Wall Street and the federal government virtually disappearing.

Clinton and Military Intervention in the Middle East

Having supported military intervention every time she’s had an opportunity, we can only expect Hillary Clinton to continue with increased American aggression and erosion of civil liberties in the name of imperialism under the guise of the bogeyman national security threat posed by “terrorism.” In a piece for TIME, Michael Crowley discussed Clinton’s “unapologetically hawkish record” in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and Iran and includes analysis that brings former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War into the conversation:

In one of the book’s most quoted passages, Gates writes that he witnessed Clinton make a startling confession to Barack Obama: she had opposed George W. Bush‘s last-ditch effort to salvage the Iraq war, the 2007 troop “surge,” because the politics of the 2008 Democratic primaries demanded it…

As Secretary of State, Clinton backed a bold escalation of the Afghanistan war. She pressed Obama to arm the Syrian rebels, and later endorsed air strikes against the Assad regime. She backed intervention in Libya, and her State Department helped enable Obama’s expansion of lethal drone strikes. In fact, Clinton may have been the administration’s most reliable advocate for military action. On at least three crucial issues—Afghanistan, Libya, and the bin Laden raid—Clinton took a more aggressive line than Gates, a Bush-appointed Republican.

Returning to Iraq, nowadays, Clinton is dedicated to clarifying that she considers her vote for the war a mistake. In her 2014 book Hard Choices, she wrote, “As much as I might have wanted to, I could never change my vote on Iraq. But I could try to help us learn the right lessons from that war and apply them to Afghanistan and other challenges where we had fundamental security interests.” However, writing for The Nation, Anatol Lieven argued that Clinton’s ongoing record puts that assertion into question:

Neither in her book nor in her policy is there even the slightest evidence that she has, in fact, tried to learn from Iraq beyond the most obvious lesson—the undesirability of US ground invasions and occupations, which even the Republicans have managed to learn. For Clinton herself helped to launch US airpower to topple another regime, this one in Libya—and, as in Iraq, the results have been anarchy, sectarian conflict and opportunities for Islamist extremists that have destabilized the entire region. She then helped lead the United States quite far down the road of doing the same thing in Syria.

As opposed to just verbally expressing regret or saying that she made a mistake, there was a rare instance regarding the PATRIOT Act in which Clinton actually changed her vote. Whereas in 2001 Clinton voted to pass the legislation, in 2005 she supported a general filibuster against the PATRIOT Act’s renewal. It’s hard to give her credit for this change, however.  Describing her stance on supporting the filibuster, Jeff Bliss and James Rowley wrote for Bloomberg that “Democratic New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton said she opposes the legislation because it doesn’t guarantee her state a large enough share of money for anti-terrorism.” Quelling any uncertainty that her vote may have also had to do with some sort of moral conviction for the protection of civil liberties and privacy rights, Clinton voted to extend the PATRIOT Act in 2006.

Like a true war hawk, there is one issue Clinton has never flip-flopped on; no matter the circumstances, her support for Israel has never wavered. In a 2007 review of Clinton’s record on human rights and international law for Foreign Policy In Focus, Stephen Zunes documented how, as a senator, she went as far as to fly in the face of the UN to fight for special treatment for Israel. When, in 2004, the UN’s judicial body, the International Court of Justice, ruled against the Israeli West Bank Barrier, Clinton responded by, as the Bush administration did with Iraq, seeking to unilaterally oppose the international community:

The ICJ ruled that Israel, like any country, had the right to build the barrier along its internationally recognized border for self-defense, but did not have the right to build it inside another country as a means of effectively annexing Palestinian land. In an unprecedented congressional action, Senator Clinton immediately introduced a resolution to put the U.S. Senate on record “supporting the construction by Israel of a security fence” and “condemning the decision of the International Court of Justice on the legality of the security fence.” In an effort to render the UN impotent in its enforcement of international law, her resolution (which even the then-Republican-controlled Senate failed to pass) attempted to put the Senate on record “urging no further action by the United Nations to delay or prevent the construction of the security fence.”

Eventually, even the Israeli Supreme Court was reasonable enough to admit that, along one route, the wall was disproportionately harmful to the Palestinians relative to its intended purpose, but not Clinton:

The Israeli Supreme Court has ordered the government to re-route a section of the wall bisecting some Palestinian towns, because the “relationship between the injury to the local inhabitants and the security benefit from the contraction of the Separation Fence along the route, as determined by the military officer, is not proportionate.” And yet, Clinton’s resolution also claims that Israel’s barrier is a “proportional response to the campaign of terrorism by Palestinian militants.”

If the Israeli Supreme Court is capable of reconsidering the impact of the wall, and even mandating that a section of it be re-routed, why can’t Clinton begin to temper her ardent support of Israel’s continued subjugation of the Palestinian people? Instead, she takes pride in the wall as a symbol of the unchecked and ever-growing authority of the US and its allies to ignore human rights and international law in the name of terrorism:

A longtime supporter of Israel’s colonization and annexation efforts in the West Bank, Senator Clinton took part in a photo opportunity at the illegal Israeli settlement of Gilo last year, in which she claimed – while gazing over the massive wall bisecting what used to be a Palestinian vineyard – “This is not against the Palestinian people. This is against the terrorists.”

While I drew a similarity earlier between Clinton and Bush’s shared disdain for the deliberations of the UN, it bears mentioning that, regarding Israel, even Bush’s actions were too cooperative for Clinton: “She opposed UN efforts to investigate alleged war crimes by Israeli occupation forces and criticized President Bush for calling on Israel to pull back from its violent re-conquest of Palestinian cities in violation of UN Security Council resolutions.”

More recently, Clinton vehemently defended Israel’s 2014 Operation Protective Edge during which Palestinians suffered the highest number of civilian casualties since the 1967 Six-Day War. Writing for The Huffington Post, Shadee Ashtari offered an insightful comparison of Clinton’s conclusions, made less than three weeks apart, on assigning responsibility for two catastrophic events:

Here’s Hillary Clinton, on the downing of a Malaysia Airlines plane in Ukraine: “I think if there were any doubt it should be gone by now, that Vladimir Putin, certainly indirectly…bears responsibility for what happened.”

And here’s Clinton, on the bombing of a United Nations facility in Gaza: “I’m not sure it’s possible to parcel out blame because it’s impossible to know what happens in the fog of war.”

As Ashtari, rather aptly, puts it in the article’s opening line, “the fog of war may be more of a Rorschach test.” Never mind that Christopher Gunness, spokesman for the UNRWA, the main UN agency in Gaza, stated that UN representatives had informed Israeli forces of the school’s exact location 17 times. To a tirelessly devoted career politician like Hillary Clinton, overwhelming evidence is an afterthought. It is in the interest of the US federal government and corporate oligarchy for Russia to look bad and for Israel to look good, and how Clinton decides what to state publicly is as simple as that.

Unfortunately, though her dedication does go above and beyond the norm, Clinton stands with the majority of American legislators when it comes to backing Israel.  Yet with respect to her history of supporting armed conflict on a broader scale, in the same article referenced earlier by Zunes, he noted that (fortunately?) this is not the case:

Indeed, she has supported unconditional U.S. arms transfers and police training to such repressive and autocratic governments as Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Pakistan, Equatorial Guinea, Azerbaijan, Cameroon, Kazakhstan, and Chad, just to name a few. She has also refused to join many of her Democratic colleagues in signing a letter endorsing a treaty that would limit arms transfers to countries that engage in a consistent pattern of gross and systematic human rights violations.

Further emphasizing Clinton’s blatant disregard for human suffering, Zunes wrote:

Not only is she willing to support military assistance to repressive regimes, she has little concern about controlling weapons that primarily target innocent civilians. Senator Clinton has refused to support the international treaty to ban land mines, which are responsible for killing and maiming thousands of civilians worldwide, a disproportionate percentage of whom have been children.

She was also among a minority of Democratic Senators to side with the Republican majority last year in voting down a Democratic-sponsored resolution restricting U.S. exports of cluster bombs to countries that use them against civilian-populated areas. Each of these cluster bomb[s] contains hundreds of bomblets that are scattered over an area the size of up to four football fields and, with a failure rate of up to 30%, become de facto land mines. As many as 98% of the casualties caused by these weapons are civilians.

The Role of the Clinton Foundation in the Global Arms Trade

There is a distinct paper trail connecting donations to the Clinton Foundation to weapons deals from Clinton’s State Department. In the International Business Times, David Sirota and Andrew Perez described how “17 out of 20 countries that have donated to the Clinton Foundation saw increases in arms exports authorized by Hillary Clinton’s State Department” and, on the other side of the deals, “the Clinton Foundation accepted donations from six companies benefiting from U.S. State Department arms export approvals.” Leading the list for defense contractors was Boeing with a donation of $5 million. Perhaps that has something to do with why Boeing was the lead contractor in a deal that resulted in $29 billion worth of advanced fighter jets being delivered to Saudi Arabia, a country that has beheaded 100 people just this year. While it seems obvious that widely publicizing their beheadings gives ISIS more reason to continue carrying them out, the mainstream media of the US is constantly releasing footage of them to help fuel civilian support for the destruction of those brutal savages. So why is there no uproar over the fact that Saudi Arabia beheads its citizens for nonlethal crimes such as adultery, “sorcery,” and “drug receiving?” In a Newsweek article by Janine Di Giovanni, Lina Khatib of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut has an answer that Hillary would never repeat but that is likely in alignment with her values: “Violence by the state is permissible, while violence by non-state actors is not.”

Returning to the numbers, in total, the dollar amount of arms exports to Saudia Arabia authorized grew 97% during Clinton’s tenure at the State Department. Some other countries not known for a sterling human rights record that were part of Clinton’s de facto donations for death machines program included Algeria, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, and the UAE. Algeria saw its total exports authorized grow 274%, Bahrain 187%, Oman 221%, Qatar 1,482%, and the UAE 1,005%. Not only do Sirota and Perez compile an array of appalling figures, but they also shed light on how fickle the State Department can be with just a little bit of coaxing:

In its 2010 Human Rights Report, Clinton’s State Department inveighed against Algeria’s government for imposing “restrictions on freedom of assembly and association” tolerating “arbitrary killing,” “widespread corruption,” and a “lack of judicial independence.” The report said the Algerian government “used security grounds to constrain freedom of expression and movement.”

That year, the Algerian government donated $500,000 to the Clinton Foundation and its lobbyists met with the State Department officials who oversee enforcement of human rights policies. Clinton’s State Department the next year approved a one-year 70 percent increase in military export authorizations to the country. The increase included authorizations of almost 50,000 items classified as “toxicological agents, including chemical agents, biological agents and associated equipment” after the State Department did not authorize the export of any of such items to Algeria in the prior year.

Obama, Clinton, and the US-Funded 2009 Coup of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya

In the name of the war on drugs, President Obama and Secretary Clinton funded a military coup of the Honduran government. Compared to past US-orchestrated coups in Latin America, we apparently felt no reason to cover this one up: “The US ambassador to Honduras, Lisa Kubiske, said, ‘We have an opportunity now, because the military is no longer at war in Iraq. Using the military funding that won’t be spent, we should be able to have resources to be able to work here.’” While Honduras has had some of the highest murder rates in the world since the 1990s, shortly after the 2009 coup, Honduras surpassed El Salvador to claim the number one spot, which they have held onto since then. 2012 figures from the UN showed that, apart from Venezuela, which had a rate of 53.7 murders per 100,000 people, Honduras’s rate of 90.4 was more than double the rate of any other country for which the UN had data. While the coup itself did not cause the high murder rate, writing for The Nation, Dana Frank explained the accompanying conditions that did:

The coup, in turn, unleashed a wave of violence by state security forces that continues unabated. On October 22, an enormous scandal broke when the Tegucigalpa police killed the son of Julieta Castellanos, rector of the country’s largest university and a member of the government’s Truth Commission, along with a friend of his. Top law enforcement officials admitted that the police were responsible for the killings but allowed the suspects to disappear, precipitating an enormous crisis of legitimacy, as prominent figures such as Alfredo Landaverde, a former congressman and police commissioner in charge of drug investigations, stepped forward throughout the autumn to denounce the massive police corruption. The police department, they charged, is riddled with death squads and drug traffickers up to the very highest levels…

A vicious drug culture already existed before the coup, along with gangs and corrupt officials. But the thoroughgoing criminality of the coup regime opened the door for it to flourish on an unprecedented scale. Drug trafficking is now embedded in the state itself—from the cop in the neighborhood all the way up to the very top of the government, according to high-level sources. Prominent critics and even government officials, including Marlon Pascua, the defense minister, talk of “narco-judges” who block prosecutions and “narco-congressmen” who run cartels. Landaverde declared that one out of every ten members of Congress is a drug trafficker and that he had evidence proving “major national and political figures” were involved in drug trafficking. He was assassinated on December 7.

“It’s scarier to meet up with five police officers on the streets than five gang members,”   former Police Commissioner María Luisa Borjas declared in November. According to the Committee of Families of the Detained and Disappeared of Honduras (Cofadeh), more than 10,000 official complaints have been filed about abuses by the police and military since the coup, none of which have been addressed…

…Cofadeh and prominent voices in Honduran civil society are calling loudly for a suspension of US and other countries’ aid to the Honduran military and police. “Stop feeding the beast,” as Rector Castellanos famously demanded in November…

As Tirza Flores Lanza—a former appeals court magistrate in San Pedro Sula, who was fired with four other judges and magistrates for opposing the coup—put it: “The coup d’état in Honduras destroyed the incipient democracy that, with great effort, we were constructing, and revived the specter of military dictatorships that are now once again ready to pounce throughout Latin America.”

Despite unprecedented levels of corruption and impunity and heads of state throughout the region having refused to recognize Porfirio Lobo’s presidency, Secretary Clinton and President Obama both turned a blind eye to the nightmarish conditions on the ground and had nothing but praise for the leader of the regime they inserted into power: “The United States hailed him for ‘restoring democracy’ and promoting ‘national reconciliation.’ The State Department and Clinton continue to repeat both fictions, as did President Obama when he welcomed Lobo to the White House in October.” For a more thorough understanding of the events leading up to the coup and the interactions between the Honduran and American government through 2013, Eric Zuesse offers an exhaustive review of coverage on Honduras along with what he considers to be Clinton’s other major foreign policy achievement, her disastrous record in Afghanistan.

Continuing to cover Honduras in 2015, this time for Foreign Policy, Dana Frank argued that, sadly, Lobo’s successor, Juan Orlando Hernández “is a far more brutal and Machiavellian figure than his predecessor” and “is perpetuating an ongoing human rights crisis while countenancing a cesspool of corruption and organized crime in which the topmost levels of government are enmeshed.” Nevertheless:

…despite overwhelming evidence of Hernández’s dangerous record on human rights and security, the Obama administration has decided to lock down support for his regime, and even celebrate him. U.S. development, security, and economic funds are pouring into Honduras, and the White House is going full-court press to push for hundreds of millions more…

Why? Frank offers three reasons: 1) to send a message to the democratically elected center-left and left governments that had come to power in Latin America in the previous 15 years that they could be next, 2) to solidify and expand the U.S. military presence in Central America, and 3) to serve transnational corporate interests in the region. For more detail on the third objective Frank offered, Lauren Carasik wrote a piece for Foreign Affairs describing the details of the “Model Cities” project that would create zones where Honduran law would not apply and, instead, at the expense of workers and the environment, local elites and foreign investors would set conditions to maximize profits. Essentially export processing zones, these sorts of arrangements have been a common facet of international trade since the 1990s, and for good reason, Naomi Klein criticized them extensively in her incredibly informative 1999 book, No Logo. That the project was called “Model Cities” is particularly ironic considering that was also the name of an incredibly ambitious, though widely maligned, federal urban aid program administered as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.


Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Foreign Policy

Big Pharma: Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game

Martin Shkreli is a man I admire in an odd sort of way.

The recent controversy involving Mr. Shkreli and his price hike of the toxoplasmosis drug, Daraprim, seems to have caused misguided furor towards the 32-year-old CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals. He may epitomize a major problem with the pharmaceutical industry but he is simply playing by the rules his pharmaceutical executive contemporaries and predecessors have helped set in place. Much like Donald Trump and his history of bankruptcies, he’d be foolish not to take advantage of every oversight weakness or loophole set up by a corrupt system that affords advantages to those who are shrewd enough and willing to exploit them. The public’s anger is directed at the man and not the system.

If Shkreli were to step down or be forced to resign, do people think that the next CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals won’t be as zealous or brash in exploiting the system? People dislike him for the price hike, but loathe him for the way he defiantly acted in response. If I were a board member I would demand that my CEO rigorously investigate every pathway to make the company more profitable and therefore more financially stable, but I would also want them to exhibit a measure of temperance so as not to attract unwanted public spotlight. It seems as though people would be willing to forgive and forget a less brazen pharmaceutical executive. Every public dollar not claimed by Turing Pharmaceuticals is a dollar that will be spent elsewhere, or heaven forbid end up in the coffers of the competition.

As for the relationship to medical students, pharm and biotech industry sales reps are not seen or heard from during the first two years of our schooling. We are in the classroom and there is no official school-sanctioned time allotted to these groups unless specifically invited by a student organization. There are no events or talks sponsored by companies, and all faculty must divulge any real or perceived conflicts of interest when lecturing.

This changes in the clinical years (third and fourth year) when the students are out and about amongst the physicians, nurses, and patients in the hospitals and clinics. Students are left to their own devices and are sometimes in rooms with Big Pharma reps during presentations for a new product or during demonstrations of a new surgical device. The “good” reps will gravitate towards the students after they’ve made their pitch to the higher-ups and start chumming it up with those at the bottom of the totem pole and those with the least decision-making capacity.

My first encounter with a sales rep was right before entering the operating room (OR). Gowned in scrubs, all entrants into the OR look nearly identical and no hierarchy can be discerned readily, like it can be up on the patient floors. There doctors wear long white coats, nurses wear scrubs, and students wear short white coats paired with a look that can only be described as confident confusion. There the pecking order is clear. The OR is murkier—we’re all wearing blue scrubs so the nurses and students are dressed like the doctors are dressed like the students. The man approached me and asked if I was a student and we began chatting. I assumed this guy was of some import—he was tall, he spoke confidently, and he knew everyone’s name entering the OR. As the conversation shifted from what my first few days at the hospital were like, he started extolling the sophistication and ease of use of this new surgical device that would be employed for this particular operation. Then it hit me that this guy was just a salesman.

He knew who I was, right? Him selling me on his product would do absolutely nothing for his company’s bottom line and his quarterly sales wouldn’t see the slightest uptick whether or not he had ever spoken to me. He gave me his card and told me to be on the lookout for his company’s reps in all my future endeavors. Man, I thought, he was such a nice guy. As the weeks went on I encountered other reps while in the hospital. All of who were just as nice. What an endearing industry.

Drexel had done a superb job at shielding its first and second year students from the influences of third party companies. We had almost no exposure to the sales pitches coming out of the mouths of these charismatic salespeople. We were being released to the world as naïve students. Were these reps being nice for the sake of being nice? Of course that’s a possibility. What’s much more probable, however, is that they are all planting the seeds of merchandising as soon as they are able. I wouldn’t be advising any hospitals to buy any new surgical devices, nor would I be prescribing any meds for a few years, but when the time comes, I will already have that brand recognition stored somewhere in my brain.

As students we are never given formal training in how pharmaceutical companies operate and what we can expect to deal with for the rest of our careers, regardless of our specialty. We have a Business of Healthcare course that does a great job of outlining the history of US healthcare, how it came to be the way it is, and how insurance companies fit into the puzzle that is the US healthcare system. I once believed that it was a good thing that med school limited exposure to Big Pharma, and that this limited access to its students would offset some of the pernicious effects of physicians becoming beholden to a drug company. As our system is set up now, students or recent med school grads will be inundated with free luncheons, demonstrations, and gifts that are designed to both inform and persuade physicians and future physicians to prescribe certain medications. There seems to be real value in these demonstrations, as it is a way for those in healthcare to stay current with advances in research and technology.

The FDA and Big Pharma continue to battle about how much free speech the for-profit pharmaceutical companies can claim when marketing their drugs and devices. Students are not given much information regarding the politics of what is going on in Washington, D.C. It is important to learn about how our healthcare system works and to truly be advocates for our patients, doctors need to be versed in the discussions going on in the capital. Perhaps to steer clear of politics and controversy, medical schools opt to leave this discussion out altogether.

Or perhaps not; in order for physicians to best advocate for our patients and their health, we need to know the rules of the game. Med schools need to find the balance between creating competent, knowledgeable physicians who understand their field very well but that are also aware of all of the players in the game and what’s at stake. I’ve found that many of my colleagues find the political aspect of medicine tedious, boring, and too time consuming to delve into the intricacies of policy creation. It is this lack of knowledge or fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between physicians, pharmaceuticals, and the government that makes doctors more susceptible to persuasion by the sales reps as conflicts of interest in the health practitioner field aren’t readily apparent.

The relationship between pharmaceutical and biotech companies with medical schools shouldn’t be adversarial, but when the goals of the healthcare provider and healthcare-related companies don’t coincide, the physician and the patients need to be made aware. Talks by prominent physicians that are on the payroll of drug companies need to be scrutinized. Papers applauding new breakthrough treatments need to be rigorously investigated because even peer-reviewed journals are not free from bias. There is no ideal time during the course of our education that this information would naturally fit, but it is vital and it should be taught early on so that when we are released into the hospitals we will have practice with critiquing sources and being mindful of current legislature concerning what parties are spending money and where they are spending it. If you set up a system that can be exploited you will attract those that are the best at this exploitation.

It is easy to set the ire and pent up aggravation at a wasteful system onto the figurehead with the likeness of a James Bond super-villian, but the release of the collective frustration still does not change the underlying current of how our healthcare system is run. If we’re not educating future doctors on how to effectively combat an (at best) unfair or (at worst) corrupt system, then who can we rely on to give patients a better handle on their own health?

As far as Mr. Shkreli is concerned, he’s just a example of what can happen when an arrogant, young, former hedge-fund manager gets his hands on a product that people need. He’s willing to be the face of a controversy and actually exemplify to the public how screwy the system is. Like Donald Trump proclaiming to donate heavily to both parties in order to personally benefit, Shkreli is opening our eyes to the nature of business side healthcare. Rather than being angry at why someone would do this, be angry at how someone could do this. Don’t hate the player, hate the game.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Business, Medicine, US Political System

Organized Labor Should Endorse Bernie Sanders

The National Education Association (the union to which I used to belong) is considering an early endorsement of Hillary Clinton.  This decision, like the American Federation of Teachers’ endorsement of Clinton on July 11, would be a huge mistake.

One reason is that it would violate members’ trust.  As Peter Greene, Steven Singer, and Anthony Cody have noted, teacher voice is too often ignored in education reform conversations.  If the NEA follows the AFT and makes a presidential primary endorsement without ample membership involvement, its teachers will feel silenced by their own union.  Not only would that likely depress voter mobilization efforts and spark a backlash within the union, it also runs counter to the very principles of what a union is supposed to be.

An early Clinton endorsement would also be a mistake because she’s a suboptimal candidate.  While Clinton is far more union-friendly than anyone running for the Republican nomination, her labor credentials are significantly worse than her main challenger in the Democratic primary, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

Sanders has been a steadfast union supporter since the 1970s.  His advocacy on behalf of workers as mayor of Burlington, Vermont in the 1980s helped foster the growth of the city’s socially-responsible business culture.  “Thanks to the enduring influence of the progressive climate that Sanders and his allies helped to create in Burlington,” The Nation reported in June, “the city’s largest housing development is now resident-owned, its largest supermarket is a consumer-owned cooperative, one of its largest private employers is worker-owned, and most of its people-oriented waterfront is publicly owned. Its publicly owned utility, the Burlington Electric Department, recently announced that Burlington is the first American city of any decent size to run entirely on renewable electricity.”

Sanders has continued to advocate for the same causes in Congress over the past 25 years.  In 1994, for example, he introduced the Workplace Democracy Act, legislation designed to strengthen collective bargaining rights.  He currently supports the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for workplaces to hold union elections, and plans to introduce a new Workplace Democracy Act this fall.  He has “convened annual meetings of labor activists to help them develop more successful organizing and bargaining strategies” and still walks picket lines with workers.

To be fair, Clinton also supports the Employee Free Choice Act.  Her campaign rhetoric is pretty pro-union, and the promises she makes in her video to NEA members don’t sound all that different than those made by Bernie (videos below).

But Clinton’s record is significantly worse than Sanders’.  She served on the board of directors of Walmart – which to this day remains one of the nation’s most notoriously anti-union businesses – from 1986 to 1992, for instance.  According to reports that surfaced in 2008, Clinton sat through dozens of board meetings without ever speaking up on behalf of organized labor.  Instead, she stated that she was “proud of Wal-Mart and what we do and the way we do it better than anybody else.”  Though she has since renounced Walmart’s business practices, Clinton maintains close ties with Walmart executives and lobbyists.  And during her presidential campaigns, she’s surrounded herself with staffers who have troubling anti-union connections.

The following meme, describing cumulative donations the candidates have received over the past thirty years, is illustrative:

Clinton has worse policy positions on key union issues as well.  Bernie Sanders has been a leader in the effort to oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a “free trade” deal that could undermine environmental and consumer safety protections and have harmful impacts on workers both in the US and abroad; Clinton, despite recent attempts to distance herself from the TPP, was heavily involved in negotiating and promoting it.  Sanders has been a vocal proponent of a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage by 2020, which workers around the country are campaigning for; Clinton long resisted taking a specific position on the issue and only recently spoke favorably about raising the federal minimum to $12-an-hour.

Sanders’ positions on education issues also tend to be more power-balancing than Clinton’s.  Both candidates have called for universal pre-K and increased college affordability, but while Sanders believes education is a right that should be guaranteed free of charge to all students, Clinton hypocritically opposes free college for “kids who don’t work some hours to try to put their own effort into their education.”  At the K-12 level, Sanders also has a stronger vision and record. After initially supporting the House of Representatives’ version of No Child Left Behind in May of 2001, he voted against the final version of NCLB that year because he foresaw problems with “the bill’s reliance on high-stakes standardized testing to direct draconian interventions;” Clinton, on the other hand, cast her vote in favor of NCLB.  Sanders believes that “the federal government has a critical role to play” in education policy, one that includes “guaranteeing resource equity,” “increased emphasis on a well-rounded curriculum,” and providing “the resources necessary to provide effective professional development;” Clinton might not necessarily disagree, but while Sanders asserts that he will “direct education funding toward the low-income students who need it most” in his response to the AFT’s candidate questionnaire, this commitment is noticeably absent from Clinton’s writeup.

In fact, on practically every topic – from criminal justice issues to health care to foreign policy – Sanders has Clinton beat.  His platform isn’t perfect, but it’s far and away more in line than Clinton’s with what typical Democratic voters profess to want.  As far as I can tell, nobody at the AFT (or NEA) actually argues that Clinton has better policy positions than Sanders; their endorsement processes seem to be driven by the belief that Clinton is more electable.

The problem with that thinking is twofold.

First, Sanders is actually just as electable, if not more so, than Clinton.  In national polls that pit potential Democratic nominees against potential Republican nominees, Sanders and Clinton do about as well as each other.  If Sanders had anything like Clinton’s name recognition, he’d almost certainly outstrip her; among voters who know who he is, Sanders’ favorability is much higher than Clinton’s (see page 5).  He’s shooting up in Democratic primary polls as more and more voters learn about him and now holds sizable leads in New Hampshire, Iowa, and Oregon.  College students prefer Sanders to Clinton by more than a 3-to-1 margin, policy positions like the ones he holds are wildly popular across the board, and his campaign is showing no signs of losing momentum.

Second, the biggest impediment to a Sanders victory is none other than the political calculus the unions seem to be engaged in.  Politicians are electable if people are willing to support them, while concerns about electability generally undermine progressive goals and become self-fulfilling prophecies.  Rather than settling for Hillary Clinton because they – erroneously – think she’s the best that people will buy, unions should rally behind the better candidate – Bernie Sanders – and start selling him to the American public.

Labor for Bernie, a grassroots movement started by rank-and-file union members, could ultimately prove more important than endorsements from the major national unions.  And Sanders already has the support of National Nurses United.  Nonetheless, it’s incumbent upon NEA leadership, and the leaders of other major unions, to start paying attention to why so many union members feel the Bern.  Sanders, much more than Clinton, deserves organized labor’s official support.

Update (10/3/15): The NEA endorsed Clinton – without any explanation of why members should prefer her to Sanders.


Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Labor, US Political System

Candidates Routinely Threaten Wall Street, Follow Through with Little More than a Stern Scolding

In this post, Part 2 in a series on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Emilio da Costa documents some of the actions that President Barack Obama has taken in the interests of the very wealthy. Emilio, who holds a master’s degree in City and Regional Planning from Berkeley and a bachelor’s degree in Urban Studies from Stanford, argues that Clinton is likely to follow suit – she has much deeper ties to Wall Street than to those whose votes she will be seeking on the campaign trail.

 Part 1 of the series, which focused on Obama’s political appointments, can be found here.

Emilio da Costa

Emilio da Costa

As was required at the time, Obama made promises during his campaign to rein in Wall Street and introduce regulatory reforms to the financial industry. All of the grumbling about Obama’s tax policy being socialist makes it hard to believe the extent to which he supported legislation that so disproportionately benefited the very wealthy. Obama not only extended the Bush tax cuts that he said he would repeal, but in the case of the estate tax, supported the even more regressive policy of lowering the rate and raising the exemption limit in 2010’s $858 billion tax-cut legislation. Although Democrats claim they were forced to compromise on a 35% rate with a $5 million per-person exemption to prevent a worse outcome in the future, if no law were to have passed that year, a 55% rate with a $1 million exemption would have taken effect. When introduced, the exemption limit of $5 million meant that only 0.2 percent of all estates would be eligible to owe any tax, the smallest percentage since 1934 – except for 2010, which Bush’s 2001 tax-cut legislation mandated would be totally estate-tax-free. Days after Obama signed the 2010 legislation, while interviewing Chris Hedges for Democracy Now, Amy Goodman summarized the impacts more generally: “At least a quarter of the tax savings under the deal will go to the wealthiest one percent of the population. The only group that will see its taxes increase are the nation’s lowest-paid workers.” During this interview Hedges argues that “one of the most pernicious things that Obama did in this tax bill was reduce contributions to Social Security, because of course that’s next on the target.” With Obama’s 2013 budget plan having cut Social Security and Medicare by much more than the GOP alternative, it appears Hedges’s predictions were well-founded.

Similarly, Clinton has been diligently working to pander to the masses as a candidate with a tough stance on white-collar crime while at the same time assuring her most devoted backers that they have nothing to worry about. In response to this delicate balancing act she has embarked upon, within days of Clinton announcing her entry into the presidential race, Matt Taibbi wrote a piece for Rolling Stone entitled “Campaign 2016: Hillary Clinton’s Fake Populism Is a Hit.” Few journalists are better suited to the task of exposing a fraud than Matt Taibbi. In typically hilarious fashion (the subtitle of the piece reads: “Pundits say her idealist porridge is not too hot, not too cold, but just fake enough”), Taibbi focuses primarily on Clinton’s position on the carried interest tax break to reveal the way that she, like so many high-ranking politicians, twists her words to manipulate the lower-income and middle-class masses while remaining faithful to the wealthy, high-powered constituency that she actually represents:

“There’s something wrong,” she told a crowd of Iowans, “when hedge fund man­agers pay lower taxes than nurses or the truckers I saw on I-80 when I was driving here over the last two days.”

Oh, right, that. The infamous carried interest tax break, the one that allows private equity vampires like Mitt Romney and Stephen Schwartzman to pay a top tax rate of 15 percent while all of the rest of us (including the truckers Hillary “saw” – note she didn’t say “hung out with Bill and me over chilled shrimp at the Water Club”) pay income taxes.

The carried interest loophole is an absurd, completely unjustifiable handout to the not merely well-off but filthy rich, and it’s been law in this country for about three decades.

Raise your hand if you really think that Hillary Clinton is going to repeal the carried interest tax break.

Whether or not the crowd of Iowans was convinced that Clinton legitimately planned to repeal the carried interest tax break, major media outlets published headlines that took the language from her campaign announcement as evidence that Hillary is a concerned populist dedicated to helping out struggling middle-class American families, until, as Taibbi documents, editorials with a conflicting message began popping up:

“Hillary Clinton’s Wall Street Backers: We Get It,” announced Politico, which polled Democrat-leaning Wall Streeters about the anti-wealthy rhetoric and reassured us that none of them took her seriously.

It’s “just politics,” said one major Democratic donor on Wall Street, explaining that some of her Wall Street supporters doubt she would push hard for closing the carried interest loophole as president, a policy she promoted when she last ran in 2008. [emphasis his]

Failing to follow through on campaign promises is no deviation from convention, and considering her convivial relationship with Wall Street, it’s no shocker that no one is worried that she would actually take any actions to her donors’ detriment. In particular, when it comes to the carried interest tax break, Taibbi demonstrates that there has been a distinctly noticeable pattern forming among Democratic candidates:

Yes, back to that, the carried interest issue. Promising, and then failing, to repeal the carried interest tax break is fast becoming a Democratic tradition, so much so that I’m beginning to wonder if not fixing this problem is an intentional move, designed to ensure that Democrats always have something to run on in election seasons.

In both the 2008 and 2012 election cycles, Barack Obama either decried the tax “trick” or overtly promised to close the loophole.

Obama’s remarks about carried interest pretty much always sound exactly like Hillary’s remarks this week. He gave a Rose Garden speech in 2011, in advance of his race against Romney, in which he rejected ‘the notion that asking a hedge fund manager to pay the same tax rate as a plumber or teacher is class warfare.’”

Taibbi then remarks on how, instead of holding politicians to their campaign vows or referring to them flat-out as disingenuous manipulation, media outlets tend to give such promises the designation of idealism. That makes the media complicit in politicians’ immunity from accountability:

Editorialists like to talk about the two things, ideals and reality, as totally separate and distinct. Idealism, the stuff of campaign promises, is usually pooh-poohed as “purity politics,” while the cold transactional politics of Beltway dealmaking and incremental change are usually applauded as “pragmatism.”

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that Hillary’s first official week as a presidential candidate went exactly as her handlers must have hoped.

At launch she talked a streak of anti-elitist rhetoric that was taken seriously for a few days, until the punditry took the temperature of her populism and declared to it be the right kind: the fake kind, the purely strategic kind.

In the same Politico article that Taibbi referenced above, Democratic strategist Chris Lehane, a veteran of Bill Clinton’s White House who now advises billionaire environmentalist hedge-fund manager and donor Tom Steyer, was quoted reiterating the notion that Hillary’s populist claims are totally hollow: “The fact is that any Democrat running for president would talk about this. It’s as surprising as the sun rising in the east.”

Considering Americans’ widespread disdain toward Wall Street banksters, Clinton is keenly aware of the importance of polishing over her strong ties to the financial industry. However, Matt Taibbi isn’t the only journalist that sees through her newfound appreciation for economic populism. Writing for the International Business Times, Andrew Perez and David Sirota looked through the publicly available data to follow the money beyond the baloney. They summarize how Clinton, in a recent speech, “call[ed] for Wall Street executives who engage in financial wrongdoing to be held accountable more than they have been under President Barack Obama.” But a quick look at the financial disclosure data for the Clinton Foundation suggests she would be unlikely to follow through:

Clinton’s outrage, though, did not stop her family’s foundation from raking in donations from many of the same banks that secured government fines rather than face full-scale prosecution. The Clinton Foundation has accepted $5 million worth of donations from at least nine financial institutions that avoided such prosecution — even as they admitted wrongdoing.

In that same speech, Clinton said, “HSBC allowing drug cartels to launder money, five major banks pleading guilty to felony charges for conspiring to manipulate currency exchange and interest rates. There can be no justification or tolerance for this kind of criminal behavior.” If Clinton believes that there can be “no tolerance for this kind of criminal behavior,” then it is a bit strange that, “in 2014, two years after HSBC admitted to major violations of U.S. laws, the firm was the top sponsor at a Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) event, paying at least $500,000 to the Clinton Foundation.” In fact, in addition to the CGI and the Clinton Foundation both having an illustrious record for accepting sponsorships and donations from criminal banks, both Clintons have accepted outrageous speaking fees from them, too.

The HSBC relationship — taking money from a bank after the firm admitted wrongdoing — was not unique. In 2009, UBS avoided prosecution by the Justice Department when it agreed to pay a $780 million fine and admitted to defrauding the United States by allowing American citizens to hide income from the IRS. The Swiss bank has since entered into two more agreements with the Justice Department — one for rigging the municipal bond market and the other for manipulating global interest rates. UBS has paid former President Bill Clinton more than $1.5 million for speeches since 2009, and the firm has given more than $550,000 to the family’s foundation.

In 2010, the British banking firm Barclays entered into a settlement agreement with the Justice Department, and admitted to violating U.S. sanctions by making transactions for customers in countries such as Libya, Sudan and Myanmar. Weeks later, Barclays was  sponsor at the annual CGI event. Barclays has remained a CGI sponsor in the years since, even after the bank paid more fines under a new agreement with the Justice Department for manipulating worldwide interest rates. Barclays has paid the Clinton family $650,000 for speeches since 2009. The firm has given at least $1.5 million to the Clinton Foundation.

Covering a speech Clinton gave on July 13thBen White for Politico reported on, among other things, her continued promise to repeal the carried interest tax break. She also “pledged to both defend existing financial reform and go even further, almost hinting at a need to break up the largest banks, something sure to go down poorly with some of Clinton’s biggest supporters on Wall Street.” However, financial reformers like Dennis Kelleher of Better Markets expect more: “The American people deserve a concrete, specific, comprehensive plan that really protects them from Wall Street recklessness and that she as president can be held accountable for once in office.” Others wonder whether she will “put in place a team of advisers who have a demonstrated history of supporting meaningful reform and tough enforcement, or chooses instead to surround herself with the same crowd of revolving door insiders.” Given the actions of the Clinton Foundation and Hillary’s personal ties to Wall Street, it is no wonder that financial reformers are skeptical she will follow through with policies that are as progressive as her vague pledges.

Click here to read Part 3 of the series.


Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, US Political System

A Closer Look at TFA’s Alumni Survey and Data Practices

Teach For America (TFA) recently released a report describing some of the results from its alumni survey.  The report provides interesting information about many alums’ careers.  At the same time, however, TFA’s misleading presentation of the results and the organization’s unwillingness to share the underlying data are troubling.

Consider the following three charts:

TFA Chart 1TFA Chart 2TFA Chart 3

The first of these charts claims to show “the mean value on the measure of total years teaching for each cohort,” the second ostensibly shows both the “mean and median total years teaching, by cohort,” and the third purports to show “the percentages of alumni in each Teach For America cohort that reported teaching 3 or 4, 5 or 6, or more than 7 years.”  A reader could easily think these statistics apply to everyone who joined Teach For America between 1990 and 2010.  But the charts depict statistics only for most TFA alumni who responded at some point to a TFA alumni survey; the two biggest categories of people they ignore are alumni who never responded to a survey and former corps members who did not complete their original two-year teaching commitments (while Raegen Miller and Rachel Perera, the authors of the brief, are clear that only alumni are their focus, the word “cohort” invokes images of all corps members that began teaching during a given year).  In other words, the charts depict results for an unrepresentative subset of the teachers who join Teach For America.

To their credit, Miller and Perera do discuss these issues in footnote 4:

The 23,653 alumni represented here represent about 85 percent of the alumni from the 1990 to 2010 cohorts. While alumni who don’t respond to the survey may be systematically different than those who do respond, the response rate is high enough to bolster the case that our statistics speak pretty well to the population of alumni. The alumni survey is administered only to those who complete their initial commitment to teach for two years. Alumni reporting fewer than two years of teaching on the survey, or more than the number of years possible since their corps year, were excluded from these analyses.

Still, most consumers of these misleading charts, especially when a chart is tweeted or included in a summary blog post, are unlikely to see footnote 4.  The footnote also doesn’t address the fact that TFA’s presentation of their survey results is in some cases downright untrue, as is the case in the following sentence from this TFA media piece: “Among more than 42,000 Teach For America alumni, some 84 percent report working in education or other capacities serving low-income communities.”

This statement is false because, as noted above, TFA does not have reports from the full population of “more than 42,000 Teach For America alumni” (TFA alumni may also incorrectly report that they work in “other capacities serving low-income communities” when they don’t in fact do so, but that’s a different conversation).

The charts below thus attempt to describe what the survey results actually tell us.

Revised TFA Chart 1

Revised TFA Chart 2

Because TFA won’t share their underlying data and declined to comment on this section of my post, the charts present a likely lower bound based on some simplifying assumptions I made: namely, that TFA has usable responses for at least 70 percent of alumni in each cohort (I’m told that response rates are typically lower in earlier cohorts), that fewer than 15 percent of corps members quit TFA before completing their second year of teaching, and that these corps members who quit average 0.75 years of teaching.

We cannot assert with confidence, as the report does, that “of those alumni from cohorts having had abundant opportunity to teach at least 5 years—say, those before 2001— approximately half have done so.”  Instead, with worst-case assumptions about alumni who didn’t take the survey, we know that at least between 34 and 39 percent of alumni from these cohorts taught for that amount of time.  If we include non-alumni in our calculations, as my revised charts show and seems appropriate, the lower bound drops even further (to a little less than one third of the teachers in each corps year).  It also appears to be possible that the majority of TFA corps members teach for two years or fewer.

That doesn’t mean these lower bounds are the actual percentages – in fact, I suspect that the true percentages, while likely lower than the report’s estimates, are closer to what Miller and Perera report than to the lower bounds.  Unresponsive alumni aren’t necessarily less inclined to continue or return to teaching than those who respond to surveys.  I also imagine that some corps members who leave before becoming alumni eventually return to the classroom through other channels.

Furthermore, even if the lower bound is closer to the truth, it’s clear that a good chunk of TFA alumni have extended teaching careers.  And while TFA’s attrition is greater than teacher attrition in general (which is still pretty high), critics sometimes forget that creating lifelong teachers is not TFA’s purpose.  A key part of TFA’s mission is to expose people interested in other careers to the obstacles facing low-income kids – to turn alumni who will go on to work in other fields into lifelong advocates for disadvantaged populations (this goal can backfire – prominent alumni too often undermine social justice efforts – but I believe it is an admirable goal).

The thing is, a thorough and honest look at TFA’s statistics isn’t damning.  The organization has many problems and needs to improve, but its teachers certainly aren’t harming students.  What is damning, however, is TFA’s lack of transparency.

When I requested information on the number of respondents from each cohort, the number of total alumni from each cohort, and the number of total corps members from each cohort – explaining that I wanted to conduct the exercise above – I had a good conversation with Miller that unfortunately culminated in the following response:

I’m afraid we won’t be posting the cohort-level n’s for the main analytic sample featured in Unsung Teaching. The brief does enough to defend the findings as is. In particular, the take-away points are broad ones, spanning many cohorts. And the footnotes document the rather conservative approach. Over 85 percent of alumni from the cohorts portrayed are represented in the analytic sample. At the cohort level, the percentages vary in a pretty predictable way, but none of them is small. Hard generalizations at the cohort level would be defensible, for the most part, but we didn’t go there. The little social media exchange has totally confounded the issue of response rate on the annual survey and the n’s you seek. The reason 85 percent of alumni (from cohorts 1990 to 2010) are involved is that some of the responses come from older surveys than the 2014 one. Using some dated responses improves the generalizability, but it does bias the statistics—downward. People can dispute the value of the work, but there’s not much of an argument to make with the n’s, at least about the brief. Thus, the decision not to share.

Miller makes some good points about the interpretation of the results.  The size of the sample – over 85 percent of total alumni from the studied cohorts – is impressively large.  Additionally, Miller is right to point out that the inclusion of older survey data could bias the results downwards (an alum who had taught for only two years when she filled out the 2010 survey, for example, might have taught more in the time since despite failing to fill out another survey).  But neither of these points provides a justification for declining my request.

The data I (and others, in the social media exchange I believe Miller was referencing) asked for should not be particularly difficult to provide.  Refusing to share it just doesn’t make sense if the data is legitimate – it serves only to make people wonder if TFA has something to hide.

On some level, TFA’s decision here is part of a broader pattern of data misrepresentation.  Many of my colleagues and I observed it on a small scale at TFA’s Institute in 2010 and it’s apparent on a larger scale when TFA propagates bogus statistics about corps members’ impact. Key TFA decision-makers still seem in too many cases to care more about promoting TFA as something that “works” than about honest and accurate assessment of evidence.

Since TFA proclaims that they “welcome independent research efforts to assess [their] impact and inform the continuous improvement of [their] program,” I find these actions to be pretty hypocritical.

Because the vast majority of the TFA staff I know (including Miller) care deeply about educational equity, I also find TFA’s organizational mindset baffling.  As I’ve written before, our students “depend on us to combat misleading claims by doing our due diligence, unveiling erroneous interpretations, and ensuring that sound data and accurate statistical analyses drive decision-making.”  TFA’s disinterest in data sharing does such analyses – and thus low-income students – a disservice.

The simplest fix to these problems is for TFA to appropriately caveat alumni survey results and, more generally, to improve the way they report statistics.  TFA could also use random sampling to obtain more representative data.  We used stratified random sampling for one of our member surveys when I was on the Executive Board of the San Jose Teachers Association (SJTA) and it paid major dividends; we could for the first time speak confidently about the generalizability of our results.

Interestingly, the results from SJTA’s random sample closely resembled the results from our pure volunteer survey.  The same could conceivably be true for the findings from Miller and Perera.  It’s just impossible to know without more research.

More importantly, TFA’s misleading data presentation and lack of transparency, combined with TFA’s silence in response to thoughtful critiques in other domains, make it difficult to trust the organization.  For an alum like me who deeply respects almost everyone on TFA staff I know and who thinks TFA could potentially be a strong ally in the fight for social justice, that’s a real shame.


Filed under Education

Like Obama, Clinton Likely to Promise Big, Give Hope, and Disappoint

The discrepancy between Barack Obama’s campaign rhetoric and actions as President have disappointed many of his former supporters.  In this post, the first in a series focused primarily on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Emilio da Costa explains why Obama’s political appointments bode poorly for what a Clinton presidency might bring. Emilio, who holds a master’s degree in City and Regional Planning from Berkeley and a bachelor’s degree in Urban Studies from Stanford, will in future posts explore specific policy areas in which Clinton’s record raises questions about the sincerity of her stated intentions.

Emilio da Costa

Emilio da Costa

On April 12th, Hillary Rodham Clinton officially announced that she will be running for the presidency in the 2016 election. If victorious, she will be the first female president in American history, and so, understandably, there has been considerable attention given to what that achievement would mean for gender equality. That having a woman become president would ‘shatter the glass ceiling’ is a widespread sentiment among her supporters and the hope attached to this sentiment gives her a tremendous amount of populist appeal. Unfortunately, while hope is a strong currency in the market for votes, it doesn’t always exchange so well in the realm of actual policy decisions.

We saw this same situation with Obama. Who better than a black man who eloquently spoke of hope, change, and progress to embody the ideals of civil rights, accountability, and equality that so many Americans were yearning for? And yet, even though the rhetoric was always there, the reality was a stark contrast. The Obama Administration deported more immigrants than any other in American history. While arming and funding the ‘moderate’ rebels in Syria and, at one point, drone-bombing Yemen, Somalia,  Libya, Afghanistan, and Pakistan simultaneously, Obama contradicted his supposed dedication to cooperative multilateral decision-making by unilaterally expanding war powers well beyond George W. Bush. Even the “landmark reform” in health care that the Obama Administration managed to pass, the Affordable Care Act, is a lot less impressive when you compare it to a strikingly similar GOP-sponsored health care reform plan from 1993.

By making Tim Geithner his first Cabinet appointment and maintaining “Goldman Sachs’s seeming lock on high-level U.S. Treasury jobs,” Obama made it quite clear early in his presidency that he was not the progressive he purported to be. Another appointment with a glaring conflict of interest was Monsanto’s former Vice President for Public Policy, Michael Taylor, selected to be deputy commissioner at the FDA. Even Obama’s appointments most widely praised by the mainstream liberal media have seriously tainted records. A key example of this was his appointment of Eric Holder as attorney general.

Holder’s less-than-inspiring past as a litigator did not receive the publicity it deserved. In a case representing Chiquita Brands International, Holder defended the company’s funneling money and weapons to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, a right-wing paramilitary organization on the US State Department’s own list of terrorist organizations. Writing for CounterPunch, Mario A. Murillo explained:

In 2003, an Organization of American States report showed that Chiquita’s subsidiary in Colombia, Banadex, had helped divert weapons and ammunition, including thousands of AK-47s, from Nicaraguan government stocks to the AUC. The AUC – very often in collaboration with units of the U.S.-trained Armed Forces – is responsible for hundreds of massacres of primarily peasants throughout the Colombian countryside, including in the banana-growing region of Urabá, where it is believed that at least 4,000 people were killed. Their systematic use of violence resulted in the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of poor Colombians, a disproportionate amount of those people being black or indigenous.

In 2004, Holder helped negotiate an agreement with the Justice Department for Chiquita that involved the fruit company’s payment of “protection money” to the AUC, in direct violation of U.S. laws prohibiting this kind of transaction.

Another appointment that hinted toward Obama’s true colors occurred before he was elected. Like Holder, mainstream media outlets have reported very little on the unsavory aspects of Vice President Joe Biden’s history, which include having been responsible for drafting and introducing the Omnibus Counterterrorism Act of 1995, the precursor to the PATRIOT Act so infamous for its nullification of constitutional civil liberties. More recently, the appointment of Loretta Lynch as the new attorney general has been lauded because of the opportunity it presents for the first black woman to hold the position.

Lynch’s record, like that of other appointments, isn’t exactly praiseworthy. While Lynch has been quick to attempt to develop a reputation as an international corruption watchdog by beginning her tenure with a 47-count indictment of FIFA officials, C. Robert Gibson lists the ways in which this investigation directly contradicts the treatment she afforded white collar criminals during her time as US attorney for the Eastern District of New York:

…HSBC was caught laundering $800 million for the notoriously violent and wealthy Sinaloa drug cartel in 2012 yet skated with a $1.9 billion fine — less than 2.8 percent of HSBC’s $68.3 billion in revenue for that year. To put that in perspective, if a person making $40,000 a year was fined the same percentage of income, it would only be $1,113, or about a month’s rent. And after Citibank was caught purposefully misleading investors to buy mortgage-backed securities that the bank knew were junk, Lynch’s office fined the bank $7 billion ($3.8 billion of which was billed to U.S. Taxpayers).

Gibson makes a strong case that “Lynch’s legal career is emblematic of the revolving door between Washington and Wall Street.” It included stints at Cahill Gordon & Reindel which he refers to as “the go-to law firm for New York’s financial crooks,” Hogan & Hartson, where her first case was to defend an Arthur Andersen partner who got caught cooking the books for Enron, and the board for the New York Federal Reserve, where she worked directly under the aforementioned Geithner, who became a household name after “turning a blind eye to Wall Street’s high-risk gambling schemes that led to the 2008 financial crisis.” And so, “No wonder Lynch hasn’t ever put a banker in jail during her legal career: They’re her former clients.” Not only did Lynch exhibit a characteristic lack of moral fortitude when it came to financial criminals, but managing editor for the Black Agenda Report Bruce A. Dixon paints a similar picture with respect to her prosecution of war criminals:

In 2005 Lynch was recruited by US Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Stephen Rapp to administer “victor’s justice” upon the losers in Rwanda’s civil war. The US had backed Paul Kagame, trained at Ft. Leavenworth Kansas, who shot his way to power with an army that included child soldiers. In the process Kagame’s forces committed a sizeable share of the 800,000 murders in what the world knows as the Rwandan genocide. So in Rwanda Loretta Lynch interviewed only persons brought to her by Kagame’s cronies. Like the rest of the International Tribunal, she never questioned Kagame’s role [in] assassinations of the Rwandan and Burundian presidents, the tens of thousands of murders that occurred in areas controlled by Kagame’s forces, or the role of Kagame and his partners in the ongoing pillage of neighboring Congo which had taken some 5 million lives and counting by 2008.

We shouldn’t expect anything better in the way of appointments if Hillary is to become president. From donations to the Clinton Foundation to generous speaking fees and campaign contributions, there is substantial reason to believe that the relationship between Washington and Wall Street would only grow stronger with her at the helm. Despite Clinton’s effort to appeal to economic populism and appear tough on the financial industry, the next part of this series, with much credit to Matt Taibbi, will show that Clinton’s ties to the banksters run much, much deeper than do her ties to those she will be pandering to on the campaign trail.

Click here to read Part 2 of the series.


Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, US Political System

What’s the Best Way to Deal with the Ku Klux Klan?

On the recommendation of my friend and colleague Mike Mitchell, I recently listened to a fascinating podcast about Daryl Davis, an award-winning musician who is best known for his role in bringing down the Maryland chapter of the Ku Klux Klan – through his friendship with Klan members.  In the podcast, Davis describes how, while playing country music in a bar in 1983, a White man approached him and expressed that he had never heard a Black man “play as well as Jerry Lee Lewis.”  The two men struck up a conversation, during which Davis discovered that his counterpart was a card-carrying member of the KKK.

Amazingly, Davis befriended the man.  Nearly a decade later, he decided that he wanted to meet more KKK members.  When experiencing overt forms of personal racism throughout his life, Davis had always wondered how people could harbor animosity towards him – without knowing him – just because of the color of his skin, and he believed that talking to members of the KKK could help him understand this phenomenon.

Davis had his secretary set up an interview with Roger Kelly, the head of the Maryland KKK at the time, and, after a tense initial encounter, Davis became friends with Kelly as well.  In the years thereafter, he developed relationships with several other high-ranking KKK members.  During each of his encounters with them, Davis listened closely to what they had to say.  He would challenge the Klansmen – when Kelly referenced the Bible during his initial interview, for example, Davis would pull out a copy of the Bible and ask Kelly to show him the relevant passages that ostensibly supported racism – but he remained polite and friendly while doing so.  Over time, as the Klansmen got to know Davis, many of their prejudiced (and factually incorrect) beliefs about Black people began to erode.  Eventually, some of the highest-ranking members in Maryland left the Klan and the organization itself dissolved.

I have deep respect and awe for what Davis did and how much he accomplished.

I would characterize Davis’s approach – politely disagreeing with Klansmen in order to break down stereotypes over time – as the “long game.”  It’s about changing people’s minds and attitudes in the long run, and, if successful, pays huge dividends.

At the same time, the long game is remarkably time-intensive.  It’s also very risky – there’s no guarantee of eventual success, and in the short run, the Klan has relatively free reign to terrify and oppress a whole lot of people.

An alternative approach – the “short game” – prioritizes protecting the oppressed over changing the mindsets of oppressors.  The short game is about checking people in power.  That often means stating, in very clear terms, that certain viewpoints are unacceptable, and that there will be consequences for people who espouse them in public.

There’s obviously some tension here between the short game and the long game, between laying down speech and policy that protect the oppressed right now and keeping the oppressors listening so they might in fact eventually change.  I generally play the short game with a few elements of the long game incorporated – I love to engage with those with racist opinions, and I am happy to listen to what they have to say, but I differ from Davis in that I won’t say “we disagree” when I’m talking about a Klan member; instead, I’ll say that the Klan member is ethically and factually wrong, and that he shouldn’t be allowed to hold his intimidation rallies (I’ve long made a similar case when it comes to LGBT issues, too).

I like to think that there is an appropriate balance to be struck between both tactics, but I struggle a lot with it.  I want Klansmen to know (and society to acknowledge) that we don’t have mere differences of opinion – the Klan is definitively wrong about race and their incorrect and unethical viewpoint harms large numbers of people.  At the same time, telling people their views are wrong and bigoted and preventing them from expressing them publicly is likely to cause them to tune out and feel more resentment, no matter how much I insist (genuinely) that I am interested in talking to them and hearing what they have to say.

There’s definitely a difference between calling a viewpoint bigoted and calling a person bigoted, but part of me thinks there’s a lot of value in tying viewpoints to identity, especially in terms of the social pressure that can bring for people to curtail open forms of oppression.  And I’m generally willing to accept some tuning out from oppressors, if it means that society will stop giving them a microphone and label racism and bigotry what it is.  I tend to think that helping a few people change is less important than making sure they don’t harm anyone, and that, absent an amplifier for oppressors’ views, reason and compassion will become much more prevalent in the next generation.

All of that said, I recognize that my White privilege allows me to advocate for this approach with little fear of repercussion, whereas Davis would very likely be labeled an Angry Black person if he were to adopt my strategy today (and if he tried it with Roger Kelly, he almost certainly would have ended up dead).  I question whether my preferred tactic for confronting racism is most appropriate in large part because it’s available to me only as part of a menu of relatively consequence-free options that may be unavailable to my Black friends.

In short, I would be very interested in hearing Davis’ and others’ thoughts on my tendencies in this space, and on whether or not there’s a better way to reconcile the tension between the pursuit of short-run protection for the oppressed and long-run change in the oppressors.


Filed under Philosophy, Race

Is VAM a Sham? Depends on the Question You’re Asking.

  1. “Does data source X provide useful information?” and
  2. “Should data source X be used for purpose Y?”

are two very different questions.  Unfortunately, conflation of these questions by education researchers, writers, and advocates far too frequently results in bad policy recommendations.

This problem surfaces especially often in debates about value added modeling (VAM), a statistical method aimed at capturing a teacher’s effectiveness in the classroom.  Based on a new paper from economists Raj Chetty, John Friedman, and Jonah Rockoff, Andew Flowers writes, in response to question 1 above, that we’re pretty good at “the science of grading teachers” with VAM results.  Flowers weighs in on question 2 as well, arguing that Chetty et al.’s work means that “administrators can legitimately use value-added scores to hire, fire and otherwise evaluate teacher performance.”

In terms of question 1, the idea that VAM research indicates that we’re pretty good at “grading teachers” is itself debatable.  Flowers doesn’t conduct an extensive survey of researchers or research, but focuses on six well-known veterans of VAM debates, including several of the more outspoken defenders of the metric (Chetty and Thomas Kane specifically; Friedman, Rockoff, and Douglas Staiger are also longtime VAM supporters).  While many respected academics caution about VAM’s limitations and/or have more nuanced positions on its use, Jesse Rothstein is the only one Flowers cites.

In fact, whether VAM estimates are systematically biased (Rothstein’s argument) or not (Chetty et al.’s contention), there are legitimate questions about whether VAM results are valid (whether or not they are really capturing “teacher effectiveness” in the way that most people think about it).  VAM estimates correlate surprisingly little with other measures aimed at capturing effective teaching (like experts’ assessments of classroom instruction).  They’re also notoriously unstable, meaning that a teacher’s scores bounce around a lot depending on the year and test studied.  While other methods of evaluating teacher effectiveness have similar issues and there are certain approaches to VAM (not commonly used) that are more useful than others, it’s perfectly reasonable to argue that we’re still pretty bad at “grading teachers.”

More importantly, however, debates about bias, validity, and stability in VAM actually have much less to do with the answer to question 2 – should we use VAM to evaluate teachers in the way its proponents recommend? – than many people think.  To understand why, we need look no farther than two of the core purposes of teacher evaluation, purposes which everyone from teachers unions to education reform organizations generally agree about (at least rhetorically).

1) One core purpose of teacher evaluation is helping teachers improve. Making VAM results a defined percentage of a teacher’s evaluation is not useful for this purpose even if we assume VAM results are unbiased, valid, and stable.  Such a policy may actually undermine teacher improvement, and hence the quality of instruction that students receive.

For starters, a VAM score is opaque.  Teachers cannot match their VAM results back to specific questions on a test or use them to figure out what their students did or didn’t know.  VAM may be able to tell a teacher if her students did well or poorly on a specific test, but not why students did well or poorly.  In other words, a VAM score provides no actionable feedback. It does not indicate anything about what a teacher can do to help her students learn.

In addition, VAM results are outcomes over which a teacher has very limited control – research typically finds that teachers contribute to less than a fifth of the variation in student test scores (the rest is mostly random error and outside-of-school factors).  If a teacher’s VAM results look good, that might be because the teacher did something well, but it also might be because the teacher got lucky, or because some other factor contributed to her students’ success.  The tendency to view VAM results as indicative of whether or not a teacher did a good job – a common side effect of making VAM results a defined percentage of a teacher’s evaluation – is thus misguided (and a potential recipe for the reinforcement of unhelpful behaviors).  This concern is especially germane because VAM results are often viewed as “grades” by the teachers receiving them – even if they are only a small percentage of a teachers’ evaluation “score” – and thus threaten to overwhelm other, potentially productive elements of an evaluation conversation.

A better evaluation system would focus on actionable feedback about things over which a teacher has direct control.  Student performance should absolutely be included in the teacher evaluation process, but instead of making VAM a defined percentage of a teacher’s evaluation (part of a “grade”), evaluators should give teachers feedback on how well they use information about student performance to analyze their teaching practices and adapt their instruction accordingly.  This approach, unlike the approach favored by many VAM proponents, would help a teacher improve over time.

2) A second core purpose of teacher evaluation is to help evaluators make personnel decisions. Relative to the evaluation system described above – one that focuses on actions over which a teacher has control – making VAM results a defined percentage of teacher evaluations does not help us with this purpose, either.  Suppose a teacher gets a bad VAM result.  If that result is consistent with classroom observation data, the quality of assigned work, and various other elements of the teacher’s practice, an evaluator shouldn’t need it to conclude that the teacher is ineffective.

If there is a discrepancy between the VAM result and the other measures, on the other hand, there are a few possibilities.  The VAM results might have been unlucky.  The teaching practices the teacher employed might not be as useful as the teacher or evaluator thought they would be.  Or perhaps VAM isn’t a very good indicator of teacher quality (there’s also a possibility that the various other measures aren’t good indicators of teacher quality, but the measures suggested all have more face validity – meaning that they’re more intuitively likely to reflect relevant information – than do VAM results).  Under any of these alternative scenarios, using VAM results as a defined percentage of a teacher’s evaluation makes us more likely both to fire teachers who might actually be good at their jobs and to reward teachers who might not be.

When we evaluate schools on student outcomes, we reward (and punish) them for factors they don’t directly control. A more intelligent and fair approach would evaluate the actions schools take in pursuit of better student outcomes, not the outcomes themselves.

Relative to teacher evaluation systems that focus on things over which a teacher has direct control, using VAM results as a defined percentage of a teacher’s evaluation makes us more likely both to fire teachers who might actually be good at their jobs and to reward teachers who might not be.

To be fair, question 1 could have some relevance for this purpose of teacher evaluation; if VAM results were an excellent indicator of teaching quality (again, they aren’t, but let’s suspend disbelief for a moment), that would negate one of the concerns above and make us more confident in using VAM for reward and punishment.  Yet even in this case the defined-percentage approach would hold little if any advantage over the properly-designed evaluation system described above in helping administrators make personnel decisions, and it would be significantly more likely both to feel unfair to teachers and to result in a variety of negative consequences.

I’ve had many conversations with proponents of making VAM a defined percentage of teacher evaluations, and not a single one has been able to explain why their approach to VAM is better than an alternative approach that focuses on aspects of teaching practice – like creating a safe classroom environment, lesson planning, analyzing student data, and delivering high-quality instruction – over which teachers have more control.

So while the answer to question 1 in the case of VAM is that, despite its shortcomings, it may provide useful information, the answer to question 2 – should VAM results be used as a defined percentage of teacher evaluations? – is a resounding “no.”  And those who understand the crucial distinction between the two questions know that no amount of papers, articles, or researcher opinions, however interesting or useful for other purposes they may be, is ever going to change that fact.


Filed under Education

Black Lives Matter Movement Gives Bernie Sanders’ Racial Justice Agenda the Push It Needs

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has unveiled a comprehensive racial justice agenda aimed at “addressing the four central types of violence waged against black and brown Americans: physical, political, legal and economic.”  The agenda includes, among other policy proposals, a call for police demilitarization, community policing, aggressive prosecution of police officers who break the law, the re-enfranchisement of those with criminal records, banning for-profit prisons, eliminating mandatory minimum sentences, automatic voter registration, making Election Day a national holiday, youth employment programs, free college, and pay equity legislation.  Sanders also has an excellent record on racial justice issues, much better than any other candidate running for president.

In the 1960s, while a young Hillary Clinton was supporting Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater – an outspoken opponent of civil rights legislation – in his quest for the presidency, Sanders was leading protests against police brutality and segregated schools and housing, marching in the March on Washington, and working as an officer for the Congress of Racial Equality.  His voting record while in Congress, first as a Representative (1990-2005) and then as a Senator (2006-Present), has earned him consistently excellent marks from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).  The NAACP has given Sanders 100% ratings on its Legislative Report Cards for the entirety of his time in the Senate and near-100% or 100% ratings during his time in the House for, among many other things, voting in favor of strengthening the Voting Rights Act, anti-discrimination laws, and hate crimes legislation and against the death penalty, stringent sentencing guidelines for those caught up in the criminal justice system, and the welfare reform law of 1996 (the only blip on his record is gun control, an issue on which he admittedly has a mixed voting history, though his stance on the issue is much more sensible than many of his detractors contend).

A 20-year-old Bernie Sanders helps organize a protest of housing segregation in properties owned by the University of Chicago in the 1960s (via https://berniesanders.com/timeline/1960s/).

In the 1960s, a 20-year-old Bernie Sanders helps organize a protest of housing segregation in properties owned by the University of Chicago (via https://berniesanders.com/timeline/1960s/).

Because of that excellent record, a number of Sanders supporters have been upset by Black Lives Matter protests targeting Sanders.  Sanders supporters’ frustration seems to be borne out of two observations.  First, Sanders’ passion for economic justice – raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, breaking up the big banks, making our tax system more progressive, advancing single-payer health care – is intimately connected with a passion for racial justice.  Income, wealth, and opportunity inequality in this country disproportionately affect communities of color, and a commitment to addressing them is in many ways in and of itself indicative of a view that Black Lives Matter.

Second, and relatedly, Sanders has received a disproportionate amount of attention from protesters relative to Hillary Clinton and Republican candidates, who have almost-uniformly worse records and stances (the one exception may be Clinton on gun control) on issues affecting Black Americans (in fact, Sanders has what is by far the best record of any prominent candidate on civil and human rights across the board; he has long been a strong ally on issues affecting Latinos, the LGBT community, women, and poor people around the world).  Sanders supporters wonder why Black Lives Matter is applying pressure primarily to the candidate most sympathetic to their cause.

I myself am a strong Sanders supporter and find these observations relevant, but they miss a few crucial points.  For one thing, while racial and economic justice are intimately connected, they are not the exact same thing.  As Jennifer Roesch puts it in an excellent article for Jacobin:

It is certainly true that the struggle against racism today must entail a radical program of economic demands…It is also clear that such reforms would benefit the entire working class and reduce income inequality. But such demands cannot be delinked from, or stand in the place of, explicit demands around racism…

Fighting economic inequality is insufficient — any challenge to capital has to be coupled with race-specific demands for reform. Jobs programs would have to include affirmative-action policies and a prohibition on discrimination on the basis of a criminal record; fights to expand funding for public hospitals, schools, and services would have to recognize the specific needs of black communities hollowed out by decades of deindustrialization and neglect; and housing policies would need to explicitly target practices such as redlining and predatory lending.

The crisis faced by black America is also not solely economic — it is also a social crisis. Mass incarceration, police violence, and resegregation have devastated black communities…

This fight will require forging a unity not by collapsing the fight against racism into a broader class fight for economic equality, but by highlighting the central role of racism and making it a concern of the entire working class.

Black Lives Matter protesters wanted Sanders’ campaign to stop treating racial justice as an inevitable byproduct of economic justice.  They wanted Sanders to instead promote a specific racial justice platform complementary to his economic justice agenda, and they had every right to demand that he do so.

While I also hope to see Black Lives Matter turn the pressure up on Clinton and the Republican candidates in the weeks and months to come, criticisms of their tactics thus far – targeting Sanders and “taking over” some of his speaking events – are in my view off base.  Black Lives Matter is the type of grassroots people’s movement that Sanders prides himself on representing; he was a good first target precisely because he’s a natural ally and the candidate most likely to respond to such a protest with a policy agenda addressing its legitimate concerns.  Writing about the first protest at Netroots Nation, Joe Dinkin captured it best:

Here’s one stab at a better response [Sanders] could have given [to the Black Lives Matter protesters]: “We need a democratic revolution, and you are part of it. I admire your courage in speaking up. I learned of the troubling death of a black woman in police custody, and, yes, I will say her name: Sandra Bland. I will say her name because black lives matter. I admit I don’t have all the answers. But your fight is my fight. For dignity and equality for all. I need you to fight with me and help me learn. Together we can change both politics and culture and ensure that black lives matter…”

This constituency is demanding to have the issues of structural racism and police violence taken up within the political system…They’re forcing Sanders and other candidates to respond on an issue that it seems like they would have preferred to avoid. If Sanders responds by joining in their fight, they’ve pushed the Movement for Black Lives into the presidential debate and into the mainstream of [American] progressive politics—from which they currently and justifiably feel left out.

This is fair game, and an approach that fans of Bernie Sanders should understand…For people who simply wanted to hear the candidates answer questions and present their stump speeches, there are plenty of opportunities for candidates to share positions on the issues—at least on the ones they’re not ducking…The Black Lives Matter agenda is not the only issue of moral urgency, but it most certainly is one of them. All progressives should applaud activists who took the opportunity to push it forward.

It is quite possible that, were it not for the Black Lives Matter movement, Sanders’ racial justice agenda would not yet exist.  That it contains excerpts like the following is telling:

“At the federal level we need to establish a new model police training program that reorients the way we do law enforcement in this country. With input from a broad segment of the community including activists and leaders from organizations like Black Lives Matter we will reinvent how we police America.”

So we have two groups to thank for Sanders’ ambitious racial justice platform. Sanders and his campaign staff absolutely deserve credit for unleashing it and for being allies in the movement. Black Lives Matter deserves the bulk of the credit, however, not just for pushing the conversation on this issue forward, but also for reminding us that even the best presidential candidate won’t be able to enact the change we need without a constructively critical social movement behind him.

Update (8/11/15): The original version of this post included the following paragraph as part of the block quote from Roesch’s article:

As the historical record shows, we cannot assume that reductions in the overall level of inequality will trickle down to African Americans. In the golden age of postwar American capitalism, an era to which many left-liberals yearn to return, economic inequality was much lower than it is today, but there was no corresponding decrease in racial inequality. If anything, it was even starker — in 1959, more than half of black families lived in poverty, while 15 percent of white families did.

While it is certainly true that a strong economy on its own has never come close to eliminating racial disparities in economic outcomes, the wording in this paragraph implies that outcomes for Black Americans did not improve during “the golden age of postwar American capitalism,” an implication which is incorrect (big thanks to Dean Baker for pointing out this issue).  In fact, a growing body of evidence shows that a strong economy is especially important for Black workers.


Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Poverty and the Justice System, Race

Anti-gay Policy at the FDA and What You Can Do About It

Ireland recently became the first country to legalize gay marriage through public referendum, a major victory for the LGBT rights movement. The US Supreme Court is expected to follow in Irish voters’ footsteps soon; the court will probably rule in favor of legalized gay marriage when it issues an opinion on Obergefell v. Hodges, most likely by the end of June.

But the fight for LGBT rights is far from over – barriers to LGBT equality remain a persistent part of our culture and policies. Advocates have done an amazing job inciting change on the marriage front, and we must keep the momentum rolling by addressing outstanding forms of institutionalized discrimination.

Blood donation guidelines represent one such form of state-sanctioned prejudice. For over thirty years, the Food and Drug Administration has disqualified “men who have sex with men (MSM)” – gay and bisexual men – from giving blood. In response to calls from the public and scientific community to end the ban, the FDA recently proposed to modify its donor eligibility criteria. Yet its proposal amounts to mere window-dressing; by only allowing gay men who have been celibate for a year to donate, the FDA would preserve its policy’s core error and injustice.

FDA Blood Ban Proposal

The FDA’s “Draft Guidance for Industry” still recommends an effective ban on blood donation by gay and bisexual men.

While the FDA claims its proposed policy is intended to protect the blood supply from HIV, the science does not support the FDA’s claim. Being a man who has sex with other men is an identity characteristic, not a risk behavior for contracting HIV. Actual risk behaviors include “needle-sharing during injection drug use,” which the FDA does identify as high-risk, and certain sexual practices – like unprotected anal sex and unprotected sexual intercourse with multiple partners – that the FDA ignores when heterosexual people engage in them.

Fortunately, there’s still a way to help the FDA fix this policy error – for the next month-and-a-half, the FDA will consider comments on its proposal. My comment is at the end of this post, and you’re welcome to copy and use it if you don’t have time to write your own. Your comment in whatever form you choose can be submitted here.

Note that the FDA offers the following explanation for its decision to eschew the identification of high-risk sexual behavior and instead profile gay and bisexual men:

The individual risk-based options were not determined to be viable options for a policy change at this time for a number of reasons: pretesting would be logistically challenging, and would likely also be viewed as discriminatory by some individuals, and individual risk assessment by trained medical professionals would be very difficult to validate and implement in our current blood donor system due to resource constraints. Additionally, the available epidemiologic data in the published literature do not support the concept that MSM who report mutual monogamy with a partner or who report routine use of safe sex practices are at low risk for HIV. Specifically, the rate of partner infidelity in ostensibly monogamous heterosexual couples and same-sex male couples is estimated to be about 25%, and condom use is associated with a 1 to 2% failure rate per episode of anal intercourse (Refs. 38, 39, 40, 41). In addition, the prevalence of HIV infection is significantly higher in MSM with multiple male partners compared with individuals who have only multiple opposite sex partners (Ref. 28).

This explanation stands in stark contrast, however, to the FDA’s proposed use of its guidelines as “donor education material…so that donors can self-defer.” The recommendations appear as part of a “Donor History Questionnaire;” striking one question and adding a few in its place would not require any resources whatsoever beyond what the blood donor system can currently handle. And doing so would make the guidelines far more educational about the actual risks associated with sexual behavior – statistics about HIV prevalence, reported monogamy, and condom failure present a limited picture of an individual’s risk of HIV contraction. In fact, the FDA currently propagates misinformation about HIV risk by lumping “anal, oral, or vaginal sex, regardless of whether or not a condom or other protection is used,” into the same category, and then inaccurately suggesting that such broadly defined “sex” is high-risk when gay and bisexual men have it and low-risk when engaged in by anyone else.

The FDA’s insistence on a one-year ban for gay and bisexual men is even more absurd when considering the results of a study, called BloodDROPS, that the agency itself commissioned and that is cited in the FDA’s draft recommendations. The study found that some gay and bisexual men, correctly viewing the FDA’s policy “as discriminatory and stigmatizing,” chose to donate blood anyway. Far from wreaking havoc on the blood supply, however, these individuals actually had lower rates of HIV (0.25%) than are seen in the general population (over .35%). In other words, it appears that gay and bisexual men understand their HIV risk at least as well as the FDA does; they donate responsibly in spite of discriminatory practices and will continue to donate responsibly if and when the FDA issues accurate donor education materials.

Other countries, from Spain to Mexico to Italy, have already implemented more scientific policies that defer donors on the basis of sexual behavior instead of sexual orientation. A recent study on the Italian policy, which has been in place since 2001, concluded that the change away from profiling gay and bisexual men “did not significantly affect either the incidence or prevalence of HIV infection among blood donors.”

So without further ado, here’s the comment I have submitted to the FDA (again, please feel free to copy it, modify it, and/or to write your own comment and submit it here):

Dear FDA,

I am writing to express concern about the proposed revision to your blood donor deferral criteria for gay and bisexual men (MSM). Our knowledge of HIV transmission and the experience of other countries in adopting safe, reliable, and nondiscriminatory donor eligibility criteria indicate that a one-year deferral, while marginally better than the lifetime deferral currently in place, would continue to stigmatize gay men without improving the safety of the blood supply.

While the prevalence of HIV is higher among MSM than among the general population, an individual’s risk of contracting HIV from sexual contact depends both on the probability that a sexual partner has HIV and the probability that HIV will be transmitted through a given type of sexual contact. As a result, many individuals who engage in unprotected heterosexual intercourse with multiple partners have a greater risk of contracting HIV than gay or bisexual men who use protection, especially if those gay or bisexual men are in committed relationships.

In fact, the BloodDROPS study you commissioned found rates of HIV prevalence among MSM blood donors lower than rates of HIV prevalence seen in the general population. These results suggest that MSM who engage in riskier sexual behaviors already abstain from donation, and that they would continue to do so if provided with a more appropriately-constructed questionnaire.

I strongly urge you to strike items ix and x from your recommendations for an updated donor history questionnaire. I also urge you to strike the footnote that puts “anal, oral, or vaginal sex, regardless of whether or not a condom or other protection is used,” into the same category. Those items could be replaced with the following recommendations for deferral in the DHQ:

1. A history in the past twelve months of anal sex with multiple partners or of unprotected anal sex,

2. A history in the past twelve months of unprotected vaginal sex with multiple partners.

Making this change would not require new resources. It would preserve blood safety, end the FDA’s discrimination against gay and bisexual men, and improve the educational value of donor education material. And it would also bring the US policy in line with policies in place in Mexico, Spain, and Italy. A recent study of Italy’s policy, instituted in 2001, found that the country maintained the integrity of its blood supply after it discarded its ban on MSM in favor of unprejudiced deferral criteria.

I believe ending deferral based on sexual orientation entirely is the only way to simultaneously avoid discrimination, preserve the safety of the blood supply, and maintain the FDA’s credibility. Thank you very much in advance for considering my proposed revision.

Ben Spielberg

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Filed under LGBT Issues