Author Archives: Ben Spielberg

How to Spin an Agenda for the Rich as an Agenda for the Poor, by Paul Ryan

Once, at a town hall in Wisconsin, someone asked me the following question:

“I know that you’re Catholic, as am I, and it seems to me that most of the Republicans in the Congress are not willing to stand with the poor and working class as evidenced in the recent debates about health care and the anticipated tax reform. So I’d like to ask you how you see yourself upholding the church’s social teaching that has the idea that God is always on the side of the poor and dispossessed, as should we be.”

If you’re ever in a position of power and trying to simultaneously cut taxes for rich people and benefits for poor people, you’ll get asked questions like this one a lot. To make sure you’re ready for it as the tax debate heats up, I’ve written a handy step-by-step guide on how to convince your constituents that the help-the-rich, whack-the-poor agenda is the only way to go:

1) Say you share the same goals. The trick here is to convince people that you’re with them all the way on the importance of helping the poor. You just disagree about “how to achieve that goal.” Start there and you’ve quickly turned things from a moral referendum on whether we should help the poor or the rich into what appears to be a reasonable disagreement over what works best to help the least advantaged.

2) Direct attention away from what it means to be poor. People who ask these sorts of questions think that poor people simply don’t have enough money to meet their families’ basic needs. You know better. Tell them what the poor really need is “upward mobility,” “economic growth,” and “equality of opportunity.” Not only do these airy concepts all sound really good – who could be against any of them? – they also let you pivot away from the obvious solution: giving people more of the resources they lack. True, your agenda doesn’t bring about the things to which you’ve shifted the focus. But don’t worry! The narrative that tax cuts promote economic growth is one that voluminous evidence to the contrary has thus far been unable to kill; likewise, the intimate connection between inequality of outcomes and inequality of opportunity is one very few interviewers will point out. People are often happy to ignore the large body of evidence on these issues and treat them as debatable.

3) Imply that poor people’s personal failings are what’s holding them back. You can’t pull off the enlightened nice-guy routine if you’re blaming poor people for their problems outright. So you need to do it subtly: say that what we really need is worker training and programs that encourage people to work (again, who’s going to be against that?). Never mind that there’s little actual evidence of a “skills gap” and that most people who can work already do. People are predisposed to believe that our success relative to those less fortunate is a result of our superior work ethic and talents (rather than a product of race, class, gender, and/or other forms of privilege and sheer dumb luck). The more you tap into that predisposition, the more people will oppose downward redistribution and support imposing burdensome requirements on the Have Nots instead.

4) Choose unrepresentative examples and statistics. People are always shocked to hear my example of “a single mom getting 24 grand in benefits with two kids who,” because of the way the safety net is designed,” will lose 80 cents on the dollar if she goes and takes a job.” They don’t need to know that very few single mothers ever face such a marginal tax rate, that marginal tax rates for low-income people are typically much lower than marginal tax rates for people with more money, that it pays to work even for the tiny group of people my example describes, or that reducing the marginal tax rates low-income people face without pushing them deeper into poverty would require investing more in the programs I want to cut, not less.

Similarly, I love to tell people that “our poverty rates are about the same as they were when we started th[e] War on Poverty,” which is more or less what the official poverty measure shows. That official measure excludes the effects of the very programs I say aren’t working, of course, and yes, there is a Supplemental Poverty Measure that refutes this claim and that analysts across the political spectrum agree is more appropriate to use, but the inconvenient truth that anti-poverty programs currently cut poverty nearly in half and have reduced poverty by 10 percentage points since the late 1960s isn’t exactly going to help us pass our agenda.

5) Hammer “focus on outcomes” rhetoric. Focusing on outcomes is popular in many fields, so this talking point – that “instead of measuring success based on how much money we spend or how many programs we create or how many people are on those programs, [we should] measure success in poverty on outcomes” – is very effective. The fact that nobody actually measures program effectiveness by how much money we spend or by the number of programs we create is irrelevant, as is the large and growing body of research showing that the safety net boosts the long-run outcomes of children growing up in poor families, as is the havoc the tax-cut agenda has wreaked on Kansas. All that matters is that people fall for this line, nodding their heads in agreement when you say it.

As long as you’re proposing to redistribute money from the bottom and middle to the rich, you’re going to get questions like the one I got at that town hall. There will always be those who oppose reverse-Robin-Hood-ism on principle. But if you stick to these steps, before you know it, you’ll have convinced a constituency (and perhaps even yourself!) that helping the rich is actually about helping the poor. At worst, people will just be too confused to know what to think.

You’re welcome.

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Filed under Poverty and the Justice System

34justice Partners with Run It Black

I’m excited to announce that 34justice is partnering with Run It Black, a podcast on “sports, politics, culture, and the intersection of race” from David Tigabu and Mike Mitchell.  Mike taught me much of what I know about podcasting, and David is no newcomer to 34justice, having previously authored a great piece for us on how the co-option of Christianity helps explain the election of Donald Trump.  Besides being good friends of mine and knowing far more about pop culture than I ever will, David and Mike have awesome insights about the connections between racism and various other forms of oppression.  Often containing fascinating historical context, their episodes are both entertaining and informative.

You can listen to Run It Black episodes directly through 34justice’s new Run It Black widget, which can be found on the top right-hand-side of our webpage on a desktop computer and towards the bottom of the page on a mobile device.  You can also tune in on iTunes.  Here’s a quick overview of the first five episodes (from earliest to most recent):

What to do about the NFL?
Find out why David and Mike are boycotting the NFL this year and what they think of the Floyd Mayweather versus Conor McGregor showdown.

The Politics of Hurricanes
People of color suffer most when natural disasters strike, are often de-prioritized during our inadequate responses to such disasters, and will continue to face disproportionate harm if we fail to address climate change.  David and Mike explain.

Jemele Hill Was Right
Hill’s Black colleagues backed her up when she called Donald Trump a White supremacist, but ESPN didn’t.  David and Mike discuss the Right-wing backlash to race-conscious sports media before delving into some statistics on and possible remedies for the racial wealth gap.

Puerto Rico’s Colonial Disaster
As David and Mike note, our government has treated Puerto Rico significantly worse than it treats US states during times of natural disaster, a problem consistent with a long history of unjust policy towards Americans on the island.  They also comment on the evolution of NFL players’ protests against racial injustice.

The Enduring Significance of HBCUs
While neither David nor Mike attended an HBCU, they’ve thought a lot about the important role such institutions play in improving opportunities for Black Americans.  They note HBCUs’ many strengths, why some criticisms of HBCUs are misplaced, and the curious case of HBCU presidents accepting Donald Trump’s invitation to the White House.

Especially if you aren’t getting enough Run It Black between episodes, I highly recommend following the podcast, as well as David and Mike, on Twitter.  Happy listening!

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Filed under Environment, Gender Issues, Labor, Poverty and the Justice System, Race and Religion, Sports, US Political System

Improving the Structure of Math Departments

At many schools I’ve worked at or observed, math departments are structured counterproductively.  The best teachers often teach the most advanced classes, while the newest teachers, or those most in need of support, teach the classes that struggling students are more likely to attend.  As a result, the students most in need of excellent teaching can be least likely to get it.

Math departments may be structured this way for a variety of reasons.  There is surely a correlation of some sort between teaching skill and mastery of mathematics, so the best teachers may just more often than novice teachers be well-equipped to teach advanced courses.  It may also be the case that teachers prefer teaching advanced classes; as the students in advanced classes typically already want to be there, teachers of those classes can focus more on content instruction and less on classroom management.  School leaders may want to keep their best teachers happy, and giving those teachers the advanced classes may be one way to do that.

I can understand why teachers might, if given the choice, decide to teach AP Calculus AB instead of an intervention class geared towards students who failed Algebra I.  Especially given the workloads American society foists upon teachers, who never have enough hours in the day to do a fraction of what they’d ideally do for their students, teacher burnout is a real concern.  While I know some great teachers who love teaching hard-to-reach students and have made doing so their life’s work, and while teaching advanced students also carries its challenges, working with the highest-need students is often emotionally exhausting and probably accelerates the burning-out process.

Several approaches could potentially help reduce the tension between pursuing the most equitable arrangement – in which the best teachers teach the students who need help most – and protecting teachers against burnout.  One option would be to reduce the number of classes teachers of introductory or remedial courses would be required to teach.  If nothing else, an extra free period would give these teachers more time to plan remediation and give students constructive feedback.  Another option would be to ensure that an instructional aide is available to assist teachers in every lower-level course they teach.  A third approach would be to require every teacher teaching an AP or honors course to teach a lower-level course as well.  (None of these ideas is mutually exclusive, of course.)

Reducing teacher burnout and making our schools more equitable are big challenges that ultimately require substantially increased investments in public education, particularly in low-income areas, as well as an overhaul of what teacher workdays and support structures look like.  We must push for those investments and overhauls, not to mention the larger, outside-of-school changes that are most important for ensuring equal opportunity for every student in this country.  In the meantime, we should explore creative ways to simultaneously keep our best teachers invigorated and make sure they’re in front of our students in need.

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Filed under Education

We Don’t Need No “Moderates”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has apparently decided that embracing the “Blue Dog Democrats” – a group of politicians who proudly tout their commitment “to pursuing fiscally-responsible policies, ensuring a strong national defense, and transcending party lines” – is the prudent electoral strategy for the Democratic Party in 2018.  Daily Beast contributor Michael Tomasky agrees, writing that the “reality, which many liberals refuse to accept[, is that to win a majority in the House of Representatives], Democrats have to win in 20 to 25 purple districts.  And that means electing some moderates.”

If you’re in favor of Democrats joining with Republicans to enact tax cuts that go mostly to the rich, reductions in government spending on support for low- and middle-income people, and more legislation authorizing perpetual war, this strategy isn’t totally crazy.  But if you’re in favor of “single-payer health care, a much higher minimum wage, a massive infrastructure program, a top marginal…tax rate around 50 percent, a much higher payroll tax cap, and more,” which Tomasky says he is, this strategy couldn’t be more wrong.  Even if it led to a Democratic House, it would stymie your agenda.  In New York, for example, while the Blue-Dog-esque Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) gives Democrats a nominal majority in the state Senate, the IDC consistently partners with Republicans to undermine economic and social justice.  A Democratic majority doesn’t help you very much if the Democrats who get you there don’t share your values.

Importantly, there’s also no reason to believe Tomasky’s assertion that “moderate” candidates will improve Democrats’ electoral prospects.  In fact, evidence suggests an alternate strategy holds more promise in contested (or even heavily Republican) districts in 2018.

Consider recent special elections to replace Trump appointees Mick Mulvaney (South Carolina’s 5th District), Mike Pompeo (Kansas’ 4th District), Tom Price (Georgia’s 6th District), and Ryan Zinke (Montana’s At-Large seat) in the House.  Democrats pursued the Tomasky strategy (or, as former Hillary Clinton press secretary Brian Fallon seems to call it, the “Panera Breads of America” strategy) in Georgia, spending a historical record $30 million on a candidate, Jon Ossoff, who stressed deficit reduction and actively opposed both single-payer health care and taxing the rich.  The national party apparatus mostly stayed out of the other three races, but the Democratic candidates in Kansas (James Thompson) and Montana (Rob Quist) secured progressive endorsements with a platform closer to the one Tomasky theoretically supports.  Nobody paid much attention to Archie Parnell, the Democratic candidate in South Carolina, who, like Ossoff, would fit in pretty well with the Blue Dogs.

The Democrats lost all four races.  But based on how Democrats had fared in each of those districts historically, they also significantly outperformed expectations.  All of them except for Ossoff, that is, who did far better than the practically nonexistent candidate Democrats ran in the prior congressional election in Georgia’s 6th District but worse than Hillary Clinton performed there against Donald Trump.  Note also that Georgia’s 6th District is more affluent than most and thus, according to Tomasky, a place in which “the Democrat should definitely talk more about growth than fairness but can probably get away with somewhat more liberal social positions,” which basically describes how Ossoff ran his campaign.  In other words, the Democratic Party invested the most resources and got the least return on one of the “moderate” special election candidates in a district tailor-made for the Tomasky strategy.

Advocacy for single-payer health care didn’t put Thompson and Quist over the top in their races, of course, and Parnell, a “moderate” who both the party and grassroots organizers more or less ignored, came the closest to victory.  These special elections certainly don’t prove that endorsing economic justice more will win.  But they do show it can play better than a Republican-lite economic platform in heavily Republican areas, a fact also underscored by the recent results of state special elections.  In New York’s 9th Assembly District, for instance, which Trump won with 60 percent of the vote, bold progressive Christine Pellegrino just trounced her Republican challenger en route to a seat on the state assembly.

Then there’s the recent international evidence.  Jeremy Corbyn just helped the United Kingdom’s Labour Party pull off its biggest electoral swing in seventy years, defying pundit predictions of Labour’s imminent trampling from a few months before.  Some of Labour’s surge was likely due to the Conservative Party’s mistakes, but some of it was also likely due to a bold set of economic ideas Labour outlined in a new manifesto, ideas that couldn’t be more different from those the Blue Dog Democrats embrace.  Labour’s showing underscored what evidence had indicated since at least February of 2016, when I first pointed it out: Bernie Sanders was much more likely than Hillary Clinton to win a head-to-head matchup against a Republican presidential candidate that November.  That evidence only got stronger as the primary season continued; many Democrats likely wish they had taken it more seriously.  Today, Sanders – a politician about as far from the Blue Dogs as you can get in the Senate – remains the most popular politician in America.  The claim that Sanders-style economic and social justice advocacy is unworkable in the critical purple districts Tomasky references doesn’t square with the absence of moderate Democrats more popular than Sanders in those districts.

And let’s not forget that the Democratic Party has been decimated in recent years.  Not only have they lost control of the executive branch of the federal government and both chambers of Congress, they now also hold only 18 state houses, 15* governorships, and 13 state senates.  They’ve been running moderate candidates in purple districts, and that strategy doesn’t seem to be working very well.

That doesn’t mean we can be certain about what will get Democrats elected.  A candidate’s general election viability is ultimately unknowable.  It may depend on her or her opponent’s platform, debating skill, fundraising prowess, personality, or field operation.  It may hinge on the quirks of the community she’s running for office in or how much the media likes her.  It may come down to random chance.  Electability is also often a self-fulfilling prophecy; people commenting on electability and making decisions based on their perceptions of it can actually influence it and do so all the time.

The only thing we can be certain of in the electability space is political strategists’ and pundits’ poor track records.  Many of the people who claim to know what is and isn’t possible in future elections thought Bernie Sanders would barely get 15 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary.  Many of them were sure that Republicans would never nominate Donald Trump, and once that prediction turned out to be wrong, were still absolutely positive that Trump would never become president.  It’s long past time we viewed their claims with skepticism, especially when there’s evidence that points the other way.

Good policy can sell.  Voters can be persuaded.  Political reality is not something that gets handed to us, but something we help create.  Candidates with economic and social justice platforms can win in purple districts, and they’ll be even more likely to do so if Democratic pundits stop assuming they can’t and start getting behind them.

*Updated from 16 to 15 on August 5, 2017, after West Virginia Governor Jim Justice announced he would switch his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican. Thanks to Michael Sainato for the heads up!

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, 2018 Elections, US Political System

Amen for Alternative Media

Media Establishment.pngThe May/June issue of Politico Magazine contains an article entitled “The Media Bubble Is Worse Than You Think.”  Its central argument is that media concentration in affluent “blue” areas (those that typically vote for Democrats) has led to ideological uniformity in newsrooms, and it cites the increased geographic concentration of writers who work for Internet media sources as evidence that this problem is threatening to get even worse.

Part of the article’s thesis, that “the national media just doesn’t get the nation it purportedly covers,” is undoubtedly true.  But the article is wrong to imply that an underrepresentation of Republicans is the problem.  The actual problem is the mainstream media’s overrepresentation of Establishment viewpoints – from both major political parties – and its marginalization of economic- and social-justice viewpoints.  And the age of Internet media, for all its flaws, is an improvement on what came before.

A quick look at the most ostensibly liberal mainstream media outlets is instructive in this regard.  In the world of newspapers, that’s The New York Times.  While they certainly do commission social-justice-minded op-eds, and while their editorial board often advocates on behalf of less-advantaged Americans, the paper gives more voice overall to privilege-defending viewpoints of those in power than to power-balancing ideas from those who seek to challenge the status quo.  The Times recently hired Bret Stephens, for example, who has previously written anti-Arab screeds and called the idea that racism and campus rape are systemic problems “imaginary” in the Wall Street Journal.  In his first Times column, Stephens revisited some of the climate-change skepticism he’s been peddling for years.

Stephens joined a cast of ten other Times columnists, several of whom appear to believe it’s a major problem that members of what they call the “speech-policing, debate-squelching, illiberal P.C. left” care more about “war victims in South Sudan” than the “scarcity of conservatives” in academia.  The only self-proclaimed liberal among this particular group of columnists seems to think that people are poor, at least in large part, because of their moral failings, and he once argued that “the central challenge in the poorest countries is not that sweatshops exploit too many people, but that they don’t exploit enough.”  And the most ostensibly progressive columnist at the paper spent a great deal of time taking illiberal and/or inaccurate potshots at Bernie Sanders and his supporters during the 2016 Democratic primary.  There isn’t a single Times columnist who “represent[s] the millions [of people] who hate war, support single-payer [health care,] or oppose capitalism,” as Sean McElwee recently noted.

The problem is perhaps even worse when it comes to cable news.  The most ostensibly liberal mainstream station, MSNBC, just hired a senior adviser from 2008’s McCain-Palin presidential campaign and may also bring on a Right-wing talking head who thinks there’s been “a lot to celebrate” from Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office.  One of the station’s longtime anchors voted for and vigorously defended George W. Bush during the mid-2000s, and MSNBC features several leading personalities and commentators who consistently attack the social-justice-minded wing of the Democratic Party, often with misleading reporting.  Even the network’s more social-justice-inclined broadcasters seem wary of straying too far from Democratic Party orthodoxy (note that those who do sometimes lose their jobs), and one of them, the station’s most-watched host, has focused more on conspiracy theories about Russia than on all other issues combined over the last couple of months.

Again, that’s the “liberal” media.  Other major media outlets occupy a space in which fomenting bigotry against a marginalized group of people is okay but tweeting opposition to refugee restrictions is grounds for suspension.  Politicians are encouraged to discuss terrorism and foreign enemies but allowed to ignore poverty, campaign finance reform, and existential threats to the planet.  The most-watched cable network (Fox News) and the editorial pages at the arguably most-circulated newspaper (The Wall Street Journal) are a repository for privilege-defending ideology and alternative facts.

It is for this reason that Politico’s analysis is off base.  The mainstream media’s ideological uniformity is less liberal and more Establishment, likely driven less by geographic clustering and more by corporate capture.  A small handful of companies own the vast majority of the media Americans consume.  If corporate America doesn’t find something acceptable – if it’s threatening to those in power – it often isn’t published or aired.

It is no surprise, then, that a study of media coverage of the 2016 election found that five different Republican candidates “each had more news coverage than Bernie Sanders during the invisible primary” in 2015 – despite the fact that “Sanders had [already] emerged as [Hillary] Clinton’s leading competitor” by that time.  The only vehemently anti-corporate candidate in the race was, according to another analysis that compared Google searches about candidates to the press they received, “being ignored by the mainstream media to a shocking degree.”  When mainstream media sources finally did begin to acknowledge Sanders’ existence, their coverage was often dismissive of his candidacy and/or misleading, and rarely issues-focused.

The liberalization of the news and editorial landscape that the Internet has helped usher in is thus a welcome development.  Some alternative media sources are terrible, of course, and social media, which has some real issues, surely sometimes facilitates the spread of falsehoods.  But what you’ll get from a Breitbart, Drudge Report, or Infowars isn’t all that far afield from what you’re likely to see on Fox, whereas the Internet also exposes people to some of the great alternative sources out there.  Democracy Now!, The Intercept, FAIR, Jacobin, The Young Turks, and The Benjamin Dixon Show, for example, provide a perspective that is very different from those commonly aired on MSNBC or given space in The New York Times.

Exposure to these alternative sources is greatest among young people, who are far more likely to use the Internet as a primary news source than are older individuals.  Interestingly, young people are also least likely to have voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election and most likely to have backed Sanders in the Democratic primary.  Young Republicans are less likely than their older counterparts to hold extreme and inaccurate views.

This matchup between social-justice-oriented voting patterns by age and media access by age may very well be a coincidence, or it may just reflect the general tendency of younger people to be more progressive than older people.  But it may also reflect that younger people no longer must rely on corporate-owned media for our information.  Instead of being subjected to a steady diet of the Establishment’s point of view, we can identify alternative sources we like, follow them, and engage in fact-checking ourselves.  Rather than being cause for consternation, that’s a development we should celebrate.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, US Political System

Ellison for DNC Chair: It Matters

The race for the Democratic National Committee Chairperson is very important.

In case you haven’t been following it, there are many candidates running, but only two major contenders: Keith Ellison, Democratic Congressman from Minnesota’s 5th congressional district for 10 years straight, and Tom Perez, the Secretary of Labor from the Obama Administration.  The winner of the race, who will be chosen during the weekend of February 24 by 447 party insiders, will run fundraising, outreach, and primary processes for the Democratic Party over the next several years.

Overall, Ellison has stronger social justice credentials than Perez – he’s been an active Co-Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and has put forward some of the most progressive economic justice legislation in Congress during his time there.  He’s been a staunch advocate for unions, was an early supporter of a $15 minimum wage, and was an early opponent of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and other trade deals that are more about enriching multinational corporations than promoting the free exchange of goods and services.  His voting record on women’s rights, LGBT rights, anti-racist policy – you name it – is excellent.  And before coming to Congress, Ellison worked in civil rights and employment law.

But Perez deserves a fair bit of credit for his record, too.  As the Labor Secretary, Perez went after companies that stole from their workers, embraced policies that would raise the pay of and increase opportunities for members of underserved groups to become federal employees and contractors, and pushed forward a rule that would reestablish the right to overtime pay for millions of workers.  His active support for the TPP is a non-trivial stain on his résumé, but those who believe in social justice should generally like the policies he’s pursued, as others have also noted.

Yet if that’s the case, why is it so important that Ellison wins?

The answer to that question lies in the answer to another: why is Perez even running?

Ellison jumped into the DNC Chair race right after the election (on Monday, November 14).  His candidacy made a ton of sense for the party for three main reasons:

– Ellison was one of the few Democrats calling for the party and media to take Donald Trump seriously from the beginning. The clip below, from a panel Ellison did back in July of 2015, is the most striking illustration of the contrast between Ellison’s prescience and the irresponsibility of the vast majority of Establishment media figures and politicians during the course of the 2016 election.

– Ellison was the second congressperson to endorse Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primary, and one of only a small handful to have done so at all.  Many other federal policymakers also had backgrounds more aligned with Sanders than with Hillary Clinton but backed Clinton anyway, possibly because of some combination of a misguided sense of political pragmatism and a legitimate fear of retribution.

Given that Sanders was much more popular than Clinton among Independents and the most popular primary candidate ever among young people, whose energy and enthusiasm Democrats desperately need in the future, it makes strategic sense for the party to put one of his early supporters in a leadership role.  Doing so would suggest that the Democrats, after throwing a ton of institutional weight behind the less electable, less social-justice-oriented candidate (and failing to hold party leaders accountable for their clear violations of the DNC’s charter) en route to squandering the 2016 election, have learned something.  It would give hope that the Democrats may run a fairer, more democratic primary process next time, and that those who opposed Clinton needn’t write the party off entirely.

– Once Sanders lost the primary, Ellison helped draft the DNC platform and became an outspoken proponent of voting for Clinton.  He campaigned very hard for Clinton between July and November.  He showed, in other words, that even though he thinks there is a better path than the one the Democratic Party is currently on, he believes in working within the Democratic Party structure for change.

I would have personally preferred Ellison to not campaign for Clinton, but I respected his choice to do so, and the fact that he did – vociferously – makes him an ideal candidate for party unification.  So does the fact that, unlike Sanders, Ellison is Black and Muslim, and his ascendance would diversify Democratic Party leadership, a worthy objective that Clinton fans have long claimed to support.  Ellison can potentially bridge the gap between good-faith Clinton and Sanders supporters and grow a bigger Democratic coalition.

Establishment Democrats and big-name donors began attacking Ellison as soon as he declared his interest in being DNC Chair, however.  They first complained that chairmanship was a full-time job and that, as a sitting congressman, Ellison wouldn’t have the bandwidth to focus on it.  They then inaccurately cast Ellison as an anti-Semite, misconstruing a 2010 speech he gave and condemnations of White supremacy and Israeli policy that he made twenty-five years ago.  Ellison soon thereafter declared that he would resign from Congress and become DNC Chair full-time if he wins the race, and he has repeatedly proven allegations of anti-Semitism false, but no matter; the Clinton/Obama apparatus wanted a challenger, and when Howard Dean didn’t pan out, they pressured Perez to step in.  He formally entered the race on December 15.

Perez has presented little that looks different from what Ellison has proposed, and nobody has offered a coherent explanation for why they think he’d do a better job leading the party than Ellison would.  Endorsements of Perez, like the one Joe Biden just made, have just highlighted personal details about him and included vague statements that could at least as easily apply to Ellison.  It’s thus hard to understand why Perez would have thrown his hat into the DNC Chair race (as opposed to the Maryland gubernatorial race) if not to maintain the Democratic Party’s current power structure.  The message to those who supported Sanders and want the party to embrace full-scale social and economic justice – many of whom are already upset that Perez pushed some of the Clinton campaign’s disingenuous attacks on Sanders behind the scenes during the primary – seems to be that they’re still expected to fall in line and support whatever the party Establishment decides.

An Ellison victory wouldn’t by itself bring the change the party needs – not by a long shot – and even if he wins, social justice advocates will need to push him on several issues.  Maybe in part to try to forestall attacks from Democrats who will be making the DNC Chair decision, he’s embraced some worrisome positions.  Ellison has endorsed the corporate candidate over the Bernie supporter in a recent race for Florida Democratic Chair, criticized the peaceful Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement against the oppressive policies of the Israeli government, softened on his previous commitment to banning lobbyist contributions to the DNC, and promoted some election postmortems that deserve considerably more skepticism.  But Ellison has a strong record overall and would bring a real possibility for regime change, a commitment to grassroots activism, and a new kind of Democratic Party politics.  As Sanders said following Biden’s endorsement of Perez (who Sanders likes and expressed respect for), the race for DNC Chair is about whether the Democratic Party “stay[s] with a failed status-quo approach or…go[es] forward with a fundamental restructuring.”

Some Democrats lashed out at Sanders after this statement.  They were, according to The Hill, “frustrated by press reports characterizing the contest as a proxy battle between the party’s leftist Sanders wing, represented by Ellison, and a more moderate Barack Obama-Clinton wing, represented by Perez.”  But to think otherwise is naïve – that’s precisely what it is.  And as some politicians, union leaders, and media figures who backed Clinton have already recognized, the smart move for Democrats who want to see the party win in the future “would be…to embrace Keith Ellison as DNC Chair.”  That would be the right move for those who believe in social and economic justice as well.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election

“March for Life” and “Pro-Life” Are Misnomers

Every year since 1974, thousands of people have come to Washington, DC to rally against Roe v. Wade.  Protestors argue that pregnant women should be stripped of the ability to choose whether or not they want to have an abortion.  Referencing the unborn fetuses pregnant women carry inside their bodies, these anti-abortion advocates call their demonstration the “March for Life.”

Politicians who support these efforts use similar language.  Senator and former Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio, for example, declared the “simple truth that all human life is sacred” to be the most recent march’s inspiration.

Yet neither Rubio nor the vast majority of marchers can credibly claim to have “pro-life” views.

I do not think fetuses should be viewed the same way as people, but let’s imagine you disagree with me.  Suppose, based on that disagreement, you believe an abortion kills an innocent person.  You think enabling the death of innocent people is wrong, and you thus think abortion must be opposed in all circumstances.  Isn’t that a “pro-life” view?

Well, it depends.  The logic of the ostensibly “pro-life” part of that reasoning is that, because X kills innocent people, and because killing innocent people is wrong, nobody should be able to choose X for any reason.

Here’s the problem with that logic: “X” could be any number of things.  Drone strikes kill innocent people.  More generally, war always does.  So does the death penalty.  And many other policies, while less active and direct than drone strikes, war, and putting people to death, effectively kill people.  Refugees are potentially given a death sentence when the countries to which they’re fleeing don’t let them in.  Thousands of people die each year due to inadequate access to health care.  And societies’ refusal to invest in substantial benefits for poor people both here and around the world leads to preventable deaths all the time.

People who truly have a “pro-life” position, therefore, oppose all of these things.  Those who are anti-war, anti-death penalty, pro-inclusive immigration, pro-universal health coverage, and pro-substantial benefits for the poor in addition to believing that fetuses are people and abortions are wrong may have a coherent, “pro-life” philosophy.

Needless to say, that’s not a description of Rubio.  He, like so many other anti-choice Republicans, opposes aborting fetuses but none of the preventable deaths mentioned above.

That doesn’t mean Rubio wouldn’t offer a justification for his positions.  He’d likely argue that drones, refugee bans, and military actions save more innocent lives than they sacrifice, that the death penalty is reserved for bad people who deserve it, and that providing health care and money for poor people slows economic growth, discourages work, and harms the very people such measures are intended to help.  He’d be wrong about all of these things – the United States perpetrates far more violence than we prevent, there are innocent people on death row, and meeting the needs of poor people, which we have the resources to do, would be perfectly consistent with a strong economy and boost long-term economic mobility – but that’s not the point.  The point is that Rubio does not allow the idea that “all human life is sacred” to guide his policy positions.  Instead, he balances the sacrifice of human lives against other things he thinks are important and decides which he thinks matters more.

In the realm of abortion, Rubio and others have decided that a fetus’s right to be born is more important than a woman’s right to make a personal, intimate decision about her body.  Again, if you believe fetuses are people and that life starts at conception, that may be a defensible position.  But if you also oppose raising taxes on rich people to provide health care and other basic needs to kids after they’re born, or if you support war, or the death penalty, your position definitely isn’t “pro-life.”  If you contend that “human life is sacred” only when that belief deprives women of rights but not when it consigns innocent people to death or cuts a little bit more into your fortune, you don’t really believe it.

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Filed under Gender Issues, Philosophy

U.S. Intelligence Agencies Scoff at Criticism of Police Brutality, Fracking, and “Alleged Wall Street Greed”

dni-report

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence just released a report on Russia that lacks evidence and casts legitimate critiques of United States policy as part of a Kremlin plot.

On Friday, January 6, The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) released a report – Background to “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections”: The Analytic Process and Cyber-Incident Attribution – that had been ordered by President Obama.  The report’s headline assertion, consistent with what anonymous officials had been saying to media outlets for months, was that “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election.  Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency” (thus electing Donald Trump, the candidate for whom “Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference”).

While U.S. intelligence agencies “did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election,” the report did claim that “Russian military intelligence (General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate or GRU) used the Guccifer 2.0 persona and DCLeaks.com to release US victim data obtained in cyber operations publicly and in exclusives to media outlets and relayed material to WikiLeaks,” actions that some Democratic Party leaders and media pundits believe contributed to Trump’s win.  Predictably, then, the report’s release has led to renewed outrage, with some prominent public figures declaring that Russia committed an “act of war” deserving of an aggressive US response.

One major problem with this response is that the report offered “no new evidence to support assertions that Moscow meddled covertly [in the election] through hacking and other actions,” as a piece in The New York Times noted.  Though it’s certainly possible that the Russian government was behind an email to John Podesta that a Clinton IT staffer mistakenly called “legitimate,” the American public has yet to see proof that Russia ordered such a phishing attack.  What the American public has seen, on the other hand, is a parade of misleading and sometimes outright false stories about Russian hacking that likely have something to do with 50 percent of Democrats’ belief that “Russia tampered with vote tallies to help Donald Trump,” a claim for which even the report admits there is no justification.  Especially given our intelligence agencies’ history of deceiving the public into wars in Vietnam and Iraq – not to mention current DNI James Clapper’s false claim about NSA spying in 2013, the FBI’s attempt to get Martin Luther King Jr. to commit suicide in 1964, and various other violations of people’s rights and the law over the years – skepticism of their current claims about Russian hacking, at least until they present some convincing proof to back up those claims, is well warranted.

Even more alarming than the report’s lack of evidence about Russian hacking was its ironically propagandistic accusation that the television network RT is a “propaganda machine” engaged in a “Kremlin-directed campaign to undermine faith in the US Government and fuel political protest.”  Among what the United States government appears to consider part of this “Kremlin-directed campaign” of “propaganda:”

  • “RT broadcast, hosted, and advertised third-party candidate debates and ran reporting supportive of the political agenda of these candidates. The RT hosts asserted that the US two-party system does not represent the views of at least one-third of the population and is a ‘sham.’”
  • “RT framed the [Occupy Wall Street] movement as a fight against ‘the ruling class’ and described the current US political system as corrupt and dominated by corporations[,] created a Facebook app to connect Occupy Wall Street protesters via social media[, and] featured its own hosts in Occupy rallies.”
  • “RT’s reports often characterize the United States as a ‘surveillance state’ and allege widespread infringements of civil liberties, police brutality, and drone use.”
  • RT programming has criticized “the US economic system, US currency policy, alleged Wall Street greed, and the US national debt.”
  • “RT runs anti-fracking programming, highlighting environmental issues and the impacts on public health.”

Those reading this list would be forgiven for being more convinced that RT is worth watching than that it peddles in Russian propaganda.  Violations of civil liberties in the United States are ubiquitous.  So is police brutality.  It’s an undeniable fact that our government’s use of drone strikes routinely kills innocent civilians.  Millions of social justice advocates across the United States oppose fracking, Wall Street greed, and America’s undemocratic electoral system for good reason.  And while fearmongering about the national debt is a definite problem, those doing it are more often moderating U.S. presidential debates than abetting the Kremlin.

To be fair to our intelligence agencies, RT is state-owned and does, as the network’s Editor in Chief Margarita Simonyan has admitted, have an explicitly Russian agenda.  But as Simonyan correctly points out, “there is not a single international foreign TV channel that is doing something other than promotion of the values of the country that it is broadcasting from,” and that includes the US-backed Voice of America network.

In fact, mainstream media outlets in the United States, despite their technical independence from the federal government, often uncritically advance the ideas of those in power as well.  The Times’ publication of inaccurate information about former RT anchor Abby Martin after the intelligence report came out is a good example: they said Martin had quit RT because of her view that it was a propaganda outlet when Martin did no such thing – she was actually supported by RT even while she produced content critical of the Russian government.  The Times modified its article post-publication, but the piece still blatantly misrepresents what happened with Martin.  Recent and egregiously incorrect reports on “fake news” and the U.S. electrical grid in The Washington Post are other prime illustrations of this problem.

None of that makes any actual propaganda from RT less pernicious, demonstrates that the Russian government wasn’t behind a phishing attack on John Podesta, or means that U.S. intelligence agencies must be lying.  It just means that we should be skeptical of claims presented without evidence to support them, particularly if the sources for those claims have a less than stellar relationship with the truth – even if those sources happen to be the United States media and/or the United States government.

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Filed under Foreign Policy, US Political System

My Dadabhai, Ranan Banerji (May 5, 1928 to December 9, 2016)

My dadabhai (grandfather), Ranan Banerji, was an amazing person with whom I was very close.  He died on Friday, December 9 and I will miss him greatly.

I spent a lot of time with Dadabhai while growing up.  When I was really young, he’d often take me on the train to a nearby town called Lindenwold.  I looked forward to these train rides for days, thinking that Lindenwold was a special place called “Linden World” that specialized in ice cream, which I perceived to be the purpose of our trips.  I learned later that riding the train was actually the main reason for our excursions, and that the ice cream we got at a diner when we got to Lindenwold was decidedly mediocre.  But hanging out with Dadabhai was well worth it.

dadabhai-and-me

Dadabhai loved to tell stories and jokes and to play games.  A former professor of physics, mathematics, and computer science and an early leader in the field of artificial intelligence, he instilled in me a deep appreciation of the beauty of logic, strategic reasoning, and math. He taught me how to play chess in elementary school and precalculus in high school, tutoring me over the summer between my freshman and sophomore years.  We had many long talks about science and religion, which he felt were more compatible than is commonly thought.  After I went to college, he’d send me emails and handwritten letters about mathematical concepts that he had promised to prove, or about political conversations he’d been replaying in his head.

I looked up to Dadabhai in many ways.  For one, he was a great life partner to my didibhai.  My sisters, wife, and I never tire of hearing the story of how they originally met.  They were on a boat to Edinburgh, Scotland in 1952 and, after their first encounter, Didibhai’s brother raved about Dadabhai’s intellect.  Didibhai told her brother that she thought Dadabhai was a slob.  “And I thought she was a snob,” Dadabhai would say.  “And then, two weeks later, we got engaged.”

I still don’t quite understand how they got from there to here – life apparently moves quite fast on a boat – but I do understand how they had an incredibly happy marriage that lasted 62 years.  Their respect for each other’s thoughts, admiration of each other’s strengths, and enjoyment of each other’s company were always apparent.  I have learned much of what I think a healthy relationship is from them (as well as from my parents).

I also admired Dadabhai’s power-balancing instincts.  He sought to buy from high-road companies and introduced me to Working Assets, which donates to progressive causes whenever I use my credit card.  He’d recommend I read The Hightower Lowdown and Yes! Magazine, pulling out and sending me articles he thought I’d find particularly interesting.  I recently learned that, in the late 1960s, he openly advised his students to get higher degrees to avoid enlisting in the Vietnam War.  Having such outspoken, authority-challenging views couldn’t have been easy for an Indian immigrant of his generation.

Other traits of Dadabhai’s that will always stick with me were his thoughtfulness and open-mindedness.  During debates, he’d lay out his assumptions and listen carefully to what others said.  He had a clear perspective, but it was grounded in logic and evidence and open to compelling counterarguments; in fact, he’d express excitement when confronted with evidence that was in conflict with a preconceived notion he had.  I think of him whenever I need a reminder to carefully and fairly consider opposing views.

For the last six years, up until Dadabhai’s health no longer permitted it, I would talk to him on the phone on my way to work almost every morning.  It was one of the highlights of my day, as continuing to talk to Didibhai in the mornings will still be.  I hope to one day be as good a grandfather as Dadabhai was to me.

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Filed under Philosophy

Striking SEPTA Workers Deserve Public Support

On Friday, a judge denied an injunction request from Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) management, who wanted striking SEPTA workers, represented by Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 234, to be forced to go back to work.  The judge made the right decision.  At a follow-up hearing on Monday at 9:30 AM, the judge should stand firm, as TWU Local 234 has every right to strike and is justified in doing so.

The union, which represents a group of bus drivers, trolley operators, mechanics, and other transit workers whose base salaries seem to max out around $70,000 a year, has been trying to negotiate a new contract with SEPTA for months.  The union was unhappy with a potential increase in their health care premium contributions – from about $550 annually to a little less than $4,800 annually – that would have coincided with some increased co-pays.  They’ve also been bargaining to improve their pensions, which have long been less generous than both the typical public pension and the pensions SEPTA managers receive.

twu-local-234-1

Perhaps most importantly, the union has asked for scheduling changes that would improve safety for workers and customers alike.  Bus operators can currently be required to work 16 hours in a day or 30 hours in back-to-back days and may only get 15-minute lunch breaks.  They have inadequate opportunities to go to the bathroom and can’t sleep on-site in between their unpaid breaks, which creates a major problem for drivers with commutes.  SEPTA management has thus far insisted that their scheduling practices are necessary for “flexibility” purposes, despite the fact that research on sleep and crash statistics recommend against them.

So while SEPTA management may have reduced the magnitude of their proposed hike to health care premiums and offered some salary increases since the strike began, those who believe in worker rights, economic justice, and public safety should be firmly in the union’s camp when it comes to negotiations.

Some Democrats seem to have sided instead with SEPTA management, which has “argued the strike was keeping children from school, making travel around the city difficult for people with disabilities and those in need of medical treatment, and threatening to disenfranchise voters in Tuesday’s presidential election,” as reported by Philly.com.  Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, who appears particularly worried that the strike will depress voter turnout on Tuesday and be “a real plus for Donald Trump,” has even argued that the state legislature should take away SEPTA workers’ right to strike in the future.

The problem with this formulation, however, is that it ignores both the power differential between labor and management and which of those two entities is more likely to be on the public’s side.  Union members risk a lot when they go on strike – their jobs and their pay are on the line.  They don’t decide to strike lightly, and TWU Local 234 made this decision because, as their president Willie Brown has said, “It’s the only tool [they] have available to [them].”  Binding arbitration (when both parties to a negotiation submit their offers to a neutral third party who makes a final decision on which offer to go with) can be an effective alternative to strikes for public sector employees, but while Brown “said he would be willing to go to binding arbitration to avoid a strike[,] SEPTA officials said…that wasn’t an option they were willing to consider.”

Note also that, for all the hand-wringing about union members supposedly not caring about the election, many of its members plan to volunteer to help get out the vote on election day (for the record, TWU Local 234 has also endorsed Hillary Clinton).  SEPTA Board chairman Pasquale Deon, on the other hand, has contributed thousands of dollars to Republican Senator Pat Toomey, whose record includes strong support of the Pennsylvania voter ID law that was struck down as unconstitutional in 2014.  Deon also donated to two Republican presidential candidates – Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie – whose careers are characterized as much by defunding poor kids’ schools, denying people access to the medical care they need, and constructing obstacles to voting as they are by virulent anti-union crusades.

To summarize: Pasquale and the rest of SEPTA management chose not to engage in good-faith negotiations.  They chose not to go to binding arbitration.  And their rhetoric is belied by the other causes they support.  Yes, having public transportation up and running on election day would be ideal, but those worried about whether that will happen should be applying pressure to Pasquale and his friends, not complaining about bus drivers’ efforts to secure affordable health care, improvements in their retirement security, breaks long enough to catch some sleep in between shifts, and enough time to use the bathroom during the workday.

The outcome of Monday’s hearing is ultimately unlikely to matter much in Tuesday’s election.  Philadelphia policy “prioritizes spots [for polling places] within walking distance of people’s houses,” as The New Republic noted in 2008, and officials overseeing Philadelphia’s elections have pointed out that a 2009 strike did not depress turnout in that year’s local election.  Lyft and Uber are offering free rides to the polls that day, there are services connecting volunteer drivers to people who need rides, and the governor always has the option to extend voting hours if a lack of public transportation turns out to be a major voting obstacle.

What Monday’s hearing will impact, however, is TWU Local 234’s bargaining power.  More generally, people’s attitudes about the strike will impact the future of organized labor, an institution that raises wages for members and non-members alike, boosts opportunities for kids, and advocates broadly for the interests of low- and middle-income people.

The ethics are on the union’s side.  The public should be, too.

Update (11/7/16): SEPTA and TWU Local 234 reached a deal before the follow-up injunction hearing and the union will be back at work during the election.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Labor