I mean, the guy is a piece of work. He draws up social networks on his chalkboard and then, with enormous drama, moves from point to point in the diagram and assails that week’s targeted progressive groups as a conspiracy. He calls us names like “communist” and “socialist” and “anti-American.” He makes some stuff up and then poses the question, “Why?” as though it had to be true. He chooses individuals like Wade Rathke or Van Jones and, for all intents and purposes, assassinates their characters on national television without ever speaking with them directly, or offering them a chance to respond. He claims the mantle of “journalist” while engaging in practices that no decent journalist would countenance. And, he stirs up fear wherever he can, and then proclaims himself innocent of encouraging violent acts. All in all, he’s a pretty strange dude, and one with whom I could not disagree more on so long a list of topics, I can’t list them all here.
But Beck has just done the right thing, and he deserves praise, even from his rhetorical enemies. He has said very clearly, and forcefully, that Faisal Shahzad, the purported Times Square bomb plotter, indeed deserved to have his Miranda Rights read to him and to be treated as the law prescribes for any citizen of the US thus accused. This will not make Beck popular in conservative circles that seem to be coalescing around the idea that reading Shahzad his Miranda rights was wrong and another indication of how liberals are weak on terrorism.
Unless people misinterpret, I did not undergo a brain transplant that has me believing Mr. Beck now makes sense on much of anything. He continues to confound with things like his recent attacks on Sojourners and Jim Wallis with statements like, “social justice is a perversion of the gospel” after Wallis raised moral questions about the recent Arizona law on immigration that so many are challenging. For many, Wallis among them, the Bible is a font of teachings on social justice and moral courage. Beck deserves all the criticism he may inspire for such foolish, and factually challenged, remarks.
A NY Times editorial week before last recounted the harsh attacks from Liz Cheney’s “Keep America Safe,” a joint effort with the ever-intolerant William Kristol. These two self-proclaimed protectors of our national character have remarkably concluded that lawyers who volunteered their time to provide basic legal representation to Guantanamo detainees were somehow condoning or supporting terrorism. Seven of these brave souls have moved on to appointments in the new Administration’s Department of Justice, and that has given rise to fear-mongering among the likes of Ms. Cheney and Mr. Kristol who apparently condemn the American tradition of providing counsel to even the most egregious of characters. This vital part of our system ensures all of our rights, for who is to know what crazy twist of fate might lay in the future of any one of us where we may need representation after being accused, perhaps wrongfully, of something terrible. What makes it work is its universality. If we start parsing rights, we all lose.
This tactic, primarily practiced by rightwing conservatives, but also by leftwing fringe as well, is endangering us all. Character assassination is very hard to dismiss as just part of the “rough and tumble” of political and public life. Many of us involved in charitable work designed to increase the rates of participation of disenfranchised Americans in civic life have to life with daily assaults in the blogosphere and elsewhere, some of such vituperative and false content that it stretches one’s sense of reasonableness.
But isn’t this pattern of attacking the character of opponents just a step or two removed from attacking whole groups? And isn’t attacking whole groups exactly the kind of behavior that we all abhor when we observe it in places like Bosnia or Rawanda? Both are pursued for political gain derived from the fear instilled in the public mind.
Why is it that only rarely do we see people stand up to defend the rights of minorities or unpopular people or groups? The ACLU, after all, is regularly attacked by the forces of intolerance, even though it as often as not defends the rights of conservatives or reactionaries to be heard? It is something that one would think we could all agree upon.
I did come across a remarkable exception to this recently when Bill Moyers interviewed the two lawyers – David Bois and Theodore Olsen, archetypical left and right leaning barristers – who are seeking to throw out Proposition 8 in California as unconstitutional by unfairly and unreasonably discriminating against same-sex couples by precluding marriage as an option for them as it is for heterosexual couples. For those more interested in the trial itself, final arguments for which have been postponed pending an appeal, the live-blogging done by Courage Campaign was (and is) brilliant.
The interview was a remarkable antithesis to the Cheney-Kristol initiative, for it squarely found common ground between the best of the right and the left to assert the unconstitutionality of Proposition 8 in California that seeks to make illegal same sex marriage. It was truly a remarkable convergence of two brilliant minds who often attack problems from opposite points of view. Instead, on this issue, they found common ground.
One thing stood out to me as a parent: the effect on kids of the continued, legally-sanctioned, discrimination against the thousands of gay and lesbian couples who conceive with donors or surrogates, or adopt. How anyone could sanction this burden of bias on small children is simply beyond me. I wonder how Liz Cheney views this issue; after all, her lesbian sister is expecting her second child. More to the point, I wonder how Ms. Cheney views the vituperative attacks on both David Bois and Theodore Olsen from the legions of the intolerant who would apparently be fine with seeing her sister live forever as a second class citizen and burden her nephew with the unguided bias he so clearly doesn’t deserve. These are the same folks that want to see the “Gitmo lawyers” run out of the Justice Department.
On your list of things to pay attention to: the final arguments in the Prop 8 case. They should be coming up soon.
Like most people who have a moral sense of the world, I have rejoiced in the remarkable outcome of the year-long saga of Healthcare Reform in the Congress, despite the failure of the public option and the necessary capitulation to a mostly male group of hold-outs who almost derailed the entire thing in the interests of making sure that not a single federal dollar could find its way to supporting a woman seeking an abortion. These two shortcomings aside, history was made and I’m glad of it.
There was, however, an ironic twist of fate in the whole event, for it kept in the shadows a long-planned march for Immigration Reform that brought over 200,000 people to the Mall to bring home the necessity of fixing the very broken system, as President Obama promised to do on the campaign trail. Normally, 200,000 folks showing up in Washington warrants the notice of the press and the Congress, and hopefully would have reminded both of the remarkable outpouring of people into the streets several years ago. Sadly, though, a piece of legislation that pointedly excludes undocumented residents from its benefits, diverted our attention – something that has happened regularly for decades to undocumented immigrants seeking a path to citizenship. The problem, however, is far from going away.
Some 3 percent of our population lives without proper documentation. 12 million hard-working, tax-paying folks, many of whom arrived as infants or children of those seeking work or freedom. These poor souls, unfortunately, face a remarkably bleak future as they complete school, with virtually no ability to receive loans to support graduate school, and many jobs off limits since they can’t even obtain a driver’s license in most states. So each day, tens of thousands of people who have known no other home since before they can remember, are consigned to the shadows of the cash economy. On top of Sunday’s irony, there is the remarkable fact that by excluding this population from the reforms, we continue a system where millions are left out of normal care only to have their afflictions deteriorate from lack of attention and wind up in the Emergency Room where we all get to pay for the care – almost always more expensive than it would have been otherwise.
So I hope that this morning, when there will be many celebrations in the White House about signing Healthcare Reform, there will also be awareness that moving forward on Immigration Reform is the next big one to tackle. Right now, continuing deportations at a pace exceeding even the Bush years is no solution no matter how many shadows you try to hide it in. As important, this is an issue that truly should not fall into the partisan morass that is Washington these days. We should all agree that bringing people into the system, making them participants in both democracy and taxation, has advantages for us all.
The one thing certain about elected public servants in Washington is that they really, really want to stay there. Regardless of party, the incentives to continue to inhabit the corridors of political power are deep and abiding. The problem for most of them, though, is that they spend too much time walking those corridors and not enough listening to the folks that sent them there. The perks, the deference, the hushed conversations with lobbyists for huge financial interests — they all converge to create a moss-like insulation from the sentiments of the voters. And, surprise, surprise, the voters don’t like that.
Of course, there are those holding safe seats like Sen. Shelby from Alabama who can place a “hold” on every Administration appointment in order to force the Pentagon to alter its bidding specs for a huge new contract for those planes that fuel other planes in mid-air. Turns out his state (Alabama) hosts a partner of European giant Airbus that would assemble some parts of the plane and throw off a few local jobs. This, despite the fact that US manufacturer Boeing would, without Shelby’s tweaks, likely get the entire manufacturing job and employ thousands of American workers. His narrow interest may prevail, courtesy of outdated Senate traditions, as such “holds” are a function of the filibuster rule. Just makes you want to wonder if he is aware that we are in the middle of an economic crisis where sometimes narrow self-interest might yield to broader collective outcomes.
But what’s really frustrating is that issues that really matter to millions, and about which there is broad public opinion support, can’t seem to gain visibility. Take Comprehensive Immigration Reform. Polling suggests that 80% of the electorate supports an initiative that would require our millions of undocumented immigrants to register, pay taxes, and get on the path to citizenship. Even more support the Dream Act which would allow undocumented kids, most of whom have grown up in the US, to also get on the path to citizenship upon graduating from high school by either entering the military or college.
These initiatives are simply waiting to be brought forward for a vote. But even feel-good legislation that has meaning, like the Dream Act, has fallen into the trenches of partisan warfare where the minority party has decided that the best thing they can do is say no to everything. As dismaying as that tactic may be, it is effective in the context of the country’s current mood. But, for all those incumbents on both sides of the aisle who are just hankering to return to DC after this fall’s elections, be fair warned that doing nothing may do you in.
Increasingly, the remarkable possibility is being discussed where Republicans may again assert themselves as majority in one or both houses of Congress. One can be sure that getting things done in Washington will be as hard as it was after the same thing happened in 1994 with Gingrich’s ascension as House Speaker. One remembers his “Contract for America” not for what it accomplished legislatively, but for the toxic atmosphere it created in Washington that continues to this day.
There are rumblings that a huge march for Immigration Reform is being discussed for the spring. Will it remind the DC do-nothing-until-we-have-to folks, that “no” is not an option?
I was thinking a lot this past Sunday about my lapsed involvement in matters of faith. From a childhood and teenage engagement with the Episcopal Church, I came away with something that has guided my life since I can remember. It’s called the Golden Rule. Karen Armstrong – the marvelous soul who used her TED Prize to promote the Charter for Compassion – argues that all significant faiths on the planet have compassion at their core: my version went something like this, "Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You.”
For some odd, quirky reason I don’t quite understand, thinking about this basic tenet of moral behavior brought me to the most recent escapade of the Acorn Sting-meister, James O’Keefe, now awaiting arraignment on felony charges of conspiring to do something to Senator Mary Landrieu’s phones in a federal office building. Somehow, I think his parents, with whom the Judge has required him to live during the legal proceedings, failed Mr. O’Keefe in this most basic of moral instructions. How possibly could a faithful, moral conservative, as Mr. O’Keefe purports to be, engage in illegal and highly damaging acts intent on bringing down his perceived political opponents? I mean, have they no trust in the basic idea of democracy? Who would choose to have others do to them what Mr. O’Keefe is alleged to have done? Who would want, for any purpose, to be secretly taped without their knowledge? Not many, I’d wager.
I’ve supported Acorn for many years and in many ways. It is a good organization that has tried very hard to bring justice to poor communities. They haven’t done everything right, but I don’t think their foibles justify their fate at the hands of malevolent pranksters whose antics are now the subject of multiple inquires by prosecutors. Even so, it seems uncertain that the organization will ever again thrive as a voice for poor people in America.
It is clear to many that Mr. O’Keefe’s highly edited and illegally obtained videos have been the undoing of Acorn. It makes me sad beyond words to see how easily a dishonest kid of debatable morals with a video camera has been able to bring the rough-hewn organization, built out of the efforts of thousands of our most disenfranchised citizens, to its knees. And, Lord knows what his plans were for Senator Landrieu, a Democrat in a difficult state up for re-election this fall. One is thankful that, unlike in the Acorn case, the judicial system is already at work unraveling the conspiracy and holding the individuals accountable long before Fox News had an opportunity to promote even more fiction. I mean news. Uh, do they know the difference?
What I can say with assurance is that in the fascinating legal case that is about to begin, Mr. O’Keefe will be given what none of the objects of his efforts have been afforded – a fair chance to be heard without a presumption of guilt.
Somehow, amidst the din of the holidays, a true gem of an idea is taking flight. And, if it works, we may be looking at a way to (finally) fix what’s wrong with the money system in the US. And, again if it works, it should please all those anti-regulatory conservatives out there who somehow seem to think the Great Recession was caused by working folks who borrowed more than they should have to buy houses. Like all those Wall Street suits had nothing to do with it. But that’s another story.
Taking a cue from the healthy foods crowd who brought us the idea of buying locally, that sneaky duo of Rob Johnson and Ariana Huffington have been pushing this new idea…. “Move your Money.” What a concept! Green your money!…well, I suppose it’s already green, but it’s not Green. It’s not local. So, how to get this across?
It turns out that one of the mainstays of our holiday season is a wonderful film called, cleverly, It’s a Wonderful Life.
Initially considered a flop in 1946 when it came out, it has emerged as perhaps the best loved American holiday film ever. And the enduring story has such strong parallels to today’s financial crisis, it’s scary. If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and do so. If you have, I don’t need to remind you about how a community-based bank can prevail over all those avaricious Wall Street sharks. And the real point is, let’s remember, and then act like, George Bailey in the film, or rather his customers. Let’s put our money in locally based banks that know us. Let’s take all those savings out of banks that are “too big to fail” because, in fact, they HAVE failed. Were it not for us taxpayers, they wouldn’t be in business today, much less enjoying record-setting bonuses that seem to suggest an inverse relationship between financial performance and executive compensation.
So check out http://moveyourmoney.info and consider the option. The four minute clip, largely from the movie, captures it all so well.
The Wall Street Journal reports that the effort to extend the current Estate Tax regime through next year has failed. As part of the Bush tax cuts, the exemption, above which taxes are due, has been slowly rising. The Conservative plan, put in place in 2001, phases out the tax entirely next year, and then, in the following year, reverts to the 2001 rates and much lower exemption. They couldn’t make it permanent then, as they wanted to do, because it simply cut too much revenue out of the equation, even for the then-dominant Republican leadership on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Beneath the din of the healthcare debate, and Joe Lieberman’s stunning profile in cowardice and betrayal of his constituency, the inexorable process of displacing taxes from the super-wealthy to the middle class continues its stealthy pace. It is stunning to me that in these particularly dire economic times, the progressive majority in both the House and Senate has squandered the opportunity to extend current year provisions into next year. Neither the House nor the Senate could muster the will to adopt the extension. Lieberman-type leadership at its best?
And the conservatives – wow, they are a whole other kettle of fish. Cynical beyond measure, they figure a bankrupt government is better than no government at all. (Remember that stellar statement by neo-conservative, Grover Norquist: “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” So helpful in tough times.)
But this Estate Tax matter is really serious for the non-profit sector – not that you’d really understand that from the way many in philanthropy have used their considerable resources. The Council on Foundations, for instance, does support making permanent the current estate tax regime, though the matter shows up way down their list of public policy priorities, and one has rarely if ever heard the Council’s leadership making the case for the Estate Tax. Even with the more broadly-based, and often far more insightful, Independent Sector, this issue has not really achieved traction with the membership despite the best efforts of its leadership to remind us all of its importance.
Best estimates suggest that the sector will lose $25 billion each year, if the estate tax is abolished. The incentives for the creation of new foundations or the making of very large testamentary gifts to churches and non-profit organizations shift from financial to purely altruistic. In other words, without the tax deductions, people give less. And it means that if a billionaire expires during the next calendar year, she will pass down that entire fortune to her children or other beneficiaries intact. No taxes. No obligation to share with the society that enabled the accumulation of that fortune in the first place. As Bill Gates, Sr. has often commented, these huge fortunes are not easily assembled in other parts of the globe. The infrastructure, educational systems, regulated financial markets (okay, so we still have some work to do!), transportation systems, and everything else that contributes to the creation of successful businesses needs to be supported somehow, and the Estate Tax is a valuable tool for this.
Even more compelling to me, though, are the tragic social and economic consequences evolving from the advent of a new, permanent Upper Class. Declining family size almost ensures that fortunes of $100 million or more can become self-perpetuating fiefdoms in economic terms. In a manner similar to the nobility of the Middle Ages, who reigned over their lands with impunity through primogeniture (i.e. the oldest son gets the whole thing), the new economic elite will become sequestered and insulated from the broader society. Taxes on the income or realized gains from a large fortune will hardly dent its ability to be self-perpetuating. I just fail to see how this benefits society, this diverse and dynamic set of economic and social forces that has created so much in the world. In Kevin Phillips’ Wealth and Democracy, the author draws out the inextricable tie between social equity and the vibrancy of our democratic practice. The fact is inescapable – government must dampen the accumulation of “super-wealth”, and use the proceeds to create opportunity for “the many,” for, after all, the latter is what has always produced the best that America has achieved.
Among European progressives, there is a strong rallying cry for financial reform through the closing of tax havens. A French leader was just at the PES Congress podium decrying the loophole – perhaps in the EU? – that permits tax havens to escape more stringent regulation because there 12 of them and they have treaties with one another. If one has 12 such treaties, then you are somehow off the hook. I clearly need to learn more about this! It’s fascinating that progressives in the US aren’t more focused on this issue. This recent case with HSBC where the IRS finally has acquired access to a list of thousands of American holders of offshore accounts only addresses part of the problem and hardly serves to take the issue off the table.
It is an interesting thing, as I’m becoming more familiar with the issues before the PES Congress (http://www.pes.org/), to begin to understand the confusion European progressives seem to be experiencing in their failure to gain more traction with the voters even in this period of economic dislocation. It’s vaguely reminiscent of the confusion plaguing the Republicans these days – they are so certain they were right, they just can’t understand why folks don’t respond. Perhaps it’s just the natural swinging pendulum.
Just now, a French leader is decrying the failure of Europeans to address the financial crisis because of their ongoing failure to leave national agendas at the door and address the system as a whole.
She’s then followed by the Finance Minister (I think) of Austria who argues that the financial crisis is not over because the stock market is rising – instead, the true measure is when the unemployment rate declines. He went on to push for an aggressive requirement that the financial industry be required to finance an insurance pool that will preclude the need for taxpayer funded bailouts in the future.
Next up is the head of the Czech Socialist Party who argues for a unified surveillance program or capability as well as the Tobin Tax (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tobin_tax) that has gotten a good deal of attention at this Congress.
Last, Javier Moreno Sánchez – Global Progressive Forum’s new leader – announced a new campaign for financial reform – get rid of toxic products, pass a Tobin-like Tax, and implement a regulatory regime; the campaign is called the Europe Campaign for Financial Reform. Unlike the US, where energy seems to be flagging to get these ideas in front of a Congress preoccupied with healthcare and other matters, Europe seems more prepared to address this thorny issue. Not the first time, I should think.
* * * *
As the PES Congress winds down, delegates slowly head for the trains or the airport. In a slowly emptying hall, a couple of fascinating speeches concluded the gathering.The first, by a French leader whose name I didn’t catch, noted the absence of elected officials from the crowds. In part, he said, this reflected the electoral challenges experienced by social democrats and socialists in the recent EU elections. But in part, he argued, this resulted from the struggle of progressives to establish a clear identity. As with the first day, this sounded much like an echo from the post-2004 US experience.
Poul Nyrup Rasmussen then returned to conclude the proceedings. His remarkably personable way of communicating helped him accent the plan that gave rise to his runaway election to another term as President of the PES: grow the activist base of the Party from 20,000 to 50,000 by the next Congress, strengthen the structure of the organization, and run campaigns that clarify what progressives stand for: job growth, a green economy, and financial reforms. I conclude that we will see much more of this man over the coming years.
After lunch, I was sought out for a meeting with Javier Moreno Sánchez, the new Secretary General of the policy organization associated with the PES, the Global Progressive Forum, and several of his staff. Having delivered a speech in the morning, and otherwise been running ragged for the duration of the Congress, he looked tired but happy. His talk, referenced above, reflected his dominant policy interest – the passing of effective financial reforms for the EU. It turns out they had been hoping that Rob Johnson, my good friend who is now heading up a new program on economic policy with the Roosevelt Institute, would have been with us today to deliver a speech, but missed his plane. Needless to say, it would have been warmly received.
As we explored the ways the GPF and Tides might collaborate over the coming period, and there were many, I had the sense that this wild-haired idea of coming so far was indeed a stroke of good fortune for us both. Our nascent project to establish a presence in Europe will get a real jump-start as we build this relationship on the many topics of mutual interest: financial reform, immigration policy, Afghanistan, gender equity, and advancing the possibility of a green economy. The PES/GPF network is comprised of our European counterparts, and we should look forward to getting to know them over this next period.
As the only American attending this conference (so far as I could tell), I wondered if the boatloads of our colleagues, jostling one another for a glimpse of the official sessions as the meetings in Copenhagen commence, will be as fortunate. Somehow, I doubt it.
I’m an outsider attending the 1500 plus PES Congress in Prague (this is the European Union Party that collects progressives, labor, social democrats, and socialists from the various national parties throughout Europe). At yesterday’s preliminary session, I heard several familiar arguments, and some surprising ones.
First, Poul Nyrop Rasmussen, the President of the PES (roughly “Party of European Socialists” in several languages) talked with distain about the last election, not because the PES lost the election for the EU Parliament, but because “the sofa party” won. Turns out the “sofa party” was not a political acronym, but literally a sofa. Some 56% of the electorate did not vote. Sounds like America. One reason, it turns out, is that the social democrats and the more labor-oriented socialists in various countries split their votes between 2 candidates and thus muddied the message and lost the EU election.
While out of power, though, the PES seems to be borrowing from the US experience, circa 2004, in assembling a broad array of interests to create a clear political program built around three enets: creating green jobs through substantial public spending on Climate Change, a reinvestment in education and re-education of the workforce, and, in a fashion far more aggressive than current American proposals, reform of the financial markets. They are decidedly not anti-market, but want to manage markets with and through effective regulation – an idea far more acceptable on this side of the pond. Much of their thinking is embodied in a new book, shared with many at the conference, called The Next Left. Not exactly a quick read for the next plane trip, but effective and discursive as an intellectual framework worth examining.
Just now, Poul Nyrup Rasmussen was re-elected to the Presidency of the PES for another term. 320 some odd versus 6 votes. On the stage, he joked that it seemed like a “soviet era” election and then seriously took pains to see the election as a statement of trust in the program they are trying to build. He is part promoter, part cheerleader, and part strategic advisor. Watching the well-orchestrated Congress, and just beginning to understand the implications for Europe that a revitalized PES might mean, I come away impressed with the prospects they have to shift leftward the political winds in Europe. What I’m curious about is just how they will build a relationship to the work of the Green Parties – a smaller, but effective pan-European party that concentrates its efforts on environmental issues.