Monday, September 30, 2013

If Elizabeth Warren is "Far Left," Then So Is the American Public

Last night, the New York Times published an article by former POLITICO writer Jonathan Martin, entitled "Warren is Now the Hot Ticket Among the Far Left."

I saw the article when progressive organizer Zaid Jilani posted it to Twitter. Within about a half hour, the title had changed. It now reads "Populist Left Makes Warren Its Hot Ticket." It appeared that way in the Times's email digest. However, if you look at the URL address, you can still see the original title.

First of all, before going into the article itself, let's take a quick look at Jonathan Martin's background:
Before coming to Politico, Mr. Martin worked at National Journal's The Hotline and at National Review. Mr. Martin regularly appears on CNN, MSNBC, CSPAN, NPR, ABC and CBS to discuss politics. 
 The National Review? That explains a lot, doesn't it?

Now, let's go to the article. What do we learn about the "far left" in Jonathan Martin's political imagination?
After Senator Elizabeth Warren spoke at a luncheon in Beverly Hills, Calif., last month, women from the audience swarmed around her, many of them asking the same question: will you run for president?

Ms. Warren’s fiery speech at the national A.F.L.-C.I.O. convention this month set off even more excitement, with some union members standing on their chairs applauding and shouting out to her. And when she joined a MoveOn.org conference call this summer to promote her student loan legislation, 10,000 people got on the line — the liberal group’s biggest audience on any conference call in four years. 
 Women in Beverly Hills who are rich enough to attend a fundraiser, the AFL-CIO, and MoveOn.org are apparently bastions of the "far left" in Martin's mind.
But in seizing on issues animating her party’s base — the influence of big banks, soaring student loan debt and the widening gulf between the wealthy and the working class — Ms. Warren is challenging the centrist economic approach that has been the de facto Democratic policy since President Bill Clinton and his fellow moderates took control of the party two decades ago.
 It comes as no surprise that the Democratic Party's base is equal to the "far left" in the mind of a former National Review reporter. However, let's look at these three policy-related points. How popular are they?

In a Pew poll from September, 69% of Americans said that large banks and financial institutions have benefited the most from post-recession government policies. Roughly the same amount thought that the government had done little or nothing to help the poor (72%), the middle class (71%), and small businesses (67%).

Back in March, a Rasmussen poll asked, "Just 12 megabanks control about 69% of the banking industry. Would you favor or oppose a plan to break up the megabanks?" 50% of respondents supported such action. Only 23% opposed it.

According to a HuffPo/YouGov poll around the same time, 61% of respondents said that banks and other financial institutions have become too large and powerful; only 17 percent said their size is appropriate. In that same poll, 43% thought that financial regulations did not go far enough. 19% thought that they went too far. 15% thought that they were just right.

In a PPP poll from June on student loan plans, 60% of respondents supported Warren's student loan plan. Here was the question PPP asked:

Sen. Elizabeth Warren has introduced a bill called the "Bank on Students Loan Fairness Act" that would allow students to pay the same low interest rates -- about 0.75% -- on their student loans that the big banks pay. Do you support or oppose such a bill? 
 
A poll by The Hill in October 2011 found that two-thirds of likely voters thought that the middle-class was shrinking and that 55% believed that income inequality had become a big problem for the country. 19% believed that income inequality was "somewhat" of a problem, and only 21% thought it wasn't much of a problem at all.

A Pew poll from August 2012 found that 58% of the public thought that upper income Americans are paying too little in taxes. Only 8% thought that they were paying their "fair share."

Now, let's go to a commonly discussed policy for helping working Americans: increasing the minimum wage. A February 2012 poll by Lake Research found that 73 percent of voters want to see the minimum wage raised to $10 an hour by 2014. That included 50 percent of Republicans.

If Elizabeth Warren is "far left," then so, apparently, are the American people.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Who Broke Party Line in the Budget Votes Last Night?

Last night, the House took several budget-related votes, putting us on the path toward a government shutdown.

The first vote was to amend the Senate continuing resolution, or CR, with the repeal of the medical device tax.

That passed by a vote of 248 to 174.

17 Democrats defected from the party line:

Ron Barber (AZ-02)
John Barrow (GA-12)
Cheri Bustos (IL-17)
John Delaney (MD-06)
Tammy Duckworth (IL-08)
Bill Enyart (IL-12)
Dan Maffei (NY-24)
Sean Maloney (NY-18)
Jim Matheson (UT-04)
Mike McIntyre (NC-07)
Jerry McNerney (CA-09)
Patrick Murphy (FL-18)
Bill Owens (NY-21)
Scott Peters (CA-52)
Nick Rahall (WV-03)
Brad Schneider (IL-10)
Kyrsten Sinema (AZ-09)

In the next vote, the House voted to amend the Senate's CR with a one-year delay in implementation of provisions of the Affordable Care Act like the health care marketplaces and the individual mandate.

That passed by a vote of 231 to 192.

Two Republicans defected from party line: Chris Gibson (NY-19) and Richard Hanna (NY-22).

Two Democrats defected from party line: Jim Matheson (UT-04) and Mike McIntyre (NC-07).

Keep in mind that both Matheson and McIntyre are on the DCCC's Front Line, so the $$$s they collect by fundraising off this vote will go to the two Democrats who voted with GOP to shut down the government.

Many members of the DCCC Front Line, all of whom face tight races, voted against both of these measures. John Tierney (MA-06) and Carol Shea-Porter (NH-01) come to mind as examples of some of the better names on the Front Line. So those who voted for them have no excuses.

And honestly, the Democratic Party would be better off by cutting funds from party deadwood and making actual efforts to win blue seats held by Republicans like those of Pete King and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. However, Steve Israel's friendship with King and DWS's friendship with Ileana are perpetual roadblocks.

In addition, the House also unanimously voted to continue appropriations for military pay in the event of a government shutdown.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

House Advances Bill to Sell AZ Public Lands to Foreign Mining Company, Kills Two Dem Amendments

While you were busy watching Ted Cruz yesterday, the House started the amendment process on H.R. 687, the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act of 2013. H.R. 687 would expedite the sale of 2,400 acres of public lands in Arizona to Resolution Copper, bypassing the normal permitting process and environmental assessments. Oak Flat, the public land being privatized, is a popular camping ground, especially with rock climbers, and contains Native American sacred sites.

Yesterday, the House killed two amendments, one by Rep. Raul Grijalva on local job creation and one by Rep. Grace Napolitano on clean water protection. I'll get to those shortly. First, let's take a look at the legislation itself.

So what is it?

H.R. 687, the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act of 2013, was introduced by GOP Rep. Paul Gosar (AZ-04). The three other Republicans from Arizona--Matt Salmon (AZ-05), David Schweikert (AZ-06), and Trent Franks (AZ-08)--are all co-sponsors, as is Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick (AZ-01), one of the most conservative members of the caucus.

Here's the description offered by Steny Hoyer on the webpage for the Democratic Whip's office:
The bill directs the U.S. Agriculture Department to convey approximately 2,400 acres of federal Forest Service land to Resolution Copper, a mining company, if the company agrees to provide roughly 5,000 acres of non-federal land in return (roughly 1,200 acres would become National Forest land and the rest would be managed by the Bureau of Land Management). The 2,400 acres of land that would be provided to Resolution Copper are located in Pinal County, Ariz., and are known as the Oak Flat Parcel. The area is likely home to the country’s 3rd largest copper deposit, estimated at a size of 1.6 billion tons or about 25% of the U.S. copper supply over the next 40 years. However, the bill limits review of the environmental effects of this land transfer and has raised concern among several Native American tribes that it does not include consultation regarding the protection of sacred and cultural sites prior to the land transfer.
(Emphasis added) 
It is now the 12th attempt at the land exchange.

The bill passed out of Committee (Natural Resources) on May 15th, in a vote of 23 to 19. The vote was party line with one exception: Democrat Rep. Steven Horsford (NV-04), who has a big mining district, voted for it.

Who supports it?

Rep. Gosar has a list of supporters in Arizona and nationwide. Unsurprisingly, it has the support of Arizona's Republican governor, Jan Brewer.

Members of the national business community listed as supporters are the following:

U.S. Chamber of Commerce
American Supply Association Letter of Support
American Clean Energy Resources Trust  Letter of Support
Associated General Contractors of America Letter of Support
Northwest Mining Association
National Mining Association
National Association of Manufacturers

Rep. Gosar is very loose in his definition of "support," though. He includes a letter from the Nature Conservancy (whose name he spells incorrectly) in his list of letters of support. Here's the second line of the Nature Conservancy's letter: "The Nature Conservancy has no formal position on this legislation."

Who opposes it?

Environmental groups and tribal organizations oppose this legislation.

The Arizona Mining Reform Coalition organized a letter of various groups in opposition to the legislation, including environmental, conservation, outdoor recreation, and religious organizations.
Here is the body of the letter:
Rio Tinto and BHP - Billiton have created a subsidiary that is proposing to mine an ore body more than 7,000 feet below the surface east of Superior, Arizona. As a first step, Rio Tinto asked Representatives Gosar and Kirkpatrick to introduce HR 687 that would end an executive order banning mining from Oak Flat Campground and privatize more than 2,400 acres of public land. The bill asks Congress to make a determination that the land exchange is in the best interest of the United States without the benefit of the normal process of permitting mines on public land which would require a mining plan of operations to be prepared. It bypasses the normal process of permitting mines on public lands that require the US Forest Service to conduct studies looking at a full range of impacts and alternatives required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). HR 687 is special interest legislation that would trade away the Oak Flat Campground and surrounding federal lands to foreign mining companies. Oak Flat is sacred to Native Americans and is critical for cultural and recreational activities.

• HR 687 is the only piece of legislation in Congress that would turn over a Native American sacred site on federal lands to foreign mining companies.

• HR 687 would mandate the loss of the largest amount of federal lands ever for recreational rock climbing resulting in financial ruin for small businesses based on the climbing industry.

• HR 687 would result in massive dewatering of the riparian area and the loss of habitat critical to rare and endangered plants and animals.

Not only have the previous 11 versions of the bill failed, there are many new reasons that the land exchange is particularly inappropriate at this time.

• While Rio Tinto promised the United States Senate in February of 2012 that a mining plan of operations would be submitted to the US Forest Service by June of 2012, no document has yet been produced. In fact, it would be impossible for Rio Tinto to produce a valid mining plan of operations at this time, as the company has not even completed basic exploratory work or other critical studies. The US Congress is being asked to privatize public land that is far more valuable for non-mining uses without the benefit of being able to look at a plan that answers basic questions needed to show that the health and welfare of the public and the environment would be protected. Further, on April 25th at a public meeting, Rio Tinto admitted that is does not even know where it would be able to dump 1.6 billion tons of toxic mine waste and that a mining plan could not be written until a suitable dump site is found.
• The town Council of Superior passed a unanimous resolution on March 13 opposing HR 687 (attached) and has terminated a mutual benefits agreement with Rio Tinto citing that the agreement and the bill protects the company, but not the town.

• The town of Queen Valley’s Homeowners Association and Golf association oppose a mine at Oak Flat because it would dewater the town and place environmentally hazardous tailings at the gateway to the town.
(Emphasis added) 
And here are the organizations that signed on to the open letter:

 Arizona Mining Reform Coalition - Access Fund - The American Alpine Club - Center for Biological Diversity - Comstock Residents Association - Concerned Citizens and Retired Miners Coalition - Concerned Climbers of Arizona, LLC - Earthworks - Environment Arizona - Friends of Ironwood Forest - Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness - Friends Of The Cloquet Valley State Forest - Friends of the Kalmiopsis - Groundwater Awareness League - High Country Citizens' Alliance - Information Network for Responsible Mining - Keepers of the Water - Maricopa Audubon Society - Ministers’ Conference of Winston-Salem, North Carolina & Vicinity - The Morning Star Institute - Mount Graham Coalition - Natural Resources Defense Council - Progressive National Baptist Convention - Religion and Human Rights Forum for the Preservation of Native American Sacred Sites and Rights - Rock Creek Alliance - San Juan Citizens Alliance - Save Our Cabinets - Save Our Sky Blue Waters - Save the Scenic Santa Ritas - Sierra Club - Sky Island Alliance - The Lands Council - Western Lands Project - Wilderness Workshop - Wisconsin Resources Protection Council

Here are petitions from the Sierra Club and the Arizona Mining Reform Coalition.

In addition to environmental groups, many tribal nations and organizations also oppose H.R. 687 and have provided testimony against it:

National Congress of American Indians
Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, Inc.
San Carlos Apache Tribe
White Mountain Apache Tribe
Yavapai Apache Nation
Navajo Nation
Hopi Tribe
Ft. McDowell Yavapai Nation
Mescalero Apache Nation
United Southern and Eastern Tribe, Inc.
Jicarilla Apache Nation
Pueblo of Tesuque
Pueblo of Zuni
Pascua Yaqui Tribe
Susanville Indian Rancheria
All Indian Pueblo Council
Eight Northern Indian Pueblos
Tohono O'odham Nation
Azee Bee Nahagha of Dine Nation
Karuk Tribe
Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians
Inter Tribal Council of Nevada, Inc.
Great Plains Tribal Chairman's Association
Picuris Pueblo
Ramona band of Cahuilla

So what happened on Thursday?

Thursday, while you were busy reading about the looming government shutdown, the House voted on two amendments to the bill and killed them both.

Rep. Raul Grijalva offered an amendment to require the Remote Operating Center for mining operations conducted on lands conveyed under the bill to be located in the town of Superior, Arizona, or an adjacent mining community to ensure jobs are created in local communities. The bill's boosters love to say that it will create jobs, right? So why not guarantee that those jobs will benefit the local community.

This amendment failed by voice vote in Committee back in May. On Thursday, it failed 180 to 227. The vote was largely party line with some exceptions, of course. Two Republicans--Chris Gibson (NY-19) and Walter Jones (NC-03) voted for it.

The following 9 Democrats voted against it:

Jim Cooper (TN-05)
John Delaney (MD-06)
Bill Foster (IL-11)
Jim Himes (CT-04)
Dan Maffei (NY-24)
Jim Matheson (UT-04)
Patrick Murphy (FL-18)
Scott Peters (CA-52)
Jared Polis (CO-02)

Rep. Grace Napolitano (CA-38) offered an amendment to protect water quality and water quantity for the people living and working near this proposed mine, given estimates that mining operations will consume the equivalent of the annual water supply for 20,000 homes. Her amendment had failed in Committee 18 to 23. In the vote yesterday, the House likewise killed it, voting it down 191 to 217.
Only one Democrat voted no. That would be one of the Blue Doggiest of the Blue Blue Dogs Jim Matheson (UT-04). Six Republicans voted for it: Justin Amash (MI-03), Mike Coffman (CO-06), Chris Gibson (NY-19), Walter Jones (NC-03), Pat Meehan (PA-07), and Scott Tipton (CO-03).

What next?

I'd encourage you to sign one of the petitions to which I linked above and to call your representatives in Congress. If you are in Arizona, you might want to connect with one of the organizations listed above as well.

I'll keep an eye out on the legislation as it moves forward.

Monday, September 23, 2013

These NYT Headlines Epitomize Everything Wrong with "He Said/She Said" Journalism

This morning, when reading the New York Times email digest, two headlines particularly irked me. Both happened to be in the Politics section and embodied the pseudo-objectivity sought by the "process media." In their attempts to eschew "ideology" or "normative judgment" to avoid criticism of partisan bias, such media outlets resort to discussions of theatrics over substance and inject their own normative frame by bestowing equal validity on all claims.

The first headline was "Lawmakers Point Fingers Over Budget Deadlock" by Michael Schwirtz. Here's the lede that appeared in the digest:
With days left to avert a possible government shutdown, Congressional leaders from both parties on Sunday passed around blame and resorted to name-calling.
You see, both sides are equally at fault here. And they have resorted to "name-calling" and a "blame game"! Aren't our Congresspersons such petulant children? Can you believe what brats the Senate Democrats are for not wanting to defund the implementation of the signature health care law of the Democratic president's first term? 

The "name-calling" will not affect the public. The policy preferences advanced by both parties does. However, if you acknowledge that the House Republicans are being "mean-spirited class warriors," then you're just being shrill.

The other headline was "Ad Campaigns Compete as Health Law Rollout Looms," for an article by Michael D. Shear. Here's the lede from the digest:
As the Obama administration prepares to put the health care law in place, it faces an aggressive Republican campaign to prevent its success.
Notice how the headline places the campaigns on an equal normative playing field. They are rivals "competing" with each other. The headline does not imply that the Republicans are trying to obstruct the implementation of a democratically passed law and are shamelessly trying to persuade young people not to purchase health insurance. 

The one sentence summary is a step up from the headline, but it fails to convey how brazen and hypocritical the Republicans are in this matter. People with the best insurance money can buy are trying to persuade others from getting health insurance---after, of course, they long opposed any efforts at making insurance genuinely universal.

Friday, September 20, 2013

While You Weren't Looking, The House GOP Just Passed Two Anti-Environment Bills

There's been a lot going on this week, and most of us have probably been paying a lot of attention to the GOP's frankly immoral quest to prevent people from having access to food or health insurance.

However, in addition to really hating the working poor, the elderly, the disabled, and children, the GOP really hates the environment--especially when it gets in the way of profit. Consequently, the House GOP passed two bills gutting environmental protections this week, both (unfortunately) with some Democratic help.

On Wednesday, the House passed the National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act of 2013 by a vote of 246 to 178. 15 Democrats voted with the full Republican caucus in attendance in favor of this giveaway to mining companies.

The bill would speed up the federal approval process for mineral mining and exploration, allowing federal agencies only 30 months to decide on whether to approve or reject permits and limiting the ability of parties to stop mining via the court system.

I'll allow the great Rep. Rush Holt to explain the problems with this bill:

"Under the guise of promoting the development of minerals critical to the United States' national security, this legislation would reshape mining decisions on public lands for almost all minerals," said Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.). "The bill's classification of critical minerals is so broad that even sand and gravel and other such things can fall under its definition."

Holt said the broad definition amounts to a "giveaway" to mining companies. He also rejected the idea that federal agencies are slowing down the approval process for mining companies simply to make their lives miserable.

"They are charged with protecting the lands that belong to Americans, the health of Americans and the long-term welfare of the communities," he said of federal agencies. 
 
The Democrats who voted for this corporate giveaway were, for the most part, the usual suspects:

John Barrow (GA-12)
Sanford Bishop (GA-02)
Jim Costa (CA-16)
Henry Cuellar (TX-28)
Pete Gallego (TX-23)

Steven Horsford (NV-04)
Jim Matheson (UT-04)
Mike McIntyre (NC-07)
Grace Meng (NY-106)
Rick Nolan (MN-08)

Bill Owens (NY-21)
Collin Peterson (MN-07)
Terri Sewell (AL-07)
Dina Titus (NV-01)
Filemon Vela (TX-34)

Several Democrats proposed amendments to restrict the legislation; all of their amendments failed. I will highlight two of them here.

Gerry Connolly (VA-11) proposed an amendment that would require the completion of an environmental impact for mineral exploration and mining projects before their approval. It failed 186 to 240.

10 Democrats voted with the full Republican caucus:

John Barrow (GA-12)
Sanford Bishop (GA-02)
Henry Cuellar (TX-28)
Pete Gallego (TX-23)
Dan Maffei (NY-24)
Jim Matheson (UT-04)
Bill Owens (NY-21)
Collin Peterson (MN-07)
Kyrsten Sinema (AZ-09)
Filemon Vela (TX-34)

Alcee Hastings (FL-20) proposed an amendment that would require mining companies' insurance policies to include possible cleanup costs. It failed 191 to 235. Only 1 Republican---NY-19's Chris Gibson--voted for it. Five Democrats voted against it:

Dan Maffei (NY-24)
Jim Matheson (UT-04)
Mike McIntyre (NC-07)
Bill Owens (NY-21)
Ed Perlmutter (CO-07)

The other bill passed by the House GOP was the deceptively titled Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act. (Deceptive nomenclature is an art for the GOP.) The bill would require timber production on at least half of federal forestlands. The bill's supporters claimed that it would help reduce forest fires. If they cared about reducing forest fires, then they might stop blocking efforts to address climate change. But our House Republicans are not known for their consistency or rational thinking. So it goes.

Oh, and the bill also waives environmental laws such as the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

The bill passed 244 to 173, largely along partisan lines. One Republican--again, Gibson--voted against it. 17 Democrats voted for it. Here they are:

Ron Barber (AZ-02)
John Barrow (GA-12)
Sanford Bishop (GA-02)
Jim Costa (CA-16)
Henry Cuellar (TX-28)

Pete DeFazio (OR-04)
Bill Enyart (IL-12)
Ann Kirkpatrick (AZ-01)
Jim Matheson (UT-04)
Mike McIntyre (NC-07)

Rick Nolan (MN-08)
Bill Owens (NY-21)
Collin Peterson (MN-07)
Nick Rahall (WV-03)
Kurt Schrader (OR-05)

Kyrsten Sinema (AZ-09)
Terri Sewell (AL-07)

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Using the Term "Obamacare" to Refer to PPACA Just Furthers Public Confusion and Misunderstanding

For a while now, I've wanted to write a rant on the problematic embrace by the "centrist" and liberal media of the right-wing nickname "Obamacare" for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The universal use of the term is a sign of journalistic and intellectual laziness, a preference for convenience at the expense of clarity.

Some liberals and Democrats say they want to use the term in order to re-claim or re-appropriate it. Obama himself has even playfully alluded to this idea, noting how he likes the implication that he "cares." Re-appropriation, however, often ends up as little more than singing to the choir.

I want to address several ways in which the use of the term concedes the terms of debate to Republicans or just continues (or exacerbates) public confusion.

Amplifying Partisan Bias

Although the term "Obamacare" was first used by a health care lobbyist in 2007, its etymological origins lie within Republican messaging. Republicans used the term "HillaryCare" pejoratively to refer to the Health Security Act of 1993, the legislation crafted by the Clintons and their advisers. The term "HillaryCare" intensified the partisanship through which individuals viewed the legislation because it ensured that one's views of the Clintons shaped one's views of the proposal itself. The media adopted the term out of laziness and a desire to simplify rather than inform.

In 2007, amidst the presidential primaries, Mitt Romney was the first politician to use the term "Obamacare" in a similarly pejorative fashion. The term, of course, would gain far more popularity during the long period of congressional debate and backroom deal-making that led to the creation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Act and then during the subsequent election cycles. The term invites you--encourages you--to view PPACA as you view the president. If you are a conservative who dislikes the president, the name "Obamacare" sends a signal to you on a rather visceral level that "Affordable Care Act" does not. It should come as no surprise, then, that polls have found that Republicans support the "Affordable Care Act" more than they support "Obamacare." There's no dog whistle in the former, just wonkery.

Liberals like to view this contrast with a mix of mockery and frustration: "Look at those conservatives who like the Affordable Care Act more than Obamacare. They're the same thing!" And then those liberals will continue to use the term "Obamacare," even though they know that it strengthens conservative opposition. The GOP has well-paid spin doctors and pollsters who focus group various options for framing key issues. The GOP would not be using "Obamacare" as incessantly as they do if they didn't think it advanced their goals.

A Hint of Authoritarianism

The name "ObamaCare" (or "HillaryCare" or "RomneyCare," for that matter) connotes a sense of paternalism or authoritarianism, an echo of the personality cult even (these aren't mutually exclusive in the slightest). One gets the impression that the namesake of the program (And it connotes a discrete program, not a policy framework) branded his or her name on every newly issued card---that rather than get an Independence Blue Cross card, you'll get a Barack Obama card or a Hillary Clinton card, with the namesake's face eerily smiling back at you. Merge the "nanny state" of the conservative imagination with "Big Brother."

And this aspect of the term feeds into another Republican talking point: that the Affordable Care Act is "putting the government between you and your doctor." The "Big Brother" aspects of the term "Obamacare" advance such a frame, conveying that the president is trying to place himself directly there in the doctor's office. The power of the executive appears bloated and intrusive. (Never mind, of course, that Republicans want to put the government in your bedroom or between you and your doctor if you are a woman seeking consultation on terminating a pregnancy.)


Stoking Public Confusion

The use of the suffix "-care" in the nickname evokes the most prominent program with that suffix, Medicare. In other words, it implies that "Obamacare" is a health insurance plan. It is not. The Affordable Care Act is a Rube Goldberg structure of regulations, subsidies, and programs expanded or created anew.

It should come as no surprise then that 57% of people thought that the Affordable Care Act "create[d] a new government-run health insurance plan to be offered along with private plans" according to a Kaiser poll from March. Only 28% of people surveyed correctly knew that the law did not do this. And those percentages have barely changed since the first Kaiser poll in 2010.

Remember the story from the Huffington Post from last month about the insurance exchanges?

A middle-aged man in a red golf shirt shuffles up to a small folding table with gold trim, in a booth adorned with a flotilla of helium balloons, where government workers at the Kentucky State Fair are hawking the virtues of Kynect, the state’s health benefit exchange established by Obamacare.

The man is impressed. "This beats Obamacare I hope," he mutters to one of the workers.

“Do I burst his bubble?” wonders Reina Diaz-Dempsey, overseeing the operation. She doesn't. If he signs up, it's a win-win, whether he knows he's been ensnared by Obamacare or not. It is no surprise that he is confused. He probably thinks that "Obamacare" is a government-run health insurance plan as the name implies, rather than a complex health policy framework including state-administered market-based exchange through which he would be required to purchase private health insurance.

The inspiration for writing this piece came from a tweet I saw the other night. Al-Jazeera English tweeted a link asking, "Are young people going to sign up for Obamacare?" After reading that, my response was "Well, what the heck do you mean?" Do you mean "Will young people sign up for the insurance exchanges in their state through which they would buy private insurance, perhaps with government subsidies if they qualify?" Do you mean "Will young people sign up for Medicaid if they fall in the threshold of the expanded coverage?" You can't "sign up for Obamacare" because "Obamacare" is not a health insurance plan. Equating the exchanges (the part) with the law itself (the whole) creates a corrupted, reverse synecdoche that just furthers public confusion. And confused people dislike what is making them confused.

The use of the term "Obamacare" to refer simultaneously or alternately to the "state-level health insurance exchanges" and the "Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act" also creates confusion about what the law has already done so far. It is lazy or just inaccurate to say that "Obamacare" starts when the exchanges begin or when the individual mandate takes effect. A number of provisions of the law have already taken effect, some immediately. Let's take a look at the timeline provided by healthcare.gov.

Here's what took effect immediately in 2010 after the signing of the law:

Coverage for children with pre-existing conditions

Coverage for young adults under 26

No more lifetime limits on coverage

No more arbitrary cancellations or rescissions

Right to appeal health plan decisions

Consumer Assistance Program

Small business tax credit

Temporary coverage for people with pre-existing conditions

Community Health Centers 
And then in 2011, the following pieces were implemented:

Prescription drug discounts for seniors

Free Medicare preventive services for seniors

The 80/20 Rule (Medical Loss Ratio)

Rate Review
And then in 2012:

New preventive services for women

Summary of Benefits and Coverage 
As you know, the insurance exchanges are slated to start next month.

Many provisions take effect next year or, because of recent self-imposed delays, the following year.
2014

January 1: Coverage begins in the Health Insurance Marketplace

Coverage for pre-existing conditions

Savings on monthly premiums and out-of-pocket costs

Medicaid expansion

No more yearly limits on coverage

Expanded small business tax credit

March 31: Open enrollment closes

2015: Employer Shared Responsibility Payment 
(If you want an explanation of any of these pieces, just go to the website.)

In other words, the health policy framework created by PPACA has not yet been fully implemented. However, many changes have already been made. Equating "Obamacare" with the full law and then also with the "exchanges + mandate" makes people forget the changes that have already been made and not realize some of the benefits they may have already received. For example, because of PPACA, I was able to stay under my dad's insurance during grad school and during my job search several months after graduation. But the language used to speak of the law allows people to forget about those comparatively small changes that nonetheless have very real and important impacts on people.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Has Thomas Friedman Outdone Himself This Time?

When I was reading Thomas Friedman's op-ed in the Times this morning, I had to convince myself that I was not reading a parody of a Thomas Friedman op-ed. Seriously.

Here are the first two paragraphs, which are the best part:
I was at a conference in Bern, Switzerland, last week and struggling with my column. News of Russia’s proposal for Syria to surrender its poison gas was just breaking and changing every hour, forcing me to rewrite my column every hour. To clear my head, I went for a walk along the Aare River, on Schifflaube Street. Along the way, I found a small grocery shop and stopped to buy some nectarines. As I went to pay, I was looking down, fishing for my Swiss francs, and when I looked up at the cashier, I was taken aback: He had pink hair. A huge shock of neon pink hair — very Euro-punk from the ’90s. While he was ringing me up, a young woman walked by, and he blew her a kiss through the window — not a care in the world.

Observing all this joie de vivre, I thought to myself: “Wow, wouldn’t it be nice to be a Swiss? Maybe even to sport some pink hair?” Though I can’t say for sure, I got the feeling that the man with pink hair was not agonizing over the proper use of force against Bashar al-Assad. Not his fault; his is a tiny country. I guess worrying about Syria is the tax you pay for being an American or an American president — and coming from the world’s strongest power that still believes, blessedly in my view, that it has to protect the global commons. Barack Obama once had black hair. But his is gray now, not pink. That’s also the tax you pay for thinking about the Middle East too much: It leads to either gray hair or no hair, but not pink hair.
No, I did not create that with the Thomas Friedman Op/Ed Generator. It is real. Go look for yourself.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Bernie Sanders Manages a Graceful Parting Jab at Larry Summers

As you have probably already seen, Larry Summers has taken himself out of consideration for the nomination for chairman of the Federal Reserve. Meteor Blades and jj32 both have diaries up right now on that.

I wanted to highlight the statement that Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) made about Summers's withdrawal from consideration:

“I applaud Larry Summers for withdrawing his name from consideration. The truth is that it was unlikely he would have been confirmed by the Senate. What the American people want now is a Fed chairman prepared to stand up to the greed, recklessness and illegal behavior on Wall Street, not a Wall Street insider whose deregulation efforts helped pave the way for a horrendous financial crisis and the worst economic downturn in the country since the Great Depression. The Fed now must help develop policies which create millions of decent-paying jobs and rebuild the middle class.”

(Emphasis added)

Sanders has been vocally critical of the prospect of nominating Larry Summers--or any Robert Rubin acolyte for that matter--for chairman of the Fed. I enjoyed the parting jab he managed to get in before the conversation changes.

A Morning Prayers Address by Larry Summers, Harvard Memorial Hall, 9/15/2003: ANNOTATED

Yesterday, I finished reading Michael Sandel's What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. I found the book interesting albeit a bit disappointing since much of Sandel's discussion failed to penetrate deeper into the relationship between market thinking and morality--or even to take a step further to discuss the relationship between capitalism and morality. (If such matters interest you, read the book forum from last fall's edition of The Hedgehog Review).

In one of his chapters, Sandel mentions a Morning Prayers address that then-president of Harvard University Larry Summers delivered at the university's Memorial Church. After reading the excerpts, I wanted to read the full speech, knowing I would enjoy criticizing Summers's arguments.
As you probably know, it seems increasingly likely that Obama will nominate Summers to chair the Fed despite the reservations that many Democrats have about him and despite his key involvement in the financial deregulation that paved the way for the financial collapse, his notoriously bad temperament, his refusal ever to acknowledge that maybe--just maybe--he might have been wrong, his having lost Harvard a ton of money, his vocal support for outsourcing and contempt for its critics, his past support dumping toxic waste in third-world countries, his chauvinism, etc., etc. The strikes against him are too many to name just now.

The Morning Prayers address that he delivered ten years ago exactly (September 15, 2003) reveals a lot about his worldview and his sense of morality and economics, and it's not flattering.
I'm going to skip the first two paragraphs because they are just introductory. So here goes.
I want to reflect this morning on what the discipline that I am trained in -- economics -- can contribute to thinking about moral questions. Economics provides just one perspective, but one that I think is too rarely appreciated for its moral as well as practical significance.

Indeed, it is fair to say that economists like me rarely appear in places like this. Just why is not altogether clear. But when it comes to preaching economists, it strikes me that there is both a lack of demand and a lack of supply. A lack of demand because so many believe that any economic way of thinking is one that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. A lack of supply because many economists are instinctively uncomfortable with moral, let alone spiritual, discourse.
Maybe people tend not to invite economists to speak in such venues because, as studies have shown, they tend to be more selfish than those in other disciplines.  (Go here for a review of such studies.)
And yet, it seems to me there are some aspects of characteristic economic modes of reasoning that complement other modes of moral thought. One important thing that is distinctive about the way economists approach the world is their great emphasis on respect for individuals -- and the needs, tastes, choices and judgment they make for themselves. It is the basis of much economic analysis that the good is an aggregation of many individuals' assessments of their own well-being, and not something that can be assessed apart from individual judgments on the basis of some overarching or separate theory.
Economists often like to believe that they have a realistic view of individuals. However, Homo Economicus--the utility-maximizing, rational, self-interested individual of the economics textbook--is more imagined than real. Economists, rather than respecting individuals as such, impose their own set of morals on them. Neuroscientists and behavioral economists (not just philosophers, theologians, and artists) have been challenging the economistic view of the individual.

Summers's comments here imply a denigration of public goods and a failure to acknowledge that public goods like health and education have spillover effects, providing benefits to others beyond the immediate recipient of such services.
I was reminded of these issues as I had a chance over the weekend to engage with many students at the freshman barbecues on issues of moral concern to all of us. For example, many believe that it is wrong to buy imported products produced by workers who are paid less than a specified minimum wage of some sort. We all deplore the conditions in which so many on this planet work and the paltry compensation they receive. And yet there is surely some moral force to the concern that as long as the workers are voluntarily employed, they have chosen to work because they are working to their best alternative. Is narrowing an individual's set of choices an act of respect, of charity, even of concern? From this perspective the morality of restrictions on imports or boycotts advocated by many is less than entirely transparent.
This reminded me of Matt Yglesias's argument after the tragic garment factory fire in Bangladesh that other countries don't need stronger safety laws.

Larry Summers fails to acknowledge that not all choices made in the market are completely free because individuals do not have equal power in market relationships. Rather than offering the widest array of free choice and action, markets can actually constrain individual choice, forcing those with less power or agency into unfavorable arrangements because they lack other alternatives. Boycotts are by no means perfect as a mechanism for influencing corporate behavior, but they aim to shame the employer into improving the conditions for labor, a worthwhile goal by all means. If the sweatshop is the "best alternative" available, then we should demand better labor standards and support greater bargaining and organizing power for the workers. We should also demand better national and international standards for labor conditions and corporate accountability. Summers exhibits a rather crude humanitarianism that reminds me of the arguments of those who defend child labor or oppose the minimum wage and accuse their opponents of paternalism.

Such boycotts are not motivated by "charity," if we take that word in its common meaning. "Concern" and "respect" are closer to the sentiment present. The prominent labor term "solidarity" is probably even more fitting because such boycotts are a way of saying that you will not be complicit in the violation of the dignity of the exploited workers for the profit of the employer.
In a similar vein, it is often suggested that the marketization or Westernization of indigenous cultures is doing great damage. And surely in some cases it is. But here too, the individual-based perspective may help us to see a different side of the moral question -- for an economist would attend first to those directly affected rather than to the judgments of those who are new to the situation. It disturbs the sensibilities of many of us to imagine the TV show "Survivor" being beamed to satellite dishes in rural villages or the pervasiveness of the Nike symbol, but if that is what people want, we need to be cautious about opposing their having it.
Summers appears to believe that a show like "Survivor" or a product like a Nike shoe are born from the dreams of countless individuals, rather than the ideas of a few people in a marketing or product design office.

He also appears unable to comprehend that there could be indigenous opposition to the commercialization of their societies and the infiltration of foreign corporations that comes with the trade liberalization pushed on Latin American countries by the IMF and the World Bank.
There is another observation that is closely related. There is much that is wrong with the market, but one of the things that most bothers many people of faith about market mechanisms is the idea that there is something wrong with a system where we are able to buy bread only because of the greed or profit motive of the people who make the bread. Here I would be very cautious. We all have only so much altruism in us. Economists like me think of altruism as a valuable and rare good that needs conserving. Far better to conserve it by designing a system in which people's wants will be satisfied by individuals being selfish, and saving that altruism for our families, our friends, and the many social problems in this world that markets cannot solve. This is not just an abstraction -- the far larger degree of private charity in this country than in Western Europe, and in Western Europe than in the socialist economies, is worth some reflection -- especially in institutions like this one that are made possible by acts of private altruism.
I'm going to make some of my quick responses first and then go into the longer one.

First, what, in his mind, are the "many social problems in this world that markets cannot solve"? He does not specify what they are or whether he believes that they should be solved by government (i.e. the organized public) or by voluntary individual charity. I'd guess he'd say the latter.

Second, I do not think that anyone is saying that said baker should only bake bread so that he can selflessly provide it for others. He is working for a livelihood; insofar as he is paid, his work is not entirely selfless. He is not merely handing out loaves of bread to the poor on the street. Rather, the critiques of capitalism from people of faith (or lack of faith but ample humanism) seek to eradicate, limit, or deprioritize the role of profit. The quest for profit should not be the reason why the baker bakes bread. His motivations should entail the development of talent, intellect, and personality; the advancement of craft; the performance of a service beneficial to society; and the need to provide for himself and his family if he has one. (I could go on a long tangent on the different moral qualities of dividends and interest, influenced by R. H. Tawney, but I will refrain.)

The underlying ethic of an economy rooted in service would not be altruism alone and certainly not selfishness, but rather a sense of jointness (or interdependence or mutuality), both other-regarding and self-regarding.

Next, to which countries is he referring when he says "socialist countries"? As of now (and it would have been the same in 2003), there are only four countries that ascribe to a Marxist-Leninist form of socialism as state doctrine: China, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam. China's economy is really more state capitalism than socialism.  Vietnam has also been described as operating under a system of state capitalism. Laos has also moved in such a direction. The left often critiques Cuba for state capitalism as well.

Bangladesh, Guyana, India, North Korea, Portugal, Sri Lanka, and Tanzania all also make references to socialism in their constitutions. Most of these countries have encountered significant privatization since the writing of their constitutions, and North Korea has also received critique and praise for moving in the direction of state capitalism.

But the claim of the contrast between the U.S. and Western Europe is much more clear, so let's look at that one more closely. We can look at charitable giving in two ways: the percentage of people who give and the total amount given.

Every year, the Charities Aid Foundation releases the World Giving Index, which ranks countries by the percentage of people who volunteer time, donate money, or help strangers. (They determine this through a survey. Go to their site if you have questions on methodology). In 2012, the U.S. ranked #13 for "giving money." Ahead of the U.S. (in descending order) were Ireland, Australia, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Indonesia, Thailand, Denmark, New Zealand, Malta, Canada, Hong Kong, and Cambodia. Sweden and Luxembourg ranked just below the U.S. The U.S. actually came out last among the Anglo nations, and it was beaten by four Western European countries: Ireland, the Netherlands, the U.K., and Denmark.  It did, however, score far better than countries like Germany (#28), Italy (#35), and France (#53).

In terms of charitable giving as a percentage of GDP, the United States does come out on top according to the Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies. About a third of charitable giving in the U.S. goes to houses of worship--some of that will go to altruistic purposes like soup kitchens, but not all of it will.

However, the size of the philanthropic sector in the U.S. parallels the weakness of its welfare state. Charitable giving that goes to address poverty, food insecurity, lack of health care access, lack of quality education, etc., are signs of a failure of the state to provide for the basic needs of its populace. Western European countries are much better at providing such public goods and services. An ethic of solidarity or community replaces one of mere charity. And I'd say that's a good thing.
There is much to argue with what I have said. But I will have served my purpose if I have suggested that many of the viewpoints that are dismissed as selfish or "just economic" are motivated not by an unwillingness to grapple with moral issues but with an insistence that often the highest morality is respecting the choices and views of people who we all want to help.
This is very similar to the arguments that Milton Friedman would always make, accusing his critics of being paternalists.

As I noted earlier, Larry Summers fails to comprehend that in the market, not all individuals have equal power or agency; consequently, their freedom of choice is constrained by the market itself. Summers's argument is the ultimate defense of the status quo: Everything is the way it is because individuals have chosen it, so there is no need to change anything.

"You want to raise the minimum wage? Clearly, people are choosing to stay at their jobs with their low wages; they could have chosen to work somewhere else. How dare you liberals try to interfere with the choices made by others!"

And I hope also to have demonstrated in some tiny way, on this first day of classes, what we at Harvard are all about -- the continual search to come closer and closer to veritas through the juxtaposition and consideration of very different perspectives.
At least, he ended the speech well. The juxtaposition and consideration of very different perspectives is central to a vigorous public and intellectual debate. If Obama ultimately decides to nominate Summers for chairman of the Fed, I hope that we see many different perspectives from that of the administration on display in his hearings.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Putin's Op-Ed and the Russian Origins of the Term "American Exceptionalism"

I'm sure by now that you have seen the epic piece of concern trolling that was Vladimir Putin's op-ed in the New York Times.  Although Putin is in no position to talk about human rights, Obama isn't really either, so the op-ed does succeed in showing Americans how other countries must feel when U.S. politicians lecture them on human rights.

Putin's op-ed ended with a critique of Obama's belief in American exceptionalism:
My working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust. I appreciate this. I carefully studied his address to the nation on Tuesday. And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.
A Russian critiquing an American for his belief in the exceptionalism of his own country? That sounds familiar---because it reflects the origins of the term.

The idea of "American exceptionalism," of course, extends much farther back than the term itself. You see echoes of it in the "City upon a Hill" rhetoric of John Winthrop in Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1630s. You also see echoes of it in Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America in the 1830s.  The idea of "manifest destiny" has also been dominant throughout the country's history and has factored prominently into political rhetoric. However, the term "American exceptionalism" hails from 1929 and was coined by Joseph Stalin.

Terrence M. McCoy, Gordon Grey Fellow of International Journalism at Columbia University, summarized the origins of the term in The Atlantic last year:
In the 1920s, the lingering specter of World War I and austere German reparations battered Europe's market-based economy, giving rise to class tension and stark inequality. For worn-down workers, socialism and communism started sounding like pretty good ideas. A world revolution -- indeed, the rise of the proletariat -- seemed possible, and the Communist International was stoked.

But the Americans just wouldn't fall into line. The United States had long since passed the United Kingdom as the world's largest industrial power, but hadn't yet plunged into the Great Depression. To members of the U.S. Communist Party, it was a paradox. Why, in the what appeared to be the purest capitalist Western economy wasn't there any desire for egalitarianism? Had Marx been wrong when he wrote socialism would, inexorably and universally, emerge from the ruins of capitalism?

America's radical left considered the national condition, contrasted it with Europe, and concluded leftism would be a hard sell stateside thanks to characteristics forged along the frontier. Americans were different: individualistic, profit-crazed, broadly middle class, and as tolerant of inequality as they were reverent of economic freedom. The nation had "unlimited reserves of American imperialism," lamented Communist propaganda at the time.

In 1929, Communist leader Jay Lovestone informed Stalin in Moscow that the American proletariat wasn't interested in revolution. Stalin responded by demanding that he end this "heresy of American exceptionalism." And just like that, this expression was born. What Lovestone meant, and how Stalin understood it, however, isn't how Gingrich and Romney (or even Obama) frame it. Neither Lovestone or Stalin felt that the United States was superior to other nations -- actually, the opposite. Stalin "ridiculed" America for its abnormalities, which he cast under the banner of "exceptionalism," Daniel Rodgers, a professor of history at Princeton, said in an interview.
Stalin, to say the least, wasn't happy with Lovestone's news. "Who do you think you are?" he shouted, according to Ted Morgan's biography of Lovestone. "(Leon) Trotsky defied me. Where is he? (Grigory) Zinoviev defied me. Where is he? (Nikolai) Bukharin defied me. Where is he? And you! Who are you? Yes, you will go back to America. But when you get back there, nobody will know you except your wives."

As the Great Depression enveloped the United States, Stalin's argument -- if not his bluster -- seemed well grounded. "Exceptionalism was a disease, a chronic disease," wrote communist S. Milgrom of Chicago in 1930. "The storm of the economic crisis in the United States blew down the house of cards of American exceptionalism," the American Communist Party declared at its convention in April 1930.
(Emphasis added) Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo has a good piece up as well on the role and development of the concept of "American exceptionalism" in post-war intellectual thought in the U.S., in which the term gained the positive connotation it has today.

Sam Power and the Blind Spots of the "Humanitarian Hawks"

As anyone would have expected, Samantha Power, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, has been a strong proponent of a unilateral bombing of Syria, something that clearly violates the UN Charter. She seems to acknowledge that such an action would not be technically legal, sidestepping a question about its legality in an NPR interview and adopting the word "legitimate" instead. During a speech at the Center for American Progress last Friday, she claimed that the United States had "exhausted" all diplomatic-only options. In light of the rapid evolution of events since then and the move toward a diplomatic option, her comments seem disingenuous, even risible. Someone with such contempt for diplomacy and the UN Charter should not be a representative to the United Nations. Earlier today, Matt Lee of the Associated Press cracked that Power made John Bolton "sound moderate." I don't know if I'd be quite that harsh, but she has certainly managed to fill a lot of contempt for multi-lateralism in her first month in her new position.

I want to highlight two illuminating analyses of the worldview of Samantha Power and the "humanitarian hawks" more broadly. Each article focuses on a particular blind spot in Power's worldview. The first critiques Power's blindness to the U.S.'s own complicity in genocide worldwide and her simplistic view of the U.S. as, in its very nature, a force for goodness and virtue in the world.  The second looks at Samantha Power's dismissal of, perhaps even scorn for, domestic politics and the struggles for human rights and democracy on the home front, so to speak. Both articles are several years old but are must-reads in light of the events and debates of the past several weeks.

The first piece is "Care Tactics" (Sept. 1, 2009) in the American Conservative by Chase Madar, a civil rights attorney in New York.  Madar criticizes Samantha Power and the "weaponization of human rights" that she so perfectly embodies. In the passage I excerpt, Madar highlights the telling sins of omission Power commits in her Pulitzer-winning book A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, the book in which Power condemned the United States for "sitting idly by" while genocide occurred abroad rather than sending over the military to prevent such atrocities. Power, conveniently, ignores the U.S.'s own role in funding and supporting genocidal regimes.
In nearly 600 pages of text, Power barely mentions those postwar genocides in which the U.S. government, far from sitting idle, took a robust role in the slaughter. Indonesia’s genocidal conquest of East Timor, for instance, expressly green-lighted by President Ford and Secretary of State Kissinger, who met with Suharto the night before the invasion was launched and carried out with American-supplied weapons. Over the next quarter century, the Indonesian army saw U.S. military aid and training rise as it killed between 100,000 and 200,000 East Timorese. (The figures and the designation of “genocide” come from a UN-formed investigative body.) This whole bloody business gets exactly one sentence in Power’s book.

What about the genocide of Mayan peasants in Guatemala—another decades-long massacre carried out with American armaments by a military dictatorship with tacit U.S. backing, officer training at Fort Benning, and covert CIA support? A truth commission sponsored by the Catholic Church and the UN designated this programmatic slaughter genocide and set the death toll at approximately 200,000. But apparently this isn’t a problem from hell.

The selective omissions compound. Not a word about the CIA’s role in facilitating the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Indonesian Communists in 1965-66. (Perhaps on legalistic grounds: Since it was a political group being massacred, does it not meet the quirky criteria in the flawed UN Convention on Genocide?) Nothing about the vital debate as to whether the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi deaths attributable to U.S.-led economic sanctions in the 1990s count as genocide. The book is primarily a vigorous act of historical cleansing. Its portrait of a “consistent policy of non-intervention in the face of genocide” is fiction. (Those who think that pointing out Power’s deliberate blind spots about America’s active role in genocide is nitpicking should remember that every moral tradition the earth has known, from the Babylonian Talmud to St. Thomas Aquinas, sees sins of commission as far worse than sins of omission.)

Power’s willful historical ignorance is the inevitable product of her professional milieu: the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. One simply cannot hold down a job at the KSG by pointing out the active role of the U.S. government in various postwar genocides. That is the kind of impolitic whining best left to youthful anarchists like Andrew Bacevich or Noam Chomsky and, really, one wouldn’t want to offend the retired Guatemalan colonel down the hall. (The KSG has an abiding tradition of taking on war criminals as visiting fellows.) On the other hand, to cast the U.S. as a passive, benign giant that must assume its rightful role on the world stage by vanquishing evil—this is most flattering to American amour propre and consonant with attitudes in Washington, even if it doesn’t map onto reality. A country doesn’t acquire a vast network of military bases in dozens of sovereign nations across the world by standing on the sidelines, and for the past hundred years the U.S. has, by any standard, been a hyperactive world presence.

For Samantha Power, the United States can by its very nature only be a force for virtue abroad. In this sense, the outlook of Obama’s human-rights advocate is no different from Donald Rumsfeld’s.
(Emphases added)
 
The second piece that I want to highlight is "Samantha Power Goes to War" (Mar. 30, 2011) in The Nation by veteran anti-war activist and director of the Peace and Justice Resource Center, Tom Hayden. Whereas Madar was writing around when Power joined the administration, Hayden wrote in the context of the war in Libya, of which Power was one of the most aggressive supporters in the administration (along with Susan Rice and Hillary Clinton). In particular, he looks at how Power's focus on human rights abroad coexists with a scorn for the concern for human rights and social justice problems at home:
Power generalized from her Balkans experience to become an advocate of American and NATO military intervention in humanitarian crises, a position which became known as being a “humanitarian hawk.” She began to see war as an instrument to achieving her liberal, even radical, values. “The United States must also be prepared to risk the lives of its soldiers” to stop the threat of genocide, she wrote. She condemned Western “appeasement” of dictators. She believed that “the battle to stop genocide has been repeatedly lost in the realm of domestic politics.” In her mind, domestic concerns like discrimination and unemployment were secondary to foreign policy crises, a common attitude in the national security circles she was entering.

I remember wondering why, like the U2’s Bono, another Irish human rights activist, Power has been less preoccupied by the human rights abuses inflicted by the British during the thirty-year war in the northern part of her own country. If she wasn’t willing to take sides at home, so to speak, why was it easier to take sides in civil wars abroad? Wasn’t the creation of a “more perfect union” at home the foundation of any intelligent foreign policy abroad?

And who will remember the home front, and the Obama pledge to focus laser-like on the recession-ridden American economy? Who will address the crisis of aging nuclear power plants? Or the human rights crisis of America’s prison system, the largest in the world? Political pressure is already building to retain American troops and bases in Iraq and Afghanistan beyond the promised deadlines for withdrawal. The secret war in Pakistan has dropped off the front pages for the moment, but will surely erupt again soon.

Perhaps the greatest problem in Power’s worldview is an elitism that scorns domestic policy and politics, the very domain where she believes the crusade to stop genocide is so often “lost.” Anyone primarily concerned with domestic priorities, in her view, must be an isolationist and thus an obstacle to the global struggle for human rights. One can’t imagine Power worrying very much about, say, rent subsidies or pension funds.

The realities are quite the opposite. In a democracy, war requires the consent of the governed, expressed at the very least with the consent of the Congress and subject to the authorization of the federal judiciary. ….

The foreign policy caste worries about the intrusion of democracy on their domain…In their privileged world, they assume an unlimited budget for their unlimited foreign policy portfolio…Obama is ill-advised on foreign policy if his national security elite, including idealists like Power, assume that Americans will have to accept a declining standard of living to put a stop to dictators abroad. Human rights abroad cannot come at the price of democracy at home, but that is the course of liberal empire.

As Power wrote to me in a 2003 note, “With so many problems in hell, where are the Irish when we need them?” It was written in jest. But the answer is a serious one. The Irish are ten years into their peace process, and the Dublin government has been voted out of office for economic failures.
(Emphases added) If you have time, you should read both articles in full. The appropriate links are, of course, above.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Kerry Seeks Advice on Syria from Henry Kissinger on 40th Anniv of Kissinger-Backed Coup in Chile

In addition to being the 12th anniversary of the tragic events of 9/11/2001, today is another important anniversary: the 40th anniversary of the military coup in Chile that toppled socialist president Salvador Allende and led to the brutal 17-year dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. For a discussion of the 1973 coup, I would refer you to the excellent diary by Metero Blades yesterday, entitled "The other September 11 is 40 years old. Joyce Horman thanks those who sought justice in Chile." I would also refer you to this excellent Democracy Now interview of Peter Kornbluh, author of The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability.
Here's an excerpt from the interview:
Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger launched a preemptive strike against Salvador Allende. They decided to stop him from being inaugurated as president of Chile. He hadn’t even set foot in the Moneda Palace, when Nixon and Kissinger just simply decided to change the fate of Chile. Nixon instructed the CIA to make the Chilean economy scream, to use as many men as possible. The first plan was to actually keep Allende from being inaugurated as president. And then, when that plan failed, after the assassination of the Chilean commander-in-chief that the United States was behind, General RenĂ© Schneider, Kissinger then went to Nixon and said, "Allende is now president. The State Department thinks we can coexist with him, but I want you to make sure you tell everybody in the U.S. government that we cannot, that we cannot let him succeed, because he has legitimacy. He is democratically elected. And suppose other governments decide to follow in his footstep, like a government like Italy? What are we going to do then? What are we going to say when other countries start to democratically elect other Salvador Allendes? We will—the world balance of power will change," he wrote to Nixon in a secret document, "and our interests in it will be changed fundamentally." ….
I just got back from Chile, and I did a number of TV shows there, and everybody said, "We’re trying to hold our own people accountable here for the atrocities that took place during the Pinochet regime, but why isn’t Henry Kissinger being held accountable? Why isn’t the United States held accountable for the role that they played in the atrocities that were committed in Chile, starting with the coup itself and then going on with the repression that followed?" And Kissinger really is the—not only the key survivor of the policy-making team of that era, but truly when you go through the declassified documents that are laid out in the book, The Pinochet File, you see that he is the singular most important figure in engineering a policy to overthrow Allende and then, even more, to embrace Pinochet and the human rights violations that followed.

He had aides who were saying to him, "It’s unbecoming for the United States to intervene in a country where we are not—our national security interests are not threatened." And he pushed them away. "Nope, we can’t—we can’t let this imitative phenomena—we have to stop Allende from being successful." He had aides that came to him the day after the coup and said, "I’m getting reports that there’s 10,000 bodies in the streets. People are being slaughtered." And he said, "Go tell Congress that this new military regime is better for our interests than the old government in Chile." And we have this fabulous document of him talking to Pinochet, a meeting in 1976, in which his aides have told him, "You should tell Pinochet to stop violating human rights." And instead he says to Pinochet, "You did a great service to the West in overthrowing Allende. We want to support you, not hurt you."
Now, in a just world, Kissinger would have been prosecuted and imprisoned for war crimes. Instead, he's a well-paid foreign policy consultant. And, today, he has the ears of Secretary of State John Kerry:
Kerry is scheduled to meet one-on-one with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger Wednesday afternoon, and address a meeting of the 25-member Foreign Affairs Policy Board Wednesday morning. On Wednesday evening, Kerry will host a dinner for FAPB members at the State Department, according to an official schedule.
Chile has been holding a week of remembrances dedicated to the 40th anniversary of the coup, the most tragic day of its modern history. Our Secretary of State is spending that day seeking advice from the man who made the coup happen.

Monday, September 9, 2013

John Kerry Says the Attack on Syria will Be "Unbelievably Small." I Have a Suggestion for Him.

Earlier this morning, John Kerry described the planned attack on Syria as "unbelievably small":
"We will be able to hold Bashar al-Assad accountable without engaging in troops on the ground or any other prolonged kind of effort in a very limited, very targeted, short-term effort that degrades his capacity to deliver chemical weapons without assuming responsibility for Syria's civil war. That is exactly what we are talking about doing – unbelievably small, limited kind of effort."
How about we make it so "unbelievably small" that it doesn't even exist? There's a good idea for you. Run with it.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

When the U.S. Kills Children, They're Only "Collateral Damage"

As part of the full-court press in favor to promote the illegal bombing of Syria, White House chief of staff Denis McDonough was doing the rounds on the Sunday shows this morning. McDonough has a penchant for advancing a "Think of the children" frame in promoting war.

Here is McDonough on Meet the Press, for instance:
"This is a person who has gone from using overwhelming conventional force to using napalm on children to now using chemical weapons…with the scale and scope we have not seen in three decades," McDonough said.
And then again:
"What the president has said throughout the course of this is: If Congress wants to make sure there is consequence for a dictator using these dastardly weapons against his own people—including children—then they are going to have to vote yes for this resolution," McDonough said.
The use of napalm on children, of course, should remind you of the Vietnam War, since the U.S. and its South Vietnamese allies did exactly that. There's even a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo. Between 1963 and 1973, the U.S. dropped a total of 388,000 tons of napalm on Vietnam.

But that was then, this is now, right? The U.S. would never view the lives of children with such callous disregard.

Let's turn it over to the Associated Press from this morning:
Afghan officials have said an apparent Nato air strike has killed 15 people – nine of them civilians, including women and children – in an eastern province where the Taliban remain strong.
And according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan have killed between 168 and 200 children. The U.S. government pretends they don't exist or writes them off as "militants."

But, surely, you say, the U.S.'s "limited," "tailored," and "surgical" operations against the Syrian regime will not result in the deaths of any innocent children.

Obviously, the potential casualties from U.S. military action didn't get as much attention as the importance of sending a "message" to Iran and North Korea; however, the question was still raised during the hearings on the Hill the other day:
Estimates of collateral damage? “Lower than a certain number which I would rather share with you in a classified setting,” Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey told lawmakers.
So we don't even know how many civilians the U.S. military expects to wind up killing during these "limited" strikes. If Dempsey isn't willing to divulge that information, it must not be pretty.

But don't worry. You see, when another country kills children, those children were precious angels. But when the U.S. kills children, they're just "collateral damage." Damascus is a very dense city: approximately 1.711 million people (at least as of 2009) in 41 square miles. That's about 42,000 people per square mile. Any attack is likely to produce a number of civilian deaths and would not bring any of the past dead back to life.

Friday, September 6, 2013

John Kerry Has No Shame, Claims He Opposed the Iraq War

I've been feeling nothing but contempt for John Kerry lately--because of his warmongering and shameless fearmongering, his weaselly responses in congressional hearings, his vile invocations of the Holocaust to sell a war of aggression, his disrespect for the United Nations and international law--to name a few gripes.

However, if my contempt for him could get even deeper, I think it just did tonight.

Here is a quote from John Kerry during his interview with Chris Hayes on MSNBC tonight:
And the answer is no, profoundly no.  You know, Senator Chuck Hagel, when he was senator, Senator Chuck Hagel, now secretary of Defense, and when I was a senator, we opposed the president’s decision to go into Iraq, but we know full well how that evidence was used to persuade all of us that authority ought to be given.
(Emphasis added)

John Kerry, have you heard of this great new tool called THE INTERNET? With this tool, I have the ability to look up roll call votes in the Senate.  And here it is. Let's look up you and your good friend Chuck.

JOHN KERRY (D-MA): YEA
CHUCK HAGEL (R-NE): YEA

That's a strange way to show your opposition, Secretary Kerry. It's almost as though it wasn't opposition at all, but rather support. And one might even start thinking that you were telling a bald-faced lie on national television to sell your new war of aggression. Scrap the "almost" and the "might." Because that's exactly what you are doing, Secretary Kerry. You are lying. And you're not a very good liar.

Wars have consequences, Secretary Kerry. The Iraq War--which, again, you voted for--had consequences. Like the death of over 4,423 Americans. And over 31,935 Americans wounded. And the deaths of over 100,000 Iraqi civilians. Their blood is on your hands, Secretary Kerry.
And there were financial consequences, too, Secretary Kerry. Like the $2 trillion financial burden on this country placed on that war that you, yes you, voted for.

Do you know what else, Secretary Kerry? In that war that you and your good friend Chuck both supported, the United States military used something called white phosphorous in Fallujah. That's often considered a chemical weapon, Secretary Kerry. Shouldn't you have been calling for the international community to send a message to the U.S. that such use of chemical weapons would not be permitted, that no nation should act with impunity after international norms? But you didn't. How strange....

There's a common quote attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte that says, "History is a set of lies agreed upon." Secretary Kerry, you might try to rewrite history, but no one agrees with your lies.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Bernie Sanders Talks Syria on the Ed Show

Bernie Sanders, Independent senator from Vermont, went on the Ed Show today to discuss the upcoming Senate vote on Obama's desired military intervention in Syria:
You know, I’m keeping an open mind, and I want to hear everything the administration has to say, but I would be less than honest with you if I didn’t say I had very, very deep concerns about this proposal. And by the way, I could tell you that in my office, the phones are bopping off the hook there, and almost unanimously people are opposed to what the president is proposing.

Here are my concerns, Ed, and there are a number of them. Number one, the Congress as everybody knows is significantly dysfunctional today, and in the midst of a collapsing middle class, high unemployment, low wages, global warming, and all of the other major problems our country faces, We’re not dealing with them today, and what do you think happens if we get involved in a war in Syria where all the attention will be? How are we going to address the major problems facing our people? That’s issue number one.

Issue number two. The president talks about a surgical strike, limited engagement. But listen carefully to what people like Sen. McCain are talking about. That’s not what they’re talking about. They’re talking about regime change. They’re talking about overthrowing Assad. And that means billions and billions of dollars, and if the effort does not go well sometime in the future, it could, it could mean American troops on the ground.

Third point, you know, we talk about a world of law. I have real concerns about the United States acting unilaterally without the United Nations, without NATO, without the international community. I think that sets a terrible precedent for other countries in years to come to take similar action, and what are we going to say if Russia or China goes to war?
Ed Schultz then asked Bernie the important question of where the money for this new war would be coming from and inquired about whether Republicans could just use the cost burden of war to advance their agenda of cutting the "Big Three." Here's Bernie:
“Ed, you're exactly right. Our Republican friends have made it very clear. They’re not going to ask the wealthy or large corporations to pay more in taxes. They already want to cut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. What may well be happening is the cost of this war may be paid for by more kids being thrown off Head Start. Senior citizens being thrown off Meals on Wheels programs. Educational programs being cut. The Republicans would go in that way to pay for this war. That’s clear to me.”
Ed also asked Bernie his opinion about the lack of support in the international community for the new war. Here's Bernie:
Ed, what I worry about is what the U.S. is becoming. We're not a leader in the world in health care, in education, infrastructure, but we are becoming the leader of the world, the policeman of the world. And other countries are saying, "You guys pay for it." And we are now spending militarily almost as much as the rest of the world combined. Meanwhile, other countries guarantee health care to all of their people.  So I do worry very much about the United States going forward alone. I think it's a very bad precedent. 
Regarding Bernie's point about other countries saying "You guys pay for it," that's sadly all-too-true with the proposed military intervention, in which the U.S. would be doing the bidding of Israel and Saudi Arabia. (And by the way, both of those countries have long had universal health coverage. The U.S.--even with the ACA--still won't. Both of their health care systems ranked higher than the U.S.'s in the WHO's 2000 report.) 

If the U.S. wanted to show its "moral leadership" in the world, it should be focusing on setting an example on health care, on education, on social justice, and--even more importantly--addressing the threat of global warming.

Chris Murphy and Joe Lieberman, a Study in Contrasts

In the Senate Foreign Relations Committee vote on the Syria AUMF, only two Democrats voted no: Chris Murphy and Tom Udall. Murphy and Udall, along with Rand Paul, were the only ones to vote against arming the Syrian rebels in a vote in the SFRC back in May.

It didn't fully register with me until this afternoon, but just reflect on this for a moment: Chris Murphy has Joe Lieberman's old seat.

Remember good old warmongering Joe Lieberman, he of the Three Amigos (with McCain and Graham)?

Here was Joe Lieberman on the Fox News morning show on Sunday:
Former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) on Sunday blasted President Barack Obama for asking for Congress’ approval before launching an attack on Syria over the President Bashar al-Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons.

“I was looking back,” Lieberman told Fox News host Chris Wallace. “Over my 24 years, never saw anything like it.”

The former senator insisted that the president now had authority to act and that it would be “catastrophic” if Congress did not give the green light to attack Syria.

Lieberman said that he would urge lawmakers — including his “amigos,” Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) — to approve an action in Syria.

“I’m sure that our enemies are cheering now as a result of this decision because they realize it’s not clear the president will get authority, and our allies are worried,” he concluded. “That’s why, again, this resolution or something like it has to pass Congress.”
And just a week ago, Joe signed onto a letter with fellow neocons Bill Kristol and Dan Senor--among other chickenhawks--calling for military intervention, the provision of arms to the rebels, and regime change. Of course, all of this was framed around sending a "message" to Iran.
Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has once again violated your red line, using chemical weapons to kill as many as 1,400 people in the suburbs of Damascus. You have said that large-scale use of chemical weapons in Syria would implicate "core national interests," including "making sure that weapons of mass destruction are not proliferating, as well as needing to protect our allies [and] our bases in the region." The world—including Iran, North Korea, and other potential aggressors who seek or possess weapons of mass of destruction—is now watching to see how you respond.

We urge you to respond decisively by imposing meaningful consequences on the Assad regime. At a minimum, the United States, along with willing allies and partners, should use standoff weapons and airpower to target the Syrian dictatorship's military units that were involved in the recent large-scale use of chemical weapons. It should also provide vetted moderate elements of Syria’s armed opposition with the military support required to identify and strike regime units armed with chemical weapons.

Moreover, the United States and other willing nations should consider direct military strikes against the pillars of the Assad regime. The objectives should be not only to ensure that Assad’s chemical weapons no longer threaten America, our allies in the region or the Syrian people, but also to deter or destroy the Assad regime’s airpower and other conventional military means of committing atrocities against civilian non-combatants. At the same time, the United States should accelerate efforts to vet, train, and arm moderate elements of Syria’s armed opposition, with the goal of empowering them to prevail against both the Assad regime and the growing presence of Al Qaeda-affiliated and other extremist rebel factions in the country.

Left unanswered, the Assad regime's mounting attacks with chemical weapons will show the world that America's red lines are only empty threats. It is a dangerous and destabilizing message that will surely come to haunt us—one that will certainly embolden Iran's efforts to develop nuclear weapons capability despite your repeated warnings that doing so is unacceptable. It is therefore time for the United States to take meaningful and decisive actions to stem the Assad regime’s relentless aggression, and help shape and influence the foundations for the post-Assad Syria that you have said is inevitable. 
Let's contrast that approach with that of freshman senator Chris Murphy. Here's the email he sent out today discussing his vote. The email subject line was "I voted NO on military intervention today."
Earlier today, as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I voted against authorizing the use of military force in Syria.

The resolution passed 10 to 7, and now moves on to deliberation and a final vote before the full U.S. Senate.

As promised, I wanted to send you a message once I made up my mind, along with information about how I came to this difficult conclusion.

First of all, the president's decision to come to Congress was the right one, and I appreciate the great thought and consideration that the Administration has given to our nation's response to the crisis in Syria.

Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons against the people of Syria is a human rights atrocity and a blatant violation of international law. It's impossible to see the horrific images of death and suffering in Syria and not feel compelled to act in some way. But there is not always an American solution to every international crisis. For me, today's vote was a close call, but in the end, I voted no because I believe that downside risks of military action, both for U.S. interests and the Syrian people, outweigh the potential benefits.

In the short-term, there is little chance that targeted air strikes will destroy Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles, and may simply prompt another deadly reaction from Assad as well as the countries that finance his murderous regime. In the long-term, I worry that today's authorization, which combines authorization for a military strike with support for the lethal arming of the opposition, will involve us in the Syrian conflict in a way that will be difficult to untangle.

Our focus should be on increasing humanitarian aid to the millions of innocent Syrians suffering at the hands of Assad, as well as on concerted diplomatic, political, and economic pressure on the regime.

Thanks for being a part of this conversation.

Chris Murphy
(Emphasis added) 

There are many moments where I stop and think about how great it is that Joe Lieberman is no longer in the Senate. Chris Murphy has done a pretty good job so far in his stead.