Monday, December 29, 2008

Memo to Obama: No More Spilled Blood

Photo by Chris Geovanis: Chicago Protest on Gaza Killings

We have No Words Left...
By Ali Abunimah
The Electronic Intifada

Dec. 29, 2008 - "I will play music and celebrate what the Israeli air force is doing." Those chilling words were spoken on al-Jazeera on Saturday by Ofer Shmerling, an Israeli civil defence official in the Sderot area adjacent to the Gaza Strip. For days Israeli planes have bombed Gaza. Almost 300 Palestinians have been killed and a thousand injured, the majority civilians, including women and children. Israel claims most of the dead were Hamas "terrorists". In fact, the targets were police stations in dense residential areas, and the dead included many police officers and other civilians. Under international law, police officers are civilians, and targeting them is no less a war crime than aiming at other civilians.

Palestinians are at a loss to describe this new catastrophe. Is it our 9/11, or is it a taste of the "bigger shoah" Matan Vilnai, the deputy defence minister, threatened in February, after the last round of mass killings?

Type rest of the post hereIsrael says it is acting in "retaliation" for rockets fired with increasing intensity ever since a six-month truce expired on 19 December. But the bombs dropped on Gaza are only a variation in Israel's method of killing Palestinians. In recent months they died mostly silent deaths, the elderly and sick especially, deprived of food, cancer treatments and other medicines by an Israeli blockade that targeted 1.5 million people - mostly refugees and children - caged into the Gaza Strip. The orders of Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister, to hold back medicine were just as lethal and illegal as those to send in the warplanes.

Ehud Olmert, Israel's prime minister, pleaded that Israel wanted "quiet" - a continuation of the truce - while Hamas chose "terror", forcing him to act. But what is Israel's idea of a truce? It is very simple: Palestinians have the right to remain silent while Israel starves them, kills them and continues to violently colonise their land.

As John Ging, the head of operations for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, said in November: "The people of Gaza did not benefit; they did not have any restoration of a dignified existence ... at the UN, our supplies were also restricted during the period of the ceasefire, to the point where we were left in a very vulnerable and precarious position and with a few days of closure we ran out of food."

That is an Israeli truce. Any act of resistance including the peaceful protests against the apartheid wall in the West Bank is always met by Israeli bullets and bombs. There are no rockets launched at Israel from the West Bank, and yet Israel's extrajudicial killings, land theft, settler pogroms and kidnappings never stopped for a day during the truce. The western-backed Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas has acceded to all Israel's demands. Under the proud eye of United States military advisors, Abbas has assembled "security forces" to fight the resistance on Israel's behalf. None of that has spared a single Palestinian in the West Bank from Israel's relentless colonisation. The Israeli media report that the attack on Gaza was long planned. If so, the timing in the final days of the Bush administration may indicate an Israeli effort to take advantage of a moment when there might be even less criticism than usual.

Israel is no doubt emboldened by the complicity of the European Union, which this month voted again to upgrade its ties with Israel despite condemnation from its own officials and those of the UN for the "collective punishment" being visited on Gaza. Tacit Arab regime support, and the fact that predicted uprisings in the Arab street never materialised, were also factors.

But there is a qualitative shift with the latest horror: as much as Arab anger has been directed at Israel, it has also focused intensely on Arab regimes - especially Egypt's - seen as colluding with the Israeli attack. Contempt for these regimes and their leaders is being expressed more openly than ever. Yet these are the illegitimate regimes western politicians continue to insist are their "moderate" allies.

Diplomatic fronts, such as the US-dominated Quartet, continue to treat occupier and occupied, coloniser and colonised, first-world high-tech army and near-starving refugee population, as if they are on the same footing. Hope is fading that the incoming administration of Barack Obama is going to make any fundamental change to US policies that are hopelessly biased towards Israel.

In Europe and the Middle East, the gap between leaders and led could not be greater when it comes to Israel. Official complicity and support for Israel contrast with popular outrage at war crimes carried out against occupied people and refugees with impunity.

With governments and international institutions failing to do their jobs, the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee - representing hundreds of organisations - has renewed its call on international civil society to intensify its support for the sanctions campaign modelled on the successful anti-apartheid movement.

Now is the time to channel our raw emotions into a long-term effort to make sure we do not wake up to "another Gaza" ever again.

[Ali Abunimah is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of 'One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse']


Friday, December 26, 2008

Memo to Obama: No Bailouts Without Change

Photo: Time for Adults?

Wall St, Autos:
Cyclical Crisis
or Structural?

By Robert Reich

First prediction for 2009: A widening gap between the public's view of the bailouts of Wall Street and Detroit, and the views of the direct beneficiaries. The public believes the bailouts will permanently change these industries, but industry insiders don't really want to change.

Exhibit one is Goldman Sach's CEO Lloyd Blankfein, who says the firm's business strategy doesn't need to change.

What? Goldman got $10 billion of taxpayer money precisely because it and other big banks were so over-leveraged they threatened the whole financial system. I can understand why Blankfein doesn’t want to change. He took home $54 million last year. (He has foregone a bonus this year and is taking home a piddling $600,000.) But the public expects real reform for its $10 billion at Goldman and tens of billions more in other major banks.

Blankfein isn't alone. I've heard the same thing from CEOs and directors all over the Street. They see the problem as cyclical, not structural. "The economy stinks," they tell me, "but it'll turn around in 18 months, and then we're back to the same business."

Or take the Big Three. They've agreed to become far more fuel efficient, as a condition for their bailout. But they promised this before -- during the oil crisis of the 1970s, when Congress threatened higher fuel-economy standards. But after the crisis passed, they never delivered. Why? Because their biggest profits were in gas guzzlers that consumers wanted to buy as soon as the first oil crisis was over.

Will history repeat itself? Now that gas prices are half what they were six months ago, consumers who can afford it are suddenly less interested in fuel efficiency. They're buying fewer hybrids and showing renewed interest in SUVs. So why should we think Detroit will revolutionize itself?

I'm not so cynical as to accuse anyone of bad faith. It's just that both Wall Street and Detroit earned big bucks from their old strategies, before the bottom fell out of the economy. So it’s natural they’d view the bailouts as ways to hold on until the economy rebounds. And it's clear they see their problem as cyclical, not structural.

Right now, Wall Street and Detroit are willing to say whatever they need to say to keep the taxpayer money coming. But when the economy begins turning up, my betting is that their Washington lobbyists will push back hard against any major restructurings the government wants to impose on them. New regulations of Wall Street will be watered down and circumvented; new requirements on the Big Three for green technologies will be resisted.

Yet the bailouts have been sold to the public as means toward fundamental change in finance and autos. If the bailouts are to do what they're supposed to – stop Wall Street from wild risk-taking with piles of borrowed money, and push the auto industry into making fundamentally new products that conserve energy -- Washington will not only have to set strict standards now and in the months ahead when the bailout money flows, but also hang tough when the economy begins to revive.

The emerging debate over Wall Street's and the Big Three's ongoing obligations to reform themselves is but one part of a much larger national debate we'll be entering upon in 2009 and beyond -- whether the economic crisis we're experiencing is basically cyclical (in which case, nothing really needs to change over the long term, after the economy gets back on track) or structural (in which case, many aspects of our economy and society will needs to change permanently).


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Way Forward in Afghanistan

Photo: Taliban Fighters

Interview with
Stephen Kinzer
by Maya Schenwar

Truthout Original
Dec 16, 2008

[Last week, with President-elect Obama's blessing, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced the beginning of a troop "surge" in Afghanistan. As the US embarks on a slow redeployment of troops away from the widely condemned occupation of Iraq - though that occupation is not by any means ending - it is easy to frame Afghanistan as a milder war, a war that can even, perhaps, be "won." However, sending more American forces to Afghanistan is a peculiar first project for a supposedly peacemaking president-elect, according to Stephen Kinzer, a former New York Times correspondent who has covered more than 50 countries on five continents, and has written extensively on US interventionism around the world. In the following interview, Kinzer puts forth a new approach to Afghanistan. He calls for a framework that acknowledges cultural differences, considers Afghanistan in its geographical context and confronts the Taliban - and the poppy trade - in a realistic way. As Obama gears up to assume his role as commander in chief, Kinzer challenges him to ponder what "real change" might actually mean when it comes to Afghanistan.]

Stephen Kinzer proposes a transformative US policy in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan tends to be viewed as the "Good War," in comparison with Iraq. What's behind that image?

Stephen Kinzer: We first became militarily involved in Afghanistan in the wake of the September 11 attacks. It was a very emotional moment, and it was understandable that most Americans wanted a sense of revenge against the perpetrators of those attacks. It might, in retrospect, have been possible to dislodge the Taliban from power in Afghanistan without a military operation. That, however, did not suit the tenor of those times. As a result of the operations that followed the September 11 attacks, the United States has become more and more deeply enmeshed in Afghanistan. What seemed at first like it might be a relatively quick operation turned out to be one that is dragging us ever deeper in, all these years later. Before we allow inertia and a general momentum, cloaked in our emotions, to drag us even deeper into Afghanistan, we need to stop and ask ourselves, "Is this a military problem, or does it need a different kind of solution?"

So, the solution to our situation in Afghanistan will probably have to involve some serious diplomacy. How can the United States begin the process of negotiating with the Taliban?

In the first place, increasing the number of American troops in Afghanistan is sending the wrong signal. The very presence of foreign troops in aggressive, frontline military roles in Afghanistan is an incitement for reaction from local people. The first thing we need to do is decide to maintain our troop strength at the relatively modest level that it's at now, and not increase it.

Resisting foreign armies is something Afghans have been doing for thousands of years - they're probably better at it than anyone else in the world. The British learned this in the 19th century, the Soviets learned this in the 20th century. We shouldn't have to repeat those very painful lessons. So that's the first part: we should not be escalating our military presence there. What do we do instead of that? I think we need a dual process; a process that goes on within Afghanistan and a process that goes on in a much broader region. Within Afghanistan, it's important to understand that what we call the Taliban is actually a very broad coalition of tribal factions and warlords and other groups. Afghanistan is a place of constantly shifting factions. A faction that might be on your side today might not be tomorrow. A Taliban-allied warlord may not necessarily be anti-American, and if he is today, he might not be tomorrow. This system of flexible alliances holds out great opportunity for sophisticated diplomacy. There's a great possibility that once the United States is not seen as an invading force, it will be able to persuade a number of these warlords or factional leaders to shift their alliances. We ought to test that.

At the same time, we need to be negotiating throughout this region. This is not a problem anymore that can be solved within Afghanistan. It has long since become a regional problem. Just in the last week, after this recent attack on a concentration of American trucks, the American commanders started talking about alternative routes into Afghanistan for their supply convoys. They're talking about doing that from central Asian countries or even from places originating in Russia. So this shows you what a regional dimension is involved here. Pakistan is a deeply influential player in Afghanistan. We need Pakistan to take a more resolute position, but Pakistan, like any country in the world, is only willing to make security concessions when it feels safe. Right now, Pakistan's security focus is - and has been for nearly all of its existence - on India. Its policy of insisting on having a pliant government in place in Afghanistan, and supporting favorable factions inside Afghanistan, is based almost entirely on its desire to counter India. India has been opening up consulates in Afghanistan, and there's talk about Indian military aid and Indian development aid in Afghanistan. Until the Pakistan-India confrontation can be ratcheted down several levels, there probably won't be peace in Afghanistan. Iran is another country that can have great influence inside of Afghanistan. Parts of Afghanistan used to be in Iran - it has tremendous ability to influence some large regions of Afghanistan.

So, we need a policy, first of all, of not increasing our troops in Afghanistan, and pulling the troops we have there out of offensive roles. And second, trying to negotiate among factions within the country. Third, we need to produce a regional framework in which some kind of stable Afghanistan is possible.

You've said you don't recommend a quick withdrawal. Why maintain current troop levels instead of decreasing them?

Unfortunately, Afghanistan has become so destabilized now that some of the worst warlords, the most grotesque criminals, are now in positions of great power. The presence of the United States is something Afghans feel will prevent an immediate explosion. If we leave immediately, I fear that violence would devastate that country. I don't think the problem is necessarily that there are American troops in Afghanistan. It's more what they're doing. The tactics that we're following there, of carrying out aggressive raiding and bombing places with predator aircraft is very counterproductive.

The region where the conflict is unfolding in Afghanistan is generally thought of as a Muslim region. And it is. However, it's more productive to think of it as a Pashtun region. Pashtun tradition is the dominant force there, even more powerful than Islam. Pashtun tradition, embodied in a relatively simple and ancient code they call Pashtunwali, is based on a particular form of honor, the offense against which is considered a great crime. This honor is defined very simply in a series of what might be described as concentric circles. You do not violate a woman's dressing space. You do not violate my home. You do not violate my compound. You do not violate my village. And you do not violate my country. As long as you observe that principle, you can make all kinds of accommodations with the Pashtun. But we're not doing that, and the nature of our policy is to violate that very fundamental cultural code. So, we are not seen how we'd like to be seen. We'd like Afghans to compare what we want for Afghanistan with what the Taliban wants, and see that what we're trying to do for them is better. But they don't see it that way. They are not judging these different factions according to what they're offering. Instead, they're judging them by another standard: Who's from here, and who's an outsider? Well, if you're an outsider, no matter what you're pushing in Afghanistan, you're always seen through that lens. So, emphasizing by military escalation that we are the outsider only further weakens our position.

In your video that came out a couple of days ago, you talk a little bit about how our presence in Afghanistan has not only rallied the Taliban, but has also become a recruitment device for other anti-American groups, like al-Qaeda. How do we defuse that inspiration for recruitment, if our troops stay in Afghanistan?

We can do it by making our troops less visible. If our troops are simply out training Afghan military units, or even helping to carry out engineering projects in the countryside, our presence alone is not seen as hostile. It's when we're smashing down doors and making people lie on their stomachs while we search their homes; it's when we send predator bombs to attack targets which may be real - but which also involve the killing of civilians - that we incite this hatred toward ourselves.

Being in the country itself is not a violation of this Pashtun code; in fact, the opposite is true. The obligation to protect and embrace a guest is a very profound part of Pashtun culture. There's a difference between being a guest and a violator. We should make sure we stay on the right side of that line.

In your video, you make some pretty big suggestions about our policy on the Afghan poppy trade. Could you describe your ideas on that?

We're now spending $4 billion per month on our war effort in Afghanistan. The total annual value of the poppy crop in Afghanistan is also about $4 billion. Today, the proceeds from nearly all the poppies growing in Afghanistan go into the pockets of the warlords. We are very rightly concerned about that. The money that's being used to finance the war against us is in part coming from the Afghan poppy crop. In addition, we're turning the poor farmers who grow most of these poppies into enemies by pursuing our traditional policy of burning fields and spraying with them from above with herbicides. How can we resolve all these problems together - not to mention that people are dying on the streets of Hamburg and Chicago every day from the heroin that comes from Afghan poppies?

My suggestion is that we abandon the idea of wiping out the poppy fields. That's like wiping out the Taliban. It's a great idea, but it's just not practical. Therefore, since it's not possible to do what we would like to do in our fantasies, what would be a realistic approach?

I'd like to see the United States buy the entire Afghan poppy crop. We would be paying as much as we pay each month for our war effort in Afghanistan. We could use some of that crop to make morphine for medical use, and the rest, we could burn. This will have the effect of, A, dramatically reducing the income that pours into the coffers of many of the most brutal Afghan warlords; B, showing poor Afghan peasants that we're actually buying something from them, giving them some money to live on rather than firing predator drones into their wedding parties; and C, presumably impacting the heroin supply worldwide.

Obviously we have made some mistakes in Afghanistan. If we're going to learn from history, what are the lessons here? How can future generations look at what's happened in Afghanistan and avoid repeating today's mistakes?

Let me focus on one big lesson that I hope we learn. It is that, when you are trying to bring a country to do what you want it to do, military action is not always the best course. We need to understand the culture of each country before we go in. These countries are in many ways quite different from us; people think in different ways than how we think. We have certain ways of approaching security problems. We use methods against others that we think would be effective if they were used against us. But those methods aren't necessarily effective against people with different cultural backgrounds. So, the number one lesson I'd hope we would learn is: Instead of acting reflexively to confront security threats in ways that seem to allow us to use our own advantages to the fullest, let's be more careful in analyzing the places we're going into. Let's see if there are ways we can achieve our security goals without inadvertently undercutting our own security.

In so many of these places - and Afghanistan is a great example - we sense a security threat, act against it, and then, after awhile, wake up and realize we've only made the threat worse. Every time we do that, whether it's in Central Asia or the horn of Africa or Central America or Southeast Asia, we are confronted with the same lesson, but we just don't learn it. The lesson is, countries are different. They have to be dealt with in ways that are in harmony with their own cultures. Once you understand other countries, you have a much greater ability to extract from them the understandings that you need to live safely with them. So don't charge ahead with your prefixed idea about what's going to solve your security problem. Stop and think about what will really be in America's interest over the long run.


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Obama: Use Strike as Spark for Wider Program

Photo: Republic Windows Sit-Down Strike

Leveraging the Chicago
Sit-Down to
Help All Workers

By Peter Dreier
Huffington Post

December 9, 2008, - Since Friday, 240 members of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), a small but feisty union that has always been in the progressive wing of the labor movement, have displayed uncommon courage. They have illegally occupied their Chicago factory after their employer abruptly told them that it was shutting down the plant.

Equally impressive, President-elect Barack Obama, by quickly endorsing the workers' protest, showed the kind of bold leadership that progressives have been hoping for, but didn't expect to see so soon. Indeed, Obama's statement puts him ahead of Franklin Roosevelt, who didn't embrace worried workers' escalating demands until after his inauguration in March 1933, when a quarter of the workforce was unemployed.

The workers began their sit-in on Friday, after their employer, Republic Windows and Doors, closed the factory with only three days notice. The company management told the workers and their union, UE Local 1110, that the Bank of America had canceled Republic's line of credit, making it impossible to stay in business -- or even pay employees the severance and vacation pay they'd earned. The company immediately terminated the workers' health insurance.

The BofA said that the cancellation was routine business practice, caused by Republic's cash flow problem in the wake of declining sales in the nation's housing construction downturn.

"When a company faces such a dire situation, its lender is not empowered to direct the company's management how to manage its affairs and what obligations should be paid," declared the North Carolina-based BofA in a statement. "Such decisions belong to the management and owners of the company."

The BofA's antiseptic statement reflected the kind of cold-blooded market fundamentalism that has led a growing number of Americans to demand more government regulation of big business.

But the Republic workers didn't wait for government action. They refused to walk away from their jobs quietly or to accept the argument that the lay-offs were an inevitable result of the nation's economic hard times. They peacefully took over the plant, where some of them had worked for decades, and demanded that the Bank of America and Republic management find a solution. The workers insist that they won't leave until getting assurances they will receive severance and vacation pay, but they also hope to find a way to keep the plant open.

Although by occupying the factory they are breaking the law, no politician has called for the Chicago Police Department to arrest them -- a sure sign that their action has become a symbol of working families' distress in the unraveling Bush economy. Millions of Americans, watching interviews with the workers on TV during the past few days, can identify with their plight - the loss of their jobs, their health insurance and perhaps their homes - only a few weeks before Christmas.

The sit-in began the same day that President Bush reluctantly acknowledged, for the first time, that the country was in a recession. He released a Department of Labor report revealing that U.S. employers axed 533,000 jobs in November, the biggest monthly cut since 1974. As a result, the official unemployment rate has jumped to 6.7 percent. Now in its twelfth month, the recession is already the longest since a 16-month slump in 1981-82. Some economists predict that this downturn will set a new post-World War 2 record.

"When it comes to the situation here in Chicago with the workers who are asking for their benefits and payments they have earned," Obama said during a press briefing on Sunday, " I think they are absolutely right. What's happening to them is reflective of what's happening across this economy."

With that statement, Obama used his bully pulpit to endorse the workers' protest and to put pressure on the Bank of America and Republic to forge a solution. Representatives of the company, BofA, and the union have been meeting at the bank's office in downtown Chicago. Congressman Luis Gutierrez has been moderating the talks.

The symbolism of the workers' take-over also adds credence to Obama's call for a major government-funded infrastructure program that will stimulate several million jobs -- almost all of them in the private sector -- and help jump-start the ailing economy.

"The workers want Bank of America to keep the plant open and the workers employed," said UE President Carl Rosen. "There is always a demand for windows and doors. But with Barack Obama's stimulus proposal, there will be even greater demand for the products made by Republic's workers. It doesn't make sense to close this plant when the need is so obvious."

"We were cutting out glass for an order for 1,000 new windows last week," 34 year-old Vicente Rangel, a Republic employee for 15 years, told the Los Angeles Times. "There was work to do. Then, the bosses called us to a meeting and said everyone was quitting, whether they wanted to or not." The union workers earned an average of $14 an hour, and received health insurance and retirement benefits as part of their union contract.

"I'm not scared because I'm not alone on this," said Raul Flores, according to the Chicago Tribune. The 25-year old Flores, who had worked at Republic for eight years, added, "We're strong and we're going to stay. This gives us the strength to keep going. This is going to be for everyone."

Americans have rallied to the Republic workers' cause. They've sent money, food, clothing, blankets, and good wishes. (To donate, go here). On Monday, protesters picketed a Bank of America branch on Chicago's West Side, explaining that they support the workers' sit-in. A coalition of unions and community groups, Jobs with Justice, held a rally at Chicago City Hall and threatened to organize a boycott of the Bank of America if the problem isn't resolved.

Union members, politicians, and others have highlighted the irony that Bank of America just got $25 billion of the federal government's bank bail-out funds, designed to push banks to start lending money again. BofA's refusal to extend Republic further credit seems cold-blooded and hypocritical.

The bank's hypocrisy hasn't been lost on elected officials. Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich threatened to suspend all state government business dealings with BofA if a reasonable solution is not achieved quickly. He asked the state Department of Labor to investigate if Republic had violated Illinois' plant closure laws. The company may also have violated the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, a 1988 law that requires employers to provide employees and community 60 days notice in advance of plant closings and large-scale layoffs.

After U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) visited the plant, he expressed support for the workers, observing, "The taxpayer dollars going into these big banks are not for dividends, they're not for executive salaries," according to the Chicago Tribune (which, ironically, just declared bankruptcy). "They're for loans and credit to businesses just like Republic so they can stay in business and so these workers won't be out on the street unemployed."

Chicago aldermen have called for hearings on Republic, which received over $10 million in city redevelopment funds. They and Cook County officials suggested withdrawing hundreds of millions of dollars of government funds from the Bank of America.

"We never expected this,'' Melvin Maclin, a factory employee and vice-president of the UE local, told the Associated Press about the support they've received. "We expected to go to jail."

Inside the factory's lobby, local residents and workers covered the walls with hand-scrawled signs, according to the Los Angeles Times.

"Thank you for showing us all how to fight back!" wrote one person. "Here's to change, from the bottom up," penned another.

These sentiments will sound familiar to anyone who followed Obama on the presidential campaign trail. "Change comes from the bottom up," the former community organizer said frequently during his stump speeches.

During the past two weeks, as Obama appointed moderates and former Clintonites to high-level positions in his economic brain-trust, some progressives worried that the president-elect was already moving to the center, even as the economy nosedived. But Obama's call for the largest public investment plan since the interstate highway program begun in the 1950s, his support for a major federal loan to the Big 3 auto companies if they retool to become more energy-efficient, and now his embrace of the Republic workers' occupation of their factory has given many progressives assurance that Obama hasn't forgotten his liberal instincts.

Its worth recalling that FDR did not campaign for president in 1932 -- three years into the Great Depression -- as a proponent of government activism or with a clear plan for economic recovery. But in the five months between his election victory and his March 1933 inauguration, Depression conditions had worsened, and grassroots worker and community protests escalated throughout the country. As soon as he took office, Roosevelt became more vocal, using his bully pulpit -- in speeches and radio addresses -- to promote New Deal ideas, pushing banking reform, public works, relief for struggling farmers, and help for homeowners within the first few months of his administration. In June 1933 he signed the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), which for the first time recognized workers' right to collective bargaining.

Immediately, union activists gave speeches and posted signs -- on posters and billboards, and in store windows -- proclaiming, "The President wants you to join the union." Workers responded, and union membership began to climb. When the Supreme Court ruled in May 1935 that NIRA was unconstitutional, FDR and Congress immediately enacted the National Labor Relations Act, often called the Wagner Act, to preserve workers' right to organize. Workers became even bolder in order to protect their jobs and defend their rights. Department store clerks, bakers, hospital laundry workers, longshoremen, meatpackers, steelworkers, tire and auto workers, and others engaged in various forms of protest, including the first wave of "sit-down" strikes demanding recognition of their unions. The combination of government intervention and union activism laid the foundation for the post-World War 2 prosperity that lifted the majority of Americans into the middle class.

That social contract has now been shredded, spurred by two decades of government deregulation of business, widening inequality, increasing job insecurity, and the unraveling of the social safety net, including health insurance. These trends have been compounded during the Bush years -- corrupt crony capitalism, the mortgage meltdown, escalating foreclosures, and large-scale lay-offs.

The bold factory take-over by the Republic workers in Chicago may be a fluke, or it just could be the opening salvo of a new wave of grassroots activism, not only by workers and their unions, but also by community groups, enviros, religious congregations, housing crusaders, and the millions of Americans inspired by Obama's campaign who voted for the first time in November. Clearly the Republic workers' protest has struck a nerve with the American people, including many who don't share their plight but can nevertheless empathize with their predicament.

It would be uplifting and useful to see vigils and rallies in cities around the country on behalf of another New Deal -- a pump-priming infrastructure plan, a "green jobs" investment program, a universal health insurance proposal, a long-overdue reform of corporate-friendly labor laws, a strategy to help Americans afford housing, and a significant federal investment in public schools and college financial aid.

Like FDR, Obama can use his bully pulpit to encourage Americans to organize and raise their voices -- as he did Sunday in support of the workers at Republic Windows and Doors, a month before he officially takes office. But if Americans want the country to change direction, as the election results indicated, they'll have to follow Obama's advice, and the Republic workers' example: change happens from the bottom up.
[Peter Dreier, professor of politics at Occidental College, is coauthor of "The Next Los Angeles: The Struggle for a Livable City" and "Place Matters: Metropolitics for the 21st Century."] View this story online at:


Monday, December 8, 2008

Note to Obama: You Need Unions, More of Them

Is Obama Backing
Off a Crucial
Pledge to Labor?

By Steve Early

Dec. 8, 2008 - It's only been a month since hundreds of thousands of union members and their families helped Barack Obama win key "battleground states." Yet, already, some labor supporters of the president-elect fear he may be backing away from a key campaign promise to workers threatened by recession.

While running for office, Obama said he strongly favored the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), a long overdue labor law reform measure that should be part of his promised economic stimulus plan. However, when Obama introduced his top economic advisers on Nov. 25 and talked about steps to "jolt" the economy in January, EFCA was not part of the package. More disturbingly, his new chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, declined to say whether the White House would support EFCA when he was questioned about it last month at a Wall Street Journal-sponsored "CEO Forum."

EFCA is vehemently opposed by big business because it would enable workers to unionize and negotiate first contracts more easily. The bill would amend the 73-year old National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) so that private sector employers have to bargain with their employees when a majority sign union authorization cards. Just as the NLRA did, as a centerpiece of the New Deal, EFCA would encourage collective bargaining to raise workers' living standards and restore greater balance to labor-management relations. Beginning in the late 1930s, this federal labor policy helped create a vast new post-World War II American middle-class.

Now, facing the worst financial crisis since the Depression, the Democrats have an unparalleled opportunity to link labor law reform to their broader economic recovery efforts. As economist Dean Baker, from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, points out, "If workers are able to form unions and get their share of productivity gains, it could once again put the country on a wage-driven growth path, instead of growth driven by unsustainable borrowing."

Tax cuts, home foreclosure protection, extended jobless benefits, and a public jobs program are all fine, EFCA supporters say. But expanded use of labor's traditional tool for "self help" (i.e. collective bargaining) is needed just as much and doesn't require new federal outlays like the recent $700 billion bailout of Wall Street. With newly-won bargaining rights, both hourly and salaried employees would gain a seat at the table, when management decisions are being made during the hard times ahead. Even amidst down-sizing, they would have more say about lay-offs, severance pay, and recall rights, not to mention wages, health care benefits, and the funding of troubled retirement plans.

Business has a far different and scarier view of EFCA's potential (and not just because it might lead to a wave of successful organizing). Contrary to the opinion of most historians, employer propagandists claim that NLRA-assisted union growth during the late 1930s actually prolonged the Depression. In a recent op-ed piece, National Right To Work Committee president Mark Mix predicted that passage of EFCA "will likely have a similar effect on the economy as the original Wagner Act, transforming what could have been a recovery into a lengthy, deep recession, or worse." To kill the bill, business groups spent an estimated $50 million on anti-EFCA advertising in Congressional races this fall.

Key Democratic challengers were elected anyway, giving labor law reform a large majority in the House and, by some estimates, 59 Democratic, Republican, and independent supporters in the Senate. Based on this latter head count, it will only take a single additional Republican vote (for cloture, if not for EFCA itself) or another Democratic win, in the still-disputed contest for a Minnesota Senate seat, to thwart any GOP filibuster like the one in 1978 that doomed labor's last bid to overhaul the Wagner Act.

Of course, a few Senate Democrats counted as pro-EFCA by labor may now be waffling, on cue from Chief of Staff Emanuel. See, for example, Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln who told the Northwest Arkansas Times Dec. 4 that "focusing on this bill, this issue, isn't paramount." According to the Times, Lincoln professed to be "undecided" on EFCA and "believed the nation has more important issues to deal with." Even a union supporter and key House committee chair like Rep. George Miller (D-Calif) seemed to be sending mixed signals in a Nov. 18 Chicago Tribune interview. Miller said EFCA was not going to be "the first bill out of the chute," but was "not moving to the back of the train" either.

As Michael Mishak reported in the Las Vegas Sun Nov. 30, the new administration clearly fears that any debate about EFCA early in 2009 "would be divisive at a time when Obama has gone to great lengths to bridge the partisan rift in Washington that has grown deeper over the past eight years." (Of course, outside the Beltway, there's little evidence that strengthening workers' rights is an unpopular cause anywhere in America.) The problem for labor is, if EFCA is not pushed early and hard as part of Obama's overall economic recovery plan, the bill runs a high risk of getting pigeonholed as "special interest" legislation and post-election "pay-back" for labor. This narrow frame will seal its fate.

That's why the same union-backed political apparatus that helped put Obama in the White House needs to be re-mobilized now to keep grassroots pressure on him and other Democrats. In many cities, a broad coalition of labor and community groups organized by Jobs With Justice is planning a week of activities, Dec. 7-13, calling for a "People's Bailout" that would include passing EFCA. In January, unions need to bring their rank-and-file members to Washington in far greater numbers than the UAW has mustered on behalf of its foundering, management-driven agenda for the auto industry.

Labor has a strong case to make that EFCA is an economic fix that would work, while costing taxpayers almost nothing compared to massive handouts for bankers, insurers, credit card companies, investment firms and, perhaps next, auto makers as well. Workers about to be--or already--crippled financially by the recession will be watching closely to see whether their plight merits the same helping hand so quickly extended to corporate America.

[Steve Early is a labor journalist and lawyer who worked as a union organizer for 27 years. He is the author of a forthcoming book called Embedded With Organized Labor: Journalistic Reflections on the Class War At Home (Monthly Review Press, 2009). A shorter version of this article appeared in the Dec. 6 Boston Globe. Early can be reached at]


Friday, December 5, 2008

Obama: The Day of Reckoning Is Upon Us

Prosecute Bush
Officials Behind
Torture Policy

By Michael Ratner
The Progressive

Dec. 3, 2008 - One of Barack Obama's first acts as president should be to instruct his attorney general to appoint an independent prosecutor to initiate a criminal investigation of former Bush Administration officials who gave the green light to torture.

At Obama's press conference on Dec. 1, he spoke of upholding America's highest values as he introduced Eric Holder as his choice for attorney general. Holder insisted there was no tension between protecting the people of the United States and adhering to our Constitution.

A few months ago, Holder was even more explicit. "Our government authorized the use of torture, approved of secret electronic surveillance against American citizens, secretly detained American citizens without due process of law, denied the writ of habeas corpus to hundreds of accused enemy combatants and authorized the use of procedures that violate both international law and the United States Constitution," he said. "We owe the American people a reckoning."

The day of reckoning is fast upon us.

If Obama and Holder want to adhere to our Constitution and uphold our highest values, they must pursue those in the Bush Administration who violated that Constitution, broke our laws, and tarnished our values.

Read the words of Lt. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba, who investigated the Abu Ghraib scandal for the Pentagon.

"There is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes," he concluded.
"The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account."

Despite Taguba's words and reams of documentation supporting his statement, there has been little discussion about holding officials accountable for their design and implementation of the torture program.

We need to make it clear, just as we do in cases with the most minor offenses, that actions have consequences. To simply let those officials walk off the stage sends a message of impunity that will only encourage future law breaking. The message that we need to send is that they will be held accountable.

A popular refrain in Washington these days is that criminal prosecutions would be an unnecessary look backward. Some argue that in order for the new administration to move forward, presidential pardons should be granted and a Truth Commission assembled to investigate the circumstances that gave rise to the brutal interrogations and deaths of prisoners in Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo Bay and CIA black sites around the world.

But pardons would be the final refuge for an administration whose egregious violations of human rights have, for all too long, gone unpunished. And a Truth Commission is not applicable.

This is not Latin America; this is not South Africa. We are not trying to end a civil war, heal a wounded country and reconcile warring factions. We are a democracy trying to hold accountable officials that led our country down the road to torture. And in a democracy, it is the job of a prosecutor and not the pundits to determine whether crimes were committed.

Criminal prosecutions are not about looking to the past; they are about creating a future world without torture. They will be the mark of the new dawn of America's leadership and our new era of accountability.

Prosecuting these officials would help the United States regain its moral standing in the world and to prove our commitment to upholding international human rights standards.

In his first nationally televised interview, President- elect Barack Obama made this promise: "I have said repeatedly that America doesn't torture. And I'm going to make sure that we don't torture."

The best way to do that is to prosecute those who designed the torture policies.

Copyright 2008 The Progressive Magazine

[Michael Ratner is president of the Center for Constitutional Rights and author of "The Trial of Donald Rumsfeld: A Prosecution by Book."]


Sunday, November 30, 2008

Note to Obama: Quagmires Ruin Everything Else

Photo: US Soldiers and Iraqi 'Detainee'

US-Iraq Pact:
Challenge for

By Tom Hayden

What does the US-Iraq Pact mean for the anti-war movement? It certainly may cement an American perception that the war is finally over, stranding the peace movement as public opinion turns its attention to the economy and the Obama administration.

The agreement forces the Bush Administration and Pentagon to back down from long-held positions, especially over deadlines. The barracking of American troops in remote areas by June 2009 will be a retreat from offensive operations. More important, the language of the agreement in Arabic stipulates that all American forces, not merely combat units, will be withdrawn by 2011.

If these terms are maintained, President-elect Obama will be acquiescing in a doubling of his 16 month deadline for withdrawal of combat troops, but also for the first time accepting a date for removal of the so-called residual American forces – since “all” means all counter-terrorism units, advisers, trainers and back-up forces that could total 50,000 or more.

Because shrugging off treaty obligations is a custom of state, only informed publics and alert parliamentarians in Washington and Baghdad can ensure that these agreements are implemented.

This is not “out now”, but that was never possible politically or militarily. It’s not literally “ending the war in 2009” as Obama promised. But this pact is officially known as “the withdrawal agreement” to all proud Iraqis. Read carefully, it is an agreed 2009 timetable for ending the war, the occupation, the troop presence and closing the military bases in three years.

What’s wrong with this picture?

First, it is too slow. Only a few weeks ago Prime Minister al-Maliki was praising Obama’s 16-month timetable. Obviously something or someone got to him. American embassy officials, according to press accounts, were button-holing Iraqi parliamentarians in the hallways in the days before the final voter. There are no registered lobbyists or even lobbying laws in Baghdad.

Second, one can predict with certainty that there will be pressures to extend the occupation despite the pact, using “instability” as justification. Fully and truly ending the occupation is simply not an option in the mentality of the national security bureaucracy.

The reason for this goes beyond a chronic mendacity and trail of broken treaties. The balance of forces in Baghdad rests entirely on the American occupation, and always has. Described by Stephen Biddle, an adviser to Gen. Petraeus, in 2006 articles in Foreign Affairs, the US occupation purports to protect the Iraqi Shi’a regime of former exiles from a coup d’etat while also presenting itself to the insurgent Sunnis as the only protection against the vengeful repression of the majority Shi’a.

“The Sunnis are roadkill.” – American official in Diyala province.

It is unpredictable how a gradual American withdrawal might alter this balance of power. It could simply leave a US-backed sectarian Shi’a police state in Baghdad, holding 40-50,000 Sunnis in detention. “The Sunnis are roadkill”, according to an American official quoted last week in the Los Angeles Times. That is why the non-binding side agreement pledging amnesty for Sunni political detainees is of great importance – if it is enforceable. The continued granting of funds and relative autonomy to the 99,000 former Sunni insurgents who the Americans currently pay not to shoot our troops is equally important, as are restored employment opportunities for former Baathists.

The provincial elections now set for January could consolidate Sunni power bases in at least three provinces where they have been disenfranchised since 2005. The referendum on the pact scheduled in six months provides greater leverage for two opposite poles of discontent with the occupation – the minority Sunnis and the much larger number of Shi’a followers of Moktada al-Sadr whose demand is to accelerate the withdrawal.

Here at home, the agreement will force the anti-war movement into careful consideration of a broader agenda. Unless the pact is violated, it is difficult to imagine hundreds of thousands demonstrating to bring the troops home in 2010 instead of 2011. There will be continued attention to implementing the pact and pressuring for human rights standards in Baghdad, but the steady return of thousands of American soldiers will send a powerful message to most Americans that the Iraq War is ending, perhaps not soon enough, but ending nonetheless.

But it is possible to imagine broad and intense public support for a movement questioning Obama’s multiple wars – Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, not to mention Iran and the Israel-Palestine conflict – as unwinnable quagmires which alienate countless Muslims and cost over $200 billion annually that taxpayers cannot afford amidst a collapsing economy. In this different framing, the anti-war movement could include the Iraq withdrawal and diplomatic solutions in Afghanistan and Pakistan within a new progressive agenda demanding a turn away from policing a world of quagmires to addressing our spiralling economic, trade, health care and energy crises.'

[Tom Hayden is a founder of Progressives for Obama]


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Tough, Pragmatic: It's Good for the Left, Too

Photo: Katrina vanden Heuvel


By Katrina vanden Heuvel
The Nation

November 25, 2008 - A There are some heated conversations under way in the progressive blogosphere, including some at, in which our own writers as well as people like Glenn Greenwald, Jane Hamsher, David Sirota and Digby are debating why Barack Obama has so far appointed few progressives to his cabinet. It's worth checking them out.

I think that we progressives need to be as clear-eyed, tough and pragmatic about Obama as he is about us.

President-elect Obama is a centrist at a time when centrism means energy independence and green jobs and universal healthcare and massive economic stimulus programs and government intervention in the economy. He is a pragmatist at a moment when pragmatism and the scale of our financial crisis compel him to adopt bold policies. He is a cautious leader at a time when, to paraphrase New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, cautious is the new risky. The great traumas of our day do not allow for cautious steps or responses.

At 143 years old (that's the The Nation's age, not mine), we like a little bit of history with our politics. And while Lincoln's way of picking a cabinet has seized the public imagination during this transition, it's worth remembering another president's template for governing. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was compelled to become a bolder and, yes, more progressive president (if progressive means ensuring that the actual conditions of people's lives improve through government acts) as a result of the strategic mobilization and pressure of organized movements.

That history makes me think that progressives must avoid falling into either of two extremes--reflexively defensive or reflexively critical. We'll be wiser and more effective if we follow the advice of a Nation editorial board member, who shared these thoughts at our recent meeting:

1. It will take large-scale organized movements to win transformative change. There would have been no civil rights legislation without the movement, no New Deal without the unions and the unemployed councils, no end to slavery without the abolitionists. In our era, this will have to play out in two ways: organizing district by district and state by state to get us to the 218 (House) and sixty (Senate) votes necessary to pass major legislation; and harnessing the movement energy that can create a new narrative and thus move the elites in Washington to shift away from failed free-market orthodoxies.

2. We need to be able to play inside and outside politics at the same time. This will be challenging for those of us schooled in the habits of pure opposition and protest. We need to make an effort to engage the new administration and Congress constructively, even as we push without apology for solutions on a scale necessary to deliver. This is in the interest of the Democratic Party--which rode the wave of a new coalition of African-Americans, Latinos, young people, women and others. But the party has been beaten down by conservative attacks, so the natural impulse will be caution.

3. Progressives must stick up especially forcefully for the most vulnerable members of the coalition--poor people, immigrants, etc.--those who got almost no mention during the campaign and who are most likely to be left off the bus.

As a former community organizer, Obama has spoken of how "real change comes from the bottom up." It comes about by "imagining and then fighting for and then working for--struggling for--what did not seem possible before." That is the charge we should embrace. Let's mobilize to achieve what "did not seem possible before."

If you like this article, consider making a donation to The Nation.

[Katrina vanden Heuvel is Editor and Publisher of The Nation. She is the co-editor of Taking Back America--And Taking Down The Radical Right (NationBooks, 2004). She is also co-editor (with Stephen F. Cohen) of Voices of Glasnost: Interviews with Gorbachev's Reformers (Norton, 1989) and editor of The Nation: 1865-1990, and the collection A Just Response: The Nation on Terrorism, Democracy and September 11, 2001.]


Monday, November 24, 2008

Obama's Win By the Numbers:

Photo: Steve Cobble

The Greatest
Election Day
I’ll Ever See

By Steve Cobble
Progressive Democrats of America

*A relevant Barack Obama quote: “Nothing can stand in the way of millions of voices calling for change.”

(1) This was a once-in-a-lifetime election.

*Barack Obama won a smashing victory, in historical terms. His 53% is one of the third highest percentage any Democrat has ever won (counting FDR as one Democrat, since he went over 53% all 4 times; LBJ was the only other Democrat to do so).

*Obama’s vote percentage is about the same as Bush ’88, and higher than Reagan in 1980, W, Carter, Kennedy, Truman, Clinton (twice), “Gore” and Nixon ’68.

*Obama’s 66 million votes (and counting) is a record for the most ever.

Type rest of the post here*The turnout this year is also the highest ever, more than 125 million.

*Obama’s 365 electoral votes is a landslide, in the same range as both Clinton races, and higher than Truman, JFK, Nixon, Carter, “Gore” & W.

*Obama’s victory margin is now over 8 million votes (compared to W’s 2.5 M “mandate” in 2004). His victory margin percentage-wise is higher than Clinton ’92, Truman, W, Carter, Nixon ’68, JFK & “Gore”.

*The Republicans claimed a right-wing revolution in 1980, when Reagan won with only 44 million votes—Obama right now has 50% more than that.

*The entire voter turnout in 1960 was only a little over half of this year’s voter turnout—that’s how much the country has grown since then.

*The Democrats big win in both the House & Senate in ’06 & in ‘08, two cycles in a row, marks the biggest back-to-back Democratic wins since the Great Depression; this was almost literally a once-in-a-lifetime election, even without considering the historic victory of an African-American!

(2) The 2008 vote is potentially a long-term, center-left realigning election.

*Young voters went more than 2-to-1 for Obama, their organizing was superb, and their turnout, especially in battleground states, was excellent. In fact, if only people 30 and over had voted, McCain might have won.

*Obama lost among those who claimed to have voted in 2004. He won with a big margin among those who had not voted in 2004—newly-registered voters, young voters, and lapsed voters coming back into the polling booths.

*White voters went for McCain (though the White gender gap still exists, since White women, especially single women, voted more for Obama than White men).

*African-American voters not only increased their share of the electorate to 13%, they went 19-to-1 for Obama, erasing the White voter gap.

*Obama’s margin of victory was essentially provided by Latino voters, who cast 9% of the votes, with more than a 2-to-1 margin for Obama.

*The Latino vote helped flip 3 Southwestern states, New Mexico, Nevada & Colorado, from red-to-blue, all by big margins. In addition, Puerto Rican voters in central Florida, along with young Cuban-Americans no longer bound by their hatred of Castro, combined to win the Latino vote with 55% for Democrats, and help win the Sunshine State for Obama, by a big enough margin it couldn’t be stolen again.

*The combination of 2-to-1 margins among both young voters and Latino voters is an extremely positive sign for a center-left realignment. These are the building blocks of any future Democratic coalition, especially in combination with the winning rainbow coalition of African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Native Americans, Jewish & Arab voters, secular voters, union members, gays & lesbians, and single women.

*The “Black/Brown” coalition which provided the victory margin made up over 1/5 of the voters this year. (To update Jesse Jackson’s wonderful phrase, “the hands that picked the cotton, and the hands that picked the lettuce, just picked a new President”!)

*By 2050, it is projected that the Black/Brown piece of the voting electorate will be twice that, in the neighborhood of 45%. The demography of the future should be a source of great worry to the GOP, though perhaps not so much in Wasilla…

*The South/Border states went for McCain by 9%–and since half of all the nation’s African-Americans live in the South, and voted heavily for Obama, this means that much of the White vote in the South was heavy for McCain.

*The rest of the nation — East + Midwest + West — went for Obama by 15%.

(3) Earlier reforms in the system won by progressives set the stage for the “change” election that the Obama campaign ran so brilliantly. The work that progressives did in the past did matter; the work we are doing now will matter to future generations.


[On November 13, 2008, the Institute for Policy Studies provided post-election analysis by some of the nation's leading progressives: Steve Cobble, John Cavanagh, and Bill Fletcher, Jr., moderated by Karen Dolan. This from from part of Cobble's presentation]


Friday, November 21, 2008

Note to Obama: 'Futurama' Has to Wait Its Turn

Schools, Hospitals
Come First in
Stimulus Package

By Mike Davis

America's "Futurama" is defunct. The famous walk-through diorama of a car-and-suburb world, imagineered by Norman Bel Geddes for General Motors at the 1939 New York World's Fair, has weathered into a dreary emblem of our national backwardness. While GM bleeds to death on a Detroit street corner, the steel-and-concrete Interstate landscape built in the 1950s and 1960s is rapidly decaying into this century's equivalent of Victorian rubble.

As we wait in potholed gridlock for the next highway bridge to collapse, the French, the Japanese, and now the Spanish blissfully speed by us on their sci-fi trains. Within the next year or two, Spain's high-speed rail network will become the world's largest, with plans to cap construction in 2020 at an incredible 6,000 miles of fast track. Meanwhile China has launched its first 200 mile-per-hour prototype, and Saudi Arabia and Argentina are proceeding with the construction of their own state-of-the-art systems. Of the larger rich, industrial countries, only the United States has yet to build a single mile of what constitutes the new global standard of transportation.

From day one, Barack Obama campaigned to redress this infrastructure deficit through an ambitious program of public investment: "For our economy, our safety, and our workers, we have to rebuild America." Originally he proposed to finance this spending by ending the war in Iraq. Although his present commitments to a larger military and an expanded war in Afghanistan seem to foreclose any reconversion of the Pentagon budget, he continues to emphasize the urgency of an Apollo-style program to modernize highways, ports, rail transit, and power grids.

Public works, he also promises, can put the public back to work. His "Economic Rescue Plan for the Middle Class" vows to "create 5 million new, high-wage jobs by investing in the renewable sources of energy that will eliminate the oil we currently import from the Middle East in 10 years, and we'll create 2 million jobs by rebuilding our crumbling roads, schools, and bridges." Of course, Bill Clinton entered the White House with a similarly ambitious plan to rebuild the derelict national infrastructure, but it was abandoned after Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin convinced the new president that deficit reduction was the true national priority. This time around, a much more powerful and desperate coalition of interests is aligned to support the Keynesian shock-and-awe of major public works.

Rolling Out the Dozers

Since the Paulson bailout plan has become so much expensive spit in the wind, and with bond spreads now premised on the possibility of double-digit unemployment over the next 18 months, massive new federal spending has become a matter of sheer economic survival. As innumerable influentials -- from New York Times columnist David Brooks to House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi -- have argued, a crash program of infrastructure repair and construction, likely to include some investment in the new power grids required to bring more solar and wind energy online, is the "win-win" approach that will garner the quickest bipartisan support.

It has also been portrayed as the only lifeboat in the water for the ordinary steerage passengers in our sinking economy. The emergent Washington consensus seems to be that those five million green jobs can actually come later (after we save GM's shareholders), but that infrastructure spending -- if resolutely pushed through the lame-duck Congress or adopted in Obama's first 100 days -- can begin to pump money into the crucial construction and manufacturing sectors of the economy before the end of next winter.

Unlike Comrade Bush's "socialist" efforts to save Wall Street, a public-works strategy for national recovery has had broad ideological respectability from the days of Alexander Hamilton and Abraham Lincoln to those of Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. If Democrats can brag about the proud heritage of the Works Progress Administration and the Public Works Administration from the era of the Great Depression (ah, those magnificent post offices and parkways), there are still a few Republicans who remember the Golden Age of interstate highway construction that commenced in the 1950s with President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Indeed since the national shame of Hurricane Katrina, Americans have become outspokenly nostalgic about competent federal governments and magnificent public achievements.

If one accepts the reasonable principle of supporting the new president whenever he makes policy from the left or addresses basic social needs, shouldn't progressives be cheering the White House as it rolls out the dozers, Cats, and big cranes? Aren't high-speed mass transit and clean energy the kind of noble priorities that best reconcile big-bang stimulus with long-term public value?

The answer is: no, not at this stage of our national emergency. I'm not an infrastructure-crisis denialist, but first things first. We are now at a crash site, and our priority should be to save the victims, not change the tires or repair the fender, much less build a new car. In the triage situation that now confronts the president-elect, keeping local schools and hospitals open should be the first concern, rebuilding bridges and expanding ports would come next, and rescuing bank shareholders at the very end of the line.

Inexorably, the budgets of schools, cities, and states are sinking into insolvency on a scale comparable to the early 1930s. The public-sector fiscal crisis -- a vicious chain reaction of falling property values, incomes, and sales -- has been magnified by the unexpectedly large exposure of local governments and transit agencies to the Wall Street meltdown via complex capital lease-back arrangements. Meanwhile on the demand side, the need for public services explodes as even prudent burghers face foreclosure, not to speak of the loss of pensions and medical coverage. Although the public mega-deficits of California and New York may dominate headlines, the essence of the crisis -- from the suburbs of Anchorage to the neighborhoods of West Philly -- is its potential universality. Certainly, in such a rich country, wind farms and schools should never become a Sophie's choice, but the criminal negligence of Congress over the past months should alert us to the likelihood that such a choice will be made -- with disastrous results for both human services and economic recovery.

Saving Schools and Hospitals

Congress naturally loves infrastructure because it rewards manufacturers, shippers, and contractors who give large campaign contributions, and because construction sites can be handsomely bill-boarded with the names of proud sponsors. Powerful business lobbies like the National Industrial Transportation League and the Coalition for America's Gateways and Trade Corridors stand ready to grease the wheels of their political allies. In addition, if the past century of congressional pork-barrel methods is any precedent, infrastructural spending typically resists coherent national planning or larger cost-benefit analyses.

Yet saving (and expanding) core public employment is, hands-down, the best Keynesian stimulus around. Federal investment in education and healthcare gets incomparably more bang for the buck, if jobs are the principal criterion, than expenditures on transportation equipment or road repair.

For example, $50 million in federal aid during the Clinton administration allowed Michigan schools to hire nearly 1,300 new teachers. It is also the current operating budget of a Tennessee school district made up of eight elementary schools, three middle schools, and two high schools.

On the other hand, $50 million on the order book of a niche public transit manufacturer generates only 200 jobs (plus, of course, capital costs and profits). Road construction and bridge repair, also very capital intensive, produce about the same modest, direct employment effect.

One of the most likely targets for a Congressional stimulus plan is light-rail construction. Street-car systems are enormously popular with local governments, redevelopment agencies, and middle-class commuters, but generally they operate less efficiently (per dollar per passenger) than bus systems, and at least 40% of the capital investment leaks overseas to German streetcar builders and Korean steel companies.

Personally, I would love to commute via a sleek Euro-style bullet train from my home in San Diego to my job in Riverside, 100 grueling freeway miles away, but I'll take gridlock if the cost of rationing federal expenditure is tolerating the closure of my kids' school or increasing the wait in the local emergency room from two to ten hours.

Obama, unlike his predecessor, has a bold vision, shared with his powerful supporters in high-tech industries, of catching up with the Spanish and Japanese, while redeeming America as the synonym for modernity. Lots of new infrastructure will, however, become so many bridges to nowhere (especially for our children) unless he and Congress first save human-needs budgets and public-sector jobs.

A good start for progressive agitation on Obama's left flank would be to demand that his health-care reform and aid-to-education proposals be brought front and center as preferential vehicles for immediate macro-economic stimulus. Democrats should not forget that the most brilliant and enduring accomplishment of the Kennedy-Johnson era was Head Start, not the Apollo Program.

If, after saving kindergartens and county hospitals, we someday hope to ride the fast train, then we need to rebuild the antiwar movement on broader foundations. The president-elect's original proposal for funding domestic social investment through downsizing the empire offers a brilliant starting point for basing economic growth on an economic bill of rights (as advocated by Franklin Roosevelt in 1944) instead of imperial over-reach and Pharaonic levels of military waste.

[Mike Davis is the author of In Praise of Barbarians: Essays Against Empire (Haymarket Books, 2008) and Buda's Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb (Verso, 2007). He is currently working on a book about cities and poverty.]


Thursday, November 20, 2008

Thorne's Post-Election Butt-Busting Reading List

New Start /

'Millions have been newly engaged and motivated as a result of the recent electoral process and most are not traditional players who automatically buy in to the traditional assumptions.'

Our Progressive

By Thorne Dreyer
The Rag Blog

November 20, 2008 - History has taken an unexpected turn and, astounding as it may seem to those of us made numb by decades of disappointment, the possibility of building a viable progressive movement is before us.

Millions have been newly engaged and motivated as a result of the recent electoral process and most are not traditional players who automatically buy in to the traditional assumptions. Add to that the critical and tantalizing fact that these people need not fall back into the woodwork thanks to the unprecedented communications networks that we now have at our disposal.

The emergence and consolidation of a serious progressive movement is nowhere near a given, and we certainly have a tradition of blowing it -- especially through turning in on ourselves rather than intelligently identifying and directing our energies at the real enemy -- but we'd be fools not to bust our butts trying to make it happen.

We must recognize and be tolerant of our differences in ideology and approach, but we must also recognize that our only power is in unity. It is not only our right but our responsibility to address the Obama presidency with a critical eye; we must always hold Obama accountable to a progressive vision.

But we must likewise be supportive and leave the Obama-bashing to those who are best at it -- the rabid right. The resurgent clout of the racists and the fear-mongers will be underestimated only at our serious peril.

The crises we face now scream of catastrophic potential and there may not be another chance.

Rag Blog reading list on the task at hand (much more to come):

I highly recommend that everyone read Carl Davidson’s Bumpy Road Ahead: Obama and the Left posted on The Rag Blog Nov. 18, 2008.

Few of us will agree with every word, but I believe it to be a bold and thoughtful beginning. Please join in the discussion by clicking the “comments” at the end of this (and every) post.

Other articles recently published on The Rag Blog that analyze the election from a left perspective and address the question of the day: what do we do now?

Robert Jensen : Real Hope: Facing Difficult Truths About an Uncertain Future by Robert Jensen / The Rag Blog / Nov. 18, 2008

'Two Party' or Not 'Two Party' : A Rag Blog Discussion on Change with articles by David P. Hamilton and Scott Trimble / The Rag Blog / Nov. 16, 2008

Bert Garskof on the Obama 'Movement' : Shoot Where the Ducks are by Bert Garskof / The Rag Blog / Nov. 10, 2008

Paul Buhle : The American Elections of 2008: A First Take by Paul Buhle / The Rag Blog / Nov. 8, 2008

Makani Themba-Nixon : A Black Woman Looks at the Election by Makani Themba-Nixon / The Rag Blog / Nov. 8, 2008

Obama Presidency : What the Left Should Expect by David P. Hamilton / Nov. 8, 2008

Ayers Seems Relieved That the Election is Over by Bill Ayers / Nov. 7, 2008

The Crash of 2008 : More 'Washington as Usual' Under Obama? by Dr. S. R. Keister / The Rag Blog / Nov. 7, 2008

Ron Ridenour on Obama : Conditional Hope from Across the Seas by Ron Ridenour / The Rag Blog / Nov. 6, 2008

Tim Wise : Tuesday Night Obama Made History; Now the Work Begins by Tim Wise / Nov. 5, 2008

Paul Buhle : FDR, Obama and a new Popular Front by Paul Buhle / The Rag Blog / Nov. 5, 2008

Michael Moore : Pinch Me! by Michael Moore / Nov. 5, 2008
[Thorne Dreyer was a pioneering underground journalist in the sixties and seventies and was active with SDS in Texas and nationally. He lives in Austin where he works with MDS/Austin and Progressives for Obama. A writer, editor and bookseller, he is a contributing editor to Next Left Notes and is co-editor of The Rag Blog.]


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Message to Obama: Buyout, Not Bailout

Photos: It can be done: Neil Young's 100mpg 'LincVolt' and Honda's Hydrogen Car

Rx for 'Ailing'
Auto Industry:
Take it Over

By Carl Bloice
Left Margin via

It is hemorrhaging fast and no end to the bloodletting seems to be insight. No question something has to be done about the auto industry. But what? As usual, the preferred answer depends your vantage point. As usual, when courses of action are proposed on matters like this the people be adversely affected are passed off as mere numbers. Bankruptcy on the part of any of the Big Three automakers would cost the U.S. economy $175 billion the first year after it went into effect and tens of thousands of workers would be laid off. The cost of a General Motors takeover of Chrysler could be as much as $10 billion and mean dismissing over 30,000 workers. Behind these sterile statistics are real live individuals and families.

It may be that Chrysler and GM are 'too big to fall.' (Although letting them go down is what some pundits are -- with clinical calmness -- advising) But what about the workers?

Over the past four decades or so, the deindustrialization of vast areas of the country has left once relatively prosperous communities in dire straits and vast numbers of young people on the street with little hope for a future of gainful employment. It has hit very hard at cities that are home to stable working class African American populations, often referred to as a 'black middle class.'

The potential devastation of bankruptcies in any part of the auto industry is being understated. There are a couple of million retired autoworkers whose pensions and health care coverage are at stake. Many of them have yet to reach the age for receiving Social Security and yet would be severely disadvantaged in today's labor market. Then there are the millions employed in auxiliary services dependent on auto making.

It's hard to think about the additional pain that will befall cities like Detroit in the face of the current crisis in the auto industry and the prescriptions being offered up to address it. The area, once the world center of auto manufacturing, is now being told that whatever happens over the coming months it's going to have to absorb a another heavy blow.

So, what is to the done about the ailing auto industry? Here's one answer: nationalize it.

Don't get your alimentary system in an uproar; it's been done before. We could simply takeover the industry with understanding that thousands of engineers and technicians would be mobilized to design and make functional and efficient 'green' cars. And, tens of thousands of autoworkers could be put to work building them. Of course, this would not employ all of those about to be laid off. They could be retrained to work in other new green industries building wind turbines, solar panels, mass transit lines and recycling factories. It would provide jobs for hundreds of thousands and provide new hope for young people entering the workforce in Michigan, Kentucky and elsewhere.

This will require a lot of central planning and that's the last thing the people now running the economy want to hear. Horrors. But let's face it; radical innovation and planning is the only thing that could get us out of the current mess and lay the base for a healthy economic future. An endless series of bailouts and stimulus packages is unlikely to do the trick. There is a lot of talk from the experts these days about what a 'recovery' would look like. Estimates of when one is likely to take place range from the end of 2010 to never.

Economists are now talking about a 'jobless recovery.' That is, Wall Street will get back up to speed and corporate profits begin to rise again while high joblessness continues and the legions of the poor grow even larger.

A government organized effort to consolidate, refurbish, and refinance the auto industry will surely be denounced as 'socialist' but, actually it wouldn't be anything a traditional socialist would recognize as such. It could be a public-private collaborative project. Yet, its central prerequisite would be a political decision -- reached democratically -- to pursue a policy of guaranteed employment to those who want to work and an economic strategy premised on full employment, innovation rooted largely in green technology and a commitment to preserve our communities' health and that of planet.

The employment statistics for September are in -- the official ones that are always understated . The country's unemployment rate is 6.5 percent. That's up from 4.8 percent a year ago. It is expected to climb above 8 percent. For teenagers it's 20.6 percent; that's up from 4.3 percent in September 2007. Latino unemployment stands at 8.8 percent; it was 5.6 percent this time last year. African American joblessness has risen steadily this year to 11.1 percent from 8.5 percent a year ago. Claims for unemployment insurance broke a new record last week. Most economists say it's only going to get worse as we move toward the holidays.

The incoming Obama Administration is being offered all kinds of advice these days on what to prioritize. Way up there on the list has got to be a program to save jobs and create new ones. Save GM? Yes, but not because of the corporate heads and financiers whose greed and errant business judgment got us into this fix but for the workers and their communities.


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Pak-Afghan Problem: Intelligence, Not Militarism

Photo: US Soldier on Afghan-Pakistan Border

Guns or

for Obama?

By Steve Weissman
Truthout Perspective

Nov 11, 2008- If state officials across the country ever count all the absentee and provisional ballots, Obama's popular vote might equal his landslide victory in the Electoral College, adding weight to his overwhelming mandate to fix the economy, end our dependence on foreign oil, create green jobs, provide health care and mend our broken schools. But how much will all our votes count if, at a time of reduced resources, the Obama administration allows foreign conflicts to sink his promises on the home front?

Warfare or health care - this could become the defining choice for the new president, far more decisive than whether he will govern from the left or the center.

Will Obama keep America's military commitments and military spending in check? Or will he see his best hopes for America lost in an ever- deepening quagmire in Afghanistan, an unnecessary war with Iran and an absurd arms race with the Russians?

Afghanistan and the frontier areas of Pakistan could prove Obama's biggest test.

During his presidential campaign, he strongly advocated sending in more troops, arguing that we had to finish the war against al-Qaeda that George W. Bush had abandoned in his rush to war against Iraq. This allowed Obama to defend withdrawing troops from Iraq without sounding like a dove, especially when he added that he would attack Osama bin Laden in Pakistani even if the Pakistanis refused to give us permission.

Now, the crunch has come. In both Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Taliban are showing new strength and the small escalation that Obama wanted looks like only a down payment on a major, ongoing commitment of blood and money. Worse, no one who knows anything about Afghanistan believes that a foreign military occupation has any chance of success. To the contrary, the more troops and inevitable killing of civilians, the more the country's Pashtun majority will turn to the Taliban as their national saviors.

So, why play out a losing hand? Obama's answer is that we need to finish off Osama bin Laden and deny al-Qaeda a sanctuary from which to plan future terrorist attacks? Think that through. Making a martyr of Osama will hardly reduce the very real threat of Islamist terrorism, while our current effort could easily drive a nuclear Pakistan into chaos. In any case, those who attacked us on 9/11 did most of their planning in Hamburg, Germany, throwing into question whether remote sanctuaries are the key to the terrorist problem.

For Obama and the rest of us, a better strategy might be to stop thinking like would-be warriors, relying instead on our security services to stop the terrorists while greatly reducing our military footprint in Muslim lands. Add to that an unstinting effort to forge a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, and the Osama bin Ladens of this world will find dwindling support for their blood-thirsty jihad.

Iran poses a different kind of problem, and one that Obama handled at his first press conference with less than his normal aplomb. Asked how he would respond to Iranian president Ahmadinejad's congratulatory message, he stiffly parroted the current policy that an Iranian nuclear weapon and their support of terrorist groups were "unacceptable." So they are. But Obama would have done much better to smile broadly and say that he had received many nice messages from foreign leaders and would reply to them all in due course.

The catch here is that Tel Aviv, the American Israel Political Action Committee and the neocons are trying to force Obama into a corner from which they can push him into a military strike on Iran. His response only encouraged them in their effort while sending Ahmadinejad into another useless tirade. Neither helps deter a disaster in the making.

On one last threat, Obama did much better. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev repeated last week his threat to place nuclear missiles on the border with Poland if the United States insisted on placing anti-missile missiles in that country. Here were the seeds of a costly new nuclear arms race that would benefit neither Russia nor the United States. Obama responded with a simple statement from an adviser that the president- elect had made "no commitment" to plans for a missile defense program in Eastern Europe.

Obama and his team clearly understood the importance of reducing tensions with Russia without needlessly brandishing our military might. Hopefully, they will similarly come to see that "keeping all options on the table" militarily threatens Iran and encourages those Iranians who think they need nuclear weapons to defend their country. That sending more troops into Afghanistan will only fuel a nationalistic resistance. That sending rockets into Pakistan's frontier lands will turn Ahmed No-Pack against his own government. And that all these foreign conflicts will take resources away from the domestic changes Obama has promised American voters.

Not being an isolationist or pacifist, I understand the need for overseas military action in some situations.

But having learned from the war in Vietnam, I also understand the limits of military force against people who do not want to be ruled by a foreign power. That's a lesson of the 1960s that Obama would do well to remember, especially at a time when we can no longer afford both guns and butter.
[A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France.]


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