Rebecca Gordon – Informed Comment https://www.juancole.com Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Thu, 17 Jun 2021 05:11:18 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.18 Social Security Versus National Security: Whose Entitlement Really Makes Us Safer? https://www.juancole.com/2021/06/security-national-entitlement.html https://www.juancole.com/2021/06/security-national-entitlement.html#respond Wed, 16 Jun 2021 04:01:08 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=198383 ( Tomdispatch.com) – “Biden’s doing better than I thought he would.”

“Yeah. Vaccinations, infrastructure, acknowledging racism in policing. A lot of pieces of the Green New Deal, without calling it that. The child subsidies. It’s kind of amazing.”

“But on the military–”

“Yeah, same old, same old.”

As my friends and I have noticed, President Joe Biden remains super-glued to the same old post-World War II agreement between the two major parties: they can differ vastly on domestic policies, but they remain united when it comes to projecting U.S. military power around the world and to the government spending that sustains it. In other words, the U.S. “national security” budget is still the third rail of politics in this country.

Assaulting the Old New Deal

It was Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill who first declared that Social Security is “the third rail” of American politics. In doing so, he metaphorically pointed to the high-voltage rail that runs between the tracks of subways and other light-rail systems. Touch that and you’ll electrocute yourself.

O’Neill made that observation back in 1981, early in Ronald Reagan’s first presidential term, at a moment when the new guy in Washington was already hell-bent on dismantling Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal legacy.

Reagan would fight his campaign to do so on two key fronts. First, he would attack labor unions, whose power had expanded in the years since the 1935 Wagner Act (officially the National Labor Relations Act) guaranteed workers the right to bargain collectively with their employers over wages and workplace rules. Such organizing rights had been hard-won indeed. Not a few workers died at the hands of the police or domestic mercenaries like Pinkerton agents, especially in the early 1930s. By the mid-1950s, union membership would peak at around 35% of workers, while wages would continue to grow into the late 1970s, when they stagnated and began their long decline.

Reagan’s campaign began with an attack on PATCO, a union of well-paid professionals — federally-employed air-traffic controllers — which his National Labor Relations Board eventually decertified. That initial move signaled the Republican Party’s willingness, even enthusiasm, for breaking with decades of bipartisan support for organized labor. By the time Donald Trump took office in the next century, it was a given that Republicans would openly support anti-union measures like federal “right-to-work” laws, which, if passed, would make it illegal for employers to agree to a union-only workplace and so effectively destroy the bargaining power of unions. (Fortunately, opponents were able to forestall that move during Trump’s presidency, but in February 2021, Republicans reintroduced their National Right To Work Act.)

The Second Front and the Third Rail

There was a second front in Reagan’s war on the New Deal. He targeted a group of programs from that era that came to be known collectively as “entitlements.” Three of the most important were Aid to Dependent Children, unemployment insurance, and Social Security. In addition, in 1965, a Democratic Congress had added a healthcare entitlement, Medicare, which helps cover medical expenses for those over 65 and younger people with specific chronic conditions, as well as Medicaid, which does the same for poor people who qualify. These, too, would soon be in the Republican gunsights.

The story of Reagan’s racially inflected attacks on welfare programs is well-known. His administration’s urge to go after unemployment insurance, which provided payments to laid-off workers, was less commonly acknowledged. In language eerily echoed by Republican congressional representatives today, the Reagan administration sought to reduce the length of unemployment benefits, so that workers would be forced to take any job at any wage. A 1981 New York Times report, for instance, quoted Reagan Assistant Secretary of Labor Albert Agrisani as saying:

“‘The bottom line… is that we have developed two standards of work, available work and desirable work.’ Because of the availability of unemployment insurance and extended benefits, he said, ‘there are jobs out there that people don’t want to take.’”

Reagan did indeed get his way with unemployment insurance, but when he turned his sights on Social Security, he touched Tip O’Neill’s third rail.

Unlike welfare, whose recipients are often framed as lazy moochers, and unemployment benefits, which critics claim keep people from working, Social Security was then and remains today a hugely popular program. Because workers contribute to the fund with every paycheck and usually collect benefits only after retirement, beneficiaries appear deserving in the public eye. Of all the entitlement programs, it’s the one most Americans believe that they and their compatriots are genuinely entitled to. They’ve earned it. They deserve it.

So, when the president moved to reduce Social Security benefits, ostensibly to offset a rising deficit in its fund, he was shocked by the near-unanimous bipartisan resistance he met. His White House put together a plan to cut $80 billion over five years by — among other things — immediately cutting benefits and raising the age at which people could begin fully collecting them. Under that plan, a worker who retired early at 62 and was entitled to $248 a month would suddenly see that payout reduced to $162.

Buy the Book

Access to early retirement was, and remains, a justice issue for workers with shorter life expectancies — especially when those lives have been shortened by the hazards of the work they do. As South Carolina Republican Congressman Carroll Campbell complained to the White House at the time: “I’ve got thousands of sixty-year-old textile workers who think it’s the end of the world. What the hell am I supposed to tell them?”

After the Senate voted 96-0 to oppose any plan that would “precipitously and unfairly reduce early retirees’ benefits,” the Reagan administration regrouped and worked out a compromise with O’Neill and the Democrats. Economist (later Federal Reserve chair) Alan Greenspan would lead a commission that put together a plan, approved in 1983, to gradually raise the full retirement age, increase the premiums paid by self-employed workers, start taxing benefits received by people with high incomes, and delay cost-of-living adjustments. Those changes were rolled out gradually, the country adjusted, and no politicians were electrocuted in the process.

Panic! The System Is Going Broke!

With its monies maintained in a separately sequestered trust fund, Social Security, unlike most government programs, is designed to be self-sustaining. Periodically, as economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman might put it, serious politicians claim to be concerned about that fund running out of money. There’s a dirty little secret that those right-wing deficit slayers never tell you, though: when the Social Security trust fund runs a surplus, as it did from 1983 to 2009, it’s required to invest it in government bonds, indirectly helping to underwrite the federal government’s general fund.

They also aren’t going to mention that one group who contributes to that surplus will never see a penny in benefits: undocumented immigrant workers who pay into the system but won’t ever collect Social Security. Indeed, in 2016, such workers provided an estimated $13 billion out of about $957 billion in Social Security taxes, or almost 3% of total revenues. That may not sound like much, but over the years it adds up. In that way, undocumented workers help subsidize the trust fund and, in surplus years, the entire government.

How, then, is Social Security funded? Each year, employees contribute 6.2% of their wages (up to a cap amount). Employers match that, for a total of 12.4% of wages paid, and both put out another 1.45% each for Medicare. Self-employed people pay both shares or a total of 15.3% of their income, including Medicare. And those contributions add up to about nine-tenths of the fund’s annual income (89% in 2019). The rest comes from interest on government bonds.

So, is the Social Security system finally in trouble? It could be. When the benefits due to a growing number of retirees exceed the fund’s income, its administrators will have to dip into its reserves to make up the difference. As people born in the post-World War II baby boom reach retirement, at a moment when the American population is beginning to age rapidly, dire predictions are resounding about the potential bankruptcy of the system. And there is, in fact, a consensus that the fund will begin drawing down its reserves, possibly starting this year, and could exhaust them as soon as 2034. At that point, relying only on the current year’s income to pay benefits could reduce Social Security payouts to perhaps 79% of what’s promised at present.

You can already hear the cries that the system is going broke!

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Employees and employers only pay Social Security tax on income up to a certain cap. This year it’s $142,800. In other words, employees who make a million dollars in 2021 will contribute no more to Social Security than those who make $142,800. To rescue Social Security, all it would take is raising that cap — or better yet, removing it altogether.

In fact, the Congressional Budget Office has run the numbers and identified two different methods of raising it to eventually tax all wage income. Either would keep the trust fund solvent.

Naturally, plutocrats and their congressional minions don’t want to raise the Social Security cap. They’d rather starve the entitlement beast and blame possible shortfalls on greedy boomers who grew up addicted to government handouts. Under the circumstances, we, and succeeding generations, had better hope that Social Security remains, as it was in 1981, the third rail in American politics.

Welfare for Weapons Makers

Of course, there’s a second high-voltage, untouchable rail in American politics and that’s funding for the military and weapons manufacturers. It takes a brave politician indeed to suggest even the most minor of reductions in Pentagon spending, which has for years been the single largest item of discretionary spending in the federal budget.

It’s notoriously difficult to identify how much money the government actually spends annually on the military. President Trump’s last Pentagon budget, for the fiscal year ending on September 30th, offered about $740 billion to the armed services (not including outlays for veteran services and pensions). Or maybe it was only $705.4 billion. Or perhaps, including Department of Energy outlays involving nuclear weapons, $753.5 billion. (And none of those figures even faintly reflected full national-security spending, which is certainly well over a trillion dollars annually.)

Most estimates put President Biden’s 2022 military budget at $753 billion — about the same as Trump’s for the previous year. As former Senator Everett Dirksen is once supposed to have said, “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.”

Indeed, we’re talking real money and real entitlements here that can’t be touched in Washington without risking political electrocution. Unlike actual citizens, U.S. arms manufacturers seem entitled to ever-increasing government subsidies — welfare for weapons, if you like. Beyond the billions spent to directly fund the development and purchase of various weapons systems, every time the government permits arms sales to other countries, it’s expanding the coffers of companies like Lockheed-Martin, Northrup-Grumman, Boeing, and Raytheon Technologies. The real beneficiaries of Donald Trump’s so-called Abraham Accords between Israel and the majority Muslim states of Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan were the U.S. companies that sell the weaponry that sweetened those deals for Israel’s new friends.

When Americans talk about undeserved entitlements, they’re usually thinking about welfare for families, not welfare for arms manufacturers. But military entitlements make the annual federal appropriation of $16.5 billion for Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) look puny by comparison. In fact, during Republican and Democratic administrations alike, the yearly federal outlay for TANF hasn’t changed since it was established through the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, known in the Clinton era as “welfare reform.” Inflation has, however, eroded its value by about 40% in the intervening years.

And what do Americans get for those billions no one dares to question? National security, right?

But how is it that the country that spends more on “defense” than the next seven, or possibly 10, countries combined is so insecure that every year’s Pentagon budget must exceed the last one? Why is it that, despite those billions for military entitlements, our critical infrastructure, including hospitals, gas pipelines, and subways (not to mention Cape Cod steamships), lies exposed to hackers?

And if, thanks to that “defense” budget, we’re so secure, why is it that, in my wealthy home city of San Francisco, residents now stand patiently in lines many blocks long to receive boxes of groceries? Why is “national security” more important than food security, or health security, or housing security? Or, to put it another way, which would you rather be entitled to: food, housing, education, and healthcare, or your personal share of a shiny new hypersonic missile?

But wait! Maybe defense spending contributes to our economic security by creating, as Donald Trump boasted in promoting his arms deals with Saudi Arabia, “jobs, jobs, jobs.” It’s true that spending on weaponry does, in fact, create jobs, just not nearly as many as investing taxpayer dollars in a variety of far less lethal endeavors would. As Brown University’s Costs of War project reports:

“Military spending creates fewer jobs than the same amount of money would have, if invested in other sectors. Clean energy and health care spending create 50% more jobs than the equivalent amount of spending on the military. Education spending creates more than twice as many jobs.”

It seems that President Joe Biden is ready to shake things up by attacking child poverty, the coronavirus pandemic, and climate change, even if he has to do it without any Republican support. But he’s still hewing to the old Cold War bipartisan alliance when it comes to the real third rail of American politics — military spending. Until the power can be cut to that metaphorical conduit, real national security remains an elusive dream.

Copyright 2021 Rebecca Gordon

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Via Tomdispatch.com

]]>
https://www.juancole.com/2021/06/security-national-entitlement.html/feed 0
Can Biden-Harris make a Counter-Revolution against Reaganism and Restore Dignity to Work? https://www.juancole.com/2021/03/counter-revolution-reaganism.html Wed, 10 Mar 2021 05:01:07 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=196560 ( Tomdispatch.com ) – A year ago, just a few weeks before San Francisco locked itself down for the pandemic, I fell deeply in love with a 50-year-old. The object of my desire was a wooden floor loom in the window of my local thrift shop. Friends knowledgeable on such matters examined photos I took of it and assured me that all the parts were there, so my partner (who puts up with such occasional infatuations) helped me wrangle it into one of our basement rooms and I set about learning to weave.

These days, all I want to do is weave. The loom that’s gripped me, and the pandemic that’s gripped us all, have led me to rethink the role of work (and its subset, paid labor) in human lives. During an enforced enclosure, this 68-year-old has spent a lot of time at home musing on what the pandemic has revealed about how this country values work. Why, for example, do the most “essential” workers so often earn so little — or, in the case of those who cook, clean, and care for the people they live with, nothing at all? What does it mean when conservatives preach the immeasurable value of labor, while insisting that its most basic price in the marketplace shouldn’t rise above $7.25 per hour?

That, after all, is where the federal minimum wage has been stuck since 2009. And that’s where it would probably stay forever, if Republicans like Kansas Senator Roger Marshall had their way. He brags that he put himself through college making $6 an hour and doesn’t understand why people can’t do the same today for $7.25. One likely explanation: the cost of a year at Kansas State University has risen from $898 when he was at school to $10,000 today. Another? At six bucks an hour, he was already making almost twice the minimum wage of his college years, a princely $3.35 an hour.

It’s Definitely Not Art, But Is It Work?

It’s hard to explain the pleasure I’ve gotten from learning the craft of weaving, an activity whose roots extend at least 20,000 years into the past. In truth, I could devote the next (and most likely last) 20 years of my life just to playing with “plain weave,” its simplest form — over-under, over-under — and not even scratch the surface of its possibilities. Day after day, I tromp down to our chilly basement and work with remarkable satisfaction at things as simple as getting a straight horizontal edge across my cloth.

But is what I’m doing actually “work”? Certainly, at the end of a day of bending under the loom to tie things up, of working the treadles to raise and lower different sets of threads, my aging joints are sore. My body knows all too well that I’ve been doing something. But is it work? Heaven knows, I’m not making products crucial to our daily lives or those of others. (We now possess more slightly lopsided cloth napkins than any two-person household could use in a lifetime.) Nor, at my beginner’s level, am I producing anything that could pass for “art.”

I don’t have to weave. I could buy textiles for a lot less than it costs me to make them. But at my age, in pandemic America, I’m lucky. I have the time, money, and freedom from personal responsibilities to be able to immerse myself in making cloth. For me, playing with string is a first-world privilege. It won’t help save humanity from a climate disaster or reduce police violence in communities of color. It won’t even help a union elect an American president, something I was focused on last fall, while working with the hospitality-industry union. It’s not teaching college students to question the world and aspire to living examined lives, something I’ve done in my official work as a part-time professor for the last 15 years. It doesn’t benefit anyone but me.

Nevertheless, what I’m doing certainly does have value for me. It contributes, as philosophers might say, to my human flourishing. When I practice weaving, I’m engaged in something political philosopher Iris Marion Young believed essential to a good life. As she put it, I’m “learning and using satisfying and expansive skills.” Young thought that a good society would offer all its members the opportunity to acquire and deploy such complicated skills in “socially recognized settings.” In other words, a good society would make it possible for people to do work that was both challenging and respected.

Writing in the late 1980s, she took for granted that “welfare capitalism” of Europe, and to a far lesser extent the United States, would provide for people’s basic material needs. Unfortunately, decades later, it’s hard even to teach her critique of such welfare capitalism — a system that sustained lives but didn’t necessarily allow them to flourish — because my students here have never experienced an economic system that assumes any real responsibility for sustaining life. Self-expression and an opportunity to do meaningful work? Pipe dreams if you aren’t already well-off! They’ll settle for jobs that pay the rent, keep the refrigerator stocked, and maybe provide some health benefits as well. That would be heaven enough, they say. And who could blame them when so many jobs on offer will fall far short of even such modest goals?

What I’m not doing when I weave is making money. I’m not one of the roughly 18 million workers in this country who do earn their livings in the textile industry. Such “livings” pay a median wage of about $28,000 a year, which likely makes it hard to keep a roof over your head. Nor am I one of the many millions more who do the same around the world, people like Seak Hong who sews garments and bags for an American company in Cambodia. Describing her life, she told a New York Times reporter, “I feel tired, but I have no choice. I have to work.” Six days a week,

“Ms. Hong wakes up at 4:35 a.m. to catch the truck to work from her village. Her workday begins at 7 and usually lasts nine hours, with a lunch break. During the peak season, which lasts two to three months, she works until 8:30 p.m.”

“Ms. Hong has been in the garment business for 22 years. She earns the equivalent of about $230 a month and supports her father, her sister, her brother (who is on disability) and her 12-year-old son.”

Her sister does the unpaid — but no less crucial — work of tending to her father and brother, the oxen, and their subsistence rice plants.

Hong and her sister are definitely working, one with pay, the other without. They have, as she says, no choice.

Catherine Gamet, who makes handbags in France for Louis Vuitton, is also presumably working to support herself. But hers is an entirely different experience from Hong’s. She loves what she’s been doing for the last 23 years. Interviewed in the same article, she told the Times, “To be able to build bags and all, and to be able to sew behind the machine, to do hand-sewn products, it is my passion.” For Gamet, “The time flies by.”

Both these women have been paid to make bags for more than 20 years, but they’ve experienced their jobs very differently, undoubtedly thanks to the circumstances surrounding their work, rather than the work itself: how much they earn; the time they spend traveling to and from their jobs; the extent to which the “decision” to do a certain kind of work is coerced by fear of poverty. We don’t learn from Hong’s interview how she feels about the work itself. Perhaps she takes pride in what she does. Most people find a way to do that. But we know that making bags is Gamet’s passion. Her work is not merely exhausting, but in Young’s phrase “satisfying and expansive.” The hours she spends on it are lived, not just endured as the price of survival.

Pandemic Relief and Its Discontents

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris arrived at the White House with a commitment to getting a new pandemic relief package through Congress as soon as possible. It appears that they’ll succeed, thanks to the Senate’s budget reconciliation process — a maneuver that bypasses the possibility of a Republican filibuster. Sadly, because resetting the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour doesn’t directly involve taxation or spending, the Senate’s parliamentarian ruled that the reconciliation bill can’t include it.


Buy the Book

Several measures contained in the package have aroused conservative mistrust, from the extension of unemployment benefits to new income supplements for families with children. Such measures provoke a Republican fear that somebody, somewhere, might not be working hard enough to “deserve” the benefits Congress is offering or that those benefits might make some workers think twice about sacrificing their time caring for children to earn $7.25 an hour at a soul-deadening job.

As New York Times columnist Ezra Klein recently observed, Republicans are concerned that such measures might erode respect for the “natural dignity” of work. In an incisive piece, he rebuked Republican senators like Mike Lee and Marco Rubio for responding negatively to proposals to give federal dollars to people raising children. Such a program, they insisted, smacked of — the horror! — “welfare,” while in their view, “an essential part of being pro-family is being pro-work.” Of course, for Lee and Rubio “work” doesn’t include changing diapers, planning and preparing meals, doing laundry, or helping children learn to count, tell time, and tie their shoelaces — unless, of course, the person doing those things is employed by someone else’s family and being paid for it. In that case it qualifies as “work.” Otherwise, it’s merely a form of government-subsidized laziness.

There is, however, one group of people that “pro-family” conservatives have long believed are naturally suited to such activities and who supposedly threaten the well-being of their families if they choose to work for pay instead. I mean, of course, women whose male partners earn enough to guarantee food, clothing, and shelter with a single income. I remember well a 1993 article by Pat Gowens, a founder of Milwaukee’s Welfare Warriors, in the magazine Lesbian Contradiction. She wondered why conservative anti-feminists of that time thought it good if a woman with children had a man to provide those things, but an outrage if she turned to “The Man” for the same aid. In the first case, the woman’s work is considered dignified, sacred, and in tune with the divine plan. Among conservatives, then or now, the second could hardly be dignified with the term “work.”

The distinction they make between private and public paymasters, when it comes to domestic labor contains at least a tacit, though sometimes explicit, racial element. When the program that would come to be known as “welfare” was created as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s, it was originally designed to assist respectable white mothers who, through no fault of their own, had lost their husbands to death or desertion. It wasn’t until the 1960s that African American women decided to secure their right to coverage under the same program and built the National Welfare Rights Organization to do so.

The word “welfare” refers, as in the preamble to the Constitution, to human wellbeing. But when Black women started claiming those rights, it suddenly came to signify undeserved handouts. You could say that Ronald Reagan rode into the White House in 1980 in a Cadillac driven by the mythical Black “welfare queen” he continually invoked in his campaign. It would be nice to think that the white resentment harnessed by Reagan culminated (as in “reached its zenith and will now decline”) with Trump’s 2016 election, but, given recent events, that would be unrealistically optimistic.

Reagan began the movement to undermine the access of poor Americans to welfare programs. Ever since, starving the entitlement beast has been the Republican lodestar. In the same period, of course, the wealthier compatriots of those welfare mothers have continued to receive ever more generous “welfare” from the government. Those would include subsidies to giant agriculture, oil-depletion allowances and other subsidies for fossil-fuel companies, the mortgage-interest tax deduction for people with enough money to buy rather than rent their homes, and the massive tax cuts for billionaires of the Trump era. However, it took a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, to achieve what Reagan couldn’t, and, as he put it, “end welfare as we know it.”

The Clinton administration used the same Senate reconciliation process in play today for the Biden administration’s Covid-19 relief bill to push through the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. It was more commonly known as “welfare reform.” That act imposed a 32-hour-per-week work or training requirement on mothers who received what came to be known as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. It also gave “temporary” its deeper meaning by setting a lifetime benefits cap of five years. Meanwhile, that same act proved a bonanza for non-profits and Private Industry Councils that got contracts to administer “job training” programs and were paid to teach women how to wear skirts and apply makeup to impress future employers. In the process, a significant number of unionized city and county workers nationwide were replaced with welfare recipients “earning” their welfare checks by sweeping streets or staffing county offices, often for less than the minimum wage.

In 1997, I was working with Californians for Justice (CFJ), then a new statewide organization dedicated to building political power in poor communities, especially those of color. Given the high unemployment rates in just such communities, our response to Clinton’s welfare reforms was to demand that those affected by them at least be offered state-funded jobs at a living wage. If the government was going to make people work for pay, we reasoned, then it should help provide real well-paying jobs, not bogus “job readiness” programs. We secured sponsors in the state legislature, but I’m sure you won’t be shocked to learn that our billion-dollar jobs bill never got out of committee in Sacramento.

CFJ’s project led me into an argument with one of my mentors, the founder of the Center for Third World Organizing, Gary Delgado. Why on earth, he asked me, would you campaign to get people jobs? “Jobs are horrible. They’re boring: they waste people’s lives and destroy their bodies.” In other words, Gary was no believer in the inherent dignity of paid work. So, I had to ask myself, why was I?

Among those who have inspired me, Gary wasn’t alone in holding such a low opinion of jobs. The Greek philosopher Aristotle, for instance, had been convinced that those whose economic condition forced them to work for a living would have neither the time nor space necessary to live a life of “excellence” (his requirement for human happiness). Economic coercion and a happy life were, in his view, mutually exclusive.

Reevaluating Jobs

One of the lies capitalism tells us is that we should be grateful for our jobs and should think of those who make a profit from our labor not as exploiters but as “job creators.” In truth, however, there’s no creativity involved in paying people less than the value of their work so that you can skim off the difference and claim that you earned it. Even if we accept that there could be creativity in “management” — the effort to organize and divide up work so it’s done efficiently and well — it’s not the “job creators” who do that, but their hirelings. All the employers bring to the game is money.

Take the example of the admirable liberal response to the climate emergency, the Green New Deal. In the moral calculus of capitalism, it’s not enough that shifting to a green economy could promote the general welfare by rebuilding and extending the infrastructure that makes modern life possible and rewarding. It’s not enough that it just might happen in time to save billions of people from fires, floods, hurricanes, or starvation. What matters — the selling point — is that such a conversion would create jobs (along with the factor no one mentions out loud: profits).

Now, I happen to support exactly the kind of work involved in building an economy that could help reverse climate devastation. I agree with Joe Biden’s campaign statement that such an undertaking could offer people jobs with “good wages, benefits, and worker protections.” More than that, such jobs would indeed contribute to a better life for those who do them. As the philosopher Iris Marion Young puts it, they would provide the chance to learn and use “satisfying and expansive skills in a socially recognized setting.” And that would be a very good thing even if no one made a penny of profit in the process.

Now, having finished my paid labor for the day, it’s back to the basement and loom for me.

Copyright 2021 Rebecca Gordon

Via Tomdispatch.com

]]>
Time to Roll up our Sleeves and Fix this: Trump left us with Heightened Climate, Nuclear Danger https://www.juancole.com/2021/02/heightened-climate-nuclear.html Wed, 10 Feb 2021 05:01:46 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=196066 ( Tomdispatch.com) – If you live in California, you’re likely to be consumed on occasion by thoughts of fire. That’s not surprising, given that, in last year alone, actual fires consumed over four and a quarter million acres of the state, taking with them 10,488 structures, 33 human lives, and who knows how many animals. By the end of this January, a month never before even considered part of the “fire” season, 10 wildfires had already burned through 2,337 more acres, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire).

With each passing year, the state’s fire season arrives earlier and does greater damage. In 2013, a mere eight years ago, fires consumed about 602,000 acres and started significantly later. That January, CalFire reported only a single fire, just two in February, and none in March. Fire season didn’t really begin until April and had tapered off before year’s end. This past December, however, 10 fires still burned at least 10,000 acres. In fact, it almost doesn’t make sense to talk about a fire “season” anymore. Whatever the month, wildfires are likely to be burning somewhere in the state.

Clearly, California’s fires (along with Oregon’s and Washington’s) are getting worse. Just as clearly, notwithstanding Donald Trump’s exhortations to do a better job of “raking” our forests, climate change is the main cause of this growing disaster.

Fortunately, President Joe Biden seems to take the climate emergency seriously. In just his first two weeks in office, he’s cancelled the Keystone XL pipeline project, forbidden new drilling for oil or gas on public lands, and announced a plan to convert the entire federal fleet of cars and trucks to electric vehicles. Perhaps most important of all, he’s bringing the U.S. back into the Paris climate accords, signaling an understanding that a planetary crisis demands planetwide measures and that the largest carbon-emitting economies should be leading the way. “This isn’t [the] time for small measures,” Biden has said. “We need to be bold.”

Let’s just hope that such boldness has arrived in time and that the Biden administration proves unwilling to sacrifice the planet on an altar of elusive congressional unity and illusionary bipartisanship.

Another Kind of Fire

If climate change threatens human life as we know it, so does another potential form of “fire” — the awesome power created when a nuclear reaction converts matter to energy. This is the magic of Einstein’s observation that e=mc2, or that the energy contained in a bit of matter is equal to its mass (roughly speaking, its weight) multiplied by the speed of light squared expressed in meters per second. Roughly speaking, as we’ve all known since August 6, 1945, when an atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, that’s an awful lot of energy. When a nuclear reaction is successfully controlled, the energy can be regulated and used to produce electricity without emitting carbon dioxide in the process.

Unfortunately, while nuclear power plants don’t add greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere, they do create radioactive waste, some of which remains deadly for thousands of years. Industry advocates who argue for nuclear power as a “green” alternative generally ignore the problem which has yet to be solved ­­ of disposing of that waste.

In what hopefully is just a holdover from the Trump administration, the Energy Department website still “addresses” this issue by suggesting that all the nuclear waste produced to date “could fit on a football field at a depth of less than 10 yards!” The site neglects to add that, if you shoved that 3,456,000 square feet of nuclear waste together the wrong way, the resultant explosive chain reaction would probably wipe out most life on Earth.

Remember, too, that “controlled” nuclear reactions don’t always remain under human control. Ask anyone who lived near the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor in Pennsylvania, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine, or the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan.

There is, however, another far more devastating form of “controlled” nuclear reaction, the kind created when a nuclear bomb explodes. Only one country has ever deployed atomic weapons in war, of course: the United States, in its attack on Hiroshima and, three days later, on Nagasaki. Those bombs were of the older uranium-based variety and were puny by the standards of today’s nuclear weapons. Still, the horror of those attacks was sufficient to convince many that such weapons should never be used again.

Treaties and Entreaties

In the decades since 1945, various configurations of nations have agreed to treaties prohibiting the use of, or limiting the proliferation of, nuclear weapons — even as the weaponry spread and nuclear arsenals grew. In the Cold War decades, the most significant of these were the bilateral pacts between the two superpowers of the era, the U.S. and the Soviet Union. When the latter collapsed in 1991, Washington signed treaties instead with the Russian Federation government, the most recent being the New START treaty, which came into effect in 2011 and was just extended by Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin.

In addition to such bilateral agreements, the majority of nations on the planet agreed on various multilateral pacts, including the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, which has been signed by 191 countries and has provided a fairly effective mechanism for limiting the spread of such arms. Today, there are still “only” nine nuclear-armed states. Of these, five are signatories of the NPT: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and United States. Israel has never publicly acknowledged its growing nuclear arsenal. Three other nuclear-armed countries — India, Pakistan, and North Korea — have never signed the treaty at all. Worse yet, in 2005, the George W. Bush administration inked a side-deal with India that gave Washington’s blessing to the acceleration of that country’s nuclear weapons development program outside the monitoring constraints of the NPT.

Buy the Book

The treaty assigns to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) the authority to monitor compliance. It was this treaty, for example, that gave the IAEA the right to inspect Iraq’s nuclear program in the period before the U.S. invaded in 2003. Indeed, the IAEA repeatedly reported that Iraq was, in fact, in compliance with the treaty in the months that preceded the invasion, despite the claims of the Bush administration that Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein had such weaponry. The United States must act, President Bush insisted then, before the “smoking gun” of proof the world demanded turned out to be a “mushroom cloud” over some American city. As became clear after the first few months of the disastrous U.S. military occupation, there simply were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. (At least partly in recognition of the IAEA’s attempts to forestall that U.S. invasion, the agency and its director general, Mohamed El Baradei, would receive the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize.)

Like Iraq, Iran also ratified the NPT in 1968, laying the foundation for ongoing IAEA inspections there. In recent years, having devastated Iraq’s social, economic, and political infrastructure, the United States shifted its concern about nuclear proliferation to Iran. In 2015, along with China, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and the European Union, the Obama administration signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), informally known as the Iran nuclear deal.

Under the JCPOA, in return for the lifting of onerous economic sanctions that were affecting the whole population, Iran agreed to limit the development of its nuclear capacity to the level needed to produce electricity. Again, IAEA scientists would be responsible for monitoring the country’s compliance, which by all accounts was more than satisfactory — at least until 2018. That’s when President Donald Trump unilaterally pulled the U.S. out of the agreement and reimposed heavy sanctions. Since then, as its economy began to be crushed, Iran was, understandably enough, reluctant to uphold its end of the bargain.

In the years since 1945, the world has seen treaties signed to limit or ban the testing of nuclear weapons or to cap the size of nuclear arsenals, as well as bilateral treaties to decommission parts of existing ones, but never a treaty aimed at outlawing nuclear weapons altogether. Until now. On January 22, 2021, the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons took effect. Signed so far by 86 countries, the treaty represents “a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination,” according to the U.N. Sadly, but unsurprisingly, none of the nine nuclear powers are signatories.

“Fire and Fury”

I last wrote about nuclear danger in October 2017 when Donald Trump had been in the White House less than a year and, along with much of the world, I was worried that he might bungle his way into a war with North Korea. Back then, he and Kim Jong-un had yet to fall in love or to suffer their later public breakup. Kim was still “Little Rocket Man” to Trump, who had threatened to “rain fire and fury like the world has never seen” on North Korea.

The world did, in the end, survive four years of a Trump presidency without a nuclear war, but that doesn’t mean he left us any safer. On the contrary, he took a whole series of rash steps leading us closer to nuclear disaster:

  • He pulled the U.S. out of the JCPOA, thereby destabilizing the Iran nuclear agreement and reigniting Iran’s threats (and apparent efforts toward) someday developing nuclear weapons.
  • He withdrew from the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty between the U.S. and the Soviet Union (later the Russian Federation), which, according to the nonpartisan Arms Control Association,

“required the United States and the Soviet Union to eliminate and permanently forswear all of their nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers. The treaty marked the first time the superpowers had agreed to reduce their nuclear arsenals, eliminate an entire category of nuclear weapons, and employ extensive on-site inspections for verification.”

  • He withdrew from the Open Skies Treaty, which gave signatories permission to fly over each other’s territories to identify military installations and activities. Allowing this kind of access was meant to contribute to greater trust among nuclear-armed nations.
  • He threatened to allow the New START Treaty to expire, should he be reelected.
  • He presided over a huge increase in spending on the “modernization” of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, including on new submarine- and land-based launching capabilities. A number of these programs are still in their initial stages and could be stopped by the Biden administration.

In January 2021, after four years of Trump, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists adjusted its “Doomsday Clock,” moving the minute hand forward, to a mere 100 seconds to midnight. Since 1947, that Clock’s annual resetting has reflected how close, in the view of the Bulletin’s esteemed scientists and Nobel laureates, humanity has come to ending it all. As the Bulletin’s editors note, “The Clock has become a universally recognized indicator of the world’s vulnerability to catastrophe from nuclear weapons, climate change, and disruptive technologies in other domains.”

Why so close to midnight? The magazine lists a number of reasons, including the increased danger of nuclear war, due in large part to steps taken by the United States in the Trump years, as well as to the development of “hypersonic” missiles, which are supposed to fly at five times the speed of sound and so evade existing detection systems. (Trump famously referred to these “super-duper” weapons as “hydrosonic,” a term that actually describes a kind of toothbrush.) There is disagreement among weapons experts about the extent to which such delivery vehicles will live up to the (hyper) hype about them, but the effort to build them is destabilizing in its own right.

The Bulletin points to a number of other factors that place humanity in ever greater danger. One is, of course, the existential threat of climate change. Another is the widespread dissemination of “false and misleading information.” The spread of lies about Covid-19, its editors say, exemplifies the life-threatening nature of a growing “wanton disregard for science and the large-scale embrace of conspiratorial nonsense.” This is, they note, “often driven by political figures and partisan media.” Such attacks on knowledge itself have “undermined the ability of responsible national and global leaders to protect the security of their citizens.”

Passing the (Nuclear) Ball

When Donald Trump announced that he wouldn’t attend the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, few people were surprised. After all, he was still insisting that he’d actually won the election, even after that big lie fueled an insurrectionary invasion of the Capitol. But there was another reason for concern: if Trump was going to be at Mar-a-Lago, how would he hand over the “nuclear football” to the new president? That “football” is, in fact, a briefcase containing the nuclear launch codes, which presidents always have with them. Since the dawn of the nuclear age, it’s been passed from the outgoing president to the new one on Inauguration Day.

Consternation! The problem was resolved through the use of two briefcases, which were simultaneously deactivated and activated at 11:59:59 a.m. on January 20th, just as Biden was about to be sworn in.

The football conundrum pointed to a far more serious problem, however — that the fate of humanity regularly hangs on the actions of a single individual (whether as unbalanced as Donald Trump or as apparently sensible as Joe Biden) who has the power to begin a war that could end our species.

There’s good reason to think that Joe Biden will be more reasonable about the dangers of nuclear warfare than the narcissistic idiot he succeeds. In addition to agreeing to extend the New START treaty, he’s also indicated a willingness to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal and criticized Trump’s nuclear buildup. Nevertheless, the power to end the world shouldn’t lie with one individual. Congress could address this problem, by (as I suggested in 2017) enacting “a law that would require a unanimous decision by a specified group of people (for example, officials like the secretaries of state and defense together with the congressional leadership) for a nuclear first strike.”

The Fire Next Time?

“God gave Noah the rainbow sign
No more water but the fire next time”

These words come from the African-American spiritual “I Got a Home in that Rock.” The verse refers to God’s promise to Noah in Genesis, after the great flood, never again to destroy all life on earth, a promise signified by the rainbow.

Those who composed the hymn may have been a bit less trusting of God — or of human destiny — than the authors of Genesis, since the Bible account says nothing about fire or a next time. Sadly, recent human history suggests that there could indeed be a next time. If we do succeed in destroying ourselves, it seems increasingly likely that it will be by fire, whether the accelerating heating of the globe over decades, or a nuclear conflagration any time we choose. The good news, the flame of hope, is that we still have time — at least 100 seconds — to prevent it.

Copyright 2021 Rebecca Gordon

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Via Tomdispatch.com

]]>
The Rubble of Empire: Doctrines of Disaster and Dreams of Security as the Biden Years Begin https://www.juancole.com/2021/01/doctrines-disaster-security.html Wed, 20 Jan 2021 05:01:22 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=195654 ( Tomdispatch.com ) – How can you tell when your empire is crumbling? Some signs are actually visible from my own front window here in San Francisco.

Directly across the street, I can see a collection of tarps and poles (along with one of my own garbage cans) that were used to construct a makeshift home on the sidewalk. Beside that edifice stands a wooden cross decorated with a string of white Christmas lights and a red ribbon — a memorial to the woman who built that structure and died inside it earlier this week. We don’t know — and probably never will — what killed her: the pandemic raging across California? A heart attack? An overdose of heroin or fentanyl?

Behind her home and similar ones is a chain-link fence surrounding the empty playground of the Horace Mann/Buena Vista elementary and middle school. Like that home, the school, too, is now empty, closed because of the pandemic. I don’t know where the families of the 20 children who attended that school and lived in one of its gyms as an alternative to the streets have gone. They used to eat breakfast and dinner there every day, served on the same sidewalk by a pair of older Latina women who apparently had a contract from the school district to cook for the families using that school-cum-shelter. I don’t know, either, what any of them are now doing for money or food.

Just down the block, I can see the line of people that has formed every weekday since early December. Masked and socially distanced, they wait patiently to cross the street, one at a time, for a Covid test at a center run by the San Francisco Department of Health. My little street seems an odd choice for such a service, since — especially now that the school has closed — it gets little foot traffic. Indeed, a representative of the Latino Task Force, an organization created to inform the city’s Latinx population about Covid resources told our neighborhood paper Mission Local that

“Small public health clinics such as this one ‘will say they want to do more outreach, but I actually think they don’t want to.’ He believes they chose a low-trafficked street like Bartlett to stay under the radar. ‘They don’t want to blow the spot up, because it does not have a large capacity.’”

What do any of these very local sights have to do with a crumbling empire? They’re signs that some of the same factors that fractured the Roman empire back in 476 CE (and others since) are distinctly present in this country today — even in California, one of its richest states. I’m talking about phenomena like gross economic inequality; over-spending on military expansion; political corruption; deep cultural and political fissures; and, oh yes, the barbarians at the gates. I’ll turn to those factors in a moment, but first let me offer a brief defense of the very suggestion that U.S. imperialism and an American empire actually exist.

Imperialism? What’s That Supposed to Mean?

What better source for a definition of imperialism than the Encyclopedia Britannica, that compendium of knowledge first printed in 1768 in the country that became the great empire of the nineteenth and first part of the twentieth centuries? According to the Encyclopedia, “imperialism” denotes “state policy, practice, or advocacy of extending power and dominion, especially by direct territorial acquisition or by gaining political and economic control of other areas.” Furthermore, imperialism “always involves the use of power, whether military or economic or some subtler form.” In other words, the word indicates a country’s attempts to control and reap economic benefit from lands outside its borders.

In that context, “imperialism” is an accurate description of the trajectory of U.S. history, starting with the country’s expansion across North America, stealing territory and resources from Indian nations and decimating their populations. The newly independent United States would quickly expand, beginning with the 1803 Louisiana Purchase from France. That deal, which effectively doubled its territory, included most of what would become the state of Louisiana, together with some or all of the present-day states of New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Montana, and even small parts of what are today the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Buy the Book

Of course, France didn’t actually control most of that land, apart from the port city of New Orleans and its immediate environs. What Washington bought was the “right” to take the rest of that vast area from the native peoples who lived there, whether by treaty, population transfers, or wars of conquest and extermination. The first objective of that deal was to settle land on which to expand the already hugely lucrative cotton business, that economic engine of early American history fueled, of course, by slave labor. It then supplied raw materials to the rapidly industrializing textile industry of England, which drove that country’s own imperial expansion.

U.S. territorial expansion continued as, in 1819, Florida was acquired from Spain and, in 1845, Texas was forcibly annexed from Mexico (as well as various parts of California a year later). All of those acquisitions accorded with what newspaper editor John O’Sullivan would soon call the country’s manifest — that is, clear and obvious — destiny to control the entire continent.

Eventually, such expansionism escaped even those continental borders, as the country went on to gobble up the Philippines, Hawaii, the Panama Canal Zone, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, and the Mariana Islands, the last five of which remain U.S. territories to this day. (Inhabitants of the nation’s capital, where I grew up, were only partly right when we used to refer to Washington, D.C., as “the last colony.”)

American Doctrines from Monroe to Truman to (G.W.) Bush

U.S. economic, military, and political influence has long extended far beyond those internationally recognized possessions and various presidents have enunciated a series of “doctrines” to legitimate such an imperial reach.

Monroe: The first of these was the Monroe Doctrine, introduced in 1823 in President James Monroe’s penultimate State of the Union address. He warned the nations of Europe that, while the United States recognized existing colonial possessions in the Americas, it would not permit the establishment of any new ones.

President Teddy Roosevelt would later add a corollary to Monroe’s doctrine by establishing Washington’s right to intercede in any country in the Americas that, in the view of its leaders, was not being properly run. “Chronic wrongdoing,” he said in a 1904 message to Congress, “may in America, as elsewhere, ultimately require intervention by some civilized nation.” The United States, he suggested, might find itself forced, “however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence, to the exercise of an international police power.” In the first quarter of the twentieth century, that Roosevelt Corollary would be used to justify U.S. occupations of Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Nicaragua.

Truman: Teddy’s cousin, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, publicly renounced the Monroe Doctrine and promised a hands-off attitude towards Latin America, which came to be known as the Good Neighbor Policy. It didn’t last long, however. In a 1947 address to Congress, the next president, Harry S. Truman, laid out what came to be known as the Truman Doctrine, which would underlie the country’s foreign policy at least until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. It held that U.S. national security interests required the “containment” of existing Communist states and the prevention of the further spread of Communism anywhere on Earth.

It almost immediately led to interventions in the internal struggles of Greece and Turkey and would eventually underpin Washington’s support for dictators and repressive regimes from El Salvador to Indonesia. It would justify U.S.-backed coups in places like Iran, Guatemala, and Chile. It would lead this country into a futile war in Korea and a disastrous defeat in Vietnam.

That post-World War II turn to anticommunism would be accompanied by a new kind of colonialism. Rather than directly annexing territories to extract cheap labor and cheaper natural resources, under this new “neocolonial” model, the United States — and soon the great multilateral institutions of the post-war era, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund — would gain control over the economies of poor nations. In return for aid — or loans often pocketed by local elites and repaid by the poor — those nations would accede to demands for the “structural adjustment” of their economic systems: the privatization of public services like water and utilities and the defunding of human services like health and education, usually by American or multinational corporations. Such “adjustments,” in turn, allowed the recipients to service the loans, extracting scarce hard currency from already deeply impoverished nations.

Bush: You might have thought that the fall of the Soviet empire and the end of the Cold War would have provided Washington with an opportunity to step away from resource extraction and the seemingly endless military and CIA interventions that accompanied it. You might have imagined that the country then being referred to as the “last superpower” would finally consider establishing new and different relationships with the other countries on this little planet of ours. However, just in time to prevent even the faint possibility of any such conversion came the terrorist attacks of 9/11, which gave President George W. Bush the chance to promote his very own doctrine.

In a break from postwar multilateralism, the Bush Doctrine outlined the neoconservative belief that, as the only superpower in a now supposedly “unipolar” world, the United States had the right to take unilateral military action any time it believed it faced external threat of any imaginable sort. The result: almost 20 years of disastrous “forever wars” and a military-industrial complex deeply embedded in our national economy. Although Donald Trump’s foreign policy occasionally feinted in the direction of isolationism in its rejection of international treaties, protocols, and organizational responsibilities, it still proved itself a direct descendant of the Bush Doctrine. After all, it was Bush who first took the United States out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and rejected the Kyoto Protocol to fight climate change.

His doctrine instantly set the stage for the disastrous invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, the even more disastrous Iraq War, and the present-day over-expansion of the U.S. military presence, overt and covert, in practically every corner of the world. And now, to fulfill Donald Trump’s Star Trek fantasies, even in outer space.

An Empire in Decay

If you need proof that the last superpower, our very own empire, is indeed crumbling, consider the year we’ve just lived through, not to mention the first few weeks of 2021. I mentioned above some of the factors that contributed to the collapse of the famed Roman empire in the fifth century. It’s fair to say that some of those same things are now evident in twenty-first-century America. Here are four obvious candidates:

Grotesque Economic Inequality: Ever since President Ronald Reagan began the Republican Party’s long war on unions and working people, economic inequality has steadily increased in this country, punctuated by terrible shocks like the Great Recession of 2007-2008 and, of course, by the Covid-19 disaster. We’ve seen 40 years of tax reductions for the wealthy, stagnant wages for the rest of us (including a federal minimum wage that hasn’t changed since 2009), and attacks on programs like TANF (welfare) and SNAP (food stamps) that literally keep poor people alive.

The Romans relied on slave labor for basics like food and clothing. This country relies on super-exploited farm and food-factory workers, many of whom are unlikely to demand more or better because they came here without authorization. Our (extraordinarily cheap) clothes are mostly produced by exploited people in other countries.

The pandemic has only exposed what so many people already knew: that the lives of the millions of working poor in this country are growing ever more precarious and desperate. The gulf between rich and poor widens by the day to unprecedented levels. Indeed, as millions have descended into poverty since the pandemic began, the Guardian reports that this country’s 651 billionaires have increased their collective wealth by $1.1 trillion. That’s more than the $900 billion Congress appropriated for pandemic aid in the omnibus spending bill it passed at the end of December 2020.

An economy like ours, which depends so heavily on consumer spending, cannot survive the deep impoverishment of so many people. Those 651 billionaires are not going to buy enough toys to dig us out of this hole.

Wild Overspending on the Military: At the end of 2020, Congress overrode Trump’s veto of the annual National Defense Authorization Act, which provided a stunning $741 billion to the military this fiscal year. (That veto, by the way, wasn’t in response to the vast sums being appropriated in the midst of a devastating pandemic, but to the bill’s provisions for renaming military bases currently honoring Confederate generals, among other extraneous things.) A week later, Congress passed that omnibus pandemic spending bill and it contained an additional $696 billion for the Defense Department.

All that money for “security” might be justified, if it actually made our lives more secure. In fact, our federal priorities virtually take food out of the mouths of children to feed the maw of the military-industrial complex and the never-ending wars that go with it. Even before the pandemic, more than 10% of U.S. families regularly experienced food insecurity. Now, it’s a quarter of the population.

Corruption So Deep It Undermines the Political System: Suffice it to say that the man who came to Washington promising to “drain the swamp” has presided over one of the most corrupt administrations in U.S. history. Whether it’s been blatant self-dealing (like funneling government money to his own businesses); employing government resources to forward his reelection (including using the White House as a staging ground for parts of the Republican National Convention and his acceptance speech); tolerating corrupt subordinates like Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross; or contemplating a self-pardon, the Trump administration has set the bar high indeed for any future aspirants to the title of “most corrupt president.”

One problem with such corruption is that it undermines the legitimacy of government in the minds of the governed. It makes citizens less willing to obey laws, pay taxes, or act for the common good by, for example, wearing masks and socially distancing during a pandemic. It rips apart social cohesion from top to bottom.

Of course, Trump’s most dangerous corrupt behavior — one in which he’s been joined by the most prominent elected and appointed members of his government and much of his party — has been his campaign to reject the results of the 2020 general election. The concerted and cynical promotion of the big lie that the Democrats stole that election has so corrupted faith in the legitimacy of government that up to 68% of Republicans now believe the vote was rigged to elect Joe Biden. At “best,” Trump has set the stage for increased Republican suppression of the vote in communities of color. At worst, he has so poisoned the electoral process that a substantial minority of Americans will never again accept as free and fair an election in which their candidate loses.

A Country in Ever-Deepening Conflict: White supremacy has infected the entire history of this country, beginning with the near-extermination of its native peoples. The Constitution, while guaranteeing many rights to white men, proceeded to codify the enslavement of Africans and their descendants. In order to maintain that enslavement, the southern states seceded and fought a civil war. After a short-lived period of Reconstruction in which Black men were briefly enfranchised, white supremacy regained direct legal control in the South, and flourished in a de facto fashion in the rest of the country.

In 1858, two years before that civil war began, Abraham Lincoln addressed the Illinois Republican State Convention, reminding those present that

“‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’ I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall – but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.”

More than 160 years later, the United States clearly not only remains but has become ever more divided. If you doubt that the Civil War is still being fought today, look no farther than the Confederate battle flags proudly displayed by members of the insurrectionary mob that overran the Capitol on January 6th.

Oh, and the barbarians? They are not just at the gate; they have literally breached it, as we saw in Washington when they burst through the doors and windows of the center of government.

Building a Country From the Rubble of Empire

Human beings have long built new habitations quite literally from the rubble — the fallen stones and timbers — of earlier ones. Perhaps it’s time to think about what kind of a country this place — so rich in natural resources and human resourcefulness — might become if we were to take the stones and timbers of empire and construct a nation dedicated to the genuine security of all its people. Suppose we really chose, in the words of the preamble to the Constitution, “to promote the general welfare, and to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

Suppose we found a way to convert the desperate hunger for ever more, which is both the fuel of empires and the engine of their eventual destruction, into a new contentment with “enough”? What would a United States whose people have enough look like? It would not be one in which tiny numbers of the staggeringly wealthy made hundreds of billions more dollars and the country’s military-industrial complex thrived in a pandemic, while so many others went down in disaster.

This empire will fall sooner or later. They all do. So, this crisis, just at the start of the Biden and Harris years, is a fine time to begin thinking about what might be built in its place. What would any of us like to see from our front windows next year?

Copyright 2021 Rebecca Gordon

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Via Tomdispatch.com

]]>
It’s almost 20 Years since 9/11; Can we finally End our Constant, Disastrous Wars? https://www.juancole.com/2020/12/finally-constant-disastrous.html Fri, 18 Dec 2020 05:01:51 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=195031 ( Tomdispatch.com) – It was the end of October 2001. Two friends, Max Elbaum and Bob Wing, had just dropped by. (Yes, children, believe it or not, people used to drop in on each other, maskless, once upon a time.) They had come to hang out with my partner Jan Adams and me. Among other things, Max wanted to get some instructions from fellow-runner Jan about taping his foot to ease the pain of plantar fasciitis. But it soon became clear that he and Bob had a bigger agenda for the evening. They were eager to recruit us for a new project.

And so began War Times/Tiempo de Guerras, a free, bilingual, antiwar tabloid that, at its height, distributed 100,000 copies every six weeks to more than 700 antiwar organizations around the country. It was already clear to the four of us that night — as it was to millions around the world — that the terrorist attacks of September 11th would provide the pretext for a major new projection of U.S. military power globally, opening the way to a new era of “all-war-all-the-time.” War Times was a project of its moment (although the name would still be apt today, given that those wars have never ended). It would be superseded in a few years by the explosive growth of the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle. Still, it represented an early effort to fill the space where a peace movement would eventually develop.

All-War-All-the-Time — For Some of Us

We were certainly right that the United States had entered a period of all-war-all-the-time. It’s probably hard for people born since 9/11 to imagine how much — and how little — things changed after September 2001. By the end of that month, this country had already launched a “war” on an enemy that then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told us was “not just in Afghanistan,” but in “50 or 60 countries, and it simply has to be liquidated.”

Five years and two never-ending wars later, he characterized what was then called the war on terror as “a generational conflict akin to the Cold War, the kind of struggle that might last decades as allies work to root out terrorists across the globe and battle extremists who want to rule the world.” A generation later, it looks like Rumsfeld was right, if not about the desires of the global enemy, then about the duration of the struggle.

Here in the United States, however, we quickly got used to being “at war.” In the first few months, interstate bus and train travelers often encountered (and, in airports, still encounter) a new and absurd kind of “security theater.” I’m referring to those long, snaking lines in which people first learned to remove their belts and coats, later their hats and shoes, as ever newer articles of clothing were recognized as potential hiding places for explosives. Fortunately, the arrest of the Underwear Bomber never led the Transportation Security Administration to the obvious conclusion about the clothing travelers should have to remove next. We got used to putting our three-ounce containers of liquids (No more!) into quart-sized baggies (No bigger! No smaller!).

It was all-war-all-the-time, but mainly in those airports. Once the shooting wars started dragging on, if you didn’t travel by airplane much or weren’t deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq, it was hard to remember that we were still in war time at all. There were continuing clues for those who wanted to know, like the revelations of CIA torture practices at “black sites” around the world, the horrors of military prisons like the ones at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib in Baghdad, and the still-functioning prison complex at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. And soon enough, of course, there were the hundreds and then thousands of veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars taking their places among the unhoused veterans of earlier wars in cities across the United States, almost unremarked upon, except by service organizations.

So, yes, the wars dragged on at great expense, but with little apparent effect in this country. They even gained new names like “the long war” (as Donald Trump’s Secretary of Defense James Mattis put it in 2017) or the “forever wars,” a phrase now so common that it appears all over the place. But apart from devouring at least $6.4 trillion dollars through September 2020that might otherwise have been invested domestically in healthcare, education, infrastructure, or addressing poverty and inequality, apart from creating increasingly militarized domestic police forces armed ever more lethally by the Pentagon, those forever wars had little obvious effect on the lives of most Americans.

Of course, if you happened to live in one of the places where this country has been fighting for the last 19 years, things are a little different. A conservative estimate by Iraq Body Count puts violent deaths among civilians in that country alone at 185,454 to 208,493 and Brown University’s Costs of War project points out that even the larger figure is bound to be a significant undercount:

“Several times as many Iraqi civilians may have died as an indirect result of the war, due to damage to the systems that provide food, health care, and clean drinking water, and as a result, illness, infectious diseases, and malnutrition that could otherwise have been avoided or treated.”

And that’s just Iraq. Again, according to the Costs of War Project, “At least 800,000 people have been killed by direct war violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and Pakistan.”

Of course, many more people than that have been injured or disabled. And America’s post-9/11 wars have driven an estimated 37 million people from their homes, creating the greatest human displacement since World War II. People in this country are rightly concerned about the negative effects of online schooling on American children amid the ongoing Covid-19 crisis (especially poor children and those in communities of color). Imagine, then, the effects on a child’s education of losing her home and her country, as well as one or both parents, and then growing up constantly on the move or in an overcrowded, under-resourced refugee camp. The war on terror has truly become a war of generations.

Every one of the 2,977 lives lost on 9/11 was unique and invaluable. But the U.S. response has been grotesquely disproportionate — and worse than we War Times founders could have imagined that October night so many years ago.

Those wars of ours have gone on for almost two decades now. Each new metastasis has been justified by George W. Bush’s and then Barack Obama’s use of the now ancient 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which Congress passed in the days after 9/11. Its language actually limited presidential military action to a direct response to the 9/11 attacks and the prevention of future attacks by the same actors. It stated that the president

“…is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”

Despite that AUMF’s limited scope, successive presidents have used it to justify military action in at least 18 countries. (To be fair, President Obama realized the absurdity of his situation when he sent U.S. troops to Syria and tried to wring a new authorization out of Congress, only to be stymied by a Republican majority that wouldn’t play along.)

In 2002, in the run-up to the Iraq War, Congress passed a second AUMF, which permitted the president to use the armed forces as “necessary and appropriate” to “defend U.S. national security against the continuing threat posed by Iraq.” In January 2020, Donald Trump used that second authorization to justify the murder by drone of Qasem Soleimani, an Iranian general, along with nine other people.

Trump Steps In

In 2016, peace activists were preparing to confront a Hillary Clinton administration that we expected would continue Obama’s version of the forever wars — the “surge” in Afghanistan, the drone assassination campaigns, the special ops in Africa. But on Tuesday, November 8, 2016, something went “Trump” in the night and Donald J. Trump took over the presidency with a promise to end this country’s forever wars, which he had criticized relentlessly during his campaign. That, of course, didn’t mean we should have expected a peace dividend anytime soon. He was also committed to rebuilding a supposedly “depleted” U.S. military. As he said at a 2019 press conference,

“When I took over, it was a mess… One of our generals came in to see me and he said, ‘Sir, we don’t have ammunition.’ I said, ‘That’s a terrible thing you just said.’ He said, ‘We don’t have ammunition.’ Now we have more ammunition than we’ve ever had.”

It’s highly unlikely that the military couldn’t afford to buy enough bullets when Trump entered the Oval Office, given that publicly acknowledged defense funding was then running at $580 billion a year. He did, however, manage to push that figure to $713 billion by fiscal year 2020. That December, he threatened to veto an even larger appropriation for 2021 — $740 billion — but only because he wanted the military to continue to honor Confederate generals by keeping their names on military bases. Oh, and because he thought the bill should also change liability rules for social media companies, an issue you don’t normally expect to see addressed in a defense appropriations bill. And, in any case, Congress passed the bill with a veto-proof majority.

As Pentagon expert Michael Klare pointed out recently, while it might seem contradictory that Trump would both want to end the forever wars and to increase military spending, his actions actually made a certain sense. The president, suggested Klare, had been persuaded to support the part of the U.S. military command that has favored a sharp pivot away from reigning post-9/11 Pentagon practices. For 19 years, the military high command had hewed fairly closely to the strategy laid out by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld early in the Bush years: maintaining the capacity to fight ground wars against one or two regional powers (think of that “Axis of Evil” of Iraq, North Korea, and Iran), while deploying agile, technologically advanced forces in low-intensity (and a couple of higher-intensity) counterterrorism conflicts. Nineteen years later, whatever its objectives may have been — a more-stable Middle East? Fewer and weaker terrorist organizations? — it’s clear that the Rumsfeld-Bush strategy has failed spectacularly.

Klare points out that, after almost two decades without a victory, the Pentagon has largely decided to demote international terrorism from rampaging monster to annoying mosquito cloud. Instead, the U.S. must now prepare to confront the rise of China and Russia, even if China has only one overseas military base and Russia, economically speaking, is a rickety petro-state with imperial aspirations. In other words, the U.S. must prepare to fight short but devastating wars in multiple domains (including space and cyberspace), perhaps even involving the use of tactical nuclear weapons on the Eurasian continent. To this end, the country has indeed begun a major renovation of its nuclear arsenal and announced a new 30-year plan to beef up its naval capacity. And President Trump rarely misses a chance to tout “his” creation of a new Space Force.

Meanwhile, did he actually keep his promise and at least end those forever wars? Not really. He did promise to bring all U.S. troops home from Afghanistan by Christmas, but acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller only recently said that we’d be leaving about 2,500 troops there and a similar number in Iraq, with the hope that they’d all be out by May 2021. (In other words, he dumped those wars in the lap of the future Biden administration.)

In the meantime in these years of “ending” those wars, the Trump administration actually loosened the rules of engagement for air strikes in Afghanistan, leading to a “massive increase in civilian casualties,” according to a new report from the Costs of War Project. “From the last year of the Obama administration to the last full year of recorded data during the Trump administration,” writes its author, Neta Crawford, “the number of civilians killed by U.S.-led airstrikes in Afghanistan increased by 330 percent.”

In spite of his isolationist “America First” rhetoric, in other words, President Trump has presided over an enormous buildup of an institution, the military-industrial complex, that was hardly in need of major new investment. And in spite of his anti-NATO rhetoric, his reduction by almost a third of U.S. troop strength Germany, and all the rest, he never really violated the post-World War II foreign policy pact between the Republican and Democratic parties. Regardless of how they might disagree about dividing the wealth domestically, they remain united in their commitment to using diplomacy when possible, but military force when necessary, to maintain and expand the imperial power that they believed to be the guarantor of that wealth.

And Now Comes Joe

On January 20, 2021, Joe Biden will become the president of a country that spends as much on its armed forces, by some counts, as the next 10 countries combined. He’ll inherit responsibility for a nation with a military presence in 150 countries and special-operations deployments in 22 African nations alone. He’ll be left to oversee the still-unfinished, deeply unsuccessful, never-ending war on terror in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia and, as publicly reported by the Department of Defense, 187,000 troops stationed outside the United States.

Nothing in Joe Biden’s history suggests that he or any of the people he’s already appointed to his national security team have the slightest inclination to destabilize that Democratic-Republican imperial pact. But empires are not sustained by inclination alone. They don’t last forever. They overextend themselves. They rot from within.

If you’re old enough, you may remember stories about the long lines for food in the crumbling Soviet Union, that other superpower of the Cold War. You can see the same thing in the United States today. Once a week, my partner delivers food boxes to hungry people in our city, those who have lost their jobs and homes, because the pandemic has only exacerbated this country’s already brutal version of economic inequality. Another friend routinely sees a food line stretching over a mile, as people wait hours for a single free bag of groceries.

Perhaps the horrors of 2020 — the fires and hurricanes, Trump’s vicious attacks on democracy, the death, sickness, and economic dislocation caused by Covid-19 — can force a real conversation about national security in 2021. Maybe this time we can finally ask whether trying to prop up a dying empire actually makes us — or indeed the world — any safer. This is the best chance in a generation to start that conversation. The alternative is to keep trudging mindlessly toward disaster.

Rebecca Gordon, a TomDispatch regular, teaches at the University of San Francisco. She is the author of American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes and is now at work on a new Dispatch book on the history of torture in the United States.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 Rebecca Gordon

Via Tomdispatch.com

]]>
In a Looking-Glass World, Our Work is Just beginning https://www.juancole.com/2020/11/looking-glass-beginning.html Fri, 06 Nov 2020 05:01:55 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=194263 By Rebecca Gordon | –

( Tomdispatch.com) – In the chaos of this moment, it seems likely that Joe Biden will just squeeze into the presidency and that he’ll certainly win the popular vote, Donald Trump’s Mussolini-like behavior and election night false claim of victory notwithstanding. Somehow, it all brings another moment in my life to mind.

Back in October 2016, my friends and I frequently discussed the challenges progressives would face if the candidate we expected to win actually entered the Oval Office. There were so many issues to worry about back then. The Democratic candidate was an enthusiastic booster of the U.S. armed forces and believed in projecting American power through its military presence around the world. Then there was that long record of promoting harsh sentencing laws and the disturbing talk about “the kinds of kids that are called superpredators — no conscience, no empathy.”

In 2016, the country was already riven by deep economic inequality. While Hillary Clinton promised “good-paying jobs” for those struggling to stay housed and buy food, we didn’t believe it. We’d heard the same promises so many times before, and yet the federal minimum wage was still stuck where it had been ever since 2009, at $7.25 an hour. Would a Clinton presidency really make a difference for working people? Not if we didn’t push her — and hard.

The candidate we were worried about was never Donald Trump, but Hillary Clinton. And the challenge we expected to confront was how to shove that quintessential centrist a few notches to the left. We were strategizing on how we might organize to get a new administration to shift government spending from foreign wars to human needs at home and around the world. We wondered how people in this country might finally secure the “peace dividend” that had been promised to us in the period just after the Cold War, back when her husband Bill became president. In those first (and, as it turned out, only) Clinton years, what we got instead was so-called welfare reform whose consequences are still being felt today, as layoffs drive millions into poverty.

We doubted Hillary Clinton’s commitment to addressing most of our other concerns as well: mass incarceration and police violence, structural racism, economic inequality, and most urgent of all (though some of us were just beginning to realize it), the climate emergency. In fact, nationwide, people like us were preparing to spend a day or two celebrating the election of the first woman president and then get down to work opposing many of her anticipated policies. In the peace and justice movements, in organized labor, in community-based organizations, in the two-year-old Black Lives Matter movement, people were ready to roll.

And then the unthinkable happened. The woman we might have loved to hate lost that election and the white-supremacist, woman-hating monster we would grow to detest entered the Oval Office.

For the last four years, progressives have been fighting largely to hold onto what we managed to gain during Barack Obama’s presidency: an imperfect healthcare plan that nonetheless insured millions of Americans for the first time; a signature on the Paris climate accord and another on a six-nation agreement to prevent Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons; expanded environmental protections for public lands; the opportunity for recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — DACA — status to keep on working and studying in the U.S.

For those same four years, we’ve been fighting to hold onto our battered capacity for outrage in the face of continual attacks on simple decency and human dignity. There’s no need to recite here the catalogue of horrors Donald Trump and his spineless Republican lackeys visited on this country and the world. Suffice it to say that we’ve been living like Alice in Through the Looking Glass, running as hard as we can just to stand still. That fantasy world’s Red Queen observes to a panting Alice that she must come from

“A slow sort of country! Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

It wasn’t simply the need to run faster than full speed just in order to stay put that made Trump World so much like Looking-Glass Land. It’s that, just as in Lewis Carroll’s fictional world, reality has been turned inside out in the United States. As new Covid-19 infections reached an all-time high of more than 100,000 in a single day and the cumulative death toll surpassed 230,000, the president in the mirror kept insisting that “we’re rounding the corner” (and a surprising number of Americans seemed to believe him). He neglected to mention that, around that very corner, a coronaviral bus is heading straight toward us, accelerating as it comes. In a year when, as NPR reported, “Nearly 1 in 4 households have experienced food insecurity,” Trump just kept bragging about the stock market and reminding Americans of how well their 401k’s were doing — as if most people even had such retirement accounts in the first place.

Trump World, Biden Nation, or Something Better?

After four years of running in place, November 2016 seems like a lifetime ago. The United States of 2020 is a very different place, at once more devastated and more hopeful than at least we were a mere four years ago. On the one hand, pandemic unemployment has hit women, especially women of color, much harder than men, driving millions out of the workforce, many permanently. On the other, we’ve witnessed the birth of the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, which has provided millions of dollars for working-class women to fight harassment on the job. In a few brief years, physical and psychological attacks on women have ceased to be an accepted norm in the workplace. Harassment certainly continues every day, but the country’s collective view of it has shifted.

Black and Latino communities still face daily confrontations with police forces that act more like occupying armies than public servants. The role of the police as enforcers of white supremacy hasn’t changed in most parts of the country. Nonetheless, the efforts of the Black Lives Matter movement and of the hundreds of thousands of people who demonstrated this summer in cities nationwide have changed the conversation about the police in ways no one anticipated four years ago. Suddenly, the mainstream media are talking about more than body cams and sensitivity training. In June 2020, the New York Times ran an op-ed entitled, “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police,” by Miramne Kaba, an organizer working against the criminalization of people of color. Such a thing was unthinkable four years ago.

In the Trumpian pandemic moment, gun purchases have soared in a country that already topped the world by far in armed citizens. And yet young people — often led by young women — have roused themselves to passionate and organized action to get guns off the streets of Trump Land. After a gunman shot up Emma Gonzalez’s school in Parkland, Florida, she famously announced, “We call BS” on the claims of adults who insisted that changing the gun laws was unnecessary and impossible. She led the March for Our Lives, which brought millions onto the streets in this country to denounce politicians’ inaction on gun violence.

While Donald Trump took the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement, Greta Thunberg, the 17-year-old Swedish environmental activist, crossed the Atlantic in a carbon-neutral sailing vessel to address the United Nations, demanding of the adult world “How dare you” leave it to your children to save an increasingly warming planet:

“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”

“How dare you?” is a question I ask myself every time, as a teacher, I face a classroom of college students who, each semester, seem both more anxious about the future and more determined to make it better than the present.

Public attention is a strange beast. Communities of color have known for endless years that the police can kill them with impunity, and it’s not as if people haven’t been saying so for decades. But when such incidents made it into the largely white mainstream media, they were routinely treated as isolated events — the actions of a few bad apples — and never as evidence of a systemic problem. Suddenly, in May 2020, with the release of a hideous video of George Floyd’s eight-minute murder in Minneapolis, Minnesota, systematic police violence against Blacks became a legitimate topic of mainstream discussion.

The young have been at the forefront of the response to Floyd’s murder and the demands for systemic change that have followed. This June in my city of San Francisco, where police have killed at least five unarmed people of color in the last few years, high school students planned and led tens of thousands of protesters in a peaceful march against police violence.

Now that the election season has reached its drawn-out crescendo, there is so much work ahead of us. With the pandemic spreading out of control, it’s time to begin demanding concerted federal action, even from this most malevolent president in history. There’s no waiting for Inauguration Day, no matter who takes the oath of office on January 20th. Many thousands more will die before then.

And isn’t it time to turn our attention to the millions who have lost their jobs and face the possibility of losing their housing, too, as emergency anti-eviction decrees expire? Isn’t it time for a genuine congressional response to hunger, not by shoring up emergency food distribution systems like food pantries, but by putting dollars in the hands of desperate Americans so they can buy their own food? Congress must also act on the housing emergency. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “Temporary Halt in Residential Evictions To Prevent the Further Spread of Covid-19” only lasts until December 31st and it doesn’t cover tenants who don’t have a lease or written rental agreement. It’s crucial, even with Donald Trump still in the White House as the year begins, that it be extended in both time and scope. And now Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has said that he won’t even entertain a new stimulus bill until January.

Another crucial subject that needs attention is pushing Congress to increase federal funding to state and local governments, which so often are major economic drivers for their regions. The Trump administration and McConnell not only abandoned states and cities, leaving them to confront the pandemic on their own just as a deep recession drastically reduced tax revenues, but — in true looking-glass fashion — treated their genuine and desperate calls for help as mere Democratic Party campaign rhetoric.

“In Short, There Is Still Much to Do”

My favorite scene in Gillo Pontecorvo’s classic 1966 film The Battle of Algiers takes place at night on a rooftop in the Arab quarter of that city. Ali La Pointe, a passionate recruit to the cause of the National Liberation Front (NLF), which is fighting to throw the French colonizers out of Algeria, is speaking with Ben M’Hidi, a high-ranking NLF official. Ali is unhappy that the movement has called a general strike in order to demonstrate its power and reach to the United Nations. He resents the seven-day restriction on the use of firearms. “Acts of violence don’t win wars,” Ben M’Hidi tells Ali. “Finally, the people themselves must act.”

For the last four years, Donald Trump has made war on the people of this country and indeed on the people of the entire world. He’s attacked so many of us, from immigrant children at the U.S. border to anyone who tries to breathe in the fire-choked states of California, Oregon, Washington, and most recently Colorado. He’s allowed those 230,000 Americans to die in a pandemic that could have been controlled and thrown millions into poverty, to mention just a few of his “war” crimes. Finally, the people themselves must act.

On that darkened rooftop in an eerie silence, Ben M’Hidi continues his conversation with La Pointe. “You know, Ali,” he says. “It’s hard enough to start a revolution, even harder to sustain it, and hardest of all to win it.” He pauses, then continues, “But it’s only afterwards, once we’ve won, that the real difficulties begin. In short, there is still much to do.”

It’s hard enough to vote out a looking-glass president. But it’s only once we’ve won, whether that’s now or four years from now, that the real work begins. There is, indeed, still much to do.

Rebecca Gordon, a TomDispatch regular, teaches at the University of San Francisco. She is the author of American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes and is now at work on a new Dispatch book on the history of torture in the United States.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 Rebecca Gordon

Via Tomdispatch.com

]]>
Their Germs and Guns, our Steel: Canvassers Risk it All for America https://www.juancole.com/2020/10/their-canvassers-america.html Wed, 21 Oct 2020 04:01:33 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=193959 ( Tomdispatch.com ) – “Look, folks, the air quality is in the red zone today. The EPA says that means people with lung or heart issues should avoid prolonged activity outdoors.”

That was J.R. de Vera, one of two directors of UNITE-HERE!’s independent expenditure campaign to elect Biden and Harris in Reno, Nevada. UNITE-HERE! is a union representing 300,000 workers in the hospitality industry — that world of hotels and bars, restaurants and caterers. Ninety percent of its members are now laid off because of Trump’s bungling of the Covid-19 pandemic and many are glad for the chance to help get him out of the White House.

“So some of you will want to stay in your hotel rooms and make phone calls today,” JR continues. Fifty faces fall in the 50 little Zoom boxes on my laptop screen. Canvassers would much rather be talking to voters at their doors than calling them on a phone bank. Still, here in the burning, smoking West, the union is as committed to its own people’s health and safety as it is to dragging Donald Trump out of office. So, for many of them, phone calls it will be.

My own job doesn’t change much from day to day. Though I live in San Francisco, I’ve come to Reno to do back-room logistics work in the union campaign’s cavernous warehouse of an office: ordering supplies, processing reimbursements, and occasionally helping the data team make maps of the areas our canvassers will walk.

Our field campaign is just one of several the union is running in key states. We’re also in Arizona and Florida and, only last week, we began door-to-door canvassing in Philadelphia. Social media, TV ads, bulk mail, and phone calls are all crucial elements in any modern electoral campaign, but none of them is a substitute for face-to-face conversations with voters.

We’ve been in Reno since early August, building what was, until last week, the only field campaign in the state supporting Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. (Just recently, our success in campaigning safely has encouraged the Democratic Party to start its own ground game here and elsewhere.) We know exactly how many doors we have to knock on, how many Biden voters we have to identify, how many of them we have to convince to make a concrete voting plan, and how many we have to get out to vote during Nevada’s two-week early voting period to win here.

We’re running a much larger campaign in Clark County, where close to three-quarters of Nevada’s population lives (mostly in Las Vegas). Washoe County, home of the twin cities of Reno and Sparks, is the next largest population center with 16% of Nevadans. The remaining 14 counties, collectively known as “the Rurals,” account for the rest. Washoe and Clark are barely blue; the Rurals decidedly red.

In 2018, UNITE-HERE!’s ground campaign helped ensure that Jacky Rosen would flip a previously Republican Senate seat, and we helped elect Democrat Steve Sisolak as governor. He’s proved a valuable union ally, signing the Adolfo Fernandez Act, a first-in-the-nation law protecting workers and businesses in Nevada from the worst effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Defying a threatened Trump campaign lawsuit (later dismissed by a judge), Sisolak also signed an election reform bill that allows every active Nevada voter to receive a mail-in ballot. Largely as a result of the union’s work in 2018, this state now boasts an all-female Democratic senatorial delegation, a Democratic governor, and a female and Democratic majority in the state legislature. Elections, as pundits of all stripes have been known to say, have consequences.

Door-to-Door on Planet A

“¿Se puede, o no se puede?

¡Sí, se puede!

(“Can we do it?” “Yes, we can!”)

Each morning’s online canvass dispatch meeting starts with that call-and-response followed by a rousing handclap. Then we talk about where people will be walking that day and often listen to one of the canvassers’ personal stories, explaining why he or she is committed to this campaign. Next, we take a look at the day’s forecast for heat and air quality as vast parts of the West Coast burn, while smoke and ash travel enormous distances. Temperatures here were in the low 100s in August (often hovering around 115 degrees in Las Vegas). And the air? Let’s just say that there have been days when I’ve wished breathing were optional.

Climate-change activists rightly point out that “there’s no Planet B” for the human race, but some days it seems as if our canvassers are already working on a fiery Planet A that is rapidly becoming unlivable. California’s wildfires — including its first-ever “gigafire” — have consumed more than four million acres in the last two months, sending plumes of ash to record heights, and dumping a staggering amount of smoke into the Reno-Sparks basin. Things are a little better at the moment, but for weeks I couldn’t see the desert mountains that surround the area. Some days I couldn’t even make out the Grand Sierra Reno casino, a quarter mile from the highway on which I drive to work each morning.

For our canvassers — almost every one a laid-off waiter, bartender, hotel housekeeper, or casino worker — the climate emergency and the Covid-19 pandemic are literally in their faces as they don their N95 masks to walk the streets of Reno. It’s the same for the voters they meet at their doors. Each evening, canvassers report (on Zoom, of course) what those voters are saying and, for the first time I can remember, they are now talking about the climate. They’re angry at a president who pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord and they’re scared about what a potentially searing future holds for their children and grandchildren. They may not have read Joe Biden’s position on clean energy and environmental justice, but they know that Donald Trump has no such plan.

Braving Guns, Germs, and Smoke

In his classic book Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond suggested that the three variables in his title helped in large part to explain how European societies and the United States came to control much of the planet in the twentieth century. As it happens, our door-to-door canvassers confront a similar triad of obstacles right here in Reno, Nevada (if you replace that final “steel” with “smoke.”)

Guns and Other Threats

Nevada is an open-carry state and gun ownership is common here. It’s not unusual to see someone walking around a supermarket with a holstered pistol on his hip. A 2015 state law ended most gun registration requirements and another allows people visiting from elsewhere to buy rifles without a permit. So gun sightings are everyday events.

Still, it can be startling, if you’re not used to it, to have a voter answer the door with a pistol all too visible, even if securely holstered. And occasionally, our canvassers have even watched those guns leave their holsters when the person at the door realizes why they’re there (which is when the campaign gets the police involved). Canvassers are trained to observe very clear protocols, including immediately leaving an area if they experience any kind of verbal or physical threat.

African American and Latinx canvassers who’ve campaigned before in Reno say that, in 2020, Trump supporters seem even more emboldened than in the past to shout racist insults at them. More than once, neighbors have called the police on our folks, essentially accusing them of canvassing-while-black-or-brown. Two days before I wrote this piece, the police pulled over one young Latino door-knocker because neighbors had called to complain that he was walking up and down the street waving a gun. (The “gun” in question was undoubtedly the electronic tablet he was carrying to record the results of conversations with voters.) The officer apologized.

Which reminds me of another apology offered recently. A woman approached an African-American canvasser, demanding to know what in the world he was doing in her neighborhood. On learning his mission, she offered an apology as insulting as her original question. “We’re not used to seeing people like you around here,” she explained.

Germs

Until the pandemic, my partner and I had planned to work together with UNITE-HERE! in Reno during this election, as we did in 2018. But she’s five years older than I am, and her history of pneumonia means that catching Covid-19 could be especially devastating for her. So she’s stayed in San Francisco, helping out the union’s national phone bank effort instead.

In fact, we didn’t really expect that there would be a ground campaign this year, given the difficulties presented by the novel coronavirus. But the union was determined to eke out that small but genuine addition to the vote that a field campaign can produce. So they put in place stringent health protocols for all of us: masks and a minimum of six feet of distance between everyone at all times; no visits to bars, restaurants, or casinos, including during off hours; temperature checks for everyone entering the office; and the immediate reporting of any potential Covid-19 symptoms to our health and safety officer. Before the union rented blocks of rooms at two extended-stay hotels, our head of operations checked their mask protocols for employees and guests and examined their ventilation systems to make sure that the air conditioners vented directly outdoors and not into a common air system for the whole building.

To date, not one of our 57 canvassers has tested positive, a record we intend to maintain as we add another 17 full-timers to our team next week.

One other feature of our coronavirus protocol: we don’t talk to any voter who won’t put on a mask. I was skeptical that canvassers would be able to get voters to mask up, even with the individually wrapped surgical masks we’re offering anyone who doesn’t have one on or handy. However, it turns out that, in this bizarre election year, people are eager to talk, to vent their feelings and be heard. So many of the people we’re canvassing have suffered so much this year that they’re surprised and pleased when someone shows up at their door wondering how they’re doing.

And the answer to that question for so many potential voters is not well — with jobs lost, housing threatened, children struggling with online school, and hunger pangs an increasingly everyday part of life. So yes, a surprising number of people, either already masked or quite willing to put one on, want to talk to us about an election that they generally see as the most important of their lifetime.

Smoke

And did I mention that it’s been smoky here? It can make your eyes water, your throat burn, and the urge to cough overwhelm you. In fact, the symptoms of smoke exposure are eerily similar to the ones for Covid-19. More than one smoke-affected canvasser has spent at least five days isolated in a hotel room, waiting for negative coronavirus test results.

The White House website proudly quotes the president on his administration’s testing record: “We do tremendous testing. We have the best testing in the world.” Washoe County health officials are doing what they can, but if this is the best in the world, then the world is in worse shape than we thought.

The Power of a Personal Story

So why, given the genuine risk and obstacles they face, do UNITE-HERE!’s canvassers knock on doors six days a week to elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris? Their answers are a perfect embodiment of the feminist dictum “the personal is political.” Every one of them has a story about why she or he is here. More than one grew up homeless and never want another child to live that way. One is a DACA recipient who knows that a reelected Donald Trump will continue his crusade to end that amnesty for undocumented people brought to the United States as children. Through their participation in union activism, many have come to understand that workers really can beat the boss when they organize — and Trump, they say, is the biggest boss of all.

Through years of political campaigning, the union’s leaders have learned that voters may think about issues, but they’re moved to vote by what they feel about them. The goal of every conversation at those doors right now is to make a brief but profound personal connection with the voter, to get each of them to feel just how important it is to vote this year. Canvassers do this by asking how a voter is doing in these difficult times and listening — genuinely listening — and responding to whatever answer they get. And they do it by being vulnerable enough to share the personal stories that lie behind their presence at the voter’s front door.

One canvasser lost his home at the age of seven, when his parents separated. He and his mother ended up staying in shelters and camping for months in a garden shed on a friend’s property. One day recently he knocked on a door and found a Trump supporter on the other side of it. He noticed a shed near the house, pointed to it, and told the man about living in something similar as a child. That Trumpster started to cry. He began talking about how he’d had just the same experience and the way, as a teenager, he’d had to hold his family together when his heroin-addicted parents couldn’t cope. He’d never talked to any of his present-day friends about how he grew up and, in the course of that conversation, came to agree with our canvasser that Donald Trump wasn’t likely to improve life for people like them. He was, he said, changing his vote to Biden right then and there. (And that canvasser will be back to make sure he actually votes.)

Harvard University Professor Marshall Ganz pioneered the “public narrative,” the practice of organizing by storytelling. It’s found at the heart of many organizing efforts these days. The 2008 Obama campaign, for example, trained thousands of volunteers to tell their stories to potential voters. The It Gets Better Project has collected more than 50,000 personal messages from older queer people to LGBTQ youth who might be considering suicide or other kinds of self-harm — assuring them that their own lives did, indeed, get better.

Being the sort of political junkie who devours the news daily, I was skeptical about the power of this approach, though I probably shouldn’t have been. After all, how many times did I ask my mother or father to “tell me a story” when I was a kid? What are our lives but stories? Human beings are narrative animals and, however rational, however versed in the issues we may sometimes be, we still live through stories.

Data can give me information on issues I care about, but it can’t tell me what issues I should care about. In the end, I’m concerned about racial and gender justice as well as the climate emergency because of the way each of them affects people and other creatures with whom I feel connected.

A Campaign Within a Campaign

Perhaps the most inspiring aspect of UNITE-HERE!’s electoral campaign is the union’s commitment to developing every canvasser’s leadership skills. The goal is more than winning what’s undoubtedly the most important election of our lifetime. It’s also to send back to every hotel, restaurant, casino, and airport catering service leaders who can continue to organize and advocate for their working-class sisters and brothers. This means implementing an individual development plan for each canvasser.

Team leaders work with all of them to hone their stories into tools that can be used in an honest and generous way to create a genuine connection with voters. They help those canvassers think about what else they want to learn to do, while developing opportunities for them to master technical tools like computer spreadsheets and databases.

There’s a special emphasis on offering such opportunities to women and people of color who make up the vast majority of the union’s membership. Precious hours of campaign time are also devoted to workshops on how to understand and confront systemic racism and combat sexual harassment, subjects President Trump is acquainted with in the most repulsively personal way. The union believes its success depends as much on fostering a culture of respect as on the hard-nosed negotiating it’s also famous for.

After months of pandemic lockdown and almost four years of what has objectively been the worst, most corrupt, most incompetent, and possibly even most destructive presidency in the nation’s history, it’s a relief to be able to do something useful again. And sentimental as it may sound, it’s an honor to be able to do it with this particular group of brave and committed people. Sí, se puede. Yes, we can.

Rebecca Gordon, a TomDispatch regular, teaches at the University of San Francisco. She is the author of American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes and is now at work on a new Dispatch book on the history of torture in the United States.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 Rebecca Gordon

Via Tomdispatch.com

]]>
Essential Work suddenly Valued during Pandemic: Why does it Pay so Little, Cost so Much? https://www.juancole.com/2020/07/essential-suddenly-pandemic.html Fri, 24 Jul 2020 04:01:37 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=192187 ( Tomdispatch.com ) – In two weeks, my partner and I were supposed to leave San Francisco for Reno, Nevada, where we’d be spending the next three months focused on the 2020 presidential election. As we did in 2018, we’d be working with UNITE-HERE, the hospitality industry union, only this time on the campaign to drive Donald Trump from office.

Now, however, we’re not so sure we ought to go. According to information prepared for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, Nevada is among the states in the “red zone” when it comes to both confirmed cases of, and positive tests for, Covid-19. I’m 68. My partner’s five years older, with a history of pneumonia. We’re both active and fit (when I’m not tripping over curbs), but our ages make us more likely, if we catch the coronavirus, to get seriously ill or even die. That gives a person pause.

Then there’s the fact that Joe Biden seems to have a double-digit lead over Trump nationally and at least an eight-point lead in Nevada, according to the latest polls. If things looked closer, I would cheerfully take some serious risks to dislodge that man in the White House. But does it make sense to do so if Biden is already likely to win there? Or, to put it in coronavirus-speak, would our work be essential to dumping Trump?

Essential Work?

This minor personal conundrum got me thinking about how the pandemic has exposed certain deep and unexamined assumptions about the nature and value of work in the United States.

In the ethics classes I teach undergraduates at a college here in San Francisco, we often talk about work. Ethics is, after all, about how we ought to live our lives — and work, paid or unpaid, constitutes a big part of most of those lives. Inevitably, the conversation comes around to compensation: How much do people deserve for different kinds of work? Students tend to measure fair compensation on two scales. How many years of training and/or dollars of tuition did a worker have to invest to become “qualified” for the job? And how important is that worker’s labor to the rest of society?

Even before the coronavirus hit, students would often settle on medical doctors as belonging at the top of either scale. Physicians’ work is the most important, they’d argue, because they keep us alive. “Hmm…” I’d say. “How many of you went to the doctor today?” Usually not a hand would be raised. “How many of you ate something today?” All hands would go up, as students looked around the room at one another. “Maybe,” I’d suggest, “a functioning society depends more on the farmworkers who plant and harvest food than on the doctors you normally might see for a checkup once a year. Not to mention the people who process and pack what we eat.”

I’d also point out that the workers who pick or process our food are not really unskilled. Their work, like a surgeon’s, depends on deft, quick hand movements, honed through years of practice.

Sometimes, in these discussions, I’d propose a different metric for compensation: maybe we should reserve the highest pay for people whose jobs are both essential and dangerous. Before the pandemic, that category would not have included many healthcare workers and certainly not most doctors. Even then, however, it would have encompassed farmworkers and people laboring in meat processing plants. As we’ve seen, in these months it is precisely such people — often immigrants, documented or otherwise — who have also borne some of the worst risks of virus exposure at work.

By the end of April, when it was already clear that meatpacking plants were major sites of Covid-19 infection, the president invoked the Defense Production Act to keep them open anyway. This not only meant that workers afraid to enter them could not file for unemployment payments, but that even if the owners of such dangerous workplaces wanted to shut them down, they were forbidden to do so. By mid-June, more than 24,000 meatpackers had tested positive for the virus. And just how much do these essential and deeply endangered workers earn? According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about $28,450 a year — better than minimum wage, that is, but hardly living high on the hog (even when that’s what they’re handling).

You might think that farmworkers would be more protected from the virus than meatpackers, perhaps because they work outdoors. But as the New York Times has reported: “Fruit and vegetable pickers toil close to each other in fields, ride buses shoulder-to-shoulder, and sleep in cramped apartments or trailers with other laborers or several generations of their families.”

Not surprisingly, then, the coronavirus has, as the Times report puts it, “ravaged” migrant farm worker communities in Florida and is starting to do the same across the country all the way to eastern Oregon. Those workers, who risk their lives through exposure not only to a pandemic but to more ordinary dangers like herbicides and pesticides so we can eat, make even less than meatpackers: on average, under $26,000 a year.

When the president uses the Defense Production Act to ensure that food workers remain in their jobs, it reveals just how important their labor truly is to the rest of us. Similarly, as shutdown orders have kept home those who can afford to stay in, or who have no choice because they no longer have jobs to go to, the pandemic has revealed the crucial nature of the labor of a large group of workers already at home (or in other people’s homes or eldercare facilities): those who care for children and those who look after older people and people with disabilities who need the assistance of health aides.

This work, historically done by women, has generally been unpaid when the worker is a family member and poorly paid when done by a professional. Childcare workers, for example, earn less than $24,000 a year on average; home healthcare aides, just over that amount.

Women’s Work

Speaking of women’s work, I suspect that the coronavirus and the attendant economic crisis are likely to affect women’s lives in ways that will last at least a generation, if not beyond.

Middle-class feminists of the 1970s came of age in a United States where it was expected that they would marry and spend their days caring for a house, a husband, and their children. Men were the makers. Women were the “homemakers.” Their work was considered — even by Marxist economists — “non-productive,” because it did not seem to contribute to the real economy, the place where myriad widgets are produced, transported, and sold. It was seldom recognized how essential this unpaid labor in the realm of social reproduction was to a functioning economy. Without it, paid workers would not have been fed, cared for, and emotionally repaired so that they could return to another day of widget-making. Future workers would not be socialized for a life of production or reproduction, as their gender dictated.

Today, with so many women in the paid workforce, much of this work of social reproduction has been outsourced by those who can afford it to nannies, day-care workers, healthcare aides, house cleaners, or the workers who measure and pack the ingredients for meal kits to be prepared by other working women when they get home.

We didn’t know it at the time, but the post-World War II period, when boomers like me grew up, was unique in U.S. history. For a brief quarter-century, even working-class families could aspire to an arrangement in which men went to work and women kept house. A combination of strong unions, a post-war economic boom, and a so-called breadwinner minimum wage kept salaries high enough to support families with only one adult in the paid labor force. Returning soldiers went to college and bought houses through the 1944 Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, also known as the G.I. Bill. New Deal programs like social security and unemployment insurance helped pad out home economies.

By the mid-1970s, however, this golden age for men, if not women, was fading. (Of course, for many African Americans and other marginalized groups, it had always only been an age of fool’s gold.) Real wages stagnated and began their long, steady decline. Today’s federal minimum wage, at $7.25 per hour, has remained unchanged since 2009 (something that can hardly be said about the wealth of the 1%). Far from supporting a family of four, in most parts of the country, it won’t even keep a single person afloat.

Elected president in 1980, Ronald Reagan announced in his first inaugural address, “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” He then set about dismantling President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty programs, attacking the unions that had been the underpinning for white working-class prosperity, and generally starving the beast of government. We’re still living with the legacies of that credo in, for example, the housing crisis he first touched off by deregulating savings and loan institutions and disempowering the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

It’s no accident that, just as real wages were falling, presidential administrations of both parties began touting the virtues of paid work for women — at least if those women had children and no husband. Aid to Families with Dependent Children (“welfare”) was another New Deal program, originally designed to provide cash assistance to widowed women raising kids on their own at a time when little paid employment was available to white women.

In the 1960s, groups like the National Welfare Rights Organization began advocating that similar benefits be extended to Black women raising children. (As a welfare rights advocate once asked me, “Why is it fine for a woman to look to a man to help her children, but not to The Man?”) Not surprisingly, it wasn’t until Black and Latina women began receiving the same entitlements as their white sisters that welfare became a “problem” in need of “reform.”

By the mid-1990s, the fact that some Black women were receiving money from the government while not doing paid labor for an employer had been successfully reframed as a national crisis. Under Democratic President Bill Clinton, Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Reconciliation Act of 1996, a bill that then was called “welfare reform.” After that, if women wanted help from The Man, they had to work for it – not by taking care of their own children, but by taking care of their children and holding down minimum-wage jobs.

Are the Kids All Right?

It’s more than a little ironic, then, that the granddaughters of feminists who argued that women should have a choice about whether or not to pursue a career came to confront an economy in which women, at least ones not from wealthy families, had little choice about working for pay.

The pandemic may change that, however — and not in a good way. One of the unfulfilled demands of liberal 1970s feminism was universal free childcare. An impossible dream, right? How could any country afford such a thing?

Wait a minute, though. What about Sweden? They have universal free childcare. That’s why a Swedish friend of mine, a human rights lawyer, and her American husband who had a rare tenure track university job in San Francisco, chose to take their two children back to Sweden. Raising children is so much easier there. In the early days of second-wave feminism, some big employers even built daycare centers for their employees with children. Those days, sadly, are long gone.

Now, in the Covid-19 moment, employers are beginning to recognize the non-pandemic benefits of having employees work at home. (Why not make workers provide their own office furniture? It’s a lot easier to justify if they’re working at home. And why pay rent on all that real estate when so many fewer people are in the office?) While companies will profit from reduced infrastructure costs and in some cases possibly even reduced pay for employees who relocate to cheaper areas, workers with children are going to face a dilemma. With no childcare available in the foreseeable future and school re-openings dicey propositions (no matter what the president threatens), someone is going to have to watch the kids. Someone — probably in the case of heterosexual couples, the person who is already earning less — is going to be under pressure to reduce or give up paid labor to do the age-old unpaid (but essential) work of raising the next generation. I wonder who that someone is going to be and, without those paychecks, I also wonder how much families are going to suffer economically in increasingly tough times.

Grateful to Have a Job?

Recently, in yet another Zoom meeting, a fellow university instructor (who’d just been interrupted to help a child find a crucial toy) was discussing the administration’s efforts to squeeze concessions out of faculty and staff. I was startled to hear her add, “Of course, I’m grateful they gave me the job.” This got me thinking about jobs and gratitude — and which direction thankfulness ought to flow. It seems to me that the pandemic and the epidemic of unemployment following in its wake have reinforced a common but false belief shared by many workers: the idea that we should be grateful to our employers for giving us jobs.

We’re so often told that corporations and the great men behind them are Job Creators. From the fountain of their beneficence flows the dignity of work and all the benefits a job confers. Indeed, as this fairy tale goes, businesses don’t primarily produce widgets or apps or even returns for shareholders. Their real product is jobs. Like many of capitalism’s lies, the idea that workers should thank their employers reverses the real story: without workers, there would be no apps, no widgets, no shareholder returns. It’s our effort, our skill, our diligence that gives work its dignity. It may be an old saying, but no less true for that: labor creates all wealth. Wealth does not create anything — neither widgets, nor jobs.

I’m grateful to the universe that I have work that allows me to talk with young people about their deepest values at a moment in their lives when they’re just figuring out what they value, but I am not grateful to my university employer for my underpaid, undervalued job. The gratitude should run in the other direction. Without faculty, staff, and students there would be no university. It’s our labor that creates wealth, in this case a (minor) wealth of knowledge.

As of July 16th, in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, 32 million Americans are receiving some kind of unemployment benefit. That number doesn’t even reflect the people involuntarily working reduced hours, or those who haven’t been able to apply for benefits. One thing is easy enough to predict: employers will take advantage of people’s desperate need for money to demand ever more labor for ever less pay. Until an effective vaccine for the coronavirus becomes available, expect to see the emergence of a three-tier system of worker immiseration: low-paid essential workers who must leave home to do their jobs, putting themselves in significant danger in the process, while we all depend on them for sustenance; better paid people who toil at home, but whose employers will expect their hours of availability to expand to fill the waking day; and low-paid or unpaid domestic laborers, most of them women, who keep everyone else fed, clothed, and comforted.

Even when the pandemic finally ends, there’s a danger that some modified version of this new system of labor exploitation might prove too profitable for employers to abandon. On the other hand, hitting the national pause button, however painfully, could give the rest of us a chance to rethink a lot of things, including the place of work, paid and unpaid, in our lives.

So, will my partner and I head for Reno in a couple of weeks? Certainly, the job of ousting Donald Trump is essential. I’m just not sure that a couple of old white ladies are essential workers in the time of Covid-19.

Rebecca Gordon, a TomDispatch regular, teaches at the University of San Francisco. She is the author of American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes and is now at work on a new book on the history of torture in the United States.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 Rebecca Gordon

Via Tomdispatch.com

—–

Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Associated Press: “Protesters call for essential worker hazard pay’

]]>
Can Making Black Lives Matter Rescue a Failing State? https://www.juancole.com/2020/07/making-matter-failing.html Wed, 01 Jul 2020 04:01:24 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=191829 By Rebecca Gordon | –

( Tomdispatch) – You know that feeling when you trip on the street and instantly sense that you’re about to crash hard and there’s no way to prevent it? As gravity has its way with you, all you can do is watch yourself going down. Yeah, that feeling.

I had it the other day on my way to a Black Lives Matter demonstration when I caught my toe on a curb and pitched forward. As time slowed down, I saw not my past, but my future, pass before my eyes — a future that would at worst include months of rehabbing a broken hip and at best a few weeks hobbling around on crutches. I was lucky. Nothing was broken and I’ll probably be off the crutches by the time you read this.

But that feeling of falling and knowing it’s too late to stop it has stayed with me. I suspect it reflects a sensation many people in the United States might be having right now, a sense that time is moving slowly while we watch a flailing country in a slow-motion free fall. It has taken decades of government dereliction to get us to this point and a few years of Trumpian sabotage to show us just where we really are. To have any hope of pulling back from the brink, however, will take the determination of organizations like the Movement for Black Lives.

That national descent, when it came, proved remarkably swift. In less than six months, we’ve seen more than 2.5 million confirmed Covid-19 infections and more than 125,000 deaths. And it’s not slowing down. June 24th, in fact, saw the biggest single-day total in new U.S. infections (more than 38,000) since April and that number may well have been superseded by the time this piece comes out. During this pandemic, we’ve gone from an economy of almost full employment — even if at starvation levels for those earning a minimum wage — to one with the worst unemployment since the Great Depression (even as billionaires have once again made a rather literal killing). The government’s response to these twin catastrophes has been feckless at best and criminal at worst. While this country may not yet be a failed state, it’s certainly in a free fall all its own.

What Is a Failed State?

People use this expression to indicate a political entity whose government has ceased to perform most or all of its basic functions. Such a condition can result from civil war, untrammeled corruption, natural disaster, or some combination of those and more. The Fund for Peace, which has been working on such issues for more than 70 years, lists four criteria to identify such a country:

  • “Loss of control of its territory, or of the monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force therein
  • Erosion of legitimate authority to make collective decisions
  • Inability to provide public services
  • Inability to interact with other states as a full member of the international community”

I’ve always thought of such fallen lands (sometimes given a fatal shove by my own government) as far-away places. Countries like Libya. The Fund for Peace identifies that beleaguered and now fractured nation, where rival armed forces compete for primacy, as the one in which government fragility has increased most over the last decade. The present chaos began when the United States and its NATO allies stepped in militarily, precipitating the overthrow of autocrat Muammar Qaddafi, with no particular plan for the day after.

Then there’s Yemen, where Washington’s support for the intervention of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates only exacerbated an ongoing civil war, whose civilian victims have been left to confront famine, cholera, and most recently, with a shattered healthcare system, the coronavirus. And before Libya and Yemen, don’t forget the Bush administration’s disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq, which damaged that country’s physical and political infrastructure in ways it is now, 17 years later, starting to dig out of.

So, yes, I’d known about failed states, but it wasn’t until I read “We Are Living in a Failed State” by George Packer in the June 2020 Atlantic magazine that I began to seriously entertain the idea that my country was bouncing down the same flight of stairs. As that article’s subtitle put it: “The coronavirus didn’t break America. It revealed what was already broken.”

The Monopoly of the Legitimate Use of Force

In his 1919 lecture “Politics as a Vocation,” German sociologist Max Weber observed that “a state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” In other words, a state is a given territory whose inhabitants recognize that only one institution, the government, has the capacity — and therefore the right — to authorize the use of violence against members of the community.

Weber described three main ways that the use of violence acquires legitimacy: through long tradition, through the charisma of individual leaders, or in the case of many modern states, through the rule of law. In a way, Donald Trump’s administration can be viewed as one long attempt to roll back the legitimacy derived from the rule of law and replace it with the power of one man’s personal charisma. The president’s often-bumbling attempts to rule by fiat have reminded many fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation of a hapless imitation of Captain Jean-Luc Picard repeatedly calling out from the bridge of the Enterprise, “Make it so!”

Recently, however, Trump has used his presidential authority to directly threaten his own citizens with military force. On June 1st, he said at a Rose Garden press conference, “If a city or a state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.” Minutes later, he showed just how it could be done, when protesters in Washington, D.C.’s Lafayette Square were attacked by a combined force of National Guard, federal Park Police, and Secret Service agents. That last group Trump chose to congratulate for the job they did in a celebratory tweet, addressing them as the “S.S.,” an evocation — one hopes unintentional — of the Schutzstaffel (a Nazi paramilitary force of the previous century.) The world saw, as the Washington Post reported, “federal officers shoving protesters with shields and firing pepper balls, chemical grenades, and smoke bombs at retreating crowds” — all so the president could have a photo op with his buddy, the Bible, in front of a church down the street from the White House.

Max Weber was hardly suggesting that, in a functional state, only the government uses force to achieve its ends. Residents would still, for instance, experience criminal violence. When a state begins to fail, however, it either can’t or won’t prevent other forces from threatening or using violence — a growing trend in Donald Trump’s America. He has even, for instance, encouraged attendees at his rallies to “knock the crap out of” hecklers and offered to pay their legal fees afterward. We’ve watched him congratulate a Republican congressman for physically attacking a reporter and noted his approval of some “very fine people” at the 2017 Unite the Right march in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a white nationalist murdered a woman by driving his car into a crowd of counterdemonstrators.

Recently, the president’s support for extralegal violence has taken a far more sinister turn. Now, he’s given his imprimatur not just to his individual supporters, but to armed militias opposing their states’ efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. He’s urged them to “LIBERATE!” places like Michigan and Virginia, approved of armed vigilantes physically menacing legislators deliberating about Michigan’s stay-at-home policies, and had no objection to their parading in front of the office of Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer with signs bearing slogans like “Tyrants get the rope!” His encouragement of armed resistance to state authority so alarmed Washington Governor Jay Inslee that he accused the president of “fomenting domestic rebellion.”

What do you call a nation in which armed militias can threaten officials without fear of penalty? Whether it’s Libya or the U.S., I’d call it a state on the way to failing.

Eroding the Legitimacy of Collective Decision Making

The United States is a republic. Those who can vote elect representatives who make the laws that govern us. That’s how federal and state constitutions, city charters, and town bylaws have set out the major process for collective decision-making in this country. (Of course, sometimes we also participate more directly, as when we speak or write about public affairs, demonstrate our concerns in marches with banners and chants, or organize ourselves as communities, workers, or other groups of people sharing common interests.)

Recognizing that this country is still officially a republic doesn’t mean that everyone legally entitled to vote is actually able to vote. I wish that were so. In many parts of this country, however, the Republicans have been working assiduously to make voting by some of us either illegal or impossible.

In my lifetime, African Americans (and some white allies) died to secure the vote, an effort that culminated in the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In 2013, however, under George W. Bush-appointed Chief Justice John Roberts, the Supreme Court essentially gutted the act. Ever since, we’ve seen an acceleration of efforts to reduce access to the polls for African Americans and other marginalized groups. These include onerous voter identification procedures and restrictions on early voting or access to vote-by-mail options. The Brennan Center for Justice reports that, in the past decade, 25 states have imposed new restrictions on voting.

To the extent that Americans recognize elections as a means of collective decision-making, it’s because a sufficient number of us have confidence in the basic integrity of the system. In less functional societies, the results of elections are frequently, sometimes violently, contested by the losing side. So it’s one thing — and bad enough — for local jurisdictions to make it difficult or impossible for particular groups of people to vote. It’s quite anotherwhen a country’s leader acts to undermine public confidence in the entire electoral process.

That, of course, is exactly what Donald Trump has been doing from the moment of his 2016 electoral victory when he began blaming his failure to win the popular vote on millions of ballots supposedly cast illegally by undocumented immigrants. He even set up a presidential commission to investigate such a massive fraud, which later disbanded without finding any evidence to support his contention.

Nonetheless, the president revisited the theme of voter fraud in a 2019 address to young conservatives, this time throwing in a few made-up details for verisimilitude:

“…and then those illegals get out and vote, because they vote anyway. Don’t kid yourself. Those numbers in California and numerous other states, they’re rigged. They’ve got people voting that shouldn’t be voting. They vote many times, not just twice, not just three times. It’s like a circle. They come back, they put a new hat on. They come back, they put a new shirt on. And in many cases, they don’t even do that. You know what’s going on. It’s a rigged deal.”

In the context of an ongoing pandemic, the most sensible way to hold the November 2020 election is largely by mail. Oregon has held successful all-mail elections for two decades. In fact, mail-in voting turns out both to be efficient and to substantially boost participation. (Oregon’s turnout was a whopping 63% in the 2018 midterm election.) Greater turnout, however, often favors Democratic candidates, which may be why Trump has launched a campaign against mail-in elections, claiming they are fraught with fraud, making his own wild claims in the process. In May, for instance, he tweeted:

“There is NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-In Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent. Mail boxes will be robbed, ballots will be forged & even illegally printed out & fraudulently signed.”

Only recently, he went at it again, all-cap tweeting: “RIGGED 2020 ELECTION: MILLIONS OF MAIL-IN BALLOTS WILL BE PRINTED BY FOREIGN COUNTRIES, AND OTHERS. IT WILL BE THE SCANDAL OF OUR TIMES!”

Undermining public confidence in electoral integrity is a vicious strategy. In a country armed to the teeth like this one, when Trump encourages his supporters to believe that only massive fraud will explain his losing the 2020 election, he’s playing a dangerous game indeed. You know that you’re in a new world when opinion writers in the mainstream media find themselves asking if Trump will actually relinquish the White House, should he lose the election. (And if he is losing and vote-by-mail slows the counting process in some states, he’ll use any delay after November 3rd to create further “rigged-election” chaos.)

Inability to Provide Public Services

There’s no need to rehearse here the hideous details of the Trump administration’s abject failure to confront the spread of Covid-19 and to acknowledge the people it’s killed. Suffice it to say that a combination of disinterest and incompetence at the federal level has thrown responsibility on individual states and counties, which have found themselves in competition for life-saving equipment and have even been reduced to begging the federal government for support. As thousands were dying, corrupt procurement processes led to absurdities like the purchase of millions of miniature (and unusable) soda bottles instead of the glass tubes needed for virus testing.

As a result, by June 20, 2020, the U.S., with 4.25% of the world’s population, accounted for more than 26% of its 8.9 million verified coronavirus cases and about the same proportion of Covid-19 deaths. However, even if the administration’s response had been well-prepared and brilliantly executed, the pandemic would still have revealed this country’s longstanding inability to provide basic healthcare to large numbers of its citizens, especially in communities of color and among the poor.

As Covid-19 spreads in jails and prisons, a grim new aspect of decades of unnecessary and cruel mass incarceration has been revealed. As it ravages encampments of unhoused people, the virus continues to reveal to anyone who hadn’t already noticed the nation’s decades-long inability to house its citizens. The pandemic has also illuminated the devastation wrought by the most profound level of economic inequality since the Gilded Age — the inevitable result of combining staggering tax cuts for the rich with the systematic dismantling of one public service after another, from public education to infrastructure maintenance to emergency food support.

The country that, until recently, had the world’s greatest economy can’t even guarantee clean drinking water for 63 million Americans. The lead-contaminated water of Flint, Michigan, is only the best-known example of this.

Recently, the Ford Foundation, with other big nonprofit funders, made an extraordinary announcement. In the face of the government’s inability to respond adequately to the present crisis, they plan to make at least a billion dollars in new grants. Foundations giving away money is, of course, nothing new. What’s different is how they plan to fund this operation: by issuing “social bonds” — investment instruments for sale alongside U.S. Treasury bills and municipal bonds.

What does it say about a country when private foundations find themselves driven to borrow money in the bond market to provide public services that ought to come from the government?

Inability to Act as a Full Member of the International Community

Here, too, the Trump administration has pushed the United States towards failure. Though this country had, in the past, routinely acted less like a member of the international community than its hegemon, with this president there is no longer even a semblance of international cooperation on global issues. He’s withdrawn us from a previously successful treaty to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, as well as from successful Cold War treaties to control them. He’s repeatedly threatened to pull the U.S. out of NATO and placed sanctions on individuals working with the International Criminal Court investigating possible American war crimes in Afghanistan. In the midst of this global pandemic, he’s even pulling out of the World Health Organization.

Perhaps most disastrous of all, he’s reneged on our obligations under the Paris climate accord, thereby undermining humanity’s best hope of staving off an ecological catastrophe.

Under Donald Trump, in other words, the United States has demonstrated that even if it is not unable to take its place among the community of nations, it is certainly unwilling to do so.

Can Black Lives Matter Break the Fall?

My thinking about our nation’s rapid fall into failure began with my personal tumble on the way to a Black Lives Matter demonstration. In a way, that couldn’t be more fitting, because African Americans, particularly through their presence on the streets and in the media, are leading the present effort to pull this country back from the brink and toward legitimacy, more collective decision-making, the genuine provision of people’s needs, and participation in the community of nations.

The platform of the Movement for Black Lives represents an excellent place to start when it comes to preventing this country from becoming a failed state. The document itself is the result of an extended process of collective discussion and decision-making. Its goals include ending police violence and mass incarceration; investing in community needs; supporting the rights of women, LGBTQ communities, and immigrants; creating economic justice; and increasing black political power.

The Black Lives Matter movement began in response to this country’s long history of state-sanctioned violence against African Americans, whether in the form of lynching, cultural erasure, forced labor, or predatory lending. More than a century of violent, indeed murderous, policing of black and other marginalized communities has made this country’s use of state violence profoundly illegitimate. The present wave of resistance has forced the rest of the country, and the world, to look at it squarely.

If the U.S. is to break its headlong rush into failed statehood, it must begin by addressing the legitimate demands of the people this country has failed from its very inception. Through that process we might also begin to restore our nation’s collective decision-making, improve the genuine provision of public services, and make a new and better place for ourselves in the community of nations. Without it, there is no hope of doing so.

We shouldn’t fool ourselves, though. In Donald Trump’s — or even Joe Biden’s — United States, it’s going to be a long, hard haul. But better that than a steep fall.

Rebecca Gordon, a TomDispatch regular, teaches at the University of San Francisco. She is the author of American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes and is now at work on a new book on the history of torture in the United States.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 Rebecca Gordon

Via Tomdispatch

]]>