Tue, Apr

The Politics of the Next Recession: How a Bust Could Impact the 2016 Elections

NEW GEOGRAPHY-In this hyper-political age, perceptions about virtually everything from the weather to the Academy Awards are shaped by ideology. No surprise then that views on the economy and its trajectory also divide to a certain extent along partisan lines. 

How the public perceives the economy will have a major impact on this year’s elections. That most are already discouraged cannot be denied; the negative sentiment has propelled the rise of such seemingly marginal political figures as Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. But will the economy prove a bother to the Democrats? 

A lot depends on where you live and what you do. Much of the country is not doing so well; despite a strong two-year run in job creation, some 93 percent of U.S. counties still have not gained back all the jobs that they lost in the Great Recession, according to the National Association of Counties

Yet many liberals believe the economy is shipshape. Paul Krugman, the progressive economist, hails the “Obama boom,” citing rising employment, some slight income gains and, at least until recently, a soaring stock market.

Krugman and others point to California, the epitome of true-blue virtues, as having what one progressive journalist calls a simply “swell” economy. Rarely mentioned is the fact that, for the past two decades, the state’s economy has more often underperformed national averages.

More serious still, the same state that boasts Silicon Valley also suffers the highest poverty rate in the nation. Overall, nearly a quarter of Californians live in poverty, the highest percentage of any state, including Mississippi. According to a recent United Way study, close to one in three is barely able to pay their bills.

A slowing economy and weak stock market, in contrast, does offer some solace to Republicans, who clearly see a political opportunity. Even at its best, this has been a slow growth recovery and while the official unemployment rate has improved sharply, labor participation rates remain depressed by historical standards. Millions of young people remain in their parent’s homes as opposed to engaging the economy, buying homes, and getting onto adulthood.

The End of The Asset Boom

America may not be in as bad shape as Republicans and conservatives like to insist. Certainly compared to Europe or Japan, we’re in great shape. While some doubt weakness in China really poses a danger to the U.S. – exports account for only 13% of U.S. GDP, after all, and China is not one of the largest markets for U.S. goods — David Stockman, among others, argues that China’s slowdown is due to a dangerous phenomenon that is present in the U.S. as well: a disastrous level of debt. Some Democratic economists like Larry Summers, as well as economic gurus such as Mohammed el-Erian, warn that we should at least prepare for the possibility of recession.

Certainly the China crisis threatens the trajectory of certain blue cities. Money from China and other parts of Asia has helped propel real estate markets in places like coastal California, New York and San Francisco. China has also been a major source of tourists and consumers for high-end electronic products that are at least designed and marketed here.

Similarly California’s tech boom also seems to have reached its apogee. The fact that Silicon Valley types have gotten rich appears to have done little for the average American, and done very little to improve productivity.  With the market looking on with greater skepticism, several major players — Groupon, Yahoo, Twitter, for example — seem vulnerable. If a full scale bust is not imminent, a downturn in valuations, and likely employment, seems inevitable.

A slowdown in the Valley could place the blue bastions in an uncomfortable situation, exacerbating splits already evident in the Clinton-Sanders clash. The mega-profits enjoyed by sectors close to the Democrats, notably Silicon Valley, media and a large part of finance, have encouraged progressives to advance an ever more expansive, and expensive, liberal agenda. With billionaires stalking the streets of San Francisco, who could possibly oppose a big boost in the minimum wage, family leave, massive transit projects and the provision of subsidized housing.

Progressives may detest the investor class that has gotten rich in the “Obama boom,” but they remain deeply dependent on them to finance their green and social agendas. California’s coffers have been filled in recent years largely by the huge rises in income and capital gains among the investor class, who are well represented in the Golden State. Similarly New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s aggressive agenda for new housing and expansion of social programs depends largely on the continued looting of the economy by Wall Street.

The developing decline in asset values threatens the progressive agenda, and could set up a major battle between key progressive constituencies — rich liberals and those dependent on public sector spending. The fundamental incompatibility of ever-expanding pension liabilities and the provision of basic public services is becoming painfully clear in places like Chicago and Detroit, and smaller cities like San Bernardino and Stockton. More of blue America could join them if asset values continue to drop.

A nascent recession would almost certainly spark something of a civil war between the traditional left constituencies and the kind of business progressives one finds in Silicon Valley, Wall Street and the media industry. A first stage of this conflict is already emerging in California, where former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed has been seeking to rein in the state’s unfunded $350 billion pension liability. Silicon Valley largely has backed Reed’s past efforts, which has elicited a fierce blow-back by the public employee unions and their political allies.

Blue and Red, Reinforced

A recession would change many things, but not enough to challenge Democratic dominance in California, New York and other parts of the “blue wall.” Unemployment could double and Hillary Clinton — perhaps even Bernie Sanders — could win these places in a walk. After all, Jerry Brown was elected and then re-elected when California’s economy was still struggling to recover.

Theoretically, the cost of energy, the lack of water for farms, and a decaying infrastructure should provide an opening for Republicans, but as middle income families continue to move elsewhere, the shift to a single, childless, minority and immigrant demographic makes any successful GOP makeover all but impossible.

Instead of pushing them to the GOP, a recession could further radicalize the Democrats but not upset their control of dark blue states. But the deepening decline in the real tangible economy — energy, manufacturing, agriculture — could prove a boon to the GOP in much of the rest of the country.

Before the decline in oil prices many areas in the middle of the country enjoyed a gusher in energy jobs, providing high wage employment (roughly $100,000 annually, exceeding compensation for information, professional services, or manufacturing). Due largely to energy, states such as Texas, Oklahoma and North Dakota have enjoyed consistently the highest jobs growth since 2007, and were among the first states to gain back all the jobs lost in the recession.

Of course, tough times in red states like Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and North Dakota will only pad Republican gains. But there are other, contestable heartland states — Ohio and Pennsylvania, in particular — that also benefited from the expansion of fracking, which created whole new markets for manufactured products like pipes and compressors. Similarly, the administration’s directive to crack down on coal plants could be problematic for Iowa, Kansas, Ohio, Illinois, Minnesota and Indiana, which rank among those most reliant on coal for electricity. Not surprisingly much of the opposition to the EPA’s decrees come from heartland states

Right now virtually every Great Lakes state, except Illinois, enjoys unemployment rates below the national average and several, led by the Dakotas, Minnesota, Nebraska and Iowa, boast among the lowest in the nation.

But with energy, agriculture and manufacturing slowing down, the prospects for the middle of the country have turned increasingly sour. A manufacturing decline might not matter much to New York, where the sector accounts for barely 5 percent of state domestic product but industry accounts for 30 percent of the economy in Indiana, 19 percent in Michigan. If the current trends hold, the case for the “Obama boom” in this vast swath of America may be further weakened.

To the problems of regulation and market turbulence, manufacturing economies are also threatened by the rising value of the dollar, which threatens the Rust Belt’s prime exports and bolsters competitors, both in Europe and Asia. After all, manufactured goods are the leading export in much of the upper Midwest while food exports, also hard-hit by the hard dollar, dominate many Great Plains economies. In 2012, a recovering Rust Belt was critical to President Obama’s victory; a weakened industrial economy could make Republicans more competitive in the region, particularly if they nominate an electable candidate.

Will a Recession Create a New Politics?

Until the stock swoon, few commentators focused on the political implications of what very well may be an emerging recession. After all, if coal miners in West Virginia lose their livelihoods, it hardly effects the lifestyle of Capitol bandits a couple of hours away, and eliminating oil jobs in Bakersfield doesn’t cramp the style of tech moguls who don’t ever get their hands dirty. But with the stock market in sharp decline, the affluent may soon be feeling some of the angst felt by many middle and working class people during the “Obama boom.”

Indeed because President Obama’s policies are so identified with progressivism, a recession now could undermine support for his bank-friendly, super-green policies. The chimera of green jobs never had much reality, but low energy prices inevitably weaken the renewable sector. In times of asset inflation, losses on the farm, the factory, the mine or the drilling platform can be dismissed as part of “disruption” and progress, but what happens if other linchpins of the economy, notably tech and finance, begin to wobble as well?

If nothing else, a weaker economy will accelerate the increasingly populist tone of the Democratic Party, as epitomized by Senator Bernie Sanders’ remarkable rise. The kind of neo-liberalism epitomized by the Clintons rested on financial support from Wall Street, Silicon Valley and media companies. This support has become something of a liability for the former Secretary of State.

But the most important political impact of a slowdown or new recession, will be in the heartland, where elections are often won. Yet logic seems on a holiday in a Republican Party which seems to feed on resentment but produce little in the way of practical solutions. Indeed front-runners like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz thrive not by addressing economic growth but focusing instead on anxieties relating to immigration, Islamic terrorism and cultural change. Amidst an incipient recession, or at least a serious slowdown, after a weak recovery, Republicans should be able to make some gains, but to do so they have to give some glimmer of having the chops to turn the economy around.

(Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. He is also executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His newest book, The New Class Conflict is now available at Amazon and Telos Press. He is also author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He lives in Orange County, CA.) Photo: Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons. Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

The Real Reason Women Still Make Less than Men

EDITOR’S PICK--President Barack Obama is proposing a cool solution to help close the gender pay gap, but it doesn't hit at perhaps the biggest problem keeping women from earning what men make. 

That problem? Life. 

Women’s responsibilities outside of work -- mainly looking after children, but also caring for sick and elderly family members -- often keep them from taking on the kinds of jobs that would finally close the distance in pay between the genders. 

That doesn’t mean that the gender pay gap is the result of some kind of real “choice” women make, according to Claudia Goldin, one of the leading economists studying the gender pay gap. 

“Women aren’t choosing to make less,” she told The Huffington Post. Instead, they’re buying the flexibility to handle responsibilities outside of work, said Goldin, who is a professor at Harvard.

U.S. public policy is many years away from grappling with this.

Obama just announced a strong new policy that's intended to address the pay gap. Under his proposal, companies with more than 100 employees will be required to report data on pay, broken down by gender, race and ethnicity. 

It reinforces efforts already underway at some progressive companies whose leaders have pledged to eliminate pay gaps with salary analysis. Probably the most high-profile of these is software maker Salesforce, which has already spent $3 million to ensure women and men are paid equitably at the Silicon Valley firm. 

Certainly pay gaps within companies exist and are a problem. Black and hispanic women face even worse wage gaps than white counterparts. Firms should do everything they can to eliminate unfairness. And, of course, gender bias and discrimination play a role in the wage gap. It's fair to say Jennifer Lawrence got a raw deal compared to her male peers. There's all kinds of nutty bias against women that goes down at work. 

Women get interrupted at meetings. They aren't often taken as seriously as their male counterparts. They are deemed too aggressive or too meek and unfairly penalized in performance reviews.

There's a long, infuriating list. 

It's obviously important that we have strong laws prohibiting clear gender discrimination. This week, progressive groups are advancing bills in several states meant to encourage equal pay for equal work, as Lydia DePillis writes in the The Washington Post.  Much of the legislation focuses on pay discrimination within companies. 

But it’s not the gaps within companies that are mainly keeping the sexes apart on pay. It’s the gaps within professions -- particularly high-paying ones like law and business. So the highest-paid lawyers, for example, are mostly the men who've stuck it out at the most grueling and prestigious law firms that pay the most amount of money. The women have fallen off that elite track. 

And this makes up a huge portion of the gender wage gap, Goldin's research has shown. 

It's why the gap is most pronounced at the tippy-top of the income scale. 

Women at the top make 84 percent of what men at the level earn after controlling for education, ethnicity and a few other factors, a new working paper from two well-regarded labor economists reveals. 

“The pay gap has been reduced much less at the top than at other points at the middle and bottom,” Francine Blau, a Cornell economist who co-authored the paper with her colleague Lawrence Kahn, told The Huffington Post

There’s nothing more killing for parents or women in particular than having a child that gets out of school at 2:30. 

Goldin’s research has drilled down into this. Data she's analyzed shows that lawyers and women with graduate business degrees start out relatively equal to men when it comes to pay, but the gap widens as women get older -- when life and babies intrude on career goals. 

The same pattern persists for women with graduate-level business degrees. As Goldin writes in a 2006 paper, the penalty for M.B.A.s is higher than in any other profession she’s looked at. A high percentage leave the highest paying jobs after just a few years. 

Some would look at this information and conclude that it’s a fair tradeoff, less work and more family; no big deal. 

Some jobs require everything, to be sure. 

But many, many jobs do not. In consulting, workers are rewarded for putting in 100-hour weeks with promotions and partnerships. 

The cultural requirements are so onerous, that one study found that male consultants simply pretended to work long hours. They were still rewarded with advancement. 

One lesson from that analysis: The men didn’t need to put in the work. 

At the highest-end of our economy, face-time or the illusion of hard work is rewarded with higher pay. It’s not that you work more hours and get paid more simply because you put in more time. Hourly pay is not constant: Indeed, one recent study showed that overwork is rewarded with higher pay.  

The internet has enabled this by making it super-easy to always be connected to your office. 

So companies can help drive cultural change in letting people work reasonable hours and supporting flex time. 

Goldin has a simple solution for policy makers that one doubts would ever actually happen: Lengthen the school day. 

“There’s nothing more killing for parents or women in particular than having a child that gets out of school at 2:30,” she said. 

And there’s no good reason the school day is so short, according to Goldin. “We inherited this stuff,” she said, noting that the current school schedule was put in place when the U.S. was primarily agrarian. Kids were off during the summer to work on the farm. “We used to harvest things.” 

(Emily Peck is Executive Business & Technology Editor of The Huffington Post where this piece was originally posted.)  Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

The United States of Hypocrisy: Leaking Classified Info Not Such a Big Deal When the Leaker is a General

JUSTICE INTERRUPTED--In what some are calling another example of a two-tiered justice system, the Pentagon said Friday that it would not demote Retired General David Petraeus, who was convicted in 2015 of leaking classified information to his biographer and mistress. (Photo above)   

The former CIA head reached a plea deal with the Justice Department last year, and the new development means no further action against Petraeus. "As you know, the Army completed its review of his case and recommended no additional action. Given the Army review, Secretary Carter considers this matter closed," Stephen C. Hedger, the assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs, wrote in a letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee and seen by news outlets

A demotion from his four-star general ranking "could have cost him tens of thousands of dollars a year in pension payments," the Washington Post reports

As USA Today reports

Petraeus, the highest-profile commander of his generation, lied to FBI agents, divulged a massive amount of sensitive data to Paula Broadwell, and fretted about how she handled them in an interview she recorded with him, court documents showed. She was the co-author of a biography about Petraeus titled, All In, The Education of General David Petraeus.

The federal court levied a fine of $100,000 against him and placed him on probation in the plea deal.

He served no prison time.

Whistleblowers like Daniel Ellsberg have already said the Petraeus case stood in stark contrast to the Obama administration's aggressive crackdown on whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Jeffrey Sterling, and John Kiriakou.

And Jesselyn Radack, head of National Security and Human Rights at the whistleblower advocacy organization Government Accountability Project (GAP), said following Petraeus' sentencing last year that her organization's "whistleblower clients lost their careers and spent millions on legal fees while Petraeus was able to retain his security clearance, advise the White House, make lucrative speeches across the globe, and pull in a massive salary as a partner in one of the world's biggest private-equity firms."

(Andrea Germanos writes for Common Dreams … where this perspective was first posted.)


We Can’t Let it Be ... More Plastic Than Fish in Our Sea

EDITOR’S PICK--News that plastic pollution will exceed all the fish in the sea by 2050 is beyond appalling -- it's unacceptable. We need bold action to stop plastic garbage from choking out ocean life. 

One ocean and two big problems: We need to end overfishing and confront our throwaway society. Both goals are about reducing our consumption and letting our oceans recover.

The statistics -- from a Jan. 19 study by the World Economic Forum -- are alarming. Not only is plastic projected to overtake fish by 2050, but plastic production is also expected to consume 20 percent of all oil by then, up from 6 percent in 2014. So single-use packaging is not only polluting our oceans but it is also driving our oil addiction. 

Curbing fossil fuels isn't just about combating climate change. It's also about preventing oil spills, air pollution, and slowing the flow of cheap oil into disposable plastic packaging. Sea turtles, whales, seals and birds are all threatened by destructive fishing and oil production -- and again by plastic pollution.

But wait: It gets even worse. This ocean plastics study came out on the same day as another important one showing that overfishing has depleted the ocean more than three times faster than previously understood. That means plastic pollution could crowd out fish even sooner.

This fishing study for the first time calculated illegal and recreational catch not included in official figures. It found that catch peaked in 1996 at 130 million tons, rather than the 86 million ton total recorded by the United Nations that year. Since then the global catch has declined by 1.2 million tons per year -- three times the rate officials believe -- because of overfishing. 

We simply can't keep cranking out plastic packaging without it overwhelming the sources of life as we know it. And we're replacing that displaced ocean life with mountains of plastic that absorb a deadly cocktail of environmental toxins. It swirls into the North Pacific Gyre to create the largest garbage dump in the world, or it's eaten by little fish that are then eaten by bigger fish, working their way onto our plates.

Our oceans and our economy are on a collision course. We simply can't keep cranking out plastic packaging without it overwhelming the sources of life as we know it. The plastics report shows the use of plastics increased 20-fold in the past half-century and is expected to double again in the next 20 years.

"We live in a defining moment in history," Mogens Lykketoft, president of the United Nation's 70th General Assembly, wrote in the foreword of that report.

We can define our world by our consumption, hauling away the fish and replacing them with our plastic waste. Or we can define it by our capacity for conservation and regain the natural balance that we've lost. We need bold leadership that will pledge to keep the oil in the ground, we need strong international fishing rules and enforcement, and we need to ban single-use plastics or force big plastic to deal with its waste. The ocean is sensitive, and it's going to collapse if we use it as a dump or lawless fishing ground.

(Miyoko Sakashita is a senior attorney and director of the Oceans Project at the Center for Biological Diversity. Posted earlier at Common Dreams.)



The Fatally Flawed Second Amendment

PEACEVOICE-Gun rights advocates rest their case heavily on the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, insisting that the Second Amendment gives people the right to keep and bear arms. They are mistaken in their claim. 

Justice Anthony Scalia, writing the majority opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller, acknowledges this when he writes: “The very text of the Second Amendment implicitly recognizes the pre-existence of the right and declares only that it ‘shall not be infringed.’” He adds: “[t]his is not a right granted by the Constitution. Neither is it in any manner dependent upon that instrument for its existence. The Second Amendment declares that [the right] ‘shall not be infringed.’” 

So if the Second Amendment does not give people the right to keep and bear arms, what does it say?

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” 

This amendment contains three claims. The implicit claim is that there already is a right to keep and bear arms, as the majority opinion above asserts. The second claim is that a well regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state; and the third claim is that the right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed because a well-regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state. 

In short, the Second Amendment does not establish the right to keep and bear arms; it establishes that such a right (which it presumes to exist) shall not be infringed. And it offers as the reason it shall not be infringed the assertion that a well-regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state. 

All of these observations concur with the majority opinion in District of Columbia v Heller, which states that “the Second Amendment’s prefatory clause announces the purpose for which the right was codified: to prevent elimination of the militia”; the Court also asserts that “[t]here are many reasons why the militia was thought to be ‘necessary to the security of a free state.’” 

Given that the Second Amendment does not establish the right to keep and bear arms but, rather, presumes it, one could argue that the presumption is mistaken. And there would be good grounds for doing so. Under social contract theory, with which the Founding Fathers were quite familiar, citizens give up to a government their natural right to protect and preserve their other natural rights, and in exchange for giving up their right to protect and preserve their other natural rights, that government promises to protect and preserve those other natural rights for them. This is what the social contract is. Arguably then, the natural right to keep and bear arms, allegedly necessary for the security of a free state, is precisely what citizens give up in exchange for a government securing citizens’ other natural rights. 

But put all that aside. Assuming that the right to keep and bear arms does exist, even within a social contract, even with a government whose duty it is to protect its citizenry and preserve their other freedoms, the reason the right should not be infringed is because a militia is necessary to the security of a free state–or so thought the Founding Fathers. Thus, a legitimate question to ask is whether a well-regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state. 

Recent evidence strongly suggests that a well-regulated militia is not necessary to the security of a free state. Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, in their 2011 work “Why Civil Resistance Works,” have shown that attempts to overthrow tyrannical governments or to change their policies as well as attempts to repel armed invasion, are twice as successful when they are pursued non-violently than when they are pursued violently. 

As Chenoweth states in a 2011 op-ed piece in the NY Times, she and Stephan “compared the outcomes of hundreds of violent insurgencies with those of major non-violent resistance campaigns from 1900 to 2006; [they] found that over 50 percent of the non-violent movements succeeded, compared with about 25 percent of the violent insurgencies.” What’s more, they show, the numbers of deaths arising from attempts to secure freedom are far greater in violent than in non-violent conflicts. Recent evidence, in short, strongly suggests that it is false that a militia is necessary to the security of a free state. 

If that is so, then the premise on which the Founding Fathers based their assertion that the right shall not be infringed is false. Does that mean that the right should not be infringed? Perhaps not. After all, self-defense is another reason why the right to keep and bear arms ought to be preserved. 

But again, recent evidence also suggests otherwise. Charles Branas and others, in a 2009 study, found that “individuals in possession of a gun were 4.46 times more likely to be shot in an assault than those not in possession.” Data also show that (1) criminal homicides outnumber justifiable homicides by a ratio of 36 to 1, (2) that crimes committed with a gun outnumber uses of a gun in self-defense by a ratio of 7 to 1, and (3) that suicides by guns outnumber homicides by guns. In short, the evidence strongly links possession of a weapon to criminal homicide, to other crimes, and to one’s own death more than it does to successful self-defense. 

On the basis of evidence that did not exist at the time the Second Amendment was written, it appears that even under the presumption that a right to keep and bear arms exists, the reasons offered by the Founding Fathers for not infringing on that right no longer stand up to well informed scrutiny.

(Dr. Barry Gan, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor of Philosophy and Director, Center of Nonviolence at St. Bonaventure University. This piece was originally posted at peacevoice.info and in Las Vegas Informer.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.


American Democracy: Down for the Count

EDITOR’S PICK--Some years ago, I faced up to the futility of reporting true things about America’s disastrous wars and so I left Afghanistan for another remote mountainous country far away. It was the polar opposite of Afghanistan: a peaceful, prosperous land where nearly everybody seemed to enjoy a good life, on the job and in the family.

It’s true that they didn’t work much, not by American standards anyway. In the U.S., full-time salaried workers supposedly laboring 40 hours a week actually average 49, with almost 20% clocking more than 60. These people, on the other hand, worked only about 37 hours a week, when they weren’t away on long paid vacations. At the end of the work day, about four in the afternoon (perhaps three in the summer), they had time to enjoy a hike in the forest or a swim with the kids or a beer with friends—which helps explain why, unlike so many Americans, they are pleased with their jobs.

Often I was invited to go along. I found it refreshing to hike and ski in a country with no land mines, and to hang out in cafés unlikely to be bombed. Gradually, I lost my warzone jitters and settled into the slow, calm, pleasantly uneventful stream of life there.

Four years on, thinking I should settle down, I returned to the United States. It felt quite a lot like stepping back into that other violent, impoverished world, where anxiety runs high and people are quarrelsome. I had, in fact, come back to the flip side of Afghanistan and Iraq: to what America’s wars have done to America. Where I live now, in the Homeland, there are not enough shelters for the homeless. Most people are either overworked or hurting for jobs; housing is overpriced; hospitals, crowded and understaffed; schools, largely segregated and not so good. Opioid or heroin overdose is a popular form of death; and men in the street threaten women wearing hijab. Did the American soldiers I covered in Afghanistan know they were fighting for this?

Ducking the Subject

One night I tuned in to the Democrats’ presidential debate to see if they had any plans to restore the America I used to know. To my amazement, I heard the name of my peaceful mountain hideaway: Norway. Bernie Sanders was denouncing America’s crooked version of “casino capitalism” that floats the already rich ever higher and flushes the working class. He said that we ought to “look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people.”

He believes, he added, in “a society where all people do well. Not just a handful of billionaires.” That certainly sounds like Norway. For ages they’ve worked at producing things for the use of everyone—not the profit of a few—so I was all ears, waiting for Sanders to spell it out for Americans.

But Hillary Clinton quickly countered, “We are not Denmark.” Smiling, she said, “I love Denmark,” and then delivered a patriotic punch line: “We are the United States of America.” Well, there’s no denying that. She praised capitalism and “all the small businesses that were started because we have the opportunity and the freedom in our country for people to do that and to make a good living for themselves and their families.” She didn’t seem to know that Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians do that, too, and with much higher rates of success.

The truth is that almost a quarter of American startups are not founded on brilliant new ideas, but on the desperation of men or women who can’t get a decent job. The majority of all American enterprises are solo ventures having zero payrolls, employing no one but the entrepreneur, and often quickly wasting away. Sanders said that he was all for small business, too, but that meant nothing “if all of the new income and wealth is going to the top 1 percent.” (As George Carlin said, “The reason they call it the American Dream is because you have to be asleep to believe it.”)

In that debate, no more was heard of Denmark, Sweden, or Norway. The audience was left in the dark. Later, in a speech at Georgetown University, Sanders tried to clarify his identity as a Democratic socialist. He said he’s not the kind of Socialist (with a capital S) who favors state ownership of anything like the means of production. The Norwegian government, on the other hand, owns the means of producing lots of public assets and is the major stockholder in many a vital private enterprise.

I was dumbfounded. Norway, Denmark, and Sweden practice variations of a system that works much better than ours, yet even the Democratic presidential candidates, who say they love or want to learn from those countries, don’t seem to know how they actually work.

Why We’re Not Denmark

Proof that they do work is delivered every year in data-rich evaluations by the U.N. and other international bodies. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s annual report on international well-being, for example, measures 11 factors, ranging from material conditions like affordable housing and employment to quality of life matters like education, health, life expectancy, voter participation, and overall citizen satisfaction. Year after year, all the Nordic countries cluster at the top, while the United States lags far behind. In addition, Norway ranked first on the U.N. Development Program’s Human Development Index for 12 of the last 15 years, and it consistently tops international comparisons of such matters as democracy, civil and political rights, and freedom of expression and the press.

What is it, though, that makes the Scandinavians so different?  Since the Democrats can’t tell you and the Republicans wouldn’t want you to know, let me offer you a quick introduction. What Scandinavians call the Nordic Model is a smart and simple system that starts with a deep commitment to equality and democracy. That’s two concepts combined in a single goal because, as far as they are concerned, you can’t have one without the other.

Right there they part company with capitalist America, now the most unequal of all the developed nations, and consequently a democracy no more. Political scientists say it has become an oligarchy—a country run at the expense of its citizenry by and for the super rich. Perhaps you noticed that.

In the last century, Scandinavians, aiming for their egalitarian goal, refused to settle solely for any of the ideologies competing for power—not capitalism or fascism, not Marxist socialism or communism. Geographically stuck between powerful nations waging hot and cold wars for such doctrines, Scandinavians set out to find a path in between. That path was contested—by socialist-inspired workers on the one hand and capitalist owners and their elite cronies on the other—but it led in the end to a mixed economy. Thanks largely to the solidarity and savvy of organized labor and the political parties it backed, the long struggle produced a system that makes capitalism more or less cooperative, and then redistributes equitably the wealth it helps to produce. Struggles like this took place around the world in the twentieth century, but the Scandinavians alone managed to combine the best ideas of both camps, while chucking out the worst.

In 1936, the popular U.S. journalist Marquis Childs first described the result to Americans in the book Sweden: The Middle Way. Since then, all the Scandinavian countries and their Nordic neighbors Finland and Iceland have been improving upon that hybrid system. Today in Norway, negotiations between the Confederation of Trade Unions and the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise determine the wages and working conditions of most capitalist enterprises, public and private, that create wealth, while high but fair progressive income taxes fund the state’s universal welfare system, benefitting everyone. In addition, those confederations work together to minimize the disparity between high-wage and lower-wage jobs. As a result, Norway ranks with Sweden, Denmark, and Finland among the most income-equal countries in the world, and its standard of living tops the charts.

So here’s the big difference: in Norway, capitalism serves the people. The government, elected by the people, sees to that. All eight of the parties that won parliamentary seats in the last national election, including the conservative Høyre party now leading the government, are committed to maintaining the welfare state. In the U.S., however, neoliberal politics put the foxes in charge of the henhouse, and capitalists have used the wealth generated by their enterprises (as well as financial and political manipulations) to capture the state and pluck the chickens. They’ve done a masterful job of chewing up organized labor. Today, only 11% of American workers belong to a union. In Norway, that number is 52%; in Denmark, 67%; in Sweden, 70%.

In the U.S., oligarchs maximize their wealth and keep it, using the “democratically elected” government to shape policies and laws favorable to the interests of their foxy class. They bamboozle the people by insisting, as Hillary Clinton did at that debate, that all of us have the “freedom” to create a business in the “free” marketplace, which implies that being hard up is our own fault.

In the Nordic countries, on the other hand, democratically elected governments give their populations freedom from the market by using capitalism as a tool to benefit everyone. That liberates their people from the tyranny of the mighty profit motive that warps so many American lives, leaving them freer to follow their own dreams—to become poets or philosophers, bartenders or business owners, as they please.

Family Matters

Maybe our politicians don’t want to talk about the Nordic Model because it shows so clearly that capitalism can be put to work for the many, not just the few.

Consider the Norwegian welfare state. It’s universal. In other words, aid to the sick or the elderly is not charity, grudgingly donated by elites to those in need. It is the right of every individual citizen. That includes every woman, whether or not she is somebody’s wife, and every child, no matter its parentage. Treating every person as a citizen affirms the individuality of each and the equality of all. It frees every person from being legally possessed by another—a husband, for example, or a tyrannical father. 

Which brings us to the heart of Scandinavian democracy: the equality of women and men. In the 1970s, Norwegian feminists marched into politics and picked up the pace of democratic change. Norway needed a larger labor force, and women were the answer. Housewives moved into paid work on an equal footing with men, nearly doubling the tax base. That has, in fact, meant more to Norwegian prosperity than the coincidental discovery of North Atlantic oil reserves. The Ministry of Finance recently calculated that those additional working mothers add to Norway’s net national wealth a value equivalent to the country’s “total petroleum wealth”—currently held in the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, worth more than $873 billion. By 1981, women were sitting in parliament, in the prime minister’s chair, and in her cabinet.

American feminists also marched for such goals in the 1970s, but the Big Boys, busy with their own White House intrigues, initiated a war on women that set the country back and still rages today in brutal attacks on women’s basic civil rights, health care, and reproductive freedom. In 1971, thanks to the hard work of organized feminists, Congress passed the bipartisan Comprehensive Child Development Bill to establish a multi-billion dollar national day care system for the children of working parents. In 1972, President Richard Nixon vetoed it, and that was that. In 1972, Congress also passed a bill (first proposed in 1923) to amend the Constitution to grant equal rights of citizenship to women.  Ratified by only 35 states, three short of the required 38, that Equal Rights Amendment, or ERA, was declared dead in 1982, leaving American women in legal limbo.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, obliterating six decades of federal social welfare policy “as we know it,” ending federal cash payments to the nation’s poor, and consigning millions of female heads of household and their children to poverty, where many still dwell 20 years later. Today, nearly half a century after Nixon trashed national child care, even privileged women, torn between their underpaid work and their kids, are overwhelmed.

Things happened very differently in Norway.  There, feminists and sociologists pushed hard against the biggest obstacle still standing in the path to full democracy: the nuclear family. In the 1950s, the world-famous American sociologist Talcott Parsons had pronounced that arrangement—with hubby at work and the little wife at home—the ideal setup in which to socialize children. But in the 1970s, the Norwegian state began to deconstruct that undemocratic ideal by taking upon itself the traditional unpaid household duties of women.  Caring for the children, the elderly, the sick, and the disabled became the basic responsibilities of the universal welfare state, freeing women in the workforce to enjoy both their jobs and their families. That’s another thing American politicians—still, boringly, mostly odiously boastful men—surely don’t want you to think about: that patriarchy can be demolished and everyone be the better for it.

Paradoxically, setting women free made family life more genuine. Many in Norway say it has made both men and women more themselves and more alike: more understanding and happier. It also helped kids slip from the shadow of helicopter parents. In Norway, mother and father in turn take paid parental leave from work to see a newborn through its first year or more. At age one, however, children start attending a neighborhood barnehage (kindergarten) for schooling spent largely outdoors. By the time kids enter free primary school at age six, they are remarkably self-sufficient, confident, and good-natured. They know their way around town, and if caught in a snowstorm in the forest, how to build a fire and find the makings of a meal.  (One kindergarten teacher explained, “We teach them early to use an axe so they understand it’s a tool, not a weapon.”)

To Americans, the notion of a school “taking away” your child to make her an axe wielder is monstrous.  In fact, Norwegian kids, who are well acquainted in early childhood with many different adults and children, know how to get along with grown ups and look after one another.  More to the point, though it’s hard to measure, it’s likely that Scandinavian children spend more quality time with their work-isn’t-everything parents than does a typical middle-class American child being driven by a stressed-out mother from music lessons to karate practice.  For all these reasons and more, the international organization Save the Children cites Norway as the best country on Earth in which to raise kids, while the U.S. finishes far down the list in 33rd place.

Don’t Take My Word For It

This little summary just scratches the surface of Scandinavia, so I urge curious readers to Google away.  But be forewarned. You’ll find much criticism of all the Nordic Model countries. The structural matters I’ve described—of governance and family—are not the sort of things visible to tourists or visiting journalists, so their comments are often obtuse. Take the American tourist/blogger who complained that he hadn’t been shown the “slums” of Oslo. (There are none.) Or the British journalist who wrote that Norwegian petrol is too expensive. (Though not for Norwegians, who are, in any case, leading the world in switching to electric cars.)

Neoliberal pundits, especially the Brits, are always beating up on the Scandinavians in books, magazines, newspapers, and blogs, predicting the imminent demise of their social democracies and bullying them to forsake the best political economy on the planet. Self-styled experts still in thrall to Margaret Thatcher tell Norwegians they must liberalize their economy and privatize everything short of the royal palace. Mostly, the Norwegian government does the opposite, or nothing at all, and social democracy keeps on ticking.

It’s not perfect, of course. It has always been a carefully considered work in progress. Governance by consensus takes time and effort.  You might think of it as slow democracy.  But it’s light years ahead of us.

(Ann Jones, a TomDispatch regular, went to Norway in 2011 as a Fulbright Fellow. She stayed on because it feels good to live in a social democracy where politics matter, gender doesn’t, and peacemaking is the nation’s project.  She is the author most recently of They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars – the Untold Story, a Dispatch Books original. Posted earlier at TomDispatch and The Nation)



Assessing The Obama Presidency: Has He Really Changed America?

EDITOR’S PICK-Is Barack Obama a transformational president? That was his ambition: to be more, as he put it, like Ronald Reagan than Bill Clinton, to launch a new era, not simply tack to the prevailing winds of the old. 

Not surprisingly, in his final year in office, the issue is contested. Liberals like New York Times op-ed columnist Paul Krugman hail Obama as “one of the most consequential and, yes, successful presidents in American history.” Conservatives scorn his administration as a “socialist” interlude in a conservative time. On the left, many like professor Cornel West are disappointed, seeing Obama as a “counterfeit” progressive who failed to seize a historic opportunity for progressive change. 

What makes a president transformational? The first African-American president is inherently historic. Obama’s cheerleaders tick off his big accomplishments, as well: health care reform; the 2009 fiscal stimulus that helped save the economy; more than 14 million jobs created in a record stretch of 70 months of growth; progressive tax reforms; progress on climate change; the nuclear deal with Iran; the move to normalize relations with Cuba, and more.

Skeptics note that his era may be called the “Long Depression” rather than the “Great Recession.” They say the Obama administration brought us worsening inequality; stagnant incomes; bigger banks; greater big-money corruption of U.S. politics and governance; decaying public infrastructure; accelerating catastrophic climate change; and the United States mired in endless wars, facing off against Russia and China and draining its coffers trying to police the world.

The presidents widely celebrated as transformational — William McKinley, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Reagan — all got big things done. But no president — even Roosevelt with his four terms — can be expected to realize a complete reform agenda. Real reforms are necessary but not sufficient to be a transformational president: He has to change the course of the nation.

That requires not only new policies but also framing and winning the ideological argument. It requires not only winning the presidency, but also helping to forge an enduring majority coalition that can sustain the era.

Obama is the first Democratic president to be elected and re-elected with a majority of the popular vote since Roosevelt. He both personifies and has helped to forge a new and growing majority coalition for progressive reform. Pollster Stan Greenberg has dubbed this coalition of millennials, people of color and single women the “rising American electorate.” Political analyst Bill Schneider calls it the “new America.”  

In Greenberg’s book, “America Ascendant: A Revolutionary Nation’s Path to Addressing Its Deepest Problems and Leading the 21st Century,” he estimates that the rising American electorate will constitute 54 percent of the electorate in 2016 (63 percent if you include “seculars,” those with no religious practice.) And the two-thirds of those that show up at the polls will likely vote for the Democratic presidential nominee.

Yet the scope, durability and thrust of this coalition are still uncertain. Under Obama, the Democrats have lost control of the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives. Republicans have gained 913 state-legislative seats since 2010, control 30 state-legislative chambers and rule virtually unchallenged in states across the South, Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.

The turnout of the new America coalition plummeted in the midterm elections. It remains to be seen whether the next Democratic presidential nominee can bring them to the polls as successfully as Obama did. No progressive reform era can flourish if the White House is an isolated island amid a sea of reaction.

A transformational president has to infuse his majority coalition with a clear direction. By framing the ideological argument, he or she must help Americans understand how they got in the fix they are in and what must be done to get them out of it. The measure of ideological victory isn’t simply that Democratic officeholders, activists and voters understand and enlist, but also that the opposing party finds it must adjust to the new arguments to survive.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower could succeed Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman — but only by embracing Social Security and the New Deal economic reforms. Clinton succeeded Reagan and George H.W. Bush — but felt it necessary to declare the era of big government over. Clinton joined Congress in deregulating finance and corporations and repealing welfare as it was practiced. He ushered in aera of mass incarceration by launching a tough “war on crime.” 

Obama’s record in the ideological debate is mixed. On his watch, the “wedge issues” that once strongly favored Republicans — gay marriage, crime, guns and even abortion — began to favor Democrats. When the White House glowed rainbow to celebrate the U.S. Supreme Court’s acceptance of gay marriage, it symbolized a Democratic Party confident that its social liberalism is on the march.

Still, gay activists, Black Lives Matter and Latino organizers would argue that Obama has been a laggard, rather than a leader, on their concerns. But there is no question that his victory symbolized and accelerated the changes, and he has responded when movements opened up the political space.

On economic policy, both Obama celebrators and detractors argue that he has extended the power of the state more than any president since Lyndon B. Johnson and his Great Society. Obama’s list is indeed impressive: an unprecedented economic stimulus; rescue of the auto industry; use of executive authority to address climate change; banking re-regulation, and 17 million more Americans with health care insurance because of the Affordable Care Act. He raised tax rates on the wealthy by largely letting the top-end George W. Bush tax cuts expire.

But at the beginning of his administration, in the middle of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, Obama was essentially AWOL in the ideological debate. He consciously chose not to “litigate the past.” He did not grasp the moment to educate the public on how the United States got into such a mess; he didn’t explain the economic fundamentals and the need for a bold reform agenda.

Obama’s signature appeal, he believed, was being above partisan divides. Promising to “change the culture of Washington,” he insisted that he could bring the country together to find common ground. His economic stimulus, however, was weakened dramatically when he accepted Republican tax cuts in a vain effort to win bipartisan support.

He undercut his argument for more public investment to get the U.S. economy out of the crisis by arguing, only a few months after his stimulus bill passed, that government must “tighten its belt.” He assembled the risible Simpson-Bowles commission to focus national attention on deficit reduction.

Later, Obama nearly signed a wrong-headed “grand bargain” with Republicans that would have cut Social Security and Medicare in the cause of deficit reduction. He was saved, however, by Republican aversion to any form of tax hike. Conservatives’ austerity policies continued to erode public investment in areas vital to America’s future. And public opinion grew ever more skeptical of government’s competence.

Obama’s Wall Street and fiscal reforms were similarly compromised. Dodd-Frank left banking more concentrated than ever, and no major banker went to jail for what the FBI called the “epidemic of fraud” that contributed to the housing bust. He continued ruinous corporate-defined free-trade policies.

His healthcare reform, declared radical by the GOP, was modeled on a Heritage Foundation proposal adopted by Mitt Romney when he was Massachusetts governor. Obama refused to take on the drug companies over their exorbitant pricing, and he would not support a public healthcare option that might have put real checks on insurance-company abuses.

Though Obama spoke out against the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which opened the floodgates to corporate money in U.S. elections, he spent little political capital trying to curb money in politics. In fact, his decision to forego public financing in his 2008 presidential campaign essentially marked the end of that reform effort. 

Obama’s first-term floundering fueled a revolt on his political left. Occupy Wall Street spread across the nation with its indictment of the 1 percent, which put inequality at the center of the U.S. public debate. The Elizabeth Warren-Bernie Sanders progressive/liberal wing of the Democratic Party exposed how the rich “rigged the rules,” spotlighted the Obama administration’s revolving door to Wall Street and demanded tougher reform. The Congressional Progressive Caucus laid out a budget that combined bold — and long overdue — public investments with progressive tax reforms.

In the run-up to his 2012 re-election campaign, Obama embraced some of these themes, particularly income inequality. Now, as any hope of bipartisan cooperation has faded, he has been bolder at using his executive authority and more willing to use his “bully pulpit” in the cause of reform. But the task of interpreting the moment, explaining it and winning the public debate remains unfinished.

His failure of vision is even more apparent in foreign policy. Obama won the 2008 Democratic nomination due, to a significant degree, to public dismay about the war in Iraq, which Hillary Clinton, his opponent, had voted for. He clearly hoped to extricate the United States from the wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan and bring the inflated war on terror into perspective.

Yet he again chose not to litigate the past. He failed to offer a different vision and global strategy. His troop surge in Afghanistan turned out to be a trap. He reluctantly intervened in Libya and Syria. Though he withdrew troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, he expanded the use of drones. He allowed neo-conservatives to drag him into raising tensions with Russia, even while beginning to confront the Chinese in the South China Sea.

U.S. Special Forces were active in more than 100 countries in 2015. If anything, Obama has expanded, rather than limited, the national-security claims of executive prerogative and extended surveillance and secrecy. The nuclear agreement with Iran and the easing of relations with Cuba hint at a different course. But one swallow does not make the spring.

No one president, even after two terms, can consolidate a new era. Obama’s successor will significantly affect history’s judgment of his presidency. If a Republican is elected president with a Republican-controlled Congress, Obama may well be seen as having lost the argument for reform. If a Democrat is elected, it will be left to him or her to interpret the moment for Americans, and to engage them in a bold reform agenda.

That Clinton has found it necessary to compete with Sanders by putting forth more activist and populist positions consolidates the thrust of the party. If a Democrat is elected president and successfully drives more reform, Obama will properly be judged as setting the stage for it. But if he or she is unsuccessful because of an obstructionist Congress, timid vision, economic woes or foreign calamities, Obama’s successor could end up discrediting progressive reform before it had the opportunity to fully take hold.

Zhou Enlai was once asked what he thought about the French Revolution. He reportedly replied, “Too soon to tell.”

Will Obama be considered a transformational president? Far too soon to tell.

(Robert L. Borosage is the founder and president of the Institute for America’s Future and co-director of its sister organization, the Campaign for America’s Future. This piece was originally posted at …first appeared in Our Future.) Photo: Official White House by Pete Souza (President Obama is seen from the Rose Garden walking through the Oval Office.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.



Editor’s Pick: Republican Elites Surrender to Trump

Late Thursday night, National Review, the storied conservative magazine founded by William F. Buckley, published an issue denouncing Donald Tr ump.

“Trump is a philosophically unmoored political opportunist who would trash the broad conservative ideological consensus within the GOP in favor of a free-floating populism with strong-man overtones,” the editors wrote. “Donald Trump is a menace to American conservatism who would take the work of generations and trample it underfoot in behalf of a populism as heedless and crude as the Donald himself.”

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

The Republican National Committee reacted swiftly — immediately revoking the permission it had given National Review to host a Republican presidential debate next month. “Tonight, a top official with the RNC called me to say that National Review was being disinvited,” the magazine’s publisher wrote online. “The reason: Our ‘Against Trump’ editorial.”

That soft flapping sound you hear is the Grand Old Party waving the flag of surrender to Trump. Party elites — what’s left of the now-derided “establishment” — are acquiescing to the once inconceivable: that a xenophobic and bigoted showman is now the face of the Republican Party and of American conservatism. (Read the rest.





California Wants Right to Oppose Citizens United Act … Court Decision Opens That Door

WHO CALLS THE SHOTS-The California State Legislature has filed a petition for rehearing in Howard Jarvis Taxpayers v. Padilla, asking the Court to restore Proposition 49, the Overturn Citizens United Act, to the ballot. 

Back in July 2014, the state legislature had enacted Senate Bill 1272, which would place an advisory question on the November ballot to solicit views of California voters on whether to amend the U.S. Constitution to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC 

Shortly after, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association (HJTA) began a fight to remove the proposition from the 2014 ballot, arguing that the legislature had exceeded its authority. In August of that year, the California Supreme Court ordered the Secretary of State to remove the measure from the ballot, pending full briefing and argument. Justice Goodwin Liu wrote a concurring opinion that advisory measures like Proposition 49 are incompatible with the system of representative democracy. 

On January 4 of this year, the CA Supreme Court ruled 6 to 1 in HJTA v. Padilla that the proposition is valid under the California Constitution, reversing the California Supreme Court’s August 2014 decision with the suggestion that the legislature pass a new bill. 

According to a September 2015 Bloomberg poll, approximately 80 percent of Americans polled expressed disagreement with the Citizens United ruling. The disapproval was bipartisan with a slightly higher percentage of Democrats than Republicans. Why, then, would the HFTA take steps to remove the proposition from the ballot? 

Opposition seems to rest in the advisory nature of the proposition. Advisory propositions are rare. In fact, only three advisory propositions have ever appeared on California ballots. What Prop 49 aimed to do was to allow California voters to instruct Congress and the Legislature to pass and ratify a constitutional amendment to limit campaign spending and establish that only human beings (and not corporations) enjoy constitutional rights. 

Should the proposition pass, neither the Congress nor the CA Legislature would be legally bound to follow the lead of California voters, a point that did not rest well with the conservative-leaning HJTA. 

Proponents of the proposition, however, are pleased with the latest decision. “The Court didn’t finish the job with its ruling on HJTA v. Padilla,” comments Michele Sutter, Money Out Voters In (MOVI) co-founder, the lead supporter of the Overturn Citizens United Act. “This rehearing will allow them the opportunity to do justice for the 18 million California voters the Court has now disenfranchised twice. Californians have earned the right to vote to overturn Citizens United. If the Court hadn’t intervened to remove the legislature’s perfectly legal ballot measure, something the Court has never done before, we’d have voted on Prop 49 in 2014.” 

To date, sixteen states and more than 650 cities and towns across the country have called on their representatives to support such an amendment. In 2012, voters in Montana and Colorado passed similar ballot initiatives by 75 percent. Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.,) who suspended his campaign in December, have called for an amendment to overturn the Citizens United decision. 

 “As presidential candidates race to raise money for their campaign coffers, the need to limit the influence of extremely wealthy and corporate donors in our elections is clearer than ever,” says Emily Rusch, Executive Director of CALPIRG. “At the urging of their constituents, the legislature put Prop 49 on the ballot back in 2014, and we are counting on the legislature to do whatever it takes to hold a vote on the 2016 ballot.” 

While Prop 49 (or a similar proposition) is not a legal mandate, the expressed support of voters at the ballot is a strong signal that American citizens are disgruntled with politics as usual and support meaningful campaign finance reform. 

“Justice is delayed but it will not be denied. The Legislature can count on an upswell of We the People who will demand that a voter instruction be placed on the 2016 ballot that tells Congress to pass a Constitutional Amendment to overturn Citizens United,” says Kathay Feng, Common Cause CA. 

Background on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission 

In a 2010 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court passed the Citizens United decision 5-4, which ruled that unlimited campaign contributions by corporations were protected under the First Amendment Freedom of Speech clause, thereby rejecting campaign spending limits. Citizens United, a nonprofit corporation, had produced a film about a candidate seeking a party’s nomination in the next Presidential election. Corporations and unions were prohibited by law from funding speech expressly advocating “electioneering communication,” public, cable, or satellite broadcasts made within thirty days of the primary election that clearly identified a candidate for federal office. Citizens United brought the case before the Court to ask for a declaratory judgement so the group would not be subject to civil or criminal penalties for broadcasting their film.


(Beth Cone Kramer is a Los Angeles-based writer and CityWatch contributor.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.




Vol 14 Issue 7

Pub: Jan 22, 2016

California Taking On ExxonMobil … for Climate Cover-Up

EXXON NOT NEW TO SERIOUS SCANDAL--California's attorney general has joined New York state in investigating Exxon Mobil's decades-long climate change cover-up, probing what it knew about global warming, as well as what—and when—the oil giant disclosed to its shareholders and the public, according to the LA Times on Wednesday.  

According to "a person close to the investigation," the office of Attorney General Kamala Harris is looking into "whether Exxon Mobil Corp. repeatedly lied to the public and its shareholders about the risk to its business from climate change—and whether such actions could amount to securities fraud and violations of environmental laws," the Times writes. 

Reporting in the fall of 2015 revealed that Exxon scientists and management knew since the late 1970s that the company's product was helping drive catastrophic global warming, and responded by spending millions to disseminate disinformation and fund climate denial campaigns. Environmentalist and 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben has described it as "the most consequential lie in human history."

Climate justice groups, along with several current and former U.S. lawmakers and presidential candidates, have called for a Department of Justice investigation into "what Exxon knew."

And in November, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman catapulted 'Exxon Knew' into "the category of truly serious scandals," as McKibben put it, by issuing the corporation an 18-page subpoena seeking four decades of documents, research findings, and communications related to climate change.

"New York has taken the first step, now other Attorneys General should follow suit to protect the rights of the American people against big polluters from lying to them about climate change and its impacts on our communities," Greenpeace USA executive director Annie Leonard said at the time.

It seems Harris has heeded that call. While the Times reports that it "is unclear what approach Harris intends to take in California's investigation," it adds that her office is "casting a wide net and looking at a variety of issues, according to the person familiar with the matter."

Union of Concerned Scientists president Ken Kimmel, meanwhile, praised the development as "the latest in a growing movement to uncover the truth, supported by members of Congress, presidential candidates, a former Department of Justice attorney, and more than 60 leaders of major environmental, social justice and Indigenous people’s organizations."

The news comes on the heels of a unanimous vote last week by the Los Angeles County Democratic Party—California’s largest Democratic organization—to pass a resolution urging Harris "to investigate Exxon Mobil and fellow fossil fuel companies for potential breaches of California law based on their 1970s-era research into the science of climate change, then pouring millions into manufacturing doubt and denial of climate science."

U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), who has led the charge for Exxon probes, told the Times he hopes the decision by Harris, representing a state with the eighth-largest economy in the world, will prompt other states and the Justice Department to investigate.

"I think this action will be taken very seriously by Exxon Mobil," Lieu said.

McKibben echoed Lieu's hope in a statement on Wednesday. "California’s action means that the world's eighth largest economy is now probing the world's richest fossil fuel company for lying about the greatest problem the planet ever faced," he said. "I'd say this means this scandal isn't going away."

"With the climate changing at the pace it is," he added, "we can't afford for the Department of Justice and Loretta Lynch to dawdle."

Meanwhile, earlier this week, a group of ExxonMobil shareholders urged the corporation to detail the resilience of its business model to climate change.

"The unprecedented Paris agreement to rein in global warming may significantly affect Exxon’s operations," New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli, who is Trustee of the New York State Common Retirement Fund, said in a statement.

"As shareholders, we want to know that Exxon is doing what is needed to prepare for a future with lower carbon emissions," DeNapoli continued. "The future success of the company, and its investors, requires Exxon to assess how it will perform as the world changes."

(Deirdre Fulton writes for Common Dreams … where this report was first posted.)






Vol 14 Issue 7

Pub: Jan 22, 2016

Ontario Airport Returns to Local Control – It’s About Time!

A TRANSPORTATION WIN-WIN-Control of Ontario Airport is set to return to local hands this summer – finally! This is significant and it is good. It’s good for the regional economy of the Inland Empire. It’s good for the City of Los Angeles, operationally and fiscally. 

Offloading ONT allows LAWA to focus on LAX singularly (well, also Van Nuys). With solid assurances in place protecting the 215 existing workers at the Ontario Airport, the transfer is good for airport workers specifically, and generally, for all workers. Ironically, both historically and politically, the deal fulfills the 2006 Hahn “Regionalization” accord assuring the people of Westchester that LA would spread all that airport pain around. 

The people of Ontario and the communities of the entire Inland Region that runs from East Los Angeles County into San Bernardino and Riverside Counties, have long supported and encouraged the development and expansion of the Ontario Airport -- pretty much ever since its earliest days as Latimer Field in 1923. 

At CA Fwd’s recent conference in Ontario, “A Roadmap to Shared Prosperity,” speakers including Assemblymember Cheryl Brown (AD 47, San Bernardino) celebrated the positive impact that local control of the Ontario Airport will have on the local economy. “Think about all the jobs,” said Brown. 

Support for Ontario’s fight for local control is deep and long-standing. “More than 130 governments, elected officials, business and civic organizations, and newspaper editorial boards in four counties have endorsed local control for ONT,” the City of Ontario wrote, announcing the filing of its 2013 lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles. Citing a 42% decline in air traffic between 2007 and 2013 as evidence of LAWA’s mismanagement and inattention to the medium-hub facility, the filing asserted that the City of Los Angeles cannot control ONT “for all of eternity.” 

In the end, responsible, persistent and passionate local government officials -- champions like Ontario Mayor pro Tem and President of the OIAA, Alan D. Wapner -- acknowledged the ability of the Riverside/San Bernardino labor community to find common ground with sane local business organizations. With actual support from the people of the Inland Empire and not just the flying public, they all came together and won, resolving years and years of acrimony and conflict, much to the benefit of all. 

“It’s the return of a regional asset to regional control,” noted Cindy Roth, Chief Executive Officer of the Greater Riverside Chambers of Commerce. “The real issue is the economic impact this has had on the … region... It’s something we all support." 

The terms of the deal are good for the City of Los Angeles and for the new Ontario International Airport Authority (OIAA), created by a joint-powers agreement between the City of Ontario and San Bernardino County to run the airport. 

“In August, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti coyly gave two figures with regard to the actual amount of money Ontario would fork over to finalize the transfer, saying that Ontario newspapers could call it a $150 million deal and that Los Angeles newspapers could refer to it as a $260 million transaction,” reported the San Bernardino Sentinel. 

Specifically, Ontario pays $30 million from reserves, assumes $60 million in debt, and makes payments of $50 million over five years plus $70 million in the final five years.

LAWA transfers $40 million from Ontario’s unrestricted cash accounts and – voila! – 1967 and 1985 agreements that gave Los Angeles control over the Ontario Airport are finis! 

Note that in 2011 the City of Los Angeles turned down a confidential offer to purchase the airport for $50 million with an assumption of $71 million in bond debt and another $125 million for passenger facilities charges -- at a time when the City could have really used the money. 

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti now calls the agreement “a step forward for Ontario, the entire Inland Empire, for Los Angeles, and for the region of Southern California as Los Angeles has reached a tentative agreement to transfer Ontario Airport back to the people of this city.” 

“When we come together we can do big things, and this is at least as big as what we did up in Owens Valley,” said Mayor Garcetti. 

Councilmember Joe Buscaino (CD 15), who represents the City of Los Angeles at SCAG  (Southern California Association of Governments) and the League of California Cities, said, “Returning Ontario International back to the Inland Empire will allow the newly formed Ontario International Airport Authority to develop strategies that expand service in one of the fastest growing regions of the state.” 

“It will also “allow Los Angeles World Airports to be laser-focused on modernizing LAX and creating a better passenger experience for its 70 million annual passengers,” Buscaino added. 

In 2007, ONT flew 7.2 million passengers; in 2014 that number was 4.1 million. Just imagine what that statistic means for the life and family of an airport custodian earning $37,000 -- a good job, all things considered – who was faced with a transfer to LAX, living in Rancho Cucamonga. Those were the dark years of city service. 

But the Inland Empire is an expansive, hopeful place, a region that welcomes growth, goods, and all that comes with it. Brett Snyder, aviation expert and former airline executive, urges Inland Empire travelers to use ONT: 

“Airlines don’t care what people say, they care what people do,” he said. “Fly from your airport, it’s the best thing to do as it gains independence.” (Brett Snyder runs the website The Cranky Flier.   

Kelly J. Fredericks, P.E., A.A.E., named on January 20, 2016 as the Ontario International Airport Authority’s first CEO, arriving with 33 years of aviation experience, looks forward with the ebullience of the region: 

"I am impressed by everything happening in the Inland Empire. The transformation of Ontario International Airport is the most intriguing and exciting development project I can imagine. I have never seen such commitment and support demonstrated by a community towards a key transportation hub, and such a spirit of collaboration to optimize its economic benefit."


(Julie Butcher is a retired union leader, enjoying Riverside and her first grandchild.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.





Vol 14 Issue 7

Pub: Jan 22, 2016

Petition Tennis, Anyone?

FRIDAY MORNING MEMO--As you know from last week’s post, a handful of disaffected residents of NELA set up a semi-secret online petition asking Jos&ecaute; Huizar to rip out the bike lanes on York Boulevard, listing a number of alleged effects they have had on the community—none of which they actually brought about. In case you missed that post, you can read it here. It includes rebuttals of the points the petitioners listed as bike-lane-generated malevolence.   

What’s particularly interesting, and what exposes the profound ignorance in which our opponents operate, is that they asked for the bike lanes to be removed, but not the road diet. So removing the bike lanes would not add any traffic lanes back onto York.

Of course, adding traffic lanes would only cause more traffic, as the experience of the last eighty years has shown. Even CalTrans—CalTrans!—now acknowledges that sad if counterintuitive fact.   And the billions wasted on the Sepulveda Pass widening, which only made traffic worse, simply undergird the futility of equating more lanes with faster traffic. 

So, an enterprising and enlightened member of the community put up a counter-petition asking Huizar to keep the bike lanes. As of this writing, it has been graced by 709 signatures, well over twice as many as the leadfoot lunatics’ sneering demand.

If you haven’t yet signed on to support the bike lanes on York (which have reduced collisions while enrichening local businesses), you still have a chance to do so here. Please note in the comments section whether you live, work, or spend money in Highland Park, and, if you will, what particular benefit you gain from the bike lanes on York.  

And be civil: leave the snarling to the Neanderthals. They may be scary, but their time has passed.

(Richard Risemberg is a writer. His current professional activities are centered on sustainable development and lifestyle. This column was posted first at Flying Pigeon.)  Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams. 






Vol 14 Issue 7

Pub: Jan 22, 2016



Stains on Brown’s Legacy - San Onofre, San Bruno and Now … Aliso Canyon in Porter Ranch

TOO LITTLE TOO LATE-Gray Davis never saw it coming. He didn’t realize until it was too late that the public would blame him for his ineffective action against deregulated electricity pirates like Enron that hijacked the state. That’s why Davis never took the advice of consumer advocates to use his power of eminent domain and seize sabotaged power plants during the phony electricity crisis to turn the power back on.   

Does Jerry Brown see that the stink from the growing natural gas leak in Aliso Canyon and other utility scandals could also be the cloud that tarnishes his legacy after four terms of having voters’ favor?  

It’s a volatile situation for Brown when you look at the evidence of his Administration’s environmental failure in the three of the state’s most populous regions: LA’s Leak, San Diego’s ratepayer scandal over the closing of the San Onofre Nuclear power plant, and the 2010 San Bruno gas explosion. 

Exhibit A: Porter Ranch and Aliso Canyon 

The Leak roiling the LA area is now California's single largest source of planet-warming pollution and it was no isolated accident. 

It was the result of too little regulatory oversight of Southern California Gas and other oil and gas excavators. That falls squarely on Brown, whose administration is responsible for well safety. 

Brown’s antipathy to regulation of all kinds, including health and safety, is well known. The public first started paying attention in February of 2015 when it learned that Brown’s oil and gas regulator turned a blind eye to frackers’ injecting toxic wastewater into federally protected drinking water aquifers in Kern Country.   

The contamination, like The Leak, was a direct result of a Brown Administration culture of penalizing regulators who crack down on health safety in the oil and gas industry. 

In 2011, Brown fired two top regulators who raised grave concerns about the oil and gas industry's underground injection activities, and the state has known for years that aging natural gas infrastructure was a disaster waiting to happen. But the governor's administration failed even to require safety plans and other measures that would have helped prevent this disaster. 

As the Associated Press reported: “California's top oil and gas regulators repeatedly warned Gov. Jerry Brown's senior aides in 2011 that the governor's orders to override key safeguards in granting oil industry permits would violate state and federal laws protecting the state's groundwater from contamination, one of the former officials has testified. 

“Brown fired the regulators on Nov. 3, 2011, one day after what the fired official says was a final order from the governor to bypass safety provisions of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act in granting permits to oil companies for oilfield injection wells. Brown later boasted publicly that the dismissals led to a speed-up of oilfield permitting.” 

In 2012, Brown bragged to a Sacramento crowd: 

“The oil rigs are moving in Kern County. We want to use our resources … our sun and all the other sources of power. It’s not going to be easy. There’s going to be screw-ups. There’s going to be bankruptcies. There’ll be indictments, and there’ll be deaths. But we’re going to keep going.” 

Brown has repeatedly shown this arrogant antipathy toward regulation, what he would call “red tape.” But the right red tape can avoid the yellow hazard tape in places like Porter Ranch, where the resulting failure to inspect and upgrade pipes is a continuation of the same lax Brown Administration policies at the same agency -- the Department of Conservation's Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR). 

The regulators fired in 2011, Derek Chernow, Acting Director at the Department of Conservation, and DOGGR supervisor Elena Miller, simply dared to repeatedly warn Brown that oil drilling would harm the state’s groundwater, echoing a warning already issued by the EPA. The East Bay Express has the sordid details 

More recently, Brown fired DOGGR supervisor Steve Bohlen on Dec. 8, 2015 when Brown was in Paris for global warming talks. The dismissal was probably not about “Mapgate,” the recent scandal where Brown had DOGGR map his family ranch for oil and gas, as most presumed, but more about Porter Ranch. At least that’s what was told to Capitol Watchdog.  Brown was apparently embarrassed that Southern California Gas’s shoddy maintenance at the facility is to blame for the leak, and the fact that the amount of the potent greenhouse gas, methane, leaking into the atmosphere was equivalent to one quarter of the state’s methane emissions from all sources.  

Despite So Cal Gas's recent prediction the leak would likely be closed by the end of February, the largest methane leak in California history has the potential to go on a lot longer, if the well-head blows out, and containment becomes infeasible, which is possible according to a recent LA Times report.  Such a development would clarify that The Leak is the most visible result of shoddy maintenance and lack of state oil industry oversight that has plagued Brown’s administration. 

Lots of questions need to be raised about DOGGR oversight of the collapsed pipe. If it was out of use for a prolonged period, should the leaking well have been stuffed with cement and capped off?  If it was still active, why wasn’t it maintained? (The latest theory is that the well was structurally flawed and over-utilized for unorthodox gas injections that pushed its safety limits right before The Leak.) In either case, the questions will be raised, if not by regulators who now have nowhere to hide, and then by trial lawyers circling Aliso Canyon to make it into the next Erin Brockovich movie. 

While DOGGR is responsible for well safety, the PUC is responsible for oversight of the utility in charge, Southern California Gas. Brown’s stamp on this PUC has been so indelible that some allege he runs it out of the Governor’s office. 

The PUC and Brown will soon face new questions about an expansion of natural gas storage capacity in Aliso Canyon that the PUC and Brown Administration have shepherded. The plan approved last summer, which includes a supersized compressor set to begin operation in the second half of 2016, was supposed to increase natural gas storage in Aliso by 50 percent by increasing the amount of pressure used to inject it.  It would feed new Southern California Edison natural gas fired generating plants authorized by the PUC. 

The PUC, under the guidance of Brown’s hand-picked chief, Michael Picker, has approved this conscious strategy of rushing to increase the amount of natural gas stored in Aliso Canyon.  

The idea is to replace the loss of electricity from San Onofre after its closure with generating capacity in the LA basin through a combination of natural gas-fired electricity generation, battery storage, energy efficiency, and renewables to meet demand through 2021. Ironically, this will increase, not decrease, greenhouse gas emissions. (You can read here a recently completed PUC proceeding granting approval for natural gas expansion in Aliso for Southern California Gas to add storage and for Southern California Edison to add generating capacity.) 

The problem with the project is that by increasing pressure in the natural gas reservoir that feeds many unclosed, unmaintained pipes, the higher pressure could break down more wells. Adding pressure to the reserve is unsafe unless every pipe is retrofitted first. Otherwise the pressure in the reserve could pop another pipe. 

Now that The Leak has put the dangers of the compressed natural gas reserve on the map, residents will probably chain themselves to the gates of the new project rather than let it go forward. The PUC, knowing its historical indifference to communities opposing its plans, is likely to go forward even if it means calling out the state’s National Guard to maintain order. The standoff could have all the makings of a Brown Legacy buster.    

The natural gas expansion will turn the spotlight onto the Governor. That could reveal an unflattering history of his fealty to the state’s public utilities, including Southern Gas and its parent SEMPRA, where Brown’s sister Kathleen sits on the board and is chair of the board’s health and safety committee. Some say Kathleen was given the job because of her brother’s loyalty to the utility.   

Did brother and sister ever communicate about The Leak? Given all the litigation, the question is bound to be asked and answered in discovery and a deposition where the Governor’s usual executive privilege probably won’t protect him. 

The cronyism in energy policy under Brown that contributed to The Leak is part of a bigger problem with a statewide shadow falling across Brown’s reputation.


(Jamie Court is an award-winning and nationally recognized consumer advocate. He is president of Consumer Watchdog, which has offices in Washington, DC and Los Angeles.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.




Vol 14 Issue 7

Pub: Jan 22, 2016 
















A Case for Inclusivity: Race-based Conversations in Higher Education

GUEST WORDS-Sitting in my psychology class at the University of California Berkeley, I felt my hands clam up and my body tense as my professor initiated a conversation about the White Student Unions that have recently popped up on Facebook over the past few months. 

Many of these WSUs are in fact fictitious groups designed to troll human rights campaigns, most notably, Black Lives Matter. Still, my professor felt that a conversation about what a White Student Union could mean in the context of race and academia would be helpful for our class.

As one of the few African-American students in the room, I felt a weight that many People of Color can relate to. It is a heaviness comprised of both dread and a deep understanding that within these types of discussion, students of color have to explain and validate our lived experiences to classmates with whom we feel a deep cultural dissonance.

It is important to note that the class in which I sat was quite literally about how racism is scientifically proven to have profound negative psychological and physiological effects on marginalized groups. And yet, with this knowledge readily accessible to them, White students in my class ceaselessly supplied reason after reason for why they felt unsafe on the UC Berkeley campus.

This lack of safety, in turn, was the reason White students in my class said they needed a space wherein they could organize. Inexplicably, my professor, a pioneer of race-based psychological research, propelled a discussion that sympathized with the needs of White students, while foregoing his responsibility to acknowledge that he had created an unsafe space for students of color.

If we look at the historical context of why African-Americans need to organize, of why Black students need a safe space, the evidence is endless.

Having heard enough, I stood up to address the 300-student lecture, "Whiteness organizes for the benefits of Whiteness," I said. I then named the FHA, the KKK, even amusement park franchises such as Disneyland and Knotts Berry Farm as examples of systems that were/are predicated upon maintaining and protecting the normalization of White-centered organizing and representation.

"If we look at the historical context of why African-Americans need to organize, of why Black students need a safe space, the evidence is endless. From redlining, to police brutality, to the Tuskegee airman, injustice against Black bodies is endless. Within a classroom of higher education you all fail to see the truth that has been set before you in countless lectures by our professor, and for that, I am deeply saddened."

I then walked out of my lecture, with 300 sets of eyes on me to the sound of my heartbeat pounding through my chest, and just slightly excited because the Scandal season finale was coming on that day.

As a student who tirelessly and rightfully earned her way into UC Berkeley, I refuse to allow classrooms to feel unsafe for me or any other students of color. What I truly love about this moment in my life was my professor's response. He contacted me after class, and he and I were able to go get coffee after the lecture. I appreciate how he was completely open to a discussion as to why the trajectory of that conversation was inappropriate, inadvertently oppressive, and incredibly unsafe for all people of color in the room.

I am humbled that I was able to discuss what I felt was a moment of injustice and to divulge those feelings in a healthy and productive manner. Many students of color who experience micro-aggressions in the classroom generally do not have such opportunities. I was also contacted by myriad of other students after the lecture who found my statement affirming and encouraging.

That moment in time has lead me into many fulfilling projects such as creating and facilitating race-based social justice programming for undergraduates. I created this programming in order to help students and professors alike effectively enter into conversations about social justice that are both affirming to people of color and open to teaching dominant group members how to develop in their knowledge of racial marginalization.

I am blessed that this negative moment in my life was able to become a place of empowerment for me. I am honored that I was able to voice my discontent and challenge the injustice in the room.

I write this to all students of color who may feel disheartened in their classrooms. You are not alone. I stand with you on this journey to claim your humanity and the validity of your experiences in places of learning that may devalue your worth.

(Ciarra Jones is a senior at UC Berkeley, a McNair Scholar, and an Honors Thesis Candidate. This piece originally appeared in the Huffington Post.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.




Vol 14 Issue 7

Pub: Jan 22, 2016







Yosemite: Corporate Tiff Threatens Family Memories … Yellowstone could be Renamed Aramark

GELFAND’S WORLD--A tiff between competing corporations threatens the multigenerational cherished memories of families. At least for my family it does. We remember going to Camp Curry and having breakfast at the Ahwahnee Hotel. We remember spending New Year's Eve at the Wawona Lodge as 1999 turned into 2000. We remember seeing a bear cub looking through our window. The traditional names are in danger now that the Delaware North Corporation will be replaced by Aramark as the concessionaire. There is a remarkably ironic twist to this story, but it doesn't make it any nicer. 

Yosemite had its origins as a protected area starting in the administration of Abraham Lincoln. It officially became a national park in 1890. Those of you who went to the campfire talks at Camp Curry (later renamed Curry Village) probably heard this story. Those of us of a certain age remember the fire fall, which consisted of hot embers being pushed over the edge of Glacier Point, half a mile above our heads, creating the red hot image of a waterfall. The Park Service eventually abandoned this ritual as being incompatible with the idea of nature preservation, but lots of people retain the memory. 

For most of its history, Yosemite National Park had its food and lodging services run by a company that originated in 1899. It was called the Yosemite Park & Curry Co. The idea of an organization that wrangled horses while running campgrounds and a cafeteria, and had done so for the better part of a century, was impressive. 

And then we watched that other ritual of the 1980s and '90s. The homegrown Curry company sold its assets to MCA. And then the new owner got bought by a Japanese corporation, Matsushita. This provoked a new round of American fretting over the ongoing sale of our assets to foreign buyers. The Secretary of the Interior decided that our landmark national park should be run by an American company. 

Thus the advent of the Delaware North corporation on the National Park scene. They came as the result of an attempt to preserve something. At one level, it was just national pride. On another level, it might be argued, it was the notion of preserving the national honor, character, and integrity. 

Surely this attempt at preservation included the saving of traditional words and names. I mean, you wouldn't expect the towns of Lexington and Concord to be forced to call themselves differently due to a dispute between two corporations. 

But now, the Delaware North Corporation, which won the concessions contract after Curry/MCA/Matsushita was forced out in the early 1990s, is itself being forced out by the newly awarded concessionaire, Aramark corporation. 

And that's the crux of the matter. Delaware North claims that in its sale of all Yosemite assets to Aramark (something required of each successive owner since Matsushita), it has valuable additional holdings, those being the names of some of its properties. Thus for the Ahwahnee, the name itself is being treated as a multimillion dollar asset. Somehow, the term Yosemite National Park seems to have been trademarked with hardly anyone noticing. 

The names of the Wawona, the Yosemite Lodge, and the Badger Pass ski complex are being treated as intellectual property, and Delaware North claims its right to compensation on the order of $50 million, give or take. Apparently it didn't make enough money over the past couple of decades and now requires more. 

The Park Service considered the conflict and has now decided that the issue will be made moot. Each of the hotel locations, Curry Village, and the ski area will now be named something different. 

The best description of the situation comes from Kevin Drum of the Mother Jones website, who has written two pieces. The first article is, as Drum concedes, a bit extreme, but it does manage to point out that the Ahwahnee will now be called the Majestic Yosemite Hotel, and Curry Village will be called Half Dome Village. The Wawona is scheduled to become Big Trees Lodge. 

Drum has a little fun with the travesty: "Coming soon: Yellowstone National Park will be renamed Majestic Geysers Park. Redwood National Park will become Incredible Trees Park. And Everglades National Park will become Big Swampy Park." 

Drum followed up with a second article which walked the first one back a bit. To summarize, the whole conflict is in reality a contract dispute between two corporations. Delaware North thinks it is entitled to more compensation than the Park Service and the new concessionaire are willing to allow. 

Although I appreciate Kevin's careful reporting, I would like to suggest one element of the controversy that is being downplayed. It's the attitude of the Park Service. The United States government should have shown a little more spine, and told the litigants that the names in question are a heritage of the American people and are not to be messed with. 

I'd also like to think that earlier generations of Park Service leadership wouldn't have been such wimps. I can remember talking with the Park Service's Yosemite Superintendant about 25 years ago. I argued that Yosemite is a special place, and his reply was, "It is a special place." It was clear that he, his colleagues, and numerous organizations dedicated to preservation would be working to protect it. And that preservation should include names that are remembered fondly by hundreds of thousands of people. 

There is the additional effect, not inconsequential, that these proposed name changes would make us look stupid and craven in foreign nations. Shall the Eiffel Tower be renamed, and under what circumstances? The question is ludicrous. 

I would hope that the Park Service was just being a little thoughtless and shortsighted, will rethink its position, and will push for a quick resolution. And then win. 

In discussing this story with some friends, it was pointed out to me that thousands of couples have chosen to be married in Yosemite Valley. The federal judges who have presided over the little courthouse at the base of Yosemite Falls have also managed to marry a lot of people on trails and along the Merced River and up on towering crags these many years. Think of what those couples must be thinking now that the name of Yosemite National Park, the location written on their marriage certificates, is claimed to be the trademarked property of an eastern corporation. As one such person said to me, with just a bit of tongue in cheek, "WE'RE NOT MARRIED!" What must it be like for those couples? We have to preserve the sanctity of those marriages. This should be the one thing that conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats can agree on. 


January 17, the date of this writing, is the 22nd anniversary of the Northridge earthquake and the 19th anniversary of the death of a friend by gunfire. Both events are worthy of serious thought.


(Bob Gelfand writes on culture and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected]




Vol 14 Issue 6

Pub: Jan 19, 2016

Ultra-Rich 'Philanthrocapitalist' Class Undermining Global Democracy: Report

WHEN DOING GOOD ISN’T--From Warren Buffett to Bill Gates, it is no secret that the ultra-rich philanthropist class has an over-sized influence in shaping global politics and policies.

And a study (pdf) just out from the Global Policy Forum, an international watchdog group, makes the case that powerful philanthropic foundations—under the control of wealthy individuals—are actively undermining governments and inappropriately setting the agenda for international bodies like the United Nations.

The top 27 largest foundations together possess assets of over $360 billion, notes the study, authored by Jens Martens and Karolin Seitz. Nineteen of those foundations are based in the United States and, across the board, they are expanding their influence over the global south. And in so doing, they are undermining democracy and local sovereignty.

Notably, foundation spending on global development is skyrocketing, jumping from $3 billion per year over a decade ago to $10 billion today. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation leads the way, giving $2.6 billion in 2012, the report notes. In addition, the Gates Foundation is the largest non-state funder of the World Health Organization.

Meanwhile, many of the wealthiest people on the planet are individually jumping into the fray, with 137 billionaires from 14 countries last year pledging large sums to philanthropy. Some among them, like former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, have been criticized for abusing their power and influence in pursuit of questionable policies.

"If these and more ultra rich fulfill their pledges, many billions of dollars will be made available for charitable purposes," the authors argue. "It must be noted, however, that the increase in philanthropic giving is just the other side of the coin of growing inequality between rich and poor."

As political scientist Gary Olson argued Friday in Common Dreams, "Just to be clear, some Big Philanthropists have done some good work. However, as Peter Buffet (Warren Buffet's son) has argued, philanthropy is largely about letting billionaires feel better about themselves, a form of 'conscience laundering' that simultaneously functions to 'keep the existing system of inequality in place...' by shaping the culture.  

What's more, the report warns, "The influence of large foundations in shaping the global development agenda, including health, food, nutrition, and agriculture...raises a number of concerns in terms of how it is affecting governments and the UN development system."

The risks of "philanthrocapitalism" are manifold, the researchers argue, including: "fragmentation and weakening of global governance"; "unstable financing"; and "lack of monitoring and accountability mechanisms."

"What is the impact of framing the problems and defining development solutions by applying the business logic of profit-making institutions to philanthropic activities, for instance by results-based management or the focus on technological quick-win solutions in the sectors of health and agriculture?" the report poses.

A close look at the forces at work within the groups controlling the cash flow reveals numerous causes for concern.

"Through their multiple channels of influence, the Rockefeller and Gates foundations have been very successful in promoting their market-based and bio-medical approaches towards global health challenges in the research and health policy community—and beyond," the authors state.

Moreover, the report continues, "there is a revolving door between the Gates Foundation and pharmaceutical corporations. Many of the Foundation's staff had held positions at pharmaceutical companies such as Merck, GSK, Novartis,  Bayer HealthCare Services and Sanofi Pasteur."

Looking at agriculture and farming, meanwhile, the Gates Foundation is undermining self-determination and local solutions in measurable ways.

"The vast majority of the Gates Foundation's agricultural development grants focus on Africa," the report notes. "However, over 80 percent of the U.S. $669 million to NGOs went to organizations based in the U.S. and Europe, with only 4 percent going to Africa-based NGOs. Similarly, of the U.S. $678 million grants to universities and research centers, 79 percent went to grantees in the U.S. and Europe and only 12 percent to recipients in Africa."

Both the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations have been slammed by international grassroots groups, including the global peasant movement La Via Campesina, for their international role in exporting big agricultural models, privatizing food policies, and expanding the power of companies like Monsanto.

(Sarah Lazare writes for the excellent Common Dreams …where this piece was first posted.)






Vol 14 Issue 6

Pub: Jan 19, 2016












The Oscars Are So White That Spike Lee Refuses To Attend

OSCAR POLITICS--As controversy continues to boil regarding the Oscars' all-white acting nominees, Spike Lee has said he will not attend next month's awards. The outspoken director posted a photo of Martin Luther King Jr. to Instagram on Monday morning, along with a lengthy caption condemning Hollywood executives with the "'green light' vote" who do not bring minority-centered stories to the big screen.

"The truth is we ain't in those rooms and until minorities are, the Oscar nominees will remain lilly [sic] white," Lee wrote, using capital letters to start each word.

#OscarsSoWhite...    Again. I Would Like To Thank President Cheryl Boone Isaacs And The Board Of Governors Of The Academy Of Motion Pictures Arts And Sciences For Awarding Me an Honorary Oscar This Past November. I Am Most Appreciative.

However My Wife, Mrs. Tonya Lewis Lee And I Will Not Be Attending The Oscar Ceremony This Coming February. We Cannot Support It And Mean No Disrespect To My Friends, Host Chris Rock and Producer Reggie Hudlin, President Isaacs And The Academy. But, How Is It Possible For The 2nd Consecutive Year All 20 Contenders Under The Actor Category Are White? And Let's Not Even Get Into The Other Branches. 40 White Actors In 2 Years And No Flava At All. We Can't Act?! WTF!!

It's No Coincidence I'm Writing This As We Celebrate The 30th Anniversary Of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's Birthday. Dr. King Said "There Comes A Time When One Must Take A Position That Is Neither Safe, Nor Politic, Nor Popular But He Must Take It Because Conscience Tells Him It's Right".

For Too Many Years When The Oscars Nominations Are Revealed, My Office Phone Rings Off The Hook With The Media Asking Me My Opinion About The Lack Of African-Americans And This Year Was No Different. For Once, (Maybe) I Would Like The Media To Ask All The White Nominees And Studio Heads How They Feel About Another All White Ballot. If Someone Has Addressed This And I Missed It Then I Stand Mistaken.

As I See It, The Academy Awards Is Not Where The "Real" Battle Is. It's In The Executive Office Of The Hollywood Studios And TV And Cable Networks. This Is Where The Gate Keepers Decide What Gets Made And What Gets Jettisoned To "Turnaround" Or Scrap Heap. This Is What's Important. The Gate Keepers. Those With "The Green Light" Vote.

As The Great Actor Leslie Odom Jr. Sings And Dances In The Game Changing Broadway Musical HAMILTON, "I WANNA BE IN THE ROOM WHERE IT HAPPENS". People, The Truth Is We Ain't In Those Rooms And Until Minorities Are, The Oscar Nominees Will Remain Lilly White. (Cont'd)

This year's ballot is the second consecutive set of Oscar nominees that feature no people of color. Some have argued there were no minorities worthy of nominations, another sign that studios haven't green-lit enough diverse projects. Yet it's hard to argue that not a single person of color deserved a spot when the list looks like this: Idris Elba ("Beasts of No Nation"), Samuel L. Jackson ("The Hateful Eight"), Michael B. Jordan ("Creed"), Tessa Thompson ("Creed"), Mya Taylor ("Tangerine"), Benicio Del Toro ("Sicario"), Oscar Isaac ("Ex Machina") and Will Smith ("Concussion"). Each saw significant Oscar buzz throughout awards season, yet came up short when the nominations were announced last week. Lee's movie, "Chi-Raq," also yielded a worthy performance from Teyonah Parris.

Lee is a two-time Oscar nominee, having earned a Best Original Screenplay recognition for 1989's "Do the Right Thing" and a Best Documentary Feature nod for 1997's "4 Little Girls." He was also awarded an honorary Oscar in November, using the opportunity to again address the industry's diversity gap.  

“It’s easier to be president of the United States as a black person than be head of a studio," Lee said at the annual Governor Awards. "Honest.”

(Matthew Jacobs is film reporter for Huffington Post … where this piece first appeared.)






Vol 14 Issue 6

Pub: Jan 19, 2016

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