Fri, Jul

Stupor Bowl

GELFAND’S WORLD--The Super Bowl sucked. It was 4 hours of mediocrity, two quarterbacks who couldn't get the job done, and offensive lines who wouldn't think of giving offense. Everybody knew that Peyton Manning was at the end of his road. He plays like a guy with multiple long-term injuries, but still knows enough to throw the ball away half the time. The bigger story was the failure of Cam Newton to dominate the game. A team with 15 wins and 1 loss should have some ability to score, even against a good defense. Perhaps there should have been a least valuable player award given to the Carolina offensive line. 

Things have changed. The league and the CBS television network hyped the fact that this was Super Bowl 50. We were shown a few clips of the first such game. At the time (1967), it was actually a football game rather than a multiweek spectacle. Tickets were offered to the public at reasonable rates, that being a time when the NFL was one entertainment medium competing among others. 

But one thing hasn't changed. It's the insatiable NFL greed that causes it to go overboard whether it is the first or the fiftieth. The first interleague championship game now known as the Super Bowl (but called something different at the time) was played at the Coliseum here in Los Angeles. The NFL enforced its television blackout rule, which forbade local television if a game wasn't sold out. In a town that was used to seeing the Rose Bowl and to viewing USC vs. UCLA, this was not only a surprise, it was taken as an insult. 

The result was that lots of Angelenos stayed away. It wasn't quite a formal boycott, but it was a well recognized expression of municipal disgust. There was just a hint of this historical reality allowed to come through on Sunday, when one veteran mentioned the first Super Bowl game being played in a half-empty Coliseum. Records show that the Coliseum was actually one-third empty, at 61,000 attendance. The first Super Bowl game couldn't outdraw USC vs. UCLA. 

This year's game didn't suffer from any lack of greed. On the few occasions in which one team scored (typically a field goal), the network went to commercials. That's commercials in the plural. Then we saw a kickoff. Then the network went to more commercials. It's not all that excessive to point out that scoring in modern American football is one play surrounded by ten commercials. 

There's one more little irritant that the modern television networks have foisted upon us. We used to hear comments and statistics by announcers. Vin Scully has built a whole career on making baseball fascinating by providing interesting stats. We used to get something of the same thing in televised football. But now, every microscopic element has a commercial sponsor. To give you an idea of how excessive this has become, we had statistics presented by Mercedes. We had a half time show presented by Hyundai (I think it was Hyundai -- feel free to set me straight here, because I couldn't keep up with the deluge of corporate names) and Toyota got in there somewhere, maybe for the postgame show. 

And then there were the much-hyped commercials. Last week, CBS went as far as to do a tv special on commercials from previous Super Bowls. There was a countdown to number 1, which was about a man and a horse. Other top-50 commercials included puppies and more horses. 

When it came to Super 2016, the commercials didn't seem to come up to snuff. They were just plentiful, not moving. I would go so far as to say that they weren't even sappy, which is at least some kind of emotion. We had cars, cars, and more cars. 

I watched the pregame show at a local restaurant. Everything seemed to go in slow motion, as we were introduced to 4 dozen previous MVP's, a combined chorus that sang America, and a pop singer (Lady Gaga) who sang the national anthem. By the time we got to home of the brave, a woman at an adjoining table remarked, "I could have had a hysterectomy in less time." 

That remark certainly beat anything said over the next 4 hours by the retired jocks who cover as football announcers. 

I wonder if I'm alone in guessing that professional football has hit its peak. This year's Super Bowl is the best evidence yet. There just isn't anything more to add in terms of pregame hype or biographical sketches of the participants, and adding a lot more commercials would be noticed even by football addicts. 

The CBS television network did everything possible to bring in the viewers, but what actually showed up on our screens was boring. It wasn't even shocking or offensive. The game was just sullenly, dully boring. You might say that it was merely boring. 

Mind you, this boredom wasn't for lack of trying on the part of the network. The television directors used a dizzying series of shots for almost every down. In the old days, there would be a camera which was stationed along the sideline and which showed the play from beginning to end. Television directors also had the use of one or two other camera positions so they could show a replay from a different angle and thereby add a little spice to the mix. But nowadays, from the moment the whistle blows on one play, we are subjected to a rapid series of camera angles and moving shots presented in frantic succession. 

When I see this kind of technical and reportorial overkill, I always suspect that the network executives and directors don't trust the audience to maintain interest in the sport itself. They realize that they need to add a lot of filler and a lot of tricky editing in fear that the modern audience couldn't sit still for a televised showing of the game itself. 

Perhaps the game itself is just too dull to hold the attention of a modern television audience. After all, if the game were fascinating by itself, the extraneous stuff would be an irritation. 

Someone might choose to argue that this is just the condition of the modern generation. But all you have to do is take a look at a couple of counterexamples. NBA Basketball seems to do pretty well without all the extra bells and whistles. Even college basketball manages. At a different level, we have the television show Jeopardy, which has added a few technical gimmicks over its half-century run, but is basically the same show. 

There was one new element that spoke ominously to current football audiences. The announcer explained that one player was staying out because he had failed the concussion examination. The audience members who happen to be parents and future parents might think about this. They might usefully consider that perhaps half of the players they were watching will end up with long-term brain dysfunction. 

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


Action in India: Hugh Win for Net Neutrality No Matter What Mark Zuckerberg Says

EDITOR’S PICK--Today, Indian telecom regulator TRAI reaffirmed the principles of net neutrality by banning discriminatory pricing on the basis of content, including so called “Zero Rating” schemes like Facebook’s controversial Free Basics program. The decision marks a major victory for grassroots activists in India and around the world who have been calling for such a ban, and a setback for companies like T-Mobile and Verizon, who have been pushing similar practices in the U.S., claiming that they do not violate net neutrality.

Fight for the Future, a U.S. based digital rights group that played an instrumental role in last year’s net neutrality victory at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and who have vocally opposed Zero Rating programs/offerings including Facebook’s Free Basics program, issued the following statement, which can be attributed to campaign director, Evan Greer:

“Today’s decision is a major victory for free speech and for Internet users everywhere, no matter what Mark Zuckerberg’s well-paid public relations team might tell you. It’s worth noting that if T-Mobile were operating in India, these new rules would ban their BingeOn throttling scam.

The basic principles of net neutrality are what have made the Web into what it is today. Zero rating schemes and discriminatory pricing are just another tool to favor some applications over others. They allow ISPs to pick winners and losers, and create the same harms as fast lanes and slow lanes. They give Internet Service Providers too much power to shape Internet users’ online experience, and open the floodgates for potential censorship and abuse.

The same arguments of course apply here in the U.S.. The FCC should move quickly to explicitly ban similar practices by Internet providers in the United States who have been misleading customers and breaking net neutrality principles with Zero rating schemes.”

Fight for the Future has been active in defending net neutrality in the U.S. through a series of high profile campaigns including the Internet Slowdown protest, which drove three quarters of a million comments to the FCC in a single day. Previously they worked with Popular Resistance to organize an “Occupy the FCC” encampment outside FCC headquarters, making national headlines.

This year, Fight for the Future has focused on exposing and opposing T-Mobile’s BingeOn scheme, which violates net neutrality by throttling all video streaming by default. They also signed on to an Open Letter to Mark Zuckerberg, demanding Facebook stop using their platform to mislead Indian users about the Free Basics program. In the coming weeks, Fight for the Future and other groups plan to continue pressuring the FCC to enforce net neutrality rules in the U.S. by stopping these Zero rating practices.

(Fight for the Future is dedicated to protecting and expanding the Internet's transformative power in our lives by creating civic campaigns that are engaging for millions of people.)


How Enormous is the Porter Ranch Methane Blowout? … Take a Look!!

EDITOR’S PICK--The “invisible tsunami” of natural gas that has been spewing from a broken well in the backyard of an affluent Los Angeles suburb has caused illness and losses to businesses, and driven thousands from their homes. With their lives turned upside down for more than three months, residents continue to wait for the gas company to stop the leak once and for all.

The rotten-smelling air in and around the Porter Ranch community will begin to clear when the well is permanently sealed. And Southern California Gas Company, which operates the Aliso Canyon gas storage facility where the leak originated, says it expects to have the leak stopped this month. But the effect that the natural gas’s main component -- methane -- has had on the atmosphere doesn’t simply vanish when the well ceases operation.

The well has released more than 91,000 metric tons of methane gas into the air, according to Environmental Defense Fund, but the exact toll it has taken on the environment isn’t immediately clear. In part, that’s because the gas can only be seen with a special infrared camera, making this an invisible catastrophe in California -- there are no oil slicks in the clouds above Los Angeles, no wildlife covered in crude. But make no mistake: The volume of methane that has been ejected into the air is massive, and its effect on global warming is real. (Now, click here. We’ll help you visualize it.) 


The Enigma of the Week: Ted Cruz

GELFAND’S WORLD--As a Californian and presumably a normal sort of person, I find it strange that Ted Cruz finished first in the Iowa Caucuses. The political experts tell us that his fellow Senators hate him and that the Republican Party fears him. And he looks like Grandpa Munster. Why would so many supposedly loyal Republican voters support him? 

A good question with several answers. It turns out that one of those answers is negative for Cruz's hopes of winning the Republican nomination. 

For all of their phony pretentions to legitimacy, the Iowa Caucuses destroyed last week's political foundations and created a new world. It reminds you a little of the world wars. Donald Trump, last week's Mussolini, got knocked off the winner's stand and had to settle for second place. Ted Cruz took first place by 4 points. 

You have to admit that it's strange. There's just something about the guy that infuriates people. Let's start with a joke making the rounds. 

Why do people take an instant dislike to Ted Cruz? 

Answer: It saves time. 

But the Ted Cruz enigma remains. He managed to win a Senate seat in a major state and has now knocked off the one person who was picked to finish first and who gets more press coverage than any two or three of his opponents combined. 

Here is an article by Caroline Bankoff in New York magazine that takes a swing at the question. In essence, he is for himself even when this violates party loyalty, and he doesn't know how to be a team member. This has put some of his fellow Republican senators on the spot as Cruz has played games about shutting down the government once again. There is also an inkling of a more far reaching explanation from one of his college classmates. Cruz seems to have come to college politically formed. The beliefs he expresses today haven't changed from when he was a teenager. 

But that doesn't seem to be quite enough to explain why so many of his fellow Republicans are actively trying to undermine him. After all, the rule in politics is to go with the winner if he's on your side. Republicans and Democrats alike have put up with sleaze and downright corruption when it provides the winning edge, both in D.C. and in Sacramento. Republicans understand that Cruz as president would provide a solid conservative brand of leadership, yet they still dislike him. 

Like I said, Cruz is an enigma to the rest of the normal people around the country. 

So what else does the Iowa result tell us? 

First of all, it probably means that Ted Cruz won't get the Republican nomination, much less win the presidency. This is simply a matter of recent history. Iowa Republicans seem to vote for the most right wing sorts. They also seem to limit their choices to those who wrap their campaigns around evangelical fervor. The fact that Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum are recent winners tells you pretty much everything you need to know. Winners in Iowa are too far right to win nationally. 

There's one other lesson from Iowa that I call wolfpack ethics. In a series of debates leading up to Iowa, a series of Republican wannabes took shots at Donald Trump. They were swatted down by Trump, much as the pack leader swats down rambunctious cubs. The sorriest cub was Jeb Bush, who took such a beating that Saturday Night Live made him into an ongoing political joke. That's the way of the wolfpack. The alpha wolf defines the leadership role. 

But the alpha wolf is always a potential target to be replaced. It's not a matter of if, but of when and by whom. It wasn't last month and it wasn't Jeb Bush. Ted Cruz was careful to avoid a definitive tangle with Trump in the early going.  

By Wednesday of this week, everything had changed. We've all heard by now about Trump's polite concession speech on Monday night, followed by his attack on Cruz as cheater and stealer of the election the very next day. At the risk of mixing metaphors, we have Trump going through the stages of grief, this stage being denial, while Cruz gets to try out his new role as alpha wolf. You could tell that Cruz had decided that this is his moment when he pulled out the new term Trumpertantrum

There is an old rule that applies to attacking alpha wolves. If you are going to try to replace the alpha, the one thing you must not do is lose. Cruz is taking a chance in coming back at Trump just a few days before the New Hampshire primary election. If Trump should win, then he will be in a position to retake the alpha position. 

Trump has deftly set this situation up by claiming that the Cruz victory in Iowa was fraudulent. We can expect that come Tuesday night in New Hampshire, a victorious Trump will remind television viewers that this time, justice has triumphed. If Cruz should manage to pull off a miracle and beat Trump on Tuesday, then we can expect Cruz to give us an even louder wolf howl. 

And then there were the Democratic caucuses in Iowa. It's hard to call this anything but a dead draw. That might be enough for Hillary to call it a victory. It might also be enough for Bernie to call it the beginning of a political revolution. Whatever happened in Iowa is probably of little consequence in New Hampshire this time around. That's because New Hampshire voters have a strong propensity to vote for governors and senators from their neighboring states. Vermont is right next to New Hampshire, for those who didn't know. If Hillary runs close, that would signify a near-defeat for Bernie. If Bernie wins big, it's still a race.


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



Solar Decision Will Burn Low-Income Californians

SUBSIDIZING WALL STREET-Reversing climate change and addressing income inequality are the twin challenges of our time. Solving them both means a safer, more stable future for generations to come. 

If we don’t stop and reverse climate change, our environment and our economy could collapse. If we don’t address the growing gap between rich and poor, our political structures and our economy will continue to fray, robbing us of both the funds and the political will to address climate change. 

These challenges are irreversibly linked — and we can’t solve one without solving them both. 

That’s why progressives, labor leaders and everyone who cares about addressing these twin threats should oppose the California Public Utilities Commission’s recently proposed decision to require poor utility customers to subsidize richer customers and the new Wall Street-funded quasi-utilities serving these wealthy customers. 

The CPUC’s decision is on a technical issue called Net Energy Metering: the system that provides subsidies for the installation of residential solar systems by forcing utilities to buy surplus energy generated on rooftops at an artificially high price. For a long time it made sense to provide these very generous subsidies — we all benefit from a robust solar industry. Some of us closest to the economics of solar thought it made more sense to subsidize larger solar installations, which are up to three times more cost-effective than residential solar systems. But broad adoption of solar and renewable power is a goal we must all support. 

But what is happening now is that Wall Street has figured out how to game the system. And what usually happens when Wall Street financiers and speculators get involved is happening now in solar — the rich are being subsidized by the poor. 

Net Energy Metering allows wealthier solar customers to sell the power they produce back to power providers at retail rates. Solar customers might think they are “off the grid,” but their lights still go on at night or when the sun isn’t shining because they are using the electric grid as a giant free battery.

But they don’t pay for it, others do. And “others” are renters and homeowners without the funds to install solar. 

Solar customers are by every measure wealthier and whiter than traditional power customers. That’s because it’s expensive to install rooftop solar (between $12,000 and $40,000, even with the generous tax credits), and because you generally have to own your home in order to install the panels. What’s more, the panels are typically leased to the homeowner by a company like SolarCity. Those companies then bundle the leases and sell them to investors (sound familiar?), and it is not the customer but the investors who receive both the tax credit and the benefit of the Net Energy Metering subsidy associated with the panel. 

Traditional power customers also include CARE customers — low-income families who earn less than 200 percent of the poverty level — who are particularly impacted by this decision. There are nearly 1.5 million CARE families across California, taking home an average of $40,180 a year — and they receive a 30-35 percent discount on their electric and natural gas bills. By comparison, there are only 200,000 solar customers, and they earn more than double that amount — about $92,210 each year. 

The CPUC’s proposed ruling would force CARE customers to pick up the tab for the high cost of Net Metering, eating into the discount those families need. That would very plainly divert money intended for low-income customers to Wall Street and wealthier Californians. That’s not right, and the proposed decision has been roundly criticized by ratepayer advocates and others across the state. 

California is moving towards a green energy future, and that’s a positive thing. But we need to be cognizant of how we get there. Forcing low-income people to subsidize Wall Street will only exacerbate the growing income inequality that is gnawing at our communities. 

We need to fight climate change. We need to fight income inequality. We don’t need a subsidy for the wealthiest and Wall Street that makes income inequality in our state worse.


(Tom Dalzell is the business manager and financial secretary of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1245. This piece was posted earlier at Huffington Post and Capital and Main.  Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.




Why I Support Bernie’s Revolution – ‘Incremental Progress’ is not Good Enough

JUST SAYIN’--In her speech at the end of the Iowa Caucus, Hillary Clinton said, "I am a progressive who gets things done for people. I am honored to stand in the long line of American reformers who make up our minds that the status quo is not good enough, that standing still is not an option."

That same night Sanders, who rarely uses the word "I" in his speeches, proclaimed, "It is just too late for establishment politics and establishment economics. The American people are saying 'no' to a rigged economy. They no longer want to see an economy in which the average American works longer hours for lower wages, while almost all new income and wealth is going to the top 1%." 

While disappointed by the disingenuous Chelsea Clinton proxy attack that claimed a Sanders presidency would dismantle the Affordable Care Act, I've moved quickly past the distractions and histrionics of the political hardball being played against Clinton, as well as Sanders, to draw some conclusions at this stage of the Democratic Presidential Primary.

Small steps to the left by Clinton on key issues like the Trans Pacific Partnership seemingly in response to Sanders' long held positions on this and other issues, is not enough. I am not willing to settle for promises of incremental progress that largely maintain the status quo while the working poor and middle class are locked in the iron grip of economic and environmental inequality, typically carried out by legislators whose campaigns are largely funded by Wall Street. 

Bernie Sanders is running a campaign funded with $75 million coming from small donors; people who are donating $27 on average, under the banner of revolution. This provides a distinct contrast to every other competitive presidential candidate, all of whom are receiving millions of dollars from some combination of super PACs, Corporate America and America's richest 1%.

Income is not equal in the United States, but our voices should and can be a powerful force as the people of Iowa proved in showing that this revolution is real. Not because Sanders is promising that he will do this alone, but because he is calling upon the providence of the American people to stand up for what benefits our country as a whole:

"No president, not Bernie Sanders, not anybody else, will be able to bring about the changes that the working families and the middle class of this country, that our children, that the seniors, our seniors deserve.” Sanders continued, “No one president can do it because the powers that be, Wall Street with their endless supply of money, corporate America, the large campaign donors are so powerful that no president can do what has to be done alone. And that is why -- and that is why what Iowa has begun tonight is a political revolution."

This is not a commitment by Sanders to seek incremental progress. It is a promise to fight for fairness as the sword and shield of the American people in the war against inequality.

As Americans, revolution is in our blood going back to our Country's origins. Today we are witnessing a political revolution of the people, by the people and for the people versus establishment money and politics. 

I stand with the Senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders.


(Jason Gardea-Stinnett is the Former Executive Vice President AFSCME District Council 36.)   Photo: CNN. Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

Sick of Spiraling Drug Costs and No Cure in Sight

DRUG POLITICS--For anyone not living in a bubble, or perhaps just so lucky and healthy to have super-duper insurance and/or no health problems, it's pretty obvious that pharmaceutical prices are going up to unsustainable levels.  And if "unsustainable" is the the wrong word, perhaps "infuriating" or "predatory" or "criminal" is a more appropriate description. 

There's a reason or three why Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have so many followers--they're angry at former President Bush, they're angry at President Obama, and they're angry at how the average American--in particular, the middle class who are trying to play by the rules and who are both stymied and exhausted at how they're being stiff-armed and shoved into decreased economic mobility. 

Part of this is the increasing cost of pharmaceutical medications, including those that are generic and have been around for decades.  We need them for our health and survival, and their astronomical elevations in cost are both unnecessary and infuriating.  And both dangerous and deadly. 

Yet as with the rising cost of health care, it's easy to blame one part of the problem as the solitary monster to be slain...when what we REALLY are fighting is more akin to a Hydra--that mythological creature with multiple heads, and which, if we cut off one head, two will grow in its place. 

In other words, if address only one part of the problem then we risk not fixing the problem at the least, or making the problem greater as the worst result of our efforts.  

If you want to hate on Republicans, Democrats, bureaucrats, health plans, pharmaceutical companies, or anyone else that's fine--but naivete won't fix the problem: 

Rrecognizing that health care is (as with our nation) a combination of pragmatic capitalism and socialism is certainly more helpful in confronting our issues. 

1) Part of our pharmaceutical cost-conundrum is caused by capitalism at its worst, but yet not capitalism at its best.  Somehow pharmaceutical companies have manipulated their way into being virtual monopolies, when they should have so much competition that the price for medications--particularly generics--should be plummeting.  

2) Part of our pharmaceutical cost-conundrum is caused by socialism at its worst, but yet not socialism at its best.  Somehow pharmaceutical companies have been granted too much exclusivity in creating medications--including generics--while not being demanded to keep their prices lower each year as their profits are met and their production prices presumably go down. 

Do you get the picture?  When socialists demand price controls, and when capitalists demand more competition, they're both right, and merit a seat at any table where resolution of this problem will occur. 

And if you're only going to demand on one approach, while ignoring the other approach, you're invariably going to make the problem worse. 

Is the FDA too demanding and cost-driving on pharmaceutical companies to make new products, or are they a necessary quality control agency...or both? 

Arguably, the "fix" should start on generic companies that really do little to nothing to create new products, and are raising their prices simply because they can. 

Martin Shkreli is both a repugnant individual (he doesn't merit the title "human being") who will be heard from in Congress, but he's also done us a service by highlighting this crisis with his outrageous price-gouging: 

1) Shkreli is only the worst of the worst, with Turing and Valeant and Mylan Pharmaceuticals being only slightly less predatory than this contemptible individual in what they have done to the pocketbooks, lives, and health of Americans everywhere. 

2) And where the devil was Congress while doctors were screaming about this over the last few years?  They got dragged to the table in addressing this, and either laziness, fear, or lobbyist contributions are probably to blame.  Unfortunately, THIS current President and Congress will likely do very little until after the fall elections to address this, because the "Affordable Care Act" (cute name, huh?) was politically- and not economically-driven. 

The more money gets thrown into health care, the more we'll see pharmaceutical companies--particularly companies who've either manipulated or been granted governmental exclusivity on certain medications--wanting a piece of that money flow...whether they've earned it or not: 

1) Is the government to blame for not enforcing price controls?  Probably--after all, why should the United States pay thrice the cost that Canadians and Europeans pay for the same medications? 

2) Are health plans to blame for not enforcing price controls?  Probably, although their negotiating power and step-therapy plans are their best weapons in demanding lower medication costs.  In other words, perhaps your health plan is just doing its job when you're denied the medication that you and your doctor want.  Unless you LIKE rising deductibles and premiums. 

And premiums and deductibles ARE going up...for everyone. 

1) I doubt that the Vermont plan of taxing physicians for paying for Medicaid will work (LINK: ), because even if you just think doctors are all mega-rich and getting kickbacks from pharmaceutical companies (I am still waiting for mind after almost 25 years in practice) there's the aforementioned Hydra analogy: 

If we smack around doctors, they will invariably stop seeing all patients, and might just leave to another state. Then we'll see how cheap and easy it is to see doctors who still remain. 

And WHY are we so embracing of Medicaid as the new normal?  Some need that, and they're not getting enough, but if YOU don't have a job that helps cover your health plan YOU have a lousy job.  Deal with that.  

And if you're not getting a second or third job to ensure you can pay for appropriate insurance for you and your family, you're either in an environment where you have no ability to achieve economic independence or you're not doing YOUR job.  Deal with that, too.  (I'm a physician, and I have three jobs, by the way) 

2) I also have major concerns about the November initiative that will require drug companies to allow the same low prices to non-veterans as they do with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.   

I don't doubt for a moment the sincerity, good intentions and righteous anger of those promoting this initiative, but while pharmaceutical companies need a good smackdown this is the wrong one.  If they can't afford this low cost for so many, then these companies will jack up their costs for veterans, too...and that helps us all...how? 

Again, remember that Hydra analogy. 

We want innovation from pharmaceutical companies to create new cancer treatments and new antibiotics, but the $1 billion "moonshot" of President Obama is a joke when considering the $2.6 billion needed to create a single drug. 

To conclude, and in short, we need to: 

1) Demand, require, enable, and encourage generic pharmaceutical companies to keep older medications dirt-cheap.  As in $5-15 per refill for older medications, and perhaps $25 for a few per refill. 

2) Support, encourage, and enable brand-name pharmaceutical companies to create and profit from the development and distribution of new and innovative medications. 

Both government and the private sector will need to do its share.  Any other approach is just self-delusion and a prescription for both higher prices and reduced health for the majority of exhausted, hard-working Americans.


(Ken Alpern, M.D., is a practicing dermatologist with patients and clinics in L.A., Orange and Riverside Counties.  He is also a Westside Village Zone Director and Board member of the Mar Vista Community Council (MVCC), previously co-chaired its Planning and Outreach Committees, and currently is Co-Chair of its MVCC Transportation/Infrastructure Committee.  He is co-chair of the CD11Transportation Advisory Committee and chairs the nonprofit Transit Coalition, and can be reached at  [email protected].   He also co-chairs the grassroots Friends of the Green Line at www.fogl.us. The views expressed in this article are solely those of Mr. Alpern.)


Beyond Sean Penn’s Fiasco: Mexico’s Alleged War on Drugs is Not a Movie

EDITOR’S PICK--There is a reason why most popular gangster movies tell stories of legendary godfathers in the old times, convicted felons serving their sentences in prison, or fictionalized characters. Sean Penn missed that part when publishing his interview with the notorious Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera.

Penn and Mexican soap-opera star Kate del Castillo didn’t figure it out, but the organized crime in Mexico is not a movie. You don’t interview a fugitive serial killer right when he is planning his next kidnapping and slaughtering, before he goes to jail, without becoming his accomplice . . . unless you are as untouchable as a Hollywood star.

More than 50,000 people have been murdered during the current administration (plus countless non-reported by states completely controlled from the top by the cartels, like Veracruz, Tamaulipas, Sinaloa or Chihuahua), and more than 120,000 people were killed during the so-called “war on drugs” ordered by former President Felipe Calderon. These people are not extras in a Scorcese’s film.

On November 23, 2011, twelve partially calcined people were found in the trunk of a burning van in the Rosales Neighborhood of Culiacán City, the capital of Sinaloa State. That same day, another burning van in Desarrollo Urbano Tres Ríos was found with four bodies, with the head of one of them thrown to the sidewalk. On that day, “El Chapo” freely conducted his business throughout the country and the entire world. It was a business as usual day for the Sinaloa Cartel. It looked like any other day on another year, like May 2nd, 2012, when twenty-two people were found murdered within less than twelve hours, or June 21st, 2013, when two teenagers were killed, allegedly, because they made fun of the son of a gangster at school.

That’s life and death in a period of time that Sean Penn qualifies as “strictly business”: “’El Chapo’ is a businessman first, and only resorts to violence when he deems it advantageous to himself or his business interests,” he says

The drug lord said so, and he believed it. Sean Penn is “disappointed” of current journalists, but didn’t care to apply their basic rule of fact checking. Had he done so, he would have probably learned that while “El Chapo” was operating freely as a “business man” between 2009 and 2012 there were 330 femicides in Sinaloa, 80% of which remain unsolved. While certainly all these women were not killed personally by “El Chapo” with his bare hands, the rate of femicides in any state where there is organized crime is higher than it is elsewhere.

Drug trafficking is not just about cartels fighting against each other for a better and larger turf. Drug trafficking is an anti-democratic culture of death, extortion, sexism, prostitution, nepotism, tyranny and humiliation permeating the social, political and private life at all levels, everywhere it goes. The obvious territory is that of the military forces, police corps and bribed politicians. Little we know or care about the organized crime inside education, universities and scientific research, for instance, even though the University of Sinaloa often obtains more false credentials, for obvious reasons, and therefore receives more government funding than others where corruption is not the law.

Just because the Mexican Government has become the organized crime at a local, state and federal levels, it doesn’t mean apolitical drug lords should take over the entire country as an alternative to the corruption. Ms. Kate del Castillo doesn’t see it that way though. She referred to the drug lord as a savior, saying that she trusts “more” in him than corrupt politicians. Then she added the advice to start “trafficking with love,” which apparently the drug lord understood as a greenlight to contact her. Two years after her famous Tweeter request, it turned out she was trying to make a Narcos-style Hollywood movie about the drug lord, as confirmed by her own friend, human rights advocate and journalist Lydia Cacho.

Mrs. Lydia Cacho, who has been herself persecuted by corrupt politicians involved in the organized crime, confesses, “Kate told me she was making a movie about ‘El Chapo’.” It is unclear whether Mrs. Lydia Cacho knew about the actor’s alleged money laundering business with the criminal (which is now under investigation), but she is now in contact with Del Castillo and became her spokeswoman. In a recent interview with Univisión’s anchor Jorge Ramos (the Mexican equivalent of Charlie Rose), Lydia Cacho blames the Mexican Secretary of State and Sean Penn for betraying Del Castillo’s “true” and pure intentions, which were no less than the making of a gangster’s movie.

I spoke to one close friend of Mrs. Lydia Cacho, author of “The Eden’s Demons” about pederasty and organized crime in Puebla State. I asked her why this human rights advocate and activist would be willing to risk her longtime earned credibility by unapologetically portraying the soap-opera’s star as a victim. The answer I received is typical of the drug-trafficking world culture, “Because, they are friends, and she was probably going to participate in the movie as an ‘advisor’ or screenwriter.”

Same thing happens to Oscar-winning Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, who was Sean Penn’s protégé when he started working in Hollywood. They are friends. So González Iñárritu supports Penn’s side. He quotes a famous Mexican journalist, Julio Scherer García, who once said he would “go to hell” in order to obtain the opportunity to interview someone, and actually interviewed another drug lord from Sinaloa.

However, Scherer was a journalist. He used to provide a context to the conversation, and never perceived drug lords as his “saviors” like Del Castillo does, or “simple business men.” He was the Founder. Editor of “Proceso,” the prestigious investigative magazine in Mexico. Two of his reporters, longtime journalist Regina Martínez and talented photo-reporter Rubén Espinosa, were murdered by the Veracruz government involved with another powerful Cartel, the “Zetas.”

The state of Veracruz is one of the 10 most dangerous places in the world for journalists, according to Reporters Without Borders. Quoting the director of a publication that has lost two of its best reporters precisely because they denounced the organized crime is a disservice to journalism.

This is not the first time that González Iñárritu quotes without reading someone though. When he first won a Spirit Award for his movie “21 Grams,” took the stage along with actor Sean Penn, and he spoke in favor of peace, only quoting Peruvian novelist and Nobel Price Mario Vargas Llosa. He simply didn’t know that Vargas Llosa had just been in Irak as an “embedded” reporter for the Spanish newspaper “El País,” supporting Spanish pro-Bush President Aznar portraying the US Marines as the most polite, nicest soldiers — until the Abu Ghraib prisoners’ torture and abuse scandal took place and Vargas Llosa got silent.

As Counterpunch’s article “Hollywood and the CIA” by Ed Rampell notes, cinema can be a very powerful propaganda tool. However, in this case, there is no mastermind twisting the information to support drug cartels, but just plain ignorance – Hollywood and Mexican soap-operas’ greed finally meeting.

In the meantime, real journalists in Mexico continue risking and losing their lives, literally.

The flirtatious text messages Kate del Castillo exchanged with the drug lord arranging a secret meeting and inviting Sean Penn were immediately released by the Mexican Government. However, in the case of the 43 Ayotzinapa kidnapped and disappeared students, their parents have been demanding for more than one year the disclosure of the Mexican Army and the Iguala City Police’s phone exchanges and text messages. There are still no answers for them. They are not so glamorous.

In New York City, Mr. Antonio Tizapa, father of one of the Ayotzinapa students, demands the immediate disclosure and release of any information regarding those phone calls and text messages. “Each one of these students have a cell phone, and the soldiers had cell phones. How come none of their text messages and calls are public?” he asked on a public statement during a rally in front of the Mexican Consulate, on January 26. Some of this information would probably explain what really happened in the Ayotzinapa’s case.

(Malú Huacuja del Toro is a feminist Mexican novelist, playwright and screenwriter with eight fiction published books in Spanish. She wrote the first “anti-soap opera” in Mexico, produced in 1988. She is also an activist for Ayotzinapa and the Zapatista movement. She lives in New York. This piece was posted originally at CounterPunch



The Scariest Cable Merger Nobody in Washington Is Talking About

EDITOR’S PICK--When Comcast tried to merge with Time Warner Cable last year, reaction was swift and negative. Not many people liked the idea of America’s largest and least loved cable company getting any bigger; the deal collapsed after hundreds of thousands of Americans spoke out and federal regulators signaled that they would not let it go forward. 

Big Cable should have gotten the message. But here we are just a year later with a new cable mega-merger in the works. This time, Charter Communications wants to snatch up Time Warner Cable along with Bright House Networks. 

Unfortunately, this deal hasn’t received nearly as much public attention as the Comcast-Time Warner Cable proposal. The harms it presents are just as serious, however — serious enough for lawmakers and regulators to give this outrageous proposal the attention it merits. 

Let’s start with some basics. The three merging companies would create a new Mega Cable company, controlling about one-third of the nation’s cable and cable-broadband markets. In addition, the new colossus would own programming, including regional sports networks all across the country, and would completely dominate some of America’s largest media markets, including New York City, Los Angeles, Dallas, Charlotte, Tampa Bay, Orlando and St. Louis. Finally, the combined companies would have an anti-competitive incentive to preference their streaming-video offering over that of competitors. 

When you add it up, the new company would look a lot like, well, Comcast. Yes, this merger would create a new Comcast — a national cable giant with the ability and the incentive to thwart competition, diversity, and consumer choice. 

And it gets worse. Because they don’t compete in any markets, Comcast and the new Mega Cable company would stand shoulder to shoulder in control of more than 70 percent of the high-speed broadband market. The two companies would have no incentive to compete against each other, but every incentive to coordinate against their shared marketplace competitors. 

Thanks to services like Netflix, Hulu and Sling, television is in the midst of a creative renaissance. These emerging services are finally breaking the decades-long stranglehold of the cable bundle on American consumers who have been forced to collectively fork over billions of dollars in monthly cable bills, largely to pay for channels they never watch. The services’ growth has been fabulous for consumers, content creators and workers in the entertainment industry. Now, just when competition is finally gaining traction, the Comcast-Mega Cable duopoly could squash it. 

Then there is the issue of independent programming. Already, too much of the cable dial is filled with content produced by a handful of media conglomerates. When the vast majority of cable homes are served by just two companies, it will become even harder for independent and diverse voices to gain a foothold. That is especially problematic because Comcast and the new Mega Cable will own content that directly competes with independent programmers. 

That kind of dominance leads to homogenization of content and the marginalization of independent voices, cutting right to the heart of the public interest in diverse cable offerings that give voters a broad range of perspectives on the issues of the day. 

Finally, there is the issue of price and customer service. To finance this deal, Charter will be taking on $27 billion in new debt — about $1,142 for each subscriber. To keep its lenders and creditors happy, the merged company will have every incentive to raise prices and slash service. And because it will face very little competition, the company will run little risk in doing so. How much more beneficial it would be if Charter invested those billions in building cable competition in presently uncompetitive markets! 

The bottom line is that this merger is no less threatening to consumers than the Comcast-Time Warner Cable tie-up would have been. It points a dagger directly at competition, diversity in programming and consumer rights. Before it’s too late, the public should send a message telling regulators to once again stand up to the cable giants and stop this harmful merger. 

More than 200,000 people have already spoken out, but there’s still time to speak out if you have not already. Take action today to stop this affront to the public interest.


(Michael Copps is a former commissioner and acting chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, where he served from 2001–2011. He serves on the board of Free Press and the Free Press Action Fund and is a special adviser to Common Cause. This piece originally appeared on Medium.  Original photo by Flickr user Sean MacEntee.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

This Is Not the Way the Democratic Campaign Should Be Conducted

EDITOR’S PICK--Chris Matthews had an interview with Hillary Rodham Clinton on the MSNBC channel of the electric teevee machine Tuesday afternoon that was flatly astounding. This is especially true if you remember Matthews' sorry history with the Clinton family, especially concerning HRC, against whom he was so hostile in 2008 that kindly Doc Maddow called him out on it on the air. Now, though, apparently, Matthews sees HRC as the only thing keeping the Battleship Potemkin from sailing up his driveway. 

“I'm going to say this bluntly,” he said. “The only person standing between a confirmed socialist who is calling for political revolution in this country winning the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party, which has always been more moderate than that, is you. So, when you saw that rally last night, the young people all around Senator Sanders, when he yelled "revolution" out there, and they all applauded like mad, do you think that's going to help in the general election or is it what we used to call in the Sixties an NDC candidacy—"November Doesn't Count"—we just want to win the party, we don't care about the general. You seem to be focused on the general. How do you beat a person who comes along in the primaries who says, ‘I'm going to give you everything you want: free tuition, more Social Security benefits, no increase in your taxes, free health-care from birth, all of it government-paid.’ How do you compete with a revolution? A revolution of promises, really.” 

Say what you will about HRC, but she knows a cue when she hears one. She threw out some compliments to her own youthful adherents, which is a decent thing to do, and then she got down to serious business. 

“I do think we have an obligation to keep people focused on what's at stake,” said Clinton. “We can't let the Republicans rip away the progress we have made. We can't let them go back to trickle-down economics, repeal the Affordable Care Act. We can't let them stack the Supreme Court for another generation. We've got to get back to the middle. We've got to get back to the big center and solving problems. That's how we make progress in America. I'm proud to be in a line of Democratic presidents who just got in there and fought it out…I know how hard it is, and I totally appreciate how exciting it can be to be involved in a campaign that really just puts out these great big ideas. But I want folks to just stop and think, no matter what age you are, OK, we agree on getting the economy going. We agree on raising income. We agree on combatting climate change. We agree on universal health-care. Who has the track record? Who's got things done? Who can actually produce the results you want for you and your family, and for our country?” 

But Matthews wasn't finished. Condescension, it appears, is not just a river in Egypt. 

“Look, the history of the Democratic party -- your party, not Bernie Sanders,” said Matthews. “He's not a Democrat—your party has produced the New Deal, the progressive income tax came from the Democrats, Social Security, the greatest anti-poverty program, came from Roosevelt, health-care and civil rights, and all these good things, and in every case, you had to battle Republicans against it to the last person. It's always been a tough fight. You need 60 votes in the Senate, and you need 218 in the House. And if you don't have them nothing gets done. Can the Bernie people be taught—not him, he can't be taught—can the kids behind him be told that this is how it works in our system? You can call for a revolution but it ain't gonna happen. There isn't going to be a revolution. There's gonna be an election and an inauguration and then there's going to be a Congress sitting next to you that you have to deal with. Revolution sounds like a pass. You don't have to have logic any more. We're going to have a revolution and pay for anything.” 

Non sequitur. Your facts are uncoordinated. 

First of all, what Sanders is calling for is a democratically determined change in how we govern ourselves. He's not f-cking Robespierre. The tumbrels are all in your head, dude. Among other things, Sanders is advocating for the restoration of a financial-reform system that was a pure product of the New Deal and that prevailed for 60-odd years. That's his "revolution." Just chill. Once again, though, HRC hit all her marks. 

“Our system is set up to make it difficult,” she continued. “Checks and balances. Separation of powers. Our Founders knew, if we were going to survive as the great democracy that they were creating, we had to have a system that kept the passions at bay. (ED. NOTE: And then most of them divided up into political parties and spent the early 1800's slandering the hell out of each other. We continue.) We had to have people who were willing to roll up their sleeves and compromise. We couldn't have ideologues who were just hurling their rhetoric back and forth. We had to actually produce results…. 

“That hasn't changed since George Washington,” said Clinton. “We have to produce results now because a democracy is a fragile organism. People have to believe they have a stake in it, that their voices count, but then they gotta see results from their investment in our democracy. Our democracy has to work better. Our politics have to work better. That's what I know how to do, and that's what I want to get done.” 

This doesn't have to be the way it goes. HRC is perfectly within her rights to campaign against Sanders on the ground that he is not electable or that his proposals are fanciful. But this is edging dangerously close to marginalizing him and his campaign as somehow extremist and/or vaguely un-American. For example, Matthews really went to town after the interview was over, talking pragmatism and evincing a curious view of 20th century history. He lumped the New Deal and, most spectacularly, the Civil Rights Movement as examples of the kind of incremental centrist change that characterizes American political history. 

This is something of my bollocks. Good god, the New Deal was so centrist that the plutocrats of the time tried to organize a goddamn military coup against it. And the reason that the Democrats became the party of the Civil Rights Movement is that thousands of people in the streets, and more than a few martyrs, forced a series of presidents to move, however deliberately, and forced the party to change an identity to which it had clung since Stephen A. Douglas was the party's nominee. This is not the way the Democratic campaign should be conducted. Bernie Sanders is running a campaign completely within what can reasonably be called the mainstream of his party and of our politics. 

Discreet red-baiting and disingenuous scaremongering helps nobody.


(Charles P. Pierce is a writer-at-large for Esquire and his work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the LA Times Magazine, the Nation, the Atlantic, Sports Illustrated and The Chicago Tribune, among others. This piece was posted at Esquire.com and CommonDreams.org.  Screenshot: MSNBC. Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.


I'm an Angry Old White Guy, Here’s Why

GUEST WORDS--I keep reading that people like me -- older white guys -- are angry about what is happening to their country. In recent years, their grievances have been voiced by Rush Limbaugh, Lou Dobbs, Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck. Then they found an outlet in the Tea Party. Now they are filling the seats at Donald Trump rallies and perhaps propelling him toward what seemed unthinkable, the Republican presidential nomination. 

Trump explained his own anger this way in the last Republican debate he took part in: “I'm very angry because our country is being run horribly and I will gladly accept the mantle of anger. Our military is a disaster. Our health care is a horror show. Obamacare, we're going to repeal it and replace it. We have no borders. Our vets are being treated horribly. Illegal immigration is beyond belief. Our country is being run by incompetent people.” 

Hey, Donald! I'm angry, too. But the sources of my anger are quite different than yours. Let me explain. 

I was born in 1954, just a few months after the Supreme Court, handed down its ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, dealing the biggest blow to white supremacy since the beginning of the republic – back when a bunch of property-owning white men -- to whom the franchise was restricted at the time -- drafted a constitution in which Black slaves were considered three-fifths of a human being. 

When I was in grade school, Betty Friedan wrote The Feminist Manifesto, and the pill liberated women to begin the long and still-incomplete march to full participation in the workplace and in political life. A vibrant and courageous civil rights movement brought about the landmark civil rights acts of the mid-1960s, which also saw the establishment of Medicare and the end of racist immigration quotas. 

When I was in high school, the Environmental Protection Agency was established, and the Stonewall uprising marked the dawn of the modern gay rights movement whose arc, yet unfinished, led to last year's glorious Supreme Court decision making marriage equality the law of the land.

When I was in college, the Roe v. Wade decision ended back-alley abortions and affirmed the right of women to control their own bodies and therefore their full personhood. 

I'm angry not because all these things happened. I'm angry because they are in jeopardy from the likes of Donald Trump and his fellow Republican presidential candidates. They rail about "political correctness" to justify bigotry and cruelty, when in fact the most vigorous enforcer of political correctness is the far right "base" of the Republican Party and its amen corner in the media. 

Thanks to them, no candidate may dare buck the NRA's absolutist -- and murderous -- stance against any sensible gun regulation. No candidate may acknowledge the reality of climate change and what is needed to save the planet, or the humanity of immigrants and refugees who deserve a medal for enduring untold hardships to make it to this country -- where they are a vital part of its economy and its very fabric -- not the scorn and abuse that has been heaped upon them. 

I'm angry because I'm sick and tired of the lies we have been told. That raiding the Treasury for huge tax cuts for the rich will trickle down to working people, when in fact the gulf between the super-rich and everyone else has grown to unsustainable dimensions which threaten the very social compact. 

That waging a war of choice in Iraq would usher in a democratic resurgence and make us safe, when it has left the Middle East in lethal turmoil, cost the lives of many thousands of young soldiers, maimed many multiples more, and sapped the country's capacity to attend to the urgent needs here at home, like roads and bridges and schools. 

When my grandson's pre-K teacher tells us that she has to spend hundreds of dollars from her own pocket for school supplies, it makes my blood boil. 

I'm angry because the first African American president, elected to do something about the wretched mess he inherited, with a financial system on the brink of collapse and a soaring unemployment rate -- and who has done something about it -- has been opposed and vilified at every turn, from a right-wing which questions his very legitimacy (down to the facts of his biography) and whose most passionate cause is to strip away health security from millions who now have it, thanks to this President, for the first time in their lives. 

I'm angry because Black Lives Matter is so necessary, given the epidemic of police murders of Black and Brown people trying to go about their lives. The law, Martin Luther King, Jr. said, may not be able to make a man love me, but it can stop him from killing me. But when it is the law that is killing you, we have come very far from King's hopeful promise.

I understand that many white men -- and women and people of color as well -- who have been left out of this economy, who can't make ends meet, who feel that the American dream is not working for them, are very angry about this, and justifiably so. But I cannot countenance the misdirection of their anger, and the ugly bigotry that has been stoked by opportunistic politicians like Donald Trump. Their anger should be focused on the greedy and the lawless and their enablers in politics, not on those who, like themselves, are casualties of a political and economic system that operates for the benefit of a privileged few, not for all of us.

My grandson will grow up in a country in which most people don't look like him, in which people of color and women will be the overwhelming majority. If he works hard to restore the momentum toward a just and inclusive society -- an idea that filled my younger years with optimism and hope about the future -- this new majority will take its rightful place in the leadership of our key institutions, from boardrooms to capitols. There will be room for him, too, if we turn this country's priorities around. But he will make his way without benefit of the rigged rules that men of my generation grew up with, where women and minorities were largely excluded from the game. 

When everyone is included, everyone benefits. That's why I'm channeling my anger into pushing for policies and the candidates who will back them, that make our democracy and our economy work for all people. 

(Gara LaMarche is President of The Democracy Alliance. This piece was originally posted on HuffingtonPost.com] Follow Gara LaMarche on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@garalog. Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.


Mermaid Avenue

EDITOR’S PICK--Over the weekend, while waiting for a friend and listening to Spotify, the album Mermaid Avenue by Billy Bragg & Wilco came on.

Seeing the words of the album based on Woody Guthrie's lyrics scrolling across the screen took me back to a summer visit to Coney Island. But this wasn't a recent visit. This trip was long before the hipsters had discovered that there was a lot more New York beyond the East River. The songs transported me to a Brooklyn that is largely gone; a gritty, dangerous place with more gaps in the streetscape than a Skid Row junkie's mouth.

Mermaid Avenue then was poor and black and Puerto Rican and I was, and am, white and privileged and didn't belong there. Sure, I could fit in outside of Nathan's on the Boardwalk, or at the New York Aquarium, but this was Mermaid Avenue, blocks from the relative safety of the beach or Brighton 5th.

New York was different then. The whole city for me was a Coney Island of the Mind.

It could be rough but I never had too much trouble. On the whole, it was a place I could walk around visible but unknown because it was so far from my home in the leafy suburbs where I was raised. I never ran into anyone I knew when I was slumming it in Coney Island or Bedford Stuyvesant or Crown Heights, decades before the Wall Street bankers, app developers and trust fund babies discovered those areas.

Fast forward to 2016. To Los Angeles which, like New York, I will never leave metaphorically. Each weekend, as I did when I lived in New York, in San Francisco, in Paris and in Boston, I explore on foot a different corner of the endless city.

Saturday it was beautiful Silver Lake, a lifetime or more away from ragged, sweltering Mermaid Avenue with its bodegas, dope dealers and shaved ice sellers in the summer.

Together with my friend, we started our walk at Tropical on Sunset Boulevard which makes what may be the city's best cafe con leche. Fortified by the caffeinated rocket fuel, we made our way north along Silver Lake Boulevard and eventually up some long staircases and winding streets to the perfect spot for watching the sunset over a line of graceful palms shimmering in the distance.

Silver Lake, like countless other parts of Los Angeles was once well-served by the long gone Red Car Line, the region's extensive streetcar system.

I am decades older now than I was on that visit to Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island but fundamentally I am the same. I am still the hopeful romantic about my city, albeit now a warmer one with different flora, mountains, tastes and accents. Los Angeles and cities all over fascinate me because their density and clash of dreams and cultures create built environments that are greater than the sum of their parts. They are places where industry, vision, art, architecture and necessity collide to forge solutions to the challenges the landscapes and people demand.

Saturday's sunset was made all the more beautiful by the foresight of someone who planted that row of palms off in the distance maybe a half century ago. And the bougainvillea, lemons and oranges around us and those Bauhaus inspired and Neutra, Schindler, and Lautner designed homes on the Red Hills were also planted or built by someone with the wise notion of enhancing the beauty of the area.

Like New York's D train to Coney Island, Los Angeles will soon be blessed by its own train to the sea when the Metro Expo Line opens in May. Most of all, this rail line will serve the thousands of daily commuters moving between downtown LA, Culver City, the Westside and Santa Monica. The new line will free riders from the shackles of a steering wheel, car insurance and traffic.

On those trains will also be men and women and children just out exploring the wonder that is this massive city we call home. Riding the trains and buses and walking the streets, we encounter one another in unexpected and mostly welcome ways. In embracing transit and thoughtful density and making Los Angeles more pedestrian oriented we are enriching our lives and creating opportunities for the most imaginative among us to forge new ideas about work, life, art and community.

I don't love every street and neighborhood in LA equally. Some of our areas are beautiful while others compete for last place. But all of them hold secrets and treasures that one is sure to miss if one barrels by at or above the speed limit. It is why I walk and bike and ride the bus around this great city as often as possible. The Expo Line to Santa Monica will be a game changer for those of us who choose to Go Metro. But as the pedestrian advocacy group Los Angeles Walks will tell you, there is no need to wait to discover the wonders that Los Angeles has to offer. And taking it in on foot doesn't cost a thing.

Yours in transit.

(Joel Epstein is a senior advisor to companies, law firms, foundations and public initiatives on communications strategy, corporate social responsibility (CSR), recruiting and outreach. He is a contributor to CityWatch and can be contacted at [email protected].) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams. 


Republicans and Democrats: Enough Cynical Manipulation to Go Around

GELFAND’S WORLD--As this is written, we are awaiting the results of the Iowa Republican Caucuses, an exercise in manipulation of public sentiment by cynical operatives. Within a day or two, we should start to see a few dropouts, but the hard core manipulators of truth, Trump and Cruz, will continue. The liberal side of the internet community has concentrated on the mistruths characteristic of the Republican side, but the Democratic Party establishment does not come to the game with entirely clean hands either. 

Not so curiously, I have an example of a similar level of cynical manipulation by the other side, even if it's not on so widespread a scale. It's in the form of a two-page mailer with the heading OFFICIAL 2016 DEMOCRATIC PARTY SURVEY. As the colleague who gave it to me pointed out, we're apparently supposed to believe that the party is interested in what we think. 

The Survey starts out portentously with SURVEY INSTRUCTIONS. Like the magician who gestures broadly with the right hand to conceal what the left hand is doing, it begins with instructions to check that your name and address are correct. It even states, "To ensure statistical accuracy, please do not skip any questions in the survey." I think you will understand as we discuss some of the questions that statistical accuracy is the least of the authors' concerns. 

You are also asked to complete the form in black or blue ink, as if your answers will be evaluated by this generation's version of the Univac computer. It's only in the small print at instruction number 4 that you begin to get the deeper message. "Be sure to complete your DNC contribution form." Instruction number 5 finishes quietly with, "Please return your completed survey, along with your contribution, in the envelope provided." 

OK, it might be worth putting a couple of bucks into the envelope to have the chance to talk back. There are a lot of things I'd like to tell the Democratic Party. (There are even more things I would like to tell the Republican Party, but they don't seem to write to me or my close friends.) 

But given the chance to talk to Democratic Party leaders, here goes. I would like the Democrats to support full public financing of local, statewide, and national elections. As an acquaintance once pointed out, it's the reform that makes all other reforms possible. For some reason, the Democratic National Committee seems to have let this one go. And I'd like them to support universal health coverage, maybe something like Medicare for all.

Most of all, I'd like to advise the DNC to do something that they actually have the authority to do. That's to take away the power held by Iowa and New Hampshire to go first in the presidential selection process. Those two states have enjoyed it long enough. Every Iowa or New Hampshire resident who wanted to have a personal conversation with Hillary Clinton or Ted Cruz has long since had the chance. Not so for me and you. And this is something that the DNC could have challenged long ago. After all, the topic has been around for decades. 

It's time for a change, but the DNC lacks the guts to do so. 

But enough on that issue. Let's consider the survey questions, particularly the way in which they are phrased. For purposes of clarity, I will put the wording from the SURVEY in italics and continue my own comments in plain text. 

Here's one: "Please rank the following Democratic economic priorities in order of importance (1 = most important)." 

Now I can imagine a lot of possible answers. Mine would be something along the lines of doing another economic stimulus package without any nonsense about it being limited to "shovel ready" projects. Anybody who has taken the second semester of economics has heard about Keynesian stimulus, and anybody old enough to have lived through successive recessions from the 1950s onward should be aware that these stimuli work. They worked for President Eisenhower and President Reagan, just as they have worked for later presidents. 

But here is the limited selection of economic priorities that the Democratic Party offers: 

Make it possible for more American workers to earn sick days and family leave. 

End gender discrimination in pay and ensure women receive equal pay. 

Close tax loopholes and simplify the tax code so corporations and the ultrawealthy will pay their fair shares. 

Now I think its obvious that many of us don't have strong objections to any of the above. It's just that they don't really have much to do with economic policy. When comedians like Bill Maher recognize the idiocy of trickle down and supply side as economic policies, you would imagine that the Democratic Party would too. But what we get is a chance to pick among our favorite social policies. 

I might add that the last of the three choices is weirdly Republican in its "simplify the tax code" and only nominally liberal in requiring that the ultrawealthy pay their fair shares. We might also point out that the part about closing tax loopholes is the oldest and least believable of political promises. It's used by candidates of both parties, and it's recognizable as the wishiest of wishful thinking. Does the Democratic Party want to suggest that we abolish the home mortgage tax deduction? I think not. 

Another question gives us 7 possible answers to check. It's really a list of Republican priorities that are almost universally opposed by most Democrats and in several cases, by most voters. Here's the question: "Which potential actions by congressional Republicans most concern you? (please choose up to three)." 

The possible answers include "dismantling the Affordable Care Act, restricting women's reproductive rights, rolling back marriage rights, forcing a government shutdown, blocking President Obama's judicial appointments, opposing a minimum wage increase, and obstructing immigration reform." 

I'd have trouble limiting myself to three. The SURVEY is playing mind games on us. 

It doesn't take very long to recognize that this whole exercise is a push poll. That is, it is an attempt to inform you, the voter, of all the negative aspects of the opponent, in the guise of asking you for an opinion. We get these as telephone calls from time to time. What is your opinion, after being told that the opponent wants to cut Social Security benefits, abolish Medicare, and close half of our nation's military bases? Either you say that you oppose any such horrible person for election to public office, or you start laughing and hang up the phone. 

This OFFICIAL 2016 DEMOCRATIC PARTY SURVEY is much the same. Here is another question that the Democratic Party claims to want your opinion about: 

"Which group of GOP backers do you think will have the biggest impact on the 2016 elections? (please choose one)

Let me interject. I suspect that the answer to this question is better answered by Republican Party activists and the group of political scientists who study this sort of thing. But here are the possible answers that you, the Democratic voter, are asked to select among: 

Right-wing billionaires, such as the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson 

Ruthless political operatives, such as Karl Rove 

Extreme far-right organizations, such the the Tea Party Nation and the Club for Growth 

Conservative media outlets 

Well, that's quite the list, isn't it? You will notice that the voters don't seem to be mentioned on this list, in particular the voters of Iowa, New Hampshire, and the deep south. You might also notice that the candidates themselves were not mentioned. Or how about the major television networks and their coverage of debates and the day to day campaigning? The question treats the entire Republican Party, from top to bottom, as equivalent to the undead. It might or might not be a fair appraisal, but even us dyed in the wool liberals recognize that the question is manipulative. 

We could go on, but you get the idea. There is a corollary here that bears mentioning: Political parties, unlike the more independent minded, have a powerful taboo against admitting that the other side has any decency at all. I can remember one local club that fined you fifty cents if you mentioned the name of its opposition. You had to engage in some subterfuge such as "the other party" if you wanted to avoid feeding the kitty. 

It seems to me that this attitude goes counter to the ideal communicated by President Obama at the start of his presidency. Things may have changed, even in the oval office, but the snide dehumanization of your opponent is not what the American polity ought to be striving after. 

Luckily, when we get to the end, we discover that this whole survey is really just a fund raising gimmick. DNC meet Mike Huckabee. Mike Huckabee meet DNC. Curiously, the allowable donations begin at $18 and go up from there. The online fundraising requests I get every week usually ask if I can contribute $3 or more. I guess that the DNC expects more because it is using a stamped envelope. 

I've treated the DNC, or whoever is actually running this fundraiser, a little harshly. Obviously I don't intend this to be in support of anything the Republicans are doing. You don't even have to look at their internal fundraisers to see just how contemptuously they view the American people. But there is one other fundraising group on the Democratic side that is worthy of our attention. 

There is an email group that goes by the name of The House Majority Pac. They send me emails that put scare wording in the address field, so I get an email that looks like it's coming from URGENT or from SHUTDOWN ALERT. One came from ACTIVATION NOTICE. 

You may notice that the hmpac likes to use techniques that were originally pioneered by spam artists. Some of the most recent use the subject line, "this is bad..." 

There is a difference between the DNC mailer, that appears to come from a reputable source in spite of its frantic wording, and the hmpac, which does not make clear whether it has any official connection to the Democratic Party. 

In either case, it looks like some organizers on the Democratic side have decided to adopt practices that have been used by snake oil peddlers and political charlatans for decades. 

The alternative can be found in organizations such as Daily Kos, the website that serves millions of Democratic leaning readers. The Kos site makes clear what and who it represents, asks you straight up for your three dollars, and explains why you should be concerned. 

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



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.



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