Month: January 2018

How To Reinvent Infrastructure

There was only one reference to the deficit in last night’s State of the Union speech, and it had nothing to do with the federal budget. I found that refreshing — we can carry a deficit if the money’s spent wisely — but that’s another story. What President Trump talked about was America’s staggering infrastructure deficit, a whopping $2 trillion fault line in the backbone of the American economy, according to the latest estimates from the American Society of Civil Engineers.

The president’s proposal sounded like an ambitious plan to take a big bite out of the problem. He urged Congress to produce a bill that would “generate at least $1.5 trillion” to modernize our decrepit infrastructure. The problem — at least for Democrats — is that the bulk of the financing is apparently supposed come from private investors, who would ultimately shift most of those costs onto to the public in the form of user fees and tolls. Most Democrats won’t sign onto this kind of legislation.

Yet without the support of many Democrats, there can be no bill. So where does that leave us?

Doing nothing is itself costly. As water mains break, roadways deteriorate and bridges crumble, businesses forgo trillions in sales, families lose an estimated $3,400 a year in disposable income, and our economy sacrifices millions of jobs. That’s why Larry Summers, the former Democratic Treasury secretary, urged the next president to “go big — yuge, even — on infrastructure spending.”

If Democrats were in control, they would be pushing not only for the brick-and-mortar projects the president spoke of last night, but also for enormous investments in high-speed broadband and renewable energy. Unfortunately, the president wants to spend more money on 20th century technology — so-called clean coal — instead of modernizing our electric grid and reorienting our economy away from coal and other fossil fuels.

So, how can Democrats find a way to get things into an infrastructure bill that (a) are good policy and things they would want anyway and (b) can be tied to goals of the Trump administration and a certain number of moderate Republicans in Congress?

If done right, infrastructure can actually deliver in four areas the president emphasized again and again in his speech last night: a boon for the economy and the Trump administration; addressing the high cost of health care; tackling the opioids epidemic ravaging the country; and the safety of the American people.

Mr. Trump talked about repealing the individual mandate, but offered no plan to make good on his campaign promise to give every American health care. He talked about opioids and helping people get treatment but offered no specific plan to deal with the crisis. He talked about terrorist threats and keeping Americans safe but said nothing about the threat of epidemics and bioterrorism.

What Democrats can propose that will touch on all those areas: a national network of community health centers (C.H.C.s).

“America is a nation of builders,” the president said. A bipartisan plan for hundreds of C.H.C.’s across America would reduce the cost of health care, bring down premiums, deal with the opioid crisis and help keep Americans safe by serving as centers of preparedness for epidemic and bioterrorist events.

America’s health care system is a costly, bureaucratic mess, and virtually every American knows it.  C.H.C.s will improve health outcomes, remove primary care from insurance coverage and reduce the cost of health insurance premiums. Bringing premiums down will be critical for Mr. Trump, because according to CBO, repealing the individual mandate will drive insurance premiums up by as much as 10 percent for millions of Americans.

C.H.C.s can also serve as treatment centers for services related to the opioid epidemic. They can also act as treatment centers of preparedness for epidemic and bioterrorist events, helping to keep Americans safe.

The blueprint such a bipartisan plan already exists.  Democrats and Republicans just need to come together to build on it. Community health centers already provide services to millions of Americans, and they do it at an exceptionally low cost — less than $1,000 per person per year. For a fraction of what we’re paying now, we could provide a free base of primary care with mental health and dental care as part of a large-scale buildout of community health centers.

They already claim bipartisan support. Of course, with a plan of this size and scale, C.H.C.s would offer bureaucratic challenges.

But they may offer a bipartisan way forward as an infrastructure plan that doubles as a health care plan.

3 Strategies To Get To A Fossil-Free America

When the next phase of the US climate movement launches with a nationally streamed rally at the end of the month, the wound-licking will be over. Yes, the Trump administration has upset any hope of a smooth and orderly transition to a new energy world. Yes, it’s pulled the United States out of the Paris climate agreement and opened up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. Yes, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and Energy Secretary Rick Perry have made a mockery of hurricane victims and fire victims and flood victims, from San Juan to Montecito to Houston.

But the fossil-fuel industry doesn’t hold all the high cards. We’ll start playing our own aces for a Fossil-Free United States on January 31, when Bernie Sanders and an all-star lineup brought together by 350.org that includes everyone from indigenous activist Dallas Goldtooth to NAACP organizer Jacqui Patterson to star youth climate organizer Varshini Prakash lay out a coordinated plan for the year ahead.

 

 

The basic outlines are pretty simple. None of the strategies rely on Washington’s doing anything useful. In fact, because DC has emerged as the fossil-fuel industry’s impregnable fortress, our strategies look everywhere else for progress. In every case, real momentum has emerged, even in the last few weeks.

Job 1: Push for a fast and just transition to renewable energy in cities and states. The Trump administration has done what it can to slow down sun and wind power, even recently raising tariffs on imported solar panels, but it has not been able to change the basic underlying math. With each passing month, the technology that powers renewable energy gets cheaper and cheaper. It’s already generating massive quantities of electrons at prices cheaper than any other technology has ever managed in the past. A recent report by the International Renewable Energy Agency reports that renewables will be consistently cheaper than fossil fuels by 2020. That’s why mayors and governors have felt free to make ambitious pledges about the future. So far, 51 cities have joined a campaign led by the Sierra Club promising to convert to 100 percent renewable energy; five are already there.

Of course, that leaves tens of thousands of cities and towns that can make a similar pledge—and activists will be fanning out to their councils and selectboards and mayors in the months ahead. They’ll do it knowing this is a movement with real breadth: It’s not just the San Franciscos and Madisons that are on board, but the San Diegos, the Atlantas, the Fayettevilles. I mean, Salt Lake City is signed up. You know those blue dots on the election-night maps, the ones that contain most of the country’s innovation? They’re making the commitment, and those commitments will push the engineers to keep innovating.

During the Bush years, when Dick Cheney effectively ran energy policy, Washington was similarly closed to real progress. So state governments adopted Renewable Portfolio Standards, which went on to spur much of the spread of sun and wind power. The same thing is happening now, except at an even faster pace.

Job 2: Stop new fossil-fuel projects. The welter of pipelines and fracking wells and coal terminals that the industry is attempting to build will, if completed, lock us into decades more of spewing of carbon and methane. But many of these are vulnerable to citizen action.

Take, for instance, the Keystone Pipeline, where the infrastructure fights really began more than half a decade ago. Donald Trump doubtless believes that it’s been built. In a treacly paean titled “This Thanksgiving, Thank Donald J. Trump” the right-wing National Review announced that “after languishing under Obama,” Keystone XL was “under construction.” In fact, great organizers in Nebraska and Dakota have the thing tied up in endless knots; they’ve even installed fields of solar panels in the proposed path. The Cornhusker State approved a route for Keystone XL in November, but it’s not the path that pipeline developers TransCanada Corporation preferred. Now the surveyors—and the lawyers—have seasons of work ahead before a shovel will hit the ground. Even if TransCanada decides to push ahead, 20,000 people have pledged to travel to the upper Midwest to protest. The lessons of Standing Rock have not been forgotten.

Meanwhile, in the Pacific Northwest, the thin green line against massive fossil-fuel projects has continued to hold. Five years ago it seemed almost certain that a massive terminal for oil trains from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale would be built along the Columbia River in Vancouver, Washington. Six giant ports had also been proposed along the coast for shipping coal from the Powder River basin of Montana and Wyoming off to China. There was no way to stop the drilling or mining back in the interior, since the fossil-fuel industry holds sway in those states. But the carbon had to pass through Washington and Oregon, and savvy organizers there—led in several cases by environmental-justice and indigenous groups, like the Lummi Indians near Bellingham—have managed to beat every single plan. In Portland, these activists even passed a law banning any new fossil-fuel infrastructure, period, end of story.

Many of these heroes also took to the water a couple of years ago—they were the kayaktivists who did such harm to Shell’s brand that the company backed away from drilling in the Arctic. A variant of that same strategy may help blunt Trump’s ugly plan for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or off the Atlantic and Pacific coastlines. Yes, this land is now open for leasing—but any oil company that steps through that door is going to be the target of an endless onslaught. You really want to be known as the company that digs up wildlife refuges? Okay, go for it.

Job 3: Cut off the flow of money to the fossil-fuel industry. Sometimes that means one bank customer at a time. One remarkable spinoff of the Standing Rock movement has been the Mazaska Talks campaign, led by indigenous organizers who have persuaded cities, towns, and individuals to pull their cash from banks that won’t stop lending the money that fuels climate destruction. On a memorable October morning, activists protested outside dozens of Bank of America branches in Seattle, shutting down several. The city government had already sworn off Wells Fargo because the bank couldn’t break its pipeline habit.

Pressure keeps building on investors as well. The fossil-fuel-divestment movement, for instance, has become the biggest corporate campaign of its kind in history, with endowments and portfolios worth a combined $6 trillion having sworn off coal and gas and oil in part or in whole. In the fall, a pair of studies summed up its success. One demonstrated that the campaign had catalyzed the rest of the climate movement, driving the debate towards grappling with the harsh reality that we had far more carbon than we could ever burn. The other pinpointed the falls in share values that divestment had caused, helping dry up the capital needed for more exploration and drilling.

But the divestment movement’s greatest successes actually came a bit later, around the holidays. First, the managers of Norway’s $1 trillion sovereign wealth fund—the largest pool of investment capital on planet earth—recommended divesting from oil and gas. Since Norway made its money in North Sea crude, the pledge was especially profound. Clearly, the country’s economic leaders have decided that the future lies in renewables, and so they’re getting out while the getting is good. Shortly after, the World Bank announced it would no longer fund oil and gas exploration—that’s another striking signal for the world’s financial industry.

But the biggest win of all came just after the new year, when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced two things. First, the city would be divesting its massive pension funds—nearly $200 billion dollars, one of the 20 largest pension funds on earth—from fossil fuels. And second, the city would be suing ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Royal Dutch Shell, and BP for the damages caused by climate change. Their legal theory, he said, was simple: “They tried very intently to cover up the information about climate change and to project a propaganda campaign suggesting that climate change wasn’t real and go ahead and keep using your fossil fuels.” In other words, ExxonMobil=Philip Morris. Everyone remembers how that one ended.

Following years of relentless work from local activists, perhaps the most important part of de Blasio’s divestment announcement was the flat rejection of the idea that “engaging” with the fossil-fuel companies was a viable strategy. Many timid politicians have taken that approach, arguing that it was fine to keep investing in these companies as long as “dialogue” was underway. ExxonMobil, for instance, responded to pressure last year by promising “climate risk disclosure” about new projects. That’s not nothing, but it’s pretty close to nothing—especially since, at the same time, the companies were busy in Washington making sure they opened up the US coastline to new drilling. New Yorkers aren’t chumps, de Blasio pointed out. “Today, we are saying ‘No more.’”

All this financial pressure is made easier by the fact that the fossil-fuel industry is no longer minting money. It’s been underperforming the rest of the economy—and no wonder. Sun and wind are ultimately free, and that puts remarkable price pressure on the stuff you have to dig up and burn. Every single day, the electric car moves further along the path from novelty to normal. That means every single day Chevron’s position erodes a little further. The question now is not whether big oil is going down; the question is how fast—and how we make sure the transition is a just one. The answer to that question will determine exactly how far down the road to climate ruin we actually travel.

The political saliency of the climate issue grows stronger too, especially as it becomes clear that it’s not some niche concern of affluent suburbanites with a weekend home in the country. Polling makes clear that African Americans and Latinos are the two groups most concerned about climate change, which makes sense since they’ve borne the brunt of the effects so far. (All it takes is a record rainstorm to find out who lives at the bottom of the hill.) These are also the groups taking the lead in climate organizing, giving it a new and vital energy. Vice, the CNN of the young, reported this month that “the next millennial trend is suing big oil for destructive climate change,” apparently replacing avocado toast.

None of which means that the fight is won. Big Oil has had a big year, and they hold most of the levers in Washington. But they’re beginning to lose in a lot of other places—including in people’s hearts and minds. Destruction like that wrought by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma and Maria; tragedy like that wrought by California’s fires and mudslides—it takes a toll. No lie lives forever, and 2018 may be the year that the most dangerous deceit in the planet’s history finally unravels for good.

Mass Incarceration Imprisons More Lives Than Just Those Behind Bars

There are over 2.2 million families in America for whom the holiday season is extremely difficult. As co-workers, fellow parishioners, friends and colleagues wish them happy holidays and inquire whether they will be getting together with family, they cringe and struggle to respond in a way that does not reveal that for them the holidays are a harsh reminder of the pain, separation and loneliness that incarceration means for them. For them, there is no holiday dinner at a nice restaurant, shopping outing for gifts, decorating a tree or attending a religious service. On New Year’s Eve they will not share a kiss at midnight or hold each other tightly. In fact, the words “Happy New Year” ring hollow and reopen the wounds of separation.

These families struggle to maintain their bond by saving precious little funds to pay for phone calls, visits, commissary, and care packages. The economic burden of incarceration on families is tough, but the emotional burden is overwhelming.

As one mother recently shared when speaking about her 6 year old son, “He just wants his dad to push him on the swing at the playground.” Her college age daughter wants her dad to meet her boyfriend and tell her if he approves.

Her husband is serving 15 to life and has been incarcerated since their son was 4 months old.

This mom works as a nurse at a local hospital and just wants her children to have a chance to get ahead in life, but she is struggling to support her daughter’s higher education and pay for piano lessons for her son. At least once a month she tries to visit her husband who is incarcerated 700 miles from home. She doesn’t own a car so the least expensive way for her to visit is to take a chartered bus that costs $65 round trip for adults, and $35 for her son. In addition to the $100 in bus fare, there is the cost of food during the trip, money to purchase food in the visiting room vending machines, and the items she’ll take in a care package to leave for her husband.

Some months she cannot afford to make the trip so she chooses to just mail the care package. The package is priority sometimes because it can include perishable items such as nuts, fresh fruits and vegetables which are not available in the state prison system. She is already worried that her husband has lost weight during his incarceration and his health seems to be declining.

On top of all of this, there isn’t really anyone in her life with whom she can share her concerns. Her siblings don’t understand why she stays with her “jailbird” husband. Her friends don’t know how long his sentence is. She doesn’t want to upset him by telling him that she is worried. So, she holds it all in and does her best to maintain the household, herself, and their marriage.

It’s an overwhelming bundle of stress, and it’s already taking a big toll on her physical and mental health.  She suffers from depression, stress-related weight gain, and migraine headaches that make it more difficult for her to help her son with his homework after school. The downward spiral is frightening, and it’s real.

In response to the heartbreaking crisis we both saw happening to millions of American families dealing with the negative side effects of incarceration,  Danny [Glover] and I founded the Alliance of Families for Justice (AFJ) in central Harlem, New York in the fall of 2016.

The location of AFJ is intentional and strategic as Harlem is known as “the re-entry corridor” in New York. AFJ’s mission is to support, empower and mobilize families with incarcerated loved ones and people with a criminal record. Here, wives, husbands, mothers, grandfathers, daughters, aunties, uncles, and sons find comfort and an empathetic ear. AFJ is like an oasis for them. It is a place where they can share their pain without judgment and shed the shame they have harbored. They no longer have to hide or pretend that the person they love isn’t in prison.

When we founded AFJ, we did so from the heart.

Danny Glover: As a young man and the oldest of five children, I saw the anguish on my mother’s face when neighbors would inquire about her “other” sons. My first career dream was to become a probation officer. I watched all my brothers go through the youth justice system, eventually matriculating to the State penitentiary system. My mom and dad often had to make the choice of either attending church or taking those long drives to remote California prisons to visit my brothers. And on the occasions when I came along, I felt the humiliation of watching my parents being subjected to searches and scanning as if they had broken the law. I hated it.

Soffiyah Elijah: And for me, as a teenage girl, I started visiting my high school sweetheart in an upstate maximum security prison. The contrast of the prison setting bumped against the pristine ivy league campus where I was a student less than 40 miles away was instructive. Everyone in that visiting room, other than the guards, was Black or Brown. Everyone. And all of the guards, every single one of them, were white. I never told any of my friends or my family that my boyfriend was incarcerated. At that young age, I knew that I couldn’t. I held it in, and the shame ate at my soul.

The racial dynamics and social control of prisons were so very tangible to both of us, long before our political evolvement. So, founding AFJ was deeply personal for us, as it was for most of our board members and volunteers. Most of us have a personal experience that mirrors in one way or another, the story of the nurse struggling to maintain her family.

Families form the fiber of any community and when the families are in crisis, the community is in crisis. Poor Black and Brown communities have been devastated by mass incarceration and the collateral consequences of that devastation are immeasurable.

By providing families the supports they need to heal, AFJ tills the fertile soil where the seeds of hope and rejuvenation can sprout. In this way, the receptivity for empowerment is created, nurtured and optimized. Once they are empowered, family members can act on their own behalf and can mobilize others to do the same.

AFJ didn’t need to read research studies, or consult with academic experts about what was needed to reverse the devastation of mass incarceration on families. We took our lived experiences and created the solutions that we knew would work. Our first year of operation has been a huge success. In the coming years, we plan to replicate the AFJ model throughout the country. Until mass incarceration is ended, there will always be a deep need for what AFJ is doing.

Reframe The Debate

It is important to recognize changes in the seasons. Our country is undergoing a significant metamorphosis, which is likely to last several years, but we have an opportunity to help ensure that what emerges from this turmoil is more beautiful than what preceded. While there are plenty of problems we can dwell on, at the same time there are a number of very positive changes occurring that I believe are laying the groundwork for a better future. It is now our collective job to work toward making that happen.

One of the big shifts going on is in the economic arena, and it will have profound effects. A fresh perspective on the role of our nation’s currency is set to reshape the debate on public policy and government budgets. If you are not yet familiar with Modern Money Theory (MMT), it is time you get up to speed. A good place to start is with the work of Stephanie Kelton. Her recent New York Times piece How We Think About The Deficit Is Mostly Wrong provides an excellent introduction to this shift in thinking.

The Patriotic Millionaires have a powerful message about restoring political equality, fair pay for workers, and ending tax giveaways for the wealthy. However, we too must be careful not to fall into the trap of framing tax reforms and public policy in ways that reinforce the narrative that our government is fiscally constrained. It is not, and never will be.

Let me be clear. Raising taxes on the wealthy does not give our government any more spending power than what it already possesses. Whatever Congress authorizes is “affordable” since our government is self-financing. The Treasury and Federal Reserve coordinate to make all payments that Congress authorizes, no matter what levels of taxes are collected. As I have written previously, our advocacy for tax reform is about reducing excessive inequality and extreme wealth concentration that disrupts our democratic process, NOT about fundraising for the federal government.*

We must reframe fiscal policy debates away from the false narrative of a scarce money supply. This narrative forms the basis for the argument that Social Security and Medicare, among other government programs, are unaffordable. As Alan Greenspan tried to explain to a very disappointed Paul Ryan, “there is nothing to prevent the Federal Government from creating as much money as it wants and paying it to somebody.” There is no unfunded liability crisis.

We cannot give in to the temptation to link tax reforms that address inequities in our economy to the sustainability of important government programs.

  • Firstly, it is economically inaccurate to state that federal taxes fund government spending. The government spends by crediting bank accounts, and taxes can only remove currency that prior government payments added. Taxes cannot be a source of funds.
  • Secondly, we should vigorously defend programs such as Social Security from attacks simply because a government that issues its own currency will never be insolvent. Congress should simply approve a permanent living wage to senior citizens and authorize Treasury to make all payments as they become due, irrespective of taxes received or trust account balances. This is, of course, exactly how we pay for our wars.
  • Finally, linking government programs and investments to a specific tax source leaves those programs subject to unnecessary cuts when tax receipts inevitably fall during recessions. Why would we want to link essential purpose services to business cycles?

It is time we ended the “pay for” mentality. We need to break the bad habit of pairing all of the government’s public investments with a tax, or of linking payments for government programs to the need for a more equitable tax code. They are two separate aspects of government policy, each to be debated on their own merits. This allows us to reframe the conversation on each issue back to how they best serve the public.

For example, the Republican Tax Plan was problematic not because it created a larger government deficit – something that is neither good nor bad in and of itself – but because it gave a massive handout of our public currency to the extremely wealthy, worsening an already excessively inequitable distribution of wealth, and doing nothing to create a more sustainable, shared prosperity.

Now, as Republicans seek to use the enlarged deficit to attack Social Security and Medicare, our response must be to expose their entire false premise – that larger deficits create unsustainable programs. Reducing funding for welfare programs is entirely a political choice, not an economic necessity. Such cuts are cruel public policy that hurts American families and have nothing to do with fiscal responsibility. We will separately argue for a less regressive FICA tax, but not because Social Security needs another source of funds, but rather so that we have a more just and fair tax system.

Our government is not constrained financially like a household. The deficit is not our primary guide for government budget and tax reform discussions. We Patriotic Millionaires have a compelling tax policy message that will reduce inequality and lead to a more prosperous economy for all. We also have a powerful message that our government can already afford to pay incomes to senior citizens, raise wages for its workers, cover the costs of health care, and forgive student loans.

Take care to reframe the debate over fiscal policy the right way. If you need help understanding how our modern monetary system works, you can check out my site Modern Money Basics. Together, we can shift our national conversation in a more positive direction and inspire hope in a better economy for all.

*Note that for state and local governments, which do not issue the public currency, taxes are essential for funding their budgets. The federal government as the issuer of our currency is unique.

Dr. Cornel West Reflects On 25th Anniversary Of Seminal Book

An interview with Dr. Cornel West, professor of the practice of public philosophy at Harvard Divinity School, on the 25th anniversary of the publication of Race Matters.

In 1993, Dr. Cornel West released his classic Race Matters, which immediately became a best-seller and situated him as one of the most important Black intellectuals of our time.

The book has now been re-released with a new introduction, 25 years after it made its initial debut. Diverse recently interviewed the Harvard scholar about the book and the current state of race relations.


It’s hard to believe that it’s been 25 years since you first published Race Matters.
Isn’t that the truth? It’s a blessing to live that long.

It was such a transformative text for so many. Why do you think it resonated so much with the public?
It’s hard to say. I think it was interdisciplinary. It tried to be honest. It tried to be critical. It tried to wrestle with this vicious legacy of White supremacy. It was at that Rodney King moment and all of the massive rebellions that went along with that moment.

Why did you decide to do a new introduction?
I didn’t come up with the idea at all. I didn’t think about it. [The publisher] came up with the idea. They just wanted me to write an introduction, and I said, ‘Well, let me write a blazing and sizzling introduction that ‘race matters’in the 21st century that ties so directly into Empire matters and Earth matters and homophobia and transphobia, so to try to accent these crucial class dimensions and imperial dimensions of White supremacy. I think that’s what’s badly needed right now. The last thing we need is to somehow isolate this vicious legacy of White supremacy. We don’t want to be pre-DuBoisian. So much of our discourse remains pre-DuBoisian and in the neo-liberal mode, and I’m trying to push that DuBoisian perspective.

Of course, when you wrote the book, most people had never heard of Barack Obama. What has the election of the nation’s first Black president meant for “race matters”? And how worried are you about “race matters” in the era of Donald Trump?
Well, it’s like any other ugly neo-fascist era. We have to remain vigilant in terms of connecting White supremacy to the rule of big business, to the rule of big military and the ways in which patriarchal, machismo identity reinforce the ways in which trans and gays and lesbians are demonized, and at the center, of course, is this contempt for Black people. I think in so many ways what happened with our dear Brother Barack Obama was we ended up with so many Black people waving the flag because you had a Black face, a brilliant Black brother, who headed the American Empire. So, it became very difficult to criticize the Empire. There was a protective shield around him. For somebody to cut against that grain, as I tried to do, was a very, very difficult thing. I would do it again, even more intensely, but it was a difficult thing to do, but it was really a question of holding up the standard of the best of the Black freedom movement. It’s very difficult to do that at a moment in which you have unprecedented success at the highest level of the Empire. It’s very difficult because it looks like you’re hating on an individual Black man, as opposed to being critical of an Empire that he is running; critical of a capitalist regime that he is the head of.

You offered a biting critique in Race Matters of Black political leadership. How would you assess where we are today?
It’s clear we have pretty low quality of Black leadership at the top. We have magnificent Black leadership emerging at the grassroots. When you go to our elite leadership, oh my, it’s low quality. It’s disheartening. When you go to grassroots leadership — not highly visible — it’s emerging with tremendous power and that’s a beautiful thing to be a part of.

And what about the role of Black intellectuals?
We have a market-driven public sphere in which every critique is viewed as a take-down. Every conversation is reduced to competition. And so every attempt to engage in some kind of critical inquiry is viewed as an act of hatred and so it’s hard to be an intellectual. What happens is the careerism and the opportunism take over because so many Black intellectuals are scared, afraid to engage in any kind of public criticism of somebody who has got a major hold on the market. It undermines their career possibilities. It undermines their professional upward mobility. And so it takes tremendous courage, especially among the younger generation. It’s easier for me, because I’m an old brother.

Were you surprised by the response of so many after you recently offered a critique of Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Guardian?
Not really, because I just know that things are so dumbed down. That’s why I included in the piece that I want you all to know that this is not an act of hatred. I want you to know this is not a take-down; that Brother Coates is my brother and he is a significant voice and he needs to be taken seriously and you can’t take somebody seriously unless you give them the benefit of being wrong as well as being right.

And that’s just the way it is. When Adolph Reed was critical of me in 1993, I learned from his criticisms. One of the reasons why we work together, march together, lecture together is because we learn from one another, which is not to say that we have full agreement on everything, but we’ve got agreement on significant things.

The same is true with Nation of Islam. They came at me tooth and nail in 1993. And what did I do? I sat down and had a long dialogue with Minister Louis Farrakhan. I had a long dialogue with the Nation. I come out of the legacy of Martin [Luther] King. Y’all come out of the legacy of Elijah Muhammad. Let’s see where we agree, let’s see where we disagree. Same is true with Brother [Al] Sharpton. Same is true with Molefi Asante. He had a blistering critique of me. I sat down with the brother. We had a long public dialogue. We talked together in Jeremiah Wright’s church in Chicago. He was coming from an Afrocentric point of view. I was coming from the legacy of Martin King. That does not mean we don’t work together.

I do learn from Brother Coates and I would hope that he could learn something from me.

Danny Glover On Creating A Culture Of Sustainable Activism

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, actor, activist, and Founding Fellow of the Sanders Institute Danny Glover received the President’s Award at the NAACP Image Awards which highlight the work of people of color in film, TV and other fields.

My. Glover’s long history with the NAACP goes back to his childhood. His parents were both postal service workers in San Francisco and he has carried on their legacy through decades of community and labor activism.

Danny has been a lifelong advocate of education, economic and social justice and in a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter called for the need to create a culture of sustainable activism.

“The dynamics in our world are changing rapidly, and new information is in our face all the time. We have new ways of looking at the world. For the young people who will inhabit this planet, it’s essential that we create a culture of sustainable activism.”

 

Read the full interview here.

Citizens United: The Legacy

Most people have heard of “Citizens United.” It is considered one of the most influential Supreme Court cases of the 21st century – a decision that significantly altered the interaction between money and politics in modern America. Since the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC) Supreme Court decision, countless academics and experts have talked about it, and thousands of people have come out to protest against it. But what is it and what effect has it had on politics in America?

In order to understand the changes that Citizens United v. FEC has had on American politics, it is important to understand the campaign finance laws that had been in place in the United States.

Prior to Citizens United, Campaign Reform Act (McCain-Feingold Act, 2002) had modified the Federal Election Campaign Act to prohibit corporations and unions from spending on “electioneering communications.” This included any communications that directly mentioned a candidate in any context within 30 days of a primary election and 60 days before a general election. Essentially: corporations and unions were not allowed to use their money to directly influence the outcome of an election.

When Michael Moore’s documentary (Fahrenheit 9/11, 2004) about 9/11, the Bush Administration, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan came out, an organization called Citizens United challenged this release with the FEC stating that Fahrenheit 9/11 was “electioneering communications.” The FEC found that the film did not violate the Act. As a result, during the next election cycle in 2008 Citizens United created their own documentary entitled Hillary: The Movie.

A district court found that Hillary: The Movie was clearly created to encourage voters to vote against then-Senator Clinton. Therefore, it found that the film and any trailers for the film would be classified as advocacy and would be in violation of campaign finance laws. Citizens United appealed that initial decision and the case was eventually heard in front of the Supreme Court in 2010.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC drastically changed the role of corporations in politics.

In a 5-4 split, the Supreme Court found that any restriction in independent expenditures by corporations and unions violated the First Amendment’s protection of free speech and that the current laws that restricted corporations and unions (or what they deemed “associations of individuals”) from spending money on electioneering communications was violating their right to free speech.

For many Supreme Court decisions, the justices who vote against the ultimate decision release what is called a “dissent.” In his dissent to Citizens United v. FEC, Justice Stevens raised several important points. The first was that this decision conferred the same rights to corporations as citizens and that “although they make enormous contributions to our society, corporations are not actually members of it. They cannot vote or run for office. Because they may be managed and controlled by nonresidents, their interests may conflict in fundamental respects with the interests of eligible voters. The financial resources, legal structure, and instrumental orientation of corporations raise legitimate concerns about their role in the electoral process.”

Justice Stevens’ second point was that with this new freedom, corporations will have significantly greater power in our democracy which may erode our trust in our democracy, as well as our democracy itself: “Corporate “domination” of electioneering… can generate the impression that corporations dominate our democracy. When citizens turn on their televisions and radios before an election and hear only corporate electioneering, they may lose faith in their capacity, as citizens, to influence public policy.”

Justice Stevens ends his dissent with the statement that “While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.”

Eight years after Citizens United v. FEC, it is important to look back and determine how this decision has changed politics in America – were Justice Stevens’ predictions correct?

The first, and most clear, result is that campaign spending by outside sources has significantly increased since this decision. According to Open Secrets, outside spending by election cycle had been increasing between the 1990 (the earliest data Open Secrets publishes) and 2010. However, in 2012, the first election cycle after Citizens United v. FEC, outside spending jumped to five times its level in 2010. Outside organizations spent one billion dollars in 2012, $500 million in 2014 and $1.4 billion in 2016.

However, the next question is: does it matter? And the answer is: usually, yes.

In 2014, Represent Us investigated the correlations between spending more money and winning elections. They found that in nine out of ten times, the candidate that raised the most amount of money won the election. They also found that winning candidates spent an average of twenty times as much as their competitors.

In reporting on this finding, The Washington Post mentioned a variety of reasons that the better financed candidate might win: the money allows for a better run campaign, incumbents tend to have campaign structures and fundraising already in place, and “some would argue that in many cases the candidates who win the most votes do so based on the same electability, popularity and qualifications that make them the best at fundraising, and vice versa.” However, the outcome is clear: more money correlates very strongly with chances of winning.

Stevens suggested that Citizens United v. FEC would have a demoralizing effect on democracy. Currently, 63% of Americans are dissatisfied with corporate size and influence in politics; in the 2016 election, almost four-in-ten (38.6%) eligible voters did not vote</a>; and fewer than one-in-five (17%) Americans approve of the way that members of Congress are handling their job. It is hard to make the case that Americans are encouraged by the direction of American government and the amount of corporate influence.

The important question now, is what do we do about it?

The West’s Broken Promises On Education Aid

The Global Partnership for Education, a worthy and capable initiative to promote education in 65 low-income countries, is begging for funds. The fact that it must do so – and for a paltry $1 billion per year, at that – exposes the charade of the US and European commitment to education for all.

The Global Partnership for Education, a worthy and capable initiative to promote education in 65 low-income countries, is having what the jargon of development assistance calls a “replenishment round,” meaning that it is asking donor governments to refill its coffers. Yet the fact that the GPE is begging for mere crumbs – a mere $1 billion per year – exposes the charade of Western governments’ commitment to the global Education for All agenda.

The United States and the European Union have never cared that much about that agenda. When it comes to disease, they have at times been willing to invest to slow or stop epidemics like AIDS, malaria, and Ebola, both to save lives and to prevent the diseases from coming to their own countries. But when it comes to education, many countries in the West are more interested in building walls and detention camps than schools.

The GPE does excellent work promoting primary education around the world. Donor countries, all of which long ago signed on to Education for All, should be clamoring to help one of the world’s most effective organizations to achieve that goal. Yet generous donors are few and far between.

This reality extends back to imperial times. When most of Africa and much of Asia were under European rule, the colonizers invested little in basic education. As late as 1950, according to United Nations data, illiteracy was pervasive in Europe’s African and Asian colonies. At the time of independence from Britain, India’s illiteracy rate stood at 80-85%, roughly the same as Indonesia’s illiteracy rate at the time of independence from the Netherlands. In French West Africa, the illiteracy rate in 1950 stood at 95-99%.

After independence, African and Asian countries pursued massive and largely successful initiatives to raise basic education and literacy. Yet, far from seizing this opportunity to make up for lost time, Europe and the US have provided consistently meager assistance for primary and secondary education, even as they have made high-profile commitments such as Education for All and Sustainable Development Goal 4, which calls for universal access to pre-primary through secondary school.

Consider the grim data on development aid for education, which has stagnated for years – and actually declined between 2010 and 2015. According to the most recent OECD data, total donor aid for primary and secondary education in Africa amounted to just $1.3 billion in 2016. To put that figure in perspective, the US Pentagon budget is roughly $2 billion per day. With around 420 million African kids of school age, total aid amounted to roughly $3 per child per year.

It’s not as if Western governments don’t know that far more is needed. Several detailed recent calculations provide credible estimates of how much external financing developing countries will need to achieve SDG 4. A UNESCO study puts the total at $39.5 billion per year. A report by the International Commission on Financing Education Opportunity, led by former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, similarly put developing countries’ external financing needs at tens of billions of dollars per year.

Here is the reason why aid is needed. A year of education in Africa requires at least $300 per student. (Note that the rich countries spend several thousand dollars per student per year.) With Africa’s school-age population accounting for roughly one-third of the total, the per capita financing requirement is about $100. Yet for a typical African country, that’s about 10% of per capita national income – far more than the education budget can cover. External aid can and should cover the financing gap so that all children can attend school.

That’s not happening. Annual spending per school-aged child in Sub-Saharan Africa is roughly one-third of the minimum needed. As a result, most kids don’t come anywhere close to finishing secondary school. They are forced to drop out early, because there are no openings in public schools and tuition for private school is far too high for most families. Girls are especially likely to leave school early, though parents know that all of their children need and deserve a quality education.

Without the skills that a secondary education provides, the children who leave school early are condemned to poverty. Many eventually try to migrate to Europe in desperate search of a livelihood. Some drown on the way; others are caught by European patrols and returned to Africa.

So now comes the GPE’s replenishment round, scheduled for early February in Senegal. The GPE should be receiving at least $10 billion a year (about four days’ military spending by the NATO countries) to put Africa on a path toward universal secondary education. Instead, the GPE is reportedly still begging donors for less than $1 billion per year to cover GPE programs all over the world. Instead of actually solving the education crisis, rich-country leaders go from speech to speech, meeting to meeting, proclaiming their ardent love of education for all.

Across Africa, political, religious, and civil-society leaders are doing what they can. Ghana has recently announced free upper-secondary education for all, setting the pace for the continent. As African countries struggle to fund their ambitious commitments, new partners, including private companies and high-net-worth individuals, should step forward to help them. Traditional donors, for their part, have decades of lost time to make up for. The quest for education will not be stopped, but history will judge harshly those who turn their backs on children in need.

The Immigration Debate We Must Not Lose

The debate over US immigration policy is a very personal one for me. It’s about my family’s history and the hardships they faced coming to America. It is also about who we are and who we aspire to be as an American people. 

In the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, my father’s family, like many others in the mountains of Lebanon, facing economic hardship, sent their oldest son, Habib, then only 14 years old, to America to start a new life, plant roots, and pave the way for the rest of the family to join him.

A few years after Habib left, facing increased pressures from the raging World War, the family was forced to leave their village seeking safety in the Bekaa Valley. Conditions were not good and my grandfather became ill and died in exile leaving my grandmother with six children, the oldest being my father, Joseph, who was then 20.

The war ended, the family returned to their village, and after a time learned that Habib had opened a small business and was asking that they join him in America. They secured visas and embarked on the arduous journey to the New World.

My father was waylaid in Marseille where in an act of great kindness he gave his visa to a Lebanese woman who was visa-less and desperate to join her family in the US. While he thought he could apply and receive another visa, he was shocked to discover that visas had been frozen for Syrians (which is what the Lebanese were called then).

In the 1920’s, the US Congress was in the grips of a nativist xenophobic fervor. Congressional debates termed Syrians as “parasites” with one Senator saying “we don’t need any more Syrian trash coming here”. Visas for Syrians and other “undesirable countries” were to remain frozen for almost three decades.

Facing an uncertain and lonely future in France, my father secured a position on a ship leaving for Canada. On arrival, he disembarked and eventually made his way across the border into the US to find his family in Upsate New York.

Undocumented, he lived in fear for a decade, sometimes forced into hiding, until in the mid-1930’s he benefited from an amnesty program. He finally became a proud naturalized American citizen in 1942.

My family’s trajectory in the New World is like that of many immigrants. I often look at the picture of my grandmother and her seven children when they were first united on my father’s arrival. They looked gaunt and a bit haggard, but with the proud smiles of a family that after a decade of war, loss, and the hardship they had to endure, knew they were beginning a new life together.

From that little band of eight, great things were to follow. Collectively, three generations of Zogbys are an extended family that has founded dozens of businesses creating employment for hundreds of our fellow Americans. Among us are doctors, lawyers, professors and teachers, elected and appointed officials, members of the military and law enforcement, and others who have distinguished themselves in other forms of public and social service. All of them, are proud contributing members of American life.

In short, this is my story. I am the son of an undocumented immigrant from a once reviled country and a member of a family that benefited from provisions that allowed for families to be unified.

What, to me, is remarkable about our story is that it is not remarkable, at all. Millions of Americans can tell the same story because it is the American story. It is who we are.

Given this personal history, I recoil in disgust at the way some Republicans and President Trump have attempted to reframe the terms of the immigration discussion and, in the process, have denigrated our American story. “Family unification” has come to be termed as “chain migration”. The “diversity lottery” that has provided opportunities for immigrants from countries once excluded from the old quota system that favored northwest Europe, is now spoken of with a snarl (or, more recently, by our President, as immigrants from “shithole” countries). Immigrants and refugees from the country from which my family fled, escaping war and hardship, are now banned. My father would be desscribed as an “illegal”. “Compassionate Amnesty” that allowed my father to stay and become a citizen is now a taboo term. And, if it were not for amnesty, my sister, brother, and I would be seen as “anchor babies” or as “Dreamers”.

And so, this is a very personal issue for me and should be for all Americans. As I look at the Republicans who are leading the charge against immigration and those working to reframe the debate casting immigrants and refugees in disgraceful and racist terms, I see descendants of Germans, Irish, Italians, and Jews – all of whom were once reviled, locked out, and victims of bigotry.

Tragically, this inclination to forget our history, to succeed in America and then try to close the door and exclude those seeking to take advantage of the same opportunities that benefited our ancestors, is also part of our American story.

In every generation, these two threads of our national narrative – the one that advocated for openness and the other that was exclusionary – have been in competition. In the past, because of hard work and the fact that some leaders listened to “the voices of our better angels”, the vision of the welcoming “Lady in the Harbor” has won out. It is our fight today to make sure she wins again. The soul of America is at stake. We dare not lose.

Harry Belafonte Reflects On Friendship With Martin Luther King Jr

In 1964, when they were both 37, Harry Belafonte and his friend Sidney Poitier traveled to the town of Greenwood, Miss. As the two entertainers made their journey to meet with members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, they were chased and shot at by the Ku Klux Klan. But they succeeded in their mission. They hand-delivered a doctor’s bag filled with $70,000, money collected in a series of small fundraisers, to help with the student committee’s voter registration effort.

It was just one of the many times Belafonte’s actions proved his commitment to the civil rights movement, a commitment he had made years earlier directly to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., when their friendship was new. Over the years, he marched side by side with King, served as a key coordinator for many events (including the March on Washington) and even supported Coretta Scott King, financially by paying for housekeepers and babysitters while her husband traveled the country, and emotionally in the days following King’s assassination, staying with her while she chose the suit in which her husband would be buried.

Fast forward. At 90, Belafonte, a World War II veteran, a cancer survivor, an award-winning singer, actor and outspoken social justice advocate, continues to keep that promise to King in mind. On Jan. 16, the powerful world citizen will be the featured speaker for the student-run University Lecture Series at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

Belafonte spoke to the Tampa Bay Times by phone on Dec. 27, from his home in New York.


What are you reading?
I read a lot of American history. I’m interested in Lincoln and the period in which he decided to be president, and I read his letters and speeches. I read a lot of historical novels. I like to study characters of history that I’m interested in.

I read all I can on W.E.B. DuBois. I see him as the first published intellectual that came from the black community — a brilliant intellectual, a great student. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard. I decided to absorb all I could on the subjects he wrote on.

I’ve also been very interested in Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and certainly all the things by Dr. King. There are some books of fiction I read, but only when critics recommend them. I enjoy nonfiction and books on social studies more, and I am interested in speech analysis.

When you say you have an interest in speech analysis, what does that mean?
For example, Michael Manley, the former prime minister of Jamaica, he was a great public speaker. I liked studying his speeches and what he was referring to.

I understand you considered the prime minister a friend.
Yes, very much so.

And there was your friend Martin Luther King Jr. Do you hold a particular speech of King’s in higher regard than others?
I believe it was the speech he gave here in New York (at the Riverside Church in Upper Manhattan). It was an important speech. It explained why he decided to take on the responsibility of entering into the fray of the issue of Vietnam and world peace. There was a lot of resistance. A lot of people felt the civil rights movement and world peace had no correlation, but I think Dr. King put that idea to rest. He spoke up very strongly in that speech on why he chose to enter his opinion on the war in Vietnam. It was very clearly stated. That was important.

You grew up with undiagnosed dyslexia. How do you encourage parents of children with dyslexia to keep them engaged in learning?
I think people with dyslexia are prone to excel in areas where they are not expected to excel. So my advice is to look for special skills. Watch carefully where their interests lie and encourage their interests. It will reveal some interesting and perhaps unexpected values. When I was born, the disorder was not even known. It was not until well into my life that it was discovered and a lot of people began writing on the subject, and I was a beneficiary of those thoughts.

Do you have plans for your talk at USF?
I speak extemporaneously. I get to the campus as early as necessary, and I try to feel the mood of the campus. I talk to the administration and get a sense of what the students are interested in and speak accordingly.

In the fall at the Carnegie Music Hall in Pittsburgh, you said that you were thinking of not making any more public appearances. I know many people are thankful you are coming. What made you decide to make this appearance?
The fact is that since it is a university, and I simply wanted to accept it. I believe in that, getting my point of view out as much as I can in such a place.

Do you believe, at the beginning of 2018, that the nation is on the right track as far as celebrating the holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.?
I think the nation is on the right track, but not our leaders. Unfortunately, Americans are experiencing Donald Trump as the head of state. He is not a bright man. I don’t think he has the best interest of the American people in mind. So, therefore, I can say we have a lot of work to do. There is a lot of attention to be paid to a lot of issues that Dr. King was very interested in — race relations, issues of war and peace and all of the things that made up the King personality.

What would you most like to see a young person here in Florida do right now?
Speak out and begin a motion to impeach the president and get another election held to get a new president. You don’t need money. If you can just write a letter, you have enough equipment to contact Congress and start the process. It doesn’t require (financial) resources. It just requires commitment.

I think citizens must become more deeply involved in the electoral process. With what happened with us, what we saw during the last presidential election, I don’t think you can take anything for granted. Citizens must exercise a greater consciousness with their vote, and with that, recognize what happens with the absence of their vote. I think that is very important.