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Despite Justice Sotomayor's Passionate Dissent, Right-wing Supreme Court Turns Another Blind Eye to Racism

Wed, 04/23/2014 - 10:06
Sotomayor tries but fails to ‘educate’ her race-blind colleagues.

On Tuesday, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor did not sit idly by as a majority of the men on the court turned yet another blind eye to the ugly realities of how race distorts the lives of Americans as they upheld a Michigan ballot measure banning race-conscious university admissions.

Speaking from the bench and writing the longest dissent of her tenure on the Court, she chided her conservative colleagues for their naivete about race—where they pretend that prejudice will disappear if they say so—and boldly told them, “race matters.”

“Race matters. Race matters in part because of the long history of racial minorities’ being denied access to the political process,” she wrote, citing voting rights. “Race also matters because of persistent racial inequality in society—inequality that cannot be ignored and that has produced stark socioeconomic disparities,” she said, pointing to employment, poverty, health care, housing, consumer transactions and education.

“And race matters for reasons that really are only skin deep, that cannot be discussed any other way, and that cannot be wished away,” she continued. “Race matters to a young man’s view of society when he spends his teenage years watching where he grew up. Race matters to a young woman’s sense of self when she states her hometown, and then is pressed, “No, where are you really from?”, regardless of how many generations her family has been in the country. Race matters to a young person addressed by a stranger in a foreign language, which he does not understand because only English was spoken at home. Race matters because of the slights, the snickers, the silent judgments that reinforce that most crippling of thoughts: “I do not belong here.”

In sum, Sotomayor said that the U.S. Constitution “does not guarantee minority groups guaranteed outcomes [or] victory in the political process,” but that “it does guarantee them meaningful and equal access to the process. It guarantees that the majority may not win by stacking the political process against minority groups permanently.”

Tragically, Sotomayor’s fair-minded view of race and participation is not the majority view on the Supreme Court. If anything, when we look at where the Court has decided to expand “access” to supposedly democratic public processes like elections, what we find is a persistent and ongoing institutional bias toward the wealthiest Americans—who overwhelmingly also are white.

Consider the Court’s notion of access in the context of their latest ruling deregulating campaign finance law, McCutcheon v. FEC. There, the right-wing majority threw out a limit on how much money one person could give to a political party. Writing six-figure checks wasn’t corrupting and didn’t guarantee outcomes, they said, such as lawmakers passing, blocking or modifying legislation or regulations. Access to lawmakers, at top-dollar fundraisers or lobbyists making their rounds at the Capitol, was fine, they said.

But not so with university admissions, in this most recent case from Michigan. And not so when it comes to the formula on the 1960s-era Voting Rights Act that allowed the Justice Department to veto state changes to laws if they are racially discriminatory.

Decisions like these are the basis for institutional barriers that keep hard-working, honest people down. You often hear that “good people” run for political office trying to do the best that they can in a corrupt and bad system. The Supreme Court is one of few power centers in the country that can rebalance and address historic injustices. The other is Congress, of course, and the executive branch.

Finding that balance and protecting minority opinion against mob rule is what the courts and judges are supposed to do—it’s the heart of the law. It’s the basis for a constitutional system of checks and balances. And it’s nowhere to be found in the Chief Justice John Roberts-led rightwing majority on today’s Supreme Court.  

 

       

 

 

 

 

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WATCH: Martin Sheen Stars in Powerful New PSA Calling for Drug Sentencing Reform

Wed, 04/23/2014 - 07:38
The actor and his 'West Wing' alter ego have a clear message for Congress and President Obama. On Tuesday, Brave New Films released a new PSA calling on Congress to pass the Smarter Sentencing Act. The proposed sentencing-reform legislation aims to reduce prison populations and costs by creating less severe minimum terms for nonviolent drug offenders. (On Monday,Yahoo News reported that President Obama could grant clemency to "hundreds, perhaps thousands" of nonviolent drug offenders by the end of his second term.) The video was produced in partnership with the ACLU and Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), and stars actor Martin Sheen. It's titled "President Bartlet has a message for Congress," in reference to Sheen's role on Aaron Sorkin's political drama The West Wing.Watch it here:     "When BNF joined with FAMM and the ACLU to rally support for the Smart Sentencing Act, we couldn't think of a better spokesperson than Martin Sheen," Brave New Films president Robert Greenwald said. "When he portrayed President Bartlett on The West Wing, his character commuted the sentences of nonviolent drug offenders. In the real world, Martin Sheen has been an advocate for sentencing reform and alternatives to the harsh, long prison sentences we give to nonviolent drug offenders."Sheen isn't the only one in Hollywood trying to raise awareness about this. Last year, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson starred in the drama Snitch, a film about a father who reunites with his estranged son after the kid is thrown in prison due to draconian mandatory minimum sentencing laws. The film is based on a 1999 episode of PBS' Frontline titled, "Snitch: How Informants Have Become a Key Part of Prosecutorial Strategy in the Drug War." (FAMM teamed up with Participant Media, the production company behind the film, to createawareness about the issues of mandatory-minimum drug sentencing.) Now here's a clip of Sheen as Bartlet on the West Wing, talking about the failing War on Drugs and the American preison population:   

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VIDEO: Jon Stewart Rips Media's Sexism Over Clinton 'Grandma' News

Wed, 04/23/2014 - 06:39
'The news media has set the 2016 speculatron.'

Jon Stewart tore into the searingly obvious media and Republican sexism surrounding the announcement that Hillary Clinton will become a grandmother later this year. After showing a barrage of clips of talking heads asking what effect Cllinton's new status wil have on her likely campaign or possible presidency, Stewart asked, rhetorically, "Do you think the question might be sexist?" Then he answered his own question: "No, no, even though it's never been posed to a male candidate."

A quick review of recent history makes the point that in 2012, a grandfather to a "litter of grandchildren," Mitt Romney, lost to someone who has never been a grandfather. "Somehow, the grandchild factor never came up," Stewart said. This despite the fact that Romney has a virtual "grandchild petting zoo."

While Hillary is the latest example of media and political double standards, Stewart also mentioned Sen. Dianne Feinstein being called "emotional" for wanting the CIA torture reports released, and Chris Christie's fired aide Bridget Kelly being described as having "boyfriend problems" in a Bridgegate report.

Stewart's conclusion: In politics, "It's okay to be a p*ssy as long as you have a d*ck."

Watch:

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Airbnb’s Big Bait-and-Switch

Tue, 04/22/2014 - 14:55
The popular sharing economy pioneer responds to political pressure by purging its listings.

Airbnb was in court in New York on Tuesday, battling with the state attorney general over the question of how much information about its “hosts” the company should be required to reveal to the state. The case has attracted much attention, because New York is simultaneously one of Airbnb’s biggest markets, and its most fiercely fought battleground with regulators. There’s plenty at stake — not least of which is Airbnb’s brand-new $10 billion valuation, following a $500 million round of investment that closed last week. In 2013, Airbnb pulled in $250 million in revenue from its thousands of hosts. That’s real money.

Real money, in the “sharing” economy.

Airbnb and its advocates argue, with some justice, that the current laws regulating short-term rentals are outmoded and don’t fit the new business models nurtured by cloud computing and smartphones. That’s undoubtedly true, though as the New York Times’ David Streitfeld wrote in a smart piece on Tuesday, the regulatory mess is at least partially the result of the fact that for “sharing economy” companies, “questions about safety, taxes and regulation have tended to be an afterthought.” Silicon Valley sees no problem with breaking the law first, and then lobbying to fix it later.

A “crowd-funded” ad organized by Peers.org, an outfit that advocates for sharing economy companies and was co-founded by an executive of Airbnb, declares that “we’re asking lawmakers for more sharing, not less. We want to play by the rules, but New York needs laws that are safe, fair, and clear. Support sharing. Fix the law.”

It would be nice if the Peers ad clarified that in the case of Airbnb, “sharing” actually means “short-term rentals,” but that horse left the barn a long time ago. Whatever we call  what happens when one person rents out living space to another, there is little doubt that there is significant political support, particularly among younger people, for a regulatory structure that is more friendly to how Airbnb conducts business. In Silver Lake, a Los Angeles neighborhood that has been witnessing its own Airbnb regulatory showdown, a slate of supporters of Airbnb rentals won election to a neighborhood council last week.

But everyone agitating for laws more friendly to Airbnb should take a closer look at some of the details of the New York legal struggle. In the New York Times, Streitfeld points out that when the state attorney general’s office investigated exactly who was posting listings on the Airbnb platform, it discovered a funny thing.

On Jan. 31, there were 19,522 listings for New York City properties on Airbnb from 15,677 hosts, according to data the attorney general submitted to the court. But nearly a third of the listings were from only 12 percent of the hosts.

One Airbnb landlord had 127 listings in Manhattan on a single weekend last fall. Sixteen other landlords had at least 15 listings each.

By no stretch of the imagination can this be properly considered the “sharing economy.” The data prove that nearly a third of Airbnb’s New York listings were generated by landlords who were cashing in on the ability to make a profit from offering short-term hotel rentals without having to pay the normal costs borne by the hotel sector — taxes, safety compliance and so on.

Now, if I were one of the people mobilized by Peers.org to contact my congressional representative or state senator to lobby for laws more accommodating to Airbnb, I might look at those numbers and wonder what, exactly, I’ve been supporting.

Airbnb responded to the data with a purge. On Sunday, Airbnb’s director of public policy, David Hantman, noted in a blog post that the company was rushing to clean up its listings.

But when we examined our community in New York, we found that some property managers weren’t providing a quality, local experience to guests. These hosts weren’t making their neighborhood stronger and they weren’t delivering the kind of hospitality our guests expect and deserve. In some cases, they were making communities worse, not better. We took a hard look at our community in New York to identify these hosts and we took action.

Earlier this year, we began notifying these hosts that they and their more than 2,000 listings would be permanently removed from the Airbnb community. While we are allowing these hosts to support their existing bookings, all are now prohibited from accepting new reservations and if you search for a place to stay in New York, you won’t find these listings.

Fair enough. But let’s not be naive. Would Airbnb be engaging in a mass cleanup of its listings if it hadn’t been on the receiving end of close government scrutiny? Remember — New York is one of Airbnb’s largest markets and the company raked in revenue of $250 million in 2013. A significant chunk of that revenue must have come from absentee landlords maximizing their income from multiple properties. That’s real money, and Airbnb was happy to accept it … until it became politically unfeasible to do so.

Why is any of this important? Because it’s worth understanding that over the last couple of years, when Airbnb has rallied political support for its business model by declaring, flat out, that it is pioneering a better way for humans to relate to each other, that it has been building trust between strangers and helping people struggling in a tough economy earn some extra dollars, and that “sharing” a room is somehow morally better than paying for a hotel room, what the company has also been doing is making quite a bit of money off absentee landlords who have been exploiting its platform to offer hotel-like services without conforming to hotel regulations. And it seems pretty clear, in the New York case, that the company didn’t start seriously cleaning up its listings until real political pressure was brought to bear.

Airbnb provides a service that people clearly want. It is inevitable that the rules will be modified to provide room for its operations. Cloud computing and smartphones allow for much more efficient allocation and coordination of resources, and the existing hotel industry will be forced to adapt. That’s cool.

But we’ve also been told, repeatedly, that we should trust the sharing economy to regulate itself, because, somehow, it will be in the market’s best interest not to misbehave. But the record shows that the short-term rental economy will not regulate itself; that it will, instead, seek to make as much money as it can while the getting is good. Until someone pays attention.

 

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Chelsea Clinton's Pregnancy Gives Birth to New Right-Wing Conspiracies

Tue, 04/22/2014 - 14:45
A new kind of Birtherism.

Exciting news from the American political scene: birtherism is back! No, not birtherism as in the nonsensical conspiracy theory about Barack Obama actually being born in Kenya, once so popular among political geniuses including Donald Trump. Please – that kind of birtherism is so 2008 (and 2009. And 2010. And 2011. And 2012 …) I'm talking about the all new, all shiny 2014 birtherism: Clinton birtherism!

Chelsea Clinton, as you may have heard, is expecting a baby with her husband, Marc Mezvinsky. What's that you say? "Awwwww"? "Bless the happy couple"? Well, I'm afraid you're just not trying hard enough because, over in the US, the noise that greeted this happy announcement was the sound of a million axes being ground.

First came the inevitable weirdy-weirdos who are so incapable of thinking about anything other than women's reproductive organs for more than two seconds that they managed to turn Clinton's birth announcement into a debate about abortion: "It's no secret that the Clintons support abortion," intoned an editorial in the Christian Post sorrowfully. "But when it's their own grandchild, it appears the Clintons see things differently. No talk of a non-person foetus, only of a child." Yes, the sheer hypocrisy! Imagine, wanting to give women access to abortion, but not actually wanting to abort every single pregnancy? Seriously, my brain is bursting trying to compute this nonsensical contradiction.

Next came the new birthers who saw not the happy miracle of life but mere campaigning. Newsmax's Steve Malzberg kicked off proceedings nicely with the statement: "When I say [the pregnancy is] staged I have to believe she's pregnant, if she says she's pregnant." That's generous of you, Steve! Pray, continue: "But what great timing! God answeredHillary Clinton's prayers and she's going to have the prop of being a new grandma while she runs for president."

Yes, the prop of one's 34-year-old married daughter having a baby! Whoever heard of such a crazy scenario? Those scheming Clintons really will do anything to get ahead. Bill may well, in his day, have played a role in various women's sex lives, but who knew he could command his own daughter to conceive? Others echoed Malzberg's sentiment, with much talk of Hillary Clinton deliberately "softening her image" and "adding compassion" to her persona via the medium of her unborn grandchild. People who actually seem to believe this span the political spectrum, ranging from conservative writer Michael Goldfarb, who tweeted: "Just in time for HRC [Hillary Rodham Clinton] to have a baby on stage with her when she announces she's running, right?", to New York Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin, who said on MSNBC: "Can we talk about the human drama that is Grandma Clinton? I'm not suggesting that anyone's having a baby for election purposes, but …" Gotta love that "but"! And what is this "human drama … Grandma Clinton"? Is it a new HBO series? Because I've been looking for a new one since Breaking Bad finished.

But by far the biggest debate is this: can Hillary Clinton run for president AND be a grandmother? Oh, women – always wanting to have it all, aren't they? Well-known US TV journalists have expressed disbelief that the two roles could possibly be combined: "President or grandmother?" asked Charlie Rose, who somehow manages to combine being a prominent interviewer while also being an occasional ass. On NBC, David Gregory fretted over whether Clinton's impending grandmotherhood will "factor into" her decision to run. "I don't know, David. Did the birth of your three children make you worse at your job?"snapped Erin Gloria Ryan at Jezebel.com. Sadly, Gregory has yet to respond. "Perhaps it's sexist even to ask the question," began an editorial in the Christian Science Monitor, promisingly. "If we had to guess, we'd say that Hillary Clinton will be a tad less interested in running for president now that she's about to be a grandmother." Yes, you know what those old ladies are like: one hint of a grandchild and they're too busy knitting booties to bother worrying about world affairs.

Who knew being a grandmother was such an all-encompassing job; one that prevented a woman from doing anything else? As it happens, the Sunday Times reminded readers of this fact when, in a front page headline, it described the distinguished Margaret Archer, head of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, simply as "Grandmother, 71". Whether stories about, say, David Attenborough will now be headlined in the Times "Grandfather, 88" have not yet been confirmed. But then, women must always be defined by their fertility, or even their children's fertility, whereas men are, of course, defined by their jobs.

Just as old-school birtherism – "Barack Obama was actually born in Kenya!" – was really just code for "Holy hell, we can't possibly have a black man as president!", so the current birtherism – "Hillary can't possibly be a grandmother and run for office!" – is really just code for "Holy hell, we can't possibly have a woman as president, and an OLD one to boot!" Mitt Romney, to take one random and deeply obvious example, is the proud grandfather of 23 grandchildren, two of whom were born while he was on the campaign trail, and not once was this raised as a potential disadvantage. Many presidents have been grandfathers in office, although it's actually quite hard to figure out how many because, guess what? No one ever gave a good God damn, so no one kept track. Funnily enough, Jeb Bush, who may well be Clinton's opponent in 2016, is also a grandfather, but that has yet to be raised as an issue against him. Then again, he does come with other baggage. So Clinton can console herself with this thought: if the most idiots can knock her for is being a grandmother, she probably has that election sewn up.

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The Dark Truth Behind The Popular Superfood, Quinoa

Tue, 04/22/2014 - 13:11
As the hype around quinoa builds, so do big questions about the problems with its production. 

Quinoa is rising up the popularity charts as a food staple in U.S. and Europe. A growing spate of positive coverage cites quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wa) as a high-protein grain-like relative of spinach and beets which is a newly discovered gluten-free superfood. Its growing popularity has also spawned a growing source of controversy, following reports that high global quinoa prices put the crop out of reach for the people who grow it.

Many Americans want to get down to the bottom line: Should I eat it or not? Tanya Kerrsen, a Bolivia-based researcher for Food First who studies quinoa, thinks that is the wrong question.

“The debate has largely been reduced to the invisible hand of the marketplace, in which the only options for shaping our global food system are driven by (affluent) consumers either buying more or buying less,” she writes. “…whichever way you press the lever (buy more/buy less) there are bound to be negative consequences, particularly for poor farmers in the Global South.”

So what should you know about quinoa and its complex story?

Let’s begin by looking at the Bolivian Altiplano, the high flat plain in the Andes where quinoa originates, from the perspective you might have if you were to visit. Two and three miles above sea level, the Quechua (modern-day Inca) and Aymara (a people who pre-date the Inca) still live in the same place where they first domesticated quinoa as well as potatoes and many indigenous crops you’ve probably never heard of: oca, arracacha, kañawa, isaño, papaliza, and much more.

In the north, around Lake Titicaca, you’ll encounter warm days and cold nights. Altitudes range from 10,000 feet and up. Here you’ll observe a wide variety of crops and livestock: potatoes, barley, lima beans, sheep, pigs, dairy cows, and even guinea pigs (yes, raised for food). You might see some quinoa, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a single llama, even though they were domesticated in this region.

Travel south and the temperature gets cold and the climate drier. Cows and sheep give way to llamas and alpacas. The land is covered in shrubs and grasses, although if you head over near the mountain Sajama you can see the world’s highest forest. Even still, the trees are tiny and stunted compared to what you might think of as a tree. Most crops would be unable to grow here, but the llamas and alpacas happily survive off of the native vegetation, as do their wild cousins, vicuñas. As a tourist, you might choose to visit the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flats, which form an amazing landscape—literally, a sea of salt.

It is here in the Southern Altiplano, near the salt flats, where one finds quinoa growing for export.

In areas where Bolivians can grow more diverse crops and raise more profitable livestock, they do. But here, very little grows. According to Kerssen, “Quinoa was particularly well-suited to areas with 'high climatic risk' such as the southern Altiplano—able to withstand levels of drought, salinity, wind, hail, and frost in which other crops would perish.” The region is characterized by very little rainfall, more than 200 frost days per year, and poor soils.

The history of this part of the country, and its people, has been virtually dictated by its natural resources and climate. In pre-Columbian times, Andean peoples obtained balanced diets by trading extensively with their neighbors at other altitudes, often based on kinship ties.

This was disrupted when the Spanish found silver nearby in 1545. In the following centuries, an enormous percentage of the local population was conscripted into slave labor in the mines, and many never returned. The Spanish also set up haciendas in much of the country, in which the indigenous farmed to produce food and wealth for white landowners. The haciendas continued long after Bolivia’s independence, until the Bolivian revolution in 1952.

Between the mining and haciendas, traditional kinship ties and community organization was radically interrupted in much of the country. But the harsh climate and poor farming conditions for growing European crops kept the modern quinoa-growing region largely outside the hacienda system.

Through this time, land was managed communally. The flat grasslands were used as a grazing area for llamas and alpacas, and quinoa planting took place on hillside terraces, which Kerssen explains were “allocated by traditional authorities based on a family’s needs.” Remember, before the age of tractors, a family’s supply of labor corresponded to the number of mouths it had to feed. This traditional management system ensured that each field would be left fallow for many years following a quinoa crop to allow the nutrient-poor soil to recover fertility and to prevent pests and diseases.

For centuries and until recently, the indigenous people of Bolivia were typically either ignored by the outside world or oppressed and exploited by them. Even after the white minority in Bolivia established its own government independent of Spain, the indigenous remained an underclass in their own country. Healthy indigenous foods like llama and quinoa were looked down upon as “dirty” and Indian food, and the indigenous and their traditional ways were seen as a roadblock standing in the way of national development.

This is where our modern quinoa story starts.

The first change started in the 1970s. This was at the end of an era when U.S. Cold War policy hoped to stave off communism by introducing hybrid seeds, pesticides, fertilizers, irrigation, and tractors in the Global South.

The initial plan for Bolivia, drawn up by an American in the late 1940s, did not have high hopes for poor peasants of the southern Altiplano and the harsh environment they lived in. After the Bolivian Revolution in 1952, the new government successfully convinced the U.S. that they were all that stood between Bolivia going communist. The U.S. supported them with excessive amounts of aid; in some years U.S. aid accounted for a quarter of Bolivia’s national budget.

While the southern Altiplano was hardly the focus of this aid, they were not entirely cut off from it either. By the 1970s, the first tractors reached the quinoa-growing region. “The introduction of the tractor is the major game-changer for quinoa and for the transformation of the environment,” notes Kerssen.

This is for two reasons. First, the tractors cannot operate on terraced hillsides where quinoa was traditionally grown, so quinoa production moved to the flat pampas where llama herds traditionally grazed instead. Second, while they are much more efficient than farming with hand tools or plowing with draft animals, tractors are worse for soil fertility than their “primitive” alternatives.

That isn’t to say nobody should ever use a tractor, but it’s a factor to consider, particularly when farming on the “fragile, sandy and volcanic soils of the southern Altiplano, which are characterized by high salinity, a scarcity of organic matter, and low moisture retention capacity,” as Kerssen describes them. Additionally, the soils of the hillside terraces, where quinoa was previously grown, contain more clay, nutrients, and organic matter than the pampas. So tractors not only negatively impacts soil fertility, they also necessitate moving from areas of better soil to areas of worse soil.

Meanwhile, during this time, U.S. food aid imports were changing the national diet from traditional Andean foods to cheap, processed wheat products from the U.S. Even today, anyone visiting Bolivia will see vendors selling enormous bags of small white bread rolls on the streets. You’ll be lucky if you find anyone selling pan integral (whole wheat bread), as it’s not the norm.

Back then, when the first tractors appeared, Bolivia was still decades away from the quinoa boom. In the 1980s, the people suffered when, under U.S. influence, its government imposed severe economic austerity. With few prospects to make a living in the economically depressed southern Altiplano, many left. Those who remained had a hard time keeping up labor-intensive farming activities, like animal husbandry. And, of course, with less labor around, tractors became more necessary for those who could access them.

Quinoa export to the U.S. began in 1984. At first, it was not easy. Processing quinoa was done manually, and the end product might taste bitter if its bitter-tasting mildly toxic coating of saponins was not sufficiently removed. Back then, you might even find a small rock in your quinoa, which would have been threshed and winnowed by hand.

With little external support, a cooperative formed by quinoa producing communities, set out to find a better way. They traveled to Peru and Brazil to learn about processing machinery for other commodities, and attempted to build their own quinoa equipment based on a barley hulling machine. In the 1990s, the outside world stepped in. The United Nations financed construction of processing plants, and in 2005, the U.S. and Denmark helped develop new technologies to improve efficiency and quality.

Health-conscious readers in the U.S. already know the end of the story. Quinoa took off. After the prices paid to Bolivian farmers hovered around $500 per metric ton for decades, they skyrocketed to nearly $800 in 2008 and over $1300 in 2010.

With higher prices, families sold off llama herds to grow quinoa on former grazing land and to invest in tractors. The symbiosis of quinoa and llamas, taking and restoring fertility from the soil in turn, was broken. Instead of leaving a field fallow for many years after harvesting a crop, now Kerssen meets many farmers who grow quinoa on their land every other year, or even every year, without allowing the fragile land time to recover. And manure, once abundant from llamas, is now in short supply.

Kerssen has seen this first-hand. While she has seen studies claiming that quinoa can be grown sustainably with short fallow periods if the farmers restore the soil with lots of organic matter (i.e. manure), “then you see a lot of quinoa production… where the plants are very small, very stunted, not very much grain, the soil looks like sand, where it's just clear that very little organic matter has been introduced to the soil,” she says.

“As the animal herds are reduced, the price of animal manure has gone up through the roof,” she continues. “You used to have very easy access to it in your community because almost every community had large herds. That [llama herding] was primarily what they did. But now manure has become this boom commodity and the de facto result of that is that it’s the more well-capitalized farmers with more money who can access the manure, and not the poorer farmers. So I think a lot of evidence points to a process of greater inequality.”

Another consequence is social, as those who have moved to the cities come back to cash in by growing quinoa on their family’s lands. These are folks who are no longer used to abiding by the rules of the rural communities and who continue to live in the cities, visiting their fields a few times a year to plant and harvest. In other words, they do not have the same stake in community that full time residents have.

“When you go through the southern Altiplano,” Kerssen recalls, “It still looks totally abandoned. It looks like it's been bombed out. There are no kids in the schools and the homes are in very, very poor condition for the most part.” Locals, understandably, have little tolerance for urbanites and outsiders hoping to come to the area to make a quick buck in quinoa, and then take their money and leave.

“One thing communities have started saying,” Kerssen explains, is “if you're going to be here and if you're going to grow quinoa, then everyone is required to make certain kinds of investments. It's decided in these community meetings, everything is by consensus.” Perhaps a community will decide that quinoa growers must invest their profits in building a decent bathroom for each family or into a local school. “It's different in every community, but they're making these self-regulations to ensure that the money does not totally leave the community.”

The last issue that is often raised is nutrition. Quinoa became popular because of its health value, yet the quinoa-growing region is the most malnourished in Bolivia because farmers cannot afford to eat their own crops. They sell their high-value quinoa and buy cheaper, less nourishing foods instead. Kerssen sees this as a problem with a history going back as far as the Spanish conquest, when the traditional system of trade among peoples of various altitudes and ecosystems was interrupted.

“I think a lot of pretty simplistic statements have been made which have really scandalized people about how the quinoa boom is pulling quinoa out of the reach of the producers who can no longer afford to eat it, and the situation is much more complex than that,” she says. “The reality is that Oruro and Potosi [the areas where quinoa is grown for export] have the highest rates of infant malnutrition probably in South America. Now is that caused by quinoa or caused by the quinoa boom?

“No, obviously not,” she answers, “Because the causes go very deep going back to the Spanish conquest and the isolation and marginalization of people who used to, through their social systems, have access to all kinds of foods—fruits, vegetables, fish from Lake Titicaca...." But, this is a region that will never have a healthy, diversified diet if they are limited to locally produced food.

Still, she sees truth in the notion that quinoa producers sell off their crops to buy cheaper foods like rice and pasta. "People say it's more worthwhile for me, for my food security, to sell quinoa and to buy things that are cheaper like wheat and rice, that are less healthy but that fill you up… There's no doubt in my mind that that is happening to some degree, but I think it's important to emphasize that malnutrition and hunger and poverty go way back before quinoa was widely produced.”

“I think that there's a development question that's at the core of all development everywhere in the world that is no different here, in Africa, or in the US, which is does having a higher income necessarily lead to better health and a better quality of life? And we know that it doesn't, or it doesn’t necessarily.”

Despite the controversies and the problems, Kerssen sees the quinoa boom as a victory for Andean peasants. “The peasants have been fighting for a market during the most brutal period of neoliberalism. But what’s also clear is that this has gotten away from them, and some things have happened now that they didn’t expect. Now they are dealing with the consequences of it.”

She feels troubled that American accounts of the story “either fall on the side of ‘the quinoa boom is amazing and it's lifting people out of poverty’ or ‘the quinoa boom is terrible and is destroying people's lives,’ and in both of those narratives the indigenous people are given no agency… If we know about quinoa at all in the north, it's because of peasants really fighting anti-peasant policies during the most anti-peasant period… these people being like what can we do to survive on the land with our culture doing something that is culturally appropriate."

Anyone who has visited Bolivia and studied its history knows not to discount the power of the local people, who built one of the most impressive civilizations in the New World and survived centuries of exploitation, keeping their cultures and ways of life largely intact, and ultimately ousting an unpopular, U.S.-backed president in 2003, leading to the election of their first indigenous president ever, Evo Morales.

Today, Kerssen sees many communities “especially in the traditional quinoa growing zone really taking seriously the issue of soil erosion, the issue of social conflicts, due not entirely to the quinoa boom but certainly exacerbated by it.” And, it won’t be surprising at all if they partner with local scientists and NGOs to overcome their problems and continue selling quinoa to the world.

So, given all this, back to the original question: should you buy quinoa or not? Kerssen thinks this question misses the point, reinforcing the idea “that we just need to blindly depend on marketing forces when really the struggle for food sovereignty and the right of farmers goes so far beyond that. It goes to the regulation of trade and the regulation of the food supply and education in Bolivia, around the native crops.”

She concludes, saying, “The fact of the matter is that pretty much everywhere in the world, food that’s produced by peasants, especially native foods, have never gotten any support over, and… one of these foods has now become globally profitable.”

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Surge of Attention to Crusading Economists Piketty's New Book Takes Us to the Big Question of How to Reduce Inequality

Tue, 04/22/2014 - 11:09
Finance is under-taxed, making a global wealth tax more timely than ever.

Thomas Piketty's new book, “Capital for the 21st Century,” has done a remarkable job of focusing public attention on the growth of inequality in the last three decades and the risk that it will grow further in the decades ahead. Piketty's basic point on this issue is almost too simple for economists to understand: If the rate of return on wealth (r) is greater than the rate of growth (g), then wealth is likely to become ever more concentrated.

This raises the obvious question of what can be done to offset this tendency toward rising inequality? Piketty's answer is that we need a global wealth tax (GWT) to redistribute from the rich to everyone else. That is a reasonable solution if we're just working out the arithmetic in this story, but don't expect many politicians to be running on the GWT platform any time soon.

If we want to counter the rise in inequality that we have seen in recent decades we are going to have to find other mechanisms for reversing this upward redistribution. Specifically, we will have to look to ways to reduce the rents earned by the wealthy. These rents stem from government interventions in the economy that have the effect of redistributing income upward. In Piketty's terminology cutting back these rents means reducing r, the rate of return on wealth.

Fortunately, we have a full bag of policy tools to accomplish precisely this task. The best place to start is the financial industry, primarily since this sector is so obviously a ward of the state and in many ways a drain on the productive economy.

A new IMF analysis found the value of the implicit government insurance provided to too big to fail banks was $50 billion a year in the United States and $300 billion a year in the euro zone. The euro zone figure is more than 20 percent of after-tax corporate profits in the area. Much of this subsidy ends up as corporate profits or income to top banking executives.

In addition to this subsidy we also have the fact that finance is hugely under-taxed, a view shared by the IMF. Itrecommends a modest value-added tax of 0.2 percent of GDP (at $35 billion a year). We could also do a more robust financial transactions tax like Japan had in place in its boom years which raised more than 1.0 percent of GDP ($170 billion a year).

In this vein, serious progressives should be trying to stop plans to privatize Fannie and Freddie and replace them with a government subsidized private system. Undoubtedly we will see many Washington types praising Piketty as they watch Congress pass this giant new handout to the one percent.

The pharmaceutical industry also benefits from enormous rents through government granted patent monopolies. We spend more than $380 billion (2.2 percent of GDP) a year on drugs. We would spend 10 to 20 percent of this amount in a free market. We would not only have cheaper drugs, but likely better medicine if we funded research upfront instead of through patent monopolies since it would eliminate incentives to lie about research findings and conceal them from other researchers.

There are also substantial rents resulting from monopoly power in major sectors like telecommunications and air travel. We also give away public resources in areas like broadcast frequencies and airport landing slots. And we don't charge the fossil fuel industry for destroying the environment. A carbon tax that roughly compensated for the damages could raise between $80 to $170 billion a year (0.5 to 1.0 percent of GDP).

This short list gives us plenty of places where we could pursue policies that would lower profits to the benefit of the vast majority of the population. And, these are all ways in which a lower return to capital should be associated with increased economic efficiency. This means that, unlike pure redistributionist measures like taxing the rich, we would have a larger pie that would even allow for some buying off of the losers.

These are the sorts of measures that economists usually try to seek out when the pain is inflicted on ordinary workers. Economists are big fans of trade agreements that arguably boost growth but lead to a loss of jobs and wages for manufacturing workers. For some reason economists don't have the same interest in economic efficiency when the losers are the rich, but that is no reason the rest of us should not use good economic reasoning in designing an agenda.

In addition to the rent reducing measures listed above, there are redistributionist measures that we should support, such as higher minimum wages, mandated sick days and family leave, and more balanced labor laws that again allow workers the right to organize. Such measures should help to raise wages at the expense of a lower rate of return to wealth.

If this post-Piketty agenda sounds a great deal like the pre-Piketty agenda, it's because the book probably did not change the way most progressives think about the world. The basic story is that income and wealth are being redistributed upward.

Piketty has produced an enormous amount of data to support what we already pretty much knew. This is very helpful. However the real question is how are we going to reverse this upward redistribution. For better or worse, Piketty pretty much leaves us back with our usual bag of tricks. We just might feel a greater urgency to use them.

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Stop Lamenting Capitalism's Crushing of Working Class Gains and Start Organizing! 

Tue, 04/22/2014 - 10:27
Long-time organizer and activist Jane McAlevey challenges the abandonment of organizing by progressives.

Looking back to the defeat of the labor movement since the early 1980s, three lessons seem especially important. First, any gains made under capitalism are temporary; they can be reversed. Second, the kind of unionism we developed in that earlier period of gains was inherently limited; it left us in a poor position to respond to the subsequent attacks. Third, absent new forms of working class organization and practices, fatalism takes over and worker expectations fall.

Raising Expectations (And Raising Hell),” newly out in paperback from Verso, is part memoir, part organizing manual, and part rejoinder to that fatalism. Jane McAlevey is a long-time organizer in the student, environmental and, over the past two decades, labor movements. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate at City University of New York, which she has integrated into her continuing life as a labor organizer. Her message, based on her experiences and achievements, is that as much as capitalism has diminished workers and undermined their confidence in affecting their lives, workers can overcome — but only if they themselves become organizers inside both the workplace and community.

While any such organizing begins with workers’ needs, it is workers’ expectations of their own ability to intervene — and of the support from their unions in doing so — that must especially be raised. McAlevey refuses to romanticize workers or glorify spontaneity. But she deeply respects working people and genuinely appreciates their creative potential, a respect reflected in her refusal to be shy about challenging workers to reach their potential.

Organizing strategy is McAlevey’s forte, and two examples highlight her approach. In 1998, following the moment in the mid-nineties when the AFL-CIO had become desperate enough to allow some real experimentation to take place, McAlevey was sent to Stamford, Conn., to direct an organizing drive, the Stamford Organizing Project. Stamford had one of the lowest union densities in all of New England.

A number of aspects of that drive stand out. First, as obvious as it might seem to cooperate across unions, it is in fact extremely rare to see unions getting together to “pool resources, share lists, and adhere to collectively made decisions.” To the credit of the four locals involved (most of whose leadership came from an oppositional and left tradition), they saw beyond a parochial concern to gain new dues-paying members and grasped the need to build the class across sectors and across racial and gendered divisions.

Second, when a main concern of the workers turned out to revolve around access to housing, McAlevey shifted the unionization drive to make housing a primary focus — class was not just a workplace relationship. The confidence, skills, and alliances developed in that campaign, and the corresponding credibility gained for the labor movement, were key to organizing unions and winning strong contracts.

Breaking down the distinction between the workplace and the community and putting an emphasis on community allies is itself not unusual in such struggles; what was distinct was that rather than seeing the community as an “other,” McAlevey emphasized the extent to which workers were themselves part of the community; success depended on workers becoming the key organizers in bringing the community around. “When union staff try to do it in place of workers,” McAlevey writes, “they blow it.”

Some six years later, just before the split in the AFL-CIO in 2005, McAlevey was sent by SEIU to organize public and private hospitals in Nevada. Because Nevada became a right-to-work state, with workers having the right to opt out of paying dues, the thin organizing that unions commonly practice couldn’t work. McAlevey’s team identified and supported organic worker-leaders. The intensive, face-face organizing that followed, with increasingly confident workers now “in constant conversation with one another about everything going on” raised the share of dues-paying union members from 25 percent to 80 percent and higher — enough of a difference to distinguish between collective begging and collective bargaining.

This was accomplished by honing a rigorous system of mapping the workplace thoroughly and continuously, and then building and deliberately testing the workers’ capacities throughout the campaign. Alongside this, McAlevey insisted that to build the kind of power necessary to win in the particularly hostile context of Nevada demanded an inclusive bargaining unit — one that brought nurses and lab technicians together with janitors, laundry workers, and food preparation staff.

To a degree virtually unheard of in labor negotiations, McAlevey pressed to open up the bargaining sessions to the members. The bargaining team included “one worker to the team for every twenty-five workers in the larger units and for every fifteen workers in the smaller units,” and this was done “by unit and shift so that we had every kind of worker input.” All members were welcome and “encouraged to attend negotiations, whether for a day, an hour, or a coffee break.”

This had, as McAlevey acknowledges, its risks and demanded a great deal of preparation and internal discipline if it wasn’t to become a free for all. But in the end, such “big bargaining” greatly contributed to winning over members disillusioned about the union and their role within it.

In both examples, and central to all of McAlevey’s organizing, is the priority given to carrying out the most in-depth power analysis of what workers are up against and where they can exercise leverage in their struggle. This involves mapping and charting the power not only of the companies being unionized or bargained with, but in the communities in which the struggle is taking place.

And it includes both the conventional metrics of identifying power brokers, community leaders, state-corporate links, and others, and qualitative assessments by the workers themselves of both the power arrayed against them and the power they can bring to bear. The information gathered and the process of gathering it then become integral to developing workers’ strategic understandings and capacities.

Some critics of the book have accused McAlevey of self-promotion for the book’s emphasis on her own role in these events. This seems rather churlish. Both the device of making her points through a memoir based on her personal experience and the informal style were clearly intended to make it more accessible to lay readers and rank-and-file unionists. (The publishers apparently asked for the personalized subtitle of “My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement.”) Moreover, McAlevey is very generous in pointing to her mentors and giving them and earlier organizers credit for the model she applies.

Judgments of McAlevey’s personality are beside the point. The real question is whether she has written a book that contributes to addressing labor’s current impasse. And on this score, it is difficult to imagine even such critics denying that she has something important to say.

McAlevey has also been attacked — most notably by respected labor journalist Steve Early — for her criticism of Sal Rosselli, the SEIU leader of a key local in California who broke away, after the SEIU’s imposition of a trusteeship, to form the National Union of Healthcare Workers.

Early’s attack is doubly unfortunate. First, McAlevey’s book only mentions Rosselli in passing. Challenging her brief comments is one thing; focusing on those few passages to essentially dismiss the book is another. Second, whatever disagreements there may be between Early and McAlevey on this specific issue, they are on the same side in their antipathy to the role of the SEIU leadership. As McAlevey says in her new afterward, “While the Birthers and Tea Party were effectively mobilizing town halls all across the nation to destroy health care–reforms, SEIU’s health-care organizers were busy blowing up one of their best local unions.”

Most important, however, in terms of discussions of organizing models, have been suggestions that as a staff representative herself, McAlevey presents a model that is staff-driven. We should, of course, be wary of organizing models that substitute staff for the participation of workers. But the very point of McAlevey’s work is to combat that kind of relationship between staff and rank-and-file and replace it with an orientation to remaking the working class into a social force with the capacity to make its own decisions.

As she said of the Stamford process, “I was proposing that the bulk of this work not be done directly by union organizers but by the workers themselves.” It was, in fact, McAlevey’s refusal to toe SEIU’s deal-making model, which she has referred to elsewhere as “organizing the company,” and to repeatedly insist on organizing the workers, that got her in trouble with the SEIU top leadership.

Yet the issue here isn’t just to reject the role of staff. In the building of militant, democratic, community-centered unions, full-time staff have an essential role to play as catalysts and support systems for bringing in and bringing out the best in the members. To ignore this is to obscure all the difficult but necessary issues of how to establish the proper context for staffers to play this kind of role.

The larger issue here revolves around the nature of organizing. An essentialist view of workers as being inherently militant, solidaristic and strategy-wise doesn’t grasp the actual state of the working class. If workers already had the needed capacities fully formed, they would have organized themselves long ago.

Organizing is about moving people from where they currently are to someplace that brings out their potential as social agents. It involves developing the individual and collective capacities — alongside the structures, tactics and strategies — that can match what workers are up against. Most labor leaders today, McAlevey asserts, think that in the “self-centered, plugged-in, globalized country this nation has become,” deep workplace and community organizing is impossible. Her experiences prove otherwise.

The organizing model McAlevey proposes, based on her experience and with roots in early CIO practices, demands a heavy commitment of union resources (McAlevey hasn’t shied away from supporting large dues increases) and depends on experienced organizers (who may or may not be staff) playing a catalyst role. The identification of informal leaders is given much greater attention than most unions’ traditional organizing models since the de facto leaders, as McAlevey repeatedly emphasizes, are not generally the formal, elected leaders.

Organizing is a continuous process, beginning with power mapping, testing to hone mobilization capacities, then acting. It connects individual and collective action and passes on analytical and strategic skills to workers. It develops workers’ self-confidence through demonstrating that employers and politicians can be taken on and demands won. It is suspicious of the legalisms of grievance handling, instead focusing on workers addressing grievances through direct action. It keeps the union members fully informed, opens the bargaining process to much broader direct participation, doesn’t shy away from strikes, and it looks to the workers themselves to organize their communities.

And yet for all the concrete demonstrations that this model of organizing works, it did not spread across the labor movement. The exciting example in Connecticut of unions cooperating with each other and moving into the community — and subsequently gaining members and first contracts, successfully intervening to save and improve public housing projects and gaining representation in local politics — did not spread. In Nevada, an impressive number of workers overcame the state’s anti-labor legislation and joined the SEIU, and the contracts won were quite remarkable, including the breakthrough in Nevada’s health care sector for fully employer-paid family health care. Yet this too faded, undone by both legitimate disagreements and petty turf wars. What are we to make of this?

The dilemma is that this organizing model rests on unions being open to real organizing, committing the resources, standing ready to accept some turmoil within their organizations, and trusting the members rather than looking to broker deals with corporations. But unions that would agree to such a program are distressingly rare. Creating them essentially requires revolutions inside unions — something that is unlikely to happen through any spontaneous dynamic strictly internal to unions.

Without the existence of a left committed to class struggle and with its feet inside and outside workplaces, unions that have transformed into the kinds of organizing machines McAlevey helped create will remain the exception. But such a left, with links to workers and a capacity to develop organizers where workers are looking for help and workers that might transform their unions, is itself at an impasse. Much as many of us might think of the Left as the most self-conscious part of the class struggle, their impasse is as difficult to overcome as unions.’

In this context, McAlevey’s book is timely and desperately needed because it convincingly demonstrates that the problem is not in the stars, but in ourselves. If we as the Left can get our shit together, it is possible to build groups of workers into a social force in spite of the times.

Where unions are ready to try, McAlevey presents a method for how to do this. And where unions are not yet prepared to take this on, it lays out a range of specific demands we should be fighting for within our unions. (The book is full of concrete examples of tools, tactics, and strategies that can win; it is practically begging for a follow-up detailed manual).

Every serious labor activist needs to engage this book, drawing out what is useful and experimenting with variations as appropriate. But we also need to go further. Indirectly, McAlevey’s book challenges the Left to stop lamenting its disappointments in the working class and address, with humility, its own failures. The Left must raise its expectations of itself.

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Game of Thrones, Terry Richardson and the Silencing of Sexual Assault

Tue, 04/22/2014 - 10:10
Appallingly, cultural tastemakers are helping rebrand rape as pre-consensual sex.

On “Game of Thrones” this week, Jaime Lannister raped his sister Cersei while she told him, “no,” “it’s not right,” “please no,” and “not here.” When asked by television writer Alan Sepinwall if he viewed the scene as rape, director Alex Graves said, “Well, it becomes consensual by the end.”

My first instinct upon reading this was to tweet something about a facepalm and move on. (My second instinct, which I indulged, was to rest my forehead on the cool glass of my desk for about a minute while contemplating why everything must be so terrible all of the time.) Graves has been catching a deserved amount of shit over what he said, but his comment has continued to stick with me because this idea that rape can “become consensual” is actually pretty common. In fact, this casual quote from a TV director unwittingly tells us quite a lot about what our culture thinks about rape.

Namely, that Americans think it barely exists. They don’t seem to see rape anywhere.

A model named Emma Appleton tweeted a message on Sunday that she claimed was from photographer Terry Richardson offering her a Vogue shoot in exchange for sex. This is a blatant act of sexual coercion, and only the most recent (in fact, seemingly tame by comparison) in a series of disclosures from other women who have previously worked with Richardson. In March, model Charlotte Waters wrote a painfully detailed account of her alleged assault at Richardson’s hands, and the response from the fashion industry was a collective shrug. In response to the most recent allegations against him, Vogue said that it had no plans to work with Richardson, but he remains one of the wealthiest and most successful photographers in the industry. (Hell, he even has his smiling likeness featured in a charity egg hunt going on around Manhattan right now. Children pose for pictures with the thing.)

The guy is utterly mainstream. And an alleged serial rapist. But Richardson keeps working because the editors, designers, and celebrities who he shoots just don’t view his actions as rape. And they don’t believe the women — overwhelmingly young models who lack the industry connections and clout that Richardson enjoys — who tell them otherwise.

Last week, artist David Choe boasted on a podcast that he forced a female masseuse to perform oral sex on him. In an attempt to defend the alleged assault, Choe said that his actions — while “rapey” — were not rape, because even though the woman said “no” to his advances, she didn’t tell him, “Fucking stop [or] I’m gonna go call security.” According to Choe, the woman said “yes with her eyes” and later confessed — according to his retelling — that she had a crush on him.

When the Internet called him on it, Choe remained insistent that what he did was not rape. To communicate just how unacceptable he found rape, he said that all rapists should be — wait for it — raped. Vice, one of his employers, is currently “reviewing” its relationship with him.

And it isn’t just wealthy artists who don’t believe in the existence of sexual assault — at least when it comes to their own behavior. Rape denialism is a universal pastime, enjoyed by young and old. On college campuses across the country, “rape” has been officially rebranded as “nonconsensual sex” in an attempt to defuse what some administrators consider a loaded word. Writers like Caitlin Flanagan argue on the pages of respected publications that most rape is just “regretted sex” on the part of “jilted coeds.” In the realm of politics, Virginia state Sen. Richard Black — currently running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives — doesn’t believe that spousal rape should be a crime because he’s pretty sure it doesn’t exist. Susanna Martinez wanted to require sexual assault survivors to “prove” that their rape was “forcible” if they wanted state-subsidized childcare for a child who was born as the result of sexual assault.

It’s a total shit show out there, and it’s exacting a pretty heavy toll on all of us. The impact of the cultural erasure of sexual assault on survivors became troublingly clear last week when a study revealed that young girls and women often view sexual violence as normal behavior. When asked to describe her encounters with sexual harassment to researchers at Marquette University, one interview subject said, “They grab you, touch your butt and try to, like, touch you in the front, and run away, but it’s okay, I mean … I never think it’s a big thing because they do it to everyone.” Many of the girls and women interviewed said that they did not report their experiences of sexual violence because they didn’t want to make a “big deal” out of them. They told researchers that they didn’t come forward about these incidents because they didn’t think anyone would believe them.

It’s easy enough to understand why.

 

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How the Obscenely Wealthy Are Strangling Our Democracy

Tue, 04/22/2014 - 09:47
The wealthiest interests can veto any government initiative.

A new academic paper by Princeton University’s Martin Gilens and Northwestern University’s Benjamin Page has made national headlines by concluding that wealthly Americans almost always get what they want from the political system regardless of what middle-class and working-class people seek from the government.

AlterNet’s Steven Rosenfeld spoke with Benjamin Page about this research and the prospects for political change and a progressive agenda.

Steven Rosenfeld: Tell us what you mean when you say that the U.S. is no longer a democracy in the way most people perceive it, or think they understand what a democracy is?

Benjamin Page: Most people in a democracy think that the government pays a lot of attention to average citizens. And what we found was when average citizens disagree with more affluent people and more organized interest groups, the average citizens lose out almost always. In other words, they have almost no independent influence.

SR: How were you able to determine that?

BP: It took a ton of work, mostly by [Princeton University professor and co-author] Marty Gilens and his people. It took him about 10 years to assemble the data, which consists of information about 1,775 different policy-making cases in which he found survey questions in which he found what average citizens want, and also what higher income citizens want. Then he put together information about interest groups, both for and against; business groups and mass-oriented groups. And he used those different preferences and alignments to predict policy outcomes.

It turned out, as I say, that the interest groups, especially business groups and affluent individuals, have a lot of effect on what policies are adopted, but average citizens have no independent effect at all.

SR: One of the most interesting findings in your research was there are times when the interests of more average people and wealthier people align, and then Congress or government will move forward. But where they don’t align, they won’t: bills will be killed or policies won’t be adopted. It’s almost as if there is an invisible veto, if you will.Would you put it that way?

BP: I think that’s a good way to put it. Yeah. That’s right.

SR: Your research has gotten lots of attention and is part of the rising discussion of inequality. What do you think people should take from this?

BP: It is a very interesting moment because a lot of people have concluded that there’s something terribly wrong with American politics. I think it’s not just us. There’s the Thomas Piketty book about capital in the 21st century, [New York Times columnist] Paul Krugman hammering away about inequality, many people talking about these things have led to a point where I can imagine some political change occuring.

SR: How will that occur? I have covered money in politics since the late 1990s. The Supreme Court has slowly made it safer and safer for the wealthy to have more power and influence. Congress is more of a rich person’s club where the concerns of average or lower-income people get short shrift. It’s almost as if, if you haven’t figured out how to make a million, you are not deserving.   

BP: Yes, there is a definite paradox. If you want to change the political system and make it more democratic you have to overcome the undemocratic influence that’s already there. But we know historically that that can sometimes happen.

The Progressive Period at the beginning of the 20th century is a very interesting analogy. Something that fits right in with our analysis is the end of the Gilded Age, the first Gilded Age of huge inequality, there was a very broad rebellion to give more ordinary people a greater voice in politics: direct election of U.S. senators, and many other changes. And a lot of that was led by upper-income people.

And I think something similar is possible today. There’s a lot of grassroots upset but also some leadership from affluent people who are worried about the whole system breaking down. So we might see change.

SR: I know a lot of wealthier people don’t like to get fundraising calls.

BP: Absolutely. That’s absolutely right.

SR: And lots of businesses would like a leveler playing fields; not competitors who have obtained state or federal subsidies to their bottom lines.

BP: Yes.

SR: But do you really see currents of change bubbling up?

BP: I would look a little different place for people who actually are enthusiasts of change. I think you are explaining why moderate business people could be persuaded to go along with it, but the larger engine is much more likely to be upper-middle-class professionals. In our survey of wealthy people around Chicago we found that the professionals are really pretty different from business owners. Even if they have eight or 10 million dollars, they don’t think the same way. And a fair number of them—those are the people who were very important in the Progressive Period—a fair number of them want political reform right now.

SR: What can you tell me about their views or what they’d like?

BP: Well, we need to kearn more about that. We just did a little pilot survey. But it’s pretty clear that these people really don’t like the idea of institutionalized corruption. The point is not that the politicians are crooks, it’s that the system is corrupt because it so much favors money givers. And a lot of people basically believe in clean politics and democratic politics.

SR: What do you suggest that people do as they consider all this?

BP: I think there are things that average people can do that are very important. One is don’t give up. Krugman is right. You don’t want to get cynical and sort of give up and let money rule. What you want to do is fight back. One of the ways is to make sure you vote. The congressional elections next fall are going to be very important. Off-year elections are stacked against average people. The turnout is low. Money and activists tend to control a lot of what goes on. But if there are organized social movements, that’s not a given. So that’s one branch of action.

Another is to really push for reforms of various sorts: the simplest being disclosure of political contributions of all kinds. It’s really very strange to have no accountability, no awareness. Beyond that, regulating lobbying better. Andf figuring out how to reduce the power of money in elections. Some of that the Supreme Court has made harder. But some of that can be done by public financing, which reduces the power of private money by substituting public money.

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Has Earth Day Lost Its Way?

Tue, 04/22/2014 - 09:31
From epic day of citizen action to marketing gimmick in just 40-odd years.

It probably has something to do with the fact that I’m one of the last sentimentalists standing in this ironic age, but I’ll admit that I get a little misty eyed when I think about the first Earth Day.

Do you remember it? Can you imagine it? On April 22, 1970 some 20 million Americans in cities and towns across the country turned out for a coordinated day of action to express their desire for a society that would live more conscientiously with this one and only planet. People picked up trash on beaches and in streams, they planted gardens, they organized and attended environmental teach-ins, they marched and chanted and sang. The whole thing was thought up a US Senator, Gaylord Nelson, and organized by a scrappy group of twenty-somethings. Elected officials had no choice but to stand up and get involved. At the Earth Day demonstration in Manhattan, New York Mayor John Lindsey told the crowd: “Beyond words like ecology, environment, and pollution there is a simple question: Do we want to live or die?”

I myself don’t remember (I wasn’t born yet), and can only imagine such a thing. Which is probably why I think of that first epic day of environmental activism in sepia-hued tones. To me it all seems sort of incredible – the scale (20 million people!), the involvement from the political establishment, the fact that it led, relatively quickly, to achievements like the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and Endangered Species Act.

There are a lot of things that compete with Earth Day for the claim to have sparked the environmental movement: the fight over Hetch-Hetchy reservoir 100 years ago, the campaign to protect the Grand Canyon from dams, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the oil spill off Santa Barbara (which did, indeed, inspire Senator Nelson). Still, there’s no question that the organic outpouring of citizen energy that was Earth Day helped to mold an emerging worldview into a real political force.

I might have come late to the party, but Earth Day also molded me. I remember clearly the very large, and very hopeful, Earth Day celebrations in 1990 marking the twentieth anniversary of the original demonstrations. I was 15 years old. My parents took my sister and me to the Earth Day gathering at the Arizona State Capitol. It was probably the first even vaguely political event I had ever been to (my parents weren’t activist types then, though they are now, I’m proud to say). I don’t know how many people were there, but certainly it was thousands upon thousands, which has to be something of an environmental victory in a place like Phoenix. There were lots of speakers and bands and tables full of information. I remember a lot of speeches from the stage about the destruction of the Amazon rainforest.

The event changed my life. It wasn’t long before I was waging my first environmental campaign: an effort to get my mother to ditch the disposal paper napkins we used at each meal and buy cloth napkins. The campaign was a success – she bought a nice selection of cloth napkins – and I didn’t even need to lock my head to the kitchen table.

All of this is my rather self-indulgent way of explaining why I get a little depressed every spring when Earth Day rolls around. Sure, there are plenty of Earth Day-inspired activities that keep alive the flame of that first protest. San Francisco had a pretty groovy event on Saturday, complete with a rousing march led by Bill McKibben. Tonight in Seattle there’s an “Orca Freedom Concert.” And the good folks at the Earth Day Network continue plugging along to keep this secular holiday meaningful (even if some of the corporate sponsors give me a cognitive dissonance migraine).

Still, I can’t shake the feeling Earth Day has become diminished, has lost some of its original spirit somewhere along the way. This probably has to do with the fact that, being in the environmental news business, I get a lot of inane Earth Day related press releases.

Clearly, something has been lost in translation. For example:

  • A BevMo! Earth Day wine tasting “promoting cork education and awareness” and including a raffle for a pair of flip-flops made from recycled corks.
  • Also on the wine tip, a vine planting and tasting at a Virginia vineyard. Because wine is an “artesian product.” Comes with an “official certificate.”
  • A vibrator giveaway for “Earth-Shattering orgasms.”
  • Buy a gourmet cupcake and help support the creation of a Las Vegas-area nature preserve.
  • NASCAR’s “Race to Green” campaign encouraging us to plant “a tree in an area of devastation across the US.” [sic]
  • Plus advertising pitches in my in-box for SodaStream (“maker of home beverage carbonation systems” working “to expose The Secret Continent” of ocean trash); Safonique (“the first eco-friendly detergent infused with pure aromatherapy”); and Sports Suds (“the eco-friendly, high-performance laundry detergent.)

To belatedly answer Mayor Lindsey’s question, by the time I got to the Sports Suds release, I kind of wanted to die. Some years it can seem that Earth Day isn’t any more green than St. Patrick’s Day.

I probably shouldn’t be such a humbug. I like wine (especially when produced with organic grapes). I eat cupcakes, and would be happier doing so if some of the proceeds went to conservation efforts. I have to wash my clothes somehow. It’s awesome that Soda Stream is trying to raise awareness about plastic pollution.

In a way, the corporate co-optation of Earth Day is a success. It reveals that caring about the environment, if only for a day, has gone mainstream. And, in any case, the beauty of the first Earth Day wasn’t that it was oh-so-radical, but rather that it was so very accessible to all kinds of people. There were plenty of ways to plug in.

What I miss, I guess, in my unlived nostalgia is the edginess of those earlier Earth Days. Encouraging easy, everyday actions that benefit the environment is fantastic – as long as they take someone further down a path of commitment to sustainability. And that’s what I fear we’ve lost. Earth Day, I’m sorry to say, no longer feels like a spark, but rather an echo.

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They Are Watching You—How the U.S. Is Secretly Creating a Border Surveillance State

Tue, 04/22/2014 - 09:26
New high-tech gadgetry has nothing to do with saving lives along the Mexican border.

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With the agility of a seasoned Border Patrol veteran, the woman rushed after the students. She caught up with them just before they entered the exhibition hall of the eighth annual Border Security Expo, reaching out and grabbing the nearest of them by the shoulder. Slightly out of breath, she said, “You can’t go in there, give me back your badges.”

The astonished students had barely caught a glimpse of the dazzling pavilion of science-fiction-style products in that exhibition hall at the Phoenix Convention Center. There, just beyond their view, more than 100 companies, including Raytheon, General Dynamics, and Verizon, were trying to sell the latest in futuristic border policing technology to anyone with the money to buy it.

The students from Northeastern Illinois University didn’t happen to fall into that category. An earnest manager at a nearby registration table insisted that, as they were not studying “border security,” they weren’t to be admitted.  I asked him how he knew just what they were studying.  His only answer was to assure me that next year no students would be allowed in at all.

Among the wonders those students would miss was a fake barrel cactus with a hollow interior (for the southern border) and similarly hollow tree stumps (for the northern border), all capable of being outfitted with surveillance cameras. “Anything that grows or exists in nature,” Kurt Lugwisen of TimberSpy told a local Phoenix television station, “we build it.”

Nor would those students get to see the miniature drone -- “eyes in the sky” for Border Patrol agents -- that fits conveniently into a backpack and can be deployed at will; nor would they be able to check out the “technology that might,” as one local Phoenix reporter warned, “freak you out.” She was talking about facial recognition systems, which in a border scenario would work this way: a person enters a border-crossing gate, where an image of his or her face is instantly checked against a massive facial image database (or the biometric data contained on a passport)."If we need to target on any specific gender or race because we're trying to find a subject, we can set the parameters and the threshold to find that person," Kevin Haskins of Cognitec (“the face recognition company”) proudly claimed.

Nor would they be able to observe the strange, two day-long convention hall dance between homeland security, its pockets bursting with their parents’ tax dollars, and private industry intent on creating the most massive apparatus of exclusion and surveillance that has ever existed along U.S. borders.

Border Security Expo 2014 catches in one confined space the expansiveness of a “booming” border market. If you include “cross-border terrorism, cyber crime, piracy, [the] drug trade, human trafficking, internal dissent, and separatist movements,” all “driving factor[s] for the homeland security market,” by 2018 it could reach $544 billion globally. It is here that U.S. Homeland Security officials, local law enforcement, and border forces from all over the world talk contracts with private industry representatives, exhibit their techno-optimism, and begin to hammer out a future of ever more hardened, up-armored national and international boundaries.

The global video surveillance market alone is expected to be a $40 billion industry by 2020, almost three times its $13.5 billion value in 2013. According to projections, 2020 border surveillance cameras will be capturing 3.4 trillion video hours globally. In case you were wondering, that’s more than 340 million years of video footage if you were watching 24 hours a day.

But those students, like most of the rest of us, haven’t been invited to this high energy, dystopian conversation about our future.

And the rebuff is far from a surprise. It has, after all, been less than a year since Edward Snowden emerged on the scene with a portfolio of NSA documents revealing just how vast our national security state has become and how deeply it has reached into our private lives. It has by now created what the Washington Post’s Dana Priest and William Arkin have termed “an alternative geography.” And nowhere is this truer than on our borders.

It is in the U.S. borderlands that, as anthropologist Josiah Heyman once wrote, the U.S. government’s modern expertise in creating and tracking "a marked population” was first developed and practiced. It involved, he wrote prophetically, “the birth and development of a... means of domination, born of the mating between moral panics about foreigners and drugs, and a well-funded and expert bureaucracy.”

You may not be able to watch them at the Border Security Expo, but in those borderlands -- make no bones about it -- the Department of Homeland Security, with its tripartite missions of drug interdiction, immigration enforcement, and the war on terror, is watching you, whoever you are. And make no bones about this either: our borders are widening and the zones in which the watchers are increasingly free to do whatever they want are growing.

Tracking a Marked Population

It was mid-day in the Arizona heat during the summer of 2012 and Border Patrol agent Benny Longoria (a pseudonym) and his partner are patrolling the reservation of the Tohono O’odham Nation. It’s the second largest Native American reservation in the country and, uniquely, shares 76 miles of border with Mexico. The boundary, in fact, slices right through O’odham aboriginal lands. For the approximately 28,000 members of the Nation, several thousand of whom live in Mexico, this international boundary has been a point of contention since 1853, when U.S. surveyors first drew the line. None of the region’s original inhabitants were, of course, consulted.

Now Tohono O’odham lands on the U.S. side of the border are one place among many in Arizona where the star performer at Border Security Expo, Elbit Systems of America -- whose banner at the entrance welcomed all attendees -- will build surveillance towers equipped with radar and high-powered day/night cameras able to spot a human being up to seven miles away. These towers -- along with motion sensors spread over the surrounding landscape and drones overhead -- will feed information into snazzy operational control rooms in Border Patrol posts throughout the Arizona borderlands.

In March, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) awarded a $145 million contract to that Israeli company through its U.S. division. Elbit Systems prides itself on having spent “10+ years securing the world’s most challenging borders,” above all deploying similar “border protection systems” to the separation wall between Israel and Palestine. It is now poised to enter U.S. indigenous lands.

At the moment, however, the two forest-green-uniformed Border Patrol agents search for tracks the old-fashioned way. They are five miles west of the O’odham’s sacred Baboquivari mountain range and three miles north of the U.S.-Mexican border. It’s July and 100-plus-degrees hot.  They scour the ground for tracks and finally pick up a trail of fresh ones.

The agents get out of their vehicle and begin to follow them. Every day, many hours are spent just this way. They figure that people who have just walked across the border without papers are hot, uncomfortable, and probably moving slowly. In this heat in this desert, it’s as if you were negotiating the glass inside a light bulb. About an hour on, Longoria spots the woman.

There’s a giant mesquite tree, and she’s beneath it, her back to the agents, her arm shading her head. They creep up on her. As they get closer, they can see that she’s wearing blue jeans and a striped navy shirt.

When they’re 10 feet away and she still hasn’t moved, Longoria whispers, “Oh, shit, why isn’t she reacting?” In Arizona in July, you can almost hear the sizzle of the heat.

In human terms, this is where the long-term strategy behind the Border Patrol’s “prevention through deterrence” regime leads.  After all, in recent years, it has militarized vast swaths of the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexican border. Along it, there are now 12,000 implanted motion sensors and 651 miles of walls or other barriers. Far more than $100 billion has beenspent on this project since 9/11. The majority of these resources are focused on urban areas where people without papers traditionally crossed.

Now, border crossers tend to avoid such high concentrations of surveillance and the patrolling agents that go with it. They skirt those areas on foot, ending up in desolate, dangerous, mountainous places like this one on the sparsely populated Tohono O’odham reservation, an area the size of Connecticut. The Border Patrol’s intense armed surveillance regime is meant to push people into places so remote and potentially deadly that they will decide not to cross the border at all.

That, at least, was the plan. This is the reality.

“Hey,” Longoria says to the woman as he steps up behind her. “Hello.” Nothing.

“Hello,” he says again, as he finally stands over her. And it’s then that he sees her face, blistered from the sun, white pus oozing out of her nose. Her belly has started to puff up.  She is already a corpse.

The moment is surreal and, for Longoria, depressing. In the 1990s, almost no undocumented people bothered to cross this reservation. By 2008, in the midst of an exodus from Mexico in the devastating era of NAFTA, more than15,000 people were doing so monthly. Although the numbers have dropped since, people avoiding the border surveillance regime still come, and sometimes like this woman, they still die.

“The Occupation”

Before 9/11, there was little federal presence on the Tohono O’odham reservation. Since then, the expansion of the Border Patrol into Native American territory has been relentless. Now, Homeland Security stations, filled with hundreds of agents (many hired in a 2007-2009 hiring binge), circle the reservation. But unlike bouncers at a club, they check people going out, not heading in.  On every paved road leaving the reservation, their checkpoints form a second border. There, armed agents -- ever more of whom are veterans of America’s distant wars -- interrogate anyone who leaves. In addition, there are two “forward operating bases” on the reservation, which are meant to play the role -- facilitating tactical operations in remote regions -- that similar camps did in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Now, thanks to the Elbit Systems contract, a new kind of border will continue to be added to this layering.  Imagine part of the futuristic Phoenix exhibition hall leaving Border Expo with the goal of incorporating itself into the lands of a people who were living here before there was a “New World,” no less a United States or a Border Patrol. Though this is increasingly the reality from Brownsville, Texas, to San Diego, California, on Tohono O’odham land a post-9/11 war posture shades uncomfortably into the leftovers from a nineteenth century Indian war.  Think of it as the place where the homeland security state meets its older compatriot, Manifest Destiny.

On the gate at the entrance to her house, Tohono O’odham member Ofelia Rivas has put up a sign stating that the Border Patrol can’t enter without a warrant. It may be a fine sentiment, reflecting a right embodied in the U.S. Constitution, but in the eyes of the “law,” it’s ancient history.  Only a mile from the international boundary, her house is well within the 25-mile zone in which the Border Patrol can enter anyone’s property without a warrant. These powers make the CBP a super-force in comparison to the local law enforcement outfits it collaborates with. Although CBP can enter property warrantlessly, it still needs a warrant to enter somebody’s dwelling. In the small community where Rivas lives, known as Ali Jegk, the agents have overstepped even its extra-constitutional bounds with “home invasions” (as people call them).

Throughout the Tohono O’odham Nation, people complain about Homeland Security vehicles driving at high speeds and tailgating on the roads. They complain about blinding spotlights, vehicle pull-overs, and unexpected interrogations. The Border Patrol has pulled O’odham tribal members out of cars, pepper-sprayed them, and beaten them with batons.

As local resident Joseph Flores told a Tucson television station, “It feels like we’re being watched all the time.” Another man commented, “I feel like I have no civil rights.” On the reservation, people speak not only about this new world of intense surveillance, but also about its raw impact on the Tohono O’odham people: violence and subjugation.

Although the tribal legislative council has collaborated extensively with Border Patrol operations, Priscilla Lewis seemed to sum up the sentiments of many O’odham at an open hearing in 2011: “Too much harassment, following the wrong people, always stopping us, including and especially those who look like Mexicans when driving or walking in the desert... They have too much domination over us.”

At her house, Ofelia Rivas tells me a story. One day, she was driving with Tohono O’odham elders towards the U.S.-Mexican border when a low-flying Blackhawk helicopter seemingly picked them up and began following them. Hanging out of the open helicopter doors were CBP gunmen, she said. When they crossed the border into Mexico, the helicopter tracked them through a forest of beautiful saguaro cacti while they headed for a ceremonial site, 25 miles south of the border. They were, of course, crossing what was a non-border to the O’odham, doing something they had done for thousands of years. Hearing, even feeling the vibration of the propellers, one of the elders said, “I guess we are going to die.”

They laughed, Rivas added, as there was nothing else to do. They laughed real hard. Then, a mile or so into Mexico, the helicopter turned back.

Americans may increasingly wonder whether NSA agents are scouring their meta-data, reading their personal emails, and the like.  In the borderlands no imagination is necessary. The surveillance apparatus is in your face. The high-powered cameras are pointed at you; the drones are above you; you’re stopped regularly at checkpoints and interrogated. Too bad if you’re late for school, a meeting, or an appointment. And even worse, if your skin complexion, or the way you’re dressed, or anything about you sets off alarm bells, or there’s something that doesn’t smell quite right to the CBP’s dogs -- and such dogs are a commonplace in the region -- being a little late will be the least of your problems.

As Rivas told me, a typical exchange on the reservation might involve an agent at a checkpoint asking an O’odham woman whether, as she claimed, she was really going to the grocery store -- and then demanding that she show him her grocery list.

People on the reservation now often refer to what is happening as an armed “occupation.” Mike Wilson, an O’odham member who has tried to put gallon jugs of water along routes Mexican migrants might take through the reservation, speaks of the Border Patrol as an “occupying army.” It’s hardly surprising.  Never before in the Nation’s history under Spain, Mexico, or the United States have so many armed agents been present on their land.

On the Borders, the Future Is Now

At the Border Security Expo, Mark Borkowski, assistant commissioner for the Border Patrol’s Office of Technology, Innovation, and Acquisition, isn’t talking about any of this. He’s certainly not talking about the deaths and abuses along the border, or the firestorm of criticism about the Border Patrol’s use of deadly force. (Agents have shot and killed at least 42 peoplesince 2005.) He is talking, instead, about humdrum things, about procurement and efficiency, as he paces the conference hall, just as he’s done for years. He is talking about the inefficient way crews in Washington D.C. de-iced the wings of his plane before it took off for Phoenix. That is the lesson he wants to drum in about border technology: efficiency.

Borkowski has the air of a man whose agency has everything and yet who wants to appear as if he didn’t have all that much. And the big story in this hall is how little attention anyone outside of it pays to the fact that his is now the largest federal law enforcement agency in the country. Even less attention is paid to how, with its massive growth and robust financing, with its ever increasing budgets and resources, it is reshaping the country -- and the world. Its focus, powerful as it is on the southern border of the U.S., is quickly moving elsewhere -- to the northern border with Canada, to the Caribbean, and to borders and border forces across the globe.

So many places are slated to become the front lines for his agency’s expanding national security regime, and where it goes, technology must follow.  No wonder that the same industry people are here, year after year, devouring Borkowski’s every word in search of clues as to how they can profit from his latest border enforcement schemes. After all, some of the sophisticated technology now on the border was only a futuristic pipe dream 20 years ago.

It’s here at Border Security Expo 2014 that the future seeds get planted; here that you can dream your corporate dreams unimpeded, sure in the knowledge that yet more money will flow into borders and “protection.”

Between the unbridled enthusiasm of the vendors with their techno-optimistic “solutions” and the reality of border life in the Tohono O’odham Nation -- or for that matter just about anywhere along the 2,000-mile divide -- the chasm couldn’t be wider.

On the reservation back in 2012, Longoria called in the GPS coordinates of the unknown dead woman, as so many agents have done in the past and will undoubtedly do in the years to come. Headquarters in Tucson contacted the Tohono O’odham tribal police. The agents waited in the baking heat by the motionless body. When the tribal police pulled up, they took her picture, as they have done with other corpses so many times before. They rolled her over and took another picture. Her body was, by now, deep purple on one side. The tribal police explained to Longoria that it was because the blood settles there. They brought out a plastic body bag.

“Pseudo-speciation,” Longoria told me. That, he said, is how they deal with it. He talked about an interview he’d heard with a Vietnam vet on National Public Radio, who said that to deal with the dead in war, “you have to take a person and change his genus. Give him a whole different category. You couldn’t stand looking at these bodies, so you detach yourself. You give them a different name that detracts from their humanness.”

The tribal police worked with stoic faces. They lifted the body of this woman, whose past life, whose story, whose loved ones were now on another planet, onto a cart attached to an all-terrain vehicle and headed off down a bumpy dirt road with the body bouncing up and down.

When you look at a map that shows where such bodies are recovered in southern Arizona -- journalist Margaret Regan has termed it a “killing field” -- there is a thick red cluster of dots over the Tohono O’odham reservation. This area has the highest concentration of the more than 2,300 remains recovered in Arizona alone -- approximately 6,000 have been found along the whole border -- since the Border Patrol began ramping up its “prevention by deterrence policy” in the 1990s. And as Kat Rodriguez of the Colibri Center for Human Rights points out, these numbers are at the low end of actual border deaths, due to the numbers of remains found that have been there for weeks, months, or even years.

When they reached a paved road, Longoria helped lift the woman’s body into the back of their police truck. From here the Tohono O’odham tribal police took over. He and his partner continued their shift in a world in which borders are everything and a human death next to nothing at all. 

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Clueless Young Billion-Heirs Get Royal Treatment at White House

Tue, 04/22/2014 - 08:56
Obama gives the Silver Spoonies a big wet kiss.

Are you young? Largely ignorant of what goes on in the real world? Is your name Rockeller or Marriott? Could you pass for Justin Bieber?

The President wants to see you, baby! Come on up in here.

As economist Thomas Piketty, author of a new blockbuster book on inequality, tours the East Coast warning that America will soon become a place in which inherited wealth means as much — or more — as it did in Downton Abbey Britain, the White House is wasting no time pandering to young people who have grown up in breathtaking privilege. The New York Times reported that the Prez recently invited a passel of fat kittens to an invitation-only summit to "find common ground between the public sector and the so-called next-generation philanthropists, many of whom stand to inherit billions in private wealth."

Like royal courts in time of yore, when the scions of the wealthy would preen and socialize with others of their ilk, todays oligarchs-in-training are coming to DC to see and be seen, to pay and accept tribute. In order to make things appear less crass than a simple handover of cash, these young folks are invited to indulge their ruminations about improving society — which, as you might imagine, does not involve things like a global wealth tax. Or larger inheritance taxes.

People like 19-year-old Patrick Gage, who will someday inherit from the multi-billion-dollar Carlson hotel fortune, can prattle on about matters like human trafficking and water quality in the Puget Sound, but you'd likely not hear a peep about the gross income and wealth inequality that is strangling our democracy and destabilizing society. For his part, 24-year-old Justin McAuliffe, an heir to the Hilton hotel fortune, was mostly just excited to be around other silver spoonies: “Hilton, Marriott and Carlson..." he commented, according to the NYT report. "That is cool.” Let's hear it for assortive mating!

The wee billionaires were all abuzz about a new fad called "impact investing," also known as social impact bonds, a form of investing that seeks to generate both a social benefit and a profit for rich people that taxpayers are expected to pay if certain conditions are met. (We have given our opinion of social impact bonds with the story of Goldman Sachs and its scheme to profit from prisoner recidivism rates; we remain skeptical.)

If rich people want to do charity, great. And if you want to make an impact on the public good, howsabout paying your freaking share of taxes? You okay with that? Didn't think so.

There's nothing wrong with having civic interests if you are rich, but in an era when our society is so badly out of balance, it sends a powerful signal when the White House rolls out the red carpet for well-heeled youngsters who have little conception of what it's like to have horrid low-wage jobs, crushing student debt, housing you can ill afford, and a shitty social safety net. In other words, the stuff that many other young Americans are forced to deal with. 

The White House has been fondly known as the "People's House." Make that people with piles of cash.

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Robert Reich: How to Fix Sky-high CEO Pay in Companies that Pay Workers Like Serfs

Tue, 04/22/2014 - 07:19
A new tax would narrow pay discrepancy—and help the economy.

Until the 1980s, corporate CEOs were paid, on average, 30 times what their typical worker was paid. Since then, CEO pay has skyrocketed to 280 times the pay of a typical worker; in big companies, to 354 times.

Meanwhile, over the same thirty-year time span the median American worker has seen no pay increase at all, adjusted for inflation. Even though the pay of male workers continues to outpace that of females, the typical male worker between the ages of 25 and 44 peaked in 1973 and has been dropping ever since. Since 2000, wages of the median male worker across all age brackets has dropped 10 percent, after inflation.

This growing divergence between CEO pay and that of the typical American worker isn’t just wildly unfair. It’s also bad for the economy. It means most workers these days lack the purchasing power to buy what the economy is capable of producing — contributing to the slowest recovery on record. Meanwhile, CEOs and other top executives use their fortunes to fuel speculative booms followed by busts.

Anyone who believes CEOs deserve this astronomical pay hasn’t been paying attention. The entire stock market has risen to record highs. Most CEOs have done little more than ride the wave.

There’s no easy answer for reversing this trend, but this week I’ll be testifying in favor of a bill introduced in the California legislature that at least creates the right incentives. Other states would do well to take a close look.

The proposed legislation, SB 1372, sets corporate taxes according to the ratio of CEO pay to the pay of the company’s typical worker. Corporations with low pay ratios get a tax break.Those with high ratios get a tax increase.

For example, if the CEO makes 100 times the median worker in the company, the company’s tax rate drops from the current 8.8 percent down to 8 percent. If the CEO makes 25 times the pay of the typical worker, the tax rate goes down to 7 percent.

On the other hand, corporations with big disparities face higher taxes. If the CEO makes 200 times the typical employee, the tax rate goes to 9.5 percent; 400 times, to 13 percent.

The California Chamber of Commerce has dubbed this bill a “job killer,” but the reality is the opposite. CEOs don’t create jobs.Their customers create jobs by buying more of what their companies have to sell — giving the companies cause to expand and hire.

So pushing companies to put less money into the hands of their CEOs and more into the hands of average employees creates more buying power among people who will buy, and therefore more jobs.

The other argument against the bill is it’s too complicated. Wrong again. The Dodd-Frank Act already requires companies to publish the ratios of CEO pay to the pay of the company’s median worker (the Securities and Exchange Commission is now weighing a proposal to implement this). So the California bill doesn’t require companies to do anything more than they’ll have to do under federal law. And the tax brackets in the bill are wide enough to make the computation easy.

What about CEO’s gaming the system? Can’t they simply eliminate low-paying jobs by subcontracting them to another company – thereby avoiding large pay disparities while keeping their own compensation in the stratosphere?

No. The proposed law controls for that. Corporations that begin subcontracting more of their low-paying jobs will have to pay a higher tax.  

For the last thirty years, almost all the incentives operating on companies have been to lower the pay of their workers while increasing the pay of their CEOs and other top executives. It’s about time some incentives were applied in the other direction.

The law isn’t perfect, but it’s a start. That the largest state in America is seriously considering it tells you something about how top heavy American business has become, and why it’s time to do something serious about it.

 

 

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The 1% in America Are Turning into a Ruling Oligarchy at an Astonishing Pace

Tue, 04/22/2014 - 06:38
At state and local levels, while the poorest fifth of Americans pay an average tax rate of over 11 percent, the richest 1% pay half that rate. The evidence of income inequality just keeps mounting. According to “Working for the Few,” a recent briefing paper from Oxfam, “In the US, the wealthiest one percent captured 95 percent of post-financial crisis growth since 2009, while the bottom 90 percent became poorer.” Our now infamous one percent own more than 35 percent of the nation’s wealth. Meanwhile, the bottom 40 percent of the country is in debt. Just this past Tuesday, the 15th of April -- Tax Day -- the AFL-CIO reported that last year thechief executive officers of 350 top American corporations were paid 331 times more money than the average US worker. Those executives made an average of $11.7 million dollars compared to the average worker who earned $35,239 dollars. As that analysis circulated on Tax Day, the economic analyst Robert Reich reminded us that in addition to getting the largest percent of total national income in nearly a century, many in the one percent are paying a lower federal tax rate than a lot of people in the middle class. You may remember that an obliging Congress, of both parties, allows high rollers of finance the privilege of “carried interest,” a tax rate below that of their secretaries and clerks. And at state and local levels, while the poorest fifth of Americans pay an average tax rate of over 11 percent, the richest one percent of the country pay — are you ready for this? — half that rate. Now, neither Nature nor Nature’s God drew up our tax codes; that’s the work of legislators — politicians — and it’s one way they have, as Chief Justice John Roberts might put it, of expressing gratitude to their donors: “Oh, Mr. Adelson, we so appreciate your generosity that we cut your estate taxes so you can give $8 billion as a tax-free payment to your heirs, even though down the road the public will have to put up $2.8 billion to compensate for the loss in tax revenue.” All of which makes truly repugnant the argument, heard so often from courtiers of the rich, that inequality doesn’t matter. Of course it matters. Inequality is what has turned Washington into a protection racket for the one percent. It buys all those goodies from government: Tax breaks. Tax havens (which allow corporations and the rich to park their money in a no-tax zone). Loopholes. Favors like carried interest. And so on. As Paul Krugman writes in his New York Review of Books essay on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, “We now know both that the United States has a much more unequal distribution of income than other advanced countries and that much of this difference in outcomes can be attributed directly to government action.” Recently, researchers at Connecticut’s Trinity College ploughed through the data and concluded that the US Senate is responsive to the policy preferences of the rich, ignoring the poor. And now there’s that big study coming out in the fall from scholars at Princeton and Northwestern universities, based on data collected between 1981 and 2002. Their conclusion: “America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened… The preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.” Instead, policy tends “to tilt towards the wishes of corporations and business and professional associations.” Last month, Matea Gold of The Washington Post reported on a pair of political science graduate students who released a study confirming that money does equal access in Washington. Joshua Kalla and David Broockman drafted two form letters asking 191 members of Congress for a meeting to discuss a certain piece of legislation. One email said “active political donors” would be present; the second email said only that a group of “local constituents” would be at the meeting. One guess as to which emails got the most response. Yes, more than five times as many legislators or their chiefs of staff offered to set up meetings with active donors than with local constituents. Why is it not corruption when the selling of access to our public officials upends the very core of representative government? When money talks and you have none, how can you believe in democracy? Sad, that it’s come to this. The drift toward oligarchy that Thomas Piketty describes in his formidable new book on capital has become a mad dash. It will overrun us, unless we stop it.  Related Stories

WATCH: Jon Stewart Skewers Fox for 'Welfare Rancher' Cliven Bundy Hypocrisy

Tue, 04/22/2014 - 05:34
'Sean Hannity has made Glenn Beck the voice of reason.'

Jon Stewart returned from vacation Monday night to marvel at the armed standoff that millionaire, nut-case rancher Cliven Bundy has threatened, and the fact that a man who denies the existence of the federal government has been elevated to folk-hero status by . . . yeupp, Sean Hannity.

In a segment called "Apocalypse Cow," the late night comedian easily demonstrated Hannity's hypocrisy when it comes to which law-breakers he approves of, and which he does not. Hannity has fawned all over Bundy for refusing to pay modest grazing fees for the right to graze his cattle on federally-owned land, because Bundy is helping to keep the price of beef down for his fellow Americans. "Yes, most goods are cheaper when you steal the raw materials to make them," Stewart noted.

Hannity has beat up on atheists, protesters and immigration activists on his show in the past, arguing that they have been on the wrong side the law, which is a no-no for the Fox News host. Unless of course, you vote as he does. He also famously beat up on the supposed California surfer living on welfare for "stealing" from the taxpayers. But he seems to have no such condemnation for the "welfare rancher."

Even Glenn Beck has gone on the record as saying that grazing fees are a reasonable price to pay for raising cattle, prompting Stewart to say: "Sean Hannity has now made Glenn Beck the voice of reason."

Not an easy thing to do. Watch the whole hilarious segment:

 

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Girls Who Get 'Caught in a Bad Romance' Risk More Than Just Their Broken Hearts

Mon, 04/21/2014 - 13:13
A study shows that bad relationships cause girls real damage. The lesson? Teach young women to value themselves.

For high school girls, the reality of romance often feels less like Cinderella and more like Kill Bill. And while the emotional maturity level of your average high school boy definitely doesn't help, the pressure we put on girls to see relationships as cornerstones of their identities is the real culprit.

That's the conclusion of a new study from the University of New Mexico, which found that girls are more likely than boys to experience negative mental health effects when the reality of a given relationship doesn't match up with their expectations of it. "Romantic relationships are particularly important components of girls' identities and are, therefore, strongly related to how they feel about themselves – good or bad," the author of the study, Brian Soller, an assistant professor of sociology and a senior fellow of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Center for Health Policy at the University of New Mexico, said. "As a result, relationships that diverge from what girls envision for themselves are especially damaging to their emotional well-being."

Boys, Soller said, don't exhibit the same negative emotions because they don't identify themselves according to their relationships. They identify themselves by their interests – including sports and extracurricular activities. So when their romantic relationships aren't what they envisioned, it doesn't feel like as much like a personal failing.

The lesson of the study? Quit teaching girls to define themselves by their romantic relationships.

That teaching happens formally and informally. In many abstinence-based sex education programs, girls play games that include picking all the petals off a rose to symbolize the "fact" that they lose a fundamental part of themselves every time they have sex. At home in two-parent families, girls often see mom doing more of the emotional labor of childcare and partner-care than dad. We celebrate marriages as the most important day of a woman's life, expecting brides to spend thousands planning and executing perfect weddings – but it's much more rare to hear someone tell a groom that the wedding is his "big day," or hear a groom say he wants to look like a prince on his wedding day. Women still overwhelmingly take their husbands' surnames upon marriage, literally naming themselves according to their relationship. And even in the political realm, women routinely reference their roles as mothers and wives alternately to justify an opinion or to soften the threat of their own power – witness Michelle Obama calling herself the "mom in chief," or the legions of writers who cover issues around health and politics but identify as "mom bloggers."

There's nothing wrong with valuing the relationships in your life, romantic and not. For most of us, our relationships are at least one key to our happiness. But happiness is different from identity, and girls grow up not seeing relationships as potential value-adds to an already-rich life, but as the defining factor of that life. Of course they're devastated every time one goes sideways.

We also can't separate what we teach girls about relationships from what we teach them about sex. The study itself looked at expectations of physical intimacy – participants were given cards to indicate what physical acts they would like to see happen in their relationships (hand-holding, kissing, sex) and the order they wanted those acts to happen. A year later, they repeated the process, only this time indicating what actually happened in the relationship. Then, researchers evaluated their mental health, which was often poor.

American girls grow up in a culture where women are ornamental, and a very particular type of woman with a very particular type of body is used to represent sex itself in advertisements for everything from cars to web-hosting. But girls also hear that they are the gatekeepers to sex, that having sex too soon or with too many people will leave them damaged, and that men don't respect the women who sleep with them. Sex, girls learn, is a thing boys want and girls have, but the girls aren't supposed to give it up too easily – and that sex isn't about their own desires, anyway. Yet somehow, if girls just play by these contradictory rules – if they're pretty and sexy, but not sexual or slutty – their Disney-movie Prince Charming will just ride up.

For girls and women, that combination of relational identity and sexual schizophrenia is particularly toxic and soul-crushing. Policy-wise, there's a lot to be done: ending abstinence-only sex ed and finding more funding for a diversity of educational programs including art and music that can help all students forge individual identities and develop their talents would be a start. Outside of schools, policies allowing women to be equal players at work and in life would go a long way in shifting assumptions around female identity. These should include: paid leave for new parents so that moms don't have to choose between work and family and dads are expected to do both as well; wide access to both contraception and abortion with the understanding that women want to have sex for pleasure and not just to reproduce; and state-subsidized childcare so that parents aren't bearing the burden alone.

But profound social shifts are even more important than news laws. Some of those shifts, of course, will come along with more progressive social policies. But some we just have to take responsibility for ourselves, including adult women modelling healthy female self-identity apart from their relationships, and adult men embracing the importance of their relationships and displaying their capacity for caregiving. It also means praising our daughters more often for their talents, abilities and hard work, and not just for their helpfulness, beauty and behavior toward others. It means expecting our sons to be emotionally competent, generous and sensitive to how their actions impact the people around them.

There's no weakness in loving the people you love or in prioritizing your family and significant other. But there are dangers in a model of womanhood defined by sacrifice and folding yourself into others. We all want girls to develop positive self-esteem and feel a strong sense of self-worth. But it's awfully hard to do that in a society where, for girls and women, self-identity is relational and not about yourself at all.

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Three Reasons Why You Should Keep Gmail far Away from Your Credit Card Information

Mon, 04/21/2014 - 13:03
Google’s plot for world domination now includes your credit cards.

Google wants your money. Or, more precisely, Google wants your bank account and credit card info.

At Quartz, Chris Mims reports that Google appears to be accelerating its roll-out of a service that will allow gmail users to send money via email to whomever they want as easily as sending an attachment. Sounds great — but wait, there’s more!

Here’s what’s brilliant about offering the “send money” feature: Google almost certainly doesn’t care whether you use it to send money. What it cares about is getting you to sign up to Google Wallet and capture your bank account and credit-card information. And it’s using Gmail, which has a reach comparable to that of Facebook—425 million as of June 2012, the last time Google released numbers—to do it.

Once Google has your payment info, it can then implement PayPal-like functionality throughout the Google universe — YouTube, search, Maps, you name it. Anywhere you travel online while logged into your Google Account, you will have the ability to click-and-pay.

I can easily see this becoming popular. But here are three reasons to be wary.

1) Your Gmail account is already a hugely tempting target for hackers. Adding your financial info to that account will make it irresistible.

2) Google’s ability to effectively target ads already gives it tremendous power to manipulate consumer behavior. Adding the instant gratification of easy-checkout to those ads will make the company even more powerful.

3) Google already knows far too much about what we want, what we do, where we go, and who we communicate with. Do we really want to complete the chain and give the company our most intimate financial information?

The question posed by Google — and, really, all online Web services. At what point does convenience become vulnerability?

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Inside the Brutality of Egypt's New Regime: 2,500 Killed, 16,000 Political Prisoners, Torture Allegations Are Widespread

Mon, 04/21/2014 - 12:53
Since the coup that toppled Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's human rights record has gotten much much worse.

After a recent CODEPINK delegation to Egypt ended up in deportations and assault, we have become acutely aware of some of the horrors Egyptians are facing in the aftermath of the July 3 coup that toppled Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi. Over 2,500 civilians have been killed in protests and clashes. Over 16,000 are in prison for their political beliefs and allegations of torture are widespread. Millions of people who voted for Morsi in elections that foreign monitors declared free and fair are now living in terror, as are secular opponents of the military regime, and the level of violence is unprecedented in Egypt’s modern history. With former Defense Minister Abdel Fatah al-Sisi set to become the next president in sham elections scheduled for May 26-27, the Egyptian military is trampling on the last vestiges of the grassroots uprising that won the hearts of the world community during the Arab Spring.

The most publicized case is the trial of the three Al Jazeera journalists and their co-defendants, charged with falsifying news and working with the Muslim Brotherhood. On April 10, there was a ludicrous update in the trial, when the prosecution came to courtpresenting a video that was supposed to be the basis of their case but consisted of family photos, trotting horses, and Somali refugees in Kenya. The judge dismissed the “evidence” but not the charges.

The high-profile case is just a taste of wide-ranging assault on free expression. The government has closed down numerous TV and print media affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist currents. The Committee to Protect Journalists named Egypt the third deadliest countries for journalists in 2013, just behind Syria and Iraq.

An incident that shows how the judicial branch is now working hand-in-glove with the military is the horrific March 24 sentencing of 529 Morsi supporters to death in one mass trial. The entire group was charged with killing one police officer. The trial consisted of two sessions, each one lasting less than one hour. Secretary of State Kerry said that the sentence “defies logic” and Amnesty International called the ruling “grotesque.”

And if you think that a US passport entitles a prisoner to due process, look at the tragic case of 26-year-old Ohio State University graduate Mohamed Soltan. Soltan served as a citizen journalist, assisting English-speaking media in their coverage of the anti-coup sit-in at Rabaa Square that was violently raided by police and resulted in the death of over 1,000 people. In jail for over 7 months, Soltan has been on a hunger strike since January 26 and is now so weak he can’t walk. His situation in prison has been horrifying. When he was arrested, he had a wound from being shot that had not yet healed. Prison officials refused to treat him, so a fellow prisoner who was a doctor performed surgery with pliers on a dirty prison floor, with no anesthesia. His trial has been postponed several times, and there is no update on when it might actually take place. (Activists in the US are mobilizing on his behalf.)

Female activists also face dehumanizing experiences. In February, four women who were arrested for taking part in anti-military protests say they were subjected to virginity testswhile in custody--a practice that coup leader Abdel al-Sisi has supported. In addition to the horror of virginity tests, Amnesty International has also reported that women in prison in Egypt face harsh conditions, including being forced to sleep on the floor and not being allowed to use the bathroom for 10 hours from 10pm to 8am every day. Egyptian Women Against the Coup and the Arab Organisation for Human Rights has reported beatings and sexual harassment of female prisoners.

The internal crackdown may be getting worse, not better. New counter-terrorism legislationset to be approved by Egypt’s president would give the government increased powers to muzzle freedom of expression and imprison opponents. Two new draft laws violate the right to free expression, including penalties of up to three years’ imprisonment for verbally insulting a public employee or member of the security forces. They broaden the existing definition of terrorism to include actions aimed at damaging national unity, natural resources, monuments, communication systems, the national economy, or hindering the work of judicial bodies and diplomatic missions in Egypt. “The problem with these vaguely worded ‘terrorist offenses’ is that they potentially allow the authorities to bring a terrorism case against virtually any peaceful activist,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui of Amnesty International.

The draft legislation also widens the scope for use of the death penalty to include “managing or administering a terrorist group.” The Muslim Brotherhood was labelled a terrorist group by the Egyptian authorities in December (though no factual evidence was provided that it is engaged in terrorist attacks).

The US government refuses to call Morsi’s overthrow a coup, and has continued to give Egypt $250 million in economic support, as well as funds for narcotics controls, law enforcement and military training. But the bulk of the foreign military funding of $1.3 billion has been suspended.

On March 12, Secretary of State Kerry indicated that he wanted to resume the aid and would decide “in the days ahead.” Egypt has long been one of the top recipients of US aid because of its peace treaty with Israel, its control over the Suez Canal and the close ties between the US and Egyptian militaries. To renew the funding, Kerry must certify that Egypt is meeting its commitment to a democratic transition and taking steps to govern democratically. The constitutional referendum was held January 14-15, but opponents werearrested for campaigning for a “no” vote. The May presidential election, taking place under such repressive conditions with the main opposition group banned, will certainly not be free and fair. The same can be said for the parliamentary elections that are expected to occur before the end of July.

“The question is no longer whether Egypt is on the road to democratic transition, but how much of its brute repression the US will paper over,” said Human Rights Watch Middle East Director Sarah Leah Whitson. “An accurate appraisal of Egypt’s record since the military-backed overthrow of President Morsi would conclude that, far from developing basic freedoms, the Egyptian authorities are doing the opposite.”

The Obama Administration should insist that political dissidents be released, laws restricting public assembly be lifted, the Muslim Brotherhood be declassified as a terrorist organization and allowed to participate in all aspects of public life, and criminal investigations be launched into the unlawful use of lethal force and abuse of detainees by security officials. Only when the Egyptian junta lifts its iron curtain should the US consider resuming military aid.  

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It's a Little Creepy When Political Candidates Send You Mail Tailored to Your Religion

Mon, 04/21/2014 - 12:25
When we use campaigns to exaggerate differences among us, it becomes harder to use the time between them to bind us together.

I wonder if Tavis Smiley got the same Happy Passover mailer from Amy Howorth that I did.

Mr. Smiley and I are neighbors in California's 26th State Senate District, which includes coastal Los Angeles County, Beverly Hills and Hollywood. Amy Howorth, the mayor of Manhattan Beach, is running in an eight-candidate field in the June 3 primary.

If Mayor Howorth sent the mailer to all registered voters in my district, precinct or ZIP code, then Mr. Smiley, a well-known African-American broadcaster, would, like me, have received a lovely photo of her family and dogs at the beach under a Chag Pesach Same'ach banner, and on the reverse a shot of their son Ari and his parents at his bar mitzvah.

But I have a hunch that this was instead a targeted mailer addressed just to Jewish voters.

I don't know which creeps me out more -- the easy commercial availability of Jewish voter mailing lists, or the tribal pitch for my support.

A few years ago, when Target figured out that it could determine which of their customers were pregnant from the prenatal vitamins and other baby supplies showing up on their loyalty cards, they mailed coupons to them for cribs, strollers and other items likely to be on their shopping lists. But there was a backlash. Moms-to-be didn't like the idea of a big company prying into their private lives. So the company, in an inspired marketing move, threw in some lawn mower coupons along with the onesie discounts in order to camouflage Target's targeting.

Mayor Howorth could have done something like that. Even if she'd used the same Jewish mailing list, adding a red herring -- throwing in an ecumenical Easter greeting, say, or some pictures from Ari's recent service trip to an orphanage in Ghana -- might have thrown me off the scent of the ethnic play. Instead, her warm Passover wishes left me wondering what list her campaign had bought, and what other information tied to me and my address is out there for purchase.

The ethnic appeal makes sense. In a field this large, candidates above all need name recognition. On June 3, when I see her name on the ballot, Mayor Howorth wants me to think, "Oh, yeah, the Jewish candidate," not "Who?" I have no doubt that Mayor Howorth holds thoughtful positions on many issues and has experience relevant to being a state senator, but what I know about her so far is, "Jew like you."

Why am I so ambivalent about that?

On one hand, candidates have always appealed to voters on the basis of what they have in common -- religion, race, sex, political party, union membership, you name it. These identity markers serve as proxies for values. If there's a tribe we both belong to, I can trust you to protect my interests. I may forget, or simply not know, where you stand on Governor Jerry Brown's plan to build a bullet train, but if I know that you're "one of us," I'll assume you're likely to think it's a cockamamie bazillion-dollar rathole, or a jobs-creating leap into the future, depending on which "us" you're one of.

On the other hand, I don't like my Jewishness being part of politics, and I don't like other people's religions being part of it, either. I realize that American politics is rife with dog whistling; there is plenty of code available to indicate which tribe is your enemy, and words like "urban" and "Christian" have long been acceptable ways to mobilize one side to put down another. But the American motto is e pluribus unum -- out of many, one. When we use campaigns to exaggerate differences among us, it becomes harder to use the time between them to bind us together.

Of course there isn't any time between campaigns any more. Perpetual polarization is the hallmark of public life. Our tribal affiliations are more than team memberships; they affect how we reason and what we think reality is. This is what research is now finding. Former Washington Post writer Ezra Klein launched his new website, Vox, with an account of Yale Law School professor Dan Kahan's disturbing empirical finding: People count something as evidence not based on its being factual, objective, scientific -- you know, true -- but on whether it's something that people in our tribe believe or not. The tribalization of facts, Kahan told Klein, is "terrifying.... That's what threatens the possibility of having democratic politics enlightened by evidence." Which leads Klein to add, "Washington is a bitter war between two well-funded, sharply defined tribes that have their own machines for generating evidence and their own enforces of orthodoxy. It's a perfect story for making smart people very stupid."

I have no reason to think that Mayor Howarth is anything but an ethical, public-spirited candidate. So, surely, are the other candidates on the ballot. (Disclosure: I know one of them, have met another and know a fair amount about a third, but I'm not giving money to anyone.) I just wish that my reaction to getting her mailer had been, "Happy Passover to you, too," and not wanting to hold my nose.

This is a cross-post of my column in the Jewish Journal. You can reach me there atmartyk@jewishjournal.com

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