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A few well-written words can convey a wealth of information, particularly when there is no lag time between when they are written and when they are read. The IPS blog gives you an opportunity to hear directly from IPS scholars and staff on ideas large and small and for us to hear back from you.



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IPS Blog

Entries tagged "Barack Obama"

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The Problem with the Obama Tax Compromise

December 8, 2010 ·

The Obama “tax compromise” proposal extends tax cuts for high-income households and institutes a greatly diminished federal estate tax.  President Obama argues that he wants to change the politics of Washington and not hold unemployment benefits and middle class tax cuts  hostage.

But does the ransom always have to be so high?

It is one thing to compromise with people when you agree on similar goals.  You can work in good faith and agree to disagree on strategy.

The problem with continually compromising with the extreme right-wing corporatist faction that has taken over the Republican Party is they have a very different vision for the United States. 

They really don’t want to live in a society with greater equality of opportunity, healthy communities, shared prosperity.  They don’t give a rat’s behind about the quality of life for working class and poor people in the U.S. and around the world.  They do not lay awake at night concerned about hungry children, youth violence, the despair of prolonged unemployment, AIDS in Africa, and the ecological crisis. 

They have an Ayn Rand view of the world where they are the virtuous prime movers –and the rest of the world is parasites and looters, trying to pillage their wealth.

These Republicans are not Dwight Eisenhower, or Warren Rudman, or Lincoln Chaffee, or Ed Brooke.  There have always been political leaders in both major parties genuinely concerned about the common good.

The McConnell-Boehner-Bachmann-DeMint-Paul party would be content to live in a plutocracy –with vast disparities of wealth and power.   For various reasons, they believe this is the natural order of things –and don’t want to disrupt it.

And they are OK with rigging the game so that they and their wealthy constituents keep winning the game –while cloaking themselves in virtuousness and deservedness.

This is not a negotiation over which type of math curriculum will boost our children’s achievement.  This is not a “Getting To Yes” exercise in a Harvard Law School class.  This is a power struggle for the future soul of America:  Plutocracy versus Peace and Plenty.

If power keeps concentrating in the hands of a few –the very wealthy will use this power to further increase their power and privilege. 

There are inspiring examples of the opposite.  The Wealth for the Common Good network is a case in point –wealthy individuals speaking out for policies that would reduce the concentration of wealth and encourage more broadly shared prosperity.

One urgent action we can all take is to support the Responsible Estate Tax Act –which would effectively reduce the concentration of wealth.  See the Other 98 Percent’s petition campaign.

The great moral question of our time is: Does a policy further concentrate wealth and power –or does it disperse wealth and power?

The Obama “tax compromise” fails the test.  It will lead to a further concentration of wealth and power.  It moves us in the wrong direction.

An Open Letter to President Obama, Or Change I believed in

November 12, 2010 ·

Dear President Obama,

You’re not the man I thought you were.

Roughly a week ago, you issued a waiver that would allow the US to continue to provide military assistance to four countries—Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Yemen, and Chad—whose militaries recruit or deploy child soldiers.

You claimed the waivers would serve as a warning to the states to get their acts together. You claimed Yemen is a key ally in the war on terror and requires our assistance to survive. You said Chad, the DRC, and Sudan were making steps in the right direction and still required our assistance for force modernization and human rights training. Even your advisor Samantha Powers, someone whose human rights work I have deep respect for, tried to justify the waivers as a chance for these countries to do better.

Most progressives have no problem finding flaws with your first years as President to criticize you about, whether it’s the whittling down of the healthcare bill, decision to ramp up military operations in Afghanistan, failure to close Guantanamo, or deal effectively with Climate Change at Copenhagen.

For me however, it is the moments in which you have an opportunity to make a clear decision, with profound moral implications, and yet choose to act in a way that makes me ashamed to call you my President.

It has been one of the saddest and most disappointing aspects of your presidency that you have not only allowed militaries that use children to fight their battles to operate with impunity, but currently and actively assist these same militaries. I wish I could say these waivers were the first instance I suffered this extreme disappointment, but just last year you provided training, arms, and cash to the Somalia Transitional Federal Government, a known user of child soldiers. I still have not forgiven you.

I understand why the idea of professionalizing soldiers and training them in human rights could sound appealing, and even seem like the right course of action. However, a good soldier soon becomes meaningless if he is left to exist independent of the civil institutions necessary to both support him and hold him accountable for his actions. You are smart enough to know no amount of military training and good intentions will create civilian accountability and human rights in these conflict zones. The rule of the gun can never accomplish what the rule of law can.

If these governments lacked the institutional wherewithal to keep children out of their militaries in the first place, what should make us believe they will be able to control the soldiers we train for them? Should we believe that the key power players and military leaders in these countries who have shown their moral disregard for human rights before are suddenly changed men? That the war criminal Bosco Ntaganda has just been misunderstood by the ICC and only needs our help to change his ways? Why should we give these people a second chance to hurt more people?

I can believe that trying to achieve the progressive agenda you promised was difficult, and subject to many institutional constraints that kept you from doing everything the world hoped for. I don’t blame you for that.

That you have decided to make an exception for child soldiers in these countries, in the name of our national interests—for that, I do blame you. As a Senator, you supported and co-sponsored the Child Soldier Prevention Act that made what you are doing illegal. Perhaps more importantly, you are a father with two young children of your own.

What national interest of ours would be worth destroying the innocence of Sasha and Malia? And why is it acceptable for children in other countries to fight for these national interests?

All of this has lead me to one of two conclusions: either you lied to us, you lied about the bill you supported, about the type of man you were, about the promises of change, or perhaps more disappointing--the system has changed you.

You are the President of my country, but I’ll be damned if you do this in my name. This is your decision and your moral failing. Its consequences will be born by others, but the blame and the responsibility lies squarely with you.

Regretfully yours,
Michael Sean Lally

From The IPS Cave: A Conversation between Newman Fellows

November 9, 2010 ·

Obama Campaign

: Hey Kevin, Just came across this really interesting article by Sean Wilentz in The New Republic today.  It’s a distillation of a few ideas I’ve been batting around for a few months – the most important of which (and Wilentz captures this really well, I think) is that President Obama set himself up to fail because his campaign was all about ‘movement building’ and his presidency, alas, has been about the typical horse-trading and politicking that accompanies much of what happens here in DC.  The article is effective because it captures why so many progressives feel, well,used (I hate using relationship terms here, but hey, it works).  But maybe not just progressives – maybe everyone (everyone who voted for Obama, that is) feels a bit used because Obama’s candidacy was premised on channeling the rage and disappointment that people felt about America circa 2007/8 towards an amorphous idea of a future in which ‘we were the change we could believe in’ or some such…and yet, there was never, well, a point.  As Wilentz says:

Thus, the Obama campaign presented itself as a social movement that was more sentimental than political, pushing gauzy “values,” like “hope” and “change,” while leaving policy concerns to the wonks. Yet the successful movements of the past had more than values; they had specific goals.

Later, Wilentz says:

The point of the Obama campaign-as-movement was conceived differently: exciting people with the thrill of empowerment, and collective self-empowerment, by electing to the White House a community organizer who believed in “hope” and “change.” Why electing Obama was imperative required no explanation among the faithful; it was enough to get the spirit, share the spirit, and revel in the candidate’s essence, which, by definition, no other candidate possessed. The leader was the program.

Indeed!  The leader was the program.  So this got me thinking – have we (we being Obama supporters here, erstwhile and otherwise) given up too soon?  After all, we knew what we were getting into…right?  We knew that Obama didn’t offer up many policy specifics, we knew he was green, we knew that he’d do some learning on the job...we signed up for all of this. We believed in the man – we believed that his background and intelligence would enable him, ultimately, to succeed as no one else could.  So are we just really fickle?

KEVIN: That is an interesting article, and like many progressives I do feel used by Obama (I firmly believe that we had a good thing going on there). 

I do agree that in order for social change to happen, a coordination of the top and the bottom needs to happen. You need a grassroots movement to hold those in power accountable. And I think the reason why we are losing so much right now is because the grassroots movement got hijacked by the right (i.e. tea party). I've read a little bit of Ganz while I was in school, and we talked about this before, the Obama movement (which is drastically different from past movements) is that it is based on getting Obama elected, and I guess in extension, supporting the values and rhetoric that he was presenting to people. However, I don't know if I can buy into the fact that the Obama movement had no substance whatsoever, I mean it is a little harder to tell when you position him against Hilary Clinton, but if you pit him against McCain, there is a stark difference.

I think the problem we are facing here is that we are missing a robust progressive grassroots movement that is pushing the Democratic Party and Obama to do progressive things (i.e. single-payer health care system, more robust wall street reform, a true withdrawal from the Middle-East). I am starting to wonder whether it would have been better for the greater good of all of us if Hillary or any other democrat, with somewhat progressive values became president, and Obama, using his cult of personality and movement to establish a truly progressive grassroots movement to check the Democratic Establishment. But then again, the reason why Obama was so popular was because people were excited about seeing an African American in the White House, so who knows if he has that ability to rally people from the "outside." All in all, I think it is safe to conclude that what is desperately needed right now is a grassroots movement--how we go about creating that movement is something a little bit more difficult. And as always, we are open to suggestions!

Obama's Trip to India: Don't Rush into a Bilateral Investment Treaty

October 26, 2010 ·

After what’s expected to be a grim election for his party, President Barack Obama will fly to the other side of the planet next week.  In the lead-up to his first visit to India, there have been calls from many quarters for the two countries to sign a bilateral investment treaty.

Corporate lobbyists seeking increased market access have been pushing for such a deal for years.  Recently, top foreign policy officials from the Bush administration also weighed in. 

In a report published by the Center for a New American Security, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage and former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs R. Nicholas Burns wrote that “The United States and India should prioritize the need to advance the multilateral trading system. They can accomplish this by adopting bilateral trade and investment measures that they would like to see other countries emulate.  This should begin with the launch of serious negotiations toward the long-delayed Bilateral Investment Treaty that would, in light of the tremendous domestic Indian market and increasing bilateral investment flows, create a more stable environment for growth.”

Armitage and Burns provided no details of what’s actually in bilateral investment treaties (BITs).  Many analysts who’ve taken a closer look argue that the current U.S. model for such treaties would be likely to lead to less economic stability – not more. 

Treaty provisions that should be of serious concern to India are those that prohibit the use of capital controls, a policy tool that India has applied effectively to escape the worst impacts of global financial crises.   

In a New York Times article, former IMF chief economist Kenneth Rogoff reported that Indian policymakers were the most cheerful attendees at the 2009 World Economic Forum in Davos, largely because that government’s stringent capital controls were helping to insulate the country from the economic crisis.

A February 2010 IMF report of a larger group of nations found that those which deployed controls on inflows before the current crisis were among the least hard hit. The IMF study concluded that capital controls are a legitimate policy tool for preventing and mitigating crises.

What happens if a government violates the capital controls provisions in a U.S. trade or investment treaty?  Private foreign investors affected by the policy have the right to sue the government for compensation in supra-national tribunals that have no public accountability, no standard judicial ethics rules, and no appeals process.

In response to criticism, a handful of recent U.S. trade agreements have included a special dispute settlement procedure for investor-state claims related to capital transfers. The U.S.-Peru free trade agreement, for example, limits damages arising from certain restrictive measures on capital inflows to the reduction in value of the transfers. Investors may not demand compensation for the loss of profits or business. In addition, there is an extended “cooling off” period before investors may file claims.

While a step in the right direction, these provisions still place undue restrictions on the authority to use capital controls. If they were included in any possible U.S.-India treaty, the government of India would still face the prospect of expensive investor-state damages claims.  They could be tied up in legal proceedings for years, defending a legitimate policy that has proved effective in reducing financial instability.

The negotiations over a U.S.-India treaty were begun by the Bush administration.  Obama officials have said they won’t complete the deal until they finish up a review of the U.S. model BIT.

Let’s hope U.S. and Indian leaders won’t get carried away by the pressures of the upcoming Obama visit to produce a treaty that may serve the short-term interests of large corporations and investors but would undermine the authority of governments to protect their people from financial crisis. 

What the Chilean Miners Taught Me

October 25, 2010 ·

I’ve spent much time of late wondering about the connections between progressive movements and art.  I recognize how grand a statement this is, combining, as it does, an ill-defined political perspective with a term that encompasses the sum of creative expression.  Still, there is a long history of art-infused political action on the left in America; I’m thinking especially of the civil rights movement which, in some ways, represented the apotheosis of the arts and politics mixture.   Who can forget the images of luminaries like James Baldwin and Harry Belafonte participating in civil rights marches across the country, or the sounds of movement leaders singing We Shall Overcome?  In this decade, many of us spent hours staring at Shepard Fairey’s once iconic (and now, inevitably, oft-parodied) depiction of then Senator Obama as a heroic figure swathed in red, white and blue. 

Yet something occurred to me as I watched the Chilean miners ascend from their temporary prison below the earth to their families and throngs of waiting press above.  I realized that the most salient connection between progressive politics and art is imagination.

This was surely an odd time to be struck by such a revelation.  First, the rescue itself was an apolitical affair, carried out by people of various political beliefs (one would assume) who’d descended on Chile from locations around the world.  Second, although we occasionally heard singing in the background as reporters described the rescue in minute detail, there wasn’t much art.  However, each time I read an update about the progress of the workers who were attempting to rescue the miners, or saw pictures of the families waiting and hoping, and then, last week, when I saw the miners ascend one after another from the ground, I realized that the trajectory of this particular story approximated, in micro, the popular movements that I grew up reading about in school.  I reveled in the miners’ victory because it represented the triumph of imagination over the seemingly unalterable rules of reality. 

I became fixated on the power of imagination as I watched the story unfold, and the way imagination can sustain a vision of brighter possibilities, even when such possibilities seem, well, impossible.  The same type of imagination that sustains art – that enables someone to, say, shape a new reality on a blank page, canvas, building wall, from a piece of clay – sustains progressive movements.  This link is important for many reasons, not least of which because contemporary progressive movements all struggle to sustain a kind of prophetic vision about a future that could happen, not the kind of future that probably will happen if things remain the same.  As I saw the miners celebrating with their families, I couldn’t help but think how heartening it was to see a group of people work towards a common goal, understanding that they could fail, and imagining, all the same, that they wouldn’t.

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