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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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Entries since May 2011

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Reflections on Inequality

May 19, 2011 ·

I first came to the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) in 2000 to help expose the abuse of maids and nannies by IMF and World Bank employees. This week’s news about powerful men and the women who clean up after them sounds painfully familiar. As soon as we opened our doors at the Institute’s Break The Chain Campaign project, stories began pouring in from migrant women who came to the U.S. legally as household help seeking the American dream, but found themselves living a nightmare. Many were paid little or no wages, and some reported sexual, physical, or psychological abuse.

I was drawn to this work when I realized I was next-door neighbor to a young girl living in virtual slavery in suburban Maryland. Within a month of research about the scale of such abuse, I was struck by a wrenching irony: Many women come to the United States as economic migrants precisely because the programs imposed by the IMF and World Bank limit the job opportunities and safety nets in their home countries. Then, once they’re here, they may be subjected to abuse. In essence, they are assaulted twice, as IPSer Lacy MacAuley illustrates in her blog post.

Break The Chain Campaign advocacy director Tiffany Williams examines why the mainstream media seems mainly concerned with the fate of "rock star" Dominique Strauss-Kahn, while tending to ignore the suffering of his alleged victim. "Poor women’s bodies are collateral damage of war, prizes for global accomplishment, or simply a means to an end," Williams writes. They "are even more vulnerable to dehumanizing sexual assault than others because their relationships are inherently unequal." Newspapers report that Strauss-Kahn made a "modest" $420,000 annual salary, plus pension contributions. The Fund's extremely generous benefits, the fact that IMF pay is exempt from U.S. income tax, and his wife’s reported wealth combined to facilitate a lavish lifestyle for a supposedly socialist public servant. The Bureau of Labor Statistics finds that the national median hourly wage for hotel housekeepers is $8.75. If that's what the Sofitel maid DSK allegedly attacked earned 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, it would come to $18,200 a year, about 4 percent of her alleged attacker's pay.

Such extreme inequity is emblematic. As our nation wallows in an unemployment crisis, the gap between the wealthy few and the rest of us continues to widen. Find more data, analysis, and commentary on wealth and income disparity, at inequality.org, the ground-breaking new website from our Inequality and the Common Good project. While unpacking the twisted sound bites of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and making sense of the staggering statistics featured in the "We’re Not Broke" video, IPS makes the case for the innovative, just, and simple tax reforms that could put an additional $4 trillion back in the Treasury over the next decade. You’ll also find creative approaches to shrinking the budget deficit that don’t gut Medicare.

With your heartening help, we will continue to do our utmost to make extreme inequality and its many insidious consequences a national embarrassment.

IMF Chief Assaults Woman from Guinea--Again

May 19, 2011 ·

The hotel worker IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn allegedly sexually assaulted likely suffered in her home country as a result of IMF policies, like so many of the world's poor.

Last month, I helped lead a march of hundreds of people to protest what we consider to be the International Monetary Fund's criminal behavior during its yearly spring summit with the World Bank. Along with others, I raised my voice to say, "Arrest the IMF!"

Now, Strauss-Kahn is in a jail cell. According to witnesses and other evidence, he sexually assaulted a female hotel worker in a shockingly violent act in a posh suite at the Manhattan Sofitel hotel. When the worker he allegedly attacked bravely broke free, Strauss-Kahn fled the scene, leaving behind personal items such as his mobile phone. The worker, who is an immigrant from the West African nation of Guinea, immediately told others what had happened to her. Law enforcement personnel caught up with him at JFK airport and pulled him off of the airplane minutes before his flight to Paris was scheduled to depart.

While the alleged details are shocking, it's no surprise to me that an IMF chief would exhibit violent, sociopathic behavior. After all, the IMF's austerity policies have assaulted poor countries for years.

The Fund is arguably the world's most powerful financial institution. It issues loans to countries undergoing economic and financial distress, mostly poor ones, though lately European Union members Ireland, Greece, and Portugal have become big customers. In exchange for cash in times of need, the IMF demands blood from the countries that it serves.

In return for its emergency loans, the Fund often forces countries to halt government services that people rely on, such as food subsidies for the poor, health care services, education benefits, and retirement benefits. The IMF presses countries to privatize national assets, selling off pieces of itself to corporations and the wealthy. It demands trade deregulation, allowing corporations to conduct business without any accountability to the government of the country. It tells countries to get rid of laws that protect the environment. As a result, inequalities deepen, and it's hard to see how many countries getting IMF loans really benefit.

Strauss-Kahn's alleged sex attack on an African immigrant is a harrowing metaphor for how the IMF treats the rest of the world. And in fact, it might be more than a metaphor. This very same woman may have suffered in her home country as a result of IMF policies, long before her life's journey brought her to the United States.

According to the woman's lawyer, Jeffrey Shapiro, she arrived in the U.S. from Guinea seven years ago under "very difficult circumstances." She has a 15-year-old daughter. The worker did not know that her attacker was the IMF chief until at least a day after the attack took place, he said.

As part of a global plan to reduce the debt extremely poor nations owed to international financial institutions and wealth governments, the IMF jumped into the country's economics more than 15 years ago, instituting game-changing domestic laws (called "structural adjustments") that would prompt privatization, especially in the mining sector. A detailed policy framework forced on Guinea by the IMF made allowances for a railroad and a deep-water sea port for exporting iron and aluminum shipments, but didn't make allowances for any new hospitals or schools. It ensured that the Guinean government would be "committed to privatizing the central pharmacy," which likely raised the rate of all basic medicines.

She didn't know it when she fought off her attacker, but this brave hotel housekeeper had likely been assaulted by the IMF before, through its cruel policies. Could the shifting factors of the global economy have caught her in its maw? Could these factors be what spurred her to make the dramatic decision to leave her home to emigrate to the United States?

She wouldn't be alone. Most immigrants cite economic factors as major reasons that they move here. Too often, global strings are pulled by wealthy financiers, and people suffer.

Just as the woman Strauss-Kahn allegedly attacked fought him off, we as a unified global community must fight back against the IMF's destructive policies. It starts with raising our voices in protest against this financial powerhouse that is assaulting the poor.

On the Eve of Obama's Middle East Speech

May 19, 2011 ·

The Obama administration faces a huge contradiction in trying to craft a new policy for the Middle East in the midst of the Arab Spring.

Obama gives a speech
Obama faces his own contractions with today's speech (Photo by Matt Ortega)

They are trying to position the U.S. as a friend of the newly democratizing forces, while at the same time refusing to give up the policy of support for those on top, who imposed dictatorships and occupations across the Middle East, to protect U.S. interests in oil, Israel, and strategic stability. Now it is the people of the region who are creating new democracies from below – and it is long past time to change how the U.S. relates to them.

A transformed U.S. role in the region will have to go beyond soaring words and even additional economic assistance. It will require an entirely different policy based on support for popular bottom-up democracy, acceptance of new indigenous definitions of social and economic justice, and respect for local decision-making – even when reality doesn’t match Washington’s illusion of what the “new Middle East” should look like.

What would that policy look like?

  • An end to the U.S. military aid and diplomatic protection that enable Israel’s occupation and apartheid policies, and supporting regional and globally-led diplomacy rather than imposing its own failed “peace process.”
  • An end to all U.S. military ties to any regime suppressing the Arab Spring protests in its own or other countries (that means Saudi Arabia as well as Bahrain, for example, as well as pulling all troops and mercenaries out of Iraq).
  • An end to all economic aid until it can be redirected away from militaries (even in democratizing countries) and into the hands of accountable governments. Supporting creation of a nuclear weapons-free zone throughout the Middle East.
  • An end to the double-standard of harsh sanctions and massive military force (such as in Syria and Libya) imposed against some dictators’ attacks on protestors, while continuing to arm and finance dictatorships strategically allied with the U.S. (such as Bahrain and Yemen) with hardly a word of protest against their lethal assaults on unarmed demonstrators.
Does DC Have the Audacity to Pass an Income Tax Increase?

May 18, 2011 ·

Tax increases, especially for the wealthiest Americans are inevitable. Whoever says we can get out of our current economic mess (both debt and unemployment crises) without raising taxes is wrong.

During an economic downturn, in which governments are failing to raise the revenue necessary to fund crucial programs that help those in need, politicians are finally starting to accept tax increases as part of the solution. Washington, DC's own Mayor, Vincent Gray, has included tax increases on top of spending cuts in his proposed FY2012 budget.

Will the DC City Council be audacious enough to tax the rich? (Photo by Larry Miller)

There is no question that Mayor Gray's budget is far from perfect (the drastic cuts in our major poverty alleviation program for families and children, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, also known as TANF, is one that the City Council should reject). However, Gray should be applauded for concretely putting out a proposed tax increase for those making more than $200,000 a year, from 8.5 percent to 8.9 percent. It is a very modest increase that, when combined with Gray's other tax and fee increases, is projected to raise $127 million.

Even though these tax increases are a step in the right direction to an austerity balanced budget, City Council members seem hesitant to pass them. Council Chair Kwame Brown and Council Member Jack Evans, both Democrats, came out opposing these tax increases without any explanations.

If higher income taxes for the richest Washingtonians are off the table, the City Council's only way of balancing their budget is by further cutting funding for crucial programs and services for the city's poorest residents, especially since funding from the Recovery Act will be lost. These programs could range from Social Safety net programs like TANF and mental health services to economic development programs that help local and small businesses. With DC's unemployment rate hovering around 10 percent, more people are relying on these social safety net programs to help get back on their feet.

It's also important for small business owners to fight for the survival and full funding of programs like TANF. Even though they don't directly benefit from these programs, small business owners succeed if and only if there is a strong enough consumption base living in DC that buys their products. If small business owners in DC want their businesses to thrive in the long run, a lower unemployment and poverty rates (18.4 percent) are necessary for a healthy and robust consumption base in the city.

DC residents are welcoming the idea of a budget with tax increases. According to a poll commissioned by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, 70 percent of respondents said it's more important to preserve services than to hold down taxes, and 85 percent of respondents are in favor increasing tax rates for individuals who make $200,000 or more. The people have spoken. It's up to the City Council to give them what they want.

'Womanizer' Isn't a Synonym for 'Sexual Predator'

May 18, 2011 ·

Most of the reporting on jailed, soon-to-be-former, International Monetary Fund (IMF) chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn is shifting. Instead of just relating accounts of the sexual-assault charges he faces, journalists are raising questions about his past. It's rife with incidents that may have constituted sex crimes, even if charges weren't filed. And there's a great deal of discussion about the lack of reporting on his earlier, newsworthy misdeeds.

In case you're someone who thinks that IMF stands for "Incredibly Monotonous Figures," and have managed so far to ignore the news: New York prosecutors say Strauss-Kahn attempted to rape a hotel housekeeper in his $3,000-a-night Manhattan hotel suite. He denies the charges. Instead of flying to Europe to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, reportedly to discuss Greece's debt, he landed at the Riker's Island prison.

As my colleague Tiffany Williams has written, the alleged victim isn't getting enough attention, which is indicative of a broader problem in our society. According to this Associated Press article, she's a 32-year-old woman from the West African nation of Guinea, currently in "seclusion." The AP story also uses a term that should be dropped, especially in this case.

"The (French) left-leaning newspaper Liberation affirmed Wednesday that its journalists 'will continue...to respect the private lives of men and women' it covers, with the exception of suspected sexual crimes. But it conceded that its journalists are asking whether they should have more strongly pursued rumors about Strauss-Kahn's womanizing."

Womanizing? As Susan Mulligan explains, it's time to ditch that word altogether. "It turns an entire sex into a collective object to be used or victimized by men," she explained in a short, excellent US News blog post. She also makes a strong case for journalists to stop using the antiquated term "mistress," which offensively suggests that women are property. (Got that, reporters covering and bloggers musing about the political misfortunes of John Ensign, Newt Gingrich, and Arnold Schwarzenegger?)

Strauss-Kahn, who married the first of his three wives at age 14 and reportedly tried to force writer Tristane Banon to have sex with him in 2002 following an interview, isn't in trouble for having a strong libido. He's behind bars on charges that include attempted rape, following years of getting away with sexual behavior that may have been criminal. There are more precise terms to use than "womanizer," such as "suspected sexual predator," even if he was widely seen a strong contender for France's presidency.

Sadly, the IMF squandered an opportunity three years ago to ditch Strauss-Kahn before this incredibly ill-timed embarrassment, which coincides with such weighty things as Egypt's pursuit of a $4 billion loan, and Europe's debt crisis. In 2008, the Fund's executive board merely reprimanded him for carrying on an inappropriate relationship with Piroska Nagy, a Hungarian economist who at the time was his subordinate. The liaison was deemed to be consensual, but at the time, Nagy wrote a letter to a firm hired by the IMF that Strauss-Kahn was a "man with a problem that may make him ill-equipped to lead an institution where women work under his command."

No kidding.

The IMF's executive board has the authority to hire and fire the IMF's top official and could have sent the Frenchman packing right then and there, echoing Paul Wolfowitz's fate.

The Iraq War architect's tenure at the helm of the World Bank was cut short after his girlfriend Shaha Riza, another official at the international financial institution, was found to have obtained a series of outsized raises and to have gotten highly paid for work as a contractor with an outside firm, without permission from her employer. After that series of suspect pay hikes, "her non-taxable salary of $193,590 exceeded the amount earned by (then) Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice by approximately $40,000 annually," according the Government Accountability Project, which played a crucial role in exposing the Riza-Wolfowitz scandal.

Emily Schwartz Greco is the managing editor of OtherWords, an Institute for Policy Studies editorial service that provides bold opinions for newspapers and new media.

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