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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 October 2012

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Why Elections Matter, and Why We're Still Arguing About It

October 29, 2012 ·

It’s practically the eve of the election—and I’m still kind of stunned to hear from people who don’t plan to vote, who think voting doesn’t matter. A young writer, 21 years old, wrote to me the other day, after seeing an interview I did on what elections are and aren’t, and on how the candidates do and don’t differ on foreign policy. (Spoiler alert: mostly they don’t.)

Among other things, he said “We young people understand that the political theater of electoral politics will not bring about the radical transformations required to avert environmental and economic catastrophe.”

And of course he’s absolutely right. Anyone who thinks that choosing a “better” leader for the US empire will somehow bring about “radical transformations” has been watching too many campaign infomercials. Only powerful social movements can do that. We have to fight for democracy and we have to build our movements—choosing a presidential candidate doesn’t accomplish either one.

Because national elections—at least those for president—in this country are not democratic. As I said in the interview he was critiquing, presidential elections are not our turf, they’re not our people, they’re not our choices. And anyone who thinks that voting for one candidate over the other is going to solve our problems—especially global problems including wars, occupations, climate change and global inequality—is way wrong.

So our work has to focus on building our movements. But who gets elected president is dangerously relevant. My own work focuses on stopping the drone war, getting US troops out of Afghanistan now instead of two years from now, ending US support for Israeli occupation and related issues—and on those issues there’s hardly any difference between the candidates.

There is one war-and-peace issue where they do differ, and that one matters a lot. Both set “red lines” and say they would use military force against Iran—that’s disastrous under any circumstance. Romney’s red line, which is Israel’s red line, would use force to prevent Iran from reaching “nuclear weapons capability.” While it’s not defined anywhere in international law, “capability” is generally assumed to include the ability to enrich uranium and scientific knowledge. And arguably, Iran actually has that capability already. In the real world of potential new wars, there’s a huge difference between that, and Obama’s red line, which he would invoke to prevent Iran from “having” a nuclear weapon, an event which the entire combination of US military and intelligence agencies agree could not happen before at least a couple of years out. The difference matters—because over years it is possible to build and strengthen movements that will make any such new wars impossible.

And while foreign policy shows the closest parallels between the two parties, that isn’t the only issue. Who gets appointed to the Supreme Court—whether a mainstream moderate centrist or a young right-wing extremist ideologue who will work for decades to move the court even further to the right—matters a huge amount. And that’s exactly who the current Republican party will appoint. Top Republican candidates view rape—“legitimate” or otherwise—as God’s plan for bringing babies into the world. Women, especially poor women, living in much of this country already have few or no options for full reproductive healthcare, especially in how to deal with unwanted pregnancy. One party is pledged to appoint judges who will overturnRoe v. Wade and make abortion illegal across the board. That matters.

Some undocumented young people have just won the opportunity to gain legal status in this country; that’sway not enough, but it matters when the alternative is a new regime pledged to deport all undocumented or to force them to “self-deport.” Obama’s commitment to Medicare and Social Security remains mostly intact, largely because his political base demands it; Romney’s commitment to both is non-existent, except as a means towards increasing privatization. As usual it’s the poor who would suffer the most. Obama has not made good on most of his earlier commitments on climate—but Romney would take those failures further, opening up the Keystone pipeline on his first day in office.

My on-line critic went on to say, “Perhaps a Romney administration would speed up a response by a dislocated working class in overthrowing this doomsday machine? Obama is an extremely effective tool of the corporate enterprise.” Somehow I never accepted the view that the worse things get, the more likely we’ll have a revolution. I just don’t think it works that way. Revolutionary processes—look at the Arab spring—don’t emerge where people are the most beaten down, the most impoverished (which is why we haven’t seen a Sierra Leone uprising or a Niger spring). They happen when people have some renewed hope and then those hopes get dashed. I’m pretty sure we’re not anywhere close to a revolutionary moment in this country. And I certainly don’t think that making things worse for the poorest, oldest, sickest and most vulnerable among us is a viable strategy for building movements—or for making revolution.

This election is not about supporting or withdrawing support from Obama; it’s about keeping the worst from gaining even more power than they already have, so we can get on with the real work of building movements. If you want to call that the “lesser-evil” theory, fine. There’s an old saying that when you’re drowning, and the water is rising up over your mouth, that last half-inch before it reaches your nose is a half-inch of life and death. Especially if you’re short—or in this case, especially if you’re poor.

This election, regardless of who wins, will not solve the problems of this country and the world. We have to build movements powerful enough to take on the challenges of climate change, war, poverty, inequality. But we should be clear, there are significant differences between the two parties and the two candidates; while neither are our allies, one will make our work of building movements even more difficult, will threaten even more of our shredded civil liberties, and will put even more people around the world at much greater risk. Around the world many people are terrified of an electoral result that will return us—and them—to the legacy of George W. Bush.

Elections don’t change the world—only people’s movements do. But elections can make our work of building movements impossible—and that’s not a risk I’m willing to take.

This blog post originally appeared on TheNation.com.

Paul Wellstone, We Miss You

October 25, 2012 ·

Ten years ago today, the two of us were an hour into the first big coalition meeting to oppose the impending U.S. war against Iraq, surrounded by dozens of leaders of a wide array of movements: peace, civil rights, women's rights, environmentalists, labor, social justice, and many others. Then, we noticed some people walking to the back of the room and returning with tears streaking down their faces.

Pinback button created in memory of U.S. senator Paul Wellstone, killed in a plane crash on October 25, 2002. Photo by Minnesota Historical Society. Someone interrupted the meeting with the tragic news. One of the great progressive leaders of our time, Senator Paul Wellstone, had just died in a plane crash campaigning in his home state of Minnesota. The room, just seconds before buzzing with ideas, fell silent. In shock, we took a few minutes to get into small groups and remember Paul, the people's Senator, the anti-war Senator.

We knew that Paul would have wanted us to get back to work quickly in this historic task, so after 15 minutes, we went back to creating what would become the broad, overarching coalition to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: United for Peace and Justice. UFPJ quickly grew to over 1,000 organizations, and we always thought of Paul as we walked into its meetings.

As we think back to that day, we are flooded with Paul memories. Paul proved that progressives without much money could win statewide elections. He visited every corner of Minnesota in a Volkswagen bus during his successful Senate campaigns. He was a stalwart internationalist and he had a poster of our IPS colleague Orlando Letelier, who was assassinated by the Chilean dictatorship, on the wall of his office.

Paul cared deeply about poverty. When he was contemplating a presidential bid in the late 1990s, he retraced the route of Bobby Kennedy's southern tour to highlight poverty and racism in this country. When IPS co-hosted Paul's report back from that tour at Howard University, he spoke with great passion about the human face of poverty and inequality in this nation. In the end, powerful back pain from his days as a wrestler precluded him from running for president in 2000.

Today, Paul would be protesting against the inhumanity and illegality of drone strikes. He would be demanding the end of the U.S. war in Afghanistan now, and he'd be explaining to people the wisdom of making major cuts to the U.S. military budget. He would be leading the charge for inequality-busting measures like the Robin Hood tax. He would be joining the protests against unjust budget-cutting deals by his colleagues. And, he would be standing with people fighting expulsion from their homes by predator banks.

Our great challenge today is to shift this nation's course from our current casino and militarized Wall Street economy to a democratic, peaceful, and green Main Street economy. Paul would be leading the charge.

This Week in OtherWords: Halloween Fare

October 24, 2012 ·

This week in OtherWords, you'll find several commentaries about the scary stuff we eat.

Guest columnist Jill Richardson talks about how food companies scoop too much sugar into our bread and salad dressing. Former dairy farmer Donna Hall introduces readers to an under-regulated ingredient that's in everything from candy to pizza — her op-ed will make you spend way more time reading food labels. Andrew Korfhage's commentary about how Big Chocolate hasn't yet kept a longstanding pledge to fight its suppliers' reliance on child labor in West Africa is accompanied by Khalil Bendib's weekly cartoon.

I've been getting a few questions about our schedule. So here's a quick reminder: OtherWords is now distributing our newsroom-ready commentaries and cartoons on Wednesdays. We made this change earlier this month and hope that it hasn't proven too disruptive to your own schedules. As always, everything we run is free of charge for editors to use in newspapers and new media outlets under a Creative Commons license.

I also encourage you to visit our blog, subscribe to our weekly newsletter, and send me any feedback you may have. If you haven't signed up yet, please do.

  1. Remembering George McGovern and Old-School Campaign Tools / Steve Cobble
    Being decent, humane, smart, caring, and brave was not enough.
  2. The Spooky Side of Chocolate / Andrew Korfhage
    There's nothing sweet about child labor.
  3. The Ingredient Haunting our Candy / Donna Hall
    Milk protein concentrate is in thousands of the things we eat, but there's no government oversight ensuring that this ingredient is safe for consumers.
  4. Supremely High Stakes in This Election / Marge Baker
    When it comes to workers' rights, some of the most influential government officials we'll be voting for are ones whose names don't actually appear on the ballot.
  5. Where's Joe the Plumber When You Need Him? / Sam Pizzigati
    Without someone at least ranting about sharing the wealth, no one's talking about sharing the wealth.
  6. Tricky Treats / Jill Richardson
    Sugar haunts too much of what we eat these days.
  7. GOP Looks in Mirror, Spots Voter Fraud / Jim Hightower
    Records show that a Republican running for county commissioner in Texas has been casting ballots there and in Pennsylvania.
  8. Middle Class Fantasy / William A. Collins
    Median family income is sliding, the social safety net is tattered, and only the top 5 percent are making any real monetary headway.
  9. Trick or Mistreat / Khalil Bendib (Cartoon)

Trick or Mistreat, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Mitt Wants to be President - This President

October 22, 2012 ·

Obama v Romney Debate - WSJ.com image

Mitt Romney wants to be president alright... this president.

We knew the foreign policy positions of the the two candidates were similar, but who knew Mitt copped a peek at Obama's notes before the debate and wrote them on his hand? Romney now is a peacenik, supports an announced date to pull-out of Afghanistan and wants gender equality to solve the "tumults" in the Middle East.

When Mitt wasn't aspiring to be Obama, he seemed to be channeling Sarah Palin: "I look around the world..." (I look out my back door and see Russia... I don't know what I am saying about these difficult issues in places like China, Pakistan and who the Pashtuns are, but I will try to remember the talking points and hope I come close... China is our friend — those lying cheating bastards — I forget where Syria is, but when I have looked around the world, I think I saw some Jihadists there...)

Conservatives are going to bed very nervous tonight. They must be realizing that Mitt really is the liberal they were afraid he was. Peace, love, and... gender equality? They thought they won that war with the "binders of women" but they forgot to give Romney the binders on foreign policy. They forgot to hide his battleship.

Barack Obama was presidential and commanding, truly baffled by the reversal of Romney's positions and his blatant lies about Obama's "Apology Tour," professions of championing the car industry, calling for a publicly announced withdrawal date from Afghanistan.

Obama did a good job of bridging the gap between foreign and domestic policy and won points with his base by declaring that it's time to end the war in Afghanistan and use those resources for "nation-building at home." Obama hit some of the right notes by calling for investment in public education, fair taxes for the wealthy, ending wars, and looking toward future, sustainable energy sources.

Romney felt queasy redux of his Benghazi moment when Obama told him that we have fewer horses and bayonets than in 1916, too, the year lamented by Romney as when we had more "navy ships."

I wish the candidates had vowed to cut military spending substantially, disavowed the reckless use of drone warfare, talked about the path of worker rights, good jobs and liveable wages as a path to stability in the global economy and detailed the revenues we can raise through corporate tax reform. But to hear Obama highlight an end to war and increase in taxes on the wealthy in order to build up education, infrastructure, and future energy sources at home was a hopeful sign.

Hey, Mitt — 2012 called. They want this president back.

The Poison Pill of Tax Cuts

October 21, 2012 ·

A quiz: Which candidates and presidents said the following? (Answers below.)

  1. "To repair the nation’s tax code, marginal rates must be brought down to stimulate entrepreneurship, job creation, and investment."
  2. "We must follow through on the policies that have given us 25 months of economic growth by simplifying our cumbersome tax codes and lowering rates still further."
  3. "I think if you’re going to have tax relief, everybody ought to get it. And, therefore, wealthy people are going to get it."
  4. "Read my lips: no new taxes.” 

The presidential candidates are debating George W. Bush's 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, which were supposed to expire in 2010. Obama wants restore tax rates on the wealthiest families to earlier levels. Romney’s campaign is standing up for the top 2 percent with incomes over $250,000, and then sweetening their pot by abolishing the Alternative Minimum Tax and estate taxes too. His plan would give people earning over a million dollars an average tax break of $160,000 a year.

Romney is running on the GOP's 30-year-old gameplan: promise tax cuts that you swear will pay for themselves while helping the middle class. Since President Ronald Reagan first used this strategy, it’s given the Republican Party 20 years in the White House, versus 12 for the Democrats.401(K)2012/Flickr

It’s like a drug. The high of tax-cut promises fades, and four years later we need another hit. The economy would be even worse if everyone’s taxes fell every time a Republican gets elected. The secret is that for most of us, our total taxes have remained about the same, while rich people’s taxes have been cut and cut. 

Now, Romney is offering us the same old cure-all: if the rich could just pay less in taxes, they would create more jobs and boost government revenue. How has this worked for us? 

From the end of WWII through the Carter administration, U.S. federal debt as a percentage of GDP declined or stayed stable. Then came Reagan's "voodoo economics." During his eight years in office, tax rates fell and the debt nearly tripled to $2.6 trillion. His lasting popularity, despite the red ink, persuaded Dick Cheney to say, “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter.” The debt grew another 55 percent with President George H.W. Bush, and rose by 86 percent George W. Bush. 

In contrast, Bill Clinton gradually slowed the debt's growth and actually brought in surpluses in his second term in office, for a total 37 percent increase over his eight years in office. 

Under Obama, the debt has grown by at least 35 percent so far, expanding at the slowest pace since the Eisenhower administration if you adjust for inflation. 

Romney’s continued protection of the richest 2 percent would cost nearly another trillion dollars over the next decade. Republicans may ridicule “Tax and Spend” Democrats, but that beats the “Spend and Spend and Charge it to our Children and Grandchildren" approach. 

Tax cuts aren’t a magic bullet for job creation, either. Reagan did the best of the tax-cutters, with 2.06 percent growth in jobs, Bush I got only 0.6 percent, and Bush II a measly 0.1percent growth. None were as successful as Clinton’s 2.38 percent and Carter’s 3.06 percent. 

Tax cuts have hurt the middle class. Median household net worth sank to $57,000 in 2010, down from $73,000 in 1983. It would have been $119,000 had wealth grown equally across households in those years. The average wealth of the top 1 percent, on the other hand, grew to $16.4 million, up from $9.6 million in 1983. This is due in large part to the growing income inequality divide, as well as the stock market's sharp rise. So long to a powerful country of successful working families. 

The Republicans' tax cut mythology is propped up by billionaire donors and organizations like Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform. Currently, 238 House members and 41 Senators have signed Norquist's pledge to never raise taxes. 

In the real world, many government programs help the middle class, like the Child Tax Credit, the Earned Income Tax Credit, health care and college grants. Cutting taxes and government hurts people in the middle and on the bottom more than the wealthy. A hundred years ago, G.K. Chesterton wrote, “The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly. The rich have always objected to being governed at all.” 

We owe it to our children to be responsible adults and pay for our government the way our parents and grandparents did. The country runs better when we do.

 Answers

  1. Mitt Romney’s website, Restore America’s Promise: More Jobs, Less Debt, Smaller Government February 22, 2012
  2. Ronald Reagan, radio adress, January 26, 1985
  3. George W. Bush, St. Louis debate, October 17, 2000
  4. George H. W. Bush, Republican National Convention, 1988



    Tim Butterworth is an Institute for Policy Studies associate fellow. IPS-dc.org 
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