IPS Blog

Understanding the Trust Fund Loophole

Offering debit cardPresident Obama plans to unveil his fiscal policy agenda during the State of the Union address Tuesday. His new agenda will include a number of programs that aim to shift the tax burden off of working families and onto the top 1 percent and, more specifically, the top .1 percent.

One major Obama initiative to watch calls for closing the “trust fund loophole,” a move important to addressing skyrocketing wealth inequality.

The trust fund loophole is a new term to describe an egregious yet legal tax avoidance technique of the super wealthy. They use this loophole to avoid paying capital gains taxes on their assets.

Here’s how this works: Suppose you buy stock worth $100,000 (the “basis” value in tax terms) that appreciates to $1,000,000 over the time you own it. When you die, your heir inherits the stock valued at $1,000,000.

Under current law, neither you nor your heir would ever pay any tax on that $900,000 appreciation. Your heir’s inheritance instead gets “stepped up” to $1,000,000 and, thanks to this “stepped-up basis,” the heir does not owe capital gains tax either at the point of transfer or when the asset is sold.

The trust fund loophole lets the super wealthy transfer hundreds of billions of dollars, untaxed, year in and year out. Closing the loophole — and raising the capital gains rate to the Reagan-era level of 28 percent for couples with incomes over $500,000, as the White House is also proposing — would raise a projected $210 billion over ten years, nearly exclusively from the super wealthy.

Explains the White House Fact Sheet on this reform package: “99 percent of the impact of the President’s capital gains reform proposal (including eliminating stepped-up basis and raising the capital gains rate) would be on the top 1 percent, and more than 80 percent on the top 0.1 percent (those with incomes over $2 million).”

Numbers like these make the new White House tax reform proposal arguably the most aggressive Obama move yet to take on skyrocketing wealth inequality. The President, as the Washington Post puts it, is finally having his “Piketty moment,” a tribute to the French economist Thomas Piketty, author of the 2014 blockbuster Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

The President’s proposal stands in sharp contrast to what House Republicans are proposing. They’re calling for eliminating the estate tax and maintaining stepped-up basis, a sure-fire formula for ensuring that America’s wealth inequality rises to ever-greater levels. The estate tax remains our nation’s best check on concentrated wealth.

This check, unfortunately, has been blunted over recent years. Rising exemptions to the estate tax and lower estate tax rates have greatly diminished the contribution the estate tax ought to be making.

The new Obama administration trust fund loophole reform does not address these estate tax problems or other serious problems — known collectively as the billionaire loophole — that allow the wealthy to shield their assets from the tax liability they would otherwise owe. But efforts to close the billionaire loophole do appear likely to be included as part of the President’s budget due out February 1.

Charlie Hebdo Meets ‘The Interview’

The Interview screen capture

In the film, “The Interview,” an American journalist is instructed to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (Columbia Pictures)

The hacking of Sony Pictures and the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris differ in obvious ways: One involved a state-directed cyberattack on a private corporation; the other involved radicals loosely linked to non-state actors determined to kill journalists. But both incidents also constitute attacks on freedom of expression, thus inspiring a public recommitment to this bedrock principle of Western liberalism. In France, millions lined up to buy copies of the newspaper, again with an offending cartoon of prophet Mohammed prominently displayed. And in the United States, millions of Americans (including myself) watched “The Interview,” a raunchy comedy mocking North Korea’s autocratic leader.

Both events also engaged ideas and debates in political science. In “The Interview,” when the television journalist played by James Franco lobs a softball question about hunger in North Korea, the Kim Jong-un character argues that crippling Western sanctions are to blame. Spoiler alert: Franco politely moves on – until later when he realizes that people really are starving. Are sanctions effective negative incentives for shaping political behavior?

An essay on sanctions enforcement in the current issue of International Organization notes there is a large literature on sanction effectiveness. Sanctions failed to bring down Saddam Hussein in the 1990s, but they succeeded in preventing him from building weapons of mass destruction, as we all learned after the 2003 invasion. They were instrumental in ending apartheid in South Africa, where unlike Iraq there was popular support for sanctions and an organized solidarity movement directed the political effects of the economic pain toward the white minority regime.

But in Cuba sanctions only succeeded in befuddling America’s allies, who couldn’t understand why we couldn’t kick a Cold War conceit. President Obama’s recent reestablishment of diplomatic ties not only acknowledges some of these lessons about sanctions, it implicitly endorses Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way’s argument that “linkage” – economic ties, cultural exchanges, and open communications with the West – is more likely to advance democratization than “leverage,” in this case, sanctions. Though their argument is specific to “hybrid” regimes that blend features of democracy with dictatorships’ limited political competition as a special post-cold war phenomenon, American corporations have argued for linkage with Cuba since the 1990s.

“The Interview” also relates more broadly to the new literature on comparative authoritarianism, which I recently wrote about in the journal Commonwealth and Comparative Politics. When the characters played by Franco and co-star Seth Rogan resume their mission to kill Kim, their co-conspirator argues you can’t just kill him because someone else will simply replace him. As political scientists Jason Brownlee and Barbara Geddes argue, an important difference between stable and unstable authoritarian regimes is institutions that can resolve internal conflicts and avoid succession crises. Leaders don’t last long without organizations, parties and institutions.

In the film, the subversives therefore set out to expose Kim as a fallible human, with the goal of generating “audience costs” – what political scientist Jessica Weeks describes as tides of public opinion capable of limiting a ruler’s options. This is more likely to work, the journalists’ co-conspirator explains, because she’s not alone: There’s a whole faction of what political scientists Guillermo O’Donnell and Philippe Schmitter called “soft-liners” who support liberalization.

Following the regime’s collapse, Rogan in the final scene flirts with the co-conspirator via Skype. One could see her hyperbolic sexuality as a shallow appeal to Rogan and Franco’s fan base, which I admit includes me. But we should also see it as a subversive mockery of the old Hollywood recipe for gun-toting heroines. Despite its sarcasm, as political commentary it is not too far from Katniss’s war on war (and authoritarianism) in the “Hunger Games.”

This brings us back to Charlie Hebdo. Like blowing up Kim’s head in “The Interview,” I’m not comfortable with publishing cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, because I know they will offend my Muslim friends. Anticipating this view, pundits have been quick to quote Voltaire’s adage, “I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.” This week his 1763 “Treatise on Tolerance” ranked 17th on Amazon.com’s best sellers in France. Then again, it’s worth remembering that two years later he called for the death of Jean-Jacque Rousseau (a dispute detailed in Leo Damrosch’s 2005 biography, “Restless Genius“). So this free speech stuff gets complicated. But we’re better off having its limits tested by artists, including obnoxious ones, than having its limits imposed by political rulers. Maybe along the way we’ll learn something about how to be both good citizens and good neighbors.

Top Five Inequality Moments of 2014

Black Lives Matter protest sign

(Photo: Kaitlyn Veto / Flickr)

We’re now going on 7 years since the 2008 financial crisis made inequality a hot topic for Americans.

Looking back on 2014, it’s easy to see inequality remains a top issue that hasn’t gone anywhere.

Below is my roundup of the top 5 inequality moments of 2014 (of course, there were many others, but these 5 stand out to me as the most influential).

5. Obama Ushered in 2014 with an Inequality Bang

Part of what makes Obama’s Jan. 2014 State of the Union Address a top inequality moment is that it echoed an earlier speech he’d given the previous month in which he declared inequality to be “the defining issue of our time.” The SOTU speech built on this historic speech and made headlines over his statement that “Inequality has deepened.” However, the focus of the SOTU was more on expanding opportunity than ending inequality, causing some to wonder whether inequality might start to recede from the political and media landscape.

4. Piketty’s Book Became #1 Bestseller on Amazon.com

Just as we began wondering whether inequality would remain a hot topic, Thomas Piketty’s 700-page tome on inequality became a bestseller and even sold-out in April. Why? Because this tour de force told a new and sweeping story of inequality. The “1 percent” are responsible for the second Gilded Age not because they’re talented or hardworking but because they inherit and hoard their wealth. That is the tendency of capitalism, Piketty told us—the movement towards greater and greater inequality. That message propelled Piketty from obscure French economist to rock star status overnight—right here in the U.S. of A.

3. Janet Yellen Sounded the Warning Bell on Inequality

In a 30-minute speech back in October, chairwoman of the Federal Reserve Janet Yellen made headlines when she spoke openly and frankly about rising income and wealth inequality in America. Though she cited plenty of data, what made Yellen’s speech memorable— and even historic—was its deeply personal tone. “The continuing increase in inequality in the United States greatly concerns me,” she said. Noting that Americans have a very small chance of advancing economically these days, she asked “whether this trend is compatible with values rooted in our nation’s history.” Yellen’s speech was a hopeful sign of how she views her role and responsibility as the new Fed chair.

2. Workers of the Cities and States United

Worker justice campaigns upped the ante as 2014 saw a wave of new organizing leading to new policies at the city and state levels. With Congress dragging its heels on a federal minimum wage increase, for instance, 15 states plus the District of Columbia approved wage hikes in 2014 alone. In November, San Francisco passed the nation’s first Retail Workers’ Bill of Rights, a law that will curb erratic scheduling for retail workers. Other coalitions also introduced similar bills in other cities. What’s that? A Republican takeover of Congress in January? Worker justice coalitions have simply been too busy to notice.

1. Ferguson Reminded Us Inequality Isn’t Colorblind

Ferguson—and the people’s impassioned protests that followed—reminded all of us that a national conversation about economic inequality cannot and must not ignore America’s’ ugly legacy of racism. The marches in the streets against police brutality are embedded in a history of economic inequality in this country that has always been racially tinged. In 2015, may we all remember that inequality isn’t colorblind.

Letter to Carole R. Zawatsky, CEO of DCJCC

Carole R. Zawatsky
Chief Executive Officer
DC Jewish Community Center
1529 16th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20036

Dear Ms. Zawatsky,

We are writing to express our dismay at your firing of Ari Roth as Director of Theater J, a position he has held with distinction for 18 years.

We at the Institute for Policy Studies and Split This Rock deeply support free expression and the exchange of ideas, and question the direction that this action suggests the DCJCC is moving in.

One of the roles of art should be to widen the conversations we have with one another. By firing Mr. Roth, whose curatorial vision was an expansive and generous one, you have accomplished the opposite, narrowing and limiting the space for imaginative consideration of the pressing issues of our time.

Art, too, functions to humanize others, to remind us of what we have in common as a people. As John Judis, the former New Republic senior editor, was quoted as saying in The Washingtonian, “What’s at stake here is not simply artistic censorship, but the attempt to snuff out works of art that recognize that Jews and Palestinians share a common humanity.”

We remind you: Ari’s work with Theater J was cutting edge at times; this is what good theater often is. If we cannot defend the cultural front, we have no chance on the political battlefields.
If we desire peace and the need to bring people together – what better place than the theater?

The road to peace with justice in the Middle East will require that we listen to one another, to many voices, sometimes even to unpopular voices. Your actions in removing Mr. Roth from your institution, sadly, work to silence the diversity of opinions so desperately needed.

We write this with great sadness because our two organizations have viewed the DCJCC as a close ally. IPS held our 25th Annual Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Awards at the DCJCC 14 years ago with our art show of “Light Among Shadows.” We co-hosted Ariel Dorfman’s “Death and the Maiden” a few years later.

IPS and Split This Rock will be willing partners with Mr. Roth in the new theater he intends to build at the Atlas so that we can help promote the type of cultural work that is needed today.

Sarah Browning, Executive Director, Split This Rock

John Cavanagh, Executive Director, Institute for Policy Studies

E. Ethelbert Miller, Board Chair, Institute for Policy Studies

Dan Vera, Board Chair, Split This Rock


What the U.S. Should Learn from Russia’s Collapse

Oil tankers

(Photo: Liz Bartlett / Flickr)

After months of whispered warnings, Russia’s economic troubles made global headlines when its currency collapsed halfway through December. Amid the tumbling price of oil, the ruble has fallen to record lows, bringing the country to its most serious economic crisis since the late 1990s.

Topping most lists of reasons for the collapse is Russia’s failure to diversify its economy. At least some of the flaws in its strategy of putting all those eggs in that one oil-and-gas basket are now in full view.

Once upon a time, Russia did actually try some diversification — back before the oil and gas “solution” came to seem like such a good idea. It was during those tumultuous years when history was pushing the Soviet Union into its grave. Central planners began scrambling to convert portions of the vast state enterprise of military production — the enterprise that had so bankrupted the empire — to produce the consumer goods that Soviet citizens had long gone without.

One day the managers of a Soviet tank plant, for example, received a directive to convert their production lines to produce shoes. The timetable was: do it today. They didn’t succeed.

Economic development experts agree that the time to diversify is not after an economic shock, but before it. Scrambling is no way to manage a transition to new economic activity. Since the bloodless end to the Cold War was foreseen by almost nobody, significant planning for an economic transition in advance wasn’t really in the cards.

But now, in the United States at least, it is. Currently the country is in the first stage of a modest defense downsizing. We’re about a third of the way through the ten-year framework of defense cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011.

Assuming Congress doesn’t scale back this plan or even dismantle it altogether, the resulting downsizing will still be the shallowest in U.S. history. It’s a downsizing of the post-9/11 surge, during which Pentagon spending nearly doubled. So the cuts will still leave a U.S. military budget higher, adjusting for inflation, than it was during nearly every year of the Cold War — back when we had an actual adversary, the aforementioned Soviet Union, that was trying to match us dollar for military dollar.

Now, no such adversary exists. Thinking of China? Not even close: The United States spends about six times as much on its military as Beijing.

Even so, the U.S. defense industry’s modest contraction is being felt in communities across the country. By the end of the ten-year cuts, many more communities will be affected. This is the time for those communities that are dependent on Pentagon contracts to work on strategies to reduce this vulnerability. To get ahead of the curve.

There is actually Pentagon money available for this purpose. Its Office of Economic Adjustment exists to give planning grants and technical assistance to communities recognizing the need to diversify.

As we in the United States struggle to understand what’s going on in Russia and how to respond to it, at least one thing is clear: Moscow’s failure to move beyond economic structures dominated by first military production, and now by fossil fuels, can serve as a cautionary tale and call to action.

Diversified economies are stronger. They take time and planning. Wait to diversify until the bottom falls out of your existing economic base, and your chances for a smooth transition decline precipitously. Turning an economy based on making tanks into one that makes shoes can’t be done in a day.

Racial Wealth Inequality and the Dream Deferred

Ferguson Eric Garner protest

(Photo: scottlum / Flickr)

The marches in the streets may have been provoked by police conduct in Ferguson and Staten Island.  But there is a deeper dream that has been deferred.

The gap between white wealth and Black wealth has grown since the end of the Great Recession of 2007-2009.

According to a new Pew Research Center analysis, the 2013 median wealth of white households is 13 times greater than the median wealth of Black households, up from 8 times greater in 2010.  White households have 10 times more wealth than Hispanic households, up from 9 times greater in 2007.

Median wealth for Black households in 2013 was $11,000, down from $16,600, a staggering decline of 33.7 percent.  For white households, the median wealth was $141,900, up from $138,600 in 2010, an increase of 2.4 percent.

Between 2010 and 2013, the median wealth of white households declined 14.3 percent, from $16,000 to $13,700.

There is a high correlation between wealth — what you own minus what you owe — and security.  Wealth provides a cushion, reserves to fall back on in the face of hardship.  Homeownership has been a foundational asset, something to pass on to one’s children.

While people of all races saw their net worth implode during the recession, white wealth has slightly recovered. This is because whites own more financial assets, such as stocks and bonds, which have rebounded since 2009.  Meanwhile home values, which represent the largest share of assets for households of color, have not rebounded at the same rate.

This study does not pull out the richest 1 percent of white households, which have captured a huge percentage of wealth growth in the last decade.

Politicians are quick to point to the good news of declining unemployment and foreclosure rates, but there are other signs of deeper distress in the economy.

The U.S. homeownership rate has been steadying declining, from 69 percent in 2004 to 64.4 percent in the third quarter of 2014.  For Blacks, the homeownership rate fell from 45.6 percent in 2010 to 42.9 percent in the third quarter of 2014. Over 40 million people have student debt averaging $33,000.  And over 43 million households are holding medical debt.

Defense Contractors Venture into Health Care

Mental Healthcare: Underappreciated and Underfunded

(Image Money/Flickr)

The new champions of the Affordable Care Act are — so the Washington Post’s Business section reported last weekend — defense contractors? As their diet of military contracts gets leaner, the major feeders have been fattening up on new work helping to implement health care reform.

General Dynamics has been staffing the call centers that help consumers navigate the healthcare.gov website.  Northrop Grumman has been managing data-sharing for the National Institutes of Health.  Lockheed Martin has been doing the same for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

There are obvious reasons to celebrate this development.  Who could fail to cheer when, as Jay Hancock writes in the Post article, “In a way that is deeply changing Washington contracting, growth opportunities from the federal government have increasingly come not from war but from healing”?

Federal spending is shifting, in a modest way, from guns to butter. Following this money should allow the contractors to let up a little on their clarion calls on behalf of weapon systems the country doesn’t need, including the ones the Pentagon doesn’t even want.

The big contractors are “systems integrators,” as they frequently tell us.  This gives them, in principle, rare capabilities to solve problems for the system that is integrating to provide health care for all.

But here’s why we need to worry:  One year ago, Northrop Grumman paid $11.4 million to settle a case brought by the Justice Department charging the company with improperly billing the government for costs on “hundreds of 2004 contracts.”  This is the very same company that the Department of Health and Human Services hired to help it detect Medicare fraud and control costs.

In 2011, the Commission on Wartime Contracting estimated the cost of waste and fraud related to contracting for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to be between $31 and $60 billion.  The range is so large because the Defense Department’s multiple accounting systems — our nation’s largest discretionary account remains unauditable — make hiding costs so easy and counting them nigh impossible. The companies that created so much of this waste are now entrusted with designing systems to control the costs of health care?  We’d better be watching.

From his perch as the next chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) plans to be the scourge of waste in defense contracting. Last week he identified one of his main targets: “cost-plus” contracts. This is the practice going back many decades which guarantees that contractors will be paid for all the allowable expenses they incur in the course of building a weapon system plus an agreed-upon profit. It is a system that reduces incentives to control costs. The cost overruns on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, for example — the most expensive weapon system and cost-plus contract in history — were reported earlier this year at $163 billion and have climbed since.

McCain told CongressWatch that he wants to ban all cost-plus contracts: “If you don’t ban them, here’s what happens: They come in with a lowball contract, so they can get the contract, and then that’s why the costs mount.”

Now back to those call centers that General Dynamics is staffing for healthcare.gov. The last line in the Post article reports that the company’s contract with the Department of Health and Human Services is indeed “cost-plus.”

While McCain is mounting his charge against Pentagon waste and these contracts in the Armed Services Committee, his colleagues over at the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee — now charged with oversight of health care contracts performed by defense contractors — had better be doing the same.

Dispatch from Lima: Seven Trends We Spotted at UN Climate Talks

UN Climate Change Conference COP20 Inauguration

(Photo: cancilleriadeperu / Flickr)

The 20th annual UN Climate Change Conference (Conference of the Parties, or COP) is currently taking place in Lima, Peru. It’s a dress rehearsal for talks that should conclude a new international climate agreement in 2015. But with several strands of negotiations between governments, as well as hundreds of events being held in parallel, it can be hard to see the wood for the trees. So we’ve compiled a quick guide to some of the key trends shaping this year’s talks.

1. Zero emissions (but beware the small print)

Addressing climate change means rapidly weaning ourselves off the greenhouse gases that cause it. So what could be more welcome than a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050?

A “net zero” movement is now pushing for carbon neutrality within one generation. But there’s a catch: “net zero” means you can still emit a lot, as long as emissions are somehow sucked out of the atmosphere elsewhere. That provision is already being used to support expensive and unproven measures to capture and store carbon from fossil fuel power plants and industry, as well as controversial, climate-manipulating geo-engineering.

Striving for zero emissions is a step in the right direction, but we’ll need more than a catch phrase to motivate investments in renewables, grassroots empowerment, and straight-up significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

2. Setting your own target

“Intended nationally determined contributions” (INDCs) is the latest acronym in the alphabet soup of jargon that is routinely generated by UN climate talks.

INDCs are a way for countries to declare what concrete actions they’ll be taking to address climate change, in the hope that these ingredients can be baked into a new international climate agreement. The guidelines on what INDCs can be are intentionally flexible and ambiguous, allowing states to declare anything from economy-wide emissions targets to long-term national climate action plans.

Predictably, negotiators are now struggling to articulate INDCs in a way that is fair, equitable, and transparent. A number of developing countries are concerned that INDCs are becoming a ruse for developed countries to ignore tricky questions about their fair share of climate action, based on their current and historic responsibility for causing the problem in the first place.

There’s also a concern that INDCs will just focus on “mitigation” (reducing greenhouse gas emissions) even though, for many countries, adaptation (coping with the climate change that’s already locked in), finance and technology transfers are vital to any new international climate deal.

3. Everyone’s talking about justice

Until recently, if someone said “climate justice” they’d more likely than not be referring to the fact that climate change was mostly caused by a handful of industrialized countries and big corporations, who should pollute less rather than pushing “solutions” with negative impacts on Indigenous Peoples, people of color and the world’s poor. But this year we’re seeing “justice-washing” throughout the COP.

Even Lord Nicholas Stern, a leading capitalist climate economist, has been speaking the language of climate justice. While we are happy to hear that fat cats now have to open their eyes and ears to “local ownership” and “gender sensitivity,” these words shouldn’t be tossed around the point of meaninglessness.

4. Time to clean up climate finance

“Climate finance” is money from developed countries that is meant to help developing countries reduce greenhouse gas emissions (via mitigation) and deal with climate impacts that are already happening or unavoidable (adaptation). To this end, developed countries have promised to mobilize $100 billion dollars a year by 2020.

The reality of the climate finance delivered to date is not all rosy. For example, Japan provided $1 billion in loans to build coal-fired power plants in Indonesia, then counted it as their contribution to a “fast start” climate finance package that ran from 2012-2012. There are plenty more examples of dirty deals masquerading as climate finance, but we can’t afford sparse climate finance wasted on polluting projects.

It’s time for the COP to clearly define what can count as climate finance, including following the demand of civil society groups to adopt an exclusion list that prevents a new, $10 billion Green Climate Fund from funding fossil fuel projects.

5. Big oil everywhere

Last year’s UN climate change conference was awash with corporate sponsorship, which we warned could become “the new normal.” Twelve months on, big oil firms are everywhere. Shell and Chevron even co-hosted an event where the aforementioned Lord Stern spoke against divesting from fossil fuels (particularly oil and gas). Meanwhile, these same companies are lobbying hard to water down any potential climate deal.

What happened to climate change being “the biggest market failure the world has ever seen?” as Stern once wrote? We guess the oil companies never got the memo.

6. Forest conservation gets a makeover

The initiative to Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) has been a hot topic at the climate talks for several years, but the means of financing forest protection remain unclear.

The initial REDD+ idea, pedaled by the World Bank, was to build a market for forest carbon offsets: big corporations could compensate for their own pollution by paying to preserve tropical forests. But REDD+ has increasingly negative connotations, as many of the initial schemes have been associated with displacing and disempowering indigenous and peasant communities and undermining their land rights.

In light of all the bad press, many forest projects are dropping the REDD+ branding and are simply being labeled “conservation projects” or “administrative agreements.” It remains to be seen whether or not these are any better at helping local people to preserve forests without compromising their livelihoods.

7. Gender, and arguing about its relevance

Developing “gender sensitive” policy is an increasingly important part of emerging climate finance schemes. But some governments object, including those of Sudan and Algeria. They want references to gender removed from the policies being negotiated in Lima. The European Union and Mexico, amongst others, insist that gender is a priority. The impasse continues.

Tom Harkin and This Year’s Nobel Peace Prize

Stop child labor

(Photo: The Advocacy Project/Flickr)

On Dec. 10, anti-child labor crusader Kailash Satyarthi (with Malala Yousafzai) will step onto a storied stage in Norway to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, while here in the United States, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) winds down 40 years in the Congress and Senate. Together and individually, these two men — from opposite ends of the earth — have helped immeasurably to combat the worst forms of child labor.

Picture this scene on the National Mall in the summer of 1998, vivid in our memories even 16 years later: Hundreds gather to greet Satyarthi and other marchers at the end of the U.S. leg of theGlobal March Against Child Labor. Since January of that year, under Satyarthi’s leadership, hundreds of thousands of children and their advocates in dozens of countries had marched to tell the story of de facto child slavery and to demand a stronger global convention to ban child labor. When they reached Washington, it was Harkin who stepped forward to embrace the weary marchers, Satyarthi among them, in front of the Capitol before the march’s final stage in Geneva at the International Labour Organization (ILO).

Because of the publicity generated by the march and the clarity of Satyarthi and Harkin and their colleagues, momentum grew for an ILO convention “On the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour.” Soon thereafter, in a display of bipartisanship unheard of today, Harkin worked with Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) — yes, that Jesse Helms — to secure the Senate’s ratification of the convention by a unanimous vote. The ILO convention was ratified quickly by more than 150 countries; the number of child laborers and children in dangerous jobs has fallen dramatically since.

Many readers of The Hill know well Harkin’s indefatigable energy to increase the minimum wage and to fight for the rights of workers. From his bravery in exposing human rights abuses in the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese regime in the early 1970s to his battle against the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship in Chile later that decade, to his work for exploited cocoa workers in Africa, Harkin has earned the admiration of human rights and worker rights defenders across the globe.

A key chapter of Harkin’s career has been his unrelenting quest to end child labor, collaborating with Satyarthi. We have been privileged to know Satyarthi over decades of involvement in two groups which he helped to create that are at the forefront of the fight against child labor:GoodWeave (formerly RugMark) and the International Labor Rights Forum. Both of these organizations stand also as part of Harkin’s legacy. Harkin served on the board of the ILRF and he has always been ready to support GoodWeave initiatives.

Part of why these initiatives serve as models is that they are based on local-global links. Early on in Satyarthi’s work in his native India, he built organizations that freed children, as young as 4, from lives of grueling “bonded” slave labor. Some were shackled to carpet looms in horrific conditions. But Satyarthi soon grew to understand that no matter how many children were freed, there were others to take their place — thanks in part to the global demand for hand-loomed carpets. This is where Harkin came in. He was among the few who had the audacity and vision to co-dream with Satyarthi about transforming this vicious global-local link of exploitation into a virtuous link of liberation: GoodWeave created a system of monitoring and enforcing the certification of carpets that gives an incentive to companies to end child labor, employ adults in dignified skilled work, and court consumers who want to buy carpets that are not made with child labor. As a result, buyers of hand-loomed carpets now have a clear choice.

In close coordination with these efforts, since 1995 Harkin has secured over $1 billion from the U.S. Labor Department to support hundreds of projects to combat child labor in over 90 countries.

When the Nobel Peace Prize committee announced its choice of Satyarthi in October, Harkin was exuberant: “It was Kailash’s example that inspired my own work to end the worst forms of child labor around the world. I have always been honored to call Kailash a friend, if not a brother, and I am proud that his work has been recognized by the Nobel Committee.”

And, so let us raise our glasses: As we celebrate Kailash Satyarthi, so too do we celebrate Sen. Tom Harkin. Few have done more to bring the voices of the dispossessed and marginalized into the halls of Congress — and with great humility, great humanity and great prowess. Thank you, Senator.

The Immigrant Community Deserves Bigger and Better

Photo: Flickr/Icars

Photo: Flickr/Icars

So many thoughts rushed through my mind as I stood in the United We Dream office waiting to hear President Obama’s executive action on immigration. I was surrounded by immigrants, Dreamers, allies, and many others who have courageously led the way for this moment to happen.

I thought about my relatives who lack legal status and are forced to live in the shadows. They live with fear of deportation and of being separated from their children every day.

I thought about my friends back in New Mexico who didn’t qualify for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in 2012 because they arrived to the United States a month after the deadline.


I thought about the parents of my friends with DACA status who also need relief. They deserve to be recognized as human beings, contributors to society and to live a life of dignity and respect. Relief from deportation and a work permit could be a step towards that.


As eight o’clock drew closer, the crowd grew tremendously quiet. The moment we had been fighting and pushing for had finally arrived. We watched Obama give details of his plan which included granting relief to parents of citizen or resident children, expanding the DACA program, and shifting the focus on deporting felons rather than families.

I looked around the room as the announcement came to an end. The scenes I saw were heartbreaking: young people hugging their parents, tears coming down their faces.  I saw friends comforting each other. I saw the pain and disappointment in the faces of all those who fought so hard for this victory, yet didn’t qualify.

Despite all the sadness and disappointment that six million people will continue to live in the shadows and leave their houses every day not knowing whether they will see their families again, there was excitement and hope.

There was happiness and joy for thefive million people who will qualify and are now closer to living more fulfilling lives with dignity and respect.

This moment was also a celebration. It was a huge organizing victory! People across the country joined forces and pushed for broader relief for families. People everywhere took part in rallies, protests, marches, hunger strikes, petitions and civil disobediences to bring attention to the fear our communities live in, the1,100 deportations that occur daily and the suffering that comes from family separation. Through hard work and determination, immigrant rights activists were able to move the President of the United States to take action.

This is a moment to celebrate the victory, but to also acknowledge that this isn’t enough! The fight continues for the six million undocumented immigrants that were left out. Our communities are tired of being thrown bones every twenty to thirty years and being told to be grateful. They need and deserve something bigger and better. It is time for this pressing and growing issue to be addressed with something more permanent in Congress.
And so I challenge Congress to get something done this year because a half-way measure just isn’t enough.

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