IPS Blog

The Budget Deal: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Photo from Shutterstock.com/trekandshoot

Photo from Shutterstock.com/trekandshoot

As Congressional dysfunction seemed to be barreling us toward a government shutdown, comes the news of an 11th-hour deal, announced Monday at midnight.

Let’s start with the good news. Our government, it appears, won’t be shutting its doors. The United States will pay its bills rather than endangering its own economy, and the rest of the world’s, by defaulting on them. Let’s pause and take a breath and/or tear out a few hairs as we reflect that this is what passes for “good news” these days.

We are three years into a budget deal, the Budget Control Act, that was supposed to restrain the budget deficit by making equal cuts to the military and non-military parts of federal spending over a ten year period. In two of those three years, Congress basically said, “Yes, we really mean to do this, but not right now.” House and Senate Budget Committee chairs Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Patty Murray (D-WA) negotiated a bipartisan deal that returned some of the money that was originally cut. Now, the deal before them would do the same thing for the next two years. They are the dieters who promised themselves they would start that diet next year, now deciding, “Nah, it can wait until 2018.”

Some good things will come out of this.

Programs for child health and nutrition, education, environmental protection and myriad others that were due to be drastically cut will likely get a reprieve. As will the diplomatic and international assistance functions , including aid to Syrian refugees, that constitute our alternative to a foreign policy of war.

But so will that foreign policy of war. As George Orwell might put it, in this universe of equality for the military and non-military sides of our budget, one side is more equal than the other. According to this budget deal, the original limit on next year’s military spending of $523 billion will now increase to $548.1 billion, while the rest of our government’s funding (the “discretionary” part that Congress votes on every year) will rise from $493.5 to $518.5 billion.

And the military budget gets even more equality than that. In recent years Congress has been funding its wars through a separate account called the “Overseas Contingency Fund”, over and above the “regular” military budget. The beauty of this fund, from the defense hawks’ point of view, is that it’s not subject to the restraints of the 10-year Budget Control Act. And while this account is supposed to fund current military operations, it has in practice become a slush fund for military projects that have nothing to do with the wars we are currently fighting. The new deal currently on the table gives that fund more money, too.

And oh yes, it’s not at all clear that this new deal will become law. Numerous members of Congress are venting their unhappiness with it, including many of those for whom shutting down the government would be a statement of principle. Telling our government to stop functioning – also still on the table, at least for a few more days.

Government shutdown or an ugly deal? That’s the choice this Congress is giving us. We have a long way to go in the fight for a budget that puts peace, people, and the planet first.

Who stands to benefit the most from Carl Icahn’s new super-PAC? Carl Icahn.

Carl Icahn super-PAC

(Image: Juli Hansen / Shutterstock)

The nation’s political system just doesn’t have enough influence from the billionaire class.  That was apparently the sentiment, absurd as it may sound, behind billionaire Carl Icahn’s recent decision to launch a super PAC with $150 million of his reported $21 billion fortune.

What does Icahn hope to accomplish with this venture?  Lower taxes for himself and his friends, of course. Icahn has targeted corporate tax reform and specifically the provisions that enable companies to defer the taxes owed on their overseas profits.  Unsurprisingly, he’d prefer to enable tax dodging companies with funds in offshore tax shelters to bring the money home at a significantly reduced tax rate.

Icahn, who ranks number 22 on the Forbes list of American billionaires, is a major shareholder of Apple, a company that holds a reported $181 billion in offshore tax shelters and stands to benefit tremendously from the changes Icahn seeks.

While Icahn’s audacious actions should certainly turn heads, he is simply the latest billionaire to make news for trying to buy influence in our broken electoral system.  The New York Times recently reported that just 158 families provided half of the early contributions to presidential candidates this cycle. In fact, as an older, white, self-made, urban, Republican financier, Icahn fits in the most common demographic of this group.

All told, less than one quarter of one percent of the American population contribute more than $200 to political campaigns, parties, or PACs. Only four hundredths of one percent give more than $2,600 in an election cycle.  That’s just two out of every five thousand people!  And that money’s well spent, too. A major study from Princeton published last year showed that economic elites and business groups have substantial power over U.S. government policy making while the vast majority of Americans do not.

Former President Jimmy Carter recently made headlines calling the United States “an oligarchy with unlimited political bribery.” He went on to say, “we’ve just seen a complete subversion of our political system as a payoff to the major contributors, who want and expect and sometimes get favors for themselves after the election’s over.”

Given the Times reporting and Icahn’s recent actions, along with the countless other examples of legal bribery by the billionaire class in recent years, Carter’s statement is far from unfounded.  What is remarkable is that a former U.S. President is speaking so plainly about the condition of our modern electoral system and that a billionaire is so brazen in his efforts to subvert the legislative process to his benefit.

Efforts to fix our broken campaign finance system are underway from groups like Represent.us and Move to Amend as well as by the quixotic Presidential candidate Larry Lessig.  These efforts are pushing back against innumerable odds, but are building support for a widespread grassroots movement.  This movement might be the only thing able to counter the immense influence of the billionaire class.

How the U.S. criminal justice system operates as a debt-based system of racial control

(Image: Shutterstock)

(Image: Shutterstock)

Green Cottenham was loitering at a train station in Columbiana, Alabama. Along with several other young men, he was arrested and convicted of vagrancy in less than 24 hours. Cottenham was sentenced to three months of hard labor. To add insult to injury, he was charged a $38 fine. Unable to satisfy the fine, he was sentenced to an additional three months of hard labor.

Alana Cain was charged with theft, accused of stealing from the New Orleans, Louisiana law firm where she worked. After pleading guilty, Cain was ordered to pay $1,800 in restitution and additional fines and fees that amounted to about $950. Late installment payments and an encounter with law enforcement due to a broken taillight culminated in her arrest.

Cottenham was arrested in 1908, a time characterized by pervasive racial segregation, terrorism from white supremacists in white sheets, and rampant political oppression.

Cain, similarly young, African American, and convicted of a petty crime, was arrested in 2015.

White elites sought to more firmly reinforce their control over African American life as Reconstruction waned in the 1870s. They relied on a series of legal measures that coalesced into what were colloquially known as the Black Codes. White-dominated state legislatures throughout the South established stringent, criminal consequences for previously petty offenses in order to neutralize the political gains made by African Americans through the Reconstruction Amendments. Laws against vagrancy and contract severance especially entrapped African Americans within the criminal justice system, capitalizing on the persistent poverty of the African American community. Even the theft of a pig, worth mere dollars, to feed a starving family could result in five years of imprisonment.

In 1901, John Davis was travelling through the Alabama countryside to meet his ailing wife at her parents’ home. Along the way, he was stopped by Robert Franklin, the local constable, who wrongfully claimed that Davis owed him money and demanded his payment. Davis asserted that he did not owe Franklin any money, but was powerless to stop his arrest. He was quickly convicted. After his sentence to ten months of hard labor, Davis was hit with a barrage of fines and court fees that he could not pay. His labor was sold by the court to Robert Franklin in order to satisfy his debts.

Like so many others, Davis was trapped in this system of convict labor leasing until his debts were deemed paid. This debt-based collusion between the state and private entities proved to be quite profitable to both. For instance, Alabama garnered $164,000 in revenue from leasing convicts by 1890 (a $4.1 million value today). Private entities, companies and individuals alike, were finally able to solve the labor shortage and revenue crises left in the wake of Emancipation.

More than a century later, one in fifteen African Americans have fallen victim to the same debt-based system of racial control that terrorized Green Cottenham and John Davis at the dawn of the 20th century.

Where once white landowners fueled the indebtedness of African Americans, that task has since been assumed by the state. Beginning in the early 2000s, many states attached hefty fees and fines to the same petty offenses criminalized by the Black Codes like vagrancy and more recent ones like unpaid parking tickets. These amplified laws exploited the economic vulnerability of African Americans like the Black Codes before them.

In early 2013, Clifford Hayes was homeless in Georgia and in need of a place to rest. Instead, he was arrested for failing to pay the more than $2000 he owed to cover the fines and probation fees associated with an arrest in 2007. A judge ordered Hayes to either pay up or risk being sentenced to eight months in jail. Hayes lamented that neither the court nor the private probation company would take his dire financial situation into account. Hayes was forced to decide between using his limited income from disability benefits to pay his debt and going to jail.

No longer abusing the labor of African Americans like John Davis, the state and private entities have instead turned their attention to nickel and diming those like Clifford Hayes as a more direct means of profit accumulation. In the midst of declining revenue and funding, the state has levied the burden of maintaining the criminal justice system on African American defendants. For example, Ferguson, Missouri utilized a barrage of fees, fines, and court costs to supply 20 percent of its budget, playing on the poverty of its 70 percent African American population. More than 8,000 state agencies received some share of the $4.5 billion obtained from civil asset forfeitures by the Department of Justice, a practice that has been shown to disparately target and impact poor African Americans. Sentinel, the private probation company monitoring Clifford Hayes in Georgia, made at least 40 percent of its profits in 2012 from charging defendants, preying on the many African American defendants who were unable to pay.

W.E.B. Dubois once observed that “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery,” referring in the latter part to the state-sanctioned racial oppression (among other atrocities) forced upon African Americans like Green Cottenham and John Davis post-Reconstruction. As Alana Cain and Clifford Hayes demonstrate today, many African Americans remain enslaved, having been criminalized and controlled by the criminal justice system because of their poverty.

 

 

Seven Substantive Issues That Divide the Democratic Candidates

(Image: CNN)

(Image: CNN)

The first Democratic presidential debate differed immensely in substance and tone from the two Republican debates held thus far as candidates acknowledged, as Bernie Sanders put it, that they were “sick and tired of hearing about [Hillary’s] damn emails” and ready to dig into the serious issues of our time.

While the candidates agreed on many mainstay Democratic policies ranging from the need to address skyrocketing student debt and climate change to their support for guaranteed maternity leave, they did vary in their positions on some very key issues.  Here are the top seven issues that split the candidates.

Capitalism

After confirming that Bernie Sanders was indeed serious about not being a capitalist, CNN moderator Anderson Cooper clarified if any other candidate would like to take a stance against capitalism. No one budged.  Sanders clarified his views saying, “Do I consider myself part of the casino capitalist process by which so few have so much and so many have so little by which Wall Street’s greed and recklessness wrecked this economy? No, I don’t.”

Wall Street

Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders laid out firm plans for dismantling the “casino, speculative, mega-bank gambling” that takes place on Wall Street, as O’Malley put it.  Hillary claimed to have a tougher plan to regulate the banks, but stopped short of calling for breaking up the Too Big To Fail banks.  It’s hard to ignore the fact that the bulk of Clinton’s lifetime campaign funding comes directly from Wall Street.  None of the other four candidates made this point on stage, but Sanders hit a major applause line saying, “Congress does not regulate Wall Street, Wall Street regulates Congress.”

The Greatest National Security Threat to the U.S.

When asked what the greatest threat to national security is, Lincoln Chafee cited the chaos in the Middle East, Jim Webb cited China and the Middle East, both Martin O’Malley and Hillary Clinton cited the spread of nuclear weapons in Iran and elsewhere.  Bernie Sanders distinguished himself from the pack citing climate change as our greatest threat, saying unless we act, “the planet that we’re going to be leaving our kids and our grandchildren may well not be habitable.”

Gun Control

The focus of the gun control portion of the debate was on Senator Sanders’ record, having voted against the Brady Bill. He defended his record as a leader from a rural gun owning state who’s taken a strong stance on gun control in recent years. Somewhat awkwardly, he asserted in the third person, “Bernie Sanders has a D-minus rating from the NRA.”  While all the candidates agreed on the need for instant background checks and closing the gun-show loophole, Secretary Clinton made clear that she thought Sanders was not strong enough on guns.

Iraq War

Bernie Sanders called the war in Iraq “the worst foreign policy blunder in the history of the United States,” a point Lincoln Chaffee echoed in his remarks.  Hillary Clinton, who voted in favor of the war, attempted to show her good judgment as shown by her appointment to Secretary of State, but did not explain why she supported the war in the first place.  The candidates also split on the prospect of enforcing a no-fly zone in Syria, an idea Clinton supports and Sanders does not.

Mass Surveillance

Lincoln Chafee defended his support for the PATRIOT Act, the legislation that led to the creation of the modern surveillance state, saying it was a 99 to 1 vote.  Sanders was quick to point out that he was only candidate on stage to vote against the legislation, although he was in the House of Representatives at the time, not the Senate.  He went on to say that he would shut down the mass surveillance program at the NSA. When asked about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, Sanders and Chafee were the only candidates to support varying levels of leniency.  O’Malley and Clinton both called for criminal proceedings as Clinton stated Snowden must “face the music.” Jim Webb chose not to take a position, claiming it was an issue for the courts.

Legalizing Marijuana

The two top candidates split on their views about legalizing marijuana as Sanders said he would support legalization while Clinton said she would not.  Both candidates clarified they did not want to see non-violent drug offenders in prison, but Clinton did not specify how she would reduce this without changing federal drug laws.  The three other candidates did not weigh in on this issue.

 

We can look forward to hearing more about where the candidates’ positions differ on issues in the upcoming debates, where the focus will likely shift more towards taxes, a topic barely discussed during this debate. While the candidates overlap on many issues, clear differences in policy and politics divide them, giving voters a clearer picture of who most closely represents their views entering into the campaign season ahead.

The Real Meaning of ‘Collateral Damage’

Child in Afghanistan hospital

(Image: Flickr / ResoluteSupportMedia)

The destruction of the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) hospital in Kunduz, with 22 dead so far, including doctors, other staff and patients, capped a week that also saw the bombing of​ another hospital in Afghanistan, plus the U.S.-backed Saudi Arabian bombing of a wedding party in Yemen set up in tents far out in the desert, away from anything remotely military. (What IS it about wedding parties that U.S. and allied bombers keep hitting them?).

The Pentagon relied on its language of “collateral damage,” trying once again to distance itself from any responsibility for this most recent atrocity in Afghanistan.  But there is no distance.  This is the direct and inevitable result of an air war waged by U.S. pilots flying U.S. planes dropping U.S. bombs on an impoverished and war-devastated country still immersed in the war that began 14 years ago this week. Since that time the U.S. has spent $65 billion to train and equip a military and police force accountable to U.S. goals and the U.S.-installed government.  But it hasn’t worked.

Kunduz is a large city in northern Afghanistan, and while residents and others had noted moves by the Taliban to surround the city in recent months, it wasn’t until last week’s seizure of the town by Taliban forces that US-backed officials in Kabul took any notice. The corruption-rife and widely discredited Afghan government then sent troops from its US-trained army to try to retake the city, even announcing two days later that the Taliban had been routed. But residents and other observers reported the Taliban remained largely in control, and the U.S. sent warplanes on bombing raids, ostensibly to bolster its junior partners.

Eye (and ear) witnesses from the international humanitarian organization reported that despite having provided precise GPS coordinates to U.S. and Afghan military authorities to prevent exactly this kind of attack, the hospital was “repeatedly hit very precisely during each aerial raid, while surrounding buildings were left mostly untouched.” The Pentagon refused to take responsibility, saying only that its airstrikes “may have resulted in collateral damage.” President Obama expressed condolences to the victims but refused to apologize for the strike.

According to Heman Nagarathnam, MSF Head of Programs in northern Afghanistan, “the bombs hit and then we heard the plane circle round. There was a pause, and then more bombs hit. This happened again and again. When I made it out from the office, the main hospital building was engulfed in flames. Those people that could had moved quickly to the building’s two bunkers to seek safety. But patients who were unable to escape burned to death as they lay in their beds.” Those who burned to death included three children and the patients in the hospital’s intensive care ward.

The attack on the hospital, with its horrific civilian casualties, is the inevitable result of an air war against heavily populated cities.  But more broadly, it is one more example of the consequences of a strategy of trying to defeat terrorism by war. In Afghanistan, as in the escalating wars in Syria and Iraq, the claim we so often hear from U.S. officials is true: “there is no military solution.”  But the actions of the U.S. government – military action being almost all we see – belie that claim.

In Syria, there may be a small bit of hope for negotiations – despite the harsh rhetoric, both Obama and Putin made subtle but significant concessions in their UN speeches, and it may be that the current escalations on both sides are prelude to some kind of negotiations.  (President Obama reiterated what Kerry outlined more specifically, that Assad’s ouster is not a precondition or something that has to happen immediately.  President Putin, even while stating support for Assad, stated clearly that he believes what stands against terrorism in Syria and so what must be protected is the Syrian government and “its” army – not “his” army, thus leaving open a shift in Russian support away from Assad alone to support for the Syrian state and military, assuming Moscow can count on continuing protection of its various interests in and around Syria.)

But the fighting continues. In Syria, the U.S. and Russia are both conducting airstrikes ostensibly against ISIS, but the civilian suffering significant casualties. Despite its claims of backing only “moderate” opposition forces, the Pentagon just admitted that one of the ephemeral U.S.-armed coalitions of just such “moderate” rebel fighters is actually working to arm the al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate. According to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, “Unfortunately, we learned late today that the NSF (New Syrian Forces) unit now says it did in fact provide six pickup trucks and a portion of their ammunition to a suspected Al-Nusra Front (group),” Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said.

It remains a very grim time – the situation in Kunduz remains highly unstable, and with the destruction of the MSF hospital, continued fighting now means injured civilians have lost the most important provider of emergency medical care available.  More Afghan civilians will die.  In Syria, if the possibilities of negotiations are rising, there’s likely to be a greater military escalation before and even during such talks….meaning more Syrian civilians will almost certainly be killed.

The wars are far from over.

A Significant Step Forward on the Road to Reform

Utah Senator Mike Lee  joins bipartisan group on criminal justice reform (Image: Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock.com)

Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) joins bipartisan effort on criminal justice reform (Image: Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock.com)

Weldon Angelos is a young father who wouldn’t have been able to be in his two children’s lives until he was 80 and his children were old and grey themselves. Angelos made mistakes and sold  some marijuana.  Because he also happened to have a gun in his possession, he got a 55 year mandatory minimum sentence. At a Senate press conference today, Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah stood alongside six of his Senate colleagues to roll out a monumental criminal justice reform bill. Senator Lee, who worked on this 2004 case, reported that the judge knew it was an unjust sentence, but lamented that he couldn’t do anything about it…only Congress could.

And  today, Congress is.  The Senate Judiciary Committee started rolling that ball toward a fairer criminal justice system.

“The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us.” Democratic  Senator Patrick Leahy cited the recent call from the Pope to Congress to heed the Golden rule as he and his colleagues on the Senate Judiciary Committee unveiled “The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act

As New Jersey Democratic Senator Cory Booker, a co-author of this bill, pointed out, “More African-Americans today are incarcerated than all those enslaved in 1850.” Booker was instrumental in many of the provisions of the bill that ameliorate some of the worst aspects of our criminal justice system—those affecting our nation’s children in federal custody.

Mark Mauer of the Sentencing Project says this is the is “the most substantial criminal justice reform legislation introduced since the inception of the ‘tough on crime’ movement, and is the best indication we have that those days are over.”

Highlights of the bill include:

  • Reducing and retroactively reducing unfairly long sentences for non-violent for drug offenses
  • Increasing anti-recidivism programs
  • Reducing sentences for incarcerated people who participate in rehabilitation programs
  • Limiting the use of solitary confinement for young people incarcerated in federal facilities
  • Expanding sealing and expungement criteria for some juvenile offenses
  • Providing the possibility of parole for some offenses committed while a juvenile
  • Providing for the compassionate release of elderly prisoners

This legislation could have been stronger, it could have eliminated unfair mandatory minimums altogether. It could have done more to reduce “collateral consequences” that present almost insurmountable barriers to citizens returning to their communities after incarceration; it could have provided for expungement of records of formerly incarcerated adults after three years of successful reentry. It could have done much more. And so there is much more work to be done.

But for a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators to come together and do what they were elected to do is a big deal. And this legislation is a big deal, too.  The prospects in the Senate are uncharacteristically bright for passage given that the House is hardly prone to bipartisanship or compromise.  In the words of Senator Dick Durbin, “What’s going to happen in the House? I don’t know. I honestly don’t know.”

But for the sake of Weldon Angelos’ children and thousands of others, still young enough to need their father present in their lives, GOP-controlled House of Representatives should do its job and allow their dads and moms to come home.

The Five Worst Ideas Contained in Donald Trump’s Tax Plan

(Image: Greg Skidmore / Flickr)

(Image: Greg Skidmore / Flickr)

Republican front-runner Donald Trump has just released his much-talked-about plan for restructuring the federal tax code. If you listened to his speeches, you might think it was full of benefits for working families and progressive ideas about asking the wealthy to pay their fair share.  However, if you drill down into the details, you’ll see the same tired ideas hidden behind a populist tone and false rhetoric.

Here are the top falsehoods peddled by Trump’s much-touted tax plan:

Trump’s First Untruth: The tax plan does not add to our deficit or national debt.

Reality:

This tax plan would put a gargantuan hole in federal revenues that would send the deficit and debt through the roof. The number crunchers at Citizens for Tax Justice calculated that Trump’s tax plan would cost more than $10 trillion over the next ten years. As CTJ President Robert McIntyre put it, “there is no possibility that this plan would not be a gigantic tax cut for the rich and a gigantic revenue loser for the government.”

Trump’s Second Untruth: This tax plan will provide “major tax relief to middle income and most other Americans.”

Reality:

While it’s true that nominal tax rates would be reduced under Trump’s plan, the impact skews heavily towards the wealthy.  The benefit for the bottom 20% is just $250 per year while the benefit for the top 1% is a whopping $184,000! So yes, technically everyone benefits, but saying this is a greater help to working families over the wealthy is patently false.  The plan would shift even more money towards the very top, which is particularly startling when you consider that the top 1% have captured nearly all new income since 2009.

Trump’s Third Untruth:  This plan will end the preferential tax treatment of hedge fund managers.

Reality:

Trump often talks about closing the carried interest loophole, a particularly insidious loophole that allows hedge fund managers who often make tens of millions of dollars annually to treat their income as capital gains rather than as ordinary income. This means they pay just 23.8% rather than 39.6%, the top regular income tax bracket.  Here again, the devil is in the details and the rhetoric does not match the reality.  While the tax plan does eliminate this egregious loophole, it also reduces the top income tax rate to 25%, meaning the tax hike on hedge fund managers is just 1.2% instead of the 15.8% hike that Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton endorse.

Trump’s Fourth Untruth: The estate tax is “double taxation” and “a lot of families go through hell” to pay it.

Reality:

The estate tax is the most progressive revenue raiser in the tax code, putting a small levy on the intergenerational transfer of immense wealth. Most of the assets impacted by the estate tax have never been taxed as a result of the Trust Fund Loophole that President Obama has proposed closing. The ultimate impact of the estate tax is on the heirs and heiresses to the largest fortunes in the country, not middle class families. In fact, the threshold for paying the tax is $11 million for married couples, more money than anyone in the bottom 99% can expect to accumulate. Just two in every thousand households are impacted by the estate tax. So on the estate tax, Mr. Trump is wrong on both accounts. Further, eliminating the estate tax would cost $246 billion over the next ten years.

Trump’s Fifth Untruth:  The plan will lead to significant economic growth and job creation.

Reality:

Trump is relying on the same debunked supply-side ideas that George H.W. Bush referred to as “voodoo economics” many moons ago —cutting taxes for the wealthy and hoping it benefits everyone.  As Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback learned the hard way, cutting taxes does not spur economic growth; it simply creates an enormous deficit.  Brownback cut taxes dramatically in an effort to spur growth and instead created major public debt and provoke Moody’s to downgrade its debt rating.  Setting aside the ecological implications of endless economic growth, the idea that tax cuts, especially for the wealthy, will pay for themselves in increased growth is an idea as old as it is wrong.

More details are continuing to come out about this tax plan and these five hardly scrape the surface of the implications of Trump’s tax overhaul.  As new details leak out, remember its not the fancy packaging, or rhetoric, that matters but the impact these reforms will make. And so far, the impact is bad for ordinary Americans and quite good for the millionaires and billionaires of the 1%.

Pope Francis and the Military Industrial Complex

The world keeps finding out what we all got when the Vatican chose its current Pope. His words today to our members of Congress took that chamber to a deeper place than it is accustomed to going — to the extent anybody was actually listening.

But he didn’t give them just philosophy. It turns out the Pope is also pretty good at bait-and-switch politics, like when he got them to applaud his charge to protect life in all stages of its development, and then gave them an example they weren’t expecting: the death penalty.

But it was when he got to the part about the causes of war that I heard words I really wasn’t expecting:

Here we have to ask ourselves: Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society? Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood. In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade.

I’m not much of a “Pope watcher”, so I didn’t know he’s been saying this for a while now. He said it in May in response to a child’s question at the Vatican:

“Why so many powerful people do not want peace? Because they live off wars!” he said, explaining to these children that some people make money by producing and selling weapons. “And this is why so many people do not want peace,” he said. “They make more money with the war!”

Today, Pope Francis boldly called out the military industrial complex to members of Congress who — according to the Center for Responsive Politics — took $25 million from those producers and sellers of weapons in the last election cycle. Amazing.

I can’t wait to hear what he says next.

Pope, Post-partisanship, and Prisons

Pope Francis in Brazil

(Image: Tânia Rêgo/ABr – Agência Brasil)

Pope-a-Palooza

We all want a piece of the pope—or at least a piece of the Pope-a-Palooza. Here in DC, our hysteria greets the Catholic leader with bobble-headed popes, papal-themed cocktails and YOPO (“You Only Pope Once”) cologne.

With the fanfare of an international rock star, Pope Francis is being welcomed to the U.S. by adoring fans, Catholics and non-Catholics, the religious and the agnostic.  We have a collective hope that he will bestow mercy and help upon us—for the poor, for immigrants, for working families, for the incarcerated, for the climate.

We want Francis to deliver to us the promise of the prayer of his namesake, St. Francis:

Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.”

Racism, Over-criminalization and Over-incarceration in the U.S.

But, could even a pope deliver on such heavenly hopes in a place like the U.S.? With a conservative House and Senate, austerity continues to reign, keeping the poverty rate relatively high in the world’s richest nation. Hatred festers as the racial divide deepens. Black Lives Matter activists face angry masses still asserting their right to fly the Confederate Flag on public grounds. A white supremacist enters an African-American church and murders the prayerful churchgoers at point blank range.

Cell phone cameras catch police officers targeting, shooting, beating and killing unarmed black men, women and children. Presidential candidates compete over who can build the best barrier to keep immigrants and refugees from Latin America out. Poor children, black and Latino children, disabled children, and Muslim children are criminalized in our schools and end up before judges for nothing more than childish behavior; or, sometimes, as in the recent case of Ahmed Mohamed—for laudable behavior.

For even the most faithful, it’s difficult to see from where the hope, light and joy would come.

Pope and Prison Reform

But on one egregiously unjust front, there just might be enough of a post-partisan political opening that a pontifical prayer could create real progress: mass incarceration and the abuse suffered by our prisoners and incarcerated youth. On these issues, the pope has been vocal and compelling.

Just 10 days after his installation as pope, Francis stunned the world by bathing and kissing the feet of incarcerated youth, including girls and Muslims. He has gone on record saying, “States must abstain from the criminal beating of children, who have not fully developed to maturity and for this reason cannot be held responsible.” He has condemned deplorable prison conditions and railed against the death penalty and also stated that “[a] life sentence is just a death penalty in disguise.”

The pope  condemns the criminalization of poor black and brown people, saying, “there is at times a tendency to deliberately fabricate enemies: stereotyped figures who represent all the characteristics that society perceives or interprets as threatening. The mechanisms that form these images are the same that allowed the spread of racist ideas in their time.”

With his status, values, and expressed public sentiments, it seems the pope will challenge policymakers in the U.S. to confront at least some of  linked problems of poverty, racism and over-incarceration. And they just might listen.

Post-partisan Moment?

I don’t want to overstate agreement on the depth, causes, and remedies for these problems with the U.S. criminal justice system among liberal and conservative lawmakers, but there is a surprising opening of a post-partisan, if you will, impulse to change that which is causing mass incarceration, over-criminalization, and an overburdening of federal, state and local budgets.

A  national initiative called #cut50, endorsed by Republican and Democratic lawmakers and activists, has the goal of reducing our incarcerated population—over 2.3 million people—by half in ten years. President Obama is focusing on several programs for assisting citizens returning from prison. Movements for sentencing reform, ending mass incarceration, eliminating juvenile justice detention facilities and providing assistance for re-entry after incarceration are taking hold all over the country. Because our system has become so financially burdensome, a cost of over $80 billion per year, conservatives and conservative lawmakers also see the problem and are willing to work across party lines to look for solutions.

With criminal justice reform serving as a key piece of the pope’s message—and one that goes far beyond that of the cost of incarceration—he may be able to take advantage of this post-partisan moment and move some hearts and minds—and ideologies—toward real reform.

Bring on the Pope-a-Palooza, but bring with it a serious effort to end the over-criminalization and mass incarceration of our nation’s poor, African-American and immigrant populations.

The Pope’s Central Message

giulio napolitano / Shutterstock.com

Photo Credit: Giulio Napolitano / Shutterstock.com

Pope Francis’s visit to Washington has created an interesting discussion about transportation. The media focus seems to be more on how the holy visit will create problems for residents. Maybe we should all stay home and keep out of the way.

The message of Pope Francis is first reported like a labor strike. We learn first about how the strike might simply disrupt things. The focus is never on why the workers are striking in the first place. We have to reach for the high shelf to discover what the pope is selling us.

At times Americans tend to go with the buffet instead of what’s on the menu. In other words, we select the words of the pope we like and try to fit it into our political diet. Climate change, poverty, abortion, and countless other issues can be hidden under the pope’s robe. After every speech we try to disrobe him. What did he say? Did he reveal the naked truth?

At the end of the day, the pope’s visit will have no immediate impact on our lives unless we embrace what is his central message. One can find it near the end of his new Encyclical on ”Care for our Common Home.” The pope is calling for a change in one’s lifestyle. He wants us to overcome our individualism and consumerism. He wants us to become good ecological citizens. None of this can be achieved without a change inside our hearts. How do we begin to practice civic and political love?

The pope’s message underscores how we are all connected — the poor, the migrant, the rich, the mountains, trees, and birds. There are no borders or boundaries surrounding the heart when we remove the fences and bars of racism and hatred, when we push back the darkness of fear.

Pope Francis is a messenger of light, revealing the tenderness of beauty. He is a man who has not abandoned his faith in humankind. His trip to America is a blessing and a reminder that we have difficult work to do. We must never give up on love or on this earth we find each day beneath our feet. God’s gift is discovered with each breath we take — let us not waste it — or else suffocate the rest of our days.

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