IPS Blog

White House Says Raising Tipped Wage Helps Women

President Obama speaks on raising the minimum wage (Flickr/Maryland GovPics)

President Obama speaks on raising the minimum wage (Flickr/Maryland GovPics)

President Obama recently announced that he supports raising the tipped minimum wage from $2.13 to $4.90. The White House focused on how this move would help women who make up the majority of tipped workers.

This announcement comes at a key moment, as Congress is expected to vote on the Fair Minimum Wage Act sometime this spring. The Fair Minimum Wage Act would raise the national minimum wage to $10.10 and would bring the tipped wage to $7.07 – 70 percent of the full minimum.

The White House’s announcement is long overdue. The tipped wage was always meant to rise along with the minimum wage. Instead, it has been frozen in place at $2.13 for more than 20 years because of the National Restaurant Association’s lobbying efforts to make it so.

Back in the 1990s, no one predicted that the $2.13 figure would become permanent. Today, few seem to question it.

It’s about time we started paying attention to the tipped minimum wage: The restaurant industry can certainly afford to pay more. In 2013, the industry reported record profits of more than $660 billion — yet continues to spend millions on lobbying against any minimum wage increases.

Tipped workers have struggled more than other workers in our economy. They are three times as likely to fall into poverty and twice as likely to be on food stamps. It is shameful that tipped workers find themselves in this situation, and the American people need to stand behind a raise for them.

The White House correctly points out that increasing the tipped minimum wage would affect women more than anyone. Of the 3.3 million tipped workers in the U.S., nearly 2 million are restaurant servers. Of those, more than 70 percent are women.

The report from the White House noted that 26 percent of all tipped workers have dependent children, including 31 percent of female workers. About 2.8 million single working parents would be affected, 80 percent of whom are female. For over 20 years, the National Restaurant Association has ensured that tipped workers receive no more than $2.13 per hour. Their party needs to end.

Let’s stand behind tipped workers and their families and give them the raise they deserve.

The Budget Wars: The Congressional Progressive Caucus is Ready for Paul Ryan

Better Off BudgetThough the champions of Fix the Debt are now on the run, proponents of the grim-and-tired “We’re broke, we can’t afford it” line of argument continue to throw their weight around our federal budget debates.

The Obama administration tried for several years to accommodate the Fix the Debt crowd. This year, the administration more-or-less gave up and delivered a budget that dared to declare that balancing the budget should not trump all other national goals. “Dead on Arrival” was the right wing’s rather predictable response.

Through all of this unproductive budget wrangling, one group—the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC)—has, year after year, performed the feat that no other group of our legislators seems able to pull off. The CPC produces budgets that balance significant deficit reduction over a ten year period with substantial investments in the near term to create jobs, strengthen the safety net, and reduce inequality—the kinds of investments that the budget austerity folks tell us we can’t afford. This group of seventy-plus progressive House members just released this year’s version, the “Better Off Budget.”

The CPC is able to reach their investment targets, in part, by going after areas of wasteful spending that other legislators won’t touch — for example, the enduringly large war budget (aren’t those wars ending?), tax havens for the rich, and oil company subsidies.

Other highlights from the CPC’s proposal include:

  • Fixing overspending in Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO). Though we are finally winding down the longest period of war in our history, the OCO (the President’s war budget — separate from, but added to, the “regular” Pentagon budget) has hardly shrunk at all.
  • Investing in the repairs needed for our deteriorating water, energy, and transportation infrastructure and creating jobs in the process.
  • Implementing a small tax on financial transactions. More than 30 countries around the world already have this tax, and it would slow down reckless speculation while also generating revenues.
  • Improving the Affordable Care Act by adding a public health insurance option into the health insurance marketplaces.
  • Imposing a tax on carbon with 25% of the revenues applies to refundable credits for low income families, which would also serve to strengthen the market for clean energy and transportation.
  • Enacting public financing for campaigns to curb the ever-more- corrosive effect of money in politics

In a couple of weeks, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan — the true champion of “We’re broke” — will unveil his budget. As he’s already promised, it will slash programs like Head Start and job training (presumably because they sap the initiative of three-year-olds and the unemployed.) A clear alternative, a Better Off Budget, will be there ready to take him on.

A Devil’s Bargain on the Climate

This blog originally appeared in Foreign Policy in Focus.

(Friends of the Earth International/Flickr)

(Friends of the Earth International/Flickr)

Two years ago, environmentalist Bill McKibben caused a stir when he revealed the “terrifying new math” of climate change. McKibben calculated that to have a reasonable chance of staying below what climate scientists call the “tipping point” of global warming — a temperature rise of more than 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels — humans can only send 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide (CO2) pollution into the atmosphere.Here’s the catch: The oil, coal, and gas reserves that fossil fuel companies and petro-states already have on their books account for about 2,795 gigatons of CO2. If they dig up — and we burn — those reserves, we’ll release five times more carbon than the atmosphere can handle. Hello, climate disaster.

That means that between 60 and 80 percent of known fossil fuel reserves are “unburnable” if the world is to have a chance of avoiding the tipping point. That’s why students, religious leaders, philanthropists, and everyday folks with retirement savings are doing the math and demanding that their investment dollars not prop up an industry that threatens life on earth as we know it.

These voices are joining community activists, Indigenous Peoples, and workers in the Global South — many of whom are on the front lines of climate chaos — who are calling on international institutions not to bank on fossil fuels to drive their economic development. It’s alarming, then, that a new UN Green Climate Fund that is being set up to help transition economies away from fossil fuels may itself support fossil fuel projects.

There’s no future — financially or ecologically — in development projects that warm the planet and destabilize the environment. If the UN wants to help developing countries make the leap to renewable energy, it should take a lesson from divestment activists all over the world and keep its checkbook closed to dirty energy projects.

A Bad Bet

For some, divestment will seem like leaving money on the table. Leaving those fuels in the ground, after all, makes for a lot of “stranded assets.”

The UK-based Carbon Tracker Initiative calculates that these unexploited reserves are worth about $4 trillion in share value and support $1.27 trillion in corporate debt. If you’re the financial officer of a university endowment or a pension fund manager, you might protest that your job is to raise money — and fossil investments still generally outperform renewable energy.

But in the long term, dirty energy investments won’t be so sure a bet. As more and more countries feel the impacts of climate change, serious efforts to curb carbon pollution could make those investments less appealing. Leaders of some of the most important international development and climate institutions recognize this and recently took the stage at the World Economic Forum to bring together the ecological and economic sides of the divestment case.

UN climate convention chief Christiana Figueres said investors would be “in blatant breach of their fiduciary duty” if they failed to pull their money out of fossil fuel-linked funds in the face of “clear scientific evidence” of global warming. And Dr. Jim Kim, president of the World Bank, called on long-term investors to “rethink what fiduciary responsibility means” in the face of climate change and to address the financial risk associated with their carbon-intensive investments.

Climate Fund for the 21st Century

Ironic, then, that the new UN Green Climate Fund could, perversely, become a major source of funding for fossil fuel infrastructure.

The mandate of the fund is to support a transformational shift in the global south away from fossil fuels and toward clean, climate-resilient development. But tucked away in the fine print of the fund’s governing document is support for technologies like carbon capture and storage (aka “clean coal”) — a technology that is not viable at scale and does nothing to address the cradle-to-grave environmental and social devastation that coal wreaks.

In fact, any mention of phasing out fossil fuels is conspicuously absent in the new climate fund, even as other international financial institutions are finally moving to wind down some of the coal-fired excesses of their energy portfolios.

There is, however, a window of opportunity to remedy this as the Green Climate Fund board members work toward final design elements at their meeting this week in Bali. One of those elements could be an exclusion list of dirty energy projects it simply won’t finance. Another is to agree on a framework of indicators of success (in board-speak, the “results management framework”) and strict performance standards that rule out dirty energy.

Most importantly, the board must adopt strong environmental and social safeguards for the projects it supports. In addition to avoiding fossil fuel projects, that might also mean refusing to promote projects like large hydroelectric dams that can cause large-scale displacement of people and loss of land and livelihoods.

An Uphill Battle

The task of keeping dirty energy out of the Green Climate Fund will not be easy.

Several board members have vested economic interests in maintaining the financial viability of “less dirty” energy approaches like “clean coal” and natural gas. And large transnational corporations, including Bank of America (dubbed “the coal bank” by activists), play a significant role in shaping the fund.

Scientists are telling us that we must get off fossil fuels fast. We’re already witnessing the devastating impacts of climate change on our neighbors and friends across the world. And for many national governments, funds to deal with the climate crisis are scarce.

The opportunity is clear. And common sense, not head-in-the-sand economic interests, must dictate action. The Green Climate Fund should take a lesson from ordinary investors all over the world who see that there’s no future in fossil fuels — not for their portfolios, and not for the planet.

Janet Redman is the director of the Climate Policy Program at the Institute for Policy Studies. Oscar Reyes, an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, helped launch climatemarkets.org.

Celebrities, European Leaders Push for Final Deal on Wall Street Tax

Robin Tax VideoIf you love Harry Potter, zombies, European art house films, or thumbing your nose at the big banks, you’ll love the new video promoting a Wall Street tax.

This is the first time, in my recollection, that major celebrities have ever showed a united front against the mighty financial industry lobby. The director is David Yates, who made the last four Harry Potter movies. Andrew Lincoln, the star of the hit zombie series “The Walking Dead,” and Bill Nighy, of “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” and “Love, Actually,” are among the actors.

Wall Street lobbyists will hate the film because it portrays a newscast 10 years from now in which a panel of bankers rave about the multitudinous benefits their countries have enjoyed as a result of a small tax on trades of stock and derivatives. The only panelist who’s decidedly not over the moon is Nighy, who plays a banker from the UK, which did not adopt the tax.

The viral video is one more setback for the financial industry lobbyists who have been madly trying to block progress on such taxes. In Europe, they seem to be losing the battle.

At a February 19 press conference in Paris, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Hollande confirmed that a coalition of 11 EU governments are on track to finalize a coordinated financial transaction tax before May. European elections are that month, and this is considered a sure vote-getter. The latest Euro-barometer survey shows 82 percent of German and 72 percent of French citizens support it.

There have been hints, however, that the tax could be a watered-down version of the initial European Commission proposal. That original plan would place a tax of 0.1 percent on stock and bond trades and 0.01 percent on derivatives. Expected revenues: 31 billion euros ($US 42 billion) per year.

In a recent speech, EU Tax Commissioner Algirdas Šemeta indicated that negotiators are considering a graduated approach as a compromise. In the first phase, the tax would apply only to stock trades. In subsequent phases, it would be expanded to cover other instruments, including derivatives and possibly foreign exchange spot transactions.

German activist Peter Wahl feels this would be a bit of a setback but not the end of the world. “We could live with a two-step approach as a compromise under the condition that there is a binding timetable for the second step and that derivatives are included in the end,” he said.

Wahl, an analyst with the German group WEED, is one of the leaders of a diverse international campaign made up of labor, global health, climate, and other groups that has driven the financial transaction tax (aka Robin Hood Tax) from the fringe to the center of global debates.

At her joint press conference with Hollande, Merkel predicted that “the minute things start to move forward other countries may be less reluctant and it could be expanded.”

European progress is likely to change the dynamic in the United States as well. The Obama administration is not yet supportive, but there is growing support in the U.S. Congress.

Sen. Tom Harkin and Rep. Peter DeFazio have proposed a 0.03 percent tax on stock, bond and derivative trades, with a tax credit offset for contributions to qualified tax-favored accounts, such as 401(k) retirement funds. Rep. Keith Ellison has introduced the Inclusive Prosperity Act, which proposes tax rates of 0.5 percent on stock, 0.1 percent on bond, and 0.005 percent on derivative trades, with an offset for taxpayers who make less than $50,000 per year.

The Joint Committee on Taxation estimates the Harkin-DeFazio proposal could raise $350 billion over 10 years.

There is also growing support among financial industry professionals who believe the small tax would be good for market stability. In a joint letter, more than 50 financial professionals wrote that “These taxes will rebalance financial markets away from a short-term trading mentality that has contributed to instability in our financial markets.”

At a time when financial markets are dominated by computer-driven high frequency trading that has little benefit for the real economy, a tax of even a fraction of a percent could encourage longer-term sustainable investment.

At the end of the satirical video, the humiliated British banker lamely resorts to boasting about other occasions in which the Brits were not behind the curve, namely the Beatles and soccer. I suppose American bankers could come up with a few examples of their own. A better response to the growing momentum behind the financial transaction tax would be to just get on board.

7 Things to Look Out for in the UN’s Green Climate Fund

Green climate fund1. Is the GCF a Fund or a Bank?

The main purpose of the Green Climate Fund (GCF), put very simply, is to receive climate finance from developed countries (in accordance with their obligations under the UN Climate Convention) and disburse that money for activities in developing countries. But there are considerable signs of mission creep and the paperwork framing discussions in Bali contains numerous references to the revenue generating capacity of the Fund’s loans, and the potential for bonds, to replenish the Fund’s coffers.

A key part of the value in having a GCF lies in its ability to fund projects and programs that commercial lenders wouldn’t touch. The GCF should not aspire to be a World Bank for Climate Change, let alone its Goldman Sachs. If the GCF focuses on supporting projects that have genuine development benefits, including most of those that address the need for adaptation to the effects of climate change, it’s unlikely that it can at the same time generate sufficient returns on investment to keep the Fund afloat – and nor should it. Climate finance is an obligation of developed countries for their disproportionate role in causing climate change, and the GCF should be based on regular financial replenishments from developed countries, supplemented by innovative mechanisms like Financial Transaction Taxes.

2. Will the GCF fund fossil fuel infrastructure?

It is often difficult to see the wood for the trees within the thicket of paperwork that surrounds GCF Board meetings. But any mention of phasing out fossil fuels through a transition to renewable energy is conspicuous by its absence. Unless there’s a rapid about-turn the GCF could, perversely, become a major source of funding for fossil fuel infrastructure, even as other international financial institutions are belatedly moving to phase out some of the coal-fired excesses of their energy portfolios.

There are still some ways to prevent this fate. The Fund’s “initial results management framework” seeks to measure only tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, but could instead set strict performance standards (or output limits) that would rule out dirty energy. The GCF could draw up an exclusion list of dirty energy project types. It should also adopt strong environmental and social safeguards, so as not to avoid promoting the displacement of people and biodiversity loss that comes with large hydroelectric dams, as much as with fossil fuel projects.

The prospects that the GCF will exclude dirty energy projects look slim, given that its Board contains several members keen to promote fossil fuels (and their proxies like “carbon capture and storage”), while large transnational corporations, including Bank of America (dubbed “the coal bank” by activists), play a significant role in shaping the Fund. But resistance to this corporate capture is growing.

3. Whatever happened to the promise of civil society participation?

The GCF Secretariat recently invited observers to an event in Bali, swiftly followed by two recall messages and an instruction to disregard the first message. This little administrative blunder is an apt metaphor for how the Fund treats currently civil society participation: “invite – recall – recall – please disregard.” The Governing Instrument (in effect, the Fund’s constitution) asks that the Board should “develop mechanisms to promote the input and participation of stakeholders, including private-sector actors, civil society organizations, vulnerable groups, women and indigenous peoples, in the design, development and implementation of the [Fund’s] strategies and activities.” But the proposals tabled for discussion at Bali backtrack on a lot of this.

The proposed process for approving GCF financing gives no clear idea as to when and how the views of “stakeholders” will be considered, not least communities where projects are located. The “no objection” procedure, introduced to ensure active engagement from civil societies in the development of the climate strategies funded by the GCF, is reduced to a box ticking exercise that can assume “tacit” consent for projects. Instead of the “participatory monitoring” that the Governing Instrument suggests, the monitoring of GCF activities could be limited to greenhouse gas calculations and cost-benefit analyses, offering limited insight into the wider benefits (or harms) that a broader, qualitative framing could show up.

Civil society groups are becoming increasingly agitated on these issues as past promises have not been kept. For example, having decided to appoint civil society representatives to its Private Sector Advisory Group, the GCF Board and Secretariat have apparently snubbed the representatives chosen by the coalition of civil society groups observing the Fund. Instead, secretariat staff cherry picked advisors.

4. Will the GCF balance mitigation and adaptation?

One of the key decisions that will be taken in Bali is on “allocation”, setting guidelines for how the GCF’s funding will be distributed. The headline figure here concerns the balance of mitigation (reducing future emissions) and adaptation (tackling climate change impacts that are already happening). An initial assessment by the Fund’s Secretariat suggests that it should aim for “50/50 as the medium-term allocation target.” But the proposal that the Board is being asked to decide upon magically transforms this into a “target range of 30-50 per cent for both adaptation and mitigation.” Fans of math will note that both targets could be hit without adding up to 100 per cent, whilst followers of climate finance have long complained that support for adaptation repeatedly falls short in the finance provided by developed countries and via other international financial institutions.

The Board will also discuss a target of 20 per cent of GCF financing going to its Private Sector Facility. As that’s widely expected to focus on mitigation, that could make any broader balance more difficult to achieve.

5. What protection will GCF environmental and social safeguards offer?

Safeguards set out some basic ground rules to ensure that finance will “do no harm”, a principle that encompasses social, gender, economic and environmental impacts. The GCF is formally committed to building upon the “best practice” elsewhere. Although no decision on safeguards will be taken until May 2014, the meeting in Bali will introduce the first draft of the Fund’s proposed safeguards. To describe these efforts as “disappointing” would be an understatement. The proposed standards offer a short and apparently voluntary set of guidelines based upon the UN’s Adaptation Fund, whose lending practice are far narrower and less risky than what the GCF is likely to engage in. As a broad coalition of civil society has already suggested, any safeguard policy worth its salt will be mandatory, and must be particularly careful in how it treats finance via intermediaries, with the Fund directly disclosing and monitoring the impacts of sub-projects.

6. What are “intermediaries” and why does their role keep expanding?

The role of intermediaries merits just one mention in the GCF Governing Instrument, but the scope and use of the term has grown considerably since then. In setting out how “direct access” to GCF financing will happen, a definition has now been offered of “intermediaries” that widens their scope still to include “financial structuring”, “origination of structured products for financial engineering” and “insurance mechanisms,” as well as other tasks “to be defined as they become relevant and appropriate.”

In the same vein, intermediaries are now defined as “a broad concept not limited to banking institutions.” That’s the equivalent of opening up the GCF to the murky world of shadow banking, where entities such as hedge funds or private equity funds could be recipients of GCF financing. Later in the year, the GCF Board will discuss offering other forms of financing, such as risk guarantees and taking equity (ownership) stakes in companies. It’s a worrying trajectory, although it’s not yet too late for the Fund to take a different path, rejecting a broad role for intermediaries and refocusing on the grant and concessional lending that the GCF has a mandate to engage in directly.

7. How concessional will GCF concessional lending be?

When the GCF finally starts funding projects, it will finance them through a mix of grants and concessional loans. The “concessional” part means offering rates that are more favorable than those available from commercial lenders, but the extent of the concession remain open for debate. The GCF secretariat is proposing to offer “softer” and “harder” concessional loans, but the terms of these compare unfavorably with those offered by the Clean Technology Fund (one of the World Bank-led Climate Investment Funds) and the International Development Association, the part of the World Bank Group that is generally seen as a standard-setter for “concessionality.”

The biggest issue here is that the GCF would set interest rates according to the “benchmark” for a chosen currency – US 10-year Treasury bond rates, or Euribor rates in the Eurozone. While those are at all-time lows, that’s not true globally. For example, benchmark rates in India are currently eight per cent, while in Nigeria they’re 12 per cent and close to 20 per cent in Argentina. By contrast, CTF and IDA concessional lending interest rates don’t rise about one and a half per cent. Adopting “benchmark” rates could discourage lending in local currencies, which is often key to both avoiding public indebtedness and allowing small to medium-sized enterprises to participate without significant risks.

Moreover, no definition is given as to whether interest rates would be fixed or variable during the period of concessional loans: if the latter, changes in interest rates for dollar loans could add billions to developing country debt, as happened following the Volcker shock when US rates rose sharply in the early 1980s. The GCF Board should reject this idea of “benchmark” rates. At the same time, it should also decide a clear policy to insist upon grants for public lending in so-called “vulnerable” countries, so as not to increase indebtedness.

The Green Climate Fund’s 6th Board meeting takes place from 19-21 February in Bali, Indonesia. More details of the IPS Climate Policy program’s work on the GCF can be found at www.climatemarkets.org

Talking Points: State of the Union, of War, of the Middle East

Obama State of the Union 2014President Obama’s State of the Union speech was pretty depressing. It didn’t start out that way, it was actually a pretty nice strong framework: ‘You members of Congress can’t get anything done, so I’m going to check out what I can do on my own, by executive action, without you.’ He started by raising the minimum wage for federal contract workers – he can do that on his own, maybe it’ll start a groundswell. That’s all good, for those hundreds of thousands of workers and their families (even though his is still below the poverty line for a family of four).

Obama even said “America must move off a permanent war footing.” That should’ve been a Wow! moment. But somehow it wasn’t. He did say he would impose “prudent limitations” on the drone war – his signature war. He even said, “We will not be safer if people abroad believe we strike within their countries without regard for the consequence.” But the problem is we do strike in other countries “without regard for the consequence.” The only “prudent” approach to the drone war is ending it, not just tweaking it a bit. And that’s what we didn’t hear.

We also didn’t hear plans to close down the 700-plus U.S. military bases around the world that create huge social and environmental problems and foment anti-U.S. tensions. We didn’t hear plans for massive cuts in military spending – by closing those bases, cancelling wasteful giant weapons systems, and ending illegal and immoral wars. My commentary on the State of the Union speech analyzes these and more issues we didn’t hear about (plus Iran and a few other things that we did). And if you want to go back to the day before the speech, and look at what President Obama should have been talking about you can get some ideas from my IPS colleagues and me on inequality, trade and Iran (not) in the Syria talks.

Iran and AIPAC

Netanyahu AIPACThere is some good news on Iran, but we have to be careful. The American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is losing — that’s huge. AIPAC has been waging a no-holds-barred, increasingly desperate campaign to derail the interim agreement between Iran and the U.S.-led “Perm 5 + One” global powers (Britain, China, France, Russia, United States and Germany.) Last month it looked like the lobby – as is too often the case – was winning. The AIPAC-led campaign resulted in 49 Senators signing on as co-sponsors of a bill imposing a whole host of new sanctions if Iran didn’t behave exactly as they wanted. They were aiming for a veto-proof 67-vote majority – and getting 49 the first couple days made that seem possible. I discussed the threat of the war-mongers scuttling the agreement here in Common Dreams.

But then it stalled. Top U.S. intelligence officials – and crucially, the White House – agreed that new sanctions would be a deal breaker. The White House took an uncharacteristically tough position, calling out those in Congress who preferred war to diplomacy. And during the State of the Union speech President Obama powerfully reminded Congress that diplomacy is working, that negotiations are responsible for “halt[ing] the progress of Iran’s nuclear program…Iran has begun to eliminate its stockpile of higher levels of enriched uranium. It’s not installing advanced centrifuges. Unprecedented inspections help the world verify every day that Iran is not building a bomb.” Then the kicker: “Let me be clear: if this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it.” At least three of the original 49 have now pulled back.

So the agreement is in place, and for now it’s holding. That’s all good, but it still faces some danger. Despite opposition from Iran’s own hard-liners (whose position the Washington Post says “mirrors that of Republicans in the U.S. Congress“) Tehran has welcomed UN nuclear inspectors, and is in the process of implementing the various requirements of the agreement. (In case you missed it, you can read my analysis of the agreement here in The Nation.) Washington and its allies haven’t yet begun releasing the small amount of Iran’s assets authorized in the agreement, or begun easing any of the few sanctions the agreement calls for reducing. Hard-core opponents of the agreement, led by Democrat Robert Menendez, remain committed to war over diplomacy. And AIPAC hasn’t given up. The pressure remains. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s refusal to put the new sanctions resolution on the table, President Obama’s threat to veto any new sanctions bill, the 70+ members of the House who have signed a letter supporting the Iran agreement and opposing new sanctions – all could collapse unless public pressure is maintained against AIPAC’s powerful arsenal of bribes and threats. That’s our job – we can’t count on official Washington to do it. Sign the petition here for a start.

Palestine-Israel: The Price to be Paid

John Kerry Iran Nuclear DealThe role of AIPAC makes a necessary segue into talking about Palestine and Israel – I talked about the connection between the Iran talks and Palestine in a discussion on the Real News. That led immediately to Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts towards a new framework to lay the groundwork for a future agreement. Oh, you thought he’s finally drafting a real comprehensive, just, permanent peace agreement that would actually resolve all the crucial elements of settlements, borders, refugees, Jerusalem, etc.? Oh no, that’s so last summer…

That’s when we first heard about Kerry’s new shuttle diplomacy. It never had much of a chance – I called it the “Einstein Round” of the U.S. peace process – the great scientist’s definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Unfortunately that’s still the case – although Kerry has achieved something none of his predecessors ever did: he managed to prevent almost all leaks throughout months of not-in-the-same-room negotiations. Until the leaks – apparently quite well orchestrated – began early in January, apparently to begin preparing Palestinian, Israeli and U.S. publics for the result.

It’s not a pretty sight. According to top PLO official Yasir Abed-Rabbo, Kerry’s ‘framework’ – as distinct from an actual agreement – would

  • Require Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state (thus legitimizing the second-class or worse status of Palestinian citizens of Israel).
  • ‘Solve’ the refugee crisis by allowing Palestinian refugees only into the new Palestinian state instead of the UN-mandated right to return to their homes in Israel,
  • Ensure permanent Israeli control and likely annexation of the large settlement blocs with about 80% of the illegal Jewish settlers.
  • Allow permanent Israel control of “Palestine’s” border crossings and air space.
  • Endorse permanent or near-permanent Israeli military forces in the occupied Jordan Valley, perhaps adding U.S., Jordanian and/or even Palestinian security forces to them.
  • Allow Israeli forces ‘hot pursuit’ into Palestinian territory.

The word from Kerry’s delegation chief Martin Indyk, though, should reassure us all – both sides can sign on to the U.S. framework “with reservations” – meaning it won’t actually have any meaning at all. The framework seems far more tied to Obama and Kerry legacies than to an actual end to Israeli occupation and apartheid. That doesn’t mean that something some people might call a “Palestinian state” won’t someday be declared through this process – it just means that that will be a far cry from a just and comprehensive solution grounded in international law, human rights and equality for all.

As has been the case with earlier U.S. ‘frameworks,’ the Kerry plan is limited to arrangements only for inside parts of the Occupied Territories. The settlements remain in Israeli hands. The borders – presumably the Apartheid Wall — will become the new “border.” Israeli and U.S. soldiers will remain in control of security. A big question will be Jerusalem: The Kerry proposals apparently do call for a Palestinian capital in the city, but it is almost certain it will not mean a real shared capital with the Palestinian flag flying over the center of Arab East Jerusalem. Rather, Israel will almost certainly assert its current revisionist demography – in which the outline of “Greater Jerusalem” extends from Ramallah in the North down past Bethlehem and out east almost to the Jordan Valley – to situate Palestine’s capital someplace like Abu Dis, a dusty village outside of Jerusalem. It abuts what was once the old Silk Road, a narrow potholed street that now dead-ends into the Apartheid Wall.

On the other hand, both Israeli and Palestinian negotiators conditioned their participation in these talks on the understanding that any agreement would require ratification by a popular referendum – something virtually guaranteed to fail on all sides.

In the meantime, the Apartheid Wall continues to be expanded, dispossessing Palestinians from their land as it goes. Settlement expansion continues across the West Bank and East Jerusalem. And in Gaza, the siege continues, with 1.8 million people largely locked inside the walled-in Strip, exports prohibited, and imports dramatically curtailed by the Israeli military. The situation has significantly worsened since the overthrow of elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi last summer and a resulting tightening of Gaza’s crossing to Egypt, and a massive storm last month created dire new humanitarian crises. You can watch my discussion of the Gaza siege here.

In Israel, the Butcher of Beirut, as he was long known, is no more. After eight years in a coma, during which the militaristic hard-right leader was re-branded a peacenik, Israeli General Ariel Sharon was finally pronounced dead. The tributes poured in, including from Secretary of State John Kerry, who paid lip service to occasional disagreements with Sharon, but reassured Israel that “Our nation shares your loss and honors Ariel Sharon’s memory.” For the rest of the world, of course, there is nothing – nothing – remotely honorable in the legacy of Israel’s perhaps most consistent war criminal. You can read the rest of my assessment of Sharon and Sharonism here.

The Good News

On the other hand, beyond the rise of the right and the certain failure of the U.S.-backed negotiations, non-violent economic, political, media and popular pressure is rising against Israel’s violations. The last couple of years’ rise in influence of the eight-year-old global BDS movement, which calls for boycotts, divestment and sanctions until Israel stops violating three areas of international law and human rights, has been dramatic.

Recent victories include the decision by the American Studies Association (ASA), following the examples of the Asian-American Studies Association and the Native American Studies Association to boycott Israeli academic institutions. The decision, supported by an overwhelming majority, led to outrage from supporters of Israel’s occupation and apartheid policies, including an effort by the New York State Assembly to withdraw funding from the ASA. But as AIPAC and the rest of the pro-Israel lobbies (Jewish and Christian) face so many challenges, that effort collapsed, and the Assembly withdrew the bill under a withering attack from defenders of free speech.

Oxfam’s decision to sack super-star Scarlett Johansson because of her high-visibility endorsement of SodaStream, whose manufacturing plant is located in the Israeli settlement of Ma’ale Adumim in the occupied West Bank, was another indicator of the discourse shift. Another indicator is the new level of access to the op-ed pages of the most influential newspapers. The New York Times published Avi Schlaim’s “Israel Needs to Learn Some Manners,” exposing Kerry’s initiative as a “clever American device for wasting time,” and three days later published BDS leader Omar Barghouti on “Why Israel Fears the Boycott.” The Washington Post weighed in with Vijay Prasad’s “A Caution to Israel” supporting the ASA boycott call.

The Post finally acknowledged that “talk about a boycott of Israel is in the mainstream.” And the paper noted, for anyone doubting that seismic discourse shifts are underway, that Kerry himself warned Tel Aviv to be aware of “talk of boycotts and other kinds of things,” resulting in a chorus of Israeli outrage.

Action aimed at changing U.S. policy on

Pete and Toshi Seeger

Israel-Palestine has never been more engaged. For anyone interested, in a series of interviews I did with Paul Jay of The Real News, we began with a discussion of how I first got involved with Palestinian rights, after a childhood of active Zionist organizing. (Hint: it has to do with Viet Nam.)

I’m also now on the short-list of candidates to succeed my great colleague and friend Richard Falk as the next United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The selection process is currently underway at the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

There’s a lot more to talk about – the still-escalating crisis in Syria and the Syria negotiations, the dangerous moment in Egypt, rising violence in Iraq and the still-raging war in Afghanistan. Those will have to wait for the moment.

But I did want to leave one more memory of Pete Seeger. It’s hard to imagine going forward without Pete’s unstoppable, grounded optimism, his clear-sighted understanding of the need for songs to move our movements forward. What a gift that we had Pete with us all these years. He remains within the pantheon of our movements’ greats. You can read my appreciation here. Go well, Pete, we’ll carry on your songs from here.

Remembering Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger (flickr/rik walton)

Pete Seeger (flickr/rik walton)

One of our great heroes died last night. At 94, I suppose it wasn’t a tragedy for him, especially since his wife Toshi died last summer after a life of love and shared work, and 70 years of marriage, but what a huge loss. For all of us.

Pete gave us everything — inspiration, humor, organizing, collective empowerment. And Pete – and now his legacy — remain among the most principled and committed of our artists. He never lost his way in the toughest battles — through the civil war in Spain and the depression, through the perils of the McCarthy era when he showed up after being subpoenaed, but refused to testify about his ideas or associations.

“I feel these questions are improper, sir, and I feel they are immoral to ask any American this kind of question,” Pete told the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) witch-hunters. He said he would be glad to sing any of his songs for the committee, but they refused. Pete went on to lament, “I am sorry you are not interested in the song. It is a good song.”

It was always a good song. Through the civil rights movement, where Pete’s role went far beyond his part in reimagining and popularizing “We Shall Overcome.” His Those Three Are on My Mind is perhaps the most powerfully evocative reminder of the assassination of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Schwerner and Michael Goodman in Mississippi in 1964. From the earliest years of anti-war mobilizations, Pete kept our focus on The Big Muddy of Vietnam, as “the big fool said to push on.”

Pete was with us throughout the battles against the post-Vietnam wars, in Central America and apartheid South Africa, and all the wars in the Middle East. I spoke at rallies where Pete sang in 1990 and ’91, against Operation Desert Storm, George H. W. Bush’s war against Iraq. I remember once, during those years, a rally in upstate New York, not far from Pete and Toshi’s home in Beacon along their beloved Hudson River. I came backstage after speaking, Pete was tuning his banjo before heading out to sing. He was chatting with Toshi and friends who had joined him backstage — I didn’t think he had been listening to anyone else on stage. But he pulled me into his circle and said “that was really good — we need that kind of information.”

It was a very hard time — I think it was at that moment when we knew the war was imminent despite all our organizing efforts. While I was too star-struck to say much of anything, it was an extraordinary gift just to hear Pete’s acknowledgement.

Pete was with us in New York on February 15, 2003, when our global movement created the “second super-power” to challenge Bush’s war in Iraq. And he never lost his bearings at those moments of victory that bore within them the seeds of their own limitation or defeat, like the election of Barack Obama. He used every opportunity to push the envelope. Invited to sing at President Obama’s first inauguration, Pete included the usually-forbidden lines to his rendition of Woody Guthrie’s classic This Land is Your Land.

Beyond the summer camp anthem, he sang

Was a high wall there, that tried to stop me
A sign was painted there, said private property.
But on the other side, it didn’t say nothin’
That side was made for you and me.

What a gift that we had Pete with us all these years. He remains among the pantheon of our movements. And like Joe Hill, who charged his followers Don’t mourn, Organize! Pete left orders for us as well. In his 1958 To My Old Brown Earth Pete anticipated this moment, leaving a message for us all.

To my old brown earth
And to my old blue sky
I’ll now give these last few molecules of “I.”

And you who sing,
And you who stand nearby,
I do charge you not to cry.

Guard well our human chain,
Watch well you keep it strong,
As long as sun will shine.

And this our home,
Keep pure and sweet and green,
For now I’m yours
And you are also mine.

Go well, Pete. We’ll take up your songs from here.

Four Things Obama Should Say During his State of the Union Address

President Obama

What should President Obama say during his State of the Union address this year? IPS experts have come up with a few suggestions:

Sarah Anderson commends the administration’s commitment to improve conditions for the poorest among us, but urges Obama not to forget to do something about the “overprivileged” as well.

Emily Schwartz Greco, together with William A. Collins, asks Obama to stop talking about lowering the corporate tax rate, since there would be plenty of cash to go around if only everyone paid their fair share.

Ron Carver calls on Obama to stop pressing Congress to grant his administration fast-track authority to expedite the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and other global deals that are good for corporations but bad for people.

Phyllis Bennis urges Obama to reverse course in the global Syria talks and let Iran participate in them.

What do you think Obama should say in the State of the Union? Weigh in on these issues and others below, and be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter during the address for more commentary from our experts.

An Interview with Rene Gonzalez, of the Cuban 5

November 13th to 16th, 2013 was the 9th International Colloquium for the Freedom of the Five and Against Terrorism held in Holguín, Cuba, at the eastern end of the island, 85 miles west of Guantanamo. The goal of the Colloquium, organized by ICAP (The Cuban Friendship Institute), was to strengthen the unified international strategy to win the release of The Cuban 5; Gerardo Hernandez, Ramón Labañino, Fernando Gonzalez, Antonio Guerrero and René González; men imprisoned in the US for the last fifteen years essentially for fighting terrorism orchestrated in the US. Due to the lack of response from the FBI to stop such attacks, Cuba sent the Cuban 5 to Miami to monitor the organizations perpetrating these acts of violence. The idea was to gather information about similar acts that were in the planning stages in order to derail them before they were carried out.

photo of ReneOne of The Five, René González, was released on October 7, 2011, after serving his entire sentence. On April 22, 2013 René returned to Cuba for his father’s funeral and on May 11, Judge Lenard allowed him to stay there provided that he renounce his United States citizenship. That wasn’t a hard decision for René.

Soon to be released is Fernando Gonzalez in February. While millions worldwide look forward to this, it is not justice. Justice would be for all five men to have never gone to prison in the first place. The other brothers – Gerardo Hernandez, Ramon Labañino, and Antonio Guerrero – have much too much longer sentences to go and should be freed unconditionally. We still have to work for that.

During my visit to Cuba, I had the honor and privilege of interviewing with René:

Netfa Freeman: I just want to ask you, brother, a few questions to help our listeners understand things more, hopefully be fortified with information. I want to say this is an honor and thank you for giving me this interview.

I’m reading Stephen Kimber’s book right now. First is, I understand that you were born in the US. Your family, your parents moved to the US before the Cuban revolution and then ended up moving back afterward. So the first question is really what knowledge and information might your parents have imparted to you or shared with you that gave you your political consciousness and your commitment to the Cuban Revolution? And particularly if you could share how that might have influenced your choice to fight in Angola. You were one of those who served in Angola against apartheid South Africa, to help Angola get its independence.

René González: I want to start by advising everybody to read Kimber’s book. In my opinion it’s the best thing that’s been written about the case. He did great research. He wrote a book which is tied to the facts, to the most elemental things. So it’s a good way to get acquainted with the case, which on the other side is a very complex case. Now you say my parents. They are working class Cubans who by different ways ended up in the States in the 50’s. They met there and I was born in 1956. Then in 1959 came the Cuban Revolution. Since the beginning of the revolution they felt sympathy for the goals and the purpose of the revolutionary process. So they decided to come home in 1961.

It was an interesting time to be in Cuba…

Read the full interview featured in Black Agenda Report.

Demilitarizing the Economy: A Movement is Underway

Military vehicles (MRAPs) being produced in a Charleston, SC factory (Photo: New York Times)

Military vehicles (MRAPs) being produced in a Charleston, SC factory (Photo: New York Times)

End wars. Shrink the Pentagon budget. Reinvest the savings in neglected domestic priorities. It’s a logical progression. Right?

Yes, though we’d be fools to expect too much logic out of our current federal legislature. As we end the longest period of war in our history, we should be entering a period of postwar downsizing—the first since the end of the Cold War. And we are, though it’s been driven as much by budget squeezing generally as by a sense of postwar possibility.

And it’s a shallower defense downsizing than the last one. And the December 2013 budget deal will make it even shallower.

But communities that have been living off post-9/11 military budget surges are beginning to feel the effects of this (so far) modest shrinkage. This is the moment to deepen the defense downsizing, and make it endure. An essential piece of this task is to focus on helping communities and workers build alternatives to dependency on building weapon systems we don’t need.

The Institute for Policy Studies has developed a comprehensive strategy (PDF) for building this alternative economic foundation, linking action at the federal, state and local levels. Here are two of the most exciting developments pushing this forward. They look like the sturdy supports of a movement to me.

State commissions planning for diversification

Connecticut—one of the most defense-dependent states in the nation—is providing one new model for action. In May of this year, peace, environmental and faith groups joined with labor unions to push the legislature to pass “An Act Concerning Connecticut’s Future.” This vague-sounding law contains a visionary mandate: convene a broad-based Commission to come up with a plan to diversify Connecticut’s overly defense-dependent economy. This commission—made up of state economic development directors, legislators, representatives of business groups, the state AFL-CIO, and representatives of peace and environmental organizations—is beginning to meet and will reveal its plan by the end of next year.

Other states are following suit. Maryland will vote on a similar bill in its next legislative session. Wisconsin has one in the works. Activists are pushing the process in Massachusetts, Ohio, Michigan and Minnesota. It’s a growing movement that can become a model for the kind of postwar planning that needs to happen on the federal level.

New federal supports for local transition planning

Since the 1980’s the Defense Department has housed a small office dedicated to helping communities plan an economic transition following a base closing or defense contract cancellation. As the Pentagon budget soared during the post-9-11 years, this office focused almost exclusively on the base closings-half of its mission. Now it is refocusing on developing new tools for defense transition assistance (PDF) that would helping communities adjust to defense contract losses with planning grants and technical assistance.

The Obama administration is beginning to expand this Office of Economic Adjustment, as it’s called, and turn it into a gateway for assistance from other federal agencies, including programs in the Departments of Commerce, Energy and Transportation, for communities in transition.

Local activists can work with their local public officials to put together broad-based community coalitions and use these funds to build models of peace economy transition. The more we do, the more lessons we learn about the best practices for doing it, and the stronger this foundation for a demilitarized economy becomes.

New Economy Transitions From the Bottom Up

In the face of federal legislative dysfunction, more and more progressive initiatives are coming from the state and local levels. The effort to build a peace economy, following the longest period of war in our history, is taking its rightful place in this constellation of progress from the bottom up.

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