IPS Blog

Beyond the Jobs Report: A Call for a Transformational Economy

Don’t count on the latest round of good economic news to have much of an impact on the elections. There are very few undecided voters left and these minor changes aren’t likely to change anyone’s mind.

But it’s still worth noting that the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the country gained 171,000 jobs and that unemployment inched up to 7.9 percent from 7.8 percent. Both numbers are good. Unemployment only edged up because so many jobless Americans became confident enough to look for work again.

President Barack Obama can rightly brag about improved economic numbers in recent months. There are more jobs. Gas prices are down. The economy is modestly expanding. Consumer confidence has bounced to a four-year high and the Dow Jones Industrial Average recently hit an all-time high. Clearly, the economy is faring well under his leadership.

But, let’s be honest. As tough a row as Obama has had to hoe — inheriting a deep recession and a giant budget deficit — our nation knows how to create jobs at a much greater pace and grow our economy more equitably. It’s up to us, we the people, to create a better society by electing better policymakers and lawmakers.

In the 1950s, with a top marginal tax rate of about 90 percent, we had the necessary revenue to help veterans get college diplomas, to create good jobs, and to grow a middle class.

Yes, racism was an even-bigger problem then than it is now. However, the progressive taxation we had at that time generated enough revenue that most of the country’s residents regardless of race, gender, or economic status could have been brought into the middle class had it not been for rampant discrimination.

The same potential exists today, even more so because we’re an even wealthier country now. We can greatly expand the number of good-paying, full-time jobs with a fair and economically sound approach to our federal budget priorities and long-term debt reduction. It’s time our leaders stopped cow-towing to corporate interests by masquerading as adherents to the ideology of government minimalism.

If we cut wasteful Pentagon spending, restore top marginal tax rates to Reagan levels, close corporate tax loopholes, end tax breaks that benefit only the wealthy, cancel subsidies to polluting oil and gas companies, and impose a tiny tax on speculative Wall Street transactions, we will have the revenue we need to rebuild our infrastructure, create sustainable energy sources, improve public schools, expand access to health care, and build a sustainable economy that provides all Americans with a decent standard of living.

Then, not only will we see an expansion in our economy, but the right kind of expansion — one measured by something like a Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), rather than the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). We need to measure not just general economic expansion but our overall wellbeing.

Either Obama or Romney can do this. Either a Democratic or Republican House and Senate can do this. It’s not about politics. Or ideology. This isn’t rhetoric and this isn’t short-term analysis of monthly jobs numbers. This is common sense. And it’s the transformational approach we need.

Karen Dolan is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies (www.ips-dc.org), where she’s studying alternative metrics to the GDP, such as Maryland’s Genuine Progress Indicator.

What Explains Aung San Suu Kyi’s Silence About the Persecution of Burma’s Minorities?

Roland Watson, who runs Dictator Watch, is one of the most trenchant Burma and activists and observers. On October 27 he posted an article with the, uh, provocative title: “Worst person in Burma.” Surely, he was referring to long-time junta leader Gen. Than Shwe, who still retains influence, or perhaps even current president Thein Sein, despite his reforms. In fact, counterintuitively enough, to Watson, the “worst person in Burma” is Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and now member of Burma’s parliament. Why?

“The reason for this is that, while she isn’t raping and killing people herself,” writes Watson, referring to the Burmese army as well as “Rakhine madmen” who persecute and kill Rohingya Muslims in Western Burma, “she is nevertheless directly responsible for the carnage because she is the only person in Burma who has the ability to stop it, or at a minimum to reduce its scale.”

By way of background for Watson’s article, here’s an excerpt from a previous post of mine.

In his most recent report, Burma’s Semi-Freedom Scorecard, [Watson] writes: “There are clearly winners, but also losers, from the new status quo,” by which he means victims of the organs of the “dictatorship’s oppression apparatus.” … What makes it worse, Watson writes, is that these victims will never

… receive justice. Daw Suu and [her National League for Democracy party] made a political calculation that justice must be sacrificed, that there should not be an international investigation into the regime’s crimes against humanity, or a tribunal for them, much less the ability to bring a case to a local court.

Watson has no interest in dishonoring Daw Suu (as Aung San Suu Kyi is often known to Burma’s people).

I do not mean to begrudge Daw Suu her due. She has suffered tremendously [and] maintained her courage and commitment throughout years of hardship and sacrifice.

But-t-t Suu Kyi

… has ignored the ethnic nationality plight for years. (She traditionally focused almost exclusively on the nation’s political prisoners.) Through doing this she turned a blind eye to what is Burma’s core social issue: Racism against the ethnic nationalities by the country’s Burman generals.

Why does Watson think Daw Suu threw the ethnic nationalities … under the bus? [He speculates.]

She didn’t know how bad the [Burmese army] was treating the ethnic groups; … she censored herself; she thinks the problems that the ethnic nationalities have are their own fault (as many Burmans believe) … or, she noticed that since the international community ignored the atrocities it was safe for her to do so as well.

What has made Watson double-down on his condemnation of Suu Kyi?

Suu Kyi is the only person with real moral authority over the Burmans, of which the Army and police are comprised, and the Rakhines. Were she to call loudly and repeatedly for the attacks [by the Burmese army and by Rakhines on Rohingya] to end … the violence would subside. (She should ask to speak on national television, and make just such an announcement. If refused permission, she should make a statement to foreign media.)

Equally importantly, the International Community would no longer be able to avoid the subject. … If she spoke out, they would also be forced to condemn the atrocities, and even to support action such as the introduction of a peacekeeping force.

Watson sums up.

History will remember Suu Kyi as the the leader of a pro-democracy movement who changed her mind and surrendered, who ignored barbaric violence, who helped split a nation, and who opened it to rapacious corporate development. This will be her real legacy. This is why she is indeed the worst person in Burma.

As you can imagine, Watson’s article generated a backlash. In his “Response to Critics of ‘The Worst Person in Burma’,” he adds that Suu Kyi

… does not understand the process of social change. You cannot change a society from a dictatorship to a democracy through reform. There has to be a break: a revolution. One way or another, the dictators have to be deposed. Only then can you really move forward.

For President, Focal Points (Not FPIF or IPS!) Endorses…

This author has read every argument for why progressives should re-elect President Obama. He not only agrees with many of them, but his head tells him to vote for President Obama. He knows, though, that once in front of the voting machine, his heart will refuse to abide by the cold-blooded calculus that dictates progressives cast their ballots for the Democratic candidate.

Admittedly, I might be acting out of the vestiges of youthful political purity that I’ve failed to scour from my political consciousness. That’s one voter’s shortcoming. But President Obama has come up short on many count, from his affinity for Wall Street and drone strikes to his lack of same for civil liberties. He then added insult to injury by supporting a “grand bargain” on social programs that sells out those who depend on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

When all is said and done, relying on voters to put aside their visceral dislike of a candidate’s policies and still vote for him is a risky policy. Progressives and those further left thus find themselves in the same position as tea partiers holding their noses while voting for Mitt Romney. It’s long been the province of the right to vote against, instead of for. However much my vote is “wasted,” I prefer to vote for someone and his policies.

Especially when the most appealing presidential ticket of my lifetime — Jill Stein and Cheri Honkala — is gracing the ballot. As I posted previously.

Ms. Stein and Ms. Honkala’s key platform, reports Yana Kunichoff at Truthout, “is the Green New Deal, a jobs program which she says will both build on the success of the New Deal in the 1930s and also help move the United States toward a sustainable, green economy.” As an example of their foreign policy platform, which fundamentally revolves around drastically cutting military spending, let’s examine excerpts from their stance towards Israel and Palestine.

We recognize that Jewish insecurity and fear of non-Jews is understandable in light of Jewish history of horrific oppression in Europe. However, we oppose as both discriminatory and ultimately self-defeating the position that Jews would be fundamentally threatened by the implementation of full rights to Palestinian-Israelis and Palestinian refugees who wish to return to their homes. …. We reaffirm the right and feasibility of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in Israel. … We reject U.S. unbalanced financial and military support of Israel while Israel occupies Palestinian lands and maintains an apartheid-like system in both the Occupied Palestinian Territories and in Israel toward its non-Jewish citizens. Therefore, we call on the U.S. President and Congress to suspend all military and foreign aid, including loans and grants, to Israel until Israel withdraws from the Occupied Territories, dismantles the separation wall in the Occupied West Bank including East Jerusalem, ends its siege of Gaza and its apart­heid-like system both within the Occupied Palestinian Territories and in Israel toward its non-Jewish citizens.

Breaking the cycle of voting out of fear is a long process, but one that needs to begin at some point. At the New York Times, Susan Saulny wrote:

A general internist who grew impatient with the social and environmental roots of disease, Ms. Stein said, ‘I’m now practicing political medicine because politics is the mother of all illnesses.’”

Meanwhile, Nora Caplan-Bricker of the New Republic wrote:

Stein says her campaign is like “political therapy” for people who have had “self-destructive relationships to politics, like being stuck in an abusive relationship.” And her supporters think it will eventually work: Greens between the ages of 27 and 92 told me they think it’s possible they’ll see a president from the party in their lifetimes—that if they keep offering “political therapy,” mainstream voters who are frustrated by politics will start to want it: maybe in four years, maybe in eight, maybe in 50 or more.

With a president like Romney, most Obama supporters will argue, we may not even last 50 years. But repeatedly settling for short-term emergency management won’t bring us closer to long-term solutions that reduce the need for rescues.

For those considering it, voting for third-party presidential candidates is like deciding to have a baby: the time never seems right. That it requires a leap of faith can’t be denied.

This Week in OtherWords: An Early Thanksgiving

It’s a relief to keep the OtherWords editorial service running on schedule when so little is going as planned. At my house, we just had an unexpected four-day weekend and a downed fence. And our little ladybug and cop trotted back to school in time to celebrate Halloween.

While I’m concerned about the damage from this extreme weather, I’m also thankful that my loved ones are safe and sound. I hope that the same holds true for you, your friends, and relatives.

Thanksgiving is when we contemplate everything we take for granted, and “Frankenstorm” Sandy made that holiday arrive early this year. In addition to being thankful that the neighbor’s towering tree didn’t crush my house, I’d like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude for your continued support.

I’d also like to thank the editors who make it possible for OtherWords commentaries and cartoons to appear in 310 newspapers that reach more than 6.5 million readers. And thanks to the editors that enable us to run on dozens of websites too.

I also want to thank everyone who reads our work online and in other publications and to the many organizations and individuals who write (or draw) for OtherWords. And thanks to anyone who has made a donation to support this important work. With the dizzying number of media alternatives out there, we need your help more than ever to keep our progressive and newsroom-ready perspectives on everything from nuclear dangers to health care challenges in the conversation.

This editorial service is free of charge for editors to use in newspapers and new media outlets under a Creative Commons license. If you know anyone who might want to become an OtherWords subscriber or run our work in their opinion section or website, I’d really appreciate it if you could let them know about us.

This week in OtherWords, we’re emphasizing military and foreign policy priorities. Miriam Pemberton explains how rebalancing our national security spending would make our embassies safer. Lt. General (USA, Ret.) Robert G. Gard outlines the next administration’s top foreign policy challenges. Khalil Bendib’s cartoon can accompany either of those commentaries, as well as William A. Collins’ column summing up his take on Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Be sure to visit the OtherWords blog, where you’ll find a bonus column by Jim Hightower in a few days. And please subscribe to our weekly newsletter if you haven’t signed up already.

  1. How to Make our Embassies Safer / Miriam Pemberton
    Paul Ryan’s spending plans call for slashing the money the State Department can use to protect diplomats.
  2. The Next Administration’s Top Five Foreign Policy Challenges / Lt. General (USA, Ret.) Robert G. Gard
    The next administration’s top short-term challenge will undoubtedly be to end U.S. involvement in combat operations in Afghanistan.
  3. Isolation on Both Ends of the Line / Chancellar Williams
    In a complete distortion of free-market economics, the phone companies that secure contracts with prisons are often the ones that charge more than their competitors.
  4. A Nuclear Strike on States’ Rights / Deb Katz
    Vermont’s Yankee reactor would have closed this year had a power company kept a decade-old promise.
  5. The Dead-End Servant Economy / Sam Pizzigati
    We’re going down the road toward becoming a nation of servants.
  6. Politics Creep to a New Low / Jim Hightower
    Both presidential campaigns are going overboard with their snooping into voters’ lives.
  7. Dining with Mahmoud / William A. Collins
    That night, he left out his signature anti-Semitic rhetoric.
  8. The Horses and Bayonets Strategy / Khalil Bendib
The Horses and Bayonets Strategy, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

The Horses and Bayonets Strategy, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

How to Stop Scaring Ourselves to Death

hurricane-sandy-climate-change

Previously published at FireDogLake.

There’s nothing quite like the adrenalin high of a good storm. It’s like a horror film we can’t stop watching: And this “Frankenstorm,” coming right on Halloween, is giving us the best of the worst of storms. As the waters rise, the weathercasters feed our high, red circles and arrows signaling danger. We are glued to the set, knowing exactly what comes next: They wade into thigh-deep water; they stand at the ocean’s edge, buffeted by high winds; they shout into the microphone; they take risks we secretly wish we could take. It is as if the whole thing is choreographed, like some archetypal play being enacted before our eyes for the one-thousandth time.

Just as we have come to expect this adrenalin rush from our weather-men and -women, so too, it seems, we have come to expect the testosterone surge from the endless parade of men (and they are largely men): mayors, governors, presidents, military leaders, all looking manly, in control, surrounded by more men, looking on, somberly, from behind. What they say is less important (we already know the advice, but, like children, must be told again and again: “Things are bad;” “Don’t take any risks;” “Stay off the roads”) than how they say it, and what the optics are: Does he look presidential? Is he a man in charge? How calm does he sound in the face of catastrophe? We need that “father figure,” it seems, when times are tough. And our media and our politicians willingly oblige.

We are so good at this, in America, so good at responding to the crisis. We cheer on our National Guard, our Coast Guard, our everyday heroes, and then, when the danger has passed, when the tide recedes, we congratulate ourselves and them by digging deep into our pockets and sending money to the Red Cross and the homeless shelters, saluting our men and women in uniform, as though this, and this alone, were the price of admission.

And yet…we are fooling ourselves, again and again, just as our children do every Halloween. This Frankenstorm, can we stop fooling ourselves? Our planet desperately needs us to act like adults and get beyond the adrenalin rush of responding to one storm after another, as though each one were a unique shock, and not related to an overall climate crisis of enormous proportions. We need our political leaders and weather-casters to end the silence on climate change, to tell us the truth: That these storms will only grow more intense as our oceans warm and the Arctic melts. And we need to start to think long-term, to start claiming responsibility and not blame Mother Nature for our plight. Climate change is upon us, folks, and if this is what a 1 Degree Celsius rise looks like, imagine what a 2, 3, or 4 degree rise looks like.

For leadership, we may have to look beyond our borders, to the Danes or the Germans: They have taken their blinders off, looked around, taken stock of who owns most of the oil and gas in the world, carefully reviewed what Japan is suffering in the wake of Fukushima’s multiple nuclear meltdowns, and both countries have made a firm commitment to going both fossil-fuel-free and nuclear-free. These countries are committed to true energy independence–not the short-lived kind that results from trading one poisonous addiction for another. It is a long slog. Their path does not involve instant gratification nor feel-good heroics. It involves tinkering with different policies–such as Germany’s feed-in tariff and Denmark’s multi-decadal experimentation with wind. It involves committing hundreds of billions of dollars to solving a problem that will ultimately save these countries and their people hundreds of billions of dollars, while saving millions of lives around the world. There are few heroes in these national dramas. There are plenty of ordinary people, including women, thinking of their children, their grandchildren, and of children on the other side of the planet, understanding that the energy commitments we make today affect the “Frankenstorms” our children will suffer tomorrow.

Can we grow up and out of scaring ourselves to death? Can we move into a long-term push toward the kind of energy future that will not bring real terror to millions around the world? Or will we just put on the costume of Superman and pretend we have saved Gotham City, yet again, while Frankenstorm 2.0 waits around the corner?

Drones: Whatever Became of U.S. Respect for International Norms Prohibiting Assassinations?

As Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations writes in a post at his blog Politics, Power, and Preventive Action (thanks to the Progressive Realist for directing us to it):

After following this program closely for the past half-dozen years, I have stopped being surprised by how far and how quickly the United States has moved from the international norm against assassinations or “extrajudicial killings.”

He writes that, in an October 23 Washington Post article Plan for hunting terrorists signals U.S. intends to keep adding names to kill lists, reporter Greg Miller

… underscores the cementing of the mindset and apparent group-think among national security policymakers that the routine and indefinite killing of suspected terrorists and nearby military-age males is ethical, moral, legal, and effective (for now).

But the “for now” can soon be dropped because of

… the increasing institutionalization—“codifying and streamlining the process” as Miller describes it—of executive branch power to use lethal force without any meaningful checks and balances.

In fact, it’s a significant departure recent history. As Zenko reminds us, in 1975, a

… U.S. Senate Select Committee investigation, led by Senator Frank Church … implicated the United States in assassination plots against foreign leaders—including at least eight separate plans to kill Cuban president Fidel Castro [followed by] President Ford’s Executive Order 11905: “No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination.”

Thus was

… opposition to assassination was widely held and endured throughout the Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations through 1999 for the following reasons.

In a quote from his book Between Threats and War: U.S. Discrete Military Operations in the Post-Cold War World (Stanford Security Studies, 2010), Zenko expands on that.

Assassinations ran counter to well-established international norms, and were prohibited under both treaty and customary international law. … weakening the international norm against assassinations could result in retaliatory killings of American leaders, who are more vulnerable as a consequence of living in a relatively open society. [Also] the targeted killing of suspected terrorists or political leaders was generally considered an ineffective foreign policy tool. An assassination attempt that failed could be counterproductive, in that it would create more legal and diplomatic problems than it was worth. An attempt that succeeded, meanwhile, would likely do little to diminish the long-term threat from an enemy state or group.

“Finally,” he writes, “the secretive and treacherous aspect of targeted killings was considered antithetical to the moral and ethical precepts of the United States.”

Also, Zenko writes, it is

… notable that Miller does not find officials worried about the legality, congressional oversight, transparency, or precedent setting for future state and nonstate powers wielding armed drones.

In other words, their shortsightedness is disturbing. It might behoove them to read Daniel Suarez’s crackling new techno-thriller Kill Decision (Dutton Adult), in which drones are programmed to make their own decisions about what — or, to be more exact, whom — to attack.

On Not Scaring Ourselves to Death: Moving Beyond the Adrenaline Rush of a Good Storm to an Energy Revolution

noaa.gov

There’s nothing quite like the adrenaline high of a good storm. It’s like a good horror film: And this “Frankenstorm,” coming right on Halloween, is giving us the best of the worst of storms. As the waters rise, the weathercasters feed our high, red circles and arrows signaling danger. We are glued to the set, knowing exactly what comes next: They wade into thigh-deep water; they stand at the ocean’s edge, buffeted by high winds; they shout into the microphone; they take risks we secretly wish we could take. It is as if the whole thing is choreographed, like some archetypal play being enacted before our eyes for the one-thousandth time.

Just as we have come to expect this adrenaline rush from our weathermen and women, so too, it seems, we have come to expect the testosterone surge from the endless parade of men (and they are largely men): mayors, governors, presidents, military leaders, all looking manly, in control, surrounded by more men, looking on, somberly, from behind. What they say is less important (we already know the advice, but, like children, must be told again and again: “Things are bad;” “Don’t take any risks;” “Stay off the roads;”) than how they say it, and what the optics are: Does he look presidential? Is he a man in charge? How calm does he sound in the face of catastrophe? We need that “father figure,” it seems, when times are tough. And our media and our politicians willingly oblige.

We are so good at this, in America, so good at responding to the crisis. We cheer on our National Guard, our Coast Guard, our everyday heroes, and then, when the danger has passed, when the tide recedes, we congratulate ourselves and them by digging deep into our pockets and sending money to the Red Cross and the homeless shelters, saluting our men and women in uniform, as though this, and this alone, were the price of admission.

And yet…we are fooling ourselves, again and again, just as our children do every Halloween, high on fear. This Frankenstorm, can we stop fooling ourselves? Our planet desperately needs us to get beyond the adrenaline rush of responding to one storm after another, as though each one were a unique shock, and not related to an overall climate crisis of enormous proportions. We need our political leaders and weather-casters to end the silence on climate change. And we need to start to think long-term, to start claiming responsibility for the growing intensity of our storms. Climate change is upon us, folks, and if this is what a 1-degree Celsius rise looks like, imagine what a 2, 3, or 4-degree rise looks like.

For leadership, we may have to look beyond our borders, to the Danes or the Germans: They have taken their blinders off. They have looked around, taken stock of who owns most of the oil and gas in the world, carefully reviewed what Japan is suffering in the wake of Fukushima’s multiple nuclear meltdowns, and both countries have said: We are committed to going both fossil-fuel-free and nuclear-free. These countries are committed to true energy independence — not the short-lived kind that results from trading one poisonous addiction for another. It is a long slog. It does not involve instant gratification the way storm heroics do. It involves tinkering with different policies — such as Germany’s feed-in tariff and Denmark’s multi-decadal experimentation with wind. It involves committing hundreds of billions of dollars to solving a problem that will ultimately save these countries hundreds of billions of dollars, along with millions of lives. There are few heroes in these national dramas. There are plenty of ordinary people, including women, thinking intergenerationally, thinking of their children, their grandchildren, and of children on the other side of the planet, understanding that the energy commitments we make today affect the Frankenstorms our children will suffer tomorrow.

Can we grow up and out of scaring ourselves to death? Can we move into a long-term push toward the kind of energy future that will not bring real terror to millions around the world? Or will we just put on the costume of Superman and pretend we have saved Gotham City, yet again, while Frankenstorm 2.0 waits around the corner?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This blog post originally appeared on TheNation.com.

The Idea of Europe

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.

HANKYOREH Back in 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the countries of East-Central Europe all had a common vision. They wanted to join the Europe Community. Some wanted to join immediately; others wanted to join eventually. After half a century yoked to the Soviet Union, the people of this region saw membership in the common European home as a guarantee of democratic governance, economic prosperity, and social stability.

Twenty years later, membership in the European Union comes with no guarantees. The economic crisis that convulses the continent shows no signs of abating. The region of East-Central Europe struggles with corruption and a new brand of authoritarianism. And extremist intolerance continues to plague Europe east and west.

It‘s not just the European economy that is in crisis. The very idea of Europe has lost its shine. “Europe” once meant a more egalitarian and more tolerant model than the free market orthodoxy reigning in the United States. In this age of globalization, however, Europe has become more and more like everywhere else.

This leaves the countries of East-Central Europe in a difficult position. They are finally joining an exclusive club. But the perks of membership are no longer quite so exciting. It’s not surprising that Euroskepticism has crept into the hearts of eastern Europeans. After all, even the inhabitants of the original core group of member countries are having second thoughts.

Of course, Europe still means something. On the positive side, new members of the European Union have access to funds to modernize their infrastructure. I recently drove back and forth across Bulgaria, and next to construction sites I saw many signs with the European Union logo. Repairing the major east-west highways in Bulgaria is not just important for tourists eager to race from Sofia to the Black Sea coast. Good roads – and good rail lines – are essential for getting Bulgarian goods to markets and also to take advantage of Bulgaria‘s geographic location for transshipment.

Also, on the positive side, membership in the European Union has served as a means of leverage to bring the political standards of candidate countries up to European levels. Whether it’s securing the rights of minorities (ethnic, religious, sexual) or ensuring a properly functioning judiciary, the European Union requires potential members to meet a long list of criteria. Since powerful domestic lobbies oppose many of these requirements, reformers can use this external pressure – the European form of gaiatsu* — to push through changes that might otherwise take decades or might not happen at all.

There are certainly other benefits to EU membership, from visa-free travel to lower barriers to trade. But there are now some considerable downsides as well.

The most important challenge that faces EU members and potential candidates is the austerity package that virtually all governments are expected to implement. It was once the case that new members saw a tremendous expansion of their social welfare systems to meet European standards. They also had access to much more generous adjustment funds so that they could close the gap between themselves and the richer members of the community. In this way, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland rather quickly became equal partners in the grand European economic experiment.

Today, new members like Slovenia have to find ways to cut government spending to meet the EU‘s fiscal demands. Candidate countries like Croatia have to do the same. They are not alone, of course. The governments in Greece and Spain and Italy are all expected to push through unpopular austerity packages.

The European Union, in other words, has turned out to be not that different from the American neoliberal economic model after all. Eastern Europe is in fact facing a second round of government downsizing after the initial dismantlement of communism in the early 1990s.

Twenty years ago, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, countries embarked on a new era of democratic governance. Membership in the EU was to make this process irreversible.

It turns out, however, that the process is not entirely irreversible. In Hungary, the right-wing party FIDESZ has cracked down on the media, centralized authority, and focused on the rights of ethnic Hungarians to the exclusion of all others. European authorities have lodged their protests. But Hungary remains an EU member in good standing. Other political parties in the region with similar political programs are watching Hungary’s experience very carefully.

And then there‘s the resurgence of intolerance throughout Europe. Racist and Islamophobic political parties have gained ground in virtually every country, including areas once known for their tolerance such as the Netherlands and Sweden. In East-Central Europe, anti-Roma sentiment remains high despite more than two decades of concerted effort by NGOs to integrate this often marginalized population. This month, the Serbian government again cancelled a planned Gay Pride march. Domestic groups pointed out that the cancellation was unconstitutional; EU authorities warned that Serbia would have to meet European standards for human rights to have any chance of future membership.

The current trends are not inescapable. Europe could weather the current economic crisis and return to its emphasis on the social component of their social-market economies. A new wave of civic activism could drastically reduce the support for authoritarian parties. And an invigorated civil rights movement by and for minorities, supported by strongly enforced European regulations, could push racists and Islamophobes to the fringes where they belong.

Much depends on the Europe’s newest members and countries like Croatia that are on the verge of accession. Beginning in 1989, the people of these countries unshackled themselves from tyranny. They are now realizing their earlier dream of becoming part of the European Union. But this is not the final step. They can help make the European idea mean something other than austerity and intolerance. They can make “Europe” once again translate into justice, equality, and prosperity.

*gaiatsu n. Foreign pressure; pressure applied by one country onto another.

Though Bin Laden Was Hiding in Plain Sight, His Extreme Caution Tripped Him Up

Mark Bowden of Black Hawk Down fame has just weighed in on the mission to kill bin Laden with a book titled The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden (Atlantic Monthly Press). Much of the excerpt that Vanity Fair published chronicles how President Obama et al chose between a drone strike, precision bombing, and an assault by Navy SEALs, as well as how the attack was carried out. The first priority, of course, was determining if bin Laden and his people actually resided at the Abbottabad compound.

Here, in part, was what attracted the CIA to the site.

Panetta brought two of the agency’s bin Laden team leaders to the Oval Office. They handed Obama classified pictures and maps and walked him through the material. What had first intrigued them was the compound itself. Unlike most homes in that affluent neighborhood, it did not have Internet or phone connections. The walls were unusually high, topped by two feet of barbed wire. There was no way to see inside the house itself, from the ground or from above. The agency had learned that the compound was home not only to [bin Laden courier] Ibrahim Ahmed’s family but to his brother Abrar’s family as well. They went by assumed names: Ahmed called himself Arshad Khan, and the brother went by Tariq Khan. They had never been wealthy, but their accommodations were expensive. The brothers were also wary. They burned their trash on-site. None of their children attended school. In telephone calls to distant family members, always made from locations away from the compound itself, they lied about where they were living. The C.I.A. has been known to misinterpret many things, but one thing it recognizes is high operational security.

At first glance, it seems as if bin Laden and Ahmed had thrown caution to the winds by hiding in plain sight in Abbottabad. However, when it came to behaving like normal citizens, they apparently lost their nerve. In other words, they failed to take their security to the next level and realize that their very cautiousness was a red flag. It’s true that bin Laden couldn’t walk the streets. But they could have taken their garbage out!

More to the point, use of phones and the Internet — innocuously, of course — would have provided the perfect cover.

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