IPS Blog

The Immigrant Community Deserves Bigger and Better

Photo: Flickr/Icars

Photo: Flickr/Icars

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Darden Launches Unfounded Attack on IPS Research — Again

darden_logoThe Institute for Policy Studies released a report on October 1 which was the first to provide a detailed analysis of the compensation three top Darden executives will walk away with after being urged to resign in the face of investor pressure.

The key finding: Darden CEO Clarence Otis, Jr. and two other top officials are leaving the embattled restaurant corporation with compensation valued at an estimated $68 million.

In defending the payouts, Darden spokesman Rich Jeffers told the Orlando Sentinel (Darden’s hometown newspaper) that the current value of executive stock awards in the report “shows the strong performance for Darden’s shares.” The Sentinel helpfully points out that Darden’s shares have increased 14.5 percent — since Otis announced his resignation on July 28. In other words, he’s benefiting from investor enthusiasm over his departure.

Jeffers also said in a statement: “The figures cited are hugely misleading and significantly overstate the actual severance. The vast majority of the figures cited as severance were actually earned compensation, including the value of already vested stock options and non-forfeitable retirement benefits, that the individuals earned over their entire careers at Darden — which spanned 20 years for Mr. Otis, 15 years for Mr. Madsen and 40 years for Mr. Pickens.”

In fact, the IPS report could not be more transparent. It provides extensive details of the various types of compensation the executives are walking away with, based on the company’s own reports. A table on page 2 clearly distinguishes between “cash severance” and other forms of compensation, including executive retirement funds.

In Appendix 2, the report provides even greater detail on the methodology for calculating the current value of equity-based compensation, with separate columns for option and stock awards that had vested as of the end of fiscal year 2014 and those that will vest before the end of the executives’ severance periods.

The aim of this report is to provide the clearest, most comprehensive picture possible of the fortunes these three executives are likely to put in their pockets after their resignations from Darden. Exact figures will depend on the value of Darden shares when the executives cash in their option and stock awards.

This full picture is important because it reveals the extreme disparity within a firm known for rock-bottom wages for low-level workers. There is a growing body of research indicating that such wide gaps not only violate basic principles of fairness but also undermine business effectiveness.

This is not the first time Darden has responded to IPS research with attempts to obfuscate. In September 2013, IPS Associate Fellow Scott Klinger penned an op-ed that ran in a dozen major newspapers regarding the company’s wage practices for restaurant servers. As Klinger explained in this blog, the op-ed calls attention to the federal subminimum wage for tipped workers, which has remained at $2.13 per hour for more than 20 years. Darden has been a leader in the National Restaurant Association’s efforts to defeat national legislation that would raise the tipped minimum wage.

Samir Gupte, the Senior Vice President for Culture at Darden, claimed the op-ed was full of errors and denied that any workers at Darden make $2.13 an hour. His aim was to confuse the issue by focusing on restaurant servers’ total earnings, including tips, when the op-ed clearly focused on what Darden actually pays these servers directly. In a September 25 article in Nation’s Restaurant News, Darden spokesman Rich Jeffers affirmed the IPS claim by revealing that 20 percent of Darden’s hourly workers receive $2.13 an hour, before tips.

Once again, Darden’s disinformation campaign will likely backfire, raising awareness among more consumers about the company’s unfair compensation practices.

Why the People’s Climate March is Vital

People's Climate March protest

(Photo: Taymaz Valley/Flickr)

The People’s Climate March, where an estimated 400,000 protesters rallied in New York City in support of climate change prevention, offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience the vast breadth of issues related to climate change and the diverse array of communities it would impact if left unchecked.

I joined the march because I care about the particular connection between climate change and our food supply. The way we feed ourselves is a vital aspect of our society and our culture — but the unfortunate reality is that the entire food production sector is one of the biggest causes of climate change. Processing, transporting, packaging, and refrigerating food contribute to at least 15% of the overall greenhouse gas emissions, with livestock production alone taking another sizeable chunk.

Coincidentally, this sector is also directly impacted by some of global warming’s worst affects. Climate change is already reducing the availability of fresh water and disturbing seasonal cycles. It’s hurting people’s ability to feed themselves, leading to displacement and raising the numbers of people living in conditions of malnutrition or starvation .

Worst of all, poor countries and communities — which have done little to contribute to the global climate mess — are and will continue to feel the brunt of the consequences. The impact of climate change on our food supply will only exacerbate existing inequalities in access to resources for these communities.

The sheer scale of the climate crisis will constrain and diminish our ability to grow food – unless we change almost everything. It has become evident, however, that systemic change is not likely bound to come from above. It will have to be built from the bottom up, by everyone, together.

The scale of mobilization required is massive, but as the People’s Climate March shows, a cross-cutting movement is indeed growing to combat the present unequal and polluting system. The climate movement is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary, multi-issue, and colorful. And moving forward, all kinds of participants — from trade unions to student associations, environmental organizations to faith congregations — will continue to be needed.

Climate change is likely the biggest challenge of this century. It will touch every person on this planet — which is why everyone can, and should, get involved and contribute to its solutions.



Let Us Eat Cake: The New Census Data on Poverty


(Photo: Bibbit/Flickr)

Poverty fell in 2013 U.S. Census data shows. It inched down from 15 percent in 2012 to 14.5 percent in 2013, but still higher than when the Recession officially ended in 2009.

So not yet time to eat cake.

…Or is it?

Cake and Food Assistance

If many state governors and GOP federal legislators had their druthers, we’d prohibit poor moms from buying cake for their children using food stamps. Cake and ice cream for birthday parties, some politicians apparently hope, will be only for the non-poor in America. Indeed, with the cruel cuts to the food assistance program (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP) last year and aspirations foreliminating its earned-benefit status, it seems some GOP lawmakers feel that any food at all for poor people should be considered a privilege. This, despite the fact thatSNAP lifted 3.7 million people out of poverty in 2013 and could have assisted many many more.

Cake and Unemployment Insurance

Similarly, Unemployment Insurance proved a critical safety net catching 1.2 millionpeople before they fell below the poverty line. But this number is smaller than previous years due to House leaders allowing the benefit to expire and preventing all attempts to restore it. With a sluggish job market, high unemployment and a minimum wage which doesn’t provide a full-time worker with sufficient housing and nutrition needs in any state in the country, the elimination of this crucial safety net assistance is unjustified and unwise.

Poverty and deep poverty persist in this wealthy nation. Barriers to health care, quality child care, good paying jobs, adequate safety net programs, quality education, safe housing and adequate nutrition persist and austerity approaches increase these.

Cake and Corporate Greed

The good news is that alternatives to austerity for the poor abound. If we leveled down the gobs of frosting on the triple decker layer cakes we regularly serve up to tax-evading corporations, gambling Wall Street wolves and bloated CEO wallets, there would be enough cake to go around. Cut corporate subsidizies, close off-shore tax havens, tax Wall Street fairly, create green good paying jobs and institute universal healthcare are examples of what we can do.

Cake While Incarcerated and Undocumented

Finally, even if we do all of that and every belly has nutritious food and some occasional birthday cake, 2.4 million of mostly low-income people won’t be able to come to the table because they are incarcerated. An additional 11 million undocumented immigrants have no seat at the table at all.

Disproportionately poor and of minority ethnic and racial backgrounds, incarcerated and undocumented people in our country survive- or not- below the radar screen. Most of the those living behind bars in federal prisons are imprisoned for non-violent offenses. Exploding prison populations are squeezing state and municipal budgets. These skyrocketing costs are illogically being paid for by swelling the numbers of people fined and jailed for nothing more than being unable to pay a parking ticket, private probation or court costs. It’s a vicious cycle of cost and incarceration which serves only to create a resurgence of Debtors Prisons in the U.S. while doing nothing to curb costs.

Further, if the currently undocumented workers in the U.S. were to be granted legal right to work, studies estimate they would add over $2 billion annually to state and local tax contributions on top of the current $10.5 billion they already contribute.

So add immigration reform and criminal justice reform a commonsense approach to taxes, subsidizes, wages and budget and guess what?

We all get cake.

Don’t Go Back to Iraq!

(Jayel Aheram / Flickr)

(Jayel Aheram / Flickr)

This is how wars begin.

Barack Obama says we’re not going back to Iraq. “American forces will not be returning to combat in Iraq,” he said on June 19th, “but we will help Iraqis as they take the fight to terrorists who threaten the Iraqi people, the region, and American interests as well.”

The White House says it’s “only” sending 275 soldiers to protect the embassy, it’s only sending 300 Special Forces, they’re only “advisers.” There’s only one aircraft carrier in the region, they say, and a few other warships. They’re considering missile strikes but they’re not going to send ground troops.

Iraq isn’t a start-up war for the United States—we’ve been there before. And these actions increase the danger we could be heading there again. We thought we had a president who learned the lesson, at least about Iraq—he even repeats it every chance he gets: “There is no military solution.”

This is a very dangerous move. President Obama’s words are right: there is no military solution.But his actions are wrong. When there is no military solution, airstrikes, Special Forces, arms deals, and aircraft carriers will only make it worse.

We need to stop it now. Before the first Special Forces guy gets captured and suddenly there are boots on the ground to find him. Before the first surveillance plane gets shot down and suddenly there are helicopter crews and more boots on the ground to rescue the pilot. Before the first missile hits a wedding party that some faulty intel guy thought looked like a truckload of terrorists—we seem to be good at that. And before we’re fully back at war.

Iraq is on the verge of full-scale civil war along the fault lines set in place when U.S. troops invaded and occupied the country more than a decade ago. We need to demand that our government do five things right away:

First, do no harm. There is no military solution in Iraq—so end the threats of airstrikes, bring home the evac troops and Special Forces, and turn the aircraft carrier around.

Second, call for and support an immediate arms embargo on all sides. That means pressuring U.S. regional allies to stop providing weapons and money to various militias.

Third, engage immediately with Iran to bring pressure to bear on the Iraqi government to end its sectarian discrimination, its violence against civilians, and its violations of human rights.

Fourth, engage with Russia and other powers to get the United Nations to take the lead in organizing international negotiations for a political solution to the crisis now enveloping Iraq as well as Syria. Those talks must include all sides, including non-violent Syrian and Iraqi activists, civil society organizations, women, and representatives of refugees and displaced people forced from their homes. All relevant outside parties, including Iran, must be included. Building on the success of the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran, Washington should continue to broaden its engagement with Tehran with the goal of helping to bring the Syrian and Iraqi wars to an immediate end.

Fifth, get help to the people who need it. The Iraq war is creating an enormous new refugee and humanitarian crisis, escalating the crisis of the Syrian war, and spreading across the entire region. The United States has pledged one of the largest grants of humanitarian aid for refugees from Syria, but it is still too small, and much of it has not been paid out. Simultaneously with the announcement of an immediate arms embargo, Washington should announce a major increase in humanitarian assistance for all refugees in the region to be made immediately available to UN agencies, and call on other countries to do the same.

This is how wars can be stopped.

Rare Progressive Victory Will Help Build a Peace Economy

Keith Ellison Defense Spending Congress

Rep Keith Ellison presents amendment to Congress on peace economy transitions, June 18 2014

Progressives certainly haven’t had a whole lot to celebrate lately — most urgently, a possible military intervention in Iraq is on the horizon — but on the defense front there’s at least something worth a sip of champagne:

Cong. Keith Ellison (D-MN),  co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, recently introduced an amendment to the House defense appropriations bill to take $10 million from the Pentagon’s general operating account. The $10 million would be redirected to the Pentagon’s Office of Economic Adjustment,  an agency whose sole purpose is to help communities facing military base closures and Pentagon contract cancellations plan for themselves a future that is not dependent on a militarized economy.

Perhaps most surprisingly, the House of Representatives — the very same body that has blocked immigration reform,  climate change legislation, and cut the food stamp program all while adopting an all-of-the-above approach to weapons procurement — actually voted in favor of Ellison’s amendment.

It was quite a monumental moment. With Cong. Ellison’s leadership, a fractured Congress finally acted, even in a small way, together, providing us with the best chance since the end of the Cold War to achieve a less militarized economy.

I recently co-authored an op-ed on this very subject with William Hartung, Director of the Common Defense Campaign at the Center for International Policy, that Cong. Ellison later asked to be included in the Congressional Record. The op-ed, “Don’t Cut Programs that Help Communities Adjust to Pentagon Spending Reductions,” argued that transition money is needed if we are to help communities dependent on the Pentagon’s inflated post-9/11 budget transition to a civilian economy as our defense spending ramps down.

Now that we are finally seeing the beginning of a modest defense downsizing, to keep the momentum going we’ll need to help these defense-dependent communities, workers, and, businesses in their transition — and most importantly,  ensure that funds are well spent in building a foundation for the peace economy our country needs and deserves.

What Piketty Forgot

(Dai Luo / Flickr)

(Dai Luo / Flickr)

By now, it’s no secret that French economist Thomas Piketty is one of the world’s leading experts on inequality. His exhaustive, improbably popular opus of economic history—the 700-page Capital in the Twenty-First Century—sat atop the New York Times bestseller list for weeks. Some have called it the most important study of inequality in over 50 years.

Piketty is hardly the first scholar to tackle the linkage of capitalism with inequality. What sets him apart is his relentlessly empirical approach to the subject and his access to never before used data—tax and estate records—that elegantly demonstrates the growing trends of income and wealth inequality. The database he has compiled spans 300 years in 20 different countries.

Exactingly empirical and deeply multidisciplinary, Capital is an extremely important contribution to the study of economics and inequality over the last few centuries. But because it fails to address the real limits on growth—namely our ecological crisis—it can’t be a roadmap for the next.

Inequality and Growth

One of the main culprits of inequality, according to Piketty (and Marx before him), is that investing large amounts of capital is more lucrative than investing large amounts of labor.Returns on capital can be thought of as the payments that go to a small fraction of the population—the investor class—simply for having capital.

In essence, the investor class makes money from money, without contributing to the “real economy.” Piketty demonstrates that after adjusting for inflation, the average global rate of return on capital has been steady, at about 5 percent for the last 300 years (with a few exceptions, such as the World War II years).

The rate of economic growth, on the other hand, has shown a different trend. Before the Industrial Revolution, and for most of our human history, economic growth was about 0.1 percent per year. But during and after the rapid industrialization of the global north, growth increased to a then-staggering 1.5 percent in Western Europe and the United States. By the 1950s and 1970s, growth rates began to accelerate in the rest of the world. While the United States hovered just below 2 percent, Africa’s growth rates caught up with America’s, while rates in Europe and Asia reached upwards of 4 percent.

But as Marx observed in the 19th century, economic growth did little to reduce inequality. In fact, as Piketty demonstrates, wealth has grown ever more concentrated in the hands of the few, even as the pie has gotten bigger. Piketty developed a simple formula to illustrate how wealth gets concentrated: when the average rate of return on capital (r) is greater than the rate of economic growth (g)—in mathematical terms, when r > g.

Through the 19th and early 20th centuries, according to Piketty, the rate of return on capital exceeded that of growth, and inequality blossomed in the industrialized world. But in the 1950s, this trend began to shift—not because of redistributive economic policies, but rather as a consequence of historical calamities in the preceding decades. During this time, aggressive social, economic, and tax policies were ushered in by devastation and destruction.

With these policies set in place, the recovery efforts after the Second World War accelerated growth, which for the first time in recent history exceeded the rate of return on capital—that is, g > r—creating a middle-class.

A Mistaken Model

This was the period when economists and policymakers developed a fetish for economic growth, thanks in part to Simon Kuznets, an influential Belarusian-American economist.

Looking at data spanning from 1913 to 1948, Kuznets concluded—mistakenly, according to Piketty—that in the aggregate, economic growth automatically reduces income inequality. Kuznets argued that a rising tide of industrialization would at first create greater inequality as populations were left behind, but once they began to adapt to the new economic conditions, they would eventually gain access to more wealth as they became fully integrated in the new economic model—in essence closing the wealth gap.

It turns out, though, that the rich just keep getting richer.

This misinterpretation helped justify a quest for perpetual economic growth and free markets, paving the way for massive industrialization, accelerated climate change, and widespread environmental destruction, while simultaneously neglecting the very issue Kuznets set out to address: reducing income inequality.

In Capital, Piketty rigorously applies Kuznets’ analysis to a larger dataset and debunks the argument for perpetual growth. Instead, Piketty concludes that industrialization without any enforceable progressive taxation has actually created greater inequality.

Piketty thus forces liberal and conservative economists alike to rethink their models of growth. But if growth isn’t the answer, what is?

The Limits of Growth

Piketty prescribes a few remedies. But he does not take into serious consideration the limits to growth. He is a traditional Keynesian in this regard, which may be his biggest flaw.

His main prescription—a “progressive tax on global capital”—assumes that a 2-5-percent global growth rate is sustainable in the long run and, with a redistribution of capital, will reduce inequality. However, he concedes that a progressive tax on global capital is utopian. So instead, he’ll settle for a “regional or continental tax” as the first step towards a progressive tax on global capital—starting in the European Union.

Piketty’s solutions focus more on taxing egregious levels of wealth concentration than on the systemic conditions that incentivize the desire to accumulate egregious amounts of capital in the first place. He seems to believe that pushing tax rates high enough will deter CEOs from pursuing millionaire salaries, and that this can be done without hindering growth. The first is unlikely, and the second misses the real problem with growth.

Piketty spends about four pages of his 700-page tome talking around the limits to growth, but he fails to adequately address the fact that limitless growth—i.e., consumption—is completely unsustainable on a finite planet. Recent reports from NASA, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the U.S. government’s National Climate Assessment conclude that the planet cannot continue on the same path of economic growth if it is to sustain human life.

What this means is that it doesn’t matter if we implement a progressive tax on capital because our planet will not sustain forever a growth rate of even 1 percent annually. A dead planet will support neither high earners nor tax collectors.

Towards a New Economy

All this leads to a larger conundrum.

On the one hand, we have extreme inequality, where many live on less than $2 a day while others have so much wealth that it would require several lifetimes to spend. On the other hand, we have a climate crisis that has imposed limits to growth, so we can’t grow our way into shared prosperity.

The traditional approach to inequality is to bring down those at the top while raising up those at the bottom. But to what level should we bring people, considering our finite planet?

Do we want everyone to live a mythical American middle-class lifestyle? Where every family of four lives in a two-car-garage home with a TV in every room, and every family member has a smart phone, tablet, and computer? Where they take a vacation to the other side of the globe once a year, and send their children away to a university and buy them a car when they are of age?

Is this the standard of living we want for every person on the planet? Obviously it can’t be—it would require at least five Earths.

Piketty is right that our political economy favors the growth of inequality, and that inequality in turn poisons our politics. But while we should aspire to create a society that shares its prosperity, we need to address a much bigger gap than the one between rich and poor. We need to address the gap between what’s demanded by our planet and what’s demanded by our economy.

At the center of the rapidly growing New Economy Movement are ecological balance, shared prosperity, and real democracy. If we can’t find a way to build all three, then the only economy worth measuring is the number of days we have left.

Thankfully, the New Economy Movement is seriously considering the four-fold systemic crisis—ecological, economic, social, and political—to identify a just transition to the next system. Piketty can show us part of the problem, but he can’t show us how to solve it on his own.

Obama Takes Important Step on Student Debt

(Flickr/Maryland GovPics)

(Flickr/Maryland GovPics)

On June 9, President Obama issued an executive order to ease the burden of student loan debt. The president directed the Secretary of Education to expand an existing law allowing students to cap their payments at no more than 10 percent of their monthly income.

The 2010 law, “Pay as You Earn,” applied only to those who took out a student loan after October 2007. The new regulations, which will take effect in December 2015, expand the program to those who took out loans prior to October 2007, and allow an estimated 5 million more borrowers to qualify for the lower monthly payments.

The President’s memorandum also outlined executive actions to support federal student loan borrowers who are at risk of defaulting.

In his remarks, President Obama expressed strong support for Senator Elizabeth Warren’s student loan bill, stating that his own executive order “makes progress, but not enough.”

Warren’s bill would refinance student loans at a much lower rate, cutting interest payments for many students in half. The bill would pay for the lower interest rates by adopting the Buffet Rule, which raises the marginal tax rate on income in excess of $1 million.

Though the executive order is modest, it signals a move in the right direction. The announcement comes at a key moment as Senator Warren’s bill is expected to be voted on in the Senate as early as Wednesday of this week.

The joint efforts by President Obama and Senator Warren also echo broader concerns about growing inequality. As Senator Warren put it, “Does this country protect millionaires’ and billionaires’ tax loopholes? Or does it try to help young people who are just starting their economic lives?”

Both of these measures are important steps that will relieve millions of student loan borrowers by lowering their monthly payments and interest rates, and protecting them against default. However, solving our student debt crisis in a lasting way will require holding universities accountable for keeping tuition costs down and allocating resources appropriately.

The staggering national student debt of $1.2 trillion has come at a time of rising inequality not only in the United States but also on college campuses. Our research shows that university presidents and administrators are making more money than ever as students go deeper into debt and permanent faculty are replaced with low-wage and temporary ones.

Universities that receive federal dollars should be required to reduce administrative spending and shift resources back to students and the quality of instruction.

Until both lawmakers and universities prioritize reinvesting in America’s young people, the student debt crisis isn’t going anywhere.

Talking Points: Obama’s Foreign Policy Speech vs. Obama’s Foreign Policy

(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Obama’s West Point graduation speech outlining his foreign policy had some pretty good stuff in it. Leadership doesn’t mean only military force. Just because you have a big hammer doesn’t mean everything is a nail. “A world of greater freedom and tolerance is not only a moral imperative; it also helps keep us safe.” It all sounded great. Just an hour or so later I discussed the speech on Al-Jazeera.

It was a pretty great speech that challenged much of the militarization of post-9/11 U.S. foreign policy—the problem is, like too many great speeches before, it has far too little to do with what the Obama administration actually does.

No question Ben Rhodes is a terrific speechwriter (though don’t get me started on what he doesn’t know as deputy national security adviser,) and Obama knows how to talk the talk. The problem isn’t the speech. The problem is the policy.

Obama was right to criticize the isolationism of “self-described realists” whose interest in the world starts and ends with what is useful for traditionally-defined U.S. interests — that is, mainly military and corporate ones. And he was right to criticize and address the “interventionists from the left and right” who believe that “America’s willingness to apply force around the world is the ultimate safeguard against chaos” — essentially, those who want to use force even more than he does.

But once again Obama didn’t answer his critics — also from the right and left, though most especially from the left — who are outraged at how much he and his administration are using military force, in far too many places, against far too many people, far too often, and far out of public sight.

The mainstream media was full of post-speech carping about Obama setting up a straw man when he accused others of wanting to send ground troops to Syria (or Ukraine, or Nigeria, or Thailand.) The real problem is not that he’s refusing to send ground troops — it’s that he is escalating the military conflicts by involving the U.S. military: providing weapons, supplies, planes and pilots, training, CIA counter-terrorism troops (the CIA now has its own fleet of armed planes, special forces in all but name), and looking for military solutions all over the world.

Obama was right to push back against critics who complain that the U.S. has lost its global leadership role because it hasn’t sent troops everywhere the warmongers wanted. He was right when he said that leadership doesn’t only mean military force. The problem is, though, U.S. leadership and credibility have been dramatically weakened because of too much, not too little military force. The direct U.S. military interventions that failed (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya); the U.S. search for military solutions even when they claim there are none (Syria); the continuing U.S. reliance on might-makes-right arguments (Guantanamo, the drone war); and the U.S. refusal to get out of the way to let other, more legitimate global institutions lead (Israel-Palestine) have all weakened U.S. global leadership.

Obama’s repeated statement that “there is no military solution” in Syria is belied by the CIA training rebel forces in Jordan, by U.S. allies being allowed to provide U.S.-produced weapons to the rebels, and by apparently imminent efforts to send U.S. shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. If the president believed there is no military solution in Syria, then he should stop supporting one side of this brutal civil war, call for an immediate ceasefire and immediate international arms embargo on all sides, and re-engage with Russia to figure out a diplomatic solution. The current progress in negotiations with Iran should lead to new engagement with Iran on the Syria crisis as well.

When Obama extols American exceptionalism and says, “What makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it is our willingness to affirm them through our actions,” he is simply wrong. It is precisely Washington’s ability — and willingness — “to flout international norms and the rule of law” that shows its exceptional military and economic power.

What other country could get away with violating sovereignty by using drone missiles to kill citizens of other countries — within those countries’ borders — because it claims the target of those drone strikes were “bad guys?” What if some other government decided that certain Americans in the U.S. were the bad guys and sent missiles to kill them? Affirming international norms and the rule of law means ending drone strikes and illegal invasions and bombing campaigns, not simply claiming they’re legal because it’s Washington that does it instead of Moscow or Beijing.

The president said he would “continue to push to close Gitmo” because U.S. values and legal traditions “do not permit the indefinite detention of people beyond our borders.” The problem is, that “indefinite detention” is now precisely what defines the values and legal traditions of our country. Like his predecessor, Obama has relied on memos drafted by his own lawyers, without oversight by any court, to reinterpret U.S. law by simply declaring things like assassination of American citizens “legal.” That’s the new American legal tradition.

It’s great to hear that the president describes his most important lesson in foreign affairs being “don’t do stupid shit,” meaning, don’t go to war like we did in Iraq. How does he not recognize, even ignoring the morality of the issue, that killing over 3,000 people by drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia — and antagonizing whole populations of restive countries by doing so — qualifies as “stupid shit?” If Congress balks at closing down Guantanamo, it sure sounds pretty stupid not to at least begin to show some leadership by freeing those long-term prisoners already cleared for release.

It’s not completely off-base to say that with Al-Qaeda’s leadership largely decimated, the U.S. (and many other countries) face danger from scattered bands of terrorists across the Middle East, South Asia, and parts of Africa. But what is completely wrong is the notion that somehow going to war can stop terrorism. For any who doubt it, 13 years of responding to the crime of September 11 with a limitless global war has unequivocally proved the point: Terrorism is a tactic, not an enemy, and it’s not possible to conquer terrorism with war. It doesn’t work — it hasn’t worked in Afghanistan (and won’t, with two and a half more years of U.S. war) or in Iraq, and it isn’t working in Yemen, Pakistan, or Somalia either. The U.S. never went to war against “terrorism” — it went to war against the land, people, economy, and environment of the countries it invaded. And still, terrorism has thrived.

President Obama reminded the world that, “As the Syrian civil war spills across borders, the capacity of battle-hardened extremist groups to come after us only increases.” It might have been more powerful if he acknowledged that many of those extremists first gained their battle-hardening experience in Iraq — fighting against the U.S. occupation and its Iraqi partners.

If Obama really believed that “respect for human rights is an antidote to instability and the grievances that fuel violence and terror,” wouldn’t he move to do something differently, something like renouncing — without waiting for Congress — the Authorization for the Use of Military Force that followed September 11? Wouldn’t he move to do something to show respect for human rights and international law, like joining the International Criminal Court or working to strengthen, instead of undermine, the United Nations?

The Afghanistan War Continues

Instead we now hear that the U.S. war in Afghanistan will go on for another two and a half years. How many more Afghans will die, be grievously wounded, be made refugees, by this occupation? How many more U.S. troops will come home with grave physical and psychological wounds? On the Real News I discussed why keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan won’t solve the problems that country faces after almost three decades of war and occupation: If 100,000 U.S. troops and 30,000 NATO troops didn’t bring peace, stability, democracy, development, or any of the other things we promised, keeping 10,000 troops there won’t do it either.

And we should not forget that the special forces troops who remain will have only one military job: to kill those the U.S. (based on who-knows-what intelligence) identifies as bad guys. That’s why we’re almost certainly going to see access to military bases as part of the agreement with Afghanistan — to keep the drone war going, to kill more bad guys. No pretense that “protecting Afghans” is somehow on the U.S. agenda, just straight-up counter-terrorism, plus training the Afghan military to do the same thing. Not such a great prospect for Afghan civilians.

The Afghan elections — the final round of voting is scheduled very soon — are not likely to have much impact on the war, except that both of the leading candidates have indicated their willingness to sign off on a Bilateral Security Agreement allowing U.S. troops to remain. We’ll see whether they can convince their parliament to guarantee full immunity for U.S. troops for any war crimes they might commit — the refusal of which was what led to the full troop withdrawal from Iraq. Both candidates have also recruited notorious warlords as running mates in the interest of winning various ethnic votes. I’ve been talking about that, and what has and hasn’t changed in Afghanistan — you can watch The Real News interview or listen to my discussion on FAIR’s Counterspin show.

A few weeks ago I wrote about a Washington event where I joined Iraq Veterans Against the War and veterans’ families to call for “the right to heal” — challenging the Pentagon’s longstanding habit of sending back to active duty soldiers diagnosed with PTSD or other traumatic brain injuries. But they went beyond the demand for better health care for veterans — an issue that remains at the top of the political agenda despite the dismissal of Eric Shinseki as head of Veteran’s Affairs — to include the call for real accountability and support for health care as well as more for the victims of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As our great congressional heroine Barbara Lee said last week, in response to President Obama’s announcement about keeping troops in Afghanistan through the end of 2016, “There is no military solution in Afghanistan.” That’s true now, and it will still be true in 2016. This just means 30 more months of U.S. war.

Syria: The War Still Expands

Syria’s multi-faceted civil war continues to expand, and conditions for Syrian civilians continue to deteriorate. In early May, the UN opened a new refugee camp for Syrians in Jordan with space for 130,000 people — 6,500 arrived just in the first month. When it reaches capacity — and unfortunately, it seems certain that it will — it will surpass the Zaatari camp in Jordan, already the second largest refugee camp in the world.

Reports of bombings, sieges, and killings continue. By May 29, the BBC reports that almost 3 million people have fled across Syria’s borders, one of the largest forced migrations since World War II. I talked about this humanitarian crisis and Syria’s six wars in the Real News. And after UN and Arab League special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi resigned in mid-May — in frustration with the world’s failure to do enough to stop the killing — I discussed the consequences of this decision for Syria on Al Jazeera.

So What Do We Do about Syria?

Of course it’s not enough to say the U.S. shouldn’t send missile strikes or arm one side of the civil war: We need a serious campaign to change U.S. policy towards Syria. Over the last several weeks, many of the leaders of national anti-war and peace and justice organizations have been meeting to figure out what our “ask” should be — what should we be demanding of our government? Out of these discussions, I wrote “5 Concrete Steps the US Can Take to End the Syria Crisis” for last week’s issue of The Nation.

Read it, add to it, use it as talking points for meeting with members of Congress, as the basis for letters to the editor, or as the beginning of new campaigns. We can’t allow Syria to slip away from our attention.

Good News with the Bad: Iran and Palestine

There is some good news, weirdly enough, on a couple of fronts not known for good tidings. On Iran, there are serious indications that the talks underway between Iran and the U.S. with its allies (known as the P-5 + 1, for the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) are going reasonably well. The fact that we’re not hearing a lot of debate and opposition in the Congress is actually a good sign.

Following last February’s interim agreement, the talks are shaped around Iran’s nuclear power program on one side and ending sanctions and Iran being taken seriously as a regional power on the other. The current deadline is July 20, but the interim agreement allows for a six-month extension — and both sides have an interest in making an effort. President Obama is desperate for some kind of foreign policy success, and a bargain with Iran — grand or not — would give a huge boost to his claimed commitment to diplomacy over force (even if he still falsely claims that only sanctions brought Iran to the table.) President Rouhani is under significant public pressure to get U.S. and United Nations sanctions lifted, and he still faces political challenges from other factions of Iran’s powerful ruling circles.

(It must be mentioned, but it’s not all good news: the Washington Post, rarely supportive of diplomacy with Iran, took their usual editorial position warning that a deal was unlikely — but then went further, reassuring readers that if a deal were somehow reached there would be “a strong check on any concessions made by the Obama administration. If Congress or Israel are dissatisfied, they may be able to scuttle the deal.” Really? If another country — Israel is not part of the P-5 + 1 — is “dissatisfied,” it might have equal status with the U.S. Congress to “scuttle the deal?” I’m torn between being pleased that the Post felt compelled finally to admit that possibility, or outraged that as usual they appear to think it’s a good thing.)

In Palestine, the Pope Replaces the Peace Process

The other good news has to do, first, with the collapse of the U.S.-orchestrated “peace process” between Israel and Palestine. After 23 years of failed diplomacy and nine months of intensive John Kerry-led talks with and between Palestinians and Israelis, the latest “Einstein Round” ended unceremoniously. (I’ve been calling this the “Einstein Round” based on the great scientist’s definition of crazy: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.)

The talks ended after Israel reneged on its earlier promise to release the last 29 of 104 prisoners, following that up with announcing its plans to build hundreds of new illegal settlement apartments. That’s all business-as-usual for Israeli occupation. The good news included the Palestinian response, which was to sign on to 15 human rights and other treaties and covenants, bringing Palestine into compliance with a wide range of international norms. What a contrast: Israel violates more agreements and more international laws, Palestinians respond with claiming international law as their own. And the U.S. responds that both sides have done unhelpful things. Great.

But, for a change, there was some good news when the White House and State Department made clear their view that, in fact, Israel was responsible for the talks’ collapse.

Kerry even used the term “apartheid” — and while he used it only in the sense of warning Israel that it could face a future as an apartheid state if it didn’t manage a two-state solution, rather than recognizing Israel today as an apartheid state — his very mention of the word reflected the change in U.S. discourse on the issue. As CNN reported it, “John Kerry wasn’t the first to use the A-word — apartheid — when talking about Israel, and he likely won’t be the last.” Of course his statement led to attacks and calls for Kerry’s resignation from Israel supporters in the U.S. and beyond, but there were no serious political consequences.

Discourse shifts are never enough, though. On the ground things have not changed for most Palestinians. Two young boys, 15-year-old Muhammad Abu Thahr and 17-year-old Nadim Nuwara, were killed by Israeli soldiers firing live ammunition at a protest outside Israel’s Ofer Prison in the occupied West Bank on May 15, Nakba Day, the day Palestinians commemorate their massive dispossession that accompanied the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. They were only the latest casualties of the occupation.

There is some cause for optimism regarding the Palestinian unity process that may result in a new technocratic government of national unity for the Palestinian Authority supported by both main factions, Fatah (that controls the PA in the West Bank) and Hamas (running the authority in Gaza.) It isn’t yet a full unity process — it remains unclear how Palestinians living inside Israel and the millions of Palestinian refugees scattered in far-flung exile will be included — but if it succeeds it represents a major step forward.

And then, finally, we had the Pope. Pope Francis went to Palestine and Israel, and — as we’ve seen so many times already in his shifting the church’s focus to the poor and dispossessed — here he made clear that he was not, as his predecessors have been, interested only in strengthening the Vatican’s ties to Israel. This time, it was all about the visuals — and that meant the extraordinary photograph of the Pope praying and leaning his head against the Apartheid Wall in Bethlehem splashed across the front pages of newspapers around the world.

I talked about it on The Real News and wrote about it for FPIF and The Nation last week — and since the Pope went to lay a wreath at his tomb, I got to include my favorite quote from Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. It’s the one from his letter to the infamous Cecil Rhodes (who conquered much of Africa for the British Crown) in which Herzl begs Rhodes to join his project for a European Jewish state in Palestine because it is “something colonial.”

He should know.

Student Debt Report Captures National Attention

Crushing College Dreams

Indentured Student (DonkeyHotey/Flickr)

IPS’ recent report, “The One Percent at State U” examines the 25 state universities that paid out the most in executive compensation from 2005 to 2012, and found that executive pay at these schools reached an average of nearly $1 million by 2012 while student debt and low-wage faculty rose much faster than national averages.

Since release, the report has garnered significant attention in prominent national media outlets. Coverage has included articles in The New York Times, TIME, CBS Moneywatch, and Bloomberg, and was also featured in Gawker and The Nation.

“Why should students and faculty — and everyone who cares about them — pay close attention to the upward spiral of such salaries?” asked report authors Marjorie Wood and Andrew Erwin in their Los Angeles Times op-ed. “Because according to our research, these highest-paid presidents are more likely to preside over public universities where student debt is growing fastest and the number of full-time faculty is shrinking.”

The report also resulted in a New York Times editorial on May 23, 2014. Using the report’s findings, the Editorial Board concluded: “Confronted with punishing state budget cuts, the public colleges and universities that educate more than 70 percent of this country’s students have raised tuition, shrunk course offerings and hired miserably paid, part-time instructors who now form what amounts to a new underclass in the academic hierarchy. At the same time, some of those colleges and universities are spending much too freely on their top administrators.”

The report and an infographic of its findings have also become important resources to organizations working to eliminate inequality in higher education institutions, including SEIU’s Adjunct Action Campaign, the New Faculty Majority, the Lecturers’ Employee Organization, Jobs with Justice, and the Student Labor Action Project.

For more information, or to read the full report, visit “The One Percent at State U.”

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