Category Archives: Parallel Universes

The NRA’s Opposition to Bloomberg and its Implications for Education Reform

Members of the National Rifle Association criticized Lord Michael Bloomberg at their annual conference in St. Louis this past Friday. Bloomberg has been outspoken in his support of gun control. While I have little sympathy with the NRA, their criticisms put a finger on something important:

“I think Mayor Bloomberg is the epitome of the nanny state, of the elite executives that want to control everything and control people’s lives,” he (an NRA member) said.

A statement Bloomberg made in February illustrates the arrogant and out of touch way he handles sensitive issues:

“The NRA’s leaders weren’t even interested in public safety,” Bloomberg told The News this week. “They were interested in promoting a culture where people take the law into their own hands and face no consequences for it.”

That is a thick and curious statement. To be sure, “Stand your ground” laws are reprehensible. However, I think the goal of the NRA leaders is to prop up the weapons industry. Saying that they want to promote “a culture where people take the law into their own hands and face no consequences for it” falls short of the mark. The talk about “consequences” feeds into criticisms about Bloomberg’s association with the “nanny state”. He is all about using his power to hold people “accountable” for doing things and making choices with which he does not agree.

The states that have Stand your Ground laws are, by and large, those with a healthy streak of mistrust for the state. In a perverted way, the voters who support these laws do have a concern with public safety. They do not trust the government’s ability to protect them from crime, so they will protect themselves. That is not to say lawmakers and lobbyists believe it. Their goal is to keep guns rolling out of factories. They have clad these Stand your Ground laws in a cloak of rugged individualism as a way to sell them to voters.

Gun enthusiasts are fond of quoting the second amendment, not to mention isolated passages from Thomas Jefferson and other Founding Fathers. The belief is that the Second Amendment allows people to bear arms as a way to protect against the tyranny of the state. Indeed, when you couple Bloomberg’s support for gun control with his support for stop and frisk and his statements about the NYPD being his own personal army, it would seem the gun enthusiasts are onto something.

But it is pretty clear that the second amendment was a way to preclude the need for standing armies. The Founders saw standing armies as tools of monarchal tyranny. Having citizen-soldiers in the tradition of Greek hoplites was seen as the proper way for a republic to defend itself. It seems this is what the Founders meant when they portrayed the citizens’ right to bear arms as a defense against the tyranny of government.

The fact is that, in 2012, we do have a standing army. We also have militarized police forces like the NYPD. No matter how many automatic weapons the populace owns, it will not prevent an organized and well-armed military force from having their way if the time comes.

The fact of the matter is, the government does not need to impose martial law or send tanks down Main Street to oppress us. They are doing a good enough job of that through legislation, executive orders and Supreme Court rulings. While the state has become more draconian over the past 35 years, they have done so at the behest of the corporate. Through the control of the media, finance, technology and every other facet of human life, corporations have organized society in such a way that martial law becomes unnecessary.

So when members of the NRA talk about Bloomberg’s association with the nanny state, they put their finger on something. His support of gun control, his education policy, his quality of life initiatives all represent an arrogant paternalism. However, it is not the paternalism of the state exclusively. It is the paternalism of corporatized government. It is the idea that people cannot run their own lives and need business to organize life for them. That is what charter schools are all about. That is why Bloomberg stops short of criticizing the role of gun manufacturers in the NRA.

People on the correct side of the education reform debate may have to make some strange alliances. One of those alliances will have to be with the states’ rights part of the electorate. As more states promise to sign on to Obama’s Race to the Top we will see more blowback from people, mostly in the south and west, who oppose it on grounds that it is a gross federal overreach. We have seen this play out in South Carolina’s rejection of RTT.

The common ground between advocates of public education and members of the political right is the belief in community input into public schools. The tragedy of mayoral control in New York City is how far it has taken us from democratic oversight of education policy. Since the 1960s, local communities in NYC have been prevented from having any say in the schools that serve them. The last vestige of democracy was the popularly elected Board of Education. That was done away with when Bloomberg created the Panel for Educational Policy, the majority of whose members vote the way Mayor for Life Bloomberg wants them to.

Race to the Top represents the paternalism of mayoral control writ large. The fact that states have to sign on to the program is a subterfuge. It gives the illusion of respecting the idea of states’ rights and the traditional role state governments have played as leaders of their own education systems. In truth, once a state signs on to RTT they have abdicated all control of education policy to Uncle Arne in Washington. They must open up more charter schools and evaluate teachers based on data-driven nonsense, or else they do not get federal funding.

America’s schools have never been so top-heavy before. Starting with the president but working its way down to governors, mayors and principals, school systems have been given over to increasing centralization. This runs counter to every educational tradition in the United States. These are the points we must make in order to reach across the aisle to those on the political right. We all want to give communities more control over education policy, since each community knows best how to serve their unique student population.

This is an alliance fraught with difficulty. It has the potential to founder on issues of class and race. Libertarian-minded voters might not mind the corporate aspects of education reform and all of the million-dollar contracts it entails. Community control in places like NYC means giving mostly minority communities a say in education policy. However, areas of the south have used the concept of local school control as a way to bar minorities from equal educational opportunities. These are the major fault lines that would develop in an alliance between us and the political rights.

It is still an alliance worth exploring. The movement known as education reform has so much traction because it is bipartisan. Only a bipartisan counter-attack would have a chance of standing up to education reform. There is room for such a counter-attack if we stick to the themes that unite us for now.

The New York Post’s Old Racism (And Micah Lasher, Not-So-Closet Racist)

New York City has always had a nasty racist streak.

The NYC Draft Riots during the Civil War were conducted by mostly working class Irish immigrants who did not want to be part of a struggle to free slaves. Freed blacks would make their way up north and compete with them for jobs, the thinking went. Blacks were under siege across the city, including the black orphanage that had to protect their charges by sending them out into the middle of the Hudson River in boats until the violence subsided.

William F. Buckley used the city’s rising crime rate as a way to pander to racist sentiment in his losing 1965 mayoral bid. He accused liberals of coddling criminals by using poverty as an excuse. Even though he did not win, he used his race-baiting tactics later to block the establishment of a civilian review board of the New York City Police Department. It was a foreshadowing of the coded racism that would define Reagan’s “welfare queens” and George Bush Sr.’s Willie Horton ads.

Mark Green, who used to be a perennial candidate for NYC mayor, came under fire in 2001 when people associated with his campaign released flyers of Fernando Ferrer kissing a certain part of Al Sharpton’s anatomy. They were released in the mostly white areas of South Brooklyn. Although Green was cleared of any wrongdoing, it hurt his image within the city’s minority community.

And who was responsible for this racist campaign flyer? None other than Micah Lasher, former chief DOE lobbyist and current head of the Michelle Rhee corporate shill group StudentsFirstNY.

From a 2003 Observer article:

Occasionally, though, he’ll let loose with a bean ball-as in the 2001 Democratic Mayoral primary, during which Mr. Lasher worked for Mark Green’s campaign. Mr. Lasher was one of the staffers behind a campaign flyer which reprinted a New York Post cartoon showing Mr. Green’s opponent, Fernando Ferrer, bussing the formidable butt of Al Sharpton. The flyer somehow made its way into largely white neighborhoods. It became a cause célèbre in a bitter campaign, and Mr. Lasher had to deal with volleys of criticism.

And there is the direct link between corporate education reform and the racist agenda that supports it.

His connection with Andrew Cuomo also has deep roots:

In 2002, Mr. Lasher joined Andrew Cuomo’s gubernatorial campaign team as the state field director. Mr. Cuomo withdrew days before the scheduled primary contest with Carl McCall, but Mr. Lasher developed more contacts-particularly with Josh Isay, Mr. Cuomo’s campaign manager. The two formed a political consultancy firm afterward, Isay/Lasher Communications, now called KnickerbockerSKD.

The Billionaire Boys’ Club has a tight, racist circle: Bloomberg, Rhee, Cuomo, The Post and Micah Lasher. The common thread among them all is a disdain for minority communities.

This is the type of NYC-style, dog whistle racism in which the New York Post continuously gets involved. Back in 2009, they ran this cartoon of police officers shooting a chimpanzee. It was located on a page that directly followed a picture of President Obama signing his stimulus bill.

The Post eventually had to apologize for the cartoon.

That did not stop the Post from exploiting the tensions surrounding the Trayvon Martin shooting. Who can forget this horrendous front page?

Despite the fact that there were also white lawmakers in Albany who had worn hoods in support of Trayvon Martin, the Post chose to run this cover that depicted the black leaders involved as “race hustlers”.

This is the real race card in our day and age.

It is also why the Post has been a cheerleader of the Education Deform movement. Much like William F. Buckley refused to excuse criminal behavior with the structural reailties of poverty, the Post toes the “no excuses” line for public schooling. It is why they celebrate the harsh discipline of mostly minority students in charter schools. It is also why they celebrate the bashing of teachers.

After all, if teachers are not allowed to use the “excuse” of poverty to explain why their students do not necessarily do well on bubble-in exams, then these failures must be due to the teachers.

The ghouls at the Post even stooped so low as to do a story on the “worst teacher in the city”, Pascale Mauclai. Despite the fact that Ms. Mauclai has an unblemished record and her principal adores her as a dedicated educator, Post reporters showed up at her house with telescopic lenses in their quest to publicly shame her. One can only hope that Ms. Mauclai sues the Post for defamation.

Did the fact that Pascale Mauclai is a black woman play a role in their vitriol?

Let’s put it this way, I doubt there would be as much venom behind the Post’s attack if the “worst teacher in the city” were a young, white Teach for America alum.

The Post is a regular cheerleader of Bloomberg’s whitening policy for New York City. His bike-lane-drawing, public-school-closing, stop-and-frisking regime has met with approbation from Murdoch’s wire-tapping media empire. There has not been any mention of the declining black population or the disappearing black educator in the Post’s or any other major media outlet’s pages.

There are no more excuses for the New York Post. They appeal to the basest elements in New York City. NYC schools currently get free delivery of the NY Post. Is this the type of publication to which we want to expose our students, especially considering that so many of our students are minorities?

If the Post refuses to respect the bounds of human decency, then perhaps the union that the Post hates so much should push to have the NY Post banned from NYC schools.

The Third World in America

Having grown up in a poor, single-mother household in the inner city, stories like these about America 2012 are heartbreaking:

“Esmeralda Murillo, a 21-year-old mother of two, lost her welfare check, landed in a shelter and then returned to a boyfriend whose violent temper had driven her away. “You don’t know who to turn to,” she said.

Maria Thomas, 29, with four daughters, helps friends sell piles of brand-name clothes, taking pains not to ask if they are stolen. “I don’t know where they come from,” she said. “I’m just helping get rid of them.”

To keep her lights on, Rosa Pena, 24, sold the groceries she bought with food stamps and then kept her children fed with school lunches and help from neighbors. Her post-welfare credo is widely shared: “I’ll do what I have to do.”

For all of the progress of the women’s rights movement, it still has not stopped the feminization of poverty.

It is unconscionable that someone, especially a woman with a child, would have to live on 2 dollars an hour:

“Among the Arizonans who lost their checks was Tamika Shelby, who first sought cash aid at 29 after fast-food jobs and a stint as a waitress in a Phoenix strip club. The state gave her $176 a month and sent her to work part time at a food bank. Though she was effectively working for $2 an hour, she scarcely missed a day in more than a year.

“I loved it,” she said.

Her supervisor, Michael Cox, said Ms. Shelby “was just wonderful” and “would even come up here on her days off.”

Then the reduced time limit left Ms. Shelby with neither welfare nor work. She still gets about $250 a month in food stamps for herself and her 3-year-old son, Dejon. She counts herself fortunate, she said, because a male friend lets her stay in a spare room, with no expectations of sex. Still, after feeding her roommate and her child, she said, “there are plenty of days I don’t eat.”

“I know there are some people who abuse the system,” Ms. Shelby said. “But I was willing to do anything they asked me to. If I could, I’d still be working for those two dollars an hour.”

The increased poverty during the Great Recession is largely due to Clinton’s welfare reform gambit. Passed in 1996, “ending welfare as we know it” went a long way in winning Clinton a second term. Clinton achieved his short-term goal of reelection. Now we are living with the long-term consequences.

We have spent more on corporate welfare than on any type of assistance to poor people. Since 1996, corporate welfare is the only game in town. In fact, the corporate welfare state continues to expand with no end in sight. Through the Bush Tax Cuts, Obamacare, war and prison contractors, agricultural subsidies and charter schools, public funds are being handed off to the wealthy at an alarming clip. The country does not blink twice over these things.

Yet, when it comes to helping the neediest people in the country, we are met with comments like this which can be found below the article:

“What is the real problem here? We have a 29-year-old woman (Maria Thomas) who has four children she obviously can’t support. And she’s hardly alone. No one should keep having babies they can’t afford to raise. Why should I have to pay to help raise someone else’s kids?

This irresponsible breeding is the number one social problem in the United States today. Everyone has a “right” to have children. But no one should have the right to produce children and then make the rest of us pay to raise them.

I’m not against helping someone who has fallen on hard times get back on their feet. But we must find a way to persuade people who can’t afford a family to stop having children.”

But we are paying to raise other people’s children and we do it all of the time. It just so happens that we mostly pay for the children of the 1%.

The real issue here is that people associate poverty with being a minority. Americans should just cut to the chase and say they do not want to pay for black and Hispanic women and children.

Just do not complain when the people you have forced into desperation do things like this:

“Several women said the loss of aid had left them more dependent on troubled boyfriends. One woman said she sold her child’s Social Security number so a relative could collect a tax credit worth $3,000.

“I tried to sell blood, but they told me I was anemic,” she said.

Several women acknowledged that they had resorted to shoplifting, including one who took orders for brand-name clothes and sold them for half-price. Asked how she got cash, one woman said flatly, “We rob wetbacks” — illegal immigrants, who tend to carry cash and avoid the police. At least nine times, she said, she has flirted with men and led them toward her home, where accomplices robbed them.

“I felt bad afterwards,” she said. But she added, “There were times when we didn’t have nothing to eat.”

But then this will be used as further proof that the poor are somehow immoral people mired in a base “culture of poverty”. This is then used as further justification to end “dependency” and further cut back on benefits.

Oh, what a sick society in which we live.

It would not be so sad if we were not also a so-called religious society. We had a president for 8 years who wore his Christianity on his sleeve and presided over one of the sharpest increases in the gap between rich and poor ever seen.

We do not have to look halfway around the globe for the Third World. The Third World is here. The Third World is living on 2 dollars an hour, pushing people to do whatever it takes to put food in their families’ stomachs. The Third World is mired in superstition, whether it is the superstition of organized religion or the superstition of economics.

There was once a president who promised a “chicken in every pot”. Now our president has no problem with taking those chickens out of pots through proposing slashes to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. When those presidents are supposedly from the same party, then we are in a world of trouble.

We should pay for other people’s children because they are our children. If you do not pay for them now you will end up paying for them later, only at a much higher price to both our wallets and our social fabric.

The Obama Question

The postmortem on Obama’s first term has already started. He is, at turns, a radical socialist, a corporatist or the greatest president the 21st century has seen.

This is the mark of a great politician. Ever since his 2008 presidential bid, people have read into Obama’s words and actions wildly different things. Noam Chomsky called Obama a “blank slate” on which people can project their greatest hopes or fears.

Obama doubtless fancies himself as another Lincoln. Like the Great Emancipator, he is an Illinois-based politician who faced stiff competition in his own party from a successful Senator from New York. After fending off that challenge, he appointed Hillary as Secretary of State much like Lincoln did with William Seward.

Unfortunately, being a great politician does not necessarily make him a good leader. Through the Emancipation Proclamation and Gettysburg Address, Lincoln was able to move the country towards a new consensus. Obama, on the other hand, goes where the consensus already is: the mainstream center.

We see this clearly in the analysis of Andrew Sullivan, one of Obama’s staunchest supporters in the media. Sullivan is a self-described conservative and regular contributor to The Daily Beast:

“But Obama did several things at once: he continued the bank bailout begun by George W. Bush, he initiated a bailout of the auto industry, and he worked to pass a huge stimulus package of $787 billion.

All these decisions deserve scrutiny. And in retrospect, they were far more successful than anyone has yet fully given Obama the credit for. The job collapse bottomed out at the beginning of 2010, as the stimulus took effect. Since then, the U.S. has added 2.4 million jobs. That’s not enough, but it’s far better than what Romney would have you believe, and more than the net jobs created under the entire Bush administration. In 2011 alone, 1.9 million private-sector jobs were created, while a net 280,000 government jobs were lost. Overall government employment has declined 2.6 percent over the past 3 years. (That compares with a drop of 2.2 percent during the early years of the Reagan administration.) To listen to current Republican rhetoric about Obama’s big-government socialist ways, you would imagine that the reverse was true. It isn’t….

You’d think, listening to the Republican debates, that Obama has raised taxes. Again, this is not true. Not only did he agree not to sunset the Bush tax cuts for his entire first term, he has aggressively lowered taxes on most Americans. A third of the stimulus was tax cuts, affecting 95 percent of taxpayers; he has cut the payroll tax, and recently had to fight to keep it cut against Republican opposition. His spending record is also far better than his predecessor’s. Under Bush, new policies on taxes and spending cost the taxpayer a total of $5.07 trillion. Under Obama’s budgets both past and projected, he will have added $1.4 trillion in two terms. Under Bush and the GOP, nondefense discretionary spending grew by twice as much as under Obama. Again: imagine Bush had been a Democrat and Obama a Republican. You could easily make the case that Obama has been far more fiscally conservative than his predecessor—except, of course, that Obama has had to govern under the worst recession since the 1930s, and Bush, after the 2001 downturn, governed in a period of moderate growth. It takes work to increase the debt in times of growth, as Bush did. It takes much more work to constrain the debt in the deep recession Bush bequeathed Obama.”

If Obama was the radical socialist that Republicans paint him as, at least it would be a show of bold leadership. What is telling throughout Sullivan’s analysis is how he is celebrated for how temperate and moderate he is. His stimulus prevented a further spiral of unemployment, but did not necessarily spark a recovery. Given the way we count unemployment today, where people who have given up looking for work are simply no longer counted, the luster of these statistics takes a hit. It does not even touch on the issue of underemployment. Merely citing that private sector jobs were created, without analyzing what types of jobs these are, does not paint a full picture of the impacts of Obama’s stimulus.

About one-third of the Obama stimulus was in the form of tax cuts. Is there a direct correlation between these tax cuts and the bottoming out of the unemployment rate? Maybe, but Sullivan never draws the connection. Sullivan also celebrates Obama’s ability to keep the deficit in check. Throughout the 20th century, the instances of keeping the deficit in check while digging the country out of an economic hole are rare. Hoover tried to balance the budget while providing stimulus during the Great Depression, with little benefit. Why is keeping the budget in check such a victory for Obama?

It is because Sullivan’s analysis works from a pragmatic framework of what he believes are political realities. His overall thesis, which is the main thesis of Obama supporters across the country, is that Obama has been wildly successful given what he inherited and the toxic political culture in Washington. Obamacare is the greatest symbol of this thesis:

“The great conservative bugaboo, Obamacare, is also far more moderate than its critics have claimed. The Congressional Budget Office has projected it will reduce the deficit, not increase it dramatically, as Bush’s unfunded Medicare Prescription Drug benefit did. It is based on the individual mandate, an idea pioneered by the archconservative Heritage Foundation, Newt Gingrich, and, of course, Mitt Romney, in the past. It does not have a public option; it gives a huge new client base to the drug and insurance companies; its health-insurance exchanges were also pioneered by the right. It’s to the right of the Clintons’ monstrosity in 1993, and remarkably similar to Nixon’s 1974 proposal. Its passage did not preempt recovery efforts; it followed them. It needs improvement in many ways, but the administration is open to further reform and has agreed to allow states to experiment in different ways to achieve the same result. It is not, as Romney insists, a one-model, top-down prescription. Like Obama’s Race to the Top education initiative, it sets standards, grants incentives, and then allows individual states to experiment. Embedded in it are also a slew of cost-reduction pilot schemes to slow health-care spending. Yes, it crosses the Rubicon of universal access to private health care. But since federal law mandates that hospitals accept all emergency-room cases requiring treatment anyway, we already obey that socialist principle—but in the most inefficient way possible. Making 44 million current free-riders pay into the system is not fiscally reckless; it is fiscally prudent. It is, dare I say it, conservative.”

Obamacare was the best possible outcome given the political realities of the time. The last sentence is very telling, where Sullivan refers to Obamacare as “conservative”.

No word better describes Obama’s presidency. A president who has volunteered to slash Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security would normally be labeled as politically conservative. But Obama has been conservative in the sense that he does not make political gambles. Defending a public option would have been such a gamble, probably a successful one if Obama were to get behind it. Obama’s style, in both the domestic and foreign policy fields, is one where he leads from behind. He allows the political circumstances to dictate his major policies. This might be good politics, but it is poor leadership.

Many progressives have turned against Obama because of this style. The sense is that he has sold out the most cherished progressive values of the Democratic Party. Sullivan makes the point for the progressives against which he rails when he celebrates all of the great conservative things Obama has accomplished. This is exactly the point. The progressives who voted for him did so to break out of the conservative trap in which the nation has been caught over the past 35 years. Dare I say, this is what progressives heard when Obama recited the word “change” over and over again. Where is the change if we are stuck with the same conservatism that has defined the post-Reagan era?

Again, this speaks to Obama’s brilliance as a politician. Those that knew of his days at Harvard and his brief stint in the Senate realized that Obama was no progressive. He never promised to be one. Yet, they saw a candidate who was challenging the Clinton machine, a name associated with the sellout of progressive values. They heard the words “hope” and “change” and took it to mean a promise to dismantle the Reagan Revolution. They cited his opposition to the Iraq War and used it as a sign of his bona fides as a true Ted Kennedy Democrat. Essentially, they saw what they wanted to see in Obama. Meanwhile, Obama did nothing to disabuse them of their delusion.

A president who wins in a thorough landslide, whose party takes overwhelming control of Congress and who mobilizes people to turn out who would not normally do so usually has an enormous mandate for leadership. While fighting for a public option or a bigger stimulus or to defend programs for the poor would not have been easy, it still would have been possible. He would have held the cards. Just like Lincoln nudged the country, as well as himself, to accept the idea of emancipation, Obama could have nudged the country ever further to the left. Lord knows he has the rhetorical gifts to do it.

And this is where Sullivan misses the point of the progressive criticism of Obama. He had the opportunity to fight for real change, to lead the country wherever he wanted it to go, and he brought it to a place little different from where John McCain might have brought it. He used his enormous political capital to solidify the Democratic Party’s role as another “conservative” party. This damage is worse than anything any Republican could have done. It has been the type of change that has extinguished all hope for a progressive renaissance of the Democratic Party.

Obama supporters like Sullivan will never understand this. Progressives across the country are fed up with political “centrists”, the people who look at the political landscape the way it is now and believe in a middle course. That middle is far to the right of where it used to be. Obama’s policies have seen to it that the center will drift to the right further still. Sullivan calls Obama’s progressive supporters “purists”, as if having deeply held beliefs about social justice and helping the poor is a filthy thing. I suppose none of us should have any real values at all and allow the middle of whatever the political spectrum happens to be act as our guide.

Ironically, Sullivan, who is gay, does not believe Obama has done enough for gay rights in the United States. Whether he has or has not is still up for debate. However, the ending of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the wave of gay marriage reforms across the country are signs of progress in the area of gay rights, progress that we have not seen in other areas of concern to progressive voters. While gay rights still has a long way to go, it is ridiculous to decry Obama for not providing enough leadership on the issue while accepting his conservative stance on unemployment and poverty. It is tough to see the consistency in Sullivan’s celebration of Obama’s lead from behind approach while criticizing him for not being enough of a front line fighter for gay rights.

A recent article expresses the frustration with the Obama presidency:

“Obama’s willingness to bargain away core progressive values of the Democratic Party in a deficit-reduction deal comes after his meltdown on a large range of issues dear to progressives: His unconditional support for Bush’s Wall Street bailout; his escalation of the Afghanistan War; his acceptance of Bush-era limits on civil liberties; his shift from supporting the healthcare public option and opposing individual mandates during the 2008 campaign to subverting the public option and backing individual mandates in 2009; his extension of the Bush tax cuts for the rich (in exchange for Republicans allowing an extension of unemployment benefits and aid to cash-strapped states); his withdrawal of strong EPA rules on clean air; his gratuitous attacks on “the professional Left.”

At times it has seemed that Obama went out of his way to attack progressives and undermine progressive programs in order to prove he was truly the post-partisan president he claimed to be. Indeed, as I and Andrew Sullivan have previously argued, the evidence is pretty conclusive that Obama has governed as a conservative.”

This is probably why the Republican Party has seemingly gone out of its way to self-destruct during its long primary season. No matter who gets nominated, they will not be able to institute conservative policies any better than Obama.

The Secularist’s Rise

Atheists gathered this past Saturday in Washington, D.C. for what they called the “Reason Rally”. The purpose, according to a quote in this article, was to show America that “we are here and we will never be silenced again.”

An estimated 30,000 people of diverse backgrounds showed up. It was a heartening turnout for what is becoming a necessary cause in the United States of America.

Since the end of the 1960s, a Christian fundamentalist movement has been afoot. There were wide swaths of the population who were disoriented by the changes of that era. Technology, morals, politics and everything else were undergoing rapid change. Religion provided solid answers and stability amidst these changes.

The simplicity of fundamentalism made it a great vehicle for political organization. We started seeing signs of this with the election of Jimmy Carter, who wore his religion on his sleeve and even in his policies. Through televangelism, Jesus camps and church organization, southern-style Christianity became a form of political activism. The Culture Wars of the early 1990s provided the fertile ground needed to turn the Democrats out of Congress and elect a crop of very Christian Republicans. This bore fruit later with Clinton’s impeachment and the election of George W. Bush.

Since this time, we have seen attacks on women’s reproductive rights, homosexuals and Muslims. We have taken to seriously debating the merits between creation and evolution, as if they occupy the same intellectual plane. We have become a country where policies inspired by a small but organized group of Christian fundamentalists impact the lives of everyone around the world.

Around this trend is the rise of a counter narrative of American history that portrays the Founding Fathers as intolerant Christians. Although the Founders talked a lot about God, it was the God of Enlightenment Deism that ruled their day. It was a mechanical God, a “watchmaker” as Isaac Newton would say, under which they lived. It was a God that had created the universe and then walked away, allowing humans to use their brains to divine the underlying laws of nature.

So, it is necessary that the secularists gathered in the nation’s capital over the weekend. Unbelievers need to show that they can be a political force as well. Leaders need to see that there is a base of very organized, very vocal Americans who feel attacked by religious fundamentalism.

At the same time, secularists need to take care of not falling into the trap of the fundamentalists. It is very easy to be dogmatic. My own views on religion are complex. I am more agnostic than anything. There is a danger of falling into dogma whether you are a believer or unbeliever. What the secularists are fighting against is the intolerance, the demagoguery, the arrogance of Christian fundamentalism. We should be careful not to replace religious dogmatism with secular dogmatism.

What we should be fighting for is a free and open society. There are atheists who are just as demeaning as fundamentalists. Faith in science can be just as severe and unyielding as faith in God. Our aim should not to be severe, but to be free.

Bloomberg’s Idea of Community

Bloomberg says the hungry eat enough already.

As if anyone needed any more proof that Bloomberg was bent on destroying anything related to community-building in New York City, the New York Post reports this:

So much for serving the homeless.

The Bloomberg administration is now taking the term “food police” to new depths, blocking food donations to all government-run facilities that serve the city’s homeless.

In conjunction with a mayoral task force and the Health Department, the Department of Homeless Services recently started enforcing new nutritional rules for food served at city shelters. Since DHS can’t assess the nutritional content of donated food, shelters have to turn away good Samaritans.

Anyone who needs a crash course in how to sterilize communities just needs to follow the Michael Bloomberg playbook:

a) Destroy large public schools that served communities for over 100 years and replace them with small gimmick and corporate charter schools.

b) Kick out the poorest and neediest religious congregations from school buildings under the guise of protecting church-state separation.

c) Institute “stop and frisk” and use the police department as your own personal army.

d) Prevent all food donations to the homeless.

Of course, all of these policies have to be clad in a concern for the people. Shutting down “failing schools” is good.  Protecting the sanctity of church-state separation is good. “Stop and frisk” protects the city from terrorism. Those food donations are too high in sodium for the starving people of the city. Only his cronies are capable of dolling out highly nutritious slop, since independent donations might reduce the need for millionaire food contractors.

We are living in a completely authoritarian and corporatized fiefdom run by a man who sees himself as a feudal lord. And why not? Like many other lords, he bought his title fair and square.

Occupy Outer Space

Elon Musk, visionary, hero or deity?

Last night, “60 Minutes” kicked off the show with a story entitled “Space X: Entrepreneur’s Race to Space”. The story featured Elon Musk, head of a company called Space X, who the story lauds as a visionary in the field of space travel. Musk envisions his company making regular space flights to the point where it becomes affordable and widespread. He wants the human race to be interplanetary colonizers because it is obvious that the earth on which we currently live is headed for doom. Currently, Musk has a $1.6 billion contract to make regular trips to the international space station. He is the only private contractor to send a spacecraft into orbit and retrieve it.

This segment was very similar to the segment 60 Minutes aired last week about Salman Khan. They both tell stories about visionaries with big plans for humankind. Both of these visionaries work out of the private sector. They both hope to transform functions currently handled by moribund government bureaucracies.  Both stories tugged at the heart strings, painting their respective stars as selfless servants of the human race. Both stories only made glancing mention of their critics, who were dismissed out of hand as close-minded curmudgeons.

Musk has received criticism from Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan, the first and last men on the moon. Musk was shown towards the end of the segment with tears in his eyes over the fact that his “heroes” have been so dead-set against his visionary company. He cannot understand why they do not see that Space X represents the future of space travel. It would be tough for anyone to see why they would have a problem with Space X if all they had to go on was this 15 minute segment.

While space travel is not my area of expertise, it seems that Armstrong and Cernan are concerned about its corporatization. They testified before Congress last year that they believed the Obama administration lacks vision when it comes to the space race. Obama has put the government’s money on private contractors like Space X to make regular space flights to the International Space Station. For two guys who landed on the moon thanks to a massive government investment in science and technology, Obama’s program “destines our nation to become one of second- or even third-rate stature”, in the words of Neil Armstrong.

Gutting NASA in favor of privatizing the space program was a trend that started under Bush 43. With all of the celebration of Elon Musk as a visionary, the truth is that the private sector revolves around turning profits. What Armstrong and Cernan are getting at is the problem behind giving space travel over to the marketplace. They come from an era when space travel was a patriotic venture; something American citizens could get behind. Now it is being relegated to the domain of dollars and cents, with all of the corner-cutting that entails.

The biggest story of all is how people can still, after the last three decades of corporatocracy, claim that corporatizing a venerable public institution like NASA or the education system is tantamount to “progress”. There is nothing new under the sun here. Rather than a forward step, corporatizing space travel is an outgrowth of the same old worship of the private sector we have seen from both political parties and every major media outlet.

What the protests in Greece, the occupations around the United States and the upheaval in the Middle East have shown is that the next generation is crying out for something collective. They have been reared on the ethos of the private, of the bold CEO, of the visionary business leader and they see that it has led nowhere but inequality and repression.

Like the media so often does, they have turned the narrative on its head. While thousands of young people around the world are fighting to hold public space and build public institutions, 60 Minutes has shown that they know little more than the same old formulaic “visionary business leader” trope.

The youth are already starting to occupy education. Maybe the next occupation should be in outer space.

Before Michael Franti….

started walking barefoot and wearing dreadlocks, he was the vocalist for the rap group Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. I don’t think the group had anything more than a cult following, but the songs they put out have stood the test of time, like a lot of hip hop music from the early 90s era.

This is why hip hop has been corporatized into modern day rap music. The songs being made in the early 90s were becoming more and more subversive and reaching people in the inner cities that could not otherwise be reached. Now, the genre has largely become a bunch of chants celebrating mindless materialism and fantasies of being a “thug”.

Songs like these are certainly tough to come by nowadays:

The Spectre of Poverty

Bill Clinton ended “welfare as we knew it” in 1996. He did this by signing into law a program that replaced the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

According to Friday’s article in The Nation, under TANF:

“States were given wide discretion to determine eligibility, benefit levels and time limits, and the TANF block grant was also frozen at the 1996 level without being indexed to inflation so those dollars don’t go as far now. A majority of states now provide benefits at less than 30 percent of the poverty line (about $5,200 annually for a family of three), and benefits are below half the poverty line in every state.”

The thinking was that by throwing people off the welfare rolls and sending them out into the work force, they would be required to sink or swim. Those that stayed on the welfare rolls would have to do some sort of work to earn their benefits for the limited time the new law allowed them to collect. This was touted as a way to train people on welfare for the world of work.

It is tough to see how mopping hallways and cleaning streets prepares anyone for the world of work. It is symbolic of the twisted way we view poverty. We just assume that people in need are immoral drug addicts with bad values. Putting mops in their hands would show them what an honest day’s work would look like.

Having people do menial work in return for less than the bare necessities of life and human dignity is tantamount to slavery. The whole working for welfare to train people for the real world idea sounds an awful like what planters in the American south said about slavery. In this view, Africans and their descendants would learn civilization under the slave system. The slave owners were benevolent patriarchs, teaching their charges about how to live in white society.

Since welfare reform, life for the poor, especially poor women and children, has taken a turn for the worse. We refuse to revisit our decision because both parties have touted welfare reform as a success. They were touting it as a success even before the law was enacted. Clinton had vetoed similar versions of welfare reform twice before signing it the third time on the eve of his reelection bid. The economy was doing well, Republicans controlled Congress and welfare reform had become a timely and popular measure. Much like everything Clinton did, it was a political calculation.

So we signed the law, patted ourselves on the back and have lived in the delusion that welfare reform was a success ever since. It has been a success, if the goal was to merely kick people off of welfare:

“Prior to welfare reform, 68 of every 100 poor families with children received cash assistance through AFDC. By 2010, just 27 of every 100 poor families received TANF assistance.”

What about how welfare reform “improved” poverty:

“A stunning report released by the University of Michigan’s National Poverty Center reveals that the number of US households living on less than $2 per person per day—a standard used by the World Bank to measure poverty in developing nations—rose by 130 percent between 1996 and 2011, from 636,000 to 1.46 million. The number of children living in these extreme conditions also doubled, from 1.4 million to 2.8 million.

The reason? In short: welfare reform, 1996—still touted by both parties as a smashing success.

The report concludes that the growth in extreme poverty “has been concentrated among those groups that were most affected by the 1996 welfare reform.” The law created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant, replacing Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), which had guaranteed cash assistance to eligible families since 1935.”

And it has not been as if Congress could not have reversed its decision on welfare reform:

There was an opportunity recently in Congress to address, or partially address—or at the very least debate—the TANF debacle of sub-poverty benefits and declining caseloads. It wasn’t widely reported, but along with the payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance extensions, TANF was also up for reauthorization.

Congress not only took a pass on any serious debate, it threw a little gasoline on the fire.

It extended the TANF block grant through September 2012 but denied funding for the Supplemental Grants which go to seventeen mostly poor states. Dr. LaDonna Pavetti, vice president for family income support division at CBPP, notes that these supplements were created in 1996 because welfare reform resulted in poor states receiving “less than half as much federal funding per poor child as other states.”

“This wasn’t about money,” Pavetti told me. “The money’s already there in the TANF Contingency Fund. Congress could have done the exact same thing it did last year and redirected funds from the Contingency Fund to the Supplemental Grants. Total federal funding for TANF wouldn’t have changed a bit.”

We see the same thing happening with education reform. Both parties are on board behind a Democratic president who has promised to shake up the education system. There is no evidence that the standardized testing and chartering of our public schools has done anything to improve education. Yet, the reformers sit confident in smug satisfaction it all works. The mantra of “no excuses” abounds, whether in pushing people into the work force or judging students by test scores. When all is said and done, both parties will claim success in “reforming” schools.

What will this look like for the children of America? Perhaps similar to what welfare reform looks like for them now:

Jack Frech, director of the Athens County Department of Job and Family Services in Appalachian Ohio, where he has been doing this work since 1973, told me that the state has cracked down on people who fail to meet their thirty-hour weekly work requirement “and in the last six months or so they’ve driven at least 30,000 people off of assistance. The welfare caseload in Ohio is dropping rapidly. ”

He’s traveled throughout the county of late to see how conditions are changing.

“There’s a growing number of families out there—through the combination of time limits and sanctions—who have no cash whatsoever, they’re just surviving on food stamps,” he said. “The housing conditions—people are doubling, tripling up even in little trailers. These kids are hungry, they’re sleeping in chairs, or makeshift beds, crammed together. They can’t afford transportation—they’re stuck out in these communities with no way to go anywhere or do anything.”

Frech used to have funding to help with car repairs and transportation, but that’s mostly been cut. There is some gas money but that doesn’t help with the vehicle or insurance which few clients can afford after covering the basics. But if they can’t make their thirty-hour-a-week job cleaning the dog shelter, or maintaining roads or gravesites, or doing some cleaning for a government agency—“jobs that do very little to prepare them for better jobs out there,” according to Frech—they are cut from TANF.

Here is the problem. America’s economy has been declining overall for over 35 years. Ever since Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech (in which he never said the word “malaise”), Americans have had the sense that the future was not going to be as bright as the past. With the rise of the European Union, China, India and other competitors, it was clear that the United States was not going to enjoy the same unchallenged hegemony that people were used to.

So in the world of shrinking horizons, the corporate have decided to take as much as possible while the taking is good. There is no more sense in sharing the fruits of America’s bounty with workers or poor people. Throwing people off of welfare creates a bigger labor pool and depresses wages. Privatizing the school system opens the door to a boom in a new edu-industry. For the past 35 years, the corporate have literally taken to eating the food from the American peoples’ plate. It is the only thing left to do in an era of shrinking horizons.

I was never a Marxist, but it is clear that Marx was dead on when he saw into the future of capitalism. Fewer and fewer people will expropriate more and more of the wealth. More and more people will be dispossessed and subject to a neo-feudal state of dependency on the owners of capital.

After a while, a point will be reached when there will be too few of the corporate and too many of the dispossessed. In the end, “the expropriators will be expropriated”.

Welfare reform has relegated the children of the United States to the third world. Education reform seeks to disarm people’s ability to criticize their state of serfdom. But there will be a time, perhaps not far off in the future, where conditions will dictate responses. There will be a time when so many people are pushed into the ranks of the third world poor and they will have no choice but to criticize, just to have a hope to survive.

Ignoring poverty will only ensure that it metastasizes and eats the country from the inside out.

The Wall Street Journal Fights Financial Corruption

Thank God for the Wall Street Journal:

The Obama administration is far more enthusiastic about boosting food-stamp enrollment than about preventing fraud. Thanks in part to vigorous federally funded campaigns by nonprofit groups, the government’s AmericaCorps service program, and other organizations urging people to accept government handouts, the number of food-stamp recipients has soared to 44 million from 26 million in 2007, and costs have more than doubled to $77 billion from $33 billion.

The USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service now has only 40 inspectors to oversee almost 200,000 merchants that accept food stamps nationwide. The Government Accountability Office reported last summer that retailers who traffic illegally in food stamps by redeeming stamps for cash or alcohol or other prohibited items “are less likely to face criminal penalties or prosecution” than in earlier years.

It seems the WSJ is all for government regulation when it is the neediest people who stand to be regulated.

James Bovard is right about one thing though. It is widespread fraud that has caused the food stamp rolls to increase. It seems that the economy started tanking about five years ago because some dudes and dudettes on Wall Street thought that selling crappy collateralized debt obligations, buying credit default swaps on them and getting the whole thing rated AAA by the “independent” rating agencies that did their bidding was a perfectly legit business practice.

I suppose the fact that 44 million Americans are on food stamps has nothing to do with the economy that was sabotaged by these financial terrorists . I suppose all of the deregulation of the financial sector that the Wall Street Journal so faithfully supported, and continues to support, has nothing to do with this either.

Nope, just 44 million lazy, corrupt Americans who have been enabled by the Obama Administration. We all remember how these shadowy food stamp recipients formed PACs to funnel money into Obama’s 2008 election bid.

Good thing we have the Wall Street Journal reporting on the true corruption that is out there:

• Earlier this month, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel revealed that Wisconsin food-stamp recipients routinely sell their benefit cards on Facebook. The investigation also found that “nearly 2,000 recipients claimed they lost their card six or more times in 2010 and requested replacements.” USDA rules require that lost cards be speedily replaced. The Wisconsin Policy Research Institute concluded: “Prosecutors have simply stopped prosecuting the vast majority of [food-stamp] fraud cases in virtually all counties, including the one with the most recipients, Milwaukee.”

• Troy Hutson, the chief of Washington state’s food-stamp program, resigned in April after a Seattle television station revealed that some food-stamp recipients were selling their cards on Craigslist or brazenly cashing them out on street corners (for 50 cents on the dollar) and using the proceeds for illegal drugs and prostitution. Washington state Sen. Mike Carrell complained: “Dozens of workers at DSHS [the Department of Social and Health Services] have reported numerous unpunished cases of fraud to me. They have told me that DSHS management has allowed these things to happen, and in some cases actively restricted fraud investigations.”

• Thirty percent of the inmates in the Polk County, Iowa, jail were collecting food stamps that were being sent to their non-jail mailing addresses in 2009. But Iowa could not prosecute them for fraud because the state’s food-stamp form failed to ask applicants whether they were heading for the slammer. Roger Munns, a spokesman for the Iowa Department of Human Services, told the Des Moines Register last year that asking such questions could make food-stamp applications “unwieldy.” (Many states do make such inquiries.)

Shit, with all of this leeway, who wouldn’t want to be on food stamps and/or incarcerated?

And just in case you don’t believe him, James Brovard provides real photographic proof of this corruption in action. It is quite shocking:

Notice the designer dress and finely-groomed poodle, no doubt all paid for in food stamps. Are those cans of dog food on the check out counter?

Also notice how she is using an actual food stamp instead of the electronic swipe card that is more commonly used today. This must make it easier for her to hide her ill-gotten gains. I’m pretty sure that is an unmarked food stamp.

This woman is pretty overweight to boot. Bovard continues:

• Perhaps the biggest fraud of all is the notion, which the USDA has been touting lately, that the food-stamp program is a nutrition program. (The program’s name was formally changed in the 2008 farm bill to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—SNAP—to make it sound more wholesome and attractive.) What is really does is boost caloric intake, which is why numerous studies (including a 2009 Ohio State University report) link food stamps to the worsening obesity epidemic among low-income Americans.

Of course! That is why Americans are so fat. It’s not the fast food we eat, it’s the fast food stamp that the government gives out like Pez, which is also fattening by the way.

Seeing as how food stamps are meant to provide food and all, it seems the people who use them should see a net gain in caloric intake. Maybe James Bovard would feel better if everyone on food stamps was starving?

Leave it to the Wall Street Journal to speak lies to the powerless. I don’t know whether to laugh at such Ayn Randian idiocy or vomit.