SYMPATHY FOR THE SATYR?

Our right-wing friends have made outrageous attempts to claim the mantle of MLK an MLK Day tradition. But this attempt by Ron Paul’s supporters should still make your blood boil.

Makes you wonder whether Ron Paul’s 10,000+ MLK Day donors are ignorant that MLK was gunned down marching with sanitation workers striking to demanding a union to win safety on the job when libertarians would tell them to suck it up or go work somewhere else. Makes you wonder whether they’re indifferent that MLK faced death threats because he demanded government intervention against bigotry while good libertarians decried civil rights laws as tyranny.

It also makes you wonder whether they missed that issue of Ron Paul’s newsletter describing Martin Luther King as

the man who replaced the evil of forced segregation with the evil of forced integration…not only a world-class adulterer, he also seduced underage girls and boys…lying socialist satyr…

COMBUSTIBLE MATERIALS

Twelve miners died after the Sago Mine explosion in West Virginia, and a thirteenth is in critical condition. That much has been all over the news this week. What hasn’t been, as Jordan Barab reminds us, is the mine’s 200 citations by the Mine Safety and Health Administration in the year leading up to this horrific but preventable accident. That includes 21 citations for “accumulation of combustible materials,” the likely fuel source for this kind of tragedy. The Sago mine had three times the industry average for accidents. The highest of the penalties for these citations? A $878 fine. But as Jordan notes, most of the penalties were closer to $60.

The human tragedy in West Virginia might give pause to some of the ardent libertarians committed to arguing that miners willfully and knowingly take risks upon themselves by entering into free contract arrangements, and that the industry which employs them will correct itself for the sake of free-market competition for employees. But not Glenn Reynolds. Why consider the perverse incentives that led to twelve men’s deaths when you can instead blame the media for passing along rumors that they hadn’t died?

The miners’ families aren’t in anguish because of false reports that these men were alive. They’re in anguish because these men are dead.

DEMOCRACY IN LATIN AMERICA

The cover story in the January/ February edition of Foreign Policy is an article by Amherst Professor Javier Corrales arguing that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is perfecting the art of dictatorship for the 21st century. He offers a list of Chavez’s crimes against democracy which (like an ADL report on antisemitism which conflates incidents like the Iranian President’s diatribes against Jews and some professor’s criticism of the separation wall) combines clear offenses, deft but legal manipulation of the law, and economic policy Professor Corrales doesn’t like.

Some of the abuses Corrales describes are indeed direct assaults on the democratic freedoms of Venezuelan citizens, like keeping public databases on citizens’ votes and outlawing demonstrations of “disrespect” towards government officials. Observers on the left should indeed condemn such human rights abuses, when they are clearly demonstrated, as quickly when perpetrated by leaders on the left as when perpetrated by leaders on the right. Hugo Chavez’s claims to a democratic mandate are indeed weakened by his failure to uphold some principles of democracy, and Corrales is right to call attention to these. Some ostensible abuses Corrales describes amount to effective manipulation of the parliamentary system to reduce the power of minority parties and increase what can be accomplished legislatively by a bare majority (you may know this as “the nuclear option”). I’d agree that such maneuvers are often effectively undemocratic, as long as democracy is understood as a spectrum (as a theorist like Dahl would advise) rather than a dichotomy (as a theorist like Schumpeter would). Certainly, many political structures and policies – the electoral college and the Senate come to mind – reduce the control of individual citizens over the political process. Corrales’ argument that using a majority in parliament to increase his majority on the Supreme Court itself makes Chavez a dictator makes one wonder how he views some other national leaders. Given that Corrales’ qualifications for dictatorship include intentionally polarizing the electorate so that more moderates will break to your side, it’s hard to imagine who doesn’t qualify.

Some of those leaders are distinguished from Chavez when it comes to economic policy, the area into which a third set of Corrales’ critiques of democracy in Venezuela fall. Corrales makes some of the same seemingly contradictory charges levelled against Chavez’s economic policy by a series of neoliberals and conservatives: the problem with Hugo Chavez is that he bribes the poor to like him with economic resources and that he doesn’t really provide them with economic resources and that he doesn’t really make the poor like him. Corrales’ claims of bribery of the poor in Venezuela are echoed by Ann Coulter’s complaints that Americans who benefit from government programs are allowed to vote for the perpetuation of those programs. Corrales’ grievance that Chavez distributes economic benefits as a means of reward and punishment is an important one. His attacks on Chavez for spending large sums of money to help the poor at all are less persuasive though. And his description of Chavez’s investments in alleviating poverty as a demonstration that he is a dictator will be compelling only if one believes that democratization and the right-wing economics of privatization, government-shrinking, and deregulation perversely called “economic liberalization” are one and the same. This postulate – that the “structural adjustment programs” of the IMF and the democratic reforms pursued by human rights groups are two sides of the same coin – are accepted uncritically by too many ostensibly liberal theorists in international relations and economics (not to mention the Wall Street Journal). It’s on full display in Corrales’ article, which faults Chavez as a dictator because “Rather than promoting stable property rights to boost investment and employment, he expands state employment.”

I don’t fault Corrales for seeing economics and democracy as interrelated. I’d say progressive economics that provide more people with economic resources and opportunities also empower them to exercise real voice over the choices which determine the conditions of their lives. Unfortunately, the economic regime Corrales and company favor too often has the opposite effect, plunging more people into conditions of abject poverty in which ever-greater portions of their lives slip from their control. When structural adjustment programs drive down wages, dirty water, and turn a blind eye to violent economic coercion, they erode democracy. And, as David Held argues, the means by which these programs are enacted are corrosive to a robust conception of democracy as well: they remove critical decisions about countries’ economic futures from the province of democratic oversight by citizens to the authority of distant technocrats. So it shouldn’t be surprising that the past decade has seen one Latin American country after another throw neoliberal and conservative leaders out and replace them with populists who run on opposition to the undemocratic “Washington Consensus (including Bolivia this weekend; Mexico looks likely to be next).” It’s unfortunate that some of those populists have democratic deficiencies of their own.

So I’d say Corrales gets the correlation between democracy and neoliberalism backwards, and that his opposition to Chavez’s economics drives him to put some shaky examples along with the solid ones on his list of grievances about democracy in Venezuela. Unfortunately, too many on both the left and the right go beyond arguing that economic policies increase or decrease democracy to instead reducing democracy to the favorability of a country’s economic policy. Too many let bona fide dictators like Pinochet or Castro off easy because of the economic policies they implement. People who live under such leaders deserve better.

TWO THOUGHTS

Zichronam livrachah.

Disasters like this one provide a dramatic reminder of why we need a social contract through which people commit to mutual sacrifice for mutual prosperity and security. They make pronounced the limits of a worldview in which people are atomized entities threatened by the oppressive restrictions of a government which would have the gall to spend their money. The outrage of ordinary citizens at our leaders’ failure to take reasonable measures to ensure their safety is not the sign of weakness the radical right would have us believe any call for government action to be – it’s the rightful grievance of people who know they deserve a better deal which makes the investments necessary to protect them and their families. Hurricanes are a reminder that our interests are interconnected, and that justice demands finding common cause in common challenge, not appealing to the charitable private impulses of individuals as the single means to confront public crises. We may a thousand points of light, but we share the same space.

But even as these horrific events remind us of our common vulnerability, they demonstrate yet again how deeply the impact of such threats is determined along lines of race and class. By and large, those who have been unable to make it out of the devastated city have certain things in common – and contra Bill O’Reilly, they don’t include a desire to lay in wait so they can rape and plunder. A week ago, a friend was defending the old idea that property requirements for voting make sense because they restrict voting to those who have something to lose and therefore have a stake in what government does. I suggested that if we were really to assign votes based on one’s stake in what government does, the poorest would get the lion’s share because they’re the ones who have only voice, not exit, at their disposal when the government fails them. This week shows all too graphically how high the costs can be when elite decisions and oppressive poverty make a terrible situation that much worse.

FROM MISERY, PAST POVERTY

Spurred by this Washington Post profile in which National Labor Committee Head Charles Kernaghan describes the sweatshop workers for whose rights he advocates as seeking to move “from misery to poverty”, Matt Yglesias makes the classic anti-anti-sweatshop/ anti-anti-child-labor arguments:

people who don’t have sweatshop jobs are miserable. So miserable, in fact, that the terrible conditions in sweatshops are better than their best other alternative. Closing down the sweatship option would seem to just force everyone to stick with misery…as long as the alternative to sweatshops is what anti-sweatship activists concede to be misery, then people will want the sweatshop jobs and it’ll be mighty hard for rich country liberals to stop corporations from making them available.

The assumptions Matt seems to be making here are the same ones for which Richard Rothstein took Nicholas Kristof and Paul Krugman to task last spring in Dissent. First is the idea that somehow Charles Kernaghan, the National Labor Committee and company are pushing Nike and company to pack up and leave the countries in which their agents are operating sweatshops. Put simply, they’re not. Neither is United Students Against Sweatshops, for that matter. The call is for basic working standards and fundamental human freedoms. The call is for codes of conduct which would be applied around the world, with wage standards based on local costs of living. As Keraghan tells the Post right after describing the aspiration of many in the third world to move from misery to poverty,

he gets angry when he recalls what a worker told him in Bangladesh: “If we could earn 37 cents an hour, we could live with a little dignity.” (As opposed to the 21-cent hourly wage that barely staved off starvation.) Another Bangladeshi worker told him of being smacked in the face by her boss when she worked too slowly. “It just destroys me,” he says.

What’s going to push that worker’s wages up from 21 cents towards 37 cents? Conservatives and neoliberals would have us put our faith in the free market’s grace in rewarding increased productivity with higher wages for low-wage workers as employers compete for the best sweatshop workers. But as Rothstein reminds us, that’s not how the story went in our own country. How did sweatshop workers in this country improve their working conditions and bring themselves real economic freedom? In part through judicious use of government to enshrine common labor standards in laws of the kind the anti-anti-sweatshop crowd tell us would condemn workers of the third world to eternal poverty. And in part through collective action of the kind for which workers around the world are fired or murdered. The anti-anti-sweatshop critics who insist that the eager workers of the third world are being victimized by misguided do-gooders from the first world might better expend their energies advancing the rights of those workers to stand up for themselves and for each other without fear of retaliation. That, incidentally, is exactly what Charles Kernaghan is doing.

OSHA OR INS?

As if the zeal of Big Business and its congressional representatives to shred the protections which save workers’ lives and to exploit the vulnerability of undocumented immigrants weren’t outrageous enough, earlier this month the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency found a particularly cynical way to meld the two: dressing up as safety instructors to lure 48 undocumented immigrants to what was ostensibly a mandatory OSHA meeting and then arresting them. This shameful approach strikes twice at workers’ rights by increasing undocumented workers’ insecurity and suspectibility to management coercion and decreasing trust in the agency charged with protecting those workers’ lives from management cost-cutting and carelessness. As UFCW President Joe Hansen said today:

The word being brought back to worksites, after a scam like this, is that OSHA can’t be trusted. That kind of perception diminishes OSHA’s ability to do the critical work of protecting America’s labor force…This unscrupulous action has shattered the trust between OSHA and the workers who depend on the agency the most. More and more often, it is immigrants who work in the most dangerous industries such as construction or meatpacking. How can OSHA reach these at-risk workers with safety information now?

As the UFCW points out, over two-thirds of the victims of injury and death on the job are Latino.

GOP: OSHA IS BIG BROTHER

That’s a direct quote repeated several times by Mike Pence (R-IN) and other GOP congressmen in today’s House debate: “OSHA is Big Brother.” Of course they were generally circumspect about including within a paragraph of these denunciations emotional insistences that their intent was only to strengthen OSHA, and expressions of dismay and offense that Democrats would suggest otherwise.

The GOP message, then, is this: OSHA is Big Brother. We must strengthen OSHA. Any guess which part reflects how they really feel about it?

No attempt to argue that the reforms they were pushing would somehow make OSHA less like Big Brother either (after all, this is just a “narrow,” “small, inocuous” set of bills, right?). Just insistences that they were committed to preserving OSHA, and that to understand it we should think of it as a totalitarian overlord which supresses individual freedom (at least it’s not the “Gestapo,” like the EPA).

I’m not going to go so far as to say that the GOP’s messaging here is Orwellian. Thought it’s a better candidate for the label more than, say, government action to prevent manslaughter on the job.

A KICK IN THE TEETH

Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ): “There are hundreds of thousands of Americans who have their arms, who have their eyesight, who have their lives, because OSHA has teeth.”

Right now in the House, the Republicans are pushing four bills to further weaken OSHA by making it easier for employers to put off responding to complaints, making it easier for the President to stack the commission, and limiting OSHA’s ability to aggressively interpret its laws. All this, of course, in the name of protecting small business. “Mom and Pop” companies, we’re asked to believe are wrongly aggrieved by the requirement that they notify OSHA within fifteen days should they wish to contest responsibility for conditions which cause serious injury or death for their employees. And we’re asked to believe, further, that the current law is unfair to all those small business owners who are injured simultaneously with their workers. Employers, of course, already have the opportunity to seek extensions in extraordinary circumstances; what Republicans want is to shift the responsibility to OSHA to prove why the deadline, which saves lives by facilitating rapid redress of unsafe conditions, should ever apply.

Rep. Major Owens (D-NY): “There is a class problem developing in America…What we’ve found in this war in Iraq, is that people on the top aren’t providing the kind of protection needed for people on the frontlines from working families.”

Truth is, there’s been a class problem developing in America, sadly, for a long time. It’s one we should be hearing about more often on the floor of the Congress and outside of it. And we’d be well served by more media attention to dangerous legislation like the bills under debate right now. But for all their claims to be looking out for regular Americans, you’ll notice that the Republicans aren’t hoping to see their handiwork on this issue in the news:

Rep. John Boehner (R-OH): “Let me remind my colleagues what this small, inocuous bill does…”

If a line like that doesn’t set off alarms, you haven’t been paying attention.

OVER HARM THEY CREATE/ WE SHOULD ALL BE IRATE

This spring, I had the chance with a group of concerned Yale undergrads and graduate students to meet with K. Geert Rouwenhorst, the Chair of Yale’s Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility, the body which advises the Yale Corporation on ethical investing (among its weaknesses, the body doesn’t actually have any access to information on the majority of Yale’s investments). We were calling on ACIR to convene to critically assess Yale’s investment in Compton Petroleum’s bid, under debate at the time before local government, to dig sour gas wells in Alberta without a sufficient evacuation plan in the case of a hydrogen sulfide leak. Unfortunately, contrary to the New Democrat Party’s David Eggen stated confidence that “Yale will agree and as a shareholder will want to put people over profits,” ACIR declined to act. The most memorable part of that meeting, not only for the rhyming and meter but also for its unintentionally ironic encapsulation of the weakness of an all-too common regulatory model, was this quote from Professor Rouwenhorst, “If it’s still being debated, no social harm has been created.” The catch-22 here is clear: No regulation to avoid social harm is possible until after there’s been social harm.

Sadly, as Phoebe points out, right now another oil company which claims Yale as a significant investor is providing an all-too vivid example of what that social harm looks like. As Qatar’s Gulf Times reports:

Bangladesh is losing huge sums worth 6mn taka ($100,000) a day as the blaze at the Tengratila gas field in Sunamganj district continues despite a heavy rainfall. Reports said it was gradually going beyond control. Sources said Niko, the Canadian oil exploration company exploiting the field, did not take any step to extinguish the fire even after five consecutive days of the second blow-out at Tengratila gas field. World famous Canadian gas experts like Bob Merge and Milan, who reached the site two days ago, failed to control the fire and did not give any solution to Niko in this regard…It will take 10 to 15 more days to start drilling of a new relief well. The whole matter depend on Unocal’s rig, officials said.
The Tengratila gas field inferno is spewing out flames as high as 250 feet, burning about 50 to 60 mmcf of gas worth 6mn taka daily and causing unprecedented environmental disaster. “We have no idea when it would stop”, Mahmudur Rahman, adviser to the Energy Ministry said after visiting the Tengratila blow-out area. He said, “We need to ‘kill’ the well first, which means we have to dig a relief well first, and how quickly we do it is crucial; it needs time to procure a rig.”

The blow-out has also caused tremor in the area damaging houses and forcing panic-stricken people to leave their homes. The accident site presents a dismal picture of shrivelled or burnt leaves on the plants. The local residents are bracing for the worst…The energy adviser said that help of Unocal, a US company operating in the country’s three other gas fields, would be sought to bring the flames of Tengratila under control…Local experts say even if the rig is procured time would be needed to start the work on the relief well at Tengratila. “To design a relief well pad involves tough and huge engineering work and if it is designed in a hurry then another accident might occur,” they opined.

Below is a photo of another gas well leak in Tengratila from January. Maybe this is the point where ACIR could take an interest?

Tuesday night several groups at Yale sponsored an excellent debate between the Reverends Barry Lynn (of Americans United for Separation of Church and State) and Jim Wallis (of Sojourners Magazine) on the role of faith in public life. They’re both thoughtful and articulate speakers with a stake in a more progressive turn for this country.

Wallis is frustratingly off-base in his support for President Bush’s Faith-Based Initiatives as an opportunity to be seized by a religious left. The issue, as I’ve said before and as Lynn argued, is not whether religiously-identified groups are eligible for government support when they provide social services but whether they will be subject to the same regulations as everyone else when they are. Lynn quoted troubling comments from Wallis conflating denying funding to groups because they hold a certain faith with denying funding to those groups because they discriminate in hiring against those who don’t. And Lynn rightfully questioned Wallis’ attempt in writing to dichotomize racial and religious discrimination, pointing out that for some of the groups in question one identitiy is mapped onto the other – and that right-wing churches led by the likes of Pat Robertson haven’t been rejected for “preaching hate” like the Nation of Islam has. Wallis, to his credit, expressed unspecified concerns with the implementation of the initiatives, but declined the engage the issue of discrimination and instead expressed hope that the Supreme Court would sort it out.

My sympathies were more divided between the Reverends on the other issue which consumed much of the debate: What is the place of religious rhetoric in political discourse? I share Rev. Lynn’s concern that the halls of Congress not be overtaken with arguments over the details of scriptural interpretation. He’s right to argue that in a pluralistic, democratic society votes should be cast, and should be explained, based on popular rather than divine authority, and on the basis of shared rather than sectarian values. He’s right to observe that while religious rhetoric infused the Civil Rights Movement through and through, when members of Congress cast their votes in 1964, they explained them through appeal in large part to the values of equal protection set forth in our common law. And he’s right to reject Wallis’ tenedency to reduce “values” to religion and to reduce the political spectrum to religious right versus religious left.

That said, I think few of us disagree with Rev. Wallis’ contention that it’s long past time that the religious left disrupted what he calls the monologue of the religious right. And I’m not persuaded by the bright lines Lynn seeks to draw between the discourse in the halls of Congress, in the church, on opinion pages, at rallies, and on Meet the Press. Certainly, an advocate assumes a different voice than a representative, speaking on different grounds and to a different audience. But Wallis is right that there should be a place for our elected representatives to speak to their personal faith convictions as well as to our shared democratic ideals. He’s right that for Lynn to bristle categorically at any instance of biblical references by elected politicians does little to further the cause of religious freedom.

One audience member asked Rev. Lynn why he was comfortable with Senators quoting from “anything else in Bartlett’s Quotations,” but not the Bible, and in response Lynn made an illuminating distinction between a quote to persuade – invoked because the quote itself makes a persuasive argument for whatever is being advocated – and a quote on the basis of authority, which is invoked to bring down the authority of whoever said the quote in the first place as an argument in and of itself for what’s being advocated. Lynn’s belief is that Bible quotes are always brought in not to share creative persuasive arguments but to shut down argument by virtue of biblical authority. I’m not so sure. It may be complicated to distinguish between appeals to a biblical argument and invocation of biblical authority, but I think it’s critical that we do. I think it’s similarly critical that we distinguish between those who invoke their particularistic faith values as ends unto themselves, and those who offer them as a personal path to our shared faith in community, in individual freedom, and in social justice.

I got some skepticism from my family after we saw The Incredibles when I said I enjoyed it but I didn’t like the politics. But it really was the most conservative movie I think I’ve seen since S.W.A.T.. What’s interesting is the way it turns the liberal paradigm of a super hero film like Spiderman 2 on its head. In Spiderman the basic conflict is one extraordinarily powerful man’s struggle to resist, and then comes to terms with the great responsibility that comes with his great power. His exercise of great power for just ends is critical in facing down society’s great enemy: A creature seeking to consolidate all power for itself, at the expense of the most vulnerable members of society.

In The Incredibles, the victims are not the powerless, but the empowered. The movie is soaked in what Jon Stewart called “the anger of the enfranchised.” Society’s superior, more powerful members are held back by the resentment of the masses who are driven by jealousy to bring them down. Armies of lawyers and reams of regulations are deployed by the masses against their betters, leaving the super heroes bored and petulant and the masses unsafe. And who’s the ultimate adversary this elite must spring into action to confront? A scientist who resents that he couldn’t be a super hero. What’s his dastardly plan? To use science to give the masses super powers of their own so that they can be special too. And, various characters contend throughout the script, “If everyone’s special, then no one is special” (Says who?). The society of Spiderman is threatened by Enrons and Halliburtons; the society of The Incredibles is threatened by affirmative-action-admits and welfare queens.

The question posed by these movies, then, is which represents the real threat. Is America more endangered by those working to empower the disempowered, or by those working to further consolidate power for a narrow elite? I think it’s clear where I come down on this one.

The Wall Street Journal is mourning the drop of the United States from the top 10 “Economically Free” countries – as measured by the Wall Street Journal:

The U.S., with its strong property rights, low inflation and competitive banking and finance laws, scores well in most. But worrying developments like Sarbanes-Oxley in the category of regulation and aggressive use of antidumping law in trade policy have kept it from keeping pace with the best performers in economic freedom…Most alarming is the U.S.’s fiscal burden, which imposes high marginal tax rates for individuals and very high marginal corporate tax rates.

Of course, it’s not news that the Journal sees the ability of wealthiest in our society to merge, spend, downsize, outsource, dump, poison, union-bust, scam, and exploit with impunity as a measure of economic freedom. It’s long past time for the left to take back the language of economic freedom to discuss the meaningful control over one’s own life which is fostered by the economic security the Journal is doing everything it can to destroy for working Americans. It’s not seemly, of course, for the Journal to appear to be waging class war on behalf of the wealthiest in America, so readers get the obligatory claim that shredding social insurance and regulation is good for the poor:

Policy makers who pay lip service to fighting poverty would do well to grasp the link between economic freedom and prosperity. This year the Index finds that the freest economies have a per-capita income of $29,219, more than twice that of the “mostly free” at $12,839, and more than four times that of the “mostly unfree.” Put simply, misery has a cure and its name is economic freedom.

Funny thing is, the US (supposedly the 13th most economically free country) had a 17% poverty rate in 2004, while Norway (all the way down at #30) was at 6.4%. So if you believe, as most Americans do and even the Journal (itself “pay[ing] lip service to fighting poverty”) claims to, that poverty is a blight on a decent society, think again before trying the Journal‘s prescription.