In the Belly of the Beast: 5/9/11: Krugman: In the U.S and Europe, elites have caused a “top-down disaster”

INDEX (stories follow)

The WikiLeaks News & Views Blog for Monday, Day 163

from The Nation Blogs: Media Fix by Greg Mitchell

“Fascism is the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary sector of monopoly capital”





Headlines for May 9, 2011

from Democracy Now! | Healthcare Reform by (Democracy Now!)

The WikiLeaks News & Views Blog for Monday, Day 163

from The Nation Blogs: Media Fix by Greg Mitchell

Clarity Has A Well-Known Liberal Bias

from Paul Krugman by By PAUL KRUGMAN
3 people liked this
And therefore must be avoided.

As Jonathan Chait and Jamelle Bouie note, today was another VSP day at the Washington Post, with both the editorial page and the fact-checker tut-tutting at Democrats who insist on describing the Republican plan to dismantle Medicare as a plan to dismantle Medicare.

Because it is, you know, a plan to dismantle Medicare. When you transform a program that pays seniors’ medical bills into a program that gives them a voucher that almost certainly isn’t enough to buy adequate insurance, you can call the new scheme Medicare, but it isn’t the same program.

What the Post fact-checker seems to want, nonetheless, is for Democrats to talk about what Republicans are proposing only in big words and complicated sentences, so that the public doesn’t understand what they’re saying.

And the editorial page is still trying to claim that there’s something honest and important about the Ryan plan — even though it is completely clear to anyone paying attention that this plan offers nothing constructive in the way of solutions to the problem of rising health costs.

Here’s an analogy: think of Medicare as a footbridge that is deteriorating and will eventually become unsafe. You could propose structural repairs to fix its faults; Ryan doesn’t do that. Instead, he proposes knocking the bridge down and replacing it with trampolines, in the hope that pedestrians can bounce across the stream. And the Post declares that he deserves credit for pointing out that the bridge is falling down, and proposing a solution. Um, we knew that the bridge was in bad shape — and his solution is a fraud.

What’s going on here? Chait points out that denunciations of “scare tactics” only seem to happen when someone is trying to protect the social safety net, suggesting that what’s happening here is a reflection of the Beltway’s fundamental hostility to social insurance. I’d also add that VSPs invested heavily in the Ryan bubble, and are still not willing to face up to the extent to which they were flim-flammed.

Anyway, Republicans are proposing to destroy Medicare; saying that clearly isn’t scare tactics, it’s simply pointing out the truth.

Billions turned down by Florida to be handed out elsewhere

For as many financial problems as the state of Florida has, turning away $2 billion will come back to haunt the state. But the good news is, the more rational states and Amtrak will be receiving that cash. As someone who used to ride the trains in the northeast (and will be doing it again soon) I’m glad to read this news. It’s hard not to feel b for those in Florida who voted against the Republicans but unfortunately too many in that state are clueless and require a sanity check.

Amtrak and rail projects in 15 states are being awarded the $2 billion that Florida lost after the governor canceled plans for high-speed train service, the Department of Transportation said Monday.

The largest share of the money—nearly $800 million—will be used to upgrade train speeds from 135 mph to 160 mph on critical segments of the heavily traveled Northeast corridor, the department said in a statement.

Another $404 million will go to expand high-speed rail service in the Midwest, including newly constructed segments of 110-mph track between Detroit and Chicago that are expected to save passengers 30 minutes in travel time.


“Fascism is the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary sector of monopoly capital”

Jews and Muslims, Confronting Islamophobia, Finding Common Cause

This is a talk I delivered at the Confronting Islamophobia: I am My Brother’s Keeper conference on Saturday at St. Mark’s Cathedral here in Seattle.  I’m grateful to the organizing committee for inviting me to speak.  I’m delighted to report that the event was very well attended.  Last night, the St. Mark’s main sactuary was full with I estimate about 800 or more in attendance to hear Imam Faisal Rauf.  There were TV crews there last night and today.  TheSeattle Times ran a front page story and both Steve Scher and Dave Ross interviewed Imam Rauf on radio.  Congratulations to the steering committee which did yeoman work planning a massive enterprise very successfully.

*  *  *

In conceiving this conference, the organizers knew in theory they were going to be addressing an important issue in American life.  But events since we first began organizing it have proven just how fortuitous our choice of topics has been. American Islamophobes like Rep. Peter King, and Pamela Geller and David Yerushalmi have turned up the heat and volume on this debate and placed into even starker relief the necessity of having a rational, tolerant discussion of the role of Islam and American Muslims in the life of this nation.

Here’s what we can’t do: we can’t score political points, we can’t try to win elections, we can’t single out our fellow citizens as terrorists merely because of their religious beliefs.  We can’t demonize all American Muslims for the beliefs of a handful of hating extremists among them.  Anyone who does this must be held up for the bigot he or she is. In the light of the American assassination of Osama bin Laden, this becomes an even more urgent task.  No matter how many times a president says that he isn’t seeking to tar an entire religion with a broad brush merely because of the acts of one adherent or one Islamist terror group, it doesn’t mean the rest of us have gotten the message.  In fact, yesterday a pilot on a Delta Airlines flight out of Memphis refused to take off until two imams were removed from the plane.  Apparently, their dress so spooked him that he must’ve believed he had Osama’s cousins flying with him.

Whatever we may’ve thought of the Bin Laden killing, Barack Obama now has an opportunity to head off the bigots in the Republican Party and Tea Party movement who will try to make hay from this.  Clearly, it’s going to be a tough election for Republicans.  A major issue of national security has practically been foreclosed to them.  When a Party becomes desperate it seeks the weakest link to attack.  Unfortunately, some in this country see American Muslims as this weak link. They will tar and feather them.

Remember the smears against Obama during the presidential election, which still cause a majority of Republicans in this country to believe that he is Muslim?  Look to the political right to exploit fear of Islam and make hay in the 2012 elections.  It may be used in the presidential election and it may be used in other federal or state elections.  We must be alert to fight back against such bigotry.  That’s why it’s important for non-Muslims, specifically Jews because of our complicated, fraught relationship, to step up and say we will not stand for it.

I wanted to speak about a few specific events that have occurred here in Seattle and in other places that might instruct us about the problems we face as Jews and Muslims in overcoming our suspicions and conflict.

Naveed Haq

In 2006, a mentally-ill Pakistani-American named Naveed Haq forced his way into the Seattle Jewish federation building and proceeded to shoot at the staff killing one woman and seriously injuring five.  In his twisted mind, he equated Jews in Seattle with the acts of Israel committed in Lebanon during the 2006 war.  This was an act of hatred and violence unprecedented in Seattle’s Jewish community.  It shook many people to the core.  Thankfully, the strident ideologues in the community representing groups like Stand With Us, didn’t set the tone for the response.

But the best that can be said, is that the community’s response wasn’t worse than it might otherwise have been.  The first jury to hear the case couldn’t agree on a sentence and there was a mistrial.  The prosecution announced it was retrying the case.  It insisted on trying Haq for first degree murder despite his documented history of mental illness going back ten years.  The district attorney attempted to argue that this deranged individual knew right from wrong and rationally planned his acts of violence.  All this, despite the fact that he was a deeply confused, disoriented, alienated and sick man.

One of the federation victims even said to the press that the most important aspect of this case was not religious hatred or anti-Semitism, but rather the fact that it was so incredibly easy for such a disturbed individual to procure a gun. The prosecution refused to consider a sentence to a mental asylum.  All this in large part, because the Jewish communal leadership would not settle for anything less than prison and punishment.  Sadly, the Jews of Seattle lacked the capacity to understand that–despite the fact that Haq, in his delusional state, blamed American Jews for Lebanon’s suffering–he was a sick man, and not an Islamist radical.  For Seattle Jews, this was a hate crime, not a crime committed by someone who was mentally ill.  And this, I think, is the tragedy that is beyond the actual tragedy of the shootings.  American Jews had a chance to understand the difference between anti-Semitism and mental illness and they chose to see themselves as victims of a Muslim extremist, rather than a man who himself was a victim of his own demons.

Naveed Haq was not Osama bin Laden.  If anything, he was Arthur Bremer.  Men whose delusions and twisted imaginations combined all sorts of hatred and set them on a homicidal rampage.  Naveed Haq needed treatment, not punishment.  Besides, life in a mental asylum for violent felons wouldn’t have been a vacation.

Southern Poverty Law Center

When Brenda Bentz was considering which speakers to invite for this conference, she had no lack of Muslims with deep expertise on these subjects.  But we wanted non-Muslim experts on racial hatred to speak as well.  So Brenda invited Mark Potok, the chief researcher of the Southern Poverty Law Center to address us.  Both Brenda and I were impressed that SPLC had recently added to its national list of prominent hate groups several Islamophobic organizations like Pam Geller’s Stop the Islamization of America and the Jewish Task Force, a successor to the Jewish Defense League.  And Mark wanted to come.

It seemed that SPLC might be ready to branch out from its bread and butter reliance on white supremacist groups to include far-right anti-Muslim scapegoat groups as well.  However, Brenda and a number of us were disappointed when Potok and SPLC’s president informed us that because CAIR was a co-sponsor of the conference, SPLC couldn’t participate. Though I don’t know a whole lot about SPLC’s internal structure and politics, you can be sure that there are many liberal Jews among its major donors.  The group’s president, Richard Cohen, seems concerned among other things about preserving his six-figure paycheck by not rocking the boat in any substantial way.  Even liberal Jews get spooked by spurious charges that CAIR supports Hamas and Islamist terror.  It probably won’t even help much that CAIR publicly approved of the death of Osama bin Laden.  Some people are just too frightened to give up those fears.

Apparently, the campaign of demonization by the likes of Peter King and Frank Gaffney prevented even a group like SPLC from associating itself, in even the most distant way, with a mainstream Muslim entity like CAIR.  This is what hate, fear and ignorance does to us, folks.  It twists our judgment, prevents us from trusting our instincts.  It turns us away from alliances we should be making with like-minded individuals and groups to advance our respective goals. I don’t know whether my primary emotion should be anger or disappointment regarding SPLC.  Mostly I just feel sorry for their caution and ultimately cowardice.  Groups like this who refuse to address the most divisive issues of the day out of such fear, either are, or will shortly be irrelevant to the concerns of most Americans.  If we want to make a difference as a religious community or as NGOs, we have to take a stand, even if we risk alienating those sitting on the fence.

Mosque-Synagogue Twinning

Now, I want to tell you about another small local tragedy with which I was intimately involved.  The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding was founded by New York Rabbi Marc Schneier.  It organizes a mosque-synagogue Twinning project each year that is devoted to education around the issues of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.  Several years ago, I spent months with my friend, Jeff Siddiqui, desperately searching for two such partners here in Seattle.  We had a very hard time of it, frankly.  This was just after the Haq shooting and memories may’ve been tender on both sides.

At my synagogue, Congregation Beth Sholom, our rabbi enthusiastically agreed to participate.  She delegated me to search for a local Muslim partner. With Jeff’s help I identified MAPS as our Muslim partner.  I had a wonderful meeting with several mosque members and we mapped out what I thought would be a warm, stimulating series of programs for both communities.  We’d go to MAPS and they would come to us.  We’d pray there and they would pray with us, much like Imam Rauf did so movingly here in Church yesterday night.  Our rabbi would address them and their imam would address us, each from our respective religious altars.

Then I reported back to the rabbi.  In the meantime, the Stand With Us members of the congregation had pressured her into backing off on her commitment.  She apologetically told me the time wasn’t quite right to do this.  She didn’t know how she could’ve possibly agreed to an imam speaking from the bima of the synagogue.  It just couldn’t be done, she told me.  She needed at most another month to bring the shul’s membership and leadership around.  She promised the idea for the program would not die and that she was committed to making it happen.

It never did.  And my relationship with this rabbi has never been the same nor will it likely ever be.

The issue of Muslim-Jewish relations is too important to allow our leaders to fumble their commitments to it.  There are other communal leaders who try to mollify both sides.  Two years ago, the rabbi at Temple De Hirsh Sinai sponsored a highly-partisan Jewish federation program at which representatives of Aipac and the Israeli consul general for the Pacific NW spoke about the dangers posed by Iran to the Middle East and the entire world.  They claimed it was seeking to develop nuclear weapons and that it supported terrorism, among other things.  The fact that Israel had nuclear weapons and engaged in wars against its neighbors was not considered relevant to the discussion.  After the program ended I asked the rabbi how he could allow his temple to a venue for such partisan propaganda.

Unfortunately, this escalated into a heated discussion during which he affirmed that he was in favor of regime change in Iran. This same rabbi invited Prof. John Esposito, a colleague of Prof. Haddad’s, to speak a few days from now at his temple about the role and history of Islam in America.  There is a major disconnect among some Jews regarding relations with Muslims and Islam.  Like Rabbi Weiner, they seem to think they can compartmentalize Islam into good guys and bad.  That they can demonize bad Muslims in Iran while embracing good ones here at home. I am not arguing that the Iranian regime is worthy of anyone’s support.  But I am arguing that rhetoric which accuses the Iranian regime of being mass murderers and supports its violent overthrow, while ignoring the negative role that Israel often plays, is not conducive to constructive dialogue with any Muslim, whether Iranian or American.

Peter King Hearings

After 9/11, the Republican Party discovered there was gold in them thar’ hills of Islamophobia and Muslim-bashing.  It was joined in this by a group I call Jewish neocons, whose hatred of Islam is bound up with a devotion to a far-right brand of Israeli nationalism which embraces the settler movement.  That is how Peter King and Frank Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy created a match made in heaven.  With the new Republican majority in the House, King became chair of the Committee on Homeland Security.  Looking for an issue to call his own, and hailing from a state with a substantial Jewish population, he made common cause with Gaffney over the alleged issue of Sharia law and the alleged plot by Muslims to take over the U.S. government and replace it with one governed by Sharia.

King’s hearings were originally conceived very much in the mold of Gaffney’s histrionics which warn of the Muslim menace to American life as we know it.  But due to critical media coverage and criticism from fellow members of Congress, King presented a still offensive, but watered-down version in his hearings last month.

Anti-Sharia Movement

Gaffney is joined in his anti-sharia jihad by Jewish far-right figures like David Yerushalmi.  The latter, who is a devout Orthodox Jewish attorney and supporter of the settler movement in Israel, is Gaffney’s chief legal counsel. Mother Jones has profiled the Yerushalmi-Gaffney national campaign to write anti-sharia sentiment into state law.  Such provisions have either passed, or are being seriously discussed in 11 states.  Yerushalmi is the author of such bills and paid handsome consulting fees no doubt for his “expertise,” and much sought after on the Tea Party circuit.

I’m pleased to tell you that the organized Jewish community is beginning to wake up to the perils of the anti-Sharia movement because it could hit Jews where they live.  Just as Muslims conform their religious lives to Sharia so observant Jews conform theirs to halacha.  Just as Sharia may be applied to normally civil functions like marriage, divorce and estate planning; so too Jews often use halacha in place of civil code in these important life milestones.  If state laws criminalize the application of Sharia to civil matters then there is no reason this wouldn’t happen to halacha as well.

I’m pleased to tell you that last month in St. Louis, the ACLU and Jewish Community Relations Council joined together to denounce publicly the effort to ban Sharia under Missouri state law.

I want to tell you something that may be a bit cynical.  In truth, I don’t think most observant Jews would normally care to make common cause with American Muslims on this issue.  But it’s the beauty of the American system that you must create political coalitions if you wish for your own communal, religious or ethnic interests to be addressed.  In our system, if you try to go it alone you won’t go far.  That encourages groups to look beyond their own narrow interests and consider the interests of other groups when they overlap yours.  It is this making of alliances, as opposed to confining oneself to a separatist ghetto, that makes this country great.

The Yerushalmis and Gaffneys favor an atomized America in which every individual or group is out for its own good and some mythical Judeo-Christian majority can impose its own will on the rest of us. That’s not my America and I know it’s not yours either. Yerushalmi’s views are so far to the right that Mother Jones, the Jewish Forward and I in my blog have called him different variations of the phrase “Jewish white supremacist.”  Hard to believe that there can be such a person or thing, given Jewish history in the last century.  But I’m sorry to say that there can be and is.

Yerushalmi didn’t take kindly to my critique of his political views.  He threatened to sue me for libel in Arizona, where he resides, making himself right at home with the anti-immigrant movement that presides in that state.  I, of course, had to scurry to find pro bono counsel to represent me in what I feared could be a long costly case.

But in a bit of providence, the Anti-Defamation League came out with a public statement denouncing Yerushalmi and likening his views to the white-supremacist New World Order.  I’m guessing that the anti-Muslim attorney decided that now might not be the right time to sue someone for calling him a white supremacist.  He withdrew his threat.

Yerushalmi also crusaded against the Khalil Gibran Academy in New York City and its Muslim principal, Debbie Almontaser, eventually getting her fired.  He sued her for libel too and she won at both the lower court and appeals court level.  She also won a substantial settlement from the City of New York for wrongful termination.

Ground Zero Mosque

Yerushalmi has also made common cause with Pamela Geller, author of the Atlas Shrugged blog, and the chief instigator of the campaign against what she branded the ‘Ground Zero mosque,’ an institution with which our keynote speaker, Imam Faisal Rauf, was intimately involved for some time. I watched the Jewish-led campaign against the mosque– conveniently timed during the 2010 Congressional election campaign–with horror. The arguments against it made no sense whatsoever.  They were clearly fueled by fear and ignorance.  They mixed up the tragedy perpetrated by Al Qaeda against this country on 9/11 with an entirely separate matter of building a Muslim house of worship.  In the minds of the hysterics, there was no difference between the two. This is a profoundly un-American attitude.

One the hallmarks of America’s greatness is our tolerance toward religions.  Our Founding Fathers wisely chose not to create a national religion and this in turn enabled America to become a powerful engine of democracy, which could incorporate hundreds of ethnic groups and their respective religions into a single whole.  In diversity there is strength.  Alternatively, you’ll remember that slogan on our dollar bills: e pluribus unum (“out of many, one”).

But contrary to Yerushalmi and Geller, I don’t believe we become one by denying our difference, by papering them over or by forcing those who are different to conform to some artificial notion of what is properly American.  We gain the strength to be united by coming together over our shared interests and by respecting our differences.  That’s the beauty of America.

The opponents of the Park51 mosque lost sight of an American trademark: religious freedom.  In this country, you can worship your God and your religion as you please.  You can build a house of worship where you want and how you want as long as you obey zoning codes. America doesn’t police religions as other countries do.  We don’t tell people where they can build a church, synagogue or mosque.  We don’t interfere in their religious teachings.  We don’t demonize them because their religion is different from ours. The movement led by Pam Geller, David Yerushalmi and Frank Gaffney which seeks to criminalize being a Muslim is profoundly offensive to American values.  I’m proud to say this as an American and as a Jew.

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Wilkerson wants to Waterboard Rumsfeld

from Informed Comment by Juan
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On MSNBC’s Ed Show, Lawrence Wilkerson, former aid to Colin Powell, asks if he cannot pretty please, pleasewaterboard Donald Rumsfeld? He also reaffirms that former Secretary of State Powell said that Rumsfeld himself is manipulative and deceptive.

Here’s a link to George W. Bush’s cancelled trip to Switzerland last winter because of fear charges of torture would be brought against him. Wilkerson refers to the incident above.

A list of countries that have ratified the convention against torture, and which Bush and his colleagues cannot safely visit, can be found at the bottom of this page.

Isn’t it embarrassing to have an ex-president who cannot even travel to Europe (or most of the world) for fear of being arrested?

And, isn’t it even more embarrassing that the Europeans are willing to pursuit indictments, but the United States is not?


Krugman: In the U.S and Europe, elites have caused a “top-down disaster”

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Paul Krugman is sneaking up on the idea that the west has been hijacked, and that the hijackers are looting the joint. Here’s his latest, “The Unwisdom of Elites” — subtitled “anatomy of a top-down disaster” — and good for him for that. He opens:

The past three years have been a disaster for most Western economies. The United States has mass long-term unemployment for the first time since the 1930s. Meanwhile, Europe’s single currency is coming apart at the seams. How did it all go so wrong? … [T]he claim [is] that it’s mostly the public’s fault … that we got into this mess because voters wanted something for nothing, and weak-minded politicians catered to the electorate’s foolishness.

Voters as welfare queens; nice move. But watch out — some of those people are white. (I’m white, so I can say that.)

But back to Krugman. He thinks, naturally, that this view is “dead wrong,” not the least because it is dead wrong. What we’re witnessing is actually a “top-down disaster” (my emphasis):

The policies that got us into this mess weren’t responses to public demand. They were, with few exceptions, policies championed by small groups of influential people — in many cases, the same people now lecturing the rest of us on the need to get serious.

And here Krugman starts to show his trademark … what? deference? This sentence is followed by something about elites “ducking some much-needed reflection.” Really? How about elites “heading relentlessly, self-servingly, toward even more money and power”?

I’m serious, by the way, and not just being snarky. This is 100% my main Krugman criticism. He still seems to (pretends to? actually does?) believe that people in power — and those who enable and serve them — respond mainly to ideas. This is either his greatAchilles heel, or the way he keeps his column inches at the Times. (If the second, maybe a fair trade.)

In the U.S. Krugman identifies three reasons for the budget problem — the Bush tax cuts, the 911 Wars, and the 2008 Recession. Needless to say, the public clamor for all of those was nil. Of the first, Krugman says:

President George W. Bush cut taxes in the service of his party’s ideology, not in response to a groundswell of popular demand — and the bulk of the cuts went to a small, affluent minority.

I’m sure you noticed my emphasis, and Krugman’s Achilles-like attention to the power of ideas, as opposed to the power of … power.

As in the U.S., so in Europe, he continues, where the crisis was supposedly caused by troubled nations catering “too much to the masses, promising too much to voters.” (The Greeks are the stand-in welfare queens here.) The real story, of course, and the boogyman under the bed, is the euro, a one-size-fits-all-crises currency dominated by the Germans and French whose banks poured the money into the Spanish, Irish, Greek, Portuguese, etc., boom economies, and now don’t want to pay for the bailout.

Krugman’s answer is the obvious one. If we don’t correct our understanding, we’ll never really get it, this thing that happened; and we’ll get that same thing back, from the same people, with interest. In his words:

We need to place the blame where it belongs, to chasten our policy elites. Otherwise, they’ll do even more damage in the years ahead.

Considering the indictment, almost tame. The next question for him, and I’d love to see his answer, is How? How do we place that blame where it belongs? (Of course, this brings us back to power.)

I rag on Krugman for a reason: he’s important; he’s right most of the time; and the state of his recognition of his Achilles-like flaw (what I call “the state of the Krugman”) is a nice stand-in and metric for the ability of front-line intellectuals to see the right-wing cadre revolution as a real revolution, a coup, and not just a struggle of ideas. When Krugman crosses that line (he’s done it once before), it will matter.

In the meantime, check out the column; it’s worth reading in full.

(The image above, by the way, is Achilles Dying; if you know the story, a tragic, powerful and poignant depiction. Not something I’d wish on a friend.)

Tomgram: Andy Kroll, Welcome to the McJobs Recovery

from TomDispatch – Blog by Andy Kroll
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Think of it as a parable for these grim economic times. On April 19th, McDonald’s launched its first-ever national hiring day, signing up 62,000 new workers at stores throughout the country. For some context, that’s more jobs created by one company in a single day than the net job creation of the entire U.S. economy in 2009…

[Note for TomDispatch Readers:  For those of you who created a wavelet of contributions in response to our offer on Tuesday of a personalized, signed copy of Adam Hochschild’s remarkable new history of World War I, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918, in return for a $100 contribution to this website, a deep bow of appreciation.  What a difference you make to us.  For those of you who sent in those contributions in the first twenty-four hours after the offer went up, the books are already heading your way.  For those who have contributed since or still plan to do so, be patient.  Hochschild is now on his book tour.  He’ll be back home toward the end of the month and send the rest out then.  Believe me, it’s a book that’s worth the wait!  For those of you still thinking about contributing, check out the offer at our donation page by clicking here.  Tom]

While President Obama has seen a sizeable jump in his approval ratings in the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden, scratch beneath the surface of those polls and you’ll find another story entirely.  Check out his figures when it comes to the economy, and there, Osama bin Laden and all those “USA! USA!” chanting crowds aside, his approval rating just hit a new low.

Killing bin Laden, Libya’s Gaddafi, and Iran’s Ahmedinejad, for that matter, isn’t likely to win an election for an American president these days. As in Bill Clinton’s famed 1992 election campaign against George H.W. Bush (who also garnered headlines for foreign policy “successes”), the mantrais still: “It’s the economy, stupid.”  The job market (or lack of it), rising food and gas prices, ahousing market that remains in a state of collapse — you know the story.  Right now, it looks as if someone had flown a hijacked plane directly into the economy. For example, among young people, a key Obama demographic, more than four million Americans ages 16 to 24 are out of work.

And if you think that the usual numbers are dismal, just wait until you dig under them withTomDispatch Associate Editor Andy Kroll and consider the way the American economy and its workers are being Third-World-ized.  This remains a wealthy country with significant resources, which makes it all the eerier that it’s beginning to feel as if the phrase “banana republic” might one of these days apply.  (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Kroll discusses what grim news lurks under the monthly unemployment figures, click here, or download it to your iPod here.)  Tom

How the McEconomy Bombed the American Worker
The Hollowing Out of the Middle Class 

By Andy Kroll

Think of it as a parable for these grim economic times. On April 19th, McDonald’s launched its first-ever national hiring day, signing up 62,000 new workers at stores throughout the country. For some context, that’s more jobs created by one company in a single day than the net job creation of the entire U.S. economy in 2009. And if that boggles the mind, consider how many workers applied to local McDonald’s franchises that day and left empty-handed: 938,000 of them. With a 6.2% acceptance rate in its spring hiring blitz, McDonald’s was more selective than the Princeton, Stanford, or Yale University admission offices.

It shouldn’t be surprising that a million souls flocked to McDonald’s hoping for a steady paycheck, when nearly 14 million Americans are out of work and nearly a million more are too discouraged even to look for a job. At this point, it apparently made no difference to them that the fast-food industry pays some of the lowest wages around: on average, $8.89 an hour, or barely half the $15.95 hourly average across all American industries.

On an annual basis, the average fast-food worker takes home $20,800, less than half the national average of $43,400. McDonald’s appears to pay even worse, at least with its newest hires. In the press release for its national hiring day, the multi-billion-dollar company said it would spend $518 million on the newest round of hires, or $8,354 a head. Hence the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of “McJob” as “a low-paying job that requires little skill and provides little opportunity for advancement.”

Of course, if you read only the headlines, you might think that the jobs picture was improving. The economy added 1.3 million private-sector jobs between February 2010 and January 2011, and the headline unemployment rate edged downward, from 9.8% to 8.8%, between November of last year and March. It inched upwardin April, to 9%, but tempering that increase was the news that the economy added 244,000 jobs last month (not including those 62,000 McJobs), beating economists’ expectations.

Under this somewhat sunnier news, however, runs a far darker undercurrent. Yes, jobs are being created, but what kinds of jobs paying what kinds of wages?  Can those jobs sustain a modest lifestyle and pay the bills? Or are we living through a McJobs recovery?

The Rise of the McWorker

The evidence points to the latter. According to a recent analysis by the National Employment Law Project (NELP), the biggest growth in private-sector job creation in the past year occurred in positions in the low-wage retail, administrative, and food service sectors of the economy. While 23% of the jobs lost in the Great Recession that followed the economic meltdown of 2008 were “low-wage” (those paying $9-$13 an hour), 49% of new jobs added in the sluggish “recovery” are in those same low-wage industries. On the other end of the spectrum, 40% of the jobs lost paid high wages ($19-$31 an hour), while a mere 14% of new jobs pay similarly high wages.

As a point of comparison, that’s much worse than in the recession of 2001 after the high-tech bubble burst.  Then, higher wage jobs made up almost a third of all new jobs in the first year after the crisis.

The hardest hit industries in terms of employment now are finance, manufacturing, and especially construction, which was decimated when the housing bubble burst in 2007 and has yet to recover. Meanwhile, NELP found that hiring for temporary administrative and waste-management jobs, health-care jobs, and of course those fast-food restaurants has surged.

Indeed in 2010, one in four jobs added by private employers was a temporary job, which usually provides workers with few benefits and even less job security. It’s not surprising that employers would first rely on temporary hires as they regained their footing after a colossal financial crisis. But this time around, companies have taken on temp workers in far greater numbers than after previous downturns.  Where 26% of hires in 2010 were temporary, the figure was 11% after the early-1990s recession and only 7% after the downturn of 2001.

As many labor economists have begun to point out, we’re witnessing an increasing polarization of the U.S. economy over the past three decades. More and more, we’re seeing labor growth largely at opposite ends of the skills-and-wages spectrum — among, that is, the best and the worst kinds of jobs.

At one end of job growth, you have increasing numbers of people flipping burgers, answering telephones, engaged in child care, mopping hallways, and in other low-wage lines of work. At the other end, you have increasing numbers of engineers, doctors, lawyers, and people in high-wage “creative” careers. What’s disappearing is the middle, the decent-paying jobs that helped expand the American middle class in the mid-twentieth century and that, if the present lopsided recovery is any indication, are now going the way of typewriters and landline telephones.

Because the shape of the workforce increasingly looks fat on both ends and thin in the middle, economists have begun to speak of “the barbell effect,” which for those clinging to a middle-class existence in bad times means a nightmare life.  For one thing, the shape of the workforce now hinders America’s once vaunted upward mobility.  It’s the downhill slope that’s largely available these days.

The barbell effect has also created staggering levels of income inequality of a sort not known since the decades before the Great Depression. From 1979 to 2007, for the middle class, average household income (after taxes) nudged upward from $44,100 to $55,300; by contrast, for the top 1%, average household income soared from $346,600 in 1979 to nearly $1.3 million in 2007. That is, super-rich families saw their earnings increase 11 times faster than middle-class families.

What’s causing this polarization? An obvious culprit is technology. As MIT economist David Autor notes, the tasks of “organizing, storing, retrieving, and manipulating information” that humans once performed are now computerized. And when computers can’t handle more basic clerical work, employers ship those jobs overseas where labor is cheaper and benefits nonexistent.

Another factor is education. In today’s barbell economy, degrees and diplomas have never mattered more, which means that those with just a high school education increasingly find themselves locked into the low-wage end of the labor market with little hope for better. Worse yet, the pay gap between the well-educated and not-so-educated continues to widen: in 1979, the hourly wage of a typical college graduate was 1.5 times higher than that of a typical high-school graduate; by 2009, it was almost two times higher.

Considering, then, that the percentage of men ages 25 to 34 who have gone to college is actually decreasingit’s not surprising that wage inequality has gotten worse in the U.S. As Autor writes, advanced economies like ours “depend on their best-educated workers to develop and commercialize the innovative ideas that drive economic growth.”

The distorting effects of the barbell economy aren’t lost on ordinary Americans. In a recent Gallup poll, a majority of people agreed that the country was still in either a depression (29%) or a recession (26%).  When sorted out by income, however, those making $75,000 or more a year are, not surprisingly, most likely to believe the economy is in neither a recession nor a depression, but growing.  After all, they’re the ones most likely to have benefited from a soaring stock market and the return to profitability of both corporate America and Wall Street. In Gallup’s middle-income group, by contrast, 55% of respondents claim the economy is in trouble. They’re still waiting for their recovery to arrive.

The Slow Fade of Big Labor

The big-picture economic changes described by Autor and others, however, don’t tell the entire story. There’s a significant political component to the hollowing out of the American labor force and the impoverishment of the middle class: the slow fade of organized labor. Since the 1950s, the clout of unions in the public and private sectors has waned, their membership has dwindled, and their political influence has weakened considerably. Long gone are the days when powerful union bosses — the AFL-CIO’s George Meany or the UAW’s Walter Reuther — had the ear of just about any president.

As Mother Jones‘ Kevin Drum has written, in the 1960s and 1970s a rift developed between big labor and the Democratic Party. Unions recoiled in disgust at what they perceived to be the “motley collection of shaggy kids, newly assertive women, and goo-goo academics” who had begun to supplant organized labor in the Party. In 1972, the influential AFL-CIO symbolically distanced itself from the Democrats by refusing to endorse their nominee for president, George McGovern.

All the while, big business was mobilizing, banding together to form massive advocacy groups such as the Business Roundtable and shaping the staid U.S. Chamber of Commerce into a ferocious lobbying machine. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Democratic Party drifted rightward and toward an increasingly powerful and financially focused business community, creating the Democratic Leadership Council, an olive branch of sorts to corporate America. “It’s not that the working class [had] abandoned Democrats,” Drum wrote. “It’s just the opposite: The Democratic Party [had] largely abandoned the working class.”

The GOP, of course, has a long history of battling organized labor, and nowhere has that been clearer than in the party’s recent assault on workers’ rights. Swept in by a tide of Republican support in 2010, new GOP majorities in state legislatures from Wisconsin to Tennessee to New Hampshire have introduced bills meant to roll back decades’ worth of collective bargaining rights for public-sector unions, the last bastion of organized labor still standing (somewhat) strong.

The political calculus behind the war on public-sector unions is obvious: kneecap them and you knock out a major pillar of support for the Democratic Party.  In the 2010 midterm elections, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) spent nearly $90 million on TV ads, phone banking, mailings, and other support for Democratic candidates. The anti-union legislation being pushed by Republicans would inflict serious damage on AFSCME and other public-sector unions by making it harder for them to retain members and weakening their clout at the bargaining table.

And as shown by the latest state to join the anti-union fray, it’s not just Republicans chipping away at workers’ rights anymore. In Massachusetts, a staunchly liberal state, the Democratic-led State Assembly recently voted to curb collective bargaining rights on heath-care benefits for teachers, firefighters, and a host of other public-sector employees.

Bargaining-table clout is crucial for unions, since it directly affects the wages their members take home every month. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, union workers pocket on average $200 more per week than their non-union counterparts, a 28% percent difference. The benefits of union representation are even greater for women and people of color: women in unions make 34% more than their non-unionized counterparts, and Latino workers nearly 51% more.

In other words, at precisely the moment when middle-class workers need strong bargaining rights so they can fight to preserve a living wage in a barbell economy, unions around the country face the grim prospect of losing those rights.

All of which raises the questions: Is there any way to revive the American middle class and reshape income distribution in our barbell nation?  Or will this warped recovery of ours pave the way for an even more warped McEconomy, with the have-nots at one end, the have-it-alls at the other end, and increasingly less of us in between?

Andy Kroll is a reporter in the D.C. bureau of Mother Jones magazine and an associate editor at TomDispatch. The son of two teachers, he grew up in a firmly — and happily — middle-class household. His email is andykroll (at) motherjones (dot) com. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Kroll discusses what grim news lurks under the monthly unemployment figures, click here, or download it to your iPod here.

Copyright 2011 Andy Kroll


Your Taxes Fund Anti-Muslim Hatred

A cadre of right-wing institutions that peddle themselves as counterterrorism specialists and experts on the Muslim world has been indoctrinating thousands of police, intelligence and military personnel in nationwide seminars.

News personalities, politicians, self-appointed experts on the Muslim world, and law enforcement and intelligence officials, as well as the Christian right, have successfully demonized Muslims in the United States since the attacks of 2001. It is acceptable to say things openly about Muslims that could never be said about any other ethnic group. And as the economy continues to unravel, as we face the possibility of revenge attacks by Islamic extremists, perhaps on American soil, the plight of Muslims is beginning to mirror that of targeted ethnic minority groups on the eve of the war in the former Yugoslavia, or Jews in the dying days of the Weimar Republic.

The major candidates for the Republican nomination for the presidency, including Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee, along with television personalities such as Bill Maher, routinely employ hate talk against Muslims as a way to attract votes or viewers. Right-wing radio and cable news, including Christian radio and television, along with websites such as Jihad Watchand FrontPage, spew toxic filth about Muslims over the airwaves and the Internet. But perhaps most ominously—as pointed out in “Manufacturing the Muslim Menace,”a report by Political Research Associates—a cadre of right-wing institutions that peddle themselves as counterterrorism specialists and experts on the Muslim world has been indoctrinating thousands of police, intelligence and military personnel in nationwide seminars. These seminars, run by organizations such as Security Solutions International, The Centre for Counterintelligence and Security Studies, and International Counter-Terrorism Officers Association, embrace gross and distorted stereotypes and propagate wild conspiracy theories. And much of this indoctrination within the law enforcement community is funded under two grant programs for training—the State Homeland Security Program and Urban Areas Security Initiative—which made $1.67 billion available to states in 2010. The seminars preach that Islam is a terrorist religion, that an Islamic “fifth column” or “stealth jihad” is subverting the United States from within, that mainstream American Muslims have ties to terrorist groups, that Muslims use litigation, free speech and other legal means (something the trainers have nicknamed “Lawfare”) to advance the subversive Muslim agenda and that the goal of Muslims in the United States is to replace the Constitution with Islamic or Shariah law.

“You would not expect a Democratic administration to fund right-wing groups,” Thom Cincotta, a civil liberties attorney and the author of the Political Research Associates report, told me, “and yet we continue to have hard-right, Islamophobic speakers and companies being paid taxpayer dollars to promote racist doctrines that undermine U.S. national security policy concerning Islam and the Muslim world. Policy expert after policy expert point out that framing our counterterrorism efforts as a war against Islam is a recipe for building increased resentment among Muslims, as well as a potent recruiting tool for those who would like to carry out violent attacks against us. This kind of demonizing breaks down communication between law enforcement agents and Muslim communities, which have proven to be strong allies in the rare instances of domestic extremism. Not only does it threaten to erode basic civil liberties, it threatens freedom of expression and freedom of worship.”

The effects of this campaign of racial hatred are being felt throughout the Muslim community. Those with Muslim names are routinely harassed at airports, and many who wear traditional Muslim dress report mounting cases of verbal and sometimes physical abuse. Muslim children endure taunts in schools. Muslims complain of intrusive surveillance, unconstitutional profiling and frequent mistreatment by law enforcement. The practice of Islam, especially in its traditional forms, is now viewed by many as a sign of criminal intent. And with the rise of the surveillance and security state—we now have 854,000 people working in our domestic security apparatus and 800,000 more employed as police and emergency personnel—national law is being turned into an instrument of overt repression against a religious minority.

Those making war on Islam are ignorant of the practices and beliefs of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims. The Muslim community is not a monolith. It is composed of numerous ethnic, national, cultural and racial groups that often have little in common and in some cases are antagonistic. Of the some 6 million Muslims in the United States, only 5 to 10 percent define themselves as religious. And those groups that express political versions of Islam—the Jamaat al-Islamiyya out of South Asia and the Salafis—are a tiny and marginalized minority.

There is now an industry of well-funded hatemongers producing seminars, courses and books on Islam. Walid Shoebat, one of the stars of the circuit, gives a presentation titled “The Jihad Mindset and How to Defeat It: Why We Want to Kill You.” Shoebat, who bills himself as a reformed terrorist and who speaks to law enforcement officials around the country, tells his listeners that mainstream Muslim organizations such as the Islamic Society of North America and the Council on American-Islamic Relations are terrorist fronts and that Islamists are by nature violent extremists and pedophiles. Shoebat, like most of the other “reformed” Muslims trotted out to speak at these events, has embraced fundamentalist Christianity. He denounces Islam as the religion of the Antichrist. Shoebat is scheduled to be one of the featured speakers Wednesday at the 2nd Annual South Dakota Homeland Security Conference in Rapid City, sponsored by the South Dakota Department of Public Safety.

The poison of this rhetoric was on display a few days ago when a trustee of City University of New York blocked the playwrightTony Kushner, who is Jewish, from receiving an honorary doctorate because of Kushner’s criticism of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. The trustee, Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld, labeling Kushner “an extremist,” told The New York Times that the Palestinians “who worship death for their children are not human.”

I had dinner in Berkeley recently with my friend Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, an Islamic scholar and the co-founder of Zaytuna College, who has watched the steady deterioration of Muslims’ civil rights since the 2001 attacks. He argues that the stereotypes employed against Muslims mirror, with a different iconography and language, the Cold War Red-baiting that dismantled the militant labor movement and ended all serious challenges to unfettered corporate capitalism. The Red-baiting disempowered a dissident segment of American society and legalized its persecution. Red-baiting turned socialists, anarchists, populists, communists and radicals, who relentlessly challenged the orthodoxies of the permanent war economy and assault on civil liberties, into pariahs and scapegoats. It worked once. It could work again.

The portrayal of Muslims as mortal enemies serves the interests of the expanding security state and the war industry, which consume half of all federal discretionary spending. The “Muslim threat” propagates the culture of fear and ensures our political passivity. Yusuf calls the attacks on American Muslim leadership and Islamic charities “Swiftboating,” in reference to the right-wing smearing of John Kerry’s war record when the senator was running for president in 2004. Create doubt in people’s minds about the allegiances of Muslim leaders and you effectively undermine the entire community. He says these caricatures of Muslims as evil terrorists become effective tools in justifying the ongoing occupations and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the proxy wars in Yemen and Pakistan, and the suspension of basic civil liberties at home. Israel, as well as its supporters in the United States, routinely employs the same racist cant to excuse Israeli war crimes and deny the legitimate rights of Palestinians.

Nazi portrayals of Jews, Yusuf points out, bear a disturbing resemblance to modern portrayals of Muslims. The goal that some of these demagogues have, he said, especially in a time of economic collapse, is to divert widespread rage toward Muslims, just as the leadership of Serbia diverted rage toward Muslims and Croats when that nation’s economy collapsed.

“I was completely humiliated by one of these Homeland Security officials at the San Francisco Airport recently,” Yusuf told me. “He knew who I was. He got more and more antagonistic. He searched all my things. It was one question after another. ‘Who were you visiting?’ he asked. ‘Where were you?’ It was done in front of my wife and children. He would not let up. We had somebody else’s bag who was traveling with us and who had just gone through security. He said, looking at the bag, ‘What kind of a name is that, Hussani?’ I said, ‘It is an American name.’ He looked at me and said: ‘Don’t get smart with me. You’re a big-shot guy. You’re not stupid. You know exactly what I mean. What is that? Is it an Arab name?’ I said, ‘Look, it could be many, many nationalities.’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I’m asking you about this one.’ He was talking to me like this. After about 30 minutes of this, and I don’t know why I was putting up with this, I guess I was hoping each time would be the last, I finally said, ‘You can arrest me. You can do whatever you want. But I’m not answering another one of these inane questions.’ He tossed my passport at me and said, ‘Have a nice day.’ And I am wondering, did he just go through one of these training seminars?”

Yusuf filed a complaint with his senator and the Homeland Security Department. Homeland Security officials told him they would investigate the matter, and that if he could notify them in advance they would escort him through the airport security line. “But,” he said, “the problem with that approach is it essentially turns us into a Third World country where influential people are treated well, but others suffer the brunt of a regime’s brutality if they are suspect. That’s what happens when I go to counties in the Arab world. They meet me at the airport. I get treated like a VIP. But then Gulam, the little greengrocer from Peshawar, who came here as a refugee 15 years ago from the Afghani war, he gets treated like crap, because he doesn’t have friends or influence. Our creed is supposed to be ‘Liberty and justice for all’ and that’s all I want.”

Yusuf tells Muslims in the United States that they should attempt to understand those who readily embrace these stereotypes. “We can’t demonize those who attend rallies where they demonize us, because in the end the people who attend these rallies are also victims,” he said. “They are victims of these demagogues with bully pulpits. People are scared. They are losing their jobs. Their mortgages have gone into foreclosure. They are angry. Demagogues always arise in these situations to use and direct anger. The Muslim community is just an easy target.”

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This entry was posted in Background & Analysis, Civil Liberties, Corporations, Events, Human Rights, Islamophobia, Israel Lobby, Obama, US Economy, US Electoral Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

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