Monday, August 27, 2012

AS ELECTION NEARS VAN JONES CONTRIBUTES TO DEBATE ABOUT STRATEGY


Harry Targ

The central argument of this book is that, to bring back hope and win change, we need more than a great president. We need a movement of millions of people, committed to fixing our democracy and rebuilding America’s economy. (Van Jones, Rebuild the Dream, Nation Books, 2012, 2).

In June, 2011, Van Jones, former White House advisor on Green Jobs and before that community organizer and author of The Green Collar Economy, called on progressives to organize house parties to establish a policy agenda that could serve as the basis for building a new progressive social movement. An inspiring speech to urge organizing at the grassroots level was widely distributed on the internet.
In July thousands of house parties, advertised as efforts to “Rebuild the American Dream,” were held. These were followed by electronic dialogue that led to the adoption of a “Contract for the American Dream;” a ten-point program for economic renewal. Over 300,000 Americans have endorsed the Contract, and the Rebuild the Dream coalition claims to have 600,000 members.

In some communities, including in Lafayette, Indiana, local Rebuild the Dream Coalitions became the vehicle for networking among representatives of civil rights and civil liberties groups, trade unionists, defenders of women’s reproductive health and progressive Democrats. Rallies, petition drives, and panel presentations were organized around jobs and justice, protecting Planned Parenthood, and challenges to the connection between big money and politics.
During the fall of 2011, overshadowing grassroots Dream coalition efforts, the Occupy Movement surfaced and spread all across the United States. Already dramatic fightbacks against anti-labor legislation in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Indiana had begun. Both the activism in the Heartland and in the occupations became more visible (and perhaps more influential).

Reflecting on the possibility of continuing the construction of a mass movement to revitalize democratic institutions and the economy, Jones has written a book assessing these campaigns (including the Obama electoral campaign which preceded them). Most important he presents a conceptual scheme for helping communities decide on appropriate political programs and activities.
Before addressing future needs, Jones makes the important point that the Occupy and Dream movements and the 2008 campaign around the Obama election followed a massive anti-Iraq war movement, new developments in internet organizing, and the construction of movement-oriented think tanks and cable television programs during the first decade of the new century. He believes that social movements build on the successes and failures of those that precede them.

During the first few chapters of Jones’ book, the author discusses strengths and weaknesses of the Obama administration. Among the positive contributions of the administration Jones refers to policies that averted another Great Depression, including saving of the auto industry. Jones applauds passage of the Ledbetter Act. On the negative side Jones discusses the failure of the administration to secure passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, an inadequate economic stimulus package, and weak efforts to regulate Wall Street financial institutions.
From a social movement standpoint Jones included in his critique the successful Democratic National Committee effort to accumulate the power that had been generated at the grassroots to elect Barack Obama. Organizing for America (OFA) groups, Jones wrote, which represented grassroots mobilizations everywhere, were taken over by the formal centralized Democratic Party machinery, thus defusing the energy, passion, and willingness of activists to work for a progressive agenda.
Beyond his review and analysis of  21st century social movements and the Obama campaign, a major theoretical contribution of the book is in its conceptual scheme. By using a 2 x 2 table Jones identifies two critical dimensions of movement building. The first, involves whether campaigns are organized around rational analysis (thorough argumentation with the use of data and the making of specific proposals) or emotional appeals (referring to emotive symbols, slogans, and inspiring artistic creations). The second dimension involves politics as conceptualization (generating ideas) or action.  Action can be about the “inside game,” (bargaining and negotiation, electoral work, lobbying) or politics as an “outside game,” (engaging in street heat, mass mobilizations, rallies, and civil disobedience).

Jones calls the process of identifying policies through rigorous analysis as the “head space,” rallying public support through emotions the “heart space,” lobbying, pressure group politics and elections the “inside game,” and going to the streets the “outside game.” For him the political process involves the activation of all four quadrants at different points in time; using concepts and analysis or emotional appeals applied to inside or outside forms of action.

In Jones’ words:
Sometimes the process moves in the order I have just laid out—from sober analysis and facts (Head Space), to resonant narratives that inspire support (Heart Space), to citizen participation (Outside Game), to official debate, deal making, and rule making (Inside Game). Sometimes it starts in the Heart Space with an impassioned call for change, which activists then pick up on a mass scale (Outside Game), which in turn catalyzes scholars and think tanks (Head Space), and ultimately leads to elected officials changing laws (Inside Game).

….each and every quadrant is the most important one at different stages in the process of making change (121).
The conceptual scheme offered by Van Jones may help grassroots coalitions strategize about their progressive agenda.

First, Jones is correct to argue that politics is about theoretical and policy discussion. Also politics is about popular, accessible appeals to action. In addition, political activity concerns routinized political action, including the selection of leaders, pressuring them to act on the people’s behalf, and making them accountable. Furthermore, it is about extraordinary public action to demand that leaders defend the interests of the masses of the people (the 99 percent) or be ready to suffer punishment for their inside game decisions.
Second, grassroots organizations must decide, given their local, as well as the national, context where their energies need to be placed: developing theories and programs, generating emotive symbols to build mass support, working in elections and generating lobbying campaigns, and/or hitting the streets.
Third, these four dimensions of politics—head space, heart space, inside game, and outside game—are what progressives do. But often we do not reflect on what we are doing; what “stage” in the process of movement-building we are in; and what combination of dimensions--given our resources—should be part of our plan of work.

Fourth, all grassroots groups can sit down at a planning meeting, identify the quadrants, list the activities that have been carried out in each somewhere in the country, assess the situation of the local group, and develop a program that is feasible given resources and local context to achieve pre-articulated progressive goals.
Activists know that building mass movements entail a variety of cognitive and action steps. Sometimes it is useful for a skilled activist, such as Van Jones, to provide us with a framework for discussing how to proceed. Rebuild the Dream does that. It would be a good resource for study group discussion.

 

 

Monday, August 13, 2012

MEDIA RELAUNCHES CAMPAIGN AGAINST SOCIAL SECURITY


Harry Targ
The Lafayette, Indiana Journal and Courier, a Gannett Newspaper, printed an Associated Press story, Monday, August 13, on the front page above the fold, entitled “Little Security for Program’s Payouts.” It warned that Social Security would be in financial crisis by 2033.
The $2.7 trillion surplus in the fund, the story suggested “is starting to look small.”  The story did admit that for thirty years the social security fund received more in taxes than it paid out to eligible recipients. But it raised the fear that the balance sheet would undoubtedly change in the future. In addition, the story indirectly blamed Social Security for federal deficits by suggesting that “surpluses also helped mask the size of the budget deficit being generated by the rest of the federal government.”
The story reported projections of Social Security shortfalls of $7 trillion by 2086. And if 75 years of shortfalls are added up, adjusted for inflation, that would amount to $30.5 trillion dollars. By my calculation in today’s dollars that would reduce the feasibility of engaging in ten Iraq magnitude wars!
Before readers, particularly the young, freak out after reading this story, they should access on the web a report entitled “A Young Person’s Guide to Social Security” from the Economic Policy Institute study (www.epi.org) prepared in collaboration with the National Academy of Social Insurance (www.nasi.org). The report summarizes the history of Social Security, its goals, its payment structure, and the long-term projections of its economic stability.
Among the prominent generalizations that are derived from the report are the following:
-The Social Security program has been the most cost-effective program ever developed by the United States government. Less than one percent of payments into the program are used for its administration.
-The Social Security program is an insurance program paid for through payroll taxes workers and their employers pay in equal proportions.
-The Social Security program provides benefits to participants who have paid into the program for at least ten years. Those entitled to benefits are retirees over 62 years of age, persons with sustained disabilities, and orphans and widows of insured workers.
-Social Security has been the most effective program the United States government ever adopted for lifting workers out of poverty. “In 2010 it lifted 20.3 million Americans out of poverty, 14 million of whom were seniors.”
-Without Social Security half of America’s senior citizens would live in poverty as opposed to the one in ten who are in poverty today. From 1959 to the present the percentage of the elderly who lived in poverty dropped from over 35 percent to nine percent.
-Even though the U.S. economy has experienced multiple economic crises since the foundation of Social Security, payments to eligible recipients have never been postponed or arrived late.
-Social Security is funded by “dedicated revenue sources;” that is payroll taxes, interest on the trust fund and taxes on high income earners who are also social security recipients.
-Current Social Security payroll taxes are regressive in the sense that the “tax cap” currently is $110,000. No payroll taxes in excess of that figure are assessed. (The report compares the 2012 salary of a police official in Miami Beach ($175,000) with NBA star LeBron James ($16 million). Both pay the same dollar amount of Social Security payroll tax).
The EPI/NASI list possible policy changes that could address the temporary short-falls in Social Security receipts that may occur at various times between 2033 and 2070).
These include raising the payroll tax rate, raising the “tax cap” so James pays more on his $16 million salary than those earning a tenth of his salary, or extending the pool of workers--such as some state and local government employees-- who would be eligible and thus contributors to the program.
In addition, social security statisticians point out that the spike in upcoming social security recipients, the so-called “baby boomers,” will flatten out with declining birth rates.
The addition of Congressman Paul Ryan to the Romney ticket is cause for the rekindling of the far-right agenda to privatize social security, which given the recent economic crisis would have been a disaster for millions of senior citizens. Former President Bush had proposed the privatization of Social Security in 2005 but withdrew his proposal because of massive public resistance.
Media conglomerates from Gannett, the Associated Press, and their home town affiliates have been ready and waiting to scare the American people again. And, like Iraq’s alleged “weapons of mass destruction,” this new campaign is designed to overcome the overwhelming resistance of the American people to changing the most successful U.S. government program in history.
And the targeted population is young people who the Right wishes to set in conflict with their elders.  Of course, the fear merchants will not raise the specter of young people, jobless and poor, having to support their elders who may slip into poverty because their loved ones no longer have insured retirement benefits.
It is a scary prospect for young and old alike. All the more reason for building a progressive coalition to fight the rightwing assault on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and all the other programs that help everyone but the one percent.  

Saturday, August 11, 2012

WHAT DO VICE-PRESIDENTS DO?


Harry Targ

I was reflecting on the wisdom I acquired in one of my early college classes, “Introduction to American Government” and subsequent historical readings. First, the conventional wisdom of American political life was that Vice-Presidents are rarely of any administrative or political consequence. Generally, sitting Vice-Presidents represent the United States at funerals of foreign dignitaries. They throw out the first pitch at baseball games at season openers. They may be selected to provide “balance” on a presidential ticket. If the Presidential candidate is from the North, the vice-presidential candidate is from the South, or one of the team is from the East and the other from the Midwest or West Coast.
In office, the traditional wisdom suggests, sitting Vice-Presidents have little influence or even knowledge of current policies, programs, and pending crises. The classic example of this is signified by Vice President Harry Truman’s ascendency to the Presidency upon the death of Franklin Roosevelt in April, 1945. The new President was informed by Secretary of War Henry Stimson, in April, 1945, that the military was about to test a new weapon, the atomic bomb, which could bring an end to the war in Asia. This was news to the sitting Vice-President! And Stimson proposed a strategy for using the bomb, if the test was successful, to threaten the Soviet Union to bow to U.S. post-war demands.
Truman, like most twentieth century Vice-Presidents was not part of the public policy inner-circle before or after presidential elections. He was only on the ticket in 1944 to assuage Southern Democrats because the incumbent Vice-President, Henry Wallace, was seen as a dangerous radical who had publicly opposed racial segregation.
Southern Democrats and other racists and conservatives in the Democratic Party organized to oust Vice-President Wallace to make sure that no dangerous radical could be a heartbeat away from the Oval Office. They mobilized around a traditional machine politician from a border state with no record of opposing racism, Harry Truman. And, as suggested above, while FDR caved to rightwing pressures in the party, the new Vice-President was not made part of the policy team.
Subsequent to the Truman nomination, Vice Presidents included Alben Barkley, Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, George H. W. Bush, Dan Quayle, and Al Gore. For the most part they were of little political influence at best or embarrassments at worst.
The role of Vice-President changed markedly with the election of the George W. Bush/Dick Cheney ticket. Bush came from a wealthy political family and had served with less than distinction as governor of Texas. The election was close and the outcome in November, 2000 was largely determined by a Republican-led Supreme Court.
The real influence over the next eight years was the Vice President, Dick Cheney. Former Congressman from Wyoming, Cheney had served every administration since Richard Nixon. He was the Secretary of Defense when George Herbert Walker Bush launched Gulf War One. General Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of forces during that war and his superior General Colin Powell, Chairperson of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, originally opposed military action in the Gulf. But Secretary of Defense Cheney made it clear that if these military men continued their resistance to war on Iraq he, Cheney, would find a way to get the job done.
Later in the decade, Cheney would participate in the formation of PNAC, Project for the New American Century. This organization of inside the beltway hawks, descendants of the anti-Communist Committee on the Present Danger, and other advocates for high military spending and war rather than diplomacy as the primary tool of empire, used every opportunity during the decade to pressure President Clinton and Congress in the new post-Cold War era to remake the world, including attacking Iraq.
In the 2000 election the PNAC point man, who also served time as CEO of a major defense contractor, Haliburton, became the number two man in the White House.
Serving a new president who during a foreign policy debate with candidate Gore suggested that the United States should not engage in overseas adventures, Cheney went to work to transform United States foreign policy. The so-called “neo-conservative” agenda promoted war over diplomacy, lied about threats to U.S. security, used the 9/11 tragedy to launch two wars that lasted a decade, and created fear about a global terrorist threat. In short, the new Vice-Presidential role was one of power, influence, and control over the presidency not seen since Theodore Roosevelt served as William McKinley’s second in command.
Cheney was the idea man with enormous clout derived from his associations with the military/industrial complex. As a smart, manipulative politician he transformed the role and influence of the vice president, particularly on foreign policy.
Saturday, August 11, 2012, Republican candidate Mitt Romney announced that his running mate for the fall election would be Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, also smart and skilled in the ways of Washington politics. He has articulated a vision of opposition to “big” government for the vast majority of the population. But at the same time his proposed budget remains committed to “big” government for the supper rich. These include the military, insurance companies, and bankers. He will serve as the idea man for the weak Romney candidacy and if elected will do for the domestic economy what Dick Cheney did for United States foreign policy.
Of course, the losers will be working people, women, people of color, the elderly, and the environment. One does not have to be happy with the Obama presidency to see that this fall real choices exist for the future of the 99 percent.

     




Saturday, August 4, 2012

SYRIAN POLICY LOOKS FAMILIAR TO CUBANS


Harry Targ
The United Nations General Assembly approved a resolution Friday, August 3, 2012, that The New York Times said, “severely criticized the Syrian government, blaming it almost exclusively for the killings and other atrocities that have come to shape the 17-month uprising there.”
The resolution condemning Syria ironically implied that it was that country that refused to carry out the peace plan that was proposed four months earlier by Kofi Annan. No mention was made in the resolution that the United States, Britain, France, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, among others had been feeding supplies to anti-government militias that encouraged them to violence rather than negotiation. While 133 Western and Arab League allies voted for the resolution, 33 countries abstained, and 12 voted “no.” These were portrayed as Syria’s “slim group of backers, which include Russia, China, and Iran.”

Syria is a dictatorship that in the recent civil war has leveled brutal violence against its own people. But the Syrian Ambassador was correct in asserting that those who sponsored the resolution condemning violence were the same nations that had “played a major role in the militarization of the situation in Syria, by providing weapons to the terrorist groups.”
It is not surprising that The New York Times failed to mention that Cuba has been one of the longstanding critics of U.S. inspired wars on weak countries such as Libya and now Syria. The Cuban Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Pedro Nunez Mosquera, warned that the resolution which was adopted would encourage more violence from the opposition and retaliation by the state. With growing instability, he asserted, foreign intervention would become legitimized the way it was in the Libyan case.
In an article in Prensa Latina, the Cuban diplomat’s position was summarized: “Cuba considers that all acts of violence, massacres and terrorist acts that claim innocent lives in Syria should cease” but this will require that the anti-Syrian coalition “must put an end to arms smuggling and money to insurgent groups and their training.” Nunez also criticized the major Western media’s one-sided reporting on the violence in Syria.
It is clear that Cuba’s criticisms of the wars on Libya and Syria and the Western economic blockade and military threats toward Iran are motivated by self-interest as well as principle. Cuba, as a country that has suffered an economic blockade by the United States for over fifty years and a U.S. policy designed to diplomatically isolate it, sees similarities between its experiences and U.S. policies toward Syria and Libya.
Despite some U.S. liberalization of travel to the island nation, government agencies and counter-revolutionary organizations in Miami continue to funnel funds, technology, and propaganda to create an opposition that, they hope, will lead to an armed resistance against the Cuban government. If the Cuban government responds to terrorist acts, a U.S orchestrated coalition of dependent allies can justify the transfer of arms, propaganda campaigns, and escalating calls for revolution.
What may be called today “The Libyan Model of Destabilization” is not new to Cubans and as a result they see the necessity of continued vigilance. Alan Gross, hired by the United States Agency for International Development, was caught distributing computer technology to selected communities on the island. A global propaganda campaign was raised about a recent car accident in which two well-known opponents of the regime who were traveling with rightwing Europeans in the countryside were killed. No evidence of foul play was provided concerning the accident although charges by Miami Cubans of government violence have been broadly distributed. Also a recent Miami scholarly conference was organized with presentations by counter-revolutionaries who argued that the recent economic reforms on the island will never work. And repeatedly U.S. and British media highlight alleged growing disenchantment with the regime.
The Libyan Model of Destabilization, which has its roots in the years of economic blockade of Cuba, terrorist acts and assassination plots, the creation of counter-revolutionary groups in Florida and New Jersey, and even an armed invasion, is not likely to work in the Cuban case. First, the Cuban regime has broad popular support. Second, Cuba’s first priority remains social and economic justice. Third, Cuban health care and education is among the best in the Global South.
And, finally, Cuba remains an inspiration to those countries throughout the Western Hemisphere (such as Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Argentina, Brazil, and El Salvador) who seek to create political and economic autonomy in the twenty-first century. As evidenced in positions taken at the recent Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, Latin American countries defended Cuban national sovereignty and are demanding that the latter be included in future meetings of Hemisphere nations.
But as the Libyan model and now the Syria crisis suggest, weak countries everywhere in the world must remain vigilant. Imperialism still survives.