Predictably, the folks at the Christian Right Family Research Council and its political arm FRC Action, are not happy with the U.S. Supreme Court decision on the Obama healthcare plan. On the day the decision was handed down, Tom McClusky, Senior Vice President of FRC Action, sent out an e-mail to donors asking for funds so that the group could reinforce its "efforts at the Republican National Convention and the Platform Committee meetings the week before." According to McClusky, "Our aim is to keep the Republican document conservative with an emphasis on the pro-life and traditional family planks already in the platform." McClusky wants to repeal "Obamacare. And not just repeal "some of it and not other parts. Repeal the whole thing and replace it with common sense reforms that can be agreed upon." McClusky then listed "just a few of the major problems with ObamaCare" based on an FRC Action analysis:
  • Forcing Americans to have health insurance or be fined (or taxed!)
  • A new bureaucracy (IPAB) that will serve as a rationing board
  • Subsidies for health plans that include abortion in state exchanges
  • The mandatory abortion fee that is at least $12 per year for all plans with abortions
  • No conscience protections against government discrimination against businesses, providers, health insurers who refuse abortion.
  • Religious Freedom violation through the contraception/abortifacient mandate, which narrowly restricts religious liberties to churches. Penalties for failure to comply could be $100 per day per employee for the employer (and insurer) who fails to offer "preventive care services", meaning contraceptives, abortifacients and sterilizations free to the patient.
McClusky adds that "now it's our job to make sure that we have the right elected officials who won't abuse their authority. ...The Republican Party Platform meetings in August are only one step in our efforts." He ends by citing Ephesians 6:13: "Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand." But in the spirit of coded messages aimed at the Biblically-literate Christian Right, the surrounding text is worth reading, especially:
"Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." [New International Version (NIV)].
So for McClusky, the choice in November apparently is between a Patriot and an agent of Satan.
Crossposted from Talk to Action

How dare I claim that "Right to Work" really means Union Busting?

Let's start with some quotes by the former head of the anti-union National Right to Work Committee, Reed Larson:

The union hierarchy, operating on billions of dollars plucked from workers’ paychecks, comprises a political machine unmatched by any other in America—a political machine whose philosophy consistently lines up with the socialist fringe in its assault on the rights of individual citizens to live their lives free of government intervention.

Unless we deal with this fundamental injustice, all of the valiant efforts to prevent our country from being engulfed in a flood-tide of leftist social engineering are destined to failure. The special coercive privileges enjoyed by union officials under federal law have enabled them to amass a degree of political power behind their collectivist schemes that no other special interest comes close to matching. Their power to dictate public policy is out of all proportion to the number of persons whose views they truly represent.

Whatever your concern, whether it be taxes, education, health care, the economy, or myriad other issues that need addressing, you can be assured that the propagation of the statist, anti-freedom position on each of those issues is being funded largely with union money, essentially seized at gun point from workers.*

Wait a minute!

  • Assault on the rights of individual citizens?
  • Fundamental injustice?
  • Flood-tide of leftist social engineering?
  • Socialist fringe?
  • Collectivist schemes?
  • The statist, anti-freedom position?
  • Seized at gun point from workers?

Most working people will find these phrases to be overblown rhetoric and, frankly, somewhat bizarre. Historians, political scientists, and sociologists, however, will recognize the language of ultraconservative political ideologues who think America went down the tubes in the 1930s when Franklin Delano Roosevelt used “collectivist schemes” of “social engineering” to steer the nation toward “statist, anti-freedom” policies. These “statist” policies and programs—we know them as Social Security, unemployment insurance, public assistance, low-cost housing, and public health—were embraced as sensible and useful by most Democrats and Republicans for some forty years.

How did 1% of the population of the United States come to own some 40% of our nation’s wealth? And why is it the mission of the most right-wing sector of these elites to crush labor unions?

But let's be clear that there are business people and wealthy people who defend the rights of working people, run corporations where there are tough but fair negotiations with unions, and find the ultraconservative snobs disgusting.

Since the 1930s a small group of wealthy ultraconservative elitists has been rolling back the mandate to “promote the general welfare” assigned to the federal government in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. When the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt began to weave a social safety net to protect working people, these wealthy elitists took out their knives and began to slash at the fabric of our society’s commitment to the common good.

Greed is not good, contrary to the slogan of fictional financial guru Gordon Gecko in the film Wall Street. Greed is not good for most of us, no matter where we locate ourselves on the political spectrum. Almost all of us—certainly 99%--support the ability of working people to earn a decent living, ensure worksite health and safety, organize on behalf of their economic interests, and defend their basic dignity.

The Rev. Martin Luther King spoke of the “Beloved Community” and his concern that either we build that community or we face chaos. It is the community-shattering selfishness and greed of the top 1% in this country that has generated the Occupy Wall Street movement, which seeks a fair deal where everyone pays their fair share. Only a tiny 1% of the population benefits from the current lopsided economic arrangements and policies.

When it retooled its campaign to defend its unfair wealth, power, and privilege in the 1960s, the national network of ultraconservative wealthy elitists was far to the right of the main branch of the Republican Party. Today this network—through skillful reframing of issues, coalition building, and tireless mobilizing of voters—has significant influence in the Republican Party. In this report we refer to the top 1% of wealthy elitists as Organized Wealth.

The attack by Organized Wealth on working people, the middle class, organized labor, and the impoverished is being led by ultraconservatives, Free Market ideologues, and the Christian Right. In 1915 the American Federation of Labor wrote of the campaign by “organized wealth to crush the labor movement,” as recorded in the report of the AFL annual convention. So almost a hundred year ago we faced the same selfish forces of organized wealth and their phony claims that greed is good.

How does it work?

The most effective way for Organized Wealth to distract attention from their kleptocracy is to peddle a subversion panic using scare tactics.

In this way, the blame for economic, political, and social tensions is transferred away from a fundamentalist and unfair form of Laissez Faire "Free Market" capitalism to a phantasm of collectivists, communists, organized labor bosses, banksters, and other alleged scapegoated subversives and traitors. At the same time, defense of unequal racial and gender hierarchies can be mobilized as part of the countersubversion effort.

They use right-wing populist rhetoric to enlist a mass base to defend their unfair power, privilege, and wealth. A large, mostly middle-class, mostly white constituency is thus convinced to side with Organized Wealth as a way to defend their relative and precarious power and privilege in society.

The creation of the Tea Parties was a result of massive funding by Organized Wealth. The rapid growth of the Tea Party movement, however, is due to the incorporation of the frames and narratives of pre-existing movements with a conspiracist worldview such as the Patriot Movement (from the John Birch Society to the armed militias) and the Christian Right (especially the Dominionist tendency).

The Tea Parties are therefore just the latest appearance of a right-wing populist revolt tracing back to attacks on Roosevelt Administration policies and even earlier episodes of regressive populist revolts.

The minions of Organized Wealth have convinced many Americans to oppose the guarantee of basic human rights and dignity to working people both inside and outside of labor unions. And, at the same time, they have stepped on the rights and aspirations of women, people of color, gay people, immigrants, and the working poor.

This may seem an alarming—even outrageous—claim, and the rest of this report is dedicated to defending the charge.

Today there has been serious erosion of support for these and other public policies and programs that seek to “establish justice,” “insure domestic tranquility,” “promote the general welfare,” and “secure the blessings of liberty.” We see this in the attack on public sector unions in Wisconsin, Ohio, and other states. The National Right to Work Committee played a major role in undermining these promises made to all of us in the Constitution of the United States, but it has not acted alone.

It’s not some secret conspiracy; it is a loosely knit network of intelligent and talented people and groups who marshal profound and passionate ideological arguments in defense of their unfair wealth and power. When ultraconservative activists look in the mirror every morning, they think of themselves as patriotic people rescuing America from a “flood-tide of leftist social engineering” led by that traitorous socialist, Barack Obama.

It’s an amazing story.


Larson, Reed, 2000. “Government-Granted Coercive Power: How Big Labor Blocks the Freedom Agenda.” Speech delivered at  Hillsdale College, September 15, 1999, reprinted in Imprimis, Vol. 29, No. 4 (April).
Public attention on right-wing funding in political campaigns has been galvanized by the attack on working people in Wisconsin by an ultraconservative governor out to crush labor unions. Funders such as the Kock Brothers and right-wing institutions such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), have been explored by numerous progressive groups.
There is, however, a much larger elaborate strategic right-wing process at work here. It started with the Powell Memo in 1971 urging corporations and wealthy elites to defend the "Free Market" against "Tax & Spend" liberals, "Big Government" progressives, and "Thugish" union leaders. These slogans are part of a carefully-crafted propaganda campaign by organized wealth.
And this massive campaign by organized wealth is just part of the more than $1 Billion spent by right-wing funders since 1971 to shift wealth upwards, pick our pockets, and stomp on the basic human rights of most of us.
Their strategy is simple, and they openly brag about it....
Public attention on right-wing funding in political campaigns has been galvanized by the attack on working people in Wisconsin by an ultraconservative governor out to crush labor unions. Funders such as the Kock Brothers and right-wing institutions such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), have been explored by numerous progressive groups. There is, however, a much larger elaborate strategic right-wing process at work here. It started with the Powell Memo in 1971 urging corporations and wealthy elites to defend the "Free Market" against "Tax & Spend" liberals, "Big Government" progressives, and "Thugish" union leaders. These slogans are part of a carefully-crafted propaganda campaign by organized wealth. And this massive campaign by organized wealth is just part of the more than $1 Billion spent by right-wing funders since 1971 to shift wealth upwards, pick our pockets, and stomp on the basic human rights of most of us. Their strategy is simple, and they openly brag about it....

•  Cut taxes, especially for the wealthy, to "starve" federal, state, and local governments until their ability to serve our needs is wrecked.

•  Attack labor unions and minimum wage laws to lower labor costs.

•  Push deregulation to remove laws that protect the environment and public safety.

•  Privatize, privatize, privatize.

•  When society starts to fall apart, blame liberals, immigrants, Muslims, women, gay people, progressive organizers, and other handy scapegoats vilified on Fox News and other right-wing media.

Let's use labor unions as an example. Over the past 30 years, right-wing corporate conservatives and economic libertarians have spent more than $170 million just trying to convince us that labor unions are bad for America, and that government laws and regulations should not protect a worker's right to organize a union without harassment or termination. The coalition of foundations that fund conservative and right-wing think tanks and other institutions that attack organized labor give money to an array of allied and interconnected think tanks that numerous reports and issue an endless stream of press releases. This creates the impression that there is a groundswell of support for reigning in labor unions and government "interference" in corporate affairs. These foundations often give long-term grants that provide stability and ensure the survival of conservative and right-wing think tanks. They support both a Social Movement Infrastructure and a Political Movement Infrastructure. Until a similar progressive social movement infrastructure is created and sustained, the Democratic Party will continue to move to the right; and the right-wing attacks on working people, a living wage, and handy scapegoats will increase. Militant social movement pull political parties toward their never works the other way around Fight Back!
For more information, visit the Organized Wealth website (Click on the exclamation point after you get the joke)
This spring is a season of confrontation at the shareholders' meetings of U.S. banks and other major corporations. And this week, Bank of America has been in the spotlight. Cross-posted from the "Arguing the World" blog at Dissent magazine. On Wednesday, around a thousand protesters rallied outside the bank's annual meetings in Charlotte, North Carolina, brilliantly rebranding the event "Bank vs. America." The demonstration was remarkable in uniting people across a wide range of issues. As Laura Gottesdiener wrote at Waging Nonviolence, protesters are targeting the bank for
funding mountaintop coal removal, perpetuating student debt that has now surpassed $1 trillion nationally, laying off more than 100,000 workers in the last few years and, of course, foreclosing on millions of homeowners across the country. In anticipation, the Charlotte City Council has already passed laws criminalizing protest, as well as camping and carrying permanent markers.
The latter part of the quote, about the great lengths officials have gone to truncate rights to free speech and assembly, is unfortunately less remarkable than the activists' coalition-building. There is no doubt more to come, since Charlotte will host the Democratic National Convention in September--and Occupy activists have promised to target that event. In addition to outside marches, there were also critics of BoA inside the annual meeting, with dissidents introducing shareholders' resolutions challenging the bank's overseas tax havens and its support of environmentally destructive mining practices. As Zach Carter of the Huffington Post reported, Bank of America CEO and public enemy number one Brian Moynihan
defended the company's operation of subsidiaries in nations identified as international tax havens by saying, "We're a global business," suggesting that Bank of America needs its sub-companies in other nations because that's where the business is. "I don't think there's a whole lot of Bank of America operations in the Cayman Islands," one disgruntled shareholder responded.
Later Bob Kincaid, president of Coal River Mountain Watch, spoke out:
"You are part of the poisoning of Appalachia and so is every one of your directors and so is every one of your shareholders," Kincaid said. "You are part of the destruction of an entire region of the country." "Sir, our environmental team will take a look at it. We look at it all the time," Moynihan said. The crowd responded with jeers.
The move to target corporate shareholders meetings is the outgrowth of an ad hoc coalition that is calling itself 99% Power. This umbrella campaign includes participation from community groups (National People's Action, the New Bottom Line, the Unity Alliance), environmental organizations (Rainforest Action Network), and major unions (UNITE HERE, SEIU, USW)--and it overlaps very substantially with the groups that organized the 99% Spring trainings last month. Those trainings--an effort to provide 100,000 people will skills in nonviolent direct action--drew some over-the-top criticism. Adbusters magazine led the way with frantic cries of cooptation. It characterized the trainings as a scheme to make the Occupy movement a "reelection campaign for President Obama" and encouraged its readers to "Jump, jump, jump over the dead body of the old left!" This was more paranoia than it was an actual effort to look at the 99% Spring agenda or to assess the range of groups involved in it. As I wrote in April, the trainings ended up getting some mixed reviews, but, on the whole, they could hardly be characterized as Camp Obama cheer sessions. Moreover, what some frame negatively as cooptation could easily--and more accurately--be framed positively as Occupy gathering needed allies and successfully setting the agenda for a far-reaching progressive movement. In my view, the Bank vs. America protests provide more evidence for the baselessness of cooptation complaints. While the decision to focus attention on the spring meetings of major corporations did come out of a coalition of institutional left groups, you'd be hard pressed to argue that the actions we saw this week do not fit comfortably within the established ethos of Occupy. And even if joining those confronting Moynihan was not your cup of tea, it's hard to see how the Charlotte protests were mutually exclusive with other Occupy-related organizing. If anything, they helped to keep the movement in the press and generate a continuing sense that activists are coming back strong after a winter of semi-hibernation. The more valid criticism is that it does not appear that 99% Spring, despite trying to ready tens of thousands of people for escalating civil disobedience, resulted in particularly disruptive actions in Charlotte. The reports I've seen suggest that there were six anti-BoA protesters arrested there--with a handful of other arrests occurring at solidarity events in places like New York City. That's hardly an avalanche of civil resistance. On the plus side, there's still more than a month of spring opportunities left, and there are upcoming protests at Sallie Mae, Chevron, Target, and WalMart--not to mention the NATO summit in Chicago. Worthy targets all, I'd say!
It is a myth that Gandhi said, "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win." But that old saying nevertheless carries a lot of truth when it comes to social movements. And it is always a pleasure to see a worthy target of activism move from disregard or mockery to going on the attack. [Cross-posted from the "Arguing the World" blog at Dissent magazine.] Therefore, I was happy to see the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) release a half-defiant, half-pathetic statement bemoaning the "coordinated and well-funded intimidation campaign against corporate members of the organization." Its statement reads:
ALEC is an organization that supports pro-growth, pro-jobs policies and the vigorous exchange of ideas between the public and private sector to develop state based solutions. Today, we find ourselves the focus of a well-funded, expertly coordinated intimidation campaign. Our members join ALEC because we connect state legislators with other state legislators and with job-creators in their states. They join because we support pro-business policies that promote innovation and spur local and national competitiveness. They're ALEC members because they're more interested in solutions than rhetoric.... At a time when job creation, real solutions and improved dialogue among political leaders is needed most, ALEC's mission has never been more important. This is why we are redoubling our commitment to these essential priorities. We are not and will not be defined by ideological special interests who would like to eliminate discourse that leads to economic vitality, jobs and fiscal stability for the states.
After about the third reference to "job creators," it's hard to miss that this is an operation nestled snugly within the depths of the far-right echo chamber, never passing over a chance to frame tax cuts for the top 1 percent as a moderate, bipartisan path to common bliss. In fact, far from sticking to promoting "improved dialogue," ALEC has (with troubling effectiveness) advanced a slew of reactionary measures in statehouses throughout the country. Stand Your Ground? Check. Prison privatization? Check. Right to Work? Check. Discriminatory Voter ID laws? Check. The list goes on and on. These legislative outrages have inspired a coalition of progressive groups to fight back. They are going after the companies that are paying $25,000 annual dues to this far-right outfit--exposing these brand-sensitive patrons for aligning themselves with the conservative fringe. The tactic is proving very effective. On Wednesday, fast-food giant Wendy's joined McDonald's in ending its ALEC membership. Previously Pepsi, Coke, Kraft, Intuit, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation all announced that they were jumping ship. This exodus is what prompted ALEC's response. That organization complaining about a "well-funded, expertly coordinated" political operation surely merits placement in the pot-calling-the-kettle-black hall of fame. But these words serve as high praise for the organizations that have endeavored to expose the group's corporate funders. Prominent among them is, which has quickly established itself as a leader in the field of corporate campaigning. I previously lauded for its successful effort to strip Glenn Beck of advertisers after the demagogue (then at Fox News) said that President Obama harbored a "deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture," among other batshit-crazy statements. Few in the mainstream media wanted to give the boycott credit for ousting Beck, preferring to believe that the cable news personality had simply outstayed his welcome on the network. Beck himself was not about to acknowledge activists' impact, just as Kraft now says that it is leaving ALEC for a "number of reasons"--none, of course, related to the tens of thousands of signatures pouring in from and allies such as the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. This is exactly what you would expect. Wendy's, for its part, says that it didn't renew its ALEC membership not because of pressure but because it "didn't fit our business needs." That, in the end, is a pretty good definition of the purpose of corporate campaigns--making businesses decide that it doesn't "fit their needs" to attack workers, reinforce institutional racism, wreck the environment, or undermine the social safety net. In any case, it certainly doesn't fit the needs of the rest of us.
[Cross-posted from the "Arguing the World" blog at Dissent magazine.] Can you be an environmentalist and support things like the Keystone XL pipeline and hydraulic fracking? Not likely, but it’s conceivable. Can you be an environmentalist and oppose the power of the environmental movement? I think not. Recently, New York Times columnist Joe Nocera has written several columns defending some environmentally problematic projects. Although he indicates that he is someone who takes the challenge of global climate change seriously, he came out with two successive columns in support of the Keystone XL pipeline. Then, last week, he voiced a defense of the drilling method known as hydraulic fracking, used to extract natural gas. Not long ago, I offered some praise for Nocera. I wrote that he was doing pretty well with his column—at least by the not-too-stellar standards of the Times op-ed page. Am I regretting this now? I still think that Nocera has had some redeeming moments, but his recent anti-environmental streak has definitely put him closer to the company of faux-liberals such as Thomas Friedman. In his column on fracking, Nocera argues that the practice is going to happen whether we like it or not, and that the best we can do is to work with businesses to help them clean up their act. In the process, he inadvertently admits that methane leaks from fracking have an absolutely massive greenhouse gas impact—possibly accounting more than a quarter of all relevant U.S. emissions. Dean Baker notes that “if cutting the methane emissions from fracking in half would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 9 percent,” as Nocera contends, “then the methane emissions must come to close to 18 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions.” Furthermore, if you accept some of the higher estimates (in reports Nocera cites) of how much methane is leaking as a result of this drilling technique, “then fracking would account for more than one quarter of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.” Baker concludes:
Nocera may have his numbers completely wrong, but the implication of the evidence presented in his piece is that fracking is an incredibly dirty process from the standpoint of greenhouse gas emissions. If his numbers are right, he makes a compelling case for banning fracking unless it can be done far more cleanly than is currently the case.
Others have remarked that Nocera totally ignores the water contamination that can result from fracking—one of the biggest environmental controversies surrounding this drilling method. This oversight also looks conspicuous. The environmental claims behind Nocera’s defense of the hotly contested Keystone XL pipeline have also been challenged. Most notably, Joe Romm at Climate Progress named Nocera part of the “climate ignorati.” Responding to the Times columnist’s first pro-Keystone piece, Romm noted that Nocera utterly failed to discuss the impact of the pipeline on climate change:
So far, it seems as if Nocera’s views on global warming derive from reading the likes of the widely debunked physicist Freeman Dyson and attending Exxon-Mobil shareholder meetings, which causes him to [dismiss] knowledgeable people who express science-based trying to “push Exxon Mobil toward their belief system—their global warming religion.”
Romm subsequently argued:
Needless to say, folks who “believe that global warming poses a serious threat” do not generally use the phrase “global warming religion.” That was a key reason I called him a member of the climate ignorati. The science says that global warming is an existential threat (see Lonnie Thompson on why climatologists are speaking out: “Virtually all of us are now convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization,” and literature review here)....Apparently Nocera wants us to think he is concerned about the global warming threat while simultaneously embracing full exploitation of unconventional oil and gas.
I’m thankful for these responses. At the same time, my biggest beef with Nocera isn’t his take on climate science. It’s the implicit theory of social change that he presents. In these columns, Nocera shows himself to be an apostle of liberal moderation. He appears to believe that calm, reasoned engagement with the oil and gas industry will lead to an amicable resolution of any regrettable differences of opinion over the environment. In this vein, he condemns social movement-oriented environmental groups for being too pushy, and he instead praises the Environmental Defense Fund. Nocera writes:
One thing I’ve always liked about the Environmental Defense Fund is its hardheaded approach. Founded by scientists, it believes in data, not hysteria. It promotes market incentives to change behavior and isn’t afraid to work with industry. Utterly nonpartisan, it is oriented toward practical policy solutions....Unlike others in the environmental movement, [EDF President Fred Krupp] and his colleagues at the Environmental Defense Fund don’t want to shut down fracking; rather, their goal is to work with the states where most of the shale gas lies and help devise smart regulations that would make fracking environmentally safer.
Heaven forbid that those seeking to defend the environment be “partisans” skeptical of working with Republicans or with industry flacks! After all, how could any right-thinking moderate be so cynical about our brothers and sisters on the conservative side of the aisle and their long-established commitment to “practicality” and reasoned compromise? It’s nice that Nocera calls for “better, more uniform regulation and tougher enforcement” to make fracking cleaner. But he’s in for a sore surprise when he sees that any effort to secure this—no matter how non-“hysterical” the proposal—will be met by firm stonewalling, big-money counter-lobbying, and rabid denunciation in the right-wing think tank/Fox News echo chamber. Anyone who claims to be following the climate debate with concern, but who still believes that the industry can be swayed by careful consideration of the data, is living with their head stuck in the tar sand. The oil and gas interests that Nocera defends have made a mockery of climate science, denying and obfuscating at every opportunity. Sure, there’s plenty of hysteria in the debate. But environmentalists—and climate scientists not paid for by industry who have steadfastly stood by their studies—are hardly its leading proponents. To suggest that they are is to join with Rick Santorum in his through-the-looking-glass denunciation of the liberal war on science. To me, the most telling moment in Nocera’s two pro-Keystone XL columns is when he bemoans that Obama caved to environmentalists on the issue:
I realize that President Obama rejected Keystone because, politically, he had no choice. My guess is that, in his centrist heart of hearts, the president wanted to approve it. But to give the go-ahead before the election was to risk losing the support of the environmentalists who make up an important part of his base.
Even if you’re not convinced that stopping this particular pipeline should have been the environmental movement’s top priority, you should be aware of a basic reality: any genuine solution to the crisis of global climate change will require a robust movement that is able to flex its muscle and compel politicians to stand up to the influence of the energy lobbies. Characterizing such a movement as symptomatic of the country’s “poisoned politics” is both naïve and wrong-headed. The oil barons and climate denialists could hardly ask a bigger favor of our nation’s “moderates.”
News media have made a curious distinction in their coverage of a suspect in a series of arsons this past weekend in the Los Angeles area, and the circumstances surrounding his arrest. Harry Burkhart, the 24-year-old suspect, hails from Germany and is here on a nonimmigrant visa. Many media have highlighted the fact that Burkhart has been upset about his mother’s pending extradition—she faces fraud charges in Germany. Then there’s Shervin Lalezary, the volunteer deputy who arrested Burkhart Jan. 2. Some of the same media have downplayed the fact that he is “Iranian-born,” or was “born in Tehran, Iran, and moved to the U.S. with his family about 25 years ago.” In fact, few if any media outlets refer to Mr. Lalezary as an immigrant, much less a heroic immigrant who saved Los Angeles from additional damage. Where media treat the arson suspect in an immigration-related framework, talking about their immigration status and her pending extradition, they bury the fact that the good guy in this story is an immigrant. Most don’t even use the term. Immigrants, like native-born Americans, are human beings. The overwhelming majority are law-abiding contributors who do the right thing day after day. It is problematic when media outlets use an immigration frame to talk about the one who does harm and glosses over the immigration aspect of the one who does good. In 2012 it’s in to treat immigrants as people. Let’s be sure we treat all immigrants as people.
Over the past decade, Reverend Billy has become a familiar face in social justice circles. He can often be found at protest events in his trademark white suit, priestly collar, and dyed-blond pompadour. When he's performing, he speaks with the fervor of an evangelical preacher. Yet his message is, as he has put it, "post-religious." He is focused on saving souls not from otherworldly hellfire, but from wanton consumerism and the ecological ravages of unrestrained capitalism. [Cross-posted from the "Arguing the World" blog at Dissent magazine.] I wrote a profile of Reverend Billy back in 2005, when his New York City-based performance troupe/congregation was still called the "Church of Stopping Shopping." (It has subsequently been renamed the "Church of Earthalujah," and the reverend has increasingly immersed himself in the fight against global climate change.) I noted then:
Reverend Billy, the charismatic leader of the Church of Stop Shopping, is the creation of New York performance artist and avant-garde theater veteran Bill Talen. His Jimmy Swaggart-like persona may be rooted in parody, but Talen--who draws inspiration from ACT UP, the Guerrilla Girls, Lenny Bruce, and Abbie Hoffman--approaches his work with unusual seriousness. The reverend is his main focus year-round; he even earns a modest living from the character, doing lectures and residencies with arts organizations. When his choir belts out lyrics like "So it's Christmastime, now let's stop our shopping / Consumer confidence, yes oh yes it's dropping," it shows off vocal chops honed in weekly rehearsals. And when Talen delivers his sermons he is genuinely red-faced and beaded with sweat. "We really are trying to figure out the addiction of consumerism," Talen says. "Why do Americans shop this way? The advertisements persuade us that consumerism itself is democracy. They persuade us that it's normal. But we think it's unprecedented."
Lately, Reverend Billy has been active as a participant and popular speaker at #Occupy movement encampments. This past week, he visited Occupy London, addressing the demonstrators gathered outside St. Paul's Cathedral, near the London Stock Exchange. He celebrated the spirit of crowd, lauded those assembled for "not living the product life," and encouraged campers to persevere in cold weather: "Let's remind ourselves all through the winter to be radically patient," he called out, drawing cheers and hallelujahs in reply. The London performance highlighted something I've thought about ever since first meeting Talen. On the one hand, Reverend Billy's routine is easy to understand. It's a campy appropriation of the costume and vocal inflections of the old-time revival preacher, put in the service of anti-corporate street theater. And it works. The performances are fun to watch. If you're in New York over Thanksgiving, it's even more fun to join one of the reverend's marches through Manhattan shops on "Black Friday" (a.k.a. "Buy Nothing Day"), when he leads a festive flock in performing "retail interventions" at corporate chain stores. At the same time, as someone who grew up on the Catholic left, there is something about Talen's act that's always been a bit confusing to me. When you think about it, we shouldn't need an ironic borrowing of church mannerisms in order to hear a sermon against corporate greed. After all, why should railing against the evils of consumerism have to be done as a half-in-jest parody by a fake preacher? Shouldn't our real preachers be doing the same thing in earnest? In this respect, Reverend Billy's act is an indictment of Christian religious leaders--a routine that points to that failure of most mainstream ministers to join with movements for social and economic justice, to champion public demonstrations, and to be outspoken and unafraid in denouncing the idolatry of the market. If greater numbers of actually ordained ministers were stepping up to give their own rousing speeches to protest encampments--and bringing their own gospel choirs with them--Talen's shtick would hardly be necessary. To their credit, some religious leaders have spoken out. Some 300 congregations and religious officials signed a statement in October supporting the values of Occupy Wall Street. A variety of clergy members have offered religious services at Zuccotti Park, and others have helped with donations of food or tents from their organizations. On the part of the Catholic Church, a few weeks ago the Vatican released a document calling for regulation of the financial sector, declaring support for a "Robin Hood" tax on speculation, and warning against the "inequalities and distortions of capitalist development." More dramatically, at the very place Reverend Billy was speaking last week, a prominent member of the clergy resigned over the Church of England's treatment of the Occupy London encampment. As the Guardian reported, "The canon chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral, the Rev. Dr. Giles Fraser, has resigned in protest at plans to forcibly remove protesters from its steps, saying he could not support the possibility of 'violence in the name of the church.'" The Guardian further reported that "a part-time cleric also resigned" in protest, and that the events have thrown the leadership of the cathedral into turmoil. The controversy has resulted in criticism of the Anglican establishment--not only for mishandling the protest camp, but also for being insufficiently vocal in denouncing financial sector recklessness before having the spotlight shined on them by the #Occupy actions. The resignations by St. Paul's dissidents are a bold statement about which side the churches should be taking in the fight against corporate greed. For the time being, there's still plenty of space for Bill Talen's act. But if more clergy members start following Giles Fraser's courageous example and begin making significant personal sacrifices to support the #Occupy movement, the real preachers might just put Reverend Billy out of business.
This past Saturday was "Bank Transfer Day," a day of action in which thousands of people moved their money from "too big to fail" banking titans into credit unions and smaller regional banks. While it's hard to tell precisely how many people followed through on their threats to close accounts on Saturday itself, over the past month credit unions have added 650,000 new members (as opposed to 80,000 in a regular month), resulting in more than $4.5 billion in new deposits. [Cross-posted from the "Arguing the World" blog at Dissent magazine.] As Sarah Jaffe at Alternet noted, ABC News aired a remarkable report calling the exodus of customers a "bank revolt" and stating, "as of today, 1 million consumers are hurling a lightning-bolt warning at the big banks, moving their money out in protest." Now, a lot of the impact of closing accounts might have been symbolic, and $4.5 billion might not be all that much money relative to the size of the banking system as a whole. But, as Salon's Andrew Leonard writes, riffing on an old joke, "$4.5 billion here, $4.5 billion there, and pretty soon you are talking about real money, even for JPMorgan-Chase." All in all, Bank Transfer Day was a pretty powerful expression of collective disgust by Americans fed up with the goliath banks. Right? Well, not everyone agrees. Leave it to the New Republic to publish a piece of smug nay-saying in which the writer shows himself to be far smarter than all those who had the nerve to take collective action. In this case, Simon van Zuylen-Wood, a reporter-researcher for the magazine, penned an article entitled, "How Bank Transfer Day Will Help the Banks It's Trying to Hurt." He argued:
[I]f the executives at the country's biggest banks have circled Bank Transfer Day on their calendars, it's probably not out of anxiety. Whatever the intentions of its organizers, Bank Transfer Day may end helping the very one percenters they mean to punish. At the root of the problem is that many Bank Transfer Day enthusiasts have overestimated their value to the banks they patronize: Ultimately, not all bank customers are made equal....According to Jennifer Tescher, President and CEO of the consultancy Center for Financial Services Information, banks typically earn at about 80 percent of their deposit revenue from the top 20 percent of their customers.
In his post, van Zuylen-Wood goes on to explain that maintaining small checking accounts can actually cost big banks more money than the accounts generate in profits. And, owing to the passage of the Dodd-Frank bill last year, banks are limited in the amount they can charge in overdraft or "swipe fees" that they previously used to make small customers worthwhile for them. He continues:
Bank of America's early October proposal to supplement its lost "swipe fee" revenue using a five dollar per month charge to holders of debit cards should probably be understood in that context. It was designed to be a win-win proposition for the bank: either it earned $60 per year from each debit card customer with a checking count under $20,000...or it would drive unprofitable customers away from the bank entirely (or at least toward Bank of America credit cards, which have become more profitable than debit cards), to the benefit of the bank's bottom line.
If the article were meant merely as an analysis of the business of handling small checking accounts, I would say that it makes some perfectly fair points. But it's framed as something more than that--as a piece that analyzes the efficacy of a political action and that argues that those taking the action are naive. In that capacity, it is model of crap contrarianism. If I had a dollar for every self-satisfied commentary written (even by ostensibly sympathetic liberals) about protests being misguided and ineffective, I'd no doubt be able to join the wealthy elite that the #Occupy movement has been targeting. And I expect that I would earn about 80 percent of my deposit revenue from the New Republic. The fact of the matter is that, if the big banks wanted to expel customers, they could easily do so. (Why not a $20 monthly fee for debit card use?) But far from receiving an eager farewell at bank branches impatient to shed small-time depositors, many of those who have descended upon institutions such as Citibank demanding to close their accounts report encountering bank managers who tried to convince them to change their minds. Of course, the "move your money" effort is not only a matter of individuals' decisions about their personal finances. In the context of larger Occupy Wall Street mobilizations, many people were coupling the closing of accounts with demands for political change. That's why others who have swarmed in as part of group actions have encountered police threatening (or even conducting) arrests. Overall, Bank Transfer Day was part of a wave of public outrage, defiance, and protest that is doing significant damage to the banks' reputations--which they evidently value. As van Zuylen-Wood himself notes:
Ultimately, the Bank of America and its competitors chose not to go ahead with the five dollar charge, deciding that the hit to their PR wasn't worth the potential gains to their bottom line. As Diane Casey-Landry, a former CEO of the American Bankers Association told me, the public outcry against BoA was enough of a "reputational kick in the chin" that its top competitors--Wells Fargo, Citibank, and Chase--abandoned their proposed debit fees as well.
What is a day of action in which thousands close their accounts and denounce the banks as greedy bastards if not another PR "kick in the chin"? In his article, van Zuylen-Wood uses selective citation of a source to suggest that credit unions might not want the influx of new members:
Worse yet, by transferring their money to credit unions, Bank Transfer Day participants may also be harming the very financial institutions they mean to help. These not-for-profit banking co-ops are governed by their depositors and are generally more customer-friendly than banks--although too big a customer base could threaten that. Indeed, a little more than a week ago, in anticipation of Bank Transfer Day, the [Credit Union National Association] sent out a memo advising its federal regulators that a large influx of new customers could lead to long-term problems down the road, reminding them that credit unions are penalized if their retained earnings fall short of seven percent of their total assets. In other words, by inundating credit unions with a flood of capital they likely cannot profitably invest, the Bank Transfer Day participants may be pushing those institutions to abandon the perks that make them attractive, like free checking accounts. Bank Transfer Day gets one basic thing right: Checking account holders have a right to take their business wherever they wish. What they forget, however, is that not everyone will want the business they have to offer.
Except that, the credit unions do want the new business--and they've been very vocal about that fact. The same source that van Zuylen-Wood cites, the Credit Union National Association, sent out a press release last week lauding Bank Transfer Day and celebrating the influx of new members. It includes exuberant quotes from the organization's president, Bill Cheney:
"Many credit unions across the nation...are making special efforts to tap the surging interest in credit unions," said Cheney. "They are conducting advertising campaigns both individually and cooperatively with others, sending 'switch kits' to existing members to share with family members or other prospective members, beefing up websites, extending hours and staffing for Bank Transfer Day, performing e-mail blasts to members, maximizing social media campaigns, putting up banners in lobbies or on their buildings, offering bonuses to members who bring in new members, and giving bonuses to members as well," Cheney said.
The New York Daily News quoted another credit union executive basically saying the exact opposite of what van Zuylen-Wood wants to convey:
"These are very good times for credit unions," said Kirk Kordeleski, CEO of Bethpage Federal Credit Union, one of Long Island's largest with 24 branches and $4.4 billion in assets. "All this conversation about fees has led to a lot of opportunity for us," said Kordeleski, who saw a 60% hike in new members in October, to 1550 from 925.
In general, "vote with your dollars" consumer actions are not my preferred model of organizing. Moreover, I have no illusions that the amount of money transferred by small account-holders, in itself, is going to cripple the banking giants. But my answer to people who raise that point is the same as my response to people who think that moving your money to a credit union is merely a lifestyle decision with no real political impact. The energy of something like Bank Transfer Day only feeds into other activist efforts and broadens the constituency supporting regulation of the financial sector. This weekend, activists got thousands of people to move their money. Next week they can find a new way to stick it to the big banks. After all, protesters featured in the ABC News story weren't just saying, "Close Your Account." They had signs that said, "Make Banks Pay." I think their detractors are going to have a hard time explaining how that demand ends up helping the one percent.
Conservative historian and Harvard professor Niall Ferguson has a funny habit. He asserts himself as a timely political commentator by weighing in on a debate about a hot contemporary problem. But then he proposes policy measures so dramatically inappropriate to the issue at hand that his comments become the opposite of timely. Antonyms such as untimely or inopportune don't quite capture it. He is willfully, stubbornly wrong at exactly the right moment--when the wrongness of his thinking could hardly be more evident. [Cross-posted from the "Arguing the World" blog at Dissent magazine.] I wrote of a few examples of this in a review of Ferguson's work in the Spring 2009 issue of Dissent. Just as the United States was undertaking its 2003 invasion of Iraq, Ferguson stepped forward as an outspoken defender of empire. Then, in the wake of the most profound economic crisis in generations, he offered The Ascent of Money, which celebrated the market system, heaped praise upon Milton Friedman, and advocated the shifting of our pensions into private retirement accounts. Ferguson has done it again with the #Occupy movement, with a commentary entitled, "Yes, Wall Street Helps the Poor." In this piece, Ferguson discusses attending a charity poker tournament where a bunch of hedge-fund managers got together to raise money for charter schools in several impoverished New York City neighborhoods. He believes that such charity events could give "America's financial elite...a compelling answer to Occupy Wall Street." Strangely, Ferguson devotes much of his article to presenting evidence that social mobility in America is declining:
Americans used to believe in social mobility regardless of the hand you're dealt. Ten years ago, polls showed that about two thirds believed "people are rewarded for intelligence and skill," the highest percentage across 27 countries surveyed....Yet the hardships of the Great Recession may be changing that, giving an unexpected resonance to the Occupy Wall Street movement. Falling wages and rising unemployment are making us appreciate what we ignored during the good times. Social mobility is actually lower in the U.S. than in most other developed countries--and falling. Academic studies show that if a child is born into the poorest quintile (20 percent) of the U.S. population, his chance of making it into the top decile (10 percent) is around 1 in 20, whereas a kid born into the top quintile has a better than 40 percent chance. On average, then, a father's earnings are a pretty good predictor of his son's earnings. This is less true in Europe or Canada. What's more, American social mobility has declined markedly in the past 30 years.
Could Wall Street's excesses, its destructive speculation, and its adverse influence on our political system have anything to do with this decline in social mobility, or with the tremendous increase in economic inequality our society has witnessed in recent decades? (After all, just this week the Congressional Budget Office released new data about the rich getting richer at the expense of the rest of the economy.) Nope. Ferguson doesn't even consider the possibility that Wall Street might be part of the problem. He refers to the traders' "ill-gotten gains" only in jest. Instead, he tells us, the decline in social mobility comes from a single source: "the stranglehold exerted by the teachers' unions," which "makes it almost impossible to raise the quality of education in subprime public schools." Bust the unions, promote "philanthropy, not confiscatory taxation" among America's richest one percent, and our problems will be solved. This stuff would be hard for lefties to make up if they tried. It's the intellectual equivalent of the wealthy greeting demonstrations on Wall Street with a champagne toast from on high. Notwithstanding the facts he cites about decreasing social mobility in America, Ferguson clearly believes that the top one percent has earned its station in life--that Wall Street traders have succeeded through grit, intelligence, and determination. If only we broke up the "public monopoly" of the American school system, his argument goes, more poor people would similarly have the opportunity to become winners. Although not a direct response to Ferguson, I think Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi provided an important counterpoint this past week to several such strains of conservative thinking about Occupy Wall Street when he wrote, "Wall Street Isn't Winning--It's Cheating." Taibbi argued:
When you take into consideration all the theft and fraud and market manipulation and other evil shit Wall Street bankers have been guilty of in the last ten-fifteen years, you have to have balls like church bells to trot out a propaganda line that says the protesters are just jealous of their hard-earned money. Think about it: there have always been rich and poor people in America, so if this is about jealousy, why the protests now? The idea that masses of people suddenly discovered a deep-seated animus/envy toward the rich--after keeping it strategically hidden for decades--is crazy.... Success is the national religion, and almost everyone is a believer. Americans love winners. But that's just the problem. These guys on Wall Street are not winning--they're cheating. And as much as we love the self-made success story, we hate the cheater that much more.
Taibbi goes on to review how Wall Street has received ridiculously generous public support, has been allowed to borrow against the government's good credit rating, manages to pay lower tax rates than most Americans, and, on top of it all, gets a "get out of jail free" card when it comes to regulation. Does showing up for a charity event absolve the bankers for the harm they've done to our economy? Ultimately, public sentiment will speak for itself. Ferguson may be "hugely cheered up" by the fact that the wealthy have adopted as their slogan, "educate Harlem...with our poker chips." But I'm not so sure his following for that one will be vast. I, for one, will take "We Are the 99 Percent" any day.