Conlin vs. Sawant: The Politics of Character Assassination

Character assassination is easy. The great thing about it is you don’t actually have to prove anything. You can use any number of techniques. Guilt by association with other people. Tying the person to something seemingly in contradiction to their values. Vague innuendos that sound like questions. Taking details of a person’s personal life and weaving them into a false narrative. Drawing conclusions from isolated facts. And if all else fails, claiming the subject is not being honest or open when they won’t play along with your “when did you stop beating your wife?” type of questions.

Like I said, it’s easy. It’s just not ethical. It’s also not honest journalism. It is normal electoral politics though, when you’re running scared. And Richard Conlin is very scared indeed. A four-term incumbent, he is running a tight race against someone who he may have laughed about when she filed against him: Kshama Sawant. He’s certainly not laughing now.

Kshama Sawant

Fortunately, he’s got Erica Barnett and PubliCola to come to his rescue, or so he thinks. After he realized that desperately flailing away about Kshama’s supposed lack of civic engagement didn’t produce much, now he’s back with a story about hypocrisy, and the inability to identify with the needs of the 99%. Imagine in a race between two candidates, one of them Conlin, and the other candidate is being charged with hypocrisy and lack of empathy for workers. It would be funny, if it weren’t so sad and sordid.

In a way, you can’t blame Erica. She’s just feeding off of what’s being offered her. It’s not like she went online and dug up the F1 form showing Kshama’s husband’s income. No, in the business of electoral politics, this goes under the delicate name of “opposition research.” Goldy captured it perfectly in The Stranger:

“We all know how this game is played: Conlin pushes the smear to PubliCola. PubliCola publishes. Then Conlin sends out an attack mailer citing PubliCola as his independent source, giving the charge an air of credibility. That’s electoral politics.”

He forgot to add that this is best done just before ballots are sent out, so as to keep the latest dirt fresh in voter’s minds, but well said, regardless.

So we can say that Ms. Barnett is just playing the typical role of amoral press flack, hoping to serve someone well enough to earn their gratitude, and whatever comes with it. Nonetheless, you have to stand on what you write publicly. So let’s begin the dissection with the actual facts, shall we?

Kshama had a husband. She separated from him, but hasn’t divorced him yet. He works at Microsoft. Salary undetermined, but above $100,000. She now lives with someone else. She takes no money from said husband. In fact, she works part-time as a college professor. That’s it. Nothing remarkable, it could be a story about any of us.

The actual remarkable thing is this: She’s running for office against Richard Conlin, on a strong progressive platform, including a call for a minimum wage of $15/hr. She got 35% in the primary. She is probably within striking distance of Conlin now. And she is scaring the pants off the 1% and the political toadies that serve them.

But that’s not what Ms. Barnett wants to write about. Not the remarkable thing, but the unremarkable personal details.

Much as I dislike quoting mud, here’s the relevant parts of Ms. Barnett’s article:

“… according to a financial disclosure document filed with the state Public Disclosure Commission, Sawant’s husband (whom Sawant listed as a source of her income) makes “$100,000 or more” (potentially a lowball number for his income given that $100,000 is the largest amount that’s possible to report on the form)—as an engineer at Microsoft? (Microsoft is also the top identified employer of Sawant’s contributors.) Sawant’s financial disclosure report also lists her own income at her part-time jobs as between $4,000 and $19,999, and assets in two accounts—a checking account and an insurance fund—that are each worth between $40,000 and $99,999.

Taking the minimum possible amount for all their incomes and assets, then, the Sawants have at least $80,000 in their accounts and together earn at least $108,000, though the true amount is probably higher. That’s a pretty big chunk of change for a self-proclaimed representative of “the 99 percent.”

In her second hit piece, she doubled down with the emphasis on hypocrisy:

“…it’s hard to see how someone with a top-bracket income can be truly in touch with the poor in Seattle. Conlin isn’t simultaneously trashing corporations and simultaneously benefiting financially from one of the specific corporations that are evidently ruining America; Sawant is. (Not only does her husband work for Microsoft, Microsoft is the top employer of her contributors)”

So the charges are:

  • Kshama can’t really represent the 99%, because she’s too wealthy. Or her engineer husband is, who Erica darkly hints, probably makes gazillions of dollars. (All engineers at Microsoft now have official permission to break into shrieks of laughter.)
  • She’s a hypocrite because her contributors happen to work at Microsoft while she attacks it.

As for the first charge, it’s pretty ridiculous to characterize Kshama as a member of the 1%, but others have spoken to that, so I’ll let that alone. Instead, let’s examine the premise: if you make too much money (what level is that exactly, Erica?) you can’t represent the 99%. By way of exploring this idea, let’s have some fun by thinking of the two most famous revolutionaries that ever existed: Karl Marx and Frederich Engels. Great revolutionaries for the proletariat of their time, despite neither one actually being an industrial worker. So imagine the scene:

(Frederich Engels walks into the reading room of the British Museum to see Karl Marx, a draft version of The Communist Manifesto in hand)

“Listen, Karl, I’ve got some bad news about this piece. But before we get into that, here, let me lend you a few pounds. At least you can get the heat turned on in your garret this way.”

(Marx recoils with horror) “Frederich, are you mad?? I can’t take your money! I’m writing about exploited workers, who live in misery!”


“So? How can I write about exploited workers living in misery unless I’m living in misery! My God, are you trying to turn me into a petty bourgeois?”

“Karl, it’s not so much for you as for your family…”

“My family! How do you think the workers would feel if they knew my family was living in some comfort? Oh, the hypocrisy would incense them! Someone would probably write about it in one of the gossip rags and that would be the end of me.”

(Engels pauses in thought, frowning.) “Well, Karl, I see your point. In fact it was that very point that I was going to bring up about this Manifesto piece you wrote. I’m afraid it just won’t work.”

“But why? Isn’t it all true? Isn’t it well argued? Isn’t it inspirational? Tell me, what could be wrong with it?”

“Oh, there’s nothing wrong with it. There’s something wrong with you writing it.”


Karl, this was written for the industrial proletariat, for the industrial proletariat, yes?”


“Karl, you’re not the industrial proletariat. You’re barely proletarian at all, and certainly not industrial. You’re a part-time journalist when you are working, which isn’t much, hoping to get a book published someday. Nothing industrial about that.”

(Marx pales, as sweat breaks out on his brow.) My God, you’re right! And in fact, it’s even worse than you think, I’m afraid.”

“How’s that?”

“Well, you know that book you wrote that was sympathetic to the English workers? You know, “The Conditions of the Working Class in England.”

“What of it? Very well researched, I thought.”

“But Engels, my dear man, how could it be? You’re not only not a worker, you’re a capitalist for God’s sake, the very opposite of a worker!”

(Both men freeze, undone by the hypocrisy they have displayed.)

So I think we get the point. One’s income, former income, former husband’s income, etc. do not determine one’s consciousness. Of course, no doubt there are wives separated from their husbands at large multinational corporations who may be total hypocritical radicals or Tea Party zealots. Kshama just doesn’t happen to be either.

But let’s think for a moment of what conditions might provide one with a sense of genuine empathy and justice for the 99%. Let’s name a few, and then check Kshama’s record:

  • Working part-time and therefore being underpaid for your talents. Check!
  • Having that employer try and fire you for political activity. Check!
  • Being jailed for your social justice work. Check!
  • Working to defend an Occupy encampment. Check!
  • Working with a radical political organization. Check!
  • Campaigning among low-income workers for a $15/hr minimum wage. Check!

You see, it’s what you actually do in the world that determines your sense of justice and empathy. This is probably difficult for Ms. Barnett to understand, given what she does in the world, but it’s true.

Now for the second charge, being that both her husband and many of her contributors work for Microsoft, which she attacks. This is hypocrisy, supposedly. NOT!

Allow me to get personal for a minute. I am a contributor to the Sawant campaign, for a few hundred dollars. I am also a policy analyst for the Port of Seattle Commission. Does this mean that Kshama can’t ever say anything bad about the Port henceforth? (Actually, too late, I think she already has.) But hypocrisy if she does, yes? No, actually not.

You see, I work for the Port of Seattle, but I am NOT the Port of Seattle. Allow me to introduce Ms. Barnett and all of you to my work life. Sometimes my bosses ask my opinion. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they listen to what I say. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes I like what they do. Sometimes I don’t. Such is life. One of the benefits of working for the Port though, is it allowed me the freedom to give a few hundred dollars to the Sawant campaign. Now can anyone seriously conjure up an image of me handing the Kshama campaign a check and then saying, “I hope you realize how hypocritical it will be from here on in if she criticizes the Port.” Let’s be real, please.

No doubt, the Conlin campaign is chortling over this supposed “expose.” One can only imagine the conversation. “We got Erica to throw mud! The Sawant campaign is taking up precious time answering our charges! Maybe we can frighten away potential contributors! Maybe those damned poll numbers will finally start moving in our favor!”

Dream on. Here’s a free prediction. The Sawant campaign sticks to the real issues. Sawant contributors donate more money, not less. And those damned poll numbers continue to move in the wrong direction.

Good luck, Richard, you’re going to need it. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to the Sawant website to donate another $100.

The Big Squeeze

Skyrocketing rents by real estate developers and stagnant wages by employers equal pauperized workers and displacement to low-income suburbs. How do we reclaim our city?

If you’ve lived in Seattle for more than a few years, the city you know is disappearing. It’s being replaced by the “Lords of Concrete” – an alliance of real estate developers, construction firms, law firms and lobbyists who are deliberately creating a new Seattle. Their Seattle is a city of high rents, low wages, and runaway development, a combination that is displacing both working class people and the businesses that employ them.

Here’s how it’s happening.

Skyrocketing Rents

In the Seattle Times of August 30, 2012, there was news of rent increases, that are by some accounts, rising faster than almost any other metropolitan region in the country. They reported that “in the last two years, the median rent for Seattle studio apartments has gone up $434 in Wallingford, $419 in Capitol Hill, and $306 in Ballard.” As an example they report that the average monthly rent for all unit types on Capitol Hill is now $1,395. Go to the Craigslist rental section and type in “Ballard” and you’ll realize the same is true for what used to be a sleepy little corner of Seattle. $1395 would be a good price – most rents you’ll see are $1500 and up.

The rent increases are shocking, blind-siding tenants with huge increases of hundreds of dollars at a time, as with just 60 days’ notice, Seattle landlords can legally increase rents to whatever they want.

The official story is this is just the law of supply and demand in action. It’s “the market” that mysterious but impersonal force. But a quote from the Seattle Tenants Union in the Times article points out what – and who – to blame.. “What’s fueling rent increases most is development itself”, said Jonathan Grant, the Tenant Union’s executive director. If almost all new units cater to wealthier tenants, he said, increasing supply is no path to getting rents to go down or even level off. “The reality is that these units are high-cost, and often these were taken out of affordable-housing stock,” Grant said. “That’s why you see this theory of supply and demand being turned on its head.” Bingo. In the name of “density,” giant concrete blocks are going up all over the city, made up of $1500 – 2000/month apartments and/or condos. These units act as magnets for driving rents up in older units. Landlords of these units calculate that your only choice is between their $1000/month cramped studio and some penthouse in the sky, then you’ll pay whatever they ask.

And doubling up in a two – bedroom unit doesn’t save that much money either. Here’s a rent map shows the average price for a two-bedroom in a Seattle neighborhood:

Falling Wages

A recent report from the Economic Policy Institute on wage stagnation gave some grim statistics:

According to every major data source, the vast majority of U.S. workers…have endured more than a decade of wage stagnation…During the Great Recession and its aftermath… wages fell for the entire bottom 70 percent of the wage distribution…”. The losses tended to be larger further down the wage distribution; wages at the 80th percentile were essentially flat … the median … worker saw a decline of 2.6 percent, and the 20th percentile worker saw a decline of 5.5 percent over this period. This is typical; high unemployment hurts wage growth across the wage distribution, but its impact is more negative further down the wage distribution.

But higher education is no guarantee of good wages either. The report points out “Wages of workers with a bachelor’s degree were lower in 2012 than in 2002, 10 years earlier. Real wage gains have eluded the vast majority over the last 10 years, including those with college degrees. This has even been true for those in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics occupations and for those in business occupations.” Great, collect your sheepskin, apply at the unemployment line, and wait the student loan lenders to show up for their pound of flesh.

Job creation skewed towards low-wage Jobs

Secondly, from the National Employment Law Project, we have this report on job creation:

During the recession, employment losses occurred throughout the economy, but were concentrated in mid-wage occupations. By contrast, during the recovery, employment gains have been concentrated in lower-wage occupations, which grew 2.7 times as fast as mid-wage and higher-wage occupations. Specifically:

  • Lower-wage occupations were 21 percent of recession losses, but 58 percent of recovery growth.
  • Mid-wage occupations were 60 percent of recession losses, but only 22 percent of recovery growth.
  • Higher-wage occupations were 19 percent of recession job losses, and 20 percent of recovery growth.

So what types of low-wage jobs are we talking about? Nearly 40 percent of the jobs gained since the recovery began — about 1.7 million — have come from three low-wage sectors: food services, retail, and employment services…”

This kind of pauperization has rightly produced promising signs of a struggle by low-wage workers. Fast food workers have walked out of MickeyD’s, Wendy’s, Burger King and more in half a dozen cities, including our own on August 26th, to demand a $15.00/hr. living wage.

This is significant as these employees have no union, and many were threatened with termination. The truth is that these employees, many put on part-time 25-30 hours a week, are unable to make it in this high cost economy. As one worker taking part in the protests said, “If people can’t make it working full time or need to have multiple jobs to live, I don’t think that’s right.”

In fact, many minimum wage workers, especially in the retail sector, aren’t full time anyhow, but subsist on 25-30 hour work weeks. As local economist and writer Jon Talton points out, “Part-time and temporary employment have become standard practice. Companies benefit from flexibility and lower costs. The downside: These workers tend to make less money and get few, if any, benefits. In July, 8.2 million Americans were counted as “involuntary part-time workers.”

Meanwhile, political leaders express hypocritical support, while actually taking their stand with the 1% business leaders. When local mayoral candidates showed up at a rally for fast food workers, they were asked if they’d push for a law mandating a $15/hour minimum wage, McGinn, Murray and a spokeswoman for Inslee “all expressed caution.” This echoes the stand of 1%ers like investment banker Maud Daudon, president of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. “I think it would be really important to have a bigger-picture conversation about what is the issue we are trying to fix and what are all the strategies to fix it before jumping to a solution.” In other words, let’s study the problem, while doing absolutely nothing while they wait for these struggles to fade away. Fat chance!

Poverty Displacement

As rents rise and incomes fall or stagnate, working people, many who are being thrust into poverty, have no choice but to relocate. Seattle is the 13th wealthiest metropolitan area in the country – mainly because Seattle’s wealthiest neighborhoods continue to gentrify, pushing poorer residents southward. For the wealthy residents of Queen Anne, Capitol Hill, and Ballard, the daily struggles of the poor in Tukwila, Renton, and Kent are worlds away.

An article in the UW Daily back in May reviewed a recent book “Confronting Suburban Poverty in America,” by authors Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube who pinpointed South King County. In 2000, there were 155,000 people living under the poverty line in Seattle’s suburbs; in 2011, there were 277,000. That means poverty grew a staggering 79 percent in just 11 years. In 2011, two out of every three Seattle-metro-area residents who were below the poverty line lived in the suburbs, earning the Puget Sound region the unfortunate distinction of being the region with the 23rd fastest poverty growth among the 100 largest metropolitan areas.

How to Fight Back

This kind of situation is not inevitable. The article above quotes an amazing statistic. In 1964, when Lyndon B. Johnson began his “War on Poverty,” nearly one in five Americans lived below the poverty line. By 1970, Johnson’s campaign helped reduce the poverty rate to just 12 percent. That means in the span of six years, the Johnson administration helped 11.5 million people escape poverty.

So it’s not inevitable. But it is a fight. How do we wage that fight? Four suggestions:

  • Vote for Kshama Sawant. Not only is she the only candidate with a serious campaign platform directed towards raising wages to $15.00/hr, she is the only candidate that will serve the working people of Seattle, and not the downtown business crowd.
  • Vote for public financing of campaigns. Anything we can do to even the playing field against big money is worth supporting.
  • Next year, work and vote for a $15.00/hr. minimum wage in Seattle.

But most of all, start fighting, in whatever way you can. Kshama is right when she states that electing her is not going to solve all our problems – we need a movement of people that can press for a proactive agenda of making Seattle a sustainable city where working people can be employed and live. That’s a long term struggle. But it’s winnable, if we begin now.

The real meaning of Kshama Sawant's stunning numbers

The strong showing of some 35% by Kshama Sawant in her race against Richard Conlin for Seattle City Council impressed many.  Yet even fans such as the Stranger have failed to understand the actual nature of the political earthquake, resorting to exercises in vote counting that border on numerology.

Kshama Sawant

Certainly, the facts themselves are amazing. But what happened conceptually was even more revolutionary, if you will excuse that word applied to the run of a socialist. For what Kshama did was to simply overturn the common wisdom of how to succeed in local elections in general and City Council races in particular. She took what were viewed as two immutable political laws and essentially threw them out the window.

Rule One

Everyone knows this one: money talks. Because the race is city-wide, supposedly you have to raise immense amounts of money to effectively run. I have heard $100,000 on the low end and $250,000 on the high end. Conlin himself raised at least $140,000 for the primary, and Brian Carver, the other challenger raised roughly $50,000. And Kshama? $25,000, which believe it or not, made some of her supporters practically giddy because it beat her Chopp fund raising total by some $5,000.

Rule Two

This is less understood by the public, but those who involved in the business of elections will tell you this one over and over, in tones comparable to a Sunday sermon on piety: It is impossible to run a credible race for local races without garnering support from the local Democratic Party district organizations, and if possible an endorsement by those organizations. In particular, this means the 36th, (Ballard/Phinney/Magnolia/Queen Anne), the 43rd (Greenlake/Wallingford), the 34th (West Seattle) and the 37th, (Capitol Hill/Central District/Madrona/Beacon HIll). Conlin picked up the 34th, 36th and 37th.

And Kshama? Noting Seattle’s history as a one party town, the organization that Kshama belongs to, Socialist Alternative, stated that “the Democratic Party machines…totally run these cities in the interests of the rich and powerful.” For her part, Kshama ran in headlong opposition to the Democratic Party, declaring Conlin to be a “corporate-pandering politician” and “a poster boy for out of touch politicians.” This earned her the sobriquet of “too hard left for Seattle” by the Seattle Times, bellwether for all blessings corporate, not to mention snarky commentary by the establishment political aristocracy. Even some of us who wished her well were wondering if it was possible to gain any traction against a three-time incumbent, who had branded himself as a likable liberal.

The Lords of Concrete

In fact, Kshama was calling a spade a spade. Since this is a one-party town, the economic elites use their ties to the political elites who operate inside the Democratic Party to push policy and perks that allow them to flourish. These are the commercial real estate developers, the construction companies they do business with, the banks and finance companies that underwrite them, the high end retailers that rent their space, and the architects and downtown law firms that service them. They own this town, making and remaking the commercial infrastructure and high end housing of the urban core however they please, making money while making decisions for the rest of us through a compliant City Council. Think South Lake Union, streetcars, outsized luxury condos, the proposed industry-killing basketball stadium district and so on. Brought to you by developers like Paul Allen/Vulcan and Martin Smith, construction firms like Wright Runstad, key attorneys at Foster Pepper, and others. If you want to see exactly who I’m referring to, just look through the C-3s, which disclose donations, that Conlin filed.

The effect is a tacit agreement between them and the Democratic Party leadership that serves to muzzle any effective policy challenge to undisputed corporate rule. But of course, since it is the Democratic Party, which has a mix of progressives, liberals and centrists at the precinct level, consideration and allowances are made for progress on social issues – support for gay marriage being an example. The overall effect is a whole lot of socially liberal happy talk masking a very conservative economic agenda. At times, a genuine progressive like Licata or O’Brien can be elected, but they are effectively doomed to tack to the limits of the rest of the Council. Issues outside the pale – like say, a $15 minimum wage are never even talked about, let alone arrive on the agenda for a vote.

So that’s the rules, and those hoping to win office were told – TINA [“There Is No Alternative”], as Margaret Thatcher used to say.

Instead, Kshama flouted both rules not once but twice. She didn’t just ignore the Democrats, she openly challenged them as servants of the 1%. The first time was against Frank Chopp, founder of Solid Ground, with a liberal pedigree and a power base in Olympia. Startling to say the least.

It was a fluke, many said; Chopp had become arrogant, Olympia-centric in a highly political district. Conlin was supposed to be different. The quintessential likable Seattle liberal. Supposedly, Conlin’s only real opponent was Carver, running a vanity race with his own money, and a few endorsements.

The result was no fluke. As of Monday night, we have Conlin at 47.86% with 59,760 votes, Kshama at 34.92% with 43,601 votes, and Carver at 16.67% with 20,812 votes. So outspent by roughly 2 to 1 by Carver, she got over twice his tally, and outspent by 7 to one, she denies Conlin a majority, coming within 13 points and roughly 16,000 votes in a primary, where older more conservative voters supposedly predominant.

It’s nothing short of an earthquake. If nothing else, Kshama has shown a new path for independent candidates who directly advance working people’s interests and issues. It opens the way for candidates to challenge the status quo and directly oppose the low wage work, unaffordable housing, cuts in mass transit, budget cuts along subsidies to rich, and the remaking of our city as a playground for the well-to-do.

Even with these numbers, some wags are postulating that her numbers are just sending a message of discontent to Conlin and they will come around and vote for him in November. It’s a message alright, but I would say it is directed at the people who like to think they run this town. We’ll see in November, and then win or lose, it’s on to the fight for a $15/hr minimum wage in 2014.

Could WA State actually have the fifth highest unemployment in the nation?

As it turns out, the short answer is “yes.” The longer answer is, it all depends on the way you measure the rate. There are a three ways to look at the unemployment rate:

  • The official rate, which is referred to in official Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) as “U.3.” U.3 only counts unemployed workers who have sought work within the last four weeks. If its longer than four weeks but less than one year before, they are classified as discouraged workers, and outside the U.3.
  • A more honest measure is”U.6″, which adds together the above U.3 workers to those who are working part-time because they can’t find a full-time job. As in almost anyone who works for an hourly wage in temp work, retail, restaurants, coffee shops and bars. This was how unemployment rates were calculated until 1992.
  • The most accurate rate is compiled by John Williams at his Shadow Government Statistics website, often referred to as “ShadowStats.” This takes the U.6 data and adjusts it for “SGS-estimated long-term discouraged workers, who were defined out of official existence in 1994.”

The chart below illustrates the difference:

Unemployment rate: Official versus ShadowStats alternate

But even if you simply use the Government’s U.6 statistics, Washington still comes in at 5th highest. Here’s the list:

  1. Nevada: 19.6%
  2. California: 18.8%
  3. Oregon: 17.2%
  4. Rhode Island: 16.7%
  5. Washington: 16.4%

So now you’re thinking, how could that be? Boeing, even with recent layoffs is a big employer, Microsoft continues to import techs, and Amazon is building new buildings just to put all their new workers in, so what’s going on?

Actually, it’s not much of a mystery. Just get outside the Puget Sound region, over to the Southwest or Northeastern parts our state and it becomes obvious. Here are the insufficient U.3 numbers for selected counties in Washington State from the ESD.

Low Unemployment Counties % Rate High Unemployment Counties % Rate
King 4.4 Grays Harbor 12.1
Snohomish 4.9 Ferry 11.9
Whitman 5.3 Lewis 11.1
San Juan 6.0 Pend Oreille 11.0
Asotin 6.2 Stevens 11.0
Walla Walla 6.4 Wahkiakum 11.0
Kitsap 6.8 Pacific 10.5
Whatcom 6.9 Skamania 10.4
Thurston 7.0 Columbia 10.1


And here’s a handy map, from the Employment Security Department (ESD):


What the map itself really shows is that there are effectively three states of Washington – two geographic centers of employment, and everyone else. The two employment centers are:

  • The I-5 corridor, especially King and Snohomish counties, with an average rate for the 8-county corridor at 6.7%.
  • The Eastern Washington agricultural and winery centers, whose average for the 7-county area was slightly over 6.5%, or for a wider 10-county area was 7.7%.

So the long answer is that, yes, we have the 5th highest U.6. in the country, but that is because of the way employment exists in our state.

But the most alarming rate of all should perhaps not be the unemployment rate, but the employment rate. If you look at ESD data, total Employment in April was listed as 3,239,780. The last time it was above that level? January 2009, when it was at 3,253,750. Before that, you have to go back to January of 2008, when it was 3,285,320. Tell me again, how is this a recovery?

Let's stop pretending on the Keystone XL Pipeline

I’ve got a great idea. Let’s stop pretending that Obama isn’t going to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline. Let’s stop pretending that one more trenchant op-ed, one more Change.org petition, one more Sierra Club website, one more MoveOn mass email of the White House is going to sway anyone who has a stake in this project. Let’s stop pretending that some photo-op of famous progressives and Hollywood actors chaining themselves to the White House fence is going to make a difference. Let’s stop pretending that some group of Democrats are actually going to grow a spine, and move Congress to pass some environmental legislation that actually would get in the way of this monstrosity. Let’s just stop all that, and get real.

Obama going to approve it. I know, it’s horrible, it’s the worst, it’s the capstone in the Alberta Tar Sands project, the be-all, end-all environmental nightmare. You don’t want to believe it’s going to be approved. But it is. Why? Because there’s money to be made. Because it’s promoted by the fossil fuels industry. Because it runs through one of the most conservative parts of the country. Because they want to thumb their nose at Venezuela. Because…well, who cares? Because they can. So let’s stop kidding ourselves, and for once, practice being proactive.

You see, here’s their strategy: They want you to play the game you’re playing now. They want you absorbed in writing letters, and signing petitions, and donating on line, and all that nonsense. Because they know damn well they don’t have to pay any attention to it. Detroit’s got a three-story tall mountain of petroleum coke tar sand waste rising on land owned by the Koch family. That’s real. Your email? Sorry, not real. But valuable to them, as it keeps you from organizing for a real battle. Which is what this is going to have to be if we stand a chance to really stop this thing.

Here’s what it’s really going to take:

  • A lot of people are going to have to get arrested. Most on misdemeanors, some on trumped-up felony charges. Note I said “a lot.” A few marquee arrests aren’t going to cut it. We’re talking mass civil disobedience, occupation-style actions. Not as a one-time event, but over and over and over, at one location after another.
  • National resistance specifically NOT headed by Big Green organizations. ‘Cause, let’s face it, it’s nice to have the occasional numbers they can generate, but they don’t have the stomach for this kind of thing. Here’s what they’re going to call for after it’s approved and they mount some large, symbolic (read: non-threatening) actions – “environmental safeguards.” Yep, that’s what they’ll want; a kinder, gentler pipeline. Which they will justify on the whiny pretext of “being realistic.” No, this kind of national organization is going to be run by activists who have serious experience in confronting private industry and the state.
  • Local organizing right down to the neighborhood level. This is going to have to made real to ordinary people as the catastrophe it actually is. That means knocking on doors, setting up tables on street corners, holding town meetings. Turning off your TV, shutting down the computer, leaving your house, and having actual human-to-human interaction. Think of the anti-Monsanto marches that just happened in over 150 cities worldwide, and you begin to get the picture.
  • Staging media events that are impossible to ignore. No more marching around in circles hoping the press release you sent gets picked up by the mainstream press. We need imagination, lots of it. That means letting youth run the show. ‘Cause it’s their energy that always makes for interesting street theater than anything the 60’s generation is able to come up with at this point.
  • Getting comfortable with people you are uncomfortable with. That means First Peoples and their leadership style. That means anarchists. It means red-state rebels, who don’t like snotty urban liberals much more than they like pipelines, and who are on the front lines of this battle through a simple accident of geography.
  • Kissing, goodbye finally, once and for all, to the myth of the Democratic Party as an ally. They’re not, the national leadership is not, and never has been. Are there good people among the local Dem precincts? You bet. But the Pelosi-Obama-Biden-Clinton leadership, and their Big Labor allies who just approved at their convention the building of unnamed “pipelines,” well, sorry, but they’ve been bought like the sheep they are. So let’s move on, OK?

I could probably name a few other features of what’s coming, but you get the idea. A real struggle, nothing “symbolic” about it. Either that, or let’s just admit we’re licked before we start, and skip going through the motions. Not another letter, not another petition, not another email. A fight, finally, even if we go down swinging. Win or lose, let’s make it the kind of fight that they’ll remember for a long, long time.



The Sharp Pain of Sequestration

Despite some pundits making light of the immediate effects of sequestration, the pain will soon be very real to our nation’s most vulnerable. Sharon Parrott, for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonprofit research group laid it out in stark terms:

“In fact, sequestration will have a real impact on Americans across the country.  There is no way to cut $85 billion in a single year, mainly from discretionary programs — which include most defense spending as well as medical research, education, help for low-income families, food and water safety, law enforcement, and so on — and not see real impacts.  That’s especially true because sequestration would come on top of the large cuts in discretionary funding that are already in place under the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA).  Taken together, the BCA cuts and sequestration would cut discretionary spending 14 percent below the 2010 level in inflation-adjusted terms…” (http://www.cbpp.org/)

Here are examples of what will start to happen under sequestration:

  • Housing programs will be hit particularly hard, with about 125,000 individuals and families put at risk of becoming homeless, the Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated. An additional 100,000 formerly homeless people might be removed from emergency shelters or other housing arrangements because of the cuts, the agency said.
  • In our state, the King County Housing Authority stopped issuing new housing vouchers on March 1, 2013. “Sequestration will result in some 600 fewer families in our local communities receiving crucial rental assistance over the next year,” Stephen Norman, the Executive Director of the county housing authority, said in a statement. “Because rents are so high, many of these families may, quite literally, find themselves out on the street.”
  • The roughly 3.8 million long-term unemployed workers receiving federally funded unemployment benefits will face a nearly 11 percent cut in their weekly benefits.  That will translate into a cut of roughly $130 per month for jobless workers.
  • The WIC nutrition program for low-income pregnant women, infants, and young children will have to turn away an estimated 600,000 to 775,000 women and children, including very young children, by the end of this fiscal year.
  • Cuts to programs that aid children with special needs
  • Cuts to Job-training programs that help unemployed people find a new career
  • Cuts to foreclosure prevention services
  • Cuts to programs that help 150,000 veterans every year make the transition into the non-military work force.
  • Cuts in the Social Security Administration would lead to staff reductions (or furloughs) that would create delays in helping people apply for benefits or resolving problems that arise with their benefits.
  • Cuts in the Transportation Security Agency would mean staff cuts or furloughs of airport security workers, leading to longer lines at airports and slower travel.

Economy-wide, Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf told Congress this week that sequestration would cut GDP growth this year by 0.6 percentage points (from 2.0 percent to 1.4 percent) and cost about 750,000 jobs by the fourth quarter of 2013.

How did we get here?

The Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011 came into existence when congressional Republicans refused to undertake the pro forma increase in the nation’s statutory debt ceiling. Instead, they held the debt ceiling increase hostage to deep spending cuts. Ironically, this “will translate into higher debt ratios than would have existed before the cuts. In short, such cuts are even fiscally, not just economically, counterproductive.” Counterpunch 3/1/13 Andrew Fieldhouse

During the debt ceiling negotiations in the summer of 2011, the Obama administration acquiesced to the GOP’s demand that every dollar increase in the debt ceiling be matched dollar-for-dollar with spending cuts.

The BCA had two phases:

First, discretionary spending cuts and caps, carried out by a $900 billion increase in the statutory debt ceiling (equal to policy savings plus reduced debt service).

Second, the default for the remaining $1.2 trillion increase in the debt ceiling was $984 billion in automatic sequestration cuts (or $1.2 trillion in savings with interest).

By demanding austerity that was entirely comprised of spending cuts, the BCA maximized the economic harm posed by sequestration per year (a dollar of government spending cuts currently inflicts four-to-seven times the damage of a dollar of revenue).

Democrats to the Rescue?  Sorry, not today

As long ago as last December, Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Senate Democrat, said he might reluctantly be open to expanding means- testing for Medicare eligibility — charging more to higher- income seniors.  Another so-called liberal lion, New York Senator Chuck Schumer said he wouldn’t rule out changing entitlements, challenging Republicans to come up with specific proposals.

And as Democracy Now reported today,( 3/4/13): “In the aftermath of the deadline, Obama has again signaled his willingness to cut spending on so-called entitlements like Medicare and Social Security to appease Republican demands. On Sunday, White House senior economic official Gene Sperling said Obama already discussed entitlement reform with lawmakers from parties over the weekend.” He said that President Barack Obama is willing to work with lawmakers to cut entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security as long as tax reform remains part of the discussion.

“He’s reaching out to Democrats who understand we have to make serious progress on long-term entitlement reform and Republicans who realize that if we had that type of entitlement reform, they’d be willing to have tax reform that raises revenues to lower the deficit,” Sperling said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

While the White House declined to comment on specifics, the White House’s website includes $25 billion in cuts from “Medicaid, Pay-for-Delay, IPAB and program integrity.”

If you’re waiting for Congressional liberals to save us, don’t hold your breath.  Congressmen Alan Grayson and Mark Takano circulated a letter in late February addressed to President Obama. It stated, in part, “we will vote against any and every cut to Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security benefits — including raising the retirement age or cutting the cost of living adjustments that our constituents earned and need.” But the letter’s current list of signers includes just 16 members of the 70-member Progressive Caucus.

As Norman Solomon put it in a recent Counterpunch article, “Their absence from the letter is a clear message to the Obama White House, which has repeatedly declared its desire to cut the Social Security cost of living adjustment as well as Medicare. In effect, those 54 non-signers are signaling: Mr. President, we call ourselves “progressive” but we are unwilling to stick our necks out by challenging you in defense of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid; we want some wiggle room that you can exploit.”

As the budget battles rage on in Washington, sources said Obama plans to nominate on Monday Sylvia Mathews Burwell to head the White House Office of Management and Budget. A veteran of the Bill Clinton White House, Burwell is president of the Walmart Foundation, which handles the corporation’s charitable efforts.  Yup, now there’s a corporation that understands what it means for poor people to take cuts!

This is what you get when the system revolves around the dominance of the current two-party system.  Democrats and Republicans both agree on pain for working people.  The only question is how much.  Both are pro-austerity parties, the same system that has wrecked several countries in Europe.  It will be coming here, and we need to fight it head on, starting at the local level and moving up to Congress and the President.

Originally published at http://www.justiceparty-wa.org/2013/03/10/the-sharp-pain-of-sequestration/