Sunday, August 30, 2009

We Must Fill the Void Ourselves

Like millions of my fellow citizens, I am reflecting after the death of Ted Kennedy. Death is an egocentric experience for the survivors. Indeed, rituals such as funerals, wakes or in the Jewish religion “sitting Shiva,” is really about nurturing the souls of those left behind. That is also true when it is a public figure or celebrity that has died. We may never have met them or knew them yet they touched us nonetheless. The Kennedy family understands this better than anyone and is well practiced in rituals that not only honor the dead but comfort the living.

President John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy were assassinated before I was born. They touched my parents, but to me they were legendary martyrs and almost mythical. In 1980 however, their very real brother delivered the first political speech that ever captured my attention at the Democratic convention. I was only a kid but inspired by Kennedy’s defiant idealism following defeat. As I grew older, I appreciated Kennedy’s quest to stand up for the voiceless as predatory conservatism systematically destroyed the hopes and dreams of society’s most vulnerable. Remarkably, Kennedy always managed to fight the good fight with a smile even as he remained true to his principles.

Kennedy’s civility and statesmanship was rightly extolled among his colleagues as ideologically diverse as Chris Dodd and Orin Hatch. And certainly there is virtue with respect to how Kennedy never looked upon his adversaries as “enemies.” Hence, Kennedy forged a record and legacy as America’s most accomplished liberal legislator. More children have health insurance because of his legislative partnership with Orin Hatch. More Americans were empowered to vote because of his crossing party lines to collaborate with Bob Dole. In 1982, Kennedy joined forces with a young conservative Senator from Indiana named Dan Quayle so more citizens would receive job training.

Kennedy’s generosity of spirit as so many conservative voices demonized him and his family is an inspiration we can all learn from. True Kennedy was a flawed man and his dishonorable and irresponsible conduct resulted in the death of Mary Jo Kopechne. If I were a member of her family I likely could never forgive. Yet I find it ironic how so many conservative critics who champion Christian values could find so little virtue in Kennedy’s personal quest for redemption. Kennedy was a flawed man with his heart in the right place who tried to do well. Alas, too many politicians are intolerant of the imperfections of others and pursue policies that cause more harm than good.

Yet as members of the establishment political class honor Kennedy’s “bipartisanship” we should never forget that his political leverage stemmed from authenticity and conviction. When other Democrats preferred triangulation Kennedy unapologetically carried the liberal banner. In 2002 and 2003, while too many Democrats cowered as the Bush administration pursued a reckless war of choice with Iraq, Kennedy unequivocally and forcefully opposed it. Ultimately, Kennedy’s strength and compassion, enhanced the stature of those who entered into principled compromises with him. With all due respect to Orin Hatch, without Ted Kennedy he was just another callous conservative.

In comparison, one’s stature simply cannot be enhanced by compromising with tools of the medical industrial complex such as senators Max Baucus and Evan Bayh. How can anyone with an ounce of common sense or deductive reasoning have any faith in any compromise forged by plastic figures like those two agents of corporatism? To be sure, many Democrats, in the House especially are unwavering in their support of the public option. Sadly though, President Obama has sent mixed signals about how staunchly he supports it and key Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee such as Max Baucus are more beholden to the insurance companies than their constituents.

Kennedy's absence from the debate has left a void that is being filled with feckless Democrats, corporate shills and homicidal right wing ideologues. It’s an enormous void that will take many figures and years to fill. Presently, I don’t see anyone on the scene, including I regret to say, President Obama, who has the political intuition and will to fill it. Kennedy understood that politics was intensely personal. As a figure who suffered great personal loss he tapped into raw emotions on behalf of the voiceless better than any Democrat since his brother Robert Kennedy.

Today, as I mourn Senator Kennedy, I am also thinking about my best friend from high school. My friend prefers to remain anonymous so I’ll refer to him as John Doe or JD. JD and I re-established contact after almost no communication for the preceding twenty plus years through online social networking. Isn’t it strange how life works that way? JD and I talked nearly every day for four years but after graduating we went our separate ways.

Anyway, I learned that three years ago, JD sustained a brain injury following a car accident and is currently disabled. Previously, JD was professionally successful and thriving. He also married and has a six year old daughter. The fates were not kind to my friend and the accident has turned his life upside down. Today, JD is desperately motivated to rehabilitate, recover and resume an active life. Sadly, the medical industrial complex is an obstacle to his getting better. Here is how JD described his most recent encounters with insurance bureaucrats:
“I should send my story to a town hall meeting to explain why health care needs to be a single payer. I went to an orthopedic for the first time today as my back is killing me. After 3 years of shots to numb the pain and non-stop pain killers I feel it is time to try and find the cause and not just numb it, which does not work.
I gave the orthopedist rep at the front desk my no fault information and expected stupidly that it would just go through without a problem. Of course that did not happen. She called No Fault and was told that my account was closed on 7/5/09 and that I was not entitled to any further payment for my injuries.
I knew this was BS as they just agreed to pay for a different doctor last week and even if this was true you would think that would have notified me.”
Already, JD’s experience is sadly familiar for too many citizens. Yet his frustration would only get worse:
“This day was the first time I was told that I was denied going to a orthopedic doctor in 2006 as I was told then I did not need it. I told the supervisor on the phone that I found this strange considering that today was the FIRST time I had even gone to an orthopedist so how could I be refused something that I have never gone to before to see if I could even get any help from them. I then said that it makes no sense because they continue to pay for my pain management doctor, which basically just gives me shots in my back and medication for pain. In other words I said to the supervisor, you will pay for me to get drugs and be numb but you won't pay to fix the problem?”
JD’s experience grew even more absurd:
“This idiot then said that if I want to challenge this ruling that I would have to send them further information proving that I have these problems in my back and neck that would warrant this care. I have gone thru that before and I could tell you stories about that. But I said, OK I could do that as I had all of that paper work in the orthopedics office now and I could fax it immediately.
He THEN said something beyond stupid. That because the IME was in 2006 there was a chance that the doctor would not be found to review the addendum to change his mind. Yet, the doctor that said I was fine would have to get the new information and than have to admit that he was wrong, which isn’t happening. To further piss me off, the supervisor tells me that even if I send in the information that if the doctor could not be found that even the new information would not change anything, they could not contact another doctor to review it and that their original opinion would stand. So I said to the guy, you are saying that if I show you proof that I have these problems you STILL may not pay for this? He said yes. I said that is BS. I then ranted on him how could I be denied seeing an orthopedic before I even TRIED to go to one before. The guy was an idiot so I said that I wanted to speak to HIS supervisor. The guy said that I can but he will say the same thing. I said I still want to talk to him. He took my number and said he did not know when he would get back to me.
I went to the doctor anyway as I was there for 2 hours, stressed out of my gord, and having the doctor submit it to No Fault, have them deny it and then go thru my medical.”
I felt helpless and angry as I read this closing paragraph from my friend:
“This is yet another stupid war I have had with these people over the last 3 years. They expect me to give up by giving me the run around and I refuse to until they give in. They push and push as most people would just give up. THIS is why we need a single payer Medicare for all so this shit won't happen. I just want to get better and these idiots are making it harder for me to do so.”
Ted Kennedy who knew tragedy and loss was on the side of people like my friend. It was often a lonely fight as he went up against the institutional strength and money of the medical industrial complex. Making the fight even harder is that too many of Kennedy’s colleagues in both parties have served as enablers of the parasitic insurance industry. Indeed, the struggle for economic and social justice must have often felt to Kennedy like he was climbing a greased hill in bare feet. Even so he continued to put every scrap of prestige and talent at his disposal in pursuit of a more prosperous and just society. The “cause” endured for him far longer than his personal ambitions. Alas, too many figures today care more about being big than doing good.

There is no single figure anymore that possesses the combination of gravitas and will to stand up for people like my friend as Ted Kennedy did throughout his career. It is therefore incumbent upon all of us to fill the void Kennedy left behind. As JD confided to me recently, until his accident he didn’t have much interest in politics. Today JD understands just how high the stakes of political discourse are. On any given day, any one of us could have their lives turned upside down just like my old friend from high school.

Ted Kennedy, who had his life turned upside down numerous times understood that better than anyone.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

The Good Fight: Taking On the Axis of Greed

Arkansa's Blue Dog Mike Ross
George W. Bush coined the phrase “Axis of Evil” during his infamous 2002 State of the Union speech in referring to Iraq, Iran and North Korea. It should be obvious to Americans by now that what really undermines our security as a people is an Axis of Greed compromised of Wall Street, fossil fuel’s Energy Industrial Complex and the Medical Industrial Complex. These are the people that confiscate assets from communities to enrich the mega rich, undermine the environment and promote wars in foreign lands for oil and make it damn hard for millions of people to get affordable healthcare for any illness more serious than a common cold.

This Axis of Greed represents an entrenched juggernaut of corporate power and moneyed interests with tentacles inside the media as well as the corridors of power in Washington and every state capital. Electing Democrats by itself was never going to be enough as the fight over health-care reform illustrates. With Republicans out of power, money that previously went to Republicans is now funneled to conservative Blue Dog Democrats. Hence, my posts earlier this year describing Senators Evan Bayh and Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus as “Corporatist Class Warriors.”

First, let us review the good news. Yes, believe it or not, there is good news to speak of in this righteous struggle against the Axis of Greed. What has been achieved is that the battle is finally joined after four decades of predatory conservatism. Barack Obama in ‘08 and congressional majorities in ’06 and ’08 were elected with a mandate of reform and change. Many Democrats, including the president himself were supported with small donations from regular folks. Hence, there is an actual fight taking place and liberals finally have allies in the White House and congress with teeth and progressive sensibilities.

Predatory conservatism is discredited and despite a recent rough patch for President Obama, the Axis of Greed has been forced to negotiate on political terrain less favorable to them than ever before. Also, President Obama has proven an effective counter-puncher whenever his back is up against the wall and I suspect that lesson will be relearned by his adversaries during the congressional recess in August.

Remember, initially opponents of the economic stimulus package defined the terms of debate but once Obama counter-punched the Economic Recovery Act Passed – albeit at far less than liberals like me had hoped. That will likely be the end results with respect to health care reform, cap and trade legislation and attempts to reform Wall Street with a consumer protection agency – Obama’s counter-punching will salvage enough political space to advance the ball even as liberals like me are disappointed.

Unfortunately, in America, merely winning elections with large majorities is not enough when taking on the Axis of Greed and the playing field is still tilted in their favor. Enough Democrats in southern and rural districts remain obstacles to change. This poses a strategic dilemma for Democrats and liberals. Democrats need the Blue Dogs to caucus with them in order to maintain a majority.

Yet these very same Blue Dogs are opposed to core Democratic Party values such as health-care that benefits people instead of HMOs. Indeed, the Blue Dogs are more concerned with the well being of the Medical Industrial Complex and fear that a strong public option will force insurance companies to charge more reasonable prices for medication. They feel more beholden to financial contributors at Goldman Sachs, Exxon and Aetna than the hard working farmers, wage earners and small business entrepreneurs who voted for them.

The upshot is that for all the terrific organizing done the previous two election cycles and the incredible way the Internet has transformed campaign financing, the Axis of Greed still has the dollars and institutional strength to shift the end product of legislation in their favor. Through the power of advertising and their allies in the corporate media, the Axis of Greed can scare the public with myths and disinformation to undermine needed investments in infrastructure, education or making health-care affordable for the single Mom working three jobs. Blue Dog congressional Democrats who rely on the support of constituents earning less than $40,000 a year will not support tax increases on millionaires to help pay for health-care for everyone because they fear the Axis of Greed more than that those constituents they allegedly represent.

So does that mean we give up and throw in the towel? Hell no! It means we have more work to do and our struggle is just beginning. In recent years we have successfully harnessed our natural constituencies in cities and minority demographics to achieve a majority. And thanks to previous Democratic National Committee Chairman, Howard Dean, the Democratic Party is a presence in states and communities it previously wasn’t.

But there is still an organizing lag for liberals in too many rural communities. Unions are especially weak in these districts and people like Arkansas House Democrat Mike Ross for example who triumphantly boast that they “slowed down” health-care reform, need to be convinced that favoring the Axis of Greed over the people will cause him real political pain. As reveals, two of Congressman Ross’s top five industry contributors in the 2009-2010 campaign cycle are health-care professionals and Pharmaceutical/Healthcare Products. Ross is merely one example of a stark reality: until he fears his constituents more than the Axis of Greed, nothing will ever change and not even the rhetorical gifts of President Obama will be enough.

Meaningful change is going to take a long time. We’re only in the first inning of an extra inning game requiring resolve, endurance, patience and resilience. President Obama will sign watered down health-care legislation and call it reform this year. He will have no choice. In a few years we will hopefully be able to revisit the issue with greater political strength.

Obama will also have no choice but to sign watered down cap and trade legislation. Given the current pace of global warming it also won’t be good enough and will have to be revisited when the political terrain is more favorable - and hopefully won't be too late too save the planet. Finally, the Wall Street economy will have some more reforms but the huge imbalances in the system will not be addressed any time soon if plutocrats such as Treasury Timothy Geithner have anything to say about it.

This is a long, tough, righteous and worthy fight. I’m in all the way for as long as it takes. We all need to be.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Death of Why?: An Interview With Author Andrea Batista Schlesinger

The phrase “knowledge is power” is a cliché in our culture. Yet as often as we hear it from others or speak it ourselves, how often have we contemplated the process of acquiring knowledge? Is there a blueprint for obtaining knowledge and wisdom? Are we encouraging children to be intellectually curious or merely teaching them that every question has an instant and obvious answer?

In her book, The Death of Why?: The Decline of Questioning and the Future of Democracy (Berrett-Kohler Publishers), New York City policy expert Andrea Batista Schlesinger writes that,
“Why is the first question most children ask. With this question we express, to the delight and chagrin of our parents, our power.

In my life, questions have always been power. Asking them enabled me to overcome the challenges I faced as a young woman sitting at tables where I didn’t automatically belong.”
Although only thirty-two, Schlesinger has operated in the arena of policy debates locally in New York City and nationally for over a decade. Since 2002, Schlesinger has applied her background in public policy, politics, and communications to transform the Drum Major Institute (“DMI”) into a progressive policy think tank with national impact. During her tenure as Executive Director, DMI created its Marketplace of Ideas series which highlights successful progressive policies from across the country and launched two public policy blogs that reach several thousand readers a day; and embarked on a national program to nurture careers in public policy for college students from underrepresented communities.

Recently, Schlesinger took a leave of absence from DMI to serve as a senior policy adviser to the re-election campaign of New York City mayor Michael R. Bloomberg – a decision that is controversial among New York City liberals like myself. Prior to joining DMI, Schlesinger directed a national Pew Charitable Trusts campaign to engage college students in discussion about the future of Social Security and served as the education adviser to Bronx borough president and mayoral candidate Fernando Ferrer.

The one life lesson Schlesinger has learned above all others in her career and promotes passionately her book is that questions equals power. It is Schlesinger’s contention that our culture promotes instant answers at the expense of inquiring.

With this book, Schlesinger has four primary objectives:

1) Convince readers of the importance of inquiry in our democracy;

2) Illustrate how the very institutions that should be encouraging inquiry such as schools, the media, and government, the Internet are instead undermining intellectual curiosity in our society;

3) Inspire readers with hopeful examples of people working to restore inquiry to its rightful place of importance;

4) Convey a sense of urgency among citizens to develop effective “habits of the mind” and not be easily seduced by instant easy sound bite answers to complex challenges such as global warming.

Death of Why, is a well researched and scrupulously sourced eleven chapters and 215 pages of text. Where Schlesinger’s book is especially provocative is when she takes bloggers like me to task for engaging in robotic group-think and avoiding engagement with people possessing different viewpoints.

Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo said that,
"The road to wisdom is asking 'why'? Andrea Batista Schlesinger has been asking 'why?" and supplying her own bright and thoughtful answers for long enough so that some of us suggested she write a book. It's foruntate for all of us that her answer was 'why not!'"
The publisher of The Nation, Kathleen vanden Heuvel added that,
"From her start in politics as a teenager Andrea Batista Schlesinger has asked the important questions. Now she asks her most important: are we teaching young people to value inquiry, and if not, what hope can we have for the future of democracy?"
Schlesinger graciously agreed to a telephone podcast interview with me this afternoon about her book. She was engaging and assertive in a conversation that was just over forty-six minutes. Among the topics discussed and debated is her contention that we’re ideologically segregated, her argument that the Internet has reinforced a destructive group think mentality in our society, her advocacy for civics education and objection to teaching “financial literacy” in public schools and we closed by discussing her decision to join Mayor Bloomberg’s re-election campaign as a senior policy adviser.

Please refer to the flash media player below.

This interview can also be accessed at no cost via the Itunes Store by either searching for the “Intrepid Liberal Journal” or “Robert Ellman.”

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Ultimate Organizer: An Interview With ACORN's Founder Wade Rathke

It seems no matter which political party in America holds the majority, a Washington/Wall Street corporate centric axis dominates policy making. Indeed, Illinois Democratic Senator Dick Durbin recently observed that banks, “Frankly Own the Place.” Among liberal-progressive activists like myself, this condition has facilitated a confrontational mindset.

Our experience suggests that the power and wealth concentrated in the hands of a few will not be voluntarily relinquished. Hence, everything from healthcare reform to bankruptcy protection for aggrieved homeowners is perceived by many of us as a high stakes pitched battle between struggling families and feculent corporate behemoths. Although activism has certainly facilitated important victories on behalf of working people, fighting for economic justice often seems analogous to climbing an endless wall.

Veteran activist Wade Rathke has been steadily climbing that wall on behalf of working people for forty-years. As the founder of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform (“ACORN”), Rathke has a unique perspective about what community organizing strategies work best to empower working people that are struggling to save and accumulate wealth. Rathke is also an assertive advocate for welfare benefits on behalf of people out of work. He’s both won and lost more than his share of battles. Both he and ACORN have the battle scars of scrutiny liberals typically receive from standing up for America’s poor and disenfranchised.

In Citizen Wealth: Winning the Campaign To Save Working Families, (Berrett-Koehler), Rathke writes,
“We need to create a national economic and political consensus that increasing family income, wealth and assets is not `welfare’ or an entitlement ‘give-away’ program but an investment in the public good and well-being.”
His book is an accessible thirteen chapters and 171 pages of text presenting his blueprint to organize regular folks to win economic and political power. Rathke’s book also contains revealing anecdotes about ACORN’s negotiations with corporate entities such as H&R Block and their bank, HSBC, to end the predatory practice of Refund Anticipation Loans. Perhaps the most compelling topic in his book is covered in chapter nine when Rathke laments how millions of citizens eligible for Food Stamps, Medicaid and the State Children Health Insurance Program (“SCHIP”) are disenfranchised from participating in the very programs designed to help them.

Rathke has remained involved with organizing activities after leaving ACORN in 2008. He is the founding board member of the Tides Foundation as well as the chief organizer of SEIU Local 100 in New Orleans and publisher of Social Policy magazine. He posts regularly at the Chief Organizer blog.

Rathke agreed to a telephone podcast interview with me about his book and among the topics covered is the meaning of citizen wealth, why economic justice has lagged behind expanded civil liberties for minorities and women, the methodology of ACORN’s approach to fight H&R Block’s predatory practices of Refund Anticipation Loans, the criticisms ACORN and the Community Reinvestment Act have received about the housing crisis and his belief that worker/labor organization is imperative for all segments of society. Our conversation was twenty-eight and a half minutes.

Please refer to the flash media player below.

This interview can also be accessed at no cost the Itunes Store by searching for either the “Intrepid Liberal Journal” or “Robert Ellman.”

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Sunday Summer Musings

As regular readers of this blog have noted to me via email, I have posted infrequently in recent weeks. Although I’ve conducted podcast interviews with interesting subjects and have more scheduled over the summer, personal matters have required my attention. Hence, I haven’t been able to comment on recent events. Some of you have emailed asking if I’m doing OK. Rest assured, I am fine and this has only been a temporary respite from blogging. Like many of you, I have been following current events both nationally and internationally as well as locally in my home state. A few observations and thoughts below:
  • Curiously, the lack of coherent conservative political opposition is undermining the progressive cause and reinforcing the Washington/Wall Street axis. President Obama and much of the Democratic Party appears content to remain risk averse, hoard political capital as “Blue Dog” Democrats such as Evan Bayh and Max Caucus continue to be whores for the private insurance industry and the moneyed interests. With the Republican Party in disarray, the Obama administration has no incentive to go beyond the political fifty-yard line and transform America from a corporate national security state to a society that facilitates broad based prosperity for real entrepreneurs and wage earners. Meanwhile, the corporate press falsely portrays the national debate as between the “liberal” Obama administration and “mainstream” critics. Sadly, and it pains me to write this, enablers of America’s modern gilded age have merely hit the “reset button” with the Obama administration. I like Al Franken and I’m happy he will finally take his rightful place as Minnesota’s junior senator. But that magical sixtieth vote will not transform the landscape all that much. As Illinois Senator Dick Durbin candidly put it earlier this year, the banks “frankly own the place.”
  • In my opinion, Bernie Madoff is a scapegoat for the crimes on Wall Street. Madoff will spend the rest of his days in prison and deservedly so. I have no sympathy for him. However, the looters at Goldman Sachs, Citicorp and A.I.G. are just as guilty if not more so than Madoff. Yet they’re benefiting from billions of dollars subsidized by taxpayers as state and municipal governments barely hang on. It seems to me that Madoff as the public face of Wall Street’s crimes is enabling plutocrats in Washington and the financial services industry to avoid accountability and needed restructuring of our economy. Two decades ago, Michael Milken became the public face of Wall Street’s excess and nothing changed. If Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and the administration’s senior economic advisor, Timothy Geithner have their way, the Wall Street/Washington axis will continue to conduct business as usual. Their so-called “reforms” are cosmetic only and will not facilitate the systemic change our economy so desperately needs.
  • Enablers of the Washington/Wall Street axis are the cozy relationship between “journalists” and the lobbyists of corporate America. The recent news about the Washington Post selling access to corporate lobbyists simply reinforces what the American people have sensed in their guts for a long time: the “truth” is purchased, packaged and sold. Americans across the political spectrum know this intuitively and that as much as anything explains the decline of traditional media in the Internet age. To some degree this is regrettable because nobody exposed local corruption better than those old time city newspapers with reporters mining sources among the worker bees at city hall. Also, the Internet and blogs are hardly a panacea of journalism. Regardless, the Washington/Wall Street access can only be broken from outside and that means we the people have to become our own journalists.
  • It seems that the real conflict in Iran is between their security forces and factions among the clerics. The valiant protesters are really pawns for the real power struggle-taking place. Even so, hopefully the people who bravely stood up and risked their lives represent a window into the future. Presently though, Iran appears poised to become more of a traditional military dictatorship and less of a theocracy. How events in Iran will transform the Middle East is hard to say but there does appear to be a thaw in American/Syrian relations. The State Department has hoped to exploit potential rifts between Iran and Syria for years even as the Bush administration behaved like a bull in a China shop and the fallout from Iran's presidential election has given the West at least a modest diplomatic opening.
  • I’m gratified American troops are finally withdrawing from Iraq and that Vice President Biden has advised the Iraqis we won’t be expending more blood and treasure to police sectarian violence. Sadly, those resources will likely be redeployed in the Afghanistan/Pakistan theater. Unless vigorous diplomacy with NATO powers or the upcoming summit in Russia can facilitate greater logistical support, an overextended American military is more vulnerable than ever to the burdens of empire maintenance in the name of national defense.
  • I can’t begin to articulate my disgust over events in Albany with the state senate. Much of my activism last year was dedicated to enabling Democrats to finally take the majority. Painfully, their political incompetence as well as Governor David Paterson’s feckless leadership has effectively ended those reformist aspirations from 2006 when Eliot Spitzer was elected New York’s chief executive. With respect to who controls the state senate there is the 2010 census at stake and that means repercussions for the House of Representatives as well the power dynamic in Albany. For the people of this state it’s not just about reform or which party controls Albany. It’s being able to earn a living wage, afford healthcare, have access to affordable housing and good public schools. Unfortunately, New York's political leadership has shown that the Big Apple is a Banana Republic. Hopefully, the chaos between Democrats and Republicans will strengthen the leverage of New York’s Workers Family Party as they represent the interests of New York’s struggling wage earners. Now more than ever Democrats need the support of the WFP and they have much work to do to earn it. As for Eliot Spitzer, tempermentally flawed as he is, I would gladly take him back and would even be willing to pay an "escort tax" to make it happen!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Living On $2 A Day: An Interview With Economist Jonathan Morduch

According to the World Bank, almost forty percent of humanity lives on a daily income of less than two dollars per day. Another 1.1 billion scrape by on less than one dollar per day.

How can anyone possibly survive or raise a family with such a meager income? In New York City, two dollars per day won’t even cover my daily Brooklyn/Manhattan round-trip subway commute. Yet billions of low skilled people put food on the table, educate their children, grapple with unexpected emergencies and even save money.

In Portfolios of the Poor: How the World’s Poor Live On $2 a Day, Darryl Collins, Jonathan Morduch, Stuart Rutherford and Orlanda Ruthven, compiled yearlong “financial diaries,” of villagers and slum dwellers in Bangladesh, India and South Africa. The diaries track penny by penny, how specific households manage their money with sophistication and resourcefulness. Recently published by Princeton University Press, Portfolios of the Poor, presents revealing data in an accessible seven chapters and 184 pages of text. The text is supported with an additional eighty plus pages of appendices, data tables and notes illustrating “the story behind the portfolios.”

In a tour de force of primary research, the authors report that the world’s poorest do not live hand to mouth and desperately spend what they earn just to keep from drowning. Instead, they utilize financial tools, rely on “informal” networks through relatives and neighbors and navigate perils such as medical calamities and political strife. Their stories are both inspiring as well as heartbreaking.

Although the world’s poorest are far more adept at financial management then previously understood, they’re confronted with what the authors describe as the “triple whammy”:
  • Low income
  • Irregularity of income.
  • Unpredictability about when they will earn income.
Hence, the authors assertively advocate for microfinancing as a means of empowering the world’s poorest with more secure and convenient instruments to access and manage money. Microfinancing is financial services for low income clients in the world’s poorest countries who are self-employed or operating their own businesses.

The authors argue in their book that microfinancing should also be extended to address the needs of exceptionally low-income wage earners as well. It is their contention that poor people in the countries they researched demonstrate on a daily basis that they are responsible money managers and would also be reliable clients of microfinancing services.

One of the authors, Jonathan Morduch, is a New York University ("NYU") professor of economics as well as a managing director of the Financial Access Initiative - a consortium of researchers at NYU, Harvard, Yale, and Innovations for Poverty Action. Morduch, agreed to a telephone podcast interview with me about the book and our conversation was just under twenty-six minutes.

Among the topics covered was how his team earned the confidence of the people interviewed, the informal market tools utilized by the world’s poorest in Bangladesh, India and South Africa and why he’s a proponent of extending microfinancing to the world’s poorest wage earners.

Please refer to the flash media player below.

This interview can also be accessed at no cost via the Itunes Store by searching for either the “Intrepid Liberal Journal” or “Robert Ellman.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

That Freedom Thing

Years. 1956. 1968. 1979. 1989. 1990. 1997. As events and protests unfold following the disputed Iranian presidential election I’m reminded of years and moments when the forces of totalitarianism and popular will stared each other down. Each moment contained its own unique historical tapestry and illustrated humanity’s common aspirations to live in dignity.

With each instance there is wonderment and hope that history will turn the page for the better. History teaches however that such hopes are typically elusive.

Hungary: October/November 1956 - America falsely suggests it would support an uprising against Soviet oppression and backs away. The Kremlin initially appeared ready to accept Hungary’s popular will and instead opted to crush it. And a generation of freedom is lost.

Czechoslovakia: January to August 1968 - In January, reformist Slovak Alexander Dubcek comes to power and unleashes the “Prague Spring.” Citizens are granted more freedom as the economy is partially decentralized and restrictions on speech and the media are loosened. In April, Dubcek refers to his political program as “socialism with a human face.” On August 21st, the Soviet Union and members of the Warsaw Pact invade Czechoslovakia and Dubcek’s reforms are terminated. It became known as the “Brezhnev Doctrine,” as Moscow claimed the right to intervene any time a socialist country appeared ready to lose its way and embrace capitalism.

China: April/May 1989 - Twenty years ago the death of a pro-market, pro-democracy, and anti-corruption official, Hu Yaobang, sparks an uprising. A million people gathered at Tiananmen Square to mourn Hu. The movement lasts seven weeks, from Hu's death in mid April until tanks cleared Tiananmen Square on June 4th. It’s a young people’s movement, as one unarmed man is shown in footage worldwide obstructing a tank with his defiance. Many are killed, wounded and “rehabilitated” following these events as Beijing cracks down.

The end result is an uneasy truce in which China’s economy is liberalized while the Communist Party maintains its hold onto power. Whenever corruption or popular discontentment is poised to rupture the truce, Beijing exploits the nationalist card with respect to Taiwan’s sovereignty or uses America and the West as a foil legitimizing their rule. Today, China finances America’s deficit with their expanding economy even as discontentment and the Internet threaten to undermine the regime’s authority.

Eastern Europe: 1989-1990 - The proudest feeling I ever had about my country took place in March 1990. While studying abroad in England I visited Berlin and Poland. “Velvet Revolutions” had swept Eastern Europe in 1989 and Poland was the first domino to fall that summer as our bipolar world disintegrated. Even so, I was initially more enthusiastic about visiting Berlin. By March 1990 Poland wasn’t really in the news anymore following more dramatic events in Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania. Nonetheless, the exhilarating feel of history was intoxicating.

It seemed everyone I met in Poland, from the host family I stayed with, to the courageous Solidarity activists, referred to America as their model and inspiration. Shipyard workers and university students my age peppered me with questions about our model of government laws, society and material wealth. I had to convince several Poles that the Miami Vice television program was not representative of America as a whole. How strange to watch Miami Vice on Polish television with my host family as a single male voice overdubbed all the characters!

One crusty fifty something activist told me that, “Your Constitution was stronger than Moscow’s tanks.” Lump in your throat stuff from someone who had confronted totalitarianism since I was in elementary school when the Gdansk shipyard workers rose up in 1981. Even so, the challenges ahead for Poland and Eastern Europe seemed nearly impossible to overcome.

The legacy of Soviet style industrialization was making the mucus come out of my nose black while I toured the country. There were more consumer goods available than before but insufficient resources to meet the demand. I left Poland feeling inspired by their courage but skeptical that the transition could be pulled off. I also worried that the forces of nationalism would reemerge in Eastern Europe following the collapse of communism.

The transition to market oriented democracies has been rough at times for Eastern Europe. Alas, the breakup of Yugoslavia resulted in genocide and bloodshed. Czechoslovakia is no longer a single country and the specter of the Russian Bear is worrisome once again. There was the tumultuous Ukrainian presidential election and Orange Revolution in 2004-05 in opposition to Russia’s imperious manipulations. Nonetheless, democracy appears to have largely taken hold but with the same challenges of transparency, corruption and economic fairness confronting all nations

South Africa: 1990 to 1994 - In 1990 South Africa's President, F.W. de Klerk initiated the systematic dismantling of the racist Apartheid regime. Nelson Mandela, formerly imprisoned by the Apartheid government prevailed in South Africa's first democratic election in 1994. With respect to facilitating reconciliation between the newly empowered black majority and the deposed white minority, Mandela's leadership is a model of statesmanship. Unfortunately, after fifteen years of corruption and incompetence, millions of black South Africans live in poverty as the AIDS pandemic plagues their country.

Iran: 1979, 1997 and 2009 - And that brings us back to Iran. Most readers here should be familiar with the history. A brief snapshot however. In 1953 an American and British orchestrated a coup that replaced Iran’s parliamentary democracy with a monarchy led by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. America’s CIA trained his secret police known as SAVAK to preserve the Shah’s power. Hence, for over twenty-five years the West had a staunch ally in the oil rich Persian Gulf during the Cold War. Popular discontent however facilitated the demise of the Shah’s regime and he is forced to leave the country in January 1979.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, formerly exiled by the Shah returns in February and ultimately becomes Iran’s Supreme Leader. The brutality of the Shah’s regime is replaced with an even more oppressive Islamic theocracy. Khomeni’s consolidation of power is especially brutal. In November 1979, Iranian students seize the American Embassy and take hostages resulting in thirty years of estrangement between the former allies. A catastrophic eight year war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the 1980s leaves Iran with a disproportionately youthful demographic.

President Mohammad Khatami's 1997 landslide victory generates hope among Iran's young for a new era. Many are hoping Khatami will be Iran’s Gorbachev resulting in a rapprochement with the West. Khatami and his supporters are unable to overcome the conservative forces arrayed against them. President George W. Bush further undercuts Iranian reformers with his reactionary policies following 9/11. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad prevails in 2005 under the banner of economic populism and social conservatism. He becomes an object of ridicule within his own country and an international embarrassment as he denies the Holocaust and openly threatens Israel’s destruction.

Nobody with any horse sense believes Ahmadinejad legitimately defeated his reformist rival, Mir Husein Moussavi in a landslide. Today, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave his support to the outcome of the country's presidential election. Clashes are currently taking place however between the police and Moussavi’s supporters.

Obama’s diplomatic initiatives with Iran appear stalled until events shake out. Iran’s sham of a democracy has been exposed as illegitimate. We always knew that Iran’s elections were severely flawed as presidential candidates had to pass an ideological purity test to be permitted to compete. Initially, Moussavi appeared to be a clever tactic for dissenting impulses to have a means of acting out without threatening the regime’s hold on power.

Instead, a genie has been unleashed and the only way to put it back in its bottle is with brute force. Use of such force as China did in 1989 will only further alienate the population from the regime and isolate Iran even more from the world.

Obama is playing it cool at present and watching events unfold. In fairness to President Obama, America’s track record in intervening in Iranian affairs is not good. Our coup in 1953 was both immoral and strategically disastrous. Also, Obama’s foreign policy, for all the pretty rhetoric is reminiscent of George Herbert Walker Bush’s. It’s predicated on “stability” rather than encouraging grass roots movements against oppression.

And it’s hard to conduct business with a country when an uprising is taking place. So, it is understandable that the president is risk adverse. America erred in 1956 with Hungary and many died when we were not willing to intervene on their behalf. America at present is fighting two wars and doesn’t possess the assets to intervene in a meaningful way. Suggesting otherwise would be irresponsible and might even undermine opponents of the regime. If he acts rashly the end results could be disastrous. Yet, if Obama remains a passive actor, an opportunity could be missed.

Obama’s recent speech in Cairo is partially a catalyst to events on Iranian streets today. With an American president professing respect and conciliation towards the Islamic world, the rationale for Ahmadinejad as well as maintaining a bellicose posture against the West no longer seemed necessary. The recent election in Lebanon also suggested a response to Obama’s speech. Meanwhile, a viable constituency for ending Iran’s isolation certainly exits as illustrated by the 2009 campaign. Hence, Iran’s governing elite is obviously spooked by Obama’s speech, the Lebanese election and the increasing street activity of Moussavi’s supporters.

How will history turn? Is this a revolution in the making or will Iran’s mullahs successfully crack down as the Chinese communists did in 1989? China’s economy was large enough to survive the world’s condemnation but could Iran absorb the repercussions of a brutal crackdown? Or will Iran’s ruling elite come up with face saving pragmatic compromises to ensure their power for another generation? Sadly, a "Velvet Revolution" like we saw in Eastern Europe in 1989 with limited bloodshed seems unlikely.

Perhaps, Iran’s ruling establishment will manufacture a crisis with the United States to rally nationalist support on its behalf. Does Israel’s Netanyahu benefit from Ahmadinejad’s victory or will a popular uprising in Iran end Israel’s ability to distract from their oppression of the Palestinian people?

The possibilities, opportunities and dangers are endless. And the stakes couldn’t be higher. One thing is for sure: far better to have Barack Obama and Joe Biden in the White House instead of the irrational John McCain and insipid Sarah Palin. I don't always agree with Obama's centrist like approach but at least he has a cool head.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Billy Graham & the Rise of the Republican South: An Interview With Historian Steven P. Miller

In the age of Barack Obama, both the Republican Party as well as the South appear marginalized and out of step with the rest of America. Yet it wasn’t so long ago that the South represented the foundation of America’s conservative hegemony. Starting with Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, the Republican Party prevailed in nine out of the next fourteen presidential elections with a reliable Southern base.

Specifically, the Republican Party exploited white Southern resentment against the cause of civil rights and integration. The "Southern strategy" as it was later called, enabled Republicans to end the Democratic Party's previous domination of the South following the Civil War. A key figure in that realignment was the renowned evangelist Billy Graham.

Historian, Steven P. Miller, first explored Billy Graham’s role in this realignment with his doctorate thesis entitled, “The Politics of Decency: Billy Graham, Evangelicalism, and the End of the Solid South, 1950-1980.” Miller later converted that thesis into his current book, Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South, recently published by the University of Pennsylvania Press. Miller’s book delineates how Graham allowed his iconic celebrity to be used by national politicians so they could make inroads into the South. His book also details how Graham capitalized on his leverage as a regional heavyweight to influence presidents and policy.

With President Dwight Eisenhower, Graham had an ideological soul mate as both valued “moderation” between segregationists and those who championed integration. Graham believed that racism could not be overcome through legislation and the heavy hand of federal power. Instead, he advocated changing the hearts and minds of people “one soul at a time” through his integrated “crusades” where he preached his love thy neighbor gospel.

Under the presidencies of Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, Graham straddled the fence between promoting racial tolerance and preserving local southern autonomy or “states rights.” In that regard, Graham was an intimate part of Richard Nixon's inner circle after he became president in 1968. Graham’s defenders argue that he helped the South transition from its shameful past while preserving stability. His critics claim that Graham was a cowardly apologist for white privilege who didn’t do nearly enough to advance the cause of civil rights. Personally, like many liberals, I'm partial to the latter argument.

Ross Douthat writes in his April 19th review of Miller's book in the New York Times that,
“Neither story is the whole truth, but both are true. And it’s a credit to Steven P. Miller that his ‘Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South,’ a study of the evangelist’s relationship to the cause of civil rights on the one hand and the cause of conservatism on the other, does justice to the tensions and complexities involved — for Graham, for the South and for the country. In Miller’s account, one of 20th-century America’s most important religious leaders emerges as a representative political actor as well, whose example is worth pondering less because he was courageous than because he often wasn’t.

The story of the civil rights era is usually told as a collision between heroes and villains: the marchers on one side and the K.K.K. on the other; the Martin Luther Kings and Lyndon Johnsons making the way straight for justice, and the George Wallaces and Bull Connors standing sneering in their way. But the movement’s successes and failures were ultimately determined by the choices of more unheroic men — men like Billy Graham.”
Miller, who earned a PH.D degree in history from Vanderbilt University and has taught at numerous institutions, including Washington University, Webster University and Goshen College, agreed to a telephone podcast interview with me about his book and our conversation was just under thirty-six minutes.

Among the topics covered is the difference between hard core fundamentalism and evangelicalism, Graham’s role in facilitating Republican inroads into the previously reliable Democratic South, whether his middle ground on civil rights was courageous or cowardly, Graham's alliance with Eisenhower, his friendship with Lyndon Johnson, the intimate collaboration with Richard Nixon and the legacy he left behind.

Please refer to the flash media player below.

This interview can also be at accessed at no cost via the Itunes Store by searching for either the “Intrepid Liberal Journal” or “Robert Ellman.”

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Obama & the Mideast

President Obama is beginning his much-anticipated Mideast trip today in Saudi Arabia that includes a heavily promoted address to the Muslim world in Cairo, Egypt tomorrow. This trip coincides with President Obama and his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, making news criticizing Israel's settlment policy in the occuppied territories. With respect to the criticism, Israel's settlement policy is both illegal and immoral.

Obama's willingness to criticize Israel for it is certainly a change in rhetoric from standard American practice in recent years. The real test however will come as the Netenyahu government continues to defy the world and build within existing settlements. Will there be any consequences? I doubt it.

At this point there is no organized counterweight to the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee ("APAC"). As a Jewish American who cares about Israel, I once again express my regret that an effective counterweight to APAC does not exist. Without one, Israel will continue down a dark and perilious path and eventually reap a catastrophic whirlwind. In the meantime, blood is being shed.

I suspect Obama's Israeli criticism is partly calculated to enhance his credibility prior to engaging the leadership of the Muslim world. Translation: "I'm being honest with Israel and not coddling them. So I'm going to be honest with you too and say, Israel has legitimate security concerns that need to be addressed." That won't be enough.

In fairness to Obama, I don't see how any president can resolve the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Netanyahu, even if he wanted too, can't deliver diplomatic breakthroughs without fracturing his fragile coalition or provoking civil war with Israeli settlers. The Palestinian leadership under Abbas is even less capable of coming through with what is known in the world of diplomacy as "deliverables." With Hamas shut out, the Palestinian Authority has no credibility with its own people as it struggles to survive.

Both Israeli and Palestinian societies are dysfunctional. After forty years of a brutal occupation, the Palestinians don't have the institutions or an established civil culture to govern itself as a peaceful neighbor. That won't change unless Palestinian society can have a transition period without the heavy yoke of occupation. The Palestinian young have known nothing but struggle, hardship and violence. They are jaded and easy prey to do the terrorist bidding of demagogues.

Meanwhile, Israeli society has been morally corrupted as an occupier and the extremist settler movement further ties their government’s hands. Even worse, there is no effective political left in Israel serving as an opposition. The onetime proud Labor Party is serving in Netanyahu's coalition and the opposition Kadima Party is not much better than Netanyahu's Likud government. Curiously, the Israeli press is far more critical of the occupation than the American press. Nonetheless, no viable center-left opposition party capable of challenging Israel’s posture towards the Palestinians exists.

It's heartbreaking but the cycle of violence appears unbreakable.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Dr. Tiller's Assasination Is An Act of Terrorism

All I have to say about Dr. George Tiller's assassination yesterday is that it is an act of terrorism. This man put himself at risk on behalf of women and was murdered because of it. The ultimate objective is to intimidate other doctors from helping women at a time of crisis in their lives. Anyone who has ever known a woman who aborted a baby learned it is not a frivolous decision on their part. Late term abortions are especially traumatic for women and typically done to save their lives.

I've always respected people of conscious who genuinely believe abortion is wrong and have worked within the political system to oppose it. Regrettably, too many anti-abortion activists believe their moral imperative extends to murder. American conservatives have enabled the sort of terrorists that murdered Dr. Tiller and his family is living with the consequences.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Sotomayor, White Grievance Politics & the Supreme Court

Two of America’s leading sexist bigots, Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich, recently cited a 2001 speech delivered by federal Appeals Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor as proof of her racism. As a liberal partisan, my instinctive reaction is disgust at their cynical attempt to exploit white identity grievance politics against the first Hispanic Supreme Court nominee. Conservatives have been singing the same tune since Richard Nixon’s “law and order” campaign in 1968 with enormous destructive impact upon American civic life.

Nonetheless, Sotomayor’s words and conservative critics reaction to her nomination, is instructive about our race/gender biases as well as the false ideal of objectivity in a Supreme Court justice. By now, many of us have read the following passage from Sotomayor’s 2001 speech to the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law:
“Whether born from experience or inherent physiological or cultural differences, a possibility I abhor less or discount less than my colleague Judge Cedarbaum, our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging. Justice O'Connor has often been cited as saying that a wise old man and wise old woman will reach the same conclusion in deciding cases. I am not so sure Justice O'Connor is the author of that line since Professor Resnik attributes that line to Supreme Court Justice Coyle. I am also not so sure that I agree with the statement. First, as Professor Martha Minnow has noted, there can never be a universal definition of wise. Second, I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life.”
First, let’s address the argument between Sotomayor and those who believe that competent judges should reach the same conclusions regardless of their backgrounds, while Sotomayor acknowledges the impact of life experience upon her decisions. It happens there is truth in both arguments.

For example, it might surprise many Americans to learn that the Supreme Court with judges as ideologically different as Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg could ever reach a unanimous decision. Yet, it’s not unprecedented for the Supreme Court to announce numerous unanimous decisions early in its term. Indeed, on January 27th of this year, the Supreme Court announced five unanimous decisions with respect to civil rights laws protecting workers against employer retaliation. The rights of workers and employers are often wedges between liberals and conservatives, yet Scalia and Ginsburg voted the same way on five such cases earlier this year.

However, Sotomayor is also correct. As legal scholar and former Supreme Court clerk Christopher Eisgruber, persuasively argues, the Constitution contains too many abstract and vague references such as the Equal Opportunity Clause, for nine individuals to interpret the law without any ideological predisposition. Typically, as Eisgruber pointed out to me in a podcast interview two weeks ago, precedent and text regardless of their judicial philosophies restrain lower court jurists. Even the famous case involving fire fighters in New Haven, Connecticut that have conservative critics frothing at the mouth against Sotomayor was a ruling largely based upon precedent and two of her colleagues voted the same way.

Yet as Eisgruber also noted in our interview, historically, liberals and conservative jurists alike are eventually compelled to be “activists” and intervene through judicial review whenever a clause in the Constitution is simply too vague to provide sufficient guidance. As someone who clerked for conservative U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Patrick E. Higginbortham and liberal Supreme Court justice, John Paul Stevens, Eisgruber knows whereof he speaks.

Most of the time, an appeals court judge can be an “umpire” as Chief Justice John Roberts famously put it during his 2005 confirmation hearings. Much of the time, Supreme Court justices are impartial actors and personalities as different as Ginsburg and Scalia often rule the same way. Sotomayor’s background suggests that when the law and Constitution are clear, she will likely be representative of that tradition.

Nonetheless, history also suggests that the next Supreme Court justice will be confronted with cases during their tenure that transcend the text drafted by America’s founders two centuries ago or feel compelled to overturn the will of congress. For example, future Supreme Courts may preside over cases with respect to civil liberties and the technology of functional magnetic resonance imaging (brain mapping) in which neither the Constitution nor legal precedent are applicable. It also seems inevitable the Supreme Court will eventually preside over a case that transcends the will of state legislatures or congress with respect to gay marriage to ensure equal protection for all citizens.

And that leads to the Sotomayor phrase about "a wise Latina woman” that has some conservatives behaving as if their sphincter muscles are on fire. I largely agree with Sotomayor’s 2001 speech. Even so, I believe her words about “a wise Latina woman” were ill chosen. Nonetheless, this latest conservative “outrage” is a mere distraction taken out of context. Conservatives are longtime practitioners of America’s fear industrial complex and the Sotomayor nomination is merely the latest example.

When it’s one of their presidents they want justices with a reliable predisposition towards conservative activism. If a Democrat is in the White House conservatives emphasize restrained moderation. In fairness, liberal activists also emphasize moderation whenever confronted with nominees such as Roberts and Alito but gear up for a fight to advance our cause when we have a Democratic president. Such is the game of politics and elections do have consequences.

Race/gender absolutely influences our worldview and can’t help but have an impact on a Supreme Court justice. Denying that is disingenuous and we shouldn’t. Nor should we fear it. Rather, a diversity of perspectives on our nation's highest court represents America at its best. Presently, this is an uncomfortable reality for many conservatives who don’t want to relinquish the benefits of “white privilege” and feel insecure about a black Democratic president nominating a female Hispanic judge. Unless of course that justice is pliable to their worldview as Clarence Thomas has been.

It happens that I have a measure of empathy for their discomfort. My formative years were in Rockland County, New York and it was largely white bread cookie cutter suburbia when I was a kid. Although I live in Brooklyn, New York, today, I occasionally feel nostalgic about that provincial homogenous existence of my youth. I love the diversity of my adult neighborhood but even a liberal like myself is not above such sentiments.

Nonetheless, white male hegemony domination of the Supreme Court is an anachronism best discarded. Sotomayor's nomination to the Supreme Court is a reflection of our society's maturation and represents progress. As for conservatives and their childish grievances, I say spare the rod and spoil the child.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Investigating Torture: An Interview With Former Federal Prosecutor Elizabeth de la Vega

Former federal prosecutor Elizabeth de la Vega has recently made news urging that we don’t rush into appointing a special prosecutor to investigate crimes of torture during George W. Bush’s presidency. In a provocative April 20th post entitled “Of Black Holes and Radio Silence,” Ms. de la Vega wrote:
“There is no doubt that sometime in 2002 - if not before - Bush administration officials and their lawyers began orchestrating a torture campaign, which they calculatedly attempted to justify through specious legal memos. They continued to abuse prisoners, and to conceal that mistreatment from Congress and the public, through at least 2008. In all of this conduct, they have committed grave crimes for which they must be held accountable. I believe this to be a national imperative of the highest order.”
However, she also argues that,
“First, the bottom line: From the perspective of anyone who wants Bush and Cheney and their top aides to be held accountable for their crimes, the designation of some sort of independent prosecutor right now would be the worst possible eventuality. It's a move that has so many downsides - and holds so few real benefits - that I would be more inclined to question President Obama's motives if he appointed a special prosecutor than if he did not. There is a reason why former prosecutor Arlen Specter - a Republican senator from Pennsylvania - has voiced support for a special prosecutor, while former prosecutors Patrick Leahy and Sheldon Whitehouse - Democratic senators from Vermont and Rhode Island, respectively - would prefer a public inquiry.”
Please note that Ms. de la Vega’s post was written prior to Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter becoming a Democrat.

Overall, Ms. de la Vega contends that appointing a special prosecutor now would undermine the cause of truth and accountability. It is her contention that transparent and public hearings would facilitate more popular support for prosecuting wrong doers than currently exists. As she wrote on April 20th:
“What we continue to need, in sum, are unwavering spotlights, even more civic education, and, most importantly, an irrefutable and cohesive factual narrative - comprised of direct and circumstantial evidence - that links the highest-level officials and advisers of the Bush administration, ineluctably, to specific instances and victims of torture. What we will surely have, however, if a special prosecutor is named, will be precisely the opposite: The initiation of a federal grand jury investigation right now would be roughly the equivalent of ceremoniously dumping the entire issue of torture into a black hole. There will be nothing to see and we will be listening intently to radio silence, trying to make sense of intermittent static in the form of the occasional unreliable leak. For years. There may never be any charges and we will almost certainly never have the unimpeachable historical narrative that we need.”
On May 10th, she posted a followed up piece entitled “Prosecuting Torture: Is Time Really running Out?”and argued that the statutory clock in section 2340A, otherwise known as the “torture statute” didn’t start ticking until Bush’s presidency ended on January 20, 2009 – when President Obama reversed our policies. Her May 10th post was in response to those who are clamoring for the immediate appointment of a special prosecutor because they claim the statute of limitations for torture crimes that began in 2002 were scheduled to expire in 2010.

Ms. de la Vega’s position stems from her longtime experience as a federal prosecutor. She served as a Justice Department Attorney under Presidents Reagan, Bush I, Clinton and Bush II. She is the winner of numerous Attorney General's and community awards, including the prestigious Director's Award for Superior Performance. For over twenty-years, Ms. de la Vega targeted violent gangsters and sophisticated white-collar criminals in Minneapolis where she served as an Assisted United States Attorney and San Jose, where she was Branch Chief and a member of the Organized Crime Strike Force.

Since retiring from government service in 2004, Ms. de la Vega has been among the most vocal in pushing for accountability on a broad range of crimes allegedly committed during the Bush administration. In 2006, her book, the United States vs. George W. Bush, et al was a New York Times best seller. A year ago, Ms. de la Vega wrote an incisive piece supporting Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich’s thirty-five articles of impeachment against President Bush.

She has also contributed to numerous print and online publications, including the Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, Nation magazine, Chicago Sun-Times, Mother Jones, Common Dreams, TomDispatch, Truthout and Alternet.

Ms. de la Vega agreed to a telephone podcast interview with me about her views with respect to investigating torture and support for public transparency. Special thanks to Vern Radul, known in the blogosphere as Edger where he manages for persuading Ms. de la Vega for doing the interview. Our conversation was just under twenty-minutes as I posed numerous devil’s advocate questions. Please refer to the flash media player below.

This interview can also be accessed at no cost via the Itunes store by searching for either “Robert Ellman” or the “Intrepid Liberal Journal.”

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Next Justice: An Interview With Legal Scholar Christopher L. Eisgruber

President Obama will soon announce his nominee to replace retiring Justice David Souter on the Supreme Court. It’s a critical nomination with long-term ramifications for civil liberties, executive power, management-labor relations, the environment and consumer rights. Hence, it is vital the public know whether the judicial philosophy and ideology of any prospective nominee to the court is compatible with their sensibilities and values. Ideally, all nominees would be forthcoming about their philosophy as the senate either confirms or rejects them with full knowledge of the sort of justice they’re likely to be.

Regrettably, that hasn’t occurred since the 1987 Senate confirmation hearings for Robert Bork. At the time, Bork scared the hell out of me and I’m grateful his nomination was not approved. Even so, I always respected how Bork was upfront about his ideology and judicial philosophy. Bork didn’t hide what he was and the American public and the Senate had a clear picture of what sort of justice he would be.

Sadly, since the Bork nomination fight, our Supreme Court appointments process has become a Kabuki dance existing in an alternate reality. Nominees are conditioned to reveal as little as possible about their judicial philosophies or even avoid acknowledging they have one. A pitiful example is Chief Justice John Roberts who famously compared Supreme Court justices with baseball umpires during his 2005 Senate confirmation hearings:
“Judges are like umpires. Umpires don't make the rules; they apply them. The role of an umpire and a judge is critical. They make sure everybody plays by the rules. But it is a limited role. Nobody ever went to a ballgame to see the umpire.”
Contrary to John Roberts’ testimony, a Supreme Court justice has a unique and expansive role in our society. The Constitution contains too many abstract references and clauses for any justice to merely adhere to the rules based on a strict interpretation of the text. An example is the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause. As the highly regarded legal scholar, Christopher L. Eisgruber, observes in his 2007 book, The Next Justice: Repairing the Supreme Court Appointments Process (Princeton University Press) the Equal Protection Clause reads,
“’No state shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.’

How should judges interpret this clause? Presumably, they must ask what it means for the laws to protect people equally. Yet that question takes judges straight to the nerve center of American ideological controversy. Liberals and conservatives disagree passionately about what it means for the laws to protect groups equally and about when it is appropriate for the laws to treat one group better than another.”
Overall, Eisgruber argues that due to the Constitution’s many vague abstractions, a Supreme Court justice is disproportionately influenced by their individual values and ideology in determining when it’s appropriate for the court to intervene and even overrule our country’s prior laws. How could it be otherwise when the Constitution’s text is frequently subject to broad interpretation as with the Equal Opportunity Clause? Hence, it is imperative the senate determines if the judicial philosophy of a Supreme Court nominee is representative of the country.

Some legal scholars such as Yale law professor Stephen Carter have argued that nominees to the Supreme Court should simply stay home because their testimony has ceased to contribute anything substantive. There is definitely merit to Carter’s point of view. Nominees since Robert Bork typically speak only in vague platitudes about practicing “judicial restraint” and are ultimately voted up or down based upon their reassuring television appeal.

Eisgruber however argues in his book that the senate should ask more open-ended questions of prospective nominees about their judicial philosophies. Too often senators attempt to trap nominees with “gotcha” questions or ask about specific issues such as abortion that that can easily be deflected to “preserve their integrity” prior to joining the Supreme Court. Ultimately, little is learned and unless opposition interest groups get any traction or a scandal emerges, the nominee is likely to sail through without defending or explaining their ideology.

One example of the sort of question Eisgruber suggests asking is,
“The late Chief Justice William Rehinquist wrote that ‘manifold provisions of the Constitution with which judges must deal are by no means crystal clear in their import, and reasonable minds may differ as to which interpretation is proper.’ Could you tell us something about the values and purposes that will guide you when you interpret provisions like the Equal Protection Clause? How do those values and purposes distinguish your approach from those taken by other justices?”
Eisgruber contends this approach has a better chance of determining the sort of justice a nominee is likely to be. He also argues that it will facilitate more moderate nominees and discourage stealth extremists.

Eisgruber, who previously clerked for U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Patrick E. Higginbortham (a conservative) and Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens (a liberal), agreed to a podcast interview with me over the telephone about his book. Among the topics discussed were the insights he gained clerking for two ideologically different judges, the importance of justice’s philosophy about judicial review, President Obama’s desire for a justice with “empathy” and whether we might have a justice who did not serve in the appellate courts. I also asked him numerous questions from my liberal perspective, including whether ideological balance on the court would be better served by appointing assertive liberals instead of moderates.

Please refer to the flash media player below.

This interview can also be accessed at no cost via the Itunes store by searching for either the “Intrepid Liberal Journal” or “Robert Ellman.”

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Check This Out!

Frank Rich referenced this YouTube video in his column today showing a 1981 television news report about a gentleman reading the San Francisco Examiner from his home computer. Considering how print journalism is rapidly becoming obsolete this video is bathed in irony.

Callous Mike

Among the many kinds of emails I receive from readers is the assumption that I live in a blue liberal paradise in New York City. Typically, these emails will come from readers living in states like Texas or Alabama who feel alienated from neighbors who talk unabashedly about seceding or openly refer to Obama as “that nigger president.” Thankfully, I’m not exposed to that nonsense living in Brooklyn and working in Manhattan.

Nonetheless, New York City is not a liberal panacea and Mayor Mike Bloomberg's administration is no champion of the poor. On May 9th, the Associated Press reported that city officials are charging homeless families for living in shelters. Hat tip to my Facebook buddy Terri DiMatteo for posting about this. According to the AP:
“The policy applies only to shelter residents who have income from jobs.

They could be expected to pay up to half their earnings.

Some shelter residents say the new rule will ruin their chances of saving enough money to get an apartment.

One single mother living in a Manhattan shelter tells The New York Times [NYT] she got a letter saying she had to give up $336 of the $800 she makes each month as a cashier.

The city says it is only charging people who can afford to pay.

About 2,000 families are expected to be covered by the new rule.”
One obvious flaw with this punitive measure is that it’s a disincentive to remain employed. As it is a working mother may be reluctant to leave her kids alone in a shelter to earn a pay-check. Now the Bloomberg administration is penalizing her for it!

I know many liberals in New York City who support Bloomberg. Whenever I talk to them I’m struck by how clueless they are. Bloomberg’s urbane and he’s been a pioneer in the information economy professionals like them have thrived in and still do even after Wall Street’s meltdown last fall. Also, Bloomberg supports the liberal position with respect to guns, abortion and the environment and the concerns of people living in shelters is not on their radar screen.

Bloomberg is certainly an improvement over his predecessor, Rudy Giuliani. He’s been forward thinking with respect to the environment and transforming New York City to combat global warming. In many ways Bloomberg is an effective technocrat. But this isn’t the first time his administration has been callous towards the most vulnerable in our society. Sadly, he appears poised for a third term coronation this November without a vigorous challenge or critique of his record.

Bloomberg is already spending millions on advertising while candidates such as Comptroller William Thompson are restricted in order to remain compliant with the Campaign Finance Board and receive matching funds. And Bloomberg continues to coast without worrying about serving the needs of wage earners and tenants who can’t afford to live here.

Does anyone care that New York City’s mayor is allowed to be a commissar for plutocrats in a gilded age? Is there anyone who can mount an effective challenge and at least compel Bloomberg to be cognizant of city residents who don't thrive in his world? Will the fact that the working poor living in shelters are being penalized while Bloomberg caters to the rich during the worst economic climate since the Great Depression even be an issue this campaign?

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Saturday Night Ramblings

I’ve taken a needed break from blogging these past few days. Rather than post a topic oriented essay this evening I just have a few random thoughts rattling in my head:
  • President Obama used his bully pulpit today to promote credit card reform legislation currently making its way through congress. Obama’s YouTube fireside chat contained echoes of Vice President Biden’s Chief Economist Jared Bernstein. How I wish Bernstein had more influence than Tim Geithner and Larry Summers.
  • I concur with New York Times columnist Bob Herbert’s response to the so-called good news of “only” losing half a million jobs in April. I very much fear the corporate media and body politic will become complacent as long as the stock market continues to rally. Obama is too politically savvy to declare “mission accomplished” but his administration is kidding itself if they believe we have turned the corner.
  • Obama’s rhetoric is spot on but his deeds remain Wall Street centric. I have no faith in these so-called stress tests for the banks. My hunch is that the Obama administration is hoping to produce another “bubble” by restoring faith in our financial institutions with fuzzy math. Perhaps Obama is rationalizing that he would use a future bubble responsibly and invest in programs with long term returns for the public such as education, energy, health care and infrastructure. There are two risks with this approach. Risk number one is that the markets expose the fuzzy math just as they revealed the banks balance sheets as phony last year. Should that occur, as Paul Krugman noted in his recent column, Obama’s credibility will be vaporized and so will his ambitious agenda. Risk number two is that the Geithner/Summers plutocratic juggernaut successfully create their phony bubble, we become complacent and have another epic crash.
  • As New Yorkers know by now, Governor David Paterson and Senate Democrats finally agreed to a deal that bails out the MTA without draconian cuts in service and massive far hikes. This was achieved without any Republican votes. In the short term this good for New Yorkers struggling to keep their heads above water in this economy. Long term however there still is no viable plan to reform the MTA’s corrupt cronyism and culture of looting that New Yorkers always end up subsidizing.
  • As for Governor Paterson, he is sadly not ready for prime time. Paterson is reactive and constantly shifting his positions. His hapless performance is taking its toll as polls now show that voters prefer Eliot Spitzer who resigned in disgrace last year. Whereas Paterson navigates Albany’s tough terrain like a baby seal, Spitzer often seemed as if his sphincter muscle was on fire. Paterson is bullied and Spitzer tried to be a bully. Neither demonstrated leadership ability as New York 's chief executive. Hence, not enough has been accomplished since the Democrats retook the governor’s mansion in November 2006. Paterson still has time to turn things around but like most New York Democrats I’m hoping for a primary challenge. I’ve never been a fan of Attorney General Andrew Cuomo but as of now would support him over Paterson.
  • America owes a debt of gratitude to Supreme Court Justice David Souter for not retiring under President George W. Bush. I vividly recall when Souter was nominated by the first President Bush to replace Justice William Brennan in 1990. It was my senior year in college and one of my friends compared him to Robert Bork. Instead Souter turned out to be judicious and sensible. Conservatives chafed that Souter betrayed their cause. In my opinion, Souter presided as a traditional conservative jurist who respected precedent and didn’t overreact to the passions of the moment. Simply put, Souter didn’t betray conservatism. Conservatism’s metamorphosis to radicalism betrayed people like Souter. They wanted Souter to be a radical right wing activist and he opted to respect the Constitution instead.
  • I first became aware of Speaker Nancy Pelosi over a decade ago because of her diligent support of human rights in China over corporate interests. I appreciated her stolid advocacy of human rights in China and have long admired her staunch unapologetic liberalism.
  • Today, the Washington Post reported that a top Pelosi aide attended a briefing in 2003 in which it was made clear that waterboarding and other harsh techniques were used. In recent weeks there have been numerous leaks to the press about what Pelosi knew with respect to "enhanced interrogation" techniques or torture as decent people refer to it. The CIA has apparently targeted Pelosi for damaging leaks just as they previously went after the Bush Administration during the Valerie Plame controversy as well as the who knew what about WMDs in Iraq infighting. One has to wonder if this contributed to Pelosi’s early declaration in 2006 not to investigate the Bush administration, initiate impeachment hearings and her holding back of House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers. Obviously, the Bush administration had plenty of enablers in the Democratic Party for their crimes. If Pelosi was among them she should be held accountable along with other Democratic enablers and we liberal Democrats must insist upon it.
  • Happy Mother's Day to all tomorrow!

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

2009 Chapeau Blog Award Winners

Chapeau announced their 2009 Blog Award winners today. As readers here know this blog nominated as one of two industry finalists for their news category. The winner in my category is an inspirational blog called Ashin Mettacara. Ashin Mettacara is devoted to promoting freedom against oppression in Asia. They deserve the recognition and thanks to the Chapeau competition I have become a regular reader of their site.

Chapeau's overall winner for 2009's Most Brilliant Blog was awarded to the Raymond. CC Tech Blog. Well done!

Thanks to all who encouraged and voted for me. I appreciate the support and was honored to be nominated as an industry finalist. My thanks to Chapeau for promoting the art of blogging with these awards.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

State of the Elephant

America’s center of political gravity is defined by the Republican Party’s intellectual and moral disintegration. Senator Arlen Specter’s recent defection is an example of the American people rejecting the Republican Party like a body discarding a toxic kidney.

Partisan Democrats are understandably enjoying the GOP’s self-destruction as President Obama and his congressional majority implements an ambitious agenda. As a liberal Democrat and devoted activist, I appreciate the sentiment. While in power Republicans not only demonstrated contempt for the rule of law but even waged war against the unique American ideal of a meritocracy. Hence, one of my early posts as a blogger was entitled “Brezhnev Republicans” in January 2006. Republicans have earned the contempt and derision of patriotic citizens for their insipid indecency.

Yet I am neither gleeful nor triumphal about the Republican Party’s self-destruction because America’s winner-take all political system favors two dominant parties. Independents and third party candidates may sometimes break through or influence the outcome of elections. We’ve seen examples of this with the Libertarian and Green parties in recent years. Nonetheless, a two party duopoly will likely maintain its stranglehold on America’s body politic.

As I do not regard the Democratic Party as a panacea my preference is for both parties to be healthy, mature, honorable and intelligent. I say that even as I am devoted to working (and agitating) within the Democratic Party to facilitate peace and economic and social justice. The ideals I espouse can’t be achieved without a credible and decent minded opposition party. Vigorous competition in the marketplace of ideas is an essential component of any healthy democracy.

There is an opening to be seized in the idea marketplace either by the Republican Party or another party able to fill the void as an organized opposition. That void is to provide a counterweight to the pervasive influence of Wall Street and the financial services sector. Just as there was more to this country than George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney there is also more to America than plutocrats such as Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers.

President Obama has spoken eloquently about the need to promote sectors of the economy other than banking and financial services. He reiterated that theme again in his recent interview with economist David Leonhardt:
“We don’t want every single college grad with mathematical aptitude to become a derivative trader. We want some of them to go into engineering, we want some of them going into computer design.”
Yet the policies designed by his chief economic advisers Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers are excessively Wall Street centric. Americans across the political spectrum are hungering for an economic vision that transcends hyper-sized banks and multinational corporations at the expense of local communities, entrepreneurial small business owners and hard working wage earners.

Big government is needed to facilitate universal health care, ensure compliance with new environmental regulations that reduce carbon emissions and help workers retool during this period of economic calamity. Government however should not be empowering big banks and multinational corporations. My visceral sense is a majority consensus has emerged that while we need an activist government we should not be subsidizing big corporations.

Obama’s rhetoric notwithstanding, his administration continues to promote the Wall Street economy that contributes nothing tangible to our society. I support much of President Obama’s domestic agenda with respect to health care, the environment, education and infrastructure. But I would welcome a viable opposition party that provides a counterweight to the Geithner/Summers vision of reforming the Wall Street economy the way Gorbachev tried to reform communism.

The Republican Party has neither the intellectual firepower nor temperament to provide that counterweight. Indeed, it was the Republican conservative ideology of deregulation at the behest of Wall Street that created the mess we’re in today. Hopefully, a new political class of technocratic populists can emerge that replaces the Republican Party and raises the bar of governing performance for Democrats.

Two centuries ago, farsighted leaders such as Abraham Lincoln abandoned the Whig Party when it imploded over the issue of slavery. The Whigs had a proud tradition that included leaders such as Speaker Henry Clay. But when it was no longer able to meet the challenges of its era, Lincoln’s Republican Party replaced it.

Similarly, the Republican Party had its day and boasted high caliber leaders such as President Dwight Eisenhower. It was also Republican Senate leader Ervin Dickerson that enabled President Lyndon Johnson to pass civil rights in the 1960s. Although I strongly disagreed with his zealous promotion of supply side economics, I admired Republican Jack Kemp who sincerely worked to make his party and America more inclusive. Kemp, who just died of cancer at 73, had his heart in the right place. Tragically, he was one of the few Republicans who did.

As of now, the big elephant is deranged and not capable of providing the credible opposition our democracy needs and deserves. It would not shock me if Democrats screwed up sufficiently to eventually merit being out of power. America would be better served if an opposition party of decent and intelligent people existed as an alternative. Presently, we don’t have one.

History however abhors a vacuum. If a coherent leadership class doesn’t emerge in the Republican Party soon, that vacuum will be filled by something else. Who knows, perhaps the Whigs will make a comeback.