EDITOR’S PICK--There is a reason why most popular gangster movies tell stories of legendary godfathers in the old times, convicted felons serving their sentences in prison, or fictionalized characters. Sean Penn missed that part when publishing his interview with the notorious Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera.

Penn and Mexican soap-opera star Kate del Castillo didn’t figure it out, but the organized crime in Mexico is not a movie. You don’t interview a fugitive serial killer right when he is planning his next kidnapping and slaughtering, before he goes to jail, without becoming his accomplice . . . unless you are as untouchable as a Hollywood star.

More than 50,000 people have been murdered during the current administration (plus countless non-reported by states completely controlled from the top by the cartels, like Veracruz, Tamaulipas, Sinaloa or Chihuahua), and more than 120,000 people were killed during the so-called “war on drugs” ordered by former President Felipe Calderon. These people are not extras in a Scorcese’s film.

On November 23, 2011, twelve partially calcined people were found in the trunk of a burning van in the Rosales Neighborhood of Culiacán City, the capital of Sinaloa State. That same day, another burning van in Desarrollo Urbano Tres Ríos was found with four bodies, with the head of one of them thrown to the sidewalk. On that day, “El Chapo” freely conducted his business throughout the country and the entire world. It was a business as usual day for the Sinaloa Cartel. It looked like any other day on another year, like May 2nd, 2012, when twenty-two people were found murdered within less than twelve hours, or June 21st, 2013, when two teenagers were killed, allegedly, because they made fun of the son of a gangster at school.

That’s life and death in a period of time that Sean Penn qualifies as “strictly business”: “’El Chapo’ is a businessman first, and only resorts to violence when he deems it advantageous to himself or his business interests,” he says

The drug lord said so, and he believed it. Sean Penn is “disappointed” of current journalists, but didn’t care to apply their basic rule of fact checking. Had he done so, he would have probably learned that while “El Chapo” was operating freely as a “business man” between 2009 and 2012 there were 330 femicides in Sinaloa, 80% of which remain unsolved. While certainly all these women were not killed personally by “El Chapo” with his bare hands, the rate of femicides in any state where there is organized crime is higher than it is elsewhere.

Drug trafficking is not just about cartels fighting against each other for a better and larger turf. Drug trafficking is an anti-democratic culture of death, extortion, sexism, prostitution, nepotism, tyranny and humiliation permeating the social, political and private life at all levels, everywhere it goes. The obvious territory is that of the military forces, police corps and bribed politicians. Little we know or care about the organized crime inside education, universities and scientific research, for instance, even though the University of Sinaloa often obtains more false credentials, for obvious reasons, and therefore receives more government funding than others where corruption is not the law.

Just because the Mexican Government has become the organized crime at a local, state and federal levels, it doesn’t mean apolitical drug lords should take over the entire country as an alternative to the corruption. Ms. Kate del Castillo doesn’t see it that way though. She referred to the drug lord as a savior, saying that she trusts “more” in him than corrupt politicians. Then she added the advice to start “trafficking with love,” which apparently the drug lord understood as a greenlight to contact her. Two years after her famous Tweeter request, it turned out she was trying to make a Narcos-style Hollywood movie about the drug lord, as confirmed by her own friend, human rights advocate and journalist Lydia Cacho.

Mrs. Lydia Cacho, who has been herself persecuted by corrupt politicians involved in the organized crime, confesses, “Kate told me she was making a movie about ‘El Chapo’.” It is unclear whether Mrs. Lydia Cacho knew about the actor’s alleged money laundering business with the criminal (which is now under investigation), but she is now in contact with Del Castillo and became her spokeswoman. In a recent interview with Univisión’s anchor Jorge Ramos (the Mexican equivalent of Charlie Rose), Lydia Cacho blames the Mexican Secretary of State and Sean Penn for betraying Del Castillo’s “true” and pure intentions, which were no less than the making of a gangster’s movie.

I spoke to one close friend of Mrs. Lydia Cacho, author of “The Eden’s Demons” about pederasty and organized crime in Puebla State. I asked her why this human rights advocate and activist would be willing to risk her longtime earned credibility by unapologetically portraying the soap-opera’s star as a victim. The answer I received is typical of the drug-trafficking world culture, “Because, they are friends, and she was probably going to participate in the movie as an ‘advisor’ or screenwriter.”

Same thing happens to Oscar-winning Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, who was Sean Penn’s protégé when he started working in Hollywood. They are friends. So González Iñárritu supports Penn’s side. He quotes a famous Mexican journalist, Julio Scherer García, who once said he would “go to hell” in order to obtain the opportunity to interview someone, and actually interviewed another drug lord from Sinaloa.

However, Scherer was a journalist. He used to provide a context to the conversation, and never perceived drug lords as his “saviors” like Del Castillo does, or “simple business men.” He was the Founder. Editor of “Proceso,” the prestigious investigative magazine in Mexico. Two of his reporters, longtime journalist Regina Martínez and talented photo-reporter Rubén Espinosa, were murdered by the Veracruz government involved with another powerful Cartel, the “Zetas.”

The state of Veracruz is one of the 10 most dangerous places in the world for journalists, according to Reporters Without Borders. Quoting the director of a publication that has lost two of its best reporters precisely because they denounced the organized crime is a disservice to journalism.

This is not the first time that González Iñárritu quotes without reading someone though. When he first won a Spirit Award for his movie “21 Grams,” took the stage along with actor Sean Penn, and he spoke in favor of peace, only quoting Peruvian novelist and Nobel Price Mario Vargas Llosa. He simply didn’t know that Vargas Llosa had just been in Irak as an “embedded” reporter for the Spanish newspaper “El País,” supporting Spanish pro-Bush President Aznar portraying the US Marines as the most polite, nicest soldiers — until the Abu Ghraib prisoners’ torture and abuse scandal took place and Vargas Llosa got silent.

As Counterpunch’s article “Hollywood and the CIA” by Ed Rampell notes, cinema can be a very powerful propaganda tool. However, in this case, there is no mastermind twisting the information to support drug cartels, but just plain ignorance – Hollywood and Mexican soap-operas’ greed finally meeting.

In the meantime, real journalists in Mexico continue risking and losing their lives, literally.

The flirtatious text messages Kate del Castillo exchanged with the drug lord arranging a secret meeting and inviting Sean Penn were immediately released by the Mexican Government. However, in the case of the 43 Ayotzinapa kidnapped and disappeared students, their parents have been demanding for more than one year the disclosure of the Mexican Army and the Iguala City Police’s phone exchanges and text messages. There are still no answers for them. They are not so glamorous.

In New York City, Mr. Antonio Tizapa, father of one of the Ayotzinapa students, demands the immediate disclosure and release of any information regarding those phone calls and text messages. “Each one of these students have a cell phone, and the soldiers had cell phones. How come none of their text messages and calls are public?” he asked on a public statement during a rally in front of the Mexican Consulate, on January 26. Some of this information would probably explain what really happened in the Ayotzinapa’s case.

(Malú Huacuja del Toro is a feminist Mexican novelist, playwright and screenwriter with eight fiction published books in Spanish. She wrote the first “anti-soap opera” in Mexico, produced in 1988. She is also an activist for Ayotzinapa and the Zapatista movement. She lives in New York. This piece was posted originally at CounterPunch



EDITOR’S PICK--When Comcast tried to merge with Time Warner Cable last year, reaction was swift and negative. Not many people liked the idea of America’s largest and least loved cable company getting any bigger; the deal collapsed after hundreds of thousands of Americans spoke out and federal regulators signaled that they would not let it go forward. 

Big Cable should have gotten the message. But here we are just a year later with a new cable mega-merger in the works. This time, Charter Communications wants to snatch up Time Warner Cable along with Bright House Networks. 

Unfortunately, this deal hasn’t received nearly as much public attention as the Comcast-Time Warner Cable proposal. The harms it presents are just as serious, however — serious enough for lawmakers and regulators to give this outrageous proposal the attention it merits. 

Let’s start with some basics. The three merging companies would create a new Mega Cable company, controlling about one-third of the nation’s cable and cable-broadband markets. In addition, the new colossus would own programming, including regional sports networks all across the country, and would completely dominate some of America’s largest media markets, including New York City, Los Angeles, Dallas, Charlotte, Tampa Bay, Orlando and St. Louis. Finally, the combined companies would have an anti-competitive incentive to preference their streaming-video offering over that of competitors. 

When you add it up, the new company would look a lot like, well, Comcast. Yes, this merger would create a new Comcast — a national cable giant with the ability and the incentive to thwart competition, diversity, and consumer choice. 

And it gets worse. Because they don’t compete in any markets, Comcast and the new Mega Cable company would stand shoulder to shoulder in control of more than 70 percent of the high-speed broadband market. The two companies would have no incentive to compete against each other, but every incentive to coordinate against their shared marketplace competitors. 

Thanks to services like Netflix, Hulu and Sling, television is in the midst of a creative renaissance. These emerging services are finally breaking the decades-long stranglehold of the cable bundle on American consumers who have been forced to collectively fork over billions of dollars in monthly cable bills, largely to pay for channels they never watch. The services’ growth has been fabulous for consumers, content creators and workers in the entertainment industry. Now, just when competition is finally gaining traction, the Comcast-Mega Cable duopoly could squash it. 

Then there is the issue of independent programming. Already, too much of the cable dial is filled with content produced by a handful of media conglomerates. When the vast majority of cable homes are served by just two companies, it will become even harder for independent and diverse voices to gain a foothold. That is especially problematic because Comcast and the new Mega Cable will own content that directly competes with independent programmers. 

That kind of dominance leads to homogenization of content and the marginalization of independent voices, cutting right to the heart of the public interest in diverse cable offerings that give voters a broad range of perspectives on the issues of the day. 

Finally, there is the issue of price and customer service. To finance this deal, Charter will be taking on $27 billion in new debt — about $1,142 for each subscriber. To keep its lenders and creditors happy, the merged company will have every incentive to raise prices and slash service. And because it will face very little competition, the company will run little risk in doing so. How much more beneficial it would be if Charter invested those billions in building cable competition in presently uncompetitive markets! 

The bottom line is that this merger is no less threatening to consumers than the Comcast-Time Warner Cable tie-up would have been. It points a dagger directly at competition, diversity in programming and consumer rights. Before it’s too late, the public should send a message telling regulators to once again stand up to the cable giants and stop this harmful merger. 

More than 200,000 people have already spoken out, but there’s still time to speak out if you have not already. Take action today to stop this affront to the public interest.


(Michael Copps is a former commissioner and acting chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, where he served from 2001–2011. He serves on the board of Free Press and the Free Press Action Fund and is a special adviser to Common Cause. This piece originally appeared on Medium.  Original photo by Flickr user Sean MacEntee.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

EDITOR’S PICK--Chris Matthews had an interview with Hillary Rodham Clinton on the MSNBC channel of the electric teevee machine Tuesday afternoon that was flatly astounding. This is especially true if you remember Matthews' sorry history with the Clinton family, especially concerning HRC, against whom he was so hostile in 2008 that kindly Doc Maddow called him out on it on the air. Now, though, apparently, Matthews sees HRC as the only thing keeping the Battleship Potemkin from sailing up his driveway. 

“I'm going to say this bluntly,” he said. “The only person standing between a confirmed socialist who is calling for political revolution in this country winning the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party, which has always been more moderate than that, is you. So, when you saw that rally last night, the young people all around Senator Sanders, when he yelled "revolution" out there, and they all applauded like mad, do you think that's going to help in the general election or is it what we used to call in the Sixties an NDC candidacy—"November Doesn't Count"—we just want to win the party, we don't care about the general. You seem to be focused on the general. How do you beat a person who comes along in the primaries who says, ‘I'm going to give you everything you want: free tuition, more Social Security benefits, no increase in your taxes, free health-care from birth, all of it government-paid.’ How do you compete with a revolution? A revolution of promises, really.” 

Say what you will about HRC, but she knows a cue when she hears one. She threw out some compliments to her own youthful adherents, which is a decent thing to do, and then she got down to serious business. 

“I do think we have an obligation to keep people focused on what's at stake,” said Clinton. “We can't let the Republicans rip away the progress we have made. We can't let them go back to trickle-down economics, repeal the Affordable Care Act. We can't let them stack the Supreme Court for another generation. We've got to get back to the middle. We've got to get back to the big center and solving problems. That's how we make progress in America. I'm proud to be in a line of Democratic presidents who just got in there and fought it out…I know how hard it is, and I totally appreciate how exciting it can be to be involved in a campaign that really just puts out these great big ideas. But I want folks to just stop and think, no matter what age you are, OK, we agree on getting the economy going. We agree on raising income. We agree on combatting climate change. We agree on universal health-care. Who has the track record? Who's got things done? Who can actually produce the results you want for you and your family, and for our country?” 

But Matthews wasn't finished. Condescension, it appears, is not just a river in Egypt. 

“Look, the history of the Democratic party -- your party, not Bernie Sanders,” said Matthews. “He's not a Democrat—your party has produced the New Deal, the progressive income tax came from the Democrats, Social Security, the greatest anti-poverty program, came from Roosevelt, health-care and civil rights, and all these good things, and in every case, you had to battle Republicans against it to the last person. It's always been a tough fight. You need 60 votes in the Senate, and you need 218 in the House. And if you don't have them nothing gets done. Can the Bernie people be taught—not him, he can't be taught—can the kids behind him be told that this is how it works in our system? You can call for a revolution but it ain't gonna happen. There isn't going to be a revolution. There's gonna be an election and an inauguration and then there's going to be a Congress sitting next to you that you have to deal with. Revolution sounds like a pass. You don't have to have logic any more. We're going to have a revolution and pay for anything.” 

Non sequitur. Your facts are uncoordinated. 

First of all, what Sanders is calling for is a democratically determined change in how we govern ourselves. He's not f-cking Robespierre. The tumbrels are all in your head, dude. Among other things, Sanders is advocating for the restoration of a financial-reform system that was a pure product of the New Deal and that prevailed for 60-odd years. That's his "revolution." Just chill. Once again, though, HRC hit all her marks. 

“Our system is set up to make it difficult,” she continued. “Checks and balances. Separation of powers. Our Founders knew, if we were going to survive as the great democracy that they were creating, we had to have a system that kept the passions at bay. (ED. NOTE: And then most of them divided up into political parties and spent the early 1800's slandering the hell out of each other. We continue.) We had to have people who were willing to roll up their sleeves and compromise. We couldn't have ideologues who were just hurling their rhetoric back and forth. We had to actually produce results…. 

“That hasn't changed since George Washington,” said Clinton. “We have to produce results now because a democracy is a fragile organism. People have to believe they have a stake in it, that their voices count, but then they gotta see results from their investment in our democracy. Our democracy has to work better. Our politics have to work better. That's what I know how to do, and that's what I want to get done.” 

This doesn't have to be the way it goes. HRC is perfectly within her rights to campaign against Sanders on the ground that he is not electable or that his proposals are fanciful. But this is edging dangerously close to marginalizing him and his campaign as somehow extremist and/or vaguely un-American. For example, Matthews really went to town after the interview was over, talking pragmatism and evincing a curious view of 20th century history. He lumped the New Deal and, most spectacularly, the Civil Rights Movement as examples of the kind of incremental centrist change that characterizes American political history. 

This is something of my bollocks. Good god, the New Deal was so centrist that the plutocrats of the time tried to organize a goddamn military coup against it. And the reason that the Democrats became the party of the Civil Rights Movement is that thousands of people in the streets, and more than a few martyrs, forced a series of presidents to move, however deliberately, and forced the party to change an identity to which it had clung since Stephen A. Douglas was the party's nominee. This is not the way the Democratic campaign should be conducted. Bernie Sanders is running a campaign completely within what can reasonably be called the mainstream of his party and of our politics. 

Discreet red-baiting and disingenuous scaremongering helps nobody.


(Charles P. Pierce is a writer-at-large for Esquire and his work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the LA Times Magazine, the Nation, the Atlantic, Sports Illustrated and The Chicago Tribune, among others. This piece was posted at Esquire.com and CommonDreams.org.  Screenshot: MSNBC. Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.


GUEST WORDS--I keep reading that people like me -- older white guys -- are angry about what is happening to their country. In recent years, their grievances have been voiced by Rush Limbaugh, Lou Dobbs, Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck. Then they found an outlet in the Tea Party. Now they are filling the seats at Donald Trump rallies and perhaps propelling him toward what seemed unthinkable, the Republican presidential nomination. 

Trump explained his own anger this way in the last Republican debate he took part in: “I'm very angry because our country is being run horribly and I will gladly accept the mantle of anger. Our military is a disaster. Our health care is a horror show. Obamacare, we're going to repeal it and replace it. We have no borders. Our vets are being treated horribly. Illegal immigration is beyond belief. Our country is being run by incompetent people.” 

Hey, Donald! I'm angry, too. But the sources of my anger are quite different than yours. Let me explain. 

I was born in 1954, just a few months after the Supreme Court, handed down its ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, dealing the biggest blow to white supremacy since the beginning of the republic – back when a bunch of property-owning white men -- to whom the franchise was restricted at the time -- drafted a constitution in which Black slaves were considered three-fifths of a human being. 

When I was in grade school, Betty Friedan wrote The Feminist Manifesto, and the pill liberated women to begin the long and still-incomplete march to full participation in the workplace and in political life. A vibrant and courageous civil rights movement brought about the landmark civil rights acts of the mid-1960s, which also saw the establishment of Medicare and the end of racist immigration quotas. 

When I was in high school, the Environmental Protection Agency was established, and the Stonewall uprising marked the dawn of the modern gay rights movement whose arc, yet unfinished, led to last year's glorious Supreme Court decision making marriage equality the law of the land.

When I was in college, the Roe v. Wade decision ended back-alley abortions and affirmed the right of women to control their own bodies and therefore their full personhood. 

I'm angry not because all these things happened. I'm angry because they are in jeopardy from the likes of Donald Trump and his fellow Republican presidential candidates. They rail about "political correctness" to justify bigotry and cruelty, when in fact the most vigorous enforcer of political correctness is the far right "base" of the Republican Party and its amen corner in the media. 

Thanks to them, no candidate may dare buck the NRA's absolutist -- and murderous -- stance against any sensible gun regulation. No candidate may acknowledge the reality of climate change and what is needed to save the planet, or the humanity of immigrants and refugees who deserve a medal for enduring untold hardships to make it to this country -- where they are a vital part of its economy and its very fabric -- not the scorn and abuse that has been heaped upon them. 

I'm angry because I'm sick and tired of the lies we have been told. That raiding the Treasury for huge tax cuts for the rich will trickle down to working people, when in fact the gulf between the super-rich and everyone else has grown to unsustainable dimensions which threaten the very social compact. 

That waging a war of choice in Iraq would usher in a democratic resurgence and make us safe, when it has left the Middle East in lethal turmoil, cost the lives of many thousands of young soldiers, maimed many multiples more, and sapped the country's capacity to attend to the urgent needs here at home, like roads and bridges and schools. 

When my grandson's pre-K teacher tells us that she has to spend hundreds of dollars from her own pocket for school supplies, it makes my blood boil. 

I'm angry because the first African American president, elected to do something about the wretched mess he inherited, with a financial system on the brink of collapse and a soaring unemployment rate -- and who has done something about it -- has been opposed and vilified at every turn, from a right-wing which questions his very legitimacy (down to the facts of his biography) and whose most passionate cause is to strip away health security from millions who now have it, thanks to this President, for the first time in their lives. 

I'm angry because Black Lives Matter is so necessary, given the epidemic of police murders of Black and Brown people trying to go about their lives. The law, Martin Luther King, Jr. said, may not be able to make a man love me, but it can stop him from killing me. But when it is the law that is killing you, we have come very far from King's hopeful promise.

I understand that many white men -- and women and people of color as well -- who have been left out of this economy, who can't make ends meet, who feel that the American dream is not working for them, are very angry about this, and justifiably so. But I cannot countenance the misdirection of their anger, and the ugly bigotry that has been stoked by opportunistic politicians like Donald Trump. Their anger should be focused on the greedy and the lawless and their enablers in politics, not on those who, like themselves, are casualties of a political and economic system that operates for the benefit of a privileged few, not for all of us.

My grandson will grow up in a country in which most people don't look like him, in which people of color and women will be the overwhelming majority. If he works hard to restore the momentum toward a just and inclusive society -- an idea that filled my younger years with optimism and hope about the future -- this new majority will take its rightful place in the leadership of our key institutions, from boardrooms to capitols. There will be room for him, too, if we turn this country's priorities around. But he will make his way without benefit of the rigged rules that men of my generation grew up with, where women and minorities were largely excluded from the game. 

When everyone is included, everyone benefits. That's why I'm channeling my anger into pushing for policies and the candidates who will back them, that make our democracy and our economy work for all people. 

(Gara LaMarche is President of The Democracy Alliance. This piece was originally posted on HuffingtonPost.com] Follow Gara LaMarche on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@garalog. Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.


EDITOR’S PICK--Over the weekend, while waiting for a friend and listening to Spotify, the album Mermaid Avenue by Billy Bragg & Wilco came on.

Seeing the words of the album based on Woody Guthrie's lyrics scrolling across the screen took me back to a summer visit to Coney Island. But this wasn't a recent visit. This trip was long before the hipsters had discovered that there was a lot more New York beyond the East River. The songs transported me to a Brooklyn that is largely gone; a gritty, dangerous place with more gaps in the streetscape than a Skid Row junkie's mouth.

Mermaid Avenue then was poor and black and Puerto Rican and I was, and am, white and privileged and didn't belong there. Sure, I could fit in outside of Nathan's on the Boardwalk, or at the New York Aquarium, but this was Mermaid Avenue, blocks from the relative safety of the beach or Brighton 5th.

New York was different then. The whole city for me was a Coney Island of the Mind.

It could be rough but I never had too much trouble. On the whole, it was a place I could walk around visible but unknown because it was so far from my home in the leafy suburbs where I was raised. I never ran into anyone I knew when I was slumming it in Coney Island or Bedford Stuyvesant or Crown Heights, decades before the Wall Street bankers, app developers and trust fund babies discovered those areas.

Fast forward to 2016. To Los Angeles which, like New York, I will never leave metaphorically. Each weekend, as I did when I lived in New York, in San Francisco, in Paris and in Boston, I explore on foot a different corner of the endless city.

Saturday it was beautiful Silver Lake, a lifetime or more away from ragged, sweltering Mermaid Avenue with its bodegas, dope dealers and shaved ice sellers in the summer.

Together with my friend, we started our walk at Tropical on Sunset Boulevard which makes what may be the city's best cafe con leche. Fortified by the caffeinated rocket fuel, we made our way north along Silver Lake Boulevard and eventually up some long staircases and winding streets to the perfect spot for watching the sunset over a line of graceful palms shimmering in the distance.

Silver Lake, like countless other parts of Los Angeles was once well-served by the long gone Red Car Line, the region's extensive streetcar system.

I am decades older now than I was on that visit to Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island but fundamentally I am the same. I am still the hopeful romantic about my city, albeit now a warmer one with different flora, mountains, tastes and accents. Los Angeles and cities all over fascinate me because their density and clash of dreams and cultures create built environments that are greater than the sum of their parts. They are places where industry, vision, art, architecture and necessity collide to forge solutions to the challenges the landscapes and people demand.

Saturday's sunset was made all the more beautiful by the foresight of someone who planted that row of palms off in the distance maybe a half century ago. And the bougainvillea, lemons and oranges around us and those Bauhaus inspired and Neutra, Schindler, and Lautner designed homes on the Red Hills were also planted or built by someone with the wise notion of enhancing the beauty of the area.

Like New York's D train to Coney Island, Los Angeles will soon be blessed by its own train to the sea when the Metro Expo Line opens in May. Most of all, this rail line will serve the thousands of daily commuters moving between downtown LA, Culver City, the Westside and Santa Monica. The new line will free riders from the shackles of a steering wheel, car insurance and traffic.

On those trains will also be men and women and children just out exploring the wonder that is this massive city we call home. Riding the trains and buses and walking the streets, we encounter one another in unexpected and mostly welcome ways. In embracing transit and thoughtful density and making Los Angeles more pedestrian oriented we are enriching our lives and creating opportunities for the most imaginative among us to forge new ideas about work, life, art and community.

I don't love every street and neighborhood in LA equally. Some of our areas are beautiful while others compete for last place. But all of them hold secrets and treasures that one is sure to miss if one barrels by at or above the speed limit. It is why I walk and bike and ride the bus around this great city as often as possible. The Expo Line to Santa Monica will be a game changer for those of us who choose to Go Metro. But as the pedestrian advocacy group Los Angeles Walks will tell you, there is no need to wait to discover the wonders that Los Angeles has to offer. And taking it in on foot doesn't cost a thing.

Yours in transit.

(Joel Epstein is a senior advisor to companies, law firms, foundations and public initiatives on communications strategy, corporate social responsibility (CSR), recruiting and outreach. He is a contributor to CityWatch and can be contacted at [email protected].) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams. 


GELFAND’S WORLD--As this is written, we are awaiting the results of the Iowa Republican Caucuses, an exercise in manipulation of public sentiment by cynical operatives. Within a day or two, we should start to see a few dropouts, but the hard core manipulators of truth, Trump and Cruz, will continue. The liberal side of the internet community has concentrated on the mistruths characteristic of the Republican side, but the Democratic Party establishment does not come to the game with entirely clean hands either. 

Not so curiously, I have an example of a similar level of cynical manipulation by the other side, even if it's not on so widespread a scale. It's in the form of a two-page mailer with the heading OFFICIAL 2016 DEMOCRATIC PARTY SURVEY. As the colleague who gave it to me pointed out, we're apparently supposed to believe that the party is interested in what we think. 

The Survey starts out portentously with SURVEY INSTRUCTIONS. Like the magician who gestures broadly with the right hand to conceal what the left hand is doing, it begins with instructions to check that your name and address are correct. It even states, "To ensure statistical accuracy, please do not skip any questions in the survey." I think you will understand as we discuss some of the questions that statistical accuracy is the least of the authors' concerns. 

You are also asked to complete the form in black or blue ink, as if your answers will be evaluated by this generation's version of the Univac computer. It's only in the small print at instruction number 4 that you begin to get the deeper message. "Be sure to complete your DNC contribution form." Instruction number 5 finishes quietly with, "Please return your completed survey, along with your contribution, in the envelope provided." 

OK, it might be worth putting a couple of bucks into the envelope to have the chance to talk back. There are a lot of things I'd like to tell the Democratic Party. (There are even more things I would like to tell the Republican Party, but they don't seem to write to me or my close friends.) 

But given the chance to talk to Democratic Party leaders, here goes. I would like the Democrats to support full public financing of local, statewide, and national elections. As an acquaintance once pointed out, it's the reform that makes all other reforms possible. For some reason, the Democratic National Committee seems to have let this one go. And I'd like them to support universal health coverage, maybe something like Medicare for all.

Most of all, I'd like to advise the DNC to do something that they actually have the authority to do. That's to take away the power held by Iowa and New Hampshire to go first in the presidential selection process. Those two states have enjoyed it long enough. Every Iowa or New Hampshire resident who wanted to have a personal conversation with Hillary Clinton or Ted Cruz has long since had the chance. Not so for me and you. And this is something that the DNC could have challenged long ago. After all, the topic has been around for decades. 

It's time for a change, but the DNC lacks the guts to do so. 

But enough on that issue. Let's consider the survey questions, particularly the way in which they are phrased. For purposes of clarity, I will put the wording from the SURVEY in italics and continue my own comments in plain text. 

Here's one: "Please rank the following Democratic economic priorities in order of importance (1 = most important)." 

Now I can imagine a lot of possible answers. Mine would be something along the lines of doing another economic stimulus package without any nonsense about it being limited to "shovel ready" projects. Anybody who has taken the second semester of economics has heard about Keynesian stimulus, and anybody old enough to have lived through successive recessions from the 1950s onward should be aware that these stimuli work. They worked for President Eisenhower and President Reagan, just as they have worked for later presidents. 

But here is the limited selection of economic priorities that the Democratic Party offers: 

Make it possible for more American workers to earn sick days and family leave. 

End gender discrimination in pay and ensure women receive equal pay. 

Close tax loopholes and simplify the tax code so corporations and the ultrawealthy will pay their fair shares. 

Now I think its obvious that many of us don't have strong objections to any of the above. It's just that they don't really have much to do with economic policy. When comedians like Bill Maher recognize the idiocy of trickle down and supply side as economic policies, you would imagine that the Democratic Party would too. But what we get is a chance to pick among our favorite social policies. 

I might add that the last of the three choices is weirdly Republican in its "simplify the tax code" and only nominally liberal in requiring that the ultrawealthy pay their fair shares. We might also point out that the part about closing tax loopholes is the oldest and least believable of political promises. It's used by candidates of both parties, and it's recognizable as the wishiest of wishful thinking. Does the Democratic Party want to suggest that we abolish the home mortgage tax deduction? I think not. 

Another question gives us 7 possible answers to check. It's really a list of Republican priorities that are almost universally opposed by most Democrats and in several cases, by most voters. Here's the question: "Which potential actions by congressional Republicans most concern you? (please choose up to three)." 

The possible answers include "dismantling the Affordable Care Act, restricting women's reproductive rights, rolling back marriage rights, forcing a government shutdown, blocking President Obama's judicial appointments, opposing a minimum wage increase, and obstructing immigration reform." 

I'd have trouble limiting myself to three. The SURVEY is playing mind games on us. 

It doesn't take very long to recognize that this whole exercise is a push poll. That is, it is an attempt to inform you, the voter, of all the negative aspects of the opponent, in the guise of asking you for an opinion. We get these as telephone calls from time to time. What is your opinion, after being told that the opponent wants to cut Social Security benefits, abolish Medicare, and close half of our nation's military bases? Either you say that you oppose any such horrible person for election to public office, or you start laughing and hang up the phone. 

This OFFICIAL 2016 DEMOCRATIC PARTY SURVEY is much the same. Here is another question that the Democratic Party claims to want your opinion about: 

"Which group of GOP backers do you think will have the biggest impact on the 2016 elections? (please choose one)

Let me interject. I suspect that the answer to this question is better answered by Republican Party activists and the group of political scientists who study this sort of thing. But here are the possible answers that you, the Democratic voter, are asked to select among: 

Right-wing billionaires, such as the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson 

Ruthless political operatives, such as Karl Rove 

Extreme far-right organizations, such the the Tea Party Nation and the Club for Growth 

Conservative media outlets 

Well, that's quite the list, isn't it? You will notice that the voters don't seem to be mentioned on this list, in particular the voters of Iowa, New Hampshire, and the deep south. You might also notice that the candidates themselves were not mentioned. Or how about the major television networks and their coverage of debates and the day to day campaigning? The question treats the entire Republican Party, from top to bottom, as equivalent to the undead. It might or might not be a fair appraisal, but even us dyed in the wool liberals recognize that the question is manipulative. 

We could go on, but you get the idea. There is a corollary here that bears mentioning: Political parties, unlike the more independent minded, have a powerful taboo against admitting that the other side has any decency at all. I can remember one local club that fined you fifty cents if you mentioned the name of its opposition. You had to engage in some subterfuge such as "the other party" if you wanted to avoid feeding the kitty. 

It seems to me that this attitude goes counter to the ideal communicated by President Obama at the start of his presidency. Things may have changed, even in the oval office, but the snide dehumanization of your opponent is not what the American polity ought to be striving after. 

Luckily, when we get to the end, we discover that this whole survey is really just a fund raising gimmick. DNC meet Mike Huckabee. Mike Huckabee meet DNC. Curiously, the allowable donations begin at $18 and go up from there. The online fundraising requests I get every week usually ask if I can contribute $3 or more. I guess that the DNC expects more because it is using a stamped envelope. 

I've treated the DNC, or whoever is actually running this fundraiser, a little harshly. Obviously I don't intend this to be in support of anything the Republicans are doing. You don't even have to look at their internal fundraisers to see just how contemptuously they view the American people. But there is one other fundraising group on the Democratic side that is worthy of our attention. 

There is an email group that goes by the name of The House Majority Pac. They send me emails that put scare wording in the address field, so I get an email that looks like it's coming from URGENT or from SHUTDOWN ALERT. One came from ACTIVATION NOTICE. 

You may notice that the hmpac likes to use techniques that were originally pioneered by spam artists. Some of the most recent use the subject line, "this is bad..." 

There is a difference between the DNC mailer, that appears to come from a reputable source in spite of its frantic wording, and the hmpac, which does not make clear whether it has any official connection to the Democratic Party. 

In either case, it looks like some organizers on the Democratic side have decided to adopt practices that have been used by snake oil peddlers and political charlatans for decades. 

The alternative can be found in organizations such as Daily Kos, the website that serves millions of Democratic leaning readers. The Kos site makes clear what and who it represents, asks you straight up for your three dollars, and explains why you should be concerned. 

(Bob Gelfand writes on culture and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected]



NEW GEOGRAPHY-In this hyper-political age, perceptions about virtually everything from the weather to the Academy Awards are shaped by ideology. No surprise then that views on the economy and its trajectory also divide to a certain extent along partisan lines. 

How the public perceives the economy will have a major impact on this year’s elections. That most are already discouraged cannot be denied; the negative sentiment has propelled the rise of such seemingly marginal political figures as Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. But will the economy prove a bother to the Democrats? 

A lot depends on where you live and what you do. Much of the country is not doing so well; despite a strong two-year run in job creation, some 93 percent of U.S. counties still have not gained back all the jobs that they lost in the Great Recession, according to the National Association of Counties

Yet many liberals believe the economy is shipshape. Paul Krugman, the progressive economist, hails the “Obama boom,” citing rising employment, some slight income gains and, at least until recently, a soaring stock market.

Krugman and others point to California, the epitome of true-blue virtues, as having what one progressive journalist calls a simply “swell” economy. Rarely mentioned is the fact that, for the past two decades, the state’s economy has more often underperformed national averages.

More serious still, the same state that boasts Silicon Valley also suffers the highest poverty rate in the nation. Overall, nearly a quarter of Californians live in poverty, the highest percentage of any state, including Mississippi. According to a recent United Way study, close to one in three is barely able to pay their bills.

A slowing economy and weak stock market, in contrast, does offer some solace to Republicans, who clearly see a political opportunity. Even at its best, this has been a slow growth recovery and while the official unemployment rate has improved sharply, labor participation rates remain depressed by historical standards. Millions of young people remain in their parent’s homes as opposed to engaging the economy, buying homes, and getting onto adulthood.

The End of The Asset Boom

America may not be in as bad shape as Republicans and conservatives like to insist. Certainly compared to Europe or Japan, we’re in great shape. While some doubt weakness in China really poses a danger to the U.S. – exports account for only 13% of U.S. GDP, after all, and China is not one of the largest markets for U.S. goods — David Stockman, among others, argues that China’s slowdown is due to a dangerous phenomenon that is present in the U.S. as well: a disastrous level of debt. Some Democratic economists like Larry Summers, as well as economic gurus such as Mohammed el-Erian, warn that we should at least prepare for the possibility of recession.

Certainly the China crisis threatens the trajectory of certain blue cities. Money from China and other parts of Asia has helped propel real estate markets in places like coastal California, New York and San Francisco. China has also been a major source of tourists and consumers for high-end electronic products that are at least designed and marketed here.

Similarly California’s tech boom also seems to have reached its apogee. The fact that Silicon Valley types have gotten rich appears to have done little for the average American, and done very little to improve productivity.  With the market looking on with greater skepticism, several major players — Groupon, Yahoo, Twitter, for example — seem vulnerable. If a full scale bust is not imminent, a downturn in valuations, and likely employment, seems inevitable.

A slowdown in the Valley could place the blue bastions in an uncomfortable situation, exacerbating splits already evident in the Clinton-Sanders clash. The mega-profits enjoyed by sectors close to the Democrats, notably Silicon Valley, media and a large part of finance, have encouraged progressives to advance an ever more expansive, and expensive, liberal agenda. With billionaires stalking the streets of San Francisco, who could possibly oppose a big boost in the minimum wage, family leave, massive transit projects and the provision of subsidized housing.

Progressives may detest the investor class that has gotten rich in the “Obama boom,” but they remain deeply dependent on them to finance their green and social agendas. California’s coffers have been filled in recent years largely by the huge rises in income and capital gains among the investor class, who are well represented in the Golden State. Similarly New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s aggressive agenda for new housing and expansion of social programs depends largely on the continued looting of the economy by Wall Street.

The developing decline in asset values threatens the progressive agenda, and could set up a major battle between key progressive constituencies — rich liberals and those dependent on public sector spending. The fundamental incompatibility of ever-expanding pension liabilities and the provision of basic public services is becoming painfully clear in places like Chicago and Detroit, and smaller cities like San Bernardino and Stockton. More of blue America could join them if asset values continue to drop.

A nascent recession would almost certainly spark something of a civil war between the traditional left constituencies and the kind of business progressives one finds in Silicon Valley, Wall Street and the media industry. A first stage of this conflict is already emerging in California, where former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed has been seeking to rein in the state’s unfunded $350 billion pension liability. Silicon Valley largely has backed Reed’s past efforts, which has elicited a fierce blow-back by the public employee unions and their political allies.

Blue and Red, Reinforced

A recession would change many things, but not enough to challenge Democratic dominance in California, New York and other parts of the “blue wall.” Unemployment could double and Hillary Clinton — perhaps even Bernie Sanders — could win these places in a walk. After all, Jerry Brown was elected and then re-elected when California’s economy was still struggling to recover.

Theoretically, the cost of energy, the lack of water for farms, and a decaying infrastructure should provide an opening for Republicans, but as middle income families continue to move elsewhere, the shift to a single, childless, minority and immigrant demographic makes any successful GOP makeover all but impossible.

Instead of pushing them to the GOP, a recession could further radicalize the Democrats but not upset their control of dark blue states. But the deepening decline in the real tangible economy — energy, manufacturing, agriculture — could prove a boon to the GOP in much of the rest of the country.

Before the decline in oil prices many areas in the middle of the country enjoyed a gusher in energy jobs, providing high wage employment (roughly $100,000 annually, exceeding compensation for information, professional services, or manufacturing). Due largely to energy, states such as Texas, Oklahoma and North Dakota have enjoyed consistently the highest jobs growth since 2007, and were among the first states to gain back all the jobs lost in the recession.

Of course, tough times in red states like Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and North Dakota will only pad Republican gains. But there are other, contestable heartland states — Ohio and Pennsylvania, in particular — that also benefited from the expansion of fracking, which created whole new markets for manufactured products like pipes and compressors. Similarly, the administration’s directive to crack down on coal plants could be problematic for Iowa, Kansas, Ohio, Illinois, Minnesota and Indiana, which rank among those most reliant on coal for electricity. Not surprisingly much of the opposition to the EPA’s decrees come from heartland states

Right now virtually every Great Lakes state, except Illinois, enjoys unemployment rates below the national average and several, led by the Dakotas, Minnesota, Nebraska and Iowa, boast among the lowest in the nation.

But with energy, agriculture and manufacturing slowing down, the prospects for the middle of the country have turned increasingly sour. A manufacturing decline might not matter much to New York, where the sector accounts for barely 5 percent of state domestic product but industry accounts for 30 percent of the economy in Indiana, 19 percent in Michigan. If the current trends hold, the case for the “Obama boom” in this vast swath of America may be further weakened.

To the problems of regulation and market turbulence, manufacturing economies are also threatened by the rising value of the dollar, which threatens the Rust Belt’s prime exports and bolsters competitors, both in Europe and Asia. After all, manufactured goods are the leading export in much of the upper Midwest while food exports, also hard-hit by the hard dollar, dominate many Great Plains economies. In 2012, a recovering Rust Belt was critical to President Obama’s victory; a weakened industrial economy could make Republicans more competitive in the region, particularly if they nominate an electable candidate.

Will a Recession Create a New Politics?

Until the stock swoon, few commentators focused on the political implications of what very well may be an emerging recession. After all, if coal miners in West Virginia lose their livelihoods, it hardly effects the lifestyle of Capitol bandits a couple of hours away, and eliminating oil jobs in Bakersfield doesn’t cramp the style of tech moguls who don’t ever get their hands dirty. But with the stock market in sharp decline, the affluent may soon be feeling some of the angst felt by many middle and working class people during the “Obama boom.”

Indeed because President Obama’s policies are so identified with progressivism, a recession now could undermine support for his bank-friendly, super-green policies. The chimera of green jobs never had much reality, but low energy prices inevitably weaken the renewable sector. In times of asset inflation, losses on the farm, the factory, the mine or the drilling platform can be dismissed as part of “disruption” and progress, but what happens if other linchpins of the economy, notably tech and finance, begin to wobble as well?

If nothing else, a weaker economy will accelerate the increasingly populist tone of the Democratic Party, as epitomized by Senator Bernie Sanders’ remarkable rise. The kind of neo-liberalism epitomized by the Clintons rested on financial support from Wall Street, Silicon Valley and media companies. This support has become something of a liability for the former Secretary of State.

But the most important political impact of a slowdown or new recession, will be in the heartland, where elections are often won. Yet logic seems on a holiday in a Republican Party which seems to feed on resentment but produce little in the way of practical solutions. Indeed front-runners like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz thrive not by addressing economic growth but focusing instead on anxieties relating to immigration, Islamic terrorism and cultural change. Amidst an incipient recession, or at least a serious slowdown, after a weak recovery, Republicans should be able to make some gains, but to do so they have to give some glimmer of having the chops to turn the economy around.

(Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. He is also executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His newest book, The New Class Conflict is now available at Amazon and Telos Press. He is also author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He lives in Orange County, CA.) Photo: Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons. Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

EDITOR’S PICK--President Barack Obama is proposing a cool solution to help close the gender pay gap, but it doesn't hit at perhaps the biggest problem keeping women from earning what men make. 

That problem? Life. 

Women’s responsibilities outside of work -- mainly looking after children, but also caring for sick and elderly family members -- often keep them from taking on the kinds of jobs that would finally close the distance in pay between the genders. 

That doesn’t mean that the gender pay gap is the result of some kind of real “choice” women make, according to Claudia Goldin, one of the leading economists studying the gender pay gap. 

“Women aren’t choosing to make less,” she told The Huffington Post. Instead, they’re buying the flexibility to handle responsibilities outside of work, said Goldin, who is a professor at Harvard.

U.S. public policy is many years away from grappling with this.

Obama just announced a strong new policy that's intended to address the pay gap. Under his proposal, companies with more than 100 employees will be required to report data on pay, broken down by gender, race and ethnicity. 

It reinforces efforts already underway at some progressive companies whose leaders have pledged to eliminate pay gaps with salary analysis. Probably the most high-profile of these is software maker Salesforce, which has already spent $3 million to ensure women and men are paid equitably at the Silicon Valley firm. 

Certainly pay gaps within companies exist and are a problem. Black and hispanic women face even worse wage gaps than white counterparts. Firms should do everything they can to eliminate unfairness. And, of course, gender bias and discrimination play a role in the wage gap. It's fair to say Jennifer Lawrence got a raw deal compared to her male peers. There's all kinds of nutty bias against women that goes down at work. 

Women get interrupted at meetings. They aren't often taken as seriously as their male counterparts. They are deemed too aggressive or too meek and unfairly penalized in performance reviews.

There's a long, infuriating list. 

It's obviously important that we have strong laws prohibiting clear gender discrimination. This week, progressive groups are advancing bills in several states meant to encourage equal pay for equal work, as Lydia DePillis writes in the The Washington Post.  Much of the legislation focuses on pay discrimination within companies. 

But it’s not the gaps within companies that are mainly keeping the sexes apart on pay. It’s the gaps within professions -- particularly high-paying ones like law and business. So the highest-paid lawyers, for example, are mostly the men who've stuck it out at the most grueling and prestigious law firms that pay the most amount of money. The women have fallen off that elite track. 

And this makes up a huge portion of the gender wage gap, Goldin's research has shown. 

It's why the gap is most pronounced at the tippy-top of the income scale. 

Women at the top make 84 percent of what men at the level earn after controlling for education, ethnicity and a few other factors, a new working paper from two well-regarded labor economists reveals. 

“The pay gap has been reduced much less at the top than at other points at the middle and bottom,” Francine Blau, a Cornell economist who co-authored the paper with her colleague Lawrence Kahn, told The Huffington Post

There’s nothing more killing for parents or women in particular than having a child that gets out of school at 2:30. 

Goldin’s research has drilled down into this. Data she's analyzed shows that lawyers and women with graduate business degrees start out relatively equal to men when it comes to pay, but the gap widens as women get older -- when life and babies intrude on career goals. 

The same pattern persists for women with graduate-level business degrees. As Goldin writes in a 2006 paper, the penalty for M.B.A.s is higher than in any other profession she’s looked at. A high percentage leave the highest paying jobs after just a few years. 

Some would look at this information and conclude that it’s a fair tradeoff, less work and more family; no big deal. 

Some jobs require everything, to be sure. 

But many, many jobs do not. In consulting, workers are rewarded for putting in 100-hour weeks with promotions and partnerships. 

The cultural requirements are so onerous, that one study found that male consultants simply pretended to work long hours. They were still rewarded with advancement. 

One lesson from that analysis: The men didn’t need to put in the work. 

At the highest-end of our economy, face-time or the illusion of hard work is rewarded with higher pay. It’s not that you work more hours and get paid more simply because you put in more time. Hourly pay is not constant: Indeed, one recent study showed that overwork is rewarded with higher pay.  

The internet has enabled this by making it super-easy to always be connected to your office. 

So companies can help drive cultural change in letting people work reasonable hours and supporting flex time. 

Goldin has a simple solution for policy makers that one doubts would ever actually happen: Lengthen the school day. 

“There’s nothing more killing for parents or women in particular than having a child that gets out of school at 2:30,” she said. 

And there’s no good reason the school day is so short, according to Goldin. “We inherited this stuff,” she said, noting that the current school schedule was put in place when the U.S. was primarily agrarian. Kids were off during the summer to work on the farm. “We used to harvest things.” 

(Emily Peck is Executive Business & Technology Editor of The Huffington Post where this piece was originally posted.)  Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

JUSTICE INTERRUPTED--In what some are calling another example of a two-tiered justice system, the Pentagon said Friday that it would not demote Retired General David Petraeus, who was convicted in 2015 of leaking classified information to his biographer and mistress. (Photo above)   

The former CIA head reached a plea deal with the Justice Department last year, and the new development means no further action against Petraeus. "As you know, the Army completed its review of his case and recommended no additional action. Given the Army review, Secretary Carter considers this matter closed," Stephen C. Hedger, the assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs, wrote in a letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee and seen by news outlets

A demotion from his four-star general ranking "could have cost him tens of thousands of dollars a year in pension payments," the Washington Post reports

As USA Today reports

Petraeus, the highest-profile commander of his generation, lied to FBI agents, divulged a massive amount of sensitive data to Paula Broadwell, and fretted about how she handled them in an interview she recorded with him, court documents showed. She was the co-author of a biography about Petraeus titled, All In, The Education of General David Petraeus.

The federal court levied a fine of $100,000 against him and placed him on probation in the plea deal.

He served no prison time.

Whistleblowers like Daniel Ellsberg have already said the Petraeus case stood in stark contrast to the Obama administration's aggressive crackdown on whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Jeffrey Sterling, and John Kiriakou.

And Jesselyn Radack, head of National Security and Human Rights at the whistleblower advocacy organization Government Accountability Project (GAP), said following Petraeus' sentencing last year that her organization's "whistleblower clients lost their careers and spent millions on legal fees while Petraeus was able to retain his security clearance, advise the White House, make lucrative speeches across the globe, and pull in a massive salary as a partner in one of the world's biggest private-equity firms."

(Andrea Germanos writes for Common Dreams … where this perspective was first posted.)


EDITOR’S PICK--News that plastic pollution will exceed all the fish in the sea by 2050 is beyond appalling -- it's unacceptable. We need bold action to stop plastic garbage from choking out ocean life. 

One ocean and two big problems: We need to end overfishing and confront our throwaway society. Both goals are about reducing our consumption and letting our oceans recover.

The statistics -- from a Jan. 19 study by the World Economic Forum -- are alarming. Not only is plastic projected to overtake fish by 2050, but plastic production is also expected to consume 20 percent of all oil by then, up from 6 percent in 2014. So single-use packaging is not only polluting our oceans but it is also driving our oil addiction. 

Curbing fossil fuels isn't just about combating climate change. It's also about preventing oil spills, air pollution, and slowing the flow of cheap oil into disposable plastic packaging. Sea turtles, whales, seals and birds are all threatened by destructive fishing and oil production -- and again by plastic pollution.

But wait: It gets even worse. This ocean plastics study came out on the same day as another important one showing that overfishing has depleted the ocean more than three times faster than previously understood. That means plastic pollution could crowd out fish even sooner.

This fishing study for the first time calculated illegal and recreational catch not included in official figures. It found that catch peaked in 1996 at 130 million tons, rather than the 86 million ton total recorded by the United Nations that year. Since then the global catch has declined by 1.2 million tons per year -- three times the rate officials believe -- because of overfishing. 

We simply can't keep cranking out plastic packaging without it overwhelming the sources of life as we know it. And we're replacing that displaced ocean life with mountains of plastic that absorb a deadly cocktail of environmental toxins. It swirls into the North Pacific Gyre to create the largest garbage dump in the world, or it's eaten by little fish that are then eaten by bigger fish, working their way onto our plates.

Our oceans and our economy are on a collision course. We simply can't keep cranking out plastic packaging without it overwhelming the sources of life as we know it. The plastics report shows the use of plastics increased 20-fold in the past half-century and is expected to double again in the next 20 years.

"We live in a defining moment in history," Mogens Lykketoft, president of the United Nation's 70th General Assembly, wrote in the foreword of that report.

We can define our world by our consumption, hauling away the fish and replacing them with our plastic waste. Or we can define it by our capacity for conservation and regain the natural balance that we've lost. We need bold leadership that will pledge to keep the oil in the ground, we need strong international fishing rules and enforcement, and we need to ban single-use plastics or force big plastic to deal with its waste. The ocean is sensitive, and it's going to collapse if we use it as a dump or lawless fishing ground.

(Miyoko Sakashita is a senior attorney and director of the Oceans Project at the Center for Biological Diversity. Posted earlier at Common Dreams.)



PEACEVOICE-Gun rights advocates rest their case heavily on the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, insisting that the Second Amendment gives people the right to keep and bear arms. They are mistaken in their claim. 

Justice Anthony Scalia, writing the majority opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller, acknowledges this when he writes: “The very text of the Second Amendment implicitly recognizes the pre-existence of the right and declares only that it ‘shall not be infringed.’” He adds: “[t]his is not a right granted by the Constitution. Neither is it in any manner dependent upon that instrument for its existence. The Second Amendment declares that [the right] ‘shall not be infringed.’” 

So if the Second Amendment does not give people the right to keep and bear arms, what does it say?

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” 

This amendment contains three claims. The implicit claim is that there already is a right to keep and bear arms, as the majority opinion above asserts. The second claim is that a well regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state; and the third claim is that the right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed because a well-regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state. 

In short, the Second Amendment does not establish the right to keep and bear arms; it establishes that such a right (which it presumes to exist) shall not be infringed. And it offers as the reason it shall not be infringed the assertion that a well-regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state. 

All of these observations concur with the majority opinion in District of Columbia v Heller, which states that “the Second Amendment’s prefatory clause announces the purpose for which the right was codified: to prevent elimination of the militia”; the Court also asserts that “[t]here are many reasons why the militia was thought to be ‘necessary to the security of a free state.’” 

Given that the Second Amendment does not establish the right to keep and bear arms but, rather, presumes it, one could argue that the presumption is mistaken. And there would be good grounds for doing so. Under social contract theory, with which the Founding Fathers were quite familiar, citizens give up to a government their natural right to protect and preserve their other natural rights, and in exchange for giving up their right to protect and preserve their other natural rights, that government promises to protect and preserve those other natural rights for them. This is what the social contract is. Arguably then, the natural right to keep and bear arms, allegedly necessary for the security of a free state, is precisely what citizens give up in exchange for a government securing citizens’ other natural rights. 

But put all that aside. Assuming that the right to keep and bear arms does exist, even within a social contract, even with a government whose duty it is to protect its citizenry and preserve their other freedoms, the reason the right should not be infringed is because a militia is necessary to the security of a free state–or so thought the Founding Fathers. Thus, a legitimate question to ask is whether a well-regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state. 

Recent evidence strongly suggests that a well-regulated militia is not necessary to the security of a free state. Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, in their 2011 work “Why Civil Resistance Works,” have shown that attempts to overthrow tyrannical governments or to change their policies as well as attempts to repel armed invasion, are twice as successful when they are pursued non-violently than when they are pursued violently. 

As Chenoweth states in a 2011 op-ed piece in the NY Times, she and Stephan “compared the outcomes of hundreds of violent insurgencies with those of major non-violent resistance campaigns from 1900 to 2006; [they] found that over 50 percent of the non-violent movements succeeded, compared with about 25 percent of the violent insurgencies.” What’s more, they show, the numbers of deaths arising from attempts to secure freedom are far greater in violent than in non-violent conflicts. Recent evidence, in short, strongly suggests that it is false that a militia is necessary to the security of a free state. 

If that is so, then the premise on which the Founding Fathers based their assertion that the right shall not be infringed is false. Does that mean that the right should not be infringed? Perhaps not. After all, self-defense is another reason why the right to keep and bear arms ought to be preserved. 

But again, recent evidence also suggests otherwise. Charles Branas and others, in a 2009 study, found that “individuals in possession of a gun were 4.46 times more likely to be shot in an assault than those not in possession.” Data also show that (1) criminal homicides outnumber justifiable homicides by a ratio of 36 to 1, (2) that crimes committed with a gun outnumber uses of a gun in self-defense by a ratio of 7 to 1, and (3) that suicides by guns outnumber homicides by guns. In short, the evidence strongly links possession of a weapon to criminal homicide, to other crimes, and to one’s own death more than it does to successful self-defense. 

On the basis of evidence that did not exist at the time the Second Amendment was written, it appears that even under the presumption that a right to keep and bear arms exists, the reasons offered by the Founding Fathers for not infringing on that right no longer stand up to well informed scrutiny.

(Dr. Barry Gan, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor of Philosophy and Director, Center of Nonviolence at St. Bonaventure University. This piece was originally posted at peacevoice.info and in Las Vegas Informer.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.


EDITOR’S PICK--Some years ago, I faced up to the futility of reporting true things about America’s disastrous wars and so I left Afghanistan for another remote mountainous country far away. It was the polar opposite of Afghanistan: a peaceful, prosperous land where nearly everybody seemed to enjoy a good life, on the job and in the family.

It’s true that they didn’t work much, not by American standards anyway. In the U.S., full-time salaried workers supposedly laboring 40 hours a week actually average 49, with almost 20% clocking more than 60. These people, on the other hand, worked only about 37 hours a week, when they weren’t away on long paid vacations. At the end of the work day, about four in the afternoon (perhaps three in the summer), they had time to enjoy a hike in the forest or a swim with the kids or a beer with friends—which helps explain why, unlike so many Americans, they are pleased with their jobs.

Often I was invited to go along. I found it refreshing to hike and ski in a country with no land mines, and to hang out in cafés unlikely to be bombed. Gradually, I lost my warzone jitters and settled into the slow, calm, pleasantly uneventful stream of life there.

Four years on, thinking I should settle down, I returned to the United States. It felt quite a lot like stepping back into that other violent, impoverished world, where anxiety runs high and people are quarrelsome. I had, in fact, come back to the flip side of Afghanistan and Iraq: to what America’s wars have done to America. Where I live now, in the Homeland, there are not enough shelters for the homeless. Most people are either overworked or hurting for jobs; housing is overpriced; hospitals, crowded and understaffed; schools, largely segregated and not so good. Opioid or heroin overdose is a popular form of death; and men in the street threaten women wearing hijab. Did the American soldiers I covered in Afghanistan know they were fighting for this?

Ducking the Subject

One night I tuned in to the Democrats’ presidential debate to see if they had any plans to restore the America I used to know. To my amazement, I heard the name of my peaceful mountain hideaway: Norway. Bernie Sanders was denouncing America’s crooked version of “casino capitalism” that floats the already rich ever higher and flushes the working class. He said that we ought to “look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people.”

He believes, he added, in “a society where all people do well. Not just a handful of billionaires.” That certainly sounds like Norway. For ages they’ve worked at producing things for the use of everyone—not the profit of a few—so I was all ears, waiting for Sanders to spell it out for Americans.

But Hillary Clinton quickly countered, “We are not Denmark.” Smiling, she said, “I love Denmark,” and then delivered a patriotic punch line: “We are the United States of America.” Well, there’s no denying that. She praised capitalism and “all the small businesses that were started because we have the opportunity and the freedom in our country for people to do that and to make a good living for themselves and their families.” She didn’t seem to know that Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians do that, too, and with much higher rates of success.

The truth is that almost a quarter of American startups are not founded on brilliant new ideas, but on the desperation of men or women who can’t get a decent job. The majority of all American enterprises are solo ventures having zero payrolls, employing no one but the entrepreneur, and often quickly wasting away. Sanders said that he was all for small business, too, but that meant nothing “if all of the new income and wealth is going to the top 1 percent.” (As George Carlin said, “The reason they call it the American Dream is because you have to be asleep to believe it.”)

In that debate, no more was heard of Denmark, Sweden, or Norway. The audience was left in the dark. Later, in a speech at Georgetown University, Sanders tried to clarify his identity as a Democratic socialist. He said he’s not the kind of Socialist (with a capital S) who favors state ownership of anything like the means of production. The Norwegian government, on the other hand, owns the means of producing lots of public assets and is the major stockholder in many a vital private enterprise.

I was dumbfounded. Norway, Denmark, and Sweden practice variations of a system that works much better than ours, yet even the Democratic presidential candidates, who say they love or want to learn from those countries, don’t seem to know how they actually work.

Why We’re Not Denmark

Proof that they do work is delivered every year in data-rich evaluations by the U.N. and other international bodies. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s annual report on international well-being, for example, measures 11 factors, ranging from material conditions like affordable housing and employment to quality of life matters like education, health, life expectancy, voter participation, and overall citizen satisfaction. Year after year, all the Nordic countries cluster at the top, while the United States lags far behind. In addition, Norway ranked first on the U.N. Development Program’s Human Development Index for 12 of the last 15 years, and it consistently tops international comparisons of such matters as democracy, civil and political rights, and freedom of expression and the press.

What is it, though, that makes the Scandinavians so different?  Since the Democrats can’t tell you and the Republicans wouldn’t want you to know, let me offer you a quick introduction. What Scandinavians call the Nordic Model is a smart and simple system that starts with a deep commitment to equality and democracy. That’s two concepts combined in a single goal because, as far as they are concerned, you can’t have one without the other.

Right there they part company with capitalist America, now the most unequal of all the developed nations, and consequently a democracy no more. Political scientists say it has become an oligarchy—a country run at the expense of its citizenry by and for the super rich. Perhaps you noticed that.

In the last century, Scandinavians, aiming for their egalitarian goal, refused to settle solely for any of the ideologies competing for power—not capitalism or fascism, not Marxist socialism or communism. Geographically stuck between powerful nations waging hot and cold wars for such doctrines, Scandinavians set out to find a path in between. That path was contested—by socialist-inspired workers on the one hand and capitalist owners and their elite cronies on the other—but it led in the end to a mixed economy. Thanks largely to the solidarity and savvy of organized labor and the political parties it backed, the long struggle produced a system that makes capitalism more or less cooperative, and then redistributes equitably the wealth it helps to produce. Struggles like this took place around the world in the twentieth century, but the Scandinavians alone managed to combine the best ideas of both camps, while chucking out the worst.

In 1936, the popular U.S. journalist Marquis Childs first described the result to Americans in the book Sweden: The Middle Way. Since then, all the Scandinavian countries and their Nordic neighbors Finland and Iceland have been improving upon that hybrid system. Today in Norway, negotiations between the Confederation of Trade Unions and the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise determine the wages and working conditions of most capitalist enterprises, public and private, that create wealth, while high but fair progressive income taxes fund the state’s universal welfare system, benefitting everyone. In addition, those confederations work together to minimize the disparity between high-wage and lower-wage jobs. As a result, Norway ranks with Sweden, Denmark, and Finland among the most income-equal countries in the world, and its standard of living tops the charts.

So here’s the big difference: in Norway, capitalism serves the people. The government, elected by the people, sees to that. All eight of the parties that won parliamentary seats in the last national election, including the conservative Høyre party now leading the government, are committed to maintaining the welfare state. In the U.S., however, neoliberal politics put the foxes in charge of the henhouse, and capitalists have used the wealth generated by their enterprises (as well as financial and political manipulations) to capture the state and pluck the chickens. They’ve done a masterful job of chewing up organized labor. Today, only 11% of American workers belong to a union. In Norway, that number is 52%; in Denmark, 67%; in Sweden, 70%.

In the U.S., oligarchs maximize their wealth and keep it, using the “democratically elected” government to shape policies and laws favorable to the interests of their foxy class. They bamboozle the people by insisting, as Hillary Clinton did at that debate, that all of us have the “freedom” to create a business in the “free” marketplace, which implies that being hard up is our own fault.

In the Nordic countries, on the other hand, democratically elected governments give their populations freedom from the market by using capitalism as a tool to benefit everyone. That liberates their people from the tyranny of the mighty profit motive that warps so many American lives, leaving them freer to follow their own dreams—to become poets or philosophers, bartenders or business owners, as they please.

Family Matters

Maybe our politicians don’t want to talk about the Nordic Model because it shows so clearly that capitalism can be put to work for the many, not just the few.

Consider the Norwegian welfare state. It’s universal. In other words, aid to the sick or the elderly is not charity, grudgingly donated by elites to those in need. It is the right of every individual citizen. That includes every woman, whether or not she is somebody’s wife, and every child, no matter its parentage. Treating every person as a citizen affirms the individuality of each and the equality of all. It frees every person from being legally possessed by another—a husband, for example, or a tyrannical father. 

Which brings us to the heart of Scandinavian democracy: the equality of women and men. In the 1970s, Norwegian feminists marched into politics and picked up the pace of democratic change. Norway needed a larger labor force, and women were the answer. Housewives moved into paid work on an equal footing with men, nearly doubling the tax base. That has, in fact, meant more to Norwegian prosperity than the coincidental discovery of North Atlantic oil reserves. The Ministry of Finance recently calculated that those additional working mothers add to Norway’s net national wealth a value equivalent to the country’s “total petroleum wealth”—currently held in the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, worth more than $873 billion. By 1981, women were sitting in parliament, in the prime minister’s chair, and in her cabinet.

American feminists also marched for such goals in the 1970s, but the Big Boys, busy with their own White House intrigues, initiated a war on women that set the country back and still rages today in brutal attacks on women’s basic civil rights, health care, and reproductive freedom. In 1971, thanks to the hard work of organized feminists, Congress passed the bipartisan Comprehensive Child Development Bill to establish a multi-billion dollar national day care system for the children of working parents. In 1972, President Richard Nixon vetoed it, and that was that. In 1972, Congress also passed a bill (first proposed in 1923) to amend the Constitution to grant equal rights of citizenship to women.  Ratified by only 35 states, three short of the required 38, that Equal Rights Amendment, or ERA, was declared dead in 1982, leaving American women in legal limbo.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, obliterating six decades of federal social welfare policy “as we know it,” ending federal cash payments to the nation’s poor, and consigning millions of female heads of household and their children to poverty, where many still dwell 20 years later. Today, nearly half a century after Nixon trashed national child care, even privileged women, torn between their underpaid work and their kids, are overwhelmed.

Things happened very differently in Norway.  There, feminists and sociologists pushed hard against the biggest obstacle still standing in the path to full democracy: the nuclear family. In the 1950s, the world-famous American sociologist Talcott Parsons had pronounced that arrangement—with hubby at work and the little wife at home—the ideal setup in which to socialize children. But in the 1970s, the Norwegian state began to deconstruct that undemocratic ideal by taking upon itself the traditional unpaid household duties of women.  Caring for the children, the elderly, the sick, and the disabled became the basic responsibilities of the universal welfare state, freeing women in the workforce to enjoy both their jobs and their families. That’s another thing American politicians—still, boringly, mostly odiously boastful men—surely don’t want you to think about: that patriarchy can be demolished and everyone be the better for it.

Paradoxically, setting women free made family life more genuine. Many in Norway say it has made both men and women more themselves and more alike: more understanding and happier. It also helped kids slip from the shadow of helicopter parents. In Norway, mother and father in turn take paid parental leave from work to see a newborn through its first year or more. At age one, however, children start attending a neighborhood barnehage (kindergarten) for schooling spent largely outdoors. By the time kids enter free primary school at age six, they are remarkably self-sufficient, confident, and good-natured. They know their way around town, and if caught in a snowstorm in the forest, how to build a fire and find the makings of a meal.  (One kindergarten teacher explained, “We teach them early to use an axe so they understand it’s a tool, not a weapon.”)

To Americans, the notion of a school “taking away” your child to make her an axe wielder is monstrous.  In fact, Norwegian kids, who are well acquainted in early childhood with many different adults and children, know how to get along with grown ups and look after one another.  More to the point, though it’s hard to measure, it’s likely that Scandinavian children spend more quality time with their work-isn’t-everything parents than does a typical middle-class American child being driven by a stressed-out mother from music lessons to karate practice.  For all these reasons and more, the international organization Save the Children cites Norway as the best country on Earth in which to raise kids, while the U.S. finishes far down the list in 33rd place.

Don’t Take My Word For It

This little summary just scratches the surface of Scandinavia, so I urge curious readers to Google away.  But be forewarned. You’ll find much criticism of all the Nordic Model countries. The structural matters I’ve described—of governance and family—are not the sort of things visible to tourists or visiting journalists, so their comments are often obtuse. Take the American tourist/blogger who complained that he hadn’t been shown the “slums” of Oslo. (There are none.) Or the British journalist who wrote that Norwegian petrol is too expensive. (Though not for Norwegians, who are, in any case, leading the world in switching to electric cars.)

Neoliberal pundits, especially the Brits, are always beating up on the Scandinavians in books, magazines, newspapers, and blogs, predicting the imminent demise of their social democracies and bullying them to forsake the best political economy on the planet. Self-styled experts still in thrall to Margaret Thatcher tell Norwegians they must liberalize their economy and privatize everything short of the royal palace. Mostly, the Norwegian government does the opposite, or nothing at all, and social democracy keeps on ticking.

It’s not perfect, of course. It has always been a carefully considered work in progress. Governance by consensus takes time and effort.  You might think of it as slow democracy.  But it’s light years ahead of us.

(Ann Jones, a TomDispatch regular, went to Norway in 2011 as a Fulbright Fellow. She stayed on because it feels good to live in a social democracy where politics matter, gender doesn’t, and peacemaking is the nation’s project.  She is the author most recently of They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars – the Untold Story, a Dispatch Books original. Posted earlier at TomDispatch and The Nation)



EDITOR’S PICK-Is Barack Obama a transformational president? That was his ambition: to be more, as he put it, like Ronald Reagan than Bill Clinton, to launch a new era, not simply tack to the prevailing winds of the old. 

Not surprisingly, in his final year in office, the issue is contested. Liberals like New York Times op-ed columnist Paul Krugman hail Obama as “one of the most consequential and, yes, successful presidents in American history.” Conservatives scorn his administration as a “socialist” interlude in a conservative time. On the left, many like professor Cornel West are disappointed, seeing Obama as a “counterfeit” progressive who failed to seize a historic opportunity for progressive change. 

What makes a president transformational? The first African-American president is inherently historic. Obama’s cheerleaders tick off his big accomplishments, as well: health care reform; the 2009 fiscal stimulus that helped save the economy; more than 14 million jobs created in a record stretch of 70 months of growth; progressive tax reforms; progress on climate change; the nuclear deal with Iran; the move to normalize relations with Cuba, and more.

Skeptics note that his era may be called the “Long Depression” rather than the “Great Recession.” They say the Obama administration brought us worsening inequality; stagnant incomes; bigger banks; greater big-money corruption of U.S. politics and governance; decaying public infrastructure; accelerating catastrophic climate change; and the United States mired in endless wars, facing off against Russia and China and draining its coffers trying to police the world.

The presidents widely celebrated as transformational — William McKinley, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Reagan — all got big things done. But no president — even Roosevelt with his four terms — can be expected to realize a complete reform agenda. Real reforms are necessary but not sufficient to be a transformational president: He has to change the course of the nation.

That requires not only new policies but also framing and winning the ideological argument. It requires not only winning the presidency, but also helping to forge an enduring majority coalition that can sustain the era.

Obama is the first Democratic president to be elected and re-elected with a majority of the popular vote since Roosevelt. He both personifies and has helped to forge a new and growing majority coalition for progressive reform. Pollster Stan Greenberg has dubbed this coalition of millennials, people of color and single women the “rising American electorate.” Political analyst Bill Schneider calls it the “new America.”  

In Greenberg’s book, “America Ascendant: A Revolutionary Nation’s Path to Addressing Its Deepest Problems and Leading the 21st Century,” he estimates that the rising American electorate will constitute 54 percent of the electorate in 2016 (63 percent if you include “seculars,” those with no religious practice.) And the two-thirds of those that show up at the polls will likely vote for the Democratic presidential nominee.

Yet the scope, durability and thrust of this coalition are still uncertain. Under Obama, the Democrats have lost control of the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives. Republicans have gained 913 state-legislative seats since 2010, control 30 state-legislative chambers and rule virtually unchallenged in states across the South, Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.

The turnout of the new America coalition plummeted in the midterm elections. It remains to be seen whether the next Democratic presidential nominee can bring them to the polls as successfully as Obama did. No progressive reform era can flourish if the White House is an isolated island amid a sea of reaction.

A transformational president has to infuse his majority coalition with a clear direction. By framing the ideological argument, he or she must help Americans understand how they got in the fix they are in and what must be done to get them out of it. The measure of ideological victory isn’t simply that Democratic officeholders, activists and voters understand and enlist, but also that the opposing party finds it must adjust to the new arguments to survive.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower could succeed Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman — but only by embracing Social Security and the New Deal economic reforms. Clinton succeeded Reagan and George H.W. Bush — but felt it necessary to declare the era of big government over. Clinton joined Congress in deregulating finance and corporations and repealing welfare as it was practiced. He ushered in aera of mass incarceration by launching a tough “war on crime.” 

Obama’s record in the ideological debate is mixed. On his watch, the “wedge issues” that once strongly favored Republicans — gay marriage, crime, guns and even abortion — began to favor Democrats. When the White House glowed rainbow to celebrate the U.S. Supreme Court’s acceptance of gay marriage, it symbolized a Democratic Party confident that its social liberalism is on the march.

Still, gay activists, Black Lives Matter and Latino organizers would argue that Obama has been a laggard, rather than a leader, on their concerns. But there is no question that his victory symbolized and accelerated the changes, and he has responded when movements opened up the political space.

On economic policy, both Obama celebrators and detractors argue that he has extended the power of the state more than any president since Lyndon B. Johnson and his Great Society. Obama’s list is indeed impressive: an unprecedented economic stimulus; rescue of the auto industry; use of executive authority to address climate change; banking re-regulation, and 17 million more Americans with health care insurance because of the Affordable Care Act. He raised tax rates on the wealthy by largely letting the top-end George W. Bush tax cuts expire.

But at the beginning of his administration, in the middle of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, Obama was essentially AWOL in the ideological debate. He consciously chose not to “litigate the past.” He did not grasp the moment to educate the public on how the United States got into such a mess; he didn’t explain the economic fundamentals and the need for a bold reform agenda.

Obama’s signature appeal, he believed, was being above partisan divides. Promising to “change the culture of Washington,” he insisted that he could bring the country together to find common ground. His economic stimulus, however, was weakened dramatically when he accepted Republican tax cuts in a vain effort to win bipartisan support.

He undercut his argument for more public investment to get the U.S. economy out of the crisis by arguing, only a few months after his stimulus bill passed, that government must “tighten its belt.” He assembled the risible Simpson-Bowles commission to focus national attention on deficit reduction.

Later, Obama nearly signed a wrong-headed “grand bargain” with Republicans that would have cut Social Security and Medicare in the cause of deficit reduction. He was saved, however, by Republican aversion to any form of tax hike. Conservatives’ austerity policies continued to erode public investment in areas vital to America’s future. And public opinion grew ever more skeptical of government’s competence.

Obama’s Wall Street and fiscal reforms were similarly compromised. Dodd-Frank left banking more concentrated than ever, and no major banker went to jail for what the FBI called the “epidemic of fraud” that contributed to the housing bust. He continued ruinous corporate-defined free-trade policies.

His healthcare reform, declared radical by the GOP, was modeled on a Heritage Foundation proposal adopted by Mitt Romney when he was Massachusetts governor. Obama refused to take on the drug companies over their exorbitant pricing, and he would not support a public healthcare option that might have put real checks on insurance-company abuses.

Though Obama spoke out against the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which opened the floodgates to corporate money in U.S. elections, he spent little political capital trying to curb money in politics. In fact, his decision to forego public financing in his 2008 presidential campaign essentially marked the end of that reform effort. 

Obama’s first-term floundering fueled a revolt on his political left. Occupy Wall Street spread across the nation with its indictment of the 1 percent, which put inequality at the center of the U.S. public debate. The Elizabeth Warren-Bernie Sanders progressive/liberal wing of the Democratic Party exposed how the rich “rigged the rules,” spotlighted the Obama administration’s revolving door to Wall Street and demanded tougher reform. The Congressional Progressive Caucus laid out a budget that combined bold — and long overdue — public investments with progressive tax reforms.

In the run-up to his 2012 re-election campaign, Obama embraced some of these themes, particularly income inequality. Now, as any hope of bipartisan cooperation has faded, he has been bolder at using his executive authority and more willing to use his “bully pulpit” in the cause of reform. But the task of interpreting the moment, explaining it and winning the public debate remains unfinished.

His failure of vision is even more apparent in foreign policy. Obama won the 2008 Democratic nomination due, to a significant degree, to public dismay about the war in Iraq, which Hillary Clinton, his opponent, had voted for. He clearly hoped to extricate the United States from the wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan and bring the inflated war on terror into perspective.

Yet he again chose not to litigate the past. He failed to offer a different vision and global strategy. His troop surge in Afghanistan turned out to be a trap. He reluctantly intervened in Libya and Syria. Though he withdrew troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, he expanded the use of drones. He allowed neo-conservatives to drag him into raising tensions with Russia, even while beginning to confront the Chinese in the South China Sea.

U.S. Special Forces were active in more than 100 countries in 2015. If anything, Obama has expanded, rather than limited, the national-security claims of executive prerogative and extended surveillance and secrecy. The nuclear agreement with Iran and the easing of relations with Cuba hint at a different course. But one swallow does not make the spring.

No one president, even after two terms, can consolidate a new era. Obama’s successor will significantly affect history’s judgment of his presidency. If a Republican is elected president with a Republican-controlled Congress, Obama may well be seen as having lost the argument for reform. If a Democrat is elected, it will be left to him or her to interpret the moment for Americans, and to engage them in a bold reform agenda.

That Clinton has found it necessary to compete with Sanders by putting forth more activist and populist positions consolidates the thrust of the party. If a Democrat is elected president and successfully drives more reform, Obama will properly be judged as setting the stage for it. But if he or she is unsuccessful because of an obstructionist Congress, timid vision, economic woes or foreign calamities, Obama’s successor could end up discrediting progressive reform before it had the opportunity to fully take hold.

Zhou Enlai was once asked what he thought about the French Revolution. He reportedly replied, “Too soon to tell.”

Will Obama be considered a transformational president? Far too soon to tell.

(Robert L. Borosage is the founder and president of the Institute for America’s Future and co-director of its sister organization, the Campaign for America’s Future. This piece was originally posted at …first appeared in Our Future.) Photo: Official White House by Pete Souza (President Obama is seen from the Rose Garden walking through the Oval Office.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.



Late Thursday night, National Review, the storied conservative magazine founded by William F. Buckley, published an issue denouncing Donald Tr ump.

“Trump is a philosophically unmoored political opportunist who would trash the broad conservative ideological consensus within the GOP in favor of a free-floating populism with strong-man overtones,” the editors wrote. “Donald Trump is a menace to American conservatism who would take the work of generations and trample it underfoot in behalf of a populism as heedless and crude as the Donald himself.”

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

The Republican National Committee reacted swiftly — immediately revoking the permission it had given National Review to host a Republican presidential debate next month. “Tonight, a top official with the RNC called me to say that National Review was being disinvited,” the magazine’s publisher wrote online. “The reason: Our ‘Against Trump’ editorial.”

That soft flapping sound you hear is the Grand Old Party waving the flag of surrender to Trump. Party elites — what’s left of the now-derided “establishment” — are acquiescing to the once inconceivable: that a xenophobic and bigoted showman is now the face of the Republican Party and of American conservatism. (Read the rest.





GUEST WORDS-Sitting in my psychology class at the University of California Berkeley, I felt my hands clam up and my body tense as my professor initiated a conversation about the White Student Unions that have recently popped up on Facebook over the past few months. 

Many of these WSUs are in fact fictitious groups designed to troll human rights campaigns, most notably, Black Lives Matter. Still, my professor felt that a conversation about what a White Student Union could mean in the context of race and academia would be helpful for our class.

As one of the few African-American students in the room, I felt a weight that many People of Color can relate to. It is a heaviness comprised of both dread and a deep understanding that within these types of discussion, students of color have to explain and validate our lived experiences to classmates with whom we feel a deep cultural dissonance.

It is important to note that the class in which I sat was quite literally about how racism is scientifically proven to have profound negative psychological and physiological effects on marginalized groups. And yet, with this knowledge readily accessible to them, White students in my class ceaselessly supplied reason after reason for why they felt unsafe on the UC Berkeley campus.

This lack of safety, in turn, was the reason White students in my class said they needed a space wherein they could organize. Inexplicably, my professor, a pioneer of race-based psychological research, propelled a discussion that sympathized with the needs of White students, while foregoing his responsibility to acknowledge that he had created an unsafe space for students of color.

If we look at the historical context of why African-Americans need to organize, of why Black students need a safe space, the evidence is endless.

Having heard enough, I stood up to address the 300-student lecture, "Whiteness organizes for the benefits of Whiteness," I said. I then named the FHA, the KKK, even amusement park franchises such as Disneyland and Knotts Berry Farm as examples of systems that were/are predicated upon maintaining and protecting the normalization of White-centered organizing and representation.

"If we look at the historical context of why African-Americans need to organize, of why Black students need a safe space, the evidence is endless. From redlining, to police brutality, to the Tuskegee airman, injustice against Black bodies is endless. Within a classroom of higher education you all fail to see the truth that has been set before you in countless lectures by our professor, and for that, I am deeply saddened."

I then walked out of my lecture, with 300 sets of eyes on me to the sound of my heartbeat pounding through my chest, and just slightly excited because the Scandal season finale was coming on that day.

As a student who tirelessly and rightfully earned her way into UC Berkeley, I refuse to allow classrooms to feel unsafe for me or any other students of color. What I truly love about this moment in my life was my professor's response. He contacted me after class, and he and I were able to go get coffee after the lecture. I appreciate how he was completely open to a discussion as to why the trajectory of that conversation was inappropriate, inadvertently oppressive, and incredibly unsafe for all people of color in the room.

I am humbled that I was able to discuss what I felt was a moment of injustice and to divulge those feelings in a healthy and productive manner. Many students of color who experience micro-aggressions in the classroom generally do not have such opportunities. I was also contacted by myriad of other students after the lecture who found my statement affirming and encouraging.

That moment in time has lead me into many fulfilling projects such as creating and facilitating race-based social justice programming for undergraduates. I created this programming in order to help students and professors alike effectively enter into conversations about social justice that are both affirming to people of color and open to teaching dominant group members how to develop in their knowledge of racial marginalization.

I am blessed that this negative moment in my life was able to become a place of empowerment for me. I am honored that I was able to voice my discontent and challenge the injustice in the room.

I write this to all students of color who may feel disheartened in their classrooms. You are not alone. I stand with you on this journey to claim your humanity and the validity of your experiences in places of learning that may devalue your worth.

(Ciarra Jones is a senior at UC Berkeley, a McNair Scholar, and an Honors Thesis Candidate. This piece originally appeared in the Huffington Post.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.




Vol 14 Issue 7

Pub: Jan 22, 2016







TOO LITTLE TOO LATE-Gray Davis never saw it coming. He didn’t realize until it was too late that the public would blame him for his ineffective action against deregulated electricity pirates like Enron that hijacked the state. That’s why Davis never took the advice of consumer advocates to use his power of eminent domain and seize sabotaged power plants during the phony electricity crisis to turn the power back on.   

Does Jerry Brown see that the stink from the growing natural gas leak in Aliso Canyon and other utility scandals could also be the cloud that tarnishes his legacy after four terms of having voters’ favor?  

It’s a volatile situation for Brown when you look at the evidence of his Administration’s environmental failure in the three of the state’s most populous regions: LA’s Leak, San Diego’s ratepayer scandal over the closing of the San Onofre Nuclear power plant, and the 2010 San Bruno gas explosion. 

Exhibit A: Porter Ranch and Aliso Canyon 

The Leak roiling the LA area is now California's single largest source of planet-warming pollution and it was no isolated accident. 

It was the result of too little regulatory oversight of Southern California Gas and other oil and gas excavators. That falls squarely on Brown, whose administration is responsible for well safety. 

Brown’s antipathy to regulation of all kinds, including health and safety, is well known. The public first started paying attention in February of 2015 when it learned that Brown’s oil and gas regulator turned a blind eye to frackers’ injecting toxic wastewater into federally protected drinking water aquifers in Kern Country.   

The contamination, like The Leak, was a direct result of a Brown Administration culture of penalizing regulators who crack down on health safety in the oil and gas industry. 

In 2011, Brown fired two top regulators who raised grave concerns about the oil and gas industry's underground injection activities, and the state has known for years that aging natural gas infrastructure was a disaster waiting to happen. But the governor's administration failed even to require safety plans and other measures that would have helped prevent this disaster. 

As the Associated Press reported: “California's top oil and gas regulators repeatedly warned Gov. Jerry Brown's senior aides in 2011 that the governor's orders to override key safeguards in granting oil industry permits would violate state and federal laws protecting the state's groundwater from contamination, one of the former officials has testified. 

“Brown fired the regulators on Nov. 3, 2011, one day after what the fired official says was a final order from the governor to bypass safety provisions of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act in granting permits to oil companies for oilfield injection wells. Brown later boasted publicly that the dismissals led to a speed-up of oilfield permitting.” 

In 2012, Brown bragged to a Sacramento crowd: 

“The oil rigs are moving in Kern County. We want to use our resources … our sun and all the other sources of power. It’s not going to be easy. There’s going to be screw-ups. There’s going to be bankruptcies. There’ll be indictments, and there’ll be deaths. But we’re going to keep going.” 

Brown has repeatedly shown this arrogant antipathy toward regulation, what he would call “red tape.” But the right red tape can avoid the yellow hazard tape in places like Porter Ranch, where the resulting failure to inspect and upgrade pipes is a continuation of the same lax Brown Administration policies at the same agency -- the Department of Conservation's Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR). 

The regulators fired in 2011, Derek Chernow, Acting Director at the Department of Conservation, and DOGGR supervisor Elena Miller, simply dared to repeatedly warn Brown that oil drilling would harm the state’s groundwater, echoing a warning already issued by the EPA. The East Bay Express has the sordid details 

More recently, Brown fired DOGGR supervisor Steve Bohlen on Dec. 8, 2015 when Brown was in Paris for global warming talks. The dismissal was probably not about “Mapgate,” the recent scandal where Brown had DOGGR map his family ranch for oil and gas, as most presumed, but more about Porter Ranch. At least that’s what was told to Capitol Watchdog.  Brown was apparently embarrassed that Southern California Gas’s shoddy maintenance at the facility is to blame for the leak, and the fact that the amount of the potent greenhouse gas, methane, leaking into the atmosphere was equivalent to one quarter of the state’s methane emissions from all sources.  

Despite So Cal Gas's recent prediction the leak would likely be closed by the end of February, the largest methane leak in California history has the potential to go on a lot longer, if the well-head blows out, and containment becomes infeasible, which is possible according to a recent LA Times report.  Such a development would clarify that The Leak is the most visible result of shoddy maintenance and lack of state oil industry oversight that has plagued Brown’s administration. 

Lots of questions need to be raised about DOGGR oversight of the collapsed pipe. If it was out of use for a prolonged period, should the leaking well have been stuffed with cement and capped off?  If it was still active, why wasn’t it maintained? (The latest theory is that the well was structurally flawed and over-utilized for unorthodox gas injections that pushed its safety limits right before The Leak.) In either case, the questions will be raised, if not by regulators who now have nowhere to hide, and then by trial lawyers circling Aliso Canyon to make it into the next Erin Brockovich movie. 

While DOGGR is responsible for well safety, the PUC is responsible for oversight of the utility in charge, Southern California Gas. Brown’s stamp on this PUC has been so indelible that some allege he runs it out of the Governor’s office. 

The PUC and Brown will soon face new questions about an expansion of natural gas storage capacity in Aliso Canyon that the PUC and Brown Administration have shepherded. The plan approved last summer, which includes a supersized compressor set to begin operation in the second half of 2016, was supposed to increase natural gas storage in Aliso by 50 percent by increasing the amount of pressure used to inject it.  It would feed new Southern California Edison natural gas fired generating plants authorized by the PUC. 

The PUC, under the guidance of Brown’s hand-picked chief, Michael Picker, has approved this conscious strategy of rushing to increase the amount of natural gas stored in Aliso Canyon.  

The idea is to replace the loss of electricity from San Onofre after its closure with generating capacity in the LA basin through a combination of natural gas-fired electricity generation, battery storage, energy efficiency, and renewables to meet demand through 2021. Ironically, this will increase, not decrease, greenhouse gas emissions. (You can read here a recently completed PUC proceeding granting approval for natural gas expansion in Aliso for Southern California Gas to add storage and for Southern California Edison to add generating capacity.) 

The problem with the project is that by increasing pressure in the natural gas reservoir that feeds many unclosed, unmaintained pipes, the higher pressure could break down more wells. Adding pressure to the reserve is unsafe unless every pipe is retrofitted first. Otherwise the pressure in the reserve could pop another pipe. 

Now that The Leak has put the dangers of the compressed natural gas reserve on the map, residents will probably chain themselves to the gates of the new project rather than let it go forward. The PUC, knowing its historical indifference to communities opposing its plans, is likely to go forward even if it means calling out the state’s National Guard to maintain order. The standoff could have all the makings of a Brown Legacy buster.    

The natural gas expansion will turn the spotlight onto the Governor. That could reveal an unflattering history of his fealty to the state’s public utilities, including Southern Gas and its parent SEMPRA, where Brown’s sister Kathleen sits on the board and is chair of the board’s health and safety committee. Some say Kathleen was given the job because of her brother’s loyalty to the utility.   

Did brother and sister ever communicate about The Leak? Given all the litigation, the question is bound to be asked and answered in discovery and a deposition where the Governor’s usual executive privilege probably won’t protect him. 

The cronyism in energy policy under Brown that contributed to The Leak is part of a bigger problem with a statewide shadow falling across Brown’s reputation.


(Jamie Court is an award-winning and nationally recognized consumer advocate. He is president of Consumer Watchdog, which has offices in Washington, DC and Los Angeles.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.




Vol 14 Issue 7

Pub: Jan 22, 2016 
















FRIDAY MORNING MEMO--As you know from last week’s post, a handful of disaffected residents of NELA set up a semi-secret online petition asking Jos&ecaute; Huizar to rip out the bike lanes on York Boulevard, listing a number of alleged effects they have had on the community—none of which they actually brought about. In case you missed that post, you can read it here. It includes rebuttals of the points the petitioners listed as bike-lane-generated malevolence.   

What’s particularly interesting, and what exposes the profound ignorance in which our opponents operate, is that they asked for the bike lanes to be removed, but not the road diet. So removing the bike lanes would not add any traffic lanes back onto York.

Of course, adding traffic lanes would only cause more traffic, as the experience of the last eighty years has shown. Even CalTrans—CalTrans!—now acknowledges that sad if counterintuitive fact.   And the billions wasted on the Sepulveda Pass widening, which only made traffic worse, simply undergird the futility of equating more lanes with faster traffic. 

So, an enterprising and enlightened member of the community put up a counter-petition asking Huizar to keep the bike lanes. As of this writing, it has been graced by 709 signatures, well over twice as many as the leadfoot lunatics’ sneering demand.

If you haven’t yet signed on to support the bike lanes on York (which have reduced collisions while enrichening local businesses), you still have a chance to do so here. Please note in the comments section whether you live, work, or spend money in Highland Park, and, if you will, what particular benefit you gain from the bike lanes on York.  

And be civil: leave the snarling to the Neanderthals. They may be scary, but their time has passed.

(Richard Risemberg is a writer. His current professional activities are centered on sustainable development and lifestyle. This column was posted first at Flying Pigeon.)  Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams. 






Vol 14 Issue 7

Pub: Jan 22, 2016



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