2011 - %3, February

The Death and Life of the Democratic Party

| Tue Feb. 22, 2011 8:00 AM EST

Wisconsin's public sector unions are the ones in the news right now, but it's private sector unions that have shriveled away almost to nothing over the past several decades. In the current issue of Mother Jones, I tell the story of that decline and how it's affected the Democratic Party, changing it from a party that represented the working and middle classes without apology into one torn between its New Deal heritage and its modern funding base:

As unions increasingly withered beginning in the '70s, the Democratic Party turned to the only other source of money and influence available in large-enough quantities to replace big labor: the business community. The rise of neoliberalism in the '80s, given concrete form by the Democratic Leadership Council, was fundamentally an effort to make the party more friendly to business. After all, what choice did Democrats have? Without substantial support from labor or business, no modern party can thrive.

....It's impossible to wind back the clock and see what would have happened if things had been different, but we can take a pretty good guess. Organized labor, for all its faults, acted as an effective countervailing power for decades, representing not just its own interests, but the interests of virtually the entire wage-earning class against the investor class. As veteran Washington Post reporter David Broder wrote a few years ago, labor in the postwar era "did not confine itself to bread-and-butter issues for its own members. It was at the forefront of battles for aid to education, civil rights, housing programs and a host of other social causes important to the whole community. And because it was muscular, it was heard and heeded." If unions had been as strong in the '80s and '90s as they were in the '50s and '60s, it's almost inconceivable that they would have sat by and accepted tax cuts and financial deregulation on the scale that we got. They would have demanded economic policies friendlier to middle-class interests, they would have pressed for the appointment of regulators less captured by the financial industry, and they would have had the muscle to get both.

And that means things would have been different during the first two years of the Obama era, too. Aside from the question of whether the crisis would have been so acute in the first place, a labor-oriented Democratic Party almost certainly would have demanded a bigger stimulus in 2009. It would have fought hard for "cramdown" legislation to help distressed homeowners, instead of caving in to the banks that wanted it killed. It would have resisted the reappointment of Ben Bernanke as Fed chairman. These and other choices would have helped the economic recovery and produced a surge of electoral energy far beyond Obama's first few months. And since elections are won and lost on economic performance, voter turnout, and legislative accomplishments, Democrats probably would have lost something like 10 or 20 seats last November, not 63. Instead of petering out after 18 months, the Obama era might still have several years to run.

For three reasons, I hope you'll read the whole thing. First, because you can't really appreciate what's happening in Wisconsin without first understanding what's happened to organized labor as a whole over the past 50 years. Second, because understanding this history is important for its own sake. It is, I believe, the single most fundamental political story of our era.

Third, and most important, if you don't read it all you'll probably think this is just another cri de coeur for the restoration of a lost age of labor activism. It's not. What it is about is, as I say in the final sentence, "the central task of the new decade" for progressives. This is something that, after reading the whole thing, you might not buy. But right now, whether we want to admit it or not, the progressive movement is on life support. If I'm wrong, we'd sure better figure out what's right.

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The Muslim Brotherhood: A Democratizing Influence?

| Tue Feb. 22, 2011 7:00 AM EST
On Dec. 1, 2005, citizens seeking to vote in Al-Talkha, Egypt entered the polling station through windows because security was blocking the entrance. / Photo courtesy of Joshua Stacher

Is the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist party that's gained political recognition in Egypt, an antidemocratic force? Many US conservatives think so: "The Muslim Brotherhood doesn't care about democracy," said John Bolton, the Bush administration’s ambassador to the UN, in a recent interview with Fox News. Western-allied Arab dictators in Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen have made similar charges against Islamists in their countries.

But Muslim Brotherhood scholar Joshua Stacher says his field research in Egypt indicates otherwise. An Arabic-speaking political scientist who teaches at Kent State University, Stacher has specialized in studying the Brotherhood and argues that since 2005, the group has functioned as Egypt's "only real political party."

During Egypt's 2005 parliamentary elections, Stacher set out to shadow candidates of Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP), but found them "just so difficult to work with—because they are the ones who are defending this untenable position. They have the policies that are unpopular, and they get upset when you ask about them."

So instead, he turned to Brotherhood candidates, who offered "open doors." (While the Muslim Brotherhood party was officially banned in Egypt, its supporters have gained seats in parliament by running as independents.)

Stacher sat in on campaign meetings, attended rallies, hung out in campaign offices "for days on end," and spent time with programmers who were creating online campaigns tailored to specific local concerns. One focused on stamping out corruption, for example, while another emphasized improving water filtration. "Every candidate had their own website, and every governorate had their own candidate list," he recalls. "It was amazing."

Stacher was also impressed that Muslim Brotherhood candidates always lived in the communities they sought to represent and offered weekly office hours for constituents. "Everybody came through those doors," he says. "Poor laborers. Unemployed people. Women whose husband was in jail. And they had all sorts of demands—from 'the cars are driving too fast on the street and there need to be speed bumps,' to 'my son is a university graduate and needs a job.'"

Stacher concluded that the Brotherhood's "grassroots political machine" represented a stark contrast to the largely top-down campaigning of Mubarak's party and to the weak infrastructure of other opposition groups. "That's the secret to their success," Stacher says. "They are connected and do outreach in the communities in which they live—even in the face of routine intimidation and harassment."

One candidate Stacher followed was teargassed on the way to his polling station along with a crowd of supporters. Despite similar intimidation across Egypt, 88 Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated candidates won seats in the 454-member parliament—gaining a historic 20 percent minority.

The following year, Stacher and a colleague, Samer Shehata, set out to research how the newly minted Brotherhood MPs were conducting themselves in Mubarak’s traditionally "rubber stamp" parliament. Despite many analysts' predictions that, as Stacher puts it, they would simply "deliver bombastic speeches from the floor," he came away struck by the group's "professionalism and action on issues of substance."

When the government published its annual "Statement on Budgetary and Policy Priorities," the Muslim Brotherhood had a 300-page response ready. They also found ways to score points on the fly: When the discovery of bird flu in Egypt nearly destroyed the poultry industry in early 2006, the Mubarak government was criticized for dragging its feet. Meanwhile dozens of Brotherhood-affiliated parliamentarians set up a photo op outside Parliament munching grilled chicken.

Several other researchers I spoke to concurred that Muslim Brotherhood elected officials have exerted a democratizing influence; that much is consensus "not just with Egypt scholars but with scholars from across the Arab world," according to Bruce Riedel, a Middle East analyst at the Brookings Institution.

Academics disagree, however, on the degree to which a Brotherhood-led government would protect Egypt's secular freedoms. The Brotherhood is sharply divided between pragmatic, open-minded moderates and hard-line conservatives bent on spreading fundamentalist Islamic teachings.

Stacher maintains that continued repression would only empower the hardliners. By contrast, he says, "if everyone has free range to participate, what we'll see from the Muslim Brotherhood is an increasing pragmatism. And this will drown out those conservative voices."

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 22, 2011

Tue Feb. 22, 2011 6:30 AM EST

A Soldier crawls under an obstacle during the Florida Army National Guard's Air Assault Badge course at Camp Blanding Joint Training Center, Fla., Feb. 15, 2011. More than 200 Soldiers and Airmen are participating in the physically demanding, two-week course, which is focused on teaching combat assault operations involving helicopters. Photo by Capt. Lisa Browne Banic

Coral Conundrum

| Mon Feb. 21, 2011 7:46 PM EST
Photograph of Acropora pulchra by Albert Kok at nl.wikipedia, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Photograph of Acropora pulchra by Albert Kok at nl.wikipedia, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
 

I had the good fortune to meet Greta Aeby last April at her lab on Hawaii's Coconut Island—that tiny gem in Kaneohe Bay that was filmed for the show open of Gilligan's Island—now home to the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology. I was planning to write about Greta's work on coral diseases for a new MoJo article. Then the Deepwater Horizon rearranged the known world and I never got to write that piece. 

Now I see that Greta is lead author of a new paper in PLoS ONE, assessing the causes of tumorlike diseases afflicting corals in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Coral cover in those waters has declined  by about 1 percent per year for the last 20 years, increasing to 2 percent between 1997 and 2003.

So what's doing that? This paper outlines the first broad-scale assessment of how nine "predictors of interest" correlate with tumorlike diseases. The predictors fall into three broad categories:

  • biological factors: population abundance of affected corals
  • human factors: human population
  • environmental factors: warming waters, surface ultra-violet radiation

 

Credit: Andy Collins, NOAA.Credit: Andy Collins, NOAA.

 

Statistical models were developed to examine the prevalence of two coral diseasesAcropora growth anomalies and Porites growth anomalies. These diseases manifest like tumors. They're easy to identify in the field and not easily confused with anything else.

The team surveyed for growth anomaly diseases on 937 reefs from 13 regions across the Indo-Pacific between 2002 and 2008. They examined corals at the genus level. The results:

  • The Acropora growth anomaly was most associated with Acropora abundance—that is, the more Acropora corals, the more Acropora disease too
  • The Porites growth anomaly was associated with Porites abundance, but also with nearby human populations—that is, the more people, the more disease too

 

Survey sites. Image: PLoS ONE DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0016887Survey sites. Image: PLoS ONE DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0016887

 

Which basically means that the growth anomaly diseases are likely communicable, and the the Porites version is also likely related in some fashion to an environmental co-factor or two: pollution, eutrophication, habitat fragmentation, and/or direct introduction of novel pathogens into the ecosystems.

Is there a similar correlation for human health, I wonder?

Meantime, the heavily populated coasts suffering the most Porites growth anomalies are also home to many of the 500 million people most immediately dependent on coral reefs. The authors note:

As human densities and environmental degradation increase globally, the prevalence of coral diseases like [Porites growth anomalies] could increase accordingly, halted only perhaps by declines in host density below thresholds required for disease establishment.

 
 

Finally, for your enjoyment, an incredibly gorgeous video of captive corals. Though the porno soundtrack is a puzzler.

The paper:

  • Aeby GS, et al. 2011 Growth Anomalies on the Coral Genera Acropora and Porites Are Strongly Associated with Host Density and Human Population Size across the Indo-Pacific. PLoS ONE 6(2): e16887. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0016887

Crossposted from Deep Blue Home.

 

Qaddafi Bombing His Own People?

| Mon Feb. 21, 2011 4:49 PM EST

From the Guardian:

The two Libyan Air Force fighter pilots who apparently defected earlier with their jets to Malta have told Maltese government officials that they had been ordered to bomb protesters, Reuters reports.

And the New York Times:

The faltering government of the Libyan strongman Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi struck back at mounting protests against his 40-year rule, as helicopters and warplanes besieged parts of the capital Monday, according to witnesses and news reports from Tripoli....Over the last three days Libyan security forces have killed at least 223 people, according to a tally by the group Human Rights Watch.

Qaddafi is carpet bombing his own people? Jesus Christ. His own diplomats are now disowning him, and not a moment too soon. More here, including an explainer and continuous updates.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's Abortion Crusade

| Mon Feb. 21, 2011 3:51 PM EST
Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker. Flickr/WisPolitics.com

By demanding both financial concessions and an end to collective bargaining for his state's public-sector unions, Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker is pushing a far-right agenda, labor groups and Democrats say. Walker won't negotiate with union leaders, and has even dismissed ideas from other Republicans in the GOP-controlled state senate. But Walker has a history of striking hard-line positions, and nowhere is that more true than on the most controversial social issue of them all: abortion.

Walker's nearly nine-year record in the Wisconsin Assembly, the legislature's lower house, reads like a pro-life handbook, an all-out assault on abortion rights. What's more, the many anti-abortion initiatives he backed are perfectly in sync with the assault on reproductive rights now unfolding on the national level, where House Republicans recently gutted funding for Planned Parenthood and controversially tried to redefine "rape" to limit the long-standing exceptions to the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funding for abortions except in cases of rape, incest, or to save a mother's life.

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Conservatives and Cops

| Mon Feb. 21, 2011 3:09 PM EST

Two quick hits today, both responding to posters at Outside the Beltway. First, Steven Taylor notes that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's union busting efforts are aimed only at some public sector unions, not all of them. This prompts a question aimed at Walker's allies:

If it is a fundamental principle that public sector employees ought not to have the right to collective bargaining, why are the police, firefighters and state troopers of Wisconsin not part of the package? Why does Governor Walker and his allies believe that those workers ought to be able to retain their collective bargaining rights?

....However, I would go beyond that and not ask why Walker is doing what Walker is doing, but rather ask why we have not seen (or, at least, I have not seen) his ideological allies calling for him to include police, firefighters and state troopers in the bill? If there is a fundamental philosophical issue here concerning public sector unions, what is the possible rationale for any exceptions?

I dunno. Any conservatives want to take a crack at this? Then, on the subject of pensions more generally, James Joyner reviews the sad state of 401(k) plans and says this:

The days of spending your life working for a company and then retiring in relative luxury on a generous pension are long gone. Part of that is union-busting, corporate greed, or whatever bugaboo you want to call it. Mostly, it’s a consequence of a global economy that is pulling hundreds of millions out of poverty but forcing people in the developed world to compete on a wage basis with those in the developing world. It’s great for Western investors and consumers but not so great for Western workers.

....We can’t rely on private companies, the stock market, or the taxpayers to maintain our lifestyle in our golden years. And not everyone can just keep on working, either. Nor do I advocate the Logan’s Run option. So, I haven’t the foggiest what to do about all this.

This is a pretty common reaction, but in fact, the arithmetic of decent pensions actually works out just fine. Corporations didn't give up on defined benefit pensions because they couldn't afford them any longer, they gave up on them because that allowed them to spend more money on executive salaries. After all, if overseas competition were really the big problem here, then you'd expect to have seen a long, steady decline in corporate profits and corporate compensation. But we haven't seen that. Profits have boomed and compensation has stayed high. The difference hasn't been in the level of compensation, it's been in the distribution of compensation. The executive suite has done fine. The rest of us haven't.

Chart of the Day: Republican vs. Democratic Spending

| Mon Feb. 21, 2011 2:20 PM EST

The federal government can spend money on social programs two ways: directly, via ordinary tax-funded programs (Medicare, food stamps, etc.) or indirectly, via tax expenditures (tax deductions for charitable contributions, employer health insurance, etc.). Christopher Faricy, a political science professor at Washington State, recently examined both types of spending over the past 40 years and concluded that the big spenders aren't who you think they are:

The traditional narrative of Democratic party control of the federal government resulting in higher levels of social spending needs to be reconsidered....Social spending over the last 40 years grows on average around 5% a year regardless of which political party is sitting in the majority.

....An increase in indirect social spending has the same budgetary effect as direct social spending. For example, an increase in tax expenditures for private health care insurance that costs the Treasury $100 million dollars has the exact same effect on the budget deficit as a newly proposed public health insurance option that is projected at $100 million dollars....One major implication of these findings is that the jurisdiction of social provision, not the financial effort, shifts with changes to political party control of government.

Republicans, it turns out, actually spend a bit more money on social programs than Democrats, as the green bars in the chart below show (click for a larger image). The main difference? Democrats spend it on direct programs that largely serve "the elderly, the disabled, the unemployed, and the poor...ethnic minorities, racial minorities, and single mothers." Republicans spend it indirectly on programs that "are biased towards workers who are White, full-time, in large companies, and high-wage earners." But spend it they do.

Democrat vs. Republican Spending

Why We Need Unions

| Mon Feb. 21, 2011 12:45 PM EST

Here's a tweet from one of the economists at Modeled Behavior:

I'm highlighting this not to pick on MB or to weigh in on charter schools. Nor even to weigh in on whether teachers unions should be friendlier toward charters. (I happen to think they should be, as long as charters aren't used as merely a sub rosa way of busting unions.) I'm highlighting it because it represents an all too common style of argument, which goes something like this:

Unions do (or support) X.

X is a bad thing.

Therefore unions are bad.

And (sometimes this is implicit, sometime explicit) they should be done away with.

Every single human institution or organization of any size has its bad points. Corporations certainly do. The military does. Organized religion does. Academia does. The media does. The financial industry sure as hell does. But with the exception of a few extremists here and there, nobody uses this as an excuse to suggest that these institutions are hopelessly corrupt and should cease existing. Rather, it's used as fodder for regulatory proposals or as an argument that every right-thinking person should fight these institutions on some particular issue. Corporations should or shouldn't be rewarded for outsourcing jobs. Academics do or don't deserve more state funding. The financial industry should or shouldn't be required to trade credit derivatives on public exchanges.

Unions are the most common big exception to this rule. Sure, conservatives will take whatever chance they can to rein them in, regulate them, make it nearly impossible for them to organize new workplaces. But they also routinely argue that labor unions simply shouldn't exist. This is what's happening in Wisconsin: Gov. Scott Walker isn't satisfied with merely negotiating concessions from public sector unions. He wants to effectively ban collective bargaining and all but do away with public sector unions completely.

Nobody should buy this. Of course unions have pathologies. Every big human institution does. And anyone who thinks they're on the wrong side of an issue should fight it out with them. But unions are also the only large-scale movement left in America that persistently acts as a countervailing power against corporate power. They're the only large-scale movement left that persistently acts in the economic interests of the middle class.

So sure: go ahead and fight the teachers unions on charter schools. Go ahead and insist that public sector unions in Wisconsin need to take pay and benefit cuts if that's what you believe. Go ahead and rail against Davis-Bacon. It's a free country.

But the decline of unions over the past few decades has left corporations and the rich with essentially no powerful opposition. No matter what doubts you might have about unions and their role in the economy, never forget that destroying them destroys the only real organized check on the power of the business community in America. If the last 30 years haven't made that clear, I don't know what will.

More on this tomorrow morning.

Music Monday: The Presidential Mixtape

| Mon Feb. 21, 2011 7:56 AM EST

As you're surely aware, today's Presidents Day. And what better way to celebrate than with a mixtape? We scoured the Internet for a song about each president—44 in all, provided you count Grover Cleveland twice. The result is an odd mix, probably inappropriate for your next house party, but redeeming in its own way: Come for the Blind Willie Johnson, stick around for the straight-to-YouTube ballad performed by a Martin Van Buren impersonator (it's a niche market). In a neat twist, the most difficult president to find a song for, Chester A. Arthur, was also the one with the richest musical legacy: Chester Arthur Burnett, whom you know as Howlin' Wolf (Warren G., alas, is not short for Warren Gamaliel).

Anyways, check out the playlist here. And in the meantime, here's my all-time favorite: "No More Kings," by Schoolhouse Rock, via Pavement: