Thursday, December 31, 2009

Break Up With Your Big Bank: A New Year's Resolution

Big banks: They squeeze us for ever penny. They gamble with our money. And when they lose, our tax dollars bail them out. Then, instead of using bail-out money to keep credit flowing, they give huge bonuses to failed CEOs. All the while, they are using our money lobbying Congress to defeat any reform that might bring sanity to our financial system.
Now imagine a world where banks are not-for-profit organizations where surplus funds, after ensuring reserves, are distributed back to the members as dividends and better rates on loans. Imagine if each member had an equal say in the governance of the organization, regardless of his or her account size. Imagine "banks" that are democratic, member-owned cooperatives.

This world exists and these better-than-banks organizations are called credit unions.
I am in the process of moving my own money from Bank of America, where it is used to lobby against causes I support, to a credit union, where it will grow at a better a rate and help provide good loans to other members. For me, the final stroke was when Bank of America, three days after receiving $25 billion in federal bailout funds, hosted a conference call with conservative activists and business officials to organize fundraising against the Employee Free Choice Act. It made me nauseous to think that the money in my checking and savings accounts, the interest I'm paying on my credit card, and my federal tax dollars were helping to make the country a worse place.

So I ask you to make it your New Year's resolution to break up with your big bank and marry a credit union. It is in your own immediate self interest, since you'll get better dividends, cheaper loans, and better service with a credit union. And it will benefit the country in the long run by dispersing financial power from the banking behemoths--like Bank of America, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, and Wells Fargo--to ordinary Americans.

Here's one way you can locate a credit union near you.

The timing of this post is inspired by, and intended to amplify, the new effort launched by Arianna Huffington and friends to encourage people to move from Wall Street banks to Main Street banks. Check out their video, which plays off of It's a Wonderful Life, and then see the new site
Huffington's "Move Your Money" movement is excellent. I just have one quibble with it. They ask people to move from big banks into small banks, and they only mention non-profit, democratic credit unions as an afterthought. It really should be the other way around: Ditch your big bank, and get into a credit union. If you can't join a credit union, go with a small, community bank. After all, small banks can be bought by big banks, and many small banks are working to become big banks. Again, it's a minor quibble. If we can all agree on the first part of the plan, moving our money out of big banks, we will be doing great.

Here are some resources to get you started:
Let us know if you are making the move. Or, if your money is already in a credit union or community bank, how has your experience been?

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Watching History Unfold in Iran

The past few days suggest that Iran's "Green Revolution" is growing. More Iranians in more cities are turning against the religious hard-liner regime, and by killing peaceful protesters on holy days, the regime is throwing away whatever legitimacy it still has.

war_in_tehran_streets_26.jpg picture by betterthanmachines
There first way that the movement is growing has to do with who is showing up in the streets in the latest round of protest marches. The New York Times had a good overview article of the situation on Sunday, but they buried perhaps the most important point down near the bottom of the story (emphasis mine):
The government crackdowns on mourning ceremonies in the past week provoked many people in the more traditional neighborhoods of south Tehran as earlier clashes did not, some residents said.

"People in my neighborhood have been going to the Ashura rituals every night with green fabric for the first time," said Hamid, 33, a laborer who lives in southern Tehran... "They have been politicized recently, because of the suppression this month."
In other words, the movement is growing from its original nucleus--which is centered in north Tehran and tends to be younger, more socially liberal, and less religious than the rest of Iran--to the broader working class--which tends to be more socially conservative. That is bad news for Iran's religious right and good news for humanity. The regime can no longer propagandize that the opposition are just un-Islamic college students stirred up by American and British media. From watching dozens of cell-phone videos of the street clashes, it's plain to see that there is a lot more gray hair among the protesters now than there was back in June. The socially conservative poor and working class have (until now?) been the core supporters of President Ahmadinejad. If this alliance of college students and workers continues to grow, it is only a matter of time before Ahmadinejad, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamanei, and the religious terror squads fall.

If the regime inflamed opposition from young people because it is blatantly undemocratic, it is now inflaming opposition from the working class because it is blatantly un-Islamic.

Sunday was the Ashura holiday, commemorating the death of Imam Hussein, Shiite Islam's holiest martyr. Imam Hussein was beheaded in 680 AD by a ruler named Yazid, and today Shias revere him as a martyr of the faith who fought against political tyranny. Since the presidential election-rigging/coup in Iran last June, a number of religious and national holidays have provided opportunity for massive street demonstrations by pro-reform activists. But none since June have matched the size and intensity of the past few days. The chants from the marching protesters in Tehran alternated between revering Imam Hussein and reviling the regime. On a number of cell phone videos that made their way onto YouTube, you could even hear protesters equating Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Khamanei with Yazid, the tyrant who executed Hussein.

My point in dwelling on the religious particulars is to show that there is a growing religious motivation behind the protests. In my opinion, that is crucial to the long-term success or failure of the Green Movement. Struggle against political tyranny is sewn into the very fabric of Shia Islam. Religious fervor is what helped overthrow the Shah of Iran in 1979 (who needed overthrowing by the way, just not by the Iranian equivalents of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson). And today a growing number of Iranians are framing the issue as an Islamic struggle against tyrannical rulers. Murdering people on Ashura was a dumb move, Mr. Khamanei.

war_in_tehran_streets_7.jpg picture by betterthanmachines

Another thing that worked in '79 that will also be a big factor this time around is the Shia martyrdom and mourning cycles. Shias mourn their dead on the 3rd, 7th, and 40th days after a death. In the case of murdered protesters, mourning means more marches and rallies, where the government is likely to kill again. In '79, confrontations between marchers and the Shah's forces played out in 40-day cycles. So, if the government murdered about a dozen people this past Sunday on the Day of Ashura, which is traditionally a day of peace, I'm guessing that February 5th is going to be intense.

I said back in June that even if the protests dissipated for a while, it would be hard for the regime to put the genie back into the bottle for good. Here we are six months later, and though we have not yet seen the same size marches we saw in June, there are signs that the people's resistance is even more deep rooted. I think we may be watching a freight train getting started here. It's painfully slow at the start, but once it's rolling there is no stopping it.

Monday, December 28, 2009

BTM Back in Action

I just got back to DC last night after a nice, long Christmas vacation visiting family down South. Often, when I travel back to my hometown, I come away with some new perspective on the place. This time around, I didn't really have any profound realizations. I just noticed the huge number of people standing on street corners all over town holding signs. The people generally fell into one of two (related) groups: homeless people and others with "Need Help" signs, or people advertising going-out-of-business sales. There were lots of them. Sometimes there were three people at one intersection asking for money, standing next to two people advertising for a sinking company. I, like everybody else, was speeding past all of them to do some last-minute Christmas shopping.

There's a point there to be made about our nation's social priorities, but it's late, and we don't need to jump in right away, do we?

There is a lot to talk about this week. I've spent a lot of time this evening reading about the growing revolution in Iran and watching the unbelievable videos coming from the streets of Tehran. (Andrew Sullivan has great coverage.) Meanwhile, some are already making the case for an American invasion of Yemen. And Congressional Republicans continue to oppose any system that would provide medical coverage to more Americans.

You can't make this stuff up. Stay tuned for more.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Three Thoughts on the Senate Health Care Situation

  • Progressives can't really complain that Joe Lieberman is stabbing us in the back on health care reform, because he's been doing it for so long now. We should turn around and take his knife from him.
  • Joe Lieberman remains chairman of the powerful Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee because the Senate Democratic caucus lets him. They can stop empowering him whenever they like.
  • Democratic Senators continue to pretend that they "need" 60 votes to pass major health care reform. At any time they choose, they could kill the current bill and pass meaningful health care reform with as few as 50 votes (with Biden breaking the tie), using the reconciliation process. Or better yet, they could nuke the filibuster entirely and bring majority rule to the Senate.
More to follow later on the latest comprise to the compromise to the compromise to the compromise to the compromise [sic] to the health care system we ought to have.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The War in Afghanistan: A Conservative Feedback Loop

The day President Obama gave his big speech on Afghanistan earlier this month, I wrote that I wanted to better explain why my opinion of the war in Afghanistan is souring at the very time the president is pouring in more troops. In that post I said that some of the goals the United States government had when it invaded Afghanistan have already been met (overthrowing the Taliban and striking a blow against Al Qaeda), while other goals are no longer aided by a large-scale American presence in Afghanistan (killing or capturing UBL and shoring up a new Afghan government).

But I've been developing another objection to the war in Afghanistan, one that isn't really specific to Afghanistan at all.

Chris Bowers at writes about what he calls "positive feedback loops for progressives," or progressive feedback loops. By his definition progressive feedback loops are progressive policies that "make America a more progressive place, and thus make all other progressive policy more likely to be enacted." For example, passing the Employee Free Choice Act would increase union membership, and stronger unions would help counterbalance corporate power, improve wages and conditions for workers, and boost progressive political candidates. This would help make everything else on the progressive wish list easier to accomplish. There are obviously lots of other potential progressive feedback loops, and Chris describes seven in his article.

Basically, I've begun to view the war in Afghanistan as a conservative feedback loop. Whether the war is just or not and whether our strategy is right or wrong, I think the war makes America a more conservative place and makes it easier to pass conservative legislation and defeat progressive legislation. The war helps create a political environment that is favorable to the long-term conservative movement, redistributing more of the nation's power and wealth into fewer hands. That in itself does not make the war wrong. It's just another thing that makes the war costly for the vast majority of Americans, which it already is in more ways than one.

How is the war in Afghanistan a conservative feedback loop?
1) The most obvious way that the war boosts the conservative movement is by diverting resources from domestic and social needs. Every dollar that goes to a hellfire missile is a dollar that does not go to universal healthcare, clean energy, education, and public works projects. It's a tried and true conservative strategy to ratchet up the deficit with tax cuts and military spending and then use the deficit they just created as an excuse to slash social programs that improve peoples' lives. Why they do that is a subject for another post, but war in general helps them do it. Even this month, Republicans in Congress have tried to use Afghanistan to block or delay health care reform, arguing essentially that the tax dollars and the attention of Congress would be better spent in Central Asia than America.

2) The war in Afghanistan--like most of our wars--concentrates power at the top of American society. Every president claims unconstitutional special powers in wartime. The Bush administration took this to new heights with the "unitary executive" doctrine, the "Patriot Act," domestic spying, and torture. Even today we take it for granted that our Democratic president bombs inside countries on which Congress has neither declared war nor authorized the use of military force. It's totally up to him, cuz he's the prez, and we're cool with that because, "We're at war." But an exalted executive is only part of the problem. "We're at war," covers a multitude of sins, like dealing no-bid contracts to weapons manufacturers while the working class pays the human toll. In short, consider who makes the decisions and who gets rich versus who bleeds and dies, and we see that long wars tend to lift up the powerful and push down everyone else.

3) The third (and hardest to quantify) way that the war in Afghanistan feeds conservative power is by perpetuating a culture of racial and religious fear. This isn't specific to the war in Afghanistan, nor, I think, is Afghanistan even a particularly bad example of it in history. But it takes fear and hatred to sustain a long foreign war, and somebody's gotta drum it up. Think of all the times you've heard, "Islam is an inherently violent religion," since 9/11. It's like, what exactly is being proposed in that discussion? Endless global religious war? A couple years ago, a relative said to me in a frank discussion, "Arabs are crazy. They're just crazy," like it was a genetic fact. Where is this coming from? It's almost like someone wants us to fear and hate all Muslims and Middle Easterners. And the fact that every time the president talks about terrorism he has to say something like, "Our struggle is not with Islam itself," or "The vast majority of Muslims love peace," I think proves my point.

We know that the conservative power structure in America has a history stoking and exploiting white fear of brown people. We'd be remiss to think that is all behind us. It's as true as it is tiresome to contemporary American ears: The conservative status quo has always benefited from dividing working people against themselves, playing one group against another. Conversely, the progressive movement has always been most powerful when it displays solidarity across racial, religious, and gender divides. It's divide and conquer from above vs. unite and conquer from below. Our actions in Afghanistan--and the culture we create at home to justify them--will fuel one side or the other in this very old struggle.
So these are three ways I think the war in Afghanistan acts as a conservative feedback loop. Notice that each of the points could be applied to almost any foreign war. I'm not making some backdoor argument that all war is wrong. I am saying that there is a long-term, sociopolitical cost to this kind of war that often goes uncounted. If you add this to the other more obvious costs of the war in Afghanistan, what do you think? Is it worth fighting?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Blogging Beneath The Great Eye

As Becky mentioned in the comments section to the previous post, I cross-posted the article about Wal-Mart's wage theft and anti-union practices over on DailyKos, where it got a lot of attention. The article sat at the top of the "recommended Diaries" list for most of the day on Monday and got hundreds of comments and "rec's." 422 comments, actually. (And I did a little dance in my living room.)

Take a look HERE (at the article and comments, not the dance).

It's heartening to see that the issue of Wal-Mart's power and abuse strikes a chord with so many people. And it's a little scary to think that at corporate HQ in Barad-dur Bentonville, Arkansas someone was watching.
walmartgreateyecrop.jpg picture by betterthanmachines
The largest private employer in the United States can read the word UNION from a thousand miles away.

Anyway, the critical comments to the article--there were a few--fell into a few well-defined themes. We'll discuss each one in a future post. And then we'll have a contest to guess which ones were planted by Wal-Mart PR guys.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Wal-Mart: "Merry Christmas, SUCKERS!"

Wal-Mart will be paying about 87,500 current and former employees in Massachusetts a total of $40 million dollars after settling in the state's biggest-ever wage-theft class-action lawsuit. According to the settlement, everyone who has worked at a Wal-Mart in Massachusetts since 1995 will receive a payment ranging from $400 to $2,500, depending on how long they worked there. The average payment will be about $734.

The lawsuit, like many other cases brought against Wal-Mart, alleges that the company requires employees to work through breaks and work beyond regular shifts. In other words, Wal-Mart systematically steals the labor of its workers. It pays workers poverty wages for their scheduled hours, then tells them they have to give some free work or else be fired.

If you think this story sounds strangely familiar, you're right. Last year, Wal-Mart did the same thing. In December 2008, they settled 63 lawsuits for alleged wage theft around the country, paying out at least $352 million. Is it a coincidence that it has happened again in December, a time when the company can portray the payments as Christmas bonuses? Think of it: Wal-Mart gives back some of the money it stole from its workers, without ever admitting that it stole anything in the first place, arranges the settlement so that no one can talk about it, and makes the whole thing look like a benevolent act. "Merry Christmas, suckers!"

This is just a calculated operating cost for Wal-Mart headquarters. They set their wage and hour policies. They know that the worst thing that can happen is a lawsuit which will take years to develop (This one began 8 years ago). They know that the lawsuit can be settled on terms that preserve the company's All-American image and do not affect Wal-Mart's ability to commit the same crimes again. And the company marches on.

And Wal-Mart will continue marching on, trampling its workers underfoot, until those workers are able to organize and resist. If any company in the United States is difficult to unionize, it is Wal-Mart. They pull out all the stops. All managers get training in anti-union tactics. Workers have to watch anti-union propaganda videos. Corporate HQ manages the public relations at any store where labor or community activism breaks out. At worst, they will simply close a store that gets close to unionizing. In 2000, when meat-cutters at a Wal-Mart decided to unionize, Wal-Mart closed down its meat-cutting operations in 180 stores across six states, and switched to prepackaged meat.

Thankfully, somebody forgot to tell the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) to give up. Their Wake Up Wal-Mart campaign has signed up nearly half a million supporters, publicized Wal-Mart's anti-worker policies, and begun organizing drives at hundreds of stores. Some say that UFCW's efforts have already changed Wal-Mart's behavior on some issues, because it's the closest thing to accountability the company has ever had.

Few things would do as much to shift power in this country from the corporate class to the working class as winning a strong union at the nation's biggest private employer. Even if Wal-Mart were victorious, as it always has been, at crushing the organizing drive, a big publicized fight would bring national attention to wage-theft, corporate power, and the labor laws that make it unnecessarily hard for workers to unionize. Winning at Wal-Mart would be huge. Losing at Wal-Mart--and losing right--could be just as huge.

Friday, December 4, 2009

What the Jobs Summit was Really About

Yesterday the White House hosted a "jobs summit" that brought in 135 corporate CEOs, labor leaders, academics, economists, and government officials. President Obama said he wanted to generate ideas and hear from the attendees what the White House could do to help the jobs situation. The summit then broke into brainstorming groups on assorted topics.

All good and fine. But I feel obligated to point out that not everyone at that meeting has the goal of creating American jobs. Corporate leaders don't want to create jobs, let alone jobs in America. They want to increase profits for their corporation. Job creation is sometimes an unintended corollary of that. But a big-time CEO does not wake up each morning wondering how his company can provide more solid jobs for the American people. If anything he wakes up wondering how he can squeeze more out of his workers and avoid democracy's meddling in his business--workers organizing, environmental regulation, occupational safety laws, taxes, etc. (In most cases, he'd be a bad boss if he didn't.)

What the jobs summit was really about was the Obama administration broadcasting this message:
"We are about to do something--maybe even something big--about job creation, and we are approaching this in an open-minded, bipartisan, non-ideological way. See? Look who we invited to the White House."
I think it's kind of the same way they approached the health care debate, going way out of their way to include conservatives. And what they should have learned from that adventure was that Republicans are not their friends. They don't want to help the president find solutions for the American people. They want to pursue their own narrow interests. I'm afraid there's a similar lesson to be learned about jobs. We're not all on the same team. Not everyone comes to the table with benevolence and goodwill toward man.

Obviously Obama knows this. So I'm left to conclude that it is still part of the White House's long-term strategy to project an open-minded and pragmatic image. If maintaining that image helps him politically isolate and wallop his right-wing opponents, then great, but most of the big issues facing us will require isolating and walloping the right wing.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

My Evolving Thinking on Afghanistan

I have not written much about the war in Afghanistan before, because I was unsure what I thought about it. When candidate Barack Obama said in 2008 that Afghanistan was the right war and Iraq was the wrong one, I tended to agree with him. At least when we invaded Afghanistan in late 2001 we had some reasons for doing so that were not blatantly false. Unlike in Iraq, Al Qaeda really was operating in Afghanistan. And unlike Saddam Hussein's regime, the Taliban really was implicated in the September 11th attacks.

I try to avoid being just reflexively anti-war, though I have some respect for people who are. To sort of invert the way Jimmy Carter put it, I believe that war is always evil, but it may sometimes be a necessary evil. So, as uncomfortable as I have been with the long occupation of Afghanistan, I have never decided what, if anything, we should do instead.

But now, eight years into the occupation and awaiting President Obama's speech tonight, I find myself leaning toward a new position on the issue. I think it's time to stop our continuous escalation of troop levels and begin bringing most of our troops home. I think there is probably reason to leave a small number of troops deployed to assist with only the most essential security details in Kabul and Kandahar and for training Afghan security forces. I think we should maintain our ability for special forces to pursue high value al Qaeda and Taliban fighters. But we should not be patrolling cities and villages and occupying remote mountain outposts. We should not have a large-scale presence on the ground in Afghanistan.

Let me briefly explain my reasoning. In my understanding, when we attacked Afghanistan, we had several goals:
1. To overthrow the Taliban,
2. To strike a major blow against Al Qaeda,
3. To kill or capture Osama bin Laden,
4. To replace the Taliban with a less extremist Afghan government.
Goal #1 has been accomplished. The Taliban has been ousted and will not return to power. We should not equate all of the insurgents we are currently fighting with the Taliban. Afghans have always fought foreign invaders. We should not think that everyone who is shooting at Americans is the Taliban or supports the Taliban.

Goal #2 has been accomplished. Our fighting has largely changed Al Qaeda from a network into a movement. The US military is great at dismantling networks, but defeating a movement takes soft power. The enemy has changed, so it's time for our strategy to change too.

Goal #3 of course has not been accomplished. But a large-scale occupation of Afghanistan is not going to help this anyway. Especially when recent reporting suggests bin Laden is in Pakistan. Fusion of local intelligence and special forces operations is our best chance here. I believe we will catch bin Laden when a Pakistani Pashtun tribesman turns him in.

Goal #4 has always been the most complex. It may be impossible--if it's even warranted--to install a central government that has control over all of Afghanistan. And to set this as the bar we have to meet is to keep us there forever. The term "valleyism" has been used by some to describe how many rural Afghans think. Put simply, they'll fight anyone who comes into their valley, whether they are Persians, British, Russians, Americans, or even Afghans from the central government in Kabul. They don't call it the "Graveyard of Empires" for nothing.

I also think that the war in Afghanistan--which might be making us safer--is sapping resources from things here at home that definitely would make us safer. In my next post I'll discuss this in more detail.

For now, I'm getting ready to watch President Obama's speech tonight. He's expected to announce the deployment of 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan and a plan to begin drawing down troop levels in three years. I think this is probably the wrong course, but I'm willing to hear him out. He is a smarter man than I am, he has put a lot more time into thinking about it than I have, and he has information that I don't have. (All of which could also be true of a tyrant of course.) But most importantly, I still trust Obama's instincts on the big things.

So, Mr. President, I think you are probably wrong on this, but I'm listening.