Tuesday, March 31, 2015

We learn same old lesson from Indiana law that claims to protect religious rights: Money talks

By Marc Jampole

When did the fight about religious liberty change from protecting the right to practice in private to asserting a right to impose a religious practice on a public space?

It’s a rhetorical question, because history tells us that for at least 200 years the religious rightwing has always wanted to impose Christianity on American society, just like radical Muslims want to impose a conservative version of Islam on civil societies across the Middle East.  We know that the America’s religious rightwing has become more pushy over the past 35 years as it has become more politically powerful—thanks to a deal to join forces with those who support the economic interests of the wealthy. The campaign against the war on Christmas, the many state laws trying to restrict a woman’s reproductive rights, the demands that the state pay for religious education through voucher programs, the demonizing of Michael Schiavo and passage of “Terri Schiavo” laws—these are some of the steps that the Christian right has taken to impose its religious values on the rest of the country.  

But we do live in a secular society and sometimes the religious right pushes too far.

The mainstream of business leaders, pundits, politicians and media have joined progressives in believing the new Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act allows business to discriminate against LGBT individuals and couples. Indiana Governor Mike Pence and other conservative supporters of the new law believe that it merely protects religious people and the organizations they control from having to take actions against their religious beliefs.

It sounds like a face-off between two rights, each with equal standing, but it’s really not. There is no right to refuse to sell goods or services to anyone because you don’t approve of their private actions.  Many people who support the law—Pence, the Wall Street Journal, Jeb Bush—insist that it won’t enable discrimination against LGBT, although the comments of Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Scott Walker all suggest that they don’t care about gay rights as long as religious rights are preserved.

An analysis of what the law means on the level of day-to-day actions reveals that at its heart, it represents an imposition of religion on civil society. Let’s start by all the real-world actions that the law might protect: Private worship in the home? Other laws protect that. The right to display religious imagery on one’s own property? Other laws protect that. The right to gather with others of like mind and pray or philosophize together? Other laws protect that. So why did we need this law if not to enable individuals and corporations to act out their beliefs in ways that do impinge on others?  

Supporters of the law have yet to name one additional action not allowed previously that religious individuals and the organizations they control will now be able because of the new law.

Keep in mind that many businesses can quietly refuse to serve anyone, although as the recent case of Macy’s discriminating against blacks in New York City, you have to be pretty subtle about it. Take everyone’s favorite example of the florist or photographer who doesn’t want to work a same-sex wedding. A vendor can claim to be “too busy, jack up the price or market the business solely through religious vehicles such as the local Christian business directories. As long as no one discovers a pattern of discrimination, the vendor—be it florist, landlord or adoption agency—could always get away with it.  If the interpretation of most in the mainstream and on the left is correct—and I think it is—the new law would enable these vendors to take their discriminatory attitudes out of the closet and explicitly tell LGBT people why they won’t serve them. 

Thus, when we reduce the lofty words about religious freedom to specific actions, we can only conclude that either the law is unnecessary or that those supporting it do want to give people and corporations the right to refuse service to others because of a difference in religious practice.

Even as the Indiana governor and legislators raise a hue and cry about the hue and cry everyone else has raised about this ill-conceived law, they are nevertheless acting swiftly to amend it to make certain that no one can hide behind it to discriminate.

The reason for this rear guard action is money: They fear that businesses will take theirs away from the state. In the few days since the Indiana legislature passed and Pence signed the law, large employers in Indiana and all over the country have protested loudly. Indianapolis-based Angie’s List has canceled a $40 million office expansion. The Gap, Apple and Levi Strauss have all come out against the law, as have the administrations of Indiana and Butler Universities. So has the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which is holding its basketball finals in Indianapolis and has an extensive operation in Indianapolis. Several smaller organizations have already canceled conventions planned for Indiana’s largest city.

Those who believe that the United States is a secular nation should naturally rejoice that the Indiana state legislature is going to fix the new law to make certain no one can use it to discriminate against others in the marketplace. But we should mourn the fact that Indiana’s elected officials are not acting from a sense of right and wrong, but rather reacting to what the moneyed interests want. It reflects the hypocrisy of many of the politicians who follow the classic demagogue playbook in upholding the views of the religious right. Their support is not sincere, but part of a snow job to gain support for economic programs and policy that hurt 99% of the country but help their real employers—the super wealthy.

Once again, in the immortal words of Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Newman, “When money talks, no one listens to the accent.”

Friday, March 27, 2015

Editorial: Dems Need Prez Race

Some progressive Democrats are starting to freak out that Hillary Clinton might have a clear route to the Democratic presidential nomination without a serious challenger.

Several groups have been urging Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to run for president, but Warren has made it clear that she is not interested. Warren apparently is not excited about the prospect of spending most of the next year trooping through Iowa and New Hampshire, even if we think her economic populist rhetoric would resonate well with Democrats and independents in those states.

The good news is that a few reputable Democrats, as well as an independent who is actually pretty close to a New Deal Democrat, are trying to make a race. Potential candidates include former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, former Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Progressive Dems should stop wishing for Warren and start supporting Sanders or O’Malley, who actually want to run for president and would provide a progressive alternative to Hillary.

H.A. Goodman, in a recent column, noted that the Electoral College favors Democrats in 2016. “To win the White House a candidate needs 270 electoral votes; far fewer than the 332 votes Obama won in 2012 to beat Romney. Martin O’Malley and Elizabeth Warren can defeat anyone Republicans have to offer in 2016, primarily because they possess ideas and attributes that resonate with the majority of Americans.”

Voters didn’t buy Romney’s conservative pitch in 2012 and they are unlikely to be convinced next year by Scott Walker’s ability to beat up on unions, which is popular among right-wing donors but is less persuasive to blue-collar voters that Republicans need to peel away from the Democrats.

Goodman noted that Wisconsin went blue in 2012 despite Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) being Romney’s running mate. Since then, the economy has continued to improve, despite Republican predictions that it would collapse and Republican obstruction of Democratic jobs bills, while the Affordable Care Act has helped 16 million Americans get health coverage. That has cut the national uninsured rate by 35% since the law went into effect.

Like Wisconsin, other battleground states that went for Obama can easily vote for a Democrat once again in 2016, Goodman noted. Pew Research reported, “Nearly three-quarters of Americans (73%) say there should be a way for people in the United States illegally to remain in this country if they meet certain requirements.” In addition, 51% of Americans support labor unions, most Americans believe in global warming, 73% of Americans favored increasing the minimum wage in 2014, and 52% of Americans support same-sex marriages.

“On almost all of these issues, Scott Walker and Ted Cruz don’t side with the majority of Americans. As for Rand Paul and Jeb Bush, some of the mainstream values they espouse (immigration reform) are overshadowed by extremely conservative policies on the economy, wealth inequality, climate change, and issues like the minimum wage,” Goodman wrote. “Conversely, all the Democratic candidates in 2016 ... hold views that resonate with most voters.”

In O’Malley’s case, Quentin Misiag of the Daily Iowan at the University of Iowa, has likened the former Maryland governor to John F. Kennedy. And O’Malley has executive experience with eight years at the helm of Maryland government and before that as mayor of Baltimore, where, supporters say, he reversed the Eastern industrial city’s decline, Misiag noted.

Joan Walsh notes on page 13 that O’Malley supports restoring the Glass-Steagall law to separate commercial banks, whose deposits are federally insured, from more speculative banking operations. He also supports abolishing the lower tax rate for capital gains, increasing the minimum wage and overtime-pay threshold, greater collective bargaining rights, expanding Social Security and more infrastructure spending.

Sanders is all that and more — progressive to the point of socialism. He was a founder of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, he was re-elected senator in 2012 with 71% of the vote and he has visited Iowa, New Hampshire and other early-primary states to test support for a potential campaign, but he is not interested in mounting a purely symbolic campaign and he is not interested in being a spoiler who would throw the election to the Republicans.

Sanders wants progressives to show they can mount a winning campaign. That’s not an unreasonable request — and if progressives don’t want to see a right-winger elected to the White House next year they’d better stop whining about how we’ve lost our democracy. Instead start organizing to get people to believe they can beat the billions of dollars that the Koch Brothers and their plutocrat allies will put up to elect the right winger of their choice.

Finally, progressives ought to calibrate their criticism of Hillary Clinton. She is a centrist liberal in much the same caste as her husband and Barack Obama. She would be friendlier to Wall Street and corporate interests than we would care to see in the White House. But Hillary would not be the enemy of progressive policies, and particularly organized labor, that Jeb Bush or Scott Walker would be. And an Italian funeral during any Democratic administration could turn around the Supreme Court and enable the liberal wing on that court to reconsider Citizens United.

Recent polls show Mrs. Clinton more than 40 points ahead of non-candidate Warren and comfortably ahead of potential Republican rivals, even with the media-manufactured controversy over her use of a private email server when she was secretary of state. But she also was in a strong position in 2008, before Barack Obama overtook her. We think she could benefit from a challenger to sharpen her campaign skills. So bring ’em on, whether Sen. Warren wants to join the fray or not.

Peace By Other Means in Palestine

Benjamin Netanyahu won another term as Prime Minister of Israel in a close election that was tarnished not only by his interference in domestic politics in the United States two weeks before the election, but also with his promise to right-wing Israelis that he would not allow an independent Palestinian state, reneging on a longstanding commitment to a peaceful solution to that conflict, and his last-minute appeal for his base to counter Israeli-Arab votes on election day.

On March 23, the Wall Street Journal reported that Israel had spied on the US talks with Iran and leaked information to Obama’s political opponents in Congress. After Netanyahu addressed Congress, 47 Republican senators wrote a letter to Iranian leaders, warning that any agreement reached with President Obama would not be binding on Congress or future administrations.

Netanyahu has shown himself to be untrustworthy and President Obama has told him that the US would have to “reassess our options.” He should start by lending support to the UN Security Council’s resolution that would define the principle for a two-state solution as based on Israel’s 1967 borders. The US previously has refused to endorse the resolution, which allows for mutually-agreed swaps of territory between Israel and the future Palestinian state.

American Jews also are reassessing their support for Israel with Netanyahu in charge. The left-leaning pro-Israel group J Street stepped up criticism of the prime minister. The Jewish Daily Forward reported March 22 that J Street’s President Jeremy Ben-Ami made clear that J Street is “very glad to hear the Obama administration is reconsidering its approach to the Israeli Palestinian conflict.”

Obama also could soften opposition to Palestine’s efforts to join the International Criminal Court, which is supposed to happen on April 1. Under current US law, the Palestinian Authority will forfeit $400 million in aid if it pursues war crimes charges against Israel. The US should help Israel maintain its security but the US should not block Palestine from seeking redress of grievances in a recognized international legal forum. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, April 15, 2015

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Selections from the April 15, 2015 issue

Thursday, March 26, 2015

House budget seeks to make war, not love thy neighbor

By Marc Jampole

Snip, snip, snip. They’re cutting down the nets.

I’m not talking about overjoyed college basketball players standing on ladders to cut down the basket nets to the cheers of rabid fans after advancing to the next round of the National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament.

No, that loud and constant snipping sound we hear comes from our nation’s capital where Republicans in the House of Representatives have voted to shred the social safety net.

Healthcare aid to the poor. Cut.

Food stamps for families who can’t otherwise afford a decent meal: Cut.
Special education. Cut.

Pell grants to help poor students afford a college education. Cut.

Job training. Cut. Housing assistance. Cut. Federally-funded research. Cut.

The one government function not to get the hatchet is defense. The House budget actually gives the Pentagon more than it requested, including $96 billion that the generals can spend without telling Congress why. They call it the Overseas Contingency Operations funds, or OCO, but that’s just a euphemism for a slush fund.

And not just for military spending, but for spending on war. As a New York Times article points out, the House budget gives the Defense Department less than it wanted for basic operations, but more than double what it requested for waging war.

House Republicans say they are slashing programs to reduce the deficit, but the fact they saved war from the cutting table suggests that what they really wanted to do was stop paying for social welfare programs.  Thus the budget takes money from poor people and gives it to the military contractors and defense manufacturers who benefit most from increased spending on war. 

When we look at the money flow, it all makes sense. This budget continues the proud Republican tradition of stealing from the poor to give to the wealthy. It’s the essence of the Reagan agenda, which still guides Republican economic policy.  The true objective behind the budget differs not a whit from that goal behind other Republican actions that transfer money from the poor and middle class to the wealthy, such as replacing public schools with charter schools that pay teachers less and administrators more; cutting taxes on the wealthy while also cutting social welfare programs; or making it easier for businesses to resist labor unions so they can pay their employees less and keep more of the profits.

The House budget also includes language that could lead to the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, which would end the health insurance of millions of Americans, while driving up the cost of coverage significantly for those lucky enough to keep their insurance. The House budget also takes the first step to privatizing Medicare.

It’s not just the flow of money that makes the Republican budget so odious, it’s also the values behind it: These self-proclaimed protectors of American values say “no” to helping the young, the sick, the poor and the elderly, but say “yes” to bombs, tanks and guns.  I know these guys hated the 1960’s, but that’s no reason to make “make war, not love” in a mockery of that earlier age’s slogan projecting a world of peace and prosperity.

There is absolutely no chance that this budget will become law. The more reasonable Senate will undoubtedly mess with it, and even if it does pass in close to present form, President Obama will certainly veto it.

But all that means is that programs that help poor people, those who send their children to public schools and those who use America’s roads, bridges and mass transit systems will suffer gradual strangulation, not an instantaneous deathblow. Why? Because without a budget, the sequester will remain in effect and keep slowly choking the budgets of all federal programs.

And if the Republicans could somehow exempt military spending from the sequester, they wouldn’t mind that outcome at all.