Saturday, November 29, 2008

Brennan Withdraws Name from Consideration for CIA Director Job

By Ben Trott

There has been justifiable disappointment on the left with Summers’ and Volker’s nominations, as well as the expected announcement early next week of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. The LA Times, however, reported a couple of days back that for the first time, ‘the incoming administration appeared to [have] bowed to outside pressure on a high-level appointment.’

After a series of criticisms, including an
open letter from almost 200 psychologists, John Brennan – who had previously served as Director of the National Counterterrorism Centre – withdrew his name from consideration for the job of CIA Director.

Prosecuting an Outlaw Administration

By Ben Trott

Scott Horton has a piece entitled 'Justice After Bush: Prosecuting an outlaw administration' in the December issue of Harper's Magazine. The article is not available online (unless you have a subscription), but I recommend trying to get your hands on a copy. In the piece, he discusses the numerous illegalities of the Bush administration - along with the various possibilities for prosecution once they leave power.

'This administration did more than commit crimes. It waged war against the law itself', Horton, an NYC attorney and Columbia University Law School lecturer, argues.
'It transformed the Justice Department into a vehicle for voter suppression, and it summarily dismissed the U.S. attorneys who attempted to investigate its wrongdoing. It issued wartime contracts to substandard vendors with inside connections, and it also defunded efforts to police their performance. It spied on church groups and political protestors, and it also introduced a sweeping surveillance program that was so clearly illegal that virtually the entire senior echelon of the Justice Department threatened to (but did not in fact) tender their resignations over it. It waged an illegal and disastrous war, and it did so by falsely representing to Congress and the American public nearly every piece of evidence it had on Iraq. And through it all, as if to underscore its contempt for any authority but its own, the administration issued more than a hundred carefully crafted "signing statements" that raised pervasive doubt about whether the president would even accede to bills that he himself had signed into law.'
Securing prosecution, however, is of course no small matter. It is on the issue of torture that Horton argues attempts should focus: both because it is the crime which most clearly calls for prosecution, and the one for which successful prosecution is most likely.

Note: Scott Horton also writes a daily blog, 'No Comment' for Harper's.

'Nation' interview with SEIU and CtW Leaders

By Ben Trott

Nation editor, Katrina Vanden Heuvel, recently met with Andy Stern, President of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and Anna Burger, Chair of the Change to Win Federation. In the article she wrote the following day, she noted the optimistic approach taken by both to the current conjuncture – concentrating less on some of the controversial figures being appointed to senior positions within the Obama administration, and more on the opportunities of the moment.

Progressives, it was argued, need to work together, particularly in the initial months of the new administration between inauguration in January and August. Stern dreams of winning a stimulus package, universal health care, and green jobs. The SEIU are focussing on the
Employees Free Choice Act (allowing workers to unionise if a majority sign up in any workplace) and health care reform.

Part of the SEIU’s strategy for achieving their goals during the administration involves ensuring
electoral accountability, pledging to support and run candidates against those who fail to live up to promises or expectations – rather than simply automatically supporting Democratic incumbents.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Summers' Deregulation Days

By Ben Trott

There is a piece over on one of the blogs at Mother Jones about Larry Summers' role in reducing the ability to regulate the financial market in the 1990s, whilst working as Bill Clinton's Treasury Secretary. Summers was nominated Director of the National Economic Council a few days back.

Volker's Return and the New Economic Recovery Advisory Board

By Ben Trott

Obama yesterday announced the establishment of the President's Economic Recovery Advisory Board, to be headed by Paul Volcker a former Chairman of the US Federal Reserve under presidents Carter and Reagan. In a 2006 interview with the Monthly Review zine here, Marxist geographer David Harvey discusses, amongst other things, Volcker's part in processes of neoliberal restructuring whilst he held the job.

For more on Paul Volker, see Patrick Bond's article, 'Obama's Economic Advisors: Will Well-Tested Enemies of Africa Prevail?' posted to this blog a few days ago.

In the same press conference, it was revealed that Austan Goolsbee has been appointed Staff Director and Chief Economist of the Board. Obama also announced that he would be nominating Goolsbee as one of three members of the Council of Economic Advisors.

The Daily Kos have posted to their blog the text of a press release announcing the appointments and the transcript of Obama's statement on the new Advisory Board. The press conference at which Obama announces Volker and Goolsbee's appointment can be watched at Politico. Towards the end of the video, Obama is asked to answer the criticism that his appointment of Volker and others appears to run against his promise of change in Washington.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Labour's Love (Getting) Lost?

By Ben Trott

Ben Smith has a piece on the Politico website about the notable absence of the as-yet-unnamed Labor Secretary from the Obama administration's economic team, announced a few days back.
'The markets rose on the news of Barack Obama’s economic policy team Monday, but some labor spirits fell. 

'Obama’s team of treasury secretary and four top economic advisers, introduced as the hands that will steer America’s economy, had no particular ties to the labor movement. And Obama’s secretary of labor was not introduced as part of that team — a suggestion that that post will retain its second-tier status and quiet voice in matters central to economic policy.'
As the article explains, labour's frustration is due in no small part to the amount they poured into the Obama camapaign, 'troops, money, key states.' Read on here. (Also see the interview with Valery Alzaga, European Organising Coordinator for the Change to Win Federation, published on this blog a few days back).

Transition Team Launch Health Care Reform Website

By Ben Trott

During the primaries and the run up to the presidential election, much was written and said about the Obama campaign's creative use of technologies - from allowing supporters to set up and manage their own blogs on the campaign's website, to announcing the selection of Joe Biden as running mate via text message. The transition team, however, have now launched a new website allowing readers to upload comment and take part in debate about health care reform. There is a short piece about this on the Huffington Post site, and the website itself is here.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Obama's Foreign Policy Team

By Ben Trott

The left have, in general, been disappointed if not surprised by Obama's choice of top economic advisors. Speculation is still rife, however, as to who will make up his foreign policy team - although it seems relatively clear by now that Hillary Clinton will be Secretary of State and Robert Gates will stay on as Secretary of Defense, at least for a while.

Robert Dreyfuss, a contributing editor to the Nation specialising in politics and national security, has a piece on the magazine's website today criticising Obama's likely choices for candidates to fill the key foreign policy roles, suggesting some alternatives.

Also worth taking a look at is Dreyfuss' article for the magazine from a few days back about the pressure Obama is likely to come under to step back from his pre-election Iraq withdrawal pledge.

Obama Announces Economic Team

By Ben Trott

Yesterday, Obama announced his economic team. Timothy Geithner (President of the New York Reserve Bank) has been nominated as Treasury Secretary, Lawrence Summers (former Secretary of Treasury for the Clinton administration) as Director of the National Economic Council, Christina Romer (a Berkeley economics professor) as Chair of the Council of Economic Advisors, and former aide to Senator Edward Kennedy and Executive Vice President for Policy for the Centre for American Progress, Melody Barnes as Director of the Domestic Policy Council (more info on Barnes here).

The Huffington Post have assembled some initial reactions, from the Economist, American Prospect, Open Left and others. Their 'Big News' page on the economic team is here, I imagine there will be more comment later. The Nation's national affairs correspondent, William Greider, has a response to the announcement here.

Being Clear about Obama

By Ben Trott

Nation editor, Katrina Vanden Heuvel in her editor's blog argued, a couple of days back, that progressives need to become as 'clear-eyed, tough and pragmatic' about Obama as he is about them. Drawing a now common parallel with the FDR administration, and the context of social struggle which surrounded it, she argues,
'At 143-years-old (that's the The Nation's age, not mine), we like a little bit of history with our politics. And while Lincoln's way of picking a cabinet frames this transition moment, it's worth remembering another template for governing. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was compelled to become a bolder and, yes, more progressive President (if progressive means ensuring that the actual conditions of peoples lives improve through government acts) as a result of the strategically placed mobilization and pressure of organized movements.'
Drawing on an unnamed 'valued editorial board member', Vanden Heuvel sets out some advice for the progressives.
'1. It will take large scale, organized movements to win transformative change. There is no civil rights legislation without the movement, no New Deal without the unions and the unemployed councils, no end to slavery without the abolitionists. In our era, this will need to play out at two levels: district-by-district and state-by-state organizing to get us to the 218 and sixty votes necessary to pass any major legislation; and the movement energy that can create public will, a new narrative and move the elites in DC to shift from orthodoxy. The energy in the country needs to be converted into real organization.

'2. We need to be able to play inside and outside politics at the same time. I think this will be challenging for those of us schooled in the habits of pure opposition and protest. We need to make an effort to engage the new Administration and Congress constructively, even as we push without apology for solutions at a scale necessary to deliver. This is in the interest of the Democratic Party - which rode the wave of a new coalition of African Americans, Latinos, young people, women, etc - but they have been beaten down by conservative attacks and the natural impulse will be caution and hiding behind desks.

'3. Progressives need to stick up especially forcefully for the most vulnerable parts of the coalition - poor people, immigrants, etc - those who got almost no mention during the election and will be most likely to be left off the bus.'

Monday, November 24, 2008

Blog Backlash?

By Ben Trott

Ari Melber, from the Nation, appeared a couple of days back on MSNBC to discuss the leftwing blogosphere 'backlash' against Obama's cabinet appointments.

Obama’s Economic Advisors: Will Well-Tested Enemies of Africa Prevail?

By Patrick Bond

One of Barack Obama’s leading advisors has done more damage to Africa, its economies and its people than anyone I can think of in world history, including even Cecil John Rhodes. That charge may surprise readers, but hear me out.*

His name is Paul Volcker, and although he is relatively unknown around the world, the 82 year old banker was recommended as ‘a legend!’ to Obama by Austan Goolsbee, the president-elect’s chief economic advisor (and a professor at the University of Chicago). Volcker was recently profiled by the
Wall Street Journal: ‘The cigar-chomping central banker from 1979 to 1987, he received blame for driving up interest rates and tipping the US into the deepest recession since the Great Depression.’

We’ll consider the impact of Volcker’s rule on Africa in a moment. But why dredge up crimes nearly thirty years old?

This kind of reckoning is important, as three current examples suggest:

• Reparations lawsuits are now being heard in New York by victims of apartheid who are collectively requesting $400 billion in damages from three dozen US corporations who profited from South African operations during the same period. Supreme Court justices had so many investments in these companies that in May they had to bounce the case back to a lower New York court to decide, effectively throwing out an earlier judgment against the plaintiffs: the Jubilee anti-debt movement, the Khulumani Support Group for apartheid victicms, and 17 000 other black South Africans.

• Last month a San Francisco court began considering a similar reparations lawsuit – under the Alien Tort Claims Act - filed by Larry Bowoto and the Ilaje people of the Niger Delta against Chevron for 1998 murders similar to those that took the life of Ken Saro-Wiwa on November 10, 1995.

• In Boston last month, Harvard University’s Pride Chigwedere released a study into preventable deaths – at least 330 000 – caused by Thabo Mbeki’s AIDS policies during the early 2000s. The ex-president has ‘blood on his hands,’ according to Zackie Achmat of the Treatment Action Campaign, requesting a judicial inquiry.

The same critical treatment is appropriate for Volcker, because of the awesome financial destruction he imposed, within most Africans’ living memory. His policies stunted the continent’s growth when it most needed internal economic coherence. Even the International Monetary Fund’s official history cannot avoid using the famous phrase most associated with the Fed chair’s name:
'The origins of the debt crisis of the 1980s may be traced back to and through the lurching efforts of the world’s governments to cope with the economic instabilities of the 1970s… [including the] monetary contraction in the United States (the ‘Volcker Shock’) that brought a sharp rise in world interest rates and a sustained appreciation of the dollar.'
Volcker’s decision to raise rates so high to rid the US economy of inflation and strengthen the fast-falling dollar had special significance in Africa, write British academics Sarah Bracking and Graham Harrison:
'1979 marked a radical change in global economic policy, inaugurated with the ‘Volcker Shock’ (so called after Paul Volcker, then chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve) when the United States suddenly and dramatically raised interest rates. The sudden change of interest rate policy increased the cost of African debt precipitously, since a majority of debt stock was held in dollars. The majority of the newly independent states had been effectively delivered into at least twenty years of indentured labor. From that point on access to finance became a key policing mechanism directed at African populations.'
Adds journalist Naomi Klein in her great book The Shock Doctrine,
'On their own, the debts would have been an enormous burden on the new democracies, but that burden was about to get much heavier. A new kind of shock was in the news: the Volcker Shock. Economists used this term to describe the impact of the decision made by Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker when he dramatically increased interest rates in the United States, letting them rise as high as 21 percent, reaching a peak in 1981 and lasting through the mid-eighties. In the U.S., rising interest rates led to a wave of bankruptcies, and in 1983 the number of people who defaulted on their mortgages tripled. The deepest pain, however, was felt outside the US In developing countries carrying heavy debt loads, the Volcker Shock - also known as the ‘debt shock’ or the ‘debt crisis’ - was like a giant Taser gun fired from Washington, sending the developing world into convulsions. Soaring interest rates meant higher interest payments on foreign debts, and often the higher payments could only be met by taking on more loans. The debt spiral was born. In Argentina, the already huge debt of $45 billion passed on by the junta grew rapidly until it reached $65 billion in 1989, a situation reproduced in poor countries around the world. It was after the Volcker Shock that Brazil’s debt exploded, doubling from $50 billion to $100 billion in six years. Many African countries, having borrowed heavily in the seventies, found themselves in similar straits: Nigeria’s debt in the same short time period went from $9 billion to $29 billion.'
The numbers involved were daunting for a typical African country. According to University of California economic geographer Gillian Hart, ‘Medium and long-term public debt [of low-income countries] shot up from $75.1 billion in 1970 to $634.4 billion in 1983. It was the so-called Volcker Shock… that ushered in the debt crisis, the neoliberal counterrevolution, and vastly changed roles of the World Bank and IMF in Latin America, Africa, and parts of Asia.’

Another leading political economist, Elmar Altvater of Berlin’s Free University, recalls how the world ‘slid into the debt crisis of the 1980s after the US Federal Reserve tripled interest rates (the so called “Volcker Shock”), leading to what later has been described as the “lost decade” for the developing world.’

How ‘lost’? The
British Medical Journal complained in 1999 of orthodox World Bank structural adjustment policies that immediately followed:
'According to Unicef, a drop of 10-25% in average incomes in the 1980s—the decade noted for structural adjustment lending—in Africa and Latin America, and a 25% reduction in spending per capita on health and a 50% reduction per capita on education in the poorest countries of the world, are mostly attributable to structural adjustment policies. Unicef has estimated that such adverse effects on progress in developing countries resulted in the deaths of half a million young children—and in just a 12 month period.'
A few honest mainstream economists also explain Africa’s economic crisis in these terms. ‘The external shock that might have precipitated the developing country slowdown is the increase in real interest rates after the Volcker Shock in 1979’, wrote World Bank senior researcher William Easterly in 2001. ‘The interest on external debt as a ratio to GDP has a statistically significant and negative effect on growth.’

A few blocks away from the Federal Reserve, one of Volcker’s closest allies was World Bank president Tom Clausen, formerly Bank of America chief executive officer. As the Volcker Shock wore on, in 1983, Clausen offered his Board of Directors this frank confession:
'We must ask ourselves: How much pressure can these nations be expected to bear? How far can the poorest peoples be pushed into further reducing their meagre standards of living? How resilient are the political systems and institutions in these countries in the face of steadily worsening conditions? I don’t have the answers to these important questions. But if these countries are pushed too far, and too much is demanded of them without the provision of substantial assistance in their adjustment efforts, we must face the consequences. And those will surely exact a cost in terms of human suffering and political instability.'
At that point, ‘Africa was not even on my radar screen’, Volcker told interviewers Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin.

Meanwhile, the Bank’s sister institution, the International Monetary Fund, was described by Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere as ‘a neo-colonial institution which exploits the poor to make them poorer and serves the rich to become richer.’ Volcker had, ironically, played a central role in the destruction of the Bretton Woods system’s dollar-gold convertibility arrangement, effectively a US$80 billion default on holders of dollars abroad, when in 1971 he served Richard Nixon as under-secretary of the Treasury (deputy finance minister). Eight years later, even though then-president Jimmy Carter did not know him, he was chosen to chair the Federal Reserve, which sets US (and by extension world) interest rates. Explained Carter’s domestic policy advisor Stuart Eizenstat,
'Volcker was selected because he was the candidate of Wall Street. This was their price, in effect. What was known about him? That he was able and bright. And it was also known that he was conservative. What wasn’t known was that he was going to impose some very dramatic changes.'
In 1985, Ronald Reagan offered Clausen’s job to Volcker, but he decided to stay on at the Federal Reserve until he retired in 1987.

Now he is back, and according to a recent profile by the
Wall Street Journal,
'Obama is increasingly relying on Mr. Volcker. His staff now routinely reviews policy proposals and speeches with Mr. Volcker. Conference calls and face-to-face meetings of the Obama economic team are often reorganized to accommodate his schedule. When the team discusses the financial crisis, ‘The most important question to Obama: What does Paul Volcker think?’ says Jason Furman, the campaign’s economic-policy director… When Sen. Obama raised the prospect of a package of spending and tax measures to "stimulate" the economy, Mr. Volcker disapproved. "Americans are spending beyond their means," he told the group. A stimulus package would delay the belt-tightening and savings needed, he added, proposing instead better regulation and assistance to banks.'
By November 8, the odds of Volcker being appointed Treasury Secretary were down to 10%, according to the betting pool at the Journal. The race was between New York Federal Reserve Bank president Tim Geithner and former Clinton Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, at 40% odds each.

Geithner served under Summers and Robert Rubin in Bill Clinton’s Treasury Department during the 1990s. Summers is best known for the sexism controversy which cost him the presidency of Harvard in 2006. But fifteen years earlier he gained infamy as an advocate of African genocide and environmental racism, thanks to a confidential World Bank memo he signed when he was the institution’s senior vice president and chief economist:
'I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that… I’ve always thought that underpopulated countries in Africa are vastly underpolluted, their air quality is vastly inefficiently low…'
After all, Summers continued, inhabitants of low-income countries typically die before the age at which they would begin suffering prostate cancer associated with toxic dumping. And in any event, using marginal productivity of labour as a measure, low-income Africans are not worth very much anyhow. Nor are African’s aesthetic concerns with air pollution likely to be as substantive as they are for wealthy northerners.

Such arguments were said by Summers to be made in an ‘ironic’ way (and in his defense, he may have simply plagiarized the memo from a colleague, Lant Pritchett). Yet their internal logic was pursued with a vengeance by the World Bank and IMF long after Summers moved over to the Clinton Treasury Department, where in 1999 he insisted that Joseph Stiglitz be fired by Bank president James Wolfensohn, for speaking out consistently against the impeccable economic logic of the Washington Consensus.
DATE: December 12, 1991
TO: Distribution
FR: Lawrence H. Summers
Subject: GEP

‘Dirty’ Industries: Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging MORE migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs [Less Developed Countries]? I can think of three reasons:

1) The measurements of the costs of health impairing pollution depends on the foregone earnings from increased morbidity and mortality. From this point of view a given amount of health impairing pollution should be done in the country with the lowest cost, which will be the country with the lowest wages. I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.

2) The costs of pollution are likely to be non-linear as the initial increments of pollution probably have very low cost. I’ve always though that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly UNDER-polluted, their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low compared to Los Angeles or Mexico City. Only the lamentable facts that so much pollution is generated by non-tradable industries (transport, electrical generation) and that the unit transport costs of solid waste are so high prevent world welfare enhancing trade in air pollution and waste.

3) The demand for a clean environment for aesthetic and health reasons is likely to have very high income elasticity. The concern over an agent that causes a one in a million change in the odds of prostrate cancer is obviously going to be much higher in a country where people survive to get prostrate cancer than in a country where under 5 mortality is is 200 per thousand. Also, much of the concern over industrial atmosphere discharge is about visibility impairing particulates. These discharges may have very little direct health impact. Clearly trade in goods that embody aesthetic pollution concerns could be welfare enhancing. While production is mobile the consumption of pretty air is a non-tradable.

The problem with the arguments against all of these proposals for more pollution in LDCs (intrinsic rights to certain goods, moral reasons, social concerns, lack of adequate markets, etc.) could be turned around and used more or less effectively against every Bank proposal for liberalization.
In Islam, Kirama Katibin are the two angels sitting on a person’s shoulder throughout life. Katibin sits on the left, recording bad deeds, and in modern caricatures takes on the mythical role of the devil whispering in Obama’s ear. There we see Volcker, Summers and a whole crew of similar capitalist economists, whispering for a resurgent US based on brutal national self-interest. They need Obama to relegitimate shock-doctrinaire neoliberalism – and in turn, they need Obama’s Africa advisors (like Witney Schneidman) to promote military imperialism in the form of the Africa Command.

Where is Africa’s Kirama, trying to identify good deeds for the continent’s people, economy, environment? Can Obama hear African supporters like Bill Fletcher, Imani Countess and Danny Glover, who made TransAfrica (as one example) a visionary economic justice organization, by fighting the policies of Volcker and Summers? Can AfricaAction, the Institute for Policy Studies, the American Friends Service Committee, Jubilee USA, ActionAid and other genuine advocates for the continent get a word in edgewise, between fits of cackling from the corporate liberals who think they own Obama? Will the president-elect ever get advice from economists James K. Galbraith of the University of Texas or Center for Economic and Policy Research codirectors Dean Baker and Mark Weisbrot, who correctly read the various financial crises way ahead of time, and whose records promoting social justice would serve Africa far better?

Probably not. So it is vital for Africans to wake up to the danger that the likes of Volcker and Summers represent. Anyone paying attention to the continent’s economic decline since 1980 knows the damage they did, but Obama apparently needs to hear more of their sins against his father’s people before he chooses his Treasury Secretary next week. And while he’s at it, how about a revision of Obama’s utterly neoliberal ‘fundamental objective’ for the continent, which is ‘to accelerate Africa’s integration into the global economy’?

*In the US Federal Reserve System a quarter-century ago, I was one of this man’s most obscure employees (my job was promoting consumer regulation and community reinvestment), first in Washington in 1981 and again in Philadelphia from 1983-85. So I feel obliged to spill the beans.

Note: This article was written slightly prior to the announcement a few days ago that Tim Geithner will be named Treasury Secretary. A shorter version of this piece was originally published on Znet.

Biog: Patrick Bond directs the Centre for Civil Society in Durban, South Africa.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Obama's Emerging Senior Team

By Ben Trott

Numerous rumours (and a few official announcements) continue to abound as to likely senior staffers in the impending Obama administration. The New York Times yesterday claimed Hillary Clinton had accepted Obama’s alleged offer of the position of Secretary of State. On whom may get the job of Attorney General, the Guardian’s Oliver Burkeman, in his regular US Elections 08 email bulletin, explained on Thursday,
‘Many on the left… responded with enthusiasm to the growing signs that Obama would appoint as his attorney general Eric Holder, a former deputy attorney-general under Bill Clinton. Holder is a forthright critic of the administration of justice under Bush: in a speech earlier this year, he called Guantanamo an "international embarrassment" and said that "for the last 6 years the position of leader of the Free World has been largely vacant... we authorized torture and we let fear take precedence over the rule of law." He would be the first black occupant of the post.’
If parts of the left have been enthusiastic about Holder being considered for Attorney General, it is certainly the exception to the general reception Obama's appointments - or really, the rumours of likely appointments currently doing the rounds - have received.

Jeremy Scahill, US investigative journalist best known for his book on the Blackwater private security firm, has written a piece for, This is Change? 20 Hawks, Clintonites and Neocons to Watch for in Obama’s White House. The piece provides a brief biography on some of the characters likely to play a key role in the shaping of US foreign policy over the next 4 years, including Madeleine Albright, Joe Biden, John Brennan, Hillary Clinton, and Rahm Emanuel.

Scahill argues that while ‘the verdict is still out’ on a few of those likely to receive senior positions,
‘many members of his inner foreign policy circle - including some who have received or are bound to receive Cabinet posts - supported the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Some promoted the myth that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. A few have worked with the neoconservative Project for the New American Century, whose radical agenda was adopted by the Bush/Cheney administration. And most have proven track records of supporting or implementing militaristic, offensive U.S. foreign policy.’
Most notable are the number of foreign policy advisors drawn from the Clinton era, of which Scahill reminds us,
‘Clinton took office and almost immediately bombed Iraq (ostensibly in retaliation for an alleged plot by Saddam Hussein to assassinate former President George H.W. Bush). He presided over a ruthless regime of economic sanctions that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and under the guise of the so-called No-Fly Zones in northern and southern Iraq, authorized the longest sustained U.S. bombing campaign since Vietnam.

'Under Clinton, Yugoslavia was bombed and dismantled as part of what Noam Chomsky described as the "New Military Humanism." Sudan and Afghanistan were attacked, Haiti was destabilized and "free trade" deals like the North America Free Trade Agreement and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade radically escalated the spread of corporate-dominated globalization that hurt U.S. workers and devastated developing countries. Clinton accelerated the militarization of the so-called War on Drugs in Central and Latin America and supported privatization of U.S. military operations, giving lucrative contracts to Halliburton and other war contractors. Meanwhile, U.S. weapons sales to countries like Turkey and Indonesia aided genocidal campaigns against the Kurds and the East Timorese.

'The prospect of Obama's foreign policy being, at least in part, an extension of the Clinton Doctrine is real.’
The entire article can be read online here.

UPDATE: Michael Tomasky, Guardian America editor, has put together a list of who appears to be getting (or very likely to get) which job. I've pasted Tomasky's blog entry here below, linking to the Wikipedia pages giving an overview of some of these key figures. I've also spelled out in full some of the abbreviations in his original post.
'Here's who we've got, or appear to be getting, so far:

Treasury: Tim Geithner
State: Hillary Rodham Clinton
Defense: Robert Gates
Justice: Eric Holder
HHS [i.e. Health and Human Services] (plus heath care czar): Tom Daschle
DHS [i.e. Department of Homeland Security]: Janet Napolitano
Commerce: Bill Richardson
National Security Agency: Jim Jones
Office of Management and Budget: Peter Orszag

That's really a strong list. Really strong. But I do note that there's not yet one roaring liberal tiger in the bunch. I know, I know, he has to send centrist signals and all that. But surely there's room for one. Maybe at Labor? That would seem the obvious place. Worth keeping an eye on.'

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Economic Proposals for Obama from Mike Davis

By Ben Trott

Mike Davis has another Obama-related piece on He argues that whilst Obama's pre-election pledge to 'rebuild America' would likely easily gain bipartisan support, investment in large-scale and spectacular infrastructure projects, such as new railways (let alone bailing out Wall Street) should not be his first priority.
'If one accepts the reasonable principle of supporting the new president whenever he makes policy from the left or addresses basic social needs, shouldn't progressives be cheering the White House as it rolls out the dozers, Cats, and big cranes? Aren't high-speed mass transit and clean energy the kind of noble priorities that best reconcile big-bang stimulus with long-term public value?

'The answer is: no, not at this stage of our national emergency. I'm not an infrastructure-crisis denialist, but first things first. We are now at a crash site, and our priority should be to save the victims, not change the tires or repair the fender, much less build a new car. In the triage situation that now confronts the president-elect, keeping local schools and hospitals open should be the first concern, rebuilding bridges and expanding ports would come next, and rescuing bank shareholders at the very end of the line.'
The article concludes,
'A good start for progressive agitation on Obama's left flank would be to demand that his health-care reform and aid-to-education proposals be brought front and center as preferential vehicles for immediate macro-economic stimulus. Democrats should not forget that the most brilliant and enduring accomplishment of the Kennedy-Johnson era was Head Start, not the Apollo Program.

'If, after saving kindergartens and county hospitals, we someday hope to ride the fast train, then we need to rebuild the antiwar movement on broader foundations. The president-elect's original proposal for funding domestic social investment through downsizing the empire offers a brilliant starting point for basing economic growth on an economic bill of rights (as advocated by Franklin Roosevelt in 1944) instead of imperial over-reach and Pharaonic levels of military waste.'

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Adbusters on Obama

By Ben Trott

There are a couple of different takes on the election of Obama over on the Adbusters site. One is by Simon Critchley, philosophy lecturer at the New School for Social Research in New York, and the other by Sarah Nardi, a Chicago-based writer.

A Response to Butler on Obama

By Ben Trott

Artist, writer and Chicago-based organiser Dan S. Wang has written a response to Judith Butler's text, Uncritical Exuberance?, linked to from this blog around ten days ago. The piece argues that whilst Butler was correct to raise many of the concerns she did, the attempt to realise 'progressive dreams' has always involved building movements with leverage over national political figures. Wang argues,
'Rather than merely reminding us of Obama’s shortcomings, or, as Butler does, of listing the left’s minimal demands that must be met to prevent a ‘dramatic and consequential disillusionment,’ the urgent responsibility right now for the critical left is to dissect this victory and map workable strategies for pushing a progressive agenda, including in intra-coalition campaigns. This involves recalling what kind of thick-skinned work brought us that moment of Election Night joy, and, just as importantly, to study how the reactionary forces are likely to respond to this administration.'

Monday, November 17, 2008

Winning Change

Valery Alzaga interviewed by Ben Trott

A couple of days after Obama’s November 4 victory, I interviewed Valery Alzaga. She is the European Organizing Coordinator for the coalition of American labour unions, the Change to Win Federation (CtW). CtW was formed in 2005 out of a number of trade unions who disaffiliated from the AFL-CIO, largely in response to its consistent inability to respond to the challenges (and opportunities) presented by the sharp decline of union density, industry changes, and newer membership constituencies - particularly women and immigrants. The Federation represents a broader trend within the trade union movement towards the so-called ‘organising’ model or ‘social movement unionism’. Resources are increasingly invested in attempting to boost active union membership over seeking to influence industry standards and electoral politics, and unions emerse themselves in broad coalitions for social change. Nevertheless, CtW came out in strong support of then presidential candidate Barack Obama, investing considerable time and resources in supporting the candidate. Here, Valery Alzaga explains what CtW’s role was in the election, and her thoughts about an Obama administration strategy for the Federation and the US labour movement.

Ben Trott: Can you tell me a little bit about your job at Change to Win, and whether you were directly involved with the 2008 presidential election campaign?

Valery Alzaga: I’m the European organizing coordinator for CtW, although currently I’m also doing work in South Africa for Union Network International. This means I’m helping coordinate organizing campaigns in different sectors with our partner unions. Specifically, I help develop strategic campaign plans, trainings and develop staff capacity and organizing skills. I’m currently advising the cleaning, retail and public sector unions in Holland, Verdi in Germany, the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union, and I’m beginning a new campaign in Turkey next week. All these efforts have the same goal: increasing our local power to be able to effectively coordinate and mobilize ourselves against the same multi-national corporations at a global level.

I was not directly involved in getting the vote out since I was in Europe, but our entire union and most of our global team were out and leading the effort in swing states. In the past I’ve worked and coordinated voting efforts in California and Colorado which has been, until very recently, a Republican strong hold. Our work is to train union members and other volunteers to phone bank, knock on doors and educate voters on key issues to urge them to vote for pro-worker candidates. We deploy hundreds of people into key neighborhoods to deliver literature and do face-to-face grassroots work.

Could you explain CtW’s electoral campaign strategy? As I understand it, the coalition came out in support of Barack Obama pretty early on in the primaries, ahead of Super Tuesday when his success – even against Hillary Clinton – was far from certain.

The CtW strategy (including that of my own union, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU)) was to provide economic resources and thousands-upon-thousands of union activists on the streets and on the phones to mobilize the votes in swing and non-swing states. Our deployment was done with surgical precision. We understood, geographically and numerically, where we needed to increase the vote to win the majority of the Electoral College in the key swing states. The SEIU has around 2 million members. It contributed $85 million and alone accomplished a great deal through grassroots organizing. Members and staff engaged union voters and the general public one-on-one throughout the election. Together, they knocked on 3,390,796 doors, made 16,537,523 phone calls, sent 5,125,378 pieces of mail, registered 102,206 new voters, helped 10,992 voters vote early or by absentee ballot, and held 658 media events. Members increased their commitment to the SEIU’s Committee on Political Education (COPE) through contributing an average of $4.22 per month per COPE contributor, on the top of their union dues. This represented an increase of 25% over the past year. An additional 4,014 new COPE contributors, enrolled at an average contribution level of $5.03 per month.

SEIU members challenged Democratic presidential and congressional candidates to ‘Walk In My Shoes’, where they participated in a program to gain first hand experience of what it is like for service and healthcare workers trying to raise a family in today’s economy. 21 candidates took up the challenge (more info here), and locals across the country embraced the program. More than 3,000 members, and local and international staff were deployed across 20 states to help win for working families. More than 100,000 nurses, janitors, childcare providers and other workers volunteered after work and at the weekend to ensure success for SEIU-endorsed candidates.

Experienced CtW staff coordinated most of the election field work, alongside the Democratic Party and other pro-Obama community and political organizations working in swing states. Our long term campaign expertise was crucial to the Obama operations.

Needless to say, the Bush administration with it’s free market fundamentalism has been disastrous for labour and public funding for social programs such as healthcare and education. Labour was clear that we needed to get Bush and the Republicans out. Period. On the other hand, labour as a whole reached an understanding with Obama prior to the elections in which he would facilitate the following:
1) Passing the Employee Free Choice Act. EFCA is a law that would make it easier for unions to organize/unionize workers without the employers’ current systematic repression. EFCA would reverse Republican laws designed to inhibit employees’ free choice. Union busting advisory firms are a billion dollar industry in the U.S. (and are coming to Europe!), so this is the single most crucial task for labour. Most importantly, it is the only tool workers will have to organize each other in a safe environment, growing and revitalizing the labour movement.

2) To pass universal healthcare. Over 45 million working people in the U.S. don’t have healthcare. As things currently stand, most of our future ‘wage increases’ will be swallowed by rising healthcare costs, not allowing the majority of workers’ wages to keep up with the increasing cost of living.

3) The legalization of the 12 million undocumented workers, a lot of them our own union members like janitors, farm workers, laborers, warehouse workers, etc. (Some of us pushed for an agreement on legalization which commits to not criminalizing future migrants or continuing with the erection of the border wall – and fighting for this in the future will be a hard job, which we need to start working on now.)

4) The end of the war in Iraq. After the election, the focus for those of us in Labor Against The War is beginning to shift to organizing against the government increasing war activity in Afghanistan.
These were the 4 things labour requested of Obama before the endorsements. These demands would help workers get organized and allow them to elevate public funding and labour standards which would directly improve their lives and their communities.

There has been quite a bit of criticism made of the ‘lesser of two evils’ approach to the election taken by much of the left, particularly US trade unions. Do you think it was the right strategy for the labour movement to offer so much support to one candidate, deferring a lot of the criticism of his labour policies until after the election?

It is fundamental to start by looking honestly, humbly and pragmatically at where we are at as a labour movement, as opposed to trying to begin where we should be, or where we would like to be. To know where you ‘stand’ in real terms allows you to understand the real levels of the possible, your actual choices, and to map your way to a solution in concrete steps.

Fortunately for the labour movement, there is no delusion. All of us know that although we are still a relatively powerful electoral machine, we have not had the necessary political power to fundamentally change things in the recent past. On the contrary, it is well known by the unions and capital (employers, the lobbyist and associations) that our movement has been systematically weakened. We have had declining membership for years (by Republican design as well as labour’s own ossification). Most of our unions have not been able to ‘adapt’ and organize aggressively in their sectors (let alone in the ‘new economy’ sectors) in order to keep up with the current industrial changes. Unions have lacked the political will to organize at a grassroots level again. This is changing, and CtW is a good example of this. But today, we only have 12% of the total workers in America unionized (8% in the private sector). This means most workers in the U.S. don’t even know what a union is and have no recourse or rights. Thus we have had a serious lack of power to define workers interests in the broader political and economic system. We have not been able to be a counter-balance or be a regulatory force against the neocons’ free market policies. Most of the laws that support employers/companies over workers have been strengthened in recent years by the Bush administration. Clinton, incidentally, was equally damaging to labour (by introducing the North American Free Trade Agreement, weak labour appointees, etc.) That’s why CtW didn’t endorse Hillary.

On the other hand, Obama had a solid pro-worker reputation in Chicago and many CtW unions there had supported him in the past with good results. These existing micro-political relationships were crucial when it became time to decide the early endorsement. As an example, Obama supported time and time again the cleaners’ union in Chicago, Local 1, and the union itself was vital to him in winning his own local elections as Senator. Second, Obama was and in many ways is (or continues to think as) an organizer. He has been honest to labour from the beginning when he said ‘there is no way I will be able to change anything by myself unless we have a strong majority in government and most importantly if there is a strong social and labour movement pushing from below’. In other words, our rights will not come from a paternalistic figure in the White House. We have to fight and invent our rights for ourselves. In that sense, I don’t think this has been the wrong strategy. The labour movement is not a victim of the Realpolitik yield in Washington; we have been part of it for too long ourselves, at times for sheer survival and at times to preserve the status quo. It is time to change ourselves. This is why organizing agendas matter. This is why social unionism matters, because we cannot do it alone. Labour is part of a bigger wave of social change with regards to this election. The question will be whether we are able to continue the momentum, to use Obama as a step or an opportunity to educate the active electorate about unions, to show everyone what an active social and labour movement looks like through time. Rather than becoming complacent after the first big step, we need to move things in phases and with determination to pass EFCA, win the legalization of undocumented migrants, get universal healthcare and stop the war. We need to push strategically for a majority in the government to support our demands despite, or rather, in spite of the economic crisis.

CtW knows Obama is supportive of labour, not only because of ‘Democratic principles’, but also because he’s an organizer. This means he’s now thinking about how he can consolidate and develop his electoral base in swing states over the next 4 years, and the obvious answer is for labour to populate those states with active unionists mobilizing their and other people’s votes, advocating for a stronger welfare state (as public workers interested in providing quality healthcare and services) and working with community and religious organizations fighting for the same things to create the necessary synergy to win again.

Equally important is for all of us to understand that his administration just inherited a complex and difficult situation. We have to consider the process and give his administration some space to develop responses, but with clear advocacy of what’s needed for working people.

On other hand, there is a clear danger or risk if labour submits completely (or accepts a conservative economic approach) to the current crisis, allowing for non-strategic bail outs, impunity and cautious paralysis without a response. If we simply accept what is offered, this historic opportunity will be wasted. We will need to quickly and efficiently deploy the infrastructure we developed during the elections to mobilize workers to the streets. To balance urgency and patience is hard, but somehow we need to keep close to the process and have a clear pro-active plan.

We also need to call for the rejection of any bail out that doesn’t have labour’s input. We need to demand legal recourse for the specific people culpable for the crisis, and we need to fight for a New Deal between capital and labour which favors workers again.

If there will ever be a substantial change in capital-labour relations, it should be now that the American people understand the need for it. This change should be planned now to accommodate an economy based on new and fairer principles. Labour can negotiate agreements which can be phased in as the economy recuperates, but the political point has to be made now.

What are CtW’s concrete plans for applying pressure to the Obama administration during the period of transition?

There are different competing perspectives on this. I’ll tell you mine - which is not an official CtW position.

If things don’t move our way: A million worker march to Obama to demand what he promised should be our next step, with a clear escalation plan culminating in massive civil disobedience or even (ideally!) strategic sectoral strikes in key economic national and regional markets. Of course this depends on what Obama chooses to do, our existing numbers, resources, possible allies, and political will – and at this point we might not have enough power, momentum and leadership to get there…it’s hard to say. So the necessary step is to join the labour movement and get active. This is a crucial time for us, we need to be bold.

And finally, could you tell me what you think about the team which Obama is currently assembling around himself – specifically, the appointment of Rahm Emanuel as Chief of Staff and the economic advisory transition team? What does this say about the prospects for organised labour during an Obama administration?

It’s certainly not good news and we need to act accordingly. Ideally we need labour representatives in this process, but when you only have 12% union density in the economy, you are treated like a minority voice – so the only thing for us to do is organize, grow, and work deliberately to create a more confident social and labour movement that can strongly and effectively push to the left of the possible in Washington as well as on the state and local levels. Winning the election was and is crucial for this confidence. We cannot underestimate what such victories can accomplish, what victories do to movements. It strengthens them, it nourishes them and building power is contagious and vital to being able to spark the further growth of our movements. Yes, there are a lot of obstacles; but that’s a given. The interesting thing is to imagine, plan, and organize further to create more possibilities.

Thank you very much.

Thank you.

Biog: Valery Alzaga is the European Organising Coordinator for the Change to Win Federation.