Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Freedom from Firearms... A British Perspective

Tragically, America has just suffered another mass shooting leaving more of our fellow citizens grieving lost family members. Even more tragically, that sentence could stand unaltered for every week of President Obama’s second term to date. The President is visibly, understandably, commendably outraged about this, and unwilling to pretend this violence is merely coincidental or beyond our control.

Unfortunately, despite many efforts, so far he has been equally unable to do anything to stop this bloodbath. In part, this is because he has been blocked at every turn by an obstructionist Congress. But even more so, it is because those lawmakers in their turn are guided by an American gun culture that has been growing if anything stronger and less constrained even as the horrors of gun violence have been growing more terrible and tangible.

Americans – at least, a very large minority of Americans – just love our guns. But more than that, we have been taught to believe in the IDEA of our guns. Firearms in American culture aren’t piece of sporting equipment, a tool for hunting, or even a means of self-defence. They are regarded as a civil right, second only to the freedom of speech in the Bill of Rights.

The usual thing is for politicians arguing for gun control to pay deference to this idea first, before talking about how we might slightly limit this right at the margins. When I commentate on US politics, I also find myself operating within these parameters, “We’re not talking about repealing the 2nd amendment, but the Founding Fathers talked about a WELL REGULATED militia… Surely banning grenade launching machine guns from sale to toddlers would count as a reasonable regulation. That’s all we’re talking about here!”

But it’s time to come out of the closet on this. I’ve been telling a lie of omission. Because I just, in no way, regard access to deadly firearms as a right to which a free citizenry are entitled. I’ve always been vaguely uncomfortable about that belief, just on the grounds that I know you should always be wary of the impulse to take away rights that you personally don’t happen to value (hello there, male anti-abortion extremists!).

And I’ve hesitated to write about gun control issues too much in the past. Because, there’s a symphony of shouting every time this issue comes up, and what can I have to add?

Well, on reflection, I do have something to add, and I hope it might be of use to my friends back home who haven’t yet given up on the idea that we might be able to do something about this problem.

As President Obama, and many others have pointed out, the United Kingdom is one of those countries where we’ve actually changed our gun laws – most recently, as a reaction to a terrible mass shooting in Dunblane, Scotland. Death by gun is now vanishingly rare in the UK, but 100 years ago firearms were as unrestricted here as they are in America today.

If firearms are a civil right, then they are a civil right that has been deeply constrained here in the UK. And yet, I have never had the sense that British people feel that they are making any kind of sacrifice or difficult trade-off in surrendering their “right to bear arms”.

Perhaps, though, there was more to this than I know. If firearms are a right to be treasured, and if (as the NRA argues) they are vital for personal self-defence, then logically some people must feel less safe and less free for the absence of the guns.

I asked British people on Facebook and Twitter to answer the following question:

I got dozens of heated responses. By far the most common was along these lines:

So people are afraid of this idea. Very much so.

A few other common threads came through, as well:

·         Emigration: Lots of folks said they’d leave the country. I pushed back on some of these, asking them whether they would REALLY leave behind friends and family, or if that was just a knee jerk reaction. Most said on balance that it probably was a knee jerk response, but stressed that they would feel genuinely uncomfortable, and that was not the sort of country in which they wanted to live.
·         Confusion: Loads of people wondered why on earth such a thing could ever happen. “No one wants this,” someone wrote. There was a general sense of bafflement as to why such a thing would ever be contemplated, even as a hypothetical question.
·         Crime Escalation: Several people mentioned that they either live in “dodgy neighbourhoods” or have been the target of crime before, and the prospect of the bad guys they know having access to weapons was terrifying. One friend wrote, “My home in Brixton would be a scene from a nightmare. Desperate teenage boys with no hopes and little to lose - the knives already take a lot of lives, guns would turn that number into hundreds. And me? I'd probably be dead. The long arm of the law did a blinking good job of protecting me when I left a relationship with a rather nasty person. If he could have got a gun I think his pursuit of me would have been fatal.”
These were the most common reactions, and they were very, very consistent. But there was another, minor thread of the discussion that I hadn’t expected, and that really made me think about this in a new way.
·         But Guns ARE Legal: Several folks reminded me that it IS of course possible to buy a gun here. You just need to have a “good reason” to do so. Several people told me that they themselves had shot or owned a weapon at one time, that it is possible to do so responsibly, but that even as gun users themselves, they would never want “American style” gun ownership. One friend wrote: “I have shot for fun a few times and can appreciate the enjoyment in this, but this is a world away from people freely walking around with guns. Geoff Robbins (named with permission) wrote to me on Twitter as follows:

I was intrigued by this, so I wrote back to learn more.

I became fascinated by this, partly because it exposed such a gap in my own assumptions. Guns are so rare here that I always just think in terms of “guns are unlawful”. Even the cops don’t carry guns! (Well, mostly.)

But they aren’t of course. They are just very tightly and strictly regulated. They are a privilege that can be earned.

Suddenly I had a LOAD of questions. How would I go about getting a gun if I wanted one? What counts as a “good reason” for having one under British Law? Who actually issues gun licenses, and what’s the process?

So I looked into it a bit. In a nutshell, here’s how gun ownership operates in Britain:

There is No Right to Have a Weapon for Self Defence

This is probably the biggest difference between the US and the UK. In Britain, you are not allowed to arm yourself specifically for the purpose of protection against future possible attack. This doesn’t just apply to firearms – you aren’t allowed to carry around knives or mace or anything that is specifically intended to be used as a weapon in case of attack. This isn’t the same thing as saying you don’t have a right of self-defence – you do. If you are attacked, you do have the right to fight back with whatever materials are at hand. To use a concrete example, you would not be allowed to carry a kitchen knife with you in case someone attacks you, but if you ARE attacked in your kitchen you are free to grab a knife and use it provided that this defence is “reasonable”. That means, if someone is grabs your purse and runs off, you’re not allowed to come after him with the knife.

This is the aspect of British gun law that seems most alien to American sensibilities – and it really is quite an extraordinary difference in beliefs. Essentially, in Britain you sign up to a social contract that says collective security (knowing that no one is armed) is more important than an individual right to be armed in defence. One reason this works here is because, as seen by my social media responses, there are very few people here who believe carrying firearms would make them personally safer.

This principle is also important, because so many other things follow on from it within the system of laws – if there’s no right to self-defence, then the “good reasons” to be armed are limited to things like hunting and sport. And there is then no good reason whatsoever to need a loaded weapon in your home at all times.

Some Types of Guns are Totally Banned

This part of British law actually isn’t all that alien to American thinking – we have banned certain types of firearms before both nationally, for instance assault weapons under the Clinton Administration, and locally, for instance the handguns ban in DC (the fact that both of these measures were overturned is just… depressing evidence that this issue is really freakin’ hard in America).

In Britain, assault weapons, automatic weapons, and handguns are simply banned outright. Permanently and nationally.


The licensing system for firearms warns that it takes a minimum of 8 weeks to achieve a license – which sounds like a long time in the context of America’s raging debate over 48-hour waiting periods, but two months isn’t actually that long to wait. Typically it takes longer to get a driver’s licence.

Medical Checks 

As part of your firearms application in Britain, you must declare any illnesses that may affect your ability to safely use the weapon – and this includes any mental illnesses, such as depression.

What’s more, you are asked to provide the details of your doctor, and to waive medical confidentiality for the purpose of allowing the police to confirm this information with them.

Criminal Convictions

You have to declare any criminal convictions, including those which are already “spent” (i.e., you have served your time and are no longer under parole). In most cases, a serious conviction will prevent you from being able to get a license, but even traffic convictions must be reported.

You have to supply contact details for 2 people not related to you who have known you for at least 2 years so that the police can follow up with them as references.

Security Arrangements

You have to confirm how you will be securing your weapon, and whether you will do that at home or at another location (e.g., at a gun club).

Good Reason

And finally, my favourite condition: there has to be a reason why you want or need a gun. “I want one” is not good enough you must have a specific purpose in mind. And since, as we’ve already discussed, having one for self defence is not a lawful reason, that basically means your evidence for a “good reason” is likely going to be limited. As the Metropolitan Police explain in their guidance for applicants:

“To acquire or possess firearms or ammunition under Section 1 of the Firearms Act 1968, you have to provide evidence that you have a good reason to do so. This applies to the grant, renewal or variation of a firearm certificate. This evidence can take several forms: permission to shoot over land or membership of a target shooting club, or a booking or invitation to go deer stalking are examples, but these are not exhaustive.”

One little hiccup – if you plan to go hunting with your weapon, you also need to provide the name of a person who has given you permission to shoot on their land. Remember, you can’t just go into the public woodlands to hunt. So you need a landowner who can confirm your right to hunt there.

As a result, of course, guns are now pretty much the purview of serious hunters or sportsman and there just aren’t that many of those.

One Facebook friend who has worked in government told me, if you “go back and look at the media coverage of the debate about the firearms ban post-Dunblane. There were two piece of legislation, the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 (John Major) and the Firearms (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 1997 (Tony Blair). From recollection, one of the arguments that got particular currency was that the legislation would make it really difficult for Britain to compete in shooting events in the Olympics, because competitors would be unable to train in this country. I remember thinking that the fact anyone was making such a niche argument at all was a sign of how utterly marginal guns are to British cultural identity. Big contrast to America where cultural identity (not just the arguments about individual freedom) is a huge part of the issue.


So, laws and culture both play a huge role in the way that our two societies have coped with firearms, no doubt. And here in Britain, there is a complex network of laws that reinforce and maintain a strong aversion to widespread gun ownership. If my fellow Americans want to know now they might restrain guns more through laws, Britain offers a wide range of restrictions and regulations that they could consider. But even more, it offers a culture that has fully rejected general access to firearms for reasons of personal security and societal stability.

We’ll need to learn that lesson too, if such laws are ever going to work.

Final parting statistic: here are the respective gun deaths per 100,000 people in the UK and the US respectively.

Author’s note: For those of you who have been wondering where this blog has been over the last few years – I abandoned it after the 2012 campaign, since President Obama had no further campaigns to run and I had a life to live. You may be interested in my personal blog over at Unworthy Thoughts, on Tumblr. And you can always follow me on Twitter: @karinjr

Friday, 27 July 2012

How bad was Romney's first day in London?

It has been widely reported already in the US that Mitt Romney's first foreign trip as a US Presidential candidate... did not go well.

But my suspicion is that a lot of my friends in America who are accustomed to "he said, she said" news coverage might suspect that this disaster is being blown out of proportion by the schadenfreude of delighted Obama supporters.

As your woman on the ground here in the UK, I want to assure you: IT REALLY IS THAT BAD. Here below are the Romney headlines in every British Newspaper this morning.

Firstly, here's the cover of the Independent:

In case you can't read it, that says: "Ready. set. go! (Whatever Mitt Says)"

And here's the article inside the paper:

"Romneyshambles: Mitt begins his trip with a swipe at London"

Here's the Daily Mirror:

"You're Rom, Mitt! PM Hits Back at Games Doubter"

Here's the Guardian:

Brutally reading: "Mitt falls at the first hurdle"

And here's the Sun (just a few pages in from the traditional topless women - I know... classy):

It says: "Mitt the Twit: Wannabe President in Games Insult"

And here we have the Times:

"Romney loses his way with gaff about the Games"

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Gay Marriage Won't Change the Meaning of Marriage. But it will Change the Meaning of Gay

If you have been avoiding all news sources for the past week, you may have missed the moment when President Obama came out and expressed his personal support for allowing same sex couples to marry.

As it happens, the President made this statement while I was attending a reception for US citizens at the American Embassy. We were required to surrender all electronic devices before going in, so I walked in knowing that the President was expected to make some sort of statement about this issue, then walked out an hour later, checked the news and had the uncanny sensation that the world had changed while I was inside.

That probably seems melodramatic. After all, in terms of policy - the President's statement changes little. Perhaps nothing. President Obama has long been on the record stating that believes there should be no difference whatsoever in the law between committed same sex couples and married straight couples. He favoured a version of civil unions that would offer full legal protection to these couples. But, of course, the president's views on this are not especially relevant since decisions about the issuance of marriage license are made at a state level - and although some states (including most recently New York) have recently allowed gay couples to marry, others are moving in the opposite direction. Including, of course, North Carolina - which only the day before the President's statement had overwhelmingly voted in favour of a referendum that  would add a prohibition against both civil unions and gay marriage directly into the state constitution. (It has been noted that the last time North Carolina amended their state constitution, it was to ban interracial marriage. Plus ca change...)

So why, then, this sense that the world was in some way fundamentally different now?

I think back to my first year of college - in 1992. That was the year Bill Clinton became President. It was the  year I turned 18, and voted for the first time, and lived on my own for the first time. It was also the first time I met anyone who was openly gay. Actually, I met a lot of people who were openly gay or bisexual that year. And thank goodness I did, because it instantly cured me of the embarrassing crime of being unreflectively homophobic. And I do mean instantly. I grew up in a small town at a time when no one of high school age was openly gay (although I now know, several of the people I knew well in high school were closeted gay. Oops.) so I never had the opportunity of getting to know anyone who identified as a sexual minority. But the very instant that I realised some of my new friends were gay or bisexual, I flipped - like a coin toss. These people were great! Funny, and kind. Smart and interesting. Mature sometimes, ridiculously silly others. They were the sort of friends I'd been searching for all my awkward teenage years.

In the Spring of that year, I marched in a huge gay rights parade in Washington, DC, on a beautiful sunny day. I remember that Ellen DeGeneres, who at that point was a relatively minor stand up comic, gave a speech referencing her own lesbianism so openly that several years later when she officially came out of the closet I was really confused ("I thought we all knew that?").

But even in the sunniest mood on that sunny day, I never would have imagined that just 20 years legalised gay marriage would be the mainstream and reasonable position of a popular and centrist US President. At that time homosexual acts were still illegal in many states (this was before the Supreme Court Deciaion in Lawrence V Texas that protected the right to private sexual acts). Employment discrimination was relatively routine against gays and lesbians. A teacher at my high school who I only later on realised must have been gay was so fiercely closeted that he visibly panicked when I ran into him with a male friend at an out of town theater. Goodness. He must have been terrified - it wasn't that uncommon then for teachers to be fired or "encouraged" to resign if they were found to be gay.

We were just coming off the worst years of the AIDS crisis, and I remember that the AIDS quilt was brought to the Capitol and spread out in the Mall between the Washington and Lincolm memorial.

The goals of the gay rights movement then seemed on the one hand so modest, and on the other so unreachable - essentially... to be left alone. "Please don't discriminate against us." "Please allow us to serve in the military."

The idea of the government providing formal legal protection to gay couples in the form of civil unions was at that time considered pretty extreme. And there were many on the left who opposed the idea of gay marriage at all. Because, in their view, marriage was an elite bourgeois institution perpetuating gender stereotypes and unrealistic ideas of lifelong monogamy. Or some such nonsense.

Basically, both the left and the right agreed about one thing - being gay would never be "normal". Gay people would never settle down in suburbs and raise children. They would never marry in a church. They would never file a joint tax return. They would be cursed (in the right's view) or privileged (in the left's view) with a perpetual existence of lifestyle nonconformity.

Now, there's nothing wrong with living a transgressive life. If you want to enact in your life a non-monogomous relationship model, or if permanent commitment isn't for you, or if you just don't buy into any of the prevailing norms about family formation - good for you. Go forth, be free - live your life and best wishes.

But at the time, I think most of the people at that DC march believed that so-called normality would never be an option for them. That whatever their own inclinations may be, the best gay people could hope for was to be tolerated.

But today, we have come so far as a country that the President of the United States - in an election year - can come out and say gay people should have the option of being celebrated and honoured for their commitment. Because, putting aside all the legalities - that's the function of marriage. It is for society to affirmatively honour, respect and support the commitment of two people to each other. That's why so many marriage ceremonies include a moment when the priest asks the congregation to make vows to the couple. Because, to steal a phrase from Hillary Clinton, it takes a village to enact a marriage.

Famously, around the same time that I was marching in Washington for gay rights, President Clinton was agreeing a "compromise" that would allow gays and lesbians to serve in the military - so long as they lied about who they were. A couple years later, under duress, he signed the so called "Defence of Marriage Act" which has the perverse effect now of preventing couples who are legally married in some states from having their marriages recognised elsewhere.

What President Obama did this week was historic - not because it was radical, but because it was... normal.

He made both a common sense and a compassionate argument. How could he, a man whose parents' marriage would have been illegal in many states of the Union at the time he was born, explain to his daughter why the parents of their friends should not be allowed to marry? He couldn't. Of course he couldn't. The more you think about it, the more it makes sense.

Mitt Romney says he not only won't support same sex marriage - he won't support civil unions (which even President Bush said he could support).

Mitt is living in a different America than the President is. An America that looks a lot like that closeted small town I grew up in. It's a worse America. I am so glad that I moved out of that place in my mind so many years ago, and I'm so glad to move forward with the President into a new America where equality can be real and meaningful.

Friday, 27 April 2012

The Democrats Abroad Global Primary Starts Next Tuesday...

Reblogged from my Left Foot Forward article, posted today:

With all the attention on next week’s mayoral elections, and the expectations of a disappointing result for voters on the left, perhaps progressives can take comfort in another election that will be taking place in London and across the UK: the vote for Barack Obama here in Britain.

From May 1-6, more than 6 million American voters who live overseas will have their first and only chance to cast a ballot in person for Barack Obama, and to choose the delegates who will represent them at the Democratic Convention in North Carolina.
Why does this matter? Well, first and foremost, this overseas primary will be one of the first tests of Democrats’ ability to bring back the voting coalition that won us our sweeping victories in 2008.
As a Regional Field Director for Americans Abroad at that time, it was my job to increase voting participation from American voters living here in Europe. The Obama campaign understood that Americans living abroad have historically had difficulty voting, and have often been underrepresented at the polls. In 2008, however, we achieved an astonishing 750% increase in our confirmed Democratic vote.
With the resurgence of the American right, and the Republican Party’s worrying efforts to suppress the vote by introducing restrictive new voting laws across the country, it is now more important than ever before that the Democrats are able to bring underrepresented voting groups back to the polls.
The overseas vote can be a secret weapon in this fight, as a large group of voters that not only vote Democrat in record numbers, but who can make a difference in scores of close races, from Virginia to Pennsylvania to Michigan to Florida, because they will cast their November ballots in their home states, and who – moreover – are invisible to pollsters. Democrats living abroad will not show up in any voting projections until the one that counts, on election day.

Yet the challenge of organising these voters is significant. The 50 states have different rules for voting in federal elections, and although much progress has been made of late in increasing voter access for Americans living abroad, one recent change to the law means that states that were previously required to keep overseas voters on their rolls for two full election cycles now may
require a fresh ballot request each election year.

As such, Democrats Abroad is making a major push for voter registration and ballot requests this year. We’ve tried to make it as easy as possible by creating – a one stop shop for all overseas registrations and ballot requests.

Here in London on May 1st, we are pulling out all the stops, offering live music, speeches, American flags in abundance, and one simple message: vote here to make a big difference back home.

Monday, 23 April 2012

You heard it here first...

Long time blog followers may remember that I wrote last year about meeting then-DNC Policy Director Clyde Williams and his impressive wife Mona Sutphen who was a Deputy Cheif of Staff to the President. I wrote about how impressed I was with them both, in particular Monica and then said this:
I asked her if she had considered running for office herself - and she suggested that she wasn't interested in that, but that Clyde was seriously considering it. I wish him all the best - I think he'll be great.
And so it has come to pass - I've just spotted in this interesting article about the changing racial dynamic in Charlie Rangel's upcoming election that one of the people running against him him the primary is none other than Clyde Williams. Huh.

Not saying I back one or the other (love Charlie Rangel) - but I'm just pointing out the news value of this blog.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Making the Case...

You'll be hearing a lot more from me over the next few weeks about why I passionately believe we need to re-elect Obama this November - both because of the great work that he's done and the real harm that would be done by the alternatives.

But to set the scene for this discussion, here's 17 minutes crystalising the Obama Presidency so far, from the campaign.

Well worth watching. And sharing.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Because America Has Suffered Enough...

To spare us the misery of watching Republican candidates all day today, Barack Obama gives a press conference. He's so considerate.

On Iran:

My policy is not containment, my policy is to prevent them getting a nuclear weapon.
That's my track record. Now, what's said on the campaign trail? You know, those folks don't have a lot of responsibilities. They're not Commander in Chief. And when I see the casualness with which some of these folks talk about war, I am reminded of the costs involved in war. I'm reminded of the decision that I have to make in terms of sending our young men and women into battle. And the impact it has on their lives, the impact it has on national security. The impact it has on our economy. This is not a game. There's nothing casual about it. And when I see some of these folks who have a lto of bluster and a lot of big talk. But when you actually ask them specifically what they would do, it turns out they repeat a lot of the things that we've been doing over the last three years.
It indicates to me that that’s more about politics than trying to solve a problem. Now one thing we have not done is we haven’t launched a war. If some of these folks think it’s time to launch a war then they should say so and explain to the American people exactly why they would do that and what the consequences would be. Everything else is just talk.
Take that, warmongers!

On Rush Limbaugh and the Sandra Fluke Controversy:
I don’t know what’s in Rush Limbaugh’s heart, so I’m not going to comment on the sincerity of his apology. What I can comment on is the fact that all decent folks can agree that the remarks that were made don’t have any place in the public discourse. And the reason I called Ms. Flute is because I thought about Malia and Sasha and one of the things I want them to do as they get older is to engage in issues they care about. Even ones I may not agree with them on. I want them to be able to speak their mind in a civil and thoughtful way. And I don’t want them attacked or called horrible names because they’re being good citizens. And I wanted Sandra to know that I thought her parents should be proud of her.
And that we want to send a message to all our young people that being part of a democracy involves arguments and disagreements and debate. And we want you to be engaged. And there’s a way to do it that doesn’t involve you being demeaned and insulted, particularly when you’re a private citizen.
On whether Republicans are waging a "war on women":

Women are going to make up their own mind in this election about who is advancing the issues that they care most deeply about. One of the things I’ve learned being married to Michelle, is I don’t need to tell her what it is that she thinks is important. And there are millions of strong women around the country who are going to make their own determination about a whole range of issue.
It’s not going to be narrowly focused just on contraception. It’s not going to be driven by one statement by one radio announcer. It is going to be driven by their view of what’s most likely to make sure they can help support their families, make their mortgage payments, who’s got a plan to ensure that middle class families are secure over the long term, what’s most likely to result in their kids being able to get the education they need to compete.
And I believe that Democrats have a better story to tell to women about how we’re going to solidify the middle class and grow this economy, make sure everybody has a fair shot, everybody’s doing their fair share, and we got a fair set of rules of the road that everybody has to follow. 
On immigration reform:
Well, first of all just substantively, every American should want immigration reform. We’ve got a system that’s broken. We’ve got a system in which you have millions of families here in this country who are living in the shadows, worried about deportation. You’ve got American workers that are being undercut because those undocumented workers can be hired and the minimum wage laws may not be observed; overtime laws may not be observed.
You’ve got incredibly talented people who want to start businesses in this country or to work in this country. And we should want those folks here in the United States, but right now the legal immigration system is so tangled up that it becomes very difficult for them to put down roots here. So we can be a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants. And it is not just a Hispanic issue. This is an issue for everybody. This is an American issue that we need to fix.
Now, when I came into office, I said, “I am going to push to get this done.” We didn’t get it done. And the reason we haven’t gotten it done is because what used to be a bipartisan agreement that we should fix this ended up becoming a partisan issue. I give a lot of credit to my predecessor, George Bush, and his political advisers who said, you know, “This should not be just something the Democrats support; the Republican Party is invested in this as well.”
Unfortunately, too often Republicans seemt o only be invested in exploiting immigration fears to fire up their base. That's why  polls today show that Latino voters are currently supporting President Obama by an astonishing margin of 70% compared to 13% (!) support for the GOP.

You know, it's refreshing amidst the Republican hullaballoo to take some time and watch a President who is smart, thoughtful, and humane.

Also, I love this:

A Super Tuesday Tale: The Story So Far

Hello boys and girls! In America, it's Super Tuesday today - so primary voters in 10 states are casting their ballots today. This is probably a good time to remind you of the Story So Far in the Republican primary. It's been grippng.

Initially, Mitt Romney looked like a shoo-in candidate, but quickly Republican voters came to realise that he was a poor campaigner, personally unlikeable, prone to embarassing gaffes, and slippery in his beliefs.

So they all decamped to the Great Saviour from Texas - Rick Perry. Who enjoyed a surge until we discovered that he seems not to know anything about anything (for instance, he couldn't remember the names of the 3rd Cabinet agency he wanted to abolish. "Oops!").

Then they all got excited about a Pizza salesman - Herman Cain. Until it turned out that he ALSO didn't know anything - for instance, what might be happening in Libya - and also had some icky affairs and did some sexual harrassing, which at first the Republicans were totally fine with, but then eventually they were like, "You know what? Nah."

So Perry and Cain both dropped out to make way for the new big sensation in the race: New Gingrich. Newt surged to a lead, because Republican voters decided his affairs were a really long time ago, plus he gets angry a lot, which they like, and plus he seems really smart and has BIG IDEAS.

Unfortunately, it turned out that some of his big ideas included stuff like giant mirrors in space to illuminate the highways (no, I'm not kidding). Also, everyone remembered that he's not a very nice person.

So then everybody thought, OK, let's give Romney a chance after all because - you know. All that stuff about him being a weak candidate that no one likes are still true, but what the heck, everyone else also sucks.

But then they thought, NO GOD DAMN IT! They REALLY REALLY DON'T LIKE MITT ROMNEY! And he's a Mormon, which is weird and they have magic underwear and what's that about?

Maybe they'll just go back Newt. He's still angry, which they like.

Argh - but no, he's angry but he's also a jerk and he's promising to build a moon colony and make them into the 51st state (and what is it with this guy and outer space, anyway) so no, not Newt...

Romney, then? Is it really going to be Romney? OK, they start to think maybe it will be Romney after all, but then they suddenly remembered!

"Wait a minute! We hate gay people and we're uncomforable with women. You know who else hates gays and thinks women should shut up and make babies? Rick Santorum! He's, like, famous for it!"

So they think maybe Santorum will save them, because the Google thing is less of a big deal now, and surely hatred and fear of minorities has always been a winning strategy. But then, it turns out that Rick's not actually on the ballot on a lot of states, so it's unclear if he can in theory actually win enough delegates to win.

And then we start having this really icky conversation about birth control with all these women trying to talk about their lady parts and it makes the Republicans really uncomfortable, but it turns out that some of these women have the right to vote (when did that happen anyway) and they seem to be getting really angry, and being angry is bad when other people do it.

So, they're back to Romney. Because they don't like him very much but, really, who else is there?


Happy Super Tuesday everyone.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Rush Limbaugh is Still Calling Sandra Fluke a Slut

Following up from my last post, it's incumbent upon me to report that Rush has issued the following supposed "apology":
“For over 20 years, I have illustrated the absurd with absurdity, three hours a day, five days a week. In this instance, I chose the wrong words in my analogy of the situation. I did not mean a personal attack on Ms. Fluke.
I think it is absolutely absurd that during these very serious political times, we are discussing personal sexual recreational activities before members of Congress. I personally do not agree that American citizens should pay for these social activities. What happened to personal responsibility and accountability? Where do we draw the line? If this is accepted as the norm, what will follow? Will we be debating if taxpayers should pay for new sneakers for all students that are interested in running to keep fit?In my monologue, I posited that it is not our business whatsoever to know what is going on in anyone’s bedroom nor do I think it is a topic that should reach a Presidential level.
My choice of words was not the best, and in the attempt to be humorous, I created a national stir. I sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke for the insulting word choices."
So, he apologises for the insulting word choice, but he repeats the insult.

Note, please, that he continues to insist that any discussison of birth control can only be about "recreational sexual activity" and that he defines it as by definition something that should not be discussed in Congress. Despite the fact that Congress is actually passing laws to restrict brith control access, it should never be discussed in Congress, by this view.

So the law student that Fluke testified about who lost her ovary and may now be unable to have children because she was denied a medically necessary treatment - he says her story is really about "sexual recreational activity".

The married couple Fluke describes who have had to stop taking birth control because they couldn't afford it in their budget? Any mention of their family planning decision is just a trashy rehashing of their "sexual recreational activity".

And the rape victim who didn't seek help because she believed the university would not offer any assistence to her for her recovery? Rush just accused her of being irresponsible, but anyway we shouldn't talk about it because her rape was recreational.

When I wrote yesterday that this is an attempt to terrorise women into silence, this is EXACTLY what I meant - the implication that anyone who feels it's important to discuss reproductive health is basically trashy is a powerful tool in persuading women to sit down and shut up. We won't.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

The Attempt to Terrorise Sandra Fluke - and All Women

If you've been following US news, you will be aware that yesterday President Obama placed a call to offer his support to Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown University law student who testified last week about access to birth control for women. We'll talk in a moment about the horrific things that were said about Sandra that appalled so many of us, including the President. But before we do I want to give Fluke's original testimony the prominence that it deserves. Please watch:

For those of you who can't watch videos, or who would rather scan text - the full transcript of what she had to say is below:

“My name is Sandra Fluke, and I’m a third-year student at Georgetown Law School. I’m also a past-president of Georgetown Law Students for Reproductive Justice or LSRJ. And I’d like to acknowledge my fellow LSRJ members and allies and all of the student activists with us and thank them so much for being here today.
 “We, as Georgetown LSRJ, are here today because we’re so grateful that this regulation implements the non-partisan medical advice of the Institute of Medicine.
 “I attend a Jesuit law school that does not provide contraceptive coverage in its student health plan. And just as we students have faced financial, emotional, and medical burdens as a result, employees at religiously-affiliated hospitals and institutions and universities across the country have suffered similar burdens.
 “We are all grateful for the new regulation that will meet the critical health care needs of so many women.
 “Simultaneously, the recently announced adjustment addresses any potential conflict with the religious identity of Catholic or Jesuit institutions.
 “When I look around my campus, I see the faces of the women affected by this lack of contraceptive coverage.
 “And especially in the last week, I have heard more and more of their stories. On a daily basis, I hear yet from another woman from Georgetown or from another school or who works for a religiously-affiliated employer, and they tell me that they have suffered financially and emotionally and medically because of this lack of coverage.
 “And so, I’m here today to share their voices, and I want to thank you for allowing them – not me – to be heard.
 “Without insurance coverage, contraception, as you know, can cost a woman over $3,000 during law school. For a lot of students who, like me, are on public interest scholarships, that’s practically an entire summer’s salary. 40% of the female students at Georgetown Law reported to us that they struggle financially as a result of this policy.
“One told us about how embarrassed and just powerless she felt when she was standing at the pharmacy counter and learned for the first time that contraception was not covered on her insurance and she had to turn and walk away because she couldn’t afford that prescription. Women like her have no choice but to go without contraception.
 “Just last week, a married female student told me that she had to stop using contraception because she and her husband just couldn’t fit it into their budget anymore. Women employed in low-wage jobs without contraceptive coverage face the same choice.
 “And some might respond that contraception is accessible in lots of other ways. Unfortunately, that’s just not true.
 “Women’s health clinic provide a vital medical service, but as the Guttmacher Institute has definitely documented, these clinics are unable to meet the crushing demand for these services. Clinics are closing, and women are being forced to go without the medical care they need.
 “How can Congress consider the [Rep. Jeff] Fortenberry (R-Neb.), [Sen. Marco] Rubio (R-Fla.) and [Sen. Roy] Blunt (R-Mo.) legislation to allow even more employers and institutions to refuse contraception coverage and then respond that the non-profit clinics should step up to take care of the resulting medical crisis, particularly when so many legislators are attempting to de-fund those very same clinics?
 “These denial of contraceptive coverage impact real people.
 “In the worst cases, women who need these medications for other medical conditions suffer very dire consequences.
 “A friend of mine, for example, has polycystic ovarian syndrome, and she has to take prescription birth control to stop cysts from growing on her ovaries. Her prescription is technically covered by Georgetown’s insurance because it’s not intended to prevent pregnancy.
 “Unfortunately, under many religious institutions and insurance plans, it wouldn’t be. There would be no exception for other medical needs. And under Sen. Blunt’s amendment, Sen. Rubio’s bill or Rep. Fortenberry’s bill there’s no requirement that such an exception be made for these medical needs.
 “When this exception does exist, these exceptions don’t accomplish their well-intended goals because when you let university administrators or other employers rather than women and their doctors dictate whose medical needs are legitimate and whose are not, women’s health takes a back seat to a bureaucracy focused on policing her body.
 “In 65% of the cases at our school, our female students were interrogated by insurance representatives and university medical staff about why they needed prescription and whether they were lying about their symptoms.
 “For my friend and 20% of the women in her situation, she never got the insurance company to cover her prescription. Despite verifications of her illness from her doctor, her claim was denied repeatedly on the assumption that she really wanted birth control to prevent pregnancy. She’s gay. So clearly polycystic ovarian syndrome was a much more urgent concern than accidental pregnancy for her.
 “After months paying over $100 out-of-pocket, she just couldn’t afford her medication anymore, and she had to stop taking it.
 “I learned about all of this when I walked out of a test and got a message from her that in the middle of the night in her final exam period she’d been in the emergency room. She’d been there all night in just terrible, excruciating pain. She wrote to me, ‘It was so painful I woke up thinking I’ve been shot.’
 “Without her taking the birth control, a massive cyst the size of a tennis ball had grown on her ovary. She had to have surgery to remove her entire ovary as a result.
 “On the morning I was originally scheduled to give this testimony, she was sitting in a doctor’s office, trying to cope with the consequences of this medical catastrophe.
 “Since last year’s surgery, she’s been experiencing night sweats and weight gain and other symptoms of early menopause as a result of the removal of her ovary. She’s 32-years-old.
 “As she put it, ‘If my body indeed does enter early menopause, no fertility specialist in the world will be able to help me have my own children. I will have no choice at giving my mother her desperately desired grandbabies simply because the insurance policy that I paid for, totally unsubsidized by my school, wouldn’t cover my prescription for birth control when I needed it.’
 “Now, in addition to potentially facing the health complications that come with having menopause at such an early age – increased risk of cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis – she may never be able to conceive a child.
“Some may say that my friend’s tragic story is rare. It’s not. I wish it were
 “One woman told us doctors believe she has endometriosis, but that can’t be proven without surgery. So the insurance has not been willing to cover her medication – the contraception she needs to treat her endometriosis.
 “Recently, another woman told me that she also has polycystic ovarian syndrome and she’s struggling to pay for her medication and is terrified to not have access to it.
“Due to the barriers erected by Georgetown’s policy, she hasn’t been reimbursed for her medications since last August.
 “I sincerely pray that we don’t have to wait until she loses an ovary or is diagnosed with cancer before her needs and the needs of all of these women are taken seriously.
 “Because this is the message that not requiring coverage of contraception sends: A woman’s reproductive health care isn’t a necessity, isn’t a priority.
 “One woman told us that she knew birth control wasn’t covered on the insurance and she assumed that that’s how Georgetown’s insurance handle all of women’s reproductive and sexual health care. So when she was raped, she didn’t go to the doctor, even to be examined or tested for sexually transmitted infections, because she thought insurance wasn’t going to cover something like that – something that was related to a woman’s reproductive health.
 “As one other student put it: ‘This policy communicates to female students that our school doesn’t understand our needs.’
 “These are not feelings that male fellow student experience and they’re not burdens that male students must shoulder.
 “In the media lately, some conservative Catholic organizations have been asking what did we expect when we enroll in a Catholic school?
 “We can only answer that we expected women to be treated equally, to not have our school create untenable burdens that impede our academic success.
 “We expected that our schools would live up to the Jesuit creed of ‘cura personalis‘ – to care for the whole person – by meeting all of our medical needs.
 “We expected that when we told our universities of the problem this policy created for us as students, they would help us.
 “We expected that when 94% of students oppose the policy the university would respect our choices regarding insurance students pay for – completely unsubsidized by the university.
“We did not expect that women would be told in the national media that we should have gone to school elsewhere.
 "And even if that meant going to a less prestigious university, we refuse to pick between a quality education and our health. And we resent that in the 21st century, anyone think it’s acceptable to ask us to make this choice simply because we are women.
 “Many of the women whose stories I’ve shared today are Catholic women. So ours is not a war against the church. It is a struggle for the access to the health care we need.
 “The President of the Association of Jesuit Colleges has shared that Jesuit colleges and the universities appreciate the modifications to the rule announced recently. Religious concerns are addressed and women get the health care they need. And I sincerely hope that that is something we can all agree upon.
 “Thank you very much.”

Now, the sad duty before me is to report what has been said about Sandra by right wing extremist radio host Rush Limbaugh. The below is pretty explicit and offensive, so stop reading now if your stomach turns easily.
"A Georgetown co-ed told Rep. Nancy Pelosi's hearing that the women in her law school program are having so much sex that they're going broke, so you and I should pay for their birth control. Speaking at a hearing held by Pelosi to tout Pres. Obama's mandate that virtually every health insurance plan cover the full cost of contraception and abortion-inducing products, Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke said that it's too expensive to have sex in law school without mandated insurance coverage. Apparently, four out of every ten co-eds are having so much sex that it's hard to make ends meet if they have to pay for their own contraception, Fluke's research shows."
Can you imagine if you're her parents how proud of Sandra Fluke you would be? Your daughter goes up to a congressional hearing conducted by the Botox-filled Nancy Pelosi and testifies she's having so much sex she can't afford her own birth control pills and she agrees that Obama should provide them, or the Pope. "'Forty percent of the female students at Georgetown Law reported to us that they struggled financially as a result of this policy (Georgetown student insurance not covering contraception), Fluke reported. It costs a female student $3,000 to have protected sex over the course of her three-year stint in law school, according to her calculations.
"'Without insurance coverage, contraception, as you know, can cost a woman over $3,000 during law school,' Fluke told the hearing. $3,000 for birth control in three years? That's a thousand dollars a year of sex -- and, she wants us to pay for it." ...
What does it say about the college co-ed Sandra Fluke, who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex, what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She's having so much sex she can't afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex. What does that make us? We're the pimps. (interruption) The johns? We would be the johns? No! We're not the johns. (interruption) Yeah, that's right. Pimp's not the right word. Okay, so she's not a slut. She's "round heeled." I take it back.
And despite the furore over his remarks, Limbaugh continued his attacks on Fluke in the following day's program:
This is about expanding the reach and power of government into your womb, if you're a woman. This is about the Democrat Party wanting more and more control over you. What was early feminism all about? Emancipation, individuality, freedom, liberation, all of these things. Now here comes Danica Patrick out and she says, "I'm perfectly comfortable letting the government make my health decisions for me." Well, folks, I'm gonna tell you: Right there, that's the death and the end of feminism.
When Danica Patrick can come out and say (paraphrased), "Oh, I'm perfectly fine with the government making these health care decisions for me," and that's feminism? I don't want to make these decisions! Nobody is denying Ms. Fluke her birth control pills. Ms. Fluke is approaching everybody and asking us to pay for them.
 Argh. Excuse me while I go wash my hands now. I feel dirty after quoting that.

OK. So, there are a number of things going on here, most of which are obvious, but just in case anyone is missing them, let me spell out clearly the many ways in which not only Rush, but the many other right wing commentators who have discussed this issue have gotten falt out wrong. (Leaving aside the gratuitous cruelty.)
1) This is not about sexual promiscuity. As Fluke's testimony makes clear, many women take birth control on the advice of their doctors for reasons other than contraception. And even for those who are using birth control primarily to prevent pregnancy (not that there's a damn thing wrong with that, by the way!) the overwhelming majority are married or in permanent exclusive relationships and are seeking to plan when of if they have their children.
2) Birth control costs are unrelated to sexual promiscuity. Rush seems to misunderstand this basic fact, but for the record: the cost of the pill is the same each month whether you're having sex multiple times a day, rarely, or not at all. In fact, because women't bodies take some time to adjust to the hormonal balance women are generally advised to stay on the pill consistently even if they go through a period in which they do not expect to be having sex
3) Sandra Fluke's sex life is not up for discussion here. You will notice that at no point in her testimony did she refer to her own sex life or relationship status. She spoke as a representative of other women and on behalf of an organisation, Georgetown Law Students for Reproductive Justice. We don't even know from this testimony whether Fluke herself uses birth control, is in a relationship, or is sexually active. She testified about a medical issue, siting the xperiences of other people who have been affected by it. And for her trouble she was called "slut" and "prostitute".
4) This testimony could have been given by a man. The great irony here is that when Fluke was originally denied the right to speak at the Republican-led hearing on this issue, the headlines at the time referred to the fact that this meant no women were testifying about this issue of women's health. I agree it's profoundly important to hear the voices of women about the issues that affect women. But in Fluke's case, almost nothing she said could not equally have been given as testimony by a man. But had the person testifying been male, no one could have called him slutty or suggested that his parents should be ashamed of him.

5) No-one is asking you or the government to pay for my birth control. Limbaugh's basic premise is that the free birth control provision amounts  to some sort of new welfare entitelement for women. But it's important to stress that President Obama's birth control mandate will not cost one additional dime of the taxpayers money or any additional contribution from health insurers. Offering complimentary birth control to all reduces the overal costs for insurers - thus they actually save money by providing this service. Just as other preventative health care measures (stop smoking programs, pap smears etc.) save insurers money. And they do so not only by reducing unwanted pregancies, but also by preventing medical ailments such as the one suffered by Fluke's friend. In fact, that story makes very clear how this circumstance works - free birth control pills could have prevented the formation of the cyst which eventually caused an expensive surgery followed by lifelong treatment.
So, Rush Limbaugh has literally got every single relevant fact in this situation dead wrong.

But there's something else going on here, that we need to all be aware of. Rush will pay the price for his out of order comments - already, 5 advertisers have announced that they are withdrawing their sponsorship from the show. Republican candidates have started to play the awkward Dance of Disassociation (Rick Santorum, weakly, says that what Rush said was "Ridiculous." But, ya know, he's an "entertainer" so he gets to say these things. Because gratuitous, content free personal insults are a LAUGH RIOT!) and the right wing effort in Congress to overturn the President's good work on contraceptive cover has failed.

So, no harm no foul, right? Wrong. Because, as with terrorist suicide bombings the success is not judged by the damage done to the perpetrator but by the terror imposed on the population.

Speaking up for access to birth control, or women't reproductive freedom in general, is often difficult. Like many women, I believe that my decisions about family planning and my health are private and personal, and I prefer not to discuss them publically. I have had problems in the past (in fact, I still have problems) with access to family planning services being severely constrained. And I feel a certain sense of guilt about this - that I ought to be speaking up more about this, confronting the local Catholic doctor who refuses to allow any of the 25+ doctors in his practice to prescribe birth control, complaining to the Local Council about the overcrowded, understaffed birth control clinic 2 miles away from me that is the only access women in my neighborhood have to family planning services. People are shocked by this. But BY GOD I don't want to be the public face of birth control advocacy. What happened to Sandra Fluke is exactly what in my worst nightmares I imagine might happen to me.

It takes bravery to speak up about this. Rush's attack was designed to quash that bravery in millions of women. He may well succeed. This is terrorism, pure and simple.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Gadflies and Choristers: An Open Letter to Andrew Sullivan

Dear Andrew,

I was thrilled to have the chance to meet you this week, at fundraisers for Immigration Equality (a fantastic organisation, by the way, doing brave and necessary work to overturn cruel and dehumanising immigration restrictions against gay and lesbian families). I was especially looking forward to meeting you because, as I mentioned, I've been a daily reader and fan of your blog for over 10 years now - since before you blogged for the Beast, or the Atlantic, or Time. Since back in the days when you were publishing in white text on a blue background (why did you do that?).

And I return to your blog compulsively each day not because I agree with everything you say but because you are the conservative writer I most respect. I admire the unflinching way in which you present opposing points of view - even those that are sometimes harshly critical of you, and I admire the intellectual honesty with which you acknowledge that you sometimes make mistakes. I also know that you command a huge and diverse audience - which became very clear when you linked to my Sarah Palin post and 20K of your followers clicked over to read it.

So by the time we met, I'd been following the twists and turns of your thought for a very long time, and I know where you're coming from. You're a gadfly. You don't want to be inside anybody's tent, you are not a joiner, you treasure your independence and I suspect (in classic Oxford debating tradition) you relish a good fight.

And when we met, and I introduced myself as representing Democrats Abroad you weren't telling me anything I didn't already know by declaring that you were not a Democrat. I was a little taken aback, though, when you said that you "don't like Democrats much."

Andrew, you endorsed John Kerry in 2004, and Obama in 2008. You've written beautifully about why you continue to support the President, and you've been rightly appalled by the turn towards theocratic extremism and away from reality-based policy making that the Republican party has taken in recent years. Almost every Democrat I know reads you and respects you. And you clearly like and respect a lot of Democrats.

It's not true that you "don't like Democrats." I reject the premise. I think what is true, and what you probably meant, is that you don't like Democratic fellow travellers. I know you have distaste for what you perceive as interest group politics. I know you blame Clinton for caving on many issues that he should have stood up for.

However, I should note that since our meeting I have looked into this issue, and I think you are wrong to say that Bill Clinton imposed the ban on immigration for people who are HIV positive - my research says the ban was imposed in 1987 and that Clinton PROMISED TO REPEAL IT but failed, due to opposition from Conservatives in Congress. Similarly, Clinton promised to overturn the ban on gays serving in the military but again wound up giving in due to pressure from the right and instituted the (in some ways even worse) "compromise" of Don't Ask Don't Tell. So, you're not a Clinton fan. I get that. But to blame "Democrats" for failing to live up to a promise you wanted us to keep without reserving greater loathing for the folks on the other side who are fighting tooth and nail to do the opposite of what you want seems perverse to me.

No, not perverse. It seems gadfly-like. You described yourself to me at dinner as an "ornery journalist". Bless you for it. I'm glad you are! We need folks who are naturally uncomfortable with feeling comfortable. I love people who have an instinct to pick holes in their own side, to challenge even (or especially) their closest friends, and to prefer the good fight to the quiet life. I love them so much I'm married to one.

But I want to make a cautious, limited and tenuous plea on behalf of those of us aren't gadflies by nature. Because, in a world populated by gadflies we'd achieve nothing but the sting. And for me, the kind of intellectual honesty that gadflies enable is useful as a TOOL to help us improve our ability to do something specific. I care about politics because I think we need to change the way things work. I want to defend my country and my world from the prejudice and bigotry, create more opportunities for more people, reduce poverty, improve education and access to education, create a healthier nation at a lower cost... I want to play some small part, however insignificant, in DOING STUFF. And very often the best way of doing that is to find a coaliton of other people who agree with you about the direction you want to move in, put aside your points of difference with those folks, put your shoulder to the wheel and start grafting. For me, that coalition is the Democratic Party.

Sometimes, it's better to sing with the choir than to shout from the back.

The choir metaphor is very close to what I mean, actually - a choir or people who all have their own voices can create, together something new and amazing that none of them could have done on their own. I might want to sing "I Heard it Through the Grapevine" as a bluesy number. You might want to reinvent it as a rock ballad. And that guy over there might want to sing it at half speed to bring out the sorrow of the lyrics. But if we all agree we want to sing the song, and we are willing to let a choirmaster direct us in the arrangement, we can sing a song that's different than how any of us would have done it, but satisfying to all of us.

When it comes to politics, people think this means selling out or giving up your principles, but I don't accept that. Every member of the choir does have their own voice, and the variation of those voices does matter. But by harmonising with others you can be heard by more people, and sound better.

I would never support a policy that I didn't believe in just because the Party asks me to. Nor would I keep silent about something I cared about because the Party wanted me to. But if the song we are singing today is "Let's create affordable accessible healthcare", I'm happy to chime in on the beat. I'm not going to stand at the back shouting, "I'd also like to legalise marijuana." Though I do. Nor am I going to arbitrarily shout "prison reform is badly needed" into the chorus. Though it is.

I look around at my fellow Democrats Abroad, and we are working very hard indeed to register overseas US voters and get them to the polls. It's hard work. It's not glamorous. It's often frustrating and rarely wins us fame, or glory. I honestly believe that for every person that we register, for every new voter we reach, we are a tiny little bit closer to building, over the long term, a country that is a little better.

But I also believe our presence in the choir changes the choir. Changes the Party. Hopefully for the better. To give you just one example that should be meaningful to you, Democrats Abroad are a tiny state chapter within the Democratic Party. But we are a tiny state chapter that is nearly universally in support of immigration equality for our many members. Our voices on this subject are loud and clear. And increasingly our fellow Democrats are in harmony with this.

We need both gadflies and choristers. In fact, I think we should all aim to be a little bit of both.

Again, it was great meeting you in London. And thanks again for over a decade of being an essential, infuriating, enlightening, astonishing, inspiring and challenging daily read.

Very best wishes,


Monday, 17 October 2011

More Great Protest Signs! Occupy Wall Street People Can Spell and do Math!

These two are making exactly the case I made in yesterday's blog, but with cardboard instead of pixels. Yay for cardboard.

This one is accurately describing some of the reprehensible behaviour of the financial markets that the rest of us are still paying for:

This one combines a subtle Harry Potter reference with Paul Krugman fandom and a bit of economic theory for the complete nerdly package.

Thanks to Ezra Klein (and to his commenters) for the slideshow and additional links. I totally heart you guys. You are like the Justin Bieber to my 13 year old girl's heart.

Or something.

UPDATE: And don't miss this wonderful post by the man who originally wrote the the words in sign three, then accidentally discovered that someone had made them a sign. Sweet.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Best Protest Sign Ever?

I have to agree with Matthew Yglesias: This is a huge step forward in protest sign communications...

Basically, this conveys the key point - for the overwhelming majority of Americans, the income growth that was enjoyed by earlier generations has not been a reality in our adult lifetimes. Wages have actually been stagnant for most Americans, which underplays the problem because the cost of essential things like housing and (most notably) health care have gone up drastically.

It's a reality that families have coped with as best they could for decades now - and because many of us now live in 2 income families instead of relying on a sole (male) breadwinner, because we have relied extensively on formerly cheap and easy to access credit, and because we've been willing to work harder and longer hours than ever before, the average American has just about gotten by.

Until the bottom fell out of the economy a few years ago, unemployment levelled off at over 9 percent and government gridlock put us in a position where we couldn't do anything about it.

But there is another story of America, as represented by that sign. A story of wealthy people who became insanely rich. Money that begat money that begat money forever and ever amen.

And a lot of these people - the wealthy 1% who spiralled into stratospheric income growth - are decent people who did good things. Many of them are people like the late lamented Steve Jobs or the affable Warren Buffet who got rich because they were smart and visionary and knew how to turn their smarts and vision into something useful or interesting (another bunch of them got rich by legally but unethically cheating the financial system - but for the sake of this argument, let's leave those out of this discussion as they are not relevant to the point I am making here).

The problem is not that some people are wealthy. The rising tide has not lifted all boats - the ratio between the  workers who labor in companies and the CEOs who lead them is not only higher than it's ever been in America - it's higher than it is anywhere else in the world.

Look hard at that chart above. Now think about the people in question.

Let's take a specific example: the CEO of a major Japanese car company. Let's say Toyota.

The Toyota corporation has over 317K employees. Last year it produced 7.3Million cars and generated $236Billion in revenue.

The President of Toyota is Akio Toyoda. He earns the equivalent of $1.7Million per year, not including stock options.

Now let's compare him to the CEO of a major US car maker. Let's steer clear of all companies that were recently rescued by government dollars and choose Ford, the only one that was profitable without federal intervention.*

Ford has 164K employees, about half what Toyota has.  Last year it generated about $129Billion in revenue - again, roughly half of Toyota's.

The President of Ford is called Alan Mulally. Last year he made $17.9Million dollars.

That's astonishing. (I had to research these numbers, by the way - they are worse than I thought...

Let's put that into a table, actually:

The American CEO earned ten times the salary for running a company about half as big. How does that make any sense at all?

Now, Ford would probably argue that they need to pay top dollar to get the best people. And there's some truth in that. (Mind you, sometimes companies also pay top dollar to get mediocre-at-best people...) The economic arms race at the very top levels has led to a kind of ever increasing mine-is-bigger-than yours cycle of insanity.

But I find it hard to image that there isn't someone out there who could run Ford Motor Company very well indeed for the knock down price of a mere $1.7M  per year. For $1.7 million a year you can send your children to the best schools, you can live in the most lavish home(s), you can eat out ever night if you want at the finest restaurants - you are rich.

And I can't help but think that if they DIDN'T need to spend that extra $10Million per year on making their already-very-rich CEO opulant-to-the-point-of-insanity rich instead, maybe they could have used that money in some other way that would be useful.

They could raise their workers wages, of course.

But they could also take that cash and pay a dividend to shareholders if they wanted - many of whom are just a different set of insanely wealthy folks, but many more of whom are smaller investors or 401K holders who could take that money and invest it in their own businesses (putting people to work), or upgrade their home (putting consturciton workers to work) or buy consumer goods (putting people who make them to work).

Or, they could take that $10M and invest it in more equipment, putting the manufacturers of that equipment to work.

Or, they could use it to hire more people directly. Or design a new car that will finally be better, cheaper and more fuel efficient than the ones Toyota produces, so that maybe someday it will be Ford that is twice the size of Toyota - putting some Japanese workers out of work. (Oops, sorry.)

Basically, they could do almost anything with that money other than let it sit in the bank account of  Alan Mulally, where it sits there earning interest and turning into even more money (all of which is taxed at a very low rate as capital gains).

But they can't. Because they think if they don't pay Alan Mulally $17.9M per year, they won't be able to find anyone good enough to do the job. They have their backs up against a wall - this is what CEOs expect to earn in America and they want to be company that hires the best CEOs available.

What can be done? Well, the government can take that decision out of their hands. If we increased the upper rate of taxation, one of two things would happen. Either:

  1. CEO's would stop expecting or demanding insanely high salaries, freeing the companies to spend that money on something else. Or:
  2. They would actually pay that money in taxes, leaving the government free to spend that money on something else. Like educating future workers for Ford. Or funding scientific research that can later be used to benefit Ford. Or building a highway on which the cars that Ford produces can drive. Or, if God forbid it should ever become necessary, bailing out the car industry yet again to keep Ford in business.*
The people who have taken to the streets in the Occupy Wall Street Protests in America are making a fair, important and too often ignored point: Income inequality in America is terribly out of control and it is hurting us all. 

* By the way, the bailout of GM and Chrysler that took place 2 years ago almost certainly also wound up saving Ford as well. Not to mention the $5.9M government loan they took at that time to help shore up the industry. If you don't believe me, believe Forbes