Tapped: The Prospect Group Blog

This Prosecutor is Wrong About the Death Penalty, But He’s Also Right

A few months ago, Dale Cox, the acting district attorney in Caddo Parish, Louisiana, told a reporter from the Shreveport Times the country needs to “kill more people.” The dramatic increase in capital convictions in Cox’s parish, which now accounts for almost 50 percent of those in all of Louisiana, was also the subject of a recent New York Times story.

While both Cox’s comments and his prosecutorial record are horrifying, he is right about something. As he told the Shreveport Times, the death penalty is really only about revenge.

There’s no evidence for the age-old defense, and in some ways raison d’etre, of capital punishment—that it deters crime. But even if there was, in our current system of endless appeals where an inmate waits on average almost 16 years between sentencing and execution dates, even the theoretical argument for deterrence is moot. We have, as a federal judge put it, while ruling California’s death penalty unconstitutional, a sentence of “life in prison, with the remote possibility of death.”

Even Cox admits this reality, saying, “It's a deterrent if it goes fast, but we can't get it done fast enough.” (Of course, I would argue with his inevitable conclusion—that we need to “get it done” faster.)

The death penalty is also not about justice for victims’ families, as newly baptized GOP presidential primary bottom feeder (and Governor of Ohio) John Kasich claims. “Every time there’s an appeal, all those details are in the media again, the case is reported again, and all that pain comes back,” says Mary Sloan, the executive director of the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty. For this reason, among others, groups like Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights and Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation have organized to oppose capital punishment.

So it’s not about deterrence, and it’s not about justice. It’s about revenge—and we need to recognize that.

Last year, Alex Kozinski, then Chief Judge of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, got a lot of attention for suggesting, in a dissent, that we bring back the firing squad. But what much of the sensational coverage of his opinion missed was his core message: we shouldn’t be executing people in a way that makes it easier for us stomach (i.e. lethal injection). He wrote:

Using drugs meant for individuals with medical needs to carry out executions is a misguided effort to mask the brutality of executions by making them look serene and peaceful—like something any one of us might experience in our final moments. But executions are, in fact, nothing like that. They are brutal, savage events, and nothing the state tries to do can mask that reality. Nor should it. If we as a society want to carry out executions, we should be willing to face the fact that the state is committing a horrendous brutality on our behalf.

The same goes for why we execute people. If we’re comfortable with the death penalty, we need to be comfortable with the fact that we do it, not for deterrence or justice, but to exact government-sponsored revenge. We have to stop lying to ourselves. And if we can’t do that, we should be asking ourselves why we even have the death penalty at all. 

From L.A. to New York (and in Between), $15 Moves Forward

From the West Coast to the East Coast, this has been a good week for the burgeoning Fight for $15 campaign.

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to raise its minimum wage to $15 by 2020 for those who work in the unincorporated areas of the county. This comes on the heels of the same wage hike for workers in the City of Los Angeles passed by the city council back in May.

As the Los Angeles Times reports, the move will likely spur a few of the 86 smaller cities in the county to pass their own minimum wage hikes as well as increase pressure to put municipal wage initiatives onto the 2016 ballot.

Also in California, the University of California system (headed by former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano) announced that it will increase the minimum wage to $15 over the next three years. The move will give a raise to 3,200 direct UC employees in addition to several thousand contracted workers.

On the opposite side of the country, a much-anticipated announcement came down on Wednesday in New York state. The wage board charged with recommending a wage policy for the state’s fast food workers sent their decision to Governor Andrew Cuomo: raise their wages to $15

"Today, hundreds of thousands of working men and women across New York State will celebrate as their call for 15 and a union has been heard," said SEIU 32BJ President Hector Figueroa.

There was another wage victory last week in Kansas City, which is considered a case study in whether or not such a substantial minimum wage increase is feasible in a smaller city. While not quite $15, the city council overwhelmingly voted to raise its minimum wage to $13 an hour (though there’s an exemption for teenage entry-level workers).

In the nation’s capital, council members gave the go-ahead for a 2016 ballot initiative on a $15 minimum wage.

In national news, legislation was introduced on Wednesday by Senator Bernie Sanders and a cadre of progressive House members that would raise the national minimum wage to $15 an hour. Though it’s incredibly infeasible politically, it’s noteworthy that the Fight For $15 campaign has officially crossed the threshold into the U.S. Capitol. It’s also an ambitious departure from more modest Democratic minimum wage proposals in the past.

All in all, it has been a highly successful week for minimum wage campaigns around the country. 

Why Is Greece Cutting Pensions Instead of Its Massive Military Budget?

The Greek Parliament is set to vote today on reforms required for opening negotiations on a badly needed 86 billion euro bailout. Those reforms mostly include tax increases and budget cuts—conditions now painfully familiar to millions of Greeks who have already suffered through more than five years of crushing austerity.

But one part of the Greek budget that’s unlikely to be seriously cut back is defense. Which is a shame, because unlike pensions or fuel subsidies, it’s one area the government could easily afford to trim. Since the mid-1970s, in fact, and right through the last five years of fiscal crisis, Greek military spending as a percentage of GDP has been the highest among EU or NATO countries (aside from the U.S.).

That’s right: The nation at the heart of the Eurozone’s existential crisis, an economy that’s contracted by a full 25 percent since 2009 and has suffered Great Depression-level unemployment for the past five years, also has the continent’s biggest military budget. And it’s not just the budget itself. Despite participating in little more than peacekeeping operations in recent decades, Greece has the highest ratio of military personnel to population in Europe. And to this day, Greece’s 1,300-strong inventory of tanks is twice the number of the United Kingdom.

Why the massive military? Since the end of Greece’s military junta in the mid-’70s successive governments in Athens have justified the large defense budget as a safeguard against neighboring Turkey, with which Greece has fought numerous wars throughout its history. But more recently that argument has come to make less and less sense. After all, since 1952, both countries have been members of NATO, and thus bound by treaty to come to the other’s defense. And in the late 1990s when Turkey unsuccessfully attempted to join the EU, Greece’s then-Foreign Minister George Papandreou offered critical support.

But even stranger is the fact Germany has been one of Greece’s leading suppliers of arms right through the last five years. As Helena Smith reports for The Guardian, German-made weapons account for more than a quarter of Greek arms imports. Despite Germany’s critical role in demanding round after round of harsh austerity, Greece has long been its largest market for weaponry.   

To be fair, Greece’s defense budget hasn’t totally escaped cuts during the crisis. Since 2009, Greece has reduced its military spending by a full 54 percent, and while that’s significant, defense still accounts for 2.4 percent of Greece’s GDP—higher than Britain, Germany, or France, all nations that, unlike Greece, have seen major combat within the last two decades. In other words, the cuts since 2009 have moved the share of Greece’s defense spending from more than 3 percent of its economy to around 2.4 percent (higher than all Eurozone nations, but just below the Pentagon).

What’s more, it seems unlikely that defense cuts will be allowed to go much further. A few weeks ago, as Greece faced enormous pressure to once again cut its pension program, the European Commission came up with a compromise. If Greece slashed its military budget by 400 million euros, it could defer the pension cut. But the International Monetary Fund reportedly balked at the proposal, and the deal didn’t go through. Greeks braced themselves for another round of deep pension cuts and Greece’s military budget—enormous for the size of the country—remained unscathed. In fact, NATO recently estimated that instead of shrinking, Greece’s defense budget may actually increase over the next year.

For the past five years, ordinary Greeks have overwhelmingly paid the price for their government’s financial misdeeds. It’s time Greece’s defense budget shares some of that pain. 

There’s Still No Money In Sight for New Rail Tunnels Under the Hudson River. Blame Chris Christie.

In 2010, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie cancelled a tremendously important rail tunnel project under the Hudson River that had been in the works for nearly 20 years; billions of dollars had already been saved up for it. The only tunnels that currently exist there were built more than 100 years ago, are incapable of handling projected ridership growth, and have suffered serious deterioration—especially after Hurricane Sandy. The new tunnels would have helped not only New Jersey commuters but also all passengers who travel along the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C.

Christie’s decision to cancel the tunnel project, motivated by a fear of raising his state’s extremely low gas tax and thereby risk jeopardizing his national political ambitions, was one of the most irresponsible and reckless of his career. He not only cancelled the project, but he also spent the money that had been saved up for it on other things—leaving riders with no tunnel, and no solid prospects for one in the future. (For more details, see my cover story on Christie’s cancellation.)

Though my report was published in January, five months later there had been, according to the New York Times, little progress made towards securing funding for Amtrak’s proposed alternative rail project, which has an estimated price tag of $16 billion. Peter M. Rogoff, the under secretary in the federal Transportation Department, had reportedly “pleaded with transportation officials from throughout the metropolitan area to pull together on a plan.”

Well, it looks like those pleas didn’t go very far. Just yesterday Politico reported that Obama’s transportation secretary, Anthony Foxx, expressed great frustration at the lack of regional leadership in taking steps towards building the new tunnels. He said the region’s failure to act is “almost criminal” and that building these tunnels is “perhaps one of the—if not the—most important project in the country right now that’s not happening.”

Amtrak has estimated that their two-tube rail tunnel project under the Hudson River could be built by 2025 if funds were appropriated immediately. Yet after months of urgent begging, still nobody’s coughing up the money. To make matters worse, Amtrak officials aren’t even sure if the existing tunnels can hold up for another decade due to their age and the damage they’ve sustained from Hurricane Sandy.

This is a serious, serious mess. And as this presidential campaign season drags on, don’t forget that it was Chris Christie who orchestrated the disaster.

Jobs Are Great, but They Won't End Structural Racism

Bernie Sanders touts policies that most progressives can get behind. His emphasis on good jobs for all is indisputably important and affects all Americans: white, black, Latino, Asian, and beyond. But when black people say Bernie Sanders has a blind spot on racial issues, we don’t mean that his economic policies aren’t important or don’t affect racial minorities. We’re saying that while a good jobs program will certainly alleviate poverty in our communities, it won’t end structural racism.

Last weekend at Netroots Nation—the largest gathering of liberal and progressive activists—Sanders and Martin O’Malley were put to the test when Black Lives Matter protesters interrupted the presidential town hall. Neither candidate handled the interruption well and Sanders was criticized for ignoring racial issues and talking solely about economic issues.

The nine people who were murdered by Dylann Roof in Charleston, South Carolina, were a librarian, an educator, a college graduate, and a state senator—before the murderer pulled the trigger, he did not stop to ask them if they were employed. In March, overzealous Alcoholic Beverage Control officers still violently beat and arrested Martese Johnson, an honors student at University of Virginia—for the alleged crime of having a fake ID. And what about the racism that black children face? Would a job have saved 12-year-old Tamir Rice? Or seven-year-old Aiyana Jones?

I went to private school, have an advanced degree, and have a full-time job, but it doesn’t stop white people from calling me the N-word. Assuming that full-time employment or a college degree will end racism is respectability politics; this idea presumes that if we act a certain way, white people will finally accept us.

As Andrea Cambron wrote for the Prospect last year: “Every run-in that I have had with police has been a negative experience. And I have lived a relatively privileged life.” Before the police arrest you, rough you up, or kill you, they usually don’t ask to see your diploma.

Structural racism in this country needs to be dismantled and we need to hear presidential candidates seriously discuss racism and white supremacy and say that yes, black lives matter. So yes, advocate for jobs, health care, raising the minimum wage, and a chance at an education—but know that while these are great policies, they won’t end racism. 

Why the Dichotomy Between Racial and Economic Justice is A False One

Yesterday, Vox’s Dara Lind published a post analyzing what this past weekend’s protests at Netroots Nation tell us about splits within the progressive movement. I personally don’t think Bernie Sanders handled the Black Lives Matter demonstrators very well, and I imagine his advisers had several serious conversations with him following the conference about how to better approach these voters going forward. He’s a politician—I’m pretty confident he’ll figure out how to campaign more effectively.

It’s the media analysis I’m more worried about.

Lind writes:

There is a legitimate disconnect between the way Sanders (and many of the economic progressives who support him) see the world, and the way many racial justice progressives see the world. To Bernie Sanders, as I've written, racial inequality is a symptom—but economic inequality is the disease. That's why his responses to unrest in Ferguson and Baltimore have included specific calls for police accountability, but have focused on improving economic opportunity for young African Americans. Sanders presents fixing unemployment as the systemic solution to the problem.

Many racial justice advocates don't see it that way. They see racism as its own systemic problem that has to be addressed on its own terms. They feel that it's important to acknowledge the effects of economic inequality on people of color, but that racial inequality isn't merely a symptom of economic inequality. And, most importantly, they feel that "pivoting" to economic issues can be a way for white progressives to present their agenda as the progressive agenda and shove black progressives, and the issues that matter most to them, to the sidelines.

We must push back against this false dichotomy of “racial justice progressives” and “economic progressives.” I think it’s a harmful way to frame what’s going on, and it suggests that we can have racial justice without economic justice, and that economic justice can come about without tackling racism. Neither is true, at all.

Racial justice amounts to far more than dismantling our racist criminal justice system and reining in police brutality. Affordable housing, public education, and quality health care are all issues that impact individuals directly based on class and race. Drawing imaginary lines between them just doesn’t work.

I’m not frustrated with the coverage because, as Lind suggests, I just want to defend Sanders. I am frustrated because attempts to separate economic issues—whether it’s jobs, or retirement savings, or health care, or prisons, or loans, or taxes—from racial justice, is a deeply troubling way to lead a national conversation about racism. 

In Latest Adjunct Organizing Victory, Barnard Faculty Plan to Unionize

More than 230 contingent faculty members at Barnard College will be able to vote to form a union with the United Auto Workers Local 2110 this September, according to an announcement today. Last month, contingent faculty filed for a union with the NLRB after the UAW said more than two-thirds of contingents had petitioned in support. The Barnard College administration, however, contested the right of full-time and part-time contingent faculty to be in the same unit.

After the NLRB hearings ended last week, the college agreed to sign an election agreement that permits a union for all contingent faculty except for a small subset of full-timers who have supervisory roles. Barnard College’s President Debora Spar said in a statement that the administration “fully supports the right of these contingent faculty to make a decision for themselves and without interference.”

“We commend the College for reaching this election agreement with us rather than engaging in unnecessary conflict," said Julie Kushner, director of UAW Region 9A, which includes New England, New York City, and Puerto Rico. “We are encouraged by the growing number of employers who have been working out neutrality agreements such as this one. All workers deserve the right to choose unionization without influence from their employers.”

“This is a positive step forward for faculty,” adjunct lecturer Siobhan Burke said in a statement. “A union will give us a voice in our employment conditions. By lessening the precariousness of our economic situation as employees, it will allow us to stay focused on our role as educators.”

While not typically thought of as a higher education union, the United Auto Workers is one of a handful of non-traditional education unions—including SEIU and United Steelworkers—that has been active in adjunct organizing in recent years. For more on the range of union organizing strategies within the burgeoning adjunct movement, read my in-depth exploration: “When Adjuncts Go Union.”

UAW’s Region 9A has been particularly successful with higher education organizing. Most notably, it has organized contingent faculty at The New School, New York University, and Goddard College. It’s also had success getting contracts for graduate assistants at New York University since 2002 and has long been working to organize grad students at Columbia University. Recently, more than 2,000 graduate workers at the University of Connecticut won union recognition.

There are a number of other schools in the region with adjuncts and graduate workers who are actively reaching out to UAW for organizing support.

Given the early support that Barnard adjuncts have shown for unionization, it’s likely that the September vote will pass. What remains to be seen is how much the union can get in concessions from the college in terms of pay increases, job stability, and health benefits. It’s worth noting that some of the biggest contract wins for adjuncts have come from wealthy universities like Tufts, Northeastern, and Boston University. Barnard College, a women’s liberal arts college in New York City that has long been affiliated with Columbia University, might just be able to dole out a generous contract. 

The Best Thing About the Fox and CNN Debate Criteria

On June 10, a group of high-level New Hampshire Republicans sent a letter to the RNC, pleading with it to disallow the imposition of a ten-candidate limit on the first presidential debate. There are a lot of problems with Fox News and CNN’s plan to limit the number of Republican candidates who will get compete in their debates, but the one effect that New Hampshire Republicans seem to be most incensed about—that it could be, as Union Leader publisher Joseph McQuaid put it, “a real threat to the first-in-the-nation primary”—might not be such a bad thing.

Unlike in previous years, candidates need to do well in national polls to get into the debates, the presence at which is necessary for running any sort of legitimate campaign. So a laser-sharp focus on the early states is not a smart strategy. Presumably for this reason, last week, three of Rick Perry’s super PACs announced they have decided to run national ads on his behalf, far earlier than usual. Fox News could have inadvertently handed us a chance at wrestling some of that outsized influence away from Iowa and New Hampshire.

Admittedly, being bombarded with political ads is not the height of democratic participation. And while the bizarre and almost universally despised formula Fox and CNN have dreamed up isn’t going to keep presidential candidates from all but relocating to the early states, it may force them—at least the lower-polling Republicans—to pay more attention to the rest of the country, and lessen the stranglehold early states like Iowa and New Hampshire have on the presidential nominations.

If those states were good representative samples of the country as a whole, there may be a stronger case for them to be the first two contests, but they’re not. The U.S. population is about 63 percebt non-Hispanic white—Iowa and New Hampshire’s are about 91 percent and 94 percent, respectively. Around 20 percent of Americans live in rural areas; about 36 percent of Iowans and 40 percent of New Hampshirites do. And the median household income in New Hampshire is over $10,000 more than the median U.S. income. The more you look at it, the less sense it makes.

It’s a testament to both the unique role of the early states and my credentials as a civics nerd that I often imagine living in New Hampshire, conjuring up all sorts of run-ins with candidates and high-level campaign folk: Rand Paul interrupting a casual Sunday brunch to shake my hand, me giving Robby Mook that extra penny he needs in the coffee shop line, or narrowly missing Donald Trump’s convoy of limousines. And while I’m sure the early-voting states aren’t exactly these sorts of political wonderlands, their residents do enjoy the special privilege of having an intimate window into the national democratic process.

The Fox and CNN debate criteria may be seriously flawed, but as the Perry super PACs’ recent move has suggested, they may have also given the whole country a peek through that window.

More on Charters Going Union

For The Prospect’s summer issue I wrote a feature story about the growing number of charter school teachers looking to form unions at their schools. Elias Isquith, a staff writer at Salon was kind enough to interview me about my piece. We talked about some things I covered in the story, and a few other points that didn’t make it in. You can read it here!

Bridging the Digital Divide in Cuba -- and Baltimore

Today, at a 500-guest ceremony, the Cuban flag was raised above Washington, D.C., for the first time since the Cold War, as the U.S. and Cuba got the green light to resume diplomatic relations. Since Obama’s announcement last December to reopen embassies, a Cuban-style “perestroika,” has allowed for the arrival of many new technologies to the island nation, including the Internet. 

This month, after over a decade of near-isolation from the online world, President Raúl Castro opened 35 Wi-Fi hotspots around the island. This may sound insignificant, but it isn’t. Until recently, Cuba’s general public had access to only 419 computers with Internet. People would queue up for up to three hours at “navigation halls” to use dial-up modem Internet.

In Cuba, only 3.4 percent of households have Internet access, and as of now, there are no mobile data plans. The Internet has remained out of reach for most Cubans for so long mostly because of censorship, and not necessarily lack of resources. It is not clear whether increased access to the Internet will lead to Cubans using it as an organizing tool to demand more political freedoms. The New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson predicts that Cuba is “bound on a course not unlike that of Vietnam and China: hybrid communist states in which citizens enjoy few political liberties but significant economic freedom.”

Though state-run and state-censored, the Internet is a huge win for Cubans, who have been barred access to research tools and social media networks that are so integral to education and communication in the developed world. As one Cuban woman told CNN, the Internet restriction in Cuba “disconnect[ed] us from the 21st century.”

According to a Reuters report, Cuba plans to extend Internet access to 50 percent of the population by 2020. In contrast, it took over a decade for the U.S. to reach the 50 percent benchmark, and for many Americans living in poverty, Internet access is still a privilege denied to them.

A number of studies in recent years, including one released by the White House last week, have linked broadband access with economic disparity. More than 90 percent of U.S. households headed by college graduates have access to the Internet, but less than one of every two lowest-income households can get online.

In today’s world, it’s clear that barriers to Internet access perpetuate poverty. As the White House study put it, “While many middle-class U.S. students go home to Internet access, allowing them to do research, write papers, and communicate digitally with their teachers and other students, too many lower-income children go unplugged every afternoon when school ends. This ‘homework gap’ runs the risk of widening the achievement gap, denying hardworking students the benefit of a technology-enriched education.”

Last week, at a school in the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma, Obama announced that hundreds of thousands of public-housing residents in 27 cities and one tribal nation will be receiving Internet access for less than $10 per month, or for free in Atlanta, Kansas City, and Nashville. Obama’s plan, called ConnectHome, is an important reminder that the digital divide exists not just between countries but also within wealthy countries like ours.

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