Apple Avoided $40 Billion in Taxes. Now It Wants a Gold Star?



The public relations spin doctors are working overtime at Apple this week.

The tech giant just announced that it will pay $ 38 billion to the U.S. Treasury in taxes brought home from overseas—and “create” some 20,000 new jobs. It pledged to invest $ 350 billion in the U.S. over the next five years and give employees $ 2,500 in restricted stock units.

That’s all spin.

What Apple really unveiled were plans to collect a massive windfall from the GOP’s corporate tax handout. This was a pay-to-play political scam at its ugliest—and the rest of us are the chumps.

Read the full article in Fortune.

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The U.S. Has Treated Poor Countries Like Shitholes for Decades


(Photo: Afghanistan Pashtunistan / Flickr)

The United States has never invaded Norway. It has never bombed Oslo. It has never rounded up Norwegians and thrown them in Guantanamo.

Perhaps some U.S. diplomats have referred to the country as “shithole” — because the food’s rather bland and the nightlife rather staid — but the important thing is that the United States has never treated Norway as a “shithole.”

Between the word and the deed lies a world of difference.

Donald Trump outraged everyone outside his ever-more concentrated base with his recent comment that the United States should stop accepting immigrants from “shithole” countries in Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean and instead bring people in from places like Norway.

Foreign governments from Botswana and Haiti to El Salvador and even Norway denounced the president. Rupert Colville, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, called the president “racist.” Even a handful of Republican lawmakers put some distance between themselves and the insulter-in-chief.

But all of this outrage is outrageously beside the point. Trump was only putting into words an underlying principle of U.S. foreign policy. For decades, the United States has treated countries like “shitholes” even if policymakers haven’t called them such, at least not in public.

Trump is a racist and the names he blurts out are offensive, no question about it. But it’s the sticks and stones of U.S. foreign policy that are really going to hurt you. So, why is everyone more upset about Donald Trump’s frank utterances — saying what many of his equally racist Washington colleagues are thinking — than the far more brutal excesses of U.S. foreign policy?

Insult, Then Injury

All armies train their soldiers to dehumanize the enemy. If you think of your enemy as a person, it’s very difficult to shoot him or her between the eyes.

The same holds true for countries. If you think of a country as a civilized place, it’s very difficult to bomb it back to the Stone Age.

The United States, in its more than a century of imperial ambitions, has long been subjecting other countries to the “shithole” treatment. At the outset of empire, the United States branded the Philippines as a place beyond the pale — filled with, as Assistant Secretary of the Navy Teddy Roosevelt put it, “savages, barbarians, a wild and ignorant people.” Such rhetorical dehumanization made it easier for U.S. troops to kill 20,000 Filipino fighters and preside over a three-year war that left more than 200,000 Filipino civilians dead.

The northern parts of Korea and Vietnam received similar “shithole” treatment in the Cold War era. The Koreans and Vietnamese suffered from the same dehumanizing epithets as the Filipinos several generations before. Worse were the saturation bombings that they endured. This was the era of destroying the village to save it. If a place is a “shithole” to begin with, this kind of logic makes perfect sense.

For geopolitical reasons, Vietnam is back in the good graces of the United States: After all, it serves as a wedge against China.

North Korea is another matter. It is the “scourge of our planet” ruled over by a “depraved regime,” Trump said at the UN last year. Trump’s epithets aren’t part of a campaign to bring North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to the International Criminal Court. Trump cares little about human rights, and after all, he either “has a very good relationship” with Kim, according to The Wall Street Journal, or “he’d have a good relationship (according to Trump). Honestly, who cares about the verb tense? It’s the adjective “good” that counts most: These two guys are cut from the same cloth.

So, forget about human rights. Trump has reduced North Korea to rhetorical rubble as a strategy to prepare the American public for a future military action against the country — an option that Trump continues to cultivate despite the recent inter-Korean warming. Thus does insult precede injury.

But the United States isn’t just in the business of identifying “shitholes.” It’s also in the business of making them.

Sow the Wind, Reap the Shitstorm

After September 11, the United States adopted a more muscular foreign policy that produced one “shithole” country after another.

The Bush administration invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. The Obama administration led from behind in a regime-change effort in Libya. First Obama and then Trump waded into the quagmire of Syria. U.S. Special Forces are involved throughout most of what was once called the Third World (and now, according to Trump, should be renamed the “Shit World”).

In Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States played the pivotal role in turning brutally run countries into certifiable “shitholes.” With Libya and Syria, Washington has helped accelerate the virtual collapse of the countries. Forget nation-building and post-conflict reconstruction: The United States over the last couple decades has been much better at breaking things than putting them back together.

Trump didn’t single out Afghanistan as a “shithole” in his recent comments. He didn’t have to. His policy toward the country conveys very clear what his evaluation is.

“The gloves are off,” the Pentagon has rejoiced. Between last August and December, Washington conducted almost as many air strikes in the country as 2015 and 2016 combined. The U.S. military now attacks the Taliban anywhere and everywhere — which helped ensure more civilian deaths last year than at any other point in the 16-year war — and not just in defense of Afghan forces (which was the Obama-era policy).

Which brings us back to Trump and his woeful perspective on immigration. Afghanistan continues to be the world’s second leading source of refugees (just behind Syria). Libya and Iraq have been hemorrhaging their populations. Other sending countries — El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Haiti, Congo — can point to the United States as a key player in contributing to the violence, economic chaos, and social unrest that have uprooted a substantial portion of the population — whether it’s been U.S. support for murderous dictatorships, misguided U.S. economic programs, or the U.S. market for narcotics.

In other words, so many of the people trying to get into Europe and the United States these days are escaping the conditions that Washington helped to create.

Hey, President Trump, you want to know why those folks, and not Norwegians, are clamoring to get into this country? Ask all those generals that are sitting around your table. However profane they might be in private — just consider the military origin of the acronyms “snafu” and “fubar” — these military professionals would never violate protocol by referring to other countries in a derogatory fashion. This isn’t the 19th century. But they have blood on their hands nonetheless.

Flipping the Script

Trump made his comments about immigration shortly after meeting with Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg. Trump was suitably impressed with the country. No doubt he wished he could run a predominantly white country made wealthy by oil.

Although the United States currently enjoys a booming stock market and low unemployment, Trump knows quite well the economic distress in much of the country. Those are the areas that put him over the top in the Electoral College. Those are the areas he loves to visit as president to remind him of those boisterous campaign rallies where everyone, and not just 30 percent of the audience, loved him. Those are also the areas that are going to continue to suffer as a result of his feed-the-rich economic policies.

Those are the areas that, dare I say it, Trump considers “shitholes.”

I’m not putting words in his mouth. “I want to make the country great again,” he told the press back in May 2015. “This country is a hellhole. We are going down fast.”

As I said, first come the insults, then comes the injury. Trump has, in a sense, invaded the United States and unleashed his special brand of fire and fury on the homeland. Now he’s methodically turning this country into a shithole for 99 percent of its residents. He’s been busy all year destroying the United States in order to “save” it.

Trump was prophetic. We are indeed going down fast. And the Norwegians are not coming to the rescue.

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Paying Tipped Workers Better Wouldn’t Hurt Restaurant Jobs


Guian Bolisay / Flickr

Under federal law, there are two classes of workers: those who make tips and those who do not, with different rules for each. Since 2009, the federal minimum wage for regular workers has been $ 7.25 an hour. For tipped workers, it’s been far lower for far longer — $ 2.13, where it’s been stuck for more than two decades. In theory, employers are expected to make up the difference if tips don’t bring workers up to the regular minimum wage. In practice, particularly in the restaurant industry, servers’ dependence on their bosses to get good shifts means few complain if they don’t get the wage gap closed.

This two-tiered system is a peculiar anachronism. It was imported to the United States by wealthy U.S. travelers seeking to re-create the customs of the European aristocracy, and the practice proliferated after the end of the Civil War as a means for the restaurant and hospitality industry, led by the Pullman Co., to hire newly freed slaves without paying them base wages. The effect was to create a permanent servant class, for whom the responsibility of paying a living wage was shifted from employers onto customers. In many other countries, waitstaff were eventually brought to legal parity with other workers, understood to be professionals like anyone else. In “Homage to Catalonia,” George Orwell described his shock upon arriving in Barcelona and observing that “waiters and shopwalkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal.”

This did not happen in the United States, where tips were enshrined into law, affecting nearly 6 million workers today, 65 percent of whom are women. Waitstaff and bartenders who earn sub-minimum wages are more than twice as likely to live below the poverty line as non-tipped workers. Yet the wage floor varies across the country, as states set their own regular and tipped minimum wages.

Read the full article on the Washington Post.

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North Korea Is Walking Back War — And Pundits Are Strangely Disappointed



In talks this week at the DMZ, South Korea welcomed the participation of North Korea in the upcoming Winter Olympics. The two countries also discussed restarting reunions of divided families and reducing tensions on the Korean peninsula. Earlier, both sides reestablished their hotline.

All of this adult conversation is a welcome change from the war of epithets between the “dotard” president of the United States and the “little rocket man” in Pyongyang.

Strange, then, that a politically diverse set of pundits in the United States has been worried only about how North Korea could use these talks to drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States.

Scott Snyder, from the Council on Foreign Relations, speculates that Kim Jong Un’s overture is a ploy to trap South Korean President Moon Jae-in “into concessions that might weaken South Korea’s alliance with the United States.” According to Danny Russel, the top Asia policy person in the Obama administration, “This is a classic united we stand, divided we fall situation. It’s always easier to maintain five party solidarity when North Korea is behaving badly.”

And from the American Enterprise Institute on the right, Nicholas Eberstadt warns that “Pyongyang regards South Korea as the weakest link in the gathering global campaign to pressure North Korea to denuclearize” and urges Seoul not to “get played.”

Then there’s the Wilson Center’s Robert Litwak, writing a piece in The New York Times entitled “A United Front Against North Korea.” Here’s the core of his argument:

We should be wary of Mr. Kim’s intentions. His gambit may be a ploy to buy time for the additional testing needed to acquire the capability to strike the continental United States. He may simply be trying to extract economic relief. Or his overture may be purely strategic, an attempt to drive a wedge between South Korea and its superpower patron, the United States.

Everything revolves around the pronoun “we.” Is Litwak speaking about himself and his family? He and the Trump administration? All Americans? All Americans and South Koreans? Or perhaps he means the entire world except for North Korea?

Well, we should be wary of all such arguments. And by “we,” let me very specific: all people who want, above all, to avoid war on the Korean peninsula.

I, for one, would be delighted if North and South Korea made an agreement that cut out the United States. That’s because the current administration in charge in Washington is absolutely, without doubt, bat-poop crazy. And I don’t have to read Michael Wolff’s latest book to make this assertion. Even if only half of Fire and Fury is accurate, it merely confirms what was previously part of the public record.

Yes, North Korea is currently ruled by a ruthless leader who maintains one of the worst human rights-abusing systems in the world. Yes, Kim Jong Un is pushing ahead with the country’s nuclear weapons program.

But on the apocalypse scale from zero (no problem) to ten (fire and fury), I’m more worried about the “button” on the desk in the Oval Office and the capacity of the Trump administration to wreak havoc in Northeast Asia.

Despite all the enormous potential costs of war in and around the Korean peninsula, the administration is still debating whether it can get away with a limited military strike inside North Korea. Outside the administration, pundits like the Cold War dinosaur Edward Luttwak continue to urge the administration to throw caution to the wind and start bombing.

Given this gung-ho militarism in Washington, I’d much rather see the two Koreas taking the lead in walking the peninsula back from the edge of war.

North Korean Strategies

Every time North and South Korea begin to talk, American pundits say pretty much the same thing: “Hey, hey, South Koreans! Don’t forget about us! Don’t let Korean nationalism cloud your perspective! Don’t be lured into appeasing your abusive partner up north!”

It’s all rather patronizing — as if South Korean leaders are incapable of developing policies without the assistance of their wiser elder brother in Washington. South Korean President Moon Jae-in is in fact quite capable of negotiating with Pyongyang and reassuring the Trump administration that it’s still controlling the overall dynamic. Indeed, Moon even went the extra mile by thanking Trump for making the inter-Korean talks possible (a shrewd, if inaccurate, assertion).

Let’s be honest: Of course North Korea is trying to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul. That’s known as geopolitics, people! The United States does it all the time. What was the détente with China in the 1970s but a huge wedge that Washington attempted to drive between Beijing and Moscow?

North Korea is all about the geopolitics of the wedge. After all, it’s a weak country with not a lot of levers at its disposal. Economic pressure? Not with a GDP on the same level as Mozambique. Military intervention? Not for a really long time.

During the Cold War, Pyongyang used its relatively unusual position as an unorthodox member of the Communist world to play China off the Soviet Union and vice versa. After 1989, it tried to make separate arrangements with Japan, the United States, and South Korea, all to bolster its disadvantageous bargaining position. And now it’s using its nuclear weapons program as a way to both protect itself from attack and to lure the United States back to the negotiating table to get what it really wants.

So, yes, North Korea is using its overture to the South as a way to improve its bargaining position vis-a-vis the United States. The question is not if but why.

The abovementioned pundits imagine that North Korea needs breathing room to further develop its nuclear and missile capacities. Well, frankly, it already secured that breathing room — precisely because the United States failed, on several occasions, to negotiate more seriously to provide Pyongyang with something tangible in exchange for said nuclear and missile capacities.

What else might North Korea want? To take over South Korea? In theory, perhaps, the Kim regime believes in unifying the peninsula under the country’s putative ideology of juche. In practice, however, the regime knows that it’s completely outclassed militarily, economically, and technologically by the South. It’s like imagining Taiwan taking over mainland China.

So, what does that leave?

Number one, North Korea doesn’t want to be bombed by the United States.

Number two, it wants to be recognized as a legitimate country. That would in turn confer legitimacy on the ruling elite.

Number three, it wants access to the global economy and the capital that any serious reconstruction of industry and agriculture requires.

In a very limited way, North Korea can achieve its third goal with economic agreements with South Korea. The Kaesong Industrial Complex, which combined South Korean managerial expertise and capital with North Korean labor, was one such effort.

But in truth, to achieve these goals, North Korea needs an agreement with the United States.

So, yes, Kim’s overture to South Korea is a wedge-making effort. But more importantly it’s a way to create a dynamic that will eventually get the United States to the negotiating table.

The end game, in other words, isn’t a nuclear weapons program full stop. You can’t eat nuclear weapons. The end game is a place at the table, regionally and internationally, and for that North Korea needs to deal with the number one gatekeeper: the United States.

The Olympics, Security, and Human Rights

The Trump administration has already moderated its tone about North Korea thanks to the efforts of South Korea. In a conversation with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Trump agreed to “deconflict” the Olympics by postponing U.S.-South Korean military exercises until after the event.

The postponement is supposed to be contingent on North Korea not conducting any further nuclear or missile tests. There have been conflicting reports that North Korea is indeed preparing another long-range missile test. Perhaps it’s only considering a rocket engine test to signal that it wants its talks but enhanced deterrence as well.

But not everyone is enthusiastic at the prospect of North Korea participating in the upcoming Olympics.

Over at the right-wing Heritage Foundation, Bruce Klingner asks why North Korea should be welcomed at the Winter Olympics if much of the world supported a boycott of apartheid South Africa. “In response to North Korea’s far more egregious human rights violations — which the United Nations has ruled to be ‘crimes against humanity’ — the world allows and even encourages Pyongyang to participate,” he writes.

But these are not parallel situations. South Africa, during the apartheid years, was a regionally destabilizing influence, but there was no DMZ, no troops on hair-trigger alert, no nuclear arsenals in play. Also, a strong movement inside South Africa supported an Olympic boycott as part of an international anti-apartheid movement.

At the time, the Heritage Foundation was not particularly enamored of the strategies proposed by this movement, preferring instead a policy of “constructive engagement” in which trade and investment in South Africa would eventually erode the apartheid system. Fortunately, the anti-apartheid movement didn’t listen to Heritage.

On the Korean peninsula, meanwhile, the risk of catastrophic war is high — whether by design or by accident. Yes, North Korea’s human rights violations are egregious. But as with the Soviet Union during the arms control era or Iran and the nuclear agreement, the nuclear risk justifies an exclusive focus on averting war. So, if inviting North Korea to the Winter Olympics can help create an environment of greater trust and engagement that can then lead all parties back to the negotiating table, it’s a worthwhile effort.

Given the lack of a movement within North Korea demanding a boycott — indeed, given the lack of virtually any non-governmental organizations inside the country — the “constructive engagement” arguments are more applicable to the Kim Jong Un regime than they ever were for apartheid South Africa.

In The Atlantic, Robert Carlin and Joel Wit offer three important examples of such engagement that the Trump administration could follow in order to build on the new inter-Korean momentum: make it easier for humanitarian organizations to operate inside North Korea, lift travel restrictions on North Korean diplomats in New York, and ask Pyongyang to grant access for Swedish diplomats (who represent American interests there) to visit the three Americans still held in North Korea.

So, let’s recap. North Korea offers to talk with South Korea and participate in the Winter Olympics. Sure, its trying to create some distance between Washington and Seoul. But that’s normal geopolitics — as opposed to the exchange of threats to launch a nuclear war. Instead of worrying about “wedges,” pundits should be overjoyed that North Korea is using its words not its weapons.

Let the Games and the next round of talks begin!

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I Live in a ‘Shithole Country.’ It’s Called the United States.

Indifference to poverty

(Photo: ptrabattoni/Pixabay)

It takes a level of pomposity inconceivable to most of us to describe another country as a “shithole.”

It’s unfortunately just one more of the obnoxious, racist, and altogether absurd statements we’ve come to expect from President Donald Trump. If the president were to venture beyond the manicured lawns of Mar-a-Lago or the White House, he might see that the U.S. is not exactly in a position to judge, much less denigrate, our global neighbors.

In case you missed it, here’s what Trump reportedly said: “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” He was referencing Haiti, El Salvador, Honduras, and apparently most of Africa. He went on to ask why more people from Norway (a nearly all white country) weren’t coming to the U.S.

The story was first reported by the Washington Post. It’s been confirmed by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), who heard the words firsthand.

Trump and his defenders completely ignore the direct and disgraceful role America has played in making life worse in the countries he cited. Among many other things, we’ve backed right-wing death squads in El Salvador, supported cruel dictators in Haiti, and trapped poor countries the world over in debt through International Monetary Fund (IMF) loans with tight strings attached.

I’ll leave it to foreign relations scholars to parse the rest. What I’m concerned about is Trump’s complete lack of concern over the “shit-holiness” of the country he leads.

Gandhi taught us that a country’s greatness is measured not by its richest, but by how it treats its most vulnerable members. By this measure, the U.S. is a certified shithole.

Read the rest at

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Hollywood Won’t Destroy Sexism, But We Can


Guian Bolisay / Flickr

This month’s Golden Globes were the first awards ceremony held since #MeToo went viral. To commemorate it, celebrities brought social justice activists along as their plus-ones, and many more wore black to show support with the Time’s Up movement, a new Hollywood initiative to purge the industry of predators.

While I’m sure they mean well, repairing the damage is going to take more than wearing black.

After all, Hollywood has collectively spent years perpetuating a rape culture, a sexist culture that did absolutely nothing for women of color, working women, women in the gay and trans communities, women of diverse religious backgrounds, and others. In fact, it often did the absolute opposite.

Elite men accused of abusing women have not only repeatedly gotten away with it — they’ve been praised for their work, given awards, and offered new jobs. Men such as Woody AllenCasey AffleckJohnny DeppBill Cosby, and Harvey Weinstein. Only recently have some faced some sort of consequences.

But then there was Oprah.

Oprah Winfrey won this year’s Cecil B. Demille award for “outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment.” The first black woman to get the prize, she accepted her award to a standing ovation — and gave a rousing speech that inspired people only as Oprah can.

She talked about the women who aren’t talked about: the domestic workers, the women working for minimum wage, women who have no choice but to be silent about their abuse because they have a family to feed. “For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dare speak the truth to the power of those men. But their time is up,” she said.

Oprah gave a voice to the voiceless, who don’t have the luxury of being the famous, rich, mostly white women with more power to speak.

No longer will women have to remain silent and endure because “this is what men do” or believe these are experiences that come with being a woman. No longer will women have to be shamed into silence because they aren’t believed, because they’re not rich enough, white enough, pretty enough, whatever enough to be believed.

The solution isn’t, as some are already demanding, for Oprah to run for president. The solution is to listen to women everywhere, and empower female activists in their work.

Women like Tarana Burke, senior director of Girls for Gender Equity and founder of the #MeToo movement, and Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

Women like Aniqa Raihan and Leilani Ganser, young activists I’ve had the pleasure of working closely with. They were brave and courageous enough to publicly fight back against their abusers after receiving little to no help from their university campuses where the assaults took place. Despite stigma, backlash, and struggle, Raihan and Ganser continue to fight every day for justice, for themselves and for women everywhere.

The solution is to support organizations that give voice to women of color and other marginalized groups – organizations such as Know Your IXNational Domestic Workers AllianceINCITE!, and Mending the Sacred Hope.

Even Hollywood’s getting wise, the New York Times reports. Time’s Up set aside a $ 13 million legal fund “to help less privileged women — like janitors, nurses, and workers at farms, factories, restaurants, and hotels — protect themselves from sexual misconduct and the fallout from reporting it.”

“Speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have,” Oprah said. Until “nobody ever has to say ‘me too’ again.” A new day is indeed on the horizon.

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Move Along, Baby Boomers


Paul Townsend / Flickr

Historians won’t look fondly on 2017.

The news cycle was dominated by sexual assault, widespread anxiety, the unedited musings of a mentally unstable president, rising economic inequality, and an opioid epidemic. And in case you forgot, the planet is still on track to boil.

In short, things were bad.

This year, it’s time to transition from despair to action.

We saw the beginnings of this transition as hundreds of political newcomers came out of the woodwork to run for state and local office last year. And thousands more started the process to run in 2018 and beyond.

Democracy isn’t a spectator sport, and it’s good to see a younger generation more politically engaged than their parents. Unfortunately, the younger folks will have many messes to clean up left by their elders.

Bruce Cannon Gibney goes so far as to depict Baby Boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, as sociopaths in his book, A Generation of Sociopaths: How The Baby Boomers Betrayed America.

Not all of them, of course.

Gibney limits his analysis to mostly white, native born, powerful Baby Boomers — the ones in position to make decisions on behalf of everyone else. At each critical juncture, Gibney argues, these Boomers looked after themselves at the expense of everyone else.

Thanks. For. Nothing.

We saw this play out most recently in the tax cut package just passed by Congress. Regardless of the bluster coming from the White House, this bill was nothing more than a wealth grab by the already ultra-wealthy. Over 80 percent of the tax cuts go to the top 1 percent.

Poll after poll showed the majority of Americans understood this. Yet congressional Republicans chose to work on behalf of their donors instead of their constituents.

We see this playing out again as they threaten the Medicare and Social Security of future beneficiaries. That’s millennials they’re targeting, not Baby Boomers. That’s not a coincidence.

In case you couldn’t tell by the abundance of wrinkles and white hair on C-Span, the people making the decisions in Washington are not young. The average age in the Senate is 61, eight years older than 1981. More than a quarter are over 70. The last four presidents have all been Baby Boomers. They oversaw the greatest expansion in economic inequality in modern history.

Young people are inheriting an economy in which it’s all together common to start adulthood tens of thousands of dollars in debt, thanks to a higher education system rooted in exploitation. Meanwhile wages are generally stagnant, and the federal minimum wage falls below the cost of living of every major city in the country.

Young people are rightfully outraged at this inequality and are ready to take bold action to address it. Or, as legendary Republican pollster Frank Luntz put it, millennials are “terrifyingly liberal.”

Naturally, age isn’t everything. Paul Ryan, born after the Baby Boomers, wants to completely destroy the social safety net. Bernie Sanders, technically too old to be considered a Boomer, might be the biggest advocate for young people in Washington.

Bernie also has massive support among youths. More millennials cast a ballot for him in the 2016 presidential primary than both Clinton and Trump combined. Unfortunately, Sanders is the exception, not the rule, among his cohort in Washington.

Young people are ready, willing, and able to take a leadership role in healing our deeply broken society and environment. It’s time for the “olds” in Washington — either of age or of ideology — to make way for the rising generation.

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Iran’s Protests Take Place Against a Backdrop of Inequality


Hamed Saber / Flickr

As 2017 came to a close, a groundswell of Iranian protesters captured international attention. The demonstrators’ slogans questioned everything from the price of eggs to the legitimacy of the highest levels of government, as viewers from around the world sought to pin down the precise motivations for their displeasure. At this time, the protesters may offer more questions than answers. Reports are building conflicting narratives as to who the protesters are, what brought them into the streets, and what they hope to accomplish.

Though there may be cacophony of analyses — many of them surely to be discredited in coming days and weeks — some facts still remain undisputed. Primarily among them: the protests are taking place against a backdrop of economic frustration and inequality within Iran.

Economic concerns have been simmering for some time. As Iranian writer Amir Ahmadi Arian noted in the New York Times, inequality has become front and center as the wealthy display their opulence with luxury cars in city streets, while the rest of the country struggles. The economy was a focal point in the country’s May 2017 elections. President Hassan Rouhani campaigned on the nuclear deal, promising it would bring more money into the country. But while Iran’s economy grew — by 13.4 percent in 2016 — it didn’t necessarily translate into prospects for Iranians. Unemployment rose to 12.6 percent that same year, a number that’s even higher for Iranian youth.

The discrepancy between the promise and reality of the nuclear deal hasn’t been lost on the country’s residents. In May of 2015, when hopes for the agreement were high, more than half of Iranians felt the economy was at least somewhat good. But by 2017, nearly two thirds called the country’s economic situation bad, one poll found. And they’re not optimistic about the future — fifty percent of people said they thought the economy was getting even worse.

Just as with the protests, analysts will point fingers in a variety of directions as to the cause of the country’s economic ills. Certainly, years of crippling international sanctions have played a role. And while the nuclear deal left the door open for more economic opportunities, constant uncertainty over the future of the agreement has left banks and businesses skeptical.

But regardless of the causes, the protests signal that Iran’s citizens may disagree with the government on next steps. One spark behind the recent demonstrations? President Rouhani’s conservative 2018 budget, released even as minor protests took place around the country over lost jobs and missing wages.

One particular point of ire is the budget cut to the country’s popular cash transfer program. As economist Djavad Salehi-Isfahani notes in one analysis, the program — which gave Iranians a small monthly stipend — played a role in stemming poverty rates, especially in the country’s rural areas, helping to bridge inequality between Tehran and the rest of the country. Salehi-Isfahani also points out that high inflation already cut the value of the transfers to less than a third of their original value. To top off that indignity, the government has decided to limit the number of people eligible for the program.

While the international community buzzes about the meaning behind the protests, at least one group is standing behind Rouhani’s austerity budget. The IMF released a consultation report on Iran in December, shortly before the protests took off, in which they said revisions to the cash transfer program, among other measures, would lead to “much needed fiscal space.” In a memo, Peter Bakvis, who directs the Washington, D.C. office of the International Trade Union Confederation, questioned this move. “It is safe to assume that no one among those participating in the recent mass protests in Iran was consulted by the IMF’s mission before it endorsed the 2018/19 budget and issued recommendations for the country’s economic and social policies.” Though the IMF does not lend to Iran, their recommendation still carries a good deal of weight.

The question to be asked: will Iran listen to groups like the IMF or the voice of its people? The government says the demonstrations have died down. But no matter the face of Iran’s protesters or the future of their movement, this much is clear: the country needs to deal with inequality, or the frustration will continue to simmer.

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How the World Remembers Marc Raskin (1934-2017)


Marc Raskin at IPS, 1981 (Photo: George Tames / The New York Times)

Marcus Raskin, the co-founder of the Institute for Policy Studies, passed away shortly before the New Year. He was 83.

Marc touched all of our lives, not least by creating the institution we call home — the first uncompromisingly progressive think tank of its kind. The memories and obituaries trickling in from all over are a tribute to Marc’s legacy in the wider world, too — as a brilliant intellect, a lifelong activist, and a kind, caring human being.

Below are just a few of these recollections.

IPS Staff:Raskin was an intellectual pillar of the movements for progressive social change for more than a half century.”

Richard Sandomir | New York Times: “Mr. Raskin and Richard J. Barnet started the institute in 1963, fiercely devoted to maintaining its independence by refusing to accept government funding. ‘We also had an extraordinary conceit,’ Mr. Raskin told The New York Times in 1983. ‘We were going to speak truth to power.’”

Matt Schudel | Washington Post: “From civil rights marches to antiwar protests to the Pentagon Papers, Mr. Raskin was a persistent and ubiquitous intellectual provocateur of the left. He and his fellow founder of the Institute for Policy Studies, Richard J. Barnet, were on President Richard M. Nixon’s enemies list in the early 1970s. ‘What we’re playing for,’ Mr. Raskin told The Washington Post in 1986, ‘is the spirit of the time.’”

Katrina Vanden Huevel | Washington Post: “Raskin was the disruptive genius… He embraced the movements — civil rights, antiwar, women’s, environmental, consumer — that made America better.”

Marc Raskin at IPS’ 50th anniversary celebration, 2013

John Nichols | The Nation: “Raskin advanced a resurgent and expansive citizenship as a preeminent advocate for peace and for economic and social justice. He argued, on Capitol Hill and university campuses, from union halls to the parks where mass rallies were held, that voters should have a far greater say with regard to foreign and domestic policy. His was a clear-eyed vision that recognized how an ‘endless war’ footing cost Americans physically, economically, and morally, and it helped to shape the understanding of generations of activists, academics, and elected officials from city halls to the White House.”

Norman Birnbaum | The Nation: “Marc’s reading of the book of the world was profoundly Jewish in his sense of paradox, his expectation of a final settlement of moral accounts — and above all in his deep reservoir of empathy and sympathy for ordinary humans confronting a fate that was often unjust.”

Phyllis Bennis | Common Dreams: “Here was a former music prodigy, philosopher, lawyer, and government wonk, jumping into what would eventually be called the New Left before anything had that name. … In the context of the United States of the late 1950s and early ’60s, it’s all the more extraordinary. … Go well, Marc. We’ll keep working in your name — challenging the new threats, stopping the next wars, transforming the new world, finding the new leaders.”

Ralph Nader | “Through his versatile talents and dedications, Marcus Raskin stretched the meaning of ‘Renaissance Man.’ In a narcissistic, trivialized Internet Age, imperiling the future of truth and empiricism, Raskin’s life work is exemplified by one of his many books  — Being and Doing. He took the description of ‘a life well lived’ to spectacular heights as a parent, piano prodigy, civic advocate, counselor to public officials, lawyer, philosopher, author, petitioner to all branches of government, convener and builder of a lasting democratic institution suffused with vision, while attending to current urgencies global in scope.”

Sarah Anderson | “While progressive activists have tended to treat these issues separately, Raskin consistently connected the dots between America’s military adventures overseas and economic and racial injustice at home.”

A memorial service and celebration of Marcus Raskin and his work will be held on February 12. Find more information here.

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Trump and the Neocons Are Exploiting an Iran Protest Movement They Know Nothing About


A burned Basiji motorbike in Iran, 2009 (Photo: Hamed Saber / Flickr)

This article is a joint publication of Foreign Policy In Focus and In These Times.

The last time Iranians went out onto the streets in large numbers, they were protesting what they thought was a stolen election.

It was 2009, and hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had convincingly won the presidency with roughly 63 percent to reformer Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s approximately 34 percent. Adopting their campaign’s green color, Mousavi’s supporters thronged the streets in protest.

These Green Movement adherents were mostly middle class and concentrated in the major cities. Ahmadinejad, by contrast, attracted the support of the more religious, the less well-off and the rural—a sizable constituency that the Green Movement routinely underestimated.

Now it’s their turn to take to the streets: these members of the Iranian working class who live in the boonies, who have not benefited from the economic changes of the reformists. This is a group that analyst Esfandyar Batmanghelidj calls the “forgotten men and women” of modern Iran.

The current demonstrations are leaderless, and the demands are all over the map. In general, however, today’s protesters seem more concerned with economic issues than political ones, though the two are inextricably linked. For instance, unlike in 2009, the most recent demonstrations have nothing to do with election fraud. After all, the last presidential election went off without a hitch, and some of the same people who protested in 2009 returned to the streets in May 2017 to celebrate the reelection of reformer Hassan Rouhani.

On the economic side, meanwhile, the reformers around Rouhani promised a big boost as a result of the nuclear deal with the United States, the European Union and other countries. And, indeed, the economy has grown, mostly as a result of an uptick in oil exports. The growth rate in 2016 was 6.4 percent—a remarkable turnabout from the nearly 2 percent contraction in 2015. That certainly helped Rouhani win reelection in May last year.

But this wealth has not trickled down fast enough. Unemployment has been rising from around 10 percent in 2015 to over 12 percent today. The youth unemployment rate, meanwhile, hovers around 30 percent, which mirrors the conditions in a number of Middle Eastern countries on the eve of the Arab Spring. Moreover, large price increases in staples like eggs and gas have hit the poorer segments of society hard, and the population is bracing for more of the same in 2018.

Iranian society is sharply divided between haves and have-nots, its rate of economic inequality comparable to that of the Philippines. The current unrest reflects the thwarted economic ambitions of a falling working class, not the thwarted political ambitions of a rising middle class.

Iranians are also protesting corruption, which has long been a central feature of economic and political life in the country. There have been the predictable scandals associated with fraud in the oil industry. The earthquake in November toppled many houses built by the state, revealing corruption in the construction industry. The underground economy encouraged by the sanctions regime has also generated a pervasive culture of bribery. And many Iranians view the high salaries that go to some government employees as a form of corruption as well.

Initially, it seems, the protests originated not with reformists, like the Green Movement, but with hardliners hoping to focus anger on Rouhani. The protests broke out, for instance, in religious centers Qom and Mashhad. Writes Ahmad Sadri, “The right-wing powerful duo of the city of Mashhad, Ebrahim Raisi (the embittered rival of Rouhani in the recent elections) and his famously simple-minded father-in-law, Ahmad Alamolhoda, struck the first match by staging a small anti-Rouhani demonstration, blaming the high price of consumer goods on the Rouhani government.”

The conservatives opened a Pandora’s box of resentments. Protesters in other cities have subsequently denounced the Ayatollah Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard. They’ve even sung the praises of the deposed shah and called for the return of his son.

This is a protest of profound disillusionment.

Washington’s Response

The Rouhani government banked on a big dividend coming from the 2015 nuclear deal.

It needed this infusion of capital from outside because, in reality, Rouhani has rather narrow room for maneuver on economic issues. The religious establishment holds all the trump cards when it comes to governance. A large state-owned sector and extensive public services absorb a large chunk of the government budget. Wages and salaries take up around 40 percent of the budget—and social security a little over 30 percent. In a “semi-state sector” bolstered by an opaque privatization process, conservative institutions like the Revolutionary Guards hold considerable sway and are often resistant to any reform.

Rouhani needed leverage from outside the system because he controlled so few levers within the system. The nuclear deal was supposed to reduce sanctions, expand Iranian exports and attract a new wave of foreign investment. Some sanctions have been lifted (but not all). Some exports have spiked (mostly oil). But the foreign investment has been slow to materialize.

True, some European firms, such as the French energy firm Total, have dipped their toes into the Iranian market. And Boeing secured a major civilian airplane deal.

But opposition to economic engagement with Iran was strong in Washington, even during the Obama administration. In the wake of their defeat on the nuclear deal, hardliners in Congress were eager to apply new sanctions against Iran and reduce what little investment was flowing toward the country. Granted, it’s not easy to navigate the business environment inside Iran. But the United States didn’t make it any easier.

The Trump administration hasn’t been shy about voicing its opposition to the Iran nuclear deal. Even before the latest protests broke out, the administration was also exploring ways of killing the Boeing aircraft deal, as well as the Total investment. Suffice it to say, Trump is not interested in any kind of engagement with the Iranian government.

As soon as the protests broke out in Iran in December, Trump gleefully took to Twitter to support the people in the streets and castigate the Rouhani government. “The people of Iran are finally acting against the brutal and corrupt Iranian regime,” Trump tweeted. “All of the money that President Obama so foolishly gave them went into terrorism and into their ‘pockets.’ The people have little food, big inflation and no human rights. The U.S. is watching!”

For Trump, the protests vindicate his argument that the government in Tehran is illegitimate. That the protests have resulted at least in part from U.S. policies to squeeze Iran is immaterial to Trump and his supporters in Congress.

This has been their strategy all along. “The policy of the United States should be regime change in Iran,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) has said. “I don’t see how anyone can say America can be safe as long as you have in power a theocratic despotism.” Sanctions are not designed to extract a “better deal” from Tehran or even to dissuade it from engaging in “bad behavior” in the region. That’s a canard to make the United States appear to be playing by the rules of respecting sovereignty.

The punditocracy, meanwhile, has largely come out in support of the protests, with people on both sides of the nuclear deal laying down their differences to side with the street. Here’s Daniel Shapiro and Mark Dubowitz in Politico:

We are long-time friends who have disagreed vehemently on the wisdom of President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran; Dan is Obama’s former ambassador to Israel, and Mark is one of that agreement’s most persistent critics. But we agree with equal passion that Americans, regardless of party or position on the nuclear deal, should be supporting the aspirations of Iranians to be free from their brutal and corrupt rulers. 

But what are Shapiro and Dubowitz supporting exactly? By all means, the Iranian government should permit freedom of assembly. It should not respond to the protests with violence. And who cannot sympathize with people who are fed up with unemployment and corruption and want to exercise their right of self-determination?

But these protests are not the Green Movement. The current demonstrators don’t have a single, coherent program. They don’t appear to have rallied behind anything to replace the current government. They are, like the groundswell of support for Donald Trump, a movement defined by opposition to the status quo. It’s not immediately clear what alternative system such protesters would support, but it’s just as likely to be something religiously populist along the lines of Ahmadinejad as anything resembling secular liberalism.

Barack Obama received criticism from the Left and the Right for not throwing U.S. support behind the Green Movement. The stakes were clearer then—a hardline president with dubious legitimacy on one side versus a mass movement with leaders and a program. Today, the stakes are considerably muddier. But Trump, who cares so little about Iranians that he’s blocked them from entering the United States regardless of their affiliations, is interested only in the larger game: scoring points against Obama and the Iranian leadership and scoring points for Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Come January 13, when Trump has another opportunity to cancel U.S. participation in the nuclear agreement, he will likely do so in the name of the Iranian people, the very ones who have taken to the streets because Trump and others like him are determined to make sure that the agreement ultimately doesn’t provide any real economic benefits to the Iranian people. His supporters on the Right are already giving him the ammunition to gun down the deal in this way.

What Goes Around

Trump immediately identified the protesters as his kind of people—angry at political elites, upset that economic “reforms” have not benefited them, disgusted with the corruption of the system. Trump knows a “throw the elites out” kind of movement when he sees one.

The groundswell of anger in Iran matches the rage felt by people all over the world at the greed and cluelessness of their leaders. So far, manipulative so-called populists have managed to translate this anger into electoral success—in Hungary, Russia, the Philippines and the United States. The most likely political actor to take advantage of this anger in Iran would walk and talk like Ahmadinejad and embrace positions that are more anti-American, anti-Saudi and anti-Israel than those of the current government.

Trump should be careful when he supports a movement in Iran like that, and not just because it probably wouldn’t produce a more U.S.-friendly regime. Trump is already facing something similar. After all, the president is now undeniably a member of the political elite. He’s the one implementing economic reforms that don’t benefit the vast majority. He’s the one making gobs of money off of the system. And, as in Iran, he’s the one backed by powerful religious fanatics.

In short, Trump is now the elite that a growing movement wants to throw out of the White House. When the time comes, will Mark Dubowitz and his conservative brethren similarly defend American citizens who aspire “to be free from their brutal and corrupt rulers”?

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