Keep Elites Accountable, But Don’t Dumb the Issues Down

You know you’re a wonk when your nighttime reading is as thick as the latest Stephen King novel, but no one in your family is clamoring to borrow your doorstop.

Consider, for instance, the Iran nuclear agreement. It’s a mere 159 pages, but it’s full of technical language that requires the parsing of a physicist. The deal’s opponents in Congress, the ones who would like to rip it up as soon as President Obama exits the White House, have not likely read the full text.

Meanwhile, the typical accession agreement between the European Union and a prospective member state is at least as long — the most recent one, with Croatia is 250 pages — and consists of equally turgid prose that only an economist could love. Going into the recent referendum on EU membership, most Brexit supporters didn’t have a clue what their membership entailed or even what the EU was precisely.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement is larger still, more than 2,000 pages, and it really gets down to the nitty gritty of such subjects as tariff rate quotas, post-market surveillance, and whey protein concentrate. I’m not sure who has had to read the entire document, but pity the poor wonk.

Whatever you might think about these agreements, they are the result of long negotiations by teams of experts. They represent difficult compromises and carefully balanced trade-offs. There might have been some drama in the negotiating process — particularly the nuclear agreement, which went down to the wire — but the results are not page-turners.

These agreements are also, by their very nature, the product of elites. They are negotiated by elite diplomats and elite experts. Even if they eventually garner popular support, these agreements represent the geopolitical interests of elites. They are the supreme expression of the inside game.

Elites are insiders — but they’re not exactly “in” at the moment. The world is currently experiencing a backlash against elites. The British voted themselves out of the European Union, American voters have rallied around Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, and populist leaders from Pauline Hanson of Australia to Julius Malema of South Africa are gaining strength all over the world.

Some of the anti-elite political organizing is done in the spirit of inside-outside strategizing — exerting pressure in the streets to strengthen the hands of sympathetic allies at the negotiating table on the inside. Bernie Sanders, for instance, decided to run for president within the Democratic Party, not as an independent, and now Sanders campaign alumni are trying to translate street heat into institutional change.

But much of the recent populism is quite different. The British who rejected the EU were not interested in reform. They had no interest in staying inside at all. They wanted out.

Similarly, the Trump candidacy is a bombshell directed at “powerful corporations, media elites, and political dynasties,” as the candidate declared back in June in his jobs speech. “I want you to imagine how much better our future can be if we declare independence from the elites who’ve led us to one financial and foreign policy disaster after another,” he went on.

“Throw the bums out” is a rousing cry that has attracted support for centuries. Indeed, the exclusively outside game — of just saying no — is indispensible when dealing with crushing injustice such as apartheid in South Africa, dictatorships in the Middle East, or genocide against minority populations. But these are the outliers in today’s complex world. Preventing wars, stopping global warming, bridging the wealth gap: These challenges require committed activists who stand on principle as well as allies on the inside who can play the political game.

“It is easy to boo,” Sanders told his supporters at the Democratic National Convention as he was executing his pivot to supporting the party ticket. More difficult is to craft political compromises that deliver on the promises made during the campaign.

It’s not just anti-elitism that fuels these efforts. It’s a yearning for simple solutions. As the world becomes ever more complex, one response has been to chuck it all in favor of “simpler times.” It’s a fundamentalist message that appeals to British nationalists, Trumpian exceptionalists, and Islamic State reactionaries alike.

The Reality of Complexity

Modern complex societies require new elites for their maintenance. Gone for the most part are the kings and the feudal lords.

In their place, a modern technocracy administers democratic political systems. Economists and Wall Street manage an increasingly interconnected global economy. Media elites preside over television, the printed page, and the blogosphere. Entertainment elites produce the movies and TV shows that translate our dreams into virtual reality. We have academic elites, religious elites, NGO elites, and even anti-elite elites (see, for example, Alex Jones).

All of these elites have developed expertise in their fields. They are also, almost by definition, arrogant. It is the rare member of an elite who doesn’t believe that he or she knows better. If they didn’t know better, they’d be out of a job. This is not the explicit arrogance of a megalomaniac like Trump. Rather, it’s structural arrogance. It goes with the territory.

So, yes, the economic transformations of the last several decades have not benefitted everyone. Rage against the European Union, anger at both liberals and conservatives in the United States, and the retreat into extremisms of various types are all fueled by economic dislocation, income inequality, and the perception that government helps the unworthy. But Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, and their ilk rely on a much deeper disaffection with complexity, the institutions that manage it, and the people who make their livings sustaining it.

Computers have enabled the creation of ever more complex institutions and relationships. The new science of complexity helps explain phenomena that hitherto exceeded our grasp, such as the behavior of consumers in a retail market and the myriad interactions in an ecosystem. But there will always be a backlash against this complexity, if only because control drifts further and further up the great chain of authority. The desire for simplicity is really about power and who wields it.

The Tower of Babel

In the story of Genesis, the people once spoke a common language. Together they worked to fashion bricks and wedge them together with tar. In this way, they built a tower that rose higher and higher. They built this structure “so that we may make a name for ourselves.” As their tower climbed ever higher, humans set their creation against their creator in what seemed an effort to storm heaven. And so the Lord set out to “confuse their language so they will not understand each other” and then scatter his most arrogant of creatures to every corner of the planet.

The EU is a similar structure, the creation of many different people who have found a common functional language to build something complex out of simpler parts. Yes, the EU is arrogant, in the sense that it arrogates to itself the role of administering a political, economic, and social overlay. The bureaucracy of Brussels could do with a dose of humility, a dash more democracy. But to enjoy the fruits of modern life — greater economic prosperity, freedom of movement — Europeans have until now been willing to cede a measure of power to an elite over and above their own national leaders.

The British rejected the EU because a large number of voters didn’t perceive the obvious benefits of membership, resented the elites that seemed to hold sway over their lives, and felt uncomfortable with complex solutions to complex problems. They wanted to destroy what they didn’t fully understand.

Donald Trump has taken aim at his own towers of Babel: multiculturalism, government, NATO, the global economy.

He has a deep aversion to complexity. He talks at the level of a third or fourth grader(occasionally reaching the eloquence of a sixth grader). He boils down his adversaries to cutting nicknames (that are usually only partial words like “lyin’” and “cheatin’”). He traffics in conspiracy theories that reduce the messiness of reality to simple narratives of hidden manipulation. He presents the world in black and white with no grey subtleties in between. Anything that does not elevate his own name — Trump Plaza, Trump Tower — is automatically under suspicion.

Trump and the Euroskeptics are keeping it simple. They appeal to the pieties of homeland. They are not interested in cultural diversity. They are fundamentally uninterested in the politics of give-and-take (as opposed to the politics of popularity contests). Like the Islamic State, they don’t want a place at the table — they want to blow the table up.

The Roman Empire, for all its myriad faults, created a complex set of political and economic institutions. Swept away by the barbarians, the empire devolved into a few enlightened duchies and monasteries scattered across Europe. In place of aqueducts and Roman law came Attila the Hun, the Plague, and a great cultural leap backward.

Invoking the barbarians at the gate is by no means a plea to accept everything that global elites offer. The EU, for instance, desperately needs reform, and free trade agreements like the TPP continue to favor powerful corporations. Elites are indispensible to a modern society — but they need to be kept accountable through democracy, not dictatorship.

To avoid slipping back into a new Dark Ages presided over by Donald the Hun and crippled by various modern plagues, a new commitment must be made to preserving global public goods. To rescue the better part of globalism, we need stronger responses to pandemics, to global economic inequality, to human rights violations. We need more internationalism, not less.

Above all, we need a renewed inside-outside full-court press on climate change. Trump, if he improbably won the presidency, would be the only national leader to reject climate change. His counterparts in other countries — like Pauline Hanson in Australia and Siv Jensen in Norway — have a similar bias. It would be catastrophic for such populists to take the helm of their countries.

The world simply can’t afford simple-minded leaders and simple-minded solutions. As H.L. Mencken once said, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

The post Keep Elites Accountable, But Don’t Dumb the Issues Down appeared first on Institute for Policy Studies.

John Feffer directs Foreign Policy In Focus, a project at the Institute for Policy Studies.


The Democratic Party Platform Addresses Issues of Structural Inequality that it’s Dismissed in the Past


(Photo: Flickr / Phil Roeder)

In an era of seemingly endless commentary and online content, you could be excused for not digging into the 40-page prose that makes up the working draft of the Democratic Party platform. But you’d be missing out.

This year’s platform, while far from perfect, contains an abundance of bold progressive ideas to halt economic inequality in its tracks. It stands in stark contrast to previous platforms, especially those of the Bill Clinton administration.

Among the dense pages of the platform is an acknowledgement that inequality is rising and that one of the main drivers is our broken tax code. The opening of the tax section comes straight from Bernie Sanders’ playbook: “At a time of massive income and wealth inequality, we believe the wealthiest Americans and largest corporations must pay their fair share in taxes.”

It goes on to list a multitude of loopholes to close, including tax breaks for hedge fund managers, oil and gas companies, and offshore tax shelters. The plan also includes a multimillionaire surtax and a commitment to restore a fair estate tax. In a nod to the groundbreaking December 2015 New York Times exposé, it also vows to “shut down the ‘private tax system’ for those at the top.

The draft includes commitments to spend revenue from these tax changes to rebuild our nation’s infrastructure and invest in opportunity building for all Americans through initiatives like tuition-free higher education. This is in stark contrast to the 1992 Democratic Party platform when Bill Clinton first ran for office that said, ““We reject… the big government theory that says we can hamstring business and tax and spend our way to prosperity.”

The plan also includes a strong commitment to ensuring the long term viability of Social Security by lifting the cap on payroll taxes that enables millionaires to pay the same rate as those making $ 118,000. This is again in sharp contrast to 1992 which read, “We must also tackle spending, by putting everything on the table; eliminate nonproductive programs… reform entitlement programs to control soaring health care costs.”

On Wall Street, the 2016 platform doesn’t pull any punches. It calls for “a financial transactions tax on Wall Street to curb excessive speculation and high-frequency trading, which has threatened financial markets.” This is in sharp contrast to the 2012 platform that ignored such a tax and the Obama administration that has opposed it.

It also calls for breaking up the big banks if necessary and voices support for a modern Glass-Steagal Act.

The platform also acknowledges the racial wealth divide for what may be the first time ever, devoting four paragraphs to the issue. It is nonspecific in its policy prescription for this social ill, but commits to “close this racial wealth gap by eliminating systemic barriers to wealth accumulation for different racial groups and improving opportunities for people from all racial and ethnic backgrounds to build wealth.”

The platform comes up short on other fronts, as many have pointed out, on issues of trade and climate. A full-throated opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership has not yet made it into the text, nor has support for a carbon tax, or a $ 15 an hour minimum wage.

The draft is provisional until it is ratified at the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia, so opportunities still exist for adding important provisions.

The post The Democratic Party Platform Addresses Issues of Structural Inequality that it’s Dismissed in the Past appeared first on Institute for Policy Studies.

Josh Hoxie directs the Project on Opportunity and Taxation at the Institute for Policy Studies.


Burning Issues: Taking on ISIS

In order to eliminate the threat of ISIS, the United States has to support eliminating the conditions that have led people in Syria and Iraq to conclude that ISIS is the lesser of two evils, says Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, in this Burning Issues video.

Bennis’ book Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror fundamentally questions U.S. strategy against the effort to build an extremist caliphate.

Fighting ISIS militarily is not the only strategy, Bennis says. A credible plan to defeat ISIS “starts with what every medical student learns on her first day in medical school: First, do no harm… Stop the drone attacks. Stop the air strikes.”

Bennis argues that presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s plan to set up a no-fly zone in Syria and to engage in other forms of military escalation in the Middle East is “incredibly reckless.” Of Donald Trump, “God knows what he would do.”

Bennis also laments that “our movements have not demanded of any of the candidates” focus much more on these global issues of peacemaking.

The post Burning Issues: Taking on ISIS appeared first on Institute for Policy Studies.

Phyllis Bennis directs the New Internationalism project at the Institute for Policy Studies.


Across Racial Justice Issues, a Common Enemy

(Photo: Domenica Ghanem)

(Photo: Domenica Ghanem)

It’s an odd thing to watch your boss, fist in the air, being led away by police to be booked for “crowding, obstructing, and incommoding” as a crowd of supporters cheers him on.

The April 13 agenda for Democracy Spring was racial justice, and as I found myself surrounded by many different organizations and individuals, I started to think that this could be a defining moment for cross-issue collaboration.

The movement to combat police brutality and hold murderers accountable can ally with the movement for a living wage. The movement to battle voter suppression should support the movement to end mass incarceration. The fight of the Restaurant Opportunities Center United should include the fight of Black Lives Matter.

“The Democracy Spring demonstration recognizes a common problem amongst those working for racial justice – money in politics,” Jessica Wynter Martin of ROC told me. “The reason that we [ROC United] have to fight so fiercely for a fair wage is because of hugely funded lobbying campaigns that keep our legislators from representing the rights of restaurant workers.”

The majority of restaurant workers are people of color, and the lowest paid are women of color. Groups like the National Restaurant Association flood Congress with money every year to keep the minimum tipped wage at just $ 2.13 an hour.

Just as the racial justice movement has multiple layers, “Protesting at the capitol is just one step in a multi-tiered approach to fighting money in politics,” Wynter Martin said.

While dozens were arrested at the demonstration on Wednesday and hundreds more the days prior, not everyone who marched on Capitol Hill could afford to risk arrest.

Some people of color avoided as much interaction with police as possible, for the very real fear of violence, or as we’ve seen too many times, death. Some of those who stood further back were immigrants, fearing deportation even if they had the proper documentation. I kept to the side myself, a Muslim woman with my own concerns about having my name in the system.

“The important thing is that we’re burdening them just by being here. They have to hire all of these police, all of this security,” Wynter Martin said. “We’re taxing them like they’re taxing us.”

The post Across Racial Justice Issues, a Common Enemy appeared first on Institute for Policy Studies.

Domenica Ghanem is a communications assistant at the Institute for Policy Studies.


The issues behind Morocco’s new boom product: green beans

Green beans are for most of us a vegetable that we have eaten since our childhood. We know them as a healthy vegetable that we can buy in supermarkets all year round. But have you ever thought about where they are produced, by whom and under what circumstances? Green beans can grow in most mild climates, but the ones found in North-Western European supermarkets often come from countries around the Mediterranean Sea, such as Morocco. In fact, green beans are Morocco’s new boom product and around three quarters of those produced are sent to the EU. Many of them end up in European supermarkets, such as Albert Heijn, Tesco and Lidl.

We already know from our tomato project in Morocco that the working conditions for tomato pickers in in Morocco’s Souss-Massa region aren’t good and that wages are very, very low. As this region is one of Morocco’s primary agricultural regions (it produces a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, from oranges and lemons to peppers and green beans and many, many more) and it employs 74,000 people, we wanted to know whether the labour conditions were any different for workers producing other commodities. The sad reality is that our newest field research in Morocco shows that green bean workers unfortunately face the same challenges as the tomato workers.

See the Morocco Green Beans Factsheet for more details.

Thumbnail Green Beans Morocco factsheet Page 1Thumbnail Green Beans Morocco factsheet Page 2Thumbnail Green Beans Morocco factsheet Page 3

Poor childcare facilities

The majority of workers are female and many are young single mothers who have migrated from other parts of the country. As well as working long days on farms and in packing stations, they also have to take care of their households and children. Many of these women leave their children with a mourabbia (a child-minder). There’s often only one carer for a very large group of children and conditions can be very poor.

Low wages

Wages are very low in the sector. Most green bean workers earn around the minimum wage. This is slightly above the national poverty threshold for rural households and is not enough to live on. A living wage – one which would cover all basic needs – should be 2 to 3 times the current minimum wage in Morocco. One of the many consequences of such low wages is that workers are unable to afford a nutritious diet for their family.

Workers cannot stand up for their rights

Unlike in North-Western Europe, Moroccan workers can face major challenges to standing up for their rights. In theory, agricultural workers have the legal right to form or join a trade union, however freedom of association is often not respected in some companies.

Moroccan green bean workers are facing more issues than just these. You can read all about them in the factsheet below.

It’s time for change!

With 74,000 people working in the agricultural sector in the Souss-Massa region in Morocco, imagine the impact of any small change! This doesn’t mean that we should now stop buying green beans from Morocco, because we don’t want these workers to lose their jobs. We should look for structural solutions together with the companies that produce and sell these tomatoes.

The largest green bean company in the region, Quality Bean Morocco (QBM) has already proven that change is possible! For example, they have improved transport and childcare conditions for their workers.

You can read more details in the Green Bean Factsheet.


Burning Issues: Is Our Military Big Enough?

What should voters make of claims from Republican presidential candidates and lawmakers that our military is weak and underfunded? According to Miriam Pemberton, a research fellow and defense expert at the Institute for Policy Studies, voters should be very wary.

Pemberton, in this segment of our “Burning Issues” video series, explains that the United States military remains the most powerful on earth by far. We spend more on our military than the next seven largest militaries combined, and our military spending in inflation adjusted terms is higher than it has been since World War II. That’s a key part of the context, she says, that arguments for significant increases in military spending need to be weighed.

Of the presidential candidates, Pemberton says, only Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders has seriously questioned the need for increased military spending and the more interventionist policies of his rivals.

Watch the interview on Campaign for America’s Future’s website.

The post Burning Issues: Is Our Military Big Enough? appeared first on Institute for Policy Studies.

Miriam Pemberton directs the Peace Economy Transitions project at the Institute for Policy Studies.


US Department of Labor issues report on labor concerns in Peru’s textile, apparel and agricultural sectors

US Department of Labor issues report on labor concerns in Peru’s textile, apparel and agricultural sectors
Responds to submission by labor rights advocates, Peruvian workers

WASHINGTON – A report released today under the labor chapter of the United States-Peru Trade Promotion Agreement by the U.S. Department of Labor raises significant concerns regarding the right to freedom of association in Peru’s non-traditional export sectors, which include exports of textiles, apparel and certain agricultural products. 

The report also raises questions regarding labor law enforcement in the South American nation. To help guide subsequent engagement between the U.S. and Peruvian governments, the report provides six recommendations aimed at addressing the questions and concerns. It also notes the U.S. government’s commitment to assess any progress by Peru within nine months and thereafter as appropriate. 

Published within 180 days of initiating a review of the matter, the report represents the streamlined and timely review by the department of labor submissions received under U.S. trade agreements.   

The report responds to a submission filed with the department’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs by the International Labor Rights Forum, Perú Equidad and seven Peruvian workers’ organizations. The submission alleges that the Peruvian government failed to enforce its labor laws effectively, and that Peru’s law governing employment contracts for non-traditional exports is incompatible with freedom of association. 

Based on evidence gathered as part of a review, the report raises significant concerns about whether the current system to protect the right to freedom of association of workers employed on unlimited consecutive short-term contracts in Peru’s non-traditional export sectors is sufficient. In addition, the report raises questions about the effectiveness of the country’s labor law enforcement while recognizing the number of positive steps taken by the Peruvian government to improve its labor law enforcement since signing the PTPA in 2007. 

The report sets out a path for continued engagement with Peru’s government aimed at addressing the questions and concerns identified during the review.          

For more information about ILAB’s work in Peru, visit

Read this news release in Españól.

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Cotton Four members want Doha Round issues addressed at MC10 – Citizen TV (press release)

Citizen TV (press release)
Cotton Four members want Doha Round issues addressed at MC10
Citizen TV (press release)
Members of the Cotton Four or C4, who include Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso and Benin, have said they will not discuss any fresh issues until the ones raised at the Doha Round Table on cotton are addressed. Speaking to the press on the sidelines of the 10th …


Seven Substantive Issues That Divide the Democratic Candidates

(Image: CNN)

(Image: CNN)

The first Democratic presidential debate differed immensely in substance and tone from the two Republican debates held thus far as candidates acknowledged, as Bernie Sanders put it, that they were “sick and tired of hearing about [Hillary’s] damn emails” and ready to dig into the serious issues of our time.

While the candidates agreed on many mainstay Democratic policies ranging from the need to address skyrocketing student debt and climate change to their support for guaranteed maternity leave, they did vary in their positions on some very key issues.  Here are the top seven issues that split the candidates.


After confirming that Bernie Sanders was indeed serious about not being a capitalist, CNN moderator Anderson Cooper clarified if any other candidate would like to take a stance against capitalism. No one budged.  Sanders clarified his views saying, “Do I consider myself part of the casino capitalist process by which so few have so much and so many have so little by which Wall Street’s greed and recklessness wrecked this economy? No, I don’t.”

Wall Street

Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders laid out firm plans for dismantling the “casino, speculative, mega-bank gambling” that takes place on Wall Street, as O’Malley put it.  Hillary claimed to have a tougher plan to regulate the banks, but stopped short of calling for breaking up the Too Big To Fail banks.  It’s hard to ignore the fact that the bulk of Clinton’s lifetime campaign funding comes directly from Wall Street.  None of the other four candidates made this point on stage, but Sanders hit a major applause line saying, “Congress does not regulate Wall Street, Wall Street regulates Congress.”

The Greatest National Security Threat to the U.S.

When asked what the greatest threat to national security is, Lincoln Chafee cited the chaos in the Middle East, Jim Webb cited China and the Middle East, both Martin O’Malley and Hillary Clinton cited the spread of nuclear weapons in Iran and elsewhere.  Bernie Sanders distinguished himself from the pack citing climate change as our greatest threat, saying unless we act, “the planet that we’re going to be leaving our kids and our grandchildren may well not be habitable.”

Gun Control

The focus of the gun control portion of the debate was on Senator Sanders’ record, having voted against the Brady Bill. He defended his record as a leader from a rural gun owning state who’s taken a strong stance on gun control in recent years. Somewhat awkwardly, he asserted in the third person, “Bernie Sanders has a D-minus rating from the NRA.”  While all the candidates agreed on the need for instant background checks and closing the gun-show loophole, Secretary Clinton made clear that she thought Sanders was not strong enough on guns.

Iraq War

Bernie Sanders called the war in Iraq “the worst foreign policy blunder in the history of the United States,” a point Lincoln Chaffee echoed in his remarks.  Hillary Clinton, who voted in favor of the war, attempted to show her good judgment as shown by her appointment to Secretary of State, but did not explain why she supported the war in the first place.  The candidates also split on the prospect of enforcing a no-fly zone in Syria, an idea Clinton supports and Sanders does not.

Mass Surveillance

Lincoln Chafee defended his support for the PATRIOT Act, the legislation that led to the creation of the modern surveillance state, saying it was a 99 to 1 vote.  Sanders was quick to point out that he was only candidate on stage to vote against the legislation, although he was in the House of Representatives at the time, not the Senate.  He went on to say that he would shut down the mass surveillance program at the NSA. When asked about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, Sanders and Chafee were the only candidates to support varying levels of leniency.  O’Malley and Clinton both called for criminal proceedings as Clinton stated Snowden must “face the music.” Jim Webb chose not to take a position, claiming it was an issue for the courts.

Legalizing Marijuana

The two top candidates split on their views about legalizing marijuana as Sanders said he would support legalization while Clinton said she would not.  Both candidates clarified they did not want to see non-violent drug offenders in prison, but Clinton did not specify how she would reduce this without changing federal drug laws.  The three other candidates did not weigh in on this issue.


We can look forward to hearing more about where the candidates’ positions differ on issues in the upcoming debates, where the focus will likely shift more towards taxes, a topic barely discussed during this debate. While the candidates overlap on many issues, clear differences in policy and politics divide them, giving voters a clearer picture of who most closely represents their views entering into the campaign season ahead.

The post Seven Substantive Issues That Divide the Democratic Candidates appeared first on Institute for Policy Studies.

Josh Hoxie directs the Project on Opportunity and Taxation at the Institute for Policy Studies.


Farm Bureau issues bird flu impact study – Iowa Farmer Today

Farm Bureau issues bird flu impact study
Iowa Farmer Today
17 indicating the avian flu outbreak in Iowa cost producers nearly 8,500 jobs and almost $ 427 million in lost revenue when the disease forced the depopulation of 34 million birds on 77 farms earlier this year. The study, commissioned by the Farm Bureau