Hope amid the climate crisis

Bob Sheak, July 9, 2021

bsheak983@gmail.com

Introduction

In this post, I focus on Michael E. Mann’s book, The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet, published in 2021. The concept of “war” in this context suggests that there is an intransigent enemy, prominently the Republican Party and its corporate and wealthy benefactors, that threatens to make life on the planet less and less habitable, and that it will take an equally powerful force to stop them.

Where we stand amid the climate crisis?

Despite the growing body of evidence that we are losing the fight against “climate change” and its myriad and increasingly destructive effects, Mann, who is a well-known and published climate scientist, presents us with a multi-part analysis that is designed most fundamentally to leave readers with some “hope” about the future. He writes, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things.” He continues: “Alone it won’t solve the problem. But drawing upon it, we will” (p. 267)

Bad News

There are many recent books and reports that give us a good understanding of the dire effects and prospects of global warming, how fossil-fuel corporations and an array of other powerful corporate and political forces in and outside of government have created false, but unfortunately effective, narratives denying climate change or deflecting attention away from it. The authors provide extensive documentation of the problem, its causes, the concerted efforts to delegitimize efforts to address the problem, and what can be done to save the planet. Kate Aronoff’s book, Over-Heated: How Capitalism Broke the Planet – and How We Fight Back” is one of these books. Other books on these topics include John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark’s The Robbery of Nature: Capitalism and the Ecological Rift, Noam Chomsky and Robert Pollin’s Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal, Robert Pollin’s Greening the Global Economy, Bill McKibben’s Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?, and Ian Angus’s facing the Anthropocene: fossil capitalism and the crisis of the earth system. There are two themes, among others, that stand out. We don’t have much time to prevent runaway climate collapse and we have the know how to prevent this from happening. In the final analysis, politics will make the difference. In the meantime, things are getting worse.

For summaries of the evidence on the crisis, see two of my recent posts, one sent out on June18 titled “Global warming intensifies: Additional evidence” (https://wordpress.com/posts/vitalissues-bobsheak.com/1068) and the other on May 26 with the title “The climate crisis intensifies, while meaning solutions are elusive,” https://wordpress.com/posts/vitalissues-bobsheak.com/1009. The best evidence on climate change continues to document that the climate crisis is worsening. For example, Victoria Bekiempis reports for The Guardian that scientists from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) have found that the “earth is trapping twice as much heat [in 2019] as it did in 2005. The increase is described as unprecedented (https://theguardian.com/science/2021/jun/17/earth-trapping-heat-study-nasa-noaa). Similarly, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere continues to rise.  Stephanie Epps reports that “the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in May 2021 hit the highest level ever measured, showing the global coronavirus pandemic did not decrease overall CO2 emissions despite pausing global economies for months. Atmospheric carbon dioxide hit a monthly average of 419 parts per million in May 2021, according to data from NOAA and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography released Monday” (https://abcnews.com/US/carbon-divide-hit-highest-level-measured-atmosphere/story?id=78137553).

PHOTO: A graph depicts the upward trajectory of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as measured at the Mauna Loa Atmospheric Baseline Observatory by NOAA and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. The annual fluctuation is known as the Keeling Curve.

Hope – looking for a politically feasible way to buttress it

In this post, I’ll focus on Michael E. Mann’s book, The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet, published in 2021. The concept of “war” in this context suggests that there is an intransigent enemy, prominently the Republican Party and its corporate and wealthy benefactors, that threatens to make life on the planet less and less habitable, and that it will take an equally powerful force to stop them.

Despite the growing body of evidence that we are losing the fight against “climate change” and its myriad and increasingly destructive effects, Mann, who is a well-known and published climate scientist, presents us with a multi-part analysis that is designed most fundamentally to leave readers with some “hope” about the future. He writes, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things.” He continues: “Alone it won’t solve the problem. But drawing upon it, we will” (p. 267). One question: What does the evidence on climate change indicate since Mann’s book was published in 2021? His references go up through July 2020, about a year ago. We’ll see, unfortunately, that some of his hopeful trends have not continued or have mixed and limited results. Mann’s emphasize on carbon pricing as his principal policy initiative appears too limited in its potential effects to reign in greenhouse gas emissions, since it relies on corporate-dominated markets. Nonetheless, Mann’s overall analysis is sophisticated in identifying the false rationales and “non-solution” proposals of those who oppose meaningful action on climate change and offers an analytical framework that is useful, though not definitive, in educating readers, government officials, and citizens generally about some important aspects of the climate crisis.

Not too late

Mann’s main contention is that it is not too late to radically reduce the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that are the principal sources of climate change and, through domestic and international efforts, to limit the emissions enough to keep the global temperature from rising no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) over the next decade. To achieve this goal, he argues, policies based on science must be instituted, citizens must be “educated” about the facts and, some at least, must be or become active in the political process. In addition, the disinformation of the fossil fuel interests must be effectively challenged, and the government must move quickly to remove fossil fuels from the energy mix and replace them with renewables, energy efficiency, and other environmentally sustainable technologies. Mann argues, “We need policies that will incentivize the needed shift away from fossil fuel burning toward a clean, green global economy. So-called leaders who resist the call for action must be removed from office” (p. 6). The word “incentivize” may suggest that the climate-related policies of corporations and the ideological commitments of the far-right republican Party can be changed through negotiations with the Republican lawmakers and with some incremental changes. However, it becomes clearer as time passes that there is little or no reason to expect the Republican Party to negotiate in good faith. (See Steve Benen’s documentation of this point in his book, The Imposters: How Republicans Quit Governing and Seized American Politics). Mann does refer to the need for “systemic” changes, and he supports a limited version of the Green New Deal, but the thrust of his analysis suggests that he would settle for limited “systemic” change.

The “enemy”

And then the obstacles. The Republican Party, major segments of the corporate community, vast networks created by the Koch Brothers and other billionaires, right-wing media that reach many millions of people, and a Trump-loyal base of tens of millions of Americans favor all-out support for fossil fuels and have little interest in supporting renewable energy.

Furthermore, support for fossil fuels is only one of the issues that motivates these right-wing forces. For example, the Republican Party, the climate denying, delaying, minimizing-the-threat party, is working to suppress the voting rights of opponents and to prevent the Biden administration from achieving any significant policy achievements. Even out of office, fossil-fuel champion Trump continues to have a massive following that includes white supremacists, evangelicals, gun rights absolutists, anti-immigration groups, most of whom can apparently be counted on to deny, dismiss, or minimize meaningful action on the climate crisis. The totality of these interests represents an enormous obstacle to winning the war against climate change, but additionally and ominously represent a growing threat to democracy. Andrew Cockburn argues that the Republican Party increasingly exhibits fascist characteristics. Note that fascism represents a force that is not amenable to negotiated settlements (https://counterpunch.org/2021/06/22/the-republican-party-has-turned-fascist-and-is-now-the-most-dangerous-threat-in-world). Here’s some of what Cockburn writes.

“When Donald Trump was in the White House there was much debate about whether or not he could be called a fascist in the full sense of the word, and not merely as a political insult. His presidency showed many of the characteristics of a fascist dictatorship, except the crucial one of automatic re-election.

“But Trump or Trump-like leaders may not have to face this democratic impediment in the future. It was only this year that the final building blocks have been put in place by Republicans as they replicate the structure of fascist movements in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s.

“Two strategies, though never entirely absent from Republican behaviour in the past, have become far more central to their approach. One is a greater willingness to use or tolerate violence against their opponents, something that became notorious during the invasion of the Capitol by pro-Trump rioters on 6 January.

“The other change among Republicans is much less commented on, but is more sinister and significant. This is the systematic Republican takeover of the electoral machinery that oversees elections and makes sure that they are fair. Minor officials in charge of them have suddenly become vital to the future of American democracy. Remember that it was only the refusal of these functionaries to cave in to Trump’s threats and blandishments that stopped him from stealing the presidential election last November.”

On February 19, 2020, I addressed the issue of fascism in America in post titled “The specter of fascism before and during the Trump presidency” (https://wordpress.com/vitalissues-bobsheak.com/558).

Still, cautiously optimistic and a roadmap

Nonetheless, Mann tells us he is “cautiously optimistic…about prospects for tackling the climate crisis in the years ahead.” He is convinced that we can progress through reform of the capitalist system. In making his case, Mann develops five arguments in support of his position. One, he documents that concern with and action about climate change is growing. Two, he rebuts the arguments of fossil fuel interests that deny or deflect attention from the climate crisis, as a way of educating the public and reducing the spread of lies and disinformation. Three, he identifies – and rejects or dubs inadequate– “non-solutions” that are being promoted, such as natural gas as a bridge fuel, the notion of “clean coal,” geoengineering, massive tree planting, and the nuclear energy option. Four, he criticizes those on the left who want nothing less than the transformation of the whole capitalist system, or who have the conception that only viable alternatives are local (e.g., creation of “resilient communities), or who contend that it is “too late” to make meaningful change and that humanity is doomed. And, five, Mann considers carbon pricing, which, if done right and combined with support for renewables, can potentially reduce CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions on the needed scale and in a timely fashion. His overall position is based on the idea that relevant and effective public policy will ultimately reflect science and the facts. If only they would.

#1 – Growing awareness of the climate crisis

Unprecedented events are difficult to ignore

Mann’s optimism is based in part on his contention that recent events have promoted an increased awareness of the climate crisis. He refers to the following events, (1) “a series of unprecedented, extreme weather disasters that have vivified the climate-change threat” (e.g., wildfires in California);  (2) “a global pandemic has now taught us key lessons about vulnerability and risk”;  (3) “the reawakening of environmental activism, and, in particular, a popular uprising by children across the world that has framed climate change as the defining challenge of our time” (p.225); (4) climate experts are coming forward; and (5) fossil fuel industry feeling the heat – e.g., coal is in a death spiral and natural gas coming to be seen as a liability by communities” (p. 233).

Opinion polls identify a growing awareness of the climate crisis

He refers to polls that a majority of Americans now accept the realty of climate change, while the number of people who deny or dismiss it have, according to a 2019 poll, shrunk to the single digits (p. 41). Insofar as public opinion is concerned, Mann thinks we may be close to a tipping point on climate that may precipitate increasing political support and government action. With this in mind, he cites a 2019 Pew Research poll that found 67 percent of the public thinks we’re doing too little to reduce the effects of climate change.” Mann notes that this doesn’t mean they prioritize it. Nonetheless, it reflects that a growing majority of Americans not only have some awareness of the climate crisis but that they want government to do more than they have been doing to address this growing problem. Mann cites another 2019 poll, this one conducted by CNN, which “found that ’82 percent of registered voters who identified as Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents consider climate change a ‘very important’ top priority” (232) However, recent polls also identify a partisan divide that suggests that opposition to taking significant action is greater than single digits.

For example, Fred Backus reports on April 21, 2021on a CBS poll (https://cbsnews.com/news/fighting-climate-change-opinion-poll-04-21-2021). According to Backus, when respondents were “asked to choose between general approaches like the environment and climate, 58% of Americans think people should try to do things to shape and change it, while just 42% [not single digits] think people should simply learn to adapt to what happens and make the best of it.” When asked “How should people deal with the climate,” 80 percent of Democrats chose “Do Things to Change,” joined by 54 percent of the Independents, but only 20 percent of Republicans (i.e., 80 percent did not).  

There is good reason to be concerned that the efforts of the Republican Party to further suppress the votes of their opponents and to change the rules on votes are counted and validated may give this far-right leaning party control of the U.S. government in 2022 or 2024, in which case opportunities to address the crisis will go by the board. In such an eventuality, Democratic majorities on this or that poll may be irrelevant. At the same time, Mann does say that it is a waste of time to debate over climate-change issues with those adamantly opposed to taking any genuine steps to ameliorate the climate crisis. It remains to be seen whether the Republicans will be able to so corrupt the political system that any rational approach to the climate crisis will be discarded.

Even the Pentagon views climate change as a growing threat

Mann refers to a recent study commissioned by the Pentagon that warns of a scenario in which electricity, water, and food systems might collapse by midcentury as a result of the effects of climate change.” At the same time, the U.S. military remains a major source of CO2 emissions and other pollutants. See support for this statement in my post of December 11, 2019, titled “The US military is not going to save us or itself from the climate crisis” (https://wordpress.com/post/vitalissues-bobsheak.com/528).

Indications that some in the financial sector are having second thoughts about investing in fossil fuels

Mann writes: “the banking and finance industry is rethinking its role in funding new fossil fuel infrastructure.” The industry is concerned that demand for fossil fuels is on the wane, and it will become burdened with “stranded assets,” that is, there will eventually be significant reductions in demand for oil and gas, thus jeopardizing the investments of the financial institutions. He cites a number of sources that confirm the industry’s concerns. Guardian correspondent Fiona Harvey reports that “high exposure to fossil fuels in their portfolios will be hurt, as those companies and assets cease to be profitable” (p. 234). And, according to “Axel Weber, the chairman of Swiss multinational investment bank UBS, the finance sector is on the verge of ‘a big change in market structure’ because investors are increasingly demanding that the sector account for climate risk and embed a price on carbon in their portfolio decisions” (p. 235).” Additionally, Mann gives these examples: “Goldman Sachs, Liberty Mutual, and the European Investment Bank – the largest international bank in the world – are among the numerous banks and investments firms that are now pulling away from fossil fuel investments” (p. 235).

As in the financial sector, the insurance industry is worrying about the effects from the advance of climate. Mann gives the examples of the insurance giant, The Hartford, Sweden’s central bank, and Blackrock, the world’s largest asset manager,” both of which have indicated they will stop insuring or investing in Alberta’s carbon-intensive tar sands oil production. BlackRock has gone even further, announcing it will no longer make investments that come with high environmental risks including coal for power plants.”

There is recent evidence that this trend is gaining momentum. Robertson and Karsh report that “[t]oday’s private equity shops—including the world’s largest alternative asset manager, Blackstone Group Inc.—are pouring capital into fast-growing sectors such as solar, carbon capture, and battery storage. Part of the attraction stems from the rapid adoption of wind and solar as public demand for climate accountability rises. It’s a shift in investment strategy that comes after years of fits and starts for the once struggling renewables space” (https://bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-07-06/private-equity-is-ditching-fossil-fuels-over-climate-change-concerns).

Young people are involved

There is also momentum in higher education. Mann gives the example of “students at Berkeley are in 2014 demanding the UC Regents divest of fossil fuel holdings and they were successful, along with students at other campuses. “More than a thousand college campuses, including UC Regents, and other institutions throughout the United States (accounting for more than $11 trillion in holdings) have divested of fossil fuel stocks” (p. 237).

Young people around the globe are demanding change. Many of them have been inspired by Greta Thunberg, the teenage from Sweden who “by age sixteen achieved an iconic global cultural status,” then nominated for Nobel Peace Prize, featured on the cover of Time magazine, and “sparked a global youth movement called ‘Fridays For Future.’” In support of the young people, “a group of just under two dozen climate scientists, myself [Mann] included, published a letter in Science magazine that was ultimately cosigned by thousands of other scientists around the world. The letter offered support for them for their efforts” (see p. 253). Fossil fuel interests have taken notice. “In July 2019, OPEC’s secretary general, Mohammed Barkindo, referred to the youth climate movement as the ‘greatest threat’ the fossil fuel industry faces” (254).

#2 – Rebutting the arguments of the fossil fuel interests

ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel interests have for decades “waged a public relations campaign contesting the scientific evidence and doing everything in their power to block policies aimed at curbing planet-warming carbon pollution” (p. 1). They deny and want to delay any government efforts to address the problem (p. 2). Mann calls it a “massive deflection campaign” (p. 2). It surfaced in the late 1980s. “Joined by billionaire plutocrats like the Koch Brothers, the Mercers, and the Scaifes, companies such as ExxonMobil funneled billions of dollars into a disinformation campaign…to discredit the science behind human-caused climate change and its linkage with fossil fuel burning. This science denial took precedence even as ExxonMobil’s own team of scientists concluded that the impacts of continued fossil fuel use could lead to ‘devastating’ climate-change impacts” (pp. 2-3). They have been joined by right-wing plutocrats.  And they have been winning (p. 3). Part of the reason they have been winning is that the fossil fuel interests and their supporters have been able to spread false narratives that are designed to confuse, distract, and immobilize people when it comes to the extent and depth of the climate crisis.

Fossil fuel interests have “done everything possible to block subsidies and incentives for their competition – renewable energy – and they’ve had a lot of success doing so” (p. 224). Mann gives the example of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Heartland Institute, which have produced model pro-fossil-fuel policy papers to aid Republican Party leaders in the states to enhance their opposition to meaningful climate action. There are signs, however, that ALEC’s influence is diminishing to some extent. “In recent years, fossil fuel corporations such as ExxonMobil, Shell, and BP have pulled out of ALEC, concerned about increased public scrutiny of their funding activities.” But not all. Mann notes that “the privately held giant Koch Industries has remained steadfast in its funding of the group. In one year alone, ALEC helped push through seventy bills in thirty-seven states designed to disadvantage clean energy” ALEC has proposed legislation to undermine state policies mandating a fraction of the energy produced come from renewable sources (so-called Renewable Portfolio Standards).” The organization “has also promoted legislation that penalizes those who choose to install solar panels on their homes with solar panels who attempt to sell power they don’t need back to electric utilities” (p. 124).

These same interests have attacked and attempted to block government support for electric vehicles (EVs). Mann gives the following examples: “agents of the Koch brothers met with oil-refining and marketing companies in 2015 to pitch a ‘multi-million-dollar assault on EVs” (p. 126). [And] “…Republican senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, who was the third-highest recipient of Koch brothers’ dollars during the 2018 election cycle. Barrasso, as chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, introduced the Fairness for Every Driver Act in 2019. It would not only end federal tax credits for EVs, but in addition would create an annual ‘highway user fee’ for all ‘alternative fuel vehicles” (p. 126).

Combatting narratives designed to deflect attention away from the climate crisis

Here are a few of Mann’s examples.

Lifestyle changes are no enough

Mann challenges the widespread idea that change on the climate front depends on changes in individual lifestyles, not on a need for systemic change. Here’s what Mann writes.

“So they have shifted to a softer form of denialism while keeping the oil flowing and fossil fuels burning, engaging in a multipronged offensive based on deception, distraction, and delay” (p. 3). Mann refers to it as a “deflection campaign” (p. 3). Among other tactics, they have tried to shift “responsibility from corporations to individuals. Personal actions, from going vegan to avoiding flying, are increasingly touted as the primary solution to the climate crisis” (p. 3). Mann does not reject such voluntary action by individuals, but they alone take “pressure off the push for governmental policies to hold corporate polluters accountable” (p.3). The emphasis on voluntary individual action “also provides an opportunity for the enemy to employ a ‘wedge’ strategy dividing the climate advocacy community, exploiting a preexisting rift between climate advocates more focused on individual action and those emphasizing collective and policy action” (p. 4). Mann advocates a strategy that combines individual action with political efforts to make systemic changes. He agrees that “plenty of lifestyle changes… should be encouraged, many of which make us happier and healthier, save us money, and decrease our environmental footprint.” However, “consumer choice doesn’t build high-speed railways, fund research and development in renewable energy, or place a price on carbon emissions. Any real solution must involve both individual action and systemic change,” and requires “collective action aimed at pressuring policymakers who are in a position to make decisions about societal priorities and government investment” (pp. 60-61).

#3 – Do not be fooled by those who propose “non-solutions”

Natural Gas: A Bridge to Nowhere

Natural gas is composed primarily of methane, a fossil fuel that “is energy rich, and… readily burned for heating, cooking, or electricity generation. Or it can be cooled into a liquid (liquefied natural gas, or LNG) that can be used as a fuel for transportation” and in a form that can be exported (p. 148). “Natural gas reservoirs can be found in sedimentary basins around the world…. (p. 148). Trump has promoted national gas as a “freedom gas.” Those on the right often characterize natural gas as a bridge fuel, “a way to slowly wean us off more carbon-intensive fuels like coal and gently nudge us toward a renewable energy future. The rationale is that, nominally, natural gas produces about as half as much carbon dioxide as coal for each watt of power generated.” However, the reality is that natural gas is “nearly one hundred times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide on a twenty-year time frame.” And when the process of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is used to break up the bedrock to get at natural gas deposits inevitably allows some of the methane to escape directly into the atmosphere,” the result of “methane releases from drilling operations, pipelines, and storage facilities.”  The Trump administration disbanded regulations issued by the Obama administration to regulate “fugitive gas, claiming it would save industry millions of dollars” (p. `150). This is a serious mis-step in that the “rise in methane is responsible for as much as 25 percent of the warming (p. 150).

Unclean Coal

Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) has been advanced as a way to clean the CO2 out of coal utilization. Mann describes how it works: “carbon dioxide related during the burning of coal is scrubbed from emissions and captured, compressed, and liquefied. It is then pumped deep into the Earth, several kilometers beneath the surface, where it is reacted with porous igneous rocks to form limestone.” “The Global CCS Institute reports that there are today fifty-one CCS facilities globally in some stage of development that plan to capture nearly 100 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. (Nineteen are currently in operation, and another thirty-two are either under construction or in development.) – 8 are in US” (p. 151).

Mann refers to six problems with CCS that eliminate the method as a constructive tool in efforts to mitigate and contain rising emissions. First, it “isn’t feasible to bury the billions of tons per year of carbon pollution currently produced by coal burning.” Second, “many coal power plants are not located in CCS-favorable sites” Third, CCS is “related to earthquakes and seismic activity or groundwater flow.” Fourth, “Coal is currently not competitive with other forms of energy in the marketplace…. requiring that coal plants capture and sequester their carbon will only make it more expensive and hasten the collapse of the industry.” Fifth, “CCS is not even carbon neutral in the best of circumstances, 10 percent of the carbon would still escape.” Sixth, most of the carbon that is captured “is placed into tapped oil wells for enhanced oil recovery. The oil that is recovered, when burned, yields several times as much carbon dioxide as was sequestered in the first place by CCS” (p. 152).

Geoengineering, or “What Could Possibly Go Wrong”

The fundamental problem with geoengineering proposals is that they “provides a crutch for beneficiaries of our continued dependence on fossil fuels. Additionally, they are not cheap as ways to decarbonize the economy, and they have the potential to do great harm (p. 159-160). Nonetheless, they appeal to fossil fuel interests and free-market conservatives (pp. 160-164). Mann critically considers 5 geoengineering proposals and dismisses them as viable options in winning the war on the climate. Here I’ll refer to three of his examples.

First, he refers to proposals “to shoot reflective particulates – sulfate aerosols – into the stable upper part of the atmosphere known as the stratosphere, where they would reside for years” and serve to bl0ck some of the heat from the sun. Mann says it is technologically feasible to do this, but it has major problems that argue against such an approach (p. 155).

Mann identifies seven disadvantages. (1) Blocking the heat energy from the sun will have different spatial patterns, “some regions would cool while others warmed. Indeed, some regions would likely end up warming even faster than they would have without geoengineering” – e.g. accelerating the destabilization of the West Antarctic or Greenland ice sheet and speeding up global sea-level rise, and some continents could become even drier with worse droughts (p. 155). (2) While “the sulfate particles from geoengineering would be higher up – in the stratosphere – but they would ultimately still make it down to the surface, where they would acidify rivers and lakes.” (3) There is the danger that “sulfate particles may contribute to ozone depletion” (p. 156). (4) The method does not prevent carbon dioxide from continue to build up in both the atmosphere and the ocean – raising ocean acidification. (5) This approach “would require the continuing injection of sulfate aerosols in the stratosphere while carbon dioxide continued to accumulate in the atmosphere.” (6) If some calamity, a war, plague or anything else, “interfered with regular required schedule of sulfate injections, the cooling effect would disappear. (7) would “render less viable one of the most important and safest of climate solutions: solar power” (p. 156)

A second geoengineering approach involves “ocean iron fertilization,” or the sprinkling of iron dust onto the ocean with the purpose of generating phytoplankton blooms which, according to proponents, would take up carbon dioxide when they photosynthesize. That is, they would take carbon out of the atmosphere. Then when the phytoplankton die, they sink to the ocean bottom, burying their carbon with them (p. 157). However, Mann points out, “Iron fertilization leads to more vigorous cycling of carbon in the upper ocean, but no apparent increase in deep carbon burial, which means no permanent removal of atmospheric carbon.” Mann mentions another concern. Ocean iron fertilization “could make matters worse, as it could generate “harmful ‘red tide’ algae blooms that create oceanic dead zones” (p. 157).

Thirdly is a proposal to deal with the climate crisis through massive tree planting. The idea here is to engage in large-scale reforestation of the vast regions of the planet that have been deforested,” and that this effort should be “supplemented by land use and agricultural practices that sequester additional carbon in soils” (p. 165). The rationale is that “by planting trees we can get better-functioned ecosystems; maintain and even increase biodiversity; improve the quality of our soils, air, and water; and better insulate ourselves from the damaging impacts of climate change” (165). It is a partial solution. However, Mann points to the downside.

“One study claimed that an additional 0.9 billion hectares of the planet’s surface is available for this purpose. This translates to billions of new trees that collectively could capture just over 200 billion tons of carbon over the next couple of decades.” – about 11 billion tons of carbon a year. “Regenerative agriculture based on recycling farm waste and using composed materials from other sources, combined with land use practices that enhance soil carbon sequestration, could potentially bury somewhere in the range of 3.5 to 11 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year. Such achievements would be praiseworthy. But, Mann says, such levels of carbon removal from the air are overshadowed by the “roughly 55 billion tons per year of carbon dioxide through fossil fuel burning and other human activities.” At most, massive tree planting “would at most only slow the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by a factor of 44 percent. In other words, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels would continue to rise, just at a rate that is roughly half as fast” (p. 166). This estimate, however, “is overly optimistic, since the “actual land area available for reforestation may be only about 30 percent of the technically available and area assumed in the recent study” (p. 166).

At the same time, deforestation continues. Mann refers to the authors of a 2020 article in Nature which “demonstrated that the peak carbon uptake by tropical forests occurred during the 1990s and has declined ever since as a result of logging, farming, and the effects of climate change.” For example, the “authors found that the Amazon could go from a sink (a net absorber of carbon) to a source (a net producer of carbon) within the next decade….” (pp. 166-167).

The Nuclear Option

Mann is skeptical that nuclear should play a central role in the required clean, green energy transition (p. 169). He gives six reasons. (1) There is “the risk of nuclear proliferation, and the danger that fissile materials and weapons-applicable technology could make it into the hands of hostile nations with militaristic intentions or terrorists.” (2) There continues to be an unsolved “challenge of safe long-term disposal of radioactive waste.” (3) Large nuclear accidents like the accident at Fukushima have profound and long-lasting impacts of environment and people. (4) Nuclear plants will “always will be vulnerable to natural hazards such as earthquake, volcanoes, or tsunamis (like the one that triggered the Fukushima meltdown).” (5) The complexity of nuclear power plants increases the chances of technical failure or human error (Three Mile Island).” (6) Climate change increases the risk, as, for example, “extreme droughts have led to reactors shut down as the surrounding waters become too warm to provide the cooling necessary to convey heat from the reactor core to the steam turbines and remove surplus heat from the steam circuit” (p. 170).

He rejects the assumption the nuclear power is necessary to decarbonize the economy, writing: “Although it may well make sense to continue with the operation of existing nuclear power plants until they are retired (after twenty to forty years, their typical lifetime), given that the embodied carbon emissions associated with their construction is a ‘sunken’ carbon cost, it makes little sense to build new ones” (p. 171).

#4 – Worries that some on the left have gone too far and have opened up opportunities for the enemy to discredit efforts to combat climate change

 And some have advanced the notion that catastrophe is a fait accompli, “either by overstating the damage to which we are already committed, by dismissing the possibility of mobilizing the action necessary to avert disaster, or by setting the standard so high (say, the very overthrow of market economics itself, that old chestnut) that any action seems doomed to failure” (p 5).

Asking for too much

For example, Mann thinks that the original Green New Deal resolution from progressive Democrats went too far. It was “as a formal resolution by AOC and Senator Ed Markey on February 7, 2019, and advanced a 10-year mobilization over the next ten years. The resolution went beyond measures to reduce CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions and included items to guarantee jobs with a family-sustaining wage, adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations, and retirement security to all people,” along with proposals to provide guaranteed health care, adequate housing, clean water, healthy and affordable food,” and more (p. 94) Mann writes that he broadly supports the GND goals, he has “some concern about the ambitious scope of specific proposals,” namely, that ‘Saddling a climate movement with a laundry list of other worthy social programs risks alienating needed supporters (say, independents an moderate conservatives) who are apprehensive about a broader agenda of progressive social change” (p. 94), and gives climate-change denies the opportunity to argue that “global warming is a hoax promoted as an excuse to expand the size of government.” Mann is also concerned that the GND does not include support for market mechanisms such as carbon pricing (p. 95).

He also criticizes Naomi Klein’s thesis “that neoliberalism – the prevailing global policy model, predicated on privatization and free-market capitalism – must be overthrown through mass resistance [and that] climate change can’t be separated from other pressing social problems, each a symptom of neoliberalism: income inequality, corporate surveillance, misogyny and white supremacy” (p. 95). He fears that should a revolutionary agenda “allows deniers the opportunity to say environmentalists really want to overthrow capitalism and end economic growth (95).

It’s too late to stop climate change

Mann writes: “there is a segment of the climate activist community that not only overplays it, but displays a distinct appetite for all-out doomism,” portraying climate change not just as a threat that requires urgent response, but as an essentially lost cause, a hopeless fight” (pp. 182-183). He dubs this viewpoint as a form of climate nihilism that breeds disengagement and potential fuels “a brilliant strategy for building a truly bipartisan coalition for inaction” (p. 184). They are disillusioned by the lack of adequate action by the government to address the climate crisis and the belief that “both major parties are equally bad” (p. 184).

Mann identifies Guy McPherson, a retired ecology professor from Arizona, [who] is arguable the scientific leader of the doomism movement, a cult figure of sorts, like other doomists.” McPherson “argues that we have already triggered irreversible vicious cycles (for example, the massive release of frozen methane) that will render the planet lifeless in a matter of years. There’s nothing we can do about it.” According to McPherson, humanity is caught in ‘exponential climate change’[that] will render human beings and all other species extinct within ten years owing to supposed runaway warming. Mann maintain there is “no shred of scientific evidence” to support such views.” This all may eventually come to pass, but there is no evidence that supports McPherson’s contention that, in a matter of years, the climate change will render the planet lifeless or, for example, “no evidence that methane will run out of control and initiate any sudden, catastrophic effects.” At the same time, given continuation of current trends, there is little doubt that at some point, perhaps some decades from, now, humanity may reach a point of no return. Given these assumptions, McPherson argues counterproductively that there is no reason now to cut emissions (p. 196). Contrariwise, Mann maintain that there is “compelling evidence that a clean energy revolution and climate stabilization are achievable with current technology. All we require are policies to incentivize the needed shift.” Indeed, we have the tools we need, writing “a combination of energy efficiency, electrification, and decarbonization of the grid through an array of complementary renewable energy sources” can curtail and reverse climate change (p. 177). But, to reiterate, the existing politics may prevent the us from using these tools.

#5 – Mann’s proposals

There is, he writes, a need for both supply-side and demand-side measures to deal effectively with the climate crisis (120). Supply side measures “take the form of blocking pipeline construction, banning fracking, stopping mountain-top-removal coal mining, divesting in fossil fuel companies, and putting a halt to most new fossil fuel infrastructure.” Demand side measures includes carbon pricing and support for renewable energy. Carbon pricing, according to Mann, represents “a means of leveling the playing field in the energy market, so that those sources of energy are not warming the planet (i.e., renewable energy) can compete fairly against those that are (i.e., fossil fuels).” Such a pricing policy “reflects an effort to diminish demand, while fossil fuel divestment campaigns and opposition to pipelines, offshore oil drilling, or mountain-top-removal coal mining constitute efforts to diminish supply” (p. 107).

The concerns of progressives over carbon pricing

Carbon pricing “seems wonkish and abstract, and it’s harder to capture it in a front-page image or a television screen” and it is viewed as “buying into market economics.” It has been attacked from both the right and left. Progressives argue that prices put on carbon emissions will reflect politics and end up being too low to effect any significant change and that it doesn’t take into account social justice issues, that is, the extra financial burden put on the poor and lower-income people (108). On the question of the adequacy of a carbon price, Mann seems to rely on politics and social movements to ensure that any price on carbon is sufficient. On the social justice implications of carbon pricing, Mann responds, “In fact, the carbon-pricing schemes that have been successfully instituted have been progressive in nature. With the ETS scheme implemented by Australian prime minister Julia Gillard, the government compensated low-income earners, who ended up benefiting financially. Under Canada’s carbon tax-and-rebate system, most households actually save money. No less than Pope Francis, a champion of social justice and a true advocate for the poor and downtrodden, has called carbon pricing ‘essential’ for tackling the climate-change ‘emergency’” (p. 109).

One recent development shows perhaps growing support for carbon pricing. Susanna Twidale reports that “[i]nvestors managing more than $6 trillion in assets on Tuesday (July 6] called for a co-ordinated global price on carbon and said emissions costs would need to almost treble by 2030 to reach the world’s climate goals.” Twidale continues: “The call by the The Net Zero Asset Owner Alliance, whose 43 members include some of the world’s biggest pension schemes and insurers, comes ahead of the next round of global climate talks in November” (https://reuters.com/business/sustainable-business/asset-owners-managing-6-trin-call-global-carbon-price-2021-07-05).

Concluding thoughts

Mann offers the reader a perspective based a coherent, in-depth, well-documented analysis of the obstacles to be overcome in the climate war – and some reasons to be hopeful that they can be overcome. Whether his proposals go far enough is open to question. He may be too cautious in wanting to emphasize market mechanisms like carbon pricing as a principal way to curtail rising greenhouse gas emissions so as not to alienate supporters with talk of transforming the existing capitalist system. However, this may have a downside, that is, it may underestimate the power of mega-corporations, including fossil fuel corporations, and their ability to influence politics and government policy in ways that nullify or reduce the impact of carbon pricing or other market-regulating measure. There is certainly a need to limit corporate power generally and fossil fuels specifically. This goal can be advanced by enforcing anti-trust law, by vastly increasing support for climate-friendly options like solar, wind, geothermal, along with sweeping energy efficiency measures, by ending subsidies to fossil-fuel corporations, by banning the US export of natural gas and oil, by providing transitional support for workers who are displaced from fossil-fuel jobs, and by educating the public about sustainable lifestyle options and what makes for a “resilient community.” See the book, The Community Resilience Reader, for multiple views on resilient communities.

Let me end on a positive note. Matthew Hoffman offers a list of reasons to be hopeful (https://yesmagazine.org/environment/2021/01/12/climate-change-hope-momentum). Here it is.

• The first truly global social movement dedicated to climate action and climate justice has gained in size and strength, beginning with Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for the Future and spreading to the Sunrise Movement in the U.S. and climate justice movements around the world.

• Large-scale capital continues to flee from fossil fuel investments, which are rapidly losing value. According to a recent study by political scientists Jeff Colgan, Jessica Green, and Thomas Hale, this shifting financial ground promises to upend the politics of climate change in important ways, as vested interests lose political power.

• The initial pandemic response demonstrated how societies and economies can pivot quickly in response to an emergency. The longer-term plans for post-pandemic recovery provide an enormous window of opportunity to “build back better,” although this idea does not have universal uptake.

• The Paris Agreement survived the withdrawal of the U.S., which is poised to rejoin after Joe Biden is sworn in as president. Momentum around the agreement was clear at the Climate Ambition Summit where 75 countries announced new national commitments.

• The ranks of countries that have made net-zero commitments is swelling, and a new report suggests that the cumulative effect of countries’ recent pledges (if fully achieved) could keep warming to 2.1 C by 2100, putting a key Paris Agreement goal within reach. Hoffman offers this cautionary note. “These trends don’t guarantee that we have turned the political corner. The forces arrayed against the kind of changes we need are vast and powerful. It will take an enormous amount of energy, resources, and

Global warming intensifies: additional evidence

Global warming intensifies: Additional evidence

Bob Sheak, June 18, 2021

Introduction

In this post, I follow up and add information to what I wrote in my post of May 25, 2021, “The climate crisis intensifies, while meaningful political solutions remain elusive.” The main purpose of the present piece is to provide more context and additional evidence regarding the unfolding and escalating crisis, one that has for decades (at least) been taking a terrible toll on humanity and nature and one that is rapidly growing more destructive. The evidence is not uplifting but it is factual. Unfortunately, those in the U.S. who want to deny or avoid any meaningful action represent powerful forces in the society.

In the May 25 post, I referred to climate scientist Michael E. Mann’s new book, The New Climate War, who writes that “our planet has now warmed into the danger zone, and we are not taking the measures necessary to avert the largest global crisis we have ever faced.” In order to address this situation, “we must understand the mind of the enemy” (p. 1). The enemy includes the fossil-fuel corporations (e.g., ExxonMobil, Shell, BP) and their supporters, the billionaire plutocrats “like the Koch brothers, the Mercers, and the Scaifes,” who have “funneled billions of dollars into a disinformation campaign beginning in the least 1980s and working to discredit the science behind human-caused climate change and its linkage with fossil-fuel burning” (pp. 2-3). This enemy additionally includes those in government in the U.S. and abroad who deny or dismiss the seriousness of global warming and use their positions to protect and advance the interests of the fossil-fuel industry and other polluters.”

At the same time, there may be even more powerful forces, politically and in social movements, that are working to address this existential challenge and engage with others in education, mobilization, and politics to address the crisis. In reviewing Mann’s book, Richard Schiffman notes that, in the final analysis, Mann is optimistic (https://new-scientist.com/article/mg24933160-300-the-new-climate-war-reasons-to-be-optimistic-about-the-future). His optimism is “heartened by the upswell of youth activism and the rapid development of green technologies. Even investors are beginning to flee from fossil fuels.”

The earth is heating up

Some background: A new geological epoch?

We are living in a geological epoch of human-generated increasingly disruptive and catastrophic climate changes that pose an existential threat to humanity. The International Union of Geological Sciences has been considering the evidence on whether the earth has entered a new geological epoch, one referred to as the Anthropocene. This is defined as an epoch in which the activities of humans have become the dominant force, an increasingly deleterious one, in shaping the planet. The concept was first introduced by climatologist Paul Crutzen in 2000. Ian Angus, author of the 2016 book facing the Anthropocene: fossil capitalism and the crisis of the earth system, was interviewed about the concept on The Real News. (http://therealnews.com/t2/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=31&ltemid=74&jumival=17159).

Angus gives us some context.

“Well, geologists divide the history of the entire Earth, the billions of years that our planet has been here, into various divisions which mark the different stages of life and the conditions of life in the history of our planet. We have for the last 12,000 years been in what’s called the Holocene, that came about when the Ice Ages ended. All the glaciers retreated, and we’ve had 12,000 years of relatively stable climate. Everything’s been very predictable. It’s the period in which agriculture was invented and all large civilizations were born.

“What became clear in the late 20th century to some scientists was that humanity’s activities have become so great that they were actually changing the way that the world functions. Not just changing individual environments or ecosystems but changing fundamental things about the way the world works. Global warming being the best known of those, but of course the destruction of the ozone layer, and so on. So, the Holocene epoch, some scientists began to argue, was coming to an end. We had moved out of that period of long-term stability and we’re moving into a very different time.”

The crux of this view is that human activities have come to represent the dominant forces in shaping the earth’s ecosphere. There’s no debate about this in the climate science community. Human activities that emit greenhouse gases have had and are having a significant and increasingly negative impact on ecosystems and human societies. At the same time, the debate over whether we are in a new geological period continues, including such questions as to when it exactly started (https://eos.org/articles/the-difficulty-of-defining-the-anthropocene).

A scientific consensus

In a post from September 28, 2018, titled “Reigning in Climate Change,” I submitted that the scientific evidence is overwhelming in agreement that human-caused, increasingly disruptive climate change, is occurring. There are multiple books, an increasing body of scientific research, and a host of in-depth journalistic articles based on authoritative sources that confirm the existence of the phenomenon. Most climate scientists have long endorsed the evidence-based proposition that the climate is changing and that it is happening at an accelerating rate.

Andrea Germanos reports that in November, 2017, nearly 17,000 scientists from 180 countries issued a warning to humanity about the advanced and unfolding disruptive changes in the “biosphere” in a letter published in the international journal BioScience. (2017). Unless humanity, that is the world’ governments, set about making transformative changes in their societies soon, the scientists believe that the best evidenced indicates that there will be “widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss.” The scientists are especially troubled by actually observed trends, that is, of rising greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, agricultural production, and the sixth mass extinction event underway” (http://commondreams.org/news/2017/11/13/over-1500-scientists-just-issued-second-notice-humanity-can-we-listen-now). With respect to agriculture, they are referring to the dominant agriculture system that relies on chemical fertilizers that degrade soil, generates carbon emissions, and overutilize and contaminate water sources.

 An overview from Wikipedia of the scientific consensus.

Several studies have been done to establish that a consensus does exist. “Among the most-cited is a 2013 study of nearly 12,000 abstracts of peer-reviewed papers on climate science published since 1990, of which just over 4,000 papers expressed an opinion on the cause of recent global warming. Of these, 97% agree, explicitly or implicitly, that global warming is happening and is human-caused.[2][3] It is “extremely likely”[4] that this warming arises from “… human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases …”[4] in the atmosphere.[5] Natural change alone would have had a slight cooling effect rather than a warming effect.[6][7][8][9]

“This scientific opinion is expressed in synthesis reports, by scientific bodies of national or international standing, and by surveys of opinion among climate scientists. Individual scientists, universities, and laboratories contribute to the overall scientific opinion via their peer-reviewed publications, and the areas of collective agreement and relative certainty are summarised in these respected reports and surveys.[10] The IPCC‘s Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) was completed in 2014.[11] Its conclusions are summarized below:

  • “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia”.[12]
  • “Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide have increased to levels unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years”.[13]
  • Human influence on the climate system is clear.[14]It is extremely likely (95-100% probability)[15] that human influence was the dominant cause of global warming between 1951-2010.[14]
  • Without new policies to mitigate climate change, projections suggest an increase in global mean temperature in 2100 of 4.8 to 7 °C, relative to pre-industrial levels (median values; the range is 2.5 to 7.8 °C including climate uncertainty).[18]

Wikipedia reports that all national or international science academies and scientific societies agree that global warming is a major challenge. “No scientific body of national or international standing maintains a formal opinion dissenting from any of these main points.” Furthermore, evidence from the prestigious National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) indicates that the hottest years on record are all recent years: 2015, 2016, 2017, and, by all the current evidence, 2018 (https://www.ecowatch.com/hottest-four-years-ever-259119422.html).

The IPCC’s sixth assessment report has been delayed due to the pandemic and is now scheduled to be released in May of 2022.

Some consequences of global warming

Consistent with this evidence, there are a growing number of severe weather events each year, including wildfires, hurricanes, droughts, and floods. The snow-ice covers in the polar regions are shrinking, coral reefs are dying, water tables are falling, desertification is spreading, and the oceans are warming and undergoing massive acidification. Some of the changes compound the problems. Extensive deforestation is reducing one of the earth’s most important “carbon sinks,” that is, the ability of forests to take carbon out of the atmosphere. And there are other examples. As the ice/snow sheets in the arctic are reduced, more of the sun’s ultra-violet rays are retained on earth rather than reflected into space. There is also the danger that as the permafrost in northern regions (e.g., Siberia) melts that enormous volumes of methane will be released into the atmosphere. Bill McKibben made the prescient argument in 2010 in his book eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet that the earth’s climate system had already been transformed in ways that made life as we know it increasingly precarious.

Tipping points

I summarized the following information on “tipping points” in a post titled “The realty and challenges of the climate crisis” on December 28, 2019. The evidence is based on scientific research documenting that as greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase, more of the sun’s heat is trapped in the earth’s atmosphere, temperatures rise, and climate-related disruptions and catastrophes occur more frequently and intensily. Soon, by 2050 according to some estimates – if not sooner – climate scientists tell us the effects of climate change will reach a point where they overwhelm societal or international capacities to recover. They are called “tipping points.” Bob Berwyn writes on how scientists think we are closer to or have already reached climate tipping points (https://insideclimatenews.org/news/27112019/climate-tipping-points-permafrost-forests-ice-antarctica-greenland-amazon-nature).

As Berwyn reports, scientists are warning that a point of no return, where “‘abrupt and irreversible changes’ to the climate system could be triggered by small changes in the global temperatures to create ‘a new, less habitable, hothouse climate state.’” And there are “indications that exceeding tipping points in one system, such as the loss of Arctic Sea ice, can increase the risk of crossing tipping points in others.” In an article for Nature, cited by Berwyn, “scientists focused on nine parts of the climate system susceptible to tipping points, some of them interconnected:

 • Arctic sea ice, which is critical for reflecting the sun’s energy back into space but is disappearing as the planet warms.
• The Greenland Ice Sheet, which could raise sea level 20 feet if it melts.
• Boreal forests, which would release more carbon dioxide (CO2) than they absorb if they die and decay or burn.
• Permafrost, which releases methane and other greenhouse gases as it thaws.
• The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, a key ocean current, which would shift global weather patterns if it slowed down or stopped.
• The Amazon rainforest, which could flip from a net absorber of greenhouse gases to a major emitter.
• Warm-water corals, which will die on a large scale as the ocean warms, affecting commercial and subsistence fisheries.
• The West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which would raise sea level by at least 10 feet if it melted entirely and is already threatened by warming from above and below.
• Parts of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet that would also raise sea level significantly if they melted.

Naomi Oreskes and Nicholas Stern give the following examples of how the climate-induced ravages in one part of the climate crisis can affect other parts, with catastrophic effects on societies (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/23/opinion/climate-change-costs.html). They give the following examples: “a sudden rapid loss of Greenland or West Antarctic land ice could lead to much higher sea levels and storm surges, which would contaminate water supplies, destroy coastal cities, force out their residents, and cause turmoil and conflict,” or “increased heat decreases food production, which leads to widespread malnutrition, which diminishes the capacity of people to withstand heat and disease and makes it effectively impossible for them to adapt to climate change,” or “Sustained extreme heat may also decrease industrial productivity, bringing about economic depressions.” But they refer to an even “worst-case scenario,” in which “climate impacts could set off a feedback loop in which climate change leads to economic losses, which lead to social and political disruption, which undermines both democracy and our capacity to prevent further climate damage. These sorts of cascading effects are rarely captured in economic models of climate impacts. And this set of known omissions does not, of course, include additional risks that we may have failed to have identified.”

(Anthony D. Barnosky and Elizabeth A. Hadly have devoted an entire book to the subject: Tipping Points for Planet Earth: How Close are We to the Edge.)

Current evidence from the EPA

In an article published on May 12, 2021, in The Washington Post, Dino Grandoni and Brady Dennis report on how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had just “released a detailed and disturbing account of the startling changes that Earth’s warming had on parts of the United States during Trump’s presidency” (https://washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2021/05/12/us-has-entered-unprecedented-climate-territory-epa-warns). This occurs after years in which “Donald Trump and his deputies played down the impact of greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels and delayed the release of an Environmental Protection Agency report detailing climate-related damage.” They add: “Trump questioned the idea that burning fossil fuels was warming the planet and endangering Americans’ lives and livelihoods, and his administration delayed an update to the EPA’s peer-reviewed report on climate change indicators, first published in 2010. As a result, the report offers a snapshot of the extent to which the science around climate change grew more detailed and robust during Trump’s term [though not made public] even as his administration at times tried to stifle those findings.”

Elected officials and the public will now belatedly have access to the EPA’s evidence documenting, for example, “the destruction of year-round permafrost in Alaska, loss of winter ice on the Great Lakes and spike in summer heat waves in U.S. cities all signal that climate change is intensifying.” And for the first time, the agency “has said such changes are being driven at least in part by human-caused global warming,” a fact never acknowledged by the Trump administration.

Grandoni and Dennis also report that “EPA staffers said the data detail how the nation has entered unprecedented territory, in which climate effects are more visible, changing faster and becoming more extreme. Collectively, the indicators present “multiple lines of evidence that climate change is occurring now and here in the U.S., affecting public health and the environment,” the agency said.” In preparing the report, the agency compiled a list of 54 climate change indicators used in identifying data across academia, nonprofit institutions and other government agencies to come to its conclusions. For example, the EPA report finds that in 2020 “ocean heat reached its highest level in recorded history,and itfuelsmarine heat waves and coral bleaching.” Additionally: “The extent of Arctic Sea ice also was the second smallest on record dating to 1979. Wildfire and pollen seasons are starting earlier and lasting longer.” Here are further examples.

“Heat waves are occurring about three times more often than they did in the 1960s, the agency found, averaging about six times a year. In turn, Americans are blasting air conditioners to stay cool during the hot months, which has nearly doubled summer energy use over the past half-century and added even more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

At nearly every spot measured in Alaska, permafrost has warmed since 1978. The biggest temperature increases were found in the northernmost reaches of the state, where the thawing of the once permanently frozen soil has made it more difficult for Native Alaskans to store wild game underground and for drillers to transport oil by pipeline.

“The agency also released data that shows coastal flooding is happening more often at all 33 spots studied up and down the Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf coasts.”

Current evidence from NASA and NOAA

In an article published in The Guardian on June 17, 2021, Victoria Bekiempis reports on new findings from scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that the “Earth’s ‘energy imbalance approximately doubled’ from 2005 to 2019. The increase was described as ‘alarming’” and unprecedented (https://theguardian.com/science/2021/jun/17/earth-trapping-heat-study-nasa-noaa). In technical terms, “‘Energy imbalance’ refers to the difference between how much of the Sun’s ‘radiative energy’ is absorbed by Earth’s atmosphere and surface, compared to how much ‘thermal infrared radiation’ bounces back into space.” The NASA report finds that “A positive energy imbalance means the Earth system is gaining energy, causing the planet to heat up.” The key finding is that the earth “is trapping nearly twice as much heat as it did in 2005.” NASA described the new finding as an “unprecedented” increase amid the climate crisis.” The data comes from “comparing data from satellite sensors – which track how much energy enters and exits Earth’s system – and data from ocean floats.” The rising heat level stems from increases in greenhouse gas emissions that “keep heat in Earth’s atmosphere, trapping radiation that would otherwise move into space.”

An overview of selected evidence

Isabelle Gerrestsen offers the BBC’s “round-up of where we are on climate change at the start of 2021, according to five crucial measures of climate health” (https://bbc.com/future/articles/20210108/where-we-are-on-cliimate-change-in-five-charts). I add supplementary evidence.

1 – CO2 levels, according to Gerrestsen,reached record heights in 2020, topping of at 417 parts per million in May. The trend has been for CO2 levels to rise every year since at least 1958. “We have put 100ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere in the last 60 years,” says Martin Siegert, co-director of the Grantham Institute for climate change and the environment at Imperial College London. That is 100 times faster than previous natural increases, such as those that occurred towards the end of the last ice age more than 10,000 years ago.”

A note on the geological history of CO2 in the atmosphere

Joseph Romm writes: “At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution 250 years ago, CO2 levels in the atmosphere were approximately 280 parts per million (ppm) (Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know, pp. 1-2). Indeed, he writes, “going back a total of 800,000 years – CO2 levels generally never exceeded 280-300 ppm” (p. 16). Now, as reported by Doyle Rice in USA Today on May 4, 2018, carbon dioxide comprised 410 ppm. Rice cites the Scripps Institute of Oceanography as his source and notes that, according to Scripps, this quantity is the “highest in at least the past 800,000 years.” Be clear, there is agreement on this mind-boggling point by major scientific sources on climate change, with virtual unanimity among climate scientists.

Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere reach historic highs despite the economic slowdown during the pandemic

Despite the pandemic and as economies around the world declined, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the most prevalent greenhouse gas, hit historically high levels, according to a report in The Washington Post by Brady Dennis and Seven Mufson (https://washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2021/06/07/atmospheric-carbon-dioxide-hits-record-levels). After declining early in the pandemic, “human-caused emissions rebounded fairly quickly.”

There was indeed a temporary decline. “In 2020, primary energy demand decreased nearly 4 percent, and global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions fell by 5.8 percent, according to the International Energy Agency — the largest annual percentage decline since World War II.” They reached a level that prevailed in 2012, not enough to change the world’s current warming trajectory. But emission levels soon rebounded.

There were 417 parts per million in the atmosphere in May 2020, rising to 419 ppm in May 2021. To reiterate, CO2 levels were approximately 280 parts per million 250 years ago at the dawning of the industrial revolution (Joseph Romm, Climate Change, pp. 1-2). The International Energy Agency (IEA), Dennis and Mufson write, “expects global carbon emissions to surge this year as parts of the world rebound from the coronavirus pandemic. The group projected in April that emissions are on track to reach the second-largest annual rise on record.”

Pieter Tans, a senior scientist with NOAA’s Global Monitoring Laboratory, told them that the record-breaking finding for May 2021 is “significant in that it shows we are still fully on the wrong track.” But it’s hardly surprising, Tans noted, as “humans continue to add about 40 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide pollution to the atmosphere each year. He also said that the only way to “avoid catastrophic changes to the climate will require reducing that number to zero as quickly as possible.” Corinee Le Quere, research professor of climate change science at the University of East Anglia concurs that the CO2 concentrations will only stop rising “when the emissions approach zero.” At the same time, the situation is not yet hopeless. Tans “holds out hope that the world will be able to put itself on a better path. The science of how to do that exists, he said, but what remains unclear is whether societies can muster the kind of action that has yet to materialize.”

“Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Hits Highest Level in Over 4 Million Years”

This is the headline of Brett Wilkens article in Common Dreams on June 7, 2021 (https://commondreams.org/news/2021/06/07/atmospheric-carbon-dioxide-hits-highest-level-over-4-million-years). He reports on the findings from scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Scripps Institute of Oceanography at the University of California who have ascertained through their research that the May 2021 measurements of CO2 in the atmosphere were, as already mentioned, a monthly average level of 419 parts per million, up from 417 ppm in May 2020. The researchers add that this level of CO2 concentration is “now comparable to where it was during the Pliocene Climatic Optimum, between 4.1 and 4.5 million years ago, when CO2 was close to, or above 400 ppm.” Wilkens notes that for a time in April “atmospheric COconcentrations surged past 420 ppm for the first time in recorded history.” These and other scientific findings will help to inform officials at the “upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference—also known as COP26—which will be held in Glasgow, Scotland this November.”

——————–

2. Record heat. Gerrestsen writes: “The past decade was the hottest on record. The year 2020 was more than 1.2C hotter than the average year in the 19th Century. In Europe it was the hottest year ever, while globally 2020 tied with 2016 as the warmest.” The record-breaking temperatures “triggered the largest wildfires ever recorded in the US states of California and Colorado, and the “black summer” of fires in eastern Australia.”

Record-breaking heat across U.S. west

In an article published on June 15, 2021, for The Washington Post, Matthew Cappucci reports on an historic heat wave that is bringing more than 40 million Americans to triple-digit heat, “with some spots soaring over 120 degrees as records fall across the West. He continues: “The heat in many areas is dangerous, prompting excessive-heat warnings in seven states where temperatures will be hazardous to human health” (https://washingtonpost.com/weather/2021/06/15/record-heat-western-us-draught). Furthermore, the heat “reinforces a devastating drought that continues to reshape the landscape of the West while bolstering worries of what lurks ahead in the fall come fire season. More than half of the western United States is gripped by ‘extreme’ or ‘exceptional’ drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, the two most severe categories.

He gives the following examples, among others. (1) “On Monday [June 14, 2021], records were shattered in the desert Southwest and the Rockies, including in Tucson, where highs hit 112 degrees. Las Vegas spiked to 110” and expected to reach 113 degrees. (2) “Highs in Phoenix reached 112 degrees on Monday and didn’t fall below 90 until after 3 a.m. They’re slated to crest at 116 or 117 degrees on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday before ‘only’ hitting 114 degrees on Saturday. That would set a record every day through Friday.” (3) “Los Angeles should join the triple-digit club as well, hitting 100 degrees on Tuesday before settling into the mid-90s on Wednesday.” (4) “Death Valley, Calif., famous for holding the highest temperature ever observed on the planet, is expected to hit 125 degrees for the remaining days this week. It hit 118 degrees Monday, the nation’s hottest temperature. Wednesday and Thursday could feature highs of 127 degrees, near its June record.” (5) “In California’s Central Valley, most places will hit 90 degrees on Tuesday, but the real heat starts Wednesday — widespread temperatures between 100 and 105 will be the story for places like Redding, Sacramento and Fresno, where excessive-heat warnings are in effect. On Thursday, highs could flirt with 110 degrees, with temperatures approaching 110 on Friday and Saturday. Sacramento could establish a record Thursday by as much as 7 degrees.” (6) “Casper, Wyo., is aiming for 102 degrees Tuesday. Salt Lake City, which hit 102 degrees on Saturday and spiked to 103 on Monday, could come close to tying or breaking the June record of 105 degrees as the mercury continues to soar on Tuesday.”

————————

3. Arctic ice, according to Gerrestsen, reached 38C in eastern Siberia [100.4 degrees Fahrenheit] in June 2020, “the hottest ever recorded within the Arctic Circle. The heatwave accelerated the melting of sea ice in the East Siberian and Laptev seas and delayed the usual Arctic freeze by almost two months.” Furthermore, the melting ice means that less of the heat from the Sun is reflected back into space, more is absorbed by the ocean, and the global temperature rises with all of the myriad environmental damaging effects.

Kenny Stancil, staff writer for Common Dreams, reports on findings from The Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program (AMAP). The central point of the AMAP report is this: “Over the past five decades, the Arctic has warmed three times faster than the world as a whole, leading to rapid and widespread melting of ice and other far-reaching consequences that are important not only to local communities and ecosystems but to the fate of life on planet Earth” (https://commondreams.org/news/2021/05/20/real-hotspot-study-shows-arctic-warming-3-times-faster-rest-of-earth). Specifically, the AMAP finds that “the Arctic’s annual mean surface temperature surged by 3.1ºC between 1971 and 2019, compared with a 1ºC rise in the global average during the same time period” and “Arctic warming has been accompanied by a decrease in snow cover and sea and land ice; an increase in permafrost thaw and rainfall; and an uptick in extreme events.” 

Bob Berwyn reports for Inside Climate News on May 20, 2021, on new research documenting how one of the largest Antarctic glaciers is breaking up and the implications (https://insideclimatenews.org/news/11062821/the-acceleration-of-an-antarctic-glacier-shows-how-global-warming-can-rapidly-break-up-polar-ice-and-raise-sea-level). The glacier in question is the Pine Island Glacier, a significant part of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. According to Berwyn’s reporting, the “Pine Island Glacier is one of two big ice streams that drains the California-size West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which is more than a mile thick in places and would raise sea level by about 10 feet if it melts completely.” He quotes the co-author of the study, Pierre Dutrieux, a polar researcher with the British Antarctic Survey. “If this process was to continue, then that would be a problem. That would basically change everything we were predicting in the past. But if that was just like a small hiccup, and now the glacier stabilizes again, then we basically go back to saying the ocean and the atmosphere are driving everything. We’re not saying everything has to be thrown away, but it is pointing to something that was unexpected.” “Currently,” Berwyn reports, “West Antarctic ice shelves are retreating between .5 and 2 miles per year, but other research suggests that, during periods of global warming millions of years ago, some ice shelves may have retreated 6 miles per year. That rate determines how fast sea level rises.”

Overall, the new study provides more evidence that global warming impacts on West Antarctica are intensifying. Dutrieux is quoted: “Just what we’ve seen over the last 20 to 30 years, that’s pretty rapid on the scale of a glacier. They operate on a scale of tens of thousands of years, so to see this much change in a few decades is rather dramatic. The processes we’d been studying in this region were leading to an irreversible collapse, but at a fairly measured pace.” The new findings indicate that “[t]hings could be much more abrupt if we lose the rest of that ice shelf.”

———————

4. Permafrost (from Gerrestsen) “Across the northern hemisphere, permafrost – the ground that remains frozen year-round for two or more years – is warming rapidly. When air temperatures reached 38C (100F) in Siberia in the summer of 2020, land temperatures in several parts of the Arctic Circle hit a record 45C (113F), accelerating the thawing of permafrost in the region. Both continuous permafrost (long, uninterrupted stretches of permafrost) and discontinuous (a more fragmented kind) are in decline.” The permafrost across Siberia, Greenland, Canada, and the Arctic holds “twice as much carbon as the atmosphere does – almost 1,600 billion tonnes. Much of that carbon is stored in the form of methane, a potent greenhouse gas with a global warming impact 84 times higher than CO2.”

Wikipedia defines permafrost as “ground that continuously remains below 0 °C (32 °F) for two or more years (often for thousands of years), located on land or under the ocean (https://en/wikipedia.org/wiki/Permafrost). According to Wikipedia, “Permafrost does not have to be the first layer that is on the ground. It can be from an inch to several miles deep under the Earth’s surface. Some of the most common permafrost locations are in the Northern Hemisphere. Around 15% of the Northern Hemisphere or 11% of the global surface is underlain by permafrost, including substantial areas of AlaskaGreenlandCanada and Siberia. It can also be located on mountaintops in the Southern Hemisphere and beneath ice-free areas in the Antarctic. Permafrost frequently occurs in ground ice, but it can also be present in non-porous bedrock. Permafrost is formed from ice holding various types of soil, sand, and rock in combination.”

New research by Monique S. Patzner and an international team of researchers discovered that the quantity of methane gas released from the organic matter as permafrost melts is greater than previously thought (https://sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/02/2102/09113807.html). It has long been known by scientists that “microorganisms play a key role in the release of CO2 [as methane] as permafrost melts. Microorganisms activated as soil thaws convert dead plants and other organic material into greenhouse gases like methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide.” However, until now, it thought that the mineral iron, also in permafrost, bound the gases so as to limit somewhat the amount of gas released into the atmosphere or oceans. The research by Patzner and her colleagues found that “bacteria incapacitate iron’s carbon trapping ability, resulting in the release of vast amounts of CO2. This is an entirely new discovery.” The bacteria use the iron as another food source. More research is needed to determine just how much additional gas will be released; however, it will be greater than scientists previously projected.

————————-

5. Forests (from Gerrestsen) – “Since 1990 the world has lost 178 million hectares of forest (690,000 square miles) – an area the size of Libya. Over the past three decades, the rate of deforestation has slowed but experts say it isn’t fast enough, given the vital role forests play in curbing global warming. In 2015-20 the annual deforestation rate was 10 million hectares (39,000 square miles, or about the size of Iceland), compared to 12 million hectares (46,000 square miles) in the previous five years.” While Europe and Asia are regaining temperate forests, South America and Africa are losing tropical forests, most dramatically in Brazil, the Republic of the Congo, and Indonesia. “When forests are cut down or burned, the soil is disturbed and carbon dioxide is released.” Gerretsen points out that the “World Economic Forum launched a campaign this year to plant one trillion trees to absorb carbon. However, she also writes,” While planting trees might help cancel out the last 10 years of CO2 emissions, it cannot solve the climate crisis on its own.” She quotes Bonnie Waring, senior lecturer at the Grantham Institute, who says, “Protecting existing forests is even more important than planting new ones. Every time an ecosystem is disturbed, you see carbon lost.” The most cost-effective and productive way to capture CO2 and boost overall biodiversity is to allow forests “to regrow naturally and rewilding huge areas of land, a process known as natural regeneration, is the most cost-effective and productive way to capture CO2 and boost overall biodiversity, according to Waring.

———————–

Concluding thoughts

In a rational society and world, the evidence that documents the intensification of global warming and the threat it poses to humanity and life on earth would lead to appropriate and proportional U.S. and other government responses.

Over the last four years, Trump and his administration often denied the realty of global warming, while withdrawing from the 2015 Paris Agreement, reversing fuel efficiency standards, opening up public land to oil and gas mining, and ending the ban on the export of gas and oil exports, and loading up the Environmental Protection Agency and other government agencies with people who supported his anti-scientific views. Trump’s policies had the full support of Republicans in the U.S. Congress, fossil-fuel corporations, billionaires like the Kochs, trade associations, right-wing think tanks, and right-wing media.

 President Biden and congressional Democrats have taken an approach to the climate crisis is diametrically opposite to Trump’s. They accept the scientific evidence, recognize the increasingly severe consequences, and have proposed major legislation to address this massive problem. Jake Johnson provides an update, reporting on how Democrats in the Senate’s Budget Committee are pushing for a $6 trillion infrastructure bill (https://commondreams.org/news/2021/06/17/led-sanders-senate-dems-weigh-6-trillion-infrastructure-bill-bipartisan-talks-fail). He points out that the “$6 trillion plan would go well beyond the roughly $4 trillion in spending that President Joe Biden proposed in his two-pronged infrastructure and safety-net package, which consists of the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan.” There is currently circulating in the Senate a two-page document (pdf) listing 11 potential pay-fors, including a reduction in the massive IRS tax gap and ‘asset recycling.’” Of course, Senate Republicans will try to stop any such legislation via the filibuster.

In the meantime, a bipartisan group of 20 senators led Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) have proposed a bill “for just $579 billion in new spending, a figure that a number of Democratic lawmakers in both the House and Senate have rejected as badly inadequate to address the country’s dire infrastructure needs and make necessary investments in green energy.”

At this time, it is not clear how Senate Democrats and Biden will reconcile the differences in their proposals and whether Biden will agree to break up his proposal into smaller bills. Additionally, when faced with an inevitable Republican filibuster in the Senate and regardless of how much Biden and the Democrats may compromise, the Democrats will only advance legislation dealing with the climate crisis in the Senate if they can unify their caucus and by-pass a Republican filibuster. While U.S. politics delay and perhaps end up stopping any meaningful government response to the climate crisis, signs of the accelerating crisis proliferate in the U.S. and around the world.

In conclusion, Kate Aronoff suggests that a massive grassroots movement is a necessary component of any successful effort to quell the climate crisis. Here’s a small sample of what she writes in her book, Over-Heated: How Capitalism Broke the Planet – and How We Fight Back.

“Decarbonizing the global economy and adapting to the climate-changed century ahead will be the single hardest and most important thing our species has ever done. It’s impossible without a big, democratic government and massive state investment, as well as the dismantling of the most powerful industry that has ever existed. That, in turn, seems dangerously far off unless some crucial mass of people see the Green New Deal as their path to a better life and manage to overcome the rank and racist divide-and-conquer politics that have been so successful at stopping efforts to turn these United States into a more perfect union, and this planet into a fairer place….Indeed, many of the good ideas now percolating around the climate movement can be traced back to grassroots struggles waged by people whose home lay in the path of fossils fuel infrastructure and its consequences….” (p. 358)

Will Biden and the Democrats be able to stop Trump’s party from destroying democracy?

Bob Sheak, June 4, 2021

bsheak983@gmail.com

Introduction

In this post, I attempt to do two things.

First, I consider the extensive efforts by Trump and the Republican Party to obstruct Democratic policy initiatives in the U.S. Congress and to protect an anti-democratic agenda, while Republicans in states across the country work to extend voter suppression laws and even, yet today, try to reverse the results of the 2020 presidential election. The framework for much of what Republicans are doing revolves around pushing the “big lie” that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen” from Trump and doing whatever it takes to hold onto power. Trump is their undisputed “leader.” His mass, cultist-like, base follows him unquestioningly. If they are successful, our already tenuous democracy will be more severely undermined than ever before.

Second, I consider what Biden and Democrats are doing to protect voters’ rights, with special attention to the For the People Act. Democratic success depends on their ability to overcome the inevitable Republican filibuster in the U.S. Senate, pass voting rights legislation, combat Republican disinformation, run successful political campaigns, and educate and mobilize their voters for the 2022 elections.

Part 1: The Republican attack on democracy

The Republican Party has mounted major efforts to shape the electoral system in ways to limit significantly the opportunities for voters, aimed at voters of color and other perceived opponents. The Republicans have long been engaged in voter suppression. Among other authors, Carol Anderson documents how Republicans have used suppression tactics for 150 years to harass, obstruct, frustrate, and purge American citizens from having a say in their own democracy (One Person, One Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy, p. 2). What is new in this era of the Trump-dominated Republican Party, is the breadth and depth of voter suppression and efforts to subvert other institutional aspects of the electoral system.

And in the 2020 elections, Republicans increased the number of state legislatures they control. This is important, because the party that has a majority in state legislatures has the power to determine the contours of congressional districts. Alvin Change and Sam Levine refer to the following evidence (https://theguardian.com/us-news/2020/dec/15/gerrymandering-republicans-map-charts-states).

“Democrats failed to flip any of the legislative chambers they targeted and Republicans came out of election night in nearly the best possible position for drawing districts, according to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight, and will have the opportunity to draw 188 congressional seats, 43% of the House of Representatives. Democrats will have a chance to draw at most just 73 seats. Republicans will probably also be able to draw districts that will make it more difficult for Democrats to hold their majority in the US House in 2022”

If the current efforts to limit the votes of opponents and skew the electoral rules are successful, the Republicans running for federal and state offices will be able to win elections despite losing the popular vote and even when they lose in the electoral college. And there’s more. Whenever there are legal challenges to voting outcomes in these circumstances, the radical-right majority on the Supreme Court is likely to rule in favor of what Republicans call voter “integrity” laws and legitimate the anti-democratic thrust of the Republican voter suppression laws.

The likely repercussions of not passing voting rights policies

Consider a not-so hypothetical set of consequences. If the Republicans are successful in suppressing the vote, they will be able to further consolidate their misbegotten electoral advantages and advance a right-wing agenda. The election of Trump and cronies would cascade into the control of the executive branch and the bevy of federal agencies and to both houses of Congress. At the same time, Republicans would control more state legislatures and governorships than they already do. The president, elected by a minority of voters, would then be able to appoint right-wing lawyers to the federal court and Supreme Court.

Such changes would give Trump and a Republican Congress opportunity to consolidate their neoliberal economic agenda, including the goals of lowering taxes, advancing further deregulation, further privatization of public land, prisons, immigrant detention facilities, schools, along with pushing for unrestrained military spending, and a hawkish foreign policy. The impulsive, arrogant, autocratically-aspiring president would again have the power to launch nuclear weapons at a whim. When Republicans have power, they would support legislation that plays to Trump’s base, which is large but far from a majority, on anti-abortion, unrestricted gun ownership, support for Christian nationalism, and white supremacy. Overall, in such a dystopian situation, they would continue to make up their own “facts” to rationalize their goals and policies. Fox News and other extreme rightist media would echo it all and reinforce whatever Trump and the Republicans put forth. (See Henry Giroux’s article on Carlson and the right-wing media at: https://truthout.org/articles/tucker-carlson-is-just-the-tip-of-the-iceberg-in-right-wing-media-war-on-truth.)

Evidence of the escalating Republican attacks on voting rights

Voter suppression

Sam Levine reports for The Guardian thatthe Republican effort to suppress the vote is, as of the end of April, unprecedented “not only in its volume as more than 360 bills with voting restrictions have been introduced so far – but also in its scope” (https://theguardian.com/us-news/2021/apr/28/republican-voter-suppression-biden).

In an update on May 11, 2021, Nathaniel Rakich and Elena Mejia consider how and where Republicans are making it harder for some Americans to vote, with more to come (https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/republicans-have-made-it-harder-to-vote-in-11-states-so-far). They refer to data from the Brennan Center for Justice and their own research and report that “at least 404 voting-restriction bills have now been introduced in 48 state legislatures, adding that “nearly 90 percent of them were sponsored primarily or entirely by Republicans.”

Many of these bills will not be approved; however, dozens or more will be approved. According to their analysis of the data, Rakich and Mejia “count 179 that are already dead — either because they were voted down or weren’t passed before a key deadline. Another 137 bills have not yet progressed beyond the committee stage, and at this point, that inaction bodes poorly for their chances of passage. On the other hand, 63 bills are still worth watching, having passed at least one step of the legislative process (with those that have passed two chambers closer to passage than those that have just passed committee). That leaves 25 bills that are already law (back in March, this number was only six); four states have even enacted multiple such laws.”

Rakich and Mejia identify 11 states that had by May 11 already enacted new voting restrictions, including Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Montana, Utah and Wyoming. Michigan and Florida should now be added to the list and Texas is on the verge of passing extensive voter suppression legislation. These states could sway the next elections in 2022 to Trumpian Republicans.

This is an “emergency”

Sam Levine writes that the electoral system is in an “emergency.” He underlines the point that during the first 100 days of Joe Biden’s presidency Republican lawmakers have taken an unprecedented effort to make it harder to vote. Even as attacks on voting rights have escalated in recent years, the Republican efforts since January “mark a new, more dangerous phase for American democracy, experts say.”

Levine gives some examples of what the voter-suppression bills include.

“Republicans in states like GeorgiaFlorida and Michigan have taken aim at mail in voting with measures that require voters to provide identification information with their mail in ballot application or ballot (in some cases both). They’ve sought to limit access to mail-in ballot drop boxes, even though they were extremely popular for voters in 2020 and there’s no evidence they were connected to malfeasance.

“Texas Republicans are advancing legislation that would criminalize minor voting mistakes and give partisan poll watchers the ability to record people at the polls. In Georgia and Arkansas, new legislation makes it illegal to provide food or water to people waiting in line to vote. In Michigan, one Republican proposal would even go so far as to block the state’s top election official from providing a link to an absentee ballot application on a state government website.”

If these efforts are left unchecked, Levine posits, “it will likely not only set the stage for Republicans to retake control of the US House in 2022, but also allow the Republican party to hold on to its political power by shutting a rapidly diversifying electorate out from the ballot box.”

Jessica Corbett provides additional information on the Republican’s voter suppression and electoral subversion activities ((https://commondreams.org/news/2021/05/27/fears-mount-gops-big-lie-2020-test-run-what-comes-next). She writes: “since a right-wing mob stormed the Capitol in January, Republican state legislators have proposed, and in some cases passed, voter suppression bills that critics warn could impact ballot access in key states for next year’s midterms and the elections that follow.” As mentioned, Republican efforts to subvert the electoral system is not new. She refers to an interview by Vox’s Sean Illing with Roosevelt University political scientist David Faris.

“In 2018, Roosevelt University political scientist David Faris told Vox‘s Sean Illing that since the 1990s, ‘we’ve seen a one-sided escalation in which Republicans exploit the vagueness or lack of clarity in the Constitution in order to press their advantage in a variety of arenas—from voter ID laws to gerrymandering to behavioral norms in the Congress and Senate.’ He warned that ‘Democrats have to recognize the urgency of the moment and act accordingly.’”

In a follow-up interview, Illing interviewed Faris on May 27, when he said that “it feels like we’re sleepwalking into a real crisis here, but it’s hard to convey the urgency because it’s not dramatic and it’s happening in slow motion and so much of life feels so normal.” Faris also said, “The most destructive thing that Trump did on his way out the door was he took the Republicans’ waning commitment to democracy and he weaponized it, and he made it much worse to the point where I think that a good deal of rank-and-file Republican voters simply don’t believe that Democrats can win a legitimate election. And if Democrats do win an election, it has to be fraudulent.”

Meanwhile, according to Faris, Republicans are trying to take over election oversight offices in some states, among other shenanigans. Corbett quotes Faris: “Key figures in the attempted election theft are now running for election oversight offices in Georgia, Nevada, Arizona, and Michigan,” he continued. That is, they want to have their people count the votes and determine which votes are valid or not.” At the same time: “The national-level Republican Party has swung hard against the proposed congressional investigation to investigate the [January 6] putsch, and Senate Republicans are likely to filibuster it.”

Example of voter suppression in Texas

In an article for Common Dreams, Jessica Corbett reports on how Republican Texas lawmakers have put forth and will soon pass a voter suppression bill without any Democratic votes that targets people of color and in disregard of overwhelming public opposition (https://commondreams.org/news/2021/05/30/texas-gop-finalizes-ruthless-voter-suppression-bill-sparking-calls-congressional).

Among other provisions, the bill says: (1) you can vote with a gun permit but not a student ID; (2) no online voter registration; (3) must be deputized to register voters; (4) voters under 65 cannot use fear of covid to vote by mail.” The bill also plans to “limit electoral participation in the largely Democratic Harris County because it would outlaw drive-thru and 24-hour voting, which nearly 140,000 county voters used in the 2020 election.”

Other provisions “include barring election officials from sending absentee ballots to all voters, implementing new identification requirements for Texans who request mail ballots, allowing partisan poll watchers additional access, and imposing harsher punishments on election officials who violate state rules.” There is also language in the bill that would make “it easier to overturn an election, no longer requiring evidence that fraud actually altered an outcome of a race—but rather only that enough ballots were illegally cast that could have made a difference.”

The Texas Republican’s voter suppression initiative is occurring after 750 polling places across the state have been closed in recent years.

Corbett quotes Sarah Labowitz, policy and advocacy director of the ACLU of Texas, who “slammed the state GOP’s Senate Bill 7 (pdf) in a statement Saturday, declaring that “S.B. 7 is a ruthless piece of legislation.” Journalist and expert on voting Ari Berman said “S.B. 7 remains a racist voter suppression bill that belongs in the Jim Crow era.” Common Cause Texas executive director Anthony Gutierrez said Saturday [May 30] after a conference committee of state House and Senate members released the final version that “S.B. 7 remains a racist voter suppression bill that belongs in the Jim Crow era.”

The “big lie” gives momentum to Republican voter suppression efforts

Even before the November 2020 presidential election, Trump was saying that, if he lost the election, it would be due to a “rigged election,” a fraudulent election. He doubled-down on this false claim in the weeks after the election. Indeed, he still persistently tweets that the election was “stolen” from him. Here’s some of what I wrote on January 11, 2021 in a post entitled “America at Crossroads: Trump, the insurrection, and what comes next.” (You can find it at wordpress under vitalissues-bob sheak, or email for a copy to bsheak983@gmail.com.)

————–

In the weeks before and after the presidential election

Advancing the “big lie” that the election was rigged

Trump’s efforts to win the 2020 presidential election by any means began well before the election itself, when he repeatedly said that millions of mailed-in ballots were fraudulent. Then after the election, Trump claimed that he had won the election by millions of votes – that the election was fraudulent, that millions of votes cast for Biden were invalid, that millions of votes for him were not counted, and, absurdly, that Biden must prove to him that the 80 million plus votes he received were indeed valid votes before he concedes. Susan B. Glasser writes in an article for The New Yorker on January 7th that the country “had to brace for an alarming confluence of virus denialism and election denialism between November 3rd and January 20th.” Glasser continues: “As devastating as it is for American democracy, it is no longer news that the President insists, as he did in a tweet the other day, that he is the victim of the ‘greatest Election Fraud in the history of the United States.’” Then, in the days immediately following the election, “Trump said that his goal was to ‘STOP THE COUNT,’ ‘stop the steal,’ or to demand recounts, or to discover evidence of fraud’” (https://newyorker.com/news/letter-from-trump-washington/its-not-just-trumps-war-on-democracy-anymore). Glasser further writes:

“Trump has escalated and escalated, culminating on Wednesday [Nov 9] with a single-word tweet announcing his new goal: not to win the election but to ‘#OVERTURN’ the results.” Even more strikingly, while his lawyers lost 60 court cases since the election, Trump has told millions of Americans through his Tweet account to believe that the election was rigged against him—seventy-seven per cent of Republicans now say mass fraud occurred, according to a… Quinnipiac poll out Thursday [Nov 10]—and enlisted virtually the entire national leadership of the Republican Party in his concerted attack on the legitimacy of the results.”

Anne Gearan and Josh Dawsey report that “Trump has been fixated on overturning the election for weeks, making hundreds of calls to allies, lawyers, state legislators, governors and other officials and regularly huddling with outside lawyers Rudolph W. Giuliani and Sidney Powell, Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and others.” And Trump fed “his base through twitter that the election was rigged against him, even before he lost the election on November 3. He asked his right-wing supporters to come to Washington for a rally on December 6, when a joint-session of Congress was convening to take the final step to sanctify Biden’s victory. It was at this rally, including an assimilate of some 30,000, that Trump told the crowd to march to the US Capitol building” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-election-capitol-building).

———————-

Republicans “test” the limits

Jessica Corbett also describes the Republican attempts to overturn the 2020 election “a test run,” to test the integrity of the Electoral College certification in the U.S. Congress. According to Vox’s Sean Illing, stopping the certification “never had a real chance of working without some external intervention like a military coup or something like that.” However, it was a test run searching “for a way to overturn an election with the veneer of legality.” What is so troubling is that Trump and Republicans were able to tap a narrative that gave the Trump’s base reasons to believe that the election was stolen from Trump. Trump and large swaths of his base appear to welcome court battles and even the possibility of a civil war, that is, if they can’t win by suppressing the vote and controlling enough state legislatures and the Congress to win Republican victories at the polls.

Levine points out that Republicans in the U.S. Congress and in some states echoed and, now with even less dissent, echo Trump’s lie that Biden’s election was based on widespread fraud and therefore is illegitimate. With the help of the Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson, Republican voices proclaiming the big lie are more pronounced than ever. This false message gave those who assaulted the Capitol on January 6 a self-serving justification, among others, for their violence and destruction. Corbett writes: “Recent legal proceedings for alleged members of the mob that attacked the Capitol have highlighted the effectiveness of the Big Lie—that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen” from Trump—among voters.”

Explaining away the assault on the Capitol

The January 6 assault on the capitol

As widely reported, on January 6, as several Republican senators tried to block certification of the electoral college vote, Trump urged a large crowd to march on the capitol and protest or somehow disrupt the certification process. The events of the riot, assault, or insurrection have been widely documented and verified by video, interviews with Capitol security personnel, a slew of in-depth reports, and court proceedings involving some of the riot participants.

A spiral and spread of radicalization

The headline of Teri Kanefield’s article in The Washington Post on April 29, 2021 is that “Republican rhetoric is getting more extreme because that’s what the base demands” (https://washingtonpost.com/outlook/2021/04/29/republican-rhetoric-extreme-base). Kanefield is an author and a graduate of the University of California Berkeley School of Law. For 12 years, she maintained an appellate law practice in California. She offers this explanation.

“The Republican Party is caught in a spiral of radicalization: Having alienated moderates and corporate donors, some prominent GOP figures are turning to grass roots funding from the more radical segment of its base, which has led them to delve further into the conspiracy theories and dangerous rhetoric that their most passionate voters love but that drove centrists away.”

She later adds: “These Republican leaders are thus in a downward spiral, forced to cater to the most radicalized members of their base. The only way to break the cycle is to break with Trump, denounce the ‘big lie’ that the election was stolen, and stop feeding lies to the base — something they appear unable or unwilling to do.”  

As evidence of extremism in the Republican congressional ranks, Kanefield refers to statements by newly elected Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.). Not long after the capitol riot, Greene “liked” a comment on Twitter that advocated putting a bullet through House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s head.” Previously, Greene had questioned “whether 9/11 was a hoax, flatly stated that Barack Obama was a secret Muslim and accused the Clintons of murdering John F. Kennedy Jr.”

Kanefield also points to how false QAnon and other conspiratorial beliefs have infiltrated the Republican mainstream. The centerpiece of these beliefs, hardly the only one, is that Democrats are part of a global cabal of satanic pedophiles. She buttresses her argument with the following evidence. (`1) “A January YouGov poll found that 30 percent of Republican voters had a favorable opinion of the QAnon belief system.” (2) “Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Mich.), one of 10 Republicans to vote to impeach Trump, noted that a ‘significant plurality, if not potentially a majority, of our voters have been deceived into this creation of an alternate reality.’” (3)  The current party chairman in Texas is Allen West, a former Florida member of Congress who in 2014 described Barack Obama as ‘an Islamist’ who is ‘purposefully enabling the Islamist cause.’” (4) A keynote speaker at a recent Minnesota County Republican event told attendees that George Floyd’s murder was a “hoax.”

(5) “Last week, Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host, claimed that Democrats are ‘importing’ immigrants to ‘dilute’ the votes of ‘real’ Americans. This is the ‘replacement theory,’ also known as the ‘white genocide’ conspiracy theory which holds that minorities and immigrants are seeking to replace ‘real Americans.’””

(6) “When former president Donald Trump was brought to trial in the Senate for his role in inciting the insurrection, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell tried to walk a narrow line, as Republicans had done in the past. He nodded to the insurrectionists by voting to acquit Trump is his role in inciting the riot. He then tried to keep the support of moderates and corporate donors by stating immediately after the vote that Trump was ‘morally and practically responsible for the insurrection.’”

McConnell’s attempts to satisfy both sides of the issue didn’t work, but by supporting the big lie and Trump the outcome for the Senate majority leader proved to be beneficial. On the one hand, previously stalwart corporate supporters withdrew their support from McConnell. According to Kanefield, “During the first quarter of 2021, McConnell didn’t receive a single corporate PAC donation. In contrast, during the first quarter of 2019, he took in $625,000 from 157 corporate PACs and trade associations.” On the other hand, McConnell “then pivoted to soliciting donations from individuals by denouncing ‘cancel culture’ and putting forward claims of voter fraud.” This worked. “Appealing to grass roots supporters by stoking conspiracy theories about the election paid off. McConnell hauled in more than $700,000 from individual donors during the first quarter of 2021. Appealing to the radicalized base brought in more than relying on corporate donors had.”

Majority of Republicans polled believe the big lie

And recent polls finds that a majority of Republicans believe the 2020 election was stolen. Ariel-Edwards Levy reports on the findings of an Ipsos/Reuters poll released in late May ((https://mercurynews.com/2011/05/28/a-majority-of-republicans-believe-that-2020-election-was-stolen). The new polling results released in May document that a “majority of Republicans, 56%, say they believe that the 2020 election was the result of illegal voting or election rigging… with about 6 in 10 agreeing with the statement that “the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump.”

The Ipsos/Reuters poll also finds that Republicans agree, “4% to 30%, with the myth that the January 6 riot at the US Capitol “was led by violent left-wing protestors trying to make Trump look bad.” This belief is demolished by subsequent investigations, as sources from the FBI to alleged participants in the riot “have shot down the myth that left-wing agitators were involved. Nonetheless, Ariel-Edwards Levy reports “One-quarter of the American public as a whole say they think last year’s election outcome was determined by illegal voting or election rigging, with about 30% saying the election was stolen from Trump and roughly one-third that the Capitol riot was led by left-wingers.”

Republicans in the U.S. Senate and House reject an independent commission to study the January 6 assault on the Capitol

Author and professor Robert Reich tells us on Friday, May 28, “54 U.S. senators voted in favor of proceeding to debate a House-passed bill to establish a commission to investigate the causes and events of the January 6th insurrection. This was 6 votes short of the number of votes needed for ‘cloture,’ or stopping debate – meaning any further consideration of the bill would have been filibustered by Republicans indefinitely.” The upshot is that there will be no bipartisan investigation (https://commondreams.org/views/2021/06/01/republican-party-existential-threat-american-democracy).

Reich delves into how the Senators voted. He writes: “The 54 Senators who voted yes to cloture—in favor of the commission [and to end debate]—represent 189 million Americans, or 58% of the American population. The 35 who voted no represent 104 million Americans, or 32% of the population.” He continues: “In other words, 32% of American voters got to decide that the nation would not know about what happened to American democracy on January 6.” Moreover, “the 35 who voted against the commission were all Republicans.” Why? “They did not want such an inquiry because it might jeopardize their chances of gaining a majority of the House or Senate in the 2022 midterm elections. They also wanted to stay in the good graces of Donald Trump, whose participation in that insurrection might have been more fully revealed.” 

What must Democrats do? Reich gives this advice: “Senate Democrats must get rid of the filibuster and push through major reforms—voting rights, as well as policies that will enable more Americans in the bottom half—most of them without college educations, many of whom cling to the Republican Party— to do better.” Better said, then done.

Karen Tumulty also considers the underlying reasons for why the Senate Republicans rejected the proposal in the Senate to create an independent commission to study the January 6 assault on the Capitol (https://washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/05/28/really-scary-republicans-dont-want-to-face-the-truth-about-jan-6).

There is no mystery here, Tumulty writes. “Anything that looks back to the final ugly spasms of the Trump presidency… would hurt the Republicans’ chances for gaining back control of Congress, McConnell acknowledged to reporters on Tuesday.

As already notes, the Senate Republicans “blocked a motion to invoke cloture [to end debate and vote] on legislation to create a Jan. 6 Capitol attack commission 54-35 on May 28.” Sixty votes were needed to overcome the filibuster. Six Republicans broke ranks, and nine Republicans and two Democrats were absent for the vote. The defeat of the commission bill happened, even though “Democrats had given them just about everything they had claimed to want — including a power-sharing arrangement under which the GOP would have equal representation on the 10-member panel, as well as a say in any subpoenas it might issue.” The commission was to be “structured on the model of the one set up after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.”

Trump’s calls to Republican senators to reject the commission proposal made a difference. Just a week before the vote, “nearly three dozen GOP members joined Democrats in the House last week to approve the proposed commission.” But then “the former president issued a statement blasting those ‘35 wayward Republicans’ and warning of ‘consequences to being ineffective and weak.’” Trump’s power rests on the fact “that a not-insignificant portion of the GOP’s Trumpian base actually appears to believe that the violent mob was justified in its effort to disrupt Congress as it conducted its pro forma tally of the electoral votes that made Joe Biden the 46th president.”

Tumulty offers this concluding assessment. “McConnell may be right that dodging and delaying accountability for what happened on Jan. 6 could help Republicans win back power in Congress. But by standing in the way of a reckoning with the poisonous forces that are growing within the ranks of their own party, they are doing a disservice to the country — one for which democracy itself will ultimately pay a price.”

No end to it: Arizona Republicans promote a phony audit

In an article for The Atlantic, staff writer David A. Graham analyzes the implausible Arizona Republican arguments for advancing a made-up, phony, audit of the 2020 votes cast the heavily Democratic Maricopa County (https://theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/06/arizona-audit-will-only-undermine-faith-democracy/619072).

The so-called audit is becoming a model for Republicans in other states to undertake similar baseless audits. Their purpose is to perpetuate the myth that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Trump.

Graham puts it this way: “The firm that was hired by the Arizona Senate to oversee the count, Cyber Ninjas, which has no evident qualifications and is run by a ‘stop the steal activist, touts ‘the systemic, transparent method we have created to ensure Arizonan and American confidence in the election process and results.’” Republicans in Wisconsin are “launching an Arizona-style investigation, as well as in other states that have moved to restrict voting, such as Texas, Georgia, and Florida, leaders have similarly argued that such efforts are necessary to guarantee faith in elections.”

Maricopa election officials have months ago “conducted both a hand recount of a sample of ballots and a forensic audit.” The real purpose of the Arizona selective county audit is to foster further doubts about the validity of the 2020 presidential election. Graham reports that “Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, has begun posting a series of concerns about the security, counting process, equipment, and professionalism of the Cyber Ninjas’s audit at the site.”

Journalists Steven Rosenfeld and Jeremy Stahl have,” Graham writes, “chronicled in detail, the procedures are a mess, which is all but certain to result in a different tally than the official final tally, even if it still finds that Joe Biden beat Trump by a wide margin.” But this charade will “seed only more doubts and questions about the result—and the audit’s sloppy handling of ballots means that the evidence may be irreversibly tainted ahead of any future count. And that’s just what the audit’s proponents want.”

A coup?

Mark Joyella reports that, according to New York Times journalist Maggie Haberman, “Trump is telling people he expects to be ‘reinstated” as president by August (https://forbes.com/sites/markjoyella/20201/06/01/maggie-haberman-trump-telling-people-he-expects-to-be-reinstated-as-president-by-august/?sh=7b5b58de7a76).

Here’s how Joyella puts it: “The New York Times’ Washington Correspondent Maggie Haberman reports that former President Donald Trump is telling ‘a number of people he’s in contact with that he expects he will get reinstated’ as president by August.”

Trump’s baseless assertions about a stolen election are being reinforced by the phony audit in Arizona and others on the way in other Republican-controlled states. The audits, in turn, help to keep the “big lie” alive. Combined with Republican acts of voter suppression in most states, Republican support in the U.S. Congress for Trump, the tyrannical hold Trump has on Republicans nationwide, and the obedient right-wing media, perhaps there will be further acts of insurrection.

The rub, Joyella says, is that some Trump supporters and QAnon believers hope for a coup that would restore Trump to the White House.

Trump and QAnon

Wikipedia has a section on QAnon (https://en.wikipedia.org.wiki/QAnon).

The online encyclopedia describes QAnon or simply Q as “a discredited American far-right conspiracy theory alleging that a cabal of Satanic,[1] cannibalistic pedophiles run a global child sex trafficking ring and conspired against former President Donald Trump during his term in office.[2][3][4][5] QAnon is commonly described as a cult.[6][7][8] On the Trump-Qanon connection, Wikipedia reports the following.

 “QAnon adherents began appearing at Trump reelection campaign rallies in August 2018.[35] Bill Mitchell, a broadcaster who has promoted QAnon, attended a White House “social media summit” in July 2019.[36][37] QAnon believers commonly tag their social media posts with the hashtag #WWG1WGA, signifying the motto “Where We Go One, We Go All”.[38] At an August 2019 Trump rally, a man warming up the crowd used the QAnon motto, later denying that it was a QAnon reference. This occurred hours after the FBI published a report calling QAnon a potential source of domestic terrorism, the first time the agency had so rated a fringe conspiracy theory.[39][40] According to analysis by Media Matters for America, as of October 2020, Trump had amplified QAnon messaging at least 265 times by retweeting or mentioning 152 Twitter accounts affiliated with QAnon, sometimes multiple times a day.[41][42] QAnon followers came to refer to Trump as “Q+”.[43]

Part 2: Biden and the Democrats

Biden’s initial steps through executive actions

Sam Levine reminds us that the “constitution gives the US president little unilateral power over voting laws, a power explicitly given to the states” and that “Biden has done just about all he can to act alone against these efforts.” Levine gives these examples of what Biden has done (https://theguardian.com/us-news/2021/apr/28/republican-voter-suppression-biden).  

“On the day he was inaugurated, he halted a Trump administration effort to try and use the census to limit non-citizen representation. He has used the power of the power of his bully pulpit to unsparingly criticize the measures (“Jim Crow in the 21st century” is how he described Georgia’s voting measure).” Then in March, Biden “issued a relatively modest, but potentially significant executive order, directing federal agencies to expand voting access. He has created a senior-level White House role focused on voting rights tapped two longtime civil rights lawyers with an expertise in voting rights to top roles at the justice department, which is responsible for enforcing some of the nation’s top voting rights laws.”

Eugene Daniels also reports on Bident’s executive order that was signed on Sunday [March 7]. It came symbolically on the 56th anniversary of the march for voting rights in Selma, Ala., known as ‘Bloody Sunday’” (https://www.politico.com/news/2021/03/07/biden-voting-access-474041).

The order was described as an “initial step” to protect voting rights — one that uses the authority of the president “to leverage federal resources to help people register to vote and provide information,” according to an administration official.”

According to Daniels, “Federal agencies will be directed to notify states about the ways in which they can help with voter registration, in addition to being tasked with improving voting access to military voters and people with disabilities. Biden also directed the federal government to update and modernize Vote.gov, the website it operates to provide the public with voting-related information.” It remains to be seen whether Biden’s executive order is an “initial step” or a last step in protecting and opening up access to voting. The prospects for the legislation avoiding a filibuster and being passed with a simple majority in the Senate appear to be challenging. At the same time, Congressional Democrats were just able to pass a Covid-19 relief act on the basis of reconciliation, circumventing a Republican filibuster and passing the legislation with a simple majority, 50 to 49 (one Republican was absent).

Biden also pushes voting rights policies

Biden and his advisers have also authored two voting rights proposals, both of which have been taken up and passed by Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives and have been introduced by Democrats in the U.S. Senate. Indeed, they have already passed with a slim Democratic majority in the House. However, unless Democrats can muster 50 votes in the Senate, Republicans will use the filibuster to keep the bills from being passed. The bills are titled (1) For the People Act and (2) the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. I’ll focus on the former bill here.

The For Peoples’ Act

The full title of this act, H.R.1 and S.1, “An Act to expand Americans’ access to the ballot box, reduce the influence of big money in politics, strengthen ethics rules for public servants, and implement other anti-corruption measures for the purpose of fortifying our democracy, and for other purposes.”

Wendy R. Weiser, Daniel I. Weiner, and Dominique Erney provide a comprehensive analysis of the proposed legislation, section by section, and what it can accomplish.  (https://brennancenter.org/our-work/policy-solutions/congress-must-pass-people-act).

“The Act” they write, “incorporates key measures that are urgently needed, including automatic voter registration and other steps to modernize our elections; a national guarantee of free and fair elections without voter suppression, coupled with a commitment to restore the full protections of the Voting Rights Act; small donor public financing to empower ordinary Americans instead of big donors (at no cost to taxpayers) and other critical campaign finance reforms; an end to partisan gerrymandering; and a much-needed overhaul of federal ethics rules. Critically, the Act would thwart virtually every voter suppression bill currently pending in the states.”

Wikipedia also provides an extensive analysis of the potentially far-reaching provisions of the bill (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/For_the_People_Act).

The Wikipedia account considers 7 key provisions of the bill, dealing with voting rights, election security, campaign finance reform, ethics, findings in support of D.C. Statehood, gerrymandering, and the number of federal election commissioners. With respect to “voting rights,” the bill would eliminate obstacles and institute changes that would streamline and increase the accessibility of voting for the American people.

Here I quote excerpts from Wikipedia on the proposed changes in voting rights.

Excerpts

“The bill would require states to offer same-day voter registration for federal elections[3][2] and to permit voters to make changes to their registration at the polls.[3] It would require states to hold early voting for at least two weeks and would establish automatic voter registration[17][3][2] for individuals to be eligible to vote in elections for federal office in the state.[18] Under the automatic voter registration provision, eligible citizens who provide information to state agencies (including state departments of motor vehicles or public universities) would be automatically registered to vote unless they opt out of doing so.[17] The bill would also expand opportunities to vote by mail and would make Election Day a federal holiday.[17] The bill would require states to offer online voter registration,[3][17] which has already been adopted in 39 states and the District of Columbia;[17] under the bill, states would be required to establish a system to allow applications to be electronically completed, submitted, and received by election officials, and to allow registered voters to electronically update their voter registration information.[17] The bill would establish criminal penalties for persons who ‘corruptly hinder, interfere with, or prevent another person from registering to vote’ and for voter deception or intimidation (the bill would specifically ‘prohibit knowing and intentional communication of false and misleading information – including about the time, place, or manner of elections, public endorsements, and the rules governing voter eligibility and voter registration – made with the intent of preventing eligible voters from casting ballots’).[17] The bill would instruct the Election Assistance Commission to adopt recommendations for states on the prevention of interference with voter registration.[17]

 The bill would also prohibit the practice of voter caging[17] and restrict the practicing of voter-roll purges[9] by limiting states’ ability to remove registered voters from the rolls[4] and setting conditions for when they could do so.[3] Specifically, the bill would require states to obtain certain information before removing voters from the rolls, and would prohibit voter purges from taking place less than six months before an election.[17] The bill prohibits any person from communicating “materially false” claims meant to prevent others from voting 60 days before an election[20] and compels the attorney general to correct such misinformation.[21] The bill also requires elections officials to timely notify any voter tagged for removal from the rolls and give them an opportunity to contest the removal or seek reinstatement of their registration.[17] It also restores voting rights to felons who complete prison terms.[2][22]

“The bill contains various provisions to promote voting access for people with disabilities and provisions to strengthen the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) by providing additional protections for military and overseas voters.[17] 

“The bill would also create a Congressional task force on voting rights in American territories.[17]

——————————

Can the Democrats in the U.S. Senate muster the votes to get past Republican filibustering and pass the For People Act?

The filibuster, a procedural rule in the US Senate, requires 60 votes to by-pass the filibuster and advance legislation.  Democrats do not have enough votes to eliminate the filibuster, and it’s currently blocking a bill that would block many of the restrictions advancing at the state level and dramatically expand access to the ballot, including national requirements for same-day, automatic and online registration. If Biden and the Democrats do not find ways around the filibuster, then their chances in the elections of 2022 and 2024 are considerably reduced. In the absence of successful policy victories, including H.R. 1, the Democrats would rely on an unprecedented massive voter turnout in the 2020 mid-term election, large enough to overcome Republican suppression, gerrymandering, and subversion of state electoral institutions. Even then, however, that may not be enough.

Sam Levine quotes Amanda Litman, the executive director of Run for Something, “which seeks to recruit candidates for state legislative races.” Litman says, “If the Senate does not kill the filibuster and pass voting rights reforms … Democrats are going to lose control of the House and likely the Senate forever. You don’t put these worms back into a can. You can’t undo this quite easily.”

There are two challenges to which Senate Democrats must successfully respond in order to block Republican filibusters. One, they must use Senate procedures to defeat the filibuster and, two, the must have unity in their caucus to do so. There are presently two prominent holdouts, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. The two Senators are presently refusing to support procedural changes that would allow Democrats to sidestep the inevitable Republican filibuster and pass S. 1 by a simple majority, that is, 50 Democratic votes plus the vote by Vice-President Kamala Harris. Manchin and Sinema justify their positions in support of the filibuster by arguing that it is a necessary tool to protect input of the minority. It’s not yet clear how Democrats might persuade them to change their minds.

Overcoming a Republican filibuster procedurally

The filibuster is based on the Senate’s cloture rule, “which” Molly E. Reynolds writes, “requires 60 members to end debate on most topics and move to a vote” (https://brookings.edu/policy2020/votervitals/what-is-the-senate-filibuster-and-what-would-it-take-to-eliminate-it). The Senate is evenly divided, with 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans. Given that Republicans are unified in their opposition to virtually any bill put forward by Democrats, this means that it is impossible for Democratically-supported legislation to pass in the Senate as long as this rule stands.

Reynolds discusses a number of procedural options that can circumvent the filibuster. One is often referred to as “the nuclear option,” or formally as “reform by ruling.” It certain circumstances, this option can be employed with support from only a simple majority ofsenators.” A senator can raise a point of order, or claim that a Senate rule is being violated. If the presiding officer (typically a member of the Senate; presently a Democrat) agrees, and has the support of a majority, which would mean that all fifty Senate Democrats plus the vice-president Kamala Harris agree, the ruling would establish a new precedent and permit passage of the legislation in question by a simple majority. This, in theory, would be the most direct way of avoiding a filibuster. The problem is that there are some Democrats who oppose this option and thus, for the time being, eliminate the opportunity of a majority vote. It all hinges on the Democratic holdouts.

Concluding thoughts

The anti-democratic Republican Party and their supporters represent a growing threat to American democracy. Luckily, they don’t yet have a well-organized army of brownshirts to violently attack opponents and rip apart American political institutions, but they have other facilitative conditions.

As I wrote in the earlier post to which I have referred, “Professors of government Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt identify the signs of the rise of authoritarian behavior and government in their book, How Democracies Die.

First, “there is a rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game.” For example, authoritarians want to restrict basic civil or political rights (e.g., voter suppression).

Second, authoritarians deny the legitimacy of their political opponents, as when they describe them as an “existential threat, either to national security or to the prevailing way of life,” “describe their partisan rivals as criminals.” Trump’s continuously bellowed “big lie” that the election was stolen and the support for this allegation by much of the Republican Party and Republican base.

Third, authoritarians tolerate or encourage violence. They have “ties to armed gangs, paramilitary forces, militias….” Trump and many Republican legislators want to blame the January 6 attempted insurrection on leftist influences and dismiss the actual right-wing mob. Indeed, they encouraged “mob attacks on opponents.” There is little doubt that Trump incited and enflamed those who invaded the Capitol building. The refuse to unambiguously condemn violence and punish it.

Fourth, authoritarians “curtail civil liberties of opponents, including the media.” For example, they support laws restricting protests and Trump has expressed his hatred toward the mainstream media as “fake news” and worse.

Despite all this, the majority of American voters support democratic values and institutions. Despite all this, the Democratic Party stands against Trump’s authoritarian party and movement. Despite all this, the majority of Americans reject Trump’s “big lie.” Despite all this, there are ongoing investigations by government authorities of Republican corruption.

If Democrats in Congress can find ways to overcome Republican obstruction and enact the For the People Act and other legislation, and if a massive number of people vote in 2022, then the momentum toward authoritarian and autocratic government may be defeated – and Trump finally relegated to the trash heap of history.

The climate crisis intensifies, while meaningful solutions are elusive

Bob Sheak, May 26, 2021

The climate crisis intensifies, while meaningful political solutions are elusive

The Debate in the U.S.

There is an ongoing debate in the U.S. concerning global warming. (I will use the terms global warming and climate change interchangeably.) On the one hand, there are those who support the view that global warming is real, a growing problem, while at the same time proposing remedies. On the other hand, there are those who reject or dismiss it, and, in some cases, offer inadequate “solutions.”

Those who acknowledge the growing climate crisis

The first position is based on authoritative and verifiable evidence, based largely on ongoing empirical research and observations. This position enjoys the overwhelming support of climate scientists. The well-documented and accumulating evidence reveals that temperature continues to rise and that rising temperatures are the result of greenhouse gases from human activities being trapped and accumulating mostly in the upper troposphere, about 12 miles high in the atmosphere. The gases reduce the amount of the the sun’s ultra-violet rays (heat) that are reflected back from earth to space. The earth’s temperature thus rises. The effects are reflected in a multitude of increasingly harmful impacts on myriad aspects of human societies and nature.

Many who hold the scientific, empirically based view remain optimistic that comprehensive and coordinated domestic and international efforts to stem and reverse the emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere can be achieved. This optimism is, however, not yet warranted yet by the facts.

The deniers and deflects, etc.

One of the great challenges is that, despite the evidence, there are powerful political, economic, and cultural forces in the U.S. that reject the science and oppose effective action to address this multifaceted problem. Some deny the scientific findings that global warming is happening and look to a handful of “scientists” and a vast political networks of think tanks, lobbyists, the Republican Party, and right-wing media to rally support for their view. Some accept the evidence but say that it would be too economically costly to spend government resources on the problem. Some hope that there will be technological solutions to solve the problem (e.g., geoengineering). Some accept the reality of global warming but propose inadequate solutions that do not undermine the fossil-fuel interests. Some accept there is warming but claim it has to do with the effects of sun spots and not from human activity. Consequently, there is nothing much that can be done here on earth, except to wait for the sun’s activity to diminish. Others contend that, on balance, global warming is a good thing and that the warming of the earth will spur the growth of some floras and agriculture.

Waging a war against the climate

In his new book, The New Climate War, climate scientist Michael E. Mann states that “our planet has now warmed into the danger zone, and we are not taking the measures necessary to avert the largest global crisis we have ever faced.” In order to address this situation, “we must understand the mind of the enemy” (p. 1). The enemy includes the fossil-fuel corporations (e.g., ExxonMobil, Shell, BP) and their supporters, the billionaire plutocrats “like the Koch brothers, the Mercers, and the Scaifes,” who have “funneled billions of dollars into a disinformation campaign beginning in the least 1980s and working to discredit the science behind human-caused climate change and its linkage with fossil-fuel burning” (pp. 2-3). This enemy additionally includes those in government in the U.S. and abroad who deny or dismiss the seriousness of global warming and use their positions to protect and advance the interests of the fossil-fuel industry and other polluters.

Deflection

Mann finds that the climate denial tends now to be “more in the form of downplaying the impacts rather than outright denial of the basic physical evidence” (p. 42). He gives the example of how Trump deflected attention from the part that global warming played in the extensive wildfires that have been afflicting California. The then president did so by disparaging state officials and “blaming them for ‘gross mismanagement’ of the forests, attributing the problem specifically to an absence of ‘raking’ of forests” (p. 42).

Inaction

“The forces of inaction – that is, the fossil fuel interests and those doing their bidding – have a single goal – inaction,” Mann contends. He continues: “The most hard-core contingent – the deniers – are…in the process of going extinct (though there is still a remnant population of them). They are being replaced by other breeds of deceivers, namely, downplayers, deflectors, dividers, delayers, and doomers – willing participants in a multiprongred strategy seeking to deflect blame, divide the public, delay action by promoting ‘alternative’ solutions that don’t actually solve the problem, or insist we simply accept our fate – it’s too late to do anything about it anyway, so we might as well keep the oil flowing.” This is the new climate war (p. 44).

Evidence of Climate change/global warming accumulates

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is one of the world’s most authoritative sources of evidence on global warming. In a series of reports on its website, NASA scientists and officials summarize the evidence, the causes, the future effects, and the scientific consensus that global warming is real, has a growing number of dire effects, and there is little time to contain or reverse it   (https://climate.nasa.gov).

The sources

“Earth-orbiting satellites and other technological advances have enabled scientists to see the big picture, collecting many different types of information about our planet and its climate on a global scale. This body of data, collected over many years, reveals the signals of a changing climate.

“The heat-trapping nature of carbon dioxide and other gases was demonstrated in the mid-19th century. Their ability to affect the transfer of infrared energy through the atmosphere is the scientific basis of many instruments flown by NASA. There is no question that increased levels of greenhouse gases must cause Earth to warm in response.

“Ice cores drawn from Greenland, Antarctica, and tropical mountain glaciers show that Earth’s climate responds to changes in greenhouse gas levels. Ancient evidence can also be found in tree rings, ocean sediments, coral reefs, and layers of sedimentary rocks. This ancient, or paleoclimate, evidence reveals that current warming is occurring roughly ten times faster than the average rate of ice-age-recovery warming. Carbon dioxide from human activity is increasing more than 250 times faster than it did from natural sources after the last Ice Age.”

Findings

The global temperature has risen about 2.12 degrees Fahrenheit since the late 19th century, driven “largely by increased carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere and other human activities.” NASA continues: “Most of the warming occurred in the past 40 years, with the most seven most recent years being the warmest.”

According to NASA data, “2016 and 2020 are tied for the warmest year since 1880, continuing a long-term trend of rising global temperatures. The 10 warmest years in the 141-year record have occurred since 2005, with the seven most recent years being the warmest.

The ocean has been warming, “with the top 100 meters (about 328 feet) of ocean showing warming of more than 0.6 degrees Fahrenheit… since 1969.” The ocean has also been acidifying, absorbing between “between 20% and 30% of total anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions in recent decades (7.2 to 10.8 billion metric tons per year).”

Ice sheets are shrinking. Between 1993 and 2019, “Greenland lost an average of 279 billion tons of ice per year between 1993 and 2019, while Antarctica lost about 148 billion tons of ice per year.” Glaciers are retreating “almost everywhere around the world – including in the Alps, Himalayas, Andes, Rockies, Alaska, and Africa.” The snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere “has decreased over the past five decades and the snow is melting earlier.”

Global sea level is rising and has rise “about 8 inches…in the last century, and the rate of increase has accelerated in the last two decades. Arctic Sea Ice is declining rapidly both in its extent and thickness over the last several decades.

There have been a record number of high temperature events in the United States and the number has been increasing, including the “increasing numbers of intense rainfall events.”

Causes

NASA refers to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is made up of 1,300 independent scientific experts from countries all over the world under the auspices of the United Nation. The report “concluded there’s a more than 95 percent probability that human activities over the past 50 years have warmed our planet.” NASA specifies that “the industrial activities that our modern civilization depends upon have raised atmospheric carbon dioxide levels from 280 parts per million to 414 parts per million in the last 150 years.” There is a “better than 95 percent probability “that human-produced greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide have caused much of the observed increase in Earth’s temperatures over the past 50 years.”

Future effects of global warming

The NASA also refers to how scientists “have high confidence that global temperatures will continue to rise for decades to come, largely due to greenhouse gases produced by human activities, and that they forecast “a temperature rise of 2.5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit” by the end of the century. Societies will be disrupted, if not crumble, in temperatures above even 2-3 degrees. If current trends continue, there will each year be more droughts and heat waves, hurricanes will become more frequent, stronger and more intense, sea level will rise between 1-8 feet by 2100, and “the Arctic Ocean is expected to become essentially ice free in summer before mid-century.”

The Natural Resources Defense Council adds the following information on the immediacy of the problem (https://nrdc.org/stories/global-warming-101).

“Now climate scientists have concluded that we must limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2040 if we are to avoid a future in which everyday life around the world is marked by its worst, most devastating effects: the extreme droughts, wildfires, floods, tropical storms, and other disasters that we refer to collectively as climate change. These effects are felt by all people in one way or another but are experienced most acutely by the underprivileged, the economically marginalized, and people of color, for whom climate change is often a key driver of poverty, displacement, hunger, and social unrest.”

Additionally, a recent study commissioned by the Pentagon warns of a scenario in which electricity, water, and food systems might collapse by midcentury as a result of the effects of climate change” (Mann, p. 44).

A scientific consensus

Most climate scientists agree that global warming is a profoundly serious and growing problem. According to NASA, “Multiple studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals1 show that 97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree” with the following: “Climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities. In addition, most of the leading scientific organizations worldwide have issued public statements endorsing this position.”

They refer to 18 American Scientific societies, including, for example, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Chemical Society, the American Geophysical Union, the American Medical Association, the

American Physical Society, the Geological Society of America. They include in their list the U.S. National Academy of Science, the  U.S. Global Change Research Program, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and a reference to nearly 200 worldwide scientific organizations that hold the position that climate change has been caused by human action (http://www.opr.ca.gov/facts/list-of-scientific-organizations.html).

Additional evidence: Selected examples

Rising temperatures everywhere

Bob Berwyn reports on new studies that “sharpen warnings for unlivable heat in the tropics, and nearly unthinkable extremes in major Northern Hemisphere cities” (https://insideclimatechange.org/news/16052021/extreme-heat-risks-climate-change). At the same time, “many regions are doing little to protect vulnerable populations.”

The findings were presented at the European Geosciences Union online conference in April. They suggest “that many models are underestimating the short-term threat to the most vulnerable areas—densely populated tropical regions—and that the threats aren’t clearly communicated. And a study released in late April showed that, in the U.S., the risk of power failures during such heatwaves could increase the death toll.” 

“One of the studies presented at the conference,” Berwyn points out, “shows that parts of Southern Europe are particularly vulnerable, with heat deaths projected to increase by 7.9 percent in Spain through 2050 if global warming continues at its current pace, but only by half that much if global warming can be capped at 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, as prescribed by the Paris climate pact.”

In the first week of May, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency updated its Climate Indicators website, which had been delayed for years by the Trump administration. The data shows “that major U.S. cities experienced three times as many heat waves—four or more days with temperatures that should only occur every 10 years—in the 2010s as during the 1960s. The season in which heat waves occur has lengthened by 47 days. In addition to heat exhaustion, recent research also showed that extreme heat dramatically increases the chances of pre-term births.”

There were record high temperatures in April in central Eurasia and North Africa,  “and a weather station on Crete reported by far the warmest April night on record in Europe, which never dropped below 87 degrees Fahrenheit.” Such heat levels, if persisting through nights, “compound the health threat of heat waves because humans can’t physically recover from scorching daytime temperatures if they don’t cool down after the sun goes down.”

However alarming the data, they may underestimate how extreme heat affects populations. Chloe Brimicombe, a University of Reading climate researcher thinks that the “growing health threats of extreme heat over populated areas are ‘not sufficiently captured’ by major reports and emergency databases, or communicated adequately by English-language media.” Nevertheless, the data are worrisome and the “worst heat wave impacts are ahead.”

The direst projections are for tropical regions in Africa and South Asia, where tens of millions of people are vulnerable to extreme heat. By 2070 in those regions, a combination of extreme heat and humidity will put about 1.5 billion people at risk. Deadly heat waves, formed by the combination of temperatures above 95 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity in excess of 90 percent, will start happening annually in those areas, instead of every 25 years, with conditions lingering near that lethal threshold for weeks on end.” Brimicombe says “We are making the tropics unlivable. If warming continues unabated through 2050, ‘loads of people would die and it would lead to mass migration, and that is something we’re not really saying enough about.” 

Even in the United States, “a 2019 study projected thousands of additional heat deaths in cities during the second half of the century, even if global warming is limited to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit. Fatalities increase even more steeply at higher levels of warming. The European Academy of Sciences projects up to 132,000 additional deaths by 2100 if warming exceeds 3.6 degrees Celsius.”

In North America and Europe, extreme heat by far is the biggest killer driven by global warming, Otto said. That may be the case worldwide, but it’s hard to know because heat deaths still aren’t accurately counted in parts of the developing world, including in Africa, she added.

The climate crisis displaced over 10 million people in past six months

This is the headline of Jessica Corbett’s article, citing figures from a new report by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2021/03/17/climate-crisis-displaced-over-10-million-people-past-six-months). The IFRC is the world’s largest humanitarian network. The report is titled Responding to Disasters and Displacement in a Changing Climate (pdf), and draws data from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center.

The report focuses “on internal displacement—meaning individuals who remain within their home countries.” However, it recognizes that “recent climate-related disasters have also generated calls for just and updated policies related to refugees.”

On March 17, the organization issued a call for urgent international action “to address the rising risk of climate-related displacement, highlighting data that shows disasters such as storms, droughts, fires, and floods internally displaced more than 10 million people from September to February.” There were, additionally, 2.3 million displacements related to conflict during this period.

Corbett quotes Helen Brunt of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), who said, “Asia suffers much more than any other region from climate disaster-related displacements. These upheavals are taking a terrible toll on some of the poorest communities already reeling from the economic and social impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.”

The report includes eight overall recommendations:

———————

Investment in and focus on local actors and local responders;

Meaningful community engagement and accountability;

A protection, gender and inclusion (PGI)-informed approach and response;

Strengthening national and branch level internal systems and capabilities;

Monitoring population movements in the context of both slow and sudden onset disasters;

Community-led assessments;

Coordinating and promoting the centrality of durable solutions to displacement; and

Humanitarian diplomacy, and multi-stakeholder partnerships and coordination.

——————–

Brunt told Reuters “Things are getting worse as climate change aggravates existing factors like poverty, conflict, and political instability.” She also said that “The compounded impact makes recovery longer and more difficult: people barely have time to recover and they’re slammed with another disaster.”

Kayly Ober, senior advocate and program manager for the Climate Displacement Program at Refugees International, told Common Dreams that “Yes, we should invest in climate change adaptation and resilience measures, because it enables people to stay in place if they would like to. But we also need to understand that people are already on the move and will continue to be on the move, especially as climate change impacts increase in intensity and frequency.”

Corbett concludes her article with a statement on an analysis released last year by the Sydney-based Institute for Economics & Peace. The organization “found that as the global population climbs toward 10 billion by 2050, ecological disasters and armed conflict could forcibly displace about 10% of humanity.”

Drought in the Western U.S.

Severe Drought, Worsened by Climate Change, Ravages the American West

Reporting for The New York Times, Henry Fountain reports on how increasing heat and shifting weather patterns are intensifying wildfires and sharply reducing water supplies across the Southwest, the Pacific Coast and North Dakota (https://nytimes.com/2021/05/19/climate/drought.html). The entire region is in drought conditions. The sources of the drought are “warmer temperatures and changing precipitation patterns, which are linked to emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, where they trap the sun’s heat.”

Fountain quotes University of Colorado hydrologist Keith Mussleman: “These are regions that regularly go weeks without precipitation. And now we’re talking in some cases about months.” Indeed, “climate scientists now talk of an emerging “megadrought,” one that may rival those that occurred periodically over the past thousand years. Those Southwestern megadroughts, which were discovered by analyzing ancient tree rings, lasted decades — in one case, 80 years.”

The present drought poses an extreme challenge to farmers in New Mexico “who depend on irrigation water from the Rio Grande and other rivers.” The situation is the result of years of “warming temperatures, a failed rainy season last summer and low snowpack this winter,” all of which has “combined to reduce the state’s rivers to a relative trickle.”

Fountain emphasizes that the climate-change-driven drought “is ravaging not only New Mexico but the entire Western half of the United States, from the Pacific Coast, across the Great Basin and desert Southwest, and up through the Rockies to the Northern Plains.” He cites research findings from the United States Drought Monitor, which identifies “84 percent of the West is now in drought, with 47 percent rated as ‘severe’ or ‘extreme.’”

Coping?

Here are examples from Fountain’s article. “In California, wells are drying up, forcing some homeowners to drill new ones that are deeper and costlier. Lake Mead, on the border of Arizona and Nevada, is so drained of Colorado River water that the two states are facing the eventual possibility of cuts in their supply. And 1,200 miles away in North Dakota, ranchers are hauling water for livestock and giving them supplemental forage, because the heat and dryness is stunting spring growth on the rangelands.

“The most significant, and potentially deadly, effect of a drought that is as severe and widespread as any seen in the West is the wildfires that are raging amid hot and dry conditions. And this is well before the full blast of summer’s heat arrives.

“California, Arizona and New Mexico have each had two large blazes, unusual for this early in the year. None has been fully contained, including the Palisades Fire, which has burned 1,200 acres on the outskirts of Los Angeles.

“Officials are predicting when the fire season ends — if it ever does, as warming conditions have made fires possible year-round in some areas — the total could exceed last year’s of 10.3 million acres.”

Jeff Berardelli, a meteorologist and climate specialist for CBS News, also reports in an article for CBS News on April 12, 2021, on what some scientists are calling a “permanent drought” across the Western U.S. and others call a “megadrought.” It began 2000 and is the “second worst in 1,200 years” (http://cbsnews.com/news/drought-western-united-states-modern-history).

And, as the U.S. heads into the 2021 summer dry season, “the stage is set for an escalation of extreme dry conditions, with widespread water restrictions expected and yet another dangerous fire season ahead.” Even before the summer begins,” Berardelli writes, “the U.S. Drought Monitor places 60% of the Western states under severe, extreme or exceptional drought.” He adds, “The reason for the extensive drought is two-fold; long-term drying fueled by human-caused climate change and, in the short term, a La Niña event in which cool Equatorial Pacific waters failed to fuel an ample fetch of moisture.”

He cites Kelsey Satalino, the Digital Communications Coordinator from NOAA’s National Integrated Drought Information System, who says that during the past few months, several states including Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah experienced their most intense period of drought since 2000 and, as a result, “soil moisture content is at its lowest levels in at least 120 years.”

New research from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that over the past several decades, precipitation has become more erratic and dry periods between rain storms have expanded. Even if rain or snow falls heavier, that’s less important than consistency. Soil moisture and vegetation thrive on precipitation that is spread out more evenly over time, rather than heavy events which tend to run-off, resulting in wasted moisture. 

“At the same time, temperatures across the Western U.S. have increased by a few degrees over the past 50 years. The warmer air provides more heat energy to evaporate moisture from vegetation and soil. As a result, the ground continues to dry out, providing flammable fuel for escalating fire seasons

“In fact, 2020 was the worst fire season in the modern history of the West, with California and Colorado experiencing their largest fires on record…. Simply put, the warmer and drier it gets, the larger fires become.” Moreover, the “fire season in the West is now two to three months longer than it was just a few decades ago.”

Impacts on National Parks

Zoe Schlanger reviews evidence on the detrimental impacts of global warming on America’s national parks. With limited resources park officials are having to choose which of the parks or what in the parks can be saved (https://nytimes.com/2021/05/18/climate/national-parks-climate-change.html). The National Park Service “is conceding that its traditional goal of absolute conservation is no longer viable in many cases.”

In response to the changing conditions, the National Park  Service published in late April “an 80-page document that lays out new guidance for park managers in the era of climate change.”

Schlanger writes: “The document, along with two peer-reviewed papers, is essentially a tool kit for the new world. It aims to help park ecologists and managers confront the fact that, increasingly, they must now actively choose what to save, what to shepherd through radical environmental transformation and what will vanish forever.” The service now is planning for “worst-case scenarios, decide what species and landscapes to prioritize, and how to assess the risk of relocating those that can’t survive otherwise.”

The finding by the National Park Service were “kept in a low profile during the Trump Administration, when the Park Service was at the center of frequent political battles.” In 2018, for example, Trump appointed managers tried to delete humanity’s role in climate change from a report on sea-level rise.”

This changed with the election of Biden: “The day before President Biden’s inauguration, they began publishing their papers, which were years in the making.”

Nonetheless, the situation is dire, with some leading researchers wondering “if the age of North American woodlands is coming to an end.” Such concern is reflected in research that “suggests, in the event of wildfires, “up to 30 percent of forestland might never grow back because global warming favors shrubs or grasslands in their ranges.”

Deforestation

Award-winning journalist Georgina Gustin writes on a research report by Forest Trends that documents “a 50 percent increase in deforestation of tropical woodlands, most of it for agriculture and much of it illegal, since the 2014 New York Declaration on Forests” (https://insideclimatenews.org/news/19052021/deforestation-climate-change-forest-trends-companies-government).

The report was released on May 18, 2021. Forest Trends “tracks deforestation, legal and illegal, in 23 countries with large areas of tropical forests, including Brazil, home to most of the Amazon rainforest. The research looks at the period, starting in 2014, when dozens of governments, organizations and companies signed onto the New York Declaration on Forests, a voluntary agreement to halve deforestation by 2020 and stop it altogether by 2030.” Instead, deforestation via clear cutting has “increased by more than 50 percent” and commercial agriculture is driving most of the increase.Gustin quotes Cassie Dummett, one of the report’s lead authors, who says, “The scale of the increase in deforestation is really huge, and given all the commitments, is really disappointing and shocking Every year so much is being cleared, and when it’s for commodities, that means that the world’s consumers and governments are complicit.”

Gusten delves further into the sources of the problem, writing:

“Two countries, Brazil and Indonesia, suffered most of the forest losses driven by agriculture, the report found. In Brazil, the world’s largest producer and exporter of beef, nearly 95 percent of the conversion of woodlands to agricultural fields was done illegally. 

“Most of that clearing was driven by a demand for exported commodities. In addition to beef, the biggest culprit throughout Latin America continues to be soy, largely for animal feed and destined for overseas markets, especially China, which has seen a surge in demand for meat. In Indonesia, the largest driver of deforestation continues to be palm oil, which finds its way into a wide array of commercial food and consumer products in markets around the world.

Deforestation has also been undertaken in increased rates due to regulatory rollbacks, “particularly in Brazil, where the government has “allowed both illegal and legal timber cuts to accelerate.” Speculators and “land laundering” have also played a part. Gustin explains: “The legal framework is often exploited, where a nexus of political and business elites are using commercial agriculture as a means of claiming ownership, and the land value increases massively when it’s transformed from forest to agricultural land.”

There have been some actions taken by governments and environmental groups.

Here are Gustin’s examples.

“Lawmakers in the United Kingdom are considering a law that would ban the import of any product linked to illegal deforestation. In the United States, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) has said he will introduce legislation that would ban the import of products linked to illegal deforestation, and has called consuming products connected to such destruction of woodlands “immoral.”

“In March, nearly 30 environmental groups sent a letter to the Biden administration, urging it to put in place regulations that would restrict the import of agricultural products tied to deforestation.” 

“Many conservation and environmental organizations are pushing governments to impose stricter requirements on imports and financial institutions to reduce deforestation.” 

And yet, deforestation continues to increase.

Ice and snow cover melting in the Arctic

Kenny Stancil considers a report issued by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program (AMAP) on May 20, documenting that, over the past five decades, “the Arctic has warmed three times faster than the world as a whole, leading to rapid and widespread melting of ice and other far-reaching consequences that are important not only to local communities and ecosystems but to the fate of life on planet Earth” (https://commondreams.org/news/2021/05/20/real-hotspot-study-shows-arctic-warming-3-times-faster-rest-of-earth).

“According to the report,” Stancil writes, “the Arctic’s annual mean surface temperature surged by 3.1ºC between 1971 and 2019, compared with a 1ºC rise in the global average during the same time period. Arctic warming has been accompanied by a decrease in snow cover and sea and land ice; an increase in permafrost thaw and rainfall; and an uptick in extreme events.”

These changes are “adversely affecting the livelihoods and food security of Arctic communities, especially Indigenous ones…. [and] poses risks to unique terrestrial, coastal, and marine ecosystems in the region, some of which are vulnerable to irreversible harm.” At the same time, the report found, “No one on Earth is immune to Arctic warming.” Consider the following examples.

“The rapid mass loss of the Greenland ice sheet and other Arctic land ice contributes more to global sea-level rise than does the melting of ice in Antarctica.” “Some projections estimate that by 2050, 150 million people worldwide will be displaced from their homes just by rising sea levels.” All of these conditions will be exacerbated by additional increases in the annual mean surface air temperatures in the Arctic, which are expected to “rise to 3.3–10°C above the 1985–2014 average by 2100, depending on the course of future emissions” – and could be higher. “Under most emission scenarios,” the report says, “the vast majority” of climate models ‘project the first instance of a largely sea-ice-free Arctic in September occurring before 2050,’ and possibly as early as 2040.

Biden’s initiative and the pushback against it

The argument that the climate crisis is real, that it is worsening, and that powerful interests are stopping or delaying adequate ameliorative response by governments and international organizations has been advanced in this post. There is also no doubt that, if the climate crisis is to be abated, the U.S. must play an important role in efforts to contain or reverse the crisis. But for the process to begin well, such efforts will be successful or not depending on how the domestic politics on global warming play out.

The U.S. lost ground during the last four years, as Trump and his administration did their best to deny and downplay the significance of the crisis, promoting the use of “clean coal” and fossil fuels, opening up offshore public land to drilling, ending an Obama’s fuel-efficiency executive action, supporting the export of oil and gas, withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, and appointing their allies to policy-making positions in federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency to subvert the agencies.

Biden is now taking a completely different approach, as he and has administration take the climate crisis seriously and propose policies that, if ever passed by the Congress, would represent important steps in addressing the crisis.

The question in coming months is whether Biden and the Democrats in Congress can find ways to overcome the obstruction of Republicans in the U.S. Senate.

Revitalizing U.S. climate policy vis executive action

Ella Nilsen reports on some of Biden’s early climate-related initiatives (https://vox.com/22242572/biden-climate-change-plan-explained).

On Wednesday [January 26, 2021], she writes, “Biden signed a set of executive actions meant to begin making this plan a reality. In them, he directed his administration to take a ‘whole-of-government approach’ to combat climate change, which includes — among other initiatives — ordering federal agencies to purchase electricity that is pollution-free, as well as zero emission vehicles, and directing the US Department of Interior to pause entering into new oil and natural gas leases on public lands or offshore.” Biden has also issued an executive order to have the U.S. rejoin the Paris climate agreement and directed “his agencies to reverse a number of former President Trump’s actions slashing environmental regulations and emissions standards.”

Nilsen refers to a few specific examples. The “Department of Housing and Urban Development will be able to implement new sustainability standards for newly constructed or upgraded affordable housing. It means that the Department of Transportation could be charged with setting up more charging stations for electric vehicles, or spend more money on public transportation. And it means that the Department of Agriculture tries to work with the nation’s farmers to reduce the emissions coming from livestock and soils — about 10 percent of total US greenhouse gas emissions in 2018.”

Biden’s policy initiative

In January, Biden also proposed a $2 trillion dollar “infrastructure” plan to achieve a 100 percent clean electricity by 2035 and to net-zero emissions economy-wide by 2050. Then, on April 22, 2021, the Biden administration released a “fact sheet” elucidating what his climate plan is designed to accomplish (https://whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/staatements-releases/2021/04/22/fact-sheet-biden-sets-2030-greenhouse-gas-pollution-reduction-target).

In developing the plan, administration officials consulted “important and diverse stakeholders: From unions that collectively bargain for millions of Americans who have built our country and work to keep it running to groups representing tens of millions of advocates and young Americans, the Administration listened to Americans across the country. This also included groups representing thousands of scientists; hundreds of governmental leaders like governors, mayors, and tribal leaders; hundreds of businesses; hundreds of schools and institutions of higher education; as well as with many specialized researchers focused on questions of pollution reduction.”

In the process, according to the Fact Sheet, multiple pathways across the economy were explored for each economic sector of the economy that produces CO2 and non-CO2 greenhouse gases: electricity, transportation, buildings, industry, and lands. 

The fact sheet reiterates the promise of creating a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035 and net zero emissions economy by no later than 2050. To achieve such goals, Biden’s administration “analyzed how every sector of the economy can spur innovation, unleash new opportunities, drive competitiveness, and cut pollution. The target builds on leadership from mayors, county executives, governors, tribal leaders, businesses, faith groups, cultural institutions, health care organizations, investors, and communities who have worked together tirelessly to ensure sustained progress in reducing pollution in the United States.”

In implementing the plan – if supported by the U.S. Congress – the plan “offers an opportunity to support good-paying, union jobs, strengthen America’s working communities, protect public health, and advance environmental justice,” while also “empowering the U.S. to build more resilient infrastructure, expand access to clean air and drinking water, spur American technological innovations, and [to reiterate] create good-paying, union jobs along the way.”

What jobs?

The Fact Sheet identifies “line workers who will lay thousands of miles of transmission lines for a clean, modern, resilient grid; workers capping abandoned wells and reclaiming mines and stopping methane leaks; autoworkers building modern, efficient, electric vehicles and the charging infrastructure to support them; engineers and construction workers expanding carbon capture and green hydrogen to forge cleaner steel and cement; and farmers using cutting-edge tools to make American soil the next frontier of carbon innovation.”

Example: Transportation

“The United States can reduce carbon pollution from the transportation sector by reducing tailpipe emissions and boosting the efficiency of cars and trucks; providing funding for charging infrastructure; and spurring research, development, demonstration, and deployment efforts that drive forward very low carbon new-generation renewable fuels for applications like aviation, and other cutting-edge transportation technologies across modes. Investment in a wider array of transportation infrastructure, including transit, rail, and biking improvements, will make more choices available to travelers.”

Example: Forests and Agriculture

“The United States can reduce emissions from forests and agriculture and enhance carbon sinks through a range of programs and measures including nature-based solutions for ecosystems ranging from our forests and agricultural soils to our rivers and coasts. Ocean-based solutions can also contribute towards reducing U.S. emissions.”

Can Biden’s climate plan be achieved?

The question is whether Biden and the Democrats in Congress can find ways to overcome the obstruction of Republicans in the U.S. Senate.

Lisa Friedman writes on this situation in an article titled “It’s Crunch Time and Biden’s Climate Gambit Faces Steep Hurdles” (https://nytimes.com/climate/clean-electricity-climate.html). Friedman states the issue as follows.

“The linchpin of President Biden’s climate plan faces a perilous path through the Congress, as scientists say nations must move now to aggressively reduce the pollution that is heating the planet and the United States is trying to reassert a leadership role in that global effort.

Among the many components of Biden’s plan, Friedman focuses on one component, which she identifies as an important test cast for whether there will be any of his multifaceted plan ultimately passed into law. On this score, she writes

“The central tool of Mr. Biden’s plan, known as a clean electricity standard, would require power companies to gradually ratchet up the amount of electricity they generate from wind, solar and other sources until they’re no longer emitting carbon dioxide.”

Some version of this approach has been approved by 29 states. However, Friedman argues, it would take adroit maneuvering by Democrats in the U.S. Senate to push a nationwide standard through the divided Senate. That, she says, may require “a fast-track maneuver known as budget reconciliation, which allows some bills to pass with a simple majority.” This “would require the support of all 50 Democrats, including Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the state second only to Wyoming in coal production.” Thus far, Friedman reports, Machin “has been noncommittal when it comes to a clean electricity standard.” The position of Republicans is that “forcing utilities to turn away from coal, oil and gas will mean higher electric bills” and they oppose the standard.

Whatever the outcome, this year may be “the last best chance for the world to get on a legitimate track,” according to former Secretary of State John Kerry, who is now Mr. Biden’s global climate envoy.

Aside from the politics, there are some reasons to be mildly optimistic on the chances of the clean electricity standard to garner wide support, if not passage into law. Friedman refers to: (1) how wind and solar are now cheaper than coal and natural gas; (2) Americans “are witnessing the real-time consequences of climate-fueled disasters like wildfires in California and stronger hurricanes battering their communities”; (3) “Democrats are more unified around tackling climate change than a decade ago”; and (4) “Mr. Biden won the White House based in part on a promise to enact the most aggressive climate agenda in history.” In addition, (5) “some major utilities are for the first time rallying around the idea of a clean electricity standard.” On the latter point, Friedman notes that in recent weeks “13 publicly owned utilities announced support for an aggressive measure that would eliminate 80 percent of fossil fuel emissions from the sector by 2030” and “the Edison Electric Institute, which represents privately owned utilities and whose former president opposed a renewable energy standard in 2007, said it now supports a ‘well-designed’ policy.”

There are problematic aspects of Biden’s “clean energy standard” policy. The administration has suggested that the standard may “include nuclear energy and incorporate technology to capture and store carbon dioxide emissions, both of which are anathema to the liberal/progressive advocates for greening the economy and society. Friedman reports that “progressives have indicated they will fight any measure that includes anything other than renewable energy like wind, solar and geothermal power.”

To illustrate her point, she quotes Mitchell Jones, policy director at Food and Water Watch, one of more than 600 environmental group that signed a May 12 letter to House and Senate leaders rejecting gas “with or without carbon capture sequestration” and what it called other “false solutions” like nuclear.

Finally, Friedman notes that electricity generation is responsible for only 25 percent of the greenhouse gases emitted in the U.S. in 2019, while “the transportation sector produced about 29 percent, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Manufacturing and industry produced another 23 percent. Commercial and residential buildings were responsible for 13 percent, and agriculture contributed 10 percent.” The point is that the debate on the proposed clean energy standard, as politically controversial as it is, addresses only a quarter of the greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.

Concluding thoughts

The climate crisis, reflected most basically in rising temperatures that result from greenhouse gas emissions, is a growing problem across the world, including in the U.S. The solution to the problem is ultimately international, although the U.S. could – and needs to – serve as a major model, facilitator, innovator, subsidizer, and investor if there is to be international success.

However, because the climate diners and detractors have so much political and economic power in the U.S., even modest climate-directed initiatives are in question. But there are even more basic questions about whether a capitalist economy based on the interests of shareholders, profit, and growth, can ever be reformed or transformed enough to begin the process of containing and reducing the climate crisis. So far, the U.S. and the nations of the world have done a poor job in finding ways to significantly curtail the climate crisis.

Thus, whether the Biden administration and the Democrats in the U.S. Congress can navigate their way through the political muddle in Washington to achieve meaningful changes is, disturbingly, an open question.

China becomes the centerpiece of U.S. military policy, though there are options

Bob Sheak – May 17, 2021

bsheak983@gmail.com

Introduction

There is bipartisan agreement in Washington that China is the number one threat to US security, economically and militarily. The alleged China threat is a top reason in the justifications for the steadily rising U.S. military budget.

While there are areas of potential military conflict, most notably in the South and East China Seas and over Taiwan, there are also areas of potential agreement. For example, according to economist David Dollar, Biden’s Secretary of State Antony Blinken has indicated that there are three types of issue areas when it comes to China, including “ones where we will confront China, ones where we will compete, and ones where we can cooperate on the basis of common interests.” The emphasis in Biden’s first 100 days, however, has been on confrontation, and, in this regard, President Biden is “largely continuing Donald Trump’s approach.”  (https://brookings.edu/blog/fixgov/2021/04/26/what-does-bidens-first-100-days-tell-us-about-his-approach-to-china).

Confrontation

While the Biden administration has “discontinued the demonization of the Chinese Communist Party and the implied calls for regime change,” it has, so far,” Dollar writes, “maintained and even stepped up enhanced engagement with Taiwan,” as reflected in the “continued high-level contacts with Taiwanese officials and arms sales.” And, a Defense Department review of China Policy is likely to recommend “some shift of military resources away from the Middle East (witness the withdrawal from Afghanistan) to the Asia-Pacific to counter China—within the context of a flat real defense budget proposed by the president.”

Competition

Outside of the military realm, the U.S. and China are engaged competitively on trade. “Candidate Biden criticized Trump’s tariffs aimed at China as a poorly targeted instrument that hurts the American economy (a Federal Reserve study found that they cost us more than 100,000 jobs).” Still, the new Biden administration, Dollar points out, “is leaving the tariffs in place for the moment, as well as the ‘Phase 1’ trade deal in which China agreed to make large purchases of specific American products (soybeans and other agricultural products, oil and gas, manufactures).”

As of late April, 2021, the two-year trade agreement had one year remaining and had achieved mixed results. On the one hand, “U.S. exports to China are up and are a rare bright spot in U.S. trade.” On the other hand, “the amounts [of exports from the U.S. to China] will fall far short of the agreed targets.” Meanwhile, “there are no talks planned and a lack of high-level appointees in the Trade Representative’s Office, Treasury, and Commerce who would be needed for comprehensive economic discussions.

Technology is another realm of competition. Dollar considers Biden’s language here as being “more about seeing China as a competitor than as treating China as an adversary.” The Biden administration is partly justifying its large infrastructure plan “as needed to compete with China and to prevent China from dominating the technologies of the future.”

Cooperation

Dollar identifies only one area of cooperation between China and the U.S. That is, when “President Xi Jinping was one of the dozens of heads of state who participated in Biden’s virtual climate summit on April 22.” Both countries have commitments to reduce carbon emissions. Thus, climate could be an area of cooperation between China and the West, though Dollar warns, “it could also devolve into a new competition as the U.S. administration pressures China to set more ambitious targets, to get serious about them in the current five-year plan, and to stop financing coal-fired power plants throughout the developing world as part of its Belt and Road Initiative.”

Just one other point. Unlike Trump, Biden wants to rebuild and strengthen ties to the traditional allies of the U.S. the Asian area. However, whatever the White House wants, the allies are not interested in supporting a new cold war with China. Here’s what Dollar writes.

“This was evident in Blinken’s visit to South Korea, initial discussions with European allies, and the visit of Japanese Prime Minister Suga to Washington. Our allies have deeper trade and investment relations with China than we do; and, in fact, since Biden’s election the EU, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and ASEAN have all signed new economic agreements with China. There is some contradiction between the U.S. confronting China and working multilaterally, so it is likely that over time Biden’s China policy will have to become either less confrontational or more unilateral.”

U.S. has a militaristic record in foreign relations

Biden and his administration appear all too willing to push ahead on the military front, perhaps slighting opportunities for negotiations on economic and diplomatic issues. While war with China may not be inevitable, the U.S. is, nonetheless, gearing up its already massive military budget and forces to provide increased focus on the China threat. The danger is that the military posture of the U.S. will draw it into an increasingly dangerous escalation of military encounters with China that could lead to war, even nuclear war. Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis, both with considerable military experience, develop a fictional, but realistic, account of how nuclear war can happen in their book, 2034: A Novel of the Next World War (publ. 2021).

Bear in mind that while Biden plans to withdraw the 3,500 U.S. ground troops from Afghanistan by September 1, 2021, there will still be thousands of U.S. contractors and special forces in the country and the ability of the U.S. to use drone weapons and aircraft to bomb from the sky. There is something else.

John Feffer, author and currently co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies and fellow at the Open Society Foundations, makes the point that withdrawing the troops from Afghanistan is just the tip of the iceberg

(https://fpif.org/is-the-long-war-finally-ending).

Feffer points out, “…after drawdowns in Afghanistan and Iraq, about 50,000 U.S. troops are stationed in the greater Middle East, with 7,000 mostly naval personnel in Bahrain, 13,000 soldiers in Kuwait and a roughly equal number in Qatar, 5,000 in the UAE, and several thousand in Saudi Arabia. U.S. Special Forces are also scattered across Africa, while the United States is still conducting air operations throughout the region.”

And he also refers to the extensive “constellation of U.S. bases around the world that serve as the launching pad for myriad operations. About 220,000 military and civilian personnel operate in more than 150 countries and over 800 overseas military bases. A significant chunk of the Pentagon’s $700 billion-plus budget goes toward maintaining this immense archipelago of force.”

The U.S. as the “indispensable” nation

There is also another consideration when it comes to U.S. foreign policy. As analyzed in his book, The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy (2018), political scientist Stephen M. Walt, considers how, certainly since the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, U.S. policymakers have thought of America as the world’s primary, uniquely qualified, and indispensable nation (pp. 13-14).

However, Walt reminds us, instead of building an ever-expanding zone of peace, America’s policies have poisoned relations with Russia, led to costly quagmires in Afghanistan, Iraq, and several other countries, squandered trillions of dollars and thousands of lives, and encouraged both states and non-state actors to resist U.S. efforts to exploit them for their own benefit. Instead of welcoming U.S. leadership, allies took advantage by free-riding, adversaries repeatedly blocked U.S. initiatives, and hostile extremists found different ways to attack, divert, and distract. American’s superior economic and military assets could not rescue an approach to the world that was misguided at its core” (p. 14).

Unending U.S. wars

Tom Engelhardt digs deeper into U.S, military history than Walt does. Engelhardt argues that the U.S. has been involved in “unending wars” since he was born in July 1944, “in the midst of a devastating war” (https://counterpunch.org/2021/04/30/american-style-war-until-the-end-of-time).

He points out “[t]hat war ended in August 1945 with the atomic obliteration of two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, by the most devastating bombs in history up to that moment, given the sweet code names ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Man.’ Engelhardt’s principal point is this, “The United States has been at war, or at least in armed conflicts of various sorts, often in distant lands, for more or less my entire life. Yes, for some of those years, that war was ‘cold’ (which often meant that such carnage, regularly sponsored by the CIA, happened largely off-screen and out of sight), but war as a way of life never really ended, not to this very moment.” Over these years, “the Pentagon budget would grab an ever-larger percentage of federal discretionary spending and the full-scale annual investment in what has come to be known as the national security state would rise to a staggering $1.2 trillion or more.”

“America’s ‘forever wars’ — once known as the Global War on Terror and, when the administration of George W. Bush launched it, proudly aimed at 60 countries — do seem to be slowly winding down. Unfortunately, other kinds of potential wars, especially new cold wars with China and Russia (involving new kinds of high-tech weaponry) only seem to be gearing up.”

Historian Andrew J. Bacevich complements the thrust of Engelhardt’s analysis in his books about the limits of American power in the world, one of which is appropriately titled The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.” The point: U.S. military-based foreign policies that are celebrated to be about bringing peace and less conflict in the world have failed, significantly because U.S. governments and powerful interest groups have frequently only emphasized security goals or U.S. geopolitical interests. The only hope, a scant one, is through multilateral diplomacy and cooperation.

The Biden Administration and China

What Biden Said About China in His First Speech to Congress

Nick Wadhams reports on what Biden had to say about China in his first speech to Congress (https://bloomberg.com/news/article/2021-04-29/human-rights-defense-and-turbines-what-biden-said-about-china). Most of the speech focused on America’s domestic priorities, but the president did sprinkle references to China through it. Biden said that China is the most “consequential nation in the world,” with the second largest economy, and that the U.S. competition with China will determine which country becomes the most dominant international force.

Biden also said that that “he believes the U.S. and China can find areas of cooperation — he cited countering climate change as an example — and that conflict isn’t inevitable. But he vowed that the U.S. will stand its ground when it thinks U.S. or global interests are at stake.” In other words, there may be instances when there is the chance of military conflict. Biden “told President Xi that we will maintain a strong military presence in the Indo—Pacific just as we do with NATO in Europe – not to start a conflict but to prevent one.” He continued: “America won’t back away from our commitment to human rights and fundamental freedoms and to our alliances.”

Biden’s speech put some emphasis on the need for America to boost its economic resources in the competition with China. The president noted that the U.S. needs to spend more on research and development than it does in order to be competitive. He also criticized China for not playing by the same rules as other major economies, a reference “to everything from trade to currency, industrial policy and the investment needed to combat climate change. He additionally said that the U.S. must increases its production of wind turbines and implicitly other manufactured goods that the U.S. currently imports from China.”Bottom of Form

According to Wadhams, “The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin pushed back at some of Biden’s comments in a regular press briefing Thursday [April 29] in Beijing,” as follows. “Forcing other countries to accept one’s own democratic system and holding the banner of democracy to give orders to the whole world is blasphemy and manipulation of democratic values, which will only create division, hurt relations and undermine stability.”

There are potential political benefits of Biden’s criticisms of China, economic and militarily. His position is “likely to win bipartisan support.” And, it indicates, that there will be a major reorientation in foreign policy and military resources focusing “away from the Middle East and Afghanistan, where he on Wednesday repeated his vow to withdraw the remaining U.S. troops by Sept. 11,” and toward China and the Asia-Pacific regions.

Biden’s initial China policy is consistent with that of previous administrations

Kishore Mahbubani gives the following examples in his book, Has China Won? –  The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy. He points out that, even in today’s deep U.S. partisan divisions, there is partisan agreement on China as a multi-dimensional threat to U.S. national interests, and potential military conflict is of concern.

He refers to General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff who “has said that ‘China probably poses the greatest threat to our nation by 2025” (p. 1). America’s 2018 National Defense Strategy included the following statement: “…China and Russia are ‘revisionist powers’ seeking ‘to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model – gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions” (pp. 1-2). And “FBI director Christopher Wray said: “One of the things we’re trying to do is view the China threat as not just a whole-of-government threat, but a whole-of-society threat… and I think it’s going to take a whole-of-society response by us” (p. 2).

Amidst it all, there is a “strong conviction that China is becoming militarily aggressive.” On this point, Mahbubani writes:

“The American security establishment, including the Department of Defense, the National Security Council, and the FBI, has concluded that China is now a direct threat to America. In September 2019, the Department of Defense reported the remarks of undersecretary of defense for policy John C. Rood as saying that ‘it is not an exaggeration to say China is the greatest long-term threat to the U.S. way of life, but China also poses the greatest challenge to the Defense Department. A month later, Vice President Pence made several remarkable allegations that China’s military behavior had become increasingly provocative over the past year, arguing that China has ‘regularly menace[d]’ and ‘strong-arm[ed]’ its ASEAN neighbors in the South China Sea, while provoking Japan in the East China Sea and using the BRI to ‘establish footholds in ports around the world, ostensibly for commercial purposes, but those purposes could eventually become military’” (pp. 90-91).

First high-level “meeting” under Biden administration between U.S. and China “rocky”

David Dollar reports on the first high-level meeting occurred when Secretary Blinken and his Chinese counterpart, State Councilor Yang Jiechi, met in Alaska on Blinken’s way back from his first overseas trip, to Japan and South Korea. Dollar reports that “the meeting got off to a rocky start as Blinken criticized China with the TV cameras rolling” (https://brookings.edu/blog/fixgov/2021/04/26/what-does-bidens-first-100-days-tell-us-about-his-approach-to-china).

While the Biden administration has “discontinued the demonization of the Chinese Communist Party and the implied calls for regime change,” it has, so far, “maintained and even stepped-up enhanced engagement with Taiwan,” as reflected in “continued high-level contacts with Taiwanese officials and arms sales.” And, a Defense Department review of China Policy is likely to recommend “some shift of military resources away from the Middle East (witness the withdrawal from Afghanistan) to the Asia-Pacific to counter China—within the context of a flat [2% increase] in real defense budget proposed by the president.”

High-level Biden DOD official does not rule out military conflict with China

In an article for the Defense News, David Vergun quotes Biden’s Deputy Defense Secretary, Kathleen H. Hicks, who says that “conflict with China is not inevitable,” but neither is it out of the question (https://defense.gov/Explore/News/Article/Article/2591598/deputy-defense-secretary-says-conflict-with-china-is-not-inevitable).

Hicks said this in a virtual address to the Aspen Security Forum, where she “talked about the Defense Department’s competition with China and what the department is doing to meet that challenge, especially regarding innovation and modernization.” She acknowledged that China “has the economic, military and technological capability to challenge the international system and America’s interests within it” and that “this is happening all along the continuum of conflict — from routine statecraft, through the use of sharp power or gray-zone tactics, to the potential for sustained combat operations and an expanded and capable nuclear enterprise.”

But the perceived military and security posed by China has high priority. According to Vergun, the Deputy Defense Secretary is particularly concerned about China’s “unlawful claims in the South China Sea.” And she is concerned about how China’s military capabilities are “rapidly advancing in a number of areas, “strengthening its ability to conduct joint operations — and it fields increasingly sophisticated conventional systems, such as long-range precision missiles and integrated air defense systems….  advancing its space and cyber capabilities…. [and] “adding that China presents a prolific and effective cyber espionage threat and possesses substantial cyberattack capabilities.”

Despite such concerns, Hicks said the Department of Defense will do its best to keep open channels of communication and diplomacy. At the same time, the U.S. will continue to support strong military forces and seek to strengthen alliances in Europe and Asia, all of which, Hicks says, “are important in deterring Chinese aggression.”

Additionally, Hicks said, the Defense Department will also continue to devote considerable resources to “the threat and include nuclear modernization, cybersecurity, long-range fires, autonomy, artificial intelligence, shipbuilding and microelectronics.” And the Department will proceed by “[i]ncentivizing innovation, cutting red tape and working closely with the private sector and other government agencies are also important,” along with sharing “best practices and key findings focused on the most important national security challenges.”

And, finally, Hicks notes that “cooperation with Congress is also critical to ensuring the department receives the support required to deter China’s aggression,” concluding that “there be no doubt, China presents a real and enduring challenge.”

DOD galvanizes its resources to assess what they see as the growing China threat

Abhijnan Rej reports on the U.S. Defense Department’s initiative to create a new China Task Force, a “move [that] comes amid a visible push by the Biden administration to meet the China challenge” (https://thediplomat.com/2021/02/us-defense-department-to-create-big-picture-china-task-force). It’s notable that the DOD and not the Department of Defense is undertaking this project. The initiative was made public on February 13, 2021.

According to Rej, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin “had briefed Biden on February 10 about the task force during the president’s visit to the Pentagon for the first time since assuming office.

After announcing the existence of the task force to the press, Biden noted later that United States’ approach towards China “will require a whole of government efforts, bipartisan cooperation in Congress and strong alliances and partners.” Then, on a February 7 interview with CBS, “Biden described the China-U.S. relationship as one of ‘extreme competition,’ albeit one where conflict need not be inevitable.

According to a DoD factsheet, “This initiative will provide a baseline assessment of DoD policies, programs, and processes on China-related matters and provide the Secretary of Defense recommendations on key priorities and decision points to meet the China challenge.”

The task force will be comprised “of up to 15 uniformed and civilian DoD employees and headed by Ely Ratner, advisor to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.” The fact sheet indicates “that the task force will ‘align its recommendations with interagency partners to ensure DoD continues to support the whole-of-government approach toward China.’” The task force will focus on “strategy, operations, and force structure, as well as intelligence, role of allies and partners, and U.S. defense relations with China.”

Ratner, who has served under Biden in various capacities in the past. provided further details about the task force, describing its goals as follows:

“What we’re going to do here is try to identify the most important challenges and opportunities for the secretary, try to identify what should serve as his and his team’s top priorities on China, whether those be issues that need secretary-level decisions or guidance, issues that need greater prioritization, attention, and resources, or issues that need either strength and/or new processes to move them forward to address them.”

Earlier, on February 4, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin had announced a global force posture review “of U.S. military footprint, resources, strategy and missions.” The review is related to a Biden administration “plan to simultaneously manage a draw-down from legacy conflicts as well as reprogram its military resources towards China and the Indo-Pacific. Making the announcement, Austin emphasized the crucial role U.S. allies and partners as well as well as diplomacy would play in the Biden administration’s defense policy.”

A hotline with China as a measure to avoid war

In an article for Foreign Policy. Jack Detsch reports that Biden is ready to call China in a crisis, but that it’s not yet clear whether Beijing will pick up (https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/05/10/biden-china-xi-jinping-defense-hotline-pentagon). Detsch writes: “The Biden administration is increasingly looking to avoid accidental escalation with China, a senior defense official said, by cooperating on channels to reduce the risk of planes, ships, and troops butting heads on an increasingly crowded map in the Asia-Pacific.”

The need for top-level defense communications will be an issue in June when “Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s trip to Singapore for what is known as the Shangri-La Dialogue, the top defense summit in the region, where U.S. and Chinese officials have traditionally gaggled on the sidelines.”

When Austin has a chance to talk to his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe, “he hopes to prioritize crisis communications and risk reduction in areas such as the South China Sea.” Indeed, Austin will propose creating “multiple avenues to communicate with Beijing to manage the growing strategic competition between the two powers and prevent the onset of a potential conflict, especially as the Chinese navy—the largest in the world—expands its reach further into the Indo-Pacific and is taking an increasingly belligerent posture in the Western Pacific.”

Meanwhile, the DOD believes the risk of conflict with China has increased. Detich reports:

“China has stepped up pressure on U.S. allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific in the last several months, including near-daily buzzing of Taiwanese and Japanese air defense zones, and the use of civilian fishing vessels to harden claims to disputed areas in the South and East China Seas, where the U.S. Navy conducts freedom of navigation operations. Just days after President Joe Biden took office, the USS Theodore Roosevelt carrier strike group sailed through the South China Sea, after China passed a law in January authorizing coast guard vessels to fire on foreign vessels seen as endangering Chinese sovereignty. And officials and experts expect U.S. and Chinese vessels to face more close calls, with China building more ships every year to overtake the U.S. Navy as the world’s largest.”

The U.S. naval forces in the South China Seas are not just an passive  bystanders

Kishore Mahbubani, referred to earlier, offers the following evidence in his book, Has China Won? –  The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy.

Mahbubani considers how the U.S. has helped to intensify the U.S. tensions with China. He writes, “we do know that American naval vessels routinely carry out naval patrols twelve miles off Chinese shores. Chinese naval vessels do not, so far, carry out naval patrols twelve miles off California or New York. Under international law, the U.S. Navy (and other navies) is perfectly justified to sail twelve miles off Chinese shores. These patrols are not inherently provocative, but the manner in which these patrols are carried out can be.”

He adds: “American justifies its aggressive naval patrolling in the South China Sea on the grounds that is protecting a global public good: ‘freedom of navigation in the high seas.’ The irony about this American claim is that the biggest beneficiary of the global public good that America is protecting is China. China todays trades more with the rest of the world than America does” (102)

Meanwhile, “most of the sea lanes are open international waters through which many naval vessels cross without problem or hindrance.” In one way, China may have over-reached, as Mahbubani describes it. “China has claimed that the waters up to twelve miles from its new constructed features are territorial waters. Unfortunately for China, the UNCLOS provisions on the issue are clear. Countries are not allowed to claim territorial waters around rocks and reefs, even after land has been reclaimed around them” (103).

UNCLOS is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, also called the Law of the Sea Convention or the Law of the Sea treaty, and is an international agreement that resulted from the third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea, which took place between 1973 and 1982 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Nations_Convention_on_the_law_of_the_sea).

Mahbubani takes the position that the “best way to resolve the issue is to take China to the world court” (103). At the same time, President XI Jinping has “tried to provide a face-saving way for both parties to deescalate the rising tensions over the South China Sea when he proposed that China not militarize any of its reclaimed features in the South China Sea if American would not send any naval vessels to provoke the Chinese” (103).

“Miscalculation by either the U.S. or China could precipitate war.

Political scientist Joseph S. Nye considers the factors that could lead to war between the U.S. and China in an article published on March 3, 2021, for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (https://aspistrategist-au/the-factors-that-could-lead-to-war-between-the-us-and-china). There are advantages and disadvantages on both sides, as the two countries enter into a period of increased tensions. Despite the economic and ecological interdependence of the two countries, Nye worries that “miscalculation is always possible and some see the danger of ‘sleepwalking’ into catastrophe, as happened with World War I.”

He continues: “It is dangerous for Americans to over- or underestimate Chinese power, and the US contains groups with economic and political incentives to do both.? The growth of the Chinese economy worries some American policymakers and interest groups. For example, “[m]easured in dollars, China’s economy is about two-thirds the size of that of the US, but many economists expect China to surpass the US sometime in the 2030s, depending on what one assumes about Chinese and American growth rates.

China has also expanded its international trading networks to become the “world’s largest trading economy and its largest bilateral lender.” On this, the realty is stunning.

“Today, nearly 100 countries count China as their largest trading partner, compared to 57 for the US. China plans to lend more than US$1 trillion for infrastructure projects with its Belt and Road Initiative over the next decade, while the US has cut back aid. China will gain economic power from the sheer size of its market as well as its overseas investments and development assistance. China’s overall power relative to the US is likely to increase.”

The Chinese also have disadvantages. Nye refers to several.  He points out: “Even if China surpasses the US to become the world’s largest economy, national income is not the only measure of geopolitical power.” He gives the following examples. “China ranks well behind the US in soft power and US military expenditure is nearly four times that of China. While Chinese military capabilities have been increasing in recent years, analysts who look carefully at the military balance conclude that China will not, say, be able to exclude the US from the Western Pacific.”

The U.S. has geographical advantages. The U.S “is surrounded by oceans and neighbors that are likely to remain friendly,” while “China has borders with 14 countries, and territorial disputes with India, Japan and Vietnam.” America also has an advantage when it comes to energy. The U.S. had grown less dependent on foreign oil imports over the last decade. At the same time, China has become more dependent on energy imports from the Middle East, “which it must transport along sea routes that highlight its problematic relations with India and other countries.”

The US also has demographic advantages. “While the rate of US population growth has slowed in recent years, it will not turn negative, as in Russia, Europe, and Japan. China, meanwhile, rightly fears ‘growing old before it grows rich.’ China’s labour force peaked in 2015 and India will soon overtake it as the world’s most populous country.”

Finally, Nye points out, “America also remains at the forefront in key technologies (bio, nano and information) that are central to 21st-century economic growth. China is investing heavily in research and development, and competes well in some fields. But 15 of the world’s top 20 research universities are in the US; none is in China.”

Withal, Nye comes back to his principal message, that is, that both sides must beware of miscalculation. There are two questions. Will American leaders acknowledge the change in their respective positions in a way that permits a constructive relationship, or will they succumb to fear? Will Chinese leaders take more risks, or will Chinese and Americans learn to cooperate in producing global public goods under a changing distribution of power?”

U.S. doesn’t have a coherent china policy and this increases the chance of miscalculation

Bu Le and Dingding Chen marshal evidence to show that U.S. policy toward China is incoherent (https://thediplomat.com/21021/05/3-reasons-why-the-us-doesnt-have-a-coherent-china-strategy). While there is a consensus in U.S. policymaking circles that the U.S. should be “tough on China,” there is disagreement on what that means and on other significant issues, such as, “how to compete with or confront China, and what issues should be prioritized.” For example, Biden’s administration “still does not have a clear sense of where the trade relationship between the two largest economies in the world should be going.”

The authors identify three major reasons why the U.S. lacks a coherent China policy. First, the U.S. political system is characterized by endless elections, and how consequently policies often change from one administration to the next. As one recent example, “the Trump administration put a heavy emphasis on the trade imbalance issue in the China-U.S. relationship, whereas the Biden administration chose to stress the importance of climate change and human rights issues in the relationship. It is striking how the trade issue is getting so little attention today, whereas two years ago newspapers were filled with it.”

Second, U.S. domestic politics are divided along many lines. On this point, Le and Dingding write: “Even putting aside party polarization, Wall Street, the Pentagon, state capitals, Main Street, and the U.S. Congress all have different views toward China. Sometimes their views might converge on certain themes, but most times their priorities differ widely due to their self-interests. State governments might be actively seeking Chinese investment or trade even as Congress seeks to tighten restrictions on such activities. Wall Street might want to increase high-tech exports to China, while the Pentagon sees this as a security threat. These interests are in constant conflict and competition, meaning it’s hard to even talk about a singular ‘China policy’ in the first place.”

Third, there is in U.S. policy debates “a lack of clear definition of China.” They write on this point,

“Today, China-U.S. ties involve almost all aspects of important bilateral relationships, such as commercial exchanges, security issues, technology trade (as well as competition), values, and global and local issues. Different interest groups within the United States would give different answers as to how to frame the relationship, therefore making a coherent narrative of China very difficult, if not impossible.”

War with China can be avoided and mutual accommodation can be achieved

A new “cold war” with China is unlikely

Journalist and author Jeet Heer takes up this issue in an article for The Nation magazine titled “Cold War Nostalgia Fuels a Dangerous New Anti-China Consensus” (https://www.thenation.com/article/world/china-cold-war-larping).

Heer is optimistic that a new cold war is unlikely and makes two points to support this view.

First, the issues dividing the U.S. and China can be solved through diplomacy. He posits: “The United States has many legitimate issues with China ranging from trade practices to environmental management, labor rights, and human rights. But these are all matters to be settled by diplomacy. None of them call for anything comparable to a Cold War–style global struggle.”

Second, “China has no universalist ideology to sell and it has embraced a capitalist mentality and a nationalist ethos.” To make this point, he quotes Melvy Leffler, “one of America’s most respected diplomatic historians,” who “called attention to the fact that the ideological divide that animated the Cold War no longer exists.” Here is the quote.

“while the Soviet Union’s anti-capitalist message of proletarian justice and equality resonated in much of the world, China has no universalist ideology to sell. Beijing today may disparage Western democracy and tout socialism with Chinese characteristics, but all the world can see that it has embraced a capitalist mentality and a nationalist ethos. The Chinese are not champions of equality and justice, as the Soviets pretended to be, and they have little ability to exploit the discontent in neighboring nations.”

Rather, Heer continues, “In truth, in a world of Covid and climate change, China and the United States are two capitalist world powers with intertwined economies that need to work on finding common solutions to the problems that threaten all of humanity.” Cold War rhetoric is a dangerous distraction from that reality.

China doesn’t pose an existential threat to US

Michael D. Swaine, director of the East Asia program at the Quincy Institute, addresses this issue (https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/04/21/china-existential-threat-america). He doesn’t doubt that “Beijing’s behavior in many areas challenges existing U.S. and allied interests and democratic values.” And, under Xi Jinping,

“China has used its greater economic and military power to intimidate rival claimants in territorial disputes and punish nations that make statements or take what Beijing views as threatening or insulting actions.”

Moreover, China has also “engaged in extensive commercial hacking and theft of technologies and favors military intimidation over dialogue in dealing with Taiwan. And it has employed draconian, repressive policies in Tibet and Xinjiang and suppressed democratic freedoms in Hong Kong.”

Nonetheless, Swaine insists, “it is extremely counterproductive to U.S. interests to assert or even imply, as many now do, that the above Chinese actions constitute an all-of-societyexistential threat to the United States, the West, and ultimately the entire world, thereby justifying a Cold War-style, zero-sum containment stance toward Beijing. Such an extreme stance stifles debate and the search for more positive-sum policy outcomes while leading to the usual calls for major increases in defense spending.”

A peace agenda

The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, with which Swaine is associated, “has issued an East Asia strategy report that takes up this task. It stresses the need for a U.S. policy toward China involving both cooperative and competitive efforts to deal with common overriding threats such as climate change; a more defensive, denial-based (not control- or primacy-based) U.S. and allied force posture in the Western Pacific; more clearly defined and agreed-on sets of international economic and technological norms, structures, and dispute resolution mechanisms; and agreements to limit arms racing and manage future crises. These activities, not an approach tied to a near-total focus on strategic competition with Beijing based on China as an existential threat, will better serve U.S. interests over the long term.”

Concluding thoughts

Military conflict involving the U.S. and China can be avoided if the decision makers in the U.S. and China can find ways to cooperate and compete peacefully, and if they come to understand the potentially existential danger of military conflict. Once initiated, such conflict could escalate to an apocalyptic nuclear war.

Indeed, sadly, the powerful military-industrial complex benefits from conflict and real and manufactured foreign threats and is likely to support a hawkish foreign policy. There are also those on the ideological right who believe there is no compromising with “the yellow menace” and think of China as an unprincipled, expansionist society that wants to dominate the world.  

The future in U.S. relations with China, in foreign relations generally, as well as in domestic policies is, in the final analysis, political. As this post has emphasized, there is always the danger of miscalculation. And there is too much talk even in the Biden administration about the need to maintain America’s dominance in the world.

But there are signs that the forces for peace may be gaining some momentum. The organization Peace Action reports favorable results in the 2020 election (https://peaceaction.org/2020victories). Here’s one example. Peace Action endorsed 75 candidates for Congress who support the charge for a more just, responsible, and peaceful U.S. foreign policy. In a major victory for the peace movement, 54 of them, nearly three-fourths, won their races.

Poverty, the Partisan Divide, and the Future of Democracy

Bob Sheak, May 3, 2021

bsheak983@gmail.com

Introduction

President Biden and his administration are advancing a progressive agenda to reduce poverty and inequality. It is an agenda that is in the tradition of the New Deal, only with more sensitivity and commitment to black Americans and other people of color. Biden and Democrats in the U.S. Congress have already passed the American Rescue Plan, the “first major legislative act under President Biden, at an estimated cost of $1.9 trillion. The plan, discussed in this post, is filled with a broad array of programs, some as broad as expanded aid to nearly every family with children and others as targeted as payments to Black farmers. Biden and the Democrats also have other plans to create jobs, support unionization, and increase government support for infrastructure programs.

However, Republicans and their allies and supporters will oppose them all. They have a long record of working to reduce or minimize the role that government plays, with certain exceptions such as on military spending. Certainly, they as well have a long-standing antagonism to social-safety net programs, a disdain for the poor, a love of low taxes, and, overall, support for a selectively small, deregulated federal government as well as the privatization of any government function that can yield a profit.

This post considers these two irreconcilable views, with a special focus on the issue of poverty. This is a conflict of epoch proportions, the outcome of which will be decided politically. The side that can marshal the support of the greatest number of voters will win. The Republicans are doing their utmost to find ways to suppress the vote of voters deemed favorable to Democrats.

Getting an idea of who the poor are

Poverty in the U.S. is complex, diverse and varies in its impact over time. One thing is clear. It affects a lot of people. The evidence indicates that a majority of people in the U.S. experience one or more spells of poverty during their lives, or times when they cannot afford or have access to the necessities of life in the U.S.

There are a range of experiences. At one end of the poverty spectrum, some people will experience only one short-term poverty spell (no more than a year). At the other end, some will continue persistently being poor for many years (5 or more years) (Mark R. Rank, et. al., Poorly Understood: What American Gets Wrong About Poverty).

In the first section of the book, Poorly Understood, the authors, Mark R. Rank, Lawrence M. Eppard and Heather E. Bullock, challenge the notions that poverty is experienced by only a small minority of the population, mostly people of color, who spend long continuous periods of time on welfare, and who live in inner-city neighborhoods.

The authors draw on evidence from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID) as one important source for their analysis. They describe it as follows.

“The PSID is a nationally representative, longitudinal sample of households interviewed from 1968 onward. It has been administered by the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan, and it constitutes the longest running panel data set both in the United States and the world. The PSID initially interviewed approximately 5,000 U.S. households in 1968, obtaining information on roughly 18,000 individuals within those households. These individuals have since been tracked annually (biennially after 1977), including children and adults who eventually break off from their original households to form new households…. The sample is representative of the entire nonimmigrant U.S. population” (p. 10).

By age 75, 58.5% of American will experience at least one spell of poverty below the official poverty line (which is adjusted for inflation each year). Sixty-eight percent will experience poverty below 125% of this line, and 76% will experience it below the 150% line (p. 11). The basic implication of these data is that poverty, low incomes according to the official measures, affects a majority of Americans by the time they reach the age of 75.

The best longitudinal research, including their own, also challenges the idea that most poor people are mired in a cultural of poverty that keeps them poor for many years, frequently their entire lives, and that it is typically intergenerational. Rank and his colleagues rebut this view, writing: “It turns out that a much more accurate picture is that poverty spells tend to be short but frequent.” They add: “within 1 or 2 years, the majority of people escaped from poverty. Within 1 year, 53% of new spells ended; 70% ended within 2 years, and more than three-fourths within 3 years” (p. 25).

The entrances and exits into poverty are “most often caused by changes in employment status and/or financial resources,” say “getting laid off from a job or having one’s hours cut.” There are other causes as well, such as, changes in family structure; for example, the birth of a child, divorce.

Welfare use?

The PSID data on welfare usage yield similar results. By age 65, 65% of Americans will have spent some part of a year getting benefits from a means-tested welfare program (e.g., Supplemental Nutrition Assistance [SNAP], Medicaid), while 58.7% will have been on welfare parts or the whole of two years, 54.2 percent for three years, 48.0% for four years, and 40.3 percent for 5 or more years (p. 13). The authors point out that “only 15.9 percent of Americans will reside in a household that receives a welfare program in 5 or more consecutive years” (p. 13).

The dynamics of welfare use

Some of the poor will hold jobs (part-time, intermittent, full-time) but not earn enough to lift them out of poverty. In some cases, people will find jobs that raise their income enough to lift them out of poverty for a time but then fall back into poverty. Others will remain poor permanently. However, the common pattern, already mentioned, is for people who experience poverty to move in and out of poverty. Welfare use follows the diverse paths of poverty, with short-term and long-term usage, though some do not ever obtain any benefits. The U.S. welfare state overall, and at least since the 1970s, is less generous than the social-welfare systems of most other “rich” countries. For documentation of the last point, see the extraordinarily well researched analysis by Lane Kenworthy in his book, Social Democratic Capitalism (publ. 2020).

Refuting other myths of poverty

Furthermore, as Rank and his colleagues find (chap. 5), there are at any given time more whites who are poor than blacks, though the poverty rate is greater for blacks than for whites. While there are concentrations of inner-city poverty, poverty increasingly exists in the suburbs and, as always, in rural areas. Some poverty conditions are as wretched as anywhere in the world (see examples in Catherine Coleman Flower’s book, Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret, and Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer’s book, $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America).

Conflicting Perspectives on the Poor and the causes of Poverty

Those on the political/ideological Right, view poverty as the result of bad choices and/or a culture of poverty. Either way, the poor are said to be responsible for their poverty. And most people, regardless of the conditions affecting their early years, can achieve a non-poverty standard of living with enough determination and hard work.

With perhaps exceptions for those with disabilities and old age, those experiencing poverty therefore do not deserve much or any public assistance. There is a Social Darwinist tilt to the thinking about poverty on the Right (e.g., the Republican Party). It is reflected in the opposition to social-welfare spending by the government and its preference for charity/philanthropy as the principal recourse for the deserving poor. This general attitude goes back to and echoes the harsh Elizabethan poor laws of the early 17th century, with its disdain and punitive treatment of the “undeserving” poor. Historian Michael B. Katz has documented this story in his remarkable books – The Undeserving Poor and In the Shadow of the Poorhouse. Aside from the CARES Act, Trump and his administration were well within this tradition, especially when it came to people of color.  

Centrist and progressive Democrats tend to view poverty as a result of a social system in which there are too few opportunities for some people to earn better-than-poverty wages, or to acquire adequate education, housing, and health care. When Democrats think of the roots of poverty – and inequality – they think of system- or institutionally-rooted problems.

From this view, the conditions and lack of opportunities that cause poverty is said to be the result of the decisions of corporate CEOs and their boards who outsource work to low-wage workers living in countries where there are low taxes and weak or nonexistent regulations. They fire workers who advocate for unions and subvert unionization drives. They designate workers as contract workers so they don’t have to pay for job-related benefits. During recessions, they lay off workers and then often replace them with lower-wage workers. They increasingly automate workplaces when they can. And they hire undocumented workers, to whom they can pay lower wages. They make sure that the executives and shareholders are well compensated while letting workers’ wages stagnate, as they have for decades.

The policies of government play a big role in the creation and continuation of widespread poverty. Consider the Republican Party’s role. When Republican have control of the White House and/or the Congress they cut back spending on the safety net, weaken unions, and imposed restrictive regulations on whom is eligible for benefits. Though some Democrats have done such things as well. Another, more radical view, is that the source of poverty can ultimately be traced to the corporate-dominated capitalist economy that is too unregulated, too privatized, where the rich are under-taxed, and where the economy is subject to regular contractions, and a government that is dominated by the interests of mega-corporations and the rich, so that we get a kind of socialism for the rich.

Both centrist and progressive Democrats see a pressing need to reform or radically change both the capitalist and state sectors, either incrementally (centrists) or structurally (progressives). Republicans favor the status quo.

The effects of poverty

The accumulation of disadvantages

Growing up in poor families create obstacles to the opportunities that may exist. Rank, Eppard and Bullock refer to the concept of “agency” in this context. They write: “True agency requires that individuals have their capabilities fully developed and that they have unobstructed access to important resources (economic, social, cultural, and so on).” They continue.

“All of these components are essential. Capabilities and resources have little use if one does not have access to opportunity pathways within which to utilize them. Likewise, it is difficult to make the most of opportunity pathways without the requisite capabilities and resources” (p. 138).

They add:

“A large body of research clearly demonstrates that the families we are born into, the neighborhoods and communities we grow up in, the schools we attend, the peer networks we are embedded in, the structural arrangement of our country of birth, and a variety of other important social contexts and forces combine to profoundly influence how much agency we ultimately possess.”

The forces that limit individual agency

We do not choose the social contexts and forces that shape us. And there are huge inequalities reflected in the vast range of social contexts and forces. On this point, they write: “high levels of inequality are built into the structure of our society due to the decisions that have been collectively made, and this inequality is getting worse.” The reference to “collectively made” is ambiguous and misleading.

The institutional and social arrangements that exist have been disproportionately influenced by the powerful and rich in the society. See, for example, the analysis by Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson in their book, Let Them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality). And, then there is the long and devastating history of slavery, Jim Crow, and ongoing structural racism that still afflicts blacks and people of color, as well as many whites. Isabel Wilkerson documents the racism in U.S. history, as many others have, in her highly acclaimed book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. The point is that some few have been disproportionately responsible for the “collectively made” poverty that exists.

The Deprivations of the poor and near-poor are identified

Paul Buchheit points to evidence that half of America is in or near poverty and poverty has risen more sharply during the pandemic than at any time since the 1960s (https://commondreams.org/views/2021/02/22/2021-update-half-america-or-near-poverty).

He refers to the World Bank’s definition of poverty, which is a “pronounced deprivation in well-being.” In this sense of poverty, there are millions of Americans who are in severe deprivation. This is reflected, he writes, in the following examples: “millions of Americans who are unable to pay for medical treatment; who suffer the stress of delinquent rent and mortgage payments; who see a steady decline of jobs that pay enough to support a family; and who are victims of the surge in drug and alcohol and suicide “deaths of despair” that continue to increase among poor Americans during the COVID-19 crisis.”

Buchheit highlights his argument by referring to five examples of widespread deprivation in the U.S.

#1 – “The Majority of American Households Are Living Paycheck-to-Paycheck During the Pandemic.” He refers to a Washington Post summary of some of the evidence:  “According to Nielsen data, the American Payroll Association, CareerBuilder and the National Endowment for Financial Education, somewhere between 50 percent and 78 percent of employees earn just enough money to pay their bills each month….[this was] before the coronavirus pandemic….[since then] the number of first-time unemployment claims has exceeded 1 million per week, an unprecedented number in U.S. history.” Additionally, “an NPR review states that ‘survey after survey for years has found that most people in the U.S. live paycheck to paycheck.’ There is more. “Both Schwab’s 2020 Modern Wealth Survey and a recent Harris Poll found that a sizable majority of Americans are suffering financial stress during the pandemic. The American Psychological Association concurs. In Bankrate’s latest polling numbers, 6 out of 10 Americans would be unable to afford an unexpected $1,000 expense.”

#2 – “Half of Americans are experiencing food and rent insecurity”

Brookings reports that two in five households with mothers with pre-teen children

were food insecure, meaning that ‘a household has difficulty providing enough

food due to a lack of resources.’” With respect to rent, there are “twelve million

renters [who] owe an average of $5,600 in back rent and utilities. The $1,400

stimulus payment will help keep some housed for just a few months. The “rent and mortgage moratoriums will help some families, but they end in March and June, respectively. But then what?

#3 – “Over Half of Black and Latino Families Lack the Funds to Sustain Them for Three Months at a Poverty Level”

Researchers at Duke University have found that “57 percent of Black families with children and 50 percent of Latino families with children were poor in terms of net worth in 2019,” while the rate for white families was 24 percent. They have virtually no savings.

#4 – “Almost Half of America’s Children Live in Households that Can’t Meet Basic Expenses”

A Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey conducted in early 2021 found that In October 2020 “one out of every five American kids was living in poverty conditions. And it’s much worse for Black and Latino families. Incredibly, two out of three Black children (and slightly less for Latinos) live in households that “have trouble covering usual expenses.”

#5 – “According to One Careful Study, Over Half of Americans Are Trying to Survive Without Full-Time Living-Wage Jobs”

Buchheit refers here to a study by “Ludwig Institute for Shared Economic Prosperity, which considers part-time workers, those working full-time but earning too little to climb above the poverty line, and discouraged workers who’ve stopped looking for unemployment. As of December 2020, a full 53.9 percent of working-age Americans did not have living-wage full-time jobs.” A Brookings study
The CARES Act relief program made a difference

Buchheit reminds us that government has provided some assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially during the early stage of this epidemic. He refers to research on the impact of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act. Given scientific opinion, the magnitude of the pandemic, and the dire economic effects, even the Republicans in the U.S. Senate voted for the $2 trillion relief package. NPR staff reported that the Senate vote 96 to 0 in favor of the legislation, including most Republicans. The vote occurred after then “Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) told lawmakers, “Our nation obviously is going through a kind of crisis that is totally unprecedented in living memory” (https://npr.org/2020/03/25/818881845/senate-reaches-historic-deal-on-2t-coronavirus-economic-relief-package).

According to Wikipeida, The CARES Act was touted as “a $2.2 trillion economic stimulus bill passed by the 116th U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump on March 27, 2020, in response to the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CARES_Act).

Specifically, the CARES Act included, according to Wikipedia, “$300 billion in one-time cash payments to individual people who submit a tax return in America (with most single adults receiving $1,200 and families with children receiving more), $260 billion in increased unemployment benefits, the creation of the Paycheck Protection Program that provides forgivable loans to small businesses with an initial $350 billion in funding (later increased to $669 billion by subsequent legislation), $500 billion in loans for corporations, and $339.8 billion to state and local governments.” (For a more detailed analysis, check out Leon LaBrecque’s article at https://forbes.com/sites/leonlabrecque/2020/03/29/the-cares-act-has-passed-here-are-the-highlights.

Some evidence

Buchheit cites research:  

“Researchers at Columbia University estimated that the support provided by the CARES Act, passed with bipartisan support maintained the U.S. poverty rate at a level about 30 percent lower than otherwise expected. Stimulus payments have kept us afloat. An overwhelming majority of Americans are in favor of further relief, and the Biden Administration is preparing a massive stimulus bill to accommodate a troubled populace.”

At the same time, such relief programs are limited, in that “for most Americans, stimulus checks will not sustain family needs for more than a few months.”

For the most part, Trump waged a war on poor people

Nathalie Baptiste and Jessica Washington compile evidence for this argument in a February 14, 2020, article for Mother Jones magazine (https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2020/02/trump-isnt-waging-a-war-on-poverty-hes-waging-a-war-on-the-poor). They report on Trump’s 2021 $4.8 trillion budget proposal that, if passed by Congress, “would further decimate the already weakened social safety net.” It calls for “steep cuts to food stamps, Medicaid, housing assistance, and other welfare programs that millions of Americans rely on.”

The weakening of an already limited social safety net did not begin with Trump, though he intensified its inadequacies. Baptiste and Washington put it this way: “The once-robust social safety net has been steadily dismantled by Republican and Democratic administrations alike. A series of actions, from Ronald Reagan’s fear-mongering about the government subsidizing luxurious lifestyles for welfare recipients to Bill Clinton’s welfare reform that imposed strict work requirement for benefit recipients, have made it tougher than ever to be poor in America. Now Trump is making it even harder.” 

With Democrats in control of the House in 2020, Trump’s budget did not have a chance of being passed into law. However, Trump had “already rolled out a series of bureaucratic changes that [had] begun to take a tangible toll on the country’s most vulnerable populations and will only inflict more damage in the coming years.”

“There’s been an emphasis on attacking the most vulnerable people in our nation,” says Alexandra Cawthorne Gaines, vice president of the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress. Baptiste and Washington give two examples of the programs that have “taken the biggest hit as a result of this administration’s war on the poor, the sick, and the elderly.”

Food Stamps

They write: “SNAP, which is administered by the US Department of Agriculture, feeds more than 40 million Americans each year. Food stamps are vital for low-income people and families and serve as an economic driver across the country, providing customers and revenue for small grocers.” Such food assistance was first instituted during the 1960s. It never provided by itself the means to acquire an adequately nutritional diet, but it was nonetheless significant.

The program became more restrictive under the Clinton administration, which instituted rules that began to make access to food stamps more difficult than earlier, and Trump would make it even harder. Here’s what Baptiste and Washington write.

“As part of Clinton’s welfare reform, able-bodied adults between the ages of 18 and 50 with no dependents were limited to three months of assistance before they had to prove that they were working at least 20 hours a week. At that point, their benefits would lapse, and they would have to meet certain requirements in order to become eligible again. In the past, governors of states with high unemployment rates could request waivers from the rule, and many able-bodied recipients were able to continue receiving food benefits. Now, the Trump administration’s new rule will tighten the requirements for waivers, making it close to impossible for states to request them. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people will lose SNAP eligibility and have to find new ways to make ends meet.”

Baptiste and Washington illustrate their point with the example of “Mr. Smith, a 45-year-old man living in Washington, DC, scrapes together what passes for a living selling a local newspaper as a street vendor, for which he earns $20 a day—on a good day. Each month, he receives $194 from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as SNAP or food stamps. Free meals at various churches and nonprofits are essential to bolster the food supply he is able to purchase. When he gets his benefits at the beginning of the month, he buys groceries in bulk, either foods he can store in his freezer or those with a long shelf life.

Mr. Smith says, “You have to budget. You have to be really frugal. You have to get three meals a day on $6 or $7.”

However inadequate, a new Trump administration rule, scheduled to be instituted on April 1 (2020), “will cause approximately 700,000 people across the country to be kicked off the SNAP rolls.” This was less than earlier number contemplated by the administration. All of this is done by executive order.

According to Mike Dorning, the rule changes were being considered for some months (https://time.com/5632313/trump-food-stamps-new-regulations). In July 2019, The Trump administration was already moving to end food stamp benefits for 3 million people with proposed new regulations curtailing the leeway of states to automatically enroll residents who receive welfare benefits.

Dorning quotes Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, [who] said the Agriculture Department’s action “is yet another attempt by this administration to circumvent Congress and make harmful changes to nutrition assistance that have been repeatedly rejected on a bipartisan basis.” Stabenow also said: “This rule would take food away from families, prevent children from getting school meals, and make it harder for states to administer food assistance.”

Dorning also quotes what Elaine Waxman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, said in testimony last month to a House Agriculture subcommittee: “We particularly worry about food‐insecure households with kids and adolescents. Food insecure children have higher rates of fair and poor health, have higher rates of hospitalization, increased risk of asthma.”

Without SNAP, Mr. Smith isn’t sure how he’ll eat. And he knows what hunger is like. “You’re in survival mode instead of productive mode,” he says of his time without SNAP benefits. “You’re walking around like a bear foraging for food.” But even given SNAP’s limitations, “that three months of being able to eat is a life saver.”  

Cash Assistance

Baptiste and Washington also consider the background of cash assistance and how access to it has been steadily curtailed. The concept of supporting poor Americans with cash assistance was first established in 1935 as part of the New Deal, when the Great Depression sent 15 million Americans into poverty. (There was earlier a system of cash assistance through survivors’ insurance for Civil War veterans and their families, analyzed in great depth by Theda Skocpol in her book, Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origin of Social Policy in the United States. It faded away as the survivors died.)

Over the subsequent decades, after the 1930s, welfare became a top target of Republican mockery, culminating in President Ronald Reagan’s ridicule of so-called “welfare queens” living large on the taxpayers’ dime. After Clinton’s welfare reform overhauled the program in 1996 and imposed work requirements, what was once welfare became known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF.

Today, they write, “22 of every 100 US families living in poverty receive cash assistance, down from 68 in 1996.”  They quote LaDonna Pavetti of the Center on Budget and Policy and Priorities who says the program only reaches “families who are really, really desperate and don’t have any other options.” Baptiste and Washington give this example.

 “For instance, a single woman with two children living in South Carolina and collecting TANF benefits receives just $292 each month in cash assistance. That doesn’t cover even a third of the state’s average rent for a two-bedroom home, which is $898. Even in states with more generous benefits—like New Hampshire, where that same family would get $1,066—it doesn’t cover rent for the average two-bedroom unit.

Richard Kogan and his colleagues at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities offer this additional information on the Trump administration’s proposed cuts in cash assistance (https://cbpp.org/research/federal-budget/cuts-to-low-income-assistance-programs-in-president-trumps-2020-budget-are).

“The 2020 budget would cut the TANF block grant and eliminate the related TANF Contingency Fund, a cut of $22 billion in fundingover the next decade. TANF provides funds to states for short-term income assistance, work programs, and other crucial supports for poor families with children. Such cuts conflict sharply with the budget’s rhetoric on promoting work opportunities for poor families.”

“Specifically, the budget would require states to spend at least 30 percent of federal and state TANF dollars on work activities, such as education, training, and subsidized employment; work supports, such as transportation assistance; child care; and assessment and provision of services such as case management. Half of that required spending (or 15 percent of the total) would have to be in work and training. But the budget doesn’t make any changes that would encourage states to serve the very families that could benefit from most those resources.

“While targeting more TANF funding to key program areas makes sense, the proposal is seriously flawed. Basic assistance (cash income support to needy families) is not included in the list of areas that would receive minimum targeted funding. The combination of less overall funding and new requirements for spending on work programs — without any requirement that state TANF programs fulfill the key mission of ensuring that very poor families with children can meet their most basic needs — could lead states to shift funds away from basic income assistance. That likely would push more families into severe hardship.”

The Democrats and Biden try to do better

The Democrat legislative proposals in 2020 after the CARES Act

The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passed the HEROES act back in May 2020 and then several subsequent versions of it

Heroes stands for The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act or Heroes Act (H.R. 6800)

According to the staff at Investopedia, US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi “unveiled [on May 12, 2020] a bill to fund a new round of relief spending to support the U.S. economy in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis and shutdown of wide swaths of the economy” (https://www.investopedia.com/democrats-usd3-trillion-coronavirus-relief-bill-4844752#the-heroes-act). On May 15, 2020, the Democratically-controlled House passed the bill by a vote of 208 to 199, largely on partisan grounds. And then, on Oct. 1, 2020, Democratic legislators passed an updated version of the bill, again with the same result.

In late December 2020, Congress did pass the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, “building on aspects of the earlier Cares Act from March 2020, including extending unemployment insurance payments.” Its price tag was $900 billion.

Sasha Abramsky reports that the Heroes bill “was aimed at delivering trillions of dollars of additional federal funds to support health care systems, unemployment benefits, housing assistance, nutritional programs, as well as money to keep cities and states, public transit systems, schools, and other vital infrastructure functioning. Since then, the House has passed several updated versions of the Act” (https://truthout.org/articles/ever-growing-millions-of-americans-face-eviction-and-hunger-will-congress-act).

Trump and the Republicans made all such Democratic initiatives appear to be partisan and opposed them, claiming that the Act would benefit “only ‘blue states and cities,’ They also hoped through the late spring and summer of 2020 [that] “the pandemic would simply vanish, and the tens of millions of unemployed people would all be able to return to work.” They opposed “expanded unemployment systems, senators such as Lindsey Graham argued that support-oriented measures would sabotage the labor market by providing people with disincentives to re-enter the workforce.” When the Republicans realized the pandemic was not going away, they embraced “much smaller stimulus packages,” and reframed their opposition to the Democrats’ HEROES Act as being fiscally responsible and as stopping the Democrats from funding profligately their favorite programs. All this led to a predictable and extension of “legislative stalemate.”

Meanwhile, Millions of Americans were driven or stayed in poverty or were barely making ends meet. Abramsky offers this summary.

“As a result, in the last weeks of 2020, absent quick congressional action and with the pandemic raging worse than ever, millions of Americans are [were] staring into an economic abyss. Somewhere in the region of 12 million people — millions of them gig workers who don’t qualify, in normal times, for unemployment; and millions more who are now considered to be long-term unemployed and who, again, in normal times would have maxed out their unemployment benefits — will lose their financial lifelines next month” [December 2020]

The problem is deeply rooted in the political-economic system, predates the pandemic, though has been made worse by it. It is reflected in the vastly unequal distributions of income and wealth, creating a situation in which “Three billionaires now possess the same amount of wealth as the bottom half of the U.S. population.” It is reflected in thesomewhere in the region of 13 million households that rent their homes are at risk of eviction once eviction moratoriums end over the coming months,” or that the number of people without health insurance had increased from 26.7 million in 2016 to 29.2 million by the end of 2019. A growing number of people are having difficulty putting enough food on the table. Groups monitoring hunger and food insecurity estimated that 37 million people fell into this category in early 2020. Today, Abramsky writes, “it is 54 million, or one in six Americans. Seventeen millions of these are children. Food banks around the country are reporting unprecedented demand.”

There is more. Abramsky gives examples of how public transit systems are collapsing and public education systems, many already strapped for money, are experiencing reductions in financial support.

Two Decades After the ‘End of Welfare,’ Biden and the Democrats Are Trying to Change Direction

This is the view advanced by Jim Tankersley and Jason DeParle (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/13/business-economy/child-poverty-stimulus.html). The article was updated on March 16.

They argue that the policy instituted by President Clinton’s administration, that “celebrated ‘the end of welfare as we know it,’ challenging the poor to exercise ‘independence’ and espousing balanced budgets and smaller government,” is coming to an end, as the current Democratic Party and the Biden administration moves “in the opposite direction.”

“Behind that shift,” they write, “is a realignment of economic, political and social forces, some decades in the making and others accelerated by the pandemic, that enabled a rapid advance in progressive priorities.” At the same time, they wonder how long this change in political direction will last. Here’s how the put it. “Whether the new law is a one-off culmination of those forces, or a down payment on even more ambitious efforts to address the nation’s challenges of poverty and opportunity, will be a defining battle for Democrats in the Biden era.”

The American Rescue Plan

The “first major legislative act under President Biden [is] a deficit-financed, $1.9 trillion ‘American Rescue Plan’ filled with programs as broad as expanded aid to nearly every family with children and as targeted as payments to Black farmers. While providing an array of benefits to the middle class, it is also a poverty-fighting initiative of potentially historic proportions, delivering more immediate cash assistance to families at the bottom of the income scale than any federal legislation since at least the New Deal.”

President Biden signed the plan into law on Thursday, March 11, 2021. Other temporary provisions in the law includes “include extended and expanded unemployment benefits, increased tax breaks for child care costs and an enlarged earned-income tax credit.”  Tankersley and DeParle report that researches say these antipoverty provisions will, among other benefits, “lift nearly six million children out of poverty.”

Propitious conditions led to the advance and passage of the plan. The authors point to a “summer of protests against racial injustice, and a coalition led by Black voters that lifted Mr. Biden to the White House and helped give Democrats control of the Senate, [putting] economic equity at the forefront of the new administration’s agenda.” The backers say that the passage of the plan marks “the beginning of an opportunity for Democrats to unite a new majority in a deeply polarized country, built around a renewed belief in government.”

Biden’s first 100 days – on the domestic side

Peter Baker reports that in his first nationally televised address to a joint session of Congress on April 28, 2021, Biden presented a vision of how he and his administration hope to shift “how the nation serves its people” (https://nytimes.com/2021/04/28/us/politics/joe-biden-government-plans.html).

As Baker puts it, “President Biden laid out an ambitious agenda on Wednesday night to rewrite the American social compact by vastly expanding family leave, child care, health care, preschool and college education for millions of people to be financed with increased taxes on the wealthiest earners.”

 It is a $1.8 trillion social spending plan,” titled the American Families plan, and is intended “to accompany previous proposals to build roads and bridges, expand other social programs and combat climate change. Biden’s vision of government is transformational and in the tradition of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society and Roosevelt’s New Deal. Biden wants to “prove democracy still works, that our government still works and we can deliver for our people.”

But, as Baker points out, “the succession of costly proposals amounts to a risky gamble that a country deeply polarized along ideological and cultural lines is ready for a more activist government and the sort of redistribution of wealth long sought by progressives.” And this is occurring in a political context in which “Mr. Biden’s Democrats have only the barest of majorities in the House and Senate.”

Nonetheless, Biden can now point to the American Rescue Plan as a good start in moving his conception of government’s responsibilities forward, along with the progress his administration has facilitated in vaccinating millions of Americans against the Covid-19 virus.

The American Families Plan

The $1.8 trillion “American Families Plan,” as Biden called his latest proposal, would follow the “American Rescue Plan,” and the proposed “American Jobs Plan,” a $2.3 trillion program for infrastructure, home health care and other priorities, is pending.

Baker describes some of the features of the American Families Plan. It includes $1 trillion in new spending and $800 billion in tax credits. It would finance universal prekindergarten for all 3- and 4-year-olds, a federal paid family and medical leave program, efforts to make child care more affordable, free community college for all, aid for students at colleges that historically serve nonwhite communities and expanded subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.” In addition, it would “extend key tax breaks included as temporary measures in the coronavirus relief package [the already enacted Family Rescue Plan] that benefit lower- and middle-income workers and families, including the child tax credit, the earned-income tax credit, and the child and dependent care tax credit.”

The American Families Plan is to be financed by progressive taxes, including an increase in the marginal income tax rate for the top 1 percent of American income earners, to 39.6 percent from 37 percent. His plan also calls for “increases in capital gains and dividend tax rates for those earning more than $1 million a year. And he would eliminate a provision in the tax code that reduces capital gains on some inherited assets, like vacation homes, that largely benefits the wealthy.”

It is clear that Biden’s plans, if they should become law, would, among other effects, have the effect of reducing poverty. Yet another plan is “For Strengthening Worker Organizing, Collective Bargaining, and Unions”

(https://joebiden.com/empowerworkers). Unions have helped to keep wages up, win medical, pension, and paid vacation time, and have overall been a major force in the Democratic Party. For an in-depth analysis of unions, see Michael D. Yates book Why Unions Matter.

Strengthening Worker Organizing, Collective Bargaining, and Unions

This pro-worker, pro-union plan opens as follows.

“Strong unions built the great American middle class. Everything that defines what it means to live a good life and know you can take care of your family – the 40-hour workweek, paid leave, health care protections, a voice in your workplace – is because of workers who organized unions and fought for worker protections. Because of organizing and collective bargaining, there used to be a basic bargain between workers and their employers in this country that when you work hard, you share in the prosperity your work created.

“Today, however, there’s a war on organizing, collective bargaining, unions, and workers. It’s been raging for decades, and it’s getting worse with Donald Trump in the White House. Republican governors and state legislatures across the country have advanced anti-worker legislation to undercut the labor movement and collective bargaining. States have decimated the rights of public sector workers who, unlike private sector workers, do not have federal protections ensuring their freedom to organize and collectively bargain. In the private sector, corporations are using profits to buy back their own shares and increase CEOs’ compensation instead of investing in their workers and creating more good-quality jobs. The results have been predictable: rising income inequality, stagnant real wages, the loss of pensions, exploitation of workers, and a weakening of workers’ voices in our society.

“Biden is proposing a plan to grow a stronger, more inclusive middle class – the backbone of the American economy – by strengthening public and private sector unions and helping all workers bargain successfully for what they deserve.” Indeed, during the 1930s-1960s, unions played a major role in the New Deal Coalition that expanded “the middle class” and reduced poverty for blacks as well as whites. 

The specific goals of the pro-unions plan are to: (1) “Check the abuse of corporate power over labor and hold corporate executives personally accountable for violations of labor laws”; (2) “Encourage and incentivize unionization and collective bargaining”; and (3) “Ensure that workers are treated with dignity and receive the pay, benefits, and workplace protections they deserve.”

To get a sense of this plan, just consider the substance of the first goal, that is, to “Check the abuse of corporate power over labor.”

Workers are said to be more essential to the economy than CEOs and hedge fund managers.

“While we could survive without Wall Street and investment banks, our entire economy would collapse without electricians to keep our lights on, auto workers on the line building our cars, drivers who deliver all things we need for our daily lives to our markets, firefighters, ambulance drivers, service workers, educators, and millions more.”

Despite the importance of workers, “employers steal about $15 billion a year from working people just by paying workers less than the minimum wage. On top of that, workers experience huge losses in salary caused by other forms of wage theft, like employers not paying overtime, forcing off-the-clock work, and misclassifying workers. At the same time, these companies are raking in billions of dollars in profits and paying CEOs tens and hundreds of millions of dollars.” 

Furthermore: “employers repeatedly interfere with workers’ efforts to organize and collectively bargain. In nearly all union campaigns, corporations run a campaign against the union. Three in four employers hire anti-union consultants, spending approximately $1 billion each year on these efforts. Corporations fire pro-union workers in one of every three union campaigns and about half of corporations threaten to retaliate against workers during union campaigns. Even workers who successfully are able to form a union are later impeded by corporations who bargain in bad faith. About half of newly organized groups of workers do not have a contract a year later and one in three remain without a contract two years after a successful union election.”

Biden’s plan “will ensure employers respect workers’ rights,” holding “corporations and executives personally accountable for interfering with organizing efforts and violating other labor laws.” Along these lines, “Biden strongly supports the Protecting the Right to Organize Act’s (PRO Act) provisions instituting financial penalties on companies that interfere with workers’ organizing efforts, including firing or otherwise retaliating against workers.”

At the same time, “Biden will go beyond the PRO Act by enacting legislation to impose even stiffer penalties on corporations and to hold company executives personally liable when they interfere with organizing efforts, including criminally liable when their interference is intentional.” 

Additionally, Biden “will direct the U.S. Department of Labor to engage in meaningful, collaborative enforcement partnerships, including with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Internal Revenue Service, the Justice Department, and state tax, unemployment insurance, and labor agencies. And, while Trump has weakened enforcement by sabotaging the enforcement agencies and slashing their investigator corps, Biden will fund a dramatic increase in the number of investigators in labor and employment enforcement agencies to facilitate a large anti-misclassification effort.”

There is more. The plan will stop federal dollars from flowing “to employers who engage in union-busting activities, participate in wage theft, or violate labor law,” and ensure federal contracts only go to employers who sign neutrality agreements committing not to run anti-union campaigns.” And companies that bargain in bad father will be penalized.

Biden’s proposal, “For Strengthening Worker Organizing, Collective Bargaining, and Unions,” is radical in its vision of bringing greater equality and justice to the workplaces of America. The potential political costs are great. If corporate America throws its support to the Republican Party, now under the sway of Trump, the challenge of getting Democrats elected and reelected in 2022 and 2024 will be greater than in 2020.

The Biden administration has already taken steps to reduce hunger.

Jason DeParle reports that, via an executive order in January, “the Biden administration is accelerating a vast campaign of hunger relief that will temporarily increase assistance by tens of billions of dollars and set the stage for what officials envision as lasting expansions of aid.” The need is great, with “more than one in 10 households reporting that they lack enough to eat” (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/04/us/politics/biden-hunger-programs.html).

Biden “has increased food stamps by more than $1 billion a month, provided needy children a dollar a day for snacks, expanded a produce allowance for pregnant women and children, and authorized the largest children’s summer feeding program in history.”

The campaign is driven, DeParle posits, “both by the spread of hardship to more working-class and white families and the growing recognition of poverty’s disproportionate toll on minorities. With hunger especially pronounced among Black and Latino households, vital to the Democrats’ coalition, the administration is framing its efforts not just as a response to pandemic needs but as part of a campaign for racial justice.”

And scenes of crowded food banks have provided additional incentives for action. De Parle refers to a “recent Census Bureau survey [which] found that, over the previous week alone, 8.4 percent of adults said their households ‘sometimes’ lacked enough to eat and 2.3 percent said they ‘often’ did. That translates into 23 million hungry adults, plus millions of children.”

Concluding thoughts

Joe Biden and his administration are advancing an agenda that will, if implemented, will provide enormous benefits to poor, working class, and lower middle-class Americans. It will also generate an enormous negative reaction from the corporate community, the rich, many in the top ten or so percent of the income distribution, the Republican Party, the right-wing media, and, of course, Trump, who will find ways to rile up his army of unquestioning followers against Democrats. Republicans in the U.S. Senate will use the filibuster when then can to stymie virtually any legislative initiative from the Democrats. Republican governors and legislators in many states are already instituting rules that are designed to further suppress the vote of their Democratic opponents, with the 2022 and 2024 elections in mind.

In pursuing a progressive agenda, Biden seems to be betting that he and the Democratic Party can hold onto most of the voters who turned out for them in the 2020 elections and increase the support they get from white working-class voters. This will depend on the organizing and educational efforts of liberal and progressive organizations, the ability to raise money for campaigns, the state of the economy, whether the pandemic has been brought under control, and whether the Democrats can find ways to pass some of Biden’s proposals in 2021 and 2022.

The stakes are enormous, for the poor, the working class, broad swaths of the middle class, for people of color, for women, for children, and for those who seek viable options in their gender identities. It comes down to whether justice and democracy will be strengthened or weakened. If the latter, anti-democratic and authoritarian forces in the society are likely to expand and become consolidated under the autocratic-aspiring Trump.

On the other hand, the threats to justice and democracy and the Biden/Democratic agenda may be sufficient enough to convince voters to cast their ballots for Democrats in upcoming elections.  

Biden and the Military-Industrial Complex

Biden and the Military-Industrial Complex

Bob Sheak, April 19, 2021

Foreword

Since Eisenhower identified and warned about a military-industrial complex in his farewell address on January 17, 1961, the corporate and military interests that make it up have always lobbied for increases in the military budget. The “cold war” provided the principal rationale for high-levels of military spending up to 1989, but, after the demise of the Soviet Union and then the attacks in the U.S. on 9/11, the new rationale became a “war on terrorism,” a war that knows no boundaries. In the years following 2001, the U.S. defense budget increased from 2001 through 2012, declined in 2013, and resumed increasing through the last years of the Obama administration and then robustly under Trump.  

In this post, I consider the reasons for the growth of the military-industrial complex, Eisenhower’s warning, how the US military has become a “mass killing” machine globally, the full magnitude of military and military-related spending, Biden’s proposal – with few details – to increase at a much-reduced rate the military budget, along with many ideas on how spending on the military budget may be significantly decreased. 

If Biden fails to achieve diplomatic agreements with Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and if he fails to find ways to eliminate the waste and unnecessary and unreliable big weapons programs from the budget, then we will most likely see a continuation of a growing military-industrial complex, accompanied by a new and more lethal “cold war” and the relative lack of funds to deal with such existential threats as “climate change.” The emphasis in this post is on how to reduce military spending and thus the power of the military-industrial complex.

Introduction

The sheer size of the U.S. military makes it a major issue for any analysis of the federal government’s budget, the military’s economic and political power in U.S. society, whether it operates efficiently and with minimum waste, its employment effects, its environmental impacts, the military factor in foreign policy, the militarization of the domestic police force, and whether it is meaningfully accountable to any government agency outside itself. My concern is that the U.S. military-industrial complex is too big and too politically powerful and that, as such, weakens our already limited and tenuous democracy, does more to undermine international cooperation than to advance it, and too often creates the very conditions that foment violence, conflict, the shattering of whole states, extensive death and destruction, and the massive and increasing numbers of refugees we now witness. This is all so clear in the cases on American military wars on Iraq and Afghanistan, and in virtually every military intervention the US has engaged in since WWII, certainly since 9/11. There is a clear imperialistic aspect in all of this, as the U.S. tries to keep other countries, especially underdeveloped countries, open to U.S. corporate profit-making, corporate-biased trade, cheap labor, and minerals and other resources.

The Pentagon and the main actors in the federal government continuously find justifications for not only maintaining the status quo but increasing the military’s bloated budget. Islamic terrorism has since September 11, 2001 been the principal justification for this position. There is little compelling analysis in the major media of how U.S. foreign policies and military interventions have served to create the conditions for the rise and growth of this terrorism. There are also other alleged threats to U.S. national security, including those posed by Russia and China, that are used to justify keeping the military-industrial complex large and growing. Some policymakers trumpet the need to overthrow “authoritarian” and “repressive” governments. All such justifications have variously played a role in favor of keeping the military big and strong. At the same time, U.S. leaders maintain supportive relations with authoritarian and repressive regimes when it serves the interests of the U.S. government and corporations that produce military weapons. Saudi Arabia is one blatant example of this hypocrisy.  

Eisenhower refers to the idea of “the military-industrial complex”

Three days before President Eisenhower left office on January 17, 1961, he addressed the “American people” by radio and television. One of the most notable and memorable parts of the speech is when the president talks about the political and economic concerns he had about the growth of the military-industrial complex. Here is what he said.

“Until the latest world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.

“The conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American Experience. The total influence – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

“We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense without peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together” (http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=12086).

The speech was given in a troubled and somewhat unique historical time. Eisenhower was concerned about how we would, as a country, achieve some reasonable balance between national defense, the domestic economy, the material well-being of citizens, and democracy. One thing is clear. He was not saying that the military-industrial complex had to be curtailed. Indeed, he emphasized the country would have to maintain strong military forces and the industrial capacity to ensure their strength. The implication was that this emergent military-industrial complex was going to be a permanent fixture in American society. But citizens must remain vigilant to keep it from going too far.

Context

Remember this was a time when the cold war had already reached ominous heights. The Soviet Union had nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. On October 4, 1957, the Soviets had launched the first satellite into space. The Korean War had ended in a divided Korea involving a truce, not a peace agreement. And China was now under the rule of a communist party led by Mao Tse-Tung . John Kennedy came into office later that January 1961 believing falsely that the U.S. suffered from a “missile gap” vis a vis the Soviets, which became another justification for increasing the military budget.

According to later revelations in The Pentagon Papers, the U.S. government and military establishment were concerned from the end of WWII that Vietnam should not fall under the control of the nationalist forces in North Vietnam led by the nationalist hero Ho Che Minh. Consequently, Truman and then Eisenhower supported the recolonization of the country by the French after WWII. Then in 1955, after the French occupation was overthrown, the U.S. helped to prevent a democratic vote by Vietnamese from all parts of Vietnam to unify the country and instead supported a puppet, unpopular administration in South Vietnam.

After Eisenhower left office in 1961, the next administrations under Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon (for much of his administration) were bent on preventing the nationalist/communist regime in North Vietnam from taking control of the entire country. They feared such a turn of events would lead to a “domino effect,” that is, that revolutionary movements in Indonesia and other parts of Southeast Asia would fall to communists, though better identified as nationalists and anti-colonialists. When developments in Vietnam turned against the U.S. backed regimes, President Johnson and his military advisers lied about an attack on American ships that never took place (the Tonkin Gulf incident), and used it as a pretext to vastly escalate the misbegotten, tragic, brutal, terribly destructive, and costly war. These historical events are captured well in John Marciano’s book The American War in Vietnam: Crime or Commemoration?

In Cuba, revolutionary forces led by Fidel Castro had in 1959 overthrew the Batista-ruled government, which had been favored and supported by the U.S., including the Eisenhower administration. There were also anti-colonial, anti-imperialist, movements in Africa and other parts of the underdeveloped countries of the world (e.g., Indonesia, Central America, Guatemala). From the perspective of Eisenhower and others in leadership positions, the turmoil in the Third World was being caused by an expansionist communist movement under the direct influence of the Soviet Union. Thus, U.S. foreign/military policies rested on the assumption that the U.S. had to do its utmost to prevent the success of leftist, nationalist, revolutionary forces wherever they emerged, thus giving the U.S. government more justifications to maintain a powerful U.S. military-industrial complex with both the most modern conventional forces and with a growing arsenal of nuclear weapons.

Bear in mind that the U.S. has always used its military forces to advance a certain conception of its national interests. U.S. military forces were used to protect the expansion of American colonists into Native American lands, and in the process killed millions. This goes back to the earliest years of the country. This “manifest destiny” is also exemplified in the 1846-1848 U.S. war with Mexico and resultant massive land acquisition that accompanied it – adding 500,000 square miles of Mexican territory to America. The U.S. Civil War was a boon to the incipient U.S. armaments industry. Then there were interventions in the late 19the century in Central America, the Philippines, Hawaii, and elsewhere. The U.S. has never been without a military and an expansionist, imperialistically-leaning foreign policy, though the military-industrial complex, as referred to by Eisenhower, did not emerge fully until during and after WWII. It was then spurred in the late 1940s by the “threat” posed by the Soviet Union and “communism,” the cold war that followed, resting on the lunatic doctrine of “mutual mass destruction, and the anti-colonial upheavals in South America, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Of course, there is the tragedy of 9/11 and the subsequent justifications and lies for invading Afghanistan and Iraq and for mounting costly wars against “terrorism.”

Underlying it all, the U.S. government has been concerned with protecting and advancing American corporate interests and their access to minerals, fossil fuels, land, and militarily strategic locations as well as to keeping friendly, often un-democratic governments in power. Of course, this dependence on a military-industrial complex is ever-more challenging in a multipolar world in which competition for scarce resources and military advantage involves an increasing number of countries, most importantly China.

In this context, resource-rich Africa has become the arena for such competition. Nick Turse gives us some idea of how Africa is the renewed focus of U.S. military involvement in his book, Tomorrow’s Battlefield: US Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa. Here’s a sample of what he finds in the years of the Obama administration related to Africa, but one of only a host of places where U.S. was involved in ongoing wars (e.g., Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya), counter-insurgency operations, the proliferation of military bases in hundreds of countries, most of them in underdeveloped countries.

“Over the course of the Obama presidency, American efforts on the [African] continent have become ever more militarized in terms of troops, bases, missions, and money. And yet from Libya to the Gulf of Guinea, Mali to [the] camp in South Sudan, the results have been dismal. Countless military exercises, counterterrorism operations, humanitarian projects, and training missions, backed by billions of dollars of taxpayer money, have all evaporated in the face of coups, civil wars, human rights abuses, terror attacks, and poorly coordinated aid efforts. The human toll is incalculable. And there appears to be no end in sight” (p. 184).

“America as emperor of weaponry”

Big weapons from big weapons makers

In an article published on April 13, 2021, Tom Engelhardt uses this phrase to argue that the United States can be thought of as a “mass-killing machine.” He refers to the military aspects of the U.S. as “Slaughter Central (https://tomdispatch.com/slaughter-central). Unsurprisingly, the top arms makers in the world are located in the U.S., namely, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, and General Dynamics. He continues his point, referring to examples of the ever-growing lethality of weapon systems.

“…we’re a killer nation, a mass-murder machine, slaughter central. And as we’ve known since the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, there could be far worse to come. After all, in the overheated dreams of both those weapons makers and Pentagon planners, slaughter-to-be has long been imagined on a planetary scale, right down to the latest intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) being created by Northrop Grumman at the cost of at least $100 billion. Each of those future arms of ultimate destruction is slated to be “the length of a bowling lane” and the nuclear charge that it carries will be at least 20 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. That missile will someday be capable of traveling 6,000 miles and killing hundreds of thousands of people each. (And the Air Force is planning to order 600 of them.)”

By the end of this decade, Engelhard reports, the “new ICBM is slated to join an unequaled American nuclear arsenal of presently 3,800 warheads.”

“Cornering the Arms Market” abroad in guns

More from Engelhardt: “…when it comes to arming other countries, Washington is without peer. It’s the weapons dealer of choice across much of the world. Yes, the U.S. gun industry that makes all those rifles for this country also sells plenty of them abroad and, in the Trump years, such sales were only made easier to complete (as was the selling of U.S. unmanned aerial drones to “less stable governments”). When it comes to semi-automatic weapons like the AR-15 or even grenades and flamethrowers, this country’s arms makers no longer even need State Department licenses, just far easier-to-get Commerce Department ones, to complete such sales, even to particularly abusive nations. As a result, to take one example, semi-automatic pistol exports abroad rose 148% in 2020.”

“Big ticket” weapons

The five big U.S. weapons producers export for sale, Engelhard writes, “jet fighters like the F-16 and F-35, tanks and other armored vehicles, submarines (as well as anti-submarine weaponry), and devastating bombs and missiles, among other things, we leave our ‘near-peer’ competitors as well as our weapons-making allies in the dust. Washington is the largest supplier to 20 of the 40 major arms importers on the planet.” The Middle East has been the destination for nearly half the arms market between 2015 and 2019. Engelhardt cites Pentagon expert William Hartung, whose research found that during these years “U.S. arms deliveries to the region added up to ‘nearly three times the arms Russia supplied to MENA [the Middle East and North Africa], five times what France contributed, 10 times what the United Kingdom exported, and 16 times China’s contribution.” (And often enough, as in Iraq and Yemen, some of those weapons end up falling into the hands of those the U.S. opposes.)” Overall, this $178 billion export trade in 2020, supplied “no fewer than 96 countries with weaponry and controls 37% of the global arms market (with, for example, Lockheed Martin alone taking in $47.2 billion in such sales in 2018, followed by the four other giant U.S. weapons makers and, in sixth place, the British defense firm BAE).

Troops and bases and drones around the globe

Engelhard again sums it up incisively: “…this country has a historic 800 or so military bases around the world and nearly 200,000 military personnel stationed abroad (about 60,000 in the Middle East alone).” He continues: “It has a drone-assassination program that extends from Afghanistan across the Greater Middle East to Africa, a series of ‘forever wars’ and associated conflicts fought over that same expanse, and a Navy with major aircraft carrier task forces patrolling the high seas. In other words, in this century, it’s been responsible for largely uncounted but remarkable numbers of dead and wounded human beings.” He refers to “Brown University’s invaluable Costs of War Project [which] has estimated that, from the beginning of the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 to late 2019, 801,000 people, perhaps 40% of them civilians, were killed in Washington’s war on terror in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere.” (The estimate by the Costs of War Project probably underestimates the true extent of the carnage.)

Not all were killed by the U.S. military and some were “American soldiers and contractors.” Nonetheless, “the documented civilian dead from American air strikes in the war years is in the many thousands, the wounded higher yet. (And, of course, those figures don’t include the dead from Afghan air strikes with U.S.-supplied aircraft.) And mind you, that’s just civilians mistaken for Taliban or other enemy forces.” Engelhardt cites investigations by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, “which followed U.S. drone strikes for years, [and] estimated that, in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen, by 2019 such attacks had killed “between 8,500 and 12,000 people, including as many as 1,700 civilians — 400 of whom were children,” while “displacing an estimated 37 million people.”

Military spending – the fuel of the military-industrial complex

 The military budget, adjusted for inflation, has gone up and down, since the Eisenhower years, though it has always been a significant part of the federal budget. It rose in the 1960s during the Vietnam War, declined during the 1970s, and rose again during the Reagan years. Then, in the aftermath of the demise of the Soviet Union and during the Clinton years, military spending fell. Then it increased in the Bush years and the first years of Obama, reflecting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. (See http://earlysignal.com/2015/02/14/history-defense-spending-one-chart.) The base military budget increased during the years of the Trump administration (https://thebalance.com/u-s-military-budget-components-challenges-growth-3306320).

Where do we stand at the onset of the Biden era with respect to military spending?

Kimberly Amadeo delves into the components of the US military budget, as of Sept 3, 2020 (that is, the last Trump proposal), and considers why the official military spending account is under-stated (https://thebalance.com/u-s-military-budget-components-challenges-growth-3306320).

She estimates military spending to be $934 billion in the last Trump budget, covering the period October 1, 2020, through September 30, 2021.” This is much more, she writes, “than the $705 billion outlined by the Department of Defense alone2.” Continuing: “The United States has many departments that support its defense. All these departments must be included to get an accurate picture of how much America spends on its military operations.” To fully grasp the full amount of military spending, “you need to look at four components,” she maintains. There is also a fifth component that Amadeo recognizes but doesn’t include in her total military spending count has been a major contributor to the national debt – and the interest on that debt. Here I quote from Amadeo’s article.

“First is the $636 billion base budget for the Department of Defense. Second is $69 billion in overseas contingency operations for DoD to fight the Islamic State group. These two, added together, total the $705 billion budgeted by the DoD.

“Third is the total of other agencies that protect our nation. These expenses are $228 billion.3 They include the Department of Veterans Affairs ($105 billion). Funding for the VA has been increased by $20 billion over 2018 levels. That’s to fund the VA MISSION Act to the VA’s health care system. The other agencies are: Homeland Security ($50 billion), the State Department ($44 billion), the National Nuclear Security Administration in the Department of Energy ($20 billion), and the FBI and Cybersecurity in the Department of Justice ($9.8 billion).4

“Additional funding goes to each department for readiness development. This includes $31 billion to the Army, $48 billion to the Navy, and $37 billion to the Air Force.

Service members will receive a 3% pay raise and an increase in their housing allowance. Family members receive $8 billion for child care, education, and professional development.

DoD will spend $21 billion on building maintenance and construction.”

The fifth component: Military spending, the national debt, and interest on the debt

In an article for the “Costs of War” project at the Watson Institute, Brown University, Heidi Peltier takes up this issue of how the military adds to the national debt and the interest that is paid on it. As indicated earlier, the interest can be added to the four components of military spending about which Amadeo writes (https://watson-brown.edu/costsofwar/files/cow/imce/papers/2020/Peltier%202020%20-%20The%Cost%20of%Debt-finance%20War.pdf).

By January 2020, through the “18 years the U.S. has been engaged in the ‘Global War on Terror,’ mainly in Iraq and Afghanistan, the government has financed this war by borrowing funds rather than through alternative means such as raising taxes or issuing war bonds.” This means that “the costs of the post-9/11 wars include not only the expenses incurred for operations, equipment, and personnel, but also the interest costs on this debt.”

The result is that, since 2001, “these interest payments have been growing, resulting in more and more taxpayer dollars being wasted on interest payments rather than being channeled to more productive uses.” Peltier calculates “that the debt incurred for $2 trillion in direct war-related spending by the Department of Defense and State Department has already resulted in cumulative interest payments of $925 billion. Even if military interventions ceased immediately, interest payments would continue to rise, and will grow further as the U.S. continues its current military operations.”

Peltier adds: “When war is financed through debt, the costs are much greater than when it is financed through taxation or other revenues, since interest payments must be made as long as the debt is outstanding. In fact, interest payments can sometimes grow to beyond the level of the debt itself, as will likely be the case with the post-9/11 wars. If war spending ceased immediately, interest payments on the $2 trillion of existing war debt would rise to over $2 trillion by 2030 and to $6.5 trillion by 2050. These interest payments will grow larger as the U.S. continues its post-9/11 military interventions and continues amassing debt to pay for the costs of war.”

Biden requests $715B for Pentagon, hinting at administration’s future priorities

First iteration of Biden’s “defense” budget

Aaron Mehta and Joe Gould report forDefense News that “Joe Biden’s fiscal 2022 budget request asks for $753 billion in national security funding, an increase of 1.6 percent that includes $715 billionfor the Defense Department.” A large part of the $38 billion part of the $752 billion, that is the difference between $753 billion and $715 billion, is for the Energy Department that “handles nuclear warheads” (https://defensenews.com/breaking-news/2021/04/09/biden-requests-715b-for-pentagon-hinting-at-administrations-future-priorities). The national security spending, as conceptualized here, does not include many of the military-related spending components about which Amadeo writes.

Insofar as the DOD component is concerned, the $715 billion “amounts to a slight decrease for the Pentagon when adjusted for inflation, and it’s well shy of the Trump administration’s projected $722 billion request for FY22.” At the same time, Biden wants to boost nondefense spending by 16 percent, to $769 billion.”

With respect to defense spending, a portion of the money “is to pay for the pay raise for men and women in uniform, and then the civilians that support them.” An administration official told reporters, according to Peltier, that the defense budget is sufficient to ensure that “the Defense Department he can continue its strategic goals as we outcompete China, and as we ensure that the men and women in uniform have everything that they need.” There will be money spent on shipbuilding, “which dovetails with the Pentagon’s focus on China and Indo-Pacific,” and includes the recapitalization of the Nation’s strategic ballistic missile submarine fleet, and invests in remotely operated and autonomous systems and the next generation attack submarine program.” There is also money “to update information and cybersecurity systems, which will include ‘$500 million for the Technology Modernization Fund, an additional $110 million for the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, and $750 million as a reserve for Federal agency information technology enhancements.’”

Identifying how to reduce the Pentagon’s budget

What would it take to reduce the influence and impacts of the military-industrial complex, while at the same time maintaining a credible military position internationally? For one thing, it would require that we eliminate unreliable and costly weapons systems. There are many views on how to do this. Here are some examples.

Example – William Hartung, a defense analyst who covers the economics of Pentagon spending, refers to the proposals “contained in a new letter to key members of Congress from a coalition of over two dozen groups from across the political spectrum (my organization, the Center for International Policy, is a signatory of the letter)” (https://forbes.com/sites/williamhartung/2021/03/24/theres-plenty-of-room-to-reduce-the-pentagon-budget/?sh=17ab002e2001).

In the letter, the signatory groups outline “roughly $80 billion in proposed savings in the Fiscal Year 2022 budget, including cancelling additional purchases of the F-35 combat aircraft ($11.4 billion in savings); eliminating the Space Force ($500 million to $2.5 billion in savings); reducing service contracting by 15% ($28.5 billion in savings); canceling the Pentagon’s new ICBM program, formally known as the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, or GBSD ($400 million to $2.4 billion in savings); and eliminating the Pentagon’s slush fund, the Overseas Contingency Operations account ($20 billion in savings).”

Hartung gives the following example: “the F-35 program has been plagued by cost and performance problems” and “a series of analyses by the Project on Government Oversight has suggested that the plane may never be fully ready for combat.” With respect to the Space Force, it threatens to further militarize the U.S. approach to space security and will, if implemented, “undermine the ability to use space to enhance life on earth.” Cut out many of the over 600,000 contractors, “many of whom do jobs that could be done more effectively, efficiently, and affordably by civilian government employees. Cutting spending on service contracting by 15% would still leave the Pentagon with roughly a half a million, surely enough to carry out any necessary tasks they may be charged with carrying out.”

Hartung also recommends the cancellation of the new ICBM, known as the GBSD. He cites former Secretary of Defense William Perry [who] has pointed out, ICBMs are “some of the most dangerous weapons in the world” because a president would only have a matter of minutes to decide whether to launch them on warning of attack, greatly increasing the risk of an accidental nuclear war. Even if the Pentagon and the Air Force were to persist in deploying ICBMs – which are both dangerous and obsolete – they could save tens of billions in the years to come by cancelling the new ICBM and refurbishing existing missiles.” The Congressional Budget Office, the Rand corporations and other experts have indicated that “existing missiles could be made reliable for another two decades or more in lieu of building an expensive new ICBM. Given that a new ICBM could cost up to $264 billion over its lifetime, this would be a wise move at time when other security risks such as dealing with outbreaks of infectious disease and addressing the ravages of climate change are starved for funding.”

And, finally, Hartung recommends eliminating “the Pentagon’s slush fund, known officially as the Overseas Contingency Operations account, or OCO.” He continues: “In recent Congressional testimony, Mandy Smithberger of the Project on Government Oversight detailed the numerous downsides of funding military objectives in this undisciplined, under-scrutinized, and shortsighted fashion. Not only has the OCO account been used to fund tens of billions worth of projects and activities that wouldn’t have made the cut under the regular process of Pentagon budget review, but it has pushed up the department’s top line to astronomical levels that are far in excess of what is needed to ensure the safety of America and its allies.”

Example – William Astore, William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) who has taught at the Air Force Academy and the Naval Postgraduate School, offers “suggestions” on how spending on the military may be reduced (https://thenation.com/article/world/coronavirus-military-spending). Astore’s recommendations dovetail with Hartung’s. Like Hartung, he suggests eliminating the nuclear arsenal modernization program, as a cost over the next 30 years of $1.7 trillion, eliminating the F-35 jet fighter contract with Lockheed Martin costing $1.5 trillion over the course of the contract. But Astore also points to cuts beyond those to which Hartung referred. Astore would reduce by half the 800 U.S. military bases that encircle the globe.

Example – John Nichols reports on the ideas of Representative Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), who “thinks the time is right to push the administration and Congress for a broader rethink of spending priorities” (https://thenation.com/article/politics/biden-military-budget). Nichols quotes Pocan as follows: “A proposed increase of $13 billion in defense spending is far too much given [the Pentagon budget’s] already rapid growth at a time of relative peace…. We cannot best build back better if the Pentagon’s budget is larger than it was under Donald Trump.” Pocan identifies some areas of the military budget that should be cut, such as “former President Trump’s excessive $1.5 trillion nuclear modernization plan” and “no new spending on nuclear weapons, as well as the need “to audit Pentagon waste and accountability measures to eliminate slush funds.” Nichols also quotes Win Without War’s Erica Fein: “Deadly pandemics, climate crisis, desperate inequality—the greatest threats to global security do not have military solutions. Yet while we’re repeatedly asked how we will afford to address these truly existential threats; the same question is never asked of adding to the Pentagon’s already-overstuffed coffers. Let’s be clear: continuing to funnel near-limitless resources into the pockets of arms manufacturers while underfunding public goods only undermines the safety of people in the United States and around the world.”

Example – Lawrence J. Korb, who has years of service in government, academia, and think tanks, also has ideas on how to reduce the military budget (https://americanprogress.org/issues/security/reports/2019/04/29/469086/fy-2020-defense-budget-gets-wrong).

Korb recommends cancelling “the Long-Range Standoff Weapon (LRSO), a new nuclear cruise missile that experts such as former Secretary of Defense William Perry say is not needed because the stealthy B-21 bomber will be able to penetrate even the most sophisticated air defenses. This step would save $713 million in FY 2020 and $18 billion for the rest of the LRSO program. Moreover, stopping production of the two new tactical nuclear weapons currently being developed would not only save about $1 billion in FY 2020 but would also save $17 billion over the next decade, in addition to decreasing the risk of a nuclear war. As Rep. Smith notes, “Funding new, low-yield weapons would only draw us further into an unnecessary nuclear arms race and increase the risks of miscalculation.”

And: “The Navy should also heed the advice of the late Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and current acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan not to continue building large nuclear carriers.60 Shanahan and key members of his staff believe that the days of the U.S. aircraft carrier are largely over in the face of advanced threats from China and Russia.” The Air Force “should cancel its plans to buy eight of the outmoded F-15 Eagles in 2020 for more than $1 billion—and 80 total over the next five years.61 Other than allowing Boeing to keep its production line open, there is no real reason for the Air Force to buy these planes, which will cost more than $100 million each, especially since the Air Force has 175 of them already and has not purchased any since 2001.”

Additionally, Korb would have Congress reject the Trump-inspired “space force.” He elaborates: “This force would have between 15,000 and 20,000 personnel and at least three four-star generals and would cost between $2 billion and $13 billion over the next five years. Moreover, it is unnecessary. There is no doubt that the United States needs a space command, much like the U.S. Strategic Command, but it does not need a separate service. Establishing a separate armed force to deal with the threats of space makes no more sense than establishing a separate force to manage the nation’s strategic nuclear capability.62 As House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith pointed out: “It [the space force] is too expensive, it creates more bureaucracy. We don’t want more people, we want to figure out how to better emphasize space.” And, finally, there is not need to increase the size of the active military force. On this point, Korb writes:

“the Army wants to increase the size of its active force; yet it missed its recruiting goals for a smaller force last year by almost 10,000 soldiers, even after giving massive bonuses and lowering its standards. Meanwhile, the Air Force should delay adding new squadrons until it deals with its pilot shortage, and the Navy should cut back its goal of growing to 355 ships by 2034. This is unrealistic even with a $750 billion budget, especially since the Navy just had to spend $24 billion to buy three Zumwalt-class destroyers and has underestimated the cost of the Columbia-class nuclear-armed submarines.”

Concluding thoughts

The debate over military spending will ultimately be resolved politically, in the White House and in the U.S. Congress. That said, the decisions will be influenced by the mega-military contractors and their armies of lobbyists and campaign contributions, the generals in the Pentagon, the competing narratives on what constitutes an adequate military budget, as well as by the pressure from communities that rely on military contracts, military bases, and jobs. Trevor Hunnicutt reports for Reuters that, at the moment, it won’t be an easy road for Biden. His military-spending plan “displeased both liberals hoping to impose cuts and hawks who want military spending to increase to deal with threats from China, Russia, Iran and North Korea – a reminder of the uphill battle Biden faces in delivering the policies he promised as a candidate beyond the COVID-19 emergency” (https://reuters.com/article/us-usa-biden-budget-idUSKBN2BW190).

Looming in the background there is the perennial question in foreign relations of how to mix diplomacy and force, or the threat of force. There are some signs that the Biden administration will, as one significant example, continue the past U.S. position vis-à-vis China, that is, viewing that country more as a military and economic threat than as a diplomatic opportunity.

Simone Chun at the Harvard Kennedy School of Politics points out that Biden’s Pentagon “recently asked Congress for an astronomical $27 billion budget increase to support a massive military buildup in Asia  as part of its new Indo-Pacific plan, which calls for a substantially more aggressive military stance against China (https://iop.harvard.edu/get-involved/harvard-political-review/waste-greed-and-fraud-business-makes-world’s-greatest-army). And, Chun writes, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken “echoed bipartisan political rhetoric about the “Chinese threat” during his visit to Asia last week [late March]. In a stream of condescending self-righteousness, he unleashed a deluge of recrimination against China and North Korea while pontificating on American exceptionalism.” She elaborates as follows.

“Blinken’s performance seemed tailored to the US domestic audience; a rallying call to win support for the upcoming battle: selling the Pentagon’s costly Asian military buildup plan–and the unprecedented profits it represents for the US military industrial complex–to Congress and American public. Unsurprisingly, US corporate media amplified Blinken’s message, exulting: ‘Blinken blasts aggressive China, North Korea’s systematic and widespread rights abuses.’ At the same time, Blinken and his team have been hard at work in reinforcing  an anti-China stance among their lynchpin Far Eastern military outposts–South Korea and Japan– by ensuring that the respective governments of these garrison states continue to unswervingly toe the US line with regard to Beijing.”

We’ll see in the coming months how the Biden administration addresses the issues of an inflated Pentagon budget, waste, and questionable weapons’ systems. I’ll close by referring to an article by Elliott Negin, senior editor at The Union of Concerned Scientists (https://scientificamerican.com/article/its-time-to-rein-in-inflated-military-budget).

He thinks a good place to start is with the 10 percent, $74 billion, cut in the military budget called for by the Congressional Progressive Caucus mid-July of 2020. He has other ideas for even greater spending cuts in the military budget, as follows.

“Cutting annual U.S. military outlays by 10 percent would be a good start, but even that would barely scratch the surface. Last year, Pentagon watchdog groups offered proposals for much deeper cuts that could still maintain a robust military. For example, the Center for International Policy’s Sustainable Defense Task Force—a collection of former White House, congressional and Pentagon budget officials, ex-military officers, and think tank experts—published a report detailing how the Defense Department could cut $1.2 trillion in waste and inefficiency over the next decade. The Project on Government Oversight’s Center for Defense Information posted a report recommending ways to cut the Pentagon’s annual budget by $199 billion without compromising national security or military capabilities. And the Poor People’s Campaign’s wide-ranging “moral budget” report went even further, calling for only $350 billion in annual military spending, essentially chopping the Pentagon budget in half.”

Perhaps such proposals are politically outlandish in the present scheme of things. Probably a lot more than the Biden administration will undertake. But there is no doubt that the U.S. spends too much on the military-industrial complex at a time when there is such unprecedented and unmet need in the society and when the world seems already embroiled in a new and more lethal Cold War.

The Amazon worker unionization drive, a corporate giant, and an uncertain political context

Bob Sheak, April 8, 2021

Introduction

This post focuses on the Amazon workers attempt to unionize in Bessemer, Alabama. It discusses the grievances that have led workers to want union representation and how Amazon has avoided unions so far. Unions generally have been in decline for some decades, so that the efforts by the Amazon worker to have a union would send a message to other workers in Amazon facilities around the country and the world that militant activism can happen. There are positive developments happening on the union front. Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives have passed pro-worker, pro-union legislation and President Biden has put out a comprehensive plan to “strengthen worker organizing, collective bargaining, and unions.” On the negative side, Republicans in the U.S. Senate may be able to stop such legislation and Amazon and most other corporations are opposed to unionization of their workforces. And corporations, most of which are anti-union, will likely re-double their efforts to support Republicans.

Amazon workers at an Alabama warehouse are fighting for union representation – and it has resonance

Josh Dzieza reports that 5,805 Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama, had seven weeks to cast a mail-in ballot on whether to support unionization by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) or not (https://theverge.com/2021/03/28/22352987/amazon-bessemer-alabama-union-vote-rwdsu).

The ballots were mailed out on February 8, 2021, and were due on Monday, March 29. The counting of the votes commenced on March 30 and is expected to take several weeks. Dzieza writes: “If the union wins, with a majority of the ballots turned in, the warehouse employees would become the first members of Amazon’s US workforce to unionize, a momentous event at a company that has long aggressively resisted labor organizing.” The union effort “could be a first step toward improving conditions at the country’s second-largest employer” – and  perhaps serve as a catalyst for Amazon workers elsewhere in the U.S. and in other countries to mount union drives or, if already unionized, to strike for better working conditions and better compensation. Jay Greene concurs, writing “The strike at the Bessemer facility represents, Dzieza maintains, the ‘biggest labor battle in its history on U.S. soil” and “a union victory could spark a wave of organizing campaigns among the 400,000 operations staff at the hundreds of other Amazon warehouses and delivery sites that dot the nation.”

“The vote is taking place,” according to Dzieza, “at an Amazon warehouse called BHM1 in Bessemer, Alabama, outside Birmingham.” The facility only opened operations last March, but already “by the summer workers had grown frustrated enough with conditions there that they reached out to the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, which had a presence at nearby poultry plants and other businesses.” Union organizers then gathered signatures from workers at the facility and obtained a sufficient number to have the National Labor Relations Board authorize the union election. The vote was carried out by mail due to safety concerns about the pandemic, despite Amazon’s desire to have an in-person vote at the facility  

Jay Greene points out that union efforts are unusual in Alabama because the state has a right-to-work law, “where employees in unionized workplaces aren’t required to pay union dues” https://washingtonpost.com/technology/2021/02/02/amazon-union-warehouse-workers). However, RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum believes that this may turn out to be an advantage for the union. He said, as quoted by Greene, “That’s because employees who oppose the union, or are indifferent to it, wouldn’t need to pay dues even if the union won the election. So, there’s no financial risk for workers who don’t want to become union members.” Appelbaum believes this situation may negate Amazon’s attempt “to make dues the issue, even though people don’t have to pay dues.”

If the Amazon unionization efforts ultimately fail, either because a majority of workers oppose the union or because Amazon subverts the contract negotiation process after a successful union election, then the Amazon workers at the Bessemer plant will continue to face the same oppressive work environment, where management can enforce tyrannical work rules over workers, penalize them and even fire them at will, require they work long ten hour days with few breaks and little time for personal needs, where the corporation will decide what the wages will be, where the corporation will decide the level of protection against Covid-19 virus there will be in the workplace, where there will be little defense against supervisory racism.

It they succeed in voting for the union and then in getting a contract with Amazon, workers and the union will finally have a chance to improve their conditions at work and wages and become an example that encourages workers to fight for unions elsewhere. However, as I’ll discuss later, there are limitations in union contracts that are typically not addressed and that give employers what can be reasonably viewed as unfair advantages.

The concerns of the workers

Oppressive and exhausting work conditions

Shira Ovide reports on this and gets some answers from an interview with Karen Weise, both journalists at The New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/31/technology/amazon-union-vote.html).

In response to the question “What do workers who support this union say that they want?” Weise, who has interviewed workers, says that workers at the Bessemer facility “say they don’t feel valued…. believe that they are constantly monitored to make sure they meet productivity goals, and the work can be exhausting.” While their pay is “higherthan the minimum wage, they say it’s not enough to compensate for what the work demands of them physically and the monitoring they’re under. There is a subset of workers who believe that a union would help them have power to change their pay or working conditions.”

Jay Greene’s investigation found that from the beginning, there were criticisms of “lack of adequate bathroom breaks, overheated facilities and overly aggressive performance targets for workers.” Bessemer workers interviewed by Greene “expressed a litany of concerns about issues from a lack of air conditioning during the hot Alabama summer to fears about the novel coronavirus spreading in the facility” (https://washingtonpost.com/technology/2021/02/02/amazon-union-warehouse-workers).

One of the workers interviewed by Greene is representative of the workers’ concerns. Darryl Richardson, a worker at the Bessemer warehouse who supports unionization, complained “about the scant time Amazon gives employees to use bathrooms, breaks that can sometimes require lengthy walks in the massive warehouse. Too much time away from picking items off shelves to ship to consumers — time that is tracked by computers — can lead to reprimands that can slow raises and promotions, and even lead to termination. He also bemoans last-minute directives from managers to work mandatory overtime shifts, sometimes coming just hours before the shift starts.” He also rejects the corporation’s suggestion that the goal of RWDSU “was to raise money to pay for union leaders’ cars and meals.”

The oppressive conditions about which workers complain are linked, Josh Dzieza reports, to how Amazon systematically tracks “the average rate at which workers perform a task, called takt time,’ and how much time they spend not scanning items, called ‘time off task.’” If workers fail to conform to the standards, they get reprimanded or fired (https://theverge.com/2021/03/28/22352987/amazon-bessemer-alabama-union-vote-rwdsu). Dzieza quotes Perry Connelly, a workers at BHM1 who supports unionization. Connelly said this: “It got to the point where people started complaining about going to the bathroom and coming back and something being said to them about their takt time going up.” This is, Dzieza says, a common complaint among workers at BHM1 and other Amazon facilities.

Amazon disputes such concerns. Dzieza received an emailed statement from Amazon spokesperson Heather Knox, who said that “like most companies, we have performance expectations for every Amazonian – be it a corporate employee or fulfillment center associate, and we measure actual performance against those expectations.” Knox said performance is “measured and evaluated over a long period of time” and that “we support people who are not performing to the levels expected with dedicated coaching to help them improve.” Knox also said that workers “are allowed to grab a snack, water, or use the toilet whenever needed” but did not directly address workers’ complaints that they are penalized for doing so.”

There is other evidence that Amazon does create an oppressive workplace for workers. “Following revelations in September that Amazon had engaged in widespread surveillance, harassment, and intimidation of workers in the U.S., U.K., and elsewhere who had attempted to organize, Amnesty International released a report in December calling on Amazon to “let workers unionize.” The report also cited how French labor unions and regulations had served to protect Amazon workers during the pandemic. The corporate leviathan should have to reckon with such constraints on its power and its abuses in every country it operates” (https://theintercept.com/2020/12/03/amazon-workers-union-international-strike).

Other worker concerns

Pay

Dzieza also found in his research that workers hope a union can negotiate higher pay.” He continues: “Many of the workers are acutely aware that Amazon has done stupendously well during the pandemic, with profits up 84 percent in 2020 and Jeff Bezos’ personal wealth rising by about $70 billion. Meanwhile, many BHM1 workers like Connelly have seen their wages drop: BHM1 opened in March, when Amazon had implemented $2 per hour in additional hazard pay, a program the company ended in June, dropping their pay to $15.30 an hour. “A lot of people are talking about the fact that he received billions of dollars in the pandemic from all his facilities, but he didn’t kick none of that money back to his employees who were actually working and in the trenches for him,” said Connelly.”

The Covid-19 pandemic and a lack of safety measures

“And recently, workers’ fears about the health risks of the pandemic and the goals of the Black Lives Matter movement have made some employees feel emboldened to demand more from Amazon,” according to Weise (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/31/technology/amazon-union-vote.html).

“At the beginning of the pandemic,” Greene learned, “Amazon’s warehouse employeesraised concerns about their safety in its busy facilities, where, they said, managers initially didn’t take enough precautions. Amazon has since put in place more measures to address concerns… but not to the satisfaction of some workers.” Greene reports:

“Amazon spokeswoman Heather Knox told Greene that “Amazon has invested $961 million in coronavirus safety measures, including providing more than 283 million masks at warehouses and deploying more than 351,000 thermometers and 16,500 thermal cameras at its facilities.” Nonetheless, in October, Amazon “said nearly 20,000 of its U.S. employees had tested positive or had been presumed positive for the virus since the pandemic took hold.” Unsurprisingly, “Fears about contracting the virus is one reason why some workers seek union representation.” Josh Dzieza reminds us that “recently, the NLRB found that Amazon threatened and fired workers who protested the company’s handling of COVID-19” (https://theverge.com/2021/03/28/22352987/amazon-bessemer-alabama-union-vote-rwdsu).

Racial issues

  • Share this on Twitter (opens in new window)
  • SHAREAll sharing optionsIf the union wins, the warehouse employees would become the first members of Amazon’s US workforce to unionize, a momentous event at a company that has long aggressively resisted labor organizing, and one that could be a first step toward improving conditions at the country’s second-largest employer. Here is what’s happened so far and what might happen nextWhat are the concerns of Amazon workers at the Bessemer Warehouse
  • Shira Ovide gets some answers to this – and other – questions in an interview with Karen Weise, both journalists for The New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/31/technology/amazon-union-vote.html). In response to the question “What do workers who support this union say that they want?,” Weise, who has interviewed workers, says that Amazon workers “say they don’t feel valued…. believe that they are constantly monitored to make sure they meet productivity goals, and the work can be exhausting.” While their pay is “higherthan the minimum wage, they say it’s not enough to compensate for what the work demands of them physically and the monitoring they’re under. There is a subset of workers who believe that a union would help them have power to change their pay or working conditions.
  • “About 85 percent of the employees in the Bessemer warehouse are Black, and union organizers have focused on issues of racial empowerment and equality.

Jay Greene refers to the racial aspect, writing: “Many of the workers in the Bessemer warehouse are Black, and the union has framed the fight around issues of ‘respect and dignity’ as well as pay, RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum said. ‘We see this as much as a civil rights struggle as a labor struggle,’ he added.”

Some unknown number of workers oppose unionization

Greene gives this example. “Carla Johnson has already been won over by Amazon. The 44-year-old from Birmingham works as a ‘problem solver,’ fixing orders with damaged packages or ones where the wrong products were picked before being shipped to customers. Johnson supports Amazon because of “the way the company treated her when she suffered a seizure on the job in July, two months after starting at the site. She had brain cancer, and Amazon gave her three-and-a-half months’ leave to undergo surgery and subsequent treatments. The bills topped $100,000, but her company-provided health insurance picked up the tab, she said.” Greene continues the story. “Johnson, who is now cancer-free, acknowledged she might still have the same benefits even if the warehouse was unionized. But her experience makes her believe that Amazon cares for her and her co-workers and that a union isn’t necessary. And she worries that a union could disrupt the line of communication she has with her managers.”

Amazon’s anti-union efforts

Greene’s investigation found the following evidence. “Amazon is working hard to persuade other workers to join Johnson in opposing the union.Since mid-January, when the NLRB scheduled the vote, the company has ratcheted up efforts to sway workers, warehouse employees said. It set up an anti-union website — DoItWithoutDues.com — discouraging workers from joining the union drive. The company has also held ongoing mandatory meetings for workers on company time, so-called captive-audience sessions, to show videos and run through PowerPoint presentations that disparage unionization.” The corporation sends out multiple texts a day to workers. One text message read as follows: “We don’t believe that you need to pay someone to speak for you or that you need to pay dues for what you already get for free.” As the unionization vote was underway, “managers have come by workstations to hand employees water bottles and candy,” according to one worker.

In its opposition to the union drive, Amazon says workers don’t need a union coming between them and the company, and, through its messaging and mandatory meetings, urges workers not to abandon “the winning team.” Amazon also has pressed its case “with leaflets and [as mentioned] mandated anti-union meetings.” The corporation reminds workers that they are already handsomely compensated, referring to “the starting pay of $15.30 an hour, well above the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. (Alabama has no state minimum-wage law.)” Amazon additionally reminds workers that they receive much better benefits than workers in comparable jobs outside of Amazon, including health-care, vision and dental benefits and a retirement plan.” In short, as Natasha Lennard puts it,  The corporation believes that it is doing what is expected of it by “creating a lot of jobs and paying more than many of its retail competitors” (https://theintercept.com/2020/12/03/amazon-workers-union-international-strike).

Josh Dzieza provides further details on Amazon’s efforts to defeat the union. “Amazon has been waging an aggressive campaign against the union effort, running “Facebook ads directing to a website that warned workers they would have to pay union dues,” while also putting up banners on the walls and signs on the restroom stall doors with messages like “Where will your dues go?” and “Unions can’t, we can!” (https://theverge.com/2021/03/28/22352987/amazon-bessemer-alabama-union-vote-rwdsu). The company has brought in a high-priced union-busting firm and held mandatory meetings at the warehouse. “They call them training sessions, but all it was union bashing,” said Connelly.

“The company has also employed more unorthodox measures. After losing its fight to have the election held in-person, Amazon sent employees mailers with instructions on filling out their ballot with a ‘no’ vote and messaged them to deposit their ballots in a new mailbox installed at the warehouse entrance, Vice reported. (Knox said “the mailbox was installed by the USPS as an option for convenient mailing to and from work but never a mandate.”

To top it off, employers have extreme structural advantages over organizers under US labor law, like their ability to hold mandatory anti-union presentations on company time while restricting non-work conversations and barring non-employee organizers from the workplace. Consequently, organizers are often left to canvass employees on nearby streets and sidewalks — or, in the case of BHM1, the parking lot as departing employees waited for the light to change. Then, late last year, Amazon asked the county to change the timing on the traffic light. Knox said this was done to reduce congestion during shift changes, but organizers say it made their work harder.”

There is, moreover, recent evidence that Amazon has illegally fired pro-union, activist employees. Sharon Zhang reports on his story, writing that the “National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has found that Amazon illegally fired two employees who spoke out about the company’s climate impact and labor practices during the pandemic” (https://truthout.org/articles/amazon-illegally-fired-activist-employees-labor-board-finds).

The employees, Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa, “were fired in April of last year after criticizing Amazon for forcing its warehouse employees to work in unsafe conditions due to the coronavirus. The two employees circulated a petition internally about the risks of working amid COVID-19, and both also offered to match donations up to $500 on Twitter for the workers.” The NLRB’s decision is that “if the company doesn’t settle the case, the agency would accuse the company of unfair labor practices.” This is not the first time Amazon has been found to have violated labor laws. Zhang writes: “The labor board has found the company to have violated labor laws so many times — at least 37 — that the agency is considering launching a formal, national investigation into Amazon, NBC reported last month.”

At the same time, while the NLRB can discipline the company for violating labor standards, “the agency has such little teeth [so] that any punishment it can give is basically a slap on the wrist for a company as huge as Amazon.” Zhang quotes Caroline O’Donovan at BuzzfeedNews: “Even when the NLRB sides with workers, the consequences, or so-called remedies, it’s able to mete out — typically small monetary settlements, back pay, or posting a flyer — are so minor that they do little to deter employers from violating the rules again.” This situation could be remedied if the House-passed Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or the PRO Act [discussed below], is eventually passed in the Senate and signed by President Biden.

Generally, unions in the U.S. have not been doing well

David J. Pryzbylski writes on the “Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) annual report, released in January of 2021, that the data on unions in the U.S. is mixed (https://www.natlawreview.com/article/union-numbers-2021-edition). On the one hand, union membership “increased on a percentage basis from 2019 to 2020.” On the plus side, the union membership rate in 2020 was 10.8 percent, “up by 0.5 percentage point from 2019. However, the total number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions was at 14.3 million in 2020, but this “was down by 321,000, or 2.2 percent, from 2019.” This anomaly is explained by the fact that the wage and salary employment fell during the year as a result of the pandemic, so a slightly higher percentage of workers in a smaller overall total employment situation. Pryzbylski puts it this way: “The disproportionately large decline in total wage and salary employment compared with the decline in the number of union members led to an increase in the union membership rate.”

The long-term trend is clear enough. The unionization rate in the U.S. has declined. As Pryzbylski points out: “In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent and there were 17.7 million union workers.” Now it’s down to 10.8 percent and 14.3 million in 2020. He also notes that a higher percentage of workers in the public sector were unionized (34.8%) than in the private sector (6.3%).

Shaun Richman identifies one of the systemic consequences of this decline in unionization in his book Tell the Bosses We’re Coming (2020). He writes: “Today, there is growing recognition that the massive and nearly unprecedented inequality in our country and the economic recessions that occur more frequently and hit with greater severity is a direct result of the decline of union membership” (p. 215).

Trump made a bad situation worse

Steven Greenhouse documents how workers generally have been put at an intensified disadvantage in collective bargaining during the years of the Trump administration (https://prospect.org/power/worker-s-friend-trump-waged-war-workers).  Trump’s appointees to the federal courts and federal agencies “moved aggressively to undercut workers and unions.” Greenhouse also refers to “how think tanks and worker advocates have compiled lengthy lists of Trump’s anti-worker and anti-union actions—some more than 50 items long.” For example, Trump “rolled back overtime protections for millions of workers and made it easier for Wall Street firms to rip off workers’ 401(k)s.”

Trump additionally “erased a rule that extended overtime pay to millions more workers, a move that will deprive many workers of thousands of dollars per year.” The former president “greatly relaxed requirements for employers to report workplace injuries, making it harder for workers to know how dangerous their workplace is and what hazards need correcting.” “In a bizarre, pro-corporate twist, Trump’s Labor Department is even allowing many employers who violate minimum wage, overtime, and other wage laws to avoid any penalty by volunteering to investigate themselves. In a blow to workers of color and women, the Trump administration scrapped a rule that let the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission collect pay data from large corporations so it could obtain insights into possible pay discrimination by gender and race.”

Unionization efforts at Amazon have failed in the past

Greene sums it up well. “Amazon is one of the nation’s largest employers, with more than 1.1 million workers worldwide, and it has long opposed the unionization of its domestic workforce (https://washingtonpost.com/technology/2021/02/02/amazon-union-warehouse-workers). For years, U.S. unions have been quietly working to crack the company, with no success. The closest was a bid by a small group of equipment maintenance and repair technicians at its Middletown, Del., warehouse in 2014. Those workers ultimately voted against forming a union, following a drive led by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.” And in 2019, “Amazon fired an employee who had been outspoken about working conditions inside his Staten Island warehouse and had called for unionization. The company said the worker was terminated for violating a safety regulation at the facility.”

Win or lose, the Amazon workers have energized the union movement

“If Amazon workers unionize,” Jay Greene writes, “it would mark a major milestone for worker representation, which has long been in decline.” Furthermore, Greene reports: “As U.S. manufacturing has waned, participation in unions has shrunk to about 11 percent last year, down from 30 percent of the nonagricultural workforce in 1964. Some older companies, like 113-year-old logistics giant UPS, are unionized, but major nonunion employers include more recent entrants like retailers Walmart and the Gap.” In this context, “Amazon is a ripe target, as a major player in logistics, transportation and retail. Adding to its appeal is the rapid growth of its warehouse operations — it added 400,000 workers primarily to its global warehouses and delivery operations in the first nine months of last year.”

The union needs a yes vote from the majority of the ballots case, not an absolute majority. Once this is accomplished, Dzieza tells us, the RWDSU can begin bargaining with Amazon for a contract. However, there are many precedents of corporations not bargaining in good faith, according to Janice Fine, a professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers University ((https://theverge.com/2021/03/28/22352987/amazon-bessemer-alabama-union-vote-rwdsu). But the fact that the workers have had an election, Fine says, is already a victory, given the way US labor law and Amazon’s power puts organizers at a disadvantage. Getting to an election is a signal to unions that it can be worth the energy and expense of attempting to organize Amazon workers, and to workers that the risks they take might pay off. There are already signs that workers are taking that lesson from Bessemer. Since the campaign began, the RWDSU said it has already been contacted by over 1,000 Amazon workers interested in unionizing.”

Signs of pro-workers and pro-union progress

A global movement has emerged among Amazon workers

Make Amazon Pay

Natasha Lennard reports for The Intercept on “a new wave of organizing by a global coalition of warehouse workers, trade unions, and activists under the banner Make Amazon Pay — the first such coalition of broad international scope. Coordinated strikes, work stoppages, and protests of varying size have taken place in Bangladesh, India, Australia, Germany, Poland, Spain, France, the U.K., the U.S. and beyond” (https://theintercept.com/2020/12/03/amazon-workers-union-international-strike).  Lennard continues: “Make Amazon Pay brings together worker collectives — from hawkers in India to warehouse workers in Poland — with large international union federations. The coalition also includes major nonprofits such as Greenpeace to address stunning facts like the scale of Amazon’s carbon footprint, which is larger than two-thirds of the world’s countries.” The Organization Progressive International is at the center of organizing the international coalition (https://progressiveinternational/wire/2020-11-26-make-amazon-pay).

On Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020, “the coalition published an open letter signed in solidarity by over 401 politicians from over 34 countries, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, and Rep.-elect Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y, from the United States. (https://progressiveinternational-wire/2020-12-04-dear-mr-=bezos-the-days-of-amazons-impunity-are-over/en)

The letter, which pledges support for the Make Amazon Pay effort, is addressed to Bezos. Here is the letter

——————————-

Dear Mr. Bezos, the Days of Amazon’s Impunity Are Over

Progressive International, Dec 4, 2020

Mr. Bezos,

We, elected representatives, legislators, and public officials from around the world, hereby put you on notice that Amazon’s days of impunity are over. Last Friday, 27 November, workers, activists, and citizens around the world joined forces to demand justice from Amazon. Today, we pledge to stand with this movement in every congress, parliament, and statehouse where we work.

In short, we write to you now with a single commitment: to Make Amazon Pay.

The world knows that Amazon can afford to pay its workers, its environmental cost and its taxes. And yet – time and again – you have dodged and dismissed your debts to workers, societies, and the planet.

Your great wealth is based on the skills of your workers and the care they receive from their friends, family and communities. These are the very people who risked their health and that of their loved ones to supply goods to consumers and make you enormous profits. But while your personal wealth has risen by around US $13 million per hour in 2020, these workers enter dangerous working conditions, enjoy little or no increase in their pay, and face retaliation for their efforts to defend themselves and organize their colleagues.

We pledge again, alongside your workers, to Make Amazon Pay.

Your company’s rise to dominance has come with extraordinary costs to our environment. While you have personally acknowledged the climate emergency among the defining challenges of our era, Amazon’s carbon footprint is greater than two-thirds of the world’s countries. Your plan for emissions reduction is both insufficient to stay within the environmental boundaries of our planet and difficult to trust given Amazon’s record of broken promises on sustainability and financial contributions to climate change denial.

We pledge again, on behalf of our planet, to Make Amazon Pay.

Finally, you have undermined our democracies and their capacity to respond to collective challenges. Your monopolistic practices have squeezed small businesses, your web services have disrespected data rights, and you have contributed a pittance in return. For example, in 2017 and 2018, Amazon paid zero US federal corporation tax. Through your global tax dodging, you damage the public provision of health, education, housing, social security and infrastructure.

We pledge again, for our constituents, to Make Amazon Pay.

We urge you to act decisively to change your policies and priorities to do right by your workers, their communities, and our planet. We stand ready to act in our respective legislatures to support the movement that is growing around the world to Make Amazon Pay.

Yours sincerely,

Find the list of all 401 legislators from 34 countries here [at https://progressiveinternational-wire/2020-12-04-dear-mr-=bezos-the-days-of-amazons-impunity-are-over/en).

——————————-

Examples of worker organizing in other countries

Lennard gives the following examples (https://theintercept.com/2020/12/03/amazon-workers-union-international-strike). “Garment workers in Bangladesh staged a protest outside an Amazon supplier in Dhaka, behind a bright red ‘Make Amazon Pay’ banner. The company has reportedly not paid its Bangladeshi suppliers for completed orders that were canceled in the pandemic. Workers in Germany went on a three-day strike, an escalation in a years long battle with Amazon for better pay and working conditions; approximately 2,500 people took part.’”

“In Poznań, in the west of Poland, workers brandished the same ‘Make Amazon Pay’ signs during a coordinated work stoppage. Polish workers have been organizing for weeks — including staging wildcat strikes — to have their minimal holiday bonuses raised to match the amounts workers in other countries will receive. Warehouse workers told [Lennard] by video conference that employees in Poland had been paid four times less than their counterparts in Germany; through union organizing, that discrepancy has shrunk to three times less, while the cost of living is by no means three times cheaper. In the U.S., workers are taking historic steps just to unionize.”

Amazon workers, already unionized, have had success in France, when workers engaged in mass protests, strikes, and union complaining about Covid-19 safety. As a result, a Parisian judge ordered that “Amazon develop improved health and safety measures with the unions” and “[n]oncompliance would come with a penalty of over $1 million per day and per violation.” The corporation announced in fury that it would suspend all of its French operations, but workers continue to receive full pay and the company says that it [now] plans to follow the judge’s decision.”

The PRO Act legislation passed by the House

On the pro-worker front, the U.S. House of Representatives, with no Republican votes, has passed the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act for a second time. It’s fate now lies in the Senate. Richard F. Vitarelli and Adam C. Doerr report on the bill for the National Law Review (https://www.natlawreview.com/article/protecting-right-to-organize-pro-act-passes-house-awaits-senate-fate).

They write: “The sponsors described the bill as comprehensive labor legislation aimed at bolstering workers’ collective bargaining rights. The bill is in the Senate and was referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions on March 11, 2021.” The same legislation was passed a year ago, “when the House of Representatives first passed the PRO Act, in February 2020, [when] then-President Donald Trump was a vocal opponent and promised to veto it if it ever reached his desk. The Republican-controlled Senate at the time made sure the bill never even made it to the floor for debate.

The circumstances in the U.S. Congress are different now. President Joe Biden has promised to sign the bill if he gets the chance. It has a chance for passing in the Senate, where Democrats have a 50+1 majority, but only if all Democratic senators support setting aside the filibuster, which requires 60 votes to pass legislation. The construction industry is opposed to the bill. Vitarelli and Doerr quote the CEO of the Associated General Contractors who “called the PRO Act “a significant threat to the viability of the commercial construction industry.” Most corporations will oppose the bill.

Vitarelli and Doerr also allude to some of the bill’s provisions. If the legislation is passed by the Senate and signed into law by President Biden, the Pro Act would significantly improve workers’ ability to get a contract after a positive union election, prohibit employers from locking out striking workers and replacing them, while also allow workers at other companies to support striking workers (e.g., secondary boycotts). And the act would permit individual employees “to bring civil lawsuits in federal court alleging their own ‘unfair labor practice’ claims and to recover back pay, front pay, consequential damages, liquidated damages, punitive damages, and attorneys’ fees. Corporate directors and officers also could be held personally liable for violations.

If ever passed into law, The PRO Act would significantly increase the ability of workers to protect and advance their workplace interests

In an article published in Labor Notes, Brandon Magner considers how, if the PRO Act was already law, it would have positively affected the Amazon Union Election (https://labornotes.org/blogs/2021/03/if-pro-act-were-law-amazon-union-election-would-have-looked-very-different). He refers to eight impacts that PRO Act would have, and implicitly identifies the disadvantages that presently burden, or have burdened, the Amazon workers in their efforts to unionize – and then to obtain a contract. Here I quote Magner.

  • Amazon would be prohibited from conducting captive audience meetings. Research shows that employers deploy these meetings in almost 90 percent of NLRB elections, in no small part because they’re so effective in channeling the employer’s message and coercing the captive employees. Amazon was no exception to this phenomenon. Under the PRO Act, the very use of these meetings would constitute an Unfair Labor Practice as a violation of Section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA.
  • Amazon would not have had legal standing to participate in representation proceedings. This is important for pre-election conduct, as Amazon used its time at the December hearings to inflate the proposed bargaining unit to a wall-to-wall unit and attempt to stall for time to begin campaigning against the union. These sort of dual stalling-and-gerrymandering tactics would be impossible under the PRO Act, as the pre-election hearing would not have included Amazon at all.
  • The Union’s proposed bargaining unit would have likely been accepted. Through the PRO Act’s codification of the Obama Board’s Specialty Healthcare decision, a union’s proposed bargaining unit is to be accepted by the Labor Board so long as the unit shares a sufficient “community of interest.” Combined with the removal of employer standing, these changes would have all but guaranteed the vote covered only the 1,500 or so employees the union originally petitioned for instead of the wall-to-wall compromise that was agreed upon by the Union as a means of speeding up the process.
  • If the union won, it would be guaranteed to secure a first contract. The PRO Act installs a system of interest arbitration to take hold if the parties do not reach an initial collective bargaining agreement within 90 days of a union’s certification following an election victory. This would have taken away a key campaign talking point from Amazon, which was able to truthfully tell its employees that the Union was not assured to provide its members a contract even if it won the election.
  • The election would have been over months ago. The PRO Act provides for faster pre-election proceedings (through codification of the Obama Board’s 2014 “quickie election” rules) and the option for electronic voting at the union’s preference. While the mail-ballot election in many ways has likely benefitted the union, the sheer size of the unit and USPS’s pandemic-era issues likely convinced the NLRB that voting needed to last almost two months to give everyone a chance to vote. Amazon has been allowed to continue campaigning against the Union during this time. Electronic voting could logically be done faster and circumvent any post-office problems, in addition to undercutting the employer’s built-in influences from in-person voting on company property.
  • Amazon would face far greater consequences for unlawfully interfering with the election. As I’ve discussed, current NLRB case law makes bargaining orders a very rare occurrence. Combined with the agency’s lack of punitive remedies, employers are greatly incentivized to commit unfair labor practices or otherwise interfere with the “laboratory conditions” of the vote, as the worst that will usually happen is a re-run of the election. Under the PRO Act, a union that enjoyed majority support before filing its petition would be certified through card check in elections that have been set aside because the employer committed an unfair labor practice or otherwise interfered with a fair election, and where the employer did not demonstrate that the violation or other form of interference was unlikely to have affected the outcome of the election. A simple 8(a)(1) violation concerning supervisor threats or promises could conceivably be enough to certify a losing union under the PRO Act’s strict language, so Amazon would have been forced to strictly regulate both its and its agents’ conduct.
  • The union would have far more economic weapons at its disposal in exacting leverage and building solidarity. The PRO Act expressly legalizes the use of intermittent strikes, partial strikes, and production slowdowns. While the Union has seemed content to rely on peaceful tactics and the NLRB’s election machinery for certification, unions would not be confined to such tactics in the face of employer hostility. These sorts of job actions could be immensely effective against Amazon given its just-in-time methods underlying its global supply chain. If nothing else, it’s more tools in the workers’ tool box that the employer has to account for.
  • Alabama’s “Right-to-Work” law would be repealed. While RTW laws are often exaggerated in their legal effect, as they only affect the specific issue of union security clauses and unions’ right to collect dues, most people understand these laws to have powerful signaling effects on politicians, businesses, communities, and the workers themselves. With all RTW laws repealed under the PRO Act, Alabama employers like Amazon would not have the head start of overseeing a workforce that has been conditioned for years on the idea that unions don’t belong in the Deep South.

President Biden is pro-union (not, he says, anti-business)

Abigal Johnson refers to some evidence that verifies this (https://cnbc.com/2020/12/01/biden-promises-to-be-the-most-pro-union-president-and-rep.html). Biden appears to share the view that “labor unions are both good for businesses and workers.” He began his presidential campaign at a union hall in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He has stated his support for the  PRO Act. His website “includes numerous union-friendly policies including promises to enact financial penalties on companies that interfere with workers’ organizing efforts, provide a federal guarantee for public sector employees to organize and ban ‘right to work’ laws.” At a Nov. 16 meeting “with business leaders such as General Motors CEO Mary Barra, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Target chief executive Brian Cornell as well as labor leaders such as AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, Service Employees International Union president Mary Kay Henry, and United Auto Workers president Rory Gamble, Biden said that ‘unions are going to have increased power’ in his administration.” He is quoted as saying: “I want you to know I’m a union guy, that’s not anti-business.”

As president, on Feb. 28, he expressed support for the Amazon Warehouse Workers union drive. NPR’s Jaclyn Dias quotes what Biden said on a video shared on Twitter. “Today and over the next few days and weeks, workers in Alabama and all across America are voting on whether to organize a union in their workplace. This is vitally important — a vitally important choice, as America grapples with the deadly pandemic, the economic crisis and the reckoning on race — what it reveals is the deep disparities that still exist in our country” (https://npr/com/2021/03/01/974210944/biden-backs-amazon-warehouse-workers-union-drive).

David Cohen emphasizes that, on the video, Biden does not tell the Amazon workers to vote for the union, but praised them for attempting to organize in support of a union (https://politico.com/news/2021/02/28/biden-union-amazon-workers-471907). Cohen quotes Biden as follows: “Workers in Alabama — and all across America — are voting on whether to organize a union in their workplace. It’s a vitally important choice — one that should be made without intimidation or threats by employers,” the president tweeted. “Every worker should have a free and fair choice to join a union.” The main point is the Biden wants to see workers have an unencumbered option to unionize.

Writing for “legal news” at JDSUPRA, David P. Phippen’s finds generally that the “Biden campaign made it clear that his administration will support union organizing, collective bargaining, and unionization. In general, his plan is to seek to add to the power of unions by increasing union membership, as well as reducing the rights and leverage that employers have enjoyed recently and, somewhat, historically” (https://jusupra.com/legalnews/the-biden-era-of-labor-law-change-the-8486888). Phippen’s viewpoint is validated by a new plan by Biden to enhance the relative power of unions in their relations with employers.

Biden proposes a comprehensive pro-worker, pro-union plan

Biden has made his pro-worker and union views clear in proposing a comprehensive plan “for strengthening worker organizing, collective bargaining, and unions” (https://joebiden.com/empowerworkers). The plan identifies three goals. It proposes to: (1) “Check the abuse of corporate power over labor and hold corporate executives personally accountable for violations of labor laws”; (2) “Encourage and incentivize unionization and collective bargaining”; and (3) “Ensure that workers are treated with dignity and receive the pay, benefits, and workplace protections they deserve.”

On the first goal, Biden will hold “corporations and executives personally accountable for interfering with organizing efforts and violating other labor laws. The plan strong supports the PRO Act provisions that call for “financial penalties on companies that interfere with worker’ organizing efforts, including firing or otherwise retaliating against workers.” But the plan goes beyond the PRO Act “by enacting legislation to impose even stiffer penalties on corporations and to hold company executives personally liable when they interfere with organizing efforts, including criminally liable when their interference is intentional.” Employers who engaged in “wage theft, or cheat on their taxes by intentionally misclassifying their employees as independent contractors” will be stopped from pursuing such activities. The plan “will fund a dramatic increase in the number of investigators in labor and employment enforcement agencies to facilitate a large anti-misclassification effort,” “institute multi-year federal debarment for all employers who illegally oppose unions, building on debarment efforts pursued in the Obama-Biden Administration.”

On the second goal, Biden wants to “make it easier for workers who choose to unionize to do so.” Here the plan draws from the PRO Act, in, for example, banning “employers’ mandatory meetings with their employees, including captive audience meetings in which employees are forced to listen to anti-union rhetoric; “requiring employers to report not only information communicated to employees, but also the activities of third-party consultants who work behind the scenes to manage employers’ anti-union campaigns.” The plan will go beyond the PRO Act by “allowing workers to use this process, called ‘card check,’ as an initial option for forming a union, not merely an option granted when the employer has illegally interfered in the election process.” The Biden plan will also provide “a federal guarantee for public sector employees to bargain for better pay and benefits and the working conditions they deserve.” The plan will “repeal the Taft-Hartley provisions that allow states to impose “right to work” laws.” And, among other proposals, Biden’s plan calls for the creation of “a cabinet-level working group that will solely focus on promoting union organizing and collective bargaining in the public and private sectors.” 

On the third goal, “Biden will ensure that workers receive the pay and dignity they deserve.” Here are a few examples from the plan. The president will “increase the federal minimum wage to $15.” The plan will ensure “that every federal investment in infrastructure and transportation projects or service jobs is covered by prevailing wage protections.” It will stop “employers from denying workers overtime play they’ve earned,” call for the reclassification of workers in the “gig economy” from independent contractors to workers entitled to legal benefits and protections, and eliminate “non-compete clauses and no-poaching agreements that hinder the ability of employees to seek higher wages, better benefits, and working conditions by changing employers.” Biden’s plan will also “increase workplace safety and health,” as OHSA will be directed “to substantially expand its enforcement efforts,” “increase the number of investigators in OSHA and the Mine Safety Health and Administration (MSHA),” and have “OSHA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, MSHA, and other relevant agencies to develop comprehensive strategies for addressing the most dangerous hazards workers encounter in the modern workplace.” 

Concluding thoughts

We won’t know whether the Amazon workers at the Bessemer facility will vote to have union representation. If they vote in favor of the union, it is just a first step in the collective bargaining process. Given the anti-union position of Amazon, it would not be surprising then, even if the union is voted in, that the corporation would do its best to subvert contract negotiations. In the meantime, the same oppressive work conditions remain in place, with the same long hours, authoritarian and sometimes racist supervision, unexpected demands for workers to work additional hours, low wages (especially after taxes), few breaks, difficulties in getting to the restroom and back to the job without being penalized, the threats to and dismissal of union activists, and so forth. At the same time, Amazon workers in other facilities across the country may well be encouraged to undertake the precarious task of a union drive.

Most Amazon workers are employed at the Bessemer or other warehouses because they lacked decent options. Alec MacGillis documents this point, among others, in his book Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America. MacGillis also makes another point. He writes: “More than worker activism alone would be necessary to provide a check on so vast and powerful a company,” that is, Amazon (p. 335). Worker activism is necessary but so is federal activism. Joe Biden has laid out a plan that would dramatically improve the bargaining position of workers. However, the plan, or parts of it, will have to win support in both the U.S. House (which it has) and in the U.S. Senate, where Republicans will  use the filibuster to stop any legislative progress.

There is another consideration as well. Most corporations and their trade associations, not only Amazon, don’t want unions and certainly don’t want powerful unions. So, whether Biden’s plan overcomes the filibuster hurdle in the Senate or not, corporate America is likely to use their immense resources politically to oppose the forthcoming elections of Democrats and eventually of Biden.

Ideally, the workers at Amazon would get a beneficial contract, other workers at Amazon and in other industries would mount unionization efforts, public opinion would be favorable to unionization, Biden and the Democrats will win elections and succeed in reforming labor law, and the outcome would be some fair balance brought to labor-management relations. Even then, corporations will still control where to locate or relocate their facilities, what to produce, the size of the workforce, and how to arrange production and distribution. The general implication: the labor struggles will continue to face major challenges. Whether they are insurmountable remains to be seen.

The challenge of creating a humane immigration policy for the U.S.-Mexico border

Bob Sheak, March 25, 2021

bsheak983@gmail.com

Currently, the Republicans in the U.S. Congress are doing their best to draw the public’s attention to a “crisis” (indeed, it is a humanitarian refugee crisis) at the US-Mexico border. But the Republican position reflects no concern for the refugees and asylum seekers who are escaping from dire economic, environmental and social circumstances in their home countries. The adults hope to find jobs and a better life in the United States.

There are two interlinked parts of the immigration issue. One concerns the number of migrants who are seeking entrance to the U.S., a number that looks as though it will remain high and rise, mainly because the conditions driving immigration in Central America, Mexico, and other countries with large impoverished and disrupted populations are likely not only to remain dire but to worsen. The other concern is what to do about the large undocumented population of roughly 11 million or so who already reside in the country. In this post, I’ll concentrate on the first concern. Biden and congressional Democrats are addressing both parts, against strong, if not unified, opposition from Republicans.

According to an article by Georgina Gustin, “the World Bank projects that nearly 4 million people from Central America and Mexico could become climate migrants by 2050” (https://insideclimatenews.org/98072019/climate-change-migration-honduras-drought-crop-failure-farming-deforestation-guatemala-trump).

The crisis

John Gramlich reviews current research from the Pew Research Center to substantiate that there is a border crisis (https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/03/15/migrant-apprehensions-at-u-s-mexico-border-are-surging-again). He reports that in February the “U.S. Border Patrol apprehended nearly 100,000 migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, “the tenth consecutive month of increased apprehensions and a return to levels last seen in mid-2019.” And the trend in apprehensions at the southwestern border since April of 2020 has been up. The Pew data indicate that “apprehensions have climbed every month since then and reached 96,974 in February [of 2021], according to new data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the federal agency that encompasses the Border Patrol. (It’s important to note that apprehensions refer to events, not people, and some migrants may be apprehended more than once” – and some migrants may not be apprehended).

There are some more detailed findings about the apprehended migrant population from the Pew research as well. “While only around a third of all apprehensions in February were people traveling in families or unaccompanied minors, their numbers have increased sharply this year. Apprehensions of people traveling in families rose from 7,064 to 18,945, or 168%, between January and February, while apprehensions of unaccompanied minors rose from 5,694 to 9,297, or 63%.”

The plight of immigrant children at the border has been of greatest recent concern. According to Gramlich, they “pose unique challenges for the Border Patrol because they may legally only be detained in holding facilities for up to three days before being transferred to shelters. As migrant apprehensions have soared in recent months, many children have been detained longer than the three-day limit due to a lack of space at shelters.” The Biden administration is scrambling to fix the problem but it will take time. Meanwhile, some children are being kept in unacceptable situations, as the Biden administration tries to find more adequate facilities and opportunities in the U.S. to relocate children with family, relatives, or other legitimate and screened sponsors.   

The Causes

Deep historical roots involving US intervention

It has been well documented by historians that the countries of Central and South America have been ruled much of the time, certainly over the two hundred years, by authoritarian and self-serving government that siphon off foreign assistance money, promote foreign investment to extract resources, exploit cheap labor, and enable land grabs and unregulated treatment of corporations. And the US has been instrumental in fostering such conditions. Historian Greg Grandin provides an in-depth analysis of the US involvement in creating this system in his book, Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism (2006).

Legal scholar Majorie Cohn provides a concise summary, as follows.

“The history of U.S. intervention in the Northern Triangle countries has destabilized them and exacerbated the migrant crisis. “[W]e must also acknowledge the role that a century of U.S.-backed military coups, corporate plundering, and neoliberal sapping of resources has played in the poverty, instability, and violence that now drives people from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras toward Mexico and the United States,” (https://truthout.org/articles/trump-is-obliterating-the-right-to-asylum).

Recent examples

Alison Bodine and Tamara Hansen point to how the relationship between U.S. intervention in Latin America and the severe problems in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala “is most clearly expressed by the 2009 U.S.-backed coup in Honduras” (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2019/07/23/imperialist-made-crisis-migrants-and-refugees).They elaborate: “10 years ago, the United States backed a right-wing overthrow of the elected government of Manuel Zelaya. Since then, political repression, state violence, and increasing poverty in Honduras have escalated, creating structural and institutional vacuums, along with deep instability throughout the country. After the U.S. supported coup Honduras ended Manuel Zelaya’s presidency, a country with a prospect of political and economic development became a failed state.”

Trump and right-wing forces in the US frequently refer to the gangs, like MS-13, throughout the region, and how gang members are said to join migrants on their way to the US-Mexico border. There is little evidence that gangs are a large segment of the migrant flow to the U.S.-Mexico border. That said, gang violence is a prominent reason in causing the flight of migrants out of Central America. An often-overlooked part of the story is that the gangs, or many of them, were created in the US. On this point, Bodine and Hansen say the gangs “were first formed in U.S. prisons, and then transplanted to Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala when people were released from prison and then deported.” The cite UNHCR reports to illustrate some of the consequences, and write: “Current homicide rates are among the highest ever recorded in Central America. Several cities, including San Salvador, Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, are among the 10 most dangerous in the world. The most visible evidence of violence is the high rate of brutal homicides, but other human rights abuses are on the rise, including the recruitment of children into gangs, extortion and sexual violence” (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2019//07/23/imperialist-made-crisis-migrants-and-refugees

Diminishing opportunities

For the people in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, there are presently a growing number of farmers who cannot increasingly grow enough food to feed themselves, let alone a surplus with which to buy essentials. There are many others living in urban areas who, amid high levels of unemployment, can only find low-wage work, insecure work. And corrupt governments there offer too few and inadequate public assistance, while promoting policies that disproportionately benefit foreign corporations and their own wealthy classes. These are systemic problems.

Hannah Holleman documents in her book, Dust Bowls of Empire: Imperialism, Environmental Polices and the Injustice of “Green” Capitalism, that farmers not only in Central America but around the world have been locked into an agricultural system imposed by rich, capitalist countries that drive them into debt, degrades the soils and depletes water sources. This unsustainable situation is combined and made worse by the intensifying effects of climate disruption, reflected in increasing periods of drought and other extreme weather events.

The effects of climate disruption

Oliver Milman, Emily Holden, and David Agren address how climate change is increasingly figuring into the mass migration from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/oct/30/migrant-caravan-causes-climate-change-central-america). They report that “[w]hile violence and poverty have been cited as the reasons for the exodus, experts say the big picture is that changing climate is forcing farmers off their land – and it’s likely to get worse.” They confirm what so many others have found that most of the migrant caravans come from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, “the three countries devastated by violence, organized crime and systemic corruption, [have roots] which can be traced back to the region’s cold war conflicts.” Now people in these countries also being increasingly afflicted by climate change.

According to experts interviewed by Milman, Holden, and Agren, climate change “is likely to push millions more people north towards the US.” The journalists quote Robert Albro, a researcher at the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies at American University, says, “‘The focus on violence is eclipsing the big picture – which is that people are saying they are moving because of some version of food insecurity,’ And Albro continues: “‘The main reason people are moving is because they don’t have anything to eat. This has a strong link to climate change – we are seeing tremendous climate instability that is radically changing food security in the region.’” Albro adds: “Migrants don’t often specifically mention ‘climate change’ as a motivating factor for leaving because the concept is so abstract and long-term…. But people in the region who depend on small farms are painfully aware of changes to weather patterns that can ruin crops and decimate incomes.”

The crisis on the border now – the children

In an article published on March 23, 2021, Jessica Corbett reports on how children are being crowded in “border jails” and the Biden administration is limiting journalists’ access to the detention facilities (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2021/03/23/biden-restricts-media-access-photos-show-children-crowded-borders-jail). Over the weekend of March 20-21, Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) shared photos taken at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) overflow facility in Donna, Texas. The photos “reveal the crowded, makeshift conditions at the border as the government’s longer-term child shelters and family detention centers fill up.

Corbett writes: “The CBP, a Department of Homeland Security (DHS), is supposed to transfer most unaccompanied children to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) within 72 hours. However, thousands of minors have recently been held past that legal limit. As of Saturday [March 20], according to a DHS document leaked to Axios, 3,314 children had been in custody longer than three days, 2,226 more than five days, and 823 over 10 days.” She also refers to an interview conducted by “The View” on Monday, March 22, with Jacob Soboroff, author of Separated: Inside an American Tragedy, a book on former President Trump’s immigration policies. Soboroff said that part of the problem now is “the Biden administration isn’t letting us [reporters] go see them [the children] for ourselves.” Soboroff also points out that the border facilities now being used to house the children are “just like the Trump used during separations,” that is, “the same type of punitive, jail-like facility operated by the Border Patrol agents who are there as law enforcement agents. They wear guns on their hip… that’s what this is.”

At a news briefing on Monday, March 22, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki is quoted as saying that “I hope to have an update in the coming days. We are working… with the Department of Health and Human Services and also the Department of Homeland Security, to ensure privacy and ensure we’re following Covid protocols. We remain committed to transparency, and, of course, as I noted last week, we certainly want to make sure that the media has access to these sites.” Psaki added: “the photos released by Cuellar ‘show what we’ve long been saying, which is that these Border Patrol facilities are not places made for children. They are not places that we want children to be staying for an extended period of time. Our alternative [a rejected alternative] is to send children back on this treacherous journey. That is not, in our view, the right choice to make.”

At the same time, Psaki attempts confusingly to defend the position that this is not a border crisis but a situation that stems from “children presenting at our border who are fleeing violence, who are fleeing prosecution, who are fleeing terrible situations, is not a crisis. We feel that it is our responsibility to humanely approach this circumstance and make sure they are treated… and put into conditions that are safe.” Psaki is right in identifying the conditions that are pushing migrants to the U.S. border. But it is also a crisis at the border that reflects the unpreparedness of the Biden administration to care for the children safely and expeditiously. In this regard, Corbett reports, “The Week’s Ryan Cooper wrote in a column Tuesday that the “most honest criticism of Biden’s immigration record is that he has not reversed Trump’s appalling, illegal practices fast enough (nor those of his predecessor, which were nearly as bad).” Cooper concluded the interview with this statement: “It’s true that it would be much cheaper and simpler to deflate the frenzy of media hysteria by doing what Trump did—basically closing the border, throwing penniless refugees back over it, and forcing Mexico to deal with the problem. Dealing with migrants in a fair and humane fashion will require money, patience, and good administration.”

The politics

Republicans and others on the right want to politicize the crisis. If successful, they can divert the public attention away from the administration’s progress in the struggle against the Covid-19 pandemic, the popularity of the $1.9 trillion covid-relief package, and from massive efforts by Republicans in states to suppress the votes of Democrats and subvert democracy, while shifting attention to the present humanitarian-refugee crisis. At the same time, the Biden administration is, as noted, currently hard pressed to handle the surge at the border, especially that of the migrant children who are coming to the border unaccompanied and the families with a single parent and a child or children.

The Republican approach: support Trump’s right-wing policies to keep out most migrants

Go back to extending the “wall”

Wikipedia gives a useful account of Trump’s build-the-wall saga (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trump_wall). Trump promised to construct a much larger border wall than the one that existed during his 2016 presidential campaign, “claiming that if elected he would ‘build the wall and make Mexico pay for it.” This would be a wall that would extend the entire almost 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border. The President of Mexico at the time, Enrique Pena Nieto, stated that his country would not pay for the wall. And, up to the present, this has been the unwavering position of the Mexican government.

On January 25, 2017, after being elected, “Trump signed Executive Order 13767, which formally directed the US government to begin attempting wall construction along the US border with Mexico using existing federal funding,” though “actual construction did not begin at this time due to the significant expense and lack of clarity on how it would be funded.

Trump continued to grapple with Democrats in Congress through 2017 over funding and threatened at his rallies and through his tweets to shut down the government if Congress did not approve funding. Congress refused and Trump did partially shut down the federal government for 35 days, from December 22, 2018 to January 25, 2019, and insisted that he would “veto any spending bill that did not include $5.7 billion in border wall funding.” This turned out to be the longest government shut down in US history. In the end, Trump lost this battle and did not get the funding he wanted.

The persistence of Trump on obtaining funding from Congress for the border wall continued. Congress did authorize $1.4 billion for border security, but that did not satisfy the president. On February 15, 2019, he “signed a Declaration of National Emergency, saying that the situation at the Mexico-United States border is a crisis requiring money allocated for other purposes to be used instead to build the wall.” Following this, “Congress passed a joint resolution to overturn the emergency order, but Trump vetoed the resolution.” This led Trump to say that he would go ahead and transfer already authorized funds for other purposes (e.g., military funds) to be transferred to wall building projects. Up to the present, July 2019, this effort has been stopped by the courts (https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-06-29/judge-blocks-trump-s-funding-plan-for-more-sections-of-the-wall). However, the Supreme Court then ruled to allow Trump to shift $2.5 billion from other agency budgets to border security (July 26, 2019).

According to the US Customs and Border Protection agency, as of July 2019, construction “had begun to replace old fencing [but] no new wall had yet been built” with government money. Republicans want to re-start the effort.

There are currently “a series of vertical barriers” along the border, “a discontinuous series of physical obstructions variously classified as ‘fences’ or ‘walls.’” In January 2019, there were 580 miles of barriers in place, according to US Customs and Border Protection. There are also other security measures [many in place before Trump], “provided by a ‘virtual fence’ of sensors, cameras, and other surveillance equipment used to dispatch United States Border Patrol agents to areas where migrants are attempting to cross the border illegally. Legal expert Marjorie Cohn points out that Trump was” increasing his illegal militarization of the southern border by deploying 2,100 additional troops to join the 4,500 military personnel already there” (https://truthout.org/articles/trump-is-obliterating-the-right-to-asylum).

Other Trump policies designed to reduce migrant entry to the U.S.

In addition to the Trump wall, Trump and his administration adopted other policies designed to keep migrants from entering the country. When one policy didn’t work or is met with public outrage, Congressional opposition, and/or legal challenges, another one with the same intent is concocted. They wanted to make conditions so bad that word among migrants would get back to others in their home countries that the costs of migration to the US-Mexico border are too great to justify the arduous and dangerous trek of over a thousand miles from Central America, through Mexico, to the border with the US. In advancing such policies, they ignore or dismiss the deteriorating and unsafe conditions in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and other countries that compel them to migrate.

Make processing of refugee and asylum claims complex and designed to fail

Immigration lawyer Jennifer Harbury provides further details in an interview on Democracy Now on the process by which migrants seek “legal resettlement,” or legal entry, into the U.S. It’s complex that requires asylum seekers provide not only considerable documentation but must satisfy other requirements as well. And it was subverted by Trump (https://www.democracynow.org/2018/7/9/human_rights_lawyer_jennifer_harbury_on). Here is what some of what she said.

“…under 8 U.S.C. 1225, [a person] goes up to the port of entry, knocks on the door and literally says, ‘I’m in danger. I need to apply for asylum.’ And as I said earlier, they then go to a credible fear interview [no criminal record] and then to a detention center, initially, and they’ll be put in proceedings before an immigration judge… if they’ve got perfectly good identification, they’ve never committed a crime, they’re not a threat to anyone, they’re just on the run from the cartels, and they have legal status relatives, citizen or LPR [legal permanent resident of the U.S.], who will take them in and sponsor them and pay all their expenses.”

At that point in the process, a person or parent and children who satisfied all these requirements would pre-Trump have “always been released” on conditional approval of resettlement. Trump contemptuously calls this a “catch and release” policy that he was determined to end and contended that most migrants under these circumstances did not return for scheduled court appearances. The evidence indicates otherwise. Caitlin Dickerson cites information from Heidi Altman, director of policy at the National Immigrant Justice Center that case management programs used in the past to ensure immigrants show up for court have proven to be “both cheaper than detention and have a proven track record of near universal court compliance (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/22/us/immigration-detention.html).

Trump succeeded in reducing legal, asylum requests

In an article published on Nov. 20, 2020, for the Migration Policy Institute, Muzaffar Chishti and Jessica Bolter make four points about “the Trump effect” on legal immigration Levels (https://www.migrationpolicy.org/trump-effect-immigration-realty). The say that the Trump policies have had “immediate and dramatic effects.”

(1) “The administration has sharply lowered refugee admissions, arguing that refugees pose a national security threat and impose a significant financial burden on federal and local governments. In FYs 2018 and 2020, the Trump administration admitted the lowest numbers of refugees since the current U.S. refugee resettlement program began in 1980: 22,491 and 11,814 respectively. This was a significant drop compared to the 84,995 refugees resettled in FY 2016.”

(2) “The administration has also significantly narrowed eligibility for asylum in the United States, for example by eliminating certain grounds for asylum and making it almost impossible to be granted asylum or, more recently, even apply for it at the border. These changes have led many to conclude that the prospects for receiving asylum in the United States have largely ended.”

(3) Despite the attempts to reduce successful asylum claims, the number of asylum seekers whose claims were approved actually increased during the Trump years—to the highest level since at least 1990. This is partly because there have been many more asylum applicants in recent years, and the backlog has been growing for several years. In many instances, applications that were approved while Trump was in office were filed during the Obama administration.

(4) “At the same time, asylum denials have increased even more than approvals, meaning that although the number of asylum grants increased, the approval rate has concurrently decreased, from 43 percent in FY 2016 to 29 percent in FY 2019. Furthermore, the Trump administration’s dramatic narrowing of opportunities to apply for asylum has contributed to fewer new applications being filed. Since these applications can take a long time to process, it is likely that, absent major policy reversals, the number of approved asylum cases will fall substantially in coming years.”

Metering: To delay entry and hope that migrants return to their home countries

The metering method, begun in mid-2018, requires migrants who have come to the border claiming the right of asylum to sign their name on a “notebook,” be given a number, sometime later be called for an asylum hearing before an immigration judge, but in the meantime be required to remain on the Mexican-side of the border. often without shelter and other basic requirements of life and neighborhoods that are unsafe. Some give up and try to enter the US illegally. If they are caught on the US-side of the border, they often will be put in a detention facility until their asylum status is assessed by an immigration judge. This may take weeks, months, or more. Either way, they can be in a limbo time awaiting an official decision on whether they will be granted asylum or not.

“Remain in Mexico”

In this case, migrants who reach the US side of the border are told to return to the Mexican towns near the border, which are often violent places with limited or no shelters or centers in which they can stay, and, as transits, they are particularly vulnerable. Marjorie Cohn, professor-emeritus of law and prolific writer tells us that “Remain in Mexico” policy the colloquial name for “Migrant Protocols Program” (https://truthout.org/articles/trump-is-obliterating-the-right-to-asylum). It is a program designed to return asylum seekers and migrants to Mexico. It differs from the metering program in that it offers no official opportunity to be considered for asylum in the US. In both cases, they are prevented from entering the US for an asylum hearing. The “Remain in Mexico” program began on January 25, 2019. Within five months, Cohn writes, “the U.S. had returned 15,079 people – including at least 4,780 children – who came mostly from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, to Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Human Rights Watch reported at least 29 instances of harm to asylum seekers in Juárez, including kidnapping, violent attacks and sexual assaults.”

Punitive, long-term detention

If they have gained entrance into the country with a pending asylum claim, have been apprehended after entering the country “illegally,” or give themselves up an entry port without asylum-appropriate papers, they are sometimes put into sorely inadequate detention facilities that are ill-suited to provide even minimally adequate space, food, heat or cooling, medical care, or decent accommodations for children. Marjorie Cohn also addresses this issue with her typical legal and analytical expertise (https://truthout.org/articles/indefinite-detention-of-migrants-violates-international-law).

On June 26, 2018, according to Cohn, a federal judge in San Diego ordered the Trump administration to stop separating children from their parents and to reunite them. This was after 2,300 children had been separated since May 5. Then on June 29, “the Department of Justice filed a notice of compliance with the court order, but indicated its intention to indefinitely detain families together.” Cohn adds that indefinite detention violates international law, noting that such detention can last for months or even years. On July 2, “a federal judge in Washington ordered the government to give asylum applicants a meaningful opportunity to be released…. [But] More than 1,000 applicants have been incarcerated for months or years with no resolution of their cases.”

According to Cohn, the indefinite detention policy of the Trump administration violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the US has ratified, and the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, “which says treaties shall be the supreme law of the land.” According to the UN Human Rights Committee, “the expert body that monitors compliance with the covenant, detentions are arbitrary [and unlawful] if they do not accord with due process and are manifestly disproportional, unjust or unpredictable,” and “Keeping families locked up for months with no good reason is unjust and inappropriate. It denies them due process and a timely resolution of their legal claims. And their time of release is unpredictable.” Cohn points out that “Negative effects of prolonged detention may amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, in violation of the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which the United States has ratified.”

There are exceptions under this law: “Parties to the covenant may refuse to comply with them only ‘in time of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation.’ But, Cohn quotes Aflred de Zayas, UN independent expert on the promotion of a democratic and equable international order, who says “Neither the war on terror nor restrictive immigration policies justify indefinite detention.”

Make conditions in detention facilities atrocious – even for children

As already indicated, the conditions in the detention facilities are bad. Adam Serwer reviews evidence on the conditions in an article for The Atlantic magazine on July 3, 2019 (https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/07/border-facilities/593239).

Observers who have visited immigration detention facilities in the Southwest have “reported that children were being held in cruelly austere conditions.” They told the press that at the facility in Clint, Texas, children, as young as 7 and 8 were sleeping on concrete floors and being denied soap and toothpaste. Many of the children were “described as wearing clothes caked with snot and tears … caring for infants they’ve just met.’ Serwer quotes a visiting doctor called the detention centers “torture facilities.” He refers to reports that “at least seven children have died in U.S. custody in the past year, compared with none in the 10 years prior.” And, astoundingly, Serwer writes that “[m]ore than 11,000 children are now being held by the U.S. government on any given day.” Beyond such beastly deprivations, “the administration has canceled recreational activities, an act that, like the conditions themselves, likely violates the law.”

There’s more evidence. According to Serwer, “At a processing center in El Paso, Texas, 900 migrants were ‘being held at a facility designed for 125. In some cases, cells designed for 35 people were holding 155 people,’ The New York Times reported. One observer described the facility to Texas Monthly as a ‘human dog pound.’ The government’s own investigators have found detainees in facilities run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement being fed expired food at detention facilities, ‘nooses in detainee cells,’ ‘inadequate medical care,’ and ‘unsafe and unhealthy conditions.’ An early-July inspector-general report found ‘dangerous overcrowding’ in some Border Patrol facilities and included pictures of people crowded together like human cargo. More than 50,000 people are being held in facilities run by ICE, and something close to 20,000 in facilities run by Customs and Border Protection, and more than 11,000 children in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services. (The government describes them as “unaccompanied,” a label immigration advocates say is misleading because many were separated by the government from the relative who brought them) Some of the people detained by the U.S. government have entered the United States illegally or overstayed their visas; some are simply seeking to exercise their legal right to asylum.”
Serwer continues.

“‘There were definitely parts of the Obama program that did similar—and, in fact, some of the same—things,’ said Chris Rickerd, a policy counsel at the ACLU. ‘But this all-encompassing skepticism of asylum seekers fleeing violence—justifying cruel treatment, justifying changes in the law, and justifying overcrowding to the point of unsafe and deadly conditions—[is] of a scale and a type that we haven’t seen before.’ One pediatrician who visited a Border Patrol facility in Texas observed ‘extreme cold temperatures, lights on 24 hours a day, no adequate access to medical care, basic sanitation, water, or adequate food.’ Photographs show migrants huddled together, languishing in filth behind chain-link fences, some with little more than Mylar blankets for shelter. The president’s defenders on Fox News have compared these conditions to summer camp and house parties.”

These policies are intentional, or as Serwer writes, “deliberately inflicted suffering on children to deter illegal immigration, with its use of family separation. It has altered immigration policy and the asylum process so as to force the authorities to hold migrants, whether they have properly sought asylum at a port of entry or crossed illegally, and has made it more difficult for children to be released to sponsors in the United States by threatening to arrest and deport family members who lack legal status. By deliberately throttling the asylum process, the administration has pushed desperate migrants to risk death by crossing the border illegally rather than presenting themselves at ports of entry, and has sought to prosecute those who would help migrants survive the journey by leaving them food and water, effectively making the federal misdemeanor of illegal entry a capital crime. In private, some Border Patrol agents consider migrant deaths a laughing matter; others are succumbing to depression, anxiety, or substance abuse.”

The initial border experience of the Biden Administration is problematic 

Sean Sullivan and Nick Miroff report on March 15 in The Washington Post how Republicans, reporters, centrist Democrats, some from the left are criticizing the Biden administration for its inability thus far to deal with chaotic and inhumane situation at the border (https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/biden-immigration-political-threat). In February, for example, illegal crossings at the border skyrocketed, topping “100,000, a 28 percent increase from the previous month.” Custom and Border Protection figures indicate the surge will continue, as there have been already in March “more than 4,000 border apprehensions each day.” The border situation is made especially problematic because “so many crossing the border are minors”

The critics of Biden’s handling of the border crisis

Sullivan and Miroff give the following examples. They report that “Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the top House Republican took a trip to the border on that day (March 1), visiting a processing center in El Paso to slam Biden’s approach, told reporters: “There’s no other way to claim it than a Biden border crisis.” Republicans are “laying the groundwork for immigration-centric attacks in the midterm elections” and are claiming already that Biden and the Democrats are weak on the border and letting everybody in and “that huge flow of migrants presents safety risks and could worsen the pandemic.” The Republicans want to shut down the border and keep all unacceptable (that is, the great majority of) migrants out of the country, including unaccompanied children. “They’ve been negligent,” Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), NRSC chairman, said of the Biden administration. “It’s bad for the country to not have a secure border.” They want Trump’s deterrent policies reinstituted, the construction of the border wall to continue, and generally making it hard for migrants, whatever their legal status, to enter the U.S.

There are other critics as well. Sullivan and Miroff also quote Neha Desai, “an immigration attorney who recently visited a detention site, who said that while the conditions there have greatly improved from the Trump era, ‘it is unacceptable for children to be spending days on end in dramatically overcrowded facilities.’” And: “Centrist Democrats are nervous about attacks casting them as soft on border security,” while “[l]iberals and immigration activists are sounding alarms about how migrants are treated.” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary acknowledged the problem at a press conference on March 15, but blaming the Trump administration for leaving the present administration with “a dismantled and unworkable system.”

There is a lingering concern about whether “Biden’s rhetoric was heavily responsible for the influx of migrants.” Sullivan and Miroff report: “Last week, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said the new U.S. president had stirred hopes for many Central Americans seeking to immigrate or reunite with loved ones already here and quote Obrador as saying the migrants “see him as the migrant president.” The dilemma for Biden then has become that his “promise of a gentler, more humane immigration policy was central to his campaign — but that very message has prompted an influx that the administration is finding hard to control.”

The Biden administration and supporters on the border crisis: It will take time and it is not as bad as it was under Trump

Sean Sullivan and Nick Miroff report that “[a]dministration officials on Monday urged patience and emphasized how much the Trump policies, including cutting off ­legal immigration channels and regional funding, have affected what they have been able to do out of the gate.” They continue: “To rebut political attacks, they plan to underscore the comprehensive nature of their border approach and are highlighting their commitment to the safety of migrant children.” At the same time, “they admit it will take time” and some admit that the Biden administration may have loosened enforcement at the border prematurely. While most single adult migrants continue to be sent back to Mexico, “the Biden administration halted the practice for teens and children. Since then, their numbers have more than tripled to roughly 500 per day.” Nonetheless, some of Biden’s supporters say the situation is not as bad for children as it was under Trump.

The administration is trying to ease the crisis through temporary emergency measures. It is treating “the crisis as a capacity shortage that can be managed by opening additional shelters, rather than one that requires a major policy shift.” Thus, “CBP is looking at adding tent sites in Yuma and Tucson, for example, to ease overcrowding in border stations in Arizona, according to one official with knowledge of the plans who spoke on the condition of anonymity.” Sullivan and Miroff report that there may be “pushback from communities that do not want undocumented immigrants in their area.”

Neha Desai, the attorney with the National Youth Law Center who represents migrant children, was able to visit a tent site last week in Donna, Tex., that is filled far beyond capacity. The facility is not comparable to the Border Patrol warehouse whose chain-link holding pens were denounced as cages in 2018, Desai said. But she still has concerns. ‘What we saw concerned us profoundly, but I think we share the same goals as the Biden administration,’ she added. ‘No one wants to see these children hungry, terrified and apart from their family.’” The Administration for Children and Families at the Department of Health and Human Services has opened an “Emergency Intake” site in Midland, Tex., with assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency” and being “staffed by the American Red Cross, private contractors and federal workers.”

Still, Sullivan and Miroff note that “[m]any liberal Democrats have voiced concerns about how children are being treated, even as they acknowledge a difference from the Trump years. As one example, they quote Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif): “The administration and Congress must prioritize better housing for these children while their asylum cases are being adjudicated,”

The crisis was “unexpected”

Whatever the causes, Dan Balz, analyzes “the unexpected challenge for Biden and his team” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/the-surge-of-migration-presents-an-unexpected-challenge-for-biden-and-his-team). The Biden administration got off to a good start for most of the first 60 days, as it accelerated “the pace of vaccinations while muscling through Congress the nearly $2 trillion American Rescue Plan over united Republican opposition.” The administration also signaled a shift  from the immigration policies of Trump by signing “a proclamation calling for a halt on construction of the border wall” and proposing legislation to “rewrite the immigration laws, including an eventual pathway to citizenship for the more than 11 million immigrants who are here without documentation.” But the surge in undocumented migrants threatens to detract from these initiatives.

The news coverage now focuses on the “surge on the border, which included a substantial increase in the number of unaccompanied minors,” and “the humanitarian emergency and a political mess-in-the-making that it is ill-prepared to handle.” Balz notes that “administration officials “have blamed the Trump administration for some of its problems, claiming they inherited a broken and punitive system.” Nonetheless, they are now faced with confounding situations. “What to do when someone crosses the border illegally?” And

“just how strictly should the law be enforced and what are the consequences of either doing or not doing so?”

In an interview with ABC’s earlier in March, Balz reports that “Biden dismissed the idea that the surge of migration is a result of his more welcoming attitude, as some of them reportedly have told U.S. officials” and has said that migrants should not come now: ‘Don’t leave your town or city or community.’” Biden went on to explain “that the U.S. government would be setting up centers in these countries [Guatamala, Honduras, El Salvador] where asylum seekers could make their applications,” and asking “Mexico to absorb some of the influx.” All of this “will take time.” Meanwhile, Balz writes, the “challenge for the administration is to show that it can strike a balance between a more compassionate and humane immigration policy at the border and a policy that deals firmly with those who violate the law — and one that, ultimately, discourages people, including asylum seekers, from coming here in overwhelming numbers.”

There is no reason to anticipate that the number of refugees and asylum seekers will decrease. Balz quotes Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas “this past week [who] said the country is on pace for the highest number of individuals crossing the border in 20 years. As of Thursday, March 18, “there were an estimated 14,000 in U.S. hands.” Balz reports that the “administration is trying to expedite the process of moving them from the custody of Customs and Border Protection officials and into the hands of the Department of Health and Human Services and then, as soon as it is feasible, to relocate them with families or sponsors in the United States.”

The Republican response has been to claim that Biden favors open borders, while they want secure, virtually closed, borders, following in the footsteps of the Trump administration. There have also been criticisms from the left, demanding that he deal with the situation quickly and humanely. The challenge for Biden is “to expedite the handling of the unaccompanied minors, to establish a clear policy and to calibrate its messaging both for those in other countries and for a domestic audience that will be judging the administration.”

Who is responsible for the crisis at the border?

Linda Qiu does a fact-check on some of the claims associated with three related question (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/20/us/politics/fact-check-immigration-border.html).

First, she identifies the competing positions, writing: “With the number of migrants apprehended at the southwestern border expected to reach a two-decade high, Republicans are blaming President Biden for the surge, while Democrats argue that immigration system he inherited left him ill-prepared.”

#1 – To deport children or provide them with immediate assistance on the US-side of the border

Qiu cites a claim by Alejandro Mayorkas, Biden’s secretary of homeland security, who said at a congressional hearing on March 17 that “The previous administration was expelling these unaccompanied children, some who are girls under the age of 12, for example, back to Mexico. We ended that practice.”

 Qiu finds this statement to be misleading, writing: “The practice of expelling unaccompanied children ended thanks to a court ruling before Mr. Biden took office, though his administration declined to resume expulsions when an appeals court decided it could do so.” She refers to how “the threat of the coronavirus and using a public health emergency law known as Title 42” led the Trump administration to announce in March of 2020 “that it would send back to their home countries people who illegally crossed the southwestern border, rather than detaining and processing them.” However, in November, “a federal judge ruled that the administration could not expel unaccompanied children.” She continues: “As a result, expulsions of unaccompanied children fell from nearly 3,200 in October to 1,520 in November to just three in December and 18 in January.” Then, in late January 2021, an appeals court stayed that ruling, “once again allowing the expulsion of children, but the Biden administration has decided against the practice. It continues to send back adults and families, however.”

The major implication of these events is that the Trump administration wanted to deport children who had recently arrived at the US-side of the border but was eventually kept from doing so by a court order. And, despite a decision by an appeals court to allow such deportations, the Biden administration has decided against the practice of expelling children and parents with children.

#2 – “Republicans have mischaracterized Mr. Biden’s immigration policies, especially in relation to the virus.

Biden’s policies are not “open border” policies

Qiu cites a statement made by Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas in an interview on Monday, March 15: The Biden border crisis, though, was created by Joe Biden’s promises of amnesty and open borders and free health care for illegals during the campaign.”

According to the fact check, Cotton’s statement is exaggerated. Consistent with the Biden administration’s immigration policy, Biden “has proposed a pathway for citizenship for the undocumented immigrants currently residing in the United States and revoked the previous administration’s policy that required asylum seekers to remain in Mexico as they awaited decisions on their cases.” At the same time, Qiu points out, “Mr. Cotton is wrong that Mr. Biden promised ‘free health care’ for undocumented immigrants.” Rather, Biden’s plan, gives immigrants, those already residing in the US and those who will follow, the opportunity to “buy health care plans including a proposed public option on exchanges set up by the Affordable Care Act.”

Qiu also refers to a quote by Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, in an interview on Sunday, March 14, on Fox News.

“Yes, the signals that the Biden administration is sending by eliminating the migrant protection program or ‘Remain in Mexico’ program that was negotiated with the Mexican government, and as well as the failure to enforce the Title 42 public health order, which basically give the Border Patrol the ability to keep people out of the country who may infect the U.S. population, basically, they’re ignoring all of that.”

Qiu finds Cornyn’s reference to Title 42 to be inaccurate. The Biden administration has decided not to expel unaccompanied children, despite a court ruling allowing the practice. At the same time, the administration “has continued Title 42 expulsions of most border crossers,” other than children. Qiu adds: “In fact, out of the more than 100,000 encounters at the southwestern border in February, 72,000 led to expulsions.”

#3 – Lawmakers omitted context in describing border crossing trends.

Qiu refers to contrasting statements on the culpability of the Biden administration in the recent surge in refugees and asylum seekers at the border. Republican Senator from Louisiana, Bill Cassidy, said on an interview on Fox News the following: “You can’t help but notice that the administration changes and there’s a surge.” Democratic Representative of Texas, Veronica Escobar made the following statement on CNN (March 14): “We began seeing the increase in unaccompanied minors going back to last April 2020. This is not something that happened as a result of Joe Biden becoming president. We saw the increases dating back almost a year. And this was during the Trump administration.”

Qiu finds that Cassidy “is ignoring that encounters with migrants at the border have been ticking up for months before Mr. Biden took office, while Ms. Escobar is downplaying that the increases accelerated in February.” Jessica Bolter, a policy analyst at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute, said “It’s both. We have been seeing an increase in overall encounters at the border since April of 2020, and there was a bigger increase than we’ve seen in the past few months in February.” Qiu cites evidence from the Border Patrol is verify Bolter’s view. According to the Border Patrol, “agents encountered unaccompanied children at the southwestern border 741 times in April 2020, the lowest monthly level in a decade. That number did gradually increase over the last few months of Mr. Trump’s presidency. But in February, Border Patrol agents recorded more than 9,400 encounters with unaccompanied children, a 61 percent increase since January, a 170 percent increase from February 2020 and the highest number since May 2019.”

There are both push and pull factors that creating the upsurge. “The push factors are at the highest they’ve been at quite some time,” said Mr. Reichlin-Melnick, ticking off political corruption, instability, poverty and violence in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. The economic toll of the pandemic and two hurricanes that battered the region toward the end of last year further exacerbated difficult conditions.” The pull factors include the hope for better economic opportunities and the chance to reunite with family already residing in the United States. Qiu also thinks that Biden’s policies may have had an additional tug: “Rescinding the Remain in Mexico policy, halting the construction of a border wall, and ending agreements allowing the United States to return asylum seekers to Central American countries ‘have motivated people to try to enter illegally now,’ asserted Jessica M. Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies, which promotes lower levels of immigration.”

Whether or not those specific policies spurred the rise, Biden’s promises of a more humane border policy have been one of the factors in increased migration — a point acknowledged by White House officials and by people crossing the border themselves.

The elements of a comprehensive immigration policy on asylum seekers

One can imagine progressive and radical alternatives that, if implemented, would in various combinations, reduce the suffering of migrants and increase the number who are permitted to enter the US. It would adhere to international and national laws on refugees, while expanding the criteria that define a legitimate asylum claim. It would decriminalize those who are caught trying to enter illegally. It would expedite the asylum process so that migrants who satisfy the criteria can enter the country without long waits. There would not be the dreadful detention facilities that exist under Trump, rather there would adequately-resourced and humanely managed facilities for those who have crossed the border illegally or who are waiting for an asylum decision by an immigration judge. Children would not be separated from their parents and unaccompanied children, those who come without a parent or legal guardian, would be housed in appropriate facilities until homes were found for them. Those permitted to relocate in the US would be provided with transitional assistance, unless that had relatives or other sponsors who were able to assist them.

And, ideally, the conditions in their home countries that drive people to immigrate would be mitigated. Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) has some suggestions, as follows:

“Mr. Biden should engage the leaders of the Western Hemisphere for a summit that identifies shared responsibilities, challenges and opportunities. Engaging Northern Triangle countries, fully restoring the Central American Minors program (which allows children to apply for refugee status in their home countries) and reinstating aid (practices curtailed by former President Donald Trump) is a good start. But a multilateral approach must include our Canadian allies and address the causes of the migration coming not just from Central America but from Mexico as well. We need a shared plan with a focus on security to combat crime and persecution that includes cracking down on gangs and other criminal organizations and creates accountability for politicians and officials who turn a blind eye to criminals” (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/24/opinion/border-migrants-central-america.html).

In the end, the issue will be addressed or not, depending on politics and elections. Democratic leaders will be challenged to devise a humane immigration policy, as the number of migrants seeking entrance to the U.S. continues to be large for years to come, stretching border resources, the tolerance of voters, limited by other crises affecting the country, and with poisonous opposition of the Republican Party, their massive electoral base, and the right-wing media.

The political battles that will determine whether U.S. democracy succeeds or fails

Bob Sheak, March 12, 2021

There are great challenges facing the United States. One of them involves the increasingly seemingly irreconcilable conflict between the two major political parties over what kind of country we should have. The Democratic Party favors a majority-based democracy as foundational. The Republican Party wants a limited electorate based largely on the mostly white, culturally-conservative, pro-Trump constituencies.  

The Republicans

The Republican Party supports a right-wing, reactionary agenda of tax cuts, wholesale deregulation, corporate welfare, privatization of public functions, unabated support for fossil fuels and a disregard for the climate crisis, inadequate support in the effort to control and offer relief from the Covid-19 pandemic, efforts to limit government insurance and public assistance programs, makiing the Supreme Court and federal judiciary even more right-wing bastions of reaction than they have been. Furthermore, Republicans want an immigration policy that separates children from families and, in effect, denies or interminably delays even valid asylum claims, along with little concern with gun regulation, prison reform, or police accountability. And it’s worse. Whatever else happens, the Republican Party will continue to be Trump’s party, based on his massive unquestioning, right-wing populous base, including the support of violent fringe groups, and energized by the “big lie” that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him, combined with various cultural and racial issues. As it stands now, the national Republican Party is a minority party, unable to win the majority of votes cast for presidential candidates, that relies on voter suppression, gerrymandering, and the unique, antiquated, and anti-democratic Electoral College to win presidential elections.

The Democrats

The Democratic Party supports an agenda that is center/left and the opposite of what Republicans want. The want progressive taxes, reasonable regulation, corporate accountability (including for CEOs and other executives). They have policies directed at climate change. They want to phase out coal and better regulate fracking, with the goal of phasing out oil and gas in twenty or thirty years. They support programs to put solar panels on government buildings and facilities and support plans of some auto maker to build electric cars. They want to strengthen government insurance and public assistance programs, nominate moderate and liberal justices to the courts. They wrestle with what to do about immigration, but are open to more efficacious and humane border policies than what Trump demanded. They favor some reform of guns, prisons, and police. They rely on experienced people to staff positions in the executive branch and communicate with the public on a timely basis. They listen to the scientists on the Covid-19 pandemic and are far better than the Trump administration in encouraging a growing supply of vaccines, in increasing the number of locations where people can be vaccinated, and in coordinating these efforts with state and local governments, while also continuing to inform the public about the safety of the vaccines and the need to continue wearing masks and doing other relevant hygienic tasks.   

The battle

Democrats now hold slim advantages in the House and Senate and have Joe Biden in the White House. They will only retain these advantages if they can overcome Republican obstruction, lies, voter suppression, racist and nativist fearmongering, and enact at least parts of their agenda. In this post, I focus on three current issues to exemplify what Republicans are attempting to do to subvert democracy and obstruct key Democratic initiatives: (1) voter suppression, (2) opposition to the Democrats’ initiative to expand the electorate, and (3) the unified Republican opposition (ultimately failed) in the Congress to Biden’s American Rescue Act. The question on the third point is whether the Democrats’ success in passing the legislation will be a precedent for more progressive legislation or a stand-alone victory.

With all this, Democrats only have a chance of maintaining control of the US House and US Senate in the 2022 midterm elections if they can continue to make progress against the Covid-19 pandemic, continue to find ways to advance their agenda through executive orders or through legislation that addresses the economic problems faced by a majority of Americans, and are able to mobilize voters in 202 as they did in 2020.  

Issue #1 – Republicans favor limitations on democracy

Michael Wines identifies what Republican legislators are doing to suppress the vote and alter election rules across the country (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/27/us/republican-voter-suppression.html). He writes: “Led by loyalists who embrace former President Donald J. Trump’s baseless claims of a stolen election, Republicans in state legislatures nationwide are mounting extraordinary efforts to change the rules of voting and representation — and enhance their own political clout.” They include “a slew of bills raising new barriers to casting votes, particularly the mail ballots that Democrats flocked to in the 2020 election.” Wines refers to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice, a liberal-leaning law and justice institute at New York University, which has identified 253 bills in 43 states that seek to tighten voting rules.

But there is more, “including tweaking Electoral College and judicial election rules for the benefit of Republicans; clamping down on citizen-led ballot initiatives; and outlawing private donations that provide resources for administering elections, which were crucial to the smooth November vote.” In addition, “there are already signs of an aggressive drive to further gerrymander political districts, particularly in states under complete Republican control.” For example, the “national Republican Party joined the movement this past week by setting up a Committee on Election Integrity to scrutinize state election laws, echoing similar moves by Republicans in a number of state legislatures.” The voter suppression initiatives focus on congressional districts and states where there have been large pro-Democratic turnouts, especially those areas where there are concentrations of African-Americans. On this point, Wines writes: “The issues are particularly stark because fresh restrictions would disproportionately hit minorities just as the nation is belatedly reckoning with a racist past, said Lauren Groh-Wargo, the chief executive of the voting advocacy group Fair Fight Action.”

Republicans justify the anti-democratic efforts by claiming they will stop voter fraud, though “multiple studies have shown barely exists.” Wines gives examples of what voter suppression looks like in some states. “Georgia Republicans would sharply limit early voting on Sundays, when many Black voters follow church services with ‘souls to the polls’ bus rides to cast ballots. On Friday [Feb. 26], a State Senate committee approved bills to end no-excuse absentee voting and automatic voter registration at motor vehicle offices.” Furthermore, “Republicans in Georgia, which Mr. Biden won by roughly 12,000 votes, lined up this week behind a State Senate bill that would require vote-by-mail applications to be made under oath, with some requiring an additional ID and a witness signature.”

Chris Walker also writes on voter suppression in Georgia (https://truthout.org/articles/georgia-bill-would-criminalize-giving-water-to-voters-waiting-in-long-lines). The Georgia General Assembly passed Bill 531 on Monday, March 1, that “would add a voter ID requirement for absentee ballots, limit the number and locations of early voting drop-off boxes, and reduce early voting days during the weekends prior to an election — including allowing just one Sunday to vote early.” The bill additionally includes an outlandish provision to charge individuals with misdemeanor crime if they had out food or drinks to voters standing in line on election days. Also, “A separate set of measures are also being considered in that legislative chamber, which would limit which voters could apply for absentee ballots, disallowing the state’s “no-excuse” practice of granting any voter who requests a ballot to get one.”

The report from the Brennan Center for Justice, alluded to previously, provides a detailed “roundup” of both restrictive and expansive state voting legislation (https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/voting-laws-round-up-february-2021). The evidence comes from election bills brought forth in 2021 legislative sessions in all but three states.

On the Republican side, amid “a rash of baseless and racist allegations of voter fraud and election irregularities…legislators have introduced well over four times the number of bills to restrict voting access as compared to roughly this time last year. Thirty-three states have introduced, prefiled, or carried over 165 restrictive bills this year (as compared to 35 such bills in fifteen states on February 3, 2020).” The bills “primarily seek to: (1) limit mail voting access; (2) impose stricter voter ID requirements; (3) slash voter registration opportunities; and (4) enable more aggressive voter roll purges. These bills are an unmistakable response to the unfounded and dangerous lies about fraud that followed the 2020 election.” For example, there are fourteen bills in nine states… would make the “excuse” requirement more stringent for absentee voting or eliminate “no excuse” mail voting. A Missouri bill, for example, would eliminate Covid-19 concerns as an excuse… while four different proposals in Pennsylvania seek to eliminate no-excuse mail voting, a policy just adopted with bipartisan support in 2019. Lawmakers in Arizona, Georgia, North Dakota, and Oklahoma also seek to eliminate no-excuse absentee voting.” 

Democrats are active on the electoral front as well. Democratic “lawmakers are seizing on an energized electorate and persistent interest in democracy reform (which is likewise reflected in Congress). To date, thirty-seven states have introduced, prefiled, or carried over 541 bills to expand voting access (dwarfing the 188 expansive bills that were filed in twenty-nine states as of February 3, 2020). Notably 125 such bills were introduced in New York and New Jersey.” According to the Center, “[t]hese bills focus primarily on: (1) mail voting; (2) early voting; (3) voter registration; and (4) voting rights restoration.”

The outcome of these initiatives will have a significant effect on the 2022 and 2024 elections. If the Republican succeed in further limiting access to the ballot in swing states like Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and if Democrats fail to get out the vote in the large numbers they did in 2020, then democracy in the US will be further diminished and authoritarian government based on minority-rule will be reinforced. Certainly, Trump and his authoritarian proclivities continue to have a dominating influence in the Republican Party at all levels.  

Signs of Republican authoritarianism – ideological radicalism

Professors of government Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt identify the signs of the rise of authoritarian behavior (How Democracies Die). First, “there is a rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game.” For example, authoritarians want to restrict basic civil or political rights (e.g., voter suppression). Second, authoritarians deny the legitimacy of their political opponents, as when they describe them as an “existential threat, either to national security or to the prevailing way of life,” “describe their partisan rivals as criminals.” Trump’s continuously bellowed “big lie” that the election was stolen and the support for this allegation by much of the Republican Party and Republican base. Third, authoritarians tolerate or encourage violence. They have “ties to armed gangs, paramilitary forces, militias….” Trump and many Republican legislators want to blame the January 6 attempted insurrection on leftist influences and dismiss the actual right-wing mob. Indeed, they encouraged “mob attacks on opponents.” There is little doubt that Trump incited and enflamed those who invaded the Capitol building. The refuse to unambiguously condemn violence and punish it. Fourth, authoritarians “curtail civil liberties of opponents, including the media.” For example, they support laws restricting protests and Trump has expressed his hatred toward the mainstream media as “fake news” and worse.

Issue #2 – Can Democrats overcome Republican opposition and the filibuster to expand voter rights and access

Ari Berman reports that House Democrats introduced legislation in late February designated as HR 1, For the People Act, which is described as the most significant democracy reform bill since the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (https://wwwmotherjones.com/politics/2021/03/the-house-is-poised-to-pass-a-major-voting-rights-bill-and-create-helluva-battle-in-the-senate). “The bill,” Berman writes, “would go a long way toward thwarting the new GOP voter-suppression efforts by enacting a wide range of pro-voter measures for federal elections,” including “nationwide automatic and Election Day registration; two weeks of early voting in every state; the expansion of mail-in voting; the restoration of voting rights to people convicted of a felony who have served their time; restrictions on discriminatory voter-ID laws and voter purges; and the creation of independent redistricting commissions for House districts to prevent extreme gerrymandering. The bill also cracks down on dark money by implementing public financing for congressional campaigns, and it establishes new ethics rules for federal officeholders.”

He reminds readers: “Nearly identical legislation passed the House in March 2019, but it was blocked in the Senate by then–Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who called it a ‘power grab’ for Democrats.” This year the legislation “has become an increasingly urgent priority for Democrats… following Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election, the insurrection at the Capitol, and the wave of GOP-backed proposals to restrict voting rights in key states, such as Georgia.” He points to examples of what the GOP wants to do, namely, “roll back mail-in voting, restrict ballot drop boxes, limit early voting, and repeal automatic voter registration.”

House Democrats were able to pass the “For the People Act” elections bill, on March 3, 2021 by a vote of 220 to 210, with no Republican votes. In its final form, the bill’s voting provisions “would,” Mike DeBonis reports, “guarantee no-excuse mail voting and at least 15 days of early voting for federal elections; require states to use their existing government records to automatically register citizens to vote; restore voting rights to felons who have completed their prison sentences; and mandate the use of paper ballots” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/house-elections-voting-pelosi).

DeBonis continues: “Other provisions would create new disclosure requirements for ‘dark money’ donations to political groups; require states to appoint independent commissions to draw congressional districts; and create new federal standards for election equipment vendors.” And the bill would also “require tech platforms to disclose political advertising information; establish a code of ethics for Supreme Court justices for the first time; restructure the Federal Election Commission to an odd number of members to break partisan deadlocks; and require presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns.”

Obstruction in the Senate

Now the bill goes to the Senate, where every Democrat has signaled support for the bill. According to DeBonis, “Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said this week that she expects to usher companion legislation through the Senate Rules Committee later this spring and ultimately to bring it to the floor. Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said, ‘If you’re ranking the most important legislation of the year, that is way up there.’ However, unless Democrats find a way around the filibuster, the Senate rules allow “a 41-vote minority to block most legislation from coming to a final vote.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has made clear that Republicans are totally opposed to the bill.

Therefore, the bill will only pass in the Senate if all Democrats are willing to abandon the 60-vote filibuster rule. Sens. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) have said they will not entertain any changes, though they may relent to internal pressure from other Democratic Senators and finally go along with a filibuster-avoidance effort.

As it stands now, “Klobuchar plans to hold hearings on S 1, the Senate version of the voting rights bill, in the Rules Committee this month [March] and then advance the bill to the Senate floor, setting up a potential showdown over the filibuster.” In this likely eventuality, Democrats have options for circumventing a Republican filibuster in the Senate. Here’s what Berman writes on this point. “They could end the filibuster outright with a simple majority vote (with Vice President Kamal Harris casting a tie-breaking vote), or they could abolish the filibuster only for election-related bills that are critical for democracy, an idea floated by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) They could also force Republicans to speak continuously on the Senate floor to sustain a filibuster—as was done in the old days—which would make it tougher for Republicans to wield the filibuster. Another option: lower the threshold for passing filibustered bills from 60 votes to 55 votes.” Easier said than done.

Getting around the filibuster

The filibuster is based on the Senate’s cloture rule, “which” Molly E. Reynolds writes, “requires 60 members to end debate on most topics and move to a vote” (https://brookings.edu/policy2020/votervitals/what-is-the-senate-filibuster-and-what-would-it-take-to-eliminate-it). The Senate is evenly divided, with 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans. Given that Republicans are unified in their opposition to virtually any bill put forward by Democrats, this means that it is impossible for Democratically-supported legislation to pass in the Senate as long as this rule stands.

According to Reynolds, “Senators have…options when they seek to vote on a measure or motion. Most often, the majority leader (or another senator) seeks ‘unanimous consent,’ asking if any of the 100 senators objects to ending debate and moving to a vote. If no objection is heard, the Senate proceeds to a vote. If the majority leader can’t secure the consent of all 100 senators, the leader (or another senator) typically files a cloture motion, which then requires 60 votes to adopt. If fewer than 60 senators—a supermajority of the chamber—support cloture, that’s when we often say that a measure has been filibustered.” But there is a high hurdle when it comes to changing the rule, officially “Senate Rule 22.” Reynolds points out that “[e]nding debate on a resolution to change the Senate’s standing rules requires the support of two-thirds of the members present and voting. Absent a large, bipartisan Senate majority that favors curtailing the right to debate, a formal change in Rule 22 is extremely unlikely.”

Another option is to create a new Senate precedent, “colloquially known as the “nuclear option” and more formally as ‘reform by ruling’—can, in certain circumstances, be employed with support from only a simple majority ofsenators.” Such a precedent can be created, Reynolds explains, “by a senator raising a point of order, or claiming that a Senate rule is being violated. If the presiding officer (typically a member of the Senate) agrees, and has the support of a majority, which would mean that all fifty Senate Democrats plus the vice-president Kamala Harris agree, the ruling would establish a new precedent. This, in theory, would be the most direct way of avoiding a filibuster. The problem is that there are some Democrats who oppose this option and thus, for the time being, eliminate this option.

There are other options that include “ways to modify the filibuster without eliminating it entirely.” Reynolds refers to this option as a “mini-nuke” that bans filibusters on particular motions but otherwise leaves the 60-vote rule intact.” She gives this example: “a Senate majority could prevent senators from filibustering the motion used to call up a bill to start (known as the motion to proceed). This would preserve senators’ rights to obstruct the bill or amendment at hand, but would eliminate the supermajority hurdle for starting debate on a legislative measure.” The problem with this procedure is that the ultimate vote requires a supermajority and such a vote is virtually impossible in the current Senate.

Budget reconciliation

However, she points out, there is another way via “the so-called Byrd Rule, a feature of the budget reconciliation process.” Louis Jacobson provides some background: “The budget reconciliation process was written into the Congressional Budget Act of 1974 as a tool for lawmakers, but wasn’t used until 1980. Since then, it’s been used to produce a law 25 times, all but four of which were eventually signed by the president” (https://www.politifact.com/article/2021/02/08/what-you-need-to-know-about-budget-reconciliation-pro). He adds: “In the big picture, the idea of budget reconciliation is to use a two-step process for federal budgeting. The first step is to pass a blueprint that gives an outline of budgetary goals. The second step is passage of a bill to ‘reconcile’ those broad revenue-and-outlay goals into detailed implementing legislation.” The purpose: “to enhance Congress’s ability to bring existing spending, revenue, and debt limit laws into compliance with current fiscal priorities and goals established in the annual budget resolution.”

Richard Kogan gives some further details on when budget reconciliation has been employed (https://www.cbpp.org/research/federal-budget/introduction-to-budget-reconciliation).

He writes:

”Policymakers have enacted 21 budget reconciliation bills since 1980, the first year they employed the process; Congress approved four other measures but the President vetoed them.[1] Policymakers used reconciliation to enact major spending cuts during President Reagan’s first year in office, several deficit-reduction packages during the 1980s and 1990s, welfare reform in 1996, and the large Bush tax cuts in 2001 and 2003. More recently, reconciliation was used in 2010 to amend the Affordable Care Act and modify the federal student loan program,[2] and in 2017 to enact large tax cuts. Republican majorities also twice attempted to use the reconciliation process to repeal key elements of the Affordable Care Act; President Obama vetoed the first attempt, in 2016, and the second attempt, in 2017, failed to pass in the Senate.”

Budget reconciliation has limits. Kogan writes: “The Congressional Budget Act permits using reconciliation for legislation that changes spending, revenues, and the federal debt limit. On the spending side, reconciliation can be used to address ‘mandatory’ or entitlement spending — that is, programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, federal civilian and military retirement, SNAP (formerly known as food stamps), and farm programs — but not Social Security. Mandatory spending is determined by rules set in ongoing authorizing laws, so changing spending usually requires amending those laws.” It “has not been used to enact or rescind ‘discretionary’ spending, which is spending controlled through the annual appropriations process. There’s nothing in the Budget Act or other rules that prohibits providing new funding, or rescinding existing funding, for discretionary programs through reconciliation. But the various restrictions on reconciliation probably make the process impractical as a means of enacting annual appropriations.”

The Senate Democrats avoided the threat of a filibuster and, despite unified Republican opposition, passed “The American Rescue Plan,” President Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package. It will go back to the House, where Democrats have a majority and where legislation will pass with a simple majority vote. So, in spite of unified Republican opposition in both the House and the Senate, one of President Biden’s top priorities is about to become law. There are, though, limits on the number of times budget reconciliation can be employed during a fiscal cycle.

There is, however, another wrinkle in the reconciliation process. Louis Jacobson points out that “[o]n the floor, any senator can raise a ‘point of order’ against a provision in the reconciliation bill.” Then: “Once an objection is raised,” Jacobson points out, “the nonpartisan Senate parliamentarian decides whether the provision is OK to stay in the bill. The presiding senator is obligated to follow that ruling.” That is, unless 60 Senators vote to override such a decision. As I will discuss later, the parliamentarian ruled that one part of the American Rescue Plan was inappropriate, that is, to increase in the minimum wage to $15, because, the parliamentarian surmised, the provision had no budgetary implications. So, in the absence of enough votes to override the decision the provision was dropped.

Biden’s “initial step”

Eugene Daniels reports that, while calling for progress on voting rights legislation, “President Joe Biden signed an executive order on Sunday [March 7] to promote additional access to voting. It came symbolically on the 56th anniversary of the march for voting rights in Selma, Ala., known as ‘Bloody Sunday’”(https://www.politico.com/news/2021/03/07/biden-voting-access-474041).

The order was described as an “initial step” to protect voting rights — one that uses ‘the authority the president has to leverage federal resources to help people register to vote and provide information,’ according to an administration official.” According to Daniels, “Federal agencies will be directed to notify states about the ways in which they can help with voter registration, in addition to being tasked with improving voting access to military voters and people with disabilities. Biden also directed the federal government to update and modernize Vote.gov, the website it operates to provide the public with voting-related information.”

It remains to be seen whether Biden’s executive order is an “initial step” or a last step in protecting and opening up access to voting. The prospects for the legislation avoiding a filibuster and being passed with a simple majority in the Senate appear to be low. At the same time, Congressional Democrats were just able to pass a Covid-19 relief act, the American Rescue Act, on the basis of reconciliation, circumventing a Republican filibuster and passing the legislation with a simple majority, 50 to 49 (one Republican was absent).

Issue #3: Democrats’ American Rescue Plan, a precedent for future legislation or not

The context

Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, provides some background information on the bill, as follows (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Rescue_Plan_Act_f_2021).  

“The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 is a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package proposed by President Joe Biden to speed up the United States’ recovery from the economic and health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing recession. His plan is for Congress to pass it as one of his first bills into law through the 117th Congress.[1] First proposed on January 14, 2021, the package builds upon many of the measures in the CARES Act from March and in the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 from December.[2][3]

“Beginning on February 2, 2021, Democrats in the United States Senate started to open debates on a budget resolution that would allow them to pass the stimulus package without support from Republicans through the process of reconciliation….

“On February 8, 2021, the Financial Services and Education and Labor committees released a draft of $1.9 trillion stimulus legislation. A portion of the relief package was approved by the House Ways and Means on February 11, setting it up for a vote in the House. The legislation was also approved by the Transportation and InfrastructureSmall Business, and House Veterans Affairs committees. On February 22, the House Budget Committee voted 19–16 to advance the bill to the House for a floor vote.[4] The bill passed the House by a vote of 219–212 on February 27. All but two Democrats voted for the bill and all Republicans voted against the bill.[5] A modified version passed the Senate on March 6 by a vote of 50–49.[6]

On March 10, the House reconsidered the bill, as modified by the Senate, and voted 220 to 211 to pass the final version of the bill. Again, no Republicans voted for the bill (https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2021/03/10/what-is-in-the-stimulus).

The Democratic view

Democrats in the Congress argue that the legislation addresses economic problems facing millions of people that have arisen or been exacerbated by the year-long pandemic. Wikipedia provides a summary of some of the beneficial impacts (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Rescue_Plan_of_2021).

“The bill’s economic-relief provisions are overwhelmingly geared toward low-income and middle-class Americans, who will benefit from (among other provisions) the direct payments, the bill’s expansion of low-income tax credits, child-care subsidies, expanded health-insurance access, extension of expanded unemployment benefits, food stamps, and rental assistance programs.[86] The bill contains little direct aid to high income-earners, who largely retained their jobs during the COVID-19 economic shock and bolstered their savings.[86] Biden’s administration crafted the plan in part because economic aid to lower-income and middle-income Americans (who are more likely to immediately spent funds on bills, groceries, and housing costs to avoid eviction or foreclosure) is more likely to stimulate the U.S. economy than aid to higher-earners (who are more likely to save the money).[86] The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy found that the stimulus bill’s direct payments, child tax credit expansion, and earned income tax credit expansion would boost the income of poor one-fifth of Americans by nearly $3,590.[87] The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the bill’s increase in health insurance subsidies would lead to 1.3 million previously uninsured Americans gaining health insurance coverage.[88]

“An analysis by Columbia University‘s Center on Poverty and Social Policy estimated that the original stimulus proposal would reduce overall U.S. poverty by a third, reduce child poverty by 57.8% and reduce the adult poverty rate by more than 25%. However these estimates relied in part upon a minimum wage increase that was not included in the final bill, meaning effects on poverty may be notably different then anticipated in that study. [86][89] [90]

“The Tax Policy Center wrote that, for households making under $25,000, the bill would cut their taxes by an average of $2,800, which would boost their after-tax income by 20%. Additionally, low-income households with children would see an average tax cut of about $7,700, and this would boost their after-tax income by 35%. Middle-income households will also see an average tax cut of about $3,350, and this would increase their after-tax income by 5.5%. Overall, about 70% of the bill’s tax benefits will go to households making under $91,000.[91]

Sharon Zhang cites a new report by the D.C.-based think tank Urban Institute, which “finds that the $1.9 trillion stimulus will reduce the projected poverty rate for 2021 from 13.7 to 8.7 percent overall” (https://truthout.org/articles/zero-republicans-vote-for-stimulus-projected-to-raise-16-million-out-of-poverty). She also points out: “It will also shrink the racial poverty gap by reducing poverty among Black and Latinx people by 42 and 39 percent, respectively, the report says.” She additionally refers to provisions of the legislation that will have a big impact on lower-income people, especially “the additional unemployment checks, the extension of food stamp benefits, the $1,400 relief checks and the new expanded version of the child tax credit in the bill.” And there are provisions that expand the child tax credit that will reduce the poverty rate for children by more than half in 2021. The new child tax credit “expands upon the existing child tax credit by offering parents up to $3,600 per child over the next year in the form of monthly payments.” A Columbia University analysis “found that the bill will cut child poverty by half.”

Polls indicate that Biden’s American Rescue Plan is very popular and enjoys “overwhelming bipartisan support among the public.” Zhang refers to a CNN poll released on March 10 that finds 61 percent of Americans support the bill overall.” There is also public support for specific provision the legislation. “The poll also finds that 85 percent of those polled support the bill’s provisions to expand tax credits, including 95 percent of Democrats and 73 percent of Republicans — a far cry from the 0 percent buy-in from congressional Republicans. Moreover and “a 55 percent majority [expressed] support for the $15 minimum wage proposal that didn’t make it into the final bill.

Though the bill doesn’t include the vaunted progressive goal of raising the minimum wage, the American Rescue Plan does include provisions that have earned progressive praise.

Finally, Zhang reports that progressives joined other Democrats to support the American Rescue Plan. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) says it is “the most comprehensive pro-worker piece of legislation in the modern history of our country,” and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Washington), “the head of the Progressive Caucus [called it] “a truly progressive and bold package that delivers on its promise to put money directly in people’s pockets.”

An overview of the provisions of the legislation

Rachel Siegel provides a detailed breakdown of the final version of the American Rescue Plan (https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2021/03/10/what-is-in-the-stimulus).

Major buckets

Unemployment benefits:

The package extends the existing $300 weekly unemployment benefit through Sept. 6, as well as provides a tax break on $10,000 in unemployment benefits.

Earlier proposals would have increased the weekly benefit from $300 to $400 per week. But that amount was lowered to $300 after a lengthy standoff in the Senate.

The $900 billion stimulus package passed in December provided the unemployed an extra $300 per week in benefits. That program expires in mid-March.

Stimulus checks:

The bill would send $1,400 stimulus checks on top of the $600 payments issued through the stimulus bill passed in December. Roughly $400 billion of the package would go toward another round of checks.

Biden agreed to narrow eligibility for a new round of $1,400 payments to appease more moderate Democrats. Under the new structure, the checks would phase out faster for those at higher income levels compared with the formula in Biden’s initial proposal and the House bill.

Individuals earning $75,000 per year and couples earning $150,000 would still receive the full $1,400-per-person benefit. However, the benefit would disappear for individuals earning more than $80,000 annually and couples earning more than $160,000.

For example, that means singles making between $80,000 and $100,000 and couples earning between $160,000 and $200,000 would be newly excluded from seeing any benefit under the revised structure.

Child tax credit:

Under the legislation, most Americans would receive $3,000 a year for each child ages 6 to 17, and $3,600 for each child under age 6.

The provision in the bill would last one year and be sent via direct deposit on a “periodic” basis. It is a major expansion of the existing child tax credit, which provides $2,000 a year for children from birth through age 16.

The moreregular payments are intended to help offset costs families face day-to-day, instead of sending families one annual payment.

Aid to state and local governments:

The package designates $350 billion for states, cities, tribal governments and U.S. territories.

Local government funding emerged as one of the top flashpoints in stimulus negotiations. Moderate Senate Democrats have pushed to redirect some of those funds to invest in infrastructure and to expand the broadband network. Others on the left have grown concerned that some states would use federal aid to cut local taxes instead of spending money on covid relief.

Facing deep budget shortfalls, state and local governments have shed 1.3 million jobs since the pandemic began last year — a loss of more than 1 in 20 government jobs, according to a Washington Post analysis of government data. While tax revenue grew in some states last year, the majority — at least 26 states — were hit with declines.

Pandemic response

Tens of billions of dollars will fund coronavirus testing and contact tracing; increasing the size of the public health workforce and funding vaccine distribution and supply chains.

This week, Biden said there will be enough coronavirus vaccine doses for “every adult in America” by the end of May — a two-month acceleration of his previous projection of July.

Housing assistance

The bill sets aside more than $20 billion in emergency rental assistance and other relief for the homeless.

Another $10 billion goes to mortgage and homeownership assistance.

School support

The bill sets aside almost $130 billion to help K-12 schools reopen. That money would go to improving ventilation systems, reducing class sizes, buying personal protective equipment and implementing social distancing.

Colleges and other higher-education institutions would receive almost $40 billion. That money could help support financial aid grants to prevent hunger, homelessness or other challenges for students during the pandemic.

Additional funds would go to child care providers through the Child Care and Development Block Grant program. The bill also sets aside $1 billion for the Head Start program, which provides early-childhood education, health and nutrition services to low-income children and families.

New provisions

The bill provides $510 million for the FEMA Emergency Food and Shelter Program. That money would support homeless services providers for overnight shelter, meals, one month’s rent and mortgage assistance and one month’s utility payments.

It expands the Employee Retention Tax Credit for start-up companies and other businesses hit by the pandemic

The bill also increases the value of the federal COBRA health insurance program from 85 percent to 100 percent

The bill adds a $10 billion infrastructure program to help local governments continue crucial capital projects.

The bill makes all coronavirus-related student loan relief tax-free.

The bill increases the total amount of Amtrak relief funding by $200 million.

For education funding, the bill sets aside $1.25 billion for summer enrichment; $1.25 billion for after-school programs and $3 billion for education technology

The Senate bill also adds $8.5 billion in funds for the Provider Relief Program to assist rural health care providers.

Not in the bill

Minimum wage:

An amendment offered by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to increase the minimum wage to $15 did not win over enough Democratic support.

In a statement Friday, Sanders said: “If any Senator believes this is the last time they will cast a vote on whether or not to give a raise to 32 million Americans, they are sorely mistaken. We’re going to keep bringing it up, and we’re going to get it done because it is what the American people demand and need.”

Last month, the Senate parliamentarian ruled that the minimum wage hike was not permissible within the rules of budget reconciliation, the procedure Democrats are using to pass the relief bill with a simple majority instead of the 60 votes normally required. The House bill included the minimum raise increase from $7.25 to $15.

Republican objection: a bloated, wasteful bill

Republicans in the U.S. Congress argued that the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan will increase the government’s deficit and put a tax burden on future generations. They argue it is unnecessary because the pandemic is well controlled, will generate inflation and cause hardship as prices for goods and services go up, especially for those in lower-income groups. It is inspired, they also argue, by anti-American progressive/socialist beliefs that will lead to more centralized government and will negatively affect the private sector’s willingness to invest. Though there are more Republican concerns, they fundamentally maintain that much less than $1.9 trillion is needed. For example, on February 1, ten GOP Senators met with Biden to promote a much less expensive counterproposal, according to a report from The New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/live/2021/02/01/us/biden-administration).

Senator Susan Collins of Maine, the leader of the Republican group, proposed a $618 billion plan “which would include many of the same elements as Mr. Biden’s plan, with $160 billion for vaccine distribution and development, coronavirus testing and the production of personal protective equipment; $20 billion to help schools reopen; more relief for small businesses; and additional aid to individuals.” However, “it differs in ways large and small, omitting a federal minimum wage increase or direct aid to states and cities,” and “would slash the direct payments to Americans, providing $1,000 instead of $1,400 and limiting them to the lowest income earners, excluding individuals who earned more than $50,000. It would also pare back federal jobless aid, which is set to lapse in March, setting weekly payments at $300 through June instead of $400 through September.” As we now know, Biden did not agree to any of this.

When all is said and done, Republicans contend that Biden plan is simply too large. Jon Greenberg refers Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., who contends that there was a trillion dollars in unspent money from previous Covid-19 relief bills that was available for additional relief and that $1.9 trillion was not justified. Jon Greenberg fact-checks this claim for Politifact (https://www.politifact.com/factchecks/2021/feb/23/steve-scalise/has-1-trillion-covid-19-relief-gone-unspent). Scalise relies on the COVID Money Tracker, as his source. This is a “project of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a group focused on reducing federal deficits. The tracker’s latest number shows that out of $4.1 trillion approved by Congress, about $3 trillion has been committed or disbursed.” However, Scalise disregards important aspects of the analysis. Greenberg writes that “in a Jan. 27 blog post, the budget group warned that figuring out how much money remains is complicated. It’s not, they wrote, as though the money is ‘sitting in budget accounts waiting to be allocated.’ Rather, “Much of it is already allocated or scheduled to be spent, and a small portion will never be spent.”

Greenberg cites a point made by Molly Reynolds, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Washington research group Brookings. She says that when federal program dollars go unspent, the programs may need to be redesigned. She adds that a given program may have been originally designed to make it too hard for the money to get to the people and businesses that needed help.”

Katie Lobosco adds some information on the issue of the alleged $1.0 trillion dollars that is said by Republicans to be available for new spending.  (https://www.cnn.com/2021/02/09/politics/congress-covid-relief-money-spent/index.html).

She points out that there is about $500 billion left from the stimulus packages from last March and April and writes: “About 80% of the money from these prior bills has been disbursed.” Continuing: “About half of what’s left is related to ongoing Medicaid spending and some long-term small business loans, known as Economic Injury Disaster Loans. The Medicaid matching payments to states will continue as long as there is a public health emergency. The disaster loans remain available to small businesses. Though they carry low interest, they weren’t as popular as the Paycheck Protection Program loans, which are forgiven if used on qualifying expenses.” There are also school funds to that have not yet been dispersed but are for assisting schools to reopen safely and to avoid layoffs. Biden and the Democrats want to spend an additional $130 billion on the schools while Republican Senators are proposing $20 billion.

In addition, “[r]oughly half of the unspent money comes from the package approved by Congressin late December, when lawmakers passed a $915 billion relief bill that provided $600 stimulus payments, extended unemployment benefits, reopened the small business loan program and various other spending.” Some of this money was not intended to be spent all at once. She refers to “estimates that another $120 billion will be spent on boosted federal unemployment and food stamps before the end of the year. The unemployment benefits are set to expire in March and a 15% increase to SNAP benefits that will continue for six months.” And”: “More than $200 billion remains for the Paycheck Protection Program, which recently reopened to small businesses for a second round of loans and is available through March. The money is going out quickly. More than 891,000 loan applications totaling $72 billion were approved by the Small Business Administration in the first few weeks.” While the vast majority of the $166 billion allocated for the direct $600 per person payments have been delivered by the Internal Revenue Service, there’s still “about $35 billion remaining, which could likely be claimed when eligible people who didn’t receive their money file their 2020 tax returns.

Concluding thoughts

The passage of the American Rescue Plan is perhaps the most comprehensive relief legislation in U.S. history – and in response to the unprecedented health and economic crises. The full economic effects of the legislation will not be ascertained for some time. However, there is much evidence to document that there are real unmet needs that the legislation addresses. It is a policy accomplishment that may well boost the political chances of Democrats in the 2022 elections. Democrats may also by then be able to take credit for ending the pandemic. However, the road to electoral success is filled with obstacles. There are two that have been discussed in this post. Unless the Democrats in the Senate find ways to overcome expected Republican filibusters, Democrats may not have other legislative victories, although they will go on trying. In the meantime, Republicans across the country are instituting measures to suppress the Democratic vote and to alter election rules in ways that enhance Republican success at the polls at the expense of Democrats. The outcome of the political battles is likely to determine whether democracy in the U.S. is strengthened or seriously diminished and whether a majority of Americans will come to have a viable way of life and opportunities or not.