Friday, July 28, 2023
Wednesday, July 26, 2023
Monday, July 24, 2023
Our team chose this admonition from the great Bruce Lee to underscore some of the challenges before us.
In the United States, the Presidential Campaign in the United States has begun in earnest--as the World burns, epitomized by the fires in Greece and now in the United States, The Strike in Hollywood. Backers of Ron DeSantis are having second thoughts in the aftermath of the rightwing shift in Florida--underscored by the revamped curriculum approved by the Florida Board of Education on Slavery. Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine rages on with no apparent end in sight.
Our Team pulled together a discourse of the week with thoughts courtesy of Heather Cox Richardson, Politico, Bloomberg. and the Coop Scoop, along with the National Review:
A little more than two years ago, on July 9, 2021, President Biden signed an executive order to promote competition in the U.S. economy. Echoing the language of his predecessors, he said, “competition keeps the economy moving and keeps it growing. Fair competition is why capitalism has been the world’s greatest force for prosperity and growth…. But what we’ve seen over the past few decades is less competition and more concentration that holds our economy back.”
In that speech, Biden deliberately positioned himself in our country’s long history of opposing economic consolidation. Calling out both Roosevelt presidents—Republican Theodore Roosevelt, who oversaw part of the Progressive Era, and Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who oversaw the New Deal—Biden celebrated their attempt to rein in the power of big business, first by focusing on the abuses of those businesses, and then by championing competition.
Biden promised to enforce antitrust laws, interpreting them in the way they had been understood traditionally. Like his progressive predecessors, he believed antitrust laws should prevent large entities from swallowing up markets, consolidating their power so they could raise prices and undercut workers’ rights. Traditionally, those advocating antitrust legislation wanted to protect economic competition, believing that such competition would promote innovation, protect workers, and keep consumer prices down.
In the 1980s, government officials threw out that understanding and replaced it with a new line of thinking advanced by former solicitor general of the United States Robert Bork. He claimed that the traditional understanding of antitrust legislation was economically inefficient because it restricted the ways businesses could operate. Instead, he said, consolidation of industries was fine so long as it promoted economic efficiencies that, at least in the short term, cut costs for consumers. While antitrust legislation remained on the books, the understanding of what it meant changed dramatically.
Reagan and his people advanced Bork’s position, abandoning the idea that capitalism fundamentally depends on competition. Industries consolidated, and by the time Biden took office his people estimated the lack of competition was costing a median U.S. household as much as $5000 a year. Two years ago, Biden called the turn toward Bork’s ideas “the wrong path,” and vowed to restore competition in an increasingly consolidated marketplace. With his executive order in July 2021, he established a White House Competition Council to direct a whole-of-government approach to promoting competition in the economy.
This shift gained momentum in part because of what appeared to be price gouging as the shutdowns of the pandemic eased. The five largest ocean container shipping companies, for example, made $300 billion in profits in 2022, compared to $64 billion the year before, which itself was a higher number than in the past. Those higher prices helped to drive inflation.
The baby formula shortage that began in February 2022 also highlighted the problems of concentration in an industry. Just four companies controlled 90% of the baby formula market in the U.S., and when one of them shut down production at a plant that appeared to be contaminated, supplies fell dramatically across the country. The administration had to start flying millions of bottles of formula in from other countries under Operation Fly Formula, a solution that suggested something was badly out of whack.
The administration’s focus on restoring competition had some immediate effects. It worked to get a bipartisan reform to ocean shipping through Congress, permitting greater oversight of the shipping industry by the Federal Maritime Commission. That law was part of the solution that brought ocean-going shipping prices down 80% from their peak. It worked with the Food and Drug Administration to make hearing aids available over the counter, cutting costs for American families. It also has worked to get rid of the non-compete clauses which made it hard for about 30 million workers to change jobs. And it began cracking down on junk fees, add-ons to rental car contracts, ticket sales, banking services, and so on, getting those fees down an estimated $5 billion a year.
“Folks are tired of being played for suckers,” Biden said. “[I]t’s about basic fairness.”
Today, the administration announced new measures to promote competition in the economy. The Department of Agriculture will work with attorneys general in 31 states and Washington, D.C. to enforce antitrust and consumer protection laws in food and agriculture. They will make sure that large corporations can’t fix food prices or price gouge in stores in areas where they have a monopoly. They will work to expand the nation’s processing capacity for meat and poultry, and are also promoting better access to markets for all agricultural producers and keeping seeds open-source.
Having cracked down on junk fees in consumer products, the administration is now turning to junk fees in rental housing, fees like those required just to file a rental application or fees to be able to pay your rent online.
The Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission today released new merger guidelines to protect the country from mass layoffs, higher prices, and fewer options for consumers and workers. Biden used the example of hospital mergers, which have led to extraordinary price hikes, to explain why new guidelines are necessary.
The agencies reached out for public comment to construct 13 guidelines that seek to prevent mergers that threaten competition or tend to create monopolies. They declare that agencies must address the effect of proposed mergers on “all market participants and any dimension of competition, including for workers.”
Now that the guidelines are proposed, officials are asking the public to provide comments on them. The comment period will end on September 18.
One of the reporters on the press call about the new initiatives noted that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has accused the Biden administration of regulatory overreach, exactly as Bork outlined in a famous 1978 book introducing his revision of U.S. antitrust policy. An answer by a senior administration official highlighted a key element of the struggle over business consolidation that is rarely discussed and has been key to demands to end such consolidation since the 1870s.
The official noted that small businesses, especially those in rural areas, are quite happy to see consolidation broken up, because it gives them an opportunity to get into fields that previously had been closed to them. In fact, small businesses have boomed under this administration; there were 10.5 million small business applications in its first two years and those numbers continue strong.
This is the same pattern the U.S. saw during the Progressive Era of the early twentieth century and during the New Deal of the 1930s. In both of those eras, established business leaders insisted that government regulation was bad for the economy and that any attempts to limit their power came from workers who were at least flirting with socialism. But in fact entrepreneurs and small businesses were always part of the coalition that wanted such regulation. They needed it to level the playing field enough to let them participate.
The effects of this turnaround in the government’s approach to economic consolidation is a big deal. It is already having real effects on our lives, and offers to do more: saving consumers money, protecting workers’ wages and safety, and promoting small businesses, especially in rural areas. It’s another part of this administration’s rejection of the top-down economy that has shaped the country since 1981.
On June 8 the Supreme Court affirmed the decision of a lower court blocking the congressional districting map Alabama put into place after the 2020 census, agreeing that the map likely violated the 1965 Voting Rights Act and ordering Alabama to redraw the map to include two majority-Black congressional districts.
Today the Alabama legislature passed a new congressional map that openly violates the Supreme Court’s order. By a vote of 75–28 in the House and 24–6 in the Senate, the legislature approved a map that includes only one Black-majority district.
Senator Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) and many of the other members of Alabama’s congressional delegation had spoken to the Republicans in the state legislature about the map. Editor of the Alabama Reflector Brian Lyman reported that the map’s sponsor said he had spoken to House speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) too: “It was quite simple,” the sponsor said. McCarthy “said ‘I’m interested in keeping my majority.’ That was basically his conversation.”
Alabama governor Kay Ivey, a Republican, signed the bill into law.
Today, assistant U.S. attorney general Todd Kim and U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas Jaime Esparza wrote to Texas governor Greg Abbott and Texas interim attorney general Angela Colmenero warning that the actions of Texas in constructing a barrier in the Rio Grande between the U.S. and Mexico “violate federal law, raise humanitarian concerns, present serious risks to public safety and the environment, and may interfere with the federal government’s ability to carry out its official duties.”
The floating barrier violates the Rivers and Harbors Act, which prohibits the construction of any obstructions to navigation in U.S. waters and requires permission from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before constructing any structure in such waters. Abbott ignored that law to construct a barrier that includes inflatable buoys and razor wire.
Mexico has also noted that barrier buoys that block the flow of water violate treaties between the U.S. and Mexico dating from 1944 and 1970, and has asked for the barriers to be removed. So has the owner of a Texas canoe and kayaking company, who says the buoys prevent him from conducting his business. And so have more than 80 House Democrats, who have noted Abbott’s “complete disregard for federal authority over immigration enforcement.”
Unless Texas promises by 2:00 Tuesday afternoon to remove the barrier immediately, the U.S. will sue.
Abbott has made fear of immigration central to his political messaging. He is now faced with the reality that Biden’s parole process for migrants at the southern border has dropped unlawful entries by almost 70% since it went into effect in early May, meaning that border agents have more time to patrol and are making it harder to enter the U.S. unlawfully.
Abbott’s barrier seems designed to keep his messaging amped up, accompanied as it is by allegations that troops from the National Guard and the Texas Department of Public Safety have been ordered to push migrants, including children, back into the river and to withhold water from those suffering in the heat. There are also reports that migrants have been hurt by razor wire installed along the barrier.
Abbott responded to the DOJ’s letter: “I’ll see you in court, Mr. President.”
Yesterday, on the same day that Shawn Boburg, Emma Brown, and Ann E. Marimow added to all the recent stories of Supreme Court corruption an exclusive story showing how then-leader of the Federalist Society Leonard Leo funded a “a coordinated and sophisticated public relations campaign to defend and celebrate” Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted along party lines to advance a bill that would require the U.S. Supreme Court to adopt a binding code of ethics.
“We wouldn’t tolerate this [behavior] from a city council member or an alderman," committee chair Dick Durbin (D-IL) said. “It falls short of ethical standards we expect of any public servant in America. And yet the Supreme Court won't even acknowledge it’s a problem.” “The Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency Act,” Durbin said, “would bring the Supreme Court Justices’ ethics requirement in line with every other federal judge and restore confidence in the Court.”
Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) disagreed that Congress could force the Supreme Court to adopt an ethics code. “This is an unseemly effort by the Democratic left to destroy the legitimacy of the Roberts court,” he said, although he agreed that the justices need “to get their house in order.”
Today, Dahlia Lithwick and Anat Shenker-Osorio noted in Slate that voters of both parties strongly support cleaning up the Supreme Court.
As signs of an indictment for his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election grow stronger, Trump has taken to threats. When asked about incarceration, Trump said earlier this week: “I think it’s a very dangerous thing to even talk about, because we do have a tremendously passionate group of voters, much more passion than they had in 2020 and much more passion than they had in 2016. I think it would be very dangerous.”
His loyalists are working to undermine the law enforcement agencies that are supporting the rule of law. On July 11, 2023, Representative Jim Jordan (R-OH), chair of the House Judiciary Committee, wrote to chair of the Committee on Appropriations Kay Granger (R-TX) asking her to defund Biden’s immigration policies as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which investigates crime.
It is notable that, for all their talk about law and order, the Republican-dominated legislature of Alabama and the state’s Republican governor have just openly defied the U.S. Supreme Court, which is hardly an ideological enemy after Trump stacked it to swing to the far right.
The Republican governor of Texas is defying both federal law and international treaties. After rampant scandals, the Republican-dominated Supreme Court refuses to adopt an ethics system that might restore some confidence in their decisions. And, aided by his loyalists, the front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination is threatening mob violence if he is held legally accountable for his behavior.
The genius of the American rebels in 1776 was their belief that a nation could be based not in the hereditary rights of a king but in a body of laws. “Where…is the King of America?” Thomas Paine wrote in Common Sense. “I'll tell you Friend…that in America THE LAW IS KING. For as in absolute governments the King is law, so in free countries the law ought to be King; and there ought to be no other.”
Democracy is based on the rule of law. Undermining the rule of law destroys the central feature of democracy and replaces that system of government with something else.
In Florida today, U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon set May 20, 2024, as the date for Trump’s trial for hiding and refusing to give up classified national security documents.
The Florida Board of Education approved new state social studies standards on Wednesday, including standards for African American history, civics and government, American history, and economics. Critics immediately called out the middle school instruction in African American history that includes “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” (p. 6). They noted that describing enslavement as offering personal benefits to enslaved people is outrageous.
But that specific piece of instruction in the 216-page document is only a part of a much larger political project.
Taken as a whole, the Florida social studies curriculum describes a world in which the white male Founders of the United States embraced ideals of liberty and equality—ideals it falsely attributes primarily to Christianity rather than the Enlightenment—and indicates the country’s leaders never faltered from those ideals. Students will, the guidelines say, learn “how the principles contained in foundational documents contributed to the expansion of civil rights and liberties over time” (p. 148) and “analyze how liberty and economic freedom generate broad-based opportunity and prosperity in the United States” (p. 154).
The new guidelines reject the idea that human enslavement belied American principles; to the contrary, they note, enslavement was common around the globe, and they credit white abolitionists in the United States with ending it (although in reality the U.S. was actually a late holdout). Florida students should learn to base the history of U.S. enslavement in “Afro-Eurasian trade routes” and should be instructed in “how slavery was utilized in Asian, European, and African cultures,” as well as how European explorers discovered “systematic slave trading in Africa.” Then the students move on to compare “indentured servants of European and African extraction” (p. 70) before learning about overwhelmingly white abolitionist movements to end the system.
In this account, once slavery arrived in the U.S., it was much like any other kind of service work: slaves performed “various duties and trades…(agricultural work, painting, carpentry, tailoring, domestic service, blacksmithing, transportation).” (p. 6) (This is where the sentence about personal benefit comes in.) And in the end, it was white reformers who ended it.
This information lies by omission and lack of context. The idea of Black Americans who “developed skills” thanks to enslavement, for example, erases at the most basic level that the history of cattle farming, river navigation, rice and indigo cultivation, southern architecture, music, and so on in this country depended on the skills and traditions of African people.
Lack of context papers over that while African tribes did practice enslavement, for example, it was an entirely different system from the hereditary and unequal one that developed in the U.S. Black enslavement was not the same as indentured servitude except perhaps in the earliest years of the Chesapeake settlements when both were brutal—historians argue about this— and Indigenous enslavement was distinct from servitude from the very beginning of European contact. Some enslaved Americans did in fact work in the trades, but far more worked in the fields (and suggesting that enslavement was a sort of training program is, indeed, outrageous). And not just white abolitionists but also Black abolitionists and revolutionaries helped to end enslavement.
Taken together, this curriculum presents human enslavement as simply one of a number of labor systems, a system that does not, in this telling, involve racism or violence.
Indeed, racism is presented only as “the ramifications of prejudice, racism, and stereotyping on individual freedoms.” This is the language of right-wing protesters who say acknowledging white violence against others hurts their children, and racial violence is presented here as coming from both Black and white Americans, a trope straight out of accounts of white supremacists during Reconstruction (p. 17). To the degree Black Americans faced racial restrictions in that era, Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans did, too (pp. 117–118).
It’s hard to see how the extraordinary violence of Reconstruction, especially, fits into this whitewashed version of U.S. history, but the answer is that it doesn’t. In a single entry an instructor is called to: “Explain and evaluate the policies, practices, and consequences of Reconstruction (presidential and congressional reconstruction, Johnson's impeachment, Civil Rights Act of 1866, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, opposition of Southern whites to Reconstruction, accomplishments and failures of Radical Reconstruction, presidential election of 1876, end of Reconstruction, rise of Jim Crow laws, rise of Ku Klux Klan)” (p. 104).
That’s quite a tall order.
But that’s not the end of Reconstruction in the curriculum. Another unit calls for students to “distinguish the freedoms guaranteed to African Americans and other groups with the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution…. Assess how Jim Crow Laws influenced life for African Americans and other racial/ethnic minority groups…. Compare the effects of the Black Codes…on freed people, and analyze the sharecropping system and debt peonage as practiced in the United States…. Review the Native American experience” (pp. 116–117).
Apparently, Reconstruction was not a period that singled out the Black population, and in any case, Reconstruction was quick and successful. White Floridians promptly extended rights to Black people: another learning outcome calls for students to “explain how the 1868 Florida Constitution conformed with the Reconstruction Era amendments to the U.S. Constitution (e.g., citizenship, equal protection, suffrage)” (p. 109).
All in all, racism didn’t matter to U.S. history, apparently, because “different groups of people ([for example] African Americans, immigrants, Native Americans, women) had their civil rights expanded through legislative action…executive action…and the courts.”
The use of passive voice in that passage identifies how the standards replace our dynamic and powerful history with political fantasy. In this telling, centuries of civil rights demands and ceaseless activism of committed people disappear. Marginalized Americans did not work to expand their own rights; those rights “were expanded.” The actors, presumably the white men who changed oppressive laws, are offstage.
And that is the fundamental story of this curriculum: nonwhite Americans and women “contribute” to a country established and controlled by white men, but they do not shape it themselves.