Monday, December 7, 2015

Friday, November 6, 2015

Friday, October 2, 2015


"This is a political choice that we make to allow this to happen every few months in America. We collectively are answerable to those families who lose their loves ones because of our inaction. When Americans are killed in mine disasters, we work to make mines safer. When Americans are killed in floods and hurricanes, we make communities safer. When roads are unsafe, we fix them to reduce auto fatalities. We have seatbelt laws because we know it saves lives. The notion that gun violence is somehow different—that our freedom and our Constitution prohibits any modest regulation of how we use a deadly weapon, when there are law-abiding gun owners all across the country who could hunt, and protect their families, and do everything they do under such regulations—doesn't make sense." —President Obama on the shooting in Roseburg, Oregon: #UCCShooting

Posted by The White House on Thursday, October 1, 2015

Wednesday, September 2, 2015


Thursday, July 30, 2015

Who should pay for roads and bridges?

Is this any way to run a transportation system? Congress has just cobbled together a stopgap bill to fund highway maintenance and other transportation projects for the next three months, while they try to work out a plan for raising the necessary revenues for a longer term.

It seems obvious, and is pretty much accepted in principle, that those who use and benefit from federal highways ought to pay for their construction and maintenance. We have been operating under that principle at least since the creation of the Interstate Highway system. And the federal gas tax, while not a perfect way of collecting the necessary funds from the users and beneficiaries of those roads, does a pretty fair job of spreading the burden. But the gas tax isn't collecting enough money now. Cars are using less gas. And the tax, because it is still a fixed 18 cents per gallon, is far lower as a percentage of the cost of driving than it used to be. So the obvious solution is to raise the gas tax. And doing that would bring a host of other benefits in addition to making many needed repairs to roads and bridges, such as reducing air pollution, encouraging the use of public transportation, putting construction workers back to work, and generally making the world a more livable place.

But we are told that obvious solution is politically impossible because so many Congressmen have been spreading the idea that we must never raise taxes, even to pay for essential public works projects that everyone agrees we need. So they have been trying to find a way to take money from the poor to subsidize drivers. Because poor people have too much money already, I guess. What ever happened to the good old American values of self-reliance and personal responsibility?

Why aren't more people outraged by this? Congress's behavior on this issue is disgraceful, but Congress would probably get its act together if people cared enough to demand that they fix the problem. So why are we not mailing in petitions and marching in the crumbling streets to demand an immediate increase in the gas tax? Granted there are a lot of other pressing problems out there, but this problem is important too, and it is also easily solvable. It doesn't reflect well on ourselves to be so selfish as to be unwilling to pay for the roads we use every day.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Black lives matter.

The organizers of this year's Netroots Nation conference, in part because of its location in Phoenix, chose to focus on the issue of immigration. That meant that other current issues, such as police killings of African-Americans, were given less attention. That careful plan was thrown aside today when a candidate forum featuring Democratic contenders Martin O'Malley and Bernie Sanders, was interrupted by a group of Black Lives Matter demonstrators, chanting the names of victims of police killings and preventing Governor O'Malley from speaking. At past Netroots conferences, I have seen Senator Harry Reid challenged, Leader Nancy Pelosi heckled, and President Obama's spokesman Dan Pfeiffer subjected to hostile questioning. Hillary Clinton was also reportedly booed at the 2007 event. (That might have been why she did not show up at the candidate forum today.) So this sort of thing is not only tolerated, but almost expected at this annual unruly gathering of progressive voices.

But I'm a believer in civil discourse and in listening to and trying to understand a variety of viewpoints. And a lot of that happens at Netroots conferences also. So I was initally annoyed when today's protesters would not stop chanting and would not give the candidate much of a chance to respond. They did not come to listen. They came to demand that attention be paid to a serious problem that has been ignored for much too long. And they proved their point when, sadly, both candidates revealed a somewhat dismissive and condescending attitude--O'Malley by making the dumb remark that white lives matter too, and Sanders by launching back into discussion of his economic proposals instead of acknowledging that racism as well as economic disadvantage plays a role in oppressing the black community--that made white members of the audience uncomfortable and defensive. The whole incident prompted a lot of interesting and important conversations (and tweets) for the rest of the day.

So the protesters beautifully fulfilled their purpose. And attendees got a much more revealing look at the candidates than we would have obtained from hearing out their campaign platforms.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015


The ink is barely dry on the breakthrough agreement reached this week with Iran, requiring that country to eliminate most of its nuclear weapons capacity in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions, and many critics are already out in full force decrying the agreement. It seems remarkable that they could be so sure of their opposition without having had much time to read or study the text, or consider carefully whether this deal is better than the alternative of continued conflict. (In previous posts--here and here--on this topic, I outlined the way in which I think any negotiated agreement should be evaluated, not by comparing it to the outcome each side would have preferred, but instead by comparing it to the alternative of no agreement.)

But maybe it's not so remarkable that the critics have not even bothered to make what I think is the only relevant comparison. Maybe it would be a futile effort to try to walk them through the text, because their opposition springs from more fundamental concerns than the terms that have been negotiated. They would probably object to any deal that Iran would agree to, because any deal that lifts sanctions will make Iran a more powerful, and therefore dangerous influence in the region. Any deal that allows Iran any weapons development capability at all can be viewed as an attempt to appease a dictatorial regime. Any deal that puts the world on better terms with Iran leads the world into a false sense of security.

It should be acknowledged that the critics have legitimate concerns, and that their arguments cannot be refuted by logic or reason. That is not to say that any of these arguments are right. I happen to think they are all wrong, or at least they are outweighed by the tangible benefits of making peace, and that the alternative of failing to reach agreement is far more dangerous. Still I don't think it's possible to persuade the implacable foes of Iran--or President Obama--of that. They can still respond with cries of appeasement, or with fears of the dangers posed by the Islamic Republic. They can't be proven wrong except by time. I have dealt with parties in conflict enough to know that they usually can't be persuaded by a mathematical demonstration of the benefits of the deal on the table vs. the costs and uncertainties of continued conflict. Instead they must in some other way reach a point where they feel that they can let go of the conflict and accept the deal.

Signing on to a deal with a partner that has attacked or betrayed you in the past always requires a leap of faith, no matter how airtight are the verification procedures for the deal's strictures. Peace always represents a leap of faith. And the arguments in favor of maintaining conflict, and distrusting one's adversaries are usually powerful. That must be why humanity so often resorts to war at the drop of a hat, while establishing peace is a fraught and difficult process.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Supreme Court Roundup

It's no wonder conservatives always seem angry. Because while liberals were out celebrating that people can now marry whomever they choose, that lower income citizens will continue to receive subsidies for their health care, that states can create commissions to prevent partisan gerrymandering, and that new barriers are not being erected to prove housing discrimination, what did conservatives have to celebrate this week?

Are they supposed to dance in the streets the way supporters of LGBT rights did, to cheer the Court's permission to use harmful drugs for lethal injections in death penalty cases? Should they be happy that the EPA will have more trouble keeping the skies clear of air pollution?

Maybe justices like Scalia, Alito and Thomas aren't upset just because they found themselves on the losing side of some important constitutional decisions. Supreme Court Justices can handle losing. They don't mind writing dissents. It could be instead that conservatives are angry about being forced to applaud death and pollution, while at the same time they are forced to try to prevent people from getting health care, or marrying the people they love. Being compelled by ideology to take those hateful positions could make anyone grouchy.

Notice that Justice Roberts did not seem nearly as unhappy as the three conservative justices to his right. In the marriage equality case, he was only a little bit grumpy. Roberts was willing to concede that proponents of marriage equality have something to celebrate, even though he would have preferred that they use the political process to achieve that, instead of the courts. And in the Obamacare case, Justice Roberts went along with the majority's construction of the statute, and therefore avoided being in the difficult position of trying to take away people's access to medical care in order to support a different construction. If Justices Alito, Scalia, and Thomas want to avoid the ill effects that come from all their scowling, sputtering and screaming, maybe they would do well to follow Roberts's example.

Sunday, June 14, 2015


Some thoughts based on my experience with negotiation and mediation in general that may be relevant to the ongoing Congressional fight over passage of fast track authority for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement (which suffered a major setback on Friday)

Critics of the TPP have thrown suspicion onto the deal because many of its terms remain shrouded in secrecy. But confidentiality is something we fight to preserve in mediation and other forms of negotiated conflict resolution. One reason is to allow negotiators freedom to make aggressive offers and demands without fear of being second-guessed by their principals until the deal is completed. Another is to try avoid unnecessarily angering those who have to approve the deal before they fully understand the trade-offs involved in the final agreement.

In addition to maintaining confidentiality, it is helpful to the negotiating process for negotiators to remain open-minded. Even if the other side makes what is considered an unacceptable proposal, that should not be a reason to scuttle the negotiation. Instead, it is more constructive to present a counter-proposal, or to present something the other side may view as equally unacceptable as a condition of acceptance of their outrageous proposal.  I always caution parties to settlement negotiations to try not to react too negatively to the other side's insulting offers or demands. Instead they should be treated as invitations to make counter-proposals. I also caution parties not to rush into an evaluation of the merits of the deal. Wait until the negotiators have made the best deal they think they can get before comparing that potential agreement to the alternative of no agreement.

Particularly with something as complicated as a multi-nation trade negotiation covering a wide range of issues, it is important to step back and look at the bigger picture rather than to pick apart provisions that appear harmful to one side. In general, when barriers to trade are reduced, industries that have trouble competing against foreign suppliers are going to face even greater challenges, while industries that are having success in selling abroad are going to have even greater success. The economy may benefit from lower prices for goods made abroad, as well as from greater revenues for increasing exports. The net positive and negative effects  have to be weighed against each other before the deal as a whole can be deemed harmful. This is why every modern president seeks and usually obtains fast-track authority for trade agreements: so Congress can evaluate the package as a whole, rather than pick apart the pieces and risk the destruction of an agreement whose benefits may outweigh its costs.

Another consideration that risks getting lost in evaluating the merits of a negotiated agreement: Let's not overlook the value of peace itself. Parties often focus on the substance of particular issues being negotiated, and fail to give sufficient consideration to the cost of failing to resolve the issue. They fail to put a high enough price on the cost of continued conflict. These costs and values are particularly dramatic in the context of international trade agreements. Trade can create greater understanding among the peoples of nations engaged in trade, as well as economic benefits. The alternative to free trade is suspicion, distrust, and even war. The first thing that countries suspend when they resort to war is trade. Thus, trade can be seen as one of the most effective deterrents to war, because when the economies of various countries benefit from trade, they are less likely to resort to war.

In the current round of negotiations over this trade deal, we see critics of the deal failing to consider all of the foregoing. They are suspicious rather than protective of the secrecy of the negotiations. They are unduly focused on the merits of particular parts of the deal, and unable to evaluate it in its entirety. And they fail to put a sufficient value on the virtues of making an agreement per se. I'm not arguing for or against the TPP. What I am saying is that there are good reasons for keeping negotiations secret; there are good reasons for the president to seek fast track authority to allow a vote up or down of the agreement as a whole; and there are a great many issues that must be considered in evaluating the benefits and costs of such a deal, including the value of resolving disputes by agreement instead of by more destructive means.

Politically speaking, it is noteworthy that the House managed to find the votes to pass fast track, but potentially derailed the TPP by voting to abandon a program that Democrats have supported for decades, a program that provides assistance to displaced workers. It is troublesome that Democrats, and their union benefactors, were willing to end a significant job training program to protect union members. While the unions do have legitimate fears, Democrats should be wary of being governed by those fears. There are much broader issues at stake. Democrats need to serve broader interests than protectionist unions, if for no other reason than that it would be political suicide for the Democratic Party to fall completely into the pockets of the unions. They must take into account, for example, the interests of consumers and producers who benefit from lower prices, as well as the interests of exporters, who benefit from the removal of trade barriers. The person who is supposed to balance all of the competing interests of the American people is the president, and it seems highly unfortunate that House Democrats chose not to support the president's efforts in this case to do that.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Poverty summit

Friday, May 1, 2015

This is a moment.

Excerpts from the conclusion of remarks by State Attorney Marilyn Mosby at her remarkable press conference this morning in which she announced that charges have been filed against six police officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray :

To the people of Baltimore and the demonstrators across America: I heard your call for ‘No justice, no peace.’ Your peace is sincerely needed as I work to deliver justice on behalf of this young man.  .  .  .

To the rank and file officers of the Baltimore City Police Department, please know that these accusations of these six officers are not an indictment on the entire force. I come from five generations of law enforcement. My father was an officer, my mother was an officer, several of my aunts and uncles, my recently departed and beloved grandfather was one of the founding members of the first black police organization in Massachusetts. I can tell you that the actions of these officers will not and should not, in any way, damage the important working relationships between police and prosecutors as we continue to fight together to reduce crime in Baltimore. Thank you for your courage, commitment and sacrifice for the betterment of our communities. . . .    

Last but certainly not least, to the youth of this city. I will seek justice on your behalf. This is a moment. This is your moment. Let’s insure we have peaceful and productive rallies that will develop structural and systemic changes for generations to come. You’re at the forefront of this cause and as young people, our time is now.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015


"If our society really wanted to solve the problem, we could; it's just that it would require everybody saying, 'this is important; this is significant.' And, that we don't just pay attention to these communities when a CVS burns, and we don't just pay attention when a young man gets shot or has his spine snapped, but we're paying attention all the time because we consider those kids our kids." —President Obama on the situation in Baltimore:

Posted by The White House on Tuesday, April 28, 2015

"If our society really wanted to solve the problem, we could; it's just that it would require everybody saying, 'this is important; this is significant.' And, that we don't just pay attention to these communities when a CVS burns, and we don't just pay attention when a young man gets shot or has his spine snapped, but we're paying attention all the time because we consider those kids our kids." —President Obama on the situation in Baltimore:

Monday, April 27, 2015

Wednesday, April 22, 2015


Friday, April 10, 2015


Sunday, April 5, 2015

Three choices

President Obama's statement announcing the framework agreement reached with Iran earlier this week outlined the three options the world has for preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
First, we can reach a robust and verifiable deal -- like this one -- and peacefully prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
The second option is we can bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities, thereby starting another war in the Middle East, and setting back Iran’s program by a few years -- in other words, setting it back by a fraction of the time that this deal will set it back.  Meanwhile we’d ensure that Iran would race ahead to try and build a bomb.
Third, we could pull out of negotiations, try to get other countries to go along and continue sanctions that are currently in place or add additional ones, and hope for the best -- knowing that every time we have done so, Iran has not capitulated but instead has advanced its program, and that in very short order, the breakout timeline would be eliminated and a nuclear arms race in the region could be triggered because of that uncertainty.  In other words, the third option leads us very quickly back to a decision about whether or not to take military action, because we’d have no idea what was going on inside of Iran. 
The three options are familiar to many people embroiled in conflict, and basically boil down to (1) accepting an imperfect agreement, (2) escalating the conflict, or (3) maintaining the status quo. As the president points out, the third option may be unstable, and is likely to lead back to a decision to escalate the conflict. Thus, most of the time, efforts to resolve conflict devolve to only two options: deal or no deal, war or peace, acceptance or rejection.

I wrote about this problem in a prior post, but it bears repeating: Those who are opposed to the deal on the table only cloud the issue when they compare it to some hypothetical perfect deal. Those opponents cannot promise that if the U.S. and its negotiating partners had conducted the negotiations differently, or imposed stronger sanctions, or threatened air strikes, or whatever, they could have gotten better terms from the Iranians. To have an honest debate on this agreement, we must acknowledge that the only real alternatives to the deal are escalation of the conflict or maintenance of an uneasy status quo.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The 29%

Quinnipiac poll released this week asked which of a number of mainstream outlets was the respondent's most trusted news source. The largest percentage (29%) answered Fox News. Another 57% identified another source (NBC, ABC, CBS, MSNBC, or CNN) as the most trusted, while 15% either didn't respond or didn't know.

This story has been reported in a number of ways, most of which seem highly misleading. To say, as the Washington Post did, that Fox News is America's most trusted cable or broadcast news source just seems completely wrong, since that source is only most trusted by a minority of 29% of Americans, according to this poll. Even to report that Fox was named the most trusted by the largest number of respondents seems misleading, since the largest number of respondents (about 50%) actually named the more middle of the road sources (the three broadcast networks and CNN), while 7% named MSNBC, which might be thought of as the liberal counterweight to Fox.

Because these poll results have been reported in such a misleading way, lots of hand-wringing is going on about how Americans can possibly think that Fox is trustworthy, when objective measures have found that Fox is highly biased and offers a greater proportion of inaccurate information than other news networks.

Had these poll results been reported correctly, we might have less hand-wringing. The right way to report this news would be to recognize that there is still a sizable minority of of the public (approximately 29%) who trust Fox more than the other networks. Who are these 29%? It's about the same percentage as those who still supported George W. Bush when he was at the lowest point of his popularity. It's about the same percentage as those who say they sympathize with the Tea Party. It's about the same percentage as those who oppose immigration reform or gun control. In other words, we are talking about a consistent, sizable minority who hold onto a contrarian viewpoint. Based on the way we know people's minds work, it should be no surprise that this sizable minority find most trustworthy the source that generally confirms their worldview.

Remember Mitt Romney's 47%? That was the percentage he said were going to support Barack Obama for president in 2012 no matter what. Those people were not persuadable. But since there were a large number of independent voters who might go either way, the hope of Romney's candidacy was to persuade enough of the undecideds to obtain a majority. (I think Romney was correct, by the way, in assessing that Obama was guaranteed to get at least 47% of the vote. Where he got in trouble was in equating the 47% who supported Obama with the people who don't pay income taxes, or are dependent on the government.)

At the risk of making the same mistake Romney did, I'm going to suggest that it might make sense to think of the 29% with strong conservative viewpoints in a similar way to Romney's 47%. There is probably substantial overlap between regular viewers of Fox News and the sizable number of Americans who are simply not going to accept mainstream thinking, whether it's on climate change, or civil rights for gay Americans, or immigration or health care or any number of issues. It's only natural to expect that those people are also going to continue to turn to sources that confirm their thinking, the same way that the rest of us tend to do. Instead of berating the 29%, who are never going to be persuaded to accept mainstream thinking on a whole range of issues, the majority should recognize that they represent a substantial part of the electorate and that their views are entitled to be represented in our political system. Since they are a minority, however, they should understand that are not entitled to have their views prevail. It might be helpful to that understanding to stop treating the 29% as if they represent the largest slice of public opinion.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Selma 50

President Obama's remarks at ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday" at the Edmund Pettus bridge: 

It is a rare honor in this life to follow one of your heroes. And John Lewis is one of my heroes.

Now, I have to imagine that when a younger John Lewis woke up that morning fifty years ago and made his way to Brown Chapel, heroics were not on his mind. A day like this was not on his mind. Young folks with bedrolls and backpacks were milling about. Veterans of the movement trained newcomers in the tactics of non-violence; the right way to protect yourself when attacked. A doctor described what tear gas does to the body, while marchers scribbled down instructions for contacting their loved ones. The air was thick with doubt, anticipation, and fear. They comforted themselves with the final verse of the final hymn they sung:

No matter what may be the test, God will take care of you;
Lean, weary one, upon His breast, God will take care of you.

Then, his knapsack stocked with an apple, a toothbrush, a book on government – all you need for a night behind bars – John Lewis led them out of the church on a mission to change America.

President Bush and Mrs. Bush, Governor Bentley, Members of Congress, Mayor Evans, Reverend Strong, friends and fellow Americans:

There are places, and moments in America where this nation’s destiny has been decided. Many are sites of war – Concord and Lexington, Appomattox and Gettysburg. Others are sites that symbolize the daring of America’s character – Independence Hall and Seneca Falls, Kitty Hawk and Cape Canaveral.

Selma is such a place.

In one afternoon fifty years ago, so much of our turbulent history – the stain of slavery and anguish of civil war; the yoke of segregation and tyranny of Jim Crow; the death of four little girls in Birmingham, and the dream of a Baptist preacher – met on this bridge.

It was not a clash of armies, but a clash of wills; a contest to determine the meaning of America.

And because of men and women like John Lewis, Joseph Lowery, Hosea Williams, Amelia Boynton, Diane Nash, Ralph Abernathy, C.T. Vivian, Andrew Young, Fred Shuttlesworth, Dr. King, and so many more, the idea of a just America, a fair America, an inclusive America, a generous America – that idea ultimately triumphed.

As is true across the landscape of American history, we cannot examine this moment in isolation. The march on Selma was part of a broader campaign that spanned generations; the leaders that day part of a long line of heroes.

We gather here to celebrate them. We gather here to honor the courage of ordinary Americans willing to endure billy clubs and the chastening rod; tear gas and the trampling hoof; men and women who despite the gush of blood and splintered bone would stay true to their North Star and keep marching toward justice.

They did as Scripture instructed: “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.” And in the days to come, they went back again and again. When the trumpet call sounded for more to join, the people came – black and white, young and old, Christian and Jew, waving the American flag and singing the same anthems full of faith and hope. A white newsman, Bill Plante, who covered the marches then and who is with us here today, quipped that the growing number of white people lowered the quality of the singing. To those who marched, though, those old gospel songs must have never sounded so sweet.

In time, their chorus would reach President Johnson. And he would send them protection, echoing their call for the nation and the world to hear:

“We shall overcome.”

What enormous faith these men and women had. Faith in God – but also faith in America.
The Americans who crossed this bridge were not physically imposing. But they gave courage to millions. They held no elected office. But they led a nation. They marched as Americans who had endured hundreds of years of brutal violence, and countless daily indignities – but they didn’t seek special treatment, just the equal treatment promised to them almost a century before.

What they did here will reverberate through the ages. Not because the change they won was preordained; not because their victory was complete; but because they proved that nonviolent change is possible; that love and hope can conquer hate.

As we commemorate their achievement, we are well-served to remember that at the time of the marches, many in power condemned rather than praised them. Back then, they were called Communists, half-breeds, outside agitators, sexual and moral degenerates, and worse – everything but the name their parents gave them. Their faith was questioned. Their lives were threatened. Their patriotism was challenged.

And yet, what could be more American than what happened in this place?

What could more profoundly vindicate the idea of America than plain and humble people – the unsung, the downtrodden, the dreamers not of high station, not born to wealth or privilege, not of one religious tradition but many – coming together to shape their country’s course?

What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this; what greater form of patriotism is there; than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?

That’s why Selma is not some outlier in the American experience. That’s why it’s not a museum or static monument to behold from a distance. It is instead the manifestation of a creed written into our founding documents:

“We the People…in order to form a more perfect union.”

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

These are not just words. They are a living thing, a call to action, a roadmap for citizenship and an insistence in the capacity of free men and women to shape our own destiny. For founders like Franklin and Jefferson, for leaders like Lincoln and FDR, the success of our experiment in self-government rested on engaging all our citizens in this work. That’s what we celebrate here in Selma. That’s what this movement was all about, one leg in our long journey toward freedom.

The American instinct that led these young men and women to pick up the torch and cross this bridge is the same instinct that moved patriots to choose revolution over tyranny. It’s the same instinct that drew immigrants from across oceans and the Rio Grande; the same instinct that led women to reach for the ballot and workers to organize against an unjust status quo; the same instinct that led us to plant a flag at Iwo Jima and on the surface of the Moon.

It’s the idea held by generations of citizens who believed that America is a constant work in progress; who believed that loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths. It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what’s right and shake up the status quo.

That’s what makes us unique, and cements our reputation as a beacon of opportunity. 

Young people behind the Iron Curtain would see Selma and eventually tear down a wall. Young people in Soweto would hear Bobby Kennedy talk about ripples of hope and eventually banish the scourge of apartheid. Young people in Burma went to prison rather than submit to military rule. From the streets of Tunis to the Maidan in Ukraine, this generation of young people can draw strength from this place, where the powerless could change the world’s greatest superpower, and push their leaders to expand the boundaries of freedom.

They saw that idea made real in Selma, Alabama. They saw it made real in America.
Because of campaigns like this, a Voting Rights Act was passed. Political, economic, and social barriers came down, and the change these men and women wrought is visible here today in the presence of African-Americans who run boardrooms, who sit on the bench, who serve in elected office from small towns to big cities; from the Congressional Black Caucus to the Oval Office.

Because of what they did, the doors of opportunity swung open not just for African-Americans, but for every American. Women marched through those doors. Latinos marched through those doors. Asian-Americans, gay Americans, and Americans with disabilities came through those doors. Their endeavors gave the entire South the chance to rise again, not by reasserting the past, but by transcending the past.

What a glorious thing, Dr. King might say.

What a solemn debt we owe.

Which leads us to ask, just how might we repay that debt?

First and foremost, we have to recognize that one day’s commemoration, no matter how special, is not enough. If Selma taught us anything, it’s that our work is never done – the American experiment in self-government gives work and purpose to each generation.

Selma teaches us, too, that action requires that we shed our cynicism. For when it comes to the pursuit of justice, we can afford neither complacency nor despair.

Just this week, I was asked whether I thought the Department of Justice’s Ferguson report shows that, with respect to race, little has changed in this country. I understand the question, for the report’s narrative was woefully familiar. It evoked the kind of abuse and disregard for citizens that spawned the Civil Rights Movement. But I rejected the notion that nothing’s changed. What happened in Ferguson may not be unique, but it’s no longer endemic, or sanctioned by law and custom; and before the Civil Rights Movement, it most surely was.

We do a disservice to the cause of justice by intimating that bias and discrimination are immutable, or that racial division is inherent to America. If you think nothing’s changed in the past fifty years, ask somebody who lived through the Selma or Chicago or L.A. of the Fifties. Ask the female CEO who once might have been assigned to the secretarial pool if nothing’s changed. Ask your gay friend if it’s easier to be out and proud in America now than it was thirty years ago. To deny this progress – our progress – would be to rob us of our own agency; our responsibility to do what we can to make America better.

Of course, a more common mistake is to suggest that racism is banished, that the work that drew men and women to Selma is complete, and that whatever racial tensions remain are a consequence of those seeking to play the “race card” for their own purposes. We don’t need the Ferguson report to know that’s not true. We just need to open our eyes, and ears, and hearts, to know that this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us. We know the march is not yet over, the race is not yet won, and that reaching that blessed destination where we are judged by the content of our character – requires admitting as much.

“We are capable of bearing a great burden,” James Baldwin wrote, “once we discover that the burden is reality and arrive where reality is.”

This is work for all Americans, and not just some. Not just whites. Not just blacks. If we want to honor the courage of those who marched that day, then all of us are called to possess their moral imagination. All of us will need to feel, as they did, the fierce urgency of now. All of us need to recognize, as they did, that change depends on our actions, our attitudes, the things we teach our children. And if we make such effort, no matter how hard it may seem, laws can be passed, and consciences can be stirred, and consensus can be built.

With such effort, we can make sure our criminal justice system serves all and not just some. Together, we can raise the level of mutual trust that policing is built on – the idea that police officers are members of the communities they risk their lives to protect, and citizens in Ferguson and New York and Cleveland just want the same thing young people here marched for – the protection of the law. Together, we can address unfair sentencing, and overcrowded prisons, and the stunted circumstances that rob too many boys of the chance to become men, and rob the nation of too many men who could be good dads, and workers, and neighbors.

With effort, we can roll back poverty and the roadblocks to opportunity. Americans don’t accept a free ride for anyone, nor do we believe in equality of outcomes. But we do expect equal opportunity, and if we really mean it, if we’re willing to sacrifice for it, then we can make sure every child gets an education suitable to this new century, one that expands imaginations and lifts their sights and gives them skills. We can make sure every person willing to work has the dignity of a job, and a fair wage, and a real voice, and sturdier rungs on that ladder into the middle class.

And with effort, we can protect the foundation stone of our democracy for which so many marched across this bridge – and that is the right to vote. Right now, in 2015, fifty years after Selma, there are laws across this country designed to make it harder for people to vote. As we speak, more of such laws are being proposed. Meanwhile, the Voting Rights Act, the culmination of so much blood and sweat and tears, the product of so much sacrifice in the face of wanton violence, stands weakened, its future subject to partisan rancor.

How can that be? The Voting Rights Act was one of the crowning achievements of our democracy, the result of Republican and Democratic effort. President Reagan signed its renewal when he was in office. President Bush signed its renewal when he was in office. One hundred Members of Congress have come here today to honor people who were willing to die for the right it protects. If we want to honor this day, let these hundred go back to Washington, and gather four hundred more, and together, pledge to make it their mission to restore the law this year.

Of course, our democracy is not the task of Congress alone, or the courts alone, or the President alone. If every new voter suppression law was struck down today, we’d still have one of the lowest voting rates among free peoples. Fifty years ago, registering to vote here in Selma and much of the South meant guessing the number of jellybeans in a jar or bubbles on a bar of soap. It meant risking your dignity, and sometimes, your life. What is our excuse today for not voting? How do we so casually discard the right for which so many fought? How do we so fully give away our power, our voice, in shaping America’s future?

Fellow marchers, so much has changed in fifty years. We’ve endured war, and fashioned peace. We’ve seen technological wonders that touch every aspect of our lives, and take for granted convenience our parents might scarcely imagine. But what has not changed is the imperative of citizenship, that willingness of a 26 year-old deacon, or a Unitarian minister, or a young mother of five, to decide they loved this country so much that they’d risk everything to realize its promise.

That’s what it means to love America. That’s what it means to believe in America. That’s what it means when we say America is exceptional.

For we were born of change. We broke the old aristocracies, declaring ourselves entitled not by bloodline, but endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights. We secure our rights and responsibilities through a system of self-government, of and by and for the people. That’s why we argue and fight with so much passion and conviction, because we know our efforts matter. We know America is what we make of it.

We are Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea – pioneers who braved the unfamiliar, followed by a stampede of farmers and miners, entrepreneurs and hucksters. That’s our spirit.

We are Sojourner Truth and Fannie Lou Hamer, women who could do as much as any man and then some; and we’re Susan B. Anthony, who shook the system until the law reflected that truth. That’s our character.

We’re the immigrants who stowed away on ships to reach these shores, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free – Holocaust survivors, Soviet defectors, the Lost Boys of Sudan. We are the hopeful strivers who cross the Rio Grande because they want their kids to know a better life. That’s how we came to be.

We’re the slaves who built the White House and the economy of the South. We’re the ranch hands and cowboys who opened the West, and countless laborers who laid rail, and raised skyscrapers, and organized for workers’ rights.

We’re the fresh-faced GIs who fought to liberate a continent, and we’re the Tuskeegee Airmen, Navajo code-talkers, and Japanese-Americans who fought for this country even as their own liberty had been denied. We’re the firefighters who rushed into those buildings on 9/11, and the volunteers who signed up to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq.

We are the gay Americans whose blood ran on the streets of San Francisco and New York, just as blood ran down this bridge.

We are storytellers, writers, poets, and artists who abhor unfairness, and despise hypocrisy, and give voice to the voiceless, and tell truths that need to be told.

We are the inventors of gospel and jazz and the blues, bluegrass and country, hip-hop and rock and roll, our very own sounds with all the sweet sorrow and reckless joy of freedom.

We are Jackie Robinson, enduring scorn and spiked cleats and pitches coming straight to his head, and stealing home in the World Series anyway.

We are the people Langston Hughes wrote of, who “build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how.”

We are the people Emerson wrote of, “who for truth and honor’s sake stand fast and suffer long;” who are “never tired, so long as we can see far enough.”

That’s what America is. Not stock photos or airbrushed history or feeble attempts to define some of us as more American as others. We respect the past, but we don’t pine for it. We don’t fear the future; we grab for it. America is not some fragile thing; we are large, in the words of Whitman, containing multitudes. We are boisterous and diverse and full of energy, perpetually young in spirit. That’s why someone like John Lewis at the ripe age of 25 could lead a mighty march.

And that’s what the young people here today and listening all across the country must take away from this day. You are America. Unconstrained by habits and convention.

Unencumbered by what is, and ready to seize what ought to be. For everywhere in this country, there are first steps to be taken, and new ground to cover, and bridges to be crossed. And it is you, the young and fearless at heart, the most diverse and educated generation in our history, who the nation is waiting to follow.

Because Selma shows us that America is not the project of any one person.

Because the single most powerful word in our democracy is the word “We.” We The People. We Shall Overcome. Yes We Can. It is owned by no one. It belongs to everyone. Oh, what a glorious task we are given, to continually try to improve this great nation of ours.

Fifty years from Bloody Sunday, our march is not yet finished. But we are getting closer. 

Two hundred and thirty-nine years after this nation’s founding, our union is not yet perfect. But we are getting closer. Our job’s easier because somebody already got us through that first mile. Somebody already got us over that bridge. When it feels the road’s too hard, when the torch we’ve been passed feels too heavy, we will remember these early travelers, and draw strength from their example, and hold firmly the words of the prophet Isaiah:

“Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not be faint.”

We honor those who walked so we could run. We must run so our children soar. And we will not grow weary. For we believe in the power of an awesome God, and we believe in this country’s sacred promise.

May He bless those warriors of justice no longer with us, and bless the United States of America.


Thursday, March 5, 2015

Bad deals

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech to Congress on Tuesday about the conflict with Iran (transcript here) illustrates an attitude many parties in conflict take toward settlement negotiations. As the possibility of a negotiated resolution of a conflict begins to emerge, elements on one side or the other often find themselves resisting the deal. In this case, the deal on the table would allow Iran to maintain some nuclear capacity, but would not allow them to build nuclear weapons. It's a bad deal, according to Netanyahu, because it would allow Iran to build many thousands of centrifuges, and shorten what is called the "break out time" that it would take for the country to build actual weapons. On the other hand, no deal at all would perpetuate the current state of hostilities, and would not restrict Iran's ability to build a bomb at all, if they were so inclined. "No deal" would therefore increase the chances of military action, if economic sanctions are not sufficient to prevent Iran from building a bomb.

The Prime Minister told Congress that we are not limited to these two unpalatable choices, and that instead we can insist on a better deal in which Iran's nuclear capacity is much more restricted. One might question whether he really believes in this promise of a better deal, considering his view that the Iranian government is such a dangerous, untrustworthy regime that it wants to "impose a militant Islamic empire . . . on the entire world," and "will always be an enemy of America," If that is indeed the nature of the people we are dealing with, what would be the point of making any sort of deal with them? My guess is that Netanyahu would be a critic of any potentially achievable agreement. 

In his speech, Netanyahu even acknowledged that he thinks we would still be better off with "no deal" than the "bad deal."  It's a legitimate point of view. Some wars do need to be fought, and sometimes you can obtain a better result by getting tough with an adversary rather than making an agreement. But there is usually a high price to be paid by taking that road, and Netanyahu knows he cannot sell that position in the United States. Most Americans do not want war with Iran. Netanyahu is also smart enough to understand that there probably is no third way. We have heard no indication from the parties at the negotiating table, who have been at this for a long time, that Iran would consider agreeing to the terms that Netanyahu argues we should insist on. Still he is encouraging Congress to think that a third way can be found, as a means of trying to build opposition to the potential agreement. If that is the case, then Netanyahu is promoting an idea to a gullible Congress that he does not believe in himself.

I have frequently seen parties in settlement negotiations refuse to accept the reality of the two choices in front of them. Part of the challenge for a mediator or diplomat is to get participants to recognize that the only two choices they have are either to accept the "bad deal" or to continue the conflict. At some point in the negotiations, all other alternatives have been exhausted. Still parties in conflict often cling to the belief that they are entitled to agreement on their terms, and they cannot understand why the other side will not simply surrender to their position. Moreover, the fact that the other side won't bend is often seen only as more evidence that they are the sort of bad people with whom one should be reluctant to get into bed anyway. Settlement negotiations represent a process of helping parties understand the other side's view of the world, or at least disabusing parties of the illusion that the other side will suddenly see everything their way. With Congress, that is going to be a challenge, as their political incentives often align with maintaining the fixed beliefs of constituents who never get an insider's view of negotiation realities. It's even more of a challenge when interested parties feed them information supporting a mythical third way. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Better politics

 "So the question for those of us here tonight is how we, all of us, can better reflect America's hopes. I've served in Congress with many of you. I know many of you well. There are a lot of good people here, on both sides of the aisle. And many of you have told me that this isn't what you signed up for - arguing past each other on cable shows, the constant fundraising, always looking over your shoulder at how the base will react to every decision. Imagine if we broke out of these tired old patterns.

 Imagine if we did something different. Understand - a better politics isn't one where Democrats abandon their agenda or Republicans simply embrace mine.

 A better politics is one where we appeal to each other's basic decency instead of our basest fears. A better politics is one where we debate without demonizing each other; where we talk issues, and values, and principles, and facts, rather than "gotcha" moments, or trivial gaffes, or fake controversies that have nothing to do with people's daily lives.

 A better politics is one where we spend less time drowning in dark money for ads that pull us into the gutter, and spend more time lifting young people up, with a sense of purpose and possibility, and asking them to join in the great mission of building America. If we're going to have arguments, let's have arguments - but let's make them debates worthy of this body and worthy of this country.

 We still may not agree on a woman's right to choose, but surely we can agree it's a good thing that teen pregnancies and abortions are nearing all-time lows, and that every woman should have access to the health care she needs.

 Yes, passions still fly on immigration, but surely we can all see something of ourselves in the striving young student, and agree that no one benefits when a hardworking mom is taken from her child, and that it's possible to shape a law that upholds our tradition as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants.

 We may go at it in campaign season, but surely we can agree that the right to vote is sacred; that it's being denied to too many; and that, on this 50th anniversary of the great march from Selma to Montgomery and the passage of the Voting Rights Act, we can come together, Democrats and Republicans, to make voting easier for every single American.

 We may have different takes on the events of Ferguson and New York. But surely we can understand a father who fears his son can't walk home without being harassed. Surely we can understand the wife who won't rest until the police officer she married walks through the front door at the end of his shift. Surely we can agree it's a good thing that for the first time in 40 years, the crime rate and the incarceration rate have come down together, and use that as a starting point for Democrats and Republicans, community leaders and law enforcement, to reform America's criminal justice system so that it protects and serves us all.

 That's a better politics. That's how we start rebuilding trust. That's how we move this country forward. That's what the American people want. That's what they deserve."


(transcript here)

Sunday, January 18, 2015


The new movie Selma depicts the events that led to passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. There has been some controversy about the historical accuracy of parts of this movie, but I don't have much patience with those kinds of criticisms. Selma is not a documentary, even though it is based on historical events and does use some documentary footage in one part. Therefore, filmmakers are entitled to whatever artistic license they feel they need for the sake of heightening the drama. The point of the movie, which it succeeds at brilliantly, is demonstrating the power of a social movement to create change. In the process, the movie also puts Martin Luther King, Jr. front and center so that we can understand and feel the leader's personal struggle to balance the desire for change, the safety of his followers, his family's needs, and his sense of the most successful strategy for achieving the movement's goals. The movie shows is that the state's violent resistance to the legitimate demands of citizens for voting rights only ended up helping the protesters achieve their goals.

Martin Luther King was not averse to negotiated resolution of conflict. But despite his strategy of non-violence, he did not exactly renounce more aggressive and adversarial methods either. In fact, the strategy of non-violent resistance was deliberately confrontational, and designed to provoke a violent reaction. That is why it worked. This is shown in the movie when King meets with two SNCC organizers and asks whether Sheriff Jim Clark in Selma was more like Commissioner Bull Connor, whose men had been caught on film brutally attacking protesters in Birmingham the year before, or like  Police Chief Laurie Pritchett, who had effectively defused protests in Albany, Georgia, by adopting a restrained policy toward the protesters. John Lewis responds that Clark was more like Connor, and that helped King decide that Selma was the right place to organize protests.

In the end, it was not the court case, or the peaceful protests, or the legislative process in Washington, that caused voting rights to move to the forefront of the nation's priorities in 1965. It was the first attempted march, the one that barely made it across the Edmund Pettus bridge before being met with horrific police violence, that shocked the nation into responding. It was violence that prodded the legal and political system into putting the laws in place that ultimately bring a measure of justice needed to reduce that violence. And it is the tension between the deliberate use or provocation of violence to achieve a movement's goals, and the desire to use the law to create a more just and peaceful solution, that creates much of the thought-provoking drama shown in the movie Selma.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Cedar Falls

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Free community college, part 2

Before people start getting too excited about the reported $60 billion price tag for President Obama's proposal for two years of free community college, let's see if we can make that number more meaningful. Sixty billion dollars sounds like a lot of money. Usually when critics want to complain about some government expenditure or another, they start describing the size of the stacks of hundred dollar bills it would take to add up to that amount. I for one don't find those kinds of comparisons very helpful, however, because they don't translate the overall expenditure into each person's share. So let's keep in mind that since there are more than 300 million of us, each of us is only being asked to cough up a small percentage. Let's remember also that the $60 billion is over ten years, so the actual cost is only an average of $6 billion per year. That is about $18 per year for every man, woman and child in the United States.

If that still sounds like a lot (maybe you have a big family), let's try a few other comparisons. Americans reportedly spend nearly $60 billion per year (that's ten times the cost of the community college program) on our pets. Do we care at least one-tenth as much about having an educated work force as we do about our pets?

Americans spend over $2 billion per year on Halloween candy. I'm not saying this is not a worthwhile investment. Dentists especially obtain a huge multiplier effect from this expenditure. I'm just pointing out that for one holiday every year we all run out and purchase the equivalent of approximately one third of the cost of providing free community college to everyone who wants to go for two years.

We spend about $11 billion per year on bottled water. Imagine if we could give that up; we could pay for almost four years of free community college for everyone who wants to go, and we wouldn't be any the poorer.

Almost $100 billion on beer, $7 billion on ATM fees, $11 billion on coffee, $34 billion gambling. The list goes on and on.

When I start seeing a lot of complaining about these kinds of expenditures, then I will start to take seriously the complaints that we can't afford to provide free community college for people willing to work for it.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Free community college

Thursday, January 8, 2015