Off the Wire

Product of Mexico: Bounty for U.S. Tables

From LA Times

The tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers arrive year-round by the ton, with peel-off stickers proclaiming "Product of Mexico." Farm exports to the U.S. from Mexico have tripled to $7.6 billion in the last decade, enriching agribusinesses, distributors and American consumers get all the salsa, squash and melons they can eat at affordable prices. And top U.S. brands Wal-Mart, Whole Foods, Subway and Safeway, among many others profit from produce they have come to depend on.

These corporations say their Mexican suppliers have committed to decent treatment and living conditions for workers. But a Los Angeles Times investigation found that for thousands of farm laborers south of the border, the export boom is a story of exploitation and extreme hardship.

The Times found:

  • Many farm laborers are essentially trapped for months at a time in rat-infested camps, often without beds and sometimes without functioning toilets or a reliable water supply.

  • Some camp bosses illegally withhold wages to prevent workers from leaving during peak harvest periods.

  • Laborers often go deep in debt paying inflated prices for necessities at company stores. Some are reduced to scavenging for food when their credit is cut off. It's common for laborers to head home penniless at the end of a harvest.

  • Those who seek to escape their debts and miserable living conditions have to contend with guards, barbed-wire fences and sometimes threats of violence from camp supervisors.

  • Major U.S. companies have done little to enforce social responsibility guidelines that call for basic worker protections such as clean housing and fair pay practices.

  • Read full story


    The Battle to Protect the Vote

    From the Southern Elections Fund

    “So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote, I do not possess myself. I cannot make up my mind—it is made up for me. I cannot live as a democratic citizen.” — Martin Luther King Jr.

    The right to vote is the cornerstone of American democracy. The free exercise of the franchise is essential to the preservation and protection of all other constitutional rights. It serves as a check on America’s political leaders and as a source of power for citizens. In this way, the vote is a tangible measure both of what we are as a nation and of what we aspire to be.

    The question that every American should ask is: How can we collectively encourage more people to participate in the political process?

    Instead of embracing this important principle of inclusion, however, too many states have recently sought to make it harder for Americans to vote in the 2014 elections through concerted legislative efforts or policy decisions. Today, the United States is experiencing an assault on voting rights that is historic in its scope and in its intensity.

    Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s devastating 2013 decision in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder—which invalidated core protections in the Voting Rights Act, or VRA—15 states launched attacks on voting rights in advance of the 2014 midterm elections. This report estimates the impact of this assault on the ability of communities of color to participate in the 2014 midterm elections in five of those states—Texas, Alabama, North Carolina, Virginia, and Georgia—each of which has seen a significant population increase in communities of color.

    Read more.   



    We Can't Hide from Gun Violence





    Graffiti and its Gratifications: a model for our future

    musings of Bart Walters

    Within a rectangle of narrow San Francisco streets bounded on the north by Market Street and on the south by Fulsom, it seems that nearly every building side is densely laced with garish graffiti. Many of these walls are covered with single compositions, vast in scale. A startling number of them are good, strong art, in my opinion and in the opinion of my wife, an artist and a teacher of art history and studio art. "These are bold statements," said Sophia, my wife, as we were taxiing through on the way to the airport. "Bold, dramatic colors, complex compositions."

    It occurred to us that the artists might be from the neighborhood's unemployed street people, hundreds of whom were, on this morning, restlessly drifting along the sidewalks and across the streets, many of them waving and calling out to one another, none of them apparently moving with purpose other than trying to warm themselves against the winter wind whipping in off the bay, so far as we could determine as our taxi cab crawled along through traffic. But if some of these street people were responsible for covering these city walls with graffiti, "unemployed" would be the wrong word to describe those persons. In their cases, time and energy had been creatively employed, clearly enough, even if not for wages.

    Questioning unemployment

    Which suggests an answer to the question I hear most often when I make the case that a high rate of "unemployment" need not be bad for an economy, and that a very high rate of joblessness can coexist with a decent standard of living for everyone.

    All that is needed for an economy to work for the common wellbeing, I have argued, is production of goods and services and a matching rate of consumption of goods and services. If wage-paying employment has been the link between production and consumption by way of distributing the means of consumption, that does not demonstrate that purchasing power may be distributed only by wages, or even that it must be predominately by wages.

    Take a look at the Tesla assembly line and, with a modicum of imagination you will see through to the coming bottom of wage-paying employment in manufacturing: very few human beings are to be seen in Tesla's massive factory, seething though it is with dynamic activity, and of those few functions not yet performed by robots it is not difficult to imagine that the next wave of automation will all but eliminate the Tesla corporation's expenses for blue-collar wages and fringe benefits.

    Economy wide, it can already be seen that a wide gap is opening between economic growth and wage-earning employment: "Despite record corporate profits and an economy that is larger in the U.S. than before the Great Recession, the number of people in the labor force is the smallest it has been since the Reagan administration," reports Christian DeHaemer in his 9/13/13 on-line article for the investment research Energy & Capital. "Robotics is developing at hyper-speed," reports Business Week magazine, and therein lies the principal explanation for DeHaemer's observation that corporate profits are approaching record levels even as employment is withering away.

    DeHaemer again, from his on-line article of 11/22/13:

    "Foxconn Manufacturing, maker of Apple Computer's iPhones and iPads, has announced they will replace their 1.2 million factory workers with one million robots."

    There are still those who believe that service industries will not continue accelerating toward nearly fully automated operations—a trend that began more than half a century ago: consider the fate of telephone switchboard operators—"number please?"—long since replaced by computers, and by the automatic man or woman who speaks to you when you call a business establishment today; or consider the fate of elevator operators— "floor please?"—"third floor, ladies lingerie".

    On our ride to the airport our taxi driver told us his story of a lost career in inventory management for a thriving corporation that had replaced him with a computer. If the cab driver had looked in his rearview mirror he might have seen gaining on him an automobile being test-driven solely by a computer: robot cars being tested by Google are now legal in California, and it is reported that they have already logged more than 300,000 miles of driverless travel on the state's highways. Next will be aircraft flown without human beings at the controls: in February, 2012, Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, directing establishment of a program to integrate unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace.

    Today attorneys, accountants, stockbrokers, even some doctors are being elbowed aside by computers and robots: Intuitive Surgical, a corporation listed on the NASDAQ, "makes medical robots able to perform surgery at a level impossible for human (surgeons)," in the words of Christian DeHaemer.

    To be continued...90% Remaining Upside for Robots


    State Representatives Becomes Next Generation Leaders

    National Institute for Civil Discourse (NICD) held its second facilitator training this past November in DC. State legislators from across the country came together in support of NICD's Next Generation initiative. The Institute has designed an introductory workshop tailored for state legislators entitled Building Trust through Civil Discourse, which uses active learning exercises to convey knowledge of and explore attitudes about civil engagement.

    The goal of this work is to:
    Strengthen relationships across the aisle,
    Increase the effectiveness of state legislatures, and
    Create civility caucuses in participating state legislatures.

    Throughout the workshop participants are encouraged to apply the material to practical examples from the legislative setting. As a group, workshop participants develop an action plan for advancing civil discourse in their own legislature with the goal of increasing legislative productivity. According to initiative leader Ted Celeste, a former state representative, “Participants learn how to set aside personal attacks and rebuild trust after a season of negative campaigning.”

    This workshop has been presented to the Ohio, Nebraska, Washington, Maine and Pennsylvania legislatures and at numerous regional and national meetings of the Council of State Governments.

    The five states that held the workshop are considering hosting a second introductory workshop. Washington will hold its workshop on January 20, 2015. Twenty-three other states are now looking to schedule a workshop of legislators.

    The 2014 Next Generation Facilitator Training was led by NICD Working Board Member Kirk Emerson and Next Generation Director, Ted Celeste and also included:

    Heath Mello (Representative, D-Nebraska-5th District),
    Elaine Bowers (Senator, R-Kansas-District 36),
    Pamela DeLissio (Representative, D-Pennsylvania-194th District),
    Denise Driehaus (Representative, D-Ohio-31st District),
    Matt Pouliot (Representative-R-Maine-57th District),
    Frank LaRose (Senator, R-Ohio-27th District),
    Sharon Wylie (Representative-D-Washington-49th District),
    Sam Hunt (Representative-D-Washington-22nd District), and
    Nancy Garland (Former Representative, D-Ohio-20th District).


    Impact of Mid-term Election Campaign Ads

    WASHINGTON: The National Institute for Civil Discourse (NICD), an organization dedicated to improving the level of civil discourse among elected officials and the media is releasing results from its national conversation about campaign ads leading up to this week’s mid-terms http://respectorreject.com.

    NICD, in partnership with the American Democracy Project, The Andrew Goodman Foundation, Common Sense Action, The Democracy Commitment, HonestAds, Pop Vox, and Roosevelt Institute Campus Network, sought to frame the conversation around civility and give the public a place to take a stand against sensational attacks of opposing candidates. According to Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer, NICD’s Executive Director, “this campaign season was the worst ever in terms of negativity.”

    During the course of the 2014 campaign season, an estimated $4 Billion dollars was spent to support candidates in races around the country and to produce ads which most viewers felt were “full of misinformation and lies.” Other themes which emerged included:

    · negative ads only serve politicians not citizens.

    · it’s too easy to be a gullible & passive viewer – citizens need to be critical thinkers.

    · candidates should be held accountable for untrue information.

    · ads should focus on candidates policies and not on what’s wrong with the opponent.

    · being able to maintain civil discourse shows respect for voters.

    · ads are too polarizing to foster civil discourse and do no respect voters.

    · biased news sources contribute to an atmosphere of negative ads.

    Social media played an integral role with some 320-thousand citizens joining conversations on #Election2014 and commenting on NICD’s social media platforms about ads featured on #RespectorReject as well as the current political environment in the U.S.

    Clearly, citizens and voters feel strongly that negative ads and the untruths in these political ads are unacceptable and undesired but since some seventy-per cent of campaign ads take a negative approach, making more acceptable changes “will be an uphill battle.” Said Shane Christensen, NICD’s Program Director.


    THE NATIONAL INSTITUTE FOR CIVIL DISCOURSE works to support elected officials capable of working to solve the big issues facing our country. A public demand for civil discourse and a media that informs and engages. Learn more at: www.nicd.arizona.edu


    Kansas and Arizona Proof of Citizenship Laws Struck Down

    A federal appeals court ruled last week that Kansas and Arizona cannot force applicants to show documents proving their citizenship when using the federal voter registration form. The requirement is still in place when voters sign up using the state form, and any voter using the federal form can only cast a ballot in federal races. The litigation is ongoing and the states may decide to appeal. The Brennan Center represents the League of Women Voters in the case.


    Outside Spending and Dark Money in Toss-Up Senate Races

    Winning candidates in 11 competitive Senate races were overwhelmingly backed by “dark money” groups that conceal some or all of their donors, according to a new Brennan Center post-election analysis. The study found $342 million in nonparty outside spending in those contests, with nearly 60 percent coming from “dark money” groups. The 2012 total was $259 million for all 33 contests. “It now seems each election is a new opportunity to break outside spending records, and 2014 did not disappoint,” said Ian Vandewalker. Read more from Bloomberg and listen to Lawrence Norden on NPR’s “Brian Lehrer Show.”


    Network News Goes Dark on Dark Money

    WASHINGTON, Sept. 19 – Network news broadcasts seldom mentioned campaign finance reform during a period when the Supreme Court gutted limits on how much millionaires may spend to influence elections and Congress considered a constitutional amendment to undo the court decisions, according to a Media Matters for America study...

    The sparse coverage of money and politics, in the words of the Media Matters report, “is part of a larger pattern in which the networks have largely underreported the rolling back of campaign finance reform and the unprecedented influx of billions of dollars into the federal election system.” ...

    The study tracked coverage on network evening newscasts and Sunday shows since February of 2013 when the Supreme Court agreed to take up McCutcheon v. FEC, a case that a 5-4 majority eventually used to further gut campaign laws that already were shredded by a 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. FEC.

    During that 19-month period, each commercial network devoted less than one minute per month to campaign finance reform, according to the study. The PBS NewsHour stood apart with more coverage on campaign finance reform, money in politics and the Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions than all the other networks combined.

    The Senate last week debated an amendment that would restore the authority of Congress and state legislatures to regulate campaign spending. During that four-day debate, there was not a single mention of the issue on network newscasts, according to Media Matters.

    Last Sunday, after Senate Republicans blocked the consideration of the constitutional amendment, the issue was mentioned on (only) two Sunday shows.

    Read more at MediaMatters.org


    U.S. Citizens Being Denied their Right to Vote

    By Brennan Center at NYU. School of Law

    The Texas photo ID trial is continuing this week in U.S. District Court in Corpus Christi. The Brennan Center is part of a legal team representing several groups who argued the ID requirement violates the Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution by making it harder for minorities to vote.

    As many as 1.2 million eligible Texas voters do not possess acceptable ID. Hispanic and black voters are more likely to lack an ID than whites, according to expert testimony.

    The judge also heard from several affected voters. Sammie Louis Bates, a low-income senior who is a lifelong voter, said she kept “running into the wall of needing her birth certificate,” which cost $42 — an amount she could not afford on a monthly income of just a few hundred dollars.

    “I had to put $42 where it would do the most good,” she said. “We couldn’t eat the birth certificate, and we couldn’t pay rent with the birth certificate.”

    The trial comes as many Americans face an ever-shifting voting landscape. Texas is one of seven states with ongoing litigation challenging voting restrictions ahead of the November election.

    Read more on major lawsuits at the Brennan Center’s Election 2014 resources.