“Rigged,” What’s New?

2016-electionsNew Orleans   Headlines in both the local and national papers focused on Donald Trump’s unwillingness to commit that he would honor the verdict of the voters in a democratic election. Clinton responded in the debate that his position was “horrifying.” My question continues to be, “What’s new?” Am I the only one who wonders why this is such a flashpoint now, and hasn’t been for the last eight years or longer?

Part of this is both personal and political for me, as I have noted before. But at least I’m not alone. David Weigel writing in The Washington Post this week had a memory that was longer than yesterday’s news cycle, and began his piece this way:

According to the Republican nominee for president, his opponents were “on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history.” In an ad, his campaign warned of “nationwide voter fraud” that could swing the election. His running mate worried, in a fundraising letter, that “leftist groups” were trying to “steal the election.”


The candidate was not Donald Trump. It was Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who in the final weeks of the 2008 presidential election embraced the theory that ACORN, a community organizing group previously embraced by Democrats and Republicans, was helping to rig the election for Barack Obama by filing fake voter registration forms.

Poor Weigel. He’ll probably be fired soon for pointing out that the emperors continue to walk naked in Congressional hallways and DC corridors. It also goes without saying, and time has proven this out, so I’ll bore everyone by saying, that no such thing happened, nor was there ever any evidence then or now to back up such nonsense about voting.

Even for McCain in 2008 this was an old saw, rather than something he was inventing. Such claims on voter fraud based on voter registration work have been part of the standard operating procedure on election tactics for Republicans for a number of cycles, certainly since the concept of “battleground” states became prominent and the George W. Bush election turned into a Supreme Court disputed umpire call after Al Gore won the popular vote. In Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania for a number of election cycles before 2008, ACORN had been the subject of similar attacks and fabrications with fake FEC complaints and state election charges all of which would be withdrawn by early the following year after the elections were over. Our assumption had been that McCain had wrongly assumed that the election might be close with Obama and was tactically hedging in order to prepare claims in some states and hope for a repeat of the Bush 2000 scenario. As it turned out, he was stomped by Obama, so none of that emerged, though thanks to McCain the target for conservatives would stay on ACORN’s back.

And, let’s be honest about all of this. Of the hardcore 40% base that is sticking with Trump and listening to all of this balderdash, I would put good money on the fact that a huge percentage of that base has still refused to accept the legitimacy of President Obama’s two election victories and the work of his eight years. The continuing drumbeat of the Republican faithful up until recently that ACORN stole both elections and was preparing to steal this one is more than sufficient evidence for such a bet.

Once the votes are all counted, the winner will be named, and whether Trump and his Trumpeteers accept it or not isn’t relevant come Inauguration Day, except that such schoolhouse door resistance to the choice of voters in our fragile democracy only assures even more polarization and extremist from Congress on down to the grassroots.


Raising Retirement Age is the Poor Subsidizing the Rich!

New Orleans   Before complacency sets in and you pinch yourself and say, “Hey, I’m feeling ok, I can make it some more years, so if they cave in and let the Republicans raise the retirement age, maybe it’s no big deal,” you need to pinch yourself harder where you keep your wallet or pocketbook and remember that those extra years really may be a matter of little more than how much money you have.  A story recently by Michael Fletcher in the Washington Post brought the numbers all back home.

            All of the talk about how we’re living longer so we should shore up Social Security by stretching out the retirement age is based on a myopic view of class status.  Listen to this:

“’People who are shorter-lived tend to make less, which means that if you raise the retirement age, low-income populations would be subsidizing the lives of higher-income people.  Whenever I hear a policymaker say people are living longer as a justification for raising the retirement age, I immediately think they don’t understand the research or, worse, they are willfully ignoring what the data say.’”  Maya Rockeymoore, Global Policy Solutions.

The Social Security Administration in a fairly recent study Fletcher cited found that life expectancy for male workers had gone up 6 years in the top half of the income brackets but only up 1.3 years in the bottom half.   In the last 30 years as income inequity has accelerated the gap in life expectancy based on income, according to the Congressional Budget Office, has risen from 2.8 years to 4.5 years for the rich.

Eric Kingston of Syracuse University and co-chair of Social Security Works, which opposes reducing the old-age benefits, makes the great point that the income gap of life expectancy it “…would mean a benefit cut that falls heavily on people who generally are most reliant on Social Security for their retirement income.”  He added unnecessarily, “It is totally class-based.”  Amen!

In fact according to Health Affairs, Fletcher cites the fact that “in half of the nation’s counties, women younger than 75 are dying at rates higher than before.”  This is true particularly of lower income white women, and women in the rural South and West, where poorer women are getting worked too hard and hung up wet.

When the subject is Social Security, the pencil pushers working for the richer “haves” are literally killing us at the lead point of their budget discussions.  This is neither right, nor fair, to working people in America who should have the right to retire with the same dignity that they tried to live.


Back to Mumbai and “Behind the Beautiful Forever”

rooftop picture of slum in Dharavi, Mumbai

Mumbai     Registering slums and settlements is very important business in India.  Being a registered slum gives both immediate benefits and potentially some future entitlements.  Immediately there are things like water, not just the tanks making the delivery, but a commitment from the city that ends in standpipes and the promise of more.  Electricity may have been there in some form or fashion, but registration makes it formal.  Property can be registered, owned, and sold, and there can be addresses for the inhabitants making it easier to register to vote, get ration cards, demand education, and more.  The entitlements include assistance and support if relocated as well, which in the burgeoning metropolises of Mumbai, Delhi, and Bengaluru where we work, is also very important.

A book about life in the slums, specifically an area abutting the Mumbai airport, that I’ve often seen, as the title says, Behind the Beautiful Forever, an advertising billboard which serves as landmark for the community, was recently written by Katherine Boo, a former Washington Post reporter, now living in India for the last decade.  The book has gotten a lot of glowing reviews and some attention.  I had read a piece of it sometime ago in The New Yorker, and was prepared not to like it, but also, given my work, felt compelled to read it, and did so flying over to India this trip.

            First impressions can be hard to shake.  The book is unforgiving and bleak.  There are no happy endings coming and heroes are hard to find.  Boo is going to have some difficulty selling the movie rights to these stories, but whether in Mumbai or Latin America or even the US, having worked in so many of these areas, I may not have liked reading it, but I couldn’t escape feeling the authenticity of the reporting.  Soldiering through the book, I was forced to admit it wasn’t the writing or the reality so clearly presented, but more likely a suspicion about the hidden voice of the author and where she stood in the middle of the slum and these stories that she was presenting as seamlessly as a screenplay, sometimes filled with drama and tinged with horror.  True or false, I had to admit I was not sure she had the right to tell such a hopeless tale.

            I was finally assuaged when I arrived at the author’s note and her intentions became clearer.  She may not have been a participant, but I have to credit her close observation.  She counted more than 160 interviews on one terrible episode where a woman known as “One Leg” self immolates in what seems a petty dispute.   Boo also made a better case for trying to come to terms with the slum and its people and her commitment was straightforward.

As an organizer, no matter how hard bitten there is always a romantic or idealistic hope, a faith in people’s ability to come together, to build power, and to affect change.

None of this grows Behind the Beautiful Forever.   To her credit Boo is even handed and outs the NGO scams and the way the World Visions and others are used in their own schemes as a form of corruption every bit as much as she eviscerates the flimsy fabric of a criminal “justice” system that is premised on a pyramid of bribes.  In an enraging story of criminal accusations and lives bent with accusations of murder on the One Leg immolation, a whole family is drowning in bribes borrowed and unable to be paid, complete with time in jail as they try to survive a ridiculous court system across language, delays, judicial inattention, and other obstacles.   The story is so depressing and angering that I felt there was no way innocence could be in the offing, so to Boo’s report was denouement.  Rather than a happy ending and some faint proof that there was hope in the world, I knew it was totally random and a rare lucky break.

If Behind the Beautiful Forever has a cause or a theme, it is less the people and life in the slums than it is total, pervasive corruption that permeates virtually every transaction between people, between people and institutions, and really between people, fate, and future.  There is a massive drive around corruption underway in Indian public life and politics, and despite its middle class support, it is given little hope by many.  The multi-million dollar scandals nicking at the heels of the ruling Congress Party and the Prime Minister, coupled with less optimistic economic reports, have most believing that they face a shellacking in the elections in 2014.

Will it matter in the slums?  Boo’s book watches how life loses meaning, as a man hit by a car is allowed to bleed to death and die, filling a corpse quota later, because no one acts or intervenes from their own precarious footpath.  Suicides over slights or simply the burden of life, whether young or old, are still tragic.

I wish I had left Boo’s book the way I came to it, still suspicious of the author with an easy rationale for discounting the reality lurking behind the lines.  Dickens was more upbeat.  This is a feel bad book.  I don’t know how to recommend it, even as I walk in Mumbai today, until I have a way to argue with the afterword, and whether what should come next, has any chance of happening in India or elsewhere today.


Support the Campaign for Human Development

CTH07 190b-1.JPGNew Orleans I got a call late Mardi Gras afternoon on my cell from James Salt, the organizing director for something called Catholics United.  He got right to the point.  The rightwing within the Catholic Church (yes, I know some of you are chuckling that you thought that was the only wing, but keep it to yourself, ok?) is mounting a vicious, smear campaign against the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD).  The attacks are in the neo-McCarthyite tradition that seems the fad right now.  There is a “reform CCHD” website (though no names are identified with it, which makes me suspicious) that accuses CCHD of supporting pro-life outfits, groups that oppose “Catholic” teachings, groups that are pro-immigrant, and of course ACORN, the Center for Community Change, and the like.

The easy ask from Catholics United, and it seems so lame, I hate to put it out there, is that you sign a petition in support of CCHD by hitting this link.   Do it now and I’ll explain more in a minute:


I’ve known Bishop Roger Morin for more than 30 years from his time as diocesan director for the Archdiocese of New Orleans.  Sometimes I raised some money from him, and sometimes I did not.  He was a smooth operator in southern Louisiana where being Catholic still means something as if we were a Latin American country.  It’s why we have a Mardi Gras, remember?  Morin has been promoted several times in the last couple of years and now has his own operation in Mobile, Alabama and because of his record in New Orleans quickly became the point man for the rest of the bishops’ conference at CCHD.  I am not a fan of how Roger has handled the ACORN funding controversy, because I think he should have stood taller and that might have stopped some of the conservative rearguard attacks they are taking now, but, hey, he did what he thought he needed to do to “protect the Church,” and that is hardwired into their training and DNA, so what can I say.

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