Commentary Politics

President and Mrs. Obama: Time to Forget Martha’s Vineyard and Come Home

Rebecca Sive

President and Mrs. Obama:  That power elite. If they were ever really your friends, they're now your enemies.  They've gotten what wanted and left you standing at the precipice.

Drew Westen’s brilliant piece in Sunday’s New York Times, about character traits of President Obama, and how they may explain his disappointing actions, took me back to some notes I made, earlier this year.

My notes recorded the notion that Barack Obama’s seeming shortcomings as a President may be a consequence of an aspect of the President’s, (and the First Lady’s), personalities that Professor Westen didn’t mention Sunday.

Actually, for those of us who’ve known the President and the First Lady since they returned to Chicago from Harvard Square, that aspect of their personalities has been plain as day.

As I watched the Obama’s rise to power, I kept hoping for some ongoing public commitment to social justice and equality from two gifted people whose childhoods were spent in modest circumstances, scarred by the consequences of race discrimination, yet who had so much to offer the world. It rarely showed-up.

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Instead, the President chose the safety of a cubbyhole at the University of Chicago Law School and the anonymity of a State Senator who never said anything that really challenged “the power elite,” (keep reading), and the First Lady chose the security of Richard Daley’s City Hall and the University of Chicago, albeit interrupted by an interlude at Public Allies.

Where could I hear the speeches of these oh-so-wished-for social justice advocates? Where could I join up with these (metaphorically-speaking) great-great grandchildren of W.E. B. DuBois and Ida B. Wells, (whose fine educations and successful careers hadn’t silenced them)? Nowhere, as it turned out.

As I thought about this, after reading Professor Westen’s piece, I remembered a speech by another President. In his farewell address, President Eisenhower said:

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

Eisenhower’s remarks came a few short years after C. Wright Mills wrote about “the power elite.”

In his book of the same name, Mills wrote “…(The Powe Elite) calls attention to the interwoven interests of the leaders of the military, corporate, and political elements of society and suggests that the ordinary citizen is a relatively powerless subject of manipulation by those entities.”

Sixties’ radicals adopted these two ideas and phrases and converted them into a rallying cry against the power elite. Their rallying cry was directed especially to students closest to the power elite, like those in Harvard Square; like, say, Michelle and Barack Obama.

Their message was: Don’t be seduced by the “military industrial complex” and “the power elite.” Don’t get caught in its web of destruction (of the lives and economic security of Barack Obama’s “ordinary Americans”). Their message was: Fight with everything you’ve got for those “ordinary Americans” and against “the power elite.”

If they heard this message in Harvard Square, Michelle and Barack Obama were seduced by a different one, the one of that very power elite. Join us, they said. And join they did.

So much so that, as Professor Westen puts it, Barack Obama mistakes compromise (with the “complex”) for capitulation (to the “complex”), as a consequence promulgating economic policies that have done nothing to achieve economic security, in these desperate times, for the “ordinary Americans” he says he cares so much about.

Professor Westen describes the implications of this American tragedy:

But the arc of history does not bend toward justice through capitulation cast as compromise. It does not bend when 400 people (“the power elite”) control more of the wealth than 150 million of their fellow Americans, ‘the average American…staring into the abyss….’…When Dr. King spoke of the great arc bending toward justice, he did not mean that we should wait for it to bend.”

For me, the denouement of this tragedy was a couple weeks before the “capitulation” over the debt limit crisis. It was a few Friday nights ago. That was when President Obama talked about being “left at the altar,” and he also referred to the “working stiffs” of America.

I couldn’t believe it. I jumped up off the couch. Such a pejorative description for America’s heroes, the people who make America work, but who have been sandbagged by the power elite, just as Mills feared they would be.

The phrase, “ordinary Americans” has been bugging me for years. My parents taught me that everyone is special; that no-one is ordinary. Hadn’t the President’s mother taught him the same thing?

And now this one!

But then I got it. When Barack and Michelle Obama were seduced in Harvard Square, they abandoned those not of the Square, those “ordinary Americans.” Why else would the President use the term “working stiffs”?

Like Barack and Michelle Obama, I was fortunate to be educated at one of our nation’s great colleges. Like Barack and Michelle Obama, I live a comfortable life in circles that matter to the “military industrial complex.”

But I feel like I don’t think what they think.

I don’t think “ordinary Americans,” and then there’s us, the special ones.

Instead, though I’m far, far from perfect, I try to remember this: When you’ve been seduced by a suitor’s access and money; oh, and did I say power, as the Obama’s apparently were in Harvard Square, you have two choices. (After you remember where you came from), you can do something big for those left behind–and the bigger you are, the bigger it should be–or, you can just tinker around the edges.

I got it that Friday night. Apparently, Michelle and Barack Obama had concluded that, if you create real change for those you left behind, you might be in Harvard Square, but you sure won’t be of it. No Martha’s Vineyard for you.

By contrast, Professor Westen points out that FDR had the courage to do the right thing when faced with the same problems President Obama faces today:

In a 1936 speech at Madison Square Garden, he (FDR) thundered, ‘Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me…and I welcome their hatred.’

Who were these “forces”? Well, that very same “power elite” that seduced President Obama. That very same “power elite” who prevent America’s economic recovery today, in favor of maintaining its “great concentration of wealth,” “…when 400 people control more of the wealth than 150 million of their fellow Americans.”

I believe that each of us is born with redeeming character traits, along with traits we should mitigate. In the Obama’s case, a powerful redeeming trait is their generosity, one-on-one. I, for one, have never seen so many hugs, by a President and a First Lady, of “ordinary Americans,” as I have in the last couple years.

But that’s just not enough for these next couple years.

Time to forget the hugs, and do what FDR did: Ignore “the power elite” and fight for those “ordinary Americans” leaving the White House, with nothing but hugs.

A few years ago, when I used to see (only) an occasional homeless person on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, I asked some friends how many homeless people they would tolerate on this street in the heart of Chicago’s “Gold Coast,” before they would try to change the situation. No-one could or would say.

Fast forward to today’s Michigan Avenue: Every day, in every block, one sees several homeless people, often mothers with their children: Ordinary Americans, down on their luck, needing an American revolution, not a hug.

I’m thundering today, not from Madison Square Garden, but from my desk a few blocks from Michigan Avenue.

President and Mrs. Obama: We three, and many others, have been blessed by good fortune, strong families, and good educations. But not every American has had all that good luck.

Now, that “other America” desperately needs that which only your government can provide for it, just as FDR’s did for the other America of his day.

President and Mrs. Obama: Please recognize that you’ve been abandoned by the very people who seduced you. Now, it’s time to forget about them: They are your enemies; they’ve gotten what they wanted. Now, they’ve left you standing at the precipice, and left your less talented and fortunate brothers and sisters to die homeless in the streets. I know you know this. You’re way too smart and care too much not to. I know you know that compromise isn’t sufficient to this need. I also know you are the two most powerful people in the world. Time to stop tinkering around the edges, and do something really big: Use that power for the great(est) good.

President and Mrs. Obama: About that visit to Martha’s Vineyard later this week: Forget about it. Instead, come home. Come walk along Michigan Avenue, and talk to some homeless neighbors; come walk through the First Lady’s old neighborhood, and talk to some more neighbors, also in desperate straits; come walk through the wasteland that is Altgeld Gardens, even more desolate than the one of your community-organizer youth. Come home, and go to the 63rd Street Beach, (instead of the Martha’s Vineyard beach), and talk to “ordinary Americans,” the bereft children of your bereft sisters and brothers.

President and Mrs. Obama: Leave “the power elite” to their dastardly deeds. Come home to this complex, the real American one.

Commentary Economic Justice

The Gender Wage Gap Is Not Women’s Fault, and Here’s the Report That Proves It

Kathleen Geier

The fact is, in every occupation and at every level, women earn less than men doing exactly the same work.

A new report confirms what millions of women already know: that women’s choices are not to blame for the gender wage gap. Instead, researchers at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the progressive think tank that issued the report, say that women’s unequal pay is driven by “discrimination, social norms, and other factors beyond women’s control.”

This finding—that the gender pay gap is caused by structural factors rather than women’s occupational choices—is surprisingly controversial. Indeed, in my years as a journalist covering women’s economic issues, the subject that has been most frustrating for me to write about has been the gender gap. (Full disclosure: I’ve worked as a consultant for EPI, though not on this particular report.) No other economic topic I’ve covered has been more widely misunderstood, or has been so outrageously distorted by misrepresentations, half-truths, and lies.

That’s because, for decades, conservatives have energetically promoted the myth that the gender pay gap does not exist. They’ve done such a bang-up job of it that denying the reality of the gap, like denying the reality of global warming, has become an article of faith on the right. Conservative think tanks like the Independent Women’s Forum and the American Enterprise Institute and right-wing writers at outlets like the Wall Street Journal, Breitbart, and the Daily Caller have denounced the gender pay gap as “a lie,” “not the real story,” “a fairy tale,” “a statistical delusion,” and “the myth that won’t die.” Sadly, it is not only right-wing propagandists who are gender wage gap denialists. Far more moderate types like Slate’s Hanna Rosin and the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson have also claimed that the gender wage gap statistic is misleading and exaggerates disparities in earnings.

According to the most recent figures available from the Census Bureau, for every dollar a man makes, a woman makes only 79 cents, a statistic that has barely budged in a decade. And that’s just the gap for women overall; for most women of color, it’s considerably larger. Black women earn only 61 percent of what non-Hispanic white men make, and Latinas earn only 55 percent as much. In a recent survey, U.S. women identified the pay gap as their biggest workplace concern. Yet gender wage gap denialists of a variety of political stripes contend that gender gap statistic—which measures the difference in median annual earnings between men and women who work full-time, year-round—is inaccurate because it does not compare the pay of men and women doing the same work. They argue that when researchers control for traits like experience, type of work, education, and the like, the gender gap evaporates like breath on a window. In short, the denialists frame the gender pay gap as the product not of sexist discrimination, but of women’s freely made choices.

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The EPI study’s co-author, economist Elise Gould, said in an interview with Rewire that she and her colleagues realized the need for the new report when an earlier paper generated controversy on social media. That study had uncovered an “unadjusted”—meaning that it did not control for differences in workplace and personal characteristics—$4 an hour gender wage gap among recent college graduates. Gould said she found this pay disparity “astounding”: “You’re looking at two groups of people, men and women, with virtually the same amount of experience, and yet their wages are so different.” But critics on Twitter, she said, claimed that the wage gap simply reflected the fact that women were choosing lower-paid jobs. “So we wanted to take out this one idea of occupational choice and look at that,” Gould said.

Gould and her co-author Jessica Schieder highlight two important findings in their EPI report. One is that, even within occupations, and even after controlling for observable factors such as education and work experience, the gender wage gap remains stubbornly persistent. As Gould told me, “If you take a man and a woman sitting side by side in a cubicle, doing the same exact job with the same amount of experience and the same amount of education, on average, the man is still going to be paid more than the woman.”

The EPI report cites the work of Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, who looked at the relative weight in the overall wage gap of gender-based pay differences within occupations versus those between occupations. She found that while gender pay disparities between different occupations explain 32 percent of the gap, pay differences within the same occupation account for far more—68 percent, or more than twice as much. In other words, even if we saw equal numbers of men and women in every profession, two-thirds of the gender wage gap would still remain.

And yes, female-dominated professions pay less, but the reasons why are difficult to untangle. It’s a chicken-and-egg phenomenon, the EPI report explains, raising the question: Are women disproportionately nudged into low-status, low-wage occupations, or do these occupations pay low wages simply because it is women who are doing the work?

Historically, “women’s work” has always paid poorly. As scholars such as Paula England have shown, occupations that involve care work, for example, are associated with a wage penalty, even after controlling for other factors. But it’s not only care work that is systematically devalued. So, too, is work in other fields where women workers are a majority—even professions that were not initially dominated by women. The EPI study notes that when more women became park rangers, for example, overall pay in that occupation declined. Conversely, as computer programming became increasingly male-dominated, wages in that sector began to soar.

The second major point that Gould and Schieder emphasize is that a woman’s occupational choice does not occur in a vacuum. It is powerfully shaped by forces like discrimination and social norms. “By the time a woman earns her first dollar, her occupational choice is the culmination of years of education, guidance by mentors, parental expectations, hiring practices, and widespread norms and expectations about work/family balance,” Gould told Rewire. One study cited by Gould and Schieder found that in states where traditional attitudes about gender are more prevalent, girls tend to score higher in reading and lower in math, relative to boys. It’s one of many findings demonstrating that cultural attitudes wield a potent influence on women’s achievement. (Unfortunately, the EPI study does not address racism, xenophobia, or other types of bias that, like sexism, shape individuals’ work choices.)

Parental expectations also play a key role in shaping women’s occupational choices. Research reflected in the EPI study shows that parents are more likely to expect their sons to enter male-dominated science, technology, engineering, and math (often called STEM) fields, as opposed to their daughters. This expectation holds even when their daughters score just as well in math.

Another factor is the culture in male-dominated industries, which can be a huge turn-off to women, especially women of color. In one study of women working in science and technology, Latinas and Black women reported that they were often mistaken for janitors—something that none of the white women in the study had experienced. Another found that 52 percent of highly qualified women working in science and technology ended up leaving those fields, driven out by “hostile work environments and extreme job pressures.”

Among those pressures are excessively long hours, which make it difficult to balance careers with unpaid care work, for which women are disproportionately responsible. Goldin’s research, Gould said, shows that “in jobs that have more temporal flexibility instead of inflexibility and long hours, you do see a smaller gender wage gap.” Women pharmacists, for example, enjoy relatively high pay and a narrow wage gap, which Goldin has linked to flexible work schedules and a professional culture that enables work/life balance. By contrast, the gender pay gap is widest in highest-paying fields such as finance, which disproportionately reward those able to work brutally long hours and be on call 24/7.

Fortunately, remedies for the gender wage gap are at hand. Gould said that strong enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, greater wage transparency (which can be achieved through unions and collective bargaining), and more flexible workplace policies would all help to alleviate gender-based pay inequities. Additional solutions include raising the minimum wage, which would significantly boost the pay of the millions of women disproportionately concentrated in the low-wage sector, and enacting paid family leave, a policy that would be a boon for women struggling to combine work and family. All of these issues are looming increasingly large in our national politics.

But in order to advance these policies, it’s vital to debunk the right’s shameless, decades-long disinformation campaign about the gender gap. The fact is, in every occupation and at every level, women earn less than men doing exactly the same work. The right alleges that the official gender pay gap figure exaggerates the role of discrimination. But even statistics that adjust for occupation and other factors can, in the words of the EPI study, “radically understate the potential for gender discrimination to suppress women’s earnings.”

Contrary to conservatives’ claims, women did not choose to be paid consistently less than men for work that is every bit as valuable to society. But with the right set of policies, we can reverse the tide and bring about some measure of economic justice to the hard-working women of the United States.

News Family Planning

Lawsuit Challenges Arizona’s Attempt to Defund Planned Parenthood

Nicole Knight Shine

The Republican-backed law specifically targets abortion providers, excluding any facility from Medicaid that fails "to segregate taxpayer dollars from abortions, including the use of taxpayer dollars for any overhead expenses attributable to abortions.”

Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) asked a federal court to block an Arizona law defunding Planned Parenthood, arguing in a legal challenge filed Thursday that the Arizona measure is “illegal.”

The GOP-backed law, signed by Republican Gov. Doug Ducey in May, specifically targets abortion providers, excluding any facility from Medicaid that fails “to segregate taxpayer dollars from abortions, including the use of taxpayer dollars for any overhead expenses attributable to abortions.”

Federal law already bars health-care providers from using Medicaid dollars for abortion care, except in cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment.

In an 18-page complaint, the plaintiffs argue that the restriction is impermissible under Medicaid statutes, and they ask for an injunction on the law, which goes into effect August 6. Planned Parenthood said in an emailed statement that the law could slash funding for birth control, cancer screenings, and preventive care, affecting more than 2,500 Medicaid patients in the state.

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The Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, the state Medicaid agency, did not respond to a request for comment.

Jennifer Lee, staff attorney at the ACLU, called the Arizona law “another attempt to intimidate doctors who provide abortion and to punish low-income women in particular,” in a statement announcing the lawsuit. Planned Parenthood operates 11 medical centers in the state, including three in underserved and impoverished communities with high rates of infant mortality, according to the court filing.

At least ten states, including Arizona, have attempted to strip Planned Parenthood of funding—the fallout from a string of deceptive smear videos masterminded by David Daleiden, the head of the anti-choice front group the Center for Medical Progress, who now faces a felony record-tampering charge.

“This case is about the people who rely on us for basic care every day,” said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, in an announcement of the Arizona suit. “We’ll continue fighting in Arizona, and anywhere else there are efforts to block our patients from the care they need.”

The Arizona law represents the state’s second attempt to defund Planned Parenthood. In 2014, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court decision finding a similar defunding measure, HB 2800, violated federal Medicaid law.

In April, the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services sent a letter to all 50 states saying that cutting funding to qualified providers solely because they provide abortion care violates federal law.

Independent analysis suggests gutting Planned Parenthood funding exacts a toll on health care.

2015 report from the Congressional Budget Office indicated that health-care access would suffer under Planned Parenthood funding cuts, with the potential for $650 million in additional Medicaid spending over a decade and thousands of more births.

In Texas, births surged 27 percent among low-income women who were using injectable birth control but lost access to the service when the state cut Medicaid funding to Planned Parenthood, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.