Saturday, February 28, 2009

Bloggers as America's Watchdogs: New Administration, New Roles?

A few weeks ago, Penn Law's Chapter of the American Constitution Society hosted this event at the Law School. Entitled "Bloggers as America's Watchdogs: New Administration, New Roles?" the panel was a lively and interesting discussion about the evolving roles of the blogosphere in our political culture particularly moving forward into an Obama Administration. I was there (and even ask a question toward the end), and also had the distinct pleasure of going to dinner with all the speakers afterward. It was a lot of fun, and also very interesting. If you have some time, I recommend the video below.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Jindal's Failed Argument

In his response to the President's speech tonight, Bobby Jindal argued that it was the people of Louisiana that made the recovery in New Orleans happen. With all due respect, doesn't he think the $175 billion in federal aid might also have had something to do with that? He argued that government is not the answer. But in regards to Hurricane Katrina, it was the lack of government action - levees left unfortified, missing plans, uncoordinated and inept response to crisis - that made Katrina as bad as it was. Just like Louisiana needed the federal government to act effectively to save it in a crisis, so too does our nation need our government to help us get out of this financial turmoil.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

new mixtape for you.

expressing electronic delight

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Freedom's Just Another Word For I've Got A Lot To Lose

We all like freedom. It’s fun. It’s attractive. In a world of endless responsibilities, we want to do what we want.

But freedom can be exploited. It can be used. Conservatives have been doing it for hundreds of years to support political goals hidden just under the surface of their platitudes. Scratch a coin gilded with rhetoric of freedom, and you may find corruption just beneath the surface.

Take the famous case of Lochner v. New York, decided by the Supreme Court in 1905. A conservative majority struck down a law passed in the New York legislature and enacted by the governor that limited the hours of a baker to ten hours a day. Expert testimony showed that bakers worked long, hard hours in debilitating conditions resulting in a host of ailments that culminated in early death rarely far after their 50th birthday. At the turn of the century, the progressive movement was making great strides enacting new social legislation that employed the police power of the States to protect the health and welfare of citizens. These labor laws enriched the lives of individuals as well as increased the productivity and lifespan of the State’s workers.

It should come as no surprise that conservatives were uniformly opposed to such laws. The eight-hour workday, bans on child labor, heightened safety requirements and other regulations were expensive. While they raised the living standards of the workers, they took money out of the pockets of the wealthy few who controlled the system. Democracy cannot sustain an oligarchy. The demands of rights for the masses necessarily impinge on the wealth and power of the owners of the system.

Luckily for them, they had allies on the Supreme Court. In a sneaky opinion, Justice Peckham argued that the law protecting the health and welfare of bakers by limiting them to a sixty-hour workweek was not an “appropriate and legitimate end” for legislation. “There can be no fair doubt,” he wrote, “that the trade of a baker, in and of itself, is not an unhealthy one to that degree which would authorize the legislature to interfere with the right of labor, and with the right of free contact on the part of the individual, either as employer or employee.” Peckham dismissed democratic legislation with the wave of the hand in the name of that golden veneer of liberty, conveniently glossing over true conservative intentions. “Freedom of contract” was in danger, and the Fourteenth Amendment came galloping to the rescue.

It all sounds fair and high-minded, until one scratches off the gloss and realizes what is actually happening here. The conservatives on the bench used concerns about liberty to strip away the protections the people fought hard to enshrine in law. In his dissent, Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “the word liberty in the 14th Amendment is perverted when it is held to prevent the natural outcome of a dominant opinion.” There is no doubt that freedom is an important virtue, and it must be protected when it is threatened. But freedom can also be used as a tool of the ruling class to pervert the will of the people and maintain their grip on the levers of power.

For the last eight years, we’ve watched as another group of rulers have used the language of freedom to manipulate and subvert the popular will in liberty’s name. In almost no area has this been clearer than in the Bush Administration’s relationship with organized labor. When polled, healthy majorities of American workers say that they would like to join a Union if given an opportunity. Yet today less than 9% of American workers are unionized. What accounts for this yawning gap between workers’ wants and reality is a labor system that is broken. It is a system that incentivizes intimidation, dishonesty and delay.

For these reasons, while he was in the Senate, President Obama sponsored the Employment Free Choice Act. “The substance of the EFCA would amend existing labor law in the US to allow unions to gain official recognition in a workplace through a majority of workers signing authorization cards and avoid the perilous and employer-dominated election route. Once a union is certified, employers have to begin sitting down with the union within ten days. If no deal is reached, government mediators can force employers to sign a first contract, even without the vote of workers. The EFCA also would drastically increase the penalties companies face for violating workers rights, such as with firing workers for organizing, which happen at record rates in the US compared to the rest of the industrialized world. Workers could receive up to three times the back pay owed and companies could be fined up to $20,000 for willful or repeated violations.” (Source: IWW).

It will come as no surprise that, although this legislation passed through the House last year, it was held up by conservative Senators in the upper chamber. Their main objection, which they have pretty successfully turned into the narrative now dominating debate over the act, is the provision that allows workers to sign authorization cards rather than participate in a closed ballot election. Using the language of liberty once again, conservatives have dominated the discussion by arguing that the Act would take away worker “freedom” to vote whether or not to have a Union.

If we’ve learned anything from history, we should begin to get very suspicious when Conservatives begin to use vague concerns about liberty to quash worker’s rights.
The plain truth is that the current Union election process is broken. Among those actually struggling to organize workers for the past several decades, it is widely known that the current process allows business owners to drag out the election process for many months. In the process, Union agitators are fired, employees are intimidated with threats, and resorts to violence are not uncommon.

Let me share just one example of a story relayed to me today by Ed Chew, Director of Legal Affairs for the UFCW Local 1776. He told us of a manufacturing plant in the Northeast where the workers had engaged in a long battle for unionization. Finally, the Election Day came. Hundreds of workers lined up, excited to cast their ballots; many spoke only broken English, but they understood the benefits that a Union would bring to them. And so they lined up, and they waited. And waited. It was a long, tedious process of paper balloting, and finally, while hundreds of workers were still in line, waiting to vote, managers from the plant began walking down the line telling people the vote was over; there was no more time; people had to go home. Confused and intimidated by their bosses, over a hundred and fifty people left, and when the ballots were counted the next day, the Union failed by only 72 votes. Soon thereafter, 75% of the workers in that plant were fired. The Union complained to the National Labor Relations Board, but in the end, even though the plant was found guilty of disturbing the election, they wouldn’t even admit it. They posted a sign in their plant which states that they didn’t do anything wrong; but if they did, they promise never to do it again. Meanwhile, no Union will ever organize at this plant. Most of the workers have been laid off, and those that remain are probably too traumatized by the whole experience to ever support another attempt at organization.

Allowing for majority sign ups in addition
to traditional elections will give workers a profound new ability to avoid the unfair and even dangerous processes of the past and restore a balance between the powers of owners and the people they employ. With the EFCA, progressives are once again attempting to guarantee the health and welfare of working people by passing legislation that will help them collectively bargain. Most employment is at will, but with a collective bargaining agreement, these powerless people will suddenly get their own freedom of contract.

Unsurprisingly, Conservatives are not interested in this contractual liberty. For them, liberty is an excuse, a convenient buzzword; something to be exploited when it is politically expedient, then tucked away when it doesn’t serve their (not-so-hidden) agenda. Americans need to learn the lessons of history. We cannot let the Justice Peckham’s of the world decide what it means for Americans to be free. Conservatives are using the language of liberty to defeat this legislation because they’ve seen it work in the past. We can’t let them. When we pass this important bill, we will be taking one great step forward in removing the shallow gloss off of this second Gilded Age.

Monday, February 16, 2009

sorry I haven't been posting much...

Things that have been taking up a lot of my time in the last month:

1. Opposing the Closing of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University. I became an admin of the facebook group, "Save the Rose Art Museum," and spent a lot of energy trying to organize people online to save this amazing institution that is really one of the treasures of Brandeis. Losing the Rose will be an unconscionable loss to the Brandeis community and to future generations of Brandeis students. I only hope we can come up with a solution to stopping this sale.

2. Following the passage of the Stimulus Bill and the beginning weeks of the new Obama Administration. Several people have asked me to post on this site about this subject. I think liberals and conservatives alike have reasons to be upset about this bill. That said, I think that on balance, it represents a victory for progressives and for the Obama Administration.

From the conservative perspective, this became an opportunity for the Republican party to present a unified political front with a clear, common message - a feat their party has not been able to make happen in many years now. However, it is unclear if their resistance to the bill will pay any real political dividends in the long term. Poll numbers indicate that the President's numbers have stayed more or less consistently high during this process - hovering in the mid to high 60s in most national polls - while Republican leaders and the party as a whole have seen declines in their favorable ratings. To quote Markos' excellent insight: "Not only have the already unpopular congressional Republicans seen their net favorability ratings drop 10 points in a matter of a few weeks, but they now face a net 36-point deficit compared to congressional Democrats. And it's not as if congressional Democrats are all that popular (they're obviously not), it's just that people really hate the Republicans." People generally give Congress as a whole low marks, but support their local representative, regardless of their party. That said, national polls are clearly indicating that the obstructionist tactics of the GOP are not resonating with the American people. Like my own family, which is facing real financial hardship because of this recession, the American people are looking to their government to do something the help mitigate this recession. Just saying "no" sends a message to most Americans that the GOP is more interested in doing nothing and playing politics than delivering for the country.

All that said, I also think there are reasons for liberals to be a bit miffed by the outcome of this bill. President Obama bent over backwards trying to appease Congressional Republicans in both houses, cutting out programs he wanted because of their opposition, and making tax cuts 1/3 of stimulus in the package. The President did much to reach out the Republicans, so much that many Democrats felt they were actually being shut out of the process. When they turned around and didn't cast a single vote in the House for the bill, it was a real slap in the face to Obama, and exposed the real limits of bipartisanship - even in the age of Obama.

That said, there are reasons for liberals to be pleased about the results of this bill. It makes significant investments in many important areas like infrastructure, energy, health care, and education. Its tax cuts are unlike the Bush cuts in that they are much more focused on relieving stress on lower and middle class, working Americans. This bill will create or save millions of jobs for American workers, and that will help ease us out of this recession. Of course no bill is perfect, and even the best and brightest economists don't really know what the truly best course is to take. The spending bill we got reflects a political process that at the end of the day has delivered for the American people. Obama has put all his chips on red on this one, publicly stating that if his efforts to turn the economy around in 4 years don't work, we'll have a new president. Lets give him the benefit of the doubt on this one, and hope that his Administration will wisely execute this project in a way that really does help our economy grow.

One last thing to note on the political front is how powerful the small group of moderates in the Senate are becoming as a result of the filibuster-prone margin in the Senate. Without Collins and Snowe from Maine and Specter from PA, this bill would not have passed through the Congress. As a result, these moderate Republicans had significant say over what should be included and excised from the bill. As we move forward, it will be crucial for people from across the country who support Obama's agenda, and particularly in those northeastern states with Republican senators, to put pressure on them constantly. Only by bringing these Senators into the fold can Democrats get through all the important legislation they hope to pass in the next two years.

3. Organizing an event for the American Constitution Society at Penn law entitled "A Nation of Laws? Responses to the Alleged Crimes of the Bush Administration." It will take place on March 5th here at Penn Law, and I am very excited about it. The event, will present a thoughtful, nuanced discussion of the possible crimes of the Bush Administration – most notably torture, but also illegal wiretapping, indefinite detention, extraordinary rendition, and other abuses of executive power. I would like the discussion to focus on response to these alleged abuses: what they should (or shouldn't) be, and how such processes could come about. The goal is to promote a vigorous debate within our Law School about the importance of the rule of law, and how it should be respected in this case.

4. The Summer job hunt. I will be interning in the office of Judge Manfredi, a Superior Court judge in the Philadelphia Court of Common Please. I am looking forward to it very much because I will get a judge's view of the litigation process, working intimately with Judge Manfredi to learn all about the many different types of civil litigation working their way through Philadelphia state courts. In addition, I will get to see all stages of the litigation process, and observe hundreds of attorneys in their professional capacity, learning from them what it takes to be a successful advocate and litigator.

5. Studying for Law School. Same old, same old...

I hope to start posting more regularly, even if it is just short things of interest to me that might be of interest to my readers.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

You're In My Head MIXTAPE

Hey everybody!

Check out this cool website, where you can make your own online mixtapes to share with your friends...

I made a mix for all the world to enjoy!

Monday, February 09, 2009

Happy New Year to the Trees! A Tu B'Shvat Essay by Alison Schwartzbaum

This essay about Tu B'Shvat was written by my sister Alison. I think it is very inspiring and interesting. I hope you enjoy it!


I went kayaking today with the Temple Menorah Young Professionals Club. It was my first event with the group (hurray for finally taking strides to create a social life!), and I really enjoyed myself. The kayaking was beautiful and after we got back to shore we went on a nature walk and learned about different plants and bugs. Finally, there was a brown bag lunch and a discussion about today's holiday, Tu B'shvat with the Temple's new assistant Rabbi, the 30-year-old Rabbi Dan.

Dan shared a very interesting idea about life and Judaism with us, and I'm compelled to share it with you. As you may already know, Tu B'shvat is the Jewish new year for the trees. Practically, the date marks the time from which you start counting how old your fruit trees are. This is significant in Jewish law because in Israel you cannot eat from a fruit tree until its fifth year. Additionally, it is customary to eat Israeli fruits such as pomegranates, dates, almonds, figs, grapes, carob (i think, don't quote me on that one), among others. However, Dan did not focus on the specifics of Jewish law in regard to trees. Instead, he talked about the meaning behind the holiday and the perspective it can give us through which to see the world.

Jewish law as it pertains to trees is very specific and very telling of the type of attitude Jews should have toward the environment. The Torah explicitly forbids the destruction of fruit trees without purpose; a Jew may not cut down a fruit tree unless it is causing harm to other trees in the orchard or if it will be used for a necessary purpose. In fact, even in a time of war, a Jewish army may not cut down a tree in order to cut an enemy's food supply. Unless there is an enemy in the tree who poses an immediate danger, a tree may not be touched.

Why all this stress about trees? After all, in Bereshit, the first book in the Torah, Hashem tells Adam that the world was created for him to use. Therefore, shouldn't man be able to do as he wishes with the environment?

A simple answer that reconciles these two parts of the Torah is the idea that we should take only what we need and never exploit the environment for our own excesses.

This is a very interesting and important idea especially today when consumerism and wastefulness typify American society and normative thought in countries throughout the world. We run to buy the latest ipod or phone to replace last year's model without thinking about the environmental impact that our electronic waste will create. (Not to get too off topic, but I feel like I must say, I'm not knocking all materialism or all aspects of our consumer culture, only how unthoughtful we are about it, and I'm definitely guilty of this too.)

Still, there is an even deeper lesson that we can glean from all this Jewish environmental talk. It stems from the original question about Judaism and the environment: why the stress? What's the big deal? What's the connection?

The answer lies in our obligation (that's my editorializing, I can't say for sure that it's mandatory) to develop our sensitivity and compassion for the world and everything in it.

If you believe in God as a creator and define God as timeless, limitless, omniscient, etc. (which I do, at least today I do, but even if you don't, read on, this idea might still apply), then you probably believe that all of creation is actually an extension of God himself. After all, how can something that is limitless exist outside of something and not outside of it and a part of it at the same time? (a drop more editorializing to the Rabbi's dvar torah: perhaps this is where the idea that we were created in God's image stems from, and is why the Shema, "hear o Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one" is such an integral part of Judaism--in other words, the Lord is one means that we're a part of him...without doing anything, just by existing, we are Godly beings). If that's the case then the whole world, and all of creation is very deeply connected. (If you're not so into the God stuff, here's the part where you can tune back in and probably feel comfortable): In essence, the existence of everything that is and ever was is like a drawing on an etch a sketch; imagine a drawing of a horizontal line that turns into an ornate drawing before returning to its original shape as a line. On an etch a sketch, as on a piece of paper, you'd never have removed the pen, so even though it changed shape, the entire time it was still the same line only in a different form. This is how the world (and everything in it and everything that exists outside of it) is. We are all essentially the same, connected thing only in different forms; break us down small enough, and humans and trees and everything else is all made up of the same compounds (be they from the periodic table of elements or from the part of us that is an extension of God). We are everything around us.

Rav Kook, the chief Ashkenazic Rabbi of Israel pre-statehood summed up this idea much more eloquently than I ever could:

"If you are amazed at how it is possible to speak, hear, smell, touch, see, understand, and feel - tell your soul that all living things collectively confer upon you the fullness of your experience. Not the least speck of existence is superfluous, everything is needed, and everything serves its purpose. 'You' are presented within everything that is beneath you, and your being is bound up with all that transcends you" (Orot Hakodesh, 361).

Everything coexists because of and for something or someone else. The sooner we realize our interconnectedness with the world around us, our environment, and the people that inhabit it, and the sooner we treat these seemingly external parts of the Universe as essential parts of ourselves, the sooner we can repair the damage we've caused the world.

As Albert Einstein once said:

"A human being is part of a whole, called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts, and feelings, as something separated from the rest a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."

This is the true (or at least one of the true), deeper meanings of the holiday of Tu B'shvat - to remind ourselves of the relationship between humans and the world around us. Hopefully, with the wisdom and courage to see every part of the world as part of ourselves, we can develop the sensitivity and compassion necessary to repair our damaged environment as well as our damaged relationships with our friends and family at home and our carbon-based brothers and sisters all around the world.

Chag Sameach to all and thank you again to Rabbi Dan for giving me the knowledge base and the inspiration to share this with you,

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