2 Weeks After Nova Scotia Massacre, Canada Bans Assault Weapons. 7 Years After Sandy Hook in the US—And Still Nothing

May 01, 2020 by Common Dreams

“Republicans in the U.S. Congress—what are you waiting for?”

by Julia Conley, staff writer

 41 Comments

Children lay flowers at an impromptu memorial in front of the RCMP detachment April 20, 2020 in Enfield, Nova Scotia, Canada. On Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said such shootings “shape our identity, they stain our conscience, they make adults out of children and the heartbreaking truth is they’re happening more often than they once did.” (Photo: Tim Krochak/Getty Images)

Telling the Canadian public that they “deserve more than thoughts and prayers” less than two weeks after a series of shootings in Canada that killed 13 people, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Friday announced a ban on “assault-style” semi-automatic weapons in the country.  

Effective immediately, Trudeau said, the sale, transport, and use of about 1,500 makes and models of such guns will now be illegal in Canada.

The prime minister added that the government would work in the coming months on legislation to compensate people who already own the weapons. Owners have until April 2022 to dispose of the guns. 

“These weapons were designed for one purpose and one purpose only: to kill the largest number of people in the shortest amount of time,” Trudeau said. “There is no use and no place for such weapons in Canada.”

Trudeau called the shootings of April 18 and 19, which were carried out by one gunman with multiple weapons, “the deadliest rampage in our country’s history.” Nine people also died in fires set by the gunman, who obtained the weapons illegally in the U.S. and Canada. 

The Coalition for Gun Control, a Canadian group, said the country has endured “a long wait” for gun control reforms like the one passed by Trudeau’s cabinet without going through the legislature. Last month’s massacre was the deadliest shooting in the country since 1989, when a gunman killed 14 women and himself in Montreal. 

“This is a milestone for Canada and an important step forward. We are counting on all parliamentarians to support a mandatory buy back program and to keep this ban permanent,” coalition president Wendy Cukier said in a statement.  

In the U.S.—where 70 to 90% of the guns used in Canadian shootings come from—gun control advocates applauded Trudeau’s decisive action and condemned the U.S. government, particularly the Republican Party, for standing in the way of a similar ban. 

“Canada banned assault weapons [less than] two weeks after the Nova Scotia mass shooting,” tweeted the Newtown Action Alliance. “It’s been more than seven years since the Sandy Hook shooting tragedy when 26 children and educators were massacred with an AR-15 and high capacity magazine.”

In addition to the Sandy Hook shooting, Americans in recent years have watched lawmakers refuse to pass meaningful legislation after 58 people were killed at a concert in Las Vegas in 2017; 49 were killed at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida in 2016; 17 were killed at a high school in Parkland, Florida in 2018; and as tens of thousands of people are killed by firearms each year. 

“Republicans in the U.S. Congress—what are you waiting for?” tweeted Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter was killed in the Parkland shooting.

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On May Day, Pro-Worker Groups Demand Protections for Frontline Whistleblowers Who Expose Corporate Disregard for Labor Safety

May 01, 2020 by Common Dreams

“The current crisis has elevated workplace whistleblowing and collective action to a matter of national health.”

by Andrea Germanos, staff writer

 3 Comments

A cashier stands behind a partial protective plastic screen and wears a mask and gloves at the Presidente Supermarket on April 13, 2020 in Miami.

A cashier stands behind a partial protective plastic screen and wears a mask and gloves at the Presidente Supermarket on April 13, 2020 in Miami. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

As workers marked May Day with sickouts and walkouts across the U.S. on Friday, a new statement from over 50 advocacy groups said the coronavirus crisis has amplified the need to protect frontline workers who blow the whistle on dangerous conditions.

“Our public health and societal well-being require that workers have the power to speak up in these moments, to call attention to employer practices that create unsafe working conditions made more dangerous by the current crisis, and to refuse to work in deadly worksites,” Rebecca Dixon, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, said in a statement.

The joint statement from the organizations—including Color of Change, Public Citizen, Fight for the Future, and United We Dream—says that “urgent expansion and improved enforcement of legal protections” for such workers—rather than the “invasive surveillance technologies to penalize and monitor lower-wage workers” that some corporations have adopted—can help efforts to slow the spread of Covid-19.

In their statement, entitled “Silencing of Whistleblowers in the Workplace Is a Threat to Public Health,” the groups point to recent and “alarming” actions by online commerce giant Amazon.

Over the last few weeks, Amazon fired at least six workers who had spoken out about unsafe working conditions in warehouses. In addition to these firings, other workers at Amazon have reported receiving arbitrary work-related warnings as a result of speaking out or participating in walkouts, and they fear that they are being set-up for termination. Given that Amazon is the second largest private employer in the United States and is significantly expanding its workforce during the crisis, this apparent pattern of retaliation is alarming. 

It’s not only Amazon workers at greater risk amid the pandemic, with others including grocery workers and meatpacking plant workers putting themselves in harms’ way. And the risk, the groups added, “disproportionately falls on communities of color, who are more likely to hold these jobs and more vulnerable to the virus, as a result of the systemic racism that undermines health in these communities.”

The new statement also outlines their demand for “common sense measures in line with CDC guidance.” Such measures include:

implementation of six feet of distance between all individuals in the facility, personal protective equipment for all, time for handwashing, temporarily closing and cleaning exposed facilities to allow for quarantine, independent and transparent reporting, and paid leave policies to help exposed and sick workers to stay home.

“The current crisis has elevated workplace whistleblowing and collective action to a matter of national health and additional protection and enforcement measures are urgently necessary,” the groups added.

According to Evan Greer, deputy director of digital rights group Fight for the Future, such protections are urgently needed to protect those on the frontline and curb the abuse of some employers.

“It’s essential we put policies in place to ensure all frontline workers are protected and any violations of these protections trigger an automatic investigation,” Greer said. “It’s the only way we’ll stop companies, like Amazon, from retaliating against whistleblowers and using surveillance to clamp down on workers self-organizing.”

“Anything less is a threat to the safety of workers and the public at large,” she added.

The call for strengthened whistleblower protections was released as workers at large companies including Amazon, Walmart, Target, and FedEx take part in May Day actions including coordinated work stoppages.

“The corporations and the government are willing to sacrifice tens of thousands of us,” Kali Akuno, co-founder and co-director of Cooperation Jackson, told Democracy Now! on Friday.

“We have to put people before profits,” he said.

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Biden Must Do Better, Say Women’s Groups as Former Vice President Denies Sexual Assault Allegation

May 01, 2020 by Common Dreams

“He spoke for the first time about the allegations by Tara Reade, and issued yet another blanket denial of the assault, without any reflections on how women, and survivors of all genders, are treated in our society.”

by Jake Johnson, staff writer

 107 Comments

Former Vice President Joe Biden appears on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on May 1, 2020. (Photo: MSNBC/Screengrab)

In both a written statement and an appearance on MSNBC Friday morning, former Vice President Joe Biden denied that he sexually assaulted former Senate aide Tara Reade in 1993, the first time the presumptive Democratic nominee has personally addressed the allegation in public.

“No, it is not true,” Biden said on MSNBC. “I’m saying unequivocally it never, never happened. And it didn’t. It never happened… The claims are false.”

Biden’s denial came as he faced growing pressure to address Reade’s allegation that he cornered her in the halls of the U.S. Capitol building and penetrated her with his fingers, a claim that was corroborated by a former neighbor of Reade’s in an interview with Business Insider earlier this week.

In a written statement posted to Medium, Biden called on the Secretary of the Senate to request that the National Archives identify and “make available to the press” any complaint filed by Reade.

Reade said she submitted a complaint about Biden to a congressional human resources office.

“There is only one place a complaint of this kind could be—the National Archives,” Biden said. “If there was ever any such complaint, the record will be there.”

In reaction to Biden’s denial, the women’s group Time’s Up Now, which advocates on behalf of sexual assault victims, said the former vice president’s comments should be seen as a sign of progress but by “no means is the conversation about sexual assault and power in America over.”

“We have reached a pivotal moment in our nation when candidates for president are accused of sexual assault,” said Tina Tchen, the group’s president and CEO, in a statement. “Today, Vice President Joe Biden sat down and directly addressed the allegation against him with the seriousness it deserves, something that the current president has never done.”

“No longer can claims like this go ignored,” added Tchen. “Biden needed to address Tara Reade’s allegation today. We call for complete transparency into this claim and the multiple claims against President Donald Trump. As we go forward, American voters are entitled to a full understanding of all allegations of this nature. Women should be heard, treated respectfully, and have their allegations taken seriously.”

Ana Maria Archila, co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy, said that the #MeToo movement’s demand for Biden to address the accusation and demonstrate leadership on the crucial issue of sexual assault and violence against women “is not in contradiction with our commitment to defeat Trump. It is, in fact, central to that effort.”

According to Archila, “Those who are accused of perpetuating or enabling violence have a role to play in the effort to transform our society. They can model how to receive with empathy and circumspection the stories of individuals or communities who speak about the harm they have endured. They can model how to tease out from the story of one person the elements of our collective experience, and they can model willingness to take responsibility.”

“This morning he spoke for the first time about the allegations by Tara Reade, and issued yet another blanket denial of the assault, without any reflections on how women, and survivors of all genders, are treated in our society,” she said. “As someone seeking to govern the country, he has a responsibility to model how to hold the pain of survivors and speak about the reality of our collective experience, even as he denies the allegations against him. That is the role of a leader.”

But while the accusations against Biden must be fully investigated, Archila said that with Trump in the White House, “Our country is at a moment of grave danger.”

“We cannot afford to have four more years of Trump,” she added, “and we will do everything necessary to defeat him in November.”

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As Millions Stripped of Health Coverage Amid Covid-19, House Dems Unveil Bill for Emergency Expansion of Medicare and Medicaid

May 01, 2020 by Common Dreams

“Our nation’s for-profit, employment-based healthcare system did not make sense before Covid-19 struck, and it is proving dangerous and deadly during the crisis.”

by Jessica Corbett, staff writer

 41 Comments

Health workers greet people as they arrive in cars at a mobile Covid-19 testing site at the Westside Community Center in the Goldsboro neighborhood of Sanford, Florida on April 23, 2020.

Health workers greet people as they arrive in cars at a mobile Covid-19 testing site at the Westside Community Center in the Goldsboro neighborhood of Sanford, Florida on April 23, 2020. (Photo: Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Just a day after the U.S. Labor Department announced that more than 30 million people have applied for unemployment benefits since mid-March, over 30 House Democrats came together to introduce legislation that would guarantee healthcare coverage to all Americans during the coronavirus pandemic.

In a statement announcing the Medicare Crisis Program Act, lead sponsors Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.) slammed the U.S. healthcare system and pointed out that an estimated 35 million people could end up uninsured due to the public health crisis.

“Our nation’s for-profit, employment-based healthcare system did not make sense before Covid-19 struck, and it is proving dangerous and deadly during the crisis,” declared Jayapal, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and lead House sponsor another coronavirus-related healthcare bill unveiled with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in April.

“Millions of Americans are losing their job and their health insurance at precisely the moment when we need everyone to be able to access care and treatment for illness,” said Jayapal. “The Medicare Crisis Program Act would guarantee healthcare for millions of people struggling with the health and economic realities of the Covid-19 pandemic and protect Americans from outrageous out-of-pocket costs.”

Jayapal and Kennedy’s new bill would “dramatically expand” Medicare and Medicaid eligibility, cap out-of-pocket costs for Medicare enrollees, and require all public and private health insurers to fully cover care related to Covid-19—including for patients who display symptoms but test negative for the disease. Further, the legislation would bar healthcare providers from billing uninsured patients for Covid-19 care.

“A healthcare system more concerned with profits than patients was never equipped to confront a pandemic like Covid-19,” said Kennedy. “Because of our nation’s stubborn failure to guarantee universal healthcare, millions of people are now not only out of a job, but out of health care coverage as coronavirus ravages their communities.”

“With the Medicare Crisis Program Act,” he said, “we can begin to fill in the gaps of a fundamentally flawed healthcare system during this pandemic and chart a path towards Medicare For All when it ends.”

The bill is backed by a number of high-profile progressives in the House, including all four members of the Squad and Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.). More than 60 local and national groups—such as Business for Medicare for All, Indivisible, Our Revolution, People’s Action, and Social Security Works—have also endorsed the bill.

Robert Weissman, president of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, issued a lengthy statement in support of the legislation. He emphasized how Americans losing their jobs—and thus their employment-based health insurance—because of a pandemic serves as a harsh indictment of the country’s current system and noted that even millions of Americans with insurance face cost-sharing demands for Covid-19 care.

“We would have none of these problems if we had a Medicare for All system, but for right now, we need an immediate solution. The Medicare Crisis Program Act is that solution.”
—Robert Weissman, Public Citizen

“We would have none of these problems if we had a Medicare for All system, but for right now, we need an immediate solution. The Medicare Crisis Program Act is that solution,” he said. “At the very least, everybody must be guaranteed healthcare amid a national health emergency, without fear of facing bankruptcy or unmanageable bills.”

Drs. Justin Lowenthal and Meenakshi Bewtra, co-chairs of the Covid-19 response taskforce and members of the national board of directors of Doctors for America, said in a joint statement welcoming the legislation Friday that they “know firsthand that Covid-19 has not merely caused—but rather, exposed—the deep and critical problems that our patients face in affordability, equity, and accessibility of their healthcare.”

“We applaud this proposal for ensuring coverage, affordability, and access to healthcare for all of our patients during the Covid crisis, while illustrating one of several viable approaches for moving toward universal healthcare in the future,” the doctors said. “This crisis shows us that, as a nation, we are all in this together: We should all have access to [personal protective equipment] when caring for and serving others, and we should all have insurance coverage that does not disappear when you need it nor depend on your employment status during a pandemic.”

Dr. Adam Gaffney, president of Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP), another national network of doctors, also welcomed the new proposal—along with the Health Care Emergency Guarantee Act previously introduced by Jayapal and Sanders—in a statement Friday.

“To forestall medical and economic catastrophe, emergency action to cover the uninsured and underinsured through the federal Medicare program is needed now,” said Gaffney, also a pulmonary and critical care physician at the Cambridge Health Alliance in Massachusetts. “Yet only single-payer reform will secure healthcare for all Americans in the years ahead.”

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Romance Is the New Realism: Eugene Debs and the Age of Corona

May 01, 2020 by Common Dreams

In this pandemic-era, it has become increasingly clear that we are only as healthy as the least insured—hence the poorest—in our society. 

by Danny Sjursen

 8 Comments

Eugene Debs delivering a speech in Chicago in 1912. "I can see the dawn of the better day for humanity," the famous socialist leader once said. "The people are awakening. In due time they will and must come to their own." (Photo: Wikipedia)

Eugene Debs delivering a speech in Chicago in 1912. “I can see the dawn of the better day for humanity,” the famous socialist leader once said. “The people are awakening. In due time they will and must come to their own.” (Photo: Wikipedia)

I was first exposed to Eugene Victor Debs through Kurt Vonnegut novels. That sci-fi social critic was a lifelong fan and referenced Debs in several of his books. Since then, mine has been a whirlwind historical love affair. The passion and eloquence of this former worker turned labor leader, and eventual five-time Socialist candidate for president is undeniable. His work and example have spoken to me in different ways at various points in my life—but never before has Debs seemed more relevant. 

“While there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

His lifelong fight for social justice, and an end to war, did not come without costs. It rarely does. In 1918, Debs was arrested under the Sedition Act—a recent statute that criminalized constitutionally-protected speech—after he delivered peaceful oratory opposed to America’s entry into World War I. Later, just after he’d been sentenced to a decade in prison, Debs proclaimed before a Cleveland federal court that:

Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

Sounds a bit like something Christ might reputedly have said in the early Synoptic Gospels, no? Of course, Debs has always been a secular saint, of sorts, in progressive left and nascent antiwar circles. Still, my love for Debs—and personal penchant for plastering this particular quote on t-shirts and social media—has struck many critics as naive. That is, until now.

Corona’s empathy-gift amidst the mass of lonely death is that it demonstrates—in a rather concrete sense—that none are better than the “meanest” (or “sickest”) among us. Even the prosperous cannot forever hide, or wall themselves off, from the inequities of the global system. After all, it is often forgotten that Debs, and the socialists of his day, had a distinctly international vision that transcended the illusory boundaries, and “imagined communities,” crafted by the powerful.

In this pandemic-era, it has become increasingly clear, per another Debs-enthusiastBernie Sanders, that we are only as healthy as the least insured—hence the poorest—in our society.  The same may be said of those recently released from behind (domestic) bars or the prison-like boundaries of America’s cruel worldwide sanctions-stranglehold regime. For ours is a technologically mobile world in which the virus respects no borders and “speaks” Mandarin just as well as Italian or English.America’s—and the world’s—corona response will be put to this “Debs-test,” and heaven forbid it be found wanting. A Lower Class

The COVID-19 outbreak has exposed the liability of carrying a permanent domestic underclass—particularly given the peculiar, ineffectiveness of America’s employer-based healthcare system. These under- or un-insured folks also tend to serve the food, pump the gas, and pack the boxes for online delivery that the more privileged in society have come to expect with immediacy. Workers are, so to speak, no longer invisible. The poor can infect and spread disease just as (perhaps more) rapidly as the rich.

What’s more, corona has laid bare the immense leverage of the working class—especially those in the service industry—over the bourgeois and wealthy stratums in society. Moving forward, the potential power of a general service strike could be profound. Sure, Jeff Bezos and his—or others’—bureaucratic “company men” can immediately fire Christian Smalls, a strike leader at a Staten Island Amazon warehouse, but his indecently superfluous billions can’t counter the moral and rational weight of the striker’s position. One wonders if that genie can ever be stuffed back into what was always a rather narrow nozzle of the proverbial bottle.

Can the U.S. afford to continually don the blindfold, bow to the Pentagon fiction that endless war has any other real enemy than the fear of falling military-industrial-complex profits, and ignore the human costs of unnecessary American conflicts of choice?

So too for the foreign indigent in countries and societies utterly unprepared for pandemic. In Africa, for example—where 85 percent of the population still survives on less than $5.50 a day—many national governments are turning to overt civil liberties squelching because, in addition to being power-opportunists, they know implicitly that they are unprepared for even a modest outbreak. Will the obscene global wealth distribution—whereby the richest 10 percent possess 85 percent of the total, and the bottom half claim barely one percent—seem sustainable if and when shattered societies produce refugees on a scale that puts those from the “Arab Winter” to shame?

Furthermore, war, of course, has shown its true colors as history’s great epidemic exacerbation device. Can the U.S. afford to continually don the blindfold, bow to the Pentagon fiction that endless war has any other real enemy than the fear of falling military-industrial-complex profits, and ignore the human costs of unnecessary American conflicts of choice? After all, in this moment—though one must question the long-term sincerity—even the very “meanest” among the world’s states, the theocratic Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, has called a corona-induced ceasefire to its American-complicit terror war on Yemen. There has never been a better—or more imperative—time for the U.S. to deescalate its own countless far-flung wars, scale-down its national security posture, and prioritize diplomacy and humanitarianism.A Criminal Element

All too often America is—per its long-standing claims—exceptional, only in all the wrong ways. No other country wages as many aggressive overseas wars, or imprisons quite so much of its own population, as the USA. Seen in this decidedly inconvenient light, Uncle Sam is as criminal as any other nation. The COVID-moment, however, is a time for rare self-awareness, an historical knowledge of national self. As South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission illustrated, only an honest accounting of past crimes opens a clear path to future redemption.

Victim and victimizer become inextricably linked in the folly of foreign war and domestic repression. To channel that Nazarene stoic again, the U.S. must place its own past and present house in order before it “casts stones” of dispersion at even the most flawed “enemy” states. Allow the great corona-equalizer to establish and hold our government to account through a sort of humanitarian litmus test, and one finds the U.S. doesn’t stack up so well against Cuba, for example.

Nor, according to the United Nations, and just about every human rights or medical organization, does Washington’s “economic warfare” sanctions regime—which is quite literally killing innocents—live up to America’s promise. Finally, lest we forget that unnecessary, aggressive wars of choice—which no nation today wages with the alacrity and consistency of the United States—are, according to the postwar Nuremberg Principles (which Washington had a decisive hand in molding), the supreme “crime against peace.”Our Souls in Prison Even with America’s uniquely draconian-sentences, inmates usually return to society, bringing with them the scars of institutional violence, mental health deterioration, the scarlet letter of employment barriers, and now, potentially, the coronavirus. Prisoners eventually come home. Even with America’s uniquely draconian-sentences, inmates usually return to society, bringing with them the scars of institutional violence, mental health deterioration, the scarlet letter of employment barriers, and now, potentially, the coronavirus. It can be distinctly difficult to socially-distance while incarcerated, and so terrifying is the likelihood of an outbreak in these prison petrie-dishes that many inmates nation and worldwide are literally going “over-the-walls” because it is a living nightmare—or “death sentence”—inside. What can be said about a nation that embarks on a self-proclaimed “Freedom Agenda” abroad whilst simultaneously locking up a higher proportion of its population at home than any other country in the world—including such “enemies” as Russia, China, and Cuba? The hypocrisy is so stark it provokes pure bewilderment. That the U.S. incarcerates at such insane rates leaves the rational man or woman with the stark realization that either there’s a uniquely American predisposition to crime, or, far more likely, that the nation’s criminal justice system largely invents “criminals” and inherently lacks “justice.” Nor does the United States of Incarceration end at the ocean’s edge. The prison-industrial-complex is a two-way street. Mass incarceration is the “empire come home,” and vice versa. The Islamic State was largely conceived in America’s Iraqi prison farm, and U.S. detainee abuse in Saddam Hussein’s old jails helped make “terrorists” out of countless Arabs and Muslims from West Africa to Central Asia. So, in these pandemic times, let us finally admit that Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib are Riker’s Island, and the police murder of Eric Garner is the military murder of Diluwar of Yakubi at Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan. Finally, as Americans ponder the implications of coronavirus’s spread within their jails, and in the carceral state that is the world under U.S. military hegemony, it’s long past time to consider—per Dostoyevsky—exactly what “the degree of civilization in” American society “can be judged” to be after “entering its prisons.” A “Kinship with All Living Beings”

Eugene Debs lived out, quite literally, the second and third stanzas of his oft-quoted courtroom declaration.  Official branded a “criminal element,” for a time he was “not free.”  He’d ultimately serve three years of his ten year sentence in Illinois, West Virginia, and Atlanta’s Federal Penitentiary. Nevertheless, in 1920, with a certain ironic flair unique to the man, Debs ran, again—this time from the inside of a cell—on the Socialist ticket for president of the country that jailed him. His campaign buttons sported a photo of a weathered Debs clothed in prison garb in front of his ubiquitous cell bars. The caption read: “For President, Convict No. 9653.”

So beloved was this “caged bird’s” song, that he still received over 900,000 votes—during the height of the First Red Scare—when it was genuinely dangerous to support such “radical” figures. It was the highest vote tally in U.S. history for a Socialist Party presidential candidate.

Yet today, as a deadly pandemic—that respects neither class nor imaginary national boundaries—rages and exposes the systemic rot of America’s domestic structures, and puts the lie to the absurd fiction that far-flung forever war ensures homeland security, my guess is a new Eugene Debs would garner millions more votes. Bernie Sanders may have disappointed his movement—in the interest of not ending up like Ralph Nader—by endorsing the former “senator from MBNA,” Joe Biden, and left Americans with the paltry choice between a billionaire race-baiting demagogue and a corporate stooge.

Still, call me crazy, but precisely a century after he had the temerity to run from prison, this moment—and the future—may belong to Eugene Debs.

Danny Sjursen

Major Danny Sjursen is a U.S. Army strategist and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has written a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge.  He lives with his wife and four sons near Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

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To Keep the Economy Afloat, the Fed Turns to North Dakota

The Federal Reserve building in Washington D.C. on April 25, 2020.PHOTO BY CAROLINE BREHMAN/CQ-ROLL CALL, INC/GETTY IMAGES

The nation’s only state-owned bank serves as a model for how the U.S. is fighting the economic damage of the coronavirus pandemic.


BY OSCAR PERRY ABELLO  APR 29, 2020 (yesmagazine.org)

Bankers generally don’t like surprises. But as CEO at the Bank of North Dakota, the only state-owned bank in the country, Eric Hardmeyer was pleasantly surprised to see the Federal Reserve taking a page out of his institution’s playbook to help deal with the unprecedented economic disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The Fed seems to be thinking of everything we were thinking about two or three weeks ago,” Hardmeyer said.

To help small business stay afloat through the pandemic, banks and credit unions have been already tasked with putting out more federally backed loans to small businesses in a few weeks than they typically do in a year. The Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program was part of Congress’ bailout bill provided $349 billion in forgivable loans to small businesses.

That alone is about 14 times what the agency typically guarantees a year. But that was far from enough; the loan program was exhausted within two weeks after the SBA started accepting loan applications. The most recent relief bill authorized an added $310 billion for the program, which again could be used up in less than two weeks, because more lenders have been signing up to make the loans.

Add to all that, on April 9, the Federal Reserve announced it would back $600 billion in loans to midsize and potentially smaller businesses through its new Main Street Lending Program. 

But every lender has an upper limit on the amount of new loans it can add to its balance sheet in a short period of time before running out of cash on hand or tripping the wires with banking regulators. Ramping up lending quickly during an emergency is especially challenging for community banks and credit unions that handle most small businesses’ needs. And it would be impossible for those small lenders to do so at a sufficient scale to counteract a massive, rapid economic shutdown like this.

To help small business stay afloat through the pandemic, banks and credit unions have been already tasked with putting out more federally backed loans to small businesses.

To overcome those balance-sheet constraints, the Main Street Lending Program is expected to work through what’s known as loan participations. Eligible businesses apply for the Main Street loans through private banks or credit unions, and the Federal Reserve comes in behind the scenes to supply 95% of the borrowed amount.

That means local banks and credit unions can use their expertise and familiarity with borrowers and local market conditions to make loans under the terms of the program, but they only have to hold 5% of the value of those loans on their balance sheets. It frees up the local lenders to make more loans by reducing the risk associated with a large volume of new loans. Meanwhile, the borrower only ever deals with the bank or credit union that originates their loan.

To the rest of the country, a public entity doing loan participations will seem totally out of left field. But in North Dakota, they are an everyday occurrence. Other than student loans, the Bank of North Dakota rarely makes its own loans directly. Instead, the vast majority of the state-owned bank’s lending happens through loan participations with local banks and credit unions in North Dakota. The Bank of North Dakota had $4.5 billion in active loans in its portfolio as of the end of 2019. That included 1,156 active small business loans for $1 million or less, including 352 for less than $100,000.

“These are absolutely unusual times, so I’m sure that [at the Fed] they’re breaking up the old paradigms and saying we’ve got to think differently now,” Hardmeyer said.

No one at the Fed called the Bank of North Dakota to talk about doing loan participations as a public institution, Hardmeyer said.

The key with any loan participation is making sure the originator has some incentives to carefully evaluate borrowers. Keeping 5% of the value of a loan on a private lender’s balance sheet isn’t a huge risk, but it could be enough that lenders will look through each loan application with appropriate due diligence, but not too slowly, given the urgency of the situation.

These are absolutely unusual times, so I’m sure that [at the Fed] they’re breaking up the old paradigms.

The typical way in which public entities support private lending is by guaranteeing loans. That’s the case with the Paycheck Protection Program, whose loans are 100% guaranteed by the Small Business Administration. With a few exceptions, however, those loans are not available to businesses with more than 500 employees. The Fed also created a new program to support Paycheck Protection Program lenders by offering them a dollar in near-zero interest loans for every dollar in Paycheck Protection Program loans on their balance sheet—it helps make sure those lenders have cash on hand to make more loans, but it still means they have to keep those loans on their balance sheet.

The Bank of North Dakota is buying Paycheck Protection Program loans from lenders in that state, supporting that segment of businesses, but the state-owned bank also wanted to bridge what it saw as a gap in coverage. “We thought we had an opportunity here to carve out a niche that wasn’t being met, and all of a sudden the Fed comes out and says we gotta start dealing with these companies over 500 employees,” Hardmeyer said. “We were going to move in if they didn’t, so we’ll see how that all plays out now.”

Final details and documentation still need to be worked out, but businesses with up to 10,000 employees will soon be able to apply for a Main Street Loan through any bank or credit union that is willing to make them. Right now, the application deadline is Sept. 30, but the program could be extended beyond that date if the Federal Reserve decides it’s necessary. Borrowers won’t have to make any payments for at least one year after receiving their loan, and they’ll have four years to pay back the loan.

The Main Street loan terms also contain stipulations meant to put limits on executive compensation, ensure borrowers use the loan proceeds to retain employees, and prevent them from buying back their own stock or pay off other debts.

That’s also something the Bank of North Dakota has some experience with. Its Partnerships in Assisting Community Expansion program provides subsidized loans for businesses through private lenders, with loan participation from the state-owned bank. Each PACE loan comes with predetermined job creation goals and annual reporting requirements. Hardmeyer says there have been occasions when goals weren’t met, and subsidies had to be at least partially clawed back.

“With accountability measures, as long as you know on the front end what those are and how those are enforced, it’s always easier to do that on the front end rather than come in later and say, ‘by the way, you guys didn’t look at the fine print,’” Hardmeyer says.

The Main Street Lending program initially appears geared toward businesses at the larger end of the eligibility spectrum, though the Fed could change the terms of the program with approval from the Treasury Department. Right now, the minimum Main Street loan size is $1 million, and according to the loan terms, to qualify for a loan of that amount, a business would already need to be making around $300,000 in (pre-pandemic) annual profits before taxes.

The Federal Reserve Board of Governors has said, as part of supporting the economy, it wanted to target support specifically to businesses too large for the Paycheck Protection Program but not large enough to access corporate bond markets or stock markets.

Some think there is definitely broader need for something like the Main Street lending program to reach smaller businesses.

“The new [Main Street] facility from the Fed missed the mark in terms of where are most of the small businesses that were hit in the first wave—restaurants, retailers,” said Jeannine Jacokes, executive director at Partners for the Common Good, a community development financial institution.

Private lenders commonly participate in loans with each other. Partners for the Common Good participates in loans alongside banks, credit unions, and other lenders across the country. The organization now has 80 active loan participations in its portfolio, financing projects for affordable housing, federally qualified health centers, youth centers, or other facilities serving low-income communities. The average amount of borrowed capital per loan supplied by Partners for the Common Good is about $534,000.

Partners for the Common Good also runs the Community Development Bankers Association, a trade association with around 80 members. Through the association, Jacokes says, she continues to talk with the Federal Reserve to see if they could tweak the Main Street Lending Program, or create another facility, to meet the needs of smaller businesses who will need more help than the Paycheck Protection Program or other existing programs can provide.

The Federal Reserve has not at this point ruled out the possibility of lowering or eliminating the Main Street Lending program minimum later, if the need persists beyond the Paycheck Protection Program. Banks are naturally inclined to make larger loans anyway, because it costs a bank the same amount of time and effort to make a $1 million loan as it does to make a $100,000 loan—so the Main Street Lending Program’s minimum is more about targeting resources to firms that might not otherwise be getting support.

If anyone is concerned that small business lending is riskier and could potentially be a money loser for the Fed, consider that the Bank of North Dakota’s annual reports show net positive income for every year going back to 1966, and 2019 was the 16th straight year it has set a new record for net income.

The Small Business Administration also has a good track record. From 2010 to present, the agency’s standard loan program guaranteed 226,308 loans with an average size of $778,000, and just 2% of those loans defaulted. Meanwhile, the agency’s small loan express program guaranteed 269,492 loans at an average loan size of $79,000, and the default rate was just 3%.

That doesn’t mean there’s no risk in making loans to small businesses in the middle of a pandemic, but that’s a risk affecting businesses of all sizes, not just small businesses.

“Some businesses no doubt are going to fail because of this pandemic,” Hardmeyer said. “We don’t know how long this is going to be. Travel is going to be curtailed, big conventions curtailed for months, people not gathering in large groups, it’s going to impact businesses in so many ways, it’s hard to really tell at this point. But it’s going to be a permanent shift to a new normal.”

This story was co-published with Next City, a nonprofit organization with a mission to inspire social, economic and environmental change in cities through journalism and events around the world.


OSCAR PERRY ABELLO is a NYC-based journalist covering community development and economic justice.

Joe Biden Needs an Intervention: An Open Letter to DNC Chair Tom Perez

April 30, 2020 by Common Dreams

Right now, Biden is idling in the cockpit of a political aircraft with one wing.

by Norman Solomon

 48 Comments

Then US Vice President Joe Biden (L) smiles with former labor secretary Tom Perez, currently the chair of Democratic National Committee, as he arrives to address the Apprenticeship Summit at the White House in Washington, DC, on September 8, 2015. (Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images)

Then US Vice President Joe Biden (L) smiles with former labor secretary Tom Perez, currently the chair of Democratic National Committee, as he arrives to address the Apprenticeship Summit at the White House in Washington, DC, on September 8, 2015. (Photo: Nicholas Kamm / AFP via Getty Images)

Whatever our political differences, vast numbers of Democrats and others agree that it’s imperative to defeat Donald Trump. But with scarcely five months to go before the voting starts, Joe Biden is not helping to assemble a broad tactical alliance. Instead, he’s ignoring the wisdom that Jesse Jackson offered at the Democratic National Convention in 1988: “It takes two wings to fly.”

Right now, Biden is idling in the cockpit of a political aircraft with one wing.

As chair of the Democratic National Committee at a time when the party’s presumptive nominee for president seems likely to crash and burn, you should be openly working to fix the problem rather than merely proclaiming that Biden is a great candidate.

Indications are profuse that Biden is proceeding with a business-as-usual campaign while elevating establishment figures. His rhetorical nods toward Bernie Sanders supporters have been notably superficial, while the nitty-gritty of policy is being placed in corporate hands.

On April 27, The Nation summed up one of the latest ominous signs: “Larry Summers is a dead albatross around Biden’s neck. Why should we believe Biden’s promises of progressive reforms, when he seeks out the advice of this plutocrat-loving economist?”

I have often heard you talk about the “north star” of party principles. Surely that must involve democracy. Yet the cancellation of the New York presidential primary is a flagrant Machiavellian maneuver by that state’s Democratic Party leadership.

“This means that our campaign will receive no delegates from New York, weakening our ability to fight for a progressive platform and progressive rules at the Democratic convention,” the Sanders campaign pointed out in a statement on April 29. “It also means our voters are less likely to turn out, which will hurt progressive New York candidates who are still facing primaries.” Using the pandemic as an excuse for the cancellation was clearly bogus, since the entire New York election on June 23 could be conducted by mail.

The corrosive ill will created by such machinations—heightening progressives’ distrust of the Democratic Party—will weaken support for the Biden general-election campaign across the country. As the Sanders campaign put it, what Democratic Party power brokers did in New York “is an outrage, an assault on democracy.”

But where is your voice to challenge this “assault on democracy”? The corporate cats seem to have your tongue. With silence, you’re an enabler of this travesty. You should firmly declare that New York will be stripped of all its national-convention delegates unless this decision is reversed and the state’s presidential primary is reinstated.

A related situation looms in California and some other states, threatening to deny Sanders his statewide allocation of delegates beyond congressional districts. The threat involves undemocratically depriving Sanders of delegates that he—and millions of people who voted for him—are entitled to. But again, your voice is silent.

You might think it’s all well and good for you to claim a “hands off” approach of deferring to decisions by state party leaders. But in mid-March you didn’t hesitate to flatly proclaim that Illinois, under a Democratic governor, should go ahead with an in-person presidential primary election, thereby aiding Biden’s momentum to widen his delegate lead over Sanders. To the detriment of public health, you publicly and emphatically sought to influence a state decision about a Democratic primary.

But now, your enabling silence is conspicuous as hundreds of duly elected Sanders delegates are in jeopardy nationwide.

As in New York, the bogus pretext in various states is that Sanders is no longer a candidate—even though, when he announced the suspension of his campaign three weeks ago, the senator explicitly stated that “I will stay on the ballot in all remaining states and continue to gather delegates.” And, he added, “we must continue working to assemble as many delegates as possible at the Democratic convention, where we will be able to exert significant influence over the party platform and other functions.”

The committees and delegates of the national convention will make key decisions on crucial platform issues, such as healthcare as a human right, student debt, immigration reform, institutional racism, the climate emergency, economic justice and much more. Also on the line are major choices about whether the party will democratize or slam the door on internal reforms.

In a mass email that the DNC sent out last weekend, you declared with ample self-congratulation: “Today, the DNC looks massively different than it did in the wake of the 2016 election. That’s a good thing. In early 2017, we were rudderless. . . . [I]t was obvious we had to rebuild our party from the ground up.” You wrote of “rebuilding trust with Democrats across the country”—and asserted “that is exactly what our new leadership did.”

But whatever trust has been rebuilt over the last three years is now being damaged by your refusal, as DNC chair, to speak up for party democracy in the states where it is now under threat.

Biden is a weak candidate in grave danger of losing a decisive number of progressive votes in the fall. Consider the latest polling data that has just appeared under this USA Today headline: “Nearly 1 in 4 Sanders Supporters Not on Board Yet with Voting for Biden.”

That’s what happens when a presidential campaign is all set to fly with one wing.

Norman Solomon

Norman Solomon is co-founder and national coordinator of RootsAction.org. His books include War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death and Made Love, Got War: Close Encounters with America’s Warfare State.” He is the founder and executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy.

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