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The real state of the union

January 23, 2004 | Pages 6 and 7

WHY DON'T they just dress up George W. Bush in an astronaut's suit, let him take over the controls of a rocket to the moon, and be done with it? The Commander-in-Thief's handlers came up with a string of photo ops and public relations stunts to grab headlines in the run-up to this year's State of the Union address.

Topping the list was Bush's proposal for new space missions to the moon--as a springboard for sending astronauts to Mars and beyond. It was hard to decide what was more infuriating: The administration's smirking cynicism in hyping a new space program to shift attention away from problems like the crisis facing the U.S. occupation of Iraq--or the multibillion-dollar price tag for this stunt that is sure to be used as an excuse for even deeper cuts in desperately needed social programs.

The rest of Bush's speech was similarly aimed at defending his right-wing agenda--from tax cuts giveaways to the rich, to insulting marriage "training programs" for the poor--while posing as a "compassionate conservative" with rhetoric aimed at winning votes in Election 2004. What a crock!

In the week before the speech, Socialist Worker talked to activists, writers and experts on some of the issues most important to working people--and asked them about the real "state of the union."

SYLVIA ALLEGRETTO is a labor economist with the Washington, D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute.

ANTHONY ARNOVE is the editor of the South End Press book Iraq Under Siege and a member of the editorial board of the International Socialist Review.

DAVID KOFF was communication director for last year's Immigrant Workers Freedom Rides, a union-initiated campaign that took busloads of activists across the U.S. to spread the message of legalization and workers' rights.

JESSIE MULDOON is a special education teacher in Oakland, Calif., and a site representative for the Oakland Education Association.

LOU PLUMMER is a veteran of the North Carolina National Guard, an antiwar activist and a member of Military Families Speak Out. His son Drew is in the Navy and is stationed in the Persian Gulf.

SHARON SMITH is a columnist for Socialist Worker and coauthor of Women's Liberation and Socialism.

QUENTIN YOUNG has been a doctor for more than half a century and is the co-founder and volunteer national coordinator of Physicians for a National Health Care Program.

Anthony Arnove:
The "war on terror"

GEORGE BUSH says that the world is safer today because Saddam Hussein and the former Taliban regime in Afghanistan are gone. But the Bush administration has pursued a series of actions that make the world more, not less, dangerous. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the U.S. invasion of Iraq "has swollen the ranks of al-Qaeda and galvanized the Islamic militant group's will," Reuters reports.

What's more, one thing that you'll never hear from Bush is that Saddam Hussein, right up until Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, was a valued ally of the U.S. Some of the Bush administration's top officials--like Donald Rumsfeld, for example--were in charge of courting the Iraqi regime during the 1980s, when it was at war with Iran.

If Iraq ever did have weapons of mass destruction, it's because they were provided by the U.S. and other Western governments. Meanwhile, every day, Bush brings the world closer to a nuclear conflict. This fall, Bush announced that the government would develop new "low-yield" weapons and resume underground nuclear tests, undermining a 1993 ban on research and development of such weapons.

So-called mini-nukes have yields of up to two megatons. Their real purpose is as a wedge to overcome public horror at the idea of using nuclear weapons. "The idea that a nuclear weapon can be militarily effective while avoiding or reducing the nasty side effects of prompt ionizing radiation, blast and fallout is as deceptive as Edward Teller's promise in the 1950s that weapons designers would produce 'clean' hydrogen bombs," explains Stephen Schwartz of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Bob Schaeffer, of the Anti-Nuclear Alliance, calls the development of such weapons "dangerous and provocative...It's like a drunk preaching temperance to everyone else at the bar, while ordering another round." Washington's pursuit of a missile defense system and its wrecking of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty are driving other countries to pursue a nuclear deterrent to U.S. aggression.

"I would not be surprised if we see more countries acquire nuclear weapons," Mohamed ElBaradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said recently. Bush's absurd pretexts for invading Iraq have given a green light to other countries--such as Israel, Russia, India, Pakistan, China, the Philippines, Colombia and Indonesia--to follow the "Bush Doctrine" of launching pre-emptive wars. The risk is of greater regional conflicts that could spill over into larger wars.

Lou Plummer:
The occupation of Iraq

IF THERE'S one thing that the American people have learned by now, it's not to trust anything that Bush says about Iraq. We're supposedly just a few months away from handing control of Iraq back to Iraqis. And when I read that in the New York Times, the actual verbatim quote was, "The occupation of Iraq will end in July. The troops, however, will remain." This is Orwellian doublespeak.

So the state of the union for soldiers is full of uncertainty. They certainly don't trust the government. For example, a lot of the units have been given numerous dates for when they'll rotate back, those dates have come and gone, and the soldiers have remained there.

The rosy picture that we get in interviews in the mainstream media are generally given to us by military press officers or by commissioned officers. That's just a small part of the military. You don't see them interviewing 18- and 19-year-old privates who are somewhere in the Sunni triangle, and they don't interview those same soldiers' spouses back home.

What we get is the outlook on the war from the "upper class" of the military. We're not really hearing from the mass of troops to get a more accurate picture. These are the people that I talk to--both soldiers and spouses--and although some of the earlier deprivations, such as rationed water and primitive living conditions, are starting to improve, it's a double-edged sword.

On one hand, the conditions are improving, but they're seeing these permanent-type barracks being built. If it's a temporary occupation, why are they building permanent barracks?

A lot of these guys served in Kosovo, where Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR)--the subsidiary of Halliburton where Dick Cheney was CEO--built the same type of compounds in the early 1990s. And there are still soldiers there.

Some went from Kosovo to Fort Bragg to Afghanistan back to Fort Bragg to Iraq--and there's a theory of permanent war that's really hitting home for them. The other thing that continues to get put on the back burner is Afghanistan.

But if people look back to Bush's State of the Union two years ago, the majority of what he promised hasn't come true for the Afghan people. The U.S. had an initial fear that a lot of foreign troops would interfere in the search for Osama bin Laden.

So what we have there is a token international force that pretty much stays around Kabul, and roughly 12,000 U.S. soldiers whose sole job--supposedly--is looking for Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters. There's been no nation-building going on.

We're told that we have to have a huge force in Iraq to keep it from devolving into chaos and civil war--while we've got the nation of Afghanistan, which we bombed into oblivion and occupied two years ago, that has devolved into civil war and chaos, and doesn't have a functioning infrastructure.

So we continue to get this doublespeak from the president--all the reasons we get about why we should be in Iraq are, if you use the same logic, the reasons that we should be in Afghanistan, but we're not.

Sharon Smith:
Marriage and "family values"

EVERY ASPECT of Bush's marriage policy is geared toward satisfying his Christian conservative voting base in the run-up to the November elections. In practice, the Christian Right's idea of "family values" coerces low-income women facing domestic violence into marriage, while denying gay couples, however loving and stable, the very basic right to legalize their union through marriage.

Thus, you have Bush's new plan to spend $1.5 billion for "training programs" in heterosexual marriage among the poor, while dangling the possibility that he will support a constitutional ban on gay marriage.

Wade Horn, the assistant secretary of Health and Human Services for children and families, claims that Bush's ambitious marriage promotion plan is aimed at helping poor children, because children in married families "enjoy better physical and mental health and are less likely to be poor." But if Bush was really interested in the welfare of poor children, he would use that $1.5 billion to provide food for the 13 million children in the 6.4 million households in the U.S. who don't know where their next meal is coming from.

Instead, Bush is aiming for photo ops showing him visiting marriage programs in poor Black neighborhoods--apparently unconcerned about the racist implications. "The president loves to do that sort of thing in the inner city with Black churches, and he's very good at it," a White House aide said.

But the median income of African American households has fallen more than 6.3 percent since 2000 because of racism, not poor marriage skills. It's worth remembering that Bill Clinton also appeased the Christian Right, signing the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, which defined marriage for any program passed by Congress as "only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife."

The Christian Right's idea of "family values" is on a collision course with the reality for millions of U.S. families--as demonstrated in November when Massachusetts' highest court ruled that gay couples have a right to marry under the state's constitution. The battle is just beginning.

David Koff:
Immigrant rights

THE GENERAL response from both from the Immigrant Workers Freedom Rides and from immigrants rights groups that were involved has been to welcome the fact that the administration has stepped into the immigration issue, thereby acknowledging within the Beltway that the demands from all different political sectors are having some impact.

On the other hand, there's the understanding of the Bush proposal as being a new temporary worker program. On that basis alone, it doesn't meet the fundamental, basic demand that the Freedom Ride and all those who were a part of it made--which was for legalization and a path to citizenship.

It says nothing about family reunification, which is a key issue, not just for non-citizen immigrants, but for naturalized citizens who have family elsewhere. It says nothing about workplace rights with any specificity. It doesn't address any of the issues regarding the civil liberties and civil rights of immigrants.

It's a pitch to business, and they've warmly embraced it, especially the corporations and businesses in the travel and restaurant industry. It offers nothing to the workers, other than increased risk, should they choose to participate in the program.

What's also notable is that Bush has never taken a position on the Dream Act, [which allows long-term undocumented immigrant students to apply for legal residency] or the ag jobs bill [which would allow certain undocumented immigrants to get legal residency if they work in agriculture jobs for several years]. Both of which, although falling short in many respects, are nevertheless supported by a lot of the immigrants' rights organizations and by unions, because they do confer a path--or legalization of a path--to citizenship to some portions of the undocumented population.

This has the effect of making any worker who participates in it much more susceptible to employer intimidation and threats. This is a long struggle to build the power to enact reform and changes in immigration policy that will address the goals and concerns that were brought together in the Freedom Ride.

Part of building that power is to make sure that immigrant workers are, number one, legal, and number two, have rights in the workplace that enable them to unionize. It's the only road to worker power. Any worker who participates in the Bush program is essentially at the mercy of employers.

Employers have little interest or reason to take a long-term view of that person's future or their families' future--which puts employers in an even stronger position to control and maintain lower wages and poor working conditions. The labor movement has taken the position--and it came out very clearly in the Freedom Rides--that the fate of the working class in the United States is bound up with the fate of immigrant workers.

The prospects for reversing the massive appropriation of wealth by the owning class can only happen when the labor movement identifies its future with that of immigrant workers. The Bush proposal, in that sense, is the direct opposite of that.

Sylvia Allegretto:
Jobs and the economy

BUSH TOUTED his tax cuts as a stimulus package that would create jobs. This isn't the case. In the first six months after the second round of tax cuts took effect, 221,000 jobs were created, an average of 37,000 a month. The number of jobs created is extremely low when you consider that the economy needs 150,000 just to keep up with new entrants to the labor force.

The important thing to note is that once you leave the rolls of people looking for work, you are no longer counted in the unemployment statistics. That's why, even though almost no jobs have been created, the unemployment rate declined recently. People have stopped looking for work.

This is an indication that demand hasn't kept up with productivity. So you need less people working to produce the same amount of output. There also has been slower wage growth.

Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute has said that the persistence of weak job growth and high unemployment--compared to the 4 percent unemployment rate in 2000--has also slowed the growth of wages. In the fourth quarter of 2003, wages grew just 1 percent, below the rate of inflation.

In addition, the tax cuts have gone to the wrong people. If they had gone to working people and the middle class, they would put money directly into the economy, as opposed to giving it to the wealthy.

The same is true of extending unemployment benefits--which were not renewed in December. Extending the benefits would have a limited but positive effect--the money would go back into the economy.

Dr. Quentin Young:
Health care and Medicare

AMERICA'S HEALTH care system is a catastrophe, and all the more grotesque because all of the resources for having the premier system in the world are in place. The missing element is, of course, government-sponsored national health insurance, which would ensure access and choice for every person while attending the long-neglected crucial services in long-term care and mental health.

The overarching problem is the takeover of the health system by corporate giants in the last 20 years. Seeking as they must maximum profits, they have made the American people frightened--and more important, under-provided for.

Arguably, the health care system is the central social justice issue domestically in the nation. The public's demand for fairness and health may prove the edge of the wedge for a progressive agenda in the coming years.

The agenda of the corporate giants is nowhere better reflected than in the recent Medicare drug fraud passed by the Congress, under enormous pressure from the industry and the White House. This will in no important way meet the enormous needs for access to vital pharmaceuticals, while it was constructed to undermine the basic unifying principle of Medicare--"everybody in, nobody out."

Unless this plot is reversed, one of the great achievements for this country--health care for seniors and disabled--will be destroyed.

Jessie Muldoon:
Education

ONE OF George W. Bush's biggest domestic promises was his commitment to education, and his rhetoric will show up again in the State of the Union speech. In 2002, he signed the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act into law--supported overwhelmingly by Democrats--with the promise that its reforms would improve public education for all children.

The law was full of the type of rhetoric that clouds the debate around education these days--choice, accountability, standards. One of the main components of NCLB is its heavy reliance on testing to determine the success or failure of the students, teachers and, ultimately, public schools themselves.

"No Child Left Untested"--that's how many teachers and teachers' unions now refer to the law, because it ties funding to standardized test scores. Good scores, more money. Low scores, or stagnating scores, and a school faces economic sanctions--or at the most extreme, closure.

Students as young as second grade are forced to take days of standardized tests. Special education students take the same test with minimal assistance, and students who are English language learners are forced to take the tests with no assistance.

Teachers are also vulnerable in this situation, as the law forces them to "teach to the test." They are rewarded for improved test scores, sparking fear that low scores could jeopardize your job. Other aspects of the law include a massive increase in paperwork, changes in the requirements for teaching credentials, a guarantee that students will be taught by "highly qualified teachers" and a controversial transfer policy.

One of the most hypocritical things that Bush has done with regard to NCLB is to fail to fund it. When it was signed into law, Congress also authorized its funding. But in the 2003 budget, Bush spent $8 billion less than was authorized, and in the 2004 budget, Bush underfunded NCLB by nearly $10 billion.

Many educators and unions point out that this is not accidental. Less funding means fewer resources, and this inevitably hurts education. Schools are set up to fail, and this opens the door to privatization of public education.

Charter schools and outsourcing tutoring and after-school programs have already started. NCLB is set up to maintain the achievement gap--and then blame teachers, parents and students. Opposition from teachers, parents, and the students themselves will be the key to real education reform.

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