Green Comma is interested in world cultures through photographs that revels in its subjects.
Each of you can look at your surroundings and convey the spirit of the place through your own eyes and camera lens.
“ To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” (Susan Sontag, On Photography)
What Are You Seeing?
Photographer: Jayshree Shukla
INTERACTIVE GLOSSARYNizamuddin Basti
A book published by climate change deniers in 2015 and distributed nationwide to college and high school teachers states, “ Claims of a ‘scientific consensus’’ on climate change “rest on two college student papers. The writings of wacky Australian blogger and a non-peer reviewed essay by a socialist historian.” The blatant and purposeful lie is easily circulated to thousands, perhaps millions, across cyberspace. Many will try and probe the statements and in turn learn a few facts, verified and reviewed by genuine experts in the field. An alarming number won’t. On the eve of the Climate March in Washington and many other cities in the US, let’s look at a few of the facts around the most pressing issue that the world faces barring a nuclear war.
To not know history is to make it impossible to comprehend the present and contemplate the future.
How did the political world that we live in today get formed. READ IT HERE.
The following article was developed by Green Comma as a discussion resource for use in grades 9-12 classrooms as well as in freshmen college classrooms.
All photographs in gallery have captions. Place cursor over photo.
Principal writer, Douglas Houston, is a lawyer, living in Cambridge, MA, and a frequent collaborator with Amit Shah, cofounder and managing director of Green Comma, an education resources development company, based in Somerville, MA, specializing in digital publishing and open education resources.
Content for the article was created through exclusive interviews with the principals of the twoorganizations. All conclusions are the writers’ own.
This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, and although their new works must also acknowledge you and be non-commercial, they don’t have to license their derivative works on the same terms.
Traditional forms of effecting social change seem wanting. Whether it is government, hopelessly gridlocked by partisanship and controlled by ideologues reluctant to compromise, or nonprofits dependent on philanthropic dollars and subject to the vagaries of a turbulent economy, those seeking to effect change are exploring other avenues. On the other hand, technological innovations and the concomitant cultural changes are providing alternative approaches to affecting change.
Into this environment come two recent examples of these changes, the College of Social Innovation ("CSI"), which seeks to exploit these changes and educate and nurture their leaders, and DoneGood, a for-profit startup that offers a smartphone app that puts socially conscious consumers in touch with like-minded businesses. Both entities began in 2015, both are based in Boston, and both recognize the need for alternative paths to social change. Both entities seek self-sufficiency by capitalizing on new technologies and sensitivity to the market forces.
College of Social Innovation
CSI was founded by Eric Schwartz and Lisa Jackson. Schwartz cofounded and was CEO of Citizen Schools, which recently celebrated its 21st anniversary and currently has a budget of $30 million. Relevant to CSI, Citizen Schools partners with several universities to offer master's degrees in education to Citizen School teaching fellows. Schwartz is also the author of The Opportunity Equation, addressing income inequality and education. He has also contributed to such books as Waiting for Superman, and has written numerous articles on education. Jackson, after teaching at Boston College, became Project Director for GEAR UP, a program increasing high school students' access to college. After a stint as Vice President for Performance and Outcomes at the Home for Little Wanderers, the largest human service agency in Massachusetts, she moved over to the philanthropy side as Vice President of Research for the Center for Effective Philanthropy, and ended up as Managing Partner for Portfolio Investments at New Profit, a community of social entrepreneurs and funders supporting college access and living-wage employment.
Given the depth of Eric's and Lisa's experience, it is not surprising that CSI has a world view and clear mission: “Humanity faces grand challenges ꟷ from climate change to growing inequality, struggling schools, and jobless families.” What these challenges require is leadership, “ranging from social entrepreneurs to social workers. . . oriented toward social justice and adept at the 21st century skills of communication, data-based management, interpersonal relations, and innovative problem solving.”
Unfortunately, the social sector is running a leader development deficit. Internal promotions to top management positions for nonprofit entities is less than half that of for-profit companies. Approximately 40 Boston nonprofits revealed that only a third of the nonprofits felt their new hires were prepared for the job and only 5% felt the pool of new hires was diverse enough.
CSI, which is not a brick-and-mortar college, partners with existing colleges to provide an experiential and course dependent program, much like the student abroad programs. Students take courses in social innovation and work at existing social sector jobs, mentored by trained younger leaders in those businesses.
Market Sensitivity, Something for all Parties
As part of the new social sector reality CSI is market sensitive, offering something to all the parties at the table. To the student CSI offers experience and training in four competences: communications, exposure to diverse communities, data-driven decision making, and creative problem solving; with courses rigorous enough to qualify for 16 credits from their home college.
The social sector benefits by getting its leadership pipeline fed with trained young people from a diverse pool of students. Jackson emphasizes, “We’re intentionally working with colleges and institutions where there are first- generation students, students of color who don’t have access to these networks. They might be low-income students, or students who have chosen another path and don't have access to the things the elite institutions have to offer.”
The nonprofits gain as well. “If you tell a nonprofit that they’re going to get an intern, they’re going to run the other way. . . the nonprofits have to commit one of their staff to serve as mentor, and that mentor is going to receive training from us…that person gets additional professional development for themselves...then you have two people in the pipeline, the undergraduate and the person at the nonprofit who has additional experience supervising and managing, mentoring, and can take that to the next level as a leader in the sector.”
The colleges benefit too. “The colleges are in a hard spot, they're too expensive, students are desperately trying to get an education that matters and is relevant. Colleges don’t have a lot to offer in that way. . . (On the other hand) there is no additional cost . . . we’re leveraging the existing tuition that the students are already paying, to cover the cost of this program, like study abroad.”
While CSI is dependent on $5 million philanthropic funding for the first five years, thereafter it expects to rely on the students' tuition. In that way CSI's funding plan is attractive to its initial funders; it is a fixed number for a fixed period of time, with a tangible result at the end of five years. And finally CSI gets self-sufficiency. As Jackson points out,
"Eventually you run out of philanthropy, or you chase the philanthropic dollar in a way that undermines your mission.... If we stick with philanthropy we will be at the whim of whatever new thing they’re interested in, and it won’t stick . . . the goal is to then be philanthropy free after five years, because the cost of the program is designed to come out of the cost of (the student’s existing) tuition."
And, finally, CSI seeks to influence not only the social and private sectors, but also the public sector. “The social sector is not just nonprofit direct service, but also includes government, hospitals, education." The fact that some of these leaders will end up in the government acknowledges that change may come from any sector and probably needs to come from all sectors.
CSI has already secured its first 15 students to begin their course work and internship on September 4th, 2016 with an expected 45 more students next spring. They have agreements with two colleges currently and expect two to four more colleges in the coming months. As for intern placements, CSI had 37 social-sector organizations apply for their students, and accepted 15, one of which is a government agency. While their philanthropic funding has been meeting expectations, they also have received their expected tuition amounts from the colleges, so they are on track to being self-sufficient.
For CSI, social innovation is about “disrupting the status quo, bringing ideas to the social sector, some of which may have been tried before . . . but we’re doing it in a different way.”
DoneGood ~ “Yelp with a conscience”
DoneGood is the business side of this new environment. “We believe companies can be profitable and do the right thing at the same time." It offers a free smartphone app, both iPhone and Android, that lists retail businesses that embody “doing good for people and the planet . . . a cleaner environment, better pay for workers, stronger local economies. . . .” The businesses it lists have been accredited by social sector entities DoneGood calls its "partners." These partners include such entities as B Corp, which certifies businesses' social and environmental performance and Sustainable Business Network of Massachusetts which works to build a local, green and fair economy. DoneGood then offers community participation by encouraging consumers to add their comments about these businesses and upload photographs.
DoneGood cofounders Cullen Schwarz (left) and Scott Jacobsen (right) celebrating their invitation to participate at a White House conference on climate change and sustainable business practices in summer, 2015. DoneGood's founders, Scott Jacobsen and Cullen Schwarz, met in Washington, DC, working at the intersection of government, philanthropies, and NGOs. As Jacobsen tells it, “thinking we could make a change through the traditional means that people go into.” Cullen had worked for United Students Against Sweatshops in college, but when he went to buy his own clothes he couldn’t tell what was made in sweatshops. Jacobsen had a similar experience with recyclable goods. His lunch spot offered everything in recyclable containers but there was no recyclable trash bin. After attempts to bring this up with the owners, Jacobsen took his business elsewhere. They together wondered, “Why is it so hard to find businesses that share our values?”
They applied and were accepted to the Harvard Innovation Lab with nothing but the idea that people needed a way to find retail businesses that shared their values and the name "DoneGood."
The Business Model
An eample of the new social sector model, DoneGood is a for-profit business which grew out of a perceived need, and acknowledges a reality as old as Adam Smith, “We live in a supply and demand economy..."
“The more we demand products and services with a positive social impact, the more the market will supply them. That leads to a cleaner environment, better pay for workers, stronger local economies and more. Together, we can support more businesses doing the right thing, and create a financial incentive for more businesses to follow suit. We can create a marketplace where business don’t just compete to show they have a good product at a good price, but also compete to show they’re doing the right thing.”
Consistent with the social sector's need to be market sensitive and offer something to all the players, DoneGood offers its users an aggregation of like-minded businesses, along with the opportunity to share their opinions about those businesses. To its "partners" it offers exposure and a forum for their values.
To the businesses DoneGood offers a direct advertising opportunity. Businesses spend money on “cause marketing” through one-off campaigns around particular events like Earth Day, but those efforts don't target the people who really care about those issues. DoneGood provides constant advertising targeted at those people. Scott is certain that consumers are willing to spend more for products and services consistent with their values, and “have greater brand loyalty when they know the business behind it is working hard doing the right thing.”
Last August, when DoneGood launched its app, the Boston Globe dubbed it “Yelp with a conscience.” To quote Schwarz, “The long-term vision is to create a new kind of marketplace where businesses aren’t just demonstrating that they have a good product at a low price, but a positive social impact to a large community of people who care about that. Are products locally made, organic, sustainable? How are workers paid? A large and growing numbers of folks want to make sure they’re supporting businesses that share their values.”
Whether this is a radical change in the market, or an evolution in the valuing of goods and services is unimportant. The new entrepreneurs don't care whether they are merely adding social sector values to the traditional market attributes of functionality, durability, pricing, and attractiveness. All that matters is, "will it sell," and "does it effectively further our ideals?"
How is it working?
For now, DoneGood is surviving on its founders’ commitment to their ideals. They have thousands of users in the greater Boston area, without spending a nickel on advertising; and they have over 1,000 businesses signed up. They were the official app of 2016 August's Boston Green Festival and invited back for 2017. and were a partner of the Boston Local Food Festival sponsored by the Sustainable Business Network of Massachusetts in September 2016.
As both business owners and advocates for social change, Jacobsen and Schwarz continue to explore other avenues to expand their business and their impact on improving local and sustainable economies and the environment. They have listened to their customers, there is a second-generation app which allows users to add pictures and reviews concerning non-social impact factors, like whether the food tastes good and the ambiance is attractive.
Whether it is the technological changes creating the social media revolution, bringing an awareness to more people of worldwide problems like the environment and economic inequality, or a cultural shift blurring the lines between private and public sectors, that has introduced such concepts as a "third bottom line" or “triple bottom line,” educators and entrepreneurs are developing ways to address these changes, to fill gaps in education and the market. DoneGood and the College of Social Innovation are important contributors to this environment.
The following article was developed by Green Comma as a discussion resource for use in grades 9-12 classrooms as well as in freshmen college classrooms. The writer is Green Comma’s managing director, Amit Shah.
All opinions are the writer's own
There are three individuals who changed the course of history that affects us all today through the practice and implementation of nonviolence. They are Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr, and Cesar Chavez.
MLK, unlike Gandhi and Chavez, who both adhered to ahimsa, the practice of nonviolence toward all living things, envisioned nonviolence as six principles (References: Stride Toward Freedom) .
“First, one can resist evil without resorting to violence. Second, nonviolence seeks to win the ‘‘friendship and understanding’’ of the opponent, not to humiliate him (King, Stride, 84). Third, evil itself, not the people committing evil acts, should be opposed. Fourth, those committed to nonviolence must be willing to suffer without retaliation as suffering itself can be redemptive. Fifth, nonviolent resistance avoids ‘‘external physical violence’’ and ‘‘internal violence of spirit’’ as well: ‘‘The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent but he also refuses to hate him’’ (King, Stride, 85). The resister should be motivated by love in the sense of the Greek word agape, which means ‘‘understanding,’’ or ‘‘redeeming good will for all men’’ (King, Stride, 86). The sixth principle is that the nonviolent resister must have a ‘‘deep faith in the future,’’ stemming from the conviction that ‘‘the universe is on the side of justice’’ (King, Stride, 88).
In the summer of 1957, during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, “ the name of Mahatma Gandhi was well known. People who had never heard of the little brown saint of India were now saying his name with an air of familiarity. Nonviolent resistance had emerged as the technique of the movement, while love stood as the regulating idea. In other words, Christ furnished the motivation while Gandhi furnished the method.”
(Acknowledgment for the quote from Claude Markovits, The Un-Gandhian Gandhi. Markovits also provides a very astute observation of Gandhian nonviolent resistance in the American context of the 1950s and 1960s.)
“The attempt to limit Gandhi to the role of simple provider of a method can be explained by the specific social and ideological context in which King had to operate. He sought to mobilize a population for whom the only meaningful references were biblical ones, and he also wanted to remain within an American framework so as to make the struggle clear to the white population.” (Claude Markovits, The Un-Gandhian Gandhi, pp.66).
And MLK made the struggle clear. Never has it been so important since those days for all of us today who treasure democracy and civil rights to hear these words:
“Now, I say to you today my friends, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: - 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’” (MLK, August 28, 1963)
The following article was developed by Green Comma as a discussion resource for use in grades 9-12 classrooms as well as in freshmen college classrooms. The principal writer is Douglas Houston, a lawyer living in Cambridge, MA, who frequently collaborates with Green Comma’s managing director, Amit Shah.
All opinions are the writers’ own.
Cavuto: “So do not raise the minimum wage?”
Trump: “I would not do it.”
-- Republican debate on Fox News, Nov. 10, 2015
Democrats Add $15 Minimum Wage to Platform, July 2016
With such diametrically different opinions from the two major political parties who control the legislative offices in the country, what are the voters, the citizens who labor under the laws, supposed to think? Green Comma attempts to provide the overview of understanding this economic and fair labor rights issue.
Minimum Wage, a living wage?
Cecil Euseary, a 52-year-old worker at a fast-food chain in Detroit; Shamar El-Shabass, a 50- year-old worker at the same fast food chain in Wilmington, Delaware; Jewel Walker, a 19-year- old at the same fast food chain in Los Angeles; Laugudria Screven, a 23-year-old worker at a different fast food chain in Riverdale, Georgia; and Houston Illo, a 28-year-old worker at a drugstore chain in Burlington, Vermont have in common.
They’re all minimum-wage workers, and none of them can survive on those wages alone.
Cecil works for $8.15 an hour, the minimum wage in Michigan and says that if he wasn’t living in a relative’s house he’d be out on the street. But even with that housing subsidy, when he recently became ill, he couldn’t afford the $53 medicine the doctor prescribed. He doesn’t have a car, walks to work, watches sports on TV and visits his sister and brother for entertainment.
Shamar lives with his wife, who can’t work for medical reasons, and his youngest daughter in a one-bedroom apartment. He had a job with Cease Violence, a community organization, for $15 an hour, during which he started catching up on his bills, but the funding dried up. With his current $8.25 an hour job and his $850-a-month rent, he is constantly falling behind – his cable TV was cut off and he can’t afford a car. He is under constant pressure to get more time from his creditors. He is “trying to make an honest living; trying to stay out of trouble; trying just to survive; without selling drugs,” but he feels in “bondage” and understands why people turn to crime. He sees the city of Wilmington “moving up,” constructing nice new buildings, and doesn’t see why he is not benefiting from all the spending.
Jewel works full-time as a wheelchair assistant at Atlanta’s airport, but to get by she has to commute 30 miles to the suburbs, taking two buses and a train, to work a second job as a cashier at a fast-food restaurant. Jewel ends up putting in a 52-hour work week, seven days a week. And with that income she cannot afford a car or move out of her father’s home.
Laugudria’s wage of $7.50 an hour as a cook is not enough to live on, given his $360 rent, so he travels 25 miles twice a week to sell his plasma for $50 a visit, which leaves him tired. And he still can’t afford to eat sometimes more than one meal per day. He’s also aware that people on the street are making more money stealing and selling drugs, and wonders, “sometimes it feels that you’ve got to break the law to survive in this world.”
Houston stocks shelves for Vermont’s minimum wage of $9.15. She recently graduated from college, and as she says, “It took me all summer to find anything, and that's what I came up with. . . . I took that job because it was better than not working at all." Her salary just covers rent; her parents have to help her out with food, gas, and car payments.
“Fight for $15”
On November 29, 2016 thousands of workers demonstrated for raising the minimum wage as part of the “Fight for $15” movement in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Minneapolis, Oakland and other cities.
The subject has so many parts. It clearly has an economic part – it’s about wages. But it has a larger economic element that rests on basic principles like supply and demand, the market place of labor, the costs of production. It ends up involving political issues like foreign trade, and the pressure to find cheap labor outside this country. It has social and ethical issues – what is a fair wage, and whether that is any business of the government. It has legal issues – if it is the business of the government, how does the government get involved.
John Schmitt, for the Center for Economic and Policy Research, writes “the employment effect of the minimum wage is one of the most studied topics in all of economics.”
One of the first things to understand is that there is no one minimum wage. Any state or even city can set a minimum wage. That doesn’t mean it will be lawful, nor does it mean it will be enforced. The federal government last set a minimum wage in 2009 of $7.25, but various states have different minimum wages and some cities have minimum wages. The issue of which wage rate prevails becomes a Constitutional law issue.
The Federal Government’s Constitutional Authority to Regulate Wages
The Constitutional law issue is worth exploring because as the Tea Party and other politically conservative groups have sought to limit the federal government’s authority on many issues, they have sought to do the same with the federal government’s authority to set a minimum wage. So where did this authority come from and when?
The tenth Amendment to the Constitution provides that “[t]he powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” This means that the powers of the federal government are enumerated, and if they are not enumerated, the federal government does not have the authority. That authority is left to the States.
However, Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution grants Congress the power “to regulate commerce. . . among the several states.” This is called the “Commerce Clause” and is that clause that has allowed the federal government to regulate (or interfere, according to some) in much of what occurs within the several states.
The origins of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 has dramatic roots in the Great Depression and the sweeping progressive legislation of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Two years after Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standard Act of 1938 (“FLSA”) the act was challenged and the Supreme Court in US v. Darby, 312 US 100 (1940), upheld the right of the federal government to regulate wages based on the Commerce Clause.
Who is Covered?
Employees may be covered by the federal minimum wage laws because their employer is a business covered under the FLSA, or they may be covered individually. Businesses are covered by the law if they have at least two employees and an annual business volume of $500,000 or are providing medical or nursing care, schools, or government agencies. Individual employees of smaller businesses are covered if the employee works in commerce between states (“interstate commerce”), or if they are engaged in commerce or in the production of goods for commerce, or are domestic workers (housekeepers, babysitters and cooks are normally covered.)
Although that means that the federal government can only regulate wages that are connected to interstate commerce, the Commerce Clause has been applied broadly. So for instance, if an employer uses the mail or phone calls across state lines, that would involve interstate commerce. There are other ways employees may be covered by the federal minimum wage. As of 2009, “more than 130 million American workers are protected (or “Covered”) by the FLSA, which is enforced by the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor.” However, the federal minimum wage does not cover all workers in the United States.
Who is Exempted from Minimum Wage Laws and Why?
There are several ways an employee might be exempt from the federal minimum wage law. In fact, according to the Pew Research Center (9/8/14), 1.5 million hourly workers earned the federal minimum wage, and 1.8 million earned less than that because they were exempted. That 3.3 million workers at or under the minimum wage represents 4.3% of the 76 million hourly paid workers, and 2.6 % of all wage and salary workers.
The largest group of workers exempted from the federal minimum wage is “tipped employees” of which the largest subgroup work in the food services industry. Their minimum wage is
$2.13 / hour, which has not changed since 1991. Other groups of workers are exempted as well, for instance, full-time students and certain disabled workers. The exceptions to the rules are narrowly construed against the employer. The exceptions apply both to the minimum wage laws as well as the overtime pay laws. For instance, farmworkers employed in small farms are exempt from both the minimum wage and overtime pay provisions. Young workers employed in small farms, with parental consent, are also exempt from child labor provisions.
While there is a federal minimum wage, which as stated does not necessarily cover everyone, there are also state minimum wage laws. The question arises, which one prevails if they are different? The higher wage prevails.
How are the States Involved in Setting Minimum Wages?
How does the FLSA interact with state or city minimum wage laws? The states, as expected, are divided as to how they treat minimum wage. As of August 1, 2016, according to the US Department of Labor, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and South Carolina were the only states with no state minimum wage laws. Georgia and Wyoming were the only states with minimum wage laws below the federal level. Fourteen states had state minimum wage levels the same as the federal rate, and the rest were above the federal rate. For a list of the state minimum wage rates, as of August 1, 2016, see this link at the US Department of Labor’s website.
State Decisions on Minimum Wages
In November 2016 Arizona, Colorado, and Maine voters approved ballot measures to incrementally raise their minimum wages to $12 an hour by 2020 and Washington's voters approved a measure to increase wages to $13.50 an hour by 2020. The State of New York raised the minimum wage in New York City to $15.00 by 2019. Washington DC raised its minimum wage to $15.00 by July 2020. California passed a bill raising the minimum wage to $15.00 by 2022 for employers with more than 25 employees and 2023 for those with 25 or less, with other caveats based on the economy. Oregon passed a law raising the minimum wage and eventually indexing increases to inflation based on the consumer price index.
A chart of State minimum wage rates and recent legislative changes can be found on the website of the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The city of Seattle passed a city law that raises the minimum wage for some employees to
$15 /hr beginning January 1, 2017, and for all worker in 2021.
While, as with New York, a state may pass a law raising the minimum wage in a city, a state may pass a law that has the opposite effect, blocking a city’s attempt to raise the minimum wage. In October 2016 the Kentucky Supreme Court held that Lexington and Louisville could not increase their minimum wage to $10.10 because it violated state law. A similar case is being considered in Alabama concerning Birmingham’s attempt to raise that city’s minimum wage. Spencer Woodman in “Congrats on that New Citywide Minimum Wage. Now Republicans Are Going to Try to Kill It” and Jay-Anne Casuga and Michael Rose in “Are State Workplace Preemption Laws on the Rise?” examine various states’ laws preventing their cities from increasing the minimum wage. It should be noted that states’ efforts to prevent minimum wage increases is not confined to the south or to Republican legislators. In 2014 Rhode Island’s Democratic law makers passed a state law preventing its cities from raising their minimum wage.
The Case of Alabama
Let’s take a closer look at Alabama’s effort to limit their cities’ efforts to raise the minimum wage, which serves as a microcosm of both the national effort to raise the federal minimum wage and the efforts to block that increase. For instance, the reasons for raising the minimum wage seem clear against a pretty stark economic background. Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, released the following statement concerning Birmingham’s effort to raise its minimum wage, “Currently, an estimated 18.9 percent of Alabamians live below the poverty line, with over a quarter (27.5 percent) of children living in poverty. In Birmingham, the poverty rate is an outrageous 31.0 percent, with nearly half (49.2 percent) of the city’s children living in poverty.”
A state study by “Voices for Alabama’s Children” in their 70 page 2015 Data Book, on pages 49 -53, report similar alarming statistics:
Clearly the state legislators blocking Birmingham’s attempt to raise the minimum wage are aware of these facts, but press their argument despite the problems such poverty inevitably causes. For example, the state legislators must address the need for an educated workforce in this hyper-competitive business climate, health issues like obesity and drug abuse, crime, and social unrest. And finally, there is the issue of fairness. Does that amount of poverty indicate a serious unfairness in the social order? The arguments against the increase, according to the news reports, were fairly limited.
Addressing the possibility that Alabama’s legislature were somehow discriminating against Birmingham’s 73.4% African American population, the State’s attorneys argued that there were many reasons for the state to prevent cities from changing their minimum wages, including economic theory ꟷ other states had passed similar laws, and Alabama’s law prevented all its cities from raising their minimum wage, regardless of their racial makeup.
Alabama Republican state senator, Jabo Waggoner, warned that if Birmingham raised its minimum wage it would devastate businesses there, cause increased unemployment, and send the regional economy into a slump. Others argued that letting individual cities dictate minimum wages results in a confusing patchwork of different wage rates that would discourage new business investment.
Christine Owen’s Testimony, the Need for a Raise, an Unlikely Advocate
Christine Owens testified before the House of Representatives Education and Workforce Committee on December 9, 2016 and explained The National Employment Law Project’s goal in one sentence, “Our goal is to ensure that work is an anchor of economic security and a ladder of economic opportunity for all of America’s working families.” Though her testimony was not focused on the minimum wage, her arguments concerning the issues she did cover are the same and instructive. She opened with a review of the 2008 economic crisis, the jobless recovery into 2010, where 8 million jobs were lost and unemployment reached 10 %. The nation has added more than 13 million new jobs since its low point and unemployment is at 5%.
And then she addressed some of the problems by introducing a quote from Republican Congressman Ryan’s remarks about the wage stagnation of the American worker, “They are going nowhere fast. They never get a raise. They never get a break. But the bills keep piling up – and the taxes and the debt. They are working harder than ever to get ahead. Yet they are falling further behind.”
According to Owens, there is no dispute that for most of America’s workers, wages have declined for the past 35 years, with increased income inequality. The Bureau of Labor Statistics provides that for the years 2007 to 2014 the bottom 88% of the wage earners have experienced wage stagnation or decline, while the upper 22% have experienced increased compensation, with the trend increasing more in 2014 than in 2007.
Wages and Productivity
Owens presents her organization’s statistics, that wages have become stagnant or decreased as workers have become more productive and attained more education. Though these statistics begin to get into the statistical morass that minimum wage ultimately ends up in, they are necessary in the analysis of fair compensation. One of the key arguments for how wages are “unfair” is that wages are intuitively and logically connected to productivity. If one is more productive, one should be paid more. The same with education. If one is more qualified, one should be paid commensurately. Between 1973 and 2014, worker productivity rose 72%, yet wages, adjusted for inflation rose 8% and nearly all wage growth was between 1995 and 2002.
Minimum Wage Jobs, Not Only for the Young
Owens supplies statistics that rebut minimum wage opponents who claim that minimum wage is only a “starting wage” for young workers. Nearly half of those who would benefit from increasing the minimum wage to $12 are over 40 years old. “Two-fifths of 2008’s minimum wage workers were still in near-minimum wage jobs a full five years later. Hence, inaction on the federal minimum wage is consigning more and more adult workers to lifetimes of working harder but failing farther behind.”
Owens paints an equally bleak picture of the traditional method of improving one’s employment opportunities. Education as a means of advancement is not working as well as it used to as a result of the wage stagnation and decline. A college diploma no longer guarantees a good wage and a job with a more certain path to promotion and upward mobility. Increasingly, the necessary path to promotion and a more certain economic future is a graduate degree.
College-educated workers are now forced to settle for lower paying jobs. Houston Illo’s story is not uncommon. The common phenomenon of workers in their late twenties and thirties unable to leave their parent’s home is not just a result of the recession and the housing crisis, but a result of wage stagnation and depressed wages. As young college-educated workers are forced to take lower-paying jobs, less educated and trained workers are forced “into even lower-paying jobs or out of the labor market altogether.”
You Decide: Arguments for and Against Raising the Minimum Wage
(Green Comma would like to acknowledge ProCon.org., a nonprofit, nonpartisan website, http://minimum-wage.procon.org/, dedicated to presenting both sides of topical issues.)
The arguments against raising the minimum wage fall into several categories ꟷ some are based on economic theory, the free market rules. Other reasons are microeconomic ꟷ how will it affect businesses, and some are political ꟷ the government shouldn’t get involved. Unfortunately, the reasons often depend on data, and the data seems to always be in contention.
1. The first and most popular argument is that minimum wage increases will cause employers to take to steps to reduce costs that will ultimately hurt the low wage worker. The most drastic example of this would be an increase in unemployment. This is an attractive argument because it is intuitive; if the cost of labor increases, the business will have to reduce labor costs by cutting workers. Or, alternatively, businesses will not be able to adjust to increased labor costs and will fail, resulting in layoffs and increased unemployment. The other benefit to this argument is that it appears to take into consideration the worker. The worker will be worse off if he or she succeeds in getting higher wages.
And, of course, those who argue this have their data to support it. But as mentioned earlier at the end of the second paragraph of A Couple of Facts, “the employment effect of the minimum wage is one of the most studied topics in all of economics.” John Schmitt’s 29-page academic article, “Why Does the Minimum Wage Have No Discernible Effect on Employment” written for the Center for Economic and Policy Research is a worthwhile read. His conclusion is in the title, and the article is a review of the research from 2000 until 2013 “to determine the best current estimates of the impact of increases in the minimum wage on the employment prospects of low-wage workers.” No doubt his 2013 article is not the last word.
Advocates on both sides are “estimating” which means they are projecting, using past data, data from elsewhere, and assuming certain facts. For instance, Professor Steve Hanke of Johns Hopkins University in "Let the Data Speak: The Truth Behind Minimum Wage Laws," studied 28 European Union countries, and found that the 21 countries with minimum wage laws have average unemployment of 11.8%, while those without minimum wage laws have 7.9% unemployment. One can reasonably ask, is the only difference between these 28 countries that some have minimum wage and some do not, or are there other differences? For instance, do the countries with lower unemployment have more robust economies, or more manufacturing, or is their work force better educated, or do they have more robust labor unions that maintain higher wages through negotiations? To delve into all of the arguments, both pro and con would take a shelf of books and is beyond the scope of this brief review.
Several other arguments follow the general argument that any increase in wages will ultimately hurt the worker. Businesses, if they don’t have to lay people off or close, will have to reduce costs by cutting workers’ hours. David Neumark, Mark Schweitzer, and William Wascher argue this point in their “The Effects of Minimum Wages Throughout the Wage Distribution.” And they point out that this effect hurts the lowest wage workers, not those making more money.
Another possible way in which businesses may cut costs is eliminating insurance and other benefits that the low-wage worker currently enjoys. In addition, the increased minimum wage will result in a greater tax liability for the low-wage worker.
Exacerbating the increased unemployment as a result of raising the minimum wage will be a push to automate, and to outsource labor to other countries. Finally, there is a 2013 Boston College study that the increased unemployment, resulting from the raised minimum wage, will result in more crime and drug use.
2. The second general argument against raising the minimum wage is that an increase would hurt consumers, because businesses, if they are to survive, will have to pass on the added labor costs to the consumer, and so will increase prices.
Again, several other arguments flow from this general argument. A rise in consumer prices is considered inflationary, and therefore raising the minimum wage will result in inflation. Connected to this inflationary pressure is how it would be felt disproportionately around the country. Raising the minimum would disproportionately hurt the poorest areas of the United States. Given Mississippi’s cost of living at 83.5% of national average and Hawaii at 168.6%, any wage increase would be felt more in Mississippi than Hawaii. Mississippi employers would be increasing wages proportionately more while being less able to pass that cost on to buyers because the increases in prices would also be proportionately more.
Added to the other inflationary effects, raising the minimum wage would Increase housing costs. Raising the minimum wage would put more money in workers’ pockets, who would then seek better housing, resulting in an increased demand for better apartments, which in some communities, like Los Angeles, are in short supply. A higher demand for better apartments will increase the rent for those apartments.
3. Somewhat related to 1. above is the argument that raising the minimum wage will have an effect on young people trying to enter the job market. This is not job loss, but the creation of new obstacles to unskilled hires. Companies won’t pay workers with no skills a higher minimum wage. In addition, there are consequential downsides to young people’s difficulties finding a first job. There are studies that “those experience unemployment at an early age have years of lower earnings and an increased likelihood of unemployment ahead of them.”
Similarly, raising the minimum wage will disadvantage low-skilled workers. The same employers who will be reluctant to hire teenagers at a higher minimum wage with no work experience will be reluctant to pay older unskilled workers a higher minimum wage. Also putting unskilled workers at a disadvantage as a result of raising the minimum wage is the scenario that higher skilled workers, currently out of the workforce because they will not work for $7.25, will now reenter the work force given the incentive of higher pay, and replace lower skilled workers. All of the above scenarios has likened to “cutting off the bottom rung of the employment ladder,” reducing the likelihood of upward mobility.
Some advocates against raising the minimum wage argue that the increase will result in a decrease in high school enrollment and an increased dropout rate. Young people, attracted by the raised minimum wage, will leave school earlier and join the work force. Admittedly this would seem to contradict the argument in the paragraph above.
4. Significantly distinct from the already mentioned objections to raising the minimum wage is the economic theoretical argument that the government shouldn’t set prices. This derives from the principle that the U.S. is a market economy, and that prices are set by the market, not by a central price setter, like the government. Setting a minimum wage disrupts the balance of the market and how it allocates labor demand and supply, prohibiting the creation of new jobs. “Natural” market forces are most efficient for taking into account regional and market differences in supply and demand.
Connected to the argument that the government shouldn’t set the wage is that any “setting” of a wage is arbitrary, which encourages market instability and uncertainty. Why is one amount chosen over another, rather than letting the market find the “correct” value, based on “natural” market forces.
Mike Patton’s November 26, 2014 Forbes article, “The Facts on Increasing the Minimum Wage” begins with an opinion of the conservative Chicago economist, Milton Friedman, "...people whose skills are not sufficient to justify that kind of a wage will be unemployed." Although he agrees we really don’t have a free market, he seems to suggest that the market should dictate the minimum wage.
So how do we set a wage? Patton states that “most agree that a worker should be paid what he or she is worth.” This is defined as being “commensurate with the skills required for the job.” After positing two workers: a 16-year old burger flipper at McDonalds and 30-year old single mom working as certified nursing assistants, Patton continues that since the “status” of both workers is irrelevant to their “worth” as defined above, neither should have an increase. And this is despite the current concern that “it’s all about the poor, suffering, and needy and how the government will fix all of our woes.” The real point Patton is trying to make is that the question of wage is separate from and completely unrelated to the worker’s need.
This notion of insisting on the market setting the wages is taken to its logical conclusion by Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute in a December 8, 2015 article, “Simply put, we would rather see unskilled workers employed at a market wage – even if that wage is only $5, $6 an hour – that allows them to gain valuable work experience and on-the-job training, than to be unemployed at $0.00 an hour.” Admittedly this is a completely partisan opinion, but Professor Perry is an economist who teaches in the University of Michigan.
The argument that employee wages should be free to adjust to the market is somewhat disingenuous, since few economists would claim that prices for goods and services of all kinds do not exist in a free market. Businesses of all kinds have vast lobbying groups in Washington that try and succeed in influencing the federal legislators as to laws, rules and regulations. The banking industry, energy, communications, media, food, farming are all regulated and are able to influence and sometimes write their own regulations as well as receive tax breaks and subsidies.
5. Those arguing against raising the minimum wage questioning the data indicating benefits from such an increase. Mike Patton in his Forbes article claims that the benefit to the economy will not be as great as claimed, and goes through a simple calculation to prove his point. By multiplying the number of minimum wage workers by the increase in wages, he figures an additional $40.8 billion in money spent in the domestic economy, which he then figures is only additional .23% of total US GDP (Gross Domestic Production) of $18 trillion, “This increase, even if completely spent (which is doubtful), would not be very significant.”
It can be argued that other worker’s wages, earning marginally greater than the minimum wage, will increase as the minimum wage increases and that the increase in spent money from all these workers will have a ripple effect in the economy as demand increases for goods and services. But the point is not to criticize Patton’s figures, but to demonstrate how difficult it is to resolve the data problem.
There are several examples of areas where contradictory data and conclusions exist. There are multiple studies on whether crime would increase or decrease, and there does not seem to be a certain answer. Apparently there is some question as to whether productivity will in fact increase with increased minimum wages. And finally there is the biggest and what would seem to be the most basic question, whether raising the minimum wage will increase or decrease unemployment, and how long would that change last, whichever way it goes.
Mark Perry in that same December 8, 2015 article offered Seattle’s restaurant statistics after they raised their minimum wage to $15 / hour. However, there seems to be a significant amount of disagreement concerning Seattle’s restaurant prices and unemployment after the wage increase. For instance some claimed there was a reduction in restaurant trade as a result of higher prices, but others claimed the full story was that there was a reduction in restaurant trade outside of Seattle as well, where there was no increase in wages.
You Decide: Arguments for Raising the Minimum Wage
The arguments for raising the minimum wage are equally dependent on statistics and projections, difficult to prove with certainty until they are put in place.
1. One of the most consistent arguments for raising the minimum wage is that it will spur economic growth. Of course, it goes without saying that an excess of spurred economic growth can mean inflation, see 2. above. A 2013 report by David Cooper for The Economic Policy Institute projects that a wage increase from $7.25 to $10.10 would create $35 billion in added wages for 27.5 million workers, which would inject $22.1 billion into economy creating 85,000 new jobs over three years. (Apparently this was a worthwhile increase for Cooper, whereas Patton, above, calculated a $40.8 billion increase in GDP as being “not very significant”.)
An article by Daniel Aaronson and Eric French for the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago predicts a $1.75 rise in minimum wage would increase household spending by $48 billion the following year and increase gross domestic production in the near term, presumably resulting in job growth.
Two studies concerning increases to the minimum wage in New Jersey, one in 1994 by Card and Krueger, and one in 2009 by Doucouliagos and Stanley confirming Card’s and Krueger’s findings, found no decrease in employment as a result of an increase in minimum wage. Paul Krugman, the Princeton economist and Nobel Laureate who writes for the New York Times believes that since most minimum-wage jobs are in the food-service industry, raising their wages will not lead to outsourcing and therefore layoffs, because those service jobs can’t be outsourced.
Clearly the issue of whether it will reduce employment is key. Seven Nobel laureates in economics, along with 68 other economists signed a letter saying it wouldn’t, or if it did it would be negligible. Past increases in hourly pay have had “little or no negative effect on the employment of minimum wage workers, even during times of weakness in the labor market,” the economists wrote. “A minimum wage increase could have a small stimulative effect on the economy as low-wage workers spend their additional earnings.” John Schmitt, mentioned above, concluded his review of the academic research between 2000 and 2013 on the employment effect of raising the minimum wage, “the weight of the evidence points to little or no employment response to modest increases in the minimum wage.”
2. Certainly an important goal for increasing the minimum wage would be to decrease poverty, which advocates of the increase claim would be achieved. A 2014 Congressional Budget Report argues that increasing it to $9 would lift 300,000 people out of poverty, and raising it to $10.10 would lift 900,000 out of poverty. It should be noted that the study also predicted “some jobs for low-wage workers would probably be eliminated…” A study by Professor Dube of the University of Massachusetts in 2013 estimated that assuming a raise to $10.10, “(g)iven the roughly 275 million non-elderly Americans in 2013, the proposed minimum wage increase is projected to reduce the number of non-elderly living in poverty by around 4.6 million, or by 6.8 million when longer term effects are accounted for.”
Additional arguments for raising the minimum wage follow from a result of reducing poverty. It would reduce income inequality. Among the 35 member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), considered the developed nations, the U.S. is the third- or fourth-highest nation in income inequality, behind Chile, Mexico and Turkey. In 2013 the top 1 percent of families nationally made 25.3 times as much as the bottom 99 percent.
Raising the minimum wage (and redesigning the Earned Income Tax Credit) would reduce this income inequality according to Isabel Sawhill and Quentin Karilow. Jason Furman, Chairman of the council of Economic Advisors said on January 14, 2014 that “(t)he minimum wage doesn’t just matter for poverty, it matters for what President Obama has called the defining issue of our time, which is inequality…there have been a range of studies which have found that as much as one third to one half of increases in certain types of inequality has been due to the erosion in the value of the minimum wage.”
Raising the minimum wage would help reduce income inequality among the lowest paid workers. Because women, African Americans and Hispanics are paid proportionately less and make up a greater proportion of the minimum wage sector, raising the minimum wage would disproportionately benefit these classes of workers. Women make up 47% of the workforce but 63% of minimum wage workers. African Americans make up 12% of the workforce, but 17.7% of the minimum wage workforce. Hispanics make up 16% of the workforce, but 21.5% of the minimum wage workforce.
It is argued that raising the minimum wage would have a “ripple effect,” raising the wages of those immediately above the minimum wage. Benjamin Harris and Melissa Kearney, writing for the Brookings institute estimate that raising the minimum wage would raise not just the 3.7 million earning minimum wage, but a total of up to 35 million who make 29.4% of the workforce. Researchers at the White House Council of Economic Advisors found that increasing it to $10.10 would raise wages for 28 million, about 9 million due to the ripple effect.
There are several consequences of reducing poverty for the minimum wage workers. The current minimum wage is not enough to afford everyday essentials. Using data from Oxfam America, a majority of U.S. workers earning less than $10 say they just meet or don’t meet their basic living expenses, and 50% say they are frequently worried about affording basic necessities such as food. A 2015 study by the Alliance for a Just Society found that a worker earning $7.25 would have to work 93 hours a week to make ends meet “or skip necessities like meals and medicine.”
These reports back up the anecdotal evidence above. Not only is the current minimum wage unable to supply everyday essentials, it is unable to provide housing, again as told by the stories above. According to a 2015 report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a worker must earn at least $15.50 to afford a “modest” one-bedroom apartment. In Rawlins County, Kansas, with some of the most affordable housing in the country, a living wage including housing for one person with no dependents is estimated to be $9.22.
What would seem to be an obvious consequence of reducing poverty is the creation of a healthier population and prevention of premature deaths. Two studies from California, one by Rajiv Bhatia and the other by the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, found those earning a higher minimum wage would have enough to eat, be more likely to exercise, less likely to smoke, suffer from fewer psychological problems and prevent hundreds of premature deaths.
Additional social benefits to decreasing poverty by increasing minimum wage include increased school attendance and decreased high school dropout. Rajiv Bhatia’s study in California found that teens living in poverty are twice as likely to miss three or more days of school per month. And increasing income can improve school performance - students could work fewer hours for the same income, giving them more time to study. A study by Alex Smith found that an increase in the minimum wage would lead to a decrease in the likelihood that teens from poor families would drop out of school.
Another consequence of reducing poverty is a reduction in crime. An April 2016 report by the President’s Council of Economic Advisors stated the following “Drawing on literature that finds that higher wages for low-income individuals reduce crime by providing viable and sustainable employment, CEA finds that raising the minimum wage to $12 by 2020 would result in a 3 to 5 percent crime decrease (250,000 to 510,000 crimes) and a societal benefit of $8 to $17 billion dollars.”
3. A consequence of reducing poverty, but different enough to warrant a separate heading as an argument for increasing the minimum wage is the benefit not to the low paying worker, but to the commonweal, by a reduction in government welfare spending. The Center for American Progress reported in 2014, raising it to $10.10 would reduce SNAP (or food stamps) spending by $4.6 billion. The Economic Policy Institute estimated an increase to $10.10 would reduce those dependent on government assistance by 1.7 million and reduce government spending by $7.6 billion.
As a consequence of the reduction in government welfare spending, a raise in the minimum wage would help reduce the federal deficit, not only by lowering spending on public assistance programs, but also by increasing tax revenue.
In addition, as Aaron Pacitti points out in a April 27, 2015 article in the Huffington Post, since businesses are allowed to pay poverty level – wages to 3.6 million people, 5 percent of the workforce, these workers can and must rely on federal income support programs, which means taxpayers are subsidizing these businesses. This should be a welcome argument to those who are free-market advocates and suspicious of government subsidies to businesses.
4. One of the arguments for raising the minimum wage is based on a notion of intent. If the minimum wage was intended to provide a wage related to a worker’s standard of living or value of work, then the wage is not fixed by a dollar amount, but must be tied to the value that compensation represents. It must therefore be adjusted to the value of the dollar, in other words adjusted for inflation. The minimum wage has not kept up with inflation. Minimum wage in 1968 was $1.60 which equals $11.16 in 2016 dollars. As for arbitrariness, tying minimum wage to inflation would increase it in a way that is not arbitrary, but ties it to a predictable, verifiable, and accepted value, based on the intent of the minimum wage.
Somewhat connected to the intent of the minimum wage and how it is arrived at, some economists have argued that if wage is compensation for work performed, and can be measured in productivity, then improvements in productivity and economic growth have outpaced the minimum wage. Center for Economic and Policy Research estimates minimum wage would be $21.72 in 2012 if it had kept pace with increases in productivity since 1968. Institute for Policy Studies estimated that since 1968 personal income has doubled, so if minimum wage was tied to income growth it would be $21.16.
Again, in tying minimum wage to something verifiable and widely accepted, the Economist magazine stated in 2015 that the U.S. is an outlier among advanced economies. Most countries and many states calculate minimum wage based on a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Given a GDP of around $53,00 per person for the nation, the minimum wage should be around $12.
5. Increasing the minimum wage would benefit the employer, so the argument goes. Some reasonably argue that the government doesn’t know their business better than they do and they don’t need the government making business decision for them. The idea that the government uses rules and regulations to nudge good behavior from its citizens is hardly new. Again, it seems intuitive that paying workers more, encourages greater productivity and reduces turnover, which costs the employer money. A 2014 study by Institute for Research on Labor and Employment found that turnover rates decrease in restaurant workers and teens when minimum wages were increased. As for the question of whether raising the minimum wage would increase productivity, a recent raise in Britain’s minimum wage prompted discussion of the connection and a review of the literature, but there seems to be too much contradictory data to make a definitive statement as to productivity and the raising the minimum wage. On the other hand Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times wrote an article on a comparison between Walmart and Costco, the conclusion of which was that Costco’s higher wages result in higher productivity of its workers. This in turn saved Costco money.
The California Experiment
The California increase in minimum wage presents an interesting opportunity to see how a national minimum wage increase might work out, in part because the increase is significant, and because California’s economy is the sixth-largest economy in the world. Michael Wang wrote in “Here’s How California’s Minimum Wage Increase Will Impact the Retail Industry” about how it might play out. The first annual increase from $10 to $10.50 starting Jan. 1, 2017, then up to $11 on January 1, 2018, and $1 more per hour annually until it reaches $15 on January 1, 2022. In the first year it will increase one worker’s wage to $1,040 / year for a 40-hour week. For a 15 worker shop that is an extra $15,600 to labor. By 2022 that number will reach $156,000. (Wang’s article has a misprint, reflecting that amount at 2020). Wang then proceeds to work out how the employer would work out the increased labor costs.
One way is to cut jobs and require increased output from the remaining workforce. While an employer could opt to decrease the number of hours for each worker, the more logical approach would be to keep the most experienced and productive workers at their current schedules. This creates increased competition for fewer jobs, albeit higher-skilled jobs. Another likely option is that prices will rise. When the retailer passes the increase down to the consumer, that will in some cases negate the worker’s higher income. And of course, there's always the option for California apparel manufacturers to increase production overseas.
One potentially neutral result that often accompanies increases in labor costs is innovation to improve efficiency and reduce headcount. The truth is, Wang Concludes, nobody knows exactly how everything will unfold for California's retail industry. Wang acknowledges that it is possible that the increased minimum wage will result in less employee turnover and increased consumer spending, which could help offset higher operational costs. It is also possible that a significant number of retail jobs will be cut, and some companies will close.
What is as interesting as the financial and economic calculations is what California’s current political leader said in explaining how he arrived at raising the minimum wage. Governor Jerry Brown said it might not make sense economically, but it is necessary from a moral and political standpoint, as it "binds the community together and makes sure that parents can take care of their kids in a much more satisfactory way." These are exactly the arguments that Patton, Perry, Friedman, and some of the other advocates for not raising the minimum wage say are irrelevant, and yet Governor Brown seemed to acknowledge it was paramount, which may indicate the greatest divide in this debate. While so much of the debate is by academics over data, and where their conclusions are cherry-picked by the various leaders on both sides in an effort to rationalize their position, the Governor is acknowledging it may not make economic sense, but there is a higher order, a moral path, to follow, allowing all workers a right to make a livable wage.
High school history teacher Gabriel Swanger, who teaches in a suburban Boston public school has taken this opportunity in designing a robust, grading-intensive research project for his class.
Green Comma is pleased to distribute the lesson plan to teachers everywhere. Please honor the Open Education Resources code of honor if you share it with your colleagues. SEE ABOVE FOR CREATIVE COMMONS LICENSE.
From Green Comma: Fake news and the inability to distinguish fact from fiction might have affected the outcome of a presidential election; it certainly affects the knowledge of high school students across the country. We believe that media literacy is at a new threshold.
This post is prompted by the following news report on National Public Radio: Students Have 'Dismaying' Inability To Tell Fake News From Real, Study Finds
Fall 2016 Freshmen Research Project (100 Points)
Assignment: Explain the “hype” and then identify the truth surrounding some of Trump’s cabinet choices. This is an individual project, although you may share resources with others.
Requirements: A “process paper” that takes your reader through your journey from hype to truth, compares the two, and takes a stand on your assigned individual’s potential to serve his or her country. Your process paper should be 3-5 pages long (double-spaced, 12-point font, etc). You should have no fewer than 4 “hype” articles (2 per side), and 4 news articles. Submit all your notes on NoodleTools.
Steps to Success: Researching
Steps to Success: Your “Process Paper”
Resources, Links, and Nominees
Cabinet Members (as of 12/9/16):
In the running:
Sample note format:
Each time you finish a step, ask yourself:
The following article was developed by Green Comma as a discussion resource for use in grades 9-12 classrooms as well as in freshmen college classrooms. The principal writer is Douglas Houston, a lawyer living in Cambridge, MA, who frequently collaborates with Green Comma’s managing director, Amit Shah.
All opinions are the writers’ own.
This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, and although their new works must also acknowledge you and be non-commercial, they don’t have to license their derivative works on the same terms.
Every time we use Google as a search engine, go through a toll plaza on the highway, stream music online, use the map feature on our phones, shop using a credit card, post on social media, we are sharing data about ourselves with interested groups who want to either sell products to us based on our behaviors and preferences or track our activities.
Security versus Privacy
With the ubiquity of data collection in our daily lives, it is important for us to understand the cost-benefit of this transformational science.
In the recent U.S. presidential election, we were bombarded by polls, which are data collections of individuals’ opinions and preferences on a variety of issues. We saw the failure of such data collection not always because the algorithms were faulty but that data frequently projections on voter behaviors were made on data that was not complete. Many voters who were being polled did not provide reliable data.
One of the largest and by far the most debated data collection is for national security to weed out threats of terrorism at home and abroad. We will focus our discussion on this area where the commonly understood means of protecting one’s privacy are fast becoming obsolete as the need for information to secure our well-being grows.
Threats to National Security: Historical Perspective
There have been threats to our national security throughout our history. In the late nineteenth century the United States labor movement occasionally resorted to violence. (The Great Railroad Strike of 1877, the Haymarket Affair of 1886, and the Homestead Strike of 1892, among others.) The anarchist movement of the early twentieth century spawned its own homegrown terrorists ꟷ Luigi Galleani advocated violence and was rumored to be responsible for the 1920 Wall Street bombing killing 38 people. Sacco and Vanzetti, two anarchists, killed two men robbing a shoe factory in South Braintree, Massachusetts in 1920. Their conviction spurred another anarchist, Severino Di Giovanni, to bomb the American Embassy in Buenos Aires.
And during those periods of “terrorism” in the United States, there were complaints of governmental overreach. Many felt that Sacco and Vanzetti had been unfairly tried, and certainly labor advocates felt the government was trying to crush the workers’ movement, which had legitimate concerns about safety and wages.
The latter half of the twentieth century had the Black nationalist movements, most widely known through the Black Panther Party, and a section of antiwar movement against the Vietnam War, the most violent of which was the Weather Underground. While the violence committed by the Black Panther Party was negligible, the Weather Underground actually declared war on the United States government on May 21, 1970 and committed several bombings including: the March 1, 1971 Capitol bombing, the May 19, 1972 Pentagon bombing, and the January 29, 1975 Department of State bombing.
Again the government’s response was criticized after it was learned how aggressive their response had been. J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, called the Black Panther party the “greatest threat to the internal security of the country” and instituted a covert program to infiltrate them, “Cointelpro.” As is too often the case, the authorities lost focus and cast too wide a net, collecting data and targeting groups like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, as well as leaders of nonviolent protest such as Martin Luther King, Jr. The excesses of the FBI’s reaction are chronicled in the Church Committee Report, a U.S. Senate Select Committee to Study Government Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities in 1975.
During this same period white supremacists burned down churches in the South. Right to Life advocates bombed several abortion clinics and targeted doctors who performed abortions. And on April 26, 1995 two lone terrorists bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City killing 168 people. There have been bombings and terrorist acts throughout our history, and consequently there have been police and intelligence gathering to combat such threats.
Where We Are Today: the Patriot Act
Our current security issue did not start on September 11, 2001. Prior to the Oklahoma City bombing, on February 26, 1993 Ramzi Yousef, a member of al-Qaeda, led a group that detonated a bomb in the basement of the World Trade Center in New York City, meant to collapse the building. It failed, but killed six people and injured more than a thousand. On September 11, 2011 four passenger airliners were hijacked by al-Qaeda members. Two crashed into the World Trade Towers, one crashed into the Pentagon, and one crashed in a field in Pennsylvania, killing a total of 2,996 and injuring over 6,000. In the same month, but almost certainly not connected to al-Qaeda, the United States suffered a biological attack by anthrax, which killed five, infected 17 others, frightened millions and disrupted the US Postal Service for months, among other agencies. The result was the “USA Patriot Act,” that provided for increased security measures including data collection on a grand scale.
Signed into law on October 26, 2011, a little over a month after 9/11, its name is an acronym for “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001.” Its very title refers to intercepting information. The Patriot Act was passed by a vast majority of legislators, 357 to 66 in the House and 98 to 1 in the Senate.
Government Surveillance: Title II, Section 215
Title II of the Act contains the most controversial sections, amending the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act, expanding the government’s authority to intercept electronic communications. Section 215 of Title II, the “library records” provision, provides for the collection of personal data.
The U.S. has for years intercepted overseas electronic data requiring no warrants. The Church Committee, mentioned above, sought through the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to rein in excessive intelligence gathering both overseas and domestic, establishing a special court, the FISA Court, to review government requests for electronic surveillance. Before the Patriot Act, the FBI could petition the FISA Court ordering common carriers to provide business records pertaining to a foreign power. Section 215 enlarged business records to any records from any business, not just common carriers, while maintaining its limit “. . . to obtain foreign intelligence information not concerning a United States person . . .” (50 USC § 1861 (a)(1))
Seeds, Hops, and the Leak
Under Section 215, the government began in May 2006 collecting telephone metadata in bulk, which includes routing information, date and time of call, number called, and duration of call. The government could focus on one phone number, the “seed” number, and then collect metadata on all calls connected to that “seed” number. Those numbers are products of the first “hop”. The government was authorized to conduct two more hops, collecting all the metadata connected to the numbers produced in the first hop; all the metadata connected to the numbers collected from the second hop; and all the metadata from the numbers collected from the third hop. This metadata collection does not include any content of the calls. The original order, which is good for 90 days, keeps getting renewed, and the data is kept for five years by the National Security Agency (NSA).
On June 6, 2013 the English newspaper, The Guardian, published a copy of the FISA Court order, stolen by an NSA contractor, Edward Snowden. The Obama administration, as a result of the public outcry over the amount of data being collected and the certainty that the data was on and about US citizens, established the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) and the President’s Review Group. The result was limiting the NSA’s collection to two hops, and requiring a FISA judge to establish that a reasonable suspicion has been established before a first “seed” number can be searched. On May 7, 2015 the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in ACLU v. Clapper held that Section 215 did not authorize the bulk telephone metadata program.
The Court did not decide any constitutional issues, but decided the case narrowly, noting the law was to expire June, 1, 2015, unless it was renewed. The judge wrote, "Such expansive development of government repositories of formerly private records would be an unprecedented contraction of the privacy expectations of all Americans. . . . We would expect such a momentous decision to be preceded by substantial debate, and expressed in unmistakable language. There is no evidence of such a debate."
The Response to ACLU v. Clapper: Can a Balance Be Achieved?
The attorney general responded at a May 7, 2015 Senate budget hearing that the NSA data collection was a “vital tool in our national security arsenal.” On June 2, 2015 Congress passed and the President signed the USA Freedom Act, restoring part of the Section 215, through 2019, but ending the bulk collection of United States citizens’ telecommunication metadata. The phone companies must retain the metadata themselves and provide it to the NSA only if ordered by a FISA Court. Critics argue that bulk collection can continue under Section 702 of FISA, which expires in 2017, and Executive Order 12333.
The debate over the Freedom Act is the debate that threads throughout all confrontations between privacy and security. The Software Alliance, which helped sponsor the legislation, stated that “in reforming surveillance practices, it is critical that legislation strikes the right balance between securing our nation and its citizens and improving privacy protections for the public. The FISA reforms in the USA Freedom Act will help restore trust in the US government and the US technology sector.”
The ACLU and other critics argue the Freedom Act does not reform the Patriot Act and adequately protect privacy. Three former NSA employees oppose the Freedom Act saying it is not enough; that the NSA collects vast amounts of data the public is not aware of. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, cites the 9/11 Commission Report’s finding that the government’s inability to “connect the dots” between known or suspected terrorists was exacerbated by the “wall” between domestic law enforcement and US intelligence services, the CIA and the NSA. There are reports by among others, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, that by June 2015, several terrorist plots were thwarted, presumably as a result of the robust data collection by the NSA. Unfortunately, the number is uncertain and these unsubstantiated claims by the NSA has eroded media and public confidence in their claim.
How Much Data Are We Talking About?
Snowden’s initial disclosure revealed that the FISA Court ordered Verizon to turn over all domestic phone metadata for part of 2013. Mattathias Schwartz, writing for the New Yorker magazine soon after the Clapper decision estimated the NSA (“and soon the phone companies”) collected “metadata for ‘hundreds of billions of phone calls.” A group of anonymous officials told the Washington Post that they collected less than 30 percent of the total domestic calls, due to the use of cell phones. Todd Hinnen, an official of the Justice Department testified on March 9, 2011 that Section 215 has been used to not just collect telephone metadata, but also to collect driver’s license records, hotel records, car rental records, apartment leases, credit card, “and the like.”
Snowden’s leaked documents also disclose the existence of another data collection program through the Patriot Act called “PRISM.” Under PRISM the NSA can petition the FISA Court to order internet providers to hand over internet communications. These providers included: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Paltalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, and Apple.
The Cost of the Trade Off?
Clearly the data collection is massive, and a reasonable question is whether more data is being collected than could competently be analyzed. But regardless of the amount of data, the question remains, and the one the government relies on, given the threat, isn’t the decrease in privacy worth the added security? Prior to Snowden’s leaked documents, the public was unaware of the data collection, but now we know.
Currently, data collection is on a similar footing as airline security. People complained bitterly about the airline security lines and proposed search methods. Presumably if enough people felt the cost of the airport searches was too great, as balanced against the perceived threat, airport searches would have been discontinued. The government has relaxed some airlines security procedure, but has not discontinued them. Since the Snowden document leak, and the ensuing public debate, the government has adjusted its data collection, the data collection has become narrower and is scrutinized more, but it has continued.
It’s Not Just the Government, It’s Acxiom and Others
The collection of data is going on all the time, not just by the government, in fact rarely first by the government and certainly less by the government than by private enterprise. Internet providers collect data about their users and sell it to advertisers and retailers. The NSA had to go to the providers to get their data. A private company, Acxiom, collects not just people’s buying habits, but their buying interests, by collecting what websites they visit. Jason Morris and Ed Lavandera reported on August 23, 2012 on CNN that Acxiom reported $1.1 billion in sales, offering data on 144 million households. “Data is now a $300 billion-a-year industry and employees three million people in the US alone, according to the McKinsey Global Institute.” Axciom’s Chief Executive Officer, Scott Howe, in an attempt to demystify and presumably calm the public, said, “Companies like Axciom are trying to get intelligent about what you might be interested in and who you are.” One might look at this differently and be disturbed that companies are collecting and selling information, without our knowledge or permission, on who we are and what we might be interested in.
In a March 9, 2014 CBS "60 Minutes" piece Acxiom reported that they had on average 1,500 pieces of information on over 200 million Americans. Tim Sparapani, an attorney formerly with the ACLU, listed the kinds of data being collected, how the data collectors and data brokers specialize, what they collect and what they sell. These data companies have information on the medication people take, their medical conditions including depression, cancer, and their sexual orientation. One broker advertises lists of people suffering from bipolar disorder, another advertises lists of people with addiction issues, and another lists of people with sexually transmitted diseases. We are vaguely aware of the data that is continuously collected about us.
Data Collection and Good Governance
Susan Crawford, a Harvard Law professor and Stephen Goldsmith, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, have written The Responsive City, Engaging Communities through Data-Smart Governance. They argue that data is one of the keys to good governance. Crawford was interviewed on November 13, 2014 by Ethan Zuckerman, director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media. At the end of her presentation on municipal data collection, which included reference to “311” citizen programs and their use in combating rats efficiently and economically, she stated that we are beyond fighting data collection, it’s going to happen. But it was in the question and answer section that she touched on the conflict inherent in data collection, and the challenges of balancing competing and even conflicting interests.
Crawford was asked by Zuckerman about “predictive policing,” “algorithmically deciding to intervene before we actually suspect someone,” which can be, and was interpreted by Crawford as code for a negative consequence of municipal data collection. Crawford discussed CompStat, which blandly refers to “computer statistics.” It also has a more specific reference however. CompStat is the name of a policing program begun in New York City in the 1990’s.
Jack Maples, a transit cop, in the 1980s began charting with pins on paper, crimes in the NYC transit system. Using his “Charts of the Future,” he implemented focused policing efforts which produced significant crime reduction in the transit system. His boss, William Bratton was head of the transit police at the time, and in the early 1990s was promoted to head the NYC Police Department. Bratton brought with him Maples’ charts, which were ultimately computerized to become CompStat, a computerized system of tracking crime throughout New York City, and then implementing increased forces in those locations. Implemented alongside CompStat was another program, the “broken window” policy, whereby minor crimes are responded to with the idea that response to minor crimes, as well as major crimes, discourages or inhibits more serious criminality.
CompStat is another example of data collection, analysis, and implementation of policy that puts a focus on the effort to balance contradictory goals. Clearly, the goal of reducing crime is worthwhile. However, in terms of police conduct, CompStat and the broken window policy were largely implemented in the poorest sections of New York City, which coincidentally were inhabited primarily by minorities. In addition, critics claimed that the very act of data collection caused its own distortion of the very data being collected.
Saki Knafo’s February 18, 2106 New York Times article, “A Black Police Officer’s Fight Against the N.Y.P.D.” describes how the data corruption went both ways. Sometimes arrests were underreported to show that crime was decreasing and sometimes officers were encouraged or pressured to make arrests to raise statistics in order to show aggressive policing. This pressure to raise arrest rates invariably occurred in minority neighborhoods, creating more tension and mistrust between the citizenry and the police force. It is fair to say that the “stop and frisk” controversy in New York City is connected to CompStat.
The arguments pro and con concerning CompStat match with uncanny similarity, those concerning privacy and security in the national debate. In CompStat, it is security or lowered crime rates balanced against the risk of unfair treatment of minorities and racism. Crawford acknowledges the benefit of CompStat while also acknowledging necessary steps to maintain its accuracy and fairness.
“Police departments were the first to use predictive analytics because their business model benefitted from incremental advances in where crime might happen and allocating resources to those places. CompStat was first in New York. The answer is always to support visibility, public understanding (including the disparate impact), and the rule of law. Just because technology is capable of being abused doesn't mean it will be. That's why it's important to cross-train people in law, policy, and tech. We don't want to give up on technology because of the risk.”
Mass Data Collection’s Self-Correcting Worm
On January 5, 2010 a 23-year old Army Specialist went to work at his “office” in Forward Operating Base Hammer, near Baghdad, Iraq. Chelsea Manning (born Bradley Manning and served under that name and gender) had been there only three months, but because his title was “intelligence analyst,” he had TS/SCI security clearance, Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmentalized Information and could access SIPRNet, the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network, and JWICS, the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System. Specialist Manning downloaded 400,000 documents that day pertaining to the United States prosecution of its war in Iraq and Afghanistan. On January 8 he downloaded another 91,000 documents and smuggled the documents out on what appeared to be a Lady Gaga CD. Between March 28 and April 9 he downloaded 250,000 diplomatic cables.
Manning was convicted and imprisoned. The documents were published by WikiLeaks, and the world became aware of many policies and acts by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as diplomatic policies and the privately held opinions of its diplomats, which caused great embarrassment and public anger toward the United States both domestically and abroad.
Both Manning and Snowden reveal perhaps a self-correcting consequence of mass data collecting and its use and misuse by the government. These instances of the collection, retention, and subsequent theft and publication of huge amounts of data ꟷ data revealing the government’s own questionable collection of data may be considered a balancing force to the privacy concerns of its citizens. Perhaps the mere accumulation of vast amounts of emails, reports, and video footage, all in digital form, necessarily made accessible worldwide to the different branches of the government, guarantee a certain amount of inevitable transparency by the apparent ease of their theft.
The transparency that Crawford advocates, the checks and balances, the auditing that CompStat is supposed to encourage and be dependent upon, when it fails, makes the theft and dissemination appropriate. This is the defense that both Snowden and Manning maintain.
The complexity of understanding data collection in the context of democratic and social justice frames in the twenty-first century is one of the great challenges. There are, as we have tried to outline, enormous benefits in economy, technology, and society at large as well as challenging civil rights issues to navigate.
Writing in Big Data: A Revolution, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier conclude:
“ . . . [big] data . . . as a tool that doesn’t offer ultimate answers, just good enough ones to help us now until better methods and hence better answers come along. It also suggests that we must use this tool with a generous degree of humility . . . and humanity.”
The following article was developed by Green Comma as a discussion resource for use in grades 9-12 classrooms as well as in freshmen college classrooms. The principal writer is Douglas Houston, a lawyer living in Cambridge, MA, who frequently collaborates withGreen Comma’s managing director, Amit Shah.
All opinions are the writers’ own.
Photo pf Picasso's "Guernica."
This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, and although their new works must also acknowledge you and be non-commercial, they don’t have to license their derivative works on the same terms.
What Is Aleppo?
When Gary Johnson, the Libertarian presidential candidate, was asked in a television interview about what he would do to address the crisis in Aleppo, Johnson famously drew a blank and said “What is Aleppo?”
Aleppo is a slaughterhouse of the twenty-first century.
Currently, there are 250,000 people who are cornered in this city, bombarded and starved. Of these, 100,000 are children.
It is the greatest humanitarian tragedy of our times.
“The girl comes screaming out of the rubble, pulled by her purple shirt from the wreckage of the house, destroyed by an airstrike five hours earlier. A rescuer hoists her up and places her into the arms of another man. “Get an ambulance!” he yells. An excited shout goes up from other rescuers and bystanders—“Allahu akbar!” “God is great!” The girl’s hair is matted and her face is smeared with blood. For a second, the camera captures her tiny face, anguished and confused. Later, the rescuers pull out a young boy, alive and waving a bloody hand. Then the rescue team pulls out two more children. Their bodies are lifeless, their faces white with dust. The men of the Civil Defense, Syria’s volunteer rescue organization also known as the White Helmets, lay the children in blankets. The onlookers murmur and cluck their tongues in dismay.” (Report in TIME magazine, Oct. 7, 2016)
“The White Helmets go out, of course, for one another, but because they want the world to see what they see.” (TIME, October 17, 2016).
The Catastrophe In a Nutshell
“Today, an estimated 11 million Syrians have fled their homes since the outbreak of the civil war in March 2011. Now, in the sixth year of war, 13.5 million are in need of humanitarian assistance within the country. Among those escaping the conflict, the majority have sought refuge in neighbouring countries or within Syria itself. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 4.8 million have fled to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq, and 6.6 million are internally displaced within Syria. Meanwhile about one million have requested asylum to Europe. Germany, with more than 300,000 cumulated applications, and Sweden with 100,000, are EU’s top receiving countries.”
Then What of Aleppo?
It turns out Aleppo would be famous if only because it is one of the oldest continuously lived-in cities in the world existing in the twentieth-century BC. Tell Qaramel, the remains of a settlement 15 miles north of Aleppo dates back 13,000 years. It lies 75 miles inland from the Mediterranean, an important stop on the Silk Road, a monument to human civilization and its endurance. It is now in ruins, all accomplished in the last five years. A 13,000-year old city destroyed in five years. It is hard to imagine. Look for yourself.
Aleppo lies in northwestern Syria, not far from the border with Turkey. It is agrarian land, cultivated for thousands of years ꟷ the Fertile Crescent, irrigated by the Euphrates River, the birthplace of agriculture and domesticated animals. Syria is part of the Levant, about the size of the state of Washington, pushed up against the eastern end of the Mediterranean by Iraq, and sharing that piece of Mediterranean shore with Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel. About 75 miles off its shore is the Island of Cyprus. Syria’s capital, Damascus, is also one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.
To understand what has happened in Syria over the past five years, we have contructed a narrative timeline. The timeline is simply a set of markers to guide the exploration of the devastation.
The Modern State of Syria
Syria, as a state, did not come into being until 1920. Syria had been part of one of the longest lasting (1299-1923) and largest empires, the Ottoman Empire. In fact, Syria has always been a part of something else: a Greek province in 330 BC, a Roman province in 64 BC, a part of the Byzantine empire after that. But as a province of other empires it held a singularly important position as a lynch pin in the Silk Road, the only trade connection between the East and the West for 1,500 years. In World War I the Ottoman Empire had sided with Germany and Austria, and when they were defeated, Russia, France and England split what was left of the Ottoman Empire. France was given Syria, Lebanon and part of Turkey to govern.
Syria’s ethnicity is about 90 percent Arab; the remainder being Kurds and other groups. The religious groups include 87 percent Muslim, of which 74 percent are Sunni; 10 percent Christian, and 3 percent Druze. Syria’s Sunni community puts Syria in the 90 percent majority of the Muslim world. Iran, Azerbaijan, Iraq and Bahrain hold the10 percent Shia population. Syrian Arabs, Greeks, Armenians, Assyrians, Kurds, and Turks, and religious groups including Sunnis, Christians, Alawites, Druze, and Shiites, all lived in what is now Syria.
Syria’s Independence, Military Coups, and the Ba’ath Party
French troops left Syria in April 1946, but that did not bring a period of peace and prosperity. Within two years, Syrian troops, along with other Arab states, invaded Palestine. In March 1949 Col. Husni al-Za’im led what was the first military coup in the Arab world. Two more military coups followed in the next two years, the last abolishing the multiparty political system.
A parliamentary system was restored in 1954. At that time the Ba’ath party, which was to have its most enduring effect on Syria and Iraq, was the second-largest party. Although there was the beginning of a democratic government, with five years of military rule, power had already become concentrated in the military.
The 1956 Suez Crisis, Military Defeats, and the Improbable Domestic Success of the Military
In November 1956 Syria signed a pact with Soviet Union, in part as a result of the failed Suez Canal invasion by France, Britain, and Israel. This pact began a relationship that supplied Syria with Soviet weapons and support, and gave the Soviet Union, Tartus, its only Mediterranean port for its navy ships. Another consequence of the Suez Crisis was Syria’s merging with Egypt in February 1958, creating the United Arab Republic.
Syria seceded from Egypt in 1961 after another military coup by a group of Ba’athist Army officers, which included Captain Hafez al-Assad. On March 8, 1963 the Military Committee of the Ba’ath party led another coup, the fifth since 1949, and put Syria under Emergency Law for the next 48 years. In 1966 a group of Army officers staged another coup and imprisoned the current president.
In June 1967 Israel made a preemptive strike against what Israel considered a military buildup by Egypt on its border, resulting in the Six-Day War. Syria’s defeat and loss of a section of the Golan Heights caused a split between the civilian part of the Ba’ath party and the military part under Hafez al-Assad.
In 1970 Syrian forces suffered a third defeat when they supported the Palestinian Liberation Organization in the Black September Revolution against Jordan. In November 1970 Minister of Defense, Hafez al-Assad dissolved the civilian government and assumed complete control in the “Corrective Revolution,” what was essentially the seventh military coup since 1949.
Hafez al-Assad and Stability
Hafez al-Assad was president from 1970 to 2000, and his son, Bashar al-Assad succeeded him. Finally, Syria attained what it had lacked for 22 years, a sustained period of stability with the Assads. However, that stability was gained through an authoritarian regime, according to Freedom House, an NGO (nongovernmental organization) that rates political rights and civil liberties worldwide.
With stability and military rule came a certain tolerance. Hafez was Alawite and Alawi Islam includes elements of Christianity and other non-Islamic influences. However, the government and more doctrinaire Muslims ran into trouble. Russia had Tartus, and the US had a stable country with which it could partner on occasion. Syria, for instance, joined the US coalition to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1990.
The Lebanese Incursion and the Hama Massacre
In October 1973, Syria and Egypt attacked Israel in what became known as the Yom Kippur War, and again Syria was defeated, losing more land to Israel, and further destabilizing Lebanon after the Black September Revolution in Jordan. The Palestinian refugees in Lebanon organized and that eventually resulted in the Lebanese Civil War in 1975. Syria sent soldiers to stabilize Lebanon, effectively becoming an occupying force for 30 years. In 2005 Lebanon’s ex-premier was assassinated. Syrian involvement was alleged; and the result was Syria’s withdrawal.
The Syrian arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, which advocates an Islamic state, had often clashed with the secular Ba’ath Party. In 1982 the Muslim Brotherhood revolted in Hama, a city between Homs and Aleppo. In what became known as the “Hama Massacre,” one of the bloodiest suppressions of a civilian population by its own military, between 10,000 and 40,000 civilians were killed along with 10,000 Syrian soldiers. Much of the old city was destroyed and the government wiped out whatever remained of the Brotherhood.
Bashar al-Assad and the Revolution Foments
When Bashar al-Assad was elected president, unopposed, in 2000 there were hopes of political reform and an opening of the political process. Bashar was trained as a doctor and had studied in London.
Then, in 2011, the “Arab Spring” arrived, partly awakened by the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s authoritarian Ba’athist regime in Iraq in 2003, the weakening of Al Qaeda, and a generation dissatisfied with what they saw as authoritarian regimes, unfairness in distribution of wealth and violations of human rights .
Some argue that Bashar’s loosening of economic constraints caused a greater disparity in wealth. Beginning in 2006 Syria began suffering from a severe drought which caused a migration of people to the cities, increasing the number of poor and concentrating them into the cities. The poor and disaffected began to protest along with those seeking civil liberties.
The Demonstrations, Bashar’s Concessions, the Flight to Turkey, and the Free Syrian Army
The demonstrations calling for government reform began in January 2011 in the northeast, and moved westward. In March there were protests in Daraa against the jailing and torture of students. Major protests followed in Damascus and Aleppo where protesters were killed. On March 25 tens of thousands of people demonstrated in Daraa and more demonstrators were killed. On April 25 Daraa was besieged and tanks were used. The siege ended May 5, but other cities experienced similar violent protests and military responses. It was reported that tens of thousands had been detained and hundreds were wounded or killed over the next several months. As the protests continued and the military continued its brutal response, the army suffered defections.
During March and April, 2011 Bashar offered certain concessions in an effort to satisfy the protesters and placate the international community, but these concessions either came too late, were never carried out, or were inadequate given the contemporaneous bloodletting.
On June 4 protesters set fire to a building in Jisr Ash-Shugur and took control of a police station taking its weapons and several security force people were killed. The fighting continued until the Syrian army massed and people from the town fled into Turkey. On July 29 a group of officers defected and announced the formation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which vowed to remove Bashar and his government.
By September 2011 there were several organized rebel military groups. By October the FSA was receiving support from Turkey, as well as maintaining its headquarters there. In November 2011 the FSA and the Syrian Army began a fight over the occupation of Homs, which lasted for the next four years. In December it appeared that NATO was supplying military support to the rebels through Turkey. It was also reported that French and British Special Forces trainers were assisting the rebels, along with the US CIA.
The End of Protests and the Beginning of Civil War
By January 2012 political protests had given way to armed conflict between the Syrian Army and the FSA-led rebels. There were clashes around the suburbs of Damascus and the Syrian Army’s use of tanks became common. Rebels held various cities and then lost them. By April 2012, the death toll had reached 10,000.
On April 2012 a cease fire established through the UN failed and in June 2012 the UN called the conflict a civil war. The fighting moved to Damascus and Aleppo, the two largest cities. By July 2012, 19,000 people had been killed. In July rebel forces tried to take Damascus, but failed. After that they focused on Aleppo. In August UN observers witnessed the use of fighter jets by the government against the rebels in Aleppo. US tried to bluff and warned Assad that there were limits to what military measures he could use against the rebels.
The Chess Board Called Syria
Russia supports Bashar with military equipment and intelligence because of its interest in Tartus. Hezbollah supplies Bashar with troops because of Syria’s historical support of Hezbollah. Iran supports Bashar presumably because Russia and Iran often find themselves on the same side, along with Hezbollah. The Christian communities support Bashar’s secular government because they fear a rebel victory will lead to an Islamic state
The FSA is the original organized member of the opposition. Saudi Arabia, a Sunni nation, has been supplying the opposition with arms and humanitarian aid. The US has supplied the FSA with weapons and other support. The main rebel group in the northwest is Al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate. However, in July 2016 it rebranded itself and broke with Al- Qaeda. Turkey continues to support the rebels. ISIL had control of the northeastern third of Syria by July 2014. As a result of the Hama Massacre, the Muslim Brotherhood is also opposed to Bashar. But part of the problem with the opposition is that it is splintered and disorganized. Some have reported as many as 1,000 different opposition groups.
What of Aleppo?
The 2004 census revealed that Aleppo had a population of 2,132,100, before the conflict. In July 2012 rebels attacked Aleppo for the first time, taking over the area on East side of the Queiq River, with the government forces holding the West side. The government unsuccessfully used planes and mortar to try to dislodge the rebels, and in the process caused massive destruction. By March of 2013, more than half the buildings had been damaged or destroyed, and that winter there was a food crisis.
Luke Mogelson, writing in the New Yorker, paints a grim portrait of the city, government snipers shooting across the Queiq River killing civilians. By March 2013 in “an assessment of fewer than half the city’s neighborhoods…13,500 people had been killed and 23,000 injured. Fifteen hundred of the dead were under five years old.” According to Mogelson, al-Nusra was providing the military lead in April 2013.
There have been reports of rebel atrocities as well. In February 2012 videos appeared to show rebels executing supporters of the government and Human Rights Watch accused the Free Syria Army of war crimes.
Francesca Borri reports in the Guardian in November 2013 that the battle in Aleppo is not so much between the rebels and the government, but among the rebels and who will prevail, the sectarian rebels or the secular rebels, “ . . . for many of them, the priority is not ousting Bashar al-Assad's regime, but enforcing Sharia law. Aleppo is nothing but hunger and Islam.” 2014 and 2015 brought more of the same for Aleppo, with the two sides stalemated. A Newsweek article by James Harkin likened it to the siege at Stalingrad during World War II when about 2 million were either captured, wounded or killed in six months. Russian and government planes bombed a hospital just outside of Aleppo in August 2016 and in September 2016 it was reported that Syria used chemical weapons against its own civilians in Aleppo.
John Davison and Suleiman Al-Khalidi in their September 9, 2016 Reuters article call Aleppo, “the conflict’s biggest prize . . . as government troops, backed by Russian air strikes and Shi’ite fighters from Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan, close in on the rebel zone, where a quarter of a million people remain trapped.”
On September 22, 2016 The New York Times reported preparations for the final battle for Aleppo, with thousands of government troops amassed on the West, supported by Russian trained troops and Russian observers, as well as Hezbollah troops, and modern T-90 Russian tanks. This, after the failure of talks initiated by the international community, mostly brokered by the United States and Russia.
Aleppo and Syria’s Future?
John Brennan, the current director of the CIA, said he did not know if Syria and Iraq could ever be put back together, because of the “bloodletting, so much destruction, so many continued, seething tensions and sectarian divisions. I question whether we will see, in my lifetime, the creation of a central government in both of those countries that’s going to have the ability to govern fairly.”
After quoting Brennan for her September 16, 2016 article, “Even Peace May Not Save Syria,” Robin Wright qualifies how Washington has sought to put Syria back together, “within the countries created by European colonial powers a century ago.” Except for a brief 41-year period of authoritarian rule, Syria has only existed as a part of a larger empire for 5,000 years. There may be a problem finding some kind of “natural” Syrian identity.
Whither Aleppo and Syria?
Max Fisher, writing for the New York Times, reports on several academic studies of civil wars. Most contemporary civil wars last about a decade, involving factors that affect the duration and violence. These studies conclude that all the factors making a civil war last longer and with more suffering are present in Syria’s civil war. Large foreign forces will continue a civil war until they perceive they have achieved their goals, at no cost to their own citizens. The United States, Russia, Iran, and Turkey are all involved.
As Fisher states, “Most civil wars end when one side loses. Either it is defeated militarily, or it exhausts its weapons or loses popular support and has to give up. About a quarter of civil wars end in a peace deal, often because both sides are exhausted.” That might have happened in Syria, both sides had limited resources, but both sides became proxies for foreign powers that have unlimited resources.
The foreign powers introduce what Fisher calls a “self-reinforcing mechanism.” When a foreign power sees itself losing ground, it increases its support, at no personal cost. The opposing foreign power perceives the resulting new imbalance and increases its support, again at no personal cost. It is an arms and violence race where the nations engaged in the race are removed from the effect of their conflict.
Instead of just two sides, the local antagonists are splintered into several parties, making a path to a peace conference complicated. Each subgroup has its own interest in the war and will fight to protect that narrow interest. Each subgroup is competing for resources against groups which ostensibly are on its side.
And finally a civil war conducted by proxies encourage atrocities. Antagonists must rely on popular support to populate their fighting force, which naturally limits what each side is willing to do. But where both sides rely on outside powers, there is no need to cultivate popular support. In fact, a calculus may be made that atrocities may so revolt and weaken the will of the victimized side, it may be worth the resulting international condemnation and desire for revenge.
Syria’s future tilts toward balkanization but the will and desire of the international powers is intractable. We are suggesting a few articles that delve into a reasoned look at the crystal ball. These are in random order.
· James Fearon on the Future of Syria·
James Harkin on Syria’s Disappearing Future·
Joseph Puder on the Future of Syria·
BBC: What is Happening in Syria·
What Happens If Aleppo Falls?