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BuzzFeed or Buzzkill? This week on Intercepted: Longtime investigative journalist Michael Isikoff of Yahoo! News analyzes the BuzzFeed News bombshell report that Trump ordered Michael Cohen to lie to cover up a planned Trump Tower in Moscow. Robert Mueller is disputing the report and Isikoff offers his own critique of the story and what we know to be true thus far. Stephanie Kelton, the popular economist and adviser to the Bernie Sanders 2016 campaign, talks about Modern Monetary Theory, the lies told by Republicans and Democrats about deficits, and whether young workers will ever get Social Security benefits. Los Angeles public school teachers appear to have won some major victories as a result of their historic strike. We speak to Noriko Nakada, an 8th grade English teacher at Emerson Middle School in LA, and labor journalist Sarah Jaffe, who covered the strike for The Nation.
[Tango music plays.]
Newscaster: The 2020 race continues to heat up as another Democratic hopeful makes it official today. Cardi B’s announcing that she is running for president. She is taking questions from reporters right now.
Reporter: Why are you the best, capable, strongest Democrat to defeat Donald Trump?
Cardi B: Now, I know a lot of y’all don’t care because y’all don’t work for the government or y’all probably don’t even have a job but this shit is really fucking serious, bro. This shit is crazy, like, our country is in a hellhole right now all for a fucking wall. And we really need to take this serious. I feel like we need to take some action.
Reporter: As you launch your campaign, the government remains partially shut down. What would you see as the path forward?
CB: I don’t know what type of action, bitch, because…this is not what I do. But, bitch, I’m scared. This is crazy and I really feel bad for these people that got to go to fucking work to not get motherfucking paid.
Reporter: A number of Democrats believe the president has already committed impeachable offenses. Would you support impeachment?
CB: Yeah, bitch!
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.
JS: I’m Jeremy Scahill, coming to you from the offices of The Intercept in New York City. And this is episode 79 of Intercepted.
Don Lemon: This is CNN Tonight. I’m Don Lemon and we have breaking news tonight on the Russia investigation. Here’s what Buzzfeed News is reporting —
Lawrence O’Donnell: President Trump directed his attorney to lie to Congress.
Ali Velshi: About negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, according to two federal law enforcement officials involved in —
JS: Last Thursday, on January 17, Buzzfeed News published an absolute bombshell story alleging that Donald Trump had directed his longtime attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. Buzzfeed said the allegations came from “two federal law enforcement officials involved in an investigation of the matter.”
Buzzfeed also reported that Trump supported a plan, set up by Michael Cohen, to visit Russia during the presidential campaign. Why? In order to meet personally with President Vladimir Putin and jump-start the tower negotiations. “Make it happen,” the sources said Trump told Cohen.
Rachel Maddow: Buzzfeed News has been the source of an all day furor today with their just volcanically, explosive reporting that President Trump personally instructed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about the Trump Tower Moscow project.
Glenn Kirschner: There’s three felony offenses right there and I’m telling you, Steph, I’m sitting 12 blocks from the White House and I can almost smell the gun smoke.
Stephanie Ruhle: Not a good smell —
JS: Within moments of this story going live, it quickly dominated cable news coverage. Calls came from Washington to initiate impeachment proceedings. The new chair of the House Intelligence Committee promoted the story on Twitter. Boom cannons were posted online by the usual suspects. This was perhaps the smoking gun. This could spell the end for Trump. It’s a clear impeachable offense. It’s a criminal offense.
Rep. Patrick Maloney: It’s a red line.
JS: But then journalists who have worked this same Trump/Russia beat began questioning the veracity of the BuzzFeed News story. The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow tweeted: “I declined to run with parts of the narrative they conveyed based on a source central to the story repeatedly disputing the idea that Trump directly issued orders of that kind.” A journalist from the Washington Post made a similar claim. To date, no other news outlet has confirmed the allegation reported in BuzzFeed News. And some journalists, like Yahoo News! investigative reporter Michael Isikoff said something seemed off with the story.
Michael Isikoff: There were red flags about the BuzzFeed story from the get-go. I mean, you know, you have this really bold lede that the president directed Michael Cohen to lie. But no detail on where, when, how? How was it communicated? What exactly is the president supposed to have said?
JS: And then came this extraordinary development: Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s spokesperson took the unprecedented step of publicly challenging the accuracy of the Buzzfeed story, releasing a statement that said —
Errol Barnett: “BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the Special Counsel’s Office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen’s Congressional testimony are not accurate.”
JS: Now, what exactly was wrong with BuzzFeed’s story according to the Special Counsel? We don’t know. BuzzFeed’s position is that they stand by the reporting and they want Mueller to specify what exactly is wrong.
Ben Smith: We are eager to understand which characterizations Mueller is talking about there and obviously, we take that incredibly seriously.
JS: Now, since all this went down, there has been a lot of parsing of the Special Counsel’s statement by journalists and others across the spectrum. Some say that it’s carefully vague and it may be addressing technical inaccuracies. Others say it was a clear refutation of the story’s central allegation that Trump directed Cohen to lie to Congress about a Trump Tower Moscow deal.
Washington Post national security reporter Devlin Barrett tweeted: “To those trying to parse the Mueller statement: it’s a straight-up denial. Maybe BuzzFeed can prove they are right, maybe Mueller can prove them wrong. But it’s an emphatic denial.” Barrett also wrote about the denial from Mueller’s office in the Washington Post. This is part of what he said:
“Inside the Justice Department, the statement was viewed as a huge step, and one that would have been taken only if the Special Counsel’s office viewed the story as almost entirely incorrect. The Special Counsel’s office seemed to be disputing every aspect of the story that addressed comments or evidence given to its investigators.”
Now Donald Trump, of course, was elated at the Special Counsel’s denial of this BuzzFeed News story and he immediately elevated it to exhibit A in his campaign to prove that the so-called fake news media is out to get him.
Donald J. Trump: I think that the BuzzFeed piece was a disgrace to our country. It was a disgrace to journalism and I think also the coverage by the mainstream media was disgraceful. And I think it’s going to take a long time for the mainstream media to recover its credibility.
JS: Trump’s absolutely bizarre legal marionette Rudy Giuliani was also gleeful.
Rudy Giuliani: The Justice Department and the Special Counsel’s Office said that the story was inaccurate and the inaccuracy is that there’s no evidence that the president told him to lie.
JS: Now, I have no idea if BuzzFeed’s report is accurate. It may be. Or some of it may be wrong and some of it correct. But if it does turn out to be wrong in its major assertion, if Trump did not in fact instruct Michael Cohen to lie, then this would be the latest in a string of highly inflammatory stories relating to Trump and Russia and published by major news organizations that turned out to be false.
The British Guardian newspaper has still not addressed why it is that no other news outlet has reported that former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort met three times with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. No one else has been able to confirm any of that. Paul Manafort denies it. Julian Assange denies it. That is the most surveilled embassy door on planet earth and no video has emerged to support the Guardian’s report. The story came. It was a very big deal. No one else confirmed it and now it’s just floating out there on the internet.
CNN and NBC also made a huge error when they reported on Don Jr. supposedly having advance knowledge of Wikileaks publications during the campaign. Well, that turned out to be false too and that the sources that gave that information to CNN and apparently NBC had actually gotten dates wrong on emails sent to Don Jr. about Wikileaks. The emails were sent after the publication of documents. Same is true of the salacious story — this was a while ago, but I’m sure you remember it — that Trump had set up a secret Russian server to communicate with the Kremlin. It was also untrue that Russian hackers had hacked into the U.S. electrical grid in Vermont. Not true. Just not true.
I’m bringing all of this up not to say that there is no scandal with Trump or Trump/Russia and move along, look the other way. I bring it up because all of these false stories help Trump, they bolster his very dangerous narrative about the news media and about fake news. They also potentially hurt the actual, provable assertions and allegations against Donald Trump because Trump can now say, “Oh, well the waters are muddy and look at all these false stories that have been published about me.” He can use it to confuse the actual, provable narrative.
And the fact that the public is drowning in sensationalized coverage of Trump and Russia and Mueller, it’s almost certainly going to set the public up for a very confusing, underwhelming reality when the Special Counsel’s report is made public. At least, that’s what ABC News White House correspondent Jonathan Karl seems to think.
Jonathan Karl: This is all building up to the Mueller report and raising expectations of a bombshell report and they’ve been expectations that have been building of course, for over a year on this. But people who are closest to what Mueller has been doing, interacting with the Special Counsel caution me that this report is almost certain to be anti-climactic.
JS: Earlier this month, the veteran national security journalist William Arkin of NBC News published an email that he sent to colleagues informing them that he was no longer working for the network. In the letter, Arkin blasted NBC for its obsession over Trump, writing: “I find myself completely out of sync with the network, being neither a day-to-day reporter nor interested in the Trump circus.” Arkin went on to say that, at NBC, investigative journalism “got sucked into the tweeting vortex, increasingly lost in a directionless adrenaline rush. The national security and political version of leading the broadcast with every snow storm. And I would assert that in many ways NBC just began emulating the national security state itself — busy and profitable. No wars won but the ball is kept in play.” Arkin continued: “I’d argue that under Trump, the national security establishment not only hasn’t missed a beat but indeed has gained dangerous strength. Now it is ever more autonomous and practically impervious to criticism.”
William Arkin: The national security community itself has gotten stronger and has gained strength under Donald Trump and part of our responsibility as journalists is to cover the government not just the president. And so, I feel like people should know more.
JS: I could not agree more with Bill Arkin’s summation of how the national security establishment, the CIA, the U.S. war machine has benefitted from the media’s hyper-obsession over Trump/Russia. At the same time, we have to cover stories that could potentially bring down a president, or potentially conclude that the president has engaged in criminal conduct. It’s not a question of if this story deserves to be covered. It most certainly does and there has been a lot of great journalism happening on Trump/Russia. But the real question is how unhinged and unsubstantiated some of the most serious accusations are handled, including by major established U.S. news organizations.
Journalist Michael Isikoff on Media Coverage of Trump/Russia, The Mueller Investigation, Rudy Giuliani, and Donald Trump
JS: For more on all of this and the BuzzFeed story and the way Trump/Russia is covered, I am joined by one of the most experienced investigative journalists in Washington, Michael Isikoff. He is the chief investigative correspondent for Yahoo! News. Before that, he was an investigative correspondent for NBC as well as a staff writer for Newsweek and the Washington Post. Isikoff has written two best-sellers, “Uncovering Clinton” and along with David Corn “Hubris,” which was about the selling of the Iraq War. Isikoff has broken several major stories on Donald Trump and he is the co-author with Corn of the book “Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump.”
Michael Isikoff, welcome to Intercepted.
MI: Good to be with you.
JS: I would be remiss in not kicking this off by asking you about this BuzzFeed story. What is your assessment of what was reported in that piece and the veracity of the central allegation which is that Trump directed his longtime attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about these negotiations to build the Trump Tower in Moscow?
MI: Well, before we even get to the Mueller statement, just take the story on its face. It’s got this, you know, very bold, provocative lede that has enormous implications but there’s absolutely no backup in it at all — directed him to lie which is what the lede said “The president directed Cohen to lie” is a characterization of something. What is it a characterization of? A conversation between Trump and Cohen? When? Where? How? How was it documented if it was documented at all? And then when the story refers to texts and emails, from whom? Where did they come from? I mean all the things you would want to know when you’re reading that story, or frankly, editing that story were not in it.
So, it’s two anonymous federal law enforcement officials characterizing something but you don’t know what they’re characterizing. So, the story raised lots of questions for me about you know what to make of this because there were no facts in there. It was just somebody’s characterization of facts that we haven’t seen. Then as the day went on, you know, you have this disconnect between the two reporters on the story. One, Anthony Cormier tells CNN that no, they hadn’t seen any documents that underlie the gist of the story. And the other reporter Jason Leopold tells MSNBC he has seen — “We’ve seen the documents.”
Brian Stelter: Anthony, you said on CNN on Friday that you had not seen the documents you described in the story. Jason Leopold said on MSNBC we’ve seen documents. Can you explain that to us?
Anthony Cormier: Yeah, I can’t really get into the details there but we’re really at this point, because of the calls for a leak investigation and the sort of sensitivity around that matter, we really can’t go any further at all in order not to jeopardize our sources.
MI: So, you know it’s sort of, they couldn’t get their story straight.
JS: One of the reasons that I really wanted to talk to you is not just because of your reporting on Trump/Russia but because of the totality of your reporting particularly in the post 9/11 world that we live in and your ability to tell stories that very few journalists are able to nail down. And I’ve always particularly admired your work on the Valerie Plame story and the Iraq lack of WMDs. Have you in all of your muck-raking that you’ve been doing, heard anything to back up what BuzzFeed reported about Trump directing Cohen to lie?
MI: Look, I think that the Trump Tower Moscow story is a hugely significant one because it was an effort by the Trump organization to do business in Moscow during the presidential campaign. So, when you add into the mix the fact — unknown to the American public at the time — that Trump is simultaneously trying to do a deal in Moscow that presumably would have required on some level the Kremlin’s approval, it really was a significant conflict of interest and an important one. And I think when Michael Cohen pled guilty at the end of November of last year to the fact that he lied to the Senate about this, that the talks went on much further than had been previously testified the fact that he was in direct communication with somebody in Putin’s office about securing land and financing for the deal, that is a major story and something that should not be minimized or forgotten. In fact, it needs a full accounting. But that said, the specifics in the BuzzFeed story about directing to lie, that’s on its face an impeachable offense. That’s subordination of perjury. That’s telling a witness to lie to the Congress. So, yeah.
JS: Just to share with people the specific statement issued by the Special Counsel’s Office, it was as follows: “BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the Special Counsel’s Office and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office regarding Michael Cohen’s congressional testimony are not accurate.” How do you read that?
MI: There is, I suppose, some ambiguity there because to say something is not accurate, I mean, I and I’m sure, you and virtually every reporter has gotten pushback on stories we’ve written that your story is not accurate and of course, the first thing you want to know is well what is not accurate? Is it something minor? Is it something peripheral or does it go to the heart of the story? But that said, the way that statement is worded I take it as going to the heart, to the core of the story. And it’s worth just taking a step back and looking at what The Washington Post reported about this which is they got the email that Jason Leopold sends to Peter Carr. The email says “We are going to report that Trump directed Cohen to lie.” And Carr responds “We’ll decline comment.” So, it makes perfect sense to me that he would pass after receiving that first email. But apparently he did something more. He did something else. He then sends to Leopold a copy of what Cohen actually said about this when he pled guilty in federal court. And what Cohen said was, I lied about this in order to be consistent with Donald Trump’s messaging during the presidential campaign and out of loyalty to him. He doesn’t say anything about being told to lie.
So, at a minimum the reporters if they had not gone back and looked at what Cohen said in federal court in the first place, having been advised that they should look at it by Mueller’s office, should have included that in the story because there is an inconsistency between what they were reporting and what Cohen himself said in federal court when he was pleading guilty. And so, you know, in terms of the journalistic screw-ups here I would have to include that one as sort of basic you know, responsible reporting is you’ve got to look at what the public record says about this matter and the public record was not in sync with what the BuzzFeed guys were reporting.
JS: When major news organizations get these big big stories wrong about Trump, how does it impact the politics of this and the potential outcome?
MI: Just as we all learned a lesson on Friday to avoid the ‘if true’ construction, we should probably also avoid the ‘if not true’ construction, OK. At this point, I want to hear from Michael Cohen himself. He’s supposed to testify February 7th before the House Oversight Committee. All questions on the table going to the core of the Russia story should be asked of him. He should be directed to answer. At this point, Congress has a responsibility to get to the facts on its own regardless of whether Robert Mueller raises an objection or not. We really do deserve a full accounting at this point. We’ve had more than two years of investigations into this now.
It is in my view, outrageous that the House and the Senate investigating committees have done virtually everything behind closed doors. We, the public has never seen the testimony of key players including Michael Cohen, Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, all of that took place behind closed doors. We’ll see what the Democrats in the House are now going to do whether they will step up to the plate and perform their constitutional responsibility. I was disheartened to see that Adam Schiff right off the bat after his first week on the job pledging a new era of transparency at the Intelligence Committee said he wanted to have Cohen behind closed doors. This is something that the public deserves answers. Congress needs to have the answers on its own not outsourcing its constitutional responsibilities to an executive branch official which is what they’ve done here for well over a year and a half now with Robert Mueller. So, and look, a lot of the stories that you’re citing are about Michael Cohen himself.
JS: Well, okay, what about Paul Manafort visiting Assange three times in the Ecuadorian embassy?
MI: Sure, yeah, that’s — Look, I mean, there are legitimate questions. There’ve been stories that nobody else has corroborate and that’s not good for us. Yeah, now that said, there’s also been a lot of really terrific reporting by people —
JS: For sure, no question.
MI: — Across the board. So, I don’t want to, you know —
JS: No, no question about that.
MI: — This is not a news media scandal. It is first and foremost —
JS: I agree.
MI: — A scandal about Trump and Russia. But that said yeah, there’s been a lot of stories that have gotten people all whipped up and with very little backup.
JS: Well part part of why I’m asking you this, Michael, is because one of the concerns that I’ve had from the beginning with this is that I think a lot of people are, unfortunately, willing to believe you know any dung that’s thrown on the wall of Trump because it just looks so perfect sitting there. And when major news organizations get major stories wrong, I think it hurts the investigation not just the official investigations but the kinds of investigations you’re doing because Trump can use it as part of his narrative. Have we been groomed to think that there’s going to be this cataclysmic finding by Mueller and that the facts are going to be much shadier? I mean do you get what I’m saying? Like doesn’t this undermine the impact of the real investigation?
MI: As for Mueller’s report? I don’t know. I don’t think anybody does. I do think that there’s been a little too much of this sort of fetish about Mueller as though you know, he’s God and he’s going to come down with the you know with the Ten Commandments from Mt. Sinai that will answer all our questions and direct us what to do from here. You know, Mueller’s job is actually very tailored and specific, is to find violations of federal statutes and prosecute them if he can make them hold up in court. And that’s you know, kind of much narrower brief than I think you know, most of us would want at this point. And also the Mueller report — I’m not even sure — we don’t know what the Mueller report is. I mean, is it going to be a detailed accounting of everything he’s discovered or is it just going to be you know, a short terse memo saying “I’ve prosecuted these people and I’ve declined to prosecute these other people?” And you know, then after that there’s the questions of grand jury secrecy and executive privilege, all of which could restrict what we see in any report from Bob Mueller. So, as a general sense yes, I think we’ve spent too much time waiting for the magic bullet from Robert Mueller to come and all the more reason — I go back to my point before — is it’s Congress job to resolve all the many questions we have about this, not Robert Mueller’s job.
JS: What do you make of the multiple performances by Rudy Giuliani this past weekend and the statements that he made specifically about BuzzFeed and Michael Cohen? And you have this other layer about the accidental revelation by Manafort’s attorneys that he had shared polling data with Konstantin Kilimnik who worked with Manafort as a political consultant in Ukraine. What do you make of Rudy Giuliani’s position representing the Trump administration right now?
MI: Oh God knows, I mean, you know, he’s all over the map. He says something one day then he clarifies it the next day. Clarifying his comments on Meet the Press on Sunday —
RG: Throughout 2016, weren’t a lot of them but there were conversations. Can’t be sure of the exact dates. But the president can remember having conversations with him about it.
Chuck Todd: Throughout 2016 —
RG: The president also remembers — yeah, probably up to, could be up to as far as October, November. Our answers cover until the election. So, anytime during that period they could have talked about it. But the president’s recollection of it is —
MI: In his clarification, he says he’s only speaking hypothetically and not based on any conversations with his client. Well, if he’s not basing it on conversations he’s had with his client or evidence he’s accumulated as the president’s lawyer, then on what basis is he talking at all and why are people having him on TV? I mean, you know, he’s only there because he’s the president’s lawyer and if he’s not speaking from a position of knowledge about the facts then and only riffing on his own, I mean, you know, I don’t know what to make of it. But you know, some people see some kind of you know ‘crazy like a fox’ strategy here maybe but you know based on the record so far you know it just seems to me he’s the befuddled guy who can’t keep his facts straight.
JS: Michael, I wanted to ask you about William Arkin leaving NBC and his open letter that he wrote about his departure from NBC where he was basically saying that because of the overwhelming focus on Trump/Russia, we aren’t paying attention or as close of attention as we did under Bush or Obama to basically everything else happening in the world particularly on a national security level with wars, with drone strikes, with what’s happening with the process with North Korea, in Afghanistan, Syria. Do you share some of Bill Arkin’s analysis or concerns about this?
MI: As you just articulated them, yes. Yeah, should we be paying more attention to what’s going on in the world in terms of U.S. foreign policy, U.S. military policy, what’s going on, what our military is doing in Africa and the Middle East and Afghanistan? Absolutely. You know, we were talking before the podcast began about drone strikes something that we were all very heavily focused on back during the Obama years because Obama had ramped them up and you know, what kind of oversight there was of them, what kind of accountability there was for screw ups. You know, how many innocent civilians were being killed by our drone strikes? You know, those were all legitimate questions then. They are legitimate questions now and you know, we should not forget about them while we’re also simultaneously dealing with what I do think is a legitimate scandal that we need to get to the bottom of and that’s the story of Trump and Russia.
JS: Do you believe that this story ends with Trump getting indicted in any jurisdiction?
MI: [Laughs.] Look, I mean, you know what Justice Department policy is and that is you can’t indict a sitting president. And by the way, I happened to, just happened to be looking last night at the Special Counsel regulations it very explicitly says that the Special Counsel should adhere to all Justice Department policies and so, no, I don’t think that Donald Trump is going to be indicted certainly by a federal grand jury while he is president. I suppose it is conceivable that a state grand jury in New York or somewhere else could indict him. But there’d be a legal battle you know, that would go to the Supreme Court about that. So, anyway, now what happens after he leaves office? You know, assuming he leaves at the end of 2020, he doesn’t get re-elected, then you know all bets are off and he can be indicted then. But you know, right now we still do not have a specific criminal charge. The closest we’ve got are the campaign finance violations but we still have — in New York, on the payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal — but we still have not seen the specific evidence on that.
JS: Right, and none of that is Russia.
MI: And none of that is Russia, correct.
JS: All right, Michael Isikoff, thank you very much for joining us.
MI: Good to be with you.
JS: Michael Isikoff is the chief investigative correspondent for Yahoo! News. He is the author of “Uncovering Clinton,” “Hubris” and most recently “Russian Roulette.”
Economist Stephanie Kelton Talks About Modern Monetary Theory, Deficits, and The Future of Social Security Benefits
Forest Pitt: To go without knowing if you’re going to be on the streets tomorrow or next month or going without food. For some people, this is their first time being in a food bank and having to come this way. And it’s no fault of their own.
JS: That’s federal employee Forest Pitt speaking to MSNBC about the partial government shutdown. We are now approaching the 5th week of that shutdown and more federal employees are going without pay. The situation is yet another example of the precariousness of so many people’s economic reality.
Some 40 percent of Americans struggle to pay for at least one basic need like food, housing, healthcare or utilities. That’s according to the Urban Institute. Income inequality in the U.S. has continued to grow steadily since the 1970s. The top one percent have seen their wealth grow, taking home an average 26 times more than the rest of the public. Trump and his self-celebrated Republican tax cut is going to make it much, much worse. It’s a classic reverse Robin Hood — stealing from the poor to give to the rich.
My next guest is a provocative and brilliant economist. She is professor of public policy and economics at Stony Brook University, Stephanie Kelton. She served as chief economist for the minority on the U.S. Senate Budget Committee in 2015 and as a senior economic adviser to Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign.
Kelton is one of the prominent backers of Modern Monetary Theory and she argues that almost everything we are told about the deficit, about funding of social programs, about social security is wrong and it’s actually the product of politicians well, politicking. Kelton’s arguments have been gaining momentum lately, as has much of the Bernie Sanders economic message from the 2016 campaign — on health care, education and taxing the rich.
Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently forced a national discussion on these issues when she advocated a marginal tax plan that would tax the ultra-wealthy at 70% on the money that they make beyond 10 million dollars. By the way, for context, that rate was 78% between 1930 and 1980 and it was actually more than 90 percent from 1951 to 1963. Remember that when you watch the freak-outs over Ocasio-Cortez’s modest proposal.We are going to break all of this down right now with Stephanie Kelton.
Stephanie, welcome to Intercepted.
Stephanie Kelton: Thanks for having me.
JS: For people who have no idea of your work or what you’re even talking about, how would you describe Modern Monetary Theory?
SK: Well, let me just start by saying this is a collective project that has been developed for the last 20+ years. So, it’s an enormous project. MMT is about providing a lens that allows people to look at questions about how government finance works in the modern era. That is where the government is no longer constrained by a gold standard but where the currency itself, in our case, the U.S. dollar is a simple public monopoly. That is, it’s controlled and issued by the federal government.
JS: You, in essence, say that it’s false that the government can’t afford to fund any program that it wants. Explain how that would work. If tomorrow there was the political will, which is unlikely at this point, but if there was the political will to fund college education for everyone, how would the government do that under your thinking?
SK: Okay well, first, it’s not just under my thinking. I mean, this is something that Alan Greenspan, for example, the former Chairman of the Federal Reserve has very candidly said. In fact, in his words —
Alan Greenspan: There’s nothing to prevent the federal government from creating as much money as it wants and paying it to somebody.
SK: As much money as it wants and paying it to someone. So it’s not a Kelton idea. It’s not an MMT idea. It’s not a theory. It’s just simply the way things work in the modern era with the type of financial and monetary system we have today. So, the way it would work is this: if Congress wanted, as your example, to fund public universities and colleges, to make them tuition-free for everyone, then what they would do is pass a bill that says that Congress is authorizing the payment to cover the tuition for anyone who wants to attend a public college or university in this country and that the government will pick up the tab. So, the legislation gets written. You don’t find the money, you find the votes and so if enough members of Congress vote to pass legislation like that, it will result in the authorization, the budgetary authorization for the government to go ahead and spend that money.
JS: And will the government have to take those funds from elsewhere?
SK: So the answer to your question is no, the government doesn’t go out in advance and collect up U.S. dollars so that it can then spend those dollars covering those tuition payments. The government is the source of the U.S. dollar. In fact, it holds a monopoly on the issue of the currency. You and I can’t create U.S. dollars, it would be illegal. But the federal government has the monopoly issue. They control the U.S. dollar. It’s where the money comes from. So when they want to spend, whether it’s on defense, or education, or infrastructure, anything else, they issue the currency into existences. They spend the dollars into existence. They don’t go out and find the money first.
JS: It sounds great. Then why aren’t we doing that?
SK: Basically, government deficits compete with private lending. In other words, they compete with the private banking sector. And so, it’s one reason that there might be some opposition to the idea that the government should loosen the purse strings and provide more financing for public projects, for public works, for education, infrastructure and the like. It’s because it competes with private lending.
JS: You have said that the government’s deficit is always mirrored by an equivalent surplus in another part of the economy. What do you mean by that?
SK: As an accounting identity, as a matter of just accounting logic, if the government runs a budget deficit, it is spending more money into the economy than it is removing by taxing and collecting other payments to government. So, for example, suppose the government spends 100 into the economy but it only taxes 90 back out. OK we write down, someone writes down that the government has run a budget deficit and their books record a minus 10. So, we say the government has engaged in deficit spending. Minus 10 goes on their books. But what we do is we tend to overlook the fact that somebody out there in the economy is now holding 10 that they wouldn’t have had otherwise and that that’s a plus 10 on their books. So, the mirror image is that the government’s deficit becomes a financial surplus somewhere else in the economy. Their minus 10 is matched by a plus 10 on somebody else’s balance sheet.
JS: How would you describe the economic philosophy that is driving the Trump administration? I mean, maybe philosophy is too fancy of a word to bestow upon Trump, but how do you see what his economic philosophy and policy has amounted to in his two years in power?
SK: What the Republicans have demonstrated it that they are very, very willing when in power to take the reigns of the budget authority and to deliver on their agenda and their agenda has been to transfer as much as possible to the people at the top and to big corporations. And so, we saw this with the recent tax cuts, right? I mean, when the Republicans had the opportunity to do so they said, “OK, we understand that running budget deficits has a positive effect on someone else’s balance sheet.” In other words, we can make a lot of people rich by having our budget in deficit because it will result in surpluses somewhere else. OK, where do we want those surpluses to go? And then they figure out who are their special interests, the campaign donors and so forth, big corporations and they said alright, this is what we’re going to do.
So, I don’t think it’s really an economic philosophy or an economic agenda. I know it was sold that way, right? It was supposed to be about getting us four percent growth and really juicing the economy so that jobs just rain down and we got wage pressure and everybody was better off. The old trickle-down, supply-side stuff. I mean, that’s the rhetoric that’s used to sell the policy but at the end of the day, I doubt that there was much of a belief on the part of the Republicans who pushed this stuff through that it was actually going to work that way. They’re interests are much more short-term. They just understand that the government’s red ink becomes the black ink somewhere else in the economy and they wanted to deliver a big financial windfall to the people that they serve.
DJT: It’s the largest — I always say the most massive, but it’s the largest tax cut in the history of our country, and reform, but tax cut, really something special. WHen you think you haven’t heard this expression, but we are making America great again. You haven’t heard that have you?
JS: Alright, now do Obama.
SK: Well, I almost hate to start with the end result, right, because the end result was Donald Trump, in a sense. But you know, it was different because Barack Obama came into office in the beginning stages of an all out economic meltdown and so they didn’t have the benefit of getting the time to sit down and consider what type of economic agenda they wanted to push forward and to fight for. They came in and the wheels were coming off. And so, you know, they grabbed the advice from I think — we know — from people like Bob Rubin and Larry Summers and Tim Geithner. And they would look first to saving Wall Street and to saving the banks, and second to dealing with the foreclosure crisis and to homeowners and to working people. And they allowed, you know, the weak economy which drove the deficit up to create panic and to turn their attention away from doing what needed to be done to restore jobs and incomes and prosperity for, you know, the middle class. And instead, as they started to panic over the deficit turned toward basically austerity.
JS: What does the stock market signal about the U.S. economy and the unemployment numbers? The two main talking points that Trump always hammers on when he says “Oh, look at your 401K” or “Black and Hispanic unemployment is the lowest it’s ever been, just the greatest in the world.”
DJT: Well, I guess it’s something like high crimes and all. I don’t know how you can impeach somebody who’s done a great job. I’ll tell you what if I ever got impeached, I think the market would crash. I think everybody would be very poor because without this thinking you would see, you would see numbers that you wouldn’t believe.
SK: He knows and most economists understand that the stock market is A, not the economy and B, not something that is widely participated in by broadly, the middle class. You know, look, Donald Trump has come in and has not done, in spite of maybe some effort, the kind of things that have cause the recovery to come to an end. I think, you know, we saw an uptick in growth last year. He promised four percent. We didn’t get that, obviously and the unemployment rate continued to you know, trend downward and of course, he took a lot of credit for that. And he wants us to believe this is because of the tax cuts the Republicans put through and so forth. But at the end of the day, whether you like the Stimulus or not, the bottom line is that even though the vast majority of the benefits, some 83 percent go to people in the top one percent of the income distribution, people in the bottom 99 percent are still on average getting something out of this. It’s a little bit, but it probably helps a little bit.
JS: Let’s talk about the shutdown. Obviously, you have hundreds of thousands of workers who as of this moment are not being paid and yes, there’s some plans to make sure that they’re paid for all of this time off in many cases. But it is having a very serious impact on real people’s lives — their ability to buy or sell homes, to refinance their mortgages, in many cases, just to simply support their family or to eat or to engage in normal human activity. Who do you hold responsible for this situation? I know it’s a political question but I’m asking you because of your understanding of the economics of this. How did this happen and who do you chiefly hold responsible?
SK: Blame goes to the guy who said he would take the blame. I don’t think there’s any question that this Donald Trump’s. He owns this shutdown and he is responsible for the kind of struggles and desperation that you just described. I mean, this is absolutely disastrous for a huge number of working people — federal government employees. So, this is his. He owns this.
JS: How should the Democrats be responding to this?
SK: Well, I give them a lot of credit, you know. I think that at the end of the day, I wondered whether the Democrats would go from the not one penny line to well, alright, you know, we’re going to meet him in the middle in the name of bipartisanship and coming together and all this sort of stuff. And I’m very happy with the way that I’ve seen the Democrats hold the line on this. This is Donald Trump’s and he’s going to have to be the one, ultimately, to fold on this.
JS: I want to talk also about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, now the favorite topic and individual to talk about on Fox News and among right-wing politicians. But you know, she really gave, you know, a master’s level course on how to shift the conversation when she went on 60 Minutes.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: You know, you look at our tax rates back in the ’60s and when you have a progressive tax rate system, you’re tax rate, you know let’s say from zero to 75,000 dollars may be 10 percent or 15 percent, etcetera. But once you get to like the tippy tops, on your 10 millionth dollar, sometimes you see tax rates as high as 60 or 70 percent. That doesn’t mean all 10 million dollars are taxed at an extremely high rate but it means that as you climb up this ladder, you should be contributing more.
JS: And a lot of the right-wingers or Republicans who are attacking her are either wittingly mischaracterizing her position by implying that she thinks that everyone should be paying 70 percent in taxes or just ignoring the 10 million dollar starting point for the marginal tax rate. Explain what Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was actually advocating in that interview.
SK: Income but also wealth inequality in this country is at dangerously high, and essentially, historically high levels. And that this is not just bad for the way our economy functions, it’s extremely dangerous when it comes to the way our democracy functions. And so, what she did was say OK, the tax system is not doing enough even though it’s a progressive tax system that is you pay a higher share of taxes as your income increases. Even though we have a progressive income tax system, it’s not nearly progressive enough and we ought to be doing more to correct those imbalances that allow the people at the very top to become so extraordinarily rich that those riches then hinder the working of the economy and undermine the functioning of our democracy.
So, what she said is look, you know, let’s keep basically the system we have in place right now but then once you make so much that you pass the 10 million dollar threshold in income — taxable income in a given year, beyond the 10 millionth dollar — we should tax you at a higher rate so that the concentration of income doesn’t increase to the point that you know, you cause other problems in the economy. So she said look, let’s take the 10 millionth and oneth dollar, 10 million and oneth dollar and tax it a higher rate, and she floated the idea of 70 percent. And so, that’s what she’s talking about.
JS: The way that the economy is currently structured and run in the United States what ultimately will happen to the generation of young people just entering the workforce now when they hit retirement, you know, 40-some years in the future. If this are just kept that they are, what happens with the promise of social security to young workers?
SK: It is 100 percent up to Congress. There is nothing about the way that the social security system is structured today that would prevent the federal government from keeping its promise, in full, on time to all future retirees, their dependents and the disabled. This is a really kind of interesting conversation and exchange that took place years ago between Congressman Paul Ryan who’s had a hankering for dismantling the social safety net for his entire career in Congress. Like he would love nothing more than to deliver workers’ savings — the contributions that currently go to social security — he would love nothing more than to funnel those to Wall Street. And he has worked for many years to try to make that happen and fortunately he has never succeeded.
Jim Nussle: Good morning and welcome to today’s Budget Committee hearing. Today we welcome back to the committee, we’re pleased to have with us the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan to discuss the economic outlook.
SK: When he had the opportunity, as a member of Congress, and he had Alan Greenspan in front of him — under oath, giving testimony — Paul Ryan asked Alan Greenspan to agree with him.
Paul Ryan: Thank you, Chairman. Mr. Greenspan, Mr. Chairman, thank you for spending all this time with us here, by the way today. You’ve spent a couple of hours and I really appreciate your indulgence. I wanted to go on to social security and ask you a couple of questions. Basically we have a few options ahead of us on restoring solvency to social security. We can —
SK: That social security was going bankrupt. That it was unsustainable and that now was the time to begin to move towards a system of personal retirement accounts. That is code for privatizing social security.
PR: So, having personal retirement accounts is another way of making a future retirees’ benefits more secure for their retirement?
SK: And so, he tees up this long winded question and all he’s looking for is for Alan Greenspan to agree with him and say “Yes, I think that’s the right thing to do.” And instead, Alan Greenspan gives this very nuanced but very important answer in which he tells Congressman Ryan —
AG: Well, I wouldn’t say that the pay-as-you-go benefits are insecure in the sense that there’s nothing to prevent the federal government from creating as much money as it wants and paying it to somebody. The question is how do you set up a system which assures that the real assets are created which those benefits are employed to purchase?
SK: There’s nothing to prevent the federal government from creating as much money as it wants and paying it to someone. That’s part of that answer and so he takes the affordability question off the table. It’s gone. And then he begins to talk about the real challenge and the real challenge is that you know, we have demographic changes taking place in this country and around the world. And here in the U.S., boomers are moving out of the workforce and into retirement. It’s been happening for a number of years and it will continue to happen for a number more. And as they leave the workforce, they no longer help us make the stuff, right? They are no longer producing the goods and services but they move into retirement. We send them their social security check and then they expect to be able to spend that money into the economy, buying some of the stuff that the current working population is producing.
So, what Greenspan is worried about and what he tries to get Paul Ryan to focus on is how do we set up a system that makes sure that in 10, 20, 30 years when those benefit payments go out that we are a productive enough economy that we don’t end up with an inflation problem, right? Because if we have too few people working and producing and productivity, worker productivity, is not increasing so that there’s enough stuff for everybody to buy without driving up prices, then you’re going to have a problem. But Greenspan made exactly the right and most honest statement he could make which is it’s not about the money. We can always afford to make the benefit payments. So the next generation would have nothing to worry about if policymakers today were doing everything they can to make the kinds of investments in the U.S. economy that will increase the odds of us being a more productive society in 10, 20, 30 years.
JS: What could those in power in Washington do differently that you think should be done toward the entire game being played on Wall Street?
SK: Well, I think holding people accountable is probably the number one thing that you have to do. I mean unless you’re willing to prosecute and unless you’re willing to send bad actors to jail, and you stick with this practice of just fining Wall Street institutions when you catch them engaging in fraud. I think that’s a big one.
JS: Well, and of course, the Obama administration just flatly refused to do that across the board. There was no real accountability for any of these white collar financial crooks almost at all. I mean, yes, there were — you could point to a couple of cases here and there but the biggest villains of that whole story, 2008 and beyond are still making a killing in the same industry they were operating in.
SK: They’re bigger and they’re more profitable and the way that the federal government responded in the aftermath of the financial crisis with fraud — I mean, that’s the word that wasn’t used. Nobody wanted to use the f-word and it’s just a stark difference between the way that things were handled in the aftermath of the savings and loans crisis, for example, when there were prosecutions and people were held accountable and many, many, many top-level, high-ranking individuals — banking individuals — went to jail.
JS: These institutions, the way I see it is that you have the sort of, hidden hand of so-called free market politics, neoliberal economics backed up by a kind of iron fist of militarism around the world. The word neoliberal is thrown around a lot now often by people who think it’s just the opposite of neocon. But we are living in this sort of golden era of neoliberal economic policies, are we not? Where the haves increasingly have more, the have-nots are increasingly disempowered and you have major governmental and international institutions essentially backing up major capitalist endeavors at the cost of human life.
SK: I think it’s all gone more or less according to plan. I mean, that is ultimately the way the neoliberal agenda, I think, is intended to work under the auspices that this is, you know, all about capital mobility and free markets and limited government intervention and balancing federal budgets and fiscal discipline, all that kind of stuff. But at the end of the day, the results are just what you described — funneling of financial wealth to a smaller and smaller group of individuals at the very top.
JS: Stephanie Kelton, thank you so much for joining us on Intercepted.
SK: Thanks for having me.
JS: Stephanie Kelton is a professor of public policy and economics at Stony Brook University. She’s also the former chief economist for the minority staff on the U.S. Senate Budget Committee, senior economic adviser to Bernie Sanders in his 2016 presidential campaign. You can find her on Twitter @StephanieKelton.
Educator Noriko Nakada and Journalist Sarah Jaffe on The Historic Los Angeles Teachers Strike
Protestors: We are the union. The mighty, mighty union. The mighty, mighty union. Fighting for our rights. Fighting for our rights. And for education. And for education.
We are the parents, the mighty might parents. The mighty, mighty parents. Fighting for justice. Fighting for justice. And for education. And for education.
We’re the school psychologists. We’re the school psychologist, the school psychologist. We’re fighting for justice. We’re fighting for justice. And for education.
JS: After striking for six school days, the Los Angeles teachers’ union and district have reached an agreement. As of this recording, the teachers won atentativedeal for a 6 percent pay raise and a cap on class sizes.
United Teachers Los Angeles which is better known as the UTLA, represents more than 30,000 teachers. It is the second largest school district in the country. The union was calling for smaller class sizes, improving school safety, and a cap on charter schools, among otherdemands.
Teachers and the union have pointed to California being the richest state, yet ranking 43rd in per-pupil funding. The state spends about$9,000per student, well below the national average and states like New York who spend around $18,000 per student.
Two teachers recently shared with us why they went on strike:
Carmen Padilla: Hi, my name is Carmen Padilla and this is my 14th year teaching English Language Arts. One of my rosters this year went as high 46 11th graders in one period. Last year, every period had 39 students. Grading and giving consistent feedback to approximately 120 young people on a daily basis isn’t just exhausting, working with a large group of students in a classroom that was designed to fit half of them is also a safety concern. Yes, I was lucky enough to have 46 tables and chairs for every single one of my 11th graders, but that meant both doors and emergency exists were blocked.
Alex Lima: My name is Alex Lima and I’m a TK (Transitional Kindergarten) through second grade special education teacher for the Los Angeles Unified School District. More funding for special education I think is really huge for me. I’ve had the opportunity to fundraise for my classroom and to be able to have the classroom I think my students deserve, but it has taken four years of me writing grants for Donors Choose and asking friends and family for donations. The items that I’ve been fundraising for are nothing out of the ordinary that a basic classroom would not need. Being a part of this movement has been very surreal. The support that we have been receiving from local community members and parents at our school has been awe-inspiring and the hope that our students get what they deserve is what keeps us going.
JS: Those were the voices of Los Angeles Unified School District teachers Carmen Padilla and Alex Lima.
The LA teachers’ strike was widely supported by the community in Los Angeles. And now other school districts in California and around the country may soon see teachers picking up the baton from their colleagues in LA and running with it in their own strikes, among them Denver, Colorado and Oakland, California. The LA teachers’ strike was its first since1989. Joining me now to discuss the significance of this strike and the fight ahead are two guests:
Noriko Nakada teaches eighth grade English at Emerson Middle School in Los Angeles. And Sarah Jaffe is a labor reporter covering the UTLA strike for the Nation Magazine. Sarah, Noriko welcome to Intercepted.
Sarah Jaffe: Thanks for having me.
Noriko Nakada: Thanks for having me.
JS: Noriko, you teach eighth grade English at Emerson Middle School in Los Angeles. Why are you striking?
NN: I’m striking for the schools our students deserve and we’re fighting for smaller classes, for a nurse, and to try to open our library. We haven’t had a librarian for over ten years. These are things that lots of campuses in L.A. Unified are struggling with. And so, we are out on strike to try to win a fair contract for our schools and for our students.
JS: As I went through the list of demands reduce class size, improve school safety, less testing and more teaching, invest in community schools, support students and families, you go on and on. And yet if you were to watch a lot of media coverage, you would think that the issue is you guys are out there saying we want more money. We want more pay.
NN: Yeah, I think that’s been the narrative here in Los Angeles. Well, I think with most work stoppages people want to make it about pay and this really isn’t about salary. We’re asking for really a cost of living adjustment. We haven’t had a cost of living adjustment. The state funds that every year and the district has held on to that. So, we haven’t had a COLA for many many years and so really it’s a salary restoration. So, to say that that’s what the strike’s about is really ridiculous.
JS: Sarah you have not only been on the ground in Los Angeles in recent days covering this strike, you have been covering labor struggles basically for your entire time working as a journalist set this strike in Los Angeles in the broader context of the strikes we saw in West Virginia and Oklahoma and elsewhere across the country.
SJ: This strike has more in common in a lot of ways with the Chicago teachers strike in 2012.
Karen Lewis: All across this country teachers, commissions, and paraprofessionals are finding failed status quo reforms. School districts have become emboldened and what have they done? They’ve been emboldened because rich people are now writing the laws. Rich people who never send their children to public schools are making the policy.
SJ: This is a union that reformed itself, that really remade itself as a social justice union that was going to fight for the things the schools, as they say, that the students deserve, to fight with a racial justice lens and to really bring the struggles of the community into the fight that the teachers union is waging. And so not to say and I will — you know me — I will never say that unions and that workers should not ask for more money, from a bigger slice of whatever especially in a place like LA that’s rapidly gentrifying. Cost of living is skyrocketing. One of the other teachers I spoke to said you know even with a six percent raise that they’ve asked for in this contract, even if they get that, he’ll still be down something like 10 percent on his cost of living just since he started teaching 10 years ago. So you know that’s a perfectly fair demand to make but like to understand what’s going on in LA and why you have 30 — 33,000 is it, Noriko, teachers in the union?
SJ:And yet you had 60,000 people in the streets on Friday. You have to understand these demands being really rooted in what the community wants.
NN [at UTLA rally]: This year my eighth grade English classes averaged 40 students and that’s less than Ms. Janley’sclasses down the street that have 50 students.
Unknown speaker 1 [at rally Bell High School]: My students have to wait a day maybe two to see a counselor, to see a psychiatric social worker. Kids who are having issues do not have the luxury to wait. They need to be served now.
Unknown speaker 2 [at rally at Bell High School]: They need nurses and counselors and they need more money for supplies.
JS: We have to remember too that at this moment the secretary of education is Betsy DeVos, a billionaire also the sister of Erik Prince, my favorite person, the founder of Blackwater. But Noriko, what impact have you felt either politically as a teacher or on the ground to having Betsy DeVos running the Department of Education?
NN: Well, it definitely has created a villain on the federal stage. It’s very clear that she wants to privatize our public schools. Her policies actually aren’t that different than Arne Duncan’s, not really trying to reframe the narrative that our public schools have a lot of really positive things going on them and they need more funding in order to better to meet the needs of the kids in our communities.
JS: Well, Sarah to follow up on that, I mean, in a way and I know exactly what Noriko is talking about where you compare what was education policy under Obama versus Trump. And this is true in many federal agencies now with Trump appointees heading them. You have this extraverted villainy that exists but the reality is not much of a shift in policy except on some core issues largely focused around Betsy DeVos’ posture on sex assault cases, on religious financing of schools. But it’s not that radically different about policy from Obama to Trump, or is it?
SJ: Well, I mean in California it’s Democrats all the way down, right? Democrats run the state on every level in the city, on every level. So like Betsy DeVos is Betsy DeVos but like this is a policy that again, that people will trace back to the previous mayor of LA, Villaraigosa who is very deeply connected to the charter industry. People have pointed out that you know, Cory Booker who thinks he’s running for president was in New Orleans giving a speech to the charter school industry while 30,000 LA teachers were on strike. The question of California being the sort of figurehead of the resistance, right, as everybody told me out there — the fifth largest economy in the world, the richest state in the country and yet California’s schools are 43rd in the nation in per pupil funding. So, that does bring them down to the level of places like West Virginia, Arizona and this is California. This is again, this is run by Democrats so like, while it would be nice to blame Betsy DeVos and I think it is helping to shift the narrative to make sort of school privatization a squarely Republican issue and make Democrats sort of have to take a stance or you saw like Kamala Harris putting out videos in support of the strikers.
Kamala Harris: And so, I stand with the Los Angeles teachers as they fight to have wages that are consistent with the dignity that we should be giving them. No teacher should have to work a second job in order to figure out how to pay the bills.
SJ: You saw the DNC on the first day of the strike make an announcement that they support the teachers. It’s polarizing in that way. But you know when you look at Austin Beutner who’s a superintendent of the L.A. school district, the school board there, these are people who claim to be Democrats.
JS: Well, and you have not only Donald Trump and his administration but specifically you have Betsy DeVos, Mike Pence, his wife Karen Pence, all major advocates of redistributing taxpayer money from public schools or public education to religiously affiliated schools. The overall drive in this country to redistribute taxpayer funds from public education to for-profit or religiously oriented schools.
SJ: Yeah, and it goes along with something that you’ve written about quite a lot which is the privatization of absolutely everything, right? Whether we’re talking about Blackwater and the fact that Betsy DeVos is related to Erik Prince is not an accident here, right? These are people who fundamentally believe that the public sector should be looted and all of that money should be in private hands as much as possible. And so, you know the charter school industry will say like these are nonprofits. They’re not for profit. We are donating money. We’re bringing in money. We’re trying to improve things for black and brown children. But like the actual thing that’s happening here is private organizations are breaking up the school district into little teeny fiefdoms, right?
Austin Buetner’s plan for LAUSD is to break it up into 32 portfolio districts which is sort of what Cory Booker did in Newark and what they did in Los — in New Orleans, excuse me. To break these public districts where you have an amazingly unified group of 33,000 educators, again — I will say this again, LAUSD is 960 square miles. I tried to drive as much of it as I could in a week. To take that as like a big giant unified public resource and break it up into little chunks that are all controlled by little different private industries so that everybody can have a chunk of it and say like we did this here and we did that there and that again, that public money is ending up in private hands.
JS: Noriko, you also have said that and this is a quote: “It really is kind of a come to God for public schools and for the Democratic Party.” What do you mean by that? This come to God” moment for public schools and the Democratic Party?
NN: You know, the teachers union has backed Democratic candidates. And I especially lately have lacked understanding as to why we have signed on with them so readily when we have gotten so little backing from our Democratic candidates. The California Charter Commission here is a very powerful lobby. There was a huge school board race here which helped create a pro-charter body on our school board which put Beutner in place and that’s really all about the charter commission. These are all Democrats and these are not issues that help the working class of Los Angeles who were supposed to be standing up for the most vulnerable in our communities. And many of the Democratic platform says that that’s what we want to do. And so, that means supporting our public schools, not allowing charters to take over the majority of our public schools in cities like New Orleans where Democrats have stood by and sometimes helped make that happen.
JS: There are negotiations ongoing as we’re speaking. What’s your understanding of where things are right now?
NN: They’re in negotiations kind of round the clock is what I’m hearing. They have agreed to a confidentiality. Rank and file members are really hoping we get a lot for the sacrifices that we’ve made, you know, this past week.
JS: When you say sacrifices made this past week, explain to people what what you’re talking about.
NN: It was funny there was someone posted something funny online that was like, people don’t realize that teachers aren’t going to get paid and they’re not going to get back pay. You know, my husband I are both teachers. We have no income right now for the past week. And the longer the strike goes on the more those financial hardships go in. You know, life kind of goes on. Terrible things have happened in families of teachers that I know. You know, I have a friend whose husband had a recent cancer diagnosis. We actually had a member who who had a heart attack on the line on the first day and passed away. And so, the sacrifices are many. All of these teachers, 30,000 in the street and that’s sacrifices for all of their families. My first grader hasn’t been in school for a week. She is really missing her teachers and her school. She’ll be on the line with them but with every single one of those teachers you can have a conversation with them about the sacrifice their families are making.
JS: Sarah, as you were covering the launch of this strike and on the ground there interviewing people, were there a lot of students that came out to support their teachers?
SJ: Oh, I’m so happy you asked that. There is an incredible particular organization of students that, they’re called Students Deserve. And they — so, I met several of the students. I met one on the first day of the strike. I was at Dorsey High School in South L.A. and met Marshe Doss, who was giving a speech. The next time I saw her three days later, she had no voice because she’d been given so many speeches.
Marshe Doss: I am building this movement for myself and others because we deserve a school that meets our needs.
SJ: And this is a group of students that is again, organizing alongside teachers but they also have their own demands. They’re focused very heavily on criminalization, on the school police, on random searches in the schools. These are demands that the union has taken up that really again started with these students.
MD: A school with more college counselors and less police and military recruiters. [Cheers.] A school where I don’t get pulled out of my math class every day in search for weapons and what the district calls random searches.
SJ: And they’re just incredible. Then Friday morning, I was in North Hollywood and a group of parents who had organized themselves on a Facebook group from three different schools — so, parents and students made a human chain down Colfax Avenue from North Hollywood High down a mile down the street past Colfax Elementary to Walter Reed Middle School.
[Cheers and chanting.]
SJ: The police that were there again, said about 2,000 people and we always assume the police are lowballing protest counts. But this was an entirely self organized parent and student and community solidarity event to just say we stand with our teachers. We stand with our community. These are our community schools. And it was — I was just kind of like running back and forth up and down this line trying to take pictures of my lousy cell phone camera of how many people were out there. But it’s been really incredible to see you know, the parents and the students. And one of the parents that I spoke to at Colfax was saying just like you know, most of us haven’t sent our kids to school but there are some people who really have no other childcare options. And so, the teachers at the school said send your kid in wearing red and we’ll know you stand with us. And that one really, I’m getting emotional again talking about it. That really, you know, stuck with me that people understand that sometimes you have very few other options but they’re still trying to find ways to stand with their teachers.
JS: Noriko, you’re teaching eighth grade and of course, you know, eighth eighth graders have high school on their mind.
NN: They do.
JS: Hopefully. I mean, eighth graders and their parents have this very much front and center particularly now as the school year heads into its final stretch. Have you heard any negative reactions from students or parents in your classroom to this strike or this action you’re taking?
NN: I haven’t. I mean, I’ve heard complaints like “Oh, when are we going to be back? We’re so ready,” which is also hilarious to hear from students that are —
JS: Yeah, especially eighth graders.
NN: Right, but you know, our schools really are where our kids get to hang out with each other and they have — it’s a huge community for them. So, they are missing being in the building and learning. I haven’t heard a lot of pushback. I think because these demands are so incredibly reasonable. Trevor Noah did a piece on his show about how reasonable these requests are. They want a nurse every day and a librarian. What will they ask for next?
Trevor Noah: They’re also asking for more school counselors and one nurse per school. That’s like the most reasonable list of demands I’ve ever heard. Like I wish bank robbers were this reasonable. It’ll be like “I’m not going to release the hostages until you open up another teller window.”
NN: So, I think our community really stands behind us and that’s another part of the organizing of this union is that we have been having conversations with our parent leaders and our parent groups, you know, for the last six months building into this. So, they know what our demands are. They know how reasonable the demands are and how much they work for their kids. And those personal relationships, I think, are what the district kind of under estimated that these folks you know, we know our families, we know our students and they stand, you know, they understand that we’re fighting for them.
JS: Sarah, as we as we wrap up, you described your latest piece for The Nation, you described it on Twitter and you said “I argue that this strike is the antithesis of Thatcherism.” You mentioned Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister which also shows the danger of just cheer for somebody because they’re a woman. Margaret Thatcher —
SJ: And Theresa May.
JS: And Theresa May should be exhibits A and B of that. But “I argue that this strike is the antithesis of Thatcherism,” explain what you mean by that.
SJ: So, Margaret Thatcher had this famous line about how you know there’s no such thing as society. There are individuals and there are families. And that’s kind of the neoliberal viewpoint in a sentence right, that there are no, these are just individual things. And like charter schools operate on this logic, right? I’m going to get my kid into a good charter school and everybody else who is stuck at the public school that is being systematically underfunded, they can just you know, whatever. I’m gonna get my kid taken care of. Whereas the public schools and the public school fight like the one that’s happening in LA right now is really saying we want public education for every kid. Not only do we want public education, we want our schools to have counselors. We want our schools to have school psychologists. We want our schools to have a nurse every day, a librarian.
But beyond that we want our schools to be places where the community feels welcome, where the community can come in, where the community can also access resources, and where the community feels like their demands are being met. And then you know, when you see teachers in the street, in public space, reclaiming public space, having political conversations and doing organizing in public space, it’s entirely — it’s saying this is society. There is a society. One mother that was on one of these protests that I went to actually outside of Austin Beutner’s house, she said you know, I found out my kid’s school had a nurse one day a week and I went to war. She’s like I have one biological child at this school and I have 588 adopted children at that school. And this is a parent. But this is also what all the teachers are saying. These are all our kids.
JS: Sarah Jaffe, thank you as always for your reporting and for joining us.
SJ: Thank you.
JS: Noriko Nakada, I want to say that we hope you guys prevail and thank you so much for talking with us here on Intercepted.
NN: Thanks for having me.
JS: That was Noriko Nakada. She teaches eighth grade English at Emerson Middle School in Los Angeles. She also writes creative non-fiction, fiction, and poetry. You can find her on Twitter @writersgrind.
And Sarah Jaffe covered the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) strike for The Nation Magazine. She is the author of “Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt.” Sarah also co-hosts Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast. You can find her on Twitter @sarahljaffe.
And that does it for this week’s show. If you are not yet a sustaining member of Intercepted, log onto TheIntercept.com/join to join the more than 3,000 other people who have already joined us as sustaining members of this podcast. Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. We’re distributed by Panoply.
Our producer is Jack D’Isidoro and our executive producer is Leital Molad. Laura Flynn is associate producer. Elise Swain is our assistant producer and graphic designer. Rick Kwan mixed the show. Transcription is done by Nuria Marquez Martinez. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky. Until next week, I’m Jeremy Scahill.
Correction: January 23, 2019, 1:50 p.m.
In a previous version of this episode, Jeremy Scahill misidentified Rep. Joaquín Castro as a possible 2020 presidential candidate. In fact, his brother, Julián Castro, is a possible 2020 presidential contender. The reference has been removed.