On issues from domestic inequality to foreign policy, President Obama delivered his fifth State of the Union with a vow to take action on his own should Congress stonewall progress on his agenda. But will Obama’s policies go far enough? We host a roundtable with three guests: Jeremy Scahill, producer and writer of the Oscar-nominated documentary "Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield" and senior investigative reporter at First Look Media, which will launch in the coming months; Bob Herbert, distinguished senior fellow with Demos; and Lorella Praeli, director of advocacy and policy at the United We Dream coalition.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: Our guests are Jeremy Scahill—his film, Dirty Wars, has just been nominated for an Oscar; Bob Herbert with us, former New York Times columnist, now with Demos; and Lorella Praeli with the United We Dream coalition. Nermeen?
NERMEEN SHAIKH: We’re continuing our coverage of President Obama’s State of the Union address. During Tuesday’s speech, he announced an executive action to raise the minimum wage for some federal contract workers from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: In the coming weeks, I will issue an executive order requiring federal contractors to pay their federally funded employees a fair wage of at least $10.10 an hour, because if you cook our troops’ meals or wash their dishes, you should not have to live in poverty.
Of course, to reach millions more, Congress does need to get on board. Today, the federal minimum wage is worth about 20 percent less than it was when Ronald Reagan first stood here. And Tom Harkin and George Miller have a bill to fix that by lifting the minimum wage to $10.10. It’s easy to remember, 10-10. This will help families. It will give businesses customers with more money to spend. It does not involve any new bureaucratic program. So join the rest of the country. Say yes. Give America a raise.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Bob Herbert, can you respond to that, the significance of this raise for some federal workers?
BOB HERBERT: Sure. I think it’s symbolically significant. So, it’s not going to take effect until new contracts come up, so federal contract workers will have to be paid at least a minimum of $10.10 an hour. The reason I think it’s symbolically significant is because it keeps a spotlight on the issue of the minimum wage, on the issue of employment going forward.
You know, to Jeremy’s point about the State of the Union essentially being a propaganda speech, which is absolutely true, what you didn’t hear there was really what the state of the economy is for ordinary Americans, for working people in this country. You didn’t hear anything about poverty, for example. So, for years now, the American people have made it clear, in poll after poll and in other ways, that employment is their top priority. I mean, people need jobs. But neither party, presidents from either party and Congress, whether it’s in the control of the Republicans or the Democrats, have had a sustained, effective job creation program in this country. And the United States is never going to get out of its morass until it’s able to put people back to work.
We now have nearly 50 million people who are officially poor in the United States, according to federal guidelines. Another 50 million people are just a notch or two above the official poverty rate. That’s nearly a third of the entire population that’s poor or near poor. One out of every three black children in the United States is poor. If you just walk a few blocks from this studio, every day you will see enormous lines wrapped around the corner for soup kitchens and that sort of thing. And that’s the case in places across this country. None of that was addressed. And none of the initiatives that the president has offered, and nothing that the Republicans have offered in years, would begin to address this state of distress among American working people and among the poor.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Just to give us an idea, Bob Herbert, how many employees does the federal government have through contractors?
BOB HERBERT: Well, it’s interesting. It was actually Demos that—it was a Demos initiative that put the spotlight on this $10.10 initiative, because Demos was the first organization to point out that the federal government, through its contractors, employs nearly two million low-wage workers, which is more than Wal-Mart and McDonald’s combined. So, if you could get this initiative expanded to cover all of the workers who are contracted to work for the federal government, then you would help an enormous number of people.
AMY GOODMAN: Mention of unions? I saw Richard Trumka in the audience.
BOB HERBERT: You know, get me started on unions. One of the reasons American workers are in such a deep state of distress is because they have no clout in the workplace. They are not organized, and they are not represented, so they cannot fight for their own interests. Corporations are organized every which way from sundown, and they have tremendous amounts of money. They have a lot a political clout and that sort of thing.
Workers go to work. You know, it’s just one man or one woman, you know, against an employer in a terrible job market. So you’re afraid to even ask for a raise, even if you deserve a raise, because you think the employer is going to say to you, "Take a hike." And then you go out there in this terrible job market, and there’s no jobs to be had. If workers were organized, then they would be able to have clout. You’d be able to bring pressure not just on employers, not just on corporations, but also on the federal government to get legislation passed that would be beneficial to workers.
And one of the most important things you could do is to just enforce the laws that are on the books that have to do with labor organizing. I mean, so, if you’re in an organization, a corporation, a plant, that sort of thing, where workers are not organized, do not belong to a labor union, they want to organize—the majority of the workers want to organize—the corporations fight you every step of the way. And they use a tremendous number—amount of unfair tactics. That’s illegal, but the federal government has not enforced the laws.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about international trade policy and how that relates. In his State of the Union, President Obama also sought fast-track authority to give lawmakers an up-or-down vote on the trade deals such as TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: When 98 percent of our exporters are small businesses, new trade partnerships with Europe and the Asia-Pacific will help them create even more jobs. We need to work together on tools like bipartisan trade promotion authority to protect our workers, protect our environment, and open new markets to new goods stamped "Made in the U.S.A." Listen, China and Europe aren’t standing on the sidelines. And neither should we.
AMY GOODMAN: That was President Obama in his fifth State of the Union address. We just returned from Japan, Bob Herbert. There, there’s a huge discussion about the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Here, most people, if you asked them, they wouldn’t even know what it is.
BOB HERBERT: Well, one of the things that’s a problem in this country is because the economic situation has been so stagnant for most people for so long and because the government has been—the government in Washington has been so dysfunctional, that Americans have really tuned out. And also, I don’t think that the press has done a good job at all on trade agreements, if you go all the way back to NAFTA in the 1990s. So people essentially don’t even understand these agreements. But what they do understand is that they have not been helpful to the vast majority of workers over all these years. So...
JEREMY SCAHILL: Can I just make a comment?
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill.
JEREMY SCAHILL: I mean, you know, what Obama was doing there—in his last major address that he gave, he—at the United Nations General Assembly, he laid out this sort of forceful defense of American empire, and even went so far as to say that the U.S. will use its military might to continue to secure energy resources. In this speech, it was a pretty forceful defense of a neoliberal economic agenda. And, you know, what Bob is saying about corporations resonates on a foreign policy level, as well.
What is widely being considered to be the most moving part of last night was when this U.S. Army Ranger was addressed in the crowd and who was severely wounded and had done 10 tours. Think about that for a moment—10 tours in these war zones. You know, this young American spent his entire adult life in these combat zones. And, you know, the issue of how veterans are treated in this country is one thing, but at the end of the day, did he benefit from these wars? Does the average American benefit from the continuation of these wars? No. Who benefits? That’s the most important question we all have to ask. It’s corporations.
BOB HERBERT: Exactly.
JEREMY SCAHILL: War corporations, the Halliburtons of the world, the Boeings. John Kerry, yesterday it was announced, is giving these awards for corporate excellence around the world. He’s giving them to Citibank, to Apache, to Boeing, to Coca-Cola. And so you have this neoliberal economic agenda, which is sort of the hidden hand, in many ways, of the U.S. empire, and then you have this iron fist of U.S. militarism that is being sold to the American public, and increasingly to the world, as national security policy.
And so, you know, when I see that Army Ranger who’s wounded like that, the first thing that just occurs to me is: Who has benefited from all of this? When corporations control our political process in this country through a legalized form of corruption that’s called campaign finance, what does that say about the state of our democracy? In a way, there already has been a coup in this country, but it’s been a silent coup. And it reminds me of that famous line from the great movie The Usual Suspects. At the end of it, Kevin Spacey’s character says the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. In many ways, a coup has happened, and the brilliance of it is that it’s not sparking major uprisings because we’ve been pacified and taught to just accept this as how things work. We have two parties in this country, the minimum wage is going to be the minimum wage, and corporations are in control, and these wars are fought in our name, but without our consent.
BOB HERBERT: And the flipside of who benefits is the suffering that is so tremendous out there among the warriors who have been sent over to fight these wars since late 2001. And so, you just have hundreds of thousands of people who have—men and women, who have come back from the combat zones, who have terrible, disabling injuries, who are going to have to be cared for—we have an obligation to care for them—in many cases, for the rest of their lives. We have to pay, as a society, to care for these folks. You know, it’s probably—Joe Stiglitz has estimated that now these wars are probably going cost cumulatively $4 trillion or more. None of this has been really explored clearly or properly explained to the American public.
JEREMY SCAHILL: You know, just a small sort of side point on this, you know, when we talk about the U.S. withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan, the conventional military, a story that very seldom gets attention is the connection between a paramilitarization of law enforcement inside of the United States and increasing use of what they call counterterrorism tactics on SWAT-style operations in the U.S. The military is donating a lot of its equipment to local police agencies and other so-called law enforcement agencies, and the communities that are most at risk here are communities of color and poor communities. Everything is about war—the war on drugs, the war on crime.
BOB HERBERT: Right.
JEREMY SCAHILL: And war requires some kind of a militarized response. And that’s what we’re seeing. This is deeply connected to the wars abroad, the wars at home, as well.
BOB HERBERT: And this is actually going into our public schools, where you have that type of militarized behavior going on actually in public schools. That’s how you get the school-to-prison pipeline that people are talking about.
AMY GOODMAN: On Afghanistan, President Obama said, "If the Afghan government signs a security agreement that we have negotiated, a small force of Americans could remain in Afghanistan with NATO allies." But the latest news says the Pentagon has proposed up to 10,000 troops remaining behind, Jeremy.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, and if you look at what sort of various senior anonymous military officials have been saying for several years now, they’ve known that the withdrawal is not really going to be a withdrawal. Yes, we’re going to see the Marines pull out. We’re going to have this thing where journalists can ride on the tanks, like they did out of Iraq. But at the end of the day, this is an Afghanization of a U.S. policy. So, what’s going to happen is that you’re going to have these advise-and-assist squads of highly trained U.S. special ops and CIA personnel accompanying Afghan units, and they’re going to try to have the Afghans do the fighting and dying and killing on behalf of U.S. policy. But what I think should be of greater concern to the American public is that you are going to have these strike forces in place. It’s taken as conventional wisdom now that the U.S. is out of Iraq. Actually, the U.S. has a massive paramilitary presence inside of Iraq and is going to continue to have one inside of Afghanistan. So, these wars are going to continue on for at least another generation, albeit on a sort of covert, hidden-hand manner of doing it.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: But what’s the justification, Jeremy, for keeping troops in Afghanistan?
JEREMY SCAHILL: I mean, there is no counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan anymore. I mean, no one wants to talk about this, because you’re going to be accused of being sympathetic to the Taliban. The Taliban is not a terrorist organization with global aspirations. The Taliban has a constituency, has a greater constituency than the U.S., arguably than Hamid Karzai, who the U.S. recognizes as the president. And I think the Taliban is a morally reprehensible group of individuals, but they do have indigenous support. And the reason that they’re fighting right now is because the U.S. and NATO are in their country. And so, to sort of imply that what we’re doing there is countering terrorists, when in the first months of the Obama administration his own national security adviser said there are less than a hundred al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan, we should be asking that question that John Kerry asked in 1971: Who wants to be the last to die for this failed war? What do they tell the families of the soldiers who die from here until they pull out the conventional military?
AMY GOODMAN: Now, the significance of that, for people who don’t remember, John Kerry, who is the secretary of state and formerly senator, was—fought in Vietnam, and when he came home, he was strongly opposed to the war in Vietnam, and he testified before Congress asking that question.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, I’d love to see 1971 John Kerry questioning, you know, 2014 John Kerry at a hearing about all these policies that he’s having to sell as secretary of state around the world.