Commentary

Monday is the national holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr., and Tuesday marks the fourth anniversary ofCitizens United, the case that dramatically widened the flood of big money in elections. Their confluence is opportune, for while each seems to invite reflection on a different core social problem—respectively racial inequality and the power of concentrated wealth—each teaches lessons relevant to the other.

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Over the last three years, anyone who has followed the pitched battle over letting eligible American citizens vote or not should be familiar with the political dynamic behind it. Following the 2010 midterm elections when Republicans made major gains across the country, a tsunami of bills were introduced that were clearly designed to throw up obstacles to voting for traditionally Democratic constituencies: African Americans, low income people, immigrants, among others.

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Something is horribly wrong with both America's employment situation and with the way we measure it. In case you missed the news, the economy generated just 74,000 payroll jobs in December, but the unemployment rate dropped by three tenths of a percentage point, from7.0 percent to 6.7 percent.

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Almost every culture has some variation on the saying, “rags to rags in three generations.” Whether it’s “clogs to clogs” or “rice paddy to rice paddy,” the message is essentially the same: Starting with nothing, the first generation builds a successful enterprise, which its profligate offspring then manage poorly, so that by the time the grandchildren take over, little value remains.

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When LBJ walked to the dais to give his first State of the Union address, on January 8, 1964, just a month and a half after President Kennedy had been assassinated, he looked more like a school teacher—a job he’d held, decades earlier, in an impoverished rural community in South Texas—than the most powerful man on earth. He wore a sedate black suit, white shirt and narrow black tie; his receding hair was cut short and brushed back. There was no bombast, no theatrics.

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Not only is the U.S. far from achieving a post-racial society, but dog-whistle politics is reinforcing the role of race and contributing to the decline of the middle class as whites vote against their own best interests.

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There was little merry or bright this holiday season for millions of unemployed Americans who are losing their extended unemployment benefits.

Many depend on these meager payments, a federal extension of state unemployment programs that expired as of the last Saturday of 2013, to stay afloat. After tapping out their savings, downsizing their living space, and draining their retirement funds, one-time managers and MBA grads bought Christmas gifts secondhand and worry over what the new year will bring. [...]

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Nitrogen and phosphorous runoff from agricultural activity is a major source of water pollution in many parts of the country. In the Chesapeake Bay watershed, half of the phosphorous and 40 percent of the excess nitrogen result from agricultural runoff, leading to algae blooms and destructive conditions for the bay’s legendary fish, oysters, and crabs.

When Senator Elizabeth Warren announced that she would not be running for president, she disappointed many who see her as one of the nation's most vigorous defenders of America's middle class. From her fight to end the risky lending practices that cost millions of Americans their homes to her efforts to protect Social Security, the Senator's calls to action consistently confront the ways that the system seems rigged against ordinary citizens.