Media Finally Pivots Away from Repetitive Deficit Scare Tactics and Notices Surging Populism (December 30, 2013)

barack_obama_ap_605

The conclusion of a calendar year before the inception of a fresh one is both a literal and metaphorical time of hope: a chance to wipe the slate clean and welcome new ideas, goals and attitudes. While any period of transition lacks clean orderliness, the end of December is perhaps the one time in twelve months where an opportunity is presented to  stop, think and even change the most important mind of all – your own.

It was just two months ago, in the midst of October’s bogus and pointless government shutdown, that I was pretty much resolved to throw in the political towel. Despite a surprisingly strong spine shown by President Obama and Congressional Democrats in refusing to help lunatic Republicans save face, it seemed as though we had beamed an unmistakable message across the globe: “The United States has jumped the shark. A minority of conservative radicals is in charge, holding the rest of us hostage. And mainstream ‘liberals,’ perpetually preoccupied with the next election cycle have forsaken economic and social stewardship. We will continue to lurch from one manufactured fiscal crisis to another. We have stopped caring about the middle and lower classes. We will continue to ignore the growing incidence of mass gun violence, dismantle the social safety net. Give us another decade to complete our transformation to banana republic.”

But just when all seemed utterly and completely lost, a series of fortunate and promising events occurred. The GOP was pummeled in the public court of good opinion over the two-week shutdown, effectively neutralizing the party’s oft-stated talking point that its actions reflected the will of the people. They completely capitulated, the government reopened and there was good reason to believe that Boehner and the bunch would be loathe to attempt any similar monkey business in the near future.

Next we received the holiday gift of a bipartisan budget agreement. And though it was at best an imperfect plan which does nothing to aid the struggling, invest in the future (infrastructure, education) or bolster job creation, the final resolution was a glorified nod to the retreat of deficit panic as our defining government ideology. The cherry on top was the subsequent inter-Republican bickering, punctuated by Speaker Boehner’s repeated admonishment of right wing advocacy groups like the Heritage Foundation. The grumpiness appeared to be little less than the opening shot of the Republican civil war that for years appeared as necessary as it was unlikely.

And now, finally, at the conclusion of 2013, the conversation is turning. Yes, the change is beginning to take root in “liberal” media outlets such as The New York Times, but it’s happening. Time was you couldn’t get anyone but Nobel Prize-winning economic Paul Krugman to steer off the GOP sound bite course. And bless his heart, the stalwart solider of good sense is back at it this week with a column entitled, Fiscal Fever Breaks. But I wasn’t about to get excited until a major story made the front page.

The headline is neutral enough: Democrats Turn to Minimum Wage as 2014 Strategy. But the statistics referenced within the piece are the real story: “Sixty-four percent of independents and even 57 percent of Republicans said they supported increasing the minimum wage, according to a CBS News poll last month. Some 70 percent of self-described ‘moderates’ said they supported an increase.”

The movement away from “serious” economic butchering that only serves to enrich the wealthy and kick the troubled when they’re down, no longer holds the same appeal – for the White House, for papers of record and, most importantly of all, for the people. A large cross-section of ALL of the people. 2014 might just be the year of resurgent democracy, of empathy and of a modicum of policy sanity. Yes, we can.

Democrats Need To Rally Around the Issue of Income Inequality in America (December 23, 2013)

teeter_totter_1_Percent

In late 2011, when the promising Occupy Wall Street protests began to fizzle out – a combination of government/police intervention and an internal lack of organized leadership, my heart sank. The movement, which began in Zuccotti Park, ground zero of New York City’s Wall Street financial district, deserved much more than a historical footnote, the status of a fleeting trend.

Most of us outside the one percent sphere of privilege don’t need data to reinforce the certainty that things have gone downhill for the middle class, beginning long before the 2008 onset of the Great Recession. We are being squeezed every possible way: mass unemployment, stagnant wages for those lucky enough to have jobs, depreciated home values, skyrocketing household debt and college tuition prices, rising property taxes. You name it and it hurts. Meanwhile we’ve been forced to sit on our hands and watch as no one responsible for the loss of our 401ks and property is prosecuted and even worse, Wall Street salaries remain 5.2 times higher than that of the average New Yorker. I won’t even get into wages outside the Big Apple or executive pay. It’s too depressing.

Inequality and the divisions between the have and have nots is not a new conversation. Every relevant civilization throughout history has struggled with these tensions. I beganto be of the opinion that in order to have any real traction, the dialogue had to mature. Rather than a simple “us vs. them” discourse, I felt like Democratic leadership ought to challenge itself a bit more. Because frankly, it’s not only the GOP that has lurched to the right. In an effort to begin winning elections again after the drubbings of the 1980s, the left made a great “moderate” leap to the center, bringing some economically disastrous policies with them.

This is one of the themes of New York Times columnist Bill Keller’s December 22 Op-Ed, “Inequality for Dummies.” In it, he writes: “Inequality is in. The president, you have probably heard, has declared income inequality to be ‘the defining challenge of our time…’ Liberals of a more centrist bent — notably the former Clintonites at the Third Way think tank — have refused to join the chorus and been lashed by fellow Democrats for their blasphemy.”

As sick as we might all be of partisan infighting, this is a battle we need to have. This isn’t a pointless test of ideological purity to source a base pleasing candidate. As much fun as it’s been to watch the Republican Party look for its way with all the grace and finesse of a blind rhinoceros, it can’t be that we got into our current situation because of the wretched ideas and decision making of one party alone. 11 months before the 2014 midterm elections, and nearly three years before the 2016 Presidential contest, seems like a fine time for the Democratic Party to ask itself a few critical questions. Do we want to continue letting the GOP set the agenda (and anyone who thinks the most recent budget compromise wasn’t a near-complete victory for the conservative platform, just isn’t paying attention), or do we want to be a little bit more proactive about restoring the American Dream?

Keller goes on to write, “The alarming thing is not inequality per se, but immobility. It’s not just that we have too many poor people, but that they are stranded in poverty with long odds against getting out. The rich (and their children) stay rich, the poor (and their children) stay poor…

A stratified society in which the bottom and top are mostly locked in place is not just morally offensive; it is unstable. Recessions are more frequent in such countries.”

Is it any coincidence that every year since Bill Clinton left office, including the Bush terms, rife with deregulation, outsourcing and bursting bubbles of several varieties (which liberals, let’s be entirely honest, were causes championed by the Clinton administration as well), has felt like one continuous recession?

I caution my fellow lefties: Let’s not be afraid to take a good look at ourselves, our history. We can and should do better to create policies that might begin to redress these spiraling socioeconomic ills. After all this is the season of reflection and we have been, at minimum, G.O.P enablers. Accessory to the destruction of the middle class is still a crime.

A Lot of Politically Surprising Things Happened Last Week…But Has Anything Changed? (December 16, 2013)

Quotation-Andrew-Cuomo-politics-surprises-government-Meetville-Quotes-14876

As we barreled toward the New Year last week, it seemed that each morning brought with it some genuinely surprising political news. Taken together, the most welcome unifying theme was a phenomenon we haven’t seen in Washington in quite some time: movement.

Six days ago, concerned Americans, weary of the fiscal showdowns, debt ceiling crises and many years without an operating Congressional budget resolution awoke to a bipartisan shocker. Democratic Senator Patty Murray and Republican Representative Paul Ryan hammered out a budget compromise that avoids another painful government shutdown on January 15, and if passed by the Senate, eliminates the arbitrary and debilitating sequestration cuts that went into effect last March.

The exhausted and cynical among us wondered how long it might take for the Heritage Foundation, the Koch Brothers and their ilk to scare Ryan, Boehner and other Republican leaders into hasty retreat. And sure enough the predictable reproaches and accusations of fiscal treason arrived right on cue, before the full details of the Murray/Ryan compromise were even available. But then another amazing thing happened. Not one but two full days in a row, a beleaguered and angry Speaker Boehner went on the offensive against the third party groups who have exerted undue influence on U.S. government. In a Washington Post article entitled, Boehner attacks tea party groups as House approves budget deal, writers Paul Kane and Ed O’Keefe observe, “After years of placating conservative groups that repeatedly undermined his agenda, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) took direct aim at some of his tea party critics Thursday, accusing them of working against the interests of the Republican Party.”

Obvious and overdue certainly, but amazing nonetheless.

But the week was not yet through bestowing minor gifts of karmic delight upon the frazzled liberal and moderate. Hot on the heels of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s November decision to push through long-threatened changes to thePresidential nominee filibuster rules, the chamber began attempting to clear the enormous backlog of Executive Branch appointments. Embarrassed and angry Republicans did what they could to slow the process down, which only brought more self-inflicted pain from newly empowered Democratic leadership. Per a Thursday, December 12 Daily Kos post:

“The Senate is in the midst of a marathon session forced by Mitch McConnell and his minions in full revenge mode. In retaliation for the Democrats changing the rules on nominations to end Republican filibusters, Republicans insisted on using up every bit of time available to delay votes as long as possible, by insisting on using all 30 hours of possible debate on nominees. The tactic merely delays the inevitable.”

After neglecting to do much of anything for a full calendar year, it’s like Congress woke up, chugged some 5-Hour Energy and suddenly remembered it was hired to do a job. The week’s events offered a glimmer of hope, no matter how small, that the legislative bodies just might prove capable of governing after all.

But hold on a minute. There was also plenty to warrant a collective pause, enough sobering activity to make us wonder if we might not be getting ahead of ourselves in all the giddy celebration. Because yes, the House and Senate managed to perform some actions that were once considered routine business, but has anything fundamentally changed?

Last Friday’s latest school shooting in Colorado soberly reminds us of Capitol Hill’s repeated failure to pass anything resembling sensible legislation to control the gun violence that has ended more American lives than all the wars in our nation’s history.

And about that awesome budget deal? Sure it avoids another pointless and reckless budget shutdown, but it doesn’t do much of anything to help the unemployed, jumpstart the infrastructure and educational investment we badly need or help shore up cash-strapped local economies. The Economic Populist headline from late last week says it all: Congressional Scrooges Deny Unemployment Benefit Extension. Because nothing says “goodwill toward men (and women)” like kicking the long-term unemployed when they’re down.

The moral of the story is this: there is reason for optimism. Hope that the flailing GOP is finally ready to get serious about wresting control of its party from the one percent interests that have completely marginalized its platform and messages. Hope that the Democrats have learned that there is no compromising with economic and social terrorists, and that they are finally willing to try governing without waiting for partners that will never arrive. But there is still plenty of reason to worry that for the foreseeable future, no one is fighting for the dwindling middle class, the working poor, the mentally ill and those terrorized by gun violence. Let this season of somewhat renewed hope be tempered by raising the bar of government expectation a little higher. Keeping us afloat is not enough.

A Holiday Wish as the Least Productive Congress in History Wraps Up Its Year (December 9, 2013)

CTM_1205_CONGRESS_640x360

As American workers, those fortunate enough to be employed anyway, rush to complete year-end projects, let us take a moment to marvel at the outgoing 113th Congress. As our own Sarah Jones reported last week, this group is the least productive on record. As of this writing, the sorry bunch of elected officials has passed just 55 laws this calendar year, seven fewer than the 112th Congress of 2012. The 62 pieces of legislation that last year’s bodies managed to get off the floor was, at the time, the lowest bar ever set.

Let’s set this overpaid, under-performing inertia against the productivity levels of the typical American worker, the one that hasn’t been desperately seeking employment or experiencing imminent fear of losing it. In the great Mother Jones piece, All Work and No Pay: The Great Speedup, from the magazine’s July/August 2011 issue, writers Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery observe, “We’d hear from creative professionals in what seemed to be dream jobs who were crumbling under ever-expanding to-do lists; from bus drivers, hospital technicians, construction workers, doctors, and lawyers who shame-facedly whispered that no matter how hard they tried to keep up with the extra hours and extra tasks, they just couldn’t hold it together. (And don’t even ask about family time.)”

Such is not the affliction of Congressional derelicts, particularly in the Republican-led House, where officials will put in a mere four full days at the office in the month of December.

In the quest for solutions to bridge the ever-diverging fortunes, work ethics and priority lists between John Q. Americana and the “public servants” we elect, it must be noted that Washington’s isolation from reality is enabled by a lack of urgency. Simply put: they just aren’t subject to the mundane and therefore, have no need to get down and dirty, much less try to understand the challenges and balancing acts required of regular plebians.

So I have a pipe dream for 2014, one that would save the country some of the precious deficit dollars that our G.O.P. leaders love to screech about, while ratcheting up the production championed so often by captains of industry. Do we really need 435 bodies in the House, taking up air and all the best restaurant reservations in Washington D.C? Hell no! They don’t do anything anyway. Let’s cut that number to a brisk 100 – two representatives for every state. You want redistricting? How about NO districting and the remaining elected “workers” have to represent every interest across the spectrum? Don’t want to speak on behalf of those who favor gun control in urban areas from your farm in the sticks? Don’t care about the unemployed when the family millions are safely guarded tax-free by your investment banker? Too bad! American workers have to shill for things they’d rather not each and every working day. Join the pride swallowing fun!

If you’ll indulge me a moment longer, let’s move onto the Senate. Let’s let Jeff Flake and John McCain get in the ring and decide who gets to be the sole hardest working man from Arizona State. Frankly speaking I had to Google “other Arizona Senator” to even learn who Flake is. Sorry United States. These are hard times and you only get one Senator apiece. Take your pick! We must reduce headcount!

Let the 114th Congress get a real, measurable sense of metrics, the common man’s workload and multi-tasking. Best part is: the incidence of finger pointing must needs to go down. There won’t be anyone else to blame! The remaining strained parties will have to work together, sometimes even around the clock doing actual, functional compromising. It’s so old school! Oh the fun we’ll have watching C-SPAN. The money we’ll save, and less lawmakers to go around might even lead to less pundits. This “more with less” revitalization strategy could be the gift that keeps on giving.

Just imagine…

SCOTUS to Decide in 2014 If It Will Continue to Confer Personhood Rights on Corporations (November 13, 2013)

Hobby Lobby

In September 2009, the right-leaning Supreme Court of the United States rendered the controversial Citizens Uniteddecision. In its judgment, the SCOTUS determined that “Political spending is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment, and the government may not keep corporations or unions from spending money to support or denounce individual candidates in elections.” In other words, business entities were conferred the same First Amendment rights that you or I would have with regard to promoting or disparaging our chosen candidates. With its decision, the Supreme Court willfully opted to ignore two essential differences:

  1. Corporations lack two feet and a heartbeat.
  2. Regular folks typically do not have access to the same millions (or billions) that a company desiring to wade into politics can leverage, rendering the playing field inherently unequal.

Legitimate fears that the nation was on a slippery legal slope that would eventually confer full personhood on corporate entities commenced. Independent Bloomberg editors ran a piece in June of 2012 entitled, The Supreme Court’s Cowardice. The writers pointedly concluded: “The First Amendment ain’t beanbag. What undermines the ruling’s legitimacy is its flights of fancy about the world of political finance. In an assertion of shocking naivete, Kennedy, writing for the court’s 5-4 majority, said corporate independent campaign expenditures ‘do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.’”

Well said. But as we approach the end of 2013, it seems that Court may decide to undertake another key case in the New Year that will provide it with an opportunity to reverse its gradual and unconscionable determination that the Bill of Rights extends to DBAs. Alternatively, as many liberals and independents justifiably fret, SCOTUS may instead cement corporate claims to privileges and rights historically reserved for people by taking another look at the First Amendment. Only this time, the Supreme Court may weigh-in on a company’s freedom of religious practice.

The New York Times ran an article this week with the rather boring title, Court Confronts Religious Rights of Corporations. Don’t let the dull syntax fool you. This is a big deal and we should all be paying attention. Centered around Hobby Lobby, a successful chain of retail craft stores, writer Adam Liptik characterizes the complaint as follows:

“The stores play religious music. Employees get free spiritual counseling. But they do not get free insurance coverage for some contraceptives, even though President Obama’s health care law requires it.

Hobby Lobby, a corporation, says that forcing it to provide the coverage would violate its religious beliefs.”

Apparently, a federal appeals court agreed with Hobby Lobby’s owners, paving the way for the issue to be decided anew by SCOTUS. After all, the justices were the inspiration for the latest convocation of First Amendment rights to a corporate ledger. Per the Times piece, “the United States Court of Appeals for the 10thCircuit said it had applied ‘the First Amendment logic of Citizens United.’”

It’s important to note that the Supreme Court is still deciding whether or not it will hear arguments in the case. Let’s hope they do. If not, the 10th Circuit’s ruling will become de facto law. Academics as well as regular peons (us) are concerned about the expanding implications of a right wing view of companies as people. Per the Times: “‘This is a perfect storm,’ said Richard Garnett, a law professor at Notre Dame, adding that it is also a worrisome one. ‘Debates about campaign finance in Citizens United and abortion and Obamacare,’ he said, ‘could distort the court’s analysis of religious freedom.’”

It may seem obvious to most of us, but corporations are NOT human beings. They cannot bleed, do not experience emotions and in many cases, are seamlessly formed and dissolved without giving pain to anyone at all. What’s next? Do we arm Hobby Lobby with cannons to randomly shoot at customers it deems offensive to its moral code? If Hobby Lobby commits a crime, do we invite Target, Walmart, Home Depot and Best Buy to comprise a jury of its peers?

Sound ridiculous? That’s because it is.

Have Decades of GOP Deregulation & Safety Net Gutting Made Depression the New Normal? (November 18, 2013)

great-depression

Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman is never afraid to ask the tough questions. Though his Times blog bears the name “The Conscience of Liberal,” the title is sort of an unfortunate misnomer. Krugman’s esteemed reputation was fostered by a decidedly nonpartisan, common sense approach to policy evaluation. It is more a sign of the times that his Keynesian monetary philosophy has earned him the liberal firebrand label. It’s not that Krugman has moved to the left over the course of his career. It’s more that politicians, the media and other economy wonks have veered so far rightward.

I also appreciate that Krugman is an agitator, failing to be complacent about the status quo while accepting situations as “the way things are.” Thank goodness because we live in an era of such whitewashed talking points, of corporate media ownership and blurred lines between church and state that feed each other symbiotically.  It’s a real challenge to stumble across any real, independent thinkers.

This week, Krugman is at it again, acting as the proverbial thorn in the side of the “deficit scolds” he sees it as his civic duty to expose. In an early Monday morning column entitled, “A Permanent Slump?,” he wonders, “what if the world we’ve been living in for the past five years is the new normal? What if depression-like conditions are on track to persist, not for another year or two, but for decades?”

If it is indeed the case that the anemic job and economic growth we’ve experienced in recent years (and, as Krugman rightly points out, well precedes the late-2008 housing and stock market collapses) is now standard operating procedure, we have to go further. We must ask ourselves what’s changed? Why does it seem the robust glory days of the American middle class are behind us, and why should we accept this as so?

Krugman begins with a rather empirical observation about the undistinguished trap of modern economics. He notes, “the evidence suggests that we have become an economy whose normal state is one of mild depression, whose brief episodes of prosperity occur only thanks to bubbles and unsustainable borrowing.”  Thus he ties the latter Bush II “boom years” not to genuine expansion, but rather the disingenuous fraud perpetrated by record household debt and criminally destructive mortgage lending.

Slower post-Boomer population growth, which has led to reduced demand for infrastructure, products and services is offered as an unavoidable accessory to the economy’s stagnation, as well as “persistent trade deficits, which emerged in the 1980s and since then have fluctuated but never gone away.”

All common sense as pertains to the “why?” and I’m sure that even most right-wing economists would find little with which to quibble thus far. But then Krugman transcends the talking point laziness afflicting most GOP think tanks and dares to ask “what?” we can do to upend this trap.

“Central bankers [including the Fed] need to stop talking about ‘exit strategies.’ Easy money should, and probably will, be with us for a very long time. This, in turn, means we can forget all those scare stories about government debt…if our economy has a persistent tendency toward depression, we’re going to be living under the looking-glass rules of depression economics — in which virtue is vice and prudence is folly, in which attempts to save more (including attempts to reduce budget deficits) make everyone worse off — for a long time.”

And this is where he goes in for the kill vis a vis Republican policymakers and the cowardly, election cycle-focused Democrats afraid to contradict them:

“I know that many people just hate this kind of talk. It offends their sense of rightness, indeed their sense of morality. Economics is supposed to be about making hard choices (at other people’s expense, naturally). It’s not supposed to be about persuading people to spend more.”

Ironically, the “spend more” doctrine was championed by George W. Bush after the atrocities of 9/11, rightfully so, in order to stave off a panic-induced economic contraction.  The then-President offered up tax rebates and broadly encouraged Americans to use the funds to stimulate the economy, rather than save or pay down household debt. I offer this example not to champion the overall deficit-busting proclivities of Bush, but rather to hearken back to a time, just a little over a decade ago, when Republican economic policy went further than robbing the lower and middle classes to give gifts to the rich, all while performing Jedi mind tricks in an effort to convince the struggling that these actions were in their best interest.

For years now, the modern GOP has tried to leverage the Federal deficit, combined with “these are unusual times” rhetoric to try to wrench the social safety net out from under us, and delay job-creation spending to provide relief to the long-term unemployed. Only, as Paul Krugman demonstrates, these are not unusual times and current policy, if left unchecked, will only worsen the decline of hardworking American prospects.

That’s exactly what the one percent is hoping.  If we let these tactics continue to succeed as they have, shame on all of us.

Does de Blasio Victory in NYC Offer Post-Racial Blueprint for American Cities? (November 11, 2013)

de-blasio-election-eve

Short answer: it depends on who you ask as well as where the respondent lives.

In recent decades (starting with the ascent of former President William J. Clinton to the White House in 1992), “true” liberals have stood by helplessly as members of both of the nation’s political parties continued to drift further to the right. It’s a popular water cooler topic to discuss the radicalization of the G.O.P. However it’s nearly as important to remember the days when issues such as domestic spying, military drone strikes that end civilian lives and a constant focus on the deficit in the face of high, sustained unemployment would have been political kryptonite for liberals, rather than championed causes.

This column is not the place to debate the multitude of reasons why the left side of the spectrum has drifted so far rightward. They start with a need to win popular elections and end somewhere with the 24-hour news cycle and the instant judgment of social media turning elected officials into paralyzed indecisives.

Into this cesspool of partisan gridlock, where few voices remain to articulate and advocate for the platform of the true liberal waded New York City Mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio. De Blasio captured the zeitgeist after 20 years of Republican and “Independent” rule by emeritus leaders Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. Just how hot is de Blasio right now? An early September article published by The Atlantic writer Molly Ball characterized the candidate as “a populist progressive and yuppie dad whose son has an awesome Afro.”

But there is much more to de Blasio’s Big Apple appeal than serving as one of the heads of a real-life Modern Family, although his clear devotion to his African-American wife and biracial children ultimately resonated with voters. But post-ballot armchair quarterbacks may want to focus less on money and the message and consider the natural next question. If de Blasio understands the diversity of tomorrow’s family (as of July 2012, the Census Bureau reported that the rate of Caucasian births had fallen to a minority among babies), what else is he able to anticipate?

Many New Yorkers have felt left behind in Manhattan’s decades-long resurgence. Skyrocketing housing prices, preferential treatment for Wall Street and diabolical laws such as the wildly controversial stop-and-frisk have pushed a growing number of middle class citizens to the fringe. And they’re no longer content to sit there peacefully. New York Times writer Michael N. Grynbaum published a story this week entitled Many Black New Yorkers Are Seeing de Blasio’s Victory as Their Own. In it, he observes:

“After the divisive tenor of the Giuliani years, and the deep grievances engendered by the stop-and-frisk police tactics of the Bloomberg era, black New Yorkers are now claiming Mr. de Blasio’s victory as their own. In postelection interviews, dozens of black New Yorkers said that Mr. de Blasio’s personal touch, his biracial family and his pledge to help the working-class and poor had affected them deeply. His victory, they said, was a chance to gain a voice in City Hall after two decades of leadership they viewed as inattentive, distant and, at times, even callous.”

In other words, a populist victory for a populist leader. And for those less fair-minded Republicans who seek minority voter disenfranchisement as a return path to the Mayor’s residence, be warned. The Times piece continues:  ”Some of those interviewed said they would have voted for him even without his biracial family, citing his staunch Democratic politics and pledge to address economic inequality.”

De Blasio’s surprising and unequivocal victory is both a sign of the coming post-racial times, as well as an indication that the G.O.P.’s careless “47 percent” dialogue made infamous by Mitt Romney is starting to elicit action from the masses so disregarded by the party. Though this sea change and demand for leadership more racially and ideologically diverse may take some time to trickle down to red states and more rural areas, it has begun.