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Sanders Win Reveals Deep Divide Between Voters and Democratic Party Leaders

Tue, 02/09/2016 - 21:00

For response to Tuesday's primary, we go to Manchester, New Hampshire, to speak with Arnie Arnesen, longtime radio and TV host in New Hampshire. She was the Democratic nominee for governor in 1992. Arnesen has known both Sanders and Clinton for about 25 years.

Please check back later for full transcript.

Categories: Latest News

Primary Questions

Tue, 02/09/2016 - 21:00
Categories: Latest News

Why a New Trade Deal Has Put Genetically Modified Crop Concerns in the Spotlight

Tue, 02/09/2016 - 21:00

Because most EU members still oppose GMOs, it seems highly improbable that the US will be able use the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations to force Europe to dramatically change its position. (Photo: Biotech Crops via Shutterstock; Edited: LW / TO)

Civil society groups have been voicing concerns about the upcoming Euro-American trade deal the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) since it was announced three years ago.

The list of worries includes companies being able to constrain public policy; the potential for weaker consumer and health and safety standards; and the secrecy around the negotiations. Genetically modified (GM) products are one subject on the table, since they fall within TTIP's broader remit to tackle areas where the US and EU approaches are furthest apart and have therefore been ignored by previous efforts to harmonise regulations. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the potential effect on how GM is regulated is of serious concern.

In the US, the share of GM crops, particularly maize and soybeans, has grown steadily over the years - even though support for the technology is not universal. The US has no specific legislation over GM crops, but approves them either through the Food and Drug Administration or via national environmental policy processes, depending on the variety and purpose.

Approvals use a science-based risk assessment, which focuses on whether scientists have identified sufficient risks to justify a ban. Although the federal authorities are the most important in this area, municipal authorities also have jurisdiction over GM to some extent, and some Californian municipalities have banned cultivation, for example. On the other hand, attempts at both federal and state level to force consumer products to carry GM labels have failed.

The European Approach

In the EU, applications to approve new crops go to the relevant member state and are then passed to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). The EFSA makes a recommendation to the European Commission (EC), which in turn makes a recommendation that is subject to a vote by the member states. These recommendations are based on the precautionary principle - meaning that approvals might be refused if the science is not sufficiently certain about the level of risk involved.

As things stand, only one GM crop has EU approval for cultivation. Imports of consumer products and animal feeds with GM ingredients are permitted, but they must be labelled if the GM content is above 0.9%; and non-GM foods and feeds can display labels signalling that they are GM free.

The reason why so few GM products are permitted is that strong opposition in some member states, including Austria, France, Germany, Hungary, Poland and Italy, led the EC to suspend its approval processes in 1998. To get around this, new regulations introduced last April include opt-out measures so that even if a product is approved at EU level, individual member states can still decide not to allow cultivation or use the product in food or animal feeds in their national territory. This is designed to break the deadlock and allow more pro-GM areas like Spain, Portugal and the English part of the UK to take up these products.

These changes to the rules are linked to a World Trade Organisation (WTO) 2006 ruling against the EU's approach to granting GM approvals, following pressure from US farming groups and GM manufacturers. The WTO found that most EU member states were unduly slow to deal with approval applications for new GM crops and that a previous pan-EU moratorium on new applications contravened the rules of international trade.

Other US Trade Agreements

When it comes to predicting what TTIP could mean for the very different approaches to GM in the US and EU, people often look to the other ambitious US trade deal in the making, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which involves 11 other Pacific Rim countries. From the parts of TPP published so far, environmental groups like Ecowatch are concerned that the section on sanitary and phytosanitary standards could weaken national resolve to control GM through labelling.

Though it doesn't mention prevention of GM labelling as such, it includes commitments to prevent undue delays on imports of agricultural goods; to limit inspections; and accept that different systems can achieve the same outcome. Meanwhile, the sections on intellectual property include a 10-year data-exclusivity requirement for new agricultural chemical products. This appears to provide an additional economic incentive for GM producers to develop products and push for greater market share.

TPP also pushes for each country to recognise the other signatories' certification systems for organic products, which raises an analogy with the US-South Korea free-trade agreement of 2011. Following the agreement Korea was forced to adapt its zero tolerance against GM, which had previously meant that to be considered organic in that South Korea, products had to have a 100% guarantee that there was no GM contamination in them. Since certain non-GM organic products from the US could not give that 100% guarantee, they had not previously qualified as organic in Korea. The trade deal meant that if products were labelled organic in the US, they had to be accepted as organic in South Korea.

Because most EU members still oppose GM, it seems highly improbable that the US will be able use the TTIP negotiations to force Europe to dramatically change its position. But GM labelling, which is voluntary in the US, might be the area where the Americans try to exert the most pressure.

TTIP is no doubt generating heated debates behind closed doors. Because the final outcome will depend on trade-offs and linkages across the whole agreement, it is impossible to say how this will affect GM at this stage. And even once we have a published agreement, it will take years before we see how it is implemented and interpreted in practice - just like it will with TPP. All we can say is that it has the potential to have a substantial effect on current regulation. Many people are therefore watching developments closely.

Categories: Latest News

We Resist, We Survive: Leonard Peltier and Imprisoned Indians

Tue, 02/09/2016 - 21:00

A sign in support of Leonard Peltier is displayed in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in a photo taken on March 28, 2009. (Photo: Karpov)

"Please don't let me die in prison…"

I set out to write something about Leonard Peltier and I didn't know where to start. But this plea, from Peltier himself, repeated by various people who have met or spoken with him is what stuck with me long after my research was finished. I cannot pretend to know the intonation of his voice or the level of emotion behind the statement but it struck me as something very human, to want to be free and not die a prisoner.

Leonard Peltier, a Chippewa-Lakota man, has been in prison for 40 years, incarcerated for the murder of two FBI agents in 1975. The case against him is shaky, that's the best way I can describe it, and it seems he is the victim of an overzealous prosecution during a period of time when being a Native activist was treated like an act of treason. Peltier's involvement with the American Indian Movement (AIM) made him a target, as it made several other Natives activists, their families and their children targets during the 1970s while AIM led a resistance against corrupt federal, state and local government policies.

Netflix hasn't done a ten part documentary series on Peltier's case, but for the past 40 years many people have fought in the hopes of bringing to light the corrupt nature of his prosecution. Native people are reminded each time Peltier asks for clemency of the precarious nature of the justice system. It is what struck such a chord with audiences as they followed the saga of Steven Avery, a man who was wrongfully convicted, in Netflix's "Making a Murderer" series. What if the system can be easily manipulated by a select few in authority who just want you to be guilty? What if they lock you up and throw away the key?

How many letters will you write home that begin, "please don't let me die in prison"?

Leonard Peltier is also an artist, an author and a poet who in his 40 years in prison has had attempts on his life, developed diabetes, had a stroke and had surgery for an abdominal aortic aneurism. He is currently one of the longest serving political prisoners in the United States of America. There is a kind of sardonic symbolism in that one of the longest serving prisoners in the United States is Native American. Imprisonment is so intertwined with the settler colonial agenda that we as Native people have been treated as prisoners in our own lands. Missions, forts, reservations, boarding schools … they were all designed to imprison us.

Native people have been consistently and increasingly incarcerated since first invasion by western settlers. If they weren't killing us, they were imprisoning us. They said their punishments fit our crimes. Sometimes our crimes were things like standing around, going off the reservation, defending ourselves against sexual assault, hunting, fishing, or refusing to be removed from our homes. It very quickly became illegal just to be Indian. And for every new law that they passed in the name of justice, there was one more Indian incarcerated because while "the only good Indian is a dead Indian," if you can't kill him, then the only good Indian is an incarcerated Indian.

In 1883, a Lakota Sioux man named Crow Dog shot and killed another Native man named Spotted Tail. The tribe dealt with this incident through a system of settlement that was traditional to the tribal people. We didn't believe that prison was the answer, because we had complex systems of justice that valued balance in our communities. U.S. authorities could not believe that in this traditional system of justice there was no real "punishment" so they intervened, arrested and tried Crow Dog. They sentenced him to death. How interesting that their goal was two dead Indians, not just one. Crow Dog took his case all the way to the Supreme Court, and you know what the court said? "Get out of this Indian business, you guys. They have their own justice systems. They are sovereign nations." (Basically. You should read the whole case if you want to know what they said exactly.)

After that Congress made sure that Indians could no longer be in charge of justice systems when it came to what they called "major crimes" because it wasn't justice if Indians weren't going to jail or getting executed. And now Indians are sentenced to longer sentences than white people who commit the same crime, and according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, they are incarcerated at a rate 38 percent higher than the national average. Native men are incarcerated four times more than white men. Native women, six times more than white women. So the system is working because we are going to jail.

And it makes me wonder how many of these Native people write home or say silent prayers at night that begin "Please don't let me die in prison."

Leonard Peltier's case, however, has made international headlines, not because he is a Native man in prison, but because of the extraordinary circumstances surrounding his conviction. The trial was farcical and unsettling. It seemed like conviction of Peltier was to prove a point about punishing the American Indian Movement. For the last 40 years, Peltier has maintained his innocence and has had people working endlessly to free him. They began with requests for new trials. They highlighted the inconsistencies of the case. In 2009, he was denied parole. He has been denied clemency by multiple Presidents. Organizations like Amnesty International and the National Congress of American Indians have called for intervention in his case.

Last year, the Leonard Peltier "I Will" Clemency Campaign produced a series of videos in which human rights leaders, activists, celebrities and others asked for President Obama to offer clemency to Peltier. Peltier's lawyers think that clemency is his only option because at this point, he is not eligible for another parole hearing until 2024, when he will be 79 years old. Clemency is an opportunity to acknowledge the great price that Peltier has paid, the many years he has already served, and to treat him like a human being instead of just making an example out of him.

Peltier is considered by many a political prisoner because of his involvement with the American Indian Movement during the 1970s. If we think of the American Indian Movement as resisting occupation, as pushing back against the settler colonial desire to disappear, remove and destroy Native people then we must also remind ourselves that AIM was a group of human beings. Much of what people now know about AIM was because of the ever-present news cameras, hungry to build a narrative that would play well to national and international television audiences. Suddenly, Indians were on television.

They had dreams and songs, they had survived and resisted countless government programs meant to assimilate them, they were stronger together and they were willing to fight. And there were many real things at stake. There were communities desperate for help to fight corrupt government systems. There were Native people resisting continued policies meant to tear apart their families. There were demands to honor the treaties. There was increasing rates of homicide, cases that were going uninvestigated by the government. There was a movement to educate young Native people, to build Native run universities and cultural centers. There was the fight against termination and the fight for restoration of land. And behind all of that was a growing group of Native people, some coming in caravans, others hitchhiking or taking the bus, to find their way to each other, a mass of voices demanding a better future for Native nations. This is what the government at the time considered a threat, Native people who saw opportunities for sustainable, healthy futures through education and empowerment.

This is not to say that AIM was a perfect organization. We must, as generations looking back on how we can learn and grow from this movement, critique as well as support the actions of people during this period of time. There was a culture of misogyny and gender violence amongst AIM members. There was also the ever-present threat of FBI infiltrators and the paranoia of ever increasing numbers of informants in AIM ranks.

There was the murder of a young Native woman, Anna Mae Aquash, who was found buried on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. She was thirty years old with two young daughters. As we consider the lasting impact of this politicized time on Peltier's life, on the lives of countless others, we must also consider these many issues and demand justice not only for Peltier but also for Anna Mae, wrongfully incarcerated Native peoples all over the world, and missing and murdered Indigenous women. Peltier's very lengthy incarceration is just a part of this larger context of the continued injustices that are perpetrated against Native peoples because we resist and we survive.

In the end I am brought back home. I have been reminded over the past few days as I wrote this article that one of Leonard Peltier's children grew up in my hometown. I knew him for most of my young life and I remember once that my mother made him dance with me at a Pow Wow. I was really embarrassed, but he was pretty good at the two-step. Leonard Peltier, the father, rarely gets talked about. It could be because he didn't get much of a chance to be a father, or because his children don't seem to search out the spotlight very often. But, as much as he is a political prisoner, or even an incarcerated Native man, he is also a father.

And he is a son, an author, an activist, an artist, a human being and a poet.

We are not separate beings, you and I
We are different strands of the same being

You are me and I am you
and we are they and they are us

-Leonard Peltier

Categories: Latest News

Corporate Power Doesn't Always Win: Remembering the Free Trade Area of the Americas

Tue, 02/09/2016 - 21:00

In retrospect, it sounds like a dream come true: a mobilized population, intercontinental organizing, cooperative left-wing governments - all culminating in the downfall of a major corporate-friendly trade agreement that would have covered a large chunk of the global economy.

It wasn't just a dream. The proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas, or FTAA - meant to span all of North and Latin America - went down in defeat in 2005.

Now, over a decade later, as we face two other upcoming trade deals - the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) uniting 12 Pacific Rim countries, and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) connecting the United States and Europe - the FTAA victory has a lot to teach us about successful social movement strategies, and the challenges of building and sustaining power.

Not Just a Trade Deal

In 1994, Western hemisphere elites were riding high. The North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA - which stitched the United States, Canada, and Mexico into a trade bloc - had been signed in January. By December, delegates at the first Summit of the Americas came up with a new, even more ambitious plan.

Meeting in Miami, the presidents from 34 countries (every nation in the Americas except Cuba) resolved to create what U.S. president George H.W. Bush had envisioned in 1990 as a "free trade zone stretching from the port of Anchorage to the Tierra del Fuego." With a market of 800 million consumers and a GDP of $11.5 billion - 40 percent of the world's total at the time - the FTAA promised to become the largest free trade area in the world. Those assembled decided to begin negotiations in earnest, with the aim of making FTAA a reality by 2005.

Having seen the problems with NAFTA - which included major labor dislocations and new legal mechanisms that undermined all manner of consumer and environmental protections - civil society organizations were concerned. As they began to get access to draft chapters of the FTAA, their analyses pointed to grave implications for food security, the availability of medicines, water, and basic services, and access to scientific knowledge itself.

One of the biggest concerns was the investment chapter of the FTAA. Just like NAFTA's Chapter 11, it granted expansive new rights to foreign investors, which they could enforce through the now-infamous Investor-State Dispute Settlement Mechanism (ISDS). That system allows corporations to bypass national courts and sue countries directly in private international arbitration tribunals when they feel that their investments - and profits - are being affected by a public policy. Social organizations considered this a direct attack on sovereignty and democracy.

Controversy over ISDS bolstered the popular perception that this was not an agreement for trade or integration based on the common good, but rather an expansionist project into Latin America - with its huge consumer market and immense natural resources - based on the commercial and corporate interests of the United States.

The consequent mobilization against the deal was enormous and decisive. At the fourth Summit of the Americas, held in Mar del Plata, Argentina in November 2005 - the very year in which the FTAA was supposed to be inaugurated - the proposed trade deal was pronounced dead.

Defeating the FTAA

While the social organizations' analysis of the proposed trade agreement might have been on point, it's a big leap from robust critique to outright victory. What strategies did social movements use?

The first was to construct a diverse yet united movement with a common goal. Building on the experience and the networks created through U.S., Mexican, and Canadian organizing against NAFTA, the movement began to coalesce during the late 1990s into the Hemispheric Social Alliance, or HSA. The alliance united diverse sectors - including indigenous, labor, student, environmental, and women's movements, as well as sympathetic NGOs and others - from across North and Latin America.

Among the HSA's most important activities were People's Summits, scheduled to coincide with rounds of FTAA negotiations. These were popular assemblies where discussion could happen and strategic lines of struggle could be defined. The summits pushed the movement to develop a common agenda and construct a common language. According to participants, one very important decision was to concentrate on what members found agreement on, and leave areas of disagreement open for discussion. The summits were also moments for filling the streets of the host cities with debate and color - and for dialogue with local people about the ways in which the FTAA was going to affect their lives.

By closely examining the impact of prior trade agreements such as NAFTA, and the drafts of the proposed FTAA text, the HSA grounded its opposition to the deal in high quality analysis. But in order to persuade the public, this had to be accompanied by effective campaign messaging. "No to the FTAA!! Yes to Life!! Another America is Possible!!" became ubiquitous across the region - from the banners displayed in demonstrations to buttons, hats, and pamphlets distributed in the streets.

Also important was the ability of the alliance to propose alternatives. The movement wasn't opposed to the integration of the Americas. Rather, underlying the "Alternative for the Americas" proposal was a vision for an alternative to neoliberal integration based on principles of democracy, sovereignty, social wellbeing, equality, and sustainability.

A final key factor in defeating the FTAA was the ability to build on alliances with leftist governments in the region and bring them into the opposition camp. Leaders with critical viewpoints toward "free trade" and many with close ties to social movements were coming to power in Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, and Venezuela. " It is often assumed that it was the progressive governments which defeated the FTAA," notes Alberto Arroyo from the Mexican Free Trade Action Network. But the truth is that it was the movements that brought these governments to power, and later the movements were able to show these new governments the seriousness of what was happening."

By 2005, the regional balance of power had shifted, and progressive governments - in response to sustained social movement pressure - were changing their positions. Despite the efforts of President George W. Bush to resuscitate the agreement in Argentina, the summit that year marked the death knell for the FTAA. The social movements had won a major victory and celebrations took over the streets.

There was plenty for the social movements to rejoice about. But organizers were neglecting at their peril the scope of challenges to come.

Corporate Interests Regroup

It didn't take long to see that corporations and free-trade oriented governments had designed a new way to expand the system.

Undaunted by the setback, corporate interests shifted strategies, moving ahead with bilateral and other multilateral free trade agreements, or FTAs. For example, the United States signed FTAs with Chile, Peru, Colombia, and Panama, as well as with a bloc of Central American countries and the Dominican Republic (DR-CAFTA). Similarly, the EU signed an FTA with Mexico in 2000. Then, after its failure to negotiate a free trade agreement with the Andean Community of Nations, it signed FTAs with Colombia and Peru.

Initially, only the countries most open to neoliberal economics - Chile, Peru, Colombia, and Central American nations - agreed to this new wave of FTAs. In contrast, those countries where leftist governments had maintained close alliances with social movements in the fight against FTAA - Venezuela and MERCOSUR nations such as Argentina and Brazil - stayed away.

But over time, even those latter countries have begun to accede to corporate power. Strikingly, Ecuador - formerly a very vocal critic - joined Colombia and Peru's FTA with Europe. Brazil - the one country in Latin America that for years had avoided entering bilateral trade agreements - signed an FTA with Mexico, and is moving toward others. MERCOSUR (consisting of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Venezuela) and Brazil are negotiating a free trade accord with the European Union.

Enrique Daza from the Colombian Free Trade Action Network notes a slow but steady strategy on the part of corporations: "They have an agenda that is not maximalist… they are willing to take gradual steps to slowly implement their policy."

Opportunities for corporations emerge in particular when social movements lose their strength.

After the Victory, the Decline

With all of these free trade agreements being signed across the region, it's worth asking: What happened to the social movement that only a short while earlier had defeated the FTAA?

The movement's inability to stay united and independent from leftist governments post-FTAA worked against it. In 2004, Cuba and Venezuela spearheaded the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA). Not only did ALBA's vision grow out of HSA proposals, but it established a Social Movements Council as the "principle mechanism that facilitates integration and direct social participation."

As HSA turned toward supporting this grouping of "pink tide" governments, it lost some of its critical edge. In the words of Arroyo, "remaining silent in order not to weaken governments in relation to domestic right-wing groups was a mistake." Lamenting that "losing autonomy weakens the movement for the next stage of struggle," he observes, "at the end of the day the subjects of change are the people, not the governments."

Having lost both its international unity and its independence from left-wing Latin American governments, the movement was prepared neither for the corporate counteroffensive nor for sustaining itself during periods of decline.

Lessons for Current Struggles

By 2016 it's become clear that big inter-regional agreements - combined with new bilateral trade and investment deals - are the most prominent way to write the rules of the global trade system in the 21st century. What the United States and Europe couldn't do within the World Trade Organization or with the failed Multilateral Agreement on Investment in the 1990s, they're doing country by country, region by region.

Now comes the real moon shot. If the TPP and TTIP are fully implemented, they would cover 60 percent of global GDP and 75 percent of global trade, as the Transnational Institute's Susan George indicates.

A cohesive trans-continental social movement like the kind that coalesced around the FTAA is unlikely to form again. But current movements fighting trade agreements can draw important lessons from the anti-FTAA movement. As we engage in these struggles, what does the successful FTAA campaign tell us about how to build power in our respective domestic contexts?

One lesson is to harness the power of groups that are already mobilized. The FTAA effort effectively drew on Latin Americans' anger and frustration following years of structural adjustment, austerity, privatizations, and deregulation, and built on a growing anti-imperialist consciousness. It was able to channel the energies of the groups already mobilized on these issues into the FTAA campaign.

Although today's political context is very different, connecting our analysis and messaging on the TPP to the concerns of current movements in the TPP countries will help to maximize our power. Examples include the labor movement working on issues of inequality, jobs, and the minimum wage; groups mobilized on issues of digital privacy in the wake of the NSA scandal; student movements in Chile, Mexico, and the United States; and the environmental movement mobilized around the Keystone XL pipeline and fracking in the United States, tar sands in Canada, nuclear power in Japan, coal campaigning in Australia, and climate change everywhere.

Another related lesson is the importance of making the abstract concrete. The FTAA campaign effectively connected analysis of hard-to-understand and seemingly irrelevant aspects of the draft texts - such as investor-state dispute procedures - with specific concerns of different domestic sectors.

Now that the final text of the TPP is available, there's an urgent need to do the same.

That means, for example, communicating to public health advocacy groups and health professionals' organizations about how intellectual property provisions and extended patent protections for pharmaceuticals will affect access to medicines. It means making it much clearer for the environmental movement how energy and climate legislation - such as restrictions on fracking, coal, and nuclear power - could be undermined by investor-state lawsuits, like the $15 billion suit just launched against the US government for blocking the Keystone XL pipeline. And it means showing small and medium-sized business associations how restrictions on procurement will prevent governments from favouring local producers.

Whack-a-Mole

ISDS was a key issue in provoking outright rejection of the FTAA. Now, over ten years later, we have much more evidence to demonstrate, in very concrete ways, the risk that this system represents for a wide array of urgent public issues. With the high profile of the ISDS issue in Europe currently, there is a multitude of quality, accessible campaign materials that can be used to this end - including a diverse array of voices, from conservative think tanks to trade unionists, joined in unlikely alliance against it.

Finally, we should note the importance of creating alternative proposals. The anti-FTAA campaign was very clear that they were not against the integration of the Americas. Rather, they proposed a different kind of integration that was not based on the interests of corporate profits, unhindered competition, and a race to the bottom.

While regional integration in Latin America has been slow, if the FTAA had been signed it may well have made these initiatives impossible, as regional economies would have been pulled even more tightly into Washington's orbit. Obama was quite explicit about his intention to re-write the rules for international trade in these new deals. Highlighting the geo-strategic implications of the TPP, including the potential impact on alternative regional integration processes in Asia and Latin America, may also give us some leverage at the domestic level.

The FTAA campaign undoubtedly holds valuable lessons for our current efforts. However, what happened in Latin America subsequently - when corporate power regrouped and went on the counterattack in the face of a weakened civil society - tells us something even more important about the nature of the challenge we face.

Even if we defeat the TPP, challenging corporate power is like playing whack-a-mole: it will find other ways to expand. So while we fight our local battles, and continue building a globalized movement of local struggles, we mustn't lose sight of this bigger question about how we dismantle corporate power. The calls for a restructured, fairer global economy are growing louder by the day. While we have our mallets poised and ready, we also need to continue planning how to put the mole out of action for good.

Categories: Latest News

Broken Promises: Smaller Middle Class Has Less Room for Families

Tue, 02/09/2016 - 21:00

After Gabriel Cardenas graduated from high school, he seemed on track to join America's middle class. He worked at Google in Silicon Valley, enrolled in classes at San Jose's Evergreen Valley College and took a second job.

But seven years after graduation, Cardenas is no closer to a middle class that has been shrinking for decades. Instead, his career reflects a common storyline in the modern economy. Cardenas was not an employee at the high-tech firm. Instead, he worked there as a contractor, spending his days unloading crates of bottled water, pet food and other goods for the company's new delivery service, Google Express.

He has not earned a college degree either, since he could only afford to take a few community college courses on the $17 an hour he earned as a contractor at Google. When Cardenas turned 25, he moved back home.

Cardenas isn't alone. Last year, the middle class shrunk to its lowest share of the U.S. population in four decades, with only 50 percent of Americans living in middle-income homes, down from 61 percent in 1971, according to a new report from the Pew Research Center, "The American Middle Class Is Losing Ground."

While the middle class was shrinking, two other segments of the American population were growing: the poorest and the wealthiest. Last year, 20 percent of U.S. adults were on the lowest rung of the economic ladder, earning less than half of the national median income or roughly $31,000 or less in 2014, an increase from 16 percent in 1971, Pew researchers reported. In 2015, 9 percent of Americans were at the top, they earned three times the median or more than $188,000 for a family of three, up from 4 percent in 1971.

Cardenas represents a new face of the nation's full-time workers, people who find themselves in low-paying jobs and left out of the shrinking middle class. In the Google warehouse, Cardenas worked alongside biologists and electrical engineers fresh from college who couldn't find other jobs during the sometimes anemic recovery from the Great Recession.

"There is a big lack of hope. I don't think people actually see themselves owning a house, owning much," said Cardenas, now 27, who says he was recently fired after a successful union organizing campaign at his warehouse. "There is not a path to have stability, to save up and actually be middle class."

Losing Faith in the American Dream

The decline of the middle class suggests a growing disconnect in the U.S., where fewer people feel they belong to, or have a chance to join, what has been the nation's economic and cultural bedrock. "The shift out of the middle reveals that a deeper polarization is underway in the American economy," according to the Pew Research report.

The report confirms what many struggling families have felt for years: The American Dream is moving further out of their reach. In 2014, only 64 percent of people had faith in that dream, the lowest level in about two decades, according to a poll and report by The New York Times.

Both that faith and the middle class itself are being eroded by a complex storm of changes within the nation's economy, education system and public policies. While the U.S. economy is growing again, for example, too much of that growth is in low-wage and part-time jobs, according to Kyra Greene, a research and policy analyst at the San Diego-based Center on Policy Initiatives.

San Diego's economy relies heavily on low-paying jobs in the tourism industry - hotels and restaurants - while the city's cost of living ranks among the highest in the nation, Greene says.

The collapse of housing markets during the last recession also delivered a body blow to the financial security of middle and lower-income families. Falling home values robbed many middle-class families of their primary savings, home equity they could have tapped to weather tough times, Greene added.

"They were hit especially hard," said Gabriela Sandoval, director of research and chief economic security officer at the Insight Center for Community Economy Development. "A lot of wealth was lost because of the housing crisis."

As families fell from the middle class, the public safety net that caught struggling households in the past - subsidized housing, public assistance, unemployment aid, public health care and food stamps - was fraying, according to Deborah Scott, executive director of Georgia STAND-UP, an Atlanta-based alliance of leaders that focuses on economic development.

"The services available (today) are not adequate to meet the needs of the communities in crisis. The safety net of good social services, good public policy and basic human services has gaping holes that can't be filled without a comprehensive approach," Scott said.

Meanwhile, the soaring cost of a college degree has pushed one of the more reliable tools to gain access to the middle class out of reach for many and saddled others with crushing debt.

"In states like California, all the things that we saw that were important to building a healthy middle class in this country are moving in the wrong direction," Greene said.

Together, all of these changes help explain why a different analysis by The Pew Charitable Trusts found that those who are born in the bottom or the top of the U.S. economy are likely to stay there.

Signs of Progress

As the nation's middle class shrunk, however, hopeful signs emerged in two arenas where progress had also stalled: organized labor and the minimum wage.

The ranks of union workers have been thinning since the middle of the last century, when a union job was often a reliable path to economic security. In 2014, only 11 percent of U.S. workers belonged to a union, down sharply from 20 percent in 1983, according to the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In the tech industry, however, unions have secured a few impressive wins lately.

Last year, bus drivers who ferry Apple, Yahoo, and eBay employees around Silicon Valley overwhelmingly voted to join Teamsters Local 853. Their first contract raised wages for drivers from $18 an hour to between $24 and $32 an hour and included paid sick leave, vacation time, holidays and overtime pay, according to Tracy Kelley, one of the drivers who helped lead the organizing campaign.

Yahoo, Apple and the other companies deserve some credit for that contract because "they are the ones who stepped up to the plate to pay the extra money," Kelley said.

Perhaps the most encouraging sign the middle class could grow again is the broad success of local efforts to raise the minimum wage. Even as the federal minimum wage has remained stuck at $7.25, at least 52 cities, counties, and states, from Los Angeles, Calif. to Birmingham, Ala., have raised minimum wages since 2003, according to RaisetheMinimumWage, a project by the National Employment Law Project.

Raising a local minimum wage to $10 or even $15 an hour will not necessarily move a family into the ranks of the middle class, which the Pew Research report defined as households earning between two-thirds and double the national median, between $42,000 and $126,000 a year in 2014 dollars for a family of three.

But, the success of the campaign to raise the minimum wage has tremendous value and could have a "trickle-up" effect as well. The campaign not only raises the pay floor, advocates say, it opens up larger questions about what people need and should earn in the modern economy.

It also reflects a growing realization that many U.S. workers have not seen real raises in years - a typical worker's hourly wages and compensation have been stagnant since 1979, with the exception of the late 1990s, the Economic Policy Institute reported last year.

"We are in what I would call a wages moment. People are recognizing that we have wage stagnation," said Lawrence Mishel, president of the Washington, D.C.-based institute.

In California's Silicon Valley, the idea that many low-wage jobs should pay more is at the heart of a three-point strategy from Silicon Valley Rising, a coalition, and led by Working Partnerships USA to shore up and then expand the middle class. This year, the plan from the San Jose-based community organization includes:

- Launch campaigns to organize contract workers in growing industries, such as bus drivers.

- Push to raise minimum wages and job standards, in more cities. In Silicon Valley, 11 cities have either considered or will consider raising basic wages this year.

- Expand affordable housing, including rent-controlled and subsidized housing, and support policies that prevent displacement of workers living in Santa Clara County.

For some, the campaigns to raise minimum wages, organizing wins and initiatives to broaden subsidized housing are a solid step to stopping the erosion of the middle class. In San Jose, for example, Gabriel Cardenas wants to see greater investment in public schools, stronger laws that support collective bargaining and free community college.

Political engagement and community organizing are important keys to making these changes and expanding the middle class, adds Georgia STAND-UP's Scott.

"We need to keep making sure people participate in the political process and understand the connection between good public policy and the quality of their lives," she said.

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The Kochs Are Ghostwriting the United States' Story

Tue, 02/09/2016 - 21:00

Progressives need to fight back with their own "metanarrative" against the tall tales of the right wing. (Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)Gather round for the word of the day: metanarrative. Definitions vary but let's say it's one big narrative that connects the meaning of events to a belief thought to be an essential truth, the storytelling equivalent of the unified field theory in physics.

Now use it to define what's being done to America today - our Big Story. Journalist and activist Naomi Klein did just that a couple of weeks ago when she and I talked at Finger Lakes Community College in upstate New York about the Koch brothers' resistance to the reality of climate change.

"…The Charles Koch metanarrative - and he's said it explicitly - is that he is challenging collectivism, he is challenging the idea that when people get together they can do good," she said. "And he is putting forward the worldview that we're all very familiar with that if you free the individual to pursue their self-interest that will actually benefit the majority. So you need to attack everything that is collective, whether it's labor rights or whether it's public health care or whether it's regulatory action. All of this falls under the metanarrative of an attack on collectivism."

In other words, Koch and his brother David and the extraordinary machine they have built in cahoots with fellow billionaires and others, have spent hundreds and hundreds of millions to get their way - "the great wealth grab" in the words of Richard Eskow - all part of one long story told in pursuit of a specific end: to make the needs of the very, very few our nation's top priority and to thwart or destroy any group effort among the poor and middle class to do or say otherwise.

To see more stories like this, visit Moyers & Company at Truthout.

The Kochs have spun their tale with a singular, laser-like focus, carefully taking their time to make sure they get it right. Jane Mayer, author of Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, recently wrote in Politico Magazine that

"Charles Koch might claim that his entry into politics is new, but from its secrecy to its methods of courting donors and recruiting students, the blueprint for the vast and powerful Koch donor network that we see today was drafted four decades ago."

Mayer reviewed papers - including one written by Charles Koch himself - presented at a Koch-sponsored Center for Libertarian Studies conference in 1976 and concludes, "…It's not hard to recognize the Koch political movement we see today-a vast and complex network of donors, think tanks and academic programs largely cloaked in secrecy and presented as philanthropy, leaving almost no money trail that the public can trace. And it's these techniques Charles first championed decades ago that helped build his political faction-one so powerful that it turned fringe ideas William F. Buckley once dismissed as 'Anarcho-Totalitarianism' into a private political machine that grew to rival the Republican Party itself."

And so we see their creation of ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council posing as a non-profit while entertaining state legislators and plying them with templates for laws that favor restrictions on voter eligibility, public sector unions and the minimum wage while supporting freedom for the gun lobby and deregulation. The Kochs shower cash on candidates and elected officials who do the bidding of the right, fund programs at historically black colleges and universities that preach free-market economics and deregulation, bankroll the Libre Initiative that hands out holiday turkeys and Easter baskets to Latino families while, in its own words, "informing the U.S. Hispanic community about the benefits of a constitutionally limited government, property rights, rule of law, sound money supply and free enterprise through a variety of community events, research and policy initiatives that protect our economic freedom."

As Naomi Klein said during our conversation, "The Koch brothers set out to change the values, to change the core ideas that people believed in. And there is no progressive equivalent of taking ideas seriously." She then asked, "So what is the progressive metanarrative? Who funds it? Who is working on changing ideas that can say, 'Actually, when we pool our resources, when we work together, we can do more and better than when we only act as individuals.' I don't think we value that."

In fact, there is a progressive metanarrative, one that needs to be valued and not obscured by arguments over who is or is not sufficiently progressive or who did what to whom and when. The metanarrative's lead has been buried in divisiveness, by trolling from every side and by despicable, old-fashioned redbaiting. What's more, goals and purposes have been diffused with a scattershot approach when we should be vectoring in on what really counts.

The progressive metanarrative is the opposite of the fight against collectivism: it's the struggle against inequality. The Harvard Gazette reports, "Though the wealthiest 20 percent earned nearly half of all wages in 2014, they have more than 80 percent of the wealth. The wealth of the poorest 20 percent, as measured by net worth, is actually negative. If they sell all they own, they'll still be in debt."

Labor organizer and Harvard Kennedy School lecturer Marshall Ganz tells the Gazette, "I think the galloping inequality in this country results from poor political choices. There was nothing inevitable, nothing global. We made a series of political choices… that set us on this path." He continues, "Inequality, it's not just about wealth, it's about power. It isn't just that somebody has some yachts, it's the effect on democracy… I think we're in a really scary place."

But it's not a place from which escape is impossible. To make our metanarrative come true, we must embrace both community and government that effectively can protect and provide for all. In a 2014 article at the Ideas.TED website, philosopher T.M. Scanlon wrote,

"No one has reason to accept a scheme of cooperation that places their lives under the control of others, that deprives them of meaningful political participation, that deprives their children of the opportunity to qualify for better jobs, and that deprives them of a share of the wealth they help to produce… The holdings of the rich are not legitimate if they are acquired through competition from which others are excluded, and made possible by laws that are shaped by the rich for the benefit of the rich. In these ways, economic inequality can undermine the conditions of its own legitimacy."

And so it can, if progressives work together, mobilize, dare to take risks and keep the faith in the face of cynicism and weary resignation. Such a metanarrative could have a different - and happy - ending.

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This Bill Would Force Large Corporations to Pay a Fine if They Don't Pay Workers a Living Wage

Tue, 02/09/2016 - 21:00

If implemented, the Responsible Business Act would incrementally raise the minimum wage that large employers are required to pay employees to avoid fees. (Photo: vvoe / Shutterstock.com)

A group of Chicago-area progressive groups and unions are backing a bill that would punish large companies who don't pay their workers a living wage.

The Responsible Business Act would charge corporations who employ more than 750 Cook County workers at less than $15 per hour fees for paying what advocates call poverty-level wages. Since it was introduced in October last year, the act has gained the support of unions and grassroots organizations fighting for economic justice.

Two actions in support of the proposed Responsible Business Act (RBA) took place in Cook County on Monday, February 1. In Chicago's Uptown neighborhood, Organizing Neighborhoods for Equality: Northside, or ONE Northside, led a teach-in at their offices and canvassed outside of corporate stores. Supporters of the RBA including IIRON and the Reclaim Campaign held an action at a Walmart store in suburban Bedford Park, just outside the city limits.

The RBA is a county-level act and is sponsored by Commissioner Robert Steele of the Cook County Board of Commissioners. It currently has three co-sponsors: Joan Patricia Murphy, Luis Arroyo, Jr. and Jerry Butler; organizers say they also have two commitments to vote "yes" from Jesus "Chuy" Garcia and Larry Suffredin. Three more commissioners need to support the act in order for it to pass through the 17-member board. Monday's actions called on 11th District Commissioner John Daley and 10th District Commissioner Bridget Gainer to back the bill.

At the canvassing event organized by ONE Northside, supporters of the RBA called for Gainer to co-sponsor the proposal. They engaged pedestrians outside of Target, Starbucks and McDonald's - all corporations that would potentially be affected by the RBA.

"The CEOs of these big corporations continue to make massive profits while the workers, who are responsible for the functioning of the corporations, are forced to rely on public services to survive off their poverty wages," said Eugene Lim, a member of the group's Workers' Rights Team.

Commissioner Gainer did not respond to a request for comment.

The Responsible Business Act would give corporations with over 750 employees a choice: either raise their employees' wages to a living wage - determined by Cook County Chief Financial Officer Ivan Samstein at $14.57 per hour without benefits and $11.66 per hour with benefits - or pay a $750 fee for each dollar paid below the hourly living wage per employee.

For example, a corporation where 100 workers earn $13.57 per hour (one dollar below the living wage of $14.57 per hour) would have the choice of raising their hourly wage by $1 for each worker, or paying a fee of $75,000 ($1 times 100 workers, times the $750 fine). This fee is designed to supplement the housing and childcare assistance, Medicaid costs and other services out of reach for workers earning poverty wages. The fees would be earmarked specifically for public assistance programs and distributed by the county.

Seventy-five percent of the revenue would be placed into a newly established Family Sustainability Fund, 20 percent would go to pre-existing health care spending and the remainder would be spent on administrative costs. A nine-person commission would advise the Cook County Board of Commissioners on allocation of the collected funds.

Monday morning's South Side action took place at the Walmart store at 7050 S. Cicero Avenue. About 50 people, including low-wage workers, students and members of IIRON, Reclaim Campaign, the Bridgeport Alliance and National Nurses United were present. At 11 A.M., the protesters entered Walmart, carrying signs and chanting "Hey you, millionaires, pay your fair share!"

Gianna Chacon is an undergraduate at Roosevelt University. She says her $10 per hour retail job at Marshalls isn't enough to cover her living expenses. "These companies can afford to pay us enough to live on, but instead they choose to squeeze their workers and make a few million more," she told the crowd.
 
The group brought with them a 3' x 5' invoice for what they say is the $33 million owed by Walmart to workers and taxpayers. The number is an estimate of the amount of taxpayer money that goes to supporting Walmart employees to provide essential services that they are unable to afford. According to a study by the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), the Responsible Business Act would affect 67 employers in Cook County and raise the wages of over 16,000 workers. The average increase would be $7.11 per hour, per worker.

Yamara Ayala, a mother of two and a home care aide for her father, said at Monday's action that she has high hopes for the Responsible Business Act. "I'm hoping it does go forward because it will help so many families. … None of us are getting our fair share, and that's what we're fighting for."

Monday's South Side action was one of the first to target 11th District Commissioner John Daley, who has yet to pledge support for the Responsible Business Act. Tom Gaulke, a leader with IIRON and the Bridgeport Alliance, addressed Daley during the action: "You have the power to help us make large corporations like Walmart pay their fair share to workers and pay their fair share to our communities."

Commissioner Daley did not respond to a request for comment.

If implemented, the act would incrementally raise the minimum wage that large employers are required to pay employees to avoid fees. The rate would increase by $1.35 per year, from the current minimum of $8.25 in Cook County, to a high of $15.00 over five years. The UIC study found that the Act could raise up to $500 million during the four year phase-in, and $200 million after it is fully implemented.

Emiliano Vera, a Northwestern University undergraduate and a low-wage worker himself, said at Monday's action that "We need to speak up to challenge that blatant lie [that low wage work is justified], and tell the story that the real culprits are the corporations that refuse to pay a living wage."

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Struggling for Asylum, Refugees Face Bulldozers and Riot Police in Calais, France

Tue, 02/09/2016 - 21:00

Home to people from Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, the "Jungle" of Calais, France, is one of the biggest refugee and migrant camps in Western Europe. While the French and British governments work to deter and contain camp residents, many are seeking asylum in Europe.

Carry That Load from Elle Kurancid on Vimeo.

 

Bordering the English Channel, on the outskirts of the French town of Calais, an estimated 5,000 men, women and children live in a sea of tents and shelters sprawling across the former dumping ground of an industrial plant. The described area is home to one of the biggest refugee and migrant camps in Western Europe, and is populated by communities from Afghanistan, Chad, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iran, Iraq, Kurdistan, Libya, Pakistan, Palestine, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and other nations.

The "Jungle" refugee camp in Calais, France, in September 2015. (Photo: Peter Blodau)

The camp, known today as "the Jungle," has been active in various formations and sizes near Calais since 2001. And, as The Intercept reported in December 2015,the French and British governments' approach to the informal settlement has included pouring "millions of dollars into extra riot police, tear gas canisters, dogs, fences, infrared cameras, floodlights, and batons" to deter Jungle residents, "while neglecting to supply adequate meals, sanitation, running water, housing, medical support, or clothing."

The countering of governmental hostilities toward the camp hasn't come from the UN, UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Oxfam, Save the Children, Red Cross or most other major aid agencies, but rather from grassroots organizations like L'Auberge des Migrants and Help Refugees, as well as independent volunteers (see "Caravans for Calais") from across Europe.

In sum, the Jungle is haunted by a shameful imbalance of power: Volunteers unload food parcels inside the camp while "a bunch of migrants" queue, and since the powers that be prioritize containment and deterrence, French police officers armed with riot-control weapons watch them in the distance.

Bulldozing a Sea of Homes

In mid-January, the French government issued an ultimatum to Jungle residents: Bulldozers will level a third of the makeshift encampment and thereafter, the evictees are to be relocated to a neighboring purpose-built facility.

Feeling unheard - residents told the Guardian that the new site "resembles a prison and contains no communal areas" - camp leaders quickly released an announcement of their own: "We, the united people of the Jungle, Calais, respectfully decline the demands of the French government with regards to reducing the size of the Jungle. We have decided to remain where we are and will peacefully resist the government's plans to destroy our homes."

Despite protests, bulldozers guided by riot police moved in on January 18. "In our view, it's not in the interest of the refugees," said Tanya Freedman of Help Refugees, "because communities are being split apart."

Evidently, the calls of the united people are known, but the powers that be continue to prioritize containment and deterrence.

A double-fenced road near the refugee camp. (Photo: Peter Blodau)

In our recent essay, "A Sea of Tents Surrounds Me" for the Los Angeles Review of Books, we described the logic behind most residents' stay in the camp:

Proximity is the Jungle's promise: that is, the chance of illegal entry into England via the Channel Tunnel or port of Calais, for the sake of a future spent with family, friends, jobs, asylum, or the English language. But the camp's promise is also that living there is the lesser of two struggles: that coming under the teargas fire of the French police beyond Jungle limits or being detained for hiding among the crates within cargo trucks set to cross the Channel is less severe than, say, facing an Islamic State siege or a bombing campaign by the Syrians, the Russians, or the American-led coalition at home.

In other words, "It's the logic of life against the logic of the state," according to my friend Jean Colombain, who is an archivist and French citizen with Lebanese parentage.

Carrying the Load of "No Money, No Future"

In Carry That Load, which was filmed by Blodau in the fall of 2015, we allude to the ongoing escape of thousands of people living in the Jungle - not to mention the hundreds of thousands more across Europe - from the perils of poverty, abusive regimes, proxy war, continuous war, climate change and the refugee camps themselves.

The stories of two Jungle residents in particular, Salah from Rojava (Western Kurdistan) and Abdo from Darfur, Sudan, inspired our correlation between the double-fenced road passing alongside the camp and the makeshift place of worship left behind. In the quotations that follow, which we previously shared in our essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Abdo conveys the psychological and spiritual loads that he carries, and Salah details the occasion in which a transport load might one day carry him.

Salah (center) with friends from Rojava. (Photo: Peter Blodau)

Salah: "I was an English teacher in Kobani, but I had to leave because of the fighting. I went to Greece by boat and then by train to Hungary. I ended up in Germany but my family is in England and I speak English well, so that's why I'm here now. I still can't believe I'm living in a tent with no money. A sea of tents surrounds me."

Accordingly, he relates another one of his escapes, this time from the Jungle itself:

I tried to get to the fences of the [Eurotunnel terminal]. We walked from the camp and through Calais. On our way we saw the trucks that get unloaded at the trains. We had a pair of fence cutters with us to make a hole. There are old holes that don't get closed up, so we looked for those too. We waited for it to get dark. There were police and dogs on both sides of the fence that weren't leaving, though. We went back to the camp and would try another day.

Abdo outside his current home. (Photo: Peter Blodau)

Abdo: "I have no money, no future. Reading [the Qur'an] gives me peace ... it takes me away from here."

Hearing the Calls of the United People

With degrading politics both at home and away, the Jungle residents have been left with few answers, turning mainly to prayer and further smuggling. As for the French government, clearing the ground (and consequently splitting communities apart) has topped its agenda, which essentially carries forward a cruel history of control spreading over a number of continents for centuries.

Carry That Load was written and produced by Elle Kurancid, and uses video footage shot by Peter Blodau, who interviewed and sketched portraits of Abdo, Salah and over two dozen Jungle residents in August and September 2015.

Categories: Latest News

Broken Promises: Smaller Middle Class Has Less Room for Families

Tue, 02/09/2016 - 21:00

After Gabriel Cardenas graduated from high school, he seemed on track to join America's middle class. He worked at Google in Silicon Valley, enrolled in classes at San Jose's Evergreen Valley College and took a second job.

But seven years after graduation, Cardenas is no closer to a middle class that has been shrinking for decades. Instead, his career reflects a common storyline in the modern economy. Cardenas was not an employee at the high-tech firm. Instead, he worked there as a contractor, spending his days unloading crates of bottled water, pet food and other goods for the company's new delivery service, Google Express.

He has not earned a college degree either, since he could only afford to take a few community college courses on the $17 an hour he earned as a contractor at Google. When Cardenas turned 25, he moved back home.

Cardenas isn't alone. Last year, the middle class shrunk to its lowest share of the U.S. population in four decades, with only 50 percent of Americans living in middle-income homes, down from 61 percent in 1971, according to a new report from the Pew Research Center, "The American Middle Class Is Losing Ground."

While the middle class was shrinking, two other segments of the American population were growing: the poorest and the wealthiest. Last year, 20 percent of U.S. adults were on the lowest rung of the economic ladder, earning less than half of the national median income or roughly $31,000 or less in 2014, an increase from 16 percent in 1971, Pew researchers reported. In 2015, 9 percent of Americans were at the top, they earned three times the median or more than $188,000 for a family of three, up from 4 percent in 1971.

Cardenas represents a new face of the nation's full-time workers, people who find themselves in low-paying jobs and left out of the shrinking middle class. In the Google warehouse, Cardenas worked alongside biologists and electrical engineers fresh from college who couldn't find other jobs during the sometimes anemic recovery from the Great Recession.

"There is a big lack of hope. I don't think people actually see themselves owning a house, owning much," said Cardenas, now 27, who says he was recently fired after a successful union organizing campaign at his warehouse. "There is not a path to have stability, to save up and actually be middle class."

Losing Faith in the American Dream

The decline of the middle class suggests a growing disconnect in the U.S., where fewer people feel they belong to, or have a chance to join, what has been the nation's economic and cultural bedrock. "The shift out of the middle reveals that a deeper polarization is underway in the American economy," according to the Pew Research report.

The report confirms what many struggling families have felt for years: The American Dream is moving further out of their reach. In 2014, only 64 percent of people had faith in that dream, the lowest level in about two decades, according to a poll and report by The New York Times.

Both that faith and the middle class itself are being eroded by a complex storm of changes within the nation's economy, education system and public policies. While the U.S. economy is growing again, for example, too much of that growth is in low-wage and part-time jobs, according to Kyra Greene, a research and policy analyst at the San Diego-based Center on Policy Initiatives.

San Diego's economy relies heavily on low-paying jobs in the tourism industry – hotels and restaurants – while the city's cost of living ranks among the highest in the nation, Greene says.

The collapse of housing markets during the last recession also delivered a body blow to the financial security of middle and lower-income families. Falling home values robbed many middle-class families of their primary savings, home equity they could have tapped to weather tough times, Greene added.

"They were hit especially hard," said Gabriela Sandoval, director of research and chief economic security officer at the Insight Center for Community Economy Development. "A lot of wealth was lost because of the housing crisis."

As families fell from the middle class, the public safety net that caught struggling households in the past – subsidized housing, public assistance, unemployment aid, public health care and food stamps – was fraying, according to Deborah Scott, executive director of Georgia STAND-UP, an Atlanta-based alliance of leaders that focuses on economic development.

"The services available (today) are not adequate to meet the needs of the communities in crisis. The safety net of good social services, good public policy and basic human services has gaping holes that can't be filled without a comprehensive approach," Scott said.

As the nation's middle class shrunk, however, hopeful signs emerged in two arenas where progress had also stalled: organized labor and the minimum wage."

Meanwhile, the soaring cost of a college degree has pushed one of the more reliable tools to gain access to the middle class out of reach for many and saddled others with crushing debt.

"In states like California, all the things that we saw that were important to building a healthy middle class in this country are moving in the wrong direction," Greene said.

Together, all of these changes help explain why a different analysis by The Pew Charitable Trusts found that those who are born in the bottom or the top of the U.S. economy are likely to stay there.

Signs of Progress

As the nation's middle class shrunk, however, hopeful signs emerged in two arenas where progress had also stalled: organized labor and the minimum wage.

The ranks of union workers have been thinning since the middle of the last century, when a union job was often a reliable path to economic security. In 2014, only 11 percent of U.S. workers belonged to a union, down sharply from 20 percent in 1983, according to the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In the tech industry, however, unions have secured a few impressive wins lately.

Last year, bus drivers who ferry Apple, Yahoo, and eBay employees around Silicon Valley overwhelmingly voted to join Teamsters Local 853. Their first contract raised wages for drivers from $18 an hour to between $24 and $32 an hour and included paid sick leave, vacation time, holidays and overtime pay, according to Tracy Kelley, one of the drivers who helped lead the organizing campaign.

Yahoo, Apple and the other companies deserve some credit for that contract because "they are the ones who stepped up to the plate to pay the extra money," Kelley said.

Perhaps the most encouraging sign the middle class could grow again is the broad success of local efforts to raise the minimum wage. Even as the federal minimum wage has remained stuck at $7.25, at least 52 cities, counties, and states, from Los Angeles, Calif. to Birmingham, Ala., have raised minimum wages since 2003, according to RaisetheMinimumWage, a project by the National Employment Law Project.

Raising a local minimum wage to $10 or even $15 an hour will not necessarily move a family into the ranks of the middle class, which the Pew Research report defined as households earning between two-thirds and double the national median, between $42,000 and $126,000 a year in 2014 dollars for a family of three.

But, the success of the campaign to raise the minimum wage has tremendous value and could have a "trickle-up" effect as well. The campaign not only raises the pay floor, advocates say, it opens up larger questions about what people need and should earn in the modern economy.

It also reflects a growing realization that many U.S. workers have not seen real raises in years – a typical worker's hourly wages and compensation have been stagnant since 1979, with the exception of the late 1990s, the Economic Policy Institute reported last year.

"We are in what I would call a wages moment. People are recognizing that we have wage stagnation," said Lawrence Mishel, president of the Washington, D.C.-based institute.

In California's Silicon Valley, the idea that many low-wage jobs should pay more is at the heart of a three-point strategy from Silicon Valley Rising, a coalition, and led by Working Partnerships USA to shore up and then expand the middle class. This year, the plan from the San Jose-based community organization includes:

– Launch campaigns to organize contract workers in growing industries, such as bus drivers.

– Push to raise minimum wages and job standards, in more cities. In Silicon Valley, 11 cities have either considered or will consider raising basic wages this year.

– Expand affordable housing, including rent-controlled and subsidized housing, and support policies that prevent displacement of workers living in Santa Clara County.

For some, the campaigns to raise minimum wages, organizing wins and initiatives to broaden subsidized housing are a solid step to stopping the erosion of the middle class. In San Jose, for example, Gabriel Cardenas wants to see greater investment in public schools, stronger laws that support collective bargaining and free community college.

Political engagement and community organizing are important keys to making these changes and expanding the middle class, adds Georgia STAND-UP's Scott.

"We need to keep making sure people participate in the political process and understand the connection between good public policy and the quality of their lives," she said.

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Sanders and Trump Steamroll the Establishment in New Hampshire

Tue, 02/09/2016 - 21:00

New Hampshire resoundingly rejected the two major party's mainstream candidates in its presidential primary Tuesday, with Bernie Sanders decisively beating Hillary Clinton on the Democratic ticket and Donald Trump overwhelming a pack of governors and U.S. senators who cannot seem to stop him.

Sanders' 21-point victory over Clinton, though not unexpected after surging in recent polls, was a monumental achievement for a candidate who started out with less than 5 percent of the vote (trailing by 44 percent at one point last year) and calling for a revolution to fundamentally address economic and political inequality.

"We won because we harnessed the energy and the excitement that the Democratic Party will need to succeed in November," Sanders said. "What the people here have said is that given the enormous crises facing our country, it is just too late for the same old, same old establishment politics and establishment economics: the people want real change."

"What the American people are saying," he continued—"and by the way, I hear this not just from progressives, but from conservatives and from moderates—is that we can no longer continue to have a campaign finance system in which Wall Street and the billionaire class are allowed to buy elections. Americans, no matter what their political view may be, understand that that is not what democracy is about. That is what oligarchy is about!"

But Sanders was not the only candidate striking populist notes. In her concession speech, Clinton spoke passionately about tackling much the same agenda as Sanders—not just economic and social justice, but taking on Wall Street and campaign finance reform.

"People have every right to be angry," Clinton said, "but they're also hungry—they're hungry for solutions. What are we going to do? And that is the fight that we are taking to the country. What is the best way to change people's lives, so we can all grow together? Who is the best changemaker? And here's what I promise: I will work harder than anyone to actually make the changes that make your lives better."

That question, who is the best change agent, will surely be a centerpiece of Clinton's campaign as she moves on to the next states. But she also sounded different, not talking about fine-print solutions but speaking emotionally while saying she knows how best to take on Republicans.  

"In this campaign, you've heard a lot about Washington and about Wall Street," she said. "Now Sen. Sanders and I both want to get secret, unaccountable money out of politics. And let's remember, Citizens United, one of the worst Supreme Court decisions in our country's history, was actually a case about about a right-wing attack on me and my campaign.… So yes, you're not going to find anybody more committed to aggressive campaign reform than me."  

Whether Clinton and her team will seriously embrace the core economic message that the Sanders campaign has been riding on—inequality, health care and reining in Wall Street—remains to be seen. Clinton also acknowledged in her speech that she is not winning among the vast majority of younger voters, who are drawn to Sanders, and said she would try to win their support. And early in Sanders' victory speech, he signaled the possibility he might come up short in the nomination contest, saying it was critical that all Democrats were united in the fall, "because the right-wing Republicans we oppose must not be allowed to regain the presidency."

Republican Quagmire Deepens

Trump's victory was also not surprising given his months-long lead in the polls. But after placing second after Ted Cruz in ultra-religious Iowa, Trump won across all Republican demographics in the media's New Hampshire exit polls, including among more highly educated voters, one of the demographics Trump wasn't supposed to win. Even though he won with 35 percent of the vote, that shows his base of support is widening, which is more than disconcerting to the GOP's Washington-based establishment.

Traditionally, outsider candidates split a small slice of a party's electorate and remain in the single digits while a more mainstream presidential candidate draws increasing support as the nominating season unfolds. But exactly the opposite is happening in 2016 for the Republicans, as their pack of governors and U.S. senators hover in the teens or less, percentage-wise, and will soon have to decide if they will stay in the race. 

As it stands, the GOP frontrunners are the party's outsiders, Trump and Ted Cruz, who won Iowa's caucuses. The second-place New Hampshire winner, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, roughly garnered one in six votes, 16 percent, which will boost his campaign as the next contests appear in Nevada and South Carolina. Kasich raised a fraction of the other establishment candidates, but rose in the polls on a very positive message and an impressive TV debate performance. Cruz, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio gathered 11.5 percent, 11.2 percent and 10.4 percent, respectively, with about three-quarters of precincts reporting.

Trump's victory speech also struck populist notes, but of a decisively right-wing nature except for his attack on the money, power and influence of special-interest lobbyists. But that didn't stop Trump from going after Sanders, after congratulating him on his victory.

"First of all, congratulations to Bernie; in all fairness, we have to congratulate him," he said. "We may not like it. But I heard part of Bernie's speech. He wants to give away our country, folks. He wants to give away—we're not going to let it happen. We're not going to let it happen. I don't know where it's going with Bernie. We wish him a lot of luck."

"But we are going to make America great again," he continued, "but we are going to do it the old-fashioned way. We're going to beat China, Japan. We're going to beat Mexico in trade. We're going to beat all of these countries that are taking so much of our money away from us on a daily basis. It's not going to happen anymore."        

Then Trump congratulated himself for not relying on fundraising from wealthy donors and lobbyists, saying, much like Sanders and Clinton, that those fixtures of the political culture are inherently corrupt and anti-democratic.

"I think one of the things that really caught on—it's very important—self-funding my campaign," he said. "This is on both sides, the Republican side, the Democratic side, money pouring into [negative] commercials. These are special interests, folks. These are lobbyists. There are people that don't necessarily love our country. They don't have the best interests of our country at heart. We're not going to let it happen. We have to do something about it."    

Sanders doesn't have a super PAC, which would allow donors to flout legal loopholes to get around individual campaign contribution caps and give millions. He said he has more than 1 million donors who have given 3.7 million times, averaging $27.

As the race continues to its next stage, the candidates' focuses will all shift to demonstrate that they have broad support that can translate into a winning candidacy in the fall. On the Democratic side, Sanders will try to demonstrate that a U.S. senator from a nearly all-white state can win sizeable votes from African Americans in South Carolina and Latinos in Nevada. In contrast, Clinton will try to demonstrate that those slices of the party's base that have historically supported her in the past are still with her. All eyes will be on turnout.

On the Republican side, the contest gets trickier. In South Carolina, there's a sizeable evangelical population that's akin to Iowa, which appears to favor Ted Cruz. And in Nevada, Trump, whose fortune comes in part from the casino business, is a well-known figure, especially in Las Vegas.

Categories: Latest News

On the News With Thom Hartmann: Court Rules That Corporations Should Pay to Clean Up Their Disasters, and More

Mon, 02/08/2016 - 21:00

In today's On the News segment: The DC Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that corporations, not taxpayers, should pay to clean up their own disasters; Maine will get to vote on marijuana legalization this November; Canada will protect 85 percent of British Columbia's rain forest from development and destruction; and more.

See more news and opinion from Thom Hartmann at Truthout here.

TRANSCRIPT:

Thom Hartmann here - on the best of the rest of Science and Green news ...

You need to know this. The DC Circuit Court of Appeals says that it's time to end the era of "privatize the gains, and socialize the losses." Last week, the public interest law firm Earthjustice broke the news that one of our nation's highest courts says it's time for the EPA to make polluters pay to clean up their own messes. Working on behalf of conservation groups, Earthjustice attorneys filed suit to demand that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalize so-called "financial assurance" rules that require companies stay financially viable enough to pay for the potential cleanup of any toxic substances that they produce. In other words, these rules prevent companies from causing a toxic spill then declaring bankruptcy to avoid the cost of clean up. And these rules have actually been in place since 1983, when they were issued as part of the EPA's "Superfund" law. But that agency pretty much ignored them until a 2009 court ruling ordered the EPA to start enforcing these regulations. Since that 2009 case, the agency had once again started to ignore these important rules, which left taxpayers picking up the tab for toxic spills. So, Earthjustice and other groups filed suit to force the agency to follow the rules that are already on the books. And the DC Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that corporations - not taxpayers - should pay to clean up their own disasters. Their ruling stated, "It is a common practice for operators [of sites that produce hazardous substances] to avoid paying environmental liabilities by declaring bankruptcy or otherwise sheltering assets." And they agreed that holding corporations accountable will also give them a financial incentive to make their businesses as safe as possible to begin with. Amanda Goodin, one of the attorneys for Earthjustice, said, "Today's court ruling is clear - we will no longer see polluters cheating the system, evading their financial obligations, and skipping town on their toxic messes, leaving taxpayers stuck with hefty cleanup bills." Next time a big company considers skimping on safety in the name of profit, they will have to be willing to back up that decision with corporate dollars.

Artificial intelligence is no longer the stuff of science fiction. Last month, a computer beat a professional player in the ancient eastern board game known as "Go." While that news may not seem much different than the computer that beat chess champion Garry Kasparov 18 years ago, the game "Go" is much more computationally demanding than the game of chess. In fact, just a decade ago, some researchers thought that a computer could never defeat a human in the game because there can literally be trillions of different options at some points in the game. That's why this new computer program, known as AlphaGo, uses more than calculations to decide how to move in the game. AlphaGo actually relies on "deep neural networks" which mimic the neurons in the brain and allow the computer to learn which moves will lead to victory. For their experiment, researchers trained the AlphaGo network by feeding it a database of 30 million configurations for the game board and the moves that expert players took in each instance. The computer used that knowledge to beat the 2013 European Go champion, and it will takes on the South Korean Go champion next month in Seoul. We can only imagine how and where this incredible technology will pop up next.

Maine may be stuck with Paul LePage for another two years, but they may get a little help reducing the stress of living under their extreme, right-wing governor. According to Phillip Smith over at AlterNet, Mainers will get to vote for marijuana legalization on the ballot this November. Last week, the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol turned in more than 100,000 signatures from voters who want to end marijuana prohibition. They only needed 61,000 to qualify for this year's ballot. A poll taken last spring found that 65 percent of Mainers support cannabis legalization, and nearly 80 percent of those surveyed said that it should be sold in licensed establishments. This ballot initiative would allow people 21 years and older to posses up to two-and-half ounces of pot or a limited number of plants. And it would set up a system of regulation, licensing and marijuana taxation. Legalized pot has been a huge success in states that have ended prohibition, and the people of Maine should have the right to reap those rewards.

Until recently, scientists believed that early humans ate mostly vegetables and the large game animals that they hunted. But according to researchers studying caves near Tel Aviv, our early ancestors had a taste for roasted tortoise. Scientists discovered the bones and shells while studying the Qasem Cave in Israel, which has a rich record of Paleolithic humans. In addition to the evidence of game animals like deer and cattle, researchers found tortoise shells and bones at various levels throughout the cave. They said that tool marks indicate that most of the tortoises were roasted in their shells, and were likely used to supplement the diets of our ancient ancestors. One of the researchers said, "Our discovery adds a really rich human dimension-a culinary and therefore cultural depth to what we already know about these people." We tend to think of our ancestors as primitive beings, but discoveries like this prove that early humans were just as complex as the modern version.

And finally ... Environmental groups are declaring victory for the Great Bear rain forest. Last week, British Columbia officials announced a landmark deal to protect the Canadian rain forest that's home to 26 First Nation's tribes and the "Spirit Bear" - a rare subspecies of black bear that has white fur. That new agreement protects 85 percent of the rain forest from development and destruction, and it subjects the remaining 15 percent to the "most stringent" environmental standards in North America. The Great Bear rain forest is a unique ecosystem that is often called a "Gift to the World." Thankfully these strong protections will help the First Nations peoples and preserve this wonderful gift for generations to come.

And that's the way it is for the week of February 8, 2016. I'm Thom Hartmann on Science and Green News.

Categories: Latest News

The Secret Deaths of Dozens at Privatized Immigrant-Only Jails

Mon, 02/08/2016 - 21:00

A shocking new investigation about private prisons has revealed dozens of men have died in disturbing circumstances inside these facilities in recent years. The investigation published in The Nation magazine documents more than 100 deaths at private, immigrant-only prisons since 1998. The investigation's author, Seth Freed Wessler, spent more than two years fighting in and out of court to obtain more than 9,000 pages of medical records that private prison contractors had submitted to the Bureau of Prisons. We speak to Wessler about his piece, "This Man Will Almost Certainly Die."

Please check back later for full transcript.

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The Conservative Playbook for Keeping "Dark Money" Dark

Mon, 02/08/2016 - 21:00

How do you stop states and cities from forcing more disclosure of so-called dark money in politics? Get the debate to focus on an "average Joe," not a wealthy person. Find examples of "inconsequential donation amounts." Point out that naming donors would be a threat to "innocents," including their children, families and co-workers.

And never call it dark money. "Private giving" sounds better.

These and other suggestions appear in internal documents from conservative groups that are coaching activists to fight state legislation that would impose more transparency on the secretive nonprofit groups reshaping U.S. campaign finance.

The documents obtained by ProPublica were prepared by the State Policy Network, which helps conservative think tanks in 50 states supply legislators with research friendly to their causes, and the Conservative Action Project (CAP), a Washington policy group founded by Edwin Meese, a Reagan-era attorney general.

Dark money is the term for funds that flow into politics from nonprofit groups, which can accept donations of any size but, unlike political action committees, are not required by federal law to reveal the identities of their donors. The anonymity has been upheld by courts that cite as precedent a 1958 Supreme Court ruling that the state of Alabama could not demand that the NAACP turn over a list of its members.

Since 2008, dark money groups have spent more than $690 million in federal races, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. A single group aligned with Republican presidential hopeful Marco Rubio helped buoy his standing in Iowa before Monday's caucuses with $1.3 million in ads.

The same story is playing out on the state level. During the 2014 election cycle, 40 nonprofits spent $25 million on TV ads about state races, according to an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity. That represented 3 percent of total ad buys, almost double the proportion that dark money paid for in 2010.

This year, 38 states are considering bills relating to disclosure, according to a database compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Some have already adopted rules. In 2014, California began requiring nonprofits that engage in campaign activity to live by many of the same disclosure regulations as traditional political committees. Montana decided last year that politically active nonprofits would have to disclose donors, and report any electioneering communications within 60 days of votes being cast.

A memo distributed by CAP in January to conservative activists highlighted new disclosure rules being considered in Minnesota, Missouri, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Washington, as well as ethics bills in South Carolina and Texas that contain disclosure provisions.

Groups that are throwing their resources behind stricter campaign finance regulation include Common Cause, which has offices in 36 states, and the Democracy Alliance, an invitation-only organization composed of wealthy liberal donors. According to CAP, though, the initiatives to require disclosure not only pose a threat to free speech but also to the very existence of the nonprofits.

"This well-coordinated, well-funded effort to require conservative nonprofits like yours to divulge the names and addresses of your donors is all part of a plan to choke off our air supply of funding," the group said in the memo.

The memo was signed by many leading voices on the political right, including anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist; top officials at Americans for Prosperity, an advocacy group backed by the Koch brothers political network; the Family Research Council; the Council for National Policy; and Heritage Action for America. It describes conservatives as "a persecuted class" and compares labeling private donations "dark money" to calling private ballots "dark voting."

The State Policy Network, which on its website calls pro-regulation activists "enemies of debate," distributed its documents at a conference held last fall in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The material includes a map of cities and states considering measures to "force disclosure of charitable giving" and a set of "questions that help people see the consequences of public disclosure." Among them: "Do you think the government should be able to take down names and addresses of Americans and who they donate to? Do you think people should be targeted for expressing their opinions?"

The organization also urges its supporters to choose the right phrases to color the debate, shunning terms such as "activist," "anonymous" or "dark money" in favor of "private giving," "censor" and "silencing dissent." Under the header "Framing the Issue," a man is pictured with tape over his mouth.

Other documents give conservative activists tips on where to look for "efforts to stifle free speech," for example in bills that deal with corruption or ethics, or that define electoral activity. "More than a dozen states have considered or passed legislation that changes the definition of electioneering communications to include the everyday activity of non-profit groups, like issuing a non-partisan voter guide," one briefing says.

Meredith Turney, a spokeswoman for the State Policy Network, said in an interview that along with the materials provided to members, the organization is alerting nonprofits regardless of political orientation that the proposals would interfere with privacy and free speech.

"These laws will impact groups from Planned Parenthood to The Heritage Foundation and start-up movements like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter," Turney said.

Arizona Democratic state senator Martin Quezada, who has been pushing dark money disclosure legislation since last year, said his goal is to let voters know which special interests might have influence over a candidate.

"My bill in no way limits anyone's free speech. It doesn't say they can't spend that money. They're free to spend that money all they want. It only requires that if you're going to spend that money, you have to tell us who you are," Quezada said.

The CAP memo also warns activists to snuff out a burgeoning alliance in some states between liberal groups seeking more disclosure and Tea Party-like conservatives who often oppose the Republican establishment. "The Left has turned the transparency concept on its head to dupe conservative legislators and well-meaning Tea Party groups to help advance their initiatives," the memo said, citing a 2014 Tallahassee voter campaign finance initiative that capped contributions in city races at $250 and established an ethics office.

"Transparency is for government," the group reminded conservative activists. "Privacy is for people."

Dan Backer, a lawyer who signed the CAP memo, said the group's organizing should be a warning to advocates of stricter campaign finance rules that his side will use "a variety of means" including litigation to preserve the privacy of donors. Backer helped bring the 2014 McCutcheon case in which the U.S. Supreme Court removed aggregate limits on direct contributions, which along with the 2010 Citizens United decision set the stage for a new flood of money into politics.

Categories: Latest News

Amid College Lawsuits, Obama Administration to Establish "Student Aid Enforcement Union"

Mon, 02/08/2016 - 21:00

The Department of Education announced Monday that it is creating a new organization to "respond more quickly and efficiently to allegations of illegal actions" by American colleges.

Department officials said that President Obama has included $13.6 million for the new office in his fiscal year 2017 budget proposal. Called the Student Aid Enforcement Union, it is slated to be led by one of the Federal Trade Commission's top lawyers, Jeffrey Kaye; the current lead attorney for the commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection.

"When Americans invest their time, money and effort to gain new skills, they have a right to expect they'll actually get an education that leads to a better life for them and their families," Acting Education Secretary John King Jr. said. "When that doesn't happen we all pay the price. So let me be clear: schools looking to cheat students and taxpayers will be held accountable."

The President's complete budget proposal for the next fiscal year, which starts on Oct. 1, is due out on Tuesday, the same day as the New Hampshire presidential primaries. It will have more details about the White House's broader enforcement priorities for the remainder of President Obama's time in office.

The Department of Education and the Department of Justice came under fire late last year from Democratic senators for their handling of a settlement with the Education Management Corp. (EDMC), a for-profit college found to have defrauded students and taxpayers.

Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said the Obama administration "recovered a miniscule fraction of stolen taxpayer funds, held no individuals accountable while failing to even obtain an admission of wrongdoing from EDMC, and now may not even provide relief to thousands of students who owe billions of dollars in student loans because they were illegally recruited by EDMC."

The senators additionally noted the settlement came after a September order issued by Attorney General Loretta Lynch, which directed federal prosecutors to toughen up on white collar crime.

"[A] mere two months after announcing this policy, when settling a case that recovered less that one percent of funds that were illegally gained by EDMC, DOJ garnered no admission of wrongdoing and held no individual accountable for the actions that singificantly harmed students and taxpayers," the senators wrote.

Last month, the the Department of Education and the FTC announced they were taking action against another for-profit college operator, DeVry, for allegedly defrauding tens of thousands of students since 2008. The Huffington Post noted, however, that the FTC's own court filings "suggest that as many as 300,000 students were harmed" by DeVry during 2008 and 2014.

There are currently 8,424 outstanding borrower claims against institutes of higher education, according to US News. Just more than 1,300 of those involve federally-guaranteed loans worth a total of $85.6 million.

Categories: Latest News

Obama's Last Budget May Be Ignored by the GOP

Mon, 02/08/2016 - 21:00

For the last time ever, President Barack Obama is about to introduce his budget to Congress. Congress, sadly, doesn't appear to want it.

Throughout the entirety of the Obama administration, the divide between Congress and the White House has been growing steadily wider. From a first year in office where Democrats briefly controlled all three arms of government to today, where both the House and Senate are now under Republican control, getting any semblance of governing through the political process has become a more more laborious uphill battle each session.

Now, any attempt at even pretending that Congressional Republicans might be willing to work with the Commander-in-Chief has been thrown out the window, as this year's budget process seems to signal. "President Obama is expected to release his final budget plan on Tuesday, but Republicans on Capitol Hill are indicating that they won't give it much thought," reports The Hill. "The chairmen of the House and Senate Budget Committees issued a joint statement late last week announcing that, breaking with precedent, they wouldn't invite the Office of Management and Budget director to testify before their respective panels to discuss the president's budget."

Refusing to hear the budget isn't just a massive break with precedent, it is a total rejection of any sort of decorum or even respect for the office of the President, and the GOP appears to be well aware of that fact. According to Fox News, House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi said they will "ignore" the President's budget and "will instead go straight into crafting their own budgets and castigate what the White House engineered."

Meanwhile, the administration isn't impressed by the opposition's political theater on the subject, calling the antics a "Donald Trump"-esque way to pander to their voters. "White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Republicans' refusal to play ball was just as bad as Trump's refusal to take part in the last GOP debate after getting into a nasty spat with Fox News," reports Politico. "'They're just not going to show up,' Earnest said during the daily briefing, adding that the maneuver smacked of a 'Donald Trump approach' to the debate over spending priorities. He then accused the GOP committee leaders of being wobbly knee'd, saying the boycott 'raises some questions about how confident they are about the kinds of arguments that they could make.'"

According to Earnst, this is the first time in 16 years that the Director hasn't been invited to brief Congress - a period leading back into the Bill Clinton presidency, and shows that the Republican party has essentially shut the door to any attempts at making the government function as long as President Obama is in office. That statement may not be far from the truth, either. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made it clear just last week that when it comes to any major policy issues, as far as the GOP is concerned everything is done until President Obama is out of office.

"For anyone who thought Congress might accomplish something in 2016, this dose of cold water comes from the Hill's Alexander Bolton, who reports that probably ain't happening," reports Vox.com. "'Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), seeking to protect his majority in a tough cycle for Republicans, is leaning toward holding back several measures that have bipartisan support but are divisive in his conference.' So, for example, that bipartisan criminal justice reform bill that looked so promising, the one Republicans and Democrats had worked so hard on to reach a compromise. Yeah, the Senate won't be voting on that. Or the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Or the Authorization for Use of Military Force. Or really anything. Because why force anybody to take tough votes?"

The GOP's refusal to actually try to govern for the next 11 months or longer shows exactly what a dangerous predicament the entire Republican party is in. A vote on literally any issue could either anger their base, or anger the moderates they need to get reelected, depending on which way they cast their ballots. Either possibility appears to spell disaster for a conservative movement so dramatically split in two.

Of course, if the GOP can't govern and can only block legislation, it's the American people who will suffer from a government that grinds to a halt. The budget battle is just the first sign of a crisis just waiting in the wings.

Categories: Latest News

Ladydrawers: The Gresham Experiment, Part 1

Mon, 02/08/2016 - 21:00

In this installment of the Ladydrawers' "Growing Season" series, the comics journalists explore an issue that hits close to home for them: food access in the Chicago neighborhood of Auburn Gresham, and how a scarcity of healthy food options relates to street violence.

"The Gresham Experiment, Part I" is the penultimate strip in Ladydrawers' "Growing Season" series investigating food policy, race and public health in comics form. It's a story that hits close to home for Anne Elizabeth Moore, who lives just a mile or so south of the Auburn Gresham neighborhood in Chicago. Sheika Lugtu doesn't live too far away either, so together we took an in-depth look at food options in Gresham, described as one of Chicago's many "food deserts" due to the scarcity of grocery stores. It's also considered one of Chicago's most dangerous neighborhoods - and these two descriptions are not unrelated.

As comics journalists, our reporting process involved meandering the long blocks between Gresham's food outlets, play areas and schools, and sketching what we encountered around us - including not only the understocked meat counters of the local food market but also the sites of gang violence.

The ethics of comics journalism are complex, particularly when addressing issues of structural violence and failed city food policies. Gresham residents face a daily lack of nutritional resources and local, acute violence - but how to picture it? And how to picture it fairly? (One of the few grocery stores accessible from Gresham is the one Moore shops at every week, so we can't pretend that these issues are in any way remote from the reporters' daily concerns.)

This first strip in our series of two presents issues of food access in Gresham. The next strip, the final in our "Growing Season" series, will uproot the links between food policies and street violence. As always, you can read all four seasons of Ladydrawers' strips here, or catch up on our most recent strip with Laura Ķeniņš, "What's in a Name?" - on the mysterious illness affecting workers of color in a hog-processing plant - here. Sheika Lugtu's last strip for us looked at how the most popular drug in the world, Humira, is afflicting people with a disease, lupus, which disproportionately harms women of color.

Click to open full-size in a new window.

Footnotes

1. "Examining the Impact of Food Deserts on Public Health in Chicago," Mari Gallagher Research and Consulting Group (July 18, 2006), 6. (accessed December 29, 2015).

2. Ibid, 17.

3. "Mayor Emanuel Announces Release of Food Desert Data and New Interactive Efforts to Combat Food Deserts in Chicago," Mayor's Press Office (August 27, 2013). (accessed December 29, 2015).

4. "Examining the Impact," 20.

5. Ibid, 26.

6. "Are You an Auburn Gresham Parent?" Auburn Gresham Portal (September 14, 2015). (accessed December 31, 2015).

Categories: Latest News

Oil Industry Caused 2005 Swarm of California Earthquakes

Mon, 02/08/2016 - 21:00

Oil and gas wastewater disposal has been tied to a series of earthquakes in California for the first time, in a peer-reviewed study published last Thursday.

A string of quakes ending on Sept. 22, 2005 struck in Kern County near the southern end of California's Central Valley - and the new study, published in Geophysical Research Letters, concluded that the odds that those quakes might have occurred by chance were just 3 percent.

Instead, the researchers honed in on a very specific set of culprits: three wastewater injection wells in the Tejon Oil Field. Between 2001 and 2010, the rate of wastewater injection at that oil field quintupled, and up to 95 percent of that wastewater was sent to just that trio of closely-spaced wells, the scientists noted.

The largest of the earthquakes in the swarm measured magnitude 4.6 on the Richter scale meaning that the quakes were relatively small, unlikely to have done any damage to buildings but significant enough to be felt by those in the area.

To be sure, natural earthquakes have always far outnumbered human-caused quakes in California - but the researchers warned that even if the number of industry-caused quakes is small, wastewater injection could be responsible for larger, more dangerous quakes in the future.

"Based on our empirical results, injection-induced earthquakes are expected to contribute marginally to the overall seismicity in California," the researchers from the California Institute of Technology, University of California, University of Southern California and two French universities, wrote. "However, considering the numerous active faults in California, the seismogenic consequences of even a few induced cases can be devastating."

The researchers also warned that the number of California quakes tied to oilfield activities has been little-studied compared to other parts of the country and that natural quakes may have "masked" the oil industry's impacts.

The findings drew an immediate response from environmental groups.

"The more oil companies frack and drill, the more wastewater they inject into disposal wells near active faults," Shaye Wolf, a scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement responding to the new research. "That's an absolutely unacceptable risk in our earthquake-prone state."

For years, federal scientists have known that wastewater injection has caused earthquakes in Oklahoma - a state that before the shale gas rush experienced just a two or three earthquakes over magnitude 3.0 a year, but in 2015 recorded over 840 quakes that size, some as large as magnitude 5.6 (ten times the size of California's largest human-caused quake).

But the connection to California - which for years was the nation's most earthquake prone state until Oklahoma's sudden surge in quakes knocked California down to second place - is new. And unlike Oklahoma, where the recent tremors have so far caused property damage, California has a long history of natural earthquakes powerful enough to kill.

At the end of January, the U.S. Department of the Interior agreed to stop approving new offshore fracking operations along California's Pacific coast, part of a deal with environmental groups that had sued over the agency's failure to adequately measure the environmental risks, including the potential harm to endangered species, from permitting fracking at sea. Oil platforms have been allowed to legally dump up to 9 billion gallons of wastewater annually into California's ocean.

The drought-plagued state has paradoxically grappled with a flood of oil and gas wastewater in recent years. California's drillers annually pump out billions of barrels of wastewater, much of it laden with corrosive salts or carcinogens like benzene.

And while much of it is disposed of through wastewater injection, water shortages have created a market for drillers to treat that waste and sell it to farms where the food people eat is grown. "In central California's San Joaquin Valley, Chevron piped almost 8 billion gallons of treated wastewater to almond and pistachio farmers last year," Bloomberg reported in July. "California Resources Corp., the state's biggest oil producer, plans to quadruple the water it sells to growers, Chief Executive Officer Todd Stevens told investors at an April conference."

Even as the industry has experimented with other disposal techniques, wastewater injection has spiked. Since 1995, the amount of wastewater injected underground in California has roughly doubled, from under 20 billion gallons a year to nearly 40 billion.

In 2014, the California State Water Resources Board confirmed that over 3 billion gallons of wastewater tainted with fracking chemicals or other pollutants were injected directly into some of the state's underground water aquifers, which were previously clean enough for people to drink from, with the permission of the state's regulators.

The new study suggests that Californians may have more than water contamination to worry about from wastewater injection. The earthquakes struck near Bakersfield, CA - which is just 50 miles from one of the world's most notorious fault lines, the San Andreas fault.

In December, researchers from Stanford's School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences announced the results of an investigation into human-caused earthquakes in Arkansas, finding that the more water is disposed at a given well, the stronger quakes become.

But, they added, at a certain point, there is likely to be a cap on how powerful an induced earthquake could become.

"The question becomes, Does it taper off at magnitude 3 or a more dangerous magnitude 6.5?" Prof. Jenny Suckale told the Stanford Report, as she described the findings in Arkansas.

The California study comes just two weeks after Canadian authorities shut down fracking at a well in Alberta over a 4.8 magnitude quake that struck near a town called Fox Creek. And in early January, Oklahoma was rattled by two quakes measuring 4.7 and 4.8 - some of the strongest quakes in recent memory.

The new publication drew the attention of federal earthquake authorities who said they found the tie between oilfield wastewater disposal and California's earthquakes credible.

"In California, of course, we have a lot of natural seismicity here, so it's much more difficult" to reliably connect quakes to human activities than in a place like Oklahoma, Art McGarr, US Geological Survey seismologist told the Associated Press. "Nonetheless, I think they made at least a fairly convincing case that these earthquakes were related to fluid injection."

Categories: Latest News

Welcome to the United States of Flint: A Coast-to-Coast Toxic Crisis

Mon, 02/08/2016 - 21:00

Over the course of the past century, tens of millions of children have been poisoned by lead and millions more remain in danger of it today. (Photo: Jeremy Kunz / Flickr; Edited: JR / TO)

"I know if I was a parent up there, I would be beside myself if my kids' health could be at risk," said President Obama on a recent trip to Michigan. "Up there" was Flint, a rusting industrial city in the grip of a "water crisis" brought on by a government austerity scheme. To save a couple of million dollars, that city switched its source of water from Lake Huron to the Flint River, a long-time industrial dumping ground for the toxic industries that had once made their home along its banks. Now, the city is enveloped in a public health emergency, with elevated levels of lead in its water supply and in the blood of its children.

The price tag for replacing the lead pipes that contaminated its drinking water, thanks to the corrosive toxins found in the Flint River, is now estimated at up to $1.5 billion. No one knows where that money will come from or when it will arrive. In the meantime, the cost to the children of Flint has been and will be incalculable. As little as a few specks of lead in the water children drink or in flakes of paint that come off the walls of old houses and are ingested can change the course of a life. The amount of lead dust that covers a thumbnail is enough to send a child into a coma or into convulsions leading to death. It takes less than a tenth of that amount to cause IQ loss, hearing loss, or behavioral problems like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the government agency responsible for tracking and protecting the nation's health, says simply, "No safe blood lead level in children has been identified."

President Obama would have good reason to worry if his kids lived in Flint. But the city's children are hardly the only ones threatened by this public health crisis. There's a lead crisis for children in Baltimore, Maryland, Herculaneum, Missouri, Sebring, Ohio, and even the nation's capital, Washington, D.C., and that's just to begin a list. State reports suggest, for instance, that "18 cities in Pennsylvania and 11 in New Jersey may have an even higher share of children with dangerously elevated levels of lead than does Flint." Today, scientists agree that there is no safe level of lead for children and at least half of American children have some of this neurotoxin in their blood. The CDC is especially concerned about the more than 500,000 American children who have substantial amounts of lead in their bodies. Over the past century, an untold number have had their IQs reduced, their school performances limited, their behaviors altered, and their neurological development undermined. From coast to coast, from the Sun Belt to the Rust Belt, children have been and continue to be imperiled by a century of industrial production, commercial gluttony, and abandonment by the local, state, and federal governments that should have protected them. Unlike in Flint, the "crisis" seldom comes to public attention.

Two, Three ... Many Flints

In Flint, the origins of the current crisis lay in the history of auto giant General Motors (GM) and its rise in the middle decades of the twentieth century to the status of the world's largest corporation. GM's Buick plant alone once occupied "an area almost a mile and a half long and half a mile wide," according to the Chicago Tribune, and several Chevrolet and other GM plants literally covered the waterfront of "this automotive city." Into the Flint River went the toxic wastes of factories large and small, which once supplied batteries, paints, solders, glass, fabrics, oils, lubricating fluids, and a multitude of other materials that made up the modern car. In these plants strung out along the banks of the Flint and Saginaw rivers and their detritus lay the origins of the present public health emergency.

The crisis that attracted President Obama's attention is certainly horrifying, but the children of Flint have been poisoned in one way or another for at least 80 years. Three generations of those children living around Chevrolet Avenue in the old industrial heart of the city experienced an environment filled with heavy metal toxins that cause neurological conditions in them and cardiovascular problems in adults.

As Michael Moore documented in his film Roger and Me, GM abandoned Flint in a vain attempt to stave off financial disaster. Having sucked its people dry, the company ditched the city, leaving it to deal with a polluted hell without the means to do so. Like other industrial cities that have suffered this kind of abandonment, Flint's population is majority African American and Latino, and has a disproportionate number of families living below the poverty line. Of its 100,000 residents, 65% are African American and Latino and 42%  are mired in poverty. 

The president should be worried about Flint's children and local, state, and federal authorities need to fix the pipes, sewers, and water supply of the city. Technically, this is a feasible, if expensive, proposition. It's already clear, however, that the political will is just not there even for this one community. Gina McCarthy, the Environmental Protection Agency's administrator, has refused to provide Flint's residents with even a prospective timetable for replacing their pipes and making their water safe. There is, however, a far graver problem that is even less easy to fix: the mix of racism and corporate greed that have put lead and other pollutants into millions of homes in the United States. The scores of endangered kids in Flint are just the tip of a vast, toxic iceberg. Even Baltimore, which first identified its lead poisoning epidemic in the 1930s, still faces a crisis, especially in largely African American communities, when it comes to the lead paint in its older housing stock.

Just this month, Maryland's secretary of housing, community, and development, Kenneth C. Holt, dismissed the never-ending lead crisis in Baltimore by callously suggesting that it might all be a shuck. A mother, he said, might fake such poisoning by putting "a lead fishing weight in her child's mouth [and] then take the child in for testing." Such a tactic, he indicated, without any kind of proof, was aimed at making landlords "liable for providing the child with [better] housing." Unfortunately, the attitudes of Holt and Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan have proven all too typical of the ways in which America's civic and state leaders have tended to ignore, dismiss, or simply deny the real suffering of children, especially those who are black and Latino, when it comes to lead and other toxic chemicals.

There is, in fact, a grim broader history of lead poisoning in America. It was probably the most widely dispersed environmental toxin that affected children in this country.  In part, this was because, for decades during the middle of the twentieth century, it was marketed as an essential ingredient in industrial society, something without which none of us could get along comfortably. Those toxic pipes in Flint are hardly the only, or even the primary, source of danger to children left over from that era.

In the 1920s, tetraethyl lead was introduced as an additive for gasoline. It was lauded at the time as a "gift of God" by a representative of the Ethyl Corporation, a creation of GM, Standard Oil, and Dupont, the companies that invented, produced, and marketed the stuff. Despite warnings that this industrial toxin might pollute the planet, which it did, almost three-quarters of a century would pass before it was removed from gasoline in the United States. During that time, spewed out of the tailpipes of hundreds of millions of cars and trucks, it tainted the soil that children played in and was tracked onto floors that toddlers touched. Banned from use in the 1980s, it still lurks in the environment today.

Meanwhile, homes across the country were tainted by lead in quite a different way. Lead carbonate, a white powder, was mixed with linseed oil to create the paint that was used in the nation's homes, hospitals, schools, and other buildings until 1978. Though its power to harm and even kill children who sucked on lead-painted windowsills, toys, cribs, and woodwork had long been known, it was only in that year that the federal government banned its use in household paints.

Hundreds of tons of the lead in paint that covered the walls of houses, apartment buildings, and workplaces across the United States remains in place almost four decades later, especially in poorer neighborhoods where millions of African American and Latino children currently live. Right now, most middle class white families feel relatively immune from the dangers of lead, although the gentrification of old neighborhoods and the renovation of old homes can still expose their children to dangerous levels of lead dust from the old paint on those walls. However, economically and politically vulnerable black and Hispanic children, many of whom inhabit dilapidated older housing, still suffer disproportionately from the devastating effects of the toxin. This is the meaning of institutional racism in action today. As with the water flowing into homes from the pipes of Flint's water system, so the walls of its apartment complexes, not to mention those in poor neighborhoods of Detroit, Baltimore, Washington, and virtually every other older urban center in the country, continue to poison children exposed to lead-polluted dust, chips, soil, and air.

Over the course of the past century, tens of millions of children have been poisoned by lead and millions more remain in danger of it today. Add to this the risks these same children face from industrial toxins like mercury, asbestos, and polychlorinated biphenyls (better known as PCBs) and you have an ongoing recipe for a Flint-like disaster but on a national scale.

In truth, the United States has scores of "Flints" awaiting their moments. Think of them as ticking toxic time bombs - just an austerity scheme or some official's poor decision away from a public health disaster. Given this, it's remarkable, even in the wake of Flint, how little attention or publicity such threats receive. Not surprisingly, then, there seems to be virtually no political will to ensure that future generations of children will not suffer the same fate as those in Flint.  

The Future of the United States' Toxic Past

A series of decisions by state and local officials turned Flint's chronic post-industrial crisis into a total public health disaster. If clueless, corrupt, or heartless government officials get all the blame for this (and blame they do deserve), the larger point will unfortunately be missed - that there are many post-industrial Flints, many other hidden tragedies affecting America's children that await their moments in the news. Treat Flint as an anomaly and you condemn families nationwide to bear the damage to their children alone, abandoned by a society unwilling to invest in cleaning up a century of industrial pollution, or even to acknowledge the injustice involved.

Flint may be years away from a solution to its current crisis, but in a few cities elsewhere in the country there is at least a modicum of hope when it comes to developing ways to begin to address this country's poisonous past. In California, for example, 10 cities and counties, including San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles, and Oakland, have successfully sued and won an initial judgment against three lead pigment manufacturers for $1.15 billion. That money will be invested in removing lead paint from the walls of homes in these cities. If this judgment is upheld on appeal, it would be an unprecedented and pathbreaking victory, since it would force a polluting industry to clean up the mess it created and from which it profited.

There have been other partial victories, too. In Herculaneum, Missouri, for instance, where half the children within a mile of the nation's largest lead smelter suffered lead poisoning, jurors returned a $320 million verdict against Fluor Corporation, one of the world's largest construction and engineering firms. That verdict is also on appeal, while the company has moved its smelter to Peru where whole new populations are undoubtedly being poisoned.

President Obama hit the nail on the head with his recent comments on Flint, but he also missed the larger point. There he was just a few dozen miles from that city's damaged water system when he spoke in Detroit, another symbol of corporate abandonment with its own grim toxic legacy. Thousands of homes in the Motor City, the former capital of the auto industry, are still lead paint disaster areas. Perhaps it's time to widen the canvas when it comes to the poisoning of America's children and face the terrible human toll caused by "the American century."

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Ordinary Americans Fought Big Money and Won in 2015

Mon, 02/08/2016 - 21:00

While there's a long way to go, the fight for a truly democratic, transparent and accountable government won important gains last year. (Photo: Protest crowd via Shutterstock; Edited: JR / TO)

Americans believe in democracy - and they're ready to reclaim it from the wealthy special interests that have grown ever-more dominant since the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision.

The overwhelming majority of Americans agree that money has too much influence over elections, and that the system for financing political campaigns needs a radical overhaul.

Over 90 percent of Iowa caucus voters - in both parties - recently told pollsters they are unsatisfied or "mad as hell" about the role of money in politics.

It is a striking consensus that is overcoming partisan divides and sparking civic action across the country, as a new joint report by the Center for Media and Democracy, Common Cause, Demos, Every Voice, U.S. PIRG, Public Citizen, and People for the American Way highlights.

The report, "Our Voices, Our Democracy," concludes that while there's a long way to go, the fight for a truly democratic, transparent, and accountable government won important gains last year.

Winning in the Face of a Tidal Wave of Big Money

Record-breaking spending by a handful of wealthy individuals makes the problem seem insurmountable.

But activists and volunteers across the country fought back in 2015, winning some important fights and providing inspiration to pro-democracy activists everywhere.

In Seattle, the goal of citizen-funded local elections brought together a broad coalition of grassroots activists and organizations to put the "Honest Elections" initiative on the ballot. The measure won in a landslide. Nearly two-thirds of Seattle voters said yes to increasing public participation with an innovative program in which registered voters receive "democracy vouchers," four $25 publicly financed vouchers, that they can use to support candidates who agree to follow contribution and spending limits.

Maine voters loved their Clean Elections law so much that hundreds of volunteers and a bipartisan organizational network came together in an off-cycle election year to propose a ballot referendum to expand it: strengthening public financing, tightening requirements for donor disclosure, and increasing penalties for candidates that violate the law. The ballot measure passed handily.

These wins are part of a broader democracy movement that has been building since Citizens United. Over 5 million people have signed petitions calling for a constitutional amendment to reverse Citizens United. Sixteen states, more than 680 cities and towns, and a majority of the U.S. Senate in 2014 have called for an amendment.

Real Solutions to Reclaim Democracy

As the "Our Voices, Our Democracy" report makes clear, no single legal or policy change will win the fight for democracy overnight. Successfully fighting big money in politics will take concerted, long-term effort by a broad-based movement.

That's why more than 150 groups came together in 2015 to support a "Unity Statement of Principles," which describes the key features a democratic system should have.

With those principles in mind, thirteen leading democracy reform groups developed a set of concrete reforms, and a plan for making 2016 political candidates face the problem of big money.

Key elements of the Fighting Big Money agenda include:

  • Creating a strong small-donor public financing system
  • Ensuring meaningful contribution limits
  • Protecting the right to vote
  • Advancing campaign disclosure and transparency efforts
  • Overturning Citizens United and Buckley v. Valeo through the Democracy For All constitutional amendment or by changing the Court's jurisprudence
  • Reshaping the way the U.S. Supreme Court views money in politics issues
  • Making sure lawbreakers are held accountable by replacing the Federal Election Commission with a stronger agency and encouraging the Department of Justice to investigate and prosecute criminal violations of campaign finance laws

These changes can make a real difference.

Since 2008, for example, Connecticut has had a public funding option in which candidates for state office who raise funds from enough small donors, and abide by spending limits, receive public grants.

By 2014, 77 percent of candidates were using the program, and the benefits to responsive government and engaged citizenship have been impressive, according to a report by Demos. More people are becoming small donors, and more seats are competitive, because more people can afford to run for office. Candidates and elected officials spend less time fundraising and more time interacting with constituents, and they are less beholden to lobbyists and big donors.

Fresh Momentum in Presidential Election Year

The pernicious influence of big money on our political system is set to be one of the major themes of 2016, a presidential election year, and the issue clearly resonates with politicians and voters across the political spectrum.

Even billionaire reality star and Republican primary candidate Donald Trump agrees.

"I will tell you that our system is broken," Trump said in a GOP debate last August. "When [politicians] call, I give. And you know what, when I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them. They are there for me. That's a broken system."

In early primary states, organizations like New Hampshire Rebellion and Iowa Pays the Price have seized the moment by successfully using grassroots mobilization to push candidates to address money in politics. While neither Trump nor the other Republican candidates have released official platforms on the issue, several have expressed openness to possible reforms. Both remaining Democratic candidates for president, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, have policy platforms in line with the Fighting Big Money agenda.

From the 320,000 Washingtonians who supported a 2016 ballot measure to urge a Constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United, to the 79 percent of voters who approved a public campaign financing plan in Chicago, to the million-plus Americans who signed a petition asking for federal contractors to be disclose their campaign contributions, ordinary people all across the country are demanding their rights to open, honest, representative government.

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