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Updated: 1 hour 44 min ago

Cornel West and Former Sanders Staffer on Movement to Draft Bernie for a New "People's Party"

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 21:00

As Donald Trump approaches his 100th day as president on Saturday, his approval ratings are the lowest any president has had at this stage in generations. A recent poll by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal found just 40 percent of Americans approve of his job performance so far. Trump took to Twitter to call the poll "totally wrong." This comes as former presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders has emerged as one the country's most popular politicians. The Hill reports a Harvard-Harris poll shows 57 percent of registered voters view him favorably. Meanwhile, some former Sanders supporters have launched a movement to "Draft Bernie for a People's Party," urging him to start a new progressive party and run for president again in 2020. We speak with Nick Brana, the former outreach coordinator for the Bernie Sanders campaign, and Cornel West, professor of the practice of public philosophy at Harvard University. His new piece in The Guardian is headlined "The Democrats delivered one thing in the past 100 days: disappointment."

Please check back later for full transcript.

Categories: Latest News

Witnesses to Double Execution in Arkansas Say Prisoners May Have Suffered Botched, Painful Death

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 21:00

We speak with The Guardian's chief reporter Ed Pilkington about the shocking double execution Arkansas carried out Monday night, marking the first time in nearly 17 years that any state has killed two people on the same day. At 7:20 p.m. local time, 52-year-old Jack Harold Jones was pronounced dead in the death chamber at the Cummins Unit state prison. Infirmary workers had spent more than 45 minutes unsuccessfully trying to put a central line into his neck. According to a court filing, during Jones's execution, he was "moving his lips and gulping for air," which suggests he continued to be conscious during the lethal injection. Lawyers for the second man, Marcel Williams, filed a last-minute appeal for a stay of execution following Jones's killing, arguing Williams could also experience a botched, painful death. A district court judge initially granted a temporary stay of Williams's execution but then allowed the execution to go forward. Williams was pronounced dead at 10:33 p.m. The executions came after legal challenges reached the US Supreme Court, which rejected a stay for Williams. The only justice to dissent in this ruling was Justice Sonia Sotomayor. The last double execution carried out in the United States was in 2000 in Texas.

TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Arkansas carried out a double execution Monday night, marking the first time in nearly 17 years that any state has killed two people on the same day. At 7:20 p.m. local time, 52-year-old Jack Harold Jones was pronounced dead in the death chamber at the Cummings Unit state prison. Infirmary workers had spent more than 45 minutes unsuccessfully trying to put a central line into his neck. According to a court filing, during Jones's execution, he was, quote, "was moving his lips and gulping for air," unquote, which suggests he continued to be conscious during the lethal injection. The controversial sedative midazolam is administered as part of a cocktail of execution drugs to make prisoners unconscious, but it's repeatedly failed to do so during other executions, leading to painful deaths. Ahead of Monday night, Jones's lawyers had argued his medical condition was likely to reduce the sedative's effectiveness, leading to an unconstitutionally painful death, but this argument was rejected by a court. Before being killed, Jones gave a long final statement in which he apologized to the daughter of Mary Phillips. Jones has admitted to raping and killing Mary Phillips in 1995. His final words were "I'm sorry."

Lawyers for the second man, Marcel Williams, filed a last-minute appeal for a stay of execution following Jones's killing, arguing Williams could also experience a botched, painful death. A district court judge initially granted a temporary stay of Williams's execution but then allowed the execution to go forward. Williams was pronounced dead at 10:33 p.m. He had been convicted and sentenced to death for the 1994 kidnap, rape and murder of Stacy Errickson.

AMY GOODMAN: Monday night's executions came after legal challenges reached the US Supreme Court, which rejected a stay for Williams. The only justice to dissent in this ruling was Justice Sonia Sotomayor. The last double execution carried out in the US was in 2000 in Texas. Arkansas carried out its first execution in 16 years Thursday, killing Ledell Lee, and plans to execute a fourth man, Kenneth Williams, this coming Thursday. The state had initially planned execute eight people within 11 days this month -- an unprecedented rate of executions in modern US history. They wanted to perform these executions before the end of the month, when midazolam would expire.

For more, we're joined via Democracy Now! video stream by The Guardian reporter Ed Pilkington, who has been following the executions closely with local reporters on the ground.

Ed, welcome back to Democracy Now! You have a witness statement on the execution. Can you explain -- there were two -- what the witness saw?

ED PILKINGTON: Yeah. We worked with Jacob Rosenberg, who is a reporter for Arkansas Times. He was in the death chamber for the second execution last night, of Marcel Williams. And a very interesting account, I think, really important part of it -- there are two things, really. One, because of the court's stay that happened for Marcel Williams, while the judge considered what had happened to the first prisoner to die, Jack Jones, Marcel Williams was kept strapped to the gurney the entire time. Now, we don't quite know when that began. It's probably around something like 8:00 p.m. last night. And he was pronounced dead at 10:33. So, for maybe longer than two-and-a-half hours, this 400-pound prisoner was kept strapped to a gurney, which I think is fairly disturbing in itself.

The other thing that came out of our eyewitness report is that there's a sort of missing half an hour. Now, the media -- the three media witnesses were kept held in a van while this -- the delay was happening because of the court proceedings. They had a little window at the back of the van that they could look out the back of. They saw Marcel Williams being taken out to the bathroom and then brought back. He was brought back at about 9:29. The execution began at 10:16. We don't know anything about what happened in that period. And I think that's important and will continue to be important, and it's because of the secrecy that the death penalty states have imposed on the entire process of execution. The media witnesses were only allowed to see when the curtain was opened and the execution began. They were not allowed to see the crucial period in which IV lines were tried to be found. And that was a problem that we had in the Jack Jones execution earlier in the evening. The state, by its own admission in court filings, admitted that they tried to find an IV line in the prisoner's neck and failed.

And this is precisely the kind of problems that have come up time and time again, with Clayton Lockett, the gruesome execution in Oklahoma where he writhed for 43 minutes on the gurney -- that was down to an IV line that couldn't be found -- and in Arizona, the Wood execution, where they tried -- they stuck him 15 times and injected him 15 different times, because they found it so difficult to find a vein. So, I think we're starting to see the same old problem emerge yet again: secrecy, the fact that the public cannot see what's being done in its name when prisoners are being killed, leading to problems in the process.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Ed Pilkington, what are the requirements in terms of the public's ability to view this, or the witnesses, at least, who are there, who are permitted to see the execution, being able to witness the entire process?

ED PILKINGTON: Well, that's the problem. Like so much to do with the death penalty, it's down to each individual state. But there is something in common here. And that is, all the death penalty states, all sort of nine or so of them that are still being -- actively trying to pursue the death penalty, have taken the same line, which is, we should let the public know as little as possible. So they don't let us know the members of the execution team. Now, maybe that's understandable, because, you know, the executioners could face harassment. But they won't let us know who manufactures the drugs they use or where they got them from. And that's problematic because we don't know, you know, were these drugs sort of knocked up in a corner shop. They have tried that in the past. And now they're fighting over how much the public can see in the process.

And in Arkansas, they went to extraordinary lengths to make our job difficult as reporters -- and I'm one of them. To start with, they wouldn't even allow us laptops into the media room, where we were watching if we weren't in the death chamber. Now, this is just a visiting room. We're not anywhere near the death chamber. We're not a security issue. We weren't allowed laptops, to start with. They consented on that in the end, but we weren't allowed telephones in the room. And in the end, they only allowed reporters to take in notepads and pencils supplied to them by the prison service, as though there was something like a reporter would carry in their own notebook that would do something subservient or something. And the whole process has like been a battle between the media, which is the eyes and ears of the public, and the prison service, that, after all, is doing the most serious thing that any state can do, and that is to kill one of its own citizens.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you, Ed Pilkington, about the deputy solicitor general, named Nicholas Bronni, who admitted in a court filing the execution team had tried to place a central line in Jones' neck, but the attempt was unsuccessful. Talk about the significance of this and what happened next, and that leading to the lawyers for the next man, Marcel Williams, trying to get a stay on his execution, so he would not be tortured as he was killed.

ED PILKINGTON: Right. And, I mean, when I saw that in the court filing coming from the state itself, I was astonished. They were trying to rebut the case made by the lawyers for the second prisoner to be executed, Marcel Williams, that the first execution had been botched. That's what essentially was going on. And in order to rebut that argument, the state said, "No, everything was fine. Look, we tried to find an IV line in Jack Jones', the first prisoner's, neck, and we failed. And then we went on. We actually decided not to use a third IV line. We would just use two." Now, they made that argument as though that showed that the whole process had been a success, which I found rather astonishing when I read it in the court filing.

Then we went on to the Marcel Williams execution, the second one. We don't know, as I say, what happened in half an hour when they were trying to find an IV line. We know nothing about that at all. What we do know, from The Guardian's work with the Arkansas Times and the reporter who was in the room for us, Jacob Rosenberg, that Marcel Williams was seen to do -- once he was sedated with midazolam -- which, you have to remember, is a sedative, it's not an anesthetic, which is -- it is not used in operations to put people under before surgery. It is just used to relax them. So it's an entirely inappropriate medicine for use in surgeries, and you might, therefore, say inappropriate for use in executions. They gave him the midazolam. He relaxed. He started to breathe very heavily. Now, our reporter from the Arkansas Times saw him rise up and down. His back arched countless times. He actually lost count of the number of times his back arched. This lasted over just a relatively short period of time, for about five, six minutes, compared with some of the really botched executions we've seen, say, of Clayton Lockett, which was 43 minutes. But nevertheless, it suggests that maybe the prisoner was experiencing difficulty. And again, will we ever find out anything more about that? There is no indication that Arkansas carried out an official inquiry into what happened. Often it takes months, if at all, to see the internal results of their own inquiries. The whole process is shrouded in secrecy, and it makes it very, very difficult for the media and for the public to assess exactly what happened.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Ed Pilkington, you're the chief reporter for The Guardian US. Briefly, in the few moments we have left, could you tell us what's the response in Britain and in Europe, in general, to this continuing obsession in the United States with executions?

ED PILKINGTON: Well, it's been very widespread coverage and quite a lot of anger and dismay. I mean, it comes at a time when the world had been thinking that the death penalty was receding, was on the wane in the US Last year, there were only 20 executions. And it has been going steadily down. Then, suddenly, a Republican governor in Arkansas decides that he needs, for his own reasons, all to do with the supplies of medicines, nothing else -- for his own reasons, he needs to execute eight prisoners in 11 days. And, bam, the whole thing is back. And Europe and Britain are incensed again. And here we are, talking about it all over again.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Ed Pilkington, what happens next? I mean, for people to understand, who are watching this around the globe, the reason there are what they call these doubleheader executions now in Arkansas, to -- they attempted to kill -- some were stopped in the killing -- eight men in 11 days, was to hit that deadline by the end of the month, when the -- one of the execution drugs, midazolam, expires by the end of the month. So, who's on -- who is on the list next to be killed?

ED PILKINGTON: Well, we've got one more execution coming up this Thursday in Arkansas. And then, sort of the battle continues. You have to say that the death penalty states are waging a losing battle here, because the drug companies are now absolutely in unison. They do not want their drugs, which are designed and manufactured to save lives -- they do not want those drugs used to kill people. They're all saying it. More than 30 of the major manufacturers are now saying that. Distribution companies are also saying that. They do not want this to happen, and they are making it incredibly difficult for prison services to find the drugs. And as a result, the prison services are doing more and more extreme things, with more and more botched executions. And, you know, it feels to me like the whole thing is falling apart.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Ed Pilkington, we want to thank you for being with us, chief reporter for The Guardian US, after what they call a doubleheader, a double execution, in Arkansas last night. It hasn't happened in this country since 2000.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, Donald Trump is approaching his hundredth day as president, but there are a group of people who are calling for a third party and pushing Bernie Sanders to run. Stay with us.

Categories: Latest News

Deficit Memories

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 21:00
Categories: Latest News

How Bill Clinton and Barack Obama Laid the Groundwork for Trump's Immigration Policies

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 21:00

Protesters rally during the May Day March to Stop Deportations in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, May 1, 2014. (Photo: Joe Brusky / Flickr)

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Ever since he rode a Trump Tower escalator into the presidential race in June 2015 and swore to build his "great wall" and stop Mexican "rapists" from entering the country, undocumented immigrants have been the focus of Donald Trump's ire. Now that he's in the Oval Office, the news has been grim. A drumbeat of frightening headlines and panicked social media posts have highlighted his incendiary language, his plans and executive orders when it comes to immigrants, and the early acts of the Border Patrol and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents when it comes to round-ups and deportations. The temperature has soared on the deportation debate, so if you think we're in a completely unprecedented moment when it comes to immigration and immigrants, you're in good company.

Trump has repeatedly claimed that immigrants, especially undocumented ones, are flooding the United States, causing crime waves, and depleting social service budgets. Never mind that the number of such immigrants has been in steady decline since 2008, that immigrant crime rates are lower than citizen crime rates, that the undocumented have no access to most social welfare programs, and that crime figures, too, have generally been on the decline in recent years.

The media has played its own role in fanning the flames. Since Donald Trump entered the Oval Office, news reports have proliferated about rising raids, arrests, detentions, and deportations. These suggest that something new, terrifying, and distinctly Trumpian -- something we've simply never seen before -- is underway, including mass sweeps to deport individuals who would have been protected under the previous administration.

The numbers tell a different story. A Washington Post scare headline typically read: "ICE Immigration Arrests of Noncriminals Double Under Trump." While accurate, it was nonetheless misleading. Non-criminal immigration arrests did indeed jump from 2,500 in the first three months of 2016 to 5,500 during the same period in 2017, while criminal arrests also rose, bringing the total to 21,000. Only 16,000 were arrested during the same months in 2016. The article, however, ignores the fact that 2016 was the all-time low year for arrests under President Obama. In the first three months of 2014, for example, 29,000 were arrested, far more than Trump's three-month "record." 

And even though arrests went up during Trump's first three months in office, deportations actually went down, mostly due to the fact that the number of immigrants crossing the border declined.

To those who have been following deportation politics in this country, Trump's policies, as they are now unfolding, have an eerie resonance. They seem to be growing directly out of policies first instituted in the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. True, President Obama liked to talk about "our tradition of welcoming immigrants," while our new president has tossed such liberal humanitarian rhetoric in the garbage can, instead playing up a harsh nativism. Still, the fact is that two Democratic presidents laid the groundwork for Trump's developing policies.

It was, after all, President Clinton who oversaw the draconian "Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act" of 1996. It drastically increased all levels of immigration "enforcement," expanding the Border Patrol, criminalizing numerous types of low-level immigration violations, and facilitating and expanding deportation procedures. (A similar emphasis on casting blame on individuals for structural and systemic problems was also at the heart of Clinton's welfare reform of that same year.)

In many ways, Donald Trump is only reiterating, with more bombast, ideas and policies pioneered under Clinton, that then became a basic part of Barack Obama's approach to immigration. Those policies drew directly on racist tough-on-crime and anti-terrorism police tactics that also helped foment white racial fears.

Anecdotally speaking, there have already been numerous cases of detention and deportation that appear to go far beyond what was occurring in the Obama years. But a closer look at those cases and at the numbers suggests surprisingly more continuity than change. Both the mainstream media and social media have highlighted what appear to be extreme cases of the arrest of DACA ("deferred action for childhood arrivals") youth, also known as "Dreamers," as well as of individuals appearing for routine check-ins with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, or other arbitrary detentions and deportations. Most of these cases, however, have been far more in line with Obama-era policies than readers of such news might imagine. Then, too, "low-priority immigrants" were swept up surprisingly often in what The New York Times in 2014 called "the net of deportation."

Obama's Legacy: A Three-Part System

At first glance, President Obama's legacy on immigration enforcement appears contradictory indeed. He claimed to be a humanitarian who sought to deport only "felons, not families," while granting relief from deportation to hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants. At the same time, he was dubbed the "deporter-in-chief" for a reason. He oversaw historic rises in deportation rates.

To grasp the contradictory nature of his policies, it's necessary to explore three geographically different policy realms when it comes to the undocumented: interior enforcement, border enforcement, and the Mexican Southern Border Program. In the area of interior enforcement, Obama created several protection and priority programs for undocumented immigrants already in the country that did indeed shield whole groups of people from deportation. Immigrant rights supporters who emphasize the humanitarian nature of what Obama did focus on such protections, while downplaying the two border prongs of his policies. Yet, though not much attended to, even the humanitarian programs incorporated a darker side, criminalizing and targeting those not eligible for them. 

When it came to interior enforcement, President Obama called on ICE to exercise "prosecutorial discretion." Immigrants who were parents, students, hard-working, had close family and community ties, or served in the military, he suggested, should be granted relief from deportation. 

In the process, however, he offered a language of innocence versus criminality and the illusion that, when it came to immigrants, the notion of criminality was self-evident and universally agreed upon. By dividing them into felons versus families, he actually contributed to the criminalization of large groups of immigrants and so fed directly into Trump's future rhetoric. He also drew on Bill Clinton's "tough on crime" policies in ways that linked the criminalization of people of color with the deportation of "criminal" immigrants (also overwhelmingly people of color).

As immigration scholars Alan Aja and Alejandra Marchevsky explain:

"The criminalization of immigrants in part resulted from more aggressive policing of communities of color. In the 1980s and '90s, law enforcement agencies across the nation implemented broken windows and stop-and-frisk strategies, claiming that mass arrests for low-level offenses would prevent more serious crime. As the immigrants who lived in these communities fell victim to racialized policing and mass incarceration, the federal government's rosters of the criminal immigrant exploded."

Once criminalized, they then fell into a separate-and-unequal immigration enforcement system in which due process was eliminated and deportation, the ultimate draconian penalty, could be implemented regardless of the seriousness of the "crime." Worse yet, the ever harsher over-policing of communities of color and the expansion of mass incarceration produced, Aja and Marchevsky point out, "a reservoir of immigrants with criminal records, creating an endless chain of detentions and deportations."

As Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, has made strikingly clear, all of this -- the redefinition of minor crimes as felonies, the increasing pressure on those charged to plea bargain, and measures that then excluded felons from public housing, employment, welfare rolls, voting booths, and other aspects of society -- relegated a significant number of black men to a permanent underclass. Undocumented immigrants were also caught in this web, with some special twists.

In the wake of Clinton's 1996 immigration law, for instance, convictions of just about any sort, including the most minor crimes, became grounds for deportation -- even retroactively. So a long-ago violation that resulted in probation and community service, or a small fine, now became evidence of an immigrant's "criminal" status from which deportation naturally followed.

And there was another new catch-22 category as well: so-called immigration crimes. Those with a record of illegal reentry and those who engaged in what was termed "immigration fraud" were automatically re-categorized as "criminals" under President Obama's priority enforcement policy. "Illegal reentry" is, in fact, the most curious of crimes, since it distinguishes between those who succeed in entering the country without inspection on their first try and those who are caught and only succeed on a subsequent try. "Immigration fraud," a broad category, includes common practices like using a false social security number in order to work.

Obama's interior deportation scheme relied heavily on this expansive notion of the criminality of the undocumented, who might otherwise have qualified as people trying to get by as best they could. Now, President Trump is extending that criminalization further by ruling that anybody convicted of, charged with, or even suspected of a crime constitutes a priority for deportation. In the process, he's expanded the concept of the "criminal" even as he's built directly on the Clinton-Obama legacy.

At the Border and Beyond

What earned President Obama the moniker of "deporter-in-chief," however, was his policy towards border enforcement, since it was there that the number of deportees rose most sharply. This was in part because he prioritized "recent border crossers" for deportation; everyone, that is, who had crossed without authorization, which essentially meant everyone apprehended in the border region, was now criminalized. Under previous administrations, most of those caught there had been granted what was called "voluntary departure." In other words, they were returned to the Mexican side of the border without legal sanction. During the Clinton and Bush administrations, more than a million people a year were returned to Mexico in this manner without being transformed into criminals and so were not included in the usual deportation figures.

In the Obama years, those apprehended at the border began to be formally charged and fingerprinted before being issued a deportation order. In this way, they were redefined as "criminals," and if they were caught attempting a second border crossing, as criminal "repeat immigration offenders." It also meant that formal deportations began to skyrocket, although the numbers crossing the border, those apprehended at the border, and those sent back to Mexico were all beginning to fall.

Soon enough, immigration crimes came to rival drug crimes in the federal court system. Obama became the deporter-in-chief not because he deported more people than previous administrations, but because he criminalized more of those he deported. This, then, was how he managed to protect many from deportation, while also racking up deportation statistics far beyond those of his predecessors. In fact, the situations of many of those caught at the border proved remarkably similar to those being granted prosecutorial discretion in the interior. They had family, including children, in the United States, or jobs and strong community ties, or had lived in the country for years. Because they had left and tried to return, however, they were redefined as criminals. 

Finally, one aspect of immigration enforcement under the Obama administration generally goes unmentioned: the president's role in pressuring Mexico into collaborating by arresting and deporting Central Americans heading north (including families and unaccompanied children) before they reached the border with the United States. In 2014, under growing pressure from Washington, the Mexican government implemented the Southern Border Program. While US law was being repeatedly updated to provide humanitarian treatment to families and children apprehended at the border, when the Mexicans got to them first, they simply deported them.

In 2014, only 3% of the minors apprehended in the US were deported; in Mexico, the figure was 77%, or 18,269. As one report summed up the situation: "The United States is outsourcing its border enforcement to Mexico." As in the United States, so Mexico's increasing militarization and repression on its southern border did not actually slow the flow of migrants. It merely made the voyage far more dangerous, while giving ever more power to smugglers and gangs that now prey upon Central American migrants desperately trying to evade Mexican border controls.

Immigrants, Criminalization and the Labor Market

Long before Donald Trump entered the Oval Office, this "tough on crime" approach to immigration fit into a broader pattern of the criminalization of people of color that fed the prison-industrial complex, made the US the globe's leading incarcerator, and encouraged the proliferation of private prisons. It helped justify the increasing militarization of the police in those years and the over-policing of communities of color. It also fed a national sense of insecurity that contributed to political passivity, disempowerment, and the kind of nativism that Trump has thrived on.

Criminalization plays a role as well in the country's growing economic inequality. It justifies both high rates of unemployment and low wages among people of color, while warehousing those whose labor has become superfluous. And it plays a particular role when it comes to immigrants and the labor market.

Immigrants actually experience significantly higher labor force participation and lower unemployment rates than the native-born, making them an exception among people of color. However, they earn less ($681 week) than do native-born workers ($837 a week), according to Bureau of Labor Statistics figures for 2015. For employers in recent years, the criminalization of the already unstable status of immigrants (and their inability generally to access social services), makes them a uniquely exploitable and so desirable work force. They tend to be hired to do jobs so dismal, arduous, or dangerous that they fail to attract native-born workers. Anthropologist Nicholas de Genova has suggested that the very "deportability" of undocumented immigrants makes them desirable to such employers.

Meanwhile, the criminalization of people of color and of immigrants in particular lent a distinct helping hand to Donald Trump in his campaign for president, even as it helped the prison-industrial complex and the police justify ever-increasing budgets and employment.

The Trump administration's multipronged approach to immigration relies on and promotes the criminalization of immigrants. Whether halting the entry of refugees or persons with visas from particular countries, hiring thousands of new ICE and Border Patrol agents, promising to build a "great, great wall," denying federal money to sanctuary cities, or publishing lists of crimes committed by immigrants, Trump's immigration policies follow in the footsteps but also intensify those of his predecessors and continue to create fear, justify exploitation, and rationalize authoritarianism.

Categories: Latest News

International Monsanto Tribunal Calls for Human Rights Over Corporate Rights

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 21:00

On Tuesday, April 18, representatives of the Organic Consumers Association and our Regeneration International project gathered in The Hague, Netherlands, along with members of other civil society groups, scientists and journalists.

We assembled to hear the opinions of the five judges who presided over the International Monsanto Tribunal. After taking six months to review the testimony of 28 witnesses who testified during the two-day citizens' tribunal held in The Hague last October, the judges were ready to report on their 53-page Advisory Opinion.

The upshot of the judges' opinion? Monsanto has engaged in practices that have violated the basic human right to a healthy environment, the right to food, the right to health, and the right of scientists to freely conduct indispensable research.

The judges also called on international lawmakers to hold corporations like Monsanto accountable, to place human rights above the rights of corporations, and to "clearly assert the protection of the environment and establish the crime of ecocide."

The completion of the Tribunal judges' work coincides with heightened scrutiny of Monsanto, during a period when the company seeks to complete a merger with Germany-based Bayer. In addition to our organization's recently filed lawsuit against Monsanto, the St. Louis-based chemical maker is facing more than 800 lawsuits by people who developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma after being exposed to Monsanto's Roundup herbicide. As a result of recently-made-public court documents related to those lawsuits, pressure is mounting for Congress to investigate alleged collusion between former EPA officials and Monsanto to bury the truth about the health risks of Roundup.

The timing couldn't have been better for the Monsanto Tribunal to announce its opinions. But is time running out for us to hold Monsanto accountable -- and replace its failed, degenerative model with a food and farming system that regenerates soil, health and local economies?

Citizens' Tribunals Historically Contribute to Developing International Law

The Monsanto Tribunal judges had barely finished delivering their opinions before Monsanto spit out the usual pablum, claiming to be committed to finding "real solutions" to the challenges of hunger, food security and the role of farmers to "nourish our growing world sustainably."

In a statement issued by the biotech giant's Global Human Rights Steering Committee (who knew?), Monsanto claimed the Tribunal was "staged by a select group of anti-agriculture technology and anti-Monsanto critics who played organizers, judge and jury."

In fact, organizers of the Tribunal had no say in the judges' final opinion. And the judges themselves are all independent, highly qualified lawyers and legal experts, recognized by the international legal community for their accomplishments and credentials.

In their Advisory Opinion, the judges didn't directly address criticism of the Monsanto Tribunal specifically, nor did they address attempts to delegitimize citizens' tribunals (which the judges referred to as "Opinion Tribunals") in general. But the judges did outline what an Opinion Tribunal is -- and is not -- and why they are important:

Their objective is twofold: alerting public opinion, stakeholders and policy-makers to acts considered as unacceptable and unjustifiable under legal standards; contributing to the advancement of national and international law.

The work and conclusions of opinion tribunals are shared with all relevant actors and widely disseminated in the national and international community. Most opinion tribunals have had a considerable impact, and it is now accepted that they contribute to the progressive development of international law.

Judges: Monsanto Violated Basic Human Rights

As we wrote last year, the Monsanto Tribunal judges were asked to consider six questions, referred to as the "Terms of Reference." During two days of testimony, the judges heard from 28 witnesses (representing about 15 countries) on matters relating to the six questions.

On four of those questions -- whether or not Monsanto violated the right to a healthy environment, right to food, right to health, and right to freedom of expression and academic research -- the judges concluded in all cases that yes, Monsanto's activities have violated all of those rights. (Detailed answers to all questions are included in the Advisory Opinion).

On the question of war crimes, related to Monsanto supplying Agent Orange to the US military during the Vietnam War, the judges concluded:

Because of the current state of international law and the absence of specific evidence, the Tribunal cannot give any definitive answer to the question it was asked. Nevertheless, it seems that Monsanto knew how its products would be used and had information on the consequences for human health and the environment. The Tribunal is of the view that, would the crime of Ecocide be added in International law, the reported facts could fall within the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

And that brings us to question six: Could the activities of Monsanto constitute a crime of ecocide, understood as causing serious damage or destroying the environment, so as to significantly and durably alter the global commons or ecosystem services upon which certain human groups rely?

Possibly -- if ecocide were recognized as an international crime, under the Rome Statute. Because it isn't, at least not yet, the judges could only add to existing calls for the International Law Commission to amend the Rome Statute to include ecocide on its list of international crimes.

On complicity in war crimes, the Tribunal judges wrote:

The Tribunal assesses that international law should now precisely and clearly assert the protection of the environment and the crime of ecocide. The Tribunal concludes that if such a crime of ecocide were recognized in international criminal law, the activities of Monsanto could possibly constitute a crime of ecocide. Several of the company's activities may fall within this infraction, such as the manufacture and supply of glyphosate-based herbicides to Colombia in the context of its plan for aerial application on coca crops, which negatively impacted the environment and the health of local populations; the large-scale use of dangerous agrochemicals in industrial agriculture; and the engineering, production, introduction and release of genetically engineered crops. Severe contamination of plant diversity, soils and waters would also fall within the qualification of ecocide. Finally, the introduction of persistent organic pollutants such as PCB into the environment causing widespread, long-lasting and severe environmental harm and affecting the right of the future generations could fall within the qualification of ecocide as well.

International Law Has "Failed Woefully," but We Have to Hope

We can't do justice here to the Tribunal judges' 53-page Advisory Opinion. The Opinion, which include 120 citations, paints a detailed picture of how Monsanto violates human rights and ravages the environment, on a global scale. In their published Opinion, the judges call for changes in international law in order to give priority to human rights, over the rights of corporations, and to hold corporations accountable for violating human and environmental rights.

While according companies like Monsanto unprecedented rights and entitlements, international law has failed woefully to impose any corresponding obligation to protect human rights and the environment. However, it is beyond the scope of this advisory opinion to consider the breadth of reforms required to re-align the respective priorities of commercial and public interests that must be brought about under international law. Therefore, the Tribunal strongly encourages authoritative bodies to address the legal and practical limitations that currently confine the scope, content and ultimately the effectiveness of international human rights law.

As she wrapped up the April 18 press conference in The Hague, Tribunal Judge Françoise Tulkens said that while the judges' work was done, the work of civil society has just begun.

"Now this Advisory Opinion is in your hands, it's for you to use it. You, as in civil servants, as in lawyers and judges, if it's possible . . .  maybe this Opinion will serve in the development of international law, and of course international law does develop under the impetus of civil society, so for that maybe we have to wait one year, two years, decades, maybe centuries, I don't know, but we still have to hope that it's possible."

As we hope for international law to start holding corporations like Monsanto (or Bayer or Dow or Syngenta) accountable for the devastating consequences of their poisonous chemicals, we must also look for hopeful solutions for feeding the world's growing population. Monsanto will have you believe that its failed GMO monoculture model provides those solutions -- but increasingly, the world is wising up to that lie.

In "3 Big Myths about Modern Agriculture," David R. Montgomery, professor of Earth and Space Sciences at the University of Washington, says that conventional farming practices that degrade soil health undermine humanity's ability to continue feeding everyone over the long run. Montgomery writes:

I no longer see debates about the future of agriculture as simply conventional versus organic. In my view, we've oversimplified the complexity of the land and underutilized the ingenuity of farmers. I now see adopting farming practices that build soil health as the key to a stable and resilient agriculture.

Do we have decades or centuries, as Tulkens suggests, for international law to crack down on Monsanto? Probably not, if climate scientists' predictions are correct. But as humans with rights, and consumers with responsibility for our purchasing decisions, we can help fuel a Regeneration Revolution that can both cool the planet and feed the world -- without poison.

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Pentagon Ties Russia to Taliban Attack, Accuses Moscow of Arming Afghan Militants

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 21:00

The aftermath of a bombing attack at the Kandahar governor's guesthouse, in Kandahar, Afghanistan, March 22, 2017. The attack almost devastated the entire leadership of the only province in the south of Afghanistan that is putting up some resistance to a Taliban surge. (Photo: Mujib Mashal / The New York Times)

The US military has increased its confidence in reports accusing Russia of arming the Taliban.

Defense Secretary James Mattis and Gen. John Nicholson, the Commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, spoke about the claims on Monday, at a press conference in Kabul.

When asked directly by a reporter about alleged Russian weapon shipments to the Taliban, Gen. Nicholson said: "Oh no, I'm not refuting that."

"The level of granularity and the level of success they're achieving, I think the jury is still out on that," Mattis noted. He said that arm shipments from Russia to the Taliban "would have to be dealt with as a violation of international law."

Late last month, other top ranking US military officials spoke to the allegations, but discussed them with greater uncertainty.

"I think it is fair to assume they may be providing some sort of support to [the Taliban], in terms of weapons or other things that may be there," said Gen. Joseph Votel, the leader of US Central Command.

NATO commander Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti said that Russia had increased "association [with] and perhaps even supply to the Taliban."

In February, Gen. Nicholson also discussed Russian interactions with the Taliban, but he did not openly accuse Moscow of offering material assistance to the group.

"There is some classified reporting that I'd request to share with you in another venue," Nicholson told Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. "But we are concerned about, in general, support, and I'll just leave it at that."

In late January, the Russia's ambassador to Afghanistan, Alexander Mantytskiy, said that Moscow had started conducting outreach to the Taliban, but claimed it was "just political" support designed to counter the Islamic State presence in Nangahar Province. He told The Wall Street Journal that Russia was not offering "money or materiel" to the Taliban.

The US military reacted to this "just political" support from Moscow by decrying it as unacceptable.

"This narrative that they promote is that the Taliban are fighting the Islamic State, and the Afghan government is not fighting the Islamic State," Nicholson said in February. "This is a false narrative. The Afghan government along with US counterterrorism forces are successfully fighting against Islamic State in Afghanistan."

Nicholson had also said that Russian officials "have begun to publicly legitimize the Taliban."

On Monday, the general described Russian support as having a far more tangible negative impact, linking Moscow to a recent deadly attack.

"Arming belligerents or legitimizing belligerents who perpetrate attacks like we saw two days ago in Mazar-i-Shariff is not the best way forward to a peaceful reconciliation," Nicholson said. The attack, on an Afghan military base, reportedly killed at least 140 Afghan soldiers.

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Private Prison and Border Security Contractors Lobby Congress Over Trump's Border Wall

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 21:00

Congress is facing the prospect of a government shutdown over Trump's demand for funding to start construction of a wall on the southern border. Lobbyists for private prison and border security companies have swarmed Capitol Hill as Trump initiated an immigration crackdown and called for billions more in enforcement spending.

The border fence between USA and Mexico, seen from the Mexican side, where Mexico, New Mexico and Texas meet. (Photo: dawn paley / Flickr)

Lobbyists for federal contractors that provide border security and run private prisons have been busy since Trump initiated a brutal immigration crackdown and demanded that Congress provide funding for his wall on the southern border, a proposal that is currently threatening to send the government off a fiscal cliff.

Consider GEO Group, a private prison company that runs jails for immigrants facing deportation. The company spent $350,000 on lobbying during the first quarter of 2017, more than it has ever spent over the same time frame, according to a Truthout review of lobbying records provided by the research organization MapLight. Federal filings show that a subsidiary of GEO Group also donated $250,000 to President Trump's inaugural festivities and another $225,000 to a super PAC that supported his election.

Ethics watchdog groups have complained that the super PAC donation violates a federal law preventing government contractors from making political donations, but it may have paid off for GEO Group, which won a $110 million contract to build a 1,000-bed immigration jail in Texas earlier this month. The contract was awarded despite an ongoing class action lawsuit filed in 2014 alleging that immigrants were forced to work in slave-labor conditions at a GEO Group facility in Colorado.

In federal filings, GEO Group named "homeland security" and "immigration" among the main issues its lobbyists discussed with lawmakers. The increase in lobbying comes as Trump pushes Congress to allocate $1.4 billion for the initial construction of the border wall and add $4.5 billion to the already-massive budget for immigration enforcement, including $1.5 billion to expand the nation's vast network of immigration jails.

In a series of public appearances and tweets from the president over the weekend, White House officials doubled down on their demands that Congress tack on funding for the border wall to a spending bill that must be passed by the end of the week to avoid a government shutdown.

Like private prison companies, federal contractors involved in border security are also spending big. Raytheon, a major military contractor that has reportedly shown interest in building Trump's border wall, spent nearly $1.5 million on lobbying in the first quarter of 2017, more than it spent in any quarter last year.

Science Applications International Corporation, a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) contractor, has spent $380,000 on lobbying this year, listing "cybersecurity and the SW border wall" as a key issue in its lobbying files. Even the US Chamber of Commerce, a sprawling lobbying group that represents all types of industries in Congress, named "border security," hiring more immigration officers and other immigration issues in its most recent lobbying records.

The cost of the border wall alone is expected to reach as high as $21.6 billion, according to an internal DHS report obtained by Reuters, although Trump's estimates are lower. In a tweet on Saturday, Trump repeated statements that Mexico would "eventually" pay for his border wall, even though the country's leaders have denied this claim several times.

Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have said that they want to avoid a government shutdown and pass a "clean" budget bill without special funding for the border wall. Even conservative lawmakers from southwestern states are opposed to building the wall.

Still, the White House has not backed down, and the marked increase in lobbying by powerful federal contractors shows that Trump is not the only one that lawmakers are hearing from on the issue. These lobbyists are weighing in at this high-pressure time because they know from experience that you have to spend money to make money on Capitol Hill. From 2011 to 2015, the top five DHS contractors spent $107.6 million on lobbying and received a combined $9 billion in federal contracts, according to MapLight.

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Fighting Kentucky's Policy of Lifetime Disenfranchisement

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 21:00

Mantell Stevens is an activist, organizer, speaker, and lobbyist with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a grassroots social justice organization working on a number of issues, including ending Kentucky's policy of lifetime disenfranchisement. 

Kentucky is one of only three states that continue to impose lifetime disenfranchisement, permanently barring citizens from the ballot box as a consequence for any felony conviction.

We spoke with Stevens about his work, his life, and how they have come to influence each other. Our conversation appears below, edited to account for space constraints.

Erin Kelley: Could you tell us a bit about yourself, and how you became involved with efforts to restore voting rights?

Mantell Stevens: I'm 38 and I was born and raised in Lexington, Kentucky. Around the time that I was between 18 and 20 years old, I got involved with selling drugs and got my first felony. I didn't really know the consequences at the time. Yes, I was an adult, and I knew right from wrong. But as far as long-term consequences, I wasn't aware -- and my public defender didn't advise me of all of my options -- so I pleaded to the felony charge. And, in a lot of ways, I was blindsided by that felony.

In the last couple of years, it's been a struggle looking for employment, going to school, and getting grants and scholarships to go to school. Life is hard for convicted felons. I can name ten people off the top of my head who are in the same situation. We have past felony convictions that are so old -- these convictions happened when we were kids. Basically, my current situation is living in poverty because I don't have same the resources available to me as people who haven't been convicted of a felony.

About twenty years after I was out of the system, I decided to participate in a reentry program because I needed to find a job. It was frustrating to have to go through that process, because I had all of the skills and knowledge that I needed to get a job -- I just needed that resource to help me actually find one. Through that program, I met Tayna Fogle, who had a program with the prospect for a really good job, in exchange for people attending a county council meeting about a resolution for the restoration of rights. And basically, once I went to that meeting and they passed the resolution, that's when the lightbulb went off. It just hit me that I needed to be somehow involved in this process, because there were a lot of people at that meeting who were standing up and fighting for my right to vote. And immediately I just kind of felt obligated to get involved. That's how I linked up with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.

Now, even though life is a little hectic, I take every opportunity I can to share my story and bring awareness about the importance of the restoration of voting rights. It's something I'm really passionate about doing, because it's so important.

Why is the right to vote important to you?

Right now, Kentucky's process for voting rights restoration requires a lengthy application. As I said, life for a convicted felon can be hectic, and the current process is very discouraging. On top of trying to make a decent living, and basically just survive -- people have to navigate this process that's not clear. It's a deterrent. There's no centralized repository for information about the application process -- there's no number that you can call to get all of the information that you need.

Now, everybody has problems -- convicted felon or not -- but it's just so much harder for a convicted felon because you're already at a disadvantage. And it can be almost a feeling of hopelessness, and through that it takes a certain type of person to be able to say 'no matter what I'm going through in life right now -- I need to participate in our democracy.'

But participating in democracy is so important, because outside of the national election and the presidency, we're talking about things that happen in your neighborhood, things that you need to be a part of, things that you need to have a say about.

In November 2015, then-Gov. Steve Beshear issued an executive order restoring voting rights to Kentuckians who had fully completed sentences for past criminal convictions. What was your reaction when you heard that news?

First and foremost, that was awesome that he did that. It just re-energized me and demonstrated that people really do care about voting rights restoration. And it wasn't just about having the right to vote, but also the empowerment that came along with that. It's really hard to describe the feeling -- but it was almost like acceptance. People always say, 'you do the crime; you do the time; you pay your dues to society.' But that has never been true, in my experience. But at least in that moment, it was a feeling of acceptance -- it was society saying 'you made a mistake, you paid for it -- and now you can be just like everybody else: you can participate.'

But less than a month later, in December 2015, Gov. Matt Bevin took office and rescinded Beshear's rights restoration executive order. What is your take on that?

Why would somebody not want to make the voting rights restoration process easier? It infuriated me. It's basically saying there's a whole class of people who we want to prevent from participating. We need to progress, we need to move on -- everybody needs the right to vote and to be able to participate in our elections.

How do you see the issue of rights restoration fitting in with our society's treatment of people with past convictions, generally?

The resistance to restoring voting rights lets me know that we're a threat. There have been recent reforms in Kentucky, including Bevin's 'ban the box' order and the Senate's criminal justice reform legislation, but the voting rights issue is stagnant. It lets me know that some people are in fear of the power that we could have once we have the right to vote.

While other aspects of criminal justice reform are taking a step in the right direction, Bevin has moved backwards on voting rights. I don't understand it. It's as if people who have past convictions -- we're finally being accepted, except for the main and most fundamental part of being a citizen -- which is the right to vote.

What strategies are most useful in advocacy efforts around voting rights restoration?

The most useful strategy is definitely getting eligible people registered and to the polls, as well as motivating and pushing former felons to at least get started in the current rights restoration application process.

For me, after filing paperwork for restoration under Beshear's rules, I still haven't applied again under Bevin's application. To be honest, I got discouraged. Life started happening, and I have to take time out to actually do that application. And when you do take the time out to do that -- and you try to get the information you need, you get into a loop. One person won't know what they're talking about -- and so they direct you to another department, and on and on. There needs to be a push to get people educated about this process and to motivate them to go ahead and apply. Because the first thing that the Governor does when rights restoration is brought up is claim that nobody is applying, so nobody wants to vote. And I think that's an argument used by the majority of people who are opposed to the restoration of voting rights -- they claim that there's a current process, but nobody's moving forward on it, so they must not want to vote that badly. But that is not the truth.

What do you see as the most challenging aspect of the advocacy efforts to change Kentucky's disenfranchisement policy?

The most challenging aspect is actually convincing current legislators. At least from my experience, when I go and talk to them personally, they already have a preset notion. Basically, there's that little story that 'you knew what you were doing when you did the crime, so you got what you deserved.' That's what I hear from a lot of people who oppose voting rights restoration. So the work is to change that attitude, and convince them that people change -- and people change for the better.

To do that, I make it rhetorical and shoot it back at them. Everyone has screwed up in life -- everyone has done something they're not supposed to do. That doesn't make you a bad person. And so my attempt is to make people look in the mirror and realize that we're all people and everybody makes mistakes. We have to move on, we have to progress. We're just asking for the right to vote. How can that be dangerous? It's the right to vote and it's the right thing to do. That's what our country is built on. I don't understand why anybody would say, 'you can be a citizen and you can pay taxes, but you can't participate in democracy.'

How do you keep yourself engaged, despite setbacks?

It's hard -- I mean, oh my God, it's just so hard. Sometimes I think, 'wow, do I really have time to dedicate today?' And I remember that, yes, I do -- because it's important. And I think about the younger generation. We have to get the ball rolling, because even if reform is not going to happen anytime soon, it needs to happen at some point. Nothing will get accomplished if I idly sit by, and don't do anything to be a part of the push to make this change. I don't have any kids, but I have nieces and nephews -- and I want them to live in a world where they have the freedom to choose their school officials, their city council members, their police commissioners -- the people who have the power to change things in their community. If there's stuff going on in your community, in your neighborhood, that you don't like, then you need to be able to choose the people that have the power to change that -- to vote for those people and put them in office.

In what ways can people both in and out of the state support your work?

Definitely -- for the people that live in Kentucky, exercise their right to vote. And my responsibility is to educate people on the importance of state and local elections. There needs to be more education, because when I connect the dots for somebody as far as local and state government, they realize they really do care about this stuff -- they say 'my kid goes to school, so yeah, I do need to be voting for this person.' And that's what I see happening a lot -- that's when a lot of people's lightbulb goes off -- is when they find that connection and they see that voting is important because it affects what's around them.

For people who don't live in Kentucky, their role is putting pressure on legislators -- to take a stand that this is the right thing to do. On a federal level, we should be saying 'once you have done your time, you need to be redeemed.' That's what I would like to see on a national level -- more awareness. Why anybody would want to suppress somebody's right to vote, maybe it's not meant for me to understand -- but people just need to do the right thing.

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Clean Water Is a Basic Human Right, and We Can and Should Make It Affordable to Everyone

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 21:00

Ask someone in Flint, Michigan, or São Paolo, Brazil -- the list of cities rocked by water disasters seems to grow each day -- how much safe clean water is worth. Worried about contamination and drought, it might be a pretty penny. But the ability of people to actually pay for the full cost of water -- from protecting it at its source to getting it to flow from the tap -- depends, as it does with anything for sale, on income. And yet water isn't simply a commodity; it's necessary for life, so the ethics and practicalities of how society pays for clean water quickly become tricky. The truth is that our growing income inequality means growing thirst and disease.

Treating and delivering water and sanitizing effluent is not cheap, and the cost of providing safe drinking water continues to climb, fueled dramatically by crumbling infrastructure, unpredictable weather and the need to reach deeper into watersheds for safe water. Daily management and regulatory failures are also to blame. In Flint, a change of water sources caused lead to leach into drinking water. In Atlanta, where services had been privatized, quality spiraled downward, leading eventually to the city's decision to re-municipalize water services.

Meanwhile, in the US -- and all over the world -- public money for water services has been drying up. Policy-makers and water utility managers are increasingly reaching into constituents' and customers' wallets to cover increasing costs. While such a "full-cost recovery" philosophy seems to make sense in theory based on simple arithmetic -- a utility should recover all costs associated with operations -- and would seem to ensure fiscal discipline as it encourages conservation (i.e., when customers pay real water costs, they use less), the practice doesn't take into account the fact that the UN General Assembly has said affordable water is a human right. Countries such as Ecuador and South Africa have even enshrined the right in their constitutions -- although implementation has been spotty.

In the US, the reality is a long way from such humanitarian declarations. PBS reports that between 2010 and 2015, water bills rose by 41 percent in 30 US cities, and in 2014, water was too expensive for almost 12 percent of American households -- about 14 million. In Detroit, some families fear child protective agencies may remove kids from homes where shut-offs have occurred.

With water costs rising, inequality threatens water access for everyone. Current trends are leaving the poor to drift. What follows are some potential solutions to keeping water affordable and available to everyone.

Metering Education?

When thinking about water affordability, we could consider how we pay for public education.

The US seems to recognize the value for the common good of educating each of its citizens. We don't expect each public school to recover all costs per student from each family. Costs are generally spread across a town, state and national tax base in at least a somewhat progressive fashion; even people without children pay into the system.

Likewise, it should be well understood that accessible, clean water is a public good that translates into public health and reduced health care costs for all. Of course, unlike education, water consumption can be measured with a meter. But just because water use can be measured doesn't mean that each household should have to pay its water tab alone. We could follow the example of education and guarantee adequate water no matter the families' circumstance.

We have tools at our disposal to ease the financial burden. We can, for example, use cross-subsidies so rates of wealthier users can guarantee access for poorer consumers, issue municipal water stamps (akin to food stamps), put water pollution fines into an affordability fund, and pay for water source protection through the US Department of Agriculture budget. Cost-sharing possibilities -- some elaborated below -- are nearly endless. All could chip away at what low-income families would have to pay out of pocket. 

The Carrot and the Stick

The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization reports that globally 69 percent of water is used for agriculture, 19 percent for industry, and 12 percent for households and businesses. In the US, energy producers use just shy of 50 percent of our nation's water, followed by irrigators. Households use about 1 percent.

Watershed degradation hits all users hard, but it's water utilities that experience a disproportionate increase in treatment costs. It is they who put conservation programs in place and scramble to shore up an increasingly erratic water supply. While it's good news that water utilities are paying more attention to protecting source water and watersheds -- they're the ones ultimately in the hot seat for ensuring safe water -- it can't be their job alone, and it's unfair to their customers to carry all associated costs.

In one instance, seeking a solution to rising treatment costs, the Des Moines, Iowa, water utility unsuccessfully sued upstream farming counties for overloading streams with nitrates from fertilizers. While lawsuits constitute one approach, there are other ways forward that don't involve the courts. Perhaps the best known case of transforming conflict into cooperation -- and a pioneering example of payment for environmental services -- is New York City's win-win agreement with upstream farmers. In that case, to avoid building a US$6 billion treatment plant, the New York City water utility has invested in source water protection measures more than 100 miles (160 kilometers) away, such as on-farm improvements that divert cow manure from drinking water sources. A mix of carrots and sticks can stop pollution and finance watershed protection, and such measures can shave a portion off household water bills while conserving water. 

Federal Help? Maybe, but Try Cities and States

Since 1977, federal spending for water infrastructure has shrunk 82 percent per capita. Federal grants have diminished and largely been replaced by loans. State and local governments are hard-pressed to come up with funds to keep water systems in good repair. Loan interest adds to consumers' water bills.

It seems unlikely that President Trump will approve public dollars for public water utilities within his infrastructure plan, even though simple zero-interest loans for pipes and sewage plants could mean significant cost savings for utilities and their customers. Nevertheless, there is movement in Congress. A new water bill was recently introduced -- The Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity and Reliability (WATER) Act -- to make US$35 billion a year available for improved drinking water and sanitation.

States and cities may very well go broke making up for the hoped-for federal support, and yet, acutely aware of the consequences for their constituents if they don't act swiftly, many have shored up deficient water systems, issuing almost US$38 billion in municipal bonds for infrastructure projects related to water and sanitation in 2016. In 2014, California voters approved a US$7.5 billion water infrastructure bond. Paying back these bonds will certainly burden taxpayers, but depending on how bond repayments are structured, the costs can be spread broadly through state and municipal taxes and fees.

Vigorously Mix Water and Politics

Keeping water in the public eye is essential to solve our water issues. Standing Rock -- where protestors gained international attention for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe arguing an oil pipeline would jeopardize its drinking water -- is perhaps the best known recent case, but there are local efforts underway across the US to make sure that water quality isn't compromised by things such as pipelines and fracking. In cities across the country, citizens call for the need to keep water services public and affordable. When the League of Women Voters in Twin Peaks, California, holds a public forum on Nestlé's water extraction, public pressure in one place can inform strategies in another. Increasingly, water has become a topic that candidates running for office must address. 

Water War Truce

The much predicted water wars are no longer on some far-off horizon; they stare us square in the eye, raising questions about our moral fiber and the quality of our democracy. To whom will our diminishing supply of clean water flow? As we invest in our public water systems -- and we must -- let's remember to distribute costs equitably and not let rising water rates further exacerbate inequality. Resolving the water crisis on the backs of the poor is no solution at all. The hopeful progress being made in some states to raise the minimum wage will become diluted if income gains flow out in the next water bill. Sharing source water protection costs; capitalizing municipal, state and federal water infrastructure funds; and keeping water public and in the public eye are just a few of the many steps we can take to keep water affordable and inequality in check.

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"We Are Going to Shut It Down on May 1": Caravan Against Fear Mobilizes the Masses

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 21:00

It is incredibly important for all of the labor movement to be involved in this fight because the issues of racial justice, immigration and environmental justice are at the forefront of workers' lives every single day, says Alejandra Valles, secretary treasurer for SEIU United Services Workers West, which has organized the ongoing multistate Caravan Against Fear.

Hundreds gathered to protest LA County Sheriff McDonnell's opposition to California sanctuary bill SB54 and his collaboration with ICE. Eight members of the Caravan Against Fear were arrested by LAPD. (Photo: Caravan Against Fear)

Since election night 2016, the streets of the US have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this ongoing "Interviews for Resistance" series, experienced organizers, troublemakers and thinkers share their insights on what works, what doesn't, what has changed and what is still the same. Today's interview is the 32nd in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.

Today we bring you a conversation with Alejandra Valles, the secretary treasurer for SEIU United Services Workers West. The union represents janitors, security officers and airport workers across California.

Sarah Jaffe: You are one of the organizers of the Caravan Against Fear that is going on right now.

Alejandra Valles: The Caravan Against Fear was organized by SEIU USWW. Also, Global Exchange [and] Rompevieto TV in Mexico City. But then, also, over 230 organizations, binational organizations, that have come on board. The National Day Laborer Organizing Network is also one of the main organizers. We really decided we needed to figure out how to mobilize the masses and how to break through this paralysis of fear that the Trump administration has been strategically trying to implement across the country and the world.

Tell us about it. How has it been going so far? Where are you currently?

We are in Tucson, Arizona. Now I am sitting here at a refugee-owned Ethiopian restaurant, a small mom-and-pop [establishment] that had heard about the caravan and reached out and wanted to host a lunch for us. It is beautiful to get a warm meal on the road since we have been eating fast food and junk food. Believe it.

We stopped here and had some authentic Ethiopian food. The restaurant is refugee-owned, so that means so much to us that folks are learning about the caravan's mission and want to help in whatever way they can.... We are on the twelfth day, I believe. We have gone through all of California from Sacramento to Bakersfield, Modesto, Presto, San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Ana, and then we came to Arizona. We went to Phoenix and were received there. We also went to the Tohono O'odham Reservation at a mission that they have there to talk about their opposition to the wall in their sacred land. We are in Tucson, Arizona, protesting against Martha McSally who is the congresswoman who has been very anti-immigrant in her stance in congress.

How many more days do you have?

We are going all the way until May 1. We still have a little over a week and a half, almost two to go. We have been sleeping in churches. We have been sleeping on the floors. Anywhere that will open up their offices to us or their pews. We are on our way to Nogales where we will be greeting and meeting with a bunch of community folks there who will tell us about what it is like in Nogales for migrant workers and for the work that they are doing on immigration justice. Then, after that, we are going to go to Las Cruces tomorrow where we will be speaking on behalf of a sanctuary ordinance that the City of Las Cruces is thinking of trying to pass. The caravan really is lifting up resistance efforts across the country. How can we demand more from our local communities, our city councils, to stand up and to fight back against the Trump administration rhetoric of anti-immigrant polices and fear tactics?

I want to talk about May Day, but first I want to talk a little bit about your union and why it is important for your union to be involved in this fight.

I think it is incredibly important for all of the labor movement to be involved in this fight. We have seen a fight around issues of class and wages and benefits for workers, but the issues of racial justice of Black Lives Matter or immigration justice or environmental justice are really at the forefront of our members' lives every single day. Before they are a worker, they are an immigrant. Before they are a worker, they are a Black human being. Before they are a worker, they are a mom and dad and friend and a sister and a daughter. We just decided that we needed to take this on. The caravan itself is incredibly diverse. It is built of people, of African Americans who have been criminalized for decades and know what it is like to be discriminated against and killed and disproportionately impacted because of the color of their skin, but it is also built of a lot of immigrant women who also know what it is like to be marginalized and to be discriminated against and exploited because of their immigration status and because they don't speak English in this country.

We really felt strongly that we need to resist at every level. Our employers need to resist when ICE comes knocking at their doors. Our community needs to resist and rise up the way we have in other moments, like 2006. Our congressmen and assemblywomen and men have to resist, as well. We said, "We have to break through this paralysis of fear that Trump is using to try to keep us from doing anything and to try to keep us scared of our own shadows and living in this underground economy." But, at the same time, we have also seen him targeting people of color, starting to publish lists, and really criminalizing us in a lot of different ways.... We are telling all the community, we are telling young kids, "There is nothing wrong with us. We are hardworking people. We help make this economy work and we are going to stand up for our rights." And [we're] hoping that the rest of the country and the world will follow.

Your particular union has a history of being involved in immigrant workers rights and the 2006 Day Without An Immigrant. Right?

Our union has led the fight on Justice for Janitors back in the '80s and '90s when immigrants were beaten by the LAPD in Century City and also went out on a massive strike of almost 88,500 workers that shut down the City of Los Angeles. Our union has been fighting for immigration justice for decades, to bring workers out of the shadows and into unions themselves and the labor movement, embrace them and organize them and lift the standards for all workers.

At the same time, we have also been incredibly involved in looking at what is happening to Black workers, Black workers who at one point made up and had a large population in the City of Los Angeles and across California and also make up a large portion of a lot of the industry. We have seen a displacement of Black workers in our country and in California, specifically. We have been very involved in organizing Black security officers. Many of them who wear a uniform but live in poverty. We are fighting for Black worker justice and highlighting why it is that Black workers are disproportionately impacted and discriminated against at work, but then also in their own communities.

This caravan is really bringing our community together. It is travelling from California all the way to the southern border. We are going to drive all the way south to LA and we are going to participate in a national general strike as workers, as rank-and-file members who are saying, "We have everything to lose in this moment. Our economic and our human worth needs to be respected."

We need to stand up and make sure the whole world and that Donald Trump and his administration understand that we help make this economy work. We pick the fruits and vegetables that end up at our tables. We wash and clean the toilets of the richest buildings, many that Donald Trump himself owns. We guard and we protect our communities. We put on our uniforms as security officers to make sure some of his buildings and other buildings across the country are protected and also where we are first responders any time a natural disaster or emergencies happen. We contribute to this economy every single day. Donald Trump needs to respect our human worth. This administration needs to also respect our economic worth, as well. That is why we are going to shut it down on May 1.

Since the election of Donald Trump, the strike has really kicked up another notch in the public consciousness. There was a lot of debate around the Women's Strike about whether it was privileged to take a day off from work. I would love to hear you talk about why it is important for the least privileged workers in our economy to actually use the strike as a weapon.

The Women's March was an incredible inspiration. It was the largest mobilization that we have had in the history of our country. I think that is the way we make change in this country, in this world. It's when people who are not necessarily impacted the same way as marginalized communities, when those people are standing up, they are taking risks, and they are helping to lead that charge. Martin Luther King said that loud and clear -- when you have white allies, you have interfaith allies that join the front lines -- that is when you [start] to really make a difference. I think that all the groups that are trying to do their best to resist in this moment are putting their little grain in the sand and inspiring us.

But, I also do believe that amongst us, even myself, I am a US citizen. My parents were undocumented. But, all of us need to take a look at our own privilege and figure out how we, as human beings, help lift up somebody who is not as privileged, who is marginalized and who is more vulnerable and disproportionately impacted either by their status or because they are women of color or people of color. I believe that this is the moment. I am hopeful and inspired by what I have seen so far. I really do believe that all of what we have been doing is preparing us for May 1. I think a lot of those efforts have been building toward this major escalation and then, it doesn't end on May 1. We are going to have to continue. I feel very hopeful about it and I think that anything any of us can do, [we should] but always constantly reminding ourselves that we do have that responsibility to carry others on our shoulders and create real spaces for them to lead and to come around their struggles and build solidarity; that's the way that we will defeat the racism and the hate of the Donald Trump administration.

Tell us what May Day is going to look like in Los Angeles.

May Day is going to be incredible in Los Angeles. We are expecting thousands of people. There are estimates right now that there is going to be probably more than there were at the Women's March. It is on a Monday, so we have been talking to businesses. You can see our posters up all over the Fashion District, all over Highland Park, that say "Somos El Pueblo. Shut It Down May 1st" "Somos El Pueblo. Huelga May 1." They are beautiful posters that Ernesto Yerena, who trained with Shepard Fairey, who also did "We the Resilient" for the Women's March, has really added that element of art and culture to this movement.

I really do believe that it is going to be lively. I think it is going to be full of arts and culture and this amazing heartbeat of sacrifice, of people of color, of white allies, of women: A Day Without An Immigrant. We are also working with some musicians who want to come and to perform. But, we are literally calling for [everyone] to shut down your business, to walk out of school, to come out with your family members to march with us. There is going to be a local march, lots of them. It's not just Los Angeles -- it's San Francisco, Oakland, San Diego, Santa Ana, Orange County.

We really do believe that this is going to send a strong message to the administration, but also to the country that we are in a moment of crisis. What we are seeing right now is a lot of our rights being violated ... May 1 and the caravan, all of it is preventative. It is to get to the point where we don't have a catastrophe where we open up a Pandora's Box of constitutional rights that are being violated left and right. But that is, unfortunately, what we are seeing with this Donald Trump administration. Everything from the ban and the raids and the deportations of people, the persecution by law enforcement of our immigrant communities when they pull them over and pressure them and use those pressure tactics to get them to sign away their temporary protected status or the only status that they have, and they immediately give up their right to due process. The assaults that we are seeing on women at detention centers and the losses of that -- we are experiencing a humanitarian crisis right now and it is Pandora's Box if we let this happen because it means that all of our constitutional rights are at stake.

Anything else people should know about Caravan or May Day or the work that you are doing?

Just that we really urge people to get involved, to get more information at CaravanAgainstFear.org. You can follow the caravan [on Facebook and Twitter and see] everything we are doing: saying "no" to the persecution of immigrants, saying "no" to deportations and the separation of families, saying "no" to the [wall], saying "yes" to resistance efforts, and shutting it down and going out on May 1. You can find all of that on CaravanAgainstFear.org. We will take it to the streets in the same way that we did in 2006. Si se puede.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.  

Grassroots journalism relies on support from people like you. If you value what you just read, make a tax-deductible donation to Truthout!

Categories: Latest News

Hollow Privacy Promises From Major Internet Service Providers

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 07:46

It's no surprise that Americans were unhappy to lose online privacy protections earlier this month. Across party lines, voters overwhelmingly oppose the measure to repeal the FCC's privacy rules for Internet providers that Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed into law.

But it should come as a surprise that Republicans -- including the Republican leaders of the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission -- are ardently defending the move and dismissing the tens of thousands who spoke up and told policymakers that they want protections against privacy invasions by their Internet providers.

Since the measure was signed into law, Internet providers and the Republicans who helped them accomplish this lobbying feat have decried the "hysteria," "hyperbole," and "hyperventilating" of constituents who want to be protected from the likes of Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T. Instead they've claimed that the repeal doesn't change the online privacy landscape and that we should feel confident that Internet providers remain committed to protecting their customers' privacy because they told us they would despite the law.

We've repeatedly debunked the tired talking points of the cable and telephone lobby: There is a unique, intimate relationship and power imbalance between Internet providers and their customers. The FTC likely cannot currently police Internet providers (unless Congress steps in, which the White House said it isn't pushing for at this time). Congress' repeal of the FCC's privacy rules does throw the FCC's authority over Internet providers into doubt. The now-repealed rules -- which were set to go into effect later this year -- were a valuable expansion and necessary codification of existing privacy rights granted under the law. Internet providers have already shown us the creepy things they're willing to do to increase their profits.

The massive backlash shows that consumers saw through those industry talking points, even if Republicans in Congress and the White House fell for them.

Now that policymakers have effectively handed off online privacy enforcement to the Internet providers themselves, advocates for the repeal are pointing to the Internet providers' privacy policies.

"Internet service providers have never planned to sell your individual browsing history to third parties," FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and FTC acting Chairwoman Maureen Ohlhausen wrote in a recent op-ed. "That's simply not how online advertising works. And doing so would violate ISPs' privacy promises."

Aside from pushing back on oversimplification of the problem at hand, we should be asking: What exactly are the "privacy promises" that ISPs are making to their customers?

In blog posts and public statements since the rules were repealed, the major Internet providers and the trade groups that represent them have all pledged to continue protecting customers' sensitive data and not to sell customers' individual Internet browsing records.  But how they go about defining those terms and utilizing our private information is still going to leave people upset. These statements should also be read with the understanding that existing law already allows the collection of individual browsing history.

Comcast said it won't sell individual browsing histories and it won't share customers' "sensitive information (such as banking, children's, and health information), unless we first obtain their affirmative, opt-in consent." It also said it will offer an opt-out "if a customer does not want us to use other, non-sensitive data to send them targeted ads." We think leaving browsing history out of the list of information Comcast considers sensitive was no accident. In other words, we don't think Comcast considers your browsing history sensitive, and will only offer you an opt-out of using your browsing history to send you targeted ads. There's no mention of any opt-out of any other sharing of your browsing history, such as on an aggregated basis with third parties. While we applaud Comcast's clever use of language to make it seem like they're protecting their customers' privacy, reading between the lines shows that Comcast is giving itself leeway to do the opposite.

Verizon similarly pledged not to sell customers' "personal web browsing history" (emphasis ours) and described its advertising programs that give advertisers access to customers based on aggregated and de-identified information about what customers do online. By our reading, this means Verizon still plans to collect your browsing history and store it -- they just won't sell it individually.

AT&T pointed to its privacy policies, which carve out specific protections for "personal information … such as your name, address, phone number and e-mail address" but explicitly state that it does deliver ads "based on the websites visited by people who are not personally identified." So just like Verizon, we think this means AT&T is collecting your browsing history and storing it -- they're just not attaching your name to it and selling it to third parties on an individualized basis.

In a filing to the FCC earlier this year, CTIA -- which represents the major wireless ISPs -- argued that "web browsing and app usage history are not 'sensitive information'" and said that ISPs should be able to share those records by default, unless a customer asks them not to.

The common thread here is that Internet providers don't consider records about what you do online to be worthy of the heightened privacy protections they afford to things like your social security number. Internet providers think that our web browsing histories are theirs to profit off of -- not ours to protect as we see fit. And because Congress changed the law, they are now free to change their minds about the promises they make without the same legal ramifications.

These "privacy promises" are in no way a replacement for robust privacy protections enforced by a federal agency. If Internet providers want to get serious about proving their commitment to their customers' privacy in the absence of federal rules, they should pledge not to collect or sell or share or otherwise use information about the websites we visit and the apps we use, except for what they need to collect and share in order to provide the service their customers are actually paying for: Internet access.

That would be a real privacy promise.

Any and all original material on the EFF website may be freely distributed at will under the Creative Commons Attribution License, unless otherwise noted. All material that is not original to EFF may require permission from the copyright holder to redistribute.

Categories: Latest News

Taxcast: The Panama Papers, One Year On

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 06:51

In our April 2017 Taxcast: the Panama Papers, one year on -- we talk to the journalists who got the scoop. Plus: we discuss the raid on Credit Suisse, and new data exposing the profit shifting shennanigans of the EU's biggest banks.

Featuring: The Panama Papers scoop journalists and Pulitzer Prize winners Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier of the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, and John Christensen of the Tax Justice Network. Produced and presented by Naomi Fowler for the Tax Justice Network. The book The Panama Papers: Breaking the Story of How the Rich and Powerful Hide Their Money is here.

"We think the Panama Papers have changed the political landscape but there's still plenty of work out there for us, still hundreds of cases of criminal behaviour to be uncovered, so much wrongdoing needs to become public so voters can push their politicians for change."—Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier

You can download and listen to this month's Taxcast anytime by right clicking 'save link as' here.

Want more Taxcasts? The full playlist is here.

Categories: Latest News

Appetite for Obstruction

Sun, 04/23/2017 - 21:00
Categories: Latest News

Richard Wolff on Public Debt, Printing Money and How Governments Pay for Wars

Sun, 04/23/2017 - 21:00

In this educational video Richard Wolff, a University of Massachusetts professor of economics emeritus, Marxist economist and founder of Democracy at Work, defines public debt and explains the process of printing money. Professor Wolff also talks about the role that corporate banks play in this system as well as how politicians exploit the mechanism of money printing in order to garner political capital or justify going to wars.

To view the educational playlist with Richard D. Wolff, click here.

Categories: Latest News

Hundreds of Thousands Take to the Streets Worldwide for the Global March for Science

Sun, 04/23/2017 - 21:00

On Saturday, hundreds of thousands of scientists and science supporters took to the streets around the world in a global March for Science on Earth Day. More than 600 marches and rallies took place, with one on every continent, including on Antarctica. Massive marches occurred from coast to coast in the United States, including at a massive rally in Washington, DC. Among those who took to the stage were Bill Nye, "The Science Guy"; Earth Day founder Denis Hayes; former EPA environmental justice official Mustafa Ali, who resigned after Trump took office; Sam Droege of the US Geological Survey; and James Balog, of the Extreme Ice Survey, which is documenting the rapid retreat of glaciers due to climate change.

Please check back later for full transcript.

Categories: Latest News

PhRMA Shows Biggest Spike in Lobbying Spending in First Quarter of President Trump

Sun, 04/23/2017 - 21:00

With President Trump's 100th day looming, he's struggled to check off some of the big initiatives on his to-do list, such as getting rid of Obamacare and overhauling the tax code. These hefty projects invite companies and other groups with something at stake to frantically lobby the government, hoping the legislation can turn in their favor.

Eight high-rollers stayed in the top 10 spenders list from last year, with some jostling among the ranks. In addition, AT&T and Novartis joined the top spenders, after being No. 11 and 22, respectively. The US Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Realtors predictably stayed at Nos. 1 and 2, with the business federation spending $24.8 million, almost $2 million more than in the same quarter of 2016, and NAR at $10.2 million, about $2 million less than the first quarter in 2016. (NAR uses a filing method that includes its local and state lobbying, which is part of why it always ranks so high.)

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the drug companies' trade group, showed the highest leap in spending by far, jumping 34.9 percent to $8.1 million from just under $6 million in the first three months of 2016. That catapulted the trade group from No. 5 a year ago to No. 3 now — and it was the biggest-spending quarter for the organization since the start of quarterly reporting in 2008.

A PhRMA spokesperson declined to discuss the surge in the group's efforts. But after drugmakers came under harsh criticism from GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump (who said they were "getting away with murder") as well as many in Congress in 2016 for its pricing policies, the trade group in January began spending tens of millions of dollars in a "Go Boldly" television ad campaign touting industry breakthroughs in science and indicated it would mount an extensive lobbying campaign. Its new lobbying report indicates it weighed in on a wide range of issues, including provisions dealing with intellectual property, reimportation, the drug approval process, nominations to lead the Department of Health and Human Services and the Food and Drug Administration, opioid abuse and more. It also showed that PhRMA had hired six new lobbyists, though several others are gone.

Once in office, Trump met with CEOs of major drug firms, as well as the CEO and six board members of PhRMA. In a statement after the meeting, CEO Stephen Ubl wrote "We need to reform existing laws and regulations that are currently preventing private companies from negotiating better deals and paying for medicines based on the value they provide to patients and our health care system."

PhRMA, the American Medical Association and Blue Cross/Blue Shield seem to historically compete for spots three through five, and this quarter was no different, with all three focusing resources on the Obamacare overhaul, among other topics.

The American Medical Association rejected Congress's attempt to replace the Affordable Care Act, stating the changes to Medicaid would threaten coverage and make it difficult for states to act nimbly. "And critically, we urge you to do all that is possible to ensure that those who are currently covered do not become uninsured," wrote James Madara, the CEO of the trade group, to Congress.

Health insurance group Blue Cross also wrote to lawmakers in March that the proposed repeal-and-replace Obamacare bill could lead to huge losses in coverage by reworking Medicaid from an open-ended entitlement program, and asked to drop the "premium surcharge" for those who let their insurance lapse.

Dow Chemical increased its first quarter spending by 9.3 percent, investing $450,000 more in the first three months of 2017 than the previous year. Some of that may due to trade association dues related to lobbying, which must be reported.

But Dow has made itself heard on policy issues in recent weeks: The chemical company sent letters to three federal agencies asking the Trump administration to ignore government studies that found a family of pesticides made by Dow are harmful to critically threatened species, saying the studies are flawed. That appeal came after EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt rejected a petition asking the agency to ban all uses of Dow's chlorpyrifos pesticide, one of those critiqued in the studies. Dow also listed lobbying on its proposed $130 billion merger with DuPont, one of the world's largest chemical companies, which faces regulatory hurdles. The possible union, announced at the end of 2015, is due to encounter close scrutiny, and a little lobbying on mergers never hurts.

And Dow is working hard on being cozy with the new administration: The company gave $1 million to help fund Trump's inauguration, and its CEO Andrew Liveris leads a manufacturing working group in the White House. (Liveris also got the pen Trump used to sign an executive order that looked to cut back government regs.)

Surprisingly, some of the biggest stakeholders in a controversial congressional resolution that Trump signed didn't expend more this quarter than the equivalent period last year. SJR 34 blocked a Federal Communications Commission rule that intended to ban Internet service providers from selling consumer data (like your browsing history and even sensitive info) to others. Trump overturned the rule, which had not yet taken effect, using the Congressional Review Act, which also blocks other rules on internet privacy from being issued. (Here's more detail on how this came to be and where industry money went to those who voted for the resolution.)

ISPs such as AT&TComcast and Verizon clearly had skin in the game, but that wasn't evident from the spending shown in their lobbying reports. AT&T (always a top lobbying spender and No. 8 in the first quarter) only spent $100,000 more in 2017's first three months compared to the same timeframe in 2016. (Though AT&T ranked No. 11 last year this quarter, so the company did increase among the ranks.) Comcast saw no change, and Verizon actually decreased its spending, from $3.6 million to $2.9 million. All three of the companies in various ways listed internet privacy as a topic of concern.

For more on how these persuasive powerhouses have shifted their spending over the years, check out our chart below:

Senior researcher Dan Auble contributed to this report.

Categories: Latest News

The Trumps' Conflict of Interest Issues

Sun, 04/23/2017 - 21:00

Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner attend a state dinner with President Xi Jinping of China and his wife at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, April 6, 2017. (Photo: Doug Mills / The New York Times)

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Ivanka Trump recently gave an interview to CBS television in which she attempted to answer concerns about her role as an official adviser to her father, President Donald Trump, and potential conflicts of interest from her fashion business.

She suggested that such concerns were unwarranted, as she would no longer manage the company which had been placed into a trust, run by her sister-in-law and brother-in-law. Like her father, she has declined to sell off her assets, saying that would not be fair when the company (like his) bears her name.

Her responses do little to allay growing criticism about conflicts of interest as they pertain to both her and her husband Jared Kushner, and her father. A majority of Americans have said they are "somewhat" or "very" concerned about Donald Trump's conflicts of interests.

I've researched and written about conflicts of interest for 20 years. Conflict of interest issues are not new in America. The fear and reality that government officials may be unduly swayed by their personal interests has existed since Colonial-era customs officials took bribes to reduce penalties for smuggling.

From my perspective Trump's conflicts of interest are unprecedented in scope. But conflict of interest laws are often not cut and dried. They involve interpretation by lawyers within the Justice Department and judges, who can give a stamp of legitimacy (or illegitimacy) to presidential practices.

What's at Stake?

Among the Trump Organization's holdings are 16 hotels, 17 golf courses, a modeling agency, a production agency and at least 25 residential real estate properties (a minimum of 17 domestically and eight overseas). His over 500 companies have dealings in 25 countries including India, Panama, Scotland and the Philippines.

That's not all: Trump leases his DC hotel from the federal government and appoints the head of the agency that monitors his lease. Trump also owes millions in loans, including over US $300 million in loans to Deutsche Bank, which is under investigation by the federal government. He also owes money to at least seven other banks for his heavily mortgaged properties; one of his real estate partnerships has a loan from the state-owned Bank of China.

What Does the Law Say?

Trump raised eyebrows when he said shortly after he was elected, "The law's totally on my side, meaning, the president can't have a conflict of interest."

Legally speaking, though, he has a good case, with regard to several key statutes.

The basic criminal conflict of interest statute, enacted in 1962, forbids federal executive branch employees from participating in government matters in which they -- or their immediate family members -- have a financial interest.

But the president and vice president have been considered exempt since 1974, when Congress requested an opinion from the Justice Department on whether the law applied to Nelson Rockefeller. Rockefeller was the scion of a wealthy business family whom Gerald Ford had selected as vice president after he became the president, following the resignation of Richard Nixon. The DOJ was asked if a vice president could have any financial interest in a company that contracted with the US government.

The DOJ responded in a letter that the statute didn't apply to either the vice president or the president. The letter pointed to the "uniqueness of the president's situation" and argued that it would be unconstitutional to apply the law to the president, since it could constrain him to the point that he would be unable to perform constitutionally prescribed duties.

Subsequent statutes such as the 1978 Ethics in Government Act and 1989 Ethics Reform Act reinforced this argument. A 2016 report by the Congressional Research Service further reiterated it.

Members of Congress are subject to some stricter conflict of interest regulations. For example, according to the 1989 Ethics Reform Act, they must adhere to an outside earned income limit equal to 15 percent of their official salary. They are also subject to "revolving door" limits that restrict them from lobbying or working for foreign governments for a year after leaving office. The president is required only to make public any conflict of interest issues.

Accepting Gifts From Foreign Powers

What about foreign governments, or companies controlled by foreign governments, that do business with the Trump hotels?

The Emoluments Clause of the Constitution says that no person holding a federal office of profit or trust shall accept any "present, emolument, (or) office… from any king, prince, or foreign state."

Even though the president clearly holds an office of "trust," the clause does not name the president specifically, unlike other clauses in the Constitution. Opinions are divided on the issue.

One study argued that it would be inconceivable for a clause aimed at limiting influence by foreign governments not to apply to the president. According to this analysis, a member of the Constitutional Convention, who later became a member of George Washington's Cabinet, specifically mentioned "the danger… of the president receiving emoluments from foreign powers."

However, another historical analysis reached the opposite conclusion, pointing to President George Washington accepting gifts from the French ambassador after he became president. Since Washington was not criticized at the time for this action, according to this author, the understanding of the president and the broader public was that this clause did not apply to the president.

The researcher also argued that if the president was intended to be included, he would have been specified by name, as he is in the impeachment clause.

Either way, the Supreme Court has not ruled on whether the Emoluments Clause applies to the president.

Blind Trusts and Previous Presidents

Just because something is legal, however, doesn't mean it is good.

Presidents are not required by any law to place their assets in blind trusts (just as they are not required to disclose their tax returns). But before Trump, starting with Lyndon B. Johnson, most presidents voluntarily placed their assets in blind trusts. This meant that any investments (but not cash or personal real estate) were managed by an independent entity, without the beneficiary knowing what they were.

The exceptions were President Obama and President Nixon. Nixon liquidated his limited assets and bought two houses. Obama chose not to place his assets in a blind trust, saying his family's money was mostly invested in US treasury bonds and other funds unlikely to cause a conflict.

While Trump has put his assets in a trust, the trustees are not truly independent. His two eldest sons are managing the assets of the Trump Organization, which remain known to him and of which he maintains ownership.

Since it is highly doubtful that Trump will give in to pressure to liquidate his assets, potential conflicts will remain, indeed abound.

Who Will Monitor the President's Conduct?

The Office of Government Ethics isn't of much use in policing the president. One study shows that OGE is a weak and ineffective agency.

It has a small staff of about 80 full-time people and a budget of $15 million. Furthermore, the director is nominated by the president.

Its main authority is overseeing financial disclosure for legislative, judicial and executive branch officials, including the president. But the disclosure reporting categories are very broad and not very informative. Civil or criminal charges for false disclosure can be filed only by the presidentially appointed attorney general. There is a $50,000 maximum fine for false filing, but that is not much of a deterrent for very wealthy individuals.

Oversight of the president's ethics could come mainly through two channels: Congress and the media. Congress has the power to impeach the president, by a simple majority vote of the house and a two-thirds vote of the Senate.

Congressional committees can conduct hearings to investigate presidential and executive branch activities, as with the current House Intelligence Committee's hearing into Trump's claim that Obama wiretapped him.

Creation of an independent commission, such as the one that investigated the US administration's preparedness for the 9/11 attacks, will require that Congress and the president sign off on such a commission.

The DOJ could also investigate and prosecute criminal violations by the president. The Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that the judiciary could review the legality of the president's actions, both in his capacity as a private citizen and in his official role. But the attorney general has discretion over whether to pursue violations of federal criminal law.

The decisions by the president and his daughter not to create truly blind trusts mean that concern over potential conflicts of interest will likely persist. Many other questions, such as those about the fitness of Trump's daughter and son-in-law as top advisers, are also unlikely to disappear.

Simply asking the American people to trust the president, his three eldest children and his son-in-law to do the right thing may not be satisfactory for many Americans.

Categories: Latest News

Trump Is a Chameleon President and His Latest Shade Is War

Sun, 04/23/2017 - 21:00

US Army soldiers conduct a security halt during a foot patrol at the 7th Army Training Command's Grafenwoehr Training Area, Germany, January 28, 2017. (Photo: The US Army)

MOAB sounds more like a war-torn biblical kingdom than the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast, aka "the mother of all bombs." Still, give Donald Trump credit. Only the really, really big bombs, whether North Korean nukes or those 21,600 pounds of MOAB, truly get his attention. He wasn't even involved in the decision to drop the largest non-nuclear bomb in the US arsenal for the first time in war, but his beloved generals -- "we have the best military people on Earth" -- already know the man they work for, and the bigger, flashier, more explosive, and winninger, the better.

It was undoubtedly the awesome look of that first MOAB going off in grainy black and white on Fox News, rather than in Afghanistan, that appealed to the president. Just as he was visibly thrilled by all those picturesque Tomahawk cruise missiles, the equivalent of nearly three MOABS, whooshing from the decks of US destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean and heading, like so many fabulous fireworks, toward a Syrian airfield -- or was it actually an Iraqi one? "We've just fired 59 missiles," he said, "all of which hit, by the way, unbelievable, from, you know, hundreds of miles away, all of which hit, amazing... It's so incredible. It's brilliant. It's genius. Our technology, our equipment, is better than anybody by a factor of five."

Call it thrilling. Call it a blast. Call it escalation. Or just call it the age of Trump. ("If you look at what's happened over the last eight weeks and compare that really to what's happened over the past eight years, you'll see there's a tremendous difference, tremendous difference," he commented, adding about MOAB, "This was another very, very successful mission.")

Anyway, here we are and, as so many of his critics have pointed out, the plaudits have been pouring in from all the usual media and political suspects for a president with big enough... well, hands, to make war impressively. In our world, this is what now passes for "presidential." Consider that praise the media version of so many Tomahawk missiles pointing us toward what the escalation of America's never-ending wars will mean to Trump's presidency.

These days, from Syria to Afghanistan, the Koreas to Somalia, Yemen to Iraq, it's easy enough to see Commander-in-Chief Donald Trump as something new under the sun. (It has a different ring to it when the commander in chief says, "You're fired!") That missile strike in Syria was a first (Obama didn't dare); the MOAB in Afghanistan was a breakthrough; the drone strikes in Yemen soon after he took office were an absolute record! As for those regular Army troops heading for Somalia, that hasn't happened in 24 years! Civilian casualties in the region: rising impressively!

Call it mission creep on steroids. At the very least, it seems like evidence that the man who, as a presidential candidate, swore he'd "bomb the shit" out of ISIS and let the US military win again is doing just that. (As he also said on the campaign trail with appropriately placed air punches, "You gotta knock the hell out of them! Boom! Boom! Boom!")

He's appointed generals to crucial posts in his administration, lifted restraints on how his commanders in the field can act (hence those soaring civilian casualty figures), let them send more military personnel into Iraq, Syria, and the region generally, taken the constraints off the CIA's drone assassination campaigns, and dispatched an aircraft carrier strike group somewhat indirectly to the waters off the Koreas (with a strike force of tweets and threats accompanying it).

And there's obviously more to come: potentially many more troops, even an army of them, for Syria; a possible mini-surge of troops into Afghanistan (that MOAB strike may have been a canny signal from a US commander "seeking to showcase Afghanistan's myriad threats" to a president paying no attention); a heightened air campaign in Somalia; and that's just to start what will surely be a far longer list in a presidency in which, whether or not infrastructure is ever successfully rebuilt in America, the infrastructure of the military-industrial complex will continue to expand.

Institutionalizing War and Its Generals

Above all, President Trump did one thing decisively. He empowered a set of generals or retired generals -- James "Mad Dog" Mattis as secretary of defense, H.R. McMaster as national security adviser, and John Kelly as secretary of homeland security -- men already deeply implicated in America's failing wars across the Greater Middle East. Not being a details guy himself, he's then left them to do their damnedest. "What I do is I authorize my military," he told reporters recently. "We have given them total authorization and that's what they're doing and, frankly, that's why they've been so successful lately."

As the 100-day mark of his presidency approaches, there's been no serious reassessment of America's endless wars or how to fight them (no less end them). Instead, there's been a recommitment to doing more of the familiar, more of what hasn't worked over the last decade and a half. No one should be surprised by this, given the cast of characters -- men who held command posts in those unsuccessful wars and are clearly incapable of thinking about them in other terms than the ones that have been indelibly engrained in the brains of the US military high command since soon after 9/11.

That new ruling reality of our American world should, in turn, offer a hint about the nature of Donald Trump's presidency. It should be a reminder that as strange... okay, bizarre... as his statements, tweets, and acts may have been, as chaotic as his all-in-the-family administration is proving to be, as little as he may resemble anyone we've ever seen in the White House before, he's anything but an anomaly of history. Quite the opposite. Like those generals, he's a logical endpoint to a grim process, whether you're talking about the growth of inequality in America and the rise of plutocracy -- without which a billionaire president and his billionaire cabinet would have been inconceivable -- or the form that American war-making is taking under him.

When it comes to war and the US military, none of what's happened would have been conceivable without the two previous presidencies. None of it would have been possible without Congress's willingness to pump endless piles of money into the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex in the post-9/11 years; without the building up of the national security state and its 17 (yes, 17!) major intelligence outfits into an unofficial fourth branch of government; without the institutionalization of war as a permanent (yet strangely distant) feature of American life and of wars across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa that evidently can't be won or lost but only carried on into eternity. None of this would have been possible without the growing militarization of this country, including of police forces increasingly equipped with weaponry off America's distant battlefields and filled with veterans of those same wars; without a media rife with retired generals and other former commanders narrating and commenting on the acts of their successors and protégés; and without a political class of Washington pundits and politicians taught to revere that military.

In other words, however original Donald Trump may look, he's the curious culmination of old news and a changing country. Given his bravado and braggadocio, it's easy to forget the kinds of militarized extremity that preceded him.

After all, it wasn't Donald Trump who had the hubris, in the wake of 9/11, to declare a "Global War on Terror" against 60 countries (the "swamp" of that moment). It wasn't Donald Trump who manufactured false intelligence on the weapons of mass destruction Iraq's Saddam Hussein supposedly possessed or produced bogus claims about that autocrat's connections to al-Qaeda, and then used both to lead the United States into a war on and occupation of that country. It wasn't Donald Trump who invaded Iraq (whether he was for or against tht invasion at the time). It wasn't Donald Trump who donned a flight suit and landed on an aircraft carrier off the coast of San Diego to personally declare that hostilities were at an end in Iraq just as they were truly beginning, and to do so under an inane "Mission Accomplished" banner prepared by the White House.

It wasn't Donald Trump who ordered the CIA to kidnap terror suspects (including totally innocent individuals) off the streets of global cities as well as from the backlands of the planet and transport them to foreign prisons or CIA "black sites" where they could be tortured. It wasn't Donald Trump who caused one terror suspect to experience the sensation of drowning 83 times in a single month (even if he was inspired by such reports to claim that he would bring torture back as president).

It wasn't Donald Trump who spent eight years in the Oval Office presiding over a global "kill list," running "Terror Tuesday" meetings, and personally helping choose individuals around the world for the CIA to assassinate using what, in essence, was the president's own private drone force, while being praised (or criticized) for his "caution."

It wasn't Donald Trump who presided over the creation of a secret military of 70,000 elite troops cossetted inside the larger military, special-ops personnel who, in recent years, have been dispatched on missions to a large majority of the countries on the planet without the knowledge, no less the consent, of the American people. Nor was it Donald Trump who managed to lift the Pentagon budget to $600 billion and the overall national security budget to something like a trillion dollars or more, even as America's civilian infrastructure aged and buckled

It wasn't Donald Trump who lost an estimated $60 billion to fraud and waste in the American "reconstruction" of Iraq and Afghanistan, or who decided to build highways to nowhere and a gas station in the middle of nowhere in Afghanistan. It wasn't Donald Trump who sent in the warrior corporations to squander more in that single country than was spent on the post-World War II Marshall Plan to put all of Western Europe back on its feet. Nor did he instruct the US military to dump at least $25 billion into rebuilding, retraining, and rearming an Iraqi army that would collapse in 2014 in the face of a relatively small number of ISIS militants, or at least $65 billion into an Afghan army that would turn out to be filled with ghost soldiers.

In its history, the United States has engaged in quite a remarkable range of wars and conflicts. Nonetheless, in the last 15 years, forever war has been institutionalized as a feature of everyday life in Washington, which, in turn, has been transformed into a permanent war capital. When Donald Trump won the presidency and inherited those wars and that capital, there was, in a sense, no one left in the remarkably bankrupt political universe of Washington but those generals.

As the chameleon he is, he promptly took on the coloration of the militarized world he had entered and appointed "his" three generals to key security posts. Anything but the norm historically, such a decision may have seemed anomalous and out of the American tradition. That, however, was only because, unlike Donald Trump, most of the rest of us hadn't caught up with where that "tradition" had actually taken us.

The previous two presidents had played the warrior regularly, donning military outfits -- in his presidential years, George W. Bush often looked like a G.I. Joe doll -- and saluting the troops, while praising them to the skies, as the American people were also trained to do. In the Trump era, however, it's the warriors (if you'll excuse the pun) who are playing the president. 

It's hardly news that Donald Trump is a man in love with what works. Hence, Steve Bannon, his dream strategist while on the campaign trail, is now reportedly on the ropes as his White House counselor because nothing he's done in the first nearly 100 days of the new presidency has worked (except promoting himself).

Think of Trump as a chameleon among presidents and much of this makes more sense. A Republican who had been a Democrat for significant periods of his life, he conceivably could have run for president as a more nativist version of Bernie Sanders on the Democratic ticket had the political cards been dealt just a little differently. He's a man who has changed himself repeatedly to fit his circumstances and he's doing so again in the Oval Office.

In the world of the media, it's stylish to be shocked, shocked that the president who campaigned on one set of issues and came into office still championing them is now supporting quite a different set -- from China to taxes, NATO to the Export-Import Bank. But this isn't faintly strange. Donald Trump isn't either a politician or a trendsetter. If anything, he's a trend-senser. (In a similar fashion, he didn't create reality TV, nor was he at its origins. He simply perfected a form that was already in development.)

If you want to know just where we are in an America that has been on the march toward a different sort of society and governing system for a long time now, look at him. He's the originator of nothing, but he tells you all you need to know. On war, too, think of him as a chameleon. Right now, war is working for him domestically, whatever it may be doing in the actual world, so he loves it. For the moment, those generals are indeed "his" and their wars his to embrace.

Honeymoon of the Generals

Normally, on entering the Oval Office, presidents receive what the media calls a "honeymoon" period. Things go well. Praise is forthcoming. Approval ratings are heart-warming.

Donald Trump got none of this. His approval ratings quickly headed for the honeymoon cellar or maybe the honeymoon fallout shelter; the media and he went to war; and one attempt after another to fulfill his promises -- from executive orders on deportation to repealing Obamacare and building his wall -- have come a cropper. His administration seems to be in eternal chaos, the cast of characters changing by the week or tweet, and few key secondary posts being filled.

In only one area has Donald Trump experienced that promised honeymoon. Think of it as the honeymoon of the generals. He gave them that "total authorization," and the missiles left the ships, the drones flew, and the giant bomb dropped. Even when the results were disappointing, if not disastrous (as in a raid on Yemen in which a US special operator was killed, children slaughtered, and nothing of value recovered), he still somehow stumbled into highly praised "presidential" moments.

So far, in other words, the generals are the only ones who have delivered for him, big-league. As a result, he's given them yet more authority to do whatever they want, while hugging them tighter yet.

Here's the problem, though: there's a predictable element to all of this and it doesn't work in Donald Trump's favor. America's forever wars have now been pursued by these generals and others like them for more than 15 years across a vast swath of the planet -- from Pakistan to Libya (and ever deeper into Africa) -- and the chaos of failing states, growing conflicts, and spreading terror movements has been the result. There's no reason to believe that further military action will, a decade and a half later, produce more positive results.

What happens, then? What happens when the war honeymoon is over and the generals keep right on fighting their way? The last two presidents put up with permanent failing war, making the best they could of it. That's unlikely for Donald Trump. When the praise begins to die down, the criticism starts to rise, and questions are asked, watch out.

What then? In a world of plutocrats and generals, what coloration will Donald Trump take on next? Who will be left, except Jared and Ivanka?

Categories: Latest News

What if Uber Is a Joke?

Sun, 04/23/2017 - 21:00

An Uber driver using the company's app in Munich, December 22, 2015. (Photo: Letitia Vancon / The New York Times)

Okay, Uber is definitely not a joke in the sense that it is a large company that has rattled the taxi industry in the United States and around the world. It has also raised many important regulatory issues, as it has sought to evade longstanding regulation of the taxi industry.

Many of these regulations were clearly protectionist in nature, with the purpose of securing the position of an entrenched cartel. However other regulations, like background checks of drivers and insurance requirements for passengers, serve important public purposes. While Uber has preferred the route of simple evasion of regulations, it is likely that we will see a much needed modernization of regulations in this area.

While Uber's impact on the taxi industry is clearly not a joke, the market valuation of the company may well be. Uber is not yet publicly traded, but its market value has been estimated as being as high as $70 billion. That compares to a market value of just $51 billion for auto giant GM and $44.6 billion for Ford.

These are longstanding companies that both make close to $10 billion in annual profits. By contrast, Uber is losing billions of dollars a year.

Investors are not ordinarily prepared to pay large amounts of money for the stock of companies that lose money. The stock certificates might be pretty, but presumably at the end of the day investors will want to see profits.

There are two stories whereby Uber turns itself around and becomes a hugely profitable company. The first is that it will soon drive out enough of its competition so that it will enjoy near-monopoly status in many markets. This will allow it to raise its prices enough so that it can then turn large profits.

There are two problems with this story, one technical and the other legal. The technical problem is that it is not clear whether the technology of the taxi industry lends itself to monopolies. It's not that hard to have an app for calling cabs, nor is it hard to hire drivers. If Uber were to up its prices by 20-30 percent, it would likely find many new competitors in the market.

The other problem is the legal one. Predatory pricing to gain a monopoly is textbook anti-competitive behavior. This should lead to anti-trust action by the government and lawsuits by competitors. This is undoubtedly a major reason that Uber has staffed itself with former top Obama administration officials. Of course, Donald Trump has probably never heard of anti-trust laws.

The other turnaround story for Uber is that it was never really about taxis, but rather self-driving vehicles. Uber is going to be the behemoth of the self-driving vehicle industry and dominate this market the way IBM once dominated computers and Microsoft dominated software.

The problem with this story is that Uber would have to beat out a large number of major competitors, including the existing auto companies, Apple, Google and undoubtedly many smaller tech companies. That seems like a long shot.

So let's try alternative number three -- Uber's stock is nearly worthless, but for now people are willing to pay lots of money for it. This shouldn't sound far-fetched if you have heard of AOL, Priceline or more recently Groupon. In each case, stock valuations soared into the tens of billions or even hundreds of billions before plunging to a small fraction of this amount.

In such cases we see a massive redistribution of wealth, often from pension funds and other institutional investors to the "visionaries" who were able to sucker them. Folks like Steve Case, the former CEO of AOL, are incredibly rich today because of their talents in this area. Perhaps Uber CEO Travis Kalanick is following in his footsteps.

But there is another aspect to the ephemeral value of high-flying companies that eventually come down to earth. Uber actually is spending lots of money on research. The same applies to many other low or no profit companies or their major shareholders, such as Telsa and Amazon. Telsa CEO Elon Musk and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, have both committed large amounts of their companies' and/or their own money to research in areas like solar power, electric cars and reusable space crafts.

It's not clear at this point whether this is money that is especially well-spent. We only get the information that they choose to make public.

However one clear outgrowth of these huge stock valuations, whether or not they subsequently prove to be justified by future profits, is the funding of large amounts of research in new technologies. In many cases, this is research that we might have envisioned the government financing in prior decades, just as it did for the development of the internet.

Whether or not the research proves very useful remains to be seen. In any case we have effectively outsourced government financed research to these newly rich marketers, who are in turn relying on funding from institutional investors, some of whom are also in the public sector.

It's certainly better to have these folks financing research rather than just buying more islands and yachts, but fulfilling the childhood dreams of the newly rich hardly seems like the most efficient mechanism for supporting research. Unfortunately, in Donald Trump's United States it may be the only one available.

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When Rivers Hold Legal Rights

Sun, 04/23/2017 - 21:00

Winding its way through dense forest laced with hidden waterfalls, the Whanganui River is the largest navigable river in Aotearoa, the Māori word for New Zealand. With the passage of the Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Bill in March, the river became the first water system in the world to be recognized as a rights-bearing entity, holding legal "personhood" status -- meaning the river now owns itself.

The Whanganui River, in a photo taken on October 9, 2008. (Photo: Felix Engelhardt; Edited: LW / TO)

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Winding its way through dense forest laced with hidden waterfalls, the Whanganui River is the largest navigable river in Aotearoa, the Māori word for New Zealand. With the passage of the Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Bill in March, the river became the first water system in the world to be recognized as a rights-bearing entity, holding legal "personhood" status. One implication of the agreement is that the Whanganui River is no longer property of New Zealand's Crown government -- the river now owns itself.

Five days after the Te Awa Tupua Bill, the High Court of Uttarakhand at Naintal, in northern India, issued a ruling declaring that both the Ganga and Yumana rivers are also "legal persons/living persons." But what does it mean for a river, or an ecosystem to hold rights? The answer may vary from place to place. 

The growing global movement for Rights of Nature -- or the Rights of Mother Earth as some cultures prefer -- seeks to define legal rights for ecosystems to exist, flourish, and regenerate their natural capacities. These laws challenge the status of nature as mere property to be owned and dominated by humans, and provide a legal framework for an ethical and spiritual relationship to the Earth. While recognizing legal rights of nature doesn't stop development wholesale, it can stop the kind of development that interferes with the existence and vitality of ecosystems. In the last decade, four countries and dozens of US communities have passed laws recognizing "legal standing" for ecosystems.

In many cases, legal recognition for the rights of ecosystems reinforces long-held cultural and spiritual beliefs. For the Māori of Aotearoa, like many Indigenous cultures worldwide, there is no separation between humans and everything else. When the Europeans first arrived in the seventeenth century, there was no word for property in the Māori language. Their relationship with the Earth was one of care and responsibility. "Māori cosmology understands we are part of the universe," said Gerrard Albert, lead negotiator for the Whanganui River iwi (tribe). "The mountains and rivers are our ancestors. Our cultural identity as a people is inseparable from the river -- it is more than water and sand, it is a living spiritual being."  

Indeed, the Whanganui iwi are known as the River People, who often say, "Ko au te awa. Ko te awa ko au" translated as "I am the river. The river is me."

Their struggle to protect the river began 150 years ago, when the New Zealand Crown government first began to break treaty promises, violate cultural practices, dam, pollute, and otherwise degrade the river. "Beginning in the 1870s, our iwi began to petition the Crown government over our concerns for the river," Sheena Maru, iwi project manager for Whanganui River Trust, the governance group for the Whanganui River Treaty Settlement, said. "Determining who owned the bed of the river became the longest running court case in Crown history. In the end, what we were fighting for was Te Awa Tupua, the living spiritual indivisible whole of the river that includes the iwi, all people, and life from the mountain to the sea."

In Aotearoa, the Whanganui River is not the first ecosystem to be recognized in this way. In 2014 the Tūhoe iwi negotiated with the Crown Government to pass the Te Urewera Act, which effectively recognized the "personhood" for Te Urewera, a forested region and former a national park in the heart of Tūhoe traditional territory.

Like the Whanganui iwi, what the Tūhoe wanted was to be truly reconnected with the land that is the very source of their cultural identity. Tamati Kruger, chief negotiator of the Tūhoe's groundbreaking Te Urewera settlement said, "When negotiations began, the Crown had no intention of giving away title to the park. They thought it would be enough to offer us some money and a few seats on the park board." Knowing the Crown would not cede ownership to the Tūhoe, Tamati's team suggested that nobody retain ownership of the park land -- rather, the land would own itself. This change shifted more than just governance of the former national park -- it was also seen as a step toward sovereignty for the Tuhoe people whose identity is inseparable from the land.

The Whanganui River and Te Urewera settlements, two truly revolutionary agreements between the Māori and the Crown government, recognize mountains, national parks, and watersheds can be better protected by prioritizing human responsibilities to the whole than they can through regulations that seek to dismantle and segregate fisheries from the riverbeds, for example. Under both settlements, future decisions about projects and development in the areas will be made by a council of two appointees -- one Crown and one Māori. "Those appointed to act on [the Whanganui River's] behalf will have legal obligation to uphold and protect the river's values and health and wellbeing," Gerard Albert told the media at a press conference following the passage of the Te Awa Tupia Bill.

These settlements also include a formal apology from the New Zealand Crown government for historic crimes against the iwi and the ecosystems, and a large redress fund to facilitate new management of the Te Urewera mountain range and the Whanganui River. They also include funds for community education and cultural revitalization that benefit both the pakeha (European New Zealander) and iwi populations.

"The Settlement is for the entire community, this is still an idea to be grasped," explained Hayden Turoa, Te Mana o Te Awa program manager for the Whanganui River Trust Board. "Anybody can apply for funds [through the settlement]. It is about breaking down barriers and bringing the rest of the community into this spiritual understanding." Along the Whanganui, there are already plans for these funds, including educating and bringing pakeha residents into the Maori worldview in a way that allows everyone to be spiritually and holistically connected to the river, and to learn new ways to care for the ecosystem.

From his office overlooking the port city of Wellington, Paul Beverley, a partner at the law firm of Buddle Findlay and a member of the core Crown negotiation team for both the Te Urewera and Te Awa Tupua bills, explained that the Crown was eager not only to pass the agreements, but also to take the next steps for implementation. "The Crown is committed to working alongside Whanganui iwi to ensure the success of this settlement for Te Awa Tupua and for all -- not just the Maori." 

Asked whether the pakeha populations, local government, or the Crown were nervous about the implications of ceding property claims, Beverley said, "What has been put in place is a very forward looking framework. I think we're going to see a springboard for this type of thing. People are already taking next steps voluntarily."

The Maori and the Crown see these new protections as good for business, and ultimately good for the economy. "This legislation recognizes the deep spiritual connection between the Whanganui iwi and its ancestral river and creates a strong platform for the future of the Whanganui River," Beverley said.  

Recognizing the rights of the Whanganui River means that no matter who the actor, corporation, or individual, the law now sees a harm to the river the same way as it would a harm to the tribe or a person. As Cabot Davis, legal director for the nonprofit Movement Rights, added: "It's not about being anti-business. The thing that is beautiful about it is just how differently decisions will now be made. Conflicts among people who want to 'use' the water or land will now have to take everyone else's needs into account -- first and foremost are the needs of the [river] system. Commerce and nature can coexist in a healthy way."

Half a world away in India, it's not yet clear what legal personhood means for the Ganges and Yumana rivers, but activists think additional protections will ultimately be necessary. The country struggles with high levels of water pollution flowing freely from homes and industry, though water in India is considered sacred. Nowhere more so than the Ganges river, or the Ganga, which provides about 40 percent of India's water, though the entire watershed is breaking down under the intense strains of use and abuse.

The widespread Save Ganga movement in India follows the Gandhian model for peaceful change. A powerful component of that broad coalition is the National Ganga Rights Movement, founded by the Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji, who opined, "We breathe the same air that our ancestors did, drink the same water, and are connected to one another by the web of life." Four years ago, the movement began working with the US-based Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), toward passage of a national Ganges Rights Act, currently under consideration by the Modi administration. This act would provide further protections for the river.

"The High Court's ruling declaring legal personhood for the Ganges is a critical step forward," Mari Margil, head of CELDF's International Center for the Rights of Nature, said. "As the court said, national legislation which would recognize fundamental rights of the Ganges and the people of India to a healthy, thriving river ecosystem is ultimately necessary."

Treating ecosystems as property has brought humanity to the brink of climate and ecological collapse at break-neck speed. By contrast, rights-based laws recognize planetary limits and seek to transform human laws to conform with Natural Law. Beyond law, this movement seeks a culture shift away from the mindset that modern Earth is merely a resource available for reckless human use, toward the understanding that the Earth is a living entity governing all life upon it, with inherent rights that can, and should, be protected.

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