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The United States: Land of Terrorists and Massacres

Wed, 06/29/2016 - 06:17

The updated 2016 Roots historical chronicle finally got it right. Africans have resisted European/American terrorism from the moment it reared its ugly head to present day struggle against state sponsored police murders of African peoples. The current version of Roots reminds us that beheadings, lynchings, rapes, kidnappings, selling children, working and boiling people to death did not start with ISIL -- these perverted and psychopathic practices constituted the building blocks of the American empire.  The carnage in Orlando bleeds our hearts with the senseless murder of many innocent lives.  Our rapacious thirst for lethal weapons spells future dooms. Yet, we march on desensitized to the violence and injustice in our nation and world.

We seem to be truly bewildered when blood flows on the streets of America. Often, some of these incidents of late, can contextually be linked to murderous US foreign policy adventures in the Middle East. Malcolm X would have noted that US foreign policies have resulted in "chickens coming home to roost." The ability to contain violence in foreign theaters has become an unattainable goal for the Empire. Therefore, everyday citizens are now targets of combat. Whether the latest mass murderer is insane or not, what is clear is that US citizens must decide whether they will allow murder and plunder across the globe to continue in their names. And, perhaps, more importantly, whether they are prepared to accept the consequences.  Certainly one does not want to wade into the quagmire of comparing tragedies but to completely ignore the validity of other massacres and the loss of other lives seems to compound the tragedy.

The news media has framed the latest massacre in Orlando as the largest mass murder in US history. Some members of the media with a measure of intellectual integrity will add that the Orlando Massacre is the largest "post 911." Regardless, human beings lost their lives and communities are in mourning.  However, historical records remind us that the murders in Orlando, unfortunately, do not constitute the largest domestic mass murders.  This narrative proposed by corporate media is in search of a public willing to digest a sanitized and less-than thoughtful version of history that conforms with the simplistic but dangerous notion of American exceptionalism. The truth is much less flattering.  As we mourn the loss of young life in Florida, let us also mourn the massacre of thousands of young unarmed African men and women who lose their lives almost daily at the hands of police and entire Black communities struggling to escape the violence of white supremacy.

We must not forget the East St. Louis Massacres of 1917 described as the worst race and labor violence in the 20th century with casualties ranging between 40 and 200 deaths.

In the spring of 1917, Blacks escaping from the terror of the South were arriving in St. Louis at the rate of 2,000 per week. White union workers were determined to stop Blacks from competing for job in the trades by refusing to allow Africans membership in trade unions. White corporate leaders, taking advantage of cheap and competitive labor viewed Africans as scab workers to stabilize and maintain low wages for whites. These two reactionary views of Black labor from the perspective of the white working class and white corporate interests formed the perfect storm that ignited the conditions that led to scores of Black deaths in the East St. Louis Massacre.

Following a meeting on May 28th in which rumors spread that Blacks and whites were fraternizing, 3,000 white men marched into East St. Louis and attacked Black men and women. In a separate incident, white vigilantes burned entire sections of the city and shot inhabitants as they escaped the fire. In William Heaps 1970 book Target of Prejudice: The Negro, In Riot, USA 1765-1970, he notes: "Members of the white community claimed that Southern Negros deserved a genuine lynching" and a number of African-Americans were lynched during the white terror attacks.

There was also the 1921 Tulsa, Oklahoma massacre in which whites attacked one of the wealthiest African communities in the US.  These vilgilantes over the course of 16 hours burned private property, including a Black hospital, and injured over 800 people. Instead of police arresting white rioters they detained and arrested over 6,000 black residents. 10,000 Africans were left homeless and 35 city blocks destroyed by fire.  Officials reported that 39 Blacks were murdered but other estimates report between 55 to 300 people murdered.

All massacres are horrific, from Orlando, East St. Louis, My Lai, Vietnam, Wounded Knee to Oklahoma. The latest massacre, however 'could' provide an opportunity to understand the nexus between US foreign policy adventures that plunder and violate countries in search of natural resources and US domestic racist actions that trigger staggering incidence of murder and violence on a scale nearly unfathomable outside America.

Categories: Latest News

Who Is Getting Rich Off the $1.3 Trillion Student Debt Crisis?

Tue, 06/28/2016 - 21:00

We continue our conversation looking at student debt. A stunning 42 million people now owe $1.3 trillion in student debt. A new investigative report published by Center for Investigative Reporting peels back the layers on this trillion-dollar industry. The article, titled "Who Got Rich Off the Student Debt Crisis," follows what happened after the federal government relinquished direct control of the student loan program and opened it up to banks and profit-making corporations. We speak to Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist James Steele and Saul Newton, who was profiled in the article. Saul dropped out of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point because of rising costs and student debt.

Please check back later for full transcript.

Categories: Latest News

US Senate Moves to OK "Colonial Control Board" in Puerto Rico

Tue, 06/28/2016 - 21:00

The U.S. Senate is expected vote as soon as today to set up a federally appointed control board with sweeping powers to run Puerto Rico's economy to help the island cope with its crippling debt crisis. The bill, known as PROMESA, passed the House by a bipartisan vote of 297 to 127. In the Senate, Robert Menendez has led the opposition to the bill. On Tuesday, he waged a four-hour filibuster to protest the bill.

TRANSCRIPT:

AMY GOODMAN: Juan, before we move on with the rest of the show, there is a major vote on Puerto Rico in the U.S. Senate today.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yes, there is. The Senate will -- looks like, will finally vote on what to do on the so-called PROMESA bill. This is the bill that both the Obama administration and Republicans in the House passed, you know, got through the House, initially, a couple of weeks ago, which would establish a means for Puerto Rico to restructure its $72 billion in debt, but would also impose a financial control board -- what I and other people call a colonial control board -- over the commonwealth of Puerto Rico. The Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell moved this week to have a cloture vote, which will occur today, because McConnell wants to prevent any amendments on the Senate floor from those who might have problems with the current bill. So he wants to -- he's going to go for a 60-vote cloture vote and then proceed to have a vote on the full bill, because they're trying to rush to get this bill through before the July 1 deadline, in a few days, when Puerto Rico is sure to default on a huge portion of its debt. It has to pay about $2 billion on July 1.

So, yesterday, Senator Bob Menendez did a filibuster. For four hours, he grabbed the Senate floor and continued to condemn the bill, to condemn the efforts to prevent the Senate from having any kind of amendments. But in the process, he also really -- for anybody who watched it on C-SPAN, you got a real lesson on what is the problem and why people are calling this a colonial control bill. For instance, Menendez said that, contrary to what the Obama administration has been saying and what many Republicans in Congress have been saying, the people of Puerto Rico are completely opposed to this bill. There was a recent poll, showed that 69 percent of Puerto Rican voters on the island are opposed to the PROMESA bill, the very bill that the Senate is about to pass, and 54 percent are opposed to any kind of outside control board running the affairs of Puerto Rico for the next five to 10 years there. And so, there's huge opposition on the island to the bill, and yet the Congress is moving forward.

Unfortunately, there's a lot of liberal Democrats that are supporting this bill; some liberal organizations, like Jubilee USA, astonishingly, has come out in favor of the bill, because they're all insisting that this is the only way, as bad as the bill is and the problems that it has, it's the only way for Puerto Rico to be able to restructure its debts and to avoid a rush to the courthouse by bondholders. But what Menendez made clear is that there's going to be a rush to the courthouse anyway, because as the bill passes, the bondholders, many of them, are going to go to court to challenge the constitutionality of the bill. So it's not as if there's not going to be legal challenges on July 1. But Menendez went on for four hours. Bernie Sanders participated for a short time in the filibuster. So did Maria Cantwell. But for the most part, it seems that there's a sufficient number of Democrats and Republicans that will vote to approve this bill today.

AMY GOODMAN: Where did a key player, a key progressive in the Democratic Party, come down? And that is Elizabeth Warren, who was out on the campaign trail this week.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Elizabeth Warren has not said anything. She was critical, initially, of the bill. Elizabeth Warren has not said anything about this. My sense is that she's going to vote for it, as well, unfortunately. There's still a possibility that Bernie Sanders or Menendez could launch another filibuster today in the debate over the cloture vote, the final debate, or the bill itself. But it seems unlikely at this point. And it's astonishing to me how so many liberals in this country, who rail about American aggression abroad, are being so silent over this absolute imposition of colonial control by the United States government over the affairs of Puerto Rico. And Jack Lew, the secretary of treasury, spent almost all day yesterday basically meeting with Democratic senators to convince them, to pressure them to support this bill. So it's going to be a really dark day for the people of Puerto Rico, who are completely opposed to this bill, if the Senate votes today to approve it.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we'll of course continue to follow this, the issue of Puerto Rico so key.

Categories: Latest News

Oakland City Council Votes to Ban Coal Exports in Big Win for Local Advocates

Tue, 06/28/2016 - 21:00

The Oakland City Council took a strong stand against coal this week. Following a long and often emotional city council meeting -- during which whistles and cheers were at times met with boos and yelling -- the council passed an ordinance prohibiting the storage and handling of coal and petcoke at Oakland facilities, and a resolution that would specifically apply the ordinance to the Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal (OBOT), which is being built on the old Oakland Army Base.

The meeting drew hundreds of impassioned Oakland residents, including representatives from the labor, faith, environmental, and health communities, as well as the terminal developers. Those speaking against the terminal emphasized that West Oakland already suffers the effects of disproportionate air pollution. They argued that added particulate pollution tied to the coal export terminal could elevate the risk of health problems like asthma, cancer, and lung and heart disease.

Several speakers also pointed to climate change and it's impact both globally and in Oakland. "There is strong evidence that if coal is not shipped from OBOT, it will not be shipped and combusted at all," Linda Rudolph, director of the Climate Change and Public Health Project at the Public Health Institute, said, speaking to the city council prior to the vote. "If coal is shipped from OBOT, the greenhouse gas emissions from burning that coal will be greater than that from all five bay area oil refineries. It will contribute significantly to climate change and climate change is the defining health challenge of this century. It's a serious threat to the health of Oakland residents."

Those speaking on behalf of the project said that measures could be taken to mitigate the impacts from coal and emphasized the jobs associated with the terminal project. "[The terminal] will be the source of generational prosperity for many of the… un- and underemployed residents, and most important, it will be safe," said Jerry Bridges, president and CEO of Terminal Logistics Solutions, which will operate OBOT. (Labor representatives, however, spoke out strongly against the use of the terminal for coal shipments, rejecting the idea that the issue is one of jobs versus community health or justice, and pointing out that the terminal will create jobs regardless of the specific commodities shipped through it.)

The buildup to the vote has been considerable. Oakland residents and activists have been advocating against coal exports since the spring of 2015, when plans to use OBOT for coal were first revealed. On Friday, they received a sign that their efforts might pay off when Oakland City staff released a report finding that the use of the terminal for coal exports would negatively impact the health, safety, and general welfare of Oakland residents, and recommending that the City Council pass both the ordinance and the resolution applying it to OBOT.

Furthermore, staff concluded that the city had legal authority to ban the export of coal through Oakland. (The original agreement between CCIG and the City of Oakland did not specify which commodities would be shipped through the terminal, and prohibited modifications based on new laws. However, it included a caveat allowing for any modification that might be necessary to protect local health and safety.)

The staff report itself was based in large part on a city-commissioned study on the impacts of the terminal prepared by Environmental Science Associates, that underscored the public health, safety, and environmental impacts of transporting, storing, and handling coal at the proposed shipping terminal. These include increased exposure to particulate pollution in communities already overburdened by pollutants, health and safety risks related to the spontaneous combustion of coal, and increased global CO2 emissions associated with the burning of exported coal in power plants overseas.

The environmental consultancy's report reinforced findings from two additional studies, one commissioned by city council Member Daniel Kalb, released just a day earlier, and a second by the Public Health Panel on Coal in Oakland.

Kalb was optimistic going into the city council meeting. "I'm confident we will take action that will protect the public health and minimize safety risks," he said, speaking with Earth Island Journal by phone before the meeting. "I think there is plenty of analysis to suggest it is a serious health risk to a lot of people, especially workers, and there are substantial safety risks."

The Oakland coal issue has spurred action far beyond city limits as well. In February, California State Senator Loni Hancock, D-Oakland, introduced four bills targeting coal exports in California generally, and the OBOT site specifically. The State Senate passed two of the bills in June -- one that would prohibit the State Transportation Committee from funding coal storage or transportation projects in or adjacent to disadvantaged communities, and another that would require additional environmental review of the proposed Oakland project. The two bills are now under consideration by the State Assembly.

Environmental groups have also been focusing on Utah, where pro-coal actors have worked to secure funding for the Oakland project as a means of ensuring export capacity for Utah coal. Specifically, the state has pledged $53 million in taxpayer funds toward a loan for the OBOT project in exchange for shipping rights at the terminal.

The funds were initially provided through a loan by the Utah Community Impact Fund, using money that was supposed to go towards mitigating impacts of mineral extraction in Utah. When that usage of funds was called into question, the Utah legislature approved a bill essentially swapping out those funds for other money to get around the rules.

Last week, Earthjustice, Sierra Club, and Heal Utah, among other groups, sent a letter to the US Department of Justice and the Department of the Interior demanding an investigation of the loan on legal and ethical grounds.

"I think some people want to frame this as a story about liberal West Coasters who are worried about climate change in the abstract versus coal miners in Utah," Ted Zukoski, an Earthjustice attorney who has been following the Utah developments, said. "This is about Utah, and corporations they are working on behalf of, trying to offload the environmental damage to another community, cashing in while someone else suffers."

Throughout the four-hour Monday night city council meeting, many anti-coal activists, as well as council members, made a point of emphasizing that they were not opposing the Oakland Army Base redevelopment project or OBOT more generally, but rather the use of the terminal to export coal.

Prior to the meeting, David Smith, an attorney representing the developer, California Capital Investment Group, told the East Bay Express that they would go to court to challenge a coal ban.

Gregory McConnell, representing CCIG, reiterated this sentiment at the council meeting. Speaking to the city council in reference to a letter the company sent the council earlier in the day, he said "the developer will have no choice but to pursue all legal remedies to protect their interests" if the council voted to ban coal. He suggested that the city could be liable for hundreds of millions of dollars for breaching the development agreement.

"So this is not going to end tonight even if the decision that you make tonight says that you ban coal," McConnell said.

Environmental and community groups, however, praised the decision. "We stand with community groups and commend the City for taking a strong stance against coal and using its powers to protect its residents," Irene Gutierrez, an attorney with Earthjustice, said in a statement.

"We are totally delighted everybody came through that was there tonight," said Margaret Rossoff of No Coal in Oakland campaign, a grassroots organization campaigning to stop coal from being by rail through Oakland, right before joining a celebration with friends following the vote.

Both the ordinance and the resolution passed by 7 to 0 vote -- one council member was excused from the meeting. The council will hold a second reading of the ordinance on July 19.

Categories: Latest News

Another Corporation ​Is​ Suing the US Government Thanks to Trade Agreements

Tue, 06/28/2016 - 21:00

Activists protest the proposed Keystone XL pipeline at a demonstration in Washington, DC, on November 16, 2011. TransCanada is currently suing the US government for $15 billion dollars in damages due to the proposed pipeline being vetoed by President Obama. (Photo: Tarsandsaction)

A Canadian corporation is suing the U.S. because we wouldn't let them build a pipeline across our country (seizing people's property along the way) so they could sell oil to China.

They can do this because we signed a trade agreement that places corporate rights above our democracy. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) would increase by an order of magnitude the companies that can sue us for hurting their profits by protecting the environment, consumers, public health and small businesses.

Because They Can

TransCanada Corporation is suing the U.S. government (us) for $15 billion in damages under North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) rules. The company wanted to build the Keystone pipeline all the way from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico so they could ship oil to China. They also wanted to use "eminent domain" to seize land from ranchers, farmers and other property owners along the way to enable this.

Why can they do this? In 1993, President Bill Clinton signed NAFTA and on January 1, 1994, the United States officially became a party to the agreement. Chapter 11 of the agreement "protects investors" by allowing them to sue governments that pass regulations or laws that hurt their profits. They can bypass the legal systems of these governments and take the issue to "corporate courts" in which corporate attorneys decide if the corporation or the government will prevail.

Bloomberg has the story, in "TransCanada Files $15B NAFTA Claim on Keystone XL Rejection":

TransCanada Corp. is seeking to recoup $15 billion for the Obama administration's rejection of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, in a legal claim that highlights how foreign companies can use trade deals to challenge U.S. policy.

The Calgary-based pipeline operator filed papers late Friday seeking arbitration under the North American Free Trade Agreement, arguing that TransCanada had every reason to believe it would win approval to build Keystone XL. Instead, President Barack Obama last November determined that the pipeline, which would have carried Canadian oil sands crude to the U.S. Gulf coast, wasn't in the national interest. In response, TransCanada in January vowed to use arbitration provisions in Chapter 11 of NAFTA to recover costs and damages.

The president of the United States decided that this project is not in the national interest. But "investor protection" provisions of trade agreements override our national interest. So we have to pay a company for not letting them seize public and private land to build a pipeline across our entire country so they can sell oil to China.

Countries Lose the Right to Protect Citizens

The investor-state dispute settlement provision of the TPP was among the main targets at Tuesday's "Trading Up" symposium on trade at the AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington.

Both AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) singled out the ISDS, which Brown said "allows corporations to sue governments to pad their own profits," as a key reason to oppose the TPP and replace it with a new trade regime that respects the interests of the people who governments are supposed to represent.

Thomas Palley, economist at the New American Foundation, said at the symposium that of provisions like the ISDS that do not really have anything directly to do with trade, agreements like the TPP "are not free trade agreements; they are global governance agreements."

Calling them "global governance agreements," he went on to say, would call attention to the enormity of the effect these clauses would have and would underscore the undemocratic way they are being imposed on populations around the world as well as the U.S.

Under NAFTA, we recently lost the right to, for example, tell consumers which country their meat comes from or whether tuna is dolphin-safe. Canada has been sued over their environmental laws. One company was even able to win $15 million and block Canada from stopping them from polluting the air with neurotoxins.

Under other trade agreements with similar provisions counties are being sued by tobacco companies for trying to help people stop smoking, and prevent kids from starting.

Climate vs. Profit

These "investor protection" provisions prevent governments from protecting the environment and the climate. For example, TransCanada claims that the U.S. choice to protect the climate cost them money, so we have to pay up. As economist Joseph Stiglitz said by video at the Trading Up symposium, instead of the "polluter pays" principle in U.S. law, "we pay the polluter for not polluting." Or, worse, we pay the polluter for the right to keep polluting.

From the Bloomberg report:

The company said the U.S. spent seven years delaying a final decision on the project with multiple rounds of "arbitrary and contrived" analyses and justifications.

"None of that technical analysis or legal wrangling was material to the administration's final decision," TransCanada said in Friday's filing. "Instead, the rejection was symbolic and based merely on the desire to make the U.S. appear strong on climate change, even though the State Department had itself concluded that denial would have no significant impact on the environment."

If TPP Passes, More Like This

NAFTA covers just three countries, Mexico, Canada and the United States. The TPP starts with 12 countries, but it is a "docking agreement," which means more and more countries can sign on as corporate power grows and is able to force them to do so. This means the number of corporations that can sue governments for hurting profits by protecting citizens and the environment grows exponentially.

Again, from Bloomberg:

Foreign companies could exploit the investor-state dispute settlement provisions in the Trans-Pacific Partnership to weaken U.S. environmental policy and labor protections. TransCanada's NAFTA claim highlights the risk, said Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune.

"TransCanada's attempt to make American taxpayers hand over more than $15 billion because the company's dirty Keystone XL pipeline was rejected shows exactly why NAFTA was wrong and why the even more dangerous and far-reaching Trans-Pacific Partnership must be stopped," Brune said in an emailed statement.

"The TPP would empower thousands of new firms operating in the U.S., including major polluters, to follow in TransCanada's footsteps and undermine our critical climate safeguards in private trade tribunals," Brune said.

The lesson here is that we must do everything we can to fight the TPP, and demand our government renegotiate the rest of the "trade" agreements the corporations got us into. But this time the agreements must be negotiated with labor, environmental, consumer, human rights and all other "stakeholder" groups at the table.

 

Isaiah J. Poole contributed to this article.

Categories: Latest News

Democratic Party Platform Committee Supports a Wall Street Tax

Tue, 06/28/2016 - 21:00

The Democratic Party's draft policy agenda reflects a major shift in the debate over a small tax on financial transactions that would curb short-term speculation and generate massive revenue. (Photo: Phillipp; Edited: LW / TO)

The Democratic Party Platform Committee has taken a position in support of a tax on Wall Street transactions, according to a statement by committee member Rep. Keith Ellison. This is just the latest sign of the mainstreaming of a bold policy that would shrink the size and power of Wall Street.

Even at a rate of just a small fraction of a percent on each trade, such taxes would slash the profitability of the high-speed speculation that dominates our financial markets but has no real economic value. At the same time, the tax could generate massive revenue for job creation and other urgent needs.

If you want to get a sense of just how far this transformative idea has come, you need look no further than a 2009 cable sent by the US embassy in London back to Obama administration officials in Washington.

Unearthed by Wikileaks, the cable is a litany of complaints about then-UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown's efforts to get the Obama administration to join the financial transaction tax bandwagon. The cable notes that Brown even had the gall to raise the issue in a Thanksgiving Day call to the US ambassador.

Obama, we learned later, was not Brown's problem. According to Ron Suskind's 2011 Confidence Men, a book based on 700 hours of interviews with high-level Obama staff, the president initially supported the financial transaction tax. Larry Summers, who was then serving as Obama's Director of the National Economic Council, put the kibosh on it.

Along with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Summers made sure that Obama would take sides with the Canadian conservatives to block a proposal by Brown and the leaders of Germany and France for a G-20 agreement on the tax at their 2009 summit in Pittsburgh.

Brown, of course, was later unseated by British conservatives who made Summers and Geithner's objections seem lukewarm. Former UK Prime Minister John Major even used rhetoric harkening back to World War II, comparing the German and French plan for the tax to a "heat-seeking missile" directed at London's financial center. Boris Johnson, the former London mayor who now may be headed towards the Prime Minister's seat, is also hostile.

So what accounts for the change in the Democratic Party? The Platform Committee's position didn't come out of nowhere. Over the years, growing US and international campaigns for the tax have pushed on multiple fronts to mainstream the issue.

One prong has been to help generate new research on the potential benefits. In 2010, after consultations with international civil society experts, the International Monetary Fund prepared a report for the G20 leaders confirming that transaction taxes were administratively feasible and could raise significant revenue.

In 2011, the Joint Committee on Taxation, the body in Congress responsible for generating officials revenue estimates, analyzed one of several FTT bills, concluding that a US tax of 0.03 percent on stock, bond, and derivative trades could raise $350 billion over 10 years. More recently, the Tax Policy Center estimated that a rate of 0.1 percent could generate up to $541.5 billion for the US government over 10 years. Models with higher rates could raise even more.

The campaigns have also pushed for new and sometimes unusual allies, including a growing list of business and financial industry professionals. In 2011, for example, Bill Gates told the Guardian, "It is very plausible that certain kinds of FTTs could work … I am lending some credibility to that. This money could be well spent and make a difference."

A diverse array of labor, environmental, health, and other activists also rounded up support for the tax from prominent faith leaders, including Pope Benedict, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Bishop Desmond Tutu.

In 2014, we started to see shifts among high-level Democrats. Rep. Chris Van Hollen included a financial transaction tax as part of a broader tax reform plan, reportedly with support from Rep. Nancy Pelosi.

Then Bernie Sanders brought the issue into the center of the primary debates. The tax became a pillar of his Wall Street reform plan and he rarely missed a chance to raise it in his stump speeches. By linking the tax to the need for additional revenue to fund free higher education at public universities, Sanders made the tax even more popular.

Where will it go from here? The platform committee will assemble one final time in Orlando to put the final touches on the platform before it comes up for a vote at the party's national convention in Philadelphia in late July. A recently formed Take On Wall Street campaign made up of dozens of labor, consumer, and other groups aims to keep up the heat and ensure the position in support of the tax is not stripped from the final document.

Of course platforms have a history of being largely forgotten after the conventions are over. But advocates will always be able to point to this as one more measure of progress in a long bumpy road for the financial transaction tax.

Categories: Latest News

"Transgender Troops" Should Be an Oxymoron

Tue, 06/28/2016 - 21:00

Allowing trans people to serve openly in the US military only furthers the violence of one of the central institutions of global oppression. (Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

On July 1, 2016, the Pentagon will announce a lifting of the ban on trans people serving openly in the US military. While this has been hailed as a victory for trans rights, it's hard to imagine anything further from the truth. Like the debate over gay marriage, this insincere public spectacle will serve as cover for continuation of the same devastating militaristic foreign policy.

Allowing trans people to serve openly in the US military only furthers the violence of one of the central institutions of global oppression. (Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

On July 1, 2016, the Pentagon will announce a lifting of the ban on trans people serving openly in the US military, according to a USA Today article widely cited in gay media outlets. While this has been hailed as a victory for trans rights, it's hard to imagine anything further from the truth. Allowing trans people to serve openly in the US military only furthers the violence of one of the central institutions of global oppression.

Allowing trans people to serve openly in the US military only furthers the violence of one of the central institutions of global oppression.

Let's not forget that the US military is currently bombing Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen and who knows how many other countries around the world. Let's not forget that the US has a long history of supporting despotic regimes, currently ranging from Saudi Arabia to Honduras, Uzbekistan to Equatorial Guinea. Notice a military coup anywhere in the world? Chances are high that the US is supporting it. And, let's not forget that the US is bankrolling the Israeli war on the Palestinians, and supplying the weapons. Let's not forget that, after hundreds of years of genocide against Indigenous people within its illegitimate borders, the US still treats Native lands as dumping grounds for hazardous waste. Let's not forget that the trillions of dollars in US military funding siphons resources away from literally everything that matters in this country, from education and health care to housing and social welfare.

In the US, trans people are routinely kicked out of their families of origin, harassed in school and at work, persecuted by religious leaders and politicians, and attacked on the street simply for daring to exist. Trans people are often denied access to basic services like housing and health care, fired from jobs or never hired in the first place, and forced to flee the places where they grew up, simply to survive. Trans women, particularly trans women of color, are brutally murdered at an astounding rate. In the few public spaces trans women and gender nonconforming people have created to survive, they face daily harassment by law enforcement and other bashers, and are often imprisoned for the crime of their own survival, where the persecution and brutality often escalate.

What, then, would an end to the ban on trans people serving openly in the US military serve to facilitate? More of the same: endless war, plundering of Indigenous resources, both in the US and abroad, and a militaristic orientation that sees oppressed people as cannon fodder for US imperialism. It would also serve the continuation of anti-trans violence in the US, where the rise of legislative transphobia now means that even using the bathroom that corresponds to your gender identity is now subject to a sensational national debate.

It's no surprise that both the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and the National LGBTQ Task Force, the nation's two largest LGBT lobbying groups, immediately hailed the news that the Pentagon would soon welcome trans soldiers. These are two organizations that have spearheaded the conservative shift in LGBT politics over the last several decades, which became most noticeable in the early 1990s, when gay inclusion in the US military became the central issue for gay establishment struggle. The militaristic status quo in LGBT politics has only become more pronounced as the mainstream LGBT agenda has centered on access to marriage as the only means to obtain basic resources that should be available to all, such as housing, health care and the right to stay in this country (or leave) if you want to. Even when speaking about anti-queer and anti-trans violence, an issue that arguably affects most queer and trans people, LGBT powerbrokers call for strengthening the racist, classist, misogynist, homophobic and transphobic legal system through hate crimes legislation.

Like the debate over gay marriage, this insincere public spectacle will serve as cover for continuation of the same devastating militaristic foreign policy.

In fact, the success of gay establishment goals is not the counterpoint to the rise of legislative transphobia, it is part of the cause. The gay marriage/military inclusion movement systematically excluded anyone not deemed acceptable enough for Fox News, in order to win rights only for those willing and able to conform to straight white middle-class norms. Forget about fighting for universal access to basic needs -- let's just focus on tax breaks and inheritance rights for the wealthy. Forget about trans people, people of color, the poor, the homeless, the disabled, people with HIV/AIDS, youth, elders. Forget about migrants of all kinds -- not just from other countries but also queers fleeing US cities and towns where they still can't live without fear for their lives.

Organizations like HRC and the LGBTQ Task Force are not part of the solution to transphobia; they are part of the problem. That some gay people (and a few trans people) now benefit from participation in institutions of oppression (willingly or unwillingly) doesn't mean those institutions have changed. It means those institutions have changed gay, queer and trans politics, depoliticizing an entire generation and leaving us all to suffer the consequences.

In 2011, the Pentagon formally allowed gay soldiers to openly serve their country by bombing and oppressing poor people of color around the world, and, in 2015, the Supreme Court struck down prohibitions on gay marriage. These decisions were the crowning achievements of the gay establishment, and after they became law many elite gays suggested that the end of the LGBT movement had arrived. What more could be necessary, after all, once rich gay people obtained the same ability to shelter their assets as their straight counterparts?

How far we have come from the original goals of gay liberation as it emerged in the 1960s and 1970s -- an end to the oppressive state, organized religion and the nuclear family -- a rejection of war, racism, white supremacy and imperialism, and a fundamental redefinition of relationships beyond mandatory monogamy and sexual prudishness. While "Gay Power" was one of this movement's original cries, gay power today means accessing the full resources of the state in order to further oppress and marginalize anyone in the way of gentrification, unquestioning consumerism and assimilation into straight privilege.

While there has long been a class divide in gay and queer politics, trans people have overwhelmingly been forced to the margins. But now we even see the emergence of a trans elite -- in fact, it was military veteran Jennifer Pritzker, described as the first trans billionaire, whose family's notorious fortune is built on real estate speculation and insider trading, who jumpstarted the fight for trans inclusion in the US military. In 2013, Pritzker gave $1.35 million to the Palm Center, which then created the Transgender Military Service Initiative, and suddenly an issue that was barely talked about before claimed national headlines.

For decades, the gay establishment has been dominated by the agenda of the wealthy, one that views identity as an endpoint. Gay becomes simply another way to adorn every hideous hypocritical institution and camouflage its violence -- gay marriage, gays in the military, gay cops, gay priests, what's next? Oh -- let's get trans people into the mix, the gay establishment tells us, after pushing trans people out of a movement they started. (Remember the Stonewall Riots in 1969, credited with launching the modern-day LGBT movement -- when trans women of color, street queens, bulldykes, hustlers, and, yes, even a few "respectable" gays and lesbians, fought against the cops for control over queer bodies and lives?)

Let's push for an end to the US military and its imperialist, bloodthirsty agenda.

After the July 1, 2016, announcement that the Pentagon will allow transgender people in the US military, each branch of the military will have a year to implement the policy change. This will certainly give rise to endless media debates about trans people's bodies and lives. While politicians, pundits, demagogues and "experts" across the limited political spectrum allowed in public forums debate whose body is allowed where, and which type of gender transition will be sufficient enough for which battle-front fatigues, they will actually further transphobia instead of challenging it. And, like the debate over gay marriage, this insincere public spectacle will serve as cover for continuation of the same devastating militaristic foreign policy, the same vicious aggression at home and abroad.

Soon trans people will be able to openly serve their country by pushing buttons in Nevada in order to destroy Pakistani villages, or flying into countries around the world in order to support tyranny. Transgender, like gay or LGBT, will become another appendage to legitimize state terror. This isn't progress -- becoming part of the violence only creates more violence. We need to get back to the original goals of gay, trans and queer liberation -- an end to police state control of queer and trans bodies and lives; gender, sexual, social and political liberation, not just for queers, but for everyone, both in the US and around the world.

Let's push for an end to the US military and its imperialist, bloodthirsty agenda -- or, at the very least, dramatic cuts in the resources allocated to it. Otherwise, the deep structural changes we need in this country will never be possible.

Categories: Latest News

Defending a Sacred Trust: The High Stakes for the Future of US Social Security

Tue, 06/28/2016 - 21:00

Steven Hill is the author of Expand Social Security Now: How to Ensure Americans Get the Retirement They Deserve. In this interview, Hill explains why Social Security's critics are wrong: Social Security does not need to be trimmed or privatized -- it should be expanded. He calls for a doubling of the retirement monthly benefit and shows how to pay for it.

The New Deal monument in Washington, DC. (Photo: Josh)

Social Security is one of the most important and popular government programs of all time. Not only has it been crucial as a foundation for US retirees and as the most effective anti-poverty program ever -- it also has been indispensable as "the policy cornerstone of a decades-old philosophy which deploys the 'visible hand' of government to foster a fair economy for all," according to author Steven Hill in his new book, Expand Social Security Now: How to Ensure Americans Get the Retirement They Deserve.

Social Security, which dates back to President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal in the 1930s, has been beneficial not only for individual retirees, but also for US businesses and the broader macroeconomy. It acts as an "automatic stabilizer," says Hill, keeping money in people's pockets, which maintains levels of consumer spending during economic downturns. Yet despite its obvious value, Social Security has been under attack in recent years by many conservatives and small-government advocates, including both Republicans and Democrats, who have called for austerity-like cuts and "entitlement reform."

In this interview, Steven Hill explains why Social Security's critics are wrong -- Social Security does not need to be trimmed or privatized, instead it should be expanded. Hill calls for a doubling of the retirement monthly benefit, and shows how to pay for it (Hint: Tax fairness = retirement security = economic stability). Hill also comments on how key Democratic leaders, such as presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton as well as Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, have not been great friends to Social Security. Yet today there is a resurgence within the Democratic Party calling for expansion, led by Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

Below is an interview with Hill (@StevenHill1776 on Twitter), who is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and the Holtzbrinck fellow at the American Academy in Berlin.

Christian Coleman: Do you anticipate that Social Security will be a key issue in the 2016 general election?

Steven Hill: Yes, I believe that Social Security is going to play an important role in this year's elections, as it has in the past. Recall in the 2000 presidential race, when Al Gore campaigned on creating a Social Security lockbox. This year, already we have seen sparring in Senate races, especially in Democratic primaries, in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Illinois, New Hampshire and California. Candidates from the "Elizabeth Warren wing" of the Democratic Party have challenged other Democrats for supporting cuts to Social Security.

In his younger years, Trump called Social Security a Ponzi scheme and said it should be privatized, but the ever-mutable Trump has emerged as an entitlement maverick.

It wasn't widely noticed, but during the 2014 congressional elections, when Republicans were close to winning control of the US Senate, many of their candidates suddenly reversed course and spoke out against the idea of trimming Social Security benefits. They pulled a George W. Bush, emerging as the newest hybrid of "compassionate conservative," led by none other than Bush's old chief strategist Karl Rove. Rove ran ads in several key Senate races that accused the Democratic candidates of supporting a "controversial plan" to cut Social Security. In actual fact, the plan was the one promoted by the co-chairs of President Obama's wrong-headed commission to "fix" Social Security by, among other things, raising the retirement age. Rove ran ads, almost comical in their perfidy, citing Democrats' support for the Simpson-Bowles recommendations as a sign of selling out Social Security!

How about for the presidential election? Will Social Security be an issue there?

It already has been, in both the GOP and Democratic presidential campaigns. Sen. Bernie Sanders has rightfully criticized Hillary Clinton for her past waffling and unwillingness to support expansion of this important program. Sanders has been a terrific leader on this issue, both on the campaign trail as well as in the Senate, where he has introduced legislation to expand the program and make benefits more generous. Sanders has proposed to pay for expansion by eliminating the cap on the payroll tax on all income above $250,000. That way, as he says rightly, "millionaires and billionaires pay the same share as everyone else."

If Hillary Clinton is smart, she will push Trump on this issue by clearly and decisively calling for Social Security's expansion.

Donald Trump also has emerged as the only Republican candidate defending Social Security against "entitlement cuts." In his younger years, Trump called Social Security a Ponzi scheme and said it should be privatized, but the ever-mutable Trump has emerged as an entitlement maverick. More than any other candidate, he has helped push the political center on this issue in a new direction. In his latest incarnation, Trump is kind of an Eisenhower Republican on this issue, saying "It's not unreasonable for people who paid into a system for decades to expect to get their money's worth -- that's not an 'entitlement'; that's honoring a deal."

Which makes sense; opinion polls show that even 70 percent of Republicans and conservatives are in favor of Social Security. It's just odd that Clinton is so timid on this. Given the popularity of Social Security, it would seem that there are no political costs to being strongly in favor. If Hillary Clinton is smart, she will push Trump on this issue by clearly and decisively calling for Social Security's expansion. Instead, she now says (after being pushed by Sanders) that she is for expansion, but only for "those who need it most" (including women who are widows and workers who take career breaks to care of family members). But what about all the other hard-working Americans who don't have sufficient savings for their retirement years -- which it turns out is most of us! Her views have remained disturbingly opportunistic. "She was against Social Security expansion before she was for it," that kind of thing.

Secretary Clinton could certainly be vulnerable against Trump over this issue. While Trump has not spoken in favor of actual expansion, he could portray himself as sticking up for the little guy and gal, while taking aim at Hillary by attacking her high-priced lectures to Goldman Sachs and Wall Street. Secretary Clinton could deflect some of this criticism by championing a proposal like the one I have made in my book for "Social Security Plus" -- namely, a doubling of the monthly benefit for the nation's retirees. We can pay for it, as I demonstrate, by lifting the payroll cap and by closing many of the tax deductions and loopholes for capital gains and other forms of "welfare for the rich."

Did Presidents Clinton and Obama do enough to defend Social Security in the 1990s and 2010s, respectively?

No, they actually didn't. Along with other "very serious people" (or VSP's, as Paul Krugman likes to call them), both of them knelt at the altar of proposing cuts "to save Social Security." And because they turned out to be so feckless on this issue, no question that has made it more difficult for Hillary Clinton to find her political as well as her moral compass here.

For many years now, leading Democrats have shown a real lack of FDR-ness, or even JFK-ness "profiles in courage," when it comes to Social Security and the nation's retirement system. Many people forget that President Bill Clinton negotiated with Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich over a plan to "save" Social Security that included partial privatization. That grand bargain imploded under the weight of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and Clinton's impeachment. It's crazy to say, but Monica Lewinsky and all the graphic tawdriness of that terribly embarrassing national moment probably saved Social Security. Thank you Monica!

Nevertheless, Bill Clinton's willingness to "go there" caused lasting harm because no Democratic president had ever before agreed that there was a Social Security "crisis" that needed to be "solved." Clinton's decision provided political cover for politicians of both parties, as well as for special interests like the Wall Street-made billionaire Pete Peterson, to advance schemes for cutting and restructuring the program.

The reality is that for many years the leaders of both major political parties have been presenting the same basic face, which is biased toward the affluent and skewed toward private savings.

That in turn led directly to President George W. Bush's Commission to Strengthen Social Security, which in fact was a commission trying to privatize Social Security by way of individual accounts -- an odd way to strengthen it by in effect wiping it out. So when President Barack Obama took office, the public discourse was already a punishing one. Obama, who was elected twice by voters who overwhelmingly support Social Security, appointed his ill-fated National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform in February 2010, with a charge to "address the growth of entitlement spending." But a big red flag warned of trouble ahead when he appointed his cochairs: the conservative North Carolina Democrat Erskine Bowles and the conservative Republican Alan Simpson, both known to be no friends of Social Security or Medicare. Bowles had deep ties to the financial industry, including being on the board of directors of investment bank Morgan Stanley (which received a $107 billion bailout from the Federal Reserve when it was on the brink of collapse in 2008). And the colorfully blunt Simpson had helped popularize the term "greedy geezers" to describe retired elderly who were allegedly stealing from young people; previously he had described Social Security as "a milk cow with 310 million tits."

Why would President Obama have selected them to be the co-chairs of what came to be known as the Simpson-Bowles Commission? It was a big blow to the overall retirement debate. To make matters worse, Obama then inexplicably proposed in his second term a reduction of benefits based on the co-chairs' revised cost-of-living formula. Obama only dropped this idea after a massive outcry from many Democrats and progressives. One day he will have to address his tainted legacy on Social Security, maybe in his memoirs. Perhaps with that in mind, somewhat bizarrely President Obama recently reversed himself and now is calling for an expansion of Social Security!

Three-quarters of Americans depend heavily on Social Security in their elderly years and nearly half would be living in poverty without it.

Unfortunately, the reality is that for many years the leaders of both major political parties have been presenting the same basic face, which is biased toward the affluent and skewed toward private savings, rather doubling down on the type of "wage insurance" that has been so successful -- Social Security. With private company pensions all but gone, why not expand what has worked so well -- Social Security -- rather than what has failed -- 401(k)s, IRAs and other private savings vehicles that have not benefited most Americans for the simple fact that most people don't earn enough income to save? Without the party of FDR to defend it -- and unfortunately, the Democrats are no longer that -- the New Deal policy infrastructure has been severely weakened. It is the height of a sad kind of irony -- and a reflection of the strange odyssey of the Democratic Party -- that the bombastic Trump has been a more staunch supporter of safeguarding entitlement programs for retirees than either President Obama or Bill or Hillary Clinton. With economic populist positions like this one and others, as well as the vibrancy of the immigration and terrorism issue that we saw revealed in the Brexit vote over the UK leaving the European Union, I think Trump could end up being a much tougher opponent for Hillary Clinton than many people realize.

OK, so if we can get Trump Republicans and Clinton Democrats to agree to expand Social Security, how should we do it? What would expanded Social Security look like?

It's really not that complicated. In fact, not only can we expand Social Security, but we can double its monthly benefit by making our Social Security fairer, more innovative and more stable. I call this upgraded version Social Security Plus.

By applying Social Security rules on investment income -- which is how Medicare is partly funded -- we would raise billions of dollars more.

The real challenge for the nation's retirement system is not bankruptcy, as its critics say -- it's the fact that Social Security was designed to replace only about 35 percent of wages at retirement. Yet most experts estimate you will need twice that amount to live decently in your post-employment years. And private retirement pensions as well as personal savings centered on homeownership -- the other two legs of the wobbly three-legged stool of retirement -- essentially have collapsed for most Americans. All that most people have now, for the most part, is Social Security. Three-quarters of Americans depend heavily on Social Security in their elderly years and nearly half would be living in poverty without it. It is particularly important to women and racial minorities, providing 90 percent or more of income for 55 percent of elderly Latino beneficiaries, 49 percent of Black people and 42 percent of Asian Americans.

Despite its central role as our country's de facto national retirement system, we don't recognize it as such, and so don't realize that the current monthly benefit is insufficient. And given that seniors are one of the nation's most active bloc of consumers, spending their retirement on the services and goods they need to live, that has a direct impact on lowering the aggregate consumer demand that is the main driver of the nation's macroeconomy.

The solution, as only Sanders has been pointing out, is to expand Social Security. But even Sanders' proposal would add only about $68 per month per beneficiary -- better than nothing, but not good enough to make a significant difference. What the US really should do is to double Social Security's individual monthly payout for the 43 million Americans who receive retirement benefits. That would bring the US retirement system more in alignment with the national retirement systems used in many other developed countries, such as Netherlands, Denmark, France, Sweden and others.

How much would it cost to double the monthly benefit? Approximately $662 billion. That seems like a lot of money, but it's achievable. Here's how.

The US could achieve this by, first, eliminating the unfair Social Security payroll cap which taxes wealthy people at a much lower rate than middle-and working-class Americans. That one step would raise approximately $135 billion towards our goal.

Second, many wealthy Americans make a lot of their money through investment income instead of from wages. Yet they make zero Social Security contributions based on that income. By applying Social Security rules on this investment income -- which is how Medicare is partly funded -- we would raise billions of dollars more.

Third, we should eliminate tax shelters and loopholes for one-percenter households and businesses, including for capital gains, investment income, and their twisted offspring like "carried interest" and the truly outrageous "step-up in basis," which exclusively benefits inherited wealth. These whoppers vastly benefit mostly affluent Americans, functioning as a direct federal subsidy for them. And it costs the national treasury some $350 billion per year.

Ironically, once again Donald Trump has been the most outspoken about these rip-offs, prompting The New York Times to write that Trump had "done more to put a stake in the heart of the carried-interest tax loophole than the Obama administration has in the last six and a half years." ... Trump previously announced that one thing he would do if elected is close the carried-interest loophole. "The hedge fund guys didn't build this country," says Trump. "These are guys that shift paper around and they get lucky.... The hedge fund guys are getting away with murder." We'll see if he continues this kind of economic populist rhetoric in the coming months.

Fourth, we can raise another $100 billion by eliminating the tax exclusions that employers receive for sponsoring their company's retirement plans. Not many people realize it, but every tax-paying American subsidizes the retirement plans provided by companies, even though a small minority of Americans -- disproportionately the better off -- benefit from them. By implementing Social Security Plus, which would double the monthly benefit, employers would be liberated from the responsibility of providing retirement for their employees. So they will not need the substantial taxpayer-funded subsidies they receive from the federal government for their company's retirement plan.

We have nearly reached $662 billion. Finally, the US also should redesign certain components of the current US retirement system, including 401(k)s, IRAs, private pensions and even homeownership, which have failed to enhance the retirement security of most Americans because these deductions also vastly benefit the most well-off Americans. For example, of the $165 billion that the federal government spends subsidizing individual retirement savings, nearly 80 percent of it goes to the top 20 percent of income earners. The middle class and poor can rarely take advantage of these deductions because they don't earn enough income to participate. These "subsidies for the affluent" were designed as retirement savings vehicles, but once we double the Social Security pension annuity, these deductions won't be necessary anymore.

The same is true for federal underwriting of homeownership. The federal subsidy for the home mortgage interest deduction amounts to around $70 billion per year, with Americans in the top 10 percent income bracket hoovering a whopping 86 percent of this federal subsidy. And the federal tax deduction allowed to homeowners to mitigate the cost of state and local property taxes they pay on their houses cost the federal budget another $32 billion in 2014. A study by the Congressional Budget Office found that Americans in the upper 20 percent income bracket reaped 80 percent of this federal subsidy. And just to make sure everyone understands who the tax code favors, homeowners also do not have to pay taxes on up to $250,000 of their capital gains profits when they sell their home, which doubles to $500,000 for married taxpayers. That exclusion amounted to a federal subsidy to the tune of another $52 billion in 2014. Together, these three federal subsidies for homeownership total $154 billion -- and for the most part they subsidize higher-income taxpayers.

In comparison, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, which administers the government's largest affordable housing programs for low-income people, spent barely a quarter of that $154 billion, about $42 billion in 2014. Renters and most low-income people don't benefit at all, and while some middle-income people benefit, the total amount of their deductions and subsidies are comparatively small. They would be far better off if we doubled their Social Security monthly benefit.

This tax fairness not only would create a more secure retirement, it also would act as an automatic stabilizer, ensuring that retirees will have a decent income even during downturns.

If we combine those budgetary add-backs with our previous savings, we now have reached nearly $900 billion, well over the $662 billion level we needed to reach in order to enact Social Security Plus and double this highly popular national retirement system's payout. Just a few revenue streams would raise more than enough revenue for forging Social Security Plus, which would provide a stable, secure retirement for every American. That's even enough revenue to take a major step toward covering the predicted Social Security shortfall in the 2030s, as well as the impending gap in funding for Social Security's disability fund. And we can do this without spending a dime more in government money or national wealth than what is already being spent on the retirement system or subsidizing the wealthy. We are just shifting expenditures that right now benefit a small number of individuals and special interests as a result of how the tax code is structured, and refocusing these resources on the vast majority of Americans.

This kind of tax fairness not only would create a more secure retirement, it also would act as an automatic stabilizer, ensuring that retirees will have a decent income even during downturns. Moreover, this kind of system of Social Security Plus would better fit the type of high-tech digital economy that is slowly taking root. More and more Americans have been forced into becoming contractors, freelancers and temps, and so Social Security Plus would form a core part of the portable, universal safety net that is so badly needed for the many Americans today who are working part-time for multiple employers. So quite literally, tax fairness = retirement security = economic stability.

In the upcoming elections, candidates from both major parties should be held accountable for their views and proposals about this most sacred of US institutions. Now is the time to try and make this a front-burner issue. Nearly every American has a stake in how this battle turns out. Important organizations like Social Security Works, Progressive Change Campaign Committee and others already are fighting on the front lines for Social Security expansion. But they need assistance. They need activists and the resources to push this issue to the forefront. The future of our nation and the type of society we are going to live in is at stake, and no candidate should be able to waffle or wiggle out of telling us where she or he stands.

Categories: Latest News

Oaxaca's Teachers Movement Not Thwarted by State Terror

Mon, 06/27/2016 - 21:00

Oaxacan teachers sport umbrellas to shield themselves from the afternoon sun as they march in protest of the education reforms. (WNV / Shirin Hess)

On June 19, the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca was the scene of a senseless massacre. The bloody battle took place in the rural town of Nochixtlan and resulted in the death of at least nine civilians. "Right now, the federal police are withdrawing, going back to their vehicles," said a witness of the attack as he filmed the horrific scene. Bullets are heard smashing against metal traffic barriers on the roadside as the camera image shakes. Taking heavy breaths he calmly continued, "And as they retreat, they are shooting at us with firearms."

A week earlier, police crackdowns had begun in various regions of Oaxaca state. These acts of violence are occurring in light of current protests in Oaxaca, where -- since May 15 -- the teachers' movement has set up a peaceful plantón, or encampment, in the city center, and dozens of roadblocks across the state, including Nochixtlan. The teachers demanded a dialogue with the local and federal government about a recently approved education overhaul and the implementation of its neoliberal policies in Oaxaca.

The conflict first escalated when two of Oaxaca's major union leaders were accused of money laundering, arbitrarily detained and taken to maximum security prisons on June 11. Tensions rose, the leaders were not released and police performed various intended evictions across the state, though none of these led to fatalities.

Initially the federal police force denied they were carrying guns, however, as evidence mounted, they were forced to admit that they were in possession of weapons. In addition to nine dead, the planned eviction on June 19 left over 100 people wounded and between 22 and 25 disappeared after a confrontation that lasted 15 hours -- during which police used tear gas and automatic machine guns to repress the fierce protesters. Hospital workers on the scene were also attacked with tear gas.

Meanwhile Oaxaca's Gov. Gabino Cue, who gave the order for police reinforcement in Nochixtlan, spent the evening at a wedding celebration.

Oaxaca didn't take long to react.

Social networks were buzzing with activity and calls for solidarity. The morning after the fatal attacks, community radio and the church were informing people about the rebellion and calling them to participate in the barricades. The National Coordinator of Education Workers Union, or CNTE, a dissident movement within the government-affiliated national teachers union, released a statement demanding the resignation of Gov. Cue, while thousands took to the streets of Oaxaca city to raise their voices against police violence. "Fight, fight, fight, never stop fighting! For a laborers', peasants' and popular government!" the crowd shouted as they made their way towards the zocalo, or main square.

"We can't negotiate about our deceased, there is no price they can pay for them," said Victoria Tenopala Juárez, member of the Oaxacan Council of Autonomous Organizations and wife of political prisoner Cesar Leon Mendoza to the crowd in the square. "Unite! This fight is the people's fight, and the reform affects us all."

In 2014 Mexico's ruling party -- the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, led by President Enrique Peña Nieto -- introduced a series of reforms to the health, energy, telecommunications and education sectors, among others. Ever since its proposal a year earlier, teachers slammed the education reform and its focus on labor policy, which they say is not actually concerned with the development of education and schools and is simply aimed at privatization. The recent local election of another PRI government in Oaxaca only confirms this tendency.

Protests to save public education and against the structural reforms have now taken place among many of Mexico's labor unions, who demand an equal distribution of resources and an end to corruption in Mexico. "This is a very complex war. It did not start in Oaxaca. The teachers' struggle, it is a global struggle. It started in Colombia, in Brazil, in Chile, in the United States -- everywhere. And today we are in a war trying to say a very firm no to this kind of education," Gustavo Esteva -- an academic, La Jornada columnist and Oaxaca's Earth University founder -- told Democracy Now!"And we are saying no very firmly to all the so-called structural reforms that mean basically a change only of ownership."

The teachers had demanded dialogue with the government ever since the introduction of the reforms, however, neither local nor federal governments conceded to any form of negotiation with the teachers until the morning of June 21 when the CNTE announced there would be a meeting with Interior Secretary Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong the next day. Aurelio Nuño, Secretary of Public Education, did not attend the meeting, and it was rescheduled to take place on June 27.

Already, the reform has had many debilitating effects for Oaxacan teachers. The most obvious are the precarious contracts and employment instability created by a standardized, nationwide evaluation, which will make it easier for teachers to be dismissed. Teachers in the states of Michoacán, Chiapas and Oaxaca have thus far largely resisted the execution of the evaluation. They defend their position by calling attention to how the reforms ignore the many cultural differences in a country as large and ethnically diverse as Mexico. "We aren't against the evaluations," said a teacher from the rural town of Tuxtepec. "We just want it to be a fair and contextualized one, that gives us a chance."

Cultural Genocide and Resistance

With as many as 16 local indigenous languages, Oaxaca represents one of the most culturally and ethnically diverse states in Mexico. Furthermore, Oaxaca is rich in natural resources, with a long history of indigenous and campesino resistance, as well as one of the highest poverty rates in the country.

While corrupt government officials and transnational investment companies have denied people of their rights and appropriate their land under the pretence of "progress," rural and indigenous communities often suffer consequences such as eviction, extortion, cultural annihilation and other forms of abuse and theft.

According to the CNTE, the recent reforms are nothing more than a continued attempt to promote homogeneity and an unceasing legacy of racist oppression in an already markedly unequal nation. Oaxaca, and in particular the teachers of Section 22 of the CNTE, have played an important role in resisting the reforms, garnering the support from dissident groups all over Mexico; day laborers of San Quintin, the Mexican Electricians Union, health workers, university students, parents of the 43 missing Ayotzinapa students and the Zapatistas National Liberation Army in Chiapas are only a few examples of the teachers' national advocates. They support the movement against the privatization of education, as well as the right to access public services, labor rights, food sovereignty and an end to violence in the country.

In under a month, members of the CNTE in 18 states have joined the movement, endorsing its demands and setting in motion countless mobilizations across the nation. In addition to this, the movement is gaining support from indigenous communities across Oaxaca's eight regions. The teachers have made it clear they will not surrender.

Teachers and souvenir sellers share the space below the canopies in the occupied main square of Oaxaca city. (WNV / Shirin Hess)

A majestic cathedral overlooks the encampment on Oaxaca's main square; a sea of tents, sleeping bags and plastic canopies are raised above the sidewalks. "What they're doing to us is subtle genocide," said Euterio Garcia, an indigenous teacher in a community of Oaxaca's northern mountain range. He argues the education reform represents a high risk for the continuity of Mexico's indigenous cultures. "I am a bilingual teacher for Chinanteco and Spanish. I have no materials with which to teach my students, no books, nothing. There is no light or water in the village, and no proper plumbing. This is what motivates many of us. There are so many communities that are marginalized and forgotten. They don't exist on the map, they don't exist for the state."

Garcia is among those fighting for a better future for the next generation of Mexico's rural and indigenous communities. He is member of the CNTE's local Section 22, which currently consists of between 75,000 and 83,000 members, time and time again proving its power before the Oaxacan state.

"We are like small cells, constantly multiplying and expanding," said Garcia. "This movement is a grassroots movement, not one of leaders. Our leaders could be bought or coerced. But I, and others, aspire to continue the social struggle. That is why we are still here, after so many years of struggling."

Garcia said that he, like many of his colleagues, is drained, and hopes that the government will yield before there is any more violence.

A Brief History of Mexican Teachers

The teachers' struggle in Mexico has its roots in the beginning of the 20th century, forming what is now Latin America's largest syndicate, the National Union of Education Workers, or SNTE. The SNTE is commonly labeled a corporatist union in alliance with the country's 70-year ruling PRI party, while the CNTE has stood for horizontal and democratic union structures, bringing together many of the country's regional teachers' movements.

Worsening conditions for many teachers and schools in the poorest states of the country -- in combination with the corrupt SNTE -- played an important role in galvanizing national protests, and ultimately contributed to the formation of the CNTE in December 1979.

Oaxacan teachers of the union's Section 22 developed important strategies for their movement and contributed to the longevity of the struggle over the years by carrying out peaceful encampments and roadblocks. During one of these encampments, in 2006, Gov. Ulises Ruiz Ortiz threatened to evict the teachers with the help of Mexican federal police.

The state ordered an attack on the teachers in the early hours of the morning, which galvanized massive popular support for the union. Community media played a crucial role in counteracting mainstream channels of information that demonized the teachers as corrupt troublemakers, and allowed their voices to be heard.

Days later, over 200,000 people streamed onto the streets of Oaxaca to denounce the local government and the dictatorial PRI party rule for their corruption and violent repression. For over five months, the teachers built barricades around the main square and Oaxaca became the scene of a massive popular uprising. Together with over 300 civil society organizations, the teachers formed the Popular Assembly of Oaxaca's Communities, or APPO, which demanded and achieved the removal of the governor. Tragically, this success was achieved at a high cost. Hundreds of people were kidnapped, disappeared and tortured, and 26 were killed, including an American journalist.

A truth commission led by members of Oaxacan civil society organizations revealed that during the struggle, often referred to as the "Oaxaca Commune," the state systematically violated human rights. According to author and academic investigator Jose Sotelo Marban, the repression exercised by the police and paramilitary towards the APPO activists falls under the clear definition of "state terrorism." What happened in Nochixtlan on June 19, was a bitter reminder of these acts of state terror in 2006, almost exactly 10 years ago.

Consequences and State Repression

Violent repression and police vigilance are not uncommon in Oaxaca. "There are police roaming outside our school almost every day," said Gabriela Reyes, a preschool teacher at a school in a low-income part of Oaxaca city (whose name has been changed for security purposes). "We've decided to get on with things and not to take notice of them."

According to Reyes, the police are monitoring those teachers attending marches and making sure no classes are missed. Much of the stigma attached to the movement comes from media that label teachers as lazy and stress the time students lose while their teachers are out on the streets protesting.

Graffiti appears all over the center of the city after the initial eviction at the State Institute for Oaxacan Education on June 14. (WNV / Chandni Navalka)

The teachers overcome this issue by working and covering the union duties in shifts, said Reyes. "It's not easy, since we already lack staff," she explained. "But we've made it work. In our case at least, 100 percent of the parents at our school stand behind us." Victories such as free school uniforms and breakfast for students have proven to many parents that the teachers' organization and persistence has born valuable fruits.

For Reyes and many other teachers in Oaxaca, the reform is predominantly a means of control that openly promotes homogeneity in society. "The reform allows no space for anything alternative in the curriculum. We pride ourselves on culture, heritage and a more environmentally-conscious education," she said, also highlighting the danger of the reforms' intention to replace teachers with professionals who do not possess any pedagogic skills or education. "How can we expect an engineer or a mathematician to know how to properly support a group of five-year-olds?"

While Reyes and many others claim the demands of the standardized evaluation are impossible to meet, the state has imposed another repressive mechanism by restricting teachers' union participation. As if this weren't enough, in the last five weeks over 4,000 teachers have been dismissed while the salary for others is being withheld as a direct consequence of their participation in the strikes and roadblocks.

Misleading Public Opinion

The teachers' dissidence has not been beneficial to the Mexican state, challenging its power over the population. Scapegoating the teachers as the root of the problem in the media has been the easiest way for the government to take attention away from failures of the system, seriously underfunded public services and corporate greed and abuse.

As Mexican academic Maria de la Luz Arriaga Lemus states in her article about the democratization of education, the reforms "were passed with minimal input from the teaching profession."

The educational reforms were created by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD; entrepreneurs, including Claudio X. Gonzalez, ex-counselor of the pro-government TV channel Televisa; and Mexicanos Primero, an education think tank founded by some of the richest and most politically influential men in Mexico. La Jornada's Navarro has described Gonzalez as a "dubious" figure who likes to present himself as a social activist concerned about education in Mexico, while his "preferred activity in recent years has been to stigmatize teachers, discredit public education and intimidate those who do not bow to his will."

In addition, the reform was backed by the "Pact for Mexico," a participatory agreement between the PRI and two leading parties. All of this was decided almost entirely behind closed doors, without a debate, participation of students, parents or specialists, or the consideration of what educational policies have been implemented in the past.

In the midst of a frenzy of media attacks against the roadblocks, barricades and lost teaching hours, the fact that the Oaxacan teachers have come up with an alternative reform proposal has been pushed completely out of the spotlight. The proposal, which they have called the Plan for the Transformation of Education in Oaxaca, or PTEO, is based on four main principles: democracy, nationalism, humanism and communitarianism, and was written together with the State Institute for Oaxacan Education.

In addition to these principles, it emphasizes the importance of differentiating between Mexico's cultures and aims to provide Oaxacan schools with more materials and basic infrastructure, such as classrooms, bathrooms and electricity.

Among Section 22's current demands is the liberation of political prisoners, employment security, payment of all withheld salaries, and above all, a fair and peaceful dialogue with the government regarding these demands and the PTOE.

As tensions rise and Mexico's teachers and their supporters prepare for the struggles that await them while they continue to protest peacefully, consciousness about what the reforms really mean for the country is starting to sink in for many people. The excessive use of force exercised by the government is absolutely inexcusable, and goes against the right to peaceful protest and the right to freedom of expression.

The barricades in Oaxaca's city center remain, as do those in Nochixtlan and other rural areas. The people of Oaxaca understand the importance of an autonomous and free education. They know that it is not only education that's subject to privatization, but that Mexico's resources on indigenous and communal land are also at great risk of being stolen or appropriated. "They are selling our land, our territory," said Esteva. But he knows Oaxaca too well. "The people are resisting."

Categories: Latest News

Lying About Science for Politics Is Evil

Mon, 06/27/2016 - 21:00

Demonstrators outside the ExxonMobil shareholder meeting in Dallas, Texas, May 25, 2016. Activist investors want to hold on to their stakes in the company and prod the oil and gas giant to adopt new policies that reflect the realities of climate change. Another group is urging big institutional shareholders to dump all their fossil-fuel stocks. (Photo: Ben Torres / The New York Times)

While the Democratic Party Platform Committee fell short of embracing a carbon tax and an outright ban on fracking, the Clinton and Sanders camps did come together to agree that it's time for the Justice Department to investigate fossil fuel companies for potential fraud. Bill McKibben presented the motion to the platform committee on Friday.

Right now, 17 attorneys general here in the United States are investigating allegations that ExxonMobil misled the public about how the company's business model threatens the planet and public health. Those allegations are based on reports from InsideClimate News, the Guardian and the LA Times, which show that nearly 40 years ago, Exxon's own scientists had started warning about the dangers of relentlessly burning CO2 into the atmosphere.

And while the Democratic Party is attempting to establish itself as the "party of climate justice," the Republican Party is working hard to stall action at every turn.

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

Thirteen Republican attorneys general wrote in a letter earlier this month that, "using law enforcement authority to resolve a public policy debate undermines the trust invested and threatens free speech."

The problem is, fraud and deceit isn't covered under First Amendment free speech protections, and the issue at hand isn't a "public policy debate," it's scientific consensus. In fact, it's such a matter of scientific consensus that Dr. Michael Mann told the Democratic Party Platform Committee that we really don't even need to be collecting data or testing models to prove that the climate is changing, because we can just turn on the TV and see the evidence.

The historic 100-year floods in West Virginia that killed dozens of people have gotten plenty of media attention, especially the dramatic video of a burning house floating down a flooded valley. But few commentators have bothered to mention that West Virginia and the surrounding region of the country have seen a 71 percent increase in precipitation since 1958, because a warmer atmosphere also holds more moisture.

On the other side of the country, in California, wildfires have burned across nearly 100,000 acres of forest already this year, and we're still early in the wildfire season. Wildfires aren't just getting bigger though. The season now lasts almost 10 weeks longer on average than it did in the 1970s, thanks to a number of factors, including the fact that ice is melting from the Rocky Mountains earlier every year, and the fact that summers are getting hotter and drier on average. A historic heat wave that stretches from California to Missouri has helped fuel those wildfires, and has killed at least five people in Arizona in the month of June.

We're seeing increased flooding along our coasts thanks to rising seas that are forcing people to leave their houses while destroying our natural estuaries and wetlands and wiping out the economies that depend on them.

Warmer oceans are feeding increasingly more frequent superstorms like Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Katrina, and year after year, hurricane seasons are starting earlier and lasting longer.

And that's just a glimpse at the impacts of climate change around the United States.

Across the world, we're seeing stressed water resources and dryer soils that threaten agriculture and regional stability, like we've already seeing with the rise of ISIS and the Syrian Civil War.

We're seeing tropical diseases like the Zika virus and malaria spreading across the planet and threatening public health as the world becomes wetter, warmer and more tropical.

We're seeing coral bleaching and ocean acidification that threatens life as we know it in our oceans, destroys the livelihoods of coastal communities across the planet and could cost the global economy up to $24 trillion in assets.

We're seeing more atmospheric blocks like the so-called "ridiculously resilient ridge" that contributes to major prolonged weather events like the extreme wildfires in Alberta and Alaska that forced more than 80,000 people to evacuate their homes earlier this year.

Like Dr. Michael Mann told the Democratic National Committee, everywhere we look, we are now seeing the impacts of climate change. And it's time that the United States become a world leader in the pursuit of climate justice for the millions of current victims of climate change across the world, and for the future generations that will be living with the consequences of our fossil fuel dependency.

As a country, we need to pass an outright ban on fracking, we need to pass a tax on carbon and methane emissions, and we need to invest in a Green New Deal to make our economy 100 percent fossil-free.

But right now, the Democrats have taken a good first step by coming together as a party to call for the Justice Department to investigate what companies like ExxonMobil knew about climate change, when they knew it and whether they misled their investors and the American public.

Categories: Latest News

As Extreme Weather Sweeps Across US, Is New Democratic Platform on Climate Change Too Weak?

Mon, 06/27/2016 - 21:00

Extreme weather is sweeping across the United States, from scorching heat in the Southwest to uncontrollable wildfires in California, to deadly flooding in Appalachia. In West Virginia, at least 23 people have died in once-in-a-thousand-year flooding, and a number of people remain missing across the state. Meanwhile, wildfires are raging up and down the state of California. At least two people have died, and hundreds of homes have been destroyed. May was the 13th straight month to smash global temperature records, amid increasing human-fueled global warming. We speak with Michael Mann, a professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University. Mann was in Phoenix last weekend to testify before the Democratic National Platform Draft Committee meeting.

Please check back later for full transcript.

Categories: Latest News

Florida Cracks Down on Troubled For-Profit Facility for People With Disabilities

Mon, 06/27/2016 - 21:00

After years of tepid action, Florida officials are moving to intensify monitoring and remove residents from a sprawling complex for the disabled that has a long history of abuse and neglect.

The state is taking the unusual step of stationing an investigator at the Carlton Palms Educational Center and forming a special team to closely watch over staff and residents, documents obtained by ProPublica show. Residents will eventually be relocated to new homes. 

Carlton Palms, on a remote stretch of lakefront northwest of Orlando, houses 202 people with severe developmental or intellectual disabilities and behavior issues -- more than a quarter of the state's residents in group homes for that reason.

ProPublica published an investigation last year into decades of harsh tactics and outright abuse at the facility and others owned by the for-profit company AdvoServ. Carlton Palms' workers have relied for years on mechanical restraints, such as ankle shackles and a device similar to a full-body straight jacket, that most other providers abandoned long ago. Carlton Palms' staff used restraints roughly 28,000 times in less than five years, records showed.

The changes at Carlton Palms are part of a new agreement between AdvoServ and Florida officials. Under the deal, Carlton Palms is also banned from accepting new residents -- from Florida or anywhere else -- unless the state agrees an emergency placement is necessary.

Since our investigation was published in December, the state Department of Children and Families has substantiated two more complaints of mistreatment there -- one that resulted in an injury and another related to inadequate supervision of a resident, state records show. The records do not provide further details on the incidents.

Six additional complaints were made this month alone, including one reported the same day late last week that the state and AdvoServ signed the agreement to better monitor residents and, ultimately, remove them. Those are still under investigation.

Carlton Palms' residents will move into smaller homes closer to their families over the coming months, according to a statement released by the Agency for Persons with Disabilities in response to questions from ProPublica. The state hopes to complete the moves a year before a federal Medicaid deadline in 2019 to end placements in large, institutional-type settings.

"We look forward to working collaboratively with AdvoServ to ensure a smooth transition for its residents into the community," said agency Director Barbara Palmer in the statement.

AdvoServ officials declined to comment.

It's possible that AdvoServ will seek the state's blessing to run some of the new community homes.

"We understand that AdvoServ will remain in Florida," APD spokeswoman Melanie Etters wrote in an email, adding that the company is planning to operate smaller homes instead of a big campus like Carlton Palms. The Florida facility is by far the company's largest. Residents will have a chance to choose their new homes, Etters said.

The Carlton Palms facility has faced enormous criticism in recent years after a series of incidents involving abuse by staff and the death of a 14-year-old autistic girl from dehydration after a night in which she was at times strapped to a bed while vomiting repeatedly.

The state disability agency reached settlements with the company each time it filed formal legal complaints against the facility over abuse or neglect. ProPublica's investigation detailed how AdvoServ has for years hired lobbyists and lawyers to fend off regulation and shape policy in the states where its homes are located. As of late last year, the company cared for roughly 700 people in Florida, New Jersey and Delaware and was expanding into Virginia.

Under the Florida agreement, the state Department of Children and Families investigator stationed at the campus will have access to all areas and video recordings. The state disability agency willform a team to step up monitoring of all restraints, plans for managing behavior issues, medical care, and staffing ratios. Within two months, the state will hire an independent group to take over the monitoring and develop transition plans for each client.

In addition, the agreement requires Carlton Palms administrators to make sure that video recordings are reviewed whenever there is a restraint, an injury to a resident or a complaint to the state abuse hotline. Carlton Palms is also expected to conduct random monitoring of all video to watch for abuse or neglect.

Video at the center has been the subject of scrutiny before. After 14-year-old Paige Lunsford died, AdvoServ officials said hours of footage of the hallway outside her bedroom had been accidentally deleted.

Categories: Latest News

The Spanish Left's Anti-Inequality Plan

Mon, 06/27/2016 - 21:00

After weaker than expected results in Sunday's election, Pablo Iglesias, leader of the Spanish Podemos Party, vowed to continue to push the young party's ambitious anti-inequality and anti-austerity platform.

The PP received 33 percent of the vote, while the PSOE received 23 percent and Unidos Podemos 21 percent. With no party winning a majority, negotiations will now begin to see whether any of them will be able to attract enough coalition partners to govern.Podemos and other smaller leftist parties in the coalition "Unidos Podemos" had been widely expected to come in second in the June 26 vote. Instead, in the aftermath of the UK's destabilizing Brexit vote, the upstart party placed third after the two that have taken turns governing the country for four decades -- the right-wing Popular Party (PP) and the center-left Socialist Workers Party (PSOE).

Whatever the outcome, Iglesias declared that with their strong support among young people, "Spain's future will involve Unidos Podemos."

Iglesias, 37, helped found Podemos just two years ago as an outgrowth of Los Indignados ("The Outraged"). This group of mostly young protesters rose up to demand radical change in the face of the country's skyrocketing unemployment and harsh budget cuts.

Spain has had the second-highest increase in inequality of any OECD since 2007. The jobless rate is 21 percent nationally and over 45 percent for youth 25 and under.

If they could gain power, how would Iglesias and Podemos plan to tackle the country's extreme levels of inequality? The Podemos party platform has garnered a lot of publicity for its clever design. In the form of an IKEA catalog, Iglesias and other party leaders are featured watering plants and slicing cheese, alongside some of their key policy priorities. But the media outside Spain have paid scant attention to the details of the party's inequality-related proposals. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Increase the top marginal tax rate to 55 percent for those earning over €300,000 (US$340,000).

  • Apply a wealth tax on holdings of over €400,000 (compared to €700,000 currently), excluding the value of first homes. Measures will also be taken to close loopholes that have practically eliminated the inheritance tax in some regions of Spain.

  • Impose a one-off solidarity tax on private financial institutions to recoup the cost of public subsidies.

  • Advance an ambitious financial transaction tax based on the European Commission's proposal for a tax of 0.1 percent on stock and bond trades and 0.01% on derivatives trades.

  • Advocate for an international treaty to eliminate tax havens.

  • Audit the country' crushing national debt and restructure the terms of this debt to alleviate the burden on ordinary Spaniards.

  • Launch a €15 billion social welfare and economic modernization plan including a "renta guarantizada" (guaranteed minimum income). This will be complementary to existing income for households below the poverty line. The initial amount will be €600 per month for living units of one member, with an additional 35 percent for a second  household member, and 20 percent of that for each subsequent family member up to a total of €1,290. There will also be income support for low-wage workers that guarantees a minimum of €900 per month.

  • Seek reform of the EU Stability and Growth Pact, which is the core of the austerity measures imposed on Spain that have exacerbated poverty and unemployment.

  • Increase the minimum wage from €70 per month (US$856) to €800 initially and then to €950 within four years.

  • Reverse health and education cuts and labor law reforms that have weakened collective bargaining rights.

  • Lower the retirement age from 67 to 65 and provide pension rights to immigrants.

  • Provide universal access to health services, including for immigrants, and guaranteed access to basic services, including the right to heating, light, and water. Suppliers will no longer be able to cut off utilities for poor people who can't afford to pay bills.

  • Oppose the proposed U.S.-EU trade agreement, the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

Given the election results, Podemos will likely remain an opposition party for the near term. But the party's commitment to tackling inequality (and that of the Indignados movement from which it sprung) has already reshaped the Spanish political landscape. In 2011, both major parties defended a program of budget cuts that increased inequality. Now, the right-wing PP is the only one of the four major parties that still advocates such austerity measures -- and it will not be able to govern the country alone.

Categories: Latest News

The Age of Disintegration: An Endless Cycle of Indecisive Wars

Mon, 06/27/2016 - 21:00

We live in an age of disintegration. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Greater Middle East and Africa. Across the vast swath of territory between Pakistan and Nigeria, there are at least seven ongoing wars -- in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and South Sudan. These conflicts are extraordinarily destructive. They are tearing apart the countries in which they are taking place in ways that make it doubtful they will ever recover. Cities like Aleppo in Syria, Ramadi in Iraq, Taiz in Yemen, and Benghazi in Libya have been partly or entirely reduced to ruins. There are also at least three other serious insurgencies: in southeast Turkey, where Kurdish guerrillas are fighting the Turkish army, in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula where a little-reported but ferocious guerrilla conflict is underway, and in northeast Nigeria and neighboring countries where Boko Haram continues to launch murderous attacks.

All of these have a number of things in common: they are endless and seem never to produce definitive winners or losers. (Afghanistan has effectively been at war since 1979, Somalia since 1991.) They involve the destruction or dismemberment of unified nations, their de facto partition amid mass population movements and upheavals -- well publicized in the case of Syria and Iraq, less so in places like South Sudan where more than 2.4 million people have been displaced in recent years.

Add in one more similarity, no less crucial for being obvious: in most of these countries, where Islam is the dominant religion, extreme Salafi-Jihadi movements, including the Islamic State (IS), al-Qaeda, and the Taliban are essentially the only available vehicles for protest and rebellion. By now, they have completely replaced the socialist and nationalist movements that predominated in the twentieth century; these years have, that is, seen a remarkable reversion to religious, ethnic, and tribal identity, to movements that seek to establish their own exclusive territory by the persecution and expulsion of minorities.

In the process and under the pressure of outside military intervention, a vast region of the planet seems to be cracking open. Yet there is very little understanding of these processes in Washington. This was recently well illustrated by the protest of 51 State Department diplomats against President Obama's Syrian policy and their suggestion that air strikes be launched targeting Syrian regime forces in the belief that President Bashar al-Assad would then abide by a ceasefire. The diplomats' approach remains typically simpleminded in this most complex of conflicts, assuming as it does that the Syrian government's barrel-bombing of civilians and other grim acts are the "root cause of the instability that continues to grip Syria and the broader region."

It is as if the minds of these diplomats were still in the Cold War era, as if they were still fighting the Soviet Union and its allies. Against all the evidence of the last five years, there is an assumption that a barely extant moderate Syrian opposition would benefit from the fall of Assad, and a lack of understanding that the armed opposition in Syria is entirely dominated by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda clones.

Though the invasion of Iraq in 2003 is now widely admitted to have been a mistake (even by those who supported it at the time), no real lessons have been learned about why direct or indirect military interventions by the U.S. and its allies in the Middle East over the last quarter century have all only exacerbated violence and accelerated state failure.

A Mass Extinction of Independent States

The Islamic State, just celebrating its second anniversary, is the grotesque outcome of this era of chaos and conflict. That such a monstrous cult exists at all is a symptom of the deep dislocation societies throughout that region, ruled by corrupt and discredited elites, have suffered. Its rise -- and that of various Taliban and al-Qaeda-style clones -- is a measure of the weakness of its opponents.

The Iraqi army and security forces, for example, had 350,000 soldiers and 660,000 police on the books in June 2014 when a few thousand Islamic State fighters captured Mosul, the country's second largest city, which they still hold. Today the Iraqi army, security services, and about 20,000 Shia paramilitaries backed by the massive firepower of the United States and allied air forces have fought their way into the city of Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad, against the resistance of IS fighters who may have numbered as few as 900. In Afghanistan, the resurgence of the Taliban, supposedly decisively defeated in 2001, came about less because of the popularity of that movement than the contempt with which Afghans came to regard their corrupt government in Kabul.

Everywhere nation states are enfeebled or collapsing, as authoritarian leaders battle for survival in the face of mounting external and internal pressures. This is hardly the way the region was expected to develop. Countries that had escaped from colonial rule in the second half of the twentieth century were supposed to become more, not less, unified as time passed.

Between 1950 and 1975, nationalist leaders came to power in much of the previously colonized world. They promised to achieve national self-determination by creating powerful independent states through the concentration of whatever political, military, and economic resources were at hand. Instead, over the decades, many of these regimes transmuted into police states controlled by small numbers of staggeringly wealthy families and a coterie of businessmen dependent on their connections to such leaders as Hosni Mubarak in Egypt or Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

In recent years, such countries were also opened up to the economic whirlwind of neoliberalism, which destroyed any crude social contract that existed between rulers and ruled. Take Syria. There, rural towns and villages that had once supported the Baathist regime of the al-Assad family because it provided jobs and kept the prices of necessities low were, after 2000, abandoned to market forces skewed in favor of those in power. These places would become the backbone of the post-2011 uprising. At the same time, institutions like the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) that had done so much to enhance the wealth and power of regional oil producers in the 1970s have lost their capacity for united action.

The question for our moment: Why is a "mass extinction" of independent states taking place in the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond? Western politicians and media often refer to such countries as "failed states." The implication embedded in that term is that the process is a self-destructive one. But several of the states now labeled "failed" like Libya only became so after Western-backed opposition movements seized power with the support and military intervention of Washington and NATO, and proved too weak to impose their own central governments and so a monopoly of violence within the national territory.

In many ways, this process began with the intervention of a U.S.-led coalition in Iraq in 2003 leading to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the shutting down of his Baathist Party, and the disbanding of his military. Whatever their faults, Saddam and Libya's autocratic ruler Muammar Gaddafi were clearly demonized and blamed for all ethnic, sectarian, and regional differences in the countries they ruled, forces that were, in fact, set loose in grim ways upon their deaths.

A question remains, however: Why did the opposition to autocracy and to Western intervention take on an Islamic form and why were the Islamic movements that came to dominate the armed resistance in Iraq and Syria in particular so violent, regressive, and sectarian? Put another way, how could such groups find so many people willing to die for their causes, while their opponents found so few? When IS battle groups were sweeping through northern Iraq in the summer of 2014, soldiers who had thrown aside their uniforms and weapons and deserted that country's northern cities would justify their flight by saying derisively: "Die for [then-Prime Minister Nouri] al-Maliki? Never!"

A common explanation for the rise of Islamic resistance movements is that the socialist, secularist, and nationalist opposition had been crushed by the old regimes' security forces, while the Islamists were not. In countries like Libya and Syria, however, Islamists were savagely persecuted, too, and they still came to dominate the opposition. And yet, while these religious movements were strong enough to oppose governments, they generally have not proven strong enough to replace them.

Too Weak to Win, but Too Strong to Lose

Though there are clearly many reasons for the present disintegration of states and they differ somewhat from place to place, one thing is beyond question: the phenomenon itself is becoming the norm across vast reaches of the planet.

If you're looking for the causes of state failure in our time, the place to start is undoubtedly with the end of the Cold War a quarter-century ago. Once it was over, neither the U.S. nor the new Russia that emerged from the Soviet Union's implosion had a significant interest in continuing to prop up "failed states," as each had for so long, fearing that the rival superpower and its local proxies would otherwise take over. Previously, national leaders in places like the Greater Middle East had been able to maintain a degree of independence for their countries by balancing between Moscow and Washington. With the break-up of the Soviet Union, this was no longer feasible.

In addition, the triumph of neoliberal free-market economics in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse added a critical element to the mix. It would prove far more destabilizing than it looked at the time.

Again, consider Syria. The expansion of the free market in a country where there was neither democratic accountability nor the rule of law meant one thing above all: plutocrats linked to the nation's ruling family took anything that seemed potentially profitable. In the process, they grew staggeringly wealthy, while the denizens of Syria's impoverished villages, country towns, and city slums, who had once looked to the state for jobs and cheap food, suffered. It should have surprised no one that those places became the strongholds of the Syrian uprising after 2011. In the capital, Damascus, as the reign of neoliberalism spread, even the lesser members of the mukhabarat, or secret police, found themselves living on only $200 to $300 a month, while the state became a machine for thievery.

This sort of thievery and the auctioning off of the nation's patrimony spread across the region in these years. The new Egyptian ruler, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, merciless toward any sign of domestic dissent, was typical. In a country that once had been a standard bearer for nationalist regimes the world over, he didn't hesitate this April to try to hand over two islands in the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia on whose funding and aid his regime is dependent. (To the surprise of everyone, an Egyptian court recently overruled Sisi's decision.)

That gesture, deeply unpopular among increasingly impoverished Egyptians, was symbolic of a larger change in the balance of power in the Middle East: once the most powerful states in the region -- Egypt, Syria, and Iraq -- had been secular nationalists and a genuine counterbalance to Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf monarchies. As those secular autocracies weakened, however, the power and influence of the Sunni fundamentalist monarchies only increased. If 2011 saw rebellion and revolution spread across the Greater Middle East as the Arab Spring briefly blossomed, it also saw counterrevolution spread, funded by those oil-rich absolute Gulf monarchies, which were never going to tolerate democratic secular regime change in Syria or Libya.

Add in one more process at work making such states ever more fragile: the production and sale of natural resources -- oil, gas, and minerals -- and the kleptomania that goes with it. Such countries often suffer from what has become known as "the resources curse": states increasingly dependent for revenues on the sale of their natural resources -- enough to theoretically provide the whole population with a reasonably decent standard of living -- turn instead into grotesquely corrupt dictatorships. In them, the yachts of local billionaires with crucial connections to the regime of the moment bob in harbors surrounded by slums running with raw sewage. In such nations, politics tends to focus on elites battling and maneuvering to steal state revenues and transfer them as rapidly as possible out of the country.

This has been the pattern of economic and political life in much of sub-Saharan Africa from Angola to Nigeria. In the Middle East and North Africa, however, a somewhat different system exists, one usually misunderstood by the outside world. There is similarly great inequality in Iraq or Saudi Arabia with similarly kleptocratic elites. They have, however, ruled over patronage states in which a significant part of the population is offered jobs in the public sector in return for political passivity or support for the kleptocrats.

In Iraq with a population of 33 million people, for instance, no less than seven million of them are on the government payroll, thanks to salaries or pensions that cost the government $4 billion a month. This crude way of distributing oil revenues to the people has often been denounced by Western commentators and economists as corruption. They, in turn, generally recommend cutting the number of these jobs, but this would mean that all, rather than just part, of the state's resource revenues would be stolen by the elite. This, in fact, is increasingly the case in such lands as oil prices bottom out and even the Saudi royals begin to cut back on state support for the populace.

Neoliberalism was once believed to be the path to secular democracy and free-market economies. In practice, it has been anything but. Instead, in conjunction with the resource curse, as well as repeated military interventions by Washington and its allies, free-market economics has profoundly destabilized the Greater Middle East. Encouraged by Washington and Brussels, twenty-first-century neoliberalism has made unequal societies ever more unequal and helped transform already corrupt regimes into looting machines. This is also, of course, a formula for the success of the Islamic State or any other radical alternative to the status quo. Such movements are bound to find support in impoverished or neglected regions like eastern Syria or eastern Libya.

Note, however, that this process of destabilization is by no means confined to the Greater Middle East and North Africa. We are indeed in the age of destabilization, a phenomenon that is on the rise globally and at present spreading into the Balkans and Eastern Europe (with the European Union ever less able to influence events there). People no longer speak of European integration, but of how to prevent the complete break-up of the European Union in the wake of the British vote to leave.

The reasons why a narrow majority of Britons voted for Brexit have parallels with the Middle East: the free-market economic policies pursued by governments since Margaret Thatcher was prime minister have widened the gap between rich and poor and between wealthy cities and much of the rest of the country. Britain might be doing well, but millions of Britons did not share in the prosperity. The referendum about continued membership in the European Union, the option almost universally advocated by the British establishment, became the catalyst for protest against the status quo. The anger of the "Leave" voters has much in common with that of Donald Trump supporters in the United States.

The U.S. remains a superpower, but is no longer as powerful as it once was. It, too, is feeling the strains of this global moment, in which it and its local allies are powerful enough to imagine they can get rid of regimes they do not like, but either they do not quite succeed, as in Syria, or succeed but cannot replace what they have destroyed, as in Libya. An Iraqi politician once said that the problem in his country was that parties and movements were "too weak to win, but too strong to lose." This is increasingly the pattern for the whole region and is spreading elsewhere. It carries with it the possibility of an endless cycle of indecisive wars and an era of instability that has already begun.

Categories: Latest News

The Bowtie Rebellion

Mon, 06/27/2016 - 21:00
Categories: Latest News

Has the Fracking Industry Already Won the 2016 Election?

Mon, 06/27/2016 - 21:00

The most recently available polls on national support for fracking show that 51 percent of Americans are opposed to it, versus only 36 percent who are in favor. (Photo: Joe Brusky / Flickr)

June has been a fantastic month for the fracking industry.

On June 21st, a federal judge ruled that the Interior Department does not have the authority to regulate fracking on federal lands because the agency lacks the overall authority to regulate fracking. The judge said that his decision was based on the fact that Congress had not given the agency that power, and therefore they overstepped their authority in attempting to regulate natural gas fracking activities.

A few days after that court ruling that gave the industry free rein over our federal lands, the Democratic Party handed them an even larger gift. At a DNC platform committee meeting on Friday, June 24th, the committee voted to NOT include a ban on fracking as part of the Democratic Party's platform for the 2016 election.

The moratorium on fracking was proposed by 350.org founder Bill McKibben who was selected to join the Party's platform committee by Senator Bernie Sanders. McKibben also introduced resolutions to support a carbon tax and prohibit new fossil fuel leases offshore and on federal lands, but these items were also nixed by a majority of the committee members.

The decision by the committee to roll over for the fracking industry is not only dangerous for the environment, but it also goes against the will of voters who identify as Democrats.

The most recently available polls on national support for fracking (from March 2016) show that 51% of Americans are opposed to it, versus only 36% who are in favor. In the poll, 13% of respondents had no opinion. Not surprisingly, the poll found that approval for fracking was higher among Republicans than Democrats, with 55% and 25% of each Party approving of the practice, respectively.

In the political world, polls are fairly easy to ignore, and both major parties are guilty of routinely ignoring polling data. But in early June, anticipating a showdown over fracking, environmental groups delivered more than 90,000 petitions to the Democratic National Committee asking for the Party to support a ban on fracking. Laying out fracking as both an environmental and economic disaster, these groups were hoping to head off the fracking fight and put an end to it before it began.

As Anthony Rogers-Wright, the policy director for Environmental Action, explained when the petitions were delivered:

This is the face of fracking in America: Latino, Native, African American and other communities are disproportionately impacted by the toxic effects of fracking and its infrastructure … It's time for the DNC, a political party that is totally dependent on the participation of People of Color, to show that our health is as important as our votes. Including a fracking ban in the party platform is an essential step to demonstrate this.

Not only did the leadership of the Democratic Party decide to ignore polls that spelled out the desires of their own Party, but they also completely disregarded direct pleas from their own supporters to stand up to the fossil fuel industry and put an end to the fracking boom in the United States.

As is often the case, the people in the United States lost out because of the influence that money has over our politics. Back in May, Lee Fang and Zaid Jilani with The Intercept pointed out that former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell -- who is serving as the Chairman of the Host Committee for the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia -- wrote a pro-fracking op-ed for the New York Daily News while he was a paid consultant for a firm with investments in fracking companies.

Getting beyond the actual convention, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, has been a huge proponent of fracking and has personally taken in more than $7 million from the oil & gas industries for her campaign. Even more troubling, according to reports, during her tenure as Secretary of State, she helped spearhead a global campaign to bring fracking to other parts of the globe.

President Obama's attitude towards climate and energy has been an "all of the above" approach that has relied on both renewables and fossil fuels (with increased fossil fuel production becoming a hallmark of the administration.) But with climate change accelerating faster than previously predicted, the United States cannot afford another four years of "all of the above," but it is increasingly looking like that will be the scenario after this year's election.

If the fracking industry thought that June was a good month, they can expect a lot more good news in the future as long as they keep that corporate campaign funding flowing. The only thing that will suffer will be the future of the planet.

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Treasury Secretary Warns Senate About Looming Puerto Rico Default

Mon, 06/27/2016 - 21:00

People play on the beach in Puerto Rico. If the Senate passes a version of a debt restructuring bill that varies from the one already approved by the House, Puerto Rico is more likely to default this Friday. (Photo: srietzke / Flickr)

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew urged Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to advance legislation required to avoid an immediate deepening of the financial crisis in Puerto Rico.

Lew told McConnell on Monday that "the Senate should take up the matter immediately," noting the island has $2 billion in debt payments due Friday.

"In the event of default, and if creditor lawsuits are successful, a judge could immediately order Puerto Rico to pay creditors over essential services such as health, education, and public safety," Lew warned. He also noted that the payments due this week are "constitutionally prioritized."

"Some well-funded creditors are working hard to delay legislative action this week," he added, "even if it comes at the expense of the Puerto Rican people."

The US territory is currently more than $72 billion in arrears. Though state governments have the authority to declare bankruptcy and oversee municipal debt restructuring, Puerto Rico lacks the power.

Early last month, the Puerto Rican government defaulted on a $370 million debt payment.

The House passed legislation three weeks ago that would grant the territory the ability to restructure its debt, but Democrats in the Senate have serious qualms about it.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has railed against the bill, noting it would exempt Puerto Ricans from certain minimum wage laws, while creating an appointed oversight board to weigh in on the island's fiscal matters.

"We must never give an unelected control board the power to balance Puerto Rico's budget on the backs of children, senior citizens, the sick and the most vulnerable people in Puerto Rico while giving the people of Puerto Rico absolutely no say at all in the process," he remarked late last month. Sanders said the bill would "make a terrible situation even worse."

Another prominent member of the Senate Democratic caucus to take exception to the initiative is Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.). Politico reported on Monday morning that Menendez could attempt to delay the legislation until next week -- after the Friday deadline.

"There's no reason to put a [hold] on the bill," he told the paper, if Republican leaders allow amendments during the legislative process. A "hold" on the bill would require sixty votes from senators to break.

If the Senate passes a version of the bill that varies from the one already approved by the House, Puerto Rico is more likely to default this Friday. The House is currently in recess until July 5.

The timing of this close-shave is unfortunate for federal regulators. Last week, they suddenly found themselves occupied with fresh global turmoil, after voters in Great Britain said in a referendum that they wanted to leave the European Union. Stock markets around the world reacted by shedding $2 trillion in value. The British Pound depreciated overnight by roughly 10 percent.

"We respect the decision of the voters in the UK, and will work closely with London, Brussels and our international partners to ensure continued economic stability, security and prosperity in Europe and globally," Lew said Monday.

The Treasury Secretary has been asking Congress for months to address the financial situation in Puerto Rico. "There's an immediate crisis in Puerto Rico. It's not a future crisis," he said in March, before the House Financial Services Committee.

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Let's Face It: "Capitalism With a Conscience" Is Still Capitalism

Mon, 06/27/2016 - 21:00

For those who are socially conscious or who are anti-capitalists, investing money is usually an inherently distasteful endeavor. Trying to find investments in the financial industry that are truly ''socially responsible'' is a losing game. However, index funds are as close as one can get to opting-out of the financial system without jeopardizing future security. No matter your financial situation, there are ways of advocating for a better financial system.

The New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street. Trying to find investments in the financial industry that are truly "socially responsible" is a losing game. (Photo: baba_1967 / Flickr)

There is considerable discussion about how people on the left should invest their money. For those who are socially conscious or who are anti-capitalists, this is usually an inherently distasteful endeavor. Stock markets are a central institution and symbol of capitalism after all, and they would not exist in the moneyless and classless society that many want to build.

It's not surprising that so-called "socially responsible investing" (SRI) would seem attractive. In "socially responsible" mutual funds (bundles of stocks or bonds), fund managers screen companies based on their labor, environmental and social practices, depending on the fund. The result is an investment that is supposed to be socially responsible, while still generating a healthy return for its investors.

The Ideological and Practical Problems With "Socially Responsible" Capitalism

SRI funds have many problems. The overarching one is that these funds work within existing paradigms and do nothing to solve the crisis at the root of most of our problems: capitalism itself. In fact, "capitalism with a conscience," together with business-friendly conceptions of sustainability or labor rights, can give cover to new and more insidious forms of exploitation. Many companies will produce slick corporate responsibility reports or conduct pro forma and staged audits of their suppliers, or simply focus their efforts on convenient nonsolutions. After coming under scrutiny over the treatment of those working for its global suppliers, Apple used the Fair Labor Association -- a "public relations mouthpiece" -- to conduct audits of its suppliers' facilities. The results were unsurprising: The Economic Policy Institute concluded that "improvements in working conditions … have in most cases been modest, fleeting, or purely symbolic, while some key reform pledges have been broken outright."

"Capitalism with a conscience" can give cover to new and more insidious forms of exploitation.

While audits like Apple's might generate good publicity, they do little to ensure the company is being socially responsible. At the end of the day, profits are still what matter most, and this motive is at odds with fundamentally changing business practices.

The other issue is that the mutual fund industry, like many other parts of our financial system, has become more predatory in the last few decades. At the same time, many people have been forced to integrate more of their lives into the financial system. Because of that, the shift to retirement vehicles like 401(k) plans and to investment advisers who do not have a fiduciary duty to their clients means that the average investor faces many more pitfalls than before. Unlike Social Security and defined benefit pension plans, which provide consistent and predictable benefits and have few drawbacks, 401(k)-type vehicles are a boon to Wall Street and fund managers. As middlemen, workers in the financial industry take out a large chunk of money for themselves via management and fund fees (collectively called the fund's expense ratio).

SRI funds are a good example of this exploitation. The expense ratios of these funds are generally much higher than normal mutual funds, and especially of index funds, which are not actively managed but rather track the market. The SRI funds monitored by the Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment, a trade group, average an expense ratio of 1.12 percent -- the majority lining the pockets of the fund managers. In contrast, the expense ratio of index funds is often below 0.5 percent, and in the case of some funds, can be as low as 0.05 percent.

Lower expenses, over time, can produce significantly higher returns. Take, for example, a typical scenario saving for retirement (see interactive tool below):

Say a person invests $10,000 in fund with an expense ratio of 0.05 percent and adds $5,000 every year. They expect an annual return of about 7.00 percent on average, which is around the rate at which the stock market typically increases.

This will yield $2,286,082 in 50 years, costing about $41,133 in fees and reduced returns. The same investment in a fund with a 1.12 percent expense ratio will be worth only $1,569,119 after 50 years, and cost a staggering $758,096.

In addition to the ideological downsides of SRI funds, the practical downside is that they are very expensive.

So What Investments Make Sense?

The answer is surprisingly straightforward. If a person isn't wealthy and needs to participate in the financial markets in order to hedge inflation or ensure financial security, investing in low-fee index mutual funds or annuities that cover broad segments of the market makes the most sense. Because index funds track the market, this money does not support anything in particular. It's also an easy investment strategy, which is beneficial for people who don't have the time or expertise to invest in other ways.

Practically, this is the best way to ensure a good return over time as well. Index funds, as opposed to actively managed funds (which pick and choose certain securities), have a history of good performance, and as previously mentioned, have much lower fees. For example, the average previous year's returns of the funds listed by the Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment was -1.98 percent (only 61 out of 195 funds had a positive return); the average five-year return was 5.14 percent. In contrast, Vanguard's Total Stock Market Index Fund, which aims to track the entire stock market, had a previous year's return of 0.55 percent and a five-year return of 10.48 percent. High returns and low fees are essential to saving for retirement.

For most people, index funds are as close as they can get to opting-out of the financial system without jeopardizing future security.

While this is not unproblematic, for most people, index funds are as close as they can get to opting-out of the financial system without jeopardizing future security. A recent Truthout article took Vanguard, the firm that popularized low-fee index funds, to task for its investments in weapons manufacturers and prisons, among other things. While the article was thoughtful, the authors did not distinguish adequately between mutual funds, SRI funds and index funds in arguing that because Vanguard has large investments in malignant companies and questionable SRI funds, it is not a good place to invest money.

While no one should be under any illusions that Vanguard operates for the public good, Vanguard does drive the mutual fund industry toward less exploitative practices and lower fees. As the largest mutual fund company and a big proponent of index funds, it should also be unsurprising that it holds significant investments in every large company on behalf of its millions of investors. While the firm undoubtedly makes choices with regard to its actively managed funds, its index funds are separate from these decisions.

For a socially conscious person, I believe that it makes more sense to passively invest in the entire stock market rather than to try to play a whack-a-mole game and choose "good" companies and funds, which is a subjective assessment that is challenging to make. (Playing this game will also lead to considerable losses and fees, too, which many people cannot afford.)

For those who are wealthy or who are confident in their future economic security, the above considerations apply as well. But they should consider the extent to which they need to participate in financial markets at all. Instead of investing all of their money in index funds, they have much more leeway to back political convictions. This could mean investing in, or donating money to, individuals and organizations that they trust.

Toward the Future

No matter your financial situation, there are ways of advocating for a better financial system. For example, Social Security is an essential retirement program that is responsible for drastically reducing senior poverty and it can be an alternative to the exploitative financial system. It provides income that does not fluctuate based on the stock market, and has no middlemen. Because private savings and pensions no longer provide as much support in retirement as they used to -- many people do not have pensions or the means or opportunity to save a significant amount of money via a 401(k) -- Social Security is more important than ever.

Despite being exceedingly efficient and sustainable well into the future, Social Security is often unfairly attacked by those with political and ideological objections to its existence. But a burgeoning movement to expand the program is gaining traction and deserves support. This movement has turned the debate on its head: from a general acceptance that the program need drastic cuts to a consensus from the center-left that it should be expanded. (President Obama, after seven years in office, came out for expanding Social Security recently.)

Although financial markets aren't very useful for supporting capitalism's version of "social responsibility," boycotts that that target companies are useful.

And although financial markets aren't very useful for supporting capitalism's version of "social responsibility," boycotts that that target companies that profit off of fossil fuels, prisons and the occupation of Palestine, for example, are useful. Putting pressure on large investors, like universities or pension funds, to divest from these companies is essential to generating momentum for these movements. The same tactics can be used to pressure investment management companies, like Vanguard, to lean on the companies they invest in to adopt more transparent polices.

Capitalism will continue to appear to temper itself through myriad things -- socially responsible investing, social impact bonds, philanthrocapitalism and venture philanthropy, token retirement savings plans like President Obama's myRA, apps that make investing in fee-riddled funds easier, personal finance as a solution to poverty, etc.

Those looking for meaningful change must move past those red herrings, operate within capitalist institutions in principled ways and function outside of them when possible -- all while laying the foundation for the future. Change won't be as easy as making a particular kind of investment in the stock market; of that we can be sure.

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Why the Sanders "Revolution" Must Take on the Permanent War State

Mon, 06/27/2016 - 21:00

Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator, speaks to the crowd at The People's Summit at McCormick Place in Chicago, June 18, 2016. (Photo: Kelly Wenzel / The New York Times)

The People's Summit that emerged out of Bernie Sanders supporters' grassroots energy has failed to deal seriously with the problem of the "permanent war state" -- the central power bloc in the United States government that looms menacingly over everything the movement hopes to accomplish.

Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator, speaks to the crowd at The People's Summit at McCormick Place in Chicago, June 18, 2016. (Photo: Kelly Wenzel / The New York Times)

The People's Summit in Chicago June 17-19 dramatically displayed both the strengths and the vulnerabilities of what has emerged in 2016 as one of the most potentially powerful movements for fundamental change in the United States in many decades. The event, which brought together 3,000 committed movement activists to rally in support of the "political revolution" given impetus by Bernie Sanders' campaign, was an opportunity to ensure that the movement will not dissipate in the wake of Hillary Clinton's clinching the Democratic nomination.

The leaders of the movement sought to use the summit to reconcile conflicting activist views on the relationship between movement organizations and electoral politics. The summit may have succeeded in keeping the coalition of those who privilege electoral politics and those who see it as a distraction from their local struggles from splitting up. But despite the political sophistication and pragmatism of the organizers, the gathering failed to deal seriously with the problem of the "permanent war state" -- the central power bloc in the US government that looms menacingly over everything the movement hopes to accomplish.

The permanent war state is the 800-pound gorilla in US society and political life. As the old joke goes, the answer to the question, "Where does an 800-pound gorilla eat?" is, "Anywhere he likes." As long as the organs of "national security" continue to retain the extraordinary power to appropriate budgetary resources and to involve the United States in foreign conflicts without real accountability, US politics will be grotesquely distorted to the profound disadvantage of the movement for fundamental change. The Pentagon, the CIA and the National Security Agency will continue to control most of the $1.1 trillion federal discretionary spending budget, crowding out programs that would benefit people. And beyond wielding that obvious financial power, by maintaining the premise that the United States must continue to make war indefinitely, they will also wield an ideological weapon that helps the economic elite maintain the status quo.

For more original Truthout election coverage, check out our election section, "Beyond the Sound Bites: Election 2016."

But that fundamental obstacle to change was not even mentioned by any of the speakers who introduced the main themes of the conference on the first night. On the second day, US Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) strongly denounced moves by powerful interests for a new war for regime change in Syria, but she did not address the underlying system of institutional interests and power that keeps the United States at permanent war. There was one breakout session entitled "Healthcare Not Warfare," which highlighted what people already know -- that spending for war and preparation for war robs the people of resources needed to build a more prosperous and equitable society. But it was evidently an afterthought for conference organizers, and did not interest many of the attendees, drawing perhaps 30 people.

The permanent war state is the 800-pound gorilla in US society and political life.

The Sanders campaign never explicitly raised the issue of the permanent war state during the primary election contest, either. He did present a sharp contrast to Hillary Clinton when they debated foreign policy, effectively demolishing her position urging a more militarily aggressive policy in Syria. He called for a policy that "destroys ISIS" but "does not get us involved in perpetual warfare in the quagmire of the Middle East."But he never talked about ending the unprecedented power that national security institutions have seized over the resources and security of the American people.

It is not difficult to see why Sanders did not take on that larger issue. The power of the military-industrial-congressional complex that has morphed into a permanent war state has long been the real "third rail" in US politics, which anyone aspiring to national office touches only at the risk of being branded "anti-American." News media coverage constantly reinforces the idea that US global military presence and aggressiveness are legitimate responses to foreign threats. So, for politicians, explaining why the power of that combination of institutions is a danger not only to people's economic interests, but also to their physical security is seen as extremely difficult and fraught with political risk. Sanders, who had no problem opposing specific wars, undoubtedly feared that an effort to deal with the interests and power behind the wars that most Americans oppose would force him to respond to attacks from the Clinton camp and the corporate media, and thus interfere with his populist message.

The permanent war state also appears to be outside the political comfort zone of National Nurses United, the single most influential organization in planning and funding the People's Summit. As a senior official of National Nurses United explained, the organization is able to talk about corporate control of the health care system because nurses constantly see the consequences in their own work, but most have no such personal experiences enabling them to talk about the war system.

But despite these understandable reasons for taking a pass on the issue, the leadership of the movement inspired by the Sanders campaign is making a big mistake by failing to take on the problem of the permanent war state. The popular organizations represented in Chicago understand this, but they have hesitated to go up against the most powerful combination bureaucratic interests the world has ever known, in part because they have not had any clear idea about how those interests could be defeated. What has been not been tried, however, is a strategy that attacks the war system where it is most vulnerable -- the fact that the war system bureaucrats have systematically pursued their own personal and institutional interests at the expense of the American people.

The publicly available records of US intervention and war, especially since the beginning of the Cold War, reveal an endless succession of policies and programs that were utterly useless and provoked reactions from states and from non-state actors that threatened the safety of the American people. But the policy makers preferred those policies, because they gave them and their organizations more power, more budgetary resources, more people under their command, more new technology, more foreign bases and perquisites, and more lucrative jobs and contracts when they leave the government for private companies.

All the services were looking for a boost in military appropriations when they pushed Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson to intervene militarily in Vietnam. The US Air Force sold its "shock and awe" strategy for regime change in Iraq to then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in order to capture a larger share of the military budget. The CIA got control over a major new mission when it convinced President George W. Bush to launch a drone war in Pakistan.

But the American people suffered the direct and indirect consequences of these wars in each case.

The fundamental conflict between the national interest and the personal and bureaucratic interests of the policy makers of the permanent war state explains why the system has continued to produce uniformly disastrous policies decade after decade.

So the strategy of the movement that the Sanders campaign has mobilized must include a broadly concerted campaign that explains to young people, disaffected working-class people and others how the permanent war state produces winners and losers. The winners are the national security organs themselves, as well as those who make careers and fortunes from the permanent state of war. The losers are those who must suffer the socioeconomic and other consequences of such reckless policies. Such a campaign should aim at nothing less than taking away the flow of money and the legal authority that the permanent war state has seized on the pretext of "threats" that are largely of its own making.

Even though the permanent war state seems to be at the peak of its power, like all essentially hollow institutions, it has a serious political vulnerability. Millions of Americans know that the wars the war-state agencies have wrought over the past half century -- from the Vietnam War to the war in Afghanistan -- were worse than useless. So the legitimacy of the permanent war state is extremely tenuous. A determined campaign to challenge that legitimacy, carried out with sufficient resources over a few years with the participation of a broad coalition, could shake it to its roots. Such a campaign must be included in the work to open up new political spaces and propel the movement for change.

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On Women Who Oppose Hillary Clinton: A Conversation With Liza Featherstone

Mon, 06/27/2016 - 21:00

Author and professor Liza Featherstone is the editor of the anthology False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton. In this exclusive interview with Truthout, Featherstone discusses the presumptive Democratic nominee's "trickle-down feminism" and how Hillary Clinton's policies ultimately fail most women.

Hillary Clinton takes a photo with supporters at a campaign stop in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, April 20, 2016. (Photo: Jared Polin / Flickr)

New York University journalism professor Liza Featherstone is the editor of False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton (Verso Books). She also writes for The Nation, with a focus on labor and student activism. In this exclusive interview for Truthout, Featherstone builds on the analysis that she offered to Truthout readers in February, discussing Hillary Rodham Clinton's status as the presumptive nominee for the Democratic Party.

For more original Truthout election coverage, check out our election section, "Beyond the Sound Bites: Election 2016."

Dan Falcone: Recently, MSNBC and CNN highlighted and portrayed the Democratic nominee as a pioneering feminist of sorts. This coverage is amplified by Clinton's own comments regarding her personal background and significance of the female legacies within her family. Some of this is obviously significant given our nation's history, but how do you categorize Clinton's usage and application of feminist history to correlate with her rise and political fame of the last three decades?

Liza Featherstone: The election of the first woman president of the United States will indeed be historically significant. But at present, Clinton is using this "milestone" and "breaking the glass ceiling" language to celebrate the victory of the financial industry's candidate over the one representing the interests of ordinary people, which to me, is a misuse of feminism, a complex but often progressive movement.

Dan Falcone: What is the overarching thesis of the book you edited, False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton?

Our argument is that while the candidacy of Hillary Clinton is widely embraced as a feminist project, she has actually dedicated her career to austerity, state repression and imperialism -- an agenda deeply harmful to most of the world's women. We hope readers will read this book and be inspired to work for a far more egalitarian and radical feminism than the one Clinton represents.

Dan Falcone: Can you explain what you mean by "trickle-down feminism?"

"Trickle-down economics" is the idea that creating wealth for those already at the top will somehow "trickle down" and benefit the masses. The term is a derisive one used by critics of mainstream economics, and became especially popular during the Reagan era. When I use the term "trickle-down feminism," I mean the idea that somehow having a few women in power will benefit the vast majority of women.

Dan Falcone: Often in the book, authors speak of Clinton's paradigm of rescuing women while supporting policies that place them in danger. Is this the core problem of a "rescue" complex?

I think the "rescue" paradigm has been an important one and I would encourage readers to especially check out Margaret Corvid's chapter on Clinton's record, as secretary of state, of pursuing policies that punish women for sex work under the rhetorical guise of helping them. I'm glad you asked about this, because it is a really important chapter that hasn't received enough attention as some of the others, even though there is a lot of interest in sex workers' issues right now.

I'd also encourage readers to pick up Yasmin Nair's chapter, in which she compellingly argues that Clinton negotiates the rocky shoals of being a female politician by being "tougher" (whether on "criminals" or welfare recipients at home, or "terrorists" abroad) than a man, while preserving her feminine image by doing so in the name of [protecting] innocents, often women and children. Of course, going to war over women's rights, or "amping up" law enforcement efforts against brothels does precisely what you suggest in your question -- puts more women in danger.

Sasha Silverman: You publicly stated that you are not voting for Hillary Clinton, pointing out that she has demonstrated contempt for a hallmark of social feminism: redistribution. If it's possible to put it into a nutshell, why do you think redistribution will benefit women? If you could advise Clinton, and know that she'd take your suggestions seriously, what would you suggest?

Redistribution will always benefit women because women are more likely to head households living in poverty. Women are paid less than men on the job and also have far less personal wealth. So, while the Clinton campaign did its best this primary season to separate gender from class, they are deeply intertwined. I would suggest some policies that have been proven to help women advance: single-payer health care (including guaranteed reproductive health care -- including, of course, abortion and birth control), higher minimum wages, universal high quality day care and free college tuition, along with labor law reform to make it much easier to organize unions.

Those kinds of policies were all part of the Bernie Sanders agenda and it is clear there is a lot of support for them among voters. But as Frances Fox Piven points in her chapter, even Sanders was not arguing for the kind of income supports -- beyond work -- that many women actually need in order to fulfill care-giving responsibilities, have more bargaining power in a low-wage job or simply pursue their talents. I would encourage Clinton to rethink her dedication to eviscerating traditional welfare, especially in this interesting moment when people around the globe and across the ideological spectrum are debating a universal basic income.

Silverman: Looking back on all the individuals you've worked with [perhaps namely in False Choices], is there a story that stands out to you? Or an individual who has made a lasting impression on you?

I often think of the women I interviewed when I wrote about Walmart. Hillary Clinton served as a then-token woman on the board of Walmart and never did anything to address the rampant sex discrimination in that company. Eventually in 2002, a cashier named Betty Dukes sued the company, in what became the largest civil rights class-action suit in history. I'm still close to Betty Dukes; we talk often and she has remained determined to fight for change for working women. I'm really impressed by her bravery and by her willingness to fight on for so long. But I often ask myself, "What does a supposedly 'feminist' politician like Clinton have to offer women like Betty Dukes?" Ultimately, not that much.

Silverman: Hillary Clinton's "feminism" also fails to grapple seriously with the intersection of race and gender. Could you touch on how and why Clinton is so consistently criticized around the issues of race, too?

She should actually be criticized on this a lot more often than she is.

Historian Donna Murch wrote a terrific chapter for False Choices, called "When Black Lives Didn't Matter," about the way both Clintons advocated for more policing and harsher incarceration policies during what I'm now calling the first (since it looks as if we are about to get another) Clinton administration. Those policies, as we now know, disproportionately affected Black communities. During this election, a Black Lives Matter protestor rightly confronted Hillary Clinton for using the racist and dehumanizing term "superpredator" to describe some young people of color during this period.

In another chapter of our book, Tressie McMillan Cottom discusses the racist dog whistling in Hillary's first presidential campaign, in which Clinton suggested she was the candidate of "hard-working white Americans" and derided the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., while her husband derided Obama's campaign as a "fairy tale."

It's interesting to me that so many have assumed that Clinton was the "intersectional" and more anti-racist candidate despite these things.

Falcone: The Trump base seems to consist of a dangerous mix of populism and racism, but both Clinton and Sanders both had their own areas of ignorance on the trail. Neither seemed able to engage Black activists and their legitimate concerns, and they seemed out of touch with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Do you consider these generational gaps or whiteness gaps, in addition to a disconnect with feminism?

Sanders and the people around him should have been building strong relationships with Black communities and leaders from the very beginning. Sanders in the moment responded badly to BLM protesters, and many of his supporters responded much too defensively. But he ultimately did take many of their concerns on board. He also got better at talking about the intersections between racial and economic injustice, though as with gender, he could have done this better. His campaign was really so short; he had been governing all these years in Vermont, a mostly white state -- and for that reason, actually had a lot more sensitivity to the concerns of rural poor and working-class people than most candidates do -- and just didn't have enough ties to these communities. Even with the campaign spending a lot of time getting to know Black leaders and Black voters in South Carolina, he still lost badly there because they just started doing that too late.

The Clintons, for all their problems, have clearly been building such relationships for decades. However, Hillary Clinton's own racial problems were certainly on display often, especially in her response to Black Lives Matter protesters. She felt so entitled to Black votes, as a longtime prominent Democrat, that I think criticism from Black people particularly irked her. It was particularly horrifying when she not only responded condescendingly to the young woman criticizing her for her "superpredator" language, but also allowed the woman to be roughly escorted out by security. What was on display there was not only a racist contempt, but also Clinton's total fealty to the 1%: She did not want to disturb the wealthy donors' fancy event with this messy interruption from a marginalized person who wasn't supposed to matter.

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