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Updated: 39 min 36 sec ago

Google Employees Resign Over Artificial Intelligence Contract With Department of Defense

Wed, 05/16/2018 - 21:00

Google is famous as a fun-loving, freewheeling workplace, and outsiders might struggle to see why anyone would want to give up all the perks of having a job there. One group of employees has a very good reason, though: After calling on the company to drop a Department of Defense contract and getting no response, they're choosing to resign in protest.

Their laudable decision brings up a larger crisis of conscience for the largely unregulated, "disruptive" Silicon Valley.

The story began earlier this year when more than 4,000 Google employees -- including some senior engineers -- signed a letter demanding that the company terminate a Pentagon contract they feared would be used for military applications. The project involved the application of artificial intelligence to analyze video images -- technology that could potentially be used to guide drone strikes and increase their accuracy.

Employees maintained that Google should take a hardline stance on not contributing to the development of technologies that could be used as weapons of war, arguing that it goes against the company's values. With Google's internal strife in the news a lot lately, fears about what kinds of values the company wants to espouse are well-founded.

They also note that Google is experiencing some negative public relations surrounding issues of artificial intelligence and user data, which could even make it more challenging to recruit talented employees. The company's "moral responsibility" in this situation, employees said, was clear -- even though other tech companies also work with the military.

The employee letter highlights a growing tension for Silicon Valley companies and the larger tech industry. Government contracts -- especially with the military -- can be extremely profitable, and at times provide access to technologies that aren't otherwise available. Collaborating with the government can boost revenues and give engineers a chance to work on cutting-edge, innovative projects, developing tools that will eventually make their way into civilian life.

But these contracts also involve producing tools that can be used to kill other human beings in military actions, or to engage in human rights violations, like harassing people attempting to cross the US border.

AI experts warn that there are serious risks to being involved in the production of such technology, and that tech companies like Google should think carefully before committing their resources to this kind of work. With technological advances happening so quickly, ethicists and businesses alike are struggling to develop guidelines and boundaries for conducting business in a mindful way.

With no clear moral compass, some companies are opting to dismiss these concerns. Others, like Google, are trying to have it both ways -- accepting the contract and maintaining that they aren't responsible for the ultimate use of the technology.

But employees who signed the petition didn't feel this goes far enough -- and for some, the issue was worth quitting over. Google staff members who spoke to Gizmodo noted that the company has a long history of encouraging employees to speak up, and that after feeling unheard, they concluded that resigning was the most appropriate choice.

Taking a moral stance is not always easy, but these brave engineers feel that it's the right thing to do.

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Categories: Latest News

Clean Air Is Good for Your Health and Good for the Economy

Wed, 05/16/2018 - 21:00
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When the Clean Air Act of 1970 became law, members of the business community in the United States responded with opposition. Such regulations are a drag on growth, some economists say, for individual businesses and for the economy at large.

While it is often expensive to upgrade equipment to reduce pollution, other economists argue such actions should be seen not as a tax but rather an investment in human capital and healthy bottom lines.

"What you're able to do later is partly determined by the environmental quality we have now," says Joshua Graff Zivin, professor of economics in the School of Global Policy & Strategy and the Department of Economics at the University of California, San Diego, who has conducted a number of studies on this topic. The grow-now, clean-later approach to economic growth, he contends, is counterproductive.

Graff Zivin is among a small but increasing number of health and economics researchers who are looking at possible ways to measure the value -- in economic terms -- that cleaner air brings to society. They argue that not only are the costs involved in reducing pollution justified by the public health benefits, but businesses may benefit directly in the form of increased productivity of the employees working for them -- and more long-term, from a healthier, more educated and more productive labor force in the future. Mounting studies have suggested that air pollution -- sometimes even well within regulatory standards -- causes workers to be less productive and possibly have impaired decision-making in both indoor and outdoor settings.

From Field to Desk

When regulatory agencies like the US Environmental Protection Agency establish air quality standards, they are supposed to take into account health and economic assessments that have evaluated how the pollutants being regulated impact human (and environmental) health, and what the economic impacts of the regulation will be, including both costs and benefits. Researchers have been providing evidence in recent years that suggests regulators should look beyond conventional and visible measures like hospitalizations when weighing costs and benefits related to regulatory standards. Studies suggest they should also include data from the growing body of research on the more subtle impacts of air pollutants, such as ozone and particulate matter, on the labor market.

Graff Zivin and Matthew Neidell, associate professor of health policy and management at Columbia University, reported in 2012 an association between ozone pollution and productivity among grape and blueberry pickers in California. When ozone exposure decreased by 10 parts per billion  -- and was at a level well below the federal air quality standard -- the workers were 5.5 percent more productive.

Then, in 2014, they and colleagues found that particulate matter, a common air pollutant, also at levels well below the regulatory standard, reduced the hourly earnings of people who packed pears at an indoor facility in northern California and were paid in accordance with how many pears they picked. When levels of fine particulate matter surpassed 25 micrograms per cubic meter(µg/m3) -- the EPA standard for a 24-hour period is 35 µg/m3, and for a full year is an average of 12 µg/m3  -- workers' earnings decreased by US$1.88 per hour.

The next question for the research team was: What about desk jobs? Are workers affected if they aren't doing manual labor?

Workers at two call centers in China were about 5 percent more productive when the outdoor air quality was what the EPA would rate as "good" than when it would have been rated "unhealthy."Their subsequent study suggests the answer is yes. In 2016, the researchers reported that workers at two call centers in China were about 5 percent more productive when the outdoor air quality was what the EPA would rate as "good" than when it would have been rated "unhealthy." And while the levels of pollution in the unhealthy air exceed the levels allowed by EPA on a daily basis, they are nonetheless the semi-regular reality in urban areas around the world, including in the US -- where regulations allow for spikes above what's permitted as a long-term average. Citing EPA data, they wrote that Los Angeles, for example, experienced 13 days of "unhealthy" air in 2014, while Phoenix had 33.

To Graff Zivin, these results suggest the effect may be universal. "There's nothing special about call center work in China," he says. "We worked on China because that's where we could get the data. If it matters there, it should matter everywhere."

Varying Results

That has not been proven, though, and the few studies that have been done on this have yielded varying results. Last September, a research team in Singapore published a study of workers in two different textile manufacturing plants. The team concluded that pollution exposure did reduce the productivity , but only by about 1 percent, and after prolonged exposure.

Alberto Salvo, economist at the National University of Singapore and an author of that study, says: "We're all providing data points. At some point, someone has to come along and do a meta-analysis and tell us what the general run of papers is saying. Because we do see a lot of variation across these studies. I think we're all contributing to answer a question that is important … about the benefits and costs of environmental regulation."

Salvo and others are looking at other possible ways to evaluate air pollution impacts that could also have implications for labor and economic productivity.

Last year, researchers reported findings drawn from the early days of the 1970 Clean Air Act, when some counties had to reduce their pollution and others didn't because of some requirements implemented in 1970. People who were born in the counties that didn't have to improve their air had lower earnings and labor force participation when they were 30 years old, compared with the cohort of people born in counties that did have to make such improvements.

Maya Rossin-Slater, health research and policy assistant professor at Stanford University and one of the authors of that study, says that just as investments in preschool are generally accepted to pay off later in life, ensuring better environmental quality may be affiliated with higher incomes later in life. 

"Exposure to air pollution, not just through the workplace but through other channels, such as during early childhood or the in utero stage, could have lasting long-term consequences on the labor market productivity -- the economic productivity of basically the next generation," says Rossin-Slater. "There's this intergenerational component that I think is important to recognize."

Education and Equity

A number of studies look at what air pollution means for education. An unpublished study found an association between air pollution and higher school absences. Another study linked air pollution with slower cognitive development in school. In March, Salvo and his colleague Haoming Liu reported that students at three international schools in China -- where wealthy expat families tend to send their children -- were slightly more likely to be absent from school when levels of air pollution spiked.

That may have two major implications, Salvo explains: It could impede the international flow of workers if people considering jobs overseas choose not to take them out of concern for their families' health; and it's an equity issue, because the absences seemed to be a result of families not wanting their children to be exposed to the air.

"These are very high-income families. The parents are very informed. These are parents who are telling their kids to eat their broccoli," says Salvo. They may know and be able to avoid the air pollution more than kids in lower-income families.

Last year, Sefi Roth, assistant professor of environmental economics at the London School of Economics and Political Science, in an analysis of relevant studies, summarized some possible explanations for why air pollution may affect academic performance and ultimately "human capital formation," defined as the skills, knowledge and experience accumulated by an individual.

First, the brain uses a lot of oxygen and may get less of it when a person is breathing in polluted air. Second, air pollution also appears to affect the development of the brain itself in young children, although the full range of impacts are not fully understood. Third, individuals experiencing physical symptoms associated with air pollution, from eye irritation to asthma attacks, may simply not function as well or even miss school altogether. Ultimately, these disruptions could alter a person's entire career path.

Roth also highlights evidence suggesting that air pollution disproportionately affects the educational outcomes of lower-income populations.Roth also highlights evidence suggesting that air pollution disproportionately affects the educational outcomes of lower-income populations -- which implies that improving air quality could improve social mobility as well, because low-income families are more likely to live in neighborhoods with more pollution. "Policy-makers should acknowledge these additional effects when formulating new environmental regulations and should revisit existing policies," he writes.

Impacts on Decision-Making

In January, a study linked higher air pollution with behaviors that are less "prosocial," a decline the study describes as giving less, cooperating and reciprocating less, and demanding more  -- which can affect both individual and group decision-making. And in 2016, Neidell and colleagues reported that as fine particulate matter pollution increased in Manhattan, same-day returns on the New York Stock Exchange declined. They suspect that the pollution impairs cognition, changing how people actually think and making them less likely to take risks -- which on the stock market means taking safer, and less lucrative, bets.

They looked at pollution in other cities to see if there was a correlation between air pollution elsewhere and the performance of the companies being traded on the stock market, rather than with the investors making trades on those companies -- but found no relationship.

"It's pollution in New York City that matters, and it's not pollution where the firms are located. It's pollution where the traders are," says Neidell.

Most of the studies have been done on either ozone or on particulate matter, largely because they're both regulated and straightforward to measure. Graff Zivin says the research supports stricter regulations in the US for both -- where regulations are already stricter than many other countries -- and possibly for other pollutants as well. Revising regulations, he adds, should mean taking into account what have previously been unmeasured and ignored benefits to the economy.

"How much money do businesses spend on training for their employees, on ergonomic design? All those things are meant to improve productivity. This is no different from that," he says.

The next frontier in this research could be to uncover effects far beyond the workplace, from driving safety to buying a house.Earlier this year, Graff Zivin and Neidell argued that this should not be a regulatory issue only for the US Environmental Protection Agency to deal with. Because it affects occupational safety, it should involve other agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the equivalent in other countries, as well.

"We're being very protective of our steel workers and our manufacturing base, and we may be starting a global trade war over it, and yet we're tearing back regulations left and right, some of which appear to protect and improve the earnings capabilities of those very same workers," says Graff Zivin.

He suggests the next frontier in this research could be to uncover effects far beyond the workplace, from driving safety to buying a house.

"Any investment decision you might make as an individual, any decision might be corrupted by pollution," he says. "That's where the evidence is pointing us."

Categories: Latest News

Trump Proposal May Discourage Immigrants From Seeking Health Benefits

Wed, 05/16/2018 - 06:29
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The Trump administration is considering a policy change that might discourage immigrants who are seeking permanent residency from using government-supported health care, a scenario that is alarming some doctors, hospitals and patient advocates.

Under the proposed plan, a lawful immigrant holding a visa could be passed over for getting permanent residency -- a green card -- if they use Medicaid, a subsidized Obamacare plan, food stamps, tax credits or a list of other non-cash government benefits, according to a draft of the plan published by The Washington Post. Even the use of such benefits by a child who is a US citizen could jeopardize a parent's chances of attaining lawful residency, according to the document.

Health advocates say such a policy could frighten a far broader group of immigrants who will avoid government-supported health coverage, creating public health problems that could prove dire. About 3 million people received green cards from 2014 through 2016, government records show. Immigrants with visas or those who may have no legal status but plan to seek citizenship based on a close family relationship would be affected.

"We are very concerned that this rule, if finalized, would have a significant impact on health in this country," said Erin O'Malley, senior director of policy for America's Essential Hospitals, which discussed the plan with Trump administration officials in mid-April.

O'Malley said she fears that some visa holders and their families would steer clear of getting routine treatment and resort to going to emergency rooms for medical care. Such a change would "undermine the stability of our hospitals by creating uncompensated care costs and creating sicker patients," O'Malley said.

The policy change could force a mother to weigh the need for hospital inpatient care for an ailing newborn against losing her legal immigration status, said Wendy Parmet, director of the Center for Health Policy and Law at Northeastern University.

"The administration, in the draft, talks about self-sufficiency," she said. "But we don't expect that of [babies]" who are US citizens because they were born in this country. "It's extremely hardhearted."

Pushback has begun even though the proposal is in the earliest stages of the rulemaking process.

Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, is sending staff in mid-May to meet with the White House Office of Management and Budget, which is vetting the proposed rule. Inslee sent a letter on April 24 urging OMB Director Mick Mulvaney to consider the impact on tax-paying, lawful immigrants.

"This will undoubtedly lead to people across the US going hungry, not accessing needed medical care, losing economic self-sufficiency, and even becoming homeless," Inslee wrote.

The leaked draft said immigration officials would count the use of one or more non-cash benefits by the applicant within three years as a "heavily weighed negative factor" in deciding whether to grant permanent residency.

On March 29, the Department of Homeland Security sent a version of the proposal to OMB, which reviews it for conflicts with existing law. Next, it will be published as a proposed rule that the public can comment on before it's finalized.

Marilu Cabrera, public affairs officer with the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, declined to comment on whether the draft published by the Post mirrors what the OMB is reviewing.

Fear in immigrant communities already weighs on physicians. Dr. Julie Linton, a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics, treats many Latino immigrant families at an outpatient clinic in Winston-Salem, N.C. She said one woman from Mexico, who had a newborn baby and three other children, told Linton she was afraid to keep her family enrolled in the nutrition program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). "Is it safe to use WIC?" the woman asked her.

Linton said questions like that put pediatricians in a tough position. She said evidence shows enrolling in WIC leads to better health outcomes for kids. But what if it also puts the family at risk of being split apart?

"It feels very frightening to have a family in front of me, and have a child with so much potential … and be uncertain how to advise them" on whether to accept public benefits, Linton said.

Maria Gomez, president of Mary's Center, which runs health clinics in Washington, D.C., and Maryland, said she's seeing three to four people a week who are not applying for WIC and are canceling their appointments to re-enroll in Medicaid.

The leaked draft of the proposal zeroes in on who is considered a "public charge." The concept emerged in immigration law in 1882, when Congress sought to bar immigrants who were "idiots, lunatics" or those likely to become a burden on the government.

The notion of a "public charge" last surfaced in 1999, when the immigration service clarified the concept. Then and now, an immigrant considered a "public charge" is inadmissible to the US if the person is likely to rely on the government for income, or lives in a government-funded long-term institution.

Yet the guideline published in 1999 clarified that legal residents were free to access non-cash benefits like Medicaid, food stamps and assistance for heating bills. "These benefits are often provided to low-income working families to sustain and improve their ability to remain self-sufficient," the guideline says.

The proposal, as drafted, would upend that.

Under such a policy, anyone who had recent or ongoing use of a non-cash government benefit in the previous 36 months would likely be deemed a "public charge," and therefore inadmissible to the US The use of such benefits by a spouse, dependent parent or child would also be taken into account.

Applicants who have "expensive health conditions" such as cancer, heart disease or "mental disorders" and had used a subsidized program would also get a "heavily weighed" negative mark on their application, the draft says.

Marnobia Juarez, 48, battled cancer successfully and is hoping her husband's green card application is approved; she also dreams of one day getting her own. She said she never wanted to apply for public benefits until she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014. Since then, she has been treated at no cost under a program run by the state of Maryland.

"I'm alive thanks to this program," said Juarez, who is a health volunteer with an immigrant advocacy group. "You don't play with life, and they are playing with life."

The draft says immigrants could post a minimum $10,000 bond to help overcome a determination that they are likely to be a "public charge."

Such changes would affect people sponsored by a US citizen family member, most employment-based immigrants, diversity visa immigrants and "certain non-immigrants," the draft says. In 2016, 1.2 million people got their lawful permanent residence status, or a green card. Of the total, 566,000 were immediate relatives or spouses of US citizens and 238,000 more were family-sponsored, Department of Homeland Security data show.

Some immigrants, such as refugees and asylees, would not be affected. Nor would the proposed changes apply to undocumented immigrants.

"We're talking about middle-class and working families," said Madison Hardee, senior policy attorney with the Center for Law and Social Policy, which has organized a coalition to fight the proposal. "This could really put parents in an impossible situation between seeking health assistance for their children and obtaining a permanent legal status in the US."

The list of benefits includes the Children's Health Insurance Program, known as CHIP; non-emergency Medicaid; the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps; WIC; and short-term institutionalization at government expense and others. The leaked draft notes that foreign-born and native-born Americans use such programs at similar rates.

The draft says the proposal is meant to ensure that people seeking to "change their nonimmigrant status are self-sufficient." It notes "relevant congressional policy statements," including one that says "the availability of public benefits [should] not constitute an incentive for immigration to the United States."

KHN correspondent Emmarie Huetteman contributed to this report.

KHN's coverage of children's health care issues is supported in part by the Heising-Simons Foundation.

Categories: Latest News

Koch Brothers-Backed Effort to Sabotage Unions Uses Secret "Tool Kit" to Encourage Members to Quit

Tue, 05/15/2018 - 21:00

Internal documents obtained by The Guardian show how a network of right-wing think tanks have launched a nationwide effort to convince members of public sector unions to stop paying dues. The effort is backed by $80 million in funding from billionaires like the Koch brothers, who expect a favorable decision from the Supreme Court this month in a case that could let workers who benefit from union-negotiated contracts avoid paying union dues if they opt not to join the union. The campaign comes as North Carolina teachers staged a massive walkout today, shuttering hundreds of schools, on the heels of major strikes by teacher unions in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Arizona. For more, we speak with Ed Pilkington, chief reporter for The Guardian in the U.S. His new report is an exclusive look at "How rightwing groups wield secret 'toolkit' to plot against US unions."

Please check back later for full transcript.

Categories: Latest News

Norman Finkelstein: Outrage Over Israeli Massacre Shows Power of Nonviolent Palestinian Resistance

Tue, 05/15/2018 - 21:00

The United States is refusing to criticize Israel after Israeli forces shot dead at least 61 unarmed Palestinian protesters taking part in the Great March of Return in Gaza Monday. More than 2,700 Palestinians were injured. At the United Nations, US Ambassador Nikki Haley has blocked a call for an international investigation into Israel's actions. On Tuesday, she repeatedly blamed the violence on Hamas while praising Israel for showing restraint. During her remarks, Nikki Haley refused to place any blame on Israel. She later walked out of the Security Council chamber when the Palestinian ambassador to the UN, Riyad Mansour, addressed the council. Since Palestinian protests began on March 30, Israel forces have killed at least 112 Palestinians and injured more than 12,000. On Tuesday, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court said she was closely following the situation in Gaza and would "take any action warranted" to prosecute crimes. Meanwhile, the United Nations human rights office has condemned the "appalling deadly violence" by Israeli security forces in Gaza. For more, we speak with Norman Finkelstein, author and scholar whose most recent book is titled "Gaza: An Inquest into Its Martyrdom."

TRANSCRIPT

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The United States is refusing to criticize Israel after Israeli forces shot dead at least 61 unarmed Palestinian protesters taking part in the Great March of Return in Gaza Monday. More than 2,700 Palestinians were injured. At the United Nations, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley blocked a call for an international investigation into Israel's actions. On Tuesday, Haley repeatedly blamed the violence on Hamas, while praising Israel for showing restraint.

NIKKI HALEY: This is what is endangering the people of Gaza. Make no mistake: Hamas is pleased with the results from yesterday. I ask my colleagues here in the Security Council: Who among us would accept this type of activity on your border? No one would. No country in this chamber would act with more restraint than Israel has.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: During her remarks, Nikki Haley refused to place any blame on Israel. She later walked out of the Security Council chamber when the Palestinian ambassador to the U.N., Riyad Mansour, addressed the council.

Since Palestinian protests began on March 30th, Israeli forces have killed at least 112 Palestinians and injured more than 12,000. During that time, there have been reports of just one injury to an Israeli soldier.

Haley's comments have been widely criticized. On Capitol Hill, Senator Dianne Feinstein said, quote, "I'm deeply disappointed in Ambassador Haley's decision to block a U.N. inquiry into yesterday's events. Without question there should be an independent investigation when the lives of so many are lost." She also criticized President Trump for moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

AMY GOODMAN: On Tuesday, the chief prosecutor of International Criminal Court said she's closely following the situation in Gaza and would, quote, "take any action warranted," unquote, to prosecute crimes. Meanwhile, the United Nations human rights office has condemned the, quote, "appalling deadly violence," unquote, by Israeli security forces in Gaza. This is U.N. human rights spokesperson Rupert Colville.

RUPERT COLVILLE: Lethal force may only be used as a measure of last -- not first -- resort, and only when there is an immediate threat to life or serious injury. An attempt to approach or crossing or damaging the green line fence do not amount to a threat of serious -- to life or serious injury, and are not sufficient grounds for the use of live ammunition.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the crisis in Gaza, we're joined by Norman Finkelstein. His most recent book, Gaza: An inquest into Its Martyrdom. He's the author of many other books, including The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Human Suffering and Knowing Too Much: Why the American Jewish Romance with Israel Is Coming to an End. Norman Finkelstein is a son of two Holocaust survivors.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Norm.

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what's just happened, in the last two days, in the last six weeks in Gaza.

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Well, I'll take off from the comments that you posted now from Nikki Haley and also from Dianne Feinstein. Nikki Haley says that Israel has shown remarkable restraint. So what does the picture look like? About more than 60 Palestinians were killed. About over a thousand, or, actually, over 2,000 were injured. And what happened on the Israeli side? These demonstrations have now been going on now for six weeks. Over a hundred Palestinians have been killed. Yesterday, or May 14th, Israel announced for the first time there was one, quote, "light injury" of an Israeli soldier. One soldier, after six weeks, apparently incurred a scratch.

Now, she says Israel has shown amazing restraint. But all the other witnesses say differently -- respected witnesses. Amnesty International, it referred to Israel's "murderous assault" on overwhelmingly nonviolent protesters. The shadow British foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, who's usually very bad on this issue, she referred to the "slaughter" that occurred in Gaza on May 14th. So, I think, at the very least, Nikki Haley is way out of what the most respected and also pro-Israel figures have had to say.

Then we turn to Dianne Feinstein. And it is true her remarks are significant, because whereas public opinion has shifted on Israel, Congress has, up until now, proven to be immobile. But there are significant developments now within the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party, on the question of Israel and Palestine, it's changing. And so, this is a critical moment, because now the critical mass that has been reached in public opinion, it's finally registering in the Democratic Party.

And there's one fundamental -- well, there are two reasons. One, because Israel is an evangelical Christian state, and that's why it has so much support in the Republican Party, and so much support among Trump's followers, in particular. And so there's a natural recoiling by the Democratic Party towards the state of Israel because of its allies in the United States. So, there has been this shift. And then there's the Bernie base, because the real shift is, whether it was witting or not, the Bernie base of the party is very pro-Palestinian. And that's causing a major shift within the party. So, that, too, is a critical development and a positive development.

Dianne Feinstein, she called for an investigation. With all due regard -- and I wouldn't oppose an investigation -- we have to remember, there have been many investigations already. There was -- after Operation Cast Lead in 2008-'09, there was the Goldstone mission. After Operation Protective Edge in 2014, there was the mission led by the New York state judge, Mary McGowan Davis. And they all recommended there has to be some action taken. And all of it just died in the U.N. bureaucracy. So, although I don't think Israel should get a free pass, I don't hold out any optimism that even if there were an investigation, it would go anywhere. The same thing with the ICC. I totally support an ICC investigation. But even if, finally, the chief prosecutor, Fatou Bom Bensouda -- even if she did undertake an investigation, at some point it either will die inside the ICC or it will go on interminably.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But, Norm, I wanted to ask you, in terms of this particular -- what's happened in the past few days, whether this is really a turning point, on the scale, let's say, for instance, of what the Sharpeville massacre was in South Africa, in terms of turning world opinion completely against a regime, because the previous attacks by Israel were basically not as visible to the rest of the world, on camera, as this one was. And secondly, the difference was that in previous attacks the Israelis were claiming that Hamas was itself attacking Israel. Here, you have unarmed protesters, basically with slingshots and with Molotov cocktails, up against a total military force. And whether you think that this is a turning point in terms of world opinion being able to continue to ignore what's happening in Gaza and Palestine?

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Well, I think that's the critical question. The Sharpeville massacre in 1960, it was nonviolent protesters who were burning their pass cards. And it was about 67 people, if my memory is correct, who were killed. Here, again, it was overwhelmingly nonviolent protesters, in this case 62 or 63 who were killed. So it's roughly the same numbers, roughly the same scenario. The important point is, it shows, it demonstrates the power of nonviolent resistance in mobilizing public opinion.

This is not the first time Israel has targeted civilians. In fact, Israel's operations -- what it calls its operations -- have overwhelmingly targeted civilians. So, after Operation Cast Lead in 2008-'09, Richard Goldstone, the report, it concludes that Israel's objective was to, quote, "punish, humiliate and terrorize the civilian population." They've always targeted civilians. And in fact, if we were to look, you know, coldly at the facts, in the past six weeks, Israel has killed a little over a hundred Palestinians. During Operation Cast Lead in 2008-'09, on the first day, in the first five minutes, Israel killed 300 Palestinian civilians. It was Palestinians who were attending a graduation at the police academy.

So, as you point out -- and it's a critical point -- that the world is now enraged, indignant, outraged, at a much lesser -- relatively speaking, a much lesser -- criminality displayed by Israel, why is that? Well, it's for the reason you already suggested. It's because it was nonviolent, and Israel had no pretext to justify its attacks. And so it was exposed to the world. Israel has said -- and it's true -- they said -- Amos, his name just slipped -- Amos, I can't remember his last name. He said at one point -- it was in the WikiLeaks. He said, "We don't do Gandhi well" -- "We don't do Gandhi very well." And it wasn't a facetious remark. His point was: "We only have one tool in our box. The one tool is killing civilians. That's our only tool. And you need a pretext to do it; otherwise, it looks very bad in international public opinion." And so, Israel --

AMY GOODMAN: That was the IDF Major General Amos Gilad?

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Amos Gilad, yes. Amos Gilad. And it was true, that they need a pretext. And when they don't have -- and all along the pretext has been the Hamas rockets, which in fact aren't rockets, are just enhanced fireworks. But it gave Israel the pretext. And now they don't have the pretext. They've been desperately, desperately trying to evoke the pretext. They killed a person close to Hamas in Malaysia. Then they killed six Hamas militants about three weeks ago.

And it was interesting. One of the reasons there were very few demonstrations yesterday, even though May 15th was supposed to be the culmination, it's because Israel sent word, through Egypt, that if there are those mass nonviolent demonstrations again, we're targeting Hamas's leadership. It was reported in Haaretz and in other places. It's a very interesting fact, because Israel did not target Hamas's leadership during Operation Cast Lead. It did not target Hamas's leadership during the Operation Protective Edge in 2014. But it dreads -- it dreads the nonviolent protests, because it puts a constraint on the amount of brutality it can inflict. So, even though -- and it's true, hundred -- 63 people killed on May 14th, about 2,000 injured, even though those are large numbers, we have to remember, they only loom large because it was nonviolent. In the course of Israel's other operations, that's what happens in the morning or in an afternoon on a typical day.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to break, and we're going to come back to this discussion. Our guest is the scholar Norm Finkelstein. His latest book is called Gaza: An Inquest into Its Martyrdom. This is Democracy Now! Back with Professor Finkelstein in a minute.

Categories: Latest News

A Moral Outrage in the Holy Land

Tue, 05/15/2018 - 21:00
Categories: Latest News

Will Democrats Be Able to Preserve Net Neutrality After All?

Tue, 05/15/2018 - 21:00
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The impending death of net neutrality looked pretty much set in stone, but congressional Democrats are giving it another shot to live on. On Wednesday, the US Senate will hold a vote to reverse the FEC's previous decision. Can net neutrality be spared after all?

I don't want to get anyone's hopes up -- the answer to that question is "probably not." Although the initiative is likely to succeed in the Senate where it has the support of every Democrat as well as Republican Senator Susan Collins (making it a 50-49 vote with John McCain absent,) it will have a much bigger hurdle to clear in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

Nevertheless, the vote would still be a win for Democrats. 83 percent of Americans want to maintain net neutrality, so it'd be smart for lefty legislators to take a stand on this issue rather than rolling over on it so easily.

The internet is awash with think pieces about how the Democratic Party needs to take stances on issues other than general opposition to President Donald Trump. Here's a chance for Democrats to latch onto a popular issue and prove it is listening to the will of the American people.

Inevitably some will argue that it's a useless political exercise if it cannot pass in the House, but never forget that House Republicans voted to repeal or amend Obamacare over 50 times knowing full well that the Senate wouldn't follow suit. Symbolic gestures are the norm.

Besides, preserving net neutrality is, plainly, the right thing to do. House Republicans haven't felt the same pressure yet, and if the House ultimately decides not to pass it, let those representatives have to explain why they're standing with corporate profits instead of their constituents (including the 75 percent of Republicans want net neutrality.)

With so many tight races in this November's midterms, there are potentially some conservative lawmakers that will break the party line to preserve net neutrality. That, or they could hand their Democratic opponents another easy criticism for their campaigns.

Even if enough Republicans switch their votes, the reversal would still head to President Donald Trump for his signature. Alas, Trump has seemed pleased with FEC Chair Ajit Pai's work so it's unlikely that he'd have a change of heart on this move that surely had the president's blessing.

If the Democrats' quest doesn't succeed, net neutrality is slated to formally end on June 11.  Without neutrality rules, internet companies could put data caps on internet subscriptions, charge more to visit certain websites and intentionally slow the speed on other sites. We'll have to see how quickly internet providers decide to take advantage of this regulatory freedom, but it will not be good for Americans who enjoy a free and open internet.

Categories: Latest News

Senate Panel Endorses Gina Haspel, Despite Her Facilitation of Torture

Tue, 05/15/2018 - 21:00

Donald Trump's nominee Gina Haspel appears before the Senate Intelligence Committee for consideration to be CIA Director on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on Wednesday May 9, 2018. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Senate Intelligence Committee voted 10-5 to support Gina Haspel's nomination today, despite the fact that her facilitation of torture under the Bush administration should disqualify her from assuming the role of CIA director. The full Senate will now make the final decision on Haspel, who has refused to state that torture is both immoral and illegal.

Donald Trump's nominee Gina Haspel appears before the Senate Intelligence Committee for consideration to be CIA Director on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on Wednesday May 9, 2018. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

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The Senate Intelligence Committee voted 10-5 to support Gina Haspel's nomination today, despite the fact that her facilitation of torture should disqualify her from assuming the role of CIA director.

Next the full Senate will make a final decision on Haspel's nomination in a vote that is expected to take place next week but could occur as early as tomorrow.

In her testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on May 9, Haspel insisted that the CIA's interrogation program during the Bush administration was legal. Haspel, a 33-year CIA veteran, argued that it could not be determined whether torture was effective to gain intelligence. She refused to state categorically that torture is immoral. And she never condemned the torture program in which she participated.

Haspel was chief of base at the CIA black site in Thailand when al-Qaeda suspects, including Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, were waterboarded and brutalized in 2002. Ten years later, Sondra Crosby said al-Nashiri was "one of the most severely traumatized individuals I have ever seen."

Waterboarding involves pouring water into prisoners' noses and mouths to make them feel like they're drowning.

The Bush administration claimed it only waterboarded three individuals: al-Nashiri, Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. But a footnote in a memo written by Office of Legal Counsel lawyer Steven Bradbury says waterboarding was utilized "with far greater frequency than initially indicated" and with "large volumes of water" rather than small quantities, as required by the CIA's rules.

Waterboarding is illegal under all circumstances.

The Bush Torture Program Was Unlawful

US law has long considered waterboarding to be torture, which constitutes a war crime. After World War II, the US government tried, convicted and hanged Japanese military leaders for the war crime of waterboarding.

Torture is prohibited under the US Torture Statute; the US War Crimes Act; the Geneva Conventions; and the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (also known as the United Nations Convention Against Torture).

"No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification for torture," the Convention Against Torture states unequivocally.

To read more stories like this, visit Human Rights and Global Wrongs.

Last week, however, Haspel testified that the CIA's actions in the Bush administration's "enhanced interrogation" program were lawful. "The very important thing to know about CIA is, we follow the law," she said. "We followed the law then, and we follow the law now."

She was likely relying on memoranda written by lawyers in the Office of Legal Counsel, including John Yoo and Jay Bybee. Yoo and Bybee wrote memos with twisted reasoning purporting to justify torture, and advised high government officials on how to avoid criminal liability under the US War Crimes Act.

According to Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, chief of staff to Colin Powell, Bush's secretary of state, the torture policy emanated from Vice President Dick Cheney's office.

Haspel never admitted that Bush's interrogation program included torture.

That makes Cheney -- along with George W. Bush and other officials who authorized the torture -- liable for war crimes. But since Barack Obama refused to hold the Bush war criminals accountable, Cheney continues to advocate torture with impunity.

In a recent appearance on Fox Business, Cheney supported Haspel's nomination. He said he "wholeheartedly" favors "enhanced interrogation techniques" -- a euphemism for torture. "I think the techniques we used were not torture," Cheney claimed. "If it were my call, I would not discontinue those programs," Cheney said. "If it were my call, I'd do it again."

Haspel's Elusive Moral Compass

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released a 499-page executive summary of its 6,700-page classified torture report in 2014. It contains many disturbing revelations. The summary says several detainees were waterboarded. One detainee in CIA custody was waterboarded 183 times; another was subjected to the waterboard on 83 occasions.

Al-Nashiri was waterboarded on Haspel's watch. A rag was placed over his forehead and eyes and water was poured into his nose and mouth until he began to choke and aspirate. The rag was lowered, suffocating him with the water still in his throat, sinuses and lungs. After he was allowed to take three to four breaths, the process was repeated.

A broomstick was wedged behind Al-Nashiri's knees as he knelt and his body was forced backward, pulling his knee joints apart. CIA agents also cinched his elbows behind his back and hoisted him up to the ceiling, causing a physician's assistant to fear they had dislocated his shoulders.

Al-Nashiri was placed in a coffin between interrogations. At other times, he was locked into a small box the size of an office safe. Agents used a rolled towel placed around Al-Nashiri's neck to swing him into a plywood wall, so the towel became an object of fear.

Agents instilled in Al-Nashiri "learned helplessness" to render him passive and dependent. To induce sleep deprivation, he was shackled to a bar on the ceiling and forced to stand with his arms above his head.

While hooded, naked and shackled to the ceiling, agents racked a handgun near Al-Nashiri's head, then substituted a revved-up power drill.

Al-Nashiri was subjected to "rectal feeding." A mixture of pureed hummus, pasta and sauce, nuts and raisins was rammed into his rectum. He was also forcibly sodomized and a stiff brush was raked across his "ass and balls and then his mouth."

The summary confirmed the CIA used "rectal feeding" without medical necessity on prisoners, saying "rectal rehydration" was used to establish the interrogator's "total control over the detainee."

Other "enhanced interrogation techniques" that the summary documented included being slammed into walls; deprived of sleep -- sometimes with forced standing -- for up to seven and one-half days; forced to stand on broken limbs for hours on end; kept in total darkness; confined in a coffin-like box for 11 days; dressed in diapers; and bathed in ice water. The summary said one detainee "literally looked like a dog that had been kenneled."

When Sen. Kamala Harris (D-California) asked Haspel, "Do you believe in hindsight that those techniques were immoral?" the nominee gave a non-responsive answer. Haspel said, "Senator, what I believe sitting here today is, I support the higher moral standard we have decided to hold ourselves to."

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Virginia), vice-chairman of the committee, asked Haspel, "If this president asked you to do something that you find morally objectionable, even if there is an [Office of Legal Counsel] opinion, what will you do? Will you carry out that order or not?"

She replied, "Senator, my moral compass is strong. I would not allow CIA to undertake activity that I thought was immoral -- even if it was technically legal," Haspel explained.

Apparently Haspel has no moral objection to the torture techniques used on Al-Nashiri.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) inquired of Haspel, "If the CIA has a high-value terrorism suspect in its custody and the president gave you a direct order to waterboard that suspect, what would you do?"

Again, Haspel demurred with a non-responsive reply: "I do not believe the president would ask me to do that," she testified.

Haspel is apparently unaware of Donald Trump's declarations during the presidential campaign that he would "immediately" resume waterboarding and would "bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding" because the United States has a "barbaric" enemy. Trump called waterboarding a "minor form" of interrogation.

Torture Doesn't Work

Trump said he would allow the use of waterboarding "in a heartbeat" because "only a stupid person would say it doesn't work." But even "if it doesn't work," he added, "they deserve it anyway, for what they're doing."

When queried about Trump's statement that "torture absolutely works," Haspel said, "I don't believe that torture works." She then wavered, saying that valuable intelligence had been obtained from senior al-Qaeda operatives "and I don't think it's knowable whether interrogation techniques played a role in that."

The executive summary of the Senate report came to a contrary conclusion.

If Haspel is confirmed as CIA director, it will send a message to future administrations that those who authorize and facilitate torture will escape liability.

"The use of the CIA's interrogation techniques was not an effective means of obtaining accurate information or gaining detainee cooperation," according to the summary. "Multiple CIA detainees fabricated information, resulting in faulty intelligence ... on critical intelligence issues including the terrorist threats which the CIA identified as its highest priorities."

But the CIA continually lied in saying that the techniques "saved lives," the summary said.

Haspel Facilitated Destruction of Torture Evidence

Haspel confirmed that there were tapes documenting 92 interrogations of a detainee. Although she denied giving the order to destroy the tapes, Haspel acknowledged that in 2005, she drafted a cable from Jose Rodriguez ordering the destruction of the tapes. Rodriguez was chief of the CIA clandestine program and Haspel was his chief of staff.

When asked if she supported the destruction of tapes depicting waterboarding, Haspel said, "I absolutely was an advocate" of erasing the tapes, citing security concerns. She claimed to rely on consistent advice from counsel that there was no legal requirement to retain the tapes, provided that the treatment conformed to US law.

Bush's legal mercenaries manipulated the law to conclude that the torture was lawful. The US Torture Statute defines torture as an "act intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering upon another person within his custody or physical control."

Yet in an August 2002 memo signed by Bybee, Yoo redefined torture so narrowly the torturer would have to nearly kill the torturee in order to run afoul of the legal prohibition against torture. The memo stated that in order to constitute torture, the pain caused by an interrogation must include injury such as death, organ failure or serious impairment of body functions.

Yoo, a licensed attorney, made the astounding claim in an Esquire interview that "just because the statute says -- that doesn't mean you have to do it." In a debate with Notre Dame Professor Doug Cassell, Yoo said there is no treaty that prohibits the president from torturing someone by crushing the testicles of the person's child. It would be legal as long as the president acted with a proper motive, Yoo added, but he didn't specify what that motive might be. Moreover, he ignored the absolute prohibition against torture enshrined in the Torture Convention.

And despite the Torture Convention's categorical proscription against torture in all circumstances, Yoo wrote that self-defense or necessity could be defenses to war crimes prosecutions.

Haspel's Participation in Torture Disqualifies Her

Haspel testified that, if confirmed, she would not allow torture. But she never admitted that Bush's interrogation program included torture.

She denied participating in the creation of the CIA detention and interrogation program, claiming she had no knowledge of it until the system had been operational for one year.

In spite of her insistence that the CIA acted legally in the Bush interrogation program, Haspel denied she would restart it. "Having served in that tumultuous time," Haspel testified, "I can offer you my personal commitment, clearly and without reservation, that under my leadership, CIA will not restart such a detention and interrogation program."

Senator Warner affirmed that Haspel is "among the most experienced people to be nominated" for CIA director. But, he added, "many people -- and I include myself in that number -- have questions about the message the Senate would be sending by confirming someone for this position who served as a supervisor in the counterterrorism center during the time of the [CIA's] rendition, detention, and interrogation program."

Warner changed his tune and pledged to support Haspel's nomination after she wrote him a letter stating, "the enhanced interrogation program is not one the CIA should have undertaken." But Haspel wrote that in the context of protecting the CIA's reputation, not out of any moral or legal concern about the torture.

In a written statement, Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) urged the Senate to reject Haspel's nomination. "Ms. Haspel's role in overseeing the use of torture by Americans is disturbing. Her refusal to acknowledge torture's immorality is disqualifying," McCain wrote.

Obama ensured the impunity of Bush officials for their war crimes. Shortly before his inauguration, the president-elect declared, "My view is also that nobody's above the law and, if there are clear instances of wrongdoing, that people should be prosecuted just like any ordinary citizen." He added, however, that "generally speaking, I'm more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backwards."

In fall 2016, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court concluded there was a reasonable basis to open investigations into the war crime of torture in detention facilities run by the CIA and the US military in Afghanistan.

If Haspel is confirmed as CIA director, it will send a message to future administrations that those who authorize and facilitate torture will escape liability. That is a dangerous message indeed.

Categories: Latest News

Big Primary Wins for Socialists and Progressives Who Ran on "Popular Demands That Were Deemed Impossible"

Tue, 05/15/2018 - 21:00

Clouds form a backdrop of a sign outside a polling as a storm system moves in over Northwest Philadelphia, PA, on Primary Election Day, May 15, 2018. Voters showed out in spite of the looming rain to grant wins to four DSA-backed candidates. (Photo by Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

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"This is what happens when you run grassroots campaigns."

"We're just getting started."

"Welcome to the political revolution."

Defying national and state-level Democratic establishment forces that have worked to crowd out left-wing candidates and demonstrating that there is a deep hunger among the American electorate for a bold progressive agenda, candidates running on platforms of Medicare for All, free college, and a living wage emerged victorious in several state primaries on Tuesday and tore through the boundaries of what is conventionally considered politically feasible.

"It feels like a monumental shift," Arielle Cohen, co-chair of Pittsburgh Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), told the Huffington Post after four DSA-backed candidates defeated establishment Democrats in Pennsylvania. "We won on popular demands that were deemed impossible. We won on healthcare for all; we won on free education."

Running in Pennsylvania's State House Districts 34 and 21 respectively, Summer Lee and Sara Innamorato -- both running on platforms consisting of Medicare for All, strong environmental protection, and campaign finance reform -- toppled what local news outlets described as a "political dynasty" by trouncing Democratic cousins Paul Costa and Dom Costa by a wide margin.

"They said it wasn't possible without institutional support. That we couldn't talk about Medicare for All, a living wage, about ending corruption in Harrisburg," Innamorato said during her victory party Tuesday night. "And you know what we did instead? We built something."

"The establishment's scared," Pittsburgh DSA wrote on Twitter in response to the upset victories, which also included wins by Elizabeth Fiedler and Kristin Seale over their establishment counterparts. "When we fight, we win."

Signs of the grassroots progressive wave that some predicted will ultimately sweep across the country could also be seen in Idaho on Tuesday, where progressive Paulette Jordan handily defeated her establishment-backed Democratic opponent A.J. Balukoff in a bid to become the nation's first Native American governor.

If she wins in November, Jordan -- who ran on protecting public land from corporate plunder and criminal justice reform -- would be Idaho's first Democratic governor in over 20 years.

"Today's elections prove movement politics candidates, who rely on people power, can win, and win powerfully," Ryan Greenwood, director of Movement Politics for People's Action, said in a statement on Wednesday. "Candidates for public office who commit to a racial and gender justice agenda that puts people and our planet before profits are winning."

Categories: Latest News

Laid-Off Workers Demand Severance Pay From Equity Firms Behind Toys "R" Us Bankruptcy

Tue, 05/15/2018 - 21:00

After assuring employees that Toys "R" Us is on a sound footing, the private equity firms behind the company's leveraged buyout filed for bankruptcy, costing 33,000 retail employees their livelihoods. Now those employees are demanding severance pay from the equity firms.

Customers leave a Toys 'R' Us store in Los Angeles, California on March 23, 2018. (Photo: Mark Ralston / AFP / Getty Images)

Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. We're now more than a year into the Trump administration, and activists have scored some important victories in those months. Yet there is always more to be done, and for many people, the question of where to focus and how to help remains. In this series, we talk with organizers, agitators and educators not only about how to resist but also about how to build a better world. Today's interview is the 122nd in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.

Today we bring you a conversation with Debbie Beard, an assistant manager at Babies "R" Us in Phoenix, Arizona, and Carrie Gleason, director of the Fair Workweek Initiative at the Center for Popular Democracy. They discuss how leveraged buyout of Toys "R" Us hurt tens of thousands of retail workers and how a new campaign is fighting back to demand justice for these employees.

Sarah Jaffe: Start out, Debbie, tell us about your time at Toys "R" Us and Babies "R" Us, and what has changed with the company over time?

Debbie Beard: I have been here 29 years. I started as a seasonal employee. I walked in and was hired in five minutes. I have pretty much held almost any position in the stores that [was] available.... It had always been a family-oriented company until it went from public to private in 2005, when Bain Capital and KKR bought out the company, along with Vornado. Once that happened, we started losing the family part of the company. They didn't really seem to care too much about investing time in the employees or anything. They restructured, as they say, which normally happens on a buyout like that. But full-time people lost positions, benefits and things like that.

When the latest round of financial difficulties began, leading to them saying that they are going to close stores -- walk us through when you heard about that, when you started to hear that there were problems and what you were thinking.

I guess it starts back in September. We knew the company was struggling.... The company put together a rally regionally for all the store managers and the assistant managers to bring them in and, at that point in time, reassured them that the company was doing fine. They were hoping to have a really great season. Then, that should pull us out of it and make it be able to continue.

January was when we heard that they ... filed the Chapter 11 bankruptcy.... They went and said that they were going to try closing 182 stores at that point in time, and then hopefully be able to save the rest of them. Then, we were blindsided in March. The whole company was going into liquidation at that point.

How did you get connected with the folks at the Center for Popular Democracy and Organization United for Respect?

Actually, my store manager, Tracy, she was talking to me about it. Her and I have been together for quite some time. Both of us, pretty much the same tenure and things. She talked to me about it, and then I got on board.

Tell us what the next steps are, what the organization is doing about bringing attention to this situation, and how it is certainly not limited to Toys "R" Us, but also trying to save people's jobs.

I know we are in the planning stages of that.... I understand there is an action happening sometime around June 1.... Carrie could probably fill you in a little more on that one.

Carrie, give us a little bit more background about what is going on broadly in retail with these companies, these buyouts from private equity firms.

Carrie Gleason: This has been going on for quite some time, and during the recession, about 10 years ago now, retail companies started to turn to these private equity firms to help them with their financial struggles. Many retail companies were bought out through this process called a "leveraged buyout."

In the case of Toys "R" Us, what happened was, in say 2005, the company only had 30 percent debt. Then, as soon as KKR and Bain Capital bought it out, that flipped and the company went to 70 percent debt and only 30 percent equity. The company had long paid back this debt, but then, as every year, they had to pay management fees and other ... fees to take care of Bain Capital from one year to the next, on top of interest, and it became financially unviable.

Then, Amazon gets on the scene and all of these investors across all of these retail companies look at what is happening with Amazon. Last year, it became the second-largest retail company in America. They thought, "Well, maybe we should get out now; it is going to take too much investment -- capital investment -- to make this company competitive. So, let's just close the doors."

The truth is that Toys "R" Us is a completely viable business. Many of these other retail companies that are closing doors, like Nine West, are completely viable businesses, but the problem is that the owners aren't looking to run the business of retail. It is a big problem. Then, it is not just this private equity ownership. Big companies like Macy's and Kohl's have other kinds of debt that are really crippling them in this moment where they actually need to be changing their strategies for the new retail industry that is emerging.

As a result ... a lot of people are losing their jobs. A lot of hard-working women like Debbie are losing their jobs. And this is a disaster, a financial crisis that could completely be avoided if we just regulate these Wall Street firms.

Since we are talking on Sunday and it is Mother's Day, I should ask about the fact that it is a lot of women who work in a lot of these retail stores.

Beard: There are several single moms in my store. I get emotional about this. I am sorry.... It is just sad to see them trying to struggle, trying to find a new job to fit the criteria that they need, and not knowing what is going to happen, and no help from Bain Capital to help them get through that period until they can secure another job.

And just for a reminder, because we heard the term "Bain Capital" a lot in 2012, maybe not so much since then. But Mitt Romney is running for office again. Remind us a little bit about Bain Capital.

Gleason: I will say this isn't the first toy store that Bain Capital destroyed. KB Toys, you might remember, also went under [under] the ownership of Bain Capital. That was further back, probably closer to the time that Mitt Romney was involved. But this is a model that Mitt Romney was at the helm of. This is a strategy that has been in play for the last 15 or so years that has made a lot of people money, including Mitt Romney.

It is a problem. It was incredibly powerful to see people who have worked, dedicated their lives to Toys "R" Us, go to DC, meet with members of Congress, meet with Bernie Sanders to tell their stories, because we are really counting on them to do something about what is happening.

What can they do? What are people asking for Congress to do on this front?

Gleason: Once upon a time, leveraged buyouts were illegal. We think the simplest solution is to just ban leveraged buyouts. They shouldn't be allowed. We are also looking at other policies. We can go the patchwork approach or we can just get to the source of the problem. Either way, something needs to be done.

We hear the term "leveraged buyout," but tell us what that means. When did it stop being illegal?

Gleason: I am also not an expert. I am learning about this because of what it is doing to people working in retail. A leveraged buyout means that they use the equity within a company to then give the leverage to buy a company. Based off of that equity within the company, they use the revenue from every year to pay off the debt directly to the owner. It is not like there is a bank. It is that the owners say, "We are going to put up the money now to put some money into the company and then, every year, we are just going to take a big chunk off of the revenue to pay us back over time."

In the case of Toys "R" Us, it was a $5 billion debt that they took on. Over the course of time, KKR and Bain Capital pocketed $470 million just in fees. That was on top of the money that they put down. It is definitely a complicated process, but the idea is just that -- and the result, it is not like you have the owners and then, they are beholden to the banks. So, the people in charge are still trying to run the business. They might have too much debt to these banks, but they are still trying to run the business.

The problem with leveraged buyouts is that you actually give the company over to these investors who don't really care about running a toy business. They don't really care about the families that are making the company successful. They are just looking to make a buck. That is the problem with leveraged buyouts.

And they made quite a few bucks.

Gleason: So much so that there was no money left for severance for the 33,000 people working for Toys "R" Us.

What can people do who are listening to or reading this and want to support the Toys "R" Us workers?

Beard: We have a group that is called RISE Up Retail. They are welcome to join and help get in the action planning when we do these action days and things like that. And just voicing their opinions. Going to their Congressman, the representative and letting them know how they feel.

I think the more voices that are heard will help ... sometimes we all feel like [retail workers] are second-class citizens. We are here just to service all of them. Fortunately, most of our customers that come in -- they understand what we are going through, but when you get up to the hierarchy, the corporate levels, we are just numbers on paper for them. We are here to make sure their business runs and they [couldn't] care less what happens to us, which is very apparent by not offering any type of severance pay.

Gleason: This move for severance pay is the number one demand by 33,000 hardworking people working at Toys "R" Us. There is a petition that has taken off. People can sign the petition started by Colleen Kleven, a Toys "R" Us associate. We are going to the investors in KKR and Bain Capital. We are going to be calling on the New York City comptroller and New York State comptroller to reach out to KKR and Bain Capital to ask for their support to get workers severance pay.

There [are] going to be meetings at the big pension funds this week in Ohio and California, where Toys "R" Us associates are going to be there and say, "We need your help. Reach out to these companies. Tell them, 'As an investor, we need you to help these workers get by. This is wrong.'"

This is long-haul. This is just the beginning. There are more people that are going to be losing these jobs because of these bad investment deals. We need to ... reach out to our members of Congress and say, "We want you to do something about this. We want an economy that works. We need to really make sure there are guardrails to protect working families."

This is just the beginning. We really see the powerful leadership of people like Debbie ... these women that have dedicated their lives to Toys "R" Us as being a part of the voices that [are] really going to prevent this happening to other people.

Where can people find the petitions and the other stuff?

Gleason: The petition that is taking off is on Credo. You can reach out to your members of Congress through this page and show your support for Toys "R" Us employees.

Anything else people should know about this fight?

Beard: We just need all the help we can get. We know it is going to be a long fight. I am just grateful that we have been given the opportunity to take our plea to Congress. The organizations have been a great help and support to us. The more people we can get on board, the louder our voices will be, and it will force them to have to listen to us.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

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

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Categories: Latest News

Seattle Just Showed How to Rein In Amazon -- and the Company Is Going to War

Tue, 05/15/2018 - 21:00
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While cities across the country line up to shower Amazon with billions of dollars in tax breaks and free office space, the Seattle City Council just hit the tech and retail giant -- and the city's biggest firm -- with a new tax meant to fight homelessness and fund affordable housing.

At a packed and at times combative meeting on Monday, after multiple rounds of last-minute negotiations, the Council unanimously passed an amended version of the Employee Hours Tax (EHT), which will effectively serve as a payroll tax on Seattle's megacorporations. The passage is a major victory for progressives in the city, including councilmember Kshama Sawant, who strongly backed the corporate tax.

The EHT, widely known as the "head tax," is aimed at businesses with more than $20 million in yearly receipts -- i.e., the richest three percent of corporations in Seattle, including Amazon.  Those companies will now be taxed $275 per worker, annually, down from an originally proposed cap of $500 per worker. The tax is expected to raise about $48 million per year, funds to be spent on subsidies for affordable housing and resources for the city's growing homeless population.

But Amazon is striking back. On May 2, the company announced that, until the vote was decided, it would call off all work on a 400,000-square-foot office block being built north of downtown Seattle -- a threat the company dropped just after the new tax passed. Amazon still claims to be  "evaluating options" to sublease another 700,000-plus square feet it has leased in a skyscraper currently under construction downtown. In a statement released after the vote, Amazon said, "we remain very apprehensive about the future created by the council's hostile approach and rhetoric toward larger businesses, which forces us to question our growth here." The company controls nearly a fifth of Seattle's office space, an unparalleled figure among major American cities.

"It is very difficult to take seriously a threat that essentially boils down to, 'If you don't continue to provide a richly subsidized operating environment for the richest corporations and their highly paid employees, we will leave you,' says Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness. "That is not corporate citizenship as I understand it."

Beyond Amazon

The original EHT legislation was more ambitious, and would have brought in about $75 million per year. But prior to Monday, Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan indicated that she would veto the tax, forcing the majority back to the bargaining table. Durkan's 2017 mayoral campaign featured heavy support from Seattle's Chamber of Commerce -- particularly from Amazon, which donated $350,000 to a group backing her campaign. The final version, passed by the Council 9-0, had a veto-proff majority, assuring it will become law.  

"As soon as we saw that Amazon was looking for locations in other cities," says Sawant, "our politicians sent a craven letter to Amazon saying, 'We're so sorry you felt unwelcome -- let's hit the refresh button.'"

"When was the last time struggling renters got a letter from their city," she asked, "saying, 'We're so sorry you felt unwelcome! We'll work to get you affordable housing?'"

Washington, despite its liberal reputation, is already a low-tax state. It has no personal income tax, no corporate income tax, and leans heavily on its relatively low sales tax. According to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a non-partisan think tank, Washingtonians live under the country's most regressive tax regime.

"Our state is woefully behind in being able to secure revenue in a way that can meet our basic needs," Eisinger says. She emphasized that -- although Amazon is in the spotlight -- there is much more to the debate than the company's retaliation.

"This is not about Amazon," Eisinger says. "Amazon has succeeded, in a rather ill-conceived way in making it largely about them. But the idea is that the biggest businesses should be able to put a very modest portion of their profits toward addressing a critical and desperately underfunded community need, so that this community is better for their employees and their customers."

Untaxed state income is a revenue loss for Washington, but a win for Seattle's legions of tech workers, who are some of the best paid nationwide. Thanks to firms like Amazon, where software engineers' starting salaries are typically in the six figures, Seattle is seeing some of the nation's fastest wage growth -- but almost all in high-dollar jobs.

Unlike most U.S. tech giants, Amazon is headquartered in a major metropolis, counting on its infrastructure, and the amenities of city life, to attract top talent. Amazon made a "very conscious decision" to use the city as a draw, its vice president for real estate told the Seattle Times.

Other startups-turned-giants are following suit. Google, Facebook, Groupon, Uber, Airbnb and other firms have set up shop in Seattle -- bringing in high-value jobs, but using a growing share of the city's infrastructure. The city has had to add buses to one transit route partly to accommodate Amazon's hundreds of summer interns, and some smaller companies complain that it's increasingly hard to rent office space when owners can hold out for Amazon or other huge firms to lease whole floors or buildings.

The Housing Problem

Above all, the problem is housing. Seattle's rents are up 65 percent since 2010, and rose 30 percent from 2014 to 2017 alone, due in part to demand from tech hires. "Amazon is behind the biggest rent increase last year," read a February MarketWatch headline on rent hikes in nearby Tacoma

Meanwhile, demand for single-family homes has pushed average house prices close to $1 million. Forty percent of Seattle homes now sell at or above that price. And -- further raising rents -- high home prices are driving more families into the rental market, with Seattle now on the verge of becoming a majority-renter city.

"I'm a native Seattleite, and Amazon has had a huge impact," says Katelyn Morgaine. Morgaine is a case manager at Downtown Emergency Service Center, an organization serving Seattle's homeless. "None of my coworkers can afford market-rate rent," she says. "We're living on top of each other in apartments or wherever we can." Morgaine claims that some of her coworkers "live in publicly subsidized buildings right next to their clients."

More than ninety percent of homes now being built in Seattle will be rentals, but with the influx of six-figure jobs, developers may have little incentive to build tens of thousands of units of affordable housing. And Seattle lacks the extensive tenant protections of cities like New York, where renters have long been the majority. Seattle's City Council has yet to overturn Washington's state ban on rent control.

The crisis has been especially tough on working-class and poor Seattleites. An analysis by salary comparison site PayScale found that a typical Seattle retail worker would end the year $11,000 in debt after paying for their basic needs. A typical tech worker, on the other hand, would end up with nearly $60,000 in discretionary income.

"We are not opposed in any way to the tech workers, who actually do the work that generates all of Amazon's profits," Sawant says. "We don't begrudge any part of the working class making a decent standard of living. But one of the ways in which Amazon changes the landscape of the economy is by the fact that, except for the tech workers, the other workers who keep Amazon's campuses running make very, very low wages."

In 2015, Seattle legislated a minimum wage hike, which will reach $15 per hour for all workers in 2021. But median rent increases have matched or outpaced minimum wage hikes, meaning that the lion's share of many minimum-wage workers' raises has gone to their landlords.

Homelessness has spiked to match. King County, where Seattle is located, sits behind only New York and Los Angeles for total number of homeless residents, although the county ranks 13th nationwide for population. Almost a quarter of homeless Seattleites have cited housing affordability as the main reason they were homeless.

"What is visible is a really close correlation in the increases in rent and the increase in the number of people who are homeless," Eisinger said, citing a recent McKinsey & Company report on homelessness in King County.

Other cities with tech booms have seen similar problems. In California, San Francisco and San Jose have also seen chart-topping gains in median wages -- like in Seattle, the gains are concentrated among high earners -- along with massive housing shortages and out-of-control rent spikes.

As in Washington, California's state limits on rent control mean cities' hands are tied, for now, on the price front. But a progressive corporate payroll tax in tech-dense cities opens the door to providing new affordable housing, shelters, and services for homeless and at-risk residents.

"This housing crisis did not happen in one day," Sawant says. "It happened not only because of negligence on the part of the city, but because of a very clear orientation toward what benefits corporations."

Tax Free

Amazon paid no federal taxes in 2017, and expects a tax break of nearly $800 million from the new GOP tax law. In Washington, the company's state and local tax burden of $250 million represents about eight percent of net profits -- or about one-tenth of one percent of last year's revenue. The Employee Hours Tax would bump Amazon's state and local tax bill to about $260 million.

In other words, the cash value of the tax is a drop in the bucket -- compared not just to Amazon's existing tax burden but to its savings under the new tax code. But the tax fight might be an important one for Seattle's favorite megacorporation.

"Almost everything that we value and need in our state is paid for by property and sales tax," says Eisinger. "We have very few options at the local level for bringing in revenue any other way." That arrangement, she points out -- along with natural beauty, quality healthcare, arts and culture, and a large research university -- is a draw for large companies.

The popular blowback to new property and sales taxes is well documented. If the law passes, Seattle's politicians might find that taxing eight-figure corporations is less politically risky, in the long run, than taxing shoppers or homeowners.

For companies taking advantage of existing city infrastructure -- or, in the case of Amazon's HQ2, seeking massive, custom-made public subsidies -- a local tax revolt against large corporations would be bad news.

"The reason there's national attention on this," Sawant says, "is that I think this will be a bellwether for other cities, like $15 an hour." The Fight for 15's victories in the Seattle area helped drive the movement into national headlines, reshaping the national debate on wages.

"Just in November of last year," she says, "the majority of the City Council voted no on a similar tax. It shows you in a very direct and live manner what you can achieve by building a movement."

Categories: Latest News

For Palestinians, New US Embassy Is a Symbol for Gaza Protests, but Mass Oppression Is Root Cause

Mon, 05/14/2018 - 21:00

While the Israeli military was carrying out a massacre against Palestinian protesters in Gaza, senior members of the Trump administration gathered in Jerusalem for the opening of the US Embassy. Among those who attended were President Trump's daughter, White House senior adviser Ivanka Trump; her husband, senior adviser Jared Kushner; and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. The Trump administration's decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem has sparked widespread condemnation, including in the city of Jerusalem itself, where demonstrators gathered Monday to protest the ceremony. For more, we speak with Budour Hassan, a Palestinian writer and project coordinator for the Jerusalem Center for Legal Aid and Human Rights.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: Stay with us, as we turn now to Budour Hassan. We've lost her on satellite in Jerusalem, but I think we have her on the phone, Palestinian writer and project coordinator for the Jerusalem Center for Legal Aid and Human Rights.

You were right there in Jerusalem, not far from the embassy office, I guess you could call it. Again, most of the work will continue for the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv. But your thoughts on the opening yesterday? How many people turned out in Jerusalem to protest it? Who went in?

BUDOUR HASSAN: There were hundreds of Palestinians in Jerusalem, both Palestinian residents of Jerusalem and Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, who came to protest the opening of the embassy. But to be honest, the protest wasn't just against the opening of the embassy. The protest was against the massacre that was taking place in Gaza, against Israeli impunity. And yesterday was a crowning moment of this impunity, because while Israelis and U.S. officials were celebrating the opening of the embassy, Palestinians in Gaza were being massacred.

And it was mainly -- lots of the chants that were raised and chanted during the protest were to stress the right of return, because, as you know, we are marking the 70th anniversary of the Nakba. While we are credibly angry about the moving of the embassy, we know that this is one of the details, one of the manifestations of the ongoing U.S. support for Israel. But we're also aware that the root cause of what's going on right now is that has happened 70 years ago, is the Nakba, the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. And this ethnic cleansing is still ongoing, in Jerusalem, in the West Bank, in the -- well, against Palestinian Bedouins in the Naqab. And this is why we were protesting yesterday. We were protesting against the opening of the embassy, which symbolizes this long-standing U.S. support for Israel, but which is just one of many, many details of Israel's everyday oppression of Palestinians.

Obviously, many Palestinians who tried to make it to the embassy were prevented from arriving, were blocked. Some buses were blocked. There were also protests in the West Bank, which were crushed. But yesterday kind of exemplified how Israel uses different systems of oppression against Palestinians pertaining to where they are. So, Palestinians in Jerusalem, because Israel wants to convey an image of sovereignty over Jerusalem, so it uses different forms of oppression. It uses control, it uses [inaudible], it uses residency verification. While against Palestinians in the West Bank, it uses tear gas, it uses rubber bullets. While against the Palestinians in Gaza, it uses live bullets and fires and massacres people with sniper shots and bullets. But regardless of the position of Palestinians -- and even also Palestinian citizens of Israel all also face daily oppression, racist laws and discrimination and exclusion, and their very existence is threatened.

But regardless of where we are as Palestinians, we feel that all of us are being targeted with different means, different [inaudible]. But to Israel, all of us are disposable. But there is a hierarchy of disposability. And the people of Gaza are treated as the most disposable. And this is why we also took to the streets yesterday, even though we were not many. But we wanted to show the people of Gaza that, for us, at least, they are not disposable, that we care for what's going on in Gaza, that we are part of the same people, and we share the same yearning for the right of return and for the liberation of all of Palestine.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, I wanted to bring in Tareq Baconi, who's here with us in studio and a member of the Palestinian Policy Network and a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Your assessment of what this -- what this latest carnage means in terms of the rest of the world reacting to having to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

TAREQ BACONI: I think this -- what's happening on the ground now is a clear indication of the fact that there's a recalibration that's happening in the Palestinian national struggle. The Palestinian liberation project of the Palestinian Authority or of Hamas have both failed to provide Palestinians with rights. So what we're seeing is Palestinians taking measures into their own hands. We're seeing people starting to call for rights, going back to the roots of their struggle. Now, with Jerusalem off the table, we have Palestinians calling for the right of return, going back to demands that are rooted in 1948, not in 1967. And we're seeing Palestinians start to embrace mass mobilization, civil protest, nonviolent protest, which have always formed part of the Palestinian struggle for liberation, since 1948, but have often been hijacked by peace processes and negotiations that have gone nowhere. So what we're seeing on the ground now is a disintegration of this idea of diplomacy as a means for achieving Palestinian rights, and really going back to the roots, going back to the roots where people are marching out in numbers, demanding equality, demanding freedom, being fed up and disenchanted with their political leaders, and deciding to take measures into their own hands.

And I think Muhammad and Budour spoke very eloquently about how this really represents a coming together of Palestinians in their different cages, whether they're in the West Bank or East Jerusalem or Gaza, all protesting for the one thing that unites them, which is the right of return, which is equality, which is freedom. So, really, this is a position where Palestinians are at a moment of transition, where it's very clear that the political leadership has failed, where it's very clear that the Americans are completely behind Israel's expansionist policies, and where it's clear that Israel's right wing is becoming more brazen. They now speak openly of annexation. They now are able to call nonviolent protest "Hamas propaganda." And they get away with it with impunity in the international community. And so, what we're seeing now is a reassertion of those Palestinian rights that form the core of Palestinian nationalism.

AMY GOODMAN: Tareq Baconi is author of a new book that's just out called Hamas Contained: The Rise and Pacification of Palestinian Resistance. We'll be back with him in a moment.

Categories: Latest News

While US Refuses to Blame Israel, International Court Could Launch War Crimes Probe Into Gaza Killings

Mon, 05/14/2018 - 21:00

The Israeli military's massacre of Palestinians Monday has sparked widespread international condemnation. South Africa has recalled its ambassador to Israel. Turkey has recalled both its ambassadors to Israel and the United States and has declared three days of mourning starting on Friday. Palestinian leaders have accused the Israeli military of committing war crimes, but the United States has blocked a UN Security Council statement calling for an independent investigation into the killings. Meanwhile, Israeli officials have tried to claim Hamas is behind the protests in efforts to justify the killings. For more, we speak with Tareq Baconi, author of the book Hamas Contained: The Rise and Pacification of Palestinian Resistance. He is a policy member at Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network and a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. Our guest is Tareq Baconi, author of the book Hamas Contained: The Rise and Pacification of Palestinian Resistance.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Tareq, I wanted to ask you, in the few minutes we've got left, in terms of what could potentially -- who might be able to hold Israel responsible for this latest carnage that's been occurring now for weeks, really? And what, under international law, might be possible in terms of the international community demanding accountability?

TAREQ BACONI: I think it's really important in the context of everything we've seen today, from Sharif and Muhammad and others, to stress that the Gaza Strip isn't a separate border or entity that's bordering Israel. Gaza is under occupation. It continues to be under Israel's military control. Israel controls the population registry. It controls all entry and exit of goods, of people. It even controls the number of calories that go into the Gaza Strip to avoid mass starvation. So, what that means is that this idea of infiltration is just misrepresenting reality on the ground. These people aren't infiltrating. They are people under occupation. And Israel has the responsibility, under international law, to protect civilians under its occupation. Instead of that, we see Israel presenting Gazans as people who are looking to swarm into Israel and break this border, which is patently false.

So, the Palestinians have a number of options in front of them. They are able to take this to international courts. The efforts by the international -- by the Palestinian leadership to take Palestinian concerns to the International Criminal Court have often been suspended because of the belief in the peace process, because, under President Obama, they were asked to stop from taking measures to the international court because they were promised that the peace process would lead to an outcome. Those promises are clearly unmet, and there's clearly no belief anymore in the possibility of a peace process, certainly not under American mediation. So, in the absence of that, Palestinians have to push forward on international measures with the international community and break away from America's hold on this idea of negotiations, of mediating between the parties.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Tareq, as we wrap up this show, the final figures -- we've been talking about 61 people killed in one day, the deadliest day of the Palestinian protests, Israeli military killing them, gassing them yesterday in Gaza. But the total figure since just March 30th, the six weeks of protest?

TAREQ BACONI: Yes. So, over the past six weeks, we've had around 110 -- 109 are the latest numbers -- of people who have been killed. Those are -- the vast majority of them are unarmed civilians. And more than 12,000 injured. Yesterday was worse than the combined six weeks leading up to yesterday. And this is the biggest killing since 2014, when Israel launched its largest military assault on the Gaza Strip to date, killing 2,500 people.

AMY GOODMAN: Tareq Baconi, we want to thank you for being with us. His book, Hamas Contained: The Rise and Pacification of Palestinian Resistance.

And that does it for our show. Special thanks to Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous in the field in Gaza.

Categories: Latest News

The Massacre in Gaza: A Deliberate and Calculated Policy

Mon, 05/14/2018 - 21:00

Protesters run away from tear gas dispersed by Israeli forces as they inch closer to the border fence separating Israel and Gaza on May 14, 2018, in a camp east of Gaza City, Gaza. (Photo: Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

While the US is quick to label any act of resistance by the Palestinians as terrorism, it has yet to condemn Israel's calculated massacre of unarmed Palestinians, including children, during this and the preceding weeks. In fact, the Trump administration has gone out of its way to defend Israel's inhumane actions and repeatedly blocked the UN Security Council's attempts to investigate Israel's clear violation of international law.

Protesters run away from tear gas dispersed by Israeli forces as they inch closer to the border fence separating Israel and Gaza on May 14, 2018, in a camp east of Gaza City, Gaza. (Photo: Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

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Palestinian blood continued to pour along the border fence with Gaza on May 14, 2018, the 70th anniversary of Israel's founding.

Israeli soldiers wounded more than 2,700 Palestinian protesters and killed dozens more with rifle fire on Monday. At least five children were killed, including an 8-month-old baby girl who died after inhaling tear gas fired by Israeli soldiers. Today, a few hundred Palestinians have defiantly returned to protest near the Gaza fence after yesterday’s carnage. Early reports indicate that there has already been one death and dozens of injuries from live ammunition and gas inhalation, while casualties have been reported during separate protests in the West Bank.

For more than a month, Israeli soldiers have been shooting and killing unarmed Palestinian protesters in Gaza, using high-powered sniper rifles and live ammunition.

Palestinians have been shot while kneeling for prayer. They have been shot in the back. Children have been targeted and killed. Journalists, clearly marked as such, have been shot, killed and maimed. Thousands have been injured, and some have had to amputate their limbs to survive their injuries.

No evidence has been presented showing that Palestinians have posed a threat to the Israeli snipers pulling the triggers. The Israeli soldiers are positioned hundreds of yards away, perched behind a hill, wearing full battle gear. They are comfortably shooting at the Palestinians through sniper scopes, from a safe distance from which they are in no danger.

What's more, the justifications that the Israeli government has given to defend this practice do not even attempt to deny these facts. Statements such as Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman's claim that "anyone who approaches the fence is putting his life in jeopardy" instead seek to justify the firing of live ammunition against unarmed protesters who pose no legitimate threat.

Intentionally Imposed Humiliation

Norman Finkelstein, one of the leading scholars of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has pointed out that the Palestinians who are being shot by Israeli snipers are "civilians peacefully protesting their forced incarceration" in the Gaza Strip, which has been subject to a cruel and inhumane blockade since the Israeli army withdrew from it in 2005.

Many point to the withdrawal as proof that Gaza is not occupied, yet Israel still controls the land, air and sea surrounding Gaza, as well as its electricity and water. It subjects Gaza to a suffocating blockade, leading to shortages of basic necessities. Nearly all of Gaza's inhabitants are prevented from leaving, caged within what dissident intellectual Noam Chomsky describes as "the world's largest open-air prison," and what former Israeli National Security Council head Giora Eiland called "a huge concentration camp."

People who grow up in Gaza have their entire lives controlled by a hostile, exterior force. As the Bertha Justice Network, a global human rights group, has pointed out, the "choking closure of the Gaza Strip ... [is] intentionally imposing a state of unsustainable hardship and humiliation on the 2 million Palestinians residing in Gaza."

Gaza is kept within a continual state of siege, intermittently broken up by Israeli aggressions. This practice, which the Israeli military has described as "mowing the lawn," entails periodically chopping down Palestinian lives as one would blades of grass, keeping the population crushed and demoralized.

The humanitarian effects of all of this are devastating.

Gaza is a "constant humanitarian emergency," according to the UN Secretary General. The UN has predicted that "Gaza will become unlivable by 2020." Ninety-seven percent of its water is contaminated and undrinkable. Only four hours of electricity are available per day. Unemployment runs rampant and its infrastructure is collapsing. The director of the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem said in a recent statement that Gaza residents, most of whom have "never had a chance to leave the small patch of land" have "lived their lives without any political rights, devoid of any hope for a reasonable future, totally subject to the decisions and policies of the Israeli government."

This forced incarceration is what the Palestinians are currently protesting.

The protests were planned to culminate today, May 15, the day referred to by Palestinians as the "Nakba," Arabic for "catastrophe," which denotes the time when Palestinians were forced from their homes at gunpoint -- many innocent civilians being massacred -- so that the state of Israel could be established.

The protests have been dubbed "The Great March of Return," meant to reaffirm the Palestinians' internationally recognized right of return, the right to go back to the homes and the land they were expelled from in what is now Israel.

While Israel has tried to delegitimize the protests by claiming they are the providence of Hamas, journalist Robert Mackey explains instead that, "While Hamas officials had promoted plans for the march and encouraged members to take part, it began on the Facebook page of [Ahmad Abu] Artema, a political independent whose family is originally from the city of Ramle, now in central Israel."

It began with a question: "What would happen "if 200,000 Palestinians headed peacefully to cross the border [into their ancestral home, now called Israel], while raising a poster that says they only want to go back to their land?" This was the idea that set the whole process in motion, explains Enas Fares Ghannam, a Palestinian translator and writer.

A call was set out for "all Palestinian refugees to peacefully gather ... by the Israeli border to call for their rights," Ghannam adds. As part of this act of civil disobedience, "Palestinian refugees living in Gaza will set up tents near the border and move gradually -- and peacefully -- closer."

The Palestinians came un-armed, and while most of the demonstrators stayed close to the tents, others began moving closer.

Killings Approved in Advance

But just as the protests were planned in advance, Israel too planned its response.

Israel immediately declared that the protests were "violent riots," the actual facts being irrelevant. It deployed 100 snipers to the demarcation fence, in order to "block mass infiltration" and "damage to the barrier." The orders were to "use a lot of force" -- a stark admission that the use of disproportional force was approved by the highest Israeli authorities in advance.

Israeli officials further made their intended policy clear: The soldiers were to shoot at people who approached the fence, regardless of whether they were unarmed and peaceful.

Prime Minister Netanyahu's Arabic spokesman posted a video on Twitter of a man being shot in the leg, with the caption: "This is the least that will be faced by anyone trying to cross the security fence." The Israeli Defense Minister underscored this point by making it known that "Anyone who approaches the border puts his life in jeopardy."

Therefore, according to a statement by the Bertha Justice Network published by the Center for Constitutional Rights, a US-based social justice and legal advocacy organization, the "killings and injuries were ordered and approved in advance by the highest Israeli political and military echelons." Human Rights Watch commented that "The high number of deaths and injuries was the foreseeable consequence of granting soldiers leeway to use lethal force outside of life-threatening situations in violation of international norms."

The numbers alone speak for themselves.

Since March 30, at least 112 Palestinians have been killed. A staggering 12,271 have been wounded, including 3,598 by live ammunition -- more injuries than during Israel's entire 51-day military campaign in Gaza in 2014. At least 24 had their limbs amputated. The Israeli casualties? Zero. Injuries? A single "lightly hurt" soldier. "That's called a massacre," wrote Israeli journalist Gideon Levy, "There's no other word for it."

Back in 2017, John Kerry, the former Secretary of State, asked what Israel would do "If you see 40,000 kids marching up to the wall everyday with signs saying 'give us our rights?'"

On March 30, 2018, the world found out.

One unarmed 19-year-old was killed by sniper fire after being shot from behind. He was running away from the direction of the fence, with his back turned to the snipers.

Others were shot at distances of hundreds of yards from the fence.

One "instigator," as Israel calls its victims, was shot in the leg during prayer while kneeling on the ground.

Another was shot while throwing a rock. Multiple consecutive shots can be heard afterwards firing on those coming to his aid.

One man was shot while slowly walking to the border, unarmed and empty-handed. Another is shot while slowly walking forward with nothing other than a Palestinian flag in his hands.

Video evidence of the gathering shows groups of unarmed civilians protesting peacefully, congregating much like any other gathering -- only to be shot at, repeated and consecutive sniper fire ringing through the air, without any provocation beforehand.

The Killing Fields of Gaza

B'Tselem has documented evidence showing a systematic policy whereby people coming within 300 meters of the fence are shot. Some are shot even while standing at this distance.

Journalists have also been targeted on what can only be described as a systematic scale.

One Palestinian journalist was shot and killed while wearing a jacket clearly marked "PRESS." Another died of his wounds weeks after the fact. Six other journalists were shot with live fire and wounded, others were injured by gas canisters and tear gas. All were clearly identifiable as journalists.

So far, 14 children have been killed. One 15-year-old was shot in the head. He was empty-handed at the time. He was not targeted by accident.

An Israeli general, Brigadier-General Zvika Fogel, has admitted that the shooting of unarmed children is a deliberate policy -- the result of specific instructions.

"I know how these orders are given," he says, referring to the snipers. "I know how many authorizations he needs before he receives an authorization to open fire. It is not the whim of one or the other sniper who identifies the small body of a child now and decides he'll shoot. Someone marks the target for him very well and tells him exactly why one has to shoot and what the threat is from that individual. And to my great sorrow, sometimes when you shoot at a small body and you intended to hit his arm or shoulder, it goes even higher." He reiterates that the soldiers "receive very accurate instructions about whom to shoot."

Indeed, according to a tweet posted by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), none of the army's actions have been "carried out uncontrolled." Instead, "everything was accurate and measured, and we know where every bullet landed."

Of those who were injured, Amnesty has documented hundreds that have been hit with hunting bullets that "expand and mushroom inside the body," leading to "further complications, infections and some form of physical disability, such as paralysis or amputation."

"The nature of these injuries shows that Israeli soldiers are using high-velocity military weapons designed to cause maximum harm to Palestinian protesters that do not pose imminent threat to them," Amnesty said. These are "deliberate attempts to kill and maim."

As human rights organizations continued documenting the true extent of the brutality, the US informed the world of its response.

"We do believe the Israelis have the right to defend themselves," new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said of the protests. "And we're fully supportive of that."

Jason Greenblatt, Trump's special envoy to the Middle East, who is tasked with overseeing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, said Hamas was "inciting violence against Israel" and "encouraging a hostile march." Trump apparently could not even be bothered with such trifles, and reportedly did not even mention the subject in a recent call to Prime Minister Netanyahu.

The US did, however, have time to protect the Israeli actions and guarantee they would continue.

After the first day of the protests, the US blocked a United Nations Security Council statement supporting the Palestinians' "right to peaceful protest" that called for an investigation into the killings. The very next week, the US doubled down and blocked it again, giving Israel the green light to continue once more.

The US further inflamed the situation on Monday by officially moving its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, the holy city that contains important religious sites for Muslims, Christians and Jews.

There has been a broad international consensus that the fate of the disputed city would be decided through negotiations, yet the unilateral US decision effectively normalizes Israeli control of the city, scuttling any hope that remained for a peace settlement.

Palestinians responded by increasing their protests near the Gaza fence, which ended in a day of carnage as Israel killed at least 58 unarmed demonstrators in the span of 10 hours alone. In the aftermath, the US blocked another UN Security Council statement expressing “sorrow and outrage” at the mass killings while calling again for an investigation.

No one can tell what lives might have been saved if the investigations had been allowed to go through.

Deadly Double Standards

As always, there are official justifications.

One common refrain is to simply scream "Hamas." Haaretz contributor Torkel Brekke commented that Israeli officials are trying to portray Gaza as populated entirely by Hamas by suggesting "everything is organized by Hamas, protesters are Hamas operatives, therefore everybody is a legitimate target."

Members of Hamas did participate in the march. B'Tselem, however, argues that the Israeli government's tendency to claim that the threat of attacks from Hamas legitimizes Israeli state violence is an immoral effort to deflect attention from the Israeli government's decision to "use live and potentially lethal fire against unarmed demonstrators who are endangering no one." "Blaming Hamas," they write, "as if it were Hamas operatives who shot the demonstrators, is baseless."

After being shot at by the Israeli snipers, some Palestinians did begin throwing stones, throwing Molotov cocktails, burning tires and attempting to fly burning kites into Israel in retaliation.

Israeli officials immediately seized upon these facts to argue that the protests have been violent and thereby justify Israeli state violence against the protesters. But in the face of the continuous deadly violence that the Israeli government is inflicting on the protesters, the stones, incendiaries, tires and kites can only be described as desperate efforts at self-defense.

The burning tires produce a smokescreen to protect from sniper fire, the stones are mainly symbolic and the kites are meant to burn the Israeli crops that some protesters see as funding the bullets raining down upon them. One kite-maker told The New York Times, "In the beginning we protested peacefully. But when the peaceful resistance is exposed to live fire and violence, it has the right to use simple violent means like hurling stones and burning their farmland. This is self-defense."

Under international law, it is indeed the right of an occupied people to engage in violent resistance against an occupying force. In contrast, there is nothing in international law that justifies an occupier using violence to suppress those struggling underneath them for their right of self-determination.

However, the fact still remains that, as Human Rights Watch has documented, none of the Palestinians' efforts at self-defense "posed a grave threat to the well-protected soldiers," including the Molotov cocktails, as the UN observes.  There still has been "no evidence of any protester using firearms."

The reality is that well-fortified and protected snipers are shooting from hundreds of yards away, and it is unarmed protesters posing them no threat who are being gunned-down systematically.

Imagine what the response would be if Hamas assembled snipers on the border with Israel and shot and killed unarmed Israeli protesters. Doing so would be portrayed as the ultimate proof that Hamas is a terrorist organization. The fact that the Israeli military's killing of Palestinian protesters isn't considered terrorism betrays the vicious double standard held by those shaping the policies and narratives in this situation: Israelis and Americans are seen as human beings. Palestinians are not.

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Donald Trump Is Destroying the Federal Government

Mon, 05/14/2018 - 21:00

I will Make Our Government Honest Again -- believe me. But first, I'm going to have to #DrainTheSwamp in DC. https://t.co/m1lMAQPnIb

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 18, 2016

His "ethics reform" plan was:

First: I am going to re-institute a 5-year ban on all executive branch officials lobbying the government for 5 years after they leave government service. I am going to ask Congress to pass this ban into law so that it cannot be lifted by executive order.

Second: I am going to ask Congress to institute its own 5-year ban on lobbying by former members of Congress and their staffs.

Third: I am going to expand the definition of lobbyist so we close all the loopholes that former government officials use by labeling themselves consultants and advisors when we all know they are lobbyists.

Fourth: I am going to issue a lifetime ban against senior executive branch officials lobbying on behalf of a foreign government.

Fifth: I am going to ask Congress to pass a campaign finance reform that prevents registered foreign lobbyists from raising money in American elections.

His personal lawyer Michael Cohen obviously didn't read the third item on that memo. And it's interesting that someone in Trump's campaign thought it was important to pretend they cared about foreigners raising money in elections.

That tweet came on the heels of the first time Trump used the phrase "Drain the swamp" in the 2016 campaign -- which was very late in the game, just three weeks from election day. He had said earlier, "Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it," but he didn't really run explicitly as a political reformer.

But as Newsweek reported, in October his message changed:

Trump promised to "drain the swamp" at a rally that day [Oct. 17, 2016] in Green Bay, Wisconsin, the first time he did so during the campaign. He did it the next day, October 18, in Colorado Springs, Colorado. In Fletcher, North Carolina, he called Clinton "the most corrupt person ever to seek the office of the Presidency."

One week later, then-FBI Director James Comey announced that investigators had found emails from Clinton on former congressman Anthony Weiner's laptop. Trump ran with it:

"Hillary Clinton's corruption is on a scale we have never seen before," he said in New Hampshire. Later, in Maine, he said Clinton's use of a private email server -- which Comey had already decreed did not merit criminal charges -- was the "biggest scandal since Watergate."

The reason to bring this up isn't to point out Trump's hypocrisy, which is shooting fish in a barrel. The fact is, that despite his tiresome repetition of the slogan "Drain the swamp" since the election, it wasn't one of Trump's signature chants, like "Lock her up" or "Build the wall." It was something of an afterthought, a sort of extension of his claims that the system was "rigged" against him to steal the election. As the various investigations into his nefarious doings unfold, it seems obvious that was another projection of his own foibles onto his opponents.

Nonetheless, it is an article of faith among many of the chattering classes that he ran as a reformer who promised to clean up Washington. But the Trump administration's approach to dealing with the institutions of government is much more old-fashioned. It is simply governing by way of personal loyalty and fealty to the president rather than expertise, experience or seniority. It's a spoils system, and not a very efficient one.

This article by Evan Osnos in The New Yorker about the razing of the federal workforce at all levels is an eye opener:

Across the government, more than half of the six hundred and fifty-six most critical positions are still unfilled. "We've never seen vacancies at this scale," Max Stier, the president and C.E.O. of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan group that works to make the government more effective, said. "Not anything close."

Some of the vacancies are deliberate. As a candidate, Trump promised to "cut so much your head will spin." Amid a strong economy, large numbers of employees are opting to leave the government rather than serve it. In Trump's first nine months, more than seventy-nine thousand full-time workers quit or retired--a forty-two-per-cent increase over that period in Obama's Presidency. To Trump and his allies, the departures have been liberating, a purge of obstructionists. "The President now has people around him who aren't trying to subvert him," Michael Caputo, a senior campaign adviser, told me. "The more real Trump supporters who pop up in the White House phone book, the better off our nation will be."

If they cannot find a Trump loyalist to fill a position they simply leave it empty.

Trump's definition of "populism" is unique. Osnos writes:

In the 2013 novel "A Delicate Truth," John le Carré presents the "deep state" as a moneyed, cultured élite -- the "non-governmental insiders from banking, industry, and commerce" whose access to information allows them to rule in secret. Trump's conception is quite different. A real-estate baron, with the wealthiest Cabinet in US history, Trump is at peace with the plutocracy but at war with the clerks -- the apparatchiks who, he claims, are seeking to nullify the election by denying the prerogatives of his Administration.

This attack on "bureaucracy" is really an attack on law enforcement, the State Department, the intelligence community and ordinary bureaucrats who enforce regulations and monitor compliance with the law, along with anyone else Trump and his henchmen see as enemies of the state. Even the usual suspects at the conservative think tanks who usually have the inside track on jobs in a new Republican administration (or, as with Iraq, a new occupied country) have been shut out because so many candidates were on record as being critical of Trump, which meant hiring them was out of the question.

Many people claim that underneath the bluster, Donald Trump is just another Republican who happens to have a big mouth and likes to use Twitter. But while he was made possible by the modern conservative movement and a political system that enabled such a man to become president, he is nonetheless sui generis. This evisceration of federal government institutions is nothing we've ever seen before.

The story Osnos tells about the elimination of experts and the deliberate erasure of institutional memory in department after department is chilling. It will be difficult, if not impossible, to replace these people even after Trump is gone. His lasting legacy may be the destruction of the federal government as we know it.

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With China Funding New Trump Resort Project, President Is in Clear Violation of Constitution

Mon, 05/14/2018 - 21:00

US President Donald Trump shakes hands with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang during a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on November 9, 2017. (Photo: Thomas Peter / AFP / Getty Images)

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The government watchdog group that has previously sued President Donald Trump over alleged ethics violations sharpened its focus this week on a billion-dollar development project involving the Trump Organization that is being partially financed by the Chinese government -- calling it a clear violation of the Constitution's Emoluments Clause.

Norm Eisen, board chair of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), warned the president, "See you in court" over reports of Trump's latest constitutional violation.

This is a violation of the Emoluments Clause. A big one. See you in court Mr. Trump https://t.co/JuSmCYChyh

-- Norm Eisen (@NormEisen) May 14, 2018

A billion-dollar resort project being developed in Indonesia by the president's business empire, the Trump Organization, is to receive $500 million from the Chinese government. The president's company has been involved in the project since 2015, according to the South China Morning Post.

After winning the 2016 election, Trump refused to fully divest from his real estate business, choosing instead to place the company in the control of his two eldest sons. He still receives reports on the organization's holdings and business dealings, and is able to withdraw funds from Trump Organization accounts at any time.

Trump's continued involvement with his business empire has resulted in multiple violations of the Emoluments Clause, argues CREW. The group has sued him for illegally taking payments from foreign heads of state as well as state governors, as many international and American politicians have stayed at Trump's hotels, dined at his restaurants, and held events at his resorts since he became president.

"Diplomats openly claim that they patronize the President's hotels to curry favor with him as President -- a blatant violation on any reading," wrote CREW last year in its response to the Justice Department's motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

On Monday, the White House Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah refused to answer questions on the subject or explain the administration's position on the deal during a press briefing when Los Angeles Times reporter Noah Bierman asked pointedly about Trump's involvement in a major project funded largely by the Chinese government -- and how one could argue that the project does not violate the emoluments clause.

Shah dodged the question, suggesting that the Trump Organization is entirely separate from Trump's presidency.

The White House cannot explain how the Trump Organization’s involvement in a project in Indonesia partially financed by the Chinese gov't adheres to the emoluments clause and Trump’s personal promise not to pursue new foreign business deals as president. https://t.co/oewgyXVOdH

-- Citizens for Ethics (@CREWcrew) May 15, 2018
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Bourgeois Bubbas

Mon, 05/14/2018 - 21:00
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Burlington, Vermont, Says "No" to F-35s, Setting Off a Chain Reaction

Mon, 05/14/2018 - 21:00

Citing concerns over crashes and an environmental impact statement showing the health dangers posed by noise pollution, citizens of Burlington voted to cancel the basing of 18 F-35 fighter bombers near their city. Following the vote, city councils in three towns affected by the proposal passed resolutions against the basing, despite a massive campaign by Vermont's political establishment to host the aircraft.

Politicians and developers are pushing for the F-35s over the objections of citizens who will be affected by them. (Photo: Robert Sullivan / Flickr)

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The F-35 fighter bomber is screamingly loud. The US Air Force also says that the F-35 has a high crash rate. A Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division report describes releases of toxic, carcinogenic and mutagenic chemicals, particulates and fibers during combustion of a military carbon composite aircraft body, making the consequences of an F-35 crash in a city catastrophic.

A proposal to base 18 F-35 fighter bombers at the city-owned airport in Burlington, Vermont, would put nearly 3,000 small working-class homes in a noise danger zone that the 2013 US Air Force Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) says will impair children's learning and cognitive development.

Notwithstanding lockstep support by the Vermont political and commercial establishment, the plan to base the fighter bombers in Burlington was shaken up in March when citizens voted to cancel the basing. While the vote was a major step toward revoking the plan, a bit more than a democratic vote of the people may be needed in view of the enthusiasm for F-35 basing that Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, US Sen. Patrick Leahy and commercial real estate developers continue to display, notwithstanding the serious harm the basing will impose on thousands of families.

Impacts of F-35s on Residents

The airport is located in the most densely populated part of Vermont -- 124,000 people live in seven towns and cities within five miles. Although owned by the City of Burlington, the airport is located entirely within the city limits of South Burlington. About 1,000 small, single-family homes and an elementary school are close, and they are blasted by the noise of groups of F-16 jets taking off twice a day. The runway aims directly at the center of Winooski, an ethnically diverse working-class city where more than 20 languages are spoken, just one mile away, and the F-16s fly low over the city on takeoff. Burlington itself is mostly far enough to the side of the runway so only small portions are heavily affected by F-16 noise.

A map in the Air Force EIS indicates that the F-35 taking off in normal military power with its afterburner off is almost as loud as the F-16 taking off with its afterburner blasting. When an afterburner is engaged, fuel is injected into the exhaust stream to increase the temperature and speed of the exhaust as it leaves the tailpipe nozzle, significantly increasing thrust. Unfortunately for people and animals in the flight path, the afterburner also vastly increases the noise level. The EIS says that a person on the ground below will be hit with 115 decibels when the F-35 is at 1,000-feet elevation on takeoff with its afterburner off.

But even 115 decibels is a sound level above the threshold of pain. To avoid permanent hearing loss, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) says that a worker may be exposed to 115 decibels for no more than 28 seconds. The NIOSH recommends that protective measures be taken at the much lower 85 decibels sound level.

Damage to children from aircraft noise was acknowledged in the Air Force EIS, which states:

Several studies suggest that aircraft noise can affect the academic performance of schoolchildren ... tasks involving central processing and language comprehension (such as reading, attention, problem solving, and memory) appear to be the most affected by noise ... there is increasing awareness that chronic exposure to high aircraft noise levels may impair learning. This awareness has led the [World Health Organization] and a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) working group to conclude that daycare centers and schools should not be located near major sources of noise, such as highways, airports, and industrial sites.

The US Air Force EIS provided data showing that the 18 F-16 aircraft currently based at the airport have had "disproportionate impact" on low-income populations and residents of color that would continue or increase under the F-35. For example, a table in the US Air Force EIS reports 2010 Census data showing that heavily impacted Winooski is 17.4 percent non-white and 24.6 percent low income. By contrast, none of the wealthy neighborhoods in Burlington or South Burlington are shown on Air Force EIS maps as being impacted by F-16 or F-35 noise.

Citizens Fight an Uphill Battle Over F-35 Basing

In Burlington, the democratic process opposing the F-35 fighter bombers faced multiple obstacles. First, despite sub-zero temperatures, petitioners unexpectedly succeeded in collecting 1,800 valid signatures of registered voters by the January 18 deadline to put a resolution calling for cancelation of the plan on the ballot for a vote on March 6.

The ballot item asked for a yes or no vote:

Shall we, the voters of the City of Burlington, as part of our strong support for the men and women of the Vermont National Guard, and especially their mission to 'protect the citizens of Vermont,' advise the City Council to:

1.   Request the cancellation of the planned basing of the F-35 at Burlington International Airport, and

2.   Request instead low-noise-level equipment with a proven high safety record appropriate for a densely populated area?

By a vote of 6,482 (55.3 percent) to 5,238 (44.7 percent), the citizens of Burlington voted in favor of canceling the basing. The vote was a bit of shock, coming in the face of unanimous support for F-35 basing by Vermont's entire political establishment, including Senators Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders, Congressman Peter Welch, the governor, the mayor, the Chamber of Commerce, the Business Round Table and real estate developers who had figured out how to turn dangerous F-35 noise into money for themselves.

A massive advertising campaign, much of it paid for by prominent real estate developer Ernie Pomerleau, flooded newspapers, social media and airwavesUniformed Vermont National Guard commanders intervened with on-base news conferences. Signs attacking the resolution saying, "If you truly support the Guard vote no on 6," were planted, lining major streets in the city.

To counter the attack, grassroots health and safety activists implemented a social media and print media campaign that featured satirefull-page ads and a couple of opinion pieces in the local daily newspaper.

In a boost to the campaign, seven local state legislators signed on to a letter calling on the public to vote "yes" to request cancellation of the F-35s. The letter cited noise and crash danger from the F-35 and the availability of alternative missions for the Vermont Air Guard if the F-35 basing is cancelled.

But the highlight was a demonstration of the outrageously loud 115-decibel sound level of the F-35 organized by Ben and Jerry's activist co-founder Ben Cohen in March. A stadium-sized sound system mounted on a trailer led by Cohen drove with sign-bedecked vehicles through the streets of Burlington. As widely reported, Burlington police arrested, handcuffed and jailed Cohen and two others for violating the city's noise ordinance as they demonstrated the sound of an F-35 taking off in front of city hall. The arrests constituted tacit admission by city officials that the deafening noise level produced by the F-35 was illegal.

"You can't have it both ways. If the sound is illegal -- if you're going to arrest us for it -- they should arrest the [Burlington] City Council that is inflicting this noise on 6,600 people," Cohen told a reporter just before being arrested.

The campaign to cancel the F-35s and the resulting citizens' vote against the basing proved to be a catalyst for three city councils to take up the matter.

Three City Councils Vote to Cancel F-35 Basing

Burlington council member Joan Shannon was council president in 2013 and had led the council in supporting F-35 basing back then. But immediately after voters approved the resolution to cancel the F-35 in 2018, Shannon prepared and circulated a resolution generally respecting the will of the voters. The resolution called on the secretary of the US Air Force "to replace the planned basing of the F-35 with a basing of a low-noise-level plane with a proven high safety record." The resolution also included questions for the Air Force on several hot topics: F-35 crash risk in a densely populated area, F-35 noise level, F-35 use of its afterburner, and availability of an alternative plane for the Vermont Air National Guard if the F-35 basing was cancelled.

Although the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce mobilized its members to lobby councilors to support F-35 basing at the Burlington city council meeting on March 26, the council adopted Shannon's resolution 9-3.

Though Burlington's pro-F-35 Mayor Miro Weinberger did send the resolution to Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson two weeks later, he included a cover letter rejecting the will of the city's voters, instead supporting F-35 basing in Burlington and disparaging the town meeting vote and council resolution. (A real estate developer himself, Weinberger and his administration appear to have conflicts of interest regarding 44 acres of commercially valuable land facing the airport entrance. As Truthout previously reported, the city acquired that land for free with grants from the Federal Aviation Administration to purchase and demolish 200 small working-class homes.)

Meanwhile, neighboring Winooski and South Burlington are the cities currently most harmed by F-16 noise, and they will be even more harmed by F-35 noise.

On April 16, the City Council of Winooski voted unanimously and the City Council of South Burlington voted 3 to 1 to adopt their own resolutions calling on the secretary of the Air Force to cancel the planned basing of the F-35 and instead provide low-noise-level equipment with a proven high-safety record. Passage of the Winooski and the South Burlington city council resolutions, adding to the town meeting vote in Burlington and its city council vote, shredded any remaining claim of public support for F-35 basing.

The citizens' vote in Burlington, and the subsequent votes by the three city councils, is built on seven years of visible public actions. Activists had organized large demonstrations, public meetings, mass marches and rallies. They had initiated two lawsuits and published dozens of articles -- all to get out the message of severe danger to children and elderly in local communities.

Though judges ruled against them in both F-35 lawsuits, discovery in the federal case produced a trove of Air Force documents that revealed government misconduct in decisions leading up to the Air Force selecting Burlington for F-35 basing. Those documents helped demolish the case for basing the jets and contributed to the town meeting and city council vote results. Among the thousands of pages released were documents showing pressure applied by US Sen. Patrick Leahy on the Air Force chief of staff.

If Vermont elites press on anyway and succeed in pressuring the Air Force to push the F-35s on a non-consenting and unwilling public, a crisis of democracy will be added to the lack of legitimacy created by impairing health, safety, children, learning, schools and affordable housing, and for disproportionately impacting low-income residents and people of color while engaging in government misconduct.

Categories: Latest News

Why Did Novartis Pay Trump's Lawyer $1.2 Million? Look at Its Drug Prices

Mon, 05/14/2018 - 21:00
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President Donald Trump didn't mention Novartis or other drugmakers by name last year when he said the industry is "getting away with murder."

Yet executives at the Switzerland-based pharmaceutical giant shelled out $1.2 million to Trump lawyer Michael Cohen to "advise" its executives on health policy and what was happening in the Trump White House.

Novartis paid more money to Cohen than did any of his clients revealed thus far.

The company said it quickly determined he was unable to deliver the help but paid the full amount owed in his contract. "We made a mistake" in hiring him, CEO Vasant Narasimhan told Novartis employees on Thursday.

Hiring the president's personal attorney matches a history of aggressively courting government officials by a corporation with much to lose in the debate over high drug prices.

Novartis has nine blockbuster drugs generating around $1 billion or more in annual sales and priced so high in some cases that patients have trouble affording them even with insurance. Another nine drugs produce more than $500 million in sales.

High costs and copayments for Novartis' Gleevec, which treats a form of leukemia, are associated with patients delaying or skipping doses, said researcher Stacie Dusetzina of Vanderbilt University.

Gleevec often must be taken for life and costs $148,000 a year -- three times more than when it came out, according to Connecture, which provides technology to help people save money on prescriptions.

Novartis also makes drugs for psoriasis and multiple sclerosis that cost more than $100,000 a year. The price tag for Kymriah, a Novartis leukemia treatment approved last year, is $475,000.

The company earned $7.7 billion in profits last year on worldwide sales of $49 billion.

Novartis' political action committee has been a sizable contributor on Capitol Hill, donating $204,500 last year to candidates for federal office and other political causes.

The company spent $8.8 million lobbying US lawmakers in 2017, its highest amount ever, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That doesn't count the previously undisclosed payments to Cohen, which the company said were for consulting, not lobbying.

One issue that especially interests the company: the importation of drugs from Canada and other countries, which would undercut its high US prices and badly hurt profits. Novartis sells its drugs for a fraction of US prices in other developed countries. In 2015, Gleevec sold for $38,000 a year in Canada while a generic version of the same drug sold for only $8,800.

Importation was one of Novartis' most lobbied issues last year.

A few of Novartis' blockbusters:

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Rejection of Gerrymandering in Ohio Suggests the US Wants Fairer Elections

Mon, 05/14/2018 - 21:00

Last week's primary elections drew a lot of interest, primarily because of some high-profile races for US senator in West Virginia and governor in Ohio. But a little-known ballot measure approved by the voters in Ohio may have greater long-term political effects.

The measure, which passed with an overwhelming 75 percent of the vote, aims to curtail gerrymandering in drawing Ohio's congressional districts.

Ohio is known to have one of the most gerrymandered congressional maps in the nation. In 2011, Republicans controlled the state legislature and the governor's office when it came time to redraw congressional district maps. They used powerful computer modeling to create districts precisely shaped to ensure that Republicans would win the maximum number of congressional seats. Their gerrymander worked. In the 2012 election, Republicans won only 52 percent of the votes cast for the US congress, yet they won 12 of Ohio's 16 congressional races.

Groups such as the Ohio branches of Common Cause and the League of Women Voters have worried that the same thing could happen when maps are redrawn after the 2020 census. Jen Miller, the executive director of the Ohio League of Women Voters, noted in a statement that it took the women's suffrage movement 72 years to secure the right to vote. "The League of Women Voters was born out of that movement, and that persistent, indomitable spirit is what caused us to lead the charge on redistricting reform from the 1980s through today's victory," she said.

Despite Republican control of the legislature and governor's office, proponents of reform won bipartisan support in the Ohio legislature to put a measure on the ballot to amend the Ohio constitution to curtail gerrymandering.

That the Ohio voters overwhelmingly supported the measure is an indicator of the growing public concern about gerrymandering across the nation. In both red states such as Utah and Missouri and blue states such as Oregon and Illinois, steps are underway to limit how much districts can be drawn for partisan advantage. Several states are likely to have measures on the ballot in November.

Many reform efforts have bipartisan backing. Utahns for Responsive Government is headed by Democrat Ralph Becker, a former Salt Lake City mayor, and Republican Jeff Wright, a former staffer for Sen. Jon Huntsman. The Better Boundaries measure they are promoting is likely to appear on the November ballot. If passed, it would create an independent commission to draw the state's boundaries in 2021.

In a 2017 column, Salt Lake City Tribune columnist Robert Gehrke noted the state's current gerrymandered map means that not a single race for the state senate "has been competitive since the new boundaries were adopted and in 59 legislative races since 2011, the winner was unopposed." He says that "independent redistricting won't change Utah's political makeup overnight -- it's a Republican state that will stay Republican. But it could mean more races that matter, politicians who have to listen and represent a broader pool of constituents and a more responsive government."

In addition to state-level efforts, the US Supreme Court will soon weigh in on whether mapmakers have constitutional limits on how far they can go in drawing districts to benefit one party. Paul Smith, who argued a gerrymandering case brought to the Supreme Court by Wisconsin Democrats, notes that if the ruling sets such limits, then in 2021, all states will need to avoid aggressive gerrymandering, lest their map be ruled unconstitutional.

Regardless of how the Supreme Court rules, advocates of fairer maps are likely to continue their efforts at the state level to restructure the electoral map-making process to make districts fairer for all voters.

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