In a world where we march inexorably deeper into a dangerous climate every day, and where government regulation and global cooperation are our only hope for a livable future, the Reagan ethos is much more than an anachronism, it is a death sentence.
US-90 remains underwater on September 5, 2017, in Houston, Texas. Even without the climate crisis, Houston infrastructure and urban design was a denial of reality and invited, if not virtually guaranteed, calamity. (Photo: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)
Whenever there is another mass shooting in the United States, the National Rifle Association (NRA) always says that now is not the time to talk about Americans' easy access to guns. Of course with them, it's never time. And just like the NRA, climate deniers like Kellyanne Conway, Scott Pruitt, everyone else in the White House and the Republican Party in general, don't think that during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, likely the most costly weather event in US history, is the time to talk about the human-caused climate crisis. They condescendingly sneer that to do so "politicizes" the tragedy. Never mind that it is the Republican Party that politicized science in the first place by denying it, delegitimizing it and demonizing its messengers. But the charge of "politicizing" is as perverse as proclaiming that, as water is rising up to their necks, now is not the time to rescue Harvey's victims.
Politics should be the means by which we address the cause of our collective problems, seek solutions and apply prevention. Prevention of future tragedy is just as important, and just as immediate a need, as helping its current victims. How can you possibly prevent repeated disaster if you ignore the cause? With the drama and suffering vivid in our minds, now is exactly the right time to talk about the human fingerprints all over this "crime of nature" and the many human failures that made it worse.
Flooding of biblical proportions is no longer just an "act of God" or "bad luck." This is the third "100-year" flood in Houston in just the last three years. Just about the only people on the planet unconvinced that greenhouse gases are injecting steroids into our climate patterns are the minions that sit in front of Fox News. But right now they control the government in both Texas and Washington, DC.
Houston's first problem is that it is stuck in Texas, where political ideology is allowed to smother science, common sense, basic risk management and simple human decency. The state is home to an entire army of politicians who are not just scientifically inept (or dishonest) but are crusading enemies of science -- Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Rep. Lamar Smith, Rep. Louie Gohmert, Sen. Ted Cruz, Sen. John Cornyn, Gov. Greg Abbott and Rep. Michael McCaul, just for starters. As a side note, more than 20 Texas members of Congress voted against any federal aid to the victims of Hurricane Sandy. But their "principled" opposition to federal aid is being tested now that the same catastrophe has hit their own state.
The Texas-sized aversion to science floods down through most of the Texas Legislature. Every year, anti-evolution, anti-science and anti-climate bills spring forth in Texas with mixed success in the legislative process. This chronic dismissal of the verifiable, empirical world played a significant role in the destruction from Harvey.
Rice University environmental engineering Professor Phil Bedient says, "Houston is the most flood-prone city in the United States. No one is even a close second -- not even New Orleans, because at least they have pumps there." Despite that, Charles Pierce, writing for Esquire, says, "Over the past 15 years, the Texas [L]egislature refused to pass any plan to adapt the affected infrastructure as long as that legislation contained any reference to climate change. They repeatedly refused to pass a bill that would have required most major agencies in Texas to create a plan that included a climate change vulnerability assessment and review their programs and plan for how to complete their missions in light of changing climate conditions."
Even without the climate crisis, Houston infrastructure and urban design was a denial of reality and invited, if not virtually guaranteed, calamity. As CNN notes, "Decades of virtually unplanned growth has resulted in thousands of square miles of paved streets, parking lots and other hard surfaces covering the ground. Houston sprawl covers 9,000 square miles -- an area larger than New Jersey."
Once upon a time, Houston had native prairie grass and wetlands. Prairie grass sends roots 12 feet deep and can act like a giant sponge, absorbing 20-times as much water as subdivision lawns can. But it has virtually all disappeared under concrete and asphalt. Hundreds of square miles of prairie that the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) had intended for a system of reservoirs, levees, canals and other flood-control projects to help against storms and hurricanes were all sacrificed for subdivisions and freeways. Concrete and asphalt don't absorb water, but they do line the pockets of real estate developers. The Texas attitude was, "Who needs wetlands, natural surfaces or anything other than swimming pools to absorb water?"
Houston was built in a dry lake bed, primarily on clay, which doesn't absorb water, in a coastal floodplain perfectly positioned to take the brunt of predictable, recurrent Gulf hurricanes. None of that reality, however, penetrated the minds of Texas regulators and politicians, who threw caution to the wind while allowing Houston to become the fastest-growing city in the country.
The USACE was forced to release water from the Addicks and Barker dams west of Houston to achieve a more manageable control over the flood waters. The dams were built in the 1930s, but in the ensuing decades, houses were allowed to be built right up to the base of the dams, and thousands of homes were inundated when the water had be to released.
The antipathy toward government and regulations that characterizes political conservatism meant that Houston had virtually no zoning regulations, including very meager requirements for buildings to be constructed above flood plain height. Robert Bea of the National Academy of Engineering and a UC Berkeley emeritus civil engineering professor and expert in Gulf Coast hurricane risks, says, "The city has been deceiving itself for decades about its vulnerability to flooding." Adding to its woes and risks for flooding, Houston is actually sinking, due in no small part to unrestricted pumping oil and water out from under the city. Some areas have sunk as much as 10 feet.
Of course, with Scott Pruitt, the new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is not going to take a back seat to anyone when it comes to anti-regulatory fervor. Three weeks ago, just in time for Hurricane season, the White House stepped up and reversed a rule requiring federal, state and local agencies to establish new standards to protect infrastructure, buildings and roadways from flooding.
Thanks to the petrochemical industry, Houston is home to some of the most highly contaminated sites in the country, filled with just about every deadly compound ever concocted by the industrialized world. Aerial imaging revealed that 13 of 41 Superfund sites in Texas have been breached by Harvey, spreading the public's exposure to their toxic brew in ways that will likely be impossible to track or mitigate. So far, an understaffed and underfunded EPA is nowhere to be found in Houston according to the Associated Press.
As the US's petrochemical hub, Texas has bent over backward to cater to the industry in ways that are simply shocking. In 2013, a fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, killed 15 people and destroyed 500 homes in what federal officials later determined was a criminal act. Incredibly, the response from Governor Abbott was to rule that state agencies can withhold information on the chemicals stored on site at such plants.
This kind of coddling of polluters is adding an exclamation point to the health risks of Harvey's victims. An exploding chemical factory is spewing toxic smoke all over Houston. Owned by the French multinational Arkema Inc., the owners refuse to disclose the toxic chemicals or a map of the stricken facility. Arkema operates six plants in Texas and has enjoyed nearly $9 million in tax subsidies from the state, and heavily lobbied the Trump EPA to postpone rules that would require disclosing its toxic chemicals to first responders and their risk management plans for worst-case scenarios. Scott Pruitt eagerly complied. With no one able to get real information that might challenge them, Arkema has pronounced the smoke billowing from their plant's fires to be no more toxic than that from a campfire. Never mind that campfire smoke is itself highly toxic, but because of the rule, Texas citizens will not be able to find out what they're inhaling.
Flood waters in any urban area are always contaminated. A Houston Health Department spokesperson said, "There's no need to test it. It's contaminated. There's millions of contaminants." That is especially true of the Houston area. From dangerous chemicals seeping into and out of homes, soil and groundwater, exploding chemical factories, breaching of toxic waste Superfund sites, refineries discharging thousands of tons of carcinogenic pollution, to sewage contaminated drinking water, to mold, bacteria, mosquitoes and escaping alligators, the nightmare triggered by Harvey will cause a public health disaster that will linger for decades, if not generations.
It is no small irony that Houston, the glittering metropolis created by the US's fossil fuel empire and "golden calf" monument to our global warming denial, would be decimated by the consequences of that denial. But as Houston goes, so goes the world. The same weekend that Harvey was pounding the Gulf, a monsoon halfway around the globe killed 1,200 people and drove millions from their homes in Bangladesh, India and Nepal.
A flooded Houston, and the environmental nightmare it leaves behind, is a symbol of the excesses, degeneration and corruption of modern civilization and the shocking denial of reality that our politicians cling to.
During the Houston flood, large colonies of biting fire ants bubbled up from their underground tunnels and instinctively formed large mounds of tens of thousands of ants into "live rafts" impenetrable to water. Those mounds are capable of traveling on the top of floodwaters for miles until they reach solid ground. To create the live raft, thousands of ants tightly intertwine their legs in a remarkable group choreography to fend off peril. Through cooperation, fire ants will survive just about any storm. Because of anti-government politics, the same cannot be said of humans.
The political legacy of Ronald Reagan looms large over the wreckage that is now Houston. Reagan canonized conservatives' antipathy toward government. His famous quip, "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help,'" has embodied the battle cry of conservatives for 30 years. It was a marketing home run. With one sentence, the motives and competency of those in government were impugned, the need for government regulation mocked and rugged individualism was exalted in its place. It is a complete non sequitur that conservatives revel in their patriotism and love for the Constitution, but they hate the federal government that is the living, breathing manifestation of that Constitution and the functional arm of the very country that they supposedly love so much.
In a world where every day, we march inexorably deeper into a dangerous climate, where government regulation and global cooperation are our only hope for a livable future, the Reagan ethos is much more than an anachronism, it is a death sentence. In 2017, the 15 most terrifying words in the English language are, "I'm from the Republican Party, I control the government and don't count on any help."
With a detailed account of how the US rose out of World War II to become the reigning empire, Alfred W. McCoy reveals how the role of covert action and torture enhanced its powers. However, these may be the last days of US global hegemony.
Combat operations at Ia Drang Valley, Vietnam, November 1965. The Vietnam War set a precedent for covert action used to maintain US empire. (Photo: US Army)
Historian Alfred W. McCoy's new book peels back layers of secrecy to tell how the United States used covert intervention, surveillance, torture, trade pacts and military alliances to become a world power. Filmmaker Oliver Stone calls In the Shadows of the American Century "a hard look at the truth of our empire, both its covert activities and the reasons for its impending decline." Order this informative book today by making a donation to Truthout!
With a sweeping and detailed account of how the US rose out of World War II to become the reigning empire, Alfred W. McCoy connects dots that reveal how the role of covert action and torture enhanced its powers. However, McCoy ponders that these may be the last days of US global hegemony. Truthout asked McCoy to talk more about these issues.
Mark Karlin: How did your growing awareness of CIA involvement in assisting with the drug trade in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War awaken you to US strategies of hegemony?
Alfred W. McCoy: In following the heroin trail from Saigon (where many American soldiers were using the drug) into the mountains of Laos (where the opium was grown and heroin processed), I witnessed the full scale of a "secret war" that involved a CIA army of 30,000 local militia and an Air Force bombing campaign that was the largest air war in military history. By concealing this massive military operation from the American public for over five years, Washington had been able to hide a major war that violated treaty obligations, international law and, above all, the sovereignty of the host nation.
Alfred W. McCoy. (Photo: Tom Dispatch and Haymarket Books)More broadly, Washington had discovered that covert operations resolved the central contradiction of the age: How to exercise global hegemony in a post-colonial world of sovereign states ostensibly immune to such intervention. In effect, covert operations allowed the US to exercise imperial power without looking like an empire.
When do you date the beginning of "the American Century," and how was it distinguished from the age of the British Empire?
At its peak, circa 1900, Britain managed its global empire with hard and soft power, both the steel of naval guns and the salve of enticing culture. With strong fiscal fundamentals, Great Britain would dominate the world economy through London's unequaled foreign investments of £3.8 billion and global economic leadership through the gold standard and the pound sterling. Multilingual British diplomats were famously skilled at negotiating force-multiplier alliances with other major powers, while ensuring its commercial access to secondary states like China and Persia that made up its informal empire. Its colonial officers were no less skilled at cultivating local elites … [who] enabled them to rule over a quarter of humanity with a minimum of military force.
Both forms of British diplomacy were eased by the cultural appeal of the English language, highlighted through its literature, the Anglican religion, sports (cricket, rugby, soccer and tennis), and mass media (Reuters news service, newspapers such as The Times, and the later BBC radio). As the steel behind this diplomacy, the British navy of 300 ships controlled maritime chokepoints from Gibraltar through the Suez Canal to the Straits of Malacca. Reflecting British innovation, its industries built the world's first true battleship, the earliest tanks and a diverse modern arsenal. With a standing army of only 99,000 men, its entire defense budget consumed just 2.5 percent of Britain's gross domestic product, an extraordinary economy of global force.
At the end of World War II and the real start of the "American Century" of global dominion, the United States invested all its prestige and power in forming nothing less than a new world order through permanent international institutions -- the United Nations (1945), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) (1945) and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (1947), predecessor to the World Trade Organization. Continuing its commitment to the international rule of law, Washington helped establish the International Court of Justice at The Hague and would later promote both human rights and women's rights. Moving beyond London's ad hoc economic leadership, Washington forged formal international controls at the Bretton Woods conference of 44 allied nations in 1944 to direct and dominate the global economy through the IMF and the World Bank.
It was the Cold War that translated all this influence into architecture for actual world power. Within a decade, Washington had built a potent four-tier apparatus -- military, diplomatic, economic and clandestine -- for a global dominion of unprecedented wealth and power. At its core was the unmatched military that circled the globe with hundreds of overseas bases, a formidable nuclear arsenal, massive air and naval forces, and client armies.
Complementing all this steel was the salve of an active worldwide diplomacy, manifest in close bilateral ties, multilateral alliances, economic aid and cultural suasion (Hollywood films, Rotary, basketball and baseball). Its hegemony promoted trade and security pacts that allowed its burgeoning multinational corporations to operate profitably.
Adding a distinct dimension to US global power was a clandestine fourth tier that entailed global surveillance by the National Security Agency and covert operations on five continents by the Central Intelligence Agency -- manipulating elections, promoting coups and, when needed, mobilizing surrogate armies. Indeed, more than any other attribute, it is this clandestine dimension that distinguishes US global hegemony from earlier empires.
You write of the economic decline of the US as being virtually inevitable. How so?
Indeed, in my book In the Shadows of the American Century, I have collected a few all-important but often-ignored indicators that reveal the full extent of China's challenge to American power. In April 2015, the Department of Agriculture reported that the US economy would grow by nearly 50 percent over the next 15 years, while China's would expand by 300 percent and surpass America's in 2030.
As shown in the race for worldwide patents, American leadership in technological innovation is clearly on the wane. In 2014, China actually took the lead in this critical category with nearly half the world's total -- with an extraordinary 801,000 patents compared to just 285,000 for Americans.
With supercomputing now critical for everything from code breaking to consumer products, in 2010 China's Defense Ministry beat the Pentagon by launching the world's fastest supercomputer. By 2016, China had not only the fastest supercomputers, now made with Chinese chips, but it also had the most in the world with 167 compared to 165 for the United States and only 29 for Japan.
Finally, the American education system, that critical source of future scientists and innovators, has been falling behind its competitors. In 2016, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the OECD, tested 15 year olds worldwide, finding China was at the top and American placed 25th in science and 35th in math -- pretty abysmal really.
Why in the world should anybody care about a bunch of 15 year olds with backpacks, braces and attitude? Because by 2030 those teenaged test-takers will be the mid-career scientists and engineers determining whose computers survive a cyber attack, whose satellites evade a missile strike and whose economy has the next wonder product.
You argue that the US surveillance state and torture are two strategies used to shore up empire. In what ways are these used to try and strengthen empire?
In its colonial conquest of the Philippines after 1898, the United States used torture ("the water cure") to extract tactical intelligence and systematic surveillance to control the Filipino political elite through scandalous information about reputed derelictions with sex or money. During World War I, the Army's "father of military intelligence," the dour General Ralph Van Deman, drew upon his years of experience pacifying the Philippines to mobilize a legion of 1,700 soldiers and 350,000 citizen-vigilantes for an intense shoe-leather surveillance of suspected enemy spies among German-Americans, including my own grandfather.
During World War II, the FBI took over the army's domestic surveillance and expanded it into a pervasive apparatus that monitored Congress, the media and universities, collecting scurrilous information to coerce compliance. After 2001, the NSA elaborated that model to the global level, monitoring the personal communications of world leaders while scooping up ordinary communications by the billions. Arguably, the NSA's surveillance is a cost-effective instrument for the exercise of world power, though Edward Snowden's revelations about NSA snooping has raised the political cost. And, of course, cyber-espionage is a double-edged sword, as indicated by Russian cyber-manipulations in the 2016 US elections -- a clear sign of Washington's waning global power.
By contrast, torture is unambiguously negative. In desperation over their decline, fading empires -- whether Britain, France or the United State -- resort to torture to shore up their waning hegemony, only to find, time and again, that the recourse [to these abuses] discredits their global leadership at home and abroad, accelerating the decline.
China plays a significant role in your book as a rival to the US empire. Are we on course for China to supersede the US as the world's reigning empire by 2030?
Five years ago, the National Intelligence Council, the nation's supreme analytical body, predicted that, by 2030, China would be the world's number one economy and there would be an historic shift in geopolitical power from the West, which has been dominant since 1750, to the East, which includes everything from India to Japan. Whether domestic or foreign, military or economic, every serious analysis concurs that China is rising economically and challenging the US militarily.Truthout Progressive Pick
"One of our best and most underappreciated historians takes a hard look at the truth of our empire." -- Oliver StoneClick here now to get the book!
But almost all of these analysts overlook China's grand geopolitical strategy for harnessing the resources of the vast Eurasian landmass to fuel the rise of their new empire. As I explain in my book, Obama, one of those rare leaders with an acute understanding of geopolitics, developed a bold strategy, combining military and trade tactics, to check China -- a strategy undone by the Trump White House during its first months in office.
To what degree are covert operations -- that is, government or subcontracted activity that is not revealed to the public -- used to sustain US empire?
Covert operations were critical to the rise and maintenance of US global hegemony for 40 years after World War II. By this I don't mean espionage, the silly game of spy vs. spy, but clandestine intervention to change governments overseas by promoting military coups and manipulating the outcomes of critical elections, something the US did quite successfully for decades. Now, as US power wanes, its electoral manipulations and coup attempts have failed from Iran to Venezuela, and America finds its own elections being manipulated, probably quite successfully, by a hostile power, Russia -- a clear sign of US decline. A global hegemony manipulates; a declining power is manipulated.
With a comfortable majority in the House and Trump appointees at the helm of agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, House Republicans have been eagerly working to gut environmental regulations and spending on interior programs. As Hurricane Harvey and Irma devastate coastal communities and wildfires rage across the West, these lawmakers are looking increasingly out of touch.
A flare erupts from a tower at a flooded refinery in Port Arthur, Texas last weekend. Damaged refineries and chemical plants released thousands of pounds of toxic pollution after Hurricane Harvey, but that did not keep House Republicans from working to gut environmental protections this week, including a program that assesses the dangers of hazardous chemicals. (Photo: Alex Glustrum)
Earlier this week, while residents of south Texas wondered whether dangerous chemicals from the chemical plants, refineries and toxic waste sites that flooded during Hurricane Harvey were floating in their air and water as they returned home, Republicans in the House were working to eliminate funding to a federal program that identifies health hazards posed by chemicals in the environment.
On Friday, soon after passing a bill that would raise the federal debt ceiling through December and provide $15 billion in relief for communities impacted by Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, the House considered a number of budget riders that would slash environmental protections established under the Obama administration. Those protections included rules designed to curb to pollution that scientists say contributes to a changing climate and intensifying storms.
With a comfortable majority in the House and Trump appointees at the helm of agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), House Republicans have been eagerly working to gut environmental regulations and spending on interior programs. As Hurricane Harvey and Irma devastate coastal communities and wildfires rage across the West, these lawmakers are looking increasingly out of touch.
"We have climate change-fueled disasters happening across the country: two major hurricanes … and then, in the West, people are choking on soot from wildfires," said Anna Aurilio, DC office director of Environment America, in an interview. "And instead of taking action to cut climate pollution -- shift us toward clean energy and make our coasts and cities more resilient -- the House of Representatives is working on legislation to take us in exactly the opposite direction."
On Wednesday, a Republican-led House subcommittee held a hearing on the EPA's Integrated Risk Information System, which conducts health assessments of chemicals and determines what levels of exposure are considered "safe" in air, water, food and soil.
The program's findings are often used to justify regulatory restrictions that the chemical industry does not like, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Dr. Thomas Burke, a former Houston resident and director of the Risk Science and Public Policy Institute at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told the committee that the "capacity to evaluate the hazards of toxic chemicals is essential to protecting our public health."
"This hearing is particularly timely, as Texas and Louisiana work to protect public health, restore safe drinking water and evaluate risks from contaminated floodwaters and chemical releases," Burke said in his written testimony.
However, two experts with ties to the chemical industry criticized the program, and the committee's chairman, Rep. Andy Briggs (R-Arizona), offered an amendment to a major appropriations bill for funding the EPA and Interior Department that would eliminate all funding for the Integrated Risk Information System.
The House's $31 billion interior spending bill would slash the EPA's budget by $528 million, a considerable cut but not as deep the more than $2 billion in cuts proposed by the White House and ultra-conservative lawmakers, according to reports.
The bill contains a number of riders that infuriate environmentalists, including measures that would block Obama-era standards designed to reduce smog, make oil and gas drilling in the Arctic safer, restrict the amount of climate-warming methane that oil and gas drillers can spew in the atmosphere, and require government agencies to consider the economic and social costs of carbon pollution when writing regulations.
Democrats offered their own amendments to the spending bill, including riders that would prevent the Trump administration from closing regional EPA offices and selling off public lands to private companies.
"There is a threat," said Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colorado) during floor debate on Friday. "There are members of this body, and there are members of the president's administration that are seeking to sell off our public lands."
However, Republicans hold a powerful majority in the House, so amendments that environmentalists support may not survive ongoing budget negotiations. On Thursday, lawmakers voted down a bipartisan rider introduced by lawmakers in New Jersey and Virginia that would have prohibited federal funding for controversial seismic tests needed to initiate offshore oil drilling in the Atlantic Ocean, despite widespread opposition to offshore drilling on the East Coast.
While many pundits have focused on Trump's unrelenting series of failures and scandals, his administration has quietly waged a fairly successful war on labor. (Photo: Alex Wong / Getty Images)
On September 5, the administration of Donald Trump formally announced that they won't try to save Obama's overtime rule, effectively killing a potential raise for millions of Americans. This disturbing development has largely slipped under the radar during a busy news week, marked by Trump's scrapping of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
Twenty-one states and a number of business groups sued the Obama administration last September, after the Department of Labor (DOL) announced the new rule, accusing the former president of overreach.
That lawsuit led to Amos Mazzant, a federal Obama-appointed judge in Texas, putting the rule on hold last November, shortly before it was set to become law. On August 31, Mazzant struck the rule down, and -- less than a week later -- Trump's Department of Justice (DOJ) declined to challenge the District Court's decision. In a court filing, a DOJ lawyer said that the administration would not appeal.
The Obama administration's rule would have raised the overtime salary threshold considerably. The threshold hadn't been increased by any administration to adequately reflect wage growth or inflation, which means that many workers only see overtime pay if they make less than about $23,660 a year. Obama had scheduled that number to be bumped up to about $47,476 after reviewing 300,000 comments on the subject.
"The overtime rule is about making sure middle-class jobs pay middle-class wages," former Labor Secretary Tom Perez told reporters on a call after the rule was announced in May 2016. "Some will see more money in their pockets … Some will get more time with their family … and everybody will receive clarity on where they stand, so that they can stand up for their rights."
While the overtime rule faced predictable opposition from Republicans and business groups, it also received backlash from some liberal advocacy organizations. In May 2016, US PIRG, the popular federation of non-profit organizations, released a statement criticizing Obama's decision. "Organizations like ours rely on small donations from individuals to pay the bills. We can't expect those individuals to double the amount they donate," said the group.
Critics of the statement pointed out that US PIRG's opposition suggests they have employees not being paid for overtime despite their low wages. The group was slammed by progressives for supporting a regressive policy when it benefited their economic interests.
The DOL claimed that the rule would mean a pay increase for about 4.2 million Americans, but the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) contends that the DOL's figure is far too low. According to EPI, the DOL's analysis fails to take the impact of George W. Bush's overtime policies into account and relies heavily on statistics that were generated before he took power. EPI estimates that, because of changes to employee classifications in 2004, roughly 6 million workers had their right to overtime destroyed.
The EPI's study of the overtime rule determined that about 12.5 million workers would have been impacted if it had been implemented. A wide range of workers would have potentially seen a pay increase, including 6.4 million women, 1.5 million African Americans and 2.0 million Latinos, the EPI concludes.
"Once again, the Trump administration has sided with corporate interests over workers, in this case, siding with business groups who care more about corporate profits than about allowing working people earn overtime pay," Heidi Shierholz, who leads the EPI's Perkins Project on Worker Rights and Wages, told In These Times.
The Trump administration's move might be disappointing for workers' rights advocates, but it's hardly surprising. As a presidential candidate in 2016, Trump vowed to kill the overtime rule if elected. "We have to address the issues of over-taxation and overregulation and the lack of access to credit markets to get our small business owners thriving again," he said in an interview. "Rolling back the overtime regulation is just one example of the many regulations that need to be addressed to do that."
While many pundits have focused on Trump's unrelenting series of failures and scandals, his administration has quietly waged a fairly successful war on labor. In addition to nixing one of Obama's most notable policy achievements, the Trump administration is also poised to stack the National Labor Relations Board with a pro-business majority, has proposed major cuts to the Labor Department and has rolled back safety protections for workers.
Last month, Bloomberg reported that Trump's Labor Department had created an office specifically designed to reconsider government regulations. The office will be run by Nathan Mehrens, the anti-union lawyer who is also in charge of the department's policy shop.
Trump geared much of his campaign rhetoric toward the US worker, vowing to dismantle exploitative trade agreements and bring back jobs. However, his administration has simply emboldened the anti-labor forces that have dictated economic policy for decades.
The Pacific Northwest has been engulfed in wildfire smoke from Montana, British Columbia, Eastern Washington and Oregon for much of this summer. (Photo: Dahr Jamail)
As anthropogenic climate disruption continues to speed up, wildfires have scorched millions of acres of forests in the American West, cloaking the Pacific Northwest in smoke for several weeks this summer. Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency last week after several coastal areas were engulfed by smoke and ash from fires in Eastern Washington and Montana.
The Pacific Northwest has been engulfed in wildfire smoke from Montana, British Columbia, Eastern Washington and Oregon for much of this summer. (Photo: Dahr Jamail)
When one envisions the US Pacific Northwest, one thinks of green ferns, moss-covered trees in Olympic National Park, or the Hoh Rainforest, where annual rainfall is measured in the hundreds of inches. Moisture, greenery, evergreens, abundant rivers. It's a large part of the reason why I live here.
But thanks to abrupt anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD), this region is shifting at a rapid pace. On the Olympic Peninsula where I live, this has been the summer of wildfire smoke.
As I write this, Puget Sound, Seattle and the Olympic Peninsula, are all engulfed by thick wildfire smoke and ash from fires burning in Eastern Washington and Montana. A local Seattle weatherman remarked that he had "never seen a situation like this."
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency for his entire state on Saturday September 2.
Smoke from various wildfires has been a near-constant in this part of the country for the past month. Roughly a week ago, we were enshrouded by smoke from multiple wildfires across Oregon, and before that, we spent nearly two weeks breathing in thick smoke from the over 1,000 wildfires that scorched British Columbia up the coast from us.
Stepping outside, the world appears a surreal yellow. The sun varies from not being visible, to emerging as a yellowish orange bulb even during the middle of the day. When it sets, it has often appeared blood red through the thick smoke.
NASA satellite photos show the smoke plume even reaching the East Coast.
Given past and recent scientific reports, this is apparently the world we, and much of the rest of the United States, had better prepare to live in from now on.
Extreme Heat, Extreme Drought
The smoke plume from all of these fires, at the time of this writing, extends from up into British Columbia all the way down into central Oregon.
A wildfire outside Portland has forced hundreds of residents to evacuate while it burned out of control in the Columbia River Gorge. That is just one of 81 wildfires burning across the US at the time of this writing, with 20 of those fires in Oregon alone.
Climate researchers have been warning us for a long time that increasing temperatures and more intense droughts will logically cause dramatic escalations in the number, heat and ferocity of wildfires.
A study published earlier this year showed that human-caused greenhouse gas emissions have increased the likelihood of extreme heat events across more than 80 percent of the planet.
Last fall, researchers published the results of a study that showed ACD accounted for approximately half of the increase in wildfire fuel aridity (forest dryness) in the Western US since just 1979, causing the area of the US West affected by forest fires to double in size since 1984.
According to Inside Climate News: "Nine of the 10 worst fire seasons in the past 50 years have all happened since 2000, and 2015 was the worst fire season in U.S. history, surpassing 10 million acres for the first time on record. So far this year, wildfires in the US have burned 7.8 million acres, but the fire season is far from over. The average fire season is 78 days longer than it was in the 1970s and now lasts nearly seven months -- beginning and extending beyond the typical heat of summer. By April of this year, wildfires had scorched more than 2 million acres in the US -- nearly the average consumed in an entire fire season during the 1980s.
When it comes to hot weather -- and relatedly, fire -- this has been a summer for the record books in the West. During the first week of September, San Francisco saw a stunning record high temperature of 106°F, amid a heatwave that saw 36.5 million Californians (98 percent of the state population) living under a heat advisory issued by the National Weather Service.
Earlier this month, Los Angeles saw its largest wildfire on record scorch 7,000 acres before rains from a remnant tropical storm helped firefighters get the upper hand.
Yale Environment 360 warned of this likelihood last December. The magazine, published by the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, reported that as the Arctic continues to warm twice as fast as the rest of the globe, winds in the upper atmosphere would be pulled into the polar zone and cause the jet stream to become wavier during extreme weather patterns. This is a more technical explanation for the fact that, as another study warned in March, these new weather patterns will generate record heatwaves and wildfires -- precisely what we are seeing now across the West.
And given that there are no serious, large-scale ACD mitigation efforts happening, least of all within the United States, we can count on these trends to amplify and worsen with time.
As students and faculty arrive on campuses in the coming days and weeks, they will face increased austerity, as university administrations prioritize profit over education, and corporate interests over the people who learn and work there.
At the University of Wisconsin (UW)-Madison, there are several important and diverse struggles on the horizon that will shape how we take on the neoliberal university and how we build the solidarity we need among students, faculty and campus workers.
Members of the Teaching Assistants' Association (TAA), which represents graduate student employees, are in a fight for the life of their union, as the administration seeks to gut their ability to organize their co-workers.
Last semester, the university police pulled a Black student from a Black Visual Culture class and arrested him, for allegedly painting anti-racist graffiti in response to racism on campus.
Sexual assaults are on the rise at UW, with no clear plan from the university to take action. State legislators threaten the accreditation of the medical school with no push back from the university administration.
New legislation could also make it possible for guns to be carried on campus. The university currently buys goods made by prison labor. Money is being drained from actual education to feed a bloated administration and athletics department.
The list goes on and on, which is why this will be a crucial year for organizing on campus.
It's clear that one goal of the UW administration is busting the TAA union.
When Act 10, the Republican-sponsored bill that gutted collective bargaining in Wisconsin, went into effect in 2011, the TAA was immediately impacted -- meaning that its legal recognition as a bargaining agent for graduate students was rendered null and void.
The university doesn't recognize the TAA -- the oldest graduate student union in the country which has been organizing for more than 50 years in response to unfair wages and working conditions -- as a union. On top of that, the administration is opposed to the organization of graduate students in any capacity, which places graduate students in a vulnerable position.
With graduate students doing 60 percent of face-to-face instruction at UW-Madison, their labor is necessary for the operation of the university. Since the passage of Act 10 as well as a "right-to-work" measure in 2015, the rights of public-sector unions and the TAA have been severely threatened.
Right-to-work laws damage unions by eliminating mandatory union dues for collective bargaining by a democratically elected union. By making dues optional, financially strapped unions are much more likely to crumble under pressure from bosses and systems looking for ways to bust them anyway.
The university administration has threatened to reduce graduate student workers' rights to a handbook instead of a binding contract. Should the university succeed in crushing the rights of graduate student workers, the rest of the university will feel the effects. The quality of education received by undergraduate students -- and the quality of work and research done by the graduate student workers -- will suffer.
UW-Madison students also face considerable threats to their own safety from the people that claim to protect them -- namely the university police. This spring, after a Black student allegedly wrote anti-racist graffiti on several buildings on campus, the university responded to this nonviolent crime by sending university police to his classroom, with bullet-proof vests and guns visible to all, and pull the student from the class, causing a major disruption.
"The university is more interested in protecting the symbols of UW as a progressive institution, like their buildings and Bucky [UW's mascot], rather than the students who are actually fighting for social change, and apparently their live," states Johanna Almiron, the Afro-American Studies professor whose class was interrupted, in a letter circulated among students and faculty after the incident.
At the same time, the university has had a weak response to the rise in reports of sexual assault on campus, including the case of Alec Cook, an undergraduate student accused of assaulting 11 women over several years. The university police were reportedly aware of his activities long before finally intervening, and it wasn't their investigation that led to his arrest, but rather a series of brave young women who spoke out on social media.
To state it plainly, the UW police will go out of their way to arrest a street artist, but will remain silent when women's lives are at stake.
The campus newspaper, The Daily Cardinal, reports a serious rise in the amount of sexual assault reports at UW-Madison -- 325 reports in 2016, up from 217 reports in 2015. Of all these cases in 2016, two students found guilty were placed on probation, three resulted in suspension, and one expelled.
Like many universities in the US, UW-Madison is deliberately minimizing the scale of sexual assault on campus to uphold the reputation of the institution, rather than defend the safety of its students. Given the case of Alec Cook, the policies regarding punishment and investigation of sexual assault cases aren't sufficient for the scope of the issue which greatly threatens the safety of women on campus.
Other pressing issues at UW-Madison include: the university using prison labor to produce goods for the university, major cuts to departments specifically under fire from the Trump administration, a bill threatening accreditation of the university OB/GYN program, bloated administration salaries. On top of that, Chancellor Rebecca Blank's pick for "Go Big Read," a book that is given to all new students and offered to everyone who wants a copy, this year is Hillbilly Elegy, which supports the fallacy that poor people are individually responsible for their situation and poverty.
The issues facing students and faculty of UW Madison aren't unique. Consider demonstrations at Syracuse University that defended the right to take part in political activism on campus, or the administration's union-busting tactics at the New School in New York, or the prevalence of sexual assault on campuses across the US
The recent success of Students for Justice in Palestine who passed a resolution calling on UW-Madison to divest from Israeli companies demonstrates the power students have to put pressure on their administration. This is especially true at UW-Madison, where shared governance is law. While the agreement that was reached concerning divestment wasn't as radical as the original proposal, pressure from below is what caused the university to give way to student demands.
Graduate students are also hard at work fighting for rights to mandatory communication on policy change, clearly defined job titles and other issues key to graduate student workers. UW-Madison students have also successfully held several demonstrations to demand that university administration take sexual assault reports seriously, and actively work against the prevailing issue.
These are just examples of struggles that took place in the past two years, and mostly on a single campus. This year, we look poised for a full year of more struggles.
What we do on our campuses matters. What's happening to our universities isn't normal, and it isn't right. We deserve better, not just as students but also as human beings. If we're fighting for a better world, a good place to start is on our campuses. This year, we also have an opportunity to link together our different struggles, build solidarity and bring together the forces we will need to fight for the colleges and universities we deserve.
Join the socialists if you wish to fight this battle from all fronts and intersections. And get ready for the fight of your life.
As students return to school across the country, we continue our look at the resegregation of schools -- particularly in Alabama. A new article in this week's New York Times Magazine titled "The Resegregation of Jefferson County" by Nikole Hannah-Jones looks at how predominantly white towns in Alabama are increasingly pulling out of regional school districts and creating new schools that are overwhelmingly white. Critics say this is a new form of segregation. For more, we speak with Nikole Hannah-Jones. Her article about choosing a school for her daughter in a segregated school system won a National Magazine Award this year.
AMY GOODMAN: As students return to school across the country, we turn now to look at the resegregation of schools. Today, we look at Alabama. A new article in this week's New York Times Magazine headlined "The Resegregation of Jefferson County," by Nikole Hannah-Jones, looks at how predominantly white towns in Alabama are increasingly pulling out a regional school districts and creating new schools that are overwhelmingly white. Critics say this is a new form of segregation.
Well, we're joined by Nikole Hannah-Jones in our studio. Her article about choosing a school for her daughter in a segregated school system won a National Magazine Award this year.
Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Nikole. So, talk about what you're finding and why you chose to look at Jefferson County.
NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: So, one of the reasons that integration was so successful by court order in the South was the South tends to operate countywide school systems. And that meant that white parents wanting to flee desegregation couldn't just simply move into a white town to get away from these orders. But what we're finding in Alabama, and really across the country, are white communities, wealthier white communities, wanting to pull away from these regional or countywide school districts and form their own racially isolated, much more wealthy school districts. And that's happened in Jefferson County, Alabama.
The reason I looked at that case, in particular, is, most of the time when white communities want to -- they're called school district secessions. When they want to secede from a larger school district, there's very little scrutiny, and we don't actually get to see their motivations. But the school system that this town, this suburban community called Gardendale, wanted to split off from was under a desegregation order, so they actually had to go to trial, and there was discovery. And in that discovery, the racial motivations of the white people in that community became very clear. So it provided an unusual opportunity to actually explore why communities who say they want to break off from local control are often motivated by race.
AMY GOODMAN: That trial is fascinating, that you write about. And in it, the judge actually reads from Brown v. Board of Education. Especially for young people who don't even know what that is, more than half a century ago, explain what happened then and why it applies now, and why this judge found it important to recite it in court.
NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: So, Brown v. Board of Education, of course, is the landmark Supreme Court ruling that found legally mandated school segregation unconstitutional.
AMY GOODMAN: Back in 1954.
NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Back in 1954. Prior to that, we operated under the Plessy v. Ferguson doctrine, which said segregation of black citizens was legal and constitutional as long as it was equal. Of course, it was never equal. But Brown doesn't actually deal with that. It deals with citizenship. And it's basically saying that the separation of black students from white denies them their full citizenship.
The way that we kind of commonly learn this history, though, is the Supreme Court makes this ruling, and then we all agree segregation was bad, and we integrate our schools, or we tried really hard. But actually what happened was there was massive resistance, both in the North and the South. And it takes a very long time for school desegregation to occur, where it occurred at all, largely because of these court orders.
What was so fascinating about this trial, though, is many federal judges have basically taken the position that these court orders, some of them 50 years old, have gone on too long and that there's no more segregation for them to deal with. But Judge Madeline Haikala, who was appointed by President Obama, has been one of the rare federal judges who is taking these rulings very seriously. And I was reading through the court transcripts. There was just this amazing moment where she's interviewing the superintendent that the all-white school board of Gardendale appointed, and found out that he -- on cross-examination, it came out that he had never hired or worked with a black teacher in his career, even though he was coming down to, basically, Birmingham, Alabama. And so, I think -- she declined to be interviewed for the story, but it's clear that she calls a recess, she goes and gets copies of the Brown ruling and begins to question him about had he ever read the ruling, and then reads parts of it, particularly the parts about how segregation demeans black students, aloud. And it was amazing moment. I've written about school segregation for more than a decade. I've sat in on these trials. I've read transcripts. I've never seen a judge do that before.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, explain what happened in Gardendale.
NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: What's the status of the case right now? So, she does this really interesting ruling. She finds that Gardendale was in fact motivated by racism, which is a very rare thing for a judge to find these days. But she kind of splits the baby. So, Gardendale wanted to break off. She, in the ruling --
AMY GOODMAN: To secede, the school system --
NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: To secede, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: -- which is quite amazing, even to be called that.
NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Yeah, exactly. It's evocative of kind of all the right things, I think. She allows them, in her ruling, to take over two of the elementary schools in the town, and says she's going to watch over the case and see, you know, how do they act, basically, with the black students that they have to bus in because of this court order. And if all goes well, then she would allow them to form their own district. So, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which was fighting the secession, clearly didn't agree with that ruling. But when you read it, you see she was very conflicted about what to do with this case, understanding that if she didn't allow them to break off, it could be very soon that Jefferson County would be released from this court order, and Gardendale could do whatever it wanted. And by allowing them to break off, she could put them under their own desegregation order and watch them longer. I think it really gets to the challenge of undoing racial caste in this country. It is not easily done.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you to stay after the show so we can continue to talk about this and some of the players, and also your own pursuit of a school for your daughter, not in Alabama, but here in New York. Nikole Hannah-Jones is the award-winning reporter for The New York Times Magazine. We'll link to her piece, "The Resegregation of Jefferson County."
That does it for our show. Democracy Now!'s Juan González is in California, Los Angeles. Check our website for his book tour.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks at a rally to oppose the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and its replacement on Capitol Hill on June 21, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo: Astrid Riecken / Getty Images)
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-MA, has joined the Bernie bandwagon demanding the nation replace its insurance-based health care system with what's being called "Medicare for All," named for the federal program Americans serving age 65 and older.
"I believe it's time to take a step back and ask: what is the best way to deliver high quality, low cost health care to all Americans? Everything should be on the table -- and that's why I'm co-sponsoring Bernie Sanders' Medicare for All bill that will be introduced later this month," she wrote in a letter to supporters Thursday.
Warren is the second Democratic senator to co-sponsor Sanders' as-yet-unseen bill, following California's junior senator, Kamala Harris. Warren's letter describes many well-known steps long suggested by progressives that could be taken to reduce health care costs and increase access. But it does not offer any new details on what's being labeled, in bumper-sticker fashion, "Medicare for All." That distinction is important because the lack of those specifics is what contributed to a statewide single-payer proposal stalling in the California legislature this past summer.
Nonetheless, Warren, who has a national following, is an important addition to the Democratic voices calling for fundamental reform of the health care system.
"There's so much more we could do right now to bring down the costs of quality health care for every American," she said. "We could start by ending health insurance company price gouging – ending high deductibles, surprise bills, and endless fights with insurance companies over coverage for critical medical procedures or out-of-pocket costs. We could also cut the cost of prescription drugs by importing drugs from Canada, where the same prescription can sometimes cost far less than in the US Bipartisan improvements are possible – in fact, just a few weeks ago, President Trump signed my bill with Republican [Sen.] Chuck Grassley to make hearing aids more affordable by allowing certain hearing aids to be sold over the counter."
Warren then described her hopes for Medicare for All.
"Medicare for All is one way that we can give every single person in the country access to high quality health care," she said. "Everyone is covered. Nobody goes broke paying a medical bill. Families don't have to bear the costs of heartbreaking medical disasters on their own. The American people have made it clear that they believe health care is a basic human right -- but it will be a tough fight. The giant insurance and drug companies will send out their army of lobbyists to fight our Medicare for All bill every step of the way."
Sanders has said that he plans to introduce his Medicare for All bill next week. Reporters covering health care in Washington have said that Sanders proposal is modeled on the bill proposed by Rep. John Conyers, H.R. 676, which has been analyzed. Conyers' bill would replace all private health plans with a federal plan akin to Medicare, prompting even its supporters -- other House Democrats -- to disagree how quickly that should be phased in. The Conyers bill, does not have any specifics about how to pay for this, which Vox.com called "the biggest black hole in Conyers's proposal."
However, Sanders is reportedly working with the same economists who drafted a revenue measure for the California Nurses Association's single payer legislation, which proposed funding the gap between what all government healthcare programs now spend and paying for universal coverage through two tax increases. They are: a 2.3 percent gross receipt taxes on businesses (after the first $2 million in earnings and exempting small businesses); and a 2.3 percent increase in the sales tax, with exemptions for basic necessities such as food, housing, utilities, and other services.
In California this summer, opponents of single-payer -- including Democrats -- put out scare-tactic tax increases (doubling the payroll tax) and job-loss scenarios (all the to-be-unemployed health industry workers) to pre-empt debate and kill the proposal. What never happened was a debate on the progressive tax options that would be favored by consumers and businesses, as well as a discussion of how the current health industry would transition toward a single-payer system.
As Sanders, Warren and Harris present their legislation next week, pay attention if these details on moving forward are there -- not just the usual litany of complaints about what's wrong with the system. Otherwise it's back to the poetry of the campaign trail and not the prose of governing.
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan speaks during a press conference at the US Capitol September 7, 2017, in Washington, DC. Ryan and fellow Republicans were caught off guard by President Donald Trump's decision to make a deal with Congressional Democrats to raise the debt ceiling. (Photo: Aaron P. Bernstein / Getty Images)
There has never been one moment, not one, when I believed Donald J. Trump would develop even marginal leadership skills once he became president. I never expected the much-ballyhooed "pivot" that would come just as soon as he realized how serious his job is and that we all might die if he screws up. The thought frankly never occurred to me. Waiting for a 71-year-old plutocrat to "mature" is not a high-yield use of my day. This is the guy who shouted, "Have a good time, everybody!" at a building filled with Harvey refugees.
Which is what made Wednesday so thoroughly fascinating. The man with the political instincts of a lobbed brick somehow closed out the day with a multi-dimensional checkmate maneuver that took down a number of large birds with one throw. The fact that Trump’s motives were entirely self-involved only adds frosting to the cake.
Republican leadership in Congress wanted to tie Harvey relief to a bill that would lift the debt ceiling for 18 months, effectively removing it as an issue in the 2018 midterms. The Democrats agreed, but wanted 3 months instead of 18. The GOP said no, Speaker Ryan rose up in high public dudgeon over the very idea of "playing politics" with the debt ceiling … and then Trump came down the mountain and abruptly made the deal with the Democrats, upending even his own Treasury Secretary in the process.
The Republican Party's motto should be "Wait, what?" from here on out. Trump's Democratic deal for three months of debt ceiling relief hit congressional Republicans like a bucket of bat urine. There was an almost feral recoiling within the ranks. With that deal, Trump ensured the Democrats could still campaign on the debt ceiling in 2018, and left them in a stronger negotiating position for future legislation.
More importantly, Trump removed the debt ceiling hostage from the room, infuriating the hard-right Freedom Caucus and the Republican Study Group, whose members wanted in the aftermath of their ACA repeal failure to use the ceiling as leverage to attack Medicaid again. Finally, just for flavor, he made Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell look like a couple of windbag backbenchers who have no idea what's really going on because they never get invited to the real meetings.
Congressional conservatives are now so thoroughly livid at Trump that they want to fire their own speaker, because someone has to pay the piper after this one. It isn't just that Pelosi and Schumer thoroughly rolled the president of the United States in his own house. Trump turned out his pockets and put his hands over his head. As CNN political analyst Paul Begala noted, "Poor president Donald Trump was lucky he got out of the room with his hair."
Lifting the debt ceiling was the right thing to do. Making a deal to get Harvey aid done was the right thing to do. Donald J. Trump couldn't possibly care less about what is or is not the right thing to do. He did this for a few reasons, each of them more selfish than the last.
Trump is comprehensively pissed at McConnell and Ryan, and not just because nothing beyond a Supreme Court appointment has gotten done. He thinks those guys should be protecting him from the Russia probe, defending him vehemently in the press, and they haven't. In Trump's world, if you're not taking a bullet for the boss, you're with the snipers throwing shots. Whatever else this was, in Trump's mind it was payback.
Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo did a fine job of explaining how this move speaks to the core essence of Trump himself. "Trump needs to dominate people," writes Marshall. "Clearly Trump felt that McConnell and Ryan are not serving him well enough or loyally enough or both. So he lashed out or tried to damage them. Schumer and Pelosi were simply the most convenient cudgels available."
This deal, and the resulting political convulsion that followed it, has also temporarily removed Trump's devastating DACA decision from the national media conversation. Apparently, the president was surprised and hurt when his decision to blow up the lives of nearly a million people wasn't met with universal approval. With this, he changed the subject and saved himself a few hours of grief.
There was nothing Machiavellian in this particular move -- and certainly nothing noble or patriotic or even vaguely generous. Trump needed to put a hurt on someone in service to himself, and he chose his own party to be the victim.
Anyone in his orbit who thinks he likes them or is loyal to them should look at this deal as if it were a warning written in blood on the wall. To Trump, everyone is fungible. The leadership of his own party, 800,000 young students and workers, everyone. If it helps him even a little bit, Donald J. Trump will do like the narrator in the old song, "Me and My Uncle," and leave your dead ass there by the side of the road.
Janine Jackson: You still sometimes hear things like "disasters don't discriminate," or "it's wrong to politicize a tragedy." But as we continue to assess the ravages of Hurricane Harvey, it seems like maybe we're moving a bit beyond that. Sure, we know that no one ordered up a hurricane, but public policy and political choices do play a role, do make some disasters worse than they might be, and do leave some people more vulnerable than others. Media may be moving beyond "nature, what are ya gonna do?," but where will they end up? Accountability, translated through the corporate media machine, often winds up just being blame -- and blame and accountability are not the same thing. It's not a question of who to be mad at; it's about who has the power to make things different, and what should they do? Media themselves are, of course, important players here, so what can we say about their work so far in covering this natural, and not-so-natural, disaster?
We're joined now by journalist Neil deMause; he writes often about social policy issues for various outlets, including FAIR.org. And he's author of the book The Brooklyn Wars, and co-author of Field of Schemes. He joins us now by phone from Brooklyn. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Neil deMause.
Neil deMause: Good to be here, Janine.
We don't need to cram Hurricane Harvey into a comparison with Hurricane Katrina; they aren't the same. But in terms of media, one of the things that people remember about Hurricane Katrina, besides irresponsible and straight-up racist reporting, was mainstream media "discovering" poverty, and the combination of poverty and racism. There was a kind of a lightbulb for a minute there, and media outlets promised that they wouldn't forget what they learned. Is it your sense that, generally, looking at the coverage of Harvey, media outlets have retained much of that purported lesson?
I would say that the media have retained a little bit of the lesson? I think the coverage has gotten somewhat better in some small ways, and has not especially improved in some larger ways. I think you have not seen the kind of overtly racist coverage of, you know, people looking for supplies, and calling them "looters" when they are people of color, that you did after Katrina. I think you see a little bit more sympathy for the people who are trapped in this disaster.
But at the same time, what the lesson of Katrina supposedly was -- again, for that one minute that the lightbulb went off -- was the realization that oh, there are some people who, when faced with a disaster, can't just pick up and leave, not because they are afraid to or are too stubborn to leave their homes, but because they don't have the resources. And that's the kind of thing that you would hope the media would be exploring more when you have another disaster of this scale, and I don't think we have seen an awful lot of that so far.
There still is this idea that a disaster is an equalizer, when what it really does is call attention to real differences that exist, such that different people just can't react the same way. And one of the things that I know you have been thinking about relates to insurance, even. As simple as that.
So there's been a fair bit of coverage about the fact that only around one-fifth of homeowners in the Houston area have flood insurance. And I was just watching CNN, and they were again talking about what is the government going to do, and how are we going to address the fact that there is going to be a huge need for additional aid. Those are good questions to ask, but at the same time, are you also asking why people choose not to, or can't afford to, have flood insurance, or are not getting it? And there have been some indications that one reason is that the National Flood Insurance Program has been running short on cash, both because of the series of storms that we've had, thanks to climate change, and more devastating storms, thanks to both climate change and the fact that we have more sprawling development that is getting in the way of these storms.
On top of that, there is underfunding, and President Trump has been talking about cutting funding for the Flood Insurance Program, which would force them either to scale back on the flood maps that would enable people to determine whether they are actually in need of flood insurance, or if they went and paid for it out of the program's own pocket, then you would have to raise premiums and price people out of affording flood insurance. Again, it's a complicated series of dynamics that you have to look into, and the coverage mostly stops short of that. It's just been, "Oh, too bad, people don't have flood insurance, what are you gonna do?"
It's not that it's not sympathetic, exactly, but if it doesn't go deep enough, then you sort of have to wonder how sympathetic is it, if it's not really going to get at the root of these problems? A few times, I've heard that, oh well, Houston doesn't have zoning. But I haven't really seen it spelled out how that might affect impacts from something like this.
Right, and there are a couple ways. One is that when you don't have zoning, you can have a lot of sprawl into areas that, otherwise, you possibly shouldn't be building in, because these areas are needed as reservoirs for water when you do have a flood. The other piece that there has been a little bit of coverage about is the chemical facility that is having fires. There's a lot of petrochemical facilities in close proximity to low-income communities in the Houston area. And again, there has been a little bit of coverage of that; Democracy Now! talked about it a bit, and the Houston Chronicle had some coverage of it before the storm. But, again, these things are very easy for the media to start looking into, once you have all this attention on Texas, and instead we're largely getting the helicopter of the hour, and let's see the latest rescue, but not actually talking to people being rescued about what got them into this circumstance, and what is going to prevent this from happening in the future?
Of course, we hoped that the discovery of the nexus of poverty and racism, and how that affects people's lives day to day, we hoped that would encourage media to look at that all the time, and not just during times of disaster. But having said that, there will, very sadly, be many chances for media to explore the connections between climate change and its impacts, and poverty. They could be doing that even when there isn't a hurricane, right?
Oh, absolutely. Again, the broader problem, like you say, is that the media tends to look at everything -- except for something like homelessness, that has to be looked at through poverty -- they tend to look at everything through the lens of this mythical middle-class everyperson. Right? And the idea that you have around a third of Americans who are living either in poverty or near poverty, and that maybe we should be looking at, whether it's climate change, or any other issue, how it's going to affect them, let alone how it's going to affect the much broader group of people living in poverty worldwide, a lot of whom are going to be hit by climate change a lot worse than anyone here. That never really seems to come up.
And, again, I'm happy to see that the coverage has not been terrible, and that at least there's been occasional glimpses of trying to examine people's economic situations and how it impacts what happens in a disaster like this, but it seems like we really still have a long way to go before you start to have that lens being applied to every sort of different political issue, including climate change.
I did see someone note, or a few places note, that the Texas Border Patrol checks were going to stay in operation, so people who are out of status or undocumented might be making a choice between do I go out on the roads, or do I stay home and possibly die? It's true that it's complicated, that there are a lot of interconnected issues, but it just seems that it's not politicizing it to say that hey, this actually has something to do with immigration policy, it also has to do with a number of other things, and maybe this is an opportunity to get into them, rather than a deflection from the "drama" story.
Yeah, that was something that the media realized for about two seconds after Katrina, the idea that there are people in this country who cannot just pick up and get into their car and rent a hotel room for a couple of weeks when they need to get out of danger. It's something slowly trickling into the media, but it's very, very slow. For example, that story about the immigration checks, right. That that was not seen as politicizing it, and I think that was fairly well-covered, initially; I haven't seen any follow-up after the storm actually hit. But I think that's a positive step, in that we actually can talk about these issues. Whether we actually are talking about these issues in the media, that's another step beyond.
And then also, who do we talk to when we talk about them? There's always the question of sources. And some people may have seen the CNN situation in which, I'm not sure if they pre-interviewed this woman or not, but this woman basically said, "People are at the worst moment of their lives and you're sticking a microphone in our face, and this isn't the way to do it." There's a certain just human-to-human thing that has to happen for reporters, especially when they're parachuting into a situation like this.
Which I think is one reason why a lot of the coverage has tended to be on the rescuers, the people who are going in and pulling people out, because that's what they're there to do, and they're not going to feel like you're imposing on them if you're interviewing them. But at the same time, you then leave out a big part of the story. The job of journalists here is to figure out a way to tell the stories of the people who are caught in this, and why they're caught in this, without just sticking a microphone at them, saying, "Hi, you just lost all your possessions, how does it feel?" That's not easy, but at the same time, that's what the job of journalism is all about, and I don't think it's impossible.
Let me just ask you, finally, about making connections. We did see mention of the fact that the Trump administration had overturned a rule that infrastructure projects, including roads and bridges, be designed to withstand the impacts of climate change. Even as we're seeing a lot of focus on Melania's stilettos, there are certainly national level, as well as state-level, things that are so relevant that you can also be including them in this story as well.
One of the things that I'm actually really encouraged by, even though it's coming decades too late, is that there is finally discussion around Harvey, "Yes, climate change is making these storms worse." It took an awful long time for that to be able to be acknowledged in the mainstream media, and I think it's good that there is discussion of Trump's overturning of that Obama-era rule around taking climate change into account. Again, the lesson here of all this isn't that the media are continuing to do a terrible job, it's that the media were doing such a terrible job of reporting all of these things a decade ago that incremental improvement is not happening soon enough.
It's very much like the climate change story itself, right? We were doing not enough to address it 20–30 years ago, now we're doing a little bit to address it, but we really do not have the time to make incremental improvements to the point where we're really gonna get this down, I don't know, 100 or 200 years from now.
We've been speaking with Neil deMause. He is the co-author of Field of Schemes and author of The Brooklyn Wars. And he will be writing something for us about Hurricane Harvey very soon. Thank you for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
This week's episode discusses Wonder Woman, the Archbishop's critique of the economic system in the UK, US Labor Day, the McDonald's workers strike in the UK, the economics of hurricanes and the economics of the Trump tax cut "reform." The episode also includes an interview with Dr. Harriet Fraad on how the capitalist system's impacts on health -- from stress to death -- are mostly unacknowledged in key decisions.
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A projection of what Shanghai, China, will look like in a world that is 4 degrees warmer (c. 2100). (Photo: Climate Central)
While Xi Jinping has been eager to assume the role of leader in the fight against global warming, he is unlikely to reverse China's impact on global resource consumption and pollution. The pressures to produce jobs and bring mass consumerism to over a billion people under China's hybrid bureaucratic collectivist-capitalism economy will ensure that Xi will remain committed to prioritize growth, even at the cost of planetary ecological collapse.
A projection of what Shanghai, China, will look like in a world that is 4 degrees warmer (c. 2100). (Photo: Climate Central)
Since President Trump pulled out of the Paris climate accord, there has been speculation that China could take the lead in the fight against climate change. China's leader Xi Jinping has certainly been eager to assume this role, just as he took up the cause of free trade against Trump's nationalist posturing.
At first glance, this might seem improbable. After all, China is by far the leading emitter of CO2, pumping out more emissions per year than the US, the EU and Japan combined. Moreover, China wastes stupendous amounts of energy in its inefficient industries: According to the US Energy Information Administration, China's industries consume 7.9 times as much energy per US dollar of GDP as Japan, 5.8 times as much as the UK and 3.9 times as much as the US. As energy analyst Robert Wilson writes: "China has now passed America and is now the most physically important country on the planet. No other country has a more important influence on the biosphere, whether in terms of what we take from it or what we dump into it."
Yet, while China is the world's leading polluter by far, it is also the world's leading producer of both wind turbines and solar panels. China also leads the world in installed capacity of both wind and solar. So Xi Jinping's ambition is perhaps not entirely implausible.
Besides, the US has hardly been a leader in the fight against climate change. While President Obama made some modest efforts to improve vehicle fleet mileage and suppress coal emissions, these gains were rapidly outstripped by his parallel efforts to promote fracking, build "enough pipelines to encircle the Earth and then some," expand deep ocean drilling, open the Arctic and US Eastern seaboard to drilling, and more. In fact, US fossil fuel output grew by some 40 percent on Obama's watch, turning "Saudi America" into an oil exporter for the first time in decades. Indeed, Obama ramped up oil production so much that cheap fuel has encouraged Americans to buy gas-guzzling SUVs and enormous trucks -- so much so that sales of actual cars have collapsed, with the result that fleet mileage actually declined under his presidency. Brilliant.
Yet, in my view, the notion that China is going to lead the world fight against climate change is even more absurd. That's because China is different. China's growth drivers are, if anything, even more powerful than those of "normal" capitalism elsewhere, while at the same time, China's bureaucratic particularist political system -- in which power is widely dispersed throughout the 89 million member ruling party -- means that Xi Jinping has little power to change direction even if he wanted to.
China's Drivers of Hypergrowth
In capitalism, competition is the motor that drives growth like a perpetual motion machine. Growth is built in and cannot be exorcised. All efforts to date to "green" capitalism -- cap-and-trade, carbon taxes, dematerialization of production, and so on, have foundered on the brutal reality that no government and no industrialized economy will accept binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions because no one has yet found a way to staunch emissions without staunching economic growth.
Yet, in capitalism, there is a one built-in limit to growth: profits. If companies can't make a profit, they will cease production and lay off workers, sometimes masses of workers. Hence, the business cycle. Now and again, economic recession or collapse brings growth to a halt, at least temporarily, until sufficient value has been destroyed such that the cycle can begin all over again on an enlarged scale. Further, in capitalist democracies, there is still some freedom to organize, so environmental organizations have been able to impose some restraint on pollution -- gains which as we know are now under unprecedented assault.
But in China, none of this applies. China's rulers are not private capitalists -- at least not with respect to their state economy. China's rulers are bureaucratic collectivists who run a hybrid bureaucratic collectivist-capitalist economy, a system largely exempted from the laws of capitalism. Of course, it's difficult to make generalizations about the "Chinese economy" because what's true of the state-owned sector, about half the economy, is not necessarily true of the foreign-invested joint venture sector or the domestic private capitalist sector. Here I'm mainly concerned with the state-owned/controlled economy, which overdetermines the rest of the economy as well. China's state-owned companies do not live and die by the rules of the market. For all the market reforms since 1978, the government has not allowed a single major state-owned company to fail and go bankrupt, no matter how inefficient, no matter how indebted. China's statist economy abides by different laws of motion, different drivers.
Capitalist economies are driven by a single maximand: profit maximization. China's state-led economy is driven by a different maximand: maximizing the security, power and wealth of the Chinese Communist Party bureaucracy. China's rulers are first and foremost nationalists. As nationalists, and in particular as "communist" nationalists, they faced Cold War hostility, blockades and other threats from the first days of the People's Republic under Mao, so they had little choice but to self-industrialize. Partly by circumstance and partly by design, Mao sought to build China as a more or less fully autarkic economy. Hostile to markets and lacking capitalist methods of economic development, he tried to drive the economy to "surpass Britain and catch up with the U.S." by means of political campaigns based on "revolutionary" self-sacrifice and voluntarism. That didn't work out so well. After Mao's death in 1976, Deng Xiaoping abandoned politics for economics and under the banner of "market reform and opening" invited Western companies to set up in China, initially in an archipelago of coastal Special Economic Zones (SEZs) where foreign companies partnered with state-owned industries to exploit China's ultra-cheap migrant labor in exchange for new technology and knowhow from the West.
From Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping, China's leaders have sought to build China into a modern industrial superpower but one that's still largely self-sufficient in order to prevent the return of foreign domination. Thus, while introducing capitalism, the government has systematically maintained state supremacy and induced foreign companies to hand over technology and intellectual property for market access but restricted foreign investors to limited sectors (auto manufacturing, electronics, export industries, some retail and others) in order to prevent their taking over key sectors and the commanding heights of the economy. The party's strategic goal of comprehensive economic development has obliged it to rely on three main drivers: state-sector modernization and expansion, employment generation and consumerism -- and all these have had enormous environmental impacts.
First, profitable joint venture partnerships brought in mountains of foreign exchange earnings, which enabled the party to renovate, modernize and greatly expand its state-owned industries from the 1990s. In the 1970s, no company from the People's Republic of China counted among the Fortune Global 500 list. By 2016, 128 of the Global 500 companies were Chinese (vs. 110 American companies) including three of the top ten, and nearly all of them, and all the big ones, were state-owned. The government also modernized and monetized its central planning apparatus.
China's Five-Year Plans have spelled out strategic goals in comprehensive industrialization plans and funded priority and "pillar" industries, from basic steel, coal, power generation and such in the 1950s, up through the highest tech aspirations to smart manufacturing, robotics, cloud computing, 5G internet, big data, new materials, renewable energy, hybrid vehicles and more, detailed in the 12th and 13th Five-Year Plans (2000-2020).
With his call for "national rejuvenation" centered on his Made in China 2025 initiative and New Silk Road project, Xi Jinping takes all this to a new level: He aims not just to make China the world's leading high-tech manufacturer but also to bring much of Asia, Africa and even Europe under the sway of Chinese market domination and political hegemony, in order to construct a New World Order in which China regains its "rightful" place as the center of the world economy. So this is the first driver: the need to compete and succeed as a nation against Western (especially US) domination.
Secondly, the Chinese leadership must maximize growth to generate jobs to keep up with its population growth and create work for workers in sunset industries like coal. In capitalist economies, corporations don't care about the unemployed. If workers, even masses of workers, get laid off, that's not the capitalists' problem. It's not even seen as the government's problem either, except in severe downturns, such as the Great Depression, when our government was obliged to create Civilian Conservation Corps-type jobs programs or face the threat of unrest if not revolt. But because the Chinese Communist Party was once a workers' party, and because the party claims its legitimacy as the (self-appointed) representative of the working class for whom it led the revolution, it cannot completely ignore the workers as capitalists can do in the West.
The Chinese Communist Party has been very cruel to workers, as when it subjected them to pitiless exploitation at the hands of foreign corporations in the SEZs. But it must still strive to keep them employed to keep the peace. Already, the government faces hundreds of mass protests across the country virtually every day, more than 160,000 "mass incidents" a year, and strikes and protests against unpaid back pay or overtime, against land grabs, against pollution and against corruption. So, the government cannot afford to let masses of workers be laid off. That's why in November 2013 economic czar and Prime Minister Li Keqiang said:
Employment is the biggest thing for well-being. The government must not slacken on this for one moment ... For us, stable growth is mainly for the sake of maintaining employment.
This explains why the 12th and 13th Five-Year Plans have insisted that the government will do all it can to keep unemployment below 5 percent, declaring that the government will create some 15 million new jobs each year, enough to meet or exceed population growth. And this is why the government keeps its "zombie" steel companies, aluminum companies, coal mines and construction companies in business year after year, rolling over their debts, rather than letting them fail and close down as western economists are always admonishing them to do.
Thirdly, after the collapse of communism in East Europe and Russia and the Chinese communists' own near-death experience with the Tiananmen uprising of 1989, the ruling party prioritized the creation of a mass consumer economy and also gradually raised incomes in order to focus people's minds on consumption and consumerism instead of politics. This is why, ever since the early 1990s, successive Five-Year Plans have prioritized new consumer industries and the government has promoted one after another consumer craze: the car craze, the shopping mall craze, the foreign tourism craze, the condo craze, the cruise boat craze, the theme park craze, the bike-sharing craze and more. The government has also partnered and backed private capitalists, such as Jack Ma's Alibaba (China's eBay) and other consumer-oriented industries -- to promote shopping, video gaming, social media, and more shopping. Government banks have created a consumer credit industry from scratch and gone into the mortgage business to spur consumption and drive the economic growth.
There are further drivers, below the top leadership. Industrial ministries led by the oil ministry, the coal ministry, the steel ministry, the railroad ministry and others are all mighty drivers of growth in their own right. They employ millions of staff and workers and contribute billions in GDP growth and tax revenues. They compete against one another for central resources, lobbying for their share of centrally distributed funds to grow their respective sectors. And as China's growth has slowed since 2012, they have fought efforts by the central government to force them to cut back.
Then there are the local drivers. When Deng Xiaoping introduced market reforms in local governments and state industries, he cut various profit-sharing deals with local officials and state-owned company bosses. He insisted that state-owned companies fulfill their planned production as previously, but gave them the right to sell over-quota output on the new free markets, and also gave them the freedom to reinvest their retained profits as they saw fit, and to initiate new lines of production for market. After the rise of Poland's Solidarność trade union in 1980 and collapse of communism in 1989, Deng saw China's opportunity in stark Manichaean terms: China was presented with a once-in-an-epoch opportunity to catch up with the West -- or China's communists would join their Soviet comrades in the dustbin of history. In 1980, Deng told China's officials and managers to double per capita GDP to $500 by 1990, then double it again to $1,000 by 2000, then once more by 2030-50 to achieve a national GDP of $1 trillion. In 1992, he invited local officials and state-owned company bosses to "jump into the sea of commerce" and exhorted them to grow the economy or get out of the way: "Any leader who cannot boost the economy must leave office."
Local officials didn't need to be told twice. Deng's exhortations led in short order to GDP "tournaments" as overachieving local officials competed with one another to generate higher growth rates to win promotions and more government largesse. Thus, the 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-2010) set a national GDP target of 7.5 percent. But all of China's 31 provinces set targets higher than this. Average: 10.1 percent; highest 13.0 percent; lowest 8.5 percent. Local officials pursued "blind production," "blind investment" and "blind growth," squandering resources and profligately wasting energy in all these processes, in full confidence that the government would continue to bail them out, which so far, it has done.
Further, the introduction of market reforms amplified tendencies in the old bureaucratic economy to redundant investment. Generally speaking, officials in, say, inland Sichuan Province can't invest in industries in coastal provinces like Guangdong or Shanghai, like capitalist investors in a market economy. So if local officials in Sichuan or Henan want to profit off central government initiatives to boost auto production or boost windmill production, the way to do so is to build their own. So, local officials built thousands of redundant industries across the economy. As a result, today, China has at least 140 auto plants (vs. 45 plants in the US), some producing fewer than a thousand cars per year, one even fewer than a hundred cars per year, more than 100 wind turbine producers, most operating at less than 50 percent capacity, more than a hundred electric car makers, none of which make money, and so on. This has resulted in lost economies of scale, lower efficiency and more pollution.
Local officials also expropriated land from hundreds of millions of peasants, selling their farmland to developers building infrastructure, useless "blingfrastructure" and "ghost cities" across the country. Since the beginning of market reform in 1978, China's Five-Year Plans never called for national GDP growth rates higher than 8 percent per year, but this target has been regularly exceeded: In 1983-88, GDP growth averaged 11.9 percent per year. In 1985 the economy grew at 15.2 percent, nearly double the target. Over two decades, 1992-2011, GDP growth averaged 10.5 percent, hitting 13 percent and 14 percent on the crest of the boom in 2006-2007. In this way, China's competitive, overachieving officials easily soared past Deng's targets and China's GDP exceeded 11 trillion in 2016.China poured more cement in just the three years of 2011-2013 than US builders poured during the entire 20th century to build all US cities, ports, road and rail systems, airports and more.
This is why, with just 19 percent of the world's population and a GDP equal to just 63 percent of the US GDP in 2016, China has nevertheless become by far the world's biggest consumer of marketed primary industrial raw materials (cement, metal ores, industrial minerals, fossil fuels and biomass). China consumes more than 32 percent of the world's total of these resources -- nearly four times as much as the US, the second-largest consumer. China is the leading producer and consumer of steel, with 50 percent of world output. China consumes just over half the world's coal and a third of the world's oil. China consumes 60 percent of the world's cement. In building and over-building its infrastructure, technology analyst Vaclav Smil notes that China poured more cement in just the three years of 2011-2013 than US builders poured during the entire 20th century to build all US cities, ports, road and rail systems, airports and more. China has also become the world's largest consumer of lumber and forest products, leveling forests from Siberia to Southeast Asia, New Guinea, Congo and Madagascar. Thanks increasingly to China's voracious consumption, Greenpeace has warned that "future generations will be living on a planet without ancient forests." And this is why China surged past the US to become the world's largest consumer of energy in 2009, and on present trends, will soon be consuming fully twice as much energy as the United States with an economy less than two-thirds as big.
To be fair, some of these resources -- roughly 20 percent -- are embedded in the production of goods for export to the West. But these are partially offset by China's own imports of embedded resources in the Boeing airplanes, soy beans, beef, pork and so on that the country imports in large quantities. The rest is consumed in domestic production, overproduction and waste at home.
In China's statist economy it becomes rational to regularly overproduce -- to produce mountains of steel and aluminum that can't be sold at home, that can only be sold at a loss overseas by dumping them at below cost. It becomes rational for state builders to build empty airports all over the country, near empty high-speed trains, empty expressways and empty bridges. It's likewise sensible, if bizarre and stupendously wasteful, to build dozens of "ghost cities" and "New Areas" where almost no one lives. Indeed, right now, China's planners and builders are in the process of building 3.4 billion new homes -- in a country with just 1.4 billion people, most of whom have already been rehoused in new homes since the 1990s. China's perpetual infrastructure overconstruction program can be understood as something like a non-stop national Civilian Conservation Corps, though it's also an engine of cadre corruption -- one of many means to loot the state.
Further, since 1999 when the government ordered its large state-owned companies to "go out, go global" in search of new markets, China's state-owned companies have been building hundreds of infrastructure-for-resources (and/or for loans) projects across Southeast Asia, Africa, Latin America, and even in Europe and the US. In most cases, China compels its weaker neo-colonies to use Chinese companies, Chinese finance and Chinese labor. Today, with China already massively overbuilt, Xi Jinping's New Silk Road initiative is pushing this imperialist venture to a new level, to expand China's economic empire around the world to contest the US for global hegemony.
Built-in Barriers to Change
The foregoing are the main drivers of excessive growth, overproduction, over-construction and resource and energy waste in China. What about the built-in barriers to change? First of all, China's police state brooks no opposition. Trade unionists, environmentalists, democrats, feminists and their lawyers are all routinely arrested and often tortured and imprisoned. Chinese people risk their lives to fight the environmental destruction of their country as bravely as they can.
Secondly, China's ruling class owns the economy (or most of it) collectively, not privately, as with capitalists. This means that power is dispersed throughout the party-state bureaucracy. In the West, it's often been argued that, "Well, China may be a dictatorship, but at least that means the government should be able to get things done. So it should be able to force a transition to solar and wind power quickly." Indeed, China's government gets things done like no other nation on Earth -- "at China speed" as the People's Daily likes to brag. A new airport? Consider it done. A new high-speed train line? Done. A new 57-story skyscraper? One was recently put up in 19 days. An entirely new city like the Xiongan New Area now under construction south of Beijing? That might take a year or two. But, hey, it's a whole city and planned to be triple the size of New York City. The government has had little trouble forcibly evicting hundreds of millions of people to use their lands for dams, developers, industrial parks, shopping malls, highways, airports or anything else the government desires.
But when it comes to stopping overbuilding, overproduction and pollution, not to mention corruption, the central government can't seem to enforce its will. It can't systematically discipline the people in its own ranks. When the government orders local officials to stop overbuilding or overproducing, to obey state environmental laws, stop dumping pollutants into waterways, turn on the sewage treatment plants, suppress coal production and shift to solar and wind, strangely, its orders are routinely ignored. As a local official I quote in my forthcoming book said, "We don't think those orders [to stop polluting] apply to us."
How is it that a highly centralized neo-totalitarian party state cannot force its own subordinate officials to obey its own orders and laws? The problem is the collective nature of China's ruling class. Beijing can't regularly enforce its writ against resistance from below because it can't fire those people because they are members of the same ruling class as the leaders in Beijing. This is why in China it's often said that "Xi Jinping is master of nothing" and "orders don't leave Zhongnanhai" (Zhongnanhai is the compound in central Beijing where the top party leaders have lived and worked since 1949). In this formally hierarchical system, the day-to-day reality is that all relations are intensely personal, governed by what the Chinese call guanxi (connections or relations). If you've got good guanxi, good connections with higher-ups, especially all the way to Beijing, and a solid base of supporters below, then you can ignore orders from above, you can keep making money on your polluting factory, buy off your superiors and carry on. The coal ministry, the oil ministry -- these are very powerful and very profitable ministries with millions of party bureaucrats and employees. They like things the way they are, they intend to keep them that way, and they have the power to do so.
Thirdly, though the leaders in Beijing rail at the waste and pollution in their system, at the end of the day, China's leaders, as much as their profit-seeking subordinate officials, are more concerned to maximize growth, employment and profits than they are to clean up the environment. So for all their talk, they don't really try very hard to suppress pollution. As the people of Beijing this past winter suffered through the worst bout of smog in the city's history, the government called on people to be patient, saying, "It will take time to solve this complicated problem." This is why increasingly, China's upper and middle classes are voting with their feet: fleeing China's northern cities, even emigrating en masse abroad to Sydney, Vancouver, New York, Los Angeles and beyond.
What Does This Mean for Climate Change?
All this means that Xi Jinping has no chance of leading a global fight against global warming. It means that China's economy is likely to continue leading the drive to planetary ecological collapse. Short of nuclear war, China's economic engine poses the greatest threat to life on Earth. While the US, Europe and Japan limp along at 1-3 percent annual GDP growth, China's supercharged communist-capitalist economy is still barreling along at 7 percent GDP increase per year. This is down from its 10+ percent rate during the two decades up to 2011 but still double and triple the growth rates in capitalist countries. China's breakneck growth has had a staggering impact on global resource consumption and global pollution. Yet, for all his police-state powers, Xi Jinping is unlikely to reverse these trends. Given the pressures he faces to grow the economy, to produce jobs, to bring mass consumerism to a billion and a half Chinese people, to sell his economy's overproduction and employ the country's surplus workers, Xi Jinping must remain committed to prioritize growth over all else.While promising to shut down 100 coal-fired power plants at home, China's state-owned companies are building some 700 coal-powered power plants around the world, driving global coal consumption far beyond China itself.
More growth must mean more fossil fuel consumption, lots more. The fact that China has reduced coal production by a few percentage points since 2014 has raised hopes in the West that China may be soon reaching "peak coal." But in truth, this slight drop hardly matters since coal is still king in China and is set to remain so for decades to come. It still accounts for around 65 percent of China's electricity generation, and even the most optimistic government projections foresee renewable energy (hydro, solar, wind, biomass) contributing no more than 20 percent of China's energy production by 2030. To make matters worse, while promising to shut down 100 coal-fired power plants at home, China's state-owned companies are building some 700 coal-powered power plants around the world, driving global coal consumption far beyond China itself.
Yes, China is also building solar and wind power plants at a furious pace. Yet, despite the fact that China leads the world in installed capacity for wind and solar, these only account for a trivial share of electricity generation in China itself. In 2015, China spent a record $102 billion on wind, solar, geothermal and other low- or no-carbon renewable energy. Yet, in 2016 wind produced just 4 percent and solar, barely 1 percent of China's electricity. The reason why China produces so little renewable energy despite all the investment is that so much of China's renewable energy is "curtailed" (i.e. wasted). Nationally, about 21 percent of wind energy is curtailed, as much as 40 percent in some provinces, even more than 60 percent in Xinjiang, ironically, the province with the most installed wind power.
Why? Again, the answer is the nature of China's ruling class and its requirements for reproduction in this system. Ever since the founding of the People's Republic of China, its economic administration has been highly decentralized and fragmented, with each locality striving to be largely self-sufficient, in effect mirroring the national economy. For all the market reforms, this remains largely true today for much of the economy. China doesn't really have a national electric grid. Many wind and solar plants are built in good locations, but then not connected to any grid.
Furthermore, local officials can normally profit only from enterprises in their bailiwicks. So, to maximize their income, they must maximize their output and sales, including power generation, in their own locality. Wind and solar aren't suitable for every location, and they're intermittent. So, rather than buy wind and solar power from distant locations at higher prices and also face the inevitable problem of intermittency, local officials rely on and protect their own coal-fired power plants.
Thus, according to Jing ji can kao bao [Economic Information Daily] of February 2, 2017:
A stunning 60% of all electricity generated ... comes from captive coal-fired power plants, which factories operate to meet their own requirements. This is putting the region's electricity grid at risk and making the transition to renewables harder.... The availability of cheap coal is a major driver in the northwestern Chinese province for energy and resource intensive enterprises, such as coal chemicals and electrolytic aluminum plants ... these factories can cut their electricity cost by more than half by building their own captive power plants. In 2016, such coal plants generated 63% of all electricity in Xinjiang. [My translation]
In effect, local officials and the coal ministry sabotage renewable energy to keep their coal-fired plants in operation. Yet, because they are all part of the ruling class, and have responsibility for employing tens of millions of workers, they very often do so with Beijing's tacit approval despite government public pronouncements to the contrary.
Worse, in the effort to clear the air in China's northern cities, Xi Jinping's government is building vast "coal gasification" bases out west in Shanxi, the Ordos Basin, Inner Mongolia and other remote areas. These plants will burn coal directly on site to generate electricity and convert coal to liquid fuels like "syngas," which will then be transported to the cities to be burned in power plants, factories and cars. These huge bases, some encompassing areas larger than the states of Delaware and Connecticut, will be the largest fossil fuel development projects on Earth and they will consume so much coal-fired energy to produce the syngas and other chemicals that they will generate almost twice as much CO2 emissions as if the coal were just directly burned in Beijing power plants. Scientists tell us that if these plants come on line they will "doom the climate." Some have already come on line and are contributing to the global surge in CO2 emissions.
And as if all this weren't awful enough, "climate fight leader" Xi Jinping is putting pedal to the metal to frack the country like the US in a bid to enforce his higher priority: to make China relatively self-sufficient in oil and gas production to reduce coal consumption and fuel his country's ever-growing fleet of useless cars mostly stalled in traffic jams in China's smog-choked cities.
Planned Deindustrialization or Unplanned Ecological Collapse
Given the foregoing, it's difficult to see how China's drive to ecological collapse can be reversed -- at least, so long as the Communist Party remains in power. The Chinese Communist Party is locked in a death spiral and can't break the drive to collapse. Whatever Xi Jinping might aspire to do, given the built-in drivers and barriers reviewed above, he has little power to change very much and every incentive to keep the engines of destruction at full throttle. As I've argued previously, the only solution to China's ecological crisis is to shut down, or at least drastically retrench, most of the industries that have been built up in the last four decades of market mania: shut down all but critically essential coal-fired power plants; shut down most of the coast export industries, the bulk of which are dedicated to producing completely unsustainable disposable, throw-away, repetitive-consumption products; shut down most of the useless auto industry; and shut down most of the aviation, shipping and the many other superfluous, wasteful, resource-hogging industries. Launch an emergency program for environmental restoration; launch a national public works program to re-employ the millions of workers in China's unsustainable industries that need to be closed to save the planet. This sounds extreme no doubt. But a 4-6 degree Centigrade rise in global temperatures will be a lot more extreme. Such a catastrophe will shut down all of China's industries and agriculture and in a most brutal fashion: Just look at Houston. That's the permanent future of Shanghai and all of the country's coastal industrial centers before the end of this century, unless much of China's industrial juggernaut is brought to a screeching halt. And the same applies not just to China but also to the rest of the overindustrialized North.
Climate scientists tell us we now face a climate emergency: If we don't immediately begin drastically suppressing fossil fuel emissions, we're doomed. The time for half-measures like carbon taxes and cap-and-trade is past. We've now reached the point where either we find a way to organize a rationally planned partial deindustrialization -- an emergency shutdown of nonessential industries -- or we're going to face a chaotic collapse of civilization and possibly our own extinction.
Since neither China's Communist Party nor the US's capitalist industries and their political parties can bring themselves to throttle back their engines of apocalypse, unless great masses of people rise up and overthrow these social orders and replace them with some kind of democratically managed eco-socialism, we're all most likely doomed. That's a stark assessment. And in this day and age, when it seems like civilization is already collapsing around us, it's hard to feel any optimism, let alone imagine reordering the entire world's societies and economies for the common good. That said, economic systems come and go, governments rise and fall.
Right now, we're living in the most critical moment in all of human history. As the prospect of imminent planetary ecological collapse looms ever larger, support for capitalism is crumbling everywhere and people around the world are desperately searching for an ecologically sustainable and more equitable socio-economic system. We may fail to build that better world, and that may be our fate. Yet, inured as I am, somehow I still can't believe that humanity won't find a way. Somehow, perhaps irrationally, I just can't believe that after more than a million years of evolution, and after all the astonishing achievements of thousands of years of human civilization and culture, we're going to throw it all away and drive ourselves and many other species off the cliff to extinction to save our 300-year-old system of capitalism, let alone to save China's ghastly 40-year-old system of police-state capitalism. That would be an appallingly sad coda to life on Earth.
Note: This article draws on Richard Smith's forthcoming book, China's Engine of Ecological Apocalypse (Verso 2018), which argues that the built-in drivers and barriers of China's hybrid bureaucratic collectivist-capitalism not only render the idea that China could lead the fight against climate change implausible but also reinforce China's role as the leading driver of global warming and thus, planetary collapse.
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has warned the brutal Burmese military operation against Rohingya Muslims is at risk of spiraling into an ethnic cleansing campaign, as the violence against the long-persecuted minority group continues. The U.N. says almost 150,000 Rohingya have fled the predominantly Buddhist country into neighboring Bangladesh in the last 12 days since the military operation began -- with up to 15,000 more expected to flee every single day this week. Advocates say as many as 800 Rohingya civilians, including women and children, have been killed in recent days. For more, we speak with Tun Khin, president of the Burmese Rohingya Organisation in the U.K. He was born and brought up in Burma's Arakan state. In 1982, he was rendered effectively stateless along with a million other ethnic Rohingya under a new nationality law. And we speak with Richard Weir, a fellow in the Asia Division covering Burma at Human Rights Watch.
Please check back later for full transcript.
In April 2017, Puerto Rican officials declared the Zika epidemic over. Furthermore, they claim of the 3,678 pregnant women infected with the virus, only 35 babies have been reported with Zika-related birth defects, or about 1 percent. It appears, at first blush, quite good news.
But probe a bit deeper and things just don't add up. These reported figures are far below the average of other countries. They have Zika-related health issues in newborns at a rate of 5 percent.
What's clear is that the Puerto Rican government initially underreported the problem. Possibly to help kick start the tourist industry, which accounts for 6-7 percent of the national economy.
Unfortunately, the one-two punch of economic recession and Zika epidemic has had devastating consequences. As with all crises, economic or medical, it's the women and children who are in the crosshairs.
ABCs of Zika. The virus initially showed up in Uganda and Tanzania 50 years ago and has since moved across parts of Africa, Asia and Indonesia. The disease recently jumped the ocean to Latin America, the Caribbean and the United States.
It is carried by Aedes aegypti mosquitoes and has the unique characteristic that it is also transmitted sexually. Until a vaccine or cure is approved, the only way to stop the spread of the disease is to eliminate the carrier insects and promote safe-sex practices such as male and female condoms. Religious objections, particularly from the Catholic Church, to family planning and abortion has helped spread the infection in Latin America and the Caribbean.
In Puerto Rico, El Salvador, and parts of Brazil, women have been diagnosed at a much higher rate than men. It's possible that more females get tested for fear of the virus' effects on pregnancy. Regardless, women make up the majority of known victims.
About 80 percent of those infected with Zika have mild, if any, symptoms -- a rash, slight fever, joint aches and not much else. A few have profound illness, including paralysis. The biggest threat is to pregnant women who contract the virus. They have a 5 percent chance of miscarrying or brain-related birth defects. Many of the afflicted babies suffer from microcephaly which causes small heads and calcium deposits on the brain that affect hearing, eyesight and overall development.
In Puerto Rico there is a legitimate question whether the children born with microcephaly and other problems are acknowledged, but not officially reported, or if the mothers are not told of the diagnosis. Either scenario is a gross abuse of public trust.
Women and children last. Early detection and intervention is key. Babies with microcephaly should be evaluated by a pediatric neurologist and followed by a medical management team. Early intervention programs that involve physical, speech, and occupational therapists will help maximize abilities and minimize dysfunction. And medications can help control seizures and neuromuscular symptoms.
But let's be real. The public healthcare system in Puerto Rico was gutted and privatized in the early '90s, making quality medical care unavailable to the nearly half of the island's populace that lives in poverty. Added to lack of access is the exorbitant cost of caring for children with brain damage. Estimates indicate it will average $4 million over the life of the child. Where is that money to come from? How are families supposed to cope?
As can be expected under capitalism, which always places profit over people, women bear the brunt of the burden. A lack of accessible and affordable medical care, including birth control and condoms, means unplanned pregnancies and poor pre-natal care. While abortion is legal in Puerto Rico the high cost can be prohibitive. And the lack of medical specialists -- many leave the island for the United States to make a living -- means there are fewer doctors available who can treat these children with special needs.
As one mom of a baby girl born with microcephaly said, "I just want her to be okay." If only wishes could make the damage of a ravaged brain disappear. Unfortunately, they won't. What is needed are services to assist these parents to provide for their families.
But it's not coming from the tied-to-Uncle-Sam purse strings of this tiny island territory. The local politicians will cut just about anything to keep US financial interests appeased (for more info, see FS article online, "In Puerto Rico, colonialism is alive and well"). Would they also falsify Zika numbers? It seems entirely plausible.
As a colony of the USA, Puerto Rico has been for decades an all-you-can-take buffet for Wall Street. Thanks to austerity measures forced on the island, since 2006, over 7 percent of workers have lost their jobs and 8.6 percent have left their homeland.
This is the human cost of over a decade of depression and debt crisis which was caused by US policies, and fully endorsed by island politicos.
The women of Puerto Rico have long been treated like a disposable commodity. In the 20th century they were forcibly sterilized, often without knowledge or permission. At one point they were 10 times more likely to be sterilized than women on the mainland USA. Today it appears Puerto Rican women are being kept ill-informed about potential pregnancy complications, and are certainly economically unable to deal with the ravages of Zika birth defects.
It's an old and unforgivable story. Women on the island, and everywhere, have the right to self-determination, including deciding when and if to have children.
In the Caribbean, at least 10 people have died as the historic Category 5 Hurricane Irma barrels across the Atlantic Ocean and toward the U.S. coast. Hurricane Irma is the most powerful storm ever recorded over the Atlantic Ocean. On Barbuda, 90 percent of all structures were destroyed. The prime minister, Gaston Browne, has declared Barbuda is "practically uninhabitable." This comes as Houston, the fourth-largest city in the U.S., is beginning to rebuild from Hurricane Harvey, one of the most powerful hurricanes in U.S. history. Wide swaths of the Pacific Northwest are also on fire, as uncontrollable wildfires burn hundreds of thousands of acres across Oregon, Montana and Washington state. For more on climate change and extreme weather, we're joined by Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, from his home in Vermont. He's the author of several books, including "Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet."
Please check back later for full transcript.
Helicopter crew members stand security after the extraction of fellow soldiers from the top of a mountain in the Andar District of Ghazni Province in Afghanistan, June 6, 2007. (Photo: Staff Sgt. Marcus J. Quarterman / The US Army)
I used to command soldiers. Over the years, lots of them actually. In Iraq, Colorado, Afghanistan, and Kansas. And I'm still fixated on a few of them like this one private first class (PFC) in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2011. All of 18, he was short, scrawny, and popular. Nine months after graduating from high school, he'd found himself chasing the Taliban with the rest of our gang. At five foot nothing, I once saw him step into an irrigation canal and disappear from sight -- all but the two-foot antenna on his radio. In my daydreams, I always see the same scene, the moment his filthy, grizzled baby face reappeared above that ditch, a cigarette still dangling loosely from his lips. His name was Anderson and I can remember thinking at that moment: What will I tell his mother if he gets killed out here?
And then... poof... it's 2017 again and I'm here in Kansas, pushing papers at Fort Leavenworth, those days in the field long gone. Anderson himself survived his tour of duty in Afghanistan, though I've no idea where he is today. A better commander might. Several of his buddies were less fortunate. They died, or found themselves short a limb or two, or emotionally and morally scarred for life.
From time to time I can't help thinking of Anderson, and others like him, alive and dead. In fact, I wear two bracelets on my wrist engraved with the names of the young men who died under my command in Afghanistan and Iraq, six names in all. When I find a moment, I need to add another. It wasn't too long ago that one of my soldiers took his own life. Sometimes the war doesn't kill you until years later.
And of this much I'm certain: the moment our nation puts any PFC Anderson in harm's way, thousands of miles and light years from Kansas, there had better be a damn good reason for it, a vital, tangible national interest at stake. At the very least, this country better be on the right side in the conflicts we're fighting.
The Wrong Side
It's long been an article of faith [in the US military]: the United States is the greatest force for good in the world, the planet's "indispensable nation." But what if we're wrong? After all, as far as I can tell, the view from the Arab or African "street" tells a different story altogether. Americans tend to loathe the judgments of foreigners, but sober strategy demands that once in a while we walk the proverbial mile in the global shoes of others. After all, almost 16 years into the war on terror it should be apparent that something isn't working. Perhaps it's time to ask whether the United States is really playing the role of the positive protagonist in a great global drama.
I know what you're thinking: ISIS, the Islamic State, is a truly awful outfit. And so it is and the U.S. is indeed combatting it, though various allies and even adversaries (think: Iran) are doing most of the fighting. Still, with the broader war for the Greater Middle East in mind, wouldn't it be appropriate to stop for a moment and ask: Just whose side is America really on?
Certainly, it's not the side of the average Arab. That should be apparent. Take a good, hard look at the region and it's obvious that Washington mainly supports the interests of Israel, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Egypt's military dictator, and various Gulf State autocracies. Or consider the actions and statements of the Trump administration and of the two administrations that preceded it and here's what seems obvious: the United States is in many ways little more than an air force, military trainer, and weapons depot for assorted Sunni despots. Now, that's not a point made too often -- not in this context anyway -- because it's neither a comfortable thought for most Americans, nor a particularly convenient reality for establishment policymakers to broadcast, but it's the truth.
Yes, we do fight ISIS, but it's hardly that simple. Saudi Arabia, our main regional ally, may portray itself as the leader of a "moderate Sunni block" when it comes to both Iran and terrorism, but the reality is, at best, far grayer than that. The Saudis -- with whom President Trump announced a $110 billion arms deal during the first stop on his inaugural foreign trip back in May -- have spent the last few decades spreading their intolerant brand of Islam across the region. In the process, they've also supported al-Qaeda-linked groups in Syria.
Maybe you're willing to argue that al-Qaeda spin-offs aren't ISIS, but don't forget who brought down those towers in New York. While President Trump enjoyed a traditional sword dance with his Saudi hosts -- no doubt gratifying his martial tastes -- the air forces of the Saudis and their Gulf state allies were bombing and missiling Yemeni civilians into the grimmest of situations, including a massive famine and a spreading cholera epidemic amid the ruins of their impoverished country. So much for the disastrous two-year Saudi war there, which goes by the grimly ironic moniker of Operation Restoring Hope and for which the U.S. military provides midair refueling and advanced munitions, as well as intelligence.
If you're a human rights enthusiast, it's also worth asking just what kind of states we're working with here. In Saudi Arabia, women can't drive automobiles, "sorcery" is a capital offense, and people are beheaded in public. Hooray for American values! And newsflash: Iran's leaders -- whom the Trump administration and its generals are obsessed with demonizing -- may be no angels, but the Islamic republic they preside over is a far more democratic country than Saudi Arabia's absolute monarchy. Imagine Louis XIV in a kufiyah and you've just about nailed the nature of Saudi rule.
After Israel, Egypt is the number two recipient of direct U.S. military aid, to the tune of $1.3 billion annually. And that bedrock of liberal values is led by U.S.-trained General Abdul el-Sisi, a strongman who seized power in a coup and then, just for good measure, had his army gun down a crowd demonstrating in favor of the deposed democratically elected president. And how did the American beacon of hope respond? Well, Sisi's still in power; the Egyptian military is once again receiving aid from the Pentagon; and, in April, President Trump paraded the general around the White House, assuring reporters, "in case there was any doubt, that we are very much behind President el-Sisi... he's done a fantastic job!"
In Syria and Iraq, the U.S. military is fighting a loathsome adversary in ISIS, but even so, the situation is far more complicated than usually imagined here. As a start, the U.S. air offensive to support allied Syrian and Kurdish rebels fighting to take ISIS's "capital," Raqqa -- grimly titled Operation Wrath of the Euphrates -- killed more civilians this past May and June than the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. In addition, America's brutal air campaign appears unhinged from any coherent long-term strategy. No one in charge seems to have the faintest clue what exactly will follow ISIS's rule in eastern Syria. A Kurdish mini-state? A three-way civil war between Kurds, Sunni tribes, and Assad's forces (with Recep Tayyip Erdogan's increasingly autocratic Turkey as the wild card in the situation)? Which begs the question: Are American bombs actually helping?
Similarly, in Iraq it's not clear that the future rule of Shia-dominated militia groups and others in the rubble left by the last years of grim battle in areas ISIS previously controlled will actually prove measurably superior to the nightmare that preceded them. The present Shia-dominated government might even slip back into the sectarian chauvinism that helped empower ISIS in the first place. That way, the U.S. can fight its fourth war in Iraq since 1991!
And keep in mind that the war for the Greater Middle East -- and I fought in it myself both in Iraq and Afghanistan -- is just the latest venture in the depressing annals of Washington's geo-strategic thinking since President Ronald Reagan's administration, along with the Saudis and Pakistanis, armed, funded, and supported extreme fundamentalist Afghan mujahedeen rebels in a Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union that eventually led to the 9/11 attacks. His administration also threw money, guns, and training -- sometimes illegally -- at the brutal Nicaraguan Contras in another Cold War covert conflict in which about 100,000 civilians died.
In those years, the United States also stood by apartheid South Africa -- long after the rest of the world shunned that racist state -- not even removing Nelson Mandela's name from its terrorist watch list until 2008! And don't forget Washington's support for Jonas Savimbi's National Movement for the Total Independence of Angola that would contribute to the death of some 500,000 Angolans. And that's just to begin a list that would roll on and on.
That, of course, is the relatively distant past, but the history of U.S. military action in the twenty-first century suggests that Washington seems destined to repeat the process of choosing the wrong, or one of the wrong, sides into the foreseeable future. Today's Middle East is but a single exhibit in a prolonged tour of hypocrisy.
Maybe it's because most Americans just aren't paying attention or maybe we're a nation of true believers, but it's clear that most of us still cling to the idea that our country is a beacon of hope for the planet. Never known for our collective self-awareness, we're eternally aghast to discover that so many elsewhere find little but insincerity in the promise of U.S. foreign policy. "Why do they hate us," Americans have asked, with evident disbelief, for much of this century. Here are just a few hints related to the Greater Middle East:
*Post-9/11, the United States unleashed chaos in the region, destabilized it in stunning ways, and via an invasion launched on false premises created the conditions for ISIS's rise. (That terror group quite literally formed in an American prison in post-invasion Iraq.) Later, with failing or failed states dotting the region, the U.S. response to the worst refugee crisis since World War II has been to admit -- to choose but a single devastated country -- a paltry 18,000 Syrians since 2011. Canada took in three times that number last year; Sweden more than 50,000 in 2015 alone; and Turkey hosts three million displaced Syrians.
*Meanwhile, Donald Trump's attempts to put in place a Muslim travel ban haven't won this country any friends in the region either; nor will the president's -- or White House aide Stephen Miller's -- proposed "reform" of U.S. immigration policy, which would prioritize English-speakers, cut in half legal migration within a decade, and limit the ability of citizens and legal residents to sponsor relatives. How do you think that's going to play in the global war for hearts and minds? As much as Miller would love to change Emma Lazarus's inscription on the Statue of Liberty to "give me your well educated, your highly skilled, your English-speaking masses yearning to be free," count on one thing: world opinion won't miss the duplicity and hypocrisy of such an approach.
*Guantánamo -- perhaps the single best extremist recruiting tool on Earth -- is still open. And, says President Trump, we're "keeping it open... and we're gonna load it up with some bad dudes, believe me, we're gonna load it up." On this, he's likely to be a man of his word. A new executive order is expected soon, preparing the way for an expansion of that prison's population, while the Pentagon is already planning to put almost half a billion dollars into the construction of new facilities there in the coming years. No matter how upset the world gets at any of this, no matter how ISIS and other terror groups use it for their brand of advertising, no American officials will be held to account, because the United States is not a signatory to the International Criminal Court. Hypocritical? Nope, just utterly all-American.
*And speaking of prisons, thanks to nearly unqualified -- sometimes almost irrational -- U.S. support for Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank increasingly resemble walled off penal complexes. You almost have to admire President Trump for not even pretending to play the honest broker in the never-ending Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He typically told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, "One state, two state... I like whichever you like." The safe money says Netanyahu will choose neither, opting instead to keep the Palestinians in political limbo without civil rights or a sovereign state, while Israel embarks on a settlement bonanza in the occupied territories. And speaking of American exceptionalism, we're almost alone on the world stage when it comes to our support for the Israeli occupation.
Given the nature of contemporary American war-fighting (far away and generally lightly covered by the media, which has an endless stream of Trump tweets to fawn over), it's easy to forget that American troops are still dying in modest numbers in the Greater Middle East, in Syria, Iraq, Somalia, and -- almost 16 years after the American invasion of that country -- Afghanistan.
As for myself, from time to time (too often for comfort) I can't help thinking of PFC Anderson and those I led who were so much less fortunate than him: Rios, Hensley, Clark, Hockenberry (a triple amputee), Fuller, Balsley, and Smith. Sometimes, when I can bear it, I even think about the war's countless Afghan victims. And then I wish I could truly believe that we were indisputably the "good guys" in our unending wars across the Greater Middle East because that's what we owed those soldiers.
And it pains me no less that Americans tend to blindly venerate the PFC Andersons of our world, to put them on such a pedestal (as the president did in his Afghan address to the nation recently), offering them eternal thanks, and so making them and their heroism the reason for fighting on, while most of the rest of us don't waste a moment thinking about what (and whom) they're truly fighting for.
If ever you have the urge to do just that, ask yourself the following question: Would I be able to confidently explain to someone's mother what (besides his mates) her child actually died for?
What would you tell her? That he (or she) died to ensure Saudi hegemony in the Persian Gulf, or to facilitate the rise of ISIS, or an eternal Guantanamo, or the spread of terror groups, or the creation of yet more refugees for us to fear, or the further bombing of Yemen to ensure a famine of epic proportions?
Maybe you could do that, but I couldn't and can't. Not anymore, anyway. There have already been too many mothers, too many widows, for whom those explanations couldn't be lamer. And so many dead -- American, Afghan, Iraqi, and all the rest -- that eventually I find myself sitting on a bar stool staring at the six names on those bracelets of mine, the wreckage of two wars reflecting back at me, knowing I'll never be able to articulate a coherent explanation for their loved ones, should I ever have the courage to try.
Fear, guilt, embarrassment... my crosses to bear, as the war Anderson and I fought only expands further and undoubtedly more disastrously. My choices, my shame. No excuses.
Here's the truth of it, if you just stop to think about America's wars for a moment: it's only going to get harder to look a widow or mother in the eye and justify them in the years to come. Maybe a good soldier doesn't bother to worry about that... but I now know one thing at least: I'm not that.
Bill Thompson, 46, grew up believing in the American Dream. When he graduated from college in 1995 with an engineering degree, he assumed he would have no trouble covering his bills along with the middle-class niceties his father, a postal clerk and member of the American Postal Workers Union, was able to provide to his family growing up.
Thompson was hired by a local engineering firm out of college, but his training was soon rendered obsolete by new technologies and he lost his job. With $46,000 in student debt and two young children to support, he was in need of a job -- any job. So, he turned to fast food.
Thompson made $8.50 an hour at his first job in the industry, working at a now defunct chain of buffets. That was 1997. Today, he makes $9.10 as a cook at a Burger King just outside the city limits.
"$9.10 an hour isn't enough to pay my bills," he says. "The last time I saw a doctor was when I was 15 years old. My teeth are rotting. I can't see much anymore. I can't afford the medical attention I need."
When asked why he decided to join the movement to raise the minimum wage in Kansas City two years ago, Thompson kept it short. "I'm fighting for my life," he said.
Monday, Thompson and thousands of his fellow low-wage workers in more than 400 cities nationwide went on a one-day strike. Their key demands remain straightforward: a raise and a union.
Five years into the Fight for $15, there's a new objective in battleground states like Missouri: oust the politicians propagating local anti-union laws. The Service Employees International Union, which backs the Fight for $15, announced in August that it is launching a new campaign to unseat GOP governors and other elected officials who oppose minimum wage increases and union rights.
Kansas City has already won a wage increase once this year: In early August, 69 percent of voters backed a resolution raising the city's minimum wage to $10 an hour on August 24, and $15 by 2022.
But that raise lasted for just four days. On August 28, a new state law took effect that effectively canceled Kansas City's wage increase, as well as similar measures in St. Louis. The law, passed in May by Missouri's GOP-controlled state legislature, prohibits cities from raising their minimum wages above that of the state minimum of $7.70 an hour. The measure is one of dozens of so-called "pre-emption laws" that GOP-dominated state legislatures have passed in order to block blue cities from pursuing progressive measures like minimum wage hikes and paid sick days.
Kansas City's brief victory instilled hope in workers, as well as frustration. Congressman Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.), who spoke at the rally, compared the roadblocks facing low-wage workers face in Missouri to the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle, when Muhammad Ali defeated George Foreman in their historic bout in Zaire.
"When they asked Ali how he managed to take all of Foreman's punches, he said he kept telling himself that if he lasted just one more round, Foreman would tire himself out," Cleaver told the crowd. "It's obvious we've won the narrative of why we need to raise the minimum wage in Kansas City. All we got to do now is lace up and fight one more round!"
But labor is fighting on more than one front in Missouri, which in February became the 28th state to pass a so-called right to work law. The battle's not over yet: In August, a coalition of labor groups, led by the Missouri AFL-CIO, submitted more than 300,000 signatures in an effort to put the anti-union measure up for a vote on the November 2018 ballot.
The mounting list of anti-union measures in Missouri also includes Senate Bill 43, a law passed in June that will increase the barriers for workers filing discrimination lawsuits against their former employers. In response, the Missouri chapter of the NAACP issued a mock travel advisory, warning away women, minorities and LGBTQ people from coming to Missouri.
"The travel advisory lets people know they are entering a place where their civil rights may not be respected," says Missouri NAACP president Rod Chapel, Jr. "The strike [on Labor Day] reflects the same kinds of warnings, but for workers -- that their rights as workers to assemble, unionize and demand a fair wage are not respected here."
Immigrant workers, who make an average of $150 a week less than their citizen counterparts, marched on Labor Day with another threat on their minds: Donald Trump's looming announcement that he plans to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a work permit program for unauthorized immigrants who arrived to the United States as children.
Maria*, a fast-food worker and unauthorized immigrant, was among those on strike yesterday. She has been in the US for more than 20 years and currently makes $10.20 an hour at Burger King. (She is identified by a pseudonym because of the possibility of retaliation by immigration enforcement officials.) Her son, whom she brought to the US when he was a toddler, has been granted DACA. Maria fears what might happen next. Though she has a great deal on her mind, she says, she wasn't going to miss out on the day's protest.
"I've been with the movement for three years now, and I'm going to keep fighting until we get what we deserve," she says. "I'm not going to stop fighting because I am scared. It is this -- my fellow workers, marching together, that reminds me that I am not alone, and that we can win."
Hilton Kelley in front of his flooded home in Port Arthur, Texas. (Photo: Hilton Kelley, used with permission)
Hurricane Harvey's floodwaters were still receding from Port Arthur, Texas, on September 4, when Hilton Kelley and his wife Marie returned to their home and business for the first time since evacuating.
Port Arthur is located about 100 miles east of Houston on the Gulf Coast. The heavily industrialized area rivals Louisiana's Cancer Alley, with an even greater concentration of hazardous waste and petrochemical facilities.
Kelley is intimately familiar with the town's refineries. He spent the last 17 years fighting for clean air and water in the Port Arthur community adjacent to those refineries. His work earned him the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, which is awarded to "grassroots environmental heroes" -- something of a Nobel Prize for environmentalists.
Despite winning some battles against the oil and gas industry, getting it to curtail its toxic emissions, the community is facing new challenges with the roll-back of regulations under President Trump, and Harvey's devastation.
Standing water remains on the grounds of Motiva's refinery in Port Arthur, Texas, days after Hurricane Harvey flooded the area. (Photo: Julie Dermansky)
Both the Motiva and Valero refineries, which are located next to each other in Port Arthur, flooded and were shut down due to the hurricane. On September 4, the facilities still had standing water visible from the road. Though both refineries had flares burning, neither had started up operations yet. When they do, they will emit even more hazardous materials, including the known carcinogen benzene, than usual, which is often the case when refineries go off-line and start back up.
Kelley got angry when he learned that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) relaxed air pollution standards for the oil and gas industry as facilities restart operations in the wake of the storm.
In addition, the EPA waived certain Clean Air Act requirements for gasoline producers nationwide in order to make up for the inevitable fuel shortages due to the storm.
Returning After the Flooding
I met Hilton and Marie at the house of Marie's 96-year-old grandfather, Joseph A. Lavine, whose house was flooded by a couple feet of water. Kelley was the first to go inside, followed by other family members. The smell of mold was overwhelming. They opened the windows to air the house out.
After returning from Louisiana, Marie Kelley with her grandfather, 96-year-old Joseph A. Lavine, in front of his recently flooded home in Port Arthur. (Photo: Julie Dermansky)
Despite the hardships facing Hilton Kelley, he breaks out in a smile when joined by his granddaughter. (Photo: Julie Dermansky)
From there, the Kelleys went to check on Kelley's Kitchen, their nearby Southern soul food restaurant, where they offered reasonably priced meals cooked from scratch to their community and where they took shelter from Harvey. While the pair was inside, part of the roof blew off, causing the building to flood from above as well as below. Kelley tried, but was unable, to fix the roof as the storm bore down on them.
He and his wife ended up leaving the restaurant in a hurry after getting word of a possible evacuation route that led to Louisiana. Along with some of their family members, the Kelleys evacuated to Baton Rouge, trying three different routes before finding a road where the standing water was low enough to pass.
Days after they evacuated from it, I followed the Kelleys into their restaurant. Upon entering, a wave of stench hit us. Thinking they would have to hunker down in the restaurant to ride out the storm, the couple had cooked up rice and beans. The pot of beans and the rice cooker sat where they had left them, their contents now covered in mold.
A pot of beans the Kelleys prepared in their restaurant before deciding to take their chances and evacuate Port Arthur on flooded roads. (Photo: Julie Dermansky)
Though power had returned to the building, it had been off for some time, causing food in the refrigerator to start decaying. "There are already maggots in the food," Hilton said as he removed it from the refrigerator. The Kelleys estimated that they lost almost $2,000 worth of food.
As the pair emptied the refrigerator, Hilton recounted how upset he was after hearing Trump speaking on CNN in Lake Charles, Louisiana, a few days before.
"Trump has done us a serious disservice," Kelley told me. It angered him that the president made the hurricane cleanup sound like it was in full swing. "Nothing has started in Southeast Texas, besides a lot of photo ops -- that is the only thing that started here," he said. Many have not returned to their homes, some of which still held standing water.
Kelley fears that Trump's everything-back-to-normal message will discourage desperately needed help from arriving in Port Arthur, where the predominantly African-American fence-line community is at or below the poverty level.
Recovery from the storm can't start in a meaningful way until the money needed to rebuild arrives, he said.
After stopping at the restaurant, we made our way to the Kelleys' home which also flooded. Once again, the couple was greeted by the smell of decay. Like many in Southeast Texas recently, the two walked through their house, assessing the damage and facing the reality that most of their possessions were destroyed. Both of them passed from room to room in dismay.
The Kelleys came back to their home in Port Arthur, Texas, to find all of their photos damaged by Hurricane Harvey’s floodwaters. (Photo: Julie Dermansky)
Marie Kelly opens her computer to find water running out of it. (Photo: Julie Dermansky)
A photo of Hilton Kelley with President Obama on the wall of Kelley's recently flooded home in Port Arthur, Texas. (Photo: Julie Dermansky)
Hilton tried to rescue some papers he had saved for 20 years -- plays and poems he had written. I helped him spread them out on the couple's bed, neither of us knowing whether it would help or not.
In the kitchen, Hilton wrapped Marie in a big hug. After their embrace, Marie cried, and Hilton tried to comfort her by coming up with a plan, reassuring her that everything will be all right.
For the time being, the Kelleys' extended family will stay at their daughter's house nearby, which had been spared. Though the couple was able to get FEMA vouchers for hotels, Marie told me that, as far as she knew, the nbsp;in Austin, Texas -- about 250 miles away.
Hilton Kelley tries to separate papers important to him, including plays and poems he wrote, which were soaked in the flood. (Photo: Julie Dermansky)
The Kelleys embrace after facing the damage left behind in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, which damaged their home and restaurant. (Photo: Julie Dermansky)
Kelley isn't sure what comes next. He wondered aloud about leaving the area. He can carry on with his environmental justice work, which includes legislation to protect the environment, from elsewhere. "It may be time to move to higher ground," he mused.
But for now, Hilton wanted to emphasize just how much help is still needed in this area.
Kelley is crowdfunding donations for Port Arthur at youcaring.com/hurricaneharveypatx.
Hilton Kelly on the roof of his restaurant in Port Arthur. During Hurricane Harvey, part of the roof blew off, causing the building to flood from above and below. (Photo: Julie Dermansky)