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Assessing the Damage

Mon, 09/04/2017 - 21:00
Categories: Latest News

You Can't Be Serious: Debunking the Dangerous Arguments Against Dodd-Frank

Mon, 09/04/2017 - 21:00

Not content with their fruitless assault on Obamacare, one of President Obama's two signature achievements, Republicans are now staging a similarly symbolic challenge to the other. In June, the House passed a measure that would significantly pare back the Dodd-Frank financial reforms. While it's highly unlikely to become law, the bill promotes bogus and dangerous arguments for unregulated finance.

Passed in 2010, Dodd-Frank was Congress's response to the 2008 financial crisis, which was a product of Wall Street excess more than the naïve homebuyers who are often blamed for it. The idea was partly to rein in the inordinate risk-taking by large financial institutions that pose a hazard to innocent bystanders. There's a link here: When out-of-control financial systems crash and burn and the economy contracts in response, as happened in 2007-09, millions of people lose jobs. Pre-Obamacare, that meant losing your health insurance.

The assault on Dodd-Frank is being led by House Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-TX), who, to no great surprise, gets much of his campaign money from the financial-services industry. The Hensarling-drafted Financial CHOICE (Creating Hope and Opportunity for Investors, Consumers and Entrepreneurs) Act, which passed the House in June, would do several big things that are in the interests of financial institutions but not of most other folks. (The Senate is considering its own version of Dodd-Frank rollback.)

Among its more critical features, the bill would:

• Replace Dodd-Frank's Orderly Liquidation Authority, a process for closing a failing institution without setting fire to the entire financial system);

• Retroactively repeal the authority of the law's Financial Stability Oversight Council to designate firms "systematically important financial institutions" (SIFIs);

• Repeal the Volcker Rule, which generally forbids banks from making risky bets with their own money ("proprietary trading") while benefitting from federal deposit insurance;

• Effectively strip the law's Consumer Financial Protection Board (CFPB) of its authority and make its director a political appointee subject to removal at the president's whim.

So much for regulatory independence.

Hensarling pitches the CHOICE Act with predictably populist language: "If we want strong economic growth and more freedom, we must empower Americans, not Washington bureaucrats."

This sort of mindless platitude calls for analysis. First, since when are federal employees not Americans? Second, how would non-bureaucrats prevent irresponsible SIFIs from wrecking the financial system? Third, how would removing constraints on gigantic financial institutions "empower" Americans, aside from the Americans who run large SIFIs? "Strong growth and more freedom" for whom?

Like most opponents of Dodd-Frank, Hensarling gets the logic of financial markets exactly backwards: Finance is an inherently risky enterprise involving inherently risky personality types, and Washington bureaucrats, also known as regulators, are often the only adults in the room.

There are plenty of disingenuous rationales for paring back Dodd-Frank. One is that the law has curtailed bank lending and hurt the economy. Not true, according to several analyses including this one. The latest data from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp, the chief regulator of the biggest banks, shows that they don't seem to be suffering very much, either.

Then there's the argument that Dodd-Frank compliance rules are hurting community banks. But that's far from obvious. If anything is crimping bank lending, it's the banks themselves, according to an intriguing and under-reported letter to the Senate Banking Committee from FDIC Vice Chairman Thomas Hoenig, who says that if the 10 biggest U.S. banks didn't spend 99 percent of their net income on dividends and share buybacks -- a deceptive way of boosting the banks' share price -- they'd have an additional $1 trillion (equal to more than 5 percent of national output) free for lending.

Another Wall Street trope is that Dodd-Frank (indeed all regulation) creates uncertainty, which is always a problem for financial markets. But the law is a seven-year-old fact. A serious threat of repeal is what would create uncertainty. Others argue that the Volcker Rule is unnecessary because proprietary trading by banks has fallen off since the financial crisis.

Francis Creighton, head of the Wall Street lobbying group Financial Services Roundtable, told CNN earlier this year that "Prop trading is gone. We're not looking for it to come back." That's a bit like saying the wolves are no longer at the door, so let's take down the fence.

There may be parts of Dodd-Frank that need revising, even repealing. But that's mere detail. The big question has to do with the nature of financial crises, which in the absence of prudential regulation are not occasional anomalies but inevitabilities. The best-known exponent of this idea is the late economist Hyman Minsky, whose "financial instability thesis" holds that unless they're restrained in some fashion, financial institutions necessarily make increasingly risky bets (higher returns generally require higher risk), rather like a reckless driver finding out the hard way how fast is too fast.

If an institution is big and well-connected enough, its failure, or even a rumor of failure, can generate waves of fear that shut down the financial system and wreck the real economy, where average people live. This is essentially what happened in 2008. The looser Congress makes the regulatory leash, the riskier SIFIs will be. In a relentlessly competitive realm where every firm is judged on quarterly earnings and pressured by merciless shareholders, there is little choice. As Citigroup CEO Chuck Prince put it on the eve of the 2008 flameout, "As long as the music is playing, you've got to get up and dance."

Dodd-Frank, however imperfect, isn't just about protecting average folks from reckless, predatory finance. It's also about protecting Big Finance from itself. The House assault on the law probably won't succeed this time around, but the propaganda behind it promotes a dangerous myth that even Alan Greenspan has renounced: that banks can regulate themselves. That idea will have consequences when memories of 2008 fade, as you can be sure they will.

Categories: Latest News

Americans Who Live Far From Coasts Should Also Be Worried About Flooding

Mon, 09/04/2017 - 21:00

Catastrophic flooding in Houston from Hurricane Harvey is the latest reminder that floods kill more people in the United States than any other type of natural disaster and are the most common natural disaster worldwide. Many communities along US coastlines have begun to take heed and have slowed development in coastal flood zones. The bad news, as Harvey shows, is that inland communities are also at risk -- and in some, development in flood zones is increasing.

With post-doctoral research associate Yi Qiang and graduate students, I recently studied development patterns in the United States from 2001 to 2011. We found that while new urban development in flood zones near coasts has generally declined, it has grown in inland counties. This is a worrisome trend. It implies that people who have experienced flooding on the coast migrate inland, but may not realize that they are still vulnerable if they relocate to an inland flood zone. 

That's what we have seen firsthand here in Louisiana. Thousands of people fled New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 and settled 80 miles inland in Baton Rouge. A decade later, many of these same people lost everything again when a 500-year flood event struck Baton Rouge in August 2016. 

Climate change effects, such as sea level rise and potentially more extreme weather, are increasing the risk of flooding, hurricanes and storm surges in coastal areas. Some communities are considering moving coastal populations inland to protect them. However, our research shows that people should be very careful about moving inland. They can still face flood hazards if their property is located in a high-risk flood zone. 

Not Just a Coastal Issue

Flooding can happen wherever large rainstorms stall over an area, as we have seen in Boulder, Colorado in 2013; in Texas and Louisiana in 2016; and over Houston now. However, if communities take steps to reduce flood risk, they can mitigate the danger to people and property.

When we assess flood risk in a given location, we consider three questions. 

• Hazard: How likely is a flood event?

• Exposure: How many people and physical assets are located there?

• Vulnerability: Do people have the capacity to deal with the event? 

Flood risk is the product of these three elements. 

We can decrease flood risk by reducing any of the three elements. For example, communities can reduce hazard by building flood control structures, such as dams and levees. They can use laws and policies, such as land use controls, to reduce exposure by steering housing development away from flood zones. And they can make people and property less vulnerable through other measures, such as elevating houses and developing better flood warning systems and emergency preparedness plans. 

How can people learn about flood risks where they live? The Federal Emergency Management Agency has created flood zone maps for most parts of the United States. The maps are based on models that consider factors such as elevation, average rainfall and whether a location is near a river or lake that could overflow. 

FEMA maps classify flood zones into three categories: high-risk, moderate-low risk and undetermined. High-risk zones have at least a 1 percent chance of being inundated by flood in any given year. These areas are also called base flood or 100-year flood zones. 

To obtain a federally insured mortgage on property in a 100-year flood zone, buyers are required to have flood insurance. This policy is designed to make people less vulnerable in the event of a flood, but it increases the cost of home ownership. As a result, flood zone designations can be very contentious. 

100-year flood zones are based on a combination of statistics, hydrogeology and society's tolerance for risk.

Moving Into Harm's Way

We undertook this study because we wanted to develop a clear baseline showing how Americans' exposure to flood hazards has changed over the past decade. To assess levels of exposure to flood hazards nationwide, we compiled urban development, flood zone and census data and overlaid them on a county map of the nation.

Overall, we estimated that as of 2011, more than 25 million Americans lived in flood zones. We also found that inland communities were less responsive to flood hazards than coastal communities and were doing a poorer job of steering development out of flood-prone areas. 

The three US counties with the largest concentrations of people living in flood zones are located on the Gulf of Mexico. They are Cameron Parish, Louisiana (population 6,401, with 93.6 percent in flood zones); Monroe County, Florida (population 66,804, with 91.4 percent in flood zones); and Galveston County, Texas (population 241,204, with 82.8 percent in flood zones). 

These are all coastal communities, where flood risks should be well-known to all residents. But we also found inland counties where the share of the total population living in flood zones increased over the decade we examined. A number of those with the largest increases are bordered by rivers, such as Marshall County in western Kentucky, which sits between Kentucky Lake and the Ohio River. We also identified several hot spots where urban development has increased in coastal flood zones, including New York City and Miami. 

Reducing Exposure Now

This alarming trend points to a need for more awareness, education and communication about flood risk, especially in inland counties. More affordable housing in nonflood zones and strategies to mitigate floods are also needed, especially inland. 

Why would people move to inland flood zone areas? Some may be unaware of the risk. Others may plan to adapt through steps such as elevating their houses or buying flood insurance. Still other may accept the risk because they want to be closer to relatives or workplaces, or for other cultural, political or institutional reasons. 

Our analysis has pinpointed a number of regions of concern. The next step is to produce in-depth analyses of these regions, in order to understand why people are locating in flood zones there, and to devise local strategies to reduce overall US flood risks. Climate change, land subsidence or sinking, and construction of new levees and dams will change long-term flood exposure in these areas over time. Therefore, local governments, mortgage lenders and homeowners should review current FEMA flood hazard maps for accuracy.

This research provides national context for a detailed study that we are carrying out examining resilience and sustainability in the Mississippi River Delta. Our goal is to understand how human actions combined with natural environmental conditions may have caused land to sink in the Mississippi Delta. Our research on development in flood zones reminds us that flooding problems in low-lying coastal regions are not unique and also affect areas well away from the shore.

Disclosure statement: Research for this article was partially supported by two grants from the National Science Foundation.

Categories: Latest News

Trump Picks Another Non-Scientist for Science Post and Makes a Disastrous Choice for Drug Czar

Sun, 09/03/2017 - 21:00

Rep. Jim Bridenstine visits City Year in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on October 12, 2015. (Photo: City Year)

President Donald Trump's newly-announced nominee to head the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is an elected official with no science credentials.

Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Ohio), who serves on the House Armed Services Committee and the Science, Space, and Technology Committee, is "unlike previous NASA administrators," Newsweek notes, as "the 42-year-old Michigan native does not have any formal qualifications in science or engineering, having earned a triple bachelor's degree in economics, psychology, and business from Rice University, and later an MBA from Cornell University."

"Some might say that the government has seemed increasingly reluctant to leave science to the scientists," writes CNET's Chris Matyszczyk.

The former Navy Reserve pilot also served as executive director of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum before being elected to Congress in 2012.

"NASA scientists have led the way in documenting the scientific reality of climate change," writes ThinkProgress' Joe Romm.

But in 2013, Bridenstine not only gave a speech on the House floor filled with standard denier talking points, he actually ended his remarks with a demand that President Obama apologize for funding research into climate science.

"Mr. Speaker, global temperatures stopped rising 10 years ago," he falsely claimed. 

ArsTechnica reported last month that Bridenstine "was championed by several commercial space companies because he is open to increased privatization of U.S. civil and military space activities."

The pick also drew criticism from Florida Sens. Marco Rubio (R) and Bill Nelson (D). Rubio mentioned concerns over his "political baggage," while Nelson told Politico that the "head of NASA ought to be a space professional, not a politician."

Reacting to the nomination, Bill McKibben tweeted that Bridenstine "seems a tad murky on the topic of how planets work."

Um, Trump's nominee to head NASA seems a tad murky on the topic of how planets work https://t.co/yCLF9k34Ta

— Bill McKibben (@billmckibben) September 2, 2017

According to the Rogue NASA Twitter account, Bridenstine "fits the perfect mold of a Trump appointee. No experience and a complete disaster," adding, "The fact that he is on the table is an insult to all of us."

To be fair, @RepJBridenstine fits the perfect mold of a Trump appointee. No experience and a complete disaster. Be strong #NASA. #Resist

— Rogue NASA (@RogueNASA) September 3, 2017

. @RepJBridenstine doesn’t deserve #NASA. NASA is about science, not politics. The fact that he is on the table is an insult to all of us. ? https://t.co/axBm141CnR

— Rogue NASA (@RogueNASA) September 3, 2017

The White House statement Friday also announced the nomination of Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.) to be director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, a position often referred to as drug czar.

He "was one of Trump's most enthusiastic supporters" during his presidential campaign, LancasterOnline notes.

His "congressional voting record," the Washington Post previously reported, "is that of a hard-liner on marijuana issues, and he recently said that he'd like to put nonviolent drug offenders in some sort of 'hospital-slash-prison.'"

When his name was first floated in April, Bill Piper, senior director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, called Marino "a disastrous choice" who "needs to be opposed."

The nominees still need Senate confirmation.

Categories: Latest News

Afghanistan Has Always Been a Failed and Failing War

Sun, 09/03/2017 - 21:00

Janine Jackson: On August 21, Donald Trump gave what one Washington Post writer called a "muscular speech" on his plans for the US's long war in Afghanistan. Corporate media were critical of the lack of detail: How many new troops would be sent? How long exactly until the US annihilates all the terrorists? And media were critical of the messenger: Didn't what was often benignly described as "continued US presence" in Afghanistan contradict Trump's earlier views?

Less compelling for big media than what it means that this is "Trump's war now" was what the US-led war has meant every day for Afghan citizens, and what escalation is assured to mean.

Writer and activist Phyllis Bennis directs the New Internationalism project at the Institute for Policy Studies. Author most recently of Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror, she's also co-author of Ending the US War in Afghanistan: A Primer. She joins us now by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Phyllis Bennis.

Phyllis Bennis: Great to be with you, Janine.

It isn't to say that there isn't critical commentary of various stripes; it's just that some big things seem to be off the page. You could read multiple news reports, for example, that refer to the costs of the war in Afghanistan and occupation, and that reckoned those costs in US troop casualties or fatalities, and in taxpayer dollars.  What's missing from this sort of accounting, and then what do you make, in general, of media reaction to Trump's speech?

Well, you know, Janine, one of the points in Trump's speech, when he said at the very beginning that the American people are "weary of war" -- he said they're "weary of war without victory." What nobody is asking is, are the Afghans weary of war? There have been 67 percent more civilian casualties this year under Trump than the equivalent time of last year. Every year since the UN began keeping records back in 2009, every year the number of civilian casualties has gone up. Every year, it's been not only more civilians, but more children among the civilians.

What's interesting, of course, is that nobody was talking after Trump's speech about his comparison with his so-called rival, John McCain, who just a couple of days before his speech gave his own speech. And McCain's strategy was not so different, ultimately, than Trump's. He also talked about sending more troops, sending more airstrikes, giving the military more power. But one of the things that McCain said explicitly, that Trump only implied, was that the goal has to do with the United States: preventing attacks on the US, preventing attacks on Americans. There is no goal of making life better for Afghans.

And that's really critical. We have been many years now since anybody in power has claimed that we're waging this war for democracy, or that we're waging this war to protect the women of Afghanistan. Remember when that used to be a big, popular meme for this war? Laura Bush was big on this issue, a lot of people were, that we're doing this for the women.

As it turns out, after 16 years of US military occupation, the conditions are so dire for ordinary Afghan civilians that Afghanistan is still the very worst country in the world for a child to be born and survive to her first birthday. And this is with 16 years of US military engagement in the interest of protecting Afghan women.

So the question of really, what has changed? -- whose interest is this? -- is not being challenged in the press; it's not being asked enough. I think what we are seeing is that there's a willingness to be critical, in the sense that right now in the mainstream press, there's a willingness to be critical about everything having to do with Trump, and that's all good. That's not a bad thing, that's a good thing. What is missing from it is, one, the recognition of how this has always been a failed and failing war, from October 7, 2001, the day the war was launched. It's been wrong, it's been illegal under international law, and arguably illegal, today, under US law.

You talked about an increase in civilian casualties under Trump, and I see media playing a role in kind of abetting and encouraging this idea that war is very presidential. And you have described Trump seeing deploying troops and sending bombs as almost first and foremost "sending a message," and that that has to do with the increase in civilian casualties, that that's kind of his thing.

I think that's absolutely right. I think that the question of why military force is being used has everything to do with sending the message that we as a country are strong and tough, and I as the president am presidential. It's an assertion of what he doesn't have on the basis of strategic thinking and ability to inspire people. Absent that, you send the Marines. That's sort of an old story.

But it's extraordinary, the level of increase in civilian casualties that are going on in US wars all around the world. I was looking just this morning, Janine, looking at the Washington Post, page 1, page 8, page 9, page 10 -- headline after headline about the numbers of civilian casualties that are dying and being severely injured by US airstrikes. Whether it's in Mosul, the so-called liberation from ISIS that the US was responsible for, in Iraq; in Raqqa, Syria, where civilians are now being killed in huge numbers, again by US airstrikes supposedly aimed at ISIS; in Yemen, where the US-backed Saudi coalition is bombing and bombing and bombing, and killing civilians. And interestingly, in the same context, in Charlottesville, where now the United Nations is actually criticizing the United States for racist violence. So what we're seeing is a real pattern of an increased level of civilian casualties and a decreased level of concern from those in power to stop it. That's a very dangerous reality.

Let me bring you back to another question about perspective. In reading about reaction to Trump's speech, I found a piece in Foreign Policy that included the expression:

Like many Americans, I struggle with what the United States should do in Afghanistan. The answers are not obvious, and the options are never satisfying.

And I was thinking, you know, what I struggle with is the presumption that it's the right of every American to puzzle out what those people over there ought to do with their country, and then make them do it. The commentator in this case is a former DoD employee, but her take isn't really that unusual. International law appears to be just kind of a quaint idea for much of the press.

No, that's true. Of course, that was the language that the Bush administration memorably used for both the Geneva Conventions and international law, that it was quaint and it was irrelevant.

And that certainly is the case. I will cut a tiny bit of slack to the author that you quoted, and to others in this country who, in a serious way, think about what should US policy be, what are the options, only because after 16 years of military destruction, that followed decades of military attacks throughout the 1980s, when Afghanistan was a major venue for the hot part of the Cold War…. The US and the Soviet Union were fighting it out in Afghanistan. Of course, some of the people that we were supporting at that time were named Osama bin Laden, and they were the ones who became Al Qaeda later, so that was very much a blowback issue.

But with that history, I think that we do have to recognize that we owe a great debt to the people of Afghanistan. We have destroyed that country, far more than it would have been destroyed internally. So we do owe something to help them rebuild. The really difficult question is, how do we make good on that. We don't owe military occupation, we don't owe the imposition, arming, paying of a corrupt leader who has little to no local support, and the creation of a kind of government that has nothing to do with Afghan culture, nothing to do with the history of how Afghans govern themselves over the years when they were not being occupied.

So I think that it is right to say we should think about it. What's not right is exactly the question that you raise; it's not our right to decide how they should live now, how they should rebuild their country. We have to figure out a way to make good on our obligations, which has to do with money, it has to do with diplomatic support. It does not include military occupation.

Figuring out how to do that is no easy task, and at this moment, when the State Department has been stripped of so many diplomats -- there's not even an ambassador to Afghanistan at the moment, the office dealing with Afghanistan and Pakistan has simply been closed, shut down, the staff sent somewhere else -- that means there are no diplomats available who have the skills and the information to make recommendations that would be taken seriously.

This is what happens when you cut the State Department budget by 30 percent, and turn those billions of dollars over to the Pentagon. You don't have diplomats? You send the Marines. This is the challenge that we're now facing. The only option we have, if you talk to people in Washington, is send the military, because there's no resources anywhere else. So this is a huge challenge for what US foreign policy can and must change.

I certainly agree, and I see the desire to use US power for good.

Doesn't happen very often.

But I guess I also just see the desire to use US power, and the presumption that goes with that. It seems sometimes that a complete, frictionless acceptance of US exceptionalism is just kind of the price of admission for foreign policy debate in the media.

You're absolutely right. No, I think you're absolutely right. The assumption is that a military engagement is the first option. Despite all the language about "there is no military solution," we act as if there is only a military solution. And that's true in Afghanistan, it's true in Iraq, it's true in Syria, it's true in Libya, it's true all over the world, and this is a huge problem. There is no easy answer, except to start with ending the military part. Get the troops out. That's not the end game, that's step one. That's step one.

So you remember, Janine, during the early years of the Iraq War, Colin Powell used to use this Pottery Barn analogy: "We broke it, we fix it." And I always thought that it was the wrong analogy, that the real analogy is the bull in the china shop. What do you do when the bull gets loose in the china shop and breaks all the cups? You don't ask the bull to fix the cups, you get the bull the hell out of the china shop, and write a check for the damage. That's step one. That's not step end, but that's step one. That's what we need to be doing in Afghanistan. Then we need to figure out how to help rebuild in a way that's not based on military force. That's not something the US has ever been very good at.

We've been speaking with Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism project at the Institute for Policy Studies. She's author, most recently, of Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror, and co-author of Ending the US War in Afghanistan: A Primer. Thank you very much, Phyllis Bennis, for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

Thank you. It's good to be with you.

Categories: Latest News

How Noncompete Clauses Clash With US Labor Laws

Sun, 09/03/2017 - 21:00

Most Americans with jobs work "at-will": Employers owe their employees nothing in the relationship and vice versa. Either party may terminate the arrangement at any time for a good or bad reason or none at all.

In keeping with that no-strings-attached spirit, employees may move on as they see fit -- unless they happen to be among the nearly one in five workers bound by a contract that explicitly forbids getting hired by a competitor. These "noncompete clauses" may make sense for CEOs and other top executives who possess trade secrets but seem nonsensical when they are applied to low-wage workers such as draftsmen in the construction industry.

As a scholar of employment law and policy, I have many concerns about noncompete clauses -- such as how they tend to make the relationship between workers and bosses too lopsided, suppress wages and discourage labor market mobility. In addition to tracing their legal and legislative history, I have come up with a way to limit this impediment to worker mobility.

How We Got Here

Courts began to enshrine the at-will doctrine in the 19th century, making exceptions only for employees with fixed-term contracts. In Payne v. Western & Atlantic Railroad Co., the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that a railway foreman in Chattanooga had the right to forbid his workers from buying whiskey from a merchant named L. Payne.

Payne had sued the railroad, claiming it couldn't threaten to fire employees to discourage them from buying goods from a third party. The court disagreed, arguing that the railroad had a right to terminate employees for any reason -- even that one.

The notion of at-will employment and its associated lack of job protections soon rose to the level of constitutional mandate. The 1894 Pullman strike, which disrupted national rail traffic, prompted Congress to pass the Erdman Act four years later. That law guaranteed the right of rail workers to join and form unions and to engage in collective bargaining.

But the Supreme Court struck down that law in 1908. Writing for the majority in Adair v. United States, Justice John Marshall Harlan explained that since employers were free to use their property as they wished, they could impose and enforce their own labor rules. Employees, in turn, were free to quit. Harlan wrote: "The right of a person to sell his labor upon such terms as he deems proper is, in its essence, the same as the right of the purchaser of labor to prescribe the conditions upon which he will accept such labor from the person offering to sell it."

That might sound reasonable, but the Adair ruling led to the proliferation of "yellow dog" contracts threatening workers with firing if they joined or organized unions. The term disparaged people who accepted such conditions, but the principle had widespread legal approval.

For three decades, the at-will doctrine stymied legislation that would have protected labor rights. Even when a supervisor told a long-term employee he would be fired unless his wife had sex with the supervisor, courts refused to protect the man from losing his job.

Labor Rights and the Law

With the passage of the National Labor Relations (Wagner) Act in 1935, all private sector workers and unions gained the power to collectively bargain with employers. Subsequent labor agreements, such as the one the Steel Workers Organizing Committee negotiated with U.S. Steel in 1937, made employers prove "just cause" before firing anyone.

The Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1991 added employment protections prohibiting discrimination based on race, gender, religion and national origin.

The Americans with Disabilities Act, which Congress passed in 1990, ensured that persons with disabilities would have access to jobs with or without reasonable accommodation.

Those laws and other measures, including modern exceptions to the at-will rule, offer workers some security. But they provide no protection at the federal level from noncompete clauses.

Pushback

The leeway for employers to impose these provisions varies widely from state to state and is in flux. For example, Alabama and Oregon have sought in recent years to limit their scope, while Georgia and Idaho have made it easier for companies to enforce them. A uniform federal rule could clarify the situation and benefit both employees and employers.

Critics have pointed out the disadvantages of noncompete clauses to unskilled labor. "By locking low-wage workers into their jobs and prohibiting them from seeking better-paying jobs elsewhere (companies) have no reason to increase their wages or benefits," Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said when she sued the Jimmy John's fast-food franchise last year for making its employees sign noncompete clauses.

The chain subsequently agreed to drop its noncompetes, which had also come under fire in New York. The clauses had barred the sandwich maker's workers from working for other firms earning more than 10 percent of their revenue from "submarine, hero-type, deli-style, pita, and/or wrapped or rolled sandwiches" for two years after leaving the Jimmy John's payroll.

A Proposal

In 2015, Sen. Al Franken introduced legislation to ban noncompete clauses for low-wage workers. The Minnesota Democrat's bill failed to gain enough support to become law, and, in light of President Donald Trump's goal of reducing the number of federal regulations, nothing presently stands in the way of states that want to expand these restrictive labor practices.

I propose a balanced approach between the current free-for-all among the states and outlawing these clauses altogether: Congress could modify the Norris-LaGuardia Act. Passed in 1932, this law banned injunctions against specified union activities by removing federal court jurisdiction over those disputes.

Similarly, Congress could render noncompete clauses unenforceable in federal courts unless employment contracts provide due process protections, such as arbitration, against capricious or unjust discharges of employees. In exchange for job security, a worker might be willing to commit to some curtailment of other employment opportunities.

This approach would balance the rights of workers and management by allowing workers to trade some rights of freely accessing labor markets against better job security.

That is, workers would have a choice of security or mobility. Employers could choose to attract employees with incentives, such as higher salaries or more job stability.

Executive contracts with noncompete clauses typically include lucrative buyout provisions and protections from arbitrary treatment. If employees with lower pay and less prestige aren't free to get new jobs, their bosses have a corresponding duty to extend to them the rights enjoyed by people atop the corporate ladder.

Categories: Latest News

Houston, Bangladesh and Global Warming

Sun, 09/03/2017 - 21:00

Homes are surrounded by floodwater after torrential rains pounded Southeast Texas following Hurricane and Tropical Storm Harvey on August 31, 2017, in Orange, Texas. (Photo: Scott Olson / Getty Images)

The pictures that came out of Houston and other areas that were hard hit by Hurricane Harvey were pretty awful. There were numerous photographs of people with young children and pets wading through high water in the hope of being rescued by boat or helicopter. There was also the picture of elderly people in a nursing home sitting in waist-high water waiting to be rescued. It was a pretty horrible story.

Because the United States is a wealthy country, we do have large numbers of boats and helicopters and trained rescue workers able to assist the victims of the storm. We also have places where we can take these people where they will have shelter, as well access to food and medical care. However bad the human toll will be from Harvey, it would be hugely worse without these resources.

In this context, we may want to take a moment to think about Bangladesh, a densely populated country on the other side of the world. More than 160 million people live in Bangladesh. Almost half of these people live in low-lying areas with an elevation of less than 10 meters (33 feet) above sea level.

Bangladesh experiences seasonal monsoon rains which invariably lead to flooding, as well as occasional cyclones. The monsoon rains and cyclones are likely to be more severe in future years as one of the effects of global warming. This will mean that the flooding will be worse.

Bangladesh does not have large amounts of resources to assist the people whose homes are flooded. It does not have the same number of boats and helicopters and trained rescue workers to save people trapped by rising water. Nor can it guarantee that people who do escape will have access to adequate shelter, medical care or even clean drinking water. This means many more people are likely to be dying from floods in Bangladesh as a result of the impact of global warming.

Ironically, as Houston and Texas were still being hit by Harvey last week, a building collapsed in Mumbai, India, likely the result of the pressure from this year's monsoon rains and the resulting floods. Nineteen people were reported dead from the collapse, with another 30 having been rescued after being trapped in the rubble.

So far this summer, more than 1,000 people across South Asia have died as a result of flooding from the monsoons. We are likely to see many more incidents like this building collapse, as well as more people drowning in floods due to the effects of global warming.

In the US, the debate over global warming is often treated as one between those who like government intervention and those who support a free market. This is nonsense.

Allowing people to emit greenhouse gases without paying for the damage done is like allowing them to dump their sewage on their neighbor's lawn. No one seriously argues that it is a "free market" principle that they get to dump their sewage on their neighbor's lawn. Everyone understands that we are responsible for dealing with our own sewage and not imposing a cost on our neighbors.

It's the same story with the greenhouse gases that cause global warming, even if the chain of causation may be somewhat more complicated. At this point, we have pretty clear evidence that the planet is warming, with the predictable bad effects like rising oceans and more severe storms. We also know that greenhouse gas emissions are the main cause.

For this reason, the dumping of sewage analogy is appropriate. The United States and other wealthy countries are imposing enormous costs, including the loss of large numbers of lives, through our emissions of greenhouse gases.

It is understandable that a rich jerk like Donald Trump might not want to pay for the damage he does to the world, especially when the people most affected are dark-skinned, but it is not a serious position. It has nothing to do with market philosophy; it is just a story of not accepting responsibility.

The emissions from the United States and other wealthy countries will result in a lot of Harvey-like disasters in Bangladesh and elsewhere in the developing world. We should be moving quickly to try to limit the harm. We should also be giving these countries the assistance they need to deal with the disasters that we have caused them. This isn't a question of charity, it's a question of whether we think we can get away with ruining the lives of the world's poorest just because we are rich and powerful.

Categories: Latest News

Senator Sanders, We Cannot Begin Medicare for All From a Position of Compromise

Sun, 09/03/2017 - 21:00

Bernie Sanders' health care bill is a multi-payer system, not a single-payer system. Rather than starting from a position of strong legislation and building support for it, he is starting from a position of weak legislation that he considers to be more politically feasible. Senator Sanders should amend his bill before it is introduced.

Activists march in a Medicare for All rally on June 26, 2017, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo: Molly Adams)

At the start of the August congressional recess, Senator Bernie Sanders announced that he will introduce a senate bill this September "to expand Medicare to cover all Americans." Since the election, the movement for improved Medicare for All, has been urging Sanders to introduce a companion to John Conyers' HR 676: The Expanded and Improved Medicare for All Act, which currently has a record 117 co-sponsors in the House and is considered the gold standard by the movement.

Recent reports are that Sanders' bill falls far short of HR 676 in fundamental ways. In fact, Sanders' bill is a multi-payer system not a single-payer system. His bill reportedly would allow private insurers to compete with the public system, allow the wealthy to buy their way out of the public system and allow investor-owned health facilities to continue to profit while providing more expensive and lower quality health care.

As a leader in the Democratic Party in the Senate, Sanders is trying to walk the line between listening to the concerns of his constituency, which overwhelmingly favors single payer health care, and protecting his fellow Democrats, whose campaigns are financed by the medical industrial complex. Sanders needs to side with the movement not those who profit from overly expensive US health care.

On August 30, Health Over Profit for Everyone steering committee members and supporters sent the letter at the end of this article to Senator Sanders raising specific concerns and urging Senator Sanders to amend his bill before it is introduced.

There Are Two Realities

It has become the practice in Washington, DC to offer weak bills, which fail to address the roots of the crises we face, to make them 'politically feasible'. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) is an example of this. It was a compromise with the health insurance, pharmaceutical and private hospital industries from the start -- an attempt to appease them with public dollars in exchange for greater access to care. The ACA was built on a foundation of private industry even though the priorities of those industries are profit for a few, not health for everyone. That faulty foundation has perpetuated the healthcare crisis -- tens of millions without health insurance, tens of millions more who have health insurance but can't afford health care and poor health outcomes including tens of thousands of deaths each year.

There are two realities that must be considered. The healthcare crisis will not end until a system is put in place that guarantees universal comprehensive and affordable healthcare coverage through National Improved Medicare for All or another form of single payer system such as a national health service. That is what we call the 'real reality', and it simply won't change until there are real changes in policy that solve it. The political reality of what is 'politically feasible' is the other reality. This reality will change as people organize and mobilize to demand what they need. Politicians change their positions when they believe it is necessary to maintain their position of power. It is the task of movements to change what is politically feasible.

The movement for National Improved Medicare for All has been working for decades to educate, organize and mobilize the public to change the political reality. And it is working. There is broad public support for Improved Medicare for All and legislation in the House that articulates the demands of the movement. What is needed now is a companion bill in the Senate that is as strong as HR 676. Once that is introduced, activists will work to secure support for it.

Sanders has it backwards. Rather than starting from a position of strong legislation and building support for it, he is starting from a position of weak legislation that he considers to be more politically feasible. By doing so, he is losing the support of the movement that he needs to pass expanded and improved Medicare for all.

Activists Versus Legislators

This is where it is important to recognize the difference between activists and legislators. Activists and legislators have different priorities. Activists work to solve crises. Their dedication is to an issue. Legislators work to maintain their position, whether it is re-election, seats on committees, good standing with other legislators or continued funding from Wall Street or other wealthy interests. Legislators compromise when they believe it is in their personal best interest. Activists can only compromise when it is in the interest of solving the crisis they face.

To win National Improved Medicare for All, activists need to follow the principles outlined in I.C.U.:

The "I" stands for independence. Activists must keep their allegiance to their issue independent of the agenda of legislators and political parties. The goal is to solve the healthcare crisis, and politicians from both major parties will need to be pressured to support Improved Medicare for All. Remember, the movement is going against the interests of the big money industries that finance members of Congress.

The "C" stands for clarity. Legislators will attempt to throw the movement off track by claiming that there are 'back doors' to our goal or smaller incremental steps that are more 'politically feasible'. They will use language that sounds like it is in alignment with the goals of the movement even though the policies they promote are insufficient or opposed to the goals of the movement. This is happening right now in the movement for Improved Medicare for All. Numerous people, who consider themselves to be progressive but who are connected to the Democratic Party, are writing articles to convince single payer supporters to ask for less.

And the "U" stands for uncompromising. Gandhi is quoted as saying that one cannot compromise on fundamentals because it is all give and no take. When it comes to the healthcare crisis, the smallest incremental step is National Improved Medicare for All. That will create the system and the cost savings needed to provide universal comprehensive coverage. Throughout history, every movement for social transformation has been told that it is asking for too much. When the single payer movement is told that it must compromise, that is no different. The movement is demanding a proven solution to the healthcare crisis, and anything less will not work.

The momentum is on the side of the movement for National Improved Medicare for All. Act now to push Sanders to amend his bill so that it matches HR 676. Sign and share the petition tool, and read the letter below to understand the concerns about Sanders' bill.

Dear Senator Sanders,

For almost fifteen years the movement for National Improved Medicare for All has organized around HR 676: The Expanded and Improved Medicare for All Act, introduced each session since 2003 by Congressman John Conyers. As you know, HR 676 has 117 co-sponsors so far this year. This legislation is considered by the movement to be the gold standard framework for a universal healthcare system in the United States.

We appreciate your support for Improved Medicare for All and the work that you have done to elevate the national dialogue on Improved Medicare for All. We hope to continue to work with you to make this a reality in the near future.

To that end, we are writing to share our concerns about the legislation that you are planning to introduce. These concerns are based on what we have learned about your legislation without having the benefit of reading a draft of it.

In order to maintain the cohesion and strength of the movement for Improved Medicare for All, the legislation in the senate must be in alignment with HR 676. This is important so that the movement is unified and so that the process begins from a position of asking for what we want and need, rather than starting from a position of compromise. It is the task of the movement to build political support for the legislation in Congress.

Here is a list of our concerns:

  1. We oppose the inclusion of copayments and deductibles in an Improved Medicare for All bill. As outlined in the recent letter to you from Physicians for a National Health Program, including copayments adds administrative complexity and creates a barrier to care, which leads to delay or avoidance of necessary care. Economic analyses indicate that the administrative and other savings inherent in a well-planned single payer system offset the added expense of eliminating copayments and deductibles. HR 676 does not include copayments. The movement for Improved Medicare for All has coalesced around the elimination of these financial barriers to care.

  1. We support a rapid transition to National Improved Medicare for All. The Medicare system was implemented within a year of passage without using computers. Unlike when Medicare became law, the United States now has basic infrastructure in place for a national health insurance based on Medicare. We urge you to utilize the timeline in HR 676, which would start the universal system in less than two years, rather than delaying or phasing it in by age group over time. Beginning with a universal system allows savings and cost controls that can be used to provide comprehensive benefits without cost sharing.

  2. We support a single payer healthcare system. We understand that your legislation will allow employers to continue to provide employee health insurance that duplicates what the national health insurance covers to avoid conflict with the Employee Retirement and Income Security Act (ERISA). We urge you to include a carve out of ERISA for national health insurance so that the new system is a single payer system. Without doing so, your bill will be a multi-payer system. This is required to achieve administrative simplicity and significant cost savings. HR 676 allows private insurance that does not duplicate the benefits of the system. Employers and unions would be able to provide extra benefits beyond what the system covers.

  3. We support a universal system. We understand that your legislation will allow health providers to opt out of the national health insurance system. This would create a parallel health system for the wealthy and undermine the quality of the public system. Universal systems are of higher quality than tiered systems because they create a social solidarity in which everyone has an interest in making the system the best it can be. We urge you to reject a tiered healthcare system as healthcare is a human right and should not be based on wealth.

  4. We oppose inclusion of investor-owned health facilities. Investor-owned health facilities treat health care, which is a necessary public service, as a commodity for profit. These facilities have an incentive to cut corners, under and over treat and charge higher prices. The result is higher cost and lower quality. We urge you to reject profiteering in the healthcare system so that the bottom line is improving the health of our population, not profits for Wall Street.

The above concerns are based on what we know about your legislation at present. We do not know if they are warranted because we have not read the text. Upon reading it, there may be additional concerns.

We hope that you will share the draft text of your legislation with us and address the above concerns before it is introduced. Our support for your Improved Medicare for All legislation will depend upon whether or not it will serve as a companion to HR 676. If it is, we are ready to work in our states to build political support for it. If the above concerns are not addressed, then your bill will not be a single payer Improved Medicare for All bill and we believe it will undermine the movement for HR 676.

We recognize that legislators tend to compromise from the start to build political support for legislation. This has served as a failed strategy because the final legislation is too weak to accomplish its goals. We suggest a different approach of beginning from a position of what is required to solve the healthcare crisis. We have organized for too long to concede from the start on these fundamental principles.

Signed,

Seth Armstrong, board member, Western Washington Physicians for a National Health Program*

Vanessa Beck, Health Over Profit for Everyone Steering Committee

Claudia Chaufan, MD, California Physicians for a National Health Program*

Andy Coates, MD, past president, Physicians for a National Health Program*

Mary L. De Luca, MD , Child, Adolescent, and Adult Psychiatrist

Dena Draskovich, Leader of Indivisible Omaha and disabled citizen*

Margaret Flowers, MD, director of Health Over Profit for Everyone

Terry Flowers, RPh Centerpoint Medical Center of Independence, Missouri*

Leslie Hartley Gise MD, Clinical Professor Psychiatry, University of Hawai'i*

James S. Goodman, MD, Psychiatrist

Leigh Haynes, People's Health Movement-USA*

Paul Hochfeld MD, Board Member, Physicians for a National Health Program*

Dana Iorio, ARNP, Board Member, PNHP Western Washington, Board Member, Health Care For All-Washington*

Joseph Q Jarvis MD MSPH, Utah*

Tim Jordan, MD, member, Physicians for a National Health Program*

Stephen B. Kemble, MD, Physicians for a National Health Program advisory board, past president of Hawaii Medical Association*

Edgar A Lopez MD, FACS, member, Physicians for a National Health Program, Kentuckians for Single Payer*

Ethel Long-Scott, Women's Economic Agenda Project (WEAP)*

Eric Naumburg, MD, co-chair Maryland chapter of Physicians for a National Health Program*

Carol Paris, MD, president, Physicians for a National Health Program*

George Pauk, MD

Julie Keller Pease, MD, Topsham, Maine

Julia Robinson, MD, People's Health Movement-USA*

Anne Scheetz, MD, Illinois Single-Payer Coalition, Physicians for a National Health Program and steering committee of Health Over Profit for Everyone*

Mariel Scheinberg, OMS 4, Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine*

James Squire, MD Physicians for a National Health Program Western Washington*

Lee Stanfield, Health Over Profit for Everyone Steering Committee and Single Payer Tucson NOW*

James P. Thompson, Ph.D.

Bruce Trigg, MD, Public Health and Addiction Consultant

John V. Walsh, MD, California Physicians for a National Health Program*

Robert Zarr, MD, past president, Physicians for a National Health Program*

Kevin Zeese, co-director of Popular Resistance

*For identification purposes only.

CLICK HERE TO SEND AN EMAIL TO SENATOR SANDERS.

Categories: Latest News

Menominee Tribe Seeks Stricter Federal Oversight in Michigan Mine Fight

Sat, 09/02/2017 - 21:00

In its continued fight against a mine near sacred waters, the Menominee Indians of Wisconsin want stronger federal regulations to apply as officials weigh the final permit for mine approval.

At issue is the Back Forty mine, a proposed 83-acre open pit gold, zinc and copper mine in the southwestern corner of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The mine would sit within 150 feet of the Menominee River, which forms the Michigan-Wisconsin border -- and is namesake for the Menominee Tribe across the border in Wisconsin.

Environmental Health News highlighted the Menominee's fight last year in "Sacred Water," a national look at how culturally significant water resources -- both on and off reservation -- get sullied, destroyed, defaced by activities often happening beyond Native Americans' control.

The mine was on track for approval but has been stagnant, as it still needs one permit -- a wetlands permit -- before beginning operation. The state of Michigan has controlled permitting to this point.

This week the Menominee tribe asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S Army Corps of Engineers to take over authority for the wetland permit under Clean Water Act rules.

Menominee tribal member Burton Warrington said the Clean Water Act -- specifically section 404(G) -- allows for states or tribes to take over permitting control, but that doesn't mean all waterways.

"Everyone assumes Michigan has authority over the Menominee [River], but those waters may have never been assumed by the state," he said.

The permitting is crucial because of the location. The Menominee is a massive river system, making up the border between northern Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula. More than 100 tributaries drain into it, a watershed covering 4,000 square miles. It supports large populations of bass, pike, walleye and spawning grounds for sturgeon.

Extracting metals from sulfide ores can produce highly toxic sulfuric acid. The acid can then release harmful metals and potentially drain into nearby rivers, lakes and ground water sources -- called acid mine drainage.

Mine development company Aquila Resources submitted a wetland permit in 2016 that was withdrawn. It submitted another in January, which was sent back to the company with correction requests from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

Joe Maki, mining specialist with the Michigan DEQ, said the state's wetland experts are still waiting on Aquila, which has sought an extension. "We're anticipating maybe by the end of this month we'll receive something," he said. "But we really don't know."

Any wetland permitting by the state would have to be approved by the EPA regardless, Maki said. "We could go ahead and issue permits, but if the EPA rejects it, [the state-issued permit] means nothing. If the EPA objects, it goes back to the applicant."

Warrington, however, said federal agencies have largely ignored tribal concerns up to this point due to Michigan's assumed authority.

"Federal agencies have told us 'we understand your issue, but there's nothing we can do because the state of Michigan has this authority,'" he said.

The Menominee letter comes on the heels of a similar plea from U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, Democrat of Wisconsin, who wrote to the EPA and Army Corps pleading for the agencies to take the project out of Michigan's hands.

"The fate of Wisconsin waters and communities should not be left to another state to decide," she wrote in her Aug. 18 letter.

EPA spokesperson, Allison Nowotarski, said the agency received the Menominee request on Wednesday afternoon but would not comment further.

Kathleen Heideman, who helps lead the Mining Action Group of the Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition, said in addition to the wetland permit it's still not clear if the state will swap land for the mine to take place.

The current mining plans are on a mix of private and state-owned land.

"About half the pit is on public land, and their plans make it seem as though the swap is a done deal," Heideman said. "But the public definitely hasn't commented on any swap."

Aquila, which did not return requests for comment, has promised jobs and economic windfalls from the mine. However, the siting has stirred controversy among nearby communities and residents who fear potential pollution from the mine.

The Menominee tribe has echoed those worries and raised additional concerns that the mine would sit near tribal burial sites and centuries old raised garden beds along the Menominee River, the center of the tribe's creation story.

Opposition has been growing. In addition to the Menominee, the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin, the Bad River Ojibwe Tribe of Wisconsin, the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community of Michigan, the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi and the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe have passed resolutions against the mine.

The national nonprofit environmental organization American Rivers included the Menominee River in this year's annual Most Endangered Rivers report, due to the mining threat.

Three Wisconsin counties -- Door, Brown and Marinette -- passed resolutions against the mine. Last month 17 Wisconsin state representatives submitted a bipartisan resolution opposing the project. The mine, they said, has "potential negative impacts on the natural resources, public health, and economy of Northern Wisconsin."

Menominee Nation chairman Gary Besaw said opposing the mine has been a strain on the tribe but the fight must go on.

"This is our ancestral land. The maple trees, the sturgeon, wild rice, water, that's our responsibility," he said.

"We have no choice."

Categories: Latest News

Teachers Shouldn't Have to Panhandle to Prep for a New School Year

Sat, 09/02/2017 - 21:00

(Photo: Pixabay)

Back to school! These three simple words used to leave America's public school teachers giddy with anticipation. Now they leave them opening up their wallets and worrying.

The problem? Teachers have been spending out of their own pockets for generations to decorate their classrooms and the like. Now they're having to spend their own money for basic school supplies -- everything from pens and pencils to cleaning fluids -- or go without.

One national study last year by Scholastic and YouGov found teachers spending an average of $530 a year on classroom supplies. The number of teachers who spend over $1,000 out-of-pocket, adds a National School Supply and Equipment Association report, has doubled over recent years.

In Oklahoma, third grade teacher Teresa Danks has been spending $2,000 annually of her own money. Earlier this summer, with her school district facing a $10-million budget cut, Danks actually started panhandling. She took to a busy street corner with a simple hand-made sign: "Teacher Needs School Supplies! Anything Helps."

Many passers-by did help. But the fiscal squeeze on America's local public school budgets and teacher wallets is now threatening to get even worse. The nation's big-box retail giants -- the places where many teachers go to buy school supplies -- have unleashed a fierce lawsuit offensive that aims to significantly lower their local property tax bills.

If corporate retail powers like Home Depot and Target succeed in this greed grab, the state comptroller in Texas recently warned, local public schools in his state alone would lose $1.2 billion "annually within five years," with another $703 million in school funding lost from the state level.

Some context: Home Depot profits last year jumped nearly 14 percent to $8 billion. Home Depot CEO Craig Menear took home $11.5 million.

Why do CEOs like Menear make so much? Let's give them some credit for creativity and chutzpah. In their new property tax-avoidance offensive, an Education Week report details, retail CEOs have their lawyers making the astonishingly audacious argument that "the massive stores they operate ought to be appraised as if they were vacant."

This ridiculous "dark store theory" has been winning lawsuits in Michigan, Indiana, and Wisconsin, and school districts in the Midwest have already lost millions of dollars in revenue. In some cases, court rulings have actually forced local governments to reimburse big-box retailers for the higher property taxes they've already paid.

The new attack on local public school funding isn't just coming from brick-and-mortar retailers. Amazon, the nation's online retail king, is taking new steps to avoid taxes, too.

Amazon has been working, over recent years, to reposition itself as a responsible corporate taxpayer. The company now collects sales tax on the Amazon goods online consumers buy. These sales taxes show up on the bills of consumers who live in states that impose sales tax obligations.

But Amazon is only collecting sales tax on about half the goods that people who click onto Amazon buy. The half of sales that go through the third-party vendors the Amazon site spotlights are still going untaxed.

The state of South Carolina is demanding that Amazon end this tax avoidance and pay up nearly $12.5 million in uncollected taxes, penalties, and interest. Amazon is disputing the South Carolina claim, and the case is going to the courts. All the big online retailers will be watching closely. A South Carolina victory could mean higher tax revenue nationwide from most all the big online retailers.

All these big-time retailers can afford to pay higher taxes. Our biggest retail empires, after all, have already made their emperors into some of the world's richest people. The chief executive of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, now holds the third-largest individual fortune in the world.

The largest family fortune in the world, meanwhile, belongs to the heirs of the founder of Walmart, America's biggest brick-and-mortar retailer.

Panhandling Oklahoma teacher Teresa Danks says she's "tired of not having enough funding for our classrooms but being expected to always make it happen."

The super rich who run retail in America could ease that fatigue. They could start paying their taxes.

Categories: Latest News

Older Victims of Hurricane Harvey May Need Special Attention as Texas Recovers

Sat, 09/02/2017 - 21:00

Volunteer rescuer workers help a woman from her home that was inundated with the flooding of Hurricane Harvey on August 30, 2017, in Port Arthur, Texas. (Photo: Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

News and social media reports from coastal Texas have shown many striking images of Hurricane Harvey flood victims, but few were as arresting as a photo of older women in a Dickinson nursing home, sitting in waist-high water in their wheelchairs. Although the women were moved to safety, the picture highlighted how vulnerable older adults can be during and after major disasters.

My work focuses on answering pressing questions about the health of older adults after events such as Hurricane Harvey. While age alone does not make people more vulnerable to disasters, many health issues that are common with aging do, including frailness, memory impairment, limited mobility and chronic illness. Sixty percent of Hurricane Katrina deaths were age 65 and older, and more older adults died after Hurricane Katrina and in the year after than any other age group.

In a study published earlier this year, we showed that older adults are affected by disasters well after storms or other threats have passed. But disaster response planning for communities and health care systems focuses on the immediate surge after the event, which varies with every disaster but typically lasts hours to days.

As flood waters in Texas peak and recede, public officials and health care providers should begin to plan now for older adults' long-term medical needs. Beyond getting the electricity back on and patching up broken limbs, an adequate disaster response must understand and correct the ways in which disasters disrupt survivors' normal living patterns in the extended period after the storm.

Learning From Past Disasters

Understanding the connection between disasters and hospital admissions among older adults, and developing strategies to minimize hospitalizations, are issues of growing importance. Climate change is increasing the number and scale of natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes and wildfires. There were three times more natural disasters globally between 2000 and 2009 than from 1980 through 1989. And with the U.S. population over age 65 expected to double by 2060, helping older people stay safe through disasters will become increasingly important.

Previous disasters have shown that older adults are particularly vulnerable, especially if they need ongoing health care. During Hurricane Sandy in 2012, over 31 nursing homes closed, leaving more than 4,500 residents in need of emergency assistance. After-action reports from Hurricane Matthew in 2016 documented multiple instances of critical communication breakdowns for special medical-needs patients. For example, patients who needed specialized care were placed in shelters with inadequate staffing.

Houston officials did not order a mandatory evacuation last week as Hurricane Harvey approached. In any case, many older adults have physical or financial constraints that can make it hard for them to evacuate. However, when they ride out a storm at home or in a shelter, they do not have ready access to health services. This places them at greater risk of immediate injury and longer-term physical decline.

Health care services along the Texas coast have been severely impacted by Harvey, which will only exacerbate the challenge of caring for the elderly. Over 21 Texas hospitals have either closed or evacuated patients. Multiple nursing homes have also been evacuated. Ben Taub Hospital, which had already upgraded its infrastructure to protect against floodwaters, now is scrambling to provide food to patients.

Long-Lasting Effects

Experiences like this can have lasting impacts on older people. In a recent study, we examined hospitalizations among older adults after a 2011 tornado outbreak that spawned hundreds of tornadoes throughout Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee, resulting in over 300 deaths and billions of dollars in damage. Using claims data from Medicare and connecting it with geospatial data from the storm area, we compared hospital admissions among older adults in the month after the disaster to admissions during the other 11 months of the year.

Our findings showed that hospital admissions increased over the 30 days after the disaster by 4 percent among older adults who lived in a ZIP code with a tornado touchdown. This translates to hundreds of additional hospital admissions. We then removed the first three days after the disaster from our data analysis, to see whether the increase in admissions might be related to immediate injuries from the storm. But we found that hospitalizations over the rest of the month still remained higher than normal.

Finally, we conducted a similar analysis examining ZIP codes in an area in the same region which was not affected by the storm, in order to rule out the possibility that increased admissions were related to seasonal factors such as extreme temperatures or high pollen counts. Hospital admissions did not increase in the unaffected area, which told us that the higher numbers we found appear to be related to the tornadoes.

Increased hospital admissions after disasters are only part of the story. The aging U.S. population has a rising incidence of chronic diseases requiring consistent health care, such as diabetes, hypertension and obesity. If these health needs had been met in the tornado zone after the disaster, these patients might not have had to be hospitalized, and our study would not have shown the increase in hospital admissions that we detected.

Although we did not have data on individual cases that would have shown why each person was hospitalized, it is likely that personal stress, difficulty accessing health care and an ineffective community response to the disaster all were contributing factors. Our team will continue to study the drivers of post-disaster hospitalizations.

Caring for Older Victims After Harvey

Disruptions in regular care after a disaster can worsen existing chronic conditions, leading to hospitalizations. These immediate disruptions from the disaster can have much longer-lasting impacts on health.

For example, many older adults are dependent on medical equipment requiring electrical power, from refrigeration for insulin to dialysis machines. Patients with chronic conditions such as diabetes or emphysema may run out of the medications or home oxygen supplies they need to manage these conditions.

In coastal Texas, many clinics and community health centers closed as Harvey approached, and road or weather conditions may keep people from getting to care centers after they reopen. The stress of evacuating from home to a shelter can also cause fragile conditions to worsen.

For now, the key priorities are to protect and support older adults and help them return to their normal routines as soon as possible. Past research has shown that some older adults bounce back quickly from disasters, while others struggle to return to baseline. Planning needs to start now for recovery, which will last for years. It also should include preparing for future disasters, so that we can be more prepared and less reactive when the next superstorm looms.

Categories: Latest News

Centering Women of Color Is Key to Understanding and Resisting Police Violence

Sat, 09/02/2017 - 21:00

Police have always engaged in gendered violence against Black women and women of color in service of larger projects of enforcing colonialism, maintaining chattel slavery, and policing race and poverty. In this interview, Andrea Ritchie, author of Invisible No More, brings this record to light -- and discusses why an understanding of the gendered elements of police violence is essential to the struggle to end it.

Family members of Charleena Lyles, including her sister, Monika Williams, lead a march through north Seattle on June 20, 2017, in Seattle, Washington. Officers from the Seattle Police Department shot and killed Lyles, a pregnant mother of four, on June 18. (Photo: David Ryder / Getty Images)

Invisible No More is a timely examination of police violence against Black women, Indigenous women and other women of color. "Thanks to Andrea Ritchie's thorough research and raw storytelling," says Robin D.G. Kelley about the book, "we can finally begin to #SayHerName and end the state's war on women of color once and for all." Get a copy by donating to support Truthout now!

"Expanding our understanding of the forms and contexts of police violence experienced by women and gender-nonconforming people of color enables us to better understand the full shape and reach of state violence in ways that are essential to countering it," Andrea Ritchie writes in her essential new book, Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color.

When police violence is publicized, of course, it's usually police violence against men. The violence inflicted on women of color is often minimized or completely erased. For that reason alone, this book is extraordinarily necessary. But Ritchie goes further: She emphasizes that devoting space and analysis to the impact of police violence on women and gender-nonconforming people of color is not simply about filling in gaps. She emphasizes that we cannot truly understand what state violence means in this country without wholly recognizing its gendered scope. And without that understanding and recognition, we cannot effectively resist it.

Police violence against Black women, Indigenous women and other women of color often takes forms that don't make their way into most conversations about police violence -- for example, sexual harassment, sexual assault and a failure to respond to domestic violence calls. In Invisible No More, Ritchie shows that these types of violence are not isolated events, but are, like killings, beatings and cagings, built into the fabric of policing. She demonstrates that policing is, fundamentally, a violent institution, and that effective resistance must ultimately mean building a "world without police," in which "safety and security will not be premised on violence or the threat of violence."

Bookended by a searing foreword and afterword (by Mariame Kaba and Charlene Carruthers, respectively), Invisible No More is a crucial read for anyone seeking to understand the full reality of state violence -- and what freedom from it would truly mean.

Maya Schenwar: While Invisible No More is largely focused on the current moment and the fairly recent past, it's deeply grounded in history. Why did you feel it was important to delve into the historical roots of police violence against women of color before discussing the present?

Andrea Ritchie: For a few reasons -- first, because, as James Baldwin said, "history is literally present in all that we do." Police interactions with Black women, Indigenous women, and other women of color continue to be deeply infused and informed by perceptions and power relations rooted in colonialism, chattel slavery and Jim Crow policing. So it is important to learn more about the roots and operation of those perceptions and the structures they were created to justify and reinforce so that we can better recognize when and how they are operating in present-day policing, and more effectively dismantle them.

Andrea Ritchie. (Photo: W.C. Moss)Secondly, it felt important to highlight that police violence against women of color is by no means a recent phenomenon. In fact, it has been as much of a consistent, central and essential feature of US history, and of the daily reality in our communities, as it is for men of color, now and then.

Police have always engaged in gendered violence against Black women and women of color in service of larger projects of enforcing colonialism, maintaining chattel slavery, and policing race and poverty. They have also played a central role in policing the lines of gender -- through immigration laws, through laws prescribing what clothing people should wear, and through enforcement of prostitution laws and laws promoted as maintaining "order" in public spaces, including public restrooms. Tracing the evolution of racialized gender policing throughout history allows us to see how deeply entrenched it is in the very institution of policing, which tells us a few things: that it is unlikely to be "reformed" away, and that that it is as likely to manifest when police respond to violence and calls for help as when police are patrolling the streets.

When it comes to both the drug war and broken windows policing, the impacts on women of color often go untold. As you point out in Invisible No More, Black, Indigenous and Latinx women have been affected by these moves toward mass policing and incarceration in hugely disproportionate numbers. Can you say a bit about the ways in which the drug war and broken windows policies and practices particularly impact women and gender-nonconforming people of color?

Policing practices associated with the "war on drugs" and increased enforcement of "public order" offenses are largely responsible for a 14-fold increase in the number of women in jails over the past four decades, and for dramatic increases in the number of women incarcerated in federal and state prisons. Women now represent the fastest growing population of incarcerated people -- the rate of incarceration for women has outpaced that of men by 50 percent since 1980. Black, Latinx and Indigenous women -- many of whom are mothers -- make up a disproportionate number of incarcerated women, and Black women continue to be incarcerated at twice the rate of white women. One study found that nearly half of Black trans women and 30 percent of Native trans women surveyed been incarcerated at some point in their lives -- that's more than any other group, including Black men.

There are a lot of factors that contribute to these realities, foremost among them the ways in which police profile and target women of color as drug users and couriers, and the ways in which Black mothers' drug use is policed and punished in very different ways than white mothers' drug use. The kinds of prosecutorial practices being promoted by Jeff Sessions -- seeking the highest possible sentences for drug offenses unless a person is willing to inform on other players in the drug trade -- contribute to mass incarceration of women who often have no information to trade -- or face considerable risk of violence if they do.

Additionally, Native, Black and Latinx women, and particularly trans women of color, continue to experience the highest rates of poverty in the country, leading to high rates of criminalization in the context of "broken windows" policing practices targeting the presence of people who are, or are perceived to be homeless, in public spaces, and involvement in criminalized activities like the sex trade and informal economies like street vending. As a result, a significant number of women locked up in jails are there on "public order" offenses.

Invisible No More focuses on uncovering the kinds of police violence against women of color enabled by the war on drugs and broken windows policing -- like the brutal public vaginal search Charneshia Corley was subjected to by Houston police on the grounds that they believed she was concealing marijuana. Or the violent arrest of Destiny Rios by a San Antonio police officer who had been instructed to "stop everyone in the area," after which she miscarried in police custody. Or the daily sexual harassment and abuse of "stop and frisk," of police interactions with trans women of color and of the racially discriminatory enforcement of prostitution laws. These are the kinds of things we need to be thinking about when we hear Jeff Sessions talking about further intensifying the war on drugs, promoting broken windows policing, instituting a "national" stop-and-frisk program.

The relationship of police to sexual violence is such a deceptive one. People are actively encouraged to report sexual violence to the police. Yet, as you so vividly portray in Invisible No More, police often perpetrate sexual violence themselves. Plus, when called, their responses to such violence often exacerbate survivors' trauma. Why do you think these types of police violence are not as publicized as, say, shootings? What is happening now, in terms of efforts to build a wider consciousness around these issues (police-perpetrated sexual violence, and also violence against and criminalization of survivors)?

Sexual violence in general remains a hidden issue that all too often goes underreported, no doubt more so when it is committed by the officials who, as you point out, we are supposed to report it to. It also tends to take place in private, away from public view and cop watching cameras, and so is literally less visible than police shootings or beatings. There is obviously more stigma and shame in coming forward to report it -- and much less support and outrage from mainstream police accountability movements for survivors: very few even mention the issue in their platforms or demands, or mobilize around instances of police sexual violence in the same ways that they do around beatings or shootings. So there is much less incentive for survivors of police sexual violence to come forward than for people subjected to other forms of excessive force. Plus, police officers tend to target women of color who are marginalized in society -- and in our movements -- women who are or are perceived to be drug users, involved in the sex trades, homeless, trans or gender-nonconforming.

And there is no official data collection on police sexual violence in the same way that there is for use of force, so we don't have numbers and quantitative evidence of racial disparities to point to. But even so, the data that does exist is striking -- for instance, the CATO Institute concluded in 2010 that sexual misconduct is the second most frequently reported form of police misconduct after excessive force. A 2015 study by the Buffalo News concluded that a law enforcement agent was caught in an act of sexual misconduct every five days over the preceding decade. Many more are never caught or held accountable.

Organizing in support of Black women survivors of sexual assault and rape by former Oklahoma City Police Officer Daniel Holtzclaw -- which was almost exclusively undertaken and led by Black women -- is an example of how things can and must shift, both in terms of organizing around police violence and in terms of advocacy around sexual violence. And we really cannot afford to have this conversation, like so many others around policing, focus exclusively on the experiences of Black men and men of color, particularly given that this form of police violence in particular disproportionately impacts Black women and women of color. Likewise, our organizing around intensified immigration enforcement needs to more explicitly recognize that it is often accompanied by sexual violence and extortion targeting immigrant women -- both at the border and in the interior. Civilian oversight agencies and anti-violence groups need to start offering survivors the kinds of support they need and deserve, and very publicly accepting and investigating complaints of police sexual violence instead of dishing them to police departments. And movements against police violence and mass incarceration need to elevate, center and articulate explicit demands around police sexual violence -- against women, trans and gender-nonconforming people, and men -- while vocally supporting survivors. We simply cannot afford to allow what law enforcement officials and advocates alike acknowledge is a silent epidemic of police sexual violence to continue to go unaddressed.

Throughout your book and particularly in the "Resistance" chapter, you encourage us to understand that this situation is not hopeless -- people are already (and always have been) pushing back against police violence that targets Black women and women of color, and are building new systems to deal with problems that policing purports to address. You emphasize that the people most affected by this violence are on the front lines of these efforts. I know it's extremely hard/impossible to choose, but would you mention a couple of important campaigns or organizations that folks can look to for inspiration and to get a glimpse of what's going on resistance-wise?

You're right -- it is very hard to pick one or two to point to! There are so many examples in the book -- in fact, some folks recommend reading the book backwards, to start with the chapter on resistance as a strategy for self-care while reading, or starting each chapter at the end where examples of organizing addressing the issues raised in the chapter can be found.

Truthout Progressive Pick

"Invisible No More deserves a standing ovation." -- Michelle Alexander

Click here now to get the book!

A group of us recently put together a website at inournamesnetwork.org that gathers information about campaigns, organizations, and resources for resistance which can serve as an organizing hub for people to find ways to take action and post calls for solidarity around police violence against Black women, trans and gender-nonconforming people. There's also a lot of information about organizations and sources cited in the book at invisiblenomorebook.com. And, there's an organizer's toolkit that INCITE! put together a few years back that is still very relevant and has lots of resources and information about ongoing work. That also has some resources around non-police responses to violence -- you can find more on the Creative Interventions website. Check them out! And follow the book on Twitter at @InvisibleNMBook for more updates.

Invisible No More is the first book focused on police violence against women of color. What's your hope, in terms of how it'll influence conversations, organizing, policy, practices, the world?

My hope is that by looking at racial profiling, police violence, criminalization and mass incarceration through the lens of women's experiences we can expand our understanding of these issues in ways that enable us to better understand and tackle them, and ultimately more quickly and effectively put an end to police violence -- as well as the structures that fuel it. And that, going forward, it will no longer be tenable for women's experiences, voices and leadership to be invisible in conversations about policing -- because the lives and experiences of women of color matter, and because the ways in which we are policed and punished -- whether similar to those experienced by other members of our communities or uniquely gendered -- have something to teach all of us about policing, violence and safety, and, ultimately, about what is necessary to get free.

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African Americans Fighting Fascism and Racism, From World War II to Charlottesville

Fri, 09/01/2017 - 21:00

In July 1943, one month after a race riot shook Detroit, Vice President Henry Wallace spoke to a crowd of union workers and civic groups:

"We cannot fight to crush Nazi brutality abroad and condone race riots at home. Those who fan the fires of racial clashes for the purpose of making political capital here at home are taking the first step toward Nazism."

The Pittsburgh Courier, a leading African-American newspaper at the time, praised Wallace for endorsing what they called the "Double V" campaign"Double V" campaign. The Double Victory campaign, launched by the Courier in 1942, became a rallying cry for black journalists, activists and citizens to secure both victory over fascism abroad during World War II and victory over racism at home.

There is a historical relationship between Nazism and white supremacy in the United States. Yet the recent resurgence of explicit racism, including the attack in Charlottesville, has been greeted by many with surprise. Just look at the #thisisnotwhoweare hashtag.

As a scholar of African-American history, I am troubled by the collective amnesia in US politics and media around racism. It permeates daily interactions in communities across the country. This ignorance has consequences. When Americans celebrate the country's victory in WWII, but forget that the US armed forces were segregated, that the Red Cross segregated blood donors or that many black WWII veterans returned to the country only to be denied jobs or housing, it becomes all the more difficult to talk honestly about racism today.

Nazis and Jim Crow

As Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime rose to power in the 1930s, black-run newspapers quickly recognized that the Third Reich saw the American system of race law as a model. Describing a plan to segregate Jews on German railways, the New York Amsterdam News wrote that Nazis were "taking a leaf from United States Jim Crow practices."

The Chicago Defender noted that "the practice of jim-crowism has already been adopted by the Nazis." A quote from the official newspaper of the SS, the Nazi paramilitary organization, on the origins of the railway ban stated:

"In the freest country in the world, where even the president rages against racial discrimination, no citizen of dark color is permitted to travel next to a white person, even if the white is employed as a sewer digger and the Negro is a world boxing champion or otherwise a national hero…[this] example shows us all how we have to solve the problem of traveling foreign Jews."

In making connections between Germany and the United States, black journalists and activists cautioned that Nazi racial ideology was not solely a foreign problem. A New York Amsterdam News editorial argued in 1935:

"If the Swastika is an emblem of racial oppression, the Stars and Stripes are equally so. This country has consistently refused to recognize one-tenth of its population as an essential part of humanity…It has systematically encouraged the mass murder of these people through bestial mobs, through denial of economic opportunity, through terrorization."

Victory at Home

When the United States entered WWII, African-Americans joined the fight to defeat fascism abroad. Meanwhile, the decades-long fight on the home front for equal access to employment, housing, education and voting rights continued.

These concerns prompted James G. Thompson, a 26-year-old from Wichita, Kansas, to write to the editors of the Pittsburgh Courier. His letter sparked the Double Victory campaign. Considering his service in the US Army, which was racially segregated during WWII, Thompson wrote:

"Being an American of dark complexion and some 26 years, these questions flash through my mind: 'Should I sacrifice my life to live half American?' 'Will things be better for the next generation in the peace to follow?'…'Is the kind of America I know worth defending?'"

For Thompson and other African-Americans, defeating Nazi Germany and the Axis powers was only half the battle. Winning the war would be only a partial victory if the United States did not also overturn racial discrimination at home.

These ideals seemed particularly far away in the summer of 1943, when racial violence raged across the country. In addition to the riot in Detroit, there were more than 240 reports of interracial battles in cities and at military bases, including in Harlem, Los Angeles, Mobile, Philadelphia and Beaumont, Texas.

These events inspired Langston Hughes' poem, "Beaumont to Detroit: 1943":

"Looky here, America / What you done done / Let things drift / Until the riots come […] You tell me that hitler / Is a mighty bad man / I guess he took lessons from the ku klux klan […] I ask you this question / Cause I want to know / How long I got to fight / BOTH HITLER -- AND JIM CROW."

The end of Hughes' poem calls to mind the swastikas and Confederate flags that were prominently displayed in Charlottesville and at other white supremacist rallies. These symbols and ideologies have long and intertwined histories in the US

Advocates of the Double Victory campaign understood that Nazism would not be completely vanquished until white supremacy was defeated everywhere. In linking fascism abroad and racism at home, the Double Victory campaign issued a challenge to America that remains unanswered.

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The Difference Self-Organizing Makes: The Creative Resistance of Domestic Workers

Fri, 09/01/2017 - 21:00

Many conditions play into the exploitation of migrant domestic workers (MDWs) in Lebanon. Most of the time, MDWs are women, and some of us are illiterate. And at times, this illiteracy furthers existing exploitation, which is already embedded in sexism, classism, and racism. These factors are present in our home countries, and migration renders us even more vulnerable to them.

Our employers often believe that people migrate because they had nothing to do, were not qualified, or lacked opportunity in their home countries, and that we therefore owe them for saving us. The vicious chain of exploitation begins in the home countries of MDWs, where some agencies attract domestic workers and facilitate their migration in exchange for a commission. To put it bluntly, 'traffickers' take advantage of domestic workers and sell them to host families, who continue this practice of exploitation. For example, the families we work for might keep our money in their pockets because they belittle us, or because they believe that we do not have any urgent bills to pay since we are living in their house.

There will always be people who will benefit from the exploitation of others. This means that there will always be resistance to changing the laws surrounding the rights of MDWs, since there are people who get rich on the backs of these workers. At the end of the day, it is always the women domestic workers who pay -- both materially and figuratively. While legal discrimination can end with the adoption of proper laws, personal discrimination will not simply come to an end suddenly, because the stereotypes that exist in people's minds cannot so easily be erased. Laws nevertheless have the power to influence people -- regardless of their prejudices -- to change their behaviour towards MDWs out of fear of punishment.

On Hope and Activism

Nevertheless, we believe that the day will come where everything will change, where the cage will be opened and the bird will be able to fly freely once again. We organise ourselves in collectives, unions, and alliances, so we can fight for our rights and thus be prepared for that moment of desired freedom. There is a saying that goes: 'one hand cannot clap alone'. If I were on my own in claiming my rights regarding my paycheque, vacation, and insurance, I would be viewed as the exception, and no one would take my demands seriously. But if more and more MDWs combine forces and we start screaming in demand of our rights, one person might hear us, and then a second and a third, and the movement would snowball from there. And who knows? One day: bam! The authorities would decide that they are tired of hearing us and that they need to respect our rights.

I was an activist since my childhood. When I was in primary school, I was a tomboy, and I always defended others. When my friends were being harassed, they would look for me, and my fists would go looking for the boys who were responsible. I grew up that way. When I arrived in Lebanon, I couldn't wrap my head around the atrocities committed against MDWs. While I hesitate to say that the family in which I first landed was the worst, they were certainly not perfect. Looking around me, I thought that it was not possible for people to live in such conditions. Thus, I started my activism in my employer's household.

I began by talking to my employer openly, but she did not appreciate my honesty. She would scream at me and we would quarrel, but that did not stop me from expressing myself and my needs. One day, she asked me what my expectations for her were, and, having heard them, she told me there was nothing she could do to change the situation. While I understood the limitations she faced, I asked her to at least use her power to talk to other women employers, her friends. For instance, my birthday was coming up and I asked her to convince her friends to give their domestic workers a day off to visit me at her house, so we could celebrate my birthday. Then little by little, my sisters and I began to form a community of MDW leaders.

Creative Resistance

Over time, we developed subtle ways of resisting. There was a MDW from Sri Lanka who lived in the building across mine, and another one from Ethiopia who lived on the floor below. We were able to see each other when we stood on our respective balconies, but we could not speak to each other due to the distance. In order to not attract unwanted attention of our employers, we intuitively started communicating in non-verbal gestures. We were able to understand each other without prior agreement on the meanings of the gestures we used.

I lived on the fifth floor of my building and we used a rope to send food to the girl who lived on the second floor and that was being starved by her employer. I would put the food in a plastic bag, tie it to the rope, and slowly glide it down the outer wall of the building. When the food would arrive to the second floor, I would make a sound with the pans in the kitchen, so she would know that the food had arrived. Then, she would take the food and send the container back to my floor using the same rope.

This is how she managed to eat without anyone noticing. At times, we also used the elevator: I would call the elevator, put the Tupperware inside, and she would receive it on the second floor. She would eat it quickly without anyone noticing -- what the eyes do not see, the mind does not know. Then, I would receive my Tupperware the same way I sent it. There is always a way. Despite not being able to communicate verbally, we managed to develop these techniques of mutual care. We were able to achieve this organic way of communicating our needs because our lived experiences were similar: I lived what she lived, and vice-versa. She didn't need to explain her situation to me with words: her gestures sufficed for letting me know if she was in trouble, if she was left starving the day before, or if she hadn't had breakfast yet.

Organized Resistance

We have developed techniques to mend the conditions that increase the exploitation of MDWs in Lebanon. We offer English, French, and Arabic language classes, as well as courses for people to learn computer skills and how to play the guitar for both men and women, old and young. Our work contracts are written in Arabic rather than French or English, but if you know the rights have, and you have them written somewhere, you can back up your claims when you demand your rights regardless of whether you can read Arabic or not.

Otherwise, you are obliged to believe and accept whatever your employer tells you, since they can read better than you do. We also started giving courses on MDW rights, in order to spread this knowledge through the networks of people that we were able to reach. For the types of discrimination that are not visible or codified, it is very difficult to come up with techniques to fight against them. We try to provide support for these cases, but so far our support remains moral, operating through networks of mutual care. Our outreach methods include online work and word of mouth. We establish trust with communities and have workers get their friends and circles to learn about us and to join, or to refer cases that require help and intervention in the future. It is a like a water bubble that is growing and expanding with time, and that relies on trust and confidence in the leaders who are at the heart of the alliance.

Since May 2016, we have been organised in an alliance: the Alliance of Migrant Workers and Domestic Workers in Lebanon. While we are based in Beirut, our members are working in different regions in Lebanon. We are a group of women who share one voice, because we all undergo similar problems and have had enough with the way things are. We trust each other and we are ready to walk the whole distance. At this stage, we are small and do not yet have access to funding, but this does not stop us from being very active in strategising and planning.  

Our alliance's work is different from the work of different organisations we have witnessed in Lebanon, and this is mainly due to one reason: we are domestic workers. Many organisations that work for our cause consist of individuals who have never been subjected to what we experience with our flesh, bones, and blood. Our alliance mirrors who we are and our shared experiences. It is our bread, blood, sweat, and life.

About the Alliance of Migrant Workers and Domestic Workers in Lebanon

We -- the migrant domestic workers in Lebanon -- have come together and organised ourselves as an alliance for our cause. We share one voice. We are the women migrant domestic workers activists who fight to claim our rights. We fight against oppression and exploitation in all aspects of being women and as domestic workers. We see ourselves as one despite our different nationalities because we share the same struggles and challenges at work and in public spaces. We strongly believe that working collectively enhances our unity and solidarity amongst all workers leading to women's empowerment. The alliance is self-funded for now.

The "we" in this article refers to the common voice of the members of the alliances and their domestic worker comrade, the "I"s refer to the personal voice and story of Rose Mahi.

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How Some African Farmers Are Responding to Climate Change -- and What We Can Learn From Them

Fri, 09/01/2017 - 21:00

As sub-Saharan Africa's climate changes, small-scale farmers are increasingly looking to innovative ways of dealing with agricultural challenges. And in some instances, the techniques they adopt are helping to combat climate change, too.

Alternative animal feed, climate-friendly grasses and the use of fodder trees are among the examples providing farmers resilience and leading to benefits such as more productive livestock and new business opportunities -- all while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and building healthy soils.

As unpredictable weather and natural disasters hamper food security across the globe, innovation will be paramount for the world's food producers, from smallholder farmers to industrial operations. Here are three novel ways African farmers are using adaptive strategies to thrive.

Brachiaria Grass

In sub-Saharan Africa, some farmers are adapting to climate change by seeding pastures with brachiaria grass. Some varieties of this forage can survive harsh conditions, such as drought and low fertile soils, while helping to reduce the environmental impacts of livestock production.

In October 2016, a study by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, CIAT for short, found that farmers in East Africa stood to produce 15 -- 40 percent more milk and generate tens of millions of dollars in additional revenue by using the drought-tolerant grass.

Unlike Napier grass, which is forage used by many farmers in zero-grazing agricultural systems, production of brachiaria is not constrained during the dry season, according to An Notenbaert, CIAT's forage coordinator for Africa.

"Farmers like brachiaria because of its adaptability to low rainfall … and low fertility and acidic soils, and its production of green forage year round without any input of fertilizer," she says. "Brachiaria grass has [a] relatively high crude protein content due to greater leafiness and thinner stems than those of traditional Napier grass, resulting in higher nutritive quality."

One farmer who has witnessed the benefits of this grass is Albanas Nduva, who lives in Kikambuani village in eastern Kenya, an hour's drive east of Nairobi.

He has 10 dairy cows on his 5-hectare (12-acre) piece of land, of which 0.8 hectares (2 acres) has been set aside for planting brachiaria grass.

"The grass grows very fast compared to others, and I have observed increased milk production from my cows," says Nduva, who uses the grass as forage instead of pasture because his animals are kept in an enclosure. "I harvest the grass every two months, which is in contrast to other types, such as Napier, which matures at between three and four months."

Nduva got 38 liters (10 gallons) of milk per cow daily before he began feeding them with the new grass. Now he gets 47 liters (12 gallons).

In 2012, with funding from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, the Biosciences eastern and central Africa -- International Livestock Research Institute and a number of other research facilities and organizations began studying new brachiaria grasses in Kenya and Rwanda. They found that brachiaria is good for the environment because cows easily digest it, reducing the release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. In addition, because these grasses are deep-rooted they are able to sequester more carbon than other grasses.

More than 6,000 farmers are now growing the grass species across Kenya, according to Donald Njarui, senior principal scientist at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization, a corporate body that coordinates and promotes agricultural research and that's part of the Kenyan government.

However, Njarui says, for wider dissemination and more research it will be necessary to register the grass species as varieties, which will allow seeds to be imported and opened to a global market.

"This will make it possible to import the seeds from any part of the world, unlike what is happening today," Njarui says -- a key step since brachiaria grass has become very important across the world, with seed production already commercialized in big cattle-producing countries like Brazil.

Nutrient Block

As droughts become more frequent and more severe, pastoralists in northern Kenya are increasingly using a multi-urea nutrient block feed supplement for livestock as a coping mechanism when wild forage is in short supply.

Marsabit County, where more than three-quarters of rural residents live below the poverty line of 1,562 Kenyan shillings (about US$15) per month, is an eight-hour drive north of Nairobi. Here, cyclical droughts are common and severely disrupt the people's livestock-dependent livelihoods, often causing massive livestock deaths due to lack of vegetation and water.

However, Benson Mosor, the former food security field officer at Soliderités International, says that since the introduction of the multi-nutrient block, livestock deaths have gone down 10 percent.

Solidarités International, an international humanitarian organization, helped train farmers to make and sell the blocks -- which are a mixture of molasses, urea, salt, lime and other ingredients that help with bone formation, energy production and food absorption while providing necessary nutrients.

"It was a big challenge to work with villagers at the beginning, because they did not understand immediately what we were talking about," says Mosor. However, the nutrient block is gaining acceptance among pastoralists due to education efforts, according to Mosor.

Andrew Abudo, a 27-year old goatherd from Galasa village, says that since he began supplementing his animal feed with the nutrient block his goats are thriving, even in the face of severe drought. The United Nations issued an alert in December 2016 advising the country to brace itself for a worsening drought in 2017.

"The animals will never die after feeding them on this block, unlike what used to happen before I started feeding it to my goats," says Abudo.

A 3- to 4-kilogram (7- to 9-pound) block costs around 100 Kenyan shillings (about US$1) to make and helps feed between four to five goats for a week, making it much cheaper than conventional feed. Corn-based feed, for instance, will cost between 2,000 to 3,300 Kenya shillings (US$20 to US$30) per week to feed the same number of animals.

In addition to these benefits, a business opportunity has emerged, with villagers from Galasa making and selling the blocks. "We make these blocks to sell to outlying communities," explains Ali Elema, a member of this group. One block sells for 250 Kenya shillings (US$2.50).

The villagers have showcased their product in various forums, including the Kalacha Cultural Food and Music Festival, a popular gathering in Marsabit where pastoralists share knowledge and experience.

Planting Fodder Trees

Fodder trees are fast-growing trees that provide food for dairy cows and goats. The World Agroforestry Centre, or ICRAF, estimates that nearly a quarter-million farmers have planted these trees in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda.

"[These trees] are important for helping farmers adapt to climate change because, being deep-rooted, they are resistant to drought and maintain high-protein green fodder during the dry season, when the protein level of grasses decline[s]," says Steve Franzel, principal agricultural economist at ICRAF.

In addition, "the trees are generally planted as hedges and often along field contours, helping prevent soil erosion," says Franzel.

Mary Gichuki, a farmer who lives a few minutes' drive from Nairobi in Kiambu County, not only uses fodder trees on her land, but also sells tree seeds and seedlings and educates other farmers on using them. She began planting the trees in her small plot in 2006 after receiving training from ICRAF.

"Farmers listen to me more because people have seen how the trees have lifted me from some level of poverty to where I am today," says Gichuki.

A 2-kilogram (4-pound) packet of the seeds will fetch her 6,000 Kenyan shillings (US$60), and she has between 60 and 90 customers a month during the rainy season.

Increasingly Important Innovations

Irregular and erratic weather is a big impediment for improving crop yields for smallholder farmers, especially in a region that depends on rain-fed agriculture. Meanwhile, food security will continue to be a global issue affecting much of the world's population. Innovations that make farms less vulnerable to wide swings in conditions will become increasingly important as climate changes and population grows. Productive, affordable and accessible practices like these could make all the difference between barely surviving and thriving in an increasingly uncertain future.

Categories: Latest News

Disability Erasure and the Apocalyptic Narrative

Fri, 09/01/2017 - 21:00

Too often, disabled people are considered burdens and drains on resources. Yet while most people at least show basic discomfort with the marginalization of their disabled friends and neighbors, our collective visions of the apocalypse -- and how we will confront it -- involve futures where disabled people either don't exist or go heroically to their deaths so as not to be a bother in times of trouble.

Texas Army National Guard members Sergio Esquivel, left, and Ernest Barmore carry 81-year-old Ramona Bennett after she and other residents were rescued from their Pine Forest Village neighborhood due to high water from Hurricane Harvey August 29, 2017, in Houston, Texas. (Photo: Erich Schlegel / Getty Images)

This week hasn't exactly been a fantastic time for me. Losing a parent can really make you get stuck in a maudlin, even slightly dark frame of mind. So it's no secret that seeing photos coming out of Hurricane Harvey of elder folks near drowning in a nursing home due to lack of evacuation and inability to move well put me in a foul mood. It also got me thinking of conversations I've heard over the years about disability and the end of society.

Stop me if you've heard this one. You and your friends are sitting around and having some beers, and the conversation turns to the apocalypse. Maybe you're watching The Walking Dead, or reading Divergent, or even going to your favorite post-apocalypse live action roleplaying game. But in between talking about what happens if Daryl dies on the show and exchanging larp armor suggestions, someone inevitably brings up what they would do in the event of the apocalypse. Doesn't matter what the apocalypse cause: zombies, an outbreak, Donald Trump. Everyone gets to play the "what would I do in the case of society's end" game.

I used to indulge in this game myself with my friends. But these days, when the subject comes up, I get very quiet. Because there's only one answer:

I die.

I've read a lot of apocalyptic fiction in my life. From The Stand to Alas, Babylon, I've gone through the gamut. It's a fascinating genre, really, considering what the fall of our civilization would do and what would happen to our plucky band of intrepid protagonists. How would they struggle? Who would survive? I used to identify with the hard-working protagonists, enjoying their constant battles and sacrifices. I, like so many others, put myself into the perspective of the struggling hero. I never thought I'd be one of the people left behind. The reality is, however, I'd be one of those who probably perished in the first few days/weeks/months, the footnotes in the Roland Emmerich movie who isn't even in the credits with a name, who stares at the incoming giant wave or alien attack with the defeated, accepted resolution that this is the inevitable end.

As a disabled woman, disaster epics, apocalypse fiction, and post-apoc tales aren't a vicarious thrill for me anymore. Theoretical zombie apocalypse escape plan BS sessions with friends aren't amusing anymore. They're an exercise in facing my mortality.

***

I grew up thinking I could handle anything. I was a young woman who largely lived out of my backpack, ready to grab it and go on a regular basis. When I read about characters in end of the world stories, like The PassageThe RoadSwan Song, or any of the countless others en vogue for the last thirty years, I always put myself into the head of the protagonist. I thought in their situation, I'd strap on my best sneakers, grab supplies, make sure I had my friends and cat food, and survive, me and my cat and my friends/family, together.

The reality of this vicarious thought exercise changed dramatically as I developed serious health problems. Chronic health issues like mine require continuous medical care, including a regiment of medication three times a day. Prescriptions, of course, run out, and when the corner pharmacy has been annihilated by a horde of zombies, there's no more medication to keep me alive. Within days of running out of pills, I'd end up in some serious trouble. A lack of my painkillers would send me into serious, dangerous detox, while the lack of my endocrine medication would lead to a complete collapse of body systems. Within days, I'd be suffering. Within a week, I'd probably be dead.

And that, dear readers, is without considering the difficulties of locomotion for me in a wheelchair during a societal breakdown. I have difficulty navigating the crowds at New York Comic Con, or walking through New York City due to potholes and breaks in the sidewalk. Imagine off-roading in my wheelchair during a hectic evacuation, either pushed by one of my friends/family/a stranger or riding in the electric wheelchair until the battery runs out. I think about the protest I went to after the Eric Garner shooting, where we marched up the middle of 6th avenue. Two buses blocked our way, and three people had to stop to lift my wheelchair over the tiny gap between vehicles. Such a small thing, but in an emergency so deadly.

This personal look into how reliant I am on society to stay alive has been an eye-opener for me. In a world where destabilization is so much closer than we ever thought possible, I look for solace to literature to relax, and realize how many of the narratives I enjoyed before leave a bitter taste in my mouth. I reread The Stand and came to Stephen King's chapter where he outlined all the people who died in the collapse of society post- Captain Tripps. And after so many of them, he wrote: "No great loss." It always gave me the shivers. I'd be one of those people, probably, slowly dying in the face of the end. No adventure to go meet Mother Abigail. Just toodles, and hoping my life didn't earn me the "no great loss" title in the end.

And so it brought me back to the inherent problem about post-apocalyptic narratives: they are, by nature and design, ableist in the extreme. Apocalyptic fiction doesn't just embrace the erasure of the disabled and medically compromised, it normalizes their obliteration. It presents stories where we've re-embraced survival of the fittest as the only moniker and lionizes those who overcome hardship through leaving behind the injured and ill.

Worse, these stories accept the death of those who are disabled as not only the norm, but as a heroic sacrifice to the survival of the healthy, a gift the disabled and ill can bestow on their fellows. Most of these stories have at least one or two examples of people who commit suicide to keep the disabled or ill person from becoming a drain on resources, or to keep them from suffering too long. While people battle furiously over things like doctor assisted suicide in the real world, they're willing to accept disabled folks taking themselves out of the equation as an inevitable, even noble, deed in society collapse fiction. And it says something very eerie about how people look at the disabled in these stories:

In a stable society, the disabled are tolerated, if not welcomed. In the face of disaster, they are a liability, and one to be excised for ease of the able-bodied.

There are exceptions to that narrative, stories that stand out for the characters willing to stand up for those less able. One of my favorite scenes from the first season of The Walking Dead comes when Rick and his band of friends encounter what they first believe to be a group of thugs in Atlanta. The scene is uncomfortable in that Rick and his (mostly) white friends immediately size up the other group, made up of mostly people of color, as a threat, with the narrative implying they believe they're gang-bangers and criminals. (They're known as the Vatos gang).

However, the story flips the whole thing on its head when we discover the 'thugs' are actually protecting a building full of the elderly and infirm. The Vatos are cooks, janitors, and family members of the elderly who refused to abandon the patients when the able-bodied staff fled. They are willing to face the hordes of the undead to protect the elderly who cannot flee easily, even in the heart of besieged Atlanta.

This caregiver narrative is often absent from apocalyptic fiction, as the notion of care of those less able is relegated to characters deemed salvageable or valuable to society. Protagonists will focus on the rescue of children over those who are disabled, seeing them as the future of society, while those who are injured or disabled might be a drain. Only those disabled characters who are seen as highly valuable are fought for and preserved, such as in the case of Mother Abigail in The Stand, wheelchair-bound Vriess in Aliens 4, Professor Xavier in Logan, or even Bran in Game of Thrones (which can be considered an apocalyptic tale considering the White Walkers invasion). These characters require effort to be expended to keep them alive but are almost always preserved only because their abilities are deemed too highly valuable to lose. Otherwise, care is often withheld or deemed a drain.

What's often frustrating in these narratives is the way adaptive or assistive devices are treated, as if they are equally burdensome and do not allow characters to navigate the world with greater ease. Characters who could continue to be included in narratives are often set aside or sacrificed because other characters don't even bother to seek out assistive devices like braces, crutches, or wheelchairs. This makes characters who utilize such devices so important in fiction. A prime example of a character whose assistive device is included but never overly emphasized is Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, whose missing arm is replaced by a metal one. She is a prime example of a disabled heroine who is not only not marginalized, but who thrives as the movie's protagonist.

I particularly appreciated Dale in The Walking Dead comics for this reason. Originally able-bodied when he joined Rick's group at the beginning, Dale (spoiler alert)  loses a leg during the course of the flight from the zombies, and though it gives him trouble, he remains a part of the group. (In the television series, the storyline is transplanted onto Hershel). Seeing someone with mobility issues still included as part of the group as opposed to being discarded was a major sticking point for me in loving Kirkman's comic and eventually the TV series.

Another fantastic example is Raven from The 100. The former space-dwelling engineer becomes badly injured during the course of the show, her leg and back permanently damaged. Though she can walk with the help of a leg brace, she is slowed down and in constant pain. Raven struggles with her new challenges, considers ending her own life, and ultimately faces her new disability status with a grim finality, realizing that at any moment she could lose her life due to her limitations. Still, she survives each season with determination, supported and bolstered by her friends, who do not let her give into depression. In fact, few characters in the show are as resourceful or vital as Raven, who is supported by others in her role in the community. Raven is a wonderful example of a narrative that embraces the disabled, rather than obliterates them.

Yet there are more stories which sweep away the disabled than embracing them. And what's worse, the idea of the disabled being abandoned is lionized, given a sort of solemn acceptance. It's known the disabled need to be forgotten, left behind. The able-bodied in the stories often embrace how painful and awful it is to lose someone because of their medical situation or disability, but largely move on with a sense of acceptance. It's accepted, of course, that the fittest move on, and don't try to waste resources on their differently abled friend. There are countless scenes where someone must be sacrificed to help the rest of the group survive, and more often than not it is the cruel "I tell it like it is" character who points out the disabled/ill person as a drain on resources who should be chosen. And though the others moralize, in the end, they often agree.  The message becomes clear: the differently abled are expendable.

More often than not, these scenes include some kind of noble sacrifice moment, where the disabled/injured/ill person looks deep into the heroes eyes and asks to be left behind so they can help the group. They stop fighting, stop trying to survive, ending the drain they put on resources with solemn acceptance, the last heroic gesture they can make. This is often mirrored in zombie stories when a single person is bitten and they calmly pick up a weapon to end their lives, the generous actions of a person trying not to inflict their sickness on others. Yet while some stories have heroes fighting to save the zombie-infected person, few have heroes fighting to keep their diabetic friend alive.

An example of a scene that faces down this issue comes from The Stand. King introduces Stu Redman as our everyday hero, a caring soul who becomes the heart of the survivors on their way across the country to meet the magical Mother Abigail. In the first scene of Part 3 of the TV series, Stu is elbow deep in a man's guts, trying to remove a burst appendix on a cold concrete floor. Stu is no doctor but does his best without anesthetic and with nothing but a medical textbook to guide him. And though his patient dies, Stu at least attempts the operation rather than let the ill man die without a fight.

This instance, however, just like the zombie bite, is an example of an onset illness, meant in the narrative to convey the fragility of human health when there are no hospitals, no safety nets for the often changeable human condition. But more chronic, ongoing illnesses are treated much differently in these stories, often signaling an accepted death sentence with no attempt at treatment.

***

Physical disabilities might be badly treated in apocalyptic fiction, but equally marginalized in these stories are those with mental illness. Already often badly used in fiction, the mentally ill are often portrayed as not only a drain on society but a danger to those around them. Those with mental illness or neuro-atypical status become an outlying wildcard in the apocalyptic survivor stories, playing the role of simple sidekicks, quirky but unstable comedic relief, or else hampering burdens to the survival of the group. While these stories highlight the heroes often suffering from things like PTSD and depression, rarely are conditions like these treated as illnesses to be addressed. Instead, they are dangerous shifts in personality to be treated with "tough love" scenes as other survivors cajole the character to get over it, get stronger, move on. Those that don't are often killed off, a victim of their own emotional instability.

Those portrayed with chronic, less environmentally-contributed mental illnesses are usually treated far worse in the stories. Apocalypse stories often include someone with mental illness to throw in the magical crazy prophet trope or the unstable person who will endanger the group. Rarely is their mental illness addressed as treatable, or even manageable, and the 'crazy' character often becomes a casualty of the story, perishing due to losing control of themselves to their 'madness.'

A well-explored version of this story happened in the TV show Defiance. Set in a post-alien invasion Earth, new frontiersman Rafe McCawley tells his children their mother Pilar died rather than admit he left her behind due to her mental illness. After society fell apart, Pilar could no longer get treatment for her bipolar disorder and became erratic. Rather than face handling an unstable Pilar, Rafe takes his children and leaves. Pilar survives, however, and later comes back to reunite with her family. She becomes a villain of the show, however, as her bipolar disorder makes her do inappropriate things like, oh, kidnap her daughter's half-alien baby. But while the show attempts to show characters empathizing with Pilar's situation, it also showcased the show's protagonists turning on Pilar, calling her crazy and eventually killing her while she was in the throes of her mania.

Her death in the show too closely mirrored the violence so often perpetrated on the mentally ill in our world when they act out inappropriately. And this is one of the good examples of well-explored mental illness characters. Many others are far, far worse.

***

It's no secret that fiction of any kind reflects the anxieties of the times. In the 50's it was the body snatchers, mirroring the fear of invasion and infiltration by the Russians. In the 70's and 80's, it was concerns over rampant consumerism and wanton behavior that bred our slasher film fascination, and the 2000's are all about fears of society collapsing in the face of global terror and societal instability. Yet what does it say about our society as a whole when our fiction is not only about people trying to survive such collapses but embraces survival of the fittest as the rubric for that fiction's heroic journey?

Too often the disabled are set aside in our society, considered burdens and drains on resources. Yet while most at least show basic discomfort with the marginalization of the disabled, our apocalypse fiction envisions futures where the disabled not only don't exist but go heroically to their deaths so as not to be a bother in times of trouble. The concept smacks of an insidious undercurrent of near eugenics-level categorization of the disabled and chronically ill most would find distasteful when called out in the open. No one wants to admit they accept the disabled as a burden. Yet there it is, in the stories about our most difficult times. In those stories, the disabled are deprioritized and erased from existence, sacrificed at the feet of the able.

I've stopped indulging as much in apocalyptic fiction lately. My own medical status has made it difficult to enjoy stories in which I would be annihilated pretty quickly, or else considered selfish for trying to survive. Instead, I look for stories like The 100 when people with disabilities are equally valued and fought for, and not just treated with pity but embraced as integral to the continued survival for their skills, experience, and contributions to society.

I envision if there was a zombie apocalypse, I'd be there, whacking zombies in the head with something and then zooming along in my wheelchair until my medicine runs out. There'd be no noble "save yourself!" from me unless necessary due to circumstance, and not because I would be a 'burden.' Instead, I'd strive to be a comfort and an ally to my friends and those around me, contributing to the whole as I do in my everyday life, right up until the end. Would that the fiction I consume had the same confidence in me as I try to have in myself.

Categories: Latest News

Who's Behind Fossil Fuel Extraction? It's Not Just Republicans

Fri, 09/01/2017 - 21:00

Though many see the Paris Accord as President Obama's shining moment for the environment, the plan to speed the construction of fossil fuel infrastructures cast a shadow over the US's well-publicized but halfhearted participation in the agreement. The trend has only continued under Trump. (Photo: David McNew / Getty Images)

Obama's signing of the Paris agreement and Trump's withdrawal from it signal different priorities, but the steady expansion of fossil fuel development and infrastructure proceeded apace under Obama and continues under Trump. As the need to avoid contamination and deter climate change grows more urgent, we should look beyond self-styled climate heroes from either party and hold all elected officials equally accountable.

Though many see the Paris Accord as President Obama's shining moment for the environment, the plan to speed the construction of fossil fuel infrastructures cast a shadow over the US's well-publicized but halfhearted participation in the agreement. The trend has only continued under Trump. (Photo: David McNew / Getty Images)

Like the sections of pipe they are assembled from, pipelines with names like Algonquin, Dominion and Kinder Morgan/TCG CT Expansion are interconnected, and affect a long string of communities crisscrossing the country. The 2.5 million miles of oil and natural gas pipelines frequently leak and rupture, a 2012 ProPublica investigation found.

The pipeline aggregation enacted by the past and current administrations represents a clear shift in societal priorities: US communities and regions are no long the secure recipients of outside energy but instead are subjected to extractive exploitation on their own home ground -- with few avenues for citizen protection.

The interests of the oil, gas and pipeline industries are connected -- and so are the related problems that all of us face. No matter where fossil fuels are extracted, carried, refined, exported or used, the need to avoid contamination and deter climate change connects all people. It's no longer about just one community's backyard. And to stall climate change and contamination, people need to connect the dots.

How did fossil fuel development become so pervasive? Let's take a look at a few milestones that, in recent years, have deepened the pattern of relentless extraction.

The Keystone Pipeline and the Keystone Clone

Many environmentally concerned citizens remember climate scientist James Hansen's famous warning that proceeding with the Keystone XL pipeline would be "game over for the environment." That's why former President Obama's 2015 decision to reject the Keystone XL pipeline was celebrated as a major environmental victory. It was thought to be "game over" for the Keystone XL -- but did Obama's ban actually put an end to the pipeline? Not really.

The powerful public opposition to Keystone XL had taught the gas and oil industry (and their government allies) something. Giving a single name to over 3,000 miles of pipeline furnished environmentalists with a broad and brand-able organizing target. After the Keystone XL defeat, the industry figured out a way to get their pipelines built by doing just the opposite. Instead of going big, they went small. What journalist Steve Horn of DeSmogBlog calls "the Keystone XL Clones" were a series of pipelines, designed and put into place to do exactly the same thing as the seemingly nixed Keystone XL -- carry tar sands down to the Gulf Coast refineries, owned by Koch Industries.

Using a relatively new regulatory workaround called Nationwide Permit 12, enacted in 2011 under the Obama administration, pipeline companies were allowed to break "pipelines into different pieces, calling each piece a different name, rather than one gigantic name, in order to connect all those pieces and carry that oil," Horn said in an interview on my radio program, Connect the Dots. Nationwide Permit 12s were supposed to be applicable to half an acre (or smaller) sized pipeline segments. But according to Horn, "large pipelines, thousands of half acre projects, are coupled together and approved through scores of Permit 12s in order to avoid public transparency."

Conferred by the Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Nationwide Permit 12 has been used many times, including for the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline and for the Gulf Coast pipeline. Most famously, it permitted Energy Transfer Partners, the builders of the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL), to cross Lake Oahe, the move that sparked the 2016 Standing Rock protests.

"This is the longest pipeline under a river in the US," said Sara Jumping Eagle, an Oglala tribal member, Standing Rock Reservation resident, pediatrician and plaintiff in a current lawsuit that contends that the Dakota Access pipeline should cease operation.

Indigenous communities first heard that the DAPL pipeline was to be built under their water and food source, Lake Oahe, when surveyors came to the region, Jumping Eagle said. Next, "the company came and made a presentation. They already had a plan to build it there without having consulted the tribes beforehand."

The pipeline is monitored electronically from Texas, and most existing leaks in water or on land were identified by local farmers or residents, not by the far-away technology. While the company assured that no leakage would occur, it planned to use safety monitors that "have not worked in the past," says Jumping Eagle.

"We know that DAPL has already leaked in South Dakota before even going into full use -- so, it's just a matter of time before this pipeline leaks. And if and when it does, the Lakota nations that depend directly on the Missouri River water have no guarantee that we could still live in this area," Jumping Eagle said. "The federal government has abdicated their responsibility for our public health. There is no guarantee that the glass of water I am giving to my daughter is free from benzene or other chemicals used in the fracking and oil industry."

From the outset, environmental groups opposed Permit 12 because it bypassed the traditional environmental impact statements (EIS) required by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In the past, the EPA, the Department of the Interior, and other relevant agencies were required to write up a lengthy document outlining the environmental impacts of all pipeline projects.

As opposed to the typical several-hundred-page document, a Permit 12 is "typically three to four pages," Horn said in our Connect the Dots interview. It undergoes far less scrutiny, and takes citizens out of the process. "You don't have to do public hearings, there is no public commenting period, and basically it's an under-the-radar way to approve pipelines," he added.

Jumping Eagle told me, "The Army Corps of Engineers claims that they sent the tribe emails, but an email that gives you due notice does not replace prior consultation and consent."

On a policy level, the Obama administration's advancement of Permit 12 gutted the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which was enacted in 1970 under Richard Nixon, who in his 1970 State of the Union Address spoke of the need that NEPA was developed to meet:

"The great question ... is shall we make peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, our land and our water?... Clean air, clean water, open spaces -- these should once again be the birthright of every American.... The price tag is high. Through our years of past carelessness, we have incurred a debt to nature. Now that debt is being called."

NEPA's preamble states the aim:

To declare national policy which will encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment; to promote efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere and stimulate the health and welfare of man; to enrich the understanding of the ecological systems and natural resources important to the Nation; and to establish a Council on Environmental Quality.

Normalizing the use of Permit 12 circumvented NEPA. The failure to do a complete EIS has already resulted in environmental infringements. For example, Dakota Access now faces allegations of misconduct filed by the North Dakota Public Service Commission. According to a Commission memorandum, "There were a number of deficiencies and possible violations." Whatever the Commission's eventual decision, potential fines for these violations won't exceed $200,000.

Although much of the public was not paying close attention to Obama's pro-fossil-fuel policy decisions, several media outlets reported that Obama clearly signaled his pro-gas and oil industry policy intentions during his 2012 re-election campaign. At a stop in Cushing, Oklahoma, the president famously stood before massive pipes, and signed an executive order to expedite permitting for pipelines and other related infrastructure.

"Obama's Worst Speech Ever," was how Joe Romm, founding editor of Climate Progress, characterized the speech. He quotes the former president:

Over the last three years, I've directed my administration to open up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration across 23 different states. We're opening up more than 75 percent of our potential oil resources offshore. We've quadrupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We've added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth and then some.

Rolling Stone called the speech "a crushing defeat for enviros and clean energy activists."

The de facto use of Nationwide Permit 12 by executive order under Obama was just a start. This regulatory bypass was something the oil and gas industry sought to codify into law. Over the course of the next several years, Horn noted, "ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, America's Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA), American Petroleum Institute (API), Koch Industries, U.S. Chamber of Commerce and many others" had lobbied for a bill that would permanently instate the permit bypass. This bypass was ultimately enacted through legislation -- within a highway construction bill.

Climate Champions?

President Obama signed the Koch-backed bill that sped up permitting on December 4, 2015 -- just eight days before he signed the Paris Climate Accord.

Though many see the Paris Accord as Obama's shining moment for the environment, the plan to speed the construction of fossil fuel infrastructures cast a shadow over the US's well-publicized but halfhearted participation in the agreement. Moreover, although the Paris Accord was significant, it contains no enforcement mechanisms: There are no penalties for breaching provisions.

As Trump stood poised to withdraw the US from the Paris Accord in May, New York Senator Charles Schumer spoke out. "If the United States were to un-sign the agreement, all of the progress in combatting climate change would be undone in one fell swoop," Schumer said.

Obama's signing of the Paris Accord and Trump's exiting the same agreement (in June 2017) certainly expressed different intentions: to protect climate on the one hand, and to deny that need on the other. However, throughout the Obama administration, the steady expansion of fossil fuel development and infrastructures proceeded apace -- and it continues to do so under Trump.

It's a cautionary tale for these dire days, when many are eager to pin their hopes on the next self-styled climate hero -- even with evidence that some would-be good guys (like Obama) have found themselves compelled to push fossil-fuel-friendly policies.

Back home in New York, Schumer isn't showing much enthusiasm for climate leadership. Since 2014, New York constituents have urged the senator to oppose the Algonquin Incremental Market Pipeline  (AIM), a high-gauge gas pipeline that runs through Indian Point, a nuclear power plant with a poor safety record. Due to the documented incidence of pipeline explosions cited earlier, AIM poses a risk to 20 million people in the New York Metro area, while also releasing methane, the major contributor to climate change. The Federal Energy Commission (FERC), which regulates interstate pipelines, is funded by the pipeline industry -- with a poor record of accountability for environmental concerns. Schumer recently voted in two new nominees to FERC, described by The Hill as "an energy aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and ... a Pennsylvania utilities regulator."

Similarly, although the New York Times recently hailed California Gov. Jerry Brown "as the nation's de facto negotiator with the world on the environment," Brown's record is mixed. With well-known family ties to and donor support from the gas and oil industry, Brown, "has not spoken out against fracking, much less banned it," journalist Mark Hertsgaard points out.

Environmental groups were also highly critical of Brown's recently signed cap-and-trade bill for lifting "several suggestions near-verbatim from an industry Wishlist -- drafted by a law firm contracted by the Western States Petroleum Association -- of proposals for how to continue the cap-and-trade program," writes Kate Aronoff of In These Times.

Moreover, the purchase of carbon offsets, the basis for the bill, allows "a polluter like Chevron ... [to] continue polluting as usual, or even process tar sands and thus increase its emissions. Offsets let polluters off the hook while allowing pollution hotspots to perpetuate, condemning communities like mine to decades more of toxic pollution," writes Michelle Chan in AlterNet.

"One of the things about the Democrats is that they talk out of both sides of their mouth," says longtime climate activist Nancy Romer, who is on the steering committee of the People's Climate Movement-New York. "They act as though they are defending the climate, and meanwhile they facilitate the fossil fuel industry. The Republicans are just all out for the fossil fuel industry. Period."

It is becoming ever clearer that protecting the climate will require holding elected officials on both sides of the aisle accountable.

Categories: Latest News

Abolitionists From Around the World Gather to Plan for the End of Prisons

Fri, 09/01/2017 - 21:00

Anti-prison activists from Ecuador, Canada, Australia, France and the US gathered recently in New Bedford, Massachusetts, once home to abolitionist Fredrick Douglass, for the 17th International Conference on Penal Abolition. Reflecting upon the carceral system's origins in slavery and colonialism, they renewed their commitment to building a worldwide campaign to abolish the penal system.

Janetta Johnson at the keynote address for the International Conference of Penal Abolition (ICOPA). (Photo courtesy of Rustbelt Abolitionist Radio from Detroit)

In July 2017 more than 200 people from across the globe met for four days in New Bedford, Massachusetts, which was once home to abolitionist Frederick Douglass and a major stop on the Underground Railroad. Meeting intentionally in a place with such historical significance to the abolition movement, conferees came together to learn more about the relationship between the carceral state and struggles against colonialism and slavery.

Past meetings of the International Conference on Penal Abolition (ICOPA 17) have been held in Nigeria, Ireland and Ecuador, bringing critical abolitionist leaders to these countries during politically potent moments as a part of abolitionist political intervention. Recognizing the leadership of those most deeply impacted by the penal system, they came together to clarify why prison abolition is so critical right now and what can be done with this knowledge.

A call to action developed by Derrick Washington, a 32-year-old Black man incarcerated at MCI-Norfolk, a Massachusetts state prison, who is on the planning committee for the International Conference of Penal Abolition (ICOPA). (Image courtesy of Derrick Washington and ICOPA)

What Is Penal Abolition?

For years, noted political activist Angela Davis has argued in many of her writings that "the prison system in the United States more closely resembles a new form of slavery than a criminal justice system." She consistently challenges the belief that "caging and controlling people makes us safe." In fact, since 2000, "The increased use of incarceration accounted for nearly zero percent of the overall reduction in crime," according to a recent report by the Vera Institute, entitled "The Prison Paradox: More Incarceration Will Not Make Us Safer." The report also underscores the structural racism in which incarceration is grounded, adding, "Incarceration will increase crime in states and communities with already high incarceration rates."

Recognizing that prison does not reduce violence, many organizations and abolitionists advocate community accountability practices as an alternative to the punishment system, utilizing networks of friends, families, church groups, neighborhoods or workplace associates to provide safety to the community and ways of healing harm.

In her Penal Abolitionist dictionary, activist-scholar Viviane Saleh-Hanna of the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, writes, "Penal abolition recognizes that to abolish prisons is not necessarily sufficient in abolishing penal oppression. The real problem is the penal mindset which allows the prison to exist.... The goal is to understand how the prison and other penal institutions (police, courts, probation, parole) are legitimized; the prison is the end result of what really needs to be questioned, revealed, and abolished."

Transgender Women Lead the Way

Woods Ervin (left) and Monica James (right) in conversation at the keynote address, ICOPA2017. (Photo courtesy of Rustbelt Abolitionist Radio from Detroit)

Two trans women who have survived the violence of solitary confinement kicked off one of the plenary sessions at the recent conference in New Bedford with a conversation about their fights against policing and incarceration. One dynamic participant was Monica James, a member of the Transformative Justice Law Project of Illinois and the new national organizer for Black and Pink, a collective of LGBTQ prisoners and "free world" allies. The other was Janetta Johnson, the executive director of the Bay Area Transgender, Gender Variant, Intersex Justice Project (TGI Justice Project), which works to create a united front in the struggle for survival and freedom.

This fight is particularly intense for trans women of color. A 2015 article in the Guardian pointed out, "According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, nearly one in six transgender people experience life behind bars. The ratio rises to one in five trans women and a staggering half of all trans women who are black."

Johnson said that when she was incarcerated, she interviewed every trans person she met. "Even in solitary confinement, you are not safe," she said, speaking of what transgender prisoners face behind bars. James concurred, saying she faced "daily torture" as a trans woman. James was housed in a men's prison, made to cut her hair, forced to dress in a way that was not consistent with her identity, and told by prison guards that she was "obviously not a woman."

"It's important to note that the act of misgendering always comes before a physical attack," wrote Johnson in a report called "We Too Belong." "While there is much discussion about violence toward trans folks on an individual level," she added, "looking at the system is important."

Both Johnson and James began organizing behind bars and, despite facing consistent barriers, did not give up, dedicating themselves to continuing their work when they exited prison.

James recently worked on a Black and Pink Chicago gathering held this past August 4-6, bringing together formerly incarcerated LGBTQ and/or HIV-positive people for community building and healing opportunities. She and Johnson both agreed that finding resources for trans men and women exiting prison is a crucial challenge to face

Highlights From the Conference

While I only attended a fraction of the workshops, discussions and events offered at ICOPA 17, the sessions were varied and deeply rooted in abolitionist theory.

Michael Brown, who co-founded the Writer's Block Poetry and Art Group at Macomb Correctional Facility in New Haven, Michigan, co-presented his session with incarcerated writers. They developed and articulated an active collaboration on "the politics of erasure." Incarcerated writers and artists appeared on screen, on the phone and on tape, as they sought to become seen and heard through their art.

For example, at the same moment that Steven Hibbler's art and poetry appeared on screen, Hibbler called in to the conference. Brown said Hibbler had been incarcerated since age 18 for a crime he did not commit. He showed the participants an article that clearly spelled out Hibbler's innocence while Hibbler answered questions about his work. Hibbler's art revolves around redefining masculinity and understanding how gender can contribute to violence. He leads a class in prison now.

Steven Hibbler, member of Writer's Block in Detroit's Hamtramck Free School in Macomb County Correctional Facility, reads his poetry on screen. (Image courtesy of Jean Trounstine)

Other incarcerated men and women were featured prominently in this session and across the board at ICOPA 17. In "Ballots Over Bars: The History of Prisoners' Voting Rights in Massachusetts," activists Rachel Corey and Elly Kalfus engaged participants in an interactive experience to understand the history of criminal disenfranchisement and presented comments from currently incarcerated men. They emphasized that MCI-Norfolk prisoner Derrick Washington was one of the inspirations for the session because in 2012, he founded the Emancipation Initiative, a movement to bring awareness of the parallels of life-without-parole to slavery, i.e., being property of the state.

Prisoners such as Matteo (whose comments are pictured below) expressed many reasons why regaining voting rights is important to them. Currently only Vermont and Maine allow incarcerated people to vote from inside prison. Workshop facilitators also directed participants to the Emancipation Initiative website and explained how, in the next election, those on the outside might consider donating their vote to those on the inside through the Ballots Behind Bars project.

Matteo from MCI-Norfolk in Massachusetts expresses why voting is important. (Photo courtesy of Jean Trounstine)

Many participants at the conference took part in "A Guided Journey Through Time," a walk through New Bedford led by Rufai Shardow, who has been written about extensively in New Bedford's local press. Shardow, raised in Ghana and a graduate of the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, immersed visitors in New Bedford's rich history, teaching them more about the sites of resistance and anti-slavery organizing in the city.

Healing justice plays a role in the practice of abolition, and Harriet's Apothecary, an intergenerational healing village, provided two healing spaces at the conference. Healers Adaku Utah, Kiyan Williams and Naimah Efia Johnson shared with the group, "Healing justice is about ritual, interdependence and sustaining practices." Art exhibits were featured prominently in conference rooms and attendees were treated to Afro yoga, hip hop performances and spoken word poetry. Lacresha Berry presented a special one-woman show about the life of Harriet Tubman.

Lisa Marie Alatorre described her work at a San Francisco-based homeless shelter, where she is piloting a restorative justice program that has what she called "abolitionist potential." Alatorre spoke of the "shelter to prison pipeline" that occurs in shelters if police are allowed to be the ones to solve problems among residents. She discussed how having an advisory council of staff and shelter residents, using the circle process for all issues in the community, and giving staff non-punitive tools to use will definitely reduce police involvement.

Lisa Alatorre presenting "Restorative Practices as Abolitionist Tools" at ICOPA17. (Photo courtesy of Jean Trounstine)

Alatorre gave an example of a healing circle at a shelter. "Imagine," she said, "if someone's cell phone goes missing, and then another one in the same week disappears. Tension will bubble up. Then we use a restorative justice circle where the focus is not on finding a culprit, but on creating a sense that stealing is not what we want to create a safe community." In circles, Alatorre explained, everyone answers these questions: "What happened? How did it make me feel? What was my responsibility in this?" -- instead of just discussing factual information. Alatorre added, "Clients are then excited to talk about healing and trauma. They see that they are community-building in adverse housing settings."

The closing affirmation to the conference was from Donna Edmonds Mitchell, the steward of the Perry Clan Homestead of the Watuppa Reservation in Fall River, Massachusetts. She reminded all to walk with a new and renewed way of living life.

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Lifting the Veil on Another Batch of Shadowy Trump Appointees

Fri, 09/01/2017 - 21:00

Trump still has many appointment seats to fill, but the ones that don't require Senate confirmation are shrouded in mystery as the administration doesn't even make their identities a matter of public knowledge. (Photo: Alex Wong / Getty Images)

President Donald Trump has left hundreds of government jobs unfilled that require a vote by the Senate. Yet his administration has installed more than 1,000 people through political appointments at every major federal agency, handing over control of the government's day-to-day operations to industry insiders and loyalists to an unprecedented degree.

Among the latest Trump administration appointees is a lobbyist who until March worked for a leading hepatitis C drugmaker that priced its treatment at $1,000 a pill and is now leading a White House working group setting drug pricing policies. The list includes the new head of the government's offshore oil drilling safety and enforcement agency, who previously sat on the board of Sunoco Logistics and who told an industry conference earlier this month that deepwater drilling should ramp up. Then there's the Hollywood actor who has called global warming and climate change a "leftist political tool" and "not sound science" on Twitter and who is now the communications director at the Department of Health and Human Services. Finally, this group also includes the 80-year-old retired chief legal officer of Morgan Stanley, who once told government lawyers he was "going to kick your ass" and is now a deputy attorney general in the Justice Department's antitrust division, overseeing litigation while his boss awaits Senate confirmation. (At the time, Kempf denied using the expletive in exactly those terms.)

These political appointees, some of them members of what have been dubbed "beachhead teams" during the presidential transition, and others who are now permanent employees, don't need Senate confirmation. Many of them have operated in the shadows and the White House has declined to publicly reveal their identities. Some political appointees, such as Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross's chief of staff, Wendy Teramoto, were initially hired as special government employees, or SGEs. They are brought on as temporary advisers and don't face the same rules that other federal employees do. But Teramoto and others have stuck around, and been promoted to permanent jobs. The administration reveals virtually nothing about this category of staffers.

"As long as you know who to call, they are more than willing to work with 'industry,'" said Scott Mason, a Trump campaign veteran who's now a lobbyist with Holland & Knight. "The swamp continues as the ecosystem it has always been, advocating on behalf of Americans who are all represented in one way or another by an interest group."

We now have a full list from the Office of Personnel Management, the federal government's human resources department, and it counts more than 1,000 political appointments since Trump took office on Jan. 20. The 1,000 include some 400 that ProPublica first revealed in March, and another 140 that were added in subsequent updates. We found that of the roughly 500 new appointees on our list, at least 61 have been registered lobbyists at the federal level. (This is likely an undercount since it does not include those who have not registered or who worked solely on the state level.)

Who Are Trump's Secret Appointees?

We're still sorting through the new names and we want your help. Here's our database of 1,000 political appointees. If you have tips or want to flag someone for us, email beachhead@propublica.org.

We found at least 44 people who have been rehired for second stints in the same government jobs after their initial terms expired. Another 194 people have been given new jobs after their initial beachhead terms.

"The pool of 'Trump Republicans' was small so that they had to go to regular Republicans, a lot of whom worked for the Bush administration," said Ivan Adler, a lobbying headhunter with the McCormick Group. "And there happen to be a lot of lobbyists among that group."

We're still sorting through the new names and we want your help. If you have tips or want to flag someone for us, email beachhead@propublica.org.

"What's unusual is the size and scope of these teams," said Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, which advises both Republican and Democratic presidential administrations on transitions. "The normal process in filling your political team is going from the campaign to the transition team to a political appointment. The cabinet picks manage all of this. But without them, the beachhead teams have been in charge. It's added a whole other level of confusion to an already difficult process."

It has also added a layer of shadows, said Jeff Hauser, who runs the Revolving Door Project at the D.C.-based Center for Economic and Policy Research. "These are political appointees who are subjected to much less scrutiny than if they went through the Senate-confirmed process," he said. "And these special employees, many of whom are on short stints and go back to regulated industries, are not answerable to anyone except the White House. It's an outsourcing of government."

Dozens of original beachhead team members have left government altogether, with several returning to lobbying or other industry-advocacy work. Donald Schnare, a lawyer and longtime critic of the EPA named to that agency's beachhead team in December, resigned in March after infighting between political appointees and the hand-picked staff of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt boiled over. Schnare told ProPublica that nearly every member of the Trump administration beachhead team at the EPA were refused permanent jobs by Pruitt.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is lagging in nominating key leaders to government jobs that require a vote of the Senate. As of the August congressional recess, the Trump administration has nominated 277 people for Senate confirmation and just 44 percent have been confirmed, according to the Partnership for Public Service. By comparison, the previous four presidential administrations -- those of Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush -- had nominated at least 315 people by the August recess and had their picks confirmed at rates above 60 percent at that point in the process.

To fill the gaps, the White House placed at least 18 "senior White House advisers" at federal agencies, to act as the administration's eyes and ears. Many were Trump campaign staffers and loyalists with little to no government experience and they publicly clashed with several of Trump's top Cabinet picks, including Treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin and Transportation secretary Elaine Chao.

Staffing records show that at least 11 of these advisers have left their original jobs or departed the government. (Several advisers, such as Paula Stannard at Health and Human Services, Mary Anne Bradfield at the Small Business Administration and Maren Kasper at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, were promoted to permanent positions.)

But seven still remain, including Sam Clovis, a former radio host whose nomination as the Agriculture Department's chief scientist is pending. (Clovis has attracted press scrutiny for, among other statements, his assertions that he is "extremely skeptical" about climate change.)

Here are a few Trump political appointees we've found:

  • Joe Grogan, an associate director for health programs at the Office of Management and Budget, most recently worked as a lobbyist for Gilead Sciences, the pharmaceutical company that has been accused of price-gouging in its sales of a novel hepatitis C treatment. Since his appointment, Grogan has taken a leading role in a White House working group on drug pricing policies. As reported by Kaiser Health News, internal documents from the working group show that, despite vows by President Trump to lower the price of medications, Grogan's team is pushing pharma-friendly policies, such as extending a drug's patent time in foreign markets. Grogan and the Office of Management and Budget did not respond to requests for comment.
  • Donald G. Kempf Jr., a hard-nosed attorney and former Marine who spent 35 years at Kirkland & Ellis and another six years as chief counsel at Morgan Stanley. He was personally recruited by incoming Deputy Attorney General Makan Delrahim, whose nomination has languished without a vote since March. As to why he came out of a 12-year retirement, Kempf told ProPublica that "my country has been very good to me" and that he "welcomed the responsibility." Kempf had a storied career, often representing corporations in antitrust and mergers and acquisitions litigation at the law firm Kirkland & Ellis. But during his tenure at Morgan Stanley, the bank suffered a series of legal defeats and regulatory fines before his retirement from the organization in 2005.
  • Brad Bailey is the new Deputy Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs, focusing on tax and the budget, at the Department of the Treasury. Before his new role he was a registered lobbyist for O'Rourke and Nappi where one of his clients was H&R Block. As ProPublica has reported, H&R Block has been fighting to stop a free government tax filing system for years that would make the company obsolete. As recent as April, Bailey was one of the people lobbying on behalf of H&R Block. In response to questions, the Treasury Department said in a statement: "Treasury's ethics officials work with agency personnel to address and mitigate potential conflicts if and when they arise."
  • Scott Angelle is the director of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, the agency that oversees safety for offshore oil and gas drilling. He served as Louisiana's secretary of natural resources from 2004 to 2012, and was appointed interim lieutenant governor from May to November 2010. During that time, Angelle helped lead a successful effort to bring an early end to the federal moratorium on deepwater drilling that was imposed after the April 2010 BP oil spill. Before joining the Trump administration, Angelle spent several years on Louisiana's Public Service Commission, where his position on the board of Sunoco Logistics Partners, an oil pipeline company -- for which he received $989,238— raised conflict of interest concerns. (Angelle denied any conflicts at the time.) Sunoco Logistics merged with Energy Transfer Partners, the developer of the Dakota Access pipeline, in April. Angelle spoke at an industry conference this month where he encouraged oil and gas companies to drill deepwater wells. Angelle did not respond to requests for comment.
  • Charles Faulkner, who was appointed deputy assistant secretary of state on June 11, left BGR Government Affairs, a D.C. lobbyist firm, where he had been a lobbyist for several foreign governments. His client list included the Kazakh embassy, for which he provided political consulting and arranged meetings between US and Kazakh government officials. He also advised the Kurdistan Regional Government, a semi-autonomous part of Iraq that often has tense relations with Baghdad, as well as neighboring Syria, Turkey and Iran. The State Department did not respond to a request for comment.
  • Until March, Wendy Teramoto was a managing director at Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross's former investment firm, WL Ross & Co., and held board positions on several Ross-connected corporations, including the Greenbrier Companies, an Oregon supplier of railroad equipment. Teramoto took a job as a part-time special government employee at the Commerce Department, as an adviser to Ross, in mid-March. Commerce Department officials said that between March and August, Teramoto "resigned from all outside non-federal positions" and signed an ethics pledge but she did not become a full-fledged government employee, subject to ethics requirements, until Aug. 1, when she was appointed Ross's chief of staff. In a statement, the Commerce Department said Teramoto is "subject to the same disqualification requirements under conflict of interest statutes as the Secretary and other federal employees."
  • As assistant secretary for border, immigration and trade policy at the Department of Homeland Security, Michael Dougherty could be in a position to benefit his former employer. Dougherty was previously CEO of the Identification Technology Association, a trade group for companies that sell biometric and cybersecurity technologies for borders, law enforcement and emergency management. Before that, he worked for the Raytheon unit that sells products and services to US law enforcement agencies. Dougherty is careful to comply with ethics rules and keep his government work separate from his past employment, according to his successor at the trade group, Jason Conley. "Where members have tried to reach out, he's been appropriately nonresponsive," Conley said. In a statement, the Department of Homeland Security said it provides ethics training to all political appointees and reviews any potential conflicts of interest.
  • Mark Vafiades, a Hollywood actor (best known for roles in "An American Carol" and "Vengeance Trail," according to his IMDB listing) is now communications director at Health and Human Services. Vafiades has been particularly vocal on social media, calling global warming and climate change a "leftist political tool" and "not sound science!" and advancing claims of voter fraud in his home state of California. The Department of Health and Human Services did not respond to a request for comment.
  • Emily McBride, a former aide to Jeff Sessions when he was a senator, and then an assistant in the White House Office of Cabinet Affairs, in June became a special assistant to the head of the General Services Administration. The GSA leases the building housing Trump's Washington hotel, which ethics experts say is a conflict of interest because the president is effectively both tenant and landlord. The GSA has already concluded that Trump's ascension to president didn't violate his lease (despite the opinionof some legal experts), but the agency is still responsible for ongoing review of the hotel's finances. A GSA spokesman said McBride won't participate in the oversight of Trump's hotel.
  • Adam Kissel, who joined the Department of Education as deputy assistant secretary for higher education programs, has spent the past five years at the Charles Koch Foundation, working on higher education projects. The foundation has faced scrutiny for donating millions to colleges and universities around the country, including to academic institutes focused on "market-oriented ideas" and "the practice and potentials of freedom." Before his role at the Charles Koch Foundation, Kissel worked at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, where he was a prominent critic of the Obama Administration's approach to investigating sexual violence on campus. Kissel and the Education Department did not respond to requests for comment.
  • Jonathan Galaviz was hired as an adviser at the State Department's Office of Security, Democracy and Human Rights, on June 11. He has consulted for foreign governments, including Russian state-run investment firms, helping with a host of gaming industry issues. The State Department did not respond to a request for comment.
  • Alexander Fitzsimmons was appointed chief of staff and senior adviser at the Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. He came to government from the advocacy group American Energy Alliance and Fueling US Forward, a public relations group supporting fossil fuels. Both organizations are backed by Koch Industries and they called for the elimination of the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy in 2015.
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Who's Really Winning? A Look at Trump's Infrastructure Initiative

Fri, 09/01/2017 - 06:29

In Trump's first address, he promised that American infrastructure would become "second to none." He committed to investing in urban centers, rebuilding highways and bridges, and improving schools. Yet, the administration's infrastructure initiative released in May doesn't make good on this promise. Though this initiative is currently scant in details, the administration champions infrastructure investment as a top policy priority with promises to release a more detailed proposal in early fall. Regardless, what the administration has revealed so far shines light on the kind of plan they intend to pursue. Trump's infrastructure initiative will likely put large corporations at the forefront amid slashed funding for state and local government infrastructure, cuts to programs that help rural and underserved communities, and the leveraging of public private partnerships that aren't in the interest of the general public and also undermine revenue generation. The plan in its current form does not go far enough to achieve the inclusive economic growth and prosperity the U.S. economy desperately needs -- and the public deserves. An inclusive infrastructure agenda would invest in rural and underserved communities, universal broadband, and green energy.

Trump's Infrastructure Initiative: Corporate America the Biggest Winner

The administration's plan has two components that result in reducing Federal programs while helping corporate America: financing this initiative through tax breaks and privatizing key services.

  • First, Trump's $1 trillion infrastructure initiative aims to create $800 billion in private investment by executing $200 billion in tax breaks for corporations over ten years. Ultimately, the administration hopes to create public private partnerships to fund infrastructure projects across the country. These tax breaks, used to incentivize private infrastructure investment, would allow corporations to pay lower taxes -- the tax breaks, however, do not guarantee $800 billion in private investment. The only thing we know for certain is that $200 billion of government revenue will be lost.

  • Second, corporations will benefit from the administration's plan to privatize key public services. For instance, the plan proposes to privatize air traffic control. This initiative would give commercial airlines greater price setting control that would allow them to easily increase prices. In addition, the tolling deregulation proposed in the administration's plan would not only allow private companies to increase prices to gain higher revenue from highway tolls, but would also allow new tolls to be created. These elements of privitization only work to ensure that corporate America gains more revenue at the expense of Americans having to pay higher user fees.

Who Will Lose?

There are three clear losers: Americans in rural areas and underserved communities, especially those of color; states and local governments; and the general public.

Americans in rural and underserved communities will be the biggest losers because of the cuts to crucial programs. For example, one program at risk of cuts is the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) -- a federal state partnership that invests in rural Appalachia to create self-sustainable economic growth. Besides creating and retaining 18,702 jobs in 2016 alone, one key ARC project in Kentucky helped combat unemployment by retraining individuals and finding tech jobs for ex-coal workers and the unemployed. Over the next three years, the program aims to train 200 workers in Kentucky, but funding cuts threaten its future. One of Trump's biggest supporters in the 2016 election were rural Americans, so it is unfortunate that they are one of the first groups to be left behind. Another program facing cuts is the $3 billion a year Community Development Block Grant (CDBG). CDBG builds local infrastructure improvements in low-income communities of color. In Albany, Georgia -- a predominantly Black city -- 56,930 people benefitted from CDBG services in 2015 through job creation, affordable housing, employment training, and more.

Another important set of losers from the Trump plan are state and local governments that will lose federal infrastructure funding. President Trump claims his approach is to "encourage" state and local governments to stop "waiting for Washington to come to the rescue." Trump's move to "encourage" state and local funding will instead be a huge challenge, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center. Many communities are already struggling to fund infrastructure projects, so additional pressure on localities would jeopardize attempts to improve ailing roads, bridges, and other infrastructure.

Finally, the public will lose from the administration's plan to encourage more public private partnerships. When governments pay upfront in exchange for long-term concessions, these agreements can cost the public more. These deals give the private sector the ability to collect tolls for decades, while the public loses out on future revenue. Chicago is a cautionary tale. To address budget issues, Mayor Richard M. Daley in 2008 leased the city's parking meters to Morgan Stanley, which then increased parking tickets up to 800% and was on its way to lose nearly $1 billion, though renegotiation of the 99 year deal saved a fraction of the sum.

There's a Better Path Forward: What an Infrastructure Initiative Should Look Like

A good infrastructure plan needs to do more than rebuild roads and bridges. To achieve sustainable and inclusive infrastructure investments, we should tackle climate change, invest in quality schools for rural and underserved communities of color, and fund universal broadband.

First, we should tackle climate change in order to secure new jobs and invest in sustainable and inclusive growth. A Roosevelt report estimates that, at current rates, rising sea levels alone will result in a loss of $238 to $507 billion worth of coastal property damage by 2100. We need to invest in green technology for sustainable growth and the safety for Americans.

Second, we should combat inequality and foster more inclusive infrastructure investments by providing quality schools for underserved children in rural and innercity communities. One-fourth of American schoolchildren attend rural or small-town schools, making it imperative that we invest in their success. Investment in education is one of the leading ways to uplift rural communities. Unfortunately, the lack of investment in inner city education, for example, has limited opportunity for low-income students of color in these areas as these students are less likely to enroll in high scoring elementary and middle schools. With only 72% of Black adults aged 25 and above having received a high school diploma in comparison to 86% of white adults, the numbers make evident that we need to do better in providing good education to Black communities. Closing achievement gaps for underserved communities, both in the rural and urban settings, is necessary for inclusive growth.

Finally, we need to encourage innovation and labor participation from rural and underserved communities of color by funding universal broadband. The internet is a pillar in our economy, and we should do better to supply it. As mentioned in a Roosevelt report, universal broadband would allow millions more of Americans to have access to education, jobs, and information -- a key building block of an inclusive economy. This would foster innovation and general labor participation, as well. Currently, about 39% of rural Americans do not have access to the FCC's sufficient Internet benchmark. There is broad space for improvement.

On the campaign trail, Trump reassured the public that his infrastructure initiative would make America a leading nation in infrastructure; instead, he has prioritized the private sector at the expense of inclusive economic growth. Our country's infrastructure is too important in the fight for a more equitable economy for us to not hold him accountable. As more details of his initiative continue to emerge in the coming months, we must ask ourselves: Who's really winning?

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