(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)President Barack Obama proudly signed the law that repealed the Pentagon’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, freeing lesbian, gay, and bisexual Americans (although not trans people) to openly serve in the military four years ago. But when it comes to budgeting, the concept lingers on. “Don’t ask us how we spend money,” the Pentagon basically says. “Because we can’t really tell you.” Every taxpayer, business, and government agency in America is supposed to be able to pass a financial audit by the feds, every year. It’s the law, so we do our duty. There’s one exception: the Pentagon. Down the Hole, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib Year after year, the non-partisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) declares the Pentagon budget to be un-auditable. In 2013, for example, the GAO found that the Pentagon consistently fails to control its costs, measure its performance, or prevent and detect fraud, waste, and abuse. Congress thankfully, did give the Pentagon a deadline to get itself in better financial shape — 25 years ago. Taxpayers are still waiting. The Chief Financial Officers Act of 1990 requires every federal agency to pass a routine financial audit not once, not twice, but every year. All the other agencies do it. What does the Pentagon deliver instead? Promises. The Defense Department always swears it will conduct an audit — and then requests five more years to do it. How has Congress responded? By doubling the Pentagon’s budget between 2000 and 2010. Many members are now railing against “cuts” that will still keep military spending at stratospheric levels over the next decade. How bad could things be? Well, the most recent scandals may help answer this question. In Afghanistan, the Air Force bought the Afghan government 20 Italian transport planes for $486 million. When it found out the planes didn’t work, it crushed them into scrap metal, recouping just $32,000. Other examples of disastrous post-9/11 spending abound. In his new book Pay Any Price, New York Times investigative journalist James Risen reported that more than $1 billion in funds intended for Iraq’s reconstruction may have wound up in a Lebanese bunker. Or not. US investigators couldn’t get to the bottom of that one. Former Pentagon boss Robert M. Gates once described the US military as a semi-feudal system — “an amalgam of fiefdoms without centralized mechanisms to allocate resources, track expenditures, and measure results relative to the department’s overall priorities.” Gates also complained that it was nearly impossible to get accurate information and answers to basic questions, such as “How much money did you spend?” and “How many people do you have?” Congress, charged with oversight, is afraid of stepping on the Pentagon’s powerful toes. The House did, to its credit, pass an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act a few months ago that would require the Pentagon to rank its departments in order of how auditable they are. The amendment, however, lacks any penalties for recalcitrant divisions. A bipartisan group led by Reps. Barbara Lee (D-CA), Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Michael Burgess (R-TX), and Dan Benishek (R-MI) wants to push the Pentagon further. Their Audit the Pentagon Act of 2014 (HR5126) calls for cutting any “un-auditable” Pentagon operation by one-half of 1 percent. It will be an uphill battle to get majority support for even that slap on the wrist, given how lawmakers have failed to get the Pentagon to carry through with the audit they first demanded more than 20 years ago. I find this particularly amazing due to my own personal experience as the co-founder of a small and scrappy feminist peace group called CODEPINK. In 2008, the Internal Revenue Service singled us out for an audit. We underwent a tedious, energy-draining accounting of every dollar spent and complied with every bit of minutiae the IRS requested. It wasn’t fun, but it was our duty and we did it — and passed. And every year we’re prepared to do it again. If CODEPINK can handle an audit, why can’t the Pentagon? It’s high time the Defense Department fulfilled its commitment to account for every taxpayer dollar in its $555-billion budget.
Continue reading Don’t Ask the Pentagon Where Its Money Goes
Linda Sartor standing on a Soviet tank outside of Kabul, Afghanistan. (Photo: Peggy Gish / WNV)Linda Sartor is not afraid to die. Dedicated to nonviolence, she spent 10 years after September 11, 2001 traveling to conflict zones throughout the world as an unarmed peacekeeper, with roles ranging from protective accompaniment to direct interpositioning between parties when tensions were running high. She documents her work across the world — in Israel/Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iran and most recently Bahrain — in her new book, Turning Fear into Power: One Woman’s Journey Confronting the War on Terror. Inwardly quiet and exceedingly humble (she chose to sleep outside for eight years of her adult life), her courage and conviction are not only refreshing, they’re infectious. I recently had the privilege of spending a day with her to discuss her travels and the ways in which they have changed her as an individual, as well as her relationship to nonviolent action. Is there a nonviolent response to terrorism? I think George W. Bush misused the word “terrorism” so much that it really has no meaning. When protesters in the Occupy movement are portrayed as terrorists, that really changes the meaning of democracy too. If there is such a thing as real terrorism, I think it is often a last resort cry for help by people who are being severely abused and mistreated and who don’t have any other way to be seen and heard by those who could bring justice to a situation. A nonviolent response to terrorism is anything that brings more justice into the world, including more equity in our global economic system so that all people have their needs met and no one can abuse anyone else for their own economic advantage. What does activism mean to you? I think the word activism most often means protesting against something, but I am more excited about Gandhi’s idea of constructive program. I prefer the focus on creating models of what we want as opposed to protesting against what we don’t want because I believe that when we put energy against something it actually gives that something more power. You worked for an organization doing constructive program, which is at the forefront of international unarmed peacekeeping, the Gandhian dream of the Shanti Sena, or Peace Army. Can you tell a story illustrating that kind of nonviolence at work? The day after a massacre in a Christian Tamil village on an island in Sri Lanka, we Nonviolent Peaceforce unarmed civilian peacekeepers were greeted by the priest who took us to see the bodies. The people of the village were all excited to tell us what they had experienced the night before when the 11 people were killed. Each story confirmed that the killers were of the Sri Lankan Navy. The way it worked in Sri Lanka was that the bodies had to stay in place until the judge looked at them. When the judge arrived walking down the street, she was accompanied by Navy and police. So as soon as the villagers saw the group coming, the women and children all quickly went inside the churchyard and the men clumped closer to each other on the side of the street across from the church. The tension was palpable. I positioned myself on the side of the clump of men, so the Navy, police and judge walked past me first and then past the village men. As they passed, I smiled and waved and that proved to be totally disarming of the tensions. At that moment, I felt a bodily knowledge that I was safer because I was unarmed than I would have been armed. No one had any reason to be afraid of me, so I was not in personal danger. From that morning on, until the villagers decided to move from their village into a refugee camp, we were able to provide a protective presence to the people and they felt a sense of security that the Navy, which was supposedly responsible for their security, could not provide. You are one person. What makes you hopeful that you can make a difference? After 9/11, I couldn’t sit still. I felt a longing to get into some sort of action to take a stronger stand than I had ever taken before. In the 10 years of my life that I portray in my book, I don’t know concretely how much of a difference my actions made in the bigger picture. Like the Afghan Peace Volunteers I spent time with in Afghanistan, I don’t necessarily expect to see the changes I am committed to working toward come about in my lifetime. But I believe that I have to work toward those changes anyway. It is like the line in the song “The Impossible Dream” that says, “And I know if I’ll only be true to this glorious quest, that my heart will lie peaceful and calm when I’m laid to my rest; and the world will be better for this.” On another level, if I see something out there in the world that is not okay with me, I believe that if I look inside myself and ask something like, “Where is that violence in me?” then I have a place within myself that I can work to heal. Maybe that is the only place where I really have the power to make a difference. I do believe that that little bit of healing does contribute to the healing that’s needed in the world. I have been inspired by the words of the poet Clarissa Pinkola Estes, when she says, “Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely … We know that it does not take everyone on Earth to bring justice and peace, but only a small determined group who will not give up.” Your book is about transforming fear into nonviolent power. Fearlessness was one of Gandhi’s key characteristics of the nonviolent soul, or satyagrahi. In his 1928 work, “Satyagraha in South Africa,” he said, “A satyagrahi bids goodbye to fear.” What role do you think fear plays in perpetuating violence in our world? I see that the powers of domination that seem to be in control of the world today thrive on creating and perpetuating a culture of fear. Fear is contagious and easily blown out of proportion by our imaginations. I see that especially when it is at a distance. For example, people who don’t live in California are afraid of earthquakes and since I have never been in a tornado I fear that. I realized when I was preparing for my first trip — which was to Israel/Palestine — that for everyone back home it would seem like I would be in danger all the time. But in reality, there were only a few moments that were quite scary, and the rest of the time was not. We can learn to let fears be our teachers and when we accept, or even embrace, a fear and let ourselves learn what we have to learn from it, it has less control over us. It’s not that we ever get rid of fear, it is just that we can be with fear in a different way. The more I am able to be with my fears, the more freedom I have to do what my heart is calling me to do, and the more alive I feel in the end. Do you recommend that everyone travel to conflict zones as you have? I encourage people to recognize that they don’t have to do what I did, but that their own hearts have unique callings that are right for them. I trust that if each of us does that, it can lead to solutions that we can’t find when we only think about the problems from our heads and from the perspective of what we’ve done before.
Continue reading Turning Fear Into Power: An Interview With Unarmed Peacekeeper Linda Sartor
(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout )Libertarian economic policies are fueling the United States’ lost generation. In the last century, there have been two generations that have seen first-hand the devastating effects of libertarian economics. The first was the generation that came to age in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Living through the presidencies of Harding, Coolidge and Hoover, that generation saw massive tax cuts, deregulation and privatization, which helped the wealthy elite prosper, but screwed over everyone else. The second generation to suffer through libertarian economic policies is the one that came to age under the Bush administration, an administration that doubled-down on Reaganomics and libertarian economics so that the wealthy elite could prosper even more. That generation is the millennial generation, and thanks to our nation’s addictions to 34 years of failed Reaganomics, and to devastating libertarian extremist economic policies, it’s also the United States’ lost generation. The millennial generation has seen up-close and personal how libertarian economics and unregulated capitalism have brought our nation’s economy to its knees. Take the student loan debt crisis for example. Right now, the United States’ outstanding student loan debt stands at more than $1.18 trillion. More than 40 million Americans hold student loan debt, a number “greater than the entire population of Canada, Poland, North Korea, Australia and more than 200 other countries.” The average debt for a 25-year-old American has risen a staggering 91 percent during the past decade, and most of that is student loan debt. Student loan debt exceeds both credit card and auto loan debt in the US, and the average college debt per person is over $23,000. That debt is also hurting the overall economy. Last year, the New York Federal Reserve showed that there’s been an actual drag on our economy, just because of the growing levels of student loan debt. Americans with piles of student loan debt have less money to spend on anything from consumer products to homes. First-time home buyers are, or at least used to be, “the bedrock of the housing market.” But, since millions of college graduates are drowning in debt, they can’t afford to buy a home, which is killing the United States’ housing recovery. Meanwhile, according to a report from the One Wisconsin Institute, the devastating effects of student loan debt “may reduce new vehicle spending by as much as an estimated $6.4 billion annually in the US.” And, the chief economist for General Motors has even said that student loan debt is one of, if not THE major reason why millennials aren’t buying cars. But the mountains of student loan debt that millenials find themselves buried under today is a relatively new phenomenon. Before lawmakers in Washington got hooked on Reaganomics and libertarian economics, our country never had a student loan debt crisis. To compound their problem, while millenials are struggling to pay off their student loan debt, they’re also struggling to find employment, another consequence of libertarian economics. According to Generation Opportunity, as of this past August, the unemployment rate for millenials, aged 18-29, stood at 15 percent, more than double the national unemployment rate. And that’s even more amazing considering millenials make up over a third of the American workforce. The US has historically had fairly tight job markets, but thanks to libertarian economics and the “free trade” mantra that comes with it, unemployment is through the roof, jobs are being shipped overseas on a daily basis, and millenials are bearing the brunt of it. Meanwhile, millenials have also seen their parents struggle under devastating libertarian economic policies. Thanks to massive deregulation of the stock market, millenials saw their parent’s 401Ks and retirement plans wiped out when the stock market crashed. As result, they’ve become aware of just how dangerous an idea it is to privatize social security and retirement. From finding themselves buried under mountains of student loan debt, to being unemployed and watching their parent’s life savings disappear, the United States’ millenials have seen first-hand the dangers of libertarianism, and the devastation that it leaves in its wake. Fortunately, there’s a way to protect future generations from having to go through what the millennial generation has. The United States’ 34-year-long experiment with Reaganomics has been a complete failure and libertarian economic policies, while they might sound great, have done unprecedented damage to our economy and way of life. Let’s not lose the next generation of Americans to the insanity that is libertarianism and Reaganomics.
Continue reading The Lost Generation
A cow grazes in a pasture near a coal-fired power plant earlier this year in Harrodsburg, Kentucky. (Photo: Luke Sharrett for the New York Times) We seem to be having a moment in which three groups with very different agendas – anti-environmentalist conservatives, anti-capitalist people on the left and hard scientists who think they are smarter than economists – have formed an unholy alliance on behalf of the proposition that reducing greenhouse gas emissions is incompatible with growing real gross domestic product. The right likes this argument because it wants to block any action on climate. Some on the left like it because they think it can be the basis for an attack on our profit-oriented, materialistic society. The scientists like it because it lets them engage in some intellectual imperialism and invade another field (just to be clear, economists do this all the time, often with equally bad results). A few days ago, Mark Buchanan at Bloomberg published a piece titled “Economists Are Blind to the Limits of Growth” making the standard hard-science argument. Mr. Buchanan wrote that it’s not possible to have something bigger – which is apparently what he thinks economic growth has to mean – without using more energy, and declares that “I have yet to see an economist present a coherent argument as to how humans will somehow break free from such physical constraints.” Of course, he’s never seen such a thing because he’s never looked. But anyway, let me offer an example that I ran across when working on other issues. It is by no means the most important example of how to get by with less energy, and in no sense enough by itself to make that much difference. But it is, I think, a useful corrective to the rigorous-sounding but actually silly notion that you can’t produce more without using more energy. So, let’s talk about slow steaming. After 2008, when oil prices rose sharply, shipping companies – which send massive container ships on regular “pendulum routes,” taking stuff, say, from Rotterdam to China and back again – responded by reducing the speed of their ships. It turns out that steaming more slowly reduces fuel consumption more than proportionately to the reduction in speed. So what happens when you switch to slow steaming? Any one ship will carry less freight over the course of a year, because it can do fewer swings of the pendulum (although the number of trips won’t fall as much as the reduction in speed, because the time spent loading and unloading doesn’t change). But you can still carry as much freight as before, simply by using more ships – that is, by supplying more labor and capital. If you do that, output – the number of tons shipped – doesn’t change, but fuel consumption falls. And, of course, by using still more ships, you can combine higher output with less fuel consumption. Despite what some people who think they’re being sophisticated somehow believe, there is no reason at all that you can’t produce more while using less energy. It’s not a free lunch – it requires more of other inputs – but that’s just ordinary economics. Energy is just an input like other inputs. Some other points here: Notice that we aren’t talking about having to develop new technologies; slow steaming is just a choice, not a technological advance, and in fact it doesn’t even require that you change the equipment – you just have to use the same ships differently. Given time to redesign ships for fuel efficiency, and maybe develop new technologies, it would presumably be possible to ship the same amount of cargo with even less energy – but that’s not necessary to make the case that growth and less energy can go together. So where does the notion that energy is somehow special come from? Mainly, I’d say, from not thinking about concrete examples. When you read columns like Mr. Buchanan’s you see lots of metaphors about bacteria or whatever, nothing about shipping or manufacturing – because if you think about actual economic activities even briefly, it becomes obvious that there are trade-offs that could let you produce more while using less energy. And greenhouse gas emissions aren’t the same thing as energy consumption, either; there’s a lot of room to reduce emissions without killing economic growth. If you think you’ve found a good argument showing that this isn’t possible, all you’ve done is get confused by your own word games.
Continue reading Using Less Energy Doesn’t Have to Mean Less Growth
The genius of George Carlin is that he was able to get a message to an apathetic populace without them realizing that their opinions were being changed by a comedian.
Continue reading Why George Carlin Gets His Own Street
As he closes in on England’s goalscoring record, why does captain Wayne Rooney still divide opinion among fans and pundits alike?
Continue reading Is Rooney world class or a worry?
Mountaintop mining in Guatemala, as seen from a helicopter flight from Guatemala City to Xetulul theme park and Xocomil waterpark. (Photo: Casaflamingo / Flickr) The Guatemalan government and Canadian mining industry are responsible for violent conflicts and repression against predominantly indigenous communities in Guatemala, a country just 18 years removed from a 36-year internal conflict that resulted in genocide, a report released in September stated. Amnesty International’s (AI) report entitled “Mining in Guatemala: Rights at Risk,” notes that the Guatemalan and Canadian governments, and mining companies from Canada, have failed to properly consult and gain the consent of affected indigenous communities and have thus violated affected populations’ human rights. Furthermore, impunity in both Guatemala and Canada has perpetuated state and corporate violence against communities and individuals resisting mining projects, resulting in murders, assassination attempts, rapes, land grabs, displacements and other forms of violence that were also prevalent during Guatemala’s bloody internal conflict. “Motivated by fears that mining will contaminate their environment and/or negatively impact their livelihoods, and the enjoyment of their human rights, protests and disputes over such projects have erupted. Years of threats and violence, including injuries and deaths, and division and resentment within communities have been the result,” the report states. “Community leaders protesting against mining are often targeted with threats, acts of intimidation or attacks. In the majority of cases the perpetrators of such acts have yet to be held to account.” The Amnesty International report commended the Guatemalan government’s 2013 decision to put a moratorium on awarding new mining licenses and emphasized the need for the government to pass legal reforms that enshrine indigenous communities’ rights to free, prior and informed consent. “The proposed moratorium and the intention to reform existing laws present a window of opportunity for the government to strengthen human rights protections while bringing current mining regulations in line with Guatemala’s international obligations,” the report states. However, there are criticisms about the effectiveness of Amnesty’s focus on legal reforms. “The problem in Guatemala is not the laws, per se, nor the structure of the legal system itself, but rather impunity,” said Grahame Russell, director of the Canadian and U.S.-based NGO Rights Action. Russell, whose community development, environmental and human rights defense solidarity organization has worked with communities highlighted in the report, said what Guatemala needs is not so much mining law reform, but “a fundamental transformation in its lack of democracy, its lack of rule of law, and its corruption.” He added, “It borders on being counter-productive to urge for legal reform, while ignoring that Guatemala is fundamentally an undemocratic country and impunity and corruption are the norm. Expecting the powerful sectors, national and international, to respect people’s human and territorial rights and protect the environment in a country like Guatemala, is like expecting a tiger not to eat meat.” No Justice, No Peace Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina serves as an example of the impunity, which Russell mentioned, that operates within Guatemala. Molina represents the country’s bloody, racist past and its disappointing present. Perez Molina is a former general and head of military intelligence who was trained at the infamous School of the Americas (renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) in Fort Benning, Georgia. He served under former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, who was convicted last May in a Guatemalan court for genocide and other war crimes that include “1,771 deaths, 1,400 human rights violations and the displacement of 29,000 indigenous Guatemalans.” However, Montt’s sentence was overturned on a technicality by the country’s constitutional court just two weeks later. Victoria Sanford, author of “Buried Secrets: Truth and Human Rights in Guatemala,” wrote in the New York Times last year immediately following the Rios Montt conviction, “There is serious evidence that the current president, the former military commander Otto Perez Molina, who took office in January 2012, may have been involved in the same mass killings for which General Ríos Montt has now been convicted.” .@democracynow: ‘The Video Guatemala’s President [Otto Pérez Molina] Doesn’t Want You To See': http://t.co/sz7fXq6YHJ #Genocide — Frank Owen (@frankowen999) April 21, 2013 This would explain Perez Molina’s statements in the press during the trial that he did not believe genocide occurred during the country’s internal conflict, despite the U.N. Truth Commission’s post-conflict judgement that genocide did indeed occur. Remarkably, Perez Molina has recently received favorable press and has been painted in a progressive light internationally because of some statements he has made that have been critical of the largely U.S.-influenced drug war in the region, as well as Washington’s response to the so-called migration crisis originating from Mexico and Central America. While this media assessment ignores the president’s murky past, it also fails to critically review how his words match up with his present actions. “There’s definitely a dual discourse coming from the Guatemalan government,” said Kelsey Alford-Jones, executive director of the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission. “Molina’s discourse in international forums is not something reflected in policy proposals inside of Guatemala, in fact, it is often directly contradictory to actions taken by his administration.” Alford-Jones points to instances where the Guatemalan president has used the drug war — even though he alleges that he supports drug decriminalization — as a pretext for militarizing responses to communities resisting mining projects. She also noted a 2012 massacre where military personnel, sent by the president, opened fire on indigenous protesters who were blocking the country’s Pan-American Highway in Totonicapan, killing six people and wounding 40 others. “Molina is operating within a very militarized framework. He has used methods that look very similar to those used during the internal armed conflict,” said Alford-Jones. “Majority of affected communities are indigenous and they are also communities that have lived through egregious state sponsored violence over the last 50 years.” Where Perez Molina’s former boss would accuse organizations like Amnesty International as being part of the “international communist conspiracy,” in this post-Cold War era the new alibi for violence and repression, or discrediting critics, at least in Guatemala, is now accusing them of being narcos or narco-terrorists. “With respect to President Otto Perez Molina, no justice was done for his role in the war crimes and atrocities committed against the mainly indigenous population during the years of State repression,” said Russell, “and furthermore, he ends up becoming president of the country and openly encouraging the expansion of the global mining industry.” Past as Prologue The legacy of Guatemala’s internal conflict and subsequent genocide against the country’s indigenous population, and the methods of violence and repression continue with today’s mining conflicts, although on a smaller scale. Just as critics of the country’s military dictatorships were targeted during the Cold War conflict, especially during the 1970s and early 1980s, human rights, community and environmental defenders resisting mining projects, and as the Amnesty International report points out, mostly indigenous peoples, suffer similar violations. Furthermore, as in the previous decades, international actors share responsibility. “Many of the high profile mining companies currently operating in Guatemala are subsidiaries of Canadian companies,” the report states. “Amnesty International calls on all companies to fulfill their responsibility to respect human rights in the context of their operations and specifically urges the Canadian government to enact legislation that would establish mandatory corporate accountability standards for Canadian extractive companies operating abroad, as well as legal remedies, in Canada, for non-nationals who are affected by Canadian extractive companies.” Jennifer Moore, Latin America Coordinator for MiningWatch Canada, said that Canada’s government has been aiding and abetting crimes against mining-affected communities. “The Canadian government enables the sort of arrogant and abusive behavior that we observe from Canadian mining companies in Guatemala, and throughout the region through strong diplomatic and political promotion of their operations, as well as through upholding the state of impunity that they enjoy for abuses taking place,” said Moore. MiningWatch Canada is a research and advocacy organization that works in solidarity with mining-affected communities in Canada and abroad. Moore added that, “In general, but speaking about Goldcorp and Tahoe Resources specifically, Canadian companies have repeatedly sown social conflict, divisions, insecurity and violence at the community level.” Both Goldcorp’s and Tahoe Resources’s projects were used as case studies in Amnesty International’s report. Canadian mining company Goldcorp’s Marlin mine is located in the department of San Marcos in the country’s western highland and affects the municipalities of San Miguel Ixtahuacán and Sipacapa, which both have majority indigenous populations. Since its outset, the project, initially subsidized with a World Bank loan, has been plagued with human rights violations and health and environmental harms. In 2005, then-president of Guatemala Oscar Berger sent in the military to break up a road blockade after giving a speech in the nation’s capital announcing that the government had to “protect investors.” One protester was killed as a result. Five years later another local opponent of the mine, Diodora Hernandez, who refused to sell her land to the company, was shot in the eye. The Amnesty International report also cited independent assessments of the project which showed systematic failures by the company to uphold local affected Guatemalans’ human rights, as well as address their grievances and concerns, despite a company statement blaming “opposition groups, many of them made up of people from outside the area … successfully disseminat(ing) misinformation campaigns” allegedly responsible for exacerbating tensions. @mimundo_org images featured in @amnesty report: Mining in Guatemala: Rights at Risk http://t.co/EwU9lzpw13 pic.twitter.com/I8KVwAP4R2 — MiMundo.org (@mimundo_org) September 25, 2014 Another particularly egregious case involves Canada’s Hudbay Minerals, which operates a nickel mine in the indigenous region of El Estor, in the department of Izabal. Members of El Estor’s Maya-Q’eqchi community have filed three separate civil claims in a Canadian court against Hudbay, which acquired Skye Resources in 2008, the company that had been operating the mine previously. The first of three claims against Hudbay was filed by El Estor’s Angelica Choc, alleging that security guards working for one of its subsidiaries shot and killed her husband in 2009. The second claim was filed on behalf of German Chub Choc, who was subsequently shot that same day, but in a separate incident. Since then, he has been confined to a wheelchair. The final claim was filed by 11 women from a neighboring community claiming that security guards working on behalf of the Canadian company gang-raped them during a violent land eviction. “The Canadian government is fomenting conflict in Guatemala for the role it plays in pushing for the almost unfettered expansion of Canadian mining interests, ignoring or turning a blind eye to violence and repression, a lack of democracy, corruption and impunity,” said Rights Action’s Russell. “The Canadian government should be held responsible for the predictable harms and violations that occur.” However, MiningWatch’s Moore believes that this could be a game changer in Canada. “These cases are resonating in the industry. I think that companies are recognizing that the court system is catching on to the fact that it has jurisdiction here to hold parent companies and their directors to account for abuses taking place in connection with a company’s subsidiary somewhere else,” said Moore. Russell agrees: “The cases have established a small, but important legal and even political impact in Canada. Because the lawsuits were filed in the Canadian legal system, that is fundamental to the structures of power in Canada, the dominant Canadian economic and political sectors are forced to pay attention,” he said, adding that the lawsuits are “chipping away at impunity and immunity from liability in Canada.” Moving Forward “The violence and repression that has taken root around mining in Guatemala cannot continue. The Guatemalan government must ensure that they implement and respect legislation to facilitate dialogue and decision-making between mining companies, state authorities and affected people,” said Erika Guevara Rosas, Americas Director of Amnesty International. “Communities must be provided with full and objective information about the benefits and risks of mining in a clear and culturally appropriate manner.” But as critics have pointed out, it is not the laws that are necessarily the problem. Guatemala’s El Escobal mining project in San Rarael Las Flores, in the department of Santa Rosa, illustrates this point. The silver mine, mentioned in the Amnesty report and owned by Canada and U.S.-based Tahoe Resources, has seen ongoing confrontations between community member and mine security personnel. Not only did Guatemalan President Perez Molina decide to declare a state of siege on four municipalities surrounding the mine, he declared it a national security threat. Guatemalan news site Plaza Publica published an article in July stating: Since March 26, 2013, the government of Otto Perez Molina has given the San Rafael Las Flores social conflict special treatment. The National Security Council (CNS) concluded that the social problems — protests, altercations, provocations, blockades — surrounding the extractive projects should be dealt with at another level, as a problem of National Security, that is to say, against the security of the State.” As a result, Perez Molina created an “Inter-Agency Mining Affairs Group” run by the country’s National Security Council, to deal with these so-called national security problems — which turns out to be communities defending their land and human rights conflicting with foreign capital. The Amnesty International report also states, “There has been mounting concern over the last several years that Canada does not have any adequate mechanisms in place to regulate Canadian mining companies operating abroad, even when those companies are receiving State support.” Moore said that a lot needs to be done, specifically in Canada. “I think that we need to mobilize not just to make Canada open for justice to address damage that has been done, but to build a stronger movement that questions the economic development model Canada is such a part of promoting in Guatemala and the region,” she added. “With criminalization, militarization and violence in Guatemala and the region worsening, we need more people to stand with the many, many Guatemalans who are saying ‘no’ to mining, and to work to give greater voice to them and their struggles.” And many communities have collectively said ‘no’ to mining. In fact, there have been 73 community consultations held throughout Guatemala where communities voted to reject mining. One voted yes. “When you talk to communities, a vast majority of those affected by these mining projects simply say they just don’t want them,” said the Guatemala Human Rights Commission’s Alford-Jones. “It’s not about the details around the country’s mining laws or policies. It’s about a desire to be able to say ‘no’ or to have veto power over these mining projects.”
Continue reading Guatemalan Government, Canadian Mining Industry Responsible for Violent Conflicts
The Schneiders meat-processing plant in Kitchener, Ontario, last year. Once a mainstay of the local manufacturing economy, the plant is expected to shut down by the end of the year. (Photo: Ian Willms for the New York Times) Josh Barro tells us in a recent New York Times article that conservatives are once again touting Canada as a role model, in particular using the country’s experience in the 1990s to claim that austerity is expansionary after all. I think this qualifies as a “cockroach” idea (“zombie” ideas just keep shambling along, whereas sometimes you think you’ve gotten rid of cockroaches, but they keep coming back). I thought we had disposed of all this four years ago. But nooooo. Mr. Barro hits the main points in his article. Canadian austerity in the 1990s was offset by a huge positive movement in the trade balance, due to a falling Canadian dollar and raw materials exports. Since we can’t all devalue and move into a trade surplus, this meant that the Canadian story in the ’90s had no relevance at all to the austerity debate of 2010. Also, the whole debate about austerity versus stimulus was driven by the problem that interest rates were at the zero lower bound, which meant that there wasn’t an easy way to offset the effects of austerity. Canada in the 1990s? Not so much. However, Mr. Barro misses a trick. When dealing with right-wing claims from people about economic data, not only should you not accept their assertions, you should assume that what they say is probably wrong anyway. Mr. Barro writes: “Squeezed by high interest rates, a left-of-center government instituted big spending cuts in the 1990s; as a result, Canada’s level of public expenditure as a share of its economy has fallen to match America’s.” Take a look at the chart on this page with data from the International Monetary Fund. The gap between Canadian and American public spending narrowed during the recession because it was far worse in the United States. This meant that any given level of spending was larger as a share of gross domestic product, and it also led to a temporary spike in spending in the United States, mainly on unemployment insurance and other safety net programs, but also briefly on stimulus. But that’s all in the past, and we are once again back to the normal situation in which Canadian spending as a share of G.D.P. is quite a lot higher than ours – including much more spending on poverty reduction. So conservatives have fallen in love with an imaginary Canada, whose history and current reality is nothing like the real place. Are you surprised?
Continue reading Conservatives Revive the Canadian Fantasy
Any effort to improve the lives of black men that meets with the hearty approval of Bill O’Reilly ought to set off a few alarm bells. But My Brother’s Keeper, an initiative announced by Barack Obama in February, was received benignly by the corporate press, with the closest thing to criticism being “Should he have acted earlier?” (ABC This Week, 3/2/14). Reports displayed a telling vagueness. MBK was described as “a program aimed at giving young men of color a shot at success” (NBC Nightly News, 2/27/14), an effort “to reverse underachievement among young black and Hispanic males” (AP, 2/27/14) and as “commitments from foundations and businesses to help keep young minority men in the classroom and out of prison” (Washington Post, 2/28/14). ABC’s Diane Sawyer (2/27/14) called it “a plan to help kids succeed, even when they’re angry and have made mistakes.” Serious sounds were made about the problem George Stephanopoulos (This Week, 3/2/14) presented as “the fact that young black men are more likely than other Americans to drop out of school, be sent to prison or end up murdered,” but with little interest in ascertaining just how MBK, with its focus on mentoring, or “high standards and up-close motivation” (CBS Evening News, 2/27/14), would address it. Myriad deeper questions were left to big media’s margins. USA Today (3/3/14) ran Tavis Smiley’s critique that “what these young brothers really need is not so much to be ‘kept,’ but to have their humanity and dignity respected.” A Chicago Tribune source (2/28/14) likened the plan to “a band-aid on a gunshot wound.” The New York Times (3/12/14) noted such core concerns as MBK’s exclusion of women and girls, its reinforcement of patriarchal norms and its reliance on philanthropic noblesse oblige over government action, but consigned them to its “Room for Debate” feature. Independent media gave critics more space. The Nation’s Mychal Denzel Smith (2/28/14), for example, suggested that despite some admirable aspects, MBK ignores the root problem. We can turn every black and brown boy into a “respectable” citizen. But the moment we do, the rules for what constitutes “respectable” will change. That’s how racism works. At Salon (3/6/14), Brittney Cooper called out the proposal’s male-only focus, given that black women and girls fare as poorly and even worse in some ways, including the fact that “single black women have the lowest net wealth of any group, with research showing a median wealth of $100.” But it’s not surprising that corporate reporters, in the main, saw little to question in the idea that entrenched socio-economic disparities could be meaningfully addressed without systemic change or even new resources, that the fundamental problem facing men of color is “broken” families in need of a dominant male, and that a proper point of emphasis is that, as Brian Williams (NBC Nightly News, 2/27/14) explained, “they cannot blame the circumstances of their birth.” These media have a long, inglorious history of singling out black males as “superpredators” (Extra!, 1/98) and shiftless grifters, and in some ways the “uniquely endangered” black male is a variant rather than an antidote to that pathological depiction. The narrative may start by talking about “hurdles” black men face, but on examination it generally locates those obstacles within black men themselves, including those who, as Stephanopoulos put it, “end up murdered.” When Michael Brown—with a father in his life and accepted to college—was shot dead in the street in Ferguson, Missouri, by a white police officer, corporate media had a chance to revisit the assumption that what black men need most is a mentor. But rather than question the analysis they’d embraced, media instead found everything “new.” Suddenly we learned that US police forces are militarized! Some police disrespect black people! Different communities have different experiences! That’s not to belittle media coverage, which was better than it might have been. There was the predictable culture-blaming, from the predictable quarters. (See MBK booster Bill O’Reilly—8/26/14—who dismissed protesters’ concerns because the idea of white privilege is a “big lie,” expounded by “race hustlers.”) But when you can find a column headlined “In Defense of Looting” in the Daily Mississippian (8/26/14), you know it’s not quite business as usual. USA Today (8/15/14) reported on the incidence of killings by police (at least 400 a year) and decried the lack of reliable data. The Christian Science Monitor (8/21/14) explored the damage inflicted by St. Louis segregation and white flight. The New Republic (8/20/14) explained the particulars of “self defense” laws in Missouri and elsewhere that, combined with “entrenched racial and occupational biases” make homicide convictions of police officers like Ferguson’s Darren Wilson “basically impossible.” All of this helpfully moves the conversation from black people’s “feelings” to demonstrable facts. But big media don’t really have themselves to credit for the elevation of Brown’s murder beyond lamentable anecdote. They were largely reacting to the vigorous public outcry, and to the Ferguson Police Department’s especially heavy-handed response, including assaults on reporters themselves. And they were struggling to keep up, as those following the story turned instead to Black Twitter and other online sources for news and perspective. (CounterSpin, 8/22/14) Now mainstream media are asking whether Ferguson will be a “moment” or a “movement” for black activists, but they might more appropriately ask the same of their own engagement with the issues Ferguson puts on the table. As Salon’s Cooper (8/26/14) put it, real progress would entail a real commitment to due process, protection of voting rights, a livable wage, the dissolution of the prison/industrial complex, funding of good public education at both K-12 and college levels, a serious commitment to affirmative action, food security and full reproductive justice for all women. Those are the kinds of conditions under which black communities, and all communities, could thrive. A failure to see things on that scale, to treat what we’re now calling “Ferguson” not as aberrant but as reflective of US social systems and institutions, risks setting us back to appeals to individual betterment, the “pull up your pants” logic critics see in MBK. And not insignificantly, a focus on the individual over the structural tells white people that racism is a personal thing they “just don’t understand” and therefore can’t fight, that progress is a zero-sum game in which there’s nothing people of conscience can do together. Recognition of the irreducibility (beyond class, culture, clothing or family structure) of anti-black racism is laudable and overdue. But it need not erase the non-black anti-racists who could be engaged in resisting policies and practices that overwhelmingly hurt people of color, like, for just one example, the practice of funding police departments with low-level warrants that target the poor—as spotlighted by the Daily Beast’s Michael Daly (8/22/14), who is white. Ferguson could be a turning point for media coverage of racism. But should corporate media “forget” what they now suggest they are learning—as they have after previous “moments” (Extra!, 7/92, 8/06) the good news is that every day more people are talking around them, and moving forward without them.
Continue reading Michael Brown Had a Father
(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)The medical waste incineration industry was given birth to in the late 1980s by the confluence of two high profile media circuses: one – the HIV hysteria – and two – multiple media accounts of bags of syringes, needles, plasma bags, IV tubing, bottles of pills and even body parts washing up on the shores of some of the most popular resort beaches on the East Coast stretching from Maine to Florida. In 1987, in Indianapolis, Indiana, 12 children were found playing with HIV-infected vials of blood that came from an unsecured dumpster used by a medical clinic. In a classic case of the cure being worse than the disease, the knee-jerk response was a widespread call to burn hospital waste so that the various avenues of incompetence, corruption and profiteering that led to dirty needles washing up on exclusive beaches could be closed down through a back door. Little thought was applied to the consequences of incineration, until plumes of black clouds began billowing from hospital complexes. Neighbors complained, air pollution research showed that those emissions were indeed dangerous and the Environmental Protection Agency became involved.(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)The medical waste incineration industry was given birth to in the late 1980s by the confluence of two high profile media circuses: one – the HIV hysteria – and two – multiple media accounts of bags of syringes, needles, plasma bags, IV tubing, bottles of pills and even body parts washing up on the shores of some of the most popular resort beaches on the East Coast stretching from Maine to Florida. In 1987, in Indianapolis, Indiana, 12 children were found playing with HIV-infected vials of blood that came from an unsecured dumpster used by a medical clinic. In a classic case of the cure being worse than the disease, the knee-jerk response was a widespread call to burn hospital waste so that the various avenues of incompetence, corruption and profiteering that led to dirty needles washing up on exclusive beaches could be closed down through a back door. Little thought was applied to the consequences of incineration, until plumes of black clouds began billowing from hospital complexes. Neighbors complained, air pollution research showed that those emissions were indeed dangerous and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) became involved. Eventually the number of incinerators contracted dramatically, but in part because “centralized” incinerators became an easy solution. Hospitals washed their hands of the matter by allowing their waste to be burned in someone else’s backyard. As a result, Stericycle, headquartered in Lake Forest, Illinois, became the king of the medical waste incineration industry, operating six large incinerators throughout the country, including one of the largest medical incinerators west of the Mississippi in the heart of the most heavily populated part of Utah, the North Salt Lake subdivision of Foxboro, a few miles from my house. Stericycle now receives the medical waste of eight surrounding states there. The relationship between Stericycle and Foxboro has always been tense. Efforts to shutter Stericycle were launched as long as 10 years ago by a handful of citizens concerned about the toxic brew that billows out of Stericycle’s short smokestack. It’s no surprise that burning medical waste, just like burning fossil fuels or just about anything else, creates a pollution potpourri of hazardous chemicals and gases, heavy metals and particulate matter. Indeed, citizens’ concerns are validated by hundreds of studies showing multiple adverse health outcomes among people exposed, including higher rates of cancers like childhood leukemia and adverse pregnancy outcomes that I have written about in a previous essay. The gnawing outrage of Stericycle is just a microcosm of the endemic failure of countless public policies held hostage to capitalism. Science, common sense, proportion, justice and human decency get thrown under the bus initially by fear and ignorance, and held there in perpetuity by ideology, exploitation and greed. The repercussions of the toxic incinerator emissions are made even more disturbing when adding the realization that the medical waste incineration industry was born on a false premise – that hospital pathogens must be incinerated. An EPA report dating back 25 years cites numerous studies showing hospital waste presents no more risk of spreading infection than household waste – which harbors virtually all the same viruses and bacteria. In fact, according to the Society for Hospital Epidemiology of America, “Household waste contains more microorganisms with pathogenic potential for humans on average than medical waste.” So why single out medical waste? Scalpels and needles can be shredded without incineration. Many of the toxic chemicals and heavy metals in hospital waste are not destroyed by incineration. In fact, burning medical waste is the worst possible way to manage it. While merely landfilling is a less than perfect solution, the possibility of contamination of usable groundwater is theoretical, not a certainty. Whereas with incineration, the emissions enter the air shed we all breathe from, guaranteeing public exposure, especially for those closest to the incinerator. The ash left over from incineration may be a smaller volume than the original waste, but it is much more toxic, and eventually has to be landfilled anyway. Incineration does not prevent disease; it actually spreads disease. Incineration not only does not remove toxins; it actually creates new ones and concentrates, mobilizes and redistributes existing ones. Emissions from incinerators are probably the most toxic type of air pollution there is, contaminated with the deadliest compounds known to science, designated by the EPA as “HAPs” (hazardous air pollutants), which includes dioxins, benzene, PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), furans, heavy metals and radioactive elements. Medical incinerators have even more deadly compounds not found in any other source, like residuals from chemotherapy drugs and even prions, the highly infective proteins that cause the 100 percent fatal human “Mad Cow” disease (which are much more common in human tissue than previously realized, and not reliably deactivated by incineration). State health departments and environmental agencies are fond of claiming that toxicology assessments of the concentrations of many of these toxins are small enough to be written off as “safe.” The Utah State Health Department measured dioxin levels in the soil around Stericycle and declared the levels to be below any threshold of concern. If the devil is often in the details, in this case, the devil lies in the ignorance of the details. Those toxicology assessments ignore the biologic complexity of the exposure. Many of these toxins are bioaccumulative, meaning they build up in the human body insidiously over time, and in even higher concentrations in certain critical organs and tissues. Lipophilic (fat-like) toxins like dioxins highly concentrate in human breast milk. Nursing infants consume 10 to 20 times as much dioxin as the average adult. No toxicology assessments are ever based on the amount of dioxins in the human breast milk of people who live near incinerators, yet that undoubtedly is where dioxins wreak their greatest havoc on public health. Nor do those assessments consider the consequences of lipophilic toxins crossing the placenta that will primarily end up in the developing fetal brain because fat comprises about 60 percent of brain structural matter, and is the primary fat reservoir in the fetus. Recently a new documentary was released that significantly raises the stakes in the long and sorry saga of this dying industry whose flagship corporate villain is Stericycle. The film features an undercover interview with an anonymous former Stericycle employee giving a credible, extraordinarily detailed account of fraudulent, illegal management practices far beyond what prompted the criminal investigation by state and federal law enforcement. The whistle-blower alleges shocking disregard for public and employee safety by Stericycle management – including directing employees to ignore the Geiger counter giving radioactive readings of the waste and to burn it anyway. Furthermore, he stated, the Geiger counter didn’t work much of the time. While radioactivity is an inherent part of hospital waste, one of the few appropriate provisions in Stericycle’s permit is a prohibition of burning anything radioactive, and with good reason. No amount of radiation exposure is safe. Quoting from an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, “Mutagenic effects theoretically can result from a single molecular DNA alteration . . . every molecule of a carcinogen is presumed to pose a risk.” (1) In fact, the medical community is now much more cautious about the radioactive burden of many of our common diagnostic tools, like CAT scans, because of this growing recognition. Even low dose radiation exposure can damage chromosomes, alter gene expression and lead to cancer, brain diseases, immune disorders, birth defects and miscarriages – all of which North Salt Lake residents believe they have experienced in excess in their neighborhoods. The ex-employee described management deliberately rigging the company scales and ignoring their permitted weight limit, a likely reason the state caught them exceeding their dioxin limit by 400 percent. Add to this the revelation that Erin Brockovich’s investigative team found dioxin concentrations in Foxboro homes to be inversely proportional to the distance from the incinerator. The home closest to Stericycle had 17 times the level of dioxins in its attic that would be considered average for an industrial area. Incineration is widely recognized by international health organizations as an unnecessary, dangerous means of handling waste. Over 98 percent of medical incinerators have closed in the last 15 years – leaving a handful of communities like Foxboro to take most of the “hits for the team.” Utah’s governor, Gary Herbert, could close Stericycle on the basis of necessary public health protection, but he is loath to do so because he functions under the fog of the conservative mindset, that protection of business inherently has priority. The whole medical incineration industry was a huge mistake right from the start, but Stericycle seems to have achieved immortality simply because someone is making money from it. The gnawing outrage of Stericycle is just a microcosm of the endemic failure of countless public policies held hostage to capitalism. Science, common sense, proportion, justice and human decency get thrown under the bus initially by fear and ignorance, and held there in perpetuity by ideology, exploitation and greed. We watch the same play over and over again with a different cast, be it gun control, the wealth gap, ISIS, our war addiction, GMO labeling, chemical and pesticide dysregulation, factory farming – and of course, the climate crisis. It makes me wonder whether we are not already living on the planet of the apes. Watch the full documentary on Stericycle. Moench’s essay does not represent the official position of UCS or PSR. 1. Bernard D. Goldstein, M.D., Howard J. Osofsky, M.D., Ph.D., and Maureen Y. Lichtveld, M.D., M.P.H.The Gulf Oil Spill N Engl J Med 2011; 364:1334-1348April 7, 2011
Continue reading Watching Our Health Go Up in Smoke
Minimum wage activists and organizers across the country are abuzz over the announcement that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has signed an executive order to expand and increase the city’s living wage law. The good news is that the order, signed on September 30, offers real wage increases for ordinary workers. While increasing the living wage is a good start, all of New York’s minimum wage workers deserve a raise.New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. (Photo: Kevin Case / Flickr) Increasing the living wage is a good start, but all of New York’s minimum wage workers deserve a raise. Minimum wage activists and organizers across the country are abuzz over the announcement that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has signed an executive order to expand and increase the city’s living wage law. The good news is that the order, signed on September 30, offers real wage increases for ordinary workers. The new legislation will increase the minimum living wage from $11.90 to $13.13 for all non-benefit workers who are employed by commercial tenants that receive significant subsidies (over $1 million) from the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC). Similar workers with benefits would see their minimum living wage rise from $10.30 to $11.50. The de Blasio administration estimates that this could mean a wage increase for as many as 18,000 workers citywide. Furthermore, this decision may very well be part of a larger effort by de Blasio to convince Albany to allow him to create a universal New York City minimum wage of $13.13. Such an increase, pegged to inflation, could lead to a $15 an hour citywide minimum wage for all workers by 2019. Though it’s not the $15 an hour now that many advocates have been calling for, this plan is nonetheless a step in the right direction. Minimum wage activists should take heart that de Blasio is very clearly feeling the heat of the national grassroots movement to increase the minimum wage, including the recent victory of a $15 an hour minimum wage for all workers in Seattle that made international headlines. But this new legislation is not all sunshine and roses. First of all, the wage increases on offer are slight when compared to the cost of living in New York City: $1.23 and $1.20 an hour, respectively, (about a 10 percent total raise) for only a small portion of New York City’s minimum wage workers, is not nearly enough, and benefits far too few.While New York City commercial landlords and real estate interests continue to reap huge benefits from city subsidies, and retail stores and food companies like Starbucks and Macy’s continue to make massive yearly profits, many New Yorkers have seen their wages stagnate or fall, and others, even with two or three different jobs, are struggling to keep up with the city’s ever increasing rents. Indeed, even under the new so-called living wage legislation, many low-wage workers, (including single parents with one or two children) working 40 hours a week, would still fail to meet the minimum standards for a living wage according to the MIT Living Wage Calculator. Furthermore, the legislation is yet another example of the failure of public-private initiatives and institutions like the EDC to generate actual social change. Built around massive givebacks to city business and real estate interests, and designed with their express consent in mind, this legislation does nothing to change the actual status quo of economic and political power dynamics within the city. Instead, it amounts to a taxpayer subsidy of wages for a minority of workers who have few other options to earn a decent wage. Worse, the complexity of the law makes rampant wage theft and obstruction easy for big companies like the Maramont Corporation, which underpaid its workers for more than a decade. As the new law expands, and as the city comptroller’s office is stripped of its oversight, such violations will no doubt continue to take place. New York’s workers, especially those struggling to piece together a living on $8 an hour, need a real raise. A citywide minimum wage of $15 an hour would lift all of New York’s workers out of poverty and provide them with a legitimate living wage. Although this legislation and de Blasio’s planned $13.13 have their shortcomings and fail to go far enough, minimum wage activists should nonetheless be proud of this development. Without the pressure exerted from below, we would not even be having this conversation, and even a $13 minimum wage would be a distant dream. The pressure is clearly working and it is imperative that we keep it up. Those interested in fighting for the future of New York’s working class can join 15 Now and help mobilize for a truly livable wage for all.
Continue reading Mayor de Blasio’s “Living Wage” Increase Is Too Little for Too Few
A hazardous materials crew prepares to enter the Ivy Apartments, where Thomas Duncan, a Liberian man who fell ill with Ebola, was staying with relatives, in Dallas, Oct. 3, 2014. (Photo: Cooper Neill / The New York Times) The Republican Caucus Room Conspiracy is putting all of our lives at risk. As the condition of Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian man diagnosed with Ebola in Texas, continues to worsen, and as fears over Ebola spreading in the US continue to grow, the right-wing media is lashing out at the US surgeon general. So who is the surgeon general? The surgeon general is the United States’ top doc. He or she gives unbiased information to the American people about health crises and health risks. It’s the surgeon general’s responsibility to educate the people and help us understand what we do and don’t need to worry about. The surgeon general helps cut through all of the fear-mongering and misinformation. But the folks over at Breitbart don’t think that the surgeon general is doing his/her job. In a recent piece, Breitbart points out that, “The official website of the Surgeon General of the United States has nothing to say about Ebola prevention and detection, other than an old press release about relief efforts in Liberia.” Well, there’s a good reason for that. The US doesn’t have a surgeon general right now, and it’s all because of Republicans’ non-stop efforts to sabotage the Obama presidency. Back in November of last year, President Obama nominated Dr. Vivek Murthy to take over the role of the nation’s top doc. Murthy is more than qualified for the position, but unfortunately, he did something that many in Washington won’t: he stood up to the NRA. In a letter sent to members of Congress in his capacity has co-founder of the health-care advocacy group Doctors for America, Murthy wrote that, “As health care professionals who are confronted with the human cost of gun violence every day, we are unwavering in our belief that strong measures to reduce gun violence must be taken immediately. We strongly urge Congress and the Obama administration to put legislation in place now and develop a comprehensive plan to reduce gun-related injuries and deaths.” Naturally, those strong words against gun violence in the US caught the ire of the NRA, which in turn got its Republican cronies in the Senate, along with some red state Democrats, to put Murthy’s nomination on hold. For more than a year now, the US has been without a surgeon general. So, just how big a deal is that, especially in the face of a growing Ebola outbreak? Well, as former US Surgeon General Regina Benjamin put it, “The surgeon general is America’s doctor, delivering information to the American people in a language they can understand. Not having one right now, you don’t have that face and that person that the American people can identify with as their doctor who’s looking out for them on a large scale.” And as MSNBC’s Krystal Ball pointed out in a recent op-ed, “This role is exactly what prior surgeons general have filled in times of heightened public health anxiety. When faced with the threat of bird-flu, for example, the surgeon general at the time, Richard Carmona, talked to the public about prevention, pressured drug makers to ramp up production of effective treatments. He also educated us on risks associated with the disease and kept us updated on its status.” But, thanks to Republicans, the US is without its top doctor, during a time when we need him or her more than ever. Our lack of a surgeon general traces all the way back to the night of January 20, 2009, the day that President Obama was sworn in as Commander-in-Chief. At the Caucus Room restaurant here in Washington DC, top Republican lawmakers and strategists held a private dinner, where they hatched a plan to sabotage and undermine the Obama presidency. In fact, they even pledged to use Taliban-like tactics. In an interview the National Journal back in March of 2009, Republican Congressman Pete Sessions said that the Republicans would take a page out of the Taliban playbook. He said, “Taliban Insurgency, we understand perhaps a little bit more because of the Taliban. Insurgency is the way they went about systematically understanding how to disrupt and change a person’s entire processes. And these Taliban – is an example of how you go about to change a person from their messaging, to their operations, to their frontline message. And we need to understand that Insurgency may be required when [dealing with Democrats on] the other side.” The Texas Republican went on to say that -“If they [Democrats] do not give us those options or opportunities then we will then become Insurgency … I think Insurgency is a mindset and an attitude…” Thanks to this Republican “insurgency” plan, the US is without its top doctor, while a deadly virus continues to grow and spread. And, it’s that same “insurgency” plan that’s keeping Republican governors across the United States, like Texas’ Rick Perry, from expanding Medicaid coverage to millions of Americans, a move that would also help our country be better prepared for an epidemic. So, next time you hear a Republican lawmaker or conservative pundit complaining about how we’re not ready to fight Ebola, just remember, they’re not really complaining. They’re bragging. They’re getting exactly what they wanted. At the risk of all the rest of us.
Continue reading Thanks to the GOP, the US Is Without Its Top Doctor as Ebola Spreads
When protests in Hong Kong exploded, knowledgeable people looked for US involvement. It was not hard to find. The overt intrusion of the US is available in budgets, documents and websites; the covert involvement has not yet been uncovered but is no doubt there. What does US involvement mean for the credibility of the protest movement and the future of Hong Kong? How should Hong Kong activists respond? The issues raised by the protests, lack of democracy and an unfair economy, are very real. But so are the concerns of Beijing for economic growth and continuing to lift people out of poverty, something China has done remarkably well. Those who seek to transform governance and create a more equal economy now have a more challenging task than protests, they must build national consensus on their issues in Hong Kong and in China’s leadership. The Chinese People’s Daily quoted a Chinese-American author who wrote the Occupy Central leadership, Yin Haoliu, said: “Democracy is a step-by-step process that cannot be approached in haste, otherwise it will bring about troubles.” How quickly those steps advance depends, in part, on how well the democracy movement organizes. Now that the US has been exposed, it needs to be removed. US goals are very different than the people in Hong Kong. The US is in the process of encircling China militarily and economically. It sees China as a competitor, a nation that can undermine the US as the single world superpower. Conflict between Hong Kong and Beijing would serve US interests but undermine the Hong Kong economy which is tied to China. The protest movement has already begun to separate itself from people too close to the US. Hong Kong’s people and government need to go further and expel US influence, remembering the historic imperialism of the US in China and noting the current strategic goals of the United States. The Occupy Central Movement Gets the Attention of the World The Occupy Central movement, or Umbrella Revolution, has gotten the attention of the world and challenged Beijing. The protests are at a turning point. The next few days will determine their immediate impact. The movement has awakened hundreds of thousands and put important issues on the political agenda. If political leadership in Beijing and Hong Kong does not respond to the issues raised, more insurrections will follow. The protesters have gained sympathy because of their consistently nonviolent behavior which is emphasized in their Manual for Disobedience. They have been labeled the polite protest as they even divide their trash for recycling. They have used excellent symbolism and rhetoric and broadened participation in the protests so it not only includes students – a powerful force in their own right – but the elderly, families and workers. The protesters strategically escalated their actions and increased pressure on the government. October 2 and 3 were turning points as the chief executive of Hong Kong gave a Mubarak-like speech and refused to resign but agreed to negotiations with the protesters; reversing his refusal to negotiate. Thursday, Occupy Central protesters held a sophisticated debate about whether to block a key road, with some arguing that it would undermine their primary goal of garnering broad public support. Few protest movements are sophisticated enough to see the goal of protesting the government is directed more at the people, for their support, to build a mass movement. On Friday, anti-occupy protesters, some wearing masks came into protest areas and violently attacked occupy protesters demanding they stop. Police report half of those arrested were members of the triad, organized crime. Some accuse the government of encouraging triad violence, the government denies it; this could just as easily be the covert work of the CIA (we don’t know and should not assume). Occupy Central announced that due to lack of action by the police to stop the attacks, they would not be negotiating with the government. By the next morning the occupiers had rebuilt the destroyed tents and other infrastructure. On October 5, the students agreed to return to negotiations but required an investigation into whether or not the government indulged the attacks. Monday protest will need to show signs of continued strength in the streets in order for their impact to build. Monday is turning into a pivot point as the government insists on re-opening schools and businesses; but so far, protesters are ignoring threats and remaining. If they succeed in sustaining the protest and keeping public support, more compromises, even the replacement of the chief executive are possible. If not, then the negotiations with the government need to be pursued transparently by the protest movement so if they fail – and it is hard to imagine the governments in Hong Kong and Beijing compromising sufficiently without more protest – the democracy can re-energize and take the streets again to show their displeasure. While the Federation of Students has made it said their movement is “absolutely not a revolution,” even if Leung Chun-ying resigns, the issues raised will not be resolved. The major changes being sought will require ongoing work, building on the awakening of recent days and convincing the population and leadership that the changes are necessary and beneficial. This will take deep organizing, persistence and refusal to compromise. What Has Been US Involvement? Complicating the protest, and undermining it, was reports documenting US involvement in the democracy movement. Those of us who follow US actions around the world are not surprised by this revelation; indeed we’d be surprised if the US were not involved. The US consistently uses legitimate concerns of people to build its Empire and challenge perceived enemies. China is at the top of the list for the US with the Asian Pivot of military forces to the region, building military relationships with Asian allies and negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership that excludes China – all isolating and threatening China economically and militarily. It is not surprising that the aspirations of the people of Hong Kong are being used by the US. US involvement undermines the credibility and goals of the protests because the US agenda is not the people’s agenda. If the revolt were to succeed, what kind of influence would the US have over the selection of the next leader? Would Hong Kong end up with a leader like Ukraine, where the US spent $5 billion to foment revolt and now has President Petro Poroshenko who according to Wikileaks documents has been known in the US government as “Our Ukraine Insider,” an informant for the US since 2006? Will the next government protect neoliberal capitalism that expands the wealth divide and allows US investors entry into China for their benefit, not the benefit of the people? Already there are signs that the Occupy Central and Democratic Party leadership, which has US ties, is not trusted. One participant on the ground reports “the dynamic the movement has taken on” its own energy and is now “the actions of ordinary people in their struggle for democracy.” “The movement can now be considered largely leaderless.” The author points to the protest beginning two days before Occupy Central leaders wanted and the refusal to follow their order to leave after police attacks last Sunday, instead thousands stayed. Revolution News reported how a group of students climbed over the fence of the Central Government Office Complex, remaining there and facing arrest the entire time, without the support of Occupy Central elders for the next 2 days. Thankfully students came to their rescue. Mint Press News exposed US support for democracy movements in Hong Kong. The article described what it called “a deep and insidious network of foreign financial, political, and media support. Prominent among them is the US State Department and its National Endowment for Democracy (NED) as well as NED’s subsidiary, the National Democratic Institute (NDI).” The article reports on NDI activities in Hong Kong back to 1997. NDI writes that it has been training young leaders in Hong Kong since 2005 on “political communication skills.” The US has been funding various civic organizations in Hong Kong including a think tank at the University of Hong Kong, the Centre for Comparative and Public Law, from which Occupy Central “self-proclaimed” leader Benny Tai served on the board. Another notable Occupy Central activist, Audrey Eu Yuet-mee, works closely with Tai and speaks at numerous US funded forums. Other Hong Kong democracy movement figures in bed with NED include, according to Mint Press, Martin Lee (here’s his bio on NED website and the award the NED gave him), founding chairman of Hong Kong’s Democrat Party. He came to Washington, DC in 2014 and met with Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). Lee took part in an NED talk hosted specifically for him. Anson Chan, another prominent figure currently supporting the ongoing unrest was also in DC and met with Biden and Pelosi. Revolution News went further into the US ties to the Occupy Central movement examining the budgets of US ‘democracy’ institutions. They report that one of Occupy Central’s key tactics this summer, a “referendum” on democracy signed by 780,000 Hong Kong residents, more than 1/5th of Hong Kong voters, was funded by the US State Department. (A similar tactic was used in the Egyptian protest against Morsi that led to the Sisi dictatorship.) Revolution News follows the money and reports that: USAID Hong Kong budget for 2012 was $754,552; in 2010 it was $1,591,547. A key organization funded by the US is the Hong Kong Transition Project which has polled the people of Hong Kong since 1991 regarding democracy. In an HKTP report from January 2014, they write that the purpose of the polling is to determine how people view “the fairness of the current consultation process and initial reactions to a possible confrontation with Beijing.” The Transition Project has been doing in-depth public opinion research every three months not only looking broadly at public opinion but zeroing in-depth on key groups like youth. They also did an in-depth study of who is likely to support Occupy Central and under what circumstances in January 2014. The polls find overwhelming support for self-government, especially among youth. An April 2014 report examined public opinion that described a looming confrontation and high support for democracy. This type of public opinion research is never available to grassroots movements but is invaluable in deciding when to act, how to act, who to focus on, rhetoric and tactics. In addition to public opinion research, funding key organizations and activities, the NDI monitors the movement. For example, the impressive young, iconic leader Joshua Wong, the founder of Scholarism, has been monitored by NDI since he was 15. (No documents indicate that he has been co-opted.) Revolution News reports on numerous State Department cables published by Wikileaks that show the close involvement in monitoring the democracy movement in Hong Kong, turnout at protests, rhetoric of leaders and how to improve future organizing and mobilizing. We do not report US involvement because we oppose the movement for democracy and a fair economy in Hong Kong, quite the contrary. We agree with Revolution News which introduces its article making the following points: “We Fully Support A People’s Movement In Hong Kong. As we explain further details about ‘Occupy Central’, it is the intention of this article to help the students and Hong Kongese people who are fighting for the future of Hong Kong make informed decisions on who they join in coalitions with and choose for Chief Executive when they achieve True Universal Suffrage.” We also agree with Hong Kong-born writer Ming Chun Tang who writes “prospects are only diminished by the involvement of the United States, with its own neoliberal and far-less-than-democratic agenda.” Tang continues: “I am not surprised at this, nor do I welcome it, given the United States’ questionable record (to put it nicely) at bringing ‘democracy’ to countries where it has intervened in the past. It is most likely in Hong Kongers’ best interests that the US withdraw its monetary support for Occupy Central, as unlikely as this is to happen.” Despite US involvement, the people of Hong Kong have very real grievances not only regarding self-governance but also regarding the economy. It is important to emphasize: the protesters are people not acting for the United States, indeed the vast majority have nothing to do with the US or organizations it has funded, but acting on their own accord. We hope exposing US involvement diminishes those who work closely with the US and encourages the movement to remain independent of the United States. Beyond Democracy: Economic Issues Underlie Protests While democracy has gotten the headline, economic injustice in Hong Kong is also a driving force of protests. The fact that the right-wing Heritage Foundation applauds Hong Kong as the world’s freest economy is a signal that it is among the most unfair, i.e. poor worker and environmental protection and lack of regulation preventing corporate abuse. Life in Hong Kong for most people is difficult, Ming Chun Tang writes: “As City University of Hong Kong professor Toby Carroll points out, one in five Hong Kongers live below the poverty line, while inequality has risen to levels among the highest in the world. Wages haven’t increased in line with inflation – meaning they’ve fallen in real terms. The minimum wage, only introduced in 2010, is set at HK$28 (US$3.60) an hour – less than half of that even in the United States. . . The average workweek is 49 hours – in case you thought 40 was rough. Housing prices are among the highest in the world. Even the neoliberal Economist placed Hong Kong top of its crony capitalism index by some distance.” Jeff Brown, author of 44 Days Backpacking in China, writes: “The middle class and poor are being decimated by the Princes of Power’s draconian, libertarian capitalist policies of pushing the Territory’s profits to the 1%, at the expense of the 99%. Students are graduating from college and finding it difficult to get good paying jobs or affordable places to live. . . . Standards of living for the 99% are cratering. Like in the US, Hong Kongers are having to work 2-3 jobs and much more than 40 hours a week, just to pay the bills, never mind prosper.” There is a trade union in Hong Kong with 160,000 members and 61 affiliates in various sectors, the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, which is represented in the Legislative Council of Hong Kong pushing for greater worker protections and union rights. There is also a pro-Beijing trade union the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions. The economic challenges in Hong Kong are in part related to its changing role in China. The Guardian reports that when Deng Xiaoping announced economic reforms in 1978 Hong Kong was the entry point into China leading to a ‘golden era.’ Hong Kong attracted major financial institutions and transnational companies that wanted to participate in Chinese economic growth, making Hong Kong a wealthy city. But, China has grown and become more open so Hong Kong is no longer the only entry point or financial center of China. The China Daily bluntly reports: “Much has changed since 1997. Hong Kong has lost its role as the gateway to the mainland. Previously Hong Kong was China’s unrivalled financial centre, now it is increasingly dwarfed by Shanghai. Until recently, Hong Kong was by far China’s largest port: now it has been surpassed by Shanghai and Shenzhen, and Guangzhou will shortly overtake it.” Martin Jacques of the Guardian writes that while this has caused “a crisis of identity and a sense of displacement” the reality is Hong Kong’s “future is inextricably bound up with China.” When it comes to Hong Kong’s economic future, he concludes: “China is the future of Hong Kong.” The Awakening of the Democracy Movement Now Requires Building National Consensus Hong Kong has had two successful revolts against the government prior to these protests. In 2003, protests of 500,000 people stopped the implementation of a national security law that would have undermined civil liberties. And, in 2012 students were able to stop a new curriculum from being put in place that would have emphasized patriotism for China. Many of these students are involved in the current protests. Thus, the people of Hong Kong have experienced political success. The protests today are facing a much more difficult issue, the doctrine of ‘one country, two systems,’ which is at a potential breaking point because the idea of self-governance, real democracy where Beijing does not approve candidates who run for office, challenges Communist Party rule. The Hong Kong challenge should also be looked at in context of widespread economic and environmental protests in China. Researchers at Nankai University estimated that there were 90,000 protests in China in 2009. But, China has made clear in a front page story in the People’s Daily that any attempt to launch a color revolution, i.e. the Eastern European revolutions of which the US played a covert role in many cases, will not work in China and insisted the rule of law must accompany democracy. Activists should not feel like they accomplished nothing if these protests do not immediately gain them the democracy they want. The awakening of a national democracy movement is a major advancement and it is common for successful social movements to go through a mass awakening, followed by no immediate change. After the protests, the job of the movement is to persevere and develop national consensus that cannot be ignored. They must convince the people of Hong Kong and the leadership in Beijing that their vision of real democracy and a fair economy are the best path for the nation. They have started down a historic path and must continue to succeed.
Continue reading Hong Kong: Now the Hard Part, Kick US Out, Build National Consensus
The jobs report on Friday showed the economy created 248,000 jobs in September and the unemployment rate fell below 6.0 percent for the first time since the early days of the recession. This is good news for workers. While we are still far from anything resembling full employment, it is getting easier for people to find jobs.(Image: High hopes via Shutterstock)The jobs report on Friday showed the economy created 248,000 jobs in September and the unemployment rate fell below 6.0 percent for the first time since the early days of the recession. This is good news for workers. While we are still far from anything resembling full employment, it is getting easier for people to find jobs. If the economy keeps creating jobs at this pace, workers will finally have enough bargaining power to see some real wage gains, thereby getting their share of the benefits of economic growth. But this is also the bad news in the story. There are many powerful people who want to keep these wage gains from happening. Immediately after the jobs report was released, James Bullard, the president of the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank, was on television insisting that the Fed had to start raising interest rates. Bullard complained that the Fed was behind schedule and needed to slow the economy to prevent inflation. There should be no ambiguity about what Bullard was saying. He knows that higher interests will keep people from getting jobs. If the Fed raises interest rates it will discourage people from buying homes and cars. Fewer people will refinance mortgages, which has been a way for tens of millions of people to free up money for other spending over the last few years. Higher interest rates will also have some effect in reducing investment. They will also make it more difficult for state and local governments to finance bond issues for building or repairing infrastructure. And they will increase the value of the dollar, which makes our goods less competitive internationally, thereby increasing the trade deficit. Bullard wants to see the economy slow because he doesn’t want to see more workers get jobs. This is because when more workers get jobs, it will increase their bargaining power and they will be in a position to demand higher wages. This is exactly the inflation that worries Bullard. If workers are getting higher wages then we will see more inflation than in a situation where wages are stagnant. Bullard wants the Fed to slow the economy so that wages remain stagnant. If Bullard were just an obscure voice in the wilderness, we could all have a good laugh and get on to real issues. Unfortunately, he is a member of the Fed’s 19 person Open Market Committee that decides interest rate policy. Several of the other district bank presidents who sit on this committee have expressed similar views. More importantly, there are many prominent economists and business people outside of the Fed who press the same concerns as Bullard. As many reports on the better than expected jobs numbers said, the September jobs report will make the Fed’s job more difficult. There will be more pressure on Fed chair Janet Yellen and other inflation doves to start raising interest rates. This is where the political realities of the Fed’s policymaking process really matter. The Fed has been structured in a way that gives the financial industry, with its obsessive concern about inflation, excessive control over Fed policy. The twelve district bank presidents who comprise the bulk of the open market committee (only five vote at any one time) are appointed through a process that is dominated by the banks in the district. The seven governors (only five seats are currently filled) who make up the rest of the committee are appointed by the president and subject to congressional approval. These governors serve 14-year terms; which is supposed to insulate them from political pressure. But the governors also tend to be unduly deferential to the concerns of the financial industry. Traditionally many of the governors have also had backgrounds in finance. For example, Stanley Fischer, who is currently vice-chair, had a stint as a top executive at Citigroup after a long career as an academic economist. Thus far Yellen has been a strong voice for staying the course, arguing that the risks of an inflationary spiral are still remote. Her position enjoys strong support in the data. Inflation continues to come in below the Fed’s 2.0 percent target. And since this is an average, not a ceiling, the Fed can allow inflation to be above 2.0 percent for some time and still be keeping to its target – which is not itself written in stone. But in Washington, reality always takes a back seat to politics. And there is a real danger that the political power of the financial sector will force Yellen to start slowing the economy and stopping job growth long before workers gain any bargaining power. This risk will be greater if the public sits back and leaves Fed policy to the “experts.”
Continue reading The Good News and Bad News About 5.9 Percent Unemployment
Farmers groups and peasant movements in developing countries, and think tanks and activist groups globally, are uniting behind a new people’s resurgence against the World Bank and its flagship Doing Businessrankings, which promote corporate interests over those of small-scale farmers.World Bank headquarters during 2012 IMF/World Bank Spring Meetings in Washington DC, April 16, 2012. (Photo: Deborah Campos / World Bank) If one was to do some superficial digging on the World Bank, you may get the impression that the Bank is a pure “development” organization, working exclusively in the interest of the public to reduce poverty and inequality. Indeed, the Bank’s tagline is, “A world without poverty.” But dig just a little deeper and the contours of a deep and extreme ideology become apparent. The World Bank reveals itself not as an altruistic benefactor of the world’s poor so much as a link in the chain between Wall Street and the global south – a link the primary purpose of which is to facilitate profit for elite interests, through a long established pattern of wealth extraction. The World Bank is very well funded and vastly powerful. With money it makes trading on Wall Street and through donations from rich country governments, it distributes about $30 billion each year, mostly in loans, to less rich countries, ostensibly to promote economic development. But it has a pretty checkered history, and one that has attracted legions of critics over the years, including a broad range of economists, governments and large NGOs, but most persistently grassroots and community groups whose lives it directly affects. And now, after a decade or so of relative calm during which the Bank seemed to get some measure of control back over its public image, criticism is again mounting. It’s a criticism that runs deep, to the very core of the Bank’s purpose and guiding ideology, and it is being voiced all over the world, from the farmlands and cities of India, Latin America and Africa to the doorstep of the Bank’s headquarters in Washington, DC. Doing Business Right now, at the center of the controversy are the Bank’s Doing Business (DB) rankings. These come in the form of an annual report that ranks 189 countries according to how “business friendly” Bank officials think they are. In recent years, these rankings have assumed the position of a flagship program, that, in the Bank’s own estimation have, “served as an incomparable catalyst for business reforms initiatives.” They work on two fronts: First, they tell investment-hungry governments what a World Bank endorsed “business friendly environment” looks like, thereby setting the parameters of what form economic development must take. Secondly, and the reason governments pay attention, is that they then influence the flow of massive amounts of capital, from private and corporate investments to foreign aid to the Bank’s own enormous portfolio. This is where the Bank’s extreme ideology comes in. Because it believes that absolutely all economic activity is positive, regardless of whom it benefits (a classic feature of a neoliberal “trickle down economics” belief system), and that being connected to mammoth global – therefore inevitably corporate – supply chains is the silver bullet for developing countries, their focus is on making legal and regulatory environments friendly to multinational business – particularly large monoculture agribusinesses. And as mounting evidence shows, far from stimulating equitable development, this “one size fits all” approach results in the enrichment of elites – both local and global – at the expense of small farms and business, particularly the family farms that currently feed 80 percent of the global south. There are any number of examples, from Guatemala to Sierra Leone to the Philippines, where the sort of “reforms” the Doing Business rankings promote have acted as a catalyst for massive industrial land grabs and the dispossession and forced eviction of countless small-scale farmers. Most recently, at the behest of the G8, the Bank was asked to “develop options for generating a Doing Business in Agriculture index” which resulted in a new methodology of its Doing Business indicator to include the new Benchmarking the Business of Agriculture (BBA) project in 2013. As the Bank puts it, the BBA was designed to help “policy makers strengthen agribusiness globally, enabling the farm sector to participate more fully in the market,” and BBA feeds a growing trend of applying a “business-friendly” logic to agriculture. Jason Hickel of the London School of Economics recently summed up the Bank’s rankings by stating: There is no recognition that some regulations might actually be important to a fair society . . . it quickly becomes clear that the Doing Business indicators are not actually against regulations as such; they are only against regulations that don’t directly promote corporate interests. Regulations that protect workers and indigenous communities are considered bad. But regulations that protect creditors and investors – and empower them to grab land and avoid taxes – are considered good. The People’s Resistance Since there are no meaningful, official ways for local populations to stand up to this neoliberal onslaught, many are coming up with their own. Right now, over 200 social movements and civil society organizations have come together under a campaign called Our Land Our Business. This group is eclectic and comprises farmers groups and peasant movements in developing countries, and think tanks and activist groups globally. They are demanding an end to the Doing Business rankings and the new BBA project. These demands are consistent with the demands of those who have long questioned the Bank’s basic legitimacy. What started out as a critique of one policy initiative and its impact, particularly on agricultural practices, is blossoming into a far larger movement that has recognized how the Doing Business rankings are an articulation of the Bank’s whole approach to development: i.e. undemocratic, extractive, pro-corporate, anti-poor and deeply technocratic. The first public moment in this new rising is a 12-city simultaneous, creative resistance happening in front of World Bank offices around the world on October 10 – from Dhaka to Washington, DC – under the banner #WorldvsBank. Rather than standard angry-toned street protests, the idea is to capture the creative spirit and joy of the resistance movement through spoken word, musical performances and theater. For example, in DC where the bank will be holding its annual board meeting, Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping will be performing an evangelical eulogy for the Bank. The DC event is drawing support from Occupy groups from New York to DC to Oakland, as well as /The Rules, Veterans for Peace and Popular Resistance. The campaign is also launching the world’s first transnational “missed call” campaign. This is a tactic that has been used in India by Ana Hazare in his anti-corruption campaign in 2011 and by Kenyans for Tax Justice to stop an anti-poor tax in 2013. This will be the first time this mechanism is being used as a uniting call-to-action across multiple countries. The idea is that you make a call to a local phone number; your mobile number is then registered as an expression of support but the call is not answered so that there are no costs to the user. In those parts of the world where first generation mobile phones are ubiquitous, but computers and the internet are costly and inaccessible, this is a powerful tool for mass engagement in political action. Finally, to coincide with the October 10 events, the Oakland Institute – one of the world’s leading think tanks on land rights – is releasing a new study tackling the Bank’s approach to land, agriculture and development, following up from their landmark research on the effects of the Doing Business rankings entitled “Willful Blindness: How the World Bank’s Country Rankings Impoverish Small Holder Farmers.” As the organs of the neoliberal wealth extraction machine get more sophisticated and subversive, the world’s social movements are adapting their responses. They are taking various forms, from occupying public space to synchronized marches in the street. They are removing the veils of rhetoric, experimenting with new tools for organizing and building power to counteract the deadening forces of corporate globalization.
Continue reading World Versus Bank: The Return of the World Bank and the People’s Resistance
The US House of Representatives recently voted for the 55th time to defund or repeal the Affordable Care Act. The repeals would reverse coverage of pre-existing conditions, family plans that include children up to age 26, lifetime benefits, preventive care (including colonoscopies and mammograms,) and a requirement that insurance companies spend at least 80 percent of premiums on benefits, with a rebate to consumers if less. The repeal votes do not replace these provisions. Happily, the Senate has ignored the House. Florida’s response to the ACA is equally baffling. For over a year, Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature have been playing politics — not allowing the expansion of Medicaid under the ACA, even though it would be paid with federal funds, not the state’s 800,000 Floridians, 20 percent of all uninsured in the state, could receive care if Medicaid were expanded as the law allows. The excuse many GOP leaders make when they reject Medicaid expansion is future costs. Yet fewer federal funds have placed tremendous burdens on Florida hospitals. That’s the reason hospital company president-turned Governor Rick Scott initially supported Medicaid expansion, before his Republican base twisted him into a pretzel. Medical facilities pass the uninsured’s costs to taxpayers through higher prices, or go out of business. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell recently released a study confirming hospitals in the 27 states that expanded Medicaid had more paying customers and fewer uninsured, saving $4 billion. Medicaid coverage will significantly reduce the “free-rider” phenomenon. Opponents rely on other false myths, as well, to distract voters from inaction that denies coverage: State Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples, told a Congressional committee that the ACA “leads to higher costs.” The fact is, health care prices were rising at 6 percent annually for 20 years prior to the law’s passage and has dropped to just over 1 percent since passage. Opponents often state the law is a “job killer,” as employers are forced to comply with requirements. How providing health care to the projected 24 million new beneficiaries by 2016 will reduce jobs instead of expanding job growth — and how expanding the benefits will reduce rather than expand the need for health professionals — is simply untrue. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the health care sector will add five million new jobs in the next decade. Headlines around the country from Sacramento to DC are exclaiming, “Health Care Jobs Surging in Region, Affordable Care Act Drives Growth.” Florida opponents should take note. Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, has said the insurance mandate puts citizens “on the hook for billions that we currently do not have.” In fact, it created a marketplace where citizens can review prices and plans and pick the best deal. Nearly one million Floridians have signed up through the federal exchange, and another million uninsured are eligible. The market-based approach is precisely what economists and conservative politicians—from Bob Dole to Richard Nixon — have long argued is necessary to increase competition. The partisanship of ACA’s opponents remains a key obstacle for millions of Floridians and people across the nation to receive the care they need. Florida voters must make clear to the governor and the Legislature that expanding Medicaid is not only a moral choice, but an economic one for patients and hospitals. They must also tell their US representatives that more votes to repeal and defund the ACA, catering to insurance companies, are not in their interest.
Continue reading Obamacare Haters Still Hurting Public
It’s important to know how the public feels, especially when the question concerns the potential loss of American life. And when a public opinion poll asks a pool of American respondents about the threat posed by ISIS, for instance, that’s what it gets in response: a feeling. People feel like ISIS could pose an imminent threat to America, but they don’t know—and how could they really
Continue reading Polls Are In: ISIS Is an Imminent Threat
Most Americans say the group already has terrorists inside the U.S. Why did anyone ask them their opinion about facts in the first place? After all, science shows you’ll pretend to know something so you don’t feel stupid.
Continue reading Polls Show ISIS Is Outside Your Window
When hundreds of high school students across a suburban school district outside of Denver, Colo. recently walked out of classes to protest a history curriculum, it quickly became national news. According to a local reporter, the students took to the streets multiple days in a row “to voice their concerns over a proposed curriculum review panel they believe could stifle an honest teaching of U.S. history.” But the story has now widened into a much larger controversy. The students’ teachers got involved as well, staging a “mass sick-out” in support of the students. The national outlet for Fox News has since chimed in with an alarmist interpretation of the events, which prompted an immediate response from liberal news watchdog Media Matters. Now, prominent national political leaders, like potential Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson, are voicing their interpretations of the events, and even organizations as well-known as The College Board have seen fit to take a stand. So this is a big story. But it’s even bigger than you think. Protesting A ‘Patriotism’ Curriculum What’s driving events in the Denver suburb of Arvada for sure is a controversial move by the local county school board to, as the Associated Press reported, “establish a committee to review texts and coursework, starting with Advanced Placement history, to make sure materials ‘promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free-market system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights’ and don’t ‘encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.'” Students who are alarmed to know they’re not allowed to learn about civil dissent and protest have quite rationally chosen to protest. As other reports have noted, the controversy goes way beyond the borders of Colorado. The AP course that’s causing controversy has become a favorite target of right-wing extremists on a national level. Valerie Strauss at The Washington Post explained, “Conservatives have said that the new history framework – being used this fall in classrooms around the country – does not highlight American achievements or mention key American historical figures but spends a lot of time talking about America’s worst period. Top officials at the College Board, which owns the Advanced Placement program, have said there is nothing anti-American about the document.” An analysis at The Hechinger Report meticulously explained what exactly had been changed in the course. Apparently, most of the changes are the result of a shift from giving teachers “a list of suggested topics” – without telling them which ones will be covered on the exam – to a “curriculum that outlines specific concepts that must be covered,” such as, “Africans developed both overt and covert means to resist the dehumanizing aspects of slavery.” These changes are likely related to new Common Core Standards, the Hechinger analysis concluded, that Colorado and most other states have adopted, at the federal government’s urging. “The College Board has acknowledged that elements of the new course align with the goals of the new standards,” and the course’s emphasis on “developing students’ ability to analyze historical texts … dovetails with the Common Core.” But there’s more to the students’ protests than just an extension of the War Over the Core between conservatives and education technocrats. More Than The Core In a news program broadcast by MSNBC, host Melissa Harris-Perry interviewed two student leaders of the protest, Ashlyn Maher and Kyle Ferris. When Harris-Perry asked the students to explain their motivation to walk out of school, Ferris explained, “We wanted to get the school board’s attention. They’re not really listening to the concerns of the community.” In the story’s video footage, one of the protest signs the student brandished proclaimed, “Keep public schools public,” and “Support our teachers.” Commenting on this, Harris-Perry correctly jumped to the assumption that the issues might be broader than just the curriculum, and asked the students, “What else is all of this about?” Ferris replied there were indeed other issues including “teachers’ wages, which they’re messing with,” and “funneling funds away from public into charter schools.” Indeed, student protests around the country for some time have been nearly unanimous in their raising of specific issues: lack of student voice in school governance, mistreatment of classroom teachers, and funding austerity, including lack of resources and the redirection of public funds to private interests such as charter schools. Beginning last school year, students in metropolitan school districts across the country begin speaking out in prominent, headline-earning protests, using their social media and organizing skills to send hundreds of their peers into the streets to protest – including previous actions in Denver. To spur the protests, students in Philadelphia, Providence, Rhode Island, Portland, Oregon, and elsewhere have formed student unions that have developed attention-getting tactics, which have spread to a national scale. The issues students continue to rail against are school closures and budget cutbacks, widespread teacher firings and wage reductions, and top-down implementations of mandated standards and high-stakes testing. The rapid scaling up of student unrest prompted activist Hannah Nguyen to write at the time, “Students all over the United States, from Portland to Chicago to Providence, are tired of feeling powerless when it comes to decisions that affect their education … They’ve begun to organize together, forming student unions and fighting back against threats to their education, such as budget cuts, high stakes testing, and school closings. From mass walkouts and sit-ins to creative street theatre and flash mobs, these students are demanding that their voices be heard.” Student Protests Are Not Going Away As the current school year rolls out, the protests are likely to continue and to build in intensity as school “reform” – including resource deprivation, top-down standardization, and autocratic rule – continues to plague the public education system. As the news site at The Nation devoted to student activism documented at the beginning of the school year, the slaying of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teen, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri set off a wave of student-led actions in schools calling for racial justice in both the education system and society at large. “On August 18,” The Nation reported, “more than 100 members of the Chicago Students Union, alongside parents, teachers and elected officials, marched on Chicago Public Schools headquarters demanding the fair funding of schools and a democratically elected board of education.” In September, Newark, N.J. students organized a two-day boycott, demanding the resignation of Superintendent Cami Anderson, who is installing a school “reform” plan that “disguises itself as a means of giving students more school choices while eliding lack of funding, accountability from the state and the voices of students.” The students “shut down Broad Street, the busiest street in New Jersey’s biggest city, laying down and chanting for nine hours.” More recently, The Guardian reported about “a spate of revolts against school dress codes appears to be gaining momentum across the United States, with students staging walkouts and other protests to complain at the way girls have been ‘humiliated’ and forced to cover up. A vocal campaign has emerged after recent incidents angered students in New York, Utah, Florida, Oklahoma and other states, with some accusing schools of sexism and so-called ‘slut shaming’.” What’s at the core of all these student actions is their call to have some say-so in how they are being educated in a system that increasingly imposes “sameness” and rigid “accountability” from remote authorities who seem unanswerable to anybody. The Adults Don’t Get It The controversy over a history curriculum in Colorado is an argument over a very much bigger issue. It’s about how we’re treating our nation’s youngest citizens with a substandard form of education that emphasizes fiscal efficiency over learning opportunity and standardization over individual needs and interests. And it’s about how we treat students as learners, imposing education as something done to them rather than with them. Indeed, the arguments back and forth over the Denver-area high school protests treat the students as if they were inert objects rather than active agents in their own learning. For example, in trying to sort out the curriculum controversy, Jonathan Cohn at The New Republic wrote, “Conservatives want schools to emphasize faith and obedience, while liberals are more likely to care about teaching tolerance and curiosity. You can guess how each group would react to a curriculum that asked some hard questions about U.S. history.” In other words, students are passive recipients waiting to be filled with right ways of thinking, and it’s up to the adults – liberal or conservative – to decide what to populate their empty minds with. That’s so wrong. Students are not empty vessels waiting to be filled with prescribed content vetted by technocrats in government and well-funded think tanks. To treat them that way is both disrespectful to their humanity and bad education that doesn’t reflect the ways we know that human beings learn. You call your “reform” a “patriotism curriculum.” You can call it “college and career ready.” Either way, you’re leaving the students out of the matter. And until we start putting the interests of students at the center of any type of “reform,” we’re getting our education policies all wrong.
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