Truthout Stories Fri, 12 Feb 2016 00:47:51 -0500 en-gb Why Bernie Sanders Is Not George McGovern

Senator George McGovern, in a photo taken on June 30, 1972. (Photo: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)Former Sen. George McGovern, in a photo taken on June 30, 1972. (Photo: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Bernie Sanders' big win in New Hampshire has given his campaign a big boost, but even Sanders knows that there's still a long primary season ahead.

One of the biggest criticisms about Sanders, one that I hear frequently from pro-Hillary Clinton callers, is that Sanders could be the next George McGovern.

And it's a serious criticism that's being thrown at Sanders.

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

Because McGovern ran as a progressive who wanted to end the Vietnam War and institute basic minimum incomes for the nation's poor, and he lost.

In fact, he lost in one of the biggest landslide losses in US presidential history.

He didn't even win in his home state of South Dakota, and the only electoral votes that he won were from Massachusetts and Washington, DC.

But there's a few really good reasons to move past that criticism and to realize that if Sanders gets the nomination, he's not going to be the next McGovern.

It's really, really, important to remember where the country was 44 years ago, back in 1972.

Nixon was an incumbent who had already been president, and commander-in-chief, for three years, and had been vice president under the wildly popular Eisenhower for eight years.

During those three years as president, foreign affairs became domestic affairs as young people, like me at the time, demonstrated in the streets to push back against US involvement in the Vietnam War.

McGovern built his platform on ending the war in Vietnam, and during his announcement speech he promised to withdraw every US solider from Southeast Asia and to improve economic conditions by reducing military spending.

The platform had a strong appeal to the young people like me, the people who had grown up with a government that was sending us off to a war in Vietnam to "stop the spread of communism," because we had strong feeling that we had been lied to, and that Nixon was continuing to lie to us.

McGovern had the support of young people, like Barack Obama did in 2008, and like Sanders seems to in 2016.

But he lost, in a landslide.

His platform simply didn't resonate with the older generation, the people in my dad's generation, the people "over 30" who us young people had learned not to trust.

The first problem was that Nixon made the Vietnam War a non-nothing issue for the older generation by pointing to the ongoing process of "Vietnamization" that his administration was leading, and by promising that he would end the war in Vietnam, and do it in a way that would bring "peace with honor."

That's the part of the story you'll read in history books, and it's the common narrative to explain why McGovern lost every state except for Massachusetts to Nixon.

But it's not the whole story.

The real question is, WHY didn't the people over 30, those in my dad's generation, turn out to vote for McGovern?

It's because my dad's generation, the people who voted for Nixon, didn't feel like they had been screwed by the government the way young people felt screwed, because my dad's generation had lived through a time of US prosperity in the '50s and '60s.

My dad was an Eisenhower Republican, and he was part of the US middle class during a time when the US middle class was doing better than any other time in US history.

By 1972, he had gone to college for free on the GI Bill, he had a house that was more than half paid-off, he had a full-time job at a union Tool & Die shop that paid well enough that he could buy a new car every two or three years, and take a good vacation every year. People in his generation knew that they could retire and live well in their old age.

College in California back then was pretty much absolutely free, and it was so cheap everywhere else that only people with graduate degrees even knew what student debt was.    

It wasn't like that for everyone in US at the time, but the middle class was much larger, and it was doing much better than it is today.

And so the older generation voted for Nixon, they voted to keep things on track, because they simply didn't feel as screwed over as we did in the younger generation.

The election of 1972 also had the lowest voter turnout that the country had seen in more than two decades, indicating that a lot of people simply decided not to vote.

So Nixon won by a landslide.

Comparing Sanders to McGovern assumes that the country is in a similar state now as it was 44 years ago, and that's just not true.

Economists agree, and it's a simple historic fact.

The rampant economic inequality in the US economy right now looks A LOT like it did in back 1928, at the peak of the "roaring '20s," and right before the Great Depression led voters to rally behind an unabashed progressive champion named Franklin Delano Roosevelt to reboot the US economy.

In 1972, on the other hand, the top 1% in the US earned a smaller percentage of the nation's income than during almost any other time in the 20th century.

But thanks 35 years of Reaganomics and "free trade," older people today are just as buried in debt and as frustrated as young people are, unlike in 1972.

And there isn't a Republican incumbent in the White House, unlike in 1972.

And beyond that, more people than ever are participating in our democracy and voting, unlike in 1972.

Comparing the US in 2016 to the US in 1972 doesn't make a lot of sense, and neither does comparing Bernie Sanders to George McGovern.

Opinion Thu, 11 Feb 2016 17:20:34 -0500
Could Unelected Superdelegates Give Clinton the Nomination Even if Sanders Wins the Primaries?

With Bernie Sanders' double-digit victory over Hillary Clinton in Tuesday's New Hampshire primary and near tie with her in last week's Iowa caucuses, it would seem that the race for the Democratic nomination would be neck and neck. But that is not the case. In New Hampshire, Sanders trounced Clinton 60 to 38 percent - but they split the delegates evenly thanks to unelected superdelegates siding with the former secretary of state. Overall, Clinton sits far ahead of Sanders when you factor in these superdelegates - the congressmen, senators, governors and other elected officials who often represent the Democratic Party elite. We speak to Duke professor David Rohde and Matt Karp, assistant professor of history at Princeton University and contributing editor at


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: With Bernie Sanders' double-digit victory over Hillary Clinton in Tuesday's New Hampshire primary and nearly tying her in last week's Iowa caucuses, it would seem that the race for the Democratic nomination would be neck and neck. But that is not the case. In New Hampshire, Sanders trounced Clinton 60 to 38 percent, but they split the delegates evenly, thanks to unelected superdelegates siding with the former secretary of state.

Overall, Clinton sits far ahead of Sanders when you factor in these superdelegates - the congressmen, senators, governors and other elected officials who often represent the Democratic Party elite. Because superdelegates are free to support any candidate, independent of election results, they are often wooed by and align with candidates very early in the campaign season. As early as August of last year, months before the first ballot would be cast, the Clinton campaign had reported a superdelegate count of more than 400 out of an available 712. At a Democratic National Committee meeting in September last year, Bernie Sanders addressed the issue of swaying Clinton superdelegates.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: In terms of superdelegates, let me say this. The people in here are smart people; they're not dummies. They want to see a Democrat win the White House. And I understand that, you know, Secretary Clinton's people have been talking to these folks for a very, very long time, so she has a huge advantage over us in that respect - not to say that, for a lot of people, [inaudible]. But I think as our campaign progresses, as people see us do better and better, you're going to see a lot of superdelegates - I just met with one as I was walking in 10 minutes ago who said, "Well, you swayed me. I'm on your side now." I think you're going to see that. So, it's one thing for people to say, "Well, you know, I'm with the secretary today." We'll see where people will be three months from now.

AMY GOODMAN: The Democratic Party implemented the superdelegate system in the early '80s to try to balance the wishes of rank-and-file voters with the party's need to nominate electable candidates, they said. The critics of the superdelegates' role in the nominating process say that it works against insurgent candidates - well, like Bernie Sanders - and only serves to ensure that establishment candidates stay in power. And Sanders' supporters worry that despite his early success at the polls, the election might be decided in the back room rather than the voting booth.

Well, for more, we're joined by two guests. David Rohde is with us, professor of political science at Duke University. He's co-author of a number of books on every national election since 1980. And Matt Karp joins us, assistant professor of history at Princeton University and contributing editor at His most recent article there is "The War on Bernie Sanders."

And we welcome you both to Democracy Now! Professor Rohde, let's begin with you. Explain how the system works. People might be floored when they hear the 60-to-38 trouncing in New Hampshire that took place, but that Clinton came away with the same number of delegates as Bernie Sanders. How exactly does it work?

DAVID ROHDE: Well, it works in different ways in every state. And either the state government or the state parties decide what framework to use. So sometimes delegates are allocated by the showing of candidates within each congressional district. Sometimes they're allocated proportionally based on statewide totals. Sometimes it's a combination of those two things. So it's going to vary from one state to another.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Professor Rohde, could you explain why the Democratic Party came up with the superdelegate system and whether the Republican Party follows the same system?

DAVID ROHDE: Let me take the second part first. The Republicans have - do have some superdelegates, but it's - I believe the number is three per state. So it's not very important. It's for the national party representatives from the state.

The reason that the Democrats adopted the superdelegate plan was really because of the possibility of insurgent candidates, not for their own sake, but insurgent candidates who might not be successful in general elections. So it doesn't do the party a lot of good to nominate a candidate that reflects the wishes of the party and then to go on and lose the general election. And the poster child for this, of course, was George McGovern, and that - who was an insurgent candidate, won out against the party establishment and then got beaten by 20 points in the national election in a gigantic landslide.

So, the Hunt Commission, the commission that was looking at various aspects of the way the party was organized, after the 1980 election, thought that having superdelegates - and they - in the Democratic Party, they are the members of the National Committee, of which there are a little more than 400, Democratic members of the US House, Democratic members of the US Senate and Democratic governors. And that adds up to 712. And the Hunt Commission thought that having those elected officials play a part in choosing the nominee would be a partial balance that would give more weight to the considerations of electability than might otherwise be placed by the delegates that were elected in the primaries and caucuses.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Professor Rohde, explain exactly how it works. I remember when Biden was weighing whether he was going to get in. All the talk in the Clinton campaign was about how many superdelegates she had secured, which was a way to say, you know, "You've already lost, so you shouldn't get in." But what does it mean to secure a superdelegate? They can change their mind at any point, right?

DAVID ROHDE: That's right. That's exactly the point. The other thing to consider - I'll come back to that point in a second. But the other thing to consider is that 700 sounds like a large number, but there are about 4,800 Democratic convention delegates, so the superdelegates are about 15 percent of the total. That's surely not trivial, but it's also not completely determinative of the outcome.

And the other part is what you mentioned, that these people are not committed in the same sense that delegates elected in the primaries and caucuses are committed. So, it's perfectly within the rules for a superdelegate to say today, "I'm for candidate X," and then tomorrow say, "I'm for candidate Y," and to switch - even switch back and forth during the campaign. And indeed, that was part of the idea, that these people would be sensitive to the changing tides that would happen during a campaign.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Professor Rohde, so could you explain, is it possible for Bernie Sanders to win the popular vote, win the largest number of regular delegates, and still lose the party nomination?

DAVID ROHDE: Oh, surely. It is possible. I don't think it's very likely. I mean, it's funny, as I've had this kind of conversation eight years ago, when Obama and Clinton were facing off, talking to people from the media. And the reality is that, especially when there are only two candidates, the likelihood is that this is going to be settled long before the convention happens. And so, we're not going to go down to the wire and have the superdelegates decide the outcome. It's possible that it will happen, but it's extremely unlikely, I think. I think we'll know who the nominee is within six, eight weeks.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Matt Karp, you say that the Democratic Party elite has thrown its full weight behind Hillary Clinton. How is this reflected in superdelegates? And do you think - how do you see this as any different than when Barack Obama first announced he was running for president and started the primary caucus process?

MATT KARP: Well, I think it's very different. I think if you sort of zoom out and look at how the Sanders campaign compares to previous sort of insurgent Democratic campaigns in recent memory, I think there are three ways that it really diverges. First, Sanders is ideologically significantly to the left of Clinton and of, in some ways, the mainstream of the elected Democratic Party at least - not just, you know, one tick, but I think his rejection of the sort of New Democrat approach - business-friendly economics - and an embrace of a kind of older populism is really a distinct break and something that we haven't seen from another candidate in this position, you know, since probably Jesse Jackson.

Second, I think -

AMY GOODMAN: Who he worked with.

MATT KARP: Who he worked with, exactly.

Second, Sanders has won a lot more popular support than a lot of sort of underdog candidates at this point, if you're thinking about his historic donor base, which, you know, has three times the number of people that Obama - donors that Obama had recorded up until this point. And, you know, he's done better in the early states than Obama has done - than Obama even had done. And in the national polls, he has 37 percent of the vote, which is higher than Obama. Of course, Obama was running against John Edwards, too. But Sanders has done really well.

And the third thing then is the sort of total absence of support from the party, which is not at all comparable to Obama or any previous sort of underdog candidate at this point. I mean, you mentioned the over 350 superdelegates who had committed to Clinton. And when the Associated Press did the survey of superdelegates in November, they found eight superdelegates who were committed to Sanders, and of those, fully one-eighth were Bernie Sanders. You know, as a senator, he is a superdelegate. So, 13 percent of his superdelegate coalition is himself. And this is really striking. I mean, very - Obama had over 60 superdelegates at this point in his camp. Bill Richardson had 25 superdelegates in his camp at this point.

So, those three factors, and a candidate who comes ideologically - makes an ideological break with the party, who has done really well sort of from the bottom up in terms of winning popular support, and has virtually zero backing within the party, create a situation that I think is going to put the system to the test in a way that the 2008 campaign didn't necessarily do.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Professor Karp, one of the things that you point out in your piece is that the attack on Sanders extends far beyond the Democratic Party and also includes the media. And indeed, the Tyndall Report, which tracks the flagship nightly news programs on NBC, CBS and ABC, revealed this blackout, saying that in 2015, of the 261 minutes ABC News devoted to the campaign, Trump got 81 minutes, while Sanders got 20 seconds.

MATT KARP: Wow. Yeah, that's a really striking disparity. I mean, I think it's clear that not just in terms of party officials, but in terms of the sort of various actors in what I think political scientists have described as the "invisible primary," both in terms of media elites, big donors, you know, the leadership - not necessarily the base, but the leadership - of a lot of unions and other sort of Democratic Party-aligned groups, you know - and you see it - and it's not always that invisible, if you look at the op-ed pages of major newspapers, where, you know, a lot of people have sort of mounted a kind of a consolidated effort, I think, very clearly, from Paul Krugman to Ezra Klein - you know, these are liberals, these are not necessarily even conservative Democrats, who have really sort of stood up for Clinton as the establishment candidate and sort of tried to sort of push back against Sanders's insurgency.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you share this view, Professor Rohde?

DAVID ROHDE: Yes, I think that's a very good characterization of the lay of the landscape. For example, with respect to the media coverage, the media covers what the media thinks that the public will be interested in, rather than what might be helpful to the public -

AMY GOODMAN: And clearly, clearly there -

DAVID ROHDE: - in terms of making up its mind. And so Trump dominates, because Trump is outrageous and a lot of people find him entertaining. And other people find him horrifying but still watch him like an automobile accident is watched. So -

AMY GOODMAN: So what could happen at the Republican convention?

DAVID ROHDE: - earlier, Bernie Sanders didn't -

AMY GOODMAN: Could you explain?

DAVID ROHDE: Earlier, Bernie Sanders didn't have that kind of draw for public attention. I think if we looked at coverage in the next couple of weeks, you would see that Bernie Sanders gets a lot more coverage than he was getting before, because he is more interesting to the public, at least in the media's mind.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Professor Rohde, what could happen at the Republican convention? We talked about a brokered Democratic convention. What can happen with the Republicans?

DAVID ROHDE: Well, again, I think a brokered convention is unlikely, but it's certainly a lot more plausible in the Republican Party, where you have five viable candidates left, and that the - three in the establishment wing, sort of, and two in the far-right wing, the insurgent wing, if you like. And so, the battle is still going on in the Republican Party as to who will represent the respective wings of the party for the - in the final contest. So, it's likely to go on for a while. But again, it may very well be settled long before the convention. We're going to - March 1st, for example, is going to be Super Tuesday - 12 events, and seven of them in the South. That's going to shake things out a bit. And then March 15th, you have five big primaries, states, in the same day, and that's going to make a big difference. And that's -

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we're going to have to leave it there.

DAVID ROHDE: That's five weeks from now.

AMY GOODMAN: We thank you so much for being with us, speaking of the South, joining us from the South, David Rohde, professor of political science at Duke University, co-author of a series of books on every national election since 1980. And I want to thank Matt Karp for joining us, assistant professor of history at Princeton University and contributing editor at We'll link to your piece, "The War on Bernie Sanders."

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we're going to St. Louis to find out why the Justice Department has sued the city of Ferguson. Stay with us.

News Thu, 11 Feb 2016 00:00:00 -0500
Yanis Varoufakis on the Origins of the European and Global Economic Crisis

In this video, acTVism Munich interviews Yanis Varoufakis, a world renowned economist who was a former member of the Greek parliament. He gained immense popularity when he served as finance minister (27 January 2015 - 6 July 2015) for the Greek government, a post that he left shortly after he found out that Greek government made the decision to implement the austerity package of the Troika against the popular vote (OXI) of the Greek people. This interview focuses on the history of the global economic system, the transformations that it underwent after World War II and attempts to connect it to the current economic crisis that is sweeping throughout Europe and the globe.

  • Is there such a thing as a "Greek-crisis"?
  • Are pensions, social security benefits and high-wages the reasons why we are facing an economic downturn or are there underlying factors involved?
  • What is the history of the global capitalist system and how is it affecting states and individuals today?

These questions are answered in the video below.

Due to limited financial resources, personnel and technical capacities, we plan to release the entire interview in a "mini-video" format. As a nonprofit and volunteer based organization, this format provides us with sufficient time to coordinate our schedules outside of our occupational commitments and translate the content into multiple languages, subtitle and voice-synchronize it for people with hearing and visual impairment.

To view the full interview transcript, please click here.

News Thu, 11 Feb 2016 00:00:00 -0500
The US Military Suffers From Affluenza: Showering the Pentagon With Money and Praise

 (Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout) (Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)The word "affluenza" is much in vogue. Lately, it's been linked to a Texas teenager, Ethan Couch, who in 2013 killed four people in a car accident while driving drunk. During the trial, a defense witness argued that Couch should not be held responsible for his destructive acts. His parents had showered him with so much money and praise that he was completely self-centered; he was, in other words, a victim of affluenza, overwhelmed by a sense of entitlement that rendered him incapable of distinguishing right from wrong. Indeed, the judge at his trial sentenced him only to probation, not jail, despite the deaths of those four innocents.

Experts quickly dismissed "affluenza" as a false diagnosis, a form of quackery, and indeed the condition is not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association. Yet the word caught on big time, perhaps because it speaks to something in the human condition, and it got me to thinking. During Ethan Couch's destructive lifetime, has there been an American institution similarly showered with money and praise that has been responsible for the deaths of innocents and inadequately called to account? Is there one that suffers from the institutional version of affluenza (however fuzzy or imprecise that word may be) so much that it has had immense difficulty shouldering the blame for its failures and wrongdoing?

The answer is hidden in plain sight: the US military. Unlike Couch, however, that military has never faced trial or probation; it hasn't felt the need to abscond to Mexico or been forcibly returned to the homeland to face the music.

Spoiling the Pentagon

First, a caveat. When I talk about spoiling the Pentagon, I'm not talking about your brother or daughter or best friend who serves honorably. Anyone who's braving enemy fire while humping mountains in Afghanistan or choking on sand in Iraq is not spoiled.

I'm talking about the US military as an institution. Think of the Pentagon and the top brass; think of Dwight Eisenhower's military-industrial complex; think of the national security state with all its tentacles of power. Focus on those and maybe you'll come to agree with my affluenza diagnosis.

Let's begin with one aspect of that affliction: unbridled praise. In last month's State of the Union address, President Obama repeated a phrase that's become standard in American political discourse, as common as asking God to bless America. The US military, he said, is the "finest fighting force in the history of the world."

Such hyperbole is nothing new. Five years ago, in response to similar presidential statements, I argued that many war-like peoples, including the imperial Roman legions and Genghis Khan's Mongol horsemen, held far better claims to the "best ever" Warrior Bowl trophy. Nonetheless, the over-the-top claims never cease. Upon being introduced by President Obama as his next nominee for secretary of defense in December 2014, for instance, Ash Carter promptly praised the military he was going to oversee as "the greatest fighting force the world has ever known." His words echoed those of the president, who had claimed the previous August that it was "the best-led, best-trained, best-equipped military in human history." Similar hosannas ("the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known") had once been sprinkled liberally through George W. Bush's speeches and comments, as well as those of other politicians since 9/11.

In fact, from the president to all those citizens who feel obliged in a way Americans never have before to "thank" the troops endlessly for their efforts, no other institution has been so universally applauded since 9/11. No one should be shocked then that, in polls, Americans regularly claim to trust the military leadership above any other crew around, including scientists, doctors, ministers, priests, and - no surprise - Congress.

Imagine parents endlessly praising their son as "the smartest, handsomest, most athletically gifted boy since God created Adam." We'd conclude that they were thoroughly obnoxious, if not a bit unhinged. Yet the military remains just this sort of favored son, the country's golden child. And to the golden child go the spoils.

Along with unbridled praise, consider the "allowance" the American people regularly offer the Pentagon. If this were an "affluenza" family unit, while mom and dad might be happily driving late-model his and her Audis, the favored son would be driving a spanking new Ferrari. Add up what the federal government spends on "defense," "homeland security," "overseas contingency operations" (wars), nuclear weapons, and intelligence and surveillance operations, and the Ferraris that belong to the Pentagon and its national security state pals are vrooming along at more than $750 billion dollars annually, or two-thirds of the government's discretionary spending. That's quite an allowance for "our boy!"

To cite a point of comparison, in 2015, federal funding for the departments of education, interior, and transportation maxed out at $95 billion - combined! Not only is the military our favored son by a country mile: it's our Prodigal Son, and nothing satisfies "him." He's still asking for more (and his Republican uncles are clearly ready to turn over to him whatever's left of the family savings, lock, stock, and barrel).

On the other hand, like any spoiled kid, the Defense Department sees even the most modest suggested cuts in its allowance as a form of betrayal. Witness the whining of both those Pentagon officials and military officers testifying before Congressional committees and of empathetic committee members themselves. Minimalist cuts to the soaring Pentagon budget are, it seems, defanging the military and recklessly endangering American security vis-a-vis the exaggerated threats of the day: ISIS, China, and Russia. In fact, the real "threat" is clearly that the Pentagon's congressional "parents" might someday cut down on its privileges and toys, as well as its free rein to do more or less as it pleases.

With respect to those privileges, enormous budgets drive an unimaginably top-heavy bureaucracy at the Pentagon. Since 9/11, Congressional authorizations of three- and four-star generals and admirals have multiplied twice as fast as their one- and two-star colleagues. Too many generals are chasing too few combat billets, contributing to backstabbing and butt-kissing. Indeed, despite indifferent records in combat, generals wear uniforms bursting with badges and ribbons, resembling the ostentatious displays of former Soviet premiers - or field marshals in the fictional Ruritarian guards.

Meanwhile, the proliferation of brass in turn drives budgets higher. Even with recent modest declines (due to the official end of major combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan), the US defense budget exceeds the combined military budgets of at least the next seven highest spenders. (President Obama proudly claims that it's the next eight.) Four of those countries - France, Germany, Great Britain, and Saudi Arabia - are US allies; China and Russia, the only rivals on the list, spend far less than the United States.

With respect to its toys, the military and its enablers in Congress can never get enough or at a high enough price. The most popular of these, at present, is the under-performing new F-35 jet fighter, projected to cost $1.5 trillion (yes, you read that right) over its lifetime, making it the most expensive weapons system in history. Another trillion dollars is projected over the next 30 years for "modernizing" the US nuclear arsenal (this from a president who, as a candidate, spoke of eliminating nuclear weapons). The projected acquisition cost for a new advanced Air Force bomber is already $100 billion (before the cost overruns even begin).  The list goes on, but you catch the drift.

A Spoiled Pentagon Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry

To complete our affluenza diagnosis, let's add one more factor to boundless praise and a bountiful allowance: a total inability to take responsibility for one's actions. This is, of course, the most repellent part of the Ethan Couch affluenza defense: the idea that he shouldn't be held responsible precisely because he was so favored.

Think, then, of the Pentagon and the military as Couch writ large. No matter their mistakes, profligate expenditures, even crimes, neither institution is held accountable for anything.

Consider these facts: Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya are quagmires. The Islamic State is spreading. Foreign armies, trained and equipped at enormous expense by the US military, continue to evaporate. A hospital, clearly identifiable as such, is destroyed "by accident." Wedding parties are wiped out "by mistake." Torture (a war crime) is committed in the field. Detainees are abused. And which senior leaders have been held accountable for any of this in any way? With the notable exception of Brigadier General Janis Karpinski of Abu Ghraib infamy, not a one.

After lengthy investigations, the Pentagon will occasionally hold accountable a few individuals who pulled the triggers or dropped the bombs or abused the prisoners. Meanwhile, the generals and the top civilians in the Pentagon who made it all possible are immunized from either responsibility or penalty of any sort. This is precisely why Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling memorably wrote in 2007 that, in the US military, "a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war." In fact, no matter what that military doesn't accomplish, no matter how lacking its ultimate performance in the field, it keeps getting more money, resources, praise.

When it comes to such subjects, consider the Republican presidential debate in Iowa on January 28th. Jeb Bush led the rhetorical charge by claiming that President Obama was "gutting" the military. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio eagerly agreed, insisting that a "dramatically degraded" military had to be rebuilt. All the Republican candidates (Rand Paul excepted) piled on, calling for major increases in defense spending as well as looser "rules of engagement" in the field to empower local commanders to take the fight to the enemy. America's "warfighters," more than one candidate claimed, are fighting with one arm tied behind their backs, thanks to knots tightened by government lawyers. The final twist that supposedly tied the military up in a giant knot was, so they claim, applied by that lawyer-in-chief, Barack Obama himself.

Interestingly, there has been no talk of our burgeoning national debt, which former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen once identified as the biggest threat facing America. When asked during the debate which specific federal programs he would cut to reduce the deficit, Chris Christie came up with only one, Planned Parenthood, which at $500 million a year is the equivalent of two F-35 jet fighters. (The military wants to buy more than 2,000 of them.)

Throwing yet more money at a spoiled military is precisely the worst thing we as "parents" can do. In this, we should resort to the fiscal wisdom of Army Major General Gerald Sajer, the son of a Pennsylvania coal miner killed in the mines, a Korean War veteran and former Adjutant General of Pennsylvania. When his senior commanders pleaded for more money (during the leaner budget years before 9/11) to accomplish the tasks he had assigned them, General Sajer's retort was simple: "We're out of money; now we have to think."

Accountability Is Everything

It's high time to force the Pentagon to think. Yet when it comes to our relationship with the military, too many of us have acted like Ethan Couch's mother. Out of a twisted sense of love or loyalty, she sought to shelter her son from his day of reckoning. But we know better. We know her son has to face the music.

Something similar is true of our relationship to the US military. An institutional report card with so many deficits and failures, a record of deportment that has led to death and mayhem, should not be ignored. The military must be called to account.

How? By cutting its allowance. (That should make the brass sit up and take notice, perhaps even think.) By holding senior leaders accountable for mistakes. And by cutting the easy praise. Our military commanders know that they are not leading the finest fighting force since the dawn of history and it's time our political leaders and the rest of us acknowledged that as well.

News Thu, 11 Feb 2016 11:19:34 -0500
Hillary Clinton's Very Bad Night

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's stunning 22-point loss to Sen. Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire is even more devastating when looked at in the context of the modern history of this first-in-the-nation primary: No one has ever lost by such a margin and gone on to win the presidency.

Among Democrats, no one who lost by even half that margin in New Hampshire has recovered to win the party's nomination. In 2008, Barack Obama lost to Hillary Clinton by 2.6 percentage points; in 1992, Bill Clinton lost to Paul Tsongas by 8.4 percentage points; in 1984, Walter Mondale lost to Gary Hart by 9.4 percentage points; in 1972, George McGovern lost to Edmund Muskie by 9.3 percentage points.

If Hillary Clinton hopes to overcome her New Hampshire drubbing, she would have to look for encouragement from the legacy of Republican George W. Bush who lost the 2000 New Hampshire primary to Sen. John McCain by a margin of 49 percent to 30.2 percent, but even Bush's landslide loss represented a smaller margin of defeat than Clinton suffered on Tuesday. In two of those cases, New Hampshire did favor neighboring politicians - Sen. Tsongas from Massachusetts and Sen. Muskie from Maine - but Tuesday's 22-point margin for Vermont Sen. Sanders cannot be explained simply by making the "nearby-favorite-son" argument. Sanders swept nearly every demographic group, including women, losing only to Clinton among New Hampshire's senior citizens and the state's small number of non-white voters. Sanders's margin among young voters was particularly impressive, 82 percent, roughly the same proportion as the Iowa caucuses last week.

A Worried Establishment

Clinton's failure to generate momentum or much enthusiasm in her pursuit of the Democratic presidential nomination presents the Democratic Party establishment with a dilemma, since many senior party leaders fret about the risk that Sanders, a self-described "democratic socialist," might lead the Democrats to the kind of electoral disaster that Sen. George McGovern did in 1972.

Though the Democrats rebounded in 1976 with Jimmy Carter's victory amid Republican disarray over Richard Nixon's Watergate scandal, the Republicans soon reestablished their domination over presidential politics for a dozen years with Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. For the Democrats to reclaim the White House in 1992, it took a "New Democrat," Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, to repackage the Democratic message into one proposing "neo-liberal" (anti-regulatory, free-trade) economics, embracing Republican tough-on-crime tactics, and rejecting "Big Government."

President Clinton also emphasized "micro-policies," best illustrated by his call for "school uniforms," rather than proposing "macro-policies" for addressing poverty and other structural problems facing Americans. Though the economy performed fairly well under Clinton - his success lessening pressures from liberal groups - he also opened the door to Wall Street and other corporate excesses (by supporting deregulation of the financial and media industries).

At that point in the 1990s, the "neo-liberal" strategies had not been tested in the US economy and thus many Americans were caught off-guard when this new anti-regulatory, free-trade fervor contributed to a hollowing out of the Great American Middle Class and a bloated Gilded Age for the top One Percent.

The full consequences of neo-liberalism became painfully apparent with the Wall Street Crash of 2008 and the resulting Great Recession. The suffering and hopelessness now affecting many Americans, including the white working class, has led to an angry political rejection of the American Establishment as reflected in the insurgent candidacies of Donald Trump and Sanders.

A Legacy Campaign

Hillary Clinton (like Jeb Bush) faces the misfortune of running a legacy campaign at a time when the voters are angry about the legacies of both "ruling families," the Clintons and the Bushes. Though Sanders is a flawed candidate faulted for his muddled foreign-policy prescriptions, he (like Trump) has seized the mantle of fighting the Establishment at a time when millions of Americans are fed up with the Establishment and its self-serving policies.

In some ways, the Iowa and New Hampshire results represented the worst outcome for establishment Democrats. Clinton's razor-thin victory in Iowa and her slashing defeat in New Hampshire have left Democratic strategists uncertain as to whether they should rally behind her - despite her lukewarm to freezing-cold reception from voters - or try to recruit another candidate who could cut off Sanders's path to the nomination and represent a "more electable" choice in November.

If Clinton continues to stumble, there will be enormous pressure from Democratic leaders to push her aside and draw Vice President Joe Biden or perhaps Sen. Elizabeth Warren into the race.

If that were to occur - and, granted, the Clintons are notoriously unwilling to admit defeat - the Democrats could experience a political dynamic comparable to 1968 when anti-Vietnam War Sen. Eugene McCarthy challenged the prohibitive favorite President Lyndon Johnson and came close enough in New Hampshire to prompt Sen. Robert Kennedy to jump into the race - and to convince Johnson to announce that he would not seek another term.

Many idealistic Democrats who had backed McCarthy in his seemingly quixotic fight against Johnson were furious against "Bobby-come-lately," setting up a battle between two anti-war factions of the Democratic Party. Of course, the history of the 1968 campaign was marred by the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and then Robert Kennedy, followed by the chaotic Chicago convention, which handed the nomination to Johnson's Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

Then, after Republican Richard Nixon secretly sabotaged Johnson's Vietnam peace talks, Nixon managed to eke out a victory over Humphrey.

While Campaign 2016 reflects a very different America - and the key Democratic issue is "income inequality," not the Vietnam War - some parallels could become obvious if the presumptive nominee (Johnson in 1968 and Clinton in 2016) is pushed out or chooses to step aside.

Then, the Democratic choice would be plunging ahead with a back-bench candidate (McCarthy in 1968 and Sanders in 2016) or looking for a higher-profile and more mainstream alternative, such as Biden who (like Humphrey) would offer continuity with the sitting president or Warren who shares many of Sanders's positions (like Robert Kennedy did with McCarthy) but who might be more acceptable to "party regulars."

A Warren candidacy also might lessen the disappointment of women who wanted to see Hillary Clinton as the first female president. At the moment, however, the question is: Did New Hampshire deal a death blow to Hillary Clinton's campaign or can she become the first candidate in modern US political history to bounce back from a 22-point loss in the first-in-the-nation primary?

News Thu, 11 Feb 2016 00:00:00 -0500
IRS Allows Post-Citizens United Karl Rove Group to Continue Concealing Source of Donors

(Photo: Business Bribe via Shutterstock; Edited; LW / TO)(Photo: Business Bribe via Shutterstock; Edited; LW / TO)

The Internal Revenue Service decided to grant "social welfare" tax-exempt status to Crossroads GPS, an influential conservative political action group co-founded by Karl Rove in 2010, in the wake of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision.

The confirmation of the 501(c)(4) status by the IRS came last November after five years of deliberation. It was first reported on Tuesday by the Center for Responsive Politics (CRS).

The determination means that Crossroads will be able to continue raising unlimited sums of money from individuals and corporations to finance political activity without disclosing who is paying for it, per the 2010 SCOTUS ruling. The group must, however, ensure that its campaign spending does not exceed 50 percent of its outlays.

CRS noted that Crossroads has raised and spent at least $330 million since it was founded, "most of it on election-related ads and candidate support."

The public interest group also remarked that, since Citizens United, Crossroads' non-profit political expenditures alone have exceeded those "of all liberal dark money groups and unions combined, $142 million to $136 million, and that doesn't include the thousands of traceable ads run outside the [Federal Election Commission's] reporting windows."

One Washington-based non-profit founded to limit "undue influence of big money in American politics" immediately blasted the November decision, after it was revealed on Tuesday.

"By no stretch of the imagination can Crossroads GPS be considered a 'social welfare' organization," Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer said. "It is a political operation - the brainchild of political operative Karl Rove as a means to provide secrecy for donors who want to influence elections."

"The IRS has failed to do its job to enforce the tax laws, which say that 'social welfare' organizations must be 'operated exclusively' for the promotion of social welfare activities," he added.

In 2013, the IRS came under fire from conservatives after it admitted to mishandling the applications of Tea Party and other conservative groups, after the meteoric rise of the former amid well-funded right-wing astroturf campaigns. Crossroads said it may have been victimized by this additional layer of scrutiny.

In October, the Justice Department declined to file any criminal charges against IRS officials, concluding that "ineffective management is not a crime."

News Thu, 11 Feb 2016 00:00:00 -0500
Betting the Farm on Free Trade

From her home in Berks County, Pennsylvania, Karen Feridun is helping stage a growing citizen pushback against the expansion of natural gas extraction. But a far-reaching global deal recently signed halfway around the world may make her job much harder.

Feridun got involved in this fight over concerns that fracking waste laden with toxic chemicals could end up in the sewage sludge that some Pennsylvania towns spread on local farm fields.

Figuring her best bet for keeping the state's water, food, and communities safe was putting a stop to fracking, Feridun founded Berks Gas Truth. The group is now part of a statewide coalition calling for a halt to fracking in Pennsylvania.

The campaign got a boost when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, after hearing a case brought by the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, ruled that local governments have the right to protect the public trust. The court also found that oil and gas companies must abide by municipal zoning and planning laws.

The decision was celebrated as a huge victory for local control. But, Feridun told me, "the Trans-Pacific Partnership could turn over the apple cart entirely."

The day after we spoke, US Trade Representative Michael Frohman joined top officials from eleven other Pacific Rim nations in a New Zealand casino to sign the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) - a sweeping "free trade" agreement aimed at opening national borders to the flow of goods, services, and finance.

The location couldn't have been more symbolic. By entering into this deal, the Obama administration is playing roulette with America's future.

The White House hopes to win greater access to raw materials, cheap labor, and burgeoning consumer markets in Asia for US companies. What do we stand to lose? Nothing less than the ability to set rules and regulations that protect our families' health, our jobs, and our environment.

The provision at the heart of this wager is something called an "investor-state" clause. It would let companies based in TPP partner countries sue governments over laws or regulations that curtail their profit-making potential.

It's a risky bet. Here's the White House's simplistic calculus: The US government has never lost an investor-state case.

The more we win, it seems, the bigger our next gamble. The TPP would be the largest free trade agreement in history, covering about 40 percent of the global economy and giving additional countries the option to "dock" to the treaty later. It also adds thousands of companies that could potentially sue the United States in trade court.

Back in Berks County, the demand from newly opened overseas markets for US gas may increase local pressure to frack. The TPP's investor-state provisions would let foreign-owned gas companies challenge any statewide limits on the practice standing in their way.

If this sounds unlikely, look no further than our neighbors to the north. US oil and gas company Lone Pine Resources is suing Canada using a similar clause in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) when Quebec passed a moratorium to halt fracking under the St. Lawrence River.

Now, TransCanada - the Canadian company behind the hugely unpopular Keystone XL pipeline - is bringing a $15 billion claim against the United States for denying permits to build it. That's exactly the kind of legal action that makes people like Karen Feridun fighting oil and gas projects nervous.

Even if Washington wins the TransCanada suit under NAFTA, the fear of spending millions of dollars fending off litigation under the much larger TPP could have a chilling effect on future efforts to keep oil, gas, and coal in the ground.

Luckily, as Feridun and her neighbors know, Congress hasn't approved the Trans-Pacific Partnership yet. If lawmakers care about protecting good jobs, clean skies, safe water, and a stable climate in this hotly contested election year, they'd be wise not to gamble against the public interest.

Opinion Thu, 11 Feb 2016 00:00:00 -0500
The New York Times' Bank-Boosting, Neoliberal-Excusing Story of the Global Debt Hangover

The lead story at the New York Times last week, "Toxic Loans Around the World Weigh on Global Growth" by Peter Eavis, gives a one-sided view of the problem of too many bad loans around the world that have yet to be recognized and resolved. It's an economically warped account that leaves important policy options off the table.

The big tell is that the article has nary a mention of the idea of restructuring loans, which is the time-honored way that banks deal with problem loans. A former McKinsey partner who was in charge of workouts at General Electric, which had a huge financial services arm and a boatload of drecky debt in the early 1990s, named one of his conference rooms "Triage" and the other "Don Quixote." And in some sense, that illustrates the poles of how to deal with an underwater borrower: see if they can survive or not, and deal with them accordingly, or engage in various "extend and pretend" strategies. Another bankers' saying is "A rolling loan gathers no loss," meaning you can keep making a hopeless borrower look viable, sort of like propping up a corpse and putting enough perfume on it to hide the stink, by giving new loans so they can keep paying interest (see Greece as a textbook case).

Workouts? What Workouts?

Here is the first discussion of "what to do about the problem," starting well into the article, at paragraph nine:

In theory, it makes sense for banks to swiftly recognize the losses embedded in bad loans - and then make up for those losses by raising fresh capital. The cleaned-up banks are more likely to start lending again - and thus play their part in fueling the recovery.

But in reality, this approach can be difficult to carry out. Recognizing losses on bad loans can mean pushing corporate borrowers into bankruptcy and households into foreclosure. Such disruption can send a chill through the economy, require unpopular taxpayer bailouts and have painful social consequences. And in some cases, the banks might find it extremely difficult to raise fresh capital in the markets.

First, it always makes sense to recognize the losses. They exist. The Japanese, at the very early stages of the US financial crisis, gave an uncharacteristically blunt warning that their big mistake and the reason they were then mired in a lost decade-plus, was failing to clean up their bad bank loans.

Second, and more important, there's no mention of the idea of debt restructuring, of the bank taking half a loaf and moving on. Notice how the only options depicted are corporate bankruptcies (which outside the US are generally liquidations, and this story focuses almost entirely on foreign debt) and foreclosures. While banks have the legal right to pursue these options, if the borrower has a decent level of income, a restructuring is almost always the better course of action. Not only are the outcomes typically better for the lender, they are also better for the borrower, and thus reduces the economic costs to both parties. This is one reason why the US policy during our mortgage crisis was disgraceful and short-sighted. The government had the power to force banks and mortgage servicers to undertake outside the box solutions, because mortgage lender had made such a mess of how they had handled mortgage documentation that in many, arguably most cases, they did not have the right to foreclose. The government thus held the whip hand: if it let the mortgage chain of title mess continue to metastasize, it would eventually brig down the mortgage industrial complex. The banks needed official help in a very large way.

But the Administration went all in for papering over that problem, giving the banks what amounted to a second bailout by letting them out of institution-destroying liability on the cheap, and not insisting that they work out mortgages (in particularly, give principal writedowns).

Third, and we'll turn to this in more detail soon, the article leading up to this point makes lending sound as if it is a primary driver of "recovery" (the "play its part" language is weaker than the depiction in the preceding paragrpahs). We'll debunk that idea.

In other words, that extract, and indeed, almost the entire article, gives the impression that the only options with a debt overhang are forcing borrowers into penury or bank bailouts. Only in the third to the last paragraph do we get a passing mention of other possibilities:

In some cases, the delay arose from a reluctance, at least in part, to force people out of their homes. Even though Ireland's biggest banks suffered huge losses after the financial crisis, they held back from forcing many borrowers who had defaulted out of their homes. In recent years, the Irish government has pursued a widespread plan that aims to reduce the debt load of financially stressed homeowners. Such forbearance appears not to have weakened the Irish economy, which has recovered at a faster rate than those of other European countries.

Recall that Ireland has the most outsized real estate bubble, with private credit at a staggering 12X GDP. Eavis almost seems puzzled that Ireland did better than other countries by restructuring debt, which he describes using the atypical term "forbearance," which is more commonly used to describe when regulators let their charges get away with breaking rules. (There are other reasons Ireland "recovered" more quickly that are not pretty, and not open to other countries, like large scale emigration).

And there's no mention of Iceland, which had a staggeringly large debt bubble, and was forced into recognizing the losses immediately due to the collapse of its central bank. Iceland prosecuted its bankers and cleaned up its banks, not just the loans but also the boards and top leadership. Even though its degree of recovery is often overstated in the media, it's still done very well given the severity of the underlying problem.

No, Virginia, Banks Do Not Drive Growth

Another big problem with the subtext of the story is that it depicts the problem of excessive debt being a problem for growth primarily due to its impact on bank lending, by reducing their capacity to make new loans. The article does mention in passing how companies and borrowers struggle under heavy debt loads. But it fails to translate this into macroeconomic effects, which has been set forth clearly by economist Richard Koo in his description of "balance sheet recessions."

When businesses and individuals are overburdened by borrowings, they prioritize paying down their obligations over other spending, even if that "spending" might be an investment that would put them ahead overall. They recognize that their debt servicing levels have made them vulnerable to other shocks, so getting their borrowings down to a more viable level amounts to risk reduction. But thus sensible behavior on an economy-wide basis dampens growth.

We can see a classic example of how this works in the US with student debt. Enough young people are burdened with student loans to such a degree that it is underminimg their ability to leave home, get married and start families, and buy homes. That in turn has dampened the increase of the housing supply, and led it to be more in lower cost, typically rental "multifamily" buildings, meaning apartments, rather than houses. Housing has traditionally been the driver of US growth cycles; the weak housing recovery is one of the reasons the current growth path is so anemic.

So the real story of why debt hangovers hurt growth operates mainly through the demand side: corporations and individuals that are belt-tightening, or worse, faced with catastrophic failure, rein in their spending. But that's not what you hear from the Times:

Bad debts have been a drag on economic activity ever since the financial crisis of 2008, but in recent months, the threat posed by an overhang of bad loans appears to be rising. China is the biggest source of worry. Some analysts estimate that China's troubled credit could exceed $5 trillion, a staggering number that is equivalent to half the size of the country's annual economic output.

Official figures show that Chinese banks pulled back on their lending in December. If such trends persist, China's economy, the second-largest in the world behind the United States', may then slow even more than it has, further harming the many countries that have for years relied on China for their growth….

In Europe, analysts say bad loans total more than $1 trillion. Many large European banks are still burdened with defaulted loans, complicating policy makers' efforts to revive the Continent's economy. Italy, for instance, announced a plan last week to clean out bad loans from its plodding banking industry.

Elsewhere, bad loans are on the rise at Brazil's biggest banks, as the country grapples with the effects of an enormous credit binge.

In all of this, you see an focus on the symptoms - banks with high levels of debt - rather than the diseases. In China, for instance, it has been a government committed to growth levels that it sees as necessary to maintain the legitimacy of the officialdom, but are no longer viable under China's investment and export-driven growth model. Investment has hit 50% of GDP, a level that is unsustainable. On an economy of China's scale, large economic losses were inevitable. Because this investment binge was debt funded, that means big losses to lenders (which are not just banks but include participants in China's large shadow banking system).

This paragraph epitomizes the misguided position of the article:

In good times, companies and people take on new loans, often at low interest rates, to buy goods and services. When economies slow, these debts become difficult to pay for many borrowers. And the bigger the boom, the more soured debt that is left behind for bankers and policy makers to deal with.

First, this section makes consumer borrowing sound virtuous. For the most part, it isn't. Academic studies have repeatedly found that household debt levels are negatively correlated with economic growth. In other words, this depiction of individuals borrowing to fund consumption is the neoliberal model that has been in place in the US since the early 1980s: of having consumers rely on borrowing to achieve rising standards of living rather than wage growth. We hit the limits of that approach with the 2008 crisis.

Second, as we've said repeatedly, businessmen do not borrow and invest because money is on sale. They borrow and invest because they see a business opportunity. They are more likely to see opportunities when the economy is strong than when it is crappy. The availability of credit can thus constrain business growth, but cheap money alone won't do much to promote it.

The one exception to that story is businesses where the cost of money is their biggest, or one of their biggest costs. What businesses are like that? Financial speculation or the purchase and sale of highly levered assets, like real estate. So it should not be surprising that low interest rates have goosed asset prices rather than stimulate real economy growth. The Fed was not so totally clueless as to not understand that. But it convinced itself that rising stock and housing prices would lead to a wealth effect, that would in turn lead to more spending. But since wealth in concentrated in the upper income strata, that at best amounted to trickle down economics. That has never been very successful, as recent results confirm.

And What About Policy Options?

The article fails to acknowledge that Europe's continuing banking mess is due in large degree to the fact it has no satisfactory mechanism for bank resolution, and its banking union is flawed and incomplete to a degree that it if anything increases the odds of financial crises (more on this in the next few days). And this part is troubling:

Wherever governments and central banks unleashed aggressive stimulus policies in recent years, a toxic debt hangover has followed

It treat "stimulus" as if it were all of a muchness, and in the context of this story, where there is nary a mention of fiscal stimulus. The only references in the story are to cheap lending. That leaves readers with the impression that the sole medicine is ineffective, even counterproductive monetary stimulus.

While we are glad to have the Times confirm a point we have been making for years, that monetary pump-priming was not going to help, and would at most boost bank profits without doing much for the real economy, it's disturbing to see this article put on neoliberal blinders and not even admit that deficit spending is an option, and actually would have been a vastly better course of action than the cheap-money approaches taken. The best course of action, as we stressed during the crisis, would have been to nationalize the sickest banks, push banks across the board to restructure loans, recapitalize banks as needed (with new boards and executives put in place) and have aggressive deficit spending offset the downdraft from working out the loans.

But again, in our neoliberal, and therefore Panglossian best of all possible worlds, deficit spending is a dirty word. The Times, whether by accident or design gives a very clear account of the cost of global malaise that has resulted from failing to deal with the debt crisis head on and bring the best tools to bear on it.

News Thu, 11 Feb 2016 00:00:00 -0500
The Oil Industry Won in Alberta. Now First Nations Look to Heal Their Land

Byproducts of oil sands bitumen extraction, tailings ponds are an environmental hazard that wreaks havoc on the surrounding ecosystems. (Photography / video: Amanda Creech)Byproducts of oil sands bitumen extraction, tailings ponds are an environmental hazard that wreaks havoc on the surrounding ecosystems. (Photo: Amanda Creech)

More than 860 miles northeast of the Unist'ot'en clan's British Columbia blockade is the Athabasca river valley, where the five First Nations of the region know too well what it's like to live with big oil and gas in their backyard.

Home to the third-largest proven reserves of crude oil in the world, the Alberta tar sands hold an estimated 17Cleo Reese is an environmental activist and band councillor for Alberta’s Fort Murray No. 468 First Nation. She has been a central organizer in the annual healing walks that have taken place in Alberta since 2010. “If the land is OK, the people are OK. But if the land needs healing, the people need healing, too,” Reese says. (Photo: Amanda Creech)Cleo Reese is an environmental activist and band councillor for Alberta's Fort Murray No. 468 First Nation. She has been a central organizer in the annual healing walks that have taken place in Alberta since 2010. "If the land is OK, the people are OK. But if the land needs healing, the people need healing, too," Reese says. (Photo: Amanda Creech)5 billion barrels and are exceeded in volume only by Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. Here, First Nations engage in a complex dance of resistance to and cooperation with industry in order to survive.

On a day in late August, a colorful, hand-drawn sign is propped in the front drive of James and Florence Woodward's home on the Fort McMurray First Nation Reservation. It reads: "Healing Gathering for the Land and Water."

The Woodwards' home is perched on the edge of Gregoire Lake, where water gently laps on a curved pebble shore. Whitefish caught that morning dry on a wire mesh hanging over a fire pit in the yard. A tipi is about to be erected in the lawn.

Indigenous and nonindigenous people from across Alberta sit on plastic folding chairs near the water's edge, holding paper plates filled with seasoned moose meat, warm traditional Bannock bread, and cups of hot Labrador tea. Grown near the lake's edge, the tea leaves were collected the day before during an elder teaching on medicinal plant usage and foraging techniques.

The Woodwards' cousin Cleo Reese is a key organizer of this three-day gathering, which includes traditional pipe ceremonies, sweat lodges, language teachings, and a healing prayer walk around the toxic tailings ponds just north of Fort McMurray, on the First Nation's traditional hunting grounds. "If the land is OK, the people are OK. But if the land needs healing, the people need healing, too," says Reese.

The healing walks, begun in 2010, were initially a way to grow support around the issue of tar sands development. They expanded from 300 people to several thousand in 2014, including famed climate activists Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben. This year, the purpose is more inward Reese says: To reconnect First Nations people with their land, language, and culture - a relationship destabilized by the intergenerational trauma of residential schools throughout the 20th century, and then further degraded by the downturn of the trapping industry and the efforts of government and industry to bring tar sands oil to the world.

North of the Fort McMurray reservation, once-rich boreal forest has been scraped away to make room for new drilling sites. There, the Syncrude refinery looks like a city, with myriad smoke stacks pushing out dark clouds. Directly to the west, megaload trucks carry building-sized machinery parts on Highway 63 - referred to by locals as the "highway to hell" - while 18-wheelers haul lumber, I-beams, and flammable natural gas.

As recently as the 1980s, many indigenous people in this region could rely on fur trapping to provide household income. When the trapping industry suffered a sharp downturn - pelt production fell 62 percent in the early 1990s because of animal rights groups' vocal opposition - First Nations people were forced to find other means of employment. Oil companies were there to fill the void.

The industry offers jobs, says Reese, whose daughter earns a good income working in the tar sands operation. First Nations also garner economic benefits in exchange for cooperation on development projects. But with the money comes the heartbreak of environmental devastation and the accompanying health issues.

The Fort McKay First Nation is the richest First Nation in Alberta, from oil deals and income brought in by the Nation-owned Fort McKay Group of Companies Limited Partnership, which offers industry services including heavy equipment operation, site servicing, reclamation support, and logistics. Formed in 1986 with a single janitorial contract, the company now reports $150 million in annual revenue, with 1,000 employees, 20 percent of whom are Native.

Jean L'Hommecourt, a traditional land-use researcher for the Fort McKay First Nation, is one of the most vocal band members against tar sands development. Despite this, she recognizes that since her community can no longer live off the land, working with industry is essential for the band's survival. "We have to get into business with the companies in order to get some of that money, some of the resources from our land," she says.

Resistance to development projects is an extremely expensive and labor-intensive process, says Lisa King, director of the Industry Relations Corporation for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. When a company proposes a project, it's the Industry Relations Corporation that looks at the Environmental Impact Assessment of the project. Under the direction of elders, the Nation decides whether to oppose the project and defend their decision through a lengthy and expensive hearing process or to partner with project developers and reap benefits.

"Just getting your studies and your evidence ready, your scientists ready, getting your communities of people who are out on the land - it's a lot of work and a lot of money," says King.

(Video: Amanda Creech)

When a Nation decides to partner, that can work as leverage to win contracts for Nation-owned companies that in turn bring jobs and benefits for the community. Lack of capacity and funds, King says, means that the Nation reserves its energy and resources for the biggest, most environmentally destructive projects.

Currently the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation is preparing to fight a proposal by Tech Resources to build another large open pit mine. The hearing is scheduled for 2016.

Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2006 famously claimed that oil extraction from the tar sands was an enterprise akin to China's Great Wall, "only bigger." While the size of the reserves is impressive, the simple narrative that the tar sands are producing and exporting oil is a sleight of hand. Rather, what flows through many of the hundreds of pipelines in Alberta is "dilbit," or diluted bitumen, a mixture of a heavy, tar-like hydrocarbon called bitumen mixed with chemically "processed" water, sand, and natural gas condensate. The Natural Resources Defense Council says the substance is "highly corrosive," "acidic," and "potentially unstable."

Many Canadian environmental organizations and First Nations have expressed concern about the impacts of transporting such a chemically volatile substance through pipelines that have a history of ruptures and spills. And Tony Boschmann, the environmental consultation manager for the Fort McMurray First Nation, believes that running dilbit through these pipelines significantly complicates the process of cleanup in the event of spills.

One such spill occurred in July 2015, just 5 miles from the Woodwards' home. When a pipeline owned by Nexen, a Chinese-owned energy company, burst, an estimated 31,500 barrels of dilbit emulsion leaked into the surrounding muskeg and wetlands.

Boschmann toured the site of the spill, describing it as a "mass of tar" spread over an area 980 by 230 feet and 8 to 12 inches deep.

With a standard oil spill, emulsions float on top of the water or land. A bitumen spill behaves differently. When the material cools, tar separates from processed water, sinking into the ground before it can be cleaned.

This leaves a lot of questions as to the full environmental impact of a dilbit spill. Regarding the Nexen spill, Boschmann wonders, "How far will that travel? How much habitat will that effect? How long will that be in the system?"

The lesson for Boschmann "is that the industry hasn't provided a good case for how to clean [bitumen] up."

L'Hommecourt remembers a time when the Athabasca River was a highway system that sustained her community. Nation members used the waterways to fish, hunt moose, and trap beaver. With industry pollution, refineries siphoning the river for cooling and processing, and the impacts of climate change, that life is no more, she says. "Now the river is very low. It's hard to navigate - and dangerous."

Access to clean water is a major issue for her Nation. Despite an expensive water treatment plant in Fort McKay, residents truck in water for drinking and bathing because carcinogenic chemicals in the local water have caused burns and lesions.

Water tables, James Woodward adds, have dropped all over the region, impacting beaver trapping and fishing. The NRDC has attributed this to the oil industry's practice of extracting fresh water from underground aquifers to use in mining operations. Woodward, a Fort McMurray First Nation elder, says he and his wife, Florence, still eat very traditionally, relying heavily on fishing, hunting game, and foraging berries but must travel farther and farther each year to find food that has not been contaminated.

"There's no more ground water," says Woodward. "You can see empty beaver houses, empty ponds everywhere that used to have a lot of water."

A traditional land use researcher for the Fort McKay First Nation, Jean L'Hommecourt is an outspoken activist on the impacts that the tar sands have had on her community. Her community used to rely on the Athabasca River to fish and travel. "Now the river is very low. It's hard to navigate—and dangerous." (Photo: Amanda Creech)A traditional land use researcher for the Fort McKay First Nation, Jean L'Hommecourt is an outspoken activist on the impacts that the tar sands have had on her community. Her community used to rely on the Athabasca River to fish and travel. "Now the river is very low. It's hard to navigate - and dangerous." (Photo: Amanda Creech)Both Woodward and L'Hommecourt have lived in the Athabasca River Valley for most of their adult lives. They're traditional ecological knowledge holders. It's exactly this kind of long-view historical understanding of the land, Boschmann says, that is so often left out of science reports on potential development impacts on land and people.

Boschmann has proposed having First Nations residents conduct on-the-ground monitoring and then consult with elders to bring elements of that traditional ecological knowledge to dry environmental assessment reports.

The Fort McMurray First Nation has formalized its proposal and currently has five teens trained by Alberta's Environmental Monitoring and Evaluation and Reporting Agency (AEMERA) in a new youth-to-elder exchange to expand the amount of cultural input in Western reports. Boschmann hopes this form of intergenerational reporting on the land can be used as a template for other First Nations in their fight to be heard.

Trucks speed along the curving highway around the vast Suncor tailings ponds, dikes holding in a shimmering blue-iridescent expanse of processed sand, bitumen, napthenic acids, and heavy metals. When it's hot, some of the tailings evaporate into the air. After the first rain of the season, says Florence Woodward, a yellow film lines the edges of puddles and car windows.

It's mid-afternoon at the healing gathering, and a group of 16 indigenous and nonindigenous people stand near the tailings edge, close enough to breathe in the acrid chemicals. Some in the group have only heard about the tailings. Others drive past them every day.

North of the Fort McMurray reservation, once-rich boreal forest has been scraped away to make room for new drilling sites. There, the Syncrude refinery looks like a city, with myriad smoke stacks pushing out dark clouds. (Photo: Amanda Creech)North of the Fort McMurray reservation, once-rich boreal forest has been scraped away to make room for new drilling sites. There, the Syncrude refinery looks like a city, with myriad smoke stacks pushing out dark clouds. (Photo: Amanda Creech)

Five grandmothers lead the way to witness for themselves the black muck that wells and crusts on the edge of the ponds. On the water's surface, disembodied human forms rise from the inky blackness - scarecrows installed to warn away birds from landing on the ponds and dying in the muck.

In the Athabasca River indigenous tradition, grandmothers are the ultimate life-givers. They are the carriers of wisdom and power.

Carefully, they open several small containers of fresh water that they've blessed and add it to the tailings - an offering of healing and a prayer to keep on fighting.

News Thu, 11 Feb 2016 00:00:00 -0500
Four Soldiers Arrested in El Salvador in Case of 1989 University Campus Massacre

Four former soldiers are in an El Salvador jail, arrested Friday night in connection with the November 1989 massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter. The massacre, which took place on the grounds of the University of Central America, or UCA, marked a turning point in the country's civil war. It drew swift international condemnation and sparked intense questioning of US support for the Salvadoran military.

Five of the six priests were Spanish nationals and attempts have been underway in Spain to extradite those suspected of carrying out the massacre. However, the Salvadoran Supreme Court has thwarted past extradition requests, citing a 1992 amnesty law.

For more, FSRN's Shannon Young spoke with Jose Artiga, Executive Director of SHARE - El Salvador, a foundation with a 30 year history of human rights, solidarity and advocacy work in El Salvador.

Download Audio

Shannon Young: Given the arrest of four former soldiers Friday night: Does it seem to you like a major obstacle has been removed to prosecuting civil war era crimes?

Jose Artiga: This is a long process, you know. I think this is a major step in that process, but there is a long way to go. But, I think it's spectacular that the Salvadoran government decided, the very same day that Colonel Montano was ordered to, or there was a move to extradite him to Spain, that the Salvadoran government also moved in the same direction, which I assume that it might have some connection, or some blessing, from the United States.

You mention retired Colonel Inocente Orlando Montano.  Can you explain who he is and his connection to the case?

When Montano was a member of what was called La Tandona, the class of military that was ruling during the war, he, himself, would be in charge of a number of massacres that happened during the war. So, he was detained in the US for something else. He was lying to immigration [about] temporary protective status and that's how he was identified as somebody related to these massacres in El Salvador. And after he served his sentence of 21 months, he was detained, and Spain claimed him. Several months passed and then, last week, finally, the order was issued to extradite him to Spain.

This case in particular, the massacre on the campus of the University of Central America, now spans three countries: Spain, where the legal proceedings are occurring; the US, where Montano has been living; and El Salvador, home the majority of those suspected of carrying out the massacre. Why hasn't the case been prosecuted in El Salvador?

Well, no cases have been brought to justice in El Salvador. El Salvador has maintained its powerful wall behind amnesty, even though amnesty doesn't apply to cases of crimes against humanity. But, no judges or no part of the legal system has been willing to take any case.

The case of the Jesuits is just one of many. You know, we have over 264 massacres, including the largest massacre in Latin America, El Mozote, where military have not been brought to justice. You have the case of the Archbishop Romero, who is in the process to be canonized. But, no investigation has happened in El Salvador. You have the case of four US church women, and then, you know, the hundreds of disappeared and assassinations.

The case of the Jesuits itself is an important one because this was not a death squad, which many incidents happened related to the death squads. This was the high command of the military, this was not, you know, three, four soldiers out of the control that went did the assassination. Four hundred people were involved.

We're hoping that three things happen and this case is a violation of human rights. One is that the truth is known; two, that justice is made, and then the reparations happen to the victims. So, we hope that this will move things forward, not only for this case, but open up for other cases.

Bringing it back to the present day. El Salvador now has one of the highest murder rates in the world, with homicides at a level unseen since the civil war. There's also been a major exodus of people leaving El Salvador, citing the violence as a reason for leaving. How does the present-day violence connect to the past and is there a way to work towards a resolution accordingly?

The situation is very complex, but one component will be the impunity of the '80s. How can you go ahead in this case? The government - the state - goes ahead and kills six Jesuits and two women, and nothing happened to the perpetrators. That impunity is a signal that you can, you know, a young person can secure a weapon and kill people in his community, and nothing will happen to them.

Then there are other root causes of emigration, including these free trade agreements. We need to remember that before the free trade agreement with Mexico, there were only 2 million undocumented in the United States. Ten years after that agreement, over 10 million undocumented. So these policies, these very unfair policies, can displace people, especially in the countryside. You go to the city, you don't find anything. And then, you know, many tend to go north.

So, we need to address also the economic policies, simple things like WalMart coming into El Salvador and displacing thousands of jobs, or Coca-Cola coming into a community and capturing all the water of that community and leaving people with no water. There are other injustices that go on to promote emigration.

Jose Artiga, anything else you'd like to add?

I would say, let's follow these cases and express our support to justice. I think that we need to be fair and contribute to the healing of these cases that have been going on for, in the case of the Jesuits for 26 years. I have a very personal connection to this case because Elba, the woman that was killed, Elba and Celina, worked with my mother. They would come and help in the house. So, these were almost relatives of ours that were killed in that, on November 16 of 1989.

News Thu, 11 Feb 2016 00:00:00 -0500