Truthout Stories Fri, 30 Sep 2016 18:16:40 -0400 en-gb Medea Benjamin: If Americans Can Sue Saudis Over 9/11, Drone Victims Should Be Able to Sue the US

"Finally, we have an example of the US Congress putting US citizens above the relationship with the Saudi government," says CODEPINK's Medea Benjamin in response to the vote by Congress to allow Americans to sue Saudi Arabia over the 9/11 attacks, overriding President Obama's veto of the bill. The legislation would allow courts to waive claim of foreign sovereign immunity after an act of terrorism occurs within US borders. "If innocent families [of drone attacks] were able to take the US to court instead of seeing joining ISIS or al-Qaeda as their only resort, that would be a very positive thing." Benjamin is author of the book Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the US-Saudi Connection.


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

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to Wednesday's decisive vote by Congress to allow Americans to sue Saudi Arabia over the 9/11 attacks, overriding President Obama's veto of the bill. It's the first time during Obama's presidency that his veto has been overridden by Congress. The Senate rejected the veto 97 to 1, while the House rejected it 348 to 77. This means the, quote, Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act now becomes law. This legislation would allow courts to waive claim of foreign sovereignty immunity after an act of terrorism occurs within US borders. The bill had passed both the House and the Senate earlier this year, but President Obama had vetoed it earlier this month. This is the president speaking to CNN on Wednesday.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: What this legislation did was it said if a private citizen believes that, having been victimized by terrorism, that another country didn't do enough to stop one of its citizens, for example, in engaging in terrorism, then they can file a personal lawsuit, a private lawsuit in court. And the problem with that is that if we eliminate this notion of sovereign immunity, then our men and women in uniform around the world could potentially start seeing ourselves subject to reciprocal laws. And the concern that I've had has nothing to do with Saudi Arabia per se or my sympathy for 9/11 families; it has to do with me not wanting a situation in which we're suddenly exposed to liabilities for all the work that we're doing all around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: In July, the Obama administration declassified 28 pages from the September 11 report detailing possible ties between the Saudi government and the 9/11 attacks. The declassified documents raise new questions about the role of a Saudi consular official based in the Los Angeles area. He personally helped two of the hijackers after they arrived in Los Angeles in early 2000. Fifteen of the 19 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi government financed an extensive lobbying campaign against the legislation but stopped short of threatening any retaliation if the law was passed. There was no official reaction from Saudi Arabia after the votes.

The override of President Obama's veto comes as the Senate last week rejected a proposal to block the US from supplying the kingdom with more than a billion dollars' worth of tanks and other military hardware. Critics of the weapons deal say it could drag the US into the Saudi-led war in Yemen and contribute to the humanitarian crisis there.

For more, we're joined by Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CODEPINK. Her most recent book, Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the US-Saudi Connection.

Medea, if you can talk about the significance of this first-ever override of an Obama veto and what this means for Saudi Arabia?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: I think the significance is that, finally, we have an example of the US Congress putting the US citizens above the relationship with the Saudi government. And this is significant because, year after year after year, Congress has done nothing to stop arming to the teeth the Saudi government -- $115 billion worth of weapon sales under Obama alone -- a government that treats its own citizens with tremendous repression, beheads peaceful dissidents, treats women as minors their entire lives, has millions of foreign workers who are treated like indentured servants, and spreads this intolerant, distorted version of Wahhabism around the world. And the US is not only arming the Saudi government, but is directly involved with the Saudis in the devastating war that's going on in Yemen. So this sort of opens this issue up to much larger questions.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Medea, but what about the president's argument on this issue of the impact in a broader sense to the United States, and also the talk now in the House and the Senate about revisiting this legislation with some carve-outs or some changes to it later?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, actually, this legislation is quite narrowly written, and people don't think that it will allow the payment of compensation, and the executive branch could stop the courts at any point. So, I think this question, though, about whether it would open up US officials overseas to lawsuits, I actually think that could be a positive thing. For example, if the families of victims of drone attacks, innocent families, were able to take the US to court instead of seeing joining ISIS or al-Qaeda as their only resort, that would be a very positive thing.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Medea, do you see any prospects of the Senate and the House revisiting this legislation?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: They certainly might revisit the legislation. They might make it even more narrow. But I think we should just look at the larger picture of what has happened since the Iran nuclear deal, since the reasoning, questioning of the Saudi weapons deals. And I think that we should start looking at all the areas that the Saudis have been using to buy consent in the US, giving large donations to Ivy League colleges, to think tanks, to the Clinton Foundation, to the John McCain foundation, paying eight different groups in Washington, DC, as lobbyists -- for example, Tony Podesta, the brother of John Podesta, who runs the -- Clinton's presidential campaign, receiving $140,000 a month from the Saudis. All of these things should come out now as we question the US relationship with the Saudi government.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you most want to find out, information coming out in lawsuits of the 9/11 families, about Saudia Arabia's role, Medea?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, there are, supposedly, 80,000 pages of documentation about relationships between the hijackers that we know nothing about, particularly those that live in Florida, in New Jersey, in Virginia. This has all been hidden from the public. And through the courts is the only way to get some of this information out. So I think it's like ripping the band-aid off. Let's see what's underneath that. And then this really allows us to start the much broader issue of questioning.

And the fact that you just had on Bill McKibben talking about the devastating impact of the fossil fuel industry, let's also connect that to Saudi Arabia, where the basis of our relationship has been, for decades, around oil, and now includes the Saudis propping up the military-industrial complex, being the, by far, largest purchasers of US weapons.

AMY GOODMAN: Medea Benjamin, we want to thank you for being with us, co-founder of CODEPINK, author of Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the US-Saudi Connection.

News Fri, 30 Sep 2016 00:00:00 -0400
The True Threat ]]> (Khalil Bendib) Art Fri, 30 Sep 2016 00:00:00 -0400 Economic Update: Economics and Red States

This episode of Professor Wolff's radio show discusses Jeremy Corbyn's victory in the UK, Uber drivers unionizing, state retirement systems being sued for threatening pensions and hard facts about US medical insurance. The show also includes an interview with Arlie Hochschild on her new book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, and why she believes "bridges" between progressives and Tea Party folks are very possible.

To see more stories like this, visit Economic Update: Your Weekly Dose of Revolutionary Economics

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News Fri, 30 Sep 2016 00:00:00 -0400
The Empire Files: How Palestine Became Colonized

"What we saw was one of the biggest human rights disasters on the planet. A brutal and growing military occupation that thrives off US sponsorship, soon to be strengthened even more by another US$38 billion in tax dollars -- the largest military aid deal in history."

This is the state of Israel today, and these are the opening words of Abby Martin's latest episode in the series, "The Empire Files," who, along with her team, traveled to the region to witness firsthand the ruthless occupation of Palestine.

In the video highlighting essential historical context to Martin's upcoming on-the-ground reports, the trajectory of Palestine's colonization is presented.

"Before Palestine had borders it was a recognized nation, its cultural identity distinct, with deep roots in the land," says Martin.

With the only perception many have of the region disseminated through biased, mainstream media and promotional Birthright videos, many perceive it as a refuge for Jews who are constantly "living under threat of genocide from Muslims."

But as Martin recounts, the history of Palestine's shrinking borders occurred through relentless violence, repression and forced expulsion, enacted intentionally upon and disparagingly at the region's native Arab population.

Tracing the history of Zionism from its outset as a small, fringe ideology to a "fervent political movement," Martin tells of how early Zionists promised to make Palestine a "vanguard against barbarism."

From the divvying up of the region by colonial powers in the aftermath of World War I, to the creation of the state of Israel in 1947, the short video explains the malevolent history through which Palestinians lost control of their land.

It recounts the horrors of the 1948 war, which led to the creation of hundreds and thousands of Palestinian refugees that to this day have not been granted the right of return, as well as the horrors of the Six Day War in 1967 that saw almost 40,000 Palestinians killed.

The historical explainer concludes by citing the US empire's role in financing the military of the repressive settler colonial state, the justification for its suppressive rule constantly touted as "security from terrorism."

News Fri, 30 Sep 2016 00:00:00 -0400
A Virtual Visit to a Relative in Jail

 (Allison V. Smith / New York Times) (Allison V. Smith / New York Times)

Chicago—"Are you tired of taking the time to drive to the jail and wait in long lines for your visit?" asks the website of Securus, a private company that manages phones in jails and prisons throughout the United States. "Visit your loved one from the comfort of your home using a computer."

Computer-based video visitation, a service that Securus provides for a fee, can indeed be a helpful option: It allows people in jail or prison to see loved ones who can't visit in person for whatever reason -- the long distance, disability, illness, a busy schedule or responsibilities at home. However, what Securus doesn't advertise is that, in many cases, you're not allowed to visit any other way.

In county jails, when video visitation is introduced, in-person visitation is typically banned. (Securus's contracts with jails have sometimes mandated this ban, though recently the company announced that its contracts would no longer include the requirement.) Jails are embracing the practice, in part because video visitation is less time-consuming and requires fewer staff members than in-person visits. More than 13 percent of local jails in the United States now use video visitation, and at most of those jails, in-person visits have been abolished, according to research by the Prison Policy Initiative.

When my sister began serving a sentence at the Lake County jail outside Chicago in July, I experienced this practice firsthand. When she first called me from the jail, I planned to drive over immediately to see her. My sister had been incarcerated before, and I'd always relied on regular visits to help show my love and support. But I discovered that in-person visits were not allowed. All "visits" were to be conducted via video, through Securus's system.

My options were to schedule a video visit at the facility (sitting in a booth alone) or at home. I scheduled an at-home visit, paying $5 for the privilege. Many jails charge more, but even $5, at regular intervals, can be a burden to families of incarcerated people, who are often poor. A report from the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights found that one-third of families of incarcerated people went into debt to cover the cost of phone calls and visits, a burden that fell heaviest on women of color.

Moreover, at Lake County and a number of other jails that allow visits only by video, visits must be booked 24 hours ahead of time, which can be an impediment for families struggling to juggle busy schedules with the obligations that come with having an adult (often the primary wage earner) missing from a household.

In my attempt to visit with my sister by video, my visitation privileges were initially denied because of a blurry ID photo: Securus requires that you take a picture of your ID card with your webcam, an endeavor that's harder than it sounds. This delayed me by a couple of days.

Eventually, I was able to schedule a visitation. The day before, I spent an hour researching and downloading the necessary system requirements for my computer. For people with an older or otherwise incompatible computer or less knowledge of technology -- not an unlikely scenario, given the demographics of families of incarcerated people -- those requirements could prevent a visit.

My preparation did me no good. I signed on at the required time … and waited. The minutes ticked by as a box telling me my "inmate" hadn't yet arrived hovered on my screen (although my sister later confirmed she'd been present). After 10 minutes, I called Securus's tech support. There are no extensions with video visitation; after the half-hour slot you've paid for has passed, your connection is cut. I sat on the phone with a helpless tech person, crying. I knew my sister would be devastated. I was worried she'd think I hadn't shown up.

After a half-hour, the box disappeared. My visit was over. Despite several follow-up calls to tech support and emails to Securus, I never found out why it hadn't worked.

The second time I tried a video visit, I succeeded in connecting. I was relieved when my sister's face popped up on my screen. But our video conversation was glitchy: Her face was dim and her words were delayed and didn't sync with the movements of her mouth. For much of the visit I saw only half her head, and neither of us could look each other in the eye, no matter how much I fiddled with my setup.

These problems weren't unique to my experience: Technological issues are a common complaint with such visits. When the camera flickered off at the half-hour mark, I felt our conversation had hardly begun.

The practical benefits of face-to-face visits for people in jail are well established: They help them maintain a connection to the outside world and prepare them for life after release, reducing recidivism. But more fundamentally, incarcerated people are human beings, and denying them personal contact with those they love is yet another indignity of the prison system.

Even the best visitation policies can't make up for the broken bonds and fragmented communities that incarceration produces. Even the longest, most well-accommodated in-person visit can't substitute for living in the world. But at least we can allow people in jail to see their loved ones face to face.

Opinion Fri, 30 Sep 2016 00:00:00 -0400
Plutocracy of Maximums, Democracy of Minimums

Increasing numbers of people in this country are living in a precarious and diminished democracy of minimums because we have collectively enabled the wealthy few to create for themselves a plutocracy of maximums. How much more should we take before we start refusing to live this way?

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump take the stage for their first presidential debate, at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, on September 26, 2016. (Damon Winter / The New York Times)Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump take the stage for their first presidential debate, at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, on September 26, 2016. (Damon Winter / The New York Times)

How can Americans successfully organize to resist and transform systems that only benefit the wealthy elite? In his new book, Breaking Through Power, Ralph Nader shares stories of how it's been done and how it can be done, offering ideas for reclaiming politics, labor, media, the environment and the quality of life in the US today. You can order this book from Truthout by clicking here!

The following is an excerpt of Breaking Through Power:

When I was a student at Princeton University I learned from my anthropology studies that the concentration of power in the hands of the few is common to all cultures, societies, nations, tribes, cities, towns, and villages. Even where the thirst for self-governance and democracy is strong, as was the case in New England towns before the American Revolution against King George III, wealthy Tories were there too. In Central and Western Massachusetts, the farmers used the term "the River Gods" to describe the rich merchants using the Connecticut River as a profitable trading route. These days, most people protesting for economic justice use the term "the One Percent" to describe the ultra-small group of people who wield enormous influence over our society today. There is something about the differences in skill, determination, lineage, avarice, and pure luck that stratifies most people from the rulers who dominate them. In the political realm, the few become dominant because they hoard wealth and are driven to exercise power over others. When a small group of people rules a society the political system is considered an oligarchy; when only money and wealth determined how a society is controlled, the political system is a plutocracy. From the standpoint of a democratic society, both oligarchy and plutocracy are inherently unjust and corrupt.

Of course there are variations in the degrees of authoritarianism and cruelty that each system exercises over the communities it relies upon for workers and wealth. Scholars have resorted to using phrases like "benign dictatorships" or "wise rulers" or "paternalistic hierarchies" to describe lighter touches by those few who impose their rule over the many. Thomas Paine simply called them tyrannies. People, families, and communities can only take so much abuse before they rise up to resist. The job of the rulers is always to find that line and provide the lowest level of pay, security, housing, consumer protection, healthcare, and political access for society so that they can extract and hoard the greatest amount of wealth, power, and immunity from justice for themselves. In many ways, the majority of Americans live in a democracy of minimums, while the privileged few enjoy a plutocracy of maximums.

This small volume is not just about the ravages of power or the assaults against disadvantaged and downtrodden communities. The subject here is the dominating influence of the One Percent in business, politics, health, education, and society as a whole. Over the past fifty years, Americans have suffered the relentless commercialization of everyday life -- their privacy and their childhoods, their parks and prisons, their public budgets and foreign policy, their schools and religious institutions, their elections and governments, and the most basic societal institution of them all: the family. Consider all the family functions that have been outsourced to business. Eating, cleaning, childcare, counseling, therapy, entertainment, sports, lawn work, simple repairs, have been increasingly commercialized, commodified, packaged, and marketed back to us as products of luxury and convenience. Even mother's breast milk has been displaced by infant formula.

In a plutocracy, commercialism dominates far beyond the realm of economics and business; everything is for sale, and money is power. But in an authentic democracy, there must be commercial-free zones where the power of human rights, citizenship, community, equality, and justice are free from the corrupting influence of money. Our elections and our governments should be such commercial-free zones; our environment, air, and water should never fall under the control of corporations or private owners. Children should not be programmed by a huckstering economy where their vulnerable consciousness becomes the target of relentless corporate marketing and advertising.

American history demonstrates that whenever commerce dominates all aspects of national life, a host of ills and atrocities have not just festered and spread, but become normal -- enslavement, land grabs, war, ethnic cleansing, serfdom, child labor, abusive working conditions, corrupt political systems, environmental contamination, and immunity from the law for the privileged few. History also shows that whenever there have been periods when enough of the country organizes and resists, we see movements of people and communities breaking through power. Progress is made. Rights are won. Education and literacy increase. Oppression is diminished. It was in this manner that people of conscience abolished the living nightmare imposed by

the laws and whips of white enslavers. The nation moved closer to promises of "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness" expressed in the Declaration of Independence. We won more control over our work, our food, our land, our air, and our water. Women secured the right to vote. Civil rights were elevated and enforced. Public schools, improved environments, workplace collective bargaining, and consumer protections did not spontaneously evolve; they were won by people demanding them and breaking through power.

These moments of great progress are expressed in terms of new legislation, regulations, and judicial decisions that directly benefit the life, liberties, and pursuit of happiness of most Americans. From the abolition of slavery to the introduction of seat belts, great social gains have been achieved when people mobilize, organize, and resist the power of the few. The problem is that these liberating periods of humanitarian and civilizational progress are of shorter duration than the relentless commercial counterforces that discourage and disrupt social movements and their networks of support. Some commentators have used the bizarre term "justice fatigue" to describe the pullback that often occurs when communities of resistance are faced with increased surveillance, infiltration, harassment, and arrest. A more accurate term is repression.

My sister, Laura Nader, Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, encourages her students to study and compare how other cultures develop and improve their collective "common good." An illuminating comparison on a giant scale, for example, could be made between how the United States and our European allies and enemies developed after World War II. Maybe the difference in directions came from the complacency of the American victors, flush with "full employment" after a severe economic depression, in contrast to the motivation of Europe's surviving middle class, to return to a better life. In any event, a destitute France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Italy, and Austria and the damaged Britain and Scandinavian nations took their traditions of strong labor unions, multi-party systems, and large co-ops to a level of productive social democracy that continues to shame the corporate-dominated, two-party tyranny that passes itself off for democracy in the United States. Granted, these war-weary countries had their own plutocracies, their own One Percent, but those ruling elites were successfully kept in check by the rest of society, not the other way around as is the case today in the United States. This combination of factors, coupled with a hungry, impoverished population thirsting for a decent livelihood, raised the critical expectation level that drove the momentum for far-reaching social progress. In this manner, people in most Western European nations granted themselves important accommodations such as affordable universal healthcare, tuition-free higher education, bountiful private pensions, powerful job-protection laws, four weeks or more paid vacations, accommodating public transit, paid family sick leave, paid maternity leave, and free child care. People in the United States today, with the exception of some of those protected by labor unions, have permitted the wealthy class to deny them these benefits, allowing their taxes for example, to be spent on what is, by far, the world's biggest military budget and an ultra-invasive national surveillance system that allows the government to violate their privacy. People in Europe insist that their taxes be spent to enrich the health, education and well-being of the entire population, not just those with extreme wealth, so there is less grumbling. Some European communities even calibrate fines and fees based on income. People in Finland, for example, charge fines according to income level so that the financial sting is experienced more equally. As a result, a wealthy Finnish businessman recently found himself with a speeding ticket in the amount of about $58,000 (54,024 euros) "for traveling a modest, if illegal, 64 miles per hour in a 50 m.p.h. zone."

Our country, which brags constantly about being number one in just about everything, managed to tie itself into knots after World War II. In 1947, a Republican Congress passed the notorious Taft-Hartley Act that handcuffed workers from forming new labor unions or expanding the ones that already existed. In 1948 the two-party duopoly smeared and suppressed the pro-labor efforts by the Progressive Party and its presidential candidate, former Vice President (under Franklin Delano Roosevelt) Henry Wallace. This was followed by more onerous restrictions on state ballot access and exclusions of third parties, enacted by both the Republicans and Democrats, that further stunted competitive choices of candidates and agendas. Today both parties increasingly represent the interests of big money, not the interests of the people, for it is big money that bankrolls their multi-million dollar election campaigns.

Almost as quickly as they emerged, radio and television stations in the United States conglomerated into big businesses beholden to the money and influence of their advertisers. While the Europeans devoted their post-war budgets to expanding public works, improving public facilities, social services, parks, and the arts, the United States squeezed civilian resources and channeled them into military budgets that drove the Cold War. It was not for nothing that President Eisenhower's farewell speech in 1961 is remembered most for warning about the many damaging effects, on both the economy and our freedom, of a burgeoning "military-industrial complex." His original draft contained the phrase "military-industrial-congressional complex" which was edited down to avoid alienating the members of Congress who could have actually done something to confront this deepening omnivorous crisis.

Concentrated power in the hands of the few really should matter to you. It matters to you if you are denied full-time gainful employment or paid poverty wages and there are no unions to defend your interests. It matters to you if you're denied affordable health care. It matters to you if you're gouged by the drug industry and your medication is outrageously expensive. It matters to you if it takes a long time to get to and from work due to lack of good public transit or packed highways. It matters to you if you and your children live in impoverished areas and have to breath dirtier air and drink polluted water and live in housing that is neglected by your landlord. It matters to you if your children are receiving a substandard education in understaffed schools where they are being taught to obey rather than to question, think and imagine, especially in regards to the nature of power.

If you're a little better off, it matters to you when your home is unfairly threatened with foreclosure. It matters to you when the nation is economically destabilized due to Wall Street's crimes, and your retirement account evaporates overnight. It matters to you if you can't pay off your large student loans, or if you can't get out from under crushing credit-card debt or enormous medical bills due to being under-insured. It matters to you if you are constantly worried about the security of your job, or the costly care of your children and elderly parents.

Increasing numbers of people in this country are living in a precarious and diminished democracy of minimums because we have collectively enabled the wealthy few to create for themselves a plutocracy of maximums. According to Oxfam, "runaway inequality has created a world where 62 people own as much as the poorest half of the world's population." Oxfam advocates cracking down on tax dodging, and promotes increasing investment in public services and increasing the income of the lowest-paid workers in our society as important first steps in addressing the shameful disparity in wealth.

How many tens of millions of Americans live oppressed by an inadequate minimum wage, minimum housing security, minimum healthcare, minimum access to quality education, minimum access to participation in the political process or use of our courts, minimal access to quality air, food and water, and minimum protection from abuse by corporations? How much more should we take before we start refusing to live this way, with our rights, security, and well-being taken away by the One Percent and often marketed back to us as luxuries we cannot afford?

Back in the Great Depression, the brilliant British economist John Maynard Keynes wrote that modern societies were reaching levels of production that would allow for solving what he called "the economic problem" of impoverishment. Since 1900, American productivity per capita has increased twenty-fold, adjusted for inflation. Why then is one in six people in the United States seriously impoverished, and why are nearly half of those employed the working poor? The general answer is because "the power of the plutocracy" impoverishes them. Most material gains and resources are diverted away from benefitting society as a whole and are hoarded to advantage the economic growth of the few, or diverted into counter-productive activities such as war, overloaded prisons, surveillance, wasteful promotions, and commercialization of all aspects of our lives.

In the 1950s, at Harvard Law School, the faculty purported to teach us "the law." We did not spend much time on the "lawlessness" of the rich and powerful (there wasn't even a single course or seminar on corporate crime), nor on how the powerful always intricately wrote and passed laws (containing legal loopholes, tax escapes, or corporate subsidies) that became predatory instruments against the general public. More broadly, we, the future leaders of the legal profession, lacked strenuous instruction about how those with raw power overwhelm the law, not just once in a while, but often enough to warrant calling this domination "power-law" -- the twisted law of those in command of the powerful industries, their lobbying associations, and the corporate attorneys who prey upon the people, families, and communities that compose this nation. The effect has been -- and continues to be -- that, as Catherine Rampell recently wrote in the New York Times, "wealth has become more concentrated, in the hands (and bank accounts and houses) of the richest Americans." Put more simply, the rich get richer while the rest of the country suffers.

By now, you might be wondering why in the world most seasoned law professors ignore such obvious realities. They must know that powerlaw is not restricted to lawlessness by police, the criminal courts, and the prisons. Many of my teachers had spent time working as government attorneys at regulatory agencies or the Justice Department, in addition to working with corporate law firms shaping and immunizing powerlaws for their lucrative corporate clients and business executives. What's going on here? Well, law schools are not driven by kindness or the common good; they are driven by the market and its pursuit of profit. Their curricula, with exceptions, focus on training most law students for lucrative corporate law practice. True, there are wonderful law school-based clinics charitably serving impoverished communities, but after graduation, debt-burdened law graduates mostly head for commercial practices. There they apply power-law and power-procedures against whatever rivals or adversaries their wealthy clients hire them to over-run. Citizens and communities underestimate the creative power of the corporate law firms who shun publicity as they irresponsibly protect the extreme misbehavior of the ultra-rich who hire them. The power of these ultra-rich, their attorneys, their media, and the influence their money buys constitute the core of plutocracy in the United States today.

Perpetual plutocracy-serving economic growth and the hoarding of wealth and power are not easy tasks in societies that claim to be democracies. Once in operation, political systems that become plutocracies come to view the power of citizens, communities, and the public interest mission of democracy itself as potential threats. Even when you're not consciously standing up to them, you are -- collectively and individually -- their adversaries. People running companies aim for their kind of endless economic growth by getting you to sign on the dotted line, click on "I Agree," succumb to their marketing ploys, and buy into their vapid commercial culture. They also invest heavily in obstructing you from using your full power as citizens armed with rights, privileges, and resources available to keep them, and others with authority, in check. For big corporations like Walmart, McDonald's, and Target, the big banks, credit card companies, and insurance companies, this penchant for control has worked to their advantage, assuming no one makes waves from outside their ring of domination. Thus power has concentrated in both Western Europe and the United States, but it has also been responsive to the organized interests of the people in dramatically different ways.

But what happens when people use their civil rights to demand more from the system? What happens, for example, when people peacefully picket in front of their places of work, on their lunch hour, for a higher minimum wage? What happens when other workers from other places show up too in order to express solidarity and defend those on the picket line from retaliation? What happens if these demonstrations become more frequent, and begin occurring in front of giant retail chains and involve an ever-increasing number of people? What happens if this begins to catch the attention of the local and national media, and the cause of the people picketing resonates with the conscience of the larger community? This is what happens: newspapers and other media start reporting the economic evidence and arguments of some think tanks and advocacy groups for a $12 or $15 minimum wage per hour, over three years, pulling up the minimum wage in companies where the CEO makes $11,000 per hour plus ample benefits.

Spread this activity out over two years and suddenly the minimum wage for thirty million workers, making less today than workers made way back in 1968, adjusted for inflation, becomes front-burner news and a front-line issue in local, state, and federal elections. This is what has been happening in the United States over the past few years. As a result, cities and states have started passing higher minimum wage laws, including referenda in four "red states" during the November 2014 elections. Those who stood up, who spoke out, who organized are amazed. And they should be. With fewer people than the population of New Britain, Connecticut (73,000), scattered around the country, demonstrating for a few hours, giving interviews to reporters or writing letters to newspapers and elected representatives, these people demonstrate that the wealthy people who run corporations do not win all the time. Breaking through power is easier than you think.

Pressured also by a few full-time citizen advocacy centers, the big companies are starting to announce higher wages and some better benefits. Too little, you rightfully say, and very late; still, it's a work in progress. But look at what a tiny number of hours and persons achieved with a little crucial help from largely one union -- the Service Employees International Union. These workers and their champions possess a moral authority that resonated with many millions of disadvantaged families and their empathetic friends and relatives. Majorities in polls supported their cause.

These working people are beginning to prevail over management and their executive bosses because they were undeterred when people told them: "You can't win. You can't fight Walmart. The politicians are in the Big Boys' pockets." They broke through because they got others involved and because they put into practice what the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass meant when he declared: "Power concedes nothing without a demand."

In addition to stimulating the economy, creating more jobs, and establishing less need for public welfare assistance, the movement for a better living wage presents a useful lesson. It teaches how little it often takes to change the balance of power between the dominating and the dominated, especially when there is overwhelming public opinion supporting those fighting for their long over-due rights. These lessons can, and should, be applied to winning the myriad of public interest, ecological, and civil rights struggles that the ultra-rich and their commercial interests obstruct: some of these include increasing wages for working people, decreasing militarism and crushing levels of military spending, providing decent and affordable housing and healthcare, reducing corporate carbon emissions in order to prevent catastrophic climate change, strengthening diversity, and enabling democracy at all levels.

"We live in a beautiful country," writes historian Howard Zinn. "But people who have no respect for human life, freedom, or justice have taken it over. It is now up to all of us to take it back." To better assess what it specifically takes to do just that, it is important to understand how the people profiting from plutocratic forces strategically and regularly dominate old and new circumstances with powerful controlling processes.

Opinion Fri, 30 Sep 2016 11:32:50 -0400
Seven Popular Foods That Might Disappear Because of Climate Change

Throughout history, different types of food have surged and dropped in popularity, and some foods that existed at one point just aren't around anymore. But we're not talking about foods that aren't popular, quite the opposite in fact. Some of our favorite foods and drinks could be considered "endangered" because the places where they are grown are being severely impacted by climate change. If this isn't proof that we need to do something about climate change, I don't know what is. To start off, here are a few foods that are part of our everyday lives that might not be around for long.


According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, just about every coffee growing region in the world is being threatened by higher temperatures, longer droughts, and more intense rainfall and plant diseases. Coffee-producing countries are seeing their yields decline already. If temperatures continue to increase, 80 percent of the land in Brazil and Central America, where the most popular coffee bean, Arabica, is currently grown, will be unsuitable by the year 2050. During that same time period, a 50 percent decline in growing regions around the world can be expected.


Unlike coffee, rising temperatures alone isn't necessarily putting this food on the endangered list. Cacao trees thrive in hot, humid environments, and can only be grown on land about 20 degrees north and south of the equator. The rainforest regions near the equator are perfect for the cacao trees. But the problem is that while the temperature is increasing, the amount of rainfall in these areas is not increasing, so the heat is sapping the moisture from the plants and the ground, decreasing humidity in these regions.


In 2015, 42 beer companies signed the Brewery Climate Declaration to call attention to how climate change is threatening the industry, while committing to lowering their own carbon footprints. Warmer temperatures and extreme weather in the Pacific Northwest are damaging hop plants, which means lower yields. At the same time, high demand for beer has pushed the price of hops up by more than 250 percent over the last decade. Clean water is also becoming an issue in the west with droughts and reduced snowpack.

Maple Syrup

Sugar maple trees are a particular species that require a specific growing environment to produce syrup, and take an average of 40 to 50 years to mature. But every year the syrup season gets shorter and shorter, because the days are too hot and the nights aren't cold enough for the trees to produce syrup. Add acid rain changing the soil composition and insect infestations, and we may see these trees start migrating north. Either way, the maple syrup collection period in the US will likely continue shrinking over the next century.

Seafood: Lobsters and Salmon

Climate change is affecting all kinds of seafood, from Atlantic lobsters to Pacific salmon. Lobsters, for example, are cold-blooded. As the temperature of the ocean rises, lobsters have to use more energy just to exist, having less energy for feeding, growth, and reproduction. At a certain temperature, it actually causes them physiological stress to have to work so hard for oxygen.

With salmon, higher water temperatures are pushing up the spawning cycle and increasing the mortality rate for the eggs and the fry. For the ones that do survive, the temperatures aren't ideal for young salmon to grow.

Peanut Butter

Parents may need to find something else to go with the jelly in this kids' lunchtime staple. Peanut plants are annuals, meaning they have one season each year to produce peanuts. The plants are also finicky, and do best with about five months of consistently warm weather and about 20 to 40 inches of rain. Peanuts are grown mostly in the Southern US, east of the Rocky Mountains, an area that had a particularly bad drought in 2011, when many plants died and didn't produce any peanuts at all. As droughts and heat waves become more common, the price of peanut butter could continue to rise, and farmers will have to figure out ways to make their peanut plants hardier.


A staple of Peruvian culture for more than 8,000 years, the potato is now at risk. With close to 4,000 varieties, it is generally accepted that the potato originally came from Peru, which is home to the International Potato Center gene bank. But climate change is pushing potato plants higher and higher into the Andes Mountains, and at a certain point the plants will have nowhere left to go.

These aren't the only foods at risk. There are plenty of other staples, like bananas and avocados, which we will be adding to this list if more measures aren't taken to mitigate global warming.

What Can We Do About It?

Many regions affected by climate change are looking for ways to preserve the crops they have and  to grow hardier plants that will survive. But perhaps a big part of the problem is that we depend so heavily on so few crops. A study from 2013 showed that just 50 crops provide almost 90 percent of our calories, proteins, and fats. As those crops start to fail, our food supply starts to falter as well. Some farmers and researchers have started looking into bringing back ancient or near-extinct crops that might be better suited for this new reality.

Amaranth is one example. Once considered a sacred grain by the Aztec, amaranth was banned by the Spanish because it was used in sacrificial ceremonies. The grain is higher in protein than any other plant, its leaves are edible as well, containing vitamin C, iron, and calcium. Amaranth is making a comeback in corn-heavy Mexico, mainly because it can withstand temperatures into the triple digits. Alone, amaranth doesn't taste that great, but you can combine it with corn or other grains to mask the flavor. Researchers are also looking into amaranth as a possible crop in developing countries in Africa for both its ease of production and nutritional value.

Cultivated in Ethiopia for more than 7,000 years, the enset plant is known as the "false banana" because of its similarity to the banana tree. It can withstand heavy drought and heavy rain, making it a plant that can naturally withstand climate change. It's nutritious, good for cows and livestock, and produces two times more food per unit of land than cereal crops. The tricky part about this plant is convincing people in the midlands, where there is no land scarcity, that it is worth cultivating.

While most plants making a comeback are known for being drought resistant and having a high tolerance for heat, other plants (like taro) can be grown in flooded areas, a concern for rising sea levels in Asia and other parts of the world.

Besides reviving ancient grains, seed banks around the world are playing a big role in conserving many of our plants. Saving seeds can help farmers find varieties of crops that grow better in different regions, and while there are about 15 major international seed banks, there are more than a thousand smaller banks and co-ops conserving their own seeds in communities across the globe.

Some believe that these seed banks are the best way to prepare for climate change. John Torgrimson, executive director of the Seed Savers Exchange in the United States, told Truthout that "while not every traditional variety tastes great or looks great, its genetics may be invaluable 50 or 100 years from now when the climate is different. There are qualities in varieties that we don't even know about. It might be resistant to a particular disease; it may grow well in a particular region; it may have certain traits that will allow us to deal with climactic conditions going forward. Diversity is an insurance policy."

An insurance policy that we will undoubtedly need to cash in someday.

News Fri, 30 Sep 2016 00:00:00 -0400
Bayer and Monsanto: A Merger of Two Evils

It's been about a week since Monsanto and Bayer confirmed their intention to say "I do" -- ample time for media, lawmakers, consumer and farmer advocacy groups, and of course the happy couple themselves, to weigh in on the pros and cons.

Reactions poured in from all the usual suspects.

Groups like the Farmers UnionFood & Water Watch, Friends of the Earth and others didn't mince words when it came to condemning the deal. (Organic Consumers Association tagged it a "Marriage Made in Hell" back in May, pre-announcement, when the two mega-corporations were still doing their mating dance).

Predictably, the corporate heads of state last week promoted the proposed $66-billion deal as an altruistic plan to improve "the lives of growers and people around the world." This week, they told Senate Judiciary Committee members that the merger "is needed to meet a rising food demand."

Is anyone out there still buying the line that Monsanto and Bayer are in the business of feeding the world? When the evidence says otherwise?

Even if that claim weren't ludicrous, who thinks it's a good idea to entrust the job of "feeding the world" to the likes of Bayer, a company that as part of the I.G. Farben cartel in the 1940s produced the poison gas for the Nazi concentration camps, and more recently sold HIV-infected drugs to parents of haemophiliacs in foreign countries, causing thousands of children to die of AIDS?

The sordid, unethical, greedy, monopolizing and downright criminal histories of both Monsanto and Bayer have been well documented. Does allowing them to merge into the world's largest seed and pesticide company pose what two former Justice Department officials call "a five-alarm threat to our food supply and to farmers around the world?"

In a press release, Pesticide Action Network senior scientist Marcia Ishii-Eiteman said:

"Just six corporations already dominate worldwide seed and pesticide markets. Additional consolidation will increase prices and further limit choices for farmers, while allowing Monsanto and friends to continue pushing a model of agriculture that has given us superweeds, superbugs and health-harming pesticides. Instead, we need to invest in agroecological, resilient and productive farming."

Without question, this deal, which strengthens the ties between Big Pharma, Big Food and Big Biotech, will hurt farmers and consumers.

Not to mention an ecosystem already on the brink.

But for those of us committed to ridding the world of toxic pesticides and hideous factory farms, to restoring biodiversity, to cleaning up our waterways, to revitalizing local economies, to helping small farmers thrive, to reclaiming and regenerating the world's soils so they can do their job -- produce nutrient-dense food while drawing down and sequestering carbon -- the marriage of Bayer and Monsanto doesn't change much.

As we wrote last week when the deal was announced, Monsanto will probably pack up its headquarters and head overseas. The much-maligned Monsanto name will be retired.

But a corporate criminal by any other name -- or size -- is still a corporate criminal.

Merger or no merger, our job remains the same: to expose the crimes and end the toxic tyranny of a failed agricultural experiment. #MillionsAgainstMonsanto will simply morph into #BillionsAgainstBayer.

Feed the world? Or feed the lobbyists?

Bayer and Monsanto had plenty of time to perfect their spin on the merger before the big announcement. Yet even some of the most conservative media outlets saw through it.

Bloomberg headline read: "Heroin, Nazis, and Agent Orange: Inside the $66 Billion Merger of the Year." From the article:

Two friends making dyes from coal-tar started Bayer in 1863, and it developed into a chemical and drug company famous for introducing heroin as a cough remedy in 1896, then aspirin in 1899. The company was a Nazi contractor during World War II and used forced labor. Today, the firm based in Leverkusen, Germany, makes drugs and has a crop science unit, which makes weed and bug killers. Its goal is to dominate the chemical and drug markets for people, plants and animals. 

Monsanto, founded in 1901, originally made food additives like saccharin before expanding into industrial chemicals, pharmaceuticals and agriculture products. It's famous for making some controversial and highly toxic chemicals like polychlorinated biphenyls, now banned and commonly known as PCBs, and the herbicide Agent Orange, which was used by the US military in Vietnam. It commercialized Roundup herbicide in the 1970s and began developing genetically modified corn and soybean seeds in the 1980s. In 2000, a new Monsanto emerged from a series of corporate mergers.

A skeptical Wall Street Journal reporter suggested that the merger, one of three in the works in the ag industry, is a sign of trouble: "The dominance of genetically modified crops is under threat," wrote Jacob Bunge on September 14. Bunge interviewed Ohio farmer Joe Logan who told him:

 "The price we are paying for biotech seed now, we're not able to capture the returns," said Ohio farmer Joe Logan. This spring, Mr. Logan loaded up his planter with soybean seeds costing $85 a bag, nearly five times what he paid two decades ago. Next spring, he says, he plans to sow many of his corn and soybean fields with non-biotech seeds to save money.

Nasdaq took the merger announcement as an opportunity to highlight numbers published by showing that Monsanto and Bayer are not only the two largest agrichemical corporations in the world, they're also two of the biggest spenders when it comes to lobbying.

Together, according to OpenSecrets, Bayer and Monsanto have spent about $120 million on lobbying in the last decade. Monsanto's spending has been largely focused on the agricultural industry, while Bayer has spent heavily in the pharmaceutical arena.

Both Monsanto and Bayer forked over millions to keep labels off of foods that contain GMOs, according to OpenSecrets:

A big issue for both companies has been labeling of genetically modified foods, which both companies oppose. That put them in support of the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act (H.R. 1599), which was signed into law this summer. The law permits corporations to identify products made with genetically modified organisms in ways that critics argue will be hard for consumers to interpret, while superseding state laws that are sometimes tougher, like the one in Vermont.

To be clear, the "Safe and Accurate Food Labeling" was just an intentionally misleading description of a bill intended to protect corporations from having to reveal the GMO ingredients in their products.

A Criminal by Any Other Name

Last week, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague made a big announcement of its own. For the first time in history, the ICC will "prioritise crimes that result in the 'destruction of the environment,' 'exploitation of natural resources' and the 'illegal dispossession' of land," according to a report in the Guardian.

The announcement came within the same two-week period as three new reports on the sad state of our ecosystem, all of which implicate industrial agriculture:

  • Researchers at the University of Virginia University of Virginia reported that widespread adoption of GMO crops has decreased the use of insecticides, but increased the use of weed-killing herbicides as weeds become more resistant, leading to "serious environmental damage."

  • Mother Jones magazine reported that "A Massive Sinkhole Just Dumped Radioactive Waste Into Florida Water The cause? A fertilizer company deep in the heart of phosphate country."

  • NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said that when it comes to global warming, "even the records themselves are breaking records now" after reporting that Earth just experienced its hottest August on record. What's that got to do with Bayer and Monsanto? Industrial, chemical, degenerative agriculture is the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Organic regenerative agriculture, by contrast, holds the greatest promise for drawing down and sequestering excess carbon from the atmosphere.

Whether or not regulators approve the Bayer-Monsanto merger, these companies will continue their rampage against nature. Governments and courts have a lousy track record when it comes to holding these, and other, corporations accountable for the damage they've inflicted, over decades, on human health and the environment.

The ICC has signaled that this may change. In the meantime, frustrated with the lack of action and fed up with paying the price for making corporations like Bayer and Monsanto filthy rich, the grassroots are fighting back.

On October 15-16, a panel of distinguished international judges will hear testimony from 30 witnesses and scientific and legal experts from five continents who have been injured by Monsanto's products. This grassroots-led international citizens' tribunal and People's Assembly (October 14-16) will culminate in November with the release of advisory opinions prepared by the judges. The tribunal's work, which includes making the case for corporations to be prosecuted for ecocide, is made all the more relevant by the ICC's announcement.

The International Monsanto Tribunal is named for Monsanto, the perfect poster child. But the advisory opinions, which will form the basis for future legal action, will be applicable to all agrichemical companies -- including Bayer.

In the meantime, we encourage citizens around the world who cannot participate in the official tribunal and People's Assembly, to show solidarity by organizing their own World Food Day "March Against Monsanto." 

Monsanto. Bayer. The name doesn't matter, and though size does matter when it comes to throwing weight around, the crimes perpetrated by the companies remain the same. It's time to stop them.

News Fri, 30 Sep 2016 00:00:00 -0400
Forty Years of Reaganism Behind This Disastrous Train Crash

Ronald Reagan. (Photo: Ronald Reagan Library; Edited: LW / TO)Ronald Reagan, 1982. (Photo: Ronald Reagan Library; Edited: LW / TO)

A train derailed and crashed into a station in Hoboken, New Jersey, during rush-hour this morning, reportedly leaving at least one person dead and more than 100 others injured.

After everyone was rescued from the train, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called into CNN and expressed concern and confusion about the accident, asking "How could this happen?"

He really wants to know specifics, like whether the engineer is to blame, and what specifically caused the train to derail and crash into the station.

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

Over time we'll get many of these answers, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Federal Railroad Administration will investigate the extent of the damages and try their best to pinpoint a culprit.

But right now it looks pretty straight forward, like the crash could have been avoided if the train had Positive Train Control technology.

Positive Train Control technology automatically slows down a train if it goes over the speed limit on a stretch of track, and the NTSB blamed its absence for the train crash that killed eight passengers outside of Philadelphia in May of 2015.

Trains all across the country are equipped with outdated technology, and it's because ever since Reagan's aggressive eight-year effort to do away with federal transportation funding to the states, attacking transportation funding has been a trademark of Republican policies.

Republican governors, including Christie, still to this day insist on suffocating transportation budgets, paying for only the bare minimum infrastructure upkeep and updates, and then acting shocked when accidents like this happen and people die as a result.

Ryan R. Hall with the Tri-State Transportation Report issued a report earlier this year pointing out that capital investment in rail projects in New Jersey fell by 34 percent between 2002 and 2016, even though ridership went up by more than 20 percent during the same period!

The report also shows how they made up for the cuts by simply raising fares, raiding other state funds and spending money that had been set aside for major projects like outfitting trains with Positive Train Control technology.

Christie has cancelled or shelved a number of major projects since he's been governor, and during the last 15 years the state has taken more than $5 billion earmarked for major projects and instead paid for standard operating expenses, like paying workers' wages and keeping the office lights on.

And as a result, the Department of Transportation reports that New Jersey Transit trains had 213 major breakdowns in 2014 alone, more than two-and-a-half times more than the neighboring Long Island Rail Road, and four times the US average!

Even though gutting transportation budgets and privatizing services has been a standard Republican play since Reagan, Christie has shown a special contempt for public transportation while serving as New Jersey's governor.

And Christie refuses to sign a bill that would hike the state's gas tax and provide funding to keep the Transportation Trust Fund solvent, despite the fact that the bill has bipartisan support.

Christie has also called himself a "skeptic" about extending light rail in New Jersey, telling David Foster of the Trentonian in June that, "[T]he idea of spending money and resources to extend [the New Jersey Transit River Line] to the Statehouse, I'm not so sure. Use Uber. You can get there."

That's right, Christie's callous response to whether or not New Jersey should expand light rail service was basically, "Just hire a driver."

And that's been the Republican response to calls for better, faster and safer public transportation going back to at least Reagan: "Want safe transportation? Buy a safe car. Or, better yet, hire a safe driver. Can't afford a car? You can take your chances with the rest of the riff-raff on public trains and subways that haven't been updated since before Reagan."

But safe transportation shouldn't just be for the rich, and modern infrastructure is the fertile soil in which businesses grow.

For more than 30 years before Reagan took office, our infrastructure was the envy of the world; but now, in the 21st century, in the wealthiest country that has ever existed on this planet, our infrastructure isn't just embarrassing, it's outright dangerous!

And that's because it's been frozen in time during nearly 40 years of insane "trickle-down" Reaganomics and right-wing efforts to gut the US government, and every tragedy like today's crash in Hoboken is a stark reminder of how Reagan's right-wing policies have cost US lives.

Like the crash in Philadelphia last year, this crash was preventable, and we can prevent it from happening again, but to do so, we need to address our nation's infrastructure and public transportation crises.

We need to rebuild our crumbling bridges and tunnels, we need to expand and modernize our train systems, to make them safer and faster, and we need to ensure that in the 21st century, our cities, roads and railways are built to endure the effects of a rapidly changing climate.

If we want a safe and modern rail system that will save lives and be the envy of the world, we need to reject Reaganism once and for all, and we need a massive government investment to bring US infrastructure into the 21st century.

Opinion Thu, 29 Sep 2016 17:00:54 -0400
Trump Was Born on Third Base

Donald Trump was born on third base, but claims he hit a triple.

Throughout history, we've had many "born on third base" presidential candidates, including Mitt Romney, George W. Bush and now Trump. These politicians trumpet their business acumen, but reveal little about their privileged head starts.

This twisted narrative is dangerously misleading.

Trump campaigns on his business prowess, but understates the tremendous advantage of inheriting his father's real estate empire, with its existing assets and financial and political connections. Even without that million-dollar loan, Trump was set-up for success.

Similarly, George W. Bush built his oil business and baseball team with networks of investors who were friends of the Bush dynasty. Yet he attributed his success to "results and performance."

And in 2012 presidential candidate Romney told supporters that he'd "inherited nothing," saying "Everything that Ann and I have we earned the old-fashioned way, and that's by hard work."  But this understates Romney's extraordinary privileges.

I attended the same private prep school as Mitt Romney. At the time, his father was the governor of Michigan, after being CEO of American Motors. Ann Romney later explained that she and her husband weathered lean years by selling off stock inherited from Mitt's father.

The stories that politicians tell us about their wealth and success have enormous implications for the kind of America they envision.

And so do their omissions.

Those who are born into advantage, but pretend their status is the result of the sweat of their own brow, typically don't support policies that expand social opportunity.

Trump, Romney, and Bush, for example, all support the abolition of the estate tax for the superwealthy and deep cuts in investments that foster opportunity, such as college aid and homeownership.

In contrast, we've had the Kennedys and Roosevelts, who don't deny their advantaged family heritage. I once heard Senator Ted Kennedy joke that, "his family made its money the old-fashioned way, he inherited it."

If a politician readily admits they didn't do it alone -- that their status is partly a result of family advantage, public investments, inherited wealth, social connections, and direct and indirect subsidies -- they're more likely advocates of maintaining investments in opportunity and vocal champions of those excluded from prosperity.

As I write in my new book, Born on Third Base, there's nothing wrong with being born at the top of the economic pyramid. Millions of us grow up in families with all kinds of privilege, such as graduating college without debt, and enjoying countless forms of family support including zero-interest loans, cars, family introductions, and help in emergencies.

But what if your parents actually need you to provide financial support for them, not the other way around? What if you were excluded from a federal mortgage program based on your race, as millions of families were?

We who are born on third base risk believing the illusion that the wind at our back is our own locomotion. We wonder, "Why can't others do what I did?" without noticing the headwinds most people face.

We downplay the advantages of being born wealthy and white, ignoring how the legacy of racism shows up in today's homeownership rates and savings accounts, regardless of how hard someone works.

Today, family wealth is now a decisive factor in college access and success.

People graduating without college debt, having completed unpaid internships, have a huge head start over their less affluent peers. Instead of education being the great leveler, it actually worsens existing inequalities of opportunity.

Malcolm Gladwell writes, "We cling to the idea that success is a simple function of individual merit and that the world that we grow up in and the rules we choose to write as a society don't matter at all."

But the rules, like spending priorities and tax policies, do matter. And the stories we tell about our success also matter, including those we omit.

We are all better off in a society that creates real opportunities for everyone, not just those born into fortunate circumstances.

Opinion Fri, 30 Sep 2016 09:33:17 -0400