Truthout Stories Mon, 30 Nov 2015 21:14:09 -0500 en-gb On the News With Thom Hartmann: Big Pharma to Become One of Nation's Biggest Tax Cheats, and More

In today's On the News segment: Two of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world are about to merge; bus drivers in Silicon Valley are benefiting big time from collective bargaining; as cities criminalize homelessness, homeless people are fighting back; and more.

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


Thom Hartmann here - on the best of the rest of Economic and Labor News...

You need to know this. Big Pharma is about to become one of our nation's biggest tax cheats. According to a recent article over at Common Dreams, two of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world are about to merge, and they're going to skip out on paying their fair share of taxes while they're at it. Pfizer and Allergan, the makers of medications from Botox to Viagra, have announced that their merging into the world's largest drug manufacturer. As if that news isn't bad enough, the companies will also pull off the biggest corporate inversion ever, just so they can skip out on US taxes. By moving their new corporate headquarters to the lower-tax nation of Ireland, Pfizer will sell-out the taxpayers who helped build that company for the last 160 years. And, they haven't even announced yet how many US jobs that they'll be slashing in the process. This massive new pharmaceutical company will control many of the medications that Americans rely on, but their new monopoly will give them limitless power to raise prices and rake in more profit off of the sick. Of course, Pfizer officials claim that US tax rates prevent them from competing overseas. But, an analysis by Americans for Tax Fairness shows that the company only paid out 6.4 percent of their income over the last four years, and their lengthy patents protect them from any real competition. This move is all about money and power. As Gustav Ando of IHS Life Sciences explained, "This merger isn't meant to benefit patients, it isn't meant to innovate in any kind of way... and certainly, the benefits won't be passed on to consumers." President Obama, Democratic senators and various watchdog agencies are calling on Congress to make corporate inversions like this one illegal, but so far, very little has been done to reign in these tax-cheating schemes. It may be too late to stop Big Pharma from getting even bigger, but we can continue the fight against corporate monopolies, and we can let companies know how we feel about tax cheats.

Bus drivers in Silicon Valley are benefiting big time from collective bargaining. Earlier this month, drivers from a company called Compass Transportation ratified a new labor contract which will bring higher wages and better benefits. That contract is the latest development in a multi-year struggle with tech giants like Google and Facebook, who hire the drivers to bring their employees to and from the tech-company offices. As drivers ferried highly-paid workers back and forth, they quickly realized that they were being denied the health insurance, paid holidays and overtime pay that was bring provided to their passengers. So, they stood together and joined the Teamsters Union to fight for their workplace rights. Their new contract will bring all of the overtime pay, holiday pay and health insurance benefits that they deserve, and it will give drivers like Tracy Kelly a raise from $18 to $25 an hour. These drivers recognized that they have more power by standing together, and they are inspiring workers around our nation to do the same.

Cities around our nation have criminalized homelessness, but now, the homeless are fighting back. According to a recent article over at the Think Progress Blog, four homeless men in Manteca, California have filed a suit against the city, saying that the anti-homeless ordinances violate their constitutional rights. About a year ago, that city made it illegal for anyone to sleep or set up camp outside. Then, they passed an ordinance against using the bathroom outdoors at all. When asked whether the new laws were intended to ban homeless people, the city's chief of police said that they were only to "correct the wrong," and "if the correction is [the homeless] leaving Manteca, then that's their choice." However, rather than simply leaving, four of the homeless men impacted by the ordinances filed suit, saying the laws were passed with, "a discriminatory purpose of driving the homeless from the city." And, these brave men are not alone. A lawsuit has also been filed on behalf of the homeless in St. Augustine, Florida, and the Justice Department has filed a memo against similar laws in Boise, Idaho. The fact is, virtually no one is homeless by choice and it's wrong to prosecute someone simply for being stuck out on the street.

The ACLU wants Florida cops to stop seizing people's personal property. In a recent press release, the civil rights group is calling on the Florida legislature to address that state's out-of-control civil asset forfeiture practices. According to a stunning new report from the Florida Legislature Office of Program policy Analysis and Government Accountability, only 16 percent of individuals ever challenge an asset seizure, and only about 1 percent ever get the benefit of a full trial before their possessions are taken. In fact, there are so many asset forfeitures that the sale of them accounts for more than 2 percent of police agencies operating budget. As bad as these facts are, these statistics could be masking an even larger problem because it is voluntary for Florida police departments to report civil asset forfeitures - and half didn't bother to participate in the recent study. The ACLU said, "Now that OPPAGA's report has documented how often Florida's police agencies are seizing personal property, it is time for the legislature, which commissioned the report, to take action to bring an end to abuse of the system."

And finally... The AFL-CIO wants to be a part of your holiday season. That's why the national union is calling on all of us to look for the union label while we're shopping this year. According to their press release, the average American will spend more than $700 on gifts this year, and all that holiday shopping could help support a heck of a lot of union jobs. And, there are a still many gifts that are produced with union labor. For example, all Hasbro toys and games are made by union workers, and all the cell phone service at AT&T is provided by unionized service workers. Although the holiday season shouldn't be all about gifts, if you're going to be buying, be sure to support your favorite labor groups in the process.

And that's the way it is - for the week of November 30, 2015 - I'm Thom Hartmann - on the Economic and Labor News.

News Mon, 30 Nov 2015 00:00:00 -0500
Indigenous Climate Activists: Paris "Police State" Is the Reality Front-Line Communities Live With

Democracy Now! catches up with Dallas Goldtooth of the comedy group the 1491s, and his father Tom Goldtooth, executive director of Indigenous Environmental Network, at The Place to B, a Paris hostel that serves as the center for independent journalists covering COP21. Tom Goldtooth recently won the Gandhi Peace Award. "If you look at the scenario we're facing right now in Paris, you have a heightened police state, you have unreasonable bureaucracy, limited resources," Dallas says. "This is our element as frontline communities. This is the world we exist in."


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

AMY GOODMAN: Oh, and I see in one of these meeting rooms, Tom Goldtooth, who is a long time indigenous leader from the United States. His son Dallas Goldtooth and many others, familiar faces at these COPs as it goes from one generation to another. Let's go inside. There was supposed to be a massive march on Sunday. But it was canceled because of the Paris attacks. Tom Goldtooth, your thoughts on this?

TOM GOLDTOOTH: Well, definitely, as people of our big delegation here from Indigenous Environment Network, GGJ and the CJA, Climate Justice Alliance, Grass Roots for Global Justice, you know, we stand in solidarity with the people starting from, you know, Beirut, from here, you know, a lot of people - we met a lot of people here. And some people got hurt here, too, so we come here with prayer.

But, you know, the reaction is just really not surprising to me because I've been one of those fighters for social justice and environmental justice, but the reaction and how they're treating local communities here, they're really targeting certain communities that are - they considered left side. And I think that's wrong. And the other issue here is just the banning of the civil society. I mean, part of democracy is that the people who are disenfranchised, the people on the front lines of these struggles of climate justice, energy justice, food sovereignty and all of the related issues, you know, why are they being called out here? And why are - why is that voice being shut down?

AMY GOODMAN: Dallas, you grew up in this movement. How does climate change affect you, your community?

DALLAS GOLDTOOTH: Well, the thing is that most folks think we are here just to talk about climate and it's not necessarily - it's greater than that. We're talking about climate justice. And that's all-encompassing. That's, you know, if you look at the scenario we're facing right now in Paris, I mean, you have a heightened police state, you have unreasonable bureaucracy, you have limited resources. I mean, this is our element as frontline communities. This is the world we exist in.

And so, we are rising to the challenge to speak up and not only talk about what we are fighting against, but also what we're fighting for and that's just transition towards a renewable sustainable society. In Minnesota and along a lot of the indigenous communities is having sincere conversation of how we can build sustainable sovereign nations and also have a conversation about what does localized energy production look like, what does localized food production look like, what does it mean to really self determine our future as native people?

AMY GOODMAN: That's Dallas Goldtooth of the 1491s and his father, Tom Goldtooth, Executive Director of The Indigenous Environmental Network, based in Minnesota on Turtle Island, also known as North America. Tom Goldtooth recently won the Gandhi Peace Award. In a press statement issued by the Indigenous Environmental Network today, Tom Goldtooth said "We are here in Paris to tell the world that not only will the anticipated Paris Accord not address climate change, it will make it worse because it will promote false solutions and not keep fossil fuels from being extracted and burned." He said, "The Paris COP21 is not about reaching a legally binding agreement on cutting greenhouse gases. In fact, the Paris Accord may turn out to be a crime against humanity and Mother Earth."

News Mon, 30 Nov 2015 00:00:00 -0500
Thousands Defy Paris State of Emergency, Protest Ban to Sound the Alarm on Global Climate Crisis

A major rally in Paris on the eve of the UN climate summit was canceled after authorities banned public protests in the aftermath of this month's Islamic State terror attacks. But on Sunday, tens of thousands of people formed a human chain stretching for blocks. After the human chain action ended, thousands of Parisians and international activists defied the French ban on protests and tried to march through the downtown streets. They were met by hundreds of riot police, who used tear gas, sound bombs and pepper spray. More than 200 protesters were arrested. Democracy Now! was live on the scene interviewing people throughout the streets.


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

AMY GOODMAN: Back in Paris, France, activists installed thousands of pairs of shoes in front of the Place de la République in downtown Paris, only blocks from where the November 13 shooting happened at the Bataclan occurred to symbolize the desire to march. Yannick, a French citizen who donated her shoes to the installation, said she felt it was important the protesters' presence was felt.

YANNICK: I find it very moving. It is a very strong message as we do not have the right to take part in the large March which was organized, it was important our presence was felt. All of these shoes represent all of the people who are committed to do something for climate change, to do something this week when there will be a lot of debate.

AMY GOODMAN: In downtown Paris, tens of thousands of people also formed a human chain stretching down the sidewalk for blocks. Demonstrator Romain Porcheron said the chain represents solidarity.

ROMAIN PORCHERON: The idea is to show that all citizens of the world are aware and the common environmental and ecological objective is not individualist, it is about solidarity and the sharing between populations, that we are all in the same boat. That is planet Earth. If each one of us accept taking one step forward to change little habits, which then evolves into systematic change, we will be able to solve the crisis of climate change which threatens the entirety of humanity.

AMY GOODMAN: Indigenous people from the Arctic took to the Amazon took part in the human chain in Paris calling for urgent action on climate change and highlighting the disproportionate impact of global warming on frontline communities. After the human chain action ended, thousands of Parisians and international activists defied the French ban on protests and attempted to march through the streets of downtown Paris. They were met by hundreds of riot police, who used tear gas, sound bombs, pepper spray in an effort to break up the demonstration in the Place de la Rèpublique. More than 200 protesters were arrested after police with shields and riot gear stormed the monument at the Place a la Rèpublique, trampling on the flowers and candles commemorate the November 13 attacks. And forcibly removing protesters who'd linked arms around the statue to protect it. Democracy Now! was live on the scene interviewing people throughout the protests.

PROTESTER 1: I'm here because wanted to walk for the climate convention. Don't consider the citizens' opinion and what citizens want to do. They prefer shoot us than listen to us.

PROTESTER 2: We're here at Rèpublique where demonstrators in the hundreds, it's hard to say how many, have gathered. The police response has been teargas and these sound bomb canisters that they're dispersing into the crowd.

SHEILA: I'm Sheila. I'm from Oakland, and I'm here because it's supposed to be the most important climate negotiation of all time. I was an environmental studies student and they just constantly talked about COP21. And if something didn't happen this year, if a negotiation wasn't made that was binding, then we would see drastic effects of climate change that would be a reversible.

JEN: We are in the Place de la Rèpublic in Paris. It's demonstrating after the climate demonstration. And so now we gather to focus on also state of emergency, and plus climate change, and actually the cops are just launching gas bombs on us.

PROTESTER 3: We are just right on the right - in front of the statue. And the statue is important for us. More important today because there are many candles on the statue and we want to protect it. I'm not much in demonstration and uh - but this time, when I understood that the French state, the French government used the law, they began attacking the left activists. And it's just incredible that so many people in France don't understand what is happening. Everything that is going to switch from fighting against terrorism to a fight against citizens.

PROTESTER 4: We're not the ones causing the problem. The French state and the European states and the North American states are causing the problem, and we're the ones suffering from it.

INTERVIEWER: If the COP's opening tomorrow, what is your message on climate change?

PROTESTER 5: Our message is that the answer resides in everybody, in our lifestyles, in the way we live, and we have to change the way we live. We have to stop commercial relationships with some countries. We have to stop our consumption of oil and our consumption of nuclear, and that goes with - that goes with the change of our lifestyle.

PROTESTER 1: The only problem with security is that policemen are attacking us. That is an absence of security. There are no terrorists here. There are no terrorists.

PROTESTER 5: Yeah, that's the state of -

PROTESTER 1: There are the terrorists. They are shooting us.

PROTESTER 6: What I'm doing here is clear. I don't - I protest against the emergency state, which is a parody of protection for the citizens and is transform into repression against the citizens.

PROTESTER 4: As you can see they've blocked off every entrance around Rèpublique. They won't let us go anywhere.

PROTESTER 6: Several friends of us have been arrested.

PROTESTER 4: We can't give too much information, but repression in our circle has been quite extensive.

JEN: My name is Jen. I live in Paris, and I'm a militant for environment. I have no hope in events like COP, because, you know, they have partners like AF, like Bic, like Ikea, like Cafro, which are - like L'Orèal - which are enormous polluters, no? Air France is like planes everywhere. Bic is disposable stuff. Ikea, it's planned obsolescence. I have a panel which is written, right to demonstrate because, here in Paris, today, we're not supposed to demonstrate, we don't have the right. The march has been forbidden. But still we are here. And we make some noise.

PROTESTER 7: The government shouldn't be using fear to stop us to protest what we believe in. Cop21 has been scheduled for very long time, even before the attacks they decided to increase security at the borders. This isn't about terrorism. I'm here to fight fear and the use of fear.

AMY GOODMAN: More than 200 people were arrested. French President Francois Hollande condemned the clashes between protesters and police as "scandalous" and blamed the protesters for trampling on the monument, even though video footage shows the police smashing the glass candles and trampling on the flowers. Activists said that actions and demonstrations would continue throughout the summit. Special thanks to Sam Alcoff, Laura Gottesdiener and John Hamilton for that report. We're going to go to break. When we come back, we'll hear from indigenous activist Tom Goldtooth and his son Dallas, of the 1491s, bestselling author Naomi Klein, French farmer José Bové and more. Stay with us.

News Mon, 30 Nov 2015 00:00:00 -0500
Swedish Fascists Burn Homes, Blame Crisis on Refugees

"Burn all of them down, but first nail the doors and windows shut."

"If you want to achieve the full effect, wait until the house is full of people."

These are just two examples of the several thousand remarks left by Sweden Democrats' online following the most recent case of arson; an incident that left a home sheltering 14 refugees destroyed. One Internet thread detailed the various recipes and necessary ingredients to make napalm.

The formerly obscure and enfeebled Sweden Democrats (SD) - a far right, anti-immigrant, nationalist party whose roots are in neo-Nazism - has been transformed into one of the most potent political forces in Sweden. By transmogrifying immigrants into villains - enemies of both the welfare state and Swedish values - the party has gleaned over 25 percent of the popular vote.

The most recent refugee-home torching came after SD political leaders announced that the immigrant issue should be taken to the streets, outside the ambit of parliament. The intentional ambiguity of the statement galvanized more than a few zealous of their supporters to action, resulting in a spike of refugee-home burnings, a trend that was only recently - after the 17th fire - condemned by SD officials.

While the world might have united for a few ephemeral seconds around the image of Aylan - the Syrian boy who drowned alongside his brother in the Mediterranean - in the end the refugee crisis only seems to have bolstered the xenophobia, nationalism, and violence sweeping across Europe. In Germany alone, there have been over 505 attacks against refugees and refugee-homes this year. It is a trend that seems, at first glance, to challenge our approximation to what Jeremy Rifkin coined The Empathetic Civilization.

And though all this might come as a surprise, there is nothing surprising about prejudice and intolerance in Europe. What is surprising, is how the current right-wing political trend as well as the refugee crisis find their origins in the same systemic illness.

European Intolerance and Swedish Neo-Nazism

While you might think that the experiences of World War II and the Bosnian War would be sufficient deterrents against pursuing anything remotely nationalistic or ethnically intolerant, history invariably reveals our collective short-term memory. The current anti-immigrant demagoguery and the consequent resurgence of nationalist parties across Europe, many of whom have their origins in neo-Nazism, seems to testify to this.

Kenan Malik reminds us in a recent article that Europe has never been a homogenous place - even when its citizens shared the same skin color and religion - and that intolerance has always had its place in European society. The former urban and rural poor were often treated and referred to as "inferior savage races".

Sweden's history is no different. Its romance with Nazism precedes World War II, and while it might have dematerialized for a little bit, this uncompromising current never altogether vanished.

The country's economic crisis in the 1990s, coupled with an immigration policy that provided asylum for around 85,000 war refugees from the former Yugoslavia, led to emergence of various neo-Nazi movements. As immigration slowed so did these sentiments. However once again, the kind of cultural prejudice and intolerance that wouldn't have been out of place in 18th century France, Victorian England, Nazi Germany, or 1990s Sweden is on the rise.

Bushisms and Republican Machinations in Europe

The spate of burnings represents a recent and more outwardly aggressive trend against immigrants. It has been fueled in part by Europe's latest generation of nationalist demagogues, whose irresponsible rhetoric - and subtle complicity, at least in Sweden, by not denouncing these burnings until recently - is partially responsible for the proliferation of this violence.

While it is hard to imagine Europe becoming as politically intransigent as the US, its ultra-right parties are well on their way to sounding as fear-mongering as American Republicans. Jimmie Åkesson, the current leader of SD, ran his last, and very successful, campaign on a platform of fear-inducing casuistry, proclaiming: "The election is a choice between mass immigration and welfare. You choose."

Nothing is that cut and dry in Sweden or Europe. These are parliaments with an array of eclectic political parties; negotiations, pacts, and compromise are an immutable part of the political machine. Furthermore there isn't any reliable evidence demonstrating the incompatibility of immigration and a healthy welfare state; as we will see, studies show just the opposite.

But by drawing such a stark line - rendering immigration and the welfare state seemingly irreconcilable - Mr. Åkesson, just like other right-wing politicians in Europe, has polarized the argument. He has pitted immigration directly against the welfare state - a sacrosanct entity in Sweden and Europe.

You almost begin to wonder if Europe's ultra-right are emulating the rhetorical stratagems of Bush and Rumsfeldt. Mr. Åkesson's ultimatum had a similar ring to the infamous, "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists." Fear corrodes rationality and reason, and such polarizing and fear-mongering rhetoric in the post-9/11 era allowed Bush and Co. to manipulate the American public with the precision of Butcher Ding. In this post-Paris epoch such tactics will be especially potent.

Indulging the particular fears of Swedes, whose long history with the welfare state is an indelible part of the national ethos, is a particularly effective way of gaining support, especially from a demographic whose tenuous position in society renders them especially susceptible to such sophistry.

There are few general demographic features that are characteristic of not only SD supporters, but also ultra-right adherents across Europe. On the whole they are young, male, under-educated, and under-employed. In Sweden their main interests are cars, motorcycles, TV, video games, and sport fishing.

Though it would undoubtedly be much easier to just shake our fists and rebuke the throngs of right-wing voters as racists, Euro-trash, or bigoted nationalists, in the end we would only be playing the same superficial and spurious blame game as their demagogue leaders. Furthermore, this would only give us a very superficial understanding of a population that has been shaped by a much more complicated process.

Neoliberalism - the Real Enemy

Historically Sweden was one of the strongest and most equitable welfare states in the world. However, in the early '90s Sweden endured a financial crisis and things began to change. As a stopgap measure to parry the crisis, and the resultant hyperinflation, Sweden instituted a series of austerity measures and reforms that cut social benefits, curtailed union power, reduced the size of the public sector, and initiated a process of privatization that continues today.

If this sounds familiar, it is because it is the same process that has been replicated almost universally since the 1980s around the world. From the US to Latin America, to Africa, to Asia, to Russia, and most recently Greece, IMF and World Bank economists as well as technocrats from these same regions, have been imposing this same package - often coercively or with the support of autocrats propped up by the West.

These reforms reflect a mode of economic thinking known as neoliberalism. Under neoliberalism the individual and the market are supreme entities to which modern nation-states genuflect, serve, and remain subservient. As Margaret Thatcher, one of neoliberalism's greatest champions said: "There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women…People look to themselves first."

Whereas it was previously the state's responsibility to provide employment to its citizens, according to neoliberalism it is the individual's responsibility. If you are unsuccessful, it isn't the state, economy, or any of the distortions and inequalities therein entrenched that are accountable; it is your own failure as a human.

SD's Unfortunate Relationship With Neoliberalism

So how does this relate to ultra-right in Sweden and Europe, you might be asking. The shrinking of the public sector, and the curtailment of unions meant the weakening of union and labor power, and as a consequence, also a loss of solidarity and identity. The Swedish welfare state, which had previously unified different sectors of Swedish society through its collectivism, was slowly dismembered.

Moreover, by dissolving the public sector as well as union power, many Swedes were left without jobs or the social benefits that would've previously buffered the unemployed. With fewer jobs, a greater burden and pressure on the individual to find work - meaningful or not - and no social safeguards to mitigate the precariousness of being unemployment, many Swedes were left behind. One universal legacy of neoliberalism is inequality. Today, among all 34 OECD countries today, inequality is growing fastest in Sweden.

Rising levels of inequality, economic marginalization, and social isolation have limited participation in mainstream Swedish society and the economy. The result has been the disenfranchisement of many Swedes. Today, out of a population of 9 million, 618,000 Swedes are working temporary jobs with little security.

The economic vulnerability and peripheral social status of this vast population renders them susceptible to the populist rhetoric of right-wing politicians, who pander directly to their deepest fears and insecurities. Not only have these leaders created a tangible, albeit specious, enemy and source to their woes, immigrants, but they have also forged a collective sense of identity - through their struggle against both immigration and the neoliberal technocrats in the EU - under which they can unite.

The discourse around immigration has invariably been fueled by misperceptions and xenophobia. You don't have to dig all that deeply to see the benefits of migration, something that has been for too long severely and irresponsibly misrepresented.

Immigrants are generally entrepreneurial, they fill various labor niches of the economy - especially in Europe where the aging population necessitates more working-age laborers - generally contribute more to the welfare state than they take in benefits, and are highly motivated to contribute and create a better society. Furthermore, over 50 percent of immigration to Europe in 2015 will come from Syria, a population whose highly-skilled workforce sets them apart from immigrants emanating from other countries.

Refugees, Neoliberalism's Collateral Damage

Ironically and sadly, neoliberalism - and the associated economic and geopolitical machinations that have swept through the Middle East and Africa over the last 30 years - is also largely responsible for the current refugee crisis.

The imperative of neoliberalism is to open new markets through liberalization and increase global demand by creating new consumer bases. Where certain powers like the US, China, or the EU, see themselves as guardians of the market, and where they have certain market interests, such as mineral extraction in Africa and oil, there are inevitably transgressions, especially where regulations and law are ineffective and corruption is commonplace. Unfortunately this is ubiquitous in most of the developing world.

Neoliberalism might have opened the economies of Africa up for direct foreign investment, but the price has been the disruption and reshuffling of economies, labor markets, and public sectors, such as education, health care, and sanitation, according to Western paradigms and interests. There have been a few winners, but mostly there have been losers. Many immigrants are economic refugees whose livelihoods have been crushed by global capital, corporate interests, the commodification of local agriculture, and the downsizing of the state.

Those refugees fleeing failed-states, where violence, human rights' abuses, and insecurity prevail, such as Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and Libya, are the collateral damage of neoliberal geopolitics.

In these areas oil, finance, business, autocracy, democracy, and national economic interests all mix, mingle, and blur into something that may appear opaque but is pretty straightforward. Like an addict, neoliberalism depends on a constant and dependable source of cheap oil. Cheap oil means more pocket money for consumers, and generally, global economic growth. The neoliberal paradigm requires constant growth to continue functioning. Cheap oil is an expedient but very short-term and costly way of achieving this.

While we would all like to believe that the refugee crisis inspired the latest international interventions in Syria, it seems more likely that it is just one more geopolitical power play as Europe tries to wean itself from Russian gas, and Russia tries to protect the several billions it has already invested in oil investments in Syria. And let's not forget that war has become an economy and market unto itself, with US defense firms making a killing on weapons sales to Iraq and Syria.

We Are All Burning

There are boons to crises. They bring us face to face with certain paradigmatic insufficiencies and by doing so they encourage us to engage in a kind of collective introspection. While "Generation Me" signals the fruition of Thatcher's dream, we are beginning to see that a life of me is not only narcissistic and vacuous, but also noxious to the common good.

Neoliberalism, according to former Uruguayan president Jose Mujica, has created, "…a civilization against simplicity, against sobriety, against all natural cycles, and against the most important things: Adventure. Solidarity. Family. Friendship. Love."

Ironically it isn't "rational" self-interest, but giving, kindness, and cooperation that guarantee our own longevity and that of our species. If anything is going to change, it will require a collective effort of disengaging ourselves from the current mythology of individualism; of sublimating the self to the whole, taking to giving, and engaging not in the myopic trappings of the hedonic treadmill but in a politics of compassion and empathy.

In the end aren't we all refugees - a great diaspora of randomness sheltered under the thin blue atmospheric line of the planet? By leaving the roots of neoliberalism in tact and unattended we are only stoking the existential and economic flames that will, at some point, engulf all of us.

News Mon, 30 Nov 2015 00:00:00 -0500
Why Migration Should Be Central to Paris COP21 Climate Talks

 Victoria Baxter offers coffee and tea to migrants as they register at a tent outside the State Office for Health and Social Affairs, known by its German acronym, Lageso, in Berlin, Oct. 10, 2015. (Gordon Welters / The New York Times) Victoria Baxter offers coffee and tea to migrants as they register at a tent outside the State Office for Health and Social Affairs, known by its German acronym, Lageso, in Berlin, October 10, 2015. (Gordon Welters / The New York Times)

"We live in constant fear of the adverse impacts of climate change. For a coral atoll nation, sea level rise and more severe weather events loom as a growing threat to our entire population. The threat is real and serious, and is of no difference to a slow and insidious form of terrorism against us."—Prime Minister of Tuvalu Saufatu Sapo'aga at the United Nations

In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, world leaders are closing their borders to refugees and cracking down on civil society participation in the upcoming climate negotiations. Over the past 15 years, the War on Terror has allowed for increased state powers while curbing fundamental rights, especially of racialized bodies marked as threats. Meanwhile, violence against the majority of humanity - including the devastation caused by climate change in places like Tuvalu - continues on with international impunity.

Tuvalu is one of dozens of low-lying Pacific Islands threatened with total submersion as catastrophic warming causes ocean levels to rise drastically. Over one-fifth of Tuvaluans have already been forced to flee and the government of Tuvalu has been urging the UN to heed the impending disaster in Tuvalu. Despite having the world's highest emission per capita, Tuvalu's neighbor, Australia, has so far refused to accept Tuvaluans as climate refugees.

It is evident that Australia and other Western governments' non-response to climate change is reproduced in their denial of the humanity of those who are a product of our unequal world; millions of people are treated as expendable as the land, air and water that elites and their corporate friends are digging up and polluting.

Climate Refugees at COP21 Climate Talks

Two years ago, the strongest storm ever recorded at landfall hit the Philippines. Typhoon Haiyan left 6,000 people dead and 4 million people were forced from their homes. This month a coalition of survivors released an anniversary statement to the world:

"On the second anniversary of Yolanda, lighted candles may no longer be enough. We must organize an escalated action strengthening our broad networks to pressure our own inept governments and the world's top 200 corporate giants amassing wealth from carbon pollution and social exploitation … Now is the time to end the climate crisis. Let the world know - our survival is non-negotiable."

According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, an average of 26.4 million people per year have been displaced from their homes due to environmental disasters. This is the equivalent of one person displaced every second, and the likelihood of being displaced by a climate disaster is 60 percent higher today than it was four decades ago.

Even though international agencies and politicians routinely declare that climate and migration are two of the greatest crises on the planet today, a proposal to support climate refugees has been dropped from the UN COP21 climate talks in Paris. One of the key recommendations from the Advisory Group on Climate Change and Human Mobility is to fund adaptation strategies that support communities to remain, as well as strategies to safely migrate through a climate change displacement coordination facility. Proposed by low-lying countries in the Global South, the recommendation is opposed by Western countries, especially Australia, and has now been entirely scrapped from the latest draft agreement.

It lays bare that to those in power the survival of brown and black bodies is, in fact, negotiable. Furthermore, carbon markets continue to be one of the primary solutions proposed by government and corporate elites, even though they open up impoverished communities to land grabs and further displacement by polluters.

Displacement as Environmental Violence

Climate refugees are not alone in bearing the impacts of environmental degradation. Refugees and migrants fleeing war, political violence and economic instability often tell the stories of livelihoods devastated by changing weather patterns or industrial development projects that permanently alter local landscapes. The staggering scale of the Syrian refugee crisis, for example, is compounded by an eight-year drought resulting in 75 percent of farmers suffering total crop failure and over 1.5 million people being forced into urban areas.

In fact, much of the political and imperialist violence that has caused the world's largest mass displacements in Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq can be traced back to the world's largest climate crime of the tar sands.

Disproportionately impacting downstream Indigenous communities such as the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Beaver Lake Cree Nation and Lubicon Cree Nation at the source, over half of Alberta's tar sands go to the US whose Department of Defense is the world's leading single buyer and consumer of oil. Indeed, the US Energy Policy Act of 2005 explicitly designates tar sands production to serve the fuel needs of the US military. As author Naomi Klein explains it, "As Baghdad burns, destabilizing the entire region and sending oil prices soaring, Calgary booms." This is precisely why a local and global anti-colonial orientation needs to be central to climate justice movements.

In the East African country of Tanzania, mining for gold accounts for approximately 40 percent of the country's exports. Just one mine, the North Mara gold mine owned by Canadian mining giant Barrick Gold, has displaced 10,000 families since 1997. Within one year, the Legal and Human Rights Center documented 19 murders of villagers opposing the mine by police and security forces. In another northern part of Tanzania, the Geita Gold Mine displaced 250 people from one village - almost all farming families who can no longer subsist on the land and have been living in a makeshift refugee camp for the past eight years. Industrial development such as mining, dams and power plants have severe consequences for the environment, as well as the human rights of those displaced due to loss of their lands and livelihoods. Researchers estimate that around the world 15 million people each year are forced to leave their homes due to industrial development projects, and that mining accounts for 10.3 percent of all development-induced displacements.

Furthermore, in a world of fortified borders, seeking refuge is underwritten by violence on the land. The militarization of the US-Mexico border wall, for example, has created a 650-mile scar on the land as well as at least 5,000 migrant deaths in the past two decades. In 2005, a provision in the Real ID Act gave the Secretary of Homeland Security unprecedented power to waive 36 laws that protected endangered species, farmland, rivers and sensitive ecosystems. Meanwhile, prisons and immigration detention centers are massive environmental and health hazards for those disproportionately poor black and brown bodies warehoused behind bars and drinking water tainted with arsenic, sleeping in sewage, and breathing air from dangerously close power plants and landfills.

Freedom to Move, Stay and Return

Climate change is a product of our political, social and economic system - one that places all that is sacred onto the market for pillage and profit, a hierarchal order that values some people as all of humanity while others are cast outside of humanity and made to disappear in the seas, on the streets and behind cages. This is precisely why displaced peoples must be central to climate movements.

As author McKenzie Wark reminds us, "Those who seek refuge, who are rarely accorded a voice, are nevertheless the bodies that confront the injustice of the world."

Opinion Mon, 30 Nov 2015 00:00:00 -0500
Paris Climate Summit: Why More Women Need Seats at the Table

Women, particularly those in developing countries, are on the frontlines of a changing climate. Extreme weather events, deforestation and loss of biodiversity threaten their survival and that of their families. Yet, when confronted with social and economic exclusion, women's vulnerabilities remain hidden and their voices quiet.

Women have been severely underrepresented at high levels of policymaking around global environmental concerns as well. In the climate arena, the need to improve women's participation in negotiations was explicitly recognized by COP 7 in Marrakech in 2001 as the impact of gender balance on decision-making became more evident.

Why is this a problem? Studies show that collective intelligence rises with the number of women in a group. Engaging a critical mass of women is linked to more progressive and positive outcomes and to more sustainability-focused decision-making across sectors.

Yet, women have remained a notable minority in climate negotiations at both the national and international level, in the global scientific body on climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and in media debates about climate.

Women's representation in bodies and boards in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change ranges from 36% to 41%. The numbers drop to 26%-33% for female heads of national delegations. Only one in five authors of the 2014 IPCC fifth assessment report, and eight of 34 IPCC chairs, cochairs, and vice-chairs are women. Importantly, even though media coverage of climate change has increased significantly, only 15% of those interviewed on climate have been women.

The Top 15 Female Climate Champions

When it comes to the necessity of including women at all levels of climate policy, there is no better argument than the stories and successes of the dynamic women who are already making a difference. As an academic and member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the UN Secretary-General, I have drafted a list of 15 women climate champions - from activists to artists.

The world's top climate policymaker today is a fearless Costa Rican woman, the daughter of José Figueres Ferrer, the president elected to three nonconsecutive terms who abolished the standing army and founded modern Costa Rican democracy. Referred to as "climate revolutionary," "bridge-builder," "advocate and referee" and "UN's climate chief," Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN climate change convention, is "climate change summitry's force of nature." A relentless optimist, she reminds people that "Impossible is not a fact; it's an attitude."

Rachel Kyte, the World Bank's vice president and climate change envoy, emphasizes that we are at a point of inflection because of the growing pressure and motivation to create a more sustainable economy. Kyte has championed groundbreaking global initiatives on carbon pricing and performance standards for sustainable finance, catalyzing a race to the top among global investors and shifting priorities in financing institutions.

Ceres president Mindy Lubber leads a group of 100 institutional investors managing nearly US$10 trillion in assets focused on the business risks and opportunities of climate change. Through Ceres, she has changed the thinking around climate change by alerting corporate leaders about the risks to finance and business from climate change.

A venture capital investor, Nancy Pfund, one of Fortune's Top 25 Eco-Innovators, is leading the impact investment movement, having invested in sustainable energy companies such as SolarCity, BrightSource Energy, Primus Power, Powergenix and Tesla Motors. With others, she has demonstrated that earning money by investing in socially beneficial enterprises can be profitable.

Social Justice

At the national policy level, women are also leading the way to the Paris COP. Laurence Tubiana brings academic and policy experience into her position as French special representative for COP 21 and ambassador for climate change. Working closely with governments and stakeholders, she has created an agenda that connects immediate day-to-day economic concerns such as growth, employment and quality of life with climate change and environmental protection. An effective agreement on climate change, she argues, must frame the issue in ways politicians will understand and relate to.

In lower-income countries, female negotiators have stood up for justice in remarkable ways. Fatima Nana Mede, permanent secretary of the Nigerian environment ministry, discovered and exposed a corruption scheme that had siphoned over one billion Nigerian dollars (about US$5 million). Her bold and fearless leadership make her someone to watch in Paris and beyond.

Most of the least developed, or poorest, countries have been empowered to negotiate by Achala Abeysinghe, the legal and technical adviser to the chair of the least developed countries in the UN. A Sri Lanka national employed by the policy group International Institute for Environment and Development, she has made it her mission to augment the capacity of national delegations to understand the issues, stand up, and defend their rights.

She leads the European Capacity Building Initiative, which trains UNFCCC negotiators from vulnerable developing countries in legal matters, helps coordinate their negotiating positions, bolsters communication among them, and brings implementation evidence to the negotiations. Since 2005, the program has convened 76 events and engaged 1,626 negotiators, policymakers and policy implementers.

At the intersection of climate and women's rights, a former Ugandan aeronautical engineer and current director of Oxfam International, Winnie Byanyima, cofounded the Global Gender and Climate Alliance. The Alliance integrates gender concerns into the climate change negotiation process, monitors progress and promotes financial mechanisms and training opportunities equal for men and women.

As cochair of the World Economic Forum in 2015, Winnie Byanyima pushed for action on climate, for closing the wealth gap and eliminating tax loopholes, and even for creating a global tax organization. "We have international organizations for health, trade and football, even for coffee, but not tax. Why not?" she exclaimed in an interview with The Globe and Mail.

Climate justice lies also at the core of the work of the Mary Robinson Foundation-Climate Justice. The former president of Ireland created a center for thought leadership, education and advocacy for those vulnerable to climate change impacts.  Mary Robinson works to strengthen women's leadership at the local level to facilitate more gender-responsive action at all levels and to secure gender balance in multilateral and intergovernmental climate processes. She has made the threat of climate change more tangible and easier to communicate by relating it to human stories and human rights. She has connected high-level women leaders with grassroots women leaders to "ensure that women are enabled to participate in the design and implementation of climate actions."

Arts and Academia

Academics working on climate change now include an increasing number of women who actively seek new ways to communicate and engage.

Julia Slingo, chief scientist at the United Kingdom's weather service and the first woman president of the Royal Meteorological Society, has called for a radical overhaul of the way climate scientists relay their message. In order to compel the necessary action, scientists need to communicate in a "more humanist way," she argues, "through art, through music, through poetry, and storytelling." Katharine Hayhoe, evangelical Christian climate scientist, embraces the idea of engaging religion and science in understanding and resolving climate change.

As scientists reach out to poetry and art for communicating their message to the public, poets and artists are reaching out to the United Nations.

Poet and activist Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner of the Marshall Islands brought governments in the UN General Assembly hall to their feet with a powerful poem and plea for action. "We deserve to more than just survive; we deserve to thrive," she exclaimed at the 2014 Climate Summit at the United Nations. She cofounded Jo-Jikum, meaning "your home," a nonprofit organization to educate youth on environmental issues and to foster a sense of responsibility and love for the islands.

Activist women in small island states and in the Arctic have brought to life the human face of the impacts of climate change on their communities. In Papua New Guinea, Ursula Rakova, executive director of Tulele Peisa, an NGO whose name means "sailing the waves on our own," is drawing up an ecologically and culturally sustainable voluntary relocation and resettlement program for the Tulun/Carteret Atoll community threatened by climate change.

Sheila Watt-Cloutier, a Canadian Inuit activist and author of The Right to Be Cold, filed a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2005 on behalf of Inuit communities in Canada and Alaska claiming that US failure to curb greenhouse gas emissions results in an incursion on their cultural and environmental human rights. The commission held a public hearing in 2007, and while the petition was ultimately dismissed, it's been called an "example of creative lawyering in both substance and form" and paved the way for subsequent legal action in The Netherlands, New Zealand and elsewhere.

Young women in the fashion industry in New York are also embracing the climate message and working to use their widespread popularity to bring public attention to climate change.

Model and activist Cameron Russell spearheaded People's Pilgrimage, a march across the Brooklyn Bridge in October 2015 to raise awareness about climate change. The 17 models walking across the bridge have six million social media followers, and Cameron believes they can launch a new conversation urging the fashion industry to reduce its massive environmental impact - textile manufacturing pollutes 200 tons of water for every ton of fabric produced - and to use its compelling media presence to raise awareness about climate change.

The work of these women, and the work of countless other women who struggle with and adapt to the effects of climate in their day-to-day lives, should be celebrated. Importantly, governments, businesses and civil society organizations should work to include greater representation from women in climate negotiations and climate actions.

"There is no greater power than the power of choice," Christiana Figueres advised the graduating class at the University of Massachusetts Boston in her commencement speech in 2013. In December 2015, in Paris, may we all make the right choice.

The Conversation

Opinion Mon, 30 Nov 2015 00:00:00 -0500
North Carolina Teen Loses Case Over Climate Change, Vows to Keep Fighting

Hallie Turner, the 13-year-old girl who took North Carolina to court over climate change, received disappointing news the day before Thanksgiving.

A Wake County Superior Court judge ruled against her effort to overturn a December 2014 decision by the NC Environmental Management Commission.

But with the pluck of a teen wise beyond her years, Hallie said Friday the ruling from Judge Mike Morgan had not deterred her.

"It's an issue that I'm always going to continue trying to make a difference in," Hallie said during a phone interview. "There's lots of next steps that can be taken."

Hallie, an eighth-grader at Ligon Middle School who has been marching and rallying against global warming since the 4th grade, is one of a number of teens taking their states and politicians to court over climate change.

With the help of lawyers from Our Children's Trust, an Oregon-based climate change non-profit, attorneys from Duke University's Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, and Gayle Goldsmith Tuch, a Forsyth County lawyer, Hallie petitioned the state Environmental Management Commission to adopt rules that would reduce greenhouse gases. Commission members are appointed by the governor and leaders of the NC Senate and House of Representatives.

In her petition almost a year ago to the 15 members of the commission, Hallie asked for a rule that would require North Carolina to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by at least 4 percent annually.

The commissioners never got to the crux of her request, which included scientific data and more to support her theory for why the state should curb greenhouse gas emissions. Commissioner Benne Hutson rejected Hallie's petition because he said it was incomplete. He also added that North Carolina law prohibited environmental agencies from enacting state laws stricter than federal law.

Earlier this month, the commission adopted a proposal from the state Department of Environmental Quality that is much less stringent than what was suggested by Hallie and the attorneys who helped her draft her petition.

After waiving the routine 30-day comment period, the commission adopted a rule to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at Duke Energy power plants by 0.4 percent. A strategy put forward by the US Environmental Protection Agency would require a 12-percent reductionby 2030.

Tuch, one of Hallie's lawyers, said Friday she did not know why Morgan ruled against her. Morgan has not yet issued his formal order. It is expected in couple of weeks.

As the state gears up for an expected legal battle over the greenhouse gas emissions strategy adopted earlier this month, Hallie and her legal team are thinking about next steps in their case.

Several options are under consideration, including an appeal of Morgan's ruling or taking a different petition to the Environmental Management Commission that might clear the hurdle as complete and something the 15 members could put out for public review.

Hallie said the judicial process has been educational. "It's connected to so many things that I've been learning at school in social studies," she said.

Hallie's parents have learned a lot, too. When numerous media outlets shared news about the Wake County court hearing earlier this month, the Turners were amazed by some of the negative comments posted on the sites. Commenters who challenged the idea of global warming accused the adults supporting Hallie of exploitation. Some directed derogatory comments at the teen, too.

"My reaction was just a bit of astonishment that people were that trivial and bitter," said Kelly Turner, Hallie's mother.

Mark Turner, a regular blogger on city issues and more, singled out some of the comments on a post he wrote about the experience.

Hallie brushed off the downside to her activism. She maintains that she was not pushed into filing the petition or lawsuit. The adults who have been beside her are mentors and supporters, but the impetus is her own, she said.

"The comments don't really bother me," she said. What troubled her, Hallie said, were the commenters who questioned scientific data that she contends bolster her push for change.

Hallie encouraged people disappointed in Morgan's ruling to turn out for a Dec. 17 hearing at the Archdale Building in Raleigh. The hearing is to get feedback on the energy strategy adopted earlier this month by the Environmental Management Commission.

"Climate change is too urgent for any of us to sit quietly while the state fails to take significant action," Hallie said.

News Mon, 30 Nov 2015 00:00:00 -0500
The Federal Reserve Board's 8 Percent Hike in the Social Security Tax

(Photo: Federal Reserve Symbol via Shutterstock)(Photo: Federal Reserve Symbol via Shutterstock)

In the last couple of weeks the prospect of a 0.2 percentage point increase in the payroll tax has become a major issue separating the two leading contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination. Sen. Bernie Sanders has proposed an increase of this size to pay for system of paid family leave that is part of his platform. While former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also supports paid family leave, she opposes any tax increase on middle-class workers, and insists she can get the money elsewhere.

The intensity of this debate over a tax increase of 0.2 percentage points (at $70 a year for a typical worker), should have people wondering why the candidates aren't talking about the prospect of a much larger tax increase imposed by the Federal Reserve Board. The Fed's tax increase could easily exceed 8 percent of the wages for ordinary workers, yet it is not drawing any attention from the presidential candidates.

The idea of the Fed imposing a tax on workers may sound a bit strange. The Fed doesn't literally make deductions from workers' paychecks, like Social Security and Medicare. Rather, the Fed's actions affect what goes into workers' paychecks. By making the labor market tighter or looser, the Fed affects workers' ability to get wage gains or to even keep their pay rising in step with prices.

On average, workers' pay had kept pace with productivity growth in the economy until the recession in 2008. Not all workers saw these gains, since the benefits of productivity were highly skewed towards those at the top, like doctors, CEOs and Wall Street bankers. But the share of workers as a whole changed little from the late 1970s to 2007.

When the collapse of the housing bubble sank the economy and sent the unemployment rate soaring, workers' share of national income plummeted. Prior to the collapse, workers' share of the income generated in the corporate sector had averaged close to 82 percent. This fell as low as 73 percent in the downturn. It has since edged up slightly, but it is still be below 75 percent.

This means that wages are more than 8.0 percent lower on average than would be the case if the collapse of the housing bubble had not devastated the labor market. From the standpoint of workers' ability to pay for their food, rent and other bills it makes no difference whether the government taxes away another 8 percent of their pay or whether the Fed's policies push down their pay by 8 percent. Either way, they have 8 percent less money.

Of course the Fed did not deliberately bring on the collapse of the housing bubble and the resulting recession. However, we faced this crisis because of the Fed's failure to recognize the growth of the housing bubble and to take steps to counter it. The Fed had substantial regulatory power which could have been used to check the explosion of bad mortgages that fueled the bubble. It also has an enormous platform which could have been used to warn investors and homebuyers of the risks of the bubble.

The Fed's failure to recognize and take steps to contain the housing bubble was one of the largest policy blunders of the last century, but the question at the moment is its policy going forward. Here there is real ground for concern that it seems intent on preventing workers from regaining the wages they lost in the downturn.

The Fed has indicated its intention to raise interest rates in order to slow the economy and reduce the rate at which the economy is generating jobs. This will prevent the labor market from getting tighter.

There is no guarantee that the labor market would get tight enough to allow workers to regain the ground they lost even if the Fed didn't act to slow growth. The growth rate has been weak throughout the recovery. The US economy currently faces drag from weak foreign economies and the downside risk of collapsing bubbles in some commercial and residential real markets, as well as some tech stocks. While these bubbles are not large enough that their collapse will bring on a recession, it will slow growth further.

For these reasons, leaving rates low doesn't guarantee that workers regain the ground they lost in the downturn, but if the Fed raises rates fast enough, it will certainly guarantee that the wages do not return to their pre-recession share of income. This policy is especially pernicious, since it tends to be workers at the middle and bottom of the pay ladder who benefit most from a tight labor market, which means that the workers most in need of help will be penalized by the Fed' rate hikes.

In short, it's interesting to watch the presidential candidates fighting over a 0.2 percentage point tax increase. It would be much more interesting to see them debate a Federal Reserve Board policy that can have an impact on after-tax pay that is 40 times larger.

Opinion Mon, 30 Nov 2015 00:00:00 -0500
The Top Six Republican Candidates Take Economic Policy Into the Wilderness

Fact: Too many Republican candidates are clogging the political scene. Perhaps what's needed is a Hunger Games to cut the field to size. Each candidate could enter the wilderness with a weapon and see who wins.

Ben Carson laughs during the Republican debate at the Milwaukee Theatre in Milwaukee, Nov. 10, 2015. From left: Donald Trump, Carson and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). (Michael Appleton / The New York Times)Ben Carson laughs during the Republican debate at the Milwaukee Theatre in Milwaukee, November 10, 2015. From left: Donald Trump, Carson and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). (Michael Appleton / The New York Times)

Fact: too many Republican candidates are clogging the political scene. Perhaps what's needed is an American Hunger Games to cut the field to size. Each candidate could enter the wilderness with one weapon and one undocumented worker and see who wins. Unlike in the fictional Hunger Games for which contestants were plucked from 13 struggling, drab districts in the dystopian country of Panem, in the GOP version, everyone already lives in the Capitol. (Okay, Marco Rubio lives just outside it but is about to enter, and Donald Trump like some gilded President Snow inhabits a universe all his own with accommodations and ego to match.)

The six candidates chosen here (based on composite polling) have remarkably similar, unoriginal, inequality-inducing, trickle-down economic recommendations for the country: reduce taxes (mostly on those who don't need it), "grow" the economy like a sprouting weed, balance the budget by cutting as yet not-delineated social programs, overthrow Obama's health-care legacy without breaking up the insurance companies, and (yawn)... well, you get the idea. If these six contenders were indeed Hunger Games tributes, their skills in the American political wilderness would run this way: Ben Carson inspires confusion; Marco Rubio conveys exaggerated humility; Ted Cruz exudes scorn; Jeb Bush can obliterate his personality at a whim; and Carly Fiorina's sternness could slice granite. This leaves Donald Trump, endowed with the ultimate skill: self-promotion. As a tribute, he claims to believe that all our problems stem from China and Mexico, as well as Muslim terrorists and refugees (more or less the same thing, of course), and at present he's leading the Games.

When it comes to economic policy, it seems as if none of them will ever make it out of the Capitol and into the actual world of American reality. Like Hillary Clinton, blessed by Wall Street's apparently undying gratitude for her 9/11 heroism, none of the Republican contestants have outlined a plan of any sort to deal with, no less break the financial stronghold of the big banks on our world or reduce disproportionate corporate power over the economy, though in a crisis Cruz would "absolutely not" bail them out again. Stumbling around in the wilderness, Carson at least offered a series of disjointed, semi-incomprehensible financial suggestions during the last Republican "debate," when asked why he wouldn't break banks up. "I don't want to go in and tear anybody down," he said. "I mean that doesn't help us, but what does help us is to stop tinkering around the edges and fix the problem."

Rubio, already in top Hunger Games form, swears that it's recent regulations (not legacy elite decisions) that did the dirty deed. "The government made [the banks] big by adding thousands and thousands of pages of regulations," he said of Dodd-Frank legislation (which doesn't actually alter Wall Street structurally in any way). In fact, in recent decades every major power grab or consolidation in American business, from banks to energy companies, resulted from bipartisan deregulation.

None of these big-money-backed candidates seem particularly concerned that another economic crisis could ever cripple the country, or have evidently even noticed that most Americans have yet to experience the present "recovery." None seem to realize that when the Federal Reserve winds down its cheap money policy and banks and companies are left to fend for themselves, more economic hell could break loose in the style of the 2007-2008 meltdown. Jeb Bush recently summed up the general 2016 Republican position on the economy in a single what-me-worry-style sentence: "We shouldn't have another financial crisis." 'Nuff said.

In the 2012 presidential election, Mitt Romney's chances dwindled after he disparaged 47% of the country as so many leeches. Today's Hunger Gamers have learned from his experience. Optics spell opportunity, so as a group they're shuffling the usual Republican-brand tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy in with selective recognition of the broader population and promises to kill all loopholes in some future utopian tax bill. None of them, of course, would consider raising the minimum wage to put more money in the pockets of workers before tax-time hits. Even old Henry Ford knew the power of wages when, early in the last century, he strengthened his car empire by doubling the then-prevailing minimum wage for his workers to $5 a day - enough for them not only to save up and buy his Model-Ts, but also boost productivity.

The present set of Hunger Gamers could invoke Republican President Teddy Roosevelt's trust-busting ire, or President Dwight D. Eisenhower's willingness to fund vast national construction projects, or even (to reach into the distant past) President Herbert Hoover's initial attempts to pass what became, under Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act that separated deposit-taking from speculation at banks. But to be realistic, none of them belong to the Republican Party as it once existed. They all live in an American Panem and so feel no compunctions about promoting the idea that corporations contributing ever less to the federal till would Make America Great Again.

Now, let's send those six candidates into that wilderness, weapons in hand, one at a time, and while we're at it, examine their minor differences by checking out their campaign websites to see what kind of games we can expect in a coming Republican era of "good times."

Ben Carson

If you look through the index of Ben Carson's latest bestseller, A More Perfect Union, you won't even find the words "economy," "banks," or "Wall Street." Instead, his campaign slogan, "Heal, Inspire, Revive," could headline a yoga retreat. His position as the Republican co-frontrunner or runner-up (depending on which polls you look at) relies on his soft-spoken, non-politician persona, not his vague economic ideas that flash by in a chameleon-like fashion.

Yes, he was a brilliant neurosurgeon, but the tenacity and skills required to become a gifted medical practitioner have not translated well into presidential-style economic policies. To the extent that he has a policy at all, it's a shopworn version of the twenty-first-century Republican usuals: ratifying a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution "to restore fiscal responsibility," introducing a flat tax, not raising the minimum wage, yada, yada, yada. In a Washington Post op-ed last year, he recounted his mother's days as a "domestic in the homes of wealthy people who were generous to her" and would slip young Carson and his brother "significant monetary incentives" in return for good grades. One even loaned him a luxury convertible. With such employers - and the incredibly rich are a well-known generous bunch, at least when it comes to supporting Republican presidential candidates (just 158 families have contributed more than half the money to this election so far, mostly to Republicans) - who needs a government-declared minimum wage?

Regarding taxes, Carson considers the 74,000-page tax code "an abomination." And who would argue otherwise? But like his various opponents, he's not about to point out that it was largely crafted by the representatives of mega-corporations, not Wal-Mart workers at meet-ups with senators. He's for a flat tax of 10% with no exemptions for the poor, based on biblical economics 101. Maybe people who don't produce bumper crops should just pray for a better lot.

He would conveniently cut the official corporate tax rate from 35% (the average effective tax rate is 27.9% but the biggest, brightest companies don't even approach that amount) to between 15% and 20%, the definition of corporate manna from heaven. He would also allow companies to bring their foreign profits back to the US completely tax-free if they would even... pretty, pretty please... consider allocating 10% of them to "finance enterprise zones" in major cities. And so it goes in Carsonland.

Best bet on his campaign website: A $25 bumper sticker that says #IAMACHRISTIAN, proof that he's eager to channel his inner evangelical Katniss.

Donald Trump

Trump actually brought up President Dwight Eisenhower recently, but only for Operation Wetback, his grim Mexican immigrant deportation program. No I-like-Ike mention was made of his funding of the interstate highway system or the way he strengthened banking regulations.

The Donald lists five core positions on his site, including the two economic pillars of his campaign: "US-China trade reform" and "tax reform," both of which would, of course, "make America great again." This may already sound a bit repetitively familiar to you, but he wants to reduce the corporate tax rate to 15% because it "would be 10 percentage points below China's and 20 points below our current burdensome rate that pushes companies and jobs offshore." Given that our biggest companies already pay far less than that "burdensome" rate, can there be any question that lowering it further would produce more generous CEOs and slay dreaded China at the same time?

Like President Snow, Trump would start aggressively and only get more so, economically speaking. He would "attack" the national debt and deficit by eliminating government waste, fraud, and abuse, and "grow" the economy xenophobically by doing in local Mexicans and distant Chinese, and all of this cutting and slashing would, like a Chia Pet, make the economy sprout even as tax revenues were savaged. Or, even if it isn't one of his five core positions, he could pull a genuine Snow and get rid of old-fashioned-style government, leaving Americans officially beholden to an oligarch.

In another piece of (black) magic, his campaign website assures readers that cutting the deficit and reducing our debt would also stop China from "blackmail[ing] us with our own Treasury bonds." No matter that China actually lent us money to run our government and bolster our financial system, and that a thank-you note might be in order (on paper made in China, of course).

When it comes to tax reform, Trump's "populist" program would remove 75 million households from the income tax rolls and provide them, so he claims, with a simple one-page form to send the IRS, saying "I win." Though he would cut the current seven tax brackets to four - 0%, 10%, 20%, and 25% - it's his 15% corporate tax rate that trumps the field. Rubio would only chop it to 25%, Bush to 20%, Cruz to 16%, and Carson... who knows? Various estimates suggest that Trump's plan would lead to a staggering federal revenue loss (so lucky for us that, in a Trump presidency, the rich would undoubtedly be so grateful that their generosity would soar beyond imagining). The nonpartisan Citizens for Tax Justice computed the cost of his plan at $12 trillion over 10 years. So don't expect any Eisenhower-esque national building campaigns (other than that "beautiful" wall on the Mexican border).

Best gimmick on his campaign website: A $15 Trump dog sweater modeled by the saddest damn wiener dog ever. Perhaps its mother was a deported Chihuahua.

Marco Rubio

Rubio's slogan "a new American century" couldn't be grander, perhaps to compensate for the lackluster version of economic policy at his campaign website. It's certainly not the sort of thing you'd expect from someone aspiring to be president of the world's largest economy. Despite that, rest assured that he's had economics and success on his mind 24/7. After all, Goldman Sachs is now his top contributor and his super PACs are on a run, too, including the rap-inspired "Baby Got Pac" just launched by multimillionaire John Jordan.

And in true Hunger Games fashion - when the "odds" head in a tribute's favor, the patrons and gifts begin rolling in - Rubio just bagged Republican mega-donor billionaire Frank VanderSloot. Mitt Romney's former national finance co-chairman, VanderSloot joins a growing roster of Rubio billionaires, including hedge-fund moguls Paul Singer and Cliff Asness.

"Marco Rubio is the brightest and most capable candidate," wrote VanderSloot of his new political buddy. Of the others he and his brain trust considered, he added, "Jeb simply does not have the leadership skills necessary to unite the people behind him"; Carson lacks "the international knowledge or skill set"; Cruz and Trump are "simply not electable in a general election" (no billionaire-envy there); and Fiorina, his second choice, "simply isn't resonating with the voters."

Rubio's tax plan, the "cornerstone" of his economic policy, would - you won't be surprised to learn - reduce the number of tax brackets from seven to three and eliminate taxes in ways particularly beneficial to the billionaire (especially hedge-fund billionaire) class, including the estate tax and taxes on capital gains and dividends. For the broad population, Rubio includes family tax cuts. According to an analysis by the Tax Policy Center, his plan would be a bargain compared to Trump's, costing federal government coffers a mere $2.4 trillion or more in receipts over the next decade. As a byproduct, his program is essentially guaranteed to spark a new round of financial speculation, but don't for a second let the 2007-2008 meltdown cross your mind since, as every Republican knows, with a Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, or Ben Carson in the Oval Office that can't happen.

Best gimmick on his campaign website: You can "fall into campaign season" by ordering a "Marco Polo" made-in-the-USA shirt for $48 in patriotic red, white, or blue naturally! For a mere $500 extra, you can personally have the honor of buying Rubio a "plane ticket" (perhaps to meet and greet his next billionaire).

Ted Cruz

The Cruz campaign website offers a hodge-podge of semi-incoherent economic salesmanship. His tax plan, or what he likes to call (without the slightest justification) the "next American revolution," promises to "reignite growth in our economy." His "simple flat tax" (yep, another of those!) would abolish the Internal Revenue Service as well. Personal income tax brackets would go from seven to... count 'em!... one at a 10% rate across the board and the corporate income tax would be replaced by a flat tax of 16%. And it should be taken for granted that the American economy would soar into the stratosphere!

Cruz's tax code would be so "simple with a capital-S" that it would make Donald Trump's look complicated. A postcard or phone app would suffice for individual and family filings. There would be no tax on profits earned abroad and it almost goes without saying that Obamacare taxes would die a strangulated death. Loopholes for businesses would apparently go, too.

Cruz claims his simple flat tax will elevate the gross domestic product, increase wages by 12.2%, create nearly five million new jobs, and undoubtedly fill the world with unicorns. It would also wipe out between $768 billion and $3.6 trillion in federal tax receipts over 10 years.

Best gimmick on his campaign website: For $55 you can get a bad-boy poster of Cruz sporting a Sons of Anarchy look (tattoos, cigarette in mouth, etc.) captioned "Blacklisted and Loving It."

Jeb Bush

Jeb! has by far the sleekest web page. He and his donor entourage took the "presidential concept" seriously with a look that seems to have been stolen directly from "the Capitol" in the Hunger Games.

Its economic section excoriates the tax code for being "rigged with multiple carve-outs for favored industries." He blasts Obama's economic policies for leading to "low growth, crony capitalism, and easy debt." Yet, under Jeb's governorship, Florida's debt escalated from $15 billion to more than $23 billion. After his term, the housing-bubble that had inflated the state's coffers burst big time, and Florida's economy under-performed much of the country during the financial crisis. While homeowners statewide went underwater, he landed a multi-million dollar consultancy gig with... gulp!... Lehman Brothers.

By now, you won't be shocked to learn that Bush's plan would cut tax brackets from seven to three: 28%, 25% and 10%, and that he would cut the corporate tax rate from 35% to 20%, five points below China's. (These days, if you're a Republican, you've got to stick it to China.)

While Jeb would not rein in Wall Street (for all the obvious and already well-documented reasons), right now it looks as if he's not going to have a chance to not rein in anything. While his PR team maintains "Jeb can fix it," invigorating his wilting campaign will require more than a bow and arrow and a mockingbird.

Best gimmick on his campaign web page: "The Guaca Bowle" for $75 because who doesn't need one? (Bush family guac recipe not included.)

Carly Fiorina

Fiorina's web page doesn't offer a lot of economic anything. It's more like a personality infomercial. For her official positions, you need to watch video clips of her TV appearances from CBS This Morning to late night talk shows and - if you're starting to get bored - just imagine Stanley Tucci as Hunger Games host of festivities Caesar Flickerman narrating.

Fiorina calls for "zero-based budgeting" because "zero" sounds so much cleverer than "balanced" and touts ad nauseam a three-page tax plan (perhaps the current one in a microscopic font, since we don't actually know the details). The repetition of simple concepts to the masses seems to be her modus operandi.

Best gimmick on the Carly for America Super PAC website: For only $26 you can get a "Hillary Who?" infant one-piece, the perfect gift for any Republican baby.

How Corporations Really Pay Taxes

Despite the prominence of tax cuts in the policies of the top six Republican candidates, even the venerable Brookings Institution found that they have a minimal effect on economic growth. In addition, when you consider all the promised corporate cuts, you should know that corporations already don't contribute much.

According to Citizens for Tax Justice, between 2008 and 2012, 26 of the 288 Fortune 500 firms (consistently profitable in those years) managed to pay nothing, nada, zero in federal income tax. The 288 firms collectively paid an effective federal income tax rate of 19.4%, and a third of them paid an effective rate of less than 10%. Five companies - Wells Fargo, AT&T, IBM, General Electric, and Verizon - also bagged over $77 billion of the $364 billion in tax breaks doled out in those years. Extra jobs didn't follow. Think of this crew as the real winners of the American Hunger Games in this period.

For 2014, for instance, Goldman Sachs avoided forking over federal income taxes on almost half of its $6.8 billion in US profits, paying an effective tax rate of 18.6%. Between 2010 and 2012, due to tax breaks associated with executive pay, Fortune 500 companies saved an extra $27 billion in federal and state taxes. That's a lot of dosh to use for Super PAC support.

In 2012, the Democrats blasted candidate Mitt Romney's tax plan as a giveaway to the rich. This time around, our six tributes-cum-candidates are taking no such chances. They're making sure to throw crumbs to the middle and working classes, even as they offer more caviar to the wealthy and corporations. Depending on the candidate and plan, the overall loss of national revenue will range from an estimated $1.6 trillion (even factoring in growth that may never happen) to $12 trillion, but will be a stunning amount.

Perhaps with such a field of candidates, the classic Hunger Games line will need to be adapted: "Let the games begin and may the oddity of it all be ever in your favor." Certainly, there has never been a stranger or more unsettling Republican campaign for the presidential nomination or one more filled with economic balderdash and showmanship. Of course, at some point in 2016, we'll be at that moment when President Snow says to Katniss Everdeen, "Make no mistake, the game is coming to its end." One of these candidates or a rival Democrat will actually enter the Oval Office and when that happens, both parties will be left with guilt on their hands and all the promises that will have to be fulfilled to repay their super-rich supporters (Bernie aside). And that, of course, is when the real Hunger Games are likely to begin for most Americans. Those of us in the outer districts can but hope for revolution.

Opinion Mon, 30 Nov 2015 00:00:00 -0500
Western State Regulators Struggling to Keep Up With Radioactive Fracking and Drilling Waste

The question of how to handle the toxic waste from fracking and other oil and gas activities is one of the most intractable issues confronting environmental regulators. A new report details a string of illegal dumping incidents.

Fracking fluid and other drilling wastes sit in an unlined pit in North Belridge, California, July 11, 2014. (Photo: Faces of Fracking)Fracking fluid and other drilling wastes sit in an unlined pit in North Belridge, California, July 11, 2014. (Photo: Faces of Fracking)

The question of how to handle the toxic waste from fracking and other oil and gas activities is one of the most intractable issues confronting environmental regulators. Not only because of the sheer volume of waste generated nationwide, but also because some of the radioactive materials involved have a half-life of over 1,500 years, making the consequences of decision-making today especially long-lasting.

Every year, the oil and gas industry generates roughly 21 billion barrels of wastewater and millions of tons of solid waste, much of it carrying a mix of naturally occurring radioactive materials, and some of it bearing so much radioactive material that it is not safe to drink or even, on far more rare occasions, to simply have it near you.

But unlike most other industries, since 1988, the oil and gas industry has benefitted from an exception to national hazardous waste handling laws, which punts control of this radioactive waste from the federal government down to each individual state - no matter how dangerous the waste might be.

Over the past decade, states have often proved ill-prepared to handle the flood of waste from the shale drilling rush, sometimes because drillers struck oil or gas in a region with little prior experience with drilling's unique hazards, and other times because the political sway of a wealthy and well-connected industry or a lack of resources for environmental regulation left state rules vague or poorly enforced, environmentalists say.

Both types of problems are highlighted in a new report, published Nov. 19 by the Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC), that examines how radioactive wastes are handled under various state laws.

"[S]tate regulatory frameworks remain sparse, where they exist at all," the report, titled No Time To Waste, concluded, after a review of rules governing radioactive waste from oil and gas operations in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming.

Some of those states, like Wyoming and North Dakota, have long-established histories of intensive oil exploration, while others, like Montana and Idaho have far less drilling activity but nonetheless have found themselves grappling in recent years with radioactive waste from neighboring states and as far away as Pennsylvania.

The report details a string of illegal dumping incidents, including the dumping of thousands of pounds of filter socks, used to filter wastewater, on a truck bed in Watford City in Feb. 2014; a 2013 incident where roughly 1,000 filter socks were illegally snuck into a municipal landfill; and the discovery in March, 2014 of over 200 trash bags stuffed with radioactive waste at an abandoned gas station in Noonan, ND, which made national headlines.

That year, an Associated Press investigation uncovered over 150 attempts to dump radioactive waste at landfills not qualified to accept it - and that state regulators failed to fine or sanction anyone over the attempted illicit dumping.

And that's in North Dakota, which is the only state with a "relatively comprehensive" approach to regulating the drilling rush's radioactive materials, the WORC report concluded.

"Oil and gas companies essentially handle and dispose of radioactive waste at their own discretion," said Bob LeResche, WORC Chair from Clearmont, Wyoming. "Some have resorted to the cheapest option, illegally dumping it."

Concerns about corner cutting through illegal waste disposal have grown as oil prices have plunged over the past year.

And while, in theory, lower prices should lead to less drilling, some operators are trying different tactics to deal with the price slump, including continuing to drill wells but waiting to perform the final steps, including fracking, in the hopes of locking in low rig prices and then starting production when prices recover. In North Dakota, for example, over 1,000 oil wells had been drilled but not yet fracked as of September, compared to 13,000 wells producing oil and gas in the state.

Scientists warn that if this radioactive waste is dumped in regular landfills, water running off from the landfills after rainstorms could carry radioactive materials into rivers, streams and drinking water supplies, in part because companies treating wastewater collected from landfills may not know that radioactive materials are present.

Across the U.S., cuttings are finding their ways into these local landfills. "In just the past two years, over 500,000 tons of drill cuttings and shale gas waste products have been buried in the municipal waste landfill in our county," Bill Hughes, Chairman of the Wetzel County Solid Waste Authority, said earlier this year.

In 1988, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a regulatory determination that, even though the waste from oil and gas exploration and production was toxic, there was no need for the nation's hazardous waste handling laws, under the Resource Recovery and Conservation Act's Subpart C, to apply.

But that notion has increasingly come under fire, not only in Western states, but also in the Northeast.

In August, a coaliton of environmental groups announced their intention to sue the EPA to force it to issue regulations for the industry's toxic and radioactive waste.

"Thirty years ago the Environmental Protection Agency exempted oil and gas waste from federal classification as hazardous, not because the waste isn't hazardous, but because EPA determined state oversight was adequate," Earthworks' Eastern Program Coordinator Nadia Steinzor, said in a statement when a study detailing the failures to control this waste in the Northeast's Marcellus shale was released earlier this year. "But our analysis shows that states aren't keeping track of this waste or disposing of it properly."

Similarly, Western states have struggled to keep up with radioactive waste from drilling. "Though North Dakota has occupied much of the spotlight on this issue, other states have begun to see a rising tide of radioactive waste, as well," the WORC report concluded.

"Among New Western states, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana lack formal regulations, and only Montana has begun to address radioactive oil and gas waste. Idaho has several regulations in place, but no statewide disposal limit. Further east, South Dakota has a radioactivity limit for solid waste disposal, but after that regulations run out," WORC wrote.

The report criticized the way that Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) calculates whether the industry's waste is dangerous enough to require regulation. "Contrary to the DEQ's conclusion, then, Wyoming's TENORM waste products may actually have radioactivity concentrations that are on par with - or even higher than - those of neighboring states, because those wastes are emerging from soils that have higher concentrations already," the researchers reported.

In Idaho, despite the relatively small presence of the drilling industry, radioactivity is a concern because it's home to one of the nation's largest commercial disposal sites for radioactive waste, including fracking waste. "The facility's limit for radioactivity concentration is 1,500 picocuries per gram of radium - more than 30 times the limit deemed safe by Argonne's North Dakota study," WORC wrote. "This limit dwarfs the levels accepted in nearby states. As a result, Idaho receives wastes from all over the country, sometimes from as far away as the Pennsylvania shale fields."

Montana, which similarly has relatively little fracking, has been inundated with waste from neighboring North Dakota's Bakken shale.

"Montana has a radioactivity limit of 30 picocuries per gram, meaning that it can accommodate many of the oilfield wastes that exceed North Dakota's limit of 5 picocuries per gram; as a result, North Dakota generators and waste transporters have quickly flocked to this new facility," WORC wrote.

North Dakota is in the process of updating its rules for radioactive waste, but while many of the rules under consideration are tougher than existing state laws, the state plans to raise its maximum limits to above Montana's cap, making it 10 times less strict than before the update.

"Without thorough, rigorous, and consistent oversight from the state, especially in the face of a higher radioactivity limit," Larry Heilmann, a retired biochemist from Fargo, N.D., said in a WORC statement on the report, "it is doubtful that the new rules will result in improvements on the ground."

News Sun, 29 Nov 2015 00:00:00 -0500