Truthout Stories Sun, 24 May 2015 11:27:54 -0400 en-gb Obamacare's Health Plan Choice Benefits Are Vastly Overrated

It is well documented that many other countries have created health care systems that are more popular than ours, cover everybody, are more effective as measured by better health outcomes, are better able to restrain increases in costs and, therefore, have per-capita costs that are a fraction of ours.

One of the reasons for the popularity of universal health care systems elsewhere in the developed world is that when everybody is in the same system, everybody has an incentive to make that program work. The people of those countries have a sense of ownership and responsibility for their common system.

That contrasts sharply with the situation here in the U.S., where people primarily and often exclusively are concerned with their own little piece of the system, such as Medicare, the Veterans Affairs, their own employment-based or veteran’s insurance, plans purchased on the Obamacare exchanges, Medicaid and so on.

Americans also are confused about who owns the system. Is it the government, their employer or their union? Or, as more Americans are coming to believe, health insurance companies, the pharmaceutical industry or the increasingly consolidated corporate providers of health care such as large hospital systems?

In other words, we lack the solidarity that both is an expression of and created by the existence of a single common way of dealing with the challenges of providing affordable health care coverage for all.

I’m a great fan of the goals of the Affordable Care Act — expanding coverage, restricting the most anti-social practices of health insurance companies and attempting to control overall costs. But I’m not a fan of how it tries to accomplish them.

Obamacare is based on the concept of choice among insurance plans. Such choice is greatly overrated.

In order to provide choice among insurance plans, something most people don’t care much about, we are losing choice among healers, something we care a lot about. We are discovering that choice of insurance plans comes at the cost of losing our choice of doctors and hospitals, as insurance companies vainly attempt to control their premium prices by restricting their networks of “providers.”

The financial price of giving people choice of insurance plans, the very reason for the existence of the problem-plagued health insurance exchanges, is very high. A recent Washington Post article documents the financial struggles of most of the state-run exchanges, struggles that are expected to last indefinitely.

There are other costs, as well. The complex nature of the health insurance “marketplaces” has created unnecessary anxiety and confusion among those using them. That in turn has spawned the creation of armies of consultants, “navigators” and other helpers to assist people in finding their way through the maze of choices created by the health insurance industry and exacerbated by Obamacare. This only adds to our national health care bill and does not buy one doctor visit, lab test, Band-Aid or aspirin.

Complexity is a huge drag on the popularity of our health care system as a whole. I have written before about the barriers to further reform of our health care system — fear, anger, ignorance, ideology, apathy and greed.

Apathy often characterizes people who already are well covered and don’t see any reason to worry about those who aren’t. They include the 55 million beneficiaries of Medicare and roughly 140 million covered by employment-related insurance who like it so much that they are frightened and angered by any program designed to expand coverage for others, fearful that it will reduce their own benefits.

Our obsession with “choice” among health plans not only is misplaced but economically costly and confusing and itself is a huge barrier to political solidarity. The infighting among groups covered by different plans is a powerful ally of those profiting from and wedded to the status quo. It is an important barrier to the one common sense idea most bolstered by evidence of fairness and of effectiveness — improved Medicare for all.

We urgently need fundamental reform of the way we finance health care in the U.S.

Fundamental change is extremely difficult in politics. But as the race to the bottom created by the folly of attempting to interject more choice and competition among insurance plans becomes clearer, the public becomes better informed about the alternatives and frustration grows, and people in Maine and elsewhere will come to demand it.

Opinion Sun, 24 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Shot and Gassed: Thousands of Protected Birds Killed Annually

  Sandhill cranes are among more than 300 species of migratory birds that have been killed legally across the U.S. since 2011 to protect a wide range of business activities and public facilities under what’s called the “depredation permit” program.  (Photo: Tom Knudson/Reveal) Sandhill cranes are among more than 300 species of migratory birds that have been killed legally across the US since 2011 to protect a wide range of business activities and public facilities under what's called the "depredation permit" program. (Photo: Tom Knudson/Reveal)

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This story was originally published by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting.

Every spring, bird-watchers from across America gather in Nebraska for one of the continent’s great avian spectacles – the mass migration of sandhill cranes through an hourglass-like passage along the Platte River.

The birds rarely disappoint: With enormous wingspans, they circle like hang gliders over the river valley, filling the air with raucous revelry. And according to fossil records, they’ve been carrying on like that for quite some time: 9 million years, in fact, making them North America’s oldest bird species.

But some several hundred miles northeast in Wisconsin and Michigan, sandhill cranes are met with a different reception: They are shot dead by farmers or their hired guns under a little-known federal program that allows for the killing of birds protected by one of this nation’s bedrock conservation laws, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

Red-tailed hawks are among the migratory birds that have been killed under the federal “depredation permit” program. (Photo: Tom Knudson/Reveal)Red-tailed hawks are among the migratory birds that have been killed under the federal "depredation permit" program. (Photo: Tom Knudson/Reveal)What happens to those cranes may seem surprising. But it is not out of the ordinary.

Reveal has obtained never-before-released data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service showing more than 300 species of migratory birds – from red-tailed hawks to American kestrels, turkey vultures to mallard ducks – have been killed legally across the United States since 2011 to protect a wide range of business activities and public facilities under what’s called the “depredation permit” program.

Even in the best of times, migratory birds lead perilous lives. Today, with climate change and habitat loss adding to the danger, wildlife advocates say the government-sanctioned killing is a taxpayer-funded threat that the birds should not have to face, one that is hidden from the public and often puts the needs of commerce ahead of conservation.

The birds are dispatched to protect farm fields, vineyards, air traffic, golf courses, pistachio orchards, landfills, fish farms, zoos and aquariums. Some birds are killed for environmental reasons, such as protecting rare Western snowy plovers.

For their part, most of the sandhill cranes usually were killed for eating farmers’ potatoes and corn.

Most of the species killed are in no biological danger – their populations are stable. But many are beloved by a broad swath of American society, including great blue herons, white and brown pelicans, cedar waxwings, robins, belted kingfishers and mourning doves.

And some are struggling to cope with habitat loss, climate change and other threats and are classified by the government as “birds of conservation concern.” These include upland sandpipers, lesser yellowlegs, roseate spoonbills and red-throated loons, who, because of declining populations, could be on their way to the endangered species list.

Agency policy says killing birds is meant to be a temporary fix. Yet its own data show lethal removal often is the default option. Eighty-nine of the 100 businesses and agencies responsible for the most mortalities received permission from the service to kill the same species of birds at least three years in a row, the permit data show.

Even the service’s top permitting official is concerned. George Allen, head of the migratory bird division’s permits and regulation office, said he’d want to address that issue if he had time to revisit the agency’s rules.

“It’s just not one we’ve worked on,” he said.

The total body count for a recent three-year period came to 1.6 million, including more than 4,600 sandhill cranes. Four populous species – brown-headed cowbirds, red-winged blackbirds, common grackles and Canada geese – accounted for two-thirds of the mortalities.

But many less common birds were killed, too, including 875 upland sandpipers, 479 barn owls, 79 wood ducks, 55 lesser yellowlegs, 46 snowy owls, 12 roseate spoonbills, three curlew sandpipers, two red-throated loons and one western bluebird.

Most of the birds killed under the federal “depredation permit” program, including great blue herons, have stable populations and aren’t in any biological danger. (Photo: Tom Knudson/Reveal)Most of the birds killed under the federal "depredation permit" program, including great blue herons, have stable populations and aren't in any biological danger. (Photo: Tom Knudson/Reveal)

Birds were killed from coast to coast, but certain places were more deadly than others.

The most lethal state was Louisiana, where nearly 600,000 brown-headed cowbirds were killed in part to protect rice farms.

The second deadliest was California, where American coots were killed by the thousands to protect golf course greens and fairways. Usually the birds are shot, but sometimes they’re fed bait laced with a chemical that makes them fall asleep. Then they’re rounded up and killed in portable carbon dioxide chambers in the backs of pickup trucks. In California, some robins also were killed to protect vineyards.

No. 3 was Arkansas, where more than 22,000 double-breasted cormorants and thousands of other fish-eating birds were killed at fish hatcheries and aquaculture facilities.

Most of the killing is carried out without public notice. Even many conservationists are unaware of it. But those who are familiar with the permit program mostly don’t like it. They say that nonlethal options – such as scaring birds away or making the landscape less bird-friendly – are not given enough consideration and that lethal action is too often the default option.

“Nonlethal methods should always be given preference in these kinds of situations,” said Mike Daulton, vice president of government relations for the National Audubon Society, one of the nation’s oldest and most powerful conservation organizations. “The Migratory Bird Treaty Act is one of America’s most important wildlife conservation laws, and it should be strongly and reasonably enforced to maintain healthy wild populations of America’s native birds.”

Allen at the Fish and Wildlife Service said allowing the killing of nuisance birds protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act isn’t antithetical to the service’s mission of conserving wildlife populations.

“Promoting populations is good,” he said. “But without offering people an option to control what are obvious problems, we’re not doing our job, either.”

See the data: Birds killed under depredation permits in the United States

Birds and humans have clashed for generations, of course. That’s why farmers put out scarecrows. But as cities and agriculture have grown, the scope of the conflicts has expanded. Today, even green industries sometimes kill birds. The government estimates that wind farms will take the lives of 1 million birds every year by 2030. To make that legal, the Fish and Wildlife Service is considering a new permit system for the “incidental” killing of birds protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

That act, a cornerstone of U.S. conservation history, grew out of an era of excess and slaughter at the turn of the 20th century. Many of North America’s migratory birds were being decimated, not for food but for feathers and other body parts that were used to make ladies’ hats, which had become signs of luxury and sophistication. In 1916, the United States and Great Britain, on behalf of Canada, signed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. It became illegal to kill or capture migratory birds, as well as to buy or sell them.

The U.S. government, however, later made an exception. If a migratory bird is causing economic damage (such as destroying crops), posing a risk to humans (airports) or doing some other type of damage, a landowner can ask the Fish and Wildlife Service to approve the “lethal take,” or killing, of the problem birds.

In order to get a permit, applicants must explain what nonlethal measures they’ve tried and why they didn’t work. The idea is to demonstrate that killing the birds is a last resort.

American kestrels are among the migratory birds that have been killed under the federal “depredation permit” program. (Photo: Tom Knudson/Reveal)American kestrels are among the migratory birds that have been killed under the federal "depredation permit" program. (Photo: Tom Knudson/Reveal)The Fish and Wildlife Service generally doesn’t have the capacity to rigorously check what alternative methods each and every applicant has tried. Instead, it farms the work out to another government agency with a similar name but different mission: Wildlife Services, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

For generations, Wildlife Services has long specialized in killing wildlife – including migratory birds – that are considered a threat to agriculture, commerce and the public. In recent years, the agency’s practices have drawn volleys of criticism from wildlife advocates and some members of Congress, who say they are scientifically unsound, heavy-handed and inhumane.

The agency relies on traps, snares and poison that kill indiscriminately. In 2012, the Sacramento Bee reported that Wildlife Services had killed more than 50,000 animals by mistake since 2000, including federally protected bald and golden eagles; more than 1,100 dogs, including family pets; and several species considered rare or imperiled. The investigation also noted that a growing body of science has found the agency’s killing of predators “is altering ecosystems in ways that diminish biodiversity, degrade habitat and invite disease.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General now is conducting an audit to determine if the agency’s lethal control is justified and effective.

“Wildlife Services depends on killing predators and depredating migratory birds for its existence. When that’s what you do for a living, you tend to encourage people to adopt that solution,” said Daniel Rohlf, an environmental lawyer and professor at Lewis and Clark Law School in Oregon.

When landowners do get a permit to kill birds, Wildlife Services often is contracted to do the work. That contributes to a tendency to look to lethal control, rather than find more creative, nonlethal solutions, Rohlf said.

But many wildlife managers say killing the birds, while controversial, is an important tool in protecting property and human safety.

Stephen Vantassel is a former wildlife management operator who runs the Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. People are too quick to “demonize” lethal control, he said. It’s an important element in any wildlife control plan.

Vantassel said that in some cases, killing a few birds in tandem with other methods, such as loud blasts, makes those nonlethal methods more effective since some species will come to associate the noise with death.

But the International Crane Foundation, the world’s largest crane protection organization in Baraboo, Wisconsin, says the deaths just make room for other birds to take their place in prime habitat.

The foundation’s research coordinator, Anne Lacy, was startled to hear that so many sandhill cranes were being killed. “It’s ineffective,” she said. “Shooting two or five or 10 out of a flock – five days later, another group of birds might move through.”

Most of the birds killed under the federal “depredation permit” program, including white pelicans, have stable populations and aren’t in any biological danger. (Photo: Tom Knudson/Reveal)Most of the birds killed under the federal "depredation permit" program, including white pelicans, have stable populations and aren't in any biological danger. (Photo: Tom Knudson/Reveal)

There are alternatives to lethal methods, from reflective tape to pyrotechnics to hanging dead birds in effigy to frighten living ones away. That’s what the Fish and Wildlife Service recommended that The Living Desert, a zoo in Palm Desert, California, do to deal with a raven problem. And it also offered some public relations advice. “It is strongly encouraged that efforts are conducted out-of-view of the public,” the permit says.

In Wisconsin, the crane foundation recommends a corn seed treatment it helped develop called Avipel that irritates the birds’ stomachs so much that they fly off to find other food.

But more and more, people are turning to old-fashioned solutions: dogs and falcons.

Specially trained border collies are hired to race around golf courses, parks and other places to chase away nuisance birds on a regular basis. New York City’s Central Park took on two collies in 2007 to keep geese away. And Portland International Airport, which has one of the lowest rates of intentional bird deaths among major metropolitan airports, also employs a collie, named Fish, to chase geese.

Falconers are hired to fly the predatory birds above vineyards, berry farms and landfills to scare – but not kill – depredating birds. Brad Felger, the president of Airstrike Bird Control, got his start decades ago as a falconry hobbyist who put his birds to use at California’s Central Coast vineyards. Now his team operates at vineyards, farms, landfills and power stations throughout California and the Pacific Northwest.

“It’s starting to be recognized as an extremely effective method,” Felger said. “It uses the predator-prey response to put the small birds into overload. It’s a little too much for them and they just move on.”


This story was edited by Andrew Donohue and copy edited by Sheela Kamath.

Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting is a nonprofit news organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Subscribe to the Reveal podcast and visit our website to learn more.

News Sun, 24 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400
A Robin Hood Tax to Pay for College for All

In Norway, students go to college tuition-free. In Denmark, students are even paid to go to higher education. In the US, college students currently face more than $1.2 trillion of education debt. If the United States wants to boost its middle class and rebuild its economy, this is something that needs to change.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt) understands this dilemma. Sanders met with supporters at a press conference on Capitol Hill today and introduced two bills to address it: his College for All Act and a Robin Hood Tax.

"It is a national disgrace that hundreds of thousands of young Americans today do not get to go to college, not because they are unqualified, but because they cannot afford it," said Sanders. "This is absolutely counterproductive to our efforts to create a strong, competitive, economy and a vibrant middle class. This disgrace has got to end."

According to Sanders, "a generation ago," our public colleges and universities were "pathways for all students, no matter their background, to enter the middle class." Thirty years ago, pursuing a higher education could earn a ticket to a middle-class future. Today, going to college can earn a ticket to a future burdened by debt.

At the press conference, Octavia Savage, a graduate of Bloomfield College, explained the dilemmas that American students of higher education face. "My most important concern in school was how to pay for my education," said Savage. "Even though I worked three jobs throughout college, I graduated $26,000 in debt. For many, that's even considered lucky."

Sanders' College for All Act aims to provide free tuition at every public college and university in the United States. It also expands the federal work-study program and allows every American to refinance their student debt loans. The bill establishes a matching grant program that provides $2 in federal funding for every dollar states spend on making public colleges and universities tuition-free. This takes President Obama's plan to provide free community college to the next, more necessary, level.

The College for All Act would be solely funded by the Robin Hood Tax. The Robin Hood Tax introduced today parallels a bill (H.R. 1464) introduced by Rep. Keith Ellison. It would impose a Wall Street speculation fee on investment houses, hedge funds, and other speculators of 0.5 percent on stock trades, a 0.1 percent fee on bonds, and a 0.005 percent fee on derivatives. According to the College for All Act summary, this tax could raise "hundreds of billions a year" to make tuition free at public colleges and universities in this country. It would "also be used to create millions of jobs and rebuild the middle class of this country."

More than 172 national organizations support the Robin Hood Tax. This tiny sales tax on Wall Street speculation - a fraction of the sales tax most states and localities levy on many consumer goods - is rated as "highly progressive" by the International Monetary Fund, meaning that it is only paid "by the richest institutions and individuals in society."

We know the middle class has stagnated while Wall Street has boomed. It is time that the institutions bailed out after 2008 be asked to help restore opportunity to the same American people they left behind.

"At a time of massive income and wealth inequality, at a time when trillions of dollars in wealth have left the pockets of the middle class and have gone to the top one-tenth of one percent, at a time when the wealthiest people in this country have made huge amounts of money from risky derivative transactions and the soaring value of the stock market," said Sanders, "it's time for a fundamental change in how we approach the financing of higher education, and the legislation I will introduce today will do just that."

Opinion Fri, 22 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400
The High Cost of Low Taxes

Earlier this month, I arrived in San Diego following five days of driving across the country from Wisconsin. I pulled into my friend's driveway, brought my things inside, and went back to my car to park it on the street.

Almost immediately, a cop's siren and flashing lights went off. I'd left my license in my friend's apartment, so I was in trouble no matter what.

But I was in even more trouble because, the cop told me, my license had been suspended since September. My jaw dropped. "I take it from the look on your face that you didn't know that," the cop ventured.

No. I didn't.

The state of California hadn't gone to the trouble of telling me that it had suspended my license due to a $300 ticket from last summer - one I thought I'd already paid. I wasn't able to pay it on time, but I did make good on it eventually. Including the late fee, it had cost me a grand total of $554.

This is where the nightmare really starts.

I spent two hours at the DMV the next day, only to discover I had to call the court to settle the matter. The court only answers its phones three hours a day, Monday through Friday, and its website is confusing and unhelpful.

So for the weekend, I was stuck without a license.

Some people would start shouting about bureaucracy and inefficiency and Big Government - and I can't say they're totally wrong. The wheels of California's government turn very slowly. It's painfully inconvenient.

But I don't think it has to be this way.

I trace the problem back to 1978, when California voters decided they didn't much care for property taxes. They overwhelmingly passed a ballot initiative that effectively froze the rates at 1970s levels in perpetuity.

Known as Prop 13, this ballot blunder has put the squeeze on state and local authorities ever since. Furthermore, it's extremely difficult to increase taxes in California, because doing so requires a two-thirds majority vote in the legislature.

Flash-forward to today, and the state doesn't have enough money to pay for schools or govern itself well.

When I held a state job as a software analyst several years ago, my colleagues and I were paid 30 percent less than the going rate for the field. Consequently, it was nearly impossible to recruit or retain talented employees for the job. We were extremely inefficient, working with an understaffed team.

Odds are the state could have actually saved money if it had paid more in salaries and benefited from the productivity it would've gotten in return.

The miserable quality of state services like food stamps and unemployment - both of which I've had to rely on in rough times - falls unfairly on the poor.

Traffic tickets like mine do too, since being unable to pay right away can cost hundreds extra in late fees. I had to choose between eating and paying rent or paying my ticket last summer, so the ticket had to wait.

It turns out I'm not the only one. A new report from civil rights groups found that California has slammed thousands of drivers - especially poor people and people of color - with steep fines and suspensions in an apparent bid to raise revenue.

It's no fun paying taxes, but the saying about "death and taxes" holds true. They're unavoidable. And when you try to reduce taxes irresponsibly, you end up with California-style bureaucratic shortcomings and predatory revenue schemes.

We're all paying anyway - just in tickets, suspended licenses, deteriorating school systems, and out-of-control traffic fines, instead of by just footing our tax bills.

Opinion Fri, 22 May 2015 11:52:57 -0400
Why One of the Wealthiest Countries in the World Is Failing to Feed Its People

On May 8 2015 I awoke to discover that not only were we not looking forward to a new coalition government in the UK, but that the overall collapse of the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party had given the Conservative government a mandate. At an individual level I'm likely to see some benefits from the strong neo-liberalism that underpins this government's ideology, but I'm concerned about a further deepening of the division between those who have and those who have not.

This will mean the continued exponential growth in the numbers of people requiring emergency food assistance and increased numbers of children and elderly with inadequate food supply. This will also translate into higher rates of obesity, diet-related illness and malnutrition.

The Most Vulnerable

In the United Kingdom there are nearly 5m people today living as food insecure. Wendy Wills, an expert in food and public health, defines this as those who are unable to acquire or consume an adequate quality or sufficient quantity of food made available in socially acceptable ways, or who have the (regular) uncertainty that they will be able to do so.

In 2014, more than 20m meals were provided to people unable to provide for themselves. Since 2010 there has been an exponential growth in the number of households relying on emergency food aid. In 2009-10 nearly 50,000 households received three days of emergency food aid but by 2014-15 the number had increased to more than a million. Oxfam UK has estimated that: "36% of the UK population are just one heating bill or broken washing machine away from hardship".

Poor Distribution

Looking at these figures one might think the UK is not a wealthy nation. But this is not the case. Credit Suisse put the UK fifth in a ranking of nations by wealth, behind the US, Japan, China, and France. Based on 2010 UK Census figures, per capita wealth in the UK is about US$182,825, but this wealth is not distributed evenly across the population. While the wealthiest fifth of the population controls nearly 41% of the income, the poorest fifth have just 8%. And while rates of employment have increased over the last few years, pay growth has not kept up.

The new government has little in its manifesto to indicate relief, instead there are promises to cut public spending by a further £55bn by 2019 (on top of the £35bn cut during the coalition government). We have already seen cuts in work programmes that support those with disabilities in their first week in office. In the firing line are Sure Start programmes and programmes for refugees and migrants while reduced funding for local authorities will mean not only cuts to programmes that support the most vulnerable but also cuts to other services providing things such as road repairs, parks and libraries.

On top of the loss of services and support programmes, cuts also translate into bodies out of employment. So this new round of austerity will reach higher up the ladder for those living in the UK because a large proportion of the costs associated with these services is the wages for those who deliver them. The Office for Budget Responsibility indicates that by 2020 there will be a further loss of a million government jobs (compared to the loss of 400,000 government jobs over the course of the last parliament). One can only conclude that income inequality will widen, a state that already has one of the highest divisions between wealthy and poor in Europe (only lower than Turkey and Portugal in 2010).

Disposable Income

For those living in poverty in the UK today the amount of disposable income for the poorest fifth of households is about £156 per week. This is income after taxes and transfer payments and includes spending on clothing, getting to work, childcare, keeping warm, washing, communicating with others, paying for housing, celebrating birthdays, holidays, paying for school trips, uniforms and supplies, socialising and cooking (including not just the food but also the fuel to run the cooker, microwave, and refrigerator).

For many households (not just the poorest), the most flexible item in their budget is food expenditure. Families in this position are not concerned with the environmental or social implications associated with the food that they buy, but instead concentrate on "getting fed". Because it is now less expensive to feed ones family on processed food (with higher salt, sugar, and fat content) than fresh food and as the cost of food is predicted to continue to rise, we can expect to see not just increases in the numbers of people going hungry and relying on emergency food aid, but also increases in the rates of dietary-related illnesses such as obesity, diabetes and malnutrition. These health implications will, in turn, continue to place greater pressure on an already-struggling NHS.

Obligations Made

The government has an obligation to ensure that the right for all human beings to be free from hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition, as specified in a UN covenant to which the UK is a signatory, is upheld. The UK is also a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which specifies a duty to provide "material assistance and support programmes, particularly with regard to nutrition."

At present the rolling back of social services, the decline in real wages, increases in food costs coupled with an emphasis within the Conservative manifesto to develop food production in this country as an export (as opposed to subsidising it in order to feed the nation), suggests that this obligation is not one that is being taken seriously.

If we cannot look to our national government to uphold these rights and obligations, it seems that there is no recourse but to fill the gap from within, something the Conservatives are banking on. In their manifesto, the only mention of food justice is expressed via the following phrase:

We have always believed that churches, faith groups and other voluntary groups play an important and longstanding role in this country's social fabric, running food banks, helping the homeless and tackling debt and addictions, such as alcoholism and gambling. In the short term it is evident that the public will need to rely on each other to support the most vulnerable, which includes the elderly and children.

Food banks and charity are not a long-term solution, nor are they an adequate solution. We know that food banks are an insecure form of support as they rely on gifts which can be withdrawn at any time. Their coverage is spatially uneven as they are more likely to be located in cities leaving the rural poor in a more precarious position. Donated food also tends to be non-perishable food, as opposed to fresh food free of E numbers, fat, salt, and sugar. Food banks also do not address more structural issues that give rise to food insecurity in the first instance. The Trussel Trust, which runs many food banks, does offer some ancillary support but this still focuses on individuals, not on the wider problems.

No Single Department Is Responsible

As a country we need a better understanding of the resources available to local authorities who bear the burden of addressing the inequalities associated with food and who must deliver services to the poor.

As citizens we also need to demand that the government meet its UN obligations to ensure the right to food and the rights of the child. This cannot happen within existing government departments as the focus of these rights is not embedded within any one single agency. We have the Food Standards Agency, but its remit doesn't address food access. DEFRA's focus is on food production and agriculture. The Department of Health's focus is on nutrition outcomes rather than the root causes of obesity and the structure of food system in the UK. The Department for Work and Pensions similarly only considers those elements that are employment focused.

We currently have subsidies for winter fuel, transportation, and housing, but there is nothing that ensures food affordability. What is called for is a cross-cutting governmental body, with a minister for food, who ensures that policies enacted through these departments deliver access to sufficient, healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate food for all of us, not just the wealthy.

Full disclosure: Megan Blake received funding from the Leverhulme Trust for research that informed this work and from the ESRC.

Opinion Fri, 22 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400
NAACP Accuses Baltimore Police Union of Intimidation

See The Real News Network's website for both earlier in-depth reporting and current coverage of events in Baltimore, where The Real News Network studios are located.


STEPHEN JANIS, INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER, TRNN: Hello. My name is Stephen Janis, and I'm a reporter for The Real News Network in Baltimore.

Since the announcement by city State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby of charges against six officers for the killing of Freddie Gray earlier this month, the onslaught of negative media has been unrelenting. Terms like rush to judgment and overcharging of officers have been prevalent, and no other organization has been more outspoken in their criticism than the Baltimore City Police Union, or the FOP. Not only have they led the media barrage against Mosby, but they have asked the federal government to investigate the mayor. Add to that their characterization of protesters as a lynch mob, and you have what some say is a group that is adding unnecessary fuel to an already volatile fire.

And now one very influential organization has put those concerns in writing. The local chapter of the NAACP has written a letter to FOP president Gene Ryan arguing the FOP's rhetoric amounts to threats against both the mayor and Mosby, and is ultimately distasteful. Here to discuss the letter are two representatives from the NAACP. Tessa Hill-Aston has served as president of the Baltimore chapter for several years, and has been a longtime advocate for civil rights in the city. Hassan Giordano is a well-known commentator on city politics and columnist along with chairman of the branch's criminal justice committee.

Thank you both for joining us.



JANIS: So first just discuss with me why you decided to send this letter. What sort of precipitated this?

HILL-ASTON: Well, we opened up a satellite office in the Sandtown community as a result of Freddie Gray's death, and we're working, we're reaching out to the community and the residents there, and bringing in resources and services. And we've been having meetings there and little discussions with the community, and they've been coming in.

Hassan is the chairperson of our Criminal Justice Committee, and we had a meeting last week, we've had two meetings with the whole committee. And it was decided upon that we needed to take some action. We were going to do a rally or demonstration, but we felt all of us together that writing a letter and having a document would be more effective. So that's what the committee came up with under the leadership of Hassan as the chairperson.

JANIS: Hassan, what were your main concerns? What's the thrust of this letter?

GIORDANO: Well when you look at the documents that were sent by the FOP, one, Marilyn Mosby raising the conflicts about Billy Murphy, of course. Trying to get this case taken out of Baltimore City. As well as the letter, as you alluded to, in terms of against the mayor regarding the DOJ's patterns and practice investigation, what was supposedly specifically for the police department. They kind of turned it into an investigation of the mayor when they knew absolutely well that it has nothing to do with that, along with the allegations it's a lynch mob. That I know Gene Ryan at one point walked back.

But a lot of the people in that community were upset about this. Our community justice members as well as a lot of African-American women were upset due to the fact that they elected both of these African-American women, the mayor and the state's attorney, and it feels like they weren't getting their just due to be able to do the process. To let the process work itself out without the influence of this very powerful police union.

JANIS: Well it raises a good question. Why is the police union so powerful and why do you think the media is sort of taking their cue on almost all these issues? Especially in terms of the personal attacks on the mayor and the state's attorney.

HILL-ASTON: Well, I think that they're very powerful because they've had good leadership and they say focused on what they're doing. Any organization is going to be powerful if they stay focused. And I think that they've had a strong arm in the community, and with the police department, and defended the police. So right now is one of the first times that a state's attorney has prosecuted, or attempting to put charges on some police, and I think they take offense to it. Which they should, that's their members. But the process has to work, and our state's attorney did the right thing.

JANIS: Hassan, you write: your intended goal is clear. To all but subtly threaten these women who are merely doing the job we elected them to do, while making borderline racist statements that you know will provoke negative perception in the minds of those in full support of law enforcement in order to tear down the fabric of our elected leadership.

That's pretty powerful words. What do - I mean, I kind of know what you mean. But give us some sense of why you wrote that.

GIORDANO: Well, I think when you look at the entire dynamic, from Freddie Gray and that whole incident that happened, and it precipitated after his death, to even before that. We have a community, a culture especially in the African-American community of distrust with police officers. Then when you add on top of that, number one, a police officer hasn't been charged in the death of many African-American - Tyrone West, Anthony Anderson, going back from 2006 when you had 69 people murdered by the hands of the Baltimore City police, not one of them has been charged. As a matter of fact, only five have been charged in the past three decades, four of them found not guilty. The one who did get found guilty got it overturned on appeal.

People are distrustful with the police and the process. So when Marilyn Mosby stepped up and said, I'm going to do what's right in terms of the law, not so much the justice. But the law, which would give the community justice. People felt that it was somewhat of a threat to the process when you have the FOP kind of taking that power away from the state's attorney which they elected them to do.

People have full support, the NAACP has full support in our, in our law and order. In our police officers. Men and women who really sacrifice their lives every day. But at the same time, we have to also realize that we have a problem that exists between the African-American community and the police department. And Gene Ryan's words, from the lynch mob to these two letters, does nothing to build the bridge that we have to do in order to get past what we saw in the past couple weeks in Baltimore.

JANIS: Given how fraught the relations are, the fact that we've had these protests, is there a way to rebuild a relationship with the police department given the history?

HILL-ASTON: I think eventually. It's going to take a long time. I think this case right here with the Freddie Gray case will make a big determination. People want someone to pay for what they do. And when an average citizen gets locked up for something they have to pay for it. And that's why people are upset, because no police, like Hassan just said, has paid a debt for harming or someone dying at their hands.

So we, I wouldn't want to be in any city without the police. I have the utmost respect for the fine work that our police do. But still, like in any profession, there's some bad apples. And when bad apples do wrong things to the citizens, then this is what happens and they have to pay for it.

In our communities, we need young people and children to see justice. That when someone dies and they feel that it was unjustly, that police even did it, that they need to go through the court process. We want, and I want, children, young adults coming up and them to have children that they grow up learning to respect the police that they see and not hate them. Some of the young children in communities now will probably be an officer one day. So we have to learn that we respect the police. But when someone does something unlawful, even if they have a uniform on, that they have to go to court and pay the price.

JANIS: Hassan, let me ask you this. I attended a press conference with the Vanguard for Justice speaking out in support of Officer Sergeant Alicia White, who has been charged. At the same time they were talking about the fact that they believed - and they wouldn't even come out and say this. But it seemed they were suggesting that the department is inherently racist, and that black officers face racism which had much to do with what happened to Freddie Gray. I mean, how can you resolve that conflict if the department, the institution itself, has issues with racism that are unresolved?

GIORDANO: Well, I think first we've got to recognize the problems that exist and stop sugarcoating. Our political leaders have got to stop trying to spin the problem that exists. People know it. People who don't even work in law enforcement know that we have racism in anything. Especially within the Baltimore City Police Department. We have it within even some of the networks that we have within the city of Baltimore.

So we have to address that problem, and that's part of the letter. Though it's strongly worded, and rightfully so, it also asked Gene Ryan to come to the table and sit down with the oldest and boldest civil rights organization in the world, which is the NAACP, and let's start the healing process. We're never going to get there by the rhetoric that's used either by Mr. Ryan or even some of the words that are used in that letter, to be quite frank. But if we can come together and say, okay, here's the issues at hand. Because we know racism exists not only in that department but throughout the city of Baltimore we see it. It's a city of neighborhoods, and it's a reason. Baltimore has a very long tradition of racism. Then we have to be able together to be able to do that.

Now, if Gene Ryan is not willing to do that, then I don't see how we begin to rebuild that confidence and that trust between his officers and the Baltimore City Police Department and the African-American or any community member in the city of Baltimore.

JANIS: Now, there was a raid on the offices. Was that a - 

HILL-ASTON: I don't want to talk about that. I'm in litigation with someone who caused that.

JANIS: I understand. Do you think it was retaliation?

HILL-ASTON: It wasn't a raid. It was not a raid. It was outside.

JANIS: And the reason I'm asking this question is because we see these kind of tactics occur during these kind of conflicts. Do you think it was polit - 

HILL-ASTON: No. No, it had nothing to do with that. I have already been to court and litigation with someone who had something to do with that. But it was not a raid. The police didn't have a warrant to come there, and it wasn't police.

JANIS: So do you think it was retaliation?

HILL-ASTON: No. No, no, no. it was just another nut.

JANIS: Okay. No, and I just wanted to ask - 

HILL-ASTON: There's lots of them out there.

JANIS: Right. I totally understand. I mean -

HILL-ASTON: The word raid was kind of, is not - it wasn't a raid.

JANIS: Right. And that's how they publicized it, so that's why I wondered about that. And I wanted to -

HILL-ASTON: Yeah. I know, yeah, I know. It was not a raid. They were outside, and...

JANIS: Well let me ask you then, going forward, what can the NAACP - have you heard from Gene Ryan? Has he reached out to you?

HILL-ASTON: Yes, I've spoken to him over the phone.

JANIS: How recently?

HILL-ASTON: Just this week.

JANIS: And so what, how do -

HILL-ASTON: Yeah, I spoke to him on the phone. Before this letter. Before he received this letter.

JANIS: So since the letter, yeah. But how as the conversation?

HILL-ASTON: It was very pleasant. I've had interaction with him months ago before the Freddie Gray thing. I have not talked to him during the, while we were going through this process, but I did talk to him about having a meeting. And we both agreed that we would talk. So no, it was very pleasant, and we both agreed that we should sit down and have communication.

JANIS: So what do you want to see come out of this letter? What do you hope will happen, going forward?

GIORDANO: Well, I hope number one that the Department of Justice's investigation is thoroughly done, number one. And it's focused on the police department and their patterns and practices, not the patterns and practice of the mayor. She'll be held accountable in April of 2016. that's called elections and that's what voters are for. Not for the Department of Justice and not for Gene Ryan.

But I think that now that we've gotten past all this, we have to begin to rebuild and heal Baltimore. That's the job of the NAACP. That's what we've been doing, that's what we'll continue to do. And we would hope to bring Gene Ryan, members of the FOP and the Baltimore City Police Department on board to help heal and rebuild Baltimore. Because there's a level of distrust not only just with officers, but with government officials and with leaders who have been around the city for a long time, but the people in the communities are not seeing what's being told on news publications about how much they're doing for the community. They don't see that. They see the NAACP because we're in their community. They don't see all these other people. So we would love to bring them on board to be able to have a co-op that all of us are lending a helping hand to whatever we can provide to the citizens of Baltimore.

JANIS: Great. Well, let's hopefully keep up to date with you on everything that's happening. We very much appreciate you coming and talking about this. Thank you very much. Thank you.

HILL-ASTON: Thank you. Thank you.

GIORDANO: [inaud.] Thank you.

JANIS: My name is Stephen Janis, I'm a reporter for The Real News Network in Baltimore, and thank you for joining us.

News Fri, 22 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Matt Taibbi on Baltimore, Freddie Gray and How Legal System Covers Up Police Violence

New cellphone video sheds light on Freddie Gray's fatal journey in a Baltimore police van. The footage obtained by The Baltimore Sun shows Gray lying motionless as several police officers shackle his ankles and load him into the vehicle. It appears to contradict earlier police claims that Gray was "irate" and "combative." One of the officers, Lt. Brian Rice, reportedly threatened to use his Taser on the eyewitness who was filming. We are joined by Matt Taibbi, whose latest article for Rolling Stone is "Why Baltimore Blew Up." He writes, "Instead of using the incident to talk about a campaign of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of illegal searches and arrests across decades of discriminatory policing policies, the debate revolved around whether or not the teenagers who set fire to two West Baltimore CVS stores after Gray's death were "thugs," or merely wrongheaded criminals."


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

NERMEEN SHAIKH: New cellphone video sheds light on Freddie Gray's fatal journey in a Baltimore police van. The footage obtained by The Baltimore Sun shows Gray lying motionless as several police officers shackle his ankles and load him into the vehicle. It appears to contradict earlier police claims that Gray was, quote, "irate" and combative." One of the officers, Lieutenant Brian Rice, reportedly threatened to use his Taser on the eyewitness who was filming. The footage raises fresh questions about the officers' handling of the incident and their motive for shackling Gray in the first place.

Gray died from his injuries on April 19th. His family and attorney say his voice box was crushed and his spine was, quote, "80 percent severed at his neck." His death sparked massive protests nationwide. Earlier this month, Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced charges against six police officers in connection to Gray's death.

AMY GOODMAN: Baltimore is the focus of Matt Taibbi's latest article in Rolling Stone. It's headlined "Why Baltimore Blew Up: It Wasn't Just the Killing of Freddie Gray - Inside the Complex Legal Infrastructure That Encourages and Covers Up Police Violence."

So, take us inside that, Matt. In fact, you're writing a book on this subject right now.

MATT TAIBBI: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I first came onto the subject because of the other subject we were just talking about. I was - I had been writing a lot about why people from Wall Street don't go to jail, and I was interested in who does go to jail in this country, and I wanted to make that comparison. And in doing so, I had to learn a lot about community policing, stop and frisk, you know, what they call zero-tolerance policing tactics.

And a lot of that, I think, is behind the anger that we're seeing spill out in places like Ferguson and Baltimore, because these new modern policing strategies that we've instituted in the last couple of decades, most famously beginning here in New York with Rudy Giuliani and Bill Bratton, you know, the "broken windows" theory - what happens with these policing strategies is that it forces police to go out into neighborhoods and do what one police officer described to me as self-initiated contacts. In other words, you have a different neighborhood, you have the affluent white neighborhood, where police only showed up - show up when they're called. You know, if somebody falls out of a window, somebody shoots a gun in a building, they're going to show up. But in Bed-Stuy or in the South Bronx, police are getting out of their squad cars, they're stopping people on the street, they're questioning them, they're patting them down, and it creates this endless stream of hostile interactions that over time become more - that creates more and more animosity and more and more room for corruption of the process. And I think that is definitely the background for what we see in places like Baltimore.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So could you say what was the origin of the broken windows policy? And what exactly have its effects been?

MATT TAIBBI: So, broken windows was a theory that was espoused by a couple of academics in an article in Atlantic magazine in 1982, and the idea was, if you leave a broken window in a neighborhood, then, very shortly after, all the other windows nearby will also be broken. And visible signs of public disorder will lead to more public disorder. So if you crack down on the visible signs of disorder, like people jumping turnstiles, like graffiti, like, you know, the small things, it will have two impacts. Number one, it will obviously crack down on the visible signs of public disorder. People will feel safer walking around in those neighborhoods. But it will also discourage people from walking outside with a gun, and it will discourage fugitives from walking around in the streets, because they know they may be stopped for even the most minor things, and so they're less likely to commit crimes. That's the theory.

And the tactic that they used to employ this theory, which was stop and frisk, encouraged officers to go out in huge numbers into neighborhoods and essentially, without probable cause, stop people, question them, sometimes pat them down, empty their pockets, and it created, you know, thousands and thousands of interactions. Out of those interactions sprung hundreds of thousands of summonses per year. And a lot of people who otherwise wouldn't have had criminal records ended up in the system because of this new policy. Now, you might argue that it curtailed crime, but it also created this other thing where lots and lots of people ended up in the system.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But is that actually the case, that crime went down in the cities where these policies were implemented?

MATT TAIBBI: Well, so, criminologists are very divided on this point. Crime did go down. Violent crime went down all across America from the early '90s on. But it went down in cities where these policies were employed, and it went down in cities where they weren't employed. The origin of the drop in violent crime is basically an academic mystery in America. And so, it's been debunked, this idea that the drop is linked to these policies.

AMY GOODMAN: Late last month, Baltimore police union attorney Michael Davey told reporters the officers were right to chase Freddie Gray after he ran away when a lieutenant made eye contact with him.

MICHAEL DAVEY: They pursued Mr. Gray. They detained him for an investigative stop. Had he not had a knife or an illegal weapon on him, he would have been released. They know what role they played in the arrest of Mr. Gray. What we don't know and what we're hoping the investigation will tell us is what happened inside the back of the van. He was placed in the transport van. Whether he was seat-belted in, I don't believe he was. Our position is: Something happened in that van; we just don't know what.

REPORTER: Do you think any of the six officers committed a crime that day?


REPORTER: Unequivocally. And what makes you say that?

MICHAEL DAVEY: Based on the information that I know, no.

AMY GOODMAN: He said, the police union attorney, that to run in a high-crime area is probable cause for arrest.

MATT TAIBBI: Yeah, I don't know that that's true. I don't know that legally you can arrest somebody for running away. I don't think that that's actually the case.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, clearly, the state's attorney, Marilyn Mosby, said it's not, because the first thing she got them on was illegal arrest.


AMY GOODMAN: At least indicted. They haven't been convicted.

MATT TAIBBI: And this is what's unique about the Mosby prosecution, is that not only did they charge the manslaughter or murder charges, but they also slapped on false imprisonment, which essentially said that the whole basis for the arrest was fraudulent. But, you know, dating back to a 1968 Supreme Court case, Ohio v. Terry, police are allowed to stop and question somebody based on what they call the articulable suspicion that the person is committing a crime. Now, what's happened over the years is that standard of articulable suspicion has been broadened to include just about anything. In Chicago, we have - the ACLU has unearthed instances where cops stopped people just because they've arrested the person before, which is, of course, not a reason to actually stop and question and search somebody. It may be a furtive movement - that's a very overused phrase. They stop people for all kinds of reasons. Studies have shown that up to half of these stops are actually baseless. And out of that results an enormous amount of frustration in the population, because they feel that they're being stopped and very often brought to jail and made to stay overnight for no reason at all, and charged with things like loitering, that eventually get dropped. And it's just an endless campaign of harassment. It's the day-to-day stuff. It's the day-to-day process of being stopped, dragged to jail, forced to go through the process, forced to sit in a cell with 16 other men, and that's what really grinds people.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, you talk in your piece about a number of the people who have been subjected to these policies. Could you say what happened, in particular, the story that you conclude with, Makia Smith?


NERMEEN SHAIKH: The mother, and how she was - what happened to her?

MATT TAIBBI: So, Makia is - she was driving back from a Wendy's. She had her two-year-old in the back of her car. And she saw police arresting somebody, and among other things, she saw them putting their knees on the person's head, a young African-American man. She got out of her car and started to film the incident, and because of her getting out of the car and filming, the police got upset. They focused their attention on her. They dragged her out of her car by her hair. They eventually arrested her. They took her away to jail. And they left her baby in the back of the car. She ended up having to get a stranger at the side of the road to take the baby. And she was, you know, calling out her mother's cellphone number, so that the stranger and the mother could connect.

A jury found the police, in the civil case, not negligent in that instance. But it's the kind of thing - I mean, you know, when I talked to her, she said her whole conception of the police, the government, everything changed after that incident. I mean, it's going to be changed forever now. She says she will never call the police, you know, for any reason. And I think that's what goes on a lot in these neighborhoods, is that people have a bad experience, it colors their perception of law enforcement and the government forever, and then when something like Freddie Gray happens, it gets people worked up into a frenzy, that is totally understandable.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you for being with us. We are going to link to your pieces, Matt Taibbi, award-winning journalist, now with Rolling Stone magazine. His recent book, The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap, is now out in paperback. And we're going to do a post-show with you, post it online, about another of your pieces, "Forget What We Know Now: We Knew Then the Iraq War Was a Joke," as you go after not just the politicians who are running for president, but the media, as well.

News Fri, 22 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Matt Taibbi: World's Largest Banks Admit to Massive Global Financial Crimes, but Escape Jail (Again)

Five of the world's top banks will pay over $5 billion in fines after pleading guilty to rigging the price of foreign currencies and interest rates. Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Barclays and Royal Bank of Scotland pleaded guilty to conspiring to manipulate the price of US dollars and euros exchanged in the $5 trillion FX spot market. UBS pleaded guilty for its role in manipulating the Libor benchmark interest rate. No individual bank employees were hit with criminal charges as part of the settlements. We are joined by Matt Taibbi, award-winning journalist with Rolling Stone magazine.


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

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to the felons on Wall Street. Five of the world's top banks will pay over $5 billion in fines after pleading guilty to rigging the price of foreign currencies and interest rates. Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Barclays and Royal Bank of Scotland pleaded guilty to conspiring to manipulate the price of US dollars and euros exchanged in the five trillion foreign exchange - $5 trillion foreign exchange spot market. UBS pleaded guilty for its role in manipulating the Libor benchmark interest rate. On Wednesday, US Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced the deal.

ATTORNEY GENERAL LORETTA LYNCH: We are here to announce a major law enforcement action against international financial institutions that for years participated in a brazen display of collusion and foreign exchange rate market manipulation, and will, as a result, pay a total of nearly $3 billion in fines and penalties. As a result of our investigation, four of the world's largest banks have agreed to plead guilty to felony antitrust violations. They are Citicorp, JPMorgan Chase & Co., Barclays PLC and the Royal Bank of Scotland PLC.

AMY GOODMAN: No one who works with the banks was hit with criminal charges as part of the settlements.

For more, we're joined by Matt Taibbi, award-winning journalist with Rolling Stone magazine. His most recent book, The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap, is now out in paperback.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Matt.

MATT TAIBBI: Good to see you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: OK, explain what these banks are charged with. And what does it mean when you say banks are charged, but all the people go free?

MATT TAIBBI: Right, they filed - actually, these banks, the companies, pleaded guilty to felony charges in this case, which means it was not individuals of the company, it was the actual company itself, which is actually a step forward, because for a long time in the post-2008 period we were having a lot of settlements where there was a sort of a neither-admit-nor-deny agreement between the government and these companies, and in this case they actually did have to admit to wrongdoing and did have to plead guilty to a criminal charge, in addition to the money changing hands.

AMY GOODMAN: And what was the wrongdoing?

MATT TAIBBI: The wrongdoing was manipulating the prices of currencies, which is about as serious a financial crime as you can possibly get, I think. You know, you and I sat here a few years ago and talked about the Libor scandal. This is very similar.

AMY GOODMAN: In as simple terms as you can make it, because I think that's why nobody goes to jail: No one can -


AMY GOODMAN: You can understand if someone steals a candy bar.


AMY GOODMAN: And a person can go to jail for years for that.


AMY GOODMAN: But when it comes to this, what did they do?

MATT TAIBBI: They were monkeying around with the prices of every currency on Earth. So, if you can imagine that anybody who has money, which basically includes anybody who's breathing on the planet, all of those people were affected by this activity. So if you have dollars in your pocket, they were monkeying around with the prices of dollars versus euros, so you might have had more or less money fractionally, depending on all of this manipulation, every single day. And again, Attorney General Lynch went out of her way to say that this activity went on basically every single day for the last five years or so. So every single day, that $5 in your pocket was worth a little bit more or a little bit less, based on what these people were doing. And if you spread that out to everybody on Earth, it turns into a financial crime that's on a scale that, you know, you would normally only think of in Bond movies or something like that.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, the Justice Department says traders used online chat rooms and coded language to manipulate currency exchange rates. One high-ranking Barclays trader chatted, quote, "If you ain't cheating you ain't trying." And another responded, quote, "Yes, the less competition the better." So, could you comment on that, Matt? And also explain why, in this particular case, the companies pleaded guilty.

MATT TAIBBI: Well, I think part of it is because they had this very graphic online record of these people chatting and admitting to essentially a criminal conspiracy in writing. That's one of the things that's really interesting about this entire era of financial crime, is that you have so much of this very graphic, detailed documentary evidence just lying around. The problem is the government has either been too overwhelmed or too disinclined to go and get it and do anything with it. In this case, you have people openly calling themselves the cartel or the mafia, and then openly talking about monkeying around or manipulating, you know, the price of this or that. The CFTC, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, actually released chats from a different case involving interest rate swaps yesterday, where they - where one guy was bragging about how he was holding up the price of interest rate swaps like he was bench-pressing at. They were bragging about this, you know, in these chat rooms. So these - what you have to understand about a lot of these people, they're very testosterone-laden, souped-up young people who think that they're indestructible. They're very arrogant. And they're doing all this in chat rooms, thinking they're never going to get caught. And they got caught.

AMY GOODMAN: On Wednesday, Citigroup CEO Michael Corbat said, quote, "The behavior that resulted in the settlements we announced today is an embarrassment to our firm, and stands in stark contrast to Citi's values," unquote. Meanwhile, JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon called the investigation findings, quote, "a great disappointment to us." He went on to say, quote, "The lesson here is that the conduct of a small group of employees, or of even a single employee, can reflect badly on all of us, and have significant ramifications for the entire firm," said the CEO, Jamie Dimon.

MATT TAIBBI: Well, what's humorous about this is that virtually all of these so-called too-big-to-fail banks now have been embroiled in scandals of varying degrees of extreme seriousness since 2008. So for them to say, "Oh, it's just a few bad apples in this one instance," is increasingly absurd. They have been dinged for everything from bribery to money laundering, to rigging Libor, to mass fraud in the subprime mortgage markets and now the forex markets. It's one mass crime over - you know, after another, and there's no consequence.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, aren't these banks competitors?

MATT TAIBBI: Well, sort of. But that's the main problem in this case, is what's happening is that they're colluding, which is a far more dangerous kind of corruption than what we saw, for instance, in 2008, when you saw a lot of banks, in house, committing fraud against their own clients and against the markets. This behavior, where you have a series of major banks colluding to fix the price of a currency, that is extremely dangerous. And if that behavior is allowed to go unchecked, the negative possibilities that could stem from that are virtually limitless.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, the foreign exchange market is the largest, and yet the least regulated, market in the financial world.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: Do you know why that is? And who would be in charge of its regulation?

MATT TAIBBI: Well, a variety of regulatory bodies would have what you would describe as a general purview over this kind of activity. Obviously, they got them on an antitrust violation, so this - it falls under the purview of the Department of Justice. The Fed, the banking regulators, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, they all have a kind of a general mandate to look out for this sort of stuff. But the problem with the forex markets is that there isn't a specific body that's specifically looking at this all the time. It's not like, let's say, you know, the commodities market, where you do have a CFTC that's specifically looking at that. This is one of many markets that simply falls between the cracks in the regulatory scheme, where there isn't a single - you know, a targeted effort to look at this all the time.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this month, independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who's now running for president, introduced the Too Big to Fail, Too Big to Exist Act.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: The bill that I am introducing today with Congressman Brad Sherman would require regulators at the Financial Stability Oversight Council to establish too-big-to-fail list - a too-big-to-fail list of financial institutions and other huge entities whose failure would pose a catastrophic risk on the United States economy without a taxpayer bailout. This list must include, but is not limited to, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo and Morgan Stanley.

It should make every American extremely nervous that in this weak regulatory environment - weak regulatory environment - the financial supervisors in our country and around the world are still able to uncover an enormous amount of fraud on Wall Street and other financial institutions to this very day. I fear very much that the financial system is even more fragile than many people may perceive. This huge issue simply cannot be swept under the rug. It has got to be addressed.

AMY GOODMAN: So that is Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, senator of Vermont, independent senator. About a decade ago, you stayed with Sanders for about a month, covering him for Rolling Stone, doing a profile.

MATT TAIBBI: Yeah. Sort of remarkably, he invited me to tag along and just sort of watch how the process works. I think he felt that the public should know about a lot of the nooks and crannies of the congressional bureaucracy. And I got this remarkable education into how things actually work. He didn't hold anything back. Sanders is, you know, exactly as advertised. He's a completely honest, I think, politician who is just really interested in seeing - you know, standing up for regular working people. So, his voice on this particular issue, I think, is really important, because he's one of the few politicians who understands that it's a truly bipartisan issue that affects everybody, people on both sides of the aisle, equally. And he's absolutely right about breaking up the banks. That is the most single most important thing that has to be done with this issue.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, there have been reports, Matt Taibbi, and I'm sure this is the case, that none of the significant changes that were to be put in place in the financial system since the crisis occurred several years ago - those changes have not yet taken place, and so this kind of thing is likely to recur. Could you talk about that and also the extent to which the new attorney general, Loretta Lynch, is likely to be tougher on banks and, indeed, on bankers?

MATT TAIBBI: Well, I don't know if that's exactly true. I definitely hear from people on Wall Street all the time that there are - there are certain things that are different. I think, you know, trading - banks trading for their own accounts, that's been severely curtailed since Dodd-Frank. You know, there have been a number of regulations that have made it more difficult to engage in the kinds of risky activities that we saw before 2008.

But by and large, the general problem is more unwillingness to enforce existing laws. And it wasn't so much an absence of new regulations that was the problem in 2008. It was more a failure of will on the part of the government. We had laws on the books that were perfectly sufficient in the late '80s and early '90s, when we, you know, conducted over 1,800 prosecutions and put 800 people in jail after the S&L crisis. We can do the same thing now, if we want to, with this or with robo signing or with subprime mortgage fraud or any of another dozen other scandals, and we just haven't done it. And that - I think that's the main problem, and it's a failure of will. And I do hear from people that there is more serious now - seriousness now, in the waning years of the Obama administration, more willingness to go after the banks.

AMY GOODMAN: A new report from the Corporate Reform Coalition called "Still Too Big to Fail" says, since 2008, regulators have failed to enact key parts of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. It found, quote, "The top six bank holding companies are considerably larger than before, and are still permitted to borrow excessively relative to the assets they hold. ... Banks can still use taxpayer-backed insured deposits to engage in high-risk derivative transactions here and overseas. Compensation incentives fail to discourage mismanagement and illegality, given that when legal fees, settlements, and fines mount, it is usually the shareholders, not the corporate executives who pay." The report concludes, quote, "Should one of these giant banking firms fail again, it appears that the damage will not be contained." So there's a lot here. One is that the US could descend again. Number two is that even with the billions that are now - these banks have to pay, who is actually paying?

MATT TAIBBI: Oh, the shareholders. I mean, that's - the pain is not going to come from the actual wrongdoers, you know, the people who actually committed these offenses - although there have been some criminal indictments in the previous Libor case, so we can't say that nobody's going to go to jail, because it is possible that that could happen. There could be a few low-level players who will get rolled up in this thing.

AMY GOODMAN: Because the non-prosecution agreement was voided because they did it again?

MATT TAIBBI: Yes, but even in the Libor case, there were people from other banks. Rabobank, there were a couple of employees who got - who were criminally indicted, if I remember correctly. But it was nothing like the roundup that should have happened. I'm just saying that there were a few individuals who got caught up here and abroad. But by and large, you know, that quote is absolutely correct.

There are a couple of points that are really important here. First, after 2008, we made the system far more concentrated. We made the too-big-to-fail banks much bigger than before. We actually did this intentionally. We used taxpayer money to merge banks together, to make them bigger and more dangerous and harder to regulate. And we saw, with episodes like the London Whale episode, that massive losses can happen in the blink of an eye, and we will have no idea when it's coming. And so, this kind of activity - we've definitely made the system riskier, harder to regulate. And all those things are certainly true, and Dodd-Frank has failed to address those.

AMY GOODMAN: Matt Taibbi, we're going to break, and when we come back, you've written another piece called "Why Baltimore Blew Up," and we're going to take a look at this. You say it goes far beyond the police killing of Freddie Gray. Matt Taibbi, award-winning journalist with Rolling Stone magazine. His recent book is now out in paperback, The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap. Stay with us.

News Fri, 22 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Syrian War Set to Explode Again

The Syrian war stalemate appears to be over. The regional powers surrounding Syria - especially Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, and Jordan - have re-ignited their war against the Syrian government. After over 200,000 dead and millions of refugees, the US allies in the region recently re-committed to deepening the war, with incalculable consequences.

The new war pact was made between Obama's regional darlings, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, who agreed to step up deeper military cooperation and establish a joint command in the occupied Syrian region of Idlib.

Turkey and Saudi Arabia are now openly backing Islamic extremists under the newly rebranded "Conquest Army." The on-the-ground leadership of this "new" coalition consists of Jabhat al-Nusra - the "official" al-Qaeda affiliate - and Ahrar al-Sham, whose leader previously stated that his group was the "real al-Qaeda."

The Huffington Post reports:

"The Turkish-Saudi agreement has led to a new joint command center in the northeastern Syrian province of Idlib. There, a coalition of groups - including Nusra and other Islamist brigades such as Ahrar al-Sham that Washington views as extremist - are progressively eroding Assad's front. The rebel coalition also includes more moderate elements of the Free Syrian Army that have received US support in the past."

The article admits that the Free Syrian Army - that Obama previously labeled as "moderates" and gave cash and guns to - has been swallowed up by the extremist groups.

This dynamic has the potential to re-engulf the region in violence; deep Saudi pocketbooks combined with reports of looming Turkish ground forces are a catastrophe in the making.

Interestingly, the Saudi-Turkish alliance barely raised eyebrows in the US media. President Obama didn't think to comment on the subject, let alone condemn it.

The media was focused on an odd narrative of Obama reportedly being "concerned" about the alliance, but "disengaged" from what two of his close allies were doing in a region that the US has micromanaged for decades.

It seems especially odd for the media to accept that Obama has a "hands off" approach in Syria when at the same time the media is reporting about a new US program training Syrian rebels in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.

It's inconceivable that Obama would coordinate deeply with Turkey to set up a Syrian rebel training camp on Turkish soil, while at the same time be "disengaged" from the Turkish-Saudi war coalition in Syria.

One possible motive behind the fake narrative of "non-cooperation" between Obama and his Turkish-Saudi allies is that the US is supposed to be fighting a "war on terrorism."

So when Turkey and Saudi Arabia announce that they're closely coordinating with terrorists in Syria - like al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham - Obama needs an alibi to avoid being caught at the crime scene. He's not an accomplice, simply "disengaged."

This is likely the reason why Obama has insisted that his new "moderate" rebels being trained in Turkey will fight ISIS, not the Syrian government. But this claim too is ridiculous.

Is Obama really going to throw a couple hundred newly-trained "moderate" Syrian rebels at ISIS while his Turkish-Saudi allies focus all their fire on the Syrian Government? The question answers itself.

The media has made mention of this obvious conundrum, but never bothers to follow up, leaving Obama's lame narrative unchallenged. For example, the LA Times reports:

"The White House wants the [US trained rebel] proxy force to target Islamic State militants, while many of the Syrian rebels - and the four host nations [where Syrian rebels are being trained] - want to focus on ousting Syrian President Bashar Assad."

The article simply shrugs its shoulders at the irreconcilable. The article also fails to mention that Obama's "new" training camps aren't new at all; he's been arming and training Syrian rebels since at least 2012, the only difference being that the "new" training camps are supposedly meant to target ISIS, compared to the training camps that were openly used to target the Syrian government.

Here's the LA Times in 2013:

"The covert US training [of Syrian rebels] at bases in Jordan and Turkey began months before President Obama approved plans to begin directly arming the opposition to Syrian President Bashar Assad, according to US officials and rebel commanders."

This is media amnesia at its worse. Recent events can't be understood if the media doesn't place events in context. In practice this "forgetfulness" provides political cover to the Obama administration, shielding his longstanding direct role in the Syrian war, allowing him to pretend to a "passive," "hands off" approach.

When it was reported in 2012 that the Obama administration was funneling weapons to the Syrian rebels, the few media outlets that mentioned the story didn't bother to do any follow up. It simply fell into the media memory hole. After the weapons funneling report came out, Obama incredulously stated that he was only supplying "non lethal" support to the rebels, and the media printed his words unchallenged.

Consequently, there was no public discussion about the consequences of the US partaking in a multi-nation proxy war against Syria, a country that borders war ravaged Iraq.

In 2013 when Obama announced that he would be bombing the Syrian government in response to a supposed gas attack, the US media asked for no evidence of the allegation, and strove to buttress Obama's argument for aggression.

And when Pulitzer Prize winner Seymour Hersh wrote an article exposing Obama's lies over the aborted bombing mission, the article didn't see the light of day in the US media. Critically thoughtful voices were not welcome. They remain unwelcome.

In 2015 direct US military intervention in Syria remains a real possibility. All the conditions that led to Obama's decision to bomb Syria in 2013 remain in place.

In fact, a US intervention is even more likely now that Turkey and Saudi Arabia are fighting openly against the Syrian government, since the Saudi-Turkish alliance might find itself in a key battle that demands the special assistance that only the US air force can offer.

Unsurprisingly, there has been renewed discussion of a US enforced "no fly zone" in Syria. ISIS doesn't have an air force, so a no fly zone would be undeniably aimed at the Syrian government to destroy its air force. The new debate over a "no fly zone" is happening at the same time as a barrage of new allegations of "chemical weapons" use are being made against the Syrian government.

If a no fly zone is eventually declared by the Obama Administration it will be promoted as a "humanitarian intervention, that strives to create a "humanitarian corridor" to "protect civilians" - the same rhetoric that was used for a massive US-led NATO bombing campaign in Libya that destroyed the country and continues to create a massive refugee crisis.

As the Syrian war creates fresh atrocities the Obama administration will be pressured to openly support his Saudi-Turkish allies, just as he came out into the open in 2013 when he nearly bombed the Syrian government.

History is repeating itself. But this time the stakes are higher: the region has already been destabilized with the wars in Iraq, Libya, and Syria, and the regional conflicts have sharpened between US allies on one hand, and Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Russia on the other.

Such a volatile dynamic demands a media willing to explain the significance of these events. The truth is that Obama has been a proxy war president that has torn apart the Middle East as badly as his predecessor did, and if the US public remains uninformed about developing events, an even larger regional war is inevitable.

News Fri, 22 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Body Cameras Are Not Pointed at the Police; They're Pointed at You

A body camera, described by Mayor Bill de Blasio as light and easy to use, is displayed during a news conference in New York, Dec. 3, 2014. With communities across the nation wrestling with questions about police conduct, de Blasio said the New York Police Department was accelerating its efforts to eventually outfit nearly every patrol officer on the force with body cameras. (Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times) A body camera, described by Mayor Bill de Blasio as light and easy to use, is displayed during a news conference in New York, December 3, 2014. With communities across the nation wrestling with questions about police conduct, de Blasio said the New York Police Department was accelerating its efforts to eventually outfit nearly every patrol officer on the force with body cameras. (Photo: Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times)

Civil rights advocates say body cameras are no substitute for comprehensive police reform, and could even threaten civil liberties if proper safeguards are not in place.

A body camera, described by Mayor Bill de Blasio as light and easy to use, is displayed during a news conference in New York, Dec. 3, 2014. With communities across the nation wrestling with questions about police conduct, de Blasio said the New York Police Department was accelerating its efforts to eventually outfit nearly every patrol officer on the force with body cameras. (Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times) A body camera, described by Mayor Bill de Blasio as light and easy to use, is displayed during a news conference in New York, December 3, 2014. With communities across the nation wrestling with questions about police conduct, de Blasio said the New York Police Department was accelerating its efforts to eventually outfit nearly every patrol officer on the force with body cameras. (Photo: Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times)

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Something unusual happened during a Senate subcommittee hearing on Tuesday - the committee reached a consensus, at least informally. Although they admitted that there is no "silver bullet" for restoring the public's faith in law enforcement in the wake of several high-profile cases involving killer cops, lawmakers from both parties, along with every witness called in to testify, agreed that police officers across the country should wear body cameras.

"If you could get the right protocols to protect privacy and make sure the officer is using the camera in an appropriate manner, do you think it's best for the nation to go down this road?" Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) asked Wade Henderson, CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a broad coalition of civil rights groups that have drawn up guidelines for body camera deployment.

"Without question, I think it's absolutely essential," Henderson replied.

"Does everybody agree with that? If you don't, speak up," Graham said. The room was silent.

Polls indicate that the vast majority of the public agrees, as well. The highly publicized deaths of one unarmed Black man after another at the hands of police have given body cameras serious political momentum.

A 2012 survey found that 25 percent of departments are already using body cameras, and about 80 percent are actively evaluating the technology, and those numbers have probably increased in recent months as Congress and the Obama administration announced millions of dollars in funding for equipment and training. Body cameras, it turns out, tend to be popular among cops and their supervisors.

Henderson and other civil rights advocates, however, warn that body cameras alone will not solve the problem of racist and violent policing. Without the right policies and safeguards in place, body cameras could even make those problems worse.

"There is a real risk that these devices could become instruments of injustice instead of tools of accountability," Henderson told the committee.

No Substitute for Real Reform

Malkia Cyril, a prominent civil rights activist and director of the Center for Media Justice, said body cameras are no substitute for the kind of comprehensive reforms needed to curb police violence and hold cops accountable.

"Police body cameras are an unproven technology to collect evidence," Cyril said in an email to Truthout. "But this technology can't be relied upon to ensure police accountability that we, as a nation, have failed to implement."

Cyril said the focus should be on strategies to demilitarize police forces, fund education and employment programs in communities excluded by racial discrimination, and protect people from government surveillance, which could increase as body cameras are adopted on a mass scale, especially in communities of color, where police already have a heavy presence. Body cameras are pointed at the public, not the police, and could easily become another tool for surveillance.

With body cameras being rolled out across the country, Cyril said, every state must pass a "right to record" law to affirm the public's right to film the police on their own without facing harassment and the threat of arrest.

"It's bystander and civilian video, along with popular uprisings, that brought the issue of police brutality and murder to the national stage - not police body cameras," Cyril said.

Studies on local police departments have shown that the number of complaints against police officers and use-of-force incidents dropped after officers were outfitted with body cameras, and advocates agree both police and the people they interact with tend to behave better when the camera is rolling. Even law enforcement officials, however, say that body cameras alone will not mend community relations or prevent violence.

"Law enforcement agencies across this country are in desperate need [of] cultural diversity, use of force and de-escalation training," said Jarrod Bruder of the South Carolina Sheriff's Association, who called on Congress to increase funding for such programs. "Advanced training, not just basic training, is absolutely critical in our efforts to provide public safety."

Bruder said body cameras can increase protection for police officers and the public, but policy makers should not put "too much trust" in the technology. It cannot "magically" prevent tragic situations like the death of Walter Scott, the unarmed Black man who was fatally shot in the back by a police officer in Charleston, South Carolina, after attempting to flee a routine traffic stop last month.

Police representatives like Bruder often request money for more training because it points the finger of accountability at lawmakers and the taxpayer, instead of at the police, who can often dodge taking responsibility for their own actions.

"On the one hand, training is a critical component of any job. On the other hand, cultural sensitivity training is counteracted by the failure of law enforcement to hold its officers accountable," Cyril said. "As a result, the first and most important step we can take to decrease police violence is demilitarize law enforcement."

Who Is Under Surveillance?

Sen. Tim Scott, a Republican from Charleston who has championed body cameras since Walter Scott's death, requested Tuesday's Senate hearing on body cameras. (The senator is not related to Walter Scott.) A video of the shooting taken by a bystander drew national attention to the issue, and officer Michael Slager was later charged in Scott's death.

In his testimony, Senator Scott said that body cameras can "rebuild trust and construct brighter futures in many communities," but agreed with advocates that putting cameras on cops is just one of many steps that must be taken to tackle poverty, criminal justice reform and police brutality. Scott and other lawmakers also made it clear that they only want to assist those law enforcement agencies interested in body cameras and would not make adoption of the technology mandatory.

Henderson, however, pointed out that it was bystanders, not police with body cameras, who recorded the tragic encounters that lead to the deaths of men like Walter Scott and Eric Garner.

"There is a temptation to create a false equivalence between these citizen-recorded videos and body-worn cameras operated by law enforcement," Henderson said. "I urge the committee not to give into this temptation, because body-worn cameras won't be operated by concerned citizens and won't be recording officers. They will instead be directed at members of the community."

Henderson said that body cameras would exacerbate the dramatic disparities in how different communities are policed, if the technology becomes a "multiuse surveillance tool" for law enforcement. He warned against using facial recognition and other biometric technologies, along with body cameras, which would give law enforcement unprecedented abilities to peer into heavily policed neighborhoods, where stationary surveillance cameras are already abundant.

"These cameras should be a tool of accountability for police officers - not a face or body scanner for everyone who walks by on the street," Henderson said.

There are currently no federal rules or guidelines for when police officers should turn cameras on and off, or for the handling and storage of footage after it is taken. Individual departments must grapple with questions of how to balance the need to protect personal privacy of those on video and grant the public access to evidence.

"We always want to make sure that people at their most vulnerable do not end up on YouTube," said Lindsey Miller, a researcher at the Police Executive Research Forum, a group that has studied body cameras.

Miller's organization recommends that cops be required, with limited exceptions, to turn the cameras on while responding to all calls for service and to keep them on during encounters with the public. The Forum also recommends that cops be required to ask crime victims for their consent before interviewing them on camera, and that they be allowed to turn the camera off when receiving information from confidential sources.

Henderson and civil rights advocates say they recognize that police departments must consider individual privacy concerns before making footage available to a wide audience, but that any footage of police using force should be made public soon after the incident. Footage should also be made available to anyone who was filmed and wishes to file a complaint, along with the family members of anyone whose death is related to events captured on tape.

State lawmakers in South Carolina are already moving to exempt footage from body cameras from Freedom of Information Act requests, leaving it up to police and those videotaped to decide if and when the footage is publically released. Henderson said he is "concerned" about such "unilateral declarations" that block access to police videos.

Officers should be prohibited from viewing videos before they file reports, for example, and the vast majority of interactions with the public should be recorded, with exceptions made for sensitive interactions such as attending to victims of domestic violence. Such polices should be developed in full view of the public, with input from advocates and the local community.

"Without the appropriate safeguards, we are at risk of compounding the very problems in policing we are trying to fix," Henderson said.

He added, however, that policies for body cameras are meaningless if racial profiling and excessive use of force are not prohibited in the first place.

Research on body cameras suggest that body camera footage provides learning opportunities for officers and can be used during training, but some civil rights activists doubt that providing police departments with millions of dollars in new resources will do anything to curb excessive policing. In fact, it may have the opposite effect.

"You can't train law enforcement to treat communities with respect, then arm them as if they are at war with an enemy combatant," Cyril told Truthout. "That just doesn't work."

News Sun, 24 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400