Truthout Stories http://www.truth-out.org Sun, 19 Apr 2015 11:46:43 -0400 en-gb The War on (Poor) Women http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/30292-the-war-on-poor-women http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/30292-the-war-on-poor-women

Woman silhouette(Image: Woman silhouette via Shutterstock)

The use of women’s sexuality to diminish their place in the public sphere through restricted access to reproductive healthcare has rightly been called a war on women.  Notoriously, former Missouri representative Todd Akin, during his unsuccessful 2012 U.S. Senate campaign, explained his opposition to abortion in cases of rape by saying, “if it’s legitimate rape, the female body has ways to shut that whole thing down.”

More recently, possible 2016 Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee endorsed his party’s opposition to insurance coverage for contraception as reflective of its certainty that women “can control their libidos.”

Importantly, the legislative consequences of such sentiments amount not only to a war on women generally but, cumulatively, to a war on poor women specifically. This expresses itself in two related ways. First, many of the obstacles that now impede access to abortion make it more expensive, which disproportionately affects women of lesser financial means. Second, statewide campaigns to ostensibly end abortion have led to the closure of numerous women’s health centers, a primary source of care for poor women.

A signal achievement of Second Wave Feminism was the extension to poorer women of greater access to a full range of healthcare, frequently with the assistance of federal and state financial support. Across the country, women’s health centers have met a critical need for low-income patients in the arena of reproductive health.  But as in so many other areas of social policy in recent years, dwindling political support for public programs is felt most acutely by those most in need.

Since 2011, state legislatures across the country, especially in middle and southern states, have enacted a combined 231 restrictions on abortion and the facilities that provide them, even though abortions actually constitute a small percentage of the health services offered at women’s clinics ( only 3 percent at Planned Parenthood).  Rather, care mostly involves pregnancy prevention, testing for sexually transmitted diseases, annual gynecological exams, and cancer screenings. For many poor women, these clinics provide their only means to obtain such medical treatment. Lack of reproductive healthcare for these women has become yet another cost of poverty in an unequal nation where the have-nots continue to expand.

These various state laws include mandatory counseling and/or waiting periods prior to an abortion; restrictions or outright bans on insurance coverage for abortions, including insurance acquired through the marketplace exchanges associated with the Affordable Care Act or through Medicaid; and what has become known as targeted regulation of abortion providers, or TRAP.

In the name of protecting women’s health, some TRAP laws require that abortion providers must have admitting privileges at a local hospital, which is not always granted, while others mandate that facilities that offer abortions meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers, despite the well-documented safety of abortion procedures in a clinic setting. All of this amounts to logistical and cost-prohibitive measures that frequently result in a women’s health center closing.

As a result of TRAP laws in Texas, the nation’s second most populous state, for example, the number of facilities that provide abortion has declined by half since late 2013.  And most recently in the Lone Star State the Senate, in a not-so-thinly-veiled attempt to shutter the remaining Planned Parenthood centers, has proposed to alter the distribution of funding for clinics that provide cancer screenings for low-income women.

Under the new system, the establishment of funding tiers would rank public entities at the top of potential recipients, followed by private clinics that offer cancer screenings as part of a comprehensive set of health services, and then private specialty clinics, such as Planned Parenthood, making it unlikely that any funds would remain to allocate to those facilities at the bottom of the list. The proposal also risks the loss to the state of $8.8 million in federal money to support the program, which constitutes about 75 percent of its funding. In other words, in an effort to shut down Planned Parenthood, Texas legislators have indicated a willingness to jeopardize the lives of low-income women.

Fewer women’s health clinics increases both the financial costs and the practical difficulties of accessing not only abortion but other healthcare services, particularly for women in rural areas.  As the geographic distance to a dwindling number of clinics grows, increased travel related expenses include overnight accommodations, additional childcare, and more un-paid time off work, all of which is in addition to the cost of the abortion procedure itself that, because of various state laws, may not be not covered by insurance.

These logistical complications also make obtaining other reproductive healthcare prohibitively expensive and impractical for many women.  Seventy-Nine percent of the patients seen at Planned Parenthood facilities across the country have incomes at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level.

The war on women, as enacted in the arena of reproductive politics, affects all women in its attempt to control women’s lives by controlling their bodies. While inconvenient and burdensome, however, financial barriers to health coverage are more easily borne by women of economic means. Meanwhile, poor women’s health has fallen victim to these policy decisions, not unlike many of those over the last three decades, that have exacerbated economic inequality. Ultimately, these policies further punish women for being poor.

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News Sun, 19 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Will BRICS Carbon Traders Bailout Bankers' Climate Strategy? http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/30290-will-brics-carbon-traders-bailout-bankers-climate-strategy http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/30290-will-brics-carbon-traders-bailout-bankers-climate-strategy

The hope for our collective survival in the face of a likely climate catastrophe has been vested in a combination of multilateral emissions rearrangements and national regulation. But the premise behind the core strategy must be debated.

Pirapora, Brazil.Pirapora, Brazil. (Photo: guilherme/Flickr)

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The hope for our collective survival in the face of a likely climate catastrophe has been vested in a combination of multilateral emissions rearrangements and national regulation. But the premise behind the core strategy—the 1997 Kyoto Protocol—must be debated. Assuming a degree of state subsidization and increasingly stringent caps on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, Kyoto posited that market-centric strategies such as emissions trading schemes and offsets can allocate costs and benefits appropriately so as to shift the burden of mitigation and carbon sequestration most efficiently. Current advocates of emissions trading still insist that this strategy will be effective once the largest new emitters in the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) bloc are integrated in world carbon markets.

As climate crisis looms ever larger on the horizon, the demise of the Kyoto Protocol’s binding emissions-cuts commitments on wealthier countries will in the near future compel from them a renewed effort to promote market-incentivized reductions. In spite of widely-acknowledged market failure in the emissions trade, especially in Europe, several “emerging markets,” especially the BRICS, have begun the process of setting up or expanding their carbon trading and offset strategies now that (since 2012) they no longer qualify for Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) credits. The Kyoto Protocol had made provision for low-income countries to receive CDM funds for emissions reductions in specific projects, but the system was subject to repeated abuse.

Yet attempts to resurrect market strategies will become more visible as the next global-scale climate treaty takes shape in December 2015 at the Paris summit of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Most notably, that 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) is anticipated to remove the critical “Common but Differentiated Responsibility” clause that traditionally separated national units of analysis by per capita wealth.

The COP21 appears to already have been forestalled in late 2014 by the climate agreement between Xi Jinping and Barack Obama, representing the two largest absolute GHG emitters. That deal ensures world catastrophe, for in it China only begins to reduce emissions in 2030 and the U.S. commitment (easily reversed by post-Obama presidents) is merely to reduce emissions by 15% from 1990 levels by 2025. The BRICS bloc’s role in forging inadequate global climate policy of this sort dates to the 2009 Copenhagen Accord at the COP15 when a side-deal between Obama and four of the five BRICS’ leaders derailed the much more ambitious UNFCCC.

The failure of the carbon markets to date, especially the 2008-14 price crash which at one point reached 90% from peak to trough, does not prevent another major effort by states to subsidize the bankers’ solution to climate crisis. The indicators of this strategy’s durability already include commodification of nearly everything that can be seen as a carbon sink, especially forests but also agricultural land and even the ocean’s capacity to sequester carbon dioxide (CO2) for photosynthesis via algae. The financialization of nature is proceeding rapidly, bringing with it all manner of contradictions.

Due to internecine competition-in-laxity between COP negotiators influenced by national fossil fuel industries, the UN summits appear unable to either cap or regulate GHG pollution at its source, or jump-start the emissions trade in which so much hope is placed. European and United Nations turnover plummeted from a peak of $140 billion in 2008 to $130 billion in 2011, $84 billion in 2012, and $53 billion in 2013 even as new carbon markets began popping up. But after dipping to below $50 billion in 2014, volume on the global market is predicted by industry experts to recover to $77 billion (worth 8 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalents) in 2015 thanks to higher European prices and increased U.S. coverage of emissions, extending to transport fuels and natural gas.

However, geographically extreme uneven development characterizes the markets in part because of the different regulatory regimes. Since 2013 there have been new markets introduced in California, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Quebec, Korea and China, while Australia’s 2012 scheme was discontinued in 2014 due to the conservative government’s opposition. The price per tonne of carbon also differs markedly, with early 2015 rates still at best only a third of the 2006 European Union peak: California around $12, Korea around $9, Europe around $7.3, China at $3-7 in different cities, the U.S. northeast Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative’s voluntary scheme at $5, New Zealand at $4 and Kazakhstan at $2. The market for CDMs collapsed nearly entirely to US$0.20/tonne.

These low prices indicate several problems.

  • First, extremely large system gluts continue: 2 billion tonnes in the EU, for example, in spite of a new “Market Stability Reserve” backstopping plan that aimed to draw out 800 million tonnes.
  • Second, the new markets suffer from such unfamiliarity with trading in such an ethereal product, emissions, that volume has slowed to a tiny fraction of what had been anticipated (such as in China and Korea).
  • Third, fraud continues to be identified in various carbon markets, as can be witnessed at the Carbon Market Watch This is, increasingly, a debilitating problem in the timber and forest-related schemes that were meant to sequester large volumes of carbon.
  • Fourth, resistance continues to rise to carbon trading and offsets in Latin America, Africa and Asia, where movements against reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD) are linking up (as the REDD Monitor website documents).

As a result, the introduction of market incentives to make marginal changes to emissions is simply not working: the cost of switching from coal to renewable energy remains in the range of $50/tonne, in contrast to the prevailing price on carbon.

An overriding danger has arisen that may cancel the deterrents to carbon trading: the international financial system has overextended itself yet again, perhaps most spectacularly with derivatives and other speculative instruments. It needs new outlets for funds. The rise of non-bank lenders doing “shadow banking,” for example, was by 2013 estimated to account for a quarter of assets in the world financial system, $71 trillion, a rise of three times from a decade earlier, with China’s shadow assets increasing by 42% in 2012 alone. The Economist last year acknowledged that “potentially explosive” emerging-market shadow banking “certainly has the credentials to be a global bogeyman. It is huge, fast-growing in certain forms and little understood.” As for the straight credit market, the main result of Quantitative Easing policies was renewed bubbling, with $57 trillion in debt added to the global aggregate from 2007-14, of which $25 trillion was state debt. By mid-2014 the total world debt of $200 trillion had reached 286 percent of global GDP, an increase from 269% in late 2007.

Global financial regulation appears impossible given the prevailing balance of forces, witnessed in failures at the 2002 Monterrey Financing for Development initiative and various G20 summits after 2008. As a result, the BRICS are especially important sites to track ebbs and flows of financial capital in relation to climate-related investments, what with so many expansive claims made about their counter-hegemonic character. In reality, in relation to both world financial markets and climate policy, the BRICS are not anti-imperialist but instead subimperialist.

The first-round routing of CDM funding went disproportionately to China, India, Brazil and South Africa from 2005 until 2012, but by then the price of CDM credits had sunk so low there was little point in any case. Moreover, according to Carbon Market Watch, “The environmental integrity of the other Kyoto offsetting mechanism Joint Implementation is even more questionable with over 90% of offsets issued by Russia and Ukraine with very limited transparency and no international oversight.”

As Naomi Klein pointed out in This Changes Everything, gaming the CDM became a profitable sport: “The most embarrassing controversy for defenders of this model involves coolant factories in India and China that emit the highly potent greenhouse gas HFC-23 as a by-product. By installing relatively inexpensive equipment to destroy the gas (with a plasma torch, for example) rather than venting it into the air, these factories— most of which produce gases used for air-conditioning and refrigeration—have generated tens of millions of dollars in emission credits every year.”

Similar problems of system integrity plague the carbon markets that have opened in China, according to a recent Carbon Tax Center report: “Authorities face high hurdles in program design, information provision and political acceptability if the eventual national program is to put an effective ‘price on carbon’ and actually constrain and reduce emissions.” China’s seven pilot projects launched in 2014 ostensibly cover 700 million tons of CO2 emissions (worth $135 million in deals last year), and when a national market emerges in 2020, there are estimates of a $3.5 trillion market. However, recall the frequent estimates of a $3 trillion global carbon market by 2020, and even one (from the lead Merrill Lynch trader) of $30 trillion (reported in the New York Times).

Within China, there is growing unease with carbon markets and at the Chinese Academy of Marxism, for example, Yu Bin’s essay on ‘Two forms of the New Imperialism,” argues that along with intellectual property, the commodification of emissions is vital to understanding the way capital has emerged under conditions of global crisis.

Regardless, an even greater speculative bubble in carbon finance can be anticipated in the next few years, as more BRICS establish carbon markets and offsets as strategies to deal with their prolific emissions. In South Africa, neither the 2011 National Climate Change Response White Paper nor a 2013 Treasury carbon tax proposal endorsed carbon trading, in part because of the oligopoly purchasing conditions anticipated as a result of two vast emitters far ahead of the others: the state electricity company Eskom and the former parastatal Sasol which squeezes coal and natural gas to make liquid petroleum at the world’s single largest emissions point source, at Secunda near Johannesburg. But by April 2014 carbon trading was back on the official policy agenda, thanks to the British High Commissioner whose consultants colluded with the Johannesburg Stock Exchange to issue celebratory statements about “market readiness.”

With all of South Africa’s carbon-intensive infrastructure under construction, the official Copenhagen voluntary promise by President Jacob Zuma—cutting GHG emissions to a “trajectory that peaks at 34% below a business as usual trajectory in 2020”—appear to be impossible to uphold, just four years after it was made. The state signaled its reluctance to impose limits on pollution in February 2015, when Environment Minister Edna Molewa gave Eskom, Sasol and other major polluters official permission to continue their current trajectories for another five years, ignoring Clean Air Act regulations on emissions of co-pollutants such as SO2 and NO2.

Other BRICS countries have similar power configurations, and in Russia’s case it led to a formal withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol’s second commitment period (2012-2020) in spite of huge “hot air” benefits the country would have earned in carbon markets (for not emitting at 1990 levels) as a result of the industrial economy’s deindustrialization due to its exposure to world capitalism during the early 1990s. That economic crash cut Russian emissions far below 1990 Soviet Union levels during the first (2005-2012) commitment period. But given the 2008-13 crash of carbon markets—where the hot air benefits would have earlier been realised as €33/tonne “Joint Implementation” benefits (but by early 2013 fell to below €4/tonne)—Moscow’s calculation shifted away from the Kyoto Protocol, so as to promote its own oil and gas industries without limitation.

Binding emissions cuts were not in Russia’s interests, no matter that 2010-11 climate-related droughts and wildfires raised the price of wheat to extreme levels and did tens of billions of dollars of damage. The same kinds of self-interested albeit short-termist calculations are being made in the other BRICS, although their leaders regularly demanded (justifiably) larger northern industrial country cuts thanks to the historical legacy of carbon emissions.

The attraction of carbon trading in the new markets, no matter its failure in the old, is logical when seen within a triple context: a longer-term capitalist crisis which has raised financial sector power within an ever-more frenetic and geographically ambitious system; the financial markets’ sophistication in establishing new routes for capital across space, through time, and into non-market spheres; and the mainstream ideological orientation to solving every market-related problem with a market solution, which even advocates of a Post-Washington Consensus and Keynesian economic policies share. Interestingly, even Paul Krugman had second thoughts, for after reading formerly pro-trading environmental economist William Nordhaus’ Climate Casino, he remarked, “The message I took from this book was that direct action to regulate emissions from electricity generation would be a surprisingly good substitute for carbon pricing.”

That U-turn is the sort of hard-nosed realism that will be needed to disprove Klein’s thesis that capitalist crisis and climate crisis are conjoined. Instead, however, financial markets continue to over-extend geographically as investment portfolios diversify into distant, risky areas and sectors. Global and national financial governance prove inadequate, leading to bloated and then busted asset values ranging from subprime housing mortgages to illegitimate emissions credits. No better examples can be found of the irrationality of capitalism’s spatio-temporal-ecological fix to climate crisis than a remark by Tory climate minister Greg Barker in 2010: “We want the City of London, with its unique expertise in innovative financial products, to lead the world and become the global hub for green growth finance. We need to put the sub-prime disaster behind us.”

As BRICS are already demonstrating, though, new disasters await, for both overaccumulated capitalism in general and for what will be, for the next few years at least, under-accumulating carbon markets.

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News Sun, 19 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Two Years After West, Texas, Fertilizer Plant Explosion, Are Workers Any Safer? New Report Says No http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/30289-two-years-after-west-texas-fertilizer-plant-explosion-are-workers-any-safer-new-report-says-no http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/30289-two-years-after-west-texas-fertilizer-plant-explosion-are-workers-any-safer-new-report-says-no

Much of West, Texas looked like a post-apocalyptic wasteland after the fertilizer explosion two years ago. But steps to prevent further disasters aren't being taken.Much of West, Texas looked like a post-apocalyptic wasteland after the fertilizer explosion two years ago. But steps to prevent further disasters aren't being taken. (Photo: A Name Like Shields Can Make You Defensive/Flickr)

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On April 17, 2013, a massive fire and explosion tore through the West Fertilizer plant in West, Texas, killing 15 people—including 10 volunteer firefighters—and injuring more than 200. Fueled by the 30 or so tons of explosive ammonium nitrate on site, the blast ripped through the wooden building and its flammable contents, destroying three nearby schools, a nursing home and devastating 37 city blocks. A federal government investigation into the disaster found enormous gaps in information made available to first responders and the community about the plant’s highly hazardous materials – information that could have prevented or reduced the loss of life, injuries and damage.

Two years after this catastrophe, the Center for Effective Government has taken a look at the disclosure practices around such hazardous chemicals—and found what’s required of these facilities to still be “inadequate and insufficient.”

In a report released this week, the Center for Effective Government, a non-partisan government watchdog, examined emergency response planning and reporting on chemicals required of plants like West Fertilizer under the federal Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986 (EPCRA)—enacted in response to the 1984 release of deadly methylisocyanate gas from the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India that killed thousands and injured many more—and the Clean Air Act. Instead of comprehensive and coordinated reporting and planning that could help prevent the loss of life and injuries, CEG found “a patchwork of laws and regulations that cover chemicals and are supposed to be safeguarding the public,” says CEG Open Government Policy program director Sean Moulton.

“There are gaps between these programs, and West Texas, really highlighted this,” says Moulton. “It’s very hard to know what information is where and how planning is rolled out. It’s very clear that responders in West, Texas didn’t know how to respond,” he says.

Absent information about hazards at the plant, volunteer firefighters arriving on the scene were unaware of that ammonium nitrate might be in the process of exploding. There was—and still is—nothing that would have compelled anyone to alert community residents or local government that schools, healthcare facilities, homes or businesses were located near a plant housing massive quantities of explosive materials. And under current laws and regulations, nothing required the West Fertilizer company to report its use and storage of ammonium nitrate to the EPA or authorities with whom it might develop an emergency response plan.

What the laws do—and what they don’t

Under EPCRA, facilities that use or store hazardous substances are supposed to provide information about what’s on site to a state agency that shares this information with a State Emergency Response Commission, which then sends it to what’s called a Local Emergency Planning Committee. It’s up to the local committee to develop an emergency response plan that is coordinated with local first responders. Meanwhile, the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments require companies that use any of 140 extremely dangerous chemicals to report this information to the EPA and develop a “risk management plan” to be used in case of an emergency. This plan is also supposed to be shared with local first responders.

What CEG found, however, is that much of this information-sharing never happens. In all but five states, no full inventory of hazardous chemicals is publicly available. Two states did not make any such information available: Nevada, which declined to provide CEG with information, and Texas, which never shares this information with the public.

Additional gaps in these and other federal and local laws mean that thousands of facilities storing billions of pounds of highly hazardous chemicals all around the country lack emergency response plans that are actually communicated to or coordinated with local authorities and first responders. And where response plans do exist, there’s no guarantee that these details are publicly accessible.

There is also nothing that requires a company like West Fertilizer that uses ammonium nitrate to report on the chemical or develop an emergency plan because ammonium nitrate is not included among the chemicals which the EPA requires reporting.

“The EPA still doesn’t have risk management plans on-line,” Moulton explains. “Many states also don’t have these on-line. Many cite security reasons for this,” he says. And says Moulton, “We can’t really say what’s going on with local emergency planning committees.” There’s no list of the committees, and the last time EPA surveyed them was in 2008, he explains.

The upshot are situations like West, Texas where first responders and plant neighbors have no advance information or plan in place in case of an emergency when a delay can make an already dangerous situation even more serious.

Whether it’s in the community or on the shop floor, making certain there’s a response system if something goes wrong is essential, says United Steelworkers assistant director for health and safety Jim Frederick. “Working without that is foolishness,” he says.

Need for improvement but little progress to date

Recognizing the need for improvement in the wake of the disaster, President Obama issued an Executive Order directing federal agencies—including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)—to work together to improve the safety of facilities like the West Fertilizer plant where hazardous chemicals are used and stored. The EPA also issued what’s called an advisory about ammonium nitrate and with OSHA has proposed measures to enhance its required risk management plans. According to an EPA spokesperson, the agency is now reviewing the nearly 100,000 public comments received on this proposal.

So has anything changed since the West, Texas disaster?

“Things have happened that have raised awareness of these important issues,” says Frederick. “But the flip side is that nothing has really transpired yet from the perspective of the workplace or perspective of the worker,” he says.

“It would be really important for EPA to finish their rule-making on both better reporting, more thoughtful disclosure and transparency and also efforts on taking steps to move toward inherently safer practices,” says Charlotte Brody, the BlueGreen Alliance’s vice president of health initiatives. “Good drafts have been written but there’s no sign of them being done,” says Brody. “We’re concerned that proposed rules will never turn into regulations,” she says.

Greenpeace’s legislative director Rick Hind takes an even harsher view. “The EPA is bringing foot dragging to an art form,” says Hind. He points out that the EPA’s current schedule for finalizing improvements to risk management planning and what’s called “process safety management” – what happens on a day-to-day basis on the shop floor to involve all employees in safe operating practices – risks running out the clock on the Obama administration.

“If you’re dealing with an inherently dangerous technology you’re susceptible,” says Hind alluding to disasters like West, Texas.

As Brody explains, simply knowing what hazardous substances are on site, where and how they’re being used—and recognizing the costs and time involved in making sure nothing dangerous happens—are the first steps toward considering moving to safer materials. But right now, as the Center for Effective Government report details, information on these hazards is poorly documented.

Labor unions and government watchdogs aren’t the only ones dogging this issue. In December, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held a hearing to review progress made since President Obama’s Executive Order. “In the 602 days since the West, Texas tragedy there have been 355 chemical accidents resulting in 79 deaths and 1500 hospitalizations,” said Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) opening the hearing. “Essentially,” said Boxer, since the West Fertilizer accident, there’s been a U.S. incident involving hazardous chemicals every other day. “This,” she said, “is absolutely outrageous.”

So not only are catastrophic chemical accidents continuing to occur—and with disturbing frequency—but, according to the CEG report, facilities that use hazardous materials, communities and emergency personnel are lacking the information they need to respond.

It may sound like a pesky civic detail, but says Moulton, “It’s very important, local response planning” and in the case of West, Texas, “they weren’t prepared.”

 “I don’t want to be talking to you when the next disaster hits and we’re saying, ‘I told you so.’ I’m not interested in, ‘I told you so,’” Brody says. “I want them to do it now.”

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News Sun, 19 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Did Slaves Catch Your Seafood? http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/30288-did-slaves-catch-your-seafood http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/30288-did-slaves-catch-your-seafood

A fishing boat off the coast of Thailand.A fishing boat off the coast of Thailand. (Photo: Chris Hoare/Flickr)

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A few years ago, a friend promised Asorasak Thama a job in the Thai fishing industry. The job offered good pay for a few weeks of work.

Instead, he wound up trapped at sea for a year, working in terrible conditions for no pay at all. Thama had become a slave.

Authorities rescued Thama and his crewmembers when they stopped the boat he was trapped on for fishing illegally in Indonesian waters. A few years later, however — after a stranger drugged him at a bar in southern Thailand — Thama found himself enslaved again.

When his boat came into shore to get a fishing license from Malaysia, he waited until the captain had had a few drinks, then punched him and fled.

Despite these terrible ordeals, Thama is one of the lucky ones — he escaped. Filmmaker Shannon Service will share Thama’s ordeal and long road back home in an upcoming documentary called The Ghost Fleet.

There’s no official data on how many men are enslaved on fishing boats in Thailand. The Thai government estimates that up to 300,000 people work in its fishing industry, 90 percent of whom are migrants — and therefore vulnerable to being duped, trafficked, and exploited.

These workers come to Thailand in hopes of earning money to support their families back home. But while they fill a major labor shortage in the country, they don’t enjoy the same protections as Thai workers, such as freedom of movement and association.

Migrants rely on a complex and murky network of brokers to help them find jobs — for a fee. The brokers sometimes lure workers with false promises of factory jobs, but instead sell them to ship captains as laborers.

Many wind up working in debt-bondage to pay off transport and work-permit fees. If the men are paid at all, it’s often much less than they’d been promised.

And the conditions are awful. Fishermen have reported working 20 hours or more at a stretch. The boats can stay at sea for years, since captains are reluctant to risk losing their workers by bringing them ashore.

Some captains give workers methamphetamines to keep them going, The Guardian reported last year. They survive on bits of fish they catch that cannot be sold.

Many die at sea. Some drown attempting to escape, while others are thrown overboard when they’re too sick to work.

It gets worse. A yearlong investigation by the Associated Press recently revealed dozens of fishermen held in cages on an island called Benjina in Indonesia. Some hadn’t communicated with their families for 10 years.

In all, it turned out, hundreds of other men were stranded on this island. Dozens lay buried in a crude graveyard nearby, roughly 3,000 miles from home.

The AP tracked the fish caught by the captives on Benjina to a Thai harbor, where it was then sent to various distribution points. From there it wound up with wholesalers like Stavis, which sells packaged fish that can make its way to supermarket shelves in the United States.

The AP followed the slave-caught fish to another distributor called Thai Union, which in turn sells to Wal-Mart, as well as to popular pet food brands like Fancy Feast, Meow Mix, and Iams.

What can you do?

By speaking out against companies profiting from exploitation — and choosing to buy more responsibly sourced products — consumers can change corporate practices. They’ve proved it in the past with other products, from chocolate made from child labor to tuna caught by nets that kill dolphins.

Asorasak Thama made it home, and the men on Benjina are on their way, too. But hundreds of thousands of others aren’t so lucky. It’s time for governments, companies, and consumers to stop turning a blind eye to slavery in the seafood sector.

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Opinion Sun, 19 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Will House Democrats #StandWithJan to Back the Iran Talks? http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/30286-will-house-democrats-standwithjan-to-back-the-iran-talks http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/30286-will-house-democrats-standwithjan-to-back-the-iran-talks

House Democrats will play a key role in whether the Obama administration can get a deal with Iran. Under the Corker-Cardin deal on the Corker congressional review legislation, if a third of the House or a third of the Senate were willing to sustain a presidential veto of congressional legislation against the deal, that would be sufficient to block Republican efforts to kill the deal.

Even if all House Republicans oppose the president if it comes to a vote (by no means guaranteed, but certainly plausible), that means roughly three-fourths of House Democrats supporting the president would be sufficient to protect the deal.

To be precise, there are 435 seats in the House, so a bloc of 435/3+1 = 146 House members would be sufficient to protect the deal. There are 188 Democrats in the House. So roughly three-fourths (78 percent) of House Democrats have to support the president to guarantee House protection of the deal. If no more than 42 House Democrats defect to the Republican side, the advocates of diplomacy are dancing in the street. But if 43 House Democrats defect to the Republican side, diplomacy advocates will have to start calling in chits with the Ron Paul people (the father, not the prodigal son.)

House Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is strongly backing the president on Iran diplomacy. But that's no guarantee that three-fourths of House Democrats will back the deal. For example, House Democrat Alan Grayson is attacking the negotiations by trying to introduce issues that are outside the scope of the talks and by trying to set an impossible "unicorns and ponies" standard for a "good deal."

So, what would be really useful right now would be a show of strength by House Democrats in support of diplomacy.

Fortunately, Illinois Democrat Rep. Jan Schakowsky (you may recall that she skipped Benjamin Netanyahu's anti-diplomacy speech to Congress) is circulating a letter to her colleagues in support of diplomacy. 

Wouldn't it be grand if we could get 146 House Democrats to sign the Schakowsky letter? You can weigh in online here; if you happen to be represented by a Democrat in the House, you can call them here.

Here is a video - made by a Grayson supporter - of Alan Grayson attacking the scope of the Iran talks at a fundraiser in Santa Monica.

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Opinion Sat, 18 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Fight for $15: Tens of Thousands Rally as Labor and Civil Rights Movements Join Forces http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/30284-fight-for-15-tens-of-thousands-rally-as-labor-and-civil-rights-movements-join-forces http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/30284-fight-for-15-tens-of-thousands-rally-as-labor-and-civil-rights-movements-join-forces

Low-wage workers in the United States have staged their largest action to date to demand a $15-an-hour minimum wage, with some 60,000 workers walking off the job in more than 200 cities. The "Fight for $15" campaign brought together fast-food workers, home-care aides, child-care providers, Wal-Mart clerks, adjunct professors, airport workers and other low-wage workers. Organizers say the action was held on Tax Day to highlight the taxpayer funds needed to support underpaid workers. A new study says low wages are forcing working families to rely on more than $150 billion in public assistance. We speak with Steven Greenhouse, former labor and workplace reporter for The New York Times, who has been covering the "Fight for $15" movement.

TRANSCRIPT:

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

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Low-wage workers in the United States have staged their largest action to date to demand a $15-an-hour minimum wage, with some 60,000 workers walking off the job in over 200 cities. Protesters in the Fight for $15 campaign include fast-food workers, home-care aides, child-care providers, Wal-Mart clerks, adjunct professors, airport workers and other low-wage workers. The Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, helped organize the campaign.

In Chicago, demonstrators held signs saying, "We are worth more!" while in New York dozens of protesters temporarily halted business at a McDonald's by staging a die-in, lying on the ground in front of the franchise. Several New York protesters carried signs saying, "We work hard" and "We see wage slavery." Protesters included Jemere Calhoun, who works at two McDonald's restaurants.

JEMERE CALHOUN: We're fighting for $15 and a union. We're fighting for a $15 minimum wage, because we feel that that's what we need, and that's what we deserve, and it's only humane. We're fighting for a union, because without a union, I mean, you know, it's tough to enforce these rules that these companies ignore or just simply just don't care about. You know, we need benefits. We need healthcare. We need sick days. We need maternity leaves. These things are really important to families.

AMY GOODMAN: Organizers say the action was held on Tax Day to highlight the public assistance needed to support underpaid workers. A new study says low wages are forcing working families to rely on more than $150 billion in public assistance. According to the University of California Center for Labor Research and Education, more than half of combined state and federal spending on public assistance goes to working families. President Obama has been pushing to raise the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 to $10.10. On the state level, Colorado, Maine, California, Oregon and Washington are all considering increasing their minimum wage to $12 an hour. Meanwhile, the Center for Economic and [Policy] Research says the minimum wage would be more than $18 an hour if it had risen as fast as productivity since 1968.

For more, we're joined by Steven Greenhouse, former labor and workplace reporter for The New York Times. He has been covering the Fight for $15 movement extensively. On Wednesday, he co-wrote a piece for The Guardian called "Fight for $15 swells into largest protest by low-wage workers in US history." He's also author of The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Steven Greenhouse.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Nice to be here, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the significance of what's being described as the largest low-wage protest in US history.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: So this began in November 2012 as a one-day affair in New York with 200 strikers at like 30 restaurants. It was a small acorn. And, you know, lo and behold, it's really grown into a fairly mighty oak - you know, over 200 cities, support actions in over 30 countries, 60,000 workers.

And it's really put several things into the national discussion - one, the whole issue of low-wage workers and the difficulties it takes to live on $7.25 or $8.00 an hour. And second, it's really kind of changed - also changed the conversation from not about whether we're just concerned about a minimum wage, but really establish a living wage. And it's really brought into question, you know, whether even the $10.10 an hour that President Obama is pushing begins to be adequate.

And we've even seen some companies - McDonald's, Wal-Mart, Target - raise their wages. And a lot of people say that's the result partly of these pressure campaigns, also because of a tightening labor market. But at the same time they're saying they'd like to see Wal-Mart, McDonald's, Target go up to $15, which is a big leap.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what are some of the groups that have been involved in making the movement so large?

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: So, like here in New York, there's a group, New York Communities for Change, which is a group representing many African Americans, Hispanics, poor people, and they've worked very closely with the Service Employees International Union. In this protest yesterday, what was new is they started working very closely with civil rights groups around the country, with Black Lives Matter. And labor unions, in general, are very involved. The Service Employees union has spent millions of dollars really getting this going, hiring organizers, and it's really created a movement that, you know, people around the country are saying there's something new here. This is not just, you know, workers at a few restaurants. It's really this movement of fast-food workers, Wal-Mart workers, janitors, home-care aides. And politicians are really starting to pay lots of attention.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about this convergence of the different movements, as you're describing - Black Lives Matter, the immigrants' rights movement, Occupy before it. Go back to 1968, right? Dr. Martin Luther King died trying to organize the Poor People's Campaign. Talk about this trajectory.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: So, I went to Atlanta a few weeks ago to do a story for the Times about how they were very deliberately trying to combine this movement of the fast-food workers, the Fight for $15 movement, with the civil rights movement to show that it's not just, you know, trying to raise pay a few dollars an hour, but it's an economic justice and social justice movement. And the meeting was held in the reverend - you know, Reverend King's former church, Ebenezer Baptist Church, and it was very moving. And a lot of the language they're using or rhetoric they're using really comes out of the civil rights movement, that - you know, "I am a man," "We want dignity," "$7.25 isn't enough to support our families." And it's really snowballing.

And one big change I've seen since I started covering this in November 2012 is just many, many people - you know, we often think of low-wage workers are like scared to stick their heads above the parapet because they're going to fired or they're going to get in trouble, and many of them are immigrants worried that bad things will happen to them. People are usually emboldened. You know, now when I go interview a lot of these workers, they're happy to give me their names. And usually when you interview workers, they're very scared to.

AMY GOODMAN: A hundred fifty billion dollars, public assistance, that goes to working families? Explain the significance of this, something that I think people across the country identify with, that regular working people and poor working people are supporting these large corporations like Wal-Mart and McDonald's by having to pay public assistance to their workers.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: There's this notion that everyone who receives public assistance is a chisler, isn't working, isn't sitting on their hands, isn't going to look for a job. But this study out of Berkeley found that three-quarters of the money, nationwide - three-quarters of the money nationwide spent on public assistance, whether food stamps, Medicaid, goes to people with - goes to families who have at least one person working. And the study found that this is an indirect subsidy to companies like Wendy's and Burger King and McDonald's and Taco Bell and Wal-Mart and Target, which often pay $7.25, $8, $9 an hour. And it's very, very hard to raise yourself, no less two or three kids, if you're earning that much. And, you know, I think one of the points of the study is that it really raises the question: Should taxpayers be subsidizing the Wal-Marts and McDonald's? And Wal-Mart and McDonald's respond that, "Well, thanks to - thanks in part to our lower low wages, we're able to give consumers low-cost products."

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And they also make the argument, of course, that if they paid higher wages, they would employ less people.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Yes. I mean, you know, as many of your guests have said on this show, many, many economic studies show that a modest increase in the minimum wage will have very little effect on jobs. You know, jumping - there really haven't been studies about the -

AMY GOODMAN: Or they'll charge more - or they'll charge more for burgers.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Or they'll charge some - well, if you raise pay to $15 an hour, they're going to charge more for burgers. That's - I mean, yeah, but even liberal economists like Jared Bernstein say that, you know, there haven't been studies about the job effects of going from a $7.25 federal minimum wage to $15. You know, that could really speed up automation. We could see some McDonald's cashiers replaced with kiosks and -

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of McDonald's, McDonald's just announced that they're going to increase the minimum wage - but explain the little twist here - to the nonfranchise workers. Franchises employ 90 percent of McDonald's workers. It won't go to them?

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Right. See, McDonald's on April 1st trumpeted this, quote-unquote, "big announcement" that it's raising wages to about $9 an hour - you know, raising wages by about 89 cents, on average around 10 percent, for its workers, from around $8 an hour to around $9 an hour, roughly. But that's only for the workers at company-owned restaurants, which - and that's only about 11 percent of all the workers at McDonald's restaurants in the US The other 89 percent work for franchisee, franchise-run restaurants. So, one of the weird things is McDonald's said, "Look, we're doing this great thing to help workers," but many workers in the franchise restaurants got really pissed off, and I think it really jazzed them up. And as a result, a lot more participated in yesterday's protest than people were expecting.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: How likely do you think it is, to the extent that you can speculate, that $15 is a realistic goal? And also, if you could talk a little bit about what the impact of this movement is likely to be on the 2016 presidential race?

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: So, when this started - you know, this movement started in November 2012 - I think many, many, many people said, "$15, that's just a crazy, crazily ambitious number." But then we've seen, you know, SeaTac approve $15, and Seattle has approved a $15 minimum wage, and Washington state talks about perhaps going to a $15 statewide minimum wage. And San Francisco has a $15 minimum wage. And Chicago, with a centrist mayor, has adopted a $13 minimum wage. So the discussion about what's a achievable wage has really changed. But $15 is a very ambitious goal, in my view. You know, typical wages in fast food now are about $8.80, $9 an hour, and we're really talking about a two-thirds increase. That's a lot. And my sense is if the movement could get $12 or $13, they'd be pretty darn happy. They still - you know, it's hard to know whether $15 is really, really the goal, or it's kind of a bargaining position to aim for $12 or $13.

And the explosion in the streets yesterday, I think, is putting pressure on the candidates, Democrat and Republican, to take a stand on the minimum wage. Certainly, Hillary, as the lone Democratic candidate, will be pushed to embrace, somehow support the campaign, maybe support a minimum wage of higher than $10.10 an hour. The Republicans, you know, uniformly oppose a higher minimum wage. But I think, as this movement builds, it's going to increase pressure on them. You know, so Marco Rubio said, "I don't want wages of $10.10 an hour. I want people to be paid $30 an hour." That's kind of dodging the issue. I think this movement is going to really press the Republicans to take a firm stand on what they want to do on the minimum wage.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have 30 seconds. I want to jump to what our next subject is, TPP. You just interviewed Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO, and Trumka told you he's no fan of the TPP. Explain.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: So, he could talk about that for half an hour [inaudible]. So, he says the agreement is too secretive. It's not going to do much to help labor rights. It says - he says it'll be too much like NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, that it's going to increase imports from overseas, it's going to take away jobs from Americans, and that, he says, basically is part of a corporate agenda that's going to help big corporations and not do much for American workers, perhaps hurt them.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Steven Greenhouse, we want to thank you for being with us, former labor and workplace reporter for The New York Times. He's been covering the Fight for $15 movement extensively. On Wednesday, he co-wrote a piece in The Guardian, "Fight for $15 swells into largest protest by low-wage workers in US history." We'll link to that article at democracynow.org. His book is called The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker. And next up, we will talk about the TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, with Lori Wallach and Florida Congressmember Alan Grayson. Stay with us.

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News Fri, 17 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
"A Corporate Trojan Horse": Critics Decry Secretive TPP Deal as a Threat to Democracy http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/30283-a-corporate-trojan-horse-critics-decry-secretive-tpp-deal-as-a-threat-to-democracy http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/30283-a-corporate-trojan-horse-critics-decry-secretive-tpp-deal-as-a-threat-to-democracy

Senate Finance Committee leaders Republican Orrin Hatch and Democrat Ron Wyden are expected to introduce a "fast-track" trade promotion authority bill as early as this week that would give the president authority to negotiate the secretive Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and then present it to Congress for a yes-or-no vote, with no amendments allowed. On Wednesday, more than 1,000 labor union members rallied on Capitol Hill to call on Democrats to oppose "fast-track" authority. We speak with two people closely following the proposed legislation: Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, and Rep. Alan Grayson, a Democrat from Florida.

TRANSCRIPT:

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

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to the pending vote in Congress on the secretive Trans-Pacific Partnership, a global trade deal currently being negotiated between the United States and 11 Latin American and Asian countries. Senate Finance Committee leaders Republican Orrin Hatch and Democrat Ron Wyden are expected to introduce a fast-track trade promotion authority bill as early as this week that would give the president authority to negotiate the TPP trade deal and then present it to Congress for a yes-or-no vote, with no amendments allowed. The bill would need 60 votes to pass the full Senate. Republicans control 54 votes, and almost all are expected to vote for the measure.

On Wednesday, more than a thousand labor union members rallied outside the US Capitol to call on Democrats to oppose fast-track authority. They were joined by several members of Congress. This is Independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: What this is about is not just trade. It is about whether this United States Congress begins to work for the middle class and working families of this country or whether it is totally owned by billionaires and their lobbyists.

AMY GOODMAN: That's Independent Senator Bernie Sanders. We'll let you know if he actually officially announces that he's running for president.

For more on the brewing battle in Congress over the Trans-Pacific Partnership and fast-track authority in Congress, we're joined by two guests. Lori Wallach is with us, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch. And Congressmember Alan Grayson is with us, a Democrat from Florida.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Lori Wallach, let's just begin with you. We have been following the whole issue of both fast track and TPP, but for those who are not familiar with it - perhaps that's why bills like this go the way they go - explain briefly why the Trans-Pacific Partnership is so significant.

LORI WALLACH: The Trans-Pacific Partnership would make it easier for corporations to offshore our jobs. It's based on the NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and the Korea Free Trade Agreement. It has the same provisions that give companies who offshore, who relocate their investments, special privileges and protections that make it cheaper and safer to move our jobs to low-wage countries. And TPP includes a lot of low-wage countries, which means our wages will get pushed down, when Americans are made to compete, for instance, with workers in Vietnam who are making less than 60 cents an hour.

In addition, TPP would open to 9,000 more corporations the right to drag the US government into investor-state corporate tribunals. Those are the extrajudicial tribunals where panels of three corporate attorneys would be empowered to rule on a claim brought directly against the US government by a foreign corporation claiming they should get compensation from our tax dollars for any domestic law they think violates their rights under the agreement, and they should get paid for their lost future profits for having to meet our laws.

In addition, provisions of the TPP - because most of it's not about trade; 29 chapters, only five about trade - chapters would undermine Internet freedom. The copyright chapter has pieces of SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, in it. The patent chapter would increase medicine prices. It gives big pharmaceutical companies extra monopolies. The financial services chapter would roll back financial regulation. The procurement chapter would undermine "Buy America," "Buy Local" preferences. Basically - the services chapter would undermine energy regulation and undermine the policies that we need to combat the climate crisis. Basically, the entire agenda that is necessary for a decent life and livelihood and health of America, and the people in the 11 other countries, is being rolled back in the name of a trade agreement that really is just a corporate Trojan horse tool negotiated for six years in secrecy.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Congressman Alan Grayson, could you explain your opposition to fast-track authority and what you're calling on your colleagues in Congress to do?

REP. ALAN GRAYSON: Well, I agree with everything that Lori just said, but I think there's also a bigger picture to consider. Our free trade, our so-called free trade, policies have been a disaster for the United States since NAFTA was enacted. Before NAFTA was enacted and went into effect 20 years ago, we never had any year in our history when we had a trade deficit of $135 billion or more. Every single year since then, for 20 years in a row, our trade deficit has been over $135 billion. Our last 14 trade deficits have been the 14 largest trade deficits not only in our history, but in the history of the entire world. And the result of that is that we've gone from $2 trillion in surplus with our trade to $11 trillion in debt. And we've lost five million manufacturing jobs and roughly 15 million other jobs in the last 20 years. So we've lost twice: We've lost the jobs, and we've also gone deeper and deeper into debt. So what's happening is not that we're buying goods and services from foreigners and they're buying an equal amount of goods and services from us - that's the way free trade is supposed to work. What's actually happening is that we're buying our goods and services from foreigners, and they are taking the money that we give to them for that and buying our assets.

That has all sorts of consequences for our economy. First we lose those jobs. Secondly, it makes American income and wealth more and more unequal. The reason why we have the fourth most unequal distribution of wealth in the world is because of fake trade. The reason why we have a bizarre, at this point unprecedented, quantitative easing policy, where the government uses the cash in our pockets to buy up assets and drive those asset prices up further and further, is because of fake trade. The reason why we have a federal deficit is because we have a trade deficit. And what happens is, the TPP, fast track, the Transatlantic version of TPP, these dramatically increase the amount of countries with whom we have this relationship - they quadruple them - and they put us on a fast track to hell, where America is nothing but cheap labor and debt slavery.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to President Obama speaking in February after he began the major push for Trans-Pacific Partnership.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This is bipartisan legislation that would protect American workers and promote American businesses, with strong new trade deals from Asia to Europe that aren't just free, but are fair. It would level the playing field for American workers. It would hold all countries to the same high labor and environmental standards to which we hold ourselves.

Now, I'm the first to admit that past trade deals haven't always lived up to the hype. And that's why we've successfully gone after countries that break the rules at our workers' expense. But that doesn't mean we should close ourselves off from new opportunities and sit on the sidelines while other countries write our future for us.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that's President Obama speaking in February. President Obama is, obviously, president of the United States, leading Democrat. Congressman Grayson, he represents your party, as well. Why the difference? Who are the blocs now that are united? We're not just talking it's Democrats here and Republicans here. What set of Republicans and Democrats agree on this?

REP. ALAN GRAYSON: Well, it's a mystery to me. You know, I was in the room when the president gave that statement and made that speech. He gave a 45-minute speech. On those three sentences, that was the only time during that entire speech when the Republicans rose up and applauded him and the Democrats did not. And I think that's very revealing. There are very, very few Democratic votes in the House of Representatives, because we represent ordinary working people. The groups that are lobbying the hardest for this are the multinational corporations and their K Street lobbyists. They're the ones who desperately want to see this passed, for the reasons that Lori Wallach just mentioned and enumerated. Ordinary Democrats represent constituencies who have been hurt hard, really hurt very hard, by the loss of those five million manufacturing jobs and 15 million other jobs. Go to any Democratic district in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, you'll see exactly what I'm talking about. And the fact is that there is very little support, if any significant support, within the Democratic House Caucus for fast track or for TPP. We do have a few corporate Democrats. Frankly, we do have a couple of sell-out Democrats, who have sold out to the corporate lobbyists. But the bulk of the Democratic Party well understands, along with the labor movement and ordinary people, that these policies have been disastrous for us. And it is a lie to say that they will improve the economy. In fact, they will continue the downward trend of the economy, until foreigners own everything.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Lori Wallach, I want to ask you about a comment that you made about President Obama's shift on this, since he voted in 2005 against the Central American Free Trade Agreement and subsequently explained his decision in the Chicago Tribune, what you referred to - his op-ed, that is - as his "Hamlet essay." Could you say why you called it that and what you think accounts for this transition of his on free trade?

LORI WALLACH: Well, I called it his Hamlet essay because it was on the one hand, on the other hand, to be or not to be. And he basically voted against the Central American NAFTA expansion, CAFTA, Central America Free Trade Agreement, probably mainly for political reasons. He would have been one of the very few Democrats who was for it. But the op-ed that he wrote in the Chicago Tribune basically laid out how much he wanted to be for the agreement. And I'm not sure it's so much a transition as he went from not feeling very strongly about these issues, but being surrounded by a lot of advisers who thought it was a great idea - NAFTA, CAFTA - the sort of few last unrequited NAFTA lovers in the Democratic Party. And unfortunately, those are precisely the people he brought in, as president, to be his international economic advisers. So, the Larry Summers, Mike Froman, who is the current trade ambassador, these guys, some of them, like Froman, a Wall Street revolving-door guy, some of them authors of NAFTA, so maybe a little cognitive dissonance about what it did - those guys have marinated him in NAFTA juice, and it's come, basically, to seep into his pores. And he now has become a guy who basically, but for maybe the Democratic Congress saving him - the Democrats in Congress - would basically ruin his own legacy by passing a trade agreement that would undermine everything he's achieved and everything he says he stands for. The good news, as Congressman Grayson said, is that there are only a handful of Democrats who are left who are either undecided or prepared to support fast track.

And so, for folks across the country, this is a vote that could happen by the end of April. We're talking quick. Every day that this debate gets aired, more and more people come out against. So, every person should find out where their member in the House of Representatives stands on fast track, and just ask them directly. Call the office over the weekend, your member of Congress's home. Look in the blue pages. Get the local address. Just stop by. A lot of them have office hours. And just ask, "Will you commit to me, your constituent, that you're going to hold onto your constitutional trade powers, not vote for fast track, which throws that away - it's a process that literally is a delegation of Congress's authority to stand up for us - and make sure we don't see more jobs offshored with trade agreements?" That is what we all have to do, and we have to do it now.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Lori, can you talk about the investment chapter of TPP, that was leaked by WikiLeaks, which highlights the intent of US-led negotiators to create a tribunal where corporations can sue governments if their laws interfere with a company's claimed future profits?

LORI WALLACH: So, this is the chapter that both creates the incentives that basically promote countries to offshore. Ironically, the Cato Institute is against this chapter because, from their perspective, it's an unfair market distortion giving a subsidy in favor of offshoring. They have no problem with offshoring; they just think the market should decide, we shouldn't use our trade agreements to promote job offshoring. So, the flipside of that is, and one of the special privileges the corporations would get is, they get elevated literally to nationhood. They get the same status as a nation state to privately enforce the terms of a public treaty. It's called investor-state dispute resolution. And if you want to learn a lot about it, go to www.isdscorporateattacks.org, isdscorporateattacks.org. It's a new website that has all of these cases where corporations are empowered to drag a sovereign government to a tribunal of three private-sector trade attorneys, who rotate between being the attorneys for the corporations suing the governments and being the "judges." No conflict-of-interest rules. And these three private corporate attorneys can order a government to pay our tax dollars, in unlimited amounts, to a foreign corporation because they think that our domestic environmental, land-use, zoning, health, labor laws violate their new corporate rights in an agreement like TPP.

And the thing is, we've got a passel of those kind of agreements already. Folks remember, under NAFTA, we've had some horrible cases. Four hundred million dollars has already been paid out to corporations, even under NAFTA, where the system is narrower than what's proposed for TPP. But there are very few companies from the countries we've had the past agreements with, because it's mainly been developing countries. So there are 9,000 existing companies in all 50 agreements we have with this system. Just with TPP alone, we have another 9,000, mainly companies from Japan, so countries with - companies with sophistication and wherewithal. Plus, if we did the European agreement, we'd quadruple our liability, so that it's only a matter of time before our laws get sacked. Warning to everyone: Go look at the Sierra Club website. Recent case like this under NAFTA called the Bilcon case, Sierra Club has a great exposé on it. The actual one of the tribunalists, one of the corporate lawyers, steps back and says, "If we keep doing things like this - I have to break with the rest of you. If we keep doing this, this investor-state system is going to chill all our environmental laws." That's what one of the tribunalists said.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressman Grayson, do you have to rely on WikiLeaks to get information about what's actually in the TPP agreement?

REP. ALAN GRAYSON: Well, one of the sad and disturbing elements of this whole process has been the artificial secrecy that's been imposed by the administration and by the trade representative on these dealings. I can't think of any other occasion, when I've served in Congress, when I've seen the element of deception loom so large here. The public is better informed of Iraqi attacks on ISIS, which you'd think would be classified, than it is informed on a trade deal that's going to determine our economic future for the next 20 years. What's happened is that, right at the beginning, the trade representative took the absurd position that everything that was being negotiated was classified, even though it was directly in the hands of the foreign governments with whom he was negotiating. Remember, normally, we have a classified system to keep information away from our enemies, or at least other governments. In this case, it was the other governments that had the information, and it was Congress and the American people who were being denied the information. And they took that position for five years, even though 100 members of Congress wrote a letter to the trade representative saying, "Cut this out."

Now, I'm the first member of Congress to actually see any part of the TPP, even though 600 corporate lobbyists are, quote, "advisers" to the trade representative and they get to see everything. And I insisted they take that information to my office, and in return they told me I couldn't take it with me, I couldn't take it home, I couldn't make notes on it, I couldn't have my staff present. And here's the kicker: They didn't want me to discuss it with the media, the public or even other members of Congress. So it's a farce. And it's meant specifically to keep the information away from the American people, because if the American people knew what was going on, they'd recognize that it's a punch to the face of the middle class in America.

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News Fri, 17 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Grayson on Money and Politics: "If We Do Nothing, We Can Kiss This Country Goodbye" http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/30282-grayson-on-money-and-politics-if-we-do-nothing-we-can-kiss-this-country-goodbye http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/30282-grayson-on-money-and-politics-if-we-do-nothing-we-can-kiss-this-country-goodbye

A day after a mailman from Florida landed a tiny personal aircraft called a gyrocopter on the lawn of the US Capitol in a protest to demand campaign finance reform, we speak to Rep. Alan Grayson of Florida about money and politics. Grayson also reveals that he will "probably" run for US Senate in 2016 for Marco Rubio's seat, who has joined the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

TRANSCRIPT:

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

AMY GOODMAN: Congressman Grayson, I assume you heard the story of the gyrocopter that landed on the White House lawn [Capitol lawn]. This mailman named Doug Hughes, basically a flying bicycle, landed on the lawn. He expected to be blown out of the air. But he said he was doing this for campaign finance reform. He had a letter to every member of Congress. I want to ask you, how much does the money that is going to your fellow Democrats and Republicans determine their support for TPP?

REP. ALAN GRAYSON: It's decisive. I am the only member of the House of Representatives - there are 435 of us -

AMY GOODMAN: Rather, he landed on the lawn of the US Capitol, so it was even closer to you.

REP. ALAN GRAYSON: That's right. I'm the only member of the House of Representatives who raised most of his campaign funds in the last election from small contributions of less than $200. Thousands of people came to our website, CongressmanWithGuts.com, and made contributions. I am one - one - out of 435. On the other side of the building, over at the US Senate, there's only one member of the US Senate who raised most of his campaign from some small contributions. That's Bernie Sanders, who you heard earlier in this broadcast. That tells you something. In fact, to a large degree, in both parties, because of the absence of campaign finance reform, the place is bought and paid for. And the only question is: Do the members stay bought? That's what the corporate lobbyists stay up late at night wondering about: Is that member going to stay bought?

Now, I was actually in the courtroom when this disastrous Citizens United decision was decided five years ago. Mitch McConnell was two seats to my left. We were the only public officials who were in the courtroom. Mitch McConnell was the happiest I have ever seen him that day. He was literally chortling when the decision was rendered. And I said on MSNBC that night five years ago that if we do nothing, you can kiss this country goodbye. Well, pucker up, because right now the millionaires and the billionaires and the multinational corporations are calling the shots with whatever they want in TPP, whatever they want in fast track - more generally, whatever they want. They get the bailouts. They get the tax breaks. They get the so-called deregulation. They get what they want here because they get what they pay for.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressman Grayson, very quickly, Bernie Sanders hasn't yet officially announced that he's running for president, but what about you? Senator Rubio has announced he is running for president. Will you be running for his seat in Florida?

REP. ALAN GRAYSON: I'm giving it a lot of attention. The answer is probably yes, but I haven't made up my mind yet once and for all. I hope to do that soon.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you for being with us, Congressman Alan Grayson, Democrat of Florida's 9th Congressional District, and Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we're going to Cambridge, Massachusetts. What's Harvard Heat Week? Stay with us.

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News Fri, 17 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
No More Cheating: Restoring the Rule of Law in Financial Markets http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/30281-no-more-cheating-restoring-the-rule-of-law-in-financial-markets http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/30281-no-more-cheating-restoring-the-rule-of-law-in-financial-markets

The political debate about finance in the US is often cast as markets versus regulation, as if "more regulation" means the efficiency of private sector decisions will necessarily be impeded or distorted. But this is the wrong way to think about the real policy choices that - like it or not - are now being made. The question is actually what kind of markets do you want: fair and well-functioning, with widely shared benefits; or deceptive, dangerous, and favoring just a relatively few powerful people?

In a speech on Wednesday, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D., MA) laid out a vision for better financial markets. This is not a left-wing or pro-big government agenda. Senator Warren's proposals are, first and foremost, pro-market. She wants - and we should all want - financial firms and markets that work for customers, that encourage innovation, and that do not build up massive risks which can threaten the financial system and bring down the economy.

Senator Warren puts forward two main sets of proposals. The first is to more strongly discourage the deception of customers. This is hard to argue against. Some parts of the financial sector are well-run, providing essential services at reasonable prices and with sound ethics throughout. Other parts of finance have drifted, frankly, into deceiving people - on fees, on risks, on terms and conditions - as a primary source of profits. We don't allow this kind of cheating in the non-financial sector and we shouldn't allow it in finance either.

The unfortunate and indisputable truth is that our rule-making and law-enforcement agencies completely fell asleep prior to 2008 with regard to protecting borrowers and even depositors against predation. Even worse, since the financial crisis, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Justice Department, and the Federal Reserve Board of Governors proved hard or near impossible to awake from this slumber.

We need simple, clear rules that ensure transparency and full disclosure in all financial transactions - and we need to enforce those rules. This is what was done with regard to securities markets after the debacle of the early 1930s. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), for which Senator Warren worked long and hard, has started down a sensible road towards smarter and simpler regulation. The CFPB needs to go further - including on auto loans - and for this it needs renewed political support.

The second proposal is to end the greatest cheat of all - the implicit subsidies received by the largest financial institutions, structured so as to encourage excessive and irresponsible risk-taking. These consequences of these subsidies have already caused massive macroeconomic damage - this is why our crisis in 2008-09 was so severe and the recovery so slow. Yet we have made painfully little progress towards really ending the problems associated with some very large financial firms - and their debts - being viewed by markets and policymakers as being too big to fail.

If you could visit a casino with the prospect of keeping all your winnings, while your losses would be partially or completely paid by someone else, how much would you gamble? You would bet a huge amount - presumably as much as the house allows. Big banks are run by smart, rational people. The incentives they face - which themselves have worked long and hard to retain - are not acceptable from a broader social point of view.

Senator Warren wants to cut through the complex morass of modern regulation. Force the biggest half dozen banks to become smaller, simpler, and more transparent. Limit the tax deductibility of interest for large highly leveraged financial institutions, so they choose to fund themselves with relatively more equity and less debt.

And reform the emergency powers of the Federal Reserve - to strengthen its ability to deal with genuine disasters while also ensuring an appropriate level of democratic review and control. The days of secretive bailouts should end.

Senator Warren's main point is this:

"without some basic rules and accountability, financial markets don't work. People get ripped off, risk-taking explodes, and the markets blow up. That's just an empirical fact - clearly observable in 1929 and again in 2008."

Of course you cannot outlaw all cheating or prevent all forms of future potential macroeconomic problems. But the legislative framework and presidential priorities matter. This is demonstrated by what happened since the 1980s, when the deregulation of finance distorted incentives in very ways that proved very dangerous.

We can choose now to make markets function better. Put in place simpler, clearer rules and enforce them.

This is a completely centrist agenda. As a result, there is real potential here for bipartisan policy initiatives - and there are senators on both sides of the aisle who show signs of being willing to go to bat for exactly these kinds of sensible pro-market ideas.

All presidential candidates, Republican and Democrat, would be smart to embrace this agenda.

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News Fri, 17 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
New Restrictions on Abortion Restrictions http://www.truth-out.org/art/item/30276-new-restrictions-on-abortion-restrictions http://www.truth-out.org/art/item/30276-new-restrictions-on-abortion-restrictions ]]> laurenayo@gmail.com (Lauren Walker) Art Fri, 17 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400