Truthout Stories Mon, 02 Mar 2015 11:35:36 -0500 en-gb On the News With Thom Hartmann: Students Are Taking On College Debt, and More

In today's On the News segment: If corporations paid back their full debt to society, they'd be paying each of our households about $10,000 a year; it appears another discriminatory ban in the military may be changed; students are taking on college debt, demanding relief for their federal student loans; and more.

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


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

You need to know this. When I say that it's time to make corporations pay their fair share, you're probably thinking taxes. But, if corporations paid back their full debt to society, they'd be paying each of our households about $10,000 a year. That figure comes from Paul Buchheit over at Alternet, and he says, "That estimate is based on facts, not the conservative-style emotion that might deny the responsibility for any debt to the American people." Using data from the National Science Foundation, Paul calculated that about half of that yearly stipend would be our return for all the public money invested in research. About 30 percent of all development, applied, and basic research is paid for by the tax payers, and thirty percent of $2 trillion in annual corporate profit works out to $5,000 a year for each household. Another two grand would be payment for pollution and other disaster relief costs paid for by John Q. Taxpayer, and it would reimburse the American public for things like drilling for oil on public lands and cleaning up toxic chemical spills. In addition to the $2 trillion stashed in offshore tax havens, corporations rake in tons of cash in direct and indirect subsidies. So, the remaining $3,000 would reimburse us for corporate welfare and tax dodging, like overseas tax havens and government subsidies to giant, corporate industries. When we add all that up, it comes to $10,000 per household, per year – and it's a pretty "small-c" conservative estimate. That's the real price of corporate power in the U.S., and that's a cost being paid by the American public. Corporations used to return these public investments in the form of larger paychecks and pensions and benefits. Today, they simply buy back their own stocks and call workers greedy for demanding a living wage. We give them the opportunity to do business in our great nation, so if the corporations won't pay up the way they used to, perhaps it's time they simply cut each of our households a $10,000 check.

It seems like only yesterday that the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy came to an end in our military. And now, it appears that one more discriminatory ban may be changed as well. At a recent town hall event in Afghanistan, our new Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said that he doesn't believe gender identity should disqualify someone from military service. According to the Williams Institute, there are more than 15,000 transgender active duty service members or reservists, and more than 130,000 transgender retirees and veterans. Many of these individuals were willing to give their lives to defend our country, and they should never have to hide who they are. The question about transgender service came from Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jesse Ehrenfeld, who works with an LGBT military family organization and has cared for many transgender service members as an office in Navy Health Care. Cmdr. Ehrenfeld said, "I am continually struck by how these individuals, who risk their lives every day to support our mission, live not in fear of the enemy, but rather in fear of being discovered for who they are." Perhaps our newest Defense Secretary will help bring this discrimination to an end.

The frigid temperatures last month were particularly daunting for the homeless. One New York City charity wanted to do something about that, but the Port Authority blocked their efforts. Volunteers from Saxon/Hart went to Grand Central Terminal and other train and bus stations to hand out blankets to the homeless, but they were told that the Port Authority didn't "want the homeless to get too comfortable there." Temperatures in New York City dropped to single digits in February, and wind chills were even colder. A Saxon/Hart spokesperson said, "We weren't trying to make people more comfortable in the station, we just wanted people not to freeze." Of course, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey released a statement saying that they are "committed to assisting the homeless," but their actions say otherwise. In the richest nation on Earth, no one should be freezing to death in the winter, and groups like Saxon/Hart should be applauded – not turned away.

Do you want to know which restaurants pay their workers a living wage? Well, there's an app for that. The ROC United Diner's Guide app will show you the restaurants near you, how they pay workers, and whether or not they provide benefits. And, that app will even allow you to report on the working conditions of restaurants you visit, such as noting server-to-diner ratios and tipping policies. Despite waves of protests and increased social awareness, many food service workers still get paid only $2.13 an hour, and they're taxed on tips they may or may not even earn. While we should never give up the fight to ensure all workers earn a living wage, in the mean time, we can make sure that businesses are rewarded for treating employees well. Restaurants all over our country are moving away from tips and paying all workers well, and we should be giving them our business when we can.

And finally... Students are taking on college debt. Fifteen young people who attended Everest College, a subsidiary of Corinthian, are refusing to pay for the useless degrees they got from that university. Corinthian is under investigation by state and federal officials because of their predatory lending practices, and as such the college is providing students with relief for their private loans. However, the so-called "Corinthian 15" are demanding relief for their federal student loans as well. Nathan Hornes, one of the students who refuses to pay, said, "I did not get the education that I was promised. I did not receive any knowledge that I could use in my day-to-day life, to get a career." Like graduates of so many for-profit institutions, Nathan and the rest of the Corinthian 15 realized that they were duped, and they're doing something about it. Standing up to for-profit colleges is a great place to start in the fight for affordable higher education.

And that's the way it is - for the week of March 2, 2015 – I'm Thom Hartmann – on the Economic and Labor News.

News Mon, 02 Mar 2015 11:13:45 -0500
Going Off the Rails: There's No Safe Way to Haul Oil by the Trainload

 2015.3.2.Greco.MainWhen you play by their rules, you lose every time. Big Oil's Lethal Game, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib.

When 27 CSX tanker cars loaded with fracked North Dakota crude tumbled onto a West Virginia riverbank on President’s Day, the ensuing fireballs leveled a house and forced hundreds of people to flee amid a heavy snowstorm.

Even though 19 of the derailed cars — each carrying 30,000 gallons of oil — erupted into flames, nobody died in this particular disaster. But it may have fired a fatal shot into the argument that trains can “safely” haul crude across North America.

After most of these increasingly frequent accidents, critics urge the government to make operators use “safer” tanker cars. Yet the cars that went off the rails, exploded into flames, and then smoldered for days alongside the Kanawha River were the new-and-improved model.

Slower speeds are also billed as a way to increase oil train safety. Yet this one was chugging along at just 33 miles per hour in a 50-mph zone when it tumbled off-track between the aptly named towns of Boomer and Mount Carbon.

Given its quick growth, many Americans don’t get how big the oil-by-rail industry is or why they should worry about its risks. The number of crude carloads chugging across the nation rocketed from 9,500 in 2008 to 500,000 last year.

The advocacy group Oil Change International created an interactive map of oil train routes you can use to see if any run past your house. It looks like a giant spider web stretched from coast to coast.

Foes of oil-by-rail oppose the industry’s new reliance on what they call “bomb trains” because of how easily tanker cars can detonate when they go off the rails and how prone they are to doing that.

Some 1.4 million gallons of oil spilled in U.S. rail accidents in 2013 — more in one year than over the previous four decades combined. A record 141 of these accidents occurred in 2014.

Proponents of building pipelines are trying to take advantage of conflagrations like that nightmarish scene in West Virginia. The best alternative to hauling oil by rail, they say, is to push it through stationary pipelines.

There are many problems with that argument. For one thing, ruptured pipelines spill more oil than wrecked tanker cars. Besides, the crude now traveling by rail is mainly drilled in North Dakota, where the local industry doesn’t appear eager to be boxed into pipeline routes.

Last year, a Koch Industries firm gave up after trying to build a pipeline that would transport North Dakota’s crude. So did a company called Enterprise Product Partners. Some observers say that given the brief lifespan of individual fracking wells, oil companies may prefer crude-by-rail’s flexibility.

Building more pipelines, including the ill-fated Keystone XL, would just squander money as the nation’s energy outlook evolves. Many business leaders are embracing the ongoing transition away from oil, gas, and coal by betting on green energy.

Even Warren Buffett’s starting to get on board. In addition to shedding its $3.7-billion stake in ExxonMobil, his Berkshire Hathaway holding company is pouring $30 billion into solar and wind power.

Meanwhile, the federal government is lumbering toward mandating the new tanker car design and leaving it up to individual states, counties, towns, and cities to muddle through their own oil-by-rail regulations.

What will it take to pull the brakes on this recklessness?

About 1,000 people live in Mount Carbon and Boomer, the largest towns directly impacted by the CSX accident. What if that train, ferrying 3.1 million gallons of oil, or another like it had derailed in a densely populated neighborhood? One of those fireballs could set Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, New Orleans, or Seattle ablaze.

Surely that would be it for the crude-by-rail business. Do we have to wait until a big city erupts into a fossil-fueled inferno before this madness reaches the end of the line?

Opinion Mon, 02 Mar 2015 10:38:41 -0500
Women Over 65 Own Nearly a Third of Iowa's Farmland - Can They Prevent the Next Dust Bowl?

So many older women are inheriting farms that some experts believe training them in land conservation may be society's best bet in protecting the food supply.

In her late 50s, Alice Ramsay returned to the Iowa farm where she’d grown up. She had graduated college in Missouri and spent most of her adulthood in Colorado employed as a teacher. But after her parents passed away, she bought up the inherited land from her brother and sister, and, in 2000, she moved back.

“I’d been gone for 30 years and I never had an idea I would come back to the farm—never ever,” Ramsay says. “But here I am. So I had to start at the ground level and go from there.”

Ramsay, now 72, first needed to get caught up on what was happening on the land she now owned, about 20 miles west of Des Moines. It was about 180 acres of hilly land that sloped down to the South Raccoon River. The rolling landscape made the land challenging to farm, and soil and water runoff from the higher ground constituted an ongoing issue. Oak savannas grew near the river, and grasslands surrounded a pond. A country road cut through the middle of the property.

A farmer had been renting the whole farm, where he grew corn and beans and raised cattle. Like her father, who bought the farm in 1943 and worked on it until his death, in 1992, Ramsay valued the conservation of this special place, a philosophy reinforced during her 10 years volunteering with a wildlife and education organization. “My purpose was to come back and do what’s right for the land,” she says.

Ramsay speaks like the former educator she is—with a curious mind and authoritative tone. But it wasn’t easy for her to walk up to the farmer who worked this land and direct him on the best ways to protect soil diversity, native wildlife, and water; he wasn’t necessarily considering the environmental impact when he farmed, partly because no one had asked him to. It was intimidating to walk up to a seasoned farmer and start poking around. And Ramsay didn’t know much about it to begin with.

She is not alone. Thousands of other women throughout the United States are in similar situations. In Iowa alone, women own about 14 million acres of farmland, which is significant because the health of the nation’s soil is crucial to the productivity of its farms and in feeding a growing population. In fact, so many older women are inheriting farms that some experts believe training them in land conservation may be our society’s best defense against Dust Bowls of the future.

Removing barriers, planting seeds

The nonprofit Women, Food and Agriculture Network reaches out to people like Ramsay through a program called Women Caring for the Land. More than 2,000 women have participated in the program, which piloted in 2008. The typical participant is a woman over 65 years old who owns farmland but has never worked in the fields. Many have inherited their land and are suddenly tasked with managing it; although some have been farm wives, most were left out of the decision-making process.

The program, which is funded in part by a Conservation Innovation Grant from the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, teaches them how to practice conservation with a focus on soil health.

Jean Eells, an Iowa State Soil Conservation Committee member since 2002, developed the program after becoming aware of the lack of women landowners interested in conservation programs. “What fascinated me was how women as landowners were so invisible to the process,” Eells says. “Being invisible does two things: You think you don’t have any responsibilities [and] you’re just left out.”

Women Caring for the Land operates in seven Midwestern states—Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, and Wisconsin—and 70 percent of its participants have so far made improvements on a total of about 50,000 acres. These include direct changes to land management, like planting cover crops, installing buffer strips, taking land that borders a river out of cultivation, restoring wetlands, and planting native wildflowers for pollinator habitat. But they can also include contractual changes and training—things like writing conservation practices into the lease, or meeting with a representative of the NRCS to review the farm plan.

Women Caring for the Land meetings are held in the style of a peer-to-peer learning circle, where each participant tells the story of her farmland, her goals, and her dreams for the land. “There’s a lot of emotions in these meetings because it’s the first time a lot of them have been in an environment where they can ask questions or share their stories … because they feel disenfranchised,” says Lynn Heuss, program coordinator for the Women, Food and Agriculture Network. “It’s a man’s world.”

Participants then visit farms—run by men or women—to see good conservation practices firsthand. They also get the chance to handle unfamiliar tools such as a soil penetrometer. This tool measures what’s called soil compaction, a major concern among farmers as it can suppress air and water from the soil and reduce crop yield.

This program may become even more critical as farmers get older. In the United States, the average age has risen to almost 60, according to the most recent U.S. Census of Agriculture. At the time of the 2012 census, one-third of farmers were 65 years or older, and many of them will be retiring soon.

“Until I went to these meetings, I didn’t feel like I could say a lot,” Ramsay says. She has since taken several steps, including voicing concern to her farmer tenant about erosion—her land is on a hill and soil washes down—and requesting a visit from an NRCS representative for advice on how to address the issue. She’s also talked to her farmer about using cover crops, which help keep nutrients in the soil and reduce erosion, thereby keeping it healthy during the nongrowing months; Ramsay says he’s been amenable to all the changes. She wants to leave the land in good shape for her three adult children, who will one day inherit it.

“We’re not doing anything different than what the men do,” Ramsay says. “We’re just taking more responsibility for our land.”

Focusing on soil health

Tillage and plowing are major sources of soil erosion, and were blamed for the 1930s Dust Bowl, when a severe drought in the Great Plains turned loose soil into dust that blackened the skies and displaced tens of thousands of farmers. Additionally, carbon dioxide is stored in soil, and when stirred up can be released into the atmosphere.

Through a program it runs called the National Resources Conservation Service, the USDA provides technical and financial assistance for soil health efforts, such as with the three-year grant to Women Caring for the Land.

The program launched in Iowa because a 2012 report by researchers at Iowa State University showed a need for educating women landowners on conservation. The report notes several significant trends in land ownership, including that women over the age of 65 own about 30 percent of the state’s farmland; women landowners also own more of the state’s rented farmland.

Although the act of renting land doesn’t necessarily preclude a tenant from caring about long-term investments in conservation, this arrangement can complicate those efforts. That’s why it’s so important for women landowners to become more informed and empowered, Eells says. Because if they don’t know the ins and outs of soil conservation, and they struggle to talk to their farmers about environmental stewardship, their hopes for better practices may never be implemented. And that puts the future of the American food supply at risk.

News Mon, 02 Mar 2015 10:25:35 -0500
Telecom Strikers Win Limits on Outsourcing

FairPoint workers in New England have ratified a new contract, ending the longest U.S. telecom strike in decades.

The walkout began October 17. Workers voted up the deal over the weekend and will be back on the job this Wednesday, after 18 weeks away.

The 1,700 workers in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine staff call centers and build and maintain phone and Internet lines. Most are represented by the Electrical Workers (IBEW), which has a local in each state; the 300 call center workers in all three states are members of Communications Workers (CWA) Local 1400.

The unions’ key goals were to curtail work transfers—FairPoint’s practice of moving work around among the three states, which has often forced workers to move or quit—and subcontracting.

“I’ve seen contractors doing bad, dangerous work,” said Sherry Willey, an IBEW member in Vermont. “Contractors come in and do the work and then—boom—they’re done… It’s dangerous for the regular workers who will go back and do maintenance.”

The company’s final offer, imposed at the end of August, had no protections against subcontracting or work transfers. It also created a two-tier wage system for new hires, eliminated new-hire pensions, froze current workers’ pensions, and increased health care costs.

The newly ratified agreement limits subcontracting, mandating that it not cause layoffs or erode the bargaining unit. Work transfers are restricted to 0.9 percent of the annual work.

“I think we came out pretty darn good,” said Willey.

The union refused two-tier wages. But the four-year deal does wipe out pensions for new hires, and cuts in half current workers’ future accruals. For workers retiring more than 30 months after the signing, retiree health benefits will vanish too. Management accepted the union’s proposal on health care—which increases costs to employees, though not as much as the imposed contract did.

“It’s a compromise,” said Glenn Brackett, an IBEW business agent in New Hampshire. “Both sides are equally unhappy.”

Not So Fair

North Carolina-based FairPoint bought Verizon’s New England operations in 2008 despite a campaign by local unions to stop the sale.

As the unions expected, the company was ill-equipped to grow so fast. It quickly went under, declaring bankruptcy in 2011.

Wall Street investment firms pulled the company out of bankruptcy. Now six of them hold a majority of FairPoint’s stock; the biggest shareholder is a private equity firm called Angelo, Gordon.

Workers believe that after slashing costs and pocketing the resulting windfall, the owners plan to sell off what’s left of the company—exactly the kind of behavior private equity firms are known for.

Hawaiian Telcom went through a near-identical chain of events in 2011 and 2012: sold off by Verizon, it went into bankruptcy, and investors swooped in and imposed a brutal contract.

“These are vulture capitalists,” said Mike O’Day in Vermont, a district vice-president of Local 1400. “I’ve never seen anything like it, and I was on the bargaining team for Verizon in 2003.”

Built a Network

Months before the strike, the unions started gearing up for a tough contract campaign.

“I’m not sure exactly in the other states how it went, but in Maine we’re more organized and mobilized than we’ve ever been,” said IBEW member Julie Dawkins.

Members work all over the three states, sometimes in groups as small as three. To keep everyone plugged into the contract campaign, “well before bargaining, we trained mobilizers,” said Amy Masciola, who was hired by the four locals to coordinate action.

The locals worked with Masciola, who’s based in Maine, to train activists as chairs, coordinators, and mobilizers in a communication network. Each person had about 10 people to keep informed.

Diane Winton, president of the Maine IBEW local, said the system helped build relationships and quickly disseminate updates: “Our members are much more well-informed than they were in the past.”

As bargaining heated up, Mainers held informational pickets every Thursday morning, giving way to daily pickets once the strike began. They wore red and took group photos, “solidarity selfies,” for the “Fairness at FairPoint” Facebook page.

The unions recruited members “who were comfortable with public speaking,” Winton said, to tell others about their fight. About 50 Maine-based “road warriors” have gone out to speak at nearby union halls and labor council meetings.

Strike Funds Scarce

When the strike began, workers had to shift from just telling their story to asking for financial support.

Strikers in Vermont collected unemployment. Those in Maine and New Hampshire never persuaded state governments to grant them eligibility.

CWA's national strike fund, created after the 1989 NYNEX strike, supported Local 1400 members. But IBEW has no similar fund; instead it typically depends on members’ individual savings.

That was augmented by a shared solidarity relief fund the four locals set up. Donations topped $350,000.

“When they [FairPoint] went into bankruptcy, we started telling people way back then, ‘you need to start putting money away,’” said Dawkins.

Some people did. “I felt the general pulse a long time ago,” says Jeff Dorn, an IBEW steward in Maine. “My wife and I set money aside, starting a couple years back.”

Still, “I feel really bad for Maine and New Hampshire,” said Willey, in Vermont. Even with unemployment and savings, it was tough for her and her husband—who both struck.

Dawkins served on the rank-and-file committee that reviewed applications for solidarity relief funds. “We unfortunately are seeing people that, no matter how prepared they were, they’re running out of money,” she said in early February.

In Vermont, CWA members seemed to bear the brunt of fundraising. “I feel like the IBEW leadership is pretty absent, and it’s a shame,” said Teamster Jim Fouts during the strike. Fouts is a member of a Vermont Labor Solidarity Committee, a network of activists organized during the 2014 bus driver strike, which mobilized to support the FairPoint strikers too.

Chasing Scabs

Just 11 union members crossed the picket lines.

Some couldn’t have, even if they’d wanted to. After the strike began, call center work was moved to Ohio and Florida.

The scab workforce doing IBEW members’ work was contracted through another company. Willey believes many were telecom workers who’d been fired in other states.

IBEW members formed “mobile pickets,” she said, to follow the scabs and protest at their jobsites. They were easy to spot: FairPoint put them all up in the same hotels, and they came with work trucks or rental vans.

When Dorn and his co-strikers realized scabs were hiding out in offices, waiting for picketers to go home, they “broke up into two teams, morning and afternoon.” In the middle of each day, the afternoon team would get a call from the morning crew, and “myself and my partner would go pick up where they left off,” said Dorn.

Even late in the strike, Dawkins said her local still had picketers seven days a week at almost all locations, though their numbers lagged a bit as some sought work to pay the bills.

Friends, family, and members of other local unions and community groups joined pickets and rallies.

Meanwhile, according to local press, customer complaints ticked up. An outage took down Vermont’s 911 system in November, prompting an ongoing investigation by the state’s public service department. The union did its best to let customers know how to file complaints with public agencies.

The Silent Treatment

In January, the unions and management agreed to federal mediation. Members were relieved to know that the two sides were back at the table—but for weeks, that’s about all they knew.

Local bargainers said a “gag order” prevented them from sharing what happened in mediation. The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service said mediators do not have the power to impose a gag order—but parties in mediation may agree to keep their negotiations secret.

Pickets continued, but the “gag order” demobilized members. Some strikers said they worried that if they said anything bad about FairPoint in the press, the company would walk away from mediation.

In New Hampshire, CWA Steward Stephanie Hanscomb said the union “tapered off things like public rallies in public squares once in federal mediation.”

“Both sides have agreed to a ceasefire. We can still mobile picket, but… we really can’t do anything to disparage the company,” Winton explained during this period. “It’s frustrating to the members.”

As members prepare to return to work, some of this frustration has dissipated. “We’re a lot stronger of a union now,” Willey says. She wonders if workers at Hawaiian Telcom could have protected their pensions if they’d struck too.

Deregulation's Effects

Part of the backstory to this fight is the decades-long unraveling of any meaningful regulation of public utilities. Back when there was just one phone company, in exchange for its legalized monopoly that company had to accept tight government oversight over its service and prices.

But the 1984 breakup of the Bell System began a steady retreat from public control. A 2012 law change even took away the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission’s power to force companies to fix service problems. The commission still accepts customer complaints, but mostly can’t do anything about them.

Both unions backed bills last year in the Maine statehouse. Current law mandates that mergers (including the sale of telecom companies) “do no harm” to state residents. Based on the unions’ hunch that FairPoint will be sold again, “we wanted to change that standard to ‘public good,’” Amy Masciola said.

The other bill demanded that companies keep call centers in state. Diane Winton said her local mobilized members to contact their legislators, pack the room for hearings, and speak on the bills—but neither became law.

This year in Maine and New Hampshire the unions will support legislation to impose automatic cost penalties on the company at fault for service failures. Getting customers better service would likely require FairPoint to maintain a significant local workforce.


New book from Labor Notes: How to Jump-Start Your Union: Lessons from the Chicago Teachers tells how activists transformed their union and gave members hope. "A beacon to all rank-and-file members on how to bring democracy to their locals." Buy one today, only $15.

News Mon, 02 Mar 2015 10:05:14 -0500
Latest Cyber Bank Robbery Demonstrates That Government Prefers Crappy Tech Security for Its Own Benefit

Sloppy engineering and covert backdoors are allowed to happen.

“Software flaws account for a majority of the compromises organizations around the world experience." —Shon Harris, CISSP Exam Guide, Sixth Edition 

A gang of cyber thieves known as the Carbanak Ring recently made off with hundreds of millions of dollars in an online bank robbery that spanned the globe. They launched their caper with a salvo of malicious emails. The very fact that such a simple approach was effective demonstrates how cyber intrusions are enabled by a hi-tech sector which offloads the cost of its sloppy engineering onto the public. Never mind the industry-wide campaign of subversion conducted by government spies. Poor cyber security doesn’t just appear out of thin air. No sir, it’s baked in.

News of the theft broke a few days back in the New York Times which reported that over 100 banks in 30 countries had been hit by intruders. According to the Times they gained access to corporate networks by sending bank employees emails laced with malicious attachments. This is a technique known as phishing, or spear-phishing if the e-mail recipients are specifically targeted.

Additional facts provided by the computer forensic specialists at Moscow-based firm Kaspersky indicate that the attacker’s spear-phishing operation leveraged specially crafted Microsoft Word documents which capitalized on security holes in the Windows operating system. For technical wonks, here are the gory details:

“All observed cases used spear phishing emails with Microsoft Word 97 – 2003 (.doc) files attached or CPL files. The doc files exploit both Microsoft Office (CVE-2012-0158 and CVE-2013-3906) and Microsoft Word (CVE- 2014-1761).”

Kaspersky’s findings highlight an issue the mainstream press is loath to address. While it’s true that people often click on things they shouldn’t, like infected email attachments, having users shoulder all of the responsibility is a pointless exercise in blaming the victim. Users should be able to open documents. That’s what documents were made for: to be opened. The same holds with regard to passwords and web browser hyperlinks. Software can be implemented to enforce password complexity requirements so that users choose strong passwords. Likewise users should be able to click on web links without ending up on the receiving end of a drive-by download.

The sad truth is that cyberattacks like the one chronicled by Kaspersky flourish due to sloppy engineering. For instance, intruders commonly rely on unpatched flaws, known as zero-day bugs, to steal data and wreak havoc. It’s part of the public record that the Stuxnet worm developed by the NSA utilized multiple zero-day flaws, as did the Equation Group’s malware. So go ahead, hector users until they’re paranoid and erect all the digital safeguards you want. Malicious software payloads wielding zero-day bugs will sail through your defenses as if they weren’t even there.

One reason sub-standard engineering is so commonplace is that security isn’t a genuine priority for most high-tech vendors. It’s more of sales pitch, a branding scheme used to entice more susceptible members of the audience. Why spend money auditing code when it’s more lucrative to simply push new products out into circulation as quickly as possible?

Existing market incentives encourage this stance as high-tech vendors are allowed, by law, to treat security incidents as a negative externality. Ever wonder what’s buried in the fine print of most End User License Agreements (EULAs)? Now you know. When a bank is hacked as a result of poorly designed software, it’s the bank that pays to clean up the mess, not the software company that sold them the faulty apps. Until this changes and high-tech companies are held financially liable for their engineering screwups, we can expect the ongoing parade of massive data breaches to continue unabated.

But there’s another more sinister reason why cyber security sucks: private sector monoliths like RSA collaborate with spies to construct hidden backdoors. In an effort to steal secrets, the spies at Fort Meade have worked with major American high-tech companies and gotten them to embed subtle yet intentional flaws in their products.

Some of these backdoors go all the way down to the hardware, where they’re accessed using obscure firmware hacks. As someone who has built rootkits, I can attest that the hardware-level stuff is nasty: it can bridge air-gaps, successfully resist eradication and persist across multiple platforms. The underlying attack vector is so powerful that strong encryption is of little protection. If U.S. spies can manipulate a machine’s firmware, as described in leaked NSA documents, swiping an encryption passcode is a cakewalk.

It’s ironic that U.S. officials complained loudly about Chinese companies embedding backdoors in their products when classified documents reveal the United States is a truly prolific actor in this domain. During the uproar following the first round of Snowden leaks, President Obama made symbolic gestures about changing the NSA’s predilection for zero-day bugs only to leave a gaping loophole for cases which demonstrated “a clear national security or law enforcement need.”

So if you’re wondering what’s behind the never-ending stream of high-profile cyber-attacks? Bad security isn’t an unfortunate accident. It’s a matter of official policy. A top-down scheme that benefits a small circle of spies at the expense of society’s collective well-being. Computer security for the 1%.

News Mon, 02 Mar 2015 09:57:07 -0500
My War on Terror: Letter to an Unknown US Patriot

Dear American Patriot,

I wish I knew your name. I’ve been thinking about you, about all of us actually and our country, and meaning to write for a while to explain myself.  Let me start this way: you should feel free to call me an American nationalist.  It may sound ugly as hell, but it’s one way I do think of myself. True, we Americans usually reserve the more kindly word “patriot” for ourselves and use “nationalist” to diss other people who exhibit special feeling for their country.  In the extreme, it’s “superpatriot” for us and “ultranationalist” for them.

In any case, here’s how my particular form of nationalism manifests itself. I feel a responsibility for the acts of this country that I don’t feel for those of other states or groups.  When, for instance, a wedding party blows up thanks to a Taliban roadside bomb, or the Islamic State cuts some poor captive’s head off, or Bashar al-Assad’s air force drops barrel bombs on civilians, or the Russians jail a political activist, or some other group or state commits some similar set of crimes, I’m not surprised.  Human barbarity, as well as the arbitrary cruelty of state power, are unending facts of history. They should be opposed, but am I shocked? No.

Still -- and I accept the irrationality of this -- when my country wipes out wedding parties in other lands or organizes torture regimes and offshore prison systems where anything goes, or tries to jail yet another whistleblower, when it acts cruelly, arbitrarily, or barbarically, I feel shock and wonder why more Americans don’t have the same reaction.

Don’t misunderstand me.  I don’t blame myself for the commission of such acts, but as an American, I do feel a special responsibility to do something about them, or at least to speak out against them -- as it should be the responsibility of others in their localities to deal with their particular sets of barbarians.

So think of my last 12 years running as my own modest war on terror -- American terror.  We don’t, of course, like to think of ourselves as barbaric, and terror is, almost by definition, a set of un-American acts that others are eager to commit against us.  “They” want to take us out in our malls and backyards.  We would never commit such acts, not knowingly, not with malice aforethought.  It matters little here that, from wedding parties to funerals, women to children, we have, in fact, continued to take “them” out in their backyards quite regularly.

Most Americans would admit that this country makes mistakes. Despite our best efforts, we do sometimes produce what we like to call “collateral damage” as we go after the evildoers, but a terror regime? Not us. Never.

And this is part of the reason I’m writing you. I keep wondering how, in these years, it’s been possible to hold onto such fictions so successfully. I wonder why, at least some of the time, you aren’t jumping out of your skin over what we do, rather than what they’ve done or might prospectively do to us.

Let’s start with an uncomfortable fact of our world that few here care to mention: in one way or another, Washington has been complicit in the creation or strengthening of just about every extreme terror outfit across the Greater Middle East. If we weren’t their parents, in crucial cases we were at least their midwives or foster parents.

Start in the 1980s with the urge of President Ronald Reagan and his fundamentalist Catholic spymaster, CIA Director William Casey, to make allies of fundamentalist Islamic movements at a time when their extreme (and extremist) piety seemed attractively anticommunist.  In that decade, in Afghanistan in particular, Reagan and Casey put money, arms, and training where their hearts and mouths were and promoted the most extreme Islamists who were ready to give the Soviet Union a bloody nose, a Vietnam in reverse.

To accomplish this, Washington also allied itself with an extreme religious state, Saudi Arabia, as well as Pakistan’s less than savory intelligence service.  The result was major support for men -- President Reagan hailed them as “freedom fighters” and said of a visiting group of them in 1985, “These gentlemen are the moral equivalents of America's founding fathers" -- some of whom are now fighting us in Afghanistan, and indirectly for what came to be known as al-Qaeda, an organization which emerged from the American-Saudi hothouse of the Afghan War.  The rest, as they say, is history. 

Similarly, American fingerprints are all over the new Islamic State (IS) or “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria.  Its predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, came into existence in the chaos and civil strife that followed the American invasion and occupation of that country, after Saddam Hussein’s military had been disbanded and hundreds of thousands of trained Sunni personnel tossed out onto the streets of Iraq’s cities.  Much of the leadership of the Islamic State met, grew close, and trained potential recruits at Camp Bucca, an American military prison in Iraq.  Without the acts of the Bush administration, IS would, in fact, have been inconceivable.  In the same fashion, the U.S. (and NATO) intervention in Libya in 2011, including a seven-month bombing campaign, helped create the conditions for the growth of extreme militias in parts of that country, as the U.S. drone assassination campaign in Yemen has visibly strengthened al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

In other words, each of the terror organizations we categorize as the unimaginably barbaric Other has a curiously intimate, if generally unexplored, relationship with us.  In addition, in these years, it’s been clear (at least to those living in the Greater Middle East) that such groups had no monopoly on barbarity.  Washington’s extreme acts were legion in the region, ranging from its CIA torture chambers (although we called them “black sites”) to Abu Ghraib, from global kidnappings to images of a U.S. helicopter gunning down civilians in the streets of Baghdad.  There were also a range of well-publicized vengeful acts of war, including videos of U.S. troops laughing while urinating on enemy corpses, trophy photos of body parts taken by American soldiers as souvenirs, photos of a 12-member “kill team” that hunted Afghans “for sport,” and a striking “lone wolf” nighttime terror rampage by an American staff sergeant in Afghanistan who killed 16 villagers, mainly women and children. And that’s just for starters.

Then there’s one matter that TomDispatch has been alone here in focusing on. By my count, American airpower has blown away parts or all of at least eight wedding parties in three countries (Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen), killing at least several hundred revelers over the years, without the slightest shock or upset in the U.S.

That’s one reason I’m writing you: the lack of reaction here. Can you imagine what would happen if the planes and drones from another country had wiped out eight weddings here in perhaps a dozen years?

On a larger scale, Washington’s invasions, occupations, interventions, bombings, and raids since 9/11 have resulted in a rising tide of civilian deaths and exiles in a fragmenting region.  All of this, including those drone assassination campaigns in the backlands of the planet, adds up to a panorama of barbarism and terror that we seldom acknowledge as such.  Of course, the terror outfits we love to hate also love to hate us and have often leapt to embrace the extremity of our acts, including adopting both the orange jumpsuits of Guantánamo and the CIA’s waterboarding for their own symbolic purposes.

Perhaps above all, Americans don’t imagine drones, the sexiest high-tech weapons around, as purveyors of terror.  Yet our grimly named Predators and Reapers armed with “Hellfire” missiles, their pilots safe from harm thousands of miles away, buzz daily over the Pakistani tribal backlands and rural Yemen spreading terror below. That this is so should be indisputable, at least based on accounts from the ground.

In fact, Washington’s drone assassins might fit into a category we normally only apply to Them: “lone wolf” terrorists searching for targets to blow away.  In our case, it’s people who have what Washington identifies as behavioral “traits” associated with terror suspects. They are eliminated in “signature strikes.” So here’s my question to you: Why is it that Americans generally don’t grasp the impact of such a new form of warfare in the Islamic world, especially when, at the movies (as in the Terminator films), we usually root against the machines and for the humans scurrying underfoot?  The word American drone operators use to label their dead victims -- “bugsplat” -- reveals much.  The term goes back at least to the non-drone shock-and-awe air attacks that began the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and reflects a disturbing sense of God-like, all-seeing power over the “insects” below.

Of course, part of the reason so little of this sinks in here is that all such acts, no matter how extreme, have been folded into a single comforting framework.  You know the one I mean: the need for the national security state to keep Americans “safe” from terror. I think you’d agree that, by now, this is a sacrosanct principle of the post-9/11 era that's helped expand the national security state to a size unimaginable even in the Cold War years when this country had another imperial enemy.

Safety and security are much abused terms in our American world.  The attacks of 9/11 created what might be thought of as a national version of PTSD from which we’ve never recovered, and yet the dangers of Islamic terrorism, while perfectly real, are relatively minor.  Leave aside the truly threatening things in American life and take instead an obscure example of what I mean.  Even the most modest research suggests that toddlers who find guns may kill or wound more Americans in a typical year than terrorists do.  And yet the media deals with death-by-toddler as an oddity story, not a national crisis, whether the result is the death of a mother in a Wal-Mart in Idaho or the wounding of a father and mother in an Albuquerque motel.  Nor does the government regularly hype the dangers of “lone wolf” toddlers.  And despite such killings, the legality of “carrying” guns (for “safety” -- of course! -- from unspecified non-toddler bad guys) is barely questioned in this country as the practice spreads rapidly both in numbers and in the kinds of places to which such weapons can be brought.

And don’t even waste your time thinking about the more than 30,000 deaths by vehicle each year.  Americans coexist with such spectacular levels of carnage without significant complaint so that car culture can continue in the usual fashion.  Yet let some distant terror group issue an absurd threat by video -- most recently, al-Shabab in Somalia warning of an attack on the Mall of America in Minnesota -- and the media alarm bells go off; the government issues warnings; the head of the Department of Homeland Security (worrying about his budget tied up in Congress) takes to TV to warn shoppers to be “particularly careful”; and pundits debate just how serious this danger may be.  Forget that the only thing al-Shabab can hope for is that a disturbed doofus living somewhere in Minnesota might pick up one of the guns floating so freely around this society and head for that mall to do his damnedest.

And in the constant panic over our safety in situations where very little danger actually exists, our own barbarity, seen as a series of defensive acts to ensure our security, disappears in a sea of alarm. 

So how to respond? I doubt you agree with me this far, so my response probably carries little weight with you. Nonetheless, let me offer it, with a caveat of sorts. Despite what you might imagine, I’m neither a pacifist, nor do I believe in a perfect world.  And no, I wouldn’t disband the U.S. military.  It’s clear enough that a strong, defensive-minded military is a necessity on this planet.

After 13 years, though, it should be obvious that this country’s military-first policies throughout the Greater Middle East and widening areas of Africa have been a disastrous bust. I have no doubt that a far less barbaric, less extreme, less militaristic foreign policy would, in purely pragmatic terms, also be a more effective one on every imaginable score -- unless, of course, your value system happens to center on the continued building up of the national security state and the reinforcement of its “security” or of the military-industrial complex and its “security.” In that case, the necessity for our barbarity as well as theirs becomes clearer in a flash.

Otherwise, despite much that we’ve heard in this new century, my suspicion is that what's right and moral is also what's practical and realistic.  In that light, let me offer, with commentary, my version of the Ten Commandments for a better American world (and a better world generally). Admittedly, in this day and age, it could easily be the Twenty or Thirty Commandments, but being classically minded, let me just stick with 10.

1. Thou shalt not torture: Torture of every horrific sort in these years seems to have been remarkably ineffective in producing useful information for the state.  Even if it were proved effective in breaking up al-Qaeda plots, however, it would still have been both a desperately illegal (if unpunished) act and a foreign policy disaster of the first order.

2. Thou shalt not send drones to assassinate anyone, American or not: The ongoing U.S. drone assassination campaigns, while killing individual terrorists, have driven significant numbers of people in the backlands of the planet into the arms of terror outfits and so only increased their size and appeal. Without a doubt, such drone strikes represent a global war of, not on, terror. In the process, they have turned the president into our assassin-in-chief and us into an assassin nation.

3. Thou shalt not invade another country: D'oh!

4. Thou shalt not occupy another country: By the way, how did that work out the last two times the U.S. tried it?

5. Thou shalt not upgrade thy nuclear arsenal: The U.S. has now committed itself to a trillion-dollar, decades-long upgrade of its vast arsenal.  If any significant portion of it were ever used, it would end human life as we know it on this planet and so should be considered a singular prospective crime against humanity. After years in which the only American nuclear focus was on a country -- Iran -- with no nuclear weapons, that this has happened without serious debate or discussion is in itself criminal.

6. Thou shalt not intercept the communications of thy citizens or others all over the world or pursue the elaboration of a global surveillance state based on criminal acts: There seems to be no place the NSA has been unwilling to break into in order to surveil the planet.  For unimaginable reams of information that have seemingly been of next to no actual use, the NSA and the national security state have essentially outlawed privacy and cracked open various amendments to the Constitution.  No information is worth such a price.

7. Thou shalt not be free of punishment for crimes of state: In these years of genuine criminality, official Washington has become a crime-free zone.  No matter the seriousness of the act, none -- not one committed in the name of the state in the post-9/11 era, no matter how heinous -- has been brought into a courtroom.

8. Thou shalt not use a massive system of secret classification to deprive Americans of all real knowledge of acts of state: In 2011, the U.S. classified 92 million documents and the shroud of secrecy over the business of the “people’s” government has only grown worse in the years since.  Increasingly, for our own “safety” we are only supposed to know what the government prefers us to know.  This represents, of course, a crime against democracy.

9. Thou shalt not act punitively toward those who want to let Americans in on what the national security state is doing in their name: The fierce and draconian campaign the Obama administration has launched against leakers and whistleblowers is unprecedented in our history.  It is a growing challenge to freedom of the press and to the citizen’s right to know.

10. Thou shalt not infringe on the rights of the citizenry to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness: Need I even explain?

If you want to boil these commandments down to a single injunction, it might simply be: Don’t do it! Or in a moment when nothing Washington does isn’t, it seems, done again: Stop and think before acting!

Of course, there’s no way to know what a national security policy based on these 10 commandments might really be like, not when Washington is so thoroughly invested in repeating its failed acts.  It’s now deep into Iraq War 3.0, intent on further slowing the “withdrawal” from Afghanistan, and pursuing the usual drone assassination strategies, as from South Asia to Iraq, Yemen, and Libya things only worsen and jihadist organizations grow stronger.

Yet campaign 2016 is already shaping up as a contest among candidates who represent more of the same, much more of the same, and even more than that of the same. One of them has tellingly brought back as his advisers much of the cast of characters who planned the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Even if the above commandments weren’t to add up to a more practical, safer, and more secure foreign (and domestic) policy, I would still be convinced that this was a better, saner way to go. As Americans demonstrate regularly when it comes to just about anything but terrorism, life is a danger zone and living with some level of insecurity is the human condition.  Making our safety and security ultimate values is a grotesque mistake. It essentially ensures a future state that bears no relation whatsoever to a democratic polity or to the values this country has championed.  Much that Americans once professed to cherish, from liberties to privacy, has already been lost along the way.

In your heart, you must know much of this, however you process it. I hope, under the circumstances, you’ll give some thought to what that word “patriot” should really mean in this country right now.

Yours sincerely,

Tom Engelhardt 

P.S. In my own war on terror, I’ve recently been thinking that a few “thou shalts” are in order. To give you an example: Thou shalt honor the heroes of our American world -- and no, I’m not talking about the U.S. military! I mean people like journalist James Risen, who barely avoided jail for doing his job as a reporter and has now dedicated his life to “fighting to undo damage done to press freedom in the United States by Barack Obama and Eric Holder,” or activist Kathy Kelly who is at present in a federal prison in Kentucky for having protested American drone strikes at an Air Force base in Missouri.

Opinion Mon, 02 Mar 2015 09:50:20 -0500
Austerity Kills: Economic Distress Seen as Culprit in Sharp Rise in Suicide Rate Among Middle-Aged

Suicide rates for adults between 40 and 64 years of age in the U.S. have risen about 40% since 1999, with a sharp rise since 2007. (Image: Depressed Man via Shutterstock)Suicide rates for adults between 40 and 64 years of age in the US have risen about 40 percent since 1999, with a sharp rise since 2007. (Image: Depressed Man via Shutterstock)

I’m surprised, but perhaps I shouldn’t be, that a recent study hasn’t gotten the attention it warrants. It points to a direct connection between the impact of the crisis and a marked increase in suicide rates among the middle aged. This link seems entirely logical, given how many citizens found themselves whacked by a one-two punch of job loss or hours cutbacks combined with the sudden plunge in home prices. Normally, a last ditch course of action for most middle and upper middle class income members in the pre-crisis days, when things got desperate, was to sell you house and cut costs radically by moving into a much more modest rental. But that option vanished in all but the most stable markets (as in some flyover states that the subprime merchants ignored) due to home price declines trashing equity for all but those with small or no mortgages.

And you have the further psychological toll of the difficulty of re-inventing yourself if you are over 35. I can point to people who had enough in the way of resources and took steps that seemed entirely logical, taking courses to prepare them for a new career in fields with good underlying demand (see this post for one example; I can cite others) and got either poor returns on their expenditure of time and effort or had no success at all.

And the ones with enough options (bigger savings buffers or relatives who were willing and able to help) are the lucky ones. For all too many middle to upper middle income workers in America, when you fall off the corporate/big firm meal ticket, the fall is far indeed. As readers know all too well, the prejudice against older candidates as well as the unemployed is substantial, even if the reason for the job loss in no way reflected on employee performance (as in business failure or working for an acquired company when, in typical practice, the buyer went through the ranks of the purchased business with a howitzer). People who thought that having a college degree and a steady history of good performance at white collar jobs gave them a measure of security had that illusion ripped from them.

The summary of the article from the Science website (hat tip Dr. Kevin):

Suicide rates for adults between 40 and 64 years of age in the U.S. have risen about 40% since 1999, with a sharp rise since 2007. One possible explanation could be the detrimental effects of the economic downturn of 2007-2009, leading to disproportionate effects on house values, household finances, and retirement savings for that age group. In a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, researchers found that external economic factors were present in 37.5% of all completed suicides in 2010, rising from 32.9% in 2005.

In addition, suffocation, a method more likely to be used in suicides related to job, economic, or legal factors, increased disproportionately among the middle-aged. The number of suicides using suffocation increased 59.5% among those aged 40-64 years between 2005 and 2010, compared with 18.0% for those aged 15-39 years and 27.2% for aged >65 years.

“Relative to other age groups, a larger and increasing proportion of middle-aged suicides have circumstances associated with job, financial, or legal distress and are completed using suffocation,” noted study authors Katherine A. Hempstead, PhD, Director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Princeton, NJ, and the Center for State Health Policy at Rutgers University, and Julie A. Phillips, PhD, Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research, New Brunswick, NJ. “The sharpest increase in external circumstances appears to be temporally related to the worst years of the Great Recession, consistent with other work showing a link between deteriorating economic conditions and suicide. External circumstances also have increased in importance among those aged ?65 years. Financial difficulties related to the loss of retirement savings in the stock market crash may explain some of this trend.”

The US isn’t the only place to witness a rise in suicides as a result of increased economic distress. As the Wall Street Journal reported in 2011:

Two years into Greece’s debt crisis, its citizens are reeling from austerity measures imposed to prevent a government debt default that could cause havoc throughout Europe. The economic pain is the price Greece and Europe are paying to defend the euro, the center…

The most dramatic sign of Greece’s pain, however, is a surge in suicides.

Recorded suicides have roughly doubled since before the crisis to about six per 100,000 residents annually….About 40% more Greeks killed themselves in the first five months of this year than in the same period last year…

Suicide has also risen in much of the rest of Europe since the financial crisis began, according to a recent study published in the British medical journal The Lancet, which said Greece is among the hardest hit…

A suicide help line at Klimaka, the charitable group, used to get four to 10 calls a day, but “now there are days when we have up to 100,” says a psychologist there, Aris Violatzis.

The caller often fits a certain profile: male, age 35 to 60 and financially ruined. “He has also lost his core identity as a husband and provider, and he cannot be a man any more according to our cultural standards,” Mr. Violatzis says…

Victims once were typically adolescent males or old people facing severe illness, and in normal times suicide cases often involve a mixture of factors including mental illness, says local [Heraklion, Crete] psychiatrist Eva Maria Tsapaki.

But the economic crash has created a “new phenomenon of entrepreneurs with no prior history of mental illness who are found dead every other week,” she says. “It’s very unusual.”

It’s hard to imagine that suicides haven’t risen further. With the Greek economy continuing to contract, more have to have run out of resources and hope.

Even though economic distress is less acute in the US, there’s reason to think our society is even more vulnerable to suicide. We have much greater income stratification, so that even if someone can remain in his home after a large setback, he’s almost certain to be unable to afford to participate in the same social activities as his supposed friends can. And America is particularly bound up in the idea of career and financial success, seeing those who take a tumble as losers rather than victims.

This well-intentioned section of the Science write-up thus comes off as naive:

The authors caution that “increased awareness is needed that job loss, bankruptcy, foreclosure, and other financial setbacks can be risk factors for suicide. Human resource departments, employee assistance programs, state and local employment agencies, credit counselors, and others who interact with those in financial distress should improve their ability to recognize people at risk and make referrals. Increasing access to crisis counseling and other mental health services on an emergency basis, as is often provided at times of natural disaster, should also be considered in the context of economic crises.”

Um, HR departments are concerned solely with liability avoidance. And some parties like debt collectors seek to increase the psychological pain of those who are in economic trouble as part of their business model.

As Lambert often says about neoliberalism, one plank in the model is for old people to die faster, and higher suicides speed that process along. It’s not easy to make the smug and the abusive feel ashamed of their conduct, since they are confident they’d never wind up as losers, when the reality is that the odds are much higher than they dare imagine.

News Mon, 02 Mar 2015 09:17:28 -0500
The Federal Reserve Board's Plan to Kill Jobs

There is an enormous amount of political debate over various pieces of legislation that are supposed to be massive job killers. While there is great concern in Washington over imaginary job killers, the Federal Reserve Board is openly mapping out an actual job-killing strategy and drawing almost no attention at all for it. The Fed's plans to raise interest rates are rarely spoken of as hurting employment, but job-killing is really at the center of the story.

The Fed’s plans to raise interest rates are rarely spoken of as hurting employment, but job-killing is really at the center of the story. (Photo: US Federal Reserve via Shutterstock)The Fed's plans to raise interest rates are rarely spoken of as hurting employment, but job-killing is really at the center of the story. (Image: US Federal Reserve via Shutterstock)

There is an enormous amount of political debate over various pieces of legislation that are supposed to be massive job killers. For example, Republicans lambasted President Obama’s increase in taxes on the wealthy back in 2013 as a job killer. They endlessly have condemned the Affordable Care Act as a jobs killer. The same is true of proposals to raise the minimum wage.

While there is great concern in Washington over these and other imaginary job killers, the Federal Reserve Board is openly mapping out an actual job-killing strategy and drawing almost no attention at all for it. The Fed’s job-killing strategy centers on its plan to start raising interest rates, which is generally expected to begin at some point this year.

The Fed’s plans to raise interest rates are rarely spoken of as hurting employment, but job-killing is really at the center of the story. The rationale for raising interest rates is that inflation could begin to pick up and start to exceed the Fed’s current 2.0 percent target, if the Fed doesn’t slow the economy with higher interest rates.

Higher interest rates slow the economy by discouraging people from borrowing to buy homes or cars. They will also have some effect in discouraging businesses from investing. With reduced demand from these sectors, businesses will hire fewer workers. This will weaken the labor market, which means workers have less bargaining power. If workers have less bargaining power, they will be less well-situated to get pay increases. And if wages are not rising there will be less inflationary pressure in the economy.

The potential impact of Fed rate hikes on jobs is large. Suppose the Fed raises interest rates enough to shave 0.2 percentage points off the growth rate, say pushing growth for the year down from 2.4 percent to 2.2 percent. If we assume employment growth drops roughly in proportion to GDP growth, this would imply a reduction in the rate of job growth of almost 10 percent. If the economy would have otherwise created 2.4 million jobs over the course of the year, the Fed’s rate hikes would have cost the economy more than 200,000 jobs in this scenario.

For comparison purposes, we are having a big fight over the Keystone pipeline. The proponents of the pipeline point to the jobs created by building a pipeline as an important justification, even if the oil being pumped through the pipeline may cause enormous damage to the environment. According to the State Department’s analysis, building the pipeline would create 21,000 for two years. This pipeline related jobs gain has been widely touted in the media and is supposed to make it difficult for many members of Congress to go along with President Obama in opposing Keystone.

Yet, the Fed can easily destroy ten times as many jobs with a set of interest rate hikes this year with its actions passing largely unnoticed. In fact, the impact of Fed interest rate hikes on jobs can easily be far larger than this 200,000 number. If the Fed decides that the unemployment rate should not fall below a certain level (5.4 percent is a number is often used), then it could be costing the economy millions of jobs if the economy could actually sustain a considerably lower level of unemployment as it did in the late 1990s.

To be clear, Federal Reserve Board Chair Janet Yellen and her colleagues on the Fed’s Open Market Committee (FOMC) that determines interest rates are not evil people sitting around figuring out how to ruin the lives of American workers. The Fed has a legal mandate to control inflation, in addition to its mandate to sustain high levels of unemployment. If they raise interest rates it will be because they fear inflationary pressures will build if they let the economy continue to grow and unemployment to fall.

But this is inevitably a judgment call. The call is based on both their assessment of the risk of inflation and also the relative harm from higher rates of inflation as opposed to higher rates of unemployment. It is likely that the members of the FOMC, who largely come from the financial industry, are much more concerned about inflation than the population as a whole. They are also likely to be less concerned about unemployment. These are people who tend to read about unemployment in the data, not to see it themselves or among their friends and family members.

This is why it is important that the public be paying attention to the Fed’s interest rate policies and let them know how they feel about raising interest rates to kill jobs. The Center for Popular Democracy has organized an impressive grassroots campaign around the Fed’s interest rate policies. Those who don’t want to see the government deliberately trying to kill jobs might want to join in. 

Opinion Mon, 02 Mar 2015 09:09:12 -0500
In Anti-Discrimination Suit, Haiping Su Took on Big Government and Won

Dr. Haiping Su was a victim of racial profiling and he sued the United States government and NASA for smearing his reputation, invading his privacy, depriving him of realizing his full career potential and causing him emotional stress and mental anguish. He sued to clear his name and asked for $5.2 million in damages.

Six years later, after various delays, legal maneuvers and challenges, the judge heard the arguments and ruled in favor of the plaintiff, namely Dr. Su, and against the defendant, in this rare case the U.S. government. As compensation for damages, Su was awarded $10,000.

The lesson of Su’s experience with American justice has implications for all Chinese Americans working in technical disciplines in the United States and is worthy of more detailed examination.

In June 2008, Su was abruptly escorted off the premises of Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California and his access badge taken from him. The only explanation given to him was that he had somehow become a security risk to NASA.

At the time, he had been working for about three years as a staff member of University Affiliated Research Center, operated by UC Santa Cruz under contract to NASA. He had come to the United States from China in 1986, earned his PhD in agriculture science from Kansas State five years later and became a U.S. citizen. His work for NASA related to his technical expertise. The work was non-classified.

Approximately a month after getting his new identification badge to Ames in January 2008, the FBI asked to interview him for a “background check.” The FBI did not approach any other member of his work group for a similar sort of background interview.

There was a second interview in March at the end of which he was told that he needed to take a lie detector test. Afterwards, the FBI agent told him that he “did not do well” on the polygraph test but did not otherwise explain why Su was being investigated.

Early in April, Su was grilled by four people representing FBI and NASA security to “clarify issues raised by the polygraph.” Then on June 24, Su was handed a letter signed by Robert Dolci, head of security at Ames, stating that his continued presence constituted a security risk and he was escorted off the premises.

Dolci then called a meeting of Su’s coworkers and to their surprise, informed them that Su constituted a security risk. Some of his coworkers later testified that Dolci implied that Su was removed from NASA Ames because he took money from a foreign government.

Early in July, Su’s supervisor at UCSC issued a letter of dismissal because he had allegedly failed the lie detector test. Fortunately for Su, his supervisor compared the flimsy accusations against Su’s exemplary work record and decided to rescind his letter of dismissal. He simply asked Su to telecommute and continue working from his home.

Su was understandably distraught by the treatment he received. He contacted me and his story was still fresh in my mind when I happened to attend a recent Silicon Valley dinner meeting for technical professionals. Jim McManis, partner in charge at McManis Faulkner, a prominent law firm in San Jose, was the speaker and he spoke about fair employment practices.

I was impressed by his forthrightness and his attitude about the importance of being fair, so I related Su’s story to him. McManis was appalled and invited Su to contact him. His willingness to take up Su’s case without fee made the historic lawsuit possible.

McManis’ firm filed the complaint on behalf of Su against NASA and the FBI on the grounds that Su was not involved in classified work, had no criminal history, was never told of the charges against him nor given a chance to defend himself, and lastly was not told of his right to appeal.

The complaint further charged that NASA, in handling this case, did not follow their own internal procedure and policy and thus deprived Su of due process, ruined his reputation and caused undue hardship and mental anguish.

In the court hearing, testimony by Su and his wife indicated that he had suffered greatly from this experience. His wife testified that Su had undergone a personality change from outgoing to reclusive, from engaging to distrustful of people, and suffered from frequent bouts of depression.

The trial judge acknowledged that Dolci invaded Su’s privacy but he was unable to accurately assess damages done to Su, because Su continued to be employed. In the end, the judge found for Su a sum of $10,000 as compensation for damages he suffered.

After the judge rendered his verdict, I asked Su if he felt vindicated and if he had any regrets. He said that even though it became a six-year nightmare and he had to pay a personal price suffering from insomnia and hypertension, he would do it again.

He was convinced that the only way to stop racism was to stand up and object. He didn’t fight just for himself, he said, but also for all Chinese Americans working in the U.S.

The Wen Ho Lee case at the turn of the century was perhaps the most notorious, but racial prejudice since then against professional Chinese Americans working in technical disciplines has not subsided.

Chinese Americans have continued to be accused, harassed, and thrown out of work. Subjected to personal ordeal, including sitting in jail without bail, the victims frequently find the government accusers lose interest and drop all charges—not before, of course, having inflicted financial devastation and character destruction on their hapless victims.

Su’s case is exemplary only in that the culprit – the government in this case – did not get away with discriminatory actions and that Su was willing to take on the legal challenge, despite the personal cost.

Opinion Sun, 01 Mar 2015 11:55:28 -0500
"A Red Letter Day" at the FCC: Net Neutrality Wins

There was snow in Washington, DC, Thursday morning, which always throws the federal capital into tailspins. So the marching band that the media reform group Free Press had hired to throw a parade for Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler canceled, the wimps. Nevertheless, a small, hearty group of activists braved the flurries and slippery streets to gather outside the FCC before the day’s historic meeting. They were there to thank Wheeler and celebrate the imminent passage of new rules to protect Net neutrality and preserve a free and open Internet.

“You did this,” Free Press President Craig Aaron told the gathering, as they held up signs and stamped their feet against the cold. “This is your victory, we did it together. Today, we celebrate. Tomorrow, we defend this win in Congress, in the courts and in the streets.”

Another speaker exclaimed, “It’s snowing and we’re winning Net neutrality,” as former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, now an adviser to Common Cause, joked, “This is democracy as pure as the driven snow. Who says people power can’t work?” He added, “Don’t be surprised if this isn’t in court by nightfall, but the decision will stand.”

To see more stories like this, visit Moyers & Company at Truthout.

Others anticipated extended saber rattling among members of Congress opposed to Net neutrality, with some worried about a possible conservative attempt to punish the FCC by interfering with its budget. On Thursday, it was announced that Chairman Wheeler and the four other commissioners, Democrats and Republicans, will testify at a March 18 oversight hearing called by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune to “allow me and my colleagues to directly question the chairman about the overreaching broadband order.”

But the official decision hadn’t actually been made yet. The FCC meeting did not begin until 10:30 a.m., delayed by the weather. The room was packed; unusual, if not unprecedented for an open commission meeting. The Democratic commissioners arrived first, and then something even more unusual and unprecedented occurred: a sustained, standing ovation as Wheeler took his seat.

Almost the first hour was spent on another decision, preempting state laws in North Carolina and Tennessee and allowing two community broadband providers to expand service. This move by the FCC, another decisive step toward making the Internet more accessible, teed up what was to come next.

Before each commissioner explained how he or she would vote, one last, brief panel told those assembled why Net neutrality was so important. Speakers included Chad Dickerson, CEO of the handicrafts website Etsy; and Veena Sud, writer and executive producer of the TV series The Killing (she explained how an open Internet had saved her series twice: once when fan demand over the web kept the show going; the second time when its final season was bankrolled and distributed by Netflix). Also appearing — via shaky video from Britain — Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, who declared that the new Net neutrality rules would preserve, “the ethos of permissionless innovation.”

Then came Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn – “We are here to ensure there is only one Internet,” she said. “…We want to enable those with deep pockets as well as those with empty pockets the same opportunities.” She thanked the American people “for your amazing role in framing this historic order… Today, because of your efforts, we are better able to allow millions of Americans to tell their stories.”

Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said, “We have … a duty to protect what has made the Internet the most dynamic platform for free speech ever invented. It is our printing press. It is our town square. It is our individual soapbox – and our shared platform for opportunity.”

The two Republican commissioners dissented, at length. Ajit Pai claimed, “If this order manages to survive judicial review, these will be the consequences: higher broadband prices, slower broadband speed, less broadband deployment, less innovation, and fewer options for American consumers.” And Michael O’Rielly said that in the new rules, “every bad idea ever floated in the name of Net neutrality has come home to roost” and decried “substantial factual errors underlying the decision.”

Finally, it was Chairman Wheeler’s turn. Just weeks ago, he had been accused of vacillation and undermining Net neutrality with a plethora of ifs and buts that would diminish its effectiveness. But on Thursday he appeared resolute. “This is no more a plan to regulate the Internet than the First Amendment is a plan to regulate freedom of speech,” he declared, and added, “This is the FCC using every tool in our toolbox to protect innovators and consumers.”

Wheeler declared it a “red letter day” and took the vote. As the clock struck 1 p.m. Thursday, he banged down the gavel and another standing ovation erupted as he announced passage of the new rules. At a press conference just minutes later, Wheeler announced, “This is the proudest day of my public policy life.”

You can read here the official FCC press release and the statements of each of the five commissioners.

News Sun, 01 Mar 2015 11:25:17 -0500