Truthout Stories Thu, 18 Dec 2014 13:22:25 -0500 en-gb The Senate Drone Report of 2019: Looking Back on Washington's War on Terror

It was December 6, 2019, three years into a sagging Clinton presidency and a bitterly divided Congress. That day, the 500-page executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s long fought-over, much-delayed, heavily redacted report on the secret CIA drone wars and other American air campaigns in the 18-year-long war on terror was finally released.  That day, committee chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) took to the Senate floor, amid the warnings of his Republican colleagues that its release might “inflame” America’s enemies leading to violence across the Greater Middle East, and said:

“Over the past couple of weeks, I have gone through a great deal of introspection about whether to delay the release of this report to a later time. We are clearly in a period of turmoil and instability in many parts of the world. Unfortunately, that's going to continue for the foreseeable future, whether this report is released or not. There may never be the 'right' time to release it. The instability we see today will not be resolved in months or years. But this report is too important to shelve indefinitely.  The simple fact is that the drone and air campaigns we have launched and pursued these last 18 years have proven to be a stain on our values and on our history.”

Though it was a Friday afternoon, normally a dead zone for media attention, the response was instant and stunning.  As had happened five years earlier with the committee’s similarly fought-over report on torture, it became a 24/7 media event.  The “revelations” from the report poured out to a stunned nation.  There were the CIA’s own figures on the hundreds of children in the backlands of Pakistan and Yemen killed by drone strikes against “terrorists” and “militants.”  There were the “double-tap strikes” in which drones returned after initial attacks to go after rescuers of those buried in rubble or to take out the funerals of those previously slain.  There were the CIA’s own statistics on the stunning numbers of unknown villagers killed for every significant and known figure targeted and finally taken out (1,147 dead in Pakistan for 41 men specifically targeted).  There were the unexpected internal Agency discussions of the imprecision of the robotic weapons always publicly hailed as “surgically precise” (and also of the weakness of much of the intelligence that led them to their targets).  There was the joking and commonplace use of dehumanizing language (“bug splat” for those killed) by the teams directing the drones.  There were the “signature strikes,” or the targeting of groups of young men of military age about whom nothing specifically was known, and of course there was the raging argument that ensued in the media over the “effectiveness” of it all (including various emails from CIA officials admitting that drone campaigns in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen had proven to be mechanisms not so much for destroying terrorists as for creating new ones).

There were the new tidbits of information on the workings of the president’s “kill list” and the convening of “terror Tuesday” briefings to target specific individuals around the world.  There were the insider discussions of ongoing decisions to target American citizens abroad for assassination by drone without due process of law and the revealing emails in which participants up to presidential advisers discussed how exactly to craft the exculpatory “legal” documents for those acts at the Department of Justice. 

Above all, to an unsuspecting nation, there was the shocking revelation that American air power had, in the course of those years, destroyed in whole or in part at least nine wedding parties, including brides, grooms, family members, and revelers, involving the deaths of hundreds of wedding goers in at least three countries of the Greater Middle East.  This revelation shocked the nation, resulting in headlines ranging from the Washington Post’s sober “Wedding Tally Revealed” to the New York Post’s “Bride and Boom!

But while all of that created headlines, the main debate was over the “effectiveness” of the White House’s and CIA’s drone campaigns.  As Senator Wyden insisted that day in his speech:

“If you read the many case studies in the executive summary of our report, it will be unmistakable not only how ineffective American air power has been over these years, but how, for every ‘bad guy’ taken out, the air strikes were, in the end, a mechanism for the mass creation of terrorists and a continuing, powerful recruitment tool for jihadist and al-Qaeda-linked organizations across the Greater Middle East and Africa.  If you doubt me, just count the jihadis in our world on September 10, 2001, and today in the areas of Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, and Somalia where our major drone campaigns have taken place, as well, of course, as in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Then tell me with a straight face that they ‘worked.’”

As with the 2014 torture report, so the responses of those deeply implicated in the drone assassination campaigns and the loosing of American air power more generally in the backlands of the planet put on display the full strength of the American national security state.  It was no surprise, of course, when CIA Director David Petraeus (on his second tour of duty at the Agency) held the usual Langley, Virginia, news conference -- an unknown event until then-Director John Brennan first held one in December 2014 to dispute the Senate torture report.  There, as the New York Times described it, Petraeus criticized the latest report for being “‘flawed,’ ‘partisan,’ and ‘frustrating,’ and pointed out numerous disagreements that he had with its damning conclusions about the CIA’s drone program.”

The real brunt of the attack, however, came from prominent former CIA officials, including former directors George Tenet (“You know, the image that’s been portrayed is we sat around the campfire and said, ‘Oh boy, now we go get to assassinate people.’  We don’t assassinate people.  Let me say that again to you, we don’t assassinate people. O.K.?”); Mike Hayden (“If the world had acted as American air power has done in these years, many people who shouldn’t have gotten married wouldn’t have gotten married and the world would be a saner place for marriage.”); and Brennan himself (“Whatever your views are on our drone program, our nation and in particular this agency did a lot of things right during a difficult time to keep this country strong and secure and you should be thanking them, not undermining them.”).  Hayden, Brennan, and national security, intelligence, and Pentagon officials also blanketed the news and the Sunday morning talk shows.  Former CIA Director of Public Affairs Bill Harlow, who had set up the website to defend the patriotic honor of the Agency at the time of the release of the Senate torture report, repeated the process five years later with the website

Former CIA Director Leon Panetta repeated his classic statement of 2009, insisting to a range of media interviewers that the drone campaign was not just “effective,” but still “the only game in town in terms of confronting or trying to disrupt the al-Qaeda leadership.”  Former President Barack Obama did an interview with NBC News from his new presidential library, still under construction in Chicago, saying in part, “We assassinated some folks, but those who did so were American patriots working in a time of great stress and fear.  Assassination may have been necessary and understandable in the moment, but it is not who we are.”  And 78-year-old former Vice President Dick Cheney, who appeared on Fox News from his Wyoming ranch, insisted that the new Senate report, like the old one, was a “gob of unpatriotic hooey.”  President Hillary Clinton, interviewed by BuzzFeed, said of the report, "One of the things that sets us apart from other countries is that when we make mistakes, we admit them."  She did not, however, go on to admit that the still ongoing drone program or even the wedding air strikes were “mistakes.”

On December 11th, as everyone knows, the mass junior high school shootings in Wisconsin occurred and media attention quite understandably shifted there, 24/7.  On December 13th, Reuters reported that a drone attack in Pakistan’s tribal borderlands, which was “suspected” of killing seven “militants,” including possibly an al-Qaeda sub-commander -- local residents reported that two children and a 70-year-old elder had been among the dead -- was the thousandth drone strike in the CIA’s secret wars in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.

Running a Criminal Enterprise in Washington

It’s not 2019, of course.  We don’t know whether Hillary Clinton will be elected president or Ron Wyden reelected to the Senate, no less whether he’ll become the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee in a body once again controlled by Democrats, or whether there will ever be a torture-report-style investigation of the “secret” drone assassination campaigns the White House, the CIA, and the U.S. military have been running across the backlands of the planet. 

Still, count me among the surprised if, in 2019, some part or parts of the U.S. national security state and the White House aren’t still running drone campaigns that cross national borders with impunity, kill whomever those in Washington choose in “terror Tuesday” meetings or target in “signature strikes,” take out American citizens if it pleases the White House to do so, and generally continue to run what has proven to be a global war for (not on) terror.

When it comes to all of this “secret” but remarkably well-publicized behavior, as with the CIA’s torture program, the U.S. has been making up the future rules of the road for the rest of the world.  It has created a gold standard for assassination and torture by green-lighting “rectal rehydration” (a euphemism for anal rape) and other grim acts.  In the process, it has cooked up self-serving explanations and justifications for actions that would outrage official Washington and the public generally if any other country committed them.

This piece, of course, is not really about the future, but the past and what we should already know about it.  What’s most remarkable about the Senate torture report is that -- except for the odd, grim detail like “rectal rehydration” -- we should never have needed it.  Black sites, torture techniques, the abusing of innocents -- the essential information about the nightmarish Bermuda Triangle of injustice the Bush administration set up after 9/11 has been publicly available, in many instances for years.

Those “2019” revelations about drone assassination campaigns and other grim aspects of the loosing of American air power in the Greater Middle East have been on the public record for years, too.  In truth, we shouldn’t be in any doubt about much of what’s billed as “secret” in our American world.  And the lessons to be drawn from those secret acts should be obvious enough without spending another $40 million and studying yet more millions of classified documents for years.

Here are three conclusions that should now be obvious enough when it comes to Washington’s never-ending war on terror and the growth of the national security state.

1. Whatever grim actions are the focus of debate at the moment, take it for granted that they don’t “work” because nothing connected to the war on terror has worked: The coverage of the Senate torture report has been focused on arguments over whether those “enhanced interrogation techniques,” or EITs, “worked” in the years after 9/11 (as in 2019, the coverage would undoubtedly focus on whether drone assassination campaigns had worked).  The executive summary of the Senate report has already offered numerous cases where information gained through torture practices did not produce actionable intelligence or stop terror plots or save lives, though misinformation from them might have helped embolden the Bush administration in its invasion of Iraq.

Bush administration officials, former CIA directors, and the intelligence “community” in general have vociferously insisted on the opposite.  Six former top CIA officials, including three former directors, publicly claimed that those torture techniques “saved thousands of lives.”  The truth, however, is that we shouldn’t even be having a serious discussion of this issue.  We know the answer.  We knew it long before the redacted executive summary of the Senate report was released.  Torture didn’t work, because 13 years of the war on terror has offered a simple enough lesson: nothing worked.

You name it and it failed.  It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about invasions, occupations, interventions, small conflicts, raids, bombing runs, secret operations, offshore “black sites,” or god knows what else -- none of it came close to succeeding by even the most minimal standards set in Washington.  In this period, many grim things were done and most of them blew back, creating more enemies, new Islamic extremist movements, and even a jihadist mini-state in the heart of the Middle East that, fittingly enough, was essentially founded at Camp Bucca, an American military prison in Iraq.  Let me repeat that: if Washington did it any time in the last 13 years, whatever it was, it didn’t work. Period.

2. In national security and war terms, only one thing has “worked” in these years and that’s the national security state itself: Every blunder, every disaster, every extreme act that proved a horror in the world also perversely strengthened the national security state.  In other words, the crew that couldn’t shoot straight could do no wrong when it came to their own agencies and careers.

No matter how poorly or badly or stupidly or immorally or criminally agents, operatives, war fighters, private contractors, and high officials acted or what they ordered done, each disaster in this period was like a dose of further career enhancement, like manna from heaven, for a structure that ate taxpayer dollars for lunch and grew in unprecedented ways, despite a world that lacked all significant enemies.  In these years, the national security state entrenched itself and its methods in Washington for the long run. The Department of Homeland Security expanded; the 17 interlocked intelligence agencies that made up the U.S. intelligence community exploded; the Pentagon grew endlessly; the corporate “complexes” that surrounded and meshed with an increasingly privatized national security apparatus had a field day.  And the various officials who oversaw every botched operation and sally into the world, including the torture regime the Bush administration created, were almost to a man promoted, as well as honored in various ways and, in retirement, found themselves further honored and enriched.  The single lesson from all of this for any official was: whatever you do, however rash, extreme, or dumb beyond imagining, whatever you don’t accomplish, whomever you hurt, you are enriching the national security state -- and that’s a good thing.

3. Nothing Washington did could ever qualify as a “war crime” or even a straightforward crime because, in national security terms, our wartime capital has become a crime-free zoneAgain, this is an obvious fact of our era.  There can be no accountability (hence all the promotions) and especially no criminal accountability inside the national security state.  While the rest of us are still in legal America, its officials are in what I’ve long called “post-legal” America and in that state, neither torture (to the point of death), nor kidnapping and assassination, nor destroying evidence of criminal activity, perjury, or the setting up of an extralegal prison system are crimes.  The only possible crime in national security Washington is whistleblowing.  On this, too, the evidence is in and the results speak for themselves.  The post-9/11 moment has proven to be an eternal “get out of jail free card” for the officials of two administrations and the national security state. 

Unfortunately, the obvious points, the simple conclusions that might be drawn from the last 13 years go unnoticed in a Washington where nothing, it seems, can be learned.  As a result, for all the sound and fury of this torture moment, the national security state will only grow stronger, more organized, more aggressively ready to defend itself, while ridding itself of the last vestiges of democratic oversight and control.

There is only one winner in the war on terror and it’s the national security state itself.  So let’s be clear, despite its supporters who regularly hail the "patriotism" of such officials, and despite an increasingly grim world filled with bad guys, they are not the good guys and they are running what, by any normal standards, should be considered a criminal enterprise.

See you in 2019.

Opinion Thu, 18 Dec 2014 12:26:36 -0500
SCOTUS Rules Workers Don't Need to Be Paid for All Their Time Working

Stories of the horrid conditions for workers in Amazon warehouses have been trickling out for years: The temperatures at the warehouses vary wildly, with some workers having to work in sub-zero conditions, others passing out from days where the temperature soared above 100 degrees, workers crying from not being able to keep up the brutal pace demanded, and then being threatened with termination for crying. And we can now add another indignity to the list, coming yesterday at the hands of the US Supreme Court, which ruled in a 9-0 decision that it is legal for Amazon warehouse workers not to be paid for a portion of their workday.

At the end of long, taxing shifts at warehouses, Amazon requires workers to go through security screenings to ensure that no one has stolen anything from the warehouse. Because Amazon does not hire enough security guards or stagger the quitting times of the workers, these screenings add an additional 25 minutes to each employee’s shift. These workers sued, arguing that under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the staffing company that hired them to work in Amazon warehouses was required to pay them for the time spent in these security checks.

Writing for a unanimous court in Integrity Staffing Solutions v. Busk, Justice Clarence Thomas disagreed. (Though the workers work at an Amazon warehouse, they are hired through the intermediary staffing company, Integrity Staffing Solutions.)

At issue was a provision that Congress placed in the Portal-to-Portal Act of 1947, which amended the FLSA by excluding “activities which are preliminary to or postliminary to said principal activity or activities.”  The courts have included in the definition of “principal activities” anything that is “integral and indispensable” to the principal activities. In other words, as the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals (which found in favor of the workers) stated, the test is whether the activity is necessary for the work being performed and done for the benefit of the employer.

Justice Thomas disagreed, turning to at least two dictionaries for clarity. Using the Oxford English Dictionary, Justice Thomas found that “integral” means “forming an intrinsic portion or element, as distinguished from an adjunct or appendage.” Using Webster’s New International Dictionary (2nd Ed.), Justice Thomas found that “indispensable” means “a duty that cannot be dispensed with, remitted, set aside, disregarded or neglected.” So, he concluded, an activity is a “principal activity” only when it includes one that “is an intrinsic element of those activities and one with which the employee cannot dispense if he is to perform his principal activities.”

Using this tidy definition, Justice Thomas explains that the workers are not eligible for pay for the time they spend in the security screenings. The screenings are not the principal activity of Amazon because they were not hired to go through screenings, and they are not integral and indispensable because Amazon could have easily eliminated the screenings. The Court’s argument, then, is that because it is unnecessary for Amazon to execute long security screenings to conduct its business, it need not pay these workers for the required time they spend in these screenings.

By its own logic, the Supreme Court’s decision fails. The Court discussed other cases where workers’ preliminary time was compensable and tried to distinguish them. In one case, the Court held that employers had to pay meatpackers who had to sharpen their knives, “because dull knives would slow down production on the assembly line, affect the appearance of the meat as well as the quality of the hides, cause waste and lead to accidents.”

Amazon’s warehouses work off of extreme efficiency and knowledge of where every one of millions of items are at any given time. For Amazon, the possibility of worker theft would be even more damaging to its business than most retailers because Amazon uses a system of “chaotic storage.” Under this system, items are not shelved in categories, but rather in a seemingly random manner based on empty shelve space.

If an item cannot be found using a scanner (as a result of a theft, for example), there is no simple workaround, and Amazon’s famed efficiency would suffer. Amazon is thus concerned about theft not only because of the monetary loss of the stolen product, but also because theft slows down their warehouse efficiency—a cornerstone of their business model. So if theft is as big of a concern as the retailer has alleged (and a big enough concern to hire security guards to screen workers at the end of every shift), it would seriously impair Amazon’s efficiency at least as much as dull knives would slow down meatpacking productions.

Perhaps the Supreme Court’s decision is unsurprising. In opposition to these Amazon warehouse workers, who may occupy some of the worst jobs in America, was an alliance of some of the nation’s largest corporations and trade groups, the National League of Cities, the National Association of Counties and the United States Government.  

This alliance of business and government has now opened up the door for increased worker abuses and wage theft.  There is nothing stopping Amazon and other retailers from trying to save more money by laying off security staff that conduct screenings and make the workers wait longer. Now, after a long day of backbreaking labor, these workers may have to wait in hour-long lines for a security screening—a screening that everyone from Justice Clarence Thomas on down has agreed is inessential.

News Thu, 18 Dec 2014 11:44:33 -0500
The Perils of Criminal Justice "Reform" and the Promise of Abolition

2014.12.18.Prison.main"We must question the entire enterprise known as 'criminal justice,' " says Nancy A. Heitzeg. (Image via Shutterstock)To read more stories like this, visit Smoke and Mirrors: Inside the New 'Bipartisan Prison Reform' Agenda.

In an interview with Democracy Now! in early 2014, Angela Davis reminded us again that there is power in struggle, there is opportunity in the moment, but warned us too of the potential pitfalls of “criminal justice reform.” Given all that has transpired this year, her words are well worth revisiting now as 2014 grinds to a close.

Well, yes. I think that this is a pivotal moment. There are openings. And I think it’s very important to point out that people have been struggling over these issues for years and for decades. This is also a problematic moment. And those of us who identify as prison abolitionists, as opposed to prison reformers, make the point that oftentimes reforms create situations where mass incarceration becomes even more entrenched; and so, therefore, we have to think about what in the long run will produce decarceration, fewer people behind bars, and hopefully, eventually, in the future, the possibility of imagining a landscape without prisons, where other means are used to address issues of harm, where social problems, such as illiteracy and poverty, do not lead vast numbers of people along a trajectory that leads to prison.

Prescient words. 2014 was a year of much Smoke and Mirrors. It was a year filled with Right on Crime and Justice Reinvestment Leadership Summits, Koch brothers funded panels where right-wing criminal justice “reform” was touted as a bipartisan “uniting of left and right,” and a flurry of proposed federal legislation (right-wing in origin but billed as bipartisan) that would purportedly tackle mandatory minimums for drug crimes, decriminalization  of marijuana, federal prison recidivism, and the militarization of the police.  With “criminal justice reform” now on the national radar, careful examination of the details of these proposals becomes more important than ever.  As James Kilgore observes in Prop 47, Immigration Reform and More: The Contradictory Road of “Reforming” Mass Incarceration:

Mass incarceration has landed on the political agenda at both the national and local levels. But sometimes separating real change from rhetoric and contradictory processes, depicted as “much-needed reforms,” poses major challenges. Moreover, at times, liberal observers and certain nonprofits may have an emotional or financial stake in presenting a picture far rosier – or more dismal – than reality.

The complexities of … policy changes remind us that to advance the struggle against mass incarceration further, the growth of a social movement capable of unpacking those complexities and mobilizing people into action remains the key to transformation of the criminal justice system.

Unpacking these complexities requires a look behind the veneer of buzzwords – sentencing reform! decriminalization! evidence-based! cost effective! community safety! – into the devilish details of proposed legislation. It requires too, the demand that the structural racism, classism and hetero-patriarchy at the heart of the mass incarceration machine be centered in all proposals for reform, hitherto ignored in the reformist agenda. Ultimately, it requires an interrogation of the “logic” of reform itself, and an eternal vigilance with regard to the question of whether the proposed reforms actually decrease those under correctional supervision, or instead, widen the net in both expected and unanticipated ways.

Consider the recent calls for “police reform” that have emerged in the wake of Ferguson. The killing of Mike Brown sparked renewed demands for police body camera in cities across the nation, including in Ferguson. In the wake of the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, President Obama proposed a program that would review how local police departments utilize military equipment, create a new commission to study police/community relations, and most immediately, seek $263 million in funding for fifty thousand police body cameras.

The use of body cameras is no panacea. Law enforcement agencies have no uniform policies for the use of body cameras or for collection, storage, and integrity of the recorded data. The few studies conducted on their use have produced mixed results, although it should be noted that the most glowing studies are industry funded by TASER International, the major producer of body cameras. TASER stands to make millions of dollars here, for another technology that is sold to us as protecting the public, but marketed to police as a tool for citizen surveillance. (Anyone who recalls the initial pitch for the arming of police with TASERS will recognize this ruse. It was argued that police would kill fewer citizens by relying on this “less than lethal” technology.  Instead, TASERS have been turned into torture devices and lethal weapons unto themselves resulting, on average, in at least one death per week. As for  a reduction in police killings by other means? We know all too well how that has worked out.)

Beyond this, the non-indictment of Daniel Pantaleo for the videotaped killing of Eric Garner via a choke-hold that had been banned for more than 20 years, ripped away again hope that the existence of body cam footage would hold police accountable. (In fact, the only indictment in the Garner case was that of Ramsey Orta, the man who videotaped the killing). As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes in No More Eric Garners:

The announcement from the White House barely had time to make a ripple before the non-indictment of Garner’s killer reduced the plan to a pile of junk. In one stroke, the idea that body cameras would make a decisive difference in whether a police officer would be held responsible for the death of an innocent and unarmed person collapsed — and with it, the centerpiece of Obama’s reforms.

The focus on body cameras assumes that the reason violent and brutal police aren’t punished is because of the absence of visual evidence or proof. But this has nothing to do with it, as the Garner case makes clear. Instead, violence in American policing goes unpunished because the criminalization of black people has legitimized brutality, humiliation, incarceration, and even murder as reasonable practices.

There it is. The proposed police reforms will actually enhance police power by providing them with more economic and technological resources  that can easily be turned against the public, all while failing to address the foundational issue of police as the avant-garde of white supremacy. (For future reference, please see Mariame Kaba’s list at Prison Culture: Police “Reforms” You Should Always Oppose)

Consider too recent movement towards “decriminalization,” most famously illustrated by California Proposition 47 but also in evidence elsewhere. Proposition 47: The Safe Neighborhood and Schools Act of 2014 reclassifies several drug and property crimes as misdemeanors and promises to reduce the state prison population. Another one of those right-rooted “bipartisan” efforts, Prop 47 was highly touted before passage with serious questions emerging only later. One major set of concerns is related to the funding that is supposed to support efforts to curb truancy and offer substance abuse and mental health treatment. Dispersal of the majority of funds, however, is the jurisdiction of the  Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC), and it remains uncertain as to whether the funds might instead be allocated for police in schools, surveillance cameras, or expanded jails for privatized mental health “treatment.”

In addition, there are doubts as to the potential overall impact on the state’s incarceration rates given the shell game of Governor Brown’s realignment plan which has shifted inmates from state prisons to county jails and into private prisons. Even in lieu of Prop 47’s new measures, it is highly possible that misdeamants may still end up in jail. Decriminalization is not legalization. As illustrated in Community Corrections: Profiteering, Corruption and Widening the Net, the burden of fines and fees and for-profit companies still leaves the possibility of more extensive correctional control including probation and jail. In Opinion: Prop 47 empties prisons but opens a can of worms, Alexandra Natapoff echoes these concerns:

To understand the irony of a reform that seeks to make the system more fair but may actually make it less so, remember that decriminalization does not make conduct legal. It just changes the punishment — typically by eliminating incarceration… It turns out that people are still being punished for decriminalized offenses, often heavily, in ways that slip beneath the public radar. And because such offenses do not trigger the right to counsel, thousands of individuals are getting convicted — along with fines they might not be able to pay — without legal assistance or full information.

People are often surprised to learn that they can still be arrested for a decriminalized offense. Although such offenses are often lauded as “non-arrestable,” the label is misleading. The U.S. Supreme Court says that police can constitutionally arrest for non-arrestable or fine-only offenses, even when state law explicitly tells them not to. In many jurisdictions, police can choose between issuing a summons (a ticket) or making an arrest. To be sure, decriminalization often reduces arrest rates (it has in California), but it doesn’t have to (it hasn’t in Nebraska or in Chicago’s African American neighborhoods).

In fact, there is evidence that decriminalization does tend to magnify the already significant race and class gaps in arrest and incarceration. Blacks remain much more likely than whites to be arrested for  “low-level” offenses, and the poor remain most heavily burdened by fines. Ultimately Prop 47 and other reforms that are sold as measures to decrease incarceration, may provide new pathways to prison and the profiteering deeply connected to it. And, solidify too, the race/class/gender gulfs that characterize – and always have – the reality of policing and punishment.

As “criminal justice reform” continues to capture public attention, we must never stop asking the hard questions. And ask early and often, because once these measures are enacted, it may be too late.

It is easy to be suspicious of the explicit right-wing agendas that are thinly veiled appeals to private profiteering, a deregulated corporate free-for-all, a rejection of federal civil rights protections via an extreme states’ rights agenda, and an enhanced police/surveillance state. It is more difficult to uncover the reality of exactly what is included in so called “bipartisan” reform. What is being sold is often Right on Crime boiler-plate cosigned by a handful of neoliberal Democrats and large advocacy organizations/foundations. And claims of decarceration or decriminalization in places like Mississippi or California are either outright misrepresentations or are heavily contingent upon funding decisions over which voters have ceded control.

But as we traverse what Kilgore aptly calls the Contradictory Road of “Reforming” Mass Incarceration, let’s question, too, the legitimacy of  well-meaning classically liberal models of  “corrections” and “reform.”  These models can do their own sort of damage. Early this year  right about the time that Angela Davis issued her words of warning – I was reminded of this again at a panel hosted by the Minneapolis League of Women Voters, Interrupting the Prison Pipeline: Partnerships, Prevention, Advocacy, Intervention. The panel included a host of well-connected Minneapolis political, nonprofit and faith-based “leaders.” And despite the claims of “interrupting” in the title, the primary focus was in providing services to those already incarcerated or to ex-offenders in the form of increased employment opportunities via Ban the Box legislation, expanded voting rights for probationers, and more Second Chances.

And of course we are for that. But where was discussion about prevention, alternatives to the criminal legal system, dismantling the school to prison pipeline, and the impetus for the first chances?

Here’s the truth: Minnesota, a couple of anomalies not withstanding, is a Blue state. Minneapolis an even bluer city. The state has one of the lowest incarceration rates in the nation (with fewer people in prison in the entire state than the two largest maximum security prisons in the U.S.. combined), and a Department of Corrections that advertizes its’ “bold set of reforms that created one of the best correctional systems in the nation.” Still, the racial disparities are staggering, with Blacks and American Indians dramatically over-represented, and more than 100,000 on probation/community supervision, a rate, that while declining, is near the top of the nation.

So Minnesota runs a kinder gentler correctional industrial complex, where mostly “nice” white liberals  control vast percentages of select populations (read: Black, Latino, Hmong, East African and American Indian) through racial profiling, community supervision/probation, and by offering an array of “re-entry’ services to those released from our prisons. The entire endeavor is funded and blessed by a complex web that includes Hennepin County government services, the local nonprofit industrial complex, including an array of powerful statewide foundations, “socially responsible” corporations, interfaith coalitions, and elite research think tanks of the University of Minnesota.

It is an obvious improvement over mass incarceration or raw “Right on Crime” profiteering, but it is still a nearly impenetrable economic web that creates and sustains a huge employment sector. These interests insure that the system is always needed, and no issue is ever “solved”, that any grassroots groups that wants funding must jettison the more radical aspects of their agenda, and that innovative community-centered models, such as restorative justice, are immediately co-opted and institutionalized.

Ultimately, we must question this too, and in fact, question the entire enterprise known as “criminal justice.” If the “best” practices still produce an excessive and unnecessary vortex of raced, classed, gendered social control, then alternatives to this must be envisioned as well. We must ask again, with Angela Davis:

So, the question is: How does one address the needs of prisoners by instituting reforms that are not going to create a stronger prison system? Now there are something like two-and-a-half million people behind bars, if one counts all of the various aspects of what we call the prison-industrial complex, including military prisons, jails in Indian country, state and federal prisons, county jails, immigrant detention facilities—which constitute the fastest-growing sector of the prison-industrial complex. Yeah, so how—the question is: How do we respond to the needs of those who are inside, and at the same time begin a process of decarceration that will allow us to end this reliance on imprisonment as a default method of addressing—not addressing, really—major social problems?

And the answer – Abolition.


(This post is an updated and revised version of a post that originally appeared in the Criminal Injustice Series at Critical Mass Progress)

News Thu, 18 Dec 2014 11:41:01 -0500
Little Progress in Lima Climate Talks

2014.12.18.COP20.mainLeaders at the Twentieth Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Climate Change (COP20) in Lima, Peru, November 28, 2014. (Photo: Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores / Flickr)

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With yet another United Nations-hosted climate change conference making very little real progress, a near miracle will be required if countries are to reach a meaningful and binding global agreement on carbon emissions in Paris next December.

The "Lima Call for Climate Action" document, agreed to on Sunday by 194 countries, is not a new "deal" for the climate. It is a 12-month work plan leading to COP (Conference of the Parties) 21 a year from now.

The major change - a victory for rich countries - expects countries with rising economies, such as China and India, to take action on climate change in much the same way rich countries will contribute.

A Gallup poll earlier this year showed that only 24 percent of Americans are worried a great deal about climate change. Twenty-five percent were worried a fair amount. And 51 percent were worried only a little or not at all.

In another setback, developing countries gave up on a 20-year disagreement that had caused considerable animosity between South and North. Rich countries will no longer be expected to carry the burden of cutting carbon emissions in the South with contributions of $10 billion a year to underdeveloped countries.

One of the very few moves forward was a promise that countries already seriously threatened by climate change - such as small islands being swallowed up by rising seas - will receive special compensation for their losses.

Following the meetings, which had to be extended by two days to reach any sort of an agreement, the European Union said "we are on track to agree to a global deal" at the Paris summit. Even so, officials admitted that decisions put off concerning a great many issues will lead to difficult discussions next year.

Many NGOs are angry over what they see as a lack of progress. A frustrated Sam Smith of the World Wildlife Fund said that "the text went from weak to weaker to weakest, and it's very weak indeed."

Rising Temperatures Still a Threat

NGOs warned the plan was not nearly strong enough to limit warming to the internationally agreed limit of 2C (2 degrees Celsius) above preindustrial levels. Already more than 7 million people, mostly in developing countries, are dying prematurely each year from air pollution, closely coupled to climate change.

If the world is to have a meaningful climate change agreement 12 months from now, countries will need to overcome some enormous challenges.

It is hard to see how developing countries will be satisfied with what is likely to happen in Paris. The concessions they made in Peru means they face a larger share of responsibility for fighting climate change.

The South had been hoping to receive $10 billion a year from the North for 10 years for a total of $100 billion, but the commitment was removed from the table in Peru.

The new Peru document says only that wealthy nations will help developing countries fight climate change by investing in energy technology or offering climate aid.

Twenty or 30 years ago, the United States and European countries likely would have been willing to provide several billions a year to poor countries, but now practically every so-called rich country is broke. The United States has committed the largest amount, but only $3 billion.

Pressure on South Major Emitters

Northern countries reiterated in Peru they expect the South's major emitters to begin cutting back on carbon emissions. But this is unlikely to happen any time soon. China and India, the two biggest polluters in the South, say they will need to burn millions of tons of coal in the coming years so they can develop their economies.

The public interest group Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) says that powerful multinational corporations played a big role in making sure that the conference did not meet the expectations of many people present. They say that companies and their lobby organizations convinced Western governments that if stronger emission controls were introduced, many thousands of jobs would be lost.

To the shock of many participants, Shell Oil was permitted to speak at the main session about its preferred way of fighting carbon emissions - carbon capture and storage (CCS), a still unproven technology. Another oil giant, Chevron, was permitted to sponsor side events inside the negotiations.

No wonder the energy giants want to block emission regulations. A well-researched study released in September 2013 found that just 50 corporations were responsible for 73 percent of the greenhouse gas emitted by the world's 500 largest companies. Of the carbon-polluting corporations, the most egregious offenders were within the energy sector, and, as a whole, these companies were doing little to change their ways.

NGOs Kept on the Sidelines

Eighty-two NGOs and one international NGO were accredited as observers at the conference. The various drafts of the agreement were negotiated in secret, and any party making a statement was kept to three minutes.

NGOs had so little status in Lima that they had to get approval from the UN for the slogans placed on their protest banners. Neither countries nor corporations were allowed to be named on the banners. A march by 10,000 protesters had no impact on the proceedings.

Several other broader issues contribute to the lack of progress in combatting carbon emissions.

Civil society in the United States is often a leader in the world, but the environmental movement appears to have lost the battle for the hearts and minds of Americans.

The false claims of climate change skeptics have damaged the will of Americans to tackle climate chaos.

Another problem is that mainstream US media, instead of seeking out the truth about the dangers of carbon emissions, has confused the public by publishing articles expressing both points of view. But in Europe, where climate change is a bigger issue, The Guardian newspaper refuses to carry climate change denial material.

A Gallup poll earlier this year showed that only 24 percent of Americans are worried a great deal about climate change. Twenty-five percent were worried a fair amount. And 51 percent were worried only a little or not at all.

The weaknesses of the US protest movement means there is not nearly enough public pressure on the government to make it move.

Countries to Report by March

Looking ahead to next year, the Peru agreement calls on countries to show by March how they will cut carbon emissions, but there's no penalty if they fail to do so. If they receive enough detailed information, the UN will then see if the pledges will be enough to limit climate warming to 2C. But scientists are already saying projections will be above the 2C target.

Given the track record of most countries of holding back on climate change commitments, it's likely the UN and all 194 countries will be operating in crisis mode again next year.

For now, the delegates are returning home to get some well-deserved rest. But they can be expected to be back working hard within a few days in their effort to try and pull off a miracle 12 months from now.

News Thu, 18 Dec 2014 10:52:45 -0500
The $7 Million University President

In a recent article about Shirley Jackson, the president since 1999 of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)―a private university located in Troy, New York―the Chronicle of Higher Education revealed that, in 2012 (the latest year for which statistics are available), she received over $7 million from that institution. Like many modern campus administrators, President Jackson was also given a large mansion, first class air travel, and a chauffeured luxury car to transport her around the campus.

Thanks to the fact that Jackson also serves on at least five corporate boards, including those of IBM and Marathon Oil, she supplements this income with more than a million dollars a year from these sources.

Despite repeated complaints about Jackson from faculty and students, RPI’s board of trustees has invariably expressed its total confidence in her. Indeed, the board chair recently declared that she is worth every penny of her substantial income. This unwavering support appears to be based not only upon Jackson’s fundraising prowess, but upon the corporate approach that she and the board share.

A key component of this corporate approach is embodied in Jackson’s development and implementation of the Rensselaer Plan, a venture that includes an enormous construction program at a staggering cost. Worried about their institution falling behind rivals in the race to build a high-powered, modern campus, trustees found this university expansion deeply satisfying. But it also meant that RPI ran up its debt to $828 million―over six times its level when Jackson took office. As a result, Moody’s downgraded RPI’s credit rating twice, and describes the financial outlook for RPI as “negative.”

Of course, when operating as a business, there are many ways to pay a top executive’s hefty salary and recoup huge financial losses. As is the practice on other campuses, RPI employs a considerable number of adjunct faculty members―part-timers paid by the course, with pitiful salaries, no benefits, and no guarantee of employment beyond the semester in which they are teaching. One of these adjuncts, Elizabeth Gordon, was paid $4,000 a course―about $10 an hour by her estimates. “Because the pay was so low,” she recalled, “it was like being a volunteer serving the community.” But, as the size of her RPI writing classes grew, she became concerned that the pace of grading, student meetings, and course preparation was undermining her health, which she lacked the insurance to cover. So she quit. Many other adjuncts, however, are still at RPI, scraping by on poverty-level wages and enriching President Jackson.

RPI’s adjuncts once had a voice on campus, as some of them served on RPI’s Faculty Senate. But that came to an end in 2007, when Jackson abolished that entity. From the administration’s standpoint, the abolition of the Senate had the welcome effect of not only depriving adjuncts of their minimal influence, but of crippling the power of regular faculty, as well. The previous year, a faculty vote of no confidence in Jackson’s leadership had been only narrowly defeated. Thus, the administration’s abolition of the Faculty Senate served as a pre-emptive strike. Asked by irate faculty to investigate the situation, the American Association of University Professors condemned the administration’s action as violating the basic principles of shared governance. The administration responded that RPI “has never recognized the role of the AAUP in what we regard as an internal issue.” Ultimately, faculty resistance collapsed, leaving faculty powerlessness and demoralization in its wake.

The Jackson administration, using what union organizers charged were tactics of intimidation, also succeeded in defeating efforts to unionize RPI’s downtrodden campus janitors and cafeteria workers. During one union campaign among janitors, the lead organizer recalled, security guards threw him off campus and the administration fired a janitor on the organizing committee.

In a further effort to cover the administration’s costly priorities, student tuition was raised substantially during the Jackson years. In 2013-14, it reached $45,100―$25,608 above the average tuition at New York’s four-year colleges. Of course, beyond tuition, there are expenses for college fees, room, board, and books, placing RPI’s own estimate of student costs for attendance in 2014-2015 at $64,194. Perhaps to soften the blow to students of this enormous price tag or to signal them about what type of school this is, the RPI web page remarks helpfully that “many of our professors have close ties with top global corporations.”

Having created the very model of an undemocratic, corporate university, President Jackson is appropriately imperious. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, she has a series of rules that are clear to everyone. These include: 1) Only she is authorized to set the temperature in conference rooms; 2) Cabinet members all rise when she enters the room; 3) If food is served at a meeting, vice presidents clear her plate; and 4) She is always to be publicly introduced as “The Honorable Shirley Ann Jackson.” Falling into rages on occasion, she publicly abuses her staff and frequently remarks: “You know, I could fire you all.” In 2011, RPI’s Student Senate passed a resolution criticizing her “abrasive style,” “top-down leadership,” and the climate of “fear” she had instilled among administrators and staff. It even called upon RPI’s board of trustees to consider Jackson’s removal from office. But, once again, the board merely rallied in her defense.

Perhaps, though, the response of the board of trustees is not surprising. After all, developments at RPI are very much in line with trends at institutions of higher education: inflating administration salaries; exploiting adjunct faculty, regular faculty, and other workers; strengthening administration power; raising tuition to astronomical heights; and, above all, running colleges and universities like modern business enterprises. RPI actually presents us with a glimpse of the future of higher education―a future that we might not like very much.

News Thu, 18 Dec 2014 11:13:03 -0500
Democrats Bow Down to Wall Street

John R. MacArthur of Harper’s Magazine says that Republicans and Democrats alike are abandoning the republic in pursuit of big bucks.

Negotiators from the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) are in Washington this week for a new round of talks which they hope will lead them closer to agreement on the trade deal. President Obama has called passage of TPP a “high priority.”

This week, Bill speaks with outspoken veteran journalist John R. MacArthur, president and publisher of Harper’s Magazine, about the problems with TPP, which is being negotiated in secret, behind closed doors. MacArthur says that the “free trade” agreement will take jobs away from Americans: “I guarantee you, this is a way to send more jobs [abroad], particularly to Vietnam and Malaysia.”

Obama’s commitment to trade is just another example of his indebtedness to Wall Street for massive campaign contributions. Hillary Clinton, who MacArthur describes as to the right of Americans’ political beliefs, may be scaring off progressives looking to run in 2016 as she is “very much in harmony” with Wall Street.

“There are a lot of people who would make good candidates, but they’re intimidated by the Clinton fundraising machine.”


BILL MOYERS: Welcome. Trade, money and politics are our issues this week and my guest is the outspoken journalist who runs the iconic Harper’s Magazine, which for 164 years now has thrown open its pages to some of the most ferociously independent voices in American letters, from Mark Twain, Jack London and Herman Melville to William Styron, Joyce Carol Oates and David Foster Wallace.   As the president and publisher of Harper’s for the last 31 years, John R. “Rick” MacArthur has been as ferocious a champion of democracy and journalism as any of those illustrious bylines that have appeared in its pages. I’ve never known him to pull his punches, whether he’s writing in Harper’s, or in his newspaper columns, or in such books as “The Selling of ‘Free Trade,’” an exposé of bipartisan collusion to enact NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and this one, “The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America.” MacArthur’s fierce arrows of outrage are aimed at both political parties, but recently he’s been especially incensed by Democrats for abandoning their progressive roots to serve Wall Street, K Street, and crony capitalists.   Rick MacArthur, welcome.

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Thank you for having me, Bill.

BILL MOYERS: You have opposed these so-called free trade agreements for as long as I have known you. Why isn't anyone listening?

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Well, because the big money doesn't want them to listen. And the editorial pages of most American newspapers are pro-"free trade” quote-unquote. They don't know, or they don't pay attention to what the costs are. Obama himself, in the 2008 campaign, said that NAFTA, North American Free Trade Agreement, had cost the country a million jobs.

But in order to understand what's happening, you got to go to these cities that are being hollowed out and destroyed, like Fostoria, Ohio. I did a big piece about three years ago, for a foreign newspaper, because nobody wants to read it here, about the closure and the moving of the Autolite spark plug plant to Mexicali, Mexico. These--

BILL MOYERS: From Fostoria.

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: From Fostoria, Ohio.

BILL MOYERS: By the way, it was in Ohio that Obama, during the campaign of 2008, made one speech in which he claimed that NAFTA had cost a million jobs, 50,000 of them in Ohio.

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Right. He did it to hurt Hilary Clinton. Because he wanted to hang NAFTA on the Clintons, on the Clinton couple.

BILL MOYERS: Because President Clinton, Bill Clinton--

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Bill Clinton.

BILL MOYERS: --had sponsored it with the Republicans in 1993.

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Because he made a tactical political decision that it would be a great thing to move the Democratic Party to the center, I would call it move it to the right, on matters concerning the working class. The working class today, thanks to what Bill Clinton did on NAFTA, is now becoming, I would call it, the lower class. And--

BILL MOYERS: So you went to this town

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: I went to this town more recently--

BILL MOYERS: Why did you pick Fostoria?

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Well, because Larry Bossidy, who was the CEO of AlliedSignal, which owned Autolite in those days--

BILL MOYERS: Autolite makes spark plugs.

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Autolite makes spark plugs. I actually have a spark plug that I took from the plant here.

It's one of the last ones made there. And Bossidy said, famously, in a debate on CNN that, he held up a spark plug and said--

LARRY BOSSIDY on CNN: The NAFTA Debate, December 1996: Right now, you can’t sell these in Mexico because there’s a 15 percent tariff. If we can, if this NAFTA’s passed and that tariff is removed, we’ll make these in Fostoria, Ohio. We won’t have 1,100 jobs, we’ll have more jobs.

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: And of course in 2007, the factory was moved to Mexicali under the ownership of Honeywell Corporation, which had merged with AlliedSignal. And Barack Obama was soon seen after that with Dave Cote, the chairman of Honeywell, promoting his business stimulus program. Barack Obama is not going to say to Dave Cote, what are you shutting down the Autolite spark plug plant for? Why are you putting Allyson Murray and Peggy Gillig and Jerry Faeth, these are people I interviewed who were production line workers, who raised their families and sent their kids to school. Jerry Faeth is a particular favorite of mine, because he got two of his daughters through college paying most of their tuition as an auto worker.

BILL MOYERS: Working--

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: --as an auto worker--

BILL MOYERS: Auto worker, right.

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: --because he was making enough money. These people are being wiped out. The statistics that you hear about, where the country is economically, don't reflect the devastation to these individuals. But the Democratic Party's not interested in those people. They don't contribute to campaigns.

BILL MOYERS: How does our political class get away with ignoring those realities?

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Well, again, to some extent, I blame the media. They don't report on it. But in the larger political scheme, the Democratic Party, it is split. There are still a few democrats who care about the working lower class. Barack Obama, Bill Clinton see it in their political interest to ally themselves with Wall Street. Wall Street, because they can raise money from Wall Street. Wall Street loves "free trade," quote-unquote, because it equals cheap labor. All these trade agreements, and NAFTA in particular, are investment agreements that make it safer for American corporations to set up shop in cheap labor locales. Wall Street thinks that's great. It's great for the shareholders. And it's great for the corporations. The profits go up. So as long as the cash keeps coming to both parties from those interested parties, short of a revolution, short of an uprising among the working poor, you're not going to see any change.

BILL MOYERS: In 2008, Obama, he used NAFTA against Hilary Clinton, as you said, because Bill Clinton had sponsored it in 1993. And he promised that he would reform NAFTA.



JOHN R. MACARTHUR: No. As soon as he got into office, he announced, we really don't need to reform NAFTA. We'll find other ways to help people who've been hurt by NAFTA, which they, and of course, they've done nothing. In fact, he's pushed more free trade deals, Korea, Colombia, et cetera, you know, he keeps pushing, and now, the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership, which will make things even worse.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah. You say if he wins the Trans-Pacific Partnership, he'll be giving away big chunks of our remaining manufacturing base to Japan and Vietnam and other Pacific Rim countries. Why does he want to do that?

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Because he's the fundraiser in chief. And again, this goes back to Bill Clinton. Because Obama's really just imitating Bill Clinton. Clinton made an alliance with the Daley machine in Chicago, which Obama, he's inherited that alliance with the two Daley brothers. The people who were thriving are the people in power. Rahm Emanuel is now mayor of Chicago. Bill Daley and Rahm Emanuel were the chief lobbyists for passing NAFTA under Clinton. They're the ones who rounded up the votes. They're the ones who made the deals with the recalcitrant Democrats and Republicans who didn't want to vote for it. These people are in the saddle. They succeeded each other as--

BILL MOYERS: They're Democrats, too.

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Democrats. But Daley succeeded Rahm Emanuel as Obama's chief of staff. These are the people Obama talks to all the time. And they're saying, free trade, great. We don't know about factories closing. But it's a great way to raise money.

BILL MOYERS: Senator Mitch McConnell, who will soon be the Senate majority leader, said that new trade agreements are one of his top priorities. Are we about to see some bipartisan cooperation between the Republicans in the Senate and Obama in the White House on passing this new trade agreement?

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Absolutely. They've already announced that they're going to try to work together. And if history is repeated, you will see fast track passed.

BILL MOYERS: Which means…

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Which means you give the president, you give the executive branch, the authority to negotiate the trade agreement in secret. That's what Congress gives away, which I think is unconstitutional. Because the Senate is supposed to advise and consent, right? But so far, nobody has challenged it on constitutional grounds. You give fast track authority to the president. They negotiate the deal. At the end of it, a gigantic bill, very complex, because I've read the NAFTA agreement, it's very complex language. You give it to Congress. And you say, okay, vote for it, yes or no, up or down.

No amendments allowed, no amendments allowed. And so that's when the heavy lobbying starts. And most times, at least in the past with PNTR, that's permanent normal trade relations with China, and NAFTA, the big money wins. And this is what's going to happen again with TPP if people don't stop it before it gets to the fast track stage. And I guarantee you, this is a way to send more jobs, particularly to Vietnam and Malaysia. What's happening now is that labor rates are going up slightly in China. This panics the corporations. They want other places to go. Vietnam's an even cheaper labor platform than China. And so it's cheap labor coupled with really minimal environmental protection. You can do just about anything you want to.

BILL MOYERS: I brought two headlines from the same day's edition of the “Washington Post.” One says, "Obama, looking to mend fences with Congress, is reaching out. To Democrats. " The other one, in the same edition of the Washington Post, says, "Obama says he willing to defy Democrats on his support of Trans-Pacific Partnership." What do you make of that?

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Well, it's the typical Obama. You know, during the big, it goes back. Early in his political career, there was a big fight in Chicago in 2006. The city council voted to pass a big box minimum wage bill, $13 an hour. They said there's no factory work left, thanks to NAFTA and PNTR. So if Wal-Mart wants to move into Chicago, we're going to force them to pay a living wage.

And they came up with $13 an hour, with benefits, some kind of health benefits. Mayor Daley vetoed the bill. Because he didn't want to offend his friends in business in Chicago. He was also, I think, personally offended that democracy had broken out in the City Council. You know, it's like the Soviet Union in Chicago, 49 Democrats, 1 Republican.

And so they passed the law. He vetoes it. And there's a big fight to try to override his veto. What do you think Obama does when he's a State Senator and then a Senate candidate, U.S. Senate candidate, then Senator, he kept absolutely mum on it. He didn't say a word. And nobody asked him to say anything. Because they didn't want to compromise him with Mayor Daley. They didn't want to get him in trouble with Daley and force him to make a choice.

Same thing happened at the get go in first two years of administration. That was the time to raise the minimum wage. He had a big majority in both houses. People were panicked. It would’ve put more money in the hands of desperate people who had lost a lot of income.

He didn't propose an increase in the minimum wage in 2009 and 2010, not again in 2011 or 2012, when his own caucus was pushing for one. He had no interest in raising the minimum wage at that point. Because it didn't conform with his fundraising and his pro-business, pro-Wall Street goals.

BILL MOYERS: President Obama appointed a new trade representative, Michael Froman, who's a disciple of Robert Rubin who's the Wall Street insider who pushed for free trade and deregulation when he was Bill Clinton's Secretary of the Treasury and then went back to Wall Street and cashed in big from deregulation and is, today, Robert Rubin, a big influence in the Hillary Clinton camp. What does that tell you?

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Well, what it tells me is they view Obama's presidency as a success. In other words, Wall Street thinks Obama's done right by them. And if they could get Hilary Clinton in, things will stay right.

BILL MOYERS: That was a bold cover story you had recently: "Stop Hillary."

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Yeah, well, we were, it was our effort to force a debate. And we did. I'm actually quite pleased with the outcome that all our competitors were then forced to do cover stories and commentaries on other candidates who might come into the race: Elizabeth Warren, Jim Webb has already announced an exploratory committee, Bernie Sanders, I wish that Sherrod Brown from Ohio would run. There are a lot of people who would make good candidates, but they're intimidated by the Clinton fundraising machine.

BILL MOYERS: But would she raise a big tent for a lot of Democrats to get under and reverse the Republican wave of the midterm elections?

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: There's absolutely no room, there's no tent that can hold the working class, the poor, the lower class that I'm talking about, and the Steven Rattners of Wall Street, who go around saying, oh, don't you love us? We're social liberals. We're for civil rights. We're for all the rights that you care about. We're for tolerance, and so on and so forth.

But what they're not for is worker rights. It doesn't matter if you're gay or black or an impoverished white former factory worker. You all have worker rights in common. That's the commonality. Citizens' rights, I would say also, but worker rights. They never talk about worker rights. They just talk about cultural liberalism. That's what they're interested in.

BILL MOYERS: Here's a quote from Steven Rattner, whom you mentioned. It has to do with the Obama nomination of Antonio Weiss, prominent investment banker who worked on the auto industry bailout during Obama's first term, as Steven Rattner did.

This whole thing, this opposition by Elizabeth Warren and others to Antonio Weiss, “is part of a much broader narrative of the fight for the soul of the Democratic Party and whether so-called progressives are going to capture that or whether more mainstream Democrats, who are equally progressive in their own way, are going to retain it." He said if the Weiss nomination goes down, “it will be a long time before anyone else with Wall Street experience volunteers for this kind of job."

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Boy, what a threat. Wouldn't that be a great thing, if those people from Wall Street stopped volunteering? They don't want to stop volunteering. But that is the central problem in the Democratic Party today. Rattner speaks for a faction, a minority of people but a majority of money.

The other people that I'm referring to, I hope it's Elizabeth Warren or that she hangs in there, and people like Jim Webb are speaking for the majority. But the majority has much less money than this small minority of so-called social liberals on Wall Street.

BILL MOYERS: Elizabeth Warren, Senator Warren, made a speech this week in which she said that the fight is much more than about this nominee for the Treasury Department.

SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN on December 9, 2014: Democratic administrations have filled an enormous number of senior economic policy positions with people who have close ties to Wall Street. Starting with Robert Rubin, a former Citigroup CEO, three of the last four Treasury secretaries under Democratic presidents have had Citigroup affiliations before or after their Treasury service […] Weiss defenders are all in, loudly defending the revolving door and telling America how lucky we are that Wall Street is willing to run the economy and the government. In fact, Weiss supporters even defend the golden parachutes like the $20 million payment that Weiss will receive from Lazard to take this government job. Why? They say it is an important tool in making sure Wall Street executives will continue to be willing to run government policy making.

BILL MOYERS: She's really hitting at the very thing you have been writing about, talking about, and advocating. But nothing is going to change--


BILL MOYERS: --as you yourself have said and written--


BILL MOYERS: --unless the grip of the moneyed interest on our parties and on democracy is broken? How can you fight that much power? That--


BILL MOYERS: --much money?

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: You have to run primary campaigns, cheap primary campaigns against incumbents, like the Tea Party, in the Democratic Party, like the Tea Party does against incumbent Republicans.

You got to actually take political action and present candidates with an alternative point of view. But you also have to go to Fostoria and then come back and tell me and tell your colleagues, that their town is falling apart, they can't send their kids to school anymore. They've got to work in a fast-food place. Do you know that today there are more part-time workers than there were before the recession, before the great recession?

I think it's about seven million part-time workers. Median household income has dropped about $5,000 in the last five or six years. Where are the economists getting their information? You really have to look at the human cost.

There's a social element to this that somehow doesn't get talked about. We talk about incomes dropping, income disparity. We don't talk about the demoralization of the American lower and middle class. It's demoralizing to lose your job. It's demoralizing to feel like there's no future, that you can't pay to send your kids to college.

Things have gotten really bad in the country. There is no relief for these people who have lost their jobs. The deindustrialization of the country continues rapidly.

And every time one of these factories closes, another town drops a couple of notches sociologically. It gets poorer, you can't fund the Little League, you can't fund the public schools, you can't fund local community colleges, nobody's got work, nobody's got any hope. It gets worse and worse and worse. You can't just keep farming the laborer, the jobs out to Vietnam and China and expect things to get better at any point.

BILL MOYERS: Hillary Clinton was recently quoted as saying, quote, "I think our country kind of moves in pendulum swings. We go maybe a little bit too far in one way, and then we swing back. We are most comfortable when we have that balance in the vital center. And we are, I think, in need of getting back to that." What does that say to you?

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Getting back to that? The vital center has moved so far right that it can't be called the "center" anymore. You might call it the "center right"-- but it's far from anything I would call the "center."

BILL MOYERS: Hardly has she said that, than NBC News and the Wall Street Journal published a poll showing the public trends left on one issue after another; raising the minimum wage, spending more for infrastructure, helping students pay off their college loans, addressing climate change and global warming. I mean, Hillary Clinton, by this account, is to the right of the American public, and particularly of the Democratic constituency.

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Right, but more important for Hillary Clinton, she's not to the right of Steven Rattner or the Daley brothers--

BILL MOYERS: The Wall Street--

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: --or Rahm Emanuel. The Wall Street and the Chicago political machine types. She's very much in harmony with them.

BILL MOYERS: So where does a Sherrod Brown, a Jim Webb, an Elizabeth Warren, get the money to run against people who are backed by the deepest pockets in America?

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: I'm glad you asked me that because I was fascinated with the Howard Dean candidacy. I think Howard Dean was probably the best hope we had in a long time.

But whatever you thought of his politics or his, you know, his demeanor, or where he came from, and remember, he's a son of Wall Street. His meet-ups, where people would, through the internet, donate $100, scared the hell out of the Democratic and Republican Party establishments.

And I think I make a convincing case in the book that they colluded in the Iowa primaries to knock him out. 527 committees were formed, we didn't know where the money was coming from, but they were coming from Democratic money and Republican money to knock out this dissident who'd figured out how to beat the system. Lots of $100 contributions could compete with a few $100,000 contributions.

So in order to compete, you've got to rally the people and get lots of small donations. And Dean did that and he paid the price. You see, he didn't even last as Democratic National Committee chairman, because Rahm Emanuel saw him as a threat. They got rid of him as soon as they could.

BILL MOYERS: What if it's too late to change a system that is so in place, so entrenched, and so well-funded?

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Well, there's two things can happen. You could have revolt, you could have rioting. I guess you could have open revolt in the streets. Or you could have a demoralized, lower two-thirds of the American population that doesn't benefit from the advantages of the top third or the top fifth. And people just get used to it.

I mean, up to a point, people get used to these things. They do in other countries, where things are even more inegalitarian. We in America have a higher opinion of ourselves than maybe we deserve. We've always believed that we're Democrats, we're fundamentally egalitarian. Whether or not there's inequality in society, that there's an egalitarian impulse in America that will always save us.

But I see that egalitarian impulse disappearing. I see it either being numbed or actually snuffed out. I take umbrage with the liberal elite in this country that I think has also abandoned the white, black, gay, working class across the board.

They just don't care about them anymore. They think, well, we're doing all right here in our bubble. And we're, you know, we're not going to threaten our position in society or offend certain people because on behalf of people who don't have anything. For there to be a change, the progressive elite, I guess I would call them, have got to say, we don't care what these people say about us anymore. We're breaking with them. We're going to start, we're going to join the opposition.

BILL MOYERS: Let’s continue this discussion online.

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: I’ll be delighted to.

BILL MOYERS: Rick MacArthur, thank you for being with me.

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Thank you for having me.

BILL MOYERS: At our website, my conversation with Rick MacArthur continues, and you can read more about the Trans-Pacific Partnership and another trade deal that both President Obama and members of Congress are trying to fast track – and fast talk – into law.

That’s all at I’ll see you there and I’ll see you here, next time.

News Thu, 18 Dec 2014 11:13:17 -0500
The Destabilization of Pakistan: Tariq Ali on Taliban School Massacre and US Afghan War Blowback

We begin today’s show in Pakistan, where people in the northwestern city of Peshawar are burying their dead after a Taliban attack at a school killed at least 145 people — including 132 children — in the Taliban’s deadliest attack to date. According to the Pakistani army, Tuesday’s attack was carried out by seven Taliban attackers against the Army Public School, which both military and civilian girls and boys attend. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has declared three days of mourning and convened a meeting of all parliamentary parties in Peshawar to discuss the response to the attack. The army has reportedly launched attacks at militants in the region. The Taliban said they targeted the children of military families in retaliation for Pakistan’s anti-Taliban campaign in North Waziristan. We speak to British-Pakistani political commentator Tariq Ali and Asad Hashim, Al Jazeera English web correspondent in Pakistan.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today’s show in Pakistan, where people in the northwestern city of Peshawar are burying their dead after a Taliban attack at a school killed at least 145 people, including 132 children, in the Taliban’s deadliest attack to date. According to the Pakistani army, Tuesday’s attack was carried out by seven Taliban attackers against the Army Public School, which both military and civilian girls and boys attend. One of the surviving students described the scene of the attack .

SURVIVING STUDENT: [translated] As soon as the firing started, our teacher made us sit in a corner and told us to lower our heads. After around an hour, when the firing subsided a little, Army personnel came and rescued us. When we came out, we saw in the corridors our friends who had been shot three or four times, some dead and some injured. Their blood had spilled all over the place.

AMY GOODMAN: Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has declared three days of mourning and convened a meeting of all parliamentary parties in Peshawar to discuss the response to the attack. The army has reportedly launched attacks at militants in the region. The Taliban said they targeted the children of military families in retaliation for Pakistan’s anti-Taliban campaign in North Waziristan. Since June, at the urging of the United States, Pakistan has waged a massive offensive in the region, which coincided with the resumption of U.S. drone strikes.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Pakistani Taliban spokesman Mohammad Khurasani said the militants had been forced to launch the attack in response to army attacks. In a statement, Khurasani said, quote, "We targeted the school because the army targets our families. We want them to feel our pain." Pakistani education activist and Nobel Peace Prize activist Malala Yousafzai said she was heartbroken by the attack.

MALALA YOUSAFZAI: My family and I are heartbroken after hearing the news that more than a hundred innocent children and teachers have lost their lives in this recent attack on a school in Peshawar. And we stand with all those families and all those children who are injured right now and who are suffering through this big trauma. And now it is time that we unite. And I call upon the international community, leaders in Pakistan, all political parties and everyone, that we should stand up together and fight against terrorism, and we should make sure that every child gets safe and quality education.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Malala Yousafzai speaking in Birmingham Tuesday. Earlier this month, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the youngest ever. In 2012, she was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman who boarded her school bus. She survived and continues to campaign for the right of girls to go to school.

For more on the attacks, we’re joined by Tariq Ali, a British-Pakistani political commentator, historian, activist, filmmaker. He is the editor of the New Left Review.

Tariq, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you just respond to this horrific attack with 132 schoolchildren dead, 145 altogether including teachers?

TARIQ ALI: Amy, two things need to be said about this straightaway. This has very little to do with religion. What we are witnessing in Pakistan now is a form of a power struggle going on between militants aligned with the umbrella of pro-Taliban groups known as the Pakistani Taliban Movement, which isn’t a single movement, a struggle between them and the Pakistani—or segments of the Pakistani state to determine who controls the country. And the fact that over the last decade or so the authorities of the state—the military and the political parties, especially those parties sympathetic to the Taliban—have been incapable of or have refused to do anything about it, we now see the results and the impact of that. And that’s the first point.

The second is that we shouldn’t forget for a moment that one reason these Taliban groups have not been dealt with is because sections of the state still feel—even after this atrocity, by the way—that they can’t completely get rid of them because they are linked to the fight in Afghanistan, and the notion of the Pakistani military high commanders being that we need Afghanistan to give ourselves strategic depth—always a nonsensical notion, but it’s now exacting a very heavy price in Pakistan itself. And at the time when the United States went into Afghanistan, I remember writing in The Guardian that one consequence of this massive presence of Western military troops is going to be the destabilization and the advancement of terror inside Pakistan itself.

So, it’s a horrific attack. It can’t be justified. What the Taliban are saying is, of course, true, that they are bombed, that their kids die, and no one says a word. That’s absolutely true. But you cannot justify one crime by committing another.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Tariq, what about this continuing assault on North Waziristan by the Pakistani government, especially as the foreign troops, U.S. troops, in Afghanistan wind down and leave the country?

TARIQ ALI: Well, I think that this is the million-dollar question. Are they going to leave the country? Are they going to take their military bases with them? The latest from there, Juan, is that their military bases are going to stay with a very limited number of troops. But the Afghan Taliban has emerged as the winner in this conflict, and there’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that they are in touch with elements of the Pakistani military apparatus to discuss what to do now. I mean, they’ve been close for a long, long time, and so they will be discussing that, which is why the thing becomes much more complex, because I don’t think the Pakistani military has given up ever on the notion of taking Afghanistan back once the West leaves. And the fact that the Taliban in Afghanistan, with new supporters, has managed to hold the West at bay and defeated them, effectively, politically, if not militarily, is a sign that the Pakistani military has not given up.

AMY GOODMAN: We are also joined, in addition to Tariq Ali, by Asad Hashim, Al Jazeera English correspondent in Islamabad, in Pakistan. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Asad. Talk about the latest there and the response within Pakistan. Asad, can you hear us?

ASAD HASHIM: Yes, I can hear you now. Sorry, you just disappeared for a moment.


ASAD HASHIM: Sorry, I missed your question.

AMY GOODMAN: If you can talk about the latest in Pakistan right now and the response to this horrific massacre?

ASAD HASHIM: Well, the public response has been, as you can imagine, one of shock and outrage and horror. As Mr. Ali said, I mean, this was just something that was completely unprecedented, in a way. I mean, the Taliban has been, and their allies have been, carrying out attacks against civilian targets in Pakistan for many years now, but we’ve very rarely seen something on this scale. And it’s not just about the scale, I think; it’s also about the fact that it was children who were killed in execution-style killings, really, at the school. They lined them up in the auditorium in rows and face down, and then were shooting them in the head. And that really has brought about a visceral response from Pakistanis. So, today, really, the day was spent in sort of like numb horror, I think. Even now, most people who are in offices or in shops—a lot of shops were closed today, even though there was not necessarily a strike called of any kind and this wasn’t being enforced. People literally just did not want to work.

On the political front, there was the multi-party conference, the all-party conference, which you spoke about earlier and alluded to. That ended a little while ago, but it not really ended up with anything concrete. I mean, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, really, held a press conference with all of the leaders beside him, which was a show of unity, but they didn’t say anything concrete. They essentially just said, "We will come up with a plan in the next week that will be a united plan to resolve the issue of extremism," which is a really nothing statement, to be honest.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Asad, I wanted to ask you, the—could you talk a little bit more about the [TTP], the group that’s claimed responsibility for the attack, and its relationship to other insurgent groups? Because there are reports that the Taliban in Afghanistan have condemned this attack.

ASAD HASHIM: Yes, yes. So, the Taliban in Afghanistan do appear to have condemned the attack, and that’s interesting in and of itself, because the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan owes its allegiance to the Afghan Taliban and to Mullah Omar and, through them, to al-Qaeda. And this is very interesting because the TTP has actually suffered in recent months from a number of divisions and factions that have formed within it due to internal leadership issues, but also due to the issue of certain commanders pledging allegiance to the Islamic State, which obviously is a competitor in the global terrorism game, I suppose, to al-Qaeda. And so, you had the TTP actually suffering for its allegiance to the Afghan Taliban, and to have the Afghan Taliban now condemn this attack is very significant for them.

The TTP itself is a group that was formed—it’s an umbrella organization of terrorist groups that were formed in 2007 under Baitullah Mehsud. In the last year or so, we’ve seen it considerably weakened. As I said, there were leadership issues when they elected their new leader, which is Mullah Fazlullah. Now, he’s not from the tribal areas, which is where the group mainly operates and is from and where it draws its strength from. He’s from an area called Swat, where he conducted a very successful campaign against the Pakistani state. And I guess on the back of that, he was given the leadership role. But he’s—in the time that he’s been in office, since November last year, he has seen the TTP really sick several times. He’s had several—he’s had to fire several commanders who were not willing to follow him. So we’ve seen the TTP weaken to a degree.

The other reason why I would say we’ve seen the TTP weaken is because, since Zarb-e-Azb, since the military operation began on June 15th in North Waziristan, which you were referring to earlier, we were already expecting a large number of blowback attacks in urban areas, as we have seen after similar operations in the past. And this time, we really have seen very limited attacks of that kind. There was the attack in the Wagah border post that took place last month where about 60 civilians were killed. That was the first really large-scale attack. And this one is—as I said, it’s unprecedented in its scale—141 people killed, 143 now, I believe, with the death toll rising as people succumb to their injuries. This is the worst terrorist attack in Pakistan’s recent history.

AMY GOODMAN: Tariq Ali, in 2012, one of Pakistan’s leading English daily newspapers revealed a large majority of high-profile terrorism cases has resulted in acquittals in the country’s largest province. The piece appeared in The Express Tribune and was headlined "High-profile cases in Punjab: 63% terror suspects acquitted." Could you explain how the Pakistani state, and in particular the judiciary, have dealt with the rising number of militant attacks in the country?

TARIQ ALI: Amy, this is absolutely true, what The Express Tribune reported. And I would add to it that the fact that his own bodyguard killed the late governor of the Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, and were—and the guy is still awaiting punishment, and the fact that many lawyers in the court came to welcome the assassin of the governor is an indication of how deep the rot has gone. Now, a number of senior magistrates and judges in charge of the terrorism courts are basically scared. A, witnesses who come before them are threatened, so they withdraw their testimony. That leaves them with no legal basis on which to punish or sentence the perpetrators, and they have to release them. But I think a very large number of judges in these courts are scared. They’re scared that if they do their duty, they’ll be shot dead. And the inability of the state to protect them is something which a number of people have remarked on.

If I could just add one thing to what your man in Islamabad was saying, that it’s not the first time that the Afghan Taliban have attacked their Pakistani so-called supporters. They did so some years ago when there were other atrocities carried out. And the basic difference between the two groups is that the Afghan Taliban feel that the main target should be NATO and the West, and not the Pakistani state, on which, after all, they have relied for a long time.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to leave it there. I want to thank you both for being with us. Of course, we’ll continue to cover this horrific story, this massacre that has taken place in Peshawar, 132 schoolchildren killed. Tariq Ali is a British-Pakistani political commentator, historian, filmmaker, novelist, editor of the New Left Review. And thanks so much to Asad Hashim, Al Jazeera English web correspondent in Pakistan, based in the capital, Islamabad. He recently co-authored two pieces for Al Jazeera, one headlined "Breaking Down the Tehreek-e-Taliban [Pakistan]" and the other titled "Children massacred in Pakistan school attack."

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go to Missouri to witness number 40. Who was she? Stay with us.

News Thu, 18 Dec 2014 11:07:06 -0500
"Cut Loose the Shackles of the Past": US and Cuba Announce a New Dawn in Diplomatic Relations

President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro announced Wednesday that the United States will restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time in more than half a century. The historic deal will include the opening of a U.S. embassy in Havana and comes with a prisoner exchange. Live from Cuba, we go to Havana for reaction from Peter Kornbluh, director of the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive at George Washington University. "Finally after 55 years, an element of sanity and effectiveness and modernization has arrived to the insane U.S. policy that U.S. presidents have been pursuing towards Cuba or all these years," Kornbluh says. He is the co-author of the book, Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana.


AMY GOODMAN: President Obama announced Wednesday the United States will restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time in more than half a century. The historic move will include the opening of a U.S. embassy in Havana. It was reportedly facilitated by Pope Francis and the Vatican, who helped begin secret negotiations last year.

The softened relations come with a prisoner exchange. Cuba has released Alan Gross, a subcontractor for USAID—that’s the U.S. Agency for International Development. He was arrested in 2009, sentenced to 15 years for smuggling illegal technology into the country for opposition groups. Also released was a Cuban who had provided information about Cuban spy operations in the United States. Obama did not identify the prisoner by name, but Newsweek reports he’s Rolando Sarraff Trujillo, a former Cuban intelligence officer who who worked secretly for the CIA until he was arrested on espionage charges in 1995. Meanwhile, the United States freed the remaining members of the Cuban Five—Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero and Ramón Labañino. The men were arrested in the United States in 1998 and convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage. But Cuban intelligence officers say they were not spying on the United States, but rather trying to monitor violent right-wing Cuban exile groups responsible for attacks inside Cuba. President Obama outlined the exchange as the prisoners were already returning home.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Over many months, my administration has held discussions with the Cuban government about Alan’s case and other aspects of our relationship. His Holiness Pope Francis issued a personal appeal to me and to Cuba’s President Raúl Castro, urging us to resolve Alan’s case and to address Cuba’s interest in the release of three Cuban agents who have been jailed in the United States for over 15 years.

Today, Alan returned home, reunited with his family at long last. Alan was released by the Cuban government on humanitarian grounds. Separately, in exchange for the three Cuban agents, Cuba today released one of the most important intelligence agents that the United States has ever had in Cuba, and who has been imprisoned for nearly two decades. This man, whose sacrifice has been known to only a few, provided America with the information that allowed us to arrest the network of Cuban agents that included the men transferred to Cuba today, as well as other spies in the United States. This man is now safely on our shores.

AMY GOODMAN: The deal between the United States and Cuba is a major diplomatic victory for Cuba’s President Raúl Castro, who has offered to engage in direct conversations with Obama, quote, "as equals" since he came to power in 2006 after taking over from his brother, Fidel Castro. President Castro announced the changes in his own midday address to the nation.

PRESIDENT RAÚL CASTRO: [translated] As a result of a dialogue at the highest level, which included a phone conversation I had yesterday with President Obama, we have been able to make headway in a solution of some topics of mutual interest for both nations. As Fidel promised on June 2001, when he said, "They shall return," Gerardo, Ramón and Antonio have arrived today to our homeland. The enormous joy of their families and all of our people, who have relentlessly fought for this goal, is shared by hundreds of solidarity committees and groups, governments, parliaments, organizations, institutions and personalities who, for the last 16 years, have made tireless efforts demanding their release. We convey our deepest gratitude and commitment to all of them. President Obama’s decision deserves the respect and acknowledgment of our people.

AMY GOODMAN: News of the U.S. deal follows news that USAID tried to infiltrate Cuba’s hip-hop community in a botched plot to foment anti-government unrest. As part of the program, the agency hired Creative Associates International, a firm that also played a key role in the "Cuban Twitter" program, a fake social media program launched in another bid to undermine the Cuban government. In the hip-hop case, Creative Associates was directed to recruit young rap artists looking to make "social change." The program ended up endangering some of the artists and their careers. On Monday, the head of USAID said he will step down in February. Rajiv Shah gave no public reason for leaving and, in a statement, said he had mixed emotions that the United States is restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba as outlined by President Obama on Wednesday.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I’m now taking steps to place the interests of the people of both countries at the heart of our policy. First, I’ve instructed Secretary Kerry to immediately begin discussions with Cuba to re-establish diplomatic relations that have been severed since January of 1961. Going forward, the United States will re-establish an embassy in Havana, and high-ranking officials will visit Cuba. Where we can advance shared interests, we will, on issues like health, migration, counterterrorism, drug trafficking and disaster response. ...

Second, I’ve instructed Secretary Kerry to review Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. This review will be guided by the facts and the law. ...

Third, we are taking steps to increase travel, commerce and the flow of information to and from Cuba. This is fundamentally about freedom and openness, and also expresses my belief in the power of people-to-people engagement. With the changes I’m announcing today, it will be easier for Americans to travel to Cuba, and Americans will be able to use American credit and debit cards on the island. ...

I believe that American businesses should not be put at a disadvantage, and that increased commerce is good for Americans and for Cubans. So we will facilitate authorized transactions between the United States and Cuba. U.S. financial institutions will be allowed to open accounts at Cuban financial institutions. And it will be easier for U.S. exporters to sell goods in Cuba.

I believe in the free flow of information. Unfortunately, our sanctions on Cuba have denied Cubans access to technology that has empowered individuals around the globe. So I’ve authorized increased telecommunications connections between the United States and Cuba. Businesses will be able to sell goods that enable Cubans to communicate with the United States and other countries.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, today we spend the hour looking at this new chapter in U.S.-Cuba relations. Here in New York, we’re joined by attorney Martin Garbus, member of the Cuban Five legal team, and Michael Ratner, who’s president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights. He has written several books on Cuba, Who Killed Che?: How the CIA Got Away with Murder, and also is the co-editor of Che Guevara and the FBI: The U.S. Political Police Dossier on the Latin American Revolutionary. Joining us from Washington, D.C., is Robert Muse, an attorney, an expert in U.S. laws relating to Cuba. He was in Havana, Cuba, Wednesday when the deal was announced. His recent piece published in Americas Quarterly is "U.S. Presidential Action on Cuba: The New Normalization?" And in Havana, we go to Peter Kornbluh, director of the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive at George Washington University, co-author of the book Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Let’s begin in Havana with Peter Kornbluh. Your response to this historic announcement by President Obama in Washington, D.C., and President Raúl Castro in Havana, Cuba, where you are right now, Peter?

PETER KORNBLUH: Well, I have a one-word response, Amy: finally. Finally, after 55 years, an element of sanity and effectiveness and modernization have arrived to the insane U.S. policy that U.S. presidents have been pursuing towards Cuba for all these years, all these decades.

As you can see from looking at me, the sun is coming up here over Havana Bay. And, you know, I really have a sense, and I think the Cubans that I’ve talked to here in the street have a sense, of a new day, a new dawn, a new beginning, as President Obama himself has said, in U.S.-Cuban relations. And, you know, there really is a sense of excitement here about the future. My taxi driver, who just brought me down to the studio to be with you, said that the taxi chauffeurs are already talking about when they’re going to be able to get a Ford van for taxis, so they can carry more people around. So, you know, expectations are high that a change of relations with the United States is going to lead to development here. He says, "You know, we’ve had a lot of politics, but you can’t eat politics." And then, Cubans are looking at the economy and hoping that really a change in relations with the United States portends a much better development future for Cuba’s economy and for the future of this country.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. That was Peter Kornbluh. Today he is in Havana, Cuba. This is Democracy Now! on this historic day after the announcement that for the first time in over 50 years the U.S. and Cuba will begin normalizing relations. Stay with us.

News Thu, 18 Dec 2014 11:00:26 -0500
The Frack Oil Salesman ]]> (Lauren Walker) Art Thu, 18 Dec 2014 10:03:24 -0500 Quiet Distress Among the (Ex) Rich

2014.12.18.Smith.mainThe fact that economic distress has moved pretty high up the food chain is a sign that this recovery isn't all that it is cracked up to be. (Image via Shutterstock)For a limited time only, any donation you make to Truthout will be doubled thanks to a matching grant offer. Pitch in now to help us survive!

While the wealthy don’t get much sympathy on this website, the restructuring of the economy to save the banks at the expense of pretty much everyone else has hurt some former members of the top 1% and even the 0.1%. And it’s also worth mentioning that some of the former members of the top echelon occupied it when the distance between the rich and everyone else was much narrower than it is now.

The fact that economic distress has moved pretty high up the food chain is a sign that this recovery isn’t all that it is cracked up to be. Even though the media is awash in stories of how much stronger the economy is getting, I see all sorts of counter-indicators locally: more restaurant and retail store closures than during or at any point after the crisis (and pretty long store vacancies), reports from my hair salon that business is not all that great, and my gym offering hefty discounts on renewals for the first time. Perhaps NYC is in a mini-downdraft, but that would be the reverse of the pattern in recent years, where thanks to the tender ministrations of the Fed and Treasury, the city has weathered the downturn better than most of the US.

A cohort that is in quiet distress is women who were divorced 15 or more years ago. Conventional wisdom is that London is a great city for woman to go through divorce, and New York is a lousy one. I have no basis for validating that statement. But regardless, the assumptions in handing out settlements back then, that the ex wife would be able to earn a decent return on her investments and land at least an adequately paid job when she was done receiving alimony, are out the window now. So women who thought they’d gotten enough to be able to raise their kids and live comfortably, or at least adequately, are now scrambling in their mid 50s to mid 60s to figure out how to survive, when reinventing yourself at that age is an against-the-odds proposition.

Here’s a story from someone I’ve known for the past three or so years (details disguised). We’ll call her Karen. She is from a wealthy family, sent to private school in Europe, attended an Ivy League college in the mid 1970s and got a graduate degree in math from one of the top programs in America. She married someone also from a wealthy family who is now a billionaire. Karen wound up inheriting almost nothing because the very successful manufacturing business that her grandfather built was run into the ground by her father.

Karen got divorced in her late 30s, which was about 20 years ago. She gave up a lot in the settlement to get custody of her children (long shaggy story as to why that was the case). She moved into a modest apartment and now is in an even more modest apartment (and it’s rent stabilized, so it is also cheap for what it is). She got another graduate degree (not an MBA, a useful one) that with her math/statistical chops should have positioned her well to get work when she was done raising her kids and the ailmony ran out.

She found, when she hit the job market in 2009, that no one would hire her for sort of positions that her training qualified her for. It was not clear how much of that was due to age discrimination or just the hyper-competitive state of the market. She managed to get herself hired by a series of new or newish ventures. The compensation either had a large sales component or “on the come” component. She wound up leaving each one, and even though she’d be the last to put it this way, having heard these situations evolve, in each case it was about an ethical issue. For instance, in one she was asked to misrepresent the company’s services to prospective customers. She tried hard squaring that circle and was still meeting her sales targets but the owner took umbrage at her refusal to adhere closely to his basically dishonest sales pitch. For another, she was working on the FDA process, and disagreed with management’s approach of marketing to the FDA as opposed to complying with the data disclosure requirements.

After each of these jobs fell apart, and she was getting near the end of the alimony runway, she was panicked. She also supports her brother (she pays the taxes and maintenance on her half of a house they inherited without charing him rent). She was seriously looking into cleaning apartments.

To her surprise, her ex-husband did not cut her off completely; he’s paying her a greatly reduced amount. And she has landed a job as an adjunct professor teaching calculus at a local school. She says matter of factly, “I thought with my two graduate degrees I’d be able to earn $80,000 a year. My market value is between $23,000 and $30,000.” Keep in mind that what she makes as an adjunct is what she’d make cleaning five Manhattan apartments a week.*

So with her bargain basement rental and the stipend from her ex, she has enough to get by and enjoy some small luxuries, like going to London once a year to see her daughter who is in school there.** But the adjunct job is no party. Some of the students are openly hostile to taking math from an older woman, and last term, when one of the instructors pulled out of teaching a course, she got bagged to take on far more in the way of teaching (as in both number of lectures and number of students) than goes with her pay.

In her circle, which I infer consists of people she kept in contact with from her school days, plus people she met through her children’s schools, she says she knows of no one who is not in worse shape than they were a few years ago (this includes her billionaire ex) and many are in moderate to acute stress. For the other divorced women she knows, even if they aren’t in trouble now, they can see that their assets won’t last them the 20 to 40 years of life expectancy they have, and they see no way out of their box. One of her other friends who isn’t as educated and resourceful as Karen needs to send more money to her mother and was making a serious effort to get apartment cleaning work. Another has a house she was renting out for income, but the local market changed and she was suffering a lot of vacancies. She’s been refusing to sell the house because “she can’t afford to take the loss” which really means psychologically she can’t face up to the idea that she has less in the way of assets than she thought she had.

A sign that of broader underlying stress among the supposedly well off: those in Karen’s circle say that the word in the charity circuit is that donations are down this year.

The problems that Karen and her friends face isn’t their fault. Just as it’s easy to demonize the poor who don’t have jobs as deserving of their fate, when most of them want to work and many had good records before the economy was rearchitected to remove a lot of decent jobs and leave people scrambling for those who remain, so to it is easy to demonize the better off who similarly had the rules changed on them when it is too late for them to do much to change course. Just as many of the people who are desperate for work made choices that seemed sound, or defensible mistakes, so Karen and her friends weren’t profligates. They got what should have been enough for them to live on if they didn’t overspend. And Karen is quick to decry women who partied too much or lived too high, so for the most part, that isn’t a big driver of the quiet panic around her.

Thanks to ZIRP and QE, these women face the same problem as retirees, just at a somewhat higher starting point. The equation among the downwardly mobile wealthy was that if you had more than a million dollars, you could put it in muni bonds, earn 3-5% after tax, and that plus Social Security and a paid-for house meant you had nothing to worry about unless you got a really costly ailment. So allowing for personal risks and the possibility of needing to support family members, a couple of million dollars would be ample to live off your income and not touch your principal, which also meant you could leave an inheritance to your kids.

No longer. Now to get 2% in munis, you have to go out to a ten-year maturity, which means you are taking real interest rate risk. And if you are no longer able to earn enough income off your principal, you either have to cut way down to live off what it yields now, or if that is still not enough, to chip away at your principal. That means you are faced with the underlying terror of the real odds of being peniless in your old age. Those who are still in the labor force and have lousy personal balance sheets can keep that eventuality at bay by virtue of how just getting through the day occupies the mind plus the belief, whether true or not, that they can keep working until they drop. Retirees and the de facto retired, like these divorced women, have the high odds of an eventual financial train wreck much more in their faces. And with our society becoming more mercenary and callous, they are unlikely to be able to rely on the charity of others if that occurs.

So as much as many of you will probably see these women as undeserving of sympathy, their story is the same as that of many middle aged and elderly people: not enough in the way of assets to see them through their likely lifespan, with their problem due largely to the inability to earn a decent income from savings under ZIRP. The fact that there are many people who are desperate now does not lessen the plight of those who are long financial distress futures. Everybody has his own personal rate of financial decomposition. The case studies in this post have the time and financial savvy to see their decay profile and its implications earlier than many others do.



* Going rate is $100 to $150 for a one-bedroom, depending on size of apartment and how much the cleaning person does (a big variable is whether laundry and pressing included; ones with more bedrooms and more than one bath obviously command higher rates). Conservatively allowing for $120 an apartment, 48 weeks a year, and no Christmas bonus (pretty much everyone does give a bonus, generally an extra session’s pay) is $28,800 a year. But the work is not as steady as a day job.

** Before you start moralizing that she should leave NYC, she is keen to get out but it is unlikely to get her overhead down much. The cost of owning and operating a car is a big offset to the savings on housing.

News Thu, 18 Dec 2014 09:27:06 -0500