Truthout Stories Mon, 27 Apr 2015 11:37:39 -0400 en-gb The Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Death of the Republic

"The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government."    — Article IV, Section 4, US Constitution

A republican form of government is one in which power resides in elected officials representing the citizens, and government leaders exercise power according to the rule of law. In The Federalist Papers, James Madison defined a republic as “a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people . . . .”

On April 22, 2015, the Senate Finance Committee approved a bill to fast-track the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a massive trade agreement that would override our republican form of government and hand judicial and legislative authority to a foreign three-person panel of corporate lawyers.

The secretive TPP is an agreement with Mexico, Canada, Japan, Singapore and seven other countries that affects 40% of global markets. Fast-track authority could now go to the full Senate for a vote as early as next week. Fast-track means Congress will be prohibited from amending the trade deal, which will be put to a simple up or down majority vote. Negotiating the TPP in secret and fast-tracking it through Congress is considered necessary to secure its passage, since if the public had time to review its onerous provisions, opposition would mount and defeat it.

Abdicating the Judicial Function to Corporate Lawyers

James Madison wrote in The Federalist Papers:

"The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, . . . may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny. . . . “Were the power of judging joined with the legislative, the life and liberty of the subject would be exposed to arbitrary control, for the judge would then be the legislator. . . .”

And that, from what we now know of the TPP’s secret provisions, will be its dire effect.

The most controversial provision of the TPP is the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) section, which strengthens existing ISDS  procedures. ISDS first appeared in a bilateral trade agreement in 1959. According to The Economist, ISDS gives foreign firms a special right to apply to a secretive tribunal of highly paid corporate lawyers for compensation whenever the government passes a law to do things that hurt corporate profits — such things as discouraging smoking, protecting the environment or preventing a nuclear catastrophe.

Arbitrators are paid $600-700 an hour, giving them little incentive to dismiss cases; and the secretive nature of the arbitration process and the lack of any requirement to consider precedent gives wide scope for creative judgments.

To date, the highest ISDS award has been for $2.3 billion to Occidental Oil Company against the government of Ecuador over its termination of an oil-concession contract, this although the termination was apparently legal. Still in arbitration is a demand by Vattenfall, a Swedish utility that operates two nuclear plants in Germany, for compensation of €3.7 billion ($4.7 billion) under the ISDS clause of a treaty on energy investments, after the German government decided to shut down its nuclear power industry following the Fukushima disaster in Japan in 2011.

Under the TPP, however, even larger judgments can be anticipated, since the sort of “investment” it protects includes not just “the commitment of capital or other resources” but “the expectation of gain or profit.” That means the rights of corporations in other countries extend not just to their factories and other “capital” but to the profits they expect to receive there.

In an article posted by Yves Smith, Joe Firestone poses some interesting hypotheticals:

Under the TPP, could the US government be sued and be held liable if it decided to stop issuing Treasury debt and financed deficit spending in some other way (perhaps by quantitative easing or by issuing trillion dollar coins)? Why not, since some private companies would lose profits as a result?

Under the TPP or the TTIP (the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership under negotiation with the European Union), would the Federal Reserve be sued if it failed to bail out banks that were too big to fail?

Firestone notes that under the Netherlands-Czech trade agreement, the Czech Republic was sued in an investor-state dispute for failing to bail out an insolvent bank in which the complainant had an interest. The investor company was awarded $236 million in the dispute settlement. What might the damages be, asks Firestone, if the Fed decided to let the Bank of America fail, and a Saudi-based investment company decided to sue?

Abdicating the Legislative Function to Multinational Corporations

Just the threat of this sort of massive damage award could be enough to block prospective legislation. But the TPP goes further and takes on the legislative function directly, by forbidding specific forms of regulation.

Public Citizen observes that the TPP would provide big banks with a backdoor means of watering down efforts to re-regulate Wall Street, after deregulation triggered the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression:

The TPP would forbid countries from banning particularly risky financial products, such as the toxic derivatives that led to the $183 billion government bailout of AIG. It would prohibit policies to prevent banks from becoming “too big to fail,” and threaten the use of “firewalls” to prevent banks that keep our savings accounts from taking hedge-fund-style bets.

The TPP would also restrict capital controls, an essential policy tool to counter destabilizing flows of speculative money. . . . And the deal would prohibit taxes on Wall Street speculation, such as the proposed Robin Hood Tax that would generate billions of dollars’ worth of revenue for social, health, or environmental causes.

Clauses on dispute settlement in earlier free trade agreements have been invoked to challenge efforts to regulate big business. The fossil fuel industry is seeking to overturn Quebec’s ban on the ecologically destructive practice of fracking. Veolia, the French behemoth known for building a tram network to serve Israeli settlements in occupied East Jerusalem, is contesting increases in Egypt’s minimum wage. The tobacco maker Philip Morris is suing against anti-smoking initiatives in Uruguay and Australia.

The TPP would empower not just foreign manufacturers but foreign financial firms to attack financial policies in foreign tribunals, demanding taxpayer compensation for regulations that they claim frustrate their expectations and inhibit their profits.

Preempting Government Sovereignty

What is the justification for this encroachment on the sovereign rights of government? Allegedly, ISDS is necessary in order to increase foreign investment. But as noted in The Economist, investors can protect themselves by purchasing political-risk insurance. Moreover, Brazil continues to receive sizable foreign investment despite its long-standing refusal to sign any treaty with an ISDS mechanism. Other countries are beginning to follow Brazil’s lead.

In an April 22nd report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, gains from multilateral trade liberalization were shown to be very small, equal to only about 0.014% of consumption, or about $.43 per person per month. And that assumes that any benefits are distributed uniformly across the economic spectrum. In fact, transnational corporations get the bulk of the benefits, at the expense of most of the world’s population.

Something else besides attracting investment money and encouraging foreign trade seems to be going on. The TPP would destroy our republican form of government under the rule of law, by elevating the rights of investors – also called the rights of “capital” – above the rights of the citizens.

That means that TPP is blatantly unconstitutional. But as Joe Firestone observes, neo-liberalism and corporate contributions seem to have blinded the deal’s proponents so much that they cannot see they are selling out the sovereignty of the United States to foreign and multinational corporations.

Opinion Mon, 27 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Forty Years Later, Will the End Games in Iraq and Afghanistan Follow the Vietnam Playbook?

If our wars in the Greater Middle East ever end, it's a pretty safe bet that they will end badly - and it won't be the first time. The "fall of Saigon" in 1975 was the quintessential bitter end to a war. Oddly enough, however, we've since found ways to reimagine that denouement which miraculously transformed a failed and brutal war of American aggression into a tragic humanitarian rescue mission. Our most popular Vietnam end-stories bury the long, ghastly history that preceded the "fall," while managing to absolve us of our primary responsibility for creating the disaster. Think of them as silver-lining tributes to good intentions and last-ditch heroism that may come in handy in the years ahead.

The trick, it turned out, was to separate the final act from the rest of the play. To be sure, the ending in Vietnam was not a happy one, at least not for many Americans and their South Vietnamese allies. This week we mark the 40th anniversary of those final days of the war.  We will once again surely see the searing images of terrified refugees, desperate evacuations, and final defeat. But even that grim tale offers a lesson to those who will someday memorialize our present round of disastrous wars: toss out the historical background and you can recast any U.S. mission as a flawed but honorable, if not noble, effort by good-guy rescuers to save innocents from the rampaging forces of aggression. In the Vietnamese case, of course, the rescue was so incomplete and the defeat so total that many Americans concluded their country had "abandoned" its cause and "betrayed" its allies. By focusing on the gloomy conclusion, however, you could at least stop dwelling on the far more incriminating tale of the war's origins and expansion, and the ruthless way the U.S. waged it.

Here's another way to feel better about America's role in starting and fighting bad wars: make sure U.S. troops leave the stage for a decent interval before the final debacle. That way, in the last act, they can swoop back in with a new and less objectionable mission. Instead of once again waging brutal counterinsurgencies on behalf of despised governments, American troops can concentrate on a humanitarian effort most war-weary citizens and soldiers would welcome: evacuation and escape.

Phony Endings and Actual Ones

An American president announces an honorable end to our longest war. The last U.S. troops are headed for home. Media executives shut down their war zone bureaus. The faraway country where the war took place, once a synonym for slaughter, disappears from TV screens and public consciousness. Attention shifts to home-front scandals and sensations. So it was in the United States in 1973 and 1974, years when most Americans mistakenly believed that the Vietnam War was over.

In many ways, eerily enough, this could be a story from our own time. After all, a few years ago, we had reason to hope that our seemingly endless wars - this time in distant Iraq and Afghanistan - were finally over or soon would be. In December 2011, in front of U.S. troops at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, President Obama proclaimed an end to the American war in Iraq. "We're leaving behind a sovereign, stable, and self-reliant Iraq," he said proudly. "This is an extraordinary achievement." In a similar fashion, last December the president announced that in Afghanistan "the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion."

If only. Instead, warfare, strife, and suffering of every kind continue in both countries, while spreading across ever more of the Greater Middle East. American troops are still dying in Afghanistan and in Iraq the U.S. military is back, once again bombing and advising, this time against the Islamic State (or Daesh), an extremist spin-off from its predecessor al-Qaeda in Iraq, an organization that only came to life well after (and in reaction to) the U.S. invasion and occupation of that country. It now seems likely that the nightmare of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, which began decades ago, will simply drag on with no end in sight.

The Vietnam War, long as it was, did finally come to a decisive conclusion. When Vietnam screamed back into the headlines in early 1975, 14 North Vietnamese divisions were racing toward Saigon, virtually unopposed. Tens of thousands of South Vietnamese troops (shades of the Iraqi army in 2014) were stripping off their military uniforms, abandoning their American equipment, and fleeing. With the massive U.S. military presence gone, what had once been a brutal stalemate was now a rout, stunning evidence that "nation-building" by the U.S. military in South Vietnam had utterly failed (as it would in the twenty-first century in Iraq and Afghanistan).

On April 30, 1975, a Communist tank crashed through the gates of Independence Palace in the southern capital of Saigon, a dramatic and triumphant conclusion to a 30-year-long Vietnamese struggle to achieve national independence and reunification. The blood-soaked American effort to construct a permanent non-Communist nation called South Vietnam ended in humiliating defeat.

It's hard now to imagine such a climactic conclusion in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unlike Vietnam, where the Communists successfully tapped a deep vein of nationalist and revolutionary fervor throughout the country, in neither Iraq nor Afghanistan has any faction, party, or government had such success or the kind of appeal that might lead it to gain full and uncontested control of the country. Yet in Iraq, there have at least been a series of mass evacuations and displacements reminiscent of the final days in Vietnam. In fact, the region, including Syria, is now engulfed in a refugee crisis of staggering proportions with millions seeking sanctuary across national boundaries and millions more homeless and displaced internally.

Last August, U.S. forces returned to Iraq (as in Vietnam four decades earlier) on the basis of a "humanitarian" mission. Some 40,000 Iraqis of the Yazidi sect, threatened with slaughter, had been stranded on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq surrounded by Islamic State militants. While most of the Yazidi were, in fact, successfully evacuated by Kurdish fighters via ground trails, small groups were flown out on helicopters by the Iraqi military with U.S. help. When one of those choppers went down wounding many of its passengers but killing only the pilot, General Majid Ahmed Saadi, New York Times reporter Alissa Rubin, injured in the crash, praised his heroism.  Before his death, he had told her that the evacuation missions were "the most important thing he had done in his life, the most significant thing he had done in his 35 years of flying."

In this way, a tortured history inconceivable without the American invasion of 2003 and almost a decade of excesses, including the torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib, as well as counterinsurgency warfare, finally produced a heroic tale of American humanitarian intervention to rescue victims of murderous extremists. The model for that kind of story had been well established in 1975.

Stripping the Fall of Saigon of Historical Context

Defeat in Vietnam might have been the occasion for a full-scale reckoning on the entire horrific war, but we preferred stories that sought to salvage some faith in American virtue amid the wreckage. For the most riveting recent example, we need look no further than Rory Kennedy's 2014 Academy Award-nominated documentary Last Days in Vietnam. The film focuses on a handful of Americans and a few Vietnamese who, in defiance of orders, helped expedite and expand a belated and inadequate evacuation of South Vietnamese who had hitched their lives to the American cause. 

The film's cast of humanitarian heroes felt obligated to carry out their ad hocrescue missions because the U.S. ambassador in Saigon, Graham Martin, refused to believe that defeat was inevitable. Whenever aides begged him to initiate an evacuation, he responded with comments like, "It's not so bleak. I won't have this negative talk." Only when North Vietnamese tanks reached the outskirts of Saigon did he order the grandiloquently titled Operation Frequent Wind - the helicopter evacuation of the city - to begin.

By that time, Army Captain Stuart Herrington and others like him had already led secret "black ops" missions to help South Vietnamese army officers and their families get aboard outgoing aircraft and ships. Prior to the official evacuation, the U.S. government explicitly forbade the evacuation of South Vietnamese military personnel who were under orders to remain in the country and continue fighting. But, as Herrington puts it in the film, "sometimes there's an issue not of legal and illegal, but right and wrong." Although the war itself failed to provide U.S. troops with a compelling moral cause, Last Days in Vietnam produces one. The film's heroic rescuers are willing to risk their careers for the just cause of evacuating their allies.

The drama and danger are amped up by the film's insistence that all Vietnamese linked to the Americans were in mortal peril. Several of the witnesses invoke the specter of a Communist "bloodbath," a staple of pro-war propaganda since the 1960s. (President Richard Nixon, for instance, once warned that the Communists would massacre civilians "by the millions" if the U.S. pulled out.) Herrington refers to the South Vietnamese officers he helped evacuate as "dead men walking." Another of the American rescuers, Paul Jacobs, used his Navy ship without authorization to escort dozens of South Vietnamese vessels, crammed with some 30,000 people, to the Philippines. Had he ordered the ships back to Vietnam, he claims in the film, the Communists "woulda killed 'em all."

The Communist victors were certainly not merciful. They imprisoned hundreds of thousands of people in "re-education camps" and subjected them to brutal treatment. The predicted bloodbath, however, was a figment of the American imagination. No program of systematic execution of significant numbers of people who had collaborated with the Americans ever happened.

Following another script that first emerged in U.S. wartime propaganda, the film implies that South Vietnam was vehemently anti-communist. To illustrate, we are shown a map in which North Vietnamese red ink floods ever downward over an all-white South - as if the war were a Communist invasion instead of a countrywide struggle that began in the South in opposition to an American-backed government.

Had the South been uniformly and fervently anti-Communist, the war might well have had a different outcome, but the Saigon regime was vulnerable primarily because many southern Vietnamese fought tooth and nail to defeat it and many others were unwilling to put their lives on the line to defend it. In truth, significant parts of the South had been "red" since the 1940s.  The U.S. blocked reunification elections in 1956 exactly because it feared that southerners might vote in Communist leader Ho Chi Minh as president. Put another way, the U.S. betrayed the people of Vietnam and their right to self-determination not by pulling out of the country, but by going in.

Last Days in Vietnam may be the best silver-lining story of the fall of Saigon ever told, but it is by no means the first. Well before the end of April 1975, when crowds of terrified Vietnamese surrounded the U.S. embassy in Saigon begging for admission or trying to scale its fences, the media was on the lookout for feel-good stories that might take some of the sting out of the unremitting tableaus of fear and failure.

They thought they found just the thing in Operation Babylift. A month before ordering the final evacuation of Vietnam, Ambassador Martin approved an airlift of thousands of South Vietnamese orphans to the United States where they were to be adopted by Americans. Although he stubbornly refused to accept that the end was near, he hoped the sight of all those children embraced by their new American parents might move Congress to allocate additional funds to support the crumbling South Vietnamese government.

Commenting on Operation Babylift, pro-war political scientist Lucien Pye said, "We want to know we're still good, we're still decent." It did not go as planned. The first plane full of children and aid workers crashed and 138 of its passengers died. And while thousands of children did eventually make it to the U.S., a significant portion of them were not orphans. In war-ravaged South Vietnam some parents placed their children in orphanages for protection, fully intending to reclaim them in safer times. Critics claimed the operation was tantamount to kidnapping.

Nor did Operation Babylift move Congress to send additional aid, which was hardly surprising since virtually no one in the United States wanted to continue to fight the war. Indeed, the most prevalent emotion was stunned resignation. But there did remain a pervasive need to salvage some sense of national virtue as the house of cards collapsed and the story of those "babies," no matter how tarnished, nonetheless proved helpful in the process.

Putting the Fall of Saigon Back in Context

For most Vietnamese - in the South as well as the North - the end was not a time of fear and flight, but joy and relief. Finally, the much-reviled, American-backed government in Saigon had been overthrown and the country reunited. After three decades of turmoil and war, peace had come at last. The South was not united in accepting the Communist victory as an unambiguous "liberation," but there did remain broad and bitter revulsion over the wreckage the Americans had brought to their land.

Indeed, throughout the South and particularly in the countryside, most people viewed the Americans not as saviors but as destroyers. And with good reason. The U.S. military dropped four million tons of bombs on South Vietnam, the very land it claimed to be saving, making it by far the most bombed country in history. Much of that bombing was indiscriminate. Though policymakers blathered on about the necessity of "winning the hearts and minds" of the Vietnamese, the ruthlessness of their war-making drove many southerners into the arms of the Viet Cong, the local revolutionaries. It wasn't Communist hordes from the North that such Vietnamese feared, but the Americans and their South Vietnamese military allies.

The many refugees who fled Vietnam at war's end and after, ultimately a million or more of them, not only lost a war, they lost their home, and their traumatic experiences are not to be minimized. Yet we should also remember the suffering of the far greater number of South Vietnamese who were driven off their land by U.S. wartime policies. Because many southern peasants supported the Communist-led insurgency with food, shelter, intelligence, and recruits, the U.S. military decided that it had to deprive the Viet Cong of its rural base. What followed was a long series of forced relocations designed to remove peasants en masse from their lands and relocate them to places where they could more easily be controlled and indoctrinated.

The most conservative estimate of internal refugees created by such policies (with anodyne names like the "strategic hamlet program" or "Operation Cedar Falls") is 5 million, but the real figure may have been 10 million or more in a country of less than 20 million. Keep in mind that, in these years, the U.S. military listed "refugees generated" - that is, Vietnamese purposely forced off their lands - as a metric of "progress," a sign of declining support for the enemy.

Our vivid collective memories are of Vietnamese refugees fleeing their homeland at war's end. Gone is any broad awareness of how the U.S. burned down, plowed under, or bombed into oblivion thousands of Vietnamese villages, and herded survivors into refugee camps. The destroyed villages were then declared "free fire zones" where Americans claimed the right to kill anything that moved. 

In 1967, Jim Soular was a flight chief on a gigantic Chinook helicopter. One of his main missions was the forced relocation of Vietnamese peasants. Here's the sort of memory that you won't find in Miss Saigon, Last Days in Vietnam, or much of anything else that purports to let us know about the war that ended in 1975. This is not the sort of thing you're likely to see much of this week in any 40th anniversary media musings. 

"On one mission where we were depopulating a village we packed about sixty people into my Chinook. They'd never been near this kind of machine and were really scared but they had people forcing them in with M-16s. Even at that time I felt within myself that the forced dislocation of these people was a real tragedy. I never flew refugees back in. It was always out. Quite often they would find their own way back into those free-fire zones. We didn't understand that their ancestors were buried there, that it was very important to their culture and religion to be with their ancestors. They had no say in what was happening. I could see the terror in their faces. They were defecating and urinating and completely freaked out. It was horrible. Everything I'd been raised to believe in was contrary to what I saw in Vietnam. We might have learned so much from them instead of learning nothing and doing so much damage."

What Will We Forget If Baghdad "Falls"?

The time may come, if it hasn't already, when many of us will forget, Vietnam-style, that our leaders sent us to war in Iraq falsely claiming that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction he intended to use against us; that he had a "sinister nexus" with the al-Qaeda terrorists who attacked on 9/11; that the war would essentially pay for itself; that it would be over in "weeks rather than months"; that the Iraqis would greet us as liberators; or that we would build an Iraqi democracy that would be a model for the entire region. And will we also forget that in the process nearly 4,500 Americans were killed along with perhaps 500,000 Iraqis, that millions of Iraqis were displaced from their homes into internal exile or forced from the country itself, and that by almost every measure civil society has failed to return to pre-war levels of stability and security?

The picture is no less grim in Afghanistan. What silver linings can possibly emerge from our endless wars? If history is any guide, I'm sure we'll think of something.

Opinion Mon, 27 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
The Divestment Dividend

Fossil Fuel Extinction. (Cartoon: Khalil Bendib / OtherWords)Fossil Fuel Extinction. (Cartoon: Khalil Bendib / OtherWords)

Investors who refuse to put their money into oil, gas, and coal may reap financial gains for doing the right thing.

As Earth Day approached, fossil-fuel divestment actions rattled college campuses large and small. Targets ranged from Harvard University's $36-billion endowment to the University of Mary Washington's $46-million nest egg.

That's only natural: Students, professors, and alumni are increasingly telling their schools to put their money where their mission is by shunning oil, gas, and coal assets. And there's no more symbolic time of year to make that kind of statement.

Conservative icon George Will, realizing this is a thing, ridiculed Syracuse University's recent decision to sweep all dirty-energy holdings out of its $1.2-billion endowment. Even for fossils like the widely syndicated columnist, it's too hard to ignore the growing movement to make universities — and everyone else — lock these industries out of their investments.

At least 20 colleges and universities have sworn off either just coal or all fossil fuels so far, along with dozens of cities and many religious and philanthropic institutions. Some 1,500 individuals, myself included, have pledged to shun those assets and actively invest in climate solutions.

If you find this debate confusing, you're not alone. People on either side argue over different things.

Supporters dwell on the specter of a climate catastrophe. They cast divestment as a moral, ethical, scientific, and environmental duty. Foes, meanwhile, harp about finances. They sneer that shunning entire industries is reckless and bound to crimp returns.

I would support divestment even if the naysayers were right. Happily, they're not.

Yes, the fate of the Earth matters more than how quickly Harvard's endowment crosses the $50-billion line. But it turns out that marrying your money and climate mission can pay dividends.

In other words, this increasingly diverse community — both the First Presbyterian Church of Tallahassee and the First Unitarian Church of Portland, Oregon are in — will probably profit from jilting oil, gas, and coal.

MSCI, a leading global stock market index company, tracks fossil-free performance. It determined at the end of March that stock portfolios without exposure to these industries had outperformed investments that included fossil fuels over the prior five years. Since November 2010, MSCI's fossil-free index has gained 13 percent on an annualized basis, eclipsing conventional investment approaches by 1.2 percentage points.

That bodes well for divestment. So, would Harvard's holdings gain or lose if it took the plunge?

Because most of those assets are secret, I can't say. Yet it's public knowledge that the university owns (or did pretty recently) shares in Anadarko, a Texas-based oil and gas company that's active in fracking and played a major role in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. Harvard also owns shares in Vale SA, a Brazilian-based mining conglomerate, Fossil Free Indexes observes.

Over the past year, Anadarko shares declined 6.5 percent while the Standard & Poor's 500 benchmark stock index gained 11.5 percent. And Vale shares have withered as prices for the coal and iron ore the company exports have sunk. Its shares have lost more than half their value over the past 12 months.

Even though Anadarko hasn't faltered as badly as its competitors — oil and gas funds fell an average of 17 percent last year — Harvard's endowment would have performed better without it or Vale.

The upshot: When George Will says "the effect on the growth of institutions' endowments will be negative" if they divest, he's ignoring market realities, flaunting his financial ignorance, or deliberately misinforming the public.

Some dirty-energy asset prices clawed back from multi-year lows while Harvard students, alumni, and faculty were making a very public case for divestment. Still, there's no reason to bet on a sustained rebound when experts predict that oil, gas, and coal prices will remain depressed.

Given the financial rewards investors can reap for getting out of fossil fuels, the real question isn't whether divestment is risky. It's why anyone would willingly pollute their portfolio regardless of where they stand on climate change.

Opinion Mon, 27 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Can You Really Be GM-Free? Why New European Laws Pose a Moral Dilemma

If public morality justifies a national ban on GM food, why is no such ban required for GM feed and GM crops also? (Photo: GMO Wheat via Shutterstock)If public morality justifies a national ban on GM food, why is no such ban required for GM feed and GM crops also? (Photo: GMO Wheat via Shutterstock)

It's all very well choosing not to eat genetically modified (GM) food, or even banning it entirely, but what if you then rear your cows on GM soya? Can you really maintain a consistent moral objection?

This is the dilemma many European countries are faced with now the EU has proposed measures that will further de-harmonise rules on genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The latest proposal would allow member states to "opt-out" from the use of GM food and animal feed, thereby mirroring legislation passed earlier this year that allowed members to opt-out from GM cultivation.

The official aim is to allow member states to impose restrictions on GM food and feed "in respect of democratic choice and in the interest of consistency." But countries expecting to pick and choose from different GMOs, whether crops, food or feed, will find their freedom heavily constrained.

Any GM restrictions must still comply with EU law. This firstly requires that any measures be necessary to protect a "relevant legitimate objective." Worries over the environment or public health don't count - in theory these are dealt with under the initial authorisation process. This leaves objectives such as public morality, consumer protection or agricultural policy (preventing contamination between GM and non-GM crops, or having to change farms to use for GM crops). Even then, there must still be no arbitrary discrimination or disguised protectionism.

An Italo-Irish Headache

Consider the example of Ireland and Italy: two green, agricultural nations who may shortly be faced with serious headaches. Both have mixed feelings regarding GMOs and both have interests in prohibiting certain products, but crucially not all.

In particular, a substantial proportion of animal feed used in both Italy and Ireland is of GM origin. A 2010 report indicated that more than 90% of protein feed for livestock in Ireland contained EU-authorised GM varieties - mostly soya, maize, cotton and rapeseed.

As imported feed is vital to keep Ireland's cows and sheep well fed, and since it's tough to guarantee zero contamination by GM sources, the country supported an amendment to EU legislation allowing for temporary tolerances of unauthorised GM feed at a level of 0.1%. Even if they would avoid GM feed in neutral circumstances, the market has created a high level of dependency by national producers on GM feed.

Dilemma Time

This adds to a dilemma surrounding specific products produced nationally with GM counterparts produced outside the EU.

Rapeseed is an important crop in Ireland, for instance, just as it is in the UK. Although GM rapeseed is not currently authorised for cultivation in the EU, GM rapeseed food and animal feed grown elsewhere, mostly in Canada, is authorised.

Italy is Europe's main producer of soybeans. As with rapeseed, you can't grow GM soya in the EU, but GM soya products are authorised if imported, with the main suppliers based in America, Brazil and Argentina. Therefore European producers (all non-GM) are in competition with those beyond the EU, both GM and non-GM.

While Ireland and Italy depend on imported GM rapeseed and soya feed too much to impose restrictions, the two nations might be tempted to give their national producers a helping hand by attempting to prohibit GM rapeseed and soya food products. Yet if either were to prohibit these GM foods and not others, irrespective of any legitimate objective claimed, it would indicate "arbitrary discrimination" - whether direct or indirect.

Moral Confusion

What of a general ban on GM food, based on consumer protection or public morality? Consumer protection won't work. Shoppers could be sufficiently protected by labelling, which is already required (even if not considered full and accurate information).

Public morality might justify such restrictions, but if purely on GM food this would appear hypocritical. If public morality justifies a national ban on GM food, why is no such ban required for GM feed and GM crops also? Especially when the GM feed or crops lead eventually to food.

That just leaves environmental and health protection that could justify restricting one GM food and not another, or GM food generally and not feed or crops. However both are expressly excluded under the EU's proposed legislation.

Consequently, Ireland and Italy may be able to impose unilateral restrictions on GM crops, food or feed for a range of legitimate objectives. They could indeed be truly "GM-free." However, if you claim public morality justifies prohibiting GM crops or food, you cannot then backflip and still permit GM feed.

Restrictions on cultivation might be permitted without restrictions on other GM products, but this is due to it also promoting separate objectives such as protection of traditional farming or producer choice. For the measures to be acceptable, they must be consistent.

News Mon, 27 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Wolf in Sheep's Skin? On the Use and Abuse of Volunteerism, AKA Unpaid Labor

Political and social pressure to volunteer is on the rise. Charities are now relying on volunteer work to deliver state subcontracted services. It is time to question this trend and what it means for the rising percentage of unemployed people who are pushed into working for free.

Walk around London and you will notice the many posters endorsed by the Mayor of London encouraging people to volunteer to increase their career chances. Volunteering at football clubs helps doctors become better at their jobs while volunteering at a zoo will help aspiring zookeepers find employment. Whatever you may want to do professionally in the public or third-sector, get volunteering to fill up that CV!

Political and social pressure to volunteer—and to volunteer to get a job—is on the rise even as jobs in the charities sector and elsewhere become ever rarer. At the same time, charities are increasingly relying on volunteer work to deliver state (subcontracted) services, and more and more volunteers are people who are seeking employment. Increasingly volunteering is just a fancy word for un-paid work and a band-aid for cutting services. This is not to say that volunteering isn't an admirable activity or that people shouldn't be contributing their skills, time, knowledge and compassion for causes they care about and indeed for the benefit of their community. But the political glorification of volunteering in an age of austerity needs to come with a public debate about replacing paid and qualified labour with unpaid labour, especially in the charity sector.

A foot in which door?

Many of today's volunteers are people seeking employment. They end up working for free to be able to gain some sort of experience and access a job.

According to the community life survey for 2013-2014, 27% of unemployed people engage in formal voluntary work, an increase of five percent since 2011 and a higher proportion than people in employment. This is true of both women and men, young and middle-aged and it holds an important message: people who may indeed want a job are working for free with or without the actual prospect of employment at the end of their volunteering period.

There is a subtle but unquestionable class dimension at play. Volunteering is generally recommended to everyone aiming to get a foot in the employment door as a way of gaining experience and understanding the system. For example, for NEETs (Not in Education, Employment or Training) and immigrants seeking to work in the third-sector, the recommendation to volunteer is almost immediate. This is all the more problematic as it seems to go relatively unquestioned by those who have to undergo it: giving up your time and skills for free comes with the package of looking for a job and needs to be accepted as such. These 'volunteers' are often youth or adults who are in need of a job, who need to support families and who hope that this is one of the ways in which they can enhance their chances at paid employment.

Internships as the gateway for a graduate job follow a similar pattern: work for free and you might end up being paid. Interns, however, have in the past years started to mobilize, asking for their right to be paid. Internships also tend to supply recruits for professional and managerial roles whereas volunteers can usually hope only to work in lower status jobs involving direct service delivery.

In 2014, the National Council for Voluntary Organizations published a report where it addressed the benefits that volunteering has for those seeking employment. A quick read further reinforces many of the concerns raised here. The report is explicit in encouraging people to work for free to increase their chances of employment. In particular, it stresses the self-esteem and confidence that the long-term unemployed can gain through volunteering to lessen the stigma of unemployment. Volunteering may well have this function, but think of what an actual paid job could do. Moreover, cast in this light, volunteering becomes a sort of rite of passage on the way to paid employment: work for free enthusiastically enough, build your skills and you might be rewarded with a job. Volunteering is in fact a problematic work relationship that sets the parameters for potential employment. Veiling unpaid labour in the clothes of 'it will do you good' is disingenuous at best.

Service delivery at lower human labour costs

There is a growing industry of volunteer recruitment (volunteer coordinators and managers; volunteer support workers; volunteer strategies and retreats). This industry provides the tools to allow volunteering to complement, if not at times outright replace, paid workers in outsourced government services. This apparatus and the messaging it produces helps instil the idea that it is wonderful to be a volunteer, no matter the cause. The language used for recruitment appeals to volunteers' kindness and compassion and stresses the 'exciting opportunities' volunteering provides for volunteers.

Charities' attempts to reduce labour costs is understandable, but alarming, in a sector that is delivering state-subcontracted services. While it is widely repeated that the use of volunteers should not substitute paid labour, this is increasingly empty lip-service, particularly in organizations that undergo a process of restructuring or downsizing. According to established consultants in the business of volunteer management:

'Increasing the number of volunteers in organisations will not solve all the problems we face in these challenging times, but it has to be a serious option. Faced with two undesirable redundancy situations – letting all staff go and closing a service, or retaining a skeleton staff and increasing the number of volunteers – we would advocate the latter every time.'  

It would be telling to look at the number of full-time employees made redundant in a specific organization as it downsizes and then see how many volunteers are being used in their stead. That way we could deduce the extent to which paid labour is being replaced by free labour. This type of information, however, does not seem to be publicly available. Similarly, it is an interesting exercise to look at guidelines for calculating the value of volunteering. Such guidelines highlight the way in which organizations think about and utilize volunteers, which has little to do with the kindness or compassion and everything to do with balancing the books. Substituting volunteers for paid workers can then be used to reinforce a charity's claim to 'value for money' and strengthen its image as an 'outstanding entity' in its bid for funding from donors. Using volunteers makes your organization more competitive by cutting costs and by virtue of having more volunteers, as that helps maintain and promote the image of an 'ideal' type of organization to which people devote their time, knowledge and skills.

One experience I had helps illustrate the dynamic described. It involved a government-funded programme that presents irregular migrants and rejected asylum-seekers—some of whom were detained and facing removal—with the option to leave the UK.  A small resettlement grant was offered to those whose asylum claims had been rejected and who, faced with the alternative of detention and removal, opted for returning to their home country. Higher rates of 'voluntary return' translated into significant savings for the government by allowing it to avoid a costly forcible removal. Volunteers were always an important part of this service, but the organization I worked with is now increasingly reliant on this free labour. After it underwent a downsizing process, the number of volunteers increased considerably. Beyond the replacement of paid workers with volunteers, I think this case rises two wider questions: what is an acceptable use of unpaid labour for state-sponsored services without public scrutiny? And what causes can legitimately be presented as volunteer-worthy?

Political endorsement of volunteering

There is currently a strong political push to support volunteering. It places rather less emphasis, however, on the benefits of volunteering for a government that is pushing the unemployed to work for free in order to provide services for which public funding has been cut. Yet so long as the idea of volunteering is associated only with civic participation and lauded for the benefits it confers to those involved, the idea of unpaid labour can be politically instrumentalized.

A visit to the Mayor of London's volunteering web page can leave one slightly puzzled. It heralds, 'The new platform will enable young people to build an online CV of their volunteering experiences, and use the skills they gain to access to paid work opportunities provided by London employers.' It goes on, advertising, 'Young Londoners will also be able to access thousands of volunteer opportunities posted by the capital's Volunteer Centres through the new service.' In other words, we are encouraging young people to work for free, accumulate as much and as diverse unpaid work experience as possible, and then suggesting that this might eventually become appealing to London employers.

This development is not limited to the UK. The UN has developed the 2014-2017 UNV (UN Volunteers) Strategic Framework that focuses on 'harnessing the power of volunteers and volunteerism to support the achievement of internationally agreed goals.' Or, in one of the bolder admissions of the principle, it argues volunteers can help by 'Complementing essential basic services where they are lacking or where they are insufficient.' States agree that for service delivery goals to be realized, it is alright  to delegate the attendant responsibilities to volunteers.

Wolf in sheep's skin?

In times of dire economic stress, there should be no question about the need to lend time and skills in order to reinforce the spirit of solidarity and sense of togetherness that makes people forge a common future. But beware of wolves in sheep's skins. In addition to the continuous professionalization of volunteer management and volunteer support roles in organizations, the political endorsement of volunteering is opening the door to an even easier acceptance of what is essentially free labour, however it ends up being justified.  There is an ever greater need to critically interrogate this practice. At present, people are being pushed into doing the work of the state for free in hopes of getting a job somewhere down the line.

Opinion Mon, 27 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Awaiting Justice: Indigenous Resistance in the Tar Sands of Canada

17 November, 2014. Protesters gather at the rally against the proposed Kinder Morgan oil pipeline on Burnaby Mountain. (Photo: Mark Klotz)Protesters gather at the rally against the proposed Kinder Morgan oil pipeline on Burnaby Mountain, November 17, 2014. (Photo: Mark Klotz)

On April 11, 2015 there were dozens of rallies across Canada demanding true leadership to deal with the climate crisis we face around the world. The federal Harper government continues to be a climate laggard refusing to address the need to reduce our carbon emissions and violate Indigenous peoples rights with its zealous pro-tar sands agenda. For the first time in Quebec, Indigenous peoples led the march to show our resolve to protect the sacredness of Mother Earth and demand justice. As I stood before a crowd of 25 000 people from across Canada, I spoke of the contamination, despair and detrimental impacts my family and many other communities face from resource extraction happening in our homelands of Northern Alberta.

Due to being an Indigenous activist who speaks out against environmental destruction I have been labelled by the Canadian government as an "adversary." Both "Aboriginals" and "environmentalists" were labelled as such in 2012 when secret government documents were accessed through the Freedom of Information Act. And now the Harper government is taking this to yet another extreme by attempting to pass an anti-terrorism law called Bill C-51 which includes targeting the "anti-petroleum movement" as "extremists" because they oppose "critical infrastructure" projects like the tar sands and tar sands pipelines. This bill is an attempt to silence people who do not agree with the Harper government and can be used to target and criminalize democratic peaceful protest movements. Over 100 legal experts expressed deep concern calling the bill "a dangerous piece of legislation" and addressed an open letter to all members of parliament to amend Bill C-51 or kill it. It is legislation like this that makes it difficult for people to not be scared into silence and for people like me who believe that we need to transition to clean and just work and engage in peaceful protests that may be seen as criminal in the eyes of the Canadian government. But this history is not new for us as Indigenous peoples here in Canada. It is the continuation of  neo colonialism seen now in the form of resource extraction, environmental and cultural genocide.

The traditional territory of my ancestors and my Nation of the Lubicon Cree covers approximately 10,000 square kilometres of low-lying trees, forests, rivers, plains, and wetlands - what we call muskeg - in northern Alberta. For three decades, our territory has undergone massive oil and gas development without the consent of the people and without recognition of our treaty & Indigenous rights, which are protected under Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution.

In the 1970s, before this encroachment on the land began, my father's generation and my grandparents' generation survived by hunting, fishing, and trapping throughout the region. Back then, and even into my own generation, people were still living off the land. I remember going out on the trapline, and I remember when the water was still good to drink. But as oil and gas have come through the territory, that's changed.

Currently there are more than 2,600 oil and gas wells in our traditional territories. Over 1,400 square kilometres of leases have been granted for tar sands development in Lubicon territory, and almost 70 per cent of the remaining land has been leased for future development.

Where there once was self-sufficiency, we are seeing increased dependency on social services as families are no longer able to sustain themselves in what was once a healthy environment with clean air, clean water, medicines, berries, and plants from the Boreal. Our way of life is being replaced by industrial landscapes, polluted and drained watersheds, and contaminated air. And it's very much a crisis situation.

In the North, we are seeing elevated rates of cancers and respiratory illnesses as a consequence of the toxic gases being released into the air and water. And while over $14 billion in oil and gas revenues have been taken from our traditional territory, our community lives in extreme poverty and still lacks basic medical services and running water.

Unceded Territory

Canada's treatment of the Lubicon has been repeatedly condemned by the United Nations, and UN Special Rapporteur Miloon Kothari has called for a moratorium on oil and gas in Lubicon territory.

On March 26, 1990, the United Nations Human Rights Committee ruled that Canada's failure to recognize and protect Lubicon land rights violated the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In 2006, the United Nations Human Rights Committee again called on Canada to address outstanding land claims in Lubicon territory before granting further licences for economic exploitation, yet this resource extraction is still happening.

In 1899, when Treaty 8 was officially signed in northern Alberta, treaty commissioners overlooked the Lubicon Cree due to their remote and hard-to-reach territory. The Lubicon people therefore never ceded their traditional territory to the Crown. This has led to a precarious and unstable relationship with both the provincial and federal governments as both have continuously undermined the sovereignty of the Lubicon people. For decades the Lubicon have tried to settle these outstanding land disputes, but unfortunately it serves the government's interests to keep the Lubicon land claim outstanding due to the territory's rich oil and gas deposits.

When the construction of an all-weather road began in the early 1970s, the Lubicon people started to contest the encroachment of their traditional territory as multinational corporations began to exploit the land. For the 14 years that followed, the Lubicon attempted to assert their rights through various court proceedings at both the provincial and federal level. By 1988, the Lubicon concluded that it was necessary to use other means of direct action so their voices and message would be heard.

On October 15, 1988, the Lubicon people erected a peaceful blockade, which was successful in stopping oil exploitation of the territory for six days. Only then did Alberta Premier Don Getty meet with the Lubicon chief and agree to a 243-kilometre reserve under the Grimshaw Accord.

Despite this agreement, the Canadian government offered the Lubicon substandard conditions in the land settlement agreement. Even Premier Getty described the offer as "deficient in the area of providing economic stability for the future."

Unfortunately, due to the take-it-or-leave-it approach of the federal government, the land claim negotiations continued from 1989 until 2003 when the talks broke down completely and both parties walked away from the table. To this day, the Lubicon Cree have been unable to settle a land claim, which has drastically hindered their ability to protect themselves and their traditional territory from further exploitation and destruction.

The Rainbow Pipeline Rupture

On April 29, 2011, a rupture in the Rainbow Pipeline resulted in a spill of about 4.5 million litres of oil in our territory - one of the biggest oil spills in Alberta's history. When the pipeline broke, oil went down the corridor and into the forest, but the majority of it was soaked up into the muskeg, which is like peatland moss and takes thousands of years to be generated. The muskeg is not an isolated system. It's not "stagnant water," as the government claims. It's actually a living, breathing ecosystem that supports life and is connected to all the water in the region.

On the first day of the spill, the school was not notified. When students started to feel sick, they were evacuated from the school under the assumption that it was a propane leak. When they got outside into the field, they realized that the problem was throughout the community.

The first week of the spill, community members experienced physical symptoms: their eyes burned, they had headaches, they felt nauseous. We were told that air quality was not a problem, even though Alberta Environment didn't actually come into the community until six days after the spill. This is problematic since the government granting permits for this type of development to happen, often without the consent of the people, has an obligation to take care of those whom they are directly putting at risk. A lot of people were left wondering what they should do, and if pregnant women and small children should even be in the community.

The Rainbow Pipeline is now 45 years old. When it broke in 2006 and spilled 1 million litres of oil, the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board stated that stress and corrosion in the pipeline's infrastructure contributed to the spill. Five years later, 4.5 million litres spilled in our traditional territory. We're also seeing pipeline breaks like this in other parts of North America, from Kalamazoo, Michigan, to the Kinder-Morgan spill along the West Coast. Will it ever end?

How many more communities have to be put at risk for this type of development, and who is really benefiting? What are we leaving to future generations? We need to shift away from a fossil fuel-based system and push for renewable energy systems that enable us to be self-sufficient and self-sustaining.

For over a century now, the Lubicon Cree's rights have not been protected or respected. For decades the Lubicon have led local, national, and international lobbying efforts to fight for what is inherently theirs and to protect their right to their land and to clean air and good water. But despite years of raising awareness and increasing exposure, the Lubicon people still wait for justice.

However, over the past decade of speaking out and demanding justice I have seen a great shift in how our struggles are perceived. Now people from all walks of life are beginning to stand together and seek justice for those first and foremost impacted on the frontlines of environmental destruction. Now more than ever, people are working together as we know that the fate of humanity is wrapped up in our collective fight for a better, more just world for all.

News Mon, 27 Apr 2015 10:32:58 -0400
Judge's Ruling in Rekia Boyd Case Sparks Outrage, Protests

(Photo: Aaron Cynic/Chicagoist)(Photo: Aaron Cynic/Chicagoist)

The surprise ruling in the trial of Dante Servin, a Chicago Police officer who shot and killed 22-year old Rekia Boyd on Chicago's West side in 2012, sparked a series of protests this week in Chicago and other cities. On Monday, Judge Dennis Porter threw out the charges against Servin, who fired several shots from an unregistered weapon from his car window into a crowd, which struck and killed Boyd and wounded another man, saying that since Servin's conduct was "beyond reckless," prosecutors couldn't prove recklessness. "It is intentional and the crime, if any there be, is first-degree murder," said Porter in his ruling.

"The community and the family in particular was hit hard by yesterday's ruling by the judge," Todd St. Hill, an organizer with the group Black Youth Project 100, told reporters during a Tuesday afternoon rally at Daley Plaza. "Dante Servin was off duty, his gun was unregistered, he shot over his shoulder into a crowd and the reasons that he put forward were similar to so many that we've heard it's formulaic."

Tuesday's rally downtown came after several dozen demonstrators marched on the West side for about 2 ½ hours Monday night. Meanwhile, Martinez Sutton, Boyd's brother, traveled to Washington D.C. to speak at a rally to stop police violence. "This is a court of law, so if you're feeling emotional, you might as well hit the door," said Sutton, speaking Judge Porter's words just prior to the ruling being handed down. "That was I figured we lost this case."

"We got pushed out of the courtroom, and we were standing outside the courtroom, and they knew what verdict was happening," said Ethos, an organizer with the group We Charge Genocide. "Why else would they have police dogs and two dozen officers waiting for us? We see the response they give in our communities when things like this happen."

Demonstrators called out the flaws in the justice system, as well as the frequency in deaths of young people of color at the hands of police. "Dante Servin took any chance Rekia had to build her life," said Charlene Carruthers, national coordinator of BYP100. "All too often those stories exist. Too many stories of a young black person shot and killed right before they went to college." Malcolm London, another organizer with the group, told the crowd gathered in the plaza:

"Everyday there's a new name cremated into hashtag on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. That hurts. To see a judge, a city say here, have some money, forget about what happened. We agree that this was wrong. The way our laws are set up, they're designed for people to get away with murder. It hurts."

On Monday, Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez released a statement saying she was "extremely disappointed" by Porter's ruling, saying "the State's Attorney's Office brought charges in this case in good faith, and only after a very careful legal analysis of the evidence, as well as the specific circumstances of this crime." Many argue that her office botched the case by not bringing up more severe charges. William Calloway, a community activist, called for her removal at the rally. "We have to band together and make a conscious decision to whom we have to pick to not only represent the police officers, but for African Americans and minorities across this city," said Calloway. Yesterday, the Sun-Times reported criminal defense attorney Sam Adam Jr. accused Alvarez of deliberately filing the wrong charges:

"To charge that as reckless conduct and not first-degree murder — either you're doing it because you want to curry favor with the police department or you're completely inept. I think there's no question it was deliberate. She wants to curry favor with the FOP."

In an interview with Fox News, Sutton also questioned the State's Attorney's office. "We begged for murder charges. They actually had second degree murder at first and then the day before they announced the charges, they switched everything up without telling us." Representatives from Operation Rainbow-Push agreed. "There was an officer that was guilty of murder that was found innocent," Jonathan Jackson, National Spokesman for Rainbow-Push, told CBS. The Reverend Jeanette Wilson also said the police and prosecutors have too close a relationship. "Obviously we cannot trust local law enforcement and local state's attorneys to be objective in cases where African Americans and people of color are involved as victims," said Jackson.

St. Hill said the problem doesn't only lie with Alvarez or the judge, but with the system itself. "I think you're left with no choice but to be mad at the police, the system of policing, our so called justice system as it relates to the black community, communities of color and poor and working class people. You have no choice but to be mad and demand a sustainable and lasting transformation."

News Mon, 27 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
The Battle Over the Trans-Pacific Partnership and "Fast Track" Gets Hot

President Obama must be having trouble getting the votes for fast-track authority since the administration is now pulling out all the stops to push the deal. This has included a press call where he apparently got testy over the charge by critics that the Trans-Pacific Partnership is a secret deal.

7 May, 2014: AFGE joined other labor organizations to oppose the Trans Pacific Partnership Trade deal. (Photo: AFGE)The American Federation of Government Employees joined other labor organizations to oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership Trade deal, May 7, 2014. (Photo: AFGE)President Obama must be having trouble getting the votes for fast-track authority since the administration is now pulling out all the stops to push the deal. This has included a press call where he apparently got testy over the charge by critics that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a secret trade deal.

Obama insisted the deal is not secret, but googling "TPP" will not get you a copy of the text. Apparently President Obama is using a different definition of "secret" than the ordinary English usage.

But that wasn't the only fun in the last week. The administration got 13 former Democratic governors to sign a letter boasting about the jobs generated by the growth of exports. The letter noted that exports had added "$760 billion to our economy between 2009 and 2014 - one-third of our total growth." It neglected to mention that imports had grown even faster, diverting $890 billion in demand away from the domestic economy to foreign economies.

Contrary to what the governors were claiming in their letter, trade was a net negative to the tune of more than $130 billion over this five year period. Instead of adding jobs, the growing trade deficit was drag on growth, slowing job creation and putting downward pressure on wages. The growth in the trade deficit over this period has the same impact on the economy as if people pulled $130 billion out of their paychecks each year and stuffed it under their mattress.

Secretary of State John Kerry also got into the act with a speech that talked about the importance of the world economy. He told his audience that most of the growth in the future will be outside of the United States and that we will be missing huge markets if we don't have an open economy.

This is true, but it has about as much relevance to the TPP and fast track as an analysis of the Washington Wizards' playoff prospects. The United States already has almost $4 trillion in trade annually (at 23 percent of GDP). This figure has been rising rapidly. It will continue to rise rapidly whether or not Congress approves the TPP. The fact that trade is good has nothing to do with whether Congress should approve the TPP.

This is a lesson that was apparently also lost on Harvard economist Greg Mankiw. In a New York Times column last week Mankiw argued for the congressional approval on fast-track authority based on the claim that all economists agree that free trade is good.

In fact, not all economists agree that all reductions in trade barriers are good. But more importantly, the TPP is not primarily about reducing trade barriers. The TPP is essentially a pact in which the Obama administration invited industry representatives to get together a wish list and see what they could impose on the other parties to the deal.

Since formal trade barriers are already low, very little time was spent on cutting tariffs or ending quotas. Most of the deal is about imposing a business-friendly regulatory structure. The rules in the TPP can be used to challenge any consumer, labor or environmental regulation approved at the state, local or federal level. The enforcement powers will rest with an extra-judicial dispute settlement mechanism that will impose penalties that are not subject to appeal.

On this issue President Obama's assurance that the TPP will not challenge financial regulation or other types of regulation are worthless. He has no idea what sort of people will be appointed to these tribunals in future years. The tribunals are not bound by or even the precedent of rulings from other tribunals. Does President Obama really want us to believe that he knows a President Bush or President Walker won't appoint people who will use the tribunals to undermine environmental and labor regulations?

The absurdity of conflating the TPP with "free trade" is brought out by the fact that its biggest impact may well be from increasing the strength of patent protection, especially in the case of prescription drugs. Patents are government-granted monopolies. They are the opposite of free trade. The TPP will make them stronger and longer raising drug prices. This increase in protectionism is a drag on growth and will slow job creation.

The Obama administration has punted in the one area where a trade deal may have had a major positive impact. The deal will not have any rules on currency. The main reason the United States continues to run large trade deficits is that our trading partners deliberately prop up the dollar against their currencies. This makes their goods relatively cheaper and ours more expensive.

The Obama administration could have made currency rules front and center in a trade deal, but that would have only made sense if its main concern was jobs and workers. Instead we have a deal that is a piñata for the corporations who were at the table, and who the Democrats are counting on to give generously in the 2016 campaign.

This doesn't look very pretty to the rest of us, which is why the Obama administration will have to play fast and loose with the truth to get the TPP through Congress.

Opinion Mon, 27 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Military Contractors Belie Myth of US Leaving Afghanistan and Iraq

The four Blackwater security contractors responsible for the infamous 2007 killing of 17 civilian Iraqis in Baghdad with sniper fire, machine guns and grenade launchers were finally sentenced April 13, one to life, the others to 30 years. The sentences are a reminder that we are not really leaving when the contractor force in the region and the gray areas in which they operate remain.

When President Barack Obama confirmed the coming 2016 end to American troops' involvement in Afghanistan at the White House last month in a joint news conference with Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani, he thanked soldiers and their families for their courage and sacrifice in the nation's longest war. He did not mention the other half of the U.S. fighting force: the private contractors who work for the Department of Defense, the CIA, and the State Department. They are carrying out similar missions by different names and with less oversight. It's even in our pop fiction: On TV's hit show, "Madam Secretary," the secretary of state's husband secretly works for the CIA and conducts "special ops" missions connected to her work.

President Obama said, "The United States - along with our allies and partners - will maintain a limited military presence in Afghanistan to train, advise and assist Afghan forces and to conduct counterterrorism operations against the remnants of al-Qaida."

The Washington Post and other media reported a $52 billion CIA "black budget" for 2013 disclosed by Edward Snowden - money hidden from the public that goes largely to contractors. If the presence of private military contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq is obscured, how is the public supposed to know if we are truly "out?"

Contractors answer to a firm contracted by a federal agency. They can serve a variety of purposes: combat, security, logistics, health services, transportation, food service; hence the tongue-in-cheek "private army" label for the private military contractor industry.

"The military is unable to effectively execute many operations, particularly those that are large-scale and long-term in nature, without extensive operational contract support," according to a 2013 Library of Congress report.

More than 3,000 contractors remained in Iraq last year. A DOD contractor census shows that 39,609 contractors are still in Afghanistan alongside 10,000 troops.

"Those numbers are way too low," said Chip Hauss, government liaison for the Alliance for Peacebuilding, who also is a professor at George Mason University and Oberlin College graduate. He agrees the true numbers are hidden by the "black budget." Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told us the best way to fight al-Qaida and ISIS, given Americans' reticence about using our troops, is "by mercenaries," and it seems we are now doing so.

According to former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, private military contractors were used "without any supervision." Although the Department of Defense has taken steps to better regulate private military contractors, oversight is still lacking. The Library of Congress reported in 2013 that "lack of data makes it difficult to determine to what extent the billions of dollars spent [on contractors] ... have contributed to achieving the mission."

While we may be saving face by troop withdrawal, we are not saving money. At least $200 billion was officially awarded in contracts during the Iraq war in addition to nonpublic "black" budgets. According to the Pentagon's Tenth Quadrennial Reviewof Military compensation, private military contractors made higher salaries ($165,000 per year, excluding benefits) than sergeants in the military ($63,340 a year, excluding benefits).

Iraqis tortured by contractors at the Abu Ghraib prison with electric shock, sexual violence and broken bones are still in court for compensation from a company, CACI International, which continues to receive government contracts.

Private military contractors are the "military-industrial complex" Eisenhower warned about back in 1961. Contractors serving in Iraq and Afghanistan are paid with U.S. government funds, but the law hides them and their money. If we're leaving, whether for moral reasons or to free funds for domestic programs, that has to include contractors. If we are staying, we have a right to oversight against unjust murder and torture, to know what we are paying for, and to see where the money goes.

Opinion Mon, 27 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Fossil Fuel Extinction ]]> (Lauren Walker) Art Mon, 27 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400