Truthout Stories http://www.truth-out.org Thu, 05 Mar 2015 11:09:57 -0500 en-gb "The Internet Is My Lifeline": Hip-Hop Artist Jasiri X on the FCC's Net Neutrality Vote http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/29468-the-internet-is-my-lifeline-hip-hop-artist-jasiri-x-on-the-fcc-s-net-neutrality-vote http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/29468-the-internet-is-my-lifeline-hip-hop-artist-jasiri-x-on-the-fcc-s-net-neutrality-vote

The Internet is such a part of everyday life that many people don't notice how much they rely on it. Those Skype calls to faraway relatives? Streaming music on your commute? Reading the news on a site like this one? None of it would be possible without the Internet.

That's why the Federal Communications Commission decision on February 26 was important not only for online businesses, but for everyday users. The FCC voted 3-2 to preserve the Internet as we know it, keeping it free and open by reclassifying Internet service providers under Title II of the Telecommunications Act. In other words, the FCC made net neutrality the law of the land. This decision prevents Internet providers from charging fees for faster service, slowing down unpaid content, or blocking unwanted websites. It also broadened the regulations to encompass mobile Internet use.

This is a victory for grassroots activists, who sent approximately 3.7 million comments to the FCC on the issue. And it wasn't just computer geeks and the people who love them who got involved. More than 90 musicians expressed their support for net neutrality days before the vote when they signed a letter of appreciation to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.

"Artists have endured tremendous consolidation in the media marketplace that has limited opportunities," a section of the letter said. The musicians went on to say that reclassification of the Internet under Title II is the best way to protect their ability to "build businesses, reach audiences, and earn a living."

Jasiri X, a hip-hop artist from Pittsburgh, was one of the musicians who signed the letter to Wheeler. And he's brought the same activist approach to other topics—especially racial justice. He's criticized white privilege in songs like "What If the Tea Party Was Black?" and even traveled to Ferguson, Missouri, where he witnessed police brutality firsthand during protests in August, influencing his most recent video "Don't Let Them Get Away With Murder."

Outside of music, Jasiri X is a cofounder of the anti-violence group One Hood and the 1Hood Academy, which teaches media awareness to African-American boys and encourages them to be conscious of how their presence on social media can create change.

YES! spoke with Jasiri X about the Internet, social change, and net neutrality. This interview has been lightly edited.

Kayla Schultz: How did you get involved in the movement to protect net neutrality?

Jasiri X: A good friend of mine who writes a lot about hip-hop and politics named Davey D. He is based in the Bay Area and has a show on KPFA called Hard Knock Radio. He was one of the first ones who got me down with net neutrality and what was happening around it.

As an independent artist who has built my career through social media and the Internet and my ability to compete on a somewhat fair level in terms of getting my music out there, it was something I immediately took interest in. I saw cable companies drawing a lot of money around it, and especially targeting the black community and the historically black organizations.

People on social media and the Internet were the ones who said that Trayvon and Ferguson and those events were things that were going to be talked about—before mainstream media started to get involved. Now we're seeing social media used to help create movements and real change in our communities. That's when I got even more involved in terms of wanting to prevent these big cable companies from having an extra advantage online.

Schultz: What was at stake for you as a musician?

Jasiri X: I'm a full-time artist; it's how I make a living. And I do music that is socially conscious, so that means I don't get played on the radio. That's what's been cool about social media: It's kind of treated as democracy in terms of people deciding, OK, I like this.

So it's important for me to have a place and not be at a disadvantage. I'm already at a disadvantage in terms of that I don't have the resources, especially compared to a multimillion dollar corporation. It would be terrible for me if you could load the new Drake song and it loads up fast and plays regularly, but then click on Jasiri X or a different independent artist and it goes slower and won't load.

We're already at a disadvantage because we don't have the resources, but then put us at an even greater disadvantage? To me, it destroys the whole essence of the Internet and what makes it cool.

Schultz: How would you say most of your music gets heard?

Jasiri X: I would say on social media. I got successful through videos that offer a kind of narrative, especially around the portrayal of young black men. So being able to throw a video up on YouTube and then on Facebook and people share it is how I became known and built my fan base.

I also [cofounded] a media academy in Pittsburgh where we teach young African-American boys how to analyze and create their own media. We were able to do that because we had that success with social media, because we've had millions of views of our videos and we can teach people about this.

It all came about because [The Heinz Endowments] studied the local media in Pittsburgh and 86 percent of the time they showed black men associated with crime [on television]. Eighty-six percent of the time. So we thought, why don't we teach young people how to utilize the Internet to tell their own stories?

Schultz: Can you talk a little bit more about 1Hood Academy?

Jasiri X: We started 1Hood Media about four years ago, after Heinz Endowments, the Pew Research Center, and Meyer Communications did a study called Portrayal and Perception that looked at negative images of African-Americans in Pittsburgh.

So we decided to kind of petition the local newspapers to portray us better. They don't get it, so instead we have the power. We can get a camera, use our phones. We got all our students iPod minis because you can take pictures with them, you can take video.

Also, we felt like these kids go to high school and there isn't a class on social media and there isn't a class on what's intelligent or not to share. Who's talking to young people about this? So we wanted to teach how to use it in a way that you're not looking back five years later thinking you shouldn't have shared all this shit and now it's affecting your career.

Schultz: Have you seen a big difference in what students have been posting?

Jasiri X: Absolutely. One of my students just posted a link to a thing that happened in Pittsburgh. Somebody witnessed police brutality, and I didn't know about it. I'm following my students, and it's cool to see them utilizing these tools in a way that's just not for frivolous things, but actually beginning to move the envelope in terms of things that are maybe more important.

Schultz: How do you think the FCC's decision on net neutrality will affect your students?

Jasiri X: Now they have the ability to share their experiences, their true selves. If you take that away, you are further marginalizing an already-marginalized group of people. Pittsburgh is America's most livable city, according to Forbes Magazine, but we also have the poorest black community in the country, according to the United States census.

So we're already dealing with students who come from poverty. And if you make it more difficult for videos or things that they are sharing to get shown, you are further marginalizing them and further taking away their voice.

What's so cool about the Internet now is you have not just a black community, but black women having a large voice, the LGBT folks having a voice. And I'm learning from them because these are individuals I've never heard speak before. If you look at the state of journalism when it even just comes to people of color in the newsrooms, it's horrible. It's like, we don't need to be on your Washington Post desk or whatever you are. You can build a following just because of what you tweet and how you do it, and you become like the media.

When Ferguson went down, I wasn't waiting for reporters to go on TV and misrepresent our people in the horrible way like they did. I was following people who were providing up-to-the-minute video and pictures—and they became the media. If you don't uphold net neutrality, we're back to square one, back to major corporations dictating what we should be watching or looking at, and we're not even able to have a real critique.

Schultz: You were among the more than 90 musicians who signed a letter to Chairman Wheeler thanking him for supporting net neutrality. What do you think the implications of the FCC's decision will be?

Jasiri X: The right wing are going to do what they do, which is lie and misrepresent, but it's encouraging. It's encouraging because I see hip-hop taking a turn for the better. When I see artists like Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole and Joey Badass and Azealia Banks coming in and using their voices in a strong way, I am encouraged by that. And part of it is that Internet artists have more control over their albums than ever—over their product, over their brand.

The artist has more control and this is why music is starting to get better, in my opinion. It allows me to continue to build on my own brand and build my audience at a steady pace. I don't want to be signed to a major record label because I want creative control over how I say what I say and how it's represented. So I feel like this decision helps artists become stronger and use our voice in a stronger way.

I know down the line they are going to challenge this. They already are thinking of ways to challenge, but hopefully next time it won't be 90 artists—it'll be a thousand artists and even bigger artists understanding what's at stake.

Schultz: What do you think are the next steps for supporters of net neutrality?

Jasiri X: I would use the victory as a way to educate more artists. Because we know that this is not going to be the last chapter, that these cable companies are going to try to find a way to weaken this decision. But I feel like we are the generation that has grown up online and we understand how it's benefited us and helped us. I believe if we continue to educate this next generation of artists, we can have a stronger pushback when it comes up next time.

And since there's a presidential election coming up, these are things we should put on the agenda in terms of asking, "Is this what you support?" You know, when it looked like Obama got shaky, people were like, "Hold up, man." Whether it's Hillary or Elizabeth Warren or whoever, we need to say this is an issue that is important to us and it needs to have unwavering support from them or they aren't going to get our vote. That's how we need to roll, and that's just not for the president, but Congress, the Senate, all of that stuff.

Schultz: You just dropped a new video with a really powerful message on police brutality. What are the next steps for your music?

Jasiri X: Because of the type of music I've been doing, I've been working with these organizations. I did the "Don't Let Them Get Away With Murder" video with an organization called Sankofa, which was founded by Harry Belafonte and encourages artists to talk about issues of social justice. Harry wants me to come to Selma with him on March 8 for the 50th anniversary, and of course I'm excited for that.

I'm also doing a video that's coming up soon with an organization called the Perception Institute, and their goal is to change the perception of black men by 2020. That video is done and should be coming up soon.

I'm going to try to put three albums out this year. I'm going to try. I didn't put any out last year because I was just too busy, but I have a project coming up called Black Liberation Theology that I'm going to release. I'm just traveling a lot. I'm blessed.

You know what happens is people find me online and say, "Hey, I like what you do. I want to bring you to my school" or whatever. And I'm off. So, the Internet is my lifeline as an artist. For me, the FCC vote was almost like a life or death situation artistically. You're playing with my ability to financially support myself through the arts and culture that I create. And so for me, I feel like it was important to lend my voice to it.

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News Thu, 05 Mar 2015 10:38:01 -0500
Are Pilots Deserting Washington's Remote-Control War? http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/29466-are-pilots-deserting-washington-s-remote-control-war http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/29466-are-pilots-deserting-washington-s-remote-control-war

The U.S. drone war across much of the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa is in crisis and not because civilians are dying or the target list for that war or the right to wage it just about anywhere on the planet are in question in Washington. Something far more basic is at stake: drone pilots are quitting in record numbers.

There are roughly 1,000 such drone pilots, known in the trade as "18Xs," working for the U.S. Air Force today. Another 180 pilots graduate annually from a training program that takes about a year to complete at Holloman and Randolph Air Force bases in, respectively, New Mexico and Texas. As it happens, in those same 12 months, about 240 trained pilots quit and the Air Force is at a loss to explain the phenomenon. (The better-known U.S. Central Intelligence Agency drone assassination program is also flown by Air Force pilots loaned out for the covert missions.)

On January 4, 2015, the Daily Beast revealed an undated internal memo to Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh from General Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle stating that pilot "outflow increases will damage the readiness and combat capability of the MQ-1/9 [Predator and Reaper] enterprise for years to come" and added that he was "extremely concerned." Eleven days later, the issue got top billing at a special high-level briefing on the state of the Air Force. Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James joined Welsh to address the matter. "This is a force that is under significant stress -- significant stress from what is an unrelenting pace of operations," she told the media.

In theory, drone pilots have a cushy life. Unlike soldiers on duty in "war zones," they can continue to live with their families here in the United States. No muddy foxholes or sandstorm-swept desert barracks under threat of enemy attack for them. Instead, these new techno-warriors commute to work like any office employees and sit in front of computer screens wielding joysticks, playing what most people would consider a glorified video game.

They typically "fly" missions over Afghanistan and Iraq where they are tasked with collecting photos and video feeds, as well as watching over U.S. soldiers on the ground. A select few are deputized to fly CIA assassination missions over Pakistan, Somalia, or Yemen where they are ordered to kill "high value targets" from the sky. In recent months, some of these pilots have also taken part in the new war in the Syrian and Iraqi borderlands, conducting deadly strikes on militants of ISIL.

Each of these combat air patrols involves three to four drones, usually Hellfire-missile-armed Predators and Reapers built by southern California's General Atomics, and each takes as many as 180 staff members to fly them. In addition to pilots, there are camera operators, intelligence and communications experts, and maintenance workers. (The newer Global Hawk surveillance patrols need as many as 400 support staff.)

The Air Force is currently under orders to staff 65 of these regular "combat air patrols" around the clock as well as to support a Global Response Force on call for emergency military and humanitarian missions. For all of this, there should ideally be 1,700 trained pilots. Instead, facing an accelerating dropout rate that recently drove this figure below 1,000, the Air Force has had to press regular cargo and jet pilots as well as reservists into becoming instant drone pilots in order to keep up with the Pentagon's enormous appetite for real-time video feeds from around the world.

The Air Force explains the departure of these drone pilots in the simplest of terms. They are leaving because they are overworked. The pilots themselves say that it's humiliating to be scorned by their Air Force colleagues as second-class citizens. Some have also come forward to claim that the horrors of war, seen up close on video screens, day in, day out, are inducing an unprecedented, long-distance version of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD).

But is it possible that a brand-new form of war -- by remote control -- is also spawning a brand-new, as yet unlabeled, form of psychological strain? Some have called drone war a "coward's war" (an opinion that, according to reports from among the drone-traumatized in places like Yemen and Pakistan, is seconded by its victims). Could it be that the feeling is even shared by drone pilots themselves, that a sense of dishonor in fighting from behind a screen thousands of miles from harm's way is having an unexpected impact of a kind psychologists have never before witnessed?

Killing Up Close and Personal From Afar

There can be no question that drone pilots resent the way other Air Force pilots see them as second-class citizens. "It's tough working night shifts watching your buddies do great things in the field while you're turning circles in the sky," a drone instructor named Ryan told Mother Jones magazine. His colleagues, he says, call themselves the "lost generation."

"Everyone else thinks that the whole program or the people behind it are a joke, that we are video-game warriors, that we're Nintendo warriors," Brandon Bryant, a former drone camera operator who worked at Nellis Air Force Base, told Democracy Now.

Certainly, there is nothing second-class about the work tempo of drone life. Pilots log 900-1,800 hours a year compared to a maximum of 300 hours annually for regular Air Force pilots. And the pace is unrelenting. "A typical person doing this mission over the last seven or eight years has worked either six or seven days a week, twelve hours a day," General Welsh told NPR recently. "And that one- or two-day break at the end of it is really not enough time to take care of that family and the rest of your life."

The pilots wholeheartedly agree. "It's like when your engine temperature gauge is running just below the red area on your car's dashboard, but instead of slowing down and relieving the stress on the engine, you put the pedal to the floor," one drone pilot told Air Force Times. "You are sacrificing the engine to get a short burst of speed with no real consideration to the damage being caused."

The Air Force has come up with a pallid interim "solution." It is planning to offer experienced drone pilots a daily raise of about $50. There's one problem, though: since so many pilots leave the service early, only a handful have enough years of experience to qualify for this bonus. Indeed, the Air Force concedes that just 10 of them will be able to claim the extra bounty this year, striking testimony to the startling levels of job turnover among such pilots.

Most 18Xs say that their jobs are tougher and significantly more upfront and personal than those of the far more glamorous jet pilots. "[A] Predator operator is so much more involved in what is going on than your average fast-moving jetfighter pilot, or your B-52, B-1, B-2 pilots, who will never even see their target," Lieutenant Colonel Bruce Black, a former Air Force drone pilot says. "A Predator pilot has been watching his target[s], knows them intimately, knows where they are, and knows what's around them."

Some say that the drone war has driven them over the edge. "How many women and children have you seen incinerated by a Hellfire missile? How many men have you seen crawl across a field, trying to make it to the nearest compound for help while bleeding out from severed legs?" Heather Linebaugh, a former drone imagery analyst, wrote in the Guardian. "When you are exposed to it over and over again it becomes like a small video, embedded in your head, forever on repeat, causing psychological pain and suffering that many people will hopefully never experience."

"It was horrifying to know how easy it was. I felt like a coward because I was halfway across the world and the guy never even knew I was there," Bryant told KNPR Radio in Nevada. "I felt like I was haunted by a legion of the dead. My physical health was gone, my mental health was crumbled. I was in so much pain I was ready to eat a bullet myself."

Many drone pilots, however, defend their role in targeted killings. "We're not killing people for the fun of it. It would be the same if we were the guys on the ground," mission controller Janet Atkins told Chris Woods of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. "You have to get to [the enemy] somehow or all of you will die."

Others like Bruce Black are proud of their work. "I was shooting two weeks after I got there and saved hundreds of people, including Iraqis and Afghanis," he told his hometown newspaper in New Mexico. "We'd go down to Buffalo Wild Wings, drink beer and debrief. It was surreal. It didn't take long for you to realize how important the work is. The value that the weapon system brings to the fight is not apparent till you're there. People have a hard time sometimes seeing that."

Measuring Pilot Stress

So whom does one believe? Janet Atkins and Bruce Black, who claim that drone pilots are overworked heroes? Or Brandon Bryant and Heather Linebaugh, who claim that remotely directed targeted killings caused them mental health crises?

Military psychologists have been asked to investigate the phenomenon. A team of psychologists at the School of Aerospace Medicine at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio has published a series of studies on drone pilot stress. One 2011 study concluded that nearly half of them had "high operational stress." A number also exhibited "clinical distress" -- that is, anxiety, depression, or stress severe enough to affect them in their personal lives.

Wayne Chappelle, a lead author in a number of these studies, nonetheless concludes that the problem is mostly a matter of overwork caused by the chronic shortage of pilots. His studies appear to show that post-traumatic stress levels are actually lower among drone pilots than in the general population. Others, however, question these numbers. Jean Otto and Bryant Webber of the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center and the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, caution that the lack of stress reports may only "reflect artificial underreporting of the concerns of pilots due to the career-threatening effects of [mental health] diagnoses, [which] include removal from flying status, loss of flight pay, and diminished competitiveness for promotion."

Seeing Everything, Missing the Obvious

One thing is clear: the pilots are not just killing "bad guys" and they know it because, as Black points out, they see everything that happens before, during, and after a drone strike.

Indeed, the only detailed transcript of an actual Air Force drone surveillance mission and targeted killing to be publicly released illustrates this all too well. The logs recorded idle chatter on February 21, 2010, between drone operators at Creech Air Force base in Nevada coordinating with video analysts at Air Force special operations headquarters in Okaloosa, Florida, and with Air Force pilots in a rural part of Daikondi province in central Afghanistan. On that day, three vehicles were seen traveling in a pre-dawn convoy carrying about a dozen people each. Laboring under the mistaken belief that the group were "insurgents" out to kill some nearby U.S. soldiers on a mission, the drone team decided to attack.

Controller: "We believe we may have a high-level Taliban commander."

Camera operator: "Yeah, they called a possible weapon on the military-age male mounted in the back of the truck."

Intelligence coordinator: "Screener said at least one child near SUV."

Controller: "Bullshit! Where? I don't think they have kids out this hour. I know they're shady, but come on!"

Camera operator "A sweet [expletive]! Geez! Lead vehicle on the run and bring the helos in!"

Moments later, Kiowa helicopter pilots descended and fired Hellfire missiles at the vehicle.

Controller: "Take a look at this one. It was hit pretty good. It's a little toasty! That truck is so dead!"

Within 20 minutes, after the survivors of the attack had surrendered, the transcript recorded the sinking feelings of the drone pilots as they spotted women and children in the convoy and could not find any visual evidence of weapons.

A subsequent on-the-ground investigation established that not one of the people killed was anything other than an ordinary villager. "Technology can occasionally give you a false sense of security that you can see everything, that you can hear everything, that you know everything," Air Force Major General James Poss, who oversaw an investigation into the incident, later told the Los Angeles Times.

Of course, Obama administration officials claim that such incidents are rare. In June 2011, when CIA Director John Brennan was still the White House counterterrorism adviser, he addressed the issue of civilian deaths in drone strikes and made this bold claim: "Nearly for the past year, there hasn't been a single collateral death, because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities that we've been able to develop."

His claim and similar official ones like it are, politely put, hyperbolic. "You Never Die Twice," a new report by Jennifer Gibson of Reprieve, a British-based human rights organization, settles the question quickly by showing that some men on the White House "kill list" of terror suspects to be taken out have "'died' as many as seven times."

Gibson adds, "We found 41 names of men who seemed to have achieved the impossible. This raises a stark question. With each failed attempt to assassinate a man on the kill list, who filled the body bag in his place?" In fact, Reprieve discovered that, in going after those 41 "targets" numerous times, an estimated 1,147 people were killed in Pakistan by drones. Typical was the present leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri. In two strikes against "him" over the years, according to Reprieve, 76 children and 29 adults have died, but not al-Zawahiri.

Deserting the Cubicle

Back in the United States, a combination of lower-class status in the military, overwork, and psychological trauma appears to be taking its mental toll on drone pilots. During the Vietnam War, soldiers would desert, flee to Canada, or even "frag" -- kill -- their officers. But what do you do when you've had it with your war, but your battle station is a cubicle in Nevada and your weapon is a keyboard?

Is it possible that, like their victims in Pakistan and Yemen who say that they are going mad from the constant buzz of drones overhead and the fear of sudden death without warning, drone pilots, too, are fleeing into the night as soon as they can? Since the Civil War in the U.S., war of every modern sort has produced mental disturbances that have been given a variety of labels, including what we today call PTSD. In a way, it would be surprising if a completely new form of warfare didn't produce a new form of disturbance.

We don't yet know just what this might turn out to be, but it bodes ill for the form of battle that the White House and Washington are most proud of -- the well-advertised, sleek, new, robotic, no-casualty, precision conflict that now dominates the war on terror. Indeed if the pilots themselves are dropping out of desktop killing, can this new way of war survive?

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News Thu, 05 Mar 2015 09:50:19 -0500
What We Lose With a Privatized Postal Service http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/29463-what-we-lose-with-a-privatized-postal-service http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/29463-what-we-lose-with-a-privatized-postal-service

The founders of the United States recognized that commerce requires a common infrastructure.

Did you know that when you ship a package through Federal Express, the U.S. Postal Service often carries it the last mile?

Last year, the Postal Service delivered 1.4 billion packages for FedEx and UPS. In fact, it delivers the last mile for almost a third of FedEx packages. The 618,000 Postal Service workers also delivered nearly 66 billion pieces of first-class mail — that’s more than 100,000 pieces per carrier.

The Postal Service can reach all 150 million American households because it’s a public system that we’ve been investing in for over 200 years. Our Constitution tasked the federal government with creating a national postal system and told the Postmaster General to report to the president.

But in 1971, Congress made the service into an “independent agency” managed by a board of governors. And since then, it’s been under attack by politicians who never met a public program they liked.

Yes, the rise of UPS, FedEx, and the Internet has created new challenges for your local post office. But the purported “fiscal crisis” is a manufactured one.

In 2006, Congress required the Postal Service — known as USPS for short — to “pre-fund” 75 years of its retirees’ health benefits. This added $5.7 billion to its costs last year.

No other private company or federal agency has to pre-fund retirement health care benefits. If they did, many corporations would run huge deficits or tumble into bankruptcy. Without these retiree health payments, USPS would actually turn a profit.

Using the deficit created by this requirement as an excuse, the USPS board of governors is closing distribution centers, cutting worker hours, eliminating delivery routes, and slashing jobs. Over the past five years, USPS has cut 94,000 positions.

The job loss alone is a travesty, but a bigger principle is at stake.

Our nation’s founders understood that a universal, affordable, and yes, public postal system helps knit us together as a nation. They recognized that commerce requires a common infrastructure and public institutions that belong to and benefit the entire country.

Instead of shrinking the Postal Service, we should build on it. That means, first of all, appreciating that the USPS can be much more than a delivery service.

In many small towns, the local post office continues to be a community hub, a place to meet neighbors and get news. And postal carriers don’t just deliver letters — they often keep an eye on the elderly and homebound, and alert first responders if things look amiss.

They could do even more. The Postal Service’s fleet of vehicles — the largest in the country — could be equipped to detect air pollutants and report potholes, water leaks, and other infrastructure repair needs.

Why stop there?

The USPS could raise tens of billions of dollars each year by reinstating post office savings accounts and banking services, which it efficiently provided for 55 years in the first half of the 20th century.

Customers received 2-percent interest on their savings accounts, and the post office loaned their money to community banks, which then made loans to local businesses. This virtuous circle benefitted the entire community. At its peak, 4 million Americans took advantage of these services, saving $36 billion in 2014 dollars.

Today, 34 million American families live in places without traditional banking services. High-interest payday lenders and check-cashing services charge low-wage working families in those communities an average of over $2,400 a year. Experts estimate that low-cost banking services could save American workers a trillion dollars a year.

Instead of selling off the assets we built together over two centuries, let’s invest in our Postal Service — a public system that has served our nation since its birth.

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Opinion Thu, 05 Mar 2015 10:24:33 -0500
White House Struggles to Explain Clinton Email Flap http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/29461-white-house-struggles-to-explain-clinton-email-flap http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/29461-white-house-struggles-to-explain-clinton-email-flap

Washington - As Republican lawmakers criticized Hillary Clinton Tuesday for using her personal email account to conduct government business at the State Department, the White House would not say whether the former Cabinet secretary violated federal law.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters at his daily briefing that he could not say why Clinton did not use a government account, and referred reporters to the State Department.

Clinton, the likely frontrunner for the Democratic nomination for president, used a personal e-mail account to conduct government business during her four years at the State Department, which may have violated federal regulations, The New York Times reported Monday night.

Earnest said "very specific guidance has been given to agencies all across the government, which is specifically that employees in the Obama administration should use their official e-mail accounts when they're conducting official government business."

Emails from official government accounts are saved for public record but, according to the Times story, Clinton did not preserve her personal emails as required by the Federal Records Act.

"Violations of the Federal Records Act within federal agencies is something we take very seriously," said House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah. Chaffetz said his committee will work with the Select Committee on Benghazi to further explore Clinton's use of personal emails.

In December, Clinton turned over 55,000 pages of personal e-mails to the State Department after her aides reviewed them and selected which pages to hand over.

"The Federal Records Act obligates Secretary Clinton to preserve records containing adequate and proper documentation of the State Department, including essential transactions of the organization. She failed to do so," Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. said. "The use of a personal e-mail address to skirt public records laws, aside from failing to meet the security standards one would expect of the nation's top diplomat, enabled Clinton to shield her official communications from scrutiny by the media and the American public."

Earnest said Clinton had complied with the Federal Records Act and that her team had "complied with that request by sending all of the emails on her personal account that pertained to her official responsibilities as secretary of state."

"The policy as a general matter allows individuals to use their personal e-mail address as long as those emails are maintained and sent to the State Department, which if you ask Secretary Clinton's team, that's what they completed in the last month or two," he said.

He called it "the responsibility of agencies to preserve those records, even when those records - exist on a personal email account" and added that "We encourage people to use their official government email account when they're conducting official government business."

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush criticized Clinton for failing to release personal email used to conduct government business while she was secretary of state. "Transparency matters," Bush tweeted late Monday. "Unclassified @HillaryClinton emails should be released."

America Rising, conservative opposition research group, filed a freedom of information request for her emails.

Bush, who is considering seeking the Republican nomination for president, released thousands of emails sent to him during his eight years as governor, even though they were from a personal account.

The public didn't see everything from Bush. The Miami Herald reported in January that he conducted all his communication on his private Jeb@jeb.orgaccount and turned over only a hand-selected batch to the state archives when he left office.

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News Thu, 05 Mar 2015 10:14:16 -0500
Telling Scary Stories About Iran http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/29460-telling-scary-stories-about-iran http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/29460-telling-scary-stories-about-iran

Israel has a large, sophisticated and undeclared nuclear arsenal, but Prime Minister Netanyahu told scary stories to a rapt US Congress entranced by his warnings about the chance that Iran might consider building one bomb a decade from now, a double standard if there ever was one.

One of the strangest aspects of the frantic crying of alarm over Iran's nuclear program — with the crying having reached its most publicized peak in Benjamin Netanyahu's Republican/Likud campaign rally in the House chamber — is that the chief crier is the government of a country that not only has the most advanced nuclear program in the Middle East but has kept that program completely out of the reach and scrutiny of any international control and inspection regime.

It is hard to think of a better example in international politics of the pot calling the kettle black, and in this case the pot is much blacker than the kettle — and was so even before Iran put its program under the unprecedented restrictions and intrusive inspections to which it agreed more than a year ago in negotiations with the United States and the rest of the P5+1.

As for any military dimensions (the focus, of course, of all that crying when it comes to Iran), although neither Israel nor the United States says publicly that Israel has nuclear weapons, just about everyone else on the planet who says anything on the subject takes it as a given that it does, and that it has a fairly sizable arsenal of such weapons.

The person outside government who has studied the Israeli nuclear program most extensively is Avner Cohen, an Israeli-born scholar currently based in the United States. Cohen has written two books on the subject, Israel and the Bomb and The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel's Bargain with the Bomb. He probably knows more than anyone outside the Israeli government about the Israeli program and the strategic thinking underlying it.

It thus is especially interesting to hear what Cohen has to say about the current battle over the Iranian program. In a commentary just published in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Cohen writes about how, as I discussed the other day, the actions and lobbying of Benjamin Netanyahu are at odds with his own alarmist rhetoric, and about what this implies concerning Netanyahu's motivations.

Cohen criticizes Netanyahu's drumbeat message that the agreement being negotiated would be very bad for Israel; he notes the "potential advantages" of the agreement, which is from the standpoint of Israel's interests a "reasonable compromise." He points out that the demand to prevent any Iranian enrichment of uranium will never be realized, and that the demand has no basis in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Cohen goes on to state that the emerging agreement

"also contains unique advantages barely discussed in Israel. It clearly distances Iran from a nuclear bomb — from a few weeks as was the case in 2012 to about a year. Most importantly, it establishes a regime of safeguards and transparency for almost a generation."

Cohen concludes by pointedly describing what Netanyahu's scaremongering efforts are really all about, which have to do with Netanyahu having made such alarmism his political signature music, on which he relies both to maintain political power in Israel and to rationalize his policies to the outside world:

"Despite its flaws, the proposed agreement is far from bad for Israel — the only nuclear power in the Middle East — but it is very bad for Netanyahu. The agreement offers Israel almost a generation, or even more if it succeeds, in which Netanyahu won't be able to sow fear about Iran as an existential danger. It would leave Netanyahu as a leader whose raison d'être has been taken away from him."

Netanyahu's narrowly-motivated efforts to destroy the diplomacy with Iran are not only directly contrary to U.S. interests; they also are contrary to Israel's interests. Those who really do care about Israel and its security, rather than just ritualistically referring to them while swaying and bobbing up and down to Netanyahu's music, need to realize that.

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Opinion Thu, 05 Mar 2015 10:07:55 -0500
Welcome to the New Corporate Feudalism http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/29456-welcome-to-the-new-corporate-feudalism http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/29456-welcome-to-the-new-corporate-feudalism

The kings and noblemen may be long gone, but here in the US, the business and financial elite reign supreme, and corporate feudalism is the name of the game. (Photo: Wisconsin Protest via Shutterstock)The kings and noblemen may be long gone, but here in the US, the business and financial elite reign supreme, and corporate feudalism is the name of the game. (Photo: Wisconsin Protest via AAraujo / Shutterstock.com)

Feudalism is back, with a vengeance.

Right now, the Wisconsin legislature is considering a bill that would make Wisconsin the nation's 25th right-to-work-for-less state.

All signs point to this bill becoming law. The state senate passed it by a margin of 17 to 15 last week, and Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who supports right-to-work-for-less laws, said he will sign it if it reaches his desk.

This is a disaster in the making for Wisconsin.

Workers in right to work-for-less-states make less money, get skimpier health benefits and are more likely to die on the job than their workers in non-right-to-work-for-less states.

The line from Wisconsin Republicans, of course, is that the proposed right-work-for-less law will improve their state's economy and help build the middle class. But in reality, the exact opposite will happen.

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

That's because right-to-work-for-less laws bring capitalism a lot closer to its natural, unregulated state, and capitalism, in its natural, unregulated state, tends toward massive levels of inequality that we usually associate with feudalism.

It looks a lot like this:

At the top, there is a very small class of super-rich oligarchs and financiers. They're the monarchs of capitalist society.

Below them, there is a slightly larger, but still very, very small, class of professionals and mercantilists - doctor, lawyers, shop-owners - who help keep things running for the super-rich and supply the working poor with their needs. They're nobles or knights of capitalist society.

And at the very bottom there is the great mass of people who make up the working poor. They have no wealth - in fact they're typically in debt most of their lives - and can barely survive on what little money they make. They're the peasants of capitalist society.

So, for average working people, there is no such thing as a middle class in "natural" capitalism. Wealth accumulates at the very top among the elites, not among everyday working people. Inequality is the default option, just as it was in Medieval Europe under feudalism.

The only ways a true middle class can emerge in a capitalist society are by massive social upheaval (a middle class emerged after the Black Plague in Europe in the 14th century) or by government intervention.

Historically, the government is the only thing that can put a check on the growth of feudalism, and it's what we used here in the United States, from the founding of the republic until the Reagan revolution, to fight the elite and build a middle class from the ground up.

Tariffs, workers' rights legislation, the Glass-Steagall Act, higher taxes on the rich, you name it - our government used all of these things to restrain the natural tendency of capitalism towards inequality and to create a middle class.

But ever since Reagan came to town and brainwashed everyone into believing that "government is the problem, not the solution," we've gutted regulations, busted unions and, as a result, returned capitalism to something resembling its natural, brutish state.

Inequality is now at a record high, and the richest 3 percent of the population now controls more than half of all wealth.

And as if that wasn't bad enough, the child poverty rate here in the US is now among the worst in the developed world.

Things have arguably gotten even worse since the recession, as the top one percent has absorbed almost all of the gains of our so-called "recovery."

The kings and noblemen may be long gone, but here in the US, the business and financial elite reign supreme, and corporate feudalism is the name of the game.

Thanks to Ronald Reagan and his modern-day followers like Scott Walker, the US is no longer a true democracy, it's an oligarchy, and every day it looks more and more like something out of the 14th - not the 21st - century.

The time is long past due for us to roll back the Reagan revolution once and for all.

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Opinion Wed, 04 Mar 2015 15:22:23 -0500
What Trickle-Down Economics Has Done to the US: The Rich Get All the Money http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/29447-what-trickle-down-economics-has-done-to-the-us-the-rich-get-all-the-money http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/29447-what-trickle-down-economics-has-done-to-the-us-the-rich-get-all-the-money

Ronald Reagan brought supply-side economics to the federal government, the belief that suppliers of goods drive the economy, not the consumers. The supply-siders believe that lower taxes stimulate production and improve the economy. They also favor deregulation of industry. The theory, which acquired the nickname "trickle-down economics," was that economic growth would benefit everyone. That has not happened.

Protester throws chair at Oakland Police at the Occupy Oakland "Move-In Day" demonstration. (Photo: Glenn Halog)Protester throws chair at Oakland Police at the Occupy Oakland "Move-In Day" demonstration. (Photo: Glenn Halog)

Adapted from the as yet unpublished book by the author, Do What Works and Call It Capitalism.

That Improving Economy Is Further Away Than It Appears

Leisure and hospitality - the fastest growing major blue-skill industry - is the worst sector. The average leisure and hospitality worker makes just $18,900 a year (gross, before taxes). This is not even enough to keep a family of three above the poverty level ($19,790 in 2014). Similarly, retail, the largest blue-skill sector, is second-worst in terms of pay, with average annual earnings of $27,700. - Mike Cassidy, Where Are the Jobs? 2015 (1)

By most media accounts, the US economy at the beginning of 2015 is recovering nicely from the Great Recession. GDP is growing at a historically healthy rate, above 2 percent per year. Unemployment is about the historic average, at 5.7 percent. The stock market is near record highs. And more jobs are being created than at any time in more than 10 years. But this is all a great deception. The expansion is benefiting a tiny minority of the population only - the very rich. No one else has any money, and without significant changes in government policies, no one except the wealthy is likely to have any in the future.

This is the fact that eluded the Democrats in the 2014 election. When Democrats boast of how well President Obama has done with the economy despite Republican opposition to everything he does, they are missing the point. This economic resurgence has not reached most Americans.

Ronald Reagan brought supply-side economics to the federal government, the belief that suppliers of goods drive the economy, not the consumers. The supply-siders believe that lower taxes stimulate production and improve the economy. They also favor deregulation of industry. The theory, which acquired the nickname "trickle-down economics," was that economic growth would benefit everyone. That has not happened. The entire supply-side economic theory has proven to be totally wrong as the data in this article shows.

When George H.W. Bush ran against Reagan for the Republican nomination in 1980, he called Reagan's supply-side economics, "voodoo economics," and he was right. It has no basis in reality, but it has bewitched the Republican Party and they still cling to it. And most current government financial policies still are consistent with it. Bill Clinton did not change things. Barack Obama has not changed things. The Reagan economic program still is with us, and still is doing great damage to the US economy and most Americans.

At the beginning of 2015, more than six years since the crisis of 2008, most Americans were either in a worse financial condition than they were before 2008, or had experienced very little improvement in their economic condition. Most Americans have no financial reserves and live paycheck to paycheck.

In January 2015, the Pew Charitable Trusts published "The Precarious State of Family Balance Sheets," in which the incredible conclusion is reached that virtually no one in the United States has ready cash reserves to cover two months of lost income. Clearly, most of the top 20 percent have other assets, stocks and bonds, real estate etc. on which they can draw, and they seldom lose their jobs without good severance packages. But 80 percent do not have enough reserves to last more than a month, and half of them do not have enough to last two weeks.

Most Americans also do not have much in the way of assets - property or investments. The historic recovery of the stock market from the 2008 crash did not benefit the vast majority of Americans because they don't own stock. Yes, many do indirectly through 401k mutual funds and pension funds, but those assets cannot easily be converted into cash.

Between the burst of the housing bubble and the huge trade deficit, a trillion dollars has disappeared from the US economy and Americans are not spending enough to make it up.

A substantial portion of the loss of $8 trillion in home equity in the subprime mortgage meltdown has not been recovered, especially for those in less expensive homes, and for the millions forced out of their homes, their losses will never be recovered. The rapid rise in home values in the years prior to the 2008 meltdown was a giant real estate bubble larger than any in the past. People borrowed against their rising home equity, or refinanced and took cash out of their homes. That "bubble economy" generated hundreds of billions of dollars in annual economic activity. When the bubble burst and those home values dropped, those hundreds of billions of dollars vanished from the economy. And they have not been replaced.

At the same time, rising imports and a strong dollar caused a massive trade deficit of $505 billion in 2014. When the US dollar rises in value against other currencies, it makes US products more expensive and imports more competitive. It also reduces the overseas profits of US companies when those profits are converted into dollars.

Compare the loss of approximately $1 trillion in consumer spending annually with the one-time expense of the 2009 Obama stimulus package of $819 billion and it is not hard to see why the recovery from the Great Recession has been so slow, and has reached so few of the people.

The following chart shows the growth in actual dollars of household consumer spending in the United States between 1990 and 2013. There was a steady increase through the 1990s and the total spending increased by $10,000, or 33 percent. In the next five years, when the housing bubble was growing, it increased twice as fast, rising by another $10,000. Then the crash of 2008 occurred and spending dropped. By 2012, consumer spending had returned to the level of 2008, but it dropped slightly in 2013. Consumer household expenditures in 2013 were only about 5 percent higher than they were in 2008.

Average Annual Household Expendatures.Average Annual Household Expendatures

There is no recovery of middle class jobs.

And then, to top things off, most of the jobs that have been created since the end of the Great Recession are at the upper levels, where significant education and/or skills are required, or at the lower levels, where the average wages are declining and are at or close to poverty levels. The kinds of good-paying factory jobs that once provided people without college educations a chance at a middle-class life are a small fraction of the jobs being created today.

Many of the people who lost jobs that supported their middle-class lifestyles are now working for much lower wages in service jobs and living in, or close to, poverty. A Federal Reserve study reported that the greatest demand for workers since the Great Recession has been in the poverty-level, minimum wage-paying service industries, and the lowest demand is for midlevel workers who once comprised the vast majority of the middle class. (2)

An April 2014 report (3) by the National Employment Law Project provided details supporting the Federal Reserve study. During the recession, low-wage jobs, those paying less than $27,700 per year, had both the lowest percentage of losses and the highest percentage of gains. Twenty-two percent of the total job losses were in the low-wage category, but 44 percent of new jobs were in that category. Mid-wage jobs, those paying between $27,700 and $41,600, had the lowest percentage of new jobs created, 26 percent, but the second highest rate of job losses, 37 percent. High-wage jobs, those paying more than $41,600, had the highest rate of losses, 41 percent, but a higher rate of new jobs created, 30 percent, than the mid-wage category.

In January 2015, The Century Foundation report, "Where Are the Jobs?," reinforced those earlier studies. This chart shows the growth of jobs and in each classification indicates the percentage that requires a college education.

2015 0305richchart-2

Of the 257,000 jobs in the January 2015 report of jobs created, 22,000 were in manufacturing, but the average for the three previous months was 31,000, still not a great deal. And the total of manufacturing jobs today is only about 10 percent of all jobs.

The most jobs created in any category were in retail, 45,900, the second-lowest paying of all job categories with an average wage of $27,000. Health care and construction each created about 39,000 jobs. The growth of construction jobs is good news for blue-collar people because generally jobs do not require a college degree and the jobs pay well, on average about $54,000. Health-care jobs are mixed between some that require college and some that do not. While health care is a rapidly growing field, wages are not particularly high except for professionals and those with advanced training.

Here are the average wages by job category:

2015 0305richchart-3

Only about 20 percent of people with jobs are experiencing increases in income.

Even if you were lucky enough to have a good-paying job in 2015, you probably were getting little in the way of pay increases unless you were promoted. Average wages have risen only slightly in recent years, about 2 percent per year in 2013 and 2014, and less than that previously.

2015 0305richchart-4

Among households, the only group that has increased its share of national income since 1980 is the top 20 percent. Every other group has experienced a gradual decline. And it can be seen from the following chart that in recent years there has been an acceleration of the increases in the earnings of the top 20 percent. There definitely was a change in income distribution beginning in 1980 when Reagan was elected. Prior to that, as can be seen in the row 1970-1980, the bottom 20 percent received the highest percentage gain in income. Since 1980, the bottom 20 percent have received the lowest percentage increase in income. Under President Obama, they have done particularly poorly, with their average income declining slightly. The chart also shows how much better the top 20 percent have done since 1980 compared to everyone else.

2015 0305richChart-5

Wages of lower-paid occupations are getting even lower while wages of higher-paid occupations are rising. The Century Foundation reports:

The rich are getting richer. For every $10,000 in additional average weekly earnings an industry had in 2007, its average earnings grew by an extra 2 percentage points during the six-year period. For example, the average employee working in retail, a low-paying industry, earned $28,300 for a full year of work in 2007; after adjusting for inflation, the same employee actually made less, just $27,700, last year. By contrast, the average information worker earned $59,900 in 2007, among the highest of any industry. During the next six years, the advantage of information workers over poorly paid workers only grew, with average earnings increasing 9.4 percent, or $5,600 in real terms. The same is true of other white-collar sectors, like finance (a gain of $4,500) and professional services (a gain of $3,600). Like so many other labor market indicators, this link between earnings and earnings growth reflects rising inequality. (4)

A recent report shows that even the wages of factory workers are declining. And the result of declining wages is increasing poverty. Of the 34 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which includes most of the countries in Europe, North and South America, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea, there are only four that have a higher percentage of their population in poverty than the United States: Chile, Mexico, Turkey and Israel.

2015 0305richchart-6

This graph compares the percentage of each country's population that is living below the poverty line against the percentage of the GDP each country dedicates to public sector social spending. The countries included are all of the members of the OECD.

France (which spends the largest percentage of its GDP on its safety net), Mexico (which spends the smallest percentage) and the United States are specifically marked. The US spends a low percentage of its GDP on its safety net and has a very high percentage of its population living in poverty. (5)

Economic inequality and increasing poverty are direct results of government policies.

There have been a number of policy decisions by the federal government that have had a negative effect on the economy and on average income, resulting in less money being available for consumption, and also increasing poverty. With less money available for consumption, fewer goods are purchased, and fewer jobs are created. And cheaper foreign goods sold by the discount chains have greater appeal.

One of the decisions has been not to increase the minimum wage, nor to index it to inflation. As a result, it has not kept up with inflation, and it has not kept up with productivity. It would be almost $11 an hour now if it had just kept up with inflation. Various calculations have placed between it between $18 and $22 an hour if it had kept up with productivity. While there are only a few million people working at the minimum wage, there are many millions more working at wages not much higher than the minimum. An increase in the minimum wage would push up the income of tens of millions of Americans.

Another decision has been to limit unemployment benefits. Considering that unemployment benefits are mostly paid for by taxes on employers, it is truly outrageous that Congress has limited payments, especially at a time of economic malaise. Every dollar paid in unemployment benefits is plowed back into the economy almost immediately and that has a "multiplier" effect. More money in the economy generates more demand, more production and more jobs. The Department of Labor reported in 2014 that because Congress chose not to extend the expiration times for benefits, only 27 percent of the unemployed were receiving unemployment payments at the end of 2013, a record low.

That we have a dysfunctional Congress has been obvious for some years, especially since the Republicans won control of the House of Representatives in 2010. Now they also have control of the Senate and there is little hope that they will behave responsibly. They are interested only in increasing the wealth of the already wealthy and powerful, and they are willing to do so by further reducing the standards of living of almost everyone else. Here is a graphic showing the impact of conservative policies.

2015 0305richchart-7

There is redistribution of wealth in the United States. It is being redistributed from the poor and the middle class to the rich.

And because incomes are not rising, most people are not accumulating any wealth. Many have less wealth than they did before the Great Recession. This pie chart shows what has happened to wealth in the United States since Ronald Reagan.

2015 0305richchart-8

Economist Barry Bluestone, who, with Bennett Harrison, published in 1988, one of the first books harshly critical of Reagan's economic policies, recently explained on PBS "NewsHour" that supply-side economics redistributes wealth from the middle class and the poor to the wealthy. The problem, he said, is that the wealthy only spend about 30 percent of their income, while everyone else spends nearly all of theirs. Consequently, he said,

... as we move money away from working families towards very wealthy families, we take more and more consumption out of the economy, means slower and slower growth, means higher and higher and extended unemployment.

Emmanuel Saez, professor of economics and director of the Center for Equitable Growth at the University of California, Berkeley, is the acknowledged US expert on economic inequality and the disparities of income and wealth. He and French economist Thomas Piketty have jointly developed enormous databases of changes in income and wealth over time. His graphic of the dramatic increase in the share of income by the top 1% over the past 35 years has become well known. This is the latest version:

2015 0305richchart-9

In his January 25, 2015, update, Saez wrote:

The drastic cuts of the federal tax on large estates could certainly accelerate the path toward the reconstitution of the great wealth concentration that existed in the U.S. economy before the Great Depression. The labor market has been creating much more inequality over the last thirty years, with the very top earners capturing a large fraction of macroeconomic productivity gains. A number of factors may help explain this increase in inequality, not only underlying technological changes but also the retreat of institutions developed during the New Deal and World War II - such as progressive tax policies, powerful unions, corporate provision of health and retirement benefits, and changing social norms regarding pay inequality. We need to decide as a society whether this increase in income inequality is efficient and acceptable and, if not, what mix of institutional and tax reforms should be developed to counter it.

Conclusion: The economy could be fixed. Prosperity could be widely shared. Disparities of income and wealth could be diminished. But none of this will happen if Americans keep voting for the Republicans and their failed trickle-down economic policies.

The tragedy for most Americans is that Democratic administrations have not developed new programs to counter the increasing inequality caused by the Reagan economic program. Government policies - including trade deals, cutbacks in education spending, reduced government spending and failure to aggressively attack the economic crisis - have resulted in enormous inequality in the US democracy for which we should be ashamed. Even this past December, Congress repealed one of the Dodd-Frank provisions adopted after the bank crisis of 2008 designed to protect the public from having to pay for bad investments made by banks.

Government policies dictated by Republicans and acquiesced to by Democrats are continuing to help the rich and powerful gain greater wealth and position, while reducing opportunities for education and good jobs for almost everyone else.

Our economic problems could be solved. We could reduce economic inequality. The solutions are well known. We just have not developed the national resolve to solve the major problem: the control of governments at the state and federal levels by those who owe their allegiance to special interests - the wealthy and the big corporations.

The cures to our economic problems are known and could be implemented rapidly if progressives controlled the state and federal governments.

- The minimum wage is far too low, well below the poverty line. Originally, it was intended to be the minimum amount that could provide adequate support. It needs to be increased substantially. A $15 minimum wage would lift millions out of poverty and low-wage jobs, and significantly reduce dependency on food stamps and the earned-income tax credit program, both of which are major subsidies to the giant corporations that don't pay living wages. The increase in the minimum wage is necessary because most Americans no longer have the bargaining power of unions to help them gain living wages and decent benefits.

- Infrastructure spending creates tens of thousands of good-paying jobs, not only in construction, but also in the entire supply chain. The nation's highways, bridges and rail systems need modernizing and it is time to do it.

- Restoring the progressive income tax by raising the tax rates on the wealthy back to where there were before Ronald Reagan would generate billions of new government revenue and would help to reduce economic inequality. Increasing taxes on capital gains and estates also would generate additional billions. Taxing Wall Street transactions, particularly derivative transactions, would generate billions more dollars in new revenue.

- Reducing or eliminating the cost of college education would lift the enormous financial burden that people face in trying to obtain the education necessary to earn a decent living in a highly technological world.

- Reducing or forgiving existing college loan debt would generate a burst of economic activity. People would be able to buy homes - and stimulate the economy - if they did not have to pay off enormous student loans.

- Greater government oversight of corporations, including actual enforcement of antitrust laws to break up some of the oligopolies that have formed in many industries, would help to spur more free enterprise, more competition, better service and greater innovation, to say nothing of more jobs. As I proposed in another article, government regulation should be consolidated into one major agency.

- Making it much more difficult and uneconomical for corporations to shift jobs, or their headquarters, out of the country would help to stem the tide of job losses.

- No new trade deals should be permitted that harm US workers or limit the government's regulatory abilities. Existing trade deals should be renegotiated.

There are more things that government could do to restore the middle class and reduce poverty, but without a change in the political control of the government, nothing is going to happen. Progressives must unite to block efforts at both the federal and state levels to roll back safety net programs, protection of privacy and voting rights, and offer the American people a true choice - a choice between the opportunity for prosperity for everyone, or wealth for a small minority at the cost of the economic security of everyone else.

Footnotes

1. Mike Cassidy. "Where Are the Jobs?" The Century Foundation, January 2015, http://apps.tcf.org/where-are-the-jobs

2. For a discussion of this subject, with links to various articles, see http://economistsview.typepad.com/economistsview/2013/01/skill-biased-technological-change-and-rising-wage-inequality.html

3. "Data Brief: The Low-Wage Recovery, Industry Employment and Wages Four Years into the Recovery." New York: National Employment Law Project, April 2014.

4. Cassidy. "Where Are the Jobs?"

5. "Poverty and Social Spending as a Percentage of GDP in the OECD." http://politicsthatwork.com/graphs/poverty-safety-net

http://www.nelp.org/page/-/Justice/2014/Manufacturing-Low-Pay-Declining-Wages-Jobs-Built-Middle-Class.pdf?nocdn=1

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News Thu, 05 Mar 2015 10:44:23 -0500
Consumers Want GMO Labels, Not Barcodes http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/29445-consumers-want-gmo-labels-not-barcodes http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/29445-consumers-want-gmo-labels-not-barcodes

On February 25, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, once again floated the idea of consumers using barcodes to identify foods that contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs), as an alternative to requiring food manufacturers to put a label on products that contain GMOs.

Referring to the ongoing debate over GMO labeling laws, Vilsack (according to the Associated Press) told the House during a hearing on agriculture spending: “We could solve that issue in a heartbeat.”

Solve the issue for whom? Tot-toting moms with busy schedules who would need to take the added step of scanning every item in the grocery store, instead of just glancing at the label? Older people who struggle as it is to keep up with rapidly evolving technologies?

Or how about for those people who can’t afford—or don’t want to own—expensive smartphones? (Vilsack suggested retailers could provide a scanner for consumers who don’t have smartphones—again, not exactly convenient for busy shoppers, or older people who already feel overwhelmed by the latest techno gadgets).

This isn’t the first time Vilsack has pushed the barcode scheme. Earlier this year, Vilsack’s comments in Europe on how “barcodes” might be a trade-friendly alternative to the European Union’s mandatory labeling of GMOs helped inspire 50,000 protestors to take to the streets in Berlin on January 19, chanting, “We are fed up.”

And last July, according to Agweek, Vilsack told attendees of the Aspen Ideas Festival that the “‘challenge’ in the GMO labeling debate is that food labels have either provided people nutritional information about products or warned them about possible allergies.” 

The assumption here is that the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) can’t require labeling of GMOs because the labels wouldn’t provide nutritional information or warn of a potential health risk, such as allergies—therefore the FDA has no authority to require the labels. 

This reasoning harkens back to the FDA’s 1992 decision that GE foods are “substantially equivalent” to foods that have not been genetically engineered (a fact the industry promotes, even though the corporations that make the seeds used to grow GE foods own patents on those seeds).
 
How did the FDA arrive at the conclusion that GMO foods are “substantially equivalent” and therefore “generally recognized as safe?” Not through valid testing or sound science. In a recent op-ed on Truthout, Alex James reports on how the FDA has never formally safety tested GE crops for human consumption: 

This was quietly mentioned in December 2014, during a testimony given by Michael Landa, former director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition with the FDA, before the House Subcommittee on Health.

His testimony drew attention to a fact often overlooked in the ongoing debate around GE food safety: The FDA has exempted developers of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) from premarket reviews of their products, which would normally result in a formal assessment and either a rejection or approval of their safety for human consumption.

Vilsack blindly supports the FDA’s flawed decision, despite mounting evidence that GMOs are linked to health issues. As reported by the Associated Press:  

Vilsack has been supportive of genetically modified crops, saying at the hearing that there is “no question in my mind” that they are safe.

 
Vilsack’s cronies in the biotech and junk food industry have enlisted the help of the media to create that same level of blind, unquestioning support among consumers. A perfect example of industry’s manipulation of the media is the cover story in this month’s issue of the National Geographic Magazine. In the article, titled “Why Do Many Reasonable People Doubt Science?”  author Joel Achenbach, writes: 

We’re asked to accept, for example, that it’s safe to eat food containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) because, the experts point out, there’s no evidence that it isn’t and no reason to believe that altering genes precisely in a lab is more dangerous than altering them wholesale through traditional breeding. But to some people the very idea of transferring genes between species conjures up mad scientists running amok—and so, two centuries after Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, they talk about Frankenfood.


GMOs are safe because, “as the experts point out” there’s “no evidence” that they aren’t? 

We don’t know which “experts” Achenbach consulted—biotech industry “experts” maybe? But we do know that it’s patently false that there’s “no evidence” to suggest GMOs may cause health problems in humans. In fact, there’s so much evidence we couldn’t possibly cite it all here.

Let’s start with Vilsack’s own comment about the FDA not being able to require labeling because GMOs aren’t in the category of foods that may cause allergies.

In his March 2012 testimony before the American Medical Association Council on Science and Public Health, Michael Hansen, Ph.D, a senior scientist with Consumers Union, presented scientific evidence suggesting that at least some genetically engineered foods do contain allergens. Hansen wrote: 

In 2001, the report of a Joint Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organization (FAO/WHO) Expert Consultation on Allergenicity of Foods Derived from Biotechnology, held at WHO headquarters in Rome, laid out a detailed protocol (a decision tree) for evaluating the allergenicity of GE foods. None of the GE crops, including GE corn, on the market in the U.S. have been assessed using such a protocol.
 

Allergies may be the least of the problems GMOs cause when it comes to human health. Responding to the National Geographic piece, US Right to Know pointed out that not only is there no legitimacy to the pro-GMO camp’s claim regarding a “scientific consensus” that GMOs are safe, but: 

A comprehensive review of peer-reviewed GMO animal feeding studies found roughly an equal number of research groups raising concerns about genetically engineered foods and those suggesting GMOs were as safe and nutritious as conventional foods. The review also found that most studies finding GMOs foods the same as conventional foods were performed by biotechnology companies or their associates.


How does the biotech industry get away with articles like the one in the National Geographic?
 
Timothy A. Wise, of the Global Development and Environment Institute (GDAE) at Tufts University, explains it this way:

What we’re seeing is a concerted campaign to do exactly what National Geographic has knowingly or unknowingly done: paint GMO critics as anti-science while offering no serious discussion of the scientific controversy that still rages.


As for “scientific consensus” that GMOs are safe, Wise says this:

The consensus on the safety of GM food is perfectly clear: there is no consensus. That’s what the independent peer-reviewed literature says. And that’s what the National Geographic’s beautiful exhibit on its food series, in its Washington headquarters, says: the “long-term health and ecological consequences are unknown.” And that is an accurate statement of the consensus, or the lack of it.

The paid shills for the petroleum industry undermined a growing consensus on climate change that was inconvenient for industry, backed by a well-funded PR campaign sowing doubt about that scientific consensus. In this case, the biotechnology industry and its allies are declaring a consensus where there is none in order to silence their critics.

The debate is over what level of precaution we should apply before allowing the large-scale commercialization of this new technology. And anyone stating that there is a scientific consensus on GM safety is coming down squarely against precaution. Reasonable people disagree, and that does not make them “science doubters.”

Clearly, Vilsack comes down “squarely against precaution.” Which means, in his mind, consumers should settle for some techno-scheme involving barcodes, instead of demanding laws requiring food manufacturers to provide reasonable information for reasonable people.

Our solution? Tell Secretary Vilsack: We don’t want no stinkin’ barcodes. Consumers want mandatory labeling of GMOs.

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Opinion Wed, 04 Mar 2015 11:26:59 -0500
Noam Chomsky: After Dangerous Proxy War, Keeping Ukraine Neutral Offers Path to Peace With Russia http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/29444-noam-chomsky-after-dangerous-proxy-war-keeping-ukraine-neutral-offers-path-to-peace-with-russia http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/29444-noam-chomsky-after-dangerous-proxy-war-keeping-ukraine-neutral-offers-path-to-peace-with-russia

The recent ceasefire in Ukraine continues to hold after a shaky start, days after Secretary of State John Kerry publicly accused Russian officials of lying to his face about their military support for separatist rebels. The United Nations says the death toll from the nearly year-old conflict has topped 6,000. This comes as tens of thousands rallied in Moscow to honor the slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who had accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of authoritarian rule. "It’s fashionable in the United States and Britain to condemn Putin as some sort of distorted mind," says Noam Chomsky, but he notes no Russian leader can accept the current Ukrainian move to join NATO. He argues a strong declaration that Ukraine will be neutralized offers the path to a peaceful settlement.

TRANSCRIPT:

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Aaron Maté. Our guest for the hour is MIT institute professor emeritus, Noam Chomsky, known around the world for his political writings.

We’re going to turn right now to the issue of Russia and Ukraine. Secretary of State John Kerry is meeting with Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in Geneva to discuss the conflict in Ukraine. The meeting comes just days after Kerry publicly accused Russian officials of lying to his face about their military support for separatist rebels. Russia and Ukraine are also holding direct talks in Brussels to resolve a dispute over the delivery of Russian gas. The U.N. said today the death toll from the nearly year-old conflict has topped 6,000. A recent ceasefire continues to hold, over a shaky start.

Also in Russia, the murder this weekend on Friday night of the opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov. A former deputy prime minister turned dissident politician, Nemtsov was shot dead Friday night near Red Square. He was going to lead a major rally that was critical of Vladimir Putin on Sunday. It grew much larger after his death, with tens of thousands, perhaps 50,000 people, marching past the Kremlin carrying signs reading, "I am not afraid."

Noam Chomsky, if you can comment on what’s happening in Russia and Ukraine?

NOAM CHOMSKY: What’s happening is quite ugly. And I think the criticisms are mostly accurate, but they’re kind of beside the point. There’s a background that we have to think about. It’s fashionable now in the United States and Britain to condemn Putin as some sort of a distorted mind. There’s an article in Psychology Today analyzing his brain, asking why he’s so arrogant. He’s been accused of having Asperger’s; an irritable, rat-faced man, as he’s described by Timothy Garton Ash and so on. This is all very reminiscent of the early 1950s, when I was a graduate student then. At that time, the U.S. had overwhelming power, and it was able to use the United Nations as a battering ram against its enemy, the Soviet Union, so Russia was, of course, vetoing lots of resolutions, condemning it. And leading anthropologists in the United States and England developed a—began to analyze why the Russians are so negative, what makes them say no at the United Nations all the time. And their proposal was that the Russians are negative because they raise their children in swaddling clothes, and that makes them negative. The three or four of us at Harvard who thought this ridiculous used to call it diaperology. That’s being re-enacted—a takeoff on Kremlinology. This is being re-enacted right now.

But the fact is, whatever you think about Putin—OK, irritable, rat-faced man with Asperger’s, whatever you like—the Russians have a case. And you have to understand the case. And the case is understood here by people who bother to think. So, for example, there was a lead article in Foreign Affairs, the main establishment journal, by John Mearsheimer with a title like something like "The West is Responsible for the Ukraine Crisis." And he was talking about the background. The background begins with the fall of the Soviet Union, 1989, 1990. There were negotiations between President Bush, James Baker and Mikhail Gorbachev about how to deal with the issues that arose at the time. A crucial question is: What happens to NATO? NATO had been advertised, since its beginning, as necessary to protect western Europe from the Russian hordes. OK, no more Russian hordes, so what happens to NATO?

Well, we know what happened to NATO. But the crucial issue was this. Gorbachev agreed to allow Germany, a unified Germany, to join NATO, a hostile military alliance. It’s a pretty remarkable concession, if you think about the history of the preceding century, half-century. Germany alone had practically destroyed Russia several times, and now he was agreeing to have Germany join a hostile military alliance led by the only superpower. But there was a quid pro quo, that Germany—that NATO would not move one inch to the east. That was the phrase that was used in the interchanges, meaning to East Germany. And on that condition, they went forward. NATO immediately moved to East Germany. When Gorbachev vigorously protested, naturally, he was informed by the United States that it was only a verbal commitment, it wasn’t on paper. The unstated implication is, if you are naïve enough to think you can make a gentlemen’s agreement with us, it’s your problem. They didn’t say that; I’m saying that. But NATO moved to East Germany; under Clinton, moved right up to Russia’s borders.

Just a couple of weeks ago, U.S. military equipment was taking part in a military parade in Estonia a couple hundred yards from the Russian border. Russia is surrounded by U.S. offensive weapons—sometimes they’re called "defense," but they’re all offensive weapons. And the idea that the new government in Ukraine, that took over after the former government was overthrown, last December, late December, it passed a resolution, overwhelmingly—I think something like 300 to eight or something—announcing its intention to take steps to join NATO. No Russian leader, no matter who it is, could tolerate Ukraine, right at the geostrategic center of Russian concerns, joining a hostile military alliance. I mean, we can imagine, for example, how the U.S. would have reacted, say, during the Cold War if the Warsaw Pact had extended to Latin America, and Mexico and Canada were now planning to join the Warsaw Pact. Of course, that’s academic, because the first step would have led to violent U.S. response, and it wouldn’t have gone any further.

AMY GOODMAN: The Cuban missile crisis.

NOAM CHOMSKY: Yeah, and it’s very interesting to think about what actually happened at the Cuban missile crisis, which is very striking. The issue—the crucial issue with the missile crisis was—the peak moment was October 26th and 27th, right at the end. Khrushchev had sent a letter to Kennedy offering to end the crisis by simultaneous, public withdrawal of Russian missiles from Cuba and U.S. missiles from Turkey. These were obsolete missiles for which a withdrawal order had already been given, because they were being replaced by much more lethal U.S. missiles and Polaris submarines, invulnerable submarines. So that was the offer. They would withdraw the missiles; we would withdraw obsolete missiles, which are already being replaced by more lethal ones. Kennedy refused. And his own subjective assessment, whatever that means, of nuclear war was a third to a half. That’s got to be the most horrific decision in history. Khrushchev backed down, fortunately. The U.S. did secretly say that it would withdraw the obsolete missiles, of course, which it didn’t need anymore. But if you take a look at the balance of power that was assumed to be legitimate, we are—you have to establish the principle that we have a right to surround anyone with lethal offensive weapons that can obliterate them in a second, but they can’t do anything anywhere near us. Same as with—take a look at the conflict with China over the maritime conflict. Where is it taking place? I mean, is it off the coast of California? Is it in the Caribbean? No, it’s off the coast of China. That’s where we have to protect what we call freedom of the seas, not in—in China’s waters. This is a part of the concept that we basically own the world, and we have a right to do anything anywhere we like, and nobody has a right to stand up to it.

Now, in the case of the Ukraine, again, whatever you think about Putin—think he’s the worst monster since Hitler—they still have a case, and it’s a case that no Russian leader is going to back down from. They cannot accept the Ukrainian move of the current government to join NATO, even probably the European Community. There is a very natural settlement to this issue: a strong declaration that Ukraine will be neutralized, it won’t be part of any military alliance; that, along with some more or less agreed-upon choices about how—about the autonomy of regions. You can finesse it this way and that, but those are the basic terms of a peaceful settlement. But we have to be willing to accept it; otherwise, we’re moving towards a very dangerous situation. I mentioned before that the Doomsday Clock, famous clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, has just been advanced to three minutes before midnight. That’s very close. Midnight means we’re finished. That is the highest, closest it’s reached since 1983.

And we might remember what happened then. What happened then was that the Reagan administration, as soon as it came into office, began highly provocative actions. It wanted to probe Russian defenses, so they simulated air and naval attacks against Russia, very publicly and openly. They wanted the Russians to know, to see how they’d respond. Well, it was a very tense moment. Pershing II missiles were being installed in western Europe with a five- to 10-minute flight time to Moscow. Reagan had announced the so-called Star Wars program, which is called defense, but strategic analysts on all sides agree that it’s a first-strike weapon, what’s called missile defense. It was an extremely tense period. The Russians were concerned. It was known at the time that they were concerned, but recently released archives, Russian archives, indicate that the concern was very high. There’s a recent U.S. intelligence report analyzing in detail what their reactions were, and it concludes—its words are—"The war scare was real." We came close to war. And it’s worse than that, because right in the—1984, right at the peak of this—this is when the Doomsday Clock was approaching midnight—right in the midst of that, Russian automated detection systems, which are much worse than ours—we have satellite detection. We can detect missiles from takeoff. They have only radar detection, line of sight, so they can only detect missiles when you can kind of see them with radar. They detected a U.S. missile attack. The protocol is for that information to be transmitted to the high command, which then launches a preventive strike. It went to a particular individual, Stanislav Petrov. He just decided not to transmit it. That’s why we’re alive to talk about it.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to break, then come back to Noam Chomsky, professor emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, author of over a hundred books. We’ll be back in a minute.

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News Wed, 04 Mar 2015 11:22:16 -0500
Chomsky on Cuba: After Decades of US Meddling and Terrorism, Restoring Ties Is the Least We Could Do http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/29443-chomsky-on-cuba-after-decades-of-us-meddling-and-terrorism-restoring-ties-is-the-least-we-could-do http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/29443-chomsky-on-cuba-after-decades-of-us-meddling-and-terrorism-restoring-ties-is-the-least-we-could-do

The United States and Cuba have held a second round of talks as part of the effort to restore full diplomatic ties for the first time in more than half a century. The two sides could reopen embassies in Havana and Washington in time for a regional meeting next month. World-renowned political analyst and linguist Noam Chomsky welcomes President Obama’s decision to begin normalizing relations with Cuba, but cautions that after more than half a century of U.S. meddling in the island nation, it’s the minimum step he could take.

TRANSCRIPT:

AMY GOODMAN: As we continue our conversation with Noam Chomsky, we turn now to Latin America. Democracy Now!’s Aaron Maté sat down with Noam Chomsky yesterday on Democracy Now!, the MIT professor emeritus. We asked him to talk about the thawing of U.S.-Cuba relations and U.S. meddling in Cuba.

NOAM CHOMSKY: The U.S. has been at war with Cuba since late 1959. Cuba was—had been, essentially, a colony of the United States, a virtual colony. In January 1959, the Castro guerrilla forces took over. By late that year, around October, U.S. planes were already bombing Cuba from Florida. In, I think it was, March 1960, there was a formal decision internally to overthrow the government. John F. Kennedy came in shortly after, got the Bay of Pigs. After the Bay of Pigs, there was almost hysteria in Washington about how to punish the Cubans for this. Kennedy made some incredible speeches about how, you know, the future of the world is at stake in dealing with Cuba and so on. The U.S. launched a major terrorist war against Cuba. We kind of downplay it, and what you can get reported is CIA attempts, you know, to kill Castro—bad enough—but that was a very minor part of it. Major terrorist war is part of the background for the missile crisis, which almost led to a terminal nuclear war. Right after the crisis, the terrorist war picked up again.

Meanwhile, the sanctions have been very harsh sanctions against Cuba, right from the Eisenhower regime, picked up, extended by Kennedy, extended further under Clinton, who actually outflanked Bush from the right on extending the sanctions. The world has been totally opposed to this. The votes at the General Assembly—you can’t do it at the Security Council because the U.S. vetoes everything, but at the General Assembly, the votes are just overwhelming. I think the last one was 182 to two, you know, U.S. and Israel, and sometimes they pick up Papua or something like that. This has been going on year after year. The U.S. is utterly isolated, not just on this issue, many others.

Finally, notice that Obama didn’t end the sanctions. In fact, he didn’t even end the restrictions, many of the restrictions on travel and so on. They made a mild gesture towards moving towards normalization of relations. That’s presented here—the way it’s presented here is, we have to test Cuba to see if our long—as Obama put it, our efforts to improve the situation in Cuba have failed, right? Big efforts to improve the situation—terrorism, sanctions. The sanctions are really incredible. So, if, say, Sweden was sending medical equipment somewhere which had Cuban nickel in it, that had to be banned, you know, things like that.

AMY GOODMAN: And terrorism, you mean?

NOAM CHOMSKY: Terrorism just—it went on into the '90s. The worst part was under Kennedy, then picked up again in the late ’70s and so on. Major terrorists are provided refuge in Florida. The late Bosch is one, Orlando Bosch. Posada is another. You remember there was something called the Bush Doctrine, Bush II: A country that harbors terrorists is the same as the terrorists themselves. That's for others, not for us. We harbor them and also support their activities.

But we have to test Cuba to see if they’re making successful gestures, now that our old policy of bringing freedom and democracy didn’t work, so we have to try a new policy. I mean, the irony of this is almost indescribable. The fact that these words can be said is shocking. It’s a sign of, again, a failure to reach a minimal level of civilized awareness and behavior. But the steps—I mean, it’s good that there are small steps being taken. It’s interesting to see what the Cuban intellectual community—there is a dissident intellectual community in Cuba—how they’ve been reacting to it. Actually, there’s an interesting article about it by my daughter, Avi Chomsky, who’s a Cuba specialist. But we don’t look at that. We don’t hear what they’re saying.

AMY GOODMAN: What are they saying?

NOAM CHOMSKY: What they’re saying is approximately what I was just saying: You know, it’s a good step that the U.S. is beginning to move, but they’ve got to begin to face up to the reality of what’s been happening, which is that the U.S. has been attacking Cuba. And the reason for—the primary reason, probably, for Obama’s slight moves are that the U.S. was becoming completely isolated in the hemisphere. It’s not just that the world is opposed, the hemisphere is opposed. And that’s a remarkable development.

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News Wed, 04 Mar 2015 11:16:59 -0500