Truthout Stories Mon, 04 May 2015 11:03:10 -0400 en-gb Obama Bribes Abe to Support the TPP by Unleashing Japanese Military

Great minds seem to be working alike. Our resident Japan expert, Clive, had pointed out that the US Trade Representative, Michael Froman, had nothing to offer Japan to change its indifference to the proposed TransPacific Partnership. Only the State Department could serve up the needed inducements, and they were missing in action.

But that changed as Obama became more eager about pushing his toxic, traitorous deal over the line. We pinged Clive Wednesday evening:

I heard from a Congressional staffer today that Japan has changed its position on the TPP from being cool to being keen about it

You pointed out early on that Froman couldn't deliver a deal, that State needed to get involved.

Apparently that happened.

I noticed the defense pact and wondered if it had anything to do with the TPP. Apparently it did.

The understanding with the "defense" agreement is that the US will let Japan go offensive.

Of course, I have no idea how that squares with the Japanese constitution.

Any corroborating evidence in the Japanese media? And can Abe get the Diet to follow or is there some horsetrading still to be done?

We got corroborating evidence in the form of a must-read story by Patrick Smith in Salon, which describes in some detail the roots of Abe's militarism. His grandfather, Nobusuke Kiishi, was charged as a war criminal but never tried because (unlike in Germany), the US reversed itself on rousting out war leaders, deciding it needed to rely on them to rein in communists. Kiishi became prime minister in 1957 and in 1960 achieved passage of a security treaty with the US by having some members of the Diet removed physically so that the otherwise minority in favor of it would pass it

Fast forward to the present:

As to Abe, let's take the occasion to deconstruct these various deals he is cutting with the Obama administration.

On the defense side, Abe's new accord with Washington marks the most significant change in the security relationship since Kiishi's connivances. There is nothing new in Secretary of State Kerry's reiteration of America's "ironclad" commitment to protecting Japan. This is the postwar idea in a single phrase: Japan is a protectorate and will remain one.

Where Kerry broke very new ground is in extending this concept to the disputed islands Japan calls the Senkakus and China the Diaoyus. This is astonishingly indelicate, to put the point mildly—an open affront to Beijing. Until this week Washington recognized the dispute, not either side's sovereignty. That was correct. My interpretation: Abe, a vigorous hawk on the islands question, horse-traded something Washington dearly wants in exchange for its endorsement of Tokyo's territorial claim.

What Washington dearly wanted and now has is a commitment from Tokyo to deploy its military anywhere America or any American ally comes under threat. This, of course, means more or less anywhere we can think of.

This is big for two reasons.

One, it opens Asia to the projection of Japanese power for the first time since 1945. Will Japanese forces deploy next time things get hot with North Korea? What if something unexpected and untoward happens in the Taiwan Strait? Have we just been told that Washington will go to war with China if the islands dispute breaks into open conflict, as it easily could?

These are new, unwelcome questions. China will object loudly to the new accord and, in my judgment, American allies such as South Korea may prove unready for it.

Two, the agreement is unconstitutional. Here things get a little complicated.

American lawyers wrote Japan's "peace constitution" and handed it to them in 1947. But note the date. Truman started the Cold War the same year, and the Occupation promptly began reversing course. Washington has since spent a lot of time and effort supporting LDP efforts to bend, violate or rewrite the law it gave them. This is the core contradiction in a relationship beset with many, and it is now on full display in Washington.

It may seem odd that nationalists such as Abe favor closer relations with the U.S. given the sacrifice of sovereignty these ties entail, but this is why: Washington supports the remilitarization the LDP has also long favored. The majority of the Japanese, meantime, are as restless with the security relationship now, if not as animated, as they were when Kiishi forced it upon their grandparents.

This was Clive's take on our questions:

The Japanese MSM is concentrating its coverage on the Article 9 (constitutional change) to reporting what exactly the changes means in practical terms and suggesting it is still in going through committee Hell and that Komeito (the LDP's coalition partner who's approval isn't actually needed given the LDP's dominance of the Diet but as a member of a formal coalition can't just be ignored) is trying to water down what is permissible for the Self Defence Force, what the precise meaning of the revised constitutional wording is, what approvals must be in place prior to Self Defence Force deployment and so on. Komeito is supposedly a pacifist party so isn't very happy about Prime Minister Abe's attempt to make Japan more interventionist, but it is by-and-large going along with it in public (and in classic Japanese methodology chipping away as much as possible behind the scenes).

Oh, and if your Congressional staffer source is perplexed about the wording of the new Guidelines for Japan U.S. Defense Co-operation, I think this is a feature not a bug. I'm reading the entire Japanese langue version and comparing it to the English one and, let's put it this way, I wouldn't have translated it using the same wording. For the paragraph they identified, this is how I would translate it (emphasis mine):

As for the US military, in order to support and complement the SDF, it is possible (for the US military) to implement a strategy involving the use of a strike force. In a situation where US military is implementing such a strategy, it is possible for the SDF to, if necessary, provide assistance. These strategies, when appropriate, will be carried out based on a close bilateral coordination.

… which is clearer than the English version provided. So the U.S. takes military action on some pretext or other, and if it is deemed to be in Japan's interests (and Japan could easily enough have orchestrated the initial U.S. military action), hey-presto the SDF then can work directly with U.S. forces in a coalition. As your source rightly said, all very gameable.

The Guidelines for Japan U.S. Defense Co-operation must though operate within the constitution hence the need to revise (or re-interpret) Article 9.

Abe is having to proceed very cautiously because polling shows that the majority of Japanese oppose the Article 9 changes. The pacifist left wing obviously doesn't like any of it. But ironically, the right wing (and this *has* been brought out in JP language press coverage but isn't widely reported even in the English language versions of the JP press for reasons I'll explain below) also has reservations.

This is because while the "you can't be a strong country if you can't protect your homeland" notion means there is some support for Article 9 changes on the right, the far right (which gets a lot of Yakuza support because the Yakuza are – or like to see themselves as being – big on protecting the cohesiveness of the community and thus share what they believe are a lot of the same core values as the far right) ironically is more concerned about how they perceive Japan to be a vassal state of the U.S. and therefore anything that increases interdependency between Japan and the U.S. such as the New Guidelines for U.S-Japan Defense Cooperation is viewed as weakening Japan's independence and ability to exercise military strength in the region even if constitutionally the Self Defence Force is allowed greater latitude for military action.

The far right, the Yakuza, Japanese militarism and so on are all in the "too awkward to mention in front of the foreigners" category so this angle isn't widely reported outside of Japan. But the groups pushing for renouncing Japan's pacifist constitution aren't doing so for the U.S.'s benefit. They are doing so because they believe in Japan reasserting itself as a regional power in its own right. So Abe is, as usual, about to find out that when you mess about with nationalist and jingoist forces, you're playing with fire.

However, Abe probably thinks that he's treading a middle ground between the pacifism and the militarism. And he most certainly wants a bit less of the pacifism and a bit more of the militarism. So he's doing an "economic and military security" play, pitching the TPP as an aid to economic security alongside the Article 9 and the Guidelines for Japan U.S. Defense Co-operation changes as a boost military security.

If the U.S. threw Japan the latter as a sweeter, then yes, that would definitely boost the chances of Abe justifying and explaining the selling out of various internal Japanese constituencies such as agriculture and delivering the concessions needed to pass the TPP in a form which pleases the U.S. The Guidelines for Japan U.S. Defense Co-operation aren't a formal treaty so if Japan annoys the U.S. then the U.S. can unilaterally vary them. This would be at the expense of pee'ing off Japan, but if Japan doesn't deliver the TPP for Obama, it wouldn't be the first time that the U.S. has responded to a diplomatic setback by throwing its toys out of the pram in a short term-ist fit of pique at the expense of its own long term strategic interests.

Prime Minister Abe will though have to navigate very murky and choppy domestic political waters in getting this through — for the reasons I've explained above. There are a lot of moving parts in play and few of them under Abe's direct control. Many are hostile to Abe for being either too militaristic or not militaristic enough. Some are distinctly unsavoury.

For the U.S. (I'm referring to the Obama administration here, the TPP isn't in any way in the interests of ordinary Americans), this however is a very, very clever move. They are playing Abe like a fiddle.

Patrick Smith, without going into the same level of detail, agrees that getting the TPP passed in Japan is still an uphill battle, and is gobsmacked that the US is going into such open opposition with China. Before, the idea of the TPP as a part of the "pivot to Asia" to bolster the US's position with an "everyone but China" deal seemed like an odd aspiration, particularly since trade is substantially liberalized already. And if anyone thinks Japanese would really eat American beef even if a trade deal passed, they are smoking something strong. The Japanese are fabulously loyal to domestic producers believing their products to be superior. And given how terrible US meat inspection is, they are right in the case of beef.

And how can the US even think of increasing animosity with China? The US depends on China for many key products like chip manufacture and ascorbic acid. We are so economically intertwined that some analysts call the relationship "Chimerica".

Here is Smith's assessment:

My conclusions on the TPP's prospects in Japan—and by extension elsewhere—are several.

One, Abe will have a tough time—however sincere or halfhearted his effort, and this is a question—getting the TPP past domestic constituencies. The pact hits too many vested political interests, and the Japanese value too highly the intense localism embedded in their system and way of life…

Two, if the TPP passes in Japan it will require—per usual when Tokyo deals with Washington—corrupting the political process to one extent or another. Assuming it passes, I suspect many of its terms will sit there, as inert as potatoes, unobserved other than in form. The Japanese are very good at this kind of thing. "Let the foreigner in so as to keep him out," is the old expression.

Three, the talks with Abe have drawn Obama further out of the closet as to the anti-Chinese aspect of the accord. "If we don't write the rules, China will write the rules out in that region," the president said in a Wall Street Journal interview just before Abe's arrival.

This is another of Obama's appalling mistakes in his dealings across the Pacific. The TPP's exclusion of the mainland is pointed, as is its purpose as an instrument in Washington's undeclared war for primacy in the Pacific. This is wrong already.

What is the point, then, of pushing these realities in Beijing's face? You would think Washington would have learned something from its pouting and fruitless opposition after China launched the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a rival of the IMF and the World Bank, last autumn. Not a chance.

Obama is giving George Bush the Second a run for his money as a candidate for Worst President in History. But the Japanese Diet may spare him by refusing to pass the TPP. Keep your fingers crossed.

News Mon, 04 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400
From the Steps of the Supreme Court to the Streets of Baltimore

Tuesday morning, as I got up early to hustle to the Supreme Court to help MC the "Unite for Marriage" rally, I got dressed while brushing tears out of my eyes. I felt like I was literally sitting in the middle of the intersection of my blackness and my queerness, being pulled in opposite directions, and I was hurting - for me and for my community. My personal pain was a pain of privilege, grounded in the fact that as the leader of a grassroots LGBTQ organization, the expectation of many would be for me to be enthused by this historic moment in the movement toward marriage equality.


I was also hurting for the broader black community that would be subjected to another week of water cooler conversations demanding answers to questions like, "But why would they destroy their own community?" and around-the-clock "breaking news" coverage that ignores the organized, intentional, and inspiring demonstrations of black folks standing up for their city - instead, focusing on property damage on a singular block. Yes, I know good and well why the traditional news media refuses to be anything but basic in their coverage of black communities and I know why leaders are so quick to dismiss these demonstrations of black pain as thuggier (HINT: it rhymes with "shmite supremacy") but that knowledge doesn't make it hurt less or make it easier to hear, no matter how many times Don Lemon goes on camera.

At the Supreme Court on Tuesday, I saw a crowd of people who were hopeful, confident and emboldened in their identity and their right to fair and equal treatment in the United States of America - and rightfully so. The movement toward marriage equality has been a long one. Through that fight many in the American public have come to better understand what it means to be lesbian, gay, or bisexual - and now more folks are beginning to gain a lens into what it means to be trans. Unfortunately, the dominant narrative around what it means to be LGBT in the U.S. has been told from the perspective of white, cisgender people - and, thus, what most folks think it means for LGBT people to be equal under the law has also been shaped by the needs of that relatively small subset of our community.

Flanked by faith leaders, elected officials, nonprofit organizations, advocacy groups, and even the Chamber of Commerce, LGBT people and allies at the Supreme Court felt the power and opportunity that comes from having access to a Justice system that values them and, with some amount of pressure, is willing to bend toward their needs. But as a black queer woman, I don't feel like my life is valued by this system. And what I saw in Baltimore the very same night reinforced that message.

In-between speakers and chants at the Unite for Marriage rally, I was connecting by phone with folks who might know how to support efforts on the ground in West Baltimore. In coordination with the DC Chapter of the Black Youth Project 100, I decided to take some supplies and some people up to Baltimore Tuesday evening. We arrived a little after 8:00pm that night and I immediately felt the presence of over-policing. We saw mostly empty streets with the exception of the National Guard troops lining one street, as mostly white people ate on restaurant patios near Camden Yards.

We arrived just as a community forum hosted by Baltimore United was wrapping up and were able to connect with several organizers, including one from Bmorebloc who was training marshals for a demonstration planned for the following day. The looming 10:00pm curfew was on everyone's minds. As 9:00pm approached, organizers were pushing folks to leave the space as quickly as possible. As we headed over to West Baltimore, the consequences of being in the street after 10:00pm were clear: breaking curfew didn't just mean arrest - it meant there was a good chance you'd get the crap beaten out of you by the full force of the Baltimore Police Department.

Days like Tuesday make living at the intersection of my black and queer identities such an important part of who I am and why I do this work. Of course it matters that black LGBTQ people have equal access to the legal benefits and protections that come with legal marriage recognition. But if we don't even have the right to live and be black - free from harassment, profiling and police violence - what is the value of that marriage license?


The movement that is poised to win the fight for marriage equality can and must focus its attention on more than marriage.

Opinion Mon, 04 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Basic Income and the Anti-Slavery Movement

Unconditional basic income is not only feasible, but it also has more emancipatory potential than any other single policy because it targets economic vulnerability, the heart of all labour exploitation.

Last May, I argued in a piece for Al-Jazeera that the emerging global anti-slavery movement risks becoming no more than a fig leaf for structural political-economic injustice. I suggested that unless it faces that injustice head-on, it will waste a generational opportunity to make the world more just, focussing instead on making consumers and activists "feel better about feeling bad."

It doesn't have to be this way. There is an alternative, and it starts with advocating for unconditional basic income as a genuine anti-slavery strategy. Only a universal basic income will truly eliminate the economic vulnerability that lies at the root of all labour exploitation.

Slavery and the market

Slavery, like trafficking and forced labour, is primarily a market phenomenon. Although often depicted as outside of market relations, the reality is that markets create both supplies of vulnerable workers and demand for their labour. When a worker finds herself in conditions of extreme exploitation, it is almost always the result of her economic vulnerability coinciding with an employer's demand for her labour.

This happens because, in market societies, the freedom to refuse any job is the flip-side of the freedom to starve unless you accept one. Unless you are independently wealthy, you have to work to survive. For the very poor, where margins are matters of life and death, the price of saying no to even an awful employer is often too high to pay.

This is why 'market-friendly' policies will never be enough to abolish 'modern-day slavery'. Market-friendly policies do not fundamentally alter the balance of power between the economically weak and the economically strong. They rely on either goodwill or police enforcement, persuading employers to 'behave better', consumers to shop more ethically, and police forces to root out bad apples. But these policies do nothing about the economic compulsion that renders the poorest vulnerable to malevolent employers adept at evading the authorities.

Basic income

So what is to be done? The one single policy that has most emancipatory potential is the unconditional basic income (UBI). UBI has a long and respected pedigree. Thomas Paine advocated a version of it at the dawn of the American Revolution, and it has had modern supporters ranging from Bertrand Russell toJohn Rawls.

The idea is as simple as it is brilliant: give every citizen an amount of money sufficient to guarantee their survival without any strings attached. You receive it just by virtue of being a citizen. It will never make you rich, but it will always prevent you from going hungry, or from having to sell yourself into slavery-like labour for want of a better alternative.

When people are first pitched UBI, their gut reaction is to often ask, "is this feasible?" "Won't everybody just stop working?" These concerns are understandable, but they are also misplaced.

With regards to feasibility, there are two major points. The first is that economic viability of such a method of wealth redistribution has already been proved in principle by Great Britain itself. Indeed, the welfare state operates on the very same basis, taxing progressively to distribute wealth more evenly.

Second, UBI is likely to be far cheaper and more efficient than any other existing system of social protection. Currently, governments everywhere waste billions of dollars on policies that fail to reach the most vulnerable. In the West, expensive means-testing excludes many of those most in need, while governments subsidise poverty wages and give tax breaks to corporations. In the Global South, fuel and agricultural subsidies frequently fail to reach their intended targets as corrupt bureaucrats siphon money to buy political influence. Under these circumstances, the costs of distributing a basic income directly to people will be offset by reducing other, less efficient programmes and cutting out the dead weight of political middle-men.

Will people work if they receive a UBI? Of course they will. Very few are satisfied with simple subsistence; almost everyone wants to improve at least the lives of their children. No advocate of basic income wants it set high enough to discourage work. Rather, the goal is to give people the "real freedom" to sayNo! to bad jobs and Yes! to good ones. Remember that in the West, it is the punitive social security system which itself creates unemployment traps. If instead of tax-breaks or top-ups we gave people UBI, then nobody would ever face the choice of losing money by accepting work.

UBI has benefits beyond these practical fundamentals, and for the first time in history, we now have detailed empirical evidence from a developing country to show it. UNICEF has just completed a pilot project with the Self-Employed Women's Association in India to trial UBI among thousands of villagers in the state of Madhya Pradesh. The findings are electric.

First, they show an increase in economic activity, with new small-scale businesses springing up, more work being performed, and more equipment and livestock being purchased for the local economy. Second, those receiving UBI registered improvements in child nutrition, school attendance and performance, health and healthcare, sanitation and housing. Greater benefits were recorded for women than for men (as women's financial and social autonomy were increased), for the disabled than for others, and for the poorest vis-à-vis the wealthy.

But there is a third dimension that should really make the anti-slavery movement sit up and take note. This is the 'emancipatory dimension'. The economic security provided by UBI not only increased the political participation of the poor, as it gave them the time and resources necessary to represent their interests against the powerful. It also freed them from the clutches of moneylenders. As the author of the UNICEF study puts it:

Money is a scarce commodity in Indian villages and this drives up the price. Moneylenders and landlords can easily put villagers into debt bondage and charge exorbitant rates of interest that families cannot hope to pay off.

Unless, of course, they benefit from UBI, in which case they have the liquidity necessary to maintain their freedom even in the case of economic shocks. If you doubt the transformative potential of this work, just watch this 12-minute video and I defy you not to be inspired.

Historical potential

The contemporary anti-slavery movement stands at the forefront of a critical historical juncture. In the context of global economic crisis, the old social models are breaking down but the new are not yet ready to be born. Into this vacuum we've seen the rise of serious labour exploitation, along with political and consumer activism in response.

At the vanguard of this response stand the modern abolitionists, and they do so with unrivalled discursive power. Nobody that has a place at the table is forslavery: everybody is against it. This is why abolitionists' call to end 'modern-day slavery' within a generation goes entirely un-opposed. It garners allies ranging from the global business elite to the Pope himself. More than 50,000 people a week a sign up to Walk Free's Global Movement, and over the past several years we have witnessed a tidal-wave of pressure to crack down on extreme exploitation.

So what does all this mean? It means that today's abolitionists stand on the verge of a once-in-a-century opportunity. They can play it safe and advocate the market-friendly policies that will—at best—tidy up around the edges. Or they can go big, they can go revolutionary, and they can organise a global shift in the direction of social justice.

Let us be clear: UBI is not merely the most effective tool for abolishing modern-day slavery. It is a tool for radical social justice, for changing the economic game entirely, by emancipating all of us from economic vulnerability. If modern abolitionists have a historic mission, it is to complete the task of their predecessors: they must make freedom not just legal, but feasible. 

Opinion Mon, 04 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Coal's Collateral Damage

Mountaintop Decapitation, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil BendibMountaintop Decapitation. (Cartoon: Khalil Bendib / OtherWords)

The industry is still wrecking the Appalachians as it withers.

Coal's death throes are drawing closer, especially in Appalachia.

Nearly three-quarters of the coal extracted from West Virginia, Virginia, and Kentucky these days is being mined at a loss. The number of coal companies declaring bankruptcy or edging toward it is mounting.

That's good for people and the planet. Burning coal fuels climate change, causes cancer, and spreads asthma. And yanking coal out of the ground wrecks the places where it's found.

You might figure that low prices and declining demand would make mountaintop removal mining — one of the worst crimes against nature and humanity big business has ever committed — less of a threat to surrounding communities.

That would be nice. As it turns out, the people who live on the frontlines aren't catching a break yet.

If you're unfamiliar with the mechanics, picture this: Thick forests of trees growing on peaks get mowed down. Explosives decapitate mountains. A jumbled heap of crushed rocks and dirt laced with the remains of dead animals and plants choke valleys. Entire ecosystems, villages, and graveyards vanish. Rivers and streams are poisoned or smothered.

The amount of strip-mined coal has fallen by 60 percent across Appalachia since 2008. But the most extreme form of strip-mining, which reduces verdant mountainsides into rubble-strewn dead zones, is encroaching more than ever on adjacent communities.

The non-profit group Appalachian Voices reached that conclusion by scouring Google Earth Engine's highly specialized maps in an innovative new study. Why did people on the ground need fancy imaging systems to sharpen their focus on what's going on in places like Inman, Virginia?

"Only from the air can you fully grasp the magnitude of the devastation," wrote University of Kentucky professor Erik Reece of what he's witnessed on flights above the Appalachians. "The desolation stretches like a long scar up the Kentucky-Virginia line, before eating its way across southern West Virginia."

I half-dreaded, half-hoped to at least glimpse these wastelands during a recent family road trip around West Virginia's New River Gorge.

Most of the massacred mountains are far from public roadways. Even when we veered off beaten paths, we saw lots of hawks, wild rhododendron, and waterfalls, but no manmade plateaus. So I bought a copy of Coal Country at a Charleston bookstore.

It's a collection of haunting essays about mountaintop removal mining by Reece and other outraged Appalachian activists. Companies like Arch Coal and Alpha Natural Resources were pulling big profits in 2009, when the book came out, which the industry used to justify this assault on mountains.

What a difference six years make. Arch lost $113 million between January and March. Its shares sell for about a buck, down from their $75 peak. And the company might not manage to repay the $5 billion it owes creditors, the Moody's rating agency suggests.

It takes huge machines for Arch and its competitors to decimate mountains, carve out the coal, and render the land uninhabitable. Those 80-ton bulldozers are pricey. Companies, therefore, usually borrow to pay for their mountaintop removal mining operations.

Having found government unwilling to end this scourge, environmentalists are pressing big banks to stop financing it. So far, Barclays Bank, Wells Fargo, Royal Bank of Scotland, UBS, BNP Paribas, Société Générale, and PNC Bank have all sworn off mountaintop removal mining.

Coal powered the industrial revolution and kept the lights on for billions of people over the past century. As it collapses, remember that the industry's pain can't compare with the suffering it brought to the people and creatures who make their homes in the world's most ancient mountains.

"When I was a kid, down at the bottom of the mountain, I could get crawdads, pick them up out of the water with my toes," the late activist Larry Gibson wrote in Coal Countryabout his West Virginia homestead. "Now, nothing lives on the land. What they've done is irreversible. You can't bring it back."

Opinion Mon, 04 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Populism2015: Construction Crew for Democracy

To the blare of sounding brass and booming drums, some 800 activists and community organizers from around the country recently converged on Washington, DC. We are living, breathing proof, they announced, that if we can’t get change from our representatives in the capital, we’ll bring it to them, and work to make them hear what must be done.

It was the Populism2015 conference, organized by National People’s Action (NPA), Campaign for America’s Future, Alliance for a Just Society and USAction – although as populist commentator Jim Hightower noted at the opening session, “This not so much a conference but a construction crew for nothing less than democracy.”

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

For anyone dispirited by the malaise of powerlessness or disgusted by the dysfunction of mainstream politics, the gathering was a hopeful sign that in every part of the United States, people are taking matters into their own hands and demanding attention and respect. As the organizers wrote in their welcome to the attendees, “A new populist movement is rising in our country. Growing inequality, a sinking middle class and the increasing burdens on low-income people have been building for a long time. The difference now is that everyday people understand that this isn’t an accident or an act of nature. It is the result of rules that have been rigged to benefit the few – and we’re not willing to take it anymore.”

Pointing to Occupy Wall Street, the fight for a $15 minimum wage, #BlackLivesMatter, the campaign to stop global warming, and the elections of Senator Elizabeth Warren and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio as positive signs of change, they continued, “Populism2015 will draw upon those movements and incorporate their spirit, power and energy. We will elevate, strengthen and amplify the leadership of our national progressive champions.”

Pouring into the ballroom and meeting spaces of DC’s Shoreham Hotel, such groups as Main Street Alliance, Take Action Minnesota, Keystone Project, Illinois Indiana Regional Organizing Network (IIRON), Montana Organizing Project and many others gathered for practical workshops and a flurry of speeches intended to energize and motivate, all of them dedicated to the idea of a national movement to take the country back. The theme: “Building a Movement for People and the Planet.” Along the way, “expose the big lie that corporate greed is good for everyone,” and encourage the ideal that the economy “should work for all of us.”

And so, Janice “Jay” Johnson, treasurer of Virginia Organizing/Alliance for a Just Society, described their fight against predatory payday lending. Jean Ross, co-president of National Nurses United, spoke of the perils of austerity – “Come into any emergency room; these policies kill people” — and called for passage of HR 1464, the Inclusive Prosperity Act. That’s the Robin Hood Tax that would collect fifty cents on every hundred dollars of stock trades. “Take that money back from the banksters,” she declared.

Vien Truong of California’s Greenlighting Institute told the story of their involvement in the successful effort to get $832 million in cap-and-trade agreements from polluters, money the state will spend on such programs as free bus passes for seniors and students, electric trucks and buses and affordable green housing. Eric Kennedy of the Washington Community Action Network outlined the campaign for a living wage in the Pacific Northwest and Bob Cook of PUSH Buffalo talked about their work for a green economy and the group’s involvement in the successful New York State ban on fracking.

George Goehl, executive director of National People’s Action, said, “America’s beauty has always come from how we react to injustice,” and stressed the need to rebalance the relationship between everyday people and corporate America, as well as the importance of seeking candidates with ideas and plans to address structural racism in America. He introduced Congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Rep. Ellison talked about those “systematically trying to exclude people from the vote,” but also detected “a renaissance of democracy and civic engagement,” and urged the crowd not to give up on Capitol Hill: “Not everyone in Congress has sold out,” he said. “Eighty people in Congress are down with you” — presumably, the members of the progressive caucus plus a few friends. “Thirty-five are down with you on each and every issue.” It’s a start.

Introduced were three activists who have themselves sought public office: Gina Melaragno of Maine People’s Alliance became a state representative when she grew fed up with the incumbent’s indifference to the needs of his constituents; Carlos Ramirez-Rosa is a gay Latino just elected as an alderman in Chicago’s 35th Ward, part of the progressive coalition that sought to unseat Mayor Rahm Emanuel and forced him into a runoff with Jesus “Chuy” Garcia; and Jim Keady of the New Jersey Organizing Project is running for the state assembly. He’s the guy Governor Chris Christie told to “sit down and shut up” last fall when Keady had the temerity to challenge Christie’s mishandling of aid to the victims of Hurricane Sandy.

As Congressman Ellison pointed out, “Politicians see the light when they start to feel the heat.” He was talking about public pressure to prevent passage of fast track legislation to grease the way for approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement. And in fact, the Populism2015 conference ended with a protest rally and march against TPP led by Senator Bernie Sanders from the Washington headquarters of the AFL-CIO to the offices of the Chamber of Commerce and the US Trade representative.

But not before the conference crowd unanimously approved a 12-point platform for the next four decades: “A national strategic vision,” is how Campaign for America’s Future’s Robert Borosage described it, “backed by thousands of organizers on the ground. It is the standard by which every candidate, Democrat and Republican, can be measured.”

The entire platform is online. Among its headlines: Rebuild America for the 21st Century and Create Jobs for All, Guarantee Women’s Economic Equality, Provide a High-Quality Education to Every Child, and Change Priorities to Address Real Security Needs.

But all twelve can be boiled down to one simple, bumper sticker notion that tells our elected officials to stop kowtowing to the plutocrats, to stop making decisions that affect our lives without listening and acting upon our behalf instead of the one percent’s. It’s a slogan that’s been popular in the disabled rights movement yet applies to everyone struggling to be heard. You could hear it all around the Populism2015 conference:

“Nothing about us without us.”

Opinion Mon, 04 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400
TransCanada Keystone 1 Pipeline Suffered Major Corrosion Only Two Years in Operation, 95 Percent Worn in One Spot

18 February, 2013: Southern route of the Keystone XL pipeline being installed in Douglas, Texas. (Photo: Julie Dermansky)February 18, 2013: Southern route of the Keystone XL pipeline being installed in Douglas, Texas. (Photo: Julie Dermansky)

Documents obtained by DeSmogBlog reveal an alarming rate of corrosion to parts of TransCanada's Keystone 1 pipeline. A mandatory inspection test revealed a section of the pipeline's wall had corroded 95%, leaving it paper-thin in one area (one-third the thickness of a dime) and dangerously thin in three other places, leading TransCanada to immediately shut it down. The cause of the corrosion is being kept from the public by federal regulators and TransCanada.

“It is highly unusual for a pipeline not yet two years old to experience such deep corrosion issues,” Evan Vokes, a former TransCanada pipeline engineer-turned-whistleblower, told DeSmogBlog. “Something very severe happened that the public needs to know about.”

When TransCanada shut the line down, the company and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) told the press that the shutdown was due to “possible safety Issues.” And although an engineer from PHMSA was sent to the site where TransCanada was digging up the pipeline in Missouri, no further information has been made available publicly.

Only after DeSmogBlog made a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to PHMSA in August 2013 — which the agency partially responded to this April — was the information revealing the pipeline had deeply corroded in multiple spots exposed. The documents also disclosed a plan to check for a possible spill where the corrosion was detected. 

However, documents explaining what caused the corrosion and findings concerning a possible spill were not included in response to DeSmogBlog's request. According to PHMSA spokesman Damon Hill, documents that might impact an ongoing compliance review the agency is conducting of TransCanada were withheld.

A list of the documents withheld was not provided with the FOIA or a date when the remaining documents would be released.

An email included with the documents suggests Ken Crowl, a representative of TransCanada, sent an email to PHSMA stating the he would provide the agency with “the media talking points” about what the parties had discussed.

When asked why a list of the talking points would not have been included in the FOIA request, PHMSA spokesman Damon Hill told DeSmogBlog such a list might not have been provided, and insisted the agency would have no use for such a list. Yet, TransCanada's email indicates the two entities compared notes before sharing information with the public. 

Richard Kuprewicz, a pipeline safety expert with more than forty years of experience in the energy sector, reviewed the few documents that were obtained. While he found it unusual to see such extensive wall loss in such a short period of time, he was happy to report, “The process worked.”

“TransCanada caught this before it went to failure,” Kuprewicz told DeSmogBlog. “Finding some corrosion issues resulting in anomalies in a pipeline this big is to be expected,” he said. “But the severity of a wall loss of 80% or greater would result in the operator looking for a leak.”

Once a pipeline experiences corrosion “somewhere around 80% — you're in Never-Never land,” Kuprewicz said. “You have to be real careful, because the engineers will act like the calculations are exact, but when you get to that kind of wall loss it doesn't take much change in the corrosion rate to take you to failure.” 

Kuprewicz wouldn't speculate on the cause of the corrosion because he didn't have the documents he would need to make such a determination. The missing documents also made it impossible for him to ascertain if a spill took place before the line was shut down, but he said it would not surprise him if a small spill had occurred. 

However, the only PHMSA-generated document included in the FOIA response, an internal email sent by PHMSA representative David Barrett, confirms the possibility of a spill. 

Though Kuprewicz commends TransCanada for taking the appropriate steps after finding the initial problem, the question remains why the company didn't catch the problem before there was 95% wall thickness loss.

Vokes, who also reviewed the documents, isn't surprised the pipeline had major issues. To him, it was a predictable outcome. Not only has he witnessed TransCanada's risky behavior first-hand during his five years on the job, Canada’s National Energy Board had found TransCanada guilty of non-compliance prior to his working for the company. 

An advocate for pipelines, Vokes had hoped to help TransCanada clean up its act. He believes pipelines are the best way to transport crude oil and tar sands product, as long at operators comply with the rules. 

But if the rules aren't followed, all bets are off. Better a train carrying petroleum products fail than a shoddily built pipeline, because a train accident would have a limited scope, while a pipeline failure could cause damage on a catastrophic scale. (Caveat, of course, would be a “bomb train” oil-by-rail incident in a population center.)

An analysis of what caused such deep corrosion in Keystone 1 in a short period of time would show that “a bunch of professional engineers were behaving badly,” Vokes said, “because there are adequate checks and balances in the regulations to avoid this.”

According to Vokes, “The direct effect on shareholders of the estimated revenue loss for the shut down lasting four and a half days is 20 million dollars.” He believes that the shareholders, himself included, are entitled to know what caused the shutdown.

TransCanada's non-compliance with regulations is nothing new. Vokes shed light on the company's risky behavior in 2011 by turning over internal documents to the Canadian National Energy Board and PHSMA. Later, he gave the same documents to the Canadian Senate, resulting in a probe of the company’s compliance practices.

According to a recent report by Reuters, Canadian regulators began investigating TransCanada's safety practices again, after it received documents submitted by another whistleblower. 

The final inspection report of the Keystone XL southern route (now known as the Gulf Coast pipeline) was also obtained by DeSmogBlog. It offers further evidence that TransCanada is not code complaint. The report concluded TransCanada's work to be unsatisfactory in more then seven areas it considered.

Furthermore, last year, when the Keystone XL's southern line was shut down shortly after it was put into operation, many questioned TransCanada’s claim that it was due to planned routine work, since shutting down a pipeline costs a company millions of dollars.

PHSMA confirmed it looked into the shutdown. However the agency “did not dispatch an inspector since the shutdown was not reported to have involved any safety issues,” Hill wrote in an email to DeSmogBlog. 

Meanwhile, TransCanada is seeking a recertification of the Keystone XL pipeline permit from the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission. The permit expired last year.

The grassroots citizens group Dakota Rural Action has retained lawyers Robin Martinez and Bruce Ellison to challenge recertification.” The Dakota Rural Action group plans to challenge TransCanada on its inability and/or unwillingness to put safety first in its construction and operations,” Ellison wrote to DeSmogBlog. The lawyers believe they have enough documentation to show the company’s pipeline should not be recertified.

The hearing, scheduled to take place on May 5, was postponed until sometime this summer after pressure was put on the Public Utility Commission to give those testifying against TransCanada more time. Many of those opposed to the pipeline made allegations that they were given insufficient time to complete discovery before the hearing.

Vokes, who will be testifying as an expert witness for the Dakota Rural Action group, recently reviewed pre-hearing testimony that TransCanada's expert witnesses submitted to the Public Utilities Commission. The company’s experts failed to disclose the corrosion incident in the Keystone 1 line, and the fact that the company is under a compliance review by U.S. regulators.

The Association of Professional Engineers, Geologists and Geophysicist of Alberta's guidelines for giving testimony make disclosing such information mandatory, according to Vokes.

The results of PHMSA compliance review of TransCanada could impact the permit hearing in South Dakota, as well as on the permit the company needs approved by President Obama to complete the northern route of the Keystone XL pipeline. 

When President Obama vetoed the Senate bill that would have enabled TransCanada to finish building the Keystone XL, he didn't rule out the possibility he might grant the permit once the State Department’s review of the pipeline is complete. The fate of the Keystone XL completion is still in the president's hands. 

If PHMSA has evidence TransCanada is not adhering to the rules, we can only hope the agency will release that information before decisions regarding additional pipelines TransCanada seeks permission to build are made.


Ed. note 5/1/15: DeSmogBlog has repeatedly asked Davis Sheremata, a TransCanada spokesman, if the Keystone 1 pipeline had issues with the cathodic protection. On May 30, 2014, Sheremata wrote in an email to DeSmog, ” I don't think we have had issues but will get back to you on Monday. “ However he never did. DeSmogBlog reached out to him again before publication of this report asking the question, but again did not hear back.

News Mon, 04 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Celebrating the Flash Crash With a Wall Street Sales Tax

The Flash Crash was when the stock market lost almost 9 percent of its value from its opening level, with most of this decline occurring in a five minute period. The issue of short-term trading is the key here. There is a simple and easy way to reduce the amount of money being drained away by short-term traders. A financial transactions tax, effectively a modest sales tax applied to trades, would drastically reduce the amount of short-term trading while raising a huge amount of revenue.

Congressman Chris Van Hollen. (Photo: Jow Newman)Congressman Chris Van Hollen. (Photo: Joe Newman)

This week marks the fifth anniversary of the flash crash. For those who don’t remember, the Flash Crash was when the stock market lost almost 9 percent of its value from its opening level, with most of this decline occurring in a five minute period.

The market quickly recovered most of this loss. As long as you didn’t sell stock in the 30 minute crash interval, you weren’t affected by this plunge. But the crash did reveal the extraordinary instability in the stock market due to short-term trading.

The issue of short-term trading is the key here. There was no event in the world that triggered the plunge. There was no outbreak of war, major terrorist incident, or natural disaster that sent stock prices plummeting. There wasn’t even a bad profit report from a major company. The crash was based simply on program trading that fed back on itself, turning a downward blip into a major plunge.

Much of this trading came from high-frequency trading, program trading that profits by jumping ahead of major movements in the market. This has led to an unfortunate focus on high-frequency trading, an ill-defined concept, as opposed to the more general issue that we have seen an explosion of short-term trading in recent decades.

The average holding period for a share of stock is now less than five months, with short-term traders often flipping over the same shares several times in a day. This huge volume of trading adds nothing to the economy, but it can lead to immense fortunes for the traders. Of course the fortunes for the traders come at the expense of the rest of us.

If a trader has designed a mathematical algorithm that allows them to jump in and buy large blocks of Apple stock just as a pension fund is looking to make a major purchase of shares, then the trader will get a portion of the gains that otherwise would have gone to the pension fund. This story applies to all areas of the market. Farmers that sell futures on their crops, airlines that buy futures on jet fuel, mutual funds buying government bonds, all can expect to see a part of their gains siphoned off by short-term traders that manage to beat them on market timing.

The traders now siphon off more than $200 billion (1.3 percent of GDP) a year from the productive economy. Much of this money is the income of super-rich bankers and hedge fund partners.

There is a simple and easy way to reduce the amount of money being drained away by short-term traders. A financial transactions tax, effectively a modest sales tax applied to trades, would drastically reduce the amount of short-term trading while raising a huge amount of revenue.

Earlier this year, Maryland Congressman Chris Van Hollen proposed a schedule of taxes comparable to what the European Union is likely to implement next year. It would tax stock trades at a rate of 0.1 percent (10 cents on $100) and trades of derivative at a rate of 0.01 percent (1 cent on $100). Extrapolating from a recent study of the revenue such a tax would raise in Europe, Van Hollen’s tax would raise more than $130 billion a year or more than $1.5 trillion over the course of a decade.

This is real money even in Washington. This is almost twice projected spending on food stamps over this period. We could pay for huge amounts of education, research, infrastructure or whatever else is on the wish list with this money.

And almost all of it comes out of the hide of the financial industry. The short-term traders will of course pay the bulk of the tax. But most middle income households with 401(k)s or other savings are likely to be almost completely unaffected by the tax. The reason is that trading volume will typically fall roughly in proportion to the increase in trading costs due to the tax.

While few middle class people actively trade stocks, they own mutual funds which have managers that trade stock. Research shows that if a tax increases the average cost of a trade by say 50 percent, then fund managers will reduce their trading by roughly 50 percent. This means that people with money in a 401(k) would see little change in their total trading costs. Their fund would charge them more for each trade, because of the tax, but since it is trading less, they will end up paying the same. And, since people don’t on average gain by trading, this ends up as a wash for the average 401(k) investor.

In short, we are talking about a policy that can raise a huge amount of money, mostly from the richest people in the country, by raising the cost of financial transactions back to where they were 10-15 years ago. It also might remove some of the instability we have seen in financial markets in recent years.

That sounds like the sort of policy that a presidential candidate who is pushing for everyday people would support. We shall see.

Opinion Mon, 04 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Who Counts? Body Counts, Drones and "Collateral Damage"

In the twenty-first-century world of drone warfare, one question with two aspects reigns supreme: Who counts?

In Washington, the answers are the same: We don't count and they don't count.

The Obama administration has adamantly refused to count. Not a body. In fact, for a long time, American officials associated with Washington's drone assassination campaigns and "signature strikes" in the backlands of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen claimed that there were no bodies to count, that the CIA's drones were so carefully handled and so "precise" that they never produced an unmeant corpse - not a child, not a parent, not a wedding party. Nada.

When it came to "collateral damage," there was no need to count because there was nothing to tote up or, at worst, such civilian casualties were "in the single digits."  That this was balderdash, that often when those drones unleashed their Hellfire missiles they were unsure who exactly was being targeted, that civilians were dying in relatively countable numbers - and that others were indeed counting them - mattered little, at least in this country until recently. Drone war was, after all, innovative and, as presented by two administrations, quite miraculous. In 2009, CIA Director Leon Panetta called it "the only game in town" when it came to al-Qaeda.  And what a game it was.  It needed no math, no metrics.  As the Vietnam War had proved, counting was for losers - other than the usual media reports that so many "militants" had died in a strike or that some al-Qaeda "lieutenant" or "leader" had gone down for the count.

That era ended on April 23rd when President Obama entered the White House briefing room and apologized for the deaths of American aid worker Warren Weinstein and Italian aid worker Giovanni Lo Porto, two Western hostages of al-Qaeda.  They had, the president confessed, been obliterated in a strike against a terrorist compound in Pakistan, though in his comments he managed not to mention the word "drone," describing what happened vaguely as a "U.S. counterterrorism operation."  In other words, it turned out that the administration was capable of counting - at least to two.

And that brings us to the other meaning of "Who counts?"  If you are an innocent American or Western civilian and a drone takes you out, you count.  If you are an innocent Pakistani, Afghan, or Yemeni, you don't.  You didn't count before the drone killed you and you don't count as a corpse either.  For you, no one apologizes, no one pays your relatives compensation for your unjust death, no one even acknowledges that you existed.  This is modern American drone reality and the question of who counts and whom, if anyone, to count is part of the contested legacy of Washington's never-ending war on terror.

A Brief History of the Body Count

Once upon a time, of course, enemy deaths were a badge of honor in war, but the American "body count," which would become infamous in the Vietnam era, had always been a product of frustration, not pride.  It originated in the early 1950s, in the "meat-grinder" days of the Korean War, after the fighting had bogged down in a grim stalemate and signs of victory were hard to come by.  It reappeared relatively early in the Vietnam War years as American officials began searching for "metrics" that would somehow express victory in a country where taking territory in the traditional fashion meant little.  As time went on, the brutality of that war increased, and the promised "light at the end of the tunnel" glowed ever more dimly, the metrics of victory only grew, and the pressure to produce that body count, which could be announced daily by U.S. press spokesmen to increasingly dubious journalists in Saigon did, too.  Soon enough, those reporters began referring to the daily announcements of those figures as the "Five O'Clock Follies."

On the ground, the pressure within the military to produce impressive body counts for those "Follies" resulted in what GIs called the "Mere Gook Rule." ("If it's dead and it's Vietnamese, it's VC [Viet Cong].")  And soon enough anything counted as a body.  As William Calley, Jr., of My Lai massacre fame, testified, "At that time, everything went into a body count - VC, buffalo, pigs, cows.  Something we did, you put it on your body count, sir... As long as it was high, that was all they wanted."

When, however, victory proved illusory, that body count came to appear to ever more Americans on the home front like grim slaughter and a metric from hell.  As a sign of success, increasingly detached from reality yet producing reality, it became a death-dealing Catch-22.   As those bodies piled up and in the terminology of the times a "credibility gap" yawned between the metrics and reality, the body count became a symbol not just of a war of frustration, but of defeat itself. It came, especially after the news of the My Lai massacre finally broke in the U.S., to look both false and barbaric. Whose bodies were those anyway?

In the post-Vietnam era, not surprisingly, Washington would treat anything associated with the disaster that had been Vietnam as if it were radioactive.  So when, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration's top officials began planning their twenty-first-century wars in a state of exhilarated anticipation, they had no intention of reliving anything that reeked of Vietnam.  There would be no body bags coming home in the glare of media attention, no body counts in the battle zones.  They were ready to play an opposites game when it came to Vietnam. General Tommy Franks, who directed the Afghan invasion and then the one in Iraq, caught the mood perfectly in 2003 when he said, "We don't do body counts."

There would be no more "Five O'clock Follies," not in wars in which victory was assured for "the greatest force for freedom in the history of the world" and "the finest fighting force that the world has ever known" (as presidents took to calling the U.S. military).  And that remains official military policy today.  Only recently, for instance, Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby responded to a journalist's question about how many Islamic State fighters and civilians U.S. air power had recently killed in Washington's latest war in Iraq this way: "First of all, we don't have the ability to - to count every nose that we shwack [sic]. Number two, that's not the goal. That's not the goal... And we're not getting into an issue of body counts. And that's why I don't have that number handy. I wouldn't - I wouldn't have asked my staff to give me that number before I came out here. It's simply not a relevant figure."

From 2003 to 2015, official policy on the body count has not reflected reality.  The U.S. military has, in fact, continued to count bodies.  For one thing, it kept and reported the numbers on America's war dead, bodies that truly counted, though no one would have called the tallies a body count.  For another, from beginning to end, the military has been secretly counting the dead on the other side as well, perhaps to privately convince themselves, Vietnam-style, that they were indeed winning in wars where a twenty-first-century version of the credibility gap appeared all too quickly and never left the scene.  As David Axe has written, the military "proudly boasts of the totals in official documents that it never intends for public circulation."  He added, "The disconnect over wartime body counts reflects a yawning gap between the military's public face and its private culture."

To Count or Not to Count, That Is the Question

But here was the oddest thing: whatever the military might have been counting, the fact that it stopped counting in public didn't stop the body count from happening.  It turned out that there were others on this planet no less capable of counting dead bodies.  In the end, the cast of characters producing the public metrics of this era simply changed and with it the purpose of the count.  The newcomers had, you might say, different answers to both parts of the question: Who counts?

Over the last century, as "collateral damage" - the deaths of civilians, rather than combatants - has become ever more the essence of war, the importance of who is dying and in what numbers has only increased.  When the U.S. military began refusing to make its body count part of a public celebration of its successes, civil society stepped in with a very different impulse: to shame, blame, and hold the military's feet to the fire by revealing the deeper carnage of war itself and what it does to society, not just to the warriors.

While the previous counters had pretended that all bodies belonged to enemies, the new counters tried to make "collateral damage" the central issue of war.  No matter what the researchers who have done such counts may say, most of them are, by their nature, critiques of war, American-style, and included in them were no longer just the bodies, civilian and military, found on the battlefield, but every body that could somehow be linked to a conflict or its fallout, its side effects, its afteraffects.

Think of this as a new numerology of defeat or disaster or slaughter or shame.  In the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, distinctly non-military outfits took up this counting or estimating process.  In 2004 and 2006, the Lancet, a British medical journal, published studies based on scientific surveys of "excess Iraqi deaths" since the American invasion of 2003 and, in the first case, came up with an estimated 98,000 of them and in the second with 655,000 (a much-criticized figure); such studies by medical and other researchers have never stopped.  More recent counts of such deaths have ranged from 500,000 in 2013 to one million or 5% of the Iraqi population this year.

The most famous enumeration of civilian casualties in Iraq, however, comes from the constantly upgraded tally - based on published media reports, hospital and morgue records, and the like - of Iraq Body Count, the independent website that bills itself as "the public record of violent deaths following the 2003 invasion of Iraq."  At this moment, its most up-to-date top estimate for civilian deaths since that invasion is 156,000 (211,000, including the deaths of combatants).  And these figures are considered by the site and others as distinctly conservative, no more than what can be known about a subject of which much is, by necessity, unknown.

In Afghanistan, there has been less tallying, but the U.N. Mission there has kept a count of civilian casualties from the ongoing war and estimates the cumulative figure, since 2001, at 21,000 (though again, that is undoubtedly a conservative figure).  However, when it comes to the American drone campaigns in Pakistan and Yemen, in particular, where the Obama administration has adamantly resisted the idea of significant civilian casualties, the civilian counters have been there under the most impressively difficult circumstances, sometimes with representatives on the ground in distant parts of Pakistan and elsewhere.  In a world in which drone operators refer to the victims of their strikes as "bug splat" and top administration officials prefer to obliterate those "bugs" a second time by denying that their deaths even occurred, the attempt to give them back their names, ages, and sexes, to remind the world of what was most human about the dead of our new wars, should be considered a heroic task.

The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, in particular, has done careful as well as dogged work tabulating drone casualties in Pakistan and Yemen, including counts and estimates of all those killed by drones, of civilians killed by drones, and of children killed by drones.  It even has a project, "Naming the Dead," that attempts to reattach names and other basic personal information - sometimes even photos - to the previously nameless dead (721 of them so far).  The Long War Journal (a militarized exception to the rule when it comes to the counters of this era) has also kept a record of what it could dig up about drone deaths in Pakistan and Yemen, as has the New America Foundation on Pakistan.  In 2012 the Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic studied the three sources of such counts and issued a report of its own.

Among the more fascinating reports, the human-rights group Reprieve recently considered claims to drone "precision" and surgical accuracy by doing its own analysis of the available data.  It concluded that, in trying to target and assassinate 41 enemy figures in Pakistan and Yemen over the years, Washington's drones had managed to kill 1,147 people without even killing all the figures actually targeted.  (As Spencer Ackerman of the Guardian wrote, "The drones came for Ayman Zawahiri on 13 January 2006, hovering over a village in Pakistan called Damadola. Ten months later, they came again for the man who would become al-Qaida's leader, this time in Bajaur. Eight years later, Zawahiri is still alive. Seventy-six children and 29 adults, according to reports after the two strikes, are not.")

In other words, when it came to counting, civil society rode to the rescue, though the impact of the figures produced has remained limited indeed in this country.  In some ways, the only body count of any sort that has made an impression here in recent years has been sniper Chris Kyle's 160 confirmed Iraqi "kills" that played such a part in the publicity for the blockbuster movie American Sniper.

Exceptional Killers

In his public apology for deaths that were clearly embarrassing to him, President Obama managed to fall back on a trope that has become ever more politically commonplace in these years.  Even in the context of a situation in which two innocent hostages had been killed, he congratulated himself and all Americans for the exceptional nature of this country. "It is a cruel and bitter truth," he said, "that in the fog of war generally and our fight against terrorists specifically, mistakes - sometimes deadly mistakes - can occur.  But one of the things that sets America apart from many other nations, one of the things that makes us exceptional is our willingness to confront squarely our imperfections and to learn from our mistakes."

Whatever our missteps, in other words, we Americans are exceptional killers in a world of ordinary ones.  This attitude has infused Obama's global assassination program and the White House "kill list" that goes with it and that the president has personally overseen. Pride in his killing agenda was evident in the decision to leak news of that list to the New York Times back in May 2012.  And this version of American exceptionalism fits well with the exceptionalism of the drone itself - even if it is a weapon guaranteed to become less exceptional as it spreads to more countries (in part through recently green-lighted U.S. drone sales to allies).

On the rarest of occasions, Obama admitted in that White House briefing room, drone strikes even kill exceptional people (like us) who need to be attended to presidentially, whose deaths deserve apologies, whose lives are to be highlighted in special media accounts, and whose value is such that recompense is due to their families.  In most of the places the drone goes, however, those it kills by mistake are, by definition, unexceptional.  They deserve neither notice nor apology nor recompense. They count for nothing.

One thing makes the drone a unique weapon in the world of the uncounted dead on a planet where killing otherwise seems like a dime-a-dozen activity: its pilot, its "crew," those who trigger the launch of its missiles are hundreds, even thousands of miles away from danger.  Though we speak loosely about drone "warfare," the way that machine functions bears little relation to war as it was once defined.  Conceptually, the drone represents a one-way street of destruction.  Because in its version of "warfare" only one side can be hurt, its "signature" is slaughter, not war, no matter how carefully it may be used.  It is an executioner's weapon.

In part because of that, it's also a blowback weapon.  Though it may surprise Americans, those to be slaughtered, the hunted, don't take to the constant buzz of drones in their skies in a kindly fashion.  They reportedly exhibit the symptoms of PTSD; they are resentful; they grasp the unfairness and injustice that lies behind the machine and its form of "warfare" and are unimpressed with the exceptionalism of the Americans using it.  As a result, drones across the Greater Middle East have been the equivalent of recruitment posters for those who want revenge and so for extremist outfits everywhere.

Drones should be weapons of shame and yet, despite the recent round of criticism here in the wake of the hostage killings, their use is still widely supported in Washington and among the public.  The justification for their use, whatever "legal" white papers the Obama administration has produced as cover, is simple enough: power.  We send them across sovereign boundaries as we wish in search of those we want to kill because we can, because we are us.

So all praise to the few in our world who think it worth the bother to count those who count for nothing to us. They do matter.

Opinion Mon, 04 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Mountaintop Decapitation ]]> (Lauren Walker) Art Mon, 04 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400 Trading Paradise for a Pipeline

The waxwings deserve better. So do we all. (Photo: Oil Spill via Shutterstock)The waxwings deserve better. So do we all. (Photo: Oil Spill via Shutterstock)

Kinder Morgan proposes a massive natural gas pipeline which would run the product of Pennsylvania fracking across all of southern New Hampshire to a depot near the Massachusetts coastline, from which it will be shipped to the world for a fee.

The waxwings deserve better. So do we all. (Photo: Oil Spill via Shutterstock)The waxwings deserve better. So do we all. (Photo: Oil Spill via Shutterstock)

I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees.

-- Dr. Seuss

For a while now, I've been banging awake around five o'clock in the morning, but I languish for a time in that warm you're-comfy-and-you-know-it zone of semi-sleep, until I eventually grab myself by the face and drag myself out of bed. Before I leave the room, I make sure to crack both of my ankles; the small hallway connecting us to my daughter's bedroom has the acoustic qualities of a finely-crafted orchestra hall, and when those joints decide to thud out there in the pre-dawn gloom, it sounds like a damn car accident. My poor, stupid, oft-broken and oft-sprained ankles have woken my daughter up more times than I can count when they decide to pop on a pivot, so I always try and remember to kick out the jams before I use the door.

Snap crackle pop, then through the door on cat's feet down to the den. It's nice: I used to be a very solitary animal, an only child who lived alone for years, and despite the absolute joy and astonishing privilege of all my baby/wife/etc. responsibilities, a part of me will always be the sibling-less kid building universes in his imagination alone in his room, who still worships the stillness of solitude. I get some of that in my mornings; it is the only time I have to myself before the wife and the girl emerge and the day gets itself well and truly underway.

We live in very rural New Hampshire, and do not have access to town water. My well is almost 400 feet deep and taps an aquifer that roars in the dark beneath a stout granite shelf. We had the water tested to make sure there was nothing harmful to my daughter, and the testers told us they had never, ever come across water as pure and perfect as what comes out of our ground. Before I go to bed each night, I pour a glass and place it on a kitchen windowsill next to a barely-cracked window ... and then, in my mornings, with the first hues of sunrise tickling the mountain, I drink deep of the blood of the Earth cooled to perfection by the breath of the wind and spiced with the ever-growing chorus of the peepers in the woods.

I do most of my writing during those soft, quiet hours - in my head, because I can't actually write at that hour, because I beat on keyboards like a rented mule and would wake the entire house with the hammering. I have watched the sun rise earlier and earlier each morning, I have watched the snow from this utterly brutal winter melt away to reveal dun ground that awaits the greening of the grass. I will watch, very soon now, the flowers grow, and then wither in time, and then disappear under a new season's blanket of white. I sit in the darkling silence, and listen to the hum of nothing in my ears, drink my water, and breathe.

A few days ago, I woke, rose, padded quietly to the kitchen, reached for my glass, and paused. There were five huge wild turkeys in the back yard: four females and one male, and oh by God and sonny Jesus, was the male putting on a show. Puffed up like a dirigible, fantail fanning behind, strutting strutting strutting, big as life and twice as turkey, The Man, because it's finally mating season, don'tcha know ... and the four females could not have disdained him more thoroughly. The poor dude was flat out of luck, but persisted nonetheless, so I raised my precious water glass to him in salute, drank deeply, and thought to myself, "Yeah, I hated the dating scene, too, brother."

That's life here on the dirt road among the piney woods, the oaks, the maples, and the bright birches. With the snow gone and the ground loosening, the sound of woodpeckers and birdsong is a riot outside my windows. We have hawks the size of fighter planes, owls, white-tail deer, massive moose, and the very occasional nerve-wracking bear. In June, once the sunlight fades, the back yard will glitter with the light of a thousand lightning bugs dancing to the song of the moon. This place is, in its own hard, often-frozen way, the very name of paradise.

A company called Kinder Morgan - basically the dregs of Enron - seeks to despoil all that with a massive natural gas pipeline which would run the product of Pennsylvania fracking across all of southern New Hampshire to a depot near the Massachusetts coastline, from which it will be shipped to the world for a fee. Their original plan for this pipeline had it running across northern Massachusetts to the sea, but the residents of that state rose up righteous and sent Kinder Morgan on their way bag and baggage. Now, Kinder Morgan wants to do it here, their "secondary plan" which is now their primary plan, and the residents of the affected towns are girding for war.

At a recent town meeting in Richmond hosting Kinder Morgan representatives, 88-year-old resident Norm Woodward asked them to help him craft an advertisement for the sale of his home and property. His concerns centered chiefly around the fact that his home falls within the 900-foot radius of what Kinder Morgan describes as the "incineration zone," which is the area that will be utterly obliterated if the pipeline explodes. "Do I not put in 'incineration zone' as full disclosure?" he asked. He was told by a Selectman to sit down; his question, Woodward was told, did not require a response.

There are a great many homes within this "incineration zone" along the pipeline's long path, a fact made all the more troubling when it was revealed that Kinder Morgan intended to use a thinner steel for the pipeline, because it is passing through rural areas, than they would if the pipeline passed through a more heavily-populated area. Chesterfield resident William Manter, who attended the town meeting in Richmond, asked the Kinder Morgan representatives, "Do you value our lives less?" The Kinder Morgan representatives had no reply to this worth mentioning.

One of the more galling aspects of this whole situation is the fact that Kinder Morgan owns more than fifty percent of a company called Trans Mountain Pipeline (TMP). What TMP does, in short, is clean up after oil and natural gas spills. They are very busy in Canada, thanks in no small part to the heavily active drilling and pipeline work taking place in the tar sands region. In an expansion application in Canada, TMP stated, "Spill response and clean-up creates business and employment."

I have seen a number of photographs showing what the construction of these pipelines does to the countryside - here's one, here's another, and here's another - and Kinder Morgan's claims of minimal impact fall flat. The length of the proposed pipeline is one thing, but the width of the pathway is another: 175 feet from side to side, through community after community, forest after forest, wetland after wetland, right through people's property rights and home values in the "incineration zone."

Beyond that is the simple truth of water. Rural New Hampshire is a place of wells, wetlands and aquifers, and is a state whose bones are made of granite. That granite means Kinder Morgan will have to do a hell of a lot of blasting in order to lay their pipeline, and blasting has a way of causing previously fertile and generous wells and aquifers to dry up and disappear. Beyond the risk to home and hearth from natural gas explosions, beyond the long rip of damage the installation of the line will do to the environment, there is the very real concern that homestead after homestead from one side of the state to the other run the very real risk of losing access to their water when the dynamite starts going off.

The woods that gird my home are lovely, dark and deep. My water is as clean as the air that cools it for my pre-dawn morning ceremony. The cedar waxwings have returned to the cherry tree outside my window. My land is my land. From the Vermont border all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, these are simple realities deeply enjoyed by a great many people like me, and Kinder Morgan - the ghost of disgraced Enron - looks to run roughshod over it.

The waxwings deserve better. So do we all.

Opinion Mon, 04 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400