Truthout Stories Mon, 05 Oct 2015 13:23:49 -0400 en-gb On the News With Thom Hartmann: The Corporate Elite Rig the System Against Us, and More

In today's On the News segment: Americans pay more for food, internet, banking services, airline tickets and prescription drugs than citizens of any other advanced nation; room and board charges are actually the fastest-growing expense related to going to college; Donald Trump's new tax plan calls for giant tax cuts for corporations and millionaires, and would create a huge budget deficit; and more.

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


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

You need to know this. It seems like the most popular word in this election cycle is "inequality," but we need more than talk to narrow the great divide between the haves and have-nots in our nation. According to a recent article by former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, the pro-corporate elite have rigged the system against us, and it's going to take the majority of us standing together to change the system. As Secretary Reich explains, Americans pay more for food, internet, banking services, airline tickets and prescription drugs than citizens of any other advanced nation. Despite that, we give corporations the power to create their own set of rules, which ensure that we can never challenge those exorbitant prices. Patents and trademarks and other intellectual property rights have been manipulated to benefit the largest companies, while inventors, artists and scientists rarely see much of the profit generated by their own work. Our anti-trust laws once promoted fair competition, but they've been weakened to allow banks, airlines, telecoms and food companies to become giant monopolies. Even our bankruptcy laws have been distorted to make it easy for someone to bankrupt a company, but nearly impossible to discharge debt from student loans or underwater mortgages. According to Robert Reich, "The more basic problem is that the market itself has become tilted ever more in the direction of moneyed interests that have exerted disproportionate influence over it." And, he added, "The answer to this problem is not found in economics. It is found in politics." That's exactly why every single Democratic candidate for president - and even some of the Republicans - has pledged to fight income inequality as a cornerstone of their campaign. But, they will need our help to make it happen. The system is rigged and it will take each of us fighting hard to change it. Democracy is not a spectator sport and now is the time for each of us to get active.

There has been a lot of focus on the rising cost of college tuition, but a huge part of the overall cost of college is hardly being discussed. According to Suzanne McGee of the Guardian newspaper, room and board charges are actually the fastest-growing expense, and may be the easiest place to find some savings. In fact, these costs are often higher than the tuition rates that have gotten so much attention. For example, McGee says that in-state residents will pay about $10,000 per year in tuition and fees at Ohio State University, but students and parents will have to fork over another $11,600 for that university's most popular room and board plan. And, lodging and meal plans cost even more in cities like New York and Berkeley. The good news is that a student can cut the cost of their degree substantially by living off campus during college, or lower the cost by half simply by staying at home. Public scrutiny and regulation have started to keep tuition rates in check, but room and board charges - which aren't being watched - are rising fast. The best way to address this problem is to make public college free for all students, and to regulate all room and board charges to protect students and their families.

Donald Trump's new tax plan is huge. As in, the giant tax cuts he wants to give corporations and millionaires would create a huge budget deficit. According to the conservative Tax Foundation, "the Donald's" plan would add about $12 trillion to the deficit over the next decade, but his campaign calls that plan "fiscally responsible." Mr. Trump says he will create jobs by cutting the corporate tax rate to 15 percent and eliminating the estate tax, but he may be overestimating the number of people that the rich might hire to count their piles of money. When he announced his plan, Mr. Trump said that he would take on "the hedge fund guys," but his plan actually gives them a huge tax cut. According to Robert McIntyre of Citizens for Tax Justice, "Trump has made many false claims about his tax plan. Of course, he's been known to say many other things that aren't true, too."

For all their talk about family values, it turns out that Republicans aren't willing to put their money where their mouths are when it comes to taking care of kids. According to a recent article over at the Think Progress blog, total federal spending on children made up only 10 percent of total spending in 2014, and that number could fall further in the years to come. Although government spending on seniors is protected, the money earmarked for children is increasingly under attack. From public education to nutritional programs, and everything in between, it's been a fight to keep Republicans from slashing budgets more than they've already been cut. Funding new programs that benefit our kids has pretty much been out of the question. As Julia Isaacs of the Urban Institute explained, "Many children's programs like Head Start depend on annual appropriations, so they get squeezed every time there's a budget cap." Our budget should never be balanced on the backs of children, and any lawmakers who cut these programs should keep quiet about their so-called "family values."

And finally... Whether or not you're a supporter of Bernie Sanders, you should be a fan of his views on worker-owned cooperatives. That's the business model which allows employees to own a piece of the company, and allows them to help shape the business's policies on things like employee pay and customer relations. In a recent article over at, Joe Fletcher highlighted this important plank in the Democratic candidate's 2016 platform. According to Fletcher, in 2014, Senator Sanders introduced legislation to help build more worker-owned co-ops, which often have higher wages and better benefits than typical corporate entities. In a press release about that legislation, Sanders said, "we need to expand economic models that help the middle class. I strongly believe that employee ownership is one of those models." Let's encourage all 2016 candidates to support this business model so that we can expand worker-owned co-ops all over our nation.

And that's the way it is - for the week of October 5, 2015 - I'm Thom Hartmann - on the Economic and Labor News.

News Mon, 05 Oct 2015 13:12:46 -0400
Climate Change Could Be Catalyst to Build a Fairer Economic System

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley is calling this weekend's torrential rainfall that has triggered flooding and led to eight deaths in the Carolinas a once-in-a-millennium downpour. According to the National Weather Service, the storm had dumped more than 20 inches of rain in parts of central South Carolina since Friday. This month also marks the third anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, one of the most destructive storms in the nation's history. Researchers say such extreme weather events are becoming more frequent with the effects of climate change, with 2015 on track to be the hottest year in recorded history. In Part Two of our conversation with Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis on their new film, This Changes Everything, we talk about what we can learn from such extreme weather events.

Please check back later for full transcript.

News Mon, 05 Oct 2015 11:10:52 -0400
One Year After "End" to War in Afghanistan, Aid Workers Reveal Real Story

While many Americans believe that the war in Afghanistan is winding down, peace activists and medical aid workers tell a different story. "It really shows how mainstream media has failed to tell the truth to the world," says Dr. Hakim, a medical doctor who has provided humanitarian relief in Afghanistan for the last decade. "The war is going on. It is accelerating. Both the Red Cross and the United Nations has reported an increased civilian deaths in the past few years. It is getting worse. It is definitely not scaling down. I think Americans need to know the taxpayer money is going to a war that is worsening." Doctors Without Borders is calling for an independent investigation of a US airstrike on a hospital in Kunduz that left 22 dead, including 12 staff members and 10 patients, three of them children. We speak with Dr. Hakim, as well as Kathy Kelly, co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, who just returned from Kabul, Afghanistan, and Dr. Gino Strada, co-founder of Emergency, an Italian NGO that provides free medical care to victims of war.

Please check back later for full transcript.

News Mon, 05 Oct 2015 11:06:06 -0400
Lyme Disease Guidelines Panelists Engage in Coordinated Propaganda Campaign

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

Advocates and medical professionals say current guidelines that dispute the existence of chronic Lyme disease harm large numbers of patients who are misdiagnosed or denied treatment because of health coverage restrictions imposed by the guidelines.

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

Since they were first published in 2000, the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) guidelines for diagnosis and treatment of Lyme disease have been the subject of intense controversy, including an antitrust investigation by the state of Connecticut and hundreds of protests.

Advocacy groups say the IDSA guidelines misrepresent science and restrict access to care for patients with chronic Lyme disease. They say additional harm occurs when patients are denied insurance coverage for evidence-based treatment options that could help them regain their health.

Advocates have complained that IDSA guidelines authors have been engaged in a long-running misinformation campaign to promote the IDSA guidelines and discredit research that contradicts the evidence and recommendations of the guidelines.

Much of the propaganda is produced by the shadowy Ad Hoc International Lyme Disease Group, which consists of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) employees and most authors of the IDSA guidelines.

Two Standards of Care

Controversy over Lyme disease has sharply divided the medical community, resulting in two competing standards of care that disagree on most aspects of the disease, including diagnosis and treatment.

The center of the debate is over the existence of chronic Lyme, also referred to as "persistent infection," which means that some Lyme bacteria can tolerate and survive antibiotic treatment.

The view enforced by IDSA is that Lyme disease is easy to diagnose and simple to treat with a limited course of antibiotics. According to the IDSA guidelines, chronic Lyme does not exist and long-term antibiotic treatment is not warranted. The IDSA guidelines were developed in close coordination with the CDC and are followed by most physicians and used by insurers to determine limits on coverage.

The alternative paradigm, represented by the International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society (ILADS), maintains that Lyme disease is a serious national medical problem of epidemic proportion that needs to be researched, diagnosed and treated more aggressively and often requires long-term treatment beyond the limits set by IDSA. The ILADS guidelines recognize chronic Lyme disease and recommend that the "duration of therapy be guided by clinical response, rather than by an arbitrary treatment course."

Both guidelines are listed by the National Guidelines Clearinghouse, although unlike the ILADS guidelines, the IDSA guidelines do not comply with the Institute of Medicine Standards for Developing Trustworthy Clinical Practice Guidelines or the Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development and Evaluation Working Group system for grading quality of evidence and strength of recommendations. In addition to being contested by dozens of advocacy groups, IDSA guidelines are contested by physicians, scientists and lawmakers.

In 2008, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, now a US senator (D-Connecticut), conducted an antitrust investigation of IDSA based on allegations of abuses of monopoly power and exclusionary conduct. In a May 2008 press release, Blumenthal said:

The IDSA's 2006 Lyme disease guideline panel undercut its credibility by allowing individuals with financial interests - in drug companies, Lyme disease diagnostic tests, patents and consulting arrangements with insurance companies - to exclude divergent medical evidence and opinion.

The resulting guidelines harm large numbers of patients who are misdiagnosed or otherwise denied treatment because of restrictions imposed by the guidelines.

Solid Science Tips the Balance

There are now hundreds of peer-reviewed articles that support the ILADS viewpoint. Lyme bacteria are called spirochetes because of their spiral shape. Spirochetes can drill through tissue to reach immunoprivileged sites (with less immune activity), including the central nervous system (brain and nerves) and collagen dense tissues, such as tendons and cartilage (joints) and the heart.

When conditions are unfavorable for growth, such as when the spirochetes are under attack by antibiotics, they can evade treatment by changing into dormant forms that remain viable by mooching nutrients but do not cause inflammation unless they receive signals to reactivate. With little or no metabolic activity, such as protein synthesis or replication, there is nothing for an antibiotic to disrupt. Bacteria that are capable of surviving targeted antibiotic therapy for any reason are referred to as "persisters." Some forms of Lyme persisters are also called "round bodies" because the spirochetes change from an elongated spiral to a more compact round form.

According to a July 2014 article in Emerging Microbes & Infections, "Frontline drugs such as doxycycline and amoxicillin kill the replicating spirochetal form of B. burgdorferi quite effectively, but they exhibit little activity against non-replicating persisters ..."

The April 2013 article "Review of Evidence for Immune Evasion and Persistent Infection in Lyme Disease" describes how Lyme can evade the immune system and survive antibiotic treatment. Mechanisms include varying its outer surface proteins to confuse the immune system and participating in biofilm communities, which protect it from antibiotics.

Biofilms are colonies of bacteria bound together by a DNA-containing gel of nutrients protected by an ultra-thin calcified shell. Groups of bacteria within the biofilm specialize to handle metabolic functions. Biofilms are considered a hallmark of chronic infections by many scientists.

Pathologist Alan MacDonald, Eva Sapi and other researchers have documented biofilms of Lyme bacteria, both in the lab and in human tissue. The presence of Lyme biofilms was confirmed by atomic force microscopy and DNA probes.

IDSA Gatekeepers at Major Journals

Research published in scientific journals goes through a process called peer review to determine if the material meets the editorial and scientific standards of the publication. Peer review is part of the scientific process intended to weed out flawed research and highlight the best science.

In the case of chronic Lyme disease, reviewers with serious conflicts of interest are able to prevent articles that support the ILADS point of view from being published.

According to information compiled in the 2008 antitrust investigation, IDSA panelists and others who endorse the IDSA guidelines sit on the editorial boards of 20 major medical journals, including The New England Journal of Medicine and Lancet Infectious Diseases, where they can use their positions to prevent publication of studies that challenge their views on chronic Lyme.

Several members of the current IDSA guidelines panel published a flurry of papers in advance of the upcoming guidelines review process, with the apparent intent of relying on their own articles as the "evidence" requisite to assure the guidelines are "evidence-based." However, many of these articles were published in IDSA's own journal, Clinical Infectious Diseases, which further subverts the peer-review process.

An example is the July 2015 article "Poor Positive Predictive Value of Lyme Disease Serologic Testing in an Area of Low Disease Incidence," which includes current guidelines panelists Paul M. Lantos and Gary P. Wormser as co-authors.

Although unethical, this practice is not necessarily illegal. However, it shows that the peer-review system has the potential to suppress good science that conflicts with a reviewer's opinions.

IDSA panelists frequently point out that much of the information about Lyme disease published on the internet is inaccurate or misleading. This may be true, but it's also true of much of the clinical research cited by IDSA in its guidelines.

In a New York Review of Books article "Drug Companies & Doctors: A Story of Corruption," former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine Dr. Marcia Angell writes, "It is simply no longer possible to believe much of the clinical research that is published, or to rely on the judgment of trusted physicians or authoritative medical guidelines."

Misinformation From IDSA Panelists

In addition to controlling access to the major medical journals, the guidelines' authors have misinformed the public about Lyme disease through a series of published statements and media interviews.

One example occurred during a July 8, 2015, "Diane Rehm Show" on Lyme disease, when an IDSA physician, Dr. Sunil K. Sood, made a series of inaccurate and misleading statements about key aspects of the disease.

Sood specializes in pediatric infectious disease and is chairman of pediatrics at Southside Hospital North Shore-LIJ Health System. He also serves on the panel that is tasked with updating the IDSA guidelines for Lyme disease.

During the show, Sood said, "What we know for certain is that the persistent symptoms are not due to the persistence of the Lyme bacterium in the body." This statement is contradicted by a growing number of peer-reviewed studies that demonstrate persistent infection in both humans and animals after short-term antibiotic treatment.

If Sood knows this for certain, he's either ignorant of all this research or he's being deceptive. Culture confirmed cases of persistent infection in humans after short-term antibiotic treatment show that chronic Lyme disease is a very real and widespread problem.

Landmark studies by Barthold, Yrjänäinen, Embers, Hodzic, Lewis and Baumgarth indicate that dormant forms survive without causing inflammation unless they receive signals to reactivate. Signals thus far known to reactivate the Lyme bacteria include getting bit by another tick and immunosuppressant drugs, such as corticosteroids. According to Sood, a bull's-eye rash is present in "90 percent of cases." There is little evidence to support this claim; however, there is plenty of evidence that shows large numbers of patients never see a rash.

Sood also said that ticks must be attached "48 to 72 hours" to transmit the disease. This is contrary to the latest research, which shows that Lyme can be transmitted in less than 24 hours, and that no minimum attachment time has been conclusively established. Misinformation of this type has the potential to harm patients who trust experts to provide accurate information. Imagine if patients take this information as gospel and do not seek treatment because a tick has been attached for less than 48 hours. Imagine if they or their doctors discount the possibility of Lyme disease because they did not see a bull's-eye rash.

Organized Propaganda Campaign by Ad Hoc Lyme Group

Unfortunately, Dr. Sood is not an exception. Misleading information that has been refuted by good science has been published in a series of peer-reviewed articles by IDSA panelists.

The Ad Hoc International Lyme Disease Group was formed in 2005 by CDC and NIH employees and 14 authors of the IDSA guidelines. CDC emails released in 2012, in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by science writer Kris Newby, show how the Ad Hoc Group has been covertly setting government policy on Lyme for the past decade.

The 2007 article "A Critical Appraisal of 'Chronic Lyme Disease'" in The New England Journal of Medicine lists the Ad Hoc Group under contributing authors. The article goes to great lengths to discredit the concept of chronic Lyme.

The authors cite NIH-funded, double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trials in claiming "there is substantial risk, with little or no benefit, associated with additional antibiotic treatment for patients who have long-standing subjective symptoms."

A rigorous biostatistical review of the NIH trials, published in an independent peer- reviewed journal, determined that "long term treatment can be beneficial" and explains that "significant findings and errors may arise when disagreement and uncertainty exists in the medical community, as is the case with Lyme disease." The review concludes, "It is incorrect to draw strong conclusions regarding antibiotic retreatment in patients with persistent symptoms of Lyme disease based on the NIH-sponsored randomized controlled trials."

The supplementary information for The New England Journal of Medicine article recommends that "The physician should arm, them [patients] with an explanation of the antibiotic-responsive nature of this infection and its lack of persistence." This recommendation flies in the face of definitive peer-reviewed studies on persistence that suggest otherwise.

The most recent of the NIH trials was a primate study by Monica Embers in which investigators recovered intact Lyme spirochetes from rhesus macaques (a class of monkeys) treated with the IDSA recommended antibiotic regimen, using "xenodiagnosis," where sterile ticks are attached to the patient for a period of time and then tested for Lyme.

It's hypothesized that chemicals secreted by the ticks wake up the dormant spirochetes and draw them toward the site of the bite. Similar studies have yet to be conducted in humans, but the Embers study provides the strongest evidence to date that short-term antibiotics will not always eradicate the Lyme bacteria.

Another more recent example of collaboration by members of the Ad Hoc Group is the July 2015 article, "Unorthodox Alternative Therapies Marketed to Treat Lyme Disease," authored by IDSA guidelines panelists Paul M. Lantos, Eugene D. Shapiro, Paul G. Auwaerter, John J. Halperin and Gary P. Wormser, along with Phillip J. Baker, a former NIH official, and Edward McSweegan, a former NIH Lyme program officer who currently serves as program manager for the NIH Global Virus Network.

Baker is the executive director of the American Lyme Disease Foundation, a nonprofit organization that according to advocates is a front for IDSA that masquerades as a patient organization. Baker was responsible for management of two of the NIH trials on Lyme disease.

Patients Under Attack

In addition to attempting to discredit research and researchers, IDSA panelists have attacked patients and patient advocacy groups in a series of public statements and in articles published in influential medical journals.

One such article, "Antiscience and Ethical Concerns Associated with Advocacy of Lyme Disease," co-authored by members of the Ad Hoc Group, vilifies Lyme patient advocates and accuses them of being part of an "antiscience movement."

The article claims there is "no microbiological evidence for persistence of B. burgdorferi," and that "Lyme disease activists have created a parallel universe of pseudoscientific practitioners, research, publications, and meetings."

The article also attacks ILADS directly and says, "Several physician members of ILADS - including current and former officers - have been sanctioned by state medical licensing boards."

The authors fail to mention that many of these physicians were providing patients with evidence-based treatments that conflicted with the IDSA guidelines, and were reported to the medical boards by IDSA physicians rather than by patients.

The article attacks efforts by advocacy groups to pass legislation and says the leaders "lobby for legislation to promote their perception of chronic Lyme disease and to protect LLMDs (Lyme Literate Medical Doctors) from licensing boards."

This is especially ironic since IDSA employs professional lobbyists to oppose this type of legislation, and at its 2004 annual meeting, passed a resolution to "oppose patient legislative initiatives."

A recent example of attacks on patients came from IDSA spokesperson and Johns Hopkins physician Paul G. Auwaerter, M.D., who says patients with chronic Lyme symptoms dabble in conspiracy theories. "When you don't understand something," Auwaerter said in an April 2015 interview with the Allentown Morning Call, "you try to insert a framework that makes sense to you."

Rather than address the problem, the recurring theme from IDSA-aligned researchers is that Lyme patients and advocacy groups are the problem.

According to Holly Ahern, microbiology professor at SUNY Adirondack and vice president of Lyme Action Network, "Rhetorical attacks on patients, advocates and physicians who treat chronic Lyme patients do nothing to advance the science or help patients. This is exactly the tactic used in the 1980s to marginalize AIDS patients and advocates, when the infectious nature of that disease was still under dispute."

In an email (obtained by FOIA) to Barbara Johnson, Ph.D., a CDC researcher aligned with the IDSA panelists, Durland Fish, Ph.D., professor of epidemiology at Yale University and core member of the Ad Hoc Group, wrote, "This battle cannot be won on a scientific front. We need to mount a socio-political offensive."

"For whatever reason, the IDSA panelists view this as a 'war' that must be won at all cost," Ahern said. "Unfortunately, Lyme disease patients and their families are the civilian casualties of this war."

Ethical Questions

Physicians - and particularly specialists and researchers - have a professional obligation to keep up with science in their fields.

According to the American Medical Association code of ethics, "A physician shall continue to study, apply, and advance scientific knowledge, maintain a commitment to medical education, make relevant information available to patients, colleagues, and the public ..."

Rather than advancing scientific knowledge and making relevant information available, IDSA panelists are ignoring good science and withholding relevant information from patients, colleagues and the public.

Time for Change

The effect of this decades-long propaganda campaign is that an entire class of chronically ill patients is discriminated against by a medical society that has lost sight of patient-centered care.

Many of these very sick patients are forced to take the initiative and learn on their own about relevant science and evidence-based treatment options prohibited by the IDSA guidelines. Something is terribly wrong when large numbers of chronically ill patients have to do their own research because widely followed treatment guidelines do not provide an acceptable standard of care.

For more than three decades, the voices of chronic Lyme patients and the doctors who treat them have been drowned out by academic physicians who have controlled the debate. We need to stop this injustice and give this rapidly growing epidemic the attention and funding it urgently needs.

IDSA Response

IDSA issued the following statement in response to a request for comment on this article:

IDSA is committed to ensuring that people with Lyme disease receive the best possible care, based on the best science available. We deeply sympathize with patients who are suffering. We believe more research and better tests are needed. Our position is that long-term use of antibiotics in the treatment of Lyme disease has been shown to have no benefit and is indeed dangerous. IDSA is currently working with the American Academy of Neurology and the American College of Rheumatology and other medical societies to develop a new guideline on Lyme disease, with input from the public.

Dr. Sood did not respond to a request for comment.

Opinion Mon, 05 Oct 2015 11:53:19 -0400
Outrage After US Airstrike on Hospital Kills 22 Patients and Staff in Afghanistan

Doctors Without Borders is demanding an independent international inquiry into a US airstrike Saturday on an Afghan hospital in the city of Kunduz that killed 22 people, including 12 staff members and 10 patients, three of them children. At least three dozen people were injured. The attack continued for 30 minutes after the US and Afghan militaries were informed by telephone that the hospital was being bombed. We speak with Kathy Kelly, co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, who just returned from Kabul, Afghanistan; Gino Strada, co-founder of Emergency, an Italian NGO that provides free medical care to victims of war; and Dr. Hakim, a medical doctor who has provided humanitarian relief in Afghanistan for the last decade.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Doctors Without Borders is demanding an independent international inquiry into a suspected US airstrike Saturday on an Afghan hospital in the city of Kunduz that killed 22 people - 12 staff members and 10 patients, including three children. At least three dozen people were injured. The attack continued for 30 minutes after the US and Afghan militaries were informed by telephone that the hospital was being bombed. Bart Janssens, the director of [operations] for Doctors Without Borders, described the attack.

DR. BART JANSSENS: We now know an aerial attack, of which carries very clearly the signature of being - a lot of indication that it's been carried out by the international coalition forces in Afghanistan. What happened is that a plane arrived, and in several ways, they came four or five times over the hospital and every time extremely precisely hit with a series of impacts on the main building of the hospital. This led to the horrible results of what we see. ...

The hospital is there since four years. It's a large hospital. The compound is larger than a football ground. And we have several times communicated, through the GPS coordinates, the exact location of the hospital to all warring parties in Afghanistan. So we really don't understand, and we definitely do not accept denotification of "collateral damage" as we heard in the beginning, in the first reaction.

AMY GOODMAN: Doctors Without Borders General Director Christopher Stokes said in a statement, quote, "Under the clear presumption that a war crime has been committed, MSF demands that a full and transparent investigation into the event be conducted by an independent international body. Relying only on an internal investigation by a party to the conflict would be wholly insufficient," he said.

Kunduz has been the scene of fierce fighting since the Taliban seized the northern city in Afghanistan last week. On Sunday, Doctors Without Borders announced it would have to withdraw from Kunduz, where they operated the only free trauma care hospital in northern Afghanistan. Some Afghan officials said the airstrike was justified, claiming Taliban fighters had used the hospital. Doctors Without Borders rejected the claim, saying, quote, "These statements imply that Afghan and US forces working together decided to raze to the ground a fully functioning hospital with more than 180 staff and patients inside because they claim that members of the Taliban were present. This amounts to an admission of a war crime. This utterly contradicts the initial attempts of the US government to minimize the attack as 'collateral damage.'" The United States acknowledged the hospital may have been, quote, "collateral damage." The Pentagon promised promised a full investigation into what happened. Defense Secretary Carter said, quote, "We do know that American air assets ... were engaged in the Kunduz vicinity, and we do know that the structures that ... you see in the news were destroyed. I just can't tell you what the connection is at this time."

We're joined by a number of guests here in the United States and Afghanistan. We're joined by Dr. Gino Strada, co-founder of Emergency, an Italian NGO that provides free medical care to victims of war in Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries. He was just named winner of the Right Livelihood Award. Emergency operates a facility in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, which has taken in over 40 patients from the Kunduz hospital bombed on Saturday. Dr. Gino Strada joins us from Milan, Italy.

Kathy Kelly is also with us. She is co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, just returned from Kabul - she's now in Portland, Maine - Afghanistan. Her recent article is called, "#Enough! A Campaign to End War and Focus on Food and Health."

And we'll go to Kabul to Dr. Hakim, a medical doctor who has provided humanitarian relief in Afghanistan for the last decade, who works with Afghan Peace Volunteers, an inter-ethnic group of young Afghans dedicated to building nonviolent alternatives to war. Dr. Hakim is the 2012 recipient of the International Pfeffer Peace Prize.

I want to go first to Dr. Gino Strada. Though you're in Milan, Italy, the clinic that you operate in Kabul, Afghanistan, is taking in people from the Kunduz hospital. Can you tell us what you understand, Dr. Strada, at this point?

DR. GINO STRADA: Well, we have received 41 patients that were wounded, all coming from Kunduz. They came by different means, many of them by themselves. Some of them, they were directly transferred by MSF personnel. And for our staff in the surgical center in Kabul was a great workload, because we were already at the hospital capacity, quite fully, saturated with the wounded from the area of Kabul. The number of wounded, of civilian wounded, in Afghanistan has increased and been increasing over the years. At the moment, we are having around 300, 320 war-related patients a month, which means more than 10 per day. Many of them, they come obviously from the Kabul area, but in this moment we have to cope also with this war crime that has been committed in Kunduz.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Dr. Gino Strada, if you can talk about the response of the United States, saying they'd conduct an internal investigation, and Doctors Without Borders responding that it cannot be done by one of the parties involved with the bombing?

DR. GINO STRADA: Well, you know, I am a surgeon, I am not a politician. And what I've seen, having spent many, many years, more than seven years in Afghanistan, every time it's the same story: There's been a mistake or a collateral damage. Well, I see no difference between the two ideas. The reality is always the same: Civilians are killed, civilians are wounded, voluntarily or by mistake, but there's the reality of war. In the time we are in Afghanistan, we have been looking after more than 140,000 war wounded, all in Kabul. And Kabul is just one of the three surgical centers we have in Afghanistan, the others being in Helmand province in Lashkar Gah, and in Panjshir. And it's going on like this since years and years. So, I'm not expecting anything to come out from the investigation. This will not bring back to life those who have been killed, will not care for the wounds.

AMY GOODMAN: We're going to go to break. Dr. Gino Strada is speaking to us on Democracy Now! video stream from Milan, Italy. We're also going to go to Kabul to speak with Dr. Hakim, who works with the war wounded in Afghanistan's capital, and Kathy Kelly, just back from Afghanistan. This is Democracy Now! We'll be back in a minute.

News Mon, 05 Oct 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Ayotzinapa: Necropolitics and the Media Become Judge and Jury

"In a tragic incident in Egypt, Mexican tourists were attacked. I deeply regret that people have lost their lives," tweeted Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto on September 13, shortly after the news was released that a caravan of Mexican tourists was violently attacked by Egyptian security forces. Over the next week Peña Nieto went on to tweet over a dozen more times about these tragic events in Egypt, sending his condolences to families and promises to assist the victims.

Each of these tweets represents 140 characters more than those which Peña Nieto was willing to extend to the Ayotzinapa rural teaching college students. These students known as Normalistas were forcibly disappeared by state security forces on September 26, 2014, in Iguala, Guerrero and to date, their whereabouts are unknown. The same night three of these students were killed, one of whom was found with his face torn off, and three bystanders. Two days after this attack, the president cancelled a trip he had planned to Guerrero and remained silent on the issue for over a week.

The news quickly spread about the attack and thousands took to the streets and social networks to denounce what they called "Narco Politics" where the thin line that separated organized crime and the government was blurred long ago. Peña Nieto found himself on the defensive and officially addressed the nation, promising to investigate what happened, although the resources he dedicated didn't reflect this compromise.

"We still remember your indifference during the first weeks of our tragedy," read a statement by the families of the 43, released three days before the year anniversary as they prepared for a meeting with Peña Nieto.

Last fall, recognizing the government's unwillingness to search for the students, citizen self-defense groups found themselves scourging Guerrero's lush green hilltops to find them. They didn't find the 43 education students, but they did unearth over 100 other clandestine graves. Each one revealed the horror of decaying bodies and bones that did not actually belong to the students. The question then remained who did they belong to? When did Mexico's rural hillsides turn into mass graves? Most likely these bodies belonged to local families who had spent years anguishing over their unexplained absence. Following the unearthing of these graves, hundreds of people in Iguala and other parts of Guerrero found the strength to come forward and speak out about their missing loved ones.

A new phrase then entered the popular vernacular, that of the "Necropolitica," or in English, Necro Politics. African scholar, Achille Mbembe wrote about these politics where the state has the "power and the capacity to dictate who may live and who must die." On November 7, 2014, a month and a half after the students forced disappearance, Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam declared in his "historical truth" that the students were all burned in a garbage dump and that all that was left of them are bags of ashes. Students responded to the government's claim by lighting the government palace on fire and the parents turned to the independent Argentine forensics to see if this twisted horror was actually true.

In Necropolitics, Chembe writes about state violence where, "In the case of massacres in particular, lifeless bodies are quickly reduced to the status of simple skeletons. Their morphology henceforth inscribes them in the register of undifferentiated generality: simple relics of an unburied pain, empty, meaningless corporealities, strange deposits plunged into cruel stupor."

For me the Necro Politics are reflected in the sheer cynicism of a government that kidnaps students, fails to thoroughly investigate their whereabouts and then claims that they were executed and burned to ashes. This is a politics where the very act of living is an act of resistance. A politics where the government not only buries the victims of its failing and poorly named "war on drugs," but also closes their investigations and buries their stories.

This is definitely not the first time that a tragedy of this scale has happened in Mexico but it may be the first time that the victims have had the unity and strength to not let their stories be buried and have refused to be bought off by the government. They have traversed not only all of Mexico in their dignified search for their children but also the world, allowing the international community to understand the grave human rights situation that Mexico is living.

"You have tortured us by privileging a political timeline instead of the rights of the victims," write the parents in their communique toward the president demanding that his government continues to search for the students and stops criminalizing and delegitimizing their struggle.

Last year just as the federal government was ready to close the case, a group of independent experts commissioned by the Inter American commission on Human Rights were called in to thoroughly investigate the case. Six months later they called the government's bluff, saying that the students were not actually burned in the Cocula garbage dump as the government claimed. They also highlighted the role that the various levels of government played in the coordination of the attack, including the military and federal police. In their report they also write about the prevalence of a fifth bus that the government conveniently forgot to include in their investigation and there is a possibility that this bus may have been packed full of heroin ready to be transported to Chicago.

As the government's version of the Iguala case started to crumble, they found themselves on the defensive, cocked their guns and fought back full force. The countries' media outlets helped them fire their weapons. First the government did everything within their power to discredit the independent forensic scientist who said that the fire in Cocula never happened. When that didn't seem to do enough to discredit the report they whipped out their next weapon on September 16, a federal holiday when the majority of the country is too exhausted from the previous night's independence festivities to pay attention to the news. The new Attorney General Arely Gomez delivered her sinister message announcing that Innsbruck, the Austrian forensics lab, had positively identified the remains of yet another Normalista student, Jhosivani Guerrero de la Cruz.

The press immediately repeated the message with their headlines claiming "Another Normalista identified" instead of saying "Government says another Normalista identified." This difference is essential, considering all the lives that the government has put forth in this case and in fact the following day the EEAF, the Independent Argentine Forensic team released a statement saying that they did not consider the identification as a positive one, that instead it represented a positive genetic correlation. Also, the Argentines maintained that they were not present during the excavation of the bags of ashes and therefore could not confirm that it had come from the Cocula garbage dump as the government had claimed.

And then, somehow the next day, state security forces were able to "peacefully" capture Public Enemy #1 "El Gil," Gildardo López Astudillo, who according to the government is the head capo of Los Guerreros Unidos, the regional drug cartel responsible for the attack. This is not the first time, and surely won't be the last that the government magically captures a wanted drug trafficker when their credibility is on the line. In this case, the media was once again quick to act as judge and jury running headlines like "Head of Guerreros Unidos Captured" before his trial could even start.

The media has also played a powerful role in holding the government accountable and reporting on the numerous massacres in which the government has played a key role, including Tlatlaya and Apatzingan. On this tragic anniversary of a day that will never be forgotten in Mexican history, the media will have the opportunity to just repeat the lies the government has been propagating since day one or amplify the voices of the families clamoring for justice for their missing sons.

This article was also reprinted at ZNet.

Opinion Mon, 05 Oct 2015 00:00:00 -0400
US Military Budget Reaches New Record

To listen to the Republican candidates' debate last week, one would think that President Obama had slashed the US military budget and left our country defenseless. Nothing could be farther off the mark. There are real weaknesses in Obama's foreign policy, but a lack of funding for weapons and war is not one of them. President Obama has in fact been responsible for the largest US military budget since the Second World War, as is well documented in the US Department of Defense's annual "Green Book."

The table below compares average annual Pentagon budgets under every president since Truman, using "constant dollar" figures from the FY2016 Green Book. I'll use these same inflation-adjusted figures throughout this article, to make sure I'm always comparing "apples to apples." These figures do not include additional military-related spending by the VA, CIA, Homeland Security, Energy, Justice or State Departments, nor interest payments on past military spending, which combine to raise the true cost of US militarism to about $1.3 trillion per year, or one thirteenth of the US economy.

US Military Budgets 1948-2015

  • Obama FY2010-15 $663.4 billion per year

  • Bush Jr FY2002-09* $634.9 " " "

  • Clinton FY1994-2001 $418.0 " " "

  • Bush Sr FY1990-93 $513.4 " " "

  • Reagan FY1982-89 $565.0 " " "

  • Carter FY1978-81 $428.1 " " "

  • Ford FY1976-77 $406.7 " " "

  • Nixon FY1970-75 $441.7 " " "

  • Johnson FY1965-69 $527.3 " " "

  • Kennedy FY1962-64 $457.2 " " "

  • Eisenhower FY1954-61 $416.3 " " "

  • Truman FY1948-53 $375.7 " " "

*Excludes $80 billion supplemental added to FY2009 under Obama.

The USmilitary receives more generous funding than the rest of the 10 largest militaries in the world combined (China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, UK, France, Japan, India, Germany & South Korea). And yet, despite the chaos and violence of the past 15 years, the Republican candidates seem oblivious to the dangers of one country wielding such massive and disproportionate military power.

On the Democratic side, even Senator Bernie Sanders has not said how much he would cut military spending. But Sanders regularly votes against the authorization bills for these record military budgets, condemning this wholesale diversion of resources from real human needs and insisting that war should be a "last resort."

Sanders' votes to attack Yugoslavia in 1999 and Afghanistan in 2001, while the UN Charter prohibits such unilateral uses of force, do raise troubling questions about exactly what he means by a "last resort." As his aide Jeremy Brecher asked Sanders in his resignation letter over his Yugoslavia vote, "Is there a moral limit to the military violence that you are willing to participate in or support? Where does that limit lie? And when that limit has been reached, what action will you take?" Many Americans are eager to hear Sanders flesh out a coherent commitment to peace and disarmament to match his commitment to economic justice.

When President Obama took office, Congressman Barney Frank immediately called for a 25% cut in military spending. Instead, the new president obtained an $80 billion supplemental to the FY2009 budget to fund his escalation of the war in Afghanistan, and his first full military budget (FY2010) was $761 billion, within $3.4 billion of the $764.3 billion post-WWII record set by President Bush in FY2008.

The Sustainable Defense Task Force, commissioned by Congressman Frank and bipartisan Members of Congress in 2010, called for $960 billion in cuts from the projected military budget over the next 10 years. Jill Stein of the Green Party and Rocky Anderson of the Justice Partycalled for a 50% cut in US military spending in their 2012 presidential campaigns. That seems radical at first glance, but a 50% cut in the FY2012 budget would only have been a 13% cut from what President Clinton spent in FY1998.

Clinton's $399 billion FY1998 military budget was the nearest we came to realizing the "peace dividend" promised at the end of the Cold War. But that didn't even breach the Cold War baseline of $393 billion set after the Korean War (FY1954) and the Vietnam War (FY1975). The largely unrecognized tragedy of today's world is that we allowed the "peace dividend" to be trumped by what Carl Conetta of the Project on Defense Alternatives calls the "power dividend," the desire of military-industrial interests to take advantage of the collapse of the USSR. to consolidate global US military power.

The triumph of the "power dividend" over the "peace dividend" was driven by some of the most powerful vested interests in history. But at each step, there were alternatives to war, weapons production and global military expansion.

At a Senate Budget Committee hearing in December 1989, former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and Assistant Secretary Lawrence Korb, a Democrat and a Republican, testified that the FY1990 $542 billion Pentagon budget could be cut by half over the next 10 years to leave us with a new post-Cold War baseline military budget of $270 billion, 60% less than President Obama has spent and 20% below what even Jill Stein and Rocky Anderson called for.

There was significant opposition to the First Gulf War - 22 Senators and 183 Reps voted against it, including Sanders - but not enough to stop the march to war. The war became a model for future US-led wars and served as a marketing display for a new generation of US weapons. After treating the public to endless bombsight videos of "smart bombs" making "surgical strikes," US officials eventually admitted that such "precision" weapons were only 7% of the bombs and missiles raining down on Iraq. The rest were good old-fashioned carpet-bombing, but the mass slaughter of Iraqis was not part of the marketing campaign. When the bombing stopped, US pilots were ordered to fly straight from Kuwait to the Paris Air Show, and the next three years set new records for US weapons exports.

Presidents Bush and Clinton made significant cuts in military spending between 1992 and 1994, but the reductions shrank to 1-3% per year between 1995 and 1998 and the budget started rising again in 1999. Meanwhile, US officials crafted new rationalizations for the use of US military force to lay the ideological groundwork for future wars. Untested and highly questionable claims that more aggressive US use of force could have prevented the genocide in Rwanda or civil war in Yugoslavia have served to justify the use of force elsewhere ever since, with universally catastrophic results. Neoconservatives went even further and claimed that seizing the post-Cold War power dividend was essential to US security and prosperity in the 21st century.

The claims of both the humanitarian interventionists and the neoconservatives were emotional appeals to different strains in the American psyche, driven and promoted by powerful people and institutions whose careers and interests were bound up in the growth of the military industrial complex. The humanitarian interventionists appealed to Americans' desire to be a force for good in the world. As Madeleine Albright asked Colin Powell, "What's the point of having this superb military that you're always talking about if we can't use it?" On the other hand, the neocons played on the insularity and insecurity of many Americans to claim that the world must be dominated by US military power if we are to preserve our way of life.

The Clinton administration wove many of these claims into a blueprint for global US military expansion in its 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review. The QDR threatened the unilateral use of US military force, in clear violation of the UN Charter, to defend "vital" US interests all over the world, including "preventing the emergence of a hostile regional coalition," and "ensuring uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies and strategic resources."

To the extent that they are aware of the huge increase in military spending since 1998, most Americans would connect it with the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the ill-defined "war on terror." But Carl Conetta's research established that, between 1998 and 2010, only 20% of US military procurement and RDT&E(research, development, testing & evaluation) spending and only half the total increase in military spending was related to ongoing military operations. In his 2010 paper, An Undisciplined Defense, Conetta found that our government had spent an extra 1.15 trillion dollars above and beyond Clinton's FY1998 baseline on expenses that were unrelated to to itscurrent wars.

Most of the additional funds, $640 billion, were spent on new weapons and equipment (Procurement + RDT&E in the Green Book). Incredibly, this was more than double the $290 billion the military spent on new weapons and equipment for the wars it was actually fighting. And the lion's share was not for the Army, but for the Air Force and Navy.

There has been political opposition to the F-35 warplane, which activists have dubbed "the plane that ate the budget" and whose eventual cost has been estimated at $1.5 trillion for 2,400 planes. But the Navy's procurement and RDT&E budgets rival the Air Force's.

Former General Dynamics CEO Lester Crown's political patronage of a young politician named Barack Obama, whom he first met in 1989 at the Chicago law firm where Obama was an intern, has worked out very well for the family firm. Since Obama won the Presidency, with Lester's son James and daughter-in-law Paula as his Illinois fundraising chairs and 4th largest bundlers nationwide, General Dynamics stock price has gained 170% and its latest annual report hailed 2014 as its most profitable year ever, despite an overall 30% reduction in Pentagon procurement and RDT&E spending since FY2009.

Although General Dynamics is selling fewer Abrams tanks and armored vehicles since the US withdrew most of its forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, its Marine Systems division is doing better than ever. The Navy increased its purchases of Virginia class submarines from one to two per year in 2012 at $2 billion each. It is buying one new Arleigh Burke class destroyer per year through 2022 at $1.8 billion apiece (Obama reinstated that program as part of his missile defense plan), and the FY2010 budget handed General Dynamics a contract to build 3 new Zumwalt class destroyers for $3.2 billion each, on top of $10 billion already spent on research and development. That was despite a US Navy spokesman calling the Zumwalt "a ship you don't need," as it will be especially vulnerable to new anti-ship missiles developed by potential enemies. General Dynamics is also one of the largest US producers of bombs and ammunition, so it is profiting handsomely from the US bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria.

Carl Conetta explains the US's unilateral arms build-up as the result of a lack of discipline and a failure of military planners to make difficult choices about the kind of wars they are preparing to fight or the forces and weapons they might need. But this massive national investment is justified in the minds of US officials by what they can use these forces to do. By building the most expensive and destructive war machine ever, designing it to be able to threaten or attackjust about anybody anywhere, and justifying its existence with a combination of neocon and humanitarian interventionist ideology, US officials have fostered dangerous illusions about the very nature of military force. As historian Gabriel Kolko warned in 1994, "options and decisions that are intrinsically dangerous and irrational become not merely plausible but the only form of reasoning about war and diplomacy that is possible in official circles."

The use of military force is essentially destructive. Weapons of war are designed to hurt people and break things. All nations claim to build and buy them only to defend themselves and their people against the aggression of others. The notion that the use of military force can ever be a force for good may, at best, apply to a few very rare, exceptional situations where a limited but decisive use of force has put an end to an existing conflict and led to a restoration of peace. The more usual result of the use or escalation of force is to cause greater death and destruction, to fuel resistance and to cause more widespread instability. This is what has happened wherever the US has used force since 2001, including in its proxy and covert operations in Syria and Ukraine.

We seem to be coming full circle, to once again recognize the dangers of militarism and the wisdom of the US leaders and diplomats who played instrumental roles in crafting the UN Charter, the Geneva Conventions, the Kellogg Briand Pact and much of the existing framework of international law. These treaties and conventions were based on the lived experience of our grandparents that a world where war was permitted was no longer sustainable. So they were dedicated, to the greatest extent possible, to prohibiting and eliminating war and to protecting people everywhere from the horror of war as a basic human right.

As President Carter said in his Nobel lecture in 2002, "War may sometimes be a necessary evil. But no matter how necessary, it is always an evil, never a good." Recent US policy has been a tragic experiment in renormalizing the evil of war. This experiment has failed abysmally, but there remains much work to do to restore peace, to repair the damage, and to recommit the United States to the rule of law.

If we compare US military spending with global military spending, we can see that, as the US cut its military budget by a third between 1985 and 1998, the rest of the world followed suit and global military budgets also fell by a third between 1988 and 1998. But as the US spent trillions of dollars on weapons and war after 2000, boosting its share of global military spending from 38% to 48% by 2008, both allies and potential enemies again responded in kind. The 92% rise in the US military budget by 2008 led to a 65% rise in global military spending by 2011.

US propaganda presents US aggression and military expansion as a force for security and stability. In reality, it is US militarism that has been driving global militarism, and US-led wars and covert interventions that have spawned subsidiary conflicts and deprived millions of people of security and stability in country after country. But just as diplomacy and peacemaking between the US and USS.R. led to a 33% fall in global military spending in the 1990s, a new US commitment to peace and disarmament today would likewise set the whole world on a more peaceful course.

In his diplomacy with Cuba and Iran and his apparent readiness to finally respond to Russian diplomacy on Syria and Ukraine, President Obama appears to have learned some important lessons from the violence and chaos that he and President Bush have unleashed on the world. The most generous patron the military industrial complex has ever known may finally be looking for diplomatic solutions to the crises caused by his policies.

But Obama's awakening, if that is what it turns out to be, has come tragically late in his presidency, for millions of victims of US war crimes and for the future of our country and the world. Whoever we elect as our next President must therefore be ready on day one to start dismantling this infernal war machine and building a "permanent structure of peace," on a firm foundation of humanity, diplomacy and a renewed US commitment to the rule of international law.

News Mon, 05 Oct 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Pregnant Women's BPA Chemical Exposure Linked to Low Birth Weights in China

A pregnant woman's exposure to BPA may potentially increase the risk of delivering babies with low birth weights, according to a new study from China.

During the course of the study, which ran from 2012 to 2014, 452 mother-infant pairs were selected from Wuhan, the most populous city in Central China. Urine samples were collected from the mothers at delivery and measured for bisphenol-A (BPA). Using birth weight data obtained from medical records, the researchers then evaluated the relationship between urinary BPA levels and low birth weight.

They found that mothers of newborns with lower birth weights had significantly higher BPA levels in their urine than the control mothers, according to the study published this month in Environment International.

They also found that the association between low birth weight and higher BPA levels was more pronounced among the female babies, suggesting female babies might be more susceptible to BPA than males.

The study, the first of its kind in China, adds to growing evidence that fetal exposure to BPA might cause developmental problems.

BPA is an endocrine-disrupting chemical that can act like estrogen in the body. Human and animal studies have linked the chemical to reproductive, behavioral and endocrine effects.

Even the most diligent mothers-to-be may find it challenging to avoid contact with BPA. It is ubiquitous - used to make polycarbonate plastics and commonly found in food and drink packaging, and in thermal receipts.

The study doesn't prove BPA caused the low birth weights. Low birth weight can happen for a number of different reasons.

However, it is concerning as babies with low birth weights may be more at risk for other health problems, such as increased susceptibility to disease and infection, or longer-term problems such as learning disabilities or delayed motor and social development.

And it isn't the first study to link prenatal BPA exposure to impaired development. In 2013, findings from a Dutch study suggest that BPA exposure at levels commonly found in people may slow fetal growth.

In addition, a 2014 study linked high BPA levels in the placenta to lower birth weights.

News Mon, 05 Oct 2015 00:00:00 -0400
How to Drought-Proof California's Farms

This story was originally published on September 24, 2015, at High Country News (

Three years into its most severe drought in over a thousand years, it's unclear how much longer California can continue growing half of the nation's produce. The crisis confronting Big Ag and family farmers alike may signal the end of agriculture as it's currently practiced. But it need not spell doom for farming altogether: On the contrary, a handful of ecology-minded growers think California could produce plenty of food even with limited amounts of water.

For starters, they say, state agriculture and water policymakers could study the practices of farmers like Warren Brush. He runs a 50-acre family farm in the high and dry foothills south of Santa Barbara, where annual rainfall has dropped to just over 10 inches.

Many drought-stricken California farmers are seeing not just production and profits plummet but, even more ominously, well depth. Brush, on the other hand, continues to irrigate hundreds of thirsty avocado trees without depleting his well; the water in his well was at a level of about 240 feet below the ground in December, but after a dry winter and spring, it stands much higher, at 100 feet.

Typical agricultural well depth in California is 800 feet, and deep-pocketed farms and vineyards are drilling ever deeper, threatening to collapse the aquifers that feed them.  Brush recharged his well using agro-ecology techniques that are appropriate in dry areas the world over. His innovations caught the attention of the US Agency for International Development, which now contracts with Brush to teach people how they can apply his techniques in Africa.

How does Brush drought-proof a farm? Use the water that lands on it, he says, all of it.

"When we mimic nature's ability to slow, spread and sink water into the landscape and protect it from evaporation through shading with vegetation and mulches, we can recharge our landscape," Brush explains.

Instead of letting water run downhill off his farm, Brush contours the land and uses minimal tilling so that the soil stays moist enough to quench the thirsty plant roots. Simple infiltration structures convey the water back where it originally came from (underground), eliminating runoff and recharging the well.

Brush also adds compost and manure to the soil, and thereby does four jobs at once: He fertilizes the soil without chemicals, creates air pockets that allow water to infiltrate, prevents soil and nutrient erosion, and sequesters in the ground vast amounts of carbon that would otherwise lurk in the atmosphere, heating the planet and worsening the drought.

Once these conservation practices are put in place, Brush says, he's confident that he and the farmers he's trained can survive even faced with long-term drought. Whereas other desperate farmers are demanding delivery of quantities of water beyond what actually exist, Brush and his adherents seem to operate in a parallel universe, in which drought is of little concern.

"We can learn from nature's example how to create a landscape that works like a sponge, efficiently infiltrating and storing rainwater so that our farms become resilient and drought-proof," Brush says. Eager to teach others, he offers a free "earthworks resiliency" class, in addition to hands-on courses in California, Europe and Australia.

Ag innovators like Brush are part of a small but growing agrarian counterculture committed to working within natural limits. These renegades include ranchers who employ a grazing technique known as holistic management to restore eroded rangelands. Developed by Zimbabwean biologist-farmer Allan Savory back in the mid-1980s, the approach uses cattle to fertilize the land, increase its water-capturing ability, and capture carbon.

By Brush's reckoning, if California's 28 million acres of agricultural land were managed like his farm or holistically grazed, they could produce as much food as they do now using little more than the 10 inches of rain that fall from the sky.

In January, the California Climate and Agriculture Network, or CalCan, a sustainable agriculture advocacy organization, echoed many of Brush's practices in the recommendations it made to Gov. Jerry Brown. The governor has directed the Department of Food and Agriculture to coordinate several healthy soil initiatives over the next year, although a bill that would have provided funding for these initiatives failed to pass the legislature.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has declared 2015 the International Year of Soils. With drought devastating more and more farms and ranches, the declaration comes not a moment too soon. Here in America's Salad Bowl, we have a responsibility to restore our soils to health and produce as much food, with as little water, as possible.

Warren Brush may not be worried about the drought, but the rest of us are.

News Mon, 05 Oct 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Electoral Revolution in Brazil Aimed at Neutralizing Corporate Influence

(Photo: Brazilian Currency via Shutetrstock)(Photo: Brazilian Currency via Shutterstock; Edited: LW / TO)

Rio de Janeiro - From now on, elections in Brazil will be more democratic, without corporate interference, which had become decisive and corruptive. A Sep. 17 Supreme Court ruling declared unconstitutional articles of the elections act that allow corporate donations to election campaigns.

The 8-3 verdict came in response to a legal challenge brought by the Brazilian Bar Association (OAB) against the laws authorising and regulating donations by big corporations to political parties and candidates.

In its challenge to the constitutionality of the elections act articles in question, the OAB argued that they violate the democratic principle - the backbone of the 1988 constitution - which established that all citizens are political equals, with each individual vote carrying the same weight.

The verdict also stated that corporate financing runs counter to the first article of the constitution, which establishes that the political representatives elected by the people must serve the public good and that there must be a strict separation between the public and private spheres.

Citing academic studies, the OAB further asserted that corporate donations transfer economic inequality to the political sphere, negating democracy and tending towards a "plutocracy" or government by the rich.

Campaign donations from corporations give them undue influence over politics by putting candidates in their debt, bound to defend "the economic interests of their donors in the drafting of legislation, the design and execution of the budget, administrative regulation, public tenders and public procurement," the OAB added.

Corruption is also a major factor in this promiscuous relationship between money and politics. And campaign financing is almost always an element present in political scandals.

Today's big scandal, which decisively influenced the Supreme Court ruling, involves a kickback scheme in the state-owned oil firm Petrobras, which suffered at least six billion dollars in losses from graft and overvalued assets.

More than 30 politicians have been accused of receiving bribes from large construction and engineering firms in return for inflated contracts, and part of the funds allegedly financed candidates and political parties in election campaigns.

The ban on corporate donations will also lead to a reduction in gender imbalances in politics, sociologist Clara Araujo at the Rio de Janeiro State University (UERJ) told IPS.

Female candidates receive little campaign funding from their parties, but they are given larger proportions of donations from individuals than from companies, the opposite of male candidates, she said, based on the study "Women in the 2010 Elections," which she co-authored, and on figures from 2014.

As a result of discrimination by political parties, reflected by underfunding and less advertising time, especially on TV, women are underrepresented in Congress, where they hold only 10 percent of seats in the lower house and 13.6 percent in the Senate, although they make up 52 percent of voters.

"The Supreme Court judgment is good news in the midst of the chaos of Brazil's political crisis," because it brings new balance to a game that was unfavourable to women, Guacira de Oliveira, one of the directors of the Feminist Centre of Studies and Advice (CFEMEA), told IPS.

But it has come at a moment of great uncertainty, when the crisis tends to have a greater impact on progressive political currents, and it will not change the rules that maintain inequality within and between the political parties.

Public resources, such as the official Party Fund, and radio and TV time for candidates will continue to benefit the big parties, since they are distributed proportionally to the number of seats held by each party, Oliveira lamented.

Only in-depth political reforms, called for by civil society organisations, could effectively democratise the election process. But the current legislature, where conservative lawmakers are a majority, would never approve that.

Far-reaching political reforms would require a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution - which may become a possibility if the crisis gets worse.

But without corporate donations, "campaigns will suffer a sharp drop in funding, which means candidates and parties will have to cut costs. Internet and the social networks, which already had a growing participation in the elections, will become much more important," said Fernando Lattman-Weltman, a professor of politics at the UERJ.

"But money will seek other ways to influence politics," he added. "The legal door of donations was closed and the illegal route has become more difficult, after the scandals, imprisonment, and disqualification of many of the people implicated in the corruption, but they will look for loopholes in the law," he told IPS.

Election campaigns have become expensive in Brazil in the last two decades, with the intense use of advertising techniques. Media advisers have become indispensable, and more and more costly to hire. Some have become celebrities, whose fame has transcended national borders.

After their triumphs in Brazil, they have been hired for tens of millions of dollars to head campaigns in other countries of Latin America, or in Africa.

Large campaign teams specialising in working the airwaves and the press have turned election campaigns into a media war between well-paid armies of advisers, following the US model, with ongoing qualitative surveys providing guidance for speeches, slogans and TV ads and appearances.

Now candidates will have to return to the basics: personal speeches, direct public relations, street rallies and armies of volunteers, said Lattman-Weltman.

Without resources to produce and broadcast sophisticated ads, "candidates will try to seduce the media, trying to make them more biased and identified with specific parties," like in the United States, he said, referring to dangerous side-effects of the new scenario.

Generating new political developments and creativity in campaigns will also become more important factors, he said.

Without the millions of dollars in donations from companies, the game will be less unequal, but candidates who already have power and are well-known by the public, like legislators, governors or other political leaders, will enjoy a big advantage over new candidates, Oliveira said.

That is a disadvantage faced by women in general, who began to participate in elections more recently, and who make up a small minority in the executive and legislative branches - even though one woman, Dilma Rousseff, has been president of this country of 202 million people since 2011.

Celebrities like TV hosts, actors and footballers, along with prominent trade unionists and social activists, will likely be the most sought-after by the parties.

The next elections, for mayors and city councilors in Brazil's 5,570 municipalities, will be a test of how campaigns will work without legal and illegal donations from the big sponsors, especially in big cities like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

Statistics from the Superior Electoral Court from 2010 and 2014, when presidential, state and legislative elections were held, point to "a strong correlation between the amount of spending and victory," said Araujo.

So without a right to vote, companies had become a decisive factor in elections. In other words, "the big voter was money," said Claudio Weber Abramo, director of the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency Brazil, in a statement reflected by the OAB in its successful legal challenge that led the Supreme Court to put an end to elections dominated by corporate financing.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes.

News Mon, 05 Oct 2015 00:00:00 -0400