Truthout Stories Sun, 24 May 2015 15:34:29 -0400 en-gb Hijacking the Anthropocene

How the anti-green Breakthrough Institute misrepresents science to advance a technocratic agenda and undermine grassroots environmentalism.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone,
“it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
—Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

What can lobbyists do when science contradicts their political messages? Some simply deny the science, as many conservatives do with climate change. Others pretend to embrace the science, while ignoring or purging the disagreeable content. That’s what the Breakthrough Institute (BTI) is doing with one of the most widely discussed issues in 21st century science, the proposal to define a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene.

BTI has been described as “the leading big money, anti-green, pro-nuclear think tank in the United States, dedicated to propagandizing capitalist technological-investment ‘solutions’ to climate change.”[1] Founded in 2003 by lobbyist Michael Shellenberger and pollster Ted Nordhaus, its philosophy is based on what’s known in academic circles as ecological modernization theory – described by Richard York and Eugene Rosa as the view that “industrialization, technological development, economic growth, and capitalism are not only potentially compatible with ecological sustainability but also may be key drivers of environmental reform.”[2]

In BTI’s simplified pop version, to which they’ve assigned catchier label ecomodernism, there is no “may” about it – their literature consistently couples a professed concern for the environment with rejection of actual pro-environmental policies, on the grounds that new technology, growth and capitalism are the only solution to all environmental concerns.

Most notably, BTI opposes efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions, claiming that investment in nuclear reactors and shale gas will produce all the energy we need, and global warming will wither away as a side-effect. “The best way to move forward on climate policy,” write Shellenberger and Nordhaus, “is to not focus on climate at all.”[3]

As Australian environmentalist Clive Hamilton comments, BTI’s founders “do not deny global warming; instead they skate over the top of it, insisting that whatever limits and tipping points the Earth system might throw up, human technology and ingenuity will transcend them.”[4]

In 2004, Shellenberger and Nordhaus wrote a notorious pamphlet, The Death of Environmentalism. That title wasn’t an announcement – it was a goal. They declared their conviction “that modern environmentalism … must die so that something new can live.”[5] Their organization has worked to achieve that death ever since.

Bill Blackwater has exposed the “self-contradictions, simplistic fantasy, and the sheer insubstantiality” of BTI’s thought, and John Bellamy Foster has shown that ecological modernization theory involves “a dangerous and irresponsible case of technological hubris [and] a fateful concession to capitalism’s almost unlimited destructive powers.”[6] In this article I examine one specific feature of BTI’s current activity: its attempt to hijack the Anthropocene, to misrepresent one of the most important scientific developments of our time so that it seems to serve Breakthrough’s anti-environmental agenda.

Scientists define the Anthropocene

For scientists, the arrival of a new geological epoch signifies that there has been a qualitative change in the Earth System. For 12,000 years we have been in the Holocene epoch, but we now face conditions that are as different from that as the Holocene was from the ice age Pleistocene that preceded it. Paul Crutzen, the Nobel Prize winner who first suggested that such a change had occurred, and Will Steffen, former director of the International Geophysical-Biophysical Program, write:

“The Earth System has recently moved well outside the range of natural variability exhibited over at least the last half million years. The nature of changes now occurring simultaneously in the Earth System, their magnitudes and rates of change, are unprecedented and unsustainable.”[7]

The name Anthropocene, from the Greek anthropos, meaning human being, was proposed to emphasize that the new epoch is driven by a radical change in humanity’s relationship with the rest of the Earth System – that “global-scale social and economic processes are now becoming significant features in the functioning of the system.”[8]

The shift began with the growing use of fossil fuels in the Industrial Revolution, and went into overdrive in the “Great Acceleration” of economic activity, pollution and environmental destruction in the second half of the 20th century. Now human activity is “overwhelming the great forces of nature,” to the point that if “the institutions and economic system that have driven the Great Acceleration continue to dominate human affairs … [then] collapse of modern, globalized society under uncontrollable environmental change is one possible outcome.”[9]

Foster describes the Anthropocene as “both a description of a new burden falling on humanity and a recognition of an immense crisis – a potential terminal event in geological evolution that could destroy the world as we know it.”[10] Similarly, the editors of Nature say it “reflects a grim reality on the ground, and it provides a powerful framework for considering global change and how to manage it.”[11]

By contrast, Nordhaus and Shellenberger want us to believe that everything’s going to be just fine. They tell the world that “by 2100, nearly all of us will be prosperous enough to live healthy, free and creative lives.” All we need to do is “once and for all embrace human power, technology, and the larger process of modernization.”[12]

Foolish environmentalists may “warn that degrading nonhuman natures will undermine the basis for human civilization but history has shown the opposite: the degradation of nonhuman environments has made us rich.” Environmental problems are merely unfortunate side-effects of developments that are fundamentally positive for humanity: “the solution to the unintended consequences of modernity is, and always has been, more modernity.”[13]

Hijacking a word, misrepresenting science

Given the huge difference in views, it would have been appropriate and honest for BTI to declare how and why it disagrees with the scientists who have identified profound changes in the Earth System and are proposing to declare a new epoch.

Instead, when the word Anthropocene started appearing frequently in academic journals and mainstream media, Nordhaus and Shellenberger jumped on the bandwagon and tried to steer it in a direction more congenial to their views. In contrast to scientists they deem to be depressing, pessimistic, and catastrophist, they declared that the Anthropocene isn’t a crisis, it’s an opportunity to build a global technological utopia, in which humanity embraces nuclear power and shale gas, and we all enjoy US-style consumerism forever.

What they offer is a homeopathically diluted Anthropocene, in which the only remaining trace of Earth System science is the fact that the Earth is dominated by human activity – and even that, BTI insists, is neither a recent development or a matter for concern.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger gave the game away in an article they wrote for Orion magazine and then reprinted in a BTI-published e-book. After agreeing that humans are “rapidly transforming nonhuman nature at a pace not seen for many hundreds of millions of years,” they wrote:

“But the difference between the new ecological crises and the ways in which humans and even prehumans have shaped nonhuman nature for tens of thousands of years is one of scope and scale, not kind.”[14]

Read that again. If it’s true, then there is no case for declaring a new epoch. There has been no qualitative change, so we are still in the Holocene, still doing what humans have always done, since long before the ice sheets retreated.

Landscape ecologist Erle Ellis, a Breakthrough Institute Senior Fellow, has been arguing for the “scope and scale, not kind” view in the Anthropocene Working Group, the international committee that is evaluating the proposal for a new geological epoch. He supports an early Anthropocene – the view that the Anthropocene began not recently but thousands of years ago, when humans first made large-scale changes to landscapes and ecosystems.

Official endorsement of an early date would strengthen the Nordhaus/Shellenberger claim that there is no qualitative break between current and past human impacts on the Earth. As Clive Hamilton and Jacques Grinevald write, the early Anthropocene option justifies a business-as-usual understanding of the present.

“It ‘gradualizes’ the new epoch so that it is no longer a rupture due principally to the burning of fossil fuels but a creeping phenomenon due to the incremental spread of human influence over the landscape. This misconstrues the suddenness, severity, duration and irreversibility of the Anthropocene leading to a serious underestimation and mischaracterization of the kind of human response necessary to slow its onset and ameliorate its impacts.”[15]

BTI’s website describes Ellis as “a leading theorist of what scientists increasingly describe as the Anthropocene,”[16] but doesn’t mention that his early Anthropocene position, while compatible with BTI’s philosophy, has little support among the other scientists involved.

In January 2015, over two-thirds of the Anthropocene Working Group’s 38 members endorsed 1945 as the beginning of the Anthropocene, both because the Great Acceleration is an historical turning point, and because it can be located in geological strata by the presence of radiation from nuclear fallout. The early Anthropocene argument, they write, unduly emphasizes just one aspect of the case for a new epoch:

“The significance of the Anthropocene lies not so much in seeing within it the ‘first traces of our species’ (i.e. an anthropocentric perspective upon geology), but in the scale, significance and longevity of change (that happens to be currently human-driven) to the Earth system.”[17]

The AWG hasn’t formally decided yet, but Ellis, who evidently believes he has lost the debate, recently told an editor of the journal Nature that he opposes making any official decision. “We should set a time, perhaps 1,000 years from now, in which we would officially investigate this…. Making a decision before that would be premature.”[18] That would allow BTI to continue misusing the word, but he seems to have little support: a recent article in Science, proposing to “avoid the confinement imposed by a single formal designation” has only four signatures, and of them, only Ellis is a member of the AWG.[19]

Oxymoron alert

Breakthrough has invited influential environmental writers to a luxury California resort in June, all expenses paid, for a two-day seminar on “The Good Anthropocene.”[20] So don’t be surprised if articles using that oxymoron appear in the mainstream media this summer. Phrases like “unprecedented and unsustainable” will not be emphasized, if they appear at all.

The seminar’s message was revealed in April, in An Ecomodernist Manifesto, signed by Nordhaus and Shellenberger and 16 others, all closely associated with BTI. Subtitled From the death of environmentalism to the birth of ecomodernism, it is self-described as “an affirmative and optimistic vision for a future in which we can have universal human development, freedom, and more nature through continued technological and social modernization.”[21]

The manifesto extends the oxymoron, promising “a good, or even great, Anthropocene” if only we will reject the “long-standing environmental ideal … that human societies must harmonize with nature to avoid economic and ecological collapse.”

Yes, you read that right. BTI’s pseudo-Anthropocene requires deliberately expanding the metabolic rift between humanity and the rest of nature into a permanent chasm. After all, “humans have remade the world for millennia,” so more of the same must be good.

A striking feature of all BTI propaganda is the gulf between the concrete problems they admit exist and what Bill Blackwater calls “the daydream quality of their positive solutions.”[22] That is clearly on display in their Ecomodernist Manifesto, which proposes to solve the pressing problem of climate change with “next-generation solar, advanced nuclear fission and nuclear fusion” – technologies that don’t exist and won’t soon arrive. In the meantime, BTI proposes reliance on hydroelectric dams, which can cause major environmental problems, and on carbon capture and storage, which doesn’t exist in any practical form.

Clearly, BTI’s “Good Anthropocene” won’t arrive before the climate and other essential elements of the Earth System reach tipping points. As Blackwater says, BTI’s purported realism is actually “the very height of fantasy,” a contemporary form of what C. Wright Mills used to call “crackpot realism.”

It’s time to defog

The pundits, politicians and CEOs whose interests are served by the Breakthrough Institute don’t want to be identified with the science deniers of the far right, but neither do they want the radical measures that responding to the real Anthropocene requires. BTI’s fantasy of a Good Anthropocene builds the illusion that both objectives are easily achieved. Don’t worry, be happy – technological ingenuity will save capitalism from itself.

BTI could have avoided mentioning the Anthropocene, but that would have left a widely discussed concept unchallenged, posing the possibility that public understanding of the state of the Earth System will grow, strengthening the environmentalism that BTI wants to kill. It’s far more effective to appropriate the word, to sow confusion by promoting a caricature that has nothing to do with the actual Anthropocene and everything to do with preserving the status quo.

There can be no question about which side the left is on in this conflict. We may not endorse every element of the Anthropocene project, but we must not allow Earth System science to be hijacked and misused by enemies of the environment.

As Dipesh Chakrabarty writes, the scientists whose work BTI is trying to undermine “are not necessarily anticapitalist scholars, and yet clearly they are not for business-as-usual capitalism either.”[23] Many are adopting more radical views as they study what’s happening to the Earth System. It’s our responsibility to help them blow away Breakthrough’s fog of confusion, and work with them to stop capitalism’s drive to ecological disaster.



[1]Notes from the Editors” Monthly Review 66, No. 2 (June 2011).

[2] Richard York and Eugene A. Rosa. “Key Challenges to Ecological Modernization Theory.” Organization & Environment 16 No. 3, September 2003

[3]Statement on ‘Climate Pragmatism’ from BTI Founders Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus.’” Breakthrough Institute, July 27, 2011.

[4] Clive Hamilton. “The New Environmentalism Will Lead Us to Disaster.” Scientific American Forum, June 19, 2014.

[5] Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus. The Death of Environmentalism: Global Warming Politics in a Post-Environmental World. Oakland, Breakthrough Institute, 2004.10

[6] Bill Blackwater. “The Denialism of Progressive Environmentalists.” Monthly Review 64, No. 2 (June 2012). John Bellamy Foster. “The Planetary Rift and the New Human Exemptionalism.” Organization & Environment 25 No. 3 (September 2012)

[7] Paul J. Crutzen and Will Steffen. “How Long Have We Been In The Anthropocene Era? An Editorial Comment.” Climatic Change 61 No. 3 (2003)

[8] Will Steffen et al. “The Anthropocene: From Global Change to Planetary Stewardship.” Ambio 40, No. 7. October 2011.

[9] Will Steffen, Paul J. Crutzen and John R. McNeill. “The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature?” Ambio 36, No. 8, December 2007.

[10] John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York. The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth. New York, Monthly Review Press, 2010), 18.

[11] Editorial. “The Human Epoch.” Nature 473, No. 7347, May 19 2011.

[12] Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, “Introduction,” in Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, editors,  Love Your Monsters: Postenvironmentalism and the Anthropocene. (Breakthrough Institute, Oakland, 2011). Kindle e-book.

[13] Nordhaus and Shellenberger, “Evolve.” in Love Your Monsters

[14] Nordhaus and Shellenberger, “Evolve.” in Love Your Monsters

[15] Clive Hamilton and Jacques Grinevald. “Was the Anthropocene Anticipated?” The Anthropocene Review 2 No. 1. (April 2015)

[16] Erle Ellis, Associate Professor, University of Maryland, Baltimore County.” Breakthrough Institute, n.d.

[17] Jan Zalasiewicz, et al., “When Did the Anthropocene begin? A Mid-Twentieth Century Boundary Level is Stratigraphically Optimal.” Quaternary International, In Press, January 2015

[18] Quoted in Richard Monastersky. “Anthropocene: The human age.” Nature 519, No. 7542. (March 11, 2015)

[19] William F. Ruddiman et al. “Defining the Epoch We Live In.” Science 348, No. 6230 (April 3 2015)

[20] In “Ecomodernists Envision Utopia—but What about War?” Scientific American blogger John Horgan says his expenses are being paid.

[21] Ted Nordhaus, Michael Shellenberger et al. “An Ecomodernist Manifesto.” (April 2015)

[22] Bill Blackwater. “The Denialism of Progressive Environmentalists.” Monthly Review 64, No. 2 (June 2012)

[23] Dipesh Chakrabarty. “The Climate of History: Four Theses.” Critical Inquiry 35 No. 2 (Winter 2009).

News Sun, 24 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Mexican Auto Workers Fired for Protesting Sexual Harassment

At the new Mazda assembly plant in Salamanca, Mexico, 20 workers were fired in March for supporting a co-worker who was being sexually harassed by their supervisor.

According to workers, the accused supervisor would use the cultural practice of a kiss on the cheek as an excuse to get sexual. He would stalk women at work and force himself on them physically.

While traditionally most Mexican auto industry workers have been men, in the state of Guanajuato, where the Salamanca factory is located, women make up about half the auto workforce. They tend to be single—as in the maquiladoras, the Mexican textile factories which prefer women because bosses feel they are more vulnerable and can be paid less.

One worker first complained about this sexual harassment—to the company and the union, using the established complaint procedures—back in May of last year, but the situation was allowed to continue. Next, workers took their case to government agencies, with witnesses and support statements, again with no results.

So “we decided to protest,” said Tadeo Velaquez, one of the 20 fired workers. “We were [all] being harassed at work by this supervisor. It was so intense that it was really difficult to work in a good environment. He would mistreat and bully us all the time.

“Then we heard that one of our partners, a woman, was sexually harassed by him. He wasn’t just disrespecting us; he was also sexually abusing her.”

In March, workers on a subassembly line organized a work-to-rule slowdown. That grabbed management’s attention. A meeting was held. Management and the union agreed to handle the problem with the supervisor.

“We were informed that we weren’t going to be punished for the demonstration,” said Edgar Capetillo, another fired worker. “We had a mutual agreement with the union that nothing was going to happen to us. But 15 days later, we were removed from our duties.”

They were fired without explanation. All 20 of the workers were male.

Pushy New Plant

Representatives of the fired workers appeared on the local news program, Zona Franca, and asked their fellow workers for support. Another woman came forward with her story of harassment.

The supervisor was given two days off. Many workers feel he should be fired.

Supervisor bullies are common at this plant, where management is pushing arduous hours and an intense pace. Workers on the assembly line have suffered injuries to the tendons in their hands, spinal injuries, even convulsions.

Production would stop for nothing, according to the fired workers—if a worker was having convulsions, they would simply be carried away and replaced by another worker.

The plant opened last year with 3,000 employees. It’s in the Mexican state of Guanajuato, Mazda’s only North American assembly site.

This is the first time in decades that the company has run an overseas plant on its own. The last one, in Flat Rock, Michigan, became a joint venture with Ford in 1992, and Mazda ceased production there in 2012.

The Salamanca plant’s annual capacity is initially targeted at 140,000 vehicles. Production is slated to grow to 230,000 in the fiscal year ending March 31, 2016.

After the plant reaches full production, about 30 percent of the Mazda vehicles sold in the United States will be sourced from North America—compared with virtually none today. At full capacity, it will employ 4,600 people.

Mexico's Auto Boom

Mazda isn’t alone. Mexico just surpassed Brazil as the seventh-largest auto producer in the world, producing 3.2 million vehicles last year. By 2020 it’s expected to reach 5.1 million.

Toyota has announced a new $1 billion plant in Guanajuato that will employ 2,000 workers and make 200,000 vehicles. GM is investing $5 billion between 2013 and 2018, adding 5,600 new jobs to the 15,000 it already employs in Mexico. Ford projects another $2.5 billion.

The combination of tariff-free manufacturing, low wages, cheap land, few enforced regulations, and easy access to global markets make Mexico a prime manufacturing center. In the last five years companies have announced $20 billion in investments made or planned.

Salaries have stagnated. One recent study—by a financial institution, the Grupo Financiero BVA Bancomer—found more than half of all working people in Mexico earn less than twice the minimum wage, or about $7 per day. Ten percent receive less than the minimum, $3.50 a day.

These days, if plants in Mexico are threatened with closure, it’s to move the work to Asia. But a Bank of America study found that while in 2003 Mexico’s average wages were 188 percent higher than China’s, today they’re 20 percent lower.

Corrupt Unions

All the workers in Guanajuato’s auto industry, including at the Mazda plant, are represented by the corrupt Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM).

The union sided with management in the firing of the 20.

Despite a law that allows workers the right to return to work after unjust firings, companies operating in Mexico can bank on getting away with firing permanently. Unions are regional, and contracts are negotiated plant by plant. Workers report that the CTM, a company union controlled by Mexico’s ruling party, will not defend them. Fired workers are often forced to sign away their jobs and accept a legally required cash payment instead.

To illustrate the level of corruption, look at Alejandro Rangel, a leader in the Guanajuato CTM who’s also a federal deputy. Union leaders often become federal and state deputies and senators.

Since taking office, Rangel has built himself a castle with a gigantic swimming pool in front. He used his position to have federal funds used to build a road from the main road to his castle.

Unfortunately for him, an error in the specifications labeled the paving project as meant for a nearby town. Like many in the area, this town only had a dirt road. When the error became known, townspeople demanded that their road be paved too.

As a side effect of a federal labor “reform” law passed in 2012, regional union leaders are now allowed to move into other regions. This means those who have the most power in the party and government are taking control of plants in other areas—making the corruption even worse. But they all belong to the CTM and oppose independent unions.

Those independent unions that do exist—in auto plants in Puebla and Cuernavaca—have been unable to expand into Guanajuato. An attempt to form one at the Honda plant in the neighboring state of Jalisco a few years ago ended with organizers being fired, though that’s still being challenged in court.

Revolutionary Legacy

Ford’s plants are close to the U.S. border. But most of Mexico’s auto production is in the center of the country. That’s where GM, Volkswagen, Honda, Renault-Nissan, BMW, Daimler, parts suppliers, and even research and development operations are concentrated.

From a mountain high point, the view is spectacular: an enormous plain filled with auto plants, all emitting the same brownish-pinkish smog. It sits in a layer over the plain, and extends into the surrounding mountains.

This is also the area where the Mexican Revolution of 1810 began. When Miguel Hidalgo announced independence, he demanded that the slaveholders immediately release the indigenous people who toiled in the mines here, carting out gold and silver for the empire.

Will Mexico’s workers be able to use their strength to confront the companies, the government, and the corrupt CTM to build independent unions that can give form to their anger?


Wendy Thompson is a former president of United Auto Workers Local 235.

Meanwhile in the U.S., workers in a Chicago Ford plant are also battling against sexual harassment on the job.

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News Sun, 24 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400
The Latest Victim in the War on Whistleblowers

Jeffrey Sterling recently stood before a judge as his sentence was read. The former CIA officer, the judge declared, would spend 42 months — that’s three and half years — behind bars. The feds had convicted Sterling on nine felony charges, including seven counts of espionage.

He didn’t sell secrets to the Russians. He didn’t trade intelligence for personal gain. He made no attempt to disrupt the American way of life.

What did he do, then?

He reported to the Senate Intelligence Committee that the CIA had botched an operation to feed false information about nuclear technology to Iran — and may have actually helped Iran’s enrichment program instead.

Largely based on this, the government accused Sterling of leaking details about the program to journalist James Risen, who wrote about it in his book State of War.

Even worse, the feds claimed that Sterling, who is black, did it out of resentment over a failed racial discrimination lawsuit against the agency — in effect using Sterling’s willingness to stand up for his rights against him.

There was no actual proof, though, that Sterling was Risen’s source. The only evidence the prosecution had against Sterling was metadata that showed he had spoken to Risen by phone.

There were no recordings, no messages, and no snitches to testify against him. For all we know, Sterling and Risen were talking about the weather. Was this guilt beyond a reasonable doubt? I think not.

Whatever the case, the worst Sterling can be accused of is exposing government failure and indiscretion. In that sense, he easily meets the legal definition of a whistleblower. Whatever information he exposed, he did it in the public interest.

But the Obama administration has abused whistleblowers. I know a little something about that myself — I was charged with three counts of espionage for blowing the whistle on the CIA’s torture program several years ago.

If I hadn’t taken a plea deal, I could’ve been locked up for the rest of my life. I still had to endure nearly two years in a federal prison, followed by a few months of house arrest.

Sterling is the latest victim in this war on whistleblowing.

The message is clear: If you go public with evidence of government malfeasance, you must prepare yourself for the worst. The Justice Department will spend millions of taxpayer dollars to ruin you financially, personally, and professionally — and to make an example of you in the media.

And if you have the nerve to deny the charges and go to trial, the punishment will be even worse.

Sterling believed that if he could get in front of a jury and explain his side of the story, they’d see how ridiculous the entire case really was. But the government exercises such tight control over these cases that most juries would, as the saying goes, convict a baloney sandwich.

In a small sense, Sterling was lucky to get a 42-month sentence. The government had sought up to 24 years. To the judge’s credit, she recognized what one expert witness described as the government’s “overwrought hyperbole.”

And she was surely aware of the sweetheart deal — 18 months unsupervised probation and a fine — General David Petraeus recently landed. The former CIA director had given classified information, including the names of covert agents, to his lover — and then lied about it to the FBI.

In short, the Justice Department is meting out very little “justice” to whistleblowers. But if you’re part of the White House “in” crowd, you’ll get a pass.

I’m glad Sterling’s not going away for 20 years or more.

But the proper action would have been for the judge to send Sterling home to be with his wife, and castigate the Justice Department for wasting the court’s time — and the taxpayers’ money — on wrongheadedly prosecuting another whistleblower.

Opinion Sun, 24 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Obamacare's Health Plan Choice Benefits Are Vastly Overrated

It is well documented that many other countries have created health care systems that are more popular than ours, cover everybody, are more effective as measured by better health outcomes, are better able to restrain increases in costs and, therefore, have per-capita costs that are a fraction of ours.

One of the reasons for the popularity of universal health care systems elsewhere in the developed world is that when everybody is in the same system, everybody has an incentive to make that program work. The people of those countries have a sense of ownership and responsibility for their common system.

That contrasts sharply with the situation here in the U.S., where people primarily and often exclusively are concerned with their own little piece of the system, such as Medicare, the Veterans Affairs, their own employment-based or veteran’s insurance, plans purchased on the Obamacare exchanges, Medicaid and so on.

Americans also are confused about who owns the system. Is it the government, their employer or their union? Or, as more Americans are coming to believe, health insurance companies, the pharmaceutical industry or the increasingly consolidated corporate providers of health care such as large hospital systems?

In other words, we lack the solidarity that both is an expression of and created by the existence of a single common way of dealing with the challenges of providing affordable health care coverage for all.

I’m a great fan of the goals of the Affordable Care Act — expanding coverage, restricting the most anti-social practices of health insurance companies and attempting to control overall costs. But I’m not a fan of how it tries to accomplish them.

Obamacare is based on the concept of choice among insurance plans. Such choice is greatly overrated.

In order to provide choice among insurance plans, something most people don’t care much about, we are losing choice among healers, something we care a lot about. We are discovering that choice of insurance plans comes at the cost of losing our choice of doctors and hospitals, as insurance companies vainly attempt to control their premium prices by restricting their networks of “providers.”

The financial price of giving people choice of insurance plans, the very reason for the existence of the problem-plagued health insurance exchanges, is very high. A recent Washington Post article documents the financial struggles of most of the state-run exchanges, struggles that are expected to last indefinitely.

There are other costs, as well. The complex nature of the health insurance “marketplaces” has created unnecessary anxiety and confusion among those using them. That in turn has spawned the creation of armies of consultants, “navigators” and other helpers to assist people in finding their way through the maze of choices created by the health insurance industry and exacerbated by Obamacare. This only adds to our national health care bill and does not buy one doctor visit, lab test, Band-Aid or aspirin.

Complexity is a huge drag on the popularity of our health care system as a whole. I have written before about the barriers to further reform of our health care system — fear, anger, ignorance, ideology, apathy and greed.

Apathy often characterizes people who already are well covered and don’t see any reason to worry about those who aren’t. They include the 55 million beneficiaries of Medicare and roughly 140 million covered by employment-related insurance who like it so much that they are frightened and angered by any program designed to expand coverage for others, fearful that it will reduce their own benefits.

Our obsession with “choice” among health plans not only is misplaced but economically costly and confusing and itself is a huge barrier to political solidarity. The infighting among groups covered by different plans is a powerful ally of those profiting from and wedded to the status quo. It is an important barrier to the one common sense idea most bolstered by evidence of fairness and of effectiveness — improved Medicare for all.

We urgently need fundamental reform of the way we finance health care in the U.S.

Fundamental change is extremely difficult in politics. But as the race to the bottom created by the folly of attempting to interject more choice and competition among insurance plans becomes clearer, the public becomes better informed about the alternatives and frustration grows, and people in Maine and elsewhere will come to demand it.

Opinion Sun, 24 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400
The Biggest Lessons Nepal Will Take Away From Its Tragedy

Experts have said for years that Kathmandu is an extremely high-risk city in the event of seismic activity, yet Nepal was caught off guard when a massive earthquake struck on April 25, 2015. (Photo: Amantha Perera/IPS)Experts have said for years that Kathmandu is an extremely high-risk city in the event of seismic activity, yet Nepal was caught off guard when a massive earthquake struck on April 25, 2015. (Photo: Amantha Perera/IPS)

Colombo - There has never been any doubt that Nepal is sitting on one of the most seismically active areas in South Asia. The fact that, when the big one struck, damages and deaths would be catastrophic has been known for years.

Indeed, when this correspondent visited Nepal several years ago, and found himself climbing up the narrow, winding stairwell of the Nepal Red Cross Society office in Kathmandu, a poster on one of the doors demanded a close read: “Kathmandu Valley is most vulnerable during an earthquake,” the sign said.

“One study has shown than in case of an earthquake, 40,000 people may die, 95,000 persons may be seriously injured and 60 percent of houses will be totally destroyed.”

Looking out of the window at the densely populated hillsides, dotted with three-storey concrete structures hugging each other in the jam-packed metropolis, it was clear the warnings were not hyperbolic.

Little over a month before the massive earthquake struck on Apr. 25, Mahendra Bahadur Pandey, Nepal’s minister for foreign affairs, warned the world yet again of what was to come.

“It is […] estimated that the human losses in the Kathmandu Valley alone, should there be a major seismic event, will be catastrophic,” he told the United Nations World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan, in March.

Horrifyingly, his words were prophetic of the tragedy that unfolded not long after.

Caught off guard

Less than two weeks after the 7.8-magnitude quake rippled through Nepal, close to 8,000 people had been pronounced dead, while hundreds are still missing. Families wait for news, while officials wait for their worst fears to be confirmed: that the death toll will likely climb higher in the coming days.

Over 17,500 people are injured, and ten hospitals have been completely destroyed, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

An estimated eight million people, largely in the country’s Western and Central Regions, have been affected by the disaster – representing over a quarter of Nepal’s population of over 27 million people.

The largest cities, such as Kathmandu and Pokhara, have been badly hit; within 72 hours of the quake, over half a million fled Kathmandu to outlying areas.

Despite ample evidence of the damage a disaster of this scale could wreak on the country, Nepal was in many ways caught unawares, and is now struggling to meet the challenges of providing for a beleaguered and petrified population, who weathered numerous aftershocks in the week following the major quake.

Scores of families are still living in tents, while the World Health Organisation (WHO) has issued an urgent funding appeal for the estimated 3.5 million people in need of emergency food aid.

With so many hospitals destroyed, doctors have resorted to treating patients in the street. The U.N. health agency has allocated 1.1 million dollars for medical staff and supplies and has so far treated 50,000 patients in the 14 most severely affected districts.

‘Resources woefully lacking’

But there is a limit to what aid agencies and donor countries can do, and eventually the government will have to shoulder the lion’s share of the recovery effort: something experts feel Nepal is unprepared for.

“It is a massive relief operation, probably the largest in this region that we have launched,” Orla Fagan, regional media officer at OCHA’s office in Bangkok, Thailand, told IPS.

The long-term reconstruction bill could be as high as five billion dollars, while U.N. agencies said last week that they need at least 415 million dollars for more immediate efforts over the next three months.

Fagan said that because the threat levels were known, some degree of coordination and disaster preparedness work was being carried out in the Himalayan country prior to the disaster, mostly relating to training and building awareness.

“There was coordination between the government and U.N. agencies, but it was on a very small scale,” she said, adding, “You need to understand that this is one of the poorest countries in the world and resources were woefully lacking.”

Nepal is considered a Least Developed Country (LDC) and currently ranks 145 out of 187 on the United Nations Human Development Index (HDI). It is also saddled with massive debt – over 3.8 billion dollars owed to donors like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) – and funneled over 217 million dollars into debt repayments last year, money that might have been better spent shoring up its disaster preparation and management systems.

Fagan explained that the main gaps in disaster preparedness levels were in information management, with the government failing to collect data gathered by various actors into a cohesive national data bank. The country was also lacking a tried and tested national blueprint on early response and coordination of relief efforts.

A little known fact is that despite the very real threats of earthquakes, heavy rains, landslides and glacial lake outbursts, Nepal’s disaster response policies are governed by the over three-decades-old 1982 Natural Calamities Relief Act.

Though a 2008 draft act envisaged a National Disaster Management Authority, it is yet to be ratified by parliament.

“The hope now is that with all the international resources and goodwill pouring in, Nepal can build a stronger national disaster preparedness policy and mechanism,” Fagan said.

Learning lessons from the region

Regional disaster experts agree with that assessment.

“First the funds need to be used for recovery interventions,” explained N.M.S.I. Arambepola, director of the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center in Bangkok. “But a part of the funds should be used to develop a road map for a disaster resilient Nepal.

“The document would also identify the roles and responsibilities [of various government agencies] in implementation, ensuring that the government initiates a long-term plan for disaster risk reduction with the support of the development community,” the expert told IPS.

Such a document would specify which branches would issue warnings, which would disseminate them and which would be in charge of evacuations, for instance.

Arambepola also believes Nepal could learn a thing or two from its neighbors, no strangers to natural disasters.

“Nepal should take the example of other South Asian countries such as India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka to develop policy [and] legal frameworks and an institutional set-up for disaster risk reduction,” he stressed.

Sri Lanka in particular presents an excellent case study, since it was just ten years ago that the country was caught in a similar crisis, completely at a loss to deal with the devastating impact of the 2004 Asian tsunami.

Whereas Nepal at least has been aware of the earthquake threat in its densely populated cities for many years, Sri Lanka had no idea that its coast – home to 50 percent of the country’s 20 million people – was in such grave danger.

It found out the hard way on Dec. 24 when the killer waves knocked the stuffing out of three percent of its population, leaving 35,000 dead, over a million destitute, and a reconstruction bill of three billion dollars.

The country’s former secretary to the ministry of disaster management, S M Mohamed, described the tsunami as an “eye-opener”, sparking efforts at both government and civil society levels to ensure that the country would never again be caught off guard.

While the road to stronger management and preparedness has by no means been a smooth one, Sri Lanka has nevertheless made great strides since that fateful day, including setting up the country’s first-ever Disaster Management Centre (DMC).

In the last decade the DMC has evolved into the main national hub for disaster preparedness levels as well as becoming the nodal public agency for relief coordination and early warnings in the event of a natural calamity.

It has district offices in all 25 districts with personnel ready at any time for immediate deployment. In April 2012, the DMC was instrumental in efficiently evacuating over a million people from the coast, due to a tsunami threat.

“The Sri Lankan operation grew from scratch, and now it’s at a somewhat effective level, [though] there are still gaps. Disaster resilience is more about lessons learnt by trial and error,” DMC Additional Director Sarath Lal Kumara told IPS.

Although Nepal’s challenges are unique compared to some of the worst disasters in the region’s history – with 600,000 flattened houses after the quake, compared to Sri Lanka’s 100,000 following the tsunami, for instance – it still stands to take away valuable lessons that will hopefully prevent unnecessary damages and loss of life in the case of future catastrophes.


Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

News Sun, 24 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Shot and Gassed: Thousands of Protected Birds Killed Annually

  Sandhill cranes are among more than 300 species of migratory birds that have been killed legally across the U.S. since 2011 to protect a wide range of business activities and public facilities under what’s called the “depredation permit” program.  (Photo: Tom Knudson/Reveal) Sandhill cranes are among more than 300 species of migratory birds that have been killed legally across the US since 2011 to protect a wide range of business activities and public facilities under what's called the "depredation permit" program. (Photo: Tom Knudson/Reveal)

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This story was originally published by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting.

Every spring, bird-watchers from across America gather in Nebraska for one of the continent’s great avian spectacles – the mass migration of sandhill cranes through an hourglass-like passage along the Platte River.

The birds rarely disappoint: With enormous wingspans, they circle like hang gliders over the river valley, filling the air with raucous revelry. And according to fossil records, they’ve been carrying on like that for quite some time: 9 million years, in fact, making them North America’s oldest bird species.

But some several hundred miles northeast in Wisconsin and Michigan, sandhill cranes are met with a different reception: They are shot dead by farmers or their hired guns under a little-known federal program that allows for the killing of birds protected by one of this nation’s bedrock conservation laws, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

Red-tailed hawks are among the migratory birds that have been killed under the federal “depredation permit” program. (Photo: Tom Knudson/Reveal)Red-tailed hawks are among the migratory birds that have been killed under the federal "depredation permit" program. (Photo: Tom Knudson/Reveal)What happens to those cranes may seem surprising. But it is not out of the ordinary.

Reveal has obtained never-before-released data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service showing more than 300 species of migratory birds – from red-tailed hawks to American kestrels, turkey vultures to mallard ducks – have been killed legally across the United States since 2011 to protect a wide range of business activities and public facilities under what’s called the “depredation permit” program.

Even in the best of times, migratory birds lead perilous lives. Today, with climate change and habitat loss adding to the danger, wildlife advocates say the government-sanctioned killing is a taxpayer-funded threat that the birds should not have to face, one that is hidden from the public and often puts the needs of commerce ahead of conservation.

The birds are dispatched to protect farm fields, vineyards, air traffic, golf courses, pistachio orchards, landfills, fish farms, zoos and aquariums. Some birds are killed for environmental reasons, such as protecting rare Western snowy plovers.

For their part, most of the sandhill cranes usually were killed for eating farmers’ potatoes and corn.

Most of the species killed are in no biological danger – their populations are stable. But many are beloved by a broad swath of American society, including great blue herons, white and brown pelicans, cedar waxwings, robins, belted kingfishers and mourning doves.

And some are struggling to cope with habitat loss, climate change and other threats and are classified by the government as “birds of conservation concern.” These include upland sandpipers, lesser yellowlegs, roseate spoonbills and red-throated loons, who, because of declining populations, could be on their way to the endangered species list.

Agency policy says killing birds is meant to be a temporary fix. Yet its own data show lethal removal often is the default option. Eighty-nine of the 100 businesses and agencies responsible for the most mortalities received permission from the service to kill the same species of birds at least three years in a row, the permit data show.

Even the service’s top permitting official is concerned. George Allen, head of the migratory bird division’s permits and regulation office, said he’d want to address that issue if he had time to revisit the agency’s rules.

“It’s just not one we’ve worked on,” he said.

The total body count for a recent three-year period came to 1.6 million, including more than 4,600 sandhill cranes. Four populous species – brown-headed cowbirds, red-winged blackbirds, common grackles and Canada geese – accounted for two-thirds of the mortalities.

But many less common birds were killed, too, including 875 upland sandpipers, 479 barn owls, 79 wood ducks, 55 lesser yellowlegs, 46 snowy owls, 12 roseate spoonbills, three curlew sandpipers, two red-throated loons and one western bluebird.

Most of the birds killed under the federal “depredation permit” program, including great blue herons, have stable populations and aren’t in any biological danger. (Photo: Tom Knudson/Reveal)Most of the birds killed under the federal "depredation permit" program, including great blue herons, have stable populations and aren't in any biological danger. (Photo: Tom Knudson/Reveal)

Birds were killed from coast to coast, but certain places were more deadly than others.

The most lethal state was Louisiana, where nearly 600,000 brown-headed cowbirds were killed in part to protect rice farms.

The second deadliest was California, where American coots were killed by the thousands to protect golf course greens and fairways. Usually the birds are shot, but sometimes they’re fed bait laced with a chemical that makes them fall asleep. Then they’re rounded up and killed in portable carbon dioxide chambers in the backs of pickup trucks. In California, some robins also were killed to protect vineyards.

No. 3 was Arkansas, where more than 22,000 double-breasted cormorants and thousands of other fish-eating birds were killed at fish hatcheries and aquaculture facilities.

Most of the killing is carried out without public notice. Even many conservationists are unaware of it. But those who are familiar with the permit program mostly don’t like it. They say that nonlethal options – such as scaring birds away or making the landscape less bird-friendly – are not given enough consideration and that lethal action is too often the default option.

“Nonlethal methods should always be given preference in these kinds of situations,” said Mike Daulton, vice president of government relations for the National Audubon Society, one of the nation’s oldest and most powerful conservation organizations. “The Migratory Bird Treaty Act is one of America’s most important wildlife conservation laws, and it should be strongly and reasonably enforced to maintain healthy wild populations of America’s native birds.”

Allen at the Fish and Wildlife Service said allowing the killing of nuisance birds protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act isn’t antithetical to the service’s mission of conserving wildlife populations.

“Promoting populations is good,” he said. “But without offering people an option to control what are obvious problems, we’re not doing our job, either.”

See the data: Birds killed under depredation permits in the United States

Birds and humans have clashed for generations, of course. That’s why farmers put out scarecrows. But as cities and agriculture have grown, the scope of the conflicts has expanded. Today, even green industries sometimes kill birds. The government estimates that wind farms will take the lives of 1 million birds every year by 2030. To make that legal, the Fish and Wildlife Service is considering a new permit system for the “incidental” killing of birds protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

That act, a cornerstone of U.S. conservation history, grew out of an era of excess and slaughter at the turn of the 20th century. Many of North America’s migratory birds were being decimated, not for food but for feathers and other body parts that were used to make ladies’ hats, which had become signs of luxury and sophistication. In 1916, the United States and Great Britain, on behalf of Canada, signed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. It became illegal to kill or capture migratory birds, as well as to buy or sell them.

The U.S. government, however, later made an exception. If a migratory bird is causing economic damage (such as destroying crops), posing a risk to humans (airports) or doing some other type of damage, a landowner can ask the Fish and Wildlife Service to approve the “lethal take,” or killing, of the problem birds.

In order to get a permit, applicants must explain what nonlethal measures they’ve tried and why they didn’t work. The idea is to demonstrate that killing the birds is a last resort.

American kestrels are among the migratory birds that have been killed under the federal “depredation permit” program. (Photo: Tom Knudson/Reveal)American kestrels are among the migratory birds that have been killed under the federal "depredation permit" program. (Photo: Tom Knudson/Reveal)The Fish and Wildlife Service generally doesn’t have the capacity to rigorously check what alternative methods each and every applicant has tried. Instead, it farms the work out to another government agency with a similar name but different mission: Wildlife Services, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

For generations, Wildlife Services has long specialized in killing wildlife – including migratory birds – that are considered a threat to agriculture, commerce and the public. In recent years, the agency’s practices have drawn volleys of criticism from wildlife advocates and some members of Congress, who say they are scientifically unsound, heavy-handed and inhumane.

The agency relies on traps, snares and poison that kill indiscriminately. In 2012, the Sacramento Bee reported that Wildlife Services had killed more than 50,000 animals by mistake since 2000, including federally protected bald and golden eagles; more than 1,100 dogs, including family pets; and several species considered rare or imperiled. The investigation also noted that a growing body of science has found the agency’s killing of predators “is altering ecosystems in ways that diminish biodiversity, degrade habitat and invite disease.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General now is conducting an audit to determine if the agency’s lethal control is justified and effective.

“Wildlife Services depends on killing predators and depredating migratory birds for its existence. When that’s what you do for a living, you tend to encourage people to adopt that solution,” said Daniel Rohlf, an environmental lawyer and professor at Lewis and Clark Law School in Oregon.

When landowners do get a permit to kill birds, Wildlife Services often is contracted to do the work. That contributes to a tendency to look to lethal control, rather than find more creative, nonlethal solutions, Rohlf said.

But many wildlife managers say killing the birds, while controversial, is an important tool in protecting property and human safety.

Stephen Vantassel is a former wildlife management operator who runs the Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. People are too quick to “demonize” lethal control, he said. It’s an important element in any wildlife control plan.

Vantassel said that in some cases, killing a few birds in tandem with other methods, such as loud blasts, makes those nonlethal methods more effective since some species will come to associate the noise with death.

But the International Crane Foundation, the world’s largest crane protection organization in Baraboo, Wisconsin, says the deaths just make room for other birds to take their place in prime habitat.

The foundation’s research coordinator, Anne Lacy, was startled to hear that so many sandhill cranes were being killed. “It’s ineffective,” she said. “Shooting two or five or 10 out of a flock – five days later, another group of birds might move through.”

Most of the birds killed under the federal “depredation permit” program, including white pelicans, have stable populations and aren’t in any biological danger. (Photo: Tom Knudson/Reveal)Most of the birds killed under the federal "depredation permit" program, including white pelicans, have stable populations and aren't in any biological danger. (Photo: Tom Knudson/Reveal)

There are alternatives to lethal methods, from reflective tape to pyrotechnics to hanging dead birds in effigy to frighten living ones away. That’s what the Fish and Wildlife Service recommended that The Living Desert, a zoo in Palm Desert, California, do to deal with a raven problem. And it also offered some public relations advice. “It is strongly encouraged that efforts are conducted out-of-view of the public,” the permit says.

In Wisconsin, the crane foundation recommends a corn seed treatment it helped develop called Avipel that irritates the birds’ stomachs so much that they fly off to find other food.

But more and more, people are turning to old-fashioned solutions: dogs and falcons.

Specially trained border collies are hired to race around golf courses, parks and other places to chase away nuisance birds on a regular basis. New York City’s Central Park took on two collies in 2007 to keep geese away. And Portland International Airport, which has one of the lowest rates of intentional bird deaths among major metropolitan airports, also employs a collie, named Fish, to chase geese.

Falconers are hired to fly the predatory birds above vineyards, berry farms and landfills to scare – but not kill – depredating birds. Brad Felger, the president of Airstrike Bird Control, got his start decades ago as a falconry hobbyist who put his birds to use at California’s Central Coast vineyards. Now his team operates at vineyards, farms, landfills and power stations throughout California and the Pacific Northwest.

“It’s starting to be recognized as an extremely effective method,” Felger said. “It uses the predator-prey response to put the small birds into overload. It’s a little too much for them and they just move on.”


This story was edited by Andrew Donohue and copy edited by Sheela Kamath.

Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting is a nonprofit news organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Subscribe to the Reveal podcast and visit our website to learn more.

News Sun, 24 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400
A Robin Hood Tax to Pay for College for All

In Norway, students go to college tuition-free. In Denmark, students are even paid to go to higher education. In the US, college students currently face more than $1.2 trillion of education debt. If the United States wants to boost its middle class and rebuild its economy, this is something that needs to change.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt) understands this dilemma. Sanders met with supporters at a press conference on Capitol Hill today and introduced two bills to address it: his College for All Act and a Robin Hood Tax.

"It is a national disgrace that hundreds of thousands of young Americans today do not get to go to college, not because they are unqualified, but because they cannot afford it," said Sanders. "This is absolutely counterproductive to our efforts to create a strong, competitive, economy and a vibrant middle class. This disgrace has got to end."

According to Sanders, "a generation ago," our public colleges and universities were "pathways for all students, no matter their background, to enter the middle class." Thirty years ago, pursuing a higher education could earn a ticket to a middle-class future. Today, going to college can earn a ticket to a future burdened by debt.

At the press conference, Octavia Savage, a graduate of Bloomfield College, explained the dilemmas that American students of higher education face. "My most important concern in school was how to pay for my education," said Savage. "Even though I worked three jobs throughout college, I graduated $26,000 in debt. For many, that's even considered lucky."

Sanders' College for All Act aims to provide free tuition at every public college and university in the United States. It also expands the federal work-study program and allows every American to refinance their student debt loans. The bill establishes a matching grant program that provides $2 in federal funding for every dollar states spend on making public colleges and universities tuition-free. This takes President Obama's plan to provide free community college to the next, more necessary, level.

The College for All Act would be solely funded by the Robin Hood Tax. The Robin Hood Tax introduced today parallels a bill (H.R. 1464) introduced by Rep. Keith Ellison. It would impose a Wall Street speculation fee on investment houses, hedge funds, and other speculators of 0.5 percent on stock trades, a 0.1 percent fee on bonds, and a 0.005 percent fee on derivatives. According to the College for All Act summary, this tax could raise "hundreds of billions a year" to make tuition free at public colleges and universities in this country. It would "also be used to create millions of jobs and rebuild the middle class of this country."

More than 172 national organizations support the Robin Hood Tax. This tiny sales tax on Wall Street speculation - a fraction of the sales tax most states and localities levy on many consumer goods - is rated as "highly progressive" by the International Monetary Fund, meaning that it is only paid "by the richest institutions and individuals in society."

We know the middle class has stagnated while Wall Street has boomed. It is time that the institutions bailed out after 2008 be asked to help restore opportunity to the same American people they left behind.

"At a time of massive income and wealth inequality, at a time when trillions of dollars in wealth have left the pockets of the middle class and have gone to the top one-tenth of one percent, at a time when the wealthiest people in this country have made huge amounts of money from risky derivative transactions and the soaring value of the stock market," said Sanders, "it's time for a fundamental change in how we approach the financing of higher education, and the legislation I will introduce today will do just that."

Opinion Fri, 22 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400
The High Cost of Low Taxes

Earlier this month, I arrived in San Diego following five days of driving across the country from Wisconsin. I pulled into my friend's driveway, brought my things inside, and went back to my car to park it on the street.

Almost immediately, a cop's siren and flashing lights went off. I'd left my license in my friend's apartment, so I was in trouble no matter what.

But I was in even more trouble because, the cop told me, my license had been suspended since September. My jaw dropped. "I take it from the look on your face that you didn't know that," the cop ventured.

No. I didn't.

The state of California hadn't gone to the trouble of telling me that it had suspended my license due to a $300 ticket from last summer - one I thought I'd already paid. I wasn't able to pay it on time, but I did make good on it eventually. Including the late fee, it had cost me a grand total of $554.

This is where the nightmare really starts.

I spent two hours at the DMV the next day, only to discover I had to call the court to settle the matter. The court only answers its phones three hours a day, Monday through Friday, and its website is confusing and unhelpful.

So for the weekend, I was stuck without a license.

Some people would start shouting about bureaucracy and inefficiency and Big Government - and I can't say they're totally wrong. The wheels of California's government turn very slowly. It's painfully inconvenient.

But I don't think it has to be this way.

I trace the problem back to 1978, when California voters decided they didn't much care for property taxes. They overwhelmingly passed a ballot initiative that effectively froze the rates at 1970s levels in perpetuity.

Known as Prop 13, this ballot blunder has put the squeeze on state and local authorities ever since. Furthermore, it's extremely difficult to increase taxes in California, because doing so requires a two-thirds majority vote in the legislature.

Flash-forward to today, and the state doesn't have enough money to pay for schools or govern itself well.

When I held a state job as a software analyst several years ago, my colleagues and I were paid 30 percent less than the going rate for the field. Consequently, it was nearly impossible to recruit or retain talented employees for the job. We were extremely inefficient, working with an understaffed team.

Odds are the state could have actually saved money if it had paid more in salaries and benefited from the productivity it would've gotten in return.

The miserable quality of state services like food stamps and unemployment - both of which I've had to rely on in rough times - falls unfairly on the poor.

Traffic tickets like mine do too, since being unable to pay right away can cost hundreds extra in late fees. I had to choose between eating and paying rent or paying my ticket last summer, so the ticket had to wait.

It turns out I'm not the only one. A new report from civil rights groups found that California has slammed thousands of drivers - especially poor people and people of color - with steep fines and suspensions in an apparent bid to raise revenue.

It's no fun paying taxes, but the saying about "death and taxes" holds true. They're unavoidable. And when you try to reduce taxes irresponsibly, you end up with California-style bureaucratic shortcomings and predatory revenue schemes.

We're all paying anyway - just in tickets, suspended licenses, deteriorating school systems, and out-of-control traffic fines, instead of by just footing our tax bills.

Opinion Fri, 22 May 2015 11:52:57 -0400
Why One of the Wealthiest Countries in the World Is Failing to Feed Its People

On May 8 2015 I awoke to discover that not only were we not looking forward to a new coalition government in the UK, but that the overall collapse of the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party had given the Conservative government a mandate. At an individual level I'm likely to see some benefits from the strong neo-liberalism that underpins this government's ideology, but I'm concerned about a further deepening of the division between those who have and those who have not.

This will mean the continued exponential growth in the numbers of people requiring emergency food assistance and increased numbers of children and elderly with inadequate food supply. This will also translate into higher rates of obesity, diet-related illness and malnutrition.

The Most Vulnerable

In the United Kingdom there are nearly 5m people today living as food insecure. Wendy Wills, an expert in food and public health, defines this as those who are unable to acquire or consume an adequate quality or sufficient quantity of food made available in socially acceptable ways, or who have the (regular) uncertainty that they will be able to do so.

In 2014, more than 20m meals were provided to people unable to provide for themselves. Since 2010 there has been an exponential growth in the number of households relying on emergency food aid. In 2009-10 nearly 50,000 households received three days of emergency food aid but by 2014-15 the number had increased to more than a million. Oxfam UK has estimated that: "36% of the UK population are just one heating bill or broken washing machine away from hardship".

Poor Distribution

Looking at these figures one might think the UK is not a wealthy nation. But this is not the case. Credit Suisse put the UK fifth in a ranking of nations by wealth, behind the US, Japan, China, and France. Based on 2010 UK Census figures, per capita wealth in the UK is about US$182,825, but this wealth is not distributed evenly across the population. While the wealthiest fifth of the population controls nearly 41% of the income, the poorest fifth have just 8%. And while rates of employment have increased over the last few years, pay growth has not kept up.

The new government has little in its manifesto to indicate relief, instead there are promises to cut public spending by a further £55bn by 2019 (on top of the £35bn cut during the coalition government). We have already seen cuts in work programmes that support those with disabilities in their first week in office. In the firing line are Sure Start programmes and programmes for refugees and migrants while reduced funding for local authorities will mean not only cuts to programmes that support the most vulnerable but also cuts to other services providing things such as road repairs, parks and libraries.

On top of the loss of services and support programmes, cuts also translate into bodies out of employment. So this new round of austerity will reach higher up the ladder for those living in the UK because a large proportion of the costs associated with these services is the wages for those who deliver them. The Office for Budget Responsibility indicates that by 2020 there will be a further loss of a million government jobs (compared to the loss of 400,000 government jobs over the course of the last parliament). One can only conclude that income inequality will widen, a state that already has one of the highest divisions between wealthy and poor in Europe (only lower than Turkey and Portugal in 2010).

Disposable Income

For those living in poverty in the UK today the amount of disposable income for the poorest fifth of households is about £156 per week. This is income after taxes and transfer payments and includes spending on clothing, getting to work, childcare, keeping warm, washing, communicating with others, paying for housing, celebrating birthdays, holidays, paying for school trips, uniforms and supplies, socialising and cooking (including not just the food but also the fuel to run the cooker, microwave, and refrigerator).

For many households (not just the poorest), the most flexible item in their budget is food expenditure. Families in this position are not concerned with the environmental or social implications associated with the food that they buy, but instead concentrate on "getting fed". Because it is now less expensive to feed ones family on processed food (with higher salt, sugar, and fat content) than fresh food and as the cost of food is predicted to continue to rise, we can expect to see not just increases in the numbers of people going hungry and relying on emergency food aid, but also increases in the rates of dietary-related illnesses such as obesity, diabetes and malnutrition. These health implications will, in turn, continue to place greater pressure on an already-struggling NHS.

Obligations Made

The government has an obligation to ensure that the right for all human beings to be free from hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition, as specified in a UN covenant to which the UK is a signatory, is upheld. The UK is also a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which specifies a duty to provide "material assistance and support programmes, particularly with regard to nutrition."

At present the rolling back of social services, the decline in real wages, increases in food costs coupled with an emphasis within the Conservative manifesto to develop food production in this country as an export (as opposed to subsidising it in order to feed the nation), suggests that this obligation is not one that is being taken seriously.

If we cannot look to our national government to uphold these rights and obligations, it seems that there is no recourse but to fill the gap from within, something the Conservatives are banking on. In their manifesto, the only mention of food justice is expressed via the following phrase:

We have always believed that churches, faith groups and other voluntary groups play an important and longstanding role in this country's social fabric, running food banks, helping the homeless and tackling debt and addictions, such as alcoholism and gambling. In the short term it is evident that the public will need to rely on each other to support the most vulnerable, which includes the elderly and children.

Food banks and charity are not a long-term solution, nor are they an adequate solution. We know that food banks are an insecure form of support as they rely on gifts which can be withdrawn at any time. Their coverage is spatially uneven as they are more likely to be located in cities leaving the rural poor in a more precarious position. Donated food also tends to be non-perishable food, as opposed to fresh food free of E numbers, fat, salt, and sugar. Food banks also do not address more structural issues that give rise to food insecurity in the first instance. The Trussel Trust, which runs many food banks, does offer some ancillary support but this still focuses on individuals, not on the wider problems.

No Single Department Is Responsible

As a country we need a better understanding of the resources available to local authorities who bear the burden of addressing the inequalities associated with food and who must deliver services to the poor.

As citizens we also need to demand that the government meet its UN obligations to ensure the right to food and the rights of the child. This cannot happen within existing government departments as the focus of these rights is not embedded within any one single agency. We have the Food Standards Agency, but its remit doesn't address food access. DEFRA's focus is on food production and agriculture. The Department of Health's focus is on nutrition outcomes rather than the root causes of obesity and the structure of food system in the UK. The Department for Work and Pensions similarly only considers those elements that are employment focused.

We currently have subsidies for winter fuel, transportation, and housing, but there is nothing that ensures food affordability. What is called for is a cross-cutting governmental body, with a minister for food, who ensures that policies enacted through these departments deliver access to sufficient, healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate food for all of us, not just the wealthy.

Full disclosure: Megan Blake received funding from the Leverhulme Trust for research that informed this work and from the ESRC.

Opinion Fri, 22 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400
NAACP Accuses Baltimore Police Union of Intimidation

See The Real News Network's website for both earlier in-depth reporting and current coverage of events in Baltimore, where The Real News Network studios are located.


STEPHEN JANIS, INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER, TRNN: Hello. My name is Stephen Janis, and I'm a reporter for The Real News Network in Baltimore.

Since the announcement by city State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby of charges against six officers for the killing of Freddie Gray earlier this month, the onslaught of negative media has been unrelenting. Terms like rush to judgment and overcharging of officers have been prevalent, and no other organization has been more outspoken in their criticism than the Baltimore City Police Union, or the FOP. Not only have they led the media barrage against Mosby, but they have asked the federal government to investigate the mayor. Add to that their characterization of protesters as a lynch mob, and you have what some say is a group that is adding unnecessary fuel to an already volatile fire.

And now one very influential organization has put those concerns in writing. The local chapter of the NAACP has written a letter to FOP president Gene Ryan arguing the FOP's rhetoric amounts to threats against both the mayor and Mosby, and is ultimately distasteful. Here to discuss the letter are two representatives from the NAACP. Tessa Hill-Aston has served as president of the Baltimore chapter for several years, and has been a longtime advocate for civil rights in the city. Hassan Giordano is a well-known commentator on city politics and columnist along with chairman of the branch's criminal justice committee.

Thank you both for joining us.



JANIS: So first just discuss with me why you decided to send this letter. What sort of precipitated this?

HILL-ASTON: Well, we opened up a satellite office in the Sandtown community as a result of Freddie Gray's death, and we're working, we're reaching out to the community and the residents there, and bringing in resources and services. And we've been having meetings there and little discussions with the community, and they've been coming in.

Hassan is the chairperson of our Criminal Justice Committee, and we had a meeting last week, we've had two meetings with the whole committee. And it was decided upon that we needed to take some action. We were going to do a rally or demonstration, but we felt all of us together that writing a letter and having a document would be more effective. So that's what the committee came up with under the leadership of Hassan as the chairperson.

JANIS: Hassan, what were your main concerns? What's the thrust of this letter?

GIORDANO: Well when you look at the documents that were sent by the FOP, one, Marilyn Mosby raising the conflicts about Billy Murphy, of course. Trying to get this case taken out of Baltimore City. As well as the letter, as you alluded to, in terms of against the mayor regarding the DOJ's patterns and practice investigation, what was supposedly specifically for the police department. They kind of turned it into an investigation of the mayor when they knew absolutely well that it has nothing to do with that, along with the allegations it's a lynch mob. That I know Gene Ryan at one point walked back.

But a lot of the people in that community were upset about this. Our community justice members as well as a lot of African-American women were upset due to the fact that they elected both of these African-American women, the mayor and the state's attorney, and it feels like they weren't getting their just due to be able to do the process. To let the process work itself out without the influence of this very powerful police union.

JANIS: Well it raises a good question. Why is the police union so powerful and why do you think the media is sort of taking their cue on almost all these issues? Especially in terms of the personal attacks on the mayor and the state's attorney.

HILL-ASTON: Well, I think that they're very powerful because they've had good leadership and they say focused on what they're doing. Any organization is going to be powerful if they stay focused. And I think that they've had a strong arm in the community, and with the police department, and defended the police. So right now is one of the first times that a state's attorney has prosecuted, or attempting to put charges on some police, and I think they take offense to it. Which they should, that's their members. But the process has to work, and our state's attorney did the right thing.

JANIS: Hassan, you write: your intended goal is clear. To all but subtly threaten these women who are merely doing the job we elected them to do, while making borderline racist statements that you know will provoke negative perception in the minds of those in full support of law enforcement in order to tear down the fabric of our elected leadership.

That's pretty powerful words. What do - I mean, I kind of know what you mean. But give us some sense of why you wrote that.

GIORDANO: Well, I think when you look at the entire dynamic, from Freddie Gray and that whole incident that happened, and it precipitated after his death, to even before that. We have a community, a culture especially in the African-American community of distrust with police officers. Then when you add on top of that, number one, a police officer hasn't been charged in the death of many African-American - Tyrone West, Anthony Anderson, going back from 2006 when you had 69 people murdered by the hands of the Baltimore City police, not one of them has been charged. As a matter of fact, only five have been charged in the past three decades, four of them found not guilty. The one who did get found guilty got it overturned on appeal.

People are distrustful with the police and the process. So when Marilyn Mosby stepped up and said, I'm going to do what's right in terms of the law, not so much the justice. But the law, which would give the community justice. People felt that it was somewhat of a threat to the process when you have the FOP kind of taking that power away from the state's attorney which they elected them to do.

People have full support, the NAACP has full support in our, in our law and order. In our police officers. Men and women who really sacrifice their lives every day. But at the same time, we have to also realize that we have a problem that exists between the African-American community and the police department. And Gene Ryan's words, from the lynch mob to these two letters, does nothing to build the bridge that we have to do in order to get past what we saw in the past couple weeks in Baltimore.

JANIS: Given how fraught the relations are, the fact that we've had these protests, is there a way to rebuild a relationship with the police department given the history?

HILL-ASTON: I think eventually. It's going to take a long time. I think this case right here with the Freddie Gray case will make a big determination. People want someone to pay for what they do. And when an average citizen gets locked up for something they have to pay for it. And that's why people are upset, because no police, like Hassan just said, has paid a debt for harming or someone dying at their hands.

So we, I wouldn't want to be in any city without the police. I have the utmost respect for the fine work that our police do. But still, like in any profession, there's some bad apples. And when bad apples do wrong things to the citizens, then this is what happens and they have to pay for it.

In our communities, we need young people and children to see justice. That when someone dies and they feel that it was unjustly, that police even did it, that they need to go through the court process. We want, and I want, children, young adults coming up and them to have children that they grow up learning to respect the police that they see and not hate them. Some of the young children in communities now will probably be an officer one day. So we have to learn that we respect the police. But when someone does something unlawful, even if they have a uniform on, that they have to go to court and pay the price.

JANIS: Hassan, let me ask you this. I attended a press conference with the Vanguard for Justice speaking out in support of Officer Sergeant Alicia White, who has been charged. At the same time they were talking about the fact that they believed - and they wouldn't even come out and say this. But it seemed they were suggesting that the department is inherently racist, and that black officers face racism which had much to do with what happened to Freddie Gray. I mean, how can you resolve that conflict if the department, the institution itself, has issues with racism that are unresolved?

GIORDANO: Well, I think first we've got to recognize the problems that exist and stop sugarcoating. Our political leaders have got to stop trying to spin the problem that exists. People know it. People who don't even work in law enforcement know that we have racism in anything. Especially within the Baltimore City Police Department. We have it within even some of the networks that we have within the city of Baltimore.

So we have to address that problem, and that's part of the letter. Though it's strongly worded, and rightfully so, it also asked Gene Ryan to come to the table and sit down with the oldest and boldest civil rights organization in the world, which is the NAACP, and let's start the healing process. We're never going to get there by the rhetoric that's used either by Mr. Ryan or even some of the words that are used in that letter, to be quite frank. But if we can come together and say, okay, here's the issues at hand. Because we know racism exists not only in that department but throughout the city of Baltimore we see it. It's a city of neighborhoods, and it's a reason. Baltimore has a very long tradition of racism. Then we have to be able together to be able to do that.

Now, if Gene Ryan is not willing to do that, then I don't see how we begin to rebuild that confidence and that trust between his officers and the Baltimore City Police Department and the African-American or any community member in the city of Baltimore.

JANIS: Now, there was a raid on the offices. Was that a - 

HILL-ASTON: I don't want to talk about that. I'm in litigation with someone who caused that.

JANIS: I understand. Do you think it was retaliation?

HILL-ASTON: It wasn't a raid. It was not a raid. It was outside.

JANIS: And the reason I'm asking this question is because we see these kind of tactics occur during these kind of conflicts. Do you think it was polit - 

HILL-ASTON: No. No, it had nothing to do with that. I have already been to court and litigation with someone who had something to do with that. But it was not a raid. The police didn't have a warrant to come there, and it wasn't police.

JANIS: So do you think it was retaliation?

HILL-ASTON: No. No, no, no. it was just another nut.

JANIS: Okay. No, and I just wanted to ask - 

HILL-ASTON: There's lots of them out there.

JANIS: Right. I totally understand. I mean -

HILL-ASTON: The word raid was kind of, is not - it wasn't a raid.

JANIS: Right. And that's how they publicized it, so that's why I wondered about that. And I wanted to -

HILL-ASTON: Yeah. I know, yeah, I know. It was not a raid. They were outside, and...

JANIS: Well let me ask you then, going forward, what can the NAACP - have you heard from Gene Ryan? Has he reached out to you?

HILL-ASTON: Yes, I've spoken to him over the phone.

JANIS: How recently?

HILL-ASTON: Just this week.

JANIS: And so what, how do -

HILL-ASTON: Yeah, I spoke to him on the phone. Before this letter. Before he received this letter.

JANIS: So since the letter, yeah. But how as the conversation?

HILL-ASTON: It was very pleasant. I've had interaction with him months ago before the Freddie Gray thing. I have not talked to him during the, while we were going through this process, but I did talk to him about having a meeting. And we both agreed that we would talk. So no, it was very pleasant, and we both agreed that we should sit down and have communication.

JANIS: So what do you want to see come out of this letter? What do you hope will happen, going forward?

GIORDANO: Well, I hope number one that the Department of Justice's investigation is thoroughly done, number one. And it's focused on the police department and their patterns and practices, not the patterns and practice of the mayor. She'll be held accountable in April of 2016. that's called elections and that's what voters are for. Not for the Department of Justice and not for Gene Ryan.

But I think that now that we've gotten past all this, we have to begin to rebuild and heal Baltimore. That's the job of the NAACP. That's what we've been doing, that's what we'll continue to do. And we would hope to bring Gene Ryan, members of the FOP and the Baltimore City Police Department on board to help heal and rebuild Baltimore. Because there's a level of distrust not only just with officers, but with government officials and with leaders who have been around the city for a long time, but the people in the communities are not seeing what's being told on news publications about how much they're doing for the community. They don't see that. They see the NAACP because we're in their community. They don't see all these other people. So we would love to bring them on board to be able to have a co-op that all of us are lending a helping hand to whatever we can provide to the citizens of Baltimore.

JANIS: Great. Well, let's hopefully keep up to date with you on everything that's happening. We very much appreciate you coming and talking about this. Thank you very much. Thank you.

HILL-ASTON: Thank you. Thank you.

GIORDANO: [inaud.] Thank you.

JANIS: My name is Stephen Janis, I'm a reporter for The Real News Network in Baltimore, and thank you for joining us.

News Fri, 22 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400