Truthout Stories Thu, 18 Dec 2014 11:35:14 -0500 en-gb Democrats Bow Down to Wall Street

John R. MacArthur of Harper’s Magazine says that Republicans and Democrats alike are abandoning the republic in pursuit of big bucks.

Negotiators from the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) are in Washington this week for a new round of talks which they hope will lead them closer to agreement on the trade deal. President Obama has called passage of TPP a “high priority.”

This week, Bill speaks with outspoken veteran journalist John R. MacArthur, president and publisher of Harper’s Magazine, about the problems with TPP, which is being negotiated in secret, behind closed doors. MacArthur says that the “free trade” agreement will take jobs away from Americans: “I guarantee you, this is a way to send more jobs [abroad], particularly to Vietnam and Malaysia.”

Obama’s commitment to trade is just another example of his indebtedness to Wall Street for massive campaign contributions. Hillary Clinton, who MacArthur describes as to the right of Americans’ political beliefs, may be scaring off progressives looking to run in 2016 as she is “very much in harmony” with Wall Street.

“There are a lot of people who would make good candidates, but they’re intimidated by the Clinton fundraising machine.”


BILL MOYERS: Welcome. Trade, money and politics are our issues this week and my guest is the outspoken journalist who runs the iconic Harper’s Magazine, which for 164 years now has thrown open its pages to some of the most ferociously independent voices in American letters, from Mark Twain, Jack London and Herman Melville to William Styron, Joyce Carol Oates and David Foster Wallace.   As the president and publisher of Harper’s for the last 31 years, John R. “Rick” MacArthur has been as ferocious a champion of democracy and journalism as any of those illustrious bylines that have appeared in its pages. I’ve never known him to pull his punches, whether he’s writing in Harper’s, or in his newspaper columns, or in such books as “The Selling of ‘Free Trade,’” an exposé of bipartisan collusion to enact NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and this one, “The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America.” MacArthur’s fierce arrows of outrage are aimed at both political parties, but recently he’s been especially incensed by Democrats for abandoning their progressive roots to serve Wall Street, K Street, and crony capitalists.   Rick MacArthur, welcome.

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Thank you for having me, Bill.

BILL MOYERS: You have opposed these so-called free trade agreements for as long as I have known you. Why isn't anyone listening?

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Well, because the big money doesn't want them to listen. And the editorial pages of most American newspapers are pro-"free trade” quote-unquote. They don't know, or they don't pay attention to what the costs are. Obama himself, in the 2008 campaign, said that NAFTA, North American Free Trade Agreement, had cost the country a million jobs.

But in order to understand what's happening, you got to go to these cities that are being hollowed out and destroyed, like Fostoria, Ohio. I did a big piece about three years ago, for a foreign newspaper, because nobody wants to read it here, about the closure and the moving of the Autolite spark plug plant to Mexicali, Mexico. These--

BILL MOYERS: From Fostoria.

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: From Fostoria, Ohio.

BILL MOYERS: By the way, it was in Ohio that Obama, during the campaign of 2008, made one speech in which he claimed that NAFTA had cost a million jobs, 50,000 of them in Ohio.

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Right. He did it to hurt Hilary Clinton. Because he wanted to hang NAFTA on the Clintons, on the Clinton couple.

BILL MOYERS: Because President Clinton, Bill Clinton--

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Bill Clinton.

BILL MOYERS: --had sponsored it with the Republicans in 1993.

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Because he made a tactical political decision that it would be a great thing to move the Democratic Party to the center, I would call it move it to the right, on matters concerning the working class. The working class today, thanks to what Bill Clinton did on NAFTA, is now becoming, I would call it, the lower class. And--

BILL MOYERS: So you went to this town

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: I went to this town more recently--

BILL MOYERS: Why did you pick Fostoria?

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Well, because Larry Bossidy, who was the CEO of AlliedSignal, which owned Autolite in those days--

BILL MOYERS: Autolite makes spark plugs.

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Autolite makes spark plugs. I actually have a spark plug that I took from the plant here.

It's one of the last ones made there. And Bossidy said, famously, in a debate on CNN that, he held up a spark plug and said--

LARRY BOSSIDY on CNN: The NAFTA Debate, December 1996: Right now, you can’t sell these in Mexico because there’s a 15 percent tariff. If we can, if this NAFTA’s passed and that tariff is removed, we’ll make these in Fostoria, Ohio. We won’t have 1,100 jobs, we’ll have more jobs.

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: And of course in 2007, the factory was moved to Mexicali under the ownership of Honeywell Corporation, which had merged with AlliedSignal. And Barack Obama was soon seen after that with Dave Cote, the chairman of Honeywell, promoting his business stimulus program. Barack Obama is not going to say to Dave Cote, what are you shutting down the Autolite spark plug plant for? Why are you putting Allyson Murray and Peggy Gillig and Jerry Faeth, these are people I interviewed who were production line workers, who raised their families and sent their kids to school. Jerry Faeth is a particular favorite of mine, because he got two of his daughters through college paying most of their tuition as an auto worker.

BILL MOYERS: Working--

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: --as an auto worker--

BILL MOYERS: Auto worker, right.

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: --because he was making enough money. These people are being wiped out. The statistics that you hear about, where the country is economically, don't reflect the devastation to these individuals. But the Democratic Party's not interested in those people. They don't contribute to campaigns.

BILL MOYERS: How does our political class get away with ignoring those realities?

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Well, again, to some extent, I blame the media. They don't report on it. But in the larger political scheme, the Democratic Party, it is split. There are still a few democrats who care about the working lower class. Barack Obama, Bill Clinton see it in their political interest to ally themselves with Wall Street. Wall Street, because they can raise money from Wall Street. Wall Street loves "free trade," quote-unquote, because it equals cheap labor. All these trade agreements, and NAFTA in particular, are investment agreements that make it safer for American corporations to set up shop in cheap labor locales. Wall Street thinks that's great. It's great for the shareholders. And it's great for the corporations. The profits go up. So as long as the cash keeps coming to both parties from those interested parties, short of a revolution, short of an uprising among the working poor, you're not going to see any change.

BILL MOYERS: In 2008, Obama, he used NAFTA against Hilary Clinton, as you said, because Bill Clinton had sponsored it in 1993. And he promised that he would reform NAFTA.



JOHN R. MACARTHUR: No. As soon as he got into office, he announced, we really don't need to reform NAFTA. We'll find other ways to help people who've been hurt by NAFTA, which they, and of course, they've done nothing. In fact, he's pushed more free trade deals, Korea, Colombia, et cetera, you know, he keeps pushing, and now, the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership, which will make things even worse.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah. You say if he wins the Trans-Pacific Partnership, he'll be giving away big chunks of our remaining manufacturing base to Japan and Vietnam and other Pacific Rim countries. Why does he want to do that?

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Because he's the fundraiser in chief. And again, this goes back to Bill Clinton. Because Obama's really just imitating Bill Clinton. Clinton made an alliance with the Daley machine in Chicago, which Obama, he's inherited that alliance with the two Daley brothers. The people who were thriving are the people in power. Rahm Emanuel is now mayor of Chicago. Bill Daley and Rahm Emanuel were the chief lobbyists for passing NAFTA under Clinton. They're the ones who rounded up the votes. They're the ones who made the deals with the recalcitrant Democrats and Republicans who didn't want to vote for it. These people are in the saddle. They succeeded each other as--

BILL MOYERS: They're Democrats, too.

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Democrats. But Daley succeeded Rahm Emanuel as Obama's chief of staff. These are the people Obama talks to all the time. And they're saying, free trade, great. We don't know about factories closing. But it's a great way to raise money.

BILL MOYERS: Senator Mitch McConnell, who will soon be the Senate majority leader, said that new trade agreements are one of his top priorities. Are we about to see some bipartisan cooperation between the Republicans in the Senate and Obama in the White House on passing this new trade agreement?

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Absolutely. They've already announced that they're going to try to work together. And if history is repeated, you will see fast track passed.

BILL MOYERS: Which means…

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Which means you give the president, you give the executive branch, the authority to negotiate the trade agreement in secret. That's what Congress gives away, which I think is unconstitutional. Because the Senate is supposed to advise and consent, right? But so far, nobody has challenged it on constitutional grounds. You give fast track authority to the president. They negotiate the deal. At the end of it, a gigantic bill, very complex, because I've read the NAFTA agreement, it's very complex language. You give it to Congress. And you say, okay, vote for it, yes or no, up or down.

No amendments allowed, no amendments allowed. And so that's when the heavy lobbying starts. And most times, at least in the past with PNTR, that's permanent normal trade relations with China, and NAFTA, the big money wins. And this is what's going to happen again with TPP if people don't stop it before it gets to the fast track stage. And I guarantee you, this is a way to send more jobs, particularly to Vietnam and Malaysia. What's happening now is that labor rates are going up slightly in China. This panics the corporations. They want other places to go. Vietnam's an even cheaper labor platform than China. And so it's cheap labor coupled with really minimal environmental protection. You can do just about anything you want to.

BILL MOYERS: I brought two headlines from the same day's edition of the “Washington Post.” One says, "Obama, looking to mend fences with Congress, is reaching out. To Democrats. " The other one, in the same edition of the Washington Post, says, "Obama says he willing to defy Democrats on his support of Trans-Pacific Partnership." What do you make of that?

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Well, it's the typical Obama. You know, during the big, it goes back. Early in his political career, there was a big fight in Chicago in 2006. The city council voted to pass a big box minimum wage bill, $13 an hour. They said there's no factory work left, thanks to NAFTA and PNTR. So if Wal-Mart wants to move into Chicago, we're going to force them to pay a living wage.

And they came up with $13 an hour, with benefits, some kind of health benefits. Mayor Daley vetoed the bill. Because he didn't want to offend his friends in business in Chicago. He was also, I think, personally offended that democracy had broken out in the City Council. You know, it's like the Soviet Union in Chicago, 49 Democrats, 1 Republican.

And so they passed the law. He vetoes it. And there's a big fight to try to override his veto. What do you think Obama does when he's a State Senator and then a Senate candidate, U.S. Senate candidate, then Senator, he kept absolutely mum on it. He didn't say a word. And nobody asked him to say anything. Because they didn't want to compromise him with Mayor Daley. They didn't want to get him in trouble with Daley and force him to make a choice.

Same thing happened at the get go in first two years of administration. That was the time to raise the minimum wage. He had a big majority in both houses. People were panicked. It would’ve put more money in the hands of desperate people who had lost a lot of income.

He didn't propose an increase in the minimum wage in 2009 and 2010, not again in 2011 or 2012, when his own caucus was pushing for one. He had no interest in raising the minimum wage at that point. Because it didn't conform with his fundraising and his pro-business, pro-Wall Street goals.

BILL MOYERS: President Obama appointed a new trade representative, Michael Froman, who's a disciple of Robert Rubin who's the Wall Street insider who pushed for free trade and deregulation when he was Bill Clinton's Secretary of the Treasury and then went back to Wall Street and cashed in big from deregulation and is, today, Robert Rubin, a big influence in the Hillary Clinton camp. What does that tell you?

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Well, what it tells me is they view Obama's presidency as a success. In other words, Wall Street thinks Obama's done right by them. And if they could get Hilary Clinton in, things will stay right.

BILL MOYERS: That was a bold cover story you had recently: "Stop Hillary."

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Yeah, well, we were, it was our effort to force a debate. And we did. I'm actually quite pleased with the outcome that all our competitors were then forced to do cover stories and commentaries on other candidates who might come into the race: Elizabeth Warren, Jim Webb has already announced an exploratory committee, Bernie Sanders, I wish that Sherrod Brown from Ohio would run. There are a lot of people who would make good candidates, but they're intimidated by the Clinton fundraising machine.

BILL MOYERS: But would she raise a big tent for a lot of Democrats to get under and reverse the Republican wave of the midterm elections?

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: There's absolutely no room, there's no tent that can hold the working class, the poor, the lower class that I'm talking about, and the Steven Rattners of Wall Street, who go around saying, oh, don't you love us? We're social liberals. We're for civil rights. We're for all the rights that you care about. We're for tolerance, and so on and so forth.

But what they're not for is worker rights. It doesn't matter if you're gay or black or an impoverished white former factory worker. You all have worker rights in common. That's the commonality. Citizens' rights, I would say also, but worker rights. They never talk about worker rights. They just talk about cultural liberalism. That's what they're interested in.

BILL MOYERS: Here's a quote from Steven Rattner, whom you mentioned. It has to do with the Obama nomination of Antonio Weiss, prominent investment banker who worked on the auto industry bailout during Obama's first term, as Steven Rattner did.

This whole thing, this opposition by Elizabeth Warren and others to Antonio Weiss, “is part of a much broader narrative of the fight for the soul of the Democratic Party and whether so-called progressives are going to capture that or whether more mainstream Democrats, who are equally progressive in their own way, are going to retain it." He said if the Weiss nomination goes down, “it will be a long time before anyone else with Wall Street experience volunteers for this kind of job."

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Boy, what a threat. Wouldn't that be a great thing, if those people from Wall Street stopped volunteering? They don't want to stop volunteering. But that is the central problem in the Democratic Party today. Rattner speaks for a faction, a minority of people but a majority of money.

The other people that I'm referring to, I hope it's Elizabeth Warren or that she hangs in there, and people like Jim Webb are speaking for the majority. But the majority has much less money than this small minority of so-called social liberals on Wall Street.

BILL MOYERS: Elizabeth Warren, Senator Warren, made a speech this week in which she said that the fight is much more than about this nominee for the Treasury Department.

SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN on December 9, 2014: Democratic administrations have filled an enormous number of senior economic policy positions with people who have close ties to Wall Street. Starting with Robert Rubin, a former Citigroup CEO, three of the last four Treasury secretaries under Democratic presidents have had Citigroup affiliations before or after their Treasury service […] Weiss defenders are all in, loudly defending the revolving door and telling America how lucky we are that Wall Street is willing to run the economy and the government. In fact, Weiss supporters even defend the golden parachutes like the $20 million payment that Weiss will receive from Lazard to take this government job. Why? They say it is an important tool in making sure Wall Street executives will continue to be willing to run government policy making.

BILL MOYERS: She's really hitting at the very thing you have been writing about, talking about, and advocating. But nothing is going to change--


BILL MOYERS: --as you yourself have said and written--


BILL MOYERS: --unless the grip of the moneyed interest on our parties and on democracy is broken? How can you fight that much power? That--


BILL MOYERS: --much money?

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: You have to run primary campaigns, cheap primary campaigns against incumbents, like the Tea Party, in the Democratic Party, like the Tea Party does against incumbent Republicans.

You got to actually take political action and present candidates with an alternative point of view. But you also have to go to Fostoria and then come back and tell me and tell your colleagues, that their town is falling apart, they can't send their kids to school anymore. They've got to work in a fast-food place. Do you know that today there are more part-time workers than there were before the recession, before the great recession?

I think it's about seven million part-time workers. Median household income has dropped about $5,000 in the last five or six years. Where are the economists getting their information? You really have to look at the human cost.

There's a social element to this that somehow doesn't get talked about. We talk about incomes dropping, income disparity. We don't talk about the demoralization of the American lower and middle class. It's demoralizing to lose your job. It's demoralizing to feel like there's no future, that you can't pay to send your kids to college.

Things have gotten really bad in the country. There is no relief for these people who have lost their jobs. The deindustrialization of the country continues rapidly.

And every time one of these factories closes, another town drops a couple of notches sociologically. It gets poorer, you can't fund the Little League, you can't fund the public schools, you can't fund local community colleges, nobody's got work, nobody's got any hope. It gets worse and worse and worse. You can't just keep farming the laborer, the jobs out to Vietnam and China and expect things to get better at any point.

BILL MOYERS: Hillary Clinton was recently quoted as saying, quote, "I think our country kind of moves in pendulum swings. We go maybe a little bit too far in one way, and then we swing back. We are most comfortable when we have that balance in the vital center. And we are, I think, in need of getting back to that." What does that say to you?

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Getting back to that? The vital center has moved so far right that it can't be called the "center" anymore. You might call it the "center right"-- but it's far from anything I would call the "center."

BILL MOYERS: Hardly has she said that, than NBC News and the Wall Street Journal published a poll showing the public trends left on one issue after another; raising the minimum wage, spending more for infrastructure, helping students pay off their college loans, addressing climate change and global warming. I mean, Hillary Clinton, by this account, is to the right of the American public, and particularly of the Democratic constituency.

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Right, but more important for Hillary Clinton, she's not to the right of Steven Rattner or the Daley brothers--

BILL MOYERS: The Wall Street--

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: --or Rahm Emanuel. The Wall Street and the Chicago political machine types. She's very much in harmony with them.

BILL MOYERS: So where does a Sherrod Brown, a Jim Webb, an Elizabeth Warren, get the money to run against people who are backed by the deepest pockets in America?

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: I'm glad you asked me that because I was fascinated with the Howard Dean candidacy. I think Howard Dean was probably the best hope we had in a long time.

But whatever you thought of his politics or his, you know, his demeanor, or where he came from, and remember, he's a son of Wall Street. His meet-ups, where people would, through the internet, donate $100, scared the hell out of the Democratic and Republican Party establishments.

And I think I make a convincing case in the book that they colluded in the Iowa primaries to knock him out. 527 committees were formed, we didn't know where the money was coming from, but they were coming from Democratic money and Republican money to knock out this dissident who'd figured out how to beat the system. Lots of $100 contributions could compete with a few $100,000 contributions.

So in order to compete, you've got to rally the people and get lots of small donations. And Dean did that and he paid the price. You see, he didn't even last as Democratic National Committee chairman, because Rahm Emanuel saw him as a threat. They got rid of him as soon as they could.

BILL MOYERS: What if it's too late to change a system that is so in place, so entrenched, and so well-funded?

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Well, there's two things can happen. You could have revolt, you could have rioting. I guess you could have open revolt in the streets. Or you could have a demoralized, lower two-thirds of the American population that doesn't benefit from the advantages of the top third or the top fifth. And people just get used to it.

I mean, up to a point, people get used to these things. They do in other countries, where things are even more inegalitarian. We in America have a higher opinion of ourselves than maybe we deserve. We've always believed that we're Democrats, we're fundamentally egalitarian. Whether or not there's inequality in society, that there's an egalitarian impulse in America that will always save us.

But I see that egalitarian impulse disappearing. I see it either being numbed or actually snuffed out. I take umbrage with the liberal elite in this country that I think has also abandoned the white, black, gay, working class across the board.

They just don't care about them anymore. They think, well, we're doing all right here in our bubble. And we're, you know, we're not going to threaten our position in society or offend certain people because on behalf of people who don't have anything. For there to be a change, the progressive elite, I guess I would call them, have got to say, we don't care what these people say about us anymore. We're breaking with them. We're going to start, we're going to join the opposition.

BILL MOYERS: Let’s continue this discussion online.

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: I’ll be delighted to.

BILL MOYERS: Rick MacArthur, thank you for being with me.

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Thank you for having me.

BILL MOYERS: At our website, my conversation with Rick MacArthur continues, and you can read more about the Trans-Pacific Partnership and another trade deal that both President Obama and members of Congress are trying to fast track – and fast talk – into law.

That’s all at I’ll see you there and I’ll see you here, next time.

News Thu, 18 Dec 2014 11:13:17 -0500
The Destabilization of Pakistan: Tariq Ali on Taliban School Massacre and US Afghan War Blowback

We begin today’s show in Pakistan, where people in the northwestern city of Peshawar are burying their dead after a Taliban attack at a school killed at least 145 people — including 132 children — in the Taliban’s deadliest attack to date. According to the Pakistani army, Tuesday’s attack was carried out by seven Taliban attackers against the Army Public School, which both military and civilian girls and boys attend. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has declared three days of mourning and convened a meeting of all parliamentary parties in Peshawar to discuss the response to the attack. The army has reportedly launched attacks at militants in the region. The Taliban said they targeted the children of military families in retaliation for Pakistan’s anti-Taliban campaign in North Waziristan. We speak to British-Pakistani political commentator Tariq Ali and Asad Hashim, Al Jazeera English web correspondent in Pakistan.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today’s show in Pakistan, where people in the northwestern city of Peshawar are burying their dead after a Taliban attack at a school killed at least 145 people, including 132 children, in the Taliban’s deadliest attack to date. According to the Pakistani army, Tuesday’s attack was carried out by seven Taliban attackers against the Army Public School, which both military and civilian girls and boys attend. One of the surviving students described the scene of the attack .

SURVIVING STUDENT: [translated] As soon as the firing started, our teacher made us sit in a corner and told us to lower our heads. After around an hour, when the firing subsided a little, Army personnel came and rescued us. When we came out, we saw in the corridors our friends who had been shot three or four times, some dead and some injured. Their blood had spilled all over the place.

AMY GOODMAN: Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has declared three days of mourning and convened a meeting of all parliamentary parties in Peshawar to discuss the response to the attack. The army has reportedly launched attacks at militants in the region. The Taliban said they targeted the children of military families in retaliation for Pakistan’s anti-Taliban campaign in North Waziristan. Since June, at the urging of the United States, Pakistan has waged a massive offensive in the region, which coincided with the resumption of U.S. drone strikes.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Pakistani Taliban spokesman Mohammad Khurasani said the militants had been forced to launch the attack in response to army attacks. In a statement, Khurasani said, quote, "We targeted the school because the army targets our families. We want them to feel our pain." Pakistani education activist and Nobel Peace Prize activist Malala Yousafzai said she was heartbroken by the attack.

MALALA YOUSAFZAI: My family and I are heartbroken after hearing the news that more than a hundred innocent children and teachers have lost their lives in this recent attack on a school in Peshawar. And we stand with all those families and all those children who are injured right now and who are suffering through this big trauma. And now it is time that we unite. And I call upon the international community, leaders in Pakistan, all political parties and everyone, that we should stand up together and fight against terrorism, and we should make sure that every child gets safe and quality education.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Malala Yousafzai speaking in Birmingham Tuesday. Earlier this month, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the youngest ever. In 2012, she was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman who boarded her school bus. She survived and continues to campaign for the right of girls to go to school.

For more on the attacks, we’re joined by Tariq Ali, a British-Pakistani political commentator, historian, activist, filmmaker. He is the editor of the New Left Review.

Tariq, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you just respond to this horrific attack with 132 schoolchildren dead, 145 altogether including teachers?

TARIQ ALI: Amy, two things need to be said about this straightaway. This has very little to do with religion. What we are witnessing in Pakistan now is a form of a power struggle going on between militants aligned with the umbrella of pro-Taliban groups known as the Pakistani Taliban Movement, which isn’t a single movement, a struggle between them and the Pakistani—or segments of the Pakistani state to determine who controls the country. And the fact that over the last decade or so the authorities of the state—the military and the political parties, especially those parties sympathetic to the Taliban—have been incapable of or have refused to do anything about it, we now see the results and the impact of that. And that’s the first point.

The second is that we shouldn’t forget for a moment that one reason these Taliban groups have not been dealt with is because sections of the state still feel—even after this atrocity, by the way—that they can’t completely get rid of them because they are linked to the fight in Afghanistan, and the notion of the Pakistani military high commanders being that we need Afghanistan to give ourselves strategic depth—always a nonsensical notion, but it’s now exacting a very heavy price in Pakistan itself. And at the time when the United States went into Afghanistan, I remember writing in The Guardian that one consequence of this massive presence of Western military troops is going to be the destabilization and the advancement of terror inside Pakistan itself.

So, it’s a horrific attack. It can’t be justified. What the Taliban are saying is, of course, true, that they are bombed, that their kids die, and no one says a word. That’s absolutely true. But you cannot justify one crime by committing another.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Tariq, what about this continuing assault on North Waziristan by the Pakistani government, especially as the foreign troops, U.S. troops, in Afghanistan wind down and leave the country?

TARIQ ALI: Well, I think that this is the million-dollar question. Are they going to leave the country? Are they going to take their military bases with them? The latest from there, Juan, is that their military bases are going to stay with a very limited number of troops. But the Afghan Taliban has emerged as the winner in this conflict, and there’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that they are in touch with elements of the Pakistani military apparatus to discuss what to do now. I mean, they’ve been close for a long, long time, and so they will be discussing that, which is why the thing becomes much more complex, because I don’t think the Pakistani military has given up ever on the notion of taking Afghanistan back once the West leaves. And the fact that the Taliban in Afghanistan, with new supporters, has managed to hold the West at bay and defeated them, effectively, politically, if not militarily, is a sign that the Pakistani military has not given up.

AMY GOODMAN: We are also joined, in addition to Tariq Ali, by Asad Hashim, Al Jazeera English correspondent in Islamabad, in Pakistan. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Asad. Talk about the latest there and the response within Pakistan. Asad, can you hear us?

ASAD HASHIM: Yes, I can hear you now. Sorry, you just disappeared for a moment.


ASAD HASHIM: Sorry, I missed your question.

AMY GOODMAN: If you can talk about the latest in Pakistan right now and the response to this horrific massacre?

ASAD HASHIM: Well, the public response has been, as you can imagine, one of shock and outrage and horror. As Mr. Ali said, I mean, this was just something that was completely unprecedented, in a way. I mean, the Taliban has been, and their allies have been, carrying out attacks against civilian targets in Pakistan for many years now, but we’ve very rarely seen something on this scale. And it’s not just about the scale, I think; it’s also about the fact that it was children who were killed in execution-style killings, really, at the school. They lined them up in the auditorium in rows and face down, and then were shooting them in the head. And that really has brought about a visceral response from Pakistanis. So, today, really, the day was spent in sort of like numb horror, I think. Even now, most people who are in offices or in shops—a lot of shops were closed today, even though there was not necessarily a strike called of any kind and this wasn’t being enforced. People literally just did not want to work.

On the political front, there was the multi-party conference, the all-party conference, which you spoke about earlier and alluded to. That ended a little while ago, but it not really ended up with anything concrete. I mean, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, really, held a press conference with all of the leaders beside him, which was a show of unity, but they didn’t say anything concrete. They essentially just said, "We will come up with a plan in the next week that will be a united plan to resolve the issue of extremism," which is a really nothing statement, to be honest.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Asad, I wanted to ask you, the—could you talk a little bit more about the [TTP], the group that’s claimed responsibility for the attack, and its relationship to other insurgent groups? Because there are reports that the Taliban in Afghanistan have condemned this attack.

ASAD HASHIM: Yes, yes. So, the Taliban in Afghanistan do appear to have condemned the attack, and that’s interesting in and of itself, because the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan owes its allegiance to the Afghan Taliban and to Mullah Omar and, through them, to al-Qaeda. And this is very interesting because the TTP has actually suffered in recent months from a number of divisions and factions that have formed within it due to internal leadership issues, but also due to the issue of certain commanders pledging allegiance to the Islamic State, which obviously is a competitor in the global terrorism game, I suppose, to al-Qaeda. And so, you had the TTP actually suffering for its allegiance to the Afghan Taliban, and to have the Afghan Taliban now condemn this attack is very significant for them.

The TTP itself is a group that was formed—it’s an umbrella organization of terrorist groups that were formed in 2007 under Baitullah Mehsud. In the last year or so, we’ve seen it considerably weakened. As I said, there were leadership issues when they elected their new leader, which is Mullah Fazlullah. Now, he’s not from the tribal areas, which is where the group mainly operates and is from and where it draws its strength from. He’s from an area called Swat, where he conducted a very successful campaign against the Pakistani state. And I guess on the back of that, he was given the leadership role. But he’s—in the time that he’s been in office, since November last year, he has seen the TTP really sick several times. He’s had several—he’s had to fire several commanders who were not willing to follow him. So we’ve seen the TTP weaken to a degree.

The other reason why I would say we’ve seen the TTP weaken is because, since Zarb-e-Azb, since the military operation began on June 15th in North Waziristan, which you were referring to earlier, we were already expecting a large number of blowback attacks in urban areas, as we have seen after similar operations in the past. And this time, we really have seen very limited attacks of that kind. There was the attack in the Wagah border post that took place last month where about 60 civilians were killed. That was the first really large-scale attack. And this one is—as I said, it’s unprecedented in its scale—141 people killed, 143 now, I believe, with the death toll rising as people succumb to their injuries. This is the worst terrorist attack in Pakistan’s recent history.

AMY GOODMAN: Tariq Ali, in 2012, one of Pakistan’s leading English daily newspapers revealed a large majority of high-profile terrorism cases has resulted in acquittals in the country’s largest province. The piece appeared in The Express Tribune and was headlined "High-profile cases in Punjab: 63% terror suspects acquitted." Could you explain how the Pakistani state, and in particular the judiciary, have dealt with the rising number of militant attacks in the country?

TARIQ ALI: Amy, this is absolutely true, what The Express Tribune reported. And I would add to it that the fact that his own bodyguard killed the late governor of the Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, and were—and the guy is still awaiting punishment, and the fact that many lawyers in the court came to welcome the assassin of the governor is an indication of how deep the rot has gone. Now, a number of senior magistrates and judges in charge of the terrorism courts are basically scared. A, witnesses who come before them are threatened, so they withdraw their testimony. That leaves them with no legal basis on which to punish or sentence the perpetrators, and they have to release them. But I think a very large number of judges in these courts are scared. They’re scared that if they do their duty, they’ll be shot dead. And the inability of the state to protect them is something which a number of people have remarked on.

If I could just add one thing to what your man in Islamabad was saying, that it’s not the first time that the Afghan Taliban have attacked their Pakistani so-called supporters. They did so some years ago when there were other atrocities carried out. And the basic difference between the two groups is that the Afghan Taliban feel that the main target should be NATO and the West, and not the Pakistani state, on which, after all, they have relied for a long time.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to leave it there. I want to thank you both for being with us. Of course, we’ll continue to cover this horrific story, this massacre that has taken place in Peshawar, 132 schoolchildren killed. Tariq Ali is a British-Pakistani political commentator, historian, filmmaker, novelist, editor of the New Left Review. And thanks so much to Asad Hashim, Al Jazeera English web correspondent in Pakistan, based in the capital, Islamabad. He recently co-authored two pieces for Al Jazeera, one headlined "Breaking Down the Tehreek-e-Taliban [Pakistan]" and the other titled "Children massacred in Pakistan school attack."

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go to Missouri to witness number 40. Who was she? Stay with us.

News Thu, 18 Dec 2014 11:07:06 -0500
"Cut Loose the Shackles of the Past": US and Cuba Announce a New Dawn in Diplomatic Relations

President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro announced Wednesday that the United States will restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time in more than half a century. The historic deal will include the opening of a U.S. embassy in Havana and comes with a prisoner exchange. Live from Cuba, we go to Havana for reaction from Peter Kornbluh, director of the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive at George Washington University. "Finally after 55 years, an element of sanity and effectiveness and modernization has arrived to the insane U.S. policy that U.S. presidents have been pursuing towards Cuba or all these years," Kornbluh says. He is the co-author of the book, Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana.


AMY GOODMAN: President Obama announced Wednesday the United States will restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time in more than half a century. The historic move will include the opening of a U.S. embassy in Havana. It was reportedly facilitated by Pope Francis and the Vatican, who helped begin secret negotiations last year.

The softened relations come with a prisoner exchange. Cuba has released Alan Gross, a subcontractor for USAID—that’s the U.S. Agency for International Development. He was arrested in 2009, sentenced to 15 years for smuggling illegal technology into the country for opposition groups. Also released was a Cuban who had provided information about Cuban spy operations in the United States. Obama did not identify the prisoner by name, but Newsweek reports he’s Rolando Sarraff Trujillo, a former Cuban intelligence officer who who worked secretly for the CIA until he was arrested on espionage charges in 1995. Meanwhile, the United States freed the remaining members of the Cuban Five—Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero and Ramón Labañino. The men were arrested in the United States in 1998 and convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage. But Cuban intelligence officers say they were not spying on the United States, but rather trying to monitor violent right-wing Cuban exile groups responsible for attacks inside Cuba. President Obama outlined the exchange as the prisoners were already returning home.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Over many months, my administration has held discussions with the Cuban government about Alan’s case and other aspects of our relationship. His Holiness Pope Francis issued a personal appeal to me and to Cuba’s President Raúl Castro, urging us to resolve Alan’s case and to address Cuba’s interest in the release of three Cuban agents who have been jailed in the United States for over 15 years.

Today, Alan returned home, reunited with his family at long last. Alan was released by the Cuban government on humanitarian grounds. Separately, in exchange for the three Cuban agents, Cuba today released one of the most important intelligence agents that the United States has ever had in Cuba, and who has been imprisoned for nearly two decades. This man, whose sacrifice has been known to only a few, provided America with the information that allowed us to arrest the network of Cuban agents that included the men transferred to Cuba today, as well as other spies in the United States. This man is now safely on our shores.

AMY GOODMAN: The deal between the United States and Cuba is a major diplomatic victory for Cuba’s President Raúl Castro, who has offered to engage in direct conversations with Obama, quote, "as equals" since he came to power in 2006 after taking over from his brother, Fidel Castro. President Castro announced the changes in his own midday address to the nation.

PRESIDENT RAÚL CASTRO: [translated] As a result of a dialogue at the highest level, which included a phone conversation I had yesterday with President Obama, we have been able to make headway in a solution of some topics of mutual interest for both nations. As Fidel promised on June 2001, when he said, "They shall return," Gerardo, Ramón and Antonio have arrived today to our homeland. The enormous joy of their families and all of our people, who have relentlessly fought for this goal, is shared by hundreds of solidarity committees and groups, governments, parliaments, organizations, institutions and personalities who, for the last 16 years, have made tireless efforts demanding their release. We convey our deepest gratitude and commitment to all of them. President Obama’s decision deserves the respect and acknowledgment of our people.

AMY GOODMAN: News of the U.S. deal follows news that USAID tried to infiltrate Cuba’s hip-hop community in a botched plot to foment anti-government unrest. As part of the program, the agency hired Creative Associates International, a firm that also played a key role in the "Cuban Twitter" program, a fake social media program launched in another bid to undermine the Cuban government. In the hip-hop case, Creative Associates was directed to recruit young rap artists looking to make "social change." The program ended up endangering some of the artists and their careers. On Monday, the head of USAID said he will step down in February. Rajiv Shah gave no public reason for leaving and, in a statement, said he had mixed emotions that the United States is restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba as outlined by President Obama on Wednesday.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I’m now taking steps to place the interests of the people of both countries at the heart of our policy. First, I’ve instructed Secretary Kerry to immediately begin discussions with Cuba to re-establish diplomatic relations that have been severed since January of 1961. Going forward, the United States will re-establish an embassy in Havana, and high-ranking officials will visit Cuba. Where we can advance shared interests, we will, on issues like health, migration, counterterrorism, drug trafficking and disaster response. ...

Second, I’ve instructed Secretary Kerry to review Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. This review will be guided by the facts and the law. ...

Third, we are taking steps to increase travel, commerce and the flow of information to and from Cuba. This is fundamentally about freedom and openness, and also expresses my belief in the power of people-to-people engagement. With the changes I’m announcing today, it will be easier for Americans to travel to Cuba, and Americans will be able to use American credit and debit cards on the island. ...

I believe that American businesses should not be put at a disadvantage, and that increased commerce is good for Americans and for Cubans. So we will facilitate authorized transactions between the United States and Cuba. U.S. financial institutions will be allowed to open accounts at Cuban financial institutions. And it will be easier for U.S. exporters to sell goods in Cuba.

I believe in the free flow of information. Unfortunately, our sanctions on Cuba have denied Cubans access to technology that has empowered individuals around the globe. So I’ve authorized increased telecommunications connections between the United States and Cuba. Businesses will be able to sell goods that enable Cubans to communicate with the United States and other countries.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, today we spend the hour looking at this new chapter in U.S.-Cuba relations. Here in New York, we’re joined by attorney Martin Garbus, member of the Cuban Five legal team, and Michael Ratner, who’s president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights. He has written several books on Cuba, Who Killed Che?: How the CIA Got Away with Murder, and also is the co-editor of Che Guevara and the FBI: The U.S. Political Police Dossier on the Latin American Revolutionary. Joining us from Washington, D.C., is Robert Muse, an attorney, an expert in U.S. laws relating to Cuba. He was in Havana, Cuba, Wednesday when the deal was announced. His recent piece published in Americas Quarterly is "U.S. Presidential Action on Cuba: The New Normalization?" And in Havana, we go to Peter Kornbluh, director of the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive at George Washington University, co-author of the book Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Let’s begin in Havana with Peter Kornbluh. Your response to this historic announcement by President Obama in Washington, D.C., and President Raúl Castro in Havana, Cuba, where you are right now, Peter?

PETER KORNBLUH: Well, I have a one-word response, Amy: finally. Finally, after 55 years, an element of sanity and effectiveness and modernization have arrived to the insane U.S. policy that U.S. presidents have been pursuing towards Cuba for all these years, all these decades.

As you can see from looking at me, the sun is coming up here over Havana Bay. And, you know, I really have a sense, and I think the Cubans that I’ve talked to here in the street have a sense, of a new day, a new dawn, a new beginning, as President Obama himself has said, in U.S.-Cuban relations. And, you know, there really is a sense of excitement here about the future. My taxi driver, who just brought me down to the studio to be with you, said that the taxi chauffeurs are already talking about when they’re going to be able to get a Ford van for taxis, so they can carry more people around. So, you know, expectations are high that a change of relations with the United States is going to lead to development here. He says, "You know, we’ve had a lot of politics, but you can’t eat politics." And then, Cubans are looking at the economy and hoping that really a change in relations with the United States portends a much better development future for Cuba’s economy and for the future of this country.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. That was Peter Kornbluh. Today he is in Havana, Cuba. This is Democracy Now! on this historic day after the announcement that for the first time in over 50 years the U.S. and Cuba will begin normalizing relations. Stay with us.

News Thu, 18 Dec 2014 11:00:26 -0500
The Frack Oil Salesman ]]> (Lauren Walker) Art Thu, 18 Dec 2014 10:03:24 -0500 Quiet Distress Among the (Ex) Rich

2014.12.18.Smith.mainThe fact that economic distress has moved pretty high up the food chain is a sign that this recovery isn't all that it is cracked up to be. (Image via Shutterstock)For a limited time only, any donation you make to Truthout will be doubled thanks to a matching grant offer. Pitch in now to help us survive!

While the wealthy don’t get much sympathy on this website, the restructuring of the economy to save the banks at the expense of pretty much everyone else has hurt some former members of the top 1% and even the 0.1%. And it’s also worth mentioning that some of the former members of the top echelon occupied it when the distance between the rich and everyone else was much narrower than it is now.

The fact that economic distress has moved pretty high up the food chain is a sign that this recovery isn’t all that it is cracked up to be. Even though the media is awash in stories of how much stronger the economy is getting, I see all sorts of counter-indicators locally: more restaurant and retail store closures than during or at any point after the crisis (and pretty long store vacancies), reports from my hair salon that business is not all that great, and my gym offering hefty discounts on renewals for the first time. Perhaps NYC is in a mini-downdraft, but that would be the reverse of the pattern in recent years, where thanks to the tender ministrations of the Fed and Treasury, the city has weathered the downturn better than most of the US.

A cohort that is in quiet distress is women who were divorced 15 or more years ago. Conventional wisdom is that London is a great city for woman to go through divorce, and New York is a lousy one. I have no basis for validating that statement. But regardless, the assumptions in handing out settlements back then, that the ex wife would be able to earn a decent return on her investments and land at least an adequately paid job when she was done receiving alimony, are out the window now. So women who thought they’d gotten enough to be able to raise their kids and live comfortably, or at least adequately, are now scrambling in their mid 50s to mid 60s to figure out how to survive, when reinventing yourself at that age is an against-the-odds proposition.

Here’s a story from someone I’ve known for the past three or so years (details disguised). We’ll call her Karen. She is from a wealthy family, sent to private school in Europe, attended an Ivy League college in the mid 1970s and got a graduate degree in math from one of the top programs in America. She married someone also from a wealthy family who is now a billionaire. Karen wound up inheriting almost nothing because the very successful manufacturing business that her grandfather built was run into the ground by her father.

Karen got divorced in her late 30s, which was about 20 years ago. She gave up a lot in the settlement to get custody of her children (long shaggy story as to why that was the case). She moved into a modest apartment and now is in an even more modest apartment (and it’s rent stabilized, so it is also cheap for what it is). She got another graduate degree (not an MBA, a useful one) that with her math/statistical chops should have positioned her well to get work when she was done raising her kids and the ailmony ran out.

She found, when she hit the job market in 2009, that no one would hire her for sort of positions that her training qualified her for. It was not clear how much of that was due to age discrimination or just the hyper-competitive state of the market. She managed to get herself hired by a series of new or newish ventures. The compensation either had a large sales component or “on the come” component. She wound up leaving each one, and even though she’d be the last to put it this way, having heard these situations evolve, in each case it was about an ethical issue. For instance, in one she was asked to misrepresent the company’s services to prospective customers. She tried hard squaring that circle and was still meeting her sales targets but the owner took umbrage at her refusal to adhere closely to his basically dishonest sales pitch. For another, she was working on the FDA process, and disagreed with management’s approach of marketing to the FDA as opposed to complying with the data disclosure requirements.

After each of these jobs fell apart, and she was getting near the end of the alimony runway, she was panicked. She also supports her brother (she pays the taxes and maintenance on her half of a house they inherited without charing him rent). She was seriously looking into cleaning apartments.

To her surprise, her ex-husband did not cut her off completely; he’s paying her a greatly reduced amount. And she has landed a job as an adjunct professor teaching calculus at a local school. She says matter of factly, “I thought with my two graduate degrees I’d be able to earn $80,000 a year. My market value is between $23,000 and $30,000.” Keep in mind that what she makes as an adjunct is what she’d make cleaning five Manhattan apartments a week.*

So with her bargain basement rental and the stipend from her ex, she has enough to get by and enjoy some small luxuries, like going to London once a year to see her daughter who is in school there.** But the adjunct job is no party. Some of the students are openly hostile to taking math from an older woman, and last term, when one of the instructors pulled out of teaching a course, she got bagged to take on far more in the way of teaching (as in both number of lectures and number of students) than goes with her pay.

In her circle, which I infer consists of people she kept in contact with from her school days, plus people she met through her children’s schools, she says she knows of no one who is not in worse shape than they were a few years ago (this includes her billionaire ex) and many are in moderate to acute stress. For the other divorced women she knows, even if they aren’t in trouble now, they can see that their assets won’t last them the 20 to 40 years of life expectancy they have, and they see no way out of their box. One of her other friends who isn’t as educated and resourceful as Karen needs to send more money to her mother and was making a serious effort to get apartment cleaning work. Another has a house she was renting out for income, but the local market changed and she was suffering a lot of vacancies. She’s been refusing to sell the house because “she can’t afford to take the loss” which really means psychologically she can’t face up to the idea that she has less in the way of assets than she thought she had.

A sign that of broader underlying stress among the supposedly well off: those in Karen’s circle say that the word in the charity circuit is that donations are down this year.

The problems that Karen and her friends face isn’t their fault. Just as it’s easy to demonize the poor who don’t have jobs as deserving of their fate, when most of them want to work and many had good records before the economy was rearchitected to remove a lot of decent jobs and leave people scrambling for those who remain, so to it is easy to demonize the better off who similarly had the rules changed on them when it is too late for them to do much to change course. Just as many of the people who are desperate for work made choices that seemed sound, or defensible mistakes, so Karen and her friends weren’t profligates. They got what should have been enough for them to live on if they didn’t overspend. And Karen is quick to decry women who partied too much or lived too high, so for the most part, that isn’t a big driver of the quiet panic around her.

Thanks to ZIRP and QE, these women face the same problem as retirees, just at a somewhat higher starting point. The equation among the downwardly mobile wealthy was that if you had more than a million dollars, you could put it in muni bonds, earn 3-5% after tax, and that plus Social Security and a paid-for house meant you had nothing to worry about unless you got a really costly ailment. So allowing for personal risks and the possibility of needing to support family members, a couple of million dollars would be ample to live off your income and not touch your principal, which also meant you could leave an inheritance to your kids.

No longer. Now to get 2% in munis, you have to go out to a ten-year maturity, which means you are taking real interest rate risk. And if you are no longer able to earn enough income off your principal, you either have to cut way down to live off what it yields now, or if that is still not enough, to chip away at your principal. That means you are faced with the underlying terror of the real odds of being peniless in your old age. Those who are still in the labor force and have lousy personal balance sheets can keep that eventuality at bay by virtue of how just getting through the day occupies the mind plus the belief, whether true or not, that they can keep working until they drop. Retirees and the de facto retired, like these divorced women, have the high odds of an eventual financial train wreck much more in their faces. And with our society becoming more mercenary and callous, they are unlikely to be able to rely on the charity of others if that occurs.

So as much as many of you will probably see these women as undeserving of sympathy, their story is the same as that of many middle aged and elderly people: not enough in the way of assets to see them through their likely lifespan, with their problem due largely to the inability to earn a decent income from savings under ZIRP. The fact that there are many people who are desperate now does not lessen the plight of those who are long financial distress futures. Everybody has his own personal rate of financial decomposition. The case studies in this post have the time and financial savvy to see their decay profile and its implications earlier than many others do.



* Going rate is $100 to $150 for a one-bedroom, depending on size of apartment and how much the cleaning person does (a big variable is whether laundry and pressing included; ones with more bedrooms and more than one bath obviously command higher rates). Conservatively allowing for $120 an apartment, 48 weeks a year, and no Christmas bonus (pretty much everyone does give a bonus, generally an extra session’s pay) is $28,800 a year. But the work is not as steady as a day job.

** Before you start moralizing that she should leave NYC, she is keen to get out but it is unlikely to get her overhead down much. The cost of owning and operating a car is a big offset to the savings on housing.

News Thu, 18 Dec 2014 09:27:06 -0500
Declaring War on Heroin

In a handout photo, 53 pounds of herion, seized from a New York-based drug organization by the Drug Enforcement Administration. More heroin has already been seized by authorities here in 2014 than in any year since 1991, part of a well-documented nationwide rise in heroin use that has seen New York once again become a conduit for suppliers. (DEA via The New York Times)In a handout photo, 53 pounds of herion, seized from a New York-based drug organization by the Drug Enforcement Administration. More heroin has already been seized by authorities here in 2014 than in any year since 1991, part of a well-documented nationwide rise in heroin use that has seen New York once again become a conduit for suppliers. (Photo: DEA via The New York Times)

Even as officials eschew "drug war" language, many states' actions in response to the heroin panic have taken the same old tack. Overwhelming, well-publicized evidence that mandatory minimums do not reduce crime has apparently been cast aside in the swirl of the heroin scare.

In a handout photo, 53 pounds of herion, seized from a New York-based drug organization by the Drug Enforcement Administration. More heroin has already been seized by authorities here in 2014 than in any year since 1991, part of a well-documented nationwide rise in heroin use that has seen New York once again become a conduit for suppliers. (DEA via The New York Times)In a handout photo, 53 pounds of herion, seized from a New York-based drug organization by the Drug Enforcement Administration. More heroin has already been seized by authorities here in 2014 than in any year since 1991, part of a well-documented nationwide rise in heroin use that has seen New York once again become a conduit for suppliers. (Photo: DEA via The New York Times)

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An era has ended: The term "war on drugs" has become passé. Instead of trumpeting the "just say no" mantra of decades past, elected officials now rattle off the rhetoric - and sometimes even the policy recommendations - of decriminalization activists, using phrases like "public health issue" and "holistic approach." President Obama's 2014 Drug Control Strategy pointed to treatment and prevention as top priorities, downplaying the role of law enforcement and putting "war on drugs" in quotes. On the policy front, marijuana laws are loosening in many states, substantive sentencing reform bills are making their way through Congress, and the president may soon grant clemency to thousands of long-serving drug prisoners. At least 29 states are taking steps to roll back the harsh mandatory sentences that have lent fuel to the mass incarceration of millions of people of color and poor people over the past 30 years.

These changes have not always translated into decreased arrests - in fact, marijuana arrests remain at historically high levels, with people of color (and particularly black people) shouldering an immensely disproportionate amount of the burden, despite similar rates of drug use among racial groups.

Moreover, a glaring exception to the trend toward relaxing drug laws has surfaced in the last year: When it comes to heroin, policymakers have hit the drug war battlefield with renewed vigor. From the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman to reports of heroin use doubling in New York to a slew of headlines warning of increased opiate use among white suburban youth, news of a heroin "epidemic" has spread fast, and it has translated into a contagion of harsh drug policy.

Even as officials eschew "drug war" language, many states' actions in response to the heroin panic have taken the same old tack. In Louisiana, where Gov. Bobby Jindal said last year that "substance abuse treatment instead of incarceration is a more effective treatment," the governor signed a bill that substantially increases the mandatory minimum prison term for distribution or "possession with intent to distribute" heroin. Overwhelming, well-publicized evidence that mandatory minimums do not reduce crime - and instead result in the brutal warehousing of large numbers of black and brown people, along with vast expenditures of state dollars - has apparently been cast aside in the swirl of the heroin scare. In Virginia, where the governor recently celebrated Recovery Month (September) by extolling the virtues of treatment and disclosure, heroin arrests have more than doubled over the past five years. And New York's Gov. Andrew Cuomo has declared his own plans to "turn the tide on this [heroin] epidemic," signing into law a package of addiction treatment bills… and a slate of "strengthened" drug penalties.

Why the panic - and why the kneejerk punitive reaction?

The number of people who report using heroin has increased sharply over the past ten years, and in the wake of Hoffman's death last year, mass media have seized on that trend as an "epidemic." However, users have actually decreased in the past year, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Plus, as Columbia University's Dr. Carl Hart points out, most heroin users are not addicted to the substance, and the vast majority of overdose deaths occur when people combine heroin with other drugs, as in the case of Hoffman. Yet rather than expanding access to practical drug education (for example, informing people of the danger of combining heroin with other drugs), efforts - even those involving treatment - have been centered in the criminal legal system, following a longtime pattern in which "cracking down" on a health problem means involving police and targeting communities of color.

The heroin battle cry echoes a very familiar logic: Instead of focusing on pragmatic steps to protect public health, it frames "cracking down" on drugs as a morality-based mission. In 1986, Nancy Reagan announced, in the lead-up to a proposal that would intensify drug policing, "There is no moral middle ground… For the sake of our children, I implore each of you to be unyielding and inflexible in your opposition to drugs." On a parallel note, an Illinois police chief recently declared, "If we allow any kind of possession of heroin to be a misdemeanor, shame on our society.'" The sponsor of the recently enacted Tennessee law that criminalizes mothers who've used illicit drugs during their pregnancy (so far, mostly targeting opiate users), called the law a "velvet hammer" and erroneously warned that the lives of babies born to addicted mothers are "totally destroyed," replicating the mantras used during the "crack baby" panic to justify the separation of many predominantly black mothers from their babies in the 1980s and '90s. (Longitudinal studies have since disproven assumptions about "crack babies"; fetal alcohol syndrome, it turns out, is far more serious.)

Nowadays, many have abandoned the no-moral-middle-ground position when it comes to marijuana - now widely viewed as the "good drug" - but the rush for the "velvet hammer" is still embedded in our cultural backbone, ready for deployment when crisis seems to strike. The words "epidemic" and "scourge," once used for crack, have now easily resurfaced to apply to heroin, and so have the penalties to match.

Responses to the heroin panic often also echo classic "tough on crime" refrains that have long driven the mass arrest and incarceration of people of color and the poor. For example, a Delaware police chief has initiated a plan modeled on New York's notoriously racist "broken windows" policing practices, in which people - usually black and Latino people - are arrested for tiny infractions like riding bicycles on the sidewalk or jumping subway turnstiles. (The tragic effects of the "broken windows" mentality can be witnessed in the killing of Eric Garner by Staten Island cops, on suspicion of selling loose cigarettes.) The Delaware police chief told the local newspaper that in order to combat increased heroin use, "What we're doing is broken windows on steroids." Police in Medina, Ohio, recently unveiled a "broken windows" campaign to crack down on offenses like loitering and littering, in an effort, they say, to curb heroin possession and sales.

And so, although both facts and public opinion now firmly discourage the punitive approach (two out of three Americans oppose the prosecution of heroin possession, and a majority support a shift away from mandatory minimums), the past few months have demonstrated that when it comes to drug scares, our leaders have not moved beyond their reflexive reach for policing and prison.

Meanwhile, despite the Obama administration's talk of emphasizing treatment and prevention, crucial public health measures continue to be neglected. A key example is the prohibition on financial support for needle exchange programs: Aside from a brief period between 2009 and 2011, these initiatives have been banned from receiving federal funding for the past 25 years. Needle exchange drastically reduces the incidence of HIV transmission among injection drug users, it's endorsed by the World Health Organization as a lifesaver for both users and their families, and it costs taxpayers many times less than HIV treatment. (Conversely, a recent study indicates that arresting HIV-positive drug users actually heightens risks of overdosing and spreading the disease.) Syringe exchange programs also save lives by training clients in confronting overdose situations, and by providing easier, more informed access to treatment. These steps are proven to reduce heroin-related harm - unlike upping mandatory sentences for distribution crimes, or arresting kids for bicycling on the sidewalk.

The "war on drugs" metaphor may have been withdrawn from official circulation, but the prisoners are still being taken and the casualties are still mounting. We can't just start putting "drug war" in quotes and absolve ourselves of responsibility for the carnage. We need to peel back years of social conditioning that have instilled an impulse to run for the criminal legal system whenever the drug alarm strikes. And we must also challenge that alarmism itself - a phenomenon that has stoked decades of racist policy, sent millions to prison and torn apart millions of families.

If we are truly committed to ending the drug war, we must not let our intoxication with "epidemics" - and our entrenched drug war morality myths - trump our responsibility to humanity.

Opinion Thu, 18 Dec 2014 09:15:35 -0500
Warning: Fracking May Harm Public Health

What do public health advocates like me tell people all the time? Get tested. Use protection.

In practice, that means we’re always explaining how everything from cancer screenings to immunizations to bike helmets can save lives.

The same logic ought to apply to natural gas drilling. Take what’s happening in Maryland, my state.

Until now, Maryland has banned the controversial gas-drilling process commonly known as “fracking.” That’s kept a portion of the Marcellus Shale formation — a gas-rich stretch of bedrock that stretches from New York State to Tennessee — off-limits to frackers.

Maryland was the only state to complete a public health study of the impacts of fracking before drilling. The participants found fracking to have a high or moderate likelihood of negative impacts in seven out of eight core areas — including air quality, water quality, occupational health, and earthquakes, among other things.

Before Election Day, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, had supported a moratorium on fracking in the state. After Republican Larry Hogan — who has publicly stated his support for drilling — pulled a surprise win in Maryland’s gubernatorial race, however, O’Malley switched gears.

The Frack Oil Salesman, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib.The Frack Oil Salesman, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib.

A few weeks ago, O’Malley announced that he’s going to greenlight fracking before he steps down — as long as he’s satisfied that new regulations will mitigate risks to public health and the environment.

He claims that this approach maximizes chances that regulations might have some teeth. And based on how things are going in states like North Dakota and Pennsylvania, strict regulations for Maryland are a must.

Testing for baseline conditions before drilling begins, and ensuring adequate protections for people living nearby, must be central. Regulators should apply to fracking the same basic public health guidelines that they use for everything else: Get tested. Use protection.

Get tested: Maryland should collect and publicly report baseline air and water quality data before fracking begins.

Federal rules are so weak that the industry faces no national obligation to reveal which chemicals it uses in the fracking process. Yet many of the chemicals widely believed to be used, such formaldehyde and benzene, are known carcinogens that don’t belong in our air and water.

Unlike other states, which have allowed companies to keep this information secret, Maryland must require frackers to disclose this information if it’s to have a shot at monitoring water contamination, air pollution, and related health threats.

Use Protection: Frackers should locate well pads at least 1 kilometer (about 3,200 feet) from drinking water wells, residences, and schools. Right now, Maryland agencies are recommending only a 1,000-foot setback from schools.

Living, studying, or working within 1 kilometer of a fracking well pad increases the likelihood of water contamination and raises the risk of neural tube defects, congenital heart defects, low birth weight, and other health risks.

Maryland must also adopt stringent regulations to shield workers from silica dust, another known carcinogen.

And what about water contamination from leaking gas wells? Recent studies from Pennsylvania found an almost 8 percent failure rate for well casings, even after the state put regulations in place.

If all this sounds too hard for Maryland to accomplish without making its gas industry uncompetitive, that’s because it’s not clear that there is such a thing as “safe fracking.”

Instead of opening the door to fracking in their state, Maryland’s leaders should instead invest in an energy future rooted in renewable options. Generating wind and solar power will never endanger the health of the surrounding community the way that fracking for natural gas or oil will.

Maryland should follow New York State’s lead by keeping its moratorium in place until it can inform the public about exposure risks and take the steps required to protect people from fracking pollution. Otherwise, there’s no way for us all to get tested and use protection.

Opinion Thu, 18 Dec 2014 09:04:25 -0500
White House Refuses to Meet with Grieving Black Mothers Whose Sons Were Executed by Cops

December 10, 2014: DC Vigil For Delegation Of Grieving Mothers. (Photo: Stephen Melkisethian)December 10, 2014: DC Vigil For Delegation Of Grieving Mothers. (Photo: Stephen Melkisethian)

"The women will come to Washington to advocate for changing existing laws that provide legal loopholes that allow police to kill their children with impunity."

With Washington reeling from the spontaneous uprisings against police terror that continue nationwide, the Obama administration announced the formation of a commission to investigate police terror against African-American communities and especially its men and boys. Not since the 1960's civil rights movement has the country experienced a popular uprising that cuts across this broad a spectrum of American society's racial and generational barriers. Only two years shy of leaving Washington, the Obama Administration has finally moved to address the most fundamental social and political crises beleaguering the African-American community: police brutality and mass incarceration.

Yet the president's choice of former DC police chief, Charles Ramsey - "known for leading repeated bloody and abusive crackdowns on protesters when he was Washington, D.C.'s chief a decade ago, according to a civil rights attorney who won millions in damages for 100s of citizens attacked by D.C. police" - as his choice of to head the commission is shocking. Ramsey is the unintended - but perfect - symbol for just how tone deaf and removed from reality the administration is.

Lead by cheerleader-in-chief, Rev. Al Sharpton, the administration was forced to quickly convene a roundtable of hand chosen "representatives" after a Staten Island grand jury did not bring an indictment against the white police officer who strangled unarmed black Eric Garner to death. The Staten Island decision came exactly one week after a similar grand jury procedure and finding in Ferguson, Missouri, of no indictment against white police officer Darren Wilsson for killing unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, in August. That decision sparked protests in over 170 cities nationwide.

With the White House in chaos, Attorney General Eric Holder was dispatched Monday, December 1, to Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta—the symbolic "desk" of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—to quell growing dissent and to prepare the masses for the inevitable decision by the DOJ not to seek civil rights indictments of Ferguson police officer/slave patroller Darren Wilson, the murderer of Michael Brown or New York police officer/slave patroller David Pantaleo for the death of Eric Garner.

"The Coalition is committed to sustained actions around the DOJ and its leaders until indictments are rendered."

The lofty symbolism of Ebenezer Baptist Church—at such a moment of racial crisis—was lost on the Administration. But neither Mr. Holder nor the White House could have predicted that the ordinarily sedate audience at Ebenezer would erupt chanting, "Hands-Up Don't Shoot!" and "We Have Nothing to Lose but Our Chains!" The protestors forced Mr. Holder to halt his bland litany of Obama's accomplishments. After making their dramatic point the activists peacefully left the church to the applause of many who had come to hear the Attorney General.

Activists in the Washington, D.C. area under the umbrella of #DC and led by Kymone Freeman, Program Director, We Act Radio; Eugene Puryear, a recent candidate for the Washington, DC Council At-Large seat active anti-war and social justice organizer; Salim Adofo, National Vice Chairperson, National Black United Front and Kenny Nero, Howard University librarian, activist and organizer have mobilized thousands of young people to march, rally and occupy commercial areas of the capitol.

The has organized weekly demonstrations in front of the Department of Justice demanding immediate indictments of police officers/slave patrollers involved in the deaths of unarmed African-American boys and men. This week's action will feature nine African-American women who have lost family, loved ones and sons to excessive police violence. These grieving women will grace our capitol from December 9-11, (December 10 coinciding with International Human Rights Day) with their personal stories of courage and resilience in the face of police executions of their boys and men while the US government looked away. The Coalition is committed to sustained actions around the DOJ and its leaders until indictments are rendered.

Ella Baker, founder of the Student Non-violent Student Coordinating Committee (SNCC) said of the attacks against black boys and men: "Until the killing of black men, black mother's sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of white mother's sons, we who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens."

"Neither Mr. Holder nor the White House could have predicted that the ordinarily sedate audience at Ebenezer would erupt chanting, 'Hands-Up Don't Shoot!' and 'We Have Nothing to Lose but Our Chains!'"

The mothers, representing a cross-section of black communities from California to Baltimore, will participate in a community town hall, a vigil in front of the Department of Justice and congressional visits. At the ninth hour, the Department of Justice has agreed to an office visit between the mothers and the Office of Civil Rights. The Grieving Mothers Action is being hosted by CODEPINK, the Hands Up Coalition DC and Mothers Against Police Brutality. The women will come to Washington to advocate for changing existing laws that provide legal loopholes that allow police to kill their children with impunity. The mothers advocate effective civilian reviews of police misconduct; transparency in investigations of police officers; a comprehensive public national-level database of police shootings; and significant reforms to the 1033 program and other federal programs that equip police departments with military gear.

Despite thousands of calls and e-mails, neither President Barack Obama nor Attorney General Eric Holder have agreed to meet with the mothers of these slain boys and men. While the President's and Attorney General's deaf ears are consistent with the choice of Charles Ramsey to lead the Commission and their misreading of the public at Ebenezer Baptist Church, it is hard to understand how the two chief law enforcement officers in the country can ignore grieving mothers of victims of the very system that has brought so much turmoil into the American street.

The Hands Up Coalition DC urges the president and attorney general to come out of their protective bubble and open their hearts and minds to the pain and message these grieving women represent. The president should withdraw the appointment of Charles Ramsey—out of respect for the damage Chief Ramsey's style of policing has inflicted on thousands of Americans nationwide. The president should also instruct the Attorney General to drop the charges against Rasheen Aldridge, the Ferguson teenaged-activist who expressed disappointment with the process after meeting with the President in the White House.

The December Black Mothers meeting will pave the way for a larger gathering in Washington DC on Mothers Day 2015.

"Neither President Barack Obama nor Attorney General Eric Holder have agreed to meet with the mothers of these slain boys and men."

The mothers will tell their stories and advocate for changing existing laws that leave families vulnerable to police brutality and accountability loopholes.

"I'm coming to DC for several reasons," said Reverend Wanda Johnson, the mother of Oscar Grant, who was killed in Oakland, California on January 1, 2009. "First, I want to get the laws changed about racial profiling. Second, I want to change the law that allows the District Attorney to try the indicted officer, which I believe is a conflict of interest. Third, I want officers to have to wear body cameras. Lastly, I want officers to be trained not to shoot to kill."

"Our politicians have been epic failures in protecting our families. We have laws that protect policeman, but no laws that protect our families when someone is killed," said Colette Flanagan, the founder of Mothers Against Police Brutality who is traveling to DC from Dallas, Texas. "Our elected officials often turn a blind eye to the killing of our children, so now we are taking our grief to their doorstep in Washington DC. They need to understand that our families are real, and that our sons—who were taken away from us so unjustly–– matter."

Delegate Biographies:

Valerie Bell is the mother of Sean Bell, a 23-year-old unarmed man killed on his wedding day, November 25, 2006, in a barrage of 50 shots fired into his car by New York plainclothes police officers. The officers thought his friend had a gun. The detectives involved in the shooting were eventually acquitted. Valerie Bell is the founder of Mothers of Never Again (MONA), and after 8 years she has finally recorded her thoughts in a book coming out in 2015 called Just 23 (Thoughts from a mother in spoken word by Kisha Walker).

Jeralynn Blueford from Oakland, California started the Justice4AlanBlueford Coalition on May 6,2012 after her 18 year-old son Alan Blueford was shot and killed by a police officer in East Oakland. From there The Alan Blueford Center 4 Justice was established in Oakland, California, as a place to help heal the community. They offer our resources to help restore the community as they struggle against police brutality. She also organized Helping Heart 2 Heal, a conference to inspire, empower, and restore healing for mothers that are suffering with the pain of losing their children and loved ones.

Darlene Cain is a mother from from Baltimore, Maryland. On October 28, 2008, her 29-year-old son Dale Graham was killed by a Baltimore City police officer. Since then she has been dedicated to lifting the voices of those who have had a family member killed by the police but were never given true justice and closure. She is is President and founder of Mothers on the Move.

Danette Chavis, from New York City, lost her 19-year-old son in October 2004. After being shot in a gunfire exchange (not with police), Gregory Chavis died just a block from Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx when police prevented him from receiving any medical treatment. Chavis has been active at demonstrations and is the head of National Action Against Police Brutality. She has launched a petition, now with over 18,430 signatures, that demands national action against police brutality and murder, for all families that have been brutalized and lost loved ones at the hands of the police.

Collette Flanagan, from Dallas, Texas, lost her only son when he was 25 years old on March 10, 2013. Clinton Allen was unarmed and shot 7 times by a Dallas policeman (once in the back), who has since been on administrative leave from the police force, without a gun or badge. Flanagan is founder of Mothers Against Police Brutality, which lobbies for change in police enforcement practices and accountability measures.

Marcella Holloman's son Maurice Donald Johnson was murdered by Baltimore police on May 19, 2012. She called an ambulance when her mentally ill son began to exhibit erratic behavior at a children's gathering. Since Johnson's episodic illness was registered in the police data base, Holloman expected they would take him to the hospital for treatment. Instead of waiting for an ambulance, the two responding officers entered Holloman's home where Johnson was sequestered and shot him three times. Since then, his mother has been active and outspoken against police brutality.

Wanda Johnson's son Oscar Grant was shot in the back and killed by transit Police Officer Johannes Mehserle at a train station in Oakland, California on January 1, 2009. Initially charged with second-degree murder, Mehserle was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter. Since the death of her son, Johnson has been active on the Board of Directors of the Oscar Grant Foundation, a resource for at-risk youth of all races who wish to turn their lives around in a positive way. A gospel minister and nation speaker, Johnson has made guest appearances on nationally syndicated television programs, universities and public forums to bring attention to injustices in law enforcement and the criminal justice system.

Constance Malcolm is the mother of Ramarley Graham, who was 18 years old in 2012 when a New York police officer shot and killed him in his own home. Graham was suspected of carrying a gun in public, but no gun was found on him, in the bathroom he was shot in, or anywhere else in the house. Graham's 6-year-old brother and his grandmother witnessed the shooting. Constance Malcolm has since been a vocal advocate against police brutality and has been seeking justice for her son.

Tressa Sherrod is the mother of John Crawford III, a 22 year old who was shot and killed on August 5, 2014 by police in a Walmart in Ohio. A caller phoned police, accusing Crawford of brandishing a gun, when it was really an unloaded BB air rifle on a shelf, an item that is sold in the store. Surveillance footage shows major discrepancies between a 911 caller's account and what really happened. An Ohio grand jury decided not to indict the officer who was responsible for Crawford's death, and since then his mother has been pursuing justice.

The delegation is endorsed by the No Fear Coalition, Center for Constitutional Rights, the National Lawyers Guild, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, Popular Resistance, World Beyond War, CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities, DC Campaign Against Police Abuse, UltraViolet and Defending Dissent.

Code Black Alert: Cleveland, Ohio

More than a hundred people packed a church in Cleveland, Ohio, for the memorial service of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old African-American boy shot dead by police last month. Rice, who was in sixth grade, was killed after a 911 caller reported seeing the boy with what turned out to be a pellet gun, which the caller repeatedly said seemed fake. Video shows Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann fatally shooting Rice immediately after leaving his cruiser, from a distance of about 10 feet.

Code Black Alert: Brooklyn, New York

In mourning for 28 year-old Akai Gurley, shot by police in New York stairwell. Two police officers prepared to enter the pitch-black eighth-floor stairwell of a building in a Brooklyn housing project, one of them with his sidearm drawn. At the same time, Gurley and his girlfriend, frustrated by a long wait for an elevator, entered the seventh-floor stairwell, 14 steps below. In the darkness, a shot rang out from the officer's gun, and the young man below was struck in the chest and, soon after, fell dead.

Code Black Alert: Phoenix, Arizona

Rumain Brisbon, an unarmed black man, was shot and killed by a white police officer in Phoenix, Arizona, Tuesday night. In a string of cases involving unarmed black men dying at the hands of officers over the last several months, another incident hits news.

According to a report published by USA Today, an officer in Phoenix says he felt threatened by 34-year-old Rumain Brisbon, so he used lethal force. The encounter led to Brisbon being shot twice and dying from his gunshot wounds at a north Phoenix apartment complex.

Black Code Alert: Whistleblower

Senior officials at the Social Security Administration (SSA) tried to hide a damning report on a $300 million computer system that lawmakers have called a "boondoggle" in order to protect President Obama's nominee to lead the agency, a whistleblower claimed in an interview with

News Thu, 18 Dec 2014 00:00:00 -0500
Boots on the Ground: The Best Solution to Disaster Response on Our Waterways

Disasters on our waterways have been occurring at an unprecedented rate in a climate of lax government regulations. In February, 140,000 tons of toxic coal ash sludge and wastewater leaked into North Carolina's Dan River, highlighting why boots on the ground activism is crucial.

Pete Harrison (L) of Waterkeeper Alliance and Justin Quinlivan of Yadkin Riverkeeper on the scene responding to the Dan River coal ash spill. (Photo: Brian Williams of Dan River Basin Association)Pete Harrison (L) of Waterkeeper Alliance and Justin Quinlivan of Yadkin Riverkeeper on the scene responding to the Dan River coal ash spill. (Photo: Brian Williams of Dan River Basin Association)

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Disasters on our waterways have been occurring at an unprecedented rate in a climate of lax government regulations. In February, 140,000 tons of toxic coal ash sludge and wastewater leaked into North Carolina's Dan River, highlighting why boots on the ground activism is crucial.

Over the course of 2014, a series of unprecedented disasters have unfolded on our nation's waterways, contaminating drinking water supplies and endangering the public health and safety of communities. When a chemical used to wash coal (4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM) leaked into the Elk River in West Virginia from a storage facility on January 9, 2014, more than 300,000 residents were left without water to drink. As MCHM is not listed in the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) public database of toxic chemicals and is not federally regulated, this incident showcased just how vulnerable we all are to facing a similar fate due to lax state and federal environmental protections that allow many facilities and chemicals to evade scrutiny.

The rapidly increasing volume of toxic, volatile crude oil transported by rail and barge has upped the ante on the risk of future accidents even more. A McClatchy analysis of federal data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration showed that more oil was spilled from rail cars in 2013 than in the prior 40 years combined.

And the list goes on. In February 2014, a collapsed storm water pipe released 140,000 tons of toxic coal ash sludge and wastewater into the Dan River in North Carolina, a public drinking water supply for downstream communities like Danville, Virginia. State regulators and Duke Energy, the company responsible for the spill, waited more than 24 hours before notifying the public that it had happened. Adding insult to injury, just weeks after this catastrophic spill, it was discovered that Duke Energy had deliberately and illegally dumped 61 million gallons of coal ash into the Cape Fear River.

As the threats increase, heightened advocacy continues for protections and regulations that will safeguard our precious waterways and communities. However, more needs to be done than crossing our fingers and hoping for the best that a disaster doesn't strike again before necessary action is taken. As part of the solution, Waterkeeper Alliance has launched a rapid response program based on a proven protocol in responding to and remediating some of the nation's worst waterway disasters. Waterkeeper Alliance staff and local Waterkeepers provided on-the-ground support, water quality testing and advocacy for the Dan River incident and again in Lynchburg, Virginia, when a train carrying volatile Bakken crude oil derailed and exploded, spilling an estimated 50,000 gallons of oil into the James River. In past years, Waterkeepers have responded to Hurricanes Floyd and Sandy and the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Deploying a highly trained team of advocates and experts by boat and aircraft to assess a situation, test the water, document the impact and rapidly share information with the media and the public allows those on the ground to work quickly to amplify the voice of effected communities. The truth about the impacts and dangers is dispersed in real time, ensuring that polluters and government officials don't have the opportunity to downplay or cover up the threat. The response team then advocates for the waterway and affected communities until a cleanup plan is implemented. This requires a myriad of advocacy actions, including filing lawsuits and pursuing legislative remedies.

As a result of rapid response work by Waterkeeper Alliance and North Carolina Waterkeepers on the Dan River, Duke Energy has agreed to clean up not only the spill site, but also three other sites with leaking coal ash ponds in Asheville, Charlotte and Wilmington. Results of the Dan River spill were used to support litigation and successfully secure removal of coal ash ponds at other sites so that those communities and waterways are protected from additional coal ash disasters.

Throughout history, the biggest wins for the environment have been the result of citizens advocating for their rights. From the historic Storm King Mountain settlement to the passage of the Clean Water Act, to the founding of Waterkeeper Alliance itself, it is boots on the ground activism that ends up bringing about sorely needed change, and it is that same spirit that will carry us through defending our waterways in this climate of complicity by our government agencies that we live in today. As always, the people are the way forward and the last line of defense when communities are under assault from polluters.

Opinion Thu, 18 Dec 2014 00:00:00 -0500
Buying the Next Bailout

Photo: takomabibelot(Photo: takomabibelot)It always ends the same way. We avert a government shutdown at the 11th hour. But once again we suffer a shutout loss for democracy. This movie re-runs as predictably as Jimmy Stewart graces your TV on Christmas day. Republicans bring us to the brink of chaos, threaten to burn the house down; Democrats capitulate, and the Republicans sell us out to their corporate sponsors. This corruption is out in the open and now codified into election law. These politicians are owned. Watching them legislate is like watching dogs sit, roll over, and give you their paw. That this is our government is humiliating to all Americans.

Let's look at what Congress's sponsors got this year, and how much it cost them. The biggest prize goes to Wall Street. Tucked away in the 1,600-plus page federal budget is a provision that, the New York Times documents, was actually written by the corporate lawyers at banking giant Citigroup. That's the same Citigroup that went belly up in 2008 after gambling recklessly with investors' money, ultimately staying solvent only because of a $50-billion-plus taxpayer bailout. The rationale for the bailout was that, as one of the world's largest banks, they held the global economy hostage. If we die, they claimed, you die. This year they held the federal budget hostage. Of course it didn't hurt that the finance, insurance, and real estate (FIRE) sector gifted the incoming president's campaign with $43,744,789.

As a condition of the bailout, the government told the bankers that they would no longer be allowed to take the public's money to the roulette table. Technically, this was done through the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2009, which is popularly known for the two legislators that authored it, Barney Frank in the House and Chris Dodd in the Senate. A major provision of Dodd-Frank prohibits banks from using money from federally insured deposits to invest in risky derivatives and commodities. But that's also the kind of trading that makes bank executive uber-rich.

Imagine yourself having the same privilege. You go to the racetrack and place your bets. If you win, you keep the winnings. If you lose, the taxpayers refill your bank account. It's a sweet deal. But it's only available to mega-banks. Dodd-Frank makes that illegal. It's not a major crime, like sharing your cigarettes on a Staten Island street, but it's still illegal.

That little piece of plagiarized Citigroup prose inserted into the budget bill negates that part of Dodd-Frank, once again allowing financial titans to take our life savings to the casino.

This is blatant corruption in service to the mega-banks. Unlike politicians' stands on issues like abortion, where voices in their heads command them, or unlike much of the Tea Party agenda, where they misunderstand what people in tri-cornered hats said or did a few centuries ago, none of the members of the House or Senate even attempted a lame or insane rationale for inserting this sweet deal into the budget and threatening to shut the government down if it didn't pass. It just is what it is. There's really no sense in trying to rationalize repealing a measure meant to prevent future bailouts of big banks. The bailouts, like the banks, were and are wildly unpopular. This is just business.

While Citigroup authored the wording for the repeal, it was Republican Congressman Kevin Yoder of Kansas who landed the dirty task of inserting it into the federal budget. For his troubles, the FIRE sector gifted his campaign with $510,200 this year. Yoder was following in the footsteps of Texas Republican Representative Jeb Hensarling, chair of the House Financial Services Committee, who shepherded a similar provision trough the Republican-controlled House last year, only to see it die in the Democrat-controlled Senate. For his troubles, FIRE corporations gave his campaign $2.3 million dollars this year.

Despite the fact that Republicans control the House with a comfortable margin, they couldn't muster enough Republican votes to pass the budget, due to a Tea Party revolt within the party. One would think that the Tea Party folks, who were swept into office capitalizing on anti-Wall Street sentiment, just couldn't go along with such a handout to the reviled banks. But in the end, that wasn't their issue at all. For their tastes, the budget bill just wasn't sufficiently cruel to immigrants. Of course this is just the budget bill, not an immigration bill, but congressional politics is so reliably dysfunctional that such antics are the new normal. If toenail fungus is your issue, and you're a Republican, then just hold your breath, stomp your feet, and go for it. Crash the government. What the hell.

This Tea Party revolt, however, meant that getting the bill through Congress would be a fight. On the Republican side, Roll Call magazine reports that House Majority Whip Steve Scalia, Republican of Louisiana, and his deputy, Republican Patrick Henry, lobbied heavily for the bill. On the Democratic side of the isle, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer pushed members of his party to support the bill. This year the FIRE sector gave $555,000 to Scalise's campaign, $767,000 to McHenry's campaign, and $1.3 million to Hoyer's campaign.

In all, 57 Democrats crossed the aisle to support the Republican leadership. This included Hoyer's deputy, the number three ranking Democrat in the House, Jim Clyburn of South Carolina. The FIRE sector gave his campaign $605,200 this year. Most notable among the Democratic defections was Representative Jim Himes of Connecticut. He was an author of the Dodd-Frank provision that is being repealed. FIRE interests donated $1.3 million to his campaign this year.

The vast majority of Republicans who supported the bill don't have to rationalize their vote. They were just following orders from their leader, John Boehner, who received $3.1 million this year from FIRE interests. And Republicans in the Senate were just following their leader, Mitch McConnell, who received just shy of $6 million this year from the FIRE sector. This minority of Democrats who crossed over to support Republican efforts to pass the bill, in pursuit of plausible deniability, denounced the bill they voted for, saying that Republicans blackmailed them by threatening to shut the government down before removing their corporate riders from the budget bill.

Their argument is supported not by the Democratic leader of the House, Nancy Pelosi, but by the president himself, Barack Obama. In true Democratic fashion, Obama slammed the Republicans for trying to gut Dodd-Frank, then capitulated to their political terrorism. Obama's tempered resistance might have been influenced by the well over $20 million his campaign received from the FIRE sector in his last election. But there's more to this than meets the eye; they gave his opponent, Mitt Romney, almost $59 million. This represented a turnaround from 2008, when they gave Obama almost $44 million, compared to the paltry $31 million they gave McCain. Apparently, Obama served them well, bailing out their industries while mostly allowing their executives to avoid prosecution and continue eating with both hands. But they seem to have little use for him now and would rather invest in assets with better corporate pedigrees and less populist rhetoric.

The take-the-banks-to-the-casino provision isn't the only rider that Republicans snuck into the budget bill and are threatening to shut the government down to protect. Another important provision guts one of the last campaign contribution limits still in place after the 2011 Citizens United Supreme Court ruling. It raises the current limit that an individual can donate to a political party (political action committee donations are already unlimited) from the current $97,200 to over $750,000 per year. Couples can buy a seat at the table by giving a party up to $3.1 million per year.

There's something for everyone in this budget bill. The coal industry will be allowed to dump toxic waste into Appalachian streams. The oil and gas sector paid their members of Congress for a rider that will allow them access to federal lands that would have otherwise been protected.

Some of the goodies are actually budget-related, though corporate handouts nonetheless. For instance, tax cheats will be happy to learn of a $345 million cut to the IRS operating budget, impairing tax code enforcement and auditing, which will in turn cost the government billions, while protecting the sort of criminals Republicans traditionally like to protect. In a major concession to corporate eco-criminals, the Environmental Protection Agency, which has seen its enforcement abilities weakened by five straight years of budget cuts, will now suffer another $60 million cut. If you're a CEO with a few bricks of spent uranium in the boardroom closet, now would be a good time to toss them in the wastebasket.

And just to keep up appearances with the red meat crowd, here's a Republican budget line that actually is not directly in service to any particular corporate lobby—a $93 million cut to the Women, Infants and Children Nutrition Program (WIC). Compared to what we're giving away to corporate interests, this doesn't even amount to pocket change. It's just mean.

Opinion Thu, 18 Dec 2014 00:00:00 -0500