News Mon, 27 Jun 2016 18:06:34 -0400 en-gb The Most Important Election of Your Life -- Is Not This Year

The voters vowed to take their revenge at the polls. They'd missed out on the country's vaunted prosperity. They were disgusted with the liberal direction of the previous administration. They were anti-abortion and pro-religion. They were suspicious of immigrants, haughty intellectuals, and intrusive international institutions. And they very much wanted to make their nation great again.

They'd lost a lot of elections. But this time, they won.

In Poland, that is.

In two elections last year, the conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS) won the Polish presidency and then, by a more convincing margin, a parliamentary majority.

And this wasn't just a victory for PiS. It was a victory for Poland B.

Since its post-Communist transition, that country is often described as having cleaved into two parts, commonly known as "Poland A" and "Poland B." Poland A links together an archipelago of cities and their younger, wealthier inhabitants. Poland B encompasses the poorer, older parts of the population, many clustered in the countryside, particularly in the country's eastern reaches near the former Soviet border.

After 1989 and the implementation of a punishing series of economic reforms, Poland A took off economically. By 2010, Warsaw, the capital, had become one of the most expensive places to live in Europe, outranking even Brussels and Berlin. New entrepreneurs and corporate managers took advantage of a host of economic opportunities, particularly after Poland joined the European Union (EU) in 2004.

In the countryside, on the other hand, Poland B fell ever further behind. Factories closed, and many farms couldn't keep going. Jobs disappeared. Several million Poles decamped abroad in search of better economic opportunities. In other words, as the good times rolled in Poland A, Poland B languished.

Until the elections of 2015, Poland's liberals dominated political, economic, and cultural life. Although they may not exactly be "liberal" in the American sense of supporting government entitlement programs, they are generally less religious, more tolerant of differences, and more open to the world than their conservative counterparts. They have squared off against the denizens of Poland B over such issues as the role of the Catholic Church in public life, the number of immigrants the country should allow in, and how close Poland should be to the EU.

You can find the equivalent of Poland A and Poland B elsewhere in Eastern Europe, too. The capitals of the region -- Prague, Bratislava, Budapest -- enjoy per capita GDPs well above the European average, while rural areas suffer. The B populations, however, have not taken their increasingly second-class citizenship quietly. Throughout the region they've risen up to vote for populist, often rabid, right-wing parties like FIDESZ and Jobbik in Hungary and GERB and Ataka in Bulgaria that voice their disappointment and swear they'll make their countries great again. These parties are consistently anti-liberal in the European sense, opposing both an unregulated market and tolerant open societies.

Even in the Western European heartlands, you can see a Europe B coalescing around nationalist, anti-immigrant parties like the National Front in France, the UK Independence Party in Great Britain, the Swedish Democratic Party, and the Freedom Party of Austria (whose leader just lost the country's presidency by 0.6% of the vote). While Europe A tries to keep the EU show going, Europe B is already heading for the exits. (Think: Brexit in England.)

No doubt it's occurred to you by now that the United States is not immune to this trend. With the rise of an aggressive version of right-wing American populism, the United States is waking up to a dividing line that is becoming sharper by the day. Donald Trump has made headlines with his talk of building a wall between the United States and Mexico, but his campaign has highlighted a more important division: between America A and America B.

Responding to the irresistible pull of celebrity culture and to the exclusion of almost anything else, the US media has focused on the person of Donald Trump. Far more important, however, are the people who support him.

America B

In the speech that made him famous, the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama challenged the way "the pundits like to slice and dice our country" -- into black America and white America, liberal America and conservative America, and most famously into red states and blue states as defined by party affiliation. We live, however, in a purple America, Obama suggested, "all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America."

That rousing speech put Obama on the map. But that map would have its revenge. Once he reached the Oval Office four years later, the representatives of the Republican red states would ceaselessly battle the president's every initiative from health care to the Iran nuclear deal. As a result, during his tenure, the US became more, not less, politically divided.

In some sense, though, the Obama of 2004 was right. The key dividing line in the US had little to do with Republican vs. Democrat, rich vs. poor, or liberal vs. conservative. To explode these conventional oppositions, it would take a billionaire Republican populist, who had once been a solid Democrat and who offered a political program that mixed together liberal and conservative ideas, conspiracy theories and racial animus, but above all else exhortations to America B to rise up and retake the country. Indeed, the triumph of Trump in the Republican primaries -- based, in part, on his appeal to former white working class Democrats and independents, his fierce attacks on mainstream Republicans, and his flouting of what passes for conventional wisdom about electability -- sent the pundits back to their think tanks to figure out what on earth was happening with American voters.

Trump was, they concluded, sui generis, a peculiar mutation of the American political system generated by the unholy coupling of reality television and the Tea Party revolt. But Trump is not, in fact, a sport of nature. He reflects trends taking place around the world. He is, in many ways, just a mouthpiece for America B.

It's been notoriously difficult to characterize the Trump constituency. It's much easier to identify the people who will never vote for him: Latinos angered by his racist taunts about Mexican immigrants and a federal judge, women outraged by his sexual innuendo and misogyny, and virtually everyone with an advanced degree. Writing off these constituencies -- particularly women, since they constituted 53% of the electorate in 2012 -- should doom Trump's presidential bid.

Yet Trump is proving to be a guilty pleasure for many voters, like binge-watching a TV show about a serial killer or eating an entire quart of artery-clogging premium ice cream. The urge to vote for him is something that some Americans will never admit to outside the curtained privacy of the voting booth. But he scratches an itch. He's the electoral equivalent of a day at the firing range, a way of blowing off political steam.

Trump voters tend to be overwhelmingly white, middle-aged, lower-income men whose education stopped at high school. They are not stupid, nor are they, as Thomas Frank argued about working-class Republican voters in his astute book What's the Matter with Kansas?, voting against their own economic interests. Trump may be a billionaire, but he has articulated an economic policy that diverges from the naked plutocracy of the party of Mitt Romney.

He has opposed trade deals that outsource American jobs, supported higher taxes for "hedge-fund managers," and declared his commitment to saving Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Yes, of course, Trump has also made statements directly contradicting these positions or aligned himself with politicos who take the exact opposite stances. But the billionaire has constructed an image of himself as a triumphant version of an "average Joe" (with billions in pocket change) that plays well in America B. Whether consciously or not, he has taken a page from the Europe B playbook by combining positions skeptical of the unrestrained free market with a lot of nationalist bluster. It bears a family resemblance to fascism, but the American variant is firmly anchored in the kind of individual initiative celebrated on "The Apprentice."

What also sets Trump apart is his commitment to making "America great again." His opponents have tried to argue that America is already great, has been great, and will always be great. But the truth is, for many Americans, things have not been so great for at least the last two decades.

This line, more than Trump's intemperate rants and off-the-cuff insults, is what ultimately distinguishes America A from America B. At a time when the American economy is growing at a respectable pace and the unemployment rate is below 5% for the first time since 2008, America B has not benefitted from the prosperity. It has suffered, not profited, from the great transformation the country has gone through since 1989 (and was particularly hard hit by the near economic meltdown of 2007-2008).

After all, it wasn't just the former Communist world that experienced a transition at the end of the twentieth century.

Transitions Are US

In the 1990s, the United States changed its political economy. It was not quite as dramatic a shift as the regime changes that took place across Eurasia, but it had profound consequences for the realignment of voting patterns in America.

During that decade, the US economy accelerated its shift from manufacturing -- along with the well-paying blue-collar jobs that sector had once generated -- to an ever more dominant service economy. In terms of employment, manufacturing jobs dropped from 18 million in 1990 to 12 million in 2014, while wages for such jobs tumbled as well. Over that same period, the health-care and social assistance sector alone grew from 9.1 million to more than 18 million jobs. At one end of that service economy were the 1% in financial services making stratospheric sums, particularly as compensation packages soared from the mid-1990s on. On the other end were the people who had to add shifts at McDonald's or Walmart to their full-time jobs or monetize their spare time by driving for Uber just to make what they or their parents once earned with one job at the local factory.

America was not alone in undergoing this shift. Thanks to technological innovations like computers and robotics, greater access to cheap labor in places like Mexico and China, the rise of the Internet, and the deregulation of the financial world, the global economy was being similarly transformed. Blue-collar workers no longer played as vital a role in any advanced economy.

In the US, put bluntly, the imagination of America A no longer needed the muscle of America B.

At one time in its history, government programs narrowed the gap between economic winners and losers through taxes and the entitlement programs they supported. But "small government" fever -- which had remarkably little to do with actually reducing the size of government -- swept the United States in the 1980s, first in the Republican Party of Ronald Reagan and then in the "reinvent government" faction of the Democratic Party.  In the 1990s, they would collaborate across the aisle to slash assistance to low-income people. The resulting political (and economic) realignment created some notorious ironies, including the fact that Richard Nixon, with his wage-and-price controls and environmental policies, was a far more liberal president in the early 1970s than the Democratic Party standard bearer of the 1990s, Bill Clinton.

Because of this realignment, an entire group of Americans no longer could count on support from either the Republican or the Democratic Party. They lost good jobs during the economic expansion of the Clinton years, and did not benefit significantly from the tax cuts of the George W. Bush era. Instead, by the Obama years, they were working longer hours and taking home less money. In the meantime, a new liberal-conservative consensus was emerging. Both yuppie liberals and 1% conservatives, at odds over so many political and cultural matters, had agreed to abandon America B.

Falling behind economically and feeling betrayed by politicians on both sides of the aisle, America B might have moved to the left if the United States had a strong socialist tradition. In the 2016 primary campaign, many of the economically anxious did, in fact, support Bernie Sanders, particularly the younger offspring of America A fearful of being deported to America B. Unlike Europe B, however, America B has always been more about rugged individualism than class solidarity. Its denizens would rather buy a lottery ticket and pray for a big payout than rely on a handout from Washington (Medicare and Social Security aside). Donald Trump, politically speaking, is their Powerball ticket.

Above all, the inhabitants of America B are angry. They're disgusted with politics as usual in Washington and the hypocritical, sanctimonious political elite that goes with it. They're incensed by how the wealthy have effectively seceded from American society with their gated estates and offshore accounts. And they've focused their resentment on those they see as having taken their jobs: immigrants, people of color, women. They're so desperate for someone who "tells it like it is" that they'll look the other way when it comes to Donald Trump's inextricable links to the very elite who did so much to widen the gap between the two Americas in the first place.

Left Behind

As the Democratic Party emerges from a bruising primary, it is trying to emphasize both the importance of unity and the urgency of the upcoming elections. Indeed, pundits are calling 2016 "perhaps the most important presidential vote in our lifetime" (Bill O'Reilly) and "one of the most pivotal moments of our time" (Sean Wilentz).

But if Poland is any indication, the presidential election this year will not be the critical one. Although Donald Trump may speak for America B, he is a weak candidate. His negatives are high, he has an unenviable record to run on, and his tendency to shoot from the hip will eventually cause innumerable self-inflicted wounds. Even if he does manage to win in November, he'll still face a divided Republican Party, an unremittingly hostile Democratic Party, and a political-economic elite inside the Beltway and on Wall Street who will push back against his unworkable and unpalatable proposals.

That's the situation that the Law and Justice Party faced in 2005 in Poland, when it first managed to squeak into power. The Polish parliament was divided and was not able to implement the party's populist agenda. Two years later, the liberal opposition returned to power, where it remained for eight more years.

But when PiS won again last year, conditions had changed. It finally had a comfortable parliamentary majority with which to power through its Tea-Party-like transformation of Poland. Moreover, it was riding high on a Euroskeptic, anti-immigrant wave that had practically inundated the continent.

America B has a fondness for Donald Trump and his almost childlike audacity. (Gosh, kids say the darndest things!) Right now, his fans are attached to an individual, rather than a platform or a party. Many of his supporters don't even care whether Trump means what he says or not. If he loses, he will fade away and leave nothing behind, politically speaking.

The real change will come when a more sophisticated politician, with an authentic political machine, sets out to woo America B. Perhaps the Democratic Party will decide to return to its more populist, mid-century roots. Perhaps the Republican Party will abandon its commitment to entitlement programs for the 1%.

More likely, a much more ominous political force will emerge from the shadows. If and when that new, neo-fascist party fields its charismatic presidential candidate, that will be the most important election of our lives.

As long as America B is left in the lurch by what passes for modernity, it will inevitably try to pull the entire country back to some imagined golden age of the past before all those "others" hijacked the red, white, and blue. Donald Trump has hitched his presidential wagon to America B. The real nightmare, however, is likely to emerge in 2020 or thereafter, if a far more capable politician who embraces similar retrograde positions rides America B into Washington.

Then it will matter little how much both liberals and conservatives rail against "stupid" and "crazy" voters. Nor will they have Donald Trump to kick around any more. In the end, they will have no one to blame but themselves.

News Mon, 27 Jun 2016 10:05:29 -0400
"My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard": Shane Bauer Goes Undercover to Expose Conditions

Between 2009 and 2011, Shane Bauer spent nearly two years locked up in an Iranian prison as one of the jailed American hikers. Last year, he went back to jail -- this time as an undercover journalist working as a guard at a private prison in Louisiana. In a stunning new exposé for Mother Jones, Bauer chronicles the four months he spent undercover last year as a guard at Louisiana's Winn Correctional Facility. Winn is the oldest privately operated medium-security prison in the country and sits in the state that holds the distinction as having the world's highest incarceration rate -- more than 800 prisoners per 100,000 residents. During Bauer's investigation, Winn was run by the Corrections Corporation of America, the nation's second-largest private prison operator. Bauer's story offers a never-before-seen look at the for-profit prison industry, exposing conditions that include violence among inmates, poor medical and mental healthcare for even the sickest prisoners, mismanagement and lack of training for staff.


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

AMY GOODMAN: We turn to a stunning new exposé for Mother Jones magazine looking at the world of privately run prisons.

JENNIFER CALAHAN: No structure. Unsafe. Just a bad place. Hell, in a can.

SHANE BAUER: This prison is crazy, beyond anything I ever imagined.

AMY GOODMAN: Mother Jones senior reporter Shane Bauer spent four months working undercover last year as a guard at Louisiana's Winn Correctional Facility. It was not Bauer's first time behind bars. Between 2009 and '11, he spent nearly two years locked up in an Iranian prison as one of the jailed American hikers. Louisiana's Winn Correctional Facility is the oldest privately operated medium-security prison in the country and sits in the state that holds the distinction as having the world's highest incarceration rate -- more than 800 prisoners per 100,000 Louisiana residents. During Shane Bauer's investigation, Winn was run by the Corrections Corporation of America, the nation's second-largest private prison operator. In one of the videos in the Mother Jones series, Bauer explains how he landed the job using his own name and personal information, despite his years as an award-winning journalist.

SHANE BAUER: I put in an application with the Corrections Corporation of America for prison guard jobs. A week later, I start getting calls. I was surprised how quickly it happened. I don't know how long I'm going to be doing this. I don't know where it's going to take me. I don't know what my job will entail.

NARRATION: November 2014, Shane Bauer applied to be a guard at Corrections Corporation of America, the nation's second-largest private prison company. He used his real name and personal information.

SHANE BAUER: This company and these big private prison companies, in general, are kind of notoriously secretive.

MARGARET REGAN: Corrections Corporation of America began around 1983.

AL JAZEERA REPORTER 1: CCA, The GEO Group and MTC operate more than 130 facilities nationwide.

AL JAZEERA REPORTER 2: The combined revenues of these two companies reached $3.3 billion in 2014.

AMY GOODMAN: Shane Bauer's story offers a never-before-seen look at the for-profit prison industry, exposing conditions that include violence among prisoners, poor medical and mental healthcare for even the sickest prisoners, mismanagement, lack of training for staff.

Well, for more, we go directly to Shane Bauer, joining us from San Francisco.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Shane.

SHANE BAUER: Thanks for having me, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about this process that you went through -- truly astounding, given that you yourself were imprisoned for almost two years, that you decided you'd go back into prison as a prison guard.

SHANE BAUER: Well, I had been reporting on prisons for several years and was constantly coming up against a wall. It's very difficult to get information from prisons in the United States. You know, if you go inside, you're on kind of carefully scripted tours. Records requests sometimes take months; sometimes they don't come back at all. And there have been occasional reports about private prisons from the Department of Justice, some media reports showing higher levels of violence than other prisons, you know, a high degree of understaffing. So, I had the idea to put in an application, specifically at a private prison company. These private prisons are even more secretive than their public counterparts. A lot of public access laws don't apply to these prisons because they are not public institutions.

So, I went online, filled out an application for the Corrections Corporation of America using, you know, my real name and personal information. And I was getting calls within a week and doing interviews on the phone. These interviews were, you know, the kind of interview you might expect from a Wal-Mart. They didn't ask me about why I wanted to work in a prison. They didn't ask me about my job history. They would just ask me questions like, you know, "If your supervisor tells you to do something you don't want to do, how would you respond?" The only prison -- the only question that I actually was asked that had to do with prison was "What is your idea of customer service, and how does it apply to inmates?"

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to another clip from the video that accompanies your stories in Mother Jones. This offers a look at Winnfield, Louisiana, near the CCA-run Winn Correctional Facility.

SHANE BAUER: This part of America in particular is very poor. The main employers in the area are the lumber mill, Wal-Mart and CCA.

WINNFIELD RESIDENT 1: There's really not too many jobs. You actually have to go out of town to find a job.

WINNFIELD RESIDENT 2: Logging woods or lumber mills.

WINNFIELD RESIDENT 3: Either you have a job or you're selling dope. And that's it.

SHANE BAUER: So people are willing to take a very dangerous job for $9 or $10 an hour.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Shane, talk about going into the jail, who the prison guards are, who the prisoners are.

SHANE BAUER: Well, Winn has about 1,500 inmates. It's a medium-security prison. The average sentence there is 19 years. People are in for -- you know, about 55 percent of the prisoners are there for violent crimes. I met prisoners that were there for having too many DUIs. So, it's kind of a wide range of crimes.

The guards are mostly poor people from the town. It's $9-an-hour job. And the town -- you know, the average income, family income, in the town is $25,000 a year. And despite how poor the town was, the prison had a really hard time keeping up staff. People would start the job and leave pretty quickly. There was a really high rate of turnover. There were also a set of staff that were people who had kind of been in law enforcement or corrections and had been disciplined for prior infractions. I met one guard who had worked in a juvenile detention center and had been let go after he uppercutted a 16-year-old kid and shattered his jaw. So there's this kind of set of people who can't get work elsewhere, so they take this low-paying job. When I was in training, the head of training actually said to us -- she said, you know, "People say that CCA is scraping of the bottom of the barrel, but that's not really true. But if you are breathing and you have a driver's license and you're willing to work, then we're willing to hire you."

AMY GOODMAN: Tear gas -- explain the exposure to tear gas in the prison.

SHANE BAUER: Well, while I was in training, I had to be exposed to tear gas to kind of prepare us in case -- you know, in case we were exposed to it inside. And when I worked in the prison, I saw a lot of use of pepper spray. There was a kind of corporate tactical team that was sent in during the time that I was there. And when they came in, the assistant warden said to us in a morning meeting -- he said, "I believe that pain increases the intelligence of the stupid. And if these inmates want to act stupid, then we're going to give them some pain to increase their intelligence level." And during the time that I was there, CCA used three times more chemical agents -- pepper spray and tear gas -- than the runner-up in Louisiana.

AMY GOODMAN: During your undercover investigation of Winn Correctional Facility, Shane, you came across a prisoner who had lost his fingers and legs due to lack of proper medical care.

ROBERT L. MARRERO: Mr. Scott complained about that for months to the medical staff at Winn. They gave him some -- the equivalent of a couple of Motrin and told him to go away.

ROBERT SCOTT: Never saw a doctor. The whole time.

SHANE BAUER: He's now suing the prison.

JENNIFER CALAHAN: The people that are working there as nurses and all that, they're really not that qualified.

ROBERT L. MARRERO: There are doctors they can hire. There are doctors who are more or less affordable. I did some background checking on them, and one of them was a pediatrician who had lost his privileges to treat children.

AMY GOODMAN: CCA said it "is committed to ensuring that all individuals entrusted to our care have appropriate access to medical services as needed," unquote. Shane Bauer?

SHANE BAUER: Well, Robert Scott, you know, he had lost his legs and fingers to gangrene. And I ended up getting access to his medical records through his legal case, and it showed that he had made multiple requests to see a doctor. He would go to the infirmary complaining of intense pain. You know, his foot was blackening. And he was just given Motrin. And he was trying to go to the hospital, but he kept getting sent back. He says that he was accused of faking it, which was something I heard a lot at Winn. And, you know, part of the issue is that CCA, when they send prisoners to the hospital, they have to foot the bill. The state does not cover this cost. So, you know, when you're bringing in $34 per inmate per day, taking them to the hospital is a huge expense.

AMY GOODMAN: We're going to talk about prison breaks, escapes, riots, when we come back. We're talking to Shane Bauer, who has this exclusive full issue of Mother Jones, investigation of CCA-run prison in Louisiana. It's headlined "My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard," chronicling his time as an undercover correctional officer at the Louisiana Winn Correctional Center, run by CCA. Stay with us.

News Mon, 27 Jun 2016 00:00:00 -0400
High Levels of Toxins Found in Bodies of People Living Near Fracking Sites

Many of the toxic chemicals escaping from fracking and natural gas processing sites and storage facilities may be present in much higher concentrations in the bodies of people living or working near such sites, new research has shown.

In a first-of-its-kind study combining air-monitoring methods with new biomonitoring techniques, researchers detected volatile organic compounds (VOCs) released from natural gas operations in Pavillion, Wyoming in the bodies of nearby residents at levels that were as much as 10 times that of the national averages.

Some of these VOCs such as benzene and toluene are linked to chronic diseases like cancer and reproductive and developmental disorders. Others are associated with respiratory problems, headaches, nosebleeds, and skin rashes.

"Many of those chemicals were present in the participants' bodies at concentrations far exceeding background averages in the US population," notes the study, titled "When the Wind Blows: Tracking Toxic Chemicals in Gas Fields and Impacted Communities," which was released last week.

Some residents of Pavillion have for years been concerned about the rise in health issues that they suspected were connected to emissions from the gas production activities. This tiny town of less than 250 people has been at the center of the growing debate on fracking since 2008 when locals began complaining that their drinking water had acquired a foul taste and odor back in 2008.

In 2014, air monitoring data showed some toxic chemical emissions at oil and gas sites in Wyoming were up to 7,000 times the "safe" levels set by US federal environmental and health agencies. In March of this year, Stanford University researchers found evidence that fracking operations near Pavillion were contaminating the local groundwater.

Now this new study, conducted by researchers with the national environmental health organization Coming Clean, establishes clearly that at least some of these harmful chemicals are making their way into the bodies of nearby residents.

The study focused on measuring ambient levels of a specific family of VOCs named BTEX chemicals -- which include benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes -- because these chemicals are known to be hazardous to human health even at low levels. Researchers then used new biomonitoring methods to detect these chemicals in 11 local residents who volunteered to participate in the study by wearing air quality monitors and providing blood and urine samples, and found evidence of eight hazardous chemicals emitted from Pavillion gas infrastructure in the urine of study participants.

"The biomonitoring confirmed what we knew," Wilma Subra, an award-winning biochemist and one of the scientists involved in the project, told Earth Island Journal. "This clearly indicates that there is a need of control mechanisms to curb the emissions in order to reduce exposure of those living near these operations."

The study leaders, however, also note that because VOCs are so ubiquitous in products and in our homes, it is possible that some of the VOCs detected in participants' bodies came from multiple sources. They are calling for further biomonitoring testing of people living or working near oil and gas sites to better understand how these chemicals travel through the environment and to prevent our exposure to them.

"If your drinking water is contaminated with toxic chemicals you might be able to make do with another source, but if your air is toxic you can't choose to breathe somewhere else," Deb Thomas, the director of ShaleTest and one the study leaders, said in a statement.

Addendum: In related news, last week, Earthworks, FracTracker Alliance and Clean Air Task Force released, a new tool that maps the locations of the 92,759 active oil and gas wells, compressors and processors operating in California, and the populations, schools and hospitals within a half mile radius of those facilities.

Based on peer-reviewed science and publicly-available data, map shows that 1.3 million Californians live within half-a-mile of an active oil and gas facility. These areas also include 365 schools and 74 medical facilities.

The Threat Map allows anyone to search their address to find if they live within the half-mile threat radius.

News Mon, 27 Jun 2016 00:00:00 -0400
Federal Committee Votes to Terminate Troubled College Accreditor

One of the nation's largest, and most criticized, accreditors of for-profit colleges was pushed a step closer to being shuttered last Thursday.

In a historic move, an Education Department advisory panel voted 10-3 to recommend that the government deauthorize the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools. The committee came to its decision after nearly 11 hours of public testimony and deliberations, much of the time spent dissecting the numerous instances in which the accreditor failed to adequately monitor its colleges.

"When we see schools provide extremely poor outcomes for students 2014 or even commit fraud 2014 while maintaining accreditation, that is a black mark on the entire field," said Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell in the opening remarks of the advisory meeting, which began on Wednesday morning.

The federal committee hearing, also known as the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, or NACIQI, took place just a few days after Education Department staff released a report also recommending that the government cut ties with the accreditor.

The recommendations aren't binding but they are likely to carry significant weight and a clock is now ticking: A senior department official now has three months to make the ultimate decision on ACICS' fate.

ACICS has faced growing scrutiny for the weak student outcomes of the colleges it accredits. A ProPublica analysis found that schools accredited by ACICS have the lowest graduation rates in the country and their graduates struggle the most to repay their student loans.

In the weeks leading up to Thursday's meeting, numerous critics have called on the Education Department to revoke recognition of the accreditor, including more than a dozen state attorneys general, over 20 consumer protection and student advocacy groups, and several members of Congress.

The Department of Education's recent report also found that ACICS came up short in monitoring potential conflicts of interest of its board members. As ProPublica reported, two-thirds of ACICS' commissioners, who are ultimately responsible for schools' accreditation, worked as executives at for-profit colleges.

Responding to the growing chorus of criticism, ACICS announced earlier this month that it would stop accrediting new schools while it undertook reforms, which included tougher review standards and the creation of a new committee to police conflicts of interest.

"ACICS takes seriously the concerns about the need for greater accountability and transparency in higher education," the agency's top executive, Anthony Bieda, said during Thursday's hearing.

But his agency's reforms proved too little too late.

"The new standards will not be able to make up for the damage that has been done," said Education Department staff member Chuck Mula during the meeting.

Accreditors are supposed to regulate college quality and their stamp of approval opens the spigot to billions in federal aid dollars. Losing accreditation can be a deathblow for colleges, particularly for the many for-profit schools that rely on federal aid programs for the majority of their income.

The ultimate decision on ACICS rests with Emma Vadehra, the chief of staff of the US Secretary of Education John King. Should she decide to terminate ACICS' authority, the hundreds of schools that ACICS accredits would have 18 months to find a new accreditor. ACICS oversees 240 institutions, which enroll hundreds of thousands of students.

Most ACICS schools will easily find new accreditation within the timeframe, but not all, said the Education Department's head of accreditation Herman Bounds.

"It's going to be those schools that are on the cuff, mediocre, may have performance issues," said Bounds at the hearing. "I think those schools will be looked at more closely by the accreditors."

Bounds said the department would try to assist schools during the new accreditation process.

But if a college still can't get accreditation, the flow of federal aid dollars would be effectively cut off.

One of the nation's largest for-profit schools, ITT Technical Institute, has suggested in recent regulatory filings that it may struggle to secure new accreditation should ACICS lose its recognition.

"We cannot assure you that our campuses could obtain accreditation by another recognized accrediting agency within that timeframe," a company filing says. ITT enrolls over 40,000 students and received nearly $800 million in federal aid in 2013 alone.

News Mon, 27 Jun 2016 00:00:00 -0400
The True Cost of California's Proposition 47

California has long been seen as a harbinger on crime and punishment. During the tough-on-crime 1980s and '90s, California led the charge, passing "Three Strikes" and other harsh sentencing laws that became a model for other states to follow. In California, these laws led to prison crowding so extreme that the federal government put the whole system under receivership.

The tide is beginning to turn on criminal justice. California is again setting the national tone, first by rolling back juvenile incarceration at unprecedented rates and now, through the same ballot initiative system that ushered in those extreme sentences, by passing voter-driven laws to roll back those laws and clean up the damage they created.

The most recent of these efforts -- Proposition 47, passed by almost 60 percent of California voters in November 2014 -- is especially ambitious. The law reclassifies a number of felony drug offenses as misdemeanors, which lowers the prison population and allows thousands to have old charges changed, and makes the state the first in the country to "de-felonize" drug use. It also directs money saved by reducing prison costs to services such as mental health and drug treatment, as well as victim services and K-12 schools.

Prop. 47 represents the culmination of a long-brewing movement away from indiscriminate incarceration and toward an approach that those on both sides of the aisle have dubbed "smart on crime." It also pioneers the notion of using the law to mandate "justice reinvestment" -- in short, reallocating the vast sums spent on prisons in recent decades to restoring the communities hardest hit by mass incarceration.

Now, as the June 30 deadline for Gov. Jerry Brown to sign the recently-passed $122.5 billion state budget -- one that includes the first allocation of Prop. 47-generated savings -- approaches, this last element of the new law is being tested. Advocates who fought fervently to pass Prop. 47 are facing what may be an even bigger battle: getting the state to cough up the money that voters agreed should go to communities affected by incarceration.

In the process, they are learning a crucial, if painful, lesson: Getting a law on the books often marks the beginning of the struggle, not the end. The real challenge is ensuring implementation -- especially when there is a price tag attached.

The bipartisan consensus around rolling back incarceration appears to be cracking around the contentious issue of dollars and cents. The battle to pass the law -- which called on a large-scale, well-funded and tightly-coordinated coalition of community organizations, foundations, and voters themselves -- may be dwarfed by the long-term struggle to ensure that its promise is fulfilled for those who need it most.

The most visible fault line runs between the originally-promised savings, which voters were told would run between $100 million and $200 million, and the smaller amount actually allocated toward reinvestment in the current budget. The initial allocation that Brown and the state Department of Finance proposed was just $29 million, despite a reduction of more than 5,000 in the state prison population.

Before the 2014 vote on Prop. 47, that same state Department of Finance joined the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office (LAO) in predicting savings in the "low hundred millions." When the $29 million figure was released, the same community organizations that came together in a statewide coalition to make Prop. 47 law (and followed up successfully to ensure that those eligible to reclassify old felonies had support in doing so), rallied again in an effort to ensure that the savings generated by the law made it to those who need it most.

Lenore Anderson, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice, coauthored Prop. 47. She also chaired the campaign to get the initiative passed. She remains active in the effort to ensure full implementation. Brown's initial allocation of $29 million dollars, she says, generated an immediate community response. Groups up and down the state joined together in urging the governor to come up with a new figure.

In what Anderson describes as an "unprecedented" response by local government entities, the Los Angeles City Council and Board of Supervisors, San Diego City Council and Riverside Board of Education joined requests from grassroots advocates and passed resolutions calling on the state to use the LAO's framework to determine the allocation.

"This doesn't happen all that often when it comes to a budget item," Anderson observes, referring to the emphatic and coordinated campaign to get the number changed.

Community organizations mobilized with rallies, press conferences, lobby days and other actions to challenge the initial allocation. Patricia Guerra, justice policy coordinator at the Los Angeles-based Community Coalition (CoCo), says CoCo conveyed constituents' concerns directly to legislators in Sacramento and worked with the Equal Voice for Southern California Families Alliance and the Bay Area Equal Voice Coalition to gather dozens of letters from a wide range of civic, labor and faith-based groups.

In addition to the local government resolutions, the California Budget and Policy Center published an influential brief questioning the formula used to come up with the lowball number. The LAO also issued a new analysis which found the administration had "underestimated savings and overestimated costs," and offered an estimate $100 million higher than the governor's $29 million. The statewide response had an impact in Sacramento. Under pressure from all sides, the governor revised his estimate, initially bumping it up to $40 million, but still nowhere close to what voters were promised, or to what communities say they desperately need.

By the time the Legislature voted on the budget on June 15, the amount had grown by another $28 million, according to Californians for Safety and Justice. The shift resulted from successful discussions with lawmakers and dozens of grassroots, labor and faith leaders in California, according to CoCo. Grassroots advocates credited the state for listening to those affected by incarceration, but they said more financial support is needed to help communities.

People are coming home under Prop. 47, CoCo's Patricia Guerra says, reflecting a positive movement "away from being dependent on a broken criminal justice system. But in order for us to really implement Prop. 47 and see its effectiveness, we need to make funding available to invest in much-needed programs."

Coming up with an accurate figure for Prop. 47-generated savings is not a matter of simple subtraction. It costs an average of $60,000 per year to keep a single inmate behind bars, but generates a savings of only $9,500 to send the person home, because already-crowded prisons are not closing units, leaving overhead to be covered even as inmate populations shrink.

This formulation does not account for the fact that California has been sending prisoners it has no room to house to pricey "contract beds" out of state. By reducing the need for contract beds, grassroots advocates argue, Prop. 47 is actually generating far greater savings.

Advocates and analysts propose that the more accurate way to calculate Prop. 47 savings is to use the cost of sending a prisoner to a contract bed: $29,000 per individual per year. There are also different opinions about how much time (and money) is saved by processing misdemeanor charge as opposed to felonies.

Even in this battle of the calculators, California is reflecting -- if not leading -- national trends. As the tide shifts on incarceration for the first time in decades, states are finding that sending prisoners home doesn't automatically free up dollars. When New York closed scandal-plagued upstate juvenile facilities, union pushback left the state in the awkward position of paying guards to come to work in empty facilities.

California, according to Lenore Anderson, has reduced its prison population by 50,000 since 2007 -- more than any other state -- and seen prison costs rise over the same period. Brown proposed $250 million for prison expansion this year, even as he haggled over smaller numbers in Prop. 47 money.

It wasn't just the number of people incarcerated that exploded during the prison boom. "It was the bureaucracy. (And) bureaucracies are really good at finding ways to keep money," Anderson says.

The mathematical back-and-forth, she adds, distracts from the larger point. "In the end," she observes, "this is a battle over values and priorities. We spend $10 billion a year for corrections in California. Meanwhile, communities that are literally under siege see nowhere near that scale of investment when it comes to protecting residents from harm. This is about far more than math. There will always be justification for spending on prisons. We need to stop engaging in a game of justification and instead engage in a conversation about values."

Supporters see Prop. 47 as the beginning of a much larger shift -- one that will entail not only rolling back over-incarceration but also creating a new paradigm regarding public safety. "The biggest opportunity we have is not just to end mass incarceration," Anderson says. "We need to replace it with community health. We need to replace it with lifting communities up. I think that we are in a moment where we can actually do that, and that becomes our platform for safety."

In this context, the battle over the budget is simply the next step in the larger movement to roll back the prison boom that took decades to reach its current state. It took a massive, coordinated effort to reach the current bipartisan consensus on rolling back prison populations. Now, says Anderson: "We need similar courage to say we have to shrink the budget of the corrections system. That does challenge a lot of interests, but it is the next phase of reversing mass incarceration."

California's reluctance to foot the bill for reform reflects a deeper challenge as well: We may be willing to talk about "justice reinvestment," but the communities decimated by incarceration are ones we never invested in to begin with, and so far, there is limited evidence we are willing to start now. Fulfilling the promise of justice reinvestment will require not only more money but a national shift in priorities.

In California, advocates say they are in it for the long haul. The budget process is an annual event, and the broad coalition that crystallized around Prop 47 will be back next year, and the next, calculators at the ready, to advocate for the kind of large-scale reinvestment voters endorsed with Prop. 47.

The battle over this year's budget may be winding down, but if their commitment is any indication, the larger conversation is only just beginning.

News Mon, 27 Jun 2016 00:00:00 -0400
Disturbing Details Permeate CIA's Declassified Torture Documents

Newly declassified documents on torture techniques used by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) have sickened human rights activists.

The documents were declassified after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the agency. Totaling around 50 documents, they detail how to torture suspects using medical and psychological programs.

ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer says that the new documents highlight the impunity of the CIA:

These newly declassified records add new detail to the public record of the CIA's torture program and underscore the cruelty of the methods the agency used in its secret, overseas black sites. It bears emphasis that these records document grave crimes for which no senior official has been held accountable.

One of the reports, which details the death prisoner Gul Rahman -- who died of hypothermia -- shows the degrading and inhumane treatment meted out by guards.

According to the papers, prisoners were often kept in adult diapers -- and nothing else. Prisoners also endured total darkness and music playing 24 hours a day. The report also notes that, although heating was a known challenge in the cell, if they ran out of diapers, prisoners were placed in their cells nude.

Rahman was often subjected to torture, including being chained in a standing position for days and forced into cold showers. The night he died, Rahman was nude from the waist down. Reports say guards saw him shaking on the floor of his cell but didn't think it merited intervention.

Other documents in the declassification detail the use of "awkward boxes," offered in two sizes. Detainees without certain health challenges, like cardiovascular issues, were put into boxes that only allowed them enough space to sit with their legs crossed. Prisoners were held in this confinement for around two hours at a time.

Other boxes, designed for those with greater health issues, were about the size of a coffin -- just clearing the head and body. Prisoners were confined for up to eight hours multiple times a day, not to exceed 18 hours.

The papers, which essentially amount to medical instruction on how to bring someone to the brink of death and destroy them psychologically for the purpose of interrogation, are full of similarly disturbing details. Waterboarding is laid out in sterile and unsettling detail as a potentially lethal method that, therefore, deserved "precautions."

In another instance, medical professionals note that standing for prolonged periods -- with hands shackled to a metal bar above the prisoner – can cause swelling in the lower limbs. Because of this, they say, it's important to ensure that the shackles can be loosened as needed.

These methods absolutely amount to torture and break numerous international treaties and human rights laws. However, so far no one has held any major officials accountable for these gross violations. Rather, it seems that those working in the government's top offices have waltzed off into a comfortable retirement with zero legal repercussions.

The ACLU is calling on President Obama to launch a full criminal investigation before leaving office, emphasizing that it is the "least he could do."

But without public support to hold the officials who instituted these programs accountable, it seems that the vast rendition and torture network -- paid for with our tax dollars -- will continue to go unchallenged.

News Mon, 27 Jun 2016 00:00:00 -0400
In Wake of Supreme Court Disappointment, Immigrant Rights Advocates Vow to Turn Out the Vote

Protesters demonstrate over the Supreme Court's ruling on President Barack Obama's immigration policy, at Foley Square in New York, June 24, 2016. The court’s 4-4 tie left in place an appeals court ruling blocking Obama’s immigration plan, which would have shielded as many as five million undocumented immigrants from deportation and allowed them to legally work in the United States. (Sam Hodgson / The New York Times)Protesters demonstrate over the Supreme Court's ruling on President Obama's immigration policy, at Foley Square in New York, June 24, 2016. The court's 4-4 tie left in place an appeals court ruling blocking Obama’s immigration plan, which would have shielded as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation and allowed them to legally work in the United States. (Sam Hodgson / The New York Times)

After the Supreme Court deadlocked in a 4-4 vote, a lower court's decision will remain in place, blocking President Obama's November 2014 executive actions that would have shielded more than 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation. But the immigrants' rights community hopes to effectively counteract the decision -- in part, by turning out to vote this November.

Protesters demonstrate over the Supreme Court's ruling on President Barack Obama's immigration policy, at Foley Square in New York, June 24, 2016. The court’s 4-4 tie left in place an appeals court ruling blocking Obama’s immigration plan, which would have shielded as many as five million undocumented immigrants from deportation and allowed them to legally work in the United States. (Sam Hodgson / The New York Times)Protesters demonstrate over the Supreme Court's ruling on President Obama's immigration policy, at Foley Square in New York, June 24, 2016. The court's 4-4 tie left in place an appeals court ruling blocking Obama’s immigration plan, which would have shielded as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation and allowed them to legally work in the United States. (Sam Hodgson / The New York Times)

After the Supreme Court deadlocked in a 4-4 vote Thursday, June 23, a lower court's decision will remain in place, blocking President Obama's November 2014 executive actions that would have shielded nearly 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation and provided many with authorization to live and work in the US.

The court's tie vote effectively denied the president's actions to expand eligibility for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which would have granted eligible young people who came to the US as children temporary protection from deportation, as well as authorization to live and work in the US. The ruling also denied millions of eligible parents of US citizens and legal permanent residents the same protections under the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) program.

In April, the high court heard oral arguments in US v. Texas, a case challenging an injunction lower courts placed on President Obama's executive actions last February after a federal judge in Brownsville, Texas, halted the expansion of the DACA program and the launch of DAPA, ruling that Texas and 25 other Republican-dominated states have a basis to challenge them.

For more original Truthout election coverage, check out our election section, "Beyond the Sound Bites: Election 2016."

Immigrants' rights organizations lamented the Supreme Court's ruling Thursday, expressing condolences to the millions of families that will not be protected from deportation or allowed to legally work in the US, while calling for a moratorium on all new deportations. Some groups also vowed to counteract the decision by turning Latinos out to vote in November.

"While we are grieving, our drive to win immigration reform remains intact," said incoming executive director of the Texas Organizing Project, Michelle Tremillo, in a press release. "In the coming months, we will knock on doors and call on our friends and neighbors to vote for candidates who will help us win local policy changes that will improve the lives and safety of immigrants, and comprehensive immigration reform in DC."

Angelica Villalobos came to the US from Mexico in 1996 when she was 11 years old, and received a DACA permit in January 2013, as part of the first wave of applicants for protection under the original version of the program initiated in 2012. Although her own DACA status will not be affected by the recent decision, the 2012 program may now be at risk of future court challenges.

"I am very disappointed in the [justices] who voted against [Obama's executive actions] because the key questions they even asked had a very straightforward answer," Villalobos told Truthout, referring to whether or not Obama's executive actions were legal. "[Texas] acknowledged that it was a lawful order."

As Case Moves to Brownsville, Fight for Privacy Ensues

Before the Supreme Court's ruling Thursday, Villalobos was one of four DACA recipients who filed a writ this month with the help of the National Immigration Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the ACLU of Texas in the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. The writ pressured the Brownsville court to delay an order by federal Judge Andrew Hanen to release the addresses and personal information of nearly 108,000 young, undocumented immigrants who received three-year protections and work permits in the period between November 2014 and February 2015 to state authorities involved in the suit.

Judge Hanen permitted a stay of his order, delaying the deadline of the court's request for the release of the immigrants' information until August 22, 2016. Since the lower court's ruling was provisional, the case now moves back down to Brownsville with the Supreme Court's recent decision, and Judge Hanen's order will move forward. The order was supposedly intended to be a "rebuke" to Justice Department attorneys for what the judge determined to be deceptive conduct in the court proceedings. However, the actual consequences of this politically motivated maneuver will likely fall less on the attorneys and much more on the undocumented youths themselves, who immigrants' rights advocates say could face retaliation -- particularly in states originally opposed to President Obama's executive actions.

Villalobos told Truthout she feared she or her family members, including her four daughters, would be investigated by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or local police if her information was released to state authorities in Oklahoma.

"I am tired of people like Judge Hanen who are just attacking us continuously," Villalobos told Truthout about why she decided to move forward with the legal writ earlier this month. "He's actually going out of his way to try to bring us into the middle of everything that he is doing with DAPA and the extended DACA."

Villalobos organizes with DREAM Act Oklahoma, mostly helping host "Know Your Rights" forums for undocumented people in her area in Oklahoma, and is part of the United We Dream (UWD) network.

"We are very proud to know that it was the undocumented community that was able to step in and say, 'Judge Hanen, back off,'" Sheridan Aguirre, who is communications coordinator at UWD, told Truthout about the order's delayed deadline. "The privacy of undocumented youth is at risk and could open doors for further collection of private information of immigrants in general, and by extension, people of color."

Greisa Martinez, UWD's advocacy director, charged that Judge Hanen has a history of anti-immigrant sentiments.

"There is more than enough evidence to be able to point to the fact that this judge has obviously become one who is not grounded in what is his judicial commitment to remain unbiased," Martinez told Truthout. "It's difficult to separate him and his interests from that of the Republicans."

While it remains unclear just what state authorities would do with DACA recipients' information, the order to release the information of hundreds of thousands of youths could set a new and frightening precedent, particularly with the potential presidency of presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump looming on the horizon. Trump has promised to end DACA, deport all undocumented immigrants residing in the US and build a wall along the southern border with Mexico.

Immigrants' Rights Advocates Eye November

Given the precariousness of President Obama's deferred action efforts and the severity of Trump's threats, immigrants' rights activists are organizing to register their communities to vote, hoping to defend the current protections and keep from losing any more ground under the next president, no matter who wins.

Advocates laid plans for an electoral strategy during the UWD Congress in Houston, Texas, this month, and are planning another convergence in the first week of July. Activists' plans are broad-ranging: They hope to grow their movement and hold officials accountable in the streets, in voting booths and in the courts.

Electorally, however, UWD and a number of immigrants' rights organizations across the country are organizing voter registration drives in "purple" states like Florida, California and New Mexico, which could become key in deciding President Obama's successor. UWD also plans to launch a "get-out-the-vote" campaign in October that will ask US citizens to vote on behalf of those who can't vote -- people "who do not have access to [US] democracy" -- to keep families together. In addition to digital and social media outreach, UWD hopes to incorporate direct action and civil disobedience into the organization's electoral strategy this fall to attract millennial Latinos, who will make up nearly half of all eligible Latino voters in 2016.

Immigrants' rights groups have declared their push for Latino voter turnout in November to be a "Plan B" now that Obama's executive actions have been blocked. The groups argue that Latinos remain central not only in deciding who will occupy the White House, but who will get a seat in Congress.

The Latino electorate is estimated to comprise about 23 million people, a sizable enough constituency to advance immigration reform in Congress. Yet advocates say just 12.5 million are registered to vote, with another 8 million permanent documented residents meeting the requirements last September to be able vote on the first Tuesday in November.

Villalobos told Truthout that she was scared of the prospect of a potential Trump presidency at first, but that her anxiety has decreased as the presidential race has continued to play out on the national stage. "[Trump] hasn't really given us concrete answers on what he's really going to do. It's really just talk," she said. "The way I see it is … he can't change all the laws in four years."

She's more worried about the violence against immigrants that a Trump presidency could incite, pointing to outbreaks of violence at his campaign rallies and the accompanying anti-immigrant fervor of his supporters. "With Trump as president, I don't think there will be a big difference between the way the United States will run and what other countries in Latin America are dealing with, in terms of the violence," Villalobos said.

Immigrants' rights organizers emphasize that no matter who occupies the White House in 2017, the immigrant community will work hold them accountable and to protect undocumented people targeted by ICE and local police from deportation and family separation. Their diligence in holding the next president to account will be important not only under a potential Republican president, but also under Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton if she takes the White House in November.

Although, during a March Democratic primary debate sponsored by Univision, Clinton promised moderators that she would not deport undocumented children seeking asylum in the US, she previously supported deporting undocumented children. Clinton said in January that she "would give every person, but particularly children, due process and have their story told." Two years prior, she ardently defended deporting asylum-seeking children coming to the US from Central America, saying the US needed to "send a clear message" to Central Americans considering making the journey.

Martinez emphasized that activists are not pledging allegiance to either party; they are defending their constituents.

"All of [the victories we have won] have depended on us being able to keep both parties and both politicians accountable, and being able to pressure politicians no matter who's in office," Martinez said. "Obviously, we will be ensuring that Latinos and immigrant voters are aware of what's at stake … but we do not owe ourselves to Democrats. We do not owe ourselves to Republicans. We owe ourselves to our families."

News Mon, 27 Jun 2016 00:00:00 -0400
Greg Palast on US Election Fraud and Neoliberalism Gone Amok in Latin America and Greece

Author and investigative journalist Greg Palast is no stranger to neoliberal shenanigans. In this exclusive interview, Palast discusses his upcoming documentary on election theft in the United States and the destructive effects of neoliberalism in Latin America, Puerto Rico and Greece.

(Photo: SpirosK photography)(Photo: SpirosK Photography)

Bestselling author and investigative journalist Greg Palast is no stranger to electoral shenanigans. Through an extensive investigation of the elimination of tens of thousands of largely low-income and voters of color from the electoral rolls in Florida prior to the 2000 presidential elections, Palast uncovered the ways in which electoral outcomes -- and democracy itself -- are increasingly manipulated by powerful interests in the United States.

Palast is also no stranger to neoliberal shenanigans, having investigated the actions of institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, and the destructive effects of the austerity policies that they have promoted. In this exclusive interview, Palast discusses both of the above issues, including his upcoming crowdfunded documentary on election theft in the US, and the destructive effects of neoliberalism in Latin America, Puerto Rico and Greece.

Michael Nevradakis: Tell us about your investigation into election fraud in the United States, and how the presidential elections in 2000 set the stage for what is happening today.

Greg Palast: In 2000, George W. Bush was first elected, but he really wasn't elected. He lost the vote. The nasty secret of American democracy is that we don't count all the votes. By all modern measures, we have one of the most corrupt and least trustworthy voting systems in the Western world. For example, in 2000, I discovered that the person in charge of counting the votes in Florida [Katherine Harris] was a Republican official who was also the chairwoman of Bush's election campaign. Before the election, she removed 56,000 African Americans from the voter rolls. She said they were convicted of crimes and therefore they couldn't vote. In fact, none of these people were criminals. But they all lost their right to vote. Almost none of them were going to vote for Bush, so that's how Bush became president. People have to understand, out of over 100 million votes, Bush won by just 537 votes.

Today, I've uncovered a brand new gimmick called "cross-check." Another million people are literally being removed from the voter rolls. The Electoral College system makes vote theft fairly easy, and makes it profitable, because if you win a single state, you get all of its electoral votes. When they remove 1 million voters from such states as Ohio and North Carolina and Florida, these are the states that determine who becomes president. They have a new gimmick to remove people from the voter rolls secretly, quietly, people don't even know they've been removed.

About one-third of Americans mail in their ballots, and if their vote isn't counted, they don't know it. We know officially that about 6 million votes never get counted. Almost all the votes removed are votes of poor people, African Americans, Latino Americans and Asian Americans. These are all basically Democratic voters. And it is not only the presidency, but the Senate which is up for grabs. Even though the Republican Party does not like Donald Trump, the problem is that they still have to control the election and steal votes, because they need to control the Senate.

This leads us to your new film project, a crowdsourced documentary titled The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, which is also the name of one of your books. Tell us about the project.

The book, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, was about the theft of these elections in America -- how it just doesn't stop and it's gotten worse. The film, even though it's about a grim subject … is a lot of fun. [It] is following me around as an investigative reporter from state to state, seeing how many votes they're stealing, and you get to meet the guys who are stealing the votes, plus their victims.

The subtitle is "A Tale of Billionaires and Ballot Bandits." Billionaires and Ballot Bandits is another book I wrote, and the important thing is who is buying these elections. It's very expensive to get elected, but it's even more expensive to steal votes.

It's very expensive to get elected, but it's even more expensive to steal votes.

We hunt down those behind the vote theft -- billionaires like David and Charles Koch and their brother Billy Koch, who is often forgotten. We go after Paul Singer, known as "The Vulture." He's funding efforts to block Black and Latino and poor voters from voting. These billionaires have an agenda -- to help Republicans get elected, but they don't really care about the Republican Party, they care about their own bank accounts. They're going to support the theft of the election by the Republicans, especially for the Senate.

In Latin America, we've seen the impeachment of President Dilma Roussef in Brazil, the electoral loss of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Argentina and the continued instability in Venezuela. What's your take on these developments?

The answer is oil. Venezuela was rebuilding its nation by spreading its oil wealth. Hugo Chavez, before he died, directed a massive shift in the nation's wealth from the small group of the white elite -- they didn't call themselves Venezuelans, but Spaniards -- and spread the money amongst the poor. With the collapse of oil prices, there was no way to continue this program of redistributing wealth, unless you started taking it away from the rich. Now you have a revolution of the rich in Venezuela, and there's no money left in the treasury with oil prices destroyed. Any government would have a tough time surviving that.

Same thing in Brazil. Brazil was becoming a major oil producer, but suffered not only the collapse of oil prices, but also the collapse of its commodities, which it sold to China. As China's economy has slowed, Brazil's economy has died. The leftist government came under attack. They've impeached president Rousseff, but I can tell you, the problem with Rousseff is that she never held public office until she was elected president, and she literally does not know how to speak to the people. I see that in Venezuela. [Nicolás] Maduro, he's a wonderful guy, but he's not a politician, and he has no idea how to speak to his nation. You've got two non-politicians who are running governments in crisis mode.

In Argentina, this is a situation that is very close to the Greek situation. We had the Kirchner governments, two presidents -- Cristina and Néstor Kirchner. They fought very hard not to pay the vultures that took over the debt, and they took a very different route from Greece. When [Argentina] bought the entire neoliberal program of austerity and privatization and liberalization and open markets, just like Greece, its economy collapsed. But then the leftist governments of Néstor and Cristina Kirchner took over. They rejected the neoliberal programs and austerity, tightened regulations, re-nationalized critical industries, and suddenly the nation thrived! In fact, the banks that were owed money ended up getting back their money, because the economy grew.

What's happened in Argentina is that a few "vulture investors" purchased some of the old debts of Argentina. [Paul] Singer paid about $50 million for Argentine bonds, then demanded $3 billion. The Kirchner government refused, and Singer used US law to strangle Argentina, to prevent the nation from borrowing, to seize the assets of the nation, including its navy ships on the high seas! Remember, the vultures never lent to Argentina or Greece. These guys buy old debts at a discount and then hold nations economically hostage. Unfortunately, in the case of Argentina, it worked. The leftist government which said "we will never pay these vultures" ended up getting thrown out of office, and a new right-wing government just wrote a check to the vultures for $6 billion, a 3,000 percent profit.

A similar crisis has unfolded in Puerto Rico. What's been happening there and how have the "vulture funds" been involved?

Puerto Rico is one of America's last colonies. Puerto Rico, as a semi-independent state, got into trouble because just like Greece is stuck to the euro, Puerto Rico is stuck to the US dollar. It's a Caribbean nation, so Puerto Rico has to compete with Haiti, Trinidad, Jamaica, but it has the US dollar. The Puerto Rican economy has been dying, and people are fleeing. Probably nearly half of the population of Puerto Rico now lives in the United States proper.

The difference is that there's a real debate in the United States between paying off not only the banks, but the same vulture investors that have gotten involved. Singer's vulture partner, John Paulson, is now the big vulture holding the bonds and debts of Puerto Rico. Many American politicians -- President Obama and the Democratic Party -- have called for allowing Puerto Rico to declare bankruptcy … and agree not to pay most of its debts, and to refinance its debts with help from the US government. And this is not like the IMF, where they are demanding all kinds of cuts and austerity. However, that's the Obama administration's position. The position of the Republican Party, for the most part, is to basically do what the Germans are doing to Greece: demand massive austerity, massive layoffs of public employees, privatization of the electric company, cutting the pensions. Though there's many Democrats who are anti-Puerto Rico and many Republicans who support helping Puerto Rico. The problem is that the vultures support the Republicans, and even with a Democratic president, we have a Republican Congress, and they're holding up a solution for Puerto Rico, just like the Germans are holding up a solution for Greece.

In Greece, the Syriza-led government recently passed further austerity bills, targeting the country's pension and tax systems and mortgaging the country's public assets to foreign lenders for 99 years. What is your reaction to the actions of the Syriza-led government and the continued insistence on remaining in the eurozone?

Syriza lied to the Greek people. It ran on a platform of saying, "We'll get a good deal from Europe or we will leave the euro." They had a lot of power and leverage when they came in. There was a great deal of panic about Greece leaving the euro that could have been used to squeeze concessions. But concessions are somewhat meaningless. As long as you're in the eurozone, you are chained to the German economy, chained to Germany's need for higher interest, chained to Germany's need to maintain high [domestic] employment at a cost to the rest of the eurozone.

I think now, the whole idea of leaving the eurozone, it's one of those things where you say, "We should have done it a year ago" -- every year you say you should have done it a year ago. It is very late, a high price has already been paid, but it's still not the end of the price that Greece will be paying, because if Greece doesn't leave the eurozone, it will be stuck! And unlike the United States [and] Puerto Rico, there's no sense of responsibility to Greece by the European Union. The EU is not anything close to a union in any manner. It is an occupation, and I don't say that lightly. You're constantly being told that austerity would save you, and it hasn't.

Austerity is an idea that is dangerous and failed. It really is completely medieval. The idea of bleeding an economy, cutting your pensions and wages, selling off more, is going to improve your economy, is insane! It doesn't work for a simple reason: When you cut people's pensions and wages and you eliminate government employment, you end up with people who don't have money to spend, and if people don't spend, your economy dies.

What happened in Greece was not a mistake, it was not a problem of the euro, it was the program of the euro, it's the purpose of the euro.

And now, these past weeks, the Greek government decided to go along with more austerity, but still it's not good enough for the Germans! And the Germans aren't demanding austerity because it's good for Greece or the eurozone. They know that this will drag down Greece further. Even the IMF, which is infamous for its cruelty, says that this is too cruel! It's as if [Chilean dictator Augusto] Pinochet said "I can't watch this torture anymore!" This will make it impossible for Greece to recover. 

If you look at the program that [the lenders] have in mind for Greece, they're not even promising recovery anymore. They're saying Greece will be in austerity mode for the next 20 years. That's not true. Greece will be in austerity mode forever. This is a permanent change in Greece's wages, a permanent change in control, in ownership, unless Greece gets the hell out of the eurozone! Yes it's too late, but it's not too late. It should have been done before, but it's got to be done now.

You have interviewed the "founding father" of the euro, economist Robert Mundell. What did he have to say about the European common currency and its true objectives?

The man who invented the euro is the economist Robert Mundell, whom I've had long discussions with. Mundell said that the creation of the euro was a way to bring the supply-side economics of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher to Europe. By creating the euro, he said, you take away fiscal power, monetary power from governments, so if you're ever in trouble, you can't use stimulus spending or change the value of your currency. The only option left is to cut government employment, cut wages, eliminate union power and privatize industry. What happened in Greece was not a mistake, it was not a problem of the euro, it was the program of the euro, it's the purpose of the euro. And Mundell is a Nobel Prize-winning economist, he was the man that created supply-side economics for Reagan, and he actually believed in the long run this would be better for Europe and for Greece -- to get rid of unions and public employment and eliminate regulations which he thought were strangling the economy. This is an old, right-wing, Reagan and Thatcher view of economics which is long discredited. But while supply-side economics is now roundly considered a failed economic philosophy, you're still stuck with the supply-side prison known as the eurozone. The euro is a tool to enforce supply-side, right-wing economics, and everyone is getting hurt by this except the Germans, who have reorganized their economy to be an export machine, because for them, the currency is priced too low.

News Mon, 27 Jun 2016 00:00:00 -0400
Historic Justice for Janitors Campaign Inspires a New Generation of Janitorial Organizing

Raise America is SEIU’s nationwide campaign to raise the standards for union janitors during contract negotiations. (Photo: WNV / Shane Burley)Raise America is SEIU's nationwide campaign to raise the standards for union janitors during contract negotiations. (Photo: WNV / Shane Burley)

Workers packed into the crowded Logan International Airport in Boston on Wednesday, June 15, where SEIU Local 32BJ brought together a large swathe of minimum-wage employees who often go unseen to hurried travelers. Baggage handlers, cabin cleaning staff and others who go through contracting companies were rallying together under an organizing banner with a history of struggle dating back 30 years.

While the Fight for $15 raises headlines and wages across the United States, June 15 saw a national day of action in cities around the country for the annual anniversary of the Justice for Janitors campaign. For SEIU Local 32BJ, which handles 155,000 property service workers along the East Coast from New Hampshire to Florida, this was a chance to reclaim the history of a campaign that did the unthinkable in the early 1990s.

"It has become a symbol for how labor unions and workers, working together and exercising their power, can establish standards in all sorts of industries," said Eugenio Villasante, regional communications manager for SEIU Local 32BJ.

The rally brought together traditionally employed janitors with other airport workers who have been fighting for years to organize a union in their own workplace. Just as with other low-wage positions that were thought to be beyond the scope of unionization, the Justice for Janitors campaign is a reminder of what is possible through strong public campaigns that organize the community as a show of solidarity. With SEIU's Raise America campaign, which looks to raise the standards for union janitors across the country, the Justice for Janitors legacy holds critical lessons for how public campaigns win concessions.

¡Sí Se Puede!

Although the earliest planning for the campaign can be traced back as far as 1986, Justice for Janitors came to life in Los Angeles in 1990. Grounds-care, cleaning and some maintenance workers were brought under the larger "janitorial" umbrella, as the average janitorial wage in Los Angeles had shrunk to an average of $4.50 per hour in 1986 through a combination of subcontracting and non-union competition. They went on strike in 1990, drawing on huge community and labor support, a staple SEIU tactic, and won a base raise of 22 percent over the next 36 months.

This led to a wave of janitorial organizing, with SEIU winning massive victories over the coming years, culminating in the nationwide campaign of 100,000 janitorial staff in 2000. At the same time, student organizers with the University Students Against Sweatshops project used the Justice for Janitors banner for their own Campus Worker Solidarity campaign to support janitorial staff organizing against their replacement by non-union contractors. Despite this momentum, the janitors soon entered an incredibly challenging organizing terrain -- specifically the 2005 organizing drive in Houston, where they took on the five biggest Texas custodial contracting companies inside of the anti-union political climate of the South. At this point, the janitors were making an average of $5.25 per hour, about a quarter of what the same positions made in New York City. After they fielded dozens of arrests, a large 5,300-worker unit of primarily Latino female staff won massive victories like health insurance and an almost $2.50 raise from the contractors.

The legacy of the campaign has continued as a cultural signifier for the ongoing need to organize janitorial positions, which are often socially maligned and associated with Latino and undocumented work. In recent years, the campaign has drawn heavily on the Fight for $15, focusing on fast food workers in New York City. SEIU now represents more than 225,000 janitors in the United States -- with California remaining a leader, given its more than 20,000 represented workers.

On the Ground in the Pacific Northwest

SEIU Local 49 handles 1,800 janitors in Oregon and southwest Washington who use the annual Justice for Janitors Day to continue to raise the visibility of janitors as a dynamic part of the larger labor movement. SEIU's Raise America campaign is helping keep the focus on janitorial staff, which has seen locals in 33 cities -- representing 130,000 janitorial workers -- fighting for contracts that reflect a living wage and adequate benefits. Raise America began two years ago, as a push to update many of the janitorial contracts that were soon expiring for SEIU locals. Since community support and solidarity between cities was expected to be key in pressuring major contracting companies to further reform pay and working conditions for janitors, the campaign has focused primarily on workers who are already unionized with SEIU and bargaining for significant increases in wages and safety standards. Organizers have also been using community action and public labor advocacy to further put pressure on massive contracting companies coming to the bargaining table.

For janitors leading the fight in the Pacific Northwest, this annual event coincides with vigorous negotiations over key issues like safe workloads and bringing workers up to $15 per hour. The public rally brought together hundreds of workers from janitorial contractors around Oregon and Washington, as well as community supporters from a variety of other labor unions and community coalitions. The Portland State University Student Union has continued a long-term effort to support janitorial staff from SEIU, going as far as having an event the afternoon before Justice for Janitors Day, where janitors spoke at PSU about their experiences.

SEIU Local 49 brought hundreds of janitors and labor supporters to demand that the wages and working conditions improve for workers across the country. (Photo: WNV / Shane Burley)SEIU Local 49 brought hundreds of janitors and labor supporters to demand that the wages and working conditions improve for workers across the country. (Photo: WNV / Shane Burley)

"This is not an easy job," said Lacey Wiberg, a janitor in southern Washington. "If we didn't have a union, the companies would treat us really badly. We wouldn't have the protections that we have."

Even with a union contract, and after almost 20 years with the same company, Wiberg only makes $13.20 per hour, with no mandatory sick days. After decades doing this work, Wiberg is concerned about having enough savings, should her body "wear out" from the aggressive repetitive work she does on her nightly shifts.

"How can you save anything when you are living paycheck to paycheck?" she asked.

After a bi-lingual event that raised the voices of Latino janitors in Portland, Oregon, workers took to the streets beneath a wave of flapping SEIU flags. For SEIU Local 49, this public show of support will help give workers an edge during their contract negotiations with some of the largest contracting firms in the nation, while -- at the same time -- signaling broader community support for the janitors. With workers pushing the $15 per hour line, they are tapping into a standard that "low-wage" workers have been setting across the country as different types of work, from fast food to part-time college faculty, put $15 per hour as the lowest wage acceptable.

"The more members and visible community support, the better employers see that people stand with workers, with working families, and that they believe in dignity in the workplace," said Mark Medina, a Portland-area janitor with SEIU Local 49, whose current contract battle with the five leading contracting companies in the area is building on the massive organizing project begun three decades prior.

"Now we are moving that movement forward," he said. "Going to a $15 per hour wage with the union. Better benefits. Better treatment on the job. And just continuing that fight that was started in the late 80s."

Nearby in Seattle, SEIU Local 6 pushed the Metropolitan King County Council to officially recognize June 15 as "Justice for Janitors Day," putting into the record that the struggle for many of these "invisible" people is an ongoing battle to confront the exploitation of low-wage workers.

Raise the Wage

The Raise America campaign and SEIU Local 32BJ, specifically, used this anniversary as a chance to highlight local organizing in the tradition of the original Los Angeles campaign. In New Jersey, workers came out to the Jersey City City Hall to show public support for local bills that would protect janitorial and maid workers by requiring 30-hour workweek minimums for employees and a 90-day notice if a building is canceling a cleaning contract.

In Baltimore, 32BJ janitors testified before the Baltimore City Council for Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke's hearing on raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour. Clarke's minimum wage proposal, which would raise the wage of 80,000 Baltimore-area minimum-wage workers by 2020, has been heavily supported by the union, while being opposed by business leaders at places like the Greater Baltimore Committee. Workers told their stories to a listening panel and highlighted the struggles of living at poverty wages.

The Raise America campaign was built on the necessity of moving past the first victories of a union election and bringing vibrancy into the long-term struggles to raise a wage even when a bargaining agent is present. In each city where janitorial staff are represented, union organizers are looking at how to start addressing the key issues of low-wages and tough working conditions. For many, this has meant linking up with the broader Fight for $15 and going after legislation that would raise the base wages and bring in moderate reforms that affect workers. Further contracts will be expiring in Massachusetts and Rhode Island this September, so this is only going to build up steam as SEIU 32BJ continues the battle in the fall.

At the same time, using the history of Justice for Janitors means drawing on a huge community-labor coalition of support for public actions that shift the balance of power toward the workers when negotiating union contracts. This presents a shift for many labor unions that are beginning to again focus on an active labor movement that sees the necessity of constant organizing and agitation, rather than just relying on negotiators after a union election is ratified. Raise America attempts to then bring the militancy and energy of Justice for Janitors into the ongoing battle for raising janitorial wages, an organizing campaign that wins through its permanence and the constant involvement of members.

As many jobs shift, and SEIU begins to prioritize large campaigns at group homes and airports across the country, it means expanding the vision of Justice for Janitors by looking at low-wage, "invisible" positions as a united block with common interests.

"They all have the same kind of problems. They all cope with the same kind of low-wage economy," Villasante explained. "We're here to help and transform this economy and make it work for everybody."

One of the largest questions for the future is whether this battle -- represented both by Raise America and the broader Fight for $15 -- will be honing in on legislative victories across the country or continuing to focus on unionizing the growing low-wage sector. For janitors, this means looking to where the strongest victories have been and making that a model for how to keep "invisible" workers heard in their workplaces.

News Sun, 26 Jun 2016 00:00:00 -0400
Why the First Olympic Refugee Team May Not Be the Last

Ten refugee athletes will march into the Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on Friday, August 5, 2016. Unlike the other athletes there, they will not represent the countries of their birth, heritage or citizenship. These athletes will comprise the first-ever Olympic refugee team, and they will march under the Olympic flag.

"We want to send a message of hope for all refugees in our world," said Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee. With over 65 million forcibly displaced persons worldwide, 21 million of them refugees, hope may be as essential as food and housing.

War, civil unrest, genocide, criminality, environmental catastrophes, famine, poverty and disease have led to the voluntary and involuntary migration of far too many people around the globe.

These 10 athletes will likely draw significant media attention. But what happens after the television crews pack up their equipment, the stadium lights go off and the crowds go home? Having been sensitized to the plight of refugees, what will viewers do with this information?

As a scholar who studies refugees, I think wealthy nations like the United States could do more, but politicians need a clearer mandate from their constituents. A humanitarian response could include the resettlement of more carefully vetted refugees in the United States, but that is not the only option. Wealthy nations could provide more financial assistance to the international organizations that provide emergency relief.

But it is also within governments' power to facilitate the conditions that would allow refugees to return to their homelands, to rebuild their lives and communities. Returning home is what refugees ultimately seek.

Searching for Durable Solutions

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN agency mandated to protect the rights of those fleeing war and persecution, seeks three durable solutions to refugee crises – voluntary repatriation, integration in host societies or resettlement in third countries.

More than half of all forcibly displaced people are children. Because of protracted conflicts, the average refugee can now expect to spend a quarter-century away from home. Exile is all these refugee children may ever know, undermining ties to the homeland and preventing them from fully integrating into a host society.

While "durable solutions" are worked out, aid workers try to meet refugees' immediate needs: housing, food, water and medical care. Humanitarian aid becomes all the more important in a world where resettlement options are limited, and interventions to prevent or mitigate humanitarian crises are perceived as questionable foreign policy. For decades now, the UNHCR and other refugee relief organizations have responded to refugee crises with ever-diminishing resources.

Only three percent of the UNHCR's budget comes from the United Nations. The remaining 97 percent comes from voluntary contributions from governments, corporations and individual donors. The United States ranks among the top 10 donor nations, offering close to 30 percent of all humanitarian aid.

Yet, the need for humanitarian aid has never been greater. Roughly 40 percent of those forced to flee across international borders settle in refugee camps, with populations larger than some U.S. cities. In these camps, immediate needs are met, but refugees are denied a chance to legally work, practice professions, run businesses, own property, choose their place of residence, move about freely or become citizens.

The education and medical care offered them are rudimentary, at best. Their safety is often compromised, and they are vulnerable to trafficking and other forms of organized crime. Housing that was designed to be temporary has become increasingly permanent.

Sixty percent of refugees bypass camps altogether and try their luck in urban areas. There, many work in the underground service economy and are easily exploited.

What's in It for Us?

Financial costs of resettlement in third countries can be exorbitant, making nations less likely to want to accommodate a large share of refugees. Domestic interests trump international obligations, even if they are, like the United States, signatories to the UN Convention on Refugees. Less than one percent of refugees under the care of the UNHCR ever receive permanent resettlement in third countries like the U.S.

Given these circumstances, greater financial assistance to the UNHCR and other international relief agencies is necessary, and not just because it's the humane thing to do.

Policymakers have long recognized that a large, sudden influx of refugees can politically and economically destabilize developing countries and regions. Refugees compete with host populations for land, jobs, housing and other scarce resources. These social pressures can exacerbate ethnic, racial and sectarian tensions and make them scapegoats for local and national problems.

They sometimes trigger new political conflict that causes further displacement. Addressing the refugee crises of today helps to prevent -- or, at the very least, mitigate -- the political crises of tomorrow.

Perhaps, the greatest assistance we can offer refugees is to hold our governments accountable for policies that contribute to their displacement. In 2007, for example, the United States provided US$30 million to the UNHCR to assist Iraqi refugees, but this number paled in comparison to the estimated $2 billion per week they spent to wage the war that made many Iraqis flee as refugees.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said:

Refugees want homes, not tents. They want a flag that waves for their rights. And they deserve a world that gives them more than assistance; they deserve a world that is at peace.

Many refugees want to return home, if their safety can be guaranteed. Throughout its history, the UNHCR has facilitated the voluntary repatriation of countless refugees around the world. But today, repatriation is at a 20-year low.

The 10 refugee athletes competing at the Rio Olympics will no doubt give other refugees hope. "Let us all be on the team of refugees until there is no need for a refugee team at all," said the UN secretary general.

Given that one in 122 humans is now either a refugee, internally displaced or seeking asylum, it looks like we may have many more Olympic refugee teams in the future.

The Conversation

News Sun, 26 Jun 2016 00:00:00 -0400