Friday, May 23, 2008

U.S. Home Resales Drop, Inventories Rise to Record as Housing Woes Persist

U.S. Home Resales Drop, Inventories Rise to Record as Housing Woes Persist

By Shobhana Chandra

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Sales of previously owned homes in the U.S. fell in April and the supply of unsold properties reached a record, signaling no let-up in the 27-month housing slump.

Purchases declined 1 percent to an annual rate of 4.89 million, higher than forecast, the National Association of Realtors said today in Washington. The median price fell 8 percent from April last year, the second-biggest drop.

‘‘There is no indication that things are improving,'' said Christopher Low, chief economist at FTN Financial in New York, who forecast sales would drop to a 4.9 million pace. ‘‘Inventories will stay out of balance at least until the end of 2009 and prices will keep falling.''

Defaults on subprime mortgages have prompted lenders to restrict credit, while falling property values have given buyers who are still able to get financing reason to delay purchases. The slide in home values may hurt consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of the economy.

Treasury securities, which had risen before the report, stayed higher. Benchmark 10-year note yields fell to 3.84 percent at 11:54 a.m. in New York, from 3.92 percent late yesterday. The Standard & Poor's 500 stock index dropped 1.2 percent to 1,377.5.

Resales were forecast to fall 1.6 percent to a 4.85 million annual rate, according to the median forecast of 67 economists in a Bloomberg News survey.

Sales were down 18 percent compared with April 2007.

Glut of Homes

The number of previously owned unsold homes on the market at the end of April jumped to 4.55 million from 4.12 million in March. The total represented 11.2 months' supply at the current sales pace, the highest on record and up from 10 months at the end of the prior month.

The median price of an existing home fell to $202,300 from $219,900 in April 2007.

‘‘We had an unrealistic run-up of prices and the faster they come back down to the real world the better,'' William Cheney, chief economist at John Hancock Financial Services in Boston, said in an interview with Bloomberg Television. ‘‘The faster prices come down, the quicker we can get back to an equilibrium where we actually have transactions.''

Property values may drop more than 30 percent from their peak in 2006, Robert Shiller, an economics professor at Yale University and co-creator of a housing-price index, said in an interview with the London-based Times last month.

Shiller Index

The S&P/Case-Shiller March home-price index covering 20 metropolitan regions is due May 27. Through February, the measure was down 15 percent from the record set in July 2006. Shiller was unavailable for comment today.

Existing home sales account for about 85 percent of the U.S. housing market while new home sales make up the rest. Monthly figures on resales are compiled from contract closings and may reflect sales agreed upon weeks or months earlier.

Purchases of new homes, which are recorded when a contract is signed, are considered a more timely barometer of the market. The Commerce Department's report is due next week.

Today's report showed resales of single-family homes dropped 0.5 percent to an annual rate of 4.34 million. Sales of condos and co-ops declined 5.2 percent to a 550,000 rate.

Purchases decreased in two of four regions, led by a 6 percent decline in the Midwest.

Fed View

Federal Reserve policy makers, who cut their 2008 growth estimate by almost 1 percentage point, said ‘‘tight credit conditions and the deepening housing contraction are likely to weigh on economic growth over the next few quarters,'' according to minutes of their April meeting released on May 21.

The economy will expand by 0.3 percent to 1.2 percent this year, policy makers estimated. Their efforts to support growth include 2.25 percentage points of reductions in the benchmark interest rate this year, the most in almost two decades.

Recent reports signal little relief for the housing market. The number of banks reporting tighter lending standards approached a record in April, a Fed survey showed. Builders broke ground on single-family homes last month at the slowest pace in 17 years, Commerce figures showed.

Residential construction, which has subtracted from economic growth since the first three months of 2006, will remain a drag through most of this year.

Less Credit

Restricted access to credit will continue to depress property values, eroding household wealth as home equity shrinks. The declines are likely to weaken consumer spending further.

Housing-related firms have faced the brunt of the economic slump. Home Depot Inc., the largest home-improvement retailer, this week said full-year earnings may be at the low end of its prior forecast. Rival Lowe's Cos. said 2008 sales won't meet its estimates. First-quarter profit plunged 66 percent at Home Depot and 18 percent at Lowe's as consumers cut back on remodeling.

‘‘The housing and home-improvement markets remain very difficult,'' Home Depot Chief Executive Officer Frank Blake said on a May 20 conference call. There will be ‘‘more risks than opportunities through the remainder of the year.''

The worsening housing market signals that the Bush administration's efforts to contain the slump aren't working.

The U.S. Senate Banking Committee this week approved housing legislation to stem foreclosures by insuring as much as $300 billion in mortgages. The plan, yet to be approved by the full Senate, also would create a new regulator for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two largest U.S. mortgage-finance companies.

Fingerprint Registry In Housing Bill

Fingerprint Registry In Housing Bill

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Fingerprints are considered to be among the most personal of information, and fingerprint databases created and proposed in the name of national security have generated much debate. Recently, “Server in the Sky”— a proposed international database of the fingerprints of suspected criminals and terrorists to be shared among the U.S., U.K. and Canada — has ignited a firestorm of controversy. As have cavalier comments by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff that fingerprints aren’t “personal data.”

Yet earlier this week, a measure creating a federal fingerprint registry totally unrelated to national security passed a U.S. Senate committee almost without notice. The legislation would require thousands of individuals working even tangentially in the mortgage and real estate industries — and not suspected of anything — to send their prints to the feds. The database and fingerprint mandates were tucked into housing and foreclosure assistance bills that on Tuesday passed the Senate Banking Committee by a vote of 19-2.

The measure the committee passed states that “an indvidual may not engage in the business of a loan originator without first … obtaining a unique identifier.” To obtain this “identifier,” an individual is requiredto “furnish” to the newly created Nationwide Mortgage Licensing System and Registry “information concerning the applicant’s identity, including fingerprints for submission” to the FBI and other government agencies.

The fingerprint provisions are contained in a “manager’s amendment” that was hammered out by committee Chairman Chris Dodd, D-Conn, and Ranking Member Richard Shelby, R-Ala., on Monday and attached the next day to a broader housing bailout bill that had been scheduled for a comittee vote. That bill, the “Federal Housing Finance Regulatory Reform Act of 2008,” expands the lending authority of the Federal Housing Administration and the government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to refinance the mortgages of troubled borrowers and banks.

The amendment adopted the fingerprint provisions in a section called the “S.A.F.E. Mortgage Licensing Act.” The fingerprints will be part of what the amendment calls “a comprehensive licensing and supervisory database.”

And the database would cover a broad swath of individuals involved with mortgage lending. The amendment defines “loan originator” as anyone who “takes a residential loan application; and offers or negotiates terms of a residential mortgage loan for compensation or gain.” It states that even real estate brokers would be covered if they receive any compensation from lenders or mortgage brokers. Since many jobs in both real estate and mortgage lending are part-time and seasonal, even some of the most minor players in the mortgage market may have to submit their prints.

Justifications listed in the bill for this database include “increased accountability and tracking of loan originators,” “enhance[d] consumer protection,” and “facilitat[ing] responsible behavior in the subprime mortgage market.”

I conducted a wide Internet search and found fingerprint provisions in some state bills, but I don’t know if any, or how many passed. But in my search, I could find no arguments explaining how, specifically, collecting the fingerprints of loan originators would better serve borrowers getting mortgages. I called the Senate Banking Committee asking this question, but my call has not been returned yet. (I will update OpenMarket readers when and if it is.)

I imagine that, yes, a fingerprint registry might stop an ex-con from handling loans, but I doubt it will make even a dent in the lending problems the bill aims to stop. And I would venture to guess that the vast majority of the problem mortages were handled by employees with no criminal record. Rather, this seem like another thoughtless idea that lets politicians brag that they are “getting tough” about a particular problem.

But this fingerprint database, in addition to the privacy violations, might create a host of new problems of mortgage fraud. Identity theft involving fingerprints is becoming a major concern among data security experts. Security consultant Bruce Schneier has argued that hackers can steal electronic images of fingerprints directly from the databases they are stored in. And there is virtually nothing in this bill about security procedures that would apply to this database.

It amazes me. We have wrenching debates about privacy and freedom vs. national security when it comes to proposed anti-terrorist programs. But then a smililar scheme is done in response to an economic problem, and it almost escapes without notice. A similar thing has happened with anti-money laundering requirements that mandate that banks effectively spy on their customers for possible violations of everything from drug laws to the tax code.

Berlusconi government incites racist pogroms

Berlusconi government incites racist pogroms

By Stefan Steinberg

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On Wednesday, May 21, at an extraordinary sitting in the city of Naples the recently nominated cabinet of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi passed harsh new laws directed against immigrants. The new decrees follow several weeks of state organised raids and violence directed against Italy’s immigrant community.

The special meeting of the Berlusconi cabinet had been scheduled to take place in the city of Naples in order to deal first and foremost with the city’s longstanding rubbish crisis. In the event, Berlusconi designated the garbage dumps in the region as military areas in order to stop residents from protesting against toxic waste. He combined this with playing the racist card, stressing that the “struggle against foreign criminals” was the top priority of his government and used the meeting in Naples to pass a number of extremely repressive laws.

The Berlusconi government consists of rightist and extreme-right parties, including the post-fascist National Alliance and the separatist and openly racist Northern League. In the run-up to the recent Italian federal elections, the multi-millionaire media tycoon deliberately made xenophobia the keystone of his election campaign. One of Berlusconi’s main election planks was to identify immigrants, and in particular the Roma community, as a chief source of Italy’s economic and social problems.

Immediately after the victory of the Berlusconi alliance in the parliamentary elections the Italian police and paramilitary carabinieri began a series of raids against foreigners. At the start of May the police began picking up and arresting foreign workers and their families. Hundreds of migrants from Eastern Europe, Albania, Greece, North Africa and China were detained and charged with a number of offences, including illegal entry into Italy. Fifty-three of those detained in the first weeks of the police crackdown were immediately taken to the border for expulsion in an orchestrated media operation.

Police and security forces also began moves to shut down Roma encampments in a number of locations across Italy. In a well-publicised action a few weeks ago the police launched a raid against a Roma camp located under the Milvio bridge on the banks of the Tiber River, in the Italian capital of Rome. Police have maintained a strong presence in the area since transporting away caravans as police and immigration officials undertake the deportation of those who lack proper residency papers.

The police operation was given a seal of approval by Rome’s new mayor, the former fascist Gianni Alemanno. In his own election campaign to become mayor Alemanno had vowed to dismantle the “nomad camps” where the Roma live in “third-world conditions.” In a recent visit to such a camp he declared his “horror” at what he had seen and reported: “There are no words to describe what I saw.”

In fact, the horrific conditions in such camps are entirely due to the neglect of the Italian authorities. Roma encampments in Italy are regularly deprived of any access to running water or electricity.

The head of the Northern League and Berlusconi’s new minister of institutional reforms and federalism, Umberto Bossi, also weighed in to defend the police raids. “This operation against illegal immigrants is what people want,” he said recently. “They ask us for security and we have to give it to them.”

The pogrom in Naples

The attacks on the Roma community then peaked with a deliberate provocation. On May 14 gangs attacked a Roma camp in the Ponticelli district of Naples and burnt it to the ground. The attack followed sensational reports in the television channels and newspapers belonging to the Berlusconi media empire in which an Italian woman claimed that a 16-year-old Roma girl had tried to abduct her child. In the wake of the often contradictory reports and testimonies over the alleged “abduction,” a crowd assembled and began shouting insults and issuing threats against the Roma living in the Ponticelli camp. Its inhabitants were then rapidly shifted out of the camp by police.

An agitated mob then used petrol bombs to burn the camp down. Witnesses reported on the flames bursting out from the buildings and caravans set ablaze. According to a number of press reports, however, the local Naples Mafia—the Camorra—played a leading role in the pogrom.

An eyewitness writes in the Corriere della Sera: “A group of youths stands nearby.... The leader is the great-nephew of [Naples suburb] Ponticelli’s ‘mayor,’ Ciro Sarno, the Capo of a Camorra clan that has put down roots here. The youth winks to his group and off they ride on their mopeds. Ten minutes later fresh clouds of smoke rise from the nomad camps.”

Both the Berlusconi government and the criminal Camorra gangs stand to benefit from the latest pogroms in Naples. Gerardo Marotta, a lawyer, told the L’Unita newspaper this week that the origin of the rubbish crisis in Naples was the use of the region by industries of the north as a cheap way to get rid of toxic waste. “For more than 40 years the industries of the north of Italy have saved the cost of cleaning up their toxic waste by entrusting the job to the Camorra, who disposed of it in illegal dumps in the south,” he said.

By instigating racist pogroms in Naples the Camorra gangs have been able to deflect attention away from their own role in the city’s rubbish scandal. At the same time the pogroms are welcome fodder for the Berlusconi government in order to divert attention from the intense social crisis in Naples and the country as a whole.

The mob violence in Naples was preceded by a systematic xenophobic campaign led by the government and media outlets and was subsequently applauded by leading members of the Berlusconi government. Prior to the latest pogroms, Northern League leader Umberto Rossi is on record declaring, “It is easier to destroy rats as wipe out the gypsies.” Following the burning down of the Roma camp on the outskirts of Naples, Rossi justified the pogrom with the words: “People are going to do what the political class cannot.”

His fellow party member and the new Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni responded by declaring that the best way to prevent attacks on foreigners, such as that which took place in Naples, was to increase the powers of the state. This was the aim of the measures passed by the Italian cabinet on Wednesday. Provisions of the new decree stipulate:

1. For the first time unauthorised entry into Italy is designated a crime, making it possible for the authorities to immediately deport or imprison any foreigner lacking the proper residency and status papers. Deportation or imprisonment is also possible on the vaguely defined grounds that a foreign citizen is a “threat to society.”

2. Local authorities are to be empowered to check on the living conditions of citizens from other EU nations before granting them right of residence. In addition to a residency permit, migrants will also be required to produce evidence that they have employment in Italy that guarantees an income sufficient to support themselves and their families.

3. The new bill, which takes immediate effect, also allows the authorities to confiscate any property let out to illegal immigrants.

In order to implement the new measures, Italian Defence Minister Ignazio La Russa has declared he is considering deploying troops to tackle urban crime and the Interior Ministry has announced plans to open up special camps for the incarceration of “criminal foreigners.”

Although the new Italian law is regarded by legal experts as a violation of European Union law on the free movement of citizens across the continent, reaction by EU officials has either been muted or sought to play down the racist violence in Italy.

In the European parliament the Italian the centre-right grouping EPP-ED—European People’s Party (Christian Democrats) and European Democrats—rejected a general debate on the pogroms talking place in Italy. In November last year the chairman of the same group notably came to the defence of Franco Frattini (formerly an EU commission vice president and now foreign minister in Berlusconi’s cabinet) who for years has been urging the EU to seal its external borders against “illegal immigration.”

For his part, the chair of the Socialist Group in the European Parliament, Martin Schultz, reacted to the state-sponsored racist attacks in Italy with a mealy-mouthed statement in which he declared: “The current situation in Italy is difficult. But we don’t want to conceal the fact that the issue of minority protection and integration of Roma in society is not a uniquely Italian problem in Europe.”

The role of the Prodi government and Communist Refoundation

The initial government campaign against Italy’s immigrant and Roma community was instigated in 2007 by the previous “centre-left” government headed by Romano Prodi. The latest draconian laws passed by the Berlusconi cabinet also have their origin in legislation passed by the Prodi cabinet last year—with the full support of Communist Refoundation (Rifondazione Comunista—RC), a successor organisation to the Italian Communist Party—which has been presented as a role model by the petty-bourgeois left all over Europe.

Following a brutal attack on an Italian woman allegedly carried out by a Romanian citizen last autumn, the media and right-wing opposition led by Berlusconi and Bossi began a systematic campaign against foreigners in general and the Roma community in particular. At the time the newspaper Corriere della Sera ran a headline “The Invasion of Nomads.”

The first to respond to the right-wing campaign was the mayor of Rome and general secretary of the newly founded Democratic Party (DP), Walter Veltroni, who went public with the comment that the Roma were guilty of 75 percent of the city’s petty crime.

At the beginning of November 2007 Veltroni then urged the Prodi government to pass a new decree Nr. 181 (decreto espulsion—deportation decree), which permits the authorities to deport European citizens who represent “a threat to public security.” The decree was directed primarily against Romanian immigrants, mainly Sinti and Roma, and permitted the police to deport entire groups of Romanians “for reasons of public security.”

On November 2, decree Nr. 181 was signed by the Italian president at that time and former leader of the Italian Communist Party, Giorgio Napolitano, and the decree was then supported in public by the minister for social solidarity, Paolo Ferrero, the only member of Communist Refoundation in the Prodi cabinet.

To ensure support for his measure Prodi made the vote on the deportation decree a vote of confidence in his government. At the end of November, Communist Refoundation General Secretary Franco Giordano made an appeal for support for the decree, which was then passed by 160 votes to 158. With just one exception all of the members of RC in the Senate voted in favour of the measure.

In supporting the repressive immigration decree, RC members merely expressed their hope that it would not lead to mass deportations. On November 7, 2007, when the Romanian prime minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu met with Prodi and the Pope in Rome to discuss the repatriation of Romanian citizens, former Communist Refoundation leader Fausto Bertinotti (at the time president of the Chamber of Deputies), declared his satisfaction with the assurance given by Interior Minister Giuliano Amato (DP) that there would be no mass deportations (La Repubblica, November 7, 2007).

While Bertinotti was making his comments the police and Italian Interior Ministry were already finalising a list of approximately 5,000 “unwanted immigrants” in Rome, Milan, Naples, Turin and Florence for immediate deportation.

The list, drawn up for use by the Prodi government, has now been taken out of the back drawer for implementation by the new Berlusconi government.

The latest state-initiated racist pogroms in Italy represent a devastating indictment of the policies of Communist Refoundation, who argue that the best way to combat the right wing is to adopt their programme. It is the Prodi government and Communist Refoundation in particular which bear a large measure of responsibility for the recent attacks on Roma and other immigrants.

Detroit American Axle workers speak out against UAW betrayal

Detroit American Axle workers speak out against UAW betrayal

By Jerry White

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American Axle workers at the company’s largest facility—Detroit Gear & Axle—voted Thursday on the tentative agreement signed by the United Auto Workers union, which imposes unprecedented wage cuts on the company’s 3,650 workers in Michigan and western New York.

Press reports late Thursday indicated that the contract had passed at the Detroit local, though no vote count had been released.

The vote at UAW Local 235 had originally been scheduled for Monday but was delayed until Thursday. The change followed an explosive meeting on Sunday, during which workers shouted down UAW International President Ron Gettelfinger and other union officials for selling them out.

Fearing that a large “no” vote by the 1,900-member local might tip the majority against the contract, UAW bureaucracy scheduled ratification votes at smaller factories first. These included three plants—Buffalo and Tonawanda, New York, and the Detroit Forge—that the union agreed to allow the company to close.

Faced with the imminent loss of their jobs and knowing full well that the union would do nothing to fight if they voted to remain on strike, the majority of workers ratified the agreement and opted to take buyouts to leave the company.

Under the agreement, 2,000 workers, including 900 at the Detroit Gear & Axle plant, are expected to lose their jobs. Those who remain will see their wages cut from $28 an hour to $18.50 and as low as $14.35 for so-called “factory support” jobs. New hires will be brought in at $11.50 an hour, with substandard benefits.

The UAW negotiated and the company’s former owner General Motors financed a “buy-down” that would cover a portion of the lost wages. But the subsidy—anywhere from $55,000 to $105,000—would be subject to taxes and the deduction of union dues and would be paid over three years. After that the full wage cut will take effect, undoubtedly leading to a further exodus of workers.

The vote took place as the Big Three automakers announced a series of production cutbacks of slow-selling pickups and SUV’s, which will lead to a new round of mass layoffs. The concessions at AAM will set a precedent for new takeaway demands throughout the industry.

In addition to the national agreement, Detroit workers were told to vote on a local contract that contained additional concessions, including the tearing up of work rules and a new punitive attendance policy.

These were contained in a new “Innovative Operating Agreement” signed between UAW Local 235 and Detroit Gear & Axle, which stated that, “both Parties realize that in order to effectively compete and win in this global economy, significant and immediate company specific solutions must be implemented in all parts of AAM’s business.”

To achieve this the union agreed to allow the company to reopen the contract at will and impose even further concessions. It noted that the local union and management could also request “additional innovative changes or waivers” to provisions in the national agreement which may “hinder the efforts of the Local Parties to achieve market competitiveness.”

Workers speak out

The WSWS spoke to many workers at the Detroit plant on Thursday who voiced their bitter anger at the company and at the UAW. Supporters distributed statements calling for a rejection of the contract and the mobilization of the entire working class on a new organizational and political basis. (See, “Reject UAW sellout at American Axle! Mobilize auto workers against attacks on jobs and wages!”)

A veteran worker who originally worked at GM’s Pontiac truck plant, told the WSWS, “They can reopen this contract at any time to be ‘market competitive.’ If I were American Axle I would open up a plant and pay $5 an hour—because then I could reopen the contract here to demand competitive wage cuts.

“When I hired into GM 25 years ago I was proud to be a UAW member. Then after 10 years I found out that the union’s real function is to control the workforce for management. It’s no honor to be a UAW member.

“Gettelfinger got American Axle to recognize the union at his non-union plants. But I don’t need to pay union dues to cut my wages. If there was no union in this plant and we went out for three months to fight this company the outcome would have been different. If the company had to deal with the people, not the UAW, it would have been a lot better.

“By taking a buyout you sever all connections with the company,” he said. “If I leave and later discover that I got asbestos poisoning from the plant I won’t be able to sue the company because I’ve released all ties to American Axle.”

Another worker said, “We confronted greed from both sides—Dauch and the top union leaders. All we can do is move on and try to find other jobs but there is nothing else. I’ve got a job in Alabama but how long is that going to last.

“The companies have the courts and the police behind them and they control all the presidential candidates, whether it’s Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. They say we live in a democratic society but the ones with the money have all the power.”

Another worker, Jerome, added, “The company and the union had this contract worked out from the beginning. They just waited 12 weeks to spring it on us.

“All of these corporations are global now with operations in Asia and elsewhere. A strike is not the way to get things done anymore. Everything is going to the super-elite.”

Rick, a machine builder with 14 years at the company, said, “You can see that GM and Ford are starting production cutbacks and layoffs now. What they have done to us is going to happen all across the industry.

“Dauch gave this speech in New York where he said only the strong are going to survive and the weak are going to perish. What he meant is only the rich are going to survive. But we are going find a way to survive.

“They always threaten us with the loss of jobs because there is nothing out here. What are you going to do, live on a McDonald’s wage? Guys facing retirement are worried they are going to lose their pensions.

Rick complained about the $200 a week strike pay given to workers, even though the union has a strike fund of over $750 million. “If the union gave us more strike benefits we could have lasted longer. But I can’t help thinking they are in cahoots with management. Gettelfinger and Dauch must be buddies. One worker asked Gettelfinger how much of his salary he was going to sacrifice, but he wouldn’t say.

“Wall Street drove down the company’s share value after the agreement—that made me happy. Dauch didn’t get all that he wanted—but he got mighty close. Look what they made workers in Three Rivers accept—$10 an hour. That puts a chill down my spine. That whole town depends on GM and American Axle.”

Anthony, a skilled worker with eight years, said, “They forced us to say ‘yes’ to a contract that we didn’t want. I feel like packing up and moving from Michigan. I was hired in at a wage, which had been negotiated before, and eight years later Dauch says I have to take a $7-$8 an hour wage cut.

“It’s corporate greed, like the gas and oil tycoons who are making billions. They don’t look at what the employees are getting. We are the ones who gave Dauch the opportunity to build his factories in China and around the world, to build his new corporate headquarters, that big glass house,” he said, referring to the elaborate structure adjacent to the Detroit plants.

“If I had more money I would stay on strike, but I used up all my savings. Twenty or thirty years ago the unions wouldn’t have let the corporations get away with this. But the union we pay union dues to was only giving us $200 a week in strike benefits. That’s ridiculous.

“I wish the government would step in—but it won’t. Look what Enron did and nothing changed. Each company sees what the others can get away with and they do the same.”

Another worker said, “Everybody has to come together, all the workers in the US have to come together for anything to happen. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. We’re all headed for Third World wages. Who’s going to pay to buy the stuff [that American Axle makes]?

“Food prices are going up, gas prices are going way up. It makes you think back to Roman times, they way it’s headed—that’s capitalism. In any major city, there are beautiful parts, and then you get outside of those and it’s a big ghetto.

“George W. Bush and his cronies have screwed up this country so bad. The union and this company are in collusion—84 days on strike and we lose $10 an hour on wages! They’re trying to eliminate the middle class here.”

Jack Webb said, “Workers look to unions and our government to help, but they’re against us. They’re looking for ways to make more profits, seeking Third World wages.

“With $4 gas, this company might not even be in business in a year. Only a small section of the population can afford SUVs now. Layoffs are coming. It’s a way to oppress the people. The only way to get rich is to step on other people’s toes.”

Nate Mitchell, a worker with 9 years seniority, said, “The strategy of the union has been the strategy of the company. Even that they could bring us this contract tells me that they are not for us. This is about corporate greed, and corporate-UAW greed. The union officials are not working for our benefit. We are just sacrificial lambs.

“I’m not even proud to be a part of this union anymore. It’s a farce. The union is like a clique, and they always keep their hands in the cookie jar.”

A couple that said they voted against the contract but asked not to be named said they strongly opposed the agreement. “It was very disappointing,” said one. “We stood on the picket line for three months, at $200 a week, and this is the best they can do? They only came to an agreement after GM threw them some money.

“This contract is geared toward getting people to leave. Now it is not costing Dauch a penny to get rid of the older workforce.”

His female companion was equally angry. “If this is the best they can get, what is next? It’s like what happened in the Detroit News strike. In the future they will simply hire scabs and get rid of us.”

She continued, “Nothing was done to win this strike. Before the strike began we had a union meeting where the international reps came to the local explaining how we could make noise and carry out various tactics on the picket line, but during the strike nothing was done.”

Alietha Shaffer said many workers were extremely angry at the contract. “The union meeting called on Sunday was absolute chaos. There was an incredible amount of bitterness and anger directed especially at Gettelfinger.

“A man went onto the platform into Gettelfinger’s face,” she continued, “and a woman was also there and cursed him out, right there in front of everybody. At that point I called my husband on the phone, held it up and told him to listen to it. That’s when I decided to leave.

“I voted no,” Alietha continued, “but it is really divided. I would say that it is half for and half against. There are so many people who are bitter, especially the high seniority people. Most of them feel they have put so much into this and now they are losing it all.”

As Senate approves new war funding, US massacres Iraqi civilians

As Senate approves new war funding, US massacres Iraqi civilians

By Joseph Kishore

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US helicopters massacred at least eight civilians, including several children, in an operation in northern Iraq on Wednesday.

The civilians were killed when strafed or bombed by US helicopters, though there are conflicting accounts about the details of their deaths. The incident was near Baiji, located between Baghdad and the northern city of Mosul.

Agence France Presse (AFP) reported on Thursday that the eight included two children, and that they were traveling by car. According to the news agency, a police official added that six of the bodies were mutilated beyond recognition. The Associated Press reported that three of the dead were children, and displayed a photograph of the three bodies at a local hospital.

Both the International Herald Tribune and Reuters reported, however, that at least some civilians were killed while fleeing on foot. The IHT cited an Iraqi police official in Salahaddin province as saying that local police reported that the civilians were shot from behind while running away.

Reuters quoted a local resident, Ghafil Rashed, as saying that his brother and son had been killed. “The Americans raided our houses.... People started fleeing with their children, then the aircraft started bombing people in a street along the farm.”

Colonel Mudhir al-Qaysi, of the Baiji police, added, “Baiji policemen went to the scene and found the killed family unarmed, and the bodies were burned and torn apart.”

Whatever the exact details, it is clear that the killing of the family is yet another in a long series of war crimes committed by the US occupying forces.

The US military, meanwhile, responded with predictable cynicism and indifference. Relying on reports that the eight had been killed while in an automobile, a military spokesman claimed that those traveling in the car had “exhibited hostile intent.” The American action “was an operation targeted against known Al Qaeda in Iraq operating a weapons storage facility,” Colonel Gerald O’Hara claimed, without providing any evidence.

The standard response of the military to any atrocity it commits is to blame “terrorists” of one form or another. O’Hara said the military “sincerely regrets when any innocent civilians are injured, resulting from terrorists locating themselves in and around them.”

In a separate incident on Wednesday, the US military killed at least 11 residents of Obaidi, a predominantly Shia area of Baghdad near Sadr City. The military claimed that they were all members of “Special Groups,” a term the US has begun using to refer to sections of the Mahdi Army—the militia loyal to Shia cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr—who allegedly are not under Sadra’s control, but working with Iran.

Thousands of Iraqi soldiers have moved into Sadr City as part of a cease-fire arrangement with Sadr brokered earlier this month.

According to the local police and residents, those killed included three elderly men and two street cleaners. Reuters reported, “In the courtyard of one house ... black-robed women wailed over the bloody corpse of a man half-covered by the blanket, while men beat their chests in a sign of grief.” The news agency quoted one of the men: “He was shot by an American sniper. He was loitering outside the house. He was not even holding a piece of wood.”

Among those killed in Obaidi was an Iraqi television cameraman, Wissam Ali Auda, of Afaq TV, which is affiliated with the Dawa Party of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Auda was apparently killed in crossfire, though it cannot be excluded that he was deliberately targeted.

The ceasefire has allowed the US and Iraqi forces to concentrate on operations in northern Iraq around Mosul, which has resulted in the mass arrest of at least 1,200 people over the past several weeks.

US Senate backs more funding for war

Against the backdrop of these atrocities, the US Senate agreed Thursday to fund the Iraq war with an additional $165 billion, intended to last into the summer of 2009—that is, well into the next presidential term. The Democrats want to ensure that another war funding vote does not take place in the run-up to the November elections.

The vote on the bill was 70-26. With enough support from Democratic senators to ensure the bill’s passage, Democratic Presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were free to vote against the bill in an empty gesture of opposition to the war. Both senators support the continued occupation of Iraq.

The Senate also voted 63-34 to reject a toothless measure that would urge the redeployment of combat troops by the end of 2009.

The Senate attached to its bill funding for an expanded veterans education benefit and other domestic programs, including the extension of unemployment benefits by 13 weeks.

The funding for veterans benefits allowed the senators to make noises about “supporting the troops,” even as they approved billions in funding to keep them in Iraq. The domestic spending won the support of part of the Republican caucus, passing 75-22. President Bush has pledged to veto any bill that includes additional spending beyond funding for the war, but if this tally held, the veto could be overridden.

War-funding legislation must still pass the House before it goes to the president’s desk. Last week, the House rejected its own funding bill after Republican representatives elected to vote “present,” calling the Democrats’ bluff. The Democratic leadership had arranged an elaborate voting process on three different measures that was intended to pass the funding bill while allowing some Democrats to vote against war funding, for veterans benefits, and for a toothless withdrawal measure.

There is no doubt that the House and Senate will quickly agree on a bill that is acceptable to Bush and that will ensure the continuation of the bloody occupation.

Also on Thursday, the Senate Armed Services Committee began hearings for the nomination of General David Petraeus, the architect of the “surge,” to be commander of US Central Command, which oversees the Middle East and Central Asia. The committee heard testimony from Petraeus and from Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno, who would replace Petraeus as commander of US forces in Iraq.

In his opening statement, the Democratic chairman of the committee, Senator Carl Levin (Michigan), indicated his support for the nomination—another expression of the general agreement that both parties have with the Iraq occupation.

Levin gushed over Petraeus and Odierno for their “sacrifice” in overseeing the Iraq war. The senator went on to say that the surge policy had created “stability” in Iraq. Regardless of any differences over tactics, Levin said, “We owe General Petraeus and General Odierno a debt of gratitude for the commitment, determination and strength that they brought to their areas of responsibility.”

Petraeus, for his part, went on to repeat his threats against Iran, which he said “persists in its non-transparent pursuit of nuclear technology and continues to fund, train and arm dangerous militia organizations.” He denounced Iran for fueling “proxy wars” to pursue its “regional ambitions,” while Petraeus himself outlined US strategy for domination over the Middle East and Central Asia. As the head of Centcom, Petraeus would oversee any military operation against Iran.

FBI files indict Bush, Cheney and Co. as war criminals

FBI files indict Bush, Cheney and Co. as war criminals

By Bill Van Auken

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The most stunning revelation in a 370-page Justice US Department Inspector General’s report released this week was that agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation had formally opened a “War Crimes” file, documenting torture they had witnessed at the Guantánamo Bay US prison camp, before being ordered by the administration to stop writing their reports.

The World Socialist Web Site, together with human rights groups and other opponents of US militarism and repression, has long insisted that the actions of the Bush administration—the launching of wars of aggression, assassinations, the abduction and detention of civilians without trial and, most repugnant of all, torture—constitute war crimes under any legitimate interpretation of longstanding international statutes and treaties.

To have this assessment confirmed, however, by the IG of the Justice Department, the only senior official there not answerable directly to the White House, and by agents of the FBI, an agency not known for its sensitivity to questions of democratic rights, is an indication of the rampant character of these crimes as well as the crisis they have engendered within the US government and America’s ruling elite as a whole.

The report makes it absolutely clear that torture was ordered and planned in detail at the highest levels of the government—including the White House, the National Security Council, the Pentagon and the Justice Department. Attempts to stop it on legal or pragmatic grounds by individuals within the government were systematically suppressed, and evidence of this criminal activity covered up.

There was no immediate reaction from the White House on these new revelations. Responses from other agencies directly implicated in the crimes at Guantánamo were indicative of the general atmosphere of impunity in which the torture detailed in the IG’s report continues to this day.

“There’s nothing new here,” said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman. A State Department spokesman, meanwhile, described the charges contained in the report as “pretty vague.”

Pretty vague? One can’t help but wonder what the spokesman would consider explicit. The report contains page after page of testimony by FBI agents on the sadistic and sickening practices carried out at Guantánamo.

In one section, the report states: “[An FBI Agent] recalled that, at some point during the interrogation, the military officer ‘put water down’ a seated detainee’s throat. He said he guessed that the purpose of the water was to give the detainee the sensation that he was drowning, so that he would provide the information that the interrogator wanted. [The agent] stated that the detainee was gagging and spitting out water. He said that the detainee appeared to be uncomfortable, and assumed that he had trouble breathing.”

Consider the account of the interrogation of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian national who was arrested by his own government, turned over to US forces and brought to Guantánamo in 2002:

“He was left alone in a cold room known as ‘the freezer,’ where guards would prevent him from sleeping by putting ice or cold water on him...

“He was subjected to sleep deprivation for a period of 70 days by means of prolonged interrogations, strobe lights, threatening music, forced intake of water, and forced standing.

“He was deprived of clothing by a female interrogator;

“Two female interrogators touched him sexually and made sexual statements to him;

“Prior to and during the boat ride incident, he was severely beaten.”

In addition, the document says, he was “led to believe he was going to be executed, and urinated on himself,” and was told that his mother and family would be detained and harmed.

Hundreds of FBI agents witnessed torture

Similar episodes were described, according to the IG report, by literally hundreds of FBI agents, who witnessed CIA, military and private contractor interrogators carry out illegal acts of torture and abuse against detainees.

In addition, the report cites: several agents who reported instances of beatings, 30 agents who reported witnessing prolonged shackling of detainees in stress positions, 70 agents who reported detainees being subjected to sleep deprivation, 29 agents who had information on the use of extreme temperatures in order to “break the detainees’ resolve to resist cooperating” and 50 agents reporting the use of extended isolation to “wear down a detainee’s resistance.”

In addition, four agents reported the kicking and beating to death of two detainees in Afghanistan who had been subjected to prolonged shackling in a standing position.

The episodes of torture detailed in this report are the tip of the iceberg.

They do not include the treatment of Murat Kurnaz, a Turkish citizen born in Germany, who was arrested during a trip to Pakistan in the fall of 2001 and was handed over to US officials for a $3,000 bounty. First taken to the US base in Kandahar, Afghanistan, he was then transferred to Guantánamo. While by 2002 the US authorities concluded that Kurnaz had nothing to do with terrorism, he was imprisoned until the middle of 2006 and released only because of pressure from the German government.

Barred from entry to the US, he testified via video link to a sparsely attended hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee this week.

“I did nothing wrong and I was treated like a monster,” he said. He told how he was subjected to electric shocks, being suspended by his wrists for hours and subjected to the ‘water treatment,’ in which his head was stuck into a bucket of water and he was punched in the stomach, forcing him to inhale the liquid. (The Justice Department Inspector General’s report, it bears noting, affirmed that this last form of torture did not constitute “waterboarding,” but did represent “an effort to intimidate the detainees and increase their feelings of helplessness.”)

“I know others have died from this kind of treatment,” said Kurnaz. “I suffered from sleep deprivation, solitary confinement, religious and sexual humiliations. I was beaten multiple times.”

“There was no law in Guantánamo,” Kurnaz concluded. “I didn’t think this could happen in the 21st century.... I could never have imagined that this place was created by the United States.”

The inmates held at Guantánamo represent barely 1 percent of those detained at US prison camps and secret jails run by the military and the CIA in Iraq, Afghanistan and other points around the world. An estimated 27,000 people are being held without charges, much less trials, many of them simply having disappeared into Washington’s global gulag. Some are held on prison ships, others in secret dungeons run jointly by the CIA and regimes to which it “outsources” detainees, like Egypt, Jordan and Morocco, where other, cruder forms of torture—being buried alive, given electric shocks or slashed with scalpels—are employed.

The report also reconfirms that the revolting scenes captured in the photographs taken at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq that came to light four years ago—naked and hooded men being subjected to torture and sexual humiliation by US guards—were no aberration. The methods described in the report—forced nudity, the use of attack dogs in interrogations, chaining detainees in “stress” positions, leading them around on dog leashes, draping them in women’s underwear—were identical to those officially blamed on a “few bad apples” at Abu Ghraib.

Sadistic torture “orchestrated” from the White House

The uniformity of abuse at these widely separated facilities is evidence that the psychopathic and criminal sadism inflicted upon those detained by US forces was planned and orchestrated from the top.

Indeed, as ABC News revealed last month, top administration officials on the so-called Principals’ Committee—Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, CIA Director George Tenet, Attorney General John Ashcroft and National Security Council Adviser Condoleezza Rice—conducted detailed discussions on “enhanced interrogation techniques,” which, according to ABC, “were almost choreographed—down to the number of times CIA agents could use a specific tactic.”

Bush subsequently told ABC that he was “aware our national security team met on this issue. And I approved.”

The report establishes that FBI and Justice Department officials advised the White House National Security Council of their concern that the practices witnessed by the agents were “gravely damaging ... the rule of law” at Guantánamo.

In the end, however, they were told to back off, and they complied, thereby becoming accomplices in this criminality and its cover-up.

The revelations in the FBI report have provoked no significant protests or demands for action from the Democrats in Congress, or for that matter from the party’s presidential contenders, Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, neither of whom have made torture an issue in their campaigns.

The New York Times Tuesday carried a lead editorial titled, “What the FBI agents saw,” which laid out the details of the report and stated that it “shows what happens when an American president, his secretary of defense, his Justice Department and other top officials corrupt American law to rationalize and authorize the abuse, humiliation and torture of prisoners.”

The paper’s conclusion: “The Democrats must press for full disclosure” through hearings to uncover “the extent of President Bush’s disregard for the law and the Geneva Conventions.” This, they tell their readers, “is the only way to get this country back to being a defender, not a violator, of human rights.”

Such is the impotence of erstwhile American establishment liberalism. The extent of the Bush administration’s outright criminality has been thoroughly exposed over the course of several years.

The wholesale and deliberate violations of the Geneva Conventions and the Convention against Torture are, under international law, war crimes—just as the FBI recognized they were. What is demanded is not another toothless congressional hearing, but rather the constitution of a war crimes tribunal. Those responsible must be held accountable.

Bush, Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld, Powell, Tenet and Ashcroft should be placed on trial. Those like former White House counsel and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Cheney’s chief of staff David Addington and Justice Department deputy assistant secretary John Yoo, who crafted the pseudo-legal arguments legitimizing torture, should be prosecuted as well, together with those military and intelligence officials who directed the criminal practices at Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, Bagram and other CIA and military camps and prisons.

The Democratic leadership has no desire or intention to fight for such a reckoning. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other party leaders have repeatedly insisted that impeachment of the president and vice president is “off the table.” They have no interest in pursuing the administration on the issue of torture because they themselves are complicit, with Pelosi and other senior congressional Democrats having been briefed extensively on the criminal methods employed at Guantánamo, which they approved and concealed from the American people.

On a more fundamental level, the Democrats have been complicit in a policy of global militarism and aggression—carried out under the mantle of a “global war on terrorism”—which is directed at using armed force to further the interests of America’s ruling oligarchy. It is this criminal strategy—resulting in the loss of over 1 million Iraqi lives—that has given rise to the crime of torture itself.

Nonetheless, the deepening crisis of American capitalism is creating the conditions for profound shocks and changes in political and social relations that may well result in Bush, Cheney and Co. standing in the dock as war criminals.

Such a trial is vitally necessary from the standpoint of halting these ongoing crimes, preventing the use of similar methods against political opposition within the US itself and politically educating the American people.

How Do We Fight Corporate Control of the Internet?

How Do We Fight Corporate Control of the Internet?

By Annalee Newitz

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Last week I wrote about the premise of Oxford professor Jonathan Zittrain's new book, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It (Yale University Press). He warns about a future of "tethered" technologies like the digital video recorder and smartphones that often are programmed remotely by the companies that make them rather than being programmed by users, as PCs are. As a partial solution, Zittrain offers up the idea of Wikipedia-style communities, where users create their own services without being "tethered" to a company that can change the rules any time.

Unfortunately, crowds of people running Web services or technologies online cannot save us from the problem of tethered technology. Indeed, Zittrain's crowds might even unwittingly be tightening the stranglehold of tethering by lulling us into a false sense of freedom.

It's actually in the best interest of companies like Apple, Comcast, or News Corp to encourage democratic, freewheeling enclaves like Wikipedia or MySpace to convince people that their whole lives aren't defined by tethering. When you get sick of corporate-mandated content and software, you can visit Wikipedia or MySpace. If you want a DVR that can't be reprogrammed by Comcast at any time, you can look up how to build your own software TV tuner on Wikipedia. See? You have freedom!

Unfortunately, your homemade DVR software doesn't have the kind of easy-to-use features that make it viable for most consumers. At the same time, it does prove that tethered technologies aren't your only option. Because there's this little puddle of freedom in the desert of technology tethering, crowd-loving liberals are placated while the majority of consumers are tied down by corporate-controlled gadgets.

In this way, a democratic project like Wikipedia becomes a kind of theoretical freedom -- similar to the way in which the U.S. constitutional right to freedom of speech is theoretical for most people. Sure, you can write almost anything you want. But will you be able to publish it? Will you be able to get a high enough ranking on Google to be findable when people search your topic? Probably not. So your speech is free, but nobody can hear it. Yes, it is a real freedom. Yes, real people participate in it and provide a model to others. And sometimes it can make a huge difference. But most of the time, people whose free speech flies in the face of conventional wisdom or corporate plans don't have much of an effect on mainstream society.

What I'm trying to say is that Wikipedia and "good crowds" can't fight the forces of corporate tethering -- just as one person's self-published, free-speechy essay online can't fix giant, complicated social problems. At best, such efforts can create lively subcultures where a few lucky or smart people will find that they have total control over their gadgets and can do really neat things with them. But if the denizens of that subculture want millions of people to do neat things too, they have to deal with Comcast. And Comcast will probably say, "Hell no, but we're not taking away your freedom entirely because look, we have this special area for you and 20 other people to do complicated things with your DVRs." If you're lucky, Comcast will rip off the subculture's idea and turn it into a tethered application.

So what is the solution, if it isn't nice crowds of people creating their own content and building their own tether-free DVRs? My honest answer is that we need organized crowds of people systematically and concertedly breaking the tethers on consumer technology. Yes, we need safe spaces like Wikipedia, but we also need to be affirmatively making things uncomfortable for the companies that keep us tethered. We need to build technologies that set Comcast DVRs free, that let people run any applications they want on iPhones, that fool ISPs into running peer-to-peer traffic. We need to hand out easy-to-use tools to everyone so crowds of consumers can control what happens to their technologies. In short, we need to disobey.

Annalee Newitz annalee@techsploitation.com is a surly media nerd whose best ideas have all been appropriated and copyrighted by corporations.

How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It

How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It

By Elizabeth Royte

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The following is an excerpt from Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought it by Elizabeth Royte. Published with permission of Bloomsbury.

The outrageous success of bottled water, in a country where more than 89 percent of tap water meets or exceeds federal health and safety regulations, regularly wins in blind taste tests against name-brand waters, and costs 240 to 10,000 times less than bottled water, is an unparalleled social phenomenon, one of the greatest marketing coups of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. But why did the marketing work? At least part of the answer, I'm beginning to understand, is that bottled water plays into our ever-growing laziness and impatience.

Americans eat and drink more on the run than ever before. The author Michael Pollan reports that one in three American children eat fast food every single day, and 19 percent of American meals and snacks are eaten in the car. Bottled water fills a perceived need for convenience (convenience without the calories of soda, that is): hydration on the go, with bottles that fit in the palm of the hand, in a briefcase or purse.

According to research conducted by the Container Recycling Institute (CRI), between 1960 and 1970 the average person bought 200 to 250 packaged drinks each year-mostly soda and beer-and many of those were in refillable bottles. When I was growing up, my family drank only from the faucet and from family-size containers. We quenched our thirst, when out and about, with water from public fountains. Either that, or we waited till we got where we were going. On picnics, we might have a big plastic jug of lemonade, homemade. Sure, the grown-ups occasionally bought beer, but the idea of single-serve beverages were considered, by and large, frivolous.

Today, the tap is just as alien to today's youth, who've grown up thinking water comes in bottles, taps aren't for drinking, and fountains equal filth. Kids like having their hands on a personal water bottle, but they have no interest in washing that bottle out, to be reused another day, or otherwise taking responsibility for their waste.

Stores selling water are on every corner, while drinking fountains or restaurants happy to fill a glass for free are increasingly rare. "As refillables were phased out, as technology developed to enable single-serving plastic bottles, and as industry marketing efforts were ramped up," CRI reports, "packaged beverage consumption grew and grew." The success of portable water in the nineties hinged on the mind-set, established in the seventies and eighties, that it was okay to buy-and then toss-single servings of soda while on the go. In 2006, Americans consumed an average of 686 single-serve beverages per person per year; in 2007 we collectively drank fifty billion single-serve bottles of water alone. An entire generation is growing up with the idea that drinking water comes in small plastic bottles. Indeed, committed tap-water drinkers are far more likely to be older than devoted bottled-water drinkers.

Like iPods and cell phones, bottled water is private, portable, and individual. It's factory- sealed and untouched by human hands-a far cry from the public water fountain. (Fiji exploits this subliminal germophobia with its slogan "Untouched by Man," as does a company called Ice Rocks that sells "hygienic ice cubes"-springwater hermetically packaged in disposable plastic.) Somehow, we've become a nation obsessed with hygiene and sterility. Never, outside of an epidemic, have we been more afraid of our own bodies. Supermarkets provide antibacterial wipes for shopping cart handles. Passengers bring their own linens to cover airline pillows. Supermarkets wrap ears of corn in plastic: corn still in its husk! (The downside, besides mountains of waste, is the development of super-resistant bacteria immune to most of the commonly used antibiotics.)

In Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole, Benjamin Barber argues that consumer culture has turned adult citizens into children by catering to our narcissistic desires and conditioning us to passionately embrace certain brands and products as a necessary part of our lifestyles. Is it narcissism that pulls people into stores the second they feel thirsty? Or is it a need for emotional succor?

City dwellers walk down the street swigging; they stand in conversation and mark time with discreet sips. You see it in lines at the movies and in cars on the freeway. (But only in the United States, Michael Mascha, the bottled water expert I'd enticed to sample water with me, says. "In Europe, no one walks down the street sucking on a bottle of water. We wait and we have a nice meal.") Surely these people have access to water at the end of their journey and are in no danger of desiccating on the spot. No, this is water bottle as security blanket.

It doesn't take Mascha, author of Fine Waters: A Connoisseur's Guide to the World's Most Distinctive Bottled Waters, long to realize he is walking into the belly of the beast, drinking bottled water with me. On the phone before we met in person, I admitted I knew nothing about "fine waters," let alone the cheap stuff. I consumed none of the 27.6 gallons that the average American drinks annually, and I felt like an ostentatious jerk buying all that fancy stuff for my meeting with Mascha.

I'd never even tasted Poland Spring until my first visit with Tom Brennan [natural resources manager for Nestle Waters North America] in Hollis, Maine. We'd been talking in that company's conference room when plant manager Bill Maples swept in bearing swag for all: eight-ounce bottles of water. I had my own, I said to Maples in what I hoped was a jocular tone, and pulled out my Nalgene, a wide-mouthed bottle made of polycarbonate plastic. I'd filled it that morning from a sink in Yarmouth, Maine, which has excellent water.

Maples handed me a bottle anyway and snapped his open. I unscrewed the blue top of my Nalgene. In this light, and next to the sparklingly transparent Poland Spring bottle, my container looked dull and yellow, like old toenails. The threads in the screw top weren't so clean. Taken aback, I asked myself, "How old is this thing? And when was the last time I sterilized it?" The answers were "About a decade" and "Never."

Still, I wanted to make a point. I wasn't a bottled- water customer. While they drank their company's product, I took a sip of Yarmouth, and the water tasted fine. Or maybe it just tasted like what I was used to.

The truth is, I didn't want to drink Poland Spring because I didn't want to like it. I was almost certain it would taste better than Yarmouth water, which contains chlorine and comes through pipes never visited by a disinfecting pig. But so what? Foie gras tastes better than chopped liver. That doesn't mean I'm going to buy it. I don't need to spoil myself. I don't want to get used to expensive things, especially things that might, if the nuns and greenies are right, disrupt the social and environmental order.

I might have been over-intellectualizing this, but I worried that drinking bottled water would only contribute to an insidious trend. It was becoming normal to pay high prices for things that used to cost little, or nothing. Such as television reception (now we have expensive cable). Or basic telephone service (now we have cell phones). The shifting baseline means that instead of collectively fighting problems-such as bad service or bad quality-we accept them and move on: to the private sector. The city of Baltimore, after fifteen years of trying to remove lead from public schools' water fountains, in 2007 gave up and switched to coolers of bottled water.

The environmental writer Bill McKibben calls this movement away from a sense of common purpose and toward personal enhancement "hyperindividualism." It puts earbuds in our ears and divorces us from communal experience; it builds bigger houses and bigger cars, while it clogs the roads and warms the climate. Hyperindividualism is relatively new, McKibben writes, "but very powerful."

And while having more personal stuff signals strong economic growth, it ain't making us happy, according to some economists and sociologists. In fact, it's increasing social alienation. Hyperindividualism lets those who can afford to opt out-whether from public schools, mass transit, or tap water-to further isolate themselves, in style. A 1985 article in the Financial Times declared that buying bottled water "represents the exercise of private choice in preference to public provision, which can seriously be seen as a good in itself." Why? Because public provision can be inefficient, inadequate, or unhealthy.

I talked to Brennan and Maples for several hours with the Poland Spring bottle in front of me. The men sipped from their containers and I from my Nalgene. Finally, like a dieter sitting in front of a popcorn bowl, I'd had enough: I just had to sample their water. I cracked the top-pop! I liked that sound; everyone did-and took a careful sip. And you know, it really did taste good-round and smooth. But, as I said, it wasn't something I wanted to get used to. I closed the top and set the bottle aside.

Presidential Race Ignores Arms Race

Presidential Race Ignores Arms Race

Citizen Journalism: In With the New

Citizen Journalism: In With the New