Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Obama vows to slash federal budget

Obama vows to slash federal budget

By Bill Van Auken

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In his second press conference on the economy in two days, President-elect Barack Obama vowed Tuesday that he would slash government spending to meet the costs of a proposed economic stimulus package he had unveiled the day before.

“If we’re going to make the investments we need, we must also be willing to shed the spending we don’t,” declared Obama. “In these challenging times, when we’re facing both rising deficits and a sinking economy, budget reform is not an option; it’s a necessity,” he added.

Obama said his economic team would go through the federal budget “page by page, line by line, eliminating those programs we don’t need, and insisting that those we do operate in a sensible cost-effective way.”

While he reiterated his earlier statement that “there is only one president at a time,” Obama made it clear that his increasingly frequent appearances before reporters in Chicago—a third press conference is set for Wednesday—is being driven by the deepening economic crisis gripping US and world capitalism and a desire to reassure the financial markets.

“Given the extraordinary circumstances we find ourselves in, it’s important for the American people to know we are putting together a first-class team and don’t intend to stumble into the next administration,” he said.

The immediate backdrop to the press conference was the announcement of fresh figures indicating that the US economy is continuing to spiral downwards. The Commerce Department reported Tuesday that economic activity had declined at a rate of 0.5 percent during the three months ending in September, while the average American’s disposable income had plummeted during the same period at an annual rate of 9.2 percent, the steepest decline recorded since such figures were first kept in 1947.

Obama’s press conference came as Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson announced another $800 billion emergency package aimed at staving off a meltdown of the consumer credit market.

The purpose of the press conference was to present two more members of the incoming administration’s economic team. Obama named Peter Orszag, the current director of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), as his director of the Office of Management and Budget—the White House agency responsible for drafting federal budgets and overseeing federal programs—and Rob Nabors, staff director of the House Appropriations Committee, as Orszag’s deputy. Like most previously announced appointments, both are veterans of the Clinton administration.

The announcements followed Monday’s naming of New York Federal Reserve President Tim Geithner as Obama’s nominee for treasury secretary and Lawrence Summers as chief of the National Economic Council, together with other members of his economic team.

Obama drew a sharp distinction between his proposal for an “immediate and temporary infusion that’s going to be required to kick-start our economy” and plans for cutting “the structural spending that’s been taking place in Washington that has created this huge mountain of debt.”

He reiterated that the temporary program he is advocating would “help save or create two-and-a-half million jobs.” While the price tag for the program has been estimated as high as $700 billion, the objectives are wholly inadequate given the depth of the crisis. Nearly half as many jobs as Obama claims would be saved or created over two years have already been wiped out in the past year alone, and new jobless claims have climbed to over half a million a week.

On the issue of budget-cutting, while the Democratic president-elect warned that there would be “tough choices” and that some programs would have to be eliminated, he gave little indication of what he had in mind.

His one example—$49 million in crop subsidies paid to farmers earning more than the $2.5 million cutoff for such payments—was far from illuminating. The sum involved represents less than a drop in the bucket in terms of the US budget deficit, which economists now estimate will top $1 trillion next year, more than double that for the fiscal year that ended in September.

The type of budget-cutting required to curb ballooning deficits and offset the trillions of dollars that have already been allocated to bail out the major banks and financial institutions cannot be achieved outside of massive reductions in bedrock social programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

One area where Obama and his advisors have indicated no plans for cutbacks is in military spending, where the incoming administration is actually planning to increase the ranks of US ground forces by 100,000 troops and to purchase more arms and equipment.

In announcing the appointments, Obama boasted that he had already received “bipartisan accolades for the budget team that I’m putting together.” This is no accident given the right-wing politics of those he named.

As the business magazine site noted: “Like Summers and Geithner, Orszag is closely linked to former Clinton administration Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, known for his emphasis on fiscal responsibility.”

Rubin is currently a top executive at recently rescued Citibank. It was his support for financial deregulation and subordination of fiscal policies to the exigencies of the money markets that helped pave the way to the current crisis. In 2006, Rubin tapped Orszag to head the Hamilton Project, a think tank set up by Democratic Party-affiliated CEOs and bankers to promote the virtues of fiscal austerity, free markets and financial deregulation.

In 2004, Orszag joined Rubin and fellow economist Allan Sinai in warning that the US federal budget was on “an unsustainable path” and that budgetary imbalances raised “the probability of fiscal and financial disarray at some point in the future.”

As head of the CBO, he repeated essentially the same warning last month, declaring: “If we fail to put the nation on a sounder fiscal course over the next few decades, though, we will ultimately reach a point where investors would lose confidence and no longer be as willing to purchase Treasury debt at anything but exorbitant interest rates. If that were to occur, we would lack the kind of maneuvering room that we currently enjoy to address problems in the financial markets and the economy.”

Orszag has been a vocal advocate of implementing cuts in Social Security benefits to “save” the universal public retirement system. In a 2005 plan co-written with Peter Diamond of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he warned: “avoiding real reform, either through delay or a free lunch approach, merely exacerbates the painful choices that will ultimately be necessary.”

He called for a series of cuts in Social Security benefits combined with increases in payroll taxes, imposing the burden on working people rather than the corporations and the wealthy. Under his plan, cuts would be phased in, leaving those over 55 untouched but imposing a nearly 9 percent reduction in benefits that would ultimately go to those who are now 25. Tax increases would be similarly phased in.

At the Congressional Budget Office, Orszag has sounded a persistent drumbeat in favor of slashing health care spending, declaring it the “central fiscal challenge facing the country.”

Among the proposals that he advanced in a statement he prepared for the CBO last year was that of “increasing cost-sharing by consumers to encourage more cost-consciousness.”

He is not an advocate of a universal health care system or freeing health care from the profit motives of the insurance companies and health care industry.

As in all his recent speeches on the economic crisis, Obama laid emphasis on the claim that “we’re all in it together,” rich and poor, investment bankers and factory workers alike. “I’m confident that we will rise to meet this challenge,” he said, “if we’re willing to band together and recognize that Wall Street cannot thrive so long as Main Street is struggling.”

This rhetoric serves only to mask the economic and social realities of the unfolding crisis. Wall Street is being bailed out at the expense of “Main Street.” Average working people, who bear no responsibility for the financial meltdown, are being forced to pay the price for years of financial parasitism and speculation that enriched the top 1 percent, while the vast majority of the population saw its real income stagnate or decline. The inevitable response to the kind of economic austerity policies being prepared by the incoming Obama administration will not be a “banding together” of “Wall Street and Main Street,” but rather a resurgence of class struggle in America.

Obama appointees signal continuing aggression and war

Obama appointees signal continuing aggression and war

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Barack Obama’s vague campaign promises of “change” are rapidly evaporating as the key positions in the next administration are filled with veterans of the US political establishment. Far from ending war abroad and social reaction at home, Obama’s choices underline the essential continuity with the policies of the Bush administration.

Nothing expresses the right-wing orientation of Obama’s foreign policy more than the confirmation Tuesday that he will retain Bush’s defensesecretary, Robert Gates, in his post when the new foreign policy team is formally announced after the Thanksgiving holiday. Gates, who took over from Donald Rumsfeld in late 2006, has been responsible for the continued bloody prosecution of the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Obama, who won the Democratic presidential nomination in large measure because of overwhelming support among antiwar voters, youth and students, has now agreed to the continuation at the Pentagon of the man who has supervised the war in Iraq for the past two years.

Gates will stay on in a line-up that is stacked with proponents of US militarism. Hilary Clinton, who supported the criminal invasion of Iraq from the outset and notoriously declared that the United States should “obliterate” Iran if it attacked Israel, is to become the secretary of state.

Retired Marine General James Jones, a former NATO commander and current executive at the US Chamber of Commerce, is to be installed as national security adviser. After a 40-year military career, he served last year as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s special envoy on Middle East Security and conducted a congressional investigation into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His view that the war in Iraq caused the US to “take its eye off the ball” in Afghanistan is in line with Obama’s insistence that US military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan must be intensified.

As significant as these appointments are Obama’s ongoing discussions with figures such as Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to Presidents Gerald Ford and Bush senior, and Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter. Both men were sharply critical of the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq, not because they were opposed to the war as such, but because they regarded it as a destabilizing military adventure that has seriously damaged US strategic and economic interests, particularly in the Middle East. Many such advocates of realpolitik backed Obama as the means for effecting a tactical shift to stabilizing Afghanistan as a base of US operations within the broader region.

In a joint column published in last Friday’s Washington Post, Scowcroft and Brzezinski argued that Obama’s first priority should be on the Arab-Israeli peace process as a means of resurrecting US standing in the Middle East. “It would liberate Arab governments to support US leadership in dealing with regional problems, as they did before the Iraq invasion,” they wrote, “It would change the region’s psychological climate, putting Iran back on the defensive and putting a stop to its swagger.”

Setting another round of the Middle East peace process in motion would provide the necessary political camouflage for more sinister objectives. Last week, another of Obama’s high profile advisers, Dennis Ross, gave a speech in Denver in which he advocated a far more aggressive stance towards Iran. Criticising the Bush administration for its approach of “weak sticks and weak carrots”, he said that Obama was “ready to use strong sticks and strong carrots—the strong sticks to concentrate their minds on what they stand to lose.”

Ross and other Obama advisers participated in drawing up a series of think tank reports in September calling for a rapid escalation of the US confrontation with Iran, including the threat of tougher sanctions, an economic blockade of the country and military strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities. While the stated aim of this high-risk strategy is to induce Tehran to abandon its nuclear program and to reach a broad political accommodation with Washington, it carries the obvious danger of another full-scale war.

Ross, who has a close association with the Bush administration’s right-wing neocons, was quite open about the role that Obama could play. “When you have someone like President-elect Obama as president, it is a lot harder to demonize the United States,” he told his audience. In other words, the Obama administration will be able to carry out policies that the widely despised Bush administration is simply incapable of implementing. Ross is widely tipped to be appointed to a top state department job.

In Iraq, the status of forces agreement currently being concluded between Washington and Baghdad effectively implements Obama’s call for a deadline for the withdrawal of US combat troops. But the sensitive issue of retaining long-term US military bases in the country remains to be negotiated. Obama, who always supported a continuing US presence in Iraq, will be in a far better position than Bush to assuage the concerns in Baghdad.

In Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Gates announced last Friday that he wanted to boost US troop numbers to escalate the war against anti-occupation insurgents. The Los Angeles Times reported on Monday that Marine Corps leaders have been drawing up plans for the deployment of more than 15,000 troops to “wage aggressive warfare against the Taliban they expect could take years.” The build-up of US forces in Afghanistan is being accompanied by an increasing number of US missile strikes against targets in the border areas of neighboring Pakistan. The latest attack on Saturday killed at least four people.

Far from bringing an end to US militarism as tens of millions of American voters hoped for, the Obama administration is preparing to consolidate a US presence in Iraq and escalate the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The prospect of a dangerous new war looms as Obama’s advisers lay out their plans for confronting Iran.

For those in the US establishment, Obama’s emerging foreign policy comes as no surprise. As the Stratfor think tank commented yesterday: “Obama’s supporters believed that Obama’s position on Iraq was profoundly at odds with the Bush administration’s. We could never clearly locate the difference. The brilliance of Obama’s presidential campaign was that he convinced his hard-core supporters that he intended to make a radical shift in policies across the board, without ever specifying what policies he was planning to shift, and never locking out the possibility of a flexible interpretation of his commitments.”

The foreign policy heavyweights who supported Obama for president clearly hope to extend this “brilliance” in duping people onto the world stage as the US continues to aggressively pursue its economic and strategic interests in the Middle East and internationally.

Tutu, Obama and the Middle East

Tutu, Obama and the Middle East

Michigan's Future - Beyond Bleak

Michigan's Future - Beyond Bleak

Carole "CJ" Williams

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While Michigan citizens are still waiting for Gov. Granholm to make good on her promise to blow them away by pulling the state’s economy out of the sewer, it appears that the only thing waving in the wind is her tongue.

Over the past eight years and as of Sept. 28, 2008, Michigan has lost at least 315,000 manufacturing jobs, a reduction of 35.5 percent since the year 2000. Since it seems that, daily, the state’s newspapers carry more and more stories about failing businesses, job losses, or employee layoffs while at risk companies restructure, God only knows how many more non-manufacturing jobs were lost during that time, as well as from both job sectors in October ‘08 and during the first weeks of November.

Figures toted in a recent New York Times article, ‘Economy Is Only Issue for Michigan Governor’ written by Monica Davey and Susan Saulney, indicate that the net job loss since Granholm took office stands at 281,500, a figure that’s likely escalated already. According to that article, however, and to her credit, a spokesperson from her office claims that since taking the helm, Granholm has brought 120,800 new jobs to Michigan.

However, let’s consider a few things before an atta-girl is extended to the current captain of Michigan’s floundering Ship of State. Granholm took office in 2003 when the state unemployment rate was 6.2% and the national average was 5.7%. By the end of 2003, Michigan’s jobless rate had climbed to 7.2% while the national average remained steady. At the end of Granholm’s first year in office, there had been a one-year job loss of 35,000, but the unemployment numbers only reflected an additional 4,000 people out of work because 31,000 folks left the state.

During 2004, 35,000 more people moved out and the state’s jobless rate stood at 7.3% compared to the national average of 5.5%. Although people continued to flee the state, things improved a tad in 2005, as Michigan’s jobless rate dipped to 6.1% and the national rate fell to 4.2 percent. However, by the end of 2006, Michigan had again lost over 150,000 people and was showing a jobless rate of 7.2% while the national average increased slightly to 5.0 percent. During 2007, Michigan lost another 120,000 jobs, and at the end of the year the state’s jobless rate was 7.6% compared to a national average of 4.9%.

Things do not bode well for Michigan this year, either. Even though the state’s jobless rate for September briefly fell to second place nationally with 8.7% behind Rhode Island’s 8.8%, the glory was short lived. Headlines on Nov. 19th indicated that the state’s jobless rate for Oct. ‘08 stood at 9.3% compared to the national rate of 6.5%, and some economists are projecting that the figure will climb into the double digits within months.

Today, Nov. 19th, as this article is being written and as Congress is debating the merits of bailing out the state’s automakers, Ms. Granholm, accompanied by some of her ‘economic team’ toadies, is on an ‘investment mission’ in the Middle East, purportedly romancing more foreign companies to set up shop in the Great Take State. Her seven-day jaunt, which began on Nov. 14th, was her seventh such overseas trip since 2004. Her SEVENTH trip in four years to bring industry to Michigan, and the state is still hemorrhaging jobs and people!

According to a recent press release from the Gov’s office, little Miss Blow You Away planned to meet with alternative energy companies in Israel and Jordan to discuss such things as wireless energy and water re-use. She also planned to call on venture capital firms and business leaders in Dubai, as well as pharmaceutical companies that apparently already ‘invest’ in Michigan companies.

One such pharmaceutical company mentioned in one of her press releases was Perrigo, which is based in downstate Allegan. Perrigo bills itself as the nation’s largest manufacturer of store brand over-the-counter pharmaceuticals, as well as nutritional products sold by supermarkets and drug and mass-merchandise chains such as WalMart, Walgreens and Target. In 2004, Perrigo acquired Agis Industries, the second largest pharmaceutical company in Israel. Why the Governor and her entourage called on Perrigo in Israel rather than in Allegan. Michigan wasn’t disclosed.

PowerMat is an Israeli wireless energy company that so interests the guv that she planned to stop by on her Middle East junket to promote Michigan. The company claims it can turn any surface into a power source, be it table, wall, floor, or even sheetrock. However, it seems that PowerMat, which was founded in 2007, has already entered into a deal with Michigan’s Commerce Township-based HoMedics to form another entity, HoMedics PowerMat North America, to market and distribute products equipped with PowerMat’s technology.

Regardless, it should be apparent that these overseas trips have done little to staunch job losses in Michigan or alleviate another financial problem the state has been facing, but only now is coming to light in big city newspapers.

Michigan workers who lose their jobs usually can count on 26 weeks of unemployment compensation, generally a paltry maximum of $362 per week, providing they meet eligibility requirements. However, news making the headlines in some downstate papers last week is that Michigan’s Unemployment Compensation Fund has been depleted for a couple of years and the state has already had to borrow from the federal government to pay unemployment benefits to an estimated 650,000 people this year.

As of Oct. 2nd, the outstanding balance on this year’s loan was at least $376 million, but more recent reports put that sum at around $473 million, which will start accruing interest in January of 2009. Michigan, of course, has no way to repay that loan, though the powers that be have somehow managed to do so in the past. For instance, in 2007 Michigan borrowed $637 million from the feds even though the state’s budget was in total disarray and government lay-offs and shutdowns were threatened.

Perhaps this year, Peter’s coffer is so thin that there’s nothing left to rob in order to pay Paul, although some legislators may be eyeballing treasure chests, such as the state’s Natural Resource Trust Fund, that could possibly be pilfered so as to meet the State’s financial obligations, namely the outstanding federal loan needed for unemployed workers.

Interestingly, as of 2001, the state’s Unemployment Compensation Fund showed a positive balance of $3 billion and a balance of a little over $1.7 billion two years later. However, in 2003 Granholm signed legislation that temporarily extended unemployment benefits from 26 weeks to 39 weeks, further depleting the fund by an additional $206 million. Perhaps that maneuver bought enough votes for her to get reelected, but certainly it must be a bitter pill to swallow now considering that Mother Hubbard’s cupboard is filled with cobwebs rather than juicy bones for the unemployed.

Interestingly, there was a bill pending in the Michigan Senate that would have again extended unemployment bennies for 39 weeks, rather than the standard 26 weeks. It was introduced on Jan. 25, 2007 by Ray Basham (D-Taylor) and referred to the Committee on Commerce and Tourism on the same day. As the State couldn’t foot the bill for unemployment bennies without borrowing in ‘07, how ever would the legislators have rationalized passing a bill that would have increased the onus?

Over the past week or so, approximately 40,000 Michigan employers have been given notice that they will be dunned an extra $67.50 per employee as of Jan. 2009 to help repay the federal loan and interest it generates. As best as can be understood from the politically correct, fair and balanced reports written with a lot of flowery mumbo-jumbo words and published in the Lame Street Media press, this so called ‘solvency tax’ will affect businesses whose laid-off workers have collected more in unemployment benefits than their employers paid into the state’s unemployment fund. What isn’t being written, however, is that Michigan has managed to deplete the cushion provided by those many employers who pay into the fund, but whose workers have drawn nothing from it.

If the state has to borrow more money, the ‘solvency tax’ will be increased, and the more employees that are laid off, the worse the business owners’ tax onus will be. This is definitely not one of Granholm’s ‘win-win’ situations to be in, especially when the state’s already tanked economy is tanking even more.

Additionally, in 2010 most Michigan employers, not just those whose workers have drawn from the unemployment fund, will be forced to ante up a surcharge of $21 per employee to pay off Michigan’s debt to the federal unemployment system. This will be in addition to each business owner’s unemployment taxes that are applied to the first $9,000 of each of their employee’s wages. The unemployment tax rate ranges between 0.06% and 10.3% per employee. Ironically, while long term Michigan businesses have been taxed to death for years, Ms. Blow You Away continues to romance foreigners and start-up companies in other states to invest in Michigan by promising those businessmen all sorts of tax breaks.

Care to venture a bet on how many more businesses will fail in the Great Take State during 2009 and how many more people will join the unemployment line, making the situation even bleaker?

Recount Wrinkle Surfaces in Minnesota: Missing Ballots

Senate recount: Lost, found, challenged

Minnesota's U.S. Senate race took a dramatic turn Tuesday with a pair of developments involving absentee ballots: One county acted on its own initiative to count several ballots that it said were wrongly excluded, and two prominent county attorneys proposed a statewide process to reexamine rejected ballots.

The moves came on the eve of a state Canvassing Board meeting today at which the fate of such possibly decisive ballots may be determined.

Meanwhile, controversies involving dozens of lost-and-found ballots continued to pop up at recount centers around the state.

Democrat Al Franken's campaign last week argued before the Canvassing Board that improperly rejected absentee ballots should be identified and counted -- and that the board has the authority to do it. The campaign of Republican Sen. Norm Coleman argues that it's a matter to be decided by the courts.

In Itasca County, officials said Tuesday that they would reconsider absentee ballots that had been neglected or mistakenly rejected.

"During the course of our reconciliation, going back and looking at absentee ballots, we discovered that there were three that should have been counted," said County Auditor/Treasurer Jeff Walker. He said that the recount would be reopened on Monday to consider the ballots and that lawyers for both campaigns have been notified so that they can witness the process.

The Star Tribune has analyzed the reasons absentee ballots were rejected in 28 counties, and only two counties -- Ramsey and Itasca -- specifically cite election officials' error. In Ramsey County, it appeared that 53 rejections were tied to administrative error.

Freeman proposal

Also Tuesday, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman proposed a process for reconsidering rejected absentee ballots that would partly skirt the Canvassing Board: Have local elections officials review such ballots and identify those possibly improperly rejected.

Freeman, a DFLer who backed Franken, said that he and Anoka County Attorney Bob Johnson worked on the plan after Secretary of State Mark Ritchie asked them and other county attorneys for ideas to improve the process.

In a statement, the Coleman campaign said: "This is a back-door effort by both the Franken campaign, and Mr. Freeman, to try to gain influence on the eve of the discussions by the Canvassing Board, and there needs to be further explanation for why the Hennepin County Attorney is using his office in such an overtly partisan manner."

But Freeman disagreed with that assessment. "This is trying to count all the ballots. How the hell is that partisan?" he said.

Found, and lost and found

Meanwhile, chaos reigned at the Becker County recount site for a second day as some ballots were unexpectedly found Monday and others were temporarily lost Tuesday.

The missing ballots set off alarms in the Franken campaign, which said that a few hundred missing ballots had been identified statewide, but it wouldn't say where. But such mishaps have been extremely isolated, said Mark Halvorson, director of Citizens for Election Integrity Minnesota (CEIMN), a watchdog group that has been monitoring the recount.

With 82 percent of ballots cast recounted by Tuesday evening and the number of challenged ballots climbing past 3,600, Coleman's lead over Franken stood at 231 votes, according to a Star Tribune compilation of results reported to Ritchie's office and gathered by the newspaper. That figure represented a gain for Coleman from Monday, and put him 16 votes above the margin he held at the start of the recount.

Board meeting

The Canvassing Board will meet at 9:30 a.m. today in St. Paul to take up the Franken request to consider rejected absentee ballots.

At stake are an unknown number of absentee ballots, out of several thousand rejected, that the Franken campaign says weren't counted because of administrative mistakes.

Marc Elias, a lawyer with the Franken campaign, said that 66 Minnesota counties have given information to the campaign on rejected absentee ballots, amounting to votes cast by 6,432 people. While it's likely that most of those ballots were properly rejected, he said, the campaign on Tuesday forwarded an affidavit containing examples of ballots that were turned back in error to the Canvassing Board.

In Becker County, officials were confronted Monday with 61 ballots that had not been counted on Election Day, County Auditor Ryan Tangen said. After the ballots were discovered in the county auditor's office Friday night, Tangen said, he was told by the secretary of state's office to include them in the recount.

But then a total of 46 ballots from two rural precincts turned up missing Tuesday when the recount had been completed for those precincts, according to Terry Kalil, a volunteer observer with CEIMN, the watchdog group. Elections officials drove to the township halls where the votes had been cast and found them in locked buildings, she said. The votes were counted and matched the original count for the precincts, Kalil said.

Late Tuesday afternoon, another nine ballots were missing when another rural precinct's votes were recounted. The fate of the ballots was unknown when this edition went to press.

Tangen said both campaigns have asked that the formerly missing ballots be segregated in case they become the subject of legal challenges after the recount.

In Crystal, officials said they found eight absentee ballots, still sealed in their security envelopes, that had not been counted Nov. 4. The envelopes were discovered Friday night among opened envelopes, a city spokeswoman said.

Study: Many Kids in Katrina Trailer Park Anemic

Study: Many Kids in Katrina Trailer Park Anemic

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Dozens of infants and toddlers who lived in Louisiana's biggest trailer park for those displaced by Hurricane Katrina were anemic because of poor diets, at a rate more than four times the national average.

About 41 percent of 77 children under the age of 4 suffered from the condition this year, according to a study released Monday by the Children's Health Fund. Most, and possibly all, lived in the Renaissance Village trailer park in Baker.

Iron deficiency anemia can cause fatigue and learning problems. Severe deficiency in young children can delay growth and development and even cause heart murmurs.

The national rate for children that young is below 10 percent. Louisiana has one of the nation's highest anemia rates, with about 24 percent of all children below the age of 5 affected, according to the 2007 Pediatric Nutrition Surveillance survey.

Dr. Irwin Redlener, president of the Children's Health Fund and director of Columbia University's National Center for Disaster Preparedness, said the Renaissance Village rate was double the rate for homeless children the same age in New York City shelters.

The study used records for all 261 babies and children who lived in New Orleans until Katrina and were treated last year at CHF's mobile clinics at the trailer park and Baton Rouge schools, said Roy Grant, the organization's director of applied research and policy analysis.

While most of the affected children were storm evacuees, it was possible that a few were natives of Baton Rouge.

But studying the problem further and providing follow-up care for the children is difficult because the state closed the parks in May.

''Now it's more difficult, because they're no longer in the trailer area. They're dispersed around the state. So it's a little harder to get follow-up,'' said Dr. Jimmy Guidry, Louisiana's health officer.

Learning to Lead

Learning to Lead

Dahr Jamail

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"Observance of customs and laws can very easily be a cloak for a lie so subtle that our fellow human beings are unable to detect it. It may help us to escape all criticism, we may even be able to deceive ourselves in the belief of our obvious righteousness. But deep down, below the surface of the average man's conscience, he hears a voice whispering, 'There is something not right,' no matter how much his rightness is supported by public opinion or by the moral code." - Carl Gustav Jung

What's in a system?

We in the United States have grown acclimatized to a system that first dehumanizes us and then inevitably feeds on our dehumanization, sucking away at our resources, our rights, and our resistance while we scamper frantically around in the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness.

We would like to imagine that it is our agency that drives us, and that our lives are under our control. The truth, however, is that we are the ones under control. The reason we do not notice it is that this control is masked as security, which we have been told is synonymous with freedom.

Recently, I passed through an airport checkpoint monitored by the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) and witnessed the "system" rear its ugly head yet again.

TSA is one of several security gifts from the Bush administration, or rather, from the twisted conjunction of corporate business and state power that oversees and safeguards our "freedom" and "democracy" through an elaborate system of control mechanisms.

Immediately in front of me, an elderly gentleman in a wheelchair was trying to reason with the security guard who was asking him to take off his sandals. "What do you want me to do? I didn't wear socks so you could see my feet since I'm unable to bend over and take off my sandals."

"Sir, you must comply with policy," the guard said in a raised voice, as three other TSA agents moved in behind him, arms folded ominously across their chests, and surrounded the elderly man in the wheelchair who requested their assistance, doing what he could to "comply." None of the guards stepped forward to take off his sandals for him in order to check his feet.

In exasperation he shouted, "I'm asking for help, and you won't do it, so what do you want me to do? What the Hell am I supposed to do? What are you afraid of? I'm an old man in a wheelchair! Are you afraid of my sandals?"

The guards would not allow him through the x-ray until he eventually lowered his voice. We must never upset the status quo, because that is an important pillar of a system that holds change in dread. Do not rock the boat, and don't you dare speak up, lest it indicate that something is wrong.

It requires no crystal ball to see that we are embedded in a system that has no qualms about harassing old men in wheelchairs or making pregnant women walk through x-ray machines. It is the same system that is killing scores of Iraqi and Afghan civilians daily, and killing the planet systemically. It is a system that requires us to be sleepwalkers, rather than alert and sensitive humans.

A Symbol Is Born

My partner was in Tanzania recently. I quote from an email from her which encapsulates the elation that individuals and societies across the globe have experienced at the unprecedented outcome of the recent presidential election in the United States. "My short band radio was already on, tuned to the BBC ... I bent down to photograph a small beautiful white flower that grows on the plains here, and as I clicked the shutter, the radio announced that Obama had won the election ... It was an incredible moment, to be here in East Africa as we elected our first African-American President."

Indeed, the profundity of an African-American being elected into the office of the president of the United States of America cannot be overstated. Barack Obama will soon be living, with his family, in a White House that was constructed by black slaves. The significance is not lost on most of us, or on people across the world, especially in Africa. Indeed, the times they are a-changing.

The entire presidential campaign was abuzz with talk of change. Barack Obama, elected, symbolizes the deep desire for change in our country. We thirst for it like one would for cool water in the desert. Our lungs are starved for a breath of positive change in a new direction. We crave a genuine diversion from the death-wish course that corporate capitalism has been pursuing for as long back as most adults in this country can remember.

The victory of Barack Obama symbolizes our need for change. The inhabitants of this planet are beginning to sense the need for something that can replace the willful and self defeating death urge of corporate consumer culture that is bent upon destroying everything. The fate of the world, one could argue, is dependent on a shift in consciousness. The election of Barack Obama has demonstrated that this shift is, in fact, occurring.

My partner wrote that her entire journey "... has been wonderfully saturated by the immense excitement for Obama. Being so close to Kenya, the local news shows images of his family's joy and the villagers dancing, and also Kenya's own mock election of our candidates. I haven't met a single person, who upon learning of my US citizenship didn't initiate a conversation about Obama and the future of the US. They are thrilled, and seemingly proud, of America poised for change ... and as I traverse one corner of this massive continent, I hear it over and over again: 'We love Obama - he has a hard road ahead of him, but the world is ready to stand by him.' One woman chose to clarify to me '... and it's not because he's black-skinned that we believe in him ...'"

She continued, "After eight years of feeling angry at and ashamed by the actions of the Bush administration, and in the very moments of worldwide celebration for our country's clear voice for a new path, I find myself feeling a certain excitement for the challenging road that lies ahead for our country. Here, amidst nearby turmoil and tribal conflicts, Africa is, as is the whole world, looking to us again with a sense of renewed possibility in their eyes."

Undeniably, there is possibility in this moment.

But is there change?

Since it is the United States that is primarily responsible for dragging the world economy into a recession, much of the world is now relying on it to provide the solution. Needless to say, the same applies to our vainglorious attempts at empire building, our excessive contribution to heedless pollution, our invasion of sovereign states, our transgressions and violations of international law....

We have an African-American president, but let us also bear in mind that he is but a symbol, and our need and faith may not suffice for the symbol of change to deliver real change.

There is a tremendous schism between what Barack Obama is saying, and what he is doing. Already, he is gathering around him a group of people that are not only likely to maintain status quo, but worse, cause our current catastrophic situation to worsen.

On November 17, Obama promised on CBS News 60 Minutes to shut down the Guantanamo Bay concentration camp, while his advisers are simultaneously crafting a plan to create a brand new system of "Preventive Detention" and "National Security Courts." Preventive detention facilities do not give people the right to challenge their own detention, which is essentially what the Guantanamo Bay gulag has been all about - detaining people without charging them with a crime, and without trial. All we have at the moment is a suggestion of brand change, but nothing about policy change.

Obama promises to restore the moral stature of the United States. He has John Brennan and Jami Miscik, former intelligence officials under George Tenet, leading his review of intelligence agencies and making recommendations to the new administration. Brennan supported warrantless wiretapping and kidnapping (extraordinary rendition) and Miscik was involved with the politicized intelligence alleging WMDs in Iraq. They were both part of the team that provided the phony intelligence when Tenet informed Bush during the lead up to the Iraq invasion that the intelligence to support it was a "slam dunk." The incoming administration has also revealed that there will be no attempt to bring criminal charges against government officials who authorized or engaged in torture during the Bush presidency.

The new Defense team is being led by former Deputy Defense Secretary John P. White, who is the chair of the Kennedy School of Middle East Initiative at Harvard, and Michele Flournoy, president of the Center for a New American Security famed for the Iraq bombing and sanctions under President Bill Clinton.

Obama's transition team leaders are six of his top fundraisers, four of whom raised $500,000 or more for his campaign. One of them, Tom Donilan, was a lobbyist for mortgage giant Fannie Mae during 1999-2005. The President-elect himself voted in favor of the recent $750 billion bailout.

We were also treated to an echo of hollow rhetoric from the Bush chambers when the new president said on CBS that, "It is a top priority for us to stamp out al Qaeda once and for all," and that killing or capturing the groups mastermind Osama bin Laden was "critical" to US security.

On that note, let us note that Obama has already made it clear he refuses to "rule out" using mercenary companies in war zones, he has labeled Iran's Revolutionary Guard as a "terrorist organization," he plans to escalate the war in Afghanistan, and he has pledged to use unilateral force in Pakistan to defend US interests.

Obama's running mate, Joe Biden, despite having stated that his vote to authorize the use of force in Iraq was "mistaken," was an important facilitator of the war. He has also shamelessly championed the absurd idea of partitioning Iraq into three areas based primarily on ethnicity and religion (Balkanization).

Nor let us forgive the apparent selection of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. She was an ardent supporter of her husband's sanctions and bombing campaign against the people of Iraq throughout the 1990s, and she supported the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, which helped lay the groundwork for George W. Bush's invasion in 2003. As a US Senator, Hillary Clinton said, "Saddam Hussein has worked to rebuild his chemical and biological weapons stock, his missile-delivery capability and his nuclear program. He has also given aid, comfort and sanctuary to terrorists, including al Qaida members ... I want to insure that Saddam Hussein makes no mistake about our national unity and our support for the president's efforts to wage America's war against terrorists and weapons of mass destruction."

Other so-called liberal hawks either in or advising Obama's team include the likes of Madeleine Albright, a war criminal who, as Bill Clinton's Secretary of State, was asked on 60 Minutes if she thought the price of 500,000 Iraqi children killed by the sanctions was worth the price to contain Saddam Hussein and said she thought that the price was "worth it."

The list is long, but I will just mention two more of note. Martin Indyk, the founder of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, spent years working for AIPAC and served as Clinton's ambassador to Israel and Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, while also playing a major role in developing US policy toward Iraq and Iran. In addition to his work for the US government, he has worked for the Israeli government, and with the neo-conservative think-tank the Project for the New American Century - which devised the US blueprint for global domination.

The idea of Obama keeping Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense is equally disturbing. Let us remember, it is Gates who supports a new generation of nuclear weapons at a time when even George Shultz and Henry Kissinger are calling for nuclear abolition. Gates wants to apply his surge approach to Afghanistan, and while he has criticized the massive budget and influence of the Pentagon, when he had the chance to rectify both problems, he has refused to do so. For example, in his FY 2009 budget request - the last he will be officially responsible for - he added $36 billion, an increase former CENTCOM commander Anthony Zinni noted, "is roughly equivalent to the entire budget for International Affairs."

Schism Galore

On November 16 it was reported that Obama is pursuing an ambitious peace plan in the Middle East that involves the recognition of Israel by the Arab world in exchange for its withdrawal to pre-1967 borders.

Yet, the first appointment he made was of Rahm Israel Emanuel as his White House Chief of Staff, easily the most powerful office in the executive branch. In the 1940s Rahm's father, Benjamin, helped smuggle weapons to the Irgun, the Zionist militia of former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. The Irgun carried out numerous terrorist attacks on Palestinian civilians, including the bombing of Jerusalem's King David Hotel in 1946.

Rahm's father, commenting on how his son would influence US policies toward Israel, is reported to have told an Israeli paper, "Obviously he will influence the president to be pro-Israel. Why wouldn't he? What is he, an Arab? He's not going to clean the floors of the White House."

To his credit, Emanuel apologized for his father's incendiary remarks. But that does not alter the fact that he has been a consistent and vocal pro-Israel hardliner. In July 2006, Emanuel was one of several members who called for the cancellation of a speech by visiting Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to the Congress because al-Maliki had criticized Israel's bombing of Lebanon. Around the same time, Emanuel referred to the Lebanese and Palestinian governments as ‘totalitarian entities with militias and terrorists acting as democracies" in a speech supporting a House resolution backing Israel's bombing of both countries that had caused thousands of civilian casualties. He accompanied Obama to an AIPAC executive board meeting last June, immediately after the Illinois senator had addressed the pro-Israel lobby's conference.

Emanuel is one of the most influential politicians and fundraisers in the party, and has played not an insignificant role in the costliest campaign for presidency that the country has known.

Sheldon Wolin writes in "Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism":

"When a minimum of a million dollars is required of House candidates and elected judges, and when patriotism is for the draft free to extol and for the ordinary citizen to serve, in such times it is a simple act of bad faith to claim that politics-as-we-know-it can miraculously cure the evils which are essential to its very existence."

Security Lies in Securing Bases

"The truth is replaced by silence, and the silence is a lie." - Yevgeny Yevteshenko

Barack Obama announced on CBS that immediately upon taking office on January 20, he and his security advisers will "start executing a plan that draws down our troops" from Iraq.

What we never hear him mention is the massive US military infrastructure being developed in Iraq. The US "embassy" in Iraq is the largest embassy in the world and the most secure diplomatic compound in the world.

At a construction budget that now exceeds $1 billion, the "embassy" is a self-sustaining cluster of 21 buildings reinforced 2.5 times the usual standards, with some walls as thick as 15 feet.

Plans are for over 1,000 US government officials to work and reside there. They will have access to gyms, swimming pools, barber and beauty shops, food courts and the commissary. There will also be large-scale barracks for troops, a school, locker rooms, a warehouse, a vehicle maintenance garage, and six apartment buildings with a total of 619 one-bedroom units. The total site will be two-thirds the area of the National Mall in Washington, DC. And, luckily for these "government officials," their water and electricity supplies and sewage treatment plants will be independent of Baghdad's city utilities. Meanwhile, one of four residents of Baghdad, a capital city of over six million, are now displaced from their homes thanks to the so-called surge. Of those lucky enough to still have a roof over their head, they receive an average of 3-4 hours of electricity on good days, and recent reports show that at least 45 percent of Iraqis lack access to safe drinking water.

Then there are the permanent military bases in Iraq.

To give you an idea of what these look like, let's start with Camp Anaconda, near Balad. Spread over a modest 15 square miles, the base boasts two swimming pools, a gym, a mini-golf course and first-run movie theater.

There are 30,000 soldiers who live at the Balad Air Base, where they can inspect new iPod accessories in one of the two base exchanges, which additionally offer piles of the latest electronics and racks of CDs to choose from. Thousands of civilian contractors live at the base in a section called "KBR-land." Doctors at the base hospital carry out as many as 400 surgeries every month on wounded troops.

Air Force officials on the base claim their runway is one of the busiest in the world. A steady stream of unmanned Predator drones carrying Hellfire missiles take off from there along with F-16s, C-130s, helicopters and other aircraft from a total of 250 that the base houses.

If our troops aren't up for the rather lavish dinners served by Third Country nationals from India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh working for slave wages, they can dine at Burger King, Pizza Hut, Popeye's or Subway, then wash it down with a mocha from Starbucks.

There are other gigantic bases in Iraq, such as Camp Victory near Baghdad Airport, which when complete will be twice the size of Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo, currently the largest overseas US base since Vietnam.

At Camp Liberty, adjacent to Camp Victory, soldiers even compete in triathlons. According to a news article on a DOD web site, "The course, longer than 140 total miles, spanned several bases in the greater Camp Victory area in west Baghdad."

There is never any talk of full withdrawal of all forces from Iraq because US policy dictates a continuance of its military presence there. Less than two weeks after the fall of Baghdad on April 9, 2003, military officials announced the US intention to maintain at least four large bases in Iraq for future use, to be located respectively near Baghdad International Airport (where the triathlon was), at Tallil near Nasiriyah in the south, at either Irbil or Qayyarah (80 kilometers apart) in the Kurdish north, and one in western al-Anbar province at al-Asad. These do not include Camp Anaconda in Balad.

Billions of dollars have been spent in their construction, and if today they are in the mentioned locations, it only indicates that the military planners had blueprints ready long before Mr. Bush declared that major combat operations were over in Iraq.

Note that while US officials never use the word "permanent" when referring to military bases in Iraq, they do talk of "permanent access." I quote from a front page story in The New York Times on April 19, 2003, entitled "Pentagon Expects Long Term Access to Four Key Bases in Iraq": "There will probably never be an announcement of permanent stationing of troops. Not permanent basing, but permanent access is all that is required, officials say."

None of the 700-plus US military bases and installations located abroad are considered "permanent," which is why ambivalent instruments like SOFA, the Status of Forces Agreement exist.

A quick glance at US government military strategy documents is even more revealing.

The 2002 National Security Strategy claims: "Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States." To accomplish this, it adds, we will "require bases and stations within and beyond Western Europe and Northeast Asia."

Another interesting document is "Joint Vision 2020," within which the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff's "vision" is, "Dedicated individuals and innovative organizations transforming the joint force of the 21st Century to achieve full spectrum dominance: persuasive in peace, decisive in war, preeminent in any form of conflict."

The Quadrennial Defense Review offers another priceless key to US foreign policy. In this document, a stated ambition for the US military is to have the capacity to fight "multiple, overlapping wars" (Afghanistan, Iraq, etc. ...) and to use the US military to "ensure that all major and emerging powers are integrated as constructive actors and stakeholders into the international system."

What can be a more obvious proclamation from US policymakers about having replaced the Cold War with a Long War for Global Empire and Unchallenged Military Hegemony? Viewed through this lens, it is not difficult to comprehend the need for permanent US bases in Iraq and elsewhere.

At the height of the Roman Empire, Rome had 39 foreign military outposts. The British had 38 at their peak. The US, in the twilight of her lust for empire, currently has just over 730 according to the Department of Defense.

We have not heard from our new President-elect any articulation of the intent of total withdrawal of all US military personnel and bases from Iraq. Nor has he made any suggestion about the imperative to alter the country's policy of global domination.

Making Real the Symbol

But this is not the time to despair, or merely hope.

"The cure for despair is not hope. It's discovering what we want to do about something we care about." - Margaret Wheatley

To underscore the essence of this moment in history, I refer once again to my partner's email from Africa, "We must not forget the tremendous responsibility we have now, to see that Obama maintains his promise of change ... we must not relinquish this moment nor this victory into his hands entirely. As he learns to lead us, so must we learn to lead him."