Sunday, September 13, 2009

If You Think Corporations Run The Government Now…

If You Think Corporations Run The Government Now…

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Then just wait and see what happens after, as expected, the Supreme Court allows corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on behalf of their favored candidates:
The Supreme Court signaled Wednesday it may let businesses and unions spend freely to help their favored candidates in time for next year's elections. Such a step could roll back a century of attempts to restrain the power of corporate treasuries in American politics.

The justices cut short their summer recess for a lively special argument that indicated the court's conservative skeptics of campaign finance laws have the upper hand over its liberals, including new Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, often the high court's swing vote, but a firm opponent of many campaign restrictions, at one point told the government's lawyer, "Corporations have lots of knowledge about environment, transportation issues, and you are silencing them during the election."

To a certain extent, it is hard to even conceptualize why this matters. To paraphrase Dick Durbin, powerful moneyed interests already run the government. From the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, check out the gains made by of wealthy interests over the past 30-35 years:

There are the glorious results of bi-partisan, moderate-approved economic policy for you.

Through vast lobbying, astroturf, media and legal efforts that dwarf anything progressives have created, powerful moneyed interests in this country have been able largely to control legislation even after 30-year peak in Democratic electoral success. A ruling like this will simply be the icing on the cake.

The United States of Plutocracy

The United States of Plutocracy

By William Pfaff

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The United States has for practical purposes been a plutocracy for some years now. American national elections usually function more or less correctly, except that they have become all but completely dominated by money.

The contributors of money to Senate and Congressional campaigns are dominated by the source of that money, and the source of the money is the United States government, which directs it to them as a result of the contracts awarded to them by the congressmen and the senators whose election they support. The process is circular.

It would be cheaper for all concerned if business were directly to pay senators and congressmen and eliminate the middlemen, the parasites that live on the surplus money in this system, paid for their ability to persuade both sellers and buyers (so to speak) that they are providing a service by facilitating the bargain. Elections now cannot take place without them.

There would seem to be two steps by which this rot has taken hold. The first is change in the legislation originally concerned with the use by broadcasters of the airwaves, a public resource. In 1934 the Federal Communications Commission was established with authority over broadcasts. Being a politically balanced body, it decreed that the public service obligation of the broadcaster included the responsibility to provide balanced information. (The Fox News claim to be “fair and balanced” is a sneering reference to this, no doubt unintentional.)

This rule applied to commentary on the news and to coverage of elections and acceptance of political advertising. There had to be substantial balance.

This arrangement was destroyed by the Reagan administration, which removed the FCC’s responsibility to enforce political “fairness” in radio and television network commentary and election coverage. The Republican-controlled Congress defeated efforts to reinstate it.

The change was challenged in 1976 by a congressional candidate who contended that he had been defeated by a candidate who spent on his campaign a sum enormously more than the plaintiff could spend. He contended that the Congress had imposed an unconstitutional money qualification upon election to federal office.

In one of the more notorious and deplorable decisions in the history of the Supreme Court, it ruled that all money spent on advertising in a political campaign is constitutionally protected free speech (Buckley v. Valeo, 1976).

Since then, the United States has been in a dizzying downward spin in the effective purchase of public office by candidates with the most wealthy supporters, usually business corporations. A perverse effect of the ruling, possibly unrecognized by the court, is that this indirectly required all candidates to adopt pro-business positions, or at least positions sufficiently inoffensive to business that they did not become the object of targeted campaigns to silence them.

On Wednesday September 9, the Supreme Court began hearing arguments on the legitimacy of any restriction on direct electoral spending by business corporations.

Since 1908, business corporations have been prohibited from spending on federal elections. Unions have been banned from doing so since 1947. States have banned corporate campaign spending since the late 19th century. Today corporations and unions contribute indirectly through political action committees, limited in what can be contributed.

If corporations now were licensed to make direct payment from corporate funds to influence elections, the country would become a wholly-owned subsidiary of American business. The government would no longer be able to act disinterestedly. In the circumstances, there would appear to be no possibility that legislation to reverse the effects of such a ruling could succeed.

I do not know whether this is something the majority of citizens wish to see happen. Probably, in these difficult times, the majority do not even know that it is happening. They will discover it later.

Afghanistan and the Wages of Empire

Afghanistan Election Fraud and the High Price of Empire

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It is amusing, if remarkable, that there are still some players in Washington who try to maintain the fantasy that Afghan President Hamid Karzai governs with anything akin to legitimacy.

Karzai, an alleged oil industry fixer awarded control of his country by occupying powers, has always served with strings attached.

And the Afghan people have been quite aware of that fact.

It is true that, at different points over the past eight years, Karzai has enjoyed measures of popular support, thanks to alliances with warlords and drug dealers, the inflaming of ethnic rivalries and an awareness that he was the one distributing all those billions of dollars from the United States.

But, aside from a slick sense of dress, Karzai has never had much going for him in the political department.

So he has, out of instinct and by necessity, relied on fraud to "win" the elections that have kept the Afghan president and his minions in power.

That was not much of a problem during the Bush-Cheney years. The men who assumed control of the United States after losing the 2000 popular vote by more than 500,000 and then shutting down the recount of votes in the contested state of Florida were not going to gripe about the mangling of democratic processes in distant Afghanistan.

But the fantasy is getting harder to maintain now that Bush has retired and Cheney has repositioned himself as the planet's primary defender of torture.

So we get the "news" -- not from the satirical Onion but from the nation's newspaper of record -- that US officials are trying to prevent Karzai from declaring "victory" in the exercise in fraud that naive commentators still insist on referring to as an election.

The Times was as delicate as possible in reporting the predicament:

WASHINGTON -- On Monday, as the vote-counting in Afghanistan was nearing an end, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was briefed by the American ambassador in Kabul, Karl W. Eikenberry. The same day, the ambassador delivered a blunt message to the front-runner, President Hamid Karzai: "Don't declare victory."

The slim majority tentatively awarded Mr. Karzai in Afghanistan's fraud-scarred election has put the Obama administration in an awkward spot: trying to balance its professed determination to investigate mounting allegations of corruption and vote-rigging while not utterly alienating the man who seems likely to remain the country's leader for another five years.

Another way of putting it might be to say that US officials are finding it increasingly difficult to construct a rationale for allowing the man they put in charge of Afghanistan to remain in charge of Afghanistan.

This is not a new problem.

Colonial powers have faced these challenges throughout history.

It is one of the wages of empire.

And's that's the problem with the US presence in Afghanistan.

While it may have been initiated with a practical purpose -- to hunt down the plotters of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and to rid the country of its terrorist-friendly Taliban leaders -- and while it may have been reimagined as an experiment in the sort of "nation building" that presidential candidate George Bush once decried, this imperial endeavor has ended up as imperial endeavors invariably do.

The United States, a country founded with the purpose of breaking the chains of empire, has gotten into the dirty business of constructing and maintaining them.

The machinations required to maintain Hamid Karzai in a position to enrich himself and his favored warlords -- even when it involves making excuses for electoral fraud and worse -- are precisely the sort of "entangling alliance" about which George Washington warned in his farewell address to a young nation.

This is what Secretary of State John Quincy Adams pledged to avoid when he told the Congress in 1821 that:

Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will (America's) heart, her benedictions and her prayers be.

But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.

She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.

She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.

America has drifting far from the moorings of her establishment.

The continued occupation of Afghanistan provides evidence of how far.

But it also does something else.

It provides a pivot point.

Those who would have America return to the most fundamental, the most essential, of her founding values with regard to foreign policy should see Afghanistan as the starting point for a renewal of those values.

The work of extracting US troops from that distant land -- and from the service of Hamid Karzai's fraudulent presidency -- is, of course, about Afghanistan. But it is also about America.

How do we pursue it?


If our representatives in the House have not signed on to Massachusetts Congressman Jim McGovern's resolution to "require the Secretary of Defense to submit a report to Congress outlining the United States exit strategy for United States military forces in Afghanistan," they need to be encouraged to join the 97 current cosponsors. This is a bipartisan measure and many of the newest cosponsors are conservative Republicans, so don't fall into the trap of thinking that only progressive Democrats care about bringing the troops home.

If our senators are not siding with Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold, who has called for a flexible timetable to bring the troops home, tell them to join with their colleague to challenge the Obama administration's wrongheaded surges of more troops into a quagmire.

If our news media fails to tell the full story on the nightmarish turns that the occupation has taken, tune in to the Brave New Foundation's terrific Rethink Afghanistan project. And read Tom Hayden's smart analysis, with its unblinking assessment of the administration missteps.

Hayden reminds us that: "August was the cruelest month for American forces in Afghanistan, with at least 49 killed, not including possible last-minute reports. The August numbers exceeded the previous high of 43 in July, as a result of the new escalation of fighting approved by President Obama. The President is expected to approve another troop increase shortly, which will inevitably increase American casualty rates in the 18-24 months of "hard fighting" forecast by the Pentagon. At a rate of 45 American deaths per month, the toll on Obama's watch would be 1,080 additional American deaths through 2011, as the President heads into a re-election."

Those are unsettling numbers, as are the numbers of civilian casualties in Afghanistan. They call for a renewal of antiwar activism. To make it happen, link up with Progressive Democrats of America, Peace Action and the Friends Committee on National Legislation, all three of which have taken the lead in arguing that those who really care about Afghanistan and America must work to get the United States out of the business of occupying distant lands and propping up puppet presidents.

Senate Panel OKs $128 Billion For Afghanistan, Iraq Wars

Senate Panel OKs $128 Billion For Afghanistan, Iraq Wars

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With hardly any debate, a powerful Senate committee Thursday approved President Barack Obama's $128 billion request for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan for the budget year beginning in October.

The move came as anxiety is increasing on Capitol Hill over the chances for success in Afghanistan and as Obama weighs whether to send more forces to the country.

The war funding was approved as the Appropriations Committee voted unanimously for a $636 billion spending measure funding next year's Pentagon budget. The war funding would implement Obama's order earlier this year to add 21,000 more troops to Afghanistan, which would bring the total number of U.S. forces there to 68,000 by the end of 2009.

There's ample skepticism in Congress that Obama's Iraq and Afghanistan funding request will be sufficient. A key lawmaker, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., predicts that an additional war funding will be needed next spring.

Senate panel chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, would not say whether he believes $128 billion would be enough for military operations in the two countries.

"Well, we're taking the word of the administration," Inouye said after the panel session.

The panel also generally followed Obama's recommendations to kill or cut several weapons systems, including the F-22 air-to-air combat fighter and the VH-71 replacement helicopter for an aging presidential transport fleet.

Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have staked their prestige on killing several over-budget weapons systems, especially the F-22, which has its origins in the Cold War era and is poorly suited for anti-insurgent battles in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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But in twin victories for the Boeing Co., the Senate measure includes $2.5 billion to fund 10 C-17 cargo planes assembled in Long Beach, Calif., which were not requested, and $512 million for nine more F-18 Navy fighters than Obama requested. They would be assembled in St. Louis, Mo.

The additional funding for Iraq and Afghanistan brings to $1 trillion-plus the amount of money set aside by Congress for those wars and other terrorism-fighting efforts since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The bill would cut $900 million from Obama's request for Afghan security forces, though the $6.6 billion provided still represents a 17 percent increase over current spending. Inouye says the Pentagon acknowledges the full budget request wouldn't be spent in the coming year and instead devoted the $900 million to bomb- and mine-resistant vehicles.

The bill also strongly rejects Obama's $100 million request for the Pentagon to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba. It also contains stiff language that blocks any transfer, release or incarceration in the United States of any detainees held at the prison in Cuba. That's stronger than current restrictions, which allow transfer into the United States to stand trial.

Inouye also went along – for now – with administration's effort to kill a program to develop an alternate engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Air Force's major new weapons system. The second engine is funded by a companion House bill and would be built by the General Electric Co. and Rolls-Royce in Ohio, Indiana and elsewhere. The main F-35 engine is built in Connecticut by Pratt & Whitney.

Inouye has been a strong supporter of the second engine, and proponents are confident he will work to revive its funding during House-Senate talks.

The measure also contains $20 million for the development of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the Senate on the campus of the University of Massachusetts-Boston; the funding was inserted by Inouye at the request of John Kerry, D-Mass.

Katrina survivors’ struggle for justice

Katrina survivors’ struggle for justice

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Four years after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, survivors living in Houston are still fighting to keep a roof over their heads. On Aug. 31, three women spoke at a news conference at the Kensington Club II townhome apartments to expose the owner’s corruption and the squalid living conditions he allows.

The news conference was organized by Lenwood Johnson, a housing advocate with the Free Man’s Neighborhood Association. Johnson explained that the Kensington Club II owner is accepting Disaster Housing Assistance Program vouchers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency—yet is not crediting all of the renters’ accounts as being paid. Kofi Taharka, president of the National Black United Front and a representative of the International Action Center, also spoke.

Then residents Eugenia Brown, Quinna Brown, and Jennifer Whittington addressed reporters.

Whittington, who is severely disabled with arthritis and also has cancer, cannot work. She said she was depending on DHAP to contribute to her rent, but after complaining about conditions she received an eviction notice.

Whittington explained that her two sons had tried to find jobs ever since the family came to Houston, but as soon as they told prospective employers they were from New Orleans, they were told, “We aren’t hiring Katrina criminals.”

Eugenia Brown, who suffers from asthma, later showed reporters the mold growing in her apartment, as well as leaking ceilings and pipes. Volunteer movers were packing her belongings in a moving van as she spoke. Yet with nowhere to move to, Brown put her things in storage; for now she is staying with various friends.

Quinna Brown also allowed reporters into her apartment—which had mold, water stains, appliances that did not work, light fixtures falling from the ceiling and leaking pipes. She was in tears as she spoke. “I work at Wendy’s and am trying to keep a home for my 11-year-old daughter, yet the Disaster Housing Assistance Program is not paying the money it is receiving from HUD to the apartment owner,” she told reporters. Brown was trembling and sobbing as said she was about to totally fall apart over losing her home.

Because these women had complained to the owner about the unsafe conditions, he was evicting them rather than make required repairs.

A week after the news conference, Whittington was looking for a shelter to move to, even though she is still appealing her eviction orders and is in her apartment. “Men with guns keep coming to my apartment and threatening and intimidating me,” she told Johnson. “They are from the constable’s office and I am afraid.” Lenwood Johnson is helping her find a shelter to move to.

Johnson told Workers World that the owner wants Whittington out because she is fighting to make him make repairs. When these women complained to DHAP that the living conditions were unbearable, DHAP told them they “weren’t supposed to watch the apartment owners, but the criminals from New Orleans.”

Johnson said: “The struggle continues. We need a full-time watchdog to keep up with the unscrupulous landlords and FEMA. We have contacted the U.S. Justice Department as well as the secretary of Housing and Urban Development and hope they respond. It is criminal the way Katrina survivors are treated.”

An Immoral Economic System

An Immoral Economic System

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An immoral economic system compels a society's moral decline. Because of Congressional devotion to our traditional economic system, American government seems to have enshrined all the disadvantages and none of the advantages of democracy. We have a government based on dissent, in which delay is a common tactic and secrecy is regularly employed, and which enacts imbecilic measures that never produce the results predicted. Is it any wonder, then, that the nation stumbles from one calamity to another? We the People can certainly change things, since, in accordance with our Constitution, it is We the People who are Sovereign. All that is required is a few carefully drawn amendments.

Corruption is a moral failure; it is ubiquitous in societies permeated by immorality. So how are such societies formed?

I have long contended that a society's morality devolves from the prevailing economic system rather than early childhood teaching or religious beliefs. An economic system that institutionalizes immorality diffuses it throughout society. Empirical evidence for this claim is pervasive; however, providing a demonstration is not easy. The empirical evidence can always be dismissed by claiming that immorality is a personal character fault and not a result of anything systemic. But that dismissal doesn't explain how huge numbers of people in any society acquire nefarious characters.

The common, although perhaps simplistic, view of the American economic system goes something like this: individuals, acting in their own self-interest as economic agents, engage in economic activities that bring them the greatest financial rewards thereby maximizing the economic well-being of society as a whole. Although experience does not validate this view, it is common and Adam Smith does write, in Chapter II of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages." But what does this quotation imply about Congressmen? Let's rewrite the sentence.

It is not from the benevolence of Congressmen that we can expect them to serve the public good, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.

I have never known anyone who did not believe that the Congress was not corrupt, even though Congressmen, like common criminals, regularly plead not guilty. How can they justify their pleas? Simply by saying that what's good for me is good for the country, which is perfectly consistent with the two rewritten sentences shown above. In other words, Congressmen defend the morality of their actions by appealing to the prevailing economic theory. That the results are not beneficial to society as a whole is irrelevant to them. That their actions conflict with commonly held moral values is irrelevant to them. They are merely doing exactly what the economic theory recommends. Of course, businesses can defend their malicious actions in exactly the same way. So can criminals. The result is that commonly held moral values are dismissed as irrelevant and society is imbued with immorality. An immoral economic system compels a society's moral decline. Such declines are systemic and not accidental.

The questions to be answered, then, are what financial rewards do Congressmen receive from promoting the public good? And would they receive greater financial rewards from promoting the gains of private interests? If the answer to the latter question is yes, then Congressmen, in accordance with the prevailing economic theory, are doing exactly what that theory recommends when they promote the aims of private, special interests at the expense of the public. Belief in the prevailing economic system corrupts government, business, and every other activity. It also turns representative democracy into a content less, meaningless ritual.

I have often wondered why people run for Congress, especially after seeing what they do after getting elected. There are many very wealthy people in the Congress; some are multi-millionaires. Why do they collect their salaries? They certainly do not need the money. Why do they enroll in government subsidized medical care? They certainly can afford to buy care in the open market. Why have they created government subsidized retirement plans for themselves? They are not likely to ever run out of money. Why, when criticized for supporting legislation advocated by a special interest they have accepted money from, do Congressmen claim that the money didn't influence their votes? Why would special interests give money to people for doing what they claim they would have done anyway? Giving people money for doing what they would have done anyway is not a common practice. When Congressmen claim that special interests do that, the claim requires an explanation, but none is ever forthcoming. If the goal of such giving is not to influence votes, why is it done? The only conclusion that can be drawn is that Congressmen are not in it for public service; they are in it for the money, and alas, Jesus was right when he said, "The love of money is the root of all evil" (1 Timothy 6:10).

The vast majority of problems that human beings face are inflicted by humans themselves, and being inflicted by humans, they can be eliminated by humans. James Wilson, a Pennsylvania delegate to the Constitutional Convention said, in explaining the proposed Constitution to the Pennsylvania Ratification Convention, "Oft have I marked, with silent pleasure and admiration, the force and prevalence, through the United States, of the principle that the supreme power resides in the people, and that they never part with it. It may be called the panacea in politics. There can be no disorder in the community but may here receive a radical cure. If the error be in the legislature, it may be corrected by the constitution; if in the constitution, it may be corrected by the people. There is a remedy, therefore, for every distemper in government, if the people are not wanting to themselves [emphasis mine]." And during the ratification conventions that took place in 1788, some conferees attempted to address this problem of compensation when they proposed an amendment meant to restrict Congressmen from setting theirs. This proposed amendment was finally ratified in 1992 as the XXVII Amendment which reads

No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.

Unfortunately, 1992 was far too late, for the emergence of career politicians nullified the amendment's original intent. Congress sets its own compensation; Congressmen now merely have to wait some months for their raises to take effect.

The founding fathers did not envision career politicians. In fact, some amendments were proposed to limit the terms of Congressmen, especially Senators. For instance, the New York Ratification Convention proposed "That no Person be eligible as a Senator for more than six years in any term of twelve years" which would have prohibited anyone from serving two consecutive terms in the Senate.

So what is needed is a simple amendment that ties Congressional compensation to some objective number, such as per capita income which is a better measure of the wealth of people than GNP/GDP which I have argued elsewhere is a bogus and nefarious measurement. If Congressional compensation were set at say 1.5 times per capita income, Congressional compensation would increase only if the incomes of common people were increasing. Reimbursed Congressional expenses could also be set in the same way, say at 0.5 times per capita income. And Congressmen should be prohibited from enacting benefits for themselves unless those same benefits are also made available to the general public. Such an amendment would force the Congress to pay attention to promoting the general welfare, as the Preamble of the Constitution requires. Such an amendment would put current Congressmen in an absurd position. If they continued to support special interests, their incomes would stagnate and perhaps even be reduced. Such an amendment could, thus, have the effect of reducing the influence of special interests on the Congress.

Two likely objections to restricting Congressional compensation can be anticipated: the best and the brightest would not be attracted to Congress, and increased corruption would be likely.

First, both of these objections are based on the economic system's maxim that everyone acts in his/her own self-interest as an economic agent. But this maxim is patently false. When a child decides s/he wants to be a police officer, a fireman, a school teacher, a social worker, a nurse, or countless other things, it can hardly be argued that s/he is making that choice in order to maximize his/her earning power. None of these professions is lucrative; yet they are professions that are absolutely necessary for society to function. Second, the current conditions cannot be shown to attract "the best and the brightest" to political careers. Given the kinds of legislation that the Congress has enacted consistently, one could easily argue that Congress attracts the worst and dullest. Not a single major social problem has been solved in at least a century. What such an amendment might very well do is attract to the Congress people who have a genuine desire to serve the public rather than themselves. And third, it is true that in underdeveloped countries where civil servants are poorly paid, corruption is endemic. But corruption can be reduced by making the penalties for both the corrupter and corrupted severe. Instead of fines and relatively short prison sentences, the assets of both the corrupter and corrupted could be confiscated and their citizenship revoked. Corruption exists only because society tolerates it.

That government is instituted and ought to be exercised for the benefit of the people is a sentiment that occurs in the deliberations of many of the Ratification Conventions held in 1788. It was explicitly stated in the conventions held in Pennsylvania, in the debates on the Bill of Rights held in the House of Representatives, in the amendments offered in Congress by James Madison, and in the amendments reported by the select committee. Our Congress seems to have forgotten it.

James Wilson also said, while reporting to the Pennsylvania Ratification Convention, "The advantages of democracy are, liberty, equality, cautious and salutary laws, public spirit, frugality, peace, opportunities of exciting and producing abilities of the best citizens. Its disadvantages are, dissensions, the delay and disclosure of public counsels, the imbecility of public measures." American government seems to have enshrined all these disadvantages and none of the advantages. We have a government based on dissent (the minority party is often referred to as "the opposition"), in which delay is a common tactic and secrecy is regularly employed, and which enacts imbecilic measures that never produce the results predicted.

A surge in wealthy Americans who are prepared to give up their citizenship to avoid the scrutiny of US tax authorities has recently been reported. This not only validates Jefferson's belief that "Merchants have no country." But it also puts the Congress in a precarious position. Currently, the Congress legislates for the benefit of business. Whether this results from business' buying Congressional votes or from an attachment to a misguided economic system is irrelevant. If Jefferson is right, and he appears to be, the Congress is legislating for the benefit of those who have no devotion or attachment to the nation or its people. Is it any wonder, then, that the nation stumbles from one calamity to another, that no problems get solved, or that the society's institutions don't work?

James Wilson believed that "The people of the United States are now in the possession and exercise of their original rights; and while this doctrine is known, and operates, we shall have a cure for every disease." But he also believed, "The consequence is, that the people may change the constitutions whenever and however they please. This is a right of which no positive institution can ever deprive them." Since the American Congress can now provide a cure for absolutely no disease, it is time for the American people to assert their right and change the Constitution in ways that will force the Congress to legislate solely for the benefit of the people, which We the People can certainly do, since, in accordance with our Constitution, it is We the People who are Sovereign. All that is required is a few carefully drawn amendments.

Watergate And Modern Scandals

Watergate And Modern Scandals

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By 2012, college professors will stare into the glazed eyes of their students as they refer to non existent weapons of mass destruction and routine torture of suspected terrorists. Like the Vietnam War (estimated 4 million Vietnamese and 55,000 plus American casualties), and Watergate, these scandals occurred, in students' minds, sometime after the Greco-Roman era.

Way back in 1973 White House staffers broke into Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate office complex. In 1969, Seymour Hersh had revealed a story covered-up by the Pentagon. US troops had slaughtered civilians in the Vietnamese village of My Lai. In 1972, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein investigated a simple 1972 "break-in" at the Watergate Democratic Party offices. After Nixon's inauguration their story developed into the major scandal of the era. The public learned about Nixon operating a secret government, with "plumbers" working for CREEP (Committee to Reelect the President). This shadowy squad investigated unwanted "leaks" by breaking into offices. A secret stash of money located in the safe of the Commerce Secretary Maurice Stans supported their antics. Stans ran the Finance Committee to Reelect the President. The scandal grew as Deep Throat - later revealed as Mark Felt, Number 2 at the FBI--fed leads to Woodward, like Nixon secretly taping all conversations.

Congress investigated, found a cover-up and top White House officials went to jail, including White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman and top presidential adviser John Ehrlichman. In addition, Nixon's tapes confirmed Attorney General John Mitchell's participation in planning meetings for the Watergate break-in and subsequently for the cover up. In 1972, Mitchell tried to quash a forthcoming Washington Post article about his relation to another secret money stash designed to get damaging material on the Democrats. "Katie Graham's [Katherine Graham, the Post's publisher] gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that's published." (The Post deleted "tits")

Nixon resigned in shame in 1974. The Watergate Scandal provoked a governmental process that produced remedies for corruption. The criminals went to prison.

Since then, scandals have meant lead stories with staying power. Both President Reagan and Vice President Bush were implicated in the 1980s Iran-Contra scandal (selling missiles to Iran with the proceeds going to the anti-Sandinista Contras, specifically forbidden by Congress.) Not one major conspirator paid a price.

In 2009, a horny politician succumbed to an Argentine vixen's wiles. The hot-blooded Latin lured super family-values centered Governor Mark Sanford (R-SC) just as the Jewish, collagen-lipped White House intern previously seduced Bill Clinton. As if!

21st Century "news" features lusty headlines over dull wars, budgets and taxes. Political sex scandals offer vicarious enjoyment. Political heavies slip into errant mode - or slips something of his into something of hers - so fascinating that even Hollywood celebs take a back seat.

"Scandal is our growth industry," wrote Mark Danner. "Revelation of wrongdoing leads not to definitive investigation, punishment, and expiation but to more scandal. Permanent scandal." (The New York Review of Books, December 4, 2008)

By September, Governor Sanford's foibles faded as did those of Senator Ensign (R-NV) and his six figure payoff to the wife of his aide. The media turned to a less compelling scandal: torture. Once a war crime, torture has evolved into an "issue" as Danner observed, "something one can stand on either side of. Something we can live with."

2004 Abu Ghraib photos and General Taguba's report on torture indicated that authorization to torture came from the top -- President, Vice President, Defense Secretary, with a flimsy justification written by a White House legal lackey.. Unlike Watergate, Congress did not investigate torture. The intrepid Hersh, however, revealed important details of the sordid story of Abu Ghraib. A few low ranking soldiers got charged.

Bush's and Cheney's lies, designed to scam the nation into wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, remain "old news" or history. Even last month's events have faded into a no man's land, where information falls like perpetual hail to numb the human brain. Years ago, maybe in their parents' or grandparents' eras, journalism meant investigating the government and corporations, the seats of power, the sources of corruption and lies.

Current scandals distract. The empire has begun its descent into chaos. Congress votes vast sums to fight un-winnable wars against technologically inferior opponents and wrings its collective hands over spending on tens of millions of Americans who worry about meeting basic needs.

After "Watergate," the media continued its perpetual affair with scandals, but ignores the big ones: "our wars" - including the one on terror. Those who without legal reason got us into them have left their legacy. Can Obama refuse it and get out of Afghanistan. It'll take more than another scandal to create the courage -- and conditions --for him to do it.

Putin warns against Iran attack

Putin warns against Iran attack

Russian PM Vladimir Putin has warned against military action targeting Iran or imposing new sanctions to curb its nuclear programme.

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Iran's latest proposals on its nuclear ambitions have brought diverging views from the US and Russia.

Earlier, a US official told the BBC that Washington was unhappy with the proposals, submitted on Wednesday.

Correspondents say parties involved are making their positions clear ahead of the UN General Assembly this month.

President Barack Obama has given Tehran until the end of September to respond to his friendlier overtures or face new sanctions.

But the US and Israel have never ruled out the option of air strikes on Iran to stop it acquiring an atomic weapon.

In contrast to Washington's negative response on Iran's new proposal, Russia's foreign minister described them as a positive step forward and ruled out sanctions on Iran's oil sector.

Terror warning

Mr Putin, speaking in Moscow, said any attack on Iran would be "very dangerous, unacceptable" and would lead to "an explosion of terrorism".

"I doubt very much that such strikes would achieve their stated goal," he added.

However, Mr Putin called on Tehran to "show restraint" in its nuclear programme.

"This is a dangerous region and Iran should show responsibility, especially by taking into account Israel's concerns," he said.

The five-page Iranian proposal was submitted to the group of six global powers negotiating over its nuclear enrichment programme - the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany.

Details have been published on the website of the US non-profit investigative journalism group, ProPublica.

In it, Tehran offers to hold "comprehensive, all-encompassing and constructive" negotiations on a range of security issues, including global nuclear disarmament.

But the document makes no mention of Iran's own nuclear programme.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said on Friday he was seeking an urgent meeting with Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, after consulting the six powers.

"We are in contact with Dr Jalili's office to arrange a meeting at the earliest possible opportunity," he said in a statement.

"We are all committed to meaningful negotiations with Iran to resolve the international community's concerns about their nuclear programme."

French foreign ministry spokeswoman Christine Fages said they wanted the meeting to take place before the UN General Assembly on 23 September.

Philip Crowley, US Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, earlier told the BBC's World Today programme that Iran had to prove it was ready to live up to commitments it had made.

"Our concern is that the response itself did not really address what is the core issue of the international community and the core concern, which is Iran's nuclear ambitions," he said.

Big Food vs. Big Insurance

Big Food vs. Big Insurance

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To listen to President Obama’s speech on Wednesday night, or to just about anyone else in the health care debate, you would think that the biggest problem with health care in America is the system itself — perverse incentives, inefficiencies, unnecessary tests and procedures, lack of competition, and greed.

No one disputes that the $2.3 trillion we devote to the health care industry is often spent unwisely, but the fact that the United States spends twice as much per person as most European countries on health care can be substantially explained, as a study released last month says, by our being fatter. Even the most efficient health care system that the administration could hope to devise would still confront a rising tide of chronic disease linked to diet.

That’s why our success in bringing health care costs under control ultimately depends on whether Washington can summon the political will to take on and reform a second, even more powerful industry: the food industry.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, three-quarters of health care spending now goes to treat “preventable chronic diseases.” Not all of these diseases are linked to diet — there’s smoking, for instance — but many, if not most, of them are.

We’re spending $147 billion to treat obesity, $116 billion to treat diabetes, and hundreds of billions more to treat cardiovascular disease and the many types of cancer that have been linked to the so-called Western diet. One recent study estimated that 30 percent of the increase in health care spending over the past 20 years could be attributed to the soaring rate of obesity, a condition that now accounts for nearly a tenth of all spending on health care.

The American way of eating has become the elephant in the room in the debate over health care. The president has made a few notable allusions to it, and, by planting her vegetable garden on the South Lawn, Michelle Obama has tried to focus our attention on it. Just last month, Mr. Obama talked about putting a farmers’ market in front of the White House, and building new distribution networks to connect local farmers to public schools so that student lunches might offer more fresh produce and fewer Tater Tots. He’s even floated the idea of taxing soda.

But so far, food system reform has not figured in the national conversation about health care reform. And so the government is poised to go on encouraging America’s fast-food diet with its farm policies even as it takes on added responsibilities for covering the medical costs of that diet. To put it more bluntly, the government is putting itself in the uncomfortable position of subsidizing both the costs of treating Type 2 diabetes and the consumption of high-fructose corn syrup.

Why the disconnect? Probably because reforming the food system is politically even more difficult than reforming the health care system. At least in the health care battle, the administration can count some powerful corporate interests on its side — like the large segment of the Fortune 500 that has concluded the current system is unsustainable.

That is hardly the case when it comes to challenging agribusiness. Cheap food is going to be popular as long as the social and environmental costs of that food are charged to the future. There’s lots of money to be made selling fast food and then treating the diseases that fast food causes. One of the leading products of the American food industry has become patients for the American health care industry.

The market for prescription drugs and medical devices to manage Type 2 diabetes, which the Centers for Disease Control estimates will afflict one in three Americans born after 2000, is one of the brighter spots in the American economy. As things stand, the health care industry finds it more profitable to treat chronic diseases than to prevent them. There’s more money in amputating the limbs of diabetics than in counseling them on diet and exercise.

As for the insurers, you would think preventing chronic diseases would be good business, but, at least under the current rules, it’s much better business simply to keep patients at risk for chronic disease out of your pool of customers, whether through lifetime caps on coverage or rules against pre-existing conditions or by figuring out ways to toss patients overboard when they become ill.

But these rules may well be about to change — and, when it comes to reforming the American diet and food system, that step alone could be a game changer. Even under the weaker versions of health care reform now on offer, health insurers would be required to take everyone at the same rates, provide a standard level of coverage and keep people on their rolls regardless of their health. Terms like “pre-existing conditions” and “underwriting” would vanish from the health insurance rulebook — and, when they do, the relationship between the health insurance industry and the food industry will undergo a sea change.

The moment these new rules take effect, health insurance companies will promptly discover they have a powerful interest in reducing rates of obesity and chronic diseases linked to diet. A patient with Type 2 diabetes incurs additional health care costs of more than $6,600 a year; over a lifetime, that can come to more than $400,000. Insurers will quickly figure out that every case of Type 2 diabetes they can prevent adds $400,000 to their bottom line. Suddenly, every can of soda or Happy Meal or chicken nugget on a school lunch menu will look like a threat to future profits.

When health insurers can no longer evade much of the cost of treating the collateral damage of the American diet, the movement to reform the food system — everything from farm policy to food marketing and school lunches — will acquire a powerful and wealthy ally, something it hasn’t really ever had before.

AGRIBUSINESS dominates the agriculture committees of Congress, and has swatted away most efforts at reform. But what happens when the health insurance industry realizes that our system of farm subsidies makes junk food cheap, and fresh produce dear, and thus contributes to obesity and Type 2 diabetes? It will promptly get involved in the fight over the farm bill — which is to say, the industry will begin buying seats on those agriculture committees and demanding that the next bill be written with the interests of the public health more firmly in mind.

In the same way much of the health insurance industry threw its weight behind the campaign against smoking, we can expect it to support, and perhaps even help pay for, public education efforts like New York City’s bold new ad campaign against drinking soda. At the moment, a federal campaign to discourage the consumption of sweetened soft drinks is a political nonstarter, but few things could do more to slow the rise of Type 2 diabetes among adolescents than to reduce their soda consumption, which represents 15 percent of their caloric intake.

That’s why it’s easy to imagine the industry throwing its weight behind a soda tax. School lunch reform would become its cause, too, and in time the industry would come to see that the development of regional food systems, which make fresh produce more available and reduce dependence on heavily processed food from far away, could help prevent chronic disease and reduce their costs.

Recently a team of designers from M.I.T. and Columbia was asked by the foundation of the insurer UnitedHealthcare to develop an innovative systems approach to tackling childhood obesity in America. Their conclusion surprised the designers as much as their sponsor: they determined that promoting the concept of a “foodshed” — a diversified, regional food economy — could be the key to improving the American diet.

All of which suggests that passing a health care reform bill, no matter how ambitious, is only the first step in solving our health care crisis. To keep from bankrupting ourselves, we will then have to get to work on improving our health — which means going to work on the American way of eating.

But even if we get a health care bill that does little more than require insurers to cover everyone on the same basis, it could put us on that course.

For it will force the industry, and the government, to take a good hard look at the elephant in the room and galvanize a movement to slim it down.

Americans Are Getting Poorer, and It's Going to Get Worse

Americans are getting poorer, and it's going to get worse

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The early impact of the worst recession since the 1930s pushed median incomes down, forced millions more people into poverty and left more Americans without health care in 2008, according to new annual survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Poor people, working people, blacks, Hispanics and children bore a disproportionate share of the hardship. The new figures, however, likely understate the severity of the economic downturn because a large portion of nation's job losses and unemployment rate increases occurred after the Census survey data was collected in March as part of the annual Current Population Survey.

The poor performances of key economic and social indicators come as little surprise, since the recession officially began in December 2007 and continued to create economic carnage for 18 months before appearing to bottom out over the summer.

_ Along the way, the nation's real median income — the point at which half the nation earns less and half more — fell 3.6 percent from $52,163 in 2007 to $50,303 in 2008. That was the first such decline in three years and the worst in the first year of any recession since Census Bureau began collecting the data during World War II, said Lawrence F. Katz, an economics professor at Harvard University.

_ Men and women were both affected. Full-time working men saw their median incomes fall by 1 percent from $46,846 to $46,367, while female earnings declined by 1.9 percent, from $36,451 to $35,745.

_ The worst is yet to come. "This is just the beginning, or the tip of the iceberg because 2008 was not nearly as bad an economy as 2009," Katz said. The average unemployment rate in 2008 was 5.8 percent, up from 4.6 percent in 2007. That pales in comparison with the 9 percent average unemployment rate so far this year, and it's likely to increase. August unemployment was 9.7 percent, and it's expected to peak above 10 percent in the months to come.

_ Because real median household income is 4.2 percent lower than it was in 2000, Katz said, "We've basically seen a lost decade for the American family," with only the top earning families doing better now than they were in 2000.

The national poverty rate also hit its highest level since 1997, jumping to 13.2 percent in 2008 from 12.5 percent in 2007. The increase meant that 39.8 million people lived below the poverty line, the most since 1960. That's up from 37.3 million in 2007. For children, the poverty rate hit 19 percent, or 14.1 million youngsters in 2008. That means 35.3 percent of the nation's poor in 2008 were under age 18.

Heidi Shierholz, an economist with the liberal-leaning Economic Policy Institute, estimated that 25 percent of U.S. children would be in poverty next year and 26.6 percent in 2010. "This would represent an increase of 10.4 percentage points from 2000 to 2010 — truly a lost decade," Shierholz said.

Meanwhile, the number of people without health insurance increased from 45.7 million in 2007 to 46.3 million in 2008, even though the percentage of uninsured Americans didn't change, at 15.4 percent. About 46 percent of the nation's uninsured are non-Hispanic whites, but as a group, 11 percent of non-Hispanic whites lack coverage, compared with 19 percent of blacks and 31 percent of Hispanics. About 45 percent of noncitizens lack coverage.

Following President Barack Obama's Wednesday night speech to Congress in which he stressed the need for comprehensive health care legislation, many supporters used the new Census estimates to support Obama's call for change.

At the Yorkville Common Pantry, an emergency meal program in East Harlem, Joel Berg, the executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, said the troubling numbers underscore the need for health reform.

"Today's new numbers make it clearer than ever that lack of health insurance and inability to pay medical bills is one of the greatest contributing factors to poverty and hunger in America," Berg said. "People in poor health rarely earn significant wealth."

Henry E. Simmons, President of the National Coalition on Health Care, another group pushing for reform, said the Census data also shows that more than 600,000 adults who earn more than $75,000 a year also lost coverage in 2008.

"The problem of (the uninsured) is not confined to the less affluent. More middle-income Americans are losing their health insurance coverage," Simmons said.

As in previous economic downturns, public health coverage through government-run programs such as Medicaid, Medicare, and the State Children's Health Insurance Program helped cover many people otherwise would've gone without. Enrollment in Medicaid and SCHIP alone increased by 3 million in 2008.

This expanded coverage caused the number of uninsured children to fall from 8.1 million or 11 percent in 2007 to 7.3 million of 9.9 percent in 2008.

"This was the lowest number (and percentage) of children without health insurance since 1987," said David Johnson, who heads the Census Bureau's housing and household economics statistics division.

Many experts think the 2008 data substantially understates how many people lack health coverage today because the unemployment rate in 2008 ranged from 4.8 to 7.2 percent compared with 9.7 percent in August.

Ron Pollack, the executive director of the health care advocacy group, Families USA, said every percentage point increase in the unemployment rate adds about 1.1 million people to the uninsured rolls. He estimates that 50 million Americans now lack coverage.

The real agenda behind Obama's health care "reform"

The real agenda behind Obama’s health care “reform”

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Major presidential addresses in the United States are generally characterized by a certain political schizophrenia, as the chief executive provides one message for popular consumption and another message to the ruling elite. This was certainly the case with the speech Obama gave Wednesday night on health care.

To an increasingly skeptical public, including large numbers of senior citizens concerned that their Medicare coverage will be reduced, Obama presented his proposal as a “progressive” measure aimed at expanding care to the uninsured and checking the antisocial practices of big insurers concerned with nothing but profit.

To the people who really count in Washington—the American ruling elite and their political representatives in both parties—Obama got down to business. Rising health care costs, including Medicare and Medicaid, were draining the national budget and making US corporations uncompetitive. Hundreds of billions would have to be wrung out of health care spending by reducing “waste and abuse” and introducing efficiencies, such as placing caps on what tests and treatments doctors could provide their patients.

Far from a “government takeover” that would undermine the operations of the capitalist market and the principle of for-profit medicine, Obama assured the ruling elite that his plan would not interfere with the operations of the giant health care monopolies.

Obama explicitly rejected a “single-payer system like Canada’s,” while declaring, “Health care represents one-sixth of our economy” and it “makes more sense to build on what works and fix what doesn’t, rather than try to build a entirely new system from scratch.” He also made clear that he was willing to drop support for the so-called “public option,” which is opposed by private insurers.

Wall Street and the big insurers got the message. The day after the speech, share prices for health insurers surged: UnitedHealth by 17 cents to $28.57; WellPoint by 96 cents to $53.80; Aetna by 59 cents to $29.84; and Humana by $1.12 to $39.19. The Dow Jones Industrial Average extended its five-day rally, closing at its highest level since October.

“Managed-care stocks fell last spring on their decline in profitability and Obama’s election,” the investors’ web site noted. “But each company has seen double-digit gains in the last three months as the prospects for a large government insurance program diminished. Obama’s address Wednesday didn’t change investor’s sentiment.”

Obama began his remarks by insisting that the long-term interests of American capitalism had to prevail over political maneuvering between Democrats and Republicans. He noted that the last time he had spoken before Congress, “this nation was facing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression” and “our financial system was on the verge of collapse.”

Under those conditions, partisan differences had largely been put aside and both parties closed ranks to vote for a further bailout of the banks, despite widespread popular opposition. “I want to thank the members of this body for your efforts and your support in these last several months, and especially those who have taken the difficult votes that have put us on the path to recovery.”

Reining in health care costs is no less crucial for the American ruling elite, he insisted, chiding the Republicans for using the debate “as an opportunity to score short-term political points, even if it robs the country of our opportunity to solve a long-term challenge.”

Obama spent a few moments referring to the genuine crisis facing tens of millions of families without health insurance or those who are being bankrupted by skyrocketing insurance premiums. He shifted quickly to the main theme: rising health care costs were undermining US corporations and threatening the solvency of the US government.

“Insurance premiums have gone up three times faster than wages,” he complained, adding, “American businesses that compete internationally—like our automakers—are at a huge disadvantage.”

This has long been a major complaint of corporate America. Between 1974 and 2008, real manufacturing wages fell by 5.38 percent, but big business has been unable to fully benefit from the attack on workers’ wages because of rising medical costs, particularly for workers who were living longer after retirement.

In 2005, Steve Miller, then CEO of auto parts giant Delphi, lamented that workers were no longer retiring at 65 and dying at 70, but were living and collecting health care benefits decades after they stopped making profits for corporations. (Miller, who helped lead the attack on wages and benefits of auto workers, is quoted on the front cover of a recent book on health care by Ezekiel Emanuel, one of Obama’s chief health care advisers.)

The real agenda of the Obama administration can be seen in the forced bankruptcies of General Motors and Chrysler, where hundreds of thousands of retirees and their families were stripped of their dental and optical care and forced to pay increased premiums and co-pays. The restructured corporations will be largely relieved of their “legacy” costs, i.e., the health care obligations owed to workers who labored their entire lives for these companies.

In his speech, Obama said he would impose a fee or tax on health insurance companies for “their most expensive policies,” in order to help pay for his plan. He presented this as a means by which the public could recoup some of the vast profits these companies would receive from the wave of new customers who would be compelled to buy insurance under the plan. In reality, the measure is actually an incentive for corporations to drop employer-paid benefits or sharply curtail them because the cost of the fee will be passed on to corporations in the form of higher premiums.

According to the New York Times, the proposal, originally introduced by Massachusetts Democratic Senator John Kerry, “would encourage employers to buy cheaper, less generous coverage for employees, thereby reducing excessive use of medical services.”

Moreover, under the terms of the bill being worked out by Montana Democrat Max Baucus, the chairman of the Senate finance committee, employers would not be required to cover their workers at all. Those that do not will have to pay a fee for each employee who received a tax credit for coverage bought through a health insurance exchange. The maximum assessment on employers would be equal to $400 for each employee—far below the current costs employers pay to maintain health care coverage for their workers.

Workers who choose not to (or cannot) buy insurance would be punished at a far higher rate. Under the Baucus plan, for those with incomes between 100 percent and 300 percent of the poverty level—$10,830 for an individual and $22,050 for a family of four—the penalty for not having coverage would be $750 a year per person, with a maximum penalty of $1,500 for a family.

Continuing on this central theme of cost-cutting, Obama blamed federal health care programs for bringing the country to the brink of financial collapse. “If we do nothing to slow these skyrocketing costs, we will eventually be spending more on Medicare and Medicaid than every other government program combined. Put simply, our health care problem is our deficit problem. Nothing else comes close.”

This lie was specifically endorsed by the New York Times, whose lead editorial Thursday stated, “Mr. Obama was absolutely right when he said that the relentless rise in the cost of Medicare and Medicaid is crippling the nation’s economy.”

In fact, the cost of the federal health care programs pales in comparison to the massive bailout of the banks—which the inspector general of the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) estimates could cost $23 trillion—the defense budget, including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the interest paid out to the banks profiting from the financing of the federal deficit, and the tax cuts handed over to the wealthy over the last three decades.

The president claimed that suggestions that senior citizens would see their Medicare coverage slashed were only “scare tactics” by his Republican critics. In fact, such reductions in services are at the center of the president’s plan.

Obama said he would “eliminate hundreds of billions of dollars in waste and fraud” from Medicare and Medicaid, without providing details of what would be cut. He made it clear, however, that a commission of “medical experts” would determine what the most efficient and cost-effective treatments were. This, in turn, would “usher in changes in the way we deliver health care that can reduce costs for everybody.”

The president also endorsed a so-called “deficit trigger,” which, according to the Times, would “automatically reduce the growth of Medicare spending if health care overhaul does not produce the savings that the administration and many health care experts expect.”

The details of the plan remain largely hidden from working people, while furious negotiations are being conducted behind the scenes between health care lobbyists and their bought-and-paid-for representatives in Congress.

Obama’s speech has done nothing to clarify the content of the proposals in the minds of millions of people, or to alleviate the growing unease over health care “reform.” In contrast to the push for Social Security and Medicare in an earlier period, the supposed beneficiaries of Obama’s plan have little idea what to expect. The explanation for this lies in the fact that the Obama administration is seeking to conceal its real agenda from the American population.

Throwing Bullets at Failed Policies: US Plans for New Bases in Colombia

Throwing Bullets at Failed Policies: US Plans For New Bases in Colombia

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It was a winter day in the Argentine city of Bariloche when 12 South American presidents gathered there on August 28. It was so cold that Hugo Chavez wore a red scarf and Evo Morales put on a sweater. The presidents arrived at the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) meeting to discuss a US plan to establish seven new military bases in Colombia. Though officials in Colombia and the US say the bases would be aimed at combating terrorism and the drug trade, US military and air force documents point to other objectives.

Earlier his year, when Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa decided to not renew the US lease on the military base in Manta, Ecuador, the US set its sights on Colombia, a long-time US ally and one of the biggest recipients of US military aid in the world. Under the agreement the US eventually developed with Colombia, the US would have access to seven military bases for 10 years, stationing up to 1,400 US personnel and private contractors.

One US military document cited by the AP explains that the Palenquero base in Colombia - which the US plans transform with a $46 million upgrade - would be a stopping off point for the US military and air force so that "nearly half the continent can be covered by a C-17 (military transport) without refueling."

Uruguayan analyst Raul Zibechi writes in an article for the Americas Program that the US is shifting away from large, immobile bases to more a more flexible model involving smaller bases. He cites the U.S. Air Force's April
2009 report entitled "Global en Route Strategy" which "refers to the ability to utilize these installations above all for air transport, making it possible to have control from a distance and act as a dissuasive force, leaving direct intervention only for exceptionally critical situations." The cooperation of local governments is a key aspect of this plan. Zibechi writes, "This ongoing cooperation is much more important than direct military presence, as current military technology allows troops to concentrate in any given area within a matter of hours."

Considering the regional implications of the expanded US presence, the presidents at the Bariloche meeting agreed that UNASUR countries will "abstain from resorting to the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity" of other South American countries, and planned to investigate the military bases agreement further.

Yet what many of the region's presidents already know is that increased US militarization is unlikely to curb violence in Colombia because the biggest perpetrators of violence in the country are already allies of the US, largely through the multi-billion dollar Plan Colombia.

"The largest number of killings of civilians each year in Colombia is not committed by the guerrillas," Latin American political analyst John Lindsay Poland writes in the Americas Program. "A large majority of Colombia's 4.7 million internally displaced people were forced from their homes by paramilitary violence, with more than 11 million acres of land violently stolen. The increased U.S. military presence won't contribute anything to returning those lands to their rightful owners, nor to holding the Colombian Army accountable for more than 1,700 civilian killings committed since 2002."

US soldiers in Colombia also reportedly committed 37 acts of sexual abuse from 2006 to 2007. Poland writes, "A U.S. soldier and contractor reportedly raped a 12-year-old Colombian girl inside the Tolemaida military base in 2006, dumping her outside the gates in the morning." The two rapists remain free and are back in the US without facing charges.

An increased US military presence in a failed war on drugs is also unlikely to curtail narco-trafficking, as pointed out by President Morales at the meeting in Bariloche. Morales spoke of his experiences as a coca grower and union leader facing the brunt of US militarization. "I witness this," he said, when describing repression. "So now we're narcoterrorists. When they couldn't call us communists anymore, they called us subversives, and then traffickers, and since the September 11 attacks, terrorists," Morales said.
"The history of Latin America repeats itself."

Many analysts see the plans for these bases as an indication that Washington is not interested in changing its disastrous policies in the war on drugs. "This agreement is made within a framework of anti-drug policy that is overwhelmingly seen as a failure," Michael Shifter of The Inter-American Dialogue told NPR. "Is there a better way to fight drugs without just continuing the same policy that hasn't produced very much for decades?"

Morales said the root of the drug problem lies in the US, not in South America. "If UNASUR sent troops to the United States to control consumption, would they accept it? Impossible!"

U.S. poverty rate hits 11-year high as recession bites

U.S. poverty rate hits 11-year high

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The U.S. poverty rate hit its highest level in 11 years in 2008 as the worst recession since the Great Depression threw millions of Americans out of work, a government report showed on Thursday.

The Census Bureau said the poverty rate -- the percentage of people living in poverty -- jumped to 13.2 percent, the highest level since 1997, from 12.5 percent in 2007.

About 39.8 million Americans were living in poverty, up from 37.3 million in 2007.

Despite signs the economy was showing signs of crawling out the slump that started in December 2007, the poverty rate would rise gain this year and beyond 2010 as unemployment would stay elevated for a while, analysts and the government warned.

"Unfortunately, even with an improving economy, the higher unemployment rates during 2009 will almost surely lead to further declines in income and further increases in poverty," Rebecca Blank, Undersecretary for Economic Affairs at the Commerce Department told Senate's Joint Economic Committee.

The government defines poverty as an annual income of $22,025 for a family of four, $17,163 for a family of three and $14,051 for a family of two.

With unemployment rising, real median household income fell 3.6 percent to $50,303 in 2008, a 10-year low. The percentage decline was the biggest annual drop since 1991 and snapped a three year streak of annual income increases.

The longest and deepest recession in 70 years has been marked by escalating unemployment as companies aggressively cut payrolls to cope with slumping demand. The unemployment rate was at 7.2 percent at the end of last year.

As of August, the unemployment rate was at 9.7 percent, the highest in 26 years, and is expected to peak just above 10 percent early next year. Almost 7 million people had lost their jobs since the start of the recession.


"The poverty rate will not fall back to the 2007 rate until the economy expands enough that the unemployment rate falls back below 5 percent. This is not likely to happen for several years," said Sheldon Danziger, a Russell Sage Foundation fellow and professor at the University of Michigan.

"Government policies must stay focused on helping those among the poor and near-poor who have been left behind by economic growth in recent years."

The Census Bureau also said 46.3 million Americans were without health insurance last year compared to 45.7 million in 2007. The numbers could feature in arguments over President Barack Obama's plans to overhaul the U.S. healthcare system and dramatically expand medical insurance coverage.

The family poverty rate rose to 10.3 percent last year and 8.1 million families were classified as poor, the Bureau said, compared to 9.8 percent and 7.6 million respectively in 2007.

Analysts said rising poverty underscored the need for the government to strengthen its safety net, which many argue is inadequate.

"Unemployment insurance will need to be extended beyond the provisions in this year's recovery legislation," said Harry Holzer, professor of public policy at Georgetown University in Washington.

"For low-income and part-time workers ineligible for unemployment insurance, other forms of cash assistance and perhaps community service jobs will need to be provided," said Henry Holzer, a professor of public policy at Georgetown University in Washington.

Poverty was higher among blacks and Hispanics, the report showed. About 14.1 million children under the age of 18 lived in poverty last year, up from 13.3 million in 2007.

"We project that with the continuing deterioration in the labor market, by 2009 a quarter of all children in this country will be living in poverty," said Heidi Shierholz, a labor market economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington.

Foreclosure Crisis Built on Racial Injustice

Foreclosure Crisis Built on Racial Injustice

The recession has resulted from, and contributed to, America's racial divide.

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Last week, CNN reported that Obama's foreclosure prevention plan--the one that was supposed to keep millions of Americans in their homes by giving banks incentives to refinance mortgages--has not worked. In fact, just six percent of eligible households have received assistance.

The impact of this failure is catastrophic, as millions of homeowners continue to slide into foreclosure. People of color have been hit hardest by the crisis, facing disproportionate rates of foreclosure as well as higher levels of unemployment. The recession has deepened the racial divide.

This is why it seemed odd to many when Federal Reserve Chair Ben S. Bernanke met with world bankers and collectively declared the global economy to be back on track to normal. As long as we fail to address the struggles of working people and ignore the structures of racial inequity that helped push us all into recession, we will find that a return to normal will mean very little.

Earlier this year, I traveled the country from Michigan to Arizona, Rhode Island to Washington, researching race and the recession. Near Detroit, I met Leila*, who recently lost her job as a teacher's assistant and supports her four children alone.

She was laid off late last year because of state budget cuts. Her unemployment benefit ran out and she applied for government cash assistance. A month later, her welfare checks were also cut off and she was suddenly without any income.

Leila fell behind on her mortgage payments on the house she had just moved into. She realizes now she was sold an adjustable rate subprime loan. Her house went into foreclosure. Without any other wealth to fall back on, she's not sure what will happen.

Because people of color were disproportionately saddled with predatory loans, neighborhoods of color bear the brunt of foreclosures. Black, Latino, Asian and American-Indian families have been stripped of much of the wealth they had carefully accumulated over the years. The impact of these losses will last for generations.

That people of color face higher rates of foreclosure is no coincidence. Until the 1970s, communities of color were broadly excluded from owning homes as a result of racial "redlining" practices and racially restrictive neighborhood agreements. Then Congress passed the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) to end discrimination in lending. Suddenly redlining and racial exclusion were made illegal and people of color slowly began to access prime loans.

But in the late 1990s, Congress deregulated the mortgage industry along with Wall Street, opening the space for industry to circumvent the CRA. These were the same anti-regulatory maneuvers that made subprime securitization possible.

As the CRA was weakened and incentives to sell subprime loans grew, neighborhoods of color provided fertile ground for the sale of these faulty products. Since communities like Leila's were largely devoid of prime lenders as a result of redlining, there was little competition and the credit vacuum created conditions for the predatory sale of high-cost loans to communities of color.

The streets of central Brooklyn and Detroit filled with predatory lenders and millions of these mortgages were sold. They ultimately burst, flooding the economy with toxic assets and submerging all of us in an economic storm.

In other words, the economic crisis is built on the country's long history of racial discrimination.

Recovery must prevent families from suffering the recession's worst results and lay a new foundation to avoid the kinds of unjust structures that put us all in this mess. Only by tackling racial inequity in the economy can we ensure a stable and just recovery.

An immediate halt on foreclosures is necessary, as is modernization of the Community Reinvestment Act. Government must mandate banks to renegotiate mortgages to less than 30 percent of income and lawmakers should pass legislation allowing those facing foreclosure to rent their homes from the bank.

Fixing the broken healthcare system, which is responsible for more than half of personal bankruptcies and has pushed scores into foreclosure, ought to have happened months ago.

Meanwhile, unemployment is at a 26-year high, and it's always much higher for people of color. Stimulus job creation money should be targeted to communities of color, where joblessness is literally killing people. In all this, racial impact assessments must be conducted to ensure we're building an equitable economy.

Recovery will not mean much if we return to the "normal" economy. Let's demand an economy that is good for all of us.

Camp Runamuck: A Providence Homeless Community

Camp Runamuck: A Glimpse of the East Providence Homeless Community

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Katie, who is 19 and unemployed, and her boyfriend have lived in Camp Runamuck for a month and are hoping for a spot in a couples' shelter or to qualify for Section 8 housing. (Photo: John Mottern)

Barbara Kalil and her husband John Freitas co-founded Camp Runamuck in late March 2009, after being forced to leave their campsite in the Roger Williams State Park in Providence, Rhode Island. The plaque above their home read "Shelter for Persons in Distress." The irony came as a slap in the face to this unemployed nurse.

"The park ranger was really great to us, but one day the Preservation Committee found us while on a tour and were horrified to see our tent," Kalil said. "We had to leave because we didn't want the ranger to get in trouble."

Now Kalil and Freitas live under a bridge with about 25 other homeless people, all residing in an assortment of tents, many covered with tarps for added protection. This makeshift village is located under a cathedral-like series of immense cement arches and pillars of the Washington Bridge, which is part of highway 195 in East Providence.

Also see below:
John Mottern | Camp Runamuck: A Photo Essay

Kalil, who appears to be in her late forties, lives in a tent very close to the Seekonk River. She glides slowly back and forth in her rocking chair flanked by several pink flamingos and other lawn ordainments. The pink sharply contrasts her blue nurse's pants, scrubs left over from the job she lost before becoming homeless. The walls of the bridge are covered with graffiti art depicting castles with armies, large faces and quotes. The place feels like a contemporary art gallery that you might stumble across down a side street in Chelsea.

"This is much better than the shelters, which are unclean and unsafe," Kalil says. This sentiment was shared by many in the tent city.

"It's getting more difficult because people are bringing less donations and they are scared to come down here after the stabbing incident a few weeks ago," she says. "Churches seem to bring less because they're under pressure from the community (at large) not to help us."

This odd collection of people, living on the fringe, have chosen to take their chances as a loose clan operating with few rules. There seems to be a level of security gained by the power in numbers and the watchful eyes of the overall group.

"It's simple. We take care of each other." says Kalil.

Katie is 19 and would only give her first name. She wears a bright-colored t-shirt and a mini skirt that would make any teen's father crazy. Her tattooed belly and pierced lip are strangely elegant. She is a pretty girl who lives in Camp Runamuck with her boyfriend.

"I'll never be a materialistic person again in my life. I will not be greedy," she says. "You can put 100 people together, blacks and whites, gays, drug addicts who are completely different, but we all get along because we're stuck in the same position. We all get bit by bugs."

The inside of Katie's tent is clean and organized. A single condom lies on the shelf next to a prescription bottle.

"I've never had to wash my clothes by hand," she says. Katie is hoping for a spot in a couples' shelter or to qualify for Section 8 housing. She pointed out that there are 59,000 homeless people in Rhode Island. "I'm looking for a job but you have to have an address to get one. What am I going to say? I live in a tent."

Ed Therrien, who is unemployed and a resident, is also the unofficial cook for the camp. He runs the outdoor kitchen which sits at the far end of the camp, and like any other restaurateur his work is never done. There is a disjointed collection of canned and dried food stuffs, bottles, pots and pans gathered at the cement base of one of the giant bridge pillars that rises about eighty of feet in the air. There are a variety of barbeque grills, coolers, and tables used for food preparation under the grand canopy of cement. It is awe-inspiring architecture, giving the place a holy and surprisingly calm effect. A large American flag is starkly taped on the pillar in the center of the kitchen area.

Therrien says he learned to cook from his grandmother at age 13 while she was working in a restaurant. He makes sure there is breakfast and dinner for the full population every day, using mostly donated supplies.

"The Board of Health came and checked us out and said that since we had a dumpster, everything was fine with our kitchen," Therrien says. "It was great because the donated dumpster, which is now emptied every week, arrived at the same time The Board of Health people showed up."

Needless to say, there is no running water or electricity, water always being in short supply.

"We always need ice, water, charcoal, and food supplies," Therrien says. He'd previously lived with his daughter in a situation verging on impossible. He moved to Camp Runamuck after losing his job in May.

Bruce Yeoman and Wayne Strobel have lived together in a small dome tent in Camp Runamuck for two months. They are battling substance abuse and are more typical of stereotypical "homeless people."

"I brought this on myself with alcohol," says Yeoman. "I either sleep or drink. I say tomorrow is not another day ... but we have each other's back, Wayne and I. The shelters are dirty and dangerous and they are always telling you what to do."

"I found Bruce sleeping in the woods before we came here," Strobel says. "This is much better and we got each other."

Yeoman then describes how direct, aggressive behavior keeps him safe. He demonstrates by pushing his body and face against me, inadvertently letting me inhale a stale whiskey gale generated from the previous night's adventures.

Although Camp Runamuck is represented by an attorney donating legal services, its residents are supposed to leave the state-owned property by September 8 through court order. This will mark the closure of the last of three tent cities in the Providence area which have already been hauled away in dumpsters.

There was talk of moving the camp to reservation land claimed by the Seaconke Wampanoag Tribe in Cumberland, Rhode Island, but the area is a superfund site which has raised legal and health issues.

The diversity of Camp Runamuck illustrates the impact current economic times are having on those living to close to the edge in America. Young and old, blue collar workers and professionals - all are appearing in greater numbers in these tent cities after losing jobs and homes.

"Homeless" no longer refers to mostly alcoholics, drug addicts and the mentally ill. It now includes many whose options have just plain run out.

Profiting on death

Profiting on death

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Investment banks are planning ways to bet on the life and death of individuals with life insurance policies, as described in an article published in the New York Times on Sunday.

“The bankers plan to buy ‘life settlements,’ life insurance policies that ill and elderly people sell for cash—$400,000 for a $1 million policy, say, depending on the life expectancy of the insured person,” Times correspondent Jenny Anderson reports. “Then they plan to ‘securitize’ these policies, in Wall Street jargon, by packaging hundreds or thousands together into bonds,” to be sold to investors.

Investors will continue to pay out the premiums on the insurance and will collect the payout when the person dies. “The earlier the policyholder dies, the bigger the return.” In the example given, if the insurance is for $1 million, it is sold for $400,000, and an investor pays out $100,000 in premiums before the individual dies, the resultant profit will come to half a million dollars.

Of course, the great danger for an investor would be a sharp rise in life expectancy for a particular section of the population. “A bond made up of life settlements would ideally have policies from people with a range of diseases—leukemia, lung cancer, heart disease, breast cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s,” the Times notes, to safeguard against the danger of a cure for any one of these.

The process of buying and selling the life insurance of other people already exists (BusinessWeek ran a story in 2007 under the headline, “Death Bonds”), but “securitizing” these policies to make investment easy is still in its infancy. Yet the Times reports great interest in the possibility. “Our phones have been ringing off the hook,” one rating agent is quoted as saying. “We’re hoping to get a herd stampeding after the first offering,” said an investment banker. Credit Suisse and Goldman Sachs are among the banks taking an interest in the new venture.

The Times notes that the market could reach $500 billion, which “would help Wall Street offset the loss of revenue from the collapse of the United States residential mortgage securities market…”

There are several reasons to believe that a new life insurance securitization market—one wit dubbed the resulting securities, "collateralized death obligations"—could be very profitable.

First, with the desperate financial situation facing millions of people, there will inevitably be a large pool of poor or elderly workers who find themselves unable to pay their insurance premiums. They may also be in need of immediate cash to fund mortgage payments, medical expenses or other necessities for themselves or their relatives. As the economic crisis deepens, the willingness of individuals to part with their insurance policies at a low price will increase.

Second, investors will be essentially betting that individuals on average will be dying sooner than anticipated by insurance companies who originally devised the policies—that is, they will be betting that the curve of life expectancy in the population will dip.

Life expectancy in the United States has already begun to stagnate in recent years, particularly in rural areas. While life expectancy grew slightly in 2007, the last year for which numbers are available, this was before the onset of the economic crisis.

The most significant impact of the economic crisis will be a massive lowering in the living standards of the American people. Wages and benefits are being permanently lowered. The ability of sections of the working class to maintain a higher standard of living through debt backed by high housing prices has evaporated, and other forms of credit are also drying up. All of this will inevitably lead to workers dying on average earlier.

Finally, investors anticipate major cuts in health care spending as the outcome of Obama’s “reform” initiatives. After handing out trillions of dollars to the banks, the American ruling class is looking to cut social spending, particularly from Medicare and Medicaid.

As Obama declared in June, “The cost of our health care is a threat to our economy. It is an escalating burden on our families and our businesses. It’s a ticking time-bomb for the federal budget. And it is unsustainable for the United States.” Behind all the talk of “health care efficiency” and “unnecessary tests,” investors are well aware that the principal means of cutting costs is to cut services. The various proposals in Congress have focused in particular on containing the growth in Medicare spending. Government-provided health programs, including Medicare, have been one of the principal spurs for the growth of life expectancy during the 20th century.

The interest in “death bonds,” besides its uniquely morbid significance, is symptomatic of a more general phenomenon: the parasitism of the ruling class. One could hardly imagine a more picturesque example of Marx’s description of the social character of a ruling class that gets rich, “not by production, but by pocketing the already available wealth of others.”

The present global economic crisis is intimately linked to the rise in power of a financial aristocracy that has accumulated its massive fortunes from processes ever more divorced from the production of real value. The growth of the speculative bubble in subprime mortgage backed securities was itself based on the attempt to suck up wealth from those least able to afford it.

The race to develop life insurance securities is only the latest, and by no means the last, gambling racket along these lines.

Government policies over the past year—under both Bush and Obama—have not only failed to limit the dominance of the financial aristocracy, they have in fact strengthened it. The largest banks have increased their monopoly over American finance, and the top executives and traders are anticipating record bonuses this year.

That the financial sector has been recalled to life even as the conditions for the working class deteriorate, even as millions of people are thrown out of their homes and jobs, as schools are shut down and social programs cut, is not accidental; the two processes are directly related.

That they should create a security to formalize this parasitic relationship is only natural.