Thursday, December 3, 2009

Oppose Obama’s escalation of the Afghan-Pakistan war! Withdraw all troops now!

Oppose Obama’s escalation of the Afghan-Pakistan war! Withdraw all troops now!

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Obama’s speech last night, which packaged the deployment of an additional 30,000 US troops to Afghanistan as the prelude to withdrawal, was a cynical exercise in evasion, double-talk and falsification.

The new deployment is a major escalation of an unpopular war that will lead to the deaths of countless thousands of Afghans and Pakistanis and a significant rise in US casualties. Indeed, many of the West Point cadets who were assembled to listen to the president’s speech will be sent to Afghanistan to fight in a war that the majority of Americans oppose.

Obama’s invocation of the attacks of September 11, 2001 to portray the war as a defense against terrorism is a fraud. The real reason for the occupation of Afghanistan—widely discussed within the foreign policy establishment—is to maintain a dominant position in oil-rich Central Asia in the interests of the global strategy of American imperialism.

This month marks the 30th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which then-president Jimmy Carter denounced as an illegal act of international aggression. What was not widely known at the time is that the US deliberately provoked Moscow to undertake its military adventure by financing and arming Mujahedeen guerrillas opposed to the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. Among those on the CIA payroll were Osama bin Laden and current leaders of the Taliban.

The result of this imperialist policy, authored by then-national security adviser and current foreign policy adviser to Obama, Zbigniew Brzezinski, has been three decades of war, civil war and social devastation. The Obama administration is intensifying this colonialist enterprise.

No credibility can be given to Obama’s talk of beginning the withdrawal of troops in July of 2011. This supposed timeline was hedged by references to “conditions on the ground.” Moreover, it was followed by statements to the effect that the war in Afghanistan is only one of many military interventions to come.

“The struggle against violent extremism will not be finished quickly,” Obama said, “and it extends well beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan.” Calling this struggle an “enduring test,” Obama went on to speak of “disorderly regions and diffuse enemies,” mentioning by name Somalia and Yemen.

In reality, the US colonial enterprise in Central Asia is open-ended. The Washington Post on Monday cited a US official as saying, “Our game is to convince them [the Pakistani military] that our commitment to Afghanistan and the region is long-term. We’re not going to pack up our bags and leave them as soon as we’re done.”

Far from Obama’s escalation hastening an end to the war, it creates the conditions for new and even greater military conflagrations. The injection of additional troops will further inflame tensions in the region and beyond—between Pakistan and India, India and China, Iran and the US, Russia and China and the US.

Perhaps the biggest lie is the claim that the war is being waged to protect the Afghan people. They overwhelmingly oppose the US-led foreign occupation.

Obama’s decision means that 2010 will be a year of increased death and destruction in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. A central focus of the new US deployment is to “lock down” Kandahar, a center of insurgent opposition to the US-NATO occupation. This can only mean a drive to terrorize the local population and kill as many insurgents and ordinary Afghans suspected of sympathizing with the resistance as possible.

At the same time, the US is threatening to launch ground operations on Pakistani soil, in addition to the drone missile attacks that are killing hundreds of Pakistani civilians. The Washington Post, reporting Monday on the recent visit to Islamabad by Obama’s national security adviser, retired Marine General James L. Jones, cited an American official as saying, “If Pakistan cannot deliver, he [Jones] warned, the United States may be impelled to use any means at its disposal to rout insurgents based along Pakistan’s western and southern borders with Afghanistan.”

The cost to the peoples of Central Asia is incalculable. The American people are to pay for the war policy of the US ruling elite with the loss of thousands more lives, the squandering of trillions in resources, unprecedented attacks on social services, and the further erosion of democratic rights.

The most glaring contradiction in a speech shot through with contradictions was Obama’s attempt to disentangle the war in Afghanistan from the war in Iraq. “I opposed the war in Iraq,” he said, “precisely because I believe that we must exercise restraint in the use of military force …” But he was unable to establish any essential difference between that criminal enterprise and his war in Afghanistan.

Obama’s escalation is yet another flagrant violation of the will of the American people. In one election after another, they have gone to the polls to express their hostility to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In every case, their will has been ignored and the wars have been expanded.

Obama won the presidency by running as an opponent of the Iraq war and appealing to popular opposition to militarism. Once in office, he quickly increased the US deployment in Afghanistan by 21,000, while reneging on his promise to carry out a rapid withdrawal from Iraq. Now he is increasing the total US troop level in Afghanistan to 100,000, more than double the level under Bush.

As with his pro-Wall Street economic policy and his assault on democratic rights, Obama, in his military and foreign policy, is continuing and deepening the reactionary program of Bush. The decision to expand the war in Central Asia is a devastating exposure of the entire US political system. Both parties and Congress are instruments of a ruling financial aristocracy, whose interests they defend in opposition to the needs and views of the working class, the vast majority of the population.

Of immense significance is the international line-up of imperialist powers behind the US-led war. The participation of Britain, Germany, France and other powers in the war constitutes an international onslaught aimed at subordinating the entire region to imperialist interests. Every one of these governments is acting in defiance of the antiwar sentiments of its population.

This underscores that the fight against war requires an international struggle of the working class against world imperialism and the capitalist system, which is the root cause of war.

Obama’s speech on Afghanistan: A compendium of lies

Obama’s speech on Afghanistan: A compendium of lies

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In his December 1 speech at West Point announcing the deployment of 30,000 more US troops to Afghanistan, President Barack Obama attempted to justify a major escalation of a deeply unpopular war on the basis of lies and distortions. That he had to resort to such falsifications reflects both the reactionary character of his policy and the fact that it is being imposed in violation of the popular will.

To justify the escalation, Obama recycled the Bush administration’s myths about the “war on terror.” He cynically presented the US as an altruistic power, forced into a global war for democracy by the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

As he sought to frame US imperialist policy within the template of the “war on terror,” however, his speech descended into utter incoherence.

Obama’s account of the US’ recent wars contradicted his own assertion that Washington was single-mindedly pursuing Al Qaeda. In 2001, he said, the US attacked Afghanistan to destroy Al Qaeda—though most of the September 11 hijackers were, in fact, from Saudi Arabia, the US’ major Arab ally in the Middle East.

The US invasion was legitimate, he argued, because Afghanistan was Al Qaeda’s base of operations and the Taliban regime harbored and protected the terrorist group.

Obama brushed over the failure of the US invasion to dismantle Al Qaeda by saying that “after escaping across the border into Pakistan in 2001 and 2002, Al Qaeda’s leadership established a safe haven there.”

Thus, from 2002 to 2009, the US pursued wars in Iraq and Afghanistan supposedly directed against Al Qaeda, while the latter was based in another country altogether—Pakistan, a long-standing US ally.

Obama even suggested that Al Qaeda enjoys the protection of sections of the Pakistani state, declaring, “[T]here have been those in Pakistan who have argued that the struggle against extremism is not their fight, and that Pakistan is better off doing little, or seeking accommodation with those who use violence.”

This account raises an obvious and unexplained double standard. If the security of the American people required the US to invade Afghanistan and remove an Al Qaeda-friendly regime there, why shouldn’t the same apply to the government of Pakistan?

Instead, Obama hailed Pakistan as an ally in the struggle against “violent extremism” and called for a US-Pakistan partnership based on “mutual trust.”

This only demonstrates the fraudulent character of the official rationale for the war, which Obama and the rest of the US political establishment know to be a tissue of lies.

Then there is the question of the Afghan government in whose defense the US is supposedly waging war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. While initially praising the regime of President Hamid Karzai as a “legitimate government,” Obama went on to acknowledge that it suffers from “corruption, the drug trade, an underdeveloped economy, and insufficient security forces.”

In a display of utter cynicism, he claimed that Karzai’s recent reelection, universally recognized as the outcome of fraud and ballot-stuffing, had nevertheless produced a legitimate government. “Although it was marred by fraud,” Obama said, “that election produced a government that is consistent with Afghanistan’s laws and Constitution.”

Obama’s attempts to give noble-sounding reasons for deploying 30,000 more US troops were as sinister as they were self-contradictory. In Orwellian style, he told the Afghan people, who have already suffered US occupation for eight years, “We have no interest in occupying your country.”

He contrasted the US’ allegedly benevolent attitude towards Afghanistan with the Soviet invasion of the country in 1979-1989. In fact, the US has manipulated Afghan politics for 30 years.

Beginning in 1979, the US financed and backed Islamic fundamentalist resistance to the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul, with the aim of provoking a Soviet invasion. Thus the US was politically complicit in millions of Afghan deaths during the Soviet occupation and the civil war that followed. The Islamist forces Washington is fighting today in Afghanistan largely descend from groups it supported against the Soviets in the 1980s.

Amid wars that have cost over a million lives and have involved the widespread use of torture at US-run prisons, Obama insisted that US policy will “tend to the light of freedom, and justice, and opportunity, and respect for the dignity of all peoples.”

Obama boasted of having ended torture—an empty and false claim belied by reports of ongoing torture at US prisons in Afghanistan and elsewhere, as well as Obama’s continuation of rendition and his opposition to any investigation of government officials who ordered and oversaw the use of torture.

He reiterated his pledge to close Guantanamo, but was silent on his insistence that US torture prisons in Afghanistan, such as at the Bagram military base, remain open.

The central lie in Obama’s speech, however, was the claim that his escalation plans would allow US troops to return quickly from Afghanistan, starting in 2011.

In fact, as Obama indicated elsewhere in his speech, this escalation is one step in plans for even broader wars. “The struggle against violent extremism will not be finished quickly,” he said, “and it extends well beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan.” Mentioning Somalia and Yemen as potential targets, he added, “our effort will involve disorderly regions and diffuse enemies.”

The inclusion of this passage made clear that Obama was basing his Afghan policy on a report issued last month by Anthony Cordesman of the influential Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

Cordesman wrote: “The President must be frank about the fact that any form of victory in Afghanistan and Pakistan will be part of a much wider and longer struggle. He must make it clear that the ideological, demographic, governance, economic, and other pressures that divide the Islamic world mean the world will face threats in many other nations that will endure indefinitely into the future. He should mention the risks in Yemen and Somalia, make it clear that the Iraq war is not over, and warn that we will still face both a domestic threat and a combination of insurgency and terrorism that will continue to extend from Morocco to the Philippines, and from Central Asia deep into Africa, regardless of how well we do in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

He added: “…the present level of US, allied, Afghan and Pakistani casualties will almost certainly double and probably more than triple before something approaching victory is won.”

In short, the US will be fighting immensely costly wars over a considerable portion of the earth’s surface, in regions stretching thousands of miles in every direction.

Reduced to its essentials, the perspective of Obama and his advisors is a future of endless war to maintain the US’ position as the global hegemon. Beyond the questions of controlling oil revenues and trade routes in the Middle East and Central Asia, what is at stake is the US’ position as a world power. Like the British withdrawal from Suez in 1956-1957, a forced US withdrawal from Afghanistan would be a devastating blow to Washington’s prestige.

Obama’s Afghan policy arises from this dynamic of US imperialism: Since retreat at any point threatens catastrophe, he chooses ever-expanding escalation.

Why is the Largest Military Machine on the Planet Unable to Defeat the Resistance in Afghanistan

Why is the Largest Military Machine on the Planet Unable to Defeat the Resistance in Afghanistan

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Just how powerful is the U.S. military today?

Why is the largest military machine on the planet unable to defeat the resistance in Afghanistan , in a war that has lasted longer than World War II or Vietnam ?

Afghanistan ranks among the poorest and most underdeveloped countries in the world today. It has one of the shortest life expectancy rates, highest infant mortality rates and lowest rates of literacy.

The total U.S. military budget has more than doubled from the beginning of this war in 2001 to the $680 billion budget signed by President Barack Obama Oct. 28. The U.S. military budget today is larger than the military budgets of the rest of the world combined. The U.S. arsenal has the most advanced high-tech weapons.

The funds and troop commitment to Afghanistan have grown with every year of occupation. Last January another 20,000 troops were sent; now there is intense pressure on President Obama to add an additional 40,000 troops. But that is only the tip of the iceberg. More than three times as many forces are currently in Afghanistan when NATO forces and military contractors are counted.

Eight years ago, after an initial massive air bombardment and a quick, brutal invasion, every voice in the media was effusive with assurances that Afghanistan would be quickly transformed and modernized, and the women of Afghanistan liberated. There were assurances of schools, roads, potable water, health care, thriving industry and Western-style “democracy.” A new Marshall Plan was in store.

Was it only due to racist and callous disregard that none of this happened?

In Iraq , how could conditions be worse than during the 13 years of starvation sanctions the U.S. imposed after the 1991 war? Today more than a third of the population has died, is disabled, internally displaced and/or refugees. Fear, violence against women and sectarian divisions have shredded the fabric of society.

Previously a broad current in Pakistan looked to the West for development funds and modernization. Now they are embittered and outraged at U.S. arrogance after whole provinces were forcibly evacuated and bombarded in the hunt for Al Qaeda.

U.S. occupation forces are actually incapable of carrying out a modernization program. They are capable only of massive destruction, daily insults and atrocities. That is why the U.S. is unable to win “hearts and minds” in Afghanistan or Iraq . That is what fuels the resistance.

Today every effort meant to demonstrate the power and strength of U.S. imperialism instead confirms its growing weakness and its systemic inability to be a force for human progress on any level.

Collaborators and warlords

Part of U.S. imperialism’s problem is that its occupation forces are required to rely on the most corrupt, venal and discredited warlords. The only interest these competing military thugs have is in pocketing funds for reconstruction and development. Entire government ministries, their payrolls and their projects have been found to be total fiction. Billions allocated for schools, water and road construction have gone directly into the warlords’ pockets. Hundreds of news articles, congressional inquiries and U.N. reports have exposed just how all-pervasive corruption is.

In Iraq the U.S. occupation depends on the same type of corrupt collaborators. For example, a BBC investigation reported that $23 billion had been lost, stolen or “not properly accounted for” in Iraq . A U.S. gag order prevented discussion of the allegations. (June 10, 2008)

Part of the BBC search for the missing billions focused on Hazem Shalaan, who lived in London until he was appointed minister of defense in 2004. He and his associates siphoned an estimated $1.2 billion out of the Iraqi defense ministry.

But the deeper and more intractable problem is not the local corrupt collaborators. It is the very structure of the Pentagon and the U.S. government. It is a problem that Stanley McChrystal, the commanding general in Afghanistan , or President Obama cannot change or solve.

It is the problem of an imperialist military built solely to serve the profit system.

Contractor industrial complex

All U.S. aid, both military and what is labeled “civilian,” is funneled through thousands and thousands of contractors, subcontractors and sub-subcontractors. None of these U.S. corporate middlemen are even slightly interested in the development of Afghanistan or Iraq . Their only immediate aim is to turn a hefty superprofit as quickly as possible, with as much skim and double billing as possible. For a fee they will provide everything from hired guns, such as Blackwater mercenaries, to food service workers, mechanics, maintenance workers and long-distance truck drivers.

These hired hands also do jobs not connected to servicing the occupation. All reconstruction and infrastructure projects of water purification, sewage treatment, electrical generation, health clinics and road clearance are parceled out piecemeal. Whether these projects ever open or function properly is of little interest or concern. Billing is all that counts.

In past wars, most of these jobs were carried out by the U.S. military. The ratio of contractors to active-duty troops is now more than 1-to-1 in both Iraq and Afghanistan . During the Vietnam War it was 1-to-6.

In 2007 the Associated Press put the number in Iraq alone at 180,000: “The United States has assembled an imposing industrial army in Iraq that’s larger than its uniformed fighting force and is responsible for such a broad swath of responsibilities that the military might not be able to operate without its private-sector partners.” (Sept. 20, 2007)

The total was 190,000 by August 2008. (Christian Science Monitor, Aug. 18, 2008)

Some corporations have become synonymous with war profiteering, such as Halliburton, Bechtel and Blackwater in Iraq , and Louis Berger Group, BearingPoint and DynCorp International in Afghanistan .

Every part of the U.S. occupation has been contracted out at the highest rate of profit, with no coordination, no oversight, almost no public bids. Few of the desperately needed supplies reach the dislocated population traumatized by the occupation.

There are now so many pigs at the trough that U.S. forces are no longer able to carry out the broader policy objectives of the U.S. ruling class. The U.S military has even lost count, by tens of thousands, of the numbers of contractors, where they are or what they are doing—except being paid.

Losing count of the mercenaries

The danger of an empire becoming dependent on mercenary forces to fight unpopular wars has been understood since the days of the Roman Empire 2,000 years ago.

A bipartisan Congressional Commission on Wartime Contracting was created last year to examine government contracting for reconstruction, logistics and security operations and to recommend reforms. However, Michael Thibault, co-chair of the commission, explained at a Nov. 2 hearing that “there is no single source for a clear, complete and accurate picture of contractor numbers, locations, contracts and cost.” (AFP, Nov. 2)

“[Thibault said] the Pentagon in April counted about 160,000 contractors mainly in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait, but Central Command recorded more than 242,000 contractors a month earlier.” The stunning difference of 82,000 contractors was based on very different counts in Afghanistan . The difference alone is far greater than the 60,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan .

Thibault continued: “How can contractors be properly managed if we aren’t sure how many there are, where they are and what are they doing?” The lack of an accurate count “invites waste, fraud and abuse of taxpayer money and undermines the achievement of U.S. mission objectives.” The Nov. 2 Federal Times reported that Tibault also asked: “How can we assure taxpayers that they aren’t paying for ‘ghost’ employees?”

This has become an unsolvable contradiction in imperialist wars for profit, markets and imperialist domination. Bourgeois academics, think tanks and policy analysts are becoming increasingly concerned.

Thomas Friedman, syndicated columnist and multimillionaire who is deeply committed to the long-term interests of U.S. imperialism, describes the dangers of a “contractor-industrial-complex in Washington that has an economic interest in foreign expeditions.” (New York Times, Nov. 3)

Outsourcing war

Friedman hastens to explain that he is not against outsourcing. His concern is the pattern of outsourcing key tasks, with money and instructions changing hands multiple times in a foreign country. That only invites abuse and corruption. Friedman quoted Allison Stanger, author of “One Nation Under Contract: The Outsourcing of American Power and the Future of Foreign Policy,” who told him: “Contractors provide security for key personnel and sites, including our embassies; feed, clothe and house our troops; train army and police units; and even oversee other contractors. Without a multinational contractor force to fill the gap, we would need a draft to execute these twin interventions.”

That is the real reason for the contracted military forces. The Pentagon does not have enough soldiers, and they don’t have enough collaborators or “allies” to fight their wars.

According to the Congressional Research Service, contractors in 2009 account for 48 percent of the Department of Defense workforce in Iraq and 57 percent in Afghanistan . Thousands of other contractors work for corporate-funded “charities” and numerous government agencies. The U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development make even more extensive use of them; 80 percent of the State Department budget is for contractors and grants.

Contractors are supposedly not combat troops, although almost 1,800 U.S. contractors have been killed since 9/11. (U.S. News & World Report, Oct. 30) Of course there are no records on the thousands of Afghans and Iraqis killed working for U.S. corporate contractors, or the many thousands of peoples from other oppressed nations who are shipped in to handle the most dangerous jobs.

Contracting is a way of hiding not only the casualties, but also the actual size of the U.S. occupation force. Fearful of domestic opposition, the government intentionally lists the figures for the total number of forces in Afghanistan and Iraq as far less than the real numbers.

A system run on cost overruns

Cost overruns and war profiteering are hardly limited to Iraq , Afghanistan or active theaters of war. They are the very fabric of the U.S. war machine and the underpinning of the U.S. economy.

When President Obama signed the largest military budget in history Oct. 28 he stated: “The Government Accountability Office, the GAO, has looked into 96 major defense projects from the last year, and found cost overruns that totaled $296 billion.” This was on a total 2009 military budget of $651 billion. So almost half of the billions of dollars handed over to military corporations are cost overruns!

This is at a time when millions of workers face long-term systemic unemployment and massive foreclosures.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have now cost more than $1 trillion. The feeble health care reform bill that squeaked through the House, and might not survive Senate revisions next year, is scheduled to cost $1.1 trillion over a 10-year period.

The bloated, increasingly dysfunctional, for-profit U.S. military machine is unable to solve the problems or rebuild the infrastructure in Afghanistan or Iraq , and it is unable to rebuild the crumbling infrastructure in the U.S. It is unable to meet the needs of people anywhere.

It is absorbing the greatest share of the planet’s resources and a majority of the U.S. national budget. This unsustainable combination will sooner or later give rise to new resistance here and around the world.

Hundreds of thousands of jobless to lose health insurance subsidy

Hundreds of thousands of jobless to lose health insurance subsidy

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Large numbers of people in the US will lose federal medical insurance assistance with the expiration of a $25 billion program included in the 2009 stimulus package. The benefit was eliminated for many families beginning December 1, and hundreds of thousands are set to follow each month.

Families that received the subsidy will have their health insurance premiums triple on average, making it extremely difficult to maintain coverage. The program provided assistance to some seven million adults and dependent children, according to a preliminary survey, allowing them to remain insured during unemployment.

The Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985, known as COBRA, provides unemployed workers with a means to maintain their employer-sponsored family health insurance for up to 18 months after losing their jobs. In order to maintain the coverage, workers must pay their original premiums, together with the portion previously paid by their employer and an additional fee, making the program prohibitively expensive for many unemployed workers.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Obama’s stimulus bill), passed in February, included a subsidy that paid 65 percent of coverage for up to nine months, leaving jobless workers to take care of the remaining 35 percent. On December 1, the first people to apply for the program were dropped, and more will follow every succeeding month.

A report published Tuesday by Families USA, a non-profit health care advocacy group, revealed that the average recipient of assistance will not be able to pay for family health insurance together with other necessities out of his or her unemployment check.

The report found that COBRA premiums for the average family cost $1,111 per month, leaving only $222 out of $1,333 in average unemployment benefits that such a family receives for other expenses. The report also found that the average COBRA premium exceeds the average unemployment benefit check in a number of states. In Mississippi, for example, “the average monthly COBRA premium is 22 percent higher than the average unemployment payment,” said Kathleen Stoll, director of health policy at Families USA, in a telephone interview.

“A worker who wanted to keep their family secure would have to spend an average of 83.4 percent of their unemployment check, and obviously that’s not feasible,” said Ms. Stoll.

“When workers lose their jobs, they often lose their health coverage as well,” said Ron Pollack, Executive Director of Families USA, in a statement. “For millions of laid-off workers and their families, the federal COBRA subsidies have been a health-coverage lifeline. It is essential, therefore, that new jobs legislation extends those subsidies.”

The program will also remain closed for people who become unemployed after January 1, 2010, potentially leaving millions more without any way to pay for health insurance. The Families USA report notes that “this group of people will receive no COBRA subsidy at all, and, without a subsidy, most will not be able to afford coverage for either themselves or their families.”

Being without health care coverage for any period of time is dangerous; for those who become seriously ill or pregnant while uninsured, the situation may prove catastrophic. People who are uninsured for over nine weeks lose the legal guarantee that they will be subsequently covered for any “pre-existing” medical condition under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, passed in 1996.

Over 8.5 million people have lost their jobs since the start of the recession, and in October 5.6 million had been out of work for more than half a year. Sixteen percent of the US population, or about 47 million people, have no health insurance.

“There is a big difference between paying 35 percent of coverage and the full price,” said Ms. Stoll. “The difference between having the subsidy and not having the subsidy is the difference between having insurance and not having insurance, and that means the difference between seeing a doctor or not. It means that the people who lose coverage will face physical and financial devastation.”

While various Democrats, including President Obama, have made public calls for the benefit to be reinstated, there is little indication that anything will be done about it soon. Families USA said that while the House of Representatives may move to reinstate coverage this month, the Senate will likely wait until at least January, potentially leaving millions of additional people uninsured for months.

US states move to make cuts permanent

US states move to make cuts permanent

Tennessee suspends enrollment in children’s low-income health care plan

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A growing number of states are responding to their worst-ever budget crises by enacting permanent cuts to spending on social programs and education and by laying off and furloughing workers.

For the first time ever, the collective spending by state governments has declined for two consecutive years. It fell 4 percent this year and 4.8 percent in the last fiscal year according to the National Association of State Budget Officers.

The worst is yet to come. States estimate that their most severe shortfalls will come in the 2011 fiscal year. The National Conference of State Legislatures predicts a combined deficit among the states of $110 billion for the next two years. It is generally accepted that state budgets will remain in the red until 2013 at the earliest, while “some predict state revenues will not rebound until late in the next decade,” according to Stateline.org.

Unlike previous recessions, most cuts enacted now will not be reversed. “I think we’re kind of in a permanent retrenchment,” said Raymond C. Scheppach, director of the National Governors Association.

The budget crisis facing states is driven by a fall in tax revenue, which itself reflects the growing impoverishment of the working class. Unemployment and widespread cutbacks to wages and hours have resulted in a sharp decline in income tax revenue and sales tax receipts. At the same time, business tax revenue has also fallen.

A November 23 report by the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government shows that state tax revenues in the third quarter declined in all 44 states surveyed and by 10.7 percent in total. Corporate income taxes dropped off even more sharply, by 19.4 percent.

July through September marked the fourth quarter in a row in which both personal income tax and sales tax receipts fell on a year-over-year basis. Sales taxes fell by an average of 8.2 percent and declined in 38 of 39 states surveyed (the only exception being Massachusetts, where lawmakers increased the sales tax rate). Seventeen states saw a double-digit decline in sales tax revenue.

Personal income tax collections, which make up about 40 percent of total state tax revenue, declined by 11.4 percent, dropping in all 38 states where data were available. Twenty-one states saw a double-digit percentage decline. Out of the 50 states, only sparsely populated North Dakota did not see an increase in joblessness in the third quarter.

The unemployment crisis cuts two ways; as tax revenues fall from the decline in income, unemployed and underpaid workers are more reliant on social programs, which are funded for in part by state budgets. These include, most notably, unemployment insurance, low-income health insurance, and food stamps.

By continuing to lay off and furlough workers, the states are themselves contributing to the very crisis that has sent their budget into the red. Since December 2007 one million state workers have been affected by various cutbacks. “Nearly all states have instituted hiring freezes, at least 75 percent have eliminated vacant positions and more than half have laid off and furloughed workers,” Stateline.org reports.

Furthermore, the health of state budgets is widely considered a “lagging indicator.” “In the past, states’ toughest budget years have been the two years following the end of a recession,” according to Stateline.org. “That’s because, by then, Medicaid rolls have swelled as more people lose their jobs and health insurance, even as state revenues continue to lag. But because this recession has been deeper than any in modern history,” balanced budgets may not return for several years, the website concludes.

The pay and benefits owed to state workers consume about 20 percent of state budgets. The rest goes to fund the operations of various state agencies, education, and social programs. States are also taking the knife to these.

This week, a particularly graphic example of this came from Tennessee, where it has been announced that the state’s health insurance plan for children from low-income families, CoverKids, will no longer accept new applicants. The Tennessee legislature has not appropriated enough money for the program to meet rising demand, even though state spending is matched 3-to-1 by the federal government through the Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP. State officials have so far refused to tap into the CoverKids program’s own “rainy day fund,” saying this would be fiscally irresponsible.

In addition, Tennessee will also no longer accept applicants for its health coverage for low-income adults, CoverTN, which is jointly funded by employers, employees, and the state.

In the twelve months ending in October, 110,000 Tennesseans lost their health coverage, mostly as a result of layoffs. Over 10 percent of the workforce is unemployed. And Tennessee’s decision to refuse further low-income applicants also coincides with the ending of a short-term COBRA aid program, by which the federal government contributed about two thirds of the cost of insurance plans so laid off workers could maintain their employer-based plans.

CoverKids complements the state’s Medicaid program, TennCare, which helps to provide coverage primarily for the extremely poor and disabled.

“This is a scary place for babies if CoverKids is gone,” Sandra Neely of Spring Hill told the Tennessean. Neely used TennCare to help her three-year-old granddaughter save an injured tooth. With CoverKids no longer accepting applicants, the family may be without insurance if they earn more money.

“Without CoverKids, there will be no insurance out there for children who are on the borderline of poverty, for the people in the middle who work but don’t have or can’t afford insurance,” Neely said.

“In the midst of an economic crisis putting so many middle-class families on the brink, our state’s policy decisions push them over,” Michele Johnson of the Tennessee Justice Center said to the Tennessean. “The citizens of this state will be paying for these cuts in fiscal and human terms for decades.”

Tennessee faces a $1.5 billion deficit in its $29 billion budget. In freezing out new CHIP applicants it follows California, which rejected new applications between June and September.

These cuts expose once again the reactionary character of President Obama’s proposed health care overhaul, which will call on the states to provide expanded Medicaid coverage without providing further federal funding. As unemployment increases and the COBRA coverage extension ends, the solvency of the states’ Medicaid, CHIP, and other low-income health coverage plans is in increasing doubt.

No state has spared its population cuts and layoffs. Only this week there have been dozens of such announcements.

• New Jersey on Tuesday withheld a scheduled delivery of $20 million in aid to cities and towns, citing a growing budget gap. The hardest hit will be poor cities in the south of the state. “A cut at the height of the economic recession, forcing service reductions and higher property taxes, is unconscionable,” William Dressel, executive director of the state League of Municipalities, told the Philadelphia Enquirer.

• The Georgia legislature may convene in early January to enact an additional $400 million in cuts, its Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Jack Hill said on December 1. The state has already cut $3 billion from its budget in the past year, with Governor Sonny Perdue recently putting in place $900 million in cuts that included three-day furloughs of teachers and state workers. More furloughs and layoffs are anticipated to meet the new deficit.

• The Missouri Department of Transportation said Tuesday it will lay off 100 workers and transfer the savings toward its contribution to workers’ retirement plans, which has an unfunded liability of $1.6 billion.

• On Tuesday North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue told reporters that the state’s Medicaid program is already $150 million over budget for the first quarter of the current fiscal year, largely due to unemployment.

• The state of Hawaii, which already ceased public education on Fridays during the school year to save money, is also instituting 15 furlough days for workers at state libraries over the next two years, the equivalent of an 8 percent pay cut.

• Kentucky will attempt to save $20 million this year by cutting educational funding for preschool programs and curriculum for gifted students.

• The New Hampshire legislature is likely to suspend a school construction fund that assisted local school districts by picking up the tab on between 30 percent and 60 percent of the cost of new buildings.

• Top Iowa legislators have said in recent days they will enact cuts in all state agencies. “I think everybody is going to see a cut. Everybody,” said Mike Gronstal, a leading senate Democrat in a comment to the Des Moines Register. “I think you’ll see layoffs. I think you’ll see ... early retirements, so I think you’ll see fewer state employees. We’ll try to do it through attrition.”

• A cost-cutting commission in Louisiana said this week that government agencies should seek to reduce the state workforce by 15,000 over three years through layoffs and attrition.

• Mississippi took in $25 million less than it had projected for November, Governor Haley Barbour’s office announced on Tuesday. It is $136.6 million short of projections for the first five months of its fiscal year. A new round of cuts is expected within days.

• New Mexico is coping with unprecedented demand for food stamps, statistics from its Human Services Department reveal. In only one year, the number of people using food stamps in the state has increased by 70,000, or 28 percent.

• Vermont lawmakers are considering cutting $20 million in state mental health care services, which could cause 3,000 people to lose access to psychiatric treatment.

Cult of Conservative Christian GOPers Backs Death Penalty for Gays With HIV

Cult of Conservative Christian GOPers Backs Death Penalty for Gays With HIV

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The African nation of Uganda is weighing a bill that would impose the death penalty on HIV positive men who have committed what it calls "aggravated homosexuality."

As if that were not shocking enough, a U.S. author is claiming that a secretive group of American politicians appear to be a driving force in seeing the proposal become law.

The Anti-Homosexuality Bill 2009, heavily supported by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, was first read in October, triggering a wave of condemnation. According to the gay blog Queerty, Joann Lockard, public affairs officer at the Kampala, Uganda embassy, said the law would "constitute a significant step backwards for the protection of human rights in Uganda."

She added: "We urge states to take all necessary measures to ensure that sexual orientation or gender identity may under no circumstances be the basis for criminal penalties, in particular executions, arrests, or detention."

While that condemnation by a U.S. official would seem reflexive, others in U.S. political circles are providing financial and political support for the bill's sponsors, according to author Jeff Sharlet.

Sharlet's book "The Family" is an investigative look at a secretive group of fundamentalist Christian lawmakers in Washington, D.C. In a recent interview with NPR's Terry Gross, he broke the news that The Family's influence in Uganda is rife.

"[The] legislator that introduced the bill, a guy named David Bahati, is a member of The Family," he said. "He appears to be a core member of The Family. He works, he organizes their Ugandan National Prayer Breakfast and oversees a African sort of student leadership program designed to create future leaders for Africa, into which The Family has poured millions of dollars working through a very convoluted chain of linkages passing the money over to Uganda."

And how did Sharlet discover the connection? "You follow [the] money," he said. You look at their archives. You do interviews where you can. It's not so invisible anymore. So that's how working with some research colleagues we discovered that David Bahati, the man behind this legislation, is really deeply, deeply involved in The Family's work in Uganda, that the ethics minister of Uganda, Museveni's kind of right-hand man, a guy named Nsaba Buturo, is also helping to organize The Family's National Prayer Breakfast. And here's a guy who has been the main force for this Anti-Homosexuality Act in Uganda's executive office and has been very vocal about what he's doing, in a rather extreme and hateful way. But these guys are not so much under the influence of The Family. They are, in Uganda, The Family."

Under current Ugandan law, homosexuality is a crime punishable by life in prison. The proposed law would not just condemn HIV positive gay men and "repeat offenders" to death, it would also jail for three years anyone who knows a gay man but refuses to report them to authorities. Further, anyone who defends in public the rights of gays and lesbians would be subjected to a seven year prison term.

In his NPR interview, Sharlet said the bill would "very likely" pass and become Ugandan law. He added that the nation's president, whom he called a "dictator," has long been in The Family's fold.

"The Family identified [Museveni] back in 1986 as a key man for Africa," he said. "They wanted to steer him away from neutrality or leftist sympathies and bring him into conservative American alliances, and they were able to do so. They've since promoted Uganda as this bright spot - as I say, as this bright spot for African democracy, despite the fact that under their tutelage, Museveni has slowly shifted away from any even veneer of democracy: imprisoning journalists, tampering with elections, supporting - strongly supporting this Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2009."

Canada and the U.K. have been leading the international charge against the proposed law, with both prime ministers Gordon Brown and Stephen Harper condemning it.

"Addressing the Commonwealth People’s Forum, Stephen Lewis, the former UN envoy on Aids in Africa, said that the Bill made a mockery of Commonwealth principles," the Times Online reported. "Nothing is as stark, punitive and redolent of hate as the Bill in Uganda," Lewis said.

"We needn't tell you: The implications are dire," opined Queerty. "It's not abnormal for foreign heads of state, like Museveni, to have ties to American politicos. But he's deeply routed in a secretive organization that promotes hatred under the guise of loving Jesus. And the very people — America's elected officials who believe in human rights — we would expect to pressure Uganda's lawmakers not to make such a bill law are turning out to be its biggest supporters."

Yahoo!: Our spying policies would 'shock' customers

Yahoo: Our spying policy would ’shock’ customers

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A little-noticed letter from Yahoo! to the US Marshals Service offers troubling insight into the surveillance policies of one of the Internet's largest email providers.

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request seeking details of Yahoo's! policies allowing the Justice Department to request wiretaps of its users and the amount they charge US taxpayers per wiretap -- the search engine leviathan declared in a 12-page letter that they couldn't provide information on their approach because their pricing scheme would "shock" customers. The news was first reported by Kim Zetter at Wired.

"It is reasonable to assume from these comments that the [pricing] information, if disclosed, would be used to "shame" Yahoo! and other companies -- and to "shock" their customers," a lawyer for the company writes. "Therefore, release of Yahoo!'s information is reasonably likely to lead to impairment of its reputation for protection of user privacy and security, which is a competitive disadvantage for technology companies."

Yahoo! also argues that because their price sheet for wiretaps was "voluntarily submitted" to the US Marshals Service, it is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act law.

Verizon, meanwhile, says (letter PDF) they can't provide details on how much they charge for wiretaps because it would be "confusing."

“Customers may see a listing of records, information or assistance that is available only to law enforcement,” Verizon writes, “but call in to Verizon and seek those same services. Such calls would stretch limited resources, especially those that are reserved only for law enforcement emergencies.”

Consumers might “become unnecessarily afraid that their lines have been tapped or call Verizon to ask if their lines are tapped (a question we cannot answer),” the telecom giant adds.

Verizon also revealed it "receives tens of thousands of requests for customer records, or other customer information from law enforcement."

The Freedom of Information request was filed by muckraker Christopher Soghoian.

"Assuming a conservative estimate of 20,000 requests per year, Verizon alone receives more requests from law enforcement per year than can be explained by any published surveillance statistics," Soghoian responds. "That doesn't mean the published stats are necessarily incorrect -- merely that most types of surveillance are not reported.

"In the summer of 2009, I decided to try and follow the money trail in order to determine how often Internet firms were disclosing their customers’ private information to the government," he adds later. "I theorized that if I could obtain the price lists of each ISP, detailing the price for each kind of service, and invoices paid by the various parts of the Federal government, then I might be able to reverse engineer some approximate statistics. In order to obtain these documents, I filed Freedom of Information Act requests with every part of the Department of Justice that I could think of."

Cox Communications, meanwhile, says they charge "$2,500 to fulfill a pen register/trap-and-trace order for 60 days, and $2,000 for each additional 60-day-interval," Zetter notes. "It charges $3,500 for the first 30 days of a wiretap, and $2,500 for each additional 30 days. Thirty days worth of a customer’s call detail records costs $40."

"Comcast’s pricing list," she adds, "which was already leaked to the internet in 2007, indicated that it charges at least $1,000 for the first month of a wiretap, and $750 per month thereafter."

FDIC: Quarter of U.S. households have limited or no access to banks

FDIC: Quarter of U.S. households have limited or no access to banks

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One-quarter of American households -- about 60 million people -- have limited or no access to banks or other traditional financial services, with low-income and black families among the hardest hit, according to a government report released Wednesday.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. survey of so-called unbanked and underbanked consumers marks the government's most comprehensive effort to quantify a population that has existed largely below the radar of federal regulations and financial institutions. The report found that nearly 22 percent of black households and 71 percent of families earning less than $30,000 do not use banks. In addition, 41 percent of unbanked households felt they were unlikely to open an account in the future.

"Our challenge is to make sure that banks have the appropriate range of products and services that meet the needs of all people," FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair said.

The report defined unbanked households as those without checking or savings accounts. Underbanked households might have checking and savings accounts, but they rely on alternative financial services such as check cashers, payday loans and pawn shops. Such families are often vulnerable to theft and can often struggle to establish credit histories and financial security, the report said.

About 6 percent of households surveyed in the Washington region are unbanked, while 15 percent are underbanked, ranking 20th on the FDIC's list of metropolitan areas with high percentages of such consumers. Atlanta came in first with 9 percent unbanked and 19 percent underbanked, and Baltimore was second.

Many unbanked consumers feel they do not have enough money to open an account, the report found. Meanwhile, it showed underbanked consumers hunt out alternative sources for credit, such as payday lenders and pawn shops, because they are more likely to qualify for a loan and the locations are more convenient.

"A lot of this is a product of rational economic decision-making," Bair said.

Consumer advocates have long pushed for greater oversight of the alternative financial services, arguing that they charge exorbitant interest rates and fees. But industry groups say they have increased transparency of the terms of their services and that their fees reflect the risks in their business. The proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency currently under debate in Congress would have broad authority to set new national standards for the non-bank financial service providers and investigate complaints -- bringing the industry under the eye of a federal agency for the first time. On Wednesday, Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) proposed legislation aimed at encouraging banks to compete with payday lenders and provide small, short-term loans to unbanked and underbanked consumers. The legislation would establish a federal fund to guarantee up to 60 percent of those loans. In return, banks must cap the loans at $2,500 and the interest rates at 36 percent, among other requirements.

"As we consider changes to our financial system, we should include reforms that will help increase access to many of those who are left out," Kohl said in a statement.

The reality behind the swine flu conspiracy

The reality behind the swine flu conspiracy

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The message is clear – we are all going to die from swine flu. It spreads fast, it is dangerous, and it must be feared – says the World Health Organization.

But worry not – there is a way to save yourself. Just get a flu shot – and purchase a remedy for the deadly virus. Those are the instructions from the WHO.

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However, the WHO may find itself coughing up explanations, as more and more scientists and health researchers, and even journalists, are starting to question the organization’s motives behind raising the alert so quickly.

According to the Danish Daily Information newspaper, the WHO and pharmaceutical companies are suffering from the profit bug. Or, to put it simply, the chief health care organization in the world has teamed up with the drug makers to create a phantom monster – and to rake in cash by selling a remedy for it.

Plastered all over the front pages and headlines news, swine flu made its triumphant entrance into limelight, heralded as the next “in” virus, which threatened to bring an end to humanity as we know it.

Let's stop right there and talk numbers for a little bit.

So far, more than 3.5 million people have been reported to be infected with swine flu worldwide. More than 9,000 deaths have been confirmed.

In comparison: every year, up to one billion people get infected with seasonal flu, with up to 500,000 deaths. These numbers come from the World Health Organization, but they never make headline news for some reason.

On June 11 of this year, the WHO declared swine flu a pandemic. But few know that, right before doing that, the Organization changed its definition, taking out the word “deadly” from it.

Aleksander Saversky, the chair of the Patient's Rights Protection League, was one of those who did pay attention. He says it is clear that the WHO dramatized the situation around the H1N1 virus. In an interview to RT, Saversky speculated that it is due to the WHO's close ties with the world's major pharmaceutical companies.

And recently, Danish journalists conducted their own research, which resulted in accusations that the WHO, and scientists who appear to be independent are, in fact, on pharmaceutical companies' payroll.

Saversky points out that the WHO declared the status of pandemic when only a few thousand people were infected with it – something that is highly illogical, he says, considering the hundred thousand more cases of seasonal flu never gets paid such high attention.

The virus was reported to be extremely deadly. Parallels were drawn to the Spanish Flu, which killed roughly 50 million people worldwide in the span of six months.

As panic spread, people rushed to clinics for Tamiflu – $145 a pop and by prescription only in the US – and for vaccinations, which range anywhere from $10 to $50. And despite the fact that many have lost their jobs in the financial crisis, and were left without health insurance, vaccinations and pharmaceutical sales skyrocketed. Nobody wants to die a grisly death from the supposedly new virus.

Aleksander Saversky warns the hullaballoo over swine flu is akin to the fable of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” He says that, because of this hype, the next time a truly dangerous virus comes about, no one will take any precautions. Fooled once already by swine flu, people will ignore the warnings and fall prey to a more dangerous – and deadly virus.

In fact, vaccinating people from swine flu during the seasonal flu outbreak, in Saversky’s opinion, is criminal. People end up having to battle two viruses at the same time, which puts an enormous strain on the immune system.

Saversky puts the blame on capitalism – pharmaceutical companies make billions on people's fears, combined with asymmetrical information dispersal (meaning that most people know very little substantial information about the virus, whereas the WHO, pharmaceutical companies and researchers know a lot more).

So, what's to be done to conquer the virus – and stop the WHO?

Saversky says there is one solution – for governments worldwide to step in and take matters into their own hands, by controlling healthcare and pharmaceutical production.

Until that happens, however, remember to check for all common flu symptoms. And should a general disinclination to work of any kind be among them, rest assured – it is most probably a run-of-the-mill case of the Monday Blues.

The Forgotten Cost of War: Caring for Veterans

The Forgotten Cost of War: Caring for Veterans

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President Obama has finally laid out his strategy for Afghanistan. Unfortunately, he did so without using the word "veteran" and without articulating any back-end support for our returning troops. In typical fashion, we've heard the media's talking heads ask: Is Afghanistan Obama's Vietnam? Why only 30,000 troops? Will the exit strategy embolden the Taliban?

And now, the politics and policy of the new strategy have been broken down into predictable soundbite-sized morsels by the partisans and pundits. But few have focused on how the Administration plans to support those 30,000 troops when they return home. Nor have we heard much talk of their families who won't be on planes to Afghanistan, but are still making sacrifices every day on the home front. These are the brave Americans responsible for executing this new plan or waiting for a knock on the door that they pray will never come.

President Obama's plan will significantly increase the demands on our service members, almost 800,000 of whom have already served multiple tours. The propeller-heads in Washington have crunched the numbers determining how much it will cost to send these new forces to the front. But I'm not at all convinced that they've done the back-end planning that's necessary for a complete war plan; one that cares for these troops when they come home. As we saw with the implementation of the new GI Bill, failing to plan is planning to fail. If the President doesn't plan adequately now, Walter Reed will only be the beginning of a decades-long national embarrassment of failing to care for our nation's veterans and their families.

The only way to avoid another round of heartache, disappointment and frustration is to guarantee that our returning troops will receive the full support of the president, Congress, the Department of Defense, the VA and the American people (a critical spoke on this wheel that has been neglected for far too long).

We can start by ensuring that every service member receives the resources they need when they come home. This doesn't mean a welcome home parade, although that's always a nice gesture. It means leaders in Washington that don't live at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue stepping up right now. Congress must send the VA health care budget to the president immediately. As of tonight's address, the VA budget is already 61 days late.

But Congress cannot stop there. The outdated and ineffective military and VA disability systems that leave hundreds of thousands of veterans waiting for claims to be processed must be reformed. And during these trying economic times, we must redouble our efforts to ensure that every veteran can find employment and a place to call home.

Finally, President Obama must find a way to fully engage all Americans in supporting and advocating for all those who've served -- regardless of how they feel about the war. America's foreign policy cannot succeed without these heroes, and their return home won't succeed without us.

Family Health Insurance to Rise Sharply Without COBRA Subsidy

Family Health Insurance to Rise Sharply Without COBRA Subsidy

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A new study estimates that the end of a hefty government subsidy could force millions of laid-off workers to pay more than 80 percent of their monthly unemployment checks to keep their job-based family health insurance coverage intact.

An estimated 7 million jobless workers and their dependents are thought to have received the temporary subsidy, which pays 65 percent of their health insurance premiums under a law known as COBRA, the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act.

However, the nine-month subsidy expired Monday for those who first began receiving it in March through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Estimates vary, but COBRA subsidies pay an average of $722 per month toward the average national cost of family coverage, which runs about $1,111 per month, according to Families USA, a liberal consumer health advocacy group.

Without the subsidy, however, COBRA family coverage would eat up a whopping 83.4 percent of the $1,333 average monthly national unemployment insurance benefit, according to a Families USA report issued Tuesday.

In nine states, the full COBRA family premium exceeds the average monthly state unemployment benefit, the study found.

The situation is worst in Mississippi, where the average unsubsidized COBRA premium of $1,027 for family coverage is 22.4 percent more than the average monthly unemployment benefit of $839, which is the lowest in the nation.

The other states in which the average COBRA family premiums top the average monthly unemployment benefit are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina and Tennessee.

Congressional Democrats are pushing to include some type of COBRA subsidy extension in a major jobs bill that's being crafted. Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Pa., and Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, have introduced stand-alone legislation to extend the subsidies in the House of Representatives and the Senate, but it's unclear how soon any new funding can be secured.

In the meantime, many jobless Americans may be left with the difficult choice of paying higher rates at a time of dire financial struggle, going without coverage or looking for cheaper coverage through government programs or the private market.

"For millions of laid-off workers and their families, the federal COBRA subsidies have been a health-coverage lifeline. It is essential, therefore, that new jobs legislation extends those subsidies," said Ron Pollack, the executive director of Families USA.

In general, COBRA allows certain workers who lose their jobs — unless they were fired for gross misconduct — to continue their health insurance with their former employers for up to 18 months. Before the subsidy was offered, only about 9 percent of people who were eligible took advantage because it was so expensive.

A study by Hewitt Associates found that the number of those who took advantage of the cheaper COBRA insurance has doubled since the subsidy became available in March.

In Milford, Ohio, Tim Wolffrum's monthly COBRA premium for individual coverage will go from $146 to $417 per month when his subsidy expires Dec. 31. That's in line with the Families USA estimate that COBRA premiums average $396 for individuals, while the average subsidized premium is $139.

Wolffrum, 58, said he'd like to see the subsidy extended, but that strong Republican opposition to the health care overhaul and government spending in general makes it unlikely. The Joint Committee on Taxation estimated that the current subsidy would cost nearly $25 billion and cover about 7 million people this year.

Wolffrum said he understood the reluctance to spend, but that he was frustrated nonetheless.

"I see all the aid we send other countries all across the world and we don't take care of our own right here," he said.

Wolffrum lost his job as a retail representative for the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. in October 2008 as part of a corporate downsizing.

The extra $271 per month for COBRA premiums means he'll pay more than 25 percent of his roughly $1,200 in monthly unemployment benefits for health insurance.

He can't afford to drop it, however, because he can't find cheaper coverage in the private market because of his pre-existing ailments, which include a 2007 heart attack and a recent stomach surgery. Under COBRA, his prescription blood pressure and cholesterol medications total $28 per month. Without insurance, they're $181 per month.

Wolffrum said he'd use his savings to make up for the increased premiums.

"I don't really have an option at this point," he said. "I'm hoping that by springtime things will pick up and maybe I can find a job where they offer health benefits. But I don't know if that'll happen or not."

Afghanistan: Our 177th Colony

Afghanistan: Our 177th Colony

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During a televised football game on Sunday, an announcer welcomed the members of the U.S. military viewing the game in 177 nations around the world. When the news came on, the topic was the same one it's been for weeks, speculation as to whether and how much a single individual will escalate war by sending tens of thousands of additional troops to nation number 177, Afghanistan.

Somehow it remains eternally controversial to mention the imperial presidency. Yet the positions on Afghanistan in the United States are limited to "The president should escalate the war," "The president should not escalate the war" and "The president should do whatever he wants." Some people have other things to say on the topic, but almost nobody refuses to hold one of those three positions.

One of the few holdouts is a document rather than a person, a document known as the U.S. Constitution. The funny thing is that the people who wrote this document over two centuries ago very intentionally and explicitly created a legislature with the power and duty to decide when and where to fight wars, to raise the funding to pay for them, and to oversee the military. The executive was to execute the will of the Congress, including in his duty as commander in chief of the military.

The wisdom here was not just in giving the power to decide on wars, and the extent of those wars, to a different branch of government than the commander in chief, while nonetheless giving him (or her) civilian command of the military. The wisdom extended to giving the legislature the power to decide virtually everything else, what laws to make in any area and, in every area, what money to raise or spend.

Representatives were to represent relatively small numbers of people. Their constituents, it was expected, might be able to persuade them to act on behalf of majority opinion. The idea of the entire nation lobbying the executive is almost laughably more challenging, even without considering the problems with lobbying an executive to make decisions only Congress is constitutionally able to make, not to mention decisions on whether to engage in massive crimes forbidden by treaties to which our nation is a party.

But Congress is in such bad shape that many people have had many years to learn that their permanent-incumbent representative is virtually immune to public influence. Meanwhile, the president is new, and his vague advertising campaign has left him open to wishful misinterpretation. Plus, he's a member of the good team.

If President George W. Bush had called something serving 2 to 5 percent of Americans a "public option," MoveOn.org would have attacked him for deceiving the country. When Obama does that, all the activist groups celebrate his public service. When Bush continued and escalated wars, the more principled peace groups told the House of Representatives to deny him the money. After 11 months, we are just beginning to drag a few of the better peace groups partially away from their lobbying of the new emperor, in order to work on denying the money.

I recently read an excellent book called "The Vanishing of a Species?" which Peter Gretener wrote, for the most part, 30 years ago, but which his family just published posthumously. This book looks at the fate of our species in as wise a way as anyone has in the generation since it was written. It examines, among other things, the question of whether humans are aggressive due to nature or nurture, and whether this aggressiveness must expand with the greater density of humans caused by population growth. But Gretener never considers the possibility of a government misrepresenting its people, of people outgrowing aggressiveness but their government nonetheless attacking others.

Gretener believes that human wisdom has not kept pace with human technology, thus creating the possibility of economic and environmental collapse. I believe, on the contrary, that human wisdom has declined rather than holding steady. We've lost the ability to live sustainably or peacefully. And we've lost the understanding of how governments can be structured to check our inevitable abuses.

US Supreme Court suppresses torture photos

US Supreme Court suppresses torture photos

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The US Supreme Court on Monday nullified an appeals court order that would have obligated the Obama administration to release photographs depicting US soldiers subjecting prisoners in Afghanistan and Iraq to horrific acts of torture.

In an unsigned three-sentence decision in the case, Department of Defense v. ACLU, 09-160, the Supreme Court granted an Obama administration petition vacating the order and sent the case back to the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York, telling the lower court it must review the case in light of a law passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama in October.

The law in question was written as a specific response to the circuit court’s ruling in October 2008 requiring that the photos be released. Attached to an appropriations bill for the Department of Homeland Security and signed into law by Obama, it gave Secretary of Defense Robert Gates the power to suppress the torture photos if he determines they may threaten US military operations. Gates invoked the measure on November 13.

It is now anticipated that the circuit court will side with the Obama administration and rule against the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU.)

There are reportedly at least 21 specific photos at stake from Iraq and Afghanistan, although their release could open the way for hundreds more. In a brief to the Supreme Court, Obama’s solicitor general, Elena Kagan, wrote that among the photos are images of US soldiers “pointing pistols or rifles at the heads of hooded and handcuffed detainees,” “a soldier hold[ing] a broom as if sticking its end into the rectum of a restrained detainee,” and a soldier hitting a prisoner with the butt end of a rifle. There is every reason to believe that the photos Kagan did not describe show even more shocking scenes.

The Obama administration told the Supreme Court that release of the photos would “pose a clear and grave risk of inciting violence and riots against American troops and coalition forces.” This is in fact a damning admission. Obama confesses that making the photos public would increase opposition among Iraqis and Afghans, the great majority of whom already despise the occupations. It is at the same time tacitly understood that their publication would further reduce public support for the wars in the US.

A trial judge first ordered the release of the photos some four years ago. The Bush and Obama administrations have carried on a legal battle to keep them suppressed ever since.

The Bush administration argued that the photos could remain classified under a clause in FOIA applicable when “information compiled for law enforcement purposes” might “endanger the life or physical safety of any individual.”

The Second Circuit Court unanimously rejected that argument in October 2008, reasoning that it is “plainly insufficient to claim that releasing documents could reasonably be expected to endanger some unspecified member of a group so vast as to encompass all United States troops, coalition forces and civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Such a claim could create “an alternative secrecy mechanism far broader than the government’s classification system,” the court warned.

The Obama administration announced in April it would comply with the court order to release the photos. This announcement roughly coincided with the court-ordered release of Bush administration Office of Legal Counsel memos that had crafted a pseudo-legal justification for torture. In response, the military-intelligence apparatus, spearheaded by former vice president Dick Cheney, launched an attack on the Obama administration.

Obama reversed himself in May after revealing that high-ranking members of the military brass had intervened against the photos’ release. “The publication of these photos would not add any additional benefit to our understanding of what was carried out in the past by a small number of individuals,” Obama offered. “The most direct consequence of releasing them, I believe, would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in greater danger.”

The Justice Department then petitioned the Supreme Court against the release, and in the interim, Congress passed the law banning publication of the photos.

The way the Supreme Court justices voted was not made public, although the order acknowledged that the newly appointed Sonia Sotomayor, who served on the Second Circuit until August, did not participate.

With the Supreme Court decision—itself an extraordinary concession by the judiciary to the legislative and executive branches—every branch of the US government has now joined in the effort to suppress the torture photos. In Congress, just six senators—and but one Democrat—voted against the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act that gave to Gates the presumptive right to block their publication. And the Obama administration has been leading the charge through its intervention with the Supreme Court and Gates’s dismissal of the circuit court ruling.

It should be recalled that Obama entered office promising Americans “a new era of openness” and that “transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency.” His role in the suppression of the photos demonstrates once again the essential continuity of his administration with that of George W. Bush.

Yet the Obama administration’s victory at the Supreme Court in suppressing graphic evidence of torture in Afghanistan and Iraq will do nothing to obscure Washington’s bloody record since 2001. An incontrovertible body of evidence has been built up showing that it has put in place a worldwide regime of abduction, torture, and murder carried out by the US military and the CIA and their accomplices in a number of countries. The most horrific forms of torture are extensively documented. These include beatings, extreme solitary confinement, simulated drowning, exposure to extreme cold, rape, sexual humiliation, and threatened executions and rape of prisoners’ family members.

The record also shows that many of these actions were ordered and overseen by the highest-ranking members of the Bush administration and with the direct knowledge and tacit support of leading congressional Democrats. For its part, the US media for years covered up, ignored, or minimized the horrors that were common knowledge to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan.

It should be clear enough that Obama defends the preceding administration not because of “mistaken” policy decisions, as his ex-liberal and ex-radical allies lament. He does so because the entire ruling class is implicated in the abuses, and because the US military is carrying on the same policies, up to and including torture, as recent revelations from Afghanistan demonstrate (see: “Torture continues at US prisons in Afghanistan”).

Torture ultimately arises from the character of imperialist war itself, as history has taught time and again. Washington has not employed its military machine and hundreds of billions of dollars to “liberate” Iraqis and Afghans. Its goals are to control the region’s vast oil and natural gas supplies and strengthen its strategic position versus its major economic rivals.

These predatory aims inevitably require the use of brutal methods in order to suppress widespread popular opposition. Just as surely, they require the gutting of democratic rights in the US, including the right of the population to know the activities of the government.

US military suicides reach new high

US military suicides reach new high

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The number of serving American military personnel who took their lives in 2009 has already exceeded last year’s record. These suicides are first of all tragic. Secondly, they indicate the immense psychological harm that the neo-colonial wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have inflicted on members of the armed forces.

The US Army, the largest branch of the military, suffered the most dramatic increase. By 16 November, 140 soldiers on active duty and 71 National Guard and Reserve personnel had taken their lives this year—a total of 211. By comparison, there were 52 Army suicides in 2001. The number steadily rose over the following years, reaching 197 in 2008.

The overall suicide rate in the US Army has reached 20.2 per 100,000 personnel. The Marine Corp recorded 42 suicides as of October 31—the same number as in all of 2008 and a rate of more than 19 per 100,000 personnel.

Among Americans in a comparable age bracket to military personnel, the annual suicide rate is approximately 19 per 100,000 people. For the overall US population, the rate in 2006 was 11.6 per 100,000, though the number is expected to have increased since the onset of severe recession and mass lay-offs.

The correlation between the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the rise in military suicides is clear. The rate among Navy and Air Force personnel—who have not been flung into the front lines of the conflicts—is roughly the same as 2001 and well below the national average. Before 2001, the Army and Marine rate was also below the national average and, more significantly, generally half that registered in a comparable age bracket. People seeking to enlist undergo psychological examinations. Those with diagnosable disorders that contribute to suicidal tendencies are generally turned down.

What has changed is the deployment of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and marines to Iraq and Afghanistan. Many have been involved in or witnessed terrible events. At least one in five have returned with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A study of veterans with PTSD published in August by the Journal of Traumatic Stress found that 47 percent had had suicidal thoughts before seeking treatment and 3 percent had attempted to kill themselves.

Every day, an average of five members of the armed forces attempt suicide. Since 2003, close to 1,000 have succeeded—more than have died in the entire eight-year war in Afghanistan. Of that number, 41.8 percent had served one tour in either Afghanistan or Iraq, 10.3 percent had been sent on two deployments, 1.7 percent had served three tours and 0.9 percent had been deployed four or more times. The majority were male and under 30 years of age. More than half were married or divorced at the time.

Web searches produce numerous accounts of the terrible impact that suicide has wrought over the past eight years. A poignant interview with the wife of a soldier who took his life was published on November 29 by MPNnow, a Rochester, New York-based publication.

Tricia Hobart lost her husband and father of her three children on October 16, 2005. Mike Hobart committed suicide while back in the US on two weeks leave from a tour in Iraq. His leave was in order to receive treatment for nerve damage he suffered in an engagement.

Tricia Hobart told MPNnow: “I feel really bad for the families that have gone through what we have or that will be going through it in the future. After seeing what a year of deployment in Iraq did to my husband, I felt that there would be many more suicides to follow. Mike was a very loving, caring and understanding man, but after being in Iraq for many months, things changed his behaviour.

“The men and women, after being there in times of war, are changed for life in one way or another. Some learn to deal with their nightmares and flashbacks of what they saw and did while there, and some cannot put it behind them. Unfortunately, for those men and women that can’t put it behind them, suicide is one of the ways they choose to deal with life after war.”

The suicides among serving personnel are only the tip of the iceberg. Hundreds of former soldiers, veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars who have left the military either voluntarily or involuntarily, are also taking their lives.

The US Department of Veteran Affairs does not kept an official tally. However, a study in 2007 commissioned by CBS News found staggering levels of suicide among Afghanistan and Iraq veterans. Of 6,256 veterans who took their own lives in 2005, for example, the highest rate was among former soldiers aged 20 to 24, which was estimated to be as much as four times higher than the national average.

The veterans’ suicide telephone hotline operating out of a clinic in Canandaigua, New York, has already taken 118,984 calls so far this year and believes it has prevented 3,709 veterans killing themselves.

The psychological problems suffered by many veterans are being compounded by the stresses flowing from the US economic downturn. A study earlier this year found that at least 15 percent of former soldiers aged 20 to 24 were unemployed. Overall unemployment among Afghanistan and Iraq veterans was at least 11.2 percent, compared with 8.8 percent among non-veterans in a comparable age bracket.

A Quiet War On Students

A Quiet War On Students

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Students stand to gain a lot from federal student aid legislation in Congress, but lenders have assembled an arsenal of PR campaigns, lobbyists, and campaign contributions.

Banks and loan corporations have quietly declared war on students this year, using an arsenal of more than two dozen lobbyists, an ambitious public relations campaign, and millions of dollars to kill legislation that would make college more affordable.

Lenders seem to be terrified of the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA), a bill in Congress that seeks to reform federal student loan policies by putting lending power and oversight into the hands of the government through the exising Direct Lending Program and ending the tax-subsidized Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) program. By saving money through the elimination of a private middle man in lending to students, the proposal would free more funds for improving college access and completion rates. The bill that the House of Representatives passed in September is supported by the Obama Administration, and is expected to be addressed in the Senate following the health care debate.

The student loan industry, led by lenders like Sallie Mae and Nelnet, which have posted increased stock earnings on Wall Street, is doing everything it can to stop such reform. In October, SAFRA opponents introduced a website called Protect Student Choice, a public relations campaign run by Qorvis Communications, a Washington D.C. lobbying firm specializing in “corporate communications on national and international levels,” according to the company’s website.

“This is very much a grassroots campaign,” says Don Goldman, a partner with Qorvis. But there no indication of who is sponsoring the campaign on the website, and the ProtectStudentChoice.org domain name is registered to an anonymous proxy service based in Portugal. The only way to contact the campaign from the website is to sign on to a petition against SAFRA.

“I guess our feeling was that you could join the campaign with e-mail and we could get back to you,” says Goldman about the elusive nature of contact information on the site. “Or I think we’ve been written about a fair amount, about how we’re the ones who’ve sort of organized the campaign. We’re not trying to be anything but transparent on this.”

The Protect Student Choice campaign highlights the voice of a single student opposed to SAFRA, Patrick McBride, a Vanderbilt freshman. About 9,000 individuals have signed a petition against bill on the site, according to the Qorvis spokesperson. That’s in comparison to the more than 40,000 people who signed a similar on-line petition supporting reform.

While Qorvis characterizes Protect Student Choice as a grassroots campaign, the firm says the National Council of Higher Education Loan Programs (NCHELP), an interest group of approximately 160 lenders and collection agencies, is paying for the website.

“The lenders [and] the services that they have developed for students and schools are very strong and they're concerned that if the program is eliminated those services will no longer be available,” says Karen Lanning, a spokesperson for the council. “All the expertise that has been created in this community would also to the large part be lost.”

In lieu of mustering popular support among students, in November, Qorvis and its clients took a different approach to messaging. Now, there is another website, nearly identical to ProtectStudentChoice.org, called ProtectLocalJobs.com, which focuses on an alleged number of jobs that could be lost if SAFRA were to become law. Protect Student Choice's header has been updated to read "Protect Student Choice/Protect Local Jobs," essentially merging the campaigns.

An email message sent out from a Sallie Mae email employee, Allison Smythe, on Nov. 16 read, “Legislation being considered in the U.S. Senate puts jobs like mine at risk and I need your support.” The email urges readers to visit the Protect Local Jobs site and sign on to the anti-SAFRA petition to "protect good, family-supporting jobs across the country.” Despite the Sallie Mae e-mail, Goldman still claims that “Sallie Mae is not part of the coalition.”

The campaign claims that SAFRA would eliminate as many as 35,000 jobs. But the estimate is based solely on the total number of FFEL jobs that currently exist, and doesn’t consider the lender jobs that would still be needed to service student loans made before SAFRA. What's more, if reform passes, loans would be owned by the government, but they would also be contracted out to be serviced by lenders and create new jobs, according to the legislation. To date, the overall impact of the legislation on jobs has not been fully analyzed, but many jobs likely would be created or saved through federal investments in community colleges, minority serving institutions, early childhood education, and other efforts.

“They pay attention to what we’re doing, but they don’t pay. They don’t contribute any money,” says the Qorvis spokesperson, who denies a “big bank” influence. “We’ve tried to keep our distance from them.”

On top of a media campaign to sway public opinion on reform, opponents have hired no fewer than 26 lobbyists to influence lawmakers on Capitol Hill, with Sallie Mae employing a total of 21, according to the most recent lobbyist disclosure records published in October. Records also show that the Nelnet, NCHELP, Sallie Mae, and PNC bank, the chief lenders that oppose SAFRA have spent at least $4 million on lobbying costs since the beginning of the year. Sallie Mae alone hired two new lobbying firms this year and, as of October, had nearly matched its entire lobbying spending from 2008. The company spent nearly $3 million by October of this year versus just over $3.5 million in all of 2008.

Amy Tejral, a lobbyist with Avenue Solutions, a firm paid by Nelnet, was the former legislative director for Sen. Ben Nelson (D- Neb.) Qorvis managing director Scott McCullers is also a former legislative assistant to Nelson.

Sallie Mae employs company lobbyist Carmen Guzman Lowrey, who worked closely with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). Donni Turner, a lobbyist for the Podesta Group, a firm Sallie Mae hired in March, also used to be a legislative assistant to Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).

Qorvis Communications donated $2,400 to Nelson's campaign committee in June, shortly before SAFRA was introduced in the House, campaign finance reports show. Nelnet also gave $5,000 to Nelson's Nebraska Leadership committee in September.

While Nelson is restricted from using contributions to his Nebraska Leadership committee for his own campaigning purposes, the money can go to support other candidates.

Nelnet is a major servicer of FFEL loans, but Jake Thompson, a spokesperson for Nelson, says the money has not influenced Nelson’s decision to oppose reform that would eliminate the FFEL program.

“In his campaigns for public office, he’s received contributions from thousands and thousands of individuals and organizations,” Thompson says.

However, the majority of Nelson’s campaign cash has come from Nebraska-based Nelnet's political action committee since 2005, according to the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics. Additionally, Nelson's PAC has given thousands to members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, which is responsible for legislation concerning the student loan industry and where SAFRA would be debated in the Senate.

“We give to a lot to centrist candidates like Nelson mostly because it’s kind of where our business is,” Goldman says.

Goldman says that Protect Student Choice is about “making sure schools and universities have their choice of who they want to be getting loans from,” though he admits that, despite the premise of student choice in the campaign, students “are sort of stuck with what the schools decide.” For now, schools can get loans through the FFEL program or through the direct lending program, but if SAFRA becomes law, schools will have only one choice: direct lending that will save taxpayers money.