Wednesday, December 16, 2009

2010: "The Year of Severe Economic Contraction"

2010: "The Year of Severe Economic Contraction"

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Upbeat reports in the financial media, belie the effects of the ongoing credit contraction. Massive injections of central bank liquidity have prevented the collapse of financial markets, but have done little to ease the deleveraging of households or stimulate activity the broader economy. The crisis has stripped $13 trillion in equity from working families who now find their access to credit either cut off or severely curtailed by the same banks that received hefty taxpayer-funded bailouts. The fiscal strangulation of the millions of people who are no longer considered "creditworthy" is progressively weakening demand and spreading pessimism across all income levels. Growing public desperation was the focus of a special weekend report by Bloomberg News:

"Americans have grown gloomier about both the economy and the nation’s direction over the past three months even as the U.S. shows signs of moving from recession to recovery. Almost half the people now feel less financially secure than when President Barack Obama took office in January, a Bloomberg National Poll shows.

The economy is the country’s top concern, with persistently high unemployment the greatest threat the public sees. Eight of 10 Americans rate joblessness a high risk to the economy in the next two years, outranking the federal budget deficit, which is cited by 7 of 10. An increase in taxes is named as a high risk by almost 6 of 10.

Fewer than 1 in 3 Americans think the economy will improve in the next six months....Only 32 percent of poll respondents believe the country is headed in the right direction, down from 40 percent who said so in September." (Bloomberg)

The near-delirious optimism that followed the 2008 presidential election has fizzled in less than 12 months. While the policies of the Obama administration have improved Wall Street's prospects for record profits and lavish bonuses, ordinary working people continue to fight to keep their jobs and maintain their standard of living. Recent data show that household debt which surged during the boom years is being pared back at a historic pace. Household debt to disposable income has plummeted from 136 percent to 122 percent in a little more than a year, leaving many families with little to spend at the malls or shopping centers.

Severe retrenchment has triggered a shift towards personal thriftiness which is reducing economic activity and strengthening deflationary pressures. 2010 is likely to be even worse, as mushrooming foreclosures and commercial real estate defaults force banks to slash lending accelerating the rate of decline. This is from Bloomberg:

"Foreclosure filings in the U.S. will reach a record for the second consecutive year with 3.9 million notices sent to homeowners in default, RealtyTrac Inc. said. This year’s filings will surpass 2008’s total of 3.2 million as record unemployment and price erosion batter the housing market...

Foreclosure filings exceeded 300,000 for the ninth straight month in November, RealtyTrac said today. A weak labor market and tight credit are "formidable headwinds" for the economy, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke said in a Dec. 7 speech in Washington. The 7.2 million jobs lost since the recession began in December 2007 are the most of any postwar economic slump, Labor Department data show. Unemployment, at 10 percent last month, won’t peak until the first quarter, Quigley said." (Bloomberg)

The Obama administration's $787 billion stimulus pushed GDP into positive territory for the first time in more than a year, but the maximum impact has already been felt. President Obama--under advice from his chief advisors-- has shifted his focus from soaring unemployment to long-term deficits. Additional stimulus will be no more than $200 billion, of which, a mere $50 billion will go towards jobs initiatives. At the same time, Fed chair Ben Bernanke will terminate the quantitative easing (QE) program which kept long-term interest rates low while providing financing for the housing market. When the program ends, rates will rise, housing prices will tumble, and liquidity will drain from the system. The end of QE coupled with dwindling stimulus ensures that economy will slide back into recession in the 2nd or 3rd Quarter of 2010.

Policymakers have decided to create conditions that are favorable to financial sector consolidation and the further privatization of public assets. The economy is being strangled by design.

Here's economist Mark Thoma explaining why consumption will not return to pre-crisis levels:

"For the immediate future and likely for much longer than that, slow consumption growth is expected. One way that could change is if the government implements a successful jobs program or uses some other means to increase household income (e.g. a payroll tax cut), and households spend rather than save the extra income..., but the political environment makes a jobs program or further fiscal policy action highly unlikely.

Similarly...the Fed is anxious to unwind its massive policy intervention, not extend it, so monetary policy is unlikely to help much either. Since monetary and fiscal policy authorities are unwilling to provide further help, slow growth is the best outcome we’re likely to get." ("Will Consumption Growth Return to Its Pre-Recession Level?" Mark Thoma,

Along with flagging consumption, economists Antonio Fatas and Ilian Mihov show why both investment and employment will not rebound in the way that many bullish analysts expect. By tracking the rate of recovery in the last 5 recessions, the two economists show that demand will remain flat for a prolonged period of time, precipitating a "jobless" and "investmentless" recovery. Their research supports additional stimulus to reduce the output gap and engage the labor force in productive activity. The administration's policies are the exact opposite of the majority of professional economists who believe that deficits need to increase to effect overcapacity and underutilization. Obama is deliberately steering the economy into a double-dip recession.

While financial institutions have been propped up with zero-rates, myriad lending facilities and boatloads of Fed liquidity, the real economy continues to on a downward path. As households rebalance accounts and increase savings, the signs of distress are becoming more apparent. In Europe, the ECB and IMF have begun to use the financial crisis to wrest control of the budgets of deficits-plagued nations to apply business-friendly austerity measures. The economic meltdown--that was generated by overleveraged banks trading dodgy investment paper--is now being used to assert corporate/bank control over sovereign nations. Greece, Ireland, Iceland, Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, Portugal and Spain are all presently in the crosshairs of neoliberal restructuring. Surely, the same policies will be applied within the United States under the guidance of supply-side economist and chief advisor to the president, Lawrence Summers. Thus, in 2010, economic contraction will continue to force state and local governmnets to lay off millions of more workers while public assets and services are made available at firesale prices to private industry.

Debt deflation and deleveraging will continue into 2011, while foreclosures, personal bankruptcies and defaults continue to mount. The public's frustration with ineffective government policies, is likely to change from pessimism to rage on short notice. The prospect of social unrest or sporadic incidents of violence can no longer be excluded.

EU/IMF Revolt: Greece, Iceland, Latvia May Lead the Way

EU/IMF Revolt: Greece, Iceland, Latvia May Lead the Way

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Europe's small, debt-strapped countries could follow the lead of Argentina and simply walk away from their debts. That would shift the burden to the creditor countries, which could solve the problem merely by a change in accounting rules.

Total financial collapse, once a problem only for developing countries, has now come to Europe. The International Monetary Fund is imposing its "austerity measures" on the outer circle of the European Union, with Greece, Iceland and Latvia the hardest hit. But these are not your ordinary third world debtor supplicants. Historically, the Vikings of Iceland repeatedly repulsed British invaders; Latvian tribes repulsed even the Vikings; and the Greeks conquered the whole Persian empire. If anyone can stand up to the IMF, these stalwart European warriors can.

Dozens of countries have defaulted on their debts in recent decades, the most recent being Dubai, which declared a debt moratorium on November 26, 2009. If the once lavishly-rich Arab emirate can default, more desperate countries can; and when the alternative is to destroy the local economy, it is hard to argue that they shouldn't. That is particularly true when (a) the creditors are largely responsible for the debtor's troubles, or (b) there are good grounds for arguing the debts are not owed. Greece's troubles originated when low interest rates that were inappropriate for Greece were maintained to rescue Germany from an economic slump. And Iceland and Latvia have been saddled with responsibility for private obligations to which they were not parties.

The Dysfunctional EU: Why a Common Currency Doesn't Work

Greece may be the first in the EU outer circle to revolt. According to Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in Sunday's Daily Telegraph, "Greece has become the first country on the distressed fringes of Europe's monetary union to defy Brussels and reject the Dark Age leech-cure of wage deflation." Prime Minister George Papandreou said on Friday:

"Salaried workers will not pay for this situation: we will not proceed with wage freezes or cuts. We did not come to power to tear down the social state."

Evans-Pritchard noted:

"Mr Papandreou has good reason to throw the gauntlet at Europe's feet. Greece is being told to adopt an IMF-style austerity package, without the devaluation so central to IMF plans. The prescription is ruinous and patently self-defeating."

The currency cannot be devalued because the same euro is used by all. That means that while the country's ability to repay is being crippled by austerity measures, there is no way to lower the cost of the debt. Evans-Pritchard concluded:

"The deeper truth that few in Euroland are willing to discuss is that EMU is inherently dysfunctional - for Greece, for Germany, for everybody."

Which is all the more reason that Iceland and Latvia, which are not yet EU members, might want to reconsider their positions.

As a condition of membership, Iceland is being required to endorse an agreement in which it would reimburse Dutch and British depositors who lost money in the collapse of IceSave, an offshore division of Iceland's leading private bank. Eva Joly, a Norwegian-French magistrate hired to investigate the Icelandic bank collapse, called it blackmail. She warned that succumbing to the EU's demands would drain Iceland of its resources and its people, who are being forced to emigrate to find work.

Latvia, a member of the EU, has not yet adopted the Euro, but is expected to do so. Meanwhile, the EU and IMF have told the government to borrow foreign currency to stabilize the exchange rate, in order to help borrowers pay mortgages taken out in foreign currencies from foreign banks. As a condition of IMF funding, the usual government cutbacks are also being required. Nils Muiznieks, head of the Advanced Social and Political Research Institute in Riga, Latvia, complained:

"The rest of the world is implementing stimulus packages ranging from anywhere between one percent and ten percent of GDP but at the same time, Latvia has been asked to make deep cuts in spending - a total of about 38 percent this year in the public sector - and raise taxes to meet budget shortfalls."

In November, the Latvian government adopted its harshest budget of recent years, with cuts of nearly 11 percent. The government had already raised taxes, slashed public spending and government wages and shut dozens of schools and hospitals. As a result, the national bank forecasts a 17.5 percent decline in the economy this year, just when it needs a productive economy to get back on its feet. In Iceland, the economy contracted by 7.2 percent during the third quarter, the biggest fall on record. As in other countries squeezed by neoliberal tourniquets on productivity, employment and output are being crippled, bringing these economies to their knees.

The cynical view is that that may have been the intent. Instead of helping post-Soviet nations develop self-reliant economies, wrote Marshall Auerback, "the West has viewed them as economic oysters to be broken up to indebt them in order to extract interest charges and capital gains, leaving them empty shells."

But the people are not submitting quietly to all this. In Latvia last week, while the Parliament debated what to do about the nation's debt, thousands of demonstrating students and teachers filled the streets, protesting the closing of a hundred schools and reductions in teacher salaries of up to 60 percent. Demonstrators held signs saying, "They have sold their souls to the devil" and "We are against poverty." In the Iceland Parliament, the IceSave debate had been going on for over 140 hours, a new record. A growing portion of the population opposes underwriting a debt they believe the government does not owe.

In a December 3 article in The Daily Mail titled "What Iceland Can Teach the Tories," Mary Ellen Synon wrote that ever since the Icelandic economy collapsed last year, "the empire builders of Brussels have been confident that the bankrupt and frightened Icelanders must finally be ready to exchange their independence for the 'stability' of EU membership." But last month, an opinion poll showed that 54 percent of all Icelanders oppose membership, with just 29 percent in favor. Synon wrote:

"The Icelanders may have been scared out of their wits last year, but they are now climbing out from under the ruins of their prosperity and have decided that the most valuable thing they have left is their independence. They are not willing to trade it, not even for the possibility of a bail-out by the European Central Bank."

Iceland, Latvia and Greece are all in a position to call the bluff of the IMF and EU. In an October 1 article called "Latvia - the Insanity Continues," Marshall Auerback maintained that Latvia's debt problem could be fixed over a weekend, by a list of measures including (1) not answering the phone when foreign creditors call the government; (2) declaring the banks insolvent, converting their external debt to equity, and having them reopen with full deposit insurance guaranteed in local currency; and (3) offering "a local currency minimum wage job that includes healthcare to anyone willing and able to work as was done in Argentina after the Kirchner regime repudiated the IMF's toxic package of debt repayment."

Evans-Pritchard suggested a similar remedy for Greece, which he said could break out of its death loop by following the lead of Argentina. It could "restore its currency, devalue, pass a law switching internal euro debt into [the local currency], and 'restructure' foreign contracts."

The Road Less Traveled: Saying No to the IMF

Standing up to the IMF is not a well-worn path, but Argentina forged the trail. In the face of dire predictions that the economy would collapse without foreign credit, in 2001, it defied its creditors and simply walked away from its debts. By the fall of 2004, three years after a record default on a debt of more than $100 billion, the country was well on the road to recovery; and it achieved this feat without foreign help. The economy grew by 8 percent for two consecutive years. Exports increased, the currency was stable, investors were returning and unemployment had eased. "This is a remarkable historical event, one that challenges 25 years of failed policies," said economist Mark Weisbrot in a 2004 interview quoted in The New York Times. "While other countries are just limping along, Argentina is experiencing very healthy growth with no sign that it is unsustainable, and they've done it without having to make any concessions to get foreign capital inflows."

Weisbrot is co-director of a Washington-based think tank called the Center for Economic and Policy Research, which put out a study in October 2009 of 41 IMF debtor countries. The study found that the austere policies imposed by the IMF, including cutting spending and tightening monetary policy, were more likely to damage than help those economies.

That was also the conclusion of a study released last February by Yonca Özdemir from the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, comparing IMF assistance in Argentina and Turkey. Both emerging markets faced severe economic crises in 2001, preceded by chronic fiscal deficits, insufficient export growth, high indebtedness, political instability and wealth inequality.
Where Argentina broke ranks with the IMF, however, Turkey followed its advice at every turn. The end result was that Argentina bounced back, while Turkey is still in financial crisis. Turkey's reliance on foreign investment has made it highly susceptible to the global economic downturn. Argentina chose instead to direct its investment inward, developing its domestic economy.

To find the money for this development, Argentina did not need foreign investors. It issued its own money and credit through its own central bank. Earlier, when the national currency collapsed completely in 1995 and again after 2000, Argentine local governments issued local bonds that traded as currency. Provinces paid their employees with paper receipts called "Debt-Canceling Bonds" that were in currency units equivalent to the Argentine peso. The bonds canceled the provinces' debts to their employees and could be spent in the community. The provinces had actually "monetized" their debts, turning their bonds into legal tender.

Argentina is a large country with more resources thanIceland, Latvia, or Greece, but new technologies are available that could make even small countries self-sufficient. See David Blume, "Alcohol Can Be a Gas."

Local Currency for Local Development

Issuing and lending currency is the sovereign right of governments, and it is a right that Iceland and Latvia will lose if they join the EU, which forbids member nations to borrow from their own central banks. Latvia and Iceland both have natural resources that could be developed if they had the credit to do it; and with sovereign control over their local currencies, they could get that credit simply by creating it on the books of their own publicly-owned banks.

In fact, there is nothing extraordinary in that proposal. All private banks get the credit they lend simply by creating it on their books. Contrary to popular belief, banks do not lend their own money or their depositors' money. As the US Federal Reserve attests, banks lend new money, created by double-entry bookkeeping as a deposit of the borrower on one side of the bank's books and as an asset of the bank on the other.

Besides thawing frozen credit pipes, credit created by governments has the advantage that it can be issued interest-free. Eliminating the cost of interest can cut production costs dramatically. According to a German study, interest composes 30 percent to 50 percent of everything we buy. Slashing interest costs can make projects such as low-cost housing, alternative energy development, and infrastructure construction not only sustainable but profitable for the government, while at the same time creating much-needed jobs.

Government-issued money to fund public projects has a long and successful history, going back at least to the early 18th century, when the American colony of Pennsylvania issued money that was both lent and spent by the local government into the economy. The result was an unprecedented period of prosperity, achieved without producing price inflation and without taxing the people.

The key is to use the newly-created money or credit for productive projects that increase goods and services, rather than for speculation or to pay off national debt in foreign currencies (the trap that Zimbabwe fell into). The national currency can be protected from speculators by imposing exchange controls, as Malaysia did in 1998; imposing capital controls, as Brazil and Taiwan are doing now; banning derivatives; and imposing a "Tobin tax," a small tax on trade in financial products.

Making the Creditors Whole

If the creditors are really interested in having their debts repaid, they will see the wisdom of letting the debtor nation build up its producing economy to give it something with which to pay. If the creditors are not really interested in repayment, but are using the debt as a tool to exploit the debtor country and strip it of its assets, the creditors' bluff needs to be called.

When the debtor nation refuses to pay, the burden shifts to the creditors to make themselves whole. British economist Michael Rowbotham suggested that, in the modern world of electronic money, this can be accomplished by creative banking regulators simply changing accounting rules. "Debt" today is created with accounting entries, and it can be reversed with accounting entries. Rowbotham outlines two ways the rules might be changed to liquidate impossible-to-repay debt:

"The first option is to remove the obligation on banks to maintain parity between assets and liabilities.... Thus, if a commercial bank held $10 billion worth of developing country debt bonds, after cancellation it would be permitted in perpetuity to have a $10 billion dollar deficit in its assets. This is a simple matter of record-keeping.

"The second option ... is to cancel the debt bonds, yet permit banks to retain them for purposes of accountancy. The debts would be cancelled so far as the developing nations were concerned, but still valid for the purposes of a bank's accounts. The bonds would then be held as permanent, non-negotiable assets, at face value."

If the banks were allowed either to carry unrepayable loans on their books or to accept payment in local currency, their assets and their solvency would be preserved. Everyone could shake hands and get back to work.

Study Proves Three Monsanto Corn Varieties' Noxiousness to the Organism

Study Proves Three Monsanto Corn Varieties' Noxiousness to the Organism

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A study published in the International Journal of Biological Sciences demonstrates the toxicity of three genetically modified corn varieties from the American seed company Monsanto, the Committee for Independent Research and Information on Genetic Engineering (Criigen, based in Caen), which participated in that study, announced Friday, December 11.

"For the first time in the world, we've proven that GMO are neither sufficiently healthy nor proper to be commercialized. [...] Each time, for all three GMOs, the kidneys and liver, which are the main organs that react to a chemical food poisoning, had problems," indicated Gilles-Eric Séralini, an expert member of the Commission for Biotechnology Reevaluation, created by the EU in 2008.

Caen and Rouen University researchers, as well as Criigen researchers, based their analyses on the data supplied by Monsanto to health authorities to obtain the green light for commercialization, but they draw different conclusions after new statistical calculations. According to Professor Séralini, the health authorities based themselves on a reading of the conclusions Monsanto has presented and not on conclusions drawn from the totality of the data. The researchers were able to obtain complete documentation following a legal decision.

"Monsanto's tests, effected over 90 days, are obviously not of sufficient duration to be able to say whether chronic illnesses are caused. That's why we ask for tests over a period of at least two years," explained one researcher. Consequently, the scientists demand a "firm prohibition" on the importation and cultivation of these GMOs.

These three GMOs (MON810, MON863 and NK603) "are approved for human and animal consumption in the EU and especially the United States," notes Professor Séralini. "MON810 is the only one of the three grown in certain EU countries (especially Spain); the others are imported," he adds. A meeting of EU ministers over MON810 and NK603 is scheduled Monday

Sex Slavery: The Desperate Plight of Many Women

Sex Slavery: The Desperate Plight of Many Women

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Sitting in the Boone County jail, the Chinese woman didn’t look like a criminal to Kelley Lucero. She looked like a middle-aged mom.

Soon, Lucero learned that the woman had indeed come to America to scout out a college for her teenage son. She had come, legally, as part of a cultural exchange program, but her life had taken an unexpected and terrifying turn here in Middle America.

Forced to work in a one-room massage parlor, she ended up being arrested for prostitution at a truck stop between Kansas City and St. Louis.

Only an experienced eye like Lucero’s could see something that Boone County, Mo., deputies appeared to miss. What so many in law enforcement all over the nation still are not trained to see.

“This wasn’t a prostitute,” said Lucero, a sexual abuse program coordinator for a domestic violence shelter in Columbia. “She was a human trafficking victim.”

And yet, the Chinese woman sat in jail for five months.

When the United States took a global stand on human trafficking in 2000, lawmakers wanted to rescue foreign-born women turned into American sex slaves. In too many cases, though, that hasn’t happened.

In its six-month investigation into America’s effectiveness in the war on human trafficking, The Kansas City Star found that the system orginally designed with sex trafficking in mind is often unsuccessful in reaching those victims.

Some are mistakenly identified as prostitutes and end up either lost in the criminal justice bureaucracy or back on the streets. Even when victims are identified by law enforcement, some are reluctant to go through the gantlet that accompanies the prosecution of their trafficker, too untrusting or scared to reveal the horrible things that happened to them. Critics complain that the U.S. law is inherently flawed because it connects victims’ aid with their willingness to help make cases.

“No one is seeing the situation for what it is,” said Karen Stauss, an attorney with Polaris Project, an anti-trafficking organization based in Washington, D.C. “It’s like we’re saying, ‘We blame you for what you are suffering.’ ”

The government also has been slow to recognize an emerging class of new victims: young American girls. While millions are spent each year to combat international sex trafficking, lawmakers have yet to approve funding for domestic victims — perhaps the fastest-growing class of those trafficked in the United States.

Anti-trafficking experts say that the current federal and state laws are blunt legal instruments in trying to address the complexity of an ever-evolving global criminal enterprise and do not account for the trauma of women forced into sexual abuse. Of all human trafficking crimes, The Star found, the ones involving sex slavery have proved to be the most difficult when it comes to catching and prosecuting the traffickers.

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act “is not creating the legal environment we worked so hard to create so we can prevent human trafficking,” said Norma Ramos, of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women. “It’s a federal law that’s really not that useful for what it was supposed to do — end human trafficking.”

All in the Approach

When the mother from China was arrested, deputies in Boone County hadn’t been trained to recognize human trafficking. They didn’t know what questions to ask.

Or that the crime requires a victim-centered approach, much different from what officers are traditionally schooled in.

Boone County Assistant Prosecutor Merilee Crockett said she couldn’t discuss specifics of the case, but generally cases that may involve human trafficking are a “conundrum” because if victims are released they could end up back with their traffickers. And sometimes there is no safe place to keep them other than jail.

“Where is the rescue? What do we do for them? How do we protect them?” Crockett said.

Law enforcement authorities also have different priorities, explained Ivy Suriyopas, staff attorney for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. “They focus on catching perpetrators, making sure the public is safe from additional crimes. That doesn’t necessarily correlate with the needs of the victims.”

Some police officers get it and know how to work human trafficking cases, advocates acknowledged. Yet many don’t. At least not at this point.

But experts say that’s not surprising.

“They are being asked to take off their glasses and put on a slightly different prescription,” said Bill Bernstein of Mosaic Family Services, which works with human trafficking survivors in Dallas. “They’re having to view some people who we think might be victims in a slightly different light. That’s beginning, but it will take time.”

Further complicating anti-trafficking efforts is that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents are supposed to not only screen victims for possible human trafficking, but also root out illegal immigration — what some see as a conflict of interest.

At the very least, that creates an “inherent challenge,” according to Kristyn Peck Williams, screening and field coordinator of the anti-trafficking services program for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“ICE would do the raid, but they would also be the ones in the position to identify trafficking victims,” Williams said.

The initial contact with potential victims is crucial, advocates maintain. If agents use the same hard demeanor they use investigating other crimes, it can further traumatize a victim and destroy the case.

In one instance, a federal agent in the southern region of the United States interviewed a foreign-born woman picked up in a brothel raid. “So you were a prostitute?” the agent asked during the investigation.

An immigration attorney in the room told The Star that the woman instantly clammed up. Later, she was deported.

“I’ve seen a lot of women who were helped, but I see a lot of women who slipped through the cracks,” said the attorney, who didn’t want to be identified for fear of retribution by law enforcement.

In routine prostitution cases, officers are usually only interested in the money generated by the ring and the people involved. But human trafficking cases require more sensitivity and different questions.

“We now ask, ‘Where do you live? Who do you live with? Where did you come from? How are you paid?’ ” said Capt. Ken Bergman of the Independence Police Department, who works with the local anti-trafficking task force and has six “very trained” detectives who know how to identify victims.

The local task force has trained more than 2,000 officers throughout Missouri and Kansas about trafficking.

Still, that’s only a fraction of the officers in both states.

“You have to know what you are looking for or you will miss it,” Bergman said.

Without the right approach, a sex trafficking victim can be recycled into a lifetime of slavery.
Help us, we’ll help you

From the outset, the system set up to help trafficking victims had a major flaw, advocates found. Especially when it came to helping sex trafficking victims.

The protection act concentrated on three Ps: preventing trafficking, protecting victims and prosecuting the traffickers. Some critics, however, believe that the United States has put too much emphasis on prosecution.

Victims are required to show reasonable cooperation with law enforcement before they receive all the benefits intended for them, such as food stamps, shelter and the opportunity to stay in America.

In effect, victims are told, they may not get help from the government unless they help the government prosecute the trafficker.

“It is very wrong to have this condition,” said Joy Ngozi Ezeilo, appointed last year as the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on human trafficking. “Countries must avoid that.”

Victims are not given enough time for reflection or counseling, Ezeilo said, before they have to agree to cooperate. Given time to heal, some victims may be more likely to help prosecute their trafficker.

Kelly Heinrich, who has studied human trafficking and the laws addressing it, said the federal law is more witness-centered.

“It’s the way it was designed to begin with and implementation made it worse,” Heinrich said.

Many victims aren’t stable enough to immediately tolerate having to relive what they went through, said Judy Okawa, a licensed psychologist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of survivors of severe trauma.

One sex trafficking survivor Okawa has worked with said she relives her abuse every time the sun goes down. She told Okawa it’s then — when the quality of light is at a certain level — she’s reminded of the time she was forced to have sex.

Other survivors have different triggers. But the last thing they want to do is speak of the abuse. Or look into the eyes of the perpetrator.

It brings it all back, Okawa said. The fear. And the threats.

“If that trafficker is not in jail or dead, there’s always a chance he or she will hurt them,” Okawa said. “(The trafficker) says, ‘You can run, but you can’t hide from me. I will find you and I will kill your family.’ ”

One trafficking victim reached out to a domestic violence advocacy program in Kansas. Her trafficker was forcing her to work long hours for little pay, stopping her from leaving the country, and frequently sexually assaulting her.

Pregnant with his baby, she wanted help.

But she was afraid to pursue a trafficking visa designed for victims because it would mean having to report her trafficker, which could put her, and her baby, in more danger.

“Although she may have had a remedy available … she didn’t feel like she could do that. She was too afraid,” said Pamela Jacobs, immigration project attorney for the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence.

“Being asked to testify against a person you’ve been afraid of for a long time, and someone who could still hurt you, and your child, is very difficult. Just having a visa does not guarantee a victim’s safety.”

The woman did not see a way to escape, and advocates do not know what happened to her.

Consensual Arrangement?

In the late spring of 2007, Johnson County authorities undertook the first major human trafficking investigation in the Kansas City area. Law enforcement at the time said they “rescued” 15 women from strip-mall Asian massage parlors — one called China Rose — and there could be many more victims.

Originally from China and Korea, the women worked 14 hours a day, seven days a week, performing sex acts. Sometimes they slept on the same bed where they serviced customers.

For investigators, on paper they looked like human trafficking victims.

But as time went on, and the case wound through criminal court, more information surfaced. Some women came to Kansas City knowing they would work as prostitutes. One woman, according to statements made by one of the defendants, made about $15,000 in a month.

Others said they had no idea they would be prostituted when they got here.

Ultimately, prosecutors didn’t charge the four main defendants with human trafficking. Instead, they were charged with and pleaded guilty to coercing females to travel for prostitution.

Court testimony and other information prompted the federal judge hearing the case to dismiss the notion that there were “vulnerable victims.”

“The victims were more participants than victims,” said Chief U.S. District Judge Fernando Gaitan in sentencing the lead defendant, Ling Xu. “They appeared to be professionals.”

Defense attorney Melanie Morgan, who represented Ling, said she believes prosecutors tried too hard to make the case into something it wasn’t.

“This wasn’t human trafficking,” Morgan said. “This was a very consensual arrangement.”

The case provided a small window into the complexity of sex trafficking investigations. Prosecutors across the country are filtering through scenarios where the water is muddy regarding what is coercion and what is consensual.

In the China Rose case, federal prosecutors said evidence supported the charges filed, and the government still contends that some of the women met the definition of a human trafficking victim.

Those women were offered trafficking visas, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Cynthia Cordes, who specializes in trafficking cases.

“But they wanted to return home to their families,” Cordes explained.

Our Own Backyard

Ever since passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act nearly a decade ago, foreign-born victims have been the law’s focus. They get extensive counseling, visa assistance and help with food and housing costs as they rebuild their lives.

For victims born in the United States, however, state governments were expected to take care of children prostituted by pimps or family members.

But that rarely happens, The Star found.

“You talk about frustration,” said Thomas Egan of Catholic Charities in Phoenix. “We found hundreds of prostituted kids and no funding available to help them.”

Kristy Childs sees it every day.

As founder and director of the nonprofit Veronica’s Voice, Childs works to help Kansas City area women and girls escape the commercial sex industry.

That’s what Childs did this summer when she and her staff searched the streets for a 12-year-old girl. Day after day, they heard from sources on the street, the junior-high-school girl was forced to prostitute herself.

“Every day she’s out there, she’s in more danger,” Childs said one day as they went out to search again. “…We’re trying to save the world and we can’t. We can’t even save the victims in our own backyard.”

With American-born victims, it becomes a maddening game of catch and release.

Most welfare programs require recipients to be at least 18 to receive benefits. Since many young domestic trafficking victims are considered unaccompanied minors, they don’t qualify.

Critics said this is another area where the law is deeply flawed.

“They (lawmakers) messed up,” said Theresa Flores, who was sex trafficked as a teenager growing up in Michigan and now works as a victim advocate. “They didn’t include Americans, and they should have.”

Four years ago, Childs and other advocates lobbied U.S. legislators to make it clear that domestic victims should be protected under the act. They specifically wanted American-born girls under the age of 18 who are sex trafficked to be considered victims entitled to services and benefits.

Lawmakers included that provision in the 2005 reauthorization of the protection act.

But they didn’t fund services for domestic victims, leaving thousands of young girls vulnerable to further abuse.

“We’re going to point the finger at other countries for how they deal with their domestic trafficking, but then we’re not doing enough for our own citizens?” asked Colette Bercu of Tennessee’s Free for Life International, a nonprofit organization that supports trafficking survivors. “We’ve got a problem.”

At a national symposium in July, social workers and health care experts pointed out that resources available to help domestic victims don’t come close to what’s available for foreign-born victims.

Near the top of the list is housing. Police and community organizations are having a tough time finding somewhere to take domestic victims lucky enough to have escaped their pimps.

“As a result, many domestic minor victims are housed in juvenile detention centers, which often do not recognize or treat these youth as victims of a crime, but rather as perpetrators,” a symposium report said.

Cordes said she prosecutes domestic sex trafficking cases with the same fervor as cases with international victims but it can be challenging.

“We have a duty to protect our own citizens and children,” she said. “Because the domestic victims are ineligible for funding under the (protection act) each case demands extra effort and creativity to obtain services.”

More than 1,800 Las Vegas youths under the age of 18 were in juvenile lockup on prostitution-related charges between 1996 and 2007, according to a study released this year by Shared Hope International, which rescues victims of sex trafficking. In Dallas, 165 youths were in police custody on prostitution-related charges in 2007 alone. Shared Hope officials believe all of these kids were victims and should not have been thrown in jail.

“We have to stop criminalizing, arresting the kids,” said Shared Hope founder Linda Smith.

For the 12-year-old in Kansas City, police were more understanding. Especially after Childs called them when her search came up empty.

Within a day, law enforcement had found her. But only after two officers spent a night doing nothing but looking for her. She was taken to a local hospital and examined.

Authorities tried to connect her with Veronica’s Voice and Childs, to get her the counseling she needed. But somehow she slipped away.

Now, Childs worries she’s back on the streets.

A Long Way Home

With foreign-born human trafficking victims, the line between victim and criminal isn’t always clear, either.

Consider the Chinese woman Lucero met in jail.

The woman paid $13,000 — her family’s life savings — to enroll in what she thought was a cultural exchange program that would bring her to the United States. Her teenage son planned to go to college in America, and someone in their family had to come in advance to get a job and earn money.

She made the trip on a six-month visa, Lucero said. But when she got off the plane in Los Angeles, she was taken to a Chinese restaurant where she went to work washing dishes.

Next, she thought she’d get a job as a nanny for a wealthy family. But then she met a man who said he was from her province in China. He told her about the massage business, how she could get a license and make good money.

She believed him. With what the woman thought was a legitimate license in hand, she traveled with several other women to the Midwest.

Twelve of them worked 12 hours a day inside cramped parlors set up inside truck stops across Middle America.

“They gave her half of what she was making,” Lucero said, noting that she still knows very little about the traffickers.

The woman ended up with a couple of hundred dollars a week. Most she’d send to family back in China.

Then police got a tip about a one-room massage parlor operated out of a Boone County truck stop along Interstate 70. The night she was arrested, police didn’t have a translator and she couldn’t tell her story.

The Chinese woman never told Lucero all she was forced to do. She even denied having sex.

“It would be too humiliating,” Lucero explained.

The woman spent Christmas 2007 behind bars.

“My parents are old and sick,” she later wrote Lucero. “My mother knows I’m in jail and she’s had a heart attack and is in the hospital. My husband (still in China) … can’t work because of my situation.”

Eventually, charges were dismissed. The woman went to California and got her temporary visa extended. Then she headed east to work, she said, in a market.

But before she left the Midwest, she wrote Lucero about missing her homeland.

“The only thing I wish for is to leave America and go to my loved ones,” she said. “I feel like America is a place where they talk a lot about human rights, and I know I have the right to go back to China. Can you please help me?”

For almost a year, Lucero didn’t hear from her and wasn’t sure where she ended up.

Then last week, Lucero received an e-mail. The woman is on the East Coast waiting for her green card.

“She just wanted to say merry Christmas to me and tell me that she loves me,” Lucero said. “And that we have a special connection.”

Curbing Big Banks: Draw the Damn Line

Curbing Big Banks: Draw the Damn Line

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Enjoy the health care debate? Wait until the Senate takes on the big banks. It already looks like déjà vu all over again. Democrats, bloodied from self-inflicted wounds in the health care debate, may well commit seppuku over financial reform.

The script is in place for a failed sequel. The administration, via Treasury, cobbled together a reform plan that was weaker than it should be. The banks signed up every ambulatory lobbyist in town to gut the central reforms. The House fended off Melissa Bean's attempt to be the Joe Lieberman of financial reform, but ended up passing a bill even weaker than the administration's proposal - with nary a Republican vote.

And so to the Senate. Senate Finance Committee Chair Chris Dodd put out a remarkably strong reform measure. The bank lobby made it clear that was a non-starter, so Dodd decided to begin a "bipartisan" process in the Finance Committee - think Max Baucus redux -- searching for the elusive Republican moderate. Meanwhile Blue Dog and New Dem Democrats - Bayh, Warner, Bennet and others - are openly casting about for ways to weaken the proposed agency to protect consumers from bank gouging. And we have yet to hear from Joe Lieberman, still focused on torpedoing health care, who no doubt will weigh in with his inimitable combination of pious corruption and treacherous venom.

The White House has signaled that the president is prepared to let the bipartisan process play itself out. Of course, the president would prefer a strong bill, and will oppose anything that is too weak. But the White House has a big stake in passing any bill labeled comprehensive financial reform. Sound familiar? Don't slit your wrists - the holiday break is coming.

During the break, the White House and Senate might review the debacle known as health care reform, and consider a different strategy. Why spend weeks or months pursuing Republicans, when they are committed to a strategy of obstruction that appears to be working for them, if not the country? Why give the bank lobby a free pass to buy up the handful of Blue Dogs and New Dems to cripple reforms? Why let sanctimonious old Joe gleefully line his campaign pockets while sticking it to liberals another time? Why not call their bluff?

Voters are furious at a bailout that has provided the bankers that ran the economy off the cliff with record bonuses, while millions remain unemployed. Their fury is stoked as bankers gouge them with credit card and overdraft fees, obscene interest rates, and whatever else they can invent to soak their customers. Americans aren't interested in an incomprehensible debate about clearinghouses for derivatives. We want heads to roll. We don't want regulation; we want shackles on bankers so they don't screw us again. And every poll shows that anger goes across party, race, region and religion.

The White House and Democrats find themselves a target of this fury. By appointing Tim Geithner as Treasury Secretary and reappointing Ben Bernanke as head of the Fed, the administration signed onto the Bush bailout of the banks. Republicans successfully conflated the recovery plan with the bailout, and now gleefully blame Obama for running up deficits without producing jobs. So the White House and the Senate leadership have every reason to change the game.

Why not put forth a strong bill built around simple principles? We will protect consumers from being gouged by big banks. We will insure that no bank is too big to fail, and force each to create "living wills" to prove it. We will shut down the backroom gambling in derivatives and exotica that caused the crash. And we'll tax the big banks to pay for the costs.

Then rally 50-55 Democratic Senators, representing 80% of the country's population, to support the bill. Hold a public event and draw the damn line. You are either with this or with the banking lobby. Bring it to the floor. Challenge the Republicans and the New Dems and the montebanks to filibuster against it. Force a vote on cloture. Name names. Who stands with Americans and who stands with the big banks? Force a vote regularly going into the electoral campaign.

Republicans will argue that new regulations will cost jobs and represent government takeover of finance. New Dems will argue that the reforms go too far, and will hurt the recovery. Joe Lieberman will discover that it is immoral to pick on big banks.

Progressives will produce demonstrations in every home office of every Senator standing in the way that will make the tea bagger demos look like, well, tea parties. Let unemployed workers, middle class families worried about losing their homes, young people who just got socked with credit card fees and interest rate hikes, and more get word that their Senator stands against holding the banks accountable and protecting consumers. We'll expose the lobbyists, the money, the campaign contributions, the wives, cousins, sons and daughters on the bank payrolls. The legislators may just discover that the bank money is toxic, and standing with the banks perilous to their political careers.

If financial reform is a backroom policy debate about arcane financial instruments, it will inevitably be dominated by the banking lobby and the experts and legislators that the banks can easily afford to rent. If there are clear lines, the question is which side are you on. Will Republicans stand with the banks? Nothing could be better for reviving Democratic electoral prospects. Will New Democrats stand in the way? I doubt they are that purblind - but they will pay a very big price if they do. I suspect the best road to gaining Democratic unity and bipartisan support isn't compromise in the cloakrooms but challenge in the streets.

This would best be led by the President with his bully pulpit. Populism is not the natural patois of this elegant and eloquent leader. He prefers reason and compromise. But that didn't work out so well with health care, and the bank lobby makes Big Phrma look shabby. The president tried out his inner populist on Sixty Minutes last Sunday, saying that he did "not run for office to be helping out a bunch of fat cat bankers." Then three of those "fat cat bankers" stiffed him on Monday, failing to show up when summoned to the White House. Their message is clear. They are headed back to business as usual. Isn't it time for the President and the Senate leadership to send them a clear message back?

This isn't a game. The banks must be curbed if we are to build a new economy that works for most Americans. As finance was deregulated beginning with Reagan, we've experienced a series of financial crisis - with ever greater frequency and severity. Now the big banks are emerging more concentrated than ever, with an explicit promise that they are too big to fail - meaning that they are free to gamble with taxpayers standing by to cover their losses. This is a poisonous stew. We simply can't afford to let the banks dilute the reforms, or let those too conservative or too corrupt to stand in the way. Make the stakes clear. Take the debate out of the back rooms. Draw the damn line.

Death by Privatization

Death by Privatization

For-profit prison healthcare system implicated in death of inmate.

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Ashley Ellis's misdemeanor arrest turned into a death sentence. Her crime: "careless and negligent operation of a motor vehicle." Less than two days after entering a Vermont prison on a 30-day sentence, she died from the careless and negligent operation of a privatized for-profit prison healthcare system.

Her death shows what can, and does, happen across the country when states outsource prisoner medical services: states cut corners on monitoring, and contractors skimp on care.

Ellis' death "is a pretty blatant and obvious and extreme case of gross negligence," says Seth Lipschutz, supervising attorney at the Vermont Defenders office. "We figured out in a day that they killed her."

Accidents happen

There are cracks in everyone's path that can widen into disaster. Ellis seemed to trip into more than her share. The car accident for which she was jailed was just that -- an accident. She was not speeding or impaired when she hit a man on a motorcycle. He suffered terrible injuries, was put on a ventilator, and is in a wheelchair.

Her injuries emerged over time. "Ashley was horrified by what she had done," said Sandra Gipe, her grandmother. In the two years between the accident and her incarceration, Ellis became a licensed nursing aide, and "took care of people on ventilators," said her public defender Mary Kay Lanthier. "That was all she knew to do, since she couldn't help the man she hit."

She also dropped almost 40 pounds, and her eating disorder became so severe she had been hospitalized. When she entered prison, she required regular potassium supplements to keep her heart from shutting down. Prison Health Services (PHS) never gave her the prescribed medication that could have saved her life. An autopsy put the cause of death as heart failure caused by "denial of access to medication."

Ellis stood 5 foot 6 inches and weighed 87 pounds on Friday, August 14, when Gipe drove her to the Northwest State Correctional Facility in Swanton, Vt. A few days earlier, a news report on her sentencing described the 23-year-old as "gaunt and haggard." Her public defender asked for no jail time because traffic accidents aren't crimes, and Ellis was too sick. Judge Thomas Zonay, either ignoring or ignorant of the bare-bones medical staffing on weekends, ordered Ellis to report at the start of the weekend to the 160-bed red brick prison. Zonay declined comment.

From the moment Ellis entered the bleak intake room with its two barred cells, her life was in the hands of PHS, the fourth for-profit prison healthcare contractor since 1996 to serve Vermont inmates. The Tennessee-based company's cross-country rap sheet is spattered with deaths, lawsuits, millions of dollars in fines and settlements, and numerous investigations. A 2005 three-part New York Times investigation found PHS care "flawed and sometimes lethal."

'Potassium girl'

PHS and Vermont's Department of Corrections (DOC) have lawyered up, but we know that days in advance of her incarceration, Ellis's doctor faxed prison authorities health records documenting her serious anorexia/bulimia nervosa, her need for frequent meals, and most importantly, potassium.

On Friday afternoon, a licensed practical nurse (LPN) conducted the prison's medical intake. On Saturday morning, Dr. John Leppman, the only PHS physician on-call that weekend for Vermont's eight facilities, gave LPN Connie Hall an order for folic acid, potassium and Tums. No potassium was in stock, so a nurse left a cell phone message for a colleague to stop for some at the local drug store before reporting for her 6 p.m. shift. That nurse did not check her messages and arrived at the prison just before the Rite Aid closed for the night.

We also know that by contract, nursing on weekends at Northwest is skeletal and assigned to LPNs who may not have the training to know the importance of potassium, and are barred by state nursing regulations from assessing patients.

By Saturday afternoon, Ellis, who knew the physical danger signs, was begging so often and fervently for potassium that her jailers nicknamed her "Potassium Girl."

Taking pity on the emaciated woman, one corrections officer (CO) violated rules to make her a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, according to Darla Lawton, an investigator with the defender general's office. Another CO was outraged that someone copped a 30-day sentence for a misdemeanor. Ellis was "a skeleton," he says, "I have never seen anyone in that condition."

By 9 p.m., an hour before lockdown, Ellis complained that she felt unwell and went to bed. "Ashley was someone who needed help so much, and no one helped her," Gipe says.

On Sunday at 6:15 a.m., Ellis seemed OK when a CO brought breakfast to her cell, but when he came to collect the tray, Ellis lay crumpled on her bunk. Her eyes were fixed open, her mouth contained unswallowed food.

Up and down Delta Block, locked-in inmates pressed against the small windows in their steel doors, riveted by the unfolding tragedy.

Ellis was pronounced dead at the local hospital.

PHS's public relations firm issued a statement that Ellis "received care that met applicable standards...[and that] PHS did not deny her access to medications." The company refuses to say more, Vermont has refused to file charges, and the DOC has stonewalled some records requests. Ellis' family is considering a civil suit.

For PHS, paying off lawsuits is part of the cost of doing business. "It's in their interest to provide inadequate care and take lumps when sued," Lipschutz says. And when things get really dicey, PHS simply quits, "thus preserving its marketable claim that it has never been let go for cause," the New York Times wrote four years ago. Conveniently for PHS and Vermont, the contract expires in January, and the relationship is ending with a volley of I-quit, don't-bother-to-reapply exchanges.

Vermont's serial contracts with for-profit prison healthcare corporations follow a nationwide pattern: Prisoners get inadequate care, contractors absorb lawsuits, states switch providers, and the conflict between profit-making and good care remains.

As Lipschutz sees it, Ellis' death is "just another example of the maxim: 'We don't care. We don't have to.' "

"We" usually includes the public. "People admitted in newspaper comments," says Vermont's Defender General Matthew Valerio, "that if it had been a sex offender [who died] they 'wouldn't give a damn.'"

But Ellis, a pretty young woman, incarcerated for an accident, drew press, public sympathy, and a search for those responsible.

At first "I pointed the finger directly at [Connie Hall], the nurse on duty," says Valerio, "but realized she was just the last one in line. Now I think PHS is to blame. ... Profit-driven organizations are prone to cut costs. The system failed."

"My analogy is guards at Abu Ghraib," Lanthier says. "Sure the LPNs bear responsibly, but there is a systemic problem."

Vermont first entered that system in the 1990s with EMSA (Emergency Medical Services Associates, later bought by PHS). Next came CHS, and then Correctional Medical Services (CMS), which the state dumped in 2004 after seven in-prison deaths in one year. An investigation found "inadequate staff [that] would lead to significant medical problems and errors in medication administration," and called for "drastic measures to insure contract compliance." PHS arrived in 2005.

Understaffed to death

"Low staffing levels put Ellis in a position of not getting what she needed," Valerio says. "It frequently happens, but usually no one dies."

PHS's $16.4 million per year contract allows it to staff Northwest and other facilities on weekends (and many weekday shifts) with no one above the level of LPN. One PHS doctor is on call, by phone, to cover the 1,600 beds and the 7,000-8,000 people who annually transit the state's eight jails. Leppman says he fields 20 to 30 calls a weekend. Nurses can work 12-hour shifts, and one says she was ordered to work 36 hours straight because no one else was available.

PHS's contract allows all but one prison to substitute an LPN "without penalty if an RN is not available."

The substitution is not trivial. Paid less, LPNs are also less trained (typically one year), and it is not clear, says Valerio, "that an LPN would know that it would have been life threatening" to delay potassium. Lorene Gendron, who worked for PHS for two years as an inmate advocate, says that poor support, salaries and working conditions mean high turnover. "They will hire any friggin' warm body because they go through staff so much," she says.

"PHS's reputation is so bad that good people don't want to work with them, or stay," says Martha Israel, an RN who says she quit the women's prison after "PHS hired an LPN to be nurse manager, a position requiring making patient assessments regularly, but I thought that was incredibly unsafe -- and illegal." When PHS's contract was up for renewal, she tried to warn the DOC.

Timely treatment was a perennial problem. Dr. Charles Gluck, now retired, said that when he worked for PHS, he was frustrated by common delays in getting meds and X-rays.

One RN risked her career to fill the gap. In 2006 her patient was in pain, but the prescribed Tylenol 3 would not arrive for days. She violated the rules by taking Tylenol 3 a released prisoner had left behind, and giving it to the suffering woman. "I did the wrong thing legally," she said, "but I was trying to do what was right for my patient." PHS fired her.

"When I heard about Ashley's death, and the failure to provide meds," she said, "I thought: 'Here we go again.' They don't have enough staff, so they push people to the ultimate. I'll bet a dollar to a dime that's what happened to the LPN on the weekend Ellis died."

When Vermont first hired PHS in 2005, the contract mandated an inmate advocate to visit the prisons and field grievances. "I would say, 'Why can't you just give the patient the med they need?'" Gendron asked. "And PHS would say, 'It's too expensive, or not on our formulary.' It was hard to see something so simple to do for someone and not be able to get it done. There was so much pressure not to prescribe."

"The fewer services they provide, the more money they make," Lipschutz says.

People vs. profits

"I'm still reeling," Andrew Pallito, DOC commissioner, says of Ellis's death. "Up until that point, they [PHS] were doing satisfactory work."

In fact, from January 2008 to May 2009 (three month before Ellis died), PHS reported 169 sick call and pharmacy violations, and DOC imposed $19,200 in penalties.

Despite deaths, the blistering New York Times exposé, and warnings by nurses and others, Vermont renewed PHS's contract for 2007. It let PHS cut twenty nursing shifts a week at Northwest, alter its contract to use LPNs rather than RNs as clinical coordinators and cut the inmate advocate position. Asked if money was the reason, Gendron, who earned $14 an hour, says, "I'll never be sure."

Much of PHS's performance is self-reported, and state monitoring relies on limited resources as well as good intentions. Almost five years ago, Pallito was DOC management executive when an auditor's report on CMS found that Vermont had no real way to evaluate the quality of care. "We didn't belly up to the bar to monitor them," he says. "I think we have made some improvements."

Now DOC head, Pallito called Ellis's death "an isolated incident. ...[PHS has] been in Vermont for four years. On balance, it was not bad."

Bad or not, PHS is exiting the revolving door and Correct Care Solutions (CCS) is entering. They have much in common. Both, are for-profit providers, and both have shared the same CEO, Gerald (Jerry) Boyle.

Before founding CCS in 2003, Boyle headed PHS from 1998 to 2003, a period covered by the Times investigation that found PHS medical care "around the nation has provoked criticism from judges and sheriffs, lawsuits from inmates' families and whistle-blowers, and condemnations by federal, state and local authorities."

Boyle's Vermont connection goes back further. He was also a vice-president with EMSA when it was the state's first prison healthcare contractor.

Negotiations between Vermont and CCS are in the final stage, and it is likely that the new contractor will retain many of the same staff and, unless Vermont writes a very different contract, a tradition of medical lapses and lax oversight.

Gipe is hoping that inquiries into her granddaughter's death will spur reform. But if the investigation is confined to finger-pointing and narrow facts, the answers may obscure rather than reveal the extent and causes of a systemic breakdown that was remarkable for its tragic outcome rather than its particular errors.

Vermont, along with many other states, will still have to resolve the contradiction between the healthcare needs of an often despised population, and the demands of a private contractor for profit. In the latter, at least, PHS was successful: Healthcare revenues from continuing contracts for the third quarter of 2009 -- the quarter when Ellis died from lack of a $4 bottle of pills -- increased almost 28 percent over that quarter in 2008, to $160 million.

Reports demonstrate Israel's efforts to alter demography of East Jerusalem

Reports demonstrate Israel’s efforts to alter demography of East Jerusalem

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Two recent reports point to the Israeli government’s determined efforts to drive Palestinians and Israeli Arabs out of their homes in East Jerusalem.

The HaMoked Center for the Defense of the Individual, an Israeli human rights organization, released a statement showing that the Interior Ministry revoked the residency of 4,577 East Jerusalem Arab residents in 2008. HaMoked acquired the statistics, under a Freedom of Information Act request, for all of the years between 1967 and 2008, apart from 2002 for which no figures were available. The figures show that 8,269 Palestinians had their Jerusalem residence revoked between 1967 and 2007, with a previous high in 2006 when 1,363 Arabs lost their residency status. The number of cases of revocation of residency in 2008 is equal to approximately one half of the total number of cases over the previous 40 years.

Dalia Kerstein, executive director of HaMoked, stated, “The interior ministry campaign in 2008 is only part of a general policy whose aim is to limit the Palestinian population and preserve a Jewish majority in Jerusalem.” The Palestinians in East Jerusalem are the majority, with about 250,000, but this is being challenged by 190,000 Jewish settlers. The Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, unlike the Arabs inside Israel, did not become Israeli citizens after the creation of Israel in 1948, and though they have some of the rights of Israelis, their permission to live in the city can be revoked for a variety of reasons.

According to the Interior Ministry, the sharp increase in revoking residency follows its decision to investigate the legal status of thousands of East Jerusalem residents in March and April 2008. This new tactic is reportedly the brainchild of former Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit (Kadima) and Yaakov Ganot, ex-head of the ministry's Population Administration. Ominously, Sheetrit claims, “What we discovered is just the tip of the iceberg.”

The ministry said it carried out a “comprehensive check” to determine how many people listed as residents still lived in Jerusalem. It stripped the rights of those living abroad and of 38 individuals who had simply moved from Jerusalem to Palestinian areas of the West Bank.

HaMoked said that if these residents live abroad for seven years, or gain citizenship or residency elsewhere, they lose their Israeli residency. If one were to follow this principle, then those on family visits, or students studying abroad, or workers moving between Palestinian territories could be affected. Once residency is lost, even returning for a family visit can be impossible.

“People who are studying or working outside, they are in a very dangerous circumstance,” said Adnan Husseini, of the Palestinian Authority (PA). “It means we don't have any nationality. Zero.”

Israel does not treat native East Jerusalem Arabs, who found themselves under illegal Israeli rule in 1967, any differently from residents of the other Palestinian territories who have been granted permanent residency in Israel. They have the same legal status as people who immigrated to Israel legally, but are not entitled to citizenship under the Law of Return. “They are treated as if they were immigrants to Israel, despite the fact that it is Israel that came to them in 1967,” explained Attorney Yotam Ben-Hillel of HaMoked.

A confidential European Union report, updated annually by EU representatives in Jerusalem and Ramallah and never published due to Israeli pressure, was leaked to the press, according to Israeli daily Haaretz. The 14-page report, dated November 23, accuses the Israeli government and the Jerusalem municipal authority of deliberate measures to alter the city's demography in favour of Jewish residents and to “sever East Jerusalem from the West Bank.” They did this by helping right-wing organisations buy homes in Palestinian neighbourhoods and further “attempts to implant further Jewish settlements into the heart of the Muslim Quarter.”

“Developments in East Jerusalem in 2009 were marked by the continued expansion of Israeli settlements and a considerable number of Palestinian house demolitions and eviction orders,” says the report. “Israel is, by practical means, actively pursuing its illegal annexation of East Jerusalem by weakening the Palestinian community in the city, impeding Palestinian urban developments and ultimately separating East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank.”

Over 600 Palestinian-owned structures have been demolished since the year 2000, the report says, and many of the new Jewish settlements have been built on the periphery of East Jerusalem in an effort to cut off the Arab quarter from the surrounding West Bank, making it easier to argue that the city is a cohesive Jewish unit. The report also says that while 35 percent of Jerusalem’s residents are Arab, only 5 to 10 percent of the city’s budget goes to Arab neighbourhoods.

“The continued settlement expansion plan around the Old City effectively encircles and contains the historic basin and separates the Muslim holy places from the rest of East Jerusalem,” the report said, adding that the municipality places severe restrictions on issuing building permits for Palestinian houses in East Jerusalem, forcing them to construct without permits. Palestinians have received fewer than 200 building permits per year for the past several years, while they require some 1,500 housing units annually. The government’s policies are “an integral part of a broader Israeli strategy” and “are undermining prospects for a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem and incrementally render a sustainable two-state solution unfeasible.”

Archaeology has also become an ideological tool, after excavation rights were granted to bodies with ties to “extreme pro-settler organisations.” Palestinians have claimed that Israel uses distorted archaeological findings to bolster their claim for undisputed ownership of Jerusalem.

Under pressure from the Obama administration, which is trying to keep Arab regimes onside for its impending confrontation with Iran, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced a 10-month freeze on building new illegal homes, but not on 3,000 homes already under construction in the West Bank, nor at all in East Jerusalem. Extreme right-wing settlers groups have promised stiff resistance. Netanyahu is in fact in full agreement with the settlers, and any freeze, however temporary, is anathema to his far-right coalition partners.

Israeli radio stations have reported unrest in at least four settlements where inspectors tried to enforce the government order. The government told the High Court of Justice that the freeze would force it to postpone the evacuation of several illegal outposts and the demolition of thousands of illegal buildings against which demolition orders had already been issued since the people needed for these evacuations and demolitions were busy enforcing the freeze.

Tensions in the Palestinian Authority are already explosive, with Israel’s settlement projects accompanied by the demolition of numerous Palestinian homes. There were protests, riots and violent confrontations between Palestinian youth and Israeli police in the compound surrounding the al-Aqsa Mosque over the autumn as Israelis have taken over houses in the mostly Arab area following court orders.

The Obama administration has abandoned the demand for an end to settlement construction as a precondition for negotiations between Israel and the PA, despite this being contained in the “Road Map” drawn up by the US, the EU, Russia and the United Nations in 2002. All settlements are illegal under international law. Netanyahu is well aware that the US relies on Israel as a regional enforcer, and that its professions of even-handedness are for public consumption only. Obama has made clear that all that is on offer is a demilitarised and bifurcated state comprising Gaza and the West Bank, which would consist of several non-contiguous blocks, penned in by an eight-metre-high concrete wall and controlled by Israel.

Washington recently tried to get Egypt to modify the Arab peace plan of 2002, but Egypt was unable to move the Arab League on this. The plan calls for a Palestinian state on the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, Israel’s withdrawal to its 1967 borders; and acceptance of the Palestinians’ right of return to their homes in Israel, or compensation, in return for normalising relations with the Arab world.

Israel is vehemently opposed to the return of Palestinians who were driven from their homes or fled in 1948 and 1967, and the handing back of East Jerusalem to the PA. It is in fact opposed to any form of Palestinian state, even a truncated one. The West Bank settlements effectively divide it in two. Already close to 500,000 Israelis live in more than 100 settlements built since the occupation that followed the 1967 war.

New poll reveals human cost of US unemployment

New poll reveals human cost of US unemployment

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A new New York Times/CBS News poll offers a glimpse of the devastating human impact of the US unemployment crisis.

As massive bank bonuses are due to be announced this month, millions of people have been thrown out of their homes, find it impossible to pay for basic necessities, have depleted limited retirement savings or have lost their health care due to the unemployment crisis.

The survey of over 700 unemployed adults was conducted between December 5 and December 10. Accompanying the survey on the Times web site were self-made computer videos of unemployed workers discussing their problems.

The poll and interviews illustrate some of the measures taken by unemployed workers to survive. About one quarter of those surveyed have relied on food stamps and one fifth have received help from food charities. Half said that their spouse has taken on extra hours or another job to supplement family income, and 53 percent have borrowed money from family members in order to make ends meet.

Sixty percent have liquidated money from savings and retirement accounts. Among these is Lee Daves, 54, who worked as a machinist making $13 an hour in Springfield, Missouri, until he was laid off in January. His unemployment benefits, which are soon to expire, are not enough to pay for his modest lifestyle. To pay bills, he was forced to sell off his 401(k) retirement account.

One of the survey's more striking revelations is that nearly half of the unemployed workers in its sample have received no unemployment benefits through the nation's restrictive jobless insurance system. Among those who have, 61 percent say that this has not been enough money to pay for mortgages, health insurance, food and other expenditures.

Fifty-four percent of those polled by the Times/CBS say they have cut back on medical treatment or visits to the doctor, and forty-seven percent are without health care coverage.

Bill Grierson, of Dayton, Ohio, worked at auto parts maker Delphi for nearly 20 years. He is now jobless and without health insurance for his family. "To have some sort of ailment and not be able to go to the doctor or just wait and hope things get better," is a new experience for his family, Grierson said.

After losing health care coverage, Grierson's daughter fell at school and hurt her head. The resulting emergency room bill was $8,000, a sum the family was unable to pay. "Watching them play sports," Grierson says of his children, "you say play your hardest, but please don't get hurt because we can't do anything about it."

Howard Watley, 63, is a laid off construction project manager from North Texas. He is without health insurance for himself and his wife, and his unemployment benefits are set to expire. "We can't afford our medicines sometimes and can't afford our doctors visits," he says.

One fourth of those surveyed said they had been threatened with foreclosure or eviction.

Vicky Newton of Mount Pleasant, Michigan, lost her job in March "and from there on, everything went downhill,” she told the Times. She abandoned her house in Flint, Michigan, went on food stamps to feed her daughter, and moved into a rental house owned by her father.

Unemployment is causing anxiety, stress, and other mental disorders, the poll finds. Nearly 70 percent of respondents reported being "stressed more than usual," while 55 percent reported suffering from insomnia. A quarter have sought help from mental health professionals. Forty percent say that as a result of unemployment they have noticed changes in the behavior of their children.

“Every time I think about money, I shut down because there is none,” said Tammy Linville, 29, of Louisville, Kentucky, the mother of two small children. “I get major panic attacks. I just don’t know what we’re going to do.” After losing her job, Linville underwent counseling for depression, but was forced to quit after she was unable to afford repairs on her car.

Nancy Perry, who lost her job at a Florida child care center and has no unemployment insurance, said that she suffers from insomnia, headaches and depression. "Knowing that it's the holiday season has made it worse." Perry said. "For me there's not going to be a holiday this year."

In response to unemployment, 40 percent of those surveyed said they have considered moving to a different part of the country, two-thirds have pondered switching careers, and 44 percent have tried job retraining or other educational possibilities.

These often desperate individual responses, as well as much of the emotional suffering caused by unemployment, result from the lack of a social and political response to the crisis.

But there is also an understanding among unemployed workers that the jobs crisis is not their fault.

“We grow up with the impression there’s a correlation between effort and the fruits of your labor,” said Evan Gutierrez, 29, who lost his job working for a church charity in Los Angeles after its endowment collapsed. “To be honest with you, I have very little confidence I’m going to be able to turn this around. It just feels completely, completely out of my control.”

Indeed, mass unemployment arises from the economic crisis, which was set into motion by the predatory financial speculation of the American ruling class. Since then every measure put in place by the Bush and Obama administrations has had as its overriding concern the defense of the biggest banks and the enormous personal wealth of the financial elite.

The Obama administration has taken no serious steps to address mass unemployment, finding in it an important tool in driving down wages and reducing “overconsumption.“ Obama administration officials openly warn the population to expect years of high unemployment.

The Times/CBS poll found evidence that many unemployed workers blame some aspect of the political and economic setup for their predicament. Of those surveyed, 26 percent blamed former president George W. Bush, 12 percent blamed the banking industry, and 8 percent attributed unemployment to jobs moving overseas.

Only 3 percent of the sample blamed President Obama, who has ruled out any government jobs program or public works programs to put people to work. On the other hand, 44 percent expressed disapproval over Obama's efforts at job creation.

Tuesday found Obama in suburban Virginia at a Home Depot building and repair mega-store, touting his "cash for caulkers" proposal which would offer cash rebates to homeowners able to come up with the money to change windows, put in insulation, and similar "energy saving" schemes. This is, to say the least, a derisory response to an economic crisis in which more than one in six workers are unemployed or underemployed.

It is not only the unemployed who are suffering. A separate Times/CBS poll, also conducted in early December, found that about one third of US workers say that their pay was cut last year as a result of the economic crisis.

And a recent Zogby International poll found that an astonishing 72 percent of Americans already consider themselves poor or can imagine themselves becoming poor (20 percent and 50 percent, respectively). And about half of Americans say they worry about money "most or all of the time."

"What they're saying is that they're one, two or three paychecks away from poverty," said John Zogby, the CEO of the polling company. "This has a huge implication."

Dennis Jacobe, chief economist of polling firm Gallup, said "people do not feel safe." Workers "compare the stock market rally to the economy they are experiencing, there is an atmosphere of unreality," Jacobe said. "Wall Street gets theirs and the average American doesn't. There is a sense of unfairness and confusion."

Obama’s Afghan escalation and the decay of democracy

Obama’s Afghan escalation and the decay of democracy

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With President Barack Obama approaching his first anniversary in office, his escalation of the Afghanistan war is writing a new chapter in the history of Washington’s shredding of democratic forms of rule in order to further militarist aggression abroad.

This has become increasingly clear since the announcement earlier this month of the plan to send an additional 30,000 US soldiers and Marines to Afghanistan. It was further spelled out in Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize speech in Oslo, where he enunciated what has been widely described as the “Obama doctrine.”

The Obama doctrine incorporates all of the essentials of the Bush doctrine—preemptive war and the assertion of the right of the United States, as the world’s “sole military superpower,” to launch military aggression unilaterally as it sees fit. Obama’s contribution is to argue openly for the junking of existing international rules of war and the recognition of what was previously defined as aggressive war as a legitimate instrument of foreign policy.

Key passages of this hypocritical address tacitly recognized that imperialist war in general, and the US war in Afghanistan in particular, remain deeply unpopular at home and abroad.

Obama acknowledged the existence of “deep ambivalence about military action today, no matter the cause,” adding that this “is joined by a reflexive suspicion of America, the world’s sole military superpower.” He lamented a “disconnect between the efforts of those who serve and the ambivalence of the broader public.”

The US president dismissed popular antiwar sentiment in the US and around the world as naive. “Peace requires responsibility,” said Obama. “Peace requires sacrifice.” In short, peace requires war, whether those forced to die and to pay for it like it or not.

This theme has been further amplified since the Nobel speech, both by Obama and in the media.

In an interview broadcast Sunday on the CBS News program “60 Minutes,” Obama was asked why, under conditions where “most Americans…don’t believe this war is worth fighting,” he decided to escalate it anyway.

The president replied, “Because I think it’s the right thing to do. And that’s my job... If I was worried about what polled well there are a whole bunch of things we wouldn’t have done this year.”

Here Obama said more than he intended. This “bunch of things” includes his administration’s allocation of trillions of dollars to prop up Wall Street, while doing nothing to aid the millions who have lost their jobs, their incomes and their homes.

The “60 Minutes” segment was eerily reminiscent of interviews given by Vice President Dick Cheney in 2007 and 2008, as the Bush administration was carrying out its own “surge” in Iraq in the face of overwhelming opposition.

Appearing on Fox News in January 2007, Cheney dismissed the hostility of the American public to the war. “I don’t think any president worth his salt can afford to make decisions of this magnitude according to the polls,” he said.

Asked on ABC News in May 2008 if he didn’t “care what the American people think” about the war, Cheney replied, “No. I think you cannot be blown off course by the fluctuations in the public opinion polls.”

In Obama’s case, the indifference to the public’s hostility to war is all the more breathtaking since the Democratic president owes his 2008 election victory precisely to such sentiments.

The media, which universally hailed the Oslo address, has expanded on the theme that the will of the people must not be allowed to interfere with the waging of war. The New York Times published an editorial Monday admitting that in Europe “ambivalence has long been replaced by fierce demands for withdrawal” from Afghanistan. Indeed, polls in France and Germany have shown two-thirds of the public supporting an end to the US-NATO intervention.

In the face of such mass opposition, the Times counseled: “Democratically elected leaders cannot ignore public skepticism, but they should not surrender to it when they know better. Mrs. Merkel and Mr. Sarkozy must educate their voters to the harsh reality that Europe will also pay a high price if the Taliban and Al Qaeda get to retake Afghanistan and further destabilize Pakistan.”

Presumably, Washington has set the standard on how best to “educate the voters”: by frightening them with manufactured terrorist threats and deceiving them with phony pretexts for war.

The real motives driving US militarism are to remain hidden from the public. This was illustrated by Time magazine’s Joe Klein, a journalistic conduit for the political and national security establishment, in an article posted Sunday. Klein put forward the thesis that the US military had to remain in Afghanistan to forestall an Islamist-backed military coup in Pakistan and diminish the threat of war between Pakistan and India.

“Some of the best arguments about why this war is necessary must go unspoken by the president,” he wrote.

That is, there are the real reasons for the US war in Afghanistan and the fraudulent ones palmed off on the American people.

The most fundamental of these “unspoken” motives is the drive by US imperialism to assert its hegemony in a region containing some of the world’s largest energy reserves together with the pipelines to siphon them off to the West. It was this aim that led to US plans for war in Afghanistan being hatched long before September 11, 2001.

Obama is continuing and escalating a dirty colonial war to suppress popular resistance to foreign occupation and to secure the interests of the corporate and financial oligarchy that rules the US.

Despite systematic disinformation from the government and the mass media, millions of American working people have drawn their own conclusions from more than eight years of war in Afghanistan and more than six years in Iraq. The mass opposition to war, however, can find no means of expression within the existing political establishment. After going to the polls in both 2006 and 2008 to vote against war, the American people are confronted with the continuation and escalation of military aggression.

Neither the pursuit of imperialist wars in the face of public opposition, nor the execution of economic policies that defend the profits and wealth of the ruling elite at the expense of the rest of the population, can be carried out by democratic means. Both ultimately require methods of repression and intimidation. This is the fundamental reason that the Obama administration has kept intact all of the essential police state policies and institutions created under George W. Bush.

The fight against war, like the defense of democratic rights, can be waged successfully only through the independent mobilization of the working class against capitalism, which is creating intolerable conditions for billions of people around the world together with the threat of ever bloodier conflagrations.

Grinding Down the U.S. Army

Grinding Down the U.S. Army

Go To Original

Last week, the U.S. Army released its suicide figures for November. Twelve soldiers on active duty were classified as “potential suicides” for the month, bringing the yearly suicide total to 147, 19 more than for all of 2008, and the fifth year in a row the rate has risen. In the same week, a Rand Corporation study was released which found, not surprisingly, “that children in military families were more likely to report anxiety than children in the general population. The researchers also found that the longer a parent had been deployed in the previous three years, the more likely their children were to have difficulties in school and at home.”

In fact, you didn’t have to look far that week to see signs of trouble in the military. It’s true that Major Nadil Malik Hasan, the psychiatrist who murdered 12 military personnel and one civilian, while wounding 29, at Fort Hood, Texas, had at least briefly faded from the news. In Grant County, Oregon, however, a judge sentenced 27-year-old Jessie Bratcher, an Iraq veteran, to a state psychiatric hospital in a murder case in which he had shot an unarmed civilian during what was claimed to be a post-traumatic stress disorder-induced “war flashback.”

Meanwhile, in Boise, Idaho, George Nickel Jr., another Iraq War veteran, armed with a handgun and wearing “a tactical vest with as many as 90 rounds of ammunition,” and “accused of shooting into two locked apartments before getting into an armed confrontation with Boise police officers this summer,” pleaded guilty to “the unlawful discharge of a firearm into an occupied dwelling.” Nickel, whose year in Iraq was spent disarming IEDs, “suffered a broken leg and shrapnel in his face in a roadside bomb explosion that killed three Idaho soldiers.” He is “diagnosed with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.” He faces up to 15 years in prison.

Last week, across the continent, 20-year old Joshua Hunter, a military policeman accused of stabbing “his two Army buddies” to death in the apartment they shared near Fort Drum in New York state, was arraigned on second-degree murder charges. All three men had served in Iraq. Hunter’s last message at MySpace included this: "I will not be stopped until I get my revenge." According to the Associated Press, Hunter's wife said “that her husband was outgoing before he went to war, but when he returned stateside, he was an emotional wreck. ‘He wasn't in any good mental shape at all… I tried to get him to go to therapy. They prescribed him medicine and stuff, but it just wasn't enough.’"

Unlike the week when Hasan struck at Ft. Hood and media attention was overwhelming, stories like these are small-scale and generally local in nature, yet they have now become a regular feature of the American landscape. Most of us may only half-notice, and yet something is happening here, even if we don’t know what it is, Mr. Jones. Certainly, William Astore, a retired Lieutenant Colonel and TomDispatch regular, has a strong sense of where it may lead. Tom

“They’re Wasted”
The Price of Pushing Our Troops Too Far
By William Astore

When I was on active duty in the military, an Army friend used to remind me: “Any day you’re not being shot at is a good Army day.” Today’s troops, especially if they’re “boots on the ground” in Iraq and Afghanistan, don’t have enough good Army days. Many of them are on their fourth or fifth deployments to a combat zone. They’re stressed out and tired; they miss their spouses and families. And often they’ve seen things they wish they’d never seen.

But you’d hardly have known this listening to the debate over President Obama’s decision to escalate yet again in Afghanistan. Its tone was remarkably antiseptic. I can’t help recalling old wargames I played as a kid in which deploying infantry brigades to faraway places was as simple as picking up a few cardboard counters, tossing the dice, and pinning my troops to a new spot on the map. No gore splattered on my face when I rolled snake eyes after pushing my grunts too far into the Fulda Gap while playing MechWar ‘77.

As we roll the dice again in Central Asia, it’s clear that we’re pushing our Army and Marines too far. Naturally, our troops, notably the brass, will deny this. For them, it’s “Army Strong” or “Semper Fi”; only losers whine or bellyache. Well, we Americans need to recognize the limits on our troops, even if they refuse to do so.

So let me be blunt: We’re wearing them out.

Our “Wasted” Troops

Quietly, almost imperceptibly, our Army is hollowing out. Such is the predictable result of eight years of ceaseless deployments in support of ill-advised wars. Remarkably, the Army has, so far, managed to maintain its combat effectiveness, in part by its recourse to a “Stop Loss” policy -- essentially a backdoor draft (only recently curtailed by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates) that involuntarily extended the enlistments of 60,000 troops. It has also relied heavily on the use and reuse of the Reserves and the National Guard. Governor Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania noted last month on Meet the Press that “our troops are tired and worn out. [With respect to the] Pennsylvania National Guard, most of our guardsmen have been to either Iraq [or] Afghanistan, over 85 percent, and many of them have gone three or four times and they’re wasted.”

Signs of severe strain, of being “wasted,” are often not visible to the American public. Nevertheless, they are ominous and growing. Suicides have hit record highs in the Army. Cases of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression, having reached an alarming 300,000 in 2008, according to Invisible Wounds of War, a RAND study, continue to escalate, constituting a mental health crisis for the Army. Traumatic brain injuries from IEDs and other explosive shocks in our war zones, difficult to diagnose and even more difficult to treat, may already exceed 300,000, another health crisis exacerbated by a lack of treatment available to veterans. Divorce rates among active duty troops continue to climb. An epidemic of domestic violence and crime has been linked to returning veterans and to the difficulty of readjusting to “normal” life after months, or years, in combat zones. These are just five of the better documented signs of an Army that’s struggling to cope with wars of unprecedented length and still uncertain outcomes.

To maintain its force structure, given these kinds of symptomatic pressures, the Army has taken several questionable steps. It has boosted the maximum age of enlistment from age 35 to age 42 at a time when its operational tempo is burning out far younger men and women. It has authorized enlistment bonuses of up to $40,000 for new soldiers, and reenlistment bonuses to select soldiers, also for up to $40,000. As the Army attempts to entice enlistees with big-money bonuses and benefits, it’s also accepting more recruits who lack high school diplomas; the rate of new recruits with high school diplomas declined to 71% in 2008, a 25-year low. Counterinsurgency (COIN) campaigns -- the sort of wars promoted by Centcom commander General David Petraeus and Afghan War commander General Stanley McChrystal -- theoretically demand restraint, tact, and flexibility exercised at the squad level by so-called strategic corporals. What’s the likelihood that enough of today’s recruits will develop the sophistication, the so-called “soft” yet decidedly hard-won “people skills” they need to succeed as strategic corporals?

Within the officer ranks, the Army has been boosting the success rate of those promoted to major (a point at which weaker officers are typically winnowed out) to better than 95%. In the past, it hovered around 80%. As Colonel Paul Aswell, chief of the Army’s Officer Personnel Policy Division notes, “Every [Army promotion] board is going to select every officer that they can to [the rank of] major for as far as I can see right now.”

Because so many seasoned but stressed-out captains are choosing to leave the Army after their initial service commitment is up, the selection rate for major will likely remain above 90% for years to come. “[W]e really don’t think that’s healthy,” concludes Aswell. Plans to add 65,000 new recruits to the Army over the next few years only exacerbate the problem; an expanded Army necessitates even more field-grade billets. Many of these new billets are likely to remain vacant, since it takes 10 years to develop the “Iron Majors,” who, along with mid-level NCOs, form the core of the Army.

Instead of a stable pyramid, then, think of an expanded yet still exhausted service taking on a more unstable, hourglass shape: heavy at the top with long-serving colonels and generals, heavy at the bottom with “green” privates and lieutenants, but corseted at its essential core due to shortages of experienced platoon sergeants and battle-hardened company and battalion commanders.

In the military, leaders are supposed to be promoted based on demonstrated potential to fulfill the expanded responsibilities inherent in a higher grade, but here the Army is trapped in a Catch-22 situation: It has to promote virtually every eligible captain to major (and quickly) precisely because so many captains are leaving the military.

Whether at the company or field-grade level, the simple fact is that the Army is bleeding experienced officers. Ever larger numbers of promising lieutenant colonels, for instance, are now taking earlier-than-expected retirements, opening further “must-fill” rungs on the promotion ladder. I know of two highly qualified Army lieutenant colonels who, as outstanding battalion commanders, could easily have reached colonel and might perhaps even have ended up with a general’s star. Tired of repeat deployments, constant stress, and extraordinary burdens placed on their spouses and children, they chose instead to retire from active duty.

As we bleed experienced officers and promote marginally qualified ones almost automatically, it’s sobering to consider another modern drain on the military -- the vast pay disparities that exist between those serving in the All Volunteer Army and civilian contractors often operating beside them in the same combat zone. Whereas an unmarried Army sergeant makes roughly $85 a day and a married captain roughly double that, a “protective security specialist” employed by Blackwater (now Xe) makes 14 times the pay of our sergeant. Of course, no one joins the Army to get rich, but such dramatic inequities are hardly conducive either to high morale or to retaining experienced military specialists who know they can sell their skills at top value elsewhere.

Indeed, the Army (and so the American taxpayer) is being forced to compete with Xe, Triple Canopy, DynCorp International, and similar private security outfits for the services of experienced non-commissioned officers (NCOs). Even a reenlistment bonus of $40,000 for a staff sergeant with interpreter/translator experience may be unpersuasive when such an NCO could double or triple his take-home pay -- and perhaps decrease his stress level as well -- by hiring on with a paramilitary contractor.

So what, you may ask? Well, despite what Napoleon said, an Army doesn’t march on its stomach. It marches because experienced NCOs boot it in the butt and get it moving in the right direction. NCOs are the backbone of any effective army. Lose too many and you’re done for.

“Decades More” of Dread and Death

It’s this under-compensated, over-stressed Army that we’re sending into Afghanistan to accomplish what could only be termed a herculean task. It’s not only supposed to defeat the Taliban insurgency by force of arms -- something its troops are, at least, trained for -- but build a nation by negotiating a complex “human terrain.” That’s Army jargon for the reality that roughly 80% of so-called nation-building operations basically add up to armed social work. Simultaneously, our troops are being tasked with training an Afghan army that, despite years of effort, exists more on paper than in the field.

By all appearances, that Afghan army is hollow. Making it solid and reliable in a few short years is truly a bridge too far for our trainers.

And if that’s an overly imposing task, no less imposing are the literal mountains of Afghanistan. One can hardly overstate the mind-numbing fatigue suffered by troops fighting at high altitude. Our soldiers typically carry nearly 100 pounds of equipment, including body armor, weaponry, helmet, ammunition, water, radio, extra batteries, night vision goggles, GPS receiver -- the list goes on. Now, think of hauling yourself and 100 pounds of gear up goat paths at altitudes exceeding 10,000 feet. Think about fighting a lightly-armed, lightly dressed, fleet-footed enemy with better knowledge of the harsh terrain, and with physiologies acclimated to the thinner, drier air.

I asked an Army battalion commander to put the plight of our troops and the challenge of COIN in terms the average American could understand. His reply was sobering:

“Dread is the term most soldiers apply to their emotions in the six months leading to deployment. Not dread of the enemy, but dread of the prison-like conditions of their service [overseas]. There are no leave breaks in Paris or at the canteen. Even coming home for mid-tour leave is stressful as hell.

“Then of course you add the mental grind of constant exposure to [the] lethal threat of roadside bombs and sniper fire and hotter engagements. Or the converse that many times absolutely nothing happens for these soldiers other than traveling to, securing, and returning from endless marginally productive meetings with local leaders. [Add to that] the separation from family, the enforced celibacy and enforced sobriety and uncorrectable disruption of social lives.

“Imagine working without a break in your current job with no weekends… no social events, no wife, no bars, no permanent buildings, no funding. That’s what the grind is… Putting up with those conditions and heading out the gate every day… and grinding away at those armed social-working tasks is the new criterion of valor.

“The cost of winning an insurgency is staying at it for years, decades. In a fundamentally flawed operating environment like Afghanistan, we could be there at or above our current level of commitment for decades more.”

Decades more: So much for an 18-month timeline for our latest Afghan surge and withdrawal.

The Horrifying Legacies of War

By sending up to 35,000 more troops to Afghanistan, we’re further stressing a military that, if not entirely “wasted,” is nevertheless showing serious signs of strain. This shouldn’t be surprising. Our Army, after all, isn’t made up of rootless, robotic “universal soldiers,” but men and women who are deeply rooted within our communities. Indeed, that very rootedness may help explain their remarkable staying power over the last eight years. Sooner or later, however, such roots will be cut if we continue to send them on lost causes.

Consider our latest “surge”: What will happen to our Army if its augmented presence only alienates Afghans further? What if it ends up strengthening Taliban recruitment efforts and prolonging the war instead of shortening it? What if our enemies simply choose to wait us out? Are we truly prepared to stay for a decade, or even decades, more?

Prolonging a stalemated war will, in fact, only mean more hurt for both Afghans and Americans. The hurt to Afghans will undoubtedly be worse, for their homes are the battlefield, but our own hurt shouldn’t be underestimated. More broken bodies and shattered minds. More echoes of the horrifying violence that accompanies war.

To paraphrase William Faulkner on history’s relationship to the past: Even when war is officially declared over, it’s not dead. It’s not even past. The horrors of war endure in the hearts and minds of the people who experience them, and they dwell, to some degree, in the collective consciousness of us all.

Are we willing, then, to sit and watch as our military strives to endure what may ultimately prove unendurable? Do we really want to risk returning to the hollow army of the mid-1970s, reeling from defeat in Vietnam, that judged the American public numb to its service and sacrifices?

What if, upon returning to the American “homeland,” whether in 2012 or 2052, an exhausted, embittered, and demoralized army again judges us and finds us even more wanting? What if, as in the 1970s, some alienated soldiers come to see the public as treacherous backstabbers, with all the potential dangers that entails?

As we embrace policies and strategies that erode our army, we risk more than a weakened military; we risk breeding resentments and recriminations that could lead to a future domestic surge of militant nationalism of our very own, conceivably imperiling the foundations of our democracy.

And that’s a peril -- and a price -- too terrible to contemplate.