Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Obama’s budget reveals the bankruptcy of American capitalism

Obama’s budget reveals the bankruptcy of American capitalism

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There is one overriding message in the budget proposal released by the Obama administration Monday: American capitalism is in decline and faces national bankruptcy.

The budget forecasts the doubling of the US national debt over the next few years, even on the assumption of a rapid recovery from the financial crisis and slump. It projects that high, long-term unemployment will become a permanent fixture of American life.

Assuming a growth rate above 4 percent, historically rare, the budget estimates that the jobless rate will still top 8 percent in 2012. Lower growth or a return to slump will mean double-digit unemployment rates as far as the eye can see.

Even the American media has been forced to take note of the historical significance of the deficit figures. A news analysis by David Sanger of the New York Times, under the headline “Huge Deficits May Alter US Politics and Global Power,” points to the long-term implications of the deficit numbers, which will persist long after such triggering events as the Bush tax cuts, two wars, the bank bailout and the recession which followed the 2008 financial crash:

“By President Obama’s own optimistic projections, American deficits will not return to what are widely considered sustainable levels over the next 10 years. In fact, in 2019 and 2020—years after Mr. Obama has left the political scene, even if he serves two terms—they start rising again sharply, to more than 5 percent of gross domestic product. His budget draws a picture of a nation that like many American homeowners simply cannot get above water.”

Sanger points to the global consequences of this protracted economic decline, which will erode US influence and its ability to conduct military operations, like the war in Afghanistan, without the approval of foreign creditors such as China.

Gerald Seib, the Washington columnist of the Wall Street Journal, expands on this theme, observing that the federal budget deficit “has become so large and persistent that it is time to start thinking of it as something else entirely: a national-security threat… These numbers are often discussed as an economic and domestic problem. But it’s time to start thinking of the ramifications for America’s ability to continue playing its traditional global role.”

The enormous borrowing by Washington from foreign creditors, he continues, “weakens America’s standing and its freedom to act; strengthens China and other world powers including cash-rich oil producers; puts long-term defense spending at risk; undermines the power of the American system as a model for developing countries; and reduces the aura of power that has been a great intangible asset for presidents for more than a century.”

The conclusion being drawn from this analysis in US ruling circles is that if American imperialism is to maintain its position of world domination, domestic politics and social relations within the United States must be radically restructured. The resources required to sustain a global military posture and prevent undue dependence on foreign creditors must be extracted from the American working people, through the gutting and effective destruction of the programs which consume the bulk of the federal budget—Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

This is spelled out explicitly in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, in an article, “The Dollar and the Deficits,” by C. Fred Bergsten, a leading analyst of the US role in the world economy at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “The root of the United States’ problem is domestic,” he argues. “There are at least three reforms that fall under the category of ‘decide now and implement later.’ The most important is containing long-term medical costs, an integral component of overall health-care reform that could save several percentage points’ worth of GDP. The second is comprehensive Social Security reform, including gradual increases in the retirement age and an alteration of the benefits formula to reflect increases in prices rather than in wages. When fully phased in over a couple of decades, such changes could take another one to two percent of GDP off the deficit. The third measure is raising taxes on consumption, which would both generate needed revenue and provide new incentives for private savings.”

Bergsten notes that the Obama administration “has signaled its desire to move in this direction” and “has rejected the restoration of the US role as ‘world consumer of last resort.’” Obama himself has touched on this subject, most notably in his speech last fall on health care reform, where he declared the rising cost of medical care—not the bank bailout, military spending or the economic slump—to be the number one fiscal problem facing the United States.

While the Democrats and Republicans stage endless mock fights over domestic policy and spending priorities, there is a consensus among the political representatives of big business that any serious steps to restore American capitalism to fiscal stability require an all-out assault on the working class. Corporate America is leading the way with its destruction of jobs and wages in the current economic slump. Wall Street is demanding that similarly brutal methods be carried out against domestic social programs.

There is no alternative to this policy within the framework of the profit system. Working people can defend decent-paying jobs and social services like education and health care only if they reject the logic of capitalism and launch a political struggle for a socialist program. At the center of this struggle must be the question: who will pay for the crisis of American capitalism, working people or the capitalists?

All the efforts of the corporate-controlled media and the official two-party system are aimed at preventing any consideration of the central fissure in American society—class. Thus, the official discussion of the federal budget crisis takes it for granted that exploding interest payments on the public debt, which go largely to the wealthy, and the huge sums expended on the bank bailout are untouchable, while all attention is focused on the rising costs of Medicare and Medicaid, which underwrite health care for the elderly, the poor and the disabled.

Likewise, the existing distribution of property and income in the United States is taken as unalterable. No one in official Washington proposes, for example, the doubling of taxes on the super-rich (restoring them to levels that prevailed under Richard Nixon), or that giant banks and corporations should be nationalized and turned into public utilities, rather than being bailed out by the taxpayers.

Why, given the manifest incompetence and greed of the financial oligarchy, should working people accept its continued domination? Why should less than one percent of the US population own 40 percent of the wealth directly, and control all of it indirectly? It is not that American society can’t afford health care for all or a decent retirement for the elderly, but that society can no longer afford the death grip of the Wall Street parasites.

Why Has the FDA Allowed a Drug Marked 'Not Safe for Use in Humans' to Be Fed to Livestock Right Before Slaughter?

Why Has the FDA Allowed a Drug Marked 'Not Safe for Use in Humans' to Be Fed to Livestock Right Before Slaughter?

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While researchers and scientists investigate the cause of our diabetes, obesity, asthma and ADHD epidemics, they should ask why the FDA approved a livestock drug banned in 160 nations and responsible for hyperactivity, muscle breakdown and 10 percent mortality in pigs, according to angry farmers who phoned the manufacturer.

The beta agonist ractopamine, a repartitioning agent that increases protein synthesis, was recruited for livestock use when researchers found the drug, used in asthma, made mice more muscular says Beef magazine.

But unlike the growth promoting antibiotics and hormones used in livestock which are withdrawn as the animal nears slaughter, ractopamine is started as the animal nears slaughter.

As much as twenty percent of Paylean, given to pigs for their last 28 days, Optaflexx, given to cattle their last 28 to 42 days and Tomax, given to turkeys their last 7 to 14 days, remains in consumer meat says author and well known veterinarian Michael W. Fox.

Though banned in Europe, Taiwan and China--more than 1,700 people were "poisoned" from eating Paylean-fed pigs since 1998 says the Sichuan Pork Trade Chamber of Commerce-- ractopamine is used in 45 percent of US pigs and 30 percent of ration-fed cattle says Elanco Animal Health which manufactures all three products.

How does a drug marked, "Not for use in humans. Individuals with cardiovascular disease should exercise special caution to avoid exposure. Use protective clothing, impervious gloves, protective eye wear, and a NIOSH-approved dust mask" become "safe" in human food? With no washout period?

The same way Elanco's other two blockbusters, Stilbosol (diethylstilbestrol or DES), now withdrawn, and Posilac or bovine growth hormone (rBST), bought from Monsanto in 2008, became part of the nation's food supply: shameless corporate lobbying. A third of meetings on the Food Safety and Inspection Service's public calendar in January 2009 were with Elanco, a division of Eli Lilly--or about ractopamine.

In fact, in 2002, three years after Paylean's approval, the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine's Office of Surveillance and Compliance accused Elanco of withholding information about "safety and effectiveness" and "adverse animal drug experiences" upon which ractopamine was approved, in a 14-page warning letter.

"Our representatives requested a complete and accurate list of all your GLP [Good Laboratory Practices] studies involving Paylean® (Ractopamine hydrochloride), including their current status as well as the names of the respective study monitors. In response, your firm supplied to our representatives multiple lists which differed in the names of the studies and their status. In addition, your firm could not locate or identify documents pertaining to some of the studies. This situation was somewhat confusing and created unneeded delays for our representatives," wrote Gloria J. Dunnavan, Director Division of Compliance.

Where was mention of the farmer phone calls to Elanco reporting, "hyperactivity," "dying animals," "downer pigs" and "tying up" and "stress" syndromes, asks the FDA letter. Where was the log of phone calls that included farmers saying, "animals are down and shaking," and "pig vomiting after eating feed with Paylean"?

But, not to worry. Despite ractopamine's dangers and the falsified approval documents, the FDA approved ractopamine the following year for cattle--and last year for turkeys.

According to Temple Grandin, Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University, the "indiscriminant use of Paylean (ractopamine) has contributed to an increase in downer non-ambulatory pigs," and pigs that "are extremely difficult to move and drive." In Holsteins, ractopamine is known for causing hoof problems, says Grandin and feedlot managers report the "outer shell of the hoof fell off" on a related beta agonist drug, zilpateral.

A article in the 2003 Journal of Animal Science confirms that "ractopamine does affect the behavior, heart rate and catecholamine profile of finishing pigs and making them more difficult to handle and potentially more susceptible to handling and transport stress."

Nor can we overlook the effects of "adding these drugs to waterways or well water supplies--via contaminated animal feed and manure runoff-- when this class of drugs is so important in treating children with asthma," says David Wallinga, MD of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

The FDA's approval of a drug for food that requires impervious gloves and a mask just to handle is reminiscent of the bovine growth hormone debacle.

Like rBST, ractopamine increases profits despite greater livestock death and disability because a treated animal does the work of two in a macabre version of economies of scale.

Like rBST, food consumers are metabolic, neurological and carcinogen guinea pigs so that agribusiness can make a profit.

And like rBST, "Mothers Of Growing Children" was not marked as a visiting group on the Food Safety and Inspection Service's public calendar next to the ag lobbyists.

America's System Failure: Only a Wave of Democratic Participation Can Save This Country

America's System Failure: Only a Wave of Democratic Participation Can Save This Country

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There is a widespread consensus that the decade we've just brought to a close was singularly disastrous for the country: the list of scandals, crises and crimes is so long that events that in another context would stand out as genuine lowlights -- Enron and Arthur Andersen's collapse, the 2003 Northeast blackout, the unsolved(!) anthrax attacks -- are mere afterthoughts. We still don't have a definitive name for this era, though Paul Krugman's 2003 book The Great Unraveling captures well the sense of slow, inexorable dissolution; and the final crisis of the era, what we call the Great Recession, similarly expresses the sense that even our disasters aren't quite epic enough to be cataclysmic. But as a character in Tracy Letts's 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, August: Osage County, says, "Dissipation is actually much worse than cataclysm." American progressives were the first to identify that something was deeply wrong with the direction the country was heading in and the first to provide a working hypothesis for the cause: George W. Bush. During the initial wave of antiwar mobilization, in 2002, much of the ire focused on Bush himself. But as the decade stretched on, the causal account of the country's problems grew outward in concentric circles: from Bush to his administration (most significantly, Cheney) to the Republican Party to -- finally (and not inaccurately) -- the entire project of conservative governance.

As much of the country came to share some version of this view (tenuously, but share it they did), the result was a series of Democratic electoral sweeps and a generation of Americans, the Millennials, with more liberal views than any of their elder cohorts. But it always seemed possible that the sheer reactionary insanity of the Bush administration would have a conservatizing effect on the American polity. Because things had gone so wrong, it was a more than natural reaction to long for the good old days; the Clinton years, characterized by deregulation and bubbles, seemed tantalizingly placid and prosperous in retrospect. The atavistic imperialism of the Bush administration had a way of making the pre-Bush foreign policy of soft imperialism and subtle bullying look positively saintly.

Toward the end of the decade, as the establishment definitively rebuked Bush and sought to distance itself from his failures, the big-tent center-left coalition took on an influential constituency -- the Colin Powells and Warren Buffetts -- who didn't want reform so much as they wanted restoration. This was reflected in a strange internal tension in the Obama campaign rhetoric that simultaneously promised both: change you can believe in and, as Obama said at a March 2008 appearance in Pennsylvania, a foreign policy that is "actually a return to the traditional bipartisan realistic policy of George Bush's father."

If the working hypothesis that bound this unwieldy coalition together -- independents, most liberals and the Washington establishment -- was that the nation's troubles were chiefly caused by the occupants of the White House, then this past year has served as a kind of natural experiment. We changed the independent variable (the party and people in power) and can observe the results. It is hard, I think, to come to any conclusion but that the former hypothesis was insufficient.

So what, exactly, is it that ails us?

In pondering the answer, it's useful to distinguish between two separate categories of problems we face. The first are the human, economic and ecological disasters that demand immediate action: a grossly inefficient healthcare sector, millions un- or underinsured, 10 percent unemployment, a planet that's warming, soaring personal bankruptcies, 12 million immigrants working in legal limbo, the list goes on. But the deeper problem, the ultimate cause of many of the first-order problems, is the perverse maldistribution of power in the country: too much in too few hands. It didn't happen overnight, of course, and the devolution has been analyzed and decried by a host of writers and thinkers in these very pages.

It's also not the first time. Indeed, the story of the American Republic is the never-ending task of redistributing power that always seems to collect and pool and re-form, a cycle in which we break up the power trusts, only to find them reassembling, Terminator 2-like, and requiring yet another dose of the founders' revolutionary fervor to be broken up again.

The central and unique paradox of our politics at this moment, however, is that our institutions are so broken, the government so sclerotic and dysfunctional, that in almost all cases, from financial bailouts to health insurance mandates, the easiest means of addressing the first set of problems is to take steps that exacerbate the second.

As an illustration, consider the following hypothetical.

You're a social worker or a parish priest in a poor urban neighborhood that lives under the malignant, if stable, stewardship of an organized-crime protection racket. The small business owners all have to pay a protection fee, which most of them can afford, but a significant portion of bodegas and nail salons operating on razor-thin profit margins struggle to come up with the money. When they fall short (which is often) they are subjected to beatings, harassment, vandalism and other petty cruelties.

Now, it turns out that you can raise enough money through your organization so that you can reliably cover the protection fees for the struggling shop owners operating on the margins. Whenever they can't come up with enough money, you can make up the difference. The improvement to residents' lives would be massive: no longer forced to live in fear, they would be allowed to transact their business and go about their lives free from the constant, degrading fear of physical violence. But by taking this action you would also be channeling revenue into the pockets of the protection racket and, perhaps more insidious, further entrenching its power by conceding its central premise: that all local businesses must pay up in order to survive.

This is, in rough allegorical fashion, the dilemma at the heart of the recent intra-left battle over the Senate version of the healthcare bill. Those arguing that the bill will be a massive step forward in reducing the misery of the uninsured are for the most part right. And those arguing that the Senate version of the bill is a grotesque sellout to Big Pharma and, to a lesser extent, Big Insurance, are more or less correct as well. When the White House used its muscle to kill a bipartisan amendment that would have allowed reimportation of drugs, it was as if our fictional social worker or priest took to shaking down shopkeepers to stay in the good graces of the local thugs. For what it's worth, I'm generally in the pay-off-the-thugs camp, because of the concrete benefits it would provide (Medicaid expansion for 15 million) but also because by enshrining the notion that the government is responsible for managing the healthcare system, the crimes of the insurance racket can now be laid at the feet of our politicians. In the short run, that accountability may spell political trouble; in the long run, I'm hopeful that it will force the government to crack down.

That said, the whole system that produced this legislative approach sucks, and recalls nothing so much as the Bush/GOP passage of Medicare Part D.

In the abstract, the putative goal of Medicare Part D was laudable (even if it was driven by Karl Rove's crass desire to curry favor with an important electoral demographic): reduce the cost of prescription drugs for seniors on Medicare. The method of achieving this laudable social end, however, was repugnant. Medicare was statutorily barred from using its market share to negotiate lower drug prices, thereby ensuring hefty (and largely unearned) profits for Big Pharma in perpetuity. Drug reimportation was off the table as well. And since Republicans don't believe in taxes, and our political institutions are increasingly incapable of raising revenue, none of it was paid for. One Democratic Senate aide told me that right before his boss voted for final passage of the bill, the senator turned to him and said, "So, I guess I have to go vote for this piece of shit."

At the time, Medicare Part D looked like the nadir of GOP governance, but two things have happened in the interim. One, the program, despite early chaos, has become quite popular: seniors like getting cheaper drugs. And two, the basic policy approach has been adopted, in somewhat altered form, by the Obama administration. We are all Medicare Part D now.

There's a word for a governing philosophy that fuses the power of government and large corporations as a means of providing services and keeping the wheels of industry greased, and it's a word that has begun to pop up among critics of everything from the TARP bailout to healthcare to cap and trade: corporatism. Since corporatism often merges the worst parts of Big Government and Big Business, it's an ideal target for both the left and right. The ultimate corporatist moment, the bailout, was initially voted down in the House by an odd-bedfellows coalition of Progressive Caucus members and right-wingers.

In the wake of the healthcare sausage-making, writers from Tim Carney on the right (author of the provocative Obamanomics) and Glenn Greenwald on the left have attacked the bill as the latest incarnation of corporatism, a system they see as the true enemy. There is even some talk among activists of a grand left-right populist coalition coming together to depose the entrenched interests that hold sway in Washington. Jane Hamsher of Firedoglake touted her work with libertarians to oppose Ben Bernanke, more AIG bailouts and the Senate healthcare bill ("What we agree on: both parties are working against the interests of the public, the only difference is in the messaging"); David McKalip, the tea-party doctor who got into trouble for forwarding an image of Obama with a bone through his nose, wrote an open letter to the netroots proposing that they join him in fighting the "real enemy," the "unholy corporate/government cabal that will control your healthcare."

I don't think that coalition is going to emerge in any meaningful form. The right's anger is born largely of identity-based alienation, a fear of socialism (whatever that means nowadays) and an age-old Bircher suspicion that "they" are trying to screw "us." Even in its most sophisticated forms, such as in Carney's Obamanomics, the basic right-wing argument against corporatism embraces a kind of fatalism about government that assumes it will always devolve into a rat's nest of rent seekers and cronies and therefore should be kept as small as possible.

But the progressive critics hold that we can and should do better. The Medicare Part D model is a terrible way of running a government for a number of reasons. First, and most practical, it's expensive. When paying off protection rackets is the price of passing legislation, you have to come up with a lot more money. Allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices would have saved the government as much as $30 billion a year. The strong public option would, according to the Congressional Budget Office, save $85 billion over ten years. Once everyone has laid claim to their vig, you soon find yourself tapped out.

The second problem is that this form of governance degrades the integrity of the state. Historian Tony Judt made this point eloquently in his October 19 lecture "What Is Living and What Is Dead in Social Democracy." Delegating fundamental state activities to private actors, he said, "discredits the state." Instead of a straightforward relationship between citizen and state, we have a mediated one that has the potential to perversely feed the anti-statist arguments of the right as the state becomes, in Judt's words, "represented in the popular mind by a grasping private profiteer."

But the corporatism on display in Washington is itself a symptom of a broader social illness that I noted above, a democracy that is pitched precariously on the tipping point of oligarchy. In an oligarchy, the only way to get change is to convince the oligarchs that it is in their interest -- and increasingly, that's the only kind of change we can get.

In 1911 the German democratic socialist Robert Michels faced a similar problem, and it was the impetus for his classic book Political Parties. He was motivated by a simple question: why were parties of the left, those most ideologically committed to democracy and participation, as oligarchical in their functioning as the self-consciously elitist and aristocratic parties of the right?

Michels's answer was what he called "The Iron Law of Oligarchy." In order for any kind of party or, indeed, any institution with a democratic base to exist, it must have an organization that delegates tasks. As this bureaucratic structure develops, it invests a small group of people with enough power that they can then subvert the very mechanisms by which they can be held to account: the party press, party conventions and delegate votes. "It is organization which gives birth to the domination of the elected over the electors," he wrote, "of the mandataries over the mandators, of the delegates over the delegators. Who says organization, says oligarchy."

Michels recognized the challenge his work presented to his comrades on the left and viewed the task of democratic socialists as a kind of noble, endless, Sisyphean endeavor, which he described by invoking a German fable. In it, a dying peasant tells his sons that he has buried a treasure in their fields. "After the old man's death the sons dig everywhere in order to discover the treasure. They do not find it. But their indefatigable labor improves the soil and secures for them a comparative well-being."

"The treasure in the fable may well symbolize democracy," Michels wrote. "Democracy is a treasure which no one will ever discover by deliberate search. But in continuing our search, in laboring indefatigably to discover the undiscoverable, we shall perform a work which will have fertile results in the democratic sense."

After a rather dispiriting few months, the treasure in this case may seem impossibly remote, but one thing the Obama campaign got right was its faith in America's history of continually and fruitfully tilling the soil of democracy, struggling against odds until, at certain moments of profound progressive change, a new treasure is improbably found.

It was the possibility of such a democratic unearthing that gave Obama for America its moral force. The most inspiring thing about the campaign had nothing to do with the candidate and everything to do with average citizens from Dubuque to Atlanta who were taking the time and energy to search for a small piece of that treasure. Likewise, the message of the Obama campaign was as much about empowerment, reinvigorating democracy and changing the ways of Washington as it was about the central planks of his agenda. It's for this reason that the greatest disappointment of his first year is the White House's abandonment of this small-d democratic impulse in favor of a strategy almost wholly focused on insider politics.

What the country needs more than higher growth and lower unemployment, greater income equality, a new energy economy and drastically reduced carbon emissions is a redistribution of power, a society-wide epidemic of re-democratization. The crucial moments of American reform and progress have achieved this: from the direct election of senators to the National Labor Relations Act, from the breakup of the trusts to the end of Jim Crow.

So in this new year, while the White House focuses on playing within the existing rules, it's our job as citizens and activists to press constantly for changes to those rules: public financing, an end to thea filibuster, the breakup of the banks, legalization for undocumented workers and the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, to name just a few of the measures that would alter the balance of power and expand the frontiers of the possible.

If I had to bet, I'd say that not of one of these will be won this year. The White House won't be of much help, and on some issues, like breaking up the banks, it will represent the opposition. Always searching and never quite finding is grueling and often dispiriting work. But there is simply no alternative other than to give in and let the field turn hard and barren.

Our Incredible Shrinking Democracy

Our Incredible Shrinking Democracy

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I wish conservatives would stop complaining about big government and start worrying about the real problem – small democracy. I wish we’d all worry more about our incredible shrinking democracy.

It seems as if more and more decisions that should be made democratically are being shunted off somewhere to a few people who make them in back rooms. Which programs should be cut, which entitlements pared back, and what taxes raised in order to reduce the long-term budget deficit? Hmmm. Let’s convene a commission and have them decide.

Commissions are a default mechanism when politicians want to hand off difficult issues to “experts.” But reducing the long-term budget deficit has almost nothing to do with expertise. It’s about our nations’ values and priorities. Nothing could be more central to the democratic process.

Democracy requires at least three things: (1) Important decisions are made in the open. (2) The public and its representatives have an opportunity to debate them, so the decisions can be revised in light of what the public discovers and wants. And (3) those who make the big decisions are accountable to voters.

But these principles are in retreat, and I say this not just because of the proposed deficit commission.

The notorious Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) began with a virtual blank check from Congress. Treasury officials then secretly decided which companies were to receive hundreds of billions of dollars. Why these particular entities were chosen and not others remains a mystery. For months, the Treasury didn’t even disclose the identities of the major banks that giant insurer AIG repaid with its bailout money – 100 cents on each dollar AIG owed them.

The Federal Reserve, meanwhile, has gone far beyond its traditional role of setting short-term interest rates. It has bought up massive amounts of debt – mortgage debt, Treasury bills, and debt instruments emanating several public agencies, many of them supporting a wide range of private entities. No one outside the Fed knows the ultimate beneficiaries of all this government backing, the criteria used by the Fed for making these commitments, or even how much debt the Fed is buying.

Even if the economic emergency justified such secrecy – and it’s hard to see exactly why it would – the emergency is over, and yet closed-door decision making continues. Will Treasury use what’s left of TARP to help stimulate more jobs and, if so, how? Will the Fed stop buying mortgage-backed securities? No one knows.

The same pattern is evident on other issues. Congress can’t decide whether or how to limit the pay of financial executives. So where does the issue end up? The Securities and Exchange Commission and the Fed both say they’re going to look at whether pay levels are appropriate. The House and Senate can’t agree on what to do about climate change. Who decides? The Environmental Protection Agency concludes it has authority to regulate carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act.

The debate over health-care reform looked like democratic deliberation until you realize the key negotiations that framed the deal occurred behind closed doors, between the White House and Big Pharma and Big Insurance. The Administration promised these industries some thirty million new paying customers. In return, they agreed not to oppose the plan. Big Pharma even placed a firm limit on how much it would cut its costs over the next ten years – $80 billion, and not a penny more. How do I know this? Not because this crucial deal was made in public, but because it was leaked to the press.

Personally, I want the government to limit the pay of financial executives, regulate greenhouse gases, and reform health care. And no one wanted a financial meltdown. But I’m appalled by the process that’s been used to reach these objectives.

A big piece of the problem is this: Washington is now so overrun by lobbyists representing moneyed interests that it’s become almost impossible to make policy in the open. If the Treasury and Fed tried to decide publicly which industries and firms should get hundreds of billions, they’d be inundated. Wall Street lobbyists are blocking real financial reform. The energy industry has filled the House’s cap-and-trade bill with special subsidies and exemptions. Big Pharma and Big Insurance would have killed off the health-care reform if they hadn’t been bought off. When it comes to the long-term deficit, Congress is incapable of acting because so many special interests have their hands out.

But the answer isn’t to give up on democracy. Back-room policy making can succumb to private interests just as easily as lobby-infested legislatures (much of the public suspects the Treasury of being too cozy with Wall Street as it is).

The real answer is to recommit ourselves to cleaning up democracy. Yes, I know: The Supreme Court’s recent grotesque Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, which decided corporations are people entitled to First Amendment protection, complicates this. But the goal is still possible to achieve with more public money for congressional and presidential candidates who refuse private funding, more constraints on lobbyists, tighter rules for who must register as a lobbyist, fuller disclosure, and tougher rules on the revolving door between public service and private gain. Yale’s Bruce Ackerman recently came up with another good idea: A $50 tax credit per person, which they can send to the candidate of their choosing.

Yet nobody seems to be talking about these sorts of reforms. They don’t appear on Obama’s agenda. True, they don’t generate lots of public excitement or appreciation, and they’re murderously difficult to enact. But without them our democracy doesn’t stand a chance.

HUNGER IN AMERICA JUMPS 'UNPRECEDENTED' 46%

Hunger in America jumps ‘unprecedented’ 46 percent

70 percent of emergency food centers face threats to their survival

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If there is any indicator of the toll that the Great Recession has taken on the public, it would be the statistics beginning to emerge about hunger in the US.

According to a study from the nation's largest food bank operator, the number of Americans in need of food aid has jumped 46 percent in three years, including a 50 percent jump in the number of children needing food assistance, and a 64 percent increase in hunger in senior citizens' homes.

The study, Hunger in America 2010, found that 37 million people, or roughly one in eight US residents, received food aid in 2009. That's a 46 percent jump from a similar survey carried out in 2006.

"Clearly, the economic recession, resulting in dramatically increasing unemployment nationwide, has driven unprecedented, sharp increases in the need for emergency food assistance and enrollment in federal nutrition programs," said Vicki Escarra, president and CEO of Feeding America, which operates some 200 food banks across the country.

The study found a growing number of people having to make difficult choices about what to spend their dwindling dollars on, with the rising cost of health care a major contributing factor to hunger.

"More than 46 percent of clients served report having to choose between paying for utilities or heating fuel and food; 39 percent said they had to choose between paying for rent or a mortgage and food; 34 percent report having to choose between paying for medical bills and food; and 35 percent must choose between transportation and food," the study reports.

"It is morally reprehensible that we live in the wealthiest nation in the world where one in six people are struggling to make choices between food and other basic necessities," Escarra said in a statement.

She added that "[t]hese are choices that no one should have to make, but particularly households with children. Insufficient nutrition has adverse effects on the physical, behavioral and mental health, and academic performance of children."

Feeding America's study is just the latest to show an alarming trend line for hunger in the United States.

Last week, a report (PDF) from the Food Research and Action Center found that nearly one in five in the US -- 18.5 percent -- report having gone hungry in the past year, up from 16.3 percent at the start of 2008. Households with children were even likelier to experience hunger, with nearly a quarter reporting hunger in the past year.

Perhaps worst of all, the Feeding America study finds that 70 percent of emergency food centers are reporting "one or more problems that threaten their ability to continue operating."

"While we have reached many more people over the past four years, the need of hungry Americans far outpaces our current level of service," Escarra said.

Another U.S. War? Obama Threatens China and Iran

Another U.S. War? Obama Threatens China and Iran

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The possibility of yet another U.S. war became more real last week, when the Obama administration sharply confronted both China and Iran. The first aggressive act was performed by Obama’s Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, who “warned” China that it must support serious economic sanctions against Iran (an act of war).

Clinton said: “China will be under a lot of pressure to recognize the destabilizing effect that a nuclear-armed Iran would have, from which they receive a significant percentage of their oil supply.”

The implication here is that China will be cut off from a major energy source if they do not support U.S. foreign policy — this, too, would equal an act of war.

A more direct military provocation occurred later when Obama agreed to honor a Bush-era military pact with Taiwan, a small island that lies off the mainland coast of China, and is claimed by China as its own territory. Taiwan has been a U.S. client state ever since the defeated nationalist forces fled there from China in the aftermath of the 1949 revolution. Taiwan has remained a bastion of U.S. intrigue and anti-China agitation for the past six decades. Obama has recently upped the ante by approving a $6.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan, including:

“... 60 Black Hawk helicopters, Patriot interceptor missiles, advanced Harpoon missiles that can be used against land or ship targets and two refurbished minesweepers.” (The New York Times, January 30, 2010).

The same article quotes a Chinese government official who responded, accurately, by calling the arms sale “… a gross intervention intoChina’s internal affairs, [and] seriously endanger[ing] China’s national security…” In 1962, When Russia supplied missiles to Cuba, nearFlorida’s coast, the U.S. interpreted this to be an act of war.

China responded harshly to the Taiwan arms deals, imposing “an unusually broad series of retaliatory measures… including sanctions against American companies that supply the weapon systems for the arms sales.” These U.S. arms manufacturers are giant corporations who have huge political influence in the Obama administration, and are likely to further push the U.S. government towards an even more aggressive response.

Obama’s polices against China have been far more aggressive than Bush’s, making a farce out of his campaign promises of a more peaceful foreign policy. Obama’s same, deceitful approach is used inSouth America, where he promised “non-intervention” and then proceeded to build military bases in Colombia on Venezuela’s border, while giving a green light to the coup in Honduras.

Hillary Clinton also threatened China about internet censorship last week, while Obama consciously provoked China by agreeing to talks with the Dalai Lama, who advocates the removal of Chinese influence from Tibet.

Still fresh in the memories of both the U.S. and China is the recent trade flair up, when Obama imposed taxes on Chinese imports; and China responded with protectionist measures against U.S. companies, which brings us to the heart of the matter.

The attitude of the U.S. government towards China has nothing to do with the Dalai Lama, internet censorship, or human rights. These excuses are used as diplomatic jabs in the framework of a larger, geopolitical brawl. Chinese corporations are expanding rapidly in the wake of the decline of the U.S. business class, and Obama is using a variety of measures to counteract this dynamic, with all roads leading to war.

This grand chessboard of corporate and military maneuvering reached a dangerous standoff yesterday, with the U.S. military provoking Iran. The New York Times explains:

“The Obama administration is accelerating the deployment of new defenses against possible Iranian missile attacks in the Persian Gulf, placing special ships [war ships] off the Iranian coast and antimissile systems in at least four [surrounding] Arab countries, according to administration and military officials.” (January 30, 2010).

The same article mentions that U.S. General Petraeus admitted that “… the United States was now keeping Aegis cruisers on patrol in the Persian Gulf [Iran’s border] at all times. Those cruisers are equipped with advanced radar and antimissile systems designed to intercept medium-range missiles.” Iran knows full well that “antimissile systems” are perfectly capable of going on the offensive — their real purpose.

Iran is completely surrounded by countries occupied by the U.S. military, whether it be the mass occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the U.S. puppet states that house U.S. military bases in Arab nations. Contrary to the statements of President Obama, Iran is already well contained militarily. Iran’s government — however repressive it may be — has every right to defend itself in this context.

It is possible that these aggressive U.S. actions will eventually force Iran’s government to act out militarily, giving the U.S. military the “defensive” excuse it’s been waiting for, so the tempers of the U.S. population can be cooled.

A separate New York Times editorial outlines the basic agreement onIran shared by the Democrats and the Republicans. It says:

“It is time for President Obama and other leaders to ratchet up the pressure with tougher sanctions.”

And:

“If the [UN] Security Council does not act quickly, then the United States and Europe must apply more pressure on their own [Bush's Iraq war strategy]. The Senate on Thursday approved a bill that would punish companies for exporting gasoline to Iran or helping Iran expand its own petroleum refining capability [another act of war]” (January 29, 2010).

The U.S. anti-war movement must organize and mobilize to confront the plans of the Obama administration. Obama’s policies not only mirror Bush’s, but have the potential to be far more devastating, with the real possibility of creating a wider, regional war. Iran and China are far more militarily capable than puny Afghanistan or Iraq; the consequences of a war with either will cause countless more deaths.

Bring All the Troops Home!

U.S. Military Out of the Middle East!

US exonerates authors of Bush torture memos

US exonerates authors of Bush torture memos

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Bush administration lawyers whose secret memos justified waterboarding and other forms of torture will not be referred to authorities for possible sanctions, according to a forthcoming ethics report.

Unnamed sources who spoke to Newsweek magazine said the Obama Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) has concluded that John Yoo and Jay Bybee, who penned the infamous memos, used “poor judgment” but will not be subject to disciplinary action. Yoo and Bybee worked in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, along with Steven Bradbury, who is also named in the report.

The conclusions of the OPR report provide yet another demonstration of President Barack Obama’s defense of the anti-democratic and criminal practices of the Bush administration in the “war on terror,” and the current administration’s resolve that no one—especially those at the highest levels of government—will be held to account.

An earlier version of the OPR report completed in December 2008 concluded that Yoo, presently a University of California at Berkeley law professor, and Bybee, now a federal appeals court judge on the 9th Circuit, violated professional standards when they drafted an August 2002 legal opinion authorizing brutal methods by the CIA in the interrogation of suspected terrorist detainees.

The OPR recommended referral of their cases to state bar associations, which could have revoked their law licenses. Bybee also could have faced an impeachment inquiry before Congress. However, under a new review of the OPR report ordered by Attorney General Eric Holder shortly after he took charge of the Justice Department, the two will not face even these weak sanctions.

In early 2009, the Obama Justice Department began to water down the conclusions of the OPR probe, which was initiated in mid-2004 during the Bush administration following disagreements between the Office of Legal Counsel and White House lawyers over the Bush administration’s defense of “enhanced interrogation” techniques justified by the Yoo-Bybee opinions.

David Margolis, a 34-year career prosecutor at the Justice Department, was eventually tasked by Holder with reviewing the final version of the OPR report. It was reportedly Margolis who downgraded the report’s initial findings against Yoo and Bybee from “professional misconduct” to “poor judgment.”

As recently as December, Obama administration lawyers under the direction of Holder supported the dismissal of a case brought against Yoo by Jose Padilla, the US citizen held incommunicado and tortured for more than two years after his arrest at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.

Earlier last year, Obama administration attorneys supported the dismissal of suits brought by a wide range of victims, including those subject to “extraordinary rendition,” targets of government eavesdropping, and detainees transported from the Middle East to US military bases in Afghanistan.

The Justice Department’s defense of Yoo and Bybee testifies to the Obama administration’s continuation of the police-state structures developed under Bush. The memos drafted by Yoo, Bybee and Bradbury were solicited by the Bush White House to provide pseudo-legal justification for systematic torture that was already being carried out by CIA interrogators.

The memos made the gruesome and legally absurd argument that “enhanced interrogation techniques” such as waterboarding, threats of death, sleep deprivation, extreme variations of temperature, and the use of psychotropic drugs do not rise to the level of torture unless they inflict pain equivalent to “major organ failure” or death.

Since authoring the memos, Yoo has gone on to write three books in which he defends his doctrine that the president as the “commander in chief” in wartime possesses unlimited powers, including the right to authorize torture and other illegal acts. In one of his August 2002 memos, he asserted that CIA agents accused of torturing Al Qaeda suspects could claim they were acting in “self-defense” to prevent future terror attacks.

Newsweek notes that the OPR report is “sharply critical” of the “legal reasoning used to justify waterboarding”’ and other torture methods used by CIA interrogators after September 11, and that it will provide “many new details about how waterboarding was adopted and the role that top White House officials played in the process.”

This is, however, merely window dressing for a cover-up of war crimes and crimes against the democratic rights of the American people and tacit sanction for the continuation of such practices. Obama has frequently touted his “ban” on torture, but this remains an empty and cynical gesture under conditions where the government protects former government officials who authorized these crimes.

There are two major reasons why the Obama administration continues to block any prosecution of those responsible for authorizing torture. First, the Democratic Party is complicit in the crimes of the Bush administration. Democratic congressional leaders were briefed by Bush officials on the torture practices and violations of democratic rights and international law, and supported them.

Second, such policies continue under the current administration.

One year after assuming office, Obama has broken his pledge to close the Guantanamo detention camp and blocked suits by Guantanamo detainees challenging their detention. He has explicitly defended the Bush administration policies of indefinite detention, extraordinary rendition, and military tribunals. The US military prison at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan continues to hold hundreds of prisoners, without charge or trial, under barbaric conditions.

Obama is going one step further than Bush by seeking to establish a military prison in Illinois where prisoners will be held indefinitely without charge or trial and subjected to treatment defined by international and US law as torture. He is thereby institutionalizing on US soil the illegal, police-state methods improvised by Bush.

Obama has moreover upheld the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war, with Yemen becoming the latest target of US threats, along with Iran.

The administration’s de facto support for John Yoo and his torture memo accomplices is of a piece with these policies, which are supported by both big business parties. Under conditions of expanding militarism abroad and deepening social inequality at home, there is no section of the political establishment committed to the defense of democratic rights.

Democratic rights can be defended only through the independent mobilization of the working class against the Obama administration, the Democrats and Republicans, and the capitalist system which is the source of war and repression.

Obama budget: War, debt and cuts in social services

Obama budget: War, debt and cuts in social services

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The Obama administration’s budget for the 2011 fiscal year, unveiled Monday, projects massive US government deficits for the next decade, fueled by gargantuan military spending and the impact of the financial and economic crisis of American and world capitalism. The US national debt is projected to more than double over the coming decade, increasing by $8.5 trillion.

Administration officials also revealed that for the current fiscal year, which ends September 30, 2010, the federal deficit will approach $1.6 trillion, by far the largest ever, and nearly 11 percent of total US gross domestic product. This is up sharply from the $1.35 trillion estimate last week by the Congressional Budget Office.

The mushrooming deficit for the current year is largely a byproduct of the worsening economic crisis, which has simultaneously depressed tax revenues and forced the expenditure of much greater sums for unemployment compensation and other mandatory programs.

White House budget director Peter Orzag now projects that tens of millions of American workers will remain on the unemployment rolls for much of Obama’s four-year term in office. The FY ’11 budget assumes that the unemployment rate this year will average 10 percent, falling to 9.2 percent in 2011 and 8.2 percent in 2012, both figures well above those prevailing before the Wall Street crash of September-October 2008.

Even these unemployment and deficit figures are unduly optimistic, since they are based on a return to economic growth averaging 2.7 percent of GDP this year, 3.8 percent in 2011 and 4.3 percent in 2012, remaining above 4 percent for several more years, a figure last reached during the dot-com bubble of the 1990s.

In the event the GDP growth stagnates at the current level—let alone a return to slump—the unemployment figures could soar much higher into double digits, and the federal deficit would quickly reach a level that would precipitate a loss of international confidence and a collapse of the dollar. As it is, even the relatively benign scenario envisioned by the White House has the United States borrowing more in the next five years than in the entire previous history of the country.

Federal borrowing will rise from 68 percent of GDP at the end of the 2011 fiscal year to a projected 77 percent of GDP by 2020, close to the 80 percent mark projected as the “tipping point” when the credit of the US government would effectively collapse, as investors lost confidence in Washington’s ability to repay its debts in any way except printing more dollars.

In the context of such gargantuan sums, the amount Obama proposes to spend on “job creation” in the 2011 budget, only $100 billion, is a drop in the bucket. If it was translated entirely into jobs, with no overhead costs or business profits, it would mean two million jobs paying $50,000 apiece—in a country with an estimated 20 million unemployed or underemployed.

As it is, however, not a penny of the $100 billion is for hiring workers. It consists largely of tax cuts for businesses that hire workers or raise their pay, extended unemployment benefits, and aid to state and local governments.

While the White House seeks to focus attention on the so-called job creation initiative, this spending is dwarfed by the real priorities of the administration—the gargantuan military establishment, and interest payments on the national debt, which go disproportionately to the wealthy and to foreign creditors.

The budget calls for an additional $33 billion in war funding for the current fiscal year, to pay for Obama’s increase of 30,000 troops in Afghanistan, and for a total of $159 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan combined next year. Together with the $549 billion in the regular Pentagon budget, this brings total direct US military spending in FY 2011 to more than $708 billion. There is considerable indirect spending, including nearly all the budget of the Department of Energy, which operates the nuclear weapons manufacturing process.

Counting the additional funds requested this year for Afghanistan, total US spending in 2010 and 2011 for the two wars will come to $322 billion, compared to $354 billion in the final two years of the Bush administration. This is only a small drop, despite the assumption—by no means guaranteed—that all US combat forces will be withdrawn from Iraq by August 2010.

Fiscal 2011 is the first year that more money will be budgeted for the war in Afghanistan than for the war in Iraq, in part because of the enormous logistical costs of sustaining a huge army in a landlocked country with virtually no modern infrastructure. There is no specific appropriation for either war for Fiscal 2012, only a $50 billion sum described by the administration as a “placeholder,” awaiting subsequent decisions on military policy, particularly in Afghanistan. Given the dismal state of the puppet Karzai government in Kabul, huge additional costs for the war in 2012 and beyond can be expected.

The administration has also budgeted an additional $5 billion to modernize the US nuclear weapons stockpile and tighten security procedures at weapons facilities. This is in response to a letter signed by all 40 Senate Republicans and independent Democrat Joseph Lieberman, that they would block ratification of a nuclear arms treaty with Russia unless the administration funds a modernized nuclear warhead program including new facilities at Los Alamos, New Mexico and Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

As for the cost of financing the federal debt, gross interest payments are projected at $499 billion in FY ’11, rising to $888 billion by FY ’15. Net interest payments are to rise from $250 billion in FY ’11 to $507 billion in FY ’15. The lion’s share of these payments goes to wealthy investors, both in the United States and internationally.

In effect, the federal government is paying interest to the super-rich for the cost of borrowing the vast sums expended for, among other things, the Bush administration’s tax cuts for those same super-rich, and the Bush and Obama administrations’ bailout of Wall Street. The wealthy have reaped additional unearned income at every stage of this entirely parasitic process.

The only setback for the wealthy is that the Obama budget assumes the expiration at the end of this year of the Bush tax cuts for those making $250,000 a year or more. All other Bush tax cuts, including favorable business depreciation rules, are to be renewed this year. The result will be an increase of $678 billion over ten years in tax payments by the wealthiest families.

This represents approximately half of the $1.2 trillion in tax increases and spending cuts proposed in the new budget. The remaining tax increases—$120 billion on international corporations, $90 billion on bailed-out financial institutions, $60 billion in inventory taxes and $38 billion in taxes on oil and gas companies—are unlikely to be imposed, since they were incorporated into last year’s budget and the Democratic-controlled Congress rejected them.

The main proposed spending cut is $250 billion to be obtained through a three-year freeze in non-military discretionary spending on domestic social programs. The White House is not proposing an across-the-board cut, but selective cuts and some program eliminations, but many details of these cuts are still unclear.

Among the specific cuts announced is the elimination of the Constellation program, the planned return to the moon by the NASA. Instead, NASA will spend $6 billion over five years to develop a commercial spacecraft that private companies would build, to lift astronauts into low orbit around the Earth. Former NASA administrator Michael Griffin said, “It means that essentially the US has decided that they're not going to be a significant player in human space flight for the foreseeable future.”

In his weekly radio and Internet address Saturday, Obama said cutting the federal deficit was just as important as creating jobs in his administration’s priorities. The language is significant, since it represents a further shift to the right and an embrace of austerity policies for working people, even while unlimited federal support continues for Wall Street.

He also reiterated his call for the establishment of an independent federal commission to propose major cuts in entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, which comprise the majority of the federal budget. He also urged the reestablishment of congressional “pay-as-you-go” rules, which bar any net increase in federal spending, requiring that any increase in federal programs be offset by cuts to others.

Why Are Americans Passive as Millions Lose Their Homes, Jobs, Families and the American Dream?

Why Are Americans Passive as Millions Lose Their Homes, Jobs, Families and the American Dream?

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An unnatural economic and psychological disaster has struck America. Five contributors, each interacting with and shaping the others, have devastated the American moral, economic, psychological, and social landscape. Each is fed by related streams, but each contributes its own force to the disaster. The American dream in which each generation surpassed the previous generation in real wages has all but disappeared, along with dreams of an intact family, a steady job, a home, and an honest supportive community.

This article looks at each of five collaborators in the crisis in order to answer the following questions:

How did this happen? What forces are responsible?

Why are Americans passive as millions lose their homes, their jobs, their families, their hopes of justice, and the American dream?

Why do Americans remain disorganized at home while their European and Asian counterparts flood into the streets and strike in militant, organized protest? Why do others believe in their potential to reclaim their lives while we do not?

What happened is a result of at least five major, interrelated forces. One is a transformation of American morality, and with it the loss of belief that the social and political realms could be shaped by morality, ethics, and secular spirituality. Another is an economic depression. A third is a transformation of the family, which has been the foundation of American emotional life. A fourth is the decimation of Americans' social participation in all areas, from bridge clubs and PTAs to political parties. A fifth is the tranquilizing and numbing of the American population with psychotropic medications.

1. The Crisis in Morality and Social Ethics

Let us begin with the first of our contributors: American ethics, morality, and spirituality. The same forces that decimated our economic, psychological, and social landscapes have transformed our sense of morality and social ethics. The shared dream of an ethical, moral society that dominated the United States until the 1970s has systematically eroded. In the 1960s it was common to believe that morality and spirituality include a concern for all human beings, rich and poor alike. The biggest push against those social ethics began with Reagan's presidency in 1981. It continued in Reagan's second term and was reinforced by each president until its (we hope) final act in the presidency of George W. Bush.

Reagan's basic ideology was that people are poor because they lack incentives. He claimed that poor people's noble drive to get rich is eroded by social programs that permit them to survive or, in his term, "freeload." In this framework, income tax cuts increase the incentive to work and get rich, so all are expected to benefit from them. In 1980 the highest incomes were taxed at 73 percent. In 2009 those same high incomes were taxed at half that rate, 35 percent. Of course the percentage of tax on the highest incomes is actually even lower, since the wealthiest Americans can hire tax accountants to help them evade taxes. Reagan used his famous veto power to cut a huge range of social programs from biomedical research, to social security for disabled Americans, to clean water, to expanded Head Start. At the same time, he increased the military budget while decrying big government.

That pattern has been repeated ever since, which is how, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States went from being the most egalitarian western industrialized society in 1970 to the least egalitarian in 2009.

In addition, the Soviet model of socialism failed. It did not provide the kind and ethical societies that are part of a socialist vision. The mass of people believed that the Soviet Union was communism. Left-wing class analyses of the failure of Soviet Communism, such as Bettelheim's in the late 1970s or Resnick and Wolff's in 2002, were not widely read or embraced. Both of those analyses demonstrate that the USSR and its satellites exemplified class societies in which a bureaucratic class appropriated wealth and made crucial decisions affecting the lives of the mass of people. They explain that the USSR failed because it was not a communist society. It was not a society in which the people in each workplace decided what to produce, and also collected their own profits and decided together how to distribute those profits. Because these left-wing class interpretations were few and largely unembraced, a socialist or communist dream seemed doomed to end in rigid, bureaucratic, and undemocratic societies that were rejected by their own people. People lost faith in a secular dream.

Slowly there has been a transformation of our morality and ethics. Where our morality once required the United States to embody our ethics in the world and empower all citizens, it has shifted so that our morality now consists of requiring conservative personal and sexual behavior. Within that morality Clinton committed an impeachable crime by lying about having sex with an intern, while Bush and Cheney did not commit impeachable crimes by lying about the threat from Iraq and thus causing the deaths of over four thousand U.S. soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, or by torturing prisoners. It is not considered immoral to spend between six billion and twelve billion dollars a week on the war in Iraq while cutting school and social programs for needy families because "there is not enough money." The secular morality that made America a proudly democratic and egalitarian nation has deteriorated. We are experiencing a national moral, ethical, and spiritual crisis.

2. The Dying of the Economic Dream

A second contributor to American passivity is the economic crisis from which we are suffering. Let us look at our history in order to understand what happened. From 1820-1970, the United States experienced a unique period of ever-increasing prosperity. For 150 years, U.S. salaries rose together with ever-increasing worker productivity. For 150 years, each generation was able to afford a better standard of living than the generation that preceded it. That was the American dream.

Unlike their European counterparts, Americans did not enjoy working-class solidarity with other workers whose families and social organizations, unions and political parties were inflected by a history of overt class struggle fought as proudly permanent members of the working class. Europeans organized their working unions along political lines. They fought for better conditions as part of the ideology of long-term communist and socialist struggles for ownership and control of their workplaces.

The U.S. labor movement is not informed by a struggle for worker ownership of the businesses that produce U.S. goods and services. Decisions about what to produce and the right to appropriate and distribute profits are left to corporate boards of directors. Americans accepted the capitalist system in which each generation had relatively prospered. American labor fought for an increasing amount of income that would permit workers to consume more goods and services, a system in which each generation could move to jobs considered more prestigious and lucrative within the capitalist hierarchy. Blue-collar workers' children could become white-collar, and white-collar children could become professionals in the next generation (particularly if they were not just white-collar but white, period). U.S. growth permitted ever-increasing real wages and possibilities for consumption. Even in the Great Depression from 1929-1939, real wages, the amount that one could buy with one's wages, were able to rise because prices fell even faster than wages.

That ever-increasing prosperity stopped in 1970. By 1970 the introduction of computers, better telecommunications, and more efficient transportation enabled jobs to be outsourced to lower-paid workers overseas. Competing factories in Europe and Japan, which had been decimated by World War II, were now vying for U.S. markets. Then China emerged as a manufacturing giant. Competition reduced the U.S. share of both domestic and global markets. The outsourcing of American jobs to cheaper labor markets was not stopped by militant unions, which were unable to achieve the powerful "runaway shop" laws that were won in other nations. Nor did militant unions force the creation of a tight safety net to catch workers in financial distress.

For a long time, there was a relative scarcity of white male workers available for the jobs reserved for white males in America's racially and sexually segregated job markets. White male workers, who were accustomed to receiving increasing real wages and living a lifestyle of ever-greater consumption, could no longer support their families on their frozen wages. Americans' sense of self worth was in large part dependent on their net worth. They became increasingly depressed. Their sense of personal value was cut with their salaries. This happened as the advertising industry burgeoned. Advertising continuously and relentlessly sells consumption as the path to happiness. Consumption was undermined and with it stability, prosperity, and a sense of personal success.

3. What Produced the Crisis in Personal and Family Life?

Economic desperation pushed many more women into the labor force to increase money for the household. Previous to the 1970s, most white, nonimmigrant American women entered the labor force only in times of particular and urgent family need: upon divorce, or if a husband died, was ill, unemployed, or deserted his family. Women's labor outside the home provided some safety in times of emergency. In 1970, 40 percent of U.S. women were in the labor force, mostly part time. By the year 2008, 75 percent of U.S. women were in the labor force, mostly full time. Many women enjoyed the greater autonomy, variation, and creativity that jobs could provide. Many others were forced by economic necessity to work outside of their homes in routinized dead-end jobs with scarce assistance from governmental supports for day care, after-school programs, or elder care.

Women's work outside of the home helped to improve the standard of living for most families, but it did not compensate families for lost white male wages. Women's wage work imposes not only the obvious expenses of additional clothing and transportation, but also the costs of purchasing some of the goods and services that women previously produced at home free of charge, such as cooking, mending, cleaning, shopping, and child care. Those goods and services are crucial. Once they become commodified in the marketplace, they become expensive. The latest figures from Salary.com indicate that if a stay-at-home mother in the United States were replaced by paid domestic products and services, the cost would be $122,732 a year. The domestic products produced and services rendered by a mom who works outside of the home would cost $76,184 per year.

Even with women flooding into the labor force, families were still financially hurting. Working women had no time to perform full-time household labor and child care, and there was still not enough money for consumption. More money was accumulating at the top while the mass of Americans suffered from frozen wages. The wealthy then promoted the credit card to lend to Americans the money that they formerly would have earned in growing wages. Families became dependent on credit card debt. Since the interest rate on credit cards ranges from 15 percent to 25 percent, Americans descended into debt at record-breaking levels.

The living standard of Americans deteriorated psychologically as well. In American culture, women provide most of the emotional labor to make home a warm and comfortable place for men and children. It is women who usually arrange children's social lives and activities, from play dates to dental appointments. Women are usually the directors of adult social life as well. Indeed, women are usually in charge of emotional life for the entire family. The more women work outside of the home without social support in the form of child care programs and domestic help, the more stressed, overworked, and emotionally unavailable they become. Overwhelmed women have less energy for the roles of social director and organizer, as well as emotional and physical caregiver. Households are hurting emotionally. When Bush took office in 2000, he cut many of the already hobbled social programs that allowed families to survive. Families are in trouble.

Women are no longer willing to work outside of the home, do the lion's share of the domestic work, and simultaneously take care of their children's and husbands' physical and emotional needs largely unaided either by their husbands or by social programs. For the first time in American history, the majority of women are abandoning marriage. Women now initiate two-thirds of divorces. Half of first marriages and 60 percent of second marriages end in legal separation or divorce. These impressive figures do not include the many people who end their marriages outside of the legal system.

When men's emotional relationships with women break down, they have little intimate emotional support. Women usually count on other women to emotionally sustain them. Women still manage to befriend and support each other on a personal level in a way that few men can. These changes in households and family life are a third tributary to America's deluge of disaster. Americans have lost both the financial dream of ever-increasing prosperity and consumption, and also the emotional family dream of a stable family connected by a present wife creating emotional connection and domestic order. In short, Americans have lost what was the comfort of home.

4. Americans' Increasing Isolation from One Another

A fourth disaster is closely related. The freeze in U.S. real wages coincided with the beginning of Americans' increasing isolation from one another. Beginning once again in the 1970s, nearly all social connections between Americans declined. The decay in U.S. social life was an almost total phenomenon. It extended from inviting friends to dinner, to joining bridge clubs or bowling leagues, to volunteering for noncontroversial activities such as the PTA or Red Cross blood drives, to participating in more controversial activities such as working for a cause or a political candidate.

There was growth in social participation in evangelical religious groups; gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) groups; internet groups; and self-help groups. However, membership in self-help groups, America's greatest social participation growth area, was outnumbered two to one by drop-outs from bowling leagues alone, according to Robert Putnam's 2000 book, Bowling Alone, which I have drawn on for statistics throughout this section.

Several inconclusive theories have emerged as to why Americans have dropped out of U.S. social life and civic life.

Women dropping out of social activities because of working full time outside of the home accounts for only 10 percent of the overall dropout rate.

One might attribute U.S. social desertion to the phenomenon of busyness, but that too is an insufficient explanation. The average American watches four hours of television a day, which would be difficult to manage with an intensely busy schedule. The Internet may seem like a replacement for social interaction, but the Internet isolates people as well as connects them.

Extensive television viewing may be a culprit since more people relate to their television sets than to each other, and the heaviest viewing correlates to the least social participation. But surely this is a symptom as much as a cause of the problems that isolate Americans. I say this because extensive television viewing is reported by the viewers themselves as so unsatisfying that it leaves them "not feeling so good." Their descriptions portray it as an addiction that compels without satisfying. An overwhelming number of viewers watch for the purpose of distraction or entertainment. Television functions as an escape from loneliness, changed gender expectations, and looming economic disaster.

Perhaps the greatest reason is that Americans are psychologically and also physically exhausted. They have fewer vacations and longer workweeks than any of their Western European counterparts. Activity in society, including activity in politics, has become a luxury good for those fortunate few who have extra time and energy. The Left's natural constituency, the mass of Americans, is exhausted, disillusioned, and in despair. To add to their despair, the tremendous wealth at the top of society has been used to fund right-wing media outlets like Fox News, to name just one example. Right-wing media promote the idea that there is no alternative to the status quo. At the same time, the skewed distribution of wealth allows vast sums to be given to politicians who advance the fortunes of those who pay their way. Immense wealth is invested in weakening the regulations against enormous giving at the top. These developments increase the conviction that ordinary people make no difference in politics. They have no voice. The force of the Left is further weakened.

5. The Drugging of America

The fifth tributary that helped to create our deluge of disaster is both a cause and an effect of America's social breakdown. This is the numbing of Americans with psychotropic drugs. In 2006, Americans, who make up approximately 6 percent of the world's population, consumed 66 percent of the world's supply of antidepressants. In 2002, more than 13 percent of Americans were taking Prozac alone. Prozac is one of thirty available antidepressants. Anti-anxiety drugs, such as Zoloft, are so widely prescribed that in the year 2005, the $3.1 billion sales of Zoloft exceeded the sales for Tide detergent.

Many of these drugs, which are also called "cosmetic drugs" or "life-enhancing drugs," are diagnosed for loneliness, sadness, life transitions, or concentration on task performance. They have been "normalized" through extensive direct-to-consumer advertising and marketing to doctors who are financially rewarded for recommending them to colleagues. Regulations that once restrained the widespread promotion and sales of these powerful drugs have been relaxed to the point of near nonexistence. The United States is the only Western nation that permits direct-to-consumer drug advertising. We are also the only nation without price controls on drugs. Psychiatric drugs are so ubiquitous that the pharmaceutical industry is the most profitable industry in America, and antidepressants are their most profitable products.

What Can We Do?

The current disaster did not just happen with the recent burst of the stock market and housing bubbles. Americans somewhere knew for a long time that we could not pay our credit card bills or our mortgages. Somewhere, unconsciously, we had to know that disaster was approaching. We responded with denial, withdrawal, depression, and dissociation accomplished with the aid of extensive television viewing and preoccupation with scandals and celebrities.

Each of the five tributaries flowed together to drown the mass of Americans in debt, family dissolution, isolation, and drug-induced apathy. In response to the original questions that inspired this article, we now need to ask another question: what can we do about it? Americans may now be looking for change. They elected a president who promised change. That change has not happened. Where else can we look?

Capitalism needs and breeds consumerism. We are surrounded by advertisements for products. Ubiquitous advertising has a blighting side effect. The presentation of all human connection now carries a price tag for a branded product. Scenes of connection with a group of friends include, for example, Budweiser beer. The devoted mother is washing your clothes with Tide. The sexy woman, whom men want and women want to be, seems to come with the sleek Toyota. Ads appear whenever we turn on our computers or read newspapers or magazines. Product placement is present in almost every film. Television, America's mass entertainment, embraces product placement and explicit advertising directed to all ages. Capitalist consumerism coveys the message that relationships happen with and through products. There are too few scenes of people trying honestly to connect and surmount their real economic, social, and emotional problems through honest discussion and negotiation. We need more images of people who enjoy their connection and work through the difficult times involved in creating close, mutual, nurturing relationships. How do we manage to effect change within this environment? Where are the contradictions that create openings?

A Time When Noncommercial Values Are Attractive

One opportunity for change has emerged due to the recent capitalist collapse, which has intensified American suffering. People can no longer afford the brand-name products seen on TV. Their economic woes reveal the relentless hustling of now unaffordable consumer products. They try generics, unknown brands, and less consumption, and often find them just as good. This presents us with an opening to question. New, noncommercial values can form.

Since Americans are hooked on the mass media, and the media loves anything new, the Left can create media-attracting new actions. The anarchist group that formed around a book called The Coming Insurrection got full media attention when a well-publicized group jumped on stage at Barnes & Noble in New York for a spontaneous reading that began, "Everyone agrees it's about to explode." The action was widely covered for its novelty.

We can look to the four areas that have grown in the current social drought. They are, in order of their growth, self-help groups, internet groups, evangelical church groups, and GLBT groups.

Self-Help Groups

The largest self-help groups are Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. Alcohol and drugs have proved to be a personal and social disaster for millions of Americans, who cannot function on the job and suffer havoc in their personal lives due to these substances. Huge alcohol and pharmaceutical lobbies push these substances on individuals desperate for relief from their problems. The individual solution of self-medicating with drugs and alcohol-promoted so efficiently by capitalism-failed terribly. In the face of that failure, millions join together in small groups where they share their pain and suffering within a supportive, nonjudgmental collective that operates without salaries, advertisements, or financial charges. These twelve-step groups give the Left a window of possibility. We can add a thirteenth step to their twelve-step programs. We can add a step to organize against big pharmaceutical and liquor advertising, which profits on false promises. The Left desperately needs to address people's despair and give them support. We can learn to incorporate nonjudgmental personal and political support, as well as psychological and political dimensions, to Left groups where both nonjudgmental attitudes and psychological support have been sadly lacking. The Left has tried too hard to focus on being correct and not enough effort on reaching people where they are hurting. We need to listen to people without judgment as they do in twelve-step programs.

The GLBT Movement

We can also study the contradictions that helped to produce GLBT organizations. Advertising creates omnipresent images of happiness accessed though products that relate to sexual attractiveness. The sexy woman rides in the man's sleek new car. The virile man drives a big truck and smokes Marlboros. Multibillion-dollar industries such as the diet, cosmetic, and fashion industries promote products to enhance sexual attractiveness. Popular culture celebrates heterosexual coupling and family as ultimate happiness while avoiding mention of collective joys or homosexuality.

The GLBT movement works to include those in their identity group who are excluded from the grand celebration of personal couple happiness built around sexual pairing. The very pressure to channel complex desires into heterosexual coupling helped lead GLBT people to, as a group, articulate collective visions of resistance and envision new possibilities.

Since most families and relationships are breaking down, American people desperately need connection. Organizing creates connection. Collective dreams have a chance to replace the individualistic desires cultivated in capitalist America.

What We Can Learn From Evangelicals' Failures ... and Successes

Conservative evangelical groups create a collective vision and connection while celebrating capitalist success as God's blessing. They provide some of what people desperately need and the Left ignores, such as strong verbal support for important work in the home and a focus on the hard work of child rearing. Conservative evangelicals manage to accomplish this while sex role stereotyping that labor, as well as opposing every form of non-church-based material support that actually allows families to stay afloat. They typically oppose single-payer health plans, Head Start for all, sex education (unless abstinence-based), family planning, maternity and paternity benefits, minimum wage hikes, etc. In the end they cannot deliver the support that families need. The savior they pray to has not saved them from financial and personal desperation and divorce.

Evangelicalism's reduction of morality to personal morality and particularly sexual morality has an embarrassing side effect. Googling "evangelical scandals" results in 3,729,000 hits in five seconds. Evangelical scandals have resulted in reduced credibility. There is now an opportunity for the wider ethical spiritual morality of the community associated with Tikkun and left-leaning evangelicals connected to Sojourners who develop their social, economic, personal, and political morality, and who see political activity as an expression of morality taken into the world. We on the Left have an opportunity to champion our own moral, ethical, and spiritual vision to Americans who desperately need both morality and hope for a better world. Evangelical promotion of the centrality of personal connection and family gives the Left an opening to advocate material and psychological support for all kinds of families. The Left urgently needs a family program to address the mass breakdown of U.S. homes and families.

The evangelical groups can, ironically show us what we are missing. The failure of evangelical morality, which excludes social, economic, and political morality, may create an opening for a much-needed left-wing program of social, political, economic, and personal ethics and morality for which many hunger.

Internet Organizing

There are explicitly political possibilities afforded by the net. MoveOn.org and other political groups organize and mobilize through the Web. In Iran, members of the opposition evaded censors, communicated with each other, and aroused national and international support through Twitter and Facebook. The Facebook account of Neda Soltani's murder focused Iran and the world on the violent repression of Mousavi's supporters. That possibility exists here.

The four social growth groups springing up in America's desert of political opposition point out possible avenues for a Left that desperately needs direction. Let us return to our original questions:

Why are Americans passive as millions lose their homes, their jobs, their families, and the American dream?

Why do Americans remain at home, disorganized, while their European counterparts flood into the streets in militant, organized protests? How did this happen? What forces are responsible? We can see that the cycles of capitalism with its relentless need for consumer spending and capital accumulation at the top have devastated America. We can also see that unbridled capitalism has created mass suffering and then turned the rage of those who suffer against all who need governmental assistance and against additional scapegoats such as homosexuals, feminists, liberals, socialists, and immigrants. We can create new roads to reclaim this nation by organizing and activating the mass of Americans who know that the ostensible "recovery" will never return what they have lost. We dared to elect a president who championed change verbally, who campaigned on unity and respect for all, and who preserves the structures that destroyed our lives. En masse, we have turned to self-help groups, evangelists, psycho-pharmaceutical drugs, and sexual identity politics, which do not solve the multifaceted crisis in which we are drowning. America needs another way. Perhaps we can provide it?

Sarah Palin Uses PAC to Buy Her Own Book

Sarah Palin Uses PAC to Buy Her Own Book

Political Action Committee Paid More than $60,000 for Copies of 'Going Rogue' in Late 2009

Go To Original

Sarah Palin has been using her political action committee to buy up thousands of copies of her book, "Going Rogue," in order to mail copies of the memoir to her donors, newly filed campaign records show.

The former Alaska governor and 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate had her political organization spend more than $63,000 on what her reports describe as "books for fundraising donor fulfillment." The payments went to Harper Collins, her publisher, and in some instances to HSP Direct, a Virginia-based direct mail fundraising firm that serves a number of well-known conservative politicians and pundits.

Sarah PAC spent another $8,000 on colorful bookmarks designed by a Nashville-based event branding firm. And her committee paid her publisher $20,000 for what appears to have been the cost of sending her personal photographer and another aide along on her book tour. Those expenses are listed by the PAC as travel repayment to Harper Collins.

All of the purchases took place in November and December of 2009, the records show.

Meghan Stapleton, a spokeswoman for Palin, said the book purchases were part of a promotion to reward donors with autographed copies if they gave more than $100 to the PAC.

"Due to supporters' demand for the national best-seller "Going Rogue," Sarah PAC purchased books and sent free, signed copies to those who donated $100 or more between November 16 and November 25 at noon," Stapleton said. "The fundraising tool was wildly successful."

Published in November, "Going Rogue: An American Life," is described by Harper Collins as "an intimate portrait" in which Palin "opens up for the first time about the 2008 presidential race, providing a rare, mom's-eye view of high-stakes national politics." On the web site of her PAC, Palin posted a special letter to supporters upon the release of her book. "My book, 'Going Rogue,' is dedicated to you -- to Patriots -- who fight for freedom!" she wrote in the note, which concludes with the opportunity to donate.

Palin would not be the first politician to use a PAC to underwrite the purchase of a memoir. The Federal Election Commission has heard a number of cases on the question of whether it is an appropriate expense. The rules are somewhat complex, but because Palin is neither a candidate for office, nor a sitting member of congress, her PAC is free to purchase the book under current law, according to Jan Baran, a campaign legal expert.

When former Democratic vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman sought in 2004 to give away copies of his memoir, "In Praise of Public Life," he declined to take royalties off the books purchased by his campaign committee. It is not known whether Palin entered into a similar arrangement.